A/N: Unbeta'd...so any mistakes or bits of stupidity herein are entirely my fault. I only have three months to finish writing this fic before my baby is set to arrive in late September, so feel free to poke and prod me at will! I really want to get this done before my life turns upside down! :)
And she—the dim and melancholy Star,
Whose ray of Beauty reached him from afar,
On her he must not gaze, he must not think—
There he might rest—but on Destruction's brink.
-The Corsair, Lord Byron
Chapter 10: In Which Bad Things Happen
Regina picked at the plate of food sitting on the table in front of her, trying and failing to counterfeit some interest in yet another tiresome episode of "family time." Across the table, David and Snow chatted about their day, their voices a ceaseless drone in Regina's ears.
She had always wondered what life would have been like with a normal mother rather than Cora, who had excelled at looking after her own well-being above all else. Now, having finally gotten the chance to experience life with two devoted parents, her own childhood and adolescence seemed dreamy by comparison, so free of judgement and oversight. She could scarcely believe the years she'd wasted longing for this suffocation.
Between Snow's hen-pecking and David's ever-watchful eye, it was obvious the two feared she might shatter if left unattended too long.
Maybe I over-sold the whole captured and abused by pirates story, she thought wryly.
Stealing a moment to herself within the castle required significant maneuvering, cutting in to the time she needed to complete her curse. And it didn't help that unexpected problems kept cropping up.
Like the letter that had arrived a few days ago.
Thankfully, it had been entrusted to a lowly merchant and not someone of actual influence, otherwise she might not have intercepted it in time. The man had been busy pleading his case with the lower echelons of the palace hierarchy, trying to earn himself an audience with the queen, when word reached Regina that someone had arrived claiming to possess an important dispatch from the princess. She'd put on her best face of indignation — The nerve! Trying to defraud the crown in such way! — and announced that she would take care of it.
The look of surprise on the man's face when she'd walked in disguised as Emma had almost made the entire incident worth the hassle.
"I take it you didn't hear the news of my return," she'd said cheerfully before ripping out his heart and sending him on his way with a sudden, profound desire to take up the noble pursuit of pig farming.
She'd burned the letter, but not before reading it and discovering, much to her chagrin, that Emma was on her way home. The princess had given no indication of how soon she might arrive, only that she was safe and happy. Regina bribed one of the palace cooks — a gangly, freckle-faced, freshly pubescent kid who sported a half-formed mustache and a raging desire to impress the princess — to loiter on the docks and keep watch for a ship matching the Jolly Roger's description. He hadn't even asked why. Regina didn't think he cared; he'd been happy enough simply to be speaking with her.
The lack of a timeline in the letter made Regina wonder if Emma was having second thoughts about coming home. She certainly couldn't fault the woman for preferring life on board a pirate ship to spending every waking moment in the company of Snow White and her charming husband. If Emma had any common sense, she'd seize her chance to bed the pirate, take over his ship, and sail off into realms unknown never to return.
A touch to her arm made Regina jump, snapping her out of her thoughts.
"Emma?" Snow jerked her hand back.
Damn. Had they been talking to her?
"Are you okay?" Snow asked.
"You've barely touched your food."
Oh, for the love of…
"I have a lot on my mind." She crumpled up her napkin, laid it down on top of her plate, and pushed back from the table, more than ready to be done with the two of them for a while. "May I be excused?"
Snow's brow furrowed. "No. You may not."
"No?" Regina blurted out, all of her frustration at having to mime obedience leaking into her voice. She was a queen, godsdamnit. Not a child.
This charade grew more trying by the day.
David and Snow exchanged glances.
"I told you that you didn't have to talk about what happened until you were ready, and I meant it," Snow started. "But, Emma…you haven't been yourself lately. You've been snapping at the staff. You never smile. And you've been closing yourself up in your room rather than doing things you enjoy. Lancelot says that you haven't shown up for a single lesson with him since you got back."
"We're worried about you," David added.
"You should be," Regina snarled, her mind skipping through all of the horrible things she'd ever contemplated doing to the both of them, to the terrible thing she was plotting even now, before settling back into the role she was supposed to play. "You don't know what I've been through. You don't understand. If you did, you've leave me alone."
"We just want to help," Snow insisted.
"Helping would have been to get me off that ship," Regina replied. "There's nothing you can do for me now."
Not caring that she hadn't been dismissed, Regina got up and walked out, leaving the crestfallen pair behind. Let them chew on that for a while, she thought irritably.
Back in her room, she bolted the door shut and did her best to banish Snow, Emma, and all their messy family dynamics from her mind in order to focus on the task at hand — gathering the final ingredients for her curse.
None of them were easy to come by, even in the guise of a princess. But she'd made some progress. She'd needed three things: a piece of Snow and a piece of David, to tell the curse whom to target; and a talisman representing their true love to power it. Snow's portion had been the easiest. Regina had simply snuck into the woman's bedchamber and lifted several hairs off her brush. David's had taken a bit more thought and, in the end, a stroke of luck. He'd gone out hunting with a group of knights several days ago and nicked his chin riding through a dense copse of brush. Regina had managed to fetch his blood-stained handkerchief from the palace laundry.
Now, all she needed was the talisman of their true love.
Whatever that meant.
She had no idea what to choose or how to keep the two of them from noticing that some significant symbol of their love had gone missing for the time it would take her to finish preparing the curse, especially with their focus centered directly on her and her well-being.
If only she had something to distract them...
Sweeping back her skirts, Regina sat down at Emma's vanity and ran her fingers across the jewelry box that she'd repurposed for storing the components of her dark magic.
"Still undercover, I see," a familiar voice said behind her.
She looked up into the mirror and saw Rumplestiltskin standing at the foot of the bed, a smile stretching his face.
"I didn't realize you were such an accomplished actress," he continued with a wave of his hand. "You certainly never showed any signs of being able to conceal your thoughts while under my tutelage. If anything, your inability to direct your emotions was always your biggest failing."
Regina turned to face him, annoyed at the reminder that she had once been his student — much as her mother had studied under his predecessor. "Why are you here?"
"To deliver some good news."
"Good news? Now there's a change."
"I think you'll be quite pleased." He tented his fingers and leaned forward. "I found Emma."
Regina's breath caught. "Where?"
"On board a ship docked in the harbor. Picked her up a little less than an hour ago."
In the harbor.
Damn, she'd gotten close.
"Now that you have her, our deal is complete?" Regina asked.
Why the imp wanted Emma in the first place was beyond Regina — as far as she could tell, there was nothing particularly special about the girl apart from being the product of true love, but there were plenty of easier to snatch women in the realm who could claim the same. It suited her purposes to hand off the person she most needed out of the way to her erstwhile teacher in the dark arts, so she'd never bothered to ask.
"Yes. Our deal is complete. But I do have one more thing. A parting gift, you might say."
"Oh?" Regina arched an eyebrow, suspicious. Nothing was free with this man.
"Your nemesis — the pirate — was injured. He'll need to seek medical attention in the city."
A slow smile curved Regina's lips. "You don't say."
"Do with that information what you will." Rumple bent over in a shallow bow. "A pleasure doing business with you, Your Highness."
And then he was gone, just as quickly as he'd appeared.
For a brief second, Regina considered the position he'd left her in. Obviously, he had some angle, some calculated reason for wanting her to go after Killian Jones. But the opportunity was a sweet one, and she couldn't see a downside. The pirate's predicament not only pleased her, it could easily be turned directly to her advantage.
Whether it served Rumplestiltskin's interests or not, she knew exactly what to do.
With a renewed lightness to her step, she unbolted her door, leaned out into the hallway, and called for the palace guards.
The warm grogginess of shock gave way to blinding pain as Killian's men rushed him off the Jolly Roger. Smee had both hands clenched around a scrap of sailcloth that someone had fetched to wrap around the end of his severed arm. Blood seeped through. Smee squeezed harder, the sharpened agony making Killian's steps falter and a fuzzy blackness encroach on the edge of his vision.
"Stay with us, Captain," Smee said.
"I'm not going to bloody pass out!" he snapped back. "Just — godsdamnit — move faster!"
His crew had fanned out into the city ahead of him in search of a doctor. Killian didn't care who tended to his injury so long as they did so quickly. He had to go after Emma and save her from the clutches of that bloody crocodile…
Ed came running up to them.
"Two blocks over! A man! Says he can help!"
The trip to the doctor's house went by in a blur. The tremendous pain from his arm and his desperate rage over Emma's abduction narrowed Killian's focus down to a pinpoint, and he saw little beyond it. He barely noticed when they found the correct house and would have walked straight past it in a wounded, overwrought daze had Smee not tugged at his arm to stop him.
The heavy wooden door swung open to reveal a man in his early thirties. He had short, blonde hair, a serious, angular face, and a pair of round spectacles perched on the edge of his nose.
"He get it caught in the ropes?" the doctor asked, his tone placid, as if men with such grievous injuries appeared at his door every day.
"No, sir," Smee replied. "It was cut off."
"By a sword," Ed added.
"A sword? Well, that makes things easier. Did you save the hand? I've been experimenting with reattaching severed limbs..."
"Ah. Shame. Well…come on, then. Get him in here before he bleeds to death on my stoop."
Killian, consumed with battling the sudden urge to retch, was shuttled into the man's house and over to a bed. The doctor urged him down onto the firm mattress covered with stark, white sheets, then ordered Smee to keep his arm held aloft to slow the bleeding.
Miserable, Killian closed his eyes and retreated into the darkest depths of his mind. He heard people talking and moving, felt appraising hands taking stock of him, but detected all of it as an impression of something distant and far away — as if it were happening to someone other than himself.
The release of pressure on his wrist brought him back to attention.
He cracked open his eyes.
The doctor sat beside him, examining his stump closely.
"There's a lot of work to do here," he said, meeting Killian's gaze. "But it could be worse. Be thankful for a clean cut."
"Guess it's my lucky day," Killian managed to croak.
"You'll probably pass out for the worst of it," the doctor assured him.
Ed shouldered his way in. "If you don't mind, I have a better idea."
The doctor's head snapped around, ready to reprimand Ed for butting in on his work, when he paused in surprise and reached out to take something from the man's outstretched hand.
"Is this what I think it is?" he murmured, turning it over in his palm. When he looked back at Killian, he smiled. "Guess it really is your lucky day."
Killian opened his mouth to protest, to tell the man to just get on with it, but before he could get any words out the doctor leaned forward and pressed something to the side of his neck with a sharp sting.
The fainting fish, he realized. Ed had kept a barb.
The doctor pushed it in deep, massaging the venom sack on the end to push it into Killian's system faster. He didn't know how long he'd have before it hit.
"Ed," he said, reaching out to grasp the man's hand. "Find out everything you can about that creature. Rumplestiltskin."
"You just relax, Captain," Ed replied with a nod. "We'll have answers for you when you wake."
His body felt suddenly light, as if it were floating up off the bed. The blaring pain in his arm ebbed and darkness creeped over him — the venom beginning to do its work.
His last thoughts, disjointed and nightmarish in their drugged intensity, were of Emma's golden hair, white down stained with blood, and the rough scrape of scales across his ship's deck…all of it reeking of death and utter despair.
Dreams came to Killian before wakefulness.
He dreamed first of Emma and the life they'd almost had — of him joining the navy and turning the Jolly Roger back into the proud warship she'd been built to be, of fighting and defeating the Evil Queen on the fair field of battle, of earning back his honor and courting Emma properly.
As pain began to penetrate the effects of the fainting fish venom, his dreams turned dark — to the cold blackness of the crushing sea, the hot slide of a knife through flesh, the raucous cry of birds, and an inhuman hand crushing a heart to dust...
It was a relief to finally wake, even into agony.
He'd been moved to a different bed. Someone had taken off most of his clothes, leaving him in just his pants and loosely buttoned undershirt. A brightly colored quilt covered his legs and hips. His injured arm, now heavily bandaged, lay at his side, feeling achy, swollen, and leaden. His mouth tasted dry and sour.
The lingering effects of the venom scattered his thoughts, making it difficult to focus. He had no idea how much time passed before the doctor walked into the room and noticed that he'd woken.
"How do you feel?"
"Bloody awful," he replied, his voice ragged. "And thirsty."
The doctor fetched him a glass of water, then sat down on the side of the bed to help Killian drink it. His good hand trembled as he gripped the cup, the simple movement of sitting up in bed somehow thoroughly exhausting. A few meager sips trickled down his throat, enough to quench the worst of the thirst, and then he collapsed back onto the pillow.
"You'll be weak for a while," the doctor informed him. "It's no mean thing, losing a hand. We'll have to watch closely for signs of infection. But with some rest, I think you'll heal up nicely."
Killian wasn't ready to consider going through the remainder of his life with only one hand, and didn't want to admit to the days of recuperation that would follow before he'd be able to function, so he changed the subject.
"Are any of my crew here?"
The doctor shook his head. "I asked them to leave. You're not fit for company quite yet. Get some rest. Drink your water. I'll bring up some broth when I come back to change your bandages."
The doctor got up and left, his footsteps descending a set of stairs on the other side of the door. The short exchange had left Killian drained. Despite the ever-present pain in his arm, he slipped easily back to sleep, unbothered this time by dreams, good or bad.
He woke when the doctor arrived again with his promised bowl of thin broth and a fresh length of white gauze. In sick fascination, he watched the man unfurl the old bandage from his arm, slowly revealing the blunt, pink end of his wrist. A set of large, black stitches formed a pinched ridge along the end of the stump, like a dotted line on a map marking the end of known territory.
Oddly, it still seemed to him as if his hand were there. He half expected to feel his fingertips brush against the quilt top, and at the thought his mind provided the ghost of a sensation — more a disembodied tingling than anything genuinely tactile.
Unsettled, he looked away, wincing when the doctor coated his wound with a generous layer of pungent ointment before wrapping it up again.
"One of your crew is here if you're feeling up to talking."
Sleep had made a marked improvement in him, though his hand still trembled when he took the bowl of broth. He nodded anyway, eager to hear some news. "Aye. Send him up."
While he waited, Killian sipped his broth — a vaguely salty, thin, chicken flavored stock — and took a better look at his room. It was small and sparsely furnished with just a bed, a dresser, and one tightly shuttered window. A lantern hanging from the rafters lit the room and cast flickering patterns across the ceiling.
The door opened and Ed walked in.
"Have you discovered anything of Rumplestiltskin?" Killian asked the moment Ed crossed the threshold, too weary and pained to bother with pleasantries.
"A little." Ed crossed to stand beside the bed. "Seems he's also called the Dark One." At Killian's expression he added, "You've heard of him?"
"Aye. There's a nobleman who goes by that moniker in the north. He's managed to keep back the ogres somehow. Nothing thrives there but on his land."
"You think he and this creature might be one and the same?"
"I can't imagine there are many Dark Ones about," Killian replied. He took another careful sip of his broth while this information settled amongst the cobwebs still cluttering his mind. "The real question is what he's doing this far south. And what he wants with Emma."
Ed shifted back and forth on the balls of his feet. "That's the thing, Captain. Y'see…we've been hearing some awful strange rumors—"
Someone pounding against the front door interrupted whatever Ed had been about to say. Both men snapped their heads around to look toward the stairs, falling silent — they had spent far too many years on the wrong side of the law not to find an unexpected visitor alarming.
"I'm sure it's just someone needing the doctor's help," Ed said. "I'll go see."
Killian didn't wait to find out. The moment Ed left, he pushed the blankets off his legs and swung them down off the bed, his bare feet connecting with the cool, smooth floor. The effort it took to stand surprised him. His legs responded with frustrating sluggishness. Below, he heard the door swing open and muffled voices — sharp, urgent, and threatening.
As if things could get any worse.
He found his boots and struggled to pull them on one-handed. Pain and exertion left him panting.
The doctor shouted something and someone started up the stairs, the clank of armor accompanying each rhythmic step.
Killian swung his gaze around the room, finding no alternative exit except for the window which was hardly an option in his condition. Desperate and dizzy, barely able to keep his wits together, he searched for his sword. He'd had it on him when he arrived. Hadn't he? Or had he dropped it back on the ship when the Dark One cut off his hand? Hell, he couldn't remember.
The door banged open and a tall, dark-skinned man strode through. He wore a red cloak slung over chain mail, polished greaves etched with the flower sigil of Emma's family, and brandished a ornate, gleaming longsword.
"Killian Jones?" he demanded.
His huge frame and even more imposing presence pushed all the air out of the room. Killian could do nothing to defend himself — injured, unarmed, and weak as a newborn pup — when the man's steely hand locked around his upper arm.
"You're coming with me. By orders of the royal court, you're to answer for your crimes against the princess."
"Emma…?" Killian breathed, wobbling on his feet.
"Don't you say her name to me," the man snarled, rage bleeding through his otherwise frosty demeanor.
Behind him, the doctor and Ed rushed through the doorway, momentarily jamming themselves in the passageway as they tried to enter at the same time.
"Lancelot! You can't take him!" the doctor protested. "He's under my care and is in fragile health. His injury requires constant care. If infection takes hold, it will kill him."
"That would certainly be a shame," the man — Lancelot — grumbled. "Don't worry, Victor. We'll take good care of him. He'll live long enough to receive a proper execution."
Lancelot tugged Killian forward by the arm, handling him as easily as a child's rag doll, and propelled him past the gaping doctor and the more circumspect Ed, who met Killian's gaze with a tightly guarded expression.
At the bottom of the stairs, a group of four armed guards waited to take him into custody. All wore royal emblems.
When his ship had arrived, seemingly without Emma aboard, the king and queen must have assumed the worst and sent out sentries in search of him, he thought.
None of the soldiers appeared inclined to listen to any protests of innocence, and Killian was truthfully too tired to make them. He didn't resist as they loaded him into a wagon outside and whipped the horses into a swift trot toward the waiting castle.
The dungeon was neat, tidy, and — except for Killian — empty.
Lancelot and his men didn't give him the chance to see much of Emma's home on the way there, though he'd caught glimpses of gardens overflowing with flowers, polished marble halls, colorful tapestries, and songbirds perched on open window sills. The dungeon had no windows but was well lit. His cell contained a single bed, bigger than the one he was used to on the Jolly Roger, and made up comfortably with clean blankets and a soft pillow.
Since Lancelot had ignored his every demand to see the king, he collapsed onto the bed, his injured arm cradled against his chest, and slept.
Twice, someone interrupted his slumber to change his bandages — first, a pretty little brunette in a red dress and then an older woman with graying hair and a gruff demeanor. Killian implored both to tell the king and queen that he had to speak to them, that Emma's life was in danger and every minute counted. Neither woman met his eyes.
Lancelot, who oversaw the proceedings from the cell door, barked at him to be quiet.
"She told me about you," Killian said to the knight, changing tack. "About how you tutored her in swordplay. Excellent work, by the way. She's quite skilled with a blade."
Lancelot huffed. "If she'd truly shown you what I taught her, you'd be missing a lot more than your hand."
Killian swore and bolted to his feet, startling the woman who had just finished with his arm.
"You should be out there hunting down Rumplestiltskin, not down here wasting time with me!" he roared, stalking across his cell to grip at the bars as Lancelot pulled the door shut behind the nurse.
As usual, Lancelot didn't respond or even look at Killian. He took the woman by the arm and led her away, so untouched and impassive that Killian wondered if he possessed a heart at all. Did anyone in this kingdom? The more time he spent here, the more he found it difficult to believe that any of these people could be related to someone so lovely, fierce, and true as Emma.
"Damn it! Emma's in danger! She needs your help!" He shook the bars with his good hand as Lancelot vanished around a corner. "Why the hell don't any of you people seem to care?"
"Maybe because they have nothing to worry about," a voice replied from the other side of the dungeon.
Killian froze, certain it had to be a hallucination, the continuing ache in his arm addling his mind. Because that had sounded exactly like…
She stepped into view, a vision. Gone were the plain breeches, leather jacket, and sturdy boots he'd come to know her in, replaced by palace finery. The dress she wore whispered across the stone floor as she approached. Her hair, always worn loose over her shoulders or up in a simple ponytail while on board the Jolly Roger was secured in a complex chignon bound by silver netting and pearls. The red tint of her lipstick made the slight upward curve of her smile stand out against the pale backdrop of her cheeks in the lantern light.
"You're…" He could hardly breathe, relief and confusion overwhelming him.
She paused a step away from the bars of his cell.
"Is it really you, love?" he asked, blinking hard.
"Of course it's me."
His forehead thumped against the bars as he sagged into them, reaching through for her. His fingers barely brushed the smooth material of her dress. "Gods. It's good to see you. What happened? You got away?" He laughed — a high pitched, giddy sound. "I should've guessed. You're bloody incredible."
"Actually, Rumplestiltskin returned me to the castle on his own," she said.
He frowned. "Why?"
"Because he never intended to harm me. He was sent to retrieve me."
"His son." Her green eyes locked on his. "My fiancé."
His stomach lurched.
"Yes. His name is Baelfire. I was on my way to wed him when the ogres forced me to turn around."
"No. That can't be." He took a step back, shaking his head, willing himself to wake from this fresh nightmare. He scrubbed at his eyes, but she remained before him, as solid as ever, the glitter of dark satisfaction flitting across her face for so brief a second that Killian wasn't certain he'd seen it at all.
"Why not?" she asked and took a step to close the distance he'd put between them.
"Because you don't love him. You can't."
She had mentioned something about a suitor but never once indicated that she had any interest in the man whatsoever, let alone that she'd promised him her hand.
Emma laughed, the sound cutting through him as sharply as any knife. "Let me guess, I can't be in love with him because I'm in love with you?"
His jaw clenched.
"Killian." She purred his name with an edge of sensuality somehow both threatening and pitying. "Honestly. Between the two of us, who'd have thought the pirate would turn out to be more naive?"
"We had something."
"Did we?" Her fingers wrapped around the bars, her breasts pressing against the cell door. "You captured me. What choice did I have except to play to your affections and pretend I was falling for you."
"You did a hell of a lot more than fall, lass."
She shrugged. "You're handsome enough. And I'm about to be married. It was fun. But it's over now."
His heart stuttered, suddenly so frail that every beat threatened to shatter it. Could she really have played him so expertly?
One thing was certain: this was not the woman he'd fallen in love with.
He stared at Emma, seeing the lips he'd kissed long into the night, the hair he'd threaded through his fingers, the hands that had trailed comfortingly up and down his back as he'd told her stories of life onboard a ship with Liam in his youth, but he didn't recognize anything beneath the exterior. She had no heat in her eyes when she looked at him. Or kindness, for that matter. Just clear, calculated cruelty. The Emma he'd come to know had vanished, as if she'd never existed at all.
"Rumplestiltskin tried to kill you," he said, grasping at the last loose thread in her terrible story that made no sense, hoping he might unravel it completely. "He tried to rip out your heart and turned you into a swan after you ran him through."
"A swan?" Her eyebrows shot up with the force of her incredulity. "Pretty sure I'd remember that. You must have imagined it. Maybe you were in shock after he cut off your hand."
He glanced down at the heavily bandaged, blunt end of his arm, nausea churning in the pit of his stomach.
It was too much to process...too much to mourn — the loss of his freedom, a limb, and the woman he loved all at once.
He stumbled to the side of his cell, his good hand reaching out to grasp the wall lest the crushing weight of heartache bring him to his knees.
"It wasn't anything personal," Emma continued, her tone making him think that she didn't mean a word of it. Of course it had been personal. "I did what I had to. I'm sure you understand."
"I don't understand at all."
"Someday you will."
"Unlikely, since I'm to be executed for your abduction. At least tell them I never hurt you?"
"I've already told them everything," she replied and, at his expression added, "Well…almost everything. There are some things a father doesn't want to hear about his daughter. But this isn't just about me. You've been out there robbing and killing and pillaging for years. You never thought it would catch up to you? Don't kid yourself. You're not a good and noble man. You never have been."
"But this Baelfire, son of the Dark One, is?"
"He's noble, at least. Plus, you saw Rumplestiltskin. He's powerful. He can protect my whole kingdom from the ogres."
A wave of revulsion rocked him.
"That's what this marriage is to you, then? A trade?"
"That's the reality of being a princess. My life isn't my own. But I'm sure I'll be able to make it work. I did with you, after all," she said, her voice mocking. "You should never have interfered. Goodbye, Killian."
As he watched her go, the ground seemed to shift underneath his feet. He stumbled back toward his bed and crumpled onto it. Pain rang up his arm. A far worse ache bloomed in his chest.
His mind raced through every minute they'd spent together, searching for signs of her duplicity and found none. Even now, his memories of being her in company seemed so genuine, so full of passion and affection — the happiest days of his short life. How could it have been nothing but a fabrication?
Eyes pinched shut to hold back the hot, stinging tears threatening to spill down his cheeks, he dropped his head into the cup of his palm, thought of the gods of the sea and stars and sky that he'd once held dear, and wished that he'd never met the beguiling princess.
Emma didn't know where she was or how she'd gotten there.
Her head felt fuzzy, as if she'd just woken from some half-forgotten dream. Last she remembered, she'd been on board the Jolly Roger, plunging her sword deep into Rumplestitlskin's ribs while Killian clutched the bloody end of his arm next to her. Whatever happened after that was a blur — she had the sense that time had passed, that she'd been aware of things happening around her, but couldn't clearly recall any of it until finding herself alone in a dark, stone dungeon. The heavy wooden door to her cell had a window, but it had been tightly shuttered so that she couldn't see out. Another small window, also barred and barely large enough for a cat to squeeze through, showed a slice of sky and let in a shaft of yellow sunlight. A small, unmade bed took up one wall but didn't boost her up high enough to peek out.
She sat down on the edge of the mattress, hands clasped on her knees.
It was easy enough to deduce that Rumplestiltskin had captured her. What concerned her more was what had happened afterward.
Was Killian still alive?
The horrible image of him maimed and pale with shock was vivid in her mind — perhaps even more-so because of all the fog surrounding it. She trembled at the thought of him rising up to defend her, only to be struck down again, permanently this time…his body shrouded and sinking into the cold, dark depths of the sea.
Gods. Don't think like that, she scolded herself. He's okay. He's got to be…
It would do her no good to worry anyway. She needed to keep her head about her if this was, indeed, Rumplestiltskin's dungeon.
What did he want with her?
First Regina, and now this? Why did everyone suddenly seem to think she was worth kidnapping? Emma had her strengths, sure…but she was far from extraordinary. Far from being the kind of person worth risking war to possess.
She got up again to pace.
At some point, someone had taken the time to change her clothes. Rather than her doeskin pants, boots, and jacket she was now barefoot and had on a plain, calf-length dress, baggy and unfitted, the edges fraying where stitching had come loose. A large blue shawl lay across the bed, given to her, she supposed, for warmth. She pulled it over her shoulders and clutched it at her throat, able to feel the anxious fluttering of her pulse against her knuckles.
From the other side of the door, she heard a bolt slide open.
Emma tensed, expecting another round with the imp who had captured her, but a young woman walked in instead. She smiled bashfully before closing the door behind her.
"You're awake," she said, her accent thick and not one Emma was familiar with. "That's good. Here. I brought you something to eat."
She held out a tray with a bowl of steaming soup, a buttered roll, and a large mug of water. Emma's stomach rumbled at the sight and the woman nodded approvingly when she took the food and set it down on the end of the bed.
"I'm Belle, by the way," the woman said, lingering by the door, her hands clasped.
Belle looked to be about Emma's age. She had thick, dark hair that fell in fat ringlets over her shoulders, a softly rounded face, and a mouth that seemed inclined to smile whether she wanted it to or not. Her blue and white dress and soft, accented voice gave the impression of sweet naiveté that struck Emma as entirely out of place in this dark dungeon cell.
"I'm Emma," she replied. "Mind telling me where am I, exactly?"
"That's what I thought." Emma sighed and sat down, lifting the bowl of soup to tip some into her mouth. It was savory and hot and drove away some of her foreboding for the seconds in which it lingered warm in her belly. "Are you a prisoner here, too?" she asked.
Belle lifted her shoulders and looked up at the ceiling. "Not exactly. I came here willingly. My father made a deal with Rumple. I came to live with him, to be his servant, and in exchange he has been protecting my kingdom from the ogres."
"His servant, as in…?"
"I cook. Clean. It's not that bad, really."
Emma scoffed, finding that hard to believe. A young, beautiful woman like Belle completely at the man's mercy, and he had her dusting his knick-knacks? Right…
"Do you know why he brought me here?" she asked.
Belle shook her head. "He hasn't said anything about it, just asked me to look in on you. I'm sorry." She paused, considering. "I did overhear him arguing with Bae. Your name came up."
With everything that had happened, she'd forgotten all about Baelfire — Rumplestiltskin's son, the man she'd been on her way to meet before getting turned around by ogres and having her life flipped thoroughly upside down. She'd been sent to try to negotiate an arrangement for protection from the ogres.
Was Belle's fate what he'd had in mind to propose? Was she to be Baelfire's servant?
Over my dead body…
From what little she remembered of Baelfire from meeting him at her coming of age ball, he was nothing like his father. No scaly skin or lizard-like eyes or high pitched laugh, at least — if he'd picked up any of those traits from his father, he'd have been a hell of a lot more memorable. She recalled only a normal man, a few years her senior, with tousled brown hair and a laid-back charm that had made him easier to talk to than the rest of the noblemen who had seemed so intimidated by her.
Perhaps he could be reasoned with.
"Do you think you could get Bae a message for me?" she asked.
"I don't know," Belle demurred. "It's not really my place…"
"It's nothing that would get you in trouble," Emma promised, though she had no idea if that was true. "Baelfire's an old friend. Just tell him that I want to see him. Please."
After some thought, Belle nodded. "Okay. I'll let him know." She gestured to the food. "You really should eat."
Emma finished her soup and then ripped into the roll, surprised at how hungry she was once she got going. Belle's cooking — if she was really the one who'd made the meal — was excellent. She finished everything off in a matter of minutes and washed it down with a long gulp of the cool, crisp water.
"Makes me feel almost human again," she said with a sigh.
A strange, pinched smile crossed Belle's face. "I suppose so." She leaned down to take the now empty tray. "I'll be back later with your dinner. And I could bring something to help you pass the time if you'd like. A book, maybe? Rumple has an amazing library."
"Thank you. That would be nice." Emma stood up to follow Belle toward the door. For a second, she considered knocking the unsuspecting girl unconscious and trying to escape but thought better of it. Rumplestiltskin had already proven himself immensely powerful. If it was possible talk her way out of this without risking the man's wrath, she had to try. "Don't forget to give my message to Bae," she said as Belle slipped back out the door.
"I won't," she vowed, then closed it tight behind her.
The food had soothed Emma enough to put an end her to pacing. She settled on the bed, her back to the wall and her elbows propped on her knees, her thoughts with her parents, her friends, and — more than anyone — with Killian as she watched dust motes floating through the slowly migrating beam of sunlight that cut a path through her cell.
Finally, after what felt like hours of waiting, the cover slid back from the window on her cell door.
"Emma?" a man whispered.
She was across the small space in a heartbeat, her hands wrapped around the window's bars.
He stood out in the hallway looking in. His doe-brown eyes and scruffy goatee brought back a flood of memories of the night they'd met, years before. They'd talked. They'd danced. She'd kissed him. (Gods. She'd kissed him? Why? She couldn't recall her reasoning now, but seeing as she'd only been sixteen at the time, she supposed she'd probably had none.)
"Are you okay?" he asked.
"Yeah. I guess. Bae…what am I doing here? What does your father want with me?"
He frowned. "I think he brought you here for me."
"For you? Do you realize how sick that sounds?"
"I know. It's crazy. I never would have mentioned you to him if I knew this was what he was going to do! I just…I never stopped thinking about you after that night—"
"It was one night, years ago."
"I know. But I think he figured that bringing you here could make me happy." He sighed and ran a hand over his mouth. "He didn't tell me what he was planning. Just showed up with you."
"So tell him to let me go."
"I tried that. He won't listen."
"Make him listen."
"It's not that easy," he said with a shake of his head. "Trust me. You don't know him. I've tried to change his mind before, and it's never worked."
"Maybe it will this time. Try again. You have to."
He took a step back from the window, his lips pressed together. She could see the internal conflict warring within him and hoped like hell it would resolve in her favor. He had to help her. If he cared about her at all, he wouldn't leave her like this.
"I know it doesn't seem like it," he finally said, "but you're safe. He won't hurt you. If I push him too much though, he might. You should stay here for now. At least then you'll be okay."
He reached to close the window.
"Trust me. I'm doing what's best for you," he said.
The window closed on his words, shutting Emma back into the dim, lonely silence of her cell.