Author's Notes: Constructive Criticism is always welcomed.
No words can describe a mother's tears
No words can heal a broken heart
A dream is gone
~ Tarzan, "Two Worlds"
They'd run until they could physically go no further.
Nearly collapsing onto a tree, Killian grabbed at the stitch in his side, gasping for air. His throat was dry and he was coated in sweat. He felt a sharp pull as Emma yanked her wrist out of his grasp. She stumbled a little further away, hiding half of her body behind another tree as Killian sank to the base of his own. He was just about to inquire after her when the distinct sounds of retching reached his ears. He winced but didn't comment.
Death was all too common in his life. He'd watched many a man and woman die as a result of this never-ending fighting. Most were from unknown foes, a few were at his own hand.
Some were innocent. Others were not.
The lines seemed to blur more and more the longer this war dragged on.
He glanced at his companion, listening to the now dry-heaving as her stomach's contents held nothing more.
He'd never taken pleasure in his kills. They were a means to an end, nothing more. And he'd learned to tuck away all his emotions when dealing with the aftermath. He supposed that made him largely indifferent to the deaths of others, of seeing people die in front of your eyes, but even he was having a difficult time stomaching this latest one.
True, he'd only known the man a few short hours, but things changed once you got to know a person. When you sat down and talked with them, found out about their past, their thoughts, their feelings and dreams, something inevitably shifted.
And it was for this exact reason that he only ever asked for a face and a name.
Less connection, less attachment, easier kill.
Killian grimaced as he pushed himself to his feet, treading carefully as he headed toward the blonde woman who had collapsed to her knees, her body visibly shaking from its exertion.
"Easy, love," Killian started as he eased her away from the mess and settled her on the opposite side of the tree. He frowned when she put up little resistance, her face pale and sweaty, every limb and digit quaking.
What could he say? Nothing about the situation was "alright." He couldn't promise her that things would get better or easier.
If he was perfectly honest, he was amazed she'd lasted this long in the seemingly endless string of horrors that had all started on that cursed tarmac. His brows furrowed as something clicked into place.
While the attack on the airplane could have been deemed an act of war, even allowing for the slaughter of those who had survived, the men on their trail were relentless. Why would they go so far as to exterminate every last living soul who had been on board? Unless…
They were looking for someone.
He watched her carefully as Emma raked a still shaking hand through her tumble of blonde curls, exhaustion etched into every surface of her being.
Only one person had known he was on that plane, and she wasn't so stupid as to try and off him after she'd purposely sent him on this mission to begin with. That left only one other person of interest onboard.
And the recently departed had informed him none-too-subtly that the woman he was traveling with wasn't all that she seemed.
Killian felt frustration rise within him. It coupled with the sheer anxiety and confusion of his own earlier actions from when he'd thought nothing of protecting her during the chaos.
Nothing was more important to him than his revenge. In order to fulfill it, he needed to stay alive. And yet here he was, on a never-ending sprint through some gods-forsaken swath of forest with a pack of wolves breathing down their necks and shadowing their every footstep.
"Mind telling me what the bloody hell is going on here, Swan?" Killian grit his teeth, trying to tamper down the anger coursing through him as part of him took in her complete fatigue and the other part yelled at him for even thinking about being considerate of it in regards to the entire convoluted situation.
Emma's head fell back against the tree trunk, her tired eyes shut. "I don't know."
"Like hell you don't!" Killian could feel his temper snapping. "We've been chased nonstop since that explosion ripped through the plane! Those men are after something. Or more pointedly, someone." His gaze narrowed as she winced. "Your friend hinted at as much during an earlier conversation."
Green eyes opened wide to look at him in surprise. "August told you who I was?"
Killian's arms crossed across his chest, hiding the clenching and unclenching of his fists in his agitation. "Alluded to something most heavily, but was entirely vague on any specifics." He eyed her closely. "Care to elaborate?"
"Not particularly," Emma muttered. When she caught the tight set of his jaw she sighed heavily. "Does it matter who I was?"
"When I'm getting shot at daily, it does."
Emma glared. "I didn't ask you to come with me. If I recall right, I told you it was better if we split up. That people only get hurt when they're around me. And now look at what's happened! This is exactly why I tried to go it alone!"
"And if you had you'd probably be as dead as your friend right now!"
Emma gaped at the man in front of her, the anger and accusation in his voice.
Killian winced, knowing he had struck a low blow. Her friend's death was still too near. It wasn't fair for him to use the man's death as a weapon. "Sorry," he mumbled. "Bad form."
Emma wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry. She could feel something very akin to hysteria bubbling up inside her, and knew without a doubt that if she didn't share something with someone soon, she wouldn't be able to contain it any longer. And being a hysterical, wretched mess in the middle of the forest with gunmen intent on bringing her and everyone involved with her down wouldn't be the brightest of ideas.
She eyed the contrite but still agitated man in front of her. August had cautioned her to be careful around him.
But August isn't here anymore, is he? An insistent little voice whispered. And he knew full well what was going on. You're leading Killian around in the complete dark. He deserves to know exactly what he's gotten himself into.
She sighed. And if he's smart, he'll ditch me at the first opportunity. She caught his clear blue eyes with her deep green ones. I would leave me behind too, if I could.
"My name isn't Emma Swan."
Killian's eyebrow rose, a silent gesture for her to continue.
Emma breathed in deeply, letting it out slowly as she braced herself for what had become the inevitable. "My name is Emma Cassidy. My husband gave me the nickname 'Swan' after he gave me this necklace. It was initially a bit of a joke with my mother's maiden name meaning 'White'." She glanced down, only half surprised that her fingers were already nervously playing with the piece of jewelry, fingering it the way a monk did with his prayer beads. The motion always managed to sooth thoughts that accompanied her memories of Neal and the life they could have had – should have had.
"Before that, my name was Nolan, daughter of David and Mary Margaret Nolan. Although, my mother usually went by," she frowned, "goes by the name 'Snow.'." Emma forcibly made the correction, holding onto that slim bit of hope, even if it was only a fool's hope.
"Snow?" Killian echoed, his mind rapidly trying to fit the pieces together, wondering why it all sounded so alarmingly familiar. And then it clicked. "Snow White?! You're the daughter of Queen Mary Margaret and King David?!"
Emma's lips curved at the incredulity in her companion's voice. Looking at herself now, she had a hard time believing it herself. "Snow White and her Prince Charming," she quoted back the now infamous newspaper headlines that had sparked a phenomenon when her parents had first married. "Quite the scandal in their day. The princess and heir to the throne of Enchanté having a not-so-secret liaison with a commoner from the countryside. Royalty marrying a man without a single title to his name. And let's not forget that she had been betrothed to King George's son, James, since birth at the time.
"Then to top it all off, as if only being a few days over the age of eighteen when they wed wasn't enough, their daughter was born a little…earlier than expected." Her mouth quirked into a half smile that wanted to choke on the sobs threatening in her chest. "I suppose I was a scandal myself."
She dared to risk looking at the dark-haired man in front of her, her lips twitching at the flabbergasted expression he wore. He couldn't look more dazed if someone had decided to knock him upside the head with a golden compass. It wouldn't have been any less ludicrous then the seemingly-impossible story she was telling now.
She frowned in concern when he stumbled a few feet away from her.
Killian could only feel numb shock coursing along his nerves. Emma Cassidy née Nolan!
She holds information about the royal line alright. 'Undercover agent to the family' my arse. She's the fucking heir to the bloody throne!
How could I have been such an idiot as to believe a word that woman says. Has her own bloody agenda. His expression darkened. The bitch played me like a fiddle, sending me on what amounts to a suicide mission – what a farce this has turned out to be. Of course Emma would know about that reptilian creature of a man – Gold's the princess's father-in-law for gods-sakes! Everyone knows that! He went mad after watching his son fall during battle with –
Killian's eyes widened, his mind whirling as he spun back toward the blonde with her concerned face and inquiring eyes.
"Neal Cassidy was your husband."
Emma nodded, more hesitantly this time as she wondered where this was going.
"The same Neal who died in the Battle of Lost Souls? About ten years ago now?"
Emma felt a twinge of pain lance through her heart, her voice soft when she answered. "Has it been ten years already?"
Emma looked up, startled as he lurched toward her, his eyes slightly wild.
"What happened to your husband? How did they say he died?"
Emma tucked her legs up, her arms wrapping themselves around her knees in an effort to give her something to hold onto. "He was shot through the heart. It was near-instantly fatal. His father was there in his son's last moments." Her arms tightened around her knees, her eyes trained on the ground as terrible memories ghosted past. The disbelief, the anger – the pain. "I didn't really ask for more details at the time."
"I was there."
Emma's head snapped up. "Did you see –?"
Killian shook his head, his gaze fixed on a point in the past, blue eyes clouded in remembrance. "No. I saw the aftermath. The sight of his son falling in battle sent Gold over the edge – like a demon, he was. A beast from the stuff of nightmares. There was no reasoning with his rage and grief."
Emma bit her lip, curiosity flaring up inside her for the first time in a decade. She opened her mouth to ask the question that now burned in her mind, closed it again upon noting the look on Killian's face, and then finally blurted it out with a silent apology. "Do you know who killed Neal?"
She watched as a special kind of agony consumed her companion's face, and suddenly wished she could take the question back.
"I was…distracted," he finally told her through deadened lips. "My brother was killed that day; died right in my arms."
Emma's hand flew to her mouth. "I'm so sorry."
Killian nodded curtly, accepting her empathy, knowing her words were sincere. She'd felt a similar pain and for just as long. He wouldn't be so callous as to say she shouldn't apologize when she hadn't been there – hadn't seen or felt the horror. The shriek of the dead and dying, the sickening suffusion of blood that permeated the air, the mind-numbing grief as the only family you knew lay gasping for his final breaths in your arms.
Emma may not have known that exact kind of torturous pain, but he'd seen and heard enough in the last few days to know she was no stranger to the acute, suffocating feeling. It reflected back all too brightly in her haunted eyes.
His gaze darted quickly to hers and away. His mind yelling at him to garner the information he so desperately desired, knowing she might hold the final answers he was seeking. But the sorrow and grief carved into her face made him hesitate.
This is why you only learn a face and a name, a voice hissed angrily in his head. You get attached. Things always become more complicated when you become attached.
Right, he argued back. Because this entire sordid affair has been a walk in the park from the beginning.
His eyes flicked back to her, his nerves fraying as he deliberated. Finally, hating himself a little for it, Killian decided to press forward. "Did Gold say who killed his son?"
Emma shook her head, tangled blonde curls bouncing slightly in her face. "He didn't say much of anything when he returned. He took his wife and left. Said they wanted to live in peace, far from the battlefields – that he'd had enough bloodshed for a lifetime." She shrugged her shoulders. "Or at least that's what my mother told me. I wasn't entirely myself by the time Gold returned from the front lines, for various reasons." Her brows furrowed as something tugged loose from a vague memory. "I overheard rumors, whispers from the servants when they thought I couldn't hear them. Returning soldiers said a Captain fighting under King George's banner was the one who killed Neal." She rested her head on her knees. "But it sounded like no one really knew for sure; no one saw who fired the shot."
Killian felt his fists clenching and unclenching as memories of that day assaulted him. Ten years of pent-up rage and vengeance simmered to the surface, but one look at her slumped figure had him holding the demons at bay.
She was as touched by the tragedy of that day as he was.
"Any idea where the Dark One is now?"
Emma flinched at the distasteful nickname her father-in-law had earned for himself in battle. "Not entirely." She tried to make her shrug appear nonchalant. "I don't know where most people are these days. Hell, I don't even know where we are exactly."
"Last I heard, he was headed toward King George's kingdom," Killian prompted, his thirst for knowledge unquenchable now that it tasted so close.
Emma nodded slowly as she tried to scrounge up the memories. "I think that's where they were headed, but I don't know if they still –"
She looked up then, caught the look of hunger in his eyes and stilled. "That's what you're searching for, isn't it?"
Killian raised a brow in question, a small part of him in the back of his mind fascinated to watch her put the pieces of the puzzle together so quickly.
"Gold," she elaborated. "He's the one who took your brother from you, wasn't he?"
"Aye." He didn't bother trying to deny it, simply crossing his arms across his chest as he waited her out.
"That's why you became a treasure hunter – to find things that are lost or highly elusive," she quoted back to him. "You're looking for Gold."
He didn't flinch under her gaze. "And what of it?"
"What're you going to do once you find him?"
Killian's grin was all teeth. "Why, skin myself a crocodile, what else?" At her look of confusion, Killian elaborated. "The Dark One is a cold, unfeeling reptile, caring for nothing and no one but satisfying his own wishes and desires. Well, he's about to find that that greed comes with a price."
Emma's brows furrowed, unaccustomed to seeing such darkness in his eyes. "And his wife, Belle?"
"While I'd love to hurt his heart as dearly as he did mine, I'll not touch the Lady Belle if she doesn't get in my way. I have an aversion to killing women, truth be told."
"What a gentleman." Emma's tone said it was anything but.
Killian's resulting smile didn't reach his eyes. "Pirate, darling, remember?"
"Gold – He didn't know what he was doing. Grief can make you do crazy things. And Belle, she had nothing to do with it. After Gold's first wife left him with a baby to raise alone…he was lucky to find Belle. To find love again. They raised Neal together. She was more his mother than the woman who gave birth to him ever was. Losing Neal – it ripped her heart out. Hasn't she been through enough? Haven't they both been through enough?"
"He took my brother from me! Right in front of my eyes!" Killian rounded on Emma, his fury flying. "You said it yourself, princess, no one knows who fired that shot! And yet he killed my brother for it all the same. Was Liam any less innocent than your Belle? Why should he have been murdered for a crime that wasn't his? What Gold did was monstrous!"
"And it appears to have created a monster."
Emma's quiet accusation pulled him up short, words failing him momentarily.
"Did your brother deserve to die? No. But neither did Neal." She hissed back at his glower, her shaking hands finding purchase on the tree behind her and using it as a crutch for her to stand on unsteady legs. "I'm sorry that you lost your brother, but I lost a husband. And you don't see me seeking out his killer with nothing but murder on my mind!" Her voice rose steadily. "I was happy! I was in love! I had just gotten married when he told me he was going to the front – so that he could protect me. To make sure nothing happened to me or our family. He died and I never even got the chance to say goodbye! He sacrificed his life to protect his kingdom, his citizens, his parents, my parents, our –"
She closed her eyes, biting off her tirade, the silence echoing around her for a moment before fierce green eyes met startled blue. "Neal died a hero. He sacrificed everything. His father knew that. Gold knew that he couldn't take that away from his son, knew that his own actions that day had only caused more pain, more bloodshed, more sorrow for those who had been left behind in his wake. He regretted it. That's why he went into self-exile, denouncing all connections to the royal family, all titles, all honors… He tried to go alone, but Belle loved him too much, had already had to endure the loss of her son. She refused to lose her husband as well.
"Your brother may not have deserved to die on that battlefield, but how is harming people in the name of your vengeance doing honor by him? Killing Gold won't bring your brother back, Killian. It'll only soil his memory further." Vibrant green eyes held her listener captive. "It won't lay the ghosts of your past to rest."
The forest echoed in the ensuing silence. Even the usual chatter of birds had gone quiet.
Emma's words rattled about in his brain, warring with his rage and grief, grappling with a vengeance that had fueled his every moment for the last ten years.
"Passionate words, Princess," he smiled but there was no amusement or humor in it. "Befitting of one pampered from birth, surrounded by parents, servants and adoring citizens. Someone who didn't have to scrape and scramble to survive as a child alongside the only family he knew, the only family he had in the world." He scoffed in derision. "Safe little royal with no blood on her hands."
Killian was pulled up short when Emma's response wasn't to bite back, to engage him in his pent-up anger, but to double over in laughter.
He scowled. "Something funny, Princess?"
Emma tried to put a stopper in her laughter, but it was either laugh or cry and she sure as hell wasn't about to start crying in front of this man.
"Pampered little royal?" She spread her arms wide about her. "Do I look spoiled to you?"
Killian bit his tongue, refusing to comment even as his eyes took in her too skinny form, evidence of a lack in proper nutrition, poorly hidden by her wrinkled and worn clothing. Dark circles lay under her eyes from having to sleep with one eye open or risk not waking at all the next morning. Her skin was pale but crossed with scrapes and scars, her limbs only bone and muscle, giving her a lithe but hard figure.
Her arms dropped halfway back to her body as her expression deepened and darkened. "And after all the time you've spent with me, especially knowing what you do now, how can you say there's no blood on my hands? Or did we just imagine all those innocent people being slaughtered? How about August? Can you tell me that had I not been there, he still would have died? Or any of the other people who have lost their lives willingly or not because of me?"
Her arms dropped back to her sides, her eyes steely. "Tell me again, Killian, how there's no blood on my hands when I can count the number of lives lost in the hundreds."