A/N: This is it! The final chapter! For a while, I didn't honestly think I'd get here. This has been a really difficult story for me to write. Not because of the story itself, but because my life has been so crazy almost the entire time I've been working on it. I've moved twice. I got pregnant, had the pregnancy get complicated, then had a baby who didn't sleep until he was a year and a half old. My father died. And so did my uncle and a family friend. It's been a rough ride these past couple of years, and through it this story was my happy place. (Well, at least, when I had the time to get to it anyway!) I am SO THANKFUL for all of you who stuck with me through the long delays and the cliffhangers and the "I promise it won't be so long between updates this time" that somehow always ended up being seven months. And HUGE, MASSIVE thanks to my beta, OnceUponSomeChaos, who put a lot of time into this story and made it so much better and never failed to call me on it when I tried to get lazy. :)
Much love to you all! xoxo
They gain by twilight's hour their lonely isle.
To them the very rocks appear to smile;
The haven hums with many a cheering sound,
The beacons blaze their wonted stations round,
The boats are darting o'er the curly bay,
And sportive Dolphins bend them through the spray
-The Corsair, Lord Byron
Chapter 19: With Happy Endings for All
With Regina gone, her kingdom fell to Snow. And though no one there had dared to breathe a word of her in over twenty five years, those who recalled her father's reign quickly rose up to hail their long-lost queen restored. For Snow, it was obviously a bittersweet homecoming.
Aware of how difficult the trip would be, Emma went with her to visit Regina's castle. They took a large detachment of knights with them for the trip, though the escort proved unnecessary, for the ogre army collapsed within days of Rumplestiltskin's defeat. Overnight, it seemed, the beasts vanished into the woods. It could not have come at a better time. All of the soldiers returning from the front lines were badly needed to help rebuild.
Even so, Emma managed to have two ships sent to Gaston's village, just in case the ogres in the north had not followed suit.
Snow gasped when she saw the castle, and Emma leaned out of their carriage to get a better view. Tall, black spires stretched toward the sky, circled by fell birds. The city that had once stood within the castle's protective walls had been abandoned, all of it falling in around itself and overgrown by creeping vines and sharp, gnarly thickets.
"This place used to be so beautiful," Snow said wistfully. "White and gleaming. Oh, Emma. I wish you could have seen it."
Emma tried to smile. "Me too."
The castle, it was decided, would be dismantled, and what material could be salvaged was to be used throughout the kingdom in public works projects aimed largely at improving roads, aqueducts, and ports. While Snow saw to the finer details, Emma wandered the halls alone, trying to see past all of the black marble, heavy curtains, and monstrous artifacts to imagine what it had once been.
As she stood in the throne room, she closed her eyes and imagined Killian in her place some years before, standing at his brother's side. It was here that he had lost his brother. Here that years of darkness and vengeance had begun to cloud his heart. She walked back out with a shudder, pleased that the place was set for destruction and relieved that Killian had chosen to stay behind and see to his injured crewmates. She missed him dearly. But she was glad to have spared him from the dreadful memories that haunted this place.
In the farthest flung reaches of the castle, she stumbled upon a large, heavily barred door. With help from several of the knights, she managed to break off the locks and lift the beams. Inside, she found Regina's inner sanctum — her vault of hearts. Even without their master, they pulsed with raw power.
Emma was hesitant to touch or move them, but at last willed herself to do as she must. For a solid day, she sorted through them, each brush of her fingers giving her a secret flash of another life, until she found the one she sought.
The bare touch of her fingers against the pulsing heart sent her such private sensations and emotions that it seemed a violation to hold it any longer than strictly necessary. She wrapped it carefully in a soft shawl and tucked it away in her satchel for safe-keeping until she could return it to its rightful owner as promised.
By the time they departed for home, both Emma and Snow were exhausted and thoroughly dispirited.
Snow tried to make the trip back a cheerful one. They stopped at several villages to shop and eat and stroll in the sun. Slowly, the miasma that Regina's castle had left them with began to lift.
Lancelot had seen to the city in their absence. They arrived back to a bustling populace and a palace choked with visitors.
Those knowledgeable in magic from all the realms had been invited to come and render their opinion on how to wake the sleeping king.
"I'm afraid no one has been much help," Lancelot said as he escorted them into the castle. "But the Blue Fairy has just arrived. From what I hear, her power rivals that of the Dark One himself. If anyone can help, it's her. She's inspecting the king now."
"Good." Snow pulled off her dirty traveling cloak and folded it in her hands. "I'll go meet her."
Emma jogged after her mother. "Hang on. I'll go with you."
They found the Blue Fairy floating over the king's prone form, a trail of sparkles left in her wake as she flitted to and fro. The baubles on her dress tinkled against each other, filling the room with the airy sound of wind chimes.
"Your Majesties." She alighted on the edge of the king's bed and bent her legs in a delicate curtsy.
"Reul Ghorm," Snow replied with a bow of her head, using the fairy's formal name. "Please, tell me you know what's wrong with my husband."
The fairy smiled, but it held no warmth. "I do."
Snow grabbed Emma's hand and squeezed.
"So you can wake him up?" she asked, breathless.
The fairy shook her head, her smile fading. "No. I'm afraid I cannot."
"Why not?" Emma demanded, her voice sharp with frustration.
"He was already under a powerful dark spell when the second struck — the one that put the both of you to sleep," she said, nodding to Snow. "When magic mixes in such a way, the effects can be…unpredictable. The sleeping curse itself has been lifted. But while his body is hale, his soul wanders. Lost. He must find his way back before he may wake."
"There's nothing we can do to help him?" Snow asked, anguished.
"You are already his anchor. Be here for him. Love him. He may yet find his way home to you. There is little else you can do but wait."
Emma fought the urge to sag against her mother for support - Snow had enough of a burden to shoulder now without carrying the weight of her daughter's grief as well.
The Blue Fairy apologized for not having the answers they'd hoped for, and Snow thanked her for coming. Their words were muffled by the hot rush of blood coursing through Emma's ears. As soon as it was polite, she broke away and went running through the halls, in search of Killian.
He'd been given a room not far from her own. Out of breath, she flung open the door and ducked inside, throwing her back against it as it closed.
"Hello, love." He sat in a chair with his feet propped up against the window sill, reading a book. He folded it closed and tossed it onto the foot of the bed when he saw her face. "What's wrong?"
Grateful to have a moment in which she didn't have to be strong or brave or put together, she fell into his arms and told him what the Blue Fairy has said.
Killian's hand moved through her hair to settle comfortingly at the back of her head, which lay against his chest.
"If he has even half your tenacity, I'm sure he'll find his way back," he said reassuringly.
Emma stood in his arms for some time, letting herself grow easy and relaxed in his embrace, taking comfort in his presence.
"So," she said, finally breaking away from him and dashing away her tears, "did anything interesting happen while I was gone?"
His mouth quirked to the side in a smirk. "Lancelot offered to petition your mother on my behalf. He intends to make me a knight."
They moved to sit on the edge of the bed.
"I have no plans to accept, of course. I think he is only trying to make amends for throwing me in the dungeon the last time we met." His hand twined with hers, their fingers interlocking. "My men, however…" He laughed, soft and deep. "Sir Smee, in particular, is quite taken with the idea."
The crew, for the most part, had survived the battle with Regina and the Dark One with only superficial wounds, except for Foggerty, who had broken his leg and both arms when he'd been tossed out the second story window, and Black Murphy who had suffered burns that even now kept him bedridden. The rest were enjoying their stay in the castle, and Emma had made it clear that they were free to enjoy all of the luxuries it had to offer.
Emma lingered with Killian a while longer, indulging in the steady stroke of his hand along her back and the sound of his voice as he told her the latest palace gossip, before finally leaving to change into clean clothes.
They had dinner with Snow that night, and when it was over, Emma snagged Killian's hand and guided him back to her room.
"I feel like I'm about sixteen years old right now," she said as they paused before her door, her heart hammering at the thought that one of the staff might see them slipping inside together.
He chuckled and leaned into her to push the door open. "I assure you, darling, you are no girl, but a woman through-and-through." He sent her a rakish grin, his tongue darting out to wet his bottom lip. "I'll prove it to you."
Emma stepped back into the room, and her hands moved up his chest to brush across the top of his wide shoulders as the door swung shut behind him. He bent and captured her mouth in a hungry kiss that left her flushed and weak. His stubble scraped against her cheek as he broke away to pull her closer.
"I missed you," he said, mouth against her throat. "Not a moment went by where I did not think of you."
She gasped when his hand came up to cup her breast and lost what she'd been about to say about how dearly she'd longed for him over the past few days as well.
He maneuvered her toward the bed, reached to untie the laces of her gown, and Emma fought not to lose herself completely in the flames of white-hot desire that roared to life within her. She wanted to keep her magic in check. Despite Snow's tacit blessing of their relationship, Emma didn't think her mother would appreciate seeing sparks of white magic flying through the castle every time she found herself clinging to Killian in the wild throes of passion.
Despite her best efforts, stars leapt and sparkled about her four poster bed. As Killian flipped her onto her back, she had enough wherewithal to hope that they'd spread no further, but not enough to stop them dancing across his sweat damp skin and up toward the ceiling.
Later, the both of them spent, Emma pillowed her head against Killian's shoulder and traced lazy patterns across his chest. Moonlight shone in onto the end of the bed where their feet lay tangled, and a gentle sea breeze cooled their skin through the open window.
"Do you feel any better now?" she asked, breaking the silence.
"Aye. Though if you're thinking of another round—"
She turned her head away from his seeking mouth.
"No. I mean…yes, eventually." She pushed him back with a hand flat against his chest. "But I was talking about Regina. Your quest to avenge your brother's death is finally over. Do you feel any different?"
He was silent for a minute. His blue eyes searched the ceiling. Finally, he shifted and let out a long breath.
"I never considered what my life might be like once I had my revenge. I figured it might sate my being, that my life would be complete. I had nothing I looked forward to afterward. I always thought of it as an end."
He turned and looked at her. "Now I realize it is a beginning. But it is a beginning that started the moment I met you, not with my vengeance."
Emma rolled onto her stomach so that she could look down at him.
"I want a future with you."
He reached up and brushed a bit of hair back behind her ear. "And I with you, love. Though I'm not sure what it would look like. Your mother has made me an offer. When I made clear that I would not accept a knighthood, she suggested a naval commission instead."
Emma tilted her head. "And you're going to take it?"
He lifted his shoulders and sighed. "I'm tempted. It would give me back something of my old life. Perhaps I can regain my honor, become worthy of your hand…"
"You already are."
"Not in the eyes of your subjects."
Emma rested her chin against one hand and frowned. "If you take the commission, you'll be deployed."
The thought of being without him for weeks — even months — at a time pained her more deeply than she was ready to admit. She could order his ship kept close to home so that she could see him, but she didn't think he'd appreciate the special treatment given his desire to earn redemption for all that he'd done.
"You should take it," she finally said. "We'll figure out a way to make this work."
With a sigh of longing and affection, he drew her back down to where he could kiss her and made slow, thorough work of it. Her legs shifted to straddle his hips, and they made love long into the night, taking time to touch every inch of one another and memorize every detail. It was nearly morning when Emma drifted off to sleep, too exhausted to continue.
No one came to wake them, so they finally got out of bed near lunch time. They ate, then bathed together before going to find Snow.
She was standing outside the main court, talking to Lancelot, when they approached.
"Good afternoon, Captain Jones." The Queen smiled at him, then quickly corrected herself — "Killian. I'm sorry. That's going to take some getting used to. What can I do for you?"
"Well, Your Majesty, I've considered your proposal, and I'd like to formally accept it."
Snow clasped her hands together. "Excellent! You may keep your ship, of course. I know she is special to you, and since she formerly was part of Regina's navy, it seems fitting that she'd sail now in mine."
"Aye. That it does."
"I hope you won't mind if we don't have a banquet in your honor. I've a mission I'd like to send you on right away."
Emma's heart fell and she bit back a protest.
Snow barreled on. "As you may know, most of our men are tied up here. We already sent two ships north to help with the battle there in securing the Dark One's former lands. But I'd like to send one more, if you're willing."
Snow turned to Emma. "And I'd like you to go with him."
"You…what?" Emma stuttered, caught completely off-guard.
Snow reached for her hand. "I want you to go north, as my emissary. These lands are finally free of the tyrant that used to control them. One you helped to overthrow! I want you to see through what you have begun. Command our men there. Defeat the last of the ogres, help them rebuild, and let them know that we are their friends." She smiled, slow and secret. "Besides, I remember being young and in love. I wouldn't want to separate you two again so soon."
Dumbfounded, Emma didn't know what to say.
Lancelot had to step aside when Emma flung her arms around Snow in a tight hug.
Snow kissed the side of her head, then pushed her way. "Go! Go get ready!"
Despite their newfound status as knights of the realm, every able-bodied member of Killian's crew eagerly agreed to return to their posts on board the Jolly Roger. They had sailed her into port during Emma's trip. Walking down to the docks and seeing her there, bobbing gently in the water as if dipping her bow in greeting, felt just as much like coming home to Emma as returning to the castle. She, Killian, and the crew spent the day preparing to depart. Just before dusk, Killian hauled in the black and white pirate flag and together, every man with a hand on the line, they raised their new colors — the red and gold banner of Emma's kingdom.
Fair weather and even fairer spirits made for a quick, smooth trip. Emma stayed with Killian in his cabin, complained jokingly about the need for a bigger bed, and took on whatever duties she could about the ship. Being out at sea with him again sent her heart soaring. She drank in every moment. And the happiness she felt, the love she shared with Killian, allowed her to refine her magic more and more.
He was right. This was a new beginning. She didn't know what came next, but she was excited to find out.
They pulled into port in the wee hours before dawn. Ed knocked softly at the cabin door to let them know, though Killian was already awake — ever tuned to the ship's every movement. Killian shouted an acknowledgement to Ed, then rolled on top of Emma and kept her occupied while they waited for first light.
She was almost afraid to climb up onto the ship's deck and see what had become of the besieged city she had left behind.
The sun came up — thankfully — not on the smoking ruin she had feared, but on a place that was not nearly half as sad and gray as she recalled. The port was thick with ships, including the two of her own that had been sent earlier, but also merchant ships, fishing boats, and several flying local colors and those from other northern kingdoms that she only half-recognized. The docks swarmed with life, and they were met in short order by one of their own sailors.
"Princess." He bowed to Emma and offered a hand to help her disembark.
She ignored it and came down on her own. "I take it you were able to push back the ogres?" she asked.
He shook his head. "There was no need to, Your Highness. The folk here managed that all by themselves."
She smiled and pulled a satchel over her shoulder — business she hoped to see to later if she could find Graham.
"I'd like to see whoever is in charge," she said.
"Of course. This way."
Killian went with her, leaving behind the rest of the crew to enjoy themselves in the city. The old evidence of war was still there. Plenty of buildings had been destroyed, and whole sections of the city had been brought to ruin. But much of the rubble had been cleared way. Emma saw signs of healing everywhere. It seemed as if a fog had lifted and now sun shone again.
They were brought to a stately house in the middle of town. When Killian knocked on the door with his hook, a young woman answered.
"Belle?" Emma couldn't hide her surprise, though she should have guessed.
"Emma! I mean…should I call you 'Princess'? Come in!" Belle stepped out of the way and waved them inside.
They sat down, and Emma told Belle what had happened after she escaped from Rumplestiltskin, while Belle did the same.
"Alive, as far as I know," Emma replied.
Belle pressed her lips together and nodded. "Good. I know this sounds silly — you probably think I'm crazy — but I hope he's okay. I hope he's happy. There was good in him. I know there was. Deep down inside. Maybe, wherever he's gone, he'll be able to see that again, the way I could."
Emma couldn't quite bring herself to agree.
"What has become of the Dark One's estate?" Killian asked.
Footsteps approached from out of the hallway behind them.
"That, unfortunately, has fallen into the hands of a whole other kind of monster," said a voice.
Emma turned. The huntsman stood in the doorway, having come from somewhere deeper within the house. He was casually dressed and barefoot, as if he had just gotten out of bed. Killian, with a knowing grin, glanced at Emma, then back to Belle.
"Gaston has taken up residence in Rumple's house," she said, ignoring the questioning angle of his eyebrow, "and we haven't been able to get him out."
Emma sat back in her seat. "Gaston? Ugh. I think I can help you with that."
"We'd be very grateful if you did. It makes me nervous, having him out there with all of that dark magic. If you thought Rumple was bad as the Dark One…" Belle shuddered.
"Consider it taken care of," Emma replied.
Before she could leave, Belle insisted on treating her and Killian to breakfast. While Belle cooked, Emma drew Graham aside.
"I have something that belongs to you," she said. "I'm sorry it took so long. I could have sent it with the first two ships, but I thought something like this required…special handling. I wanted to make sure it got back to you safely."
She reached into her small, leather satchel and pulled out the warm, glowing form of his heart.
Graham's eyes went wide. "You found it!"
"I told you I would."
"Yes. But…" Tears formed in his eyes. "I don't even know how to thank you. What you're giving back to me…you can't know, Emma. You can't understand…"
She reached out and carefully tipped it into his hands. "I think I do. A little."
Taking a step back to stand beside Killian, she watched as he held the heart to his chest and pushed, his hand seemingly guided by instinct more than any magical know-how. The heart, eager to return to its rightful place, went in without a fuss, and he stood there before them, wavering on his feet, his free will, his emotions, his humanity — restored.
When Belle walked into the room, balancing several plates full of eggs, bacon, and buttered bread, Graham looked at her with such unguarded awe on his face that Emma had to turn away, afraid that she was intruding on something private. Belle paused, mid-step, then blushed and put everything down on the table.
"Is everything okay? You look…" She didn't finish the sentence.
Graham pulled himself together with a shake of his head. "Yeah. It's fine. I'm just…I'm going to go with them," he said suddenly, and gestured to Emma and Killian. "Help them deal with Gaston."
"Oh. Okay." She made a jerky motion, as if she wanted to go embrace him, but then thought better of it.
Graham went to put on his boots while Emma and Killian ate, and within minutes they were heading out the door together.
"Be careful," Belle said as they stepped out into the street. Her hand reached out to brush Graham's. "Gaston's more dangerous than he looks. If he's gotten into that vault…"
Killian winked at her. "Don't worry, lass. We'll bring the huntsman home to you in one piece, on my honor as a pirate."
She nodded her thanks, then lingered, watching from the open doorway as they left.
At nightfall, the trio arrived at Rumplestiltskin's estate. Emma drew her horse to a stop at the start of the long pathway leading up to the door. The house was a dark specter in the otherwise peaceful forest — full of bad memories, tainted by evil, and empty save for firelight flickering in a single, solitary window. The grounds, which had been immaculate when Emma made her escape, were a scattered ruin of uprooted trees and demolished stone, remnants of the ogre attack. There was no sign of the beasts nearby, and they'd seen none on the trip from the village either.
Only one brute remained who plagued these woods.
Leather creaked as Killian shifted in the saddle.
"Do we bother to knock and offer him the chance to come quietly?" he asked.
Graham scoffed. "I say we go straight in and keep the element of surprise on our side."
"I doubt we'll need it, mate. This is hardly a fair fight…"
Emma swung her leg over the pommel of her saddle and slid down to the ground. "Belle told us to be careful. Let's heed her warning."
On foot, they crept up to the building. Graham, as the more experienced hunter, took the lead. They kept to the shadows, trying hard not to be seen. Emma unsheathed her cutlass as they approached the door and heard Killian do the same. They both stood at the ready as Graham reached forward, turned the handle, and pushed his shoulder into the huge, wooden door.
It swung open silently to reveal the grand foyer beyond, swathed in darkness, a double staircase spearing up into the still of the night. Emma's mouth went dry at the memory of her time here, and how close she had come to spending the rest of her days trapped until Rumplestiltskin discovered a way to strip her of her magic.
Though spreading out would have saved time, they stuck together as they explored the house, searching for any sign of Gaston. The room with the crackling fire — Rumple's study — they found empty. The fire burned merrily in the hearth without consuming any of the wood which fed it.
"Who knows how long it's been burning," Graham said with a shrug.
They kept moving until finally they heard the haunting echo of a human voice.
It came from deep within the mansion, down a windowless corridor, which ended in a heavily bolted door that lay open, exposing a staircase winding down into shadow.
"The vault," Emma whispered. "Maybe I should go first."
Graham and Killian stayed close behind her as she started down the stairs.
"Picture this," came Gaston's voice from far below. "A rustic hunting lodge. My latest kill roasting on the fire..."
Was he talking to someone? Emma hadn't considered that he might not be alone.
Gaston continued, "My little wife, massaging my feet. And do you know who that little wife will be? I thought I once knew. But then I realized, the only one in all the lands as beautiful as me…is you!"
What in the…?
Ready to do battle, magic blazing at her fingertips, Emma came to the bottom of the stairs and stepped into a pool of candlelight spilling across the floor. Beyond, past rows and rows of strange artifacts lining the walls, Gaston stood with his back to her and one hand propped on top of a full-length mirror, regarding himself with a glassy smile. Though Emma caught a brief glimpse of herself moving behind him in the reflection, he didn't appear to notice. Gaston had eyes only for himself.
Graham let out a sharp whistle, and still he didn't turn.
"Perfect," he said, leaning in close to himself. "A pure paragon."
Emma lowered her cutlass.
Nothing they did would break the mirror's hold on him.
Gaston appeared content enough, standing making faces at himself, so they moved him and the mirror out of the vault and up into one of the empty rooms above. Once they had him securely in bed, with one hand tenderly caressing the glass, Emma returned to the vault. All that she could see in the candlelight was enough to tell her how dark and dangerous this place was, but she sensed much more beyond where the light could reach.
She moved over to the writing desk where the candle burned, ready to blow it out and rejoin Killian for the night.
An open ledger caught her eye.
She paused to leaf through the pages, noting the many different hands that had contributed to the volume, and the notes scrawled in the margins.
Killian found her sometime later, still ensconced in the vault, the ledger open and in her lap as she sat engrossed in the terrible, captivating story it told.
She jumped, startled at his voice.
"Yeah. Fine." She put out a hand to him. "Come here and look at this."
The vault was a staggering monument to centuries of sinister and malicious power, of which the ledger recorded every last detail. Emma was simultaneously drawn and repulsed. So much here needed destroyed, artifacts too dangerous even for the Dark One to use. But there was much also that needed to be undone.
"Whose responsibility is all of this now?" she asked. "Someone has to make sure that this magic doesn't fall into the wrong hands. Someone has to try to repair the damage that people like Regina and Rumplestiltskin have done."
"That someone doesn't have to be you," he reminded her gently. "You could stop exactly where you are and still be counted as a hero."
She sighed and ran her fingertips across the pages of the ledger before folding it shut.
"Come," he bid her. "Get some sleep and think more on it in the morning."
No matter how she tried, Emma could not rest in Rumplestiltskin's house. The next morning, she got up as soon as the first hint of light came in through the window, leaving Killian behind in bed, and returned once again to the vault and to the ledger.
Killian was shrugging back into his leather coat when Emma burst back into the room, her heart pounding in her ears and her face hot with excitement. She held up the ledger —triumphant, breathless.
"I have an idea!"
The Jolly Roger moved swift and steady through the sea despite the frothing waves, turbulent at her bow. A storm lingered on the horizon, flashing and rumbling, lacing the air with the cool, crisp scent of rain. Though it did not disturb them, and Killian assured Emma that they would not cross paths with the gale, it had stirred up a strange mélange of life deep below. The back of something large and dark undulated in the water along the ship's port side, trailing along side them for some distance as the crew held their breath, uneasy, before it finally veered off.
"Hold fast, mates," Killian called out. "The isle approaches."
Emma grabbed a bit of rigging and swung under it in order to take her place at the captain's side. Below, the rest of the crew steadied themselves and drew their weapons. She looked over them with pride — every one of them carefully handpicked by her for this mission.
On the forecastle deck stood Turley and Mullins with Lancelot between them. The knight had only just gotten his sea legs, more than a week into the trip. Below them, Ed stood shoulder to shoulder with Red, her cape flapping in the wind like a banner, and Granny, whose crossbow sat propped against her wide hip, ready to fire at a moment's notice. Smee, who'd been quite forcibly corrected on day one when he'd dared to question Granny's inclusion on the trip, eyed her from his place at the stern. Alongside him stood — most remarkably — Belle, who had insisted on coming when she heard of their mission.
Truthfully, Emma had wanted to leave the girl behind, figuring that she'd be nothing but a burden. But Belle had insisted that she could make her way.
Emma had reluctantly agreed, and Belle had never given her a single moment to regret it. In fact, she'd proven herself a smart, highly adaptable, cheerful, and adventuresome member of the crew. Smee, in particular, liked her, as she always gamely nodded her head to him and called him "Sir" in greeting.
She'd also proved invaluable in helping Emma to wade through the remainder of the Dark One's books and ledgers.
"Do you think they'll see us coming?" Belle asked.
"You can bet on it," Killian replied.
Even as they spoke, the haunting refrain of soft music reached Emma's ears from across the waves — barely audible, like the ghostly sigh a wind flute stirred to life by the distant storm.
The intrepid Jolly Roger continued her track, at pace, straight toward the rocky island now on the horizon. Their speed was a blatant challenge, one that must have puzzled their hosts, because the siren song suddenly dropped away back into silence.
They brought the ship in as close as they dared. The waters around the island were thick with old wrecks and sharp rocks, too difficult to navigate without threatening the whole ship.
Uneasy, Emma left her place at the wheel, raised Killian's spyglass to one eye, and made a quick survey of the shore. Nothing moved about on the rocky beach or in amongst the low scrub clinging to the otherwise bare stone that made up the island. She let out a long breath as she panned upward, across the empty eye-socket-like caverns which gave the island its name, and to the top of its peak where a lone figure stood perched, looking down on the ship with a cool regard that told Emma she recognized exactly who had come to call, despite the new banner the ship flew.
Emma lowered her spyglass and waved.
The siren puffed her feathers and then, with a flap, vanished down a chute into the chambers below.
"I suppose no welcome at all is better than what we were expecting," Granny said with a gruff exhalation.
"There may still be a fight," Emma assured her. "Give them a moment…"
Indeed, a few seconds later, the sirens emerged from the cliff face en masse. They did not sit perched as the sentry had but immediately alighted in a cacophony of flapping wings to circle over the ship. One dropped low, spiraling down out of the rest of the flock, and landed on the ship's main yard, which creaked under her weight.
Emma recognized the siren at once as the one who, on their list visit here, had stolen Killian off this very deck, and who she'd battled in the island's caves to rescue him.
"What business do you have here?" the siren demanded, her wings folded tight against her sides. "Come to kill the rest of my kind?"
Emma stepped forward and made a show of sheathing her sword — hardly a big risk to take with her magic at the ready, but the siren didn't know that. "We come to you in peace."
The siren let out a disbelieving snort. "Then your mission is in folly. It was a mistake to come back here. I would just as soon eat you as treat with you."
"That's because you haven't heard yet what I have to offer."
Emma waited as the siren considered her words. She knew that this was a long shot at best. But she had to try.
After a pause, the siren ruffled her feathers and her wings twitched as if eager to get back to the air. "There is nothing you can offer us which we would want half as much as your life."
The siren moved to take-off again.
"Your curse!" Emma shouted, bringing the creature to a halt. "I know how to break it!"
The siren's gaze snapped to meet hers, eyes burning like cinders. Above, the orderly circle of sirens broke into a chaotic tangle as each one dropped lower toward the ship at Emma's words. In moments, the sails and rigging were heavy with them — ropes straining, the whole ship bobbing strangely as their weight rocked it side to side. All eyes fell on Emma, standing alone and unarmed amidst the rest of the crew.
"That is not possible," the siren finally said. "How could you know anything of it?"
"Because I defeated the Dark One."
A breathless chatter erupted amongst the gathered sirens.
"Even if that is true, the one who cursed us to this fate lived many lifetimes ago."
"I know. There is a record — a ledger — which all Dark Ones kept. It was handed down from one to the next. And I have it now. It tells everything that was done to you, why, and how the spell might be broken."
Legend, in this case, held a substantial amount of fact. These sirens had been mermaids once, daughters of the mighty sea king himself. But they had become enamored with the human world and strayed far from their home in the depths to seek out whatever they could of the life they yearned for. It was there, lingering at the edge of the sea, that the Dark One found them and exploited their desire for a human life to convince them to steal for him the powerful trident that housed their father's magical power. In exchange for their willingness to betray their kind, he used his magic to give them new forms to take to the air as they once had to the sea. Their insatiable hunger for all things human had transformed as well.
The sirens looked down at her, their faces skeptical — not daring to hope.
"There is, of course, some price we would have to pay…" the siren above her ventured. "We learned quite well, there is always a price."
"Only that you do me one favor."
The siren shook her head and flapped her wings. "Oh no. No! We have been down this path before. Whatever you want us to acquire for you—"
"Nothing like that!" Emma rushed to assure her. "I only need you to sing."
"Sing?" The sirens exchanged looks.
Emma waited, mouth dry, while they conferred with one another, casting doubtful looks down at her over the edge of their wings. Finally, after much deliberation, and with a resigned sigh, the siren on the ship's yard dropped down to a closer perch, an arm's length away from where Emma stood on the wheelhouse. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Killian move in closer to her. All of the rest of the crew tensed as well.
"First break our curse, then we will sing for you!"
"I'm afraid I can't do that. I need a siren's song. Not a mermaid's."
The siren smiled, though it had more the affect of a dog baring its teeth than anything else, and asked with barely contained loathing and distrust, "Why? What would you have us sing?"
Voice soft, Emma replied, "I'll show you."
She nodded to Red and Granny. All of the assembled sirens watched with anxious, ruffled feathers as the two women crossed the deck to climb down below. In the fraught stillness that followed, the siren glared at Emma.
"There is no hope for escape this time," she threatened. "If you betray us…"
Killian sighed. "Relax, love. Emma already had a chance to kill you and all of your kind. You only live now thanks to her mercy."
Doing her best to ignore them, Emma steadied herself, aware how much rested on the next few moments. She held her breath when she heard Red and Granny returning, and let out a slow, tremulous sigh when they appeared again, clutching the slack form of a man between them. They laid him out carefully — reverently — on the deck.
Emma stepped down to kneel at her father's side, then looked up beseechingly at the sirens perched all around them.
"Your song does more than just muddle and control a man's thoughts. It speaks to his soul. And my father's…" She paused, overcome, and looked down at his body, full to bursting with her love and fear for him. "His wanders. I want you to try and call it back."
With a thud, the siren landed across from her, the creature's bird feet splayed wide on the flat surface of the deck. Emma glanced up and saw the siren's expression shifting quickly, unreadably, from hard to soft and back again, a riot of thoughts too fast and fleeting for her to gauge.
"What if it doesn't work?" the siren asked.
"I'll break your curse either way, as long as you try."
A deep breath made the siren's chest puff out. Was she thinking of her own sire, Emma wondered? The one she and her sisters had betrayed? The one whose kingdom they'd had no hope of ever returning to until now? Perhaps they thirsted to return to their family just as badly as she did hers.
With a sharp, curt nod to those above her, the siren made up her mind. "Okay, " she said. "We will try."
Emma reached out and clutched her father's hand as the sirens settled closer to the deck. Killian regarded them with a wary eye, but nodded encouragingly when he noticed Emma watching him. From the moment she'd told him what she'd discovered in the Dark One's ledger, he'd never once questioned this plan, utterly resolute in his willingness to explore any option that might bring her father back. Once, in the night, he'd even admitted a grudging affection for the king, and told her how her father had nearly captured him in the forest but chose to let him go.
"I had thought you learned of mercy from your mother," he'd told her. "I think now that I was mistaken. His clemency saved my life. Perhaps yours will save his."
Mouth dry, too scared to hope, Emma gripped her father's hand hard and closed her eyes.
All around her, the sirens began to sing.
Their voices rang out together, clear and true — a melody that had no words but spoke all the same of ocean waves and thunderstorms, of trees and meadows sweet with the first blush of spring, of sadness and longing, of love and birth and sacrifice. Their voices rose and fell in powerful harmony. The rhythm of their song resonated within Emma like her own heartbeat.
She couldn't move, caught by beauty in a way she had not fathomed possible.
The siren's song moved all around her, a thing unto itself, filling the endless sky and stretching down to unimagined depths.
Would he hear it? Would he follow it home?
The earth itself seemed to hum and sigh.
And somewhere, among the aching pulse of the refrain, something brushed by close enough to make her shiver. Something that paused to settle warmly next to her. Something so effused with love that the roar of her magic blocked out the ethereal music and snapped her back to her senses.
Her eyes flashed open. For a moment, she couldn't see for the fire burning within her. But slowly, it abated, and with it the sirens fell suddenly silent.
In her grip…a twitch.
The hand clutched in her own, still for so long, squeezed back.
"Daddy?" She leaned forward, her eyes blurring with tears that she dashed away in a frenzy, needing to see if it had truly worked.
David's brow furrowed and his lips parted.
The whole ship gasped, while Emma gratefully pulled her father up into her arms. Tears poured freely onto his shoulder as he tucked her head there in a way he hadn't done since she was a little girl.
He was back.
It had worked!
David pushed her back, his hands on her shoulders. "What's going on? Last I remember, Regina…" He shook his head. "I thought I heard music."
"I'll explain everything," she promised. "But first…" She looked up at the siren standing over her.
"You will break our curse now?" the creature asked, her voice tight. "We long to go home."
"Yes. Yes, of course."
As David looked around in plain confusion — from the half-bird sirens all around him, to the familiar faces of Granny, Red, Lancelot, and Killian who, at the king's regard, bowed with a roguish grin — Emma had Belle fetch what she needed from below deck. The sailors all refused to touch it. But Belle had no such reservations when it came to objects of great and questionable power.
When she emerged carrying the gold trident, longer than she was tall, the sirens sucked in a collective breath.
Emma had found it in the Dark One's vault, carefully wrapped and stored, with a hastily penned warning that it required light magic to wield. Magic like Emma's.
It felt warm in her hands when she took it from Belle.
"With this, I can undo the curse the Dark One cast on you," she told the sirens.
The siren took a step back, toward the edge of the ship, and nodded.
All it took was a gentle wave — the trident seemed to know what to do all on its own. A glittering, blue green magic enveloped the siren, cool and smelling of the sea. When it cleared, she slumped against the deck, all of her feathers replaced by scales, human arms braced against the deck to hold herself up as her broad tail unfurled behind her — mermaid once more.
She waited there as her sisters were transformed back one by one, each of them heaving themselves over the side of the ship to crash into the water with a heavy sigh. David said nothing as he watched his daughter, wielding light magic, breaking curses, bringing back those who had been lost. Finally, when all of the sirens had been returned to the sea, Emma approached the one who had remained behind.
"Here," she said, holding out the trident. "This belongs with its rightful owner."
"Thank you," she said with obvious difficulty. "But I am not sure we will be able to return it. With the things we have done — not just before the curse, but after… I'm not sure we will ever be welcome in our kingdom again."
Belle sent the mermaid a gentle smile. "There's goodness in you. Your song proves as much. Give him a chance. He's your father."
The mermaid's hand gripped the trident, her fingers flexing uncertainly. She nodded and said nothing more, then heaved herself over the side, down into the water and to her fate, whatever it may be.
Emma turned to look first at her father, who gazed back at her in astonishment, and then to Killian who looked near ready to explode with pride and affection.
"Raise anchor!" he shouted. "Let's be off! We've a homecoming celebration to get to!"
Killian turned the Jolly Roger away from Skull Rock — cursed isle no more — and watched as Emma moved into her father's arms. She was, quite literally, incandescent with joy. She glowed with a soft halo of light and could not stop smiling as she filled the puzzled king in on all that had transpired since he'd been cursed to eternal sleep.
David stared at her in open-mouthed amazement when she told him of her magic and of how she'd used the sirens' song to bring him back.
Killian couldn't blame the man. He was still in awe himself.
The haunting, transcendent song they had sung and the look upon Emma's face when her father had awakened would stay with him the rest of his days. He had never been a part of something so powerful before.
Long after the sun set, Killian stayed on deck, guiding the ship home, too buzzed to sleep.
David found him there, face tilted toward the stars, his hook resting gently on the ship's wheel.
The King cleared his throat.
"Couldn't sleep?" Killian asked.
"I think I've had enough sleep to last me for quite a while," David replied.
"Ah. Of course."
David crossed his arms and drew in a breath, working up to what he had come to say.
"I suppose I owe you an apology," he finally managed.
"No need, mate." Killian waved him away. "We came to an understanding there at the end."
David laughed and climbed the steps to stand next to him. "I suppose we did. Didn't we? Still…you deserve some credit. You were there for Emma when even Snow and I failed."
Killian didn't know what to say, so he looked away, uncomfortable with the King's gratitude. He was not used to taking compliments, or to having any kind of conversation with another man that wasn't full of bravado or posturing. That this man was Emma's father only served to make it more uncomfortable.
"Emma tells me that the two of you are…" David shifted from one foot to the other. "She tells me that you're close."
A moment of awkward silence stretched between them.
"Do you intend to marry her?"
Killian glanced at him. "That's up to Emma just as much as it is up to me. I don't see her as some prize to win. Whatever happens between us will be at her pace and at her choosing."
David made a noise that sounded suspiciously like approval and they stood together in companionable, if still somewhat tense, silence.
"Dad?" Emma appeared from below deck and cast a wary glance between the two. "Is everything okay?"
"Fine." David flashed her a smile. "Great, in fact. Just getting to know your pirate friend here a little better."
At Emma's alarmed look, Killian smirked and said, "Don't worry, love. I'll win him over in the end. I am highly decorated captain in His Royal Navy now, after all."
David's head snapped around to look at him. "You're what?!"
Emma took him by the arm and shot Killian a look. "Come on. I'll explain everything…"
For the rest of the trip back, Killian slept in the crew's quarters, giving over his cabin to David and to Emma who was loath to leave his side.
When the Jolly Roger finally returned, Snow White was waiting for them on the docks, her hands clasped anxiously in front of her mouth. When David appeared at the rail, her cry of joy sent up a cheer among the whole crew. Killian watched as they ran into each other's arms, unable to suppress a grin, and when he turned to Emma hoping to see her smile as well, she grabbed him by the collar and kissed him hard, without a care for who might see.
A massive celebration marked the King's return. The city did not sleep, but rode high on exultation throughout the night and into the next day.
When, at length, the revelry came to an end, Emma curled up to Killian's side in the wee-hours of the morning and said, "You know, I've been thinking…"
"Oh? How did you manage that, between all the dancing and feasts and rum?"
She chuckled against his shoulder and rolled her eyes, then got up to pad across the room. When she came back, she held a large, thick book in her hands.
The Dark One's ledger.
Her fingers played across the cover as she set it down against her thighs.
"There are so many people in here who need help. People like the sirens. And my dad."
Killian arched an eyebrow. "And…?"
"And I can save them. I mean…I think I can. I've got all this magic. I should do something with it! I know that I've got responsibilities here, that someday I'll have to run the kingdom, but…"
"But hopefully not any time soon," he finished for her.
She nodded, then looked down, her hair falling in front of her face.
"Do you think I could do it?" she asked quietly.
He sat up and cupped her face. "My love, I have never seen you fail." He tilted her face so that their eyes met. "You saved me, even though I'd given up hope long ago."
Her eyelashes fluttered and she leaned in to kiss him.
"I'll tell my parents in the morning."
The King and Queen did not protest her plans. Perhaps, Killian thought, they knew better than to try to talk their daughter out of anything. No one could have missed the burning sense of purpose in her eyes. She meant to do this thing — felt, in fact, that she had to.
A week later, they said their goodbyes as Emma — ledger in hand — climbed back aboard the Jolly Roger along with every able bodied member of the crew, ready to embark upon her first quest. Two weeks travel up the coast was a small village whose every occupant had been cursed to forget their past. Parents and children had been separated, unable to recognize one another, families torn apart. Their plight called to her after so recently having lost her own.
"I'll be back soon!" she called out as she waved from the ship's rail.
"Good luck!" her parents called back.
As they exited the harbor, Killian steered the ship out into the swift, northern wind. The Jolly Roger skipped across the water, light and gleaming, her path no longer guided by the dark specter of vengeance. The mast and hull creaked, but it was a happy sound. A sigh of relief. A weightlessness of spirit he had not noticed in the ship since her days as the Jewel of the Realm.
He looked up at the sails billowing above him.
It seemed as if Liam were standing beside him again, his hand resting upon Killian's shoulder, his words encouraging in Killian's ear.
When he looked back to Emma, the sensation lifted, but it did not leave him bereft. Instead, he was at ease. The sea breeze filled him with life. And the soft glow of love in his heart felt like salvation.
Emma walked over and linked her arm with his.
"So," she said, smiling brightly at him through her golden, wind whipped hair. "You ready for another adventure?"
He set her hand upon the wheel next to his.
"With you, love? Always."