In an unfamiliar place, Hook should have been comforted to find himself in a familiar state: alone, drinking, and pining. Sadly, he was far from comforted; it was hard to be when one was a pirate surrounded by the glamour of a Royal ball. He had come for the chance to see Emma, but the night seemed determined to disappoint him. Still, he managed to work up a smile of sorts when a familiar figure cut across his field of vision.
“Well, well, well,” Hook drawled as he took in his old friend’s attire. “My dear Lady ‘Bell, what has become of you in this foreign land?”
Tinkerbell shrugged a lace-clothed shoulder and grinned.
“I’m acculturating myself to my surroundings.”
That she was. She looked perfectly natural in the ballroom of Snow White and Charming’s recently restored castle.
“How clever of you,” he said, raking his eyes down the length of her body simply to see her eyes roll. “Not much room for wings under there.”
“Well, when they grow back in a permanent fashion, I’ll be sure to worry,” she replied primly.
Hook wasn’t worried for her at all. She’d been through some of the worst life had to offer, same as the rest of them, but she was made of pluckier stuff than most. If she didn’t have faith in herself just yet, she could always look to him for it.
It was, despite the high dress, quite a casual affair, this Welcome Home ball. Firstly, because it wasn’t really to welcome Emma back to her first home, but rather to welcome the entire population of the Enchanted Forest back to both their physical lands and, for those left behind when the curse hit, to a time of security, which had been lacking for far too long. And second, because most of the royalty and high born nobles still felt somewhat out of sorts in the extravagance of castle life. He’d already seen many former citizens of Storybrooke reach for a cellular phone or some other device only to remember they didn’t exist anymore.
Had they been given the choice, Hook was sure most - or at least many - would have chosen to stay among the paved streets and electronic technologies of Storybrooke but their cursed town no longer existed. It had vanished with all their earthly possessions and keepsakes, which many mourned. But Regina and the recovered Rumplestiltskin had done their best to renovate and make their old homes inviting, and some of the broken hearts had fallen into nostalgia instead.
Even those from adjacent lands such as Prince Eric and the naturally landless Princess Ariel had been found smiling easily this past week, content to linger in the Enchanted Forest before trying to find their kin. Of course, new love tended to make most situations more bearable for those who felt it, while simultaneously draining everyone around it who didn’t. Hook made a point to give them a wide berth at all times.
“You could do with a change yourself,” she continued, returning the slow once-over he’d given her and making a face at his regular attire. “You don’t quite seem to fit in.”
Hook knew that well enough, but it had nothing to do with the abundance of rough leather on his person.
“Not sure I’m looking to fit in with this lot,” he said.
“You can’t be serious,” Tinkerbell protested, laying a gloved hand on his forearm. “After all you’ve been through, the bonds you’ve created with these people. You can’t be thinking of leaving now.”
“I was an aid when they were in need, Tinkerbell, nothing more.”
When he’d found Emma in New York, he’d returned her true memories - after the kiss had failed - by way of Regina’s potion, and together they’d returned to the Enchanted Forest to rescue her parents and the other former residents of Storybrooke.
The Savior had saved the day once more.
And the Pirate?
Well, he’d done his part, hadn’t he? He’d ferried the latent princess and her son back to her homeland, and that had been a job well done.
His kiss hadn’t returned her memories. His attempts to help in New York only brought her more trouble with the local authorities. And while he’d been by her side as she’d joined forces with Regina to once again unravel some mangled magic, he had done so more as a spectator than anything else.
He had hoped that once the mischief had been undone, they might have a moment together but now, three days later, he had yet to catch the barest glimpse of her.
But then, his kiss had failed her, and maybe that was all the explanation he needed.
A passing waiter offered them drinks and they both accepted one - Hook only one because he had only the one hand with which to reach, and it only occurred to him after the waiter had left that he might have commandeered the tray itself. He had his flask on his belt, as always, but he was saving it for later when the offerings would grow less frequent.
“Besides,” he continued, “I doubt very much that the good Prince and Princess will have further need of a pirate in their kingdom. I’m the type they hunt down, if you’ll recall.”
“You weren’t always,” Tinkerbell returned unyieldingly. “You were once a naval officer. You told me yourself. You could be that again, for a liege worth your respect and loyalty.”
He ducked his head to futilely protect himself against the fierce and sudden pang of longing he felt. With the formerly Evil Queen abdicating her thrown in favour of a simpler life, the Enchanted Forest would soon officially be ruled by Queen Snow and her King Charming, and while most of their interactions with him tended to devolve into scoffing and eye rolling, at the core, he knew them to be the very best of people. He knew them to be honest (when they weren’t sacrificing themselves for others), good-hearted to a fault, loyal, optimistic and more than anything else, honourable. If they’d been the rulers when he’d still been Lieutenant Killian Jones, he’d never have had need to turn to piracy. If they’d been the rulers of his former land, his brother would never have died so pointlessly, hunting the most vile of weapons against man. Killian himself would likely have climbed to the ranks of Captain by his current, relative age and would be seeking some respectable young woman to marry and with whom to begin a family.
But then, if wishes were gold…
Today, he wouldn’t even know how to be that naval Captain. He hadn’t risen to the rank through experience and valour, he’d taken it and corrupted it. He hadn’t met a respectable young woman but a strong, wonderful woman trapped in a horrible life. And he hadn’t begun a family with her, he had failed to protect her and sent her son to the stuff of nightmares. He didn’t deserve to sit in this ballroom in the midsts of a Welcome Home to-do, with well-wishers thanking him for his part in saving them all.
Under Tinkerbell’s gaze, worried from his silence, he downed his drink in a single go.
“I don’t think white cotton suits me quite the way it once did, my dear, but I thank you for the vote of confidence,” he said.
Tinkerbell jutted her chin out defiantly. “I think they’d suit you just fine if you tried them.”
“Or,” Hook countered, sidling in conspiratorially, “we could find a middle ground by leaving the cotton and the leather and,” he traced the edge of her glove with his fingertip, “the lace behind, and see what new roles we can come up with for each other.”
Tinkerbell huffed in disgust before giving him a disappointed look and walking away. He watched her go for good measure, in case she looked back, and almost smiled as he observed her trying to walk naturally with so many layers of skirts on her body. Someone had done up her hair in proper ringlets and weaves that Hook would never understand and, in the borrowed dress, no stranger could have distinguished her from the other ladies of the court. She didn’t look entirely comfortable yet, but she was surrounded by smiling faces and old friends who welcomed her back with open arms and Hook was glad he was there to see it.
Another tray passed him and he quickly exchanged his empty glass for a full one.
Hours and innumerable glasses of wine later, Hook was ready to admit his defeat.
The Royal family had shown up to spectacular acclaim and in overflowing completeness; after a year of reconciliation, the soon-to-be Queen and King of the Enchanted Forest now presented themselves side-by-side with its former Queen, and while the applause had dimmed for half a moment, the crowds seemed to accept the development. Young Henry, bedecked in simple but rich linens that suited a prince, had held Regina’s hand for added encouragement.
The very sight of her, even from such a distance behind the crowds, had invigorated and sobered him for a moment.
While she’d not followed with her mother’s full skirts, nor Regina’s elaborately bejewelled fashion (somewhat tamed compared to the last time Hook had seen her in her regal gowns), she had found a compromise in a dark red, shimmering dress that clung to every one of her curves. Some of her hair was up in twists like other ladies of the court but the rest flowed gracefully over her shoulders and his fingers itched to run through the locks just to feel them, to warm them with the heat of his skin.
But after the official welcome, the Royals had once more become invisible to him, disappearing into the adoring crowds. He’d seen Regina make her way slowly but ever-confidently through the throngs to reach Robin Hood and his son, and Henry had flitted from her to various townspeople he’d missed that long year. But Charming, Snow, and Emma seemed determined not to be found tonight and Hook, half composed of wine by this point, was tired of forcing himself to hope.
He stood from his stool along the wall - a far cry from his usual place at parties - and turned towards the great doors when a hand settled on his shoulder.
Annoyed, Hook rolled his eyes and readied his remarks for Charming but they died on his tongue when he turned to find Bael - Neal grinning at him.
“Hey, man,” Neal greeted. “Sorry, did I startle you?”
Hook blinked, and turned his head slightly to make sure he wasn’t imagining the hand still on his shoulder, but that glance prompted Neal to remove it and he mentally cursed himself.
“Not at all, mate,” Hook finally replied, trying to force away his mind’s sluggishness. “I was just about to take my leave.”
“Yeah, I saw, that’s why I came over,” Neal said, taking the stool Hook had just vacated and inviting him to take its neighbour.
Hook took a deep breath and cast a look around them but found no answers, nothing to prepare him for what might be coming, so he acted like the courageous man he hoped he was and sat down.
Then, he acted like the man he really was and offered Neal his flask. It was refused with a tight grin.
“Haven’t given that up, I take it?” Neal asked pointlessly.
“Nonsense, I’m not the sort to give up.” Hook winked and was rewarded with a disbelieving snort.
“Right,” Neal said, a smaller but more genuine grin tugging at his lips. “Listen, I just - ah,” he ducked his head bashfully, “I didn’t want you go to off and disappear for another three hundred years without getting a chance to thank you for what you’ve done for my family.”
For an awful moment, Hook thought of Milah, and the alcohol he’d imbibed throughout the night threatened to resurface in a violent fashion. He shook himself from the fierce swell of guilt to paint a smile on his face.
“Don’t mention it. ‘Was just doing my civic duty and all that,” he said, raising his flask in the general direction of the thrones.
“Yeah, I’m sure,” Neal smirked. “Either way. It seems like we keep thinking all hope is lost and then you come along and bring us all back together. I can’t thank you enough for that.”
The honest gratitude twisted something painfully in Hook’s chest.
“You are the last person in any realm who should feel the need to thank me for anything,” Hook said.
Neal cocked his head and seemed ready to speak again but Hook wasn’t sure he could hear it. Besides, Neal was right, it could be another three hundred years before he got the chance to say it again, and he didn’t want to waste it.
“I meant what I said all those years ago, you know,” Hook said. “I would have been a family to you, if I could.”
Neal searched his expression for a moment before nodding. “Yeah. Yeah, it took me about an hour off your ship to come to believe that. By then it was too late.”
“I’m sorry,” Hook said. “I’m sorry I couldn’t save you from him. I’m sorry I didn’t promise to get you back to the Darlings as soon as you asked. I could have tried to find a way instead of declaring it futile from the outset.”
“Hey,” Neal interrupted him, “I may have been a kid but I made my own decisions. Nothing you could have said or done could have changed my mind that adults were evil. Not at that point. And while I definitely hated my father at the time, I wasn’t ready to believe he’d actually killed my mother. I needed to…to blame you until I could wrap my head around it, and still really haven’t but I can…I can deal with it now without using your guilt as my crutch.”
Reluctantly, Hook nodded.
“I gotta say, I’m kind of glad it didn’t work for us anyway. We’ve already got plenty of awkwardness in this crazy-ass family tree without giving Henry yet another branch to figure out.”
Despite the pang in his chest that he was getting good at ignoring, Hook could share his rueful grin.
“Or worse,” Neal continued, “if I’d stayed with you, the good parts of this whole saga might never have happened.”
“Aye,” Hook said sardonically, tilting his flask back and forth and happy to hear he still had a finger left at least. “We have half a millennium of horror between us - a full one if we rope the lovely Lady ‘Bell into our miserable ranks - and yet here we all find ourselves reunited for merriment and drink. Seems almost worth it.”
Neal was quiet then, and when Hook snuck a look, the man was leaning back against the wall, facing out towards the party with a small smile on his face. As disingenuous as Hook’s proclamation may have sounded, he couldn’t find it in him to begrudge the man who would have been his son the smile he now wore. But he also couldn’t sit here and watch him reunite with the woman they both loved, to become the family Hook had longed for for centuries.
“I wish you all the best, my boy,” he said, the affectation slipping from his ale-loosened tongue without his permission. Neal stilled momentarily and time itself did as well until he smiled softly.
“Same to you, Pirate,” he said, for the first time making the term sound nothing like a vulgarity.
Hook stood from his stool, but didn’t get much farther than a few steps.
“Hey, Hook?” Neal called to him, his voice carrying a fair bit of discomfort. “I know it’s not really the time or place - or maybe it is but you’re kind of three sheets to the wind as it is,” he grinned, “but some other time, do you think we could, you know, get together for a bit or something? I’ve spent a few decades of my life kicking myself for not asking you about her when I had the chance. You know, after I stopped hating your guts.”
The request itself was like a punch to the stomach - it took his breath away and left him nauseous, though he couldn’t tell whether it was from dread or relief. He wanted to walk away without answering, but when he turned back, all he could see in his mind’s eye was a young boy crying on the deck of his ship, holding the drawing of his dead mother and demanding an explanation.
“Of course,” he whispered. “Whenever you like.”
Neal nodded his thanks and attempted a confident grin before he made his escape into the crowds.
Hook took a final, lingering look at the ballroom, packed from end to end with people he’d known centuries ago and others he’d gotten to know only a few years ago, all of them in various states of excitement and contentment. It radiated from the very walls of the palace to such a degree that he seriously considered there being some enchantment in the wallpaper, but when he stepped outside into the cold evening air, he felt no different, and had to conclude that it was in the people themselves.
It just wasn’t in him.
Three days after the ball, Hook found himself in the same boat - no pun intended - as Princess Ariel and her fiancé in that he had no real reason to stay but somehow hadn’t yet managed to leave. His ship was still docked in the Royal port, and he was still its only occupant. He’d had various merchants and noblemen knock on his gangplank asking to strike up contracts for new business - the Enchanted Forest’s economy had never experienced such a sudden and explosive boom - but he’d turned them all away.
Black sails and no crew meant pirate ship, not a bloody shipping freight. It was a surprisingly difficult concept for twice-lived people to grasp.
Hook had left the ship a few times to make half-hearted attempts to locate Smee and a few other crew members he suspected might have been sucked into the original curse - just for the familiar company - but he’d been largely unsuccessful. And despite claims that Emma and the Charmings were frequent visitors among the villagers, they remained as elusive to him as ever. He didn’t run into them in the village, and they didn’t seek him out on his ship.
The only people who had stepped foot on his deck were Tinkerbell and Neal, the latter of whom he’d found casually strolling the length of the deck the day after the ball, taking in the sights as he hadn’t had the opportunity to on his other most recent visits aboard. He had brought rum, so they’d talked about his mother; it had seemed only fair, and between the strong rum and the stronger bay winds, any tears were easy to leave unmentioned.
Belle had come around once and attempted to befriend him but she’d looked at him from the safety of the docks with such a pitying gaze that his stomach had turned and he’d sent her back to her other project, the One who was recently Slightly Less Dark Than Previously.
Tinkerbell, though, was a semi-constant visitor, coming over once or twice a day to make sure he hadn’t thrown himself overboard. When she’d first mentioned her purpose in coming, he told her he didn’t trust that the currents wouldn’t just bring him back to shore and could she be a dear and test them for him? Then, he’d turned his back on her and went back into his cabin.
Tonight, she reappeared, stocked with armfuls of liquor, and his reception was entirely warmer that go-around.
They got incredibly, disgustingly drunk, spurred on by discussion that ranged from her return to the fairies to the very worst and darkest times of their lives, Neverland included but not exclusively. And then they drank some more.
The next day, Hook was alone, with no evidence that Tink had ever been there save a stupendous headache. She’d taken every bottle back with her when she left, but when she returned that evening, it was with a basket from Granny’s.
“Trade you for it,” she said, holding the basket out to him at a distance.
He didn’t understand her meaning until her eyes drifted down to the flask that rarely seemed to leave his hand anymore.
“It’s hair of the dog,” he protested. “I have a splitting headache, you know.”
“I have a fresh loaf of bread and three kinds of meats,” she countered.
He searched her expression for some hint as to how well she had planned this but she gave nothing away. He considered refusing, but he felt genuinely awful from the hangover and despite being untempted by the food, he had a friend willing to offer him a good deal. Besides, her mile-wide smile when he made the exchange was worth it, even if the bread sat like lead in his upset stomach.
It was even worth it when Neal next showed up the next day and had fruit juice in his bottle instead of rum. Maybe especially then, since the man followed with a clasp on the arm and an, “I’m proud of you, man.”
Hook was so caught off-guard by the genuine sentiment that he hastily started in on the tale of when he and Milah had lost almost the entirety of the treasure they’d “earned” from a Royal ship at the tavern because they’d been too inebriated to keep their cards straight. The next morning, when the weight of their financial loss had hit them, Milah had declared the ship would be dry forevermore and had promptly thrown every ounce of alcohol overboard. It had taken her nearly an hour overall.
“That had to endear her to the crew,” Neal said with a delighted grin.
“If they hadn’t spent the better part of that year slowly falling in love with her as I had, I’m certain she would have followed those bottles overboard,” Hook replied. “Of course, she could fall out of no one’s favour more than her own when she realized that we were then both without gold and without drink - one can always be weathered with the help of the other but to lose both is a mighty blow to morale.”
Neal broke into laughter, and Hook could have continued the tale to divulge how they’d then stopped and raided a small merchant ship to divest them of their stocks, but he enjoyed the sound far too much to risk it going away.
“Ah, man.” Neal wiped a tear of laughter from his eye. “It’s crazy how alive she can sound in your stories. Like she was the real life of the party.”
“She could be,” Hook agreed. “But the longer we were out, the quieter I found she became. Not sad, though at times she was - at times, she could be so overcome with a loneliness that began and ended with your absence that she’d lock herself away and be utterly inconsolable for days. But that other quietness, it was something more permanent, something more like…like the difference between elation and contentment, I suppose. She took to writing, to drawing. In those years at sea, she began to discover the kind of woman she truly wanted to be. And I think that’s what she’d been waiting for, before we went back for you.”
It was a topic he’d instinctively wanted to avoid but realistically, it was inevitable.
“I wasn’t lying when I said we had plans to return for you,” he said, forcing himself to look Neal in the eye. “Every year, I watched her become a more confident, more self-assured woman, a woman who slowly came to believe she could be everything you needed and that a life at sea could suit you, or, in the event that it couldn’t, that she’d be ready to leave it behind without regret and be the mother you needed her to be.”
Neal cleared his throat and blinked quickly but otherwise offered no reaction.
“And I would have followed her across that gangplank if it had come to that,” Hook said. “We’d started setting aside money for ourselves with each raid, and we were nearing an amount that would have seen us all comfortable to the end of our days.”
“But then…” Neal began.
But then she’d been taken from them both by her former husband, by Neal’s father. And that was one line of discussion Hook did not want to cross into for fear he’d start in on his hatred for the Dark One and never stop.
“And then you fell from the sky and onto my deck, in Neverland of all places.”
Neal chuckled wetly. “Seriously. Fate has a messed up sense of humour.”
“Indeed, she does.”
Before the mood could fall again, Hook launched into another story about Milah’s personal views of Fate (it was unfavourable and the reason involved spiteful dolphins) and the rest of the visit was spent with much more laughter than tears.
When the sun set and Neal finally got up to leave, he patted Hook on the shoulder as was their new custom, but before he could step foot on the gangplank, he stopped and seemed to steel himself.
“I’ve been talking to my dad a lot more since we got back here,” he began, facing the docks. “I mean, between apocalyptic crises. It’s been…nice. Belle’s really mellowed him out and he’s been helping in the villages, you know? He helps.”
Hook was thrown off-kilter by the topic, and had to bear down on the familiar swell of rage at the Dark One. But Neal was clearly struggling, and it was obvious the man needed something from him.
“This world is…thriving again, in part because of him,” Hook allowed, with incredible difficulty. It was enough to turn Neal around, and Hook could have done without seeing the naked distress in his eyes.
“Right? He’s - he’s growing crops, he’s helping with the rebuilding, the renovating. He’s not - he’s not destroying things anymore. He’s not destroying…people.”
Hook fought desperately to keep his expression as neutral as possible. “Neal, what are-“
“Would she hate me? Do you think?” Neal asked, though the question sounded more like a plea. “I don’t - I barely remember her, and you were with her for years. You -,“ he blew out a steadying breath, “clearly, you were the person who knew her better than anyone else in this world and he - he killed her. Would she - shit,” Neal threw his head back to keep the tears on his lashes from falling, but it didn’t work. For the second time in his life, Milah’s son was on his deck with tears streaking down his cheeks and Hook thought his hatred of Rumplestiltskin had never, ever held a candle to what he felt now as Neal asked him if his mother would hate him for having a relationship with his father.
Swallowing past his virulent emotions, Hook bridged the three paces that separated them. He put his hand on Neal’s shoulder and waited for the man to look at him.
“Your mother,” he began, choosing his words carefully, “loved life, and I have no qualms in saying she loved me, but the great heart she possessed was overwhelmingly and unwaveringly filled with love for you.” Another tear slipped past Neal’s fast blinking and Hook’s thumb instinctively came to swiftly wipe it away. “I have no love for Rumplestiltskin and therefore no reason to lie on his behalf so hear me clearly: your mother, beyond anything, would want you happy. She would want you squeezing every drop of happiness from this life that you possibly could until you’re both bursting with it and utterly sated. That was how she lived her life and it’s what she wanted for you.”
Neal swallowed thickly.
“A life of hatred is no life, take my word on it,” Hook continued softly. “Find your joy in this world, Neal, and never, ever think badly of yourself for it. That would be the dishonour to her memory.”
Neal’s eyes searched his face but he would find no shred of doubt, not on this. Then, strong arms were closing around him, and he only had a few seconds to return the embrace before Neal was stepping away with a cough, wiping the last of his tears away himself. He seemed to want to say something but he simply nodded a few times as he gathered his thoughts.
“Thank you,” he said. “I mean, for that, obviously, but I - I really appreciate you letting me come here like this all the time. To just hang, and talk.”
“You’re always welcome aboard this ship, whenever you like,” Hook replied, trying to impress the truth of his words upon him. As far as he was concerned, this ship would one day be Neal’s, whether he wanted to keep it or sell it or burn it.
“Yeah,” Neal said, looking out to the water with a fond grin, “until you set off into the high seas to conquer the world.”
Hook shook his head. “I find myself oddly lacking the yearning to chase the horizons lately.”
“I think we’re all kind of decompressing at the moment. Day comes, though, you’ll be chasing adventure again.”
“It’s not so much a question of mind but of heart, and mine doesn’t seem to be at sea anymore.” It was all he could say without complicating things for them both, but it seemed to satisfy Neal.
“You know, I kind of miss it.” Neal said.
Neal shook his head and huffed laugh, “No, really not missing that. I thought I did for a few years there, but no, I could do with some boring, sedentary living for a while. It just - remembering her, it gets me thinking about it - Baelfire.”
Hook didn’t know what to say, and thankfully Neal continued.
“I mean, it wasn’t the greatest years of my life, and I spent a really long time running away from it but sometimes…sometimes, I miss it. When we talk about her, I think about it a lot. I can’t remember much but I think I can remember her saying my name. I don’t know if it was for supper or if we were playing or just - I don’t know. But I swear I remember her voice calling my name. She had a nice voice, I think.”
“She did,” Hook agreed.
“Yeah,” Neal said, trailing off, looking awkward. “So you could - if you wanted. I mean my dad does anyway, so if he’s doing it then… In another life, you would have, you know…”
“Call you Baelfire?” Hook asked.
“I don’t know,” Neal said quickly, “I mean, it could probably get confusing so, it’s fine. Although who doesn’t have a second identity these days? But it’s hard enough to keep the regular folk straight, maybe we shouldn’t throw me into the mix.”
“Bae,” Hook interrupted, his heart beating almost painfully hard in his chest. “I’d be honoured.”
Baelfire looked surprised for a moment, but a pleased smile slowly overtook him. He wore that smile at least until Hook lost sight of him on the docks, and Hook’s own remained with him into the next morning - until the consequences of his good intentions took hold of him.
It began with a bout of insomnia the night he’d been gifted with the use of the name “Baelfire”. But that was easy to attribute to the excitement of life finally giving him something good for once.
When the sun rose and he hadn’t found a minute of sleep, he blamed fatigue for the tremors in his hand.
That evening, he looked down at his hands and was horrified to find one missing. He panicked, and nearly gouged his face with the hook, but Milah took it in her hands and stayed with him until he calmed down. Then Milah left and his hand hurt more excruciatingly than when it had been cut off, because it had been cut off, he was proud to be lucid enough to remember that.
He screamed, he begged for Milah to come back, to soothe the pain but she never came and he knew. He knew she was refusing to because he’d failed her. He’d gotten her killed and turned her only son away. He was no better than the Dark One and she knew it, that’s why she didn’t come. That was why he was glad the storm outside would finally take him. At least, he was, before he realized the violent shaking was coming from within him and not from waves crashing into the ship. He was helpless against the sensation and could do nothing but let it dig into his skin and cramp his muscles into unrecognizable shapes.
That was when Emma came to him. Blonde hair tickled his arm and soft hands cradled his face, and despite the pain, he could not help but be overcome with relief. His chest seized and his throat was tight, and he thought those feelings might be connected to the wetness on his face, but she didn’t seem to mind.
Later, it rained and he was soaking wet, but it didn’t matter because Bae had come and Killian wanted to tug the boy to his chest and never let him go. But Emma was still there and he wanted to do the same to her. He couldn’t choose, and the conflict was almost worst than the awful pressure in his head. So he turned his back to both of them and curled himself around the jagged pains in his stomach. When he turned around again, finally losing the battle against his nausea, Bae was gone and Tinkerbell had taken Emma’s place.
Just before he finally lost consciousness, he realized that Emma had never been there at all, and he welcomed the darkness.
He woke later to more darkness, so he wasn’t actually sure he’d really woken up. Milah didn’t know either but he didn’t worry about it. She held his hand, and while it felt like placing it directly into a pit fire, he couldn’t pull away from her. He wouldn’t have had the physical strength to anyway. His head was tilted at an uncomfortable angle but his neck couldn’t seem pull it to a more comfortable position. He tried twice before giving up. When his stomach heaved again, Tinkerbell had to pull him forcefully to the edge of the bed to be sick in a pail. The force of his stomach contracting tipped him over and his impact with the floor felt like nails were being pushed through the very marrow of his every bone. He opened his mouth, but whether a scream or more sickness came out, he didn’t know. He was unconscious before Tink could place his head on her thigh.
And then it was finally over.
In all, it took nearly three days for him to shake away the hallucinations. He was sad to see them go but he didn’t tell Tinkerbell that, she looked worried enough as it was. She told him that Dr. Whale had been by the second day but without access to the medications of his land or Storybrooke’s, he had nothing to ease the pain of alcohol withdrawal. The doctor had simply instructed her to keep him as hydrated as she could and to try to get him to eat when he could stand it. She was to call him if Hook devolved into seizures but while he’d trembled violently, he hadn’t slipped quite that far.
It was four days before he was really lucid enough to keep track of the passing time, and six days before he could eat something without throwing most of it back up.
After a full week, the weakness had seeped out of his muscles, but the insomnia gave way to a crushing fatigue that kept him sleeping for nearly half the day. When he did wake, he realized that the phantom pains in his stump, the ones he’d grown out of centuries ago, were back. In a way, it made him feel nostalgic. But more importantly, it felt right. The loss of his hand was forever connected to the loss of Milah and it had never felt right that one should stop hurting when the other never would.
Tinkerbell told him that she and Baelfire had shared the task of looking after him while he was sick and he was more grateful than he could express.
He’d had no other visitors.
“Do you ever think about getting a crew?” Tinkerbell asked a few days later on the deck. She had brought a lunch from Granny’s and he was finally able to enjoy it without the threat of nausea.
“To watch me do nothing?” Hook returned. “I imagine the townsfolk have enough to do with the rebuilding.”
“You should consider those shipping contracts, could make a lot of money,” Tinkerbell said, trying to appear nonchalant and failing so very much.
“I’ve never had a great yearning for coin for coin’s sake,” Hook said, and when she looked unimpressed, he added, “I confess, it’s always been my greatest failing in my life of piracy.”
It got a huff of laughter out of her.
Truthfully, it had never been about money. They stole - he stole - with relish and not a trace of guilt, but they did so because those they stole from were corrupt and undeserving. And sometimes they needed expensive things. But mostly it was the corruption.
“Besides, what need have I of coin when between you and Bae, I find myself very much a kept man?”
Tinkerbell rolled her eyes, though she grinned.
“The great and dreaded Captain Hook, the kept man of a disavowed fairy and former lost boy. Stuff of legends, that.”
“I never claimed to want to make the books of legend,” Hook pointed out. “I don’t recall being in that book of Henry’s. You either, for that matter. How unimportant we must be.”
“Indeed,” she agreed easily, taking a sip of her fruit juice.
They enjoyed the peace of the afternoon for a time after that. The sun was shining a touch too warmly but the breeze rolled softly and coolly across the length of the deck. He didn’t know exactly what Tinkerbell got to when she left every day but she seemed to appreciate these moments of peace as much as he enjoyed the distraction of her company.
“So,” she said after the last of the food had disappeared, “Bae, is it?”
Hook didn’t try to fight the grin that crept up. “It is.”
“Quite a few developments being made on this old girl,” she noted, tapping her foot on the timber underneath them.
“A few positive ones, for a change,” he agreed, running his hand over the worn wood at his side. “It’ll do her good.”
“And you,” she said.
“And me,” he smiled.
“And Emma?” she asked.
He breathed out a bitter, laughing sigh.
They had now been back in the Enchanted Forest for over a month and neither Emma nor the Charmings had come his way. Hook liked to pretend it was hurting less with each passing day, but pretending was harder now without his flask to corroborate his lies.
“Unfortunately, the Jolly Roger has not had the good fortune to welcome aboard any Emmas of late.”
Tinkerbell considered him for a moment, before shrugging dismissively. “Well, she’s a busy woman.”
“I’m sure she is,” he said, not quite managing to hide a note of bitterness in his voice. He quickly squashed the feeling and tried again. “Her mind was altered, she learned her life wasn’t her own, and she’s been reunited with the family she thought she’d lost, yet again. I can’t imagine how difficult this must have been for her.”
“She lost you for that year, too,” Tinkerbell pointed out. Hook huffed irritatedly and his thumb fell to his newly barren belt.
“Yes, she lost a pirate with whom she shared one kiss, and she lost her parents and the father of her child. Between the two-“
“Why bring him into this?” she interrupted.
“Because Baelfire is the father of Emma’s child, her first love, and I can’t let myself forget that. Especially not now.”
“You think if you pursue Emma, you’ll lose him,” Tinkerbell said.
“I’m not going to find out,” he said. “I promised him once, before the new curse, that I wouldn’t get in their way and I’ll hold to that until… Until he tells me different, I suppose.”
Tinkerbell nodded contemplatively.
“Poor Emma,” she declared mockingly, sending a spike of annoyance through him. “I mean, let’s ignore for a moment that she’s a grown woman who should have the right to make her own decisions, but with both of you backing off, I imagine the princess has got to be feeling quite lonesome up in her tower.”
That took him aback.
“He had better not be,” she said, her brows high and imperious, broadcasting how much of an idiot she found him to be, “not with the moon eyes he’s been making at me.”
Hook looked at her in askance. “You and Bae.”
“You could say that with less derision, thank you,” she said, her eyes narrowing. “We happened to have bonded over holding you down as you thrashed about with alcohol sickness. It was all very romantic.”
“Not derision,” he assured her distractedly. “Never derision.”
“So,” she prodded with a finger on his knee, “does this change things?”
It no longer felt as though he was betraying Baelfire to hope Emma would come strolling down his dock and into his cabin, but it didn’t change the fact that she hadn’t.
“No,” he said, “I suppose it doesn’t.”
He could feel her tense up beside him with discontentment.
“Then what is it you want, Hook? What are you doing here if you’ll do nothing for yourself?”
And Hook had nothing to say. Nothing he felt he could say. So he turned the question back on her.
“What do you want, Tinkerbell? Why are you here?”
“I got what I wanted,” she replied without hesitation. “I was found by people I once called friends and get to do so once more. My hope - my faith - is returning to me, and with every ounce of it I regain, the more I want those around me to find their happy endings. Look at Regina, sure, it took her a few decades but finally she was ready to look her happy ending head on and accept it, and she’s so happy with Robin.”
“She had one to accept,” Hook said with irritation. “Have you spied one for me in your crystal ball or however you divine these things? Because I beg you, my dear fairy, don’t let yourself delay. Impart upon me your visions of my destiny, if it’s so easy. Give me the directions to this happy ending and I’ll weigh anchor right now and set sail.”
“It is that easy,” she snapped back. “Made easier still by the fact that you’re docked in its damned port. Get your self-sacrificing arse off this ship and start walking. I’ll even throw you a free tip: it’s the building with the drawbridge. And that’s the last one you’re getting because I’m sick of watching you wallow when everything you want is within your reach.”
With that, she flounced off his ship without looking back, and the next day, Hook found himself back to sea rations.
Days passed then with nary a sign of Tinkerbell or Baelfire, and as always, no sign of Emma. Baelfire, at least, claimed not to be avoiding him. He had sent word via Ruby (who was mercifully beset of a basket from Granny’s) that business was keeping him away.
Still, days of being left to his own devices without alcohol was slowly driving him mad. He wasn’t wallowing, of that he was certain. He wasn’t wallowing. And he wasn’t self-sacrificing, either. He fought for what he wanted in life, and he would have been fighting for Emma’s affection this entire time if he hadn’t had to fight for Baelfire’s as well. He hadn’t been able to do both and in the absence of a choice, he’d chosen to do neither and hope for the best. At least until Bae sought him out.
In any case, Tinkerbell was right, he wasn’t the only one to make a decision in this. He had made his intentions clear, time and again. He hadn’t given up on her just because they were in different worlds. He hadn’t given up just because she didn’t remember him. He had fought to find her again despite curses and impossible cities. He had fought with everything he had.
But the kiss didn’t work.
What do you say when the powers of love look you dead in the eye and deny your claims?
And if Emma somehow still returned his affection, at least in some capacity, she’d done nothing about it. She had done nothing even without the encumbrance of potentially ruining someone else’s relationship. He had fought for her, but he had failed in the grandest of ways.
Hook did leave his ship, however. Even if only to spite Tinkerbell. He met with Ruby and Dr. Whale a few times, spent an evening gambling with the Dwarves. He had even amiably conversed with Archie, who apparently held no grudge about being held against his will on the Jolly Roger. It had been a pleasant evening until the man had tried ever so sympathetically to lead him into a conversation about his demons.
What’s more, Hook had even started to consider accepting some of the short-distance contracts he was still being offered. The thought of leaving and postponing his meetings with Bae was currently untenable, but their relationship was strengthening with each meeting, and he was warming to the possibility.
So Tinkerbell could choke on her judgements.
He was socializing.
He wasn’t drinking.
And if somedays he went into the village only to escape the perfect view of the castle from the docks, nobody had to know it but him.
Later that week, Hook was taking a personal day. He had planned on another aimless visit to Granny’s, but during the night, he’d drifted from a dream of heat and passion in a balmy forest to a nightmare of fire, blood, and pain. He’d woken up to sound of his screams reverberating through the spacious room and his plans had quickly been amended to lying in bed until he had reason to leave it. With his current rhythm of life, that could keep him abed for a good few days until Bae’s next scheduled visit.
Unfortunately, as with the rest of his plans of late, Fate saw fit to intervene and sent him a visitor. Usually, he met Bae and Tinkerbell up on the deck but it wasn’t in him today and frankly, they had seen him in worse conditions. He followed the sounds Tinkerbell’s footsteps as she cautiously explored upstairs before making her way down the creaky stairs and hesitating outside his closed door.
Mustering up a smirk she couldn’t see, he said, “Come to return me to my status as a kept man, have you?”
“I am honestly afraid to ask,” replied the baritone voice that most certainly did not belong to his friend. “Are you decent in there?”
Hook looked down out of reflex. The linen shirt he wore to bed was wrinkled but clean, and his breeches were laced - loosely, but laced.
“Good enough for the likes of you,” he answered, prompting his uninvited guest to come into the cabin.
“People usually strive for something a little better than “good enough” for their king,” Charming commented, his brows raised.
“Pirates usually don’t have kings,” Hook returned, reclining against the wall adjacent to his cot in a show of disaffection.
“You’re in my port.”
“You’re on my ship.”
Both assessed the other, both trying not to be the first to let their lips tick up mutinously. In truth, seeing Charming - being sought out by him, even - brought him an unexpected wave of relief, and a feeling not unlike comfort.
Then Charming remarked, “You look like hell,” and that feeling was superseded by a familiar indignation.
“Taken to the drink, have you, mate?” he drawled.
“No, and I hear through the grapevine that you haven’t either,” Charming said, with a begrudging look of respect. Hook rolled his eyes.
“No news too insignificant for the Crown, is there? I shudder to think how fast it will travel when Tinkerbell regains her wings.”
“We like to keep an eye on our subjects,” Charming replied loftily.
Hook did him the courtesy of not calling him a liar to his face.
“Indeed. And just what are we doing here, your majesty?”
“Thinking of leaving before whoever you were expecting shows up,” Charming replied drily.
Hook rolled his eyes. “It’s nothing untoward, I assure you.”
“It better not be,” he said, crossing his arms, which felt a bit much to Hook.
“I had a bit of a row with Tinkerbell,” Hook admitted. ”I had expected her to return by now so that I could commence grovelling but it seems she’s determined to make me wait.”
Disturbingly, the explanation seemed to brighten Charming’s countenance somewhat but when he didn’t seem ready to offer more, Hook swallowed a weary sigh and heaved himself off his cot to search for proper clothing.
“You seem to be acclimating well to your new life,” Hook remarked as he searched. “Or your new, old life, I should say.”
“It’s like riding a bike,” Charming said with a shrug, before adding, “over mountainous terrain in a snow storm. But yeah, it’s coming together.”
“Family getting settled in?” he asked.
“Snow’s doing great, yeah. I mean, she grew up in this kind of environment aside for a few odd years of forest living so she’s the one really guiding the rest of us and so far it’s going alright. And Henry, man, sometimes it’s hard to imagine he was ever born in a different world. He’s riding horses and training with Lancelot a little every day. He’s been pressing us to get our military infrastructure up and running because he wants to start training to be a squire. I mean, it’s a good idea because so far we’ve really only got the one knight and we probably want to address that at some point-“
“Charming,” Hook cut in, unable to take his prattling any longer.
Looking smug and exasperated at the same time, he said, “Just ask, Hook.”
Charming smirked with satisfaction. “She’s good. Not adapting quite so quickly but she’s been a consummate skeptic for 28 years. It’ll take a while.”
Hook nodded thoughtfully. “The last time she was here, she seemed to take everything in stride, but I imagine the pressing concern of getting back to you all was motivation enough to set her doubts aside.”
Charming gave him a considering look and said, “Yeah, it’s different now being stuck here with no real reason to escape other than the promise of some kind of normalcy.”
“Normalcy is a relative notion,” Hook dismissed as he pulled on his vest and fixed the buttons adeptly with one hand.
“Says the three-hundred-and-some year old, right?”
“Aye, but I look good for my age, don’t I?” Hook replied with a quick wink that had Charming snorting. “Besides, I’m not the one with a child my own age.”
“Debatable,” Charming said with something like fondness, causing Hook to quickly look up at him, but the man was pulling something out of his doublet’s inner pocket.
“As much as I enjoy busting your chops, I did have a reason for coming,” he said, holding out the folded piece of paper.
Hook took the paper reluctantly, as though it was in danger of spontaneously catching fire.
“A summons for my arrest?” he asked in jest, but no, when he looked down, he saw that he was holding a Royal invitation with his name on it. “Another ball? What’s the occasion?”
“Not a ball,” Charming shrugged a bit too casually, “just a small get-together.”
“A small get-together that requires a Royal invitation, hand-delivered by the King himself,” Hook said skeptically. “I think I’m busy that day.”
“It’s this afternoon and what does it matter what it’s for? People want you around, that’s not good enough of a reason?”
Tinkerbell may be avoiding him but she was certainly here in spirit. And he may be a spiteful man by nature, but not spiteful enough to refuse.
“I suppose it is.”
Charming offered him another of those genuine smiles that made him deeply uncomfortable, so Hook glared at him suspiciously.
“Great,” Charming said, “then we’ll see you this afternoon. Don’t be late.”
And before Hook could weasel any more details out of him, the man was bounding back up the stairs.
Emma paced the width of the hallway outside of the Great Hall - not to be confused with the Lesser Hall, which, though much smaller in size, could still probably house a low-rise apartment complex or two. That was the kind of thing she knew now.
The first time she’d stepped foot inside this castle - which felt like years ago now - it had been nothing short of a dump. It had been a damaged structure, with free-running animals and plants burrowing their way in where they could; it had been both inhabited and lifeless at once. She had followed Mary Margaret through the dark and dank paths, sticking close and trying not to touch anything. They’d had a mission and that was all that mattered.
Now the castle was restored, with every room made anew, and the nursery - her nursery - being one of the first rooms addressed. Her parents, now expecting their second child, had fought to leave the room untouched; to clean it, restore it, but keep it Emma’s and Emma’s alone. And for a moment of unexpectedly fierce jealousy, Emma wanted it. But when days passed in safety, in comfort, and with the people she loved, she found she couldn’t bear the thought of sacrificing a piece of this happy place to nothing more than memories of what had been lost. Her brother or sister shouldn’t be raised burdened with the weight of the childhood she never had. And with only weeks left until their due date, Emma, Mary Margaret, David, and Henry had personally cleared the room, saved everything salvageable for Emma’s safekeeping, and refurnished it from top to bottom.
The end result made Mary Margaret’s eyes water and David beam and Emma had felt more pride than she had in years. The room and the entirety of the renovated castle were magnificent in ways she couldn’t imagine. And it was home now.
Emma was learning things like the difference between inner and outer curtains (because nobody can just call them surrounding walls?), she knew to be careful walking up and down the winding stone staircases because safety rails apparently weren’t a concern those fairytale-inclined, and she knew that she would have spent her entire life tirelessly working to find a way back to the real world if Regina hadn’t been able to incorporate indoor plumbing into the old stone edifice. She also knew it took approximately twenty minutes to get from the outer gate all the way to the Great Hall, which was why, forty minutes after Hook had been spotted by the guards on the bridge, she couldn’t help but pace restlessly. Hook knew the way, and if he’d somehow forgotten, there were guards (honest to god guards) stationed every so often throughout the building - he couldn’t stay lost for long.
What the hell was taking him so long? He wasn’t late yet, she’d just made sure to be early by a good enough margin to see him before he could enter the Great Hall.
The need to be within a certain number of feet of Hook had been a constant companion since she’d gotten back - it had waned and waxed depending on how well she acclimated to the new aspects of her new life, but it never left her completely. As bizarre as it sounded, he, along with Henry, was the only real tenterhook to her previous life - her fake previous life, but also her real previous life before that. Even just thinking about organizing what she’d been through was enough to give her a headache. But Hook had been there for her last moments as Emma Swan, Sheriff of Storybrooke, and he’d been there for her last moments as Emma Swan, Mother of Henry and Near-Fiancée to someone who never really knew her. It may have been a minimal amount of time on the whole but it didn’t change the fact that he acted as a rock weighing down her constantly shuffling memories - pinning them in place and letting her just deal for a moment.
Though it would help if he would show up, ever.
After the chaos had calmed down a month ago, she’d thought he was making his quick getaway from the Enchanted Forest without so much as a word, and after fully absorbing the pang that caused in her chest, she’d squared her jaw and decided she was fine with it. Totally fine with it. She’d spend time with her twice-lost parents, she’d help Henry adapt to two sets of memories and living…abroad. She had plenty to do, plenty of people who want- who needed her.
But when days passed and the Jolly Roger remained a constant fixture down in the docks, she didn’t know what to think. And she continued in this state of fluctuating confusion for weeks. She visited and worked in the village, with her parents and without, and always just seeming to miss him. She tried to convinced herself that he wasn’t purposefully avoiding her, and when that failed, she tried to convince herself that she didn’t care. That worked, until Tinkerbell caught her and gave her pointed looks from across the room at Granny’s new diner, and Emma had had to look away for reasons she couldn’t name yet.
But he couldn’t not show up now. David said he’d spoken to Hook personally, and that Hook had accepted the invitation, supposedly without coercion. It wouldn’t make sense for him not to show up now.
Emma was making her eleventh circuit around the hallway when she finally heard the slow shuffle of leather boots across the stone floor. Immediately, the nervous, anticipatory butterflies in her stomach turned into an intense irritation that swiftly rose up into her chest and high into her heating cheeks.
“Took you long enough,” she said as soon as he rounded the corner. He startled almost comically hard, obviously not having expected the interception before getting to the Great Hall, and she felt a thread of satisfaction in having the upper hand. He said nothing for a moment, his eyeliner-rimmed eyes wide and taking her in silently, though clearly not innocently given their wandering down her person. Well if he was busy checking her out, she was in no danger of being caught doing the same.
“You realize it’s at least 90 degrees out, right?” she asked, gesturing to his leather overcoat.
That seemed to draw him out of his initial stupor, and his wide eyes turned heavy and intent.
“I assume you’re not talking about angles?” he returned in a nonchalant drawl, and sweet mother it had been so long since she’d heard that voice, and that ridiculously enticing accent. Maybe it was just the time apart but she could have sworn it didn’t used to cause shivers to travel down the length of her spine before. What she wouldn’t give for a phonebook for him to read aloud right now.
“No,” she said. “Not angles - weather. It’s hot out, aren’t you-“ hot? Don’t you want to shed a layer or three? This was ridiculous. She bit back a sigh of self-disgust and shook her head. “Never mind, you’re fine.”
“Pity,” he said, taking a deliberately slow step towards her. “I try to aim a little higher than ‘fine’ typically.”
She couldn’t help but scoff, and it actually helped settle her back into comfortable terrain. Whoever thought she’d be grateful for Hook’s ego? “Ah, well I wasn’t going to say anything - it’s always a shame to see people letting themselves go.”
His eyes narrowed for a second but she knew they’d go from offended to challenging in about a second flat, and she wasn’t disappointed.
“Is that so?” he asked lowly, taking two more slow steps forward until he was right in her personal space. She didn’t budge, and made sure her face was under control, but that became difficult when he reached up to twirl a lock of her hair around his finger. Emma curled her fingers into fists to keep from reaching for the coat she’d ragged on to pull him closer, and she was glad she’d done it when he murmured, “You’re not the only one who can spot a liar, you know,” just inches from her ear.
“Who’s lying?” she asked with a teasing smirk. “I don’t know if you’ve heard but I’m a full-fledged princess now, castle not sold separately, I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to have higher standards than the common folk.”
His finger stopped twirling her hair, and his body, which had been leaning incrementally closer seemed to lock up. She barely had a chance to process the change before he’d pulled away completely.
“Hey,” she protested, confused, but she didn’t know what she was supposed to say. Come back? Get your hand back in my hair? Finish what you started just now? Months ago? A year ago? The best she could settle on was, “I was just kidding.”
But his eyes were no longer amused, they were downcast, and his shoulders drooped like someone with years of troubles on his back.
“Hook, I was just kidding,” she repeated, defensively this time.
“No, you’re right,” he said softly, with an almost smile on his lips. “Things have changed.”
“Nothing has changed,” she protested, attempting a half-step towards him.
“Clearly, they have,” he said.
“What does that mean?”
“It means I’m a pirate, and I don’t belong here,” he said, with an unnerving amount of definitiveness. And when he actually turned to leave, Emma quickly rounded him and stood in his way.
“And I do? Please, I’m not actually a princess, Hook. I mean, I am, technically but…I’m - I was a sheriff, and before that I was a bail bonds person, and before that I was a thief and in jail. Not exactly royalty material. The truth of it is that all of this is messed up, and none of us should be here but we are and it’s…it’s good.”
“And what does that have to do with me? I don’t know if you recall, love, but I wasn’t part of the Evil Queen’s Curse. I’m not misplaced. I come from lands like these, and spent centuries traveling across more of them. I have no forgotten identity to return to. Being a pirate is what I am and always have been in these lands.”
“That’s not how I hear it,” she said, crossing her arms.
Hook sighed. “That was a long time ago. More lifetimes ago than I can count at this point.”
“So? It’d be like riding a bike. You sail a ship, you go from point A to point B and back, you wear a uniform. You can’t be that attached to the leather.”
There was a beat within which Hook tried to follow her mental jump before he gave up. “What are you talking about?”
Emma took just a couple of steps out of reach and waited to confirm that he wouldn’t bail as soon as she was out of his way. When all he did was pin her with an expectant look, she walked over to the doors of the Great Hall. There were a couple of chairs on either side for people waiting to be officially called, and it was over one of them that she’d draped the garment bag. She unfastened it quickly and pulled on the fabric inside just enough for Hook to see what it was.
“A naval uniform?”
“Yeah,” she said, trying to discreetly wipe one of her sweaty palms on her skirt while he was otherwise distracted. “We…had this idea that maybe you might be in the market for a job. Given that Neverland has been dealt with, your vendetta against Gold is pretty much shelved, and the economy really isn’t healthy enough to support regular looting as a primary source of income.”
“You want me to be in your navy,” he said, disbelievingly. He then gestured to the doors of the Great Hall. “That’s what this is about? That’s why I’m here?”
“Well, David and Mary Margaret’s navy, and not so much in it as running it since yours is literally the only boat in the docks, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. But, yeah. Yeah, that was the idea.”
“It’s a ridiculous idea,” he scoffed.
“More ridiculous than spending your days holed up below decks doing nothing?”
“Like you said, economy’s a bit sluggish, I’m just biding my time.”
“Yeah, right,” she shot back. “Maybe a few hundred years ago, but I have a hard time believing you’d be fine with stealing from this kingdom now.”
“I’m a pirate, love.” He leered unconvincingly. “It’s what I do.”
“Bullshit. You may have been one for years but you’re not just a pirate anymore, Hook. If any of us are heroes, then you are too. You got us to Neverland, you fought with us, and you helped me get my son back. Not two months ago, you literally saved the princess from her fake life and helped her save the good people. I don’t know where you’re failing to see the heroism here.”
“Except that I didn’t save the princess, now, did I? I didn’t. I couldn’t save you.”
“What are you talking about?” Emma asked exasperatedly. “Yes, you did. You were the one who came to New York, by yourself, and you found me. You gave me my memories ba-“
“No, I didn’t,” he interjected forcefully. “Regina’s potion did!”
“What the hell is the difference? You were the one who got it to me!”
“The difference is that I couldn’t-,” he cut himself off and ran his hand through his hair so roughly that she was afraid he might have hurt himself. “It wasn’t enough.”
The utter defeat in his voice made her heart hurt.
“We’re alive,” she reminded him, “none of us got hurt, we all know who we are, and we’re all together… What more were you looking for?”
Awfully, as soon as they left her lips, she felt as if those words were the death knell to whatever he’d been trying to tell her, but she wasn’t about to let it take. Emma gripped him gently by the shoulder and turned him to face her. When he didn’t resist, she decided to be brave and let her hand slide down to hold his wrist instead of falling back to her side. She followed his eyes as they dropped to where she was holding him, and felt the first stirrings of hope when he lifted his arm enough for her hand to slide into his.
“Okay,” she began again, “clearly I’m missing something here, and since lie detector is the only super power in my inventory, I’m gonna need you to tell me. Use small words if you have to,” she tried to say with a grin.
For what felt like a very long moment, both of them were quiet. His thumb was sliding so very minimally back and forth over her fingers, almost as if he was hoping it would go undetected. So she squeezed his hand gently, and finally he began to talk.
“The kiss didn’t work,” he said. “I had thought you felt as I did, but I was wrong.”
Those were almost the exactly words he’d spoken after he’d kissed her at her apartment.
“What? Because I kneed you in the...groin?” she asked incredulously. “Hook, I didn’t know who you were! For all I knew, you were some perv off the street.”
“Exactly,” he said agitatedly. “True Love’s Kiss is supposed-“
“Ugh. This again?” Emma rolled her eyes, regretting the motion when Hook dropped her hand.
“True Love’s Kiss is supposed to break through all enchantments,” he pressed.
“I know what it does,” she said. “It’s kind of a tradition in my family apparently.”
“Aye,” he said, nodding once, solemnly. “And it didn’t work for us.”
“So what?” she exclaimed with frustration.
“You heard me!” Emma continued. “So what? The kiss doesn’t work and that’s it? You’re done? Nothing else matters if some arcane magic says so? What we’ve been through - what we feel means nothing?” She knew her eyes were wide as they always were when she was pissed off and insecure, and her voice wavered at the end but sue her, she wasn’t good at these things.
“What we feel is clearly not the same thing or the kiss would have worked,” Hook insisted.
“So. What,” she bit out. “Jesus, it’s gotta be all or nothing with you? It’s either I’m head over heels in love instantly or it’s not good enough? Well, I’m sorry, but for all that they tell me I am, I am not actually a fairytale character. I don’t believe in love at first sight. I don’t believe in soul mates. I barely believe in magic and I’ve done some of that. I’m not-I’m not from a land with magic and happy endings, and I should have been raised to believe in all that but I wasn’t. It’s tough but that’s just life. It sucks and all we can do is find things that make it better and I thought-,” she took a breath, but was unable to finish the sentence when she was struck with the mortifying awareness that there was wetness clinging to her eyelashes. Hook said nothing and she couldn’t look at him. “Is this why you’ve been hiding on your ship for a month? Because the stupid kiss didn’t work? That’s all it takes for you to just give up?”
“And what of you?” he returned, holding his arms out to either side. “Hm? You clearly gave no thought to the kiss or its meaning, so what was it that kept you locked away in your castle all this time?”
“I wasn’t locked away!” she protested. “I went out all the time, all over the place.”
“Not to the docks,” he said accusingly. “And conveniently only in the village when I wasn’t there.”
“I could say the same to you!” she shot back. “You really think I’d spend my time actively avoiding you? It’s not like we’ve got Facebook updates telling us where everyone is all the time.”
Hook’s face screwed up with confusion again but hell if she was explaining it to him.
“I think,” he said, exchanging anger for resignation, “that for all your talk of feelings, you haven’t stepped foot on my ships since we got here. I think that I’ve made my own feelings clear time and again and you have to accord me the same. I think I promised you I would think of you every day we were forced to be apart and that I never broke that vow, not even since we’ve returned to this land, but I’ve no indication I’ve been more than a passing thought to you at all. I think…honestly, I don’t know what I think anymore.”
It was a fair summation, which is what made it hurt so much.
“I never claimed to be good at this,” she admitted so softly it may as well have been a whisper. “I’m not used to…to getting what I want. Hell, I got use to not wanting at all a long time ago.”
Hook looked conflicted then and she could practically see the turning point in their road. He could nod, sympathize, and then wash his hands of her. Finally get a clean break from this entire mess. Or he could take a yet another chance on her, but how many times could someone pin their hopes on someone else after continued disappointments? It killed her to think it, but in his place, she would have walked away a long time ago.
Emma fixed her eyes off to the side of the room and braced herself when she heard the soft whooshing of leather as Hook finally moved. The seconds felt like hours, especially when she could see him in her peripheral vision because she wanted to believe he was coming to her but he could just as well be heading back towards the gates.
It was only when cautious fingers skim the back of her hand that she felt she could breathe again.
“What do you want, Emma?” Hook asked earnestly.
And this was it, her nth chance at this with him. And her heart may yet beat straight out of her chest and kill her but she owed it to him, to both of them, to be stronger than she thought she could be.
“I want you to stay,” she said. And once those words were out, the rest came in a rush. “I want you to put that uniform on and let my parents do their ceremony. I want you to accept the position and promise you won’t leave. I want you to stay in this corner of the world, wherever the hell we actually are, and be here tomorrow and the day after, not just down in the docks but up here, and in the village at the same time as I am. And I just - I just want to see you because, compared to a few years ago, my life is pretty great at the moment, but having you around just makes it…better. A lot better. And if I’m allowed to want for myself again, then I want better. I want you.”
Hook nodded absently as he absorbed what she’d said, and he wore such an awed look on his face that he looked younger than any man with a five o’clock shadow and eyeliner should ever be able to. It took him a moment to reply, but in the meantime, he twisted his hand and laced their fingers together properly.
“I don’t need a uniform or naval appointment to keep me here, Emma.” She couldn’t help but be satisfied to hear his voice sounding as rough as hers had. “I’ll do it if it pleases you, but I only ever needed you.”
Emma swallowed thickly, and shrugged. “Always did have a thing for a man in a uniform.”
And the gentle chuckle he gave then sealed it for her - she felt like an exposed nerve, completely raw and overstimulated. She’d been missing him for over a month, and he was here, close enough to be holding her, and close enough for her to smell the heady mix of leather, sea salt, and skin. And she wasn’t quite sure how the transition happened, but from one second to the next, she was kissing him like it was the only thing she’d been born to do. His arm had wound itself around her back and pinning her against the length of his body, and while their hands had come undone, they weren’t resting idly. She could feel his trailing through her hair and occasionally cupping her head to hold her in place, but that was fine because her own hand was liberally exploring every surface it could. At the moment, it was gripping the open collar of his vest and shirt, the backs of her fingers sliding through the soft hair on his chest, and she heard herself whine into the kiss when she realized she couldn’t just rend the fabric and explore the rest of him here and there. After that, there was a five second delay before she caught up to what she was experiencing, and she broke the kiss very suddenly.
Or tried to anyway. She leaned back but Hook followed her, and turned them around to pin her against the wall. After that, it took a few more minutes before she was back to focusing.
“Wait, wait, wait,” she said as quickly as she could the second they next let up for air. Hook seemed willing to cooperate but only by halves - he released her mouth but bent his head to trail a path of open kisses along her jaw and down her neck.
“So not fair,” she breathed, automatically bringing her arm up around his shoulder to give him better leverage. In an attempt to regain control, she brought her other arm up to smack him repeatedly on the arm. “Hey, we gotta - we,” he bit down gently on the line of muscle above her collarbone, “oh jesus, that’s - no, no, Hook, my parents, the…the thing.”
Hook finally lifted his head to try to process her words. His lips were subtly shiny but a vivid red, and quirked up in the most gentle and satisfied smile she’d ever seen. She was already reaching to bring his mouth back to hers when she caught herself and instead pushed lightly on his shoulders to back him up. When he did, she found herself sliding an inch or so down the wall - apparently they’d been pressed so close that he’d actually been supporting her weight. It was a good indication that the next time they let themselves go, it should really be behind the closed doors of an actual bedroom because she honestly had no idea how that had happened. Nor did she know how his top two leather vest buckles had come undone…
Beyond having gotten them to stop, Hook wasn’t entirely sure what Emma was doing. His eye kept straying to the small mark he’d left on her neck. He was actually debating on going back in to make it bigger when he heard the words “parents”.
“Hm?” he asked distractedly, shamelessly pulling his bottom lip in by his teeth and swiping his tongue across it to see if he could taste her. The movement distracted her for a full three seconds before she shook her head clear and gestured behind him.
“All our friends and family are in there, kind of waiting on us.”
The Great Hall. The uniform. The appointment.
“So?” she asked softly, barely disturbing the private, quiet space they’d created between them. “How does Admiral Jones strike you?”
“Like insanity,” he replied honestly, “but you people are all insane to begin with so it’s fairly in line with my previous expectations, really.”
Emma rolled her eyes and pushed at his chest.
“Better get dressed then,” she said, smirking.
“Aren’t you going to finish the job?” he asked, lifting his arms to accentuate his half-dressed state and quirking his eyebrow just to see her stutter.
“I think we both know that’s not the job you want me to finish,” she said drily, lifting a single brow of her own. “And I believe I mentioned something about a man in a uniform, so get to it, Jones.”
“As you wish, your highness,” he replied, with a bow he meant to be teasing but ended up being embarrassingly genuine.
“Right. I’ll just go…inside. They’ll be wondering what I-“
She seemed to catch on just as he did that if they had been wondering, they wouldn’t be have to for very much longer. Not with her cheeks so red, both of their lips lightly bruised, and their hair not quite as perfectly coiffed as it had been. Emma groaned but Hook couldn’t help but laugh, feeling lighter than he had in weeks. What a problem to have, to look too debauched to be considered presentable in court.
“Whatever,” she continued, mostly speaking to herself, “it’s not like they don’t already know.”
The thought of her loved ones having any idea of what they shared was what finally got him moving.
“Go on, love, I won’t be long.”
With a decisive nod, he approached the uniform and quickly slipped off his overcoat and began undoing the last of his vest’s ties before shrugging that off as well. But before he could pull the blue coat out of the garment bag, he was being diverted back to familiar lips for a hard, almost desperate kiss that ended just as abruptly as it had started.
“Sorry,” Emma said, looking almost stunned herself. “I probably shouldn’t have looked,” she elaborated, gesturing to his now white-clad chest, and he couldn’t help the laughter that bubbled out, nor could he help how it doubled when she looked annoyed. To be helpful, he swiped his thumb over the her top lip to remove some of the rouge that had spread out but her own fingers came up to take over with quick and efficient movement, even taking a few swipes at his own mouth.
“What I wouldn’t give for some long-lasting Maybelline in this place,” she muttered.
Finally, and incomprehensibly, she stepped up to give him one last quick peck on the lips, and looked completely unrepentant when she then stepped away and slipped into the Great Hall without another word.
Alone, then, in the empty entranceway of the castle, with one hand on a naval uniform, preparing to take on a position he in no way deserved, to be with a woman who deserved so much more, Hook briefly considered running for the door, weighing anchor, and just disappearing. He really did.
But there was rouge on his thumb, and no flask on his belt, Tinkerbell was risking her incoming wings on him, and Baelfire had asked Hook to call him by his name.
So, he pulled on the blue jacket.
And when the doors opened and he was announced, there was a cold sweat on his palm but he resisted the urge to wipe it on his black, non-leather pants.
Charming, in an appointment ceremony that seemed to cross with a knighting, didn’t knick him with his sword, but beyond that, Hook didn’t think he could relay much of the actual ceremony. What he would remember would come in snippets - kneeling before his King and Queen, Emma looking somewhat uncomfortable with her place on the raised dais but somehow conveying to him a smugness that she was still more comfortable than him, Baelfire standing at the very front and looking proud - Baelfire being there at all, Tinkerbell clearly having forgiven him if the twinkle of tears in her eyes were anything to go by.
He would also remember Charming losing the underlying look of challenge usually ever-present in his eye for the duration of the ceremony and exuding solemnity instead. (Hook was more than relieved, however, to see it come back after the sword had been put away.)
But the moment he would never, ever be able to forget was when King David settled the sword on his shoulder and Queen Snow said, “Arise, Killian, as Admiral of the Enchanted Forest’s Naval Forces.”
It wasn’t that he had forgotten his name - though he had almost forgotten that others knew it - it’s just that he’d been Hook for so long, even to those closest to him, that it was utterly bizarre to hear himself be addressed by that name in public.
But afterwards, when he’d stood under the heartfelt applause of the people he was allowed to consider his kin, he understood why Baelfire had been feeling nostalgic about his given name. Because finally, after years of hiding and running, he finally felt something like whole again.
And finally, the name that he associated with a better man no longer felt like a lie.