The fortress was dark and forbidding, jutting up from an island of jagged rocks like a nightmare made of stone and iron. Surrounded by the stormy Bottomless Sea and guarded by trolls, its portcullis and heavy oak doors secured with heavy locks and bolts, it was all but impenetrable.
At least, that was the theory.
The portcullis was down, locked in place, but one of the doors was open. Behind it, a troll guard lay slumped in a corner, a dark streak across his neck serving as evidence that he would not be getting back up. Two more lay a little further down the hallway, one with burn marks all over his torso, the other with an even more gruesome slash across his throat than the first.
Further along and up a broad, expansive staircase, a muffled thud signalled the demise of another guard.
And along the high-ceilinged hallway, lit only by the low light from the torches lining the dark walls, strode a man.
He walked with purpose, a slight swagger to his steps – an old habit, that, and one he hadn’t tried very hard to shake. His dark hair was mussed, falling into a face that was, under normal circumstances, handsome enough to prompt a second look from most; right now, however, the cold, hard anger radiating from the man would have dissuaded any such notions. The torch light landed on his cheekbones and his brow, casting dark shadows beneath. From those shadows, blue eyes seemed to burn, eerily bright in the darkness.
He wore black – black vest and shirt, black trousers, black boots, and a heavy black coat. In the midst of all the darkness gleamed a curved sword, and a silver hook. Both were glistening with dark, wet blood.
His name was Killian Jones, and he was terrified.
On the outside, he was carved from stone: jaw set, shoulders squared, every movement controlled. To all appearances, Captain Hook was striding down this corridor with anger in his eyes and murder in his heart.
But inside, there was a nightmare. Inside was a helpless cry and his wife’s terrified face and an empty nursery.
And him, not strong enough, not smart enough, not fast enough.
But Killian had lived through a lot of nightmares, and he knew who to blame for this one. More importantly, he knew how to fix this one.
He didn’t bother hiding his approach as he neared the great hall. It was easy to find; another flight of stairs, and he was almost right in front of it. The two guards standing at either side of the door started, clearly not expecting a visitor to show up quite so suddenly.
Killian threw his sword at them.
It glanced off the left fellow’s chest and fell rather ingloriously to the floor, where it bounced. But Killian was already moving, lunging towards the troll and tearing into his throat with the hook. With his free hand, he drew his pistol, and fired.
Both trolls dropped like stones.
Killian stowed his pistol, retrieved his sword, and pushed the double doors open.
The great hall was just as dark as the rest of the fortress, though with the added benefit of windows, through which a few hazy beams of moonlight streamed to form silvered shapes on the floor. Killian swept his eyes across the room, noting furniture placement and the guards standing at intervals along the walls.
At the far end, on a raised dais, stood a woman.
She was dressed in an elaborate, low-cut gown that tried to strike a balance between fear-inspiring and seductive. On Killian, former ally of the Evil Queen and current husband of Emma Swan Jones, both effects were not just wasted, but lost entirely.
“Hook,” she identified him, the sneer on her face a stark contrast to her rich voice. “I didn’t think you’d be stupid enough to try this.”
“Gothel.” Killian casually slid his hook along his sword, the usual rasping sound dulled by the blood still dripping from the metal. He strode forward, undeterred by the guards watching him from both sides. “I wish I could say the same about you, but I’ll admit that my estimation of your intelligence wasn’t quite high enough to rule it out.”
“Very clever.” Gothel sounded a little annoyed, which gave Killian some satisfaction. “Well, then, Captain. What can I do for you?”
Killian came to a stop. “You can start by returning my daughter to me.”
“I’m afraid that’s out of the question.”
“Ah.” Killian bit down on the anger urging him to plunge his hook into her heart. Later. “It appears we have a stalemate, then.”
“Not really.” Gothel examined her nails. “You don’t seriously think I’m unprepared, do you? I saw you coming from miles away. I’ll grant that you managed to break in faster than I thought, but no matter. You’ll never get to the child. She’s well-guarded. I spent days putting all the magical barriers in place. No one but me is getting anywhere near her.”
Killian’s eyes widened, his jaw going slack as he stared in shock. “You mean this was a trap?”
Gothel smiled in triumph. “Oh, my naïve little pirate. Of course it was a trap.”
“Bloody hell. Whatever shall I do now?” Killian let the shock linger for a moment longer, enough let her know that he was mocking her, then shrugged. “Last chance to surrender.”
Gothel looked utterly unamused. “I thought we’d just established that you walked into a trap.”
Killian gave her his most charming smile. “Of course I did. That was the idea.”
For the first time, Gothel’s confident expression seemed to slip a little. “What?”
“Oh, my naïve little witch,” Killian said. He smiled again, the knife’s-edge smile that had sent terror into the hearts of countless men. “I’m afraid I’m just the distraction.”
Gothel frowned and looked around, but when no one else stepped through the door or swung dramatically through a window, she huffed in annoyance and pointed at Killian. “Enough. Guards! Kill him.”
The trolls started towards Killian. He backed up as much as he could and yelled, “That was the cue for your dramatic entrance, love!”
He was trading blows with the first troll to reach him by the time there was a commotion behind him. A troll flew by overhead, landing with a crash in the wall across the room. Another followed, slightly less gracefully, stumbling into a pillar displaying a fancy vase and sending everything crashing to the floor.
Killian dispatched his opponent and spun around.
Emma had arrived, fury on her face and fire in her hands. She sent another troll flying, and Killian caught him across the face with his hook. He followed up with his sword, stabbing into the creature’s chest before shoving it away.
He ducked past another as it lumbered towards him, slashing at its leg with the hook. The troll stumbled – right into the swing of Emma’s sword, which took its head off.
Emma’s eyes met his across the dead troll’s body, and she gave him a grim smile. He grinned back.
But then her eyes flicked past him, and widened. “Get down!”
Killian obeyed without thinking, but the warning came too late. Gothel, dissatisfied with how the fight was going, had decided to take matters into her own hands. Something invisible slammed into Killian and lifted him off the ground. The feeling of being thrown around by magic was almost familiar by now, so he didn’t panic, but it still hurt like the devil when he slammed into the wall.
His head spun. Darkness hovered at the edge of his vision. Voices echoed, reality mixing with memory. A dark figure disappeared through a doorway, the doorway, the threshold to all of his hope and his love and his light. A hallway stretched before him, the distance filled with terror and rage and a silent promise.
I’ll kill you I’ll kill you I’ll kill you I’ll kill—
The anger speared through the fuzziness in his head, and he blinked his eyes a few times, trying to focus. He was pinned to the wall, held in place by dark thorny vines that writhed around his torso and arms. Below, Gothel was advancing on Emma, and Killian shook his head, trying to will his wife to ignore him and focus on what mattered.
She hit Gothel with a blast of magic that sent the witch staggering back. Gothel shrieked, and a vine crept up Killian’s neck and snaked around his throat.
Emma glanced back at him, but he kept shaking his head as long as he still could, gasping for breath. Doesn’t matter. Get her.
Emma redoubled her attack on Gothel, and the air grew hot as magic tangled and clashed. Like water flowing up behind a dam, it began to spread out, energy swirling and snapping in random directions. The tiles on the floor began to crack. The ceiling shook. The vine constricted around Killian’s throat, and he stopped struggling, keeping his eyes on Emma.
I love you.
Spots began to dance in front of his eyes, and he lost track of the proceedings below, but he was intimately familiar with this feeling, too. He still had a minute, at least. Plenty of time. The key was not to panic.
When it happened, it happened suddenly. One moment the vines were there, the next he was falling, landing in a heap on the ground. He took a moment to breathe, filling his lungs as much as he could, and scrambled back to his feet.
“Stop!” Gothel shrieked. “I won’t let you take her! I won’t!”
Masonry was crumbling around them as pure magic whirled around the room.
“Give—it—up!” Emma yelled back. Her face was scrunched up in determined concentration, her stance sure. Killian was still no expert on magic, but she was winning. Bit by little bit, she was wearing Gothel down.
But Gothel was not the type to be beaten. Gothel was the type to burn down the building, rather than let anyone else have it.
“Stop!” she screamed. “Stop or I’ll kill her!”
Something deep within him snapped, and Killian saw red.
He pulled his pistol out and squeezed the trigger. The shot went wide, the bullet thrown out of its path by the magic swirling around Gothel, but it got her attention. Killian lunged towards her, knowing she’d get him before he could reach her, but unable to care. He’d be the distraction. And Emma would take her out.
He could see Gothel prepare to strike him when Emma’s magic abruptly stopped.
With nothing to hold it back, Gothel’s magic once again surged towards Emma, knocking her back.
And for a short, crucial moment, Gothel was distracted.
Killian’s heart was aching, pounding with worry and fear and anger. His hook carved through the air and into Gothel’s throat.
He was still wondering whether that was enough to stop her when fire lanced through the air and caught, setting the witch ablaze.
He staggered back, turning to where Emma lay propped up on both elbows. Her blond hair was a mess, her red jacket was burned and torn, and her eyes blazed with anger.
Killian’s heart soared as he covered the space between them, sliding to his knees beside her. “Swan?”
“I’m good.” Emma grunted when he reached to cradle her back, trying to help her sit. “Just need a minute. Go. She’s just up the stairs through that door back there. Go.”
He didn’t question her. There was a little door at the far end of the hall; it was locked, but his hook made quick work of that, and he pushed through into a narrow space leading to a winding staircase. His breath was still coming short, but he ran anyway, fast enough to get dizzy from the narrow turns.
Whatever enchantments Gothel had put on the tower or the door at the end of the stairs, they had either died with her, or Emma had already neutralised them. Nothing stopped Killian from reaching the top and stepping through into a small but well-appointed nursery. His heart pounded as his eyes found the small crib, dreading to find it empty, one last betrayal.
A baby’s wail rose and filled the small room.
He stumbled over to the crib.
A tiny, dark-haired head peeked out from the blankets, the soft, chubby face reddened and upset and achingly familiar.
He reached out and lifted the child from the crib, heedless of the blood still coating his hook and splattered liberally over his clothes. His bruised back stopped complaining. His head stopped swimming. His throat stopped burning.
He cradled his daughter against his chest and squeezed his eyes shut against the tears.
“Shh, I’m here,” he said, rocking her gently. “It’s all right, little love. We found you, see? You’re safe.”
She quieted, still a little distressed but no longer afraid, and made a little mewling sound as she settled against him. He stood, moving carefully, and shifted her to the crook of one arm so he could grip his sword with the other.
Five minutes later, he was back at Emma’s side, handing their daughter over to her and watching the terror and pain drain from Emma’s face.
“It’s okay,” she told her daughter, her voice a little husky, but warm. Tears brimmed in her eyes and fell past her bright smile, and she laughed with the same relief and joy that was still spreading through Killian’s chest. “We found you. We’re gonna take you home.”
Her eyes lifted to meet his, and everything Killian had been about to say – about her crazy move to draw Gothel’s attention away from him, all the things that might have happened to her – just died away. She already knew. Had known it the moment she did it, and had done it anyway, and trusted him to take care of the rest.
Because as much of a nightmare as this had been for him, it had been worse for Emma. And he wasn’t the only one in the family who was prepared to sacrifice himself for those he loved.
“I love you,” he said, and brushed a kiss against her temple.
“Mhmm,” she said, leaning into him briefly, a tired smile tugging at her mouth. “Okay. All right. We should probably get out of here.”
“Aye.” He got to his feet, helped her up, and offered her his arm. “Right then, ladies. Let’s go home.”