The Once Upon a Time Virtual Series
Virtual Season 3
“It’s a Trap!”
Executive Producer: Silverbluemoon
Story By: RebelByrdie and Silverbluemoon
Written By: HighHeelsAndChocolate
Illustrated By: Napfreak
Edited By: Notevildear-Wicked
Advisors and Consultants
Continuity and Consistency: QueenOfAllSwans
Research and Development Assistant: Archaeomedic
This series is Rated M for language, violence, drug references, and adult situations.
It is not intended for all audiences. Please use discretion.
Publication Date: 02/13/2015
he morning arose, just as muggy as Neal remembered it had always been. No winter. No spring. Just this constant, suffocating, wet summer that always looked far too pretty to be trusted. He rolled his good shoulder to ward off the mosquito buzzing around his chin. He was sticky and damp, and the air was clinging to him like dew. Gross. Much like how Hook seemed to be clinging to Emma.
Neal felt his own sweat beading along the new furrow lines in his forehead. The pirate didn’t seem to understand what personal space meant. The man had practically glued himself to Emma’s back in order to back-seat drive her map-following skills.
Now, Neal knew that he was nowhere close to being the walking, talking GPS of Neverland he had once been, but he was definitely a better navigator than Hook. Out on the seas, it might have been a different story, but in Neverland… Neverland he knew like the back of his hand. He’d had no choice.
And he’d be damned if he was going to let that smooth-talking pirate lead Emma astray. His own mother had abandoned him for the lies that man wove, and he wasn’t about to let Emma get hypnotized by them as well.
The murmur of soft voices drifted up to his ears as he grumbled to himself, and Neal spared a sly glance over his shoulder at the iconic couple traipsing behind him. They were falling behind, just a bit. David had started to limp rather heavily on his left leg so he nearly had to drag the other behind him and Snow was shooting him worried glances every two steps he made. They had both put on brave faces this morning at camp, but right now they weren’t fooling anyone. The prince’s leg was clunking across the ground as if it was turning to stone.
‘But if they wanted help, they’d ask for it,’ Neal thought to himself. Because the last thing he needed to worry about right now was David’s whole ‘oil can, tin man’ bit. He returned his eyes to face front just in time to see Hook’s lips lean in way too close Emma’s neck as he ducked forward to point at the map in her hands.
Yeah. That was gonna stop now.
Hook was practically purring in her ear, “…I know I warned against it before but if we just adjust course towards Crocodile Creek a wee bit, we can cut our journey in half.”
Emma looked unconvinced. “And you’re changing your story now why? I thought Tinkerbell’s house was this way?” She poked angrily at the parchment in her hands. “God, I can’t believe I just said that out loud.”
“What?” The pirate smirked at her. “Are you worried about the crocodiles, love? Because those are long gone now. I saw to that.”
“Yeah, right along with your hand.”
Hook frowned. “Look, if you want to get to your boy before Pan has his way with him, I suggest you listen to me. It’s for your own good.”
“Yeah, but see Hook, the problem is that I don’t trust you as far as I can spit,” Emma spat back. “You sold us out to Cora AND you were working with Mendel and Tamara when they tortured my kid’s other mom to within an inch of her life, remember? So forgive me if I’m not one-hundred percent sold on your shortcut!”
Neal jogged up beside them in the brush. “What shortcut?”
Emma whirled to pierce him with a frown, but in the effort also ended up smacking Hook across the face with a mouth-full of her hair. Neal smiled.
“Hook says he knows a shortcut to get to Tink’s. Do you know about this?”
Neal puffed out his chest a bit to raise himself up a few inches. Man, that pirate was tall. “Maybe. I know about lots of shortcuts. I know this island better than anyone.”
Hook scoffed low in his throat. “I doubt that, mate.”
Neal felt his face contort into a glare. “Hey, I’ve survived here a lot longer than you have, buddy.”
The effect of his statement was lost a little, however, when a bug that whizzed too close to his ear sounded off like a shooting arrow and he jumped out of his skin. Neal swatted angrily at the insect and then rubbed his ear for good measure, just to make sure he’d gotten rid of the faulty noise. This place was starting to get to him. The jungle was too hot, the earth too alive. He had to survive.
“So what’s the shortcut ol’ One-Hand had in mind?”
Bushes rustled with beasts unseen. Wolf cries made by children howled through the air. His feet pounded against the ground like his heart against his ribcage. He tripped. He was crying. Hands scraped and bloody. Nose running with snot. Pan’s shadow was a like a black hole hovering against an already ebony night.
Neal shook his head to try and clear it, hoping his face didn’t look as pale as it felt. It’s not like he’d had anyone to talk with about all of this stuff. He’d just shoved it down, shoved it down, shoved it down and tried to act fine. And it’s not like he could have even sought treatment for this whole situation anyway, even if he HAD wanted to talk about what happened. Which he didn’t. That was a one-way ticket to a straight-jacket hug and he knew it.
Emma was muttering to him again. “He said he wants to go by Crocodile Creek. You think it’s faster?”
Neal’s eyes flashed up to Hook, who was sipping from that goddamn flask again. “Why the hell would you take us that way?”
The man shrugged. “I told you, I know a shortcut.”
“I don’t know any shortcuts there.”
“Then maybe your boyish memory isn’t as airtight as you once thought,” Hook simmered, and he ended up looking just bored enough with this conversation to irritate the shit out of his competing suitor. “After all, I was an adult when I visited her.”
Neal’s hands fisted hard at his sides. “What are you playing at, man?”
“If we go my way, we can be there in less than a day,” Hook argued.
“Yeah, okay, and what else will we find on this…” Neal pushed towards the pirate, “…‘way’ of yours, hm? That creek is the perfect spot for an ambush!”
Hook’s chin jutted back in offense. “What is that supposed to mean, Baelfire?”
“Don’t call me that, you traitor!”
“I’m only trying to help Emma find her son–”
“He’s my son, too!”
Emma’s loud groan burst from between them as she purposefully picked up her pace to separate herself. Neal recognized the angry set of her shoulders from the start of every fight he’d ever been in with her. And that did not bode well at all. For anyone.
“I swear to God, if you two don’t stop fighting like freaking idiots I will fireball you both back to Fairytale Land.”
Hook’s eyebrows crawled up his face as he lifted his flask back up to his lips again. “Someone’s been spending a bit too much time with the Queen,” he muttered.
Emma stopped dead in her tracks and spun on the spot, the map creasing between her clenched fingers. And yep, there were the angry shoulders. “And someone’s been spending too much time with his fucking flask and back-up flask. Seriously, who even has a back-up flask?”
“It’s not my flask.”
Emma rolled her eyes and started shoving through the foliage again. “Right. And who’d you steal it from? Little Jack Horner?”
Both Neal and Hook took double-steps to catch up to her sides, but Hook caught up to her first. Neal unfortunately took an errant branch to the face in the backlash of their Savior’s violent trek through nature. The pirate chuckled in retribution.
“No, it was a gift, you see, Swan. A matching set, enchanted to never be empty.” He fingered the cap of the one engraved with a large cursive ‘M’. “One for me and one for–”
Neal finished the pirate’s sentence for him. “Milah,” he growled.
Emma’s emerald eyes were on him in an instant. “Who the hell is Mil–”
And suddenly they were falling, plummeting into the earth and screeching all the way. The ground beneath them had disappeared and it was breathtaking and terrifying, and for one glorious moment he was reminded of days long past, when he and Emma had been young and fearless and had sought out adrenaline rushes like leaping into the air and falling into the tropical water of Mexico.
Only this time Emma wasn’t holding his hand, and the screaming was definitely different.
Everyone was screaming. Emma was screaming. David was screaming. Snow was shrieking like a bird about to be butchered, and even Hook had allowed himself one sharp shout of surprise before surrendering himself to the whooshing of air around them.
Neal realized that he must have been screaming too, for when he finally plunged into the cenote below with all the grace of a mallet to concrete, his mouth was instantly plugged with water. It was probably a good thing, because he kept screaming. Boy, did he keep screaming. The impact of his body weight against the surface of the water spiked a pain so horrific through his injured shoulder that Neal’s body curled in on itself on instinct and sunk a few feet lower into the lagoon than everyone else’s.
The water was pleasantly lukewarm, like bathwater, and for a second he let himself be lulled by its depths, desperate for anything to soothe the ricocheting muscle spasms as he floated, submerged in the underground pool.
That was, until he opened his eyes and came face to face with the ghostly white bones of an unfortunate soul who had not been so lucky as to make it out of his current predicament.
Neal immediately flailed away from the little boy’s skeleton, pinwheeling his good arm as fast as he could and backpedal-thrashing his legs out-of-sync as the last of his air escaped in an eruption of startled bubbles. His brain roared at the sight, his lungs burned with the lack of oxygen, and his shoulder was throbbing with its own heartbeat, but if anything, Neal was a survivor. Escaping death on this island was something he had become quite accustomed to in the past. He only hoped that now that he was older, his odds had gotten better. Or at the very least stayed the same.
But in all honesty, that wasn’t very likely.
Neal broke the surface of the pool with a gut-wrenching gasp and unfortunately, Hook followed suit right next to him, waving his metallic claw around as he tried to tread water way too close to Neal’s face. He could feel his anxiety rising again. He could hear the drums beating in his ears. The Lost Boys were going skewer them like boars where they’d landed. Mermaids were going to drag them down into the deep and drown them with the dead. Pirates were going to repel down the cliff face, murder them all, and take Emma as a prisoner all by herself. His clouded thoughts sent his fluttering pulse to lodge in his throat.
Neal wrenched his head around to find both the blonde and her mother struggling to keep Charming afloat. His neck was still underwater and only his face was visible as he kicked leadenly with stiff knees. Emma’s mouth was set in a grim line as her father dragged her back down under the surface with his bulk, before she kicked again and propelled the armpit draped across her shoulder back out of the surface; her brow wrinkled in determination.
Neal watched Emma push the freshly wet hair out of her face, and she was even more beautiful than he remembered. He managed to muster up a smile. “Just like that time in Tijuana, huh Ems?”
Except this was not like Tijuana at all. Tijuana had been Emma laughing in her sunglasses and losing her cutoffs in the ocean. They’d stolen taquitos from a street cart off the beach, and she’d made fun of his sunburned nose for a week after they’d lost all sense of time diving in the water. The sea there had been choppy with surf, and the salt-licked water had crusted their skin for days.
But here an abyss lay beneath their feet; the tepid water was like see-through silk all the way to the skull-dappled bottom of the cenote lagoon. Eyeless sockets gaped through the ripples of his movements and cursed him for intruding on their mass grave, their calcified ribcages gleaming and piled like a deathly mountain in the fathoms below. Stray arms seemed to be reaching for him as he splashed and quaked, and Neal swore that he could actually hear their wrist bones popping as they snagged through the water. Their skeletal fingers were pulling at him, desperate for his blood, for HIS sacrifice yet unclaimed. Terrified hazel eyes flashed in front of his face, clear as if the Lost Boy he’d fought so hard to forget was actually right there. Still cowering at his feet. Still alive. “Fight! Fight!” they all screamed, teeth gnashing, spears rattling, “Kill him, Baelfire! Kill him dead! Kill him! Kill him! KILL HIM–”
No. No. Think about Emma. Emma in a bikini. Emma in that red bikini. That gloriously tiny red bikini with the straps and the little golden clasp shining circular at the front. Her tanned skin had bronzed until it was almost a glowing match, and her unfettered smile had shone back at him as she blinked the water out of her eyes.
Yeah. Good. That helped.
The group paddled ungainly to the rocky edge of what Neal could now see was a large, underground lake. Its unnatural blue-green water seemed to glow throughout vacuous cavern; its luminescent shine bounced off the glassy rock and ignited the stray crystalline chunks jutting out of the otherwise smooth walls. They were in deep. Save for the single shaft of light shining from the world they’d just left dangling fifty feet above their heads, everything was dark and warm and quiet.
Too quiet. His own breath sounded too loud, too harsh in his ears, and Neal panicked that someone would see. Someone would ask. What’s wrong with the city boy? Can’t handle a little camping? Didn’t you used to live here?
Wasn’t that the problem?
Neal struggled to regulate his breathing and managed to cover it by sputtering and coughing like a lunatic. Hook gave him the side-eye. He glared resolutely back. Not his best moment but, eh, you know, whatever. It worked.
“Is everyone all right?” Snow asked, her eyes darting around to land on each of their faces. Neal could see her mentally counting off each of their names in her head.
The woman was crouched on the balls of her feet beside her Prince Charming, who by the looks of things, was anything but all right. He was sprawled out on the cave floor staring at the glossy, black stalactites overhead and his chest was heaving so hard that it looked as if he was attempting to lift a granite slab with his ribcage every time he forced a breath from his lips. His wife’s fingers were clutching to his shirt.
“Think so,” Emma grunted as she shook her arms in the sleeves of her red jacket. Droplets leapt off the leather and sprayed back into the luminous pool. “That sucked.”
“Bit of an understatement, don’t you think, love?”
And that was it. Neal couldn’t take it anymore.
“Aaaaaaaaaaand thank you,” Neal’s voice echoed around the empty cavern as he made a grand arm gesture sweeping around their newest quandary, “Captain Fucking Hook, for leading us right into a death trap.”
David rolled onto his side to prop himself up with an elbow. “It looks like a natural cave, Neal,” he tried to placate. It made Neal’s blood boil. “Not a death trap.”
“Yeah, it is,” Neal barked back as he looked up at the opening they’d fallen through. He knew a Lost Boy trap when he saw it. He’d made them and been caught in them enough to recognize when he was being duped. “But you don’t know Hook or Pan like I do.” He pointed to the ceiling, to where the underbrush had been cobbled together with vines to imitate the forest floor and where it was now hanging loosely from their unexpected entrance. “Pan loves his little games and Hook will betray you for a shot of cheap whiskey!”
He didn’t remember when he had started yelling but now his voice was practically bouncing off the walls.
Snow raised both her hands in supplication but her voice was stern, “I think we all need to calm down and figure out a way to climb back out of this hole.”
But haunting laughter was the only sound that greeted the Queen’s call to arms as the new, malevolent sound reverberated cruelly off the cavern walls and overtook the echoes of Neal’s plight. It sounded as though a chorus of evil children had them surrounded on all sides.
The group’s gaze snapped up collectively to find Peter Pan floating at the gaping maw of the cave above their reach, looking for all the world like he had just received the most delicious gift. The boy eyed them hungrily as the sunlight poured in behind his head, and Pan all but glowed in the light– the most angelic of devils.
The devil smiled.
“Ah, ah, ah,” the boy tutted and he waggled his finger at them as if he was some kind of chastising parent. “There’s no escape and no going back, you know… unless you can fly.” A smirk flickered across his face and Neal felt his blood run cold. “But that wouldn’t make the game any fun, now would it?”
Emma however, seemed to be unimpressed by his little show. “This is Peter Pan? Seriously, you’re the big, bad Peter Pan?” she cawed. “I can’t believe we’re all scared of an Edward Cullen wannabe who wants to act out his Lost fanfiction!”
She unsheathed the sword on her hip and pointed it at the hovering menace, and Neal just knew that when she spoke, her voice would be deadly as ice. She actually looked a little dangerous with that glinting darkness prowling behind her eyes. “Listen up you little shit, we aren’t here for fun and games with your wilderness scout boyband. I want my kid. Now.”
But Pan obviously did not feel threatened at all. He threw his head back and crowed with laughter, his body floating just a little bit higher inside the cave. “Oh, now that’s no fun – you’ll ruin the game. Just ask Baelfire,” and for a split-second Pan looked Neal dead in the eyes and time stopped.
And for that second Pan wasn’t just a flying, taunting boy on an island; he was the animalistic growl that lingered in his nightmares, he was the childhood he’d lost to a land of death, he was the constant devil on his shoulder that he could never, ever escape, and Neal felt himself blanche. Could feel the others see him blanche. And for a moment he considered vomiting on the spot.
But then Pan looked away and Neal remembered how to breathe.
“I don’t like it when people spoil my fun.” Pan smiled at Emma and it was so dark a grin it felt as if his joy was absorbing the light around them. “And so you’ll play along,” he continued blithely and clapped his hands together once in preparation for the rules. There were always rules. His eyes shone with condescension and amusement.
Neal loathed that parasite with every fiber of his being.
“Now there’s no getting out this way,” Pan chuckled as he backflipped to block the hole in their sky like a gatekeeper to a castle, “and your only exit is through there.”
They all followed his pointer finger to a dark tunnel lurking in the far recesses of the cave.
“The name of the game is ‘Escape’.”
Hook growled and brandished his metal appendage towards their captor. “When we get out of here, I’m gonna make sure to kill every single one of your Boys, and then I’m going to do to you what I should have done years ago!”
Pan’s shoulders dropped in aggravation; he rolled his eyes and ignored the pirate, seeming in every way the petulant teenager he looked to be, until in a surge of zeal, he rocketed over their heads so fast that they all ducked on instinct. He practically corkscrewed through the air with the grace of a malicious Cirque du Soleil acrobat, only to come to an immediate halt in the middle of the cave over the lake.
A raised eyebrow over his shoulder dared their Savior to make a move. Emma snarled.
“Oh, and Bae’s Little Blonde,” he teased. “Just so you know, one of your merry crew won’t survive, and you’ll have to choose who gets left behind.”
“Screw you, Fly Boy,” was her only response.
Pan cackled as he flew out of the cave to disappear into the free air that they craved. “See you on the other side!” he shouted.
And then the devil was gone.
he moment Pan’s boots had vanished from view, Neal made a dramatic lunge for Hook, yelling across the cave in the most ridiculous fashion Snow had ever seen. So ridiculous in fact, that she was actually a little surprised that Hook didn’t seem to see the swing coming.
“You son of a bitch!” Neal exclaimed. And then he clocked the pirate right in the jaw.
Hook’s chin moved down with the force of the unexpected hit, but when he recovered it was with a slow, steady look that had his eyes burning with the unsated challenge delivered by his petulant almost-stepson.
“Big words for a Lost Boy,” Hook sneered back.
And then he tongued his freshly split lip with a cocky smile, and Snow knew the dam had broken.
“Oh, that is it, pirate scum!” Neal raged. “You are going down!”
Neal hurtled himself headlong into the fray in a flurry of swinging fists and managed to land quite a few solid punches to Killian’s gut before the pirate caught one of his assaulting wrists with his good hand and twisted it grotesquely in the opposite direction.
“Ahhh!” Neal cried out and sunk forward with the momentum of Hook’s maneuver. Seeing the opportunity arise with his sudden height advantage, Hook brought down his namesake in an overhead flash of gleaming metal that Neal barely had time to block with his bad arm. Neal grunted in pain as his forearm shook, and Hook only bore down on him harder, the point of his silver appendage inching dangerously close to his captive’s eye.
“Feeling lucky, Baelfire?” Hook smoldered.
“Hey. Hey! HEY!” Emma shouted at the pair as she threw her sword back into her belt loop at a jog. “HEY!” she screamed again, and grabbing Hook by the back of his collar, Snow watched in horror as her daughter muscled her way into the fight and practically ripped the pirate off her son’s father. With one hand still knuckled in Hook’s shirt, Emma caught Neal in the chest as he tried to lunge for Killian again and smacked him hard across his breastbone. “I SAID QUIT IT!”
Emma spared one aggravated look at the panting pirate in her grasp before she shoved him away as well. “This doesn’t help Henry, you idiots!”
Snow’s eyes blurred for a moment, and for half a second, barely half a second, it was a volatile brunette in a pencil skirt giving those boys a dressing down, not her precious little girl. Snow White shook her head. The resemblance to Regina was uncanny; Emma’s temper was short and her anger hot with fire blazing in her eyes. Granted, it was probably more of a hands-on approach than Regina would have used, but that was her Emma: brute force hidden behind the face of a princess.
Regina would have actually been very handy in this situation, Snow realized. In fact, if the snippy woman had been there, she was sure that the Queen would have done something to prevent this whole debacle, and they wouldn’t have ended up trapped at all. Regina could have easily poofed them out of this hole and back onto dry land. Or she could have levitated their bodies before they’d hit the water so that their party wouldn’t have slapped so hard against the lake. Or maybe she would have done that time-freeze spell again so that Snow could’ve had a chance at walking on water too?
At the very least, she knew that Regina would have hurled a fireball at Peter Pan for being a twit.
“He led us into this!” Neal was still loudly accusing, and his finger jabbed aggressively in Hook’s direction. “Shortcut my ass!”
Hook’s anger reignited as he came swaggering back at the confrontation and sought to close the distance between he and the former Lost Boy. “I thought you knew the island better than I, mate,” he taunted.
“I am not your mate!” Neal practically shrieked.
“That is enough!” Emma sandwiched herself between the two battling men and pressed a firm hand into each of their chests, locking both of her elbows out so that they couldn’t get any closer to each other even if they tried.
“Neal, stop trying to beat up Killian. He’s gonna end up punching your lights out. And you,” Emma dug her fingernails into Hook’s skin to halt the chuckle that was starting within his sternum, “stop antagonizing him. I don’t care what your inane beef with each other is; you can sort it out later. Because right now we need to get out of this fucking hole, to find a fucking fairy, and maybe kill Peter fucking Pan, so that I can go rescue my fucking kid! Capiche!?”
Snow’s eyes zeroed in on Emma’s fingers. Had that been a spark? No. It couldn’t have been. Could it? She scowled at what could very well have been a golden glow beginning to form around her daughter’s fingers, but chose to believe it was just a trick of the light when the aforementioned digits finally slackened their hold on her hostages and dulled ever so slightly.
Those magic lessons with the Queen would lead to nothing but trouble with Emma still in such an emotionally fragile state. She had just lost her son, for heaven’s sakes, and this was no time for her to be distracting herself with attempts at conjuring up spells in the middle of the Neverlandian jungle. Everyone knew that Regina was a loose cannon, and a loose cannon with loads of dark magic just festering under the surface no less, just waiting to be released at a moment’s agitation. Surely it was her tutelage that had influenced this drastic change in Emma, this inexplicably short fuse, and without the Queen’s presence around to constantly upset her all the time, her daughter’s destructive behavior was bound to improve all on its own. Snow White was sure of it.
Snow White also made mental note right then and there to renege on her previous wish that Regina had been available earlier to save them.
Emma stepped back from the group with a deep frown etched into her features and crossed her arms. Neal shuffled in his boots, and Killian picked absently at his hook. A rather awkward silence descended uncomfortably over their ragtag group as they all waited for someone to take charge.
The pressure of trying to save Henry was beginning to show on everyone’s faces, and Snow thought it was safe to say that in this instance, none in their collection of natural-born leaders currently wanted to lead. They were all just so darn tired of failing.
David appeared at her side and nudged at her playfully with his elbow. “So… cave exploring, huh?” he stated too loudly. “It reminds me of the old days.”
All eyes fixated on her husband, and Snow felt herself relax a little. She appreciated his stepping up to the plate more than she could express. A grin pulled up the corners of her mouth.
Her prince chortled charismatically as he nodded towards the tunnel that Pan had indicated. “Looks like that is the way to go.”
“Good,” Emma grunted, and tossing a hand out towards her father, she started to move. “Let’s go.”
now was not a fan of caves. Not that she was claustrophobic or anything, but growing up in a palace with ceilings vaulted so high that birds could get caught in them tended to give one the sense of freedom to do what she pleased. And even though she’d had full access to all of the castle grounds when her father was still alive, her younger self had never much cared for her visits to the stinking dungeons either. There was something about the darkness of a cave that reminded her starkly of prison, and she’d spent too many years of her life evading capture to even consider leaving the open air of the woods above as a good idea. The mere thought of trading cloudless skies, where she could easily see and target anything with her bow, for the sightless dusk of the underworld set her hair on end.
But at least she wasn’t as blind as she would have been had this been your average, textbook cave experience. It had taken her eyes a little while to adjust, but now she could actually see where she was going rather well, thanks to strangely inviting glow illuminating their path from various holes and dents etched into the stone.
It wasn’t sparkling like the mining shafts imbued with fairy dust back in Storybrooke had, but the tunnel did have a bit of a glossy sheen to it. It was dim and eerie with this warm, red glow that seemed to seep through the slight fissures running along the wall, and although it was peculiar, Snow found it oddly comforting as she picked her way through the rubble of rocks. The flickering light reminded her of a hearth, and when she reached out to steady herself against the stony barrier, her hand came back hot.
Her eyebrows pulled together to meet in the middle of her forehead as she peered closer to the blush behind the wall.
Was the light pulsing? Now that she took in the whole picture, the holes and cracks in the blackened tunnel almost looked like veins of beating blood.
The cavern was narrow enough that they had needed to form into a rough semblance of a single-file line to fit through. Snow had taken up the rear as a precaution, not trusting Hook to be at her back, so that she could keep a watchful eye over the whole group as they moved. But unfortunately, that had also given her a front row seat to the ogling that her daughter’s butt was taking from the one-handed pirate. Emma had placed herself in between her feuding suitors and she kept insisting on sighing loudly in frustration every couple of minutes. Yes, they all were aware of how sluggish their current pace was. She didn’t need to keep banging into Neal every time he stopped short just to make her point.
Because it wasn’t truly his fault he kept stopping. David was in front of him, having insisted that he be the one to lead this crusade through the darkness in order to prove to everyone that he was fine and to stop worrying Snow, I’ve got this. But she did worry. She worried herself sick over her stubborn-hearted hero– her courageous shepherd prince. She worried about the poison and the barnacles and his labored breathing and… well… their progress had been creepingly slow at best with how carefully he had needed to maneuver his ever-solidifying limbs over the jagged, rocky path carved out for them.
At least she didn’t have to worry that he would be left behind, not when he was the one commanding the front of the charge.
“David?” she called up ahead. Her fingers tripped lightly along one of the cragged divots in the wall, and she pressed her palm against the throbbing stone. A sweating heat pushed back against her hand. “What is this?”
Hook didn’t even turn around to interrupt; he just let his head fall back on his neck as his eyes gazed exasperatedly upwards. “What is what, m’lady? Dare I ask?”
“This light. Why is it so warm?” And with that realization it was as if a sudden heat wave had rolled across her all at once. She hadn’t noticed just how close the air was down here. Had it always been this hot? Since their drop into the earth, the temperature had practically stayed the same… if not warmer. Weren’t caves supposed to be cool this far underground?
“Aw shit,” Neal muttered under his breath. Snow looked up to find him staring at one of the glowing crimson cracks nestled about a foot from the top of her hand.
“What?” Emma twisted in alarm, ready for siege, and her fingers flew to the hilt of her sword. Her eyes darted around the darkness as she moved atop one of the larger pieces of cave debris littering their small canal. “Why are you ‘aw shitting’ right now?”
“It’s just I know where we are, Ems.” Neal grimaced and shrugged a bit in defeat. “And we’re under a volcano.”
Snow immediately yanked her hand away from the wall.
“A volcano,” Emma deadpanned. Her mouth didn’t twitch. Her eyes didn’t blink. Her expression was just so done with everything.
And that was an expression Snow recognized. She had witnessed it from Regina throughout her entire childhood. The Queen had made that face every time she’d thought no one else was around to see her make it.
Snow pushed that memory back into the box it’d escaped from and Neal grumbled again, “Yeah, there’s a volcano in the middle of Neverland.”
Emma sighed. “Of course there is.”
“C’mon guys,” David called from up ahead and Snow could hear in his voice that he was smiling, even if it sounded forced. She watched as he lugged his stubborn leg in front of him with both hands and placed it valiantly over the next rock in their path, determined to keep going. “Pan said the way out is through here, so it has to be, right? He might be a tricky bastard, but what’s the joy of winning if there’s no possibility of losing? Keep up hope and don’t lose faith. It’s not over yet.”
Snow wished that she was close enough to kiss him. Her husband wasn’t always the brightest bulb in the box, but he definitely had his moments. Her heart fluttered in her chest as she recalled him rallying his troops for the battle ahead… he would have made an amazing king if given enough of a chance. She hoped he knew how proud she was.
The group started moving again.
The small grin that had taken up residence on her face but a moment earlier faltered as she watched Hook’s hand fall low on her daughter’s back once again. The pirate picked up his pace as he leaned in close behind her rolling locks of blonde.
“Crocodile Creek’s not looking so bad now, is it love?”
“Hook, I swear to God…” came the answering growl.
And their journey only grew to be more infuriating after that, as the path through the mountain dipped and bulged and shrank the deeper they traveled inside. The slickened walls of dried magma kept continually narrowing until, in some places, the cave was nary more than a sliver of air. It felt as if they were just barely scraping through what was really just a crack in the blackened lava-rock as Emma, the slenderest of them all, bloodied her elbows against the pulsing, jagged walls, and David consistently bashed his head against stalactites grown too long.
What made it even worse was that the farther they traveled, the damper it got. There must have been a natural spring bubbling around somewhere because the closer they got to ‘escaping’, the more and more water they had to trudge through. The warm wetness started as just drips from the ceiling, dotting their clothes and adding to the already annoying humidity in the close air around them. But then the ground began to dampen and slide beneath their feet, and in no time at all they were trekking through puddles, then wading through a knee-deep stream, and then paddling haltingly through water that was at least five feet deep and slopping heartily at the middle of her chest. Snow was barely managing to stay balanced on her tiptoes as it was.
And it was there, in that murky underground pool, that they finally came to a full-stop at the bottom of a cave in.
Dread spiked in her stomach as Emma looked to Neal. “Can we swim under it?”
Neal exhaled slowly and nodded in understanding. “I’ll check,” he replied, and with a large breath and puffed out cheeks, he disappeared under the water. Snow could see his outline glowing hazily in the pulsing light of the lava trapped behind cavern walls, and her stomach started to churn. How long would she have to be underwater for?
Neal crested the surface only seconds later in confirmation. “We can swim under it. There’s a gap in the rockslide that hasn’t filled in yet.”
Emma nodded resolutely and steeled her face for the thousandth time that day. “Lead the way then.”
She and Neal held eye contact for a long moment before he pouted out a puff of air and disappeared beneath the surface. Then Emma looked at Hook.
Hook bowed as much as he could in water half-way up his waist and gestured gentlemanly at her. “Ladies first.” He grinned.
Emma rolled her eyes and disappeared beneath the surface as well, with Killian following shortly after… which only left Snow and her husband wading in the impromptu pool.
She met David’s eyes in the dim light and concern marred his handsome features. Her gaze flickered towards his chest and her mouth pulled thin. She could see the barnacles knotting in lumps beneath his skin and pushing out against the thin fabric of his shirt, his flesh pulled too-tight where the crustaceans had begun to steal his sweat and calcify it into stone. Her damp fingers trailed lightly over the nodules and he winced.
“Are you going to be all right?” Snow whispered.
David answered with a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “I always am,” he replied, and gave her a quick, chaste kiss on the lips. “Will you?”
Snow steeled herself into an expression much like her daughter had moments before. “Yes. Absolutely. I can do this.” She nodded stiffly, and he gave her arm a squeeze in response.
“I’ll see you soon,” he promised. And with a constricted breath that had his shoulders almost rising to his ears, David vanished beneath the water and she was alone.
This was not a big deal, Snow reasoned to herself. She’d gone swimming multiple times. She loved the water. And there was no danger here. No poisoned blades to slice open her flesh. And there were certainly no half-naked, ichthyic women living in this puddle that were going to try and drown her should she try to make it through. Her panic was pointless.
And who knew? The exit to this nightmarish game might be just beyond this point and she’d be damned if she was going to be the coward in the group that they ended up leaving behind.
Snow ducked under the surface and the silence was immediate; the water pressed into her eardrums from all sides and made her heartbeat hammer in her head. But she entertained the panic for only a moment before spotting the submerged opening in the rubble and propelling herself though to the other side, victorious and content.
Snow emerged smiling until she realized where she was. The water on this new side shallowed almost instantly to give way to yet another, even larger, magma-encased cavern.
They were still inside the volcano.
Snow waded out of the landslide pool to ring some of the water out of her shirt and caught David’s expression as he tried to turn his pained grimace into a grin. His chest stuttered rigidly as he bent at the knees to regain his breath.
Drenched, injured, and aggravated, they all trudged onward into the darkness once again without a word. Nobody had the heart to say what they all were thinking.
Yes, Snow concluded. She was unquestionably not a fan of caves.
an’s camp was rough but kinda perfect in a way; it looked just like every boy’s own wilderness adventure dream come true. Tents and lean-tos sprung out of the ground with no sense of order and hammocks hung from the trees. Nets draped over stray boxes of weaponry, broken crockery littered the ground, and a huge fire pit seethed in the middle of the encampment. And there were animal heads on pikes everywhere.
Especially pigs. There were a few capybara skulls impaled around the campsite, and he thought he might have recognized a taper’s muzzle peering from behind the wayward heap of supply crates stacked against a tree. He’d even spotted one little lemur head skewered on a stick by a gray lean-to that looked ludicrously tiny by comparison.
But it was the pigs that really ate at Henry’s soul. He couldn’t make up his mind as to whether he thought of them as guardians of protection or if they were really just the creepiest way of keeping a trophy he’d ever seen. This one pig’s beady little eyes in particular were still staring at him.
Henry watched from his place alone on the log as another boy donning a green cloak maneuvered past the fire pit to hunker atop a stump a few feet away. All of the boys had those matching cloaks, and they all wore their scarves tied tightly around their mouths, too. He looked down at his own starched, plaid button-up shirt and grimaced. He probably looked like such a square.
The fearsome boy from the stump pulled his scarf down to reveal a shining ring about the size of a quarter pierced through his wide-set nose. It caught in the light streaming through the foliage and glinted like stolen treasure.
Scratch that, Henry moped. He definitely looked like a square.
Henry’s head jerked up at his name to see Seamus waving vigorously in his direction. He had Jay with him again and another boy of about the same size. That boy had a bow slung over his shoulder and a turban perched atop his head. And all of them were carrying quite a lot of weapons.
“Come play with us!” the redhead shouted.
“Oh, uh, no, that’s okay. I’m fine right over here, just sitting by myself.” Henry hated how sad that sounded but it was true. He’d never really gotten along well with the other kids at school, and dealing with social politics while trying not to die in the middle of the jungle was not something he really wanted to add to his to-do list right now.
But Jalen just laughed. “Don’t be stupid, New Boy. We wanna show you how to throw a spear.”
Henry frowned as his nerves started to kick back into high gear again. He warily eyed the sharp points of the artillery they were carrying. “We aren’t supposed to play with weapons. Someone could get hurt.”
The Lost Boys erupted into peals of belly aching laughter.
“Oh, he’s funny! I like him! He’s funny!” Seamus wheezed out as he wiped the mirthful tears from his eyes.
“He thinks we’re going to hurt ourselves!” Jay doubled over and clutched at his gut. “What an outstanding young gentleman we have on our hands!”
“We can do whatever we want here, you weirdo,” the turban-kid mocked. “No one is going to tell you no.”
“So come on,” Seamus whined. “Don’t be such a pussy about it.”
“Yeah, Henry. Don’t pussy out now.”
Henry could feel his cheeks tinging pink and he knew he still looked unsure, and this was just becoming unbearably embarrassing unbearably fast, and right as he was about to start flipping through his brain for those anti-bullying pamphlets that they’d handed out in school, Turban Kid suddenly marched right up into his personal space and thrust his hand out an inch from his eyes.
The bare-chested boy was lean and mean and had an enormous claw hanging from a piece of twine secured around his neck. His baggy pants had a hole in them and they were stuffed into combat boots at least two-sizes too big. “The name’s Amir and I’m gonna show you how to shoot a bow,” the boy boasted.
Then Amir cocked his head to the side and smiled brightly. “So get over it, Gentleman. I’m not taking no for an answer.”
And against all the odds, Henry actually felt himself starting to smile back. Maybe they really did want to include him in their fun after all.
“Okay,” Henry agreed, and it felt like he was finally seeing the picture on top of a puzzle box for the first time. He could navigate his way through this; he just needed to find all the right pieces first. So he grabbed the Lost Boy’s hand in his own, shook it once, and stood up off of his loner log. It was time to take some action… whatever that meant. When in Rome… “You’ve convinced me.”
Amir’s smile somehow grew impossibly brighter. “Good,” he said with a nod. “Let’s go shoot stuff.”
What Henry had not been expecting, quite honestly, was that he was going to be good at shooting stuff.
After Jalen had practically pounded the ‘essential statistics’ (as he’d referred to them) of spear-throwing into his head, the southerner had been severely disappointed to discover that Henry’s arm strength was pretty much worth diddily-squat. It was only then that Amir had tossed a bow into his hands, shoved his arms into position, and told him to ‘just go for it’ with a disgruntled huff in his direction.
“It’s basically the same but this will launch your arrow for you,” Amir had teased, twanging the taut string pulled tight between the ends of his bow. “Not your wimpy biceps.”
Seamus poked him in the ribs. “And always remember to keep both eyes open!”
Henry wanted to impress these guys so badly it hurt. He tried to focus on the tarp with the red bull’s-eye painted on it that they’d stretched between the trees for him and not on what they could have possibly used for paint.
Both eyes open, he released a long, deep breath and let the arrow fly… and it sunk straight into the center of the target.
Amir’s mouth fell open to catch gnats. Henry barely stopped his own from doing the same.
“Do it again,” the boy commanded.
So Henry had nocked another arrow, pulled it back as far as he could, and let it fly for a second time.
Another perfect bull’s-eye.
“Shit man,” Jalen cursed with a smirk. “I think we found your calling.”
A small crowd gathered fairly fast after that as Henry attacked anything and everything he could around the camp. He shot at knotholes, aimed through the spaces in a hammock, and even managed to lance an arrow straight through the snout of one of the spiked pig heads by the perimeter.
Two of the younger Lost Boys burst into applause as his latest shot clanged loudly off of a crockpot suspended over the fire pit. One of them, a proper little Englishman who went by the name of Barnaby, was a particular fan of his. He wore spectacles on his nose and a lopsided dimple in one cheek. Henry thought he looked like the kind of kid who would die first in the Hunger Games.
Cody, on the other hand, would probably be the one who’d kill him. The boy was a dirty scamp who couldn’t seem to get a handle on his impulse control when it came to eating bugs out of the mud. His ash-blonde hair was nearly gray with how much dirt had been caked into it.
And Finn it seemed, the reclusive lookout who rarely left his stack of crates unless ordered to by Pan himself, was also doing a piss-poor job of pretending to be apathetic towards Henry’s new volley of skill. Each time his eyes dared a peek, he appeared to nick himself with his whittling blade.
“Henry! You are positively amazing!” Barnaby beamed. “I think you might be one of the best bowmen I’ve ever seen!”
Henry shrugged like the compliment didn’t matter but on the inside, he was practically jumping up and down he was so pleased with himself. His grandma had spent at least half of her life as a bandit running from the law, and the memory of his mother actually catching an arrow out of the air in Town Hall still burned brightly in his mind. He should’ve known that his reflexes would be superb if given the chance to show themselves; heroic genes were in his blood.
He suavely smirked over his shoulder as he knocked his next arrow. “You could say that a talent for archery runs in my family.”
Henry realized too late that he must have said something wrong because suddenly all of the boys around him had gone a little still and the air had turned very, very serious.
Jay clapped him on the shoulder with a heavy hand and the bow slipped a bit in his grasp. “We are your family now,” Jalen informed.
“That’s right! You’re one of us now!” Barnaby chimed in. “All you need’s a scarf!”
Henry frowned at the tiny Brit. “But I already have a scarf.”
“No, no,” Seamus complained, and as soon as he was within reach, the boy was manhandling Henry’s clothing off of his body.
“Whoa, what are you doing?” Henry asked, a little panicky. Seamus’s fingers ripped off his peacoat and threw it to the ground.
“You’re not wearing it right,” the boy muttered. “Yo Jay! Bring me a cloak!”
“One cloak, coming up!” Jalen shouted back.
And within moments, Henry had a dark green, woolen cloak wrapped around his shoulders and a hood thrown over his head.
“And now for the finishing touch,” Seamus whispered, his mouth intent and his brow focused. Henry had to blink a few times to get his face to refocus it was so close to his own. “You have to wear your scarf like this.”
The redhead plucked at his scarf almost worshipfully, and Henry didn’t dare move lest he break the spell. And then carefully, oh so delicately, the fabric was wrapped up and over his mouth like he was a robber about to hold up a bank. At this rate, if someone were to catch him at a glance, the only distinguishing characteristic he’d have left would be his eyes.
Seamus pulled back to admire his craftsmanship, and Amir admitted a low whistle behind him.
“You look damn good, Gentleman,” the turbaned boy stated. He crossed his arms across his chest and nodded in approval. “Not half bad at all.”
“But can he still shoot all gussied up is the real question now!” Jalen hooted.
Amir and Seamus gave each other a meaningful look. Amir cocked an eyebrow, “Moving target?”
“God, where is that Hisoka when you need him?” Finn grumbled from on top of his leaning tower of boxes as he finally gave up trying to look uninterested in Henry’s progress. “Hisoka!” he hollered out into the woods.
Henry turned to Seamus, suddenly extremely perplexed. “What’s a Hisoka?”
Seamus just grinned and looked up at a rustle in the trees. “Him.”
And at that, an Asian boy swung lithely off the overhanging branch above Henry’s head and landed in a perfectly silent crouch barely a nose hair away from his face. The guy then pressed his palms together, bent low into the deepest a deep bow that Henry had ever witnessed, and inexplicably closed his eyes.
“Meet our moving target!” Seamus exclaimed.
Henry took a few hesitant steps back from the unarmed kid. “I don’t know how I feel about this,” he protested.
Cody heaved out a sigh from the sidelines and strided up to Henry with purpose. He grabbed the bow and quiver away from him easily without much of a fight. “Loosen up, dude,” he grumbled. “Hisoka’s a ninja. He never gets caught. Right, Hisoka?”
Henry wasn’t so sure. The boy was rather thin and had quite a few open cuts still mending across his upper arm. A bit of his ear had been ripped off and a deep purple welt was decorating the side of his face. It looked pretty fresh to him.
But then as suddenly as he had dropped from the sky, Hisoka’s eyes flashed open with startling clarity and he winked at Henry. Then, letting out an ear-piercing scream of terror, he punted Barnaby in the shin.
“Catch me if you can, bitches!” the boy shrieked, and he took off at a wild speed, sprinting like a bat out of hell.
“GET HIM!” Amir bellowed.
And then everyone was throwing shit. Spears. Pots. Clubs. Knives. As the kid streaked howling through the trees; scrambling over rocks and kicking up dirt as he went. The entire camp seemed to be whooping and yelping and banging on drums as they crashed like heathens through the undergrowth to chase after one of their own.
Henry couldn’t bring himself to participate in the madness, but he could admit that the thrill of the hunt was kind of intoxicating. It was easy to get caught up in all of fun. And it could hardly be as dangerous as he’d originally thought, Henry reasoned. After all, Hisoka was incredibly fast.
Maybe he did need to just loosen up a bit.
Later on, when night had fallen and the fireflies had joined with the torches to dance around the flame of the bonfire, Henry realized he was smiling. For what felt like the first time in… forever really. Most of the boys were huddled around the warmth of the blaze, gnawing on the wings of the bats that they’d boiled last week, but a few of the kids were still running around camp. Finn had retreated back atop his lookout post of supply crates to whittle some more and Cody had refused to stop chasing Amir until he’d succeeded in his quest to throw pebbles into the top of his turban. And Hisoka had still yet to be seen since lunchtime.
He had been told that the kid was rather hard to find with his penchant for being a ninja and all.
Henry’s grin only spread wider as he nestled down into the scarf now wrapped loosely around his shoulders and nibbled some more on his flying rodent. Both of his moms would’ve had a cow if they could have seen him now.
Seamus tossed a red berry into his mouth. “…and then Jay lit the swamp on fire!” he roared. “Roasted those guppies right in the bog! Pan wouldn’t let him back in the tribe for a month!”
Jalen jumped across the ring and tackled Seamus off of the log he’d been sitting on. Seamus went down laughing as Jay tried to make him eat dirt.
Henry turned to the little boy next to him, the last bits of baby-fat still clinging to the younger kid’s cheeks. “Does Pan really do that? He kicks people out of the group?” he asked.
The boy looked at him like duh. “Well, yeah.” He shrugged and glanced around at his brothers. “Do something stupid, you get kicked out. Do something awesome, and you get a reward.”
Jay’s head popped up from behind the log. Seamus tried to pop up too but Jalen shoved him back down with a grunt. “Like that time Zanzin skewered a wild boar all by himself!”
Henry’s gaze snapped to the Lost Boy with the ring through his nose. He raised an eyebrow, “Really?”
Zanzin smiled a slow, feral smile of white teeth that practically glowed against his dark skin and ripped a bat wing off in a single tug. “His head’s right over there.”
“Well I kissed a pixie once,” Barnaby piped up from across the circle, not to be outdone. He jutted his chin out proudly.
“You did not.”
“Did so! I did it as a trick so I could steal her dust! She totally fell for it.”
Amir stopped running and Cody bashed right into him. “You hear that, Cody?” Amir sneered. “Barnaby thinks he’s kissed a pixie!”
The sandy-blonde twisted in delight as he completely forgot about his turban-pebbles. “Hah! Then prove it, dude! Show us the dust!”
“I… uh… I… lost it,” Barnaby mumbled. “It… fell out of my pocket.”
“Barnaby’s lyyyyiiiiinnng,” Cody sing-songed, and Barnaby blushed all the way to the roots of his hair.
“I am not!”
“Hey guys! Barnaby’s got a girlfriend!” Finn catcalled from his tower.
A collective ‘ooooooooooo’ rose from the group as they all hooted and hollered and laughed until Barnaby’s face was burning as red as a summer tomato.
“That’s nothing!” a scraggly boy with freckles covering every inch of his body yelled as he leapt out of the bushes. Henry jumped a little in surprise. How long had that kid been crouching there? “I can slingshot a parrot right out of the air!”
Freckles thumbed his chest in self-importance, and Henry noted that his necklace was made entirely out of human teeth.
“Oh my god, that was a riot! That pirate was so mad!” Seamus had escaped Jalen’s torture and scooted back to reclaim his spot on the log. He nudged at Henry to get him in on the joke. “His favorite pet just drops dead right at his feet! I’ve never seen someone’s face turn so blue so fast!”
“You’ve battled pirates?” Henry asked in awe.
A chorus of I have! I have! I have! echoed from a few of the older boys in the group.
The baby-fat kid from before, who had obviously not been one of the people to fight against said pirates, flew to his feet to recall the harrowing story like it was a book report he was presenting to the class. “Pan had planned a sneak attack for the dead of night when the shadows are the hardest to see. And then, when the stupid pirates suspected nothing, the fearless Lost Boys attacked!” The Lost Boys all raised their fists in the air and cheered.
“We outnumbered them a hundred to one,” the boy continued. “And with the mighty Peter Pan at our front, they had no choice but to surrender to our superior ways! But the pirates were sneaky and not to be trusted. They faked their surrender and before we could tie them up, they started hacking at us with their swords. Blood was everywhere but we won in the end so that’s all that matters. A lot of people died. And more were maimed too,” he added as more of an afterthought. “That’s how Felix got his scar!”
As soon as the name was out of his mouth, the kid practically wilted on the spot. An uneasy quiet fell over the rowdy group as all eyes fell to the glowering boy who was perched at the edge of the bonfire.
Jay had warned Henry about him earlier: he was Pan’s right hand man and nearly seventeen. He was tall and angular and scary with sinews that popped along his arms. Felix glared at him from under his hood, and Henry could see the rutted scar that had been engraved into his sunken cheek.
“You got any scars, New Boy?” came the rough question. It sounded like a threat. “Go ahead and tell us what you’ve done.”
Henry could feel a distinctly Barnaby-like blush beginning at the tips of his ears and prayed that the dark night was enough to hide it from the other boys. “Oh, uh, I don’t know,” he stiltedly muttered. “Nothing special really.”
“Come on, Henry,” Seamus coaxed encouragingly. “You’ve got to have done something badass.”
“He’s wicked good with a bow and arrow,” Jay chimed in, glancing around the fire to commiserate. “This can’t have been the first time you’ve tried it, so out with it then!” He rested his chin on his hands and his elbows on his knees. “Give us a good story.”
Henry’s brain was whizzing a mile a minute. He’d never really even left Storybrooke before, let alone done anything badass… but he couldn’t let them know that. This was his first time through a portal, after all, and so far he wasn’t super proud of the way he’d handled it: crying and running and getting kidnapped in the first place.
But then again, there was that one time. He had been pretty smart when it came to stealing his teacher’s credit card and tracking down his birth mother. He’d even figured out how to get to Emma’s apartment by hopping the Boston bus system like he’d been doing it all his life.
Henry looked up from his feet in a dramatically slow arc in the hope that the firelight casting shadows on his face would make him look more weathered. Like he’d ‘seen some things’. He dropped his voice into the lowest register it could go, “I did outwit a witch once.”
Dumbfounded faces stared back. Even Felix looked a little impressed.
And then they all started talking at the same time.
“Whoa…” “No way!” “Are you kidding me?” “You’re yanking my chain!” “A witch?!”
“The evilest witch in all the land was keeping me hostage against my will,” Henry insisted and he hunkered down closer to the bonfire theatrically. The other boys followed suit; the mischief in his face made it look as though he was about to tell them the best-kept secret in the world.
Henry failed to mention that the witch was actually his mom and that she was actually trying really hard to be a better person and that she wasn’t really evil anymore, just kind of grumpy sometimes, because… well… that just didn’t make for a very good ghost story. “She was going to enslave me with her magic and lock me away from the rest of the world forever. She wanted to horde me all to herself!”
“What did you do?!” Amir cried out.
“Did she magic off your feet to keep you from running?” Finn hedged.
“Did you end up killing her?” Zanzin wanted to know. “Did she melt like in the myths?”
Their faces were alight with curiosity, and Henry’s heart soared at the attention.
“But that’s not even the half of it,” Henry boasted, now that he was on a roll. “What I really should tell you guys about is the time that I was attacked by a man that’d come back from the dead.”
Barnaby gasped and the game was afoot.
“He had me by the throat, his eyes bulging with bloodlust as he tore me from the ground and held me in the air…”
After that they couldn’t seem to get enough. Henry wove tale after tale after tale of his craziest feats far into the night, to the boys who gobbled up his words like they were starving for imagination. He talked until his voice grew hoarse, until the stars had begun to wink out and the frogs had ceased their croaking. Because to them he was The Breaker of Curses. The Zombie Slayer. He was the Man Who had Discovered the Secret of the Werewolves.
They didn’t call him “kid” and they didn’t act like he was stupid. These people were his… friends. And when he talked, all that shone back in their eyes blown wide was respect.
And for the first time in Henry’s entire life, he felt accepted by his peers.
rince Charming was having an increasingly harder time keeping his discomfort under wraps the longer they were all underground. His leg felt like lead– deadened and heavy to the point of almost utter uselessness. He could still bend his knee a bit, but only just barely. Which apparently wasn’t enough as he stumbled yet again, over what seemed like an inconsequential pebble on the cave floor, and toppled once more towards the ground.
His wife caught him around the waist to stop his imminent fall, and he failed to hide the wince at her arms against his flesh.
David noted in grim acceptance that the barnacles were expanding at quite the rapid rate. His chest had become fully encased by the leaching stuff, and it was now moving its hasty, squeezing migration around his ribcage to start its constriction anew over the full of his back. This inconvenient illness was making it very difficult to breathe, and for a moment David wondered if this is what wearing a corset felt like.
Snow and Regina should’ve been given some kind of award for being so powerful and quick-footed while tolerating such a torture all those years ago. He couldn’t imagine doing half of the things they’d pulled off while feeling like this.
David could feel the sweat beading down his body over the parts of his skin that were still his to feel. A drop of perspiration rolled down his spine, and he sent a silent curse to the crustacean poison that would soon twist the fluid into living stone. He was not looking forward to looking like the bottom of a rotting boat for the rest of his short, painful life.
The increasing heat of this cave was not helping his cause in the least as they headed further and further into the bowels of the earth. His lungs stuttered in his chest again when he tried to inhale the moisture-soaked air. His damp clothes from their last jaunty swim had yet to dry and were now clinging uncomfortably to what was left of his flesh. In particular, his leather pants were beginning to chafe in all the wrong places.
All David really wanted to do was sit, but he knew better than to suggest it.
These caves were not safe, not that anywhere on Neverland was exceptionally safe in the first place, and he needed his family to escape this underground agony as soon as possible. His grandson was out there, alone and scared and possibly being brainwashed by Pan, and they needed to save him. Henry was their priority. His own well-being came in a hard second, if that, and he wouldn’t let anyone pretend otherwise.
David knew that he slowing everyone down. He could feel it in the heavy sighs of his daughter and in the encouraging whispers from his wife. Heard it as his foot scraped along the uneven terrain and his arm banged unfeelingly against tunnels too small. He saw it in the lowered eyebrows and averted eyes every time he tripped and struggled and clutched at Snow’s shoulders desperately for support. They were going to have to leave him behind very soon.
He worried though, for everyone’s safety: it was his duty as a royal to protect them. Would Snow be all right without him by her side? Was Emma strong enough to handle Neverland on her own? What would happen to their just barely reunited family unit with him so suddenly absent?
For a moment there he even allowed himself to worry over the fate of Regina and Gold, both having left their group so unexpectedly; although he would never admit his concern to anyone except inside of his own head. Their party hadn’t bumped into the imp since they’d arrived, and it felt as though they had trekked over most of Neverland by now. Had something horrendous happened to him? To someone as powerful as the Dark One?
In the back of his mind he also hoped that the Evil Queen would live to see her son again, even if she didn’t deserve him.
Emma had sworn under her breath, but it echoed off of the cavern walls just as clearly as if she’d yelled the phrase out loud.
David looked ahead and was greeted only with the sight of a dead end. There was no other tunnel, big or small, and nowhere else to go. His heart pounded laboriously in his chest as he craned his neck back up, up, and up until he couldn’t look any further up if he tried.
The cliff face before him soared at least a hundred feet into the air before it disappeared into a shadowy ledge that lead to who knew where. And he wagered that if they wished to continue… they’d all have to climb it.
David almost laughed; he really did. A one-handed man, a dying prince and an injured – well, whatever Neal was – needed to walk up a cliff. It sounded like the beginning of a very bad joke.
“It looks like the only way is up,” Hook stated the obvious. And then he grinned at Emma, and David wanted very much to punch the pirate in the throat. How was it that every expression that crossed that man’s face end up looking so lecherous? “Pity we didn’t bring those enchanted bracelets.”
“There’s got to be another way,” Neal interjected. “There’s no way we can get up that.”
But Emma was still staring intently up at the near-vertical cliff-face in front of her. “Maybe,” she replied.
David really didn’t like the way his daughter had said that. It sounded like she was about to do something terribly heroic and stupid. Just like her good ol’ dad.
Damn it, too.
And there it was. Before Snow had even been given the chance to start talking about perseverance or hope, Emma had plopped herself gracelessly on the ground and begun to unlace her boots.
“What are you doing, Emma?” David questioned worriedly.
And the suddenly jumpy voice of her ex-boyfriend only served to heighten her father’s concern.
“No,” Neal ordered, stepping up to stand at Emma’s disrobing feet so that he could simmer down at her bowed curls. And when she still refused to acknowledge him, he said it again. “No, you are not thinking what I think you’re thinking, Ems! There are no ropes or carabiners! You have zero gear!”
But Emma just shrugged as she pulled off one of her boots. “I’ve climbed without ropes before. Back in ‘Frisco. What was that place called?” She squinted one eye up at him while she tugged at a particularly knotted lace on her other shoe. “That closed climbing place we crashed at?”
“Rocks Around the Clock, but that’s not the point.” Neal’s hands shot out in exasperation. “There were mats there! Thick, squishy mats that prevented you from breaking your neck when you fall!”
Emma stood and shoved her boots into Neal’s hands with a cocky smirk on her face. “Then I just won’t fall.”
Snow tried to block Emma’s way as she moved towards the bottom of the cliff. “Emma, there has to be another way! This is dangerous!” his wife cried.
“Shorter than the beanstalk.”
WHAT?! David immediately thought. His little girl had been up that dangerously high in the sky with that rascally pirate fighting giants!? And yes, he rationally knew how tall the clouds in Fairytale Land flew but oh… Snow had some explaining to do. She had definitely downplayed that part of the story when she’d regaled him with Emma and her’s time in the Enchanted Forest.
Charming looked up at the precipice his daughter was about to try and scale and his brow furrowed. “But why did you take off your boots?” he asked.
The bluff was a far cry from the constructed rock walls that she was apparently used to climbing. The pointed crags and severe shards of crystal jutting out of the slick surface looked like their one goal in life was to impale as many people as possible on their serrated tip.
And those sharp rocks were going to hurt Emma’s feet even through her socks.
Neal turned to him and sighed, “Because she needs to be able to grip the rock and the boots don’t have enough give in them.”
Emma had just found her first handhold when the pirate called out smarmily behind him, “Try not to abandon anyone this time, love!” She rightfully glared back at him over her shoulder.
“Cora. Greg. Tamara.” Emma found a foothold and prepared to launch herself off of the ground. “You’re like a walking double-cross,” she retaliated.
Neal joined in the glowering contest. “There anyone here you haven’t screwed over, Hook?”
Hook gestured to himself and smirked as if that explained everything. “Pirate,” he beamed.
“Asshole,” Neal shot back.
“Idiots,” Emma muttered.
And she was off.
Snow had a death grip on the part of his arm that was still flesh and blood and was clutching it so tightly that he knew that when his wife finally decided to release him, there’d be fingernail crescents left in his skin.
But as David watched Emma begin to scale the pitted rock face ahead, he found himself more stunned than anything. His daughter was surprisingly graceful and quick as she ascended skillfully from one jagged bit of stone to the next. Like one fluid motion, she climbed rapidly without hesitation or fear and never for a second sought to look back at where she had once been.
And when there had been no stumbles, no near-misses, no breath-catching slips or almost-falls, and Emma was still clamoring expertly fifty feet above their heads like she had been born as part-mountain goat instead of part-shepherd, Charming realized that he had, once again, underestimated his daughter. Emma didn’t need his help. Nor did she want it.
Because he had missed it. He had missed it all. He hadn’t been around to sing away the nightmares, to bandage her bloody knees, or to chase away her tears with love so that she knew that he was a safe place. That he was Dad. He had never quieted her sadness by smothering her tiny cherub face in kisses and now he never would. His little girl was all grown up and had learned to kiss away the pain herself.
Emma disappeared from sight as soon as she had crested the top of the wall, and for a full eight heartbeats Charming forgot every single thing he had just thought. They’d sent her to her doom, all by herself, and his let-your-daughter-fend-for-her-own attitude was all to blame. Some parents they were. He couldn’t even remember what her favorite color was, and now she had gone and gotten herself killed. How could they get to her to in time? Were there Lost Boys up there? Was it Pan? Maybe if he could use the pirate’s appendage as a grappling hook he would be abl–
But then a rope-ladder sailed over the edge of the cliff and clattered against the stone wall.
Emma’s head popped over the side sporting a smile that rivaled sunshine, “Elevator’s out, but this might work.”
t was worse than Charming had imagined.
Snow had practically flown up the ladder with all of the skill she had mastered as a bandit on the run from a queen out for her blood. And to David’s dismay, the pirate was actually quite agile with his hook, having lived with it for so long. He was probably used to climbing the rigging of his precious ship all day, every day, and so Charming had to watch as Hook scurried up the ladder right behind his wife, much too close to her bottom for his liking.
Then there was Neal, who struggled mightily with his injured shoulder but gritted his teeth through the endeavor and made it work anyway, by mostly using his legs to do all of the work. His one bicep struggled mightily to distribute his weight as he hoisted himself up the ladder one rung at a time and by the time he reached the top, Emma had to catch him and pull him over the edge.
Which only left him, standing alone at the bottom of a cliff that from this vantage point, looked nearly insurmountable.
David felt a weight drop into his stomach that had nothing to do with the stony poison running through his veins. His incapacitated limbs were never going to make it up this ladder.
“I can’t make it up! You’ll have to go on without me!” he hollered up to his gang. “Pan said you’d have to leave someone behind, it might as well be me.”
At least his family would be safe. Emma would find Henry and Snow would go back to Storybrooke and he could die in this cave in peace. He could sacrifice himself for the good of the group. It’d be an honorable way to go.
Snow’s head popped over the ledge, “David, we are not leaving you.” She was wearing her I-mean-business face and she had her no-nonsense voice on and it was adorable and ferocious all at once, and the prince fell in love with her all over again in the span of a millisecond.
“We’re going to get you up here. Just hold on a second,” she insisted. And then she disappeared above him.
And when she reappeared, she was just as bossy and determined as before. Except for now she had their daughter in tow.
“Wrap the ladder around yourself like a harness!” Emma called down to him. “We’re gonna pull you up!”
David shook his head. “It’s not worth the ris–”
“Charming, we are going to pull you up,” Snow insisted as she plowed over his martyring retort. And it somehow sounded more like a threat than encouragement. “So wrap yourself in this ladder or so help me I will climb back down there and wrap you in it myself.”
Charming did as he was told.
They yanked and he bashed into the wall. They yanked, he went up a few feet, and he bashed into the wall again. They yanked, he went up a few more feet, and he tried not to let his face take the brunt of the hit this time. On and on and on this went until David was almost glad that he couldn’t feel where his skin was consistently colliding with the cliff. He groaned as he tried to gather his footing on his good leg so that during his next yank towards freedom he might be able to push off of the wall and help with the upward momentum, and not just hang there like the useless dead weight he was.
David knew that he must have looked completely ridiculous bouncing around on the end of this rope-ladder like some kind of beat-up tetherball, and he was suddenly very glad that they were not all back in Storybrooke right now. He would have hated for pictures or videos of this humiliating incident to be put on Facebook, and Ruby was a fiend about sharing all things of this embarrassing nature with the entire town.
Although, he mused absently, if he did ever make it through this adventure to see his deputy again, he might just let her mock him for it for a day. But only a day. He knew she’d get a kick out of it.
When David finally breached the top of the precipice with all the elegance of a beached whale, everyone was gasping for breath. Neal laid sprawled on the ground, trying to recover, while Hook and Snow both lunged for his frame and lugged him up the rest of the way.
Emma, who had been at the back of the rope and anchoring it in place, dropped it panting and immediately sat down to take the weight off of her feet, which from the small glimpse he got of them from his weird angle on the ground, were not in good shape. She turned her back to the group as she pulled her boots back on, but dear old dad didn’t miss the painful wince that she couldn’t keep from flickering across her face.
As they all regrouped their sanity and got ahold of themselves, David realized that the outcropping they had landed on was just another level of the cave. And it was with a heavy sigh that he saw that there were two tunnels lying in wait for them, not just one.
Nothing in his life could ever be easy, could it?
David opened his mouth to ask which way Jack’s Map had indicated they should go, but Emma beat him to the punch.
“I already tried it, and it doesn’t work,” she groused as she shoved the parchment back into her pocket. “Apparently, it doesn’t work underground. Like it’s lost its signal or some shit.”
Emma fired an irritated look to Neal, “You’d think that magic would be better than Wi-Fi…”
“So that means we just have to guess and hope for the best,” Neal concluded.
They all stared at the two entrances. They had a fifty-fifty shot at getting this right.
Emma sighed and took a shot in the dark. “Left?” she suggested.
David smiled. “Left it is then.”
He bravely marched towards the tunnel that his daughter had chosen. He had learned his lesson; he could trust Emma to make her own decisions and carry her own weight in the group. She didn’t need a babysitter. And by putting his faith in her judgment and instincts, he was just one step closer to proving to her how much he really meant that. After all, she had yet to lead them wrong.
His horrified scream pierced the darkness of the tunnel only seconds later.
“David!” Snow shrieked back, terrified.
There was no answer in return.
. . . To Be Continued in Episode 10
Total Word Count: 14173 words