A/N: Many thanks, as always, go to my beta reader, Raams, for help with this chapter! I hope you guys enjoy it!
Although more egotistical professors might have taken offense that a mere lad such as Henry Mills was able to get through to struggling students while an educated professional could not, Killian simply took it in stride. It was more important to him that the mysteries of poetry and literature had been opened to another mind, leaving a new world of imagination and feeling to explore, rather than taking credit for it. Beauty was not a thing to be locked away or hoarded until someone condescended to share it on their own strict terms. That Henry Mills had been able to reach Emma Nolan and help her to decode poetry, therefore, only pleased Killian.
There wasn't a marked change in her class behavior—though Killian hadn't really expected one. Learning to comprehend poetry came at a trickle for most people, their ability to analyze it building little by little. There were occasional students with a raw, instinctual grasp of it, but they were very few, and never seemed interested in pursuing their latent talent beyond the four walls of a classroom. Emma Nolan, who didn't quite fit into either of these categories, remained as reticent to participate with the class as ever, but Killian sensed a change in her nonetheless. Perhaps he was seeing what he wanted to see, based on Emma's admission that her tutoring session with Henry had been helpful. If anything, she seemed distant and preoccupied this morning, but Killian had no solid, rational basis to account for difference he felt in Emma. He simply knew it with the same certainty that he knew Emma Nolan shared a connection of the soul with him.
"All right," Killian told his students at the close of class, "now that we've had our first essay quiz, and you've gotten a taste of what I look for when I grade, it's time to start thinking about writing our first paper." The class issued a collective groan, and Killian grinned. "But in order to do so," he continued, "we'll need to have a good grasp of T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," so I suggest reading ahead a bit in your material and letting yourself become familiar with it. Do not worry about analyzing it yet—simply let your mind absorb the words and begin to mull over them while we continue our regular schedule of coursework. In my experience, it will make the analysis and writing of your paper much easier when it's time to sit down and write it." He smiled. "Of course, if you enjoy a challenge, feel free to ignore my advice." His students laughed softly, and Killian dismissed them, gathering his sheaf of notes and other materials.
"Professor Jones?" a familiar voice interrupted politely while he returned the papers to his briefcase.
"Hmm?" he said distractedly, his mind already working on the fragment idea of another poem, "Oh, Miss Nolan," he greeted when he looked up. "Is there something I can help you with?"
"Yeah." She shifted from one foot to the other as students shuffled out of class around her. "I just wanted to say thanks again for putting me in touch with Henry. We're meeting again tonight to go over more material, see if he can catch me up to where we're at in class now."
"No need," he assured her with sincerity. "I'm glad it seems to be working out for you."
She twirled a button on the blue sweater she wore, and Killian couldn't help but notice that the shade brought out some honey-colored highlights in her wealth of golden hair that he'd never noticed before. He admired them covertly, shutting his briefcase with a snap. "Is there anything else?" he asked after a brief stretch of silence. Emma peered around the classroom with a frown, and Killian's eyes swept the room as well, finding it empty. He furrowed his brow. "Would you like to discuss something in my office?" he offered.
"No, Victor's waiting for me," she shook her head. "I just wanted to tell you that I took your advice about putting an ad in the school newspaper."
Killian stared at her for a moment. "I see," he said, clearing his throat when he finally found his voice again.
Emma frowned. "What's wrong? Do you think I shouldn't have done it, now?"
"No," he said immediately. "That's not for me to decide. It's just that…" He trailed off. What could he say to her without giving himself away? "Well, I suppose I'm surprised and a little flattered," he recovered. "Most people don't tend to take the advice they ask people for." Which was true enough, he thought as he paused briefly. "Let me know if you need any more help with the matter," he found himself saying, as if he had no knowledge of the situation. "And Emma? Whatever it is you decide about your admirer, I hope it works out for you."
"Thank you," she smiled.
Killian watched her leave the classroom to join her roommate, who was hovering near the doorway. Emma and Victor fell into step together, joined by Ruby Lucas, and Killian turned away, picking up his briefcase. Holding it with one hand, he cleaned the board, his thoughts preoccupied with something other than writing. So Emma had left him a message in the paper. The idea hadn't seemed so bad in the abstract, but now that it had become a concrete thing, he felt a flutter of panic in his belly. Regardless of her response, he couldn't let this progress any further than it already had. What had he been thinking, sending Emma the poems he'd written? If he must purge his attraction to Emma through his writing, why hadn't he simply thrown them in a drawer to collect dust, like most of the rest of his work? This was mad! He was mad!
Flicking off the lights, Killian left the classroom and walked across campus to one of the coffee houses, like a moth drawn to a flame. No matter how his mind tried to justify it, his heart knew the real reason he was going to peruse the campus newspaper, and it certainly wasn't to have something to entertain himself with while he sipped a cup of abysmal tea.
Twenty minutes later, clutching a large paper cup of tea and juggling his briefcase, Killian settled into a secluded corner of the coffee house. Reaching for a copy of the school paper, Killian hesitated with trembling fingers. He could leave it closed, halt this entire in its tracks right now. It was the objectively sensible thing to do. He was risking his job, playing a dangerous game.
Killlian opened the paper.
Leafing through it, he located the appropriate section and scanned through many of the messages with disinterest. He was about to lay the paper down, thinking that the editorial staff had not had the room to include it in this particular edition, when he spotted it—a single, simple poem of only three stanzas. Henry had helped Emma write it, he knew, scanning the poem; there was a familiarity of phrasing that gave it away. And yet, he realized, as he re-read the poem with more careful consideration, the depth of feeling in it was all Emma:
Dreams are near impossible
Unless we aim to try
To soothe that internal restlessness
So set sail, O Captain, and I shall fly.
Though we cannot move together—
You sailing in the waters, and I soaring in the sky—
Let us chase the sunset in concert
Though it evades us, by and by.
But let us not despair,
Or let fall from our lips that frustrated sigh,
We may catch each other in the sunset still—
If from our dreams we do not shy.
Chase the sunset in concert? Killian quietly rolled the words over his tongue, slumping against the back of the booth. It was a tempting lure—one he could not dare to indulge. And yet, Emma's hope that they might one day catch each other in the sunset, that fate might one day be kind enough to smile upon them despite their circumstances, was enough to fan the embers of Killian's faith. Fate had a reason for bringing Emma into his life. Killian believed it was because they were soulmates. But he was in no position to offer her any concrete, physical relationship. Perhaps fate had another purpose in mind, he brooded. Maybe they were meant to connect in another way, offering encouragement and companionship through an exchange of poems, thereby touching each other's lives in only the most peripheral of ways.
It wasn't what Killian desired, not by far. It was vastly cruel, in fact, that when Fate finally saw fit to bring a soulmate into his life, Killian could not embrace her and share his life with her in the ways he wanted. But neither could Killian turn down the small way that Fate saw fit to offer him for having a corner in Emma's life, could he?
Folding the paper up with slow, careful precision, Killian sipped absently at his tea. The warm liquid slid down his throat, warming his belly while he contemplated what kind of reply he should send back to Emma in response. He didn't want to openly encourage her and lead her on in such a way that she began to seek a physical, face-to-face relationship. But then, that was the rub, wasn't it? Despite all of his insistence within his poems that they couldn't be together, hadn't set up that expectation nonetheless in pursuing her so ardently with them? Was it possible to simply love and admire and support Emma in all that she pursued from a distance? More to the point, was it fair to Emma to do so?
Liam was right. This was all a very bad idea that could cost him his job if he didn't get it out of his system and put an end to it. Somehow, no matter how much he wished to keep that small corner in Emma's life through the poems he was sending to her, he had to let it go.
Let her go.
Killian spent the next week and a half agonizing over his response to Emma. Everything he wrote seemed simply awful to his eyes, and sounded even worse to his ears. He experimented with rhythm and syntax over his breakfast, or while he wore out the belt on his gym's treadmills every evening, but nothing satisfied him. Even taking a hot bath couldn't seem to clear his head enough to produce anything that pleased him. Rather than having a case of writer's block, Killian had something he felt was a thousand times worse—writer's constipation. He couldn't for the life of him find the right words to release the ideas and emotions he knew he wanted to convey in his last poem to Emma. They were trapped in his head, locked away behind an invisible barrier, through which he could visualize them, almost hear them, and he couldn't pull them out.
It drove him mad, making Killian moody and more inclined to impatience. And rather than taking it out on his students, he withdrew and let them lead the discussions in his class for a change, while he listened and tried to immerse himself in the immortal words of poets far greater than him, with the hopes that it might kindle inspiration.
He even resorted to toting volumes of Yeats and Dickinson to his office to pore over during his spare time between classes, in the dim and desperate hope that they might lubricate the lock on the prison door that stood between his ideas and his pen, but to no avail.
"Killian, what in the world is the matter with you?" Elsa finally inquired with a note of exasperation while he was visiting one Saturday afternoon. He'd hoped a nice visit with his niece might cheer him enough to pull him out of his funk and enable him to write the final poem to Emma, but it seemed that even Miri's happy coos and sweet snuggles did little to soothe the restless crabbiness that had taken hold of him.
"It's been a long week," he shrugged.
"No, it's more than that. Your face has resembled a thundercloud ever since you came over today," she insisted. "Now what's bothering you? Is it something to do with that coworker Liam said you were attracted to?"
He grunted noncommittally, and Elsa correctly interpreted it as a yes.
"Killian," she said reasonably, "if it's affecting you this much, perhaps you ought to consider asking her out for a date and giving things a chance."
"Can't," he muttered, pressing a kiss against Miri's wealth of blonde curls as she aimed the full force of her toothless smile straight at him.
"Oh, now really," Elsa sighed. "Perhaps it's frowned upon, that's true, but you're both adults, aren't you? It's not as if you two would be the first office romance that's ever happened. Just file the requisite paperwork with your boss to cover both of you if things don't work out, and give this thing an honest chance." She peered over her shoulder at Liam, who was busy poring over a lab report that he'd brought home from work. "Right, honey?"
"Of course," he answered absently, pushing the wire-rimmed reading glasses he wore back into their proper position. His gaze never deviated from the report for a single second, and Killian hid a smile. "You're absolutely right, dear."
"See?" Elsa said, significantly, even though she knew as well as Killian did that Liam hadn't been paying attention to their conversation in the slightest. "Anyway, you can't go on like this forever. It's not healthy. Either you need to take a chance and see where things lead, or you need to find a way to put it behind you for good."
"I know," Killian responded with a quiet reluctance that verged on despair, "I know. I just can't seem to find the right words."
"Then that's your problem right there," Elsa said with conviction, "stop trying to find the right words, and just show her how you feel."
Elsa's advice was eerily similar to that which he'd given to Emma for poetry class. Show her how I feel? Killian blinked several times as his mind conjured an image of himself, cradling Emma's face with one hand as he backed her against a wall, kissing her, exploring her, until they were both weak from lack of air-
"It doesn't need to be fancy," Elsa was insisting as Killian struggled to dispel the image from his mind, "just something to break the ice, like bringing in her favorite treat from the bakery; it will make it a little easier to ask her out, and she'll know you've been thinking of her. The worst she can do is say no."
He slanted a look at Elsa. "Thanks," he said sardonically.
"Oh, you know what I meant!"
"I'll think about it."
"You've done too much thinking already," she argued. "You need to go for it and ask this woman out."
"All right, Elsa," he said with the ghost of a smile, "I hear you. And I'll take your words to heart."
"Good," she said primly, "because I love you, Killian, and I would really hate to have to resort to drastic measures."
Killian shuddered to think of what Elsa's "drastic measures" might consist of.
Rather than visit the gym again in what had become a nightly ritual to purge Emma from his thoughts, Killian decided to take a different approach. He dressed in his warmest clothes and went for a long walk instead. Perhaps the change of scenery and pace would finally enable him to formulate the overwhelming feelings and thoughts into tangible words, setting things to right again, so he could cut his emotional ties to Emma once and for all.
He found himself walking toward the university after a while, with no cognitive memory of choosing that particular path. Exasperated with himself, he debated whether to turn back or press onward. Eventually, he chose the latter. His office keys were on the key ring in his coat pocket; maybe he would sit in his office and try to write that goodbye to Emma. The more professional setting might put the necessary steel in his backbone to end the flirtation, regardless of whether he could adequately express the devastation in his heart at saying goodbye. It needed to be written and sent, regardless of his ability to convey himself the way he wanted. The hope that he could make her understand had never been more than wishful thinking anyway. He could not very well explain who he was; therefore neither could he disclose the real reason for ceasing to send more poems. Emma would form her own conclusions, accurate or not, whether he explained himself or didn't. And there was nothing Killian could do about it.
Emma's familiar voice Killian halted in his tracks. A chill settled in his spine. This was going to be even harder than he thought, if fate was going to use such dirty tactics to dissolve his resolution before it hardly had a moment to strengthen. Closing his eyes briefly, Killian took a fortifying breath and turned toward her. "Miss Nolan. What can I do for you?"
"I'm sorry to bother you," Emma apologized, looking unsure of herself. "I saw you walk by while I was on my way to the library to study before meeting Henry for another session, and I thought… Well, I guess I wanted to pick your brain a bit."
"About something for class?" he inquired hopefully.
"Ah, it's about…the poems."
The halting way in which she'd said it left little room to delude himself that she meant any of the poems assigned for class reading. "I see. Well, Miss Nolan, I'm on my way to my office to take care of some paperwork. Perhaps we can discuss them as we go?" Best to keep things as public as possible, he reminded himself. For both their sakes. They had gotten far too personal on too many occasions as it was. He'd been careless. That had to stop. He might not be able to avoid Emma entirely, if she sought him out during office hours, but Killian could do his best to minimize any other occasions as much as possible.
"So what's on your mind?" he asked, after she fell into step behind him and they began walking across the campus. He tried very hard not to notice the heavy book bag she had slung over her shoulders. He knew it was considered old-fashioned these days, but the instinct to offer to carry her books was powerful, and Killian had a difficult time suppressing it. Inappropriate, he reminded himself. Very inappropriate.
"Remember when I told you about the, um, response I put in the school paper?"
"Aye." He nodded.
"Well, it's just that… Valentine's Day is on Monday…"
It was? Killian blinked. He knew he had been rather preoccupied, but letting a major holiday nearly pass him by unnoticed? It wasn't as if he didn't see the day's date every single day in his planner, either. He should have made the connection. But his brain, filled to the brim with other concerns, just…hadn't. Killian felt ashamed. He should have replied to her notice in the newspaper long before now. He'd let this entire situation get out of hand.
"…and it's not like I was expecting him to get me anything for it," Emma was saying, "I don't even really know this person yet. I just thought I would have heard from him by now. Especially after I left that ad. But I haven't." Her expression clouded over. "Do you think he changed his mind? Or maybe he didn't see it, if he doesn't read the school paper much?"
"It's hard to say," he found himself saying. "There are a lot of possibilities. Perhaps something else is occupying his attention right now. Schoolwork. Writer's block. Anxiety at the thought of disappointing you or letting you down…"
"I never thought of those things," she admitted, looking thoughtful.
"Of course," Killian felt obligated to add, feeling the weight of his own selfish behavior in instigating all of this and putting Emma in a position to hope for something that couldn't ever develop into a proper relationship, "it's also possible he's simply a selfish arse who stopped writing and doesn't deserve you or your attention."
Emma's expression sobered. "Possibly. I'd have been more inclined to think so a few weeks ago than I am now. I guess I'm just not ready to give up hope quite yet. Is that stupid?"
And here it was, the perfect opportunity to kindly and subtly discourage her from pursuing any of this further. But Killian made the colossal mistake of peering over at Emma. And when her green eyes met his gaze, he simply couldn't do it.
"No," he told her, thinking of the strong theme of hope within the poem she'd penned with Henry's help, "our feelings are never stupid. They're what make us human. And the ability to hope, even when things look bleakest, is perhaps the most humanizing of them all. It's what enables us to keep going—surviving—even when the future looks cold and empty, and we fear we might never find warmth or happiness again. Hope is a good thing, Emma. Even if sometimes it's misplaced. It gives us a future."
She smiled. Her eyes filled with understanding and pity. Killian realized that she was probably thinking of his losing Milah, and the affect that must have had on his own ability to hope, many years ago.
"Thank you, Professor. If I don't hear from him in another week or two, I suppose…" She trailed off. "Anyway, I'd better get to the library and hit those books before Henry gets here," she excused herself. "Good luck with that paperwork," she added by way of farewell.
Killian bobbed his head and mumbled a response. He turned back toward the building that housed his office. He felt deflated. How in the world was he supposed to write that blasted farewell poem now? Perhaps he should write a letter? He pondered the notion as he climbed the steps leading to the front doors, fishing for his keys to the building. No, he finally decided as he unlocked it and stepped inside, he would be expected to be more direct in a letter than he would a poem. And Killian couldn't be direct about his reasons for not sending anymore poems.
Reaching his office a few minutes later, he flicked on the dim light and sat down. Perhaps a bit of free writing might help ease his tension and allow just the right words to flow from his pen. Opening one of his desk drawers, he retrieved a legal pad and rolled the drawer shut. He selected a ballpoint pen from the cup sitting on a corner of his desk, uncapped it, and started to write.
It was pure stream of consciousness at first. All of his frustrations and longings came pouring out from his pen, almost like it was magic. But somewhere along the way, his words transformed themselves. Structure appeared, little by little, in a rough fashion as his thoughts began to break down into stanzas. Symbols appeared, and syntax changed. And about halfway through the poem he had intended to write, another entirely different one took shape. The mood shifted by increments-from despair to desperate hope to confidence that Fate might take a hand and see them through their impossible circumstances.
And when he had finally written himself out, Killian threw down the pen on his desk and stared at the poem with a sense of confusion and horror. He couldn't send this to Emma!
Either you need to take a chance and see where things lead, or you need to find a way to put it behind you for good, Elsa's words echoed through his head.
He ripped the pages from the legal pad in one swift motion. Better to just be rid of any potential temptation. If Elsa knew the situation for what it really was, her words of advice would have been very different, he reminded himself.
Emma's face flashed through his mind next—disappointed, even hurt that she'd had no contact from her admirer of late, but still hopeful…
The image weakened Killian's resolve, and he paused in the act of crumpling the papers. Surely it could not hurt to sent just one more set of poems for Valentine's Day and cheer her a bit before he tapered them off. Killian needed to give Emma her best chance to move on and find someone more suited to the same path and circumstances in life. It was the right thing to do, the honorable course of action. He had to let the idea of Emma Nolan go.
But he also needed to help Emma let the idea of him go. At some point, she might want to meet him, find out who he was, if for no other reason than to satisfy her curiosity. And Killian simply could not let that come to pass.
As the poems became more inconsistent in their delivery, Emma would surely become less invested, making it easier on them both when he quit sending them altogether. It wasn't uncommon for love to bloom brilliant, but wither quickly.
For the first time he wondered whether that was the fate to which he and Milah would have fallen prey. They'd been very young, their relationship and subsequent engagement rather a whirlwind. If she'd lived, would they have eventually broken up, as many young loves were wont to do, or stayed the course with each other and been happy?
Reaching into the pocket of his jeans, Killian retrieved his cell phone. Most florists would be swamped with orders this close to Valentine's Day, and any possibility of a complicated custom order was therefore out of the question. But Killian did know one person who might be able to help him with what he had in mind. She had retired years ago, leaving the business to her granddaughter, but she still liked to take on special projects from time to time. This, he supposed, was certainly a special project if there ever was one.
He dialed the number.
"Hello?" a youthful, feminine voice answered breathlessly after the third ring. "Briar Rose Floral Arrangements."
"Aurora," Killian greeted her. "I'd ask how business is, but considering what Monday is…"
"It's stressful this time of year," she agreed with a laugh, "but it keeps my books in the black. So what can I do for you? Are you looking for part time work again?"
"No," he said, "at least not until the summer. My schedule's too busy this semester. I was actually calling to speak with your grandmother about getting her help with something. Is she there today?"
"Are you kidding?" Aurora laughed again. "She wouldn't miss this chaos for the world. Hang on, I'll pass the phone over. I have an arrangement of roses and tulips to finish anyway. It was nice hearing from you again, Killian!"
There was a crackle, some brief murmuring, and then a wry voice said into the phone, "Hello, Killian."
"So I'm to understand there's a special lady you want to impress?" she interrupted, before he could finish with pleasantries.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Oh, come now. Aurora tells me you aren't looking for any work, but you're calling for me, specifically, less than two days before Valentine's Day. I may be getting on in years, but I'm not senile. I can still put two and two together. Now tell me about this special project you have in mind."
Rose listened for several minutes while Killian described his idea. "But do you have the kinds of flowers in stock that I'd need to match the poem?" he finished, feeling a lot less certain of himself now that he'd described his ideas out loud than when he'd conceived of it in his head. Killian didn't usually let share his work, raw and unfinished, with just anyone. He preferred to hold back and refine it, running it through several drafts, before he felt comfortable letting anyone else set eyes on it.
"Not here in the store," she mused thoughtfully, "and certainly not on such short notice—as you well know! However…I do have much of what we'll need for the arrangement in my greenhouse at home." She paused, then said reproachfully, "Meet me there tomorrow morning—early—if you want to pull this all together in time. Bring coffee."
She hung up without bothering to pass the phone back to her granddaughter, and Killian stared down at his phone, optimism warring with doubt. Was he doing the right thing, continuing these poems to Emma, even in the short term?
Killian had the strange feeling that, for better or worse, he was soon to find out.