"Where the bloody hell have you been?"

She'd assumed, incorrectly, that she'd know what to do once she saw him. Now all she could think of was how to bide her time until she absolutely had to make a choice.

She shed her jacket and tossed onto the nearest hard surface, not avoiding eye contact, not really. Not on purpose. But all the thoughts she hadn't had time to gather on the ride over now crowded a mind already at capacity with whys and what ifs and that can't possibly be trues.

"Just out," said Emma. "Needed some air."

Alistair looked at her the way she imagined an overprotective parent might look at their troublesome teen, then took a breath and sat himself at the foot of the bed.

Emma realized, with some irritation, that his distress undoubtedly had little to do with her personal safety and everything to do with finding himself back at square one, should anything befall her. With Emma went his only chance of breaking the curse on Storybrooke.

"I'm not offended, by the way," he said with a tone that implied the contrary. "At your absconding with my phone and sneaking off in the middle of the night."

Emma reached into her back pocket and handed over his phone, too tired to snap at him for acting like she'd done something wrong by not keeping him updated as to her whereabouts. To remind him that the only person she was accountable to was herself.

Alistair inspected the device and appeared to find everything in order before he waved his hand over its face, causing it to vanish. Once that was done, he looked at Emma like he was seeing her for the first time since she'd walked in, the haze of disapproval lifted.

"Everything all right, Darling?"

"Fine."

"You look as though you've seen a ghost."

Try several.

If what he'd said about the curse was true, the citizens of Storybrooke were all just phantoms of their former selves, wandering about without a clue.

She thought back to the disquieted look on Mary Margaret's face at her inability to recall when, exactly, she'd moved to town, or how long she'd lived there. And Henry's statement about Emma's presence there being impossible. The way every eye in the diner had locked on her for a few confused seconds before turning away, like she was the first stranger they'd ever seen.

"I was able to track down August Booth."

"Well that's one mystery solved," said Alistair with a sidelong glance at where his phone had recently rested. "And what did our elusive little upstart have to say?"

"Nothing enlightening."

Emma sat down beside Alistair, hating how guilty she felt. Hating that she felt like she owed him anything. He wasn't her friend. He was barely an acquaintance. Once this was all over and he got what he wanted, she very much doubted she'd ever see him again.

She hated that she was saddened by that fact.

"…one day I'm going to win you over…"

She tried to remind herself that she didn't know what his actual plans were for breaking the curse. Or his motivations. What made him so eager, so willing to go against the council to accomplish his goal?

Killian had told Emma enough about his employers for her to glean that this undertaking of Alistair's couldn't possibly have been council-approved. Guides were to get in, grant wishes, get out. They weren't meant to make friends. Fall in love. Save the world.

What mattered so much to Alistair that he'd risk incurring the great and terrible wrath she'd heard so much about?

It hit her then, how she would keep him distracted while she made up her mind about whether or not to tell him what she'd discovered.

Once the truth was out, he'd want Emma to tell him everything. He'd want her to take him there, to take action. He'd want her to show him what she'd seen and who she'd talked to and—

Emma couldn't help seeing sparks in the distance. Hearing a crack and a groan seconds before she'd inadvertently shut down a highway with a redwood tree.

She couldn't help seeing Mary Margaret standing on an empty sidewalk and remembering the inexplicable, instantaneous connection she'd felt. A pull that was far too similar to others to be coincidence.

What would happen when the curse was broken? If it was broken.

Would Mary Margaret be the same person Emma had met? Or would there be some sort of shift? Would she be someone completely different? Someone horrible? Someone who wanted nothing to do with Emma or her emotional trauma? What if Emma stepped into the role of Savior—whatever that meant—and freed her parents, only to find out they'd never wanted her in the first place?

Had her father been there, too? Somewhere in Storybrooke. Had she passed him by without realizing it? Had he been sound asleep inside one of the darkened houses she'd passed, exhausted after living the same day over again for the ten-thousandth time? Had he been at Granny's Diner, seated among the evening's customers, completely unaware, as Emma had been, of the bond they shared?

The enormity of it all was finally hitting her. What Alistair was asking her to do. Her flight reflex was stronger than it'd been in years. At the same time, she felt anchored to this new reality, held captive in her own right. By expectation. By responsibility.

By curiosity and a need for answers to questions that'd been so persistent the past twenty-seven years that turning her back on them felt the same as forsaking part of her identity.

Who was she without them?

What was she if not the sum total of all her fears?

She wasn't sure she knew how to live in this new light. This new knowledge. This new way of looking at herself. Not as an orphan or a lost girl or a waste of latent ability. But as Emma.

"Now that we have a minute…" Emma cleared her throat, blinked back the tears before they could form. She'd thought of a way to distract Alistair—if only she could do the same for herself. "I don't have any open cases. The whole August Booth thing was a bust. I thought you might continue with your story."

Alistair sat up straight. "Doth mine ears deceive me? Emma Swan requesting storytime with her favorite guide?"

"On second thought—"

"Oh no, this is happening. Sit tight, Miss Swan, it's going to be a long, and dare I say, enlightening, night."

"I regret this already."

"Journey back with me to the year 2001." He held his arm out in front of him, moving his hand through the air like an orchestra conductor. "Our setting—"

"The Land Without Magic, yeah, you said that already. You can skip ahead."

Alistair frowned, his shoulders sagging. "Must you suck the fun out of everything? Is life here on the mortal plane not tedious enough for you?"

Emma rolled her eyes.

"Our setting: The Land Without Magic. Our heroine—well, there's really no point, is there? It's already out there." He shook his head and Emma held in a sigh, impatient as it was, unlikely to improve upon the situation. "As you previously ascertained, our heroine is you—well not you. You before you became so…" he made a face as the right descriptor left him wanting.

"So what?"

"Let's just say this Emma has fewer issues than others I know."

"You know what, I changed my mind. I'm not in the mood for—"

"Need I remind you we had an agreement, Miss Swan? Does your word mean so little?" Emma crossed her arms, resolved not to hear a single word he said. Until the next words out of his mouth were, "Do you recall the day you stole that eyesore you call a vehicle?"

"I thought you said the next story wasn't about Neal."

Alistair arched his brow. "Answer the question, please."

Emma averted her gaze, searched the hunter green carpet for her composure. "Yes, I remember the day I stole my car. From Neal."

"Describe it to me."

Emma took a beat before obliging. "I saw the Bug and decided to steal it because I liked the color yellow. Jimmied the lock and got in. When I drove away, Neal popped up from the backseat and I realized he'd stolen the car first. He asked me out. The rest is history."

"Is it?"

Emma didn't answer. This may have been her idea, but she was already annoyed by the entire thing. She didn't know what possible good could come from rehashing the whole sordid mess with Neal.

What would Alistair want to discuss next? What it felt like to give birth?

"Travel back with me, Darling, to two nights before Mr. Cassidy took it upon himself to redirect your life's path."

Emma thought for a moment, but came up blank. Two nights before? Nothing happened two nights before. It was probably one in a string of long nights spent trying and failing to get warm, falling asleep just to take her mind off the worsening pangs in her stomach.

"Nothing stands out to you as remotely life-altering? Perhaps meeting a young man not fated to shatter your fragile teenage heart so thoroughly you'd spend the next ten years avoiding all forms of non-physical intimacy…?"

Emma's first instinct was to punch Alistair in the face. But then his words hit upon something. Awoke a memory she'd completely blocked out.

It came back to her slowly, and in pieces.

A faint echo of footsteps. Distant sirens. A pounding heartbeat.

Ducking down an alley to escape.

It'd been too dark to see anything and before she'd known what was happening, she'd been face down on the pavement.

Then a kick and a scuffle and a hand over her mouth. She'd thought he was a cop, then a pervert. She'd finally understood when he'd shushed her that he'd been hoping to outrun the authorities, same as her.

"I met a boy. We talked. What's so life-altering about that?"

"What do you remember about him?"

She didn't remember what he looked like, which was an uncommon occurrence for her. He'd been strangely dressed, even for that part of town. She remembered liking him. Really liking him, really fast.

Too fast, she'd later told herself to soothe the sting of his rejection. And she'd swear she had not been tempted to kiss him after only knowing him an hour.

He had an accent—European, maybe? English? He'd called her Love a couple times—

"Oh my god, Killian."

Suddenly his face was clear. The night sharp in her mind. That crooked smile and nervous tic. The way his eyes sparkled even in the dark. And his laugh—the unmistakable, unmatched sound of it flitted across her mind like a memory of home.

She turned to Alistair. "I don't understand."

"I can see I've finally got your attention." Alistair smirked. "Perhaps now you'll listen to what I have to tell you."

Ten minutes ago, his all-knowing tone would've grated on her nerves and made her put off storytime for another day. Now, all she could do was nod her head and wait.

He let her go as the sound of police sirens faded in the distance. Emma shot to her feet and rummaged through her bag for the can of eye irritant she'd pocketed that morning while the convenience store clerk watched a soccer match on a small, square box that was no doubt at the height of technological advancement before the upgrade to color TV.

"Touch me again and I'll scream loud enough to draw the attention of every cop within a three-mile radius," she said, brandishing her pepper spray like a firearm.

The boy held up his hands in surrender. "Apologies, Miss…"

Emma didn't give her name.

"It wasn't my intention to frighten you."

"I'm not frightened."

"My mistake." The boy smiled, as far as Emma could tell—the edges of his mouth barely distinguishable amidst the shadows.

"What are you running from?"

"No offense, Love, but I don't see what business that is of yours."

"You could be a kidnapper, for all I know. Or a serial killer. How do I know I won't let you go and then see your face on the evening news?"

"If you'd kindly lower your weapon, I'll tell you anything you want to know."

Emma looked at her outstretched hand then back at the boy who'd pulled her into the alley with him. Even in the dark, his features were far too chiseled to be trusted. She lowered her arm, but kept her finger on the trigger.

"I was caught taking something from my captain's quarters."

"You're a soldier?" Emma squinted, but for all her effort couldn't detect anything remotely camouflage-esque about his attire.

"Soon to be an officer in His Majesty's Royal Navy, actually."

She tried to make out his face—it was hard to read a person when she couldn't see their eyes. From what she could tell, he was telling the truth, but she struggled to recall the last time England had a king. "But you're a thief."

"Most days." The boy tilted his head and Emma could practically hear the smile in his voice. "This evening's undertaking, however, was one of recompense. I was merely taking back what once belonged to me." To emphasize his point, he tossed something in the air and it landed in his palm with a muffled clinking sound.

Emma's feet squished in her shoes as she adjusted her stance. The rain was her least favorite part about relocating to the Pacific Northwest. The way it would suddenly stop and start again. Like now. Before she'd run headlong into this boy, it'd been like a steady wall of water, impeding her escape. But that alley, what little she could see of it, was as dry as a desert.

"And what is it you're running from?" He said. "If I may ask?"

If it wasn't one thing, it was another. She'd been running for so long, she struggled to remember what her most recent misstep had been.

"I like to think of myself as running toward something." Emma lifted her chin, squared her shoulders, refusing to be made to feel small. It wouldn't be the first time she'd been called naïve, but she'd be damned if it was the first time she cowered under such offenses.

But this boy didn't call her naïve. Or ridiculous. He didn't laugh at her for clinging to such trite ideas.

"So you're in search of adventure," he said as the clouds parted overhead, choosing that precise moment to highlight the boy's entire form. He had dark hair and eyes that glinted under the light of a full moon. And his smile was the first Emma was ever tempted to describe as knee-weakening. Not that her balance was the slightest bit compromised. "A woman after my own heart."

"Is that supposed to make me swoon, or something?"

The boy wasn't deterred. He stood there, one hand at his side, the other casually rested on his belt, the smile never leaving his face for long. He laughed, and Emma didn't think she'd ever heard another one like it.

"Well, seeing as I did just save your life, a show of gratitude wouldn't be wholly untoward." He tapped at his lips, the action not nearly as subtle as he must've meant it to be.

Emma rolled her eyes, even as her stomach did a nervous flip. "That's kind of a stretch. And besides, I don't make a habit of kissing boys I just met. Whose names I don't know."

"A wise practice, to be sure." He offered his hand, which Emma accepted, only stopping to question how readily she'd responded once his palm was flush against her own. "Killian Jones, at your service."

She looked him over a moment longer, appreciating the new angles the moonlight lent his features. "Emma Swan."

Emma sat absorbing this new—old—information. Processing it. The more Alistair talked, the clearer the night became. Still…

She didn't understand how any of this was possible.

If not for the fact that she, herself, had memories of these events, she would've dismissed them as more magical nonsense.

Even if magic wasn't quite so nonsensical to her anymore.

After talking with August Booth.

After visiting Storybrooke.

After what happened at the edge of town.

She didn't think she could conceivably live in denial any longer.

These things were real. They always had been.

An alternate version of her had met Killian as a child.

This version of her had met him on a rainy night in Portland.

She'd had magic then.

She had it now.

She felt it rippling just beneath the surface of her skin, itching to be unleashed upon the world. The more anxious Emma became, the harder it was to rein in.

She looked at Alistair like he was a lifeline, tossed to someone who'd fallen overboard, someone who was being dragged away by a current too strong to contend with.

Did he know—could some immortal part of him sense—the terror simmering behind each roll of her eyes? Each huff of hot air.

Don't leave me alone with this, a voice inside her begged.

Could her guide hear it, too?

Emma knew the answer when Alistair didn't skip a beat in his story. Honestly, she didn't know what else she'd expected.

Eye on the prize, as ever—that was Alistair. Heaven forbid he pick up on any nonverbal cues. Take time away from his own agenda to realize that his client was experiencing some serious information overload.

The sheer volume of revelations she'd had in the past week had Emma feeling rattled. But what was there to do except press on? Make herself comfortable. Sit back and listen to a man she hardly knew recite tales from her youth.

Soon his words were like background noise. A soundtrack to memories that rose from a graveyard of forgotten days. She thought she'd buried them deep enough. She was wrong.

"I just found out my foster mom is crazy," Emma admitted, staring ahead at the boots Ingrid bought her. Her toes wriggled freely, relishing the feeling of not being cramped, as she and Killian leaned against an old stone building.

"What about your real mother?" Killian asked innocently enough that Emma wasn't bothered.

"Never had one."

"Father?"

"Nope."

"So you're an orphan."

Orphan triggered something inside her and Emma snapped, "What's it to you?" Instantly regretting her tone.

"I meant no offense, Love," said Killian. "Bit of an orphan, myself. I was raised by my brother."

This statement made Emma feel even worse for losing her temper. "You have a brother?"

"Aye. Liam."

"That's something, at least."

Killian looked away. He bent a knee and rested his arm atop it, his fingers fidgeting with the empty wrapper from the protein bar Emma had given him. His face had scrunched up at the first bite, but he'd seemed to enjoy it more and more with each one that followed.

"I nearly cost us everything," he said, his voice as quiet as a whisper of wind. "Liam, he…" tension formed along Killian's jaw as he clenched his hand into a fist. "Sometimes I think his efforts are wasted on me. Refuses to recognize a lost cause when he sees one."

"Can I ask you something?" Killian looked over, an expectant gaze the only answer Emma was going to get. "Would you think any less of Liam if he'd screwed up?"

Killian smirked. "Liam doesn't screw up."

"Everyone makes mistakes. It doesn't change who you are as a person. I've always been on my own, so this might not mean anything to you, but if I had a brother or sister, there isn't anything they could do that would make me give up on them."

Killian's expression softened. He looked at Emma in a way no one ever had before. There was something curious in it. Something dangerous. Something that made Emma feel like her every nerve ending was on fire.

"Do you believe in magic?"

"I need to use the restroom." Emma got up from the bed, making her movements casual, unhurried, as she crossed the room to the pocket door that separated it from the facilities.

Once inside, she attempted to catch her breath.

She had an inkling as to where Alistair was going with this story, but she didn't know if she was strong enough to face it. In light of everything she'd learned. Everything she'd been forced to accept about herself and her past.

If it was all true, it meant she had a family. She had parents waiting for her to rescue them.

If it was all true, it meant she had a destiny. Beyond anything she could've dreamt up as a kid.

If it was all true, it meant she'd met Killian first. Met him before Neal.

If it was all true, that meant…

She sat at the edge of the bathtub and closed her eyes.

Everything came back to her in flashes, fast and frantic. Out of order. It was all a haze of blue eyes and crooked smiles and her own nervous laugh ringing in her ears.

Clouds passing overhead, obstructing what little light they had. Searching hands, rushed apologies. A flush of heat as breaths mingled, faces growing close.

Then the darkness passed and Emma saw just how close their faces had gotten under the passing shadow.

She pulled away, brushed her hair behind her ears, locked her eyes on anything that wasn't the boy beside her. Seated so near that their hips almost touched. "Sorry. I thought you were my backpack."

She cringed. Brilliant save, Emma.

"Pity," said Killian. "And here I thought you'd finally warmed up to me."—

No. Emma paced the bathroom, as much as she could, given that it was about as spacious as a broom closet. It'd happened before that. After he'd asked Emma if she believed in magic and Emma had said no.

"You aren't from around here, are you?"

Emma shrugged one shoulder. "Kinda seems like a shortcut, you know? Like cheating. Have a problem, just sprinkle a little magic on it."

Killian scratched behind his ear. "If you think magic is any kind of convenience, you clearly haven't encountered your fair share."

"And you have."

He furrowed his brow as a smile started but never fully formed. "I don't know a single person who hasn't. It's sort of rampant where I'm from. Like pestilence."

"England?"

Emma wanted to laugh, even as some small, Harry Potter loving part of her came alive at the thought.

"What's…England?"

"Is that not where you're from? I just assumed…" His face grew more puzzled by the second. "Never mind. So tell me about magic."

"I'm not sure you could handle it."

It was Emma's turn to arch a brow. "Try me."

Killian rolled his bottom lip between his teeth, tilting his head to one side as he deliberated. "There is a legend where I grew up. Of a portal…"

With one final, steadying breath, Emma exited the restroom and rejoined Alistair, who now sat at the table, sorting through a package of mixed nuts for the ones he liked. She seated herself at the foot of the bed and waited for him to take up his tale again, though her mind was already lightyears ahead.

"You don't actually believe that. Do you?"

Killian shrugged as he took another bite from her last protein bar. "It's a nice story."

"So one of them is supposed to give up their whole world, everything they've ever known, five minutes after meeting this person or risk living forever without their soulmate? That doesn't seem the least bit unfair to you?"

"I never thought of it that way."

"You buy into all that True Love stuff?"

Killian smiled, his eyes drifting—of a subconscious impulse or not, Emma didn't know—to her mouth. If he tapped at his lips a second time, she couldn't say for certain she'd refuse. "I can see the appeal."

She could only stare at him as the shadows deepened around them. As clouds passed overhead, obstructing what little light they had. The alley was engulfed in shade so absolute she couldn't make out a single shape in front of her.

"Killian?"

"I'm here."

Emma reached out for something to ground her, and she found what felt like a washboard concealed by several layers of cloth. She knew she should've taken her hand away, should've put distance between them, but something about the all-encompassing dark, something about the way Killian's breath escaped short and uneven, made her reckless.

Then the darkness passed and Emma saw just how close their faces had gotten under the passing shadow.

She pulled away, brushed her hair behind her ears, locked her eyes on anything that wasn't the boy beside her. Seated so near that their hips almost touched. "Sorry. I thought you were my backpack."

She cringed. Brilliant save, Emma.

"Pity," said Killian. "And here I thought you'd finally warmed up to me."

Emma got to her feet as quickly as she could and Killian followed suit. "Know where the nearest bus stop is from here?"

"The nearest…?"

"Never mind." She bent down to retrieve her backpack, tugged one strap over her shoulder. "It was nice to meet you, Killian."

"The pleasure was all mine. Emma."

She started to walk away, then stopped. Turned around to find Killian watching her go. "Same time tomorrow?"

Killian smiled and said, "As you wish."

Emma was the last person to believe in things like portals—let alone ones that promised to unite soulmates across time and space—but the boy was cute. Too cute for his own good. Or Emma's. And she'd be damned if his smile didn't dare her to believe in magic.

She may have glanced back again, once or twice, before a strange sensation overwhelmed her. Like walking through a veil of foxtails at the start, and then like falling, tumbling, spiraling down. That horrifying weightlessness that assaults a person right before they wake up, safe and sound in their bed.

The next thing she knew, saw, felt, was rain so thick she could barely make out the street in front of her.

"Why did you tell me this?" Emma asked Alistair in a small voice. One that felt detached from her current stream of consciousness. Far away from that room. Still wandering an empty alley in the heart of Portland. Alone. "How is any of this supposed to help break a curse?"

Alistair dropped his bag of mixed nuts on the table, rubbed the residual salt from his hands, visibly displeased at Emma's response. But Emma remembered something his story left out.

Killian never showed.

"Well, if you'd allowed me to share this second part with you nearer to the first, perhaps some of the finer points would not have been lost on you."

"What finer points?"

"The heartbreak young Killian suffered, for instance, upon waking to his brother's voice instead of yours."

Emma thought back to the first story Alistair had told her. To ten year old Killian slumbering at the base of a tree when her fairytale counterpart failed to meet him.

"Was your experience the following morning not similar to his?"

The alley looked different than it had the night before. Emma wandered to the midway point, estimating it to be the place she and Killian had seated themselves so they could partake of her stolen rations.

To her surprise, she wasn't nervous—though she had a feeling that would change once Killian arrived.

She'd gone back and forth in the last twenty-four hours, but had finally made up her mind. This time she wasn't letting him leave without a kiss.

An hour passed with no sign of him, so Emma took out her favorite book and settled in to wait. The moonlight was scant—not as it had been the night before, full and bright and beaming when it wasn't blocked by slow moving clouds—and Emma's eyes quickly grew tired.

She didn't realize she'd fallen asleep until someone kicked her boot and she startled awake. "Killian?" She sat up, scrambling for her senses, and squinted up at a silhouette against the morning sun.

"You're lucky it was me who found you and not my partner," said the man standing over her. A man with a baritone voice and an Oregon accent. "Best get a move on before he comes round again."

Emma took stock of her surroundings. She'd been lying on her side, wedged between the alley floor and a building made of brick, not stone. Her bag had acted as a pillow through the night, and her book was hugged tightly against her midsection like a stuffed animal.

"I was supposed to meet someone," said Emma, still half-asleep.

The officer checked the alley in both directions. "Seems like your friend left you hanging. Come on," he knelt down and offered his hand. "This is no place for a kid."

"I'm seventeen."

"Like I said."

Emma frowned and got to her feet without his help, dusted off her plaid dress, tightened her ponytail. She grabbed her backpack and took out her glasses, took her sweet time adjusting them to the right position on her nose while the officer waited. She packed her book and took inventory of her belongings, swapped her jean jacket for the black leather, and went on her way, swearing to herself that the ache in her chest was from sleeping outside in the cold.

"Some version of you found each other as children," said Alistair. "And then again as adolescents. And here you are, in what seems another life entirely, full grown adults drawn together despite impossible odds. Now what might you call a connection like that?"

Emma didn't answer, though she knew what he wanted to hear.

What all the fairytales would've called it.

"That, Miss Swan, is how we're going to break a curse."