Regina grabbed hold of Emma's arm, her perfectly manicured fingernails digging into the red leather.
"You're going to leave me, aren't you?" she accused, face screwed up in outrage.
The sneer nearly convinced Emma to leave Regina sitting in the smoke and heat while she headed out the back way and got help. Regina would be fine up on the landing for a few minutes—she'd probably pass out from smoke inhalation, but Emma preferred her that way. Still, that idea sat like lead in Emma's gut, no matter how much Regina deserved to sweat a little.
Emma wrenched away from Regina's grasp. Taking a deep breath and throwing her arms up against the heat, she plunged through the battered doorway. Smoke swirled around her, stinging her eyes as she scanned the room.
A flash of red.
Emma slammed her elbow through the glass, remembering her jacket after the fact, but by then the glass was shattered and she had her fingers around the fire extinguisher.
She heard Regina struggling as she prepped the extinguisher and pointed it at the flames. White vapor clouded both rooms as Emma stepped through and thrust her hand out. Almost immediately, heat flushed fingers wrapped around her hand and Emma hauled Regina to her feet, ducking under her arm. The mayor leaned on her heavily as they hobbled toward the main door.
Sweet, clean air filled Emma's lungs as they burst through. Covered in ash, she gasped and coughed as light and sound assaulted her. She dimly recognized the click of a camera, followed by more flashing lights.
Immediately, Regina started shouting. "My ankle! Set me down gently!" She struggled against Emma, nearly landing both of them on the ground.
Emma resisted the urge to shove the mayor as she let go. "Seriously? You're complaining about how I saved your life?" She sucked in another stinging breath, ready to continue yelling, but a coughing fit cut her off and it was all she could do to stay upright. Hands braced against her knees, she took slow breaths.
Behind them, the sirens dimmed as an antiquated fire truck drove up.
Regina waved vaguely. "The firemen are here. It's not like we were really in danger."
Emma almost laughed, but her anger won. "Fine. Next time I'll just… I'll just…"
She dismissed Regina with a flick of her wrist, determined to walk away without finishing that thought. This woman was not worth her time or effort.
"Ah, you know what?" Emma said, turning back. "Next time, I'll do the same thing. And the time after that because that is what decent human beings do." She coughed. "That's what good people do." With that she sought out the paramedics and their oxygen tanks, hoping that would stop the world from spinning.
Regina continued yelling, at the firemen, at the photographer, eventually she grabbed a phone from someone and made a call, yelling into the phone too. And then she seemed yelled out, nodding and saying a few more words quietly before hanging up. She coughed, staggering as one of the paramedics tried to corral her over to a spot near Emma. Regina handed the cellphone to the paramedic as she followed meekly, finally exhausted.
Emma hopped off the gurney—she had no desire to be anywhere near Regina right now—handing the oxygen mask to the young man standing nearby.
Regina grabbed her arm. "That was Dr. Hopper," she said, pausing to cough again. "Whoever did this didn't go after Henry. It looks like it was just an accident."
Emma nodded. The thought hadn't even occurred to her. "Thank you."
Regina didn't respond, her fingers gripped around another plastic mask as she breathed deep.
A crowd gathered, clustering around the firemen pulling debris from the wreckage of the hallway. They piled great chunks of wood and plaster on the concrete.
"Hey," a familiar voice called. Mary Margaret stood behind Emma, Ruby next to her. "Are you okay?"
"Yes," Emma said, her voice coming out rough and spotty. Clearing her throat hurt like hell, but she did it anyway. "Yeah, just smoke."
Mary Margaret nodded. "Let me see if I can find you some water."
She scampered off, leaving Emma in Ruby's care.
"You look like hell," the taller woman declared.
Several more minutes passed before Archie arrived with Henry, who waved at Emma, but obeyed his mother's beckoning. Mary Margaret came back with a bottle of water, handing it to Emma as Archie and Granny joined them. Her roommate waited patiently, shoving her hands into her coat as Emma chugged down half the bottle.
Granny took the bottle when Emma was done. "On the house."
"Did you really rescue Regina?" Mary Margaret asked, an incredulous smile on her face. Beside her, Ruby and Archie leaned a little closer, equally curious expressions on their faces.
"She did!" Henry said, running up beside her. "The fireman said it. They saw it."
"You are a hero." Ruby made it sound like some irrefutable truth and Emma felt a little swell of pride.
She had done that. She had stayed and helped Regina, despite having every reason not to, and that felt good. It made her feel like she deserved a place right alongside Henry's storybook princes and princesses.
Mary Margaret nodded, the little flower on her hat bobbing. "We should see if they have a picture of the rescue."
"We could make campaign posters," Granny said.
"Oh, people would love that!" Archie said as Mary Margaret spun around, his voice trailing off as the group chased after her without so much as a goodbye to Emma.
She laughed at their enthusiasm, touched that they were so invested in helping her beat Sydney. She knelt before Henry, gravel biting through her jeans, and took his hands in hers. His fingers were cold because, of course, he had forgotten his gloves.
"This is how good wins," she told him. "You do something good and people see it, and then they want to help you."
Henry tilted his head, considering her for a moment. "Maybe you're right."
"You see, Henry?" She smiled, gripping his shoulder. Under her hand and all the winter layers, he still felt small and frail despite being taller now that Emma was kneeling. "We don't have to fight dirty."
The sentence fell flat as her eyes landed on the debris. Sitting on top of the splintered door was an odd piece of twisted fabric. The still air stirred a little, a biting breeze sweeping past Emma and on that breeze wafted a familiar smell.
"Hey, you should stay close to your mom, kid," Emma said, squeezing his shoulder. "She was really shaken today."
Henry glanced over to where Regina whispered fiercely at Sydney. "She looks fine."
"Appearances can be deceiving, Henry," she said. "And people like your mom don't like showing weakness, especially with everyone watching."
He didn't roll his eyes and say she was the same, just nodded and ran over to his mom. Regina jumped when Henry took her hand, blinking down with wide, confused eyes. Emma shook her head. How screwed up was their relationship if simple physical affection surprised her?
Then again, who was Emma to talk?
Crouching, she snatched up the coiled fabric. She grimaced at the sheep stench, but it wasn't the smell twisting up her insides as much as the piece of fabric. After assuring herself that everyone else was looking elsewhere, Emma pulled out her phone for a quick Google search.
# # #
Main Street was deserted. Even Granny's sign was off.
Of course it was. Granny was at town hall, trying to find pictures for the campaign. Emma laughed. She should have known better than to think someone actually believed she was capable of something important. She was just a pawn.
Emma jerked her head up to find Killian jogging toward her, his look of relief half-masked with a joking smile.
She stopped dead in her tracks. "I thought you were going sailing."
He shrugged. "I wasn't far out when I heard the sirens." His trademark smirk spread across his face. "Though, I could have her back out in a jiffy if you need a quick escape." He threw an aimless gesture toward town hall. "That have anything to do with you?"
"Yes," Emma bit out.
Killian's eyebrows shot sky high, but he stepped aside.
"Things with Regina went that well?" His nose wrinkled up as Emma breezed by him. "Swan, why do you smell like a wet sheep?"
"I don't," she spat. "This does." She waved the lanolin soaked cloth in his face. "Lanolin. It's flammable, apparently, and I'm betting Gold knew that."
He jumped from concern to rage in one breath. His hand snapped out in the next, fingers circling her wrist.
"What happened?" he growled. "Are you alright?"
Emma shrugged away from him. "Yeah, fine. Regina got the worst of it."
"Wasn't even there." Her anger faded at the flash of relief on Killian's face. Though she couldn't explain why, she found herself running through her encounter with Regina and the subsequent explosion. By the time she got to the end of it, he looked gray, but his eyes practically gave off sparks.
"You think he might be coming after you as well, then?" he said, voice strained.
"No, I think he was trying to help me." Her grip on the greasy wool tightened. "He owns half the town already, makes sense he'd grab for more power when the opportunity arose."
And she swallowed his lines like a fool. A small voice whispered that she hadn't detected any lies last night, but that didn't soothe the sting. After all that talk about doing things the right way, she fell in with exactly the kind of people she wanted to avoid becoming.
Killian sucked in a sharp breath. "You're planning to confront him."
"Of course I am," Emma said. "When he I accepted his help this is not what I meant."
"Accepted his help?" Killian tilted his head back, eyes closed. "Swan, tell me you didn't make another deal with him."
"Not a deal," she said. "He offered to help. If it weren't for him, I wouldn't even know I could challenge Regina."
"And how were you planning to deal with him?"
"I don't know," Emma admitted. "But this is not how I'm winning this election. It can't be."
Quiet settled over them, broken only by Killian's measured breathing. When he opened his eyes and looked at her, he looked like his last good night of sleep was a hundred years ago.
He sighed, chest caving. "You can't break a deal with the…pawnbroker."
"It's not a deal." She tried to turn away, but he grabbed her wrist again.
"I'm not going to let you just…"
She snatched her hand away. "You don't get to 'let' me do anything, Hook."
He clenched his jaw. "You're set on confronting him?"
"Well, I can't let him go around blowing up buildings to make me look like a hero."
Killian sighed. "Allow me to go with you, then."
"I don't need…"
"You don't know him like I do," he snapped, his voice echoing down the empty street. He caught himself and took a step back from her, his cheeks burning—though Emma couldn't tell if it was from embarrassment or anger. The latter, judging by the look in his eyes, but not directed at her. "You don't know what he's capable of."
"He's not going to hurt me," she countered. "He wants me to be sheriff."
"Emma, please." He cleared his throat. "Please."
Something about the fear in his voice connected deep down in her gut.
"Okay." And without another word, she walked away.
The crunch of his boots joined hers as the only sounds on the street. The sign on Gold's shop was still flipped to OPEN. Emma reached for the doorknob, thought better of it, and whirled on Killian.
"I am…" she paused, searching for the word he had used earlier, "allowing you to come with me. But I am the deputy sheriff. I do the talking. You're just here for back-up if I need it. Which I won't."
Killian nodded, his jaw clenched so tight, she was surprised she didn't hear bone splinter. For one fleeting moment, she questioned the wisdom of bringing him with her, but she still saw the fear in his eyes, heard the way his voice had cracked. None of that had been for show.
"Okay." She inhaled through her nose. "Here goes, then."
The bell chimed as Emma entered. Gold's casual glance up at her sent her blood boiling again. He had been expecting her.
"Miss Swan, what a surprise," he said, in a tone that implied he was anything but. "And Mr… Jones, wasn't it?"
Emma listened for any hint of animosity from Gold, searched his face as he nodded to Killian. For the first time, she wondered if Killian's story might be all one sided. An imagined slight Gold had no knowledge of.
"Aye," Killian said, shutting the door. The bell jangled loudly.
"Loads of visitors today." Gold eyed them distastefully, wiping his hands on the cloth he held. It was the only clean, bright thing in the entire shop. "Do hope you're not going to break my little bell."
"You set the fire," Emma said, holding the fabric in front of her as she advanced on him. There was a slight tug on the back of her jacket. A warning: Keep your distance.
Gold scoffed, returning to buffing his fingernails. "I've been right here, Miss Swan."
Emma shook the stinking mess in her hand. "Take a whiff. It smells like your sheep crap oil." She crossed the rest of the distance, ignoring Killian's presence at her shoulder. "Turns out it's flammable."
"Oh. Are you sure?" Gold leaned back, shifting his weight off of his bad leg. He tilted his head, speaking in a tone normally used on small children. "There's some construction working on at City Hall at the moment. There's loads of flammable solvents used in construction."
"Why did you do it?" Emma demanded.
Gold's eyes flicked over to Killian.
"If I did it," he corrected. Draping his cloth over his arm, he curled his long fingers around the head of his cane. "If I did it, that would be because you cannot win without something big." The floorboards creaked under his uneven tread. "Something like, uh…" He paused before raising his hand with a flourish. "Oh, I don't know. Being the hero in a fire?"
"How could you even know I'd be there at the right time?"
"How would I indeed?" Gold asked, leaning against the counter.
"Perhaps," Killian said, stepping up beside Emma, "the mayor isn't the only one with eyes and ears in this town."
"Or perhaps," Gold drew out with a smirk, though his eyes never left Emma. "I'm just intuitive." His nose wrinkled, his smile turning cold. "Were I involved."
"I could've run and left her there," Emma said.
Killian snorted. "Not the type, love."
She ignored him. "I can't go along with this."
"You just did." The truth in Gold's words sent a chill down Emma's spine. "This is just the price of election, Miss Swan."
"A price I'm not willing to pay," she said, tossing the foul-smelling rag onto Gold's counter. It hit with an unsatisfying plop. "Find another sucker."
"Okay, go ahead, expose me." Gold's relaxed tone pulled at Emma just as surely as Killian's hand, tugging her lightly toward the door. "But if you do, just think about what you'll be exposing and what you'll be walking away from."
Emma swallowed, staring at Gold long and hard before she acquiesced to Killian's gentle urging.
"Oh, yes," Gold called to her back. "And, um… Who you might be disappointing."
Killian's steps faltered, his head snapped around. Something dark and dangerous and frightening flashed in his eyes. Without thinking Emma grabbed his jacket, wrenching the door open and shoving him outside. Cool air—air that didn't smell like barnyard—hit her cheeks, calming her. She didn't bother shutting the door all the way, choosing instead to hustle Killian further down the street.
Killian whirled on her, dragging her into the alley by Gold's shop. Shadows fell over him, only the glint of his bright, blue eyes showing where his face was.
"Why is that…monster threatening my son?" he growled.
"It wasn't a threat, Hook." Emma stepped back, the slats of the wall pressing into her spine as she leaned against it. Bowing her head, she pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes, throwing wild colors across the back of her eyelids. "It was a reminder of why I'm doing this."
"Yeah." She fiddled with the zipper on her jacket, the cold metal moving smoothly under her fingers. "I wanted to show him that the good guys don't always lose. That they can win without resorting to the tactics villains use." She threw her hands up in the air. "And now I'm in cahoots with Gold, so that's working out real well."
Killian nodded, kicking at a piece of trash. "What are you going to do?"
"I don't know," Emma said for the second time that night. The words bit. "This is exactly how I didn't want to win, but, I'm going up against Regina. How am I supposed to win against her without some serious back up?"
"You don't need Gold to win against Regina, love," Killian said softly.
"Have you seen this town? No one wins against Regina."
Emma wanted to believe him, really she did, but he was hopelessly optimistic if he thought that someone like her could go up against someone like Regina and win. No one would take Emma Swan—the girl with no roots and nothing to her name—seriously. Everyone was too afraid of Regina. Though they were just as afraid of Gold, if the little she'd seen of him was anything to go by.
She shied away from the hand reaching for her. "I'm not sure I can take that chance. This is too important. I—I need to win. Henry needs me to win."
In the cramped alley, Killian was so close she heard him his swallow.
"In this book of the lad's is Gold a hero or a villain?"
Emma shrugged. "I don't know."
"Yes, you do." He pressed his lips together and exhaled slowly. Tension stretched him so taut it was she expected him to shatter as he moved away. With slow, careful steps he backed out of the alley, his eyes on Emma the entire time.
As the street lights fell on him, he looked calm. Too calm. A sudden panic overtook Emma, the flash of rage in his eyes back in the shop harsh and bright in her memory. No matter how much she told herself that this was Killian, something deeper told her the violence she saw in his eyes could have physical consequences.
With deliberation he turned and Emma thought she only half imagined the rip of his gaze leaving hers. She was free. She stumbled to the alley's mouth, ready to call out, to stop him, to tell him not to go back inside that shop, but he passed by the door. He made it the few feet to the corner before he stopped, pausing to uncurl his fist and examine it. The tips of Killian's fingers caught the sparse light, glistening red tinged the nails. Without a backward glance, he smeared his hand down the front of his jeans, and kept walking.
Something inside Emma snapped and she could breathe again. She reached behind her. The rough siding of the shop next to Gold's scratched at her hand as she leaned against it. Her hands shook and she wondered why. Hadn't their fight earlier this afternoon been just as intense? But all that rage hadn't even ruffled her feathers as she glared up at him in Mary Margaret's apartment. If she hadn't been scared earlier, why was she scared now?
The answer didn't take long to piece together. As volatile as their fight had been, Emma knew deep down that Killian would never strike out at her in anger, never seek to harm her.
# # #
To say Killian woke on the wrong side of the bed the next day would imply that he slept at all.
He lay awake all night trying to find a way to free Emma from Rumplestiltskin's ever tightening leash. No matter how he turned the situation, the only true solution was the Crocodile's death. Regardless of how Emma worded it, she had made a deal. And Killian had witnessed firsthand the price of defying Rumplestiltskin.
His conclusion should have brought him relief, some satisfaction and yet…there was Henry.
True, the lad would be far safer in a world without the Crocodile, but if the man turned up with a dagger in his heart, how long would it be before the authorities tracked Killian down? Two days ago, he could have cared less if he was caught. Now? Whether or not she had evidence, Killian had no doubt that Emma could and would identify the murderer and then she would make sure that Henry never came near him.
He groaned as he rolled out of his bunk. Normally, the gentle rock of the ocean calmed his thoughts. It had no such effect now. He dressed quickly. This election thing apparently involved a gathering of some sort where the two candidates would speak to the masses. He wasn't particularly interested in whatever that Sydney fellow had to say, but he would go if meant supporting Emma.
And he that he might see Henry.
Killian skulked outside the building, watching as men came to hang a sign announcing "Debate here!" across the pale, yellow siding. The sign clashed horribly, too dark and serious for such a cheerful color. Others came as the day started to warm, the sun finally free of the cloud cover. A line started forming, the chatter filling up the still air and making Killian feel odd. They barely noticed him, all of them buzzing with the story of last night's rescue.
Killian's stomach twisted in knots. The Crocodile truly had rigged the game in her favor. Was this part of a plan to break the curse? If he was against the queen, surely it had to be. But how could he be working to break a curse he, by all signs, didn't remember.
"Hey, you're Killian, right?" The spritely brunette appeared at Killian's elbow, heedless of the hook he nearly sent into her heart in shock.
"Aye," he said.
"I'm Mary Margaret, Emma and I are roommates." And then, before Killian could remind her that he knew this fact as he was the one who had called her the night Graham met his unfortunate end, she plunged on, "Did you hear about last night? Well, you must have heard about last night. That was so brave of Emma, I'm honestly not sure if I would have done the same. I think I would have just run…Oh, speaking of which…" She shifted items bundled in her arms, flashing some wicked looking metal object at him. "I want to plaster these all over the town board. Care to help me?"
Killian eyed the implement, unsure as to its purpose, and took the easy way out. "I'm afraid I wouldn't be much use," he said, waving the hook at her.
Her eyes grew to the size of saucers. "Oh…" she murmured without the telltale trace of fear. "I'm so sorry, I didn't even think…Well, you could keep me company if you like." She flashed him a brilliant grin, so like Henry in that moment that Killian couldn't refuse.
"I suppose I could find some way to assist," he said, taking the stack of glossy paper from her as an idea occurred to him.
As it turned out, the contraption was some sort of…nailing device, though the thin slivers of metal left in its wake were considerably smaller than nails, and it required the use of only one hand. Mary Margaret whisked posters from his arms, wielding the thing with an ease that spoke of familiarity.
"You teach at the school if I'm not mistaken?" Killian started.
Mary Margaret nodded. "Yep. I actually teach Henry's class." She pulled the handle, several shocks sending the bits of metal into the corkboard with resounding pops. "He's one of my best students."
Killian grinned at that. An odd sort of pride stirring inside him. "Really? Well, that's to be expected…"
Killian cut the sentence off, regaling the woman with tales of his days at the naval academy would only confuse her and he wasn't sure if Emma had shared Henry's true parentage with the schoolmarm yet.
He blustered on, "Considering how clever his mother is."
Mary Margaret nodded without asking Killian to elaborate on Emma's cleverness, which—as it involved her speed in learning one-handed lock picking—was probably for the best.
"Oh, yes," she said, slapping another poster against the board. "And Regina pushes him hard too." She bit her lip, glancing behind her. "A little too hard if you ask me. No nine-year-old needs perfect grades." Her shoulders bounced up and down in a quick shrug. "Still, I know it comes from a good place. She's been harsh in the past, but up until now it's only been because she wants the best for him."
Killian stepped closer. "What do you mean, up until now?"
If she noticed the tightness in his voice, she didn't show it as she pinned the next flyer, her tongue peeking from between her lips in concentration. It reminded him of Emma.
"You know…This whole feud with Emma, she's so scared about what might happen…I don't think she's thinking of Henry much in all this." She finished, brushing a gloved hand over her handiwork as though her words weren't seeping into Killian's bones. "And she's not handling this stage in Henry's development too well, he's learning that he doesn't need her for everything and with Emma here…" She trailed off, her face thoughtful. "I suppose she's scared and going after Emma makes her feel like she can do something about, I just wish she could see how much this hurts Henry."
"How is he handling it?" Killian asked, following her as he headed for the other side of the board.
Mary Margaret laughed. "Besides the fact that he thinks Regina is some Evil Queen? As well as…oh!" The last was a soft gasp, her hands muffling most of it as she backpedaled quickly. She whirled on Killian, her hands flying to her hat. "Does the hat look, okay?" she hissed. "Or should I take it off? Is it doing weird things to my hair?"
Killian blinked. "It's fine as is."
Mary Margaret nodded, clearing her throat. She spun on her heel, straightening her coat, before marching around to the other side.
Her exclamation of, "David! Hi!" satisfied his curiosity long before he rounded the board.
"Mary Margaret," came the soft reply. "Hi."
David stood just feet from Mary Margaret, several posters clutched in one hand and another of the strange metal guns in his other. He also wore the most ridiculous hat Killian had ever seen, certainly something that would be blackmail worthy when the prince regained his right mind…and his fashion sense. His gentle smile widened when he saw Killian. "And Killian, I didn't know you knew each other."
"We, uh…" Mary Margaret stumbled, her eyes shooting to Killian.
Suddenly, he felt very uncomfortable.
"Mutual acquaintance," he said before the silence could stretch too long. "I know her roommate, Emma."
"Oh." David nodded, smiling. "We have a few mutual acquaintances it seems."
Turning to Killian, Mary Margaret grabbed another poster, taking far less care than she had previously. "So. Sydney," she said as she attacked her poster liberally with the metal gun.
David shrugged. "My wife is friends with Regina."
"Right." Mary Margaret snatched up the last poster. "How is she?"
"Good. She's meeting me here later." David turned that same, gentle smile on the schoolteacher, but she ignored him.
"We're out of posters," she declared. "I'm going to go get some more." She handed Killian the metal gun and rushed off, her shoes crunching briskly over the dry grass.
David sighed, his eyes following her.
"Looks like you've got a mess on your hands, mate," Killian said.
David shrugged. "I'm—well, we're—Kathryn and I are good. I just wish I hadn't…" He ducked his head, the brim of his hat nearly brushing the various notices fluttering on the cork board. "Thank you, by the way," he said, glancing up at Killian. "I was little disoriented that night, so thanks for the advice. It was the right thing to do. There should be more people out there like you."
Killian snorted. "I highly doubt that."
"No, I mean it," David said. "Not many people would have had it in them to look out for a complete stranger."
Killian's cheeks flamed, the praise making him want to squirm as he hadn't since he was a small lad. It was only due to him that David was in this situation in the first place, if he had truly been looking out for the man, he would never have touched that windmill and perhaps Emma would already be reunited with her family.
And you would have your revenge, whispered a small, bitter voice in the back on his mind. Or have you forgotten about that?
He looked away, unable to withstand the earnest admiration in the prince's eyes. All these years, he had never questioned his path. The death and destruction left in the Crocodile's wake had been all the proof he needed that he was on the right path. But now, with Emma's father watching, he wasn't so sure of that anymore. Could it be the right path if it cost him Emma? Cost him his son?
"Looks like I'm out of posters too," David said, still grinning. "I'll see you inside, Killian."
Killian almost followed him. Almost, but he looked up to find Emma striding toward him, looking very official in a tight brown dress and jacket. He tried not to let his eyes linger too long as she approached, but had such a gesture been well-received he certainly would have made a show of it.
"Hey," a small voice whispered, startling him much as the boy's grandmother had mere minutes before. "Can I borrow your staple gun?"
Killian blinked, trying to make sense of Henry's words. The lad pointed emphatically at the metal contraption Mary Margaret had wielded.
"Oh, yes, of course," he said, handing over the staple gun.
"Thanks," his son said.
He had known... For nearly twenty-four hours he had known who Henry was, but the knowledge suddenly seemed new with the boy standing before him. His throat tightened as he took in the boy's features as though for the first time. His eyes, yes, he had his mother's eyes. But he had Killian's dark hair and mirrors might have been rare when he was a lad, but Killian thought he saw hints of something that reminded him very much of Liam in the boy's round face.
Suddenly, he wished very much that he could show his brother this wonderful, perfect person that was equal parts Emma and himself.
"Oh, wow, I'm not sure which one is more embarrassing," Emma muttered from just off his right.
Killian started, looking quickly away from her so she couldn't see the tears he blinked away. It had been a very long time since he last thought about his brother.
"I made it," Henry was saying when he turned back.
Killian's eyebrows shot up as he beheld the poster Henry had stapled to the board. He had been so taken in with the sight of his son, he had missed the rather comical artwork in the lad's arms. Emma scanned the poster, her brow furrowed in concentration.
"I found the picture online," Henry explained. "I put your face over the fireman's. It looked more…heroic."
Emma swallowed. "Well, I certainly look…brawny."
"Quite the talent," Killian said, tilting his head to admire the lad's work. He recognized the word 'online' from his many trips with Emma to use computers at the library. "I'm impressed."
Henry beamed at him and Killian thought his heart might stop beating.
"Thanks, I was up all night working with Photoshop."
"Henry," Emma scolded.
"Okay, not all night…."
"Henry." Regina's voice cut through the air. "What did I tell you about running off?"
Henry turned back to the board, ripping down the poster he had fastened there and hiding it behind his back with the rest.
"Ms. Swan," Regina said with a tight-lipped smile. "And Mr. Jones. You two are certainly becoming quite the pair."
Emma stiffened, the posters in her hand crinkling in her grasp.
Henry fidgeted, trying to rescue the sheets of paper from her, but only succeeding in knocking them to the ground. Emma sighed, crouching awkwardly to retrieve them without kneeling and dirtying her stockings.
"What's this?" Regina asked, grabbing one of the posters. Her dark eyes flashed as she examined the page, the corners of her mouth turning down. "What a shame," she said, balling the poster in her fist. "A waste of trees and a waste of your time."
Henry glared defiantly up at his mother.
"Oh, I'm not so sure," Killian said. He plucked one of the posters up from the ground, shaking off the dirt. "When I was in…school they used to say that it took ten thousand hours of practice to truly master a subject." He smiled at the mayor as he might a particularly pompous superior officer. Polite. It was certainly better than giving her the lashing he wanted to. No one should speak to his son in such a manner, but Emma had asked he not show his hand and he would hold to that, especially after seeing the cool exchange between Emma and the mayor. "Certainly, practice can never be a waste of time or else we'd have no masters of any craft."
Regina's heated gaze turned on him, her eyes raking him up and down in a cold, calculating fashion.
"I think I know where my son's talents are best spent," she said, her hand shot between him and Henry, taking the boy by the wrist. "Come along, Henry, the debate will be starting soon." She stalked away, calling back one last time, "I'd hurry with those posters, Ms. Swan, it won't do to be late for your own debate."
Emma let out a shaky breath. "Do you see now why I have to win?"
"I imagine so," Killian said, anger still thrumming through his veins. "Whoever decided that she should have a child?"
"The state," Emma said, folding the posters up. "Don't tell Henry. That other picture is bad enough." She unfolded the posters. "He did do a good job though." And then she gently slid the posters into the nearest trash can.
The crowd had thinned, most of the people filing inside to find their seats.
"Why bother winning, Emma?" he asked.
"Why not cut our ties to this place, take our son, and go? Isn't that what would be best for Henry?"
"Because that would be kidnapping and it's illegal." She crossed her arms, digging at the ground with her boot as she said, "Not that I haven't thought about it, but…"
"It's a good home. Better than any I ever had. He gets three good meals and his own room and more toys than I think any kid would know what to do with. It's just this…fairytale thing that's the problem. I think I'd be frustrated with him too if he thought I was some evil sorceress." Raking her fingers through her hair she looked at him. "You've been here since he came, tell me, before now, before I came, did you ever question it?" She flung her arm toward city hall, her meaning clear.
Killian shook his head. "He's never been lacking, but material comforts don't make up for an absent parent."
Emma scoffed. "Yeah, well, I wouldn't be a good judge of that, considering I never had either." She glanced at the hall again, squaring her shoulders. "I'd better get inside."
He followed her, studiously keeping his eyes on her bouncing, blonde curls and not on the curve of her ass in that pencil skirt. He didn't fancy a black eye this early in the morning. For a heart-stopping moment he thought she might have read his thoughts, because she turned on him and odd look on her face.
She clenched her jaw. "That was good, what you said. Regina might not have appreciated it, but I know Henry did."
Killian shrugged. "It was the right thing to do. Words carry quite the weight when you're young, I'd hate for him to doubt himself simply because Regina behaved like some wounded animal."
A fleeting smile crossed Emma's face and she nodded before darting off.
Killian watched her go with a grin on his own face. He certainly hadn't meant to impress Emma when he contradicted Regina, but for the first time since renewing his relationship with her, he felt the flutterings of hope.
When he entered the main room, it had filled quite decently, a good number of the chairs already taken. He crept up the side, ducking away from people's gazes as he searched for a seat. As his gaze passed over the citizens of Storybrooke, he wondered how many of them had stories in Henry's book. Surely not all these people could fit, even in a book as large as his son's. If any of them were even in their true form. The Crocodile had certainly changed between their world and this one.
He spotted an empty chair in the front row, right next to a familiar head of dark hair.
Regina glared at him as he approached, doing his best to look humble and apologetic.
"Is this seat taken?" he asked, careful to look at Regina.
"Nope," Henry answered before Regina could say otherwise.
With what he hoped was an uncertain nod, Killian took the seat, crossing his arms so his hook was hidden. No need to remind the queen of his real identity.
The stage creaked, but Kilian could see nothing past the heavy, olive curtains.
Henry leaned over, his green eyes peering up at Killian. "Did you really think I did a good job?"
Killian swallowed, his eyes skating over to Regina. "Well, I'm no judge of such things, but I thought it showed quite the imagination."
The mayor snorted. "He certainly has that in droves."
Killian shrugged. "An imagination is no crime."
Regina turned on him. "Except when you indulge it instead of doing your homework."
Henry ducked his head, his grey and red striped scarf riding up under his ears. "It's the weekend."
"And you'd have enjoyed it all that much more if you didn't have to do your schoolwork tonight." Regina sat back in her chair, hands resting in her lap. She glanced down, her jaw clenching as she sat back up, her back ramrod straight, and refolded her hands in her lap. "Henry, please sit up, I don't pay for your chiropractic care so you can grow up to have a hunch."
Henry huffed, but did as his mother asked.
Out of nothing more than spite, Killian slouched in his chair, wishing the one next to him had been empty, so he could drape his arm insouciantly over the back. The unforgiving plastic bit into the base of his spine, but he refused to change position out of principle.
He threw another look at the curtains, hoping this wouldn't take long. A slight gap had opened at the center and one brilliant, green eye stared out at him. No, not at him, at Henry. Emma pulled back as quickly as she appeared, though Killian didn't have to worry long if it was because she caught him looking. The curtain parted hardly a minute after her retreat, revealing Emma and Sydney seated on opposite sides of the stage, Henry's psychiatrist standing at the podium in the middle.
Sydney sat directly in front of Killian, not seeming to share Regina's preference for proper posture, his legs splayed, his elbows propped on the arms of his chair. Relaxed and saved from sloppiness only by his crisp, gray suit. He glanced once or twice at Regina, but for the most part, stared over the heads of the crowd, detached. There to serve a purpose, not because he believed it.
The podium partially blocked Emma from Killian's view and he had to shift toward Henry to see her. Everything about her was closed off and nervous. Her legs in perfect parallel from knee to ankle. Her shoulders hunched inward. Her laced fingers twisted in her lap as she stared into the crowd, her eyes fixed on one point.
A chill crawled down Killian's spine. Still slouched, he tilted his head, scanning each row until he found Rumplestiltskin.
The speaking device on the podium gave a burst of static, jerking Killian's attention back to the front.
"Yes," Hopper said. "Hello, citizens of Storybrooke." The psychiatrist droned on for several minutes, reminding everyone of the former sheriff's beloved position in the town. Someone in the back scoffed. It sounded like Leroy. The speech was rambling, littered with anecdotes that would have been better put to use at the funeral than at an official town meeting.
Killian almost leaned down to ask Henry who Hopper was in the book, but thought better of it. If Emma was hesitant about the book, he was sure Regina would bristle at the mention. Especially considering that it told the truth about her.
At last, the bespectacled man took a breath, standing a little straighter.
"Tragedy has brought us here, but we are faced with this decision." He paused, his eyes raking the audience. Did his gaze rest on Regina for a moment longer than the rest? "And now, we ask only that you listen with an open mind and to please vote your conscience. So, without further ado, I'd like to introduce you to the candidates—Sidney Glass and Emma Swan. Glass. Swan. Sounds like something that a decorator would make you buy." The joke fell on deaf ears. "Wow, crickets." He gestured behind him, his brief bit of spine deflating. "Okay, uh… Uh, Mr. Glass—your opening statement."
He ceded the podium to the spare man.
Sydney approached, a puppy eager to do his mistress' bidding as he straightened his tie and fiddled with his jacket.
"I just want to say," Sydney said, his fingers curling around the wooden structure as his gaze swept over the crowd, "that if elected, I want to serve as a reflection of the best qualities of Storybrooke." His gaze rested on Regina and Killian looked over to find the woman mouthing the words along with Glass. "Honesty, neighbourliness, and strength." Glass' eyes swept the room one last time as he nodded, a smile plastered across his face. "Thank you."
The room applauded, even Henry making a half-hearted attempt in order to appease his mother, as Hopper approached the podium once again.
He leaned in to announce, "And Emma Swan."
Surprise flickered over Emma's face, but she stood, fidgeting with her dress as she took the podium. Just as Glass had, she gripped either side of the structure. Her knuckles stood out white, her eyes on the wooden surface before her. Killian sat a little straighter, willing her to look in his direction, wishing he could give her some small encouragement. Anything to wipe that uncertain look from her face and show off the determined, capable woman he knew she was.
Unnatural silence filled the room. Every eye trained forward.
"You guys all know I have what they call a, uh…" Emma paused, taking a deep breath. Bright green eyes flashed in his direction for the briefest moment before focusing on the floor. "Troubled past. But, you've been able to overlook it because of the, um…" Her hand waved in a dismissive gesture. "Hero thing."
She took a breath, her lashes fluttering closed for a brief moment. Her grip on the podium tightened, her chest rising in a slow inhale. Killian counted time in heartbeats, his tongue sticking to the roof of his mouth.
When she looked up, her gaze landed on Henry.
"But here's the thing, the fire was a setup." Emma's voice rang through the room, crystal clear over the sound of gasps and the creak of chairs. Shoulders thrown back, she addressed the entire room. "Mr. Gold agreed to support me in this race, but I didn't know that that meant he was going to set a fire. I don't have definitive evidence, but I'm sure." Again, she held eye contact with their son. "And the worst part of all this was…" Emma ducked her head, but only for a second. She stood straight, apology written across her features, the rest of the room forgotten. "The worst part of all this is I let you all think it was real. And I can't win that way. I'm sorry."
Killian didn't know how long they sat there, the room hushed. Everyone's attention fixed on Emma, their collective breath seeming to be held in reverence of this moment between mother and son.
A chair creaked so softly Killian might have missed it had there been a single breath of noise. His gut clenched at the first tap of the cane against tile. Killian waited, hand curled into a fist on his thigh, waiting until the rest of the room turned to watch the Crocodile make his slow progress out of the room before he turned that way as well.
The man didn't even look back as he left and that meant one of two things: either he didn't care that Emma had exposed him or he had already determined what to do. The thought made Killian's blood run cold. When he turned back to the podium, he found only Hopper and an uncertain Sydney Glass. The only sign left of Emma was a fluttering curtain.
Killian shot to his feet. Ignoring Regina's questioning stare, he sped down the side, just short of a run. The air was cold and biting as he burst from the hall, harsh on his skin after the warm room packed with people.
The drive outside stood empty save for the lone figure of Rumplestiltskin. The demon threw a careless glance over his shoulder, unconcerned by Killian's abrupt exit from the hall.
Killian knew that this was his opportunity. He could take the Crocodile out once and for all, and if that cost him his relationship with Emma and Henry, wouldn't it be worth the sacrifice? To never have them fall under Rumplestiltskin's threat again?
For the second time that day, Henry took Killian unawares. The lad blinked up at him with wide, green eyes.
"Are you looking for Emma too?" the boy asked, smiling.
"Aye," Killian replied automatically. His mind ground to a halt, his previous thoughts at odds with the memories that Henry's presence dredged up.
"She's probably headed to Granny's," the boy said. "That's where she usually goes when she needs to unwind while it's still daylight." He gestured to the sky, barely starting to pink on the western horizon.
Killian nodded. "Well, then, shall we?" he asked, grasping onto the tenuous control Henry's presence brought.
Henry's shaggy hair fluttered as he shook his head. "I'll meet you there. There's something I've gotta do." He took off, but did an about face almost immediately. "I'm glad you and Emma are friends, I don't think she has many." With a quick grin, he trotted off, his rucksack bouncing against his shoulders.
Killian swallowed, his eyes drawn back to Rumplestiltskin's retreating back.
I wanted to show him that the good guys don't always lose, Emma's voice whispered in his ear. That they can win without resorting to the tactics villains use.
Killian was a villain. He made no excuses. Blood clung to his hand, thick and unforgiving. He had cared little about the taint on his soul, barely giving it any heed in his single-minded quest. After all, to kill a monster meant becoming a monster, did it not? What did all those ruined lives matter against the weight of the Crocodile's crimes?
He was a villain, had been a villain for nearly three centuries, and yet, here he was contemplating changing his spots like the proverbial leopard. The thought sat ill in his mind. Not because he saw no value in doing the right thing, as Emma had done, but because changing his ways would mean admitting what he had always known: he had hurt people that did not deserve it. Turning from the Crocodile, trying to use a hero's tactics would mean he could no longer push away the cost of his sins nor their weight on his soul.
But Emma didn't need a villain. They surrounded her. They were set against her. And if being a villain meant being set against Emma Swan… He held his hand before him, his memories reflected in the silver surface of the rings he wore. His trophies. His sins. How often had he stained them red?
He could never be a hero, but perhaps he could learn to use a hero's tactics. Perhaps he could learn to be…better. For Emma. For Henry.
Taking a deep breath, he turned from Rumplstiltskin. The man could live. For now. After all, if Killian allied himself with Emma and Rumplestiltskin was set against Emma, it could only be a matter of time before the Crocodile's reckoning came. And then, Killian would show no mercy. His lips curled into a half smile at the thought.
# # #
"Care for some company?"
Emma groaned, her head sinking to her crossed forearms as Killian slid onto the stool on the other side of her. She did not need to deal with him right now, especially since five minutes she caught herself wishing he would walk in the door.
"Or I could go," he said, standing quickly.
"No," Emma said. "No. You can stay. Just…I don't want to talk about it."
He swiveled on his barstool, facing her for several long moments.
"I can abide by that if you will answer one question for me," he said when she finally acknowledged him.
Emma pressed her lips together, weighing her options. "Fine. One question."
"What changed your mind?"
She fiddled with her glass, swirling the remaining whiskey at the bottom for several long moments before she answered.
"I know I can't beat Regina doing things the right way, but…" She stopped, unsure of whether she wanted to share her backstage revelation. She threw back the rest of her drink, setting it down with a heavy clunk. "Maybe I'm not a hero if I lose, but if I won based on a lie then I'm definitely not a hero and if I'm not a hero, what place do I have in Henry's life?"
Killian didn't reply right away. When curiosity finally forced her to look at him, she found him staring at the floor, the muscles in his jaw tense. She turned away before he could look at her. She shouldn't have said that, not after she had hidden the truth from him for so long.
"Emma." His voice was soft, a plea. He smiled, not his usual smirk, something kinder, something that made her feel like maybe they could do this…thing. That maybe for Henry's sake they could be friends. "You are his mother and you love him. You'll always have a place in his life."
She chuckled darkly. "We'll see how he feels about that when he's sixteen and moody."
Killian snorted. "Let's hope he takes after you in that respect."
"Do you think I did the right thing?"
"Does it matter what I think?" he asked, smiling at Ruby as she wandered over.
Emma shrugged. "Not really."
"Good," Killian said. "It shouldn't."
Emma nodded, but she still felt an air of unease about him. Not quite disapproval, but there was nothing about this situation that he liked. Of course, there wasn't much about this situation that she liked either.
But, she thought as she circled the rim of the glass with her finger, I did the right thing.
"Another?" Ruby asked, her long fingers snatching up Emma's glass at the first squeak. At Emma's nod, she turned to Killian, her red streaks catching the light. "Are you joining her? Or did you bring your own?"
He patted his jacket pocket with a rueful smile. "Don't have it on me tonight, I'm afraid."
"So that's a yes," Ruby stated.
"That's a yes." He smiled, his dimples flashing as Ruby rolled her eyes.
For a long moment, the only sound was the clack of her heels against the linoleum, the clink of glasses, and Killian's steady breathing next to her. Before she could ask herself what she was doing here, wonder how he had slipped back into her life, the bells above the door chimed. They all turned to find Henry, his backpack slung over one shoulder. The shades clacked against the glass as he closed the door.
"Henry," she said, a little surprised. And a little nervous. This was the first time the three of them had really been together since Killian found out. Well, besides that morning, and that didn't really count because there had been people all around them… and Regina. "Hey."
Henry apparently didn't pick up on the guilt curling inside of her as he pulled one of Graham's walkie talkies out of his backpack and handed it to her.
"What's this for?" The little black radio felt solid in her hand, significant. Her nerves buzzed even louder, anticipation and dread a strange mixer for the alcohol already in her blood.
"You stood up to Mr. Gold," he said, hopping up onto the stool next to her, looking like a mini business man in his jacket and little grey vest. He smiled. "It's pretty amazing."
Killian chuckled again. "That it certainly is."
Emma silenced him with a look, she did not need both of them ganging up in some sort of "Let's make Emma feel better" pity party.
"He did something illegal," she reminded them both.
Henry grinned all the wider and Emma had the sneaking suspicion that Killian bore the same grin, even if she couldn't see him at the moment. She almost turned around and jabbed him playfully with her elbow, like she might have done in the old days. But she caught herself. That would be too much. That would give him hope and she wasn't going to do that, there were lines and they needed to stay where they were. For Henry's sake.
"That's what heroes do," Henry said, his face thoughtful. His chin dimpled and suddenly, she realized that he must have gotten his serious side from Killian. Or the chin dimple at least. "Expose stuff like that." He started when Ruby came over, sliding glass of lemonade in front of him before she delivered Emma and Killian's drinks. With a wary glance over Emma's shoulder, Henry leaned forward, his voice a low hiss. "I shouldn't have given up on Operation Cobra."
Emma's heart squeezed, Henry's wide eyes overwhelming and heavy. She picked at her fingernails, unsure of whether she wanted to laugh or cry. Henry believed in her again and she hadn't even needed to win the election.
The bell above the door broke the moment as Regina strode in, Sydney hot on her heels, like the good lapdog he was. Though at least he wasn't gloating outright. He regarded her with serious, darks eyes as the pair of them approached.
"I thought I might find you here," Regina said. Her eyebrows shot up when she say Emma's glass and her company. "With a drink. And my son."
The look she gave Henry was tentative and uncertain, and despite everything, Emma felt a little thrill of pride that even when Regina had the upper hand, she still had this. After all, wasn't that what this whole debacle had been about in the first place?
"Come to collect then, I suppose," Killian said with a nod at Henry, his voice low and tight. "Would be poor form if you came to gloat."
"Oh, not at all." Sydney wore a strained smile. "In fact, I think I'll join you."
Emma shot Killian a look, surprised to find him standing, his hook on prominent display on the counter. She stared for a beat, hoping he got the message. I fight my own battles. He sat back on his stool, but his hook stayed where it was, close enough for her to see if she looked down.
She turned back to Sydney and Regina, her eyes narrowed as she tried to figure out their game. Their faces gave very little away, though Sydney still had that pained, but almost pleasant smile on his face. For an odd moment, she thought maybe they were here to offer her the deputy job again. Perhaps Regina got some sick pleasure from the idea of being able to boss Emma around.
Emma leaned against the counter, feigning nonchalance. "Aren't they setting up a back room for the victory party?"
Sidney's smile tightened. "Oh, well, you'll have to tell me what that's like."
Emma stopped breathing, the words feeling stuck in her words.
Regina held out her hand, struggling to rein in her displeasure. "Congratulations…" Carefully, avoiding Emma, she reached forward and set something on the counter. "Sheriff Swan."
Henry gasped. "Wait. What?"
He turned to Emma, like she had answers, but all she could do was shake her head and stare at the six-pointed star.
"Well, look at that," Killian murmured from behind her.
"It was a very close vote," Regina explained, her voice nearly too low to be heard over the chiming of the bell once again and the sudden murmur of voices as people entered the diner. "But people really seem to like the idea of a Sheriff brave enough to stand up to Mr. Gold."
"Are you joking?"
"She doesn't joke," Killian said grimly. He looked nearly as displeased as Regina, the muscle in his jaw practically doing jumping jacks as he turned his best Superman impression on the badge. Thankfully, he was no Kryptonian and the badge remained unmelted.
"You didn't pick a great friend in Mr. Gold, Miss Swan," Regina said.
Emma jumped a little and found the woman leaning uncomfortably close. Regina smiled, almost cruelly, the glint in her eyes vaguely familiar, though Emma couldn't quite place the look.
"But he does make a superlative enemy." The smile widened. "Enjoy that."
The crowd descended on her as soon as Regina walked away, Mary Margaret was the first to rush up and congratulate her. After smothering her in a hug, of course. Ruby came around the bar, darting through the crowd to replace Mary Margaret. And then Granny. Archie. The guy from the pharmacy. Everyone wanting to shake her hand and congratulate her.
Never in her whole life, had she received so much praise from so many people. It felt good. Especially knowing that all of this came from following her gut. No, she amended, catching sight of Archie again. From following her conscience.
"Don't want to lose this," came Killian's voice. He stood behind her again, the badge clasped in his hand. His fingers felt warm and rough against the cold metal as she took the badge from him. He smiled, despite the deepening shadows in his eyes. "You deserve it."
She only noticed that she had been smiling too as her smile fell. "But you don't like it."
"You are clearly the woman for the job," he said shaking his head. "Not many people have the gumption to stand up to that…" Again he paused, probably censoring himself considering Henry's nearby presence. "That man," he finished lamely. Ducking a little so their eyes were level, he asked, "You'll let me know if he causes any trouble."
Emma scoffed. "I think I can handle Gold just fine on my own."
Killian pressed his lips tight, nodding stiffly. "Well, I'd best be off, then. I'll just say good night to Henry."
"Sure, I—" Emma stopped, glancing over to where Henry sat at the counter, his book out once again. Strangely, she didn't feel any resentment toward the storybook this time, she was glad he was reading it. Unsure of what she would say, Emma cut through the crowd, squeezing in behind Henry. Killian followed wordlessly.
Her kid looked up, a grin lighting his face. "I think I've figured out…" He stopped suddenly aware of Killian hovering behind his other shoulder. He slammed the book shut. "Uh. I think I've figured out that I don't really like Rumplestiltskin's story at all."
The look of pride in Killian's eyes struck Emma as strange, but she forged on with her original plan.
"Hey, I was thinking…maybe Operation Cobra doesn't have to be just you and me." Though her eyes were on Henry, she heard Killian suck in a sharp breath.
"It's not," Henry said, lowering his voice. "Ms. Blanchard and Archie know too."
With an apologetic look at Killian, who actually looked kind of amused, Emma leaned in. "I know, but I've been talking with Hook and…he's good, okay? I think you should bring him up to speed on all this when you get a chance."
Henry's brow furrowed, his nose scrunching lopsidedly. "Are you sure?"
Emma met Killian's eyes, hoping he understood how big this was. It wasn't what he wanted, but she wasn't sure she trusted him that much yet. If she could ever trust him that much—although, Henry would have to find out sooner or later—but maybe this could be their compromise.
"Yeah, I'm sure."