notes: hello again! twenty years later i come bearing another chapter, hope u enjoy!

"You didn't tell me she didn't know."

David's accusation hits him square in the back as Killian swivels around to watch Emma disappear the way they both came. When he can no longer see her, he finally turns to David and replies, "I thought it would be best if she didn't."

"For who?"

"I'm not afraid of Mary Margaret's wrath," Killian says drily.

David's moved close enough that Killian can see how very clearly his new former hire wants to take a swing at him. It's fortunate that Killian isn't afraid of David's wrath either, though being on the receiving end of it isn't something he's particularly keen on experiencing again.

"It would be better for her because then she wouldn't spend the weeks leading up to it unfocused and off task."

David stumbles at that, his expression going comically soft. "I make her unfocused?"

Killian laughs, but the humor of it quickly leaves him. David does make Mary Margaret unfocused, which would be fine if Killian didn't need her to keep things from falling apart, and with Emma now in his life he needs her more than ever.

He combs his fingers through his hair, holding back a sigh. Firing David on his first day would be poor form, but it could be better than pulling him into this.

"That's not the point, mate. I need her and I need you, so if you could -" He scratches at his chin as he searches for the word less likely to end with David's fist in his face "- resist the urge to seek her forgiveness by any means necessary, that'd be fantastic."

"Fantastic," David echoes, hands on his hips.

He slumps but not quite defeated, for as Killian turns to leave, David says, "This need for Mary isn't putting her in any danger, right?"

Killian wishes he could reassure him, but he won't lie about that, and trusting that things will go the best way will just leave them unprepared for the worst.

"I'll make sure that the target remains on my back," Killian says.

It isn't reassuring at all, and when the question is posed, Killian isn't sure who voiced it.

Just how many are taking aim?

Mary Margaret insists on driving them downtown, which is surprising in a way, a way consisting of three parts, that being:

1) Mary Margaret's the Socaean Royal Press Secretary (separate from their governmental Press Secretary,) which was news to Emma that she only picked up when Mary Margaret mentioned she'd have to hold a conference tomorrow, she'll need to proofread the statement but it should be fine, and "Don't worry, Emma, you won't have to put in an appearance since you and Killian already spoke to the masses through Sidney's show." Although she's seemed to like calling herself the Royal Bird Master up until their Horse Master kind of ruined that (not to be noted that Emma was the one who really ruined it, but okay, to be noted, it's Fifty Shades of Grey that really ruined it, so she's completely innocent in this.)


2) She's the one who's been insisting on Emma keeping her contact with others to a minimum to avoid any "potential conflicts." Emma assured her that she wouldn't punch anyone in the face, but it seemed to have the opposite effect in convincing Mary Margaret that she'd handle herself with poise and grace.

3) So, it would make more sense for Mary Margaret to surround them with people who could play a barrier between Emma and any person she's liable to punch in the face.

Also, there's the fact that she's pretty sure Leroy was supposed to go with them. The rearview gave her a perfect shot of Leroy's fuming expression as they drove out the gates.

Pretty sure becomes absolute certainty when Mary Margaret defends herself against the reprimand Emma apparently voiced with her mind. She only wishes this talent went two ways. Reading minds sure would come in handy for all these people with all these secrets giving her all these headaches. Well, it's just the one, but as she's had it since she woke up to Belle's frantic texts, counting it in days is as good of a marker as any.

"He'll forgive me. I'm only going to Jefferson's."

Emma nods and reaches over to pat Mary Margaret on the shoulder, "He will." Pulling away, she prompts, "Jefferson is your stylist?"

"Yes, he is. He's…" She pauses, thinking hard, thinking very hard, wrinkle in her brow, and then exclaims, unexpectedly excited, "He'll like you!"

Emma snorts. "That endorsement isn't doing him any favors."

She turns to look out the window, so many fields passing by, and she's starting to play Spot the Cow, a game made unsurprisingly easy when they pass a cow pasture, when Mary Margaret says, "You really think that?"

Emma shifts back around, frowning in question.

"Think what?"

"That his liking you would be a bad thing?"

Emma shrugs. Deciding to skim over whatever Mary Margaret's implying because whoa, she is not going there, as road trip-like as this scenery is, it's not some cross-country journey where they bare their hearts, hopes, dreams, all those future plans that they're going to make happen! They are!

"Killian liked me."

Mary Margaret nods.

"You know, Emma, he still does."

Emma starts to question, but quickly realizes that she doesn't actually have a question to that. Bewildered. Confused? No, bewildered is the word, because it's kind of wild that Mary Margaret thinks that answers anything at all.

Besides, she figured that one on her own, and now that they're making this connection, that liking Emma can only lead to ruin, it's a little worrying. Can this get worse? Like, of course it can. She doesn't think telling Killian to stop liking her will really go over well, though.

He'll probably be bewildered too.

Or worse, he'll be sincere and tell her something she really doesn't want to hear.

This would be headache inducing if she didn't already have the aforementioned headache. Or, it's like a headache tower, building one floor over the next, the foundation shaky enough that when it goes toppling down...Emma will go with it, head in her hands, wishing that she could lay down and just never wake up.

After long moments of Emma visualizing her breakdown - in the apple orchard, Sunny neighing at her before abandoning her to her fate where Regina stalks over in all her royal finery to gloat, and the imagined scene is probably too clear of a testament to her psychological state - the drive seems to smooth out, like they're gliding over the road. That helps a little, the bumps not adding soreness to her list of afflictions. It was kind of redundant anyway, pain in the ass already top of the list in the form of one dumb, secretive prince.

Emma glances out the window again to realize that they're actually in a town. She reads as many of the signs on the shops as she can, cataloguing the general options for spots closer to the manor than downtown.

It soon becomes easier to read the signs. Mary Margaret slows down to the local speed. They linger a little longer, coming up to a stoplight.

No. Wrong. It's a complete stop. It's the middle of the road and there's no stoplights on these streets anyway. Truly local.

Mary Margaret starts reversing, driving forward, reversing, driving forward, turning away from the curb entirely, and reversing.

It feels surreal, like Emma's in a comedy exaggerating just how difficult parallel parking can be. It's too real, she's in a dramedy, where on the one hand Mary Margaret's struggle is hilarious from an outsider's standpoint, and on the other -

"This is downtown."

Mary Margaret lets her frustration finally guide her into a good enough park that she can turn to Emma fully when she says, "It is. Close right?"

Pathetic right.

All offense to Socaea, but this is an insult to downtowns everywhere.

Mary Margaret looks out the window towards the center of town, which is in easy view since the town's small enough that anywhere you walk, you'd definitely see it.

She turns to Emma and smiles, "Quaint is what you would say, right?"

"That's what you would say." She whines, groans, if it sounds like she's dying, she really well and truly is. "We're parked on the ass-end of nowhere's Main Street."

Mary Margaret frowns, but Emma's not really feeling kind.

Well, "Okay, it's the ass-end of… 'What is this place called?'" Mary Margaret sighs and supplies, "Storybrooke." Emma's too...too to comment on that, simply finishes her correction, "Ass-end of a country's countryside." She groans. "Welcome to Storybrooke, I guess."

Mary Margaret expression drops further, and Emma slackens. This isn't helping, this isn't helping, this isn't helping -

It's a helpful mantra, though.

She breathes out and announces, "Okay, I'm done."

Emma doesn't add a promise to that because that's not one she'd be able to keep, but she does tuck away her disgruntlement as best she can. It isn't helping, it isn't helping, it isn't -

Oh hell, is she really going to keep giving her that look, like Emma's the one who shot Bambi's mom?

"To Jefferson?" Emma suggests when Mary Margaret continues to make that face at her, and she's about ready to announce that she's never gone hunting and she's never had any desire to, and Storybrooke is so quaint, never seen a better downtown in her entire life!

Luckily, her suggestion works, encouraging probably in its intensity, so Mary Margaret opens her door. Emma follows suit, stepping out on the sidewalk. Mary Margaret starts ahead of her and half a block of walking leads them to a shop.

There are two outfits in the window display, mannequins in coordinating outfits for a man and a little girl. Without the female mannequin of the usual three mannequin window display, Emma's only too hesitant about stepping within. She's seen this bad horror movie before. Was it Netflix? Syfy? Was the female mannequin the murdered mom or the murderous one?

Mary Margaret pulls open the door with a smile, and Emma's eased, mostly. She grabs the door from Mary Margaret, and lets her enter first. A wise move, and not a cowardly one. If she really thought this shop was a front for a portal to Hell, she'd have to consider whether it wasn't just buildup to the twist ending where the world she left was the true hell all along.

A blur of movement can't even be counted as a warning when Mary Margaret's hit full-force with the weight of an excited child.

"Snow!" Emma hears as she reaches out to steady Mary Margaret.

"Gracie, don't tackle her," a male voice calls out. Emma looks up, quick assessment of the filled racks of clothes, too many styles to categorize in a cursory look, designs hanging on the walls in frames with no clear symmetry, and behind the counter a spiral staircase that looks straight out of Lord of the Rings.

So she got her genres wrong, everyone makes mistakes.

The owner of the voice descends into view. She sees his smile before she sees anything else. Wrong genre again. Sort of. Still a fantasy, but it is less "epic adventure to save the world" and more "girl opens the door into a world of strange magic, led along by a mysterious and magical guide."

The guide being - "Jefferson?" Emma asks.

"The one and only." As a thoughtful aside he adds, "Although I could be wrong."

He chuckles at that, so yeah, he's the weirdo guide.

Which would make the girl, Grace, currently hugging Mary Margaret, the one who opened the door.

Strange, but at least the mannequins make sense now. Grace's hair bow is the same color as Jefferson's bowtie and the outlined pattern on his shirt, and the gold hem of her dress is the same color as his socks, in easy view because he's opted to watch them from his seat on the steps, his feet propped up on the counter.

"I'm Grace," his daughter announces, relinquishing Mary Margaret. With a smile and the bluntness of a child, she says, "You're Killian's kidnapper." Grace frowns, and shakes her head. Clearly anxious to correct herself, she quickly says, "Kidnapper girlfriend."

"Yeah," Emma says.

Like what else is she going to say? She isn't going to argue with a child over something she heard on TV or read online. Even though she isn't a kidnapper. Or his girlfriend. Except she is, even though she's not. Girlfriend can be argued, sure but she isn't a kidnapper.

"I'm not a kidnapper."

Okay, so Emma is arguing with a child.

"Okay," Grace says.

Okay, well she really isn't.

If only everyone could be convinced as easily as Grace. Maybe Emma would still be in New York, in that cheap coffee shop downtown enjoying normal priced coffee in a normal life.

"Well, that settles it," Jefferson says, and stands from his makeshift seat, skipping the last few steps to hop to the floor. "I couldn't dress a kidnapper, but a girlfriend is fine." He nods towards the racks. "Find a look you like and we can make it your own."

"We?" Emma asks. From the mannequins in the window and the lack of appearance from any other strange characters playing at normal humans, she kind of figured that it's just him and his daughter.

Another shop clerk, then?

"You and I. We."

Emma stares blankly.

Reading her look, Jefferson explains, "This isn't a one person process. You have better insight into yourself than I do. Clothes are more than clothes. They're a reflection of a person. A window into their world."

He looks her up and down, and Emma becomes aware of her outfit. She takes off the beanie she'd been wearing because of the cold, shaking out her hair. Leather jacket over a sweater. Jeans. Boots. He can't see her fuzzy socks because they're only mid-calf and her boots rise almost to her knees.

It's a normal outfit. Window into what?

She's two for two in this whole newfound ability to speak into other's minds because Jefferson's more than happy to offer his unwanted analysis.

"It's cold but you're wearing a leather jacket over a sweater instead of a winter coat. It's the smarter option, but the leather offers more protection than a coat. It offers the protection you really need. The sweater? Plain. A little too big. Kind of frumpy."


Grace laughs, and Emma narrows her eyes at her father. She likes this sweater. It's her best one.

"You have others but this one is probably the best for public viewing. You need a certain image, but it isn't one you've ever needed to fit into."

Okay. Well.


She can grudgingly acknowledge the too much on the nose truth of that one. It's her best one when you're going by the "What is less likely to cause public ridicule for a Prince's girlfriend?" standard, but she likes her other sweaters a lot better. Loves the ones with the holes from getting caught on things and faded colours from the wash. They're well-worn clothes she's had for a while. It's nice to have clothes that aren't borrowed and she has to return when she's sent off somewhere else. Clothes that she can choose to take wherever she goes. A new town. A new city.

A new country.

"Jeans and boots because they're easy, normal, and you can get away with that at least. Who's judging a pair of jeans when you're just going shopping? Not like you're meeting the president in a little clothing shop."

He nods at her hands, at the beanie crushed between her fingers, and says, "And your hat?"

Okay this is enough. It's just a hat.

"What the hell does my hat say about me? Is it a reminder of the time I learned to knit, a show of one of my lesser known skills? Does it tell you I prefer night over day? That I secretly really enjoyed Twilight? What?"

He shakes his head, laughing around his reply, "No, all it says is that you like hats."

Emma gapes for half a beat, stops that but the embarrassed blush creeps along in spite of her desire for it to not do that at all.

"I like hats," Emma confirms.

Yeah, good comeback. Nice one, Emma, couldn't have said it better. That'll definitely shut him up.

She stuffs her hat into her back pocket, and places her hands on her hips impatient and eager to move on from this 'Exclusive Tell All: Emma's clothing reveals the truth about her! She likes Twilight! And hats!'

"So I just need to find some looks I like and you can do this?" she asks, emphasis on the Jefferson handling it because she'd rather have her clothing speak in tongues than put herself on display for anymore clothes-readers. Her measurements are all he's getting out of her, and since he already has those, all she has to do is throw some clothes his way.

Which is easier said than done when he disappears back up the stairs and Grace's attentions turn to Emma. It isn't that she bothers Emma or anything; Emma doesn't have much experience with kids beyond seeing her former neighbor's kids as they pass each other in the hall, but Grace is easy on a beginner, moving away from Emma's current situation quickly.

Still the combination of questions and Mary Margaret's offered remarks punctuated by some very heavy sighing makes it a little difficult to stay on task.

"What's New York like?" becomes "The subway is really that gross?" leading to "I read about giant rats in one of the animal encyclopedias at the library" which segues into "I liked that book too!" and soon Emma's sitting on the floor having an intense discussion about Redwall while Mary Margaret paces behind her.

The pacing she only notices when Jefferson calls Grace and she runs off up the stairs, leaving Emma to looking through the racks and hear with perfect clarity yet another sigh and Mary Margaret's shoes treading the floor.

Emma doesn't really know how to go about this whole offering comfort thing, sharing in woes, commiseration over painful romances.

Still, she just can't take another sigh.

"Are you here or at the stables right now?" Emma asks.

Mary Margaret near chokes on her next sigh, Emma's disruption too unexpected. She wheezes once, and then looks at Emma with doe-eyed surprise, pink beginning to rise in her cheeks.

"Of course I'm here! I don't know what…" Emma looks at her pointedly, has been since she asked Mary Margaret the question, and finally she caves and says, "I'm still just a bit overwhelmed by his appearance. I haven't thought about him in so long and then he's just - he's here!"

Emma doesn't remark on the obvious lie - Mary Margaret's definitely thought of him recently. It wouldn't be such an upheaval if he wasn't on her mind. Maybe not completely, maybe not consciously, but he's been there. Just waiting to materialize.

Which he's done, in the flesh.

"Well, it looks like he's staying, so what do you plan to do about it?"

"Short of sending him back wherever he came from?"

Emma's unconvinced by that even being a possible suggestion.

Mary Margaret agrees.

"I just need to throw myself into other things."

With a decisive nod of her head, she does so, taking Emma along with her as that nod unfortunately is in the direction of the racks that Emma has only really glanced at.

Mary Margaret starts to pick tops, dresses, a few pants and too many skirts in a frenzy- all of them set on the counter one by one, waiting for Emma's approval.

When Emma doesn't immediately decide, Mary Margaret thrusts the top forward and prompts, "Would you wear something like this?"

She feels a little attacked by Mary Margaret's intensity, barely half a thought in her reply, "I thought you didn't micromanage?"

"This is macro-managing," Mary Margaret says with the swiftness of a practiced answer used many times before.

As Emma's not had the same practice, she doesn't have a smart reply at the ready, and Mary Margaret's far too forceful for Emma to do anything but obey when she looks Emma dead in the eyes, and says, "Now. Choose."

It's only after Emma's yay'ed and nay'ed more clothes than she's sure she needs, hopefully, that Emma questions when Mary Margaret's practiced that reply. Maybe she didn't mean to be that forceful, but Emma can't believe that when she's worked with Killian. As much as Emma wanted to throw him against something (and still does, yeah, definitely, but she's not looking for that headline: Prince Abused! The Black Swan Strikes Again!) there's no way Mary Margaret hasn't exacted that once or twice.

Or thrice would a fourth or fifth time be phrased? Whatever, it's probably too many times to keep track of anyway.

Emma can only be relieved that she's been saved the bodily harm, although probably only by the skin of her teeth. Some of the things Emma vetoed had made Mary Margaret look at her less wounded and more wounding.

But in the end, Emma vetoing the last of the infinite pile that Mary Margaret sighs and says, "Your clothes need to speak for you. Not me."

Jefferson descends the stairs with a cat burglar's quiet, somehow behind the counter before she realizes. It figures he'd come when Mary Margaret's finished driving Emma mad.

"That's the understanding Snow I know," Jefferson remarks.

When Grace called her that, Mary Margaret had smiled, but now, she frowns, so in curiosity, Emma ventures, "Snow? As in Snow White?"

Mary Margaret sighs, this time at a note of bitterness that her David sighing lacked.

"As in Snow White. Bet you can't guess the Evil Queen in this tale," Jefferson says.

He grins expectantly, and it isn't the slyness of his response that irritates Emma, but the all-knowing smile of this situation, up to and including the return of Prince Charming. The irritation isn't for her own sake, but unpleasant surprises are only made worse when everyone is in on it but you, so she can understand the slight hurt in Mary Margaret's expression.

"Let's not have a retelling," Emma says.

Her stomach rumbles in agreement, ready to nip this shopping venture in the bud entirely. Prompted by the vocal arrangement of Emma's hunger, Mary Margaret looks at her watch, and eyes widening, she glances to the window. Emma follows the look.

It's dark outside. She didn't even notice.

"Oh it's late! We should go get dinner - why didn't anyone call me?" Pulling her phone out her pocket, she says to Jefferson, "We need to return. Tell Grace I'll come back soon," and to Emma she says, "I'm going to pull the car up to the front. Get your jacket, confirm your measurements. We'll have to come back for the necessary tweaking once Jefferson has collected samples for you to choose from."

Emma starts to question what they've been doing all afternoon if it wasn't choosing from samples already, but Mary Margaret near flees the shop, so she just sighs instead. She doesn't mind the abrupt exit, but Mary Margaret's frenzied run doesn't really put her at ease.

"I need your phone number as well," Jefferson says.

Emma shrugs to attention. Shrugs again in response. "Don't know what's going on with that one at the moment. I need to figure out carriers out here, whether my number will even still be my number."

Which is now number one on her list of priorities. Being able to google this place would've made Storybrooke less of a crushing disappointment.

"So, I'll contact you through Mary Margaret. Or Killian, even. You're closer to him after all."

Yeah, physically.

She hasn't really thought about him since her whole 'not his kidnapper' assertion. But actually, she isn't certain whether she even is closer to him. Like there are major things she's not privy to. Google isn't the fount of information it seems, and she feels like she can read Mary Margaret better than him. Mary Margaret's so open and he's shadowed. In the shadows. Sneaking like a sneaky asshole who can't trust her.

Doesn't inspire much confidence in her whole being able to trust him with this whole brand-spanking new life, but that's really all she can do.

"Once upon a time," Jefferson enunciates this oh so clearly and intentionally, but still softly like this is just an uncalculated thought, "I could've contacted you through Regina as well. But there's no story if Snow White and the Evil Queen aren't at odds."

Frustrated, Emma snaps, "Can you stop treating them as characters and act like they're real people?"

Jefferson huffs in offense, humor lacking when he says, "But I am. All stories are real, you know."

To that, and to save herself an argument she doesn't have the time or energy for, she can only say, "You're a headache."

A car horn cuts off any other response as Mary Margaret calls Emma away. Which she does. Go away, walking away from the counter

"See you later, Swan!"

Emma waves over her shoulder, and the last thing she hears as she steps out the door is him calling out, "The Swan Princess is a classic!"

"Ha-ha," Emma says to no one in particular, since she's the only one around to hear the joyless laugh anyway.

She gets into the car before Mary Margaret can yell at her, which is great because Mary Margaret only really says, "We should've left earlier. It's actually unusual that Leroy didn't come after us, but then it's probably because you're with me and not Killian."

"He's the one to worry about alright," Emma agrees.

Mary Margaret makes some calls on her Bluetooth, cutting out any other conversation between them, so Emma's left alone with her thoughts.

Swan Princess. It's such an easy one, it makes Emma groan inwardly. Maybe she should've enjoyed Black Swan while it lasted.

She enjoys neither, actually, but that thought leads her to another. The Black Swan to the Swan Princess, and "There's no story if Snow White and the Evil Queen aren't at odds." She's not giving Jefferson's little fairytale delusion any weight, but it's clear now that she was right. Regina and Mary Margaret's issue definitely goes deeper than the story Mary Margaret told her.

Once upon a time, they were friends.

That her mind phrases the thought that way is another headache in her headache tower. She glowers, determined not to compare anything to the Swan Princess, and never watch that movie ever again.

His call to Mary Margaret goes directly to voicemail this time. His fingers stop their listless running over the pages of revisions, and he slips his phone back into his pocket. Sagging back into his chair, he closes his eyes, allowing himself the slight smile.

He might get a call back, he might not. As she's on call with someone else, there's no knowing when she'll get the break. He'll probably see her and Emma in person long before that. And they'll be fine - are fine. Which he wasn't truly, desperately worried over, but it would be irrational not to think of all the things that could've happened to them given the circumstances.

The door thumps loudly several times, in only a warning and not a request, because Killian hasn't voiced a welcome before Leroy enters. As gruff as usual - and tactless, he says, "They're not dead. Or kidnapped." His guard's face screws up like he's about to announce the worst thing imaginable: the local tavern filled to maximum with happily drunk tourists. Through the gritted teeth of an ale-lover's vindictive memory, he says, "They just lost track of time while shopping."

Killian nods solemnly.

"It happens to us all."

Leroy growls in disgust, the implication that it'd happen to him so impossible that it isn't worth replying to, and thusly, Killian doesn't need to bite back his laughter as Leroy's already left the room.

Leroy hasn't gained enough distance not to hear his laughter, but enough that he won't return to threaten Killian's life. It's a distance Killian's carefully measured, for times when he really wants to tease his guard, and other times, where the small humor that can be found in Leroy's amplified stomps is the only real smile he'll manage that day.

And he's definitely looking forward to the end of this one.

Going over some final preparations has drained him and then some, and no doubt they will have to be finalized repeatedly up and until they meet Aurora at the airport. He's twice now revised Mary Margaret's speech - noting anything that might draw questions, and offering a response.

It isn't a necessity as Mary Margaret's voice tends to align with his own, publically, but is what he does nonetheless. He would never send her out unprepared, and have her speak with confidence on a statement that he isn't confident of himself.

She's forced to do that every time Regina or Cora decide something is press conference worthy, and it's never pleasant and always borderline cruel, which is all that they can get away with - publically.

He's exhausted himself waiting for this day to end - and it started so well, Emma's eyes soft and peering into his own, waiting for him to see her, too.

Killian sits up in his chair, glancing over the papers carefully strewn about him. He likes to edit by hand; before, the pain of cramping fingers making certain that every word was carefully chosen, and now, habit and practice. Every word tests the limits of his ambidexterity and those of the latest prosthetic technology - both of which he's been steadily stretching for some time now.

Still, hand edits are all well and good, but if they're to matter at all, he'll have to join the modern world and type them up. Especially now, when he has something to look forward to after he's finished - someone.

He's quickly coming to rely on Emma's company, especially the easy banter they've had from Evening-Turned-Day 1.

He shouldn't settle into it because, behind her sarcasm and wit and her references to things he has no clue about and even her insults, there is the undercurrent of discomfort, anger at their situation, and fear. It would be wrong to say she puts on a brave front. Her bravery is sincere, but there's the strength to fight her circumstances and then there's a fear he still can't identify. Killian sees it in her ability to shrug off her past like the information gathered in a file with her name on it says everything that needs to be said about it, as if even she can't say anything more if she wanted to - and maybe she'd wanted to, but that was before - before. There's more to it than a past of pain and disappointment, but he doesn't know -

There's also the other things he doesn't know.

He mastered typing what's before him without conscious thought long ago, so he feels his fingers drift across the keyboard, but he also feels his whole insides slumping away from the thoughts pressing and pressing.

There's downsides to this single-minded focus of his, but he can't just not know. It's haunting - in the worst way, where he tries not to think of her face and his in the same frame, but forever, irrevocably intertwined. Timing is never right, but that was a particular kind of wrong, inner sanctum of hell worthy.

Lose his love, his hand, and a reality to even ground him. He survived with this single-minded focus, so downsides aside he needs to know, if only to put it to rest. With Cora's dismissal, his path has diverted but still with the same end: his father's reasoning. He went from one father to another, the question still the same.


He wishes he didn't care so much about the answer.

But he does, and so, he's left trying to figure out how best to steal away during Aurora's visit. It was so much simpler before, but now he has Emma, so the trouble is compounded because he's keeping this secret from her, but also they're together. Partners. Lovers as the word can be applied to their relationship, but he can't very well abscond with her to the ruins of one of Gold's former offices that's been gutted of all personnel and materials related to Gold in anyway in only the off-chance that a former freelance "artist" actually has information Killian needs.

As much as partners should mean confiding in her, this is what she agreed to. Emma said so herself, she can be on her own and should be on her own for both of their sakes. Still, she probably didn't mean him leaving her with a princess less than a week after she learned that said princess even existed.

But if the man knows, how long will he sit on it? Or be allowed to? Even waiting these next days is a risk. So, it's the risks that he has to weigh against each other: drawing a further rift between him and Emma than the one they've started with, or losing out on a chance to answer that "Why?"

It's haunting him, but he gets the feeling either choice will as well.

He drifts in his thoughts longer than he realizes because the revisions and finalizations are typed fully when he finally draws back to the material world. It's only a matter of sending them off to Mary Margaret, Kathryn, and Frederick before he can stand and stretch out the stiffness in his muscles into something approaching less painful. He packs all the sensitive material away, leaves as the centerpiece on his desk his copy of Will's favourite comic. Killian still doesn't understand it, and enjoys because of that. Understanding would surely sour it entirely.

The halls are fairly empty as he walks to his rooms. He sees Ruby perched on top of one of the window seats, her pen between her teeth as she diligently searches for the hidden objects on her tablet screen, and Billy and Mulan in deep conversation at the dead-end of a hall. He hears footsteps further off but doesn't see their owners.

At his destination, he pauses at his door, knocking to no answer. He unlocks it, calling into the room, "Emma?"

Frowning at the lack of response, he steps within. He was correct in assuming she couldn't possibly be asleep, but she should've been back now and, as evidenced by the bag carelessly dropped on the floor, some pens and a half-eaten oatmeal bar spilling out of it, she is.

The bathroom door is open and empty, so he turns heel and heads back down towards Mary Margaret's kitchen office. It's darkened down there, so much so that the only real lights on his walk are the flameless candles on the end tables and the central light that hangs over the food serving table, lit at its lowest setting.

There's light underneath Mary Margaret's door as well. It isn't bright, so she's using the lamplight, then. She must be ready to turn in.

He knocks on the door, trying for soft but it starts to swing open despite his light touch. Through the crack, Killian sees Mary Margaret's head bowed over her tablet. Her legs are folded beneath her and she's one shirt change away from falling into bed, already in her pants and slippers at her feet.

Killian knocks again, a bit louder. With a tired huff, Mary Margaret turns to look at him. Her expression brightens, aggravation easing from the creases in her forehead. She looks tired, but these creases aren't warning bells, at least.

"Oh, Killian, it's you. Good."

She nods that last part emphatically. She's trying to convince herself of the truth of that, but Killian's not offended. His appearance has caused her nothing but grief lately - and foremost, he knows exactly who Mary Margaret expected to knock on her door.

His lips quirk in a half-smile. Mary Margaret is nothing but predictable when it comes to David, and David is the same. This distance between them isn't going to last despite Killian impressing on David the necessity of not letting his and Mary Margaret's personal history come between Mary Margaret and her job - Killian's a bit of a fool to imagine that it already hasn't.

Footsteps come up behind him and Mary Margaret lifts in her seat to look despite herself - she squints in disgust.

"Oh! I'm sorry!" Ashley says as she bumps his shoulder and Killian grabs her to stop her having a late night conference with the floor.

"No bother," Killian says with a smile.

Her eyes widen and she bites her lip - words deliberately cut off, before she nods and runs off down the hall. When Killian looks to Mary Margaret again, he sighs and mentally dons his dunce cap. Her lips are downturned, the briefest glimpse of the disappointment she's carried for years.

He's a fool. He's an utter idiot.

She squints her eyes shut in thought.

"I've read over everything already, so the last preparations to be done are a good night's sleep. Which I'm going to get tonight." She says the last with a steadfast determination. Killian's smile is true at that. A determined Mary Margaret is a fearsome one. Her pillow is in for a fight if it in any way tries to impede her rest. With a quirk to her brow, she asks, "Why aren't you doing the same? Is there something up with Emma?"

"Should there be?" wars with "Where is she?" on her tongue so he settles on a concerned medium.

"I wouldn't know as she hasn't returned to her rooms. I thought she might still be with you."

Mary Margaret shakes her head, brow wrinkling again. "But I thought she went up to your rooms when we arrived. I asked her whether she wanted me to walk her there, but she said 'I've driven cross-country in a car without GPS, I'm sure I can make it to bed without the kindergarten chaperone.'" Mary Margaret smiles. "She said I'd make a good elementary school teacher. I think it was a compliment."

Mary Margaret adds, completely offhand, "Grace likes her."

"Jefferson, too, I gather," Killian says, not pointed in the slightest.

"Of course."

"Of course," Killian agrees, but that draws him back to the current situation. With certainty, he says, "She didn't get lost."

His heartbeat switches to a faster tempo in concern for a brief moment, imagining that she's been held up - but it's Emma so the only person in this home likely to have held her up is herself. Where would she have gone, then?

He's truly concerned, then. Turning to Mary Margaret, he says, "I'll find her," and tries for calm and not racing his way out the doors into the gardens. Outside, he looks right and left, but his feet have already chosen their path, leading him all the way to the stables. He breathes a sigh of relief when he sees her midway down the trail they tread this morning.

"Emma," he calls out, not wanting to sneak up on her and cause himself an injury that'll have them truly fending off reports that Emma is definitely the Black Swan and Killian really is her next victim.

She glances over her shoulder, and says, "Oh," with the kind of soft surprise that's like a slightly open gate in her walls, a glimpse at a woman not expecting anyone to come looking for her.

"Sorry. I really was going upstairs but then I just -"

She shrugs the rest of the apology, so Killian supplies, grinning, "Decided on a late night stroll? Or perhaps, a late night escape?"

"What?" He nods towards the stables and she catches on, shaking her head. "No. After seeing your downtown, though, I think you're right. It is a pretty reasonable mode of escape. I wouldn't look out of place running a horse through your miles of cow, corn, potato and flower fields."

He chuckles at that. She steps to the side and uncrosses her arms. Her bare fingers look cold. He doesn't take one, leery of upsetting her, but he recognizes an invitation. He happily accepts, and walks up to stand beside her, almost shoulder to shoulder. She keeps her eyes on the miles of fields, those of the manor and the one's stretching beyond it. The grass crunches underneath her feet as she shifts, the sound sharp in the silence. Her soft sigh is audible - as is his, and that she turns into him, peering up at him beneath her lashes and the hat pulled down nearly to her eyebrows. Any closer and the woolen ball at the top would tickle his nose.

She rocks back on her heels, head slightly tilted in expectation.

"So what did bring you out here?" he asks.

"I just love trees!"

She draws out her 'love' but he holds her gaze just as long, and she sinks down in defeat. He's most certainly imagining it, but the length of time between her holding out on her inner thoughts and confessing them to him seems to be decreasing. This could just be an outlier though, or rather, a confession on such a small scale that it doesn't really matter if she says it or not.

"This place is pretty and all, but I feel a little cloistered in there. I just - I started walking up the stairs and was kind of dreading locking myself in the room. Sorry."

She shrugs like she's partially apologetic, but only for being forced to admit it.

"I understand."

"You do?"

Her surprise is too genuine, and she must read his answering surprise because she turns away slightly, looking just south of his eyes. "Stupid question to ask Mr. World Traveler."

"Oh, you've been looking up my habits, have you?"

A wide smile takes over his face, a tease at the tip of his tongue and the brush of his fingers against hers, lifting his hand to repeat the motion against the bare skin of her neck, where the collar of her jacket has wrinkled down.

Emma looks at him, clearly to make sure her eye-roll is seen. His smile widens at that, and then freezes at the whiplash narrowing of her eyes, just as his hand does midway to his intended destination, drops with the aggravation twisting her features, just as his hand does, falls back down to his side and away from her.

"Well, it's better than waiting for you to tell me, right?" she snaps.

Her words ring, as if they've spent forever bouncing around in the echo chamber of her head.

Killian looks away this time, desperately grasping at a response that'll taste less like acid on his tongue. She draws back before he can - and then he's desperately grasping at an apology that doesn't spill all his thoughts and secrets before her.

She makes it easy on him, scoffing, "Whatever."

The one word dismissal leaves Killian with an opening to suggest, "How about we sit down and I tell you all about my daily habits. My skin routine, how I choose what to wear -"

Emma looks at him in disgust, at the ground in the same except the disgust is much deeper when directed at him.

"Hard pass," she says.

She turns away and looks out towards the fields again, a soft sigh escaping her. Closing her eyes, she opens them only when she's turned completely towards the manor.

"We can go back now."

"I don't mind staying."

She considers his quick reply - and she knows that he recognizes it because she increases the distance between them, giving herself more than enough space to walk away, but perhaps not enough to separate her from his knowing.

"It's cold."

She shudders - manufactured, maybe, but it's true that it's cold. He runs hot, but even he feels slightly chilled, so exposed.

"Alright, love, let's go back then."

He pauses, uncertain. He stretches his hand out before him, closing it around the bitter air. He can't hear the sound of crushed grass - Emma's walking almost out of reach. Still, fortune favors the brave, so he says, "Another night, we'll stay and watch the stars."

She hasn't gone that far. At his words, she stops and flips around to look at him, and it's endearing, the soft smile she awards him just beyond the sarcasm at her tongue.

"Sounds good."

The pause ends and she quickens her steps, wrapping her arms around her when the wind picks up. Left behind, he can only see the miles still stretched out between them.

Had the rest of her day exhausted her as much as it has him? Has this worn on her so quickly, that the most she can relax is behind the closed doors of their room? And was it that - the thought of Killian himself that made her want to run?

Does she like to stargaze?

It's the last that settles the most uncomfortably in his gut, and he hasn't been torn on this before, on what is a truth worth pursuing. He looks up at the stars - as clear as the sky is, there's not many to be found - and can't help but question whether he should've just told her.

"Hurry up!" Emma calls out.

He draws in a sharp breath, surprised, so far ahead of him and she could've left him behind but she's standing just at the doors. Her arms are wrapped around her. She's too cold to be waiting for him.

But she is.

Killian nods, decided, and starts to jog towards her. It may not be kind to have her surprised, but the faster he gets through this, the quicker she can be rid of this situation. Besides, time is something neither of them really have to waste.

His sister is trying to kill him, after all.