"Swan, come here for a moment."
Emma rolled her eyes, but checked that the simulation was still running before she headed over to where Killian was… what was he doing? He had both hands wrapped around the model he was tinkering with, some sort of contraption she knew had to do with his thesis project, and now his nose was squashed against the side. As she approached, Emma could see that he was alternating between going cross-eyed and then squeezing one eye then the other shut as he focused over the top of his glasses.
"What," Emma barked a short laugh before beginning again. "What are you doing?"
"What does it look like?" he grumbled around the miniscule screwdriver that was sticking out of his mouth.
"It looks like you're about to make out with your model."
Killian's head shot up so fast - the look on his face one of startled embarrassment - that the pieces of the model fell apart like a deck of cards crumbling. The tips of his ears turned red as his lips pitched downward in a frown. He looked like a child who hadn't found a puppy under the tree on Christmas morning.
"I was trying to line up the two domes of the module without losing the interface that would connect with the base computers. For some reason, it just won't work."
"...Right," she mumbled, not having the first idea as to what he was talking about. "Well, whatever it is you're building, did you need me for something?"
Killian looked up at her, perplexed. "Whatever it is I'm… Swan, do you not know what it is we're working on?"
Emma refused to admit that she liked the way 'we're' sounded. This was a job and nothing else. She shrugged. "Physics… an experiment?" she questioned.
There was a gleam in Killian's eyes that Emma hadn't seen before. "Not just an experiment, lass. If this succeeds, if I can just get everything to go green, I'll be able to send someone back in time. I'll be able to go back through time."
"Time travel?!" she exclaimed incredulously. "You're talking like, Quantum Leap? Or Timeless? You want to be the next Doctor Who, is that it?"
Killian's face fell and she saw the hurt in his eyes that he quickly masked.
"This isn't some Hollywood writer's nonsensical idea of science fiction," Killian seethed as he practically hissed at her. "This is real science. And it can save lives some day when it works. If you don't believe that, if you don't care about that, then you can go."
He turned his back to her, and Emma's jaw dropped. She didn't quite know what to do. Or how to react. On the one hand, her knowledge of physics went so far as the B-minus she scraped by with after Dr. Hopper's exam in December. But on the other hand, there was nothing in the world that suggested to her that time travel wasn't exactly what Killian had yelled at her for believing - that it was fanciful science fiction.
If she didn't know better, Emma would swear that he was joking. But she'd seen that look in his eyes before, on countless kids in countless group homes when they swore up and down that the next family would be the one to keep them. She wouldn't admit to anyone - not even herself - that she'd seen that look in the mirror more than a time or two. No one had ever taken a chance on her, and eventually she'd stopped believing in a forever family. The look in her eyes had faded away.
But it didn't change what she had seen in Killian's fierce stare just now. Whether or not what he was saying was true, Killian believed that it was and no one was going to tell him differently.
So Emma better get on board if she wanted to keep her job.
"What did you need me to come over here for?" she asked again, determined to put her skepticism on the back burner - for now.
Killian turned around, his shocked gaze meeting her own.
"You're not getting rid of me that easily, Jones. Now tell me what to do or I'm going back to getting paid to stare at numbers scrolling across a computer screen and pretending that I'm not playing Candy Crush in between beeps." Emma raised an eyebrow and resisted the urge to put her hands on her hips.
"You're playing Pet Rescue Saga and don't think I'm not aware," he groused, but the smile was back in his eyes - if not yet on his face. "I need you to hold the two halves of this together so that the little box right there is suspended between the two of them right on the notches."
Emma slipped her fingers between his, taking control of the model and trying to hold it steady as he let it go. She could see the pieces that were supposed to fit together, where one ended and the other began, but nothing seemed to line up just right the way Killian had it. When he turned his back to grab a roll of clear bonding tape, Emma rotated one of the halves of the dome just a tiny bit so that the box clicked into a different notch.
Killian turned back around and promptly dropped the roll of tape.
"What did you do?" he cried out, staring at the model with his jaw dropped.
"Um, it looked like it fit better this way," Emma mumbled, already moving to slide the pieces back the way he had them.
"No!" Killian shouted, grabbing her hands and holding them steady. "No, that makes it green. Don't move."
Emma stared at the way their hands intertwined, the warmth of his palms covering the chill of her own. She smiled in spite of herself, relishing the feel and trying her hardest to refrain from squeezing his fingers between hers.
What are you doing, Emma? she berated herself even as she held the pieces together. She didn't do this. She couldn't do this. Not now; not with him.
Not with anyone ever again if Emma had her say.
Look out for yourself and no one gets hurt, she reminded herself as Killian wound the tape around the edges of the model pieces. It wasn't the best of mottos, Emma knew all too well, but it was better than trusting the wrong guy ever again.
"Emma? Lass, you can let go now." She looked up with a start, not expecting to hear Killian's voice in her ear, to be able to smell the deodorant he was wearing, to feel the heat of him too close to her. Far too close.
Not close enough.
Emma squeezed her eyes shut, forcing everything back under control, and gingerly dropped the model into Killian's hands.
To avoid giving herself time to settle into his nearness, Emma retreated back behind the desk and focused on the computer program. The simulation that she had left behind when Killian called her over was still running, the numbers spewing across the screen faster than she could process. Regardless, she watched intently, trying to make sense of everything that was happening - on the screen and in her head.
Emma snuck a glance over the monitor furtively, trying to gauge where Killian's thoughts were, if he had been affected as she had by the exchange.
He was staring back at her, his head cocked just a little bit to the side as he regarded her. Emma felt out of sorts under the scrutiny - not uncomfortable with his gaze on her, just a little lost in how normal it felt, in how much she wanted him to keep looking at her like that. To see her.
Emma tore those thoughts to shreds and stomped on them for good measure.
Killian was thankfully oblivious to her mental turmoil, still looking at her with a soft expression on his face. She had to get him to stop. Otherwise she might get used to the idea. And then she saw her opening. Lost as he was in his gaze, the model was still resting in his hands, but only barely.
"Careful Jones, you don't want that to break after all my hard work," she chided.
It was enough to break whatever spell had fallen over them.
"Your hard work?" he asked incredulously. "I hardly think that holding two pieces of plastic together constitutes hard work."
The gleam in Killian's eye betrayed the censure in his voice.
Emma smiled, glad to be back on stable footing. "Oh yeah? Then take off that tape and put it together yourself, if you're so confident."
"I could," he retorted, unconvincingly. "But that would limit our productivity. Wouldn't want Dr. Hopper to think that we were slacking."
Emma rolled her eyes.
They worked together in a comfortable silence - he with the inner workings of a motherboard and she with, well, level 274 of Pet Rescue - until the computer beeped again. Emma sighed when the simulation came back a fail, putting her phone down in order to input the next line of variables into the main feed. She looked up from the notebook filled with Killian's chicken scratch, expecting to see him fiddling with a soldering iron and the circuits he needed.
He was looking at an empty whiteboard, his eyes darting back and forth as if he were watching fireflies dance around him. Emma watched for another moment, not quite sure what was going on. Then Killian's hands began to raise and he started to swat at the air, getting more agitated as he did so.
The soldering iron Emma thought he would be working with was balanced precariously on the workbench, the tip of it dangerously close to his sleeve.
"Killian?" she called softly, not wanting to startle him.
He didn't respond.
She tried again, a little louder this time. "Hey, Jones?"
Starting to get worried, Emma stood from the workstation and started to cross the room. "You with me, Doctor Who?"
Killian still didn't break from whatever had him captivated, his head starting to turn from side to side to follow his frantic gaze.
"Hey!" she reached out to snag the handle of the iron before it could fall, but at the last moment, Killian whipped around.
His head knocked into Emma's, causing her to stumble and reach out to break her fall. Her fingers snagged in the electrical cord and the soldering iron toppled off the edge.
Right onto Killian's thigh.
The howl of pain echoed through the lab and caused Emma's ears to ring. She ignored the way her stomach clenched sickeningly even as she yanked the cord from the wall and tossed the iron in the sink. Killian lurched off the lab stool, bent nearly in half as both hands gripped hard at his leg. He was staggering drunkenly around the room, quiet sounds of distress following him and stabbing at Emma in ways she couldn't - didn't want to - examine.
"Sit down!" she called. "Killian, stop. Let me see."
"No," he managed to croak out. "It's… fine."
His breathing was labored, and when Emma finally caught up to him and wrapped her fingers around his bicep, there were minute tremors racing down his arm.
"It's not fine, you idiot," Emma hissed. "You're hurt."
It was surprisingly easy to manhandle him into an office chair, using her grip on his upper arm to settle him into the cushioning. "Stay," Emma commanded, her finger pointing at him until he nodded reluctantly.
Emma raced over to the double sink, glaring at the soldering iron that she threw into one basin while she ran a rag under cold water pouring into the other. She spoke over her shoulder the whole time, trying to make sure Killian didn't pass out or something equally drastic.
Emma's imagination ran a little rampant when she was stressed.
"I promise you, lass. It's fine," he tried again, pausing every few words to gasp in a breath before he continued.
"I'm sure," she replied matter-of-factly, but she wasn't agreeing with his judgment. "You'll forgive me if I take a look anyway."
"I will?" he tried to joke through clenched teeth.
Emma didn't dignify him with a response. She knelt next to his knee, prying his hands away from his leg and slapping the cold cloth into one. When she finally saw where the iron had come in contact with him, it didn't look too bad at first glance. There was a blackened line zigzagging across the denim, a small hole at the end. Without really thinking about it, Emma stuck her nails into the hole and tugged - intent on tearing the hole further to see how badly the skin was burned underneath.
If Emma thought that his cry of pain earlier was bad, the agonized yell that erupted from him now chilled her to her core.
He jumped from the chair, tripped over his feet, and ended up sprawled across the floor.
"Killian?" she cried, reaching out to grasp his calf to steady them both.
He recoiled sharply with another cry, this one sounding fearful rather than pained. Emma jumped backwards, landing on her butt and smacking her head against the lab table behind her.
"I won't hurt you again," she whispered, fighting every urge to take off at a sprint towards the safety of her dorm room.
Slowly, with both hands in front of her to telegraph any movement she made, Emma crawled back to Killian's side and looked again.
And saw her mistake immediately.
What she had originally thought was simply the singeing of denim by the soldering iron, was now more apparent as where the material had melted. And fused to Killian's skin. The burn beneath was angry and blistered, weeping a bit where the jeans had been pulled away. Where Emma had torn the fabric out of the burn.
No wonder he was looking at her like she was going to injure him again.
Emma closed her eyes against the sting that crept up unannounced and laid her left hand on Killian's knee. She ignored the way his muscles twitched under her palm and soothed her thumb back and forth where he wasn't hurting.
"This is really bad, Killian," she said quietly. "We need to get you to Health Services. If not the ER."
Killian shook his head, almost violently. "I can't. If I… if I go to the ER, my father will find out. I can't do that."
Emma squeezed her hand over his knee. "You can't just ignore this. It needs to be cleaned out; it will get infected if you leave it. Let's just go to HS first and see what they say. Please?"
It took him a moment, but Emma knew she had won when his chin dropped to his chest with a defeated sigh. Emma nearly jumped out of her skin when he clenched his fingers around her right hand. She hadn't even realized that she had been holding onto his hand the entire time.
"All right," he whispered.
Nodding resolutely, Emma stood to her feet and pulled Killian's hand with her. Once she was steady, she pulled on his arm to help him stand and then ducked quickly under his shoulder when his leg wouldn't support him. She looped his arm over her shoulders and tucked herself tightly into Killian's side. Without thinking too much about it, Emma wrapped her other arm around his back and grabbed at the belt around his hips.
"Slow and steady wins the race, right?" she asked before they took their first faltering steps towards the door.
Killian sat on the gurney in the emergency room, playing with the tape over the loosely wrapped bandage on his thigh. He looked forlornly over at the tattered remains of his jeans in the biohazard can and then down to where his boxers just peeked out from under the hospital gown he'd been forced into. Hopelessly, he pulled at the hem over his other leg, trying in vain to lengthen the material just a bit more.
"Stop that," Emma chided from the door with a smile that shined in her eyes even as she tried to suppress it.
He looked up, the blush staining his cheeks and making the tips of his ears burn red. His hands fluttered about, trying to cover his bare legs and his underwear from her view. In her grasp was a very familiar looking bag - his own knapsack from his dorm room.
"Your roommate left this at the reception desk downstairs," she explained. "He and his girlfriend were headed out, but he said that he wouldn't be back until Monday. I thought you might like some sweats."
Killian breathed a sigh of relief as she pulled the worn material out of the main pocket. Ignoring the indignity of standing in front of a woman in naught but his underwear, he maneuvered off the bed, balanced on his good side, and snatched the pants from her. His fists closed around the fabric reflexively, already feeling more comfortable.
Until he tried to lift his leg to put on the sweatpants and almost ended up sprawled across the floor again.
Emma swooped in to the rescue, manhandling him back to sit on the mattress and slipping on the cuffs of the legs over his ankles.
"There," she chided. "Now you can be all Mr. Independent."
The fire attacked his ears again as Killian reached for the waistband and slipped it carefully over the bandages. He had already accidentally brushed over the burn once - he was in no hurry to do it again.
Killian looked up sheepishly as he settled back on the bed. "Thank you," he whispered softly.
Emma nodded his thanks away, settling on the edge of the bed without a care. "So what'd they say?"
"That I was an idiot," he laughed. "But a lucky idiot. A couple inches over and…"
It was Emma's turn to blush as her eyes were drawn automatically between his hips. "Yeah, I imagine that would have sucked."
He gulped. "I don't even want to think about it. A couple weeks of antibiotics and crutches and I'll be good as new."
Emma looked away. "I'm… I'm sorry, Killian. I didn't mean to knock the iron off the table, and I certainly didn't mean to hurt you worse when I was 'helping' you after."
The liberal use of air quotes made Killian laugh despite the contrite tone she used. "It was an accident, lass. Don't think anything of it, please. It was me who shouldn't have left the bloody thing that close to the edge of the table. I know better."
"-No, Swan," Killian interrupted before she could continue. "It wasn't your fault. I shouldn't have gotten so lost in the numbers."
Emma cocked her head to the side before asking, "What were you doing? I called you at least five times and you were just staring off into space."
Killian reached up to scratch behind his ear, smiling self-deprecatingly as he nodded. "Aye, I expect that you could have waltzed in front of me in a bright red ball gown and I likely wouldn't have noticed. Sometimes… well, sometimes I just get lost watching the science."
Emma looked confused, and he couldn't blame her. The only one who had ever really understood was Liam - he was the one who had taken to Google to figure out that Killian was experiencing a form of synesthesia. He had been the one who took Killian to his doctor - and had forced the man to order tests to ensure that Killian didn't have some kind of brain tumor.
His older brother had been the only one who didn't make him feel like a freak.
Killian had tried long and hard to suppress the numbers from taking over his senses in public since Liam had died. It had taken far too many arguments with his father, far too many snide comments and blatant disrespect from his only remaining family, but Killian had learned. Keep the secret under wraps. Don't let anyone figure out just how screwed up, how different, how crazy you are.
He didn't mean to think about his father, but as soon as he did, the familiar burn of anger curled tightly inside Killian. A fierce entity of its own, just waiting to be let out to rage against the world, perked up and tensed until it was ready to strike against the one person in this world who was supposed to love and accept him unconditionally. The one person in this world who was his worst critic and the biggest bully he'd fought against. If the anger had its way, Killian would have seethed and fought his way through life, ending up lost and bitter with nothing to show for it.
And Liam would still be dead.
So Killian learned. He was good at learning. He learned how to control the anger, the numbers, the dance of the equation until he appeared to be what his father wanted - normal. And it still wasn't enough for the man, but at least it was enough for Killian to function with others.
There was something about Emma's calm presence in the lab that let loose those inhibitions.
He tried hard not to ponder what that might mean.
Killian sighed. "The numbers… my equation? They… I see it. In front of me sometimes. It's hard not to get lost in it."
Emma nodded. "I've seen that chicken scratch you call handwriting. I'm not surprised you get lost."
He huffed out a laugh, but his smirk dropped as he tried to make her understand without sending her running for the hills. "No. Not on paper. Literally in front of me. The numbers dance and swirl around me - the colors change as I manipulate the equation. It's… it's-"
"Is that why you said the model was green when I twisted it?"
"So, it's like, what? When a cartoon character gets hit in the head and sees stars and birds flying around?" Emma grinned, ducking her head to meet his eyes.
"I'm not a bloody cartoon," Killian seethed, the familiar feeling of hurt, of bright hot anger and sickening disgrace, settling in his gut. He had to breathe deeply, terrified and unwilling to let the anger pounce on Emma, of all people.
Emma reached out quickly, laying her hand on his forearm and squeezing gently.
"I didn't mean it like that," she mollified. "I'm trying to picture it, that's all."
The tight coil of shame, the one that had been Killian's constant companion since the first teacher found out about the dance of his numbers, slowly unfurled. He took a deep breath and thought about it clinically. If he were watching a visual representation, then yes, Killian supposed it would look like a cartoon.
"Aye," he spoke softly, lulling the beast within back to calm as well as reassuring Emma that he was no longer angry. "I suppose that's a lot like what it is. They're just there, like I could reach out and touch them. Like if I could just pick them up and move them, I could find the right order. I could break through the veil and manipulate time."
Emma smiled. "Well, then the next time I see you getting lost, I promise not to bring you back at the end of a soldering iron."
Killian grinned. "Thank you, milady. I do appreciate it."
She nodded, her hand still resting on his forearm. The warmth that emanated from her grip was nice, he realized. He didn't want her to pull away.
"Mr. Jones," a voice called from the doorway and Emma leapt to her feet - taking her warm strength with her. The resident who had dressed his leg stepped into the room with a pile of papers. "Here are your discharge instructions. There are two prescriptions on the top that you'll need to have filled by tonight. Anything feels worse or just not right, and feel free to come back. Otherwise, follow up with the nurse at school in a week."
Killian nodded and took the papers, signing where he needed to and listening half-heartedly. It wasn't the risk of infection or the need to follow the medication schedule to the letter that concerned him.
It was the upcoming phone call with his father that he needed to prepare for. This was exactly the fodder Brennan would use to try and force him home.
Killian was tired of the fight.
"Come on, Jones. Leave the numbers alone until we get you back to the dorms." Emma jostled his arm, misunderstanding where his mind had wandered. She was standing in front of him, holding out his knapsack. He cocked his head to the side in askance.
"I called Health Services before I came back with your pants." Emma smirked as both their gazes dropped down to his thighs. "They're gonna be here in fifteen minutes to bring us back to school."
The pair of crutches that the resident had left behind were on the bed, and Killian wobbled like a newborn foal as he got used to them. They were nothing like the ones he'd used as a child, and his brain automatically mapped out the inefficiency in this model versus the ones he'd expected to see. Regardless, he'd have to get used to them as he could still vividly remember how white hot pain had sliced through him with every stubborn step across campus.
He wouldn't be putting any weight on that leg for at least a couple of days, dignity be damned.
One quick stop at the pharmacy and a check in with the nurse who'd originally taken one look at his leg and called for a transport later and Killian was safely ensconced on the futon in his dorm room with pillows under his thigh and Emma fidgeting by his desk.
"Do you need anything else?" she asked, straightening his homework and shifting his pencils around needlessly.
"No, Swan. Truly, you've gone above and beyond today." He tried to put his gratitude to words. "I'm sure you had classes that you missed to hang out with me."
She shrugged, and something shifted in Killian.
"You didn't have to do that, Emma. I could have managed on my own."
"Well, it was Physics, so I figure that you can help me catch up on what I missed. Besides, it was my fau-"
"-Stop saying that!" he interrupted angrily, unwilling to let her shoulder the blame for his carelessness. For his flustered reaction to her being so close to him.
Emma's mouth hung open, still wrapped around the last word. Slowly, she pursed her lips and stared him down.
"It wasn't your fault. It was an accident. Just an accident," he soothed softly. Anything to stop her looking at him like that. "Please, lass."
"Jones…" she still looked angry.
Killian cocked an eyebrow, waiting her out.
It took longer than he would have liked, but Emma deflated.
"Fine," she breathed out. "It wasn't my fault and it wasn't yours, either. Look, the cafeteria is going to close in half an hour. It'll take you at least that long just to get there. So either you've got food stashed away in here somewhere, or you're going to suck it up and let me smuggle you a sandwich for dinner. What do you want?"
When she showed up twenty minutes later with two sandwiches and bags of chips that clearly came from the dining hall, Killian was mildly impressed. There was even a thermos of hot water and two packets - one of hot chocolate powder and one of the Americans' God-awful excuse for tea. The last time Will had tried to get past the doors with half a cup of ice cream, the woman at the exit had nearly browbeat him back to their seats.
Emma had made it out of there with a bona fide feast.
"What are you staring at?" she asked irritably as she yanked open one of the chip bags and handed it to him.
Killian smirked to cover up the flutter in his belly. "A veritable pirate, it looks like."
Emma blushed, and dropped her gaze back to their dinner. "Story for another time," she muttered.
They ate companionably - her sitting below him on the tile floor and him trying not to sink into the lumpy mattress and fall asleep.
"-decide to figure out about time travel?"
"Hmm?" Killian blinked his eyes open, not sure when he'd drifted off. The painkillers they'd given him had finally kicked in and he was floating.
"Never mind, Jones. Just give me the mug before you burn something else." Emma pried the tea out of his hands and set it on the desk. She shoved a water bottle towards Killian and waited until he managed to settle it right side up between his hip and the cushion that was supposed to be a mattress.
He didn't even see her leave the room with a soft glance back over his sleeping form.
"Sit down, son," the officer demanded in a gruff tone and thirteen-year old Killian bit back the defiant quip that nearly bubbled out. Liam would have clapped him upside the head if he could hear the sarcastic comments in his head. But Liam wasn't there, wouldn't ever be there again. He had bled out in the ambulance, with Killian able to do nothing but watch.
With that thought in his head, he slumped onto the bench against the wall of the police station. People were hurrying past him, totally insulated from the harsh words that Killian was thinking as they moved about their lives as if nothing had happened.
As if Liam wasn't gone and Killian wasn't agonizingly aware of how much his life had changed in the last few hours.
Of just how alone he was in the world now, even with his father blissfully unaware of his eldest - his favorite - son's demise back home in England.
"We're trying to reach your father now. You just wait here, someone will be by in a bit to watch you." The officer patted him on the head like a stray puppy before he moved across the room to his desk.
Killian snarled, but made no other move. Instead, he clutched Liam's jacket to his chest, burying his nose in the collar and willing himself not to cry again. He was shivering a bit, his stomach was roiling with nausea that he was intent not to give in to, and his lungs were twisted about like someone had reached into his chest and squeezed his insides like a sponge. The din of the bullpen scratched at his ears, making them ring and creating a new pounding in his head that did nothing to calm him.
He wanted Liam. He wanted his brother to come and wrap him up in a hug like they'd done when Killian was still little and was afraid of the dark. He needed his big brother to come and save him.
But Liam wasn't coming. Not ever again.
Killian wasn't sure when the sights and the sounds and the shivering and the smell of blood long since cleaned off his hands finally got to him. The clothes he was wearing were foreign and scratchy, the hooded sweatshirt too big and baggy. None of it was helping to keep him warm, to keep him safe.
So he stood, ignoring the pointed look from the officer across the room, and slipped on Liam's leather jacket. There was a hint of blood there that one of the nurses in the hospital hadn't quite managed to clean off when he'd begged for the jacket, but it didn't matter.
Wrapped up in Liam's warm jacket, with the sleeves covering his hands and the shoulders slipping down his arms, with the collar popped so it was closer to his nose and the warmth of the thick material finally stopping the shivering, Killian wept.