It’s her job as building super to know all the tenants, make sure they keep up with their rent payments, take care of minor repairs around the building, and evict the deadbeats when necessary. It doesn’t pay well, and the building, affectionately known as The Cannery, is ancient and rundown, but her own rent is cheap and she’s good at what she does. She’s good at reading people, spotting the liars and lowlifes and weeding them out as potential tenants. So good, that her boss (the unfortunately named Mr. Smee, who slithers in and out like a rat, only long enough to collect his rent money) leaves her be most of the time.
The job also affords her just enough free time to pursue the occasional bail jumper (she’s good at that too), which supplements her pathetic income just enough to give her a little safety net in case her boss (rat like in other ways as well) decides to fire her. Nothing is certain in life, after all, and she’d rather not have to live in her car (again). She’s not exactly happy where she is, but she’s okay. It’s a far cry from the runaway orphan she once was, and she’s pretty sure that happiness is not in the cards for her anyway.
When Killian Jones applies for an apartment, she approves him right away even though he doesn’t have a steady job, not really. He arrives with a cardboard box, a suitcase that’s seen better days (centuries even), and a guitar in a case with a decal on it that reads, The Jolly Roger. Smee would think him a risk, but… there’s honesty beneath his cocky swagger, and also a lifetime of heartbreak in the fathomless blue of his eyes. (It’s a little too familiar.) He just looks, in that moment, so beaten down, so in need of one person to take a chance on him, that she can’t turn him away. She gives him the apartment right next to hers, the one that’s been sitting empty for nearly eight months by her own design. (She’s never been very neighborly.) But she gives it to Killian and doesn’t look too deeply into her own motivations.
He’s a singer and songwriter, playing at The Rabbit Hole and selling CDs to the small legion of fans he’s managed to amass in their tiny neighborhood of Boston (known only to locals as Storybrooke). Sometimes he works down at the docks when he’s short on rent, coming home smelling like the wind and the waves. But his life seems to be his music.
The first time she meets him, and every time she runs into him in the hall or the stairwell thereafter, he is, well, she can only describe him as a bit shy and… courtly. A gentleman, with a bit of old world charm to him like she’s never seen before. An extremely handsome gentleman, she thinks, with dark hair that looks like he’s constantly running his hands through it, and just the right amount of scruff with a hint of red among the dark whiskers, and she thinks about him far too often for her own good.
Once, just once, she allows herself to watch as he performs at The Rabbit Hole, ducking in and wedging herself into the darkest corner where she won’t be seen. She swears she’ll only stay for one song, but the way he strums his guitar and loses himself in the music is so unbearably beautiful, his eyes closed and his dark hair falling over his brow. She finds it hard to tear herself away, and before she knows it one song becomes two, becomes five, becomes a whole set.
She can tell what kind of mood he’s in by the music drifting through the paper thin walls of her crappy apartment. At first it’s mostly ballads filled with melancholy tales of family and loss, his guitar and his voice melding together in a mournful outpouring of pain and grief. It feels so familiar, the stories flowing out of his mouth and fingertips, that it’s like he’s singing from her very soul, breaking her heart with the bittersweet beauty of it. Sometimes she has to stuff cotton in her ears just to drown it out lest she spend the night crying out her own sorrows into her pillow.
She thinks there could be nothing more painful than the musical stylings of his tragic losses coming through the walls, but a few nights later she hears the unmistakable sounds of sex, and somehow that hurts even more, though she is loathe to admit why. It goes on for a while, a different woman every time, a series of one-night stands, and she can’t really blame him. She’s certainly had her share of those, especially after Neal and Walsh and… well, she has trust issues, so one night is all she allows, but it bothers her to hear his exploits and it bothers her that it bothers her.
Four months after he moves in, he knocks on her door and tells her his kitchen sink is leaking. She follows him back to his apartment with her tool box, biting back a smile when he lets her precede him through his door, scratching behind his ear adorably as she passes. His place is tidy, but filled with things she hasn’t seen since early childhood: an ancient typewriter, a pile of record albums with lovingly worn covers, a cassette player and a pile of tapes, old posters of musical acts, and several vintage guitars, and she swears he’s straight out of another era, this gorgeous man with his messy hair and those eyes that look right into her like they can see all her secret places.
He offers her coffee, which she declines, and he calls her things like “love,” and “lass” while she works, and his speaking voice has the same effect on her as his singing voice often does, sending little sparks of longing through her veins and raising goosebumps on her skin. He’s the kind of man that makes her want to spill all her secrets to him. He’s the kind of man that looks at her like he already knows them.
When she’s finished, he smiles and thanks her and practically bows over her hand like some kind of knight, and she just rolls her eyes, because it’s either that or jump his bones, which would be a very, very bad idea.
After that night, something shifts. The first thing she notices is that there are no more one-night stands, no more women at all filling his bed. She can’t help the feeling of hope that rises in her like the morning sun, all bright and warm. It seems like he goes out of his way to run into her, always calling her Swan or Love and smiling like she’s the best thing he’s ever seen. And there are more minor repairs in his apartment than what seems normal, even for a decrepit old building such as The Cannery, and while she works, he hands her tools and talks to her, a sweet mixture of shyness and smugness that she can’t help but find endearing.
He tells her about his brother, Liam, who all but raised him from the time he was seven. Tells how his mother died when he was four, and then his father abandoned them just three years later. Tells her how Liam was lost at sea during the war in the Middle East, after he’d joined the Navy to make a better life for them. Tells her how Liam always supported his music, always encouraged his dreams. And as he speaks, she begins to understand where the music comes from when it drifts through her walls at night, that deep place of pain and loss she knows all too well.
The most surprising thing is that she finds herself sharing bits of her own past with him as well, things she’d closed off from others for so long. Just tiny glimpses really, but the way he looks at her, she knows he understands all the things she doesn’t say. He looks at her like she’s his favorite book, dog-eared pages and all.
A short time later, the music begins to change, love songs drifting through the vents like dust motes, making her heart race with a mix of fear and longing. His songs are beautiful and hopeful and touching and frightening, leaving her breathless and overwhelmed and not the least bit tempted to flee, far and fast, just pack the bug and go like she’s done so many times before.
But she stays, because somehow he’s anchored her to this crappy apartment building, made it feel more like a home than she’s ever known.
A few months after the change in his music, she runs into him at the entrance to the building, literally crashing into the back of his leather jacket and the solid body beneath it. It’s late and she’s exhausted from running down another bail jumper. She’s sweaty and disheveled from the chase and capture, and it seems he’s returning from a gig at the Rabbit Hole, his guitar secured in its case. He smiles at her muttered apology, holding the door for her, and looking so devastatingly handsome, that she feels like a wrung out old dishrag in comparison. And that’s when he asks her if she’ll go out with him.
She blinks, surprised and not a little terrified. She doesn’t date anymore. Has sworn off men after Neal and Walsh, and she can’t afford to trust again, because it always ends in pain and heartbreak. While she gapes at him, he fills the silence, telling her he’s just gotten some good news, his career is taking off, and he’d like to take her out to celebrate.
She tells him no, prepared to rush off to her apartment like she’s fleeing a crime scene. From the devastated look on his face, she thinks it’s an apt analogy. But as she turns away, he touches her arm, drawing her back to him and she hears him say low and determined, “I’ll win your heart yet, love,” and when she looks into his eyes, she swears she’s never seen anything truer. She thinks this must be the origin of the phrase “true blue,” that it began with someone with eyes just like his, who could put a whole world of emotion and yearning into one simple gaze.
That night she hears a new song, and it wraps right around her heart and squeezes. It’s all about fighting for love and how once you have it, it just doesn’t die, and it’s like a promise drifting through the air that she could hold onto if only she could make herself brave enough to reach out and grab it. She avoids him entirely the following day.
There are no songs that night, no soft strum of the guitar, and none the next night, or the one after that. She feels horrible, like she’s killed the music, and she finds herself sleepless, pacing her apartment and trying to decide if she should go knock on his door and apologize or explain herself. She’s so torn between pretending nothing happened and making amends that she finds herself nearly paralyzed by indecision. She wishes, more than anything, that men came with some sort of fine print she could read, like, “guaranteed not to cheat,” or “his love expires after six months,” so she could know whether he’s worth trusting. (She suspects Killian’s would read, “will never intentionally hurt you, give him a chance.”) But men don’t come with guarantees, and Emma’s scars have scars when it comes to relationships. If there was anyone who could pry loose the shell around her heart, it’s him, but that shell is the only thing keeping her safe.
After the fourth night of silence (and sleeplessness), she can’t bear it anymore, so she braces herself and knocks on his door, prepared to at least give him the “it’s not you, it’s me” speech.
The door swings open from the weight of her fist, and everything is silent and eerie and sort of vacant, and yet nothing is really out of place or different. Her first thought is that she chased him off for good. Everybody leaves her; why should he be any different. But when she sees his guitar laid out on the table carefully, she knows something is terribly, terribly wrong. He might leave everything else behind, but never his guitar.
She holds back the panic that is rising unbidden from her throat, and calls the police. Killian Jones is missing.
They send over a deputy, David Nolan, and he makes her wait in the hallway while he searches the apartment. When he emerges, he tells her that there are no signs of foul play and “hey, maybe the guy just went out of town for a few days.”
Emma can’t accept that, knows in the deepest recesses of her heart that something is terribly wrong. She tells him about Killian’s music, how it’s his life, how he’d sooner cut off a limb than leave his guitar behind.
“Listen,” Deputy Nolan says, a kindness in his eyes that makes her tears threaten to spill down her cheeks, “you said he told you he’d gotten some good career news. Maybe he left and just… bought a new guitar. Bottom line is, there isn’t much I can do without evidence of some crime.”
“Fine, I’ll do it myself,” she says, setting her shoulders in defiance. She’s good at finding people, and she’ll find Killian, no matter what.
When he leaves her with nothing but a card with his name and number and a promise to help if anything else comes up, she goes back into Killian’s apartment, feeling a little like an intruder invading his privacy. But the feeling that he’s in trouble, that he needs her, outweighs everything else.
In his typewriter, she finds the beginning of a new song, a swan loosely sketched on the top of the page above the most beautiful lyrics she’s ever read, and her heart stutters in her chest and the tears she’s been holding back finally fall, one landing directly onto the page where’s he’s poured out his love for her.
She’s so angry at herself in that moment, angry for hiding behind her walls and for not trusting, and somehow she just knows that Killian wouldn’t have hurt her like everyone else, because he’s been hurt just as badly. And it’s so stupid that now, when she can’t have him, all she wants is his arms around her, safe and home and hers. She swears to herself that if she ever gets a second chance with him, she won’t waste it. She won’t run anymore.
Turning away from the typewriter, she swipes at her tears and rifles through a pile of papers on the desk. They’re mostly songs, lyrics hastily scribbled down in pencil. She doesn’t take the time to read them, just keeps looking for something that will lead her to him. And then there, tucked between the sheets are two halves of a ripped check for a thousand dollars, from a company called GRM Inc.
There’s no way Killian would just throw away a thousand dollars for no reason. She takes the two halves and tucks them into her pocket, locks Killian’s door and goes back to her apartment to do an internet search for GRM.
The company is Gold Records Management, run by a man named Lester Gold. There are tons of complaints by various struggling musicians who claim he didn’t honor their contracts or scammed them in some way, and her instincts are telling her this is it, the key to finding Killian. She searches Killian’s name and GRM together and nothing comes up, but when she searches for just Killian’s name, she finds tons of videos all originating from a small island off the coast of Ireland called Misthaven. And god, but seeing him on her screen, singing, playing his songs, smiling into the microphone, is like a hand plunging into her chest and squeezing her heart.
She jots down the address of GRM, grabs her jacket and rushes out the door, and she doesn’t even care that it’s the middle of the night.
Her cell phone rings just as she’s leaving The Cannery, and she can’t stifle the hope that it’s Killian calling to tell her he’s okay, that he’s coming home. Alas, her heart sinks when Deputy Nolan’s voice comes through, asking her if she found anything. She almost doesn’t tell him. Maybe it’s the memory of the kindness in his eyes or her own recent realization that keeping people out isn’t always a good thing, but something compels her to trust him, so she tells him what she knows and he tells her not to do anything stupid and he’ll meet her at GRM.
When she gets there, he’s already there leaning against his car, waiting. The place is nothing more than a cheap storefront with a pawn shop on one side and a dirty hovel of a bar on the other, separated only by a dark alley way that, in the darkness, looks like something straight out of a horror movie.
“Why did you come?” she asks, tugging her jacket zipper up against the chill of the night. “Thought you said you couldn’t do anything without evidence.”
“I don’t know. I saw those lyrics he wrote for you in his apartment, and I can see that you’re very worried about him. What can I say, I guess I’m just a sucker for true love.”
She doesn’t know what to say to that, so she says nothing.
The building is dark. Deputy Nolan pulls out a flashlight and shines it through the door and Emma presses her face right up against the glass to get a better look. There’s not much to see, at least nothing that leads to Killian.
“We can’t just break in without cause,” Nolan says. “I’ll come back in the morning and question Mr. Gold. You should go home and get some sleep.”
Emma is only half listening, because something on the sidewalk has caught her eye, a reddish brown spot on the pavement that is now caught in the beam of the flashlight. Without asking, she snatches the light from the deputy’s hand to get a closer look, and the next thing she knows, he’s jogging to catch up with her as she wanders down the creepy alley.
There are no more suspicious spots on the ground and nothing in the alley, besides the usual litter and graffiti, but she can’t stop. She rounds to the back of GRM and finds another door and begins picking the lock, the flashlight clenched between her teeth.
“Miss Swan, we can’t just go breaking into a building….”
She snatches the flashlight out of her mouth and turns on him, all fire and indignation. “I don’t give a damn what’s legal or not, and if you don’t want to be here, then leave. Killian’s in there. I know it, and I’m getting him out.”
“Okay, fine,” he concedes, taking the flashlight from her and pointing it at the lock. “But if anyone asks, we heard screams from inside.”
The lock is stubborn, and Emma’s just on the brink of grabbing the Detective’s gun and shooting it out, but finally she hears the telltale click and it opens. She marches inside with the flashlight, shining it into every room and closet , but there is nothing but cheap office furniture and tacky decor.
“There’s a door leading to a basement over here,” Deputy Nolan calls out, and she’s about to charge right past him, when he grabs her arm and gently shoves her behind him, his gun drawn.
Killian is there, lying in a corner on the cold hard cement, his hands bound, his face battered and bruised, the beam of the flashlight catching the blue of his eyes. He’s barely conscious, weak moans of pain falling from his lips, and they’re better than music to Emma’s ears, because it means he’s alive.
She rushes to his side, unties his hands, and lays one of her own gently on his face, stroking his cheek and murmuring soothing words while she waits for the rescue squad. He comes to awareness only for a brief second, giving her a smile that is half grimace and calling her his savior, and she laughs and cries at the same time, so relieved to find him, and yet so distressed that he’s so gravely injured.
The next thing she knows is the gentle pressure of his hand in hers, stirring her awake. She sits up from where her head lay on his hospital bed, moving it from side to side gingerly to ease the crick in her neck.
“Told you you were my savior, Swan,” he says, his voice a mere rasp, and a teasing twinkle in the blue of his eyes.
“How are you feeling?” she asks, avoiding his compliments, as she reaches up to gently brush against the cut on his cheek that will surely leave a scar.
He turns his face into her hand and presses a kiss to her palm, and goosebumps break out all over her at the feel of his lips on her skin.
“Like I got run over by a speeding car,” he says. “But if that’s what it takes to get your attention, it’s all worth it.”
“Not funny. What the hell happened?”
“Gold told me my songs weren’t doing well and gave me a pity check for $1000. But that wasn’t entirely true. Apparently I’m a big hit on some island called Misthaven, and he owes me quite a bit of money for all the record sales there. As you can imagine, he wasn’t too happy when I came to collect. Probably would’ve killed me, but some woman named Belle showed up. He didn’t want her to see what he’d done, so he locked me in the basement and left me there to rot.”
The thought that this woman Belle probably saved his life is small comfort, as Emma looks him over more thoroughly. His face is mottled and bruised, a study in purples and blues and yellows, and there’s a cast over his left hand and wrist, surely covering the rope burns that match those on his right wrist from where he tried to escape his bindings.
“He could’ve killed you,” she says, clutching his good hand and trying to blink away the tears blurring her vision. “And then I would’ve lost you.”
“You don’t have to worry about me, love. If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s surviving,” he replies, and then he’s gently drawing her up toward his face and kissing her, so soft and tentative, like she’s something precious to be savored. And that’s when the tears fall.
This man, who so gently and patiently wooed her, has done just as he said he would. He’s won her heart. Maybe happiness is in the cards for her after all.