Killian Jones is uneasy.
And it’s seemingly for no reason. The streets near Boston Harbour are quiet, most patrons gone home to bed by this late hour or are secluded in any a number of taverns. It's already well past sunset, the night having darkened to its inky blackness and lit lanterns bathe the harbour’s slick boardwalk in a warm, amber glow. The sky is clear, pin-pricked with thousands of shining stars, reflected twofold in the still, dark water, and the bright moon casts a silvery shadow over it all.
All is calm.
Other than the sounds of footsteps on the old docks, the gentle lapping of the water against the stone walls of the harbour is the only sound he can hear. Even the ever-chattering seagulls have quieted, their absence magnifying the stillness of the night, and even the low murmurs of conversation that usually drift from other docked ships seems muted tonight.
He quickens his pace, the uneasiness spreading. He feels foolish, a pirate scared by silence of all things, but he’s a sailor and superstition is as a part of him as his blood.
Something is not right.
Tonight is not the first night he’s felt like this. In truth, he’s felt uneasy since arriving in Boston three days ago, when it had settled upon him like a fog the moment he stepped onto the dock, clouding his mind and soul.
Tonight is the worst though, and he’s itching to return to the open sea. The Jolly Roger won’t be ready for another two days but the thought of remaining here, stuck on land for any longer, stresses him out even more.
He’d sought refuge in a tavern earlier, the flowing alcohol and conversation a usual cure for his restless soul, but no one else seemed to sense any impending doom and that had been too aggravating to take. Most of his crew had seemed to sense his restlessness, and while a couple had remained behind, too distracted by drinks and women and games to notice, most of them had risen silently and followed him out of the bar. They knew their captain – knew that something was bothering him – and, as sailors as well, respect the warning of superstition.
Killian is several feet ahead of those who’d followed, the crew keeping a respectful distance behind him, as he approaches the moored Jolly Roger. Smee, the first mate who’d drawn the short straw and had to remain behind to guard the ship, waves at them from up on the deck of the ship.
“You’re back early. Everything alright, Captain?”
“Aye,” Killian replies, jumping onto the gangway, and providing no more response than that. He sees Smee exchange a nervous look with some of the crew behind him, but Killian ignores it. He moves up towards the ship, thoughts already on the fresh bottle of rum in his quarters and in silent prayer that it will help a bit, when suddenly, there is a bright white flash of light that drives the thoughts from his mind.
He cries out in alarm as the light fills his vision, spreading and blurring everything in sight. He catches sight of Smee, the man’s face twisted now in a horrified expression, before the man is totally obscured, invisible against the blinding white light.
Killian reaches out, grasping for the edge of the ship to hold onto, but it's as if his arms are reaching through water, moving slowly and sluggishly, and his fingers end up clasping nothing but thin air.
He stumbles a bit, blindly looking for anything to anchor himself too, when a loud roaring sound appears that makes him clasp his hands to his ears in pain and freeze in place.
It echoes through his mind and reverberates through his bones, and Killian suddenly is terribly afraid that this is it, he was right to be uneasy, this is the end and he’s going to die.
The thought has barely left his mind when the bright white light and roaring noise change suddenly, to an endless blackness and unnerving quiet and then Killian feels nothing more.
Nearly three hundred years later, on a cold wintery morning in January, Emma Swan sits in her office, sipping hot coffee and reading her laptop screen with narrowed eyes. It’s been a long morning of work already, a two-hour debriefing on current cases that have left her with a raging headache and an itch to get some answers.
The meeting had gone well, or as well as is to be expected. One agent had had good news about their own case – a new lead – and another had reported, with great glee, the reunion of their runaway with their family, but as for Emma’s own client, there was still no change.
It was still the early days of her taking over the investigation: the local police down in Rhode Island had passed her the case only a few weeks ago, their own trails cold and ends dead, with hopes that Emma’s agency could do better.
And they’re not wrong. With their better funding and sharper focus on disappearances, Emma’s agency is the nation’s leader in returning missing people home. She works in a special branch of the government, set up during World War I that sought to reunite returning soldiers and their families. It’s evolved over time into a service for runaways, families separated through immigration, and even the rare victim of a kidnapper, helping them all find their way back to their families again. The official name is the Boston Department of Missing and Found Persons, or BDMFP to the professionals down in D.C., but no one calls it that. BDMFP always sounded a bit too close to BDSM for her conservative government co-workers, and hence, the place is known to all who work there as Storybrooke.
When she says that name to other people, she usually gets a snort and a giggle, and even she has to admit it is somewhat silly. But it’s been the nickname of the place for as long as she’s worked there and the old legend amongst her co-workers is that that one old army general many years joked that after reading all the tragic files of soldiers who never found their way home, all the staff needed hours of storybook reading to cheer them back up again. The ‘r’ in the name had been added gradually as time went on, the wide, bubbling brook on the grounds most probably playing into that too, but Emma thinks they probably just added that in in the hope people wouldn’t laugh as hard at a place named Storybrooke rather than Storybook.
So far, it hasn’t worked too well.
But nevertheless, the agency does great work. And, for Emma to work at Storybrooke now, it’s nothing short of a miracle. It’s a great job, a job that a juvenile delinquent fresh out of jail never could have landed in a million years, but it’d been connections through her bail-bondsperson boss Leroy, a sealed record, and her personal history with the department that ended up securing Emma the position.
Regina Mills, the sergeant in charge of the Boston division, had been hard to convince, but Emma worked hard enough to prove her worth, and after seven years here, working her way up from the ground, she’s progressed to be one of the agency’s top agents.
And, with all that behind her, it’s no surprise that the Rhode Island police had dropped their case into Emma’s lap, especially with the particulars of this one.
A young woman, Ariel Andersen, had gone out for a morning run in Providence four months ago, never to be heard from again. So far as Emma can tell, it had been like any other day. Ariel departed her apartment, waved goodbye to her neighbour who’d been out getting the mail, and set off on her run. Normal, entirely normal.
And then the story got weird.
Their only solid witness – a fellow jogger, keeping pace with Ariel about fifty feet back – had reported a sudden flash of white light, so bright it had blinded her for several minutes, followed by a bloodcurdling scream. The jogger had tried to move forward, to help, but couldn’t see anything and when the light finally faded and she regained her vision, Ariel was gone.
The jogger had searched for her immediately, worried, but when it was apparent that Ariel was nowhere in sight, she’d called the police. Their investigation had turned up nothing of value: no sign of a struggle, no stray hair or ripped item of clothing left behind. Ariel had been running on a dirt path, her footsteps clearly marked along the centre of it until, all of a sudden, they disappeared too. No indication of which way she’d gone after her final step, just a complete end to her path.
A friend interviewed later said that Ariel had been feeling uneasy in the days leading up to her disappearance, for no good reason, and the Rhode Island police were convinced that she was a runaway because of this. Emma’s not sure – especially not with the witness’ testimony about the whole white light thing – but her own leads have come up empty at this point too.
Ariel was simply there one moment and gone the next.
Emma sighs, rubbing her temples, and leans back from the laptop. She’s read the reports to near memorization now, her mind is starting to gloss over the particulars – a sure sign it’s time for a break. She rubs her eyes again, pressing hard enough to see stars, and sighs again.
Her email bings obnoxiously then, and she flinches in surprise. She checks it – just a general staff update – and then switches her computer’s sound on mute. She knows she’ll probably miss a couple important emails, but she needs quiet to focus on this case. And, besides that, she has a raging headache from sleeping so poorly the night before.
Dreams, ones she’s sure she’s never had before, had woken her up on and off all night, and since she needs a break from Ariel’s case anyways, she minimizes the file and clicks through to the drive where all the other files are stored.
She scrolls down a bit, but her hand hesitates when she reaches her file of interest. She just wants to check something, check a part of the dream that’s been bothering her all morning, but strictly speaking, she’s not supposed to look up files other than the ones she’s working on but … seeing as it’s her own file, she clicks OPEN on it anyways.
It’s always a strange thing to have a file on yourself in the same computer drives as all your other cases, a temptation she has to fight nearly daily to look at. She’s cracked several times, especially when she started working here, but it’s been years since she’s loaded up the files.
That damn dream, breaking her streak.
A list of documents appear on screen as the laptop finally loads. She clicks to the first document: a scanned copy of an old newspaper, its title blaring at her from the screen: 7-Year Old Boy Finds Baby on Side of the Road.
Emma sighs, heart twinging. It’s been twenty-eight years since she was that baby found alone with nothing but an abandoned truck and a knitted blanket with Emma embroidered on a purple ribbon strung through it, but the feelings of pain and hurt never have faded. It’s been a long time since she thought on the details of how she was found, but that dream last night had brought it all back. She must’ve gleaned most of the details from the article and the rest of her file, read so long ago and buried deep, but it was the first time she’d ever dreamed about it in such vivid clarity.
She’d been in a forest, surrounded by tall evergreen trees, a light layer of snow on a cold October day. A brown truck was parked haphazardly off the side of the road, the side door open with bloody blankets on its seats – the sure sign that that’s where she’d been born.
In the light of day, Emma recognizes the scene from pictures in her file, but in her dream there had been more than just that. It wasn’t so much images as feelings, as if it were some long lost memory working their way to the surface. Warm arms holding her tight, tears of joy on a handsome man’s face, a pretty dark haired woman kissing her brow. She’d felt safe, loved, cared for.
And then there’d been a blinding white light, ruining and blurring the images, followed by a scream and shout of terror. It had been that that had roused her from sleep, adrenaline and horror filling her own veins, and she’d not been able to fall back to sleep for the rest of the night.
Now, sitting in her office in front of her file, she knows it’s ludicrous to believe for a moment that, as an hours old infant, she could form memories that have suddenly resurfaced. She figures the white light is a figment from Ariel’s case seeping into her own thoughts, but the rest of the dream still disturbs her. She’s never dreamed, in such clarity, about who could only be her parents.
The bloody blankets made it apparent that she’d been just born in the abandoned truck, but her mother (and father, if he’d even been there … after her crazy dream, she’s now wondering if maybe he was there) were gone without a trace. The truck had been unregistered, and from there, there was no way to figure out who she belonged to. Runaways, the investigation had determined, who left their newborn behind and disappeared into the forest. Never seen again, never heard from again.
And, as far as Emma can remember, there’s nothing in her file about the couple, but she just wants to check to make sure. Emma searches through the file a bit more, clicking between police reports and photos and witness reports, but she comes up empty handed, and she leans back from the laptop, disappointed despite herself.
Just a dream.
She closes her file with a sigh, taking another swig of coffee, before pulling up Ariel’s file again. She gets another couple of hours of work done on it, ducking away only for a quick lunch and another phone call briefing with the Rhode Island police. The rest of the afternoon she works in silence on the case, filling out paperwork and ensuring the report is up to date, and it’s nearing four-thirty, about ten minutes before Emma leaves to head home when there’s a knock on the door.
That’s never a good foretelling of getting to leave on time and she sighs.
The door swings open, revealing Anna Arendelle, a fellow agent. Anna is probably the bubbliest person Emma has ever met, and she never would have guessed that Anna’s own position here originated with a missing person too. Her elder sister had disappeared three years ago; Emma remembers investigating that case herself. It had been eerily similar to Ariel Andersen’s case, Emma realizes – a young woman who disappeared after feeling uneasy for a few days with no trace. Anna had shown up a few months after their final lead disappeared, determined to get a job and find her sister. Regina Mills had apparently been impressed with her grit and determination and, three years later, Anna was still here.
“Emma,” she says presently, uncharacteristically severe. “There’s an emergency. We need you.”
Emma’s attention snaps away from the computer. “What’s going on?”
Anna moves cautiously into the room. “I’m not sure,” she admits. “But we’re all being sent out to location, to deal with a situation. Regina sent out a memo – you must’ve not read your email – but we have to go. Now.”
Emma blinks at her. To see Anna so serious … it really must be an emergency. “Okay,” she says, simply.
“I’ll get us a car,” Anna says, already halfway out the door. “They’re going fast. Meet you in the parking lot?”
Emma nods, clicking close on her file and pulling her jacket around her. She picks up her pager from the desk too, something agents are required to wear when out in the field on duty, and pulls out her cell phone. She sighs, looking at the time, and after selecting a contact, pulls it to her ear as she heads out of her office.
Ruby Lucas, her neighbor in the apartment complex, answers on the second ring.
“Hey, Emma. What’s up?”
Emma hesitates for a brief second. She’s asked the Lucases – Ruby and her grandmother – many times to get her son Henry from school when she’s had to work late, and they’ve never minded; old Granny always says he’s like the grandson she never had. But this time … this time she has a feeling it’s going to be a lot longer than just a couple hour babysit.
“I know it’s last minute, but can you get Henry and watch him for a few hours? Something’s come up and I – I don’t think I can make it home on time.”
“Of course,” Ruby replies instantly. “Is everything okay?”
Emma glances around her. She’s come to the top of an open staircase that looks out into the main foyer of the building. It’s usually busy there – the general entrance for everyone who works here – but it’s crowded to the brim now. Her coworkers all have grim faces, some with both fear and worry etched into their features too, and Emma feels a flicker of apprehension and alarm in her own chest.
“I’m not sure yet,” she admits. “You don’t mind staying for a couple hours? I don’t know how late I’ll be.”
Ruby assures her that it’s not a problem, and after Emma explains that there are leftovers in the fridge and promises to give her a call and update later, they disconnect.
She reaches the ground floor, slipping her phone into her pocket, and joins the rest of her coworkers flooding out to the back parking lot. Storybrooke keeps a healthy amount of official squad cars, SUVs, and vans on the property, ready at a moment’s notice for when the teams need to move out, but Emma’s sure she’s never seen more than six gone at any one time. But now, half the lot is already empty and the other cars are filling up fast. Several of their larger transport trucks are being filled with piles of blankets and cases of water bottles, a long assembly line of workers filling them one-by-one.
She gawks for a moment, taken aback at the sight of seemingly her entire department mobilizing, and it’s only Anna’s frantic waving and shouts that finally pull her attention.
“Emma! Over here!”
She moves quickly, jogging over to Anna, seated in the front seat of a sleek black SUV, and gets into the passenger seat. The backseat is occupied already with two male agents Emma has worked with plenty of times, Graham Humbert and Robin Locksley, and they greet her from the backseat as Anna starts the car and pulls out.
But they don’t get very far – the narrow exit lane of the parking lot creating a bottleneck and they end up idling in a long line of cars.
“So what do you think this ‘emergency’ is?” Emma asks, filling the silence of the car as they inch ever so slowly along. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
In the backseat, Robin shakes his head. “No idea. I’ve spoken to Sergeant Mills and all she said was that the FBI wants our entire staff to aid them with a situation down at the Norton Reservoir.”
“The FBI?” Emma asks sharply. “They’re involved in this too?”
Graham, the head of Storybrooke’s communication with local police departments and the liaison with the FBI, clears his throat. “The police down in Norton discovered the situation and called FBI immediately. And then they called us.”
Emma’s eyebrows raise. “How long has this been going on?”
Graham hesitates for a moment, and then says, voice quiet, “FBI arrived on scene twenty minutes ago and called us two minutes after that.”
That statement lays ominously upon them all, and the entire car falls into silence. Emma has interacted with the FBI before, sure, but Storybrooke is usually brought in after they’ve investigated the situation. Not usually for hours, and certainly not after less than ten minutes.
She glances out the window, to where they’ve finally reached the end of the parking lot bottleneck, and swallows nervously. The mobilization of the entire department, the immediate summoning from the FBI: Emma’s abruptly aware that she’s in for what could very well be the longest night in her career.
The others seem to have come to the same conclusion, and they all remain quiet, lost in their own thoughts, for the trip. The sky darkens along the way, the roads illuminated by the headlights and flashing sirens of the long convoy of vehicles.
They begin to slow down about forty-five minutes after leaving Boston, another bottleneck of cars appearing as they all reach their destination. It appears ordinary to Emma: a sign revealing it as small lake that has some sandy shores for kids to play in during the summer, but that heavy feeling of apprehension only increases as they get closer and get closer. Anna’s knuckles have turned white from gripping the steering wheel so hard, and both Graham and Robin are clenching their jaws so tightly she wonders if they’re going to break some teeth.
They get closer, revealing fully armed SWAT guys guarding the entrance to the parking lot. Emma frowns, watching as they wave the Storybrooke agents through, and as they inch closer, she can see police cruisers, ambulances, black SUVs and unmarked cars parked haphazardly in the parking lot ahead, and when their car gets waved through, Anna just barely manages to find a place to park.
They all jump out immediately, and Emma’s heart begins to quicken with adrenaline. A loud hum of noise greets them, and they walk as a unit towards the sound. Other agents are flooding towards the area too, and when Emma and her group crest the top of the hill that leads down to the lake, her jaw drops open.
It’s like nothing she’s ever seen.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of people are clustered on the shores of the lake. The sky is already darkening, the winter sun having dipped behind the horizon already, and someone has set up large floodlights that bathe the area in eerie white light, paling everyone’s faces into even more drastic expressions of fright and confusion. The people are all dressed in the strangest mix-match of outfits: some in outdated fashions from the 80s or 90s but more still in clothing Emma has only seen in period movies. Fifties-style poodle skirts, sharp suits and bowler hats, slim and sequined flapper dresses, both pristine and bloody war uniforms from both World Wars, and, hell, one lady even looks like she’s walked straight out of Pride and Prejudice. Many are shivering in the crisp winter air, clutching at each other for warmth, and looking around them fearfully. SWAT members have surrounded them all, herding them together, while FBI agents flow through the crowd, digital tablets out and styluses in hand as they jot down information. Nearly all of the people are staring in shock at the tablets, as if they’ve never seen anything like it before, and most are regarding the uniformed officers with utter terror on their faces.
For several wild moments, Emma simply gapes at the scene, her mind processing a thousand things at once. She doesn’t have the faintest idea what the hell is going on, but there’s one thing clear to Emma and she turns right to Anna, who looks just as dumbstruck as she does.
“We need to get blankets for these people,” Emma orders. “And get them all somewhere warm. They’re going to freeze out here.”
Anna nods, snapping out of her shock, and disappears into the crowd in an instant. Her loud voice, calling for order and support fades as Emma turns around, but Graham and Robin have disappeared too.
She spots them already jogging down the hill, down towards the crowd, and she hurries after them. But before she can reach them, a FBI agent appears her in path.
“Agent Swan?” he asks, and Emma nods. “If you’ll please come with me. Commander Hua wants to speak with you.”
Emma follows the agent a bit into the crowd, to where a ring of FBI agents are clustered in deep conversation. Emma recognizes the commander of the Boston FBI, a stern woman named Hua Mulan, and when Mulan spots her, she nods to her other agents who move on instantly.
The agent who’d accompanied Emma departs then too, and Mulan shakes her hand firmly. “I’m glad your department is here, Agent Swan,” she says. “This is like nothing I’ve ever seen.”
Emma nods, and she looks around at the crowd. “What’s going on?”
“All these people … well, it’s hard to explain. A couple of hours ago, a family was out walking their dog when they said there was what they thought was a bright flash of lightning that even blinded them for several minutes.”
Emma’s stomach drops, and she can barely believe her ears. “Lightning?” she repeats. “Was it a flash of white light?”
Mulan’s eyebrows raise sharply. “Yes, that’s what they said. Why?”
Emma shakes her head, her heart pounding. White light – Ariel’s case, her own dream … it’s just a coincidence, nothing but a coincidence, it can’t be anything but a coincidence. “I just – never mind. What else did they say?”
Mulan’s eyes are still narrowed, but she continues nevertheless. “After the light faded, the next thing they knew, there were all these people in front of them when, moments earlier, they hadn’t been there.”
Emma’s eyebrows raise and she looks around at the hundreds of people. “They just appeared?”
“Apparently.” Mulan sighs, and then continues, her voice low, “The thing is, Agent Swan, I don’t think they’re lying. I talked to a couple myself – everyone gave me different answers as to what year it is and who the president is. A lot are even surprised to hear they’re in Massachusetts and keep insisting that they’re really in Toronto or New York, or even places like Shanghai and Sydney.”
Emma’s eyebrows raise and she looks around at the people nearby. She’s had a natural knack for telling when people can lie her whole life – her superpower, as she calls it. Mulan may not think these people are lying, but Emma can’t believe her until she hears it herself.
As Emma surveys the crowd, she notices that several of the people are staring at her and Mulan anxiously, having recognized their authority, and have inched closer, desperate for any insight on what is going on.
Emma wishes she knew herself. She turns back to Mulan, and says, “Do they have any identification on them?”
“Some do.” Mulan un-clips a slip of paper from her clipboard and hands it to Emma. It’s an old style driver’s license, half-handwritten and other bits clearly done on a typewriter. Emma imagines seeing something like it in a museum, paper faded and yellow, but this one is still white and crisp – as if it was just freshly printed.
She shakes her head in disbelief, and peers closer at the information printed in all caps upon the license:
License Issued: January 29, 1959 in the State of California
There are other identifying features, just like a normal license, and Emma looks back to Mulan in disbelief. “This – there’s no way it’s a forgery?”
Mulan shakes her head. “This is just an example of one person,” she says, voice low and severe. She gestures to a pretty young woman standing nearby, auburn hair up in large curls and dressed in a pale purple dress that’s tight at the waist before billowing out and falling to her knees. “And she’s adamant that it’s valid. That she just got it yesterday.”
“That’s – that’s impossible.”
“It is. But … but we looked her up in our database, and found a Missing Persons file on her from 1959. All the details match. And she’s not the only one. I’ve talked to dozens already, my agents looking their information up, and almost all of them have Missing Person reports, filed in different years. The 60s, the 20s, the 80s. All over.”
Emma gapes at Mulan. “So – what?” She shakes her head, and hoping she can retain the calm edge to her voice, says, “These people all disappeared in different points throughout history and now they’re all here?”
Mulan nods solemnly. “So it would seem.”
Emma’s jaw still feels like it’s on the floor, and she consciously shuts her mouth. She doesn’t have time to say anything else to Mulan, though, because another FBI officer comes up to her, and, after speaking in a low voice with him for a moment, she apologizes to Emma for having to step away and then departs with the officer.
Emma’s mind is spinning, and though she still thinks what she’s seeing is impossible, she clamps down those thoughts. No matter what, these people are here now, standing in the cold and freezing. They need to get them out of here, to somewhere warm and safe, where they can then conduct a thorough investigation.
Surveying the crowd, Emma sees Anna coordinating an assembly line of agents, blankets, and water bottles through the crowd and Robin standing on the edge of the crowd with a circle FBI officers, all grim-faced.
Determining that Anna has most of the ‘comfort’ situation under control already, Emma starts to move towards Robin. She notices that he’s somehow gotten hold of a megaphone, gripping it tightly in his hands, and when he notices her in turn, he steps away to meet her halfway.
“Graham is organizing buses to come and get them,” Robin says as his greeting. “The local counties are supplying them and readying them as we speak.”
“Good,” Emma says. “It’s too cold for them to all be out here much longer. We’ll take them back to Storybrooke, yeah?” The campus used to be a military base, with barracks and infirmaries and cafeterias. They’re empty, but thankfully still maintained because the United States government is nothing if not fastidious when it comes to their military buildings, even ones reluctantly handed over to other departments.
Robin nods. “I’ve already sent a bunch of agents back, told them to get some food ready and bunks set up.”
“Good,” Emma says again, and she surveys the crowd in front of her. “You heard what the FBI think?”
There’s a quiet pause before Robin says, “Yeah.”
“And what do you think?”
He sighs, and shakes his head wearily. “I don’t know what to think, honestly. It sounds insane, but ...”
Emma nods as he trails off. “I know.” They lapse into a silence then, both minds swirling and racing as they try to comprehend the impossible, and before Emma gets too overwhelmed, she clears her throat. “Well, we better talk to them and let them know we’re going to move them.”
Robin grimaces and holds the megaphone out to her. “All yours, Agent Swan.”
She rolls her eyes, but takes the megaphone and marches over to one of the nearby picnic tables, clambering up it to stand on the table. “Attention everyone!” she calls, through the megaphone, her voice amplified a thousand times. “If you can all look this way, please!”
Several people shoot her terrified looks – unused to hearing such a loud voice, apparently – but quiet down as bidden. It takes a few minutes to get the message to the back of the crowd, several more minutes of Emma calling out for silence, until the entire crowd is quiet in front of her, waiting with bated breath.
Emma’s never been one for public speaking, especially not with thousands of terrified eyes upon her, and she takes several calming breaths before she begins. “Thank you. Now, everyone, I want to ask you to all please remain calm. You are perfectly safe –”
“Safe?” someone hollers from the fourth row back, an angry looking teenager with raggedy long hair, dressed in bright yellow bell bottom pants and a tie-dye t-shirt. “We’ve all been abducted by aliens and you are telling us we’re safe?”
Granted, Emma was thinking something along those lines herself but would never say it out loud and especially not to these people, and she grimaces as a ripple of fear spreads through the crowd, only growing more hysterical as it goes on. It takes several more minutes of Emma yelling into the megaphone and agents flooding through the crowd to calm them all back down.
“Everyone, please!” Emma calls for what feels like the tenth time, and finally, a wave of unsettled quiet settles upon the crowd. She takes another deep breath, feeling unnerved herself, and says, as calmly as she can, “Now, buses are coming to take you to somewhere safe and secure, and we’re going to get to the bottom of this. We don’t know what has occurred to you, but we promise that we’re going to make sure you’re all entirely taken care of.”
A couple people mutter darkly at that, but no one has time to raise too much of a fuss as a rumble of arriving buses filters down the hill. The FBI spring into motion, herding the confused crowd up the hill towards the parking lot. Robin and Emma follow suit, and help direct people onto particular buses as they arrive. Emma and Robin split up at the top of the hill, moving to side-by-side buses, and begin escorting people onto them, offering a kind word or pleasant smile as required.
Most of the returnees are simply too frightened and cold to protest and file quietly onto the bright yellow school buses, but a handful hang back apprehensively and some down right refuse to get on them at all.
Emma’s just finished convincing a scared elderly woman to get onto the bus when she hears several loud voices. She looks over; a dark haired man, dressed in an elaborate black leather jacket of all things, is shouting profusely at Robin and another of the agents.
The crowd is too loud for her to hear what exactly he is saying, but whatever it is is enough for Robin to wave over some of his nearby fellows and strong-arm the leather clad returnee off into the back of one of the nearby FBI cruisers. Emma watches as a pair of handcuffs appear from an FBI’s back pocket, which are then firmly secured around the man’s wrists.
Emma sighs, and pinches the bridge of her nose. Of course things couldn’t just go smoothly.
She waves another agent over to take her place at the front of the bus and then moves towards the cruiser, side-stepping through one of the line-ups for a bus and nearly colliding full-on with one of the returnees. The woman had stepped back, shifting her weight only so slightly just as Emma passed, but it’s enough of a collision to send them both stumbling, and it’s only on instinct that Emma grasps the other woman’s arms to straighten her.
“I’m so sorry,” she says, automatically. “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” the woman replies, with a small smile, but it doesn’t reach her green eyes, which remain frantic and wild, just like the other returnees. She’s petite and young – around Emma’s age – with short black hair framing her pretty heart-shaped face.
Though Emma should just move on and continue to Robin, she frowns at the woman for a second, feeling a sharp flash of familiarity rush over her. She knows for a fact she’s never seen the woman before but there is something so familiar about her that has her wracking the depths of her mind for any memory, no matter how fleeting it may be.
For a wild second, Emma thinks she sees curiousness in the woman’s eyes too, but the thought that maybe this woman can sense something familiar about her too disappears when she says, in a quivering, daring-to-be-hopeful voice, “You’re – you’re the one who spoke earlier, right?”
Emma nods, and she pushes her own feelings out of the way and returns to her professional mindset. “Yes, I’m Agent Swan.”
Hope fills the woman’s face then, and she reaches out to grip Emma’s hands tightly in her own. “You can help me then! I’m looking for someone, well two someones actually – my husband and my daughter. I – I don’t know what happened to them when I was – taken. I need to find them.”
The woman continues to speak, but Emma’s heart has sunk and she’s hardly listening. This woman is just the first to say it, but Emma realizes that all these people, all these thousands of people are all going to be looking for someone: a father, a mother, a child, a lover. Family, friends, even co-workers and acquaintances. She may not fully comprehend what is going on yet, the mechanics of how people are seemingly back from the past, but she realizes that some of these people’s family and friends will have died years ago, hell, even decades ago. Or, and Emma’s not sure what would be worse, the people they’re looking for may not want to be reunited; they’ve already grieved and cried for their lost loved one and moved on.
She suddenly finds she can’t linger any longer and she interrupts the chattering woman with a gentle, but firm, “Ma’am, we’re going to do all we can to reunite you with your loved ones. Please, excuse me.”
She moves away, not daring to glance back at the brunette, lest she see the hurt expression she just knows is flashing across her face, and hurries over to join Robin. He’s speaking in low tones with two FBI officers, but stops when he notices her approach.
“What’s going on?” Emma asks immediately, inclining her head to the car behind Robin.
He sighs in response, and shakes his head. “One of the … people. He was uttering threats. Not surprising, considering, but I thought it’d be best to have him separated from the rest for now. The agents are going to follow the buses back to Storybrooke with him. Hopefully he’ll calm down by then, but if not …” Robin trails off, but Emma knows what he means: isolation room. It’s not a jail cell – not quite that bad, Emma knows firsthand – but still, being locked in a solitary room is probably the last thing a traumatized returnee from who-knows-what (or when) wants.
“Did you get a name?” she asks. “We’d better get a handle on the rowdy ones first.”
Robin shakes his head again. “No. And he had no ID either. I told them to work on it on the way over, but I doubt they’ll have much luck. As soon as we put him in the back of the cruiser, he clammed up and hasn’t said a word since.”
Emma scrubs at her eyes, then a wave of exhaustion rolling over her. She glances to the car, but a tall police officer is standing in her way and she can’t see into the backseat. “Well, keep me updated, yeah?”
Robin nods, and Emma moves on again.
There are still hundreds of people to be loaded onto buses still, but the other agents seem to have it handled, and Emma decides she’d be best off returning to Storybrooke with the first busload of patrons. She climbs aboard a nearby bus, securing a seat at the front, and smiles as encouragingly as possible at the quiet, watchful crowd on board.
No one answers, and Emma gulps awkwardly. She nods at the wide-eyed bus driver, who pulls the doors shut, and then off they go.
The ride back is eerily silent. Emma surveys the crowd from her spot at the front of the bus and recognizes the dark haired brunette woman she’d spoken with earlier, sitting beside a pale blonde, shivering in a bright blue party dress, but they’re both as silent as the rest of the bus.
When they arrive at Storybrooke, nearly an hour later, the gate guard waves them through, and the returnees all turn to gape out the window as they roll through Storybrooke’s campus. The office buildings are all relatively modern – their agency went through a thorough renovation three years ago – with sharp angles and walls made of nothing but glass windows, and the returnees stare at them in awe.
Near the back of the campus is the old military barracks, which weren’t renovated, remaining the old brick buildings they’d been in the past. The bus rumbles to a stop in front of one, and Emma turns in her seat, facing the returnees. Most are still gazing out the window with wide eyes, but a couple are looking at her, sensing this is the beginning of their new, strange world.
She takes a deep breath and says, “Welcome to Storybrooke.”