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That place where you still remember dreaming

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Killian has a recurring nightmare.

It haunts him in the shade between dreams, in the pace of his waking steps when his mind wanders, in the beat of hesitation before Emma smiles and, sometimes, presses her mouth to his.

He tastes the warmth of her breath and the curl of warm cocoa in the line of her smile. His eyes are still closed when she leans her forehead against his with a sigh, fingers curled in the collar of his coat.

“Neal,” she says, quiet and longing, and it slides like a knife between his ribs.

Killian startles to his present surroundings: the happy bustle of Granny’s diner working through the breakfast shift. Ruby stands before him at the counter, half-full coffee jug raised in question.

“Refill?” she presses, and Killian doesn’t think that’s the first time she’s asked.

“Enough for me, love.” Killian slides the bills across the counter and pushes away from his cup. Not for the first time, he leaves without remembering to order a bite, but he was never one for breakfast.

“Neal.” It rings in his ears and settles like a weight that tips his thoughts, thwarting his balance when he reaches for the door just as it opens.

Grumpy yelps, jumping clear of the hook swiping low. The dwarf’s eyes are wide, lip curled in anger. “Watch it, Hook! That’s no butter knife on your stump.”

Killian blinks, shaking himself. After three hundred years of muscle memory, he rarely made that mistake. His ears are still ringing, a white susurrus of Emma’s disappointment and her murmured request: be patient.

“Apologies, mate,” Killian says, relieved when Grumpy is too stunned to press for further comment or stop Killian’s slide past.

Be patient. He has all the time in the world.

///

Killian Jones isn’t a fool; devoted and impassioned, yes, but no fool.

He knows Neal Cassidy will always have a part of Emma Swan that Killian can never touch. And it isn’t Henry who reminds him most keenly. Killian enjoys the boy, his kindness and fervor for all the wonder that the world, its adventures, cruelty and joy have to usher on him. In his fondest moments, Henry is much like his father when Neal walked as Baelfire in the sea spray of the Jolly Roger.

No, Killian has to swallow the reminder that Emma Swan will always hold some chamber of herself away from him when his fingers link with hers, her smile is hesitant, and Killian sees so much of himself looking back at him.

They’re alike in many ways and their mutual instincts of self-preservation are difficult to unlearn.

He remembers the moment Emma opened her door to him after the year they all forgot, and the curse remained unbroken after he kissed her. So, theirs isn’t a true love. Maybe they aren’t the stuff of fate and legend like Snow White and Prince Charming, but Killian doesn’t need the grandeur and he knows Emma still chafes at her own biblical status.

And he is no fool. He knows Emma cares about him. He knows she would miss him if a monster truly did strike him down tomorrow. Emma would mourn, and the knowledge grounds him with a pitiful swell of pride. But would she miss him enough to sigh his name to the next person seeking to swear their life to her?

Neal.

It’s only a dream, but sometimes it’s hard to remember when Emma pulls her hand from his with that apologetic, almost guilty, quirk of her smile.

He doesn’t need true love, he just needs it to be real.

///

Killian is walking with Henry to visit his father’s grave when Killian first sees him.

Brown coat, short cropped hair and beard, wearing the same clothes they buried him in: Neal stands at the far end of the cemetery, untouched by the leaves stirring in the oncoming storm. The autumn sun strikes his hair into a halo of copper and gold as he cocks his head, eyes narrowed in an amused stare, straight at Killian.

Killian’s heart stops. The world slows. He must be dreaming again.

“Killian? Killian, what’s wrong?” Henry’s voice is a cold dousing of water. He shakes Killian’s arm, searching for the spectre that stopped him in his tracks.

Killian can’t breathe when he looks into the boy’s expression of concern. “Did you--?”

But Neal is gone when Killian looks to the boundary of the cemetery. He takes off at a run, Henry’s shout of surprise at his back, but when Killian reaches the line of graves where Neal had stood, searches the sparse trees and obvious shadows, no one is there.

There’s no one.

Killian is no fool, but it’s possible he could be going mad.

///

Gold is the portrait of displeasure when Killian crashes into his shop later that afternoon, bell tinkling in delighted welcome above his head.

“What have you done?” Killian thrusts his hook at the man, closing the distance to his counter. “You cast something, didn’t you?”

Gold barely scowls, so bored with Killian’s aimless accusation that Belle beats him to a response, poking her head out from the curtain to the back room.

“Hook? What the hell is this?”

Gold raises a hand to halt his new wife’s ire. “It’s all right, my dear, I’m sure the Captain will dazzle us with something truly worthwhile to excuse his outburst.” Gold’s eyes narrow on Killian and the pirate realises just where Neal learned that cold stare. “Or he’ll apologise while I still have patience.”

Hook studies his poker face closely. “Is he here? How long have you been hiding him?”

Belle’s face twists into revolted confusion. “Hiding who? Rumple, what’s he talking about?”

Gold doesn’t break his stare. “I have no idea.”

“I saw him. In the cemetery.”

Belle’s face drains of colour and something slackens in Gold’s poker face, stunned and careful.

“What?” Gold’s voice is quiet.

“Neal?” Belle barely breathes the word, grief and anger warring in her expression, it’s such an appropriate complement to her husband’s blank slate. “What--?”

“Explain yourself,” Gold says, voice gritted.

But Killian won’t be swayed. He raises his hook more out of habit than actual threat. “I know you did something. I saw him.”

Because, who else could it be? There are only two people in Storybrooke with the sort of power to even consider pulling this off, and nobody had more incentive than the father who lost his son.

Belle’s eyes are welling with tears when she looks to Gold. “Rumple? Did you--?”

Gold is shaking his head slowly, lip curled in disgust, and not once has he looked away from Killian. His voice is dangerously quiet. “Get out.”

“If he’s truly back, you have to tell Emma, tell Henry. That man has a son, and you of all people--”

“Get out!” Gold shouts with such rage that both Killian and Belle stumble away. “And if you ever breathe a word to me of my son again, you’ll lose another hand, Captain.”

///

It’s neither an admission nor a denial, but who else could it have been?

More importantly, where is Neal now?

///

Nine days pass and Killian feels an unwelcome nudge of contrition when he and Belle meet eyes across the street. Her face twists in furious betrayal at the sight of him.

He tips his head in a bow of greeting, but she storms on without a word, coat swirling at her knees as she disappears into the library. Killian can only imagine what domestic troubles his accusation have aroused, true or not.

And truly, he’s starting to wonder if he imagined it all.

It’s been nine days, Killian has exploited every excuse to search the grounds of Gold’s properties, Emma’s apartments, her parents’ and even Regina’s mansion, albeit that last search had been less thorough with his instinct for self-preservation fiercely competing with his mission. No sign of Neal has turned up.

Killian returns to the cemetery many times. He waits, watching, even once rebuffs Emma’s invitation to coffee in a brief spell of distraction. Only when he’s hung up the call, stunned at himself, does he acknowledge he’s truly lost perspective.

“Don’t wait for the dead and forget to live, Captain,” he mutters and tucks his coat tighter around himself, turning back for town.

///

Emma’s fingertips stroke the stubble of his cheek with a curious and affectionate touch. The candlelight dances in the glow of her skin and when she tilts her face, Killian wishes she would kiss him with the sort of passion from that first evening in Pan’s domain. He’s afraid to chance it lest she withdraw even this shade of affection.

She sighs breathily, nuzzling the corner of his mouth, and the sound rushes through him, heady and tingling. Killian opens his lips to kiss her again.

“Neal,” she moans, fingers curling in his hair.

Killian wrenches awake, clothes drenched with sweat, and the hysterical certainty that someone is in his motel room. His hook clatters to the floor from its place on the night stand, but when the lamp finally throws the shadows back, Killian finds himself alone.

Again, at the end of all things, the afterthought patters behind the racing drum of his heart.

He’s come to peace with the fact Neal had Emma before him. He knows any relationship he has with Emma will never be quite the same, and he doesn’t want it to be, so why these blasted dreams?

He sits for a while in the dim light of his bedroom, waiting for his heartbeat to fade from his ears. The analogue clock on the bedside table tells him it’s three in the morning. He has to do something about these nightmares.

///

And then he starts to see Neal everywhere: in the reflection of David’s car mirror, in the glass of Granny’s diner, from the window of Regina’s office, and finally at the docks when Killian longs to console himself with the helm of the Jolly Roger and pulls up short at the man standing at wharf’s end, hands tucked in the pockets of his jeans.

“Tell me you see him.” Killian rounds Smee at his shoulder and points to the spectre holding his stare.

Smee gulps air, looking nervously back and forth. “Uh, Captain?”

“You see him, right? Tell me you see him, Smee.”

And then Smee confirms his worst fears, shaking his head in confusion. “Th-there’s nobody there, Captain. Who… who are you seeing?”

Neal smirks, slow and secret, and Killian shakes his head.

No. This can’t be happening. He can’t be going mad.

“Don’t do this to me, Neal,” he mutters, gritting his teeth, and Smee jumps when he bursts out, “What do you want from me? We made our peace, didn’t we? We both love her, but I swear I’ll do right by her, what more do you want from me?”

Neal raises an eyebrow in amusement and Killian is somewhat relieved when he doesn’t answer. To hear him speak would make this too real, and he doesn’t know if his blood pressure can take much more of this. He would shake that spectre by its shoulders if he wasn’t so terrified of taking a single step closer.

Smee doesn’t pursue him when he rounds on his heels and all but runs for the town.

///

“Ah, hello, Captain.” Snow White pushes her pram to a stop beside Killian’s table in the diner. She takes in the sight of him and her polite smile pinches into a frown of concern. “Rough night?”

Killian caps the flask he was pouring into his coffee cup and salutes her with a loose grin. “You’re glowing, as usual, Madam Mayor.”

Snow grimaces at the nominal title. “Acting only. I can’t wait until Regina reprises the role. I was going to get some coffee with my lunch, would you like a refill?”

Killian looks pointedly at his beverage of choice and beams at the young mother. She blinks in that mildly disbelieving way that always leaves him with the impression she’s judging his life choices, but she still joins him, sliding into the opposite seat.

Her son burbles in his pram, half-awake from the look of him, and Killian envies the ignorance of babes.

“You know, we haven’t seen much of you recently,” Snow says. “You’ve been keeping busy?”

Killian hums around the rim of his cup. “Idle hands, though I’ve only the one; I’d rather not tempt the devil.”

Snow makes her order and hands Ruby her menu, turning back to Killian with hands folded on the table. Killian has been watching her son, wandering about what sort of man he’ll grow to be in comparison to the man after whom he was named. Snow waits for his attention, raising her eyebrows in gentle question when she has it, and her patience shows she’s already a better mother than she realises.

“What do you know about ghosts?” Killian blurts, and that’s surely the whiskey choosing the topic of conversation.

Snow blinks in surprise. “Ghosts? Why do you ask?”

Killian shrugs with a wave, pocketing his flask when he sees Snow’s eyes drawn to it. He can attempt some decorum. “A pirate can have academic interest.”

Snow’s gaze drops and he can see her choosing her words as though plucking from the flecks in the tabletop. “Killian --”

He smirks. “First names, I’m worried, Mary Margaret.”

“People have been talking,” she continues, and Killian rolls his eyes.

“As they’re wont to in small towns.”

She nods patiently, biting her lip for a moment. “There are some people who say you’ve been behaving strangely.”

Killian frowns, casting the fog of his mind back over the spotty mine of his memory in the last month. “Where? When?”

“Have you been… seeing things?” she asks gently. “I just spoke to Smee in the street.”

“Ah.”

“Have you been seeing Neal, Killian?” Killian throws another look at the baby in the pram and Snow shakes her head, dismissing her son with a wave. “Not my son, the other Neal.”

Killian taps the rim of his cup on its plate, worrying his thumbnail against his index finger. “What do you know about ghosts?”

Snow purses her mouth thoughtfully, gaze growing distant. “We summoned Cora’s soul from the spirit world for answers when Zelena was terrorising us. It was… a little traumatic. So if, by ghosts, you mean is there anything left of our loved ones after they die… yes, I believe there is.”

Killian watches the nuns stream from the diner in a murmuring procession of smiles and bowed heads, watches the way Ruby exchanges a cheeky smile with her grandmother (benign wolf in disguise), and he wonders how much more lies beneath the surface of this enchanted town.

“I might have seen something,” he says. “A few… a few times.”

Snow frowns. “Do you think it’s his ghost?”

Killian shakes his head with a wide shrug. “I have no idea anymore. But nobody else can see him, and I’ve a mind to keep myself out of that asylum I know is running well and sound where the mayor stashes her unsavouries, so. Let’s keep this mystery hypothetical.”

Now Snow’s frown looks more troubled. “I don’t know much about this sort of thing, but when we summoned Cora everyone could see her. Maybe ghosts can choose, but….”

“I have no idea,” Killian repeats, disavowing any knowledge or defence of his answers.

And then Snow surprises him. “I believe you.”

He stares and she smiles at him like she’s asking him to hang in there. At that moment, Ruby returns with Snow’s coffee and a plate of burger and fries, tickling young Neal’s bib as she leaves. Hook raises his cup in salute and Snow returns the gesture in solidarity.

“Thank you,” he says.

She meets his toast with a clink of porcelain. “Have you spoken to Emma?”

Killian falters, deflating. A part of him knew Snow would raise that. “No.” The whiskey doesn’t burn his throat as much as he wishes it would at twelve noon.

“Well, not saying this as her mother, but she is one of the most powerful people around here next to Gold and Regina.”

“I’ve spoken to Gold, it was a fruitless conversation. There’s no need to involve Regina.”

“For the moment, I agree. But if there’s anything going on with Neal, what do you think are the odds that Emma might know? And if he were a ghost, who else do you think he’d want to show himself to?”

Killian considers this. That Neal could be around and choose not to reveal himself to his son was unthinkable, but what could Killian assume to know of the man’s mind? He had so easily forgotten Neal had once been that boy he cared for when he appraised the man, Emma forever in his periphery.

And there was still the possibility that it was all in his head.

Snow tilts her head with a shrug when he looks to her, ready for his retort, but he has none. “You’re a swell mother, lass.”

She beams at that, picking up her cutlery. “Thank you, Killian. Help yourself to some fries.”

///

That evening, Emma is alone in her apartment when Killian summons the courage to make the visit. She looks startled when she answers the door, the rooms at her back in low light, and it basks her skin in such a glow, eyes large and dark, that he can’t help thinking of certain dreams with her hands tight in his hair, lips hungry at the corner of his mouth.

He swallows and looks away. That’s not why he’s come here.

“Killian.”

“Emma,” he bows his head in greeting. “May I come in?”

Emma glances back over her shoulder and he frowns, peering into the dimness of the kitchen, but there’s nothing and no one to see. “Yeah. Yeah, of course. Henry’s at Regina’s. Come in. Is everything all right?”

Mere months ago the thought of being welcomed into Emma Swan’s home at such late hour would have been the stuff of laughable dreams. She’s rubbing her palms against the hip of her jeans in her nervous way when he turns back to her, having surveyed the apartment with a quick glance and indeed found it empty.

“For a while there I thought you were avoiding me.” Emma forces a smile, and Killian is taken aback. And then he thinks about it. The moment of hesitation isn’t overlooked and Emma sighs. “Ah. You were. Okay, I think I know how the rest of this conversation goes.”

Killian frowns, the lack of sleep is playing with his clarity. “No, Emma, wait. I do have something I came to ask you and it may sound strange, but at your mother’s behest….”

Emma frowns. “My mother?”

“Do you believe in ghosts?”

Emma stills, hands mid-slide into her back pockets. “Ghosts.”

“Aye. These last few weeks there have been… well, it can make a man question his own sanity, but there’ve been… I’ve seen….”

He shakes his head, gesturing loosely to the general vicinity of Emma’s armchair like it should be rising to assist his poor explanation at this moment.

Emma hasn’t moved, her sharp eyes tracking his every moment. “What?”

Killian sighs. “I thought it was Gold at first, but he responded with such offence, though it’s hard to gauge the sincerity of that crocodile --”

“Killian, what?

“Has anyone reported seeing our dearly departed Neal around Storybrooke?”

Emma’s eyes are wide, searching his face for the trace of a lie as is her skill. “What?”

“Well, besides myself, that is.”

“You’ve seen Neal?”

“Yes,” he sighs. “I may be mad, Emma, but… yes.”

When she doesn’t respond for a time, he looks into her face and finds her still studying his. Emma shakes her head incredulously. “My god, you’re not lying.” Sudden tears spring to her eyes and her mouth twists in grief. Killian is beside her before the first sob escapes, but Emma quickly recovers herself, clutching his hand back and then she looks into his face with such bright joy, the laughter bubbles through her tears.

“I thought I was the only one,” she says.

Killian’s stomach drops away at the same time the weight that has been building on his shoulders finally lifts after so many weeks. He feels himself grinning back.

“So I’m not mad?”

“Unless we both are,” Emma smiles, and it’s such a rare glimpse of happiness from her, they laugh together.

“How long?” Killian asks.

“I don’t know. Since before Elsa?”

“Bloody hell. I’m so sorry, love.”

“It’s okay.” Emma leads him to the kitchen and they lean against the counter’s edge, flush against each other’s side. “I missed him, you know?”

“I do. So have I.” And Killian has. He’s thanked whatever gods preside over their worlds that he had the chance to make his peace with Neal before his sacrifice. He’s cursed the same gods for stealing any chance he might have had to rebuild with one of the few men he’d deemed to call his own. “So, is he alive?”

Emma shakes her head with a shrug, biting her lip. “I don’t know.”

Killian draws back, frowning in wonder. “A ghost?”

“Don’t know that, either.”

“Does he come and go as he pleases?”

Emma laughs abruptly, nodding with a knowing exasperation. Killian chuckles under his breath. He raises her hand to his mouth, kissing her knuckles. A thought occurs to him. “Does he speak to you?” Some of the mirth leaves Emma in a slow exhale of disappointment and, with her sulk, he has his answer. "Aye, me neither.”

“What does he wants from us?” Emma sighs.

“I wish I knew, love.”

“I miss him.”

“... I know.” Killian runs his thumb over the back of her knuckles. “I wish I’d known sooner, I may have given you some space.”

Emma throws his noble intentions back in his face. “No, you wouldn’t.”

And she has a point. “But I might have considered it. I knew you were feeling guilty, I just didn’t realise it was... I don’t mean to replace him, Emma. We both loved you.”

Her thumb strokes the line of his jaw and she smiles when he looks to her. Tears still glimmer at the corner of her eyes, but they’re drying. “I know. We both loved him, too.” She draws his hook to rest against her heart when she leans in to kiss him, and he feels lighter than he has in weeks.

At first it’s light, comfort and acceptance in the soft press of her lips. He can taste the mint of her toothpaste and the clean unscented balm on her lips. He senses the moment something changes, when Emma lingers before pulling back. Her eyes are darkening, searching his in a way she hasn’t looked at him for so long. It’s a simple question relayed in a look and Killian must make a poor guise of hiding how much he wants this because her fingers tighten in his hair (oh, he’s missed that) and then her mouth crushes against his in a sharp breath.

Emma has always been the one in control of this waltz and she’s the one who leans Killian against the counter top, sliding up the length of his body to wrap her arms around his shoulders. The weight and warmth of her is a delicious burn through his clothes as her legs part around his thigh. Killian’s hand grasps her hips when she grinds against him, gasping into his mouth. The sound goes straight to his groin and he can’t help the answering groan because he’s been waiting --

“Oh, Neal,” she moans, and Killian’s blood goes cold as his nightmare becomes flesh, Emma’s dull fingernails grazing against his scalp. His eyes shoot open, but Emma is leaning her forehead against his, eyes still shut, and there’s little for him to see but the infuriating way she bites her lip, rolling their hips together. “You need to feel this.”

And then Killian almost has a heart attack when another hand slides under Emma’s chin, tilting her head away and Neal steals her next kiss with an indulgent smile.

Neal holds her face and kisses both her cheeks when Emma startles with a cry of surprise, almost falling backwards if not for Killian’s arms still at her waist. Neal waits for her to focus on him, waits for that shock to melt into a mirror of his smile, and kisses her a last time through the spring of laughter and unbidden tears as if to say, yes, I’m home.

And then Neal turns on Killian with a slow smile even as Emma’s fingers are carding through his hair affirming he’s real and hale. Killian drinks in the sight of him, palms the soft warmth of his neck and can’t help the grateful laugh that bubbles up. He tugs Neal to his chest in a tight embrace and feels like he might burst when the other man clings back.

He’s real. Oh god, he’s real.

“Well, Emma,” Neal says, and Killian’s stomach flips. He never thought he’d hear that voice again. When Neal turns the full heat of his gaze on Killian like he’ll devour him, his stomach flips for an entirely different reason. “Don’t mind if I do.”