"Fair, Liam?” He had asked. Well, Killian thought a little bitterly to himself, spat was a better word to describe the tone he’d taken with his brother. “What's fair about pushing two people together when they were living perfectly happy the way things were?"
That was just it — he wasn't perfectly happy with the way things were. He had managed something like it before, but there was no returning to the way his life had felt in the weeks before Emma Swan blew into town. She'd barely left twenty-four hours ago, and discontented loneliness had seemingly irrevocably taken her place, following him around the restaurant like the persistent morning fog that clung to the windows.
He forced himself to find his way downstairs before the day grew too long — Saturdays were by far the slowest day of the week, but they were still open, and Will had yet to show up for work. It was getting impossible to tell which days he actually had off at this point, but Killian kept his mouth shut as he scrubbed his hands clean.
He only ever realized how much he missed a quiet kitchen when their newest hire was gone. The hiss of onions caramelizing, the sizzle of Liam's catch of the day as it seared on the griddle, the hypnotizing rhythm of vegetables being chopped against a wooden cutting board — it all fell together with the sound of lapping waves that floated through the open bay window, the exact distraction he needed. Killian found it much easier to focus on cooking than on his own problems, especially ones he should have been able to forget by now. Try as he might to focus on cutting perfectly bite-sized pieces of salmon in front of him, his mind kept trailing out the door, and he nearly cut himself for lack of attention.
He simply couldn't convince himself that Emma was someone to forget.
"I can barely hear you, Emma. What's going on?"
"I'm in traffic," Emma repeated impatiently, sagging in her seat. She'd given up on craning her neck to see how much longer she would be idling behind the moving van, all the energy from her gas station coffee having left her system hours ago.
"Nearest exit?" Elsa suggested helpfully.
"Two miles back."
Emma heard her pause and tried picturing the conversation as if she was still back at home — Elsa was likely still in her pajamas, draped across the couch with a bowl of cereal gracefully balanced on her stomach and her braid dangling all the way down to the floor. Their tv would be on in the background, completely ignored as she skimmed over work emails on her phone, and everything would be as peaceful and quiet as her impromptu road trip hadn't been. It wasn't the first time Emma had considered turning around by any means — this time, it was the world stopping her instead of her friend’s reassuring voice on the other line.
"Would it help if I told you Regina loves the pictures you took? She went on for a while about the article itself — I'm high fiving you over the phone right now, so you know — but she loved all of it."
"Really?" Emma frowned a little, unable to help feeling suspicious after receiving genuine praise from her boss. Regina Mills was the Miranda Priestly of the travel publishing world, and it wasn't often that she even mentioned Emma's photography work, even when she let it feature prominently in the magazine. "What'd she say?"
"Let me pull up the email...she said she'd never wanted to go and visit a tiny seaside town before in her life until she looked over what we sent her."
"Wow." Emma tried picturing their boss' sleek car parked on the side of the cobbled street. She could see Regina now, her expression disdainful and her expectations low as she pushed the door and was greeted by the bustle of a small-town lunch rush, trying her best not to touch the grease stains on the plastic menus. It made her smile until she pictured Regina encountering the brothers that ran the place.
Never mind that she was eventually going to end up in the same place she could still picture so vividly in a few short hours — Emma was still nervous. She'd made them leave so abruptly, cut ties with Killian and his brother before they could even explain their side of what was going on, and she was sure the time that had stretched between now and then wasn't helping her case. If Killian even wanted to hear her out, it was going to be messy. Emma had refused to let herself get this far for so long, and she wasn't sure she remembered how to willingly put her heart on the line.
"Maybe now's a good time to practice what you're going to say to him," Elsa told her, realizing what the dead air between them was about.
"You say that like I already have something in mind."
"Well you've got to have something," she argued. "You're about an hour away, right?"
"Assuming I don't spend the night in this car," Emma whined, inching herself that much closer to the next vehicle ahead. She wasn't sure if she even wanted the traffic to get moving again — it was a much better excuse to stall than any others she could have dreamt up. Emma watched a few fat droplets slide down her windshield as Elsa brainstormed. She had no doubt that the storm was slowing things down, but knowing the why didn't help her any.
"You don't have to tell him everything, Emma," Elsa said, her voice growing more gentle. "He'll understand you even if the words aren't edited and proofread."
Emma stared at the sky ahead of her, unsure if she believed her friend's words for the moment. People didn't call her prickly because she was easy to know.
"What would you do if it was you?" She asked tentatively, watching the brake lights die on the truck in front of her.
"If it were me? I'd kiss him first, and explain myself later."
It was as if she'd never left the place. Emma pulled into town and drove the short stretch of downtown until she found herself parked in the same spot she and Elsa had chosen last time, trying desperately to convince her heart that it didn't need to beat so quickly. One look at the brightly colored storefronts and the small, cheerful signs that adorned them had her sure that another moment spent waiting in the car was unthinkable. Getting out of the car was easy; it was the actual act of walking up to the door and pushing herself back into a world she'd convinced herself wasn't hers that took effort.
The warm, inviting scent of food was just as present in the misty air as it had been the day they arrived, and it welcomed her without prejudice as she stepped inside. Neither Liam nor Killian were present, at least from what she could see, and she wasn't sure whether that made things better or worse. Elsa had been able to help her organize her thoughts to some extent, but every minute that passed took some of her nerve with it.
She sat herself down at the very last seat of the bar and drew imaginary patterns in the wood grain, telling herself that she wouldn't have long to wait. She'd come all this way to speak to him, and the one place he was sure to be was his own restaurant.
Except he wasn't there. She sat through the morning rush, politely telling the tall, lanky busboy running around the place that she didn't need anything besides the coffee he'd brought her earlier, but she was barely containing herself now. Maybe he did know she was here. Maybe he'd snuck out a back door to avoid her. Emma figured she deserved no less — it wasn't much different from what she'd done herself. The coffee, as rich as it was, was a poor substitute for the sleep she'd lost driving here, and the fragile hope that Elsa had managed to instill in her on the drive over was slowly receding, like the tide she could see out the window.
Emma shoved the stool away from the bar and stood up, making her way across the quiet floor of the restaurant and out the door to the docks. She needed somewhere to think, somewhere to make up an actual plan for herself, because suddenly everything she had to say felt insignificant.
Sorry I'm emotionally screwed up. Sorry I'm incapable of letting myself be happy without being terrified. Sorry I couldn't even say sorry before I left...and I’m sorry that I left in the first place.
She muttered the words under her breath and let them fall into the ocean below, not noticing the shuffle of footsteps on the wooden planks behind her.
“I’d pretend to be surprised you were here, but Elsa contacted me. Thought it made sense to be honest this time,” Liam told her, leaning against the side of the railing. “It was just to make sure you got here safe.”
Emma was still catching up with his sudden presence at her side, but she could understand the second meaning in his words. It meant that her arrival hadn't gone unnoticed, even with a message from her friend. She looked up at him, expecting to see a warm, guilty smile on his face. What she got instead was an expression as unreadable as the opaque sky behind him.
"When you left, you didn't explain yourself. Elsa took the time to tell me about your work after the fact, but I know we scared you off. I wanted to apologize for my actions, too."
"Thank you," Emma was ready to make her apologies, too, but Liam held up his hand.
"I mean it, Emma. It felt like my brother and I had gotten to know the both of you for far longer than the two weeks you spent here. I took liberties I wouldn't have on someone I felt like I knew less. And, as you've probably gathered, my feelings for Elsa may have skewed my perspective a fair bit."
Emma finally found it in her to smile. At least she hadn't managed to destroy that with her rash decisions.
"I didn't mean to do the whole dramatic scene thing. You and Killian showed us a hell of a good time, I'm just...not good at letting myself be happy, I guess."
He chuckled, and comfortable silence fell on both of them. Emma felt a new appreciation for the older brother's persistence, for the almost paternal comfort his stocky frame gave her just by standing close. She'd come to apologize to the younger Jones brother, but talking to Liam now made her realize how important his feelings were to her, too. How had they managed to wedge themselves in her heart so soon?
The clouds remained as she told him about Regina's compliments — apparently, small town restaurants were the new high-end bistros as far as the tastes of the rich and traveled went — and promised an advance copy would be making its way to their door. She was stalling in earnest, now that they stood next to each other with understanding and forgiveness stretching between them.
He had yet to mention Killian at all, and she was starting to wonder why. There was a chance that he was simply waiting for her to ask for herself, or that he was simply trying to save her a little heartache. Her eyes fell to inspect the watch on her wrist, fingers slipping under the leather band as she tested her question in her mind before speaking it aloud, finally making it real.
"I came back to talk to Killian," she confessed, unable to pull her eyes back up to him just yet. "I was hoping I'd run into him before it got too late so I could explain. That's assuming he wants to talk to me at all."
"I won't lie to you, he's been frustrated," Liam admitted, not sure how much was safe to say. He recalled Killian's lack of focus in the kitchen and how it had turned to almost obsessive focus instead. He'd never seen more symmetrically cut lemon wedges in his entire life. Killian always tended to be harder on himself than anyone else. "And I think you two have stubbornness in common...but I wouldn't be surprised if he wasn't staring out the upstairs window right now, watching us have this conversation."
Emma wouldn't let herself turn and look, but she watched the reflection of Liam's eyes as they turned back up toward the restaurant behind them, searching the reflection for a silhouette she was still a little afraid to see.
"There's a stairway by the back door that leads up to our loft," Liam encouraged, his voice softer than before. "You're welcome to use it, if you don't want to wait for him to get his nerve up."
She didn’t get halfway up the steps before she heard the door at the top opening up.
He didn't look as haggard as Liam's description had her expecting. There was a new tightness to his eyes that hurt — he never looked at her like that before she gave him a reason to — but otherwise, Killian was exactly as she'd left him a day ago. If he was surprised that she was back at all, he was doing a good job of hiding it in his tone.
"Hi," she answered back. "Can I come up?"
Killian pulled the door open further and let her in, silently welcoming her into a modest, airy living room. Like restaurant downstairs, the place was cluttered and colorful, filled with obvious memories of the brothers' lives together. A large, square casement window sat slightly open behind the sectional couch and a blush colored Emma's cheeks. If he had been standing watching her speak to his brother, he would have heard every word.
"Would you like anything to drink?"
He caught her attention again with the polite request, which was more a reminder for her to say what she came here to say than anything else. She hated the formality in his voice, missed the little crinkle at the corner of his eyes when he usually looked at her, and for one wild second she considered Elsa's solution to everything. He wasn't so far away that she couldn't reach out for his shirtsleeve and tug him right to her. Not physically, at least.
"I'm a travel writer," Emma blurted out, catching him off-guard with the strange explanation. "I pay month-to-month rent in a city I barely live in, and I'm on my second passport. I go from place to place and stay just long enough to get the assignment done. I've gotten so good at saying goodbye I've basically stopped saying hello to begin with."
He'd stopped still on his way toward their open kitchen, and she couldn't keep her eyes off of his. His surprise was obvious enough now, but she was too deep into her haphazardly prepared speech to stop and question it.
"We weren't even supposed to stop in here — the food was really, really good, but our assignment was the next town up. We just got off the end of this annual road trip...we were going to wrap everything up with a story about coastal New England life because it was convenient. You screwed everything up."
"How's that?" Killian's shifted back where he stood, and Emma was sure he was taking it badly. There was a decision waiting to be made in his eyes, and her poorly cobbled sentences weren't helping.
"You're the first person I knew I was going to miss when I left."
The look in his eyes shifted, and Emma's fell to the floor beneath her shoes. When he didn't say anything she nodded to herself, biting her lip and thinking it was probably for the best. Hours of driving didn't mean she had earned his forgiveness, even when she'd been as honest with him as she could.
"Anyway, I don't mean to take up your time off, or anything. I just wanted to apologize for screwing up whatever it was we were starting to have."
Slow footsteps made their way to her ears, but her eyes were closed. A hand fell on her shoulder and she squinted to fight the tears back, wishing he could have just let her down from the other side of the room where he'd been before. Careful fingers lightly squeezed her arm, and a soft voice asked her to open her eyes. Emma wasn't ready, but she looked at him anyway.
"I missed you too."
Killian's hand moved carefully off her shoulder, his fingers skimming the side of her neck before they wove into the hair behind her ear. He took his time pulling her close, making himself clear, and Emma's eyes fluttered shut by themselves when his lips came to hers. She didn't end up needing to pull him to her at all as he kissed her, but Emma's hand found its way up to his chest anyway. Her other found the scar on his cheek, the one she'd been craving to map out since it first caught her attention. If she thought she had his full attention before, she'd been mistaken. His lips were soft and gentle, and his hands were warm and steadying everywhere they held her.
The salty air in the room tasted sweeter once she pulled herself away to breathe. Emma felt like she was getting off far too easy, all things considered, but Killian refused to let her apologize when she tried it again. His argument was she wasn't gone long enough for him to get mad at her in the first place, that he'd blamed his brother for most of what had gone wrong, and he wouldn't have her explain that, either.
"For the record," Killian told her, still brushing his thumb across the side of her temple, "I only came to the window right as Liam pointed me out. He's always had a flair for the dramatics."
"You're talking to a woman who drove half the night, sat in hours of traffic and almost turned around twice to get here."
"I'm well aware." He smirked, and the crinkle at the corner of his eyes came back. "I'm glad you did...and I'm hoping you're not planning to do the same tonight."
He had a point. That much time on the road had already taken a considerable amount of energy out of her. "Does Granny rent out rooms in the afternoon?"
She didn't, it turned out, but Killian had a suitable backup plan.
Emma had always been able to fall asleep in new places. It came with her traveler's spirit, the easy ability to slip off almost anywhere she rested; spending the night with a heart free from the weight she'd woken up carrying made it that much easier. She'd woken up early, a vaguely familiar, musical noise stirring her from her sleep, but her alarm hadn't gone off yet. Sitting up and brushing her hair out of her eyes, Emma searched for the source, listening intently for a repeat performance as the gulls called overhead.
"It's whale song," Killian said, suddenly appearing in the doorway of the cabin. The entire sailboat shifted as he made his way down the steps, carrying two plates of breakfast on his arm, and Emma turned her quirked eyebrow on him to ask for a better explanation. "They're always a bit boisterous like this after a good rain."
"Oh." She made room for him to sit next to her on the bed and smiled shyly. It seemed like he'd been up for a while, already dressed in his work clothes and attending to the breakfast crowd, and she felt a bit guilty for pulling him away from his work. "I could have come inside. You didn't have to bring this out here."
"Maybe I wanted some peace and quiet," he shot back, handing her a fork. "It gets a bit crowded with three of us in the kitchen."
"Fair enough." Emma forgot to care about morning breath and how rumpled last nights' clothes probably looked on her after being slept in. She leaned in and caught his lips in a quick kiss, mumbling good morning as she pulled away.
"How much time do you have before you need to go back in?" She asked him as they ate, watching sea spray hit the porthole window.
"Liam and Will can handle it. Why?"
"I don't want to leave the boat just yet," she said plainly, still getting used to the taste of easy honesty on her tongue.
"Well then," Killian answered, taking a quick glance out the window at the rising sun outside before turning his gaze back to her, "Mind if I stay awhile?"