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Love and Other Bruises

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~*~

 

 

Her target runs.

Of course he does. 

They usually do.  They’ve spent their whole adult lives running, whether it’s from responsibility, bad debt, bad decisions or the families they’ve left broken in their wake.  Why wouldn’t they run from someone trying to haul their miserable asses into court to face the music?

The guy had been happy enough when he’d thought she was flirting with him, of course, but he clearly didn’t want to talk about rescheduling his missed court date.

Yeah, they usually run, but today Emma finds it particularly grating.  It’s been a shitty week, no, make that a shitty month, and chasing some squirrelly mark through the streets of Boston is not how she wants to spend her Sunday afternoon.  Still, as pissed as she is at Walsh for cheating on her with that red-headed Mary Poppins wannabe from his office and earning himself a one-way ticket to Dumpsville, she’s still got to eat.  Bringing in this loser will give her enough to fill her refrigerator, her cupboards and a decent chunk to stash away in her ‘one day I won’t have to chase lowlifes’ fund. 

Sighing, she adjusts her backpack straps and starts after the guy, grateful that she’d adopted the guise of an earnest student today rather than a femme fatale.  Some days she’s just not in the mood to run in killer heels, especially when there’s still a light covering of snow on the ground.  As it turns out, though, her target doesn’t plan on doing much running at all.  She tails him to the top of a short flight of stairs leading down to a park favoured by skateboarders, then everything happens in a blur.

There’s a hard shove from behind, making her stumble forwards, then her backpack is wrenched to one side, knocking her completely off balance.  Swearing loudly, she reaches for the metal handrail but it’s out of reach and she’s going down, tripping over her own feet as she falls, her sneakered feet finding no traction on stairs glossy with ice.

It’s all over in a heartbeat, then she’s sprawled on the path at the bottom of the steps, the wind knocked clear out of her lungs. She’s not sure which part of her body hurts more, but she can taste blood on her lip and her right knee is on fire.  Shit, shit, shit.

Through the haze of breathless pain, she hears her target bid her a sneering farewell from the top of the stairs.  “Why don’t you get a real job, bitch?”

Then he’s gone, leaving her alone with the knowledge that she’s just bungled the most routine of skip grabs and a throbbing in her head fierce enough to bring her to tears.  David is going to be pissed, she thinks hazily.  She shifts, trying to find a pain-free route to a sitting position, but her left shoulder has other ideas.  Sucking in a sharp breath, she lies perfectly still, staring at the perfectly blue winter sky above her.  The ground beneath her is cold, and her backpack is digging painfully into her spine, but she tells herself that this is a popular park on a Sunday afternoon.  Someone will find her soon enough.

As she stares up at the tiny white clouds skittering across the blue afternoon sky, the ridiculous thought occurs to her that at least today isn’t Valentine’s Day.  Next Sunday is going to be crappy enough, giving that she’s just ditched her cheating boyfriend of three years and all that jazz.  The last thing she needs is to spend it trussed up in traction.

Thinking hurts in more ways than one. Wincing, she closes her eyes, knowing she shouldn’t, that she should try to stay awake, but the pain in her head has stepped it up a notch, pounding in time with the memory of her skip’s parting words.  Why don’t you get a real job, bitch?

When the muffled sound of hurried footsteps and concerned voices finally filter through the haze of pain, Emma Swan has to admit fuzzily to herself that she’s often wondered exactly the same thing.

 

 ~*~ 

 

Ah, the dull and dreary Sunday nightshift, Killian thinks as he trudges through the brightly lit corridor.  It’s his least favourite shift of all, a time when there always seems to be an extra portion of melancholy in the air, affecting both staff and patients alike. 

He’d voiced this thought once to Whale, many years ago, and had been called a soppy prat for his trouble.  At the thought of Whale, Killian feels the usual phantom spasm in his left wrist, his fingers flexing involuntarily.  That particular conversation with his former colleague feels as though it happened in another life. Perhaps that’s because, when all is said and done, it truly had.

He shuts down that particular train of thought, and instead does his best not to think about how much he’s longing for his bed, not to mention a stiff drink.  It’s been a long week, so it’s gratifying when Lucas greets him with enthusiasm when he arrives at the nurses’ station.

“Thank God.”  They’d had two staff call in sick for this shift alone, meaning they’d been operating on bare bones, no pun intended. “You’re a lifesaver, Jones.”

“Rather ironic, considering I’m quite sure you’re off to inhale a lovely bunch of carcinogens along with your chocolate bar supper.”   

“Ha ha.” Rolling her eyes, Ruby fishes her locker keys out of the pocket of her uniform with an air of bravado, but he notices she takes care to hide her nicotine-stained fingers from his gaze.  “If it makes you feel better, I’m quitting tomorrow. Smoking, that is. Chocolate is forever.”

“Good woman.” He’s heard this declaration before, but he knows better than mention that salient fact.

“Speaking of chocolate, have you found a date to take out for Valentine’s next Sunday?”

This again, he thinks sourly, wishing his colleague didn’t feel the need to make sure everyone in her life was as romantically enmeshed as she was herself.  “So I can endure a few hours of awkward conversation with someone I hardly know while adoring couples make doe eyes at each other all around us? No, thank you.” 

“You know,” Ruby says as she flicks through the patient charts, “I've heard there was a time when you were the biggest romantic around.” 

“That was a long time ago,” he says with an indifference he hopes one day to truly feel, then claps his hands together, ignoring the faint twinge in his left wrist. “Who do we have in residence tonight?”

They’ve worked together for a few years now, and the handover is fast and thorough.  Thankfully, there’s only been one new admission in the eight beds under Ruby’s watchful eye since he’d worked a morning shift yesterday, a twenty-eight year-old woman who had apparently taken a tumble down an icy flight of steps this afternoon. 

“Concussion.” Ruby hands him the woman’s chart. “She’s being kept overnight for observation.  See you in twenty, Jones.”  Then she’s gone, a spring in her step as she heads for the outside world and her cigarette, leaving him reading the catalogue of the new patient’s injuries.  Dislocated left shoulder and badly sprained right knee – he feels his mouth twist in a sympathetic grimace - along with a decent catalogue of lacerations and bruising. 

Hooking the chart back onto the metal foot of her bed, he takes a moment to study the new arrival.  Deep in a medicated sleep, she looks far younger than the almost-thirty years that her chart claims, her skin unlined, thick eyelashes dark against her pale cheeks.  Ironic that her last name is Swan, he muses.  Her hair is the kind of golden blonde favoured by Disney princesses, although they don’t usually wear their flowing locks scraped back in a hasty knot.  He suspects the hairstyle would normally suit her, given her lovely heart-shaped face, but at the moment it only serves to accentuate the swelling on her temple, the three stiches in her left eyebrow and the split in her bottom lip.

It’s obviously been too long a day, because something about these particular minor injuries sends a tender pang curling through his chest.  “Poor lass”, he murmurs softly, then gives himself a mental shake.  Steady on, mate.  He’s never denied that he’s a sucker for a pretty face under most circumstances, but he draws the line at patients.

Still, he takes a moment to refill her water cup and make sure the light blanket is covering her adequately.  The other three patients in the room are sleeping as peacefully as their respective ailments allow, and the most pervasive sound in the room is the perennial air-conditioning units and the muted sound of traffic from the main road below.   So it’s quite the shock when a dainty hand fairly slaps his away from the edge of the blanket, a harsh but feminine whisper cutting through the silence.

“What the hell are you doing here?”

Startled, he lifts his head to find Emma Swan glaring at him. Clearing his throat gently, he perches on the edge of the chair beside her bed, keeping a careful distance between them as he gingerly rubs the back of his left hand. This is far from the first time that a recovering patient has sworn at him while under the influence of pain medication, but there’s something in this particular accusation that sounds oddly personal.

“Have we met before, love?”  He knows full well that they haven’t, of course.  There is no way in Hell he would have forgotten her.

“You think everything’s a joke, don’t you?” Her eyes flash green fire as she spits out the words in a raspy voice.  “How could you?  I trusted you, Walsh.” 

She’s sporting stiches and a split lip while wearing a shapeless hospital gown, and he suspects she might be one of the most striking women he’s ever met.  Feeling as though he’s playing with fire, he reaches out to pat her hand, thinking better of it when he sees the aforementioned hand is curled in a fist.  Perhaps that’s for the best, he tells himself. Sitting back in the plastic chair, he chooses his words with care.  “Do you know where you are, Emma?”

She sneers at him, the cut on her bottom lip livid against her white teeth.  “I put your vintage Hollywood posters through the office shredder, so don’t bother asking for them back.”

Despite the furious triumph in her voice, he has to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from smiling.  Whoever this Walsh is, Killian can’t help feeling he’s somewhat of a tosser.  Anyone who would disappoint such a wonderfully fiery creature is clearly not a MENSA candidate.   “I have an idea.  Why don’t you rest for a while, and you can yell at me some more later?”

“Whatever.” Her vivid green eyes are already closing, her words slurring to a mumble.  “I didn’t want to go to the circus with you anyway.”

With her eyes safely closed, Killian allows himself a wide grin at her nonsensical ramblings.  He can’t wait to talk to this one once she’s herself again.  He has the feeling he’ll be just as enchanted by her non-medicated self.

(Not that he ever lets himself fall for a patient.) 

It’s only when he’s back at the nurses’ station that it occurs to him there could be a connection between Emma Swan’s injuries and her anger at this Walsh character. His smile instantly fades, a frown taking its place, a dull sense of dread lurching through the pit of his stomach. 

When Ruby returns from her break fifteen minutes later, he gives her time to settle back into her chair, then clears his throat.  “The Swan girl in Bed 4, has she had any visitors since she was admitted? Any family?”

It might be two o’clock in the morning, but Ruby takes a few seconds to finish checking the state of her bright red lipstick in her hand mirror before she answers, making him suspect that a certain young resident might be swinging past before their shift ends. 

(Sometimes he thinks he sees so much of Mulan, he may as well be dating her himself.) 

“No family, but her boss and his wife were here. They were nice. Stayed until visiting hours finished.”   Tossing the hand mirror into the top drawer of the desk, Ruby arches a dark eyebrow at him.  “Why?”

A prickle of heat creeps up the back of his neck at the suspicious tone in her voice. Wanting very much to believe that his concern is nothing more than routine duty of care, he gives Ruby a careless shrug.  “She thought I was someone called Walsh.  I gather he was an ex of some kind, and she was very angry at me for what sounded like a very mean-spirited deed.” 

Quick to pick up on his unspoken concerns, Ruby worries at her bottom lip.  “Her paperwork says she was found at the bottom of the stairs in a park.”

“Ah, but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t pushed.”

His colleague levels a searching gaze at him.  “You’re extra suspicious tonight, Jones.”

“This morning,” he corrects lightly, and she huffs out a tired snort.

“Once she wakes up and she’s not sedated out of her head, you can ask her yourself what happened.”  Cricking her neck in a stretch, she checks her watch and pushes back her swivel chair. “Speaking of meds, will you look at that? It’s medication time.”

Usually, Ruby’s Cuckoo’s Nest quotes make him laugh, but Killian finds it hard to muster a smile this evening.  “Are you rostered on tomorrow?”

“Nope.”   Ruby jingles the keys to the medication cabinet in a triumphant flourish as she gets to her feet.  “I’m sleeping until Tuesday, baby.”   

She saunters off, her red-streaked ponytail bouncing, and Killian resigns himself to the fact that he’ll be spending the next few hours pacing the ward, waiting for Emma Swan to awaken from her artificial slumber like he’s some lovesick Disney prince.

Thinking of her flashing green eyes, he supposes there are worse ways to spend a night shift around here.

 

~*~

 

Walsh shuffles his feet apologetically, his dark eyes are filled with regret, but Emma has the feeling he’s sorry that he got caught more than anything else. “It wasn’t anything serious.”

Emma stares at him in disbelief.  Why did men always think that line actually made things better?  If anything, it only makes the situation worse.  “You slept with her, didn’t you?” 

“Yes, I’m so sorry.”

She flinches as though he’s struck her, then lifts her chin.  She’d never liked that red-haired witch from his office.  It gives her no comfort to find out her gut instincts had been painfully accurate.  “How could you? I trusted you.”

He shrugs - he actually shrugs, the jerk – and shakes his head with a self-conscious smile she’d once thought was charming.  “It was just one of those things, you know how it is.”

“No, I don’t know how it is,” she wants to yell at him, but her voice is gone, her tongue seeming to have a mind of its own. 

She’s in the dark. 

Where the hell are the lights?   

Her eyes are so heavy, sounds drifting over her like a badly tuned radio station.  Emma shifts, trying to find a way out, trying to find her bearings, then there’s a gentle hand on her forehead.  She struggles towards the touch, feeling as though she’s swimming through molasses.

“Hush, love.”  Roughed fingertips brush just above her eyebrow in a soothing sweep, then vanish, making her ache for more.  “You’re safe here.”

She sleeps.

 

~*~

 

I must be hungover, Emma decides as she attempts to crank open one heavy eyelid.  That’s the only explanation for why she feels so bad.

If only she could remember getting drunk.

If only she could remember anything.

There’s a beeping in her ears, along with some annoying metallic clanking coming from outside her bedroom window.  Which is weird, because she lives on the third floor.  She slowly opens both eyes, and immediately shuts them again, because it seems her bedroom is fluorescently bright, with white walls and the smell of antiseptic in the air.  

Shit.

She’s in the hospital.

Tears of frustration come unbidden to her eyes as it all comes rushing back, the skip knocking her off balance at the top of the stairs, the pain in her shoulder and head and wait, had Walsh been here?

She must have been dreaming.

“Ah, you’re awake.”

At the sound of a softly-spoken male voice that is definitely not Walsh, Emma opens her eyes once more, squinting as she tries to focus.  The owner of the voice is doing something to the machine beside her bed, and through the smell of antiseptic, she detects the scent of male deodorant, the kind that usually comes in a black can with names like Cool Wave or Granite Breeze.

Her bed begins to move beneath her, bringing her up to a sitting position without her having to move a muscle.  “You were so dead to the world, I was starting to worry you’d accepted a poison apple from a wicked old crone.”

“Where am I?”  God, she sounds like a pack a day smoker.  Her mouth feels furry and stale, her tongue uncomfortably dry.  She coughs, and suddenly there’s a hand holding a plastic cup in front of her, the straw only an inch or so from her lips.  Suddenly too parched to care about appearances, Emma practically inhales half the cup of water, stopping only when the hand gently eases it away from her face.

“Go easy, love.”   The guy’s speaking in little more than a whisper, his lilting accent making the words sound like a suggestion rather than the command she knows they are.  “You can have more in a jiffy, I promise.”   

Emma blows out a breath, trying to get her bearings.  “How bad is-“  As she speaks, she turns her head to the side, her words dying on her tongue as her eyes lock with those of her bedside visitor.  Either she’s still tripping out on painkillers, or those are the bluest eyes she’s ever seen on a real life human being.  Funny, they’re almost the same colour as the scrubs he’s wearing,she muses.  The eyes in question might have dark shadows beneath them, but they’re are kind and filled with concern, and a rush of warmth goes through her as she feels the brush of his fingertips on her temple, gently checking what feels like a very sore eyebrow.

“How bad is it?”  The guy clicks his tongue sympathetically, and even in her weakened state, Emma can’t help staring at the way he moves his lips.  “Well, the good news is that while you’re sore and sorry now, it’s nothing a spot of bed rest won’t cure.”

Eyeing the doctor, Emma gestures clumsily to the corridor outside her room.  “What’s the bad news?”

He gives her an amused glace as he pulls a thin silver penlight from his pocket. “Does there have to be bad news?”

She shrugs, then instantly regrets it.  Damn, her shoulder is sore. “There usually is.”

“Well,” he drawls as he goes through the unpleasant ritual of shining the penlight in her eyes, one at a time. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to disappoint you today.”   Seemingly pleased by whatever her eyes did in reaction to the light, he scribbles something on the chart lying on the bed next to her knee.  “No bad news, unless you count the fact that you’re flat on your back in a hospital bed.”

Just her luck to get the comedian, she thinks with as much scorn as she can gather, but her heart’s not really in it. “Which hospital is this?”

He names the hospital closest to the park where she’d fallen, and she nods, her eyes burning once again.  “Does anyone know I’m here?”  She presses her lips together at the sound of her own voice, so small and anxious, and the guy suddenly drops into the chair beside her bed, bringing his face level with hers, letting her see him properly. 

Maybe it’s because she is still crawling out from under the weight of some heavy duty painkillers, but she suddenly feels more than a little breathless. The man has a jawline that could cut glass, a great nose and just enough five o’clock shadow on his chin and cheeks to take him from pretty to wow.

“Your friends David and Mary Margaret were listed as your emergency contacts.”  He smiles at her, those intensely blue eyes crinkling at the corners.  “They were here for several hours yesterday.”

Panic curls through her chest.  How long has she been lying here?  “Yesterday?”  With an effort, she turns and looks towards the windows at the other end of the room.  “What day is it?”

“It’s okay, you haven’t slept through February.” The doctor pats her bare forearm gently, his touch solid and warm.  “It’s 6:00am Monday morning and, now that you mention it, time for breakfast.”

Distracted by the comforting weight of his hand on her arm, she suddenly feels more off-kilter than she had at the top of those damned stairs.  “I’m not that hungry.”

“Trust me, I know hospital food isn’t that appealing.  All those powdered eggs.” Again, those blue eyes gleam as he smiles.  “Could you choke down some cereal if I managed to smuggle in a hot Grande something for you?”

 She can’t help smiling back, wincing when her bottom lip pulls tight and sore.  “Ow!”

He quickly reaches up and dabs her lip gently with a soothing pad, frowning as he studied her mouth.  “Sorry, lass, I should have warned you about your split lip before I started making contraband coffee jokes.”  Having finished dabbing her lip, he’s now studying her left eyebrow with an intensity that would make her squirm if she had the energy.  “In case you’re wondering, there are only three little stiches there, and you’ll never see them unless the fashionistas decide to bring back the 1930’s eyebrow.”

Emma stares at him.  Who are you? she dearly wants to ask, but instead settles for a very basic question. “What’s your name?”

He grins as he tucks his penlight back into his top pocket.  “Killian Jones, RN, at your service.”  Her surprise must show in her face, because his smile becomes more of a knowing smirk.  “You thought I was a doctor?”

“Yeah.”  She’s not sure why, but she feels the need to apologise.  “Sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry.”  He picks up her chart, stepping to the end of her bed to hang it up, then turns back to her. “Happens all the time when you’re a nurse of the male variety.”

“It’s just my head’s still a little fuzzy,” she offers hastily, again not knowing why but feeling she should explain.  “I’m usually all over the reversal of traditional gender roles, I promise.”

His gaze locks with hers, long enough to make her feel like her skin is pricking beneath her horrible gown. “I have no doubt.”  He seems to hesitate, then steps back to the chair beside her bed, turning it around so he can straddle it, his arms resting on the back.  “Speaking of your fuzzy head, how on earth did you fall down those stairs?”

This time, she manages to stop herself from shrugging.  “By underestimating someone.” He holds out the water cup to her again, and this time she holds it herself while she drains it dry.  “The guy just got the drop on me, you know?”

His blue gaze narrows.  “What guy?  Walsh?” 

Now it’s her turn to narrow her eyes.  “How do you know about Walsh?”

As she stares at him, the tips of his ears pinken, and he lifts one hand to rub nervously at the back of his neck.  “Ah, well, the thing is, you and I had a little chat while you were banjoed out of your head on pain meds last night.”

Heat floods her face, and she closes her eyes.  “I told you about Walsh?”

She hears him laugh quietly.  “Actually, you thought I was Walsh.”  Opening her eyes, she glares at him, which only seems to amuse him more.  “And you looked at me just like that, now that I recall.”

This would have to be one of the most embarrassing conversations she’s ever had, and that counts the time Mary Margaret wanted her advice on honeymoon lingerie.

“Why are you asking me about Walsh?”

Killian Jones, RN, gives her a look that’s part exasperation, part concern.  “Because you were very angry with me when you thought I was him, and given your injuries-“

Oh. 

Oh.

“Oh God, it wasn’t anything like that.”   She can’t help noticing that he looks greatly relieved.  “I’m a bailbonds person. I was chasing after a skip who decided to run, but the little shit doubled back and took me by surprise.”

His teeth flash white again his dark beard as he grins.  “Well, you seem to have the colourful turn of phrase to go with such a colourful career, Miss Swan.” 

“Emma,” she corrects before she can stop herself, which is such a bad idea, because this guy is charming and hot and caring and smells good and promised her a real coffee, and she’d be crazy to indulge in some kind of awkward bodice ripper crush on her nurse, right? 

He puts out his hand.  “In that case, you’d best call me Killian.”

“And my job’s not that colourful, believe me.” His palm is warm, fitting against hers perfectly, and she gives it a hasty shake before pulling her own hand back.  Definitely a bad idea.   “You said something about a Grande?”

Getting to his feet, he runs one hand through his already tousled dark hair and gives her a tiny bow that could be described as gallant.  “I’ll do my best, milady.” 

Okay, so he’s a little strange, but she still watches him as he walks out of the room back to the nurses’ station.  Those scrub pants leave little to the imagination, and concussed she may have been, blind she is not.  Closing her eyes, she does her best to zone out the dull ache in her shoulder and her knee, the background hospital noises soon fading to an uneven whisper of sound.

She wakes with a start some unknown time later to see a different nurse appears at her bedside, a tall brunette who is expertly swinging the serving tray across the bed.  “Don’t let the others see,” she whispers theatrically as she places a tall takeout cup of coffee (with a straw) on the tray a few inches from Emma’s nose.  “Otherwise, they’ll all want one.” 

Like Killian, this nurse also looks as though she’s just stepped off a catwalk, with her long dark hair filled with streaks in every shade of red imaginable and fire engine red lipstick, leading Emma to wonder if this particular hospital has a quirky HR policy in place for its staff.  Must look hot enough to distract patients from pain.

“Thank you.”

The nurse – her nametag says Ruby Lucas, RN – waves away her thanks.  “That was Killian’s doing, I’m just the delivery girl.”

She won’t ask.

She won’t.

It would be stupid to ask after someone you’ve just met when you really have no business asking –

“Tell him I said thank you.”  She bites her lip – ouch – then adds a casual, ”I guess he’s finished his shift?”

The nurse’s red lips curve in a wide, all-too-knowing smirk.  “He was dead on his feet, so I made him sack out in the break room for an hour or so before riding home on his bike. For some reason, he insisted on working straight through last night without a break.” While Emma digests that piece of information, the other woman checks her watch at the sound of an approaching food trolley, then taps a red fingernail on the top of the takeout coffee cup. “I’m sure he’ll check to see how you enjoyed your caffeine before he heads home.”

Another awkward conversation, Emma thinks.  She’s aiming for a new personal record today, it seems. “Er, thank you.”

“Oh, and your friend Mary Margaret called while you were sleeping.”  Ruby checks that Emma’s water cup is full, then flashes her a bright smile. “She wanted you to know that she and David will be here as soon as visiting hours start.”

“Okay, thanks.”  Emma reaches for the coffee, relieved when the other woman slips away to tend to another patient, leaving her alone to mildly dread the arrival of her two closest friends.  It’s not that she doesn’t want to see them – she does – but seeing them will mean a double-barrelled lecture about procedure and safety and risk all mixed up with tears (Mary Margaret) and threats of payback against the guy who knocked her down (David). 

God, what if David and Killian the nurse get into a conversation about Walsh? Emma scowls. She’d never live it down.  

While she’s on the subject of Killian, this coffee is the best damned thing she’s tasted in days.  It’s sweeter than she normally takes it, but she doesn’t care, not when he made the effort to go downstairs to a real coffee shop and buy it for her. Apparently, he’s now asleep down the hallway because he refused to take his breaks during the night, and Emma can’t deny the notion warms her through as much as the coffee.

(Did she mention it would be stupid to crush on her nurse?)

She manages to drink half before she admits defeat, pushing it aside with a weary hand before she closes her eyes. Her last conscious thought before dozing off is that she really hopes Mary Margaret remembers to bring her a toothbrush. 

 

 

~*~

Chapter Text

~*~

 

For the first time in a long time, he doesn’t dream.  

When he wakes, it’s to a fuzzy head, the familiar scent of disinfectant (a distinctive smell he’d be able to pick out from a line-up of thousands) and the scratch of a worn blanket against his cheek. 

Sitting up on the camp bed tucked into the break room, he scrubs his hands through his hair, then presses the heels of his palms against his eyes, feeling worse than he did before he succumbed to the temptation of a short nap.  He suspects there’s a word to accurately describe the kind of muddle-headed exhaustion he’s feeling, but right now he can’t quite summon the brain power.

He tosses aside the blanket, seeing from his watch that his shift officially finished fifteen minutes ago.  Technically, Ruby should have woken him for handover rather than shoulder the responsibility alone, but there’s always been a world of difference between what Ruby Lucas should do and what Ruby Lucas actually does.  He clambers to his feet, his sleep-blurred thoughts suddenly narrowing down to focus on a single word.

Emma.

He encounters Ruby as he exits the break room, the spring in his colleague’s step at odds with the weariness in her dark eyes.  “Early shift’s on board. Time to blow this popsicle stand.”

It’s odd, but he can’t seem to make his feet move in the right direction.  “I just wanted to check on-”

Ruby gives him a look which is part exasperation, part amusement. ”She’s sleeping, which is what you should be doing.”  Her scathing glance at his undoubtedly dishevelled state is softened by the warmth in her tone. “Home time, Jones.”

He hesitates, the urge to check on Emma before he leaves niggling at his chest like a grappling hook, but how to explain that without sounding like an idiot? 

Thankfully, Ruby saves him the trouble.  “You’ll see our new girl soon enough.”  Her shoulder bumps against his as he reluctantly turns his back on the room where Emma is sleeping, as if she’s trying to herd him in the right direction. “They’re keeping her in for at least for another night.”

Yielding to the inevitable, he falls into step beside her, doing his best to stifle the yawn that threatens to crack his jaw.  “Did she drink the coffee?”

“Almost finished the whole thing, pretty impressive given the circumstances.”  Digging in her pocket, Ruby twirls her locker keys around her index finger.  “I might have even remembered to tell her it was from you.”

“Thanks.” He snorts tiredly under his breath, but the thought of Emma Swan enjoying his carefully chosen coffee improves his mood greatly.  “I doubt she’ll get any special treatment from Nurse Ratched.”

Ruby flashes him a wide grin at his use of the ‘completely-against HR policy’ nickname for the less-than-amiable colleague who’s just commandeered the nurses’ station.  “That friend of hers called while you were sleeping, Mary something,” she informs him through a wide yawn.  “They’re coming back to see her as soon as visiting hours start, so at least she won’t have to deal with Ratched by herself for long.”

Feeling he’s already overstepped more than one professional boundary tonight, he bites back the impulse to ask more about Emma’s friends. “Good.”

They part company outside the change rooms, with Ruby giving him one last piece of unsolicited advice. “Be careful cycling home.”  She smooths back her perfectly braided merlot-coloured hair with a pointed flick of her wrist. “You look like death warmed up.”

Quite sure he looks ten kinds of hell, he wearily decides to take her words as a compliment.  “Always the charmer, Nurse Lucas.”

Blinking as he steps out into the outside world, he slowly makes his way towards the bicycle racks.  As always, he feels a muted sense of relief to find his bicycle exactly where he’d left it at the start of his shift last night.  Thankfully he has once again been spared from the machinations of the bicycle thieves who haunt this area on a worrying regular basis.

On autopilot, he tugs on his helmet and zips up his windbreaker, a wide yawn stretching his jaw as he unlocks the bike chain.  The early morning sun hasn’t yet graced the pavements with its presence, and the ten minute bike ride to his apartment through the early morning chill is the usual bracing experience.

At least Ruby seems to have finally stopped asking him when he’s going to start driving a car again like a ‘normal’ person, he muses, then he scowls as he crouches lower over the handlebars, leaning into the cold breeze, concentrating on the road ahead.  He knows she’s only trying to help, but they both know why he hasn’t driven a car for the last three years. 

Three years this coming Sunday to be precise, he thinks with a sour jolt of realisation as he reaches the front of his apartment building. Odd how every year he’s managed to forget the anniversary of the accident until it’s almost upon him.  As he starts to wheel his bike through the foyer to the elevator, he realises something else. This year, this coming Sunday also happens to be Valentine’s Day.

Wonderful.

His jaw tightening, Killian stabs at the elevator button with an impatient finger, grimly pushing his bike into the empty lift a few seconds later.  Carefully avoiding looking at his reflection in the age-dimmed mirrored wall of the elevator, he flexes his aching left hand, moving it in a slow circle to ease the stiffness in the tendons.  Nursing might not require the steady hands of a surgeon, but it’s still tough on a thirty-something body.

Once in his apartment, his bike stowed carelessly against the bookcase, he draws the blackout curtains in his bedroom and briefly considers simply falling onto his bed and sleeping like the dead, crumpled scrubs and all.  However, his post-nightshift routine is far too engrained to be derailed, even by dark thoughts of an anniversary he has no wish to celebrate.  On auto-pilot once more, he has the hottest shower he can stand, scrubbing away the smell of the hospital before taking a long moment to let the hot water run over his left wrist.   

And so this Sunday is Valentine’s Day, he muses grimly as he shuts off the hot water and reaches for a towel that’s definitely seen better days.  The day for lovers and those brave enough to confess their secret longings, all wrapped up in a Hallmark cliché of happy endings and true love. 

The irony might strike him as amusing if it didn’t feel like a knife thrust into his gut.

He towels his hair more roughly than usual, uncaring that he no doubt resembles a mad scientist once he’s done, then finally heads for his bed. The room is cool and dark, just how he likes it after he’s staggered home from night shift, and normally he’d been dead to the world as soon as his head touched the pillow.  This morning, though, the ghosts of the past are nipping at his heels (and his thoughts), and sleep seems painfully elusive. 

Over the last three years, he’s mastered the art of not thinking about the night his life was turned upside down.  No good can come of dwelling on the unchangeable, and all it does is fill his head with thoughts of his brother and how the silent wall between them is still far wider than the distance between London and Boston.

Bloody hell.

Screwing his eyes shut, Killian thumps his pillow before rolling onto his side and willing his body to relax enough to coax his brain to follow suit.  He knows from long experience that every damned time he’s foolish enough to think of Liam and everything they haven’t said to each other for the last three years, he’ll need to find something else to occupy his thoughts, at least long enough to let him fall asleep. 

For once, thankfully, he actually has that something else. Someone else, to be more precise.

To be perfectly honest, though, he’s not sure indulging in thoughts of Emma Swan will help him sleep.  She’s an attractive female patient in his care, and that means he’s not supposed to be entertaining anything other than strictly professional musings. That means he had no business noticing the supple figure beneath the staid hospital bedclothes or the golden sheen of her hair.  He definitely has no business thinking of those incredible eyes now, the charming dimple in her chin or the fact that not even bruising or stitches could diminish the arresting beauty of that heart-shaped face.

Emma Swan was beyond lovely, but the pull he’d felt towards her had been about more than that.  At the risk of sounding like a nauseatingly trite wordsmith, there had been a fire in her, a fierce sparkle that not even the pain medication had been able to dull. 

Then there had been the small matter of finding himself wanting to drive his fist into the nose of whichever miscreant had caused her injuries, whether it was the disreputable Walsh or the unnamed ‘skip’ she’d been chasing.

Of course, she’d thought he was the doctor rather than the nurse, but he can’t find it in his heart to mark that down as a strike against her.  Her apology had been beyond charming, after all.

He flips onto his back, staring up into the darkness.  He’s encountered many attractive female patients over the years, but he’s never once wanted to sit by their bedside and listen to them talk about themselves for as long as humanly possible.  As someone who deliberately does night duty as often as possible in order to keep human interaction to a minimum, he’s not quite sure what to do with this revelation. 

Rolling onto his side once more, he closes his eyes, heaving a relieved sigh as he feels his weary body finally starting to win out over his restless mind.  A sensible man might hope that Ruby was mistaken and Emma Swan will have been discharged by the time he starts his shift tonight.  His life is complicated enough, and he certainly doesn’t need the added intrigue of an infatuation with a patient. 

Then again, he thinks fuzzily as he slides towards blissful oblivion, he’s never claimed to be a particularly sensible man.

 

~*~

 

Emma Swan never knew her real parents.

It’s times like this, though, opening her eyes to see her two best friends looking as though they’re both choking back tears, she thinks maybe she’s had the next best thing for the last four years.  

Not that she’s going to tell them that, she decides as they edge closer  They’ll have her bundled up and moved into their spare room before she can sayteenage tantrum.

“Morning, sleepyhead.” As David paces restlessly at the foot of the narrow hospital bed, Mary Margaret squeezes her hand with a gentle tenderness that makes Emma’s own eyes blur.  “How did you sleep?”

She’s tempted to tell them she knows now why Killian called it bed restrather than sleep, but Emma decides not to add to the guilt already written all over both their faces. “Great.”

(She also decides not to mention that, as well as dealing with the never-ending hospital noises and bright lights, her head had been filled with thoughts of a ridiculously attractive male nurse. She’s allowed one little secret, surely?)

Her friend’s smile is a shrewd one. “Liar.”

“Guilty as charged,” Emma croaks out through a dry mouth, and instantly David is there too, holding up her water glass complete with straw, his face like the proverbial thundercloud. “Thanks.”

“I’m gonna kill him,” her boss announces in a tight voice, making Emma blink in confused alarm. She quickly realises he’s talking about her errant skip (why would he be talking about Killian, you idiot?) and she exchanges a knowing glance with the boss’ wife.

“You’ll have to find him first,” Emma mutters, wincing as she tries to find a more comfortable position in the raised bed. “I have the feeling that sucker islong gone.”

David scowls and returns to his restless pacing, Mary Margaret gently touches Emma’s stitched eyebrow. “Does it hurt?”

The brush of her friend’s fingertips is comforting, and Emma tries not to think of how Killian’s touch on the same bruised skin had made her shiver. “Not much.”

They fire off a round of well-meaning questions about her aches and pains, David making a show of going cross-eyed trying to make sense of the chart hanging at the foot of her bed.  

She does her best to keep up, but her heart isn’t really in it.  

She keeps thinking of Killian and the odd emotion that had flashed in his eyes when she’d mistaken him for a doctor. If she hadn’t been mesmerised by those crazily blue eyes, she might have missed it. But she had seen it, and while her head knows it’s inappropriate to pry into a carer’s personal life, it seems her heart didn’t get that particular memo.

At the sound of soft-soled shoes approaching the door, Emma’s heart lurches. She may have completely lost track of time, but surely it’s too early for Killian to be back on duty -      

It is too early, because the nurse who sails into the room is definitely notKillian Jones.  It’s a tall, lean woman in her fifties, with an unsmiling mouth and not a hair out of place.  “I do hope you’re not overexciting the patient,” she announces though thin, peach-coloured lips as she checks the chart at the foot of the bed. “She should be resting.”

Emma can almost see Mary Margaret’s hackles rising, and she has to press her bruised lips together to keep herself from grinning. “We’re Ms Swan’s next-of-kin,” her friend informs the nurse in a tone she usually keeps for her unruly sixth grade students. “I believe we’re allowed to visit as long as shewishes us to do so.”

The nurse says nothing, but Emma had no idea someone could straighten a bedside trolley with such disapproval.  After a moment of truly awkward silence, she smooths her hands down the front of her own pristine white tunic, then turns on her heel. “The doctor will be doing his rounds in an hour,” she tells them over her shoulder, then she’s gone.

When she vanishes into the corridor, Emma has the sense of all three of them breathing a sigh of relief in unison.  As usual, David just can’t help himself. “Well, she is just delightful.”

“She most definitely is not,” his wife mutters, settling back beside Emma’s bed and motioning for David to drag the other spare chair closer.  “You heard her talking on the telephone this morning as well as I did.”

Happy for anything that might take her mind off her aching bones and the fact that she really wants a hot shower, Emma gives her friend a curious glance. “Wait, what happened this morning?”

“When we got here, that woman was talking to someone on the phone at the nurses station.”  Mary Margaret’s usually serene expression is pinched with annoyance. “Gossiping very loudly about one of the nurses who worked the night shift last night, and all I can say is that she must have been talking to someone as ignorant as she is.”

Her friend rarely says a bad word against anyone, and Emma finds herself leaning forward in the bed, intrigued enough to ignore the painful twinge in her reset shoulder. “Why, what was she saying?”

“Apparently the night shift nurse is gay and Nurse Nasty out there doesn’t approve.”  Mary Margaret rolls her eyes with obvious irritation. “I was tempted to give her a piece of my mind there and then, but I didn’t want to cause a scene in front of the other visitors.”

Emma’s head might still be a little fuzzy, but she manages to put the pieces of the puzzle together easily enough. Nurse. Night shift. Gay.

Well, shit.

Both her friends keep up a steady stream of chatter across her bed - Leroy can help with the skip caseload until Emma’s fit for work, she can stay with them until she’s back on her feet - and thankfully neither of them seem to notice that Emma isn’t contributing much beyond a few grateful nods of her head.  

It’s stupid, she knows, but the revelation Killian the Nurse is gay has sent her heart well and truly sinking down to her toes.

She’s fine. It’s fine.

It’s just that -

Damn it.

She smiles mechanically at something cheerful David is saying about their dinner plans for Valentine’s Day this coming Sunday (nothing like rubbing salt into the wounds of a newly single woman, thank you, boss) and tries to convince herself that she’s not disappointed.

Oh, but she is disappointed. The pain medication must have messed with her brain more than she’d realised last night, because she could have swornthere had been a spark there, something firing between them like a livewire every time Killian’s eyes had met hers. 

She must have imagined it. After all, she’d thought he was Walsh and had accused him of cheating on her, hadn’t she?

“Hey, you okay?”  Mary Margaret’s hand is light on her forearm.  “You look like you checked out for a moment there.”

Emma gives herself a mental shake.  “I’m okay, but speaking of checking out-” She looks at them both hopefully in turn, but David just gives her an understanding smile.

“At least one more night in the big house, I’m afraid.”

“Ugh.” It’s an effort to pout with her swollen bottom lip, but she must manage just fine, because Mary Margaret simply chuckles as she smooths a maternal hand over the curve of Emma’s head, carefully avoiding the bump on her temple.

“You banged up your knee and shoulder pretty bad, Emma, not to mention the knock to your noggin.”  Her friend’s clear green gaze is unwavering. “There’s no shame in admitting you’re not made of steel, okay?”

Emma grins at the other woman’s use of the word noggin then immediately regrets it, her split bottom lip making itself known. “Okay, that stings.”

Mary Margaret darts a worried glance over her shoulder at the door.  “Should I get the nurse?”

Emma and David answer as one. “No.”

Mary Margaret’s dimples flash as she settles back in her chair.  “Just checking.”  Bending down, she pulls an unfamiliar overnight bag onto her lap and unzips it. “I hope you don’t mind but we used our spare key to your apartment to bring you a few things we thought you might need,” her friend confides as she rummages daintily through the contents. “Let’s see. Clean underwear, your favourite sweatpants. Oh, I picked up some of that dry shampoo you like-”

If her mouth didn’t feel like she’s just come off a three day bender in Vegas, it might just water at the thought of the dry shampoo.  “Please tell me there’s a toothbrush in there?”

Beside her, David chuckles. “Have you forgotten who you’re dealing with?”  He casts a loving gaze across the bed at his wife. (Emma’s chest tightens a little at the sight of such unabashed adoration, just as it always does.)  “Do you think she’d forget a new toothbrush or your favourite toothpaste?”

“One thing about an elementary school teacher, you definitely learn all about being prepared.” Mary Margaret’s face glows in response to her husband’s compliment, but she smilingly brushes it off. “Oh, and David found the gas and water bills you’d left out on your kitchen counter with your check book.”

Emma sighs. “Damn it.” She’d planned to do a heap of things on Sunday night once she’d finished work, and taking care of her bills had been one of them.  

Before she can ask if they’d thought to bring her check book with them, Mary Margaret goes on. “He noticed they were both due today, so we took care of that for you.”

“You guys are the best.”  Emma’s eyes blur hotly with tears, the words catching in her throat. She must still have the dregs of the pain meds in her system, she thinks, because she cannot seriously be crying over a toothbrush and a goddamned bill. “I’ll pay you back.”

“Already thought of that, don’t worry.” David grins and gives her a bright blue wink. “It’s coming out of your next pay check.”

“Hush, David.” Mary Margaret smiles at her, her grip on Emma’s hand gently reassuring. “Why don’t you go find some real coffee and save us all from the nasty hospital blend?”

“I think there’s a place on the ground floor,” Emma volunteers hopefully, and David’s on his feet in a heartbeat, clicking his heels together with a flourish that would be dorky if it wasn’t so charming.

“Your collective wish is my command.”

(Maybe it was still a little dorky.)

As David sweeps dramatically from the room, Emma smiles at the memory of Killian bribing her into eating some breakfast with the promise of a fancy coffee. Too bad her sexual tension radar had been way off the charts, she thinks ruefully. Her expression obviously gives her away, because her friend is quick to notice. “Well, that’s a wistful smile if ever I saw one. Something you want to share with the rest of the class?”

Emma hesitates, then decides she owes Mary Margaret after all she and David have done for her over the last few days. “Remember that time I had a root canal and told the dentist that he looked like Grandpa Munster?”

The other woman grins. “How can I forget? We all had to switch to another dentist because he was so offended.”

Emma snorts. “Someone that sensitive has no business being a dentist.”

Reaching out, her friend pats her arm. “You were saying?”

Emma looks at the ceiling, feeling a blush of heat creep up the back of her neck. “While I was buzzed on pain meds last night, I may have thought the night shift nurse was Walsh and given him a piece of my mind.”

Mary Margaret’s eyes widen, her hand coming up to cover her grin. “You didn’t.”

Emma feels her own mouth start to twitch. “I did.”

“Oh, Emma.”

Even without knowing the finer details, it makes her cringe just to think of it. “He was nice enough not to tell me exactly what I’d said, but I had the feeling I didn’t hold back.”

“That poor man,” Mary Margaret shakes her head, still smiling, then she looks at Emma.  “Oh, is he the one Nurse Nasty was talking about on the phone this morning?”

Emma shrugs, hoping the gesture is way more blasé than her private thoughts on the subject in question. “I don’t know, maybe.”

Her friend pauses, her gaze far too intuitive for Emma’s liking as it sweeps over her face, then she nods.  “I’m glad you’ve had at least one nice nurse looking after you.”

“Me too.” A yawn blossoms in the back of Emma’s throat, saving her from answering in any real detail. There was something else she was going to say, something about nice nurses, but it’s gone like a smoke wisp vanishing into the breeze.  

The other woman changes the subject then, much to Emma’s relief, asking about the skip job gone wrong and if she needs David to water her plants and take out her trash.  They’re easy, breezy topics of conversation that have nothing to do with a man who is apparently out of bounds on more than one level as far as Emma’s concerned, and, by the time David returns with a cardboard tray loaded with takeout coffee and a bag big enough for several bear claw donuts tucked under his arm, she feels almost like herself.

“I bring exotic pastries and hot brown liquid from a faraway land,” David announces with a ridiculously cheesy accent, at which Emma rolls her eyes and Mary Margaret looks at him as though he’s all her teenaged dreams come to life. 

Dropping the eye-rolling, Emma gives him the widest smile she can manage under the split-lip circumstances, because he really is an amazing boss. “Our hero.”

He carefully slides the tray of coffee onto Emma’s side table, then leans down over the bed, surprising her by planting a faintly awkward kiss on the top of her head.  “Well, you know how it is,” he jokes as he straightens and slips his arm around Mary Margaret’s shoulders. “I have such overly competent damsels in my life. It’s an honour to be able to help out every now and then.”

“You’ll always be my Prince Charming.” His wife gives him a lingering kiss on the cheek that has him blushing, and Emma hastily busies herself by opening the paper bag of bear claws and inspecting the contents. She loves them both but God, when it comes to witnessing their PDAs, they’re a littletoo like parents.

As promised, the doctor makes a fleeting appearance an hour or so later.  He’s younger than Emma expected (what happened to all the kindly older doctors she’s always seen on TV?).  His bedside manner is dismissive, to say the least, and his pale blue eyes and shock of bleached, spiky hair just adds to Emma’s wariness.  Oh, and his name is Dr Whale, so there’s that.

He rattles off her progress to an attentive Mary Margaret and David, uses worrying phrases like ‘take it easy for at least six weeks’ and ‘daily exercises for that knee’, then announces she’s being kept in for another night at least.  When he’s done, he raises his eyebrows at their discarded takeout coffee containers. “Shall I have the nurse come and collect those for you?”

No, thanks!

He doesn’t bat an eyelid at the trio of voices that refuse his suggestion, but Mary Margaret still adds a hasty, “We wouldn’t want to bother her.”

A tiny smirk lifts the corner of his mouth, making him look human for the first time since he stepped foot in the room. “Quite.”

When he’s stalked out of the room to continue on his rounds, David looks at his wife, then at Emma.  “I don’t know how to say this, Emma, but I think you may have just ended up in the weirdest hospital in Boston.”

As Mary Margaret laughs, Emma lifts one hand to the knot of hair she’d piled on top of her head on Sunday morning, scratching at her scalp with her fingernails. She knows there’s no point in primping herself for the benefit of her handsome and probably unattainable nurse, but if she has to be in this place for another night, she may as well be as comfortable as possible. “In the meantime, there’s no weird situation a can of quality dry shampoo can’t make better.”  

Mary Margaret leaps to her feet as David gives them both a knowing grin. “I guess that’s my cue to check out how Leroy’s managing at the office.”  He kisses his wife, then gives Emma a quick salute before collecting their empty takeout containers.  “I’ll be back in a few hours. Need me to bring anything?”

Mary Margaret is already raising the bed to the optimum position and rummaging in the overnight back for the brush and dry shampoo, but she spares David a loving smile. “If we think of anything, we’ll let you know.”

When the two women are alone, Mary Margaret gently undoes Emma’s messy bun, eventually dropping the threadbare elastic band and four bobby pins onto the white hospital sheet.  She perches on the edge of Emma’s bed, obviously making herself comfortable. “So, are you going to tell me exactly what did happen with Walsh, or is that a secret you’re only willing to share with nice male nurses working the night shift?”

“Talk about a captive audience,” Emma mutters, doing her best to sound annoyed, but there’s suddenly a brush detangling her hair with strong, steady strokes, and all she wants to do is close her eyes and pretend she’s five years old again.  She doesn’t want to talk about Walsh. Not now. Maybe not ever. Funny, but despite her spaced out tirade mistakenly directed at Killian last night, she hasn’t thought of Walsh since she woke up in this bed. “Actually, I’m a bit tired. Can I tell you later?”

It’s a poor attempt at evasion, but Mary Margaret just laughs, her voice as soft and calming as the strokes of the brush she’s wielding.  “Sure.”

Closing her eyes, Emma lets herself drift, feeling strangely as though she’s just had another dose of pain meds.  She’s still not used to being - well -pampered like this. David and Mary Margaret are serial huggers, but Emma is still learning the ropes, and she’d forgotten the touch of someone who cares about you could be so soothing.  

She’s vaguely aware of Mary Margaret spraying the roots of her hair - the mist is cool - then the feel of nimble fingers fluffing and stroking her scalp.  Emma sinks down onto the pillows, almost melting into the hospital mattress as the other woman tugs gently at her hair, pulling it this way and that.  She hears herself say something about her friend becoming a hairdresser instead of a teacher, and the last thing she remembers before sleep claims her is the smell of cinnamon and the comforting warmth of a motherly kiss on her forehead.

 

~*~

Chapter Text

~*~

 

He dreams of a very different February night, the chill of a different city stinging his eyes.

He dreams of laughing faces, his brother and his wife holding hands like the childhood sweethearts they are, of Milah’s arm curled tightly around his, her dark hair wild as it falls against her cold-flushed cheek.

He wakes before the dream can become its usual nightmare, but his heart is still pounding.  It’s been almost three years of living this upside down life, and still he jolts awake at four o’clock the next afternoon with a sense of unnamed panic. Blearily sinking back onto his pillows, he rubs his eyes with the heels of his palms, slowly getting his bearings, then flings back the covers with a groan.  

He truly doesn’t want to go for his usual run, but he does, knowing he’ll be useless at work this evening unless he gets an enforced dose of fresh air and daylight. The fingers on his left hand fumble with the laces of his trainers, making him grit his teeth, and it’s in a sullen mood that he pulls a faded Manchester United cap over his head and wrenches his apartment door shut behind him.

Who needs nightmares when every other waking moment seems determined to remind him of a past he’d rather forget?

Today’s run is hardly his best effort. He feels as though he’s in danger of tripping over his feet with every stride he takes, his head still filled with cotton wool and far too many conflicting emotions. He’s well accustomed to the melancholy and restlessness, but today the restlessness feels different, as though something (or someone) has infused it with a spark of hope. 

Someone? He snorts at his own evasiveness as he heads towards the river. He doesn’t wish a lengthy hospital stay on anyone, but there’s only one patient he dearly hopes will be staying at least one more night under his employer’s roof.

Five minutes later, distracted by the conundrum of whether it would be appropriate to pick up a takeout coffee for that particular patient before he starts his shift, he almost steps out into the path of an oncoming taxi while crossing the street.  His blood chilling at the sound of the blaring car horn, he admits defeat and turns on his heel, heading for home at a slow jog.

A scalding hot shower once he reaches home helps clear his head somewhat, and as always he lingers beneath the steaming water much longer than he should. Some days he suspects he works merely to be able to afford to pay his utility bills, but he neither gambles nor smokes, and a man needs a simple daily indulgence, surely.

Afterwards, staring into the steam-fogged mirror, he frowns as he runs a critical hand over his unkempt beard then his hair, noting he’s at least three weeks past due for a haircut.  He’s not dim-witted enough to embark on the folly of cutting his own hair (a hard lesson learned at the age of ten) but he can certainly do something about the bedraggled whiskers creeping their way down his throat.  Reaching for the beard trimmer that’s been gathering dust on the bathroom shelf, he tries not to think how long it’s been since he was inspired to make an effort to impress a woman.

After inhaling two cups of coffee and a plate of scrambled eggs, he feels almost human, and wonders if he’ll ever truly become acclimatised to working nights.  It’s been three years, but the daily unpleasant sense of being hungover is something he still struggles to shake.  He knows the sensation will vanish as soon as he starts his shift tonight, but in the meantime, he suspects he will spend a listless afternoon achieving very little.

Deciding against a third dose of caffeine, he spends the next few hours dividing his attention between the television and his laptop.  Ruby had pressed a USB filled with the first season of some medical comedy into his hand the other night, a show she insisted he’d love, but it’s barely holding his interest. To the sound of canned laughter, he finds himself skimming through The Onion and other various satirical sites before checking the latest cricket (bad idea, thanks to those bloody Australians) and rugby (much better) scores.

For the next hour or so he surfs the web, his anti-Valentine’s Day stance gaining traction by the moment. No matter what website he visits, even the most dour of news sites, the accompanying adverts that frame his screen are, without exception, festooned with red roses and glittering jewellery.  

Once, he’d been the kind of man who happily bought such things on Valentine’s Day, as if such tokens were some kind of magical insurance against future loss and grief.  He’s not that kind of man anymore.

He wonders what Emma Swan thinks of Valentine’s Day, he muses, then shakes his head at the unbidden thought. Good grief. He’s clearly a lost cause when it comes to this woman, and he’s only managed two lucid conversations with her.  He can’t imagine how much more irritated he will be with himself this time tomorrow.

Sighing, he finds a distraction in checking his emails, deleting copious emails from companies he’d once graced with his custom and who now can’t seem to bear to let him go, shakes his head at Ruby’s latest batch of on-forwarded jokes, then glances at the junk email folder.

Five new additions, it seems.

He’d (temporarily, or so he’d told himself at the time) blocked Liam’s email address after their last painful conversation, when he’d been exhausted by the same old endless bloody circular argument, knowing they needed to take a break before they came to resent each other beyond repair.

It’s unlikely that any of the five new messages sitting in that junk folder are from his brother.  On the other hand (no pun intended), one of those tiny bolded numbers could well be yet another attempt by Liam to reach out.  Killian taps one finger on the mousepad of his laptop, his gaze lingering on the screen, his mood suddenly as sour as the curdled milk he’d tossed in the trash that morning. 

No, it’s not very likely, but he isn’t taking any chances, not this week, when his head is all over the place.  Right-clicking on the junk folder, he deletes its contents without opening, because nothing Liam might have to say will change anything.

Nothing that will rewrite the painful events of that February night.

Nothing that will give him back the two steady hands he once had.

(He thinks of the way Milah’s hand had gripped his so very tightly, then fallen open, her limp fingers unfurling like a wilting flower.)

Nothing that will bring the dead back to life.

Killian closes the laptop with more force than most IT experts would recommend, then flicks off the television. It’s only eight o’clock and his shift doesn’t start until ten, but he suddenly cannot bear to spend one more minute in the company of his own thoughts. It won’t be the first time he’s ridden his bike around the city while waiting for his shift to start, and he suspects it won’t be the last. Dressing in a clean set of sweats, he decides to grab something to eat along the way, and ten minutes later closes his apartment door with an odd sense of relief.

Dinner is a roast beef sub from a little place two blocks from the hospital, followed by two sticks of spearmint gum for dessert.  It’s what he’d normally do before starting a shift and has absolutely nothing to do with Emma Swan, but he still hears a mocking tsk in his head.   Telling his inner monologue to kindly sod off, he cycles the last two blocks at an unhurried pace, pleased to see he’s timed his arrival well. 

He stows his bike - sending the usual prayer out into the universe for it to still be here when he returns - then makes his way up to the eighth floor to make himself presentable before his shift.  The clean uniform he’d folded into his backpack is completely unwrinkled - the wonder of synthetics - making him think of his old cotton scrubs with a rueful smile.

A few minutes later, he hears the sound of sneezing as he rounds the bend in the corridor approaching the nurses’ station, and deducts his companion for this evening is one of his fellow male nurses, Tom. A pleasant enough chap, even if he is perpetually plagued by hay-fever. 

“Thomas.”

Thankfully, his colleague seems to have has stopped sneezing long enough for them to exchange friendly nods. “Hey, Killian.”  As always, the tip of the other man’s nose is red. “Haven’t seen you for a while.”

“Well, looks like today’s your lucky day, my friend.”

The change of shift report with the day charge nurse is the usual routine exchange, with one small difference. Tonight, Killian’s pulse quickens at the sight of the patient handover sheet and the familiar name in bed 815. 

Emma Swan is still here.

The good news is that she’s been cleared of concussion. The bad news (as far as Killian’s concerned, at least) is that she’ll likely be discharged in the morning, and his relief is instantly tinged with a sense of racing against the clock.

No pressure then, Jones.

Thomas gives him a nudge as they settle into their routine, his colleague to deal with the nurses’ station telephone and the never-ceasing paperwork (and muffle his sneezing as best he can, one assumes) and Killian to do the first round of the ward.  “Hey, tell me if you think 815 looks weirdly like Rapunzel?”

Killian grins at that, secure in the knowledge that Thomas is both a happily married man and a Disney tragic. “I had the pleasure of meeting Ms Swan last night, and I assure you, it’s not just you.”

Emma Swan looks even more like one of Thomas’ favourite fictional heroines this evening. Someone - he assumes one of her friends during a daytime visit - has turned her tangled mass of golden hair into a thick and complicated braid that follows the line of her lovely throat and comes to a stop on the curve of her breast. The stitches in her eyebrow still stand out against her pale skin, but someone - again, he suspects her friends – has sponged away the remnants of dried blood.

There’s a fluffy red dressing gown draped over the foot of the bed, and he belatedly realises that she’s no longer wearing her hospital-issued gown but some kind of white long-sleeved sleep shirt.  He squints at the pattern in the dimly light room, then grins. There are red rubber ducks on her pyjamas.

So much for the myth of the tough handcuff-wielding bailbonds person he’d been building up in his head.

A hint of orange and cinnamon wafts through the air as he draws closer, and he finds himself swallowing hard, his mouth suddenly dry.  It’s absurd that the lingering scent of whatever mysterious female grooming rituals have occurred in his absence should have his pulse stuttering madly, and yet it’s impossible to deny the fact that he’s just almost tripped over his own rubber-clog-clad feet.  She makes him feel off-kilter in the most charming fashion, and that doesn’t bode well for his smooth banter skills, not at all.

Again, no pressure, Jones.

Againplease do kindly sod off.

The patient in bed 815 appears to be dozing as he approaches the foot of her bed, but the faint sound of him retrieving her chart from its metal hook has her opening her eyes. They widen at the sight of him, and she shifts on the mattress before greeting him with a raised hand and a loud stage whisper. “Oh, hey, Jones.”

He truly wants to believe he’s not imaging the sudden blush that graces her high cheekbones, but he knows better than to be overly optimistic. “Good evening, Swan,” he replies in a hushed tone of his own. She smiles at the Swan, then winces, touching the tip of her tongue to her still swollen bottom lip.  “That will be quite tender for at least a week, I’m afraid.”  Ducking his head, he gives her a teasing smile that feels a little rusty on his lips. “You’ll have to be extra careful with any Valentine’s Day kisses.”

“Not going to be a problem,” she mutters, then presses her lips together. It’s as if she’s annoyed at giving away so much, but Killian can’t say he shares her irritation. In fact, he’s delighted at the apparent confirmation of the lack of any romantic entanglements on her part.

“I’m not particularly fond of that crassly clichéd holiday myself.”  With a skill honed at many bedsides, he tucks away his thoughts behind a gentle smile. “How are you feeling?”

She fumbles for the bed controls, quickly raising herself up into a sitting position, all the while giving him an arch glance. “You can’t tell from my chart?”

“Ah, this chart can only tell me your physical aches and pains. It can’t shed any light on what might be going on in here,” he puts one finger to his temple – “or in here,” he adds, tapping his chest, just above his heart.

Emma stares at him, as if trying to find an ulterior motive in his questioning, then pulls a face that shouldn’t make her lovely face even more appealing, yet somehow it does. “I just feel, I don’t know, flat, I guess.”

“Well, that’s no surprise, considering what you’ve been through. And from what I’ve learned about you so far, Emma Swan, I gather you feel quite frustrated at being stuck in here while all those bad guys are running around scot free.”

“Scot free?” Her eyes widen in tandem with her smile, a flash of glittering green behind dark lashes, white teeth against pale rose lips.  “How very British of you, what what?”

“Guilty as charged.” He glances around the large room, then hooks her chart back in place. Satisfied the other three inhabitants of the room are sleeping relatively peacefully - miracle of miracles – and in no need of his attention for the next few minutes, he drops into the chair beside her bed.  He notes the dark smudges beneath her too-bright eyes, and does his best to ignore the enchanting sprinkle of freckles across her nose. “In all seriousness, have you slept at all?”

She completely ignores the question, instead going off on a tangent of her own choosing. “Hey, I didn’t get to thank you for the coffee this morning.”  A frown tugs at the smooth skin between her dark eyebrows. “Or was that yesterday?”

“Time does tend to get all muddled up in this place, doesn’t it?” As someone rostered permanently on night shift, he can definitely sympathise. “You’re welcome, by the way. Ruby reported back that you almost managed to drink the whole thing.”

Emma lifts her chin in a playful show of pride. “Before it got cold, too.”

He can’t help making a mental note. Emma Swan likes her coffee hot. Check.

The older woman in the opposite bed murmurs unhappily in her sleep, then silence falls once again, albeit with the omnipresent hum of fluorescent lights in the corridor and the soft blips of various machines stationed next to various bedsides.  “I’m glad you enjoyed it.”

“Speaking of your nurse friend from last night,” Emma lowers her voice a little more, her tone becoming conspiratorial. “How the hell does she get her makeup to look so perfect at six o’clock in the morning?”

“I’ve no clue.” He grins at the thought. “I’m hardly an expert on grooming, Swan. You’re looking at a man who’s a month overdue for a haircut, after all.”

She frowns a little at that, as though his answer has confused her - he can’t imagine why, then shakes her head. “I can’t imagine going to that much trouble every day just for work.” Her mouth curves in a cautious smile. “My friend Mary Margaret used to do the full face thing, but that’s because she was in love with her boss.”  A hint of amusement dances across her face. “She’s married to him now.”

“Pretty sure the person Nurse Lucas dresses to please is Nurse Lucas,” he tells her with a grin. “I’m sure finding a soul mate in our resident Doctor Fa was a happy consequence, though.”

“Lucky her.”

Her gaze locks with his for several seconds, and he feels an odd tugging sensation in his chest, like a fish wriggling on a hook.  “I think it’s time you answered my question, Swan, don’t you?” he murmurs, hastily retreating behind his professional façade. “Have you managed to sleep at all?”

“A little.” She shrugs, then winces, her hand going up to touch the shoulder she’d dislocated in Sunday’s tumble. “I never sleep well in these kinds of places.”

These kinds of places. There’s a wealth of unspoken history in those simple words, and he gives her a careful glance. “Hospitals?”

There’s a flicker of something in her eyes, wariness perhaps, but she doesn’t venture anything more than a half-hearted joke in reply. “Not a fan of hearing other people snore all night, that’s all.”

“I could get you something to help you sleep.”

She scrunches up her nose in adorable distaste, and he presses his fingertips hard into his knees to stop himself for doing something idiotic like reaching up to touch her face. “No, I don’t want to take anything.  That stuff gives me the weirdest dreams.”

“Ah.”  He sits back in the visitor’s chair, wondering not for the first time how something so sturdily upholstered could be so uncomfortable. “Well, I don’t fancy being accused of being your man Walsh again, so that’s probably for the best.”

Those incredible green eyes flash, and her pretty mouth takes on a mulish cast. “He’s not my man.”

“Sorry.”  He’s not sorry at all to hear those particular words, but there’s no need for her to know that. “I take it he wronged you rather badly?”

“You could say that.”  The sneer in her tone would make him smile – so fierce – if it weren’t the pain that underlies each word. “Wronged me a lot of times, as a matter of fact, mostly with a big-boobed red-haired chick from his office.”  Her eye roll is clearly borne of long practice and is a thing of sardonic beauty. “She’s from your part of the world, you know.”

“On behalf of my homeland, I apologise.”

His seated bow earns him a smile, then she waves a dismissive hand, her shoulders shifting against the pillows as she makes herself more comfortable. “Whatever. They deserve each other.”

“I’m sure you have many more worthwhile people in your life than those two, who are clearly cretins of the first water. I mean, unless a fairy godmother secretly conjured all this finery with a wave of her wand?”  He gestures towards her newly braided hair and pyjamas, and is rewarded with another smile.

“Yeah, my boss and his wife came to see me this morning, and why do suddenly I have the feeling you’re a Harry Potter fan?”

She’s quite right, but confessing his love of Harry Potter isn’t really his chosen method of impressing a beautiful woman. “Where I’m from, they can actually toss you in the Tower of London if you admit to not reading the books in public.”

She laughs at that, a soft rumble of amusement, making his pulse quiver. Smoothing her hands over the blanket covering her thighs, she fixes him with a steady gaze. “Is your family here or back home?”

He should keep moving, he knows. Most of the patients might be sleeping at this point, but there is always something to be done on the ward.  He doesn’t budge, of course, because he’s a bloody fool who has been beguiled by a pyjama-clad siren whose hair smells of cinnamon and oranges.

“I have a brother.” He misses the days when those four simple words didn’t make his chest hurt. “He lives in London with his wife.”

“You must miss him.”

It’s a statement, rather than a question, but still he hesitates long enough for her gaze to narrow a little too perceptively. “Sometimes.” Clearing his throat, he shifts in the visitor’s chair. “You know how family can be.”

The light in her eyes fades, as if someone has extinguished a candle deep inside her thoughts.  “I don’t, actually.”

The tight ache in his chest is no longer solely for his own woes. “No family?”

“Nope.” Her long fingers pluck nervously at the hospital blanket at the moment, her gaze no longer meeting his. “I grew up in the foster system.”

A few more pieces of the Emma Swan puzzle drop into place. “That explains why you don’t like sleeping in places like this.”

“You’d be amazed how loudly some kids can snore,” she mutters, lifting her shoulders in a shrug. “Do you get to visit with your brother much?”

He stiffens at the innocent question, but manages to keep his tone casual. “Haven’t for a while, I’m afraid.”  In the distance, he hears the familiar sound of the nurses’ station’s extension ringing, and knows he should check to see if Thomas requires any assistance. “Working night shift tends to upend one’s life to a certain extent.”

It’s a woefully inadequate excuse for not seeing his only brother, of course, and judging by the way Emma Swan’s green gaze narrows, she doesn’t think much of it either. “That sounds like a lonely way to live.”

Pushing back the visitor’s chair with a gentle slide on the hard floor, he gets to his feet.  It’s time for him to get busy doing what he’s being paid to do, and if he’s using that as an excuse to escape this particular line of questioning, so be it. “Well, Swan, I’m a bit of a loner by nature, you see, so that works out quite well for me.”

“Until the day it doesn’t, right?” 

He stares at her, all his usually effortless small talk fleeing in the face of her candour. Tonight she’s clear-eyed, no pain medication in her system whatsoever, and it appears a lucid Emma Swan is rather too adept at finding a man’s emotional jugular. “Try to get some sleep, love.” He knows he’s being rather cowardly, but a hasty retreat is best for both of them at this point. “I’ll be back to check on you later.”

 

 

~*~

 

 

He doesn’t spend all night sitting beside her bed, of course.  He’s got work to do and other patients to look after, but every time he walks noiselessly past her bed to check on one of the other occupants of her room, he seems to flash a quick smile in her direction.  It seems he’s forgiven her for being so blunt earlier, and she’s glad.  She still wants to kick herself, though, because every time she catches sight of him, her stupid stomach gets all tied up in knots with longing and a giddy anticipation she hasn’t felt for a very long time.

Idiot.

Maybe he’d like to be her friend once she’s out of this place, she muses in a half-hearted attempt at cheering herself up. She could always do with more friends, right?

Ugh.

Again, she’s an idiot. Yes, she could always do with more friends, but she needs to set herself up to spend her days pining for an utterly gorgeous and completely unattainable gay man like she needs a freaking hole in her head.

Maybe she was concussed on Sunday and they’ve just misdiagnosed her.

She dozes in fits and starts, dipping into one weird dream after another, dream landscapes she doesn’t remember once she opens her eyes, disappointed to find herself still stuck in this narrow hospital bed. 

Three o’clock finds her wide awake and fighting a rising wave of restless misery. In another life, three o’clock in the morning would be the time for coming home from a club, her ears still ringing with the echo of pounding music. It had once been the time for spilling out of a taxi in front of some guy’s apartment building, hands slipping beneath coats, teeth nipping at ears and throat, impatient to get inside and forget herself for a few hours. 

And, until a few months ago, three in the morning had been the time to roll over and burrow closer into Walsh’s side, marvelling at the fact that she’d finally found someone who would never leave her.

Her eyes blur hotly, and she swallows hard.  What the hell is she doing with her life?  If she’s not running from her own past, she’s chasing after someone else who’s trying to escape their bad decisions. Getting paid for it doesn’t change the fact that, after all these years, she’s still running.  She closes her eyes, but that doesn’t stop the tears.

Damn it.   Maybe she should have said yes to a little medicinal nightcap, after all.

During the night, she sees the other nurse on duty once or twice, but he merely gives her a shy little nod when he sees she’s awake then carries on his way. It’s almost like he’s not her waiter for the evening but he still wants to be friendly, if that makes sense.

Just before four, she rolls over gingerly onto her side to see Killian checking on one of the mysterious monitors beside the bed of her nearest neighbour.  Apparently satisfied by what he’s just seen, he turns and pads softly away.  When he pauses at the foot of her bed, she gathers up her courage and softly tosses out the question that’s been brewing in her head ever since she’d incorrectly assumed he was a doctor.

“Did you always know you wanted to be a nurse?”

He glances up her from beneath thick eyelashes that have no business being on a man’s face.  “Long story short, no.”

He pauses just long enough to make her think that’s all he’s going to share with her, then he sighs, his hand resting on the rail at the foot of her bed. “Three years ago, I was pre-med, on track to becoming a thoracic surgeon.”

Emma blinks. She’s heard of nurses becoming doctors, but she never thought of it happening the other way around. “What happened?”

He glances over his shoulder towards the silent corridor, then makes his way back to the chair she’s already come to think of as his. “I was visiting London with my fiancée. On the way home from a night out with Liam and his wife, we had a very bad car accident.”  She sees him take a deep breath, as if bracing himself, then he holds out his left arm and tugs back the sleeve of his shirt. Even in the scant light afforded her by being the bed closest to the door, she can clearly see the thick scar that almost completely circles his wrist, as well as the deeper scoring just below the heel of his palm.  “Badly damaged the nerves, I’m afraid, but at least it’s still attached, thanks to some very skilful surgical intervention.” 

Before she can come up with a reply that doesn’t sound like she stole it from a Hallmark card, he gives her a tight smile.  “You need two steady hands to be a surgeon of any kind, so I had to rethink my career plans.” He pulls his hand back, tugging the sleeve of his shirt back down over his wrist, but not before she catches sight of the edge of what looks like a very elaborate tattoo on his forearm.

“I’m so sorry.” She wants to reach out and take his hand in hers, if only to apologise for opening up such a nasty can of worms. “Was anyone else hurt?”

“Yes.” He looks at the hand curled on his knee, then at the floor, then finally at her, his blue eyes glowing with a distant light that almost makes her shiver.  “My fiancée died.”

Oh, God. Her heart aches for him. “I’m so sorry,” she mumbles again, knowing the words are completely inadequate but what else can she say? “I can’t imagine what that must have been like.” 

“My brother came away with a few bumps and bruises, but his wife wasn’t so lucky.”  He hesitates, as if choosing his words carefully, his eyes glittering. “She recovered, thank God, but their plans for having a baby were permanently derailed.”

“That’s awful.” She’s hurting for him, this man she hardly knows, and feels bad for his sister-in-law, but the old sour feeling of inadequacy still curls through her, and she can’t stop the words from slipping off her tongue. “Plenty of kids in the foster system who need a home, though.”

She sees him make the connection instantly. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply-”

The sympathy in his eyes makes her ashamed. She didn’t mean to make this conversation about her.  He’s talking about death and grief and she’s still busily polishing the damned chip on her shoulder. “Don’t apologise. That’s my issue, not yours.”

This time, she gives into the urge to reach for his hand, brushing her fingertips over the back of his knuckles. His skin is warm and smooth beneath her fingertips, and she finds herself holding her breath. He grows still at her touch, the air around them seeming to press in closer, cutting them off from the rest of the room. He rubs his eyes with his free hand, but she still sees his faintly bewildered expression. “No offence, love, but I have no idea why I’m telling you all this.”

She pats his hand, then pulls her own hand back before she can do something stupid like trace his scar with her fingertip. She’s not sure how they’ve ended up in this situation either, but she doesn’t want to be the one to break the spell. “Because it’s the middle of the night, I can’t sleep and you’re bored?”

“Perhaps, although I suspect it’s because you managed to hit a nerve.” The corners of his wide mouth tick up in a tiny smile, but it’s a fleeting thing. “I’ve been thinking of my brother quite a lot this week.”  His smile vanishes, his gaze still trained on his hands. “It’s been over a year since we’ve spoken.”

“Because of the accident?”

He nods, his voice little more than a whisper. “Yes.”

She thinks she’s beginning to understand. “Was your brother driving?”

“No.”  He lifts his eyes to hers. “I was.”

Oh. She obviously doesn’t understand as clearly as she thought she did. “He blamed you for his wife’s injuries.”

“No. Neither of them did.”

Emma frowns. “So why-”

“The accident was my fault. Because of my carelessness, I lost the person I’d planned to spend the rest of my live with.” His tone is suddenly clipped, his accent no longer soft and soothing but almost harsh. “That’s an indisputable truth.”  His bright gaze flicks up to meet hers, then darts away again. “I’m still learning to live with my guilt, but every time I see Liam and Annie, I’m right back there in that car with the wheel spinning beneath my hands.”

She looks at him, her heart twisting for his pain, an ache that shocks her. If she didn’t know any better, she’d think this was all a dream, because how else can she explain the connection she feels with this guy? “Look, I never knew my parents, and if I do have some siblings roaming around out there somewhere, I’ll probably never get to meet them.” 

Her voice cracks on the last word, and he hastily reaches for the water jug on her bedside table to pour her a glass. She manages to take it from him without doing that clichéd bit about their fingertips brushing (she’d probably drop the damned thing) and takes several sips before clearing her throat. “Like I said, I’m not in any position to judge, but it seems a shame to waste family if you’ve actually got some.”

His gaze locks with hers. “It sounds so simple when you put it like that.” Somewhere in the distance, she hears the sound of a buzzer, and he gives her a smile that doesn’t quite reach his eyes.  “Time to earn my keep, Swan.” 

She’s not sure how much time has passed when she next opens her eyes, but she does know she can’t help smiling at the sight of Killian Jones putting a fresh jug of water on the trolley beside her bed, his movements deft and sure. She thinks of him spending almost every night here, being awake while the rest of the city sleeps. “Do you like doing night shifts?”

“It’s peaceful.”  He pauses for a few seconds, then gives her a bright blue wink that would make her blush if she was the blushing kind, which she’s not, of course she’s not. “Usually, that is.”

“Ha.” She plucks at the blanket across her thighs with her thumb and finger, pinching at the rough weave, needing something to do with her hands. “Do you enjoy nursing?”

“Surprisingly, I do.”

“Surprisingly?”

“I was pre-med, Swan, with a lot of ambitious goals in my head.” There’s not a lot of humour in his smile. “I’ve had to unlearn a lot of internal assumptions I made about hospital hierarchy.”

“You didn’t think you’d like it.” She hadn’t thought of it like that, but if he’d had his heart set on being a doctor, she can imagine that some people might see nursing as a step down.

He scratches the back of his neck, his expression rueful, but he doesn’t shirk from answering her honestly, and she likes him all the more for it. “I admit, there was a time when I thought it was beneath me.”

“You didn’t think maybe about another field of medicine?”

“At first, but when I was recovering after the accident, I met some truly amazing nurses.” He rotates his left wrist in a practiced circle. “And as I sweated my way through six months of post-operative rehab, I met even more amazing nurses.” He smiles. “I know it sounds like a cliché, but they inspired me to join their ranks.”

“Well, for what it’s worth, I think you’re a great nurse.”

He looks flustered, the tips of his ears turning pink. “I - uh - thank you.”

If she keeps picking at this hospital blanket, she thinks, he’s going to have to get her a new one without a hole in it. “Can I make a suggestion?”

“Of course.”

“Make peace with your brother.”

He blinks once, then twice, then he shakes his head. “Like I said, the situation isn’t that simple.”

“So that’s it?”  She has to fight the urge to shake her head right back at him. “You’re just going to pretend you don’t have a brother for the rest of your life?”

His heavy sigh seems to come up from the bottom of his shoes. “You should be sleeping, love, not listening to my troubles.”

She’s spent enough time running to recognise a kindred spirit, but it’s not just there. There’s something about this guy that makes her want to push him.  “Come on, Jones.” She gives him the best wheedling smile she can manage with her split lip. “I told you about Walsh and the redhead with the big boobs.”

His answering smile is short-lived, but at least it’s there. “Is that what we’re doing here? Exchanging sordid secrets?”

“Seems as good a thing to talk about as any.” She shrugs. “What was the last thing he said to you?”

“He told me I was the only one who couldn’t accept that it wasn’t my fault, and that I was clinging to my grief like it was some kind of shiny prize.”

Ouch.  “What did you say?”

“I told him to go to hell and walked out of his house.”

Double ouch. It seems like life really is more complicated when you have a family. “Maybe he was right.”

His jaw tightens, a tiny muscle in his cheek fluttering. “I know you mean well, but you don’t understand.”

Later, she’ll blame the lateness of the hour and lack of sleep, but she can’t stop the words from spilling out of her mouth. “Maybe not, but I do know that you can either beat yourself up about it for the rest of your life, or you can actually start living.” His eyes seem to widen with every new word, but she can’t seem to stop. “Be a part of something else, something different.”

Her emphatic speech hangs in the space between them as he stares at her, his blue eyes wide with something that looks a lot like shock.  Finally, an almost wistful smile curves his lips, and she feels the hard knot of tension between her shoulder blades ease.  “Just who are you, Emma Swan?”

God help her, she can’t seem to find her filter today. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”

The tip of his tongue appears in the corner of his mouth as his eyes lock with hers, sending a fluttering of butterflies winging their way through her stomach. If she didn’t know better, she’d think he was flirting with her. “Perhaps I would.”

She’s stuck in a hospital bed with a busted knee and an aching shoulder and a general sense of ‘what the hell am I doing with my life’. She’s entitled to make the best of a bad situation, surely. “Maybe you can buy me another coffee someday.”

“Of course.” Another teasing smile, another swoop of sensation in the pit of her stomach, and God, why is she torturing herself? “Only a fool would turn down an invitation to buy a beautiful lady her caffeine of choice.”

She stares at him. “You think I’m beautiful?”

In the half-light, she sees a hint of colour touch his cheeks. “Sorry, that was inappropriate. I apologise.”

“No, it’s not that,” she assures him hastily, but he’s already getting to his feet, and she curses herself for messing up their easy banter. “You think I’m beautiful?”

He pauses, one hand on the back of her visitor’s chair. “I do have eyes, Swan.”

“Beautiful in that weird way when someone might not be interested in buying a piece of artwork, but they can still appreciate it, right?” She knows she’s babbling, but in her defence, it’s almost dawn.

In answer, he only presses a cool hand against her forehead, making a tsk sound under this breath. “I think you should try to get some sleep.”

“Fine.” She’s suddenly very tired of trying to make sense of this universe into which she’s found herself. Maybe it’s just because she’s exhausted, but she’s starting to feel like Alice down the proverbial rabbit hole.  “I need the bathroom first, though.”

“No problem.” To his credit, he doesn’t bat a single (overly long and thick) eyelash. “I’m at your service.”

She does her best to mask her mild horror at the suggestion. Gay or not, she doesn’t want him helping her on and off the damned toilet. “God, no.”

He laughs at that, a lilting sound that sends a flurry of warmth through her chest. “I meant to the door of the bathroom. You shouldn’t be putting any weight on that knee of yours just yet.”

“Oh.” God, her face is burning. “Gotcha.”

She’s entirely too conscious of her bare legs as she swings them over the side of the bed.  The sleep shirt Mary Margaret brought her is the longest one she owns, but it still hits her mid-thigh.  She winces at the sight of her swollen knee, dreading the bruising she knows is to come – then looks up to find Nurse Jones watching her with a tenderness that makes her mouth go dry. 

He smiles, looking for all the world as though he’s waiting to escort her to Prom. “You ready?”

She didn’t think her face could get any hotter, but she was wrong. Damn it.  “Yep.”

There is nothing unprofessional about the supportive arm around her back, but her body doesn’t know that. Her pulse quickens as he literally tucks her into his side to guide her shuffling progress across the room. She can feel the heat of him through the thin fabric of her sleep shirt, the spicy scent of soap and deodorant teasing her nose. Her skin prickles with sensation as his hand curls around her forearm to keep her steady, his thumb grazing the sensitive skin in the crook of her elbow.

“You’ll be okay in there, Swan?”

“Yeah, all good.”

She’s never been so relieved to shut a toilet door behind her.  She carefully doesn’t look at her reflection as she washes her hands a moment later, not in the mood to confirm her suspicion that she looks ten kinds of hell.

He’s waiting for her outside the door to help her back to her bed. Of course he is. The return trip back to her bed is just as awkward (for her, that is), and it’s with relief that she watches him refill her water glass and tuck the visitor’s chair away neatly before backing away from her bed with a mock salute. “Try to get some sleep, Swan.”

Amazingly, she does.

When she opens her eyes, daylight is filtering through the large windows at the other end of the room and there’s a young Asian woman dressed in a white doctor’s coat standing at the foot of her bed, scribbling in her chart.  Her movements are graceful and fluid, her heart-shaped face aglow with good health, her glossy hair pulled back in a tight ponytail. When she speaks, her accent is pure Californian. “How are you feeling this morning, Emma?”

Considering the question for a moment, Emma is pleasantly surprised to find that the answer is a positive one. “Actually, I feel pretty good.”  She peers at the other woman’s nametag, but can’t make out her name. “Doctor-?”

The other woman smiles at her, perfect teeth flashing, and again Emma wonders if this place hires all their medical staff straight off the catwalk. “You can call me Mulan.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Emma sees Killian pass by the doorway on his way down the corridor.  Catching sight of the new doctor, he raises his hand in greeting. “Hey there, stranger.”

Emma tries not to feel put out, because that would be ridiculous. Mulan beams at him, which doesn’t help. “Feels like it’s been forever, I know.” The other woman makes a playful grimace. “My roster’s been crazy lately.  Hey, you’re coming to our Easter party next month, right?”

Killian groans as he picks up Emma’s used water cup from the bedside table, then smooths her covers over her feet with his free hand. If he notices her toes twitching in response to his touch, he gives no sign of it, his attention still focused on her visitor. “Fancy dress?”

“Of course.” The doctor’s laugh is rich and warm, like a comforting song. “As if Ruby would consider having any other kind of party.”

“I’ll let you know.”  As if feeling the weight of Emma’s stare, he blinks, then seems to give himself a shake. “Oh, I’m sorry, Emma, this is Doctor Fa. I suspect you’ll find her bedside manner much easier to stomach than our friend Doctor Whale’s.”

Emma frowns, wondering where she’s heard that name recently. “Doctor Fa?”

The other woman grins. “Technically, but I still look around for my dad when people call me that. Like I said, you can call me Mulan.”

As Killian strides out of the room as suddenly as he’d appeared, Doctor Mulan checks out Emma’s knee, then her shoulder.  She murmurs reassuring words as she checks her busted eyebrow and lip, then gives Emma a bright smile. “You were very lucky with both those injuries.”

Emma purses her lips. “I’ll take your word for it.”

“Your MRI scans showed soft tissue and minor tendon damage only,” the doctor continues in the same serene voice, “and while your shoulder will be sore for several weeks, you’ll only need to stay off your feet for perhaps a week.”

Emma nods.  “That doesn’t sound so bad-”

“No running for at least a month,” the other woman adds, and Emma does her best to hide her dismay.

“I guess I’m on desk duties for the next month, then,” she mutters, internally scowling at the thought of Leroy getting all her juiciest skips for the next four weeks. 

The next few minutes pass in a blur of instructions regarding medication, strapping her knee for extra support and elevating her leg as much as possible.  Emma can’t help wishing Mary Margaret was here for this part, but the doctor assures her that the discharge care plan will be ready for her to take home with her at nine o’clock when her friends come to pick her up.

With that, the doctor moves onto the next bed.  With impeccable timing, Killian reappears, shooting Emma an easy smile. “Look sharp there, Swan.” He taps the rail at the end of the bed with two long fingers.  “I do believe I hear the ominous rumbling of the breakfast trolleys.” 

“Great.” She gives him a distracted nod, her head filled with cobwebbed memories from the night before. She remembers Killian saying Doctor Fa’s name at some point during one of her many bouts of sleeplessness, but why?

And then it comes to her, and she’s not sure whether to laugh or smack herself in the head, because she’s an idiot. An absolute certified, accredited idiot.  Because she’s just remembered that according to Killian Jones, RN, Doctor Fa is the soul mate of Ruby Lucas, the nurse with the perfect red lipstick.

She clearly looks like some kind of madwoman, sitting in bed silently arguing with herself, because Killian stops in his tracks beside her bed, his gaze lingering on her face. “Everything okay?”

She grins at him. “You wanna hear a funny story?”

 

~*~

 

It takes five minutes of whispered conversation while Emma constantly checks to see if Mulan can hear them from the other end of the room, but he gets the story out of her eventually. He couldn’t care less what anyone assumes about his sexual orientation, but in this case, he’s very glad he’s able to set the record straight, so to speak.

“You had a fifty-fifty chance of being right, I suppose,” he tells her sotto voce, admiring the delicate blush creeping up her slender throat. “I suspect I need to work on my flirting skills.”

“In my defence,” she tosses back in a theatrical whisper, her eyes sparkling, “I did fall down a concrete staircase two days ago, so forgive me if I’m not at the top of my game right now.”

He leaves her to eat her breakfast in peace, telling her he’ll see her again before she’s discharged, then makes a hasty exit. It’s not as though he has to document how much time he spent sitting beside one particular bed last night, but he’d rather not be mooning over the lovely lass in 815 when the day shift arrives.

He can’t help but appreciate the irony of the first woman with whom he’s felt a connection since Milah’s passing spending the last twenty-four hours under the impression that he’s gay, but he’s less amused to learn the source of Emma’s misconception. After making a mental note to speak to HR about Nurse Ratchet’s continued bullying of Ruby by stealth, Killian finds himself whistling cheerfully as he does his final tasks, and Thomas gives him a curious glance as they cross paths. “Someone’s in a good mood.”

Killian smiles at the other man. “Just glad to see the back of another shift, mate.”

Whatever witty retort Thomas might be about to utter, it’s interrupted by a hearty sneeze, and Killian seizes the opportunity to finish off the evening’s paperwork in record time, feeling more energized than he has in months. 

Emma is being discharged this morning, with her friends coming to collect her at nine. Normally he’d be out of this place like a shot at 7:01 am, headed for a hot shower and his bed, but he’s not going to waste the chance to spend another few hours in Emma Swan’s company. 

With his shift finished and the day staff looking out for Emma while she’s showering and changing into her street clothes, however, there’s something he needs to do.

Something he should have done months ago.

He heads downstairs to the main foyer, managing to find an empty table just inside the coffee shop.  Stretching out his legs on the chair opposite, he passes his phone from one hand to the other, weighing up the possibilities. It will be just after noon in London, and Killian finds himself holding his breath as he dials his brother’s number. It’s been a long time since he was privy to his brother’s daily routine, and he has no idea if Liam would have taken a break for lunch already or if he’s nose deep in a swath of a survey plans, too distracted to notice the time. 

When his brother’s voicemail kicks in, he tells himself that he’s relieved, but that doesn’t make it any easier to find the right words.

“Liam, it’s me.” He takes a deep breath. “Look, I’m sorry to leave such a message in a voicemail, but I’m afraid if I don’t do this now -” He stares at the faint circle of moisture left on the table top, a mug ring that a server has missed wiping clean. “I’m sorry for leaving things that way I did.”

His voice is suddenly thick with everything they’ve let fester between them, and the words come out rough and sharp. “What’s happened can never be undone, but I was foolish to think I could make it better by cutting off contact with you.”  Pausing, he checks his watch, thinking of Emma, thinking of all the things he wants to put right in his life.  “I’m just coming off night shift and will be heading home soon. Call me back? If you want to, that is.”

He ends the call with a weary press of his thumb, then slips the phone back in his pocket.  For now, that’s all he can do.  There’s no guarantee his brother will be interested in speaking to him, not after that last terrible argument, but he had to try.

Running a distracted hand through his hair, he’s just started to make his way out of the coffee shop when he’s confronted by the sight of Emma Swan hobbling through the foyer towards him.

She’s dressed in her real clothes, a long floaty dress in a sea green colour that reminds him of mermaids, her upper half draped in a demin jacket. On her feet, she’s still wearing the sheepskin slippers her friends had brought in for her that first morning. Her face lights up at the sight of him, but he sees the pain in her eyes with every step she takes. “Killian!”

“What the devil are you doing down here?”  He slips an arm around her, coaxing her into putting her weight on him rather than her dodgy knee. “You are officially the worst patient ever, Emma Swan.”

She lets him lead her towards the coffee shop table he’d just vacated, heaving a loud sigh of exertion as she eases herself into the chair he pulls out. “The day shift nurse said you’d gone home. I thought you’d left without-” she breaks off, a delicate blush creeping up her throat, and his heart begins to pound a little harder still, because this thing between them, this is not just his imagination and it is definitely not one-sided.

“Without saying goodbye?” He makes a face of mock horror. “And miss the chance to nag you about looking after yourself better for another good hour or so? Not on your life, love.”

She briefly looks as though she’s contemplating kicking him under the table with her good leg, but he sees the laughter dancing in her eyes. “You don’t have to be a dick about it.”

Once he’s finished laughing at her outrageously overdone pout, he buys her a Grande something of her choice. He snags a bottle of water for himself, figuring that such close proximity to Emma Swan will easily help him power through what he always thinks of as his personal graveyard hour.

They sit in a companionable silence while she takes long, reverent sips of her coffee, her hands wrapped around the takeout cup as if it’s a chalice, then looks at him over the white plastic brim.  “Can I ask you a question?”

“Sure.”

“Are you still my nurse even though we’re in the coffee shop and not in my room?”

He bites back a chuckle at the earnest question. “I’m afraid you’re officially my responsibility until you’ve been discharged and safely escorted off the premises.”

She bites her bottom lip - carefully, he notices - then tilts her head, her eyes meeting his in what looks a great deal like a challenge. “And as soon as I’m off the premises, we wouldn’t have this whole nurse patient professional thing happening anymore, would we?”

His pulse quickens. He doesn’t want to hope. He doesn’t, he shouldn’t, but dear God, he’s hoping. “Er, no.”

“Right.” Reaching across the table, she grips his arm with surprising strength.   “Could we go outside for a moment?”  She makes a show of fanning her face with her free hand. “I’d really like some fresh air after two days of hospital air-conditioning.”

“Let me just grab a wheelchair-”

She gazes at him, the tip of her tongue flirting with the corner of her mouth. “Surely you’re strong enough to keep me safe in an upright position?”

He’s never liked to disappoint a lady.

Two minutes later, he finds himself blinking in the feeble early morning sunshine.  There’s a decided bite in the air and neither of them are dressed for the weather. Emma Swan is tucked against his side, her cheek resting on his shoulder, and every breath he takes is filled with the scent of her skin and hair. “Aren’t you cold?” 

He meant the question to be teasing, but even to his own ears his words are tinged with more than a hint of challenge, and her eyes flash as she tilts back her head to study him.  “Nope.”  The sunlight that lets him see her freckles even more clearly also throws the stitches in her eyebrow and her split lip into sharp relief, and it makes his heart clench. “I wanted to apologise, Killian.” 

He frowns.  “Apologise?”

She looks down at his left hand, which somehow has become entwined with hers. “For making you dredge up a whole heap of unhappy memories.”  Her thumb rubs gently over his pulse, just beneath the jagged scar that will never fade, and he swallows hard. “I’m so sorry for everything you’ve lost.”

Perhaps, one day, if he’s given the chance and it feels right, he will tell her about Milah. In this moment, though, he needs - wants - to look forward, not backwards. “Thank you.”

“I also wanted to thank you for babysitting me.” Her teeth press into her bottom lip, white against pink, then she gives him a smile that makes his breath snag in his throat. “You made being stuck in hospital suck a lot less.”

“The gratitude is entirely mutual, I assure you. Not once was I in danger of dozing off at the nurses’ desk.”  He should be praying that no one of any consequence sees them (he might be off duty, but she’s still officially a patient) but all he can think is that Emma Swan is gazing at him as though she’s just come to a very important realisation. “Oh, and thanks for not outing me, of course.”

Colour flushes her face at his teasing quip, her hand tightening around his. “God, shut up,” she mutters as she raises up on her toes and then her mouth is on his, soft and warm, and the world turns upside down.

Bloody hell.

He staggers backwards slightly in shock as her lips sink into his, as if the heat that instantly flares between them is melting and blurring the line where she ends and he begins.  Dashing his shock aside, he chases the heat of her mouth with his own, and she sways into him, the buttons of her denim jacket catching on the front of his scrubs. She tastes of hospital issued orange juice and toothpaste, two things he never thought would set his heart to pounding its way out of his ribcage, and yet here he is, his pulse roaring in his ears.

When she makes a soft noise of what sounds like discomfort, he instantly pulls back, contrite. God, what was he thinking? “Emma, your lip -”

“My lip’s fine, I just-” Glancing to her right, her lovely face falls.  Following the line of her gaze, he sees she’s watching a rust coloured Ford truck pulling up at the pick-up zone a hundred feet or so from where they’re standing. “Crap, they’re early. Of course they’re early.” She turns back to him, a faint hint of panic in her green eyes. “Okay. They’re here and now I have to go and be fussed over for the next week and that’s fine but-”  She sways closer, her gaze dropping to his lips with an intent that sets his blood alight. “Can you just-”

She doesn’t have to ask twice.

He kisses her, his hand curling around the nape of her neck.  She breathes his name into his mouth as she tilts her head, and the faintest flick of her tongue against his lips turns his knees turn to water. 

“Emma, I thought you were going to wait for us upstairs?”

They break apart at the sound of her female friend’s voice, but not before he tastes the giggle on Emma Swan’s tongue. “Well, this isn’t awkward or anything,” she murmurs against his lips, the vibration of her words seeming to sink into his very bones. Clearing her throat, she turns in his embrace to address her friends. “Can you guys give me a minute? I’m a little busy here.”

Her male friend’s voice is tinged with more than a hint of suspicion. “Yes, we can see that.

“Very awkward indeed,” Killian mutters under his breath, but when he tries to step back, Emma’s hand only tightens around his. He gives the blond man an apologetic smile, but only earns himself a narrowed blue stare in return. The dark-haired woman, however, is sporting a knowing smile as she quickly steers her husband towards the entrance of the hospital, her arm tightly wound through his.

“We’ll go up to your room and collect your things.” she sings over her shoulder as they leave, and Emma grins as she lets out an audible breath.

She tilts back her head, his gaze locking with his. “So, about that coffee date-”

His mouth suddenly feels dry, despite the bottle of water he’s just inhaled. “I’d very much like to see you again, but I don’t want you to feel pressured into anything.”

She looks at him as though he’s just sprouted a second head. “What do you think that kiss was for?”

He can feel the blush creeping up the back of his neck, and curses the bright morning sun that affords him no place to hide. “A thank you?”

She raises two well-shaped eyebrows. “Do your patients usually thank you by tongue kissing you?”

He’s been out of the flirting game a long time, but Emma Swan is definitely inspiring a comeback. “Not usually.”

She purses her lips at his deliberately vague answer, then puts her hand flat on the middle of his chest, her fingertips five tiny points of warmth. “When’s your next day off?”

Entirely too conscious of her hand pressed over his heart, he struggles to visualise his roster. “Working night shift Friday night, sleeping on Saturday, not fit for human company on Saturday night.” She laughs at that, and he quickly presses on. “Sunday?”

“Isn’t that Valentine’s Day?”

“I believe so.”

She gives him a searching glance. “Are you okay with that?”

Endings and beginnings, he thinks. The universe, it seems, has quite the odd sense of balancing itself. “I am.”

When she smiles, it’s like the sun coming from behind the clouds. “Give me your phone?”

He enters the passcode and hands his phone over in a heartbeat, his smile a match for hers as she enters her phone number into his contacts, then swiftly sends herself a text message.  “Now I’ve got your number, Jones.”

“In more ways than one, it appears,” he murmurs as she hands his phone back, but he’s not complaining. “Perhaps now’s a good time to mention I came downstairs to the coffee shop so I could call my brother?”

“You really called him?” Her expression can only be described as proud, and he suddenly feels ten foot taller. “And?”

“I had to leave a voicemail,” he admits, hating to take the shine off the moment but wanting to be completely honest. “It’s up to him now.”

Grinning, she hooks her hand through the crook of his elbow, leaning on him as they make their way back towards the automatic doors. “Good for you, Jones.”

When he ushers her back inside the hospital foyer, he sees that her friends are waiting at the front reception desk to complete the discharge process.  He doesn’t want to intrude on their reunion, but it seems Emma has other ideas. 

“Come meet them.” She’s not wearing a scrap of makeup, but the coquettish flutter of her dark eyelashes is enough to make him feel flustered all over again. “I’ll even let you push me in one of those ridiculous wheelchairs you keep going on about.”

The next ten minutes will long stick in his memory as one of the informative and awkward first meetings he’s ever experienced. David and Mary Margaret Nolan are both Emma’s employers and closest friends, and it seems they are also her surrogate family.  Lounging in her borrowed wheelchair as if it’s a gilded throne, Emma introduces him as her primary nurse, the man who’d kept her sane during the long night when she couldn’t sleep, and it’s all he can do to keep from shuffling nervously on the spot.

David Nolan looks as though he’s torn between being grateful for the care Emma has received and wanting to punch his lights out for snogging her in broad daylight.  When he shakes Killian’s hand, his grip is firm to the point of bruising. “Is now a good time to enquire if that’s your usual bedside manner or-”

While Emma groans, his wife cuts him off with what seems like practiced ease. “David, now is not the time. Why don’t you help Emma finish signing all those forms?” 

Once they’re relatively alone, the dark-haired woman beams at him. “We’re so glad Emma had someone like you looking after her.”  Her voice is soft with motherly concern. “I’m amazed she didn’t try to break out of here in the middle of the night. She really does hate being in hospital.”

For a surreal moment, he feels as though he’s talking to his sister-in-law, Annie. It’s the same steely determination wrapped in kindness, he realises with a jolt as he smiles at the woman beside him. “Yes, she told me.”

“She did?” Mary Margaret’s green eyes widen. “Our Emma doesn’t open up to that many people.” She gives him a knowing smile. “She must think very highly of you.”

This time he does shuffle his feet. “I hope so,” he mutters, relieved to notice the administration staff have finished Emma’s discharge procedure.

Five minutes later, officially discharged, Emma Swan brushes his cheek with a lingering kiss, letting her lips graze the corner of his mouth just long enough to set his pulse to racing.  “I’ll call you.”

“Surely that’s my line?”

Lifting her delicately dimpled chin, she laughs softly, her eyes searching his. “I should have known you’d be old-fashioned.”  She tilts her head towards the truck where David is impatiently drumming his fingertips on the open car door. “I’m staying with these guys for the next week, so Sunday night might just be takeout and a movie at their place while they go out for their Valentine’s dinner?”

“Sounds perfect.”  He helps her take the last few steps towards the truck, then David takes her arm, giving Killian a unmistakable nod of dismissal.

“I’ve got her, thanks.”

“Seriously?” Emma rolls her eyes at her friend, and Killian has the feeling this is a familiar ritual for them both. “Chill out, Dad.”

Okay, Killian thinks, so this one’s is going to be a tough nut to crack, but judging from the bright smile Mary Margaret flashes him as she settles herself in the cabin next to Emma, he already has an ally in the Nolan household. “We guess we’ll be seeing you then, Killian.”

“I daresay you will, Milady.”  He gives the truck a mock salute as it pulls away (with only a mild screeching of its tires), and that last thing he sees is Emma’s laughing face through the window. 

(Oh, yes. Definitely more invigorating than caffeine after a long night’s work.)

As he makes his way back to the eighth floor to collect his things from his locker, he muses on the utterly bewildering and completely enchanting evening that’s just passed.  Not only has he kissed a beautiful woman and organised a date for Valentine’s Day, his most hated of days, he left a voicemail message for his brother.

His phone rings just as he’s reached his locker, and his gut tightens at the sight of Liam’s number flashing up on the screen.  Taking a deep breath, he answers.

“Hello?”

“I’m sorry I missed your call earlier, little brother.”  Liam’s usually confident tone is hesitant, something that helps put Killian more at ease, if only a little. “I hope I didn’t wake you?”

Leaning against his locker, Killian closes his eyes. Younger brother, he thinks out of long habit, but doesn’t say the words. “No, I’ve just finished my shift and about to head home.”

“Still cycling home?”

“Better than wasting money on a gas guzzler,” Killian quips, keeping his tone as light-hearted as possible. They both know the reason he no longer drives, and it feels odd to be discussing the matter so casual. “How’s Annie?”

“She’s grand.”

Silence crackles across the telephone line, and despite the weariness clawing at him, Killian feels a sudden surge of something that feels a lot like hope. “Look, Liam-”

“Wait.” His brother politely cuts him off. “Can I just say a few things?”

Now or never, Killian reminds himself. “Yes.”

He hears Liam take a deep breath. “Annie and I have never blamed you for what happened that night. Milah’s father never blamed you. But our forgiveness will never matter as long as you still blame yourself.”

Killian tilts back his head until the cold metal locker is against his scalp. “Easier said than done.”

“I was there, Killian. I know exactly what happened. You were driving. You and Milah were arguing. You were being an arse. She took exception to your attitude. She grabbed the wheel, trying to make you pull over so she could get out. The car skidded on the icy road. She wasn’t wearing her seatbelt. The very worst that could happen happened, but it was not your fault.”

Apparently his brother has been practicing this particular speech during all the many months they haven’t spoken. Killian swipes his sleeve across his burning eyes, beyond grateful to be alone in the locker room. “Liam-”

“You want to honour Milah’s life?”  His brother speaks with quiet determination, but the words still cut through the fog of grief in Killian’s heart like a hot blade.  “Don’t waste yours.

There’s a lump in Killian’s throat the size of a fist.  Between the gift of meeting Emma Swan and his brother’s confronting yet strangely comforting words, might the solution truly be that simple?

Let go of his anger and guilt so that he might embrace something new. 

Live as though life was actually worth living, rather than simply something to be endured.

He knows it won’t be easy.  He knows something else, too.

He’s going to damned well try.

 

 

~*~

 

 

Emma watches the outside world pass by from the cosy warmth of the truck cabin, vaguely aware of cars and humans and holy crap, she kissed him. 

She'd thought he'd left without saying goodbye, broken his promise (as casual as it had been), left her just like, well, just like every other guy.  When she'd seen him coming out of the coffee shop, and his whole face had come alive at the sight of her, the realisation that he hadn't vanished without saying goodbye, he hadn't lied to her, that he was different had almost made her forget the pain in her stupid knee. 

So, yeah, she'd kissed the hot nurse at seven o’clock in the morning, in public, while she was wearing her fluffy slippers and hadn’t had a proper shower for two days.

She’d do it again in a heartbeat.

(He’d kissed her back, kissed her until her good knee had turned to jello and the pain in her shoulder had faded into the tiniest of twinges.)

It takes less than two minutes for Mary Margaret to say the words Emma’s been expecting.

“Well, I guess he’s not gay after all.”

Emma’s face burns at the barely restrained laughter in her friend’s voice, and she has to fight the urge to press her hands to her cheeks.  “Definitely not.” 

David snorts but says nothing, and Mary Margaret gives her arm an excited squeeze. “And you’re seeing him on Valentine’s Day?”

“Yep.”

“Maybe we should stay home on Sunday night,” David begins, but the two women are quick to dissuade him of that idea. 

“No way.”

“But we always go out for Valentine’s dinner.”

David shrugs, finally cracking a smile. “Just a suggestion.”

Emma huddles down in her seat. “And to think I used to feel I missed out on having nagging parents.”

Clearly amused at her grumbling, Mary Margaret pats her knee.  “We only nag because we love you,” her friend announces in a cheery voice that would have made Emma wince a few years ago.  “You know that.”

Reaching out, she grabs the other woman’s hand, squeezing it tightly.  “I do.”

A moment later, the easy silence is broken. “So,” David says with ominous intent, his voice shaking with amusement, “tell us all about your naughty night nurse.”

“David!”

Really?”

 

~*~

 

The evening of Valentine’s Day is dull and cold, but the sight of Emma Swan’s face as she opens the door fills him with warmth from head to toe.  “Right on time,” she pronounces with a smirk as she pulls the door open wider to let him pass. “Why am I not surprised?”

“A gentleman is always on time, Swan.” She looks a vision in a short red sweater dress that he suspects is as soft as a cloud, her long legs shapely in black tights. "You look beautiful."

"You don't look so bad yourself." Twin spots of colour touch her high cheekbones, but he doesn’t miss the way her gaze skims him from head to toe, roaming over his leather jacket, blue shirt and black jeans, an appreciative gleam in her clear green eyes. "The scrubs were good, but I think I like this better."

As he silently congratulates himself on going with his gut instinct when it came to what to wear tonight, she flips her loose braid over one shoulder and leans against the open door, nodding at the takeout bag he’s carrying in his left hand. “So, what was the final verdict?”   They’d had several spirited text message exchanges during the week, ranging from 90’s Eurotrash pop to their favourite books.  The news that he’d spoken to his brother three times during the week had earned him a whole screen full of screeching emojis, but the main topic of conversation this afternoon had been their choice of dinner.  “Pizza or Chinese?”

He grins. She’d told him that seeing as he was the one picking up dinner, he could make the final call. “Well, this seemed like a good idea at the time,” he tells her as she shuts the door behind him, “but now that I’m here, it feels like overkill and perhaps even a little creepy.”

Her face lights up. “You got both?”

It’s been a chore hiding a pizza box behind his back with his other hand, but the look on her face when he produces it with a flourish is absolutely worth it. “I got both.”

Her eyes widen at the red rose lying atop the steaming Luigi’s box.  “Oh.”   Her dark lashes flutter, her lips parting on the kind of soft sigh he’d very much like to taste. “Wow, you really went all out.”

He’s definitely out of practice, he thinks dryly, because he has no idea if this means she approves or not. “Too much?”

Leaning forward, she relieves him of the pizza box and presses a kiss to his cheek in one graceful movement, leaving him with an impression of flowery perfume and soft, warm lips.  “It’s perfect.”  She shifts her weight from one leg to the other, and they both glance down at her sprained knee. “Come in and sit down before some know-it-all health care professional tells me off for putting too much weight on my wonky leg.”

“You know that’s not going to stop me asking how your knee is, right?”

“Much better.” Her lips curving in a mischievous smile, she sticks out her left leg, pointing her toes as if she’s wearing ballet shoes instead of a pair of black fuzzy ankle booties. “You can tell Doctor Mulan that I’ve been a very good girl and haven’t gone jogging once.”

Laughing, he follows her into the apartment, mesmerised by the sway of her cashmere clad hips, and tries to make his next question sound as casual as possible.  “David and Mary Margaret here?”

“Gone out for their Valentine’s dinner.” Emma slides the pizza onto the coffee table in front of a very comfortable looking dark blue couch, then gives him a knowing grin. “You just missed them.”

Killian feels the tense set of his shoulders ease. He’d been half-expecting David Nolan to be lying in wait in some nook or cranny to interrogate him. “I’m surprised David didn’t decide to stick around to make sure my intentions were pure.”

Still grinning, she waves him towards the nearby kitchen so he can divest himself of the other takeout bags, then props herself up on her elbows on the counter. “Oh, he tried, but Mary Margaret is a stickler for tradition.”  An odd wistfulness dances across her face, and Killian mirrors her pose, leaning on the other side of the counter opposite her, their hands almost touching.

“And how do you feel about traditions, Swan?”

“I’m not sure.” Her smile changes, fading to something small and hesitant. “I’ve never had that many in my life, not ones I want to remember, anyway.”

His heart clenching with tenderness, he takes her hands in his. She responds instantly, sliding her fingers through his until their palms are touching. Her skin is warm and smooth, her hands a perfect fit for his own.  “Perhaps it’s time to make some new ones?”

Her eyes are as clear as cut glass, glittering with the same longing that tugging at his insides. “I’d like that.” 

Later, she will tease him that he kissed her first this time, but all he knows now is that they’ve both leaned towards the other like flowers chasing the sun, and her mouth tastes just as sweet as he’d remembered.

They’re no longer holding hands but that’s okay, because her cheek is smooth against his palm (his fingertips quickly find the quivering pulse just below her jaw) and her slender fingers are kneading his scalp, gently tangling in his hair.  It’s a lazy, languid kiss, carefully tempered in its hunger (he can’t forget her healing lip), a gentle exploration that still manages to leave them both breathless and glassy-eyed. 

She nudges her nose against his cheek, and he feels her mouth curve in a smile against his own. “Wow.”

His senses are on overload, filled with the scent and taste of her, his voice feeling as though it’s been dragged up from the soles of his feet.  “Succinctly put.”

Her forehead is warm against his, her words little more than soft breaths against his mouth. “Since David’s not here, I guess it’s up to me to ask.”

He touches his lips to the corner of her mouth, then her cheek, then draws back, wanting to see her face. “Ask me what?”

Her smile is pure mischief. “Are your intentions pure?”

He grins. “Enchantingly blunt as always, Swan.” Lifting his left hand, he brushes his thumb over the swell of her bottom lip, carefully avoiding her healing cut. “I might ask you the same question.”

“My intentions?” Curling her fingers around his hand, she turns it so she can press a kiss to the scar that circles his wrist.  “Right now I want to eat every scrap of that food and watch some crappy Hallmark movies and fall asleep on the couch with you.”  She looks up at him, her expression faintly anxious as her gaze searches his. “What do you think?”

There’s a lump in his throat the size of a fist, because her words make him feel like someone’s reached into his chest and gently squeezed his heart, shocking it back into its proper rhythm after being out of synch for so long.  Feeling like a man reborn, he finally finds the presence of mind to lift their linked hands to his own lips, pressing a lingering kiss to her knuckles. “I think that’s the best idea I’ve heard in years.”

Emma Swan’s answering smile could easily light up the Boston night sky.  “Good.”

 

~*~