“ Have you actually attended one of our performances, Miss…?”
“Swan. Emma Swan. And no.”
“Miss Swan. This Circus is unique. It’s a safe haven for individuals with unique abilities.”
“You mean freaks and weirdos?”
The Ringmaster scowled. “Not quite. More accurately, our performers are not exactly of this world. Sometimes they come here knowing what they are, sometimes the talent is latent, and yet this place draws them like a beacon.”
Emma held up a hand to stop the monologue. She’d heard people talking in town about this amazing circus where the magic almost seemed real, but she didn’t need a sales pitch. She needed a place to hide.
“Nice story, lady, but what the hell does it have to do with me? Or the job?” The Ringmaster’s steely-eyed scrutiny gave Emma the creeps. She quickly tucked her hands back into her jacket pockets to keep from fidgeting in her seat.
“Everything, Miss Swan,” the woman replied, cool as ice. As if this was a perfectly normal conversation to be having. At Emma’s unimpressed huff, the Ringmaster crossed her arms and arched a perfectly plucked eyebrow. “Let me ask you something: have you ever felt out of place? Like a freak , as you say?”
Emma kept her mouth shut and her body tensed, fight-or-flight instincts kicking in. She didn’t know what the hell this woman’s angle was, but she didn’t like the way this conversation was going. She just- she needed a job and to get the hell out of town. Sure, running away to join the circus was like, the biggest cliché ever, but it was the best solution available for her very immediate problem. Apparently her silence spoke volumes.
The Ringmaster narrowed her eyes and leaned forward over the old spindle-legged table serving as a makeshift desk. “Has anything strange or unexplainable ever happened when you were frightened or upset?”
For a second, Emma’s heart stopped. Her memory flashed to that parking garage two days ago. The officer’s gun pointed at her chest. Her back flat against an ugly yellow wall. The loud crack that for a blinding moment of terror she thought was gunfire until she saw the rain of sparks cascading down around her from a ruptured security light above her head. Just enough of a distraction for her to run. But that wasn’t anything, right? Just dumb luck. Besides there’s no way this Ringmaster lady knew about that.
Feigning indifference, Emma rolled her eyes. “I swear to God, if the next words out of your mouth are ‘You’re a wizard, Harry’, I’m running out of here and calling the cops.”
The Ringmaster gave her a patronizing smile. “I think we both know you won’t do that, Miss Swan. Now you said you needed a job. Do you want it or not?”
Emma bit the inside of her cheek. She really didn’t have any other options. She could deal with the crazy lady and her freak show for a while and when the heat died down, she could always ditch them later.
She nodded her head quickly. “Yeah, I want it. I don’t really have a talent or anything, but I can sell tickets or popcorn or whatever.”
The Ringmaster smiled, almost genuinely this time, though there was still an edge to it that Emma didn’t understand. “Oh, I’m sure we can do better than that. How do you feel about animals?”
Emma shrugged one shoulder. “They’re okay, I guess.”
“And you seem like the hard-headed sort.” The Ringmaster tapped an impeccably manicured fingernail on her desk for a moment then chuckled to herself. “Oh, yes. I have just the job for you. Welcome to Le Cirque Noir, Miss Swan. You may call me Regina.”
“ Beast tamer ? Are you kidding me?” When Regina said she’d be working with animals, Emma pictured mucking out stalls or at worst walking around the ring with a snake draped around her shoulders. Not sticking her head in the mouth of a freaking panther. Yet here she was letting Regina lead her into the center ring where not one, but three massive black panthers awaited them.
“I do not kid, Miss Swan.”
Okay, upon closer inspection it was two massive panthers and one slightly-smaller-but-fully-capable-of-biting-her-arm-off panther. They seemed well-trained at least, each perched calmly on his own small circular platform. Still, there was something eerie about the trio beyond the lethality of a jungle cat. It was their eyes, Emma decided. Each panther had eyes that nearly glowed in the dim lighting of the tent. An iridescent, unnatural blue.
As she and Regina approached, those eyes all turned toward them, and Emma would’ve sworn the middle panther was staring at her. It cocked its shiny black head to the side and showed its sharp white teeth in what Emma had the weirdest feeling was a grin. Did panthers grin? That made no sense at all. It licked its chops and Emma had about decided that she needed to get the hell out of there before it ate her alive when the largest of the panthers hopped gracefully down to the dusty floor and loped toward them.
The approaching predator immediately drew Emma’s attention. She knew better than to think she could outrun it, but maybe Regina could slow it down since it was her damn cat after all and -
Emma gaped as the panther sidled up to Regina, rose up on its hind paws, and licked the Ringmaster’s face. Regina made a garbled noise of disgust and dabbed at her cheek with the cuff of her sleeve.
“Liam, we have talked about this.”
The panther, Liam apparently, settled back down on all fours and Emma must’ve gone completely insane because the low rumbling sound the cat made distinctly sounded like laughter. It nudged it’s head under Regina’s hand until she scratched it behind the ears then trotted back to its post, sitting at perfect attention and looking immensely pleased with itself.
Regina rolled her eyes at the big cat, then turned to Emma, gesturing for her to step forward. Without waiting to see if Emma had complied, Regina addressed the three panthers, her voice booming and authoritative.
“This is Emma Swan. She has recently joined the cast of our show. She’ll be acting as your new beast tamer and I expect the three of you to be on your best behavior.” Though the instructions were directed at all three animals, at the last comment, Regina appeared to be focusing her attention on the middle panther who blinked at her as if he were bored and turned his head away.
Regina turned her back on the cats, ready now to give Emma her orders. “Liam will teach you the act. I expect you to be ready for a full performance by the end of the week. You can meet with Mrs. Lucas this evening about fitting you for a costume and-”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Emma interrupted. She’d figured Regina was just theatrical. Like one of those performers who stays in character all the time. But this was above and beyond. Talking at animals was odd enough. Expecting an animal - even an apparently affectionate and weirdly expressive one - to actually teach her a circus act was too much. Of course the person willing to take Emma in was a nut job. Of course she was.
“Liam is going to teach me?” She pointed at the panther in question. “That Liam. The one with giant paws and a tail?”
“You remember what I told you before?” Regina appeared unperturbed, as though she expected Emma’s reaction.
“All that junk about people with special abilities? I figured that was just something you told the locals to drum up business.”
“The truth can be stranger than fiction, Miss Swan.” She raised her voice, but didn’t turn around. “Boys! Come introduce yourselves.”
Liam raised his head and roared. Emma looked past Regina’s shoulder in shock as immediately all three cats’ eyes flashed blood red. Their bodies began to sort of vibrate - blurring, twisting and contracting. In the space of a few (now racing) heartbeats, three young men stood before Emma where the panthers had been, all three with dark hair and startling blue eyes.
“What the hell!” Emma skittered a few steps back, unable to process what she’d just seen. Slowly, the three stepped forward as Regina had instructed. The tiny part of Emma’s mind that hadn’t completely short-circuited found it ironic that they were treating her as if she was a cornered animal when not ten seconds ago, they’d been the ones with fur. A hysterical giggle bubbled up at the thought, but she swallowed hard to stifle it.
Regina stood aside as the youngest - apparently the small panther - reached out to shake Emma’s hand. He looked maybe thirteen years old. Thin and gangly rather like his panther self, he had the makings of a kid who would grow up to be a looker someday. When Emma didn’t immediately accept his handshake, he ducked his head and looked up at her shyly, his longish mousy hair falling over his eyes. Wide-eyed, but not knowing what else to do, Emma shook his hand ( because it's a hand now, not a paw holy crap ) and he grinned exuberantly.
“Name’s Liam, miss. Nice to meet you.” His voice had that adorable adolescent crackle to it, not to mention a slight accent.
Disarmed by this not-so-fearsome beast, Emma smiled back. “Nice to meet you, too. Wait, I thought the big guy was Liam?”
“He is.” Another voice broke in, lower and smoother than the first. Emma turned her head, finally getting a good look at the young man in the middle. Her breath caught in her throat. Messy, ‘I woke up like this’ hair. Heavy, dark eyebrows cocked in an ‘I know you’re checking me out and rightfully so’ kind of way. Sculpted cheekbones. A hint of reddish scruff along his sharp jawline. Tall and lean with jeans that fit just so. He couldn’t have been a more picture perfect stereotypical bad boy if he tried - and everything about him screamed ‘I expect you to believe I’m not trying’ - but damned if it wasn’t working for him. His pose bespoke a casual arrogance, the hand hitched on his belt buckle, the curl of his lips as he spoke- wait. What? Too caught up in her ogling, Emma almost didn’t realize he’d continued speaking.
“... father was an unoriginal arsehole, but that’s another story. We call the runt here, Lee, and I must say I’m glad to see him showing such good manners to a lady.” He rustled Lee’s hair, laughing as the boy smacked his hand away. “Speaking of manners, I don’t believe we’ve been properly introduced. Killian Jones, at your service.”
Killian offered Emma his hand as Lee had done, but when Emma took it, he turned her wrist gently. He raised their joined hands, dipping his head, but before he could bestow the kiss to her knuckles that was so obviously coming, the third man who must’ve been Liam hip-checked Killian out of the way.
“You’ll have to forgive my brother, Emma. He fancies himself a ladies man.”
Emma chuckled, caught somewhere between nervousness and admittedly a little bit of disappointment. Liam smiled warmly at her, ignoring Killian’s huff of annoyance from beside him. He was the tallest and broadest of the three, obviously the eldest. His posture and bearing suggested maybe he’d been in the military or a cop or something, but at the moment way too many other questions were swirling through Emma’s mind for her think much about it.
“As you may have gathered, I’m Liam and I’d be happy to show you the ropes around here.” He squeezed Emma’s shoulder reassuringly, then exchanged a glance with Regina that shed a little bit of light on their earlier interaction in his panther form. Emma filed it away as something to ask about later.
“Thank you.” Regina nodded at him with a barely concealed smile, and as he stepped back into line with his brothers, she turned to Emma.
“So you see, Miss Swan, taming the beasts should be simple enough. Taming the Jones Brothers, however…” She glared at Killian again who replied with a sarcastic smirk. “Well. Good luck with that.” Business completed, Regina turned and walked out of the tent without a backward glance.
“Wait! You can’t- I don’t-” Emma spluttered as the reality sank in that she was now alone with three panther-people and she was expected to learn a circus act. She didn’t trust Regina by a long shot, but shit - at least she was some kind of buffer between Emma and the unbelievable situation she’d stumbled into. Literally unbelievable. As in she couldn’t make herself believe it even though the proof was (respectively) standing awkwardly, smirking and furrowing its brow right in front of her.
Emma’s heart pounded. She raised one finger and opened her mouth. No words came out. Now all three Jones brothers looked concerned. She pressed her lips together and shook her head. She tried again.
“I need a minute. I’ll- I’ll be right back.”
Huddled behind the snack bar seemed as good a place as any to process the last few hours. This morning she’d been running from the cops, hiding in plain sight amongst the bustling crowd at what she had thought was a regular circus midway. The sensory overload of voices and music and buttered popcorn and bright colors worked wonders to numb her broken heart. When she saw the “Help Wanted” sign on one of the trailers, she’d knocked on that door without hesitation.
Now she’s what? What the hell even was this place? Magic was real. Freaking were-panthers were real. What about vampires? Zombies? Witches? Regina was probably a witch. Was Emma a witch? Holy crap, would she turn into some kind of animal, too? Emma’s pulse pounded in her ears. She pulled her knees up to her chest and rested her forehead against them, her breaths coming faster and faster until she was well and truly hyperventilating.
Footsteps sounded off to her right. Emma sat up and tried to get her breathing back under control. Moments later, Killian Jones’ head peeked around the corner.
“Ah! There you are, Swan. I’ve been looking everywhere.”
He sounded far too chipper for her liking. Emma cut her eyes to him then quickly looked away. “I’m fine.”
He rounded the corner and walked over to where she at. “Never said you weren’t. Sitting in the fetal position in the dirt behind a concession stand is exactly what people do when they’re fine.”
Emma finally looked up at him and shoved her long, blond hair behind her ears. “Ha. Ha. What do you want, Jones?”
“It’s not what I want, love. It’s what you want.” He sat down in the dirt beside her, using the building as a back rest. “Bit of an orientation perhaps? I expect you have a few questions.”
Yeah, just a few million. “Not your love. But…” Emma sighed. “I am kinda having trouble wrapping my head around all this. Is, like, everything in every story and horror movie I’ve ever watched real? Am I a- a-”
“Circus freak?” His voice held more understanding than teasing, and it gave her prickles under her skin. Emma didn’t want some cute guy acting all understanding. She knew how that played out.
She huffed and turned away from his searching blue eyes. “You know what I mean.”
“Look, Regina must think you’re something or she wouldn’t have brought you on, but you can’t think about it like that. It’s too much at once. You’ll go bonkers. Start with one simple thought. Magic is real.”
“ That’s a simple thought, huh?”
“Trust me, Swan, if you can convince yourself to accept that, the rest gets easier.”
Trust. Ha. Trust was out of the question, but as Emma considered his words, he did make a certain kind of sense. Baby steps or whatever. And maybe she didn’t need understanding but she could probably use an ally. “I don’t trust anything about this place, but fine. I’ll try it your way.” Emma took a deep breath and looked Killian straight in the eye. “Magic is real.”
He nodded encouragingly and she tried again. “Magic is real.” After repeating the phrase aloud a few times, she closed her eyes and let the words play in her brain over and over again until they sounded slightly less crazy. She opened her eyes to find Killian watching her, a tiny smile tilting up one corner of his lips. When their eyes met, his smile widened making the dimples in his cheeks deeper.
“You move your lips when you’re thinking.”
“I do not!” Emma shoved his shoulder. It only served to make him laugh, but his expression sobered quickly at her frown. “It’s just- it’s a lot to take in, you know?”
“Aye, that it is. I grew up knowing what I was and even so, the first time I changed…” Killian let his gaze drift at the memory, then shook his head. “Well, I was very lucky to have Liam around.”
“And your father?” As soon as the question came out of her mouth she wished she could take it back. Why was she asking personal questions of this guy? God only knew she wouldn’t want him asking her anything about her family. Or lack thereof. Emma’s cheeks warmed as she awkwardly muttered,“You said something about your father before.”
A muscle ticked in Killian’s jaw before he answered. “My father left us a few years before that. It’s been just Liam and me for quite some time now.”
“What about Lee?” Geez, what is wrong with her? She’s prying now. This definitely counted as prying.
Still, at the mention of the youngest Jones, Killian’s expression lightened. He ran a hand through his already tousled hair. “Lee came along a bit later. He’s our half-brother. We actually didn’t know about him until the circus stopped at this little seaport town and a great sodding panther cub comes running into the tent hissing and swiping at everybody. Poor little bugger was scared out of his wits. It was his first change, you see. Liam and I shifted straight away and we got him calmed down. Next thing we knew, there was a third member of the Magnificent Brothers Jones.”
Okay, so she was really on a roll with the 20-Questions thing, but this - hearing Killian’s story - was helping. Her curiosity overcame her anxiety. “How‘d you know he was your brother?”
That earned her a raised eyebrow and a wry smile. “Besides the fact that he shapeshifts into a melanistic jaguar?”
Melanistic? Who the hell talks like that? He even said it with that British pronunciation so the word came out like jag-you-are. Emma snorted. “Yeah, besides that.”
“When he reverted to his human form, he managed to tell us he was looking for his father. He showed us a picture of the man and it turned out to be our father. Apparently the bastard had left Lee behind, too.”
“How the hell was he carrying a picture if he was in panther form? Wait, where do your clothes go when you’re a panther?”
Killian laughed outright. “I shapeshift into an animal, but you’re asking about my clothing? Not even what’s a Brit like me doing turning into a South American jungle cat? You’re an interesting lass, Emma Swan.” His features shifted into a lazy smirk and there went those prickles under Emma’s skin again. “You know, if you’d prefer I reappear naked, I can certainly-”
Emma smacked him in the chest, but a grin tugged at the corners of her mouth.
“ Tsk . Such violence!’ he teased and Emma’s smile grew brighter despite herself. Killian’s expression softened, his eyes doing a sort of twinkly thing. “Never thought I’d see one of those.”
He scratched behind his ear, the tips of which had turned ever so slightly pink. “A smile.”
Emma rolled her eyes at the cheesy comment, but her grin lingered until another question occurred to her that made it fade. “Am I going to change? Like you do?” She hated how brittle her voice sounded. “Regina said something about people with latent talents.”
Killian furrowed his brow. “How old are you, Swan?”
“How old are you ?” she snapped back with a scowl.
“Nineteen. But my point is, most shifters have their first change around age ten or eleven.”
“Oh.” Emma nodded in understanding. “I’m seventeen. Just turned.”
“So there you are. If you haven’t changed yet, you likely aren’t a shifter. Which begs the question, just what are you, Swan?”
Emma raised her eyebrow, attempting to mimic the smirk she was coming to associate with Killian. “Wouldn’t you like to know?” She nudged his shoulder teasingly with her own, but the movement brought their faces within inches of each other.
“Perhaps I would.” His eyes held something a little too earnest. His body a little too warm beside hers. Their knees brushed. His breath caressed her cheek. Too close, too close, too close . No, she didn’t need him making eyes at her. She didn’t need the stupid fluttery feeling in her stomach. She just needed an ally. Someone to help her navigate this strange new place. That’s all.
Emma straightened and cleared her throat. “Yeah? So would I…” She stood, half-heartedly dusting the grass off her butt, her legs a little shaky from sitting down too long (and maybe from this whole moment she was having with Killian). She held out her hand to him and he took it, pulling himself to his feet. “Hang on, why does a Brit like you turn into a jungle cat?”
He gave her a grin that was likely intended to be mysterious, but came off a little goofy. “Magic, Swan,” he replied as if that answered everything, and at least for the moment, she supposed it did.
After what felt like hours of walking through the routine with Liam and the younger Joneses, Emma had a good handle on all the blocking at least. Liam had been kind and patient with her even when she got frustrated and huffy and, you know, let her mouth get away with her a little. Looking over at Lee and Killian, Emma decided Liam must have had a lot of practice dealing with stuff like that. Probably a big brother thing. Not that she knew anything about brothers.
The guys had all stayed in human form throughout rehearsal - likely to keep Emma from having another panic attack. She appreciated that. Maybe this place wouldn’t be so bad. It was weird, sure. A definite shock to her system, but still… maybe it could be kind of okay here. For a while at least.
At the end of rehearsal, Emma asked Liam to point her to Mrs. Lucas’ trailer for wardrobe like Regina had told her, but after an embarrassingly loud growl from her stomach, he directed her to the cook house instead. Since there was no show that night, the grounds crew left the bright outdoor flood lights off, but the strings of small globe lights which criss-crossed the lot produced enough light for Emma to find her way.
It should have been scary. Her first night in a strange place with some very strange individuals, but there was a vibe to this place. She couldn’t put it into words. It made her feel… not at home, exactly, but like this was where she needed to be.
If Regina had been telling the truth about the circus (and Emma had just spent the last several hours with were-panthers, so yeah), then that meant the whole ‘beacon’ thing must be true, too. But that shouldn’t apply to Emma, right? Just because Regina believed she had magic or hidden abilities or whatever, that didn’t make it real.
Emma wasn’t special. Just some orphan no one gave a damn about - not her parents, not even the one guy who was supposed to love her. He’d made that pretty clear. Dammit, she didn’t want to think about Neal. Not now. Her brain was already scraped raw by everything she’d seen today.
Halfway to the cook house, a soft sound behind her caught her attention. The hair on the back of her neck stood on end. Without moving her head, Emma glanced around her. She couldn’t see anyone, but the shadows on the ground looked wrong somehow and she knew .
She was being followed.
Emma’s blood ran cold. Cursing herself for being too far inside her own head, she slowed her steps, trying not to give away the fact that she knew someone was behind her. Heart pounding, she crouched down pretending to fix the laces on her thrift store Doc Martens and subtly pulled her small pocket knife out of her sock as she stood back up. Thumbing the blade open, she spun on her heel only to come face-to-face, er, muzzle with a blue-eyed panther.
As soon as the animal caught sight of her knife, its eyes widened in alarm and glowed crimson as the creature shifted into Killian Jones.
“Easy there, Swan. I come in peace!” He held up his hands in surrender. “I didn’t mean to frighten you, love.”
Emma narrowed her eyes, not lowering the knife quite yet. “Then why the hell were you sneaking up on me?”
Killian lowered his arms and frowned. “Not sneaking, just trying to catch up. I can’t help it if I’m naturally stealthy as a panther.”
Emma huffed and put her knife away. “Fine. Why were you trying to catch up with me, Catboy?”
The epithet earned her a raised eyebrow, but he seemed to be trying not to smile. “Catboy? Really, love?”
Emma shrugged. “I’ll stop calling you ‘Catboy’ if you stop calling me ‘love’.”
This time it was Killian’s turn to roll his eyes. “Very well. At any rate, I was following you because I thought you might appreciate a familiar face at dinner. I know it can be difficult to be the new kid.”
As much as Emma’s hackles were still up, she could tell Killian was being sincere. Something about his open expression and the way he scratched behind his ear. And yeah, she supposed it might be nice to have someone to sit with.
“Oh. Okay.” Her posture relaxed and she let one corner of her mouth tilt up just a little bit. Killian brightened immediately. Maybe a little too much. She jabbed a finger at his chest. “But cool it with all that stealthy panther crap or I’m gonna put a collar with a bell on you.”
Shit. Now he was waggling those stupid eyebrows and beaming at her, and why did that make her feel all squirmy inside? Just annoyance probably.
“Shut up.” Emma groaned and shoved his shoulder, and why exactly did she feel the need to touch him every time he was being irritating?
Killian just laughed. “Come along, Swan, before the Dwarves eat all the pie.”
Dinner with the cast and crew of Le Cirque Noir was, to say the least, an experience. Killian hadn’t been kidding about the dwarves. There were seven of them and they had, in fact, claimed all the pie from the dessert table before Emma and Killian arrived, but he somehow managed to snag her a chocolate chip cookie. With Killian close by her side, she also met an honest-to-god mermaid, a giant, two people who could talk to animals and one very friendly werewolf who would apparently be her bunkmate.
Emma had barely sat down with her food before a beautiful brunette approached her, all white teeth and red lipstick.
“Um, hi?” Emma mumbled around the bite of food she’d shoved in her mouth.
“It’s Emma, right? So nice to meet you. I’m a werewolf, but don’t worry. I don’t bite. Well, I do bite, but I won’t bite you . Promise. Regina told me you’d be staying in the trailer with me and Mulan and hey where’d Mulan go?” Ruby finally paused for breath, looking around the tent full of long tables that served as a makeshift dining hall.
Killian spoke up. “I saw her talking to David over by the drinks, but honestly, Red. Give Emma a chance to get some food in her stomach before you chew her ear off. If you want to chew something, I think there’s a squeaky toy around here somewhere.”
Ruby gave Killian an unimpressed glare, her eyes flashing red for a moment. “Why don’t you go find a ball of yarn to entertain yourself and let us have some girl talk?”
“I think I hear a squirrel outside. How about you go chase it?”
Ruby scoffed. “You’re just cranky because you haven’t had your supper. You want a little saucer of milk? Can of tuna?”
“Are you two seriously gonna fight like cats and dogs?” Emma had been growing more and more concerned by the second, but to her surprise Ruby and Killian both burst out laughing.
Killian patted her on the back. “Nice one, Swan. And no worries, just a little shifter humor between old friends.”
Emma looked between the two of them, utterly bewildered. “Whatever you say, Catboy.”
Ruby grinned at her, wagging a finger. “You’re gonna fit right in here, Emma. Mulan needs to meet you. I’ll go get her.”
Ruby stood from the table and as soon as her back was turned to them, Killian called out, “You mean you’re going to go fetch her?”
Ruby cast a narrow-eyed glare over her shoulder. “Can it, Catboy .”
Killian turned his attention to Emma, who was trying hard not to choke on her dinner while laughing under her breath. “Oh now, love,” he scolded playfully, “just look what you’ve started.”
Emma’s first few days at the circus flew by in flurry of sawdust and sequins. Under Liam’s tutelage, she learned her act quickly. Really, most of what she had to do was wave her arms around dramatically while the Jones boys did all their tricks. Occasionally she’d crack a whip in their general direction. It wasn’t exactly brain surgery, but, if Emma was being honest with herself, it was fun . The music, the lights, the getting to boss certain were-panthers around. Speaking of certain were-panthers…
Emma had acquired a shadow. Starting with that very first rehearsal where he’d sought her out behind the concession stand, Killian fell into a habit of just sort of following Emma around. Sometimes as a human, sometimes as a beast.
At least as a panther, he was quiet. In human form he was always trying to tease and banter with her (she wouldn’t let herself think the word flirting). Him, with his smirking lips and expressive eyes and that thing he did where his tongue traced the corner of his mouth. It made her feel… things. Things her freshly broken heart wasn’t ready for.
When she told him she preferred him as a cat, he shifted into animal form and butted his furry black head against her side until she scratched him behind the ears. He was surprisingly soft, actually, the silky strands of his coat slipping beneath her fingertips. Not to mention, it w as pretty funny to watch the way his powerful jaws hung open, his eyes nearly rolling back into his head at her touch.
“Yeah, yeah. You better enjoy this, Jones. There’s no way in hell I'm giving you a belly rub.”
The bastard had the audacity to purr .
He’d picked up a couple of other habits as well. Like how at their second rehearsal he accidentally discovered Emma was ticklish and thereafter took every opportunity to flick the tip of his tail under her arm to make her jump. Or, well, he did it until Liam got annoyed and growled at him.
Or how now that she was comfortable with the act, he’d sometimes not do whatever trick he was supposed to do just to mess with her. Then he’d stare at her all innocent as if he were some dumb animal. As if. Of all the words she’d use to describe Killian Jones (funny, snarky, hot as all hell, her brain unhelpfully supplied), innocent was not one of them.
On Saturday, the day before her very first performance, Emma walked to the wardrobe trailer to pick up her finished costume for dress rehearsal. Killian, as usual, trotted along beside her in panther form. She decided finally, if he wouldn’t leave her alone, she might as well talk to him. Surely she could handle a little teasing from one pesky panther. She just needed to shore up her defenses a bit. God only knew she was good at that.
“Hey, stalker. Why exactly are you following me again?” He swished his tail at the back of her knee, and Emma yelped as goosebumps spread up her leg. She fixed him with her best scowl. “Is this why your last beast tamer quit?”
Killian shifted back to human again and continued walking beside her. “I’ll have you know our last beast tamer was Regina, and she quit because it got awkward when she and Liam started shagging. You ask me, he liked it a bit too much when she cracked the whip at him. They’d always run straight back to her trailer after a show.” He scrunched his nose in distaste, and Emma bit back a laugh. “The hilarious part is they both think they’re doing a stellar job of keeping it under wraps, but everyone knows.”
Emma gave him a wry smile.“So what I’m hearing is if I want to keep my job, I should never ever shag anyone in my act.”
That stopped him in his tracks. Killian’s mouth fell open like a codfish, and he had to jog a few steps to catch back up to her. “Hold on now, Swan. I never said that .”
Emma pressed her lips together trying to maintain a poker face. See? She could do the banter thing, too. “Mmhmm.”
Killian huffed. “Anyway, Regina’s working up a new act now. A sorceress duel between herself and a Norwegian lass we picked up a few weeks ago. Sort of a fire and ice thing.”
Emma stopped in front of the door to the wardrobe trailer, her eyes wide. “So, Regina is a witch! I knew it!”
Killian stood facing her and tilted his head. “I don’t think that’s her preferred terminology, but aye. Quite powerful. Her signature move is throwing fireballs.”
“Of course it is,” Emma deadpanned. “Hey, don’t you need to go get ready for dress rehearsal?”
Killian smirked in amusement and leaned closer to whisper in her ear. “In case you hadn’t noticed, Swan, I am my own costume.”
Emma felt a blush rise on her face, flustered by her own faux pas, and certainly not because Killian was so near to her that his cheek brushed hers as he straightened his posture. She was a dumbass. Of course he was his own costume, but now the side of her face was probably all red and blotchy from the scratch of his stubble and she needed to get inside the trailer right now and put on her costume and fix her makeup and-
“See you later, Swan.”
While she’d been gawping like an idiot, Killian had turned to leave. Ugh, he just had to get the last word in, didn't he? Emma stood there scrabbling to come up with something snappy to say as she watched him walk away. Swaggering smirky-face with his stupid tight jeans. Sooner or later she’d figure out a way to shut him up.
“Hey! How’d the final rehearsal go? Did Killian ever pick his jaw back up off the floor?”
Exhausted after a long day, Emma staggered into her trailer wanting nothing more in life than to flop face first onto her bunk and pass out. Her roommates, apparently, had other ideas.
“Ruby…” Emma warned, but it lacked any real threat. Proper threatening required too much energy.
“Oh, don’t ‘Ruby’ me. You didn’t see him when you first walked in the tent in that costume. Granny really outdid herself. I could practically see the hearts shooting out of his eyeballs.”
Emma slumped onto her bed and tugged the elastic out of her ponytail. “That’s not exactly how I remember it.”
No, Emma remembered hiding behind the tent flap feeling self-conscious as all hell because her body had been poured into a getup that covered slightly less than a one-piece bathing suit. A really fancy bathing suit. Pitch black satin edged in feather-like swirls of beaded lace framed a blaze of creamy white down the middle of the front. Ruby’s Granny, the official seamstress and head cook for the circus, had truly outdone herself as Ruby said. As little as there was of it, Emma had never worn anything so beautiful.
She heard Killian call out, “Come on, Swan. Let’s get a look,” and begrudgingly complied, but kept her eyes down on the costume, tugging at where the corset-like bodice pinched her waist. She’d complained that the outfit felt like a sequined straight-jacket. He’d informed her cheekily that her discomfort was a cross he was willing to bear. She glared. He grinned. It was nothing more than their usual back-and-forth shtick.
“There were no heart eyes,” Emma concluded.
“Mmhm. You know wolves can smell pheromones, right?”
“You did not just say that.” Blood rushed in Emma’s ears and her cheeks burned and she wasn’t even sure if Ruby was talking about Killian’s pheromones or Emma’s and that somehow made it worse . Thankfully, Mulan came to her rescue.
“Must you alway be so crass?” Mulan scolded, but to little avail. Ruby grinned brightly and scrunched her nose at Mulan who took a seat beside her wayward roommate on the bunk opposite Emma’s with a long-suffering sigh. “Don’t mind her, Emma. But seriously, how did rehearsal go? Are you excited about your first show?”
“Yeah, I guess. Sure.” Excited was… one word for it. The reminder of tomorrow’s performance hit Emma like a bucket of ice water. When not two minutes ago, she’d been ready to sleep for days, now a buzz of nerves spread from the pit of her stomach to the tips of her fingers. A familiar tingle built up in her palms and she rubbed them against her thighs to make the feeling go away. Some people carried their stress in their shoulders or back, but for Emma it had always been her hands.
Sensing her unease, Mulan leaned across the narrow space between the bunks and placed a hand on Emma’s forearm. “Sure you’re okay?”
Emma looked between Ruby and Mulan’s concerned faces. This was new. This thing where people seemed to care how she was feeling. Who actually asked how she was doing. But from day one at the Circus, everyone had accepted her. No questions asked. Like, “ Oh, you’re here. Good. We’ve been saving you a seat.”
It felt foreign and strange and Emma refused become accustomed to it. But it was kind of nice? Maybe it would be okay to have friends. Just for now.
Emma pressed her lips together and focused on her hands. “I’m not really used to being the center of attention, I guess. All those people in the audience staring at me kinda freaks me out. And what if-” Emma stopped herself, afraid to voice the fear that niggled at the back of her mind. After a beat, she looked up and saw nothing but genuine compassion in her roommates faces. “What if I screw the whole thing up? Would Regina kick me out for ruining her show?”
“Of course not!”
“Oh, honey, no.”
They both quickly reassured her. Ruby stood and pulled Emma to her feet. There wasn’t much space in the sleeping area of the trailer, so Ruby tugged on Emma’s hand to move her into the kitchenette. Mulan followed them.
“Here’s the secret: whatever screw ups happen -” Ruby shook her long dark hair back from her shoulders and gestured as broadly as the limited space allowed. “- you pretend like you did it on purpose and it’s part of the act. Watch this.”
Ruby grabbed a pair of oranges from a bowl on the counter and began to juggle them. Grinning, Mulan picked up a third orange and tossed it at Ruby. For about two seconds, it looked like Ruby would catch it and keep going, but she fumbled, tossing one orange into the air too soon so that all three were airborne at the same time. In the blink of an eye, Ruby threw out a now magically clawed hand and took a fierce swipe. Three sliced oranges fell to the table with a wet splatter.
“Ta-da!” Ruby beamed, gracefully flexing her now human-again fingers.
Mulan laughed lightly and reached for an orange slice, but Ruby’s party trick hadn’t convinced Emma. “That’s pretty cool and all, but what about those of us who can’t mutate into a fruit ninja?”
Ruby sat down at the tiny kitchen table and patted the seat next to her for Emma to join her. “No, no, no. The point is that if you’re gonna screw up, go big and really sell it.”
Mulan pushed herself up to sit on the counter, her feet dangling next to Ruby’s shoulder. “She’s right. The audience doesn’t know what you’re supposed to be doing, so as long as you look like you did it on purpose, they’ll never know the difference.”
Emma exhaled slowly. “I think I can work with that.”
“Besides,” Mulan added, “if you really screw up that badly, Regina can just put a memory spell on the whole crowd and they’ll think they watched the greatest show on earth.”
“Has that ever happened?”
Mulan kept her face completely impassive. “Not that I recall. But then I guess I wouldn’t, would I?”
Emma’s eyes widened in alarm.
“She’s joking .” Ruby reached back to flick Mulan on the knee. “You’re so deadpan. No one ever knows you’re joking.”
A small smile broke through on Mulan’s face and Emma finally relaxed enough to smile back. Mulan hopped down from the counter. “How about I make you some tea to help you sleep?”
Emma cocked an eyebrow at her. “This isn’t some kind of potion, is it?”
Mulan shook her head. “Nah. Just Sleepytime Tea. From a box with a bear wearing a nightcap on it.” She opened a drawer and scanned the contents. “But now that I’ve offered it, looks like I left the box in the main kitchen. I’ll run over to the cook house and get it. Ruby, you want anything else from over there?”
“Not unless you find the old lady’s liquor stash.”
Mulan rolled her eyes, but smiled at her friend. “Be right back, guys.”
Ruby’s eyes followed Mulan out the trailer door, and as it snicked shut a tiny sound like a hum escaped her lips. When Ruby finally turned around, Emma fixed her with a smirk. “What was that you were saying about pheromones again?”
For the first time in the week Emma had known her, Ruby Lucas actually blushed. “Oh, that’s nothing. Just a little crush.” She flicked her hand in front of her as if to wave the idea away.
“And here you were giving me grief about Killian Jones! So, what’s the deal with you two?”
Ruby sighed. “There’s no deal. Mulan’s still hung up on someone she was in love with before .” Her exaggerated pronunciation of that final word made it sound heavier somehow.
“What do you mean before ?”
“Before she joined Le Cirque Noir. Everybody here, we’ve all got a before . Some tragic origin story. It’s why no one here judges. We’re all misfits and losers, but at least we’ve got each other. Just one big wacky family.”
Ruby offered her a grin that seemed to say, “ ...and it can be your family now, too .”
The words hung in the air between them. Emma’s hands tingled again and the feeling seemed to spread to her chest. This was dangerous ground. Families and homes - even as non-traditional as this one - those things were for other people. Not her. And yet no matter how hard she tried to pluck it out, the tingle in her chest became a tiny seedling of hope.
She couldn’t deal with that - didn’t want to anyway - so she shoved the feeling behind all of her usual defense mechanisms and redirected the conversation. “So what happened in Mulan’s before?”
“I don’t know all of it. You might’ve noticed, Mulan isn’t really one to talk about herself - kinda like someone else I know.” Ruby pointed raised an eyebrow at Emma. “Anyway, what I do know is that it involved her getting her heart broken and the woman she loved moving on without her. She isn’t ready to let go yet.”
Shit, that hit close to home. Redirect, redirect, redirect. “Is it hard to be friends with her when you…” Emma gestured vaguely “You know?”
Ruby shook her head, a self-deprecating smile curving her red lips. “Nah. Like I said, it’s just a little crush. I’m convinced that the girl of my dreams is still out there somewhere over the rainbow.”
Emma placed the last of about two dozen bobby pins holding the intricate crown braid together. Ruby had helped her plait her hair before heading off to the Big Top to make sure her Red Riding Hood costume was ready backstage. In Le Cirque Noir’s version of the story, Little Red and the Big Bad Wolf were one and the same. More of that shifter humor, apparently.
One more shot of hairspray, a tug at a loose bead on her bodice, one more coat of lipstick - Emma couldn’t seem to stop fidgeting. Everything will be fine, she told herself for the thousandth time. Ruby and Mulan had been very reassuring before they left to warm up for their own acts, but still… Emma squeezed through the louvered doors of the tiny bathroom, and paced up and down the length of the trailer, hands waving through the air as she reviewed her routine in her head. A knock on her trailer door snapped her out of her downward spiral.
She opened the door and her mouth went dry, one foot sort of hovering half-way through a step it forgot to finish. She tried to say “hi”. Couldn’t think of the word “hi”. Could really only think two words on repeat: holy shit holy shit holy shit. Killian Jones stood on her front steps dressed in a long, black leather coat, blood red brocade vest and barely-buttoned black shirt. Half steampunk, half swashbuckler and completely devastating. He held a single long-stemmed rose in his hand and offered it to her with a courtly bow.
“You look stunning, Swan.”
Emma blinked a couple of times, finally managing to shake off her stupor. “You...look…”
“I know,” he replied with a cheeky grin.
“What happened to the whole, ‘I’m my own costume’ thing?” Emma stepped aside to allow him into the trailer. Emma accepted the rose and turned away from him to get a glass from the kitchen cabinet to use as a makeshift vase. Not at all because she needed a moment to collect herself.
“This-” Killian made a sweeping head to toe gesture once Emma faced him again “-is my costume for the grand entry parade. I’m a showman after all. Might as well dress the part.”
You could’ve warned me. “Well, it looks like you went all out.”
“As did you. The audience won’t be able to take their eyes off you, love.”
Emma looked off to the side, her earlier anxiety curling its tentacles around her lungs and squeezing. “That’s kind of what I’m afraid of, but um…” She met his eyes again. “Thanks.”
“My pleasure.” Killian pushed himself off the wall he’d been leaning against, leading with his hips. He offered her his arm. “May I escort our newest star to her debut performance?”
It was such a cheesy thing to do, but his exaggerated chivalry helped to shake loose the grip of her nervousness. “If I say no, are you gonna follow me anyway?”
Killian’s eyes did that twinkly thing again and crinkled a little at the corners and it was all just completely unfair. “Aye. Probably.”
Emma laughed, finally feeling ready to face a Big Top full of spectators. She tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow. “Then lead on, Catboy.”
“As the lady wishes.”
Much to her surprise, Emma’s first performance went off without a hitch. All three Jones brothers hit their marks with practiced ease. Killian behaved himself, no headbutting or tail swishing at her. She didn’t drop her whip even once. And the crowd…
Emma had never experienced anything like it. People - hundreds of people - cheering for her . She’d heard about the allure of the spotlight and the roar of the crowd, but now that she’d actually lived it, the feeling was beyond anything she could have imagined holed up alone in her room at a group home. By the time the music went into its final chorus, Emma wished they could do an encore.
And so it went week after week. Emma settled in to the rhythm of the Circus: travel, rehearse, perform, repeat. Some nights the younger cast members stayed up late around a bonfire laughing and passing around a bottle of cheap wine. Other nights it was just Emma and her roommates trying to get a good enough wifi signal to stream Netflix. Everybody pitched in when there was work to be done. Everybody came together for dinner.
They bickered, as family does, with the occasional outright fight. Some combination of two or more of the seven dwarf brothers ended up pummelling one another at least once a week. Emma generally avoided the worst of the drama, but one night she’d seriously considered skinning Killian’s furry self alive and hanging his pelt on her wall.
It had started small - a few of his earlier panther shenanigans creeping into the actual show instead of keeping the nonsense to rehearsal. He’d refuse to do a trick here and there unless she tossed him a treat or petted his ears. It irritated her but she could handle it. So, of course he had to escalate.
For one entire performance, Killian did nothing but rub his head against her and roll around on the ground on his back at her feet until Regina stepped up to the microphone to play it off as part of the show. She asked the audience what they should do with this ferocious beast and they unanimously demanded that Emma rub his belly. Emma threatened him under her breath to use the whip for real, but he only looked up at her with those big, blue cat eyes and licked his chops. The audience went nuts over it. Emma seethed behind her brightly painted smile.
That is, until he showed up at her trailer the next morning with an apology and a box of bear claws.
“How did you know these were my favorite?”
Killian tilted his head, eyes wide with false innocence. The affectation reminded Emma so much of his panther-self, she nearly laughed. “A little birdy told me? Actually,” he continued, making himself at home at her kitchen table, “a little bird told Mary Margaret, who then told me.”
Emma sat down next to him and snatched a pastry from the box. “The bird-talker. Right. That’s… not creepy at all.”
“Creepy bird factor aside, am I forgiven, Swan?”
Emma bit into a bear claw, practically moaning at the sugary goodness. “You’re forgiven, Catboy,” she answered around a mouth full of food. “Just don’t do it again.”
Emma actually liked life at the Circus. She’d lived in tolerable places before. She would even go so far as to say she’d been happy once. With Neal, during their “Bonnie and Clyde” run before everything went to hell. Even then, though, the life itself wore on her. She knew they couldn’t keep going that way, sleeping in a car, showering at truck stops, eating burritos stolen from a convenience store. She just thought when they decided to quit running, they’d settle down together.
Life at Le Cirque felt stable. Surprisingly normal considering the extremely not-normal circumstances. Only a month ago, the idea she could be some kind of freak terrified her, but now… now that she had gotten comfortable, a new fear started to creep in. What if she wasn’t ?
Weeks turned into months, and no ‘latent abilities’ surfaced for Emma. Not a single sign of any powers whatsoever. It bothered her. Worried her. What would happen if she never got powers? If she turned out to be nothing more than a regular human?
“Emma!” Liam’s voice broke through her dark train of thought. “You missed the cue again.” He crossed the sawdust strewn ring to where she stood, her arms wrapped tightly around her middle. Liam ducked down into her line of sight, encouraging Emma to meet his eyes. “Is everything alright, love? You look a bit peaky.”
Emma forced herself to drop her arms, and shook out her hands. She hadn’t realized how tightly she’d been clenching them. “I’m fine. Sorry. I just got distracted.”
Liam studied her for a moment, a worried frown marring his features. “Perhaps we’ve all had enough rehearsing for one morning. You run along, love. Besides, I believe Regina said she’d like a chat with you.”
Icy dread wrapped its fingers around Emma’s heart. This was it. She was about to get fired. Emma walked out of the tent on auto-pilot, not looking back when Killian called after her.
Killian found her eventually. He always managed to find her, but then again, this time she hadn’t exactly made it difficult.
“I’m not sure about your choice of thinking places, Swan. Is there something about the smell of grease and burnt sugar that calms you?”
Several hours had passed since Liam had dismissed rehearsal, and Emma sat in the grass behind the snack bar, arms wrapped around her knees. “Did you seriously come back here to critique my hiding place?”
Killian sat down next to her, nudging her shoulder with his until she raised her head. “No. I came back here because I was worried about you. What did Regina want?”
“Magic lessons. She wants to give me magic lessons, or tried to, actually. We looked through books and incantations and magical objects and - did you know she speaks Elvish? Elvish! And nothing worked. I’m never gonna be able to do this. I don’t know why she even thinks I have magic.”
Killian pursed his lips, considering his answer. “Regina has been doing this for quite some time. Her instincts are usually correct.”
“I think her instinct by the end was to toss me off a cliff and see if I could poof myself a bridge.” Emma huffed. “She’d have been fine with either possible result.”
“Do you believe you have it?”
His gentle tone soothed some of the bitterness in her thoughts. Emma sighed heavily, dropping her head back onto her arms. “I don’t know. How could I possibly know that?”
“It tends to run in families?”
No point in hemming and hawing. Killian was a smart guy. The squeak in his voice when he asked the question told her he already knew the answer. “I don’t know anything about my family. Next.”
“Bitten by a radioactive spider?”
She actually heard him smirking that time. Emma turned her head enough to glare at him, but a smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. “Nope. No spidey-sense. Next.”
“How about this: has anything unexplainable or overly coincidental happened to you when you were in a heightened emotional state?”
Emma raised her head fully, and narrowed her eyes at him. “Regina asked me that.”
“There was this one time. It’s actually kind of why I’m here. I got into a bad situation and I almost got arrested. I was supposed to meet someone in a parking garage, but they didn’t show. They called the cops and tipped them off, so I’d get busted instead of them. So there I am in this garage with a stolen watch on my wrist and the cop has his gun pointed at me. But then the light above my head exploded and there were all these sparks. The cop looked away from me and lowered his gun to duck and I just ran.”
“How were you feeling when that happened?”
“How the hell do you think I was feeling? I was scared out of my mind!” And hurt and betrayed and...
“I don’t know much about how magic works, Swan, but I do know it’s rooted in emotions. It could’ve simply been a coincidence. Or, it could be that your fear in that moment caused the light to blow, thus giving you the chance to escape.”
“Great. So I need to be held at gunpoint to get my magic to work?” Emma rolled her eyes and shook her head. “Maybe Regina really is going to push me off a cliff.”
“It needn’t be anything that dramatic.”
“So what are you going to do? Sneak up on me and yell ‘Boo’?”
“Tried that once and very nearly got myself stabbed for my trouble, so no thank you. However, it’s not a bad plan to try to provoke an emotional response.” He eyed her for a moment, his tongue tracing the edge of his teeth. “I can be quite provocative, you know.”
Emma rolled her eyes, but noticed her pulse had picked up a little bit. Was he sitting closer than before? “Oh, you provoke me alright.”
“Magic needn’t come from fear or anger. Perhaps I could stir up some other, more pleasurable feelings for you.” Killian reached a finger back to scratch behind his ear and smoothly traced it down his cheek to tap against his lips.
Was he actually suggesting-? “Please,” Emma scoffed, “You couldn’t handle it.” He was definitely closer now and definitely looking at her lips and maybe she didn’t mind that as much as she should.
“Perhaps you’re the one who couldn’t handle it.”
Oh, but no. This was her chance. To finally wipe that smug smirk off his face. To finally render Killian Jones speechless. Her pulse raced, her stomach fluttered, her eyes zeroed in on his tempting, teasing mouth and she pounced. Grabbing him by the front of the shirt, Emma hauled him to her, kissing the living hell out of him.
It took him the space of a heartbeat to realize what was happening, but as soon as he did, he joined in enthusiastically. A low gutteral sound of pleasure rumbled through his chest, and she could feel it more than hear it because of the way their bodies pressed together. She wasn’t sure how she’d ended up sort of in his lap, but she couldn’t find it in her to care because his stupid messy hair was so soft between her fingertips and his lips were just as warm and supple as they looked, and he was holding her so, so tightly as though he never wanted to let her go.
A quick break for air, their chests heaving in unison, and they dove back in. Swaying together, exploring each other, the rest of the world a distant memory. Somewhere inside her, something shifted into place. Emma felt lighter than air, as though the only thing keeping her grounded were Killian’s strong arms around her. Her skin hummed with energy. She was flying, she was glowing, she was… oh holy shit she was kissing Killian Jones!
Another break for air. Her lips chased his against her will, but she forced herself to pull back, keeping her face as neutral as possible.
Killian on the other hand… There was nothing neutral about him, with his eyes glazed, and his hair a dark riot from Emma’s fingers. His nose traced the curve of her cheek, and it took every ounce of willpower she possessed not to lean back into him at the ragged sound of his voice. “That was…”
A terrible idea? The best idea ever? Everything? No. Dangerous is what it was. Emma cleared her throat and stood awkwardly.
“It didn’t work.” She held up one hand, wiggling her fingers in demonstration.”Still no magic. Now come on, we need to get back to rehearsal.”
Emma walked away without looking back. She couldn’t bear to see him so beautifully wrecked. Couldn’t bear the thought that she might look the same. But, as usual, he caught up to her. “You know, love, one of these days I’m going to stop chasing after you.”
Though the admonishment lacked any real heat, Emma’s heart stuttered. She drew up short, but before she could form a response, Leroy, one seventh of the dwarf acrobatic squad and part-time handyman, stomped up to them.
“If you’re headed back to the Big Top, sister, don’t bother. All practices are cancelled for this afternoon.”
“Why?” Emma asked.
“I’ve gotta go fix the breaker box. There was some kind of weird power surge a few minutes ago. Didn’t you guys see the lights flicker? It happened all over the whole lot.”
Stunned speechless, Emma merely nodded her acknowledgement at the man. Meanwhile, Killian was grinning at her like the were-panther who ate the canary.
“Still think it didn’t work, Swan?”
Emma couldn’t think, couldn’t get enough air in her lungs. She needed to get away. To be alone for a while to process. “I'm going back to my trailer. Don’t follow me.”
For a guy who just a second ago was bursting with smugness, there was a striking note of longing in his voice when he answered, “As you wish.”
It couldn’t be. For so, so very many reasons, it couldn’t be. The power surge couldn’t have been her. And it sure as hell couldn’t have been because she was kissing Killian. Because that would mean…
No. It’d less than a dozen weeks since Neal. She couldn’t be developing feelings for someone else so soon. Shouldn’t be having feelings for anyone at all. Hadn’t she learned anything? Her brain kept telling her to get a grip. Shore up her defenses. Her heart though - all it wanted to do was beat next to Killian’s.
Emma couldn’t sleep that night. Every pop and creak in the darkness of her trailer, every light that flickered through her window - it made her wonder. She felt like hell the next morning and barely even had to fake illness to convince Regina she couldn’t rehearse or attempt any more magic that morning. Blessedly Ruby and Mulan backed her story. She knew her roommates heard her tossing and turning all night, and god knows the entire cast had seen the power surge the day before, but they didn’t press her for information. They just snuck her some breakfast from the cook house, and told her they’d check on her at lunch. The idea that she had real friends in her corner, well… that messed with her insides as much as anything else.
When she emerged the that afternoon, twenty four hours post-kiss, she found Killian sitting outside her trailer to greet her. Sleek and whiskery and right by her side as always. He didn’t shift into human form and try to talk to her. He just nuzzled her hand and looked up at her with glowing eyes that seemed to say, “I was worried about you.”
Emma told herself things could and should go back to normal. She tried over the next few days to act as though nothing had happened. That was what she wanted, right? If she could get her head on straight where Killian Jones was concerned, then maybe - maybe she could get a handle on the whole magic thing. So why did her freaking heart have to flutter every time she looked at him?
Pretending wasn’t cutting it. The situation required full-on avoidance.They needed to work together for the act, but outside of performances and rehearsals, Emma did as much as possible to lose her ever-present feline shadow.
“Swan, the Circus grounds aren’t very large, you can’t keep avoiding me forever.”
Emma kept walking. “I’m not avoiding you. I’m just dealing with stuff.”
“Right. Of course. Go ahead. Don’t tell me you’re not avoiding me anymore because I’m actually quite perceptive and this-” he gestured between them “-this is avoiding me.”
“Killian, I’m not in the mood.”
He caught her arm, spinning her to face him. “Look, if this is about the kiss-”
“ That’s what you think this is about?” Emma interrupted, shrugging her arm out of his grasp.
“Is that not what it’s about? Swan that kiss meant something to me and if you’re honest with yourself, I believe it meant something to you, too. But I don’t expect anything from you. I won’t press the issue. There’s no reason we can’t even bloody talk to each other. We have to work together, love. At some point you have to trust me.”
“Trust is… not really my thing.”
“And why is that?’
“Because everyone I’ve ever cared about has left me behind! My parents, foster families, the guy I-” Emma froze. She hadn’t meant to mention him. She hadn’t meant to say any of this.
Killian nodded slowly, understanding dawning in his eyes. “And the guy , eh? I’m assuming this would be the person who was supposed to meet you in the parking garage.” Emma looked down at her boots and that apparently was confirmation enough. “Did you love him?”
She snapped her eyes up to meet his. “Yes. I loved him. And I got my heart broken. That enough humor for you?” Emma kept her voice completely flat and finished with a sarcastic smile.
His whole demeanor softened. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m glad to hear that.”
“You’re glad to hear I had my heart broken?”
“If it can be broken, it means it still works.”
The heartbreaking gentleness in his face and voice knocked something loose inside of her. Emma opened her mouth but no words came out. No clever retort. God, how did she get here? He’s right. On some level she knew he was right, or at the very least he’s not wrong. For all she’s been through in her seventeen years on this earth, she can’t quite kill the hope inside her that home does exist. That there are people she can trust. That she can find someone to… But no. What if she was wrong about him? About all of this? She can’t - won’t take that chance.
She didn’t belong here. She couldn’t make her magic work, if she had any to begin with. She needed to get the hell away from Killian Jones and his eyes that could see right through her, no matter how loudly her heart was shouting at her to stay. What did it know?
Thankfully at that moment, Mulan walked up to them. “Emma. There you are. Regina’s looking for you. She said she found some new spell book she wants you to try.”
With a heavy heart and a tight-lipped smile at Killian, Emma walked away.
That night as she lay in her bunk, Emma made up her mind. She’d been here too long. She was getting too attached. All of Regina’s attempts to coax her magic out had failed, and it was only a matter of time before Regina gave up on her. Tomorrow night was a full moon. When Ruby went out for her run through the woods and Mulan went to sleep, Emma would leave Le Cirque Noir.
Packing didn’t take long. All Emma’s worldly possessions consisted of one sad little backpack and an old cigar box with a few keepsakes. She knew she was a coward for sneaking out, but it was less messy this way. No goodbyes. More importantly, no one to try to talk her out of it, and she really, really couldn’t handle someone trying to talk her out of it.
“Swan, where are you going.”
Emma nearly jumped out of her skin at the sound of his voice. “Geez Killian, you scared the hell out of me. What are you doing out here this late?
“Couldn’t sleep.” His smile was tight and didn’t reach his eyes. “I could ask you the same thing.”
Emma tightened her grip on the strap of her backpack and tried fruitlessly to keep her tone casual. “I was just looking for Ruby.”
Killian narrowed his eyes as he approached her. “No. No, that’s not it. It’s a full moon tonight, Ruby’s probably out in the woods hunting rabbits right now.” He stopped right in front of her. “I know you’re new to this shifter business, but even you know better than to go traipsing off after a werewolf on a full moon. You’re running away.”
Emma planted her hands on her hips. “So what if I am?”
“You’re making a mistake.”
“I don’t want to talk to you about this.” Emma shook her head and moved to walk around him, but Killian kept talking.
“Think of what you’re leaving behind, Swan. Your family-”
That got her attention. Emma whipped her head around. “I don’t have a family.”
“That’s nonsense and you know it. You keep trying to run. What are you looking for?”
“This is your home, Swan. Here. With all of the people who-” She saw a flicker of hesitation cross his features before he finished the thought. “- who love you.”
God, it was all there. Everything she was afraid to face was right there looking her in the eyes. He held himself back from her, but she could see every emotion coursing through him in every clench of his jaw, every twitch of his dark brows. How could he do that? Open himself up like that? Look at her like- like-
Emma scoffed. “Look around Killian. I don’t belong here. I don’t see my family. I see fairy tales. I see magic and monsters and everything wonderful and special and it’s just… it’s not me. I’m not special. My magic - if I’ve really even got it - doesn’t work! I was never a part of this.”
“Then what are you a part of?”
“I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of anything. I’m just a lost girl who never mattered. I always get left behind sooner or later.”
“So you run away before you can be left behind again. You’d rather leave everyone else behind. Don’t you even care about - about anyone here?”
“Of course I care. But I have to do what’s right for me and-”
The report of a shotgun pierced the night followed by a howl of agony. Emma and Killian’s eyes locked, their argument forgotten.
Even without a shifter’s enhanced hearing, Emma clearly made out the pitiful yelps and followed the sound into the trees. The sounds grew steadily louder until they crashed through the underbrush into a clearing to find an unnaturally large wolf with silvery eyes sprawled on its side. Blood matted Ruby’s dark, shaggy fur and her breaths came in shallow pants. Her cries of pain weakened into helpless whimpers, but as she caught sight of Emma and Killian she gave a whining cry of acknowledgement.
Emma knelt on the ground beside her friend and lifted Ruby’s head into her lap. “It’s okay,” she whispered, “It’s going to be okay.” But the words sounded hollow even to her own ears. Nothing about this was okay. Terror gripped Emma’s heart. Her friend - God, one of the only friends she’d ever had - was dying right in front of her and there wasn’t anything Emma could do about it.
Emma looked to Killian, her eyes pleading with him for a better answer than what she knew he could give. “You’re sure she can’t just shift and heal herself?”
He gave a small shake of his head. “It doesn’t work that way. Maybe if I shift, the panther would be strong enough to drag her back to the Circus lot?”
Emma surveyed Ruby’s broken body, tears pricking at her eyes. “I don’t think she’d survive the trip.”
Killian nodded. “You’re right. I’ll call Regina.” He pulled his cell phone out of his pocket, glanced once at the screen then dropped it on the ground, growling with frustration. “No bloody cell signal out here.” He scrubbed a hand down his face and took a deep breath. “Alright Swan, it has to be you and it has to be now.”
“It has to be me what?” He wasn’t making any sense or maybe Emma just hadn’t heard him right over the rush of blood in her ears.
“You have to try to heal her. It’s her only chance.”
“But I don’t - I can’t-”
“You can , Swan. You have magic. You know you do. Stop running away from who you are. Think about how much you care about her, or how scared you are or - bloody hell, how angry you are at me! Whatever you have to do. Find that emotion and use it to save her.”
His eyes bored into hers and Emma couldn’t look away. The intensity of his gaze - no, the intensity of his belief in her grounded her. Broke through the haze of panic. He offered her his hand and she grabbed onto it like a lifeline.
“Now focus. You can do this, Emma.”
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Reaching deep within herself, Emma opened the floodgates of her guarded heart and allowed herself to feel how much she cherished Ruby’s friendship, how much she would miss her if she lost her, how much she’d miss everyone she had been planning to leave behind only an hour ago. You don’t have a home until you just miss it.
In that moment she knew. She had a home. She had a family. With that knowledge came a spark. A white-hot point of light, and Emma held onto it, pulled it up, up to the surface until it spread across her skin, accumulating in her palms and the tips of her fingers. A surging, radiating force just waiting to break free because a member of her family was dying and she’d be damned if she was going to let that happen.
Emma’s eyes sprang open and the first thing she saw was Killian’s face, a look of absolute awe across his handsome features. “What?” she murmured, a self-conscious smile tugging at her lips.
He bobbed his head in the direction of her lap. “Look down.”
Emma looked to find her hands glowing. Actually, literally glowing with bright white swirls of magic. She’d never wielded it before, not intentionally anyway, but some instinctive part of her knew exactly what to do.
“Killian, trade me places.”
He complied immediately, taking Ruby’s head into his lap and placing a hand on her shoulder to hold her steady. Emma took his place at Ruby’s back and extended both hands, fingers spread and palms down over Ruby’s side. The glow from her hands grew in intensity until it was nearly blinding. Emma had to close her eyes against the glare, but it didn’t matter. Some sense she never knew she possessed could feel the buckshot lifting from the wounds, the bone and flesh and fur knitting itself back together again, the blood returning to vital organs.
As suddenly as it had come, the light from her hands vanished. A loud yelp was the only warning Emma got before she found herself flat on her back on the ground, a paw larger than a human hand pinning her chest and a big, wet, rasping tongue licking her face.
“EW!” Emma squealed, giggling with relief. “Get off, ya mutt! You have dog breath!”
Ruby bared her wolfish teeth in something that looked (if a bit disturbingly) like a smile, and retracted her paw so Emma could sit up. She shook out her coat, rose onto her hind legs and shifted into a very much alive and whole human. She offered Emma a hand to get up from the ground and as soon as she was standing, pulled her into a bone crushing hug that Emma was more than happy to return.
“Look who’s a witch after all!”
“I guess I am.” Emma discreetly swiped a thumb under her eye before leaning back where Ruby could see her face.
“The bitch and the witch. Sounds like a pretty good band name.”
Emma laughed and shook her head, too relieved that her friend was okay to even bother with a sarcastic response or eye roll.
Killian hung back to give the girls their space, but Ruby waved him over and as soon as he was within reach, pulled him into a hug as well.
“Thank you. Thank both of you,” she said when she finally released the two of them from her death grip. “I was so focused on the prey I was chasing that I didn’t even smell that poacher.”
“We’re just glad you’re alright, Red,” Killian answered. “But if you’re feeling like some gratitude is in order, I know you know where Granny hides an extra pie. I certainly wouldn’t turn that down.”
“Done.” Ruby spun on her heel and headed out in the direction of the Circus lot with Killian following her, but Emma hesitated.
“Um, Ruby? Can we catch up with you in a minute?”
Emma was such a stew of emotions in that moment, that she didn’t even scowl at Ruby’s lascivious smirk. “Oh, take your time, honey.”
Ruby disappeared from their line of sight and Killian took a step closer to Emma. “If it’s privacy you're looking for, you know she can still hear us. Wolf senses and all that.”
“Oh I know. I’m fully expecting the third degree when I get back to the trailer later.”
“Back to the…” Killian tilted his head in bemusement. “Hold on, are you actually staying?”
“Why did you think I wanted to talk to you?”
“I assumed you were simply saying goodbye.”
“I do have something I want to say, but it isn’t goodbye.” Emma took a step toward him. “I want to thank you, Killian. For believing in me. No one has ever really done that before.”
He smiled broadly. “You’re a bloody hero, Swan. A marvel. Believing in you is as easy as breathing.”
Blushing, Emma glanced away needing a respite from the earnestness in his eyes. “I wanted to say something else, too.”
“Aye, what is it?”
“That you were right.”
“Well, a man loves to hear that, darling, but what exactly was I right about?” Some of his customary swagger had returned as he stepped closer.
“That this is my home. This Circus, these people.” One more step and they were toe to toe. Emma lightly rested her hands on his chest, feeling the wild beat of his heart beneath her hand. Her tongue darted out to wet her lips as she looked up into his face, his expression so full of hope and promise, and she wasn’t afraid anymore. “You.”
He searched her eyes even as his hands found her waist, gripping there as if convinced she would try to run again. “You really are staying.”
Emma smiled and curled her hands around the lapels of his jacket. “I really am staying.”
“Then allow me to be the first to say, welcome home, Swan.” Or, at least that’s what she thought he was trying to say. Impatient half-way through the sentence, Emma hauled his mouth to hers and the last few words had been little more than a murmur against her lips.
Her hands found their way under his jacket and around his back, his tangled into her hair cradling the back of her neck. They swayed together in the moonlight as with each brush of lips and tongue the kiss grew deeper and sweeter. Determined and slow and steady as the stars shining down on them in the clearing.
Somewhere in the back of her mind, Emma knew that eventually they would have to stop. To go back and join the others, probably to the soundtrack of a few catcalls and wolf whistles when they showed up in the cook house hand-in-hand. But right now she couldn’t bring herself to care. Right now everything was perfect and right and good. Emma Swan had finally found her home.