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Just another brick in the wall

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Just another brick in the wall

 

 

Fall & winter

 

*

 

That’s Jim’s replacement?”

"I’m afraid so."

Kathryn shakes her head in disbelief. “I still can’t believe you did that.”

I didn’t do that. You know Gold went over my head.”

"But how could he do that? I thought athletics was your department."

"So did I."

"Do you think there’s something fishy going on?"

"I know there is." No way, no way, would that person have gotten hired otherwise. Of that, Regina is sure.

That person keeps dragging the rusty soccer goal towards one end of the muddy field. She stops intermittently, wipes her forehead, then wipes her hands on her sweatpants, continues.

Kathryn shakes her head, turns and starts to walk away. After a few steps she stops, turns again, looks questioningly at Regina. “Lunch?”

One final look at the sole figure dragging the weathered metal object on muddy grass. No way. "Sure."

 

*

 

"How are you settling in, Miss Swan?"

Emma looks up from the pile of ropes she’s been trying to sort out. Ropes that, instead of dangling from the ceiling of the gym, lie abandoned in one corner of her tiny and probably moldy (seriously, something must be living and growing inside those walls – her clothes stink every night when she gets home) office.

Mr. Gold’s smile is welcoming, maybe even a little too welcoming.

"I’m… Well…" What can she say? Your equipment sucks. There’s mold in my office. Oh, and none of my colleagues are talking to me because apparently I replaced the most popular teacher in school. That enough for you, Mr. Principal?

"Oh, don’t worry, Miss Swan, I understand. Not everything here is quite state of the art, but I’m sure you know how it is everywhere."

"Right. Budget cuts."

"Exactly."

"I’ve seen worse." She glances at the pile of tangled ropes again. "Kinda."

Mr. Gold is still smiling. “Well, I do appreciate your honesty. Now, have a good day.”

Emma listens to the sound of footsteps and a cane on cheap linoleum.

Would anyone even notice if she took a hammer to the wall of the office? Just to, you know, check what’s inside in case it’s not something living.

Because what does she know. It could be something dying.

 

*

 

Athletics is Regina’s department. And if Gold thinks he can play this game, then, well, she can play it, too.

It’s time to meet and greet this person she has only seen in passing during her first week of employment and see what’s supposed to be so special about her, because so far? She hasn’t been impressed. Emma Swan always seems to be dragging things around and when she’s not doing that, she’s running somewhere. Or driving. Or, occasionally, crawling, as was the case the other day when Regina saw her slowly make her way towards something on the bleachers with a hammer between her teeth. She had to roll her eyes at the sight. Classy.

The gym is dark. First she thinks there is no one there (and yes, it is quite late in the afternoon, but you have to get to them when they are not expecting it), then she hears something from the direction of the weight room.

The sound of her heels on the floor echoes in the deserted corridor.

The noise stops and a head peeks out the door. Messy, sweaty strands of blonde hair. “Can I help you?” Emma Swan asks.

"You do realize the weight room is reserved for students only?"

"What?" Irritation flashes in Emma Swan’s confused eyes. "I wasn’t lifting weights. The damn bench press machine collapsed."

"It collapsed? Just like that?"

"Yes. It collapsed. Like everything in this goddamn building keeps collapsing.”

"I seriously doubt that’s the case."

For a moment it looks like Emma Swan might say something else, but she remains quiet, runs a slender hand through strands of damp hair.

"Are you quite finished, Miss Swan?"

Emma Swan sighs. “You are the vice principal, aren’t you?”

"Oh, yes, I am indeed." Regina smiles. "Have a nice rest of the evening, Miss Swan." She turns on her heels, glances over her shoulder, and she’s satisfied by the stunned look on Emma Swan’s face.

Only when she’s outside and walking towards her car does Regina allow the smile to turn victorious.

Well, well, it looks like Emma Swan might not last long. Gold was clearly wrong about her, no matter what he was thinking when he decided to hire her.

 

*

 

"Mom?"

"Mom?"

"What?"

"How bad was it today?"

"Pretty bad, kid. Pretty bad."

Damn the damn bench press machine. Damn the damn school. Damn her colleagues who look right through her. (Except for the history teacher who almostsmiled at her today.) Damn always almost being late for her first class because her parking spot just happens to be the furthest from the school.

And yes, damn the vice principal who happened to witness her embarrassing outburst when she was hungry and tired and so ready to go home already.

Damn everything.

 

*

 

She bursts into Gold’s office. He’s on the phone, holds up a hand, says, “Thank you,” and ends the call. He turns his attention to her, a half-smile playing on his lips. “Regina. To what do I owe—”

"Save it," Regina says before Gold can finish. "Remind me again why you got rid of Jim."

"Ah, it’s nice to see you, too. How’s that budget proposal coming along?"

She ignores his question. “Athletics and extracurriculars. Those are mine.”

"And that’s precisely why you know as well as I do that Jim was unqualified."

"He’s been here longer than many others."

"And yet, strangely, that doesn’t make him any more qualified for the position. We are talking formalities here, Regina, nothing personal. It was always supposed to be temporary."

"Why her?"

"Why not her? Unlike Jim, Miss Swan has all the necessary certifications. We don’t really get many applicants like that here, now do we?"

"Yes, I’m sure that’s all there is to that."

"Oh, do you still not trust me? Don’t you know how much that hurts my feelings?"

Regina is not amused.

Gold leans his chin on his hands, smiles. “You shouldn’t let your loyalty to your friends, however admirable that quality is, cloud your judgment. I know you are capable of being reasonable and objective and if you are willing to remember that, too, well, then I’m certain it will be sooner rather than later that you understand that Miss Swan is an extremely valuable addition to our ranks.”

Something about the way Gold says valuable seems significant. Now she only needs to find out what that significance is. It can’t be that hard.

She’s even more determined to do that because of Gold’s half-veiled insinuations that loyalty is something less than everything. Jim in some other universe would be expendable. Kathryn, however, would never be that, and Jim is something to Kathryn. Ergo, Jim is someone who should matter.

 

*

 

"Enjoying your lunch?"

Emma looks up. She finds herself face to face with a woman with short, dark hair. “Seriously?”

"What?" The woman’s eyes widen in surprise mixed with alarm.

"I’m just amazed someone is actually talking to me."

"Oh, because of Jim? Yeah, everyone hates that he’s gone."

"Great."

"Oh, I didn’t mean it like that. I mean, don’t get me wrong, because yes, he was nice. He was very nice."

"Okay."

"I’m sure you’re… nice, too." The woman’s voice falls flat towards the end of the sentence and her smile deflates like a balloon.

"I’m sorry, who are you?" Emma asks.

"No, am sorry, I’m… My name’s Mary Margaret Blanchard.”

"Emma Swan," Emma says and offers her hand for a handshake.

Mary Margaret Blanchard takes a quick look around, as if checking if anyone sees, before she quickly shakes Emma’s hand. And… seriously?

Seriously?

 

*

 

It’s pouring outside when Regina looks out of the window of her office. The temperature is in the 40s and everything looks miserable.

Even Emma Swan, who is running towards her car, the hood of her red sweatshirt pulled tight over her head, looks miserable.

The red sweatshirt and the yellow car are the only flashes of color in the whole scenery. Then they are both gone, swallowed by all the gray.

It’s one of those days when Regina wonders if the world will ever not be cold again.

 

*

 

This time Mary Margaret almost doesn’t hesitate before she sits down opposite Emma. “Kathryn is sleeping with Jim,” she whispers too loud.

"Well, hello to you, too."

"Oh. Hi. I’m sorry. I just had to tell someone."

"And you chose… me?"

"Well, you are new."

"Okay?" Emma is not quite sure how that makes sense. "Which one is Kathryn again?"

"That one." Mary Margaret nods towards the woman talking to that history teacher by the coffeemaker. The one who almost smiled at her that one time. Emma is pretty sure his name is David something. Now he’s laughing at something Kathryn is saying.

"You don’t like her, do you?"

"No, not really. In fact I harbor intense feelings of resentment towards her."

"Oh, whoa there. What did she do?”

"Well, long story short, she married my ex-husband."

"Your ex… What?

"Yes. Kathryn Nolan is now married to my ex-husband David Nolan. They are the Nolans, Emma, the Nolans.”

Emma doesn’t know if she should fear the intensity that’s bordering on hysteria. “But isn’t David the one she’s…”

"Yes."

"And didn’t you just say Kathryn and Jim…"

"Yes."

"Explain."

"Well, it’s not like anyone’s supposed to know about Kathryn and Jim."

"Ah. So naturally everyone knows, right?"

"Not everyone."

Emma follows the line of Mary Margaret’s sad gaze. The target at the end of that line seems to be none other than her ex-husband.

This place is certainly… something. But hey, as long as she stays out of it (and never, ever shares a secret of any kind with Mary Margaret), watching all the drama unfold could be entertaining.

Maybe.

Then there is the sound of heels approaching and Emma wants to hide under the table. She doesn’t, though, but, instead, asks, “Hey, does Gold have a first name?”

"No one knows," Mary Margaret whispers. "No one."

 

*

 

"I think Jim will actually be happier coaching than he was teaching."

Both Regina and Kathryn turn to glare at David at that.

"I’m just saying," David says. "Besides, the newbie seems to be doing alright. She was fixing the bleachers till late last Tuesday."

"She’s just sucking up to Gold," Kathryn says. "Regina thinks so, too, don’t you?"

Regina doesn’t say anything. She blows into her coffee, takes a sip, cringes internally.

Emma Swan is talking to Mary Margaret Blanchard. Of course she is.

 

*

 

There is something sad about an empty soccer field on the first day of frost.

Soon, very soon it will be empty for a long time. Empty and useless, all winter long.

Emma sighs after she has gathered all the scattered soccer balls into a string bag at the end of the day.

Empty and useless. The words keep echoing in her head.

Thank god it’s almost Friday.

 

*

 

Sometimes Regina thinks weekends are harder than weekdays.

Sometimes there is no number of glasses of wine that can make her feel otherwise.

 

*

 

Saturday nights in the small bar in the nearest slightly bigger small town are notentirely like that.

It’s not entirely a night devoted to glitter, unicorns and gay loving.

Not entirely.

"Emma?" Ruby asks.

"I have to go."

"Already? Why? I’ve barely seen you since the school year began. Come on, let’s have some fun. And talk. I miss talking to you.”

"No, I really have to go."

"Wait, who is that?” Ruby asks when she finally notices that Emma’s gaze is glued to the person who just came in with a guy with a 90s haircut trailing behind her.

"My boss," Emma says. Her heart is pounding and her palms are getting sweaty.

Saturday nights are not entirely like that.

"Shit," Ruby says. "Shit. But Saturdays are not exclusively…”

"No, but they kinda are, aren’t they?"

 

*

 

Regina almost doesn’t recognize her. She looks very different in a dress and with curly hair.

The dress is red just like her ever-present hooded sweatshirt. That’s where the similarities end. The sweatshirt does not… reveal as much.

She’s suddenly not in the mood for anything this place has to offer.

Besides, what the hell is someone who is friends with Mary Margaret Blanchard doing here of all places?

 

*

 

"Miss Swan."

No. Oh no.

 

*

 

Deer. Headlights. That’s Emma Swan right now. “I’m here with a friend,” Emma Swan says, busies herself with digging her purse for something, probably for the keys to the yellow car.

"So am I, actually," Regina says before she realizes that in her case it’s probably a much more revealing admission. She glares at Emma Swan because somehow the fact that she just said that must be Emma Swan’s fault. It’s Emma Swan’s fault, because Emma Swan shouldn’t be here.

And Emma Swan shouldn’t be wearing a dress that… reveals so much.

That dress and the red lipstick.

"I’m gonna go now. Enjoy your evening. With your friend," Emma Swan says.

Before Regina can come up with an answer, she’s already on her way towards her car.

Emma Swan is always on the move. That makes it hard to bring her into focus. And that? That makes her hard to figure out.

 

*

 

"Hello," David says on Monday.

"Hi," Emma says.

Two people. Two people are now talking to her. Or at least saying hello.

She studies David’s face for a while and his smile looks friendly enough. “So you teach history, right?”

"Yes."

"Could you help me understand the battle lines?"

"Battle lines?" David looks confused.

"Yeah."

"Here?"

"Yeah."

David’s voice is low, conspiratorial, “So you’ve heard?”

"About what?"

"There’s evil lurking in these hallways. A monster from another land. I hear Regina and Gold are preparing for the carnage as the battle lines are being drawn…"

Emma rolls her eyes. “Oh, shut up.”

David’s laugh is deep and there seems to be no end to it. Finally, he pulls himself together. “I’m sorry. Yes, you are right, wherever two or more are gathered in the name of education, there’s bound to be drama. This school is no exception.”

It’s a vague answer, but oh well. “Okay. And which side are you on?”

"I’d like to think I’m on the side of good."

"And which side is that?"

David smiles. “I have no idea. Historically, it’s usually been the side that’s winning.”

At that, Emma laughs. It’s nice to laugh for a change.

 

*

 

Monday.

Kathryn visited her on Sunday. She nodded absent-mindedly at Kathryn’s tales of her relationship woes. All the while she kept thinking how hard it must be, having two people so in love with you (even if one of them might still also have feelings for his ex).

Regina was still thinking about that when she was lying awake at three a.m. and listening to the sound of sirens in the distance. She hadn’t felt that… caged inside her own home in a long time.

Regina sighs.

It shouldn’t be like this. Nothing should be like this.

What she sees when she looks out of the window doesn’t make her feel any less weary.

Emma Swan is high-fiving a student, grinning. Another student is seemingly threatening to throw a baseball at one of his classmates. Emma Swan lifts a warning finger and the student stops. It’s not long before they are all laughing at something.

Emma Swan keeps grinning and Regina feels a pang of something. Anger, maybe, or longing – sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between the two.

They must like Emma Swan. The students.

It shouldn’t be like this. Nothing should be like this.

 

*

 

So maybe there’s mold in her office, but she supposes there are moments when it’s not all bad. The job.

It’s the people, Emma thinks. Mary Margaret and maybe even David and the vast majority of students.

Then there are those people she has no idea what to make of. Like Gold. Or Kathryn.

Or Regina Mills.

For some reason, Regina Mills has been on her mind a lot since Saturday.

What is 'with a friend'  code for when it’s a male friend?

Does it even matter?

 

*

 

Emma Swan is doing pull-ups. One, two, three, four, five. Then she lets go of the bar, lands on her feet, strips off her sweatshirt and tosses it into a corner.

Her skin is glistening, beads of sweat rolling down her shoulder blades, down her arms. She flexes her arms, as if checking if they are still working, and muscles appear where there formerly were none.

It can wait, Regina decides. Her lecture about the weight room being reserved for students only can wait. And that other thing she came to say. Whatever it was.

She’s about to walk away, her throat oddly tight, mouth dry, when she hears the, “What’s up?”

Emma Swan is staring. Her tank top is almost entirely soaked, and, as a result, almost entirely transparent.

Regina blinks. “I was merely…”

"What?" Emma Swan asks when no more words come. She starts patting her face dry with a small towel.

"Need I remind you of the rules regarding the usage of the weight room?"

She flees before she can hear what Emma Swan is muttering under her breath.

 

*

 

Interesting.

 

*

 

One day Kathryn’s smile is the smile of someone who has just won the lottery.

Regina is not sure why she has a bad feeling about that smile.

"I think I figured out why Gold hired Emma Swan," Kathryn says.

Suddenly Regina is not sure she wants to know. Which doesn’t make sense.

At all.

 

*

 

Emma is just about to lock the door of the gym for the night when everything sort of goes to hell.

Because suddenly there is a Regina Mills in front of her. And she looks pissed.

 

*

 

"Your grandfather," she hisses.

Emma Swan’s eyes widen.

"That’s why Gold went behind my back and hired you. I should have known there was something off about you."

The state senator. Leopold White. Both he and his politics – as white and entitled as his name. He’s everything she resents. Every single hurdle she’s had to cross in her life. That’s Mary Margaret Blanchard and her I’m not, but bullshit. That’s Gold and his How would you like a little break from teaching? Just for a while? bullshit. Leopold White and the likes of him represent every. single. one of those things. There must be no end to Gold’s hunger for friends in high places if this is how far down he’s willing to sink. What was he thinking? That Emma Swan’s presence here might miraculously save the school? The whole school district? The whole goddamn universe?

She can’t help but feel personally violated by the whole thing.

And why isn’t Emma Swan saying anything? Why is she just staring, wordlessly, the way her hands have slowly curled into fists the only indication that she’s even heard a word of what Regina is saying.

"My grandfather," Emma Swan finally says. It’s quiet. Perhaps a warning. "You want to talk about my grandfather?"

"Not particularly, no."

"No, you started it so I’m going to tell you about my grandfather."

"I’m not interested in hearing what a nice person he is."

"No? Well then, guess what he thought when I was seventeen and pregnant?"

"You were… What?"

"Guess what he fucking thought?"

"How would I know?"

"Well, here’s the funny thing – I don’t know either. But the fact that I haven’t heard from him since gives me a pretty good idea. So don’t you fucking throw his name in my face. Don’t you fucking dare.

"I…"

"No."

 

*

 

She’s sitting on the floor of the shower room. The tiles are cool, sort of comforting.

Whenever someone brings up her grandfather, it’s, well. It’s like this. The thought that the fact that she’s related to him might be the reason she was hired? Well, that just makes her nauseated.

Emma is surprised by the sound of footsteps. Or maybe she isn’t. Who knows these days.

Regina Mills’s expression is wary, closed off. “I suppose I’m sorry.”

Emma sighs. “Me, too.”

"For what?"

"I don’t even know," Emma says.

For a while there’s nothing but the sound of a tap dripping bouncing off the tiled walls.

Regina smiles tentatively. “So you… have a child?”

"A son."

"He must be what? Ten, eleven?"

"Almost eleven."

"That must be nice. Having someone."

"It is."

She sighs again and wills her body to absorb some more of the coolness of the tiles. She closes her eyes and keeps them closed because otherwise she’s not going to be able to get the words out. “You know what, Regina? That other thing? That time we met in that place? Unicorns and glitter night?”

"Don’t."

Emma opens one eye, peeks.

Regina shakes her head, smiles gently. “I don’t need to know.”

Or maybe she’s saying, ‘I already know.It might be sort of hard to miss, after all.

 

*

 

The heating in Regina’s office is not working properly.

Nothing at this school is working properly. There’s no reason to deny that.

She looks out of the window and it’s snowing. The snow is already forming drifts so it has probably been snowing for a while.

She spots what she’s maybe looking for. Emma Swan is shoveling snow off the pathway that leads to the door to the gym building. Her movements are precise, a little angry.

Emma probably shouldn’t be the person who’s doing the shoveling.

Except she probably enjoys it. Just like she apparently enjoys fixing things.

It’s a thought that stirs something in her. It’s undefined and it’s not quite anything she cares to analyze too much. Not yet.

 

*

 

"If you wanted a new bench press machine, there might be money in the budget."

"What?" Her arms hurt after all that shoveling.

"Money. In the budget." An underlying ‘Are you dim, Miss Swan?hangs heavy in the air. Emma knows that look from her own school days.

"Why?" A horrible, foreboding feeling that she’s somehow being bought off.

"Because this school should have at least some decent equipment."

"What do you want?" Emma asks.

"Why would you think I want something from you?"

"Because there is no money in the budget. I checked with Gold."

"Gold, huh?" Regina tsks. "When will you learn you should be careful with him."

"Oh, I should be careful with him?”

Regina’s expression darkens. “You should be careful.” The unsaid with everyone lingers.

"Is that a threat?"

"Since when were words of solid advice a threat?"

"I don’t know. But you just said I should be careful.

"You learn fast, Miss Swan." For a second, Regina’s lips quirk into a smile, but then it’s gone. "And if I were you, I wouldn’t get too friendly with Mary Margaret Blanchard."

Emma finds that particular warning a little ridiculous. Mary Margaret may be overdramatic and a little too intense, but she doubts she could be considered a real threat. “Really? What’s she gonna do? Poison my lunch?”

"No. But if you divulge any… personal information to her, well, it’s only a matter of hours before everyone knows."

Oh yeah. As if she would ever want to do that. “I’ve kinda noticed.”

"Good."

"Is that all?" Emma asks. She can’t help how she probably sounds a little amused.

Regina stares at her. She does not look amused. Like, at all. There are storm warnings in her eyes. “Do you like teaching, Emma?”

"What?" It’s equal parts a reaction to Regina using her first name and the question itself.

"Do you enjoy it? Is it something you can see yourself doing long-term?"

"Yeah, I mean, it’s pretty much the only thing I know how to do."

"Do you know what happens to a gay teacher in a small town? In this particular small town?”

"Umm. I don’t suppose they get fired, do they?"

"No. That’s not what happens. Not anymore. Instead, they are appointed to minor, harmless positions of power. Just so there’s some distance between them and the students."

"Oh."

"If you like teaching, you should be careful."

There’s something there. Something that makes her want to reach out, but there are boundaries. For a moment or two, however, Emma feels bold. “Do you miss it?” she asks.

"What?"

"Do you miss teaching?"

Regina is quiet. Something in her eyes softens, then hardens.

Emma hasn’t even realized her heart is pounding.

"No," Regina says. There’s a certain finality to the word.

The finality lingers even after the sound of heels on linoleum is long gone.

 

*

 

She does miss teaching. She misses every single aspect of it. The students. The books. The blackboard. Even the piles and piles of essays towards the end of the semester.

She misses all those things she no longer has because of Mary Margaret Blanchard’s inability to keep secrets.

She misses many things. She misses the way the world used to feel less cold.

The way she used to feel less alone even when it was just those piles and piles of essays towards the end of the semester.

 

*

 

"You came out to your boss?"

"No, I… I didn’t, but I also kinda did, I guess."

"Atta girl," Ruby says.

"Ugh. Don’t make me feel like a dog."

"No, seriously, Emma. It’s a good thing."

Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t.

"Besides, she’s hot."

Emma glares.

"Oh, don’t act so innocent. Like you haven’t noticed."

… yeah. The problem is she has noticed that. She has definitely noticed that and that might be why she put on that show that one day when she heard the sound of heels approaching (it’s just damn impossible to walk quietly in those things) when she wasn’t even really doing pull-ups, but it just somehow suddenly seemed like the thing to do even though she had just run fifteen laps on the slightly slippery track outside.