She had not signed up for this.
Considering that her summer had been spent back home in Storybrooke waiting tables at Granny's like a drudge, and she had been so excited to get back for her sophomore year that she'd headed to Boston a week early and crashed with her friends, wandering around to various hipster garage bands and "alternative" boutiques, dealing with the corresponding surfeit of "alternative" young people, Emma had been completely convinced that she would avoid any hint of a second-year slump. She'd taken to her first year at Boston College like a house afire, juggling classes and social clubs and sports games, plus more than a few interested suitors. She'd applied to the usual suspects of pricey, upper-tier Northeastern liberal arts colleges – Sarah Lawrence, Bard, Middlebury, Vassar, Brown, Tufts – but BC had given her the best financial aid package, and with parents who were, respectively, an elementary school teacher and the manager of an animal shelter, that sort of thing had to come first. Noble professions, but not very lucrative.
Thus, she had become an Eagle, and now was the time when she was expected to start thinking about her major. Emma had diddled around with a few art electives during her freshman year, but nobody was going to mistake her for the reincarnation of Michelangelo any time soon, and she was keen to avoid the impression of being yet another film student who skulked around dark corners in the theater, making shorts about depressed urbanites who wanted to cut their wrists. For no good reason, she'd always had a fascination with medieval history – castles, sieges, battles, kings, queens, princesses, and scheming political factions galore – and had decided, at least for the present, to give it a whirl. Maybe it wasn't the most practical option, but she was smart and she worked hard; she'd get a job regardless of what it said on her diploma. And so, she had happily registered for her classes, set her alarm ten minutes early, and even read half of the assigned textbook.
She was gonna kick sophomore year's ass. No distractions. No diversions.
At least, that was what she thought until she walked into "Eighteenth-Century Europe I: 1700-1750," and got a hot look at Professor Killian Jones.
If that was what was awaiting her, Emma thought that someone should have had the decency to supply her with a warning. (Seriously, what were campus gossip websites for, if not stuff like this?) Not only was Professor Jones much younger than she thought (early thirties) he was also gorgeous. Cliché tall-dark-handsome was bad enough, but add in the blue eyes, the adorably awkward tweed jacket with elbow patches, the plaid shirt, and the lilting Irish brogue – well, pretty much every female in the class was done for. Emma was well aware that she was not the only one sitting on the very edge of her seat, staring fixedly at the professor as he welcomed them in, went over the syllabus, advised them to buy the course texts somewhere else than the bookstore because "it's a bloody ripoff" and patiently answered a lot of inconsequential questions from the swooning freshman girl in the front row. It was a seminar-sized class, eighteen students, so there'd be plenty of opportunity to talk. That accent. Holy fuckballs.
He was also wearing a wedding ring. Dammit.
(Not like she was thinking anything like that! Just because he happened to be the most beautiful man she'd ever seen in her life did not mean he was suddenly available for anything on the DL! The poor guy probably just wanted to do his job without causing traffic accidents and splintered relationships every time he set foot outside!)
Nonetheless, after class was finished, she found herself drawn like a magnet up to the front of the room, where he was whistling tunelessly as he erased the blackboard and forced a sheaf of papers into his complaining leather briefcase. "Professor Jones?" she squeaked.
He turned around and gave her a brilliant, dizzying smile, enough that she surreptitiously reached for the desk to steady herself. Oh god this was bad. "Aye? Hello. What was your name again, lass?"
Lass, seriously. Did people still say that? "Um – Emma. Emma Nolan."
"It's nice to meet you, Emma Nolan," he said, offering his hand for a shake. "Always appreciate a student who takes the time to introduce herself. Means she'll be more engaged with the course, really thinking about what we're learning. Tends to write better papers, too, and after the dreck I have to slog through, I quite enjoy it."
(Of course that was why he was happy she'd introduced herself.)
"I, um, haven't heard of you?" Emma ventured.
"Well, this is my first year actually. First class, even. Fresh out of Trinity, in Dublin. Hope I haven't cocked it up too badly yet."
"Um, no. It's just, you know – " Emma struggled to think of something to say that was devastatingly urbane and witty. Oh Jesus, why hadn't she at least skimmed the New York Times editorial page this morning? "This stuff is – so – so interesting, and you – you know, growing up in a little podunk town in Maine, and – "
He had been listening to her with a polite smile, clearly seeing all kinds of through her lame attempt to be interesting, but at this, his expression sharpened. "I'm sorry, did you say – Maine? Whereabouts in Maine?"
"Storybrooke," Emma said, abashed, knowing that to someone as cool and worldly as he undoubtedly was, this must sound like the equivalent of "Bumfuck." "It's the most boring place in the world, honest, you probably never want to – "
"Storybrooke," Professor Jones repeated, half to himself, unconsciously twisting the wedding band on his finger. "It's real?"
At that, realizing she was staring, he glanced up and gave her a graciously self-effacing smile. "I'm sorry. It's just – my – my significant other, she is – was – known to a man who used to live there, or so she said. I could never find any record of it, I didn't think it was a real place. This is terribly personal, I'm sorry, but do you happen to know a Robert Gold?"
"Actually…" Startled, Emma was about to say yes; she had known Mr. Gold all her life. The reclusive pawnbroker was a mystery in Storybrooke, but it was well known that he had half the town (if not all of it) safely tucked in his back pocket. He'd always been cordial to her and her parents, though, and had taken something of a liking to her; he told her she had potential (though what he never defined, leaving her to wonder if he was one of those creepy old men) and was oddly set on getting her to come back to Storybrooke after she graduated. But how was it that Professor Jones just so happened to…
"I'm sorry," she said. "You were asking for – your wife? Does she know anything else about him?"
Professor Jones smiled tightly. "Milah was never my wife, and yes, I suppose you could say she did. They used to be married."
That startled Emma even more; she'd never heard of a Mrs. Gold, even from the vigorous and irreverent town gossip at Granny's Diner. Gold was both a distinctive figure, limping through the streets with his cane, and a fiercely solitary one. He lived entirely alone in his expansive, elegant mansion at the town limits, the kind of place kids dared each other to ring the doorbell and run away, or even to go up to on Halloween. Local legend held they had never found the kid who'd toilet-papered it that one year. It was horribly rude, but… "Used to?"
His smile was even tighter. "She's dead."
"Oh… I'm… I'm so sorry." Emma felt a flush burning up her throat, into her cheeks. Here she was trying to impress him, show him how wonderful she was (hah) and instead she ended up making him talk about his dead – non-wife? But then why the wedding band? Maybe they'd been engaged.
How the hell did he know Gold?
What did he mean, he didn't think Storybrooke was a real place?
More than slightly discomfited, she grabbed her backpack and fled.
"At least he's not your lit professor." Neal Cassidy crammed half a panini into his mouth and gulped it down without the apparent intercession of chewing. "That would be just too cliché."
Emma made an indeterminate noise intended to express both agreement with this sentiment and condemnation of his poor form at table manners. They had carved out a corner table at Hillside Café, the perpetually crowded campus eatery, and she was nursing a by-now-lukewarm caramel macchiato, as she'd forgotten about drinking it. Other matters, such as confiding about Professor Jones, had taken precedence. "I guess."
"Whatever. I mean, he's your prof anyway, he's completely off limits." Neal loaded up another fistful of panini, waving with his greasy free hand at some of his dudebro buddies from the hockey team; this being BC, they were the Big Men on Campus, and Neal liked to remind Emma how lucky she was to be dating a guy with such social clout. This was more or less accurate, as Neal was her boyfriend only for lack of a better word to call him; it usually meant they hooked up after Eagles football games, but only if the Eagles won. If they'd lost, Neal was usually too busy moping and drinking off-label beer, or picking out dismal mumblecore songs on his secondhand acoustic guitar. He said he was a senior, but he'd also said he was a senior when she met him last year as a freshman. Emma suspected "time off" for unspecified personal reasons, or perhaps having to repeat; he was an easygoing slacker who bummed her notes off her for any exams they happened to share. She couldn't figure out how he'd gotten into the school in the first place. Probably his dad had donated a crapton of money to the alumni fund.
Likewise, Neal's in with the hockey team mainly depended on his ability to supply them with cheap weed, a little side business that he still thought Emma didn't know about. Both he and the student athletes were scrupulously careful to cover their tracks, but it was part of the reason that he always had money to take her to shows and clubs and Red Sox games, and Emma wasn't interested in putting an end to a good thing. To protect herself, she hadn't listed Neal as her boyfriend on Facebook, and figured that if the school and/or the feds ever came calling, she'd easily be able to play innocent. She had blonde hair, blue eyes, and could do the angelic puppy-dog thing like nobody's business; people liked to tell her that she looked like a Disney character or a fairytale princess. Neal, with his perpetual guilty hangdog expression, would be busted in a nanosecond, but it would be all smooth sailing for her.
"Yeah," Emma said in answer to Neal's earlier remark, reminding herself that Professor Jones was completely off limits. It was in the honor code and everything. "But it was really weird, I mean, he asked me about…"
She stopped, not sure if she wanted to get into this, and took a sip of her macchiato. It tasted cloyingly sweet with all the caramel clotted up, but she swallowed it anyway. The downer of being quote-unquote with a guy like this was that you could never be too sure where your secret would end up. But how could this hurt? "This guy back home, just this weird old guy."
"Yeah?" Neal wasn't paying attention, scrolling through his phone and guffawing at something on his newsfeed.
"Yeah. Robert Gold."
Neal dropped his phone.
"Hon?" Emma looked at him, confused.
"Uh… how about that, huh?" Neal dove under the table to retrieve it, and took a long time coming back up. When he did, he disposed of the rest of the panini with terminator efficiency, and grabbed his backpack. "I, babe, I'm late for my class, I should have written down my schedule in my planner better. I, uh, I'll see you later."
"Hon?" Emma repeated, bewildered, and not only for the fact that she was certain Neal had never owned a day planner in his life. But he was getting up and sprinting like someone had told him the dorm inspector had come a week early. She stared at him as he beat feet out the door and away up the path, wondering just what kind of silly juice everyone had been drinking recently, then sighed and made an exit of her own.
Her Core professor would be the hardass who assigned a paper on the first day of class (he was, however, a nearsighted and cranky little Jesuit of at least eighty, meaning she didn't have to worry about the same sort of things she did with Professor Jones) and Emma detoured to Bapst Library after class; she always felt supremely important walking up beneath its sedate gothic spires. By the time she'd thrown together an outline and checked out some books, it was pushing six PM, so she headed to Lyons in anticipation of meeting Neal for their usual dinner date (by which was really meant his chance to copy her notes). But while she waited expectantly, tapping her foot, he failed to show.
Thinking she would have heard about it if there was a significant drug bust, Emma shrugged, texted him just in case, and went back to her reading. She waved to a few of her friends, then decided she would head back and spend the evening surfing the Net, maybe watching movies; she liked to go out, but only with Neal, and what kind of loser went partying on the first night of classes anyway? So she collected her stuff and headed out.
Emma had a quad suite in Walsh, the sophomore dorm on lower campus, which she shared with three of her friends: a vegan, an English major, and her roommate, Wendy James, who was glamorous by virtue of being from London and had at least been considerate enough to apologize when she sexiled Emma last year during finals week. Wendy was the first friend that Emma had made here, the kind of friend you had weird inside jokes with and marathoned geek TV shows with and crawled under blankets to eat ice cream with and share stories about scandalous men and badly behaved women. Wendy had a considerable repertoire of these; Emma had on occasion made up a few of her own. She wasn't totally a wet-behind-the-ears small-town virgin – she and Neal were having sex, for God's sake, she could probably ace the condom-on-the-banana freshman mortification ritual – but Wendy's international life experience and considerable roster of people in the London literary world that she seemed to be on first-name terms with was intimidating.
Emma slowed as she approached the residence hall, fumbling in her purse for her key card. As she did, however, she noticed a dark figure darting out the side door, and hastening away into the trees. The lighting was spotty, but she thought she recognized – she was almost certain she did – the enigmatic Professor Killian Jones himself.
This was startling, but hardly worthy of an FBI investigation. He was a member of the BC community, he could have had any kind of legitimate business in the dorms. So she shrugged it off, swiped her card, and headed inside, up the stairs to the third-floor suite.
Her roommates were out, and she flipped on the lights, throwing her backpack on the living area couch and heading down the hall to her room. She opened the door ("Wendy" and "Emma" carefully fixed up by the RA) – and stopped.
It was the cleanness that tipped her off. She had only been in situ for three days, ever since her dad had helped move her in on Saturday (she may or may not have accidentally said something about Neal, and she could just feel David Nolan hankering for a convenient excuse to run into this chump his only begotten daughter was dating) but she'd already managed to make a mess of it. Housekeeping was not her forte, no matter how much her mom had nagged her and tried to bribe her to clean up her room by raising her allowance (Mary Margaret had finally given up). And everything on her side of the room was… neat.
All of Wendy's stuff looked to be untouched. Emma frowned, paced to the window, glanced out, and paced back. She flipped down the cover of her bed, and up again. Obviously, whoever it was hadn't left a note.
It was just a hunch. She couldn't be sure.
But she was.
Professor Killian Jones had been here, in her room. And he was looking for something.