It isn’t to say she’s thoroughly peeved with her advisor, because – let’s face it – graduating on time isn’t exactly her forte anyway. It’s somewhat of a miracle that she had made it this far without her foster parents’ ambitions bearing down on her, domineering as they are. It’s not like she had ever planned on making a life out of her impulsive, unruly habits after she left home.
Even she has to admit she could be a rebellious little shit sometimes – missing classes here and there and, on more than one occasion, talking back to the professors who would stride right through her defensive blocks. It had felt like high school all over again, except she eventually learned how to deal with the high mighty aristocrats in the real world. A little respect actually comes a long way.
Still, it’s sort of inevitable that she’d have to pay the price for her past mistakes. And, okay, maybe Emma is a little pissed. At least enough to warrant the raging headache simmering beneath her left eye.
She’s peeved, and it isn’t the kind of thing that could be fixed overnight with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s or, hell, some cheap red wine; because she just knows – knows that, for one, she isn’t graduating on time, which is… okay. And two, she’s a whopping six credits away from doing so.
Why? Because she’s a rebellious little shit.
And judging by the little post-it note her advisor had given her, a cocky one, too. Not that she could argue with that.
Emma wishes at that moment that she had grabbed her usual dose of coffee on her way over, the one that she had unwillingly skipped in favor of making it to class on time. The class that – surprise, surprise – is the gateway out of her standing as an undergraduate.
Maybe thoroughly peeved is an accurate expression after all.
She has taken a seat in the far left corner, in a shady looking chair that might collapse if she weighs a few extra pounds. But the window holds a nice view of the campus quad. And god forbid she have nothing interesting to look at.
A few feet away, a girl named Kathryn has taken the vacant seat beside her. Her small, pale face is perched low into the table, blonde curls falling over her shoulders as she quickly skims through an open textbook in front of her. Kathryn’s a year behind Emma, and thankfully shares no other interests except for the occasional drink down at the Rabbit Hole on Friday nights. She could be a bit over the top when it came to friendliness, and frankly it makes Emma uncomfortable.
“Did you forget your book or something?” Kathryn asks as she catches Emma’s eye, jarring her out of her reverie. “We can share mine.”
Her lips curve into a warm smile, one that emitted just the right amount of cordiality that almost makes Emma grimace in return. At long last she’s too resigned to care.
Emma forces a smile. “No thanks, Kathryn. I think I’m good.”
“You sure? I don’t mind. Mary Margaret told me you were struggling with your loans.”
Emma wants to laugh. If anything she really wants a drink right now and drown in it and forget she’s even in here. And maybe laugh a little then, too. But she figures laughing would give Kathryn the wrong impression – or rather the right one given how annoyingly naïve she could be. Either way she isn’t one for hurting other people’s feelings, naïve or not.
Emma sighs and presses her palms into her tightly-shut eyelids. “I’ll pass. I’ve had Whale before, you know. He’s not so bad.”
The blank look she receives in turn makes her reconsider her words. “Dr. Whale retired last semester, Emma,” Kathryn reminds her slowly.
Emma matches the blank look, her forehead creased as she insists, “You’re lying.”
“I – I’m pretty sure I’m –”
“Then who’s his replacement?”
Suddenly the room quiets, along with Emma’s thoughts on the matter once they’re answered. The door to the classroom opens, revealing a woman as she sweeps in with the sort of grace that could put a cat to shame. It’s weirdly… goddess-like, Emma notices, which is the first thing. The second is a tossup between the way her perfectly coiffed dark hair bounces above the woman’s shoulders, and the sinfully tempting gray dress adorning her figure. Her heels clank sharply against hardwood floors before halting midstride.
Emma feels her eyes stray briefly, and, realizing what she’s doing, snaps her gaze away with an embarrassing case of dry mouth.
“Professor Regina Mills,” Kathryn whispers beside her, which Emma barely has the will to pay attention to as she nervously latches onto whatever moisture she has left in her mouth. “Head of the Communications Department. You might know her as the Evil Queen.”
This time Emma can’t hold back the choked laughter, because of course her situation couldn’t get any more botched up than it already is. She’s essentially leaking with her own misery and whatever greater force out there can’t save her the time of day.
The noise catches the attention of several heads around her, including the pointed gaze of the Evil Queen lady from the front.
“Problem?” comes the husk reply, and it takes Emma a second longer than it should’ve to realize the question was directed at her.
Next to her, she feels Kathryn tense, and it’s such a shame that Emma can only mimic the movement for entirely different reasons. The voice is deep and throaty and she really just wants to kill herself.
Knowing what always occurs when the situation warps itself around her defensive nature, Emma shudders and gives a polite shake of her head.
And just like that, the moment is gone.
“Good,” Professor Mills continues in a clipped tone, swerving her eyes from one side of the room to the other. Emma could swear they wavered over her for the briefest second. “As you are all aware by now, Doctor Whale is no longer an instructor at this school. He has retired and wishes you all the best. I will be his replacement until further notice.”
Red lips curve into a smile, the kind that is remarkably similar to a politician’s smirk which, again, Emma finds weirdly appealing. Like, the kind of appealing she really shouldn’t find appealing.
“My name is Professor Mills. And welcome to Elements of Debate,” she says simply, swaying her gaze across the room once more. “Any questions?”
This time Emma is sure it lingered over her longer than necessary, because literally the next second one of those nerve-racking smiles is flashed in her direction – er…. Or rather, somewhere in her direction. But it’s that smile that snaps something in Emma; right in the pit of her stomach in a hard stab of… chills.
God. She’s so screwed.
“Very well. If you could all turn to page 17 in your textbook, we will begin with a basic overview. Afterwards we will discuss the syllabus –”
“You okay? You look kind of flushed,” Kathryn mutters from the side. She slides her textbook over with large, concerned eyes.
Emma bobs her head in an absentminded nod. “Yeah. It’s just uh… warm in here.”
Ahead, Professor Mills has already begun lecturing, ducking her head low as she reads the contents of the textbook in a low, sultry voice. It’s beyond aggravating and makes the room all the more stifling.
It isn’t until the end of class for Emma to realize she doesn’t need a window to look at after all.
When Emma had made a pact her freshman year to steer clear of the instructors who set her on edge, that included the hot ones. Granted, she’d be hard pressed to find anyone who isn’t old or causes her stomach to churn in remembrance of her parents.
The pact is quickly being thrown out the window as she stands before the door to the office, nervously fastening her gaze onto the lettering inscribed over the golden plate.
Jesus, if there’s ever a time to sink into her bed and fall into a coma, now would be it.
But part of her job as the undergrad requires signatures that are deemed somewhat of importance if it has the attendance office on her ass about it. She needs the approval from all of her teachers.
All of them.
And that includes Miss Fuck-me-heels.
Emma squeezes her eyes shut, willing herself to back away from the door and call it a day. But it’s late afternoon, she’d missed lunch, and the last thing she needs is a sleepless night wondering what if. So, before she could lose her nerve, she raises a fist and raps hesitantly against the door.
There’s some rustling inside, which means she isn’t too late, followed by silence as Emma waits. And waits; maybe a little too long if her impatience is riding in.
Finally she hears the faint demand filter in through the door.
Her hand trembles slightly as she pushes against the handle, forcing the door to pry apart, and sweeps her nerves away with a painfully calm façade. It’s instantly shattered upon seeing the second figure standing awkwardly from the left wall.
Emma’s forehead creases. “Graham?”
Graham is one of the campus officers that Emma became acquainted with back in her second year, when sneaking into a dorm room at three in the morning isn’t quite easy when you’re plastered. He isn’t much older than her, really. They had spoken frequently over the year, sometimes even joining her for a game of darts during his free time. But those chats dwindled as Emma earned enough to room in an apartment, returning to campus grounds decidedly less than when she had lived on them.
“Emma,” he greets with a grin, wide and open and… anxious? Definitely anxious. Emma’s surprised he hasn’t drilled holes through his pockets from the way his hands seem to dig into the fabric.
“Thank you for your time, Officer Humbert,” a voice intercedes from the side, reminding Emma what she’s doing here in the first place. “You may go now.”
Before Emma can utter another word, Graham adheres with a swift nod, and barely offers a glance as he passes by her in a stride of fidgety movements and stiff joints. The door closes behind him, leaving a trail of unbearable silence.
“Can I help you?”
Any intention of keeping her features carefully neutral vanishes as she startles and whips her head to meet Professor Mills’ sharp gaze. The intense scrutiny Emma’s under causes her to fidget nervously without a response.
A delicate eyebrow quirks up. “Well?”
It’s the annoyance in the word that jerks Emma out of whatever panic driven trance she’s in. She clenches her jaw and wills herself to take the extra steps until she’s close enough to the desk to slide the paper over. Up close, she manages to get a better look at certain details in the woman’s face that can’t be seen from the back of a classroom; eye color, lip shade. There’s a thin scar just above her lip that Emma can’t help but stare at. Somehow it suits her.
Overall she looks so… young.
She looks up in time to know she’s been staring for too long, if the amused smirk is anything to go by.
Emma stiffens and tries to ignore the heat swelling over her cheeks. “My uh… graduation papers. It needs your signature.”
Her dark gaze doesn’t even flicker as she regards Emma with a curious look. “And you are?”
“Emma,” she replies, clearing her throat. “Emma Swan. I’m in your debate –”
“Yes, I’m well aware which course you are in, Miss Swan,” Professor Mills interjects, stretching out the use of her last name in a husk. “It’s hard to forget the girl who found it prudent enough to disrupt my class.”
Well, at least she has some insight on the woman before Emma’s body is tossed in a dumpster somewhere.
“I – right. Sorry about that,” Emma offers in a hasty apology. “My… friend just mentioned something funny. It won’t happen again –”
“And what, pray tell,” Professor Mills begins with a measure of condescension in her tone that makes Emma’s back go rigid, “could she possibly have said that you would find so ‘funny’?”
Emma can feel her cheeks tinge red again, this time in a level of anger and more than a little embarrassment. She needs to stay calm. She’s already beginning to recognize the signs of a student-teacher relationship gone wrong, as it typically did during her earlier years. She has the tendency of rushing head-first into a challenge that would ultimately leave her with a bad start to the semester and a trip to the dean’s office.
Biting back a sigh, she shrugs feebly and answers, “Something about your nickname being the Evil Queen.”
“And I suppose you find that amusing?” Professor Mills curtly inquires, with a briskness in her tone that suggests she isn’t at all surprised by the response. In fact, aside from the stern features that appear to be permanently etched over her face, she remains completely undeterred.
Emma’s fingers twitch against her sides, prompting her to coil them into fists. “No, ma’am,” she grits out. “I don’t.”
“That’s what I thought,” the older woman states with an air of satisfaction. She leans back into her seat, jutting her chin upward when she picks up a pen and quickly scribbles over the given paper. Her next words are flat and impartial as she hands Emma back the signed forms.
“Do see yourself out, dear. I’m afraid I have other matters to attend to.”
It rings clearer in the detached tone than it does in the wording, and it offends Emma more than she thinks possible. Rolling her eyes, she quickly takes the hint and stalks back to the door, lingering outside the open doorway briefly as she considers her next response.
“The name suits you, you know,” Emma offers starkly, gaining no small amount of pleasure when dark eyes snap up in surprise. “Maybe if you ever get that stick out of your ass people will start calling you Snow White.”
And with that, she closes the door with an audible snap.
It doesn’t take much longer afterward for Emma to regret her actions. Considering she’s already up there on the school’s shit list for her backtalk, she doesn’t exactly have an excuse this time, except that her emotions are raging high and her new communications professor is a complete she-devil.
Who also happens to be incredibly hot.
Not that that matters. The last thing she needs is a crush on some lady who manages to get under her skin.
Once, Emma tells herself. She was just caught off guard; that’s all. She sure as hell isn’t going to let it happen again, not when she has her forms turned in and there is no other reason to confront the woman outside of class. She would simply sit in the back row and avoid eye contact, and maybe after a few weeks the whole situation will slink away into a bad memory.
And if Professor – Regina, she decides instead. She isn’t about to give the lady the satisfaction of Emma’s respect – wants to give her hell about it, well, she could always transfer, right?
“You’re doing it again,” Ruby observes from the side, pulling her from her thoughts.
It’s midafternoon the next day when Ruby invited her out to the quad, or dragged her out, rather, as Emma isn’t aware of partaking in the decision when she’d repeatedly said no. But her next class doesn’t start for another hour, and she has to admit it’s a nice day outside for a picnic.
Emma contemplates ignoring the statement altogether, taking a sip from her bottle of water before she gives in to curiosity. “Doing what?”
“Thinking,” Ruby answers, as though it were obvious. “You’ve been doing that all morning. What is it this time?”
“What? Is it suddenly a crime to think?”
“It is when you haven’t heard a single word I’ve said for the last ten minutes,” Ruby declares with a pout, but the worried crease around her brow tells Emma otherwise. “Em? Seriously, what’s wrong? Is it the money thing? ‘Cause I’m sure MM’ll understand if you can’t make the rent –”
“No, jesus, why does everyone think my problems always revolve around money?” Emma retorts sharply. “I know how to hold my own, you know.”
“I just meant –” Ruby begins, though it’s a statement left unfinished as Emma finds herself unwillingly staring across the quad, eyes narrowing in on a familiar figure crossing through the campus’s Liberal Arts building. The figure stops shortly after to speak with a man Emma vaguely recognizes as one of the school’s counselors.
Squelching down the sudden chill in her spine, Emma turns to meet Ruby’s watchful gaze before abruptly asking, “What do you know about Regina Mills?”
That definitely catches the redhead’s attention, and all too soon she’s leaning forward, flicking her eyes towards the source of Emma’s gaze. “You mean Professor Mills?” She smiles a knowing smile. “The hot one talking to Doctor Hopper?”
Emma swerves her gaze to the woman in question, catching a glimpse of dark hair and five inch stilettos before scowling.
“Sure,” she deadpans. “Though I wouldn’t say she’s hot –”
“Oh please. Even if you aren’t into chicks, you have to admit she’s gorgeous,” Ruby points out, considering Emma’s expression thoughtfully. “And judging by your face, you’re totally into her.”
“What?” Emma bristles, incidentally letting out a nervous chuckle. “Christ, Rubes. You couldn’t be more wrong.”
“Or I’m right and you’re going straight for denial,” Ruby offers with a wolfish grin. “How long have I known you again?”
“Apparently not long enough,” Emma shoots back. “She’s mean. Like, stuck up, royal bitchiness mean. Why would I be into that?”
“You tell me.” Ruby shrugs. “She’s been here for three years, from what I know. Honestly I’m surprised you hadn’t mentioned her sooner. She seems like your type.”
At Emma’s defensive glare, Ruby raises her palm. “After Neal, you can’t tell me you don’t sway for the bad boys.”
“Bay boy? Seriously?” Emma counters, exasperated. “She’s not even a boy –”
“Right. She’s mean.”
Emma huffs out a breath, something sharp and heavy settling in the pit of her stomach as she makes to stand. “I’m not listening to this.”
“Woah, Em. Come on. I’m just kidding,” Ruby quickly defends, clasping the blonde’s wrist before adding, “I’ll stop. I promise.”
Leveling the other girl with a wary glare, Emma responds to Ruby’s assurance with another huff as she takes her seat back on the ground, ignoring the searching brown eyes altogether.
“Her mom used to be a part of the school board years back,” Ruby continues tentatively, severing the silence. “That’s all I’ve heard. And… maybe a few rumors that spread around the soccer team last year.”
At that, Emma lifts her chin, pinning her with a lopsided gaze. “What kind of rumors?”
“The bad kind. You know how they are,” Ruby answers with a flippant wave of her hand, though the uncertain glint in her eyes says differently. “Apparently she had a thing with one of her students. It was never proven, though. I wouldn’t read too much into it.”
“I wasn’t going to.” Lie. The curiosity’s killing her.
“Good.” Ruby seems satisfied by that answer, and managed a complete turnaround as though the conversation never happened which, honestly, Emma’s grateful for. But she had stopped listening to the excited chatter about a girl’s night out, or something or another, long before she even realizes Ruby’s talking again.
Against her better judgment, Emma’s eyes sway over to the building across the quad, where she can still make out Professor Mills’ form chatting amicably with Doctor Hopper. It’s a strange visual, remembering their less than stellar confrontation the day before, only to watch the same scornful woman throw her head back and laugh.
Suddenly, as if sensing her stare, dark eyes shift and connect with hers from the distance, causing Emma to veer back slightly in surprise. She half expects to be brusquely ignored, maybe even given a disdainful glare simply for existing, and then realize she’s imagining things and the look isn’t being directed at her after all.
But those eyes continue to linger too long to be considered an accident, and if Emma looks hard enough, she can faintly distinguish the outline of a smirk curving around red lips.
Emma immediately feels the heat prickle beneath her skin, her stomach jolting as she jerks around as though she’s been scorched. Hastily packing her things up, she springs up from the ground and barely has the decency to offer Ruby an excuse.
“Sorry. Late for class.”
“But you still have twenty –”
The words are cut off as she stalks swiftly across the courtyard, heading in the opposite direction of her next class. It isn’t until she’s on the other side of the campus, five minutes late and heart burning in her chest from the pseudo run, that she realizes she’s still suffering the enduring effects of her stomach cramping.
Except it feels like she might’ve swallowed her heart instead and could throw it up any minute now.
It isn’t possible for someone to have this much of an effect on her. It just isn’t.
Even back when she was dating Neal, the closest she’d ever gotten to being this bothered was their first time together; back in her Freshman year when a quickie in the backseat of her car was one of the more exciting aspects of their relationship.
Then again, the situation differs. Neal isn’t her professor, or a woman for that matter, and she can’t recall her nerves being set ablaze with a single look.
Whatever this is… it needs to end.
Emma’s morning is completely thrown off the second she realizes she’s running thirty minutes early; she kind of has a habit of ignoring the time when it suits her.
Still, she isn’t sure what to expect when she strolls into class, dread settling in the pit of her stomach. But it definitely isn’t to the sight of Professor Mills sitting at her desk, head bowed while she scribbles intensively over her paperwork.
Emma falters, slowly regaining the use of her limbs again as she ducks her chin and makes her way to the back of the room.
For the love of God, don’t notice me.
The thought is futile though, because as soon as she crosses the second set of stairs, a voice startles her out of her musings.
Emma clenches her eyes shut, stopping short in her movements, and she knows by the shift in the air that she needs to prepare herself for the inevitable backlash that would ensue. Hesitantly, she whirls on her feet and turns around.
But Regina isn’t paying her any mind. In fact, she focuses solely on her paperwork as though her only intention is to have Emma stand there awkwardly for God knows how long.
Finally she lifts her pen, gesturing to the table in front of her. Her eyes never leave the desk.
“You will sit here for the remainder of the semester.”
And… that’s it. There’s no hidden insult in her words, no indication that might suggest she remembers Emma’s latest offense. Instead her demeanor remains so painfully stoic, Emma wants nothing more than to chuck her books at that stupid, perfect face and run.
She grits her teeth as she considers her options. If she ignores the demand and sits in her previous seat, well… that wouldn’t do well with her plan to wait out the next few months obscured and unnoticed.
But if she willingly complies, there wouldn’t be a plan to begin with; not when she’s being forced to retain a seat in the front, where every word, every move she makes would be accounted for. Not to mention whatever shred of dignity she still preserves is being dangled before her very eyes.
Swallowing the lump in her throat, she goes for the lesser of two evils and cautiously makes her way to the sturdier looking desk towards the front, conveniently placed across the professor’s own stoic, scribbling form.
Emma slumps into her chair with a silent sigh. She’s starting to think she’d have had a better chance of surviving if she had just stuck to staring out the window.
The silence that engulfs the next several minutes is heavy and more than a little uncomfortable. Emma is already having a hard time keeping her eyes trained to her desk, but the soft scratch of pen against paper is driving her insane.
Chancing a glance at the clock up ahead, her gaze seems to waver carelessly in the opposite direction, and before she knows it, she’s watching Regina beneath hooded eyelids.
The desire to snatch her eyes away itch at her like nothing else. Somehow it’s an urge best suited in situations where Emma’s resolve isn’t ridiculously weak, because without preamble, she finds herself very fascinated by the brunette’s concentrated features; an eyebrow would hitch up every once and a while, while red, plump lips would part in silent wording before clamping into a thin line.
“Enjoying yourself, Miss Swan?”
Emma snaps her head back in time to find Regina studying her, one brow arched upward in a sort of condescending fashion, except it’s the tense muscles around the corner of her lips that Emma deliberately acknowledges.
The look is almost… smug.
Emma just knows she’s blushing, but settles for a grim frown that accurately depicts the rest of her bodily actions. Her insides are churning.
“No, ma’am.” The words are clipped. Practiced, and it takes every bit of Emma’s willpower not to huff them out like some angry teenager.
The answering look she receives makes it obvious Professor Mills doesn’t believe her either.
“Really? No cheeky remark?” Regina drawls, her voice low and taunting. “Consider this a lesson then, dear. You realize I could have easily reported you.”
Emma sucks in a deep breath, mind momentarily blackened by curiosity than anything else. “Why didn’t you?”
“Let’s just say I prefer handling issues my own way,” she answers in that cryptic nature of hers. “However, if you think that gives you a right to disrespect me a second time –”
“I won’t,” Emma assures firmly, and strangely enough feels less like an insect waiting to be trampled on, and more like a student being properly rebuked. She can’t tell which one’s worst. “It won’t happen again.”
“See that it doesn’t,” Regina declares with her usual air of authority, but she seems slightly less intimidating now (or maybe more so) as she focuses entirely on Emma, measuring her. “Tell me, dear,” she begins again, placing the pen she hadn’t let go of for the last ten minutes back on her desk. “What is it that you’re majoring in?”
Emma swallows the lump that’s permanently lodged in her throat before answering, “Law enforcement.”
“A far cry from the mechanics of debate, don’t you think?”
“I needed another elective,” Emma responds casually, the ‘I don’t want to be here’ going unsaid. “I can’t graduate unless I make up the final credits.”
“I take it you’re a senior then?” Regina inquires, and at Emma’s wary nod, adds, “And what do you plan on doing after you graduate?”
Emma blinks, her casual demeanor slowly slipping into a distrustful frown. “Not to be rude, Professor Mills,” she states, hedging carefully. “But why do you care?”
“From what I gather, Miss Swan, your brash attitude has gotten you a long way,” Regina remarks instead. “Not many people have the gall to insult me right in my face.”
Emma feels her face flush once more. “Yeah, well…”
“I ask because you seem like a smart girl, despite your… faults. Believe it or not, part of my job as an instructor is making sure none of my students do anything potentially stupid,” she explains bluntly, and Emma furrows her brows as she realizes there has to be a subtle jab in there somewhere. “Though I must say, I certainly wouldn’t have pegged you for the police type.”
“Because I reek of juvenile delinquency?” Emma offers dryly.
Regina leans forward before catching Emma’s eyes from across the desk. “Because cops are useless pigs, dear,” she corrects her, and to Emma’s shock, accentuates the words with a small, slightly amused smile that’s different from the others. It’s not sly or condescending, but… pretty. And it sends her stomach plunging into a pit of butterflies.
“Right,” Emma agrees hoarsely, straining to keep her voice steady despite the massive lump wedged in her throat. “Good thing I’m not one of them.”
Another long uncomfortable silence has Emma under Professor Mills’ scrutiny, where the lack of response forces her to meet the brunette’s gaze dead on, and Emma dreads the pensive, calculating look she receives in return. It’s almost like Regina knows what she’s thinking, which is impossible, because even Emma doesn’t really know. Or at least, doesn’t want to know. But gone is the genuine smile that had Emma’s knees wobbling in their place. She’s almost glad when the smirk returns and a sense of normalcy is reestablished.
“I hope you had the sense to bring your textbook, Miss Swan,” Regina says in her typical snooty way, leveling Emma with one final look before turning back to her desk. “It’s especially grating when students come to my class unprepared.”
Emma sags in her seat, and for once doesn’t pursue a death sentence with backtalk or another bold remark. In fact, she can’t help but feel anything but irked by the superior edge brimming in the woman’s tone, even as the room begins to fill and Emma’s left with this awkward strain in her chest and a horrifying realization.
It’s just a crush, she thinks, struggling to keep the sheer magnitude of Ruby’s words from probing her thoughts. It’s not like she can’t shake off the image of Professor Mills’ almost-smile burning in the back of her skull, or the uncomfortable flutter churning deep in her stomach.
It wouldn’t be the first time she’s grown an attraction for someone completely off limits, and it probably won’t be the last. She just needs to keep a low profile; switch classes if she has to. She’ll get over it eventually.
Just a crush, Emma repeats inwardly, but the words sound empty and doubtful even in her own mind. That’s all.