The paper is slammed down on her desk, and Emma takes a moment to glance at the grade scrawled at the top of it– a C-, you can do better than this – before she looks up. “It’s not mine,” she says. “I do numbers, remember? If I had to grade seventy sixth-grade papers every month, I’d walk out and never come back.”
Snow– Mary Margaret Blanchard, technically, but Snow White had been foisted upon her at a high school sleepover and had stuck firmly since– glares at her. “I know it’s not yours. It’s Henry’s.”
“Henry’s,” Emma repeats, her heart doing a funny little twanging thing. Henry is the kid Snow is fostering, kind of. He’d been left at Storybrooke General Hospital at birth, one step up from Emma’s own abandonment at birth at the side of the freeway, and he’s bounced through Storybrooke’s foster system since then. His last foster mom had died when he’d been in Snow’s class last year.
Snow has taken him in while social services try to find him a new place, but she isn’t cut out for sullen kids who aren’t sunshine and rainbows, and Henry has only gotten worse since losing his foster mom. Emma, who’s been dreading and anticipating him being in her classroom for years, has kept her distance from him. He sits in a back corner of math class, scribbling in a notebook, and he is a solid B plus student in math.
She doesn’t bother him, doesn’t initiate any conversations that he clearly doesn’t want. She figures that Snow is bother enough, though she never means to be, and Henry just wants to be left alone. But she’d glanced over a few times and seen what he does at his desk– writes, pages and pages in a notebook that Snow had gotten him, and she’d always assumed that he’d be a star student in Mills’s English classes.
“I think C minus is probably pretty decent for Mills,” Emma offers. Mills is a hardass who seems to delight in terrifying her students, and her classroom is always perfectly silent when she wants it to be. Emma, who is next door and keeps a boisterous classroom, finds it impressive and kind of eerie at once. “You know what she’s like.”
“It’s not decent for Henry,” Snow snaps. “I’ve marked his essays, too. He writes above grade level, and he doesn’t get C minuses in school.” She looks up at Emma, eyes pleading. “He needs some stability right now, Emma. And school is the thing he’s good at. Regina is doing this because he’s my foster son. You know how much she hates me.” Snow’s father had been briefly engaged to Mills’s mother before both had died, which had meant that they’d nearly been sisters. As far as Snow’s concerned, they still are. Mills had been horrified by the whole affair. “You need to talk to her.”
“ I need to talk to her?” Emma says, taken aback. “Have you ever known me to persuade Regina Mills of anything?” Mills storms into her classroom when the volume level is unbearable , according to Mills, and the kids are having fun , according to Emma, and they have been known to have sharp-tongued conversations in the halls.
Emma, of course, responds to Mills’s criticism by sabotaging her smartboard, spiking her coffee with hot sauce (though Mills hadn’t even reacted to that one– she’s like a machine), and, on one glorious occasion, jamming her office chair so it sat at the lowest possible level for a week straight. Because she is a mature adult. (Just like Mills, who avenged her office chair by spraying some hideous men’s cologne in Emma’s supply closet, and now she can’t even poke her head inside the closet without the overpowering sensation of being at a frat party.) “We can’t even be in the same room together without being at each other’s throats,” she reminds Snow. “Remember that professional development day when we got kicked out of a lecture–?”
“Emma,” Snow says, and she has that look on her face that has been appealing to Emma’s softer side since Emma had wound up in Storybrooke and in Snow’s house in her senior year at school. “You have a name in the middle school. You know that. The kids adore you, and everyone knows that you get results. Regina might not like you, but she respects you. I can’t let this grade hurt Henry’s self-esteem. He’s been through…well, you know what he’s been through.”
It’s a low blow, tying Emma to Henry Brooke. But it works. Emma shifts, irritable and guilty, and she says, “Fine. I will speak to Mills. But when she stabs me with a pencil and throws me out of her office, I’m not going back.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Snow says cheerfully, happy now that she’s gotten her way. “Text me when you get her to grade it again. You’ll see. Regina will listen to you.”
Mills does not listen to her. She stares at Emma for so long that Emma finds herself with the distinct impression that she is under one of Marian’s lab microscopes, and Mills has found her exactly as interesting as a single-celled organism. “Excuse me?” she says slowly.
“Yeah,” Emma says, thumbs hooked over the waistband of her jeans. “It’s just…you know Henry’s situation, right? And he’s a pretty good writer. I read the essay, too, and it’s smart. He makes some good points about Animal Farm, a book that I have definitely read and not just skimmed the SparkNotes about immediately before entering this classroom. Hey!” she says brightly, because her last girlfriend had told her that her babbling is charming. “You got me to read a book! That’s gotta be a point in Henry’s favor, right?”
Mills’s expression is positively chilly, and Emma is suddenly sure that Mills would disagree with her last girlfriend. “I don’t give out gold stars to adults reading books for sixth graders,” she says.
“Wow. Scorching.” Emma grins winningly. “But still! Henry’s paper–”
“Henry’s paper deserved a D,” Mills says, which is brutal . “I raised it half a letter grade solely out of appreciation for the writing. What is the main thesis?”
Emma glances down at it, skimming. “Uh. Something about horses? Pigs?”
“Where is it supported in the paper?” Mills continues, eyes flashing. She’s extra hot when she’s scary, but Emma isn’t going down that road. Nope. Not even a little. There was a weird crush a couple of years ago, but she’s shaken it. She thinks. “Where does he use the text to support it? I’ve been teaching here for seven years, Ms. Swan. I know when I’m being bullshitted.” Okay, and while Emma’s on the topic of how hot Mills can be, there is something really fucking hot about hearing her say bullshitted . “Did Ms. Blanchard bother to ask Henry if he meant to write a C minus paper? Or did she jump in because of some misplaced desire to coddle him?”
Emma glowers at her, irritation rising. “You know, it’s not coddling to give a kid a break sometimes. Especially a kid like Henry. He could use a few more adults on his side.”
“He could use some structure,” Mills corrects her, standing firm. “A child like Henry doesn’t need us to pat him on the back for making it this far. He needs honesty and teachers who hold him to the same bar as they would anyone else.” She takes out her red pen, and Emma watches its ascent warily, remembering her own certainty that this confrontation ends with her stabbed by writing implement. But Mills only uncaps the pen and underlines another word, writing another sp? beneath it.
Petty. So petty, and Emma sees red. “You really are the worst,” she bites out, the maybe-crush forgotten. “I don’t know what possessed a sociopath like you to work with adolescents, but you need to be kept far, far away from kids like Henry.”
Mills scoffs. “And yet, you’re the one who can’t control your classes,” she says coldly. “And you come in here to tell me how to teach?”
“Not how to teach,” Emma shoots back, abruptly self-conscious. She can’t control her classes, not like Mills can, but she’s a good teacher and she knows it. They learn with her, they like her, even if they don’t fear her. Mills, they fear. “Just how to be a functional human being–”
“Get out of my office,” Mills says dismissively. “Go whine to Ms. Blanchard about me some more. You think she’s the first helicopter mom to complain about me? I get results , Ms. Swan. That’s why I’m here. Not because I’m running a summer camp in my classroom.”
Emma stalks to the door, opens it, and pauses as she thinks of a mature and cutting response. “Fuck off,” she says, very professionally. Three of her students, on the other side of the door, gape at her in outrage. “It’s okay if I say it,” Emma says swiftly. “You don’t talk like that to Ms. Mills. Even if she really needs to fuck off.”
One of the girls giggles shrilly. Another says, “Oh, same ,” and Emma high-fives her, also very professionally, and storms through the hallway.
She hears snatches of conversation. “Ms. Swan looks pissed .”
“–Ms. Mills’s office is right down there–” More laughter, which Emma does not appreciate from the students who seem to think that Emma’s fights with Mills are spectator sports.
“Mills probably raked her across the coals ,” says a seventh grader whom Emma hadn’t liked last year, either, and she whirls around.
“Maybe I did the raking this time,” she says hotly, and she is met by a number of very skeptical faces.
One of the eighth graders says kindly, “I’m sure you really showed her.”
A sixth grader says, “At least you didn’t get detention. She’d give me detention if I spoke to her like you do.”
Emma sputters, “You’re still new here! At least pretend that you have some respect for me.”
A seventh grader with long braids says apologetically, “We love you, Ms. Swan. But there’s no way Ms. Mills doesn’t win every argument you have.”
“You should just kiss and make up,” an eighth grader mutters, and several others around him shriek with laughter.
Emma points a dramatic finger at him. “It is homophobia to suggest that I would ever–” She abruptly remembers herself, and remembers that she is not a student here but a teacher. It’s a conversation she’s had on more than one occasion with Principal Midas, who reminds her gently that she has to stop chatting with the kids like they’re her equals instead of her students.
It’s hard sometimes, when she genuinely feels more at home with the kids than she does with the adults around her. The kids like her. Her peers, aside from Snow– who is basically her sister– well, her peers include Mills , and that really sums it up. Emma had never had much of a childhood, not until Snow’s parents had taken her in when she’d been a senior in high school, and there is something intoxicating about being so beloved by the kids.
She waves a hand, dismissing her own thoughts on Mills, and she walks away and ignores the kids on break in the hallways. She knows where the one student she’s looking for will be.
He’s in the back of the cafeteria, of course, feet up on his chair and knees leaning against the table as he reads. His brow is furrowed, and he wears a grey polo buttoned to the top that only adds to his intensity. Henry Brooke is nothing like Emma, no matter where they might have intersected in the past, and Emma watches him warily, her heart beating hard against her chest.
She sits, placing the paper down on the table first. Henry glances at it, and he frowns. “I missed an o in too,” he says, sounding annoyed with himself. “Stupid mistake. Ms. Mills didn’t catch it when she first graded the paper, either.” He sounds dubious about Mills, too, and Emma seizes her chance.
“I, uh…Ms. Blanchard asked me to speak to her about your paper,” she says. “I thought it was a great essay, and Ms. Mills marked it too harshly.”
Henry shrugs. “No, she didn’t,” he says. He hasn’t looked at Emma yet, his eyes fixed on his paper, and Emma schools herself not to be discomfited by it. “She’s right. It sucked.”
“It does not suck!” Emma says, taken aback. “Henry, you can’t let Ms. Mills make you feel like your work is–”
“No thesis statement,” Henry says, his voice sharp and a little strident. “No textual proof. I forgot about the paper and wrote the whole thing during math class last week.” He doesn’t seem very bothered at the fact that he’s speaking to his math teacher, and Emma gets the distinct impression that he’s lying. “I would have given myself a D.”
Emma stares at him, at a loss. “You can’t be serious.” She’d gone to bat for the kid, and now he’s fighting Mills’s battle for her? Ridiculous .
Henry finally looks up, and there is a gleam of light in his eyes, the first bit of positive energy she’s seen in them all year. “Under C means you get to rewrite,” he says. “I already started mine. Ms. Mills is going to love it. I’m talking about the stupidity of using animal metaphors. Real life isn’t a metaphor,” he says fiercely, this smart, troubled little boy, and Emma gapes at him and is overwhelmingly fond. “I don’t need to read a story about pigs to know what’s right and wrong. At least,” he finishes sheepishly, “If I can prove my point using at least three pieces of textual evidence.”
His head drops again, shutting Emma out, and Emma can only think to say, “You really like Ms. Mills, huh?” It’s the part of his pronouncement that stands out most, the eagerness when he’d talked about Mills. Henry cares about what Mills thinks of him.
Henry shrugs, withdrawing again as he looks down at his book. “Doesn’t everyone?” he says absently, the conversation over, and Emma shakes her head and laughs in sheer disbelief.
The first thing that Sabine has discovered about being bisexual, aside from how nice is it to kiss Jacinda, is that there’s, like, a whole culture for it. She’d known about pride parades and GSAs and stuff like that, but she hadn’t realized that her entire friends group would narrow and expand, unexpectedly, to every other gay kid in Storybrooke Middle School. There are just some ways that they get each other, you know?
Also, she’s abruptly aware of every little bit of gay happenings in the school. Ninety-five percent of that is just whatever Ms. Swan is doing, their sole beacon in a sea of straightness, but Ms. Swan gives them plenty of room for conversation.
“She called me a homophobe for saying she and Ms. Mills should kiss and make up,” Rogers says, sounding baffled at the idea. They’re in Ms. Swan’s classroom after school, which has always felt a little more like a safe space than anywhere else in the school despite the general math vibe that Jacinda says is nice . “I was just supporting her.”
“Rogers, you dumbass .” Ava hits him on the head with her binder. “You don’t tell Ms. Swan that she has a crush on Ms. Mills. She hates her.”
“Definitely a crush, though,” little Violet puts in. “Like, a murder crush, but a crush.”
“Murder crushes are hot,” Sabine says, exhaling a dreamy sigh. There is something very enticing about wanting to kill someone who also gets you all worked up, and when said person looks like Ms. Mills…
Well . Sabine is very happy with Jacinda and isn’t thinking about that. Too much. “Anyway,” she says, clearing her throat. “I think Ms. Swan broke up with her girlfriend.”
“The lady she was kissing at the diner last week?” Rogers’s sister, Alice, says as she leans in. “She wasn’t going to stay. There was chaos all around her.” They all blink at Alice, who might be clairvoyant or might just be a little weird, depending on the day.
“Yeah,” Sabine says, uncertain. “I heard her on the phone in her office, and she called herself ‘aggressively available.’” There is a litany of sighs, every girl (and Rogers) present disappointed at this information. “It’s been, what? Two months? I think this might be her longest relationship since I started middle school two years ago.”
“I don’t get it,” Violet says, her long hair swishing as she shakes her head. “She’s pretty. She’s fun. She’s good at math –”
“That might be a dealbreaker, actually,” Robin objects. “I wouldn’t date anyone who’s good at math.” Alice lays her head against Robin’s shoulder, content in her famously terrible math grades.
“My point is,” Violet says, “Ms. Swan is great . Why does she keep picking up duds?”
“Maybe I’m the dud,” Ms. Swan offers lightly from the doorway, and they jump up.
“Ms. Swan!” Ava immediately stands, super-straight, and tucks her braid over her shoulder. “We were just talking about you.”
Ms. Swan snorts. “I noticed. Don’t you kids have a club to go to or something?” She doesn’t have an office, just a supply closet at the back of her classroom, and she digs through it and emerges with a stack of papers. Sometimes, she’ll sit with them, but she’s late today and looks a little discombobulated. Sabine watches her with interest.
“This is math club,” Jacinda lies blatantly. “We’re here because we love math.”
“Uh-huh. Hey, Alice,” Ms. Swan says, raising her eyebrows at Alice and Robin. Alice smiles brightly. “Big math fans all around.” She stacks her papers and tucks them into her bag. “Sorry I can’t stay today. I’ve got a hot date–” They all straighten as one. “–With yesterday’s takeout.”
Sabine sags. “Ms. Swan, you’re so boring ,” she says, disappointed. “How are we supposed to live vicariously through you like this?”
Ms. Swan is the kind of teacher she can talk to like that. If she’d said it to Ms. Mills, she’d be booted from school before she’d finished the sentence. But Ms. Swan only laughs. “Trust me, Sabine, you’re going to have a much more exciting life than a small-town math teacher.” She slings her bag over her arm, glancing out the window. For a moment, her brow creases and she looks very somber, discomfort and concern warring with each other on her face. She seems to shake it off, and she turns to grin at them. “See you tomorrow, kids. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t.”
“Will do,” Robin says cheerfully, and Ms. Swan winks and vanishes into the hall.
Sabine wanders to the window, curious to see what Ms. Swan might have been staring down at. Maybe that cute caterer from the diner or the seventh grade math teacher, who is nearly as hot as Ms. Swan. But all she sees below her is the front walk to the school, and a sixth grader sitting on a bench alone, absorbed in his book.
Emma Swan, bane of Regina’s existence, has left her an apology cocoa that doesn’t even have the courtesy to be some black-peppered prank. It’s ridiculous. It’s obscene, really, because who leaves a cocoa in her office instead of coming to face her like an adult? Regina contemplates the possibility that Emma might have been waiting for her for a while– Regina had stayed late after class with a student and the cocoa is still hot– but who leaves cocoa , anyway? Are they children?
Still, there is a little spark of satisfaction that comes with the note below the cocoa, written on Regina’s personal stationary. Turns out Henry is pretty psyched to write a makeup essay. Guess you’re just a big softie after all . There’s a little winking face drawn beside that, and then, My secret ingredient is cinnamon.
It’s not much of a secret when the cocoa stinks of cinnamon, but Regina drinks it with the grimness of someone who rarely gets to savor the unconditional surrender of her nemesis. Emma Swan, she of the golden hair and bright eyes and that obnoxiously charming tendency to babble, is so rarely quick to admit her wrongs.
Which is fine. Regina is content with knowing that she is absolutely right in every conflict that they’ve ever had, and Emma continues to bumble around proving her points. But Emma being self-aware enough to concede? That’s something new.
And the cocoa isn’t bad.
She contemplates writing Emma an email. She’s hardly one to rub her victory in someone else’s face, except for thirty-two years of this existence that might say otherwise, and she types quickly and clearly.
It was hardly necessary to inform me of the obvious, though I appreciate the apology and expect more of those in the future. I am an experienced educator who is perfectly aware of children’s needs, and I don’t require your validation to know that I’m right.
The cinnamon is terrible.
The response is quick, and no less infuriating.
You expect more in the future? Are you asking me to bring you more cocoa? You clearly haven’t heard what they say about us in the halls.
Regina wrinkles her brow, baffled at that response, and decides that Emma deserves some condescension.
Might I suggest proofreading your writing before you send your emails out?
The next response has Regina’s eyes narrowing.
Might I suggest removing the stick from your ass before you send your emails out?
Typical Emma Swan. There had been a time when Regina would react to an email like that one by dragging Mal Drake out for drinks and complaining, ad nauseam, about Emma and her infuriating smirk, and her absurd lack of decorum, and her ridiculously toned arms, but it’s a new year, and Regina is growing as a person.
No, she has other things to worry about than Emma being obnoxious. And one of them is the little boy who has quickly become her star student, a boy who has consumed her thoughts far more than the typical student might.
Because she can agree with Emma and Mary Margaret Blanchard on one thing: Henry Brooke doesn’t write C minus papers. And if he has produced one, then something is very wrong.