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those who can't [flirt like functional adults], teach

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Emma gets the frantic call at seven am, on the last leg of her morning jog. She loves running in Storybrooke, loves the sense of freedom that comes with the wind against her face, in the woods and alongside the sea, while her foot are firm on the ground. She’s always been a morning person– first by necessity, because early risers had been the only ones to eat well in some of her group homes– and then by habit. She’s alert moments after she first wakes up, alive with energy and anxious to get it out of her system. 

 

Today, she’s running off the weird high that had come with flustering Mills enough to silence her yesterday. There’s nothing like shutting up Regina Mills, and Emma thrives on it. One time last year, she’d managed to figure out Mills’s birthday from an old yearbook, and she’d left her a singing birthday card in the book she’d been reading with her class. Mills had been stunned for minutes before she’d made a snide remark and kicked Emma out of the room, and Emma had been in a good mood for days.

 

When she sees the call from Snow, she’s abruptly reminded that she had forgotten to gloat to Snow, and now’s the perfect time–

 

“Henry’s missing,” Snow says rapidly, and thoughts of Mills are swept from Emma’s mind. “I went to wake him up, and his bed was empty. He slept there– it’s all rumpled and his pajamas are on the floor– but he’s gone. David is out looking, but there’s nothing.” 

 

“Maybe he went to the diner early,” Emma suggests, turning down Main Street in the diner’s direction instead of going home. She’s pretty sure that she looks gross right now, probably drenched in sweat, but she doesn’t care. Her eyes flicker over the passersby, but there is no sign of Henry.

 

He isn’t at the diner, either. “I’ll keep looking. You want me to ask Sheriff Graham for help?” 

 

“Not yet.” Snow sounds agitated. “Henry won’t like that. He’s…” A pause, then a defeated, “Emma, I’m not cut out for this. When I agreed to foster Henry, he wasn’t quite so…troubled. He was happier last year. And I think I’m the one making him withdrawn.” 

 

“No, you aren’t.” Snow has been good with Henry, has been trying her best with an unresponsive kid. Emma squeezes her fists, then unsqueezes them. “I’ll come over more,” she says finally. “I’ll help you and David out.” She’s good with most kids, but Henry has a barrier down around him that’s a dozen feet deep and impenetrable, and Emma hasn’t dared to break through that barrier. She’s been avoiding Snow’s apartment since Snow had started fostering Henry, which is kind of terrible of her– “You’ve got to keep him. He’s Storybrooke’s kid.” 

 

“I know. I’m not…” Snow lets out a ragged sound. “Emma, I’m pregnant ,” she says. 

 

Emma blinks. “What?” She’d known that Snow had been thinking about it, that she’s been dating David for long enough that she’d gotten all swoony over babies, but she’d just figured that Snow is being…well, Snow . Snow had walked off with Mal Drake’s baby once back when she’d been babysitting for her in seventh grade and had had to be persuaded to return the baby, as Mal tells it. Snow loves babies and kids and that’s why she’d been the perfect person to take Henry in, and Emma had just kind of figured that Snow would start on babies after Henry had been a little more established.

 

“I wanted to tell you in person, but…” Snow takes a deep breath. “I think Henry overheard us talking about it last night. Do you think that’s why–” 

 

“Of course it is,” Emma says. Her voice is too loud, too harsh– Snow says Emma in that pleading voice that doesn’t understand–

 

But of course Snow doesn’t understand. Snow’s mother had been perfect, elegant and beautiful and so loving that she’d reigned over Storybrooke like a noble queen instead of an assemblyman’s wife. Her father had been a little unsure of what to do with his daughter, but he’d been proud and affectionate when Snow had needed him. Snow doesn’t know what it’s like to be the kid that no one really picks first, the kid who knows that a baby will inevitably supplant them. 

 

Emma swallows through a wave of burning grief and guilt and runs in the opposite direction, toward the place where she suddenly knows that Henry will be, the place  that Emma had gone when she’d been newly fostered by Snow’s parents and had been looking for some privacy. The Storybrooke Library is closed this early in the morning, but there’s a little unlocked catch at the door that leads up to the clock tower, and Emma sees Henry silhouetted in the clouded windows near the top. “I’ve got Henry,” she says abruptly. “I’ll bring him to school. Don’t worry about it.” She hangs up before Snow can say anything else, and she ducks in through the door and climbs the stairs to the clock tower.

 

Henry doesn’t look at her when she arrives. He’s writing, of course, but not in that notebook that Snow had gotten him. This is an essay of frightening proportions, his copy of Animal Farm open beside a growing stack of papers, and he flips through the book and writes furiously. 

 

Emma stares down at what looks like a fifth or sixth draft and sits down beside him. “Hey,” she says. 

 

Henry nods brusquely, his eyes on his essay. Emma tries again. “You know I was a foster kid, too, right?” It’s not something she tosses out there to students, usually, a secret about herself that she keeps even from the cute gay clique that hangs out in her classroom. 

 

Henry snorts. “Yeah,” he says, and Emma blinks. Had he recognized some commonality between them and attributed it to a shared past? Or is he seeing something else…? “Ms. Blanchard tells me about fifty times a day,” Henry adds, and Emma winces. Well. Maybe not her best-kept secret. “Her best friend was a foster kid so she understands me.” He rolls his eyes, his pen still perched in his fingers but his hands still. “She doesn’t.” 

 

“Yeah,” Emma agrees. Snow understands Emma a little too well, maybe, but that isn’t going to translate into understanding Henry. “I grew up in group homes and really fucked up places,” she says, leaning back against the window of the clock tower. “You aren’t like me. You’re in this town– You’re Henry Brooke,” she says. He’d been named for Storybrooke, in the absence of a surname, and he’s special to everyone in this town. 

 

At his age, Emma would have killed to be so ensconced by love and family. “Everyone here looks after you. And they’re doing their best. I know…I know that Ms. Blanchard isn’t giving up on you, no matter what happens,” she finishes delicately. You lived with Granny until her hip surgery, right? And she still feeds you breakfast and lunch every day.” She’s guessing on that one, because she’s seen the meals that Henry eats at school, and they’re a league above cafeteria food. 

 

Henry doesn’t react to that, and she goes on. “And Dr. Hopper was great, too, even if he couldn’t house you when he went back to school.” She knows Henry’s history, has made a point of following it. There had been at least one adoption attempt that had gotten so tangled in red tape that it had made formal adoption of Henry an impossible headache, but Storybrooke loves him, and Henry must know that.

 

But all he says is, “Okay.” 

 

“Okay?” Emma echoes. Henry doesn’t sound all that convinced, and she peers at him. He has returned to his essay, uninterested in Emma’s assurances, and she is seized with the sudden desire to leave and stop embarrassing herself in front of a boy who clearly doesn’t want her around.

 

But she can’t seem to move. “What do you want?” she says instead.

 

Henry shrugs, pen moving aimlessly in his hand. “I just want to sit here,” he says, and then more pointedly, “In the quiet.” 

 

There is something very young about how he says it, disdainful but also lost and afraid, and Emma swallows the urge to flee this strange, hostile little boy and stays put. “I can be quiet,” she says.

 

Henry snickers. He looks wide-eyed at it, which Emma takes to mean that he hadn’t meant to sound quite so disrespectfully mocking, and then he says, “Sure you can,” which Emma takes to mean that he doesn’t regret said mocking, either. 

 

“I can!” Emma says, outraged. “I’m an excellent listener. Very good at being quiet. I don’t have to babble– I just do it because people are more comfortable when I–” Henry looks at her, his eyebrows raised. It’s the first time he’s looked directly at her since she’d climbed up the clock tower, and it is very close to amused. Maybe even fond, though Emma’s been wrong on that one before. “Okay,” she says. “Fine. Being quiet now.” 

 

She sits in silence beside Henry as he writes and shoots a few texts to Snow, then to the permanent sub. She’s going to be late today, she suspects, and she’s still in her sweats– and needs a shower, if the wrinkle of Henry’s nose is any indication. 

 

But she doesn’t move, and after a few minutes, Henry stops writing. “This is good,” he says, and he tucks the last three pieces of paper into a folder in his backpack and then sits back against the glass window of the clock tower. Emma sits beside him, the two of them still very quiet, and they stare out through the glass at the people walking down Main Street and don’t speak at all.

 


 

Grace likes Ms. Mills’s class. Most people do, even if Ms. Mills is a dictator who once glared so hard at a kid that he backed out the window. At least, that’s what everyone says, and Grace, who has yet to be directly on the receiving end of Ms. Mills’s glare, believes it. 

 

But Ms. Mills is a good teacher, the scary kind who makes you want to ace every essay just to get a little hint of approval from her. She makes Grace feel smart , every discussion in class plucking out a little erudition from the class that they hadn’t known was there. Like the word erudition , which Grace had learned from Ms. Mills, too.

 

She likes Ms. Mills, but she isn’t stupid enough to get in her way when Ms. Swan is around, which is why Grace steps out of the bathroom, sees Ms. Swan walking down the hall with Henry Brooke– who is in Grace’s class and therefore has Ms. Mills right now– and steps right back into the bathroom. There’s a doorstop on the door, leaving it a creak open, and Grace hangs back and waits for the explosion.

 

Ms. Swan looks freshly showered, her face free of makeup and her hair damp, and Henry is finishing the last few bites of what Grace is pretty sure is a Pop-Tart. He swallows, and Ms. Swan says, “You ready for class?” 

 

“I’m late for class,” Henry says grimly, and he stares up at the door to Ms. Mills’s classroom as though it’s about to fall onto him. 

 

When he doesn’t move, Ms. Swan steps forward. “Don’t worry,” she says. “I’ll tell Ms. Mills that it’s my fault you’re late. It’s the perfect opportunity to yell at me. You basically gave her a present.” She winks at him. Grace presses her lips together to keep from laughing and leans against the sinks as she watches them approach the door. 

 

Ms. Swan pushes the door open. “Hey, Mills,” she says cheerfully, which is enough to curl Ms. Mills’s lip to start. “Just returning one of your students to you.” 

 

Henry looks up at Ms. Mills hopefully. Grace winces. Henry sits next to her at the front of the classroom, and he’s solitary but one of her only good friends. She doesn’t want to watch Ms. Mills eviscerate him. 

 

Ms. Mills stares at Henry, then bites out, “That’s a demerit.” The school doesn’t actually have a demerit system, according to some of the older kids. It’s just Ms. Mills who gives them out, as though she can will the system into being. Grace has long suspected that the staff keeps quiet about Ms. Mills’s pointless demerits just to give her an outlet.

 

But Henry looks crestfallen. He stumbles into the classroom, stopping only to set a paper on Ms. Mills’s desk– and does that mean Henry had had to redo a paper? That catapults Grace to the top of the class, but she’s too startled to celebrate it– and Ms. Swan stares after him with a pained look.

 

She rounds on Ms. Mills. “Did you have to do that? He’s had a rough day–” She lowers her voice, and Grace can barely hear what she says. “Don’t you think you can give him a break sometimes?” 

 

Ms. Mills looks coolly at her. “Not this again,” she says sharply, loud enough that Grace thinks a few people in the classroom might have heard it. Ms. Mills must think so, too, because she steps out of the classroom and closes the door behind her. “You are not the role model you think you are,” she says, her voice tight. “And if I have to nip your level of delinquency in the bud, then I will–”

 

“Oh, stop it,” Ms. Swan says, sounding cranky. “He ran away this morning, okay?” When Grace peers into the hallway, she sees Ms. Mills standing stock still, her face unreadable. “He’s having a hard time this year. And you know you’re his favorite–” 

 

Ms. Mills scoffs. “I’m no one’s favorite,” she says haughtily, and she sounds very proud of something that is definitely not true. Ms. Swan is fun , but Ms. Mills is Grace’s favorite, and she knows that she isn’t the only one.

 

And she’s absolutely Henry’s favorite. He doesn’t sit up front in any other class or raise his hand at all. Grace shares all her classes with him, and she’s one of the only people Henry speaks to about real stuff. She doesn’t have a mom, and so they go to the same required school activities for kids missing parents. Grace likes them, but Henry thinks they’re a waste of time. I have a mom , Henry says, shrugging. She just had to let me go for a while.

 

Ms. Swan and Ms. Mills, who don’t get Henry at all, are two of his favorites anyway. Or, at least, Ms. Swan was , until Henry had told the wrong person about her. “You’re wrong,” Ms. Swan says, and her eyes are flashing as she breathes hard. Sometimes, Grace kind of believes what Ava says about Ms. Swan and Ms. Mills. “And you’d think – you could at least try to reach out to him. Give him some way to feel connected. He could use that right now.” Her voice is gentler now, imploring, and Ms. Mills’s face undergoes the most incredible transformation that Grace has ever seen.

 

For an instant, she almost looks nice , like the kind of teacher who desperately loves her students instead of terrifying them. Grace is glued to the opening of the door, gaping at her, but it vanishes as quickly as it had come. “I’m not his mother,” she says sharply. “And you would be a better educator if you remembered that you aren’t, either.” 

 

It’s weird how uncomfortable two adults can be with an obvious statement. Grace squints out at them, at the averted eyes and the rigid backs, and she feels suddenly uncomfortable, too, like she’s eavesdropping on something much more personal than a spat in the hallway between the two most combustible people in the school.

 

There is silence, and then the clicking of a door. Ms. Swan says, “Coast is clear, Grace,” and Grace peeks out. 

 

She gets a weary smile from Ms. Swan and a gentle, “Probably better to mind your own business next time, kid.” Ms. Swan turns back to Ms. Mills’s classroom, peering through the window and looking away quickly.

 

“Sorry,” Grace says meekly. “I was just going back to class when–” She gestures at Ms. Mills’s door.

 

Ms. Swan winces. Then, suddenly, she says, “You’re friends with Henry, aren’t you?” 

 

Grace shrugs. No one is friends with Henry Brooke, exactly. He’d told her once that he isn’t equipped for people when she’d invited him over in third grade. “Kind of,” she says. “We hang out sometimes after school.” 

 

“Does he…has he mentioned anything odd lately? Anything that’s upsetting him? He’s been…” Ms. Swan shakes her head. “Maybe it’s just adolescence,” she says tiredly. “Maybe Snow is overreacting.” 

 

Grace shrugs. She knows some things, but not enough to tell Ms. Swan, and it’s no one but Henry’s business, anyway. “I have to go to class,” she says, swinging her bathroom pass, and she ducks into the classroom before Ms. Swan can ask her anything else. 

 

Ms. Mills is in a foul mood inside, one exacerbated when she discovers that the cable connecting her smartboard to its speakers is missing. The school is short a couple and no one has gotten around to replacing them yet, which means that someone had snatched Ms. Mills’s since the last time she’d used the speakers, and there’s only one teacher bold enough to steal hers. 

 

Ms. Mills storms out of the room and returns with the cable, which she fails to install properly. “I can do it,” Nick Tillman offers. 

 

Ms. Mills gives him a quelling look. “It’s under control,” she snaps.

 

“It’s really not,” Nick says under his breath, and Ms. Mills hears him. Her eyes flash, and Grace is abruptly afraid for Nick.

 

“Very well,” she barks out. “Since I clearly won’t be able to show you this video right now, you can have it as a homework assignment. And in lieu of a class discussion, you will write a one-page paper about point of view as illustrated in the video.” She stalks out of the room, and Grace can hear her voice in the hallway. “ Swan !”

 

Ms. Swan is probably the only person in the universe who is unafraid of Ms. Mills. “Yeah, yeah,” she says, strolling into the classroom. “You know, I did tell you I’d put the cable in for you.” She ducks down in front of the smartboard, and Ms. Mills stares at her commandingly, though Grace thinks her line of sight is pointed more at Ms. Swan’s jeans than at what she’s doing. “You don’t have to be so cranky about it.” 

 

Ms. Mills glowers at her, and Grace is startled when a hand appears on her desk, leaving a note behind. It’s from Henry, of course, who stares straight ahead as though he’s fascinated by the bickering between their teachers. Grace unfolds the note.

 

It says, I’m seeing her again today , and Grace doesn’t need to ask who he’s talking about. Henry has told her plenty. 

 

She writes be careful and folds it again, slipping it onto Henry’s desk before she turns back to the front of the room.

 


 

It’s a relief when lunchtime comes, and with it a break from the students. Regina likes her students, though they’d probably never believe it, and she loves the energy that comes with a classroom full of young minds, each of them so willing to think beyond their prior perceptions. She’s never had a student that isn’t receptive, that isn’t capable of insight, and there is nothing quite like getting them to that point. She is exacting and demanding because it pays off, and the students grudgingly appreciate it at first and then learn to embrace it. And on a regular day, that energy infuses her with energy, leaves her on a high that has her satisfied and relieved at the end of a long morning.

 

But today, she is irritable and exhausted, though she can’t put a finger on why. Maybe it had been Emma, eternally the thorn in her side, and the way she’d reproved Regina in the hallway. With a student eavesdropping in the bathroom, no less! Emma has been teaching in Storybrooke Middle School for three years now, and she still shows no regard for Regina’s methods. 

 

It’s because she’s an infant , Regina decides. She’s…what? Twenty-eight? Four years younger than Regina? But she lacks basic maturity. She’s still trying to be her students’ friends, still caught up in the idea of being liked when that does little–

 

Well. Emma is a surprisingly competent teacher, from what Mal says about her incoming seventh graders. She claims that they have more enthusiasm for math, which Regina informs her is an abomination , because no math teacher should ever deceive students into believing that math is fun .

 

Emma is appalling . And that’s probably what had made her so frustrated. That and Henry Brooke’s face when she’d awarded him a demerit. Regina’s hands tighten on her desk. Ridiculous. Of course he’d gotten a demerit. He’d been late, and he knows what the penalty for that is. And Emma wants to handle him with kid gloves? Henry wouldn’t respect that. Regina knows it instinctively.

 

Henry had run away this morning, and Regina feels a creeping desolation at the picture of it, of Henry sneaking out of Mary Margaret Blanchard’s house all alone, wandering off into the woods around Storybrooke and being lost there. It can’t happen again.

 

As if Emma could tell her what Henry needs. She scoffs to herself. Emma doesn’t understand what any of her students need.

 

But still, for some unnameable reason, Regina finds herself stepping out of her office and walking down the stairwell to the cafeteria. The students give her a wide berth, and there are a few whispers– and no , she is not going to eat the cafeteria food, thank you very much– but she walks through the room until she finds Henry, sitting in a corner and picking listlessly at the elaborate meal in front of him. “Mr. Brooke,” she says, and Henry jumps and stares up at her, wide-eyed. “With me.”

 

She takes his plate before he can leave it behind, and Henry follows her meekly to her office. She sets the plate down in front of the chair opposite her desk, and she orders him, “Eat.”

 

He eats. Regina clears her throat. “Your makeup essay was excellent,” she says. “I disagree entirely with the premise, but you had a persuasive voice and made some very good points. I’m inclined to give you an A.” 

 

Henry peeks up at her, his expression hopeful. “Before points deducted for it being a makeup essay?” 

 

“After,” Regina confirms, and that bit of her heart that swells when Henry smiles at her really needs to stop .

 

“Whoa.” Henry gazes at her now, his eyes wide. “I thought you didn’t give A plusses.” 

 

“This is an A,” Regina reminds him, but there is a smile threatening to break out upon her face, absolutely destroying her reputation. She tamps it down. “You wrote a wonderful piece on the pointlessness of metaphor,” she says. “But I think that your mind is not so limited that you can’t see any benefit to it.” 

 

Henry bites his lip. “I don’t know,” he says. “It’s stupid. Why can’t writers just say what they mean?” 

 

“Sometimes metaphor helps us process what’s happening to us when we aren’t ready to understand it,” Regina points out. She doesn’t know what she’s doing now , and no metaphor will help her with it, but she forges onward. “You have a gift for words, Henry. And I think it might help you, too.” 

 

She expects Henry to say I don’t need help or I’m fine or something else that might, respectfully, remind her to mind her own business. He’s brushed off enough overtures over the years. But he is in writing mode now, his mind juggling through every scenario like an opportunity, and she knows him well enough to track it and be comforted by it. “What do you mean?” Henry asks, his eyes glued trustingly to her.

 

Regina takes a breath. “Write a fairytale,” she says. “Consider it an extra assignment to remove that demerit. Fairytales are a great way to take apart all the baggage we aren’t ready to explore and interpret into princes and knights, dragons and magic. Get your story to a happily ever after, Henry, and then read it back and see what you’ve gotten out in metaphor.” 

 

Henry bites his lip again. “I don’t know what I’d write,” he says. 

 

Regina raises her eyebrows and offers him a smile, thin but rare enough that Henry looks awed by it. “Most writers begin with once upon a time ,” she suggests. “And you’re welcome to come here at your breaks and write in my office. I’m happy to help you work through any ideas you might have.” 

 

Henry’s face is as bright as sunshine, and he glows as he grins at her. “Thanks, Ms. Mills,” he says. “This is super cool. I think– maybe I have some ideas.” He scrawls something into that notebook that he has, writing up a storm, and Regina watches him and aches for this little boy with no family, this child who has never quite been left behind but never belonged anywhere, either.

 

She had been twenty when he’d been born, had been away in school and returned a couple of months later. Mother had been mayor then and had regarded the entire Henry Brooke situation as under control. Regina had been less convinced, to everyone’s detriment. She had tried to adopt him– had held the infant at Granny’s one day, had canceled her classes for the semester and nearly dropped out of college– and Mother had snarled her under so much red tape that Henry had lost any chance of being adopted by anyone.

 

She still blames herself for it, though time and Mother’s passing had given her more perspective. She’d kept a yearning eye on him over the years, had worked to get him admitted into school a year early and had quietly funded his summer camps and some of his clothing. She’d done it through Archie Hopper rather than letting her mother know of her interest. It had never been a good idea for Regina to show her cards when Mother was watching. After Mother had passed, she’d continued from a distance, Henry already eight and settled into foster care with no interest in a stranger as his benefactor.

 

But this year has been different, a quiet gift to watch Henry grow– and he’s so smart , so thoughtful and such a skilled writer– and she fights long-ingrained patterns of caution to give him this now. It’s what Henry needs, as a star student, and not Regina attempting to make a connection. It’s what Emma had requested of her, though Regina is hardly doing this for Emma.

 

Regina walks a tightrope of careful appearances and selective relationships, and she will not let it implode here today. And so she nods curtly to Henry, tempering her smile into something small and impersonal as he grins at her, and her heart floods with affection, invisible to him. “Please,” she says, “Drop by anytime.” 

 


 

Henry leaves when the bell rings for the end of the lunch period, still glowing with enthusiasm, and Regina continues grading papers until her next class. Her earlier irritation is gone, and she even gives her final class of the day a reading period instead of an assignment. “I won’t be so kind if I find you talking instead,” she warns them. They hurry to get books from the class library, tripping over themselves to sit again, and Regina sits back, satisfied.

 

She grades their papers while they read, pleasantly surprised at how many students can string together a decent essay now. They’re moving at a decent pace for early October, and she’ll have to commend their fifth-grade teacher, who was thankfully not Mary Margaret Blanchard. 

 

At the end of the day, she is feeling like herself again, and Henry catches her eye in the hall before he heads out to the stairwell. There are a legion of students around Emma when she escapes her classroom, but Emma brightens when she sees her. “Ms. Mills,” she calls, and Regina’s mood immediately falls. She retreats back into her classroom, fiddling with her bag as though she’d forgotten something, and she makes the hasty decision to sit and finish grading. 

 

She takes the papers out again, marking them absently, and the door to her classroom creaks open. “Hey,” Emma says, shutting the door behind her. Regina doesn’t deign to acknowledge her.

 

Emma says, “Henry was so excited about your project that he went downstairs to tell Snow– Mary Margaret– during study hall. And she was so excited about him being excited that she called me,” she says ruefully. 

 

Emma’s thigh appears, somewhere just beside Regina’s arm. Alarmed, Regina finally looks up. Emma is sitting on her desk, her feet propped up against the wall behind Regina. She raises her eyebrows at Regina, but she’s smiling, a splash of warmth to melt Regina’s icy exterior. “You thought about what I said, didn’t you? You wanted to give Henry something to connect to.” 

 

Regina scoffs. “Hardly,” she says, raising her chin. “It was extra work because of his lateness. I expect my students to behave with–” 

 

“Regina,” Emma says, and Regina is silenced by the tone of her voice. She stands up, intending to escape, but it’s a mistake. Abruptly, her face is dangerously close to Emma, and Emma’s eyes are frighteningly soft. “Why do you do your best to make me believe the worst of you?” 

 

“I–” Regina is sputtering, frantic to respond with something sharp and cutting. Instead, all she manages is a weak, “Why do you believe I think about you at all?”

 

“Hm.” Emma grins at her, the skin by her eyes wrinkling just a little when she smiles, and Regina absolutely hates that she notices that. “I’m pretty sure you wake up every morning and think how is Emma Swan going to piss me off today?

 

Regina blinks at her, incapable of muffling the breath of laughter that escapes her mouth. “Well, you might have a point there–”

 

“It’s the only thing that gets you out of bed,” Emma says, eyes dancing. “That and what is Emma Swan going to wear today and how will I best ridicule it?

 

“You dress like a middle-aged suburban mother of three who’s going to the revival concert of a band that hasn’t been decent since she was twelve,” Regina says obligingly. 

 

Emma throws her head back and laughs. There is a part of Regina that envies Emma’s ease, even with her, the laughter that emerges from her lips instead of being restrained. Nothing about Emma is restrained. “God, I love that. I feel simultaneously seen and humiliated.” She lays a hand on Regina’s arm, and Regina stiffens, horrified at it. “Tear me to pieces, Ms. Mills,” Emma says, and there is an undercurrent to it that sounds almost suggestive.

 

Regina recoils, staggering back, and she says, “You speak like you learned how to interact with other people from TikTok,” which is alarmingly possible and also makes Emma smile wider. “And if you don’t mind, I have work to do. Alone.” 

 

She circles around her desk the other way, and Emma says quietly, the humor only a flicker in her eyes now, “You’re doing a good thing for Henry. Thank you.”

 

Regina can handle the mocking, the flirting, even the teasing from Emma. Sincerity, though, she can’t abide. But it feels wrong to dismiss it when it comes to Henry, and she says grudgingly, “You and Ms. Blanchard hardly have a monopoly on Henry Brooke’s future. He has a lot of promise. I’m doing what any teacher would do.” 


“No,” Emma says, and there is something shining on her face that makes Regina breathless and infuriated at the same time. How dare Emma Swan look at her like that. How dare Regina feel her heartbeat elevating in response. “Not any teacher,” Emma says, and Regina escapes the room and hurries to her office, stumbling twice in the empty hall along the way.