A/N: As mentioned on my Tumblr, there are actually two variants of this chapter. Rest assured, everything is the same except for a couple of paragraphs in the last scene. I liked each version so much, I decided to post them both in separate places. The softer, more romantic version is here, and the more edgy version can be accessed on another site, through a link on my Tumblr.
Many thanks go out to my beta, Raams, for the edits she suggested in this chapter! She catches things a lot of subtle things I sometimes overlook.
Monday came far too quickly for Emma's liking. She awoke to the sound of her cell phone's familiar ringtone, groaning. Reaching out with uncoordinated limbs, Emma managed to knock it off her nightstand and grumbled some more. Forced out of her warm cocoon, she retrieved it and answered just before it went to voice mail. "Hello?" she answered groggily.
"Happy Valentine's Day, Emma!" her mother chirped cheerfully.
"Hi, Mom," she replied, trying to inject some cheerfulness into her own voice.
Emma knew she wasn't fooling her mother, but it was their ritual, their attempt to carry on with some pretense of normalcy in spite of the absence they both felt so keenly. Holidays were still a matter of going through the motions for Emma and her mother, of struggling to draw closer and function together in their shared grief. Emma just wanted to wake up again someday and not feel the rush of disappointment and misery that followed the realization that she wouldn't hear her father's voice over the phone, or receive another one of his corny valentines with the terrible poetry she'd always pretended to hate, but secretly cherished.
"Happy Valentine's Day," she finished.
"I, um, got your valentine," her mother's voice broke, after a short silence.
Emma felt embarrassed at the raw pain she heard in her mother's voice. She'd known, while creating the nonsensical poem with the bag of chalky little candy hearts that it would make her mother sad, but she'd hoped that the surprise might have sparked a happiness that overpowered it, however briefly. "I'm sorry, Mom," she began somberly, "I only meant to—"
"Don't you dare apologize," she sniffed. "It's wonderful. I never thought I'd get another one after your father…" She trailed off, still hesitant to voice the word, even two years after his passing. "For a few minutes, it was like having him back," she continued, her voice cheerful, but thick with grief.
"But then I realized he's never really been gone. He's always been with me, Emma, because part of him still lives on in you. And the poem… it felt like a gift from both of you."
"It is Mom," she agreed softly.
"Thank you," she sniffed again.
"You're welcome. I know it's not the same as the ones he made, but look on the bright side: the poetry's just as terrible."
Their shared laughter was a balm to Emma's sagging spirits—and, she hoped, to her mother's.
"Did you get the package I sent?"
"On Saturday," Emma assured her. "The boys were very excited about the cookies. I managed to stow some away for myself before they inhaled them all. Thank you."
"Of course! I couldn't let your first Valentine's Day away from home be cookie-less."
Like those first years after her dad had died, Emma remembered. Neither of them had been keen on baking heart-shaped cookies, or any reminders of love, when the biggest love of both their lives had been so cruelly taken from them.
"Listen, I'd better get ready for class," Emma said with genuine regret. As much as her mother had often aggravated her in the past, due to their differences, perhaps now that was changing just a little. She hesitated, and then said, "Thanks again for making the cookies, Mom."
Her mother instinctively understood what Emma could not put into words. "Me, too, Emma. We love you."
We, Emma thought as she bid her mother farewell and ended the call. Swallowing with difficulty around the lump in her throat, she started to ready herself both physically and emotionally for the difficult day that lay ahead. Her mother was right. Their father would never really leave them, even in death. And if he couldn't be here to send his love personally, he would always send it through Emma's mother. She'd simply been in too much pain to realize it before.
Crying softly into the water of her shower for the first time since the morning of her father's funeral, Emma thoroughly forgot all about any other meaning or possibilities that the day might hold for her—even that of finally hearing from her admirer again. She already had all the love she needed.
Her morning passed in a blur. Her professors, it seemed, were blessedly unaffected by the holiday, and barely referenced it at all—for which Emma, still feeling somewhat emotional since her mother's phone call earlier that morning, was grateful. Even poetry class, the one place she'd been expecting to be bombarded with it, relegated the reading of famous romantic poetry to the last fifteen minutes of class, once they'd completed their discussion of their regular coursework.
She felt immensely relieved. It was difficult not to imagine wickedly inappropriate things of Professor Jones when he was reading Shakespeare and Byron and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, as if he'd just come alive. Emma listened with an idle ear, since the poems weren't pertinent to her grade in the course, and she studied Professor Jones instead. Something was different about him, and it took her several minutes to work out what it was: The invisible cobwebs of grief that always seemed to fetter his spirits were gone, replaced by a spark of hope and zest of spirits that she hadn't realized had been lacking before. He seemed at peace with himself and the lot he'd been dealt.
On the other hand, maybe in her struggle to keep her thoughts chaste, she was simply projecting a bit of her own emotional breakthrough onto him.
A sudden, unexpected silence captured Emma's wandering attention, and she looked up, afraid that she'd missed something important, but it was only Professor Jones pausing to drink some water and reshuffle his papers to find the next poem.
He began to recite again, in that same quiet but clear voice, and Emma's thoughts drifted toward the forbidden again. Darn it, was she really this weak-willed? Emma refused to be one of his simpering admirers.
She straightened in her chair, determined to put her mind back on the poems (even if they didn't affect her grade), where it belonged. The movement seemed to catch his eye, for the next thing Emma knew, his intense blue gaze was locked with hers. The moment was brief—Emma knew it by instinct. But it was a moment packed with eternity, and it left her strangely breathless and only vaguely aware when he finished reading the poem.
"That was beautiful," Merida said after a moment's silence. "Coleridge, was it?"
Professor Jones nodded. "From his poem, "The Presence of Love." We'll be studying Coleridge in a couple of weeks, and I thought it might be useful to give you a foretaste of him to mull over before we tackle "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" or "Kubla Khan." He glanced at his watch. "It seems we've gone just a couple of minutes over today. I apologize. I know many of you have other classes to attend. Dismissed."
Emma gathered her things slowly, still somewhat dazed from the encounter with Professor Jones a few moments before. She watched him covertly, considering him again. She'd been absolutely right. Something had changed him. She'd felt it in his gaze.
"Emma, are you coming?" Victor's voice interrupted her musings. "You have some time before your next class, don't you?"
"Um," she said, refocusing her thoughts, "yeah, I do. My next class isn't for an hour. Why?"
"Coffee," he said succinctly. "Didn't you hear me?"
"Sorry, I kind of spaced out during the end of class," she apologized. "I got a phone call from my mom this morning."
"Ah." His expression saddened. Victor and Jefferson were well aware by now how difficult holidays were for Emma and her mom. "Well, that's all the more reason to come with us," he said with a crooked smile. "Ruby's over there with Graham, trying to persuade Mulan and Merida to come, too. I think she's hoping they might get together with a little more nudging."
"All right," she decided, sparing a final sympathetic glance for Professor Jones, "I'm coming. I could use a shot or two of caffeine to get through the day."
Emma arrived back at the townhouse that evening, drained despite all of the caffeine she'd imbibed between her classes. Her afternoon classes had been brutal, and Emma was very thankful she'd stayed up the extra hour last night to finish her reading for them; she'd been called on multiple times in both classes for her analysis and opinions of the materials. The only thing she wanted now, therefore, was to collapse into bed and sleep. Since that was hardly an option, however, she'd settle for a long, hot shower, some of her mother's cookies, and a cup of cocoa with cinnamon sprinkled in it.
"Your admirer struck again," Jefferson said without preamble as Emma shut the front door. "I moved everything into the kitchen and put it on the table."
"What're you doing here?" she blurted out thoughtlessly. "Sorry. I mean what are you doing here so early?" she amended.
He made a face. "The library tends to be a popular place to, er, meet up on Valentine's Day, and I prefer to do my studies without the gasping and poorly stifled moans wherever I move to." He jerked his head toward the kitchen. "I was just getting ready to fix some dinner, if you want in on it. Stir fry."
Emma considered it. She was hungry, and it would save her the hassle of cooking something for herself, but stir fry didn't sound particularly good with cocoa. She could have her favorite beverage later with the cookies for dessert, she supposed. "All right, yeah," she decided, "thanks. Need any help?"
"Nah, I got it." He sauntered into the kitchen, and Emma followed, curious about the mail he'd mentioned.
A tall, translucent vase of champagne hue stood on the table. Sprays of tiny blue flowers were arranged in it, amid fragrant white blossoms and coral roses. It was an unusual combination, especially for Valentine's Day, but attractive nonetheless; the colors reminded Emma of summers spent on the beach with her parents. Of course, her admirer couldn't possibly have known it would have that particular effect, but she felt pleased by it just the same. It was creative and thoughtful… and tailored just for her. There was nothing standard or ready-made about it.
Spying the card tucked into the flowers, Emma opened the little envelope as Jefferson began puttering around the kitchen, prepping ingredients for their dinner.
If emotion is measured
By the petal and the vine,
Let thy gardenias keep my secret
But whisper of my affection;
Thy hydrangeas offer gratitude
For abundance of understanding;
And the coral of the rose assure
Ardent desire remains—even in the harshest dawn.
Emma had no idea how long she simply stood in the kitchen, clutching the poem after she finished reading it. She felt dazed, as if she'd spent an afternoon lounging in some exotic garden, instead of attending classes and worrying about her grades. How did only a few lines of writing manage to make her forget everything else for a short time? How did such beauty get distilled into so few words, yet leave her as breathless as if she'd just finished running a race?
"Well?" Jefferson's voice interrupted her musings, "What does this one say?"
Emma peered over at her roommate. He was busily chopping vegetables for the stir fry, his back facing her; she couldn't read his expression. Emma cleared her throat and read the short little poem aloud, marveling to herself once again.
"Clever," Jefferson commented, as soon as she'd finished.
"The poem," he said, adding the veggies in careful handfuls to the hot wok. "It matches the flowers."
Emma blinked, glancing up at the flowers, then at the poem. She felt a little foolish that she hadn't worked that out herself, even if she didn't recognize two of the three flowers in the bouquet. She skimmed the poem again. Weren't gardenias white, though?
"More or less," Jefferson agreed, when she voiced this thought out loud. "I'm not exactly a botanist. But those blue ones are definitely hydrangeas. My mom used to grow several varieties of them in her garden."
"So," she ventured, feeling awkward and suspicious, "if the flowers match the poem, then the flowers themselves are a message of some kind?"
Jefferson glanced over his shoulder briefly. "Seems like," he agreed, after a charged silence in which he stirred the food.
"I see," she replied calmly, despite the warning bells that were going off in her head. "Then the poem translates the flowers' meaning."
He grunted vaguely in response, stirring together ingredients for a teriyaki sauce while Emma puzzled out the meaning of the poem. Let thy gardenias keep my secret… His identity? It was the only thing which made sense to Emma, but then why were they "whispering" his affection? What was it Professor Jones had said in class? Pick out what seem to be the key words in the poem and use them to help you understand its meaning? If the two lines were connected in meaning, then the gardenias stood for… secret affection?
Thy hydrangeas offer gratitude/For abundance of understanding… Gratitude for understanding what? Her patience in all this? Of his secrecy in hiding his identity? Emma couldn't help but feel as if something else were being alluded to in those lines—as if they foreshadowed some event yet to come.
At least the meaning of the rose was easier to discern: And the coral of the rose assure/Ardent desire remains—even in the harshest dawn.
Passion and desire… Those were things she could comprehend. The fact that they were mentioned in tandem with this "harshest dawn," only solidified her sense that there was a mournful air to the poem—as if it were saying goodbye—was something she chose to ignore for the time being. They were lovely flowers, she decided, taking a leaf out of her mother's book and choosing to place the brightest possible face on things, and the poem was beautiful, whatever it might portend for the future.
That was enough for now.
Emma met with Professor Jones the following week. Though Henry had been excited to hear about the reply to the ad he'd helped her write, his excitement soon shifted to a businesslike concern once Emma mentioned Professor Jones's hint that they might want to begin working on their midterm papers. Armed with more than half a dozen resources Henry had helped her dig up, and the best of intentions, Emma had waded into the work with determination; it didn't take long to realize, however, that as good as some of Henry's recommended resources were, Emma wasn't certain how to cite some of them properly, and the examples she looked up in the manual of style Professor Jones had recommended only confused her further.
And thus she found herself, once again, in Professor Jones's cramped office, inhaling the intoxicating scent of his cologne and stammering her questions about the pertinent citations like an idiot.
"Sorry," she apologized with a lame smile, as she finished, "no caffeine yet. I hope that made sense."
His answering smile alleviated any lingering worries that she hadn't made a lick of sense. "Just enough," he replied, his blue eyes alight with amusement and compassion. "Not to worry. I had one of those mornings last week. As to your questions, I have a printout with examples that I was going to photocopy and pass out in the next class, but I can make you a copy now, if it will help…" He reached for his briefcase and settled it into his lap.
"Damn," he said a few moments later, after examining its contents. He glanced up at her with a somewhat embarrassed expression. "Ah, pardon me."
Emma laughed. "It's okay. I'm hardly going to be the one to police anyone's language."
He grinned. "Yes, I seem to remember you using a rather colorfully descriptive phrase yourself when I gave Jefferson a ride home, that day…" He snapped his briefcase shut, and Emma felt herself turn red. "The packet I need isn't in there. I must have left it in Lakeland's car this morning when we carpooled." He paused. "When's your next class?"
"Not for another half an hour."
"Excellent. If you'll excuse me for a few minutes, I'll just run down to the faculty parking lot and get that packet, so I can make a copy for you."
She watched him go, quite unable to help noticing the firm curve of his posterior as he retreated. This whole thing was so fucking unfair. She was bad at poetry and had a hard time concentrating as it was, but she had to go and get the best looking professor in the whole goddammed world on top of it—and she was expected to learn something by the end of the year under these circumstances? Clearly, the universe had stacked the odds against her.
Shifting restlessly in her chair, Emma peered around the office, desperate for a distraction from her troubles.
Two large volumes sitting on his desk caught her eye, and she tilted her head to one side, trying to read the spines better. The Selected Works of W.B. Yeats. The Complete Works of Emily Dickinson.
Dickinson? Emma thought, remembering the volume she'd tucked away in her backpack that morning, with the intent of returning it to him. He was a big fan, to have multiple volumes, wasn't he?
Then again, she mused, unzipping her bag, he was a literature professor, and maybe that wasn't out of character. Or maybe he'd simply borrowed one from the library. Either way, she didn't need to monopolize his copy anymore. She'd bought her own book of Dickinson's poetry (on an impulse she still didn't understand) from the student bookstore when she'd gone in there last week to browse between classes. Hers was only a selected works, and certainly nothing in comparison to the completed works he'd lent her, but it would do well enough while she worked with Henry to raise her poetry grade.
Rising to her feet, Emma stepped toward the desk and placed it on top of the other poetry volumes. There! Now she wouldn't have to worry about forgetting to return it to him when he came back to his office, smelling so good and leading her thoughts wickedly astray.
Turning back toward her chair, the sleeve of Emma's jacket caught on one of the desk drawers, pulling it open.
Cursing to herself, Emma carefully extricated her sleeve and bent to close the drawer. Let thy gardenias keep my secret- The familiar snatch of words caught her eyes as her fingers grasped the handle, and she froze, dumbfounded. She reached into the drawer, pulling out the yellow legal pad they were scribbled upon. What was her poem doing in his desk drawer? For her poem it unmistakably was, with its breathtaking imagery intact, despite the numerous lines that had been crossed out, or the syntax that had apparently been altered between drafts.
Maybe it was some weird coincidence. But how? How could her poem just end up in his desk drawer like this? It couldn't be a coincidence. What on earth were the odds that her poem would end up in his desk drawer, full of scribbled out margin notes, and musings on just the right word choice to convey the meaning he wanted? Was he helping her admirer somehow? Her mind flashed to Jefferson. Perhaps Professor Jones had been advising Jefferson on the best way to win over Emma? Was that why he'd been so confident in his reassurances that her admirer wished her no harm? Was it because he knew damned well who it was the entire time?
Emma wished all of this were so. Desperately. But deep inside, she felt it—she knew. Professor Jones was her so-called admirer. He had been the one sending her all the poems. And he'd sent the flowers for Valentine's Day, too.
But to what purpose?
"What the fuck?" She breathed. "What. The. Fuck!"
Her mind flashed to the intimate conversation they'd shared on the porch steps of her townhouse, then to all of the little stolen gazes and the silent, shared moments of understanding, and her heart gave a strange quiver of happiness.
But, her brain whispered cynically, what if it had all been planned?
Her stomach started to churn, and Emma closed her eyes. The thought that he'd planned this out and taken advantage of her, especially in the aftermath of her breakup with Neal, nauseated her. Professor Jones had always seemed so compassionate. Caring. Like he genuinely wanted his students to succeed on their own merits—not like someone who would take advantage of a struggling, desperate student.
Struggling and desperate…
The kernel of an idea sprouted, and once the idea had planted itself, Emma couldn't get it out of her mind. Had this all been a grotesque farce in order to bring up her grade? Throw a little mystery and romance her way through some poems in order to get her interested and change her mind, and then what? She'd be so grateful that she wouldn't care she'd been played, and she'd sleep with him?
The thought of what he'd done, how he'd tricked her, utterly infuriated Emma. Did he do this with all of his struggling students, stringing them along, condescending to send them anonymous poetry? Had that been how he'd ended up with a stalker? Had some disaffected student discovered he was the sender, and decided to wreak her revenge? Had his victim taken the poems as encouragement and convinced herself he felt real affection for her, and then found herself unable to let go when she discovered he'd been toying with her?
The thought of what he'd done to that poor girl, and now to Emma, tricking them both, infuriated her.
The amount of rage and humiliation she felt could not be quantified in any coherent thoughts. Emma simply stared at the legal pad in her hands, seething. How dare he!
How dare he!
She was going to give him a piece of her mind, thin office walls be damned! Let the whole fucking world find out what kind of sick, twisted piece of shit he was! One way or another, she was going to make certain Professor Jones never pulled any kind of shady shit like this again!
The office door opened, and Emma's head jerked up. Time slowed to a crawl as Killian entered, a stack of photocopied papers in his hands, kicking the office door shut behind him with a click. Blood pounding in her ears, Emma fixed him with an icy expression, her rage overtaking her. Killian looked confused for a moment, his forehead puckering in concern, and then his eyes flicked toward the legal pad she held in her hands.
She saw with razor sharp precision the moment comprehension dawned in his eyes. The papers he'd been holding fell to his feet. His cheeks reddened, and then his ears; they blazed so bright that Emma half expected them to catch fire altogether. His eyes dropped to the floor, his expression full of shame. He scratched the back of his neck awkwardly, as if searching for something to say, and then Emma remembered Liam teasing his brother about it—how he always did that when he was embarrassed.
No, she seethed, he doesn't get to feel awkward about this. He wasn't the one who had been manipulated and utterly humiliated.
"Shut up," she growled. And she found herself raising her hand with the vague, foolish intent of slapping him, but somewhere along the way, her confused emotions eclipsed her anger and her wires got crossed. Suddenly, she was grabbing him by the collar and pulling him toward her, crashing her lips against his, communicating her anger and confusion to him in the only way she knew how. But instead of quenching her rage, she found herself feeding it instead; and between one moment and the next, it wasn't anger anymore, but a wildfire of passion blazing between them.
The hard warmth of his chest pressed against hers. His fingers threaded through her hair restlessly, the warmth of them like a massage against her scalp. One hand settled against her cheek, tilting her head and guiding the kiss deeper. Emma responded with eagerness, lost to all other sensation save the intoxicating connection of their souls that was taking place. Hands nested inside her coat, and then lifted her up against the edge of his desk. The kiss became less frenzied and more sensual as Killian drove the kiss deeper still, until Emma half sobbed and half-choked the resultant moan into his mouth.
"That was…" Emma hated the croak of her voice as she came up for much needed air. She felt lightheaded, off balance. Breathless. And good. Oh so good…
"A one-time thing."
She gaped at him in disbelief, still reeling from the kiss. Her thoughts were jumbled, only half-coherent, but some instinct she hadn't even known was buried inside of her bubbled to the surface in protest. "But—"
"Don't," he said hoarsely, before she could even get the right words out of her mouth. "You need to leave, Emma."
"What?" she hissed, "You can't just—"
"Go," he repeated firmly, avoiding her gaze again. "Please," he begged.
"Killian—" The rest of her words stuck in her throat after she whispered the name. She hadn't meant to call him that, and yet the name had fallen from her lips as smoothly and naturally as if she'd been using it for years.
"Emma, my next appointment will be arriving at any moment," he said softly. "The last thing either of us need right now is to be caught looking as we do, or having the sort of awkward conversation my explanation would require. Go." He paused for a moment, and then begged, "Please."
"All right," she agreed woodenly, smoothing down her hair while Killian fixed his disheveled clothes. She gathered her things together, nodding vaguely in response to his promises that he'd get in touch with her later to "sort things out."
"Sure," she bobbed her head, hefting her backpack onto one shoulder.
Killian frowned at her simple response, as if he suspected she did not believe him, but nothing could be further from the truth. Emma didn't need reassurances that he'd contact her. She knew it in her bones that he would. Perhaps not tonight, or even tomorrow, but he would. For the kiss they had shared had taught her two incontrovertible things: The first was that Killian Jones had genuine feelings for her, whatever his initial intentions in sending the poems had been. And as to the second… Emma was certain that no matter how hard Killian tried to fight it now, they were going to end up in each other's arms. Good, bad, or disastrous, it was one of those fated, inevitable things. The universe seemed to want them together. So, one way or another, they would be.
She had to trust in that.