Chapter 180 – The Academy’s Secret Lovers (1)
It was winter when Professor Wayne Hill’s punishment was decided. The students trickled out of the Academy for vacation, and even Louise Sweeney had gone for the capital. The few souls left at the Academy were Stella Lapis, Wayne Hill, and a few staff members.
“Good morning, Professor.”
Stella arrived at her daily visit to the greenhouse.
“Oh…hello, Miss Stella.”
The professor would always correct his glasses as he gave a polite reply in return, then go back to inspecting every corner of the greenhouse, checking and documenting the growth of all the living things.
Although Professor Hill didn’t talk much, Stella liked to spend her time here. All her worries would slide away, and she enjoyed watching the professor be so enthusiastic as he worked in his element. Sometimes she would catch a glimpse of those intelligent eyes underneath those classes.
Despite Professor Hill’s reserved personality, she would do her best to start a casual chat too.
“Maybe Louise heard the mage wrong.”
Stella played with her knees as she tentatively started a conversation. She didn’t mean to put blame on Louise though.
“It’s the New Year and it didn’t snow.”
“Perhaps she confused it with another date.”
His guess didn’t turn out to be wrong, and three days after the arrival of the New Year, it snowed heavily. It was as if someone poured white paint onto the landscape, carpeting everything in a pure color.
As soon as the snow stopped, Stella ran to the greenhouse in her winter gear. Climbing up the ladder and scraping snow from the roof was now a familiar task, but that didn’t make it any easier. There was a full day’s worth of heavy snow on the roof, and when Stella finally came down from the ladder, she was exhausted. Professor Hill looked a little better, but he was tired as well.
Cold and hungry, the pair jogged to the caretaker’s kitchen. It was silent, as caretaker had left the Academy before it snowed. It was not without ingredients, however, and Professor Hill walked over to the fireplace to start a small spark, and soon a fire was crackling merrily and spreading its warmth throughout the room.
“Stay here by the fire.”
Professor Hill spoke to Stella, who crouched down next to him.
“What about you?”
“Well, you should eat something—M-Miss Lapis? Why are you laughing all of a sudden?”
He immediately realized the reason for it. His vision became foggy, and the warmer the fire became, the cloudier the view of Stella’s chuckling face.
“Sorry for laughing. But your glasses have turned completely white.”
She tried to hold back her laughter as much as possible, but a chortle burst from her lips.
“W-well, I can’t help it.”
Professor Hill slipped off his glasses and rubbed them against his coat, while Stella watched him from the side.
She had seen him without his glasses several times before, but each time she did, she couldn’t help but admire his high nose and vivid green eyes. In all honesty, she thought he looked pretty cool, but she liked his cute bespectacled side as well.
After Professor Hill fidgeted with his glasses, he quickly set them back on his face. Stella suddenly got a little curious.
“Professor, how bad is your eyesight without glasses?”
“It’s not too bad. It is a little worse than others…”
“I could see the professor’s expression when I sat in the middle of the lecture hall.”
“What if you sit at the back?”
“I can only tell their gestures.”
That was a little ambiguous. He couldn’t claim to have good eyesight, but it wasn’t entirely bad either.
“Anyway, wearing glasses keeps me relaxed.”
A bitter smile flickered on his face.
Stella wanted to ask him that question, but he looked strangely sad.
“Anyway, since Miss Lapis is here, I’ll find something warm to drink.”
Professor Hill tried to get out of his sitting position, but Stella quickly grabbed him by the sleeve.
“But you’re cold too, so…”
The words didn’t come out. She didn’t mean to crowd him, but she thought he would be better by the fire because his clothes were wet and his hands were slightly red.
The professor leaned down and looked face-to-face with Stella.
“This happens every winter, so I’m used to it. I’m more worried about you, Miss Stella. You may not be as accustomed to it as I am.”
As he spoke, his eyes turned towards her damp red hair, and he pulled out a handkerchief from his breast pocket.
“Your hair is all wet, so you might catch a cold…”
His face got closer to hers as he whispered softly.
Soon his handkerchief touched her wet hair. At this proximity, Stella could clearly see his expression, and it caught her by surprise. He looked…worried.
‘I’m fine, too, Professor.’
She wanted to speak, but she was unable to move her lips again. She couldn’t understand why. It must be the way he was looking at her over those glasses.
They were so close. Her heart beat so hard that it became difficult to breath.
Then their eyes met.
The professor made a sound of realization.
“You can wipe off the water like this. You got it?”
He handed Stella the handkerchief, and she took it confusedly. Professor Hill stood up without hesitation.
‘He was just showing me how to dry my hair.’
Stella was of noble birth, and so he probably assumed she didn’t know how to do it herself.
‘I probably look pathetic.’
She crouched in front of the crackling fire and pressed her damp hair into the handkerchief.
‘It’s only natural he thinks that.’
She couldn’t even prove her own skill at the Academy and had relied on Professor Lassen’s power. She had hurt many people in the process. There wasn’t much argument Stella could give if Professor Hill thought she was helpless.
‘…I’m so stupid.’
Stella bowed her forehead against her knees for a moment.
She looked back up at the cautious voice calling to her, and saw the professor holding out a hot, steaming mug.
“Are you alright?”
Stella hastily put on a bright expression.
“Thank goodness. I heated up some cocoa with milk. Will that be alright?”
Stella nodded quickly and accepted the proffered mug.
“It’s hot. Be careful.”
The milk was hot enough to form a thin film on top of the beverage, and Stella blew on it carefully before taking a sip. She gave a hum of appreciation as the drink warmed her body.
The professor smiled and Stella moved aside to offer him a place to sit.
“Well, sit down, too.”
“I’m fine. I should go back to the classroom now.”
A disappointed look crossed her face, but she soon put on a brave smile.
“You did this all for me. Thank you.”
“It’s me who has to thank you for your help at the greenhouse. But anyway, there are a few safety precautions. Before you leave here and go back to your dorm room…”
He looked at the crackling fire and paused.
“Actually, it would be irresponsible to leave you here with the fire.”
Professor Hill then settled himself back down next to her. The cozy rug laid out by the fire was not so big, and their shoulders touched.
There was silence.
Stella brought the warm mug to her lips and hesitated, before speaking in a soft voice.
“You’re not leaving?”
“You don’t think I can’t put out the fire properly?”
She was happy to be with him, but why did she feel so upset?
“…I can put out the fire myself.”
“Yes, I suppose.”
“So you can go back. Aren’t you busy?”
“I am, but…”
The professor looked at Stella from behind his glasses.
“I would get worried about Miss Lapis anyway, and I’d keep going back and forth many times.”
“Fire is dangerous.”
The professor tossed some dry logs into the fireplace, and the fire blazed to new life.
“It would be irresponsible for a professor to leave a student in a potentially hazardous situation…though of course, I’m not qualified to be a professor anymore.”
“W-well, that wasn’t your fault!”
Stella quickly rose to his defense. He may have been in a situation similar to Stella, but he was different. Even without Professor Lassen’s power, he was too brilliant to be ignored, and it was only bad luck that led him down the wrong path. His research work was proof of that.
Professor Hill did not respond, and only gave a wan smile.
An uncomfortable silence hung between them again.
Judging by the professor’s troubled expression, Stella seemed to sense that she had made a mistake. What should she have said? Did he find it uneasy to be around Stella? Did he think of her as annoying?
Stella set down the mug next to her and hugged her knees tightly. Various thoughts swept through her mind one after another, but they only served to depress her.