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A Cup of Kindness

Chapter Text

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my jo,
for auld lang syne,
we'll tak' a cup o' kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.
                                                                           — Robert Burns

It doesn’t feel a thing like Christmas, Ann thought, although it was certainly cold enough. She paused to pull the front of her scarf up to cover her nose, leaving only her eyes exposed to the biting wind. The weather had gotten worse since lunchtime and snow was falling as she walked to the Metro station.

She’d known for months that it wouldn’t be a normal Christmas. She’d come to Washington to do a sabbatical year at the Smithsonian while her husband, Ian, taught at Georgetown University Hospital. Both of them had been looking forward to a change, had in fact been waiting until all the children were old enough to be away at boarding school. She and Ian had agreed it would be too expensive to fly back to London this Christmas, or to bring the children to them. You agreed, but you didn’t really believe it would happen, deep down, she thought. If Chloe’s school fees had been a little less…

She checked her watch and cursed silently while waiting on the crowded platform. Orange line trains were supposed to come more often than this. She’d never have time to get a sandwich before choir rehearsal.

There were no empty seats on the train when it finally arrived. She spent the journey to Virginia Square swaying gently with the motion of the train while mentally reviewing the list of presents she’d left with her parents for Chloe and the twins. It had felt strange, buying and wrapping Christmas presents in July, but she was glad now that she’d done it. Just think how depressing it would be to have to buy them now. Four days until Christmas: you couldn’t even get them there in time.

Her problem, she thought, wasn’t that Chloe and Jack and Lewis were in England and she was here. Her problem was that neither they nor Ian seemed to mind being separated as much as she did.

Someone has to care more, she told herself, as she left the train and trudged toward St. George’s. She was their mother; of course she missed them. The children were having an adventure: visiting their grandparents and their friends without Mum and Dad breathing down their necks. She thought back to her own school days, and how easily she’d parted from her family at term-time. It wasn’t until the end, when she’d nearly finished university, that she’d found it hard to leave. It wasn’t until she’d realized that her time at home was almost over that it had become precious.

She put those thoughts aside as she stamped the snow from her boots at the church’s threshold. Here, at least, she felt that Christmas was coming, if only because they had so much music yet to master before Christmas Eve. She’d joined the choir on impulse a few months earlier and was thoroughly enjoying it. She'd been surprised by the easy camaraderie at first, but perhaps the long-term members were more welcoming to newcomers than she’d expected because so many people in Washington were temporary residents.

Rehearsal ran much later than usual, but she found herself not minding, even though her stomach rumbled ominously from time to time. Something in the music had untangled her emotions and she found herself more accepting of the the notion that there would be other Christmases, happier Christmases.

But not if you die of starvation first, she thought with a smile, as she left the church. It was still snowing, but the wind was less harsh. There was a diner a short walk from here that she’d never tried. Perhaps she’d treat herself to a slice of that pie everyone talked about.

She hurried through the dark, debating the merits of preparing a traditional Christmas dinner. Ian hasn’t even said anything about what we’re making for Christmas. Perhaps pretending it isn’t Christmas at all is his way of dealing with things. I should have noticed.

She stopped short just inside the diner, not believing her eyes. As a hostess approached her, Ann declared, “I’ll eat at the counter,” then moved to take a seat. “Hullo, Caleb,” she said to the last person she’d ever expected to see there.

He turned to her, looking nearly as surprised as she felt. “We’ve… we’ve met before, haven’t we? Er, several months ago?”

“Yes, we have,” Ann said. “Your name was Calvin then.” She saw his face go white, then red. “And before that, it was Connor.”

A waiter came to take Ann’s order. After he’d gone, the man sitting next to her said, “I’m sure you’re mistaken.”

I’m not falling for that again, she thought. “I’m sure I’m not. So tell me, what is your real name?”

The man hesitated before saying, “Colin. Colin Templer.”

Who are you? she wondered. And why have you turned up twice in quick succession, after so many years? “How do you do it?”

“Do what?”

“Look like you’re still in your twenties after twenty years. You’d need a time machine.”

He looked at her steadily without speaking, as if willing her to guess something he was reluctant to admit.

Ann’s voice was nearly inaudible as she said, “And apparently you have one. So I was right. How? Why? When?”

The waiter arrived with Ann’s food. She eagerly took a few bites of her omelet before turning back to Colin. “Well?”

“I can’t tell you how,” he said slowly. “I don’t understand all the maths; I only know it works. I won’t tell you when; that’s strictly forbidden. As for why, that should be obvious enough: I’m an historian, like you.”

“Not like me,” she countered. “My research is limited to what I can find in archives. You have access to an entirely different kind of primary source.”  And wouldn't that be amazing?

Colin smiled. “Sometimes. If you recall, we’ve spent a fair bit of time together in reading rooms.”

I haven’t forgotten those days. “Couldn’t you have done that in your own,” she paused, looking around the diner before whispering, “time?”

“Things disappear. You know that. Fires happen. Pipes break. Papers get mis-filed, or simply crumble from old age.”

“Well, if you’ve come to do any research at the Smithsonian, I should be able to help you with access,” she offered. “Are you still doing research on World War II?”

Colin took a long, deliberate swallow of coffee before answering. “Not at the moment. Sometimes I… travel… to assist other historians who are having difficulty returning home. I came to check on someone, to be sure all is well.”

Here? I suppose there are all sorts of things an historian might find of interest in the DC area. “Is that what you were doing in London? Or can’t you say?”

Colin grinned ruefully. “I’m sure to get an earful no matter what I do, so I may as well satisfy your curiosity. A little,” he added in a warning tone.

“The first time we met, were you really doing research?”

“Yes, but not in the same way you were. I was looking for clues to lead me to some missing historians.”

“Missing? How does someone go missing? How old were you then?”

“Twenty-two. ‘Missing’ is the word we use to describe someone who hasn’t returned from assignment when expected.”

“Did you find them?”

Colin hesitated. “Not right away, although some of the articles you showed me did help.”

“They did?” Ann felt a sudden rush of warmth.

“Yes. The second time we met, I was twenty-seven, and still searching.”

“You spent five years looking for someone?”

“Four someones. And it took us nearly ten years to find everyone.”

“Ten years,” Ann repeated to herself. “How can it take ten years to find someone?”

“You have to know where to look. And you have to be able to get there. There were… challenges… with both aspects.”

“But everything is well now?” she asked, wondering just what those “challenges” had been.

“As well as it can be,” he said, looking down at his plate.

“And most historians do things the way you do, where you’re from? What’s it like?”

“Traveling? I thought it would be like stepping into a book, but it’s not. There are so many things about the past that don’t get written down. Things that people take for granted. Even when you think you know what to expect, there’s always something to surprise you.”

“Or someone,” she said, smiling.

“Or someone,” he agreed. “How did you know it was me?”

“After all the time we spent together? I haven’t forgotten your voice, or your mannerisms. It didn’t seem possible that someone who looked so much like you would also sound and act like you.”

He nodded thoughtfully. “I should have made sure of exactly where you were before coming. I was afraid you’d guess the truth the last time we met. You always were clever.”

And you always were going to be beyond my reach. Good thing I got over you. She paused for a moment, considering, then said lightly, “Let’s see. I probably shouldn’t ask you about what’s going to become of me or my family, or what’s going to win the Derby, or whether aliens take over the planet.”

“True,” he said. “I can’t answer any of those questions.”

“Hmm. All right, then. What’s the most dangerous place you’ve ever visited?”

“Apart from this diner?” he said teasingly.

Ann smiled. “Apart from that.”

“Oxford.”

“Be serious.”

“I am,” he protested. “Actually, it wasn’t Oxford proper, just a tiny village close by. Ashencote. During the Christmas season of 1348.”

“1348?” She thought for a moment, then said, “The plague? You went to the plague?” That’s allowed?!

Colin nodded. “I wasn’t supposed to be there. I, er, stowed away, so to speak.”

“Someone was supposed to go, but not you?”

“Definitely not me,” he said with a laugh. “I was twelve. And no, we don’t send children on trips.”

“Was that your hardest trip?”

“No,” he said. “We succeeded that time. Found the person we were looking for, I mean. My hardest trip was a retrieval where the historian died just as I got to him.” Before Ann could say anything, he quickly added, “and the easiest trip I took was another retrieval. I was there and back in less than a day.”

“You seem to spend a lot of time rescuing people.”

“Do I? I suppose it sounds that way, but I’ve also spent a lot of time doing ordinary research.”

“Will it happen in my lifetime? Historical travel?” Ann asked, and was surprised by how fiercely she wished it would.

Colin gave her the slightly crooked smile she’d once swooned over and said, “Perhaps. Tell me about you. What are you doing in Washington?”

“Surely you can find that out without asking me.”

“Surely I could, but I’d rather hear you tell it,” he replied, so Ann told him about the Smithsonian and Ian and the children and how it didn’t seem at all like Christmas and what a normal Christmas at home would be like. And sometime while she was talking, she realized she’d been given a present she’d never expected and would treasure always.

She glanced down at her watch with a start. How did it get to be so late? Ian will be worrying. “I must be going. Colin… you’ve no idea how good it’s been to see you. Thank you for trusting me with the truth.”

“As if I could have kept it from you,” he said warmly. “I’m glad we ran into each other.”

“Call in again someday, if you're passing. You’ll always know where to find me,” she said, and dropped a kiss on his cheek as she was leaving.

His eyes followed her as she paid her bill and turned back to give him a small wave before stepping outside. “I do hope to see you again someday,” he said to himself.

He ordered a slice of chocolate cake for dessert and was idly picking at it with his fork when a fair-haired young women came into the diner and claimed the seat next to him.

"I saw her talking to you," Polly said without preamble.  "Did you come early?  I specifically told you not to get here before 9:45."

"I didn't, but she saw me, anyway.  I thought you said she never comes here."

"She doesn't.  Or hasn't," Polly said, then paused to order a cup of tea.  Turning back to Colin, she continued, "I'm sorry I'm so late.  I offered her a ride home from rehearsal but she turned me down.  Unfortunately, Sharon overheard me and she wanted a ride and I couldn't very well refuse. By the time I got here, the two of you were talking, so I drove off before Ann could see me.  I thought her connecting the two of us would be worse than whatever was already happening.  What actually happened?"

"She guessed," Colin said.  "She knew straight away that Connor and Calvin and I were the same person.  It didn't take much for her to figure out the rest."

"Did you tell her why you were here?" Polly said, accepting her tea with thanks.

"No.  I just said I was checking on an historian.  Which I am.  Obviously rehearsal didn't finish anywhere near the normal time, or Ann wouldn't have caught me.  So how did you do it?"

Polly laughed.  "I nearly didn't have to.  Delay rehearsal, I mean.  The basses were twice as thick as usual, and three of the altos had stopped for drinks between work and rehearsal.  Janet's husband's gone off to Antarctica and won't be back for months, so Meg and Kathryn were trying to cheer her up.  Anyway, they were slightly drunk, which made them even more talkative than usual.  And we got a new piece of music tonight and that took up a lot of time, between reading it and listening to people complain about it.  I think it must be a universal constant that every piece of music has to be hated by someone in the choir.  And that directors always try to wedge in one extra piece at the last minute. May I have some of your cake?"

Colin nudged the cake towards her and said, "So what did you do?"

"That's just it: I didn't.  Well, I did, but I didn't plan it.  I was looking at my watch and trying to decide how much later rehearsal would have to run for Ann to be safe and whether I should pretend to need help with my part when it just happened."

"What happened?"

"You know that seemingly insignificant events can have a disproportionate affect on history," Polly said, looking both amused and guilty.  "Little things, like the wrong word at the right moment."

"Yes?"

"I was so busy trying to decide how much time I needed to play for that I wasn't paying proper attention to the music.  Instead of singing, 'most highly favored lady,' I sang, 'most highly flavored lady.' "

Colin snorted.

"And that's exactly what happened," Polly said, her face alight with smothered laughter. "The tipsy altos heard me and that was that. Rehearsal came to a screeching halt.  For about ten minutes, every time we started trying to sing again someone got the giggles and then everyone else starting laughing all over again.  And then one of the tenors said, "extra spicy Virgin Mary," and that set us off again.  I've no idea how we're going to get through that piece on Christmas Eve. I don't suppose it matters, though. Not if Ann's safe.  Do you think it worked?"

"You can't be struck by a hit-and-run driver if you're somewhere else discussing extra spicy Virgin Mary," Colin said with a grin.  "I think it worked."

"But Ishiwaka said..."

"Ishiwaka is wrong," Colin stated firmly, "and this will be the final proof.  We've researched as many contemps as we could identify, to see whether having contact with them was fatal.  It's hard to be sure about all the people you encountered in 1940, but it's also impossible to say that encountering you is what did them in.  Ann's is the only death we found that we're not sure of, and I think you've just prevented it."

"Delayed it," Polly said gently.  "The question is for how long."

"A long time.  Long enough for it to be worth all the forms I'll have to fill in, plus the telling off I'll get from Dunworthy when he finds out I've spoken to her."  And that I intend to visit her again someday.  As I'm passing.