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The rumour started with Mary Fleming, who volunteered with her son’s Primary five class every Tuesday, and who had become close enough with most of the P5 teachers that she was considered a mostly reputable source, as far as these things were concerned. She had mentioned it to Katy Hooper over tea, who had texted it to her playdate group, who had repeated it in scandalized whispers and concerned murmurings and oh-have-you-heard phone calls until the news had thoroughly saturated the entire village:

Mrs. Cunningham, the stern older woman who had taught Primary two for as long as most people could remember, had quite suddenly and without warning or reason, retired and left town. Being the only Primary two teacher at the school, this was something of a concern.

For a few days, the Primary two class was shuffled awkwardly between other classrooms, taken largely by whoever had enough empty chairs or floorspace to accommodate them. On Wednesday, they sat cross-legged on the colourful carpet of the nursery room, the sudden shock of being absent a teacher and the abounding well-my-maw-said rumours being quite enough to keep them occupied and mostly out of trouble.  By Thursday, the children had realized that they were free of the bounds of formal education, and attempted to turn poor Mr. Bone’s Primary one classroom into a Lord of the Flies recreation, leading to a few pupils being sent home early with a stern warning. On Friday, they were firmly instructed to sit quietly with the Primary sevens, who were watching a documentary that day. During said documentary, a wolf killed and ate a deer, causing Molly Brown to become inconsolably upset.

The situation was clearly becoming desperate.

In this part of the country, formally trained teachers were in short supply, and for the most part, it was a life term. A post was vacated when the individual retired, or, well, retired.

On Monday morning, the parents of the Primary two class were invited with a strained enthusiasm to join their pupils in the classroom to meet Mr. Sims, who had apparently agreed to take the job on extremely short notice, and who would be teaching the P2s for the rest of the year, or until the school could track down a more suitable, more permanent replacement.

Mr. Sims, perched delicately on an office chair at the front of the classroom, put one to mind of a particularly bedraggled crow. Small frame, narrow face, narrow shoulders, scar-riddled skin, and he peered at the gaggle of children in front of him with flat black eyes, long fingers fretting at a crease in his trousers. His hair, dark as the rest of him, hung in a limp ponytail at his neck, and was streaked through with grey that didn’t quite match the cowed, nervous youth of his face. There was a trepidation to the way he was braced, to the way he glanced, quick and furtive around the room, and it was reflected back in the way the parents watched him carefully, fingers twitching, ready to snatch away their offspring at the first sign of trouble from the odd, scarred little man. The children were immediately fascinated, to the point of being entirely enamoured, having never seen a grown-up quite so openly strange.

The head mistress was stood at his side, waiting with a mild impatience for the chatter to settle. The crease of concern on her forehead had, sometime over the weekend, started to become a permanent wrinkle.

She made brusque introductions, stiffly thanked Mr. Sims for stepping into the role, made some half-hearted assurances to the parents about an environment of stability, an attempt to smooth over the frazzled discontent that hummed through the room.

Mr. Sims coughed, blinked in surprise when he seemed to realise that the head mistress was done with platitudes, that he was, presumably, expected to speak for himself.

“Ah, right,” he mumbled, and pushed his glasses up his nose with two fingers. He cleared his throat, addressed the room at large, though his eyes were skittish, seemed to avoid lingering in one place for long. “As Mrs. McMillan said, my name is Jonathan Sims – though, I suppose Mr. Sims will do, for the classroom. My training is primarily based in academic research, not, ah, education, and while I will be unable to provide the proper curriculum and teaching that experience and time would have afforded my predecessor, I can assure you that I will attempt to fill this role to the best of my ability, and would welcome any input you may have over the rest of the year.”

Mr. Sims turned his attention to the circle of cross-legged little gawkers at his feet, then, and his voice gentled a touch when he addressed them, a rueful smile on his face.

“I know it must be strange to have a new teacher so suddenly, in the middle of the year. And I may not be very good at this. So I do hope you’ll all tell me if I do anything wrong.”

Directly under his nose, Finlay Robinson’s hand shot up into the air.

Mr. Sims blinked. “Yes?”

“Do you know the Queen?”

Another blink. “I- No?”

Finlay’s hand remained up. Mr. Sims nodded for him to continue. “Then why do you sound so posh?”

In one of the chairs at the back of the room, Mrs. Robinson went rather red. Mr. Sims just laughed quietly to himself, however, and replied, “Ah, I suppose that would be because of my grandmother.”

Molly Brown’s hand went tentatively upwards.

Mr. Sims looked at her with a slight apprehension. “Yes?”

“Is your Gran the Queen?”

<0>

Heather tended to get nervous, at the end of the day.

The playground was just – big.
Not big the way it was during break, when her and Molly would chase each other laughing and squealing across the pavement like little wild things, but big in a way where the iron bars of the fence around the school loomed horribly, and as her class was slowly picked up by their mums and dads and teachers stalked around like wolves looking for straying soft things to hunt, Heather always became certain that she had to stand very—

very—

still.

Or else it would see her. And if it saw her, it would get her.

Last year, Mr. Bone had held her hand, at the end of every day, had let her stand close to his comforting largeness until Dad waved at her from the gates, and she could run the short and awful distance to his arms. Mr. Bone was bald, and very tall, and outdoors his head always looked very shiny, and she had been sure that as long as she was stood beside him, his big fingers tight around hers, it wouldn’t be able to see her.

Mrs. Cunningham had been smaller, hunched and unassuming, but Heather had thought that it might not be able to see through the drab brown folds of her skirts. But Mrs. Cunningham had told her not to be silly, to go and play with the rest of the class until she was picked up, to grow up and behave like a big girl. And the Primary ones got out an hour before the Primary twos, so she couldn’t hide at the side of Mr. Bone anymore, so it was going to see her. So she had gotten very good at walking to a spot beside the bins, trying to keep her footsteps soft, quiet, and holding herself in their shallow shadows, and keeping very, very still.

Mr. Sims was not too much like Mrs. Cunningham. He did not snap at them for talking a little during individual work time, and hadn’t even told off Logan for getting up to sharpen his pencil, even though he hadn’t raised his hand to ask, and didn’t hold a ruler to his open palm like a threat, like he was looking for any excuse to use it. But when he’d read them a story, Heather had watched him frown, mutter to himself that Bea and Arthur were silly for going exploring without telling their parents, and by the time the last bell rang, Heather was quite sure that if she asked to hold Mr. Sims’ hand, he would frown at her, and think she was being silly, and tell her that she was too big to need to hold hands in the playground.

The class lined up at the big front doors to go outside, and Heather stood at the very back. If everyone else went outside first, it would watch them, and might not notice her as she went to her spot by the bins.

Mr. Sims was waiting for her when she finally reached the doorway. She had been thinking about how she was going to walk, looking at her feet and practicing making them be quiet, so she almost bumped right into his legs. He was frowning, and she felt her lip wobble, a little. She didn’t want to cry, even if he called her silly. She was too grown-up for that.

“Miss Lewis?” he said. It was odd, to be called that. Last year, there had been another Heather in her P1 class, so she had been Heather L, and the other one had been Heather M, but Miss Lewis made her feel grown up, and she smoothed her palms down the front of her pinafore, suddenly embarrassed of the holes in the knees of her tights and the scuffs on the toes of her shoes.

She looked up at him. He wasn’t as tall as Mr. Bone, and he was leaning down towards her, peering at her over his thin glasses. She didn’t want to start crying. She didn’t want him to think she was silly.

“May I ask who’s coming to pick you up?” Mr. Sims asked softly, just like how the pupils were supposed to ask, like Miss may I go to the bathroom—

“My dad,” she said, softly, back. Out in the playground, she heard someone squeal. She didn’t look over Mr. Sims’ shoulder, sure she’d see it looking for her, even though she’d never seen it before. Mr. Sims wasn’t as big as Mr. Bone, no, but his jacket was big and thick and rough, with soft leather patches at the elbows, and all of him looked there enough that she thought it might not be able to see her hiding behind him.

“Your dad,” he said, and it sounded different the way he said it, fancy. Like the Queen. “Well, Miss Lewis. Would you—do you need to—Damn, how to… Would you prefer to wait with me outside, until your dad gets here?”

Heather realised quite suddenly that Mr. Sims knew about it too. Knew that it was going to get her, that it couldn’t see her when he was there. She nodded, and gripped the leg of his trousers as tight as she could, and felt all shaky in the knees with fear and relief as she walked outside with Mr. Sims, his hand near her shoulder, not quite brushing her jumper.

She looked up at him, and he was watching the playground, frowning, but not angry. Not afraid, either. So she copied him a little, since it couldn’t see her if she looked for it now, and looked around at the big game of tig that always went running around at the end of the day, and at Stuart and Duncan wrestling by the big wall, even though Mrs. Cunningham used to shout at them for getting their uniforms dirty, and at Molly, who was skipping at her mum’s side, skirt and pigtails bouncing, and at Tom Mackenzie, who was picking grass out of where it sometimes grew up from between cracks in the pavement, looking up now and again at the big front doors, waiting for the S3 class to be let out so his older sister could walk him home. And it—

wasn’t—

there?

She looked up at Mr. Sims, suddenly, not sure why. He looked back down at her, and smiled, then. “Better to be a watcher, than the watched, I suppose,” he said, very quietly, and she wasn’t sure he was speaking to her, not like he was when he then told her, very firmly—

“It doesn’t like to be seen. And I can see it. You’re safe, while I’m here, Miss Lewis.”

And she had the funniest feeling that she’d known that was true, even before he said it.

She felt his hand nudge her shoulder lightly, and he nodded towards the gate. “I believe that’s your father, now.”

Dad was there, smiling broadly and waving like he did every day, and she smiled back at him, even though she was still feeling a little wobbly, because otherwise he’d worry, and think she’d had a bad day, and try to take her for ice cream, and she would feel bad, because she’d had a good day, she was just scared. He held out his arms, open and waiting for her, because she always ran right into him, running quick enough until she was safe with him, until it couldn’t get her anymore. But if Mr. Sims was watching—

She let go of Mr. Sims’ trousers, and took two careful, tentative steps forward. Still, it wasn’t there. She looked back over her shoulder at Mr. Sims’, and he was still watching her, still there. “Have a good afternoon, Miss Lewis,” he said, mildly, but he was smiling a little, still, and she smiled back, and turned around and skipped into Dad’s arms.

<0>

Underneath the desk, Robbie pressed his knee to Emma’s. He felt her press back, and she smiled at him, but it was strained, nervous.

“It’ll be fine,” he told her, with a confidence he wasn’t sure he felt. “Your wee brother has Sims, right?”

Emma shrugged, nodded. “Yeah, likes him well enough. Better than that hag Cunningham, anyways. But that doesn’t mean he’s—”

Sims shouldered into the room just then, arms full, and Emma’s mouth snapped shut. He was smaller than Robbie expected, honestly. Then again, he’d only really seen him in the hallways, trailed by twenty tiny wee five-year-olds, so he had probably looked tall just by comparison. Between the tweed and the glasses and the greyish hair, he had a bit of a librarian vibe, but up close, he could see all of the scars that Emma’s mum had been talking about, after all the P2 parents got to sit in and meet him. You could just about write off all the pockmarks on his face and arms as some properly rough acne, if you were ignoring how big they were, but one of his hands was a shiny pink mess of skin, like one big blister scar. 

He was probably in a nasty accident a long time ago, Mrs. Mackenzie had said to Tom during tea, after the third or fourth question about his new teacher. It’s not polite to stare at that sort of thing. Just you act like he looks completely normal, alright?

Emma’s mum was a practical lady, and Robbie quite liked her. It was good advice, and he should probably take it to heart. Or at the very least, he wasn’t planning on being too obvious about trying to get a better look at Sims’ hand.

Sims tossed a glance at the room as he set his things down on the desk. “Sorry, everyone,” he said, with a tight smile. “Short notice, I know, but apparently Mrs. Sinclair has come down with something, and my class is on a field trip, so I was the only one available. I have some, er, notes for your class – apparently you’re working on a midterm project?”

The class made some unenthusiastic assenting sounds, which Sims took as confirmation. “Well, very good. I’ll just leave you to work on that, then, once I’ve taken attendance.”

Robbie felt Emma go stiff at his side. He hated this, properly hated this, the resigned dread on her face as she prepared herself to be embarrassed. He remembered how often she’d looked like that last year, when they were still sneaking around with it, him helping her change into a pinafore in the toilets in the mornings, trying to ignore it when her dad and Mrs. Sinclair and that fucking hag Cunningham had tried to suggest that she get a haircut, the way she winced every time someone called her the wrong name.

Sims went down the attendance sheet with clipped professionalism, quick and brusque, and Robbie was so nervous on Emma’s behalf that he almost forgot to say anything when his name was called. They got to the Ms, and Robbie found Emma’s hand under the desk. Her palm was a little sweaty, and so was his, but she grabbed on tight and squeezed, and Robbie wasn’t sure he’d ever get used to that, to her soft fingers between his.

It was Andrew Macintyre right before her on the sheet. Sims nodded at him when he called out a here, looked back down. “Ti—Hm.” Robbie watched Sims frown, cut himself off. Robbie wasn’t exactly sure what happened, what changed about Sims’ expression, except that his eyes seemed to go a little unfocused for a few seconds, before he blinked, in a properly weird way. “No, I don’t believe that’s correct.” He looked up and around the class. “Miss Mackenzie?”

Emma went a little pale, her fingers flexing in Robbie’s, but after a few seconds, she quietly said, “Here, Mr. Sims.”

Sims looked over at her, nodded, businesslike. “Right. And your name was…?”

“Emma,” she answered faintly. Sims just nodded again, checked her off on the sheet, moved on with the list, calling out for Toby MacLeod.

It felt like him and Emma must’ve let out a breath at the same time, slumping back into their chairs, her hand still in his. All that worry for a few seconds’ worth of talking. What a nightmare.

“Tom must’ve told him,” Robbie whispered to her. “Mentioned that he had a big sister, or something.”

“Don’t know why he would’ve,” Emma whispered back, but she was smiling, all faint giddy relief. “I don’t really care, yeah?”

Robbie smiled, squeezed her hand, smiled some more when she squeezed back. “Yeah. Miss Mackenzie.”

“Oh, shut up, Rob.”

<0>

Jen always went to the Co-op after Molly’s swimming lessons on Saturday, even though it was always pushing seven by the time they finally got home and started making tea. Easier to take care of the shopping while they were already out, rather than make another trip into town.

Molly had wandered off to pick her crisps for next week’s lunch, so Jen was alone when she saw the man by the dairy, squinting at a tub of butter, and it took her a moment to place him as Molly’s new teacher. She didn’t think she could be blamed for not recognising him at first; whenever she picked Molly up from school, he always looked much the same as he had during the parent meeting, put-together and buttoned up. He clearly hadn’t put quite as much effort into dressing to go to the shops, his hair pulled up in an untidy bun, neat jacket replaced with a faded sweatshirt that seemed to be about five sizes too big for him.

Ah, she thought, a moment later. Of course. The true owner of the sweatshirt seemed to have made an appearance in the form of a blond man, taller and more broadly built than Molly’s teacher, walking up behind him and pressing himself close against his side, poking at the butter in his hands. It looked rather a lot like a golden retriever bothering a magpie.

Jen had been ready to leave well enough alone, but that was the moment that Molly came skipping up behind her, already calling out. “Mr. Sims!”

Both men startled, but the teacher – Mr. Sims – seemed to recover quickly when he caught sight of Molly, bending down a little towards her. “Ah, hello Miss Brown. How are you?”

Molly beamed. “Good! We just went swimming at the baths. I’m doing back stroke now, and the teacher says I’m pretty fast.”

Mr. Sims nodded along well enough, seemed genuinely interested in Molly’s little story, but Jen noticed he was shooting quick, nervous looks between the three of them, seemed caught between stepping closer to the man standing beside him, or pulling away.

It was a fair enough worry, and maybe ten, even five years ago, he would have been right to have it. The village had been a different place, back then. But these days, just about everyone knew that Helen and Mary up the road had been waiting out their husbands so that they could spend their widowed years together, and Jen had her suspicions about Hugh from the corner store, and frankly after everything with the Mackenzies’ oldest, everyone had become a good deal more comfortable with quite a lot, lately.

So Jen put a hand on Molly’s shoulder, held the other one out to him, smiled warmly. “Mr. Sims, right? Jennifer Brown, I’m Molly’s mum.”

Sims took her hand firmly, handshake as brief and professional as his strained smile. The feeling of it lingered on Jen’s palm, though, the slick-smooth of scar tissue, and the distinct impression that her fingers had slid into the grooves of his marred hand perfectly, like a key slotting into a lock.

“Jon, please,” he said, “at least outside of the classroom. Good to properly meet you, Ms. Brown. We won’t keep the two of you, though. It is rather getting on.” It was a clear dismissal, as bluntly polite as the English ever managed to be, and Jen didn’t take particular offence to it. It was, after all, getting on, and chatting with her daughter’s primary teacher and his mystery man in a Co-op was not her idea of an ideal Saturday night.

“Of course. Goodnight, Jon,” she said, hand on Molly’s shoulder already gently nudging her towards the tills. “Come on, Molls.”

“Good evening, ladies,” Sims said, and nodded primly down at Molly. “See you on Monday, Miss Brown.”

Jen supposed she understood, now, why the class was so taken with the man. She had no fondness for poshness and stuffiness, but Sims wasn’t necessarily posh in that way that demanded poshness in return, and sniffed up its nose at you if you dared not to have an Oxbridge degree and speak in perfect RP. It was more a quiet, self-imposed dignity that reminded Jen of her own grandmother, like the way that he held himself, conducted himself, was important to him, and it made you think just a bit about how you were holding yourself, made you want to rise to meet it. Molly’s shoulders straightened a little under Mr. Sims’ attention, and she walked to the tills with a look on her face like she felt like a well-mannered wee lass, like a proper Miss Brown, and Jen snorted to herself quietly, glanced over her shoulder at the man himself.

His boy was saying something close to his ear, smiling, and he was softer-spoken than Jen might’ve expected for being the size he was, just the sound of his voice carrying a bit, a hint of a tease in his tone.

Sims’ laugh carried far more, deep and full, and he pushed the man’s shoulder gently, a gentleness that kept in his voice when he said, “Oh hush, Martin.”

“Mum,” Molly said, tugging at the trolley insistently. The limits of her put-upon properness had apparently been pushed by her appetite, and she kicked her heels and whinged. “Come on. What’s for dinner?”

<0>

Contrary to what some of his mates might have attested after seeing him a few pints in down at the local, Colin did, in fact, possess a sense of shame. So it was red-faced and sheepishly that he ducked back into the Primary two classroom after his fourth or fifth failed attempt at putting Ally down for a nap.

Maybe it had been overambitious of him and Vera, to assume they’d be able to both go to the kids’ sports day, hand off the babe and the nappy bag throughout the day depending on whether it was Cath with the P7s or Stuart with the P2s who had a race next, no need to pay one of the neighborhood girls to nanny, with the added bonus of getting wee Ally used to being around a lot of strange people. Not that Ally was a pet that needed to be socialized; Vera liked to tease him for that, the way he sometimes talked about her like she was a feral kitten that needed accustomed to handling. But the point still stood.

After Stuart’s class had finished with their last egg and spoon race, the teacher – Sims? – had herded them all, sweaty and exhausted, back into the classroom, and they were all sat around chattering and playing in informal groups, working their way through the impressive pile of snacks that the volunteer parents had brought in. He’d told them to do as they liked when one of them asked if they had to still sit in their usual seats, so a few of them were in wee clusters on the floor, half-watching the film that one of the other parents had managed to set up on the old projector. Colin appreciated Sims’ attitude, overall. Not that a good work ethic and a bit of discipline weren’t a good thing to have, but kids that age weren’t really made for sitting still and working quietly, he didn’t think, and the wee ones seemed quite happy amongst themselves. Unfortunately, it meant that they were making far too much noise for him to be able to get Ally to sleep.

Fool that he was, he’d sent Vera off to Cath’s relay race alone, having thought that when the afternoon rolled around and Ally started to yawn and scrub at her eyes with chubby wee fists, Colin would be able to give her a naptime bottle, bounce her on his shoulder for a bit, and she’d drop off straight away, just like at home. Instead, she had gurned and whined around her bottle, cried and wriggled when he tried to rock her down, and for the last hour, she’d quite solidly refused to close her eyes for longer than it took her to blink, and she seemed properly angry about needing to do even that much. It seemed like every time he got her to relax for a few minutes, someone in the class laughed a bit too loudly, made her startle and blink and try to wriggle out of his lap to go see what all the fuss was about. So he’d kept trying to bring her outside and walk her up and down the hallway where it was quieter, but it was chillier out there, and his footsteps echoed strangely, so he hadn’t much liked that either.

Sims glanced up at him as the door clicked shut behind him, and Colin gave him an apologetic grimace. Sims hadn’t complained or shot him any dirty looks yet, but Colin couldn’t imagine that anyone much enjoyed having a fussy baby in their room.

To his surprise, Sims stood from his desk, shooting him a sympathetic smile. “Want to hand her off for a bit?” he offered quietly, nodding to where Ally was still squirming, propped on his hip. “She might need a change of pace, to help settle her down.”

Colin wasn’t the sort to hand his baby off to just anyone, really, he wasn’t, but Ally was exhausted, and it was making him exhausted, which she was feeding off of, and all in all, he was desperate enough that he all but dumped her into Sims’ arms.

He took hold of her a little awkwardly, jostling and shifting her with the bewildered caution of a man clearly unfamiliar with the weight of a moving, heavy baby, and Colin hovered anxiously, waiting to catch her if Sims—dropped her? Turned her upside down? He wasn’t sure what his worry was, exactly, just that he was worried.

Sims got her settled eventually, though, one hand propped under her bum and the other resting on her back, and he murmured, “All right, hello, little one. Let’s see if we can’t give Dad a break, hm?”

Sims lowered himself carefully into his desk chair, shifting Ally on his lap, and she stared at him, momentarily distracted from her awful mood by the new man with the funny voice. Sims kept a steadying hand on her wee back as he leaned forward, fussing with some of the papers on his desk. Colin watched as he nudged aside a stack of worksheets covered in scrawling crayon, and plucked out a manila folder, stuffed with papers and pockmarked along the top with paperclips and binder clips. “I think this one is relatively tame,” he said, rather matter-of-factly, presumably to Ally. Ally, by all appearances, was listening to him very intently.

Ally only started to fuss a bit when Sims leaned back in his office chair, the open folder propped up on his knee in one hand, and Ally shifting to tuck close against his chest under the other. She made a small, angry noise as he tried to coax her to lie down, and he tutted, said with a stern, gentle firmness, “Yes, I’m aware I won’t be quite as comfortable as Mum, but do try to sit still. I prefer not to be interrupted, once I’ve got going, and it doesn’t take kindly to interference after the introduction.”

To Colin’s great and unending shock, Ally settled with a little huff, her cheek resting on Sims’ brown jumper, one little fist coming up to clutch at the collar of his shirt, poking out from the neck of it. Sims patted her back primly, said, “There we go, thank you.”

Colin was always one to admit when he was outclassed, and was quite willing to go find himself a seat and defer to Sims’ apparent magic touch with the wee ones, but then Sims cleared his throat, and began to speak.

“Statement of Callum Thompson, regarding an uninvited party guest. Original statement given February twenty-first, 2001. Record recalled by Jonathan Sims, the Archivist, retired. Statement begins:

I didn’t invite her. I’m sure of that. I know my mates, and I know my mates’ mates, and all their birds and sisters and that, and I didn’t know this bird, so she weren’t invited, right?”

Sims… told a story. Colin didn’t really know how else to describe it. Put on a proper voice and all, this Callum character speaking high and thready, Sims’ crisp, proper public-school accent giving way to something a lot harsher, more “street”.

It was about some girl that showed up to the kid’s house party uninvited, acted a little strangely while she was there, and for all that he talked about her, the odd twist of her joints, the stare that set his teeth on-edge, he never seemed to actually getting around to describing what she looked like. It was like, anything properly tangible about her, her hair, her eyes, her clothes, just slipped off the mind, oil-on-water. It gave Colin the proper shivers, the way a good Steven King used to when he was younger, and he blinked himself out of a daze when Sims stopped, coughed lightly, said, “Statement ends.”

Ally was fast asleep against his chest, and Sims had one hand stroking absently down her back, eyes still skimming the folder in front of him. “Poor girl,” he murmured into Ally’s wispy hair. She didn’t stir from her doze. “She must have been quite lonely. Still, no harm done to anyone, it seems, and nearly two decades on and outside the purview of the Institute’s resources, there’s not much to be done, hm?”

Quite suddenly, and all at once, Sims seemed to remember that the rest of the world existed, and he blinked owlishly up at Colin. “Ah, seems as though she finally wore herself out. Did you want to-?”

Colin couldn’t help it—he laughed, just a bit, at how sheepish the guy had gone, now that he’d snapped out of his wee trance, and that he was trying to hand off the little one, even as he was still patting her back, curled around her protectively, sitting carefully still so as not to jostle her.

“Nah, she’s all yours, pal,” Colin said, grinning. “Just you get comfortable, and I’ll come save you when she starts crying, alright?”

Sims sighed, smiling back. “Doesn’t seem that I have much choice in the matter. Do try and make sure the class doesn’t stage a mutiny while I’m incapacitated, Mr. Ferguson?”

“Deal, Sims.”

<0>

Jon didn’t take nicely to Walt Whitman, liked to say that if Martin was going to subject him to the nineteenth century Americans, he could at least have the decency to make it Dickinson. Martin would then usually make a case for Emerson, which would make Jon recoil in only partially-feigned offence, and in the ensuing rant about the damned transcendentalists, the argument would usually be dropped.

Privately, though, despite the somewhat overenthusiastic patriotism of the man, Martin had a soft spot for Whitman, for the loping rhythm of his words, for the way he talked about people, about love, almost as a thing that he was, rather than just a thing that he felt. And it was always Whitman he thought about when he saw Jon, these days, Whitman’s insistent and unapologetic love springing to mind when he caught sight of him amongst the sea of bright blue uniforms as Martin slipped into the playground. He was stood by the school doors as he usually was, Heather Lewis tucked close to his side, holding his hand. It was Whitman that best put words to this nurturing thing that had taken root in Jon, turned him soft and watchful over his little brood, and Martin smiled softly to himself, heard the quiet click of a tape recorder in the back of his mind. Maybe he would remember to write that down, but no harm done if he didn’t. It was enough to watch, he rather thought.

He remembered, all of a sudden, one of the first times he’d ever properly seen Jon, storming through the research bullpen in the Institute, crisp white shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbows, showing off the sharp lines of his forearms, his wrists. His hair had been shorter, then, slicked back away from his forehead, tucked no-nonsense behind his ears. He’d been all angles and scowls, the kind of look that had barely brokered a friendly tap on the shoulder from a colleague, let alone any kind of gentleness towards a child.

Here, though—

Well, Jon had changed, had let himself be changed. Everything about him was soft-touch, these days, the gentle maroon of the cashmere jumper, and the loose hairs that strayed from his braid and fell around his face, and the easy delight of his smile as he caught sight of Martin. So much about him was gentled, yielding to the herd of little ones that tended to crowd around his legs, yielding to Martin as he stepped into Jon’s space, head tilted back to kiss him with a murmured, “Oh, hello, you.”

“Hello, yourself,” Martin said, pulling back just enough to take hold of Jon’s other hand, the one not already occupied with Heather.

“Hello, Mr. Blackwood,” she said, quite politely, considering she’d just had to watch her teacher snogging someone, and he smiled, inclined his head to her. Jon had been grumbling the other night about the trials of persuading the little ones to zip up properly when they went out to the playground, but Heather, at least, was quite solidly bundled up, wearing a puffy anorak over her uniform and wool tights underneath it, topped off with a cozy hat that had a rather silly pompom on the top. It had been getting chillier, Martin supposed, though he was less inclined to notice the cold until his fingertips went numb, so he had just taken to keeping his hands in his pockets – or Jon’s, as it were.

Jon, too, was bundling up a little more, and he grinned when he saw that he was wearing the scarf Martin had finished knitting last month. It was an awful, hideous thing, knobbly garter with more than a few holes where Martin had dropped a stitch or two, only actually making it to completion under the careful eye of Mrs. Robinson, who had sewn in all his ends and frogged back a few of his particularly egregious mistakes. Nonetheless, Jon had it wrapped snugly into the collar of his peacoat, mouth and windburnt pink nose tucked into the chunky wool, away from the worst of the wind. Mrs. Robinson had given him a pattern for some matching fingerless gloves, and judging by his progress so far, they would be equally as ugly, and Jon would quite as equally insist on wearing them.

Jon’s class drifted off piecemeal, calling out to him as they went. There was a steady stream of, “Bye, Mr. Sims,” “See you tomorrow, Mr. Sims,” as they trailed off out of the front gates, holding hands with parents and grandparents and each other, rucksacks and lunchboxes swinging, and Jon called back to them, wished them a good night, reminded them about spelling lists and worksheets and whatever whatnots they had been working on that day. As the older forms were released, one of Jon’s went off swinging between two of the older teenagers, and all three of them cheerfully and dutifully chorused, “Good afternoon, Mr. Sims,” as they wandered by.

“Robert, Emma, Tom,” Jon recited, nodding to the three of them. Heather went next, skipping off towards her father, waving at Jon and Martin from the gate, and Jon waved back, with a smile that was all fondness.

Mrs. Robinson had been… unsubtle, with her knitting lessons. He always seemed to find himself with skeins of big, chunky, soft wool, and when she went digging in her folders upon folders of ancient, yellowed patterns, the ones that found themselves spread on the coffee table for Martin’s perusal had a bit of a theme. Garter stitch booties, baubled newborn hats, lap blankets.

Urge and urge and urge, he thought, a touch wistfully. Always the procreant urge of the world. Maybe Whitman had had a point.

Still, it wasn’t a question he’d asked, yet. Not a question he knew how to ask, of himself, really, let alone of Jon. For now, he rather thought he was content to wait. Content to be content, to help watch over Jon’s little flock until they were bundled up and sent home safe, and after, to find their own way up the winding road home.