Shadow of the Templar: Marking Time
On timeline: several (and several-er) years before The Morning Star
A couple of requested snippets that combine to form a slightly longer ficbit. Written by request a while ago, for one of my infrequent prompt-request things over on LiveJournal; figured I might as well put this (these?) up.
"Well, I mean. They're teenagers, Ray. They're brave enough in ungainly spastic packs. Like hyenas."
"Joann, that's not fair," Ray Blundett murmured into his coffee. Part of him was still thrilled by his newfound right to call the feared Ms. Sanborn 'Joann'; he tended to throw her name into conversation a little more than he should.
The hallways outside were quiet, enlivened only by the occasional squeak of a sneaker or bang of a locker door. The future leaders of Indiana were all tucked away in fourth period (as were the future followers and future hopeless, a thought which Ray tried to stifle). For the time being he and Joann were the only two teachers taking refuge in the teacher's lounge, Ray with his coffee and Joann with her everpresent cigarettes and pile of red-penned English essays. "No, it's not fair," Joann said, flicking aside an essay and starting on another. "But it's true. True things aren't usually fair."
"Still, my foot." She snorted. "For the most part, when you get one away from his pack, he turns into an inarticulate muttering thing. Won't look at you. Looks at his feet, or at the wall, or at your breasts if you have them" Ray tried to relocate his own eyes as subtly as he could "but he'll never look you in the eye for more than a fleeting second."
"I expect they're desperate to get away," said Ray. He remembered that feeling well enough, although he wasn't about to say so.
"Oh, yes, they just want to be about their business, and they're horribly embarrassed by the attention, to boot. I don't think any of them are here by their own will." Joann snorted and crossed out three lines in the essay she was correcting, with three brief squeaks of her red marker. "Well, all right, maybe a handful. But mostly, they're here to socialize while we hand them the grades they expect to get in order to keep their feet on the proper track from cradle to grave."
Ray hesitated. "Joann, you know I worry about you sometimes," he said, carefully. "You seem kind of worn down by the job."
"Hah!" She flicked the essay onto the finished pileit was so covered in red that it looked like someone had bled out on it. "I'm not going to break that easily, Ray. There's always a handful of kids every year who make it all worthwhile."
That, at least, made Ray smile into his coffee. "That's true," he said.
"And there's always one who's a lawsuit waiting to happen," Joann added. "You can always tell. Those kids make eye contact, and they hold it a little too long. And I'm not talking about the dead-eyed stare that you get when you're teaching, but real live eye contact. Those are the kids who drive by your house three times a day and leave little presents hidden in your desk drawer. Terrible unsigned poetry, and when you read down the left-hand column, the first letter of every line spells out your name." She shuddered. "I don't know what's running through their minds. 'Ms. Sanborn really likes poetry, so I think I'll give her some that I've shit on', I guess."
Joann stuck her cigarette back in her mouth and eyed him, amused. "If you manage to make it to thirty without coming around to my point of view, Ray, I'll be mightily impressed."
Ray flushed. She was a good fifteen years older than he washell, she'd been one of his teachers in high schooland every time he'd almost forgotten that, she'd poke him with it again. It wasn't that she was rude, or condescending. On the contrary, she'd taken him into her confidence with a little too much alacrity. He wondered how she remembered him as a student, but he was, quite frankly, terrified to ask. "They mean well," he managed.
"They do not," Joann said, stabbing out her cigarette in the ashtray. "They mean evil. At the very least they want to get laid, by hook or by crook, as long as it's by you."
"Well," Ray said, still faltering.
"They're thoughtless little beasts, Ray. They aren't really human yet, for the most part, although they're definitely getting there. Most of them can't see past their own little upturned noses, except the ones that know just how to save the world and intend to do it no matter who it hurts."
"Come on, Joann," Ray said, trying to jolly her out of it. "You're being a little harsh on them, aren't you?"
"Am I? You give it another couple of years, and you tell me."
The school courtyards were slushy with half-melted gray snow. These little warm spells came around in February from time to time, just long enough to get people's hopes up before crushing them again; still, Ray hadn't seen the cement for a couple of months, so it was still something. On a whim he turned and hit the bar that would let him out into the courtyard. The weather was a little too brisk for him to stay outhe was in his shirtsleevesbut it was all worth it for that clean, cold lungful of air.
Ray took another deep breath and looked around. Classes had let out for the day ten minutes ago. Most of the kids who didn't have after-school activities had already stampeded home, or at least away, but there were still a few clusters here and there. As little as he liked to lend any credence to Joann's burnout theories, he had to admit that she had something of a point: most of the boys were scrawny, twitching things, with huge hands and feet that they had yet to grow into. They couldn't just stand around; instead they flapped their hands, stood on one foot, kicked each other, kicked the wall, pulled stupid stunts that failed half the time...
The girls, in contrast, looked like actual humans. A little too much so, sometimes. Ray didn't exactly swing that wayalthough he was quiet about itand he still got brought up short by the displays of raw jailbait sexuality that wiggled about him on a daily basis. There were a couple in there who, yes, held their eye contact a little too long, which made him deeply uncomfortable. Back in his high school days, before he knew himself better, he'd have killed to have a girl look at him like that. Now, when it wasn't important any more, when it would certainly get him fired or jailed, they did. Life really wasn't fair, although Ray would never admit to Joann that he'd ever thought as much.
A couple of girls bounded past him, all giggles and flushed cheeks, their arms full of books. They barely noticed him in their hurry to join another group of kidsone of the girls flung herself on one of the boys with a happy squeal, and Ray had to look away from the ensuing PDA. If he noticed it, then he'd have to go do something about it, and he was in no mood.
Ray kicked at a half-melted lump of ice and waited for it to be over. The next time he glanced up, it was; the group's rowdy conversation had picked up where it left off. The girl had both arms around the boy's waist, hugging him tightly, like she couldn't bear to stop proclaiming her ownership; the boy had an arm around her shoulders, but he was leaning ever so slightly away from her at the same time. They wouldn't be going out for long, not that kids around here ever stayed together for long. Trying to keep track of who was going out with whom had always made Ray's head hurt.
The cold was starting to get to him now. Ray snuffled a little and headed for the far door, which would lead him to the teacher's lounge and, eventually, to his car and apartment. Most of the group noticed him coming and studiously ignored him, throwing themselves into their conversation like it would make him leave them alone; the male half of the couple looked up as Ray got close and then watched him approach, paying little enough attention to the girl nestled happily under his arm. Ray slowed a little. The look in the boy's eyes was more wary than anything else, but still, there was eye contact, and it went on a little too long. Ray's stomach turned slowly over.
"Hey, Mr. Blundett," the boy said as Ray drew abreast. Now that one of their number had broken the ice, the others all mumbled their greetings, glancing at Ray's eyes and away, sometimes lifting a hand; only the first boy kept looking at him, his blue eyes sleepy and a little sad under the black shag of his bangs.
"Simon," Ray said carefully, and then he went on past and let himself back into the heat.
Ray Blundett didn't like to think about how many years he'd been doing just this, grading papers in a booth at the Applebee's near his apartment during the dead hours of Sunday afternoon. It was nice to eat one meal a week that he didn't cook for himself, especially now that most of the servers were old students of his. They always seemed happy to see him and were prone to 'forgetting' to charge him for his drinksthey must have liked him, back then, even though he'd been banging math into their heads on a regular basis. He could have done without the pointed little joke about how at least they knew that their old high-school math teacher would be able to calculate the proper tip, though. He was getting kind of tired of that one. Still, it seemed like a small enough price to pay, all in all.
When it came right down to it, though, there were a lot of things that Ray didn't like to think about. He didn't like to think about how trapped he felt here sometimes, mired in the mud of smallish-town Indiana, stuck firmly in the closet in order to keep his job and his sanityhis last boyfriend of any seriousness had choked on the grinding necessity of it and unceremoniously dumped both Ray and Indiana, fleeing his own closet and winding up in Oregon with a different, better boyfriend and two pugs. He'd sent Ray a picture, once. Ray had looked at for a while and then burnt it in the fireplace, too uncomfortably aware of everything to just throw it away.
He didn't like to think about how many beers he put away on the weekends, or how he walked here on Sundays so that he could have three or four without risking a DUIsometimes more like five or six, depending on which server he got and how closely the managers were watching their generous fingers that week.
Mostly, though, mostly he didn't like to think about how much he'd come to agree with Joann Sanborn.
One of the good things about teaching math was that it was pretty easy to grade tests even when he'd had one or two too many: check to make sure they'd showed their work, check to see if the answer was right, move on. There was plenty of room to spread out in this booth, too, so he kept his beer far, far away from the pile of papersthat'd be all he needed, to show up to school with a pile of sodden tests reeking of beer.
It developed its own rhythm, after a while, running his pen down the column of answers and flicking it at the wrong ones, flipping the page, running his pen down the second column of answers. Sunk deep in his grading Ray failed to notice the approaching footsteps; he didn't notice anything until someone slid into the other side of his booth, and then his head jerked up. For a moment he must have looked purely wild-eyed.
"Hey, Mr. Blundett," said the interloper, putting his own beer down on the table.
For a frozen heartbeat of time Ray couldn't remember the boy's name. He remembered the boy well enough, and normally he was pretty good with names, but they really started to stack up after a while"Simon!" he said, after a hesitation which he hoped had been unnoticeable. He found a smile somewhere. "Long time no seewhat brings you back to town?"
Simon's little grin was humorless, almost bitter. "Uh. Actually, my mom died. I came back for the funeral."
Ray winced, passing a hand over his face, his smile falling away again. "Oh. Oh, God. I'm sorry."
"Yeah," Simon said, looking out the window. "Me too."
Ray's mind spun, trying to fight its way past the beery blurriness. If Simon had been sixteen when he'd been in Ray's class, he'd be... twenty-two now? Twenty-three? Something like that. The fact that this made Ray thirty-two was not lost on him. Belatedly Ray started shuffling his papers off the table, clearing a space.
"It's okay," Simon said, finally looking back at him. His eyes caught and held Ray's like they were nailed there; Ray's hands went numb on the tabletop, the papers sliding through his nerveless fingers to fall back into their little piles. "I won't stay long," Simon went on, apparently not noticing. "I just... came in to get something to drink and saw you, and I thought I'd say hi."
"It's good to see you," Ray said, because that was what you said. He wasn't actually sure if it was, to be honest. He'd liked Simon well enoughthe boy hadn't been any sort of genius, but he'd worked hard for his good grades and been reasonably pleasant to teachbut there was an uncomfortable side to the boy of which Ray had always been a little too aware. Still, his mind was working now, more or less, allowing him to soldier on through this conversation. "You went to American University, I seem to recall?"
"Yeah," Simon said, dipping his head. For a moment, he looked pleased as hell that someone remembered. "I graduated a couple of years agoI'm going into the FBI Academy in the fall, I think. Assuming I get my security clearance all right."
"I don't see why you wouldn't," Ray said. "Still, that's great. I'm glad to hear that you're doing well." He caught himself and winced. "Well, I mean, aside from... your mother."
"Yeah, aside from that," Simon said, sounding almost like he found it funny. His eyes stayed on Ray'sthe way his eyelids tilted down at the outside corners had always made him look a little sleepy, possibly a little sad.
Ray groped for something to say. "Do you ever hear from anyone from high school?" he asked. "Amber?"
"Amber?" Simon scrubbed the palm of his hand against his cheek, producing a scratchy sound. "Oh, jeez, I hadn't thought about Amber in years. Nah, last I heard she'd been accepted to UCLA, so... guess I'm about seven years behind on the news there."
"For some reason I always remember the two of you as dating," Ray confessed. "I know you two only went out for a couple of weeks and it was a high-school thing anyway, but... I don't know. I guess it just stuck in my head."
"Huh. Wow." Simon finally glanced away, sinking into a brief reverie. The break of the eye contact was nearly audible. Ray fought not to sag in relief. "Man, yeah," Simon said. "I mean, I remember dating her and all, but I hadn't thought about it in foreverI don't even remember why we broke up, now. It was probably something stupid."
"It usually is, in high school," Ray said. "Anyway, pardon the old man's memory, it isn't what it used to be."
Simon's eyes locked onto his again. "Come on, you're not that old," he said. "I remember half the girls in my class had a thing for you back then."
"One of the many trials of being a teacher," Ray said. He'd meant to toss it off as a light-hearted quip, but it thudded instead, probably due to the beer in his system. "God, that sounded bad. I mean... sometimes kids get crushes on their teachers, you know? And it's... really, definitely uncomfortable, for a lot of reasons, and there's really no good way to handle it, you know?"
"Yeah, I know," Simon said.
Something about the way he said it, combined with the steady, earnest eye contactRay's stomach rolled nauseously over. "So... what else is up with you, these days?" he asked, purely to buy himself some time. "What are you doing with yourself?"
Simon shrugged, running one finger around the wet rim of his mug. "Not much, really. Mostly just waiting for my security clearance. I'm taking a couple of post-grad criminal-justice courses and working nights for a private security firmyou know. Driving around a bunch of closed-up businesses in the dead of night, armed with a big flashlight and a tacky dark blue polyester uniform." He shrugged again, dropping his eyes, looking embarrassed. "Pays the bills."
"But that's okay, because you've got a plan for the future," Ray said. "I mean, it's temporary, right?"
"Right." Simon cheered up a little, lifting his eyes back to Ray's. "It's just... you know. A lot of my co-workers are older guys who're... in some kind of holding pattern. I mean... this is the most they want to do with themselves, and they don't really want to do it, they just need the money. It's a little depressing."
"Sounds depressing," Ray said, not adding Sounds like me.
"So I don't want people to think I'm one of them. But they can tell how I feel, and they don't like it." Simon picked up his mug and took a long, thoughtful pull on his beer. "Guess I'm not making many friends there, that's all."
"Huh." The imp of the perverse jabbed Ray in the spine; he settled back in his seat, picked up his own beer, and asked, "And, so... girlfriend?"
Simon didn't answer him for a long moment, just watched him closely over the rim of his mug. "Nah," Simon finally said. "I'm not with anyone right now. I did okay in college, though."
I'll bet you did, Ray almost said, trying not to look at those shoulders, at that face. He fought against it for a couple of seconds, then gave in. "I'll bet you did."
That, at long last, made Simon grinGod, but he'd grown into a heartbreaker once he'd finished filling out. "Yeah, well, that's what college is for, doing okay," he said lightly. "So what about you, Mr. Blundett? Anyone special in your life since I left?"
"Not right now," Ray said, hearing himself as if he was a long way away. And suddenly, the bitterness: "I teach high-school math in small-town Indiana. No one's exactly busting down my door."
Simon's grin barely wavered. "Oh, come on," he said. "There is nothing wrong with you, Mr. Blundett."
He threw it off lightlyprobably most people wouldn't have meant much of anything by it. If he wanted to, Ray could still take it as a mild attempt to cheer him up. That was all it sounded like, but there had always been those uncomfortable depths to Simon, even when he was still in high school and not quite human yetnow he was human, definitely, a full-on person in his own right, with a firm grip on his strengths and a pretty good idea of what he wanted.
Abruptly Ray realized that neither one of them had spoken for several seconds. Simon's little grin had shrunk, but it was still there, expectant and waiting, as they watched each other across the table. Ray had never been the most confident of men, but all the same he had no doubts about what wasn't being said; all he would have to do to get that ball rolling, so to speak, was take off his glasses and say you know what, I'm not your teacher any more, I think you can probably just call me Ray.
He was still struggling to say it when the moment passed. "Anyway, I should probably stop bothering you," Simon said. His mug was empty and he abandoned it on the table. "It was good to see you again, though. Take care of yourself" and he walked away, stopping only to grab a jacket from the rack of pegs by the door before he left in a quick burst of late-afternoon Indiana sunshine.