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It was ridiculous, really. He should not have sweaty palms. He should not have a racing heart. He shouldn’t be imagining death and destruction, every plan going awry, every person hating his guts, every conceivable horror he could. And yet…

What if the staff hated him? What if the students thought he was a creep? Or a wimp. Or a geek. What if those two preparation days had been absolutely necessary and he’d been a fool not to cut his holiday in Mexico short? What if he left his lesson plans in the car, locked in with his keys? He’d be doomed! He could teach without notes, but the notes helped him order everything in his head, know what equipment was necessary, keep the session on time and driving forward.

First-day-at-school jitters. He’d always had them. When he was a pupil himself and when he did observation as part of his degree. He got them when he was a supply teacher --- at every new school. And now, right this second, he thought he was going to be sick.

It wasn’t that he didn’t know what he was doing, it was just that, in school, no one could hear you scream. No. That wasn’t it. No, it was that school was a place of consequences. The whole system revolved around consequences. And the trouble was that good consequences were called rewards, and they were so much rarer.

First-day jitters always had Sam regretting his decision not to follow through on training to be a police officer. He thought of all the paths he hadn’t taken, the mistakes he’d made, and he went through his reasons one more time to convince himself that, yes, he’d made the right decision, and no, he wasn’t only saying that to make himself feel better. If he could survive the years working in a DIY store to fund his degree, he could survive this.

Even if the ‘this’ in question was worse than usual because it was his first long-term position. When he was a supply teacher and he fucked up the largest consequence was that he wouldn’t be asked back to teach in that school, and might get mocked a bit, if he was very unlucky. If he fucked up here, he had the rest of his time at the school to regret it.

Sam rubbed his hands down his legs and moved to step out of the car. Newall Green High School might look imposing, but it would feel like home soon enough. It was likely he was panicking needlessly. There was nothing to worry about. Everything would be alright. He was a professional, after all.

*

Everything was not alright.

He didn’t know where anything was, he couldn’t find Frank Rathbone, the headmaster, to be given the tour, and he was almost late for class.

During his sessions the students were non-responsive and lacklustre. Considering the majority of his lessons revolved around introduction and team-building games, this was not a desired outcome. He played the fool to show to the kids that there was no place for discomfort or humiliation, but all that really led to was a few of the bolder students calling him lame.

Through the morning break Sam prepared for the next round of sessions, eventually figuring out how to tackle the photocopier, and through lunch he was tasked with supervising the students out in the grounds. It wasn’t actually until the students had been sent home that he’d made it to the staffroom.

At this point he’d been treated to a full-blown performance, utilising props, extras, and some admirable miming. Ray Carling, one of the PE teachers, was mimicking Sam's greatest failure of the day --- his final lesson, in which he’d finally had enough with epic boredom and had decided to conduct a demonstration that involved a(n un)controlled explosion. The blinds would never be the same again.

Sam sat on one of the plush grey chairs and tried to laugh. Everyone else was in hysterics. The school bursar, who’d told Sam her name early in the morning, before he’d had another three hundred to remember; the two men in waistcoats he hadn’t been introduced to; Chris, another of the PE teachers --- who’d shaken his hand and asked if he liked teaching psychics. Sam pressed his lips together in the semblance of a smile. But he couldn’t do it. He was too frustrated with the mistakes of the day. Too engrossed in wondering what the hell the teachers before him could have done to make these kids so apathetic. One of his year nine students --- a bright-eyed, sharp-nosed boy called George --- had asked Sam why he didn’t have them copying notes like every other science teacher they’d had. Sam admitted on reflection that lecturing for ten minutes on the merits of busy-work and the educational paucity in mere chicken-scratching was probably a Bad Idea.

Sam tried to respond with anything other than a scowl when Ray, the current thorn in his side, turned for his reaction, but he didn’t have it in him. Ray stared back with nothing but unbridled malevolence communicated with piercing blue clarity. Great. Now he’d not only forever be branded the idiot who set the lab alight on his first day, he’d also be the humourless bastard too. Fantastic.

*

The next day was no better. Sam was thundering down the stairs, trying to get to the physics lab early, when he collided straight into a solid, hulking mass.

“Watch it, wonder-boy,” a deep, jeering voice said.

“Sorry,” Sam muttered. The word was habit, but thick in his throat.

He made to continue on his way, but a hand landed on his shoulder and steadied him. He was forced to look up, and when he did, his stomach lurched, because the gaze that met his was identical to that of the older boys he’d won fights against when he was in year three at primary school.

“You must be Tyler,” the taller, broader, blonder man said.

Sam’s lips twisted up and he instinctively found himself retorting with, “Yeah, what of it?”

“I have some friendly advice --- stop grovelling for their affection, and you may have time to earn their respect.”

“Right. And who are you, to be so wise?”

“Gene Hunt. I’ve been teaching in this school for going on fifteen years. That’s long enough to know you probably think you’re special. I’ll let you in on a little secret…” Gene pulled at Sam’s lapels and drew him close. He bent down to talk straight into Sam’s ear. “You’re not.”

“Well, thank you, Mr Hunt. I’ll be sure to take that under advisement,” Sam said.

The sarcasm was loud and clear, but frankly he thought that, as reactions went, this was mild. Especially since he felt like telling Gene to back the fuck off. Was about a hair’s breadth away from telling Gene he was being a patronising shit. He had too much control for that. Sam had already jeopardised his stay here, and Gene oozed power almost as strongly as he did Old Spice.

Gene did something with his mouth that could almost be called a smile, then he stepped to the side.

“Good luck. You’ll need it.”

Sam watched his retreating back up the stairs, checked no one else was around and gave him the finger. It was a small victory, but depressingly, his first in this Godforsaken hellhole.

*

Over the following few days even form time was an unmitigated nightmare. Sam didn't have any clue what kind of monster would decide that the school year could start off with sex education as part of Physical, Social & Health Education, but they were alive and well and operating at his school. He stumbled through an excruciating series of lessons on puberty and the reproductive system, and even though he'd taught biology in his first couple of years as a supply teacher, nothing could prepare him for the teenaged female reaction to the word 'spermatozoa'.

At the end of every day he drove home and collapsed onto his sofa with a glass of wine. He flicked through television stations and stayed up long past the recommended time to go to bed, just to give himself extra hours of existence outside of school. He woke up early, went for a jog, did his preparation and marking. And he wished, not for the first time in his life, that he was the kind who prayed.

*

He’d really hoped, after the first two weeks, that his students would warm to him. A few appeared to have done --- those who closely aligned to a type he had met in all of his schools as a supply teacher--- ostensibly aspiring to be teacher’s pet, while privately ridiculing to win friends. He planned elaborate lessons, setting challenging outcomes, but providing a high level of scaffolding. And all he got was, ‘do we have to?’ and ‘can’t we watch a video, Mr Tyler?’

In the midst of one gruelling lesson, in which he was attempting to teach year seven students about bridge-building and structural integrity using dry spaghetti and marshmallows (Justin was eating the marshmallows; Simon was eating the spaghetti), Sam found himself leaning against the wall, staring out the window. Out in the courtyard was Gene, standing on a low brick wall, arms spread wide. He was saying something --- well, more like reciting it, so far as Sam could gather --- but his words didn’t filter into the room. His students were sitting on the concrete in the centre of the courtyard, rapt. Some were giggling, and one or two were whispering asides to one another, but their eyes never left their teacher. Sam was fairly sure he hated Gene in that moment. The last time he’d had such attentive students, his eyebrows had almost been singed off.

“Is this right?” Benedict, a small, eager-to-please swot, asked for the fifteenth time.

“Benedict, I’ve told you this once, I don’t want to tell you again. There isn’t one right answer. There are multiple solutions.”

“Yeah, but, is this one of the right ones?”

Sam only just refrained from rolling his eyes, and went to examine Benedict and Sophie’s tower. “This is pretty strong. What made you decide to construct it this way?”

“It was all Sophie’s idea,” Benedict said, nudging his partner.

Sam turned a kindly eye on her.

She stared up at him, open-mouthed. She didn’t do anything else.

“Well,” Sam said, after an extended pause. “I want you to think about the building principles you used, like this cross-bracing here, when we discuss this in the next lesson.”

As far as Sam could make out, not one of the students in the class had realised he was testing their prior knowledge of engineering. Some saw it as an unusual but nonetheless satisfying daytime snack, others found it merely confusing, and one or two appeared to be viewing it as an art lesson, but no one had yet twigged that he was observing them closely. Of course, had he been observing them as closely as he’d initially intended, they may have, but he did continually find his eyes straying to the year ten English class outside.

*

His eyes often wandered to Gene's lessons. Not by purpose, not by design, but mostly because so many of Gene’s lessons occurred just outside his usual lab. He was half-tempted to bring it up on the staff meeting agenda, but he was reviled enough already, and really, it was sort of --- fascinating --- seeing another teacher work. From what he could see, Gene’s lessons were well-structured, engaging, everything Sam was trying to accomplish. He’d even noticed a few of his own students show a marked increase in motivation when Gene was the one brandishing the whip.

Occasionally, Gene lost his cool, shouting loud enough that Sam could hear --- no easy feat, given the inch-thick glass between them. In those moments, Sam never really knew who to feel empathy for. He felt for the student, of course, cowed and vulnerable, head bowed and lips closed. But there had been too many instances within the past month and a half in which he’d wanted to take his pupils by the shoulders and tell them to wake the fuck up. He understood the inclination.

It was difficult. On the one hand, Gene didn’t make a regular enough occurrence of this behaviour that Sam could think him a demanding and cruel bully, but, on the other, Sam had very strong ideas about how children should be treated, and this didn’t exactly qualify. On the third, scientifically engineered hand, Sam wondered if that was what he had to do --- add a bit of fear into his rhetoric. It was wrong, he knew it was wrong, he should be utterly appalled, and on a good day, he might be --- but some days a good shout was terribly tempting.

*

“I can’t draw, Sir,” Simon was saying, squinting at the diagram on the whiteboard that he was supposed to be copying. Sam turned from his position at the window and came over. It was the fourth in a series of physics lessons on gravity that hadn’t gone according to plan. He’d given up on experimentation and had everyone doing what he was worried was busywork. He hated himself, just a bit.

Sam looked at Simon’s attempts. The proportions were off, the lines were wobbly, and there was something clear and sticky in the corner that didn’t bear thinking about.

“You’ve had a go,” Sam said, “so I’ll give you a hand.” He picked up Simon’s ruler and began drawing up the necessary lines. “You can do the labelling,” he said to Simon’s questioning expression.

“Sorry, Mr Tyler,” Simon muttered. He blushed and looked ashamed.

“You don’t have to be sorry. You’re still learning. It takes practice, that’s all.”

“In't that what you tell yourself, Sir?” Justin asked from Simon’s side, eyes glinting in challenge. “I’m still learning, I’ll get better with more practice, I just have to keep going at it.”

Sam stopped drawing and glanced at Justin, sharply. “Yes. And I’m sure that’s what your mother said just after she had you.”

The rest of the class suddenly became deathly silent as Justin looked more surprised than affronted and Simon laughed hard enough he almost fell off his chair. But Sam finished Simon’s diagram and moved towards the other students, casting assessing glances over their work. He couldn’t fail to notice that he was studied just as closely.

It didn’t take long, Sam mused, feeling guilty, but not guilty enough. It didn’t take weeks before you felt compelled to be as disrespectful to them as they were to you. He felt morally bankrupt.

*

Sam was heading back towards the chemistry lab for his mobile phone when he smelled the cigarette smoke. He didn't really want to deal with it, but 'dealing with it' was in his job description, so he got his stern voice at the ready. As he turned the corner he expected a couple of sixth-formers, or maybe a year ten or two. He didn't expect four sixth-formers, a year ten, and Gene Hunt.

"What's going on here?" Sam asked, knowing the answer, but wanting it confirmed.

"We're busted," Gene said to the students. "Quick, skedaddle!"

The students were every bit as swift to act as Gene had suggested. They put out their cigarettes, looked fearfully at Sam, and hurried down the corridor.

"And I ask again, only slightly louder; what's going on here?" Sam reiterated, voice echoing through the corridor.

Gene stamped his cigarette into the linoleum flooring and held his hands out, placating, but there was no sincerity in the gesture. "Before you start going off all half-cocked, take a moment to breathe."

"Can't. The air is thick with smog. So this is why all the students love you. Knew there had to be a reason."

Gene snorted. "Yeah, that's right, the students love me because of this. That's as good an excuse as my legendary prowess as an educator."

"How come you weren't stopping them? How come you were joining them?"

"It's freezing out and I've not brought my best coat today," Gene said, drily. "You're not gonna start on the purity and innocence of youth, are you?"

Sam's anger was building. "They're students. We have a duty of care to protect them. Letting them fill their bodies with dangerous toxins isn't fulfilling that duty." He gestured, wildly. "Here, have some cancer with your schooling."

"Oh, please, everything gives you cancer these days. Bread. Fried foods. Mobile phones. Too much sex, not enough sex, wood dust, sunshine. The list goes on."

"It's our job to teach this to the students so they can be informed and make the right decisions. We're not supposed to model and encourage risky, and might I add, illegal, behaviour."

Gene rolled his eyes. "Me treating the students with a modicum of respect is modelling risky behaviour, is it?"

Sam noticed his distinct lack of defence against his pointing out the illegality of the action.

"Yes, because they're kids."

"They're young adults."

"'Young' being the operative word, Hunt. Impressionable. You might pretend you're on equal footing, but you're not. You have power they don't have. If this is a regular occurrence I suggest you quit. Now."

"Shop me if you want. Just make sure you're doing it for the right reasons. Here's a hint; jealousy isn't included."

Sam balled his fists up by his sides and tensed his shoulders. "I'm not gonna shop you."

"Why not?"

"What d'you take me for?"

"The new kid in town. Have to earn your shiny gold star somehow."

"I've seen enough to know that you're right, you're a good teacher. I'm not gonna set out to destroy that. But this? This is beneath you."

Gene's eyes widened and he looked temporarily conflicted. Like shame was mixing with bravado, anger with humility.

"I'm not gonna apologise."

"Don't. Certainly don't apologise to me; but for God's sake, in future, don't be such an idiot."

"Well, thank you, Mr Tyler. I’ll be sure to take that under advisement," Gene said, expression indecipherable.

"I mean it. Next time it might not be me who catches you out. Think about that, yeah?"

Sam brushed past Gene and ignored the prickling at the back of his neck that suggested Gene's eyes were still on him. He took several deep breaths and asked himself the very same question Gene had; why was he exerting leniency? For the life of him, he couldn't say.

*

The only sympathetic member of staff he’d managed to spend any quality time with in his weeks so far was one of the maths teachers, Annie Cartwright. She’d seen how miserable he was in his first couple of days and taken him under her rather beautiful wing. There was a lot Sam was happy to complain about, but not this; the ability to sit in a café and whinge at someone with a heart-shaped face and long-lashed eyes. Annie listened, and more to the point, she gave him advice.

“You should talk to Gene more,” she said, a month in. “He’s been teaching in schools like ours since his early twenties and he’s got loads of ideas.”

“I have ideas,” Sam said, automatically dismissive. “I have plenty of ideas. Most of them are even good. What I don’t have are responsive students.”

“Not in any of your classes?” Annie asked, dubiously.

“You’re gonna say the common linking factor there is me, aren’t you?”

“No! No, I’d never say that,” Annie insisted, pressing her hand to Sam’s forearm. She shrugged a shoulder and gave a darkly sweet smile. “I might think it.”

Sam gave an amused wheeze and rocked back in his seat.

“Yeah. I have the worrying feeling it’s a valid conclusion.” He sighed. “It’s not like my students are unruly, or overly disrespectful. Except for Justin Pratt, but, you know, aptly named. They just don’t care.”

“Do you?”

“You’ve heard me ranting. Of course I do.”

“Yes,” Annie said, quietly. “But do you show them? I’ve watched you in action and sometimes it’s like you’re a robot. You’re saying everything right, but there’s no excitement there.”

“I’m their teacher, not the day’s entertainment. I tried the entertainment thing and the repairs are coming out of my class budget.”

“You have to be a bit of both, Sam.”

“No. I think I’ll leave the show business up to the orators and actors. Like our friend, Hunt.”

“What do you have against Gene?”

Jealousy, Sam thought. Envy.

“Apart from the fact he’s an arrogant, sexist arsehole, you mean?”

Annie shook her head. “He’s not that sexist.”

“He calls you sugar-tits!”

There was a short, indelicate snort of a laugh, and then, “He means it as a compliment.”

“It’s hardly professional.”

“I call him motor-mouth.”

Sam stirred his spoon in his coffee and felt his jaw grow tight. “That isn’t the same and you should know that.”

“We’ve known each other for a long time, me and Gene. It’s a joke between us. You’re new. There are some things you don’t understand.”

This wasn't the first time he'd heard this. Sam wondered if it was actually code. New actually meant something else, something intrinsically Sam, something he couldn’t stop being. “When do you think I stop being new?”

“Oh, four years at least.”

“You’re such a consolation.”

“I try.”

*

As opposed to getting better, things got worse. Knowing that he had completed two separate training and development courses on assessment, Frank asked him to provide some in-house training during the latter half of staff meetings. Sam got a slideshow together, drew up -/+/? on the staff whiteboard, made sure everyone had post-it notes nearby, stood up the front, waited patiently for everyone to be quiet. When they weren’t, he jokingly started an action-answer by tapping his hands on his head, then his shoulders, and giving the live-long-and-prosper sign. Eventually, sixty-four pairs of eyes were turned in his direction.

“In today’s training we’re going to be looking at formative assessment and using self-assessment with our students,” Sam began.

“I can give you my assessment of you, if you’d like,” Ray yelled out from the back. “Lack of ball skills and rubbish co-ordination.”

“Pipe down, Carling,” Gene admonished.

Sam shared a glance with Gene and gave a slight nod as thanks. Gene returned it, but continued to stare intently at him, as if studying him in detail. It was unnerving and made him hesitate for a moment, shuffling through his papers to ensure he was at the right spot, which was stupid, because he hadn't moved off the first line.

“… We’ll be looking at a range of rubrics and checklists, and I’ve copied enough blanks that you can repurpose some for your own devices.”

“They’re not your only blanks,” Ray said, marginally quieter than before, but still loud enough for everyone to hear.

“There are also some examples of student self-assessments you can use. If you have reluctant writers in your class, there’s a great one that uses pictures – a smiley face, a sad face, and one that’s indifferent. Perfect for you, Ray. No big words from your year sevens that you’d have to struggle with.”

Ray gestured, but Sam slid his attention to other people and commenced his talk. He’d had enough experience to know that teachers could be worse than their own students when it came to training and development, but he couldn’t help but be depressed when three minutes down the track the tiny amount of riveted attention he’d attained while sparring with Ray had entirely dissipated, apart from Gene --- who was pretty much staring him down like they were in a Western, and Annie --- who was probably being polite.

Sam concluded the session, noticed that less than a quarter of his audience took any of the handouts, and started the trek to his car.

“Come to the pub,” Gene’s voice shouted.

Sam spun around, on the off-chance the order had been levelled at him. He couldn’t see anyone else in the car park.

“Are you talking to me?”

“Yes, simple Samantha. Unless you have an imaginary friend you think would be more fun.”

“Yeah, count me out,” Sam said, turning back towards his Jeep.

He heard heavy foot-fall and was pulled to the side by a hand on his elbow. “C’mon. I’ll even buy you a pint. I normally never do that, ask anyone.”

“I’m really not in the mood, thanks anyway.”

“You’ll never get on at this school if you don’t bond with your colleagues.”

“More of that Hunt wisdom, I see. Full of it, aren’t you?”

“Listen to your betters, Tyler. You look like you need a drink and I’m offering. It’s not something you can rightly refuse.”

“I have marking to do.”

Gene rolled his eyes to the heavens. “Get the little bastards to mark themselves. You said yourself that there’s no more powerful tool in education than self-regulated learning.” His parroting was only mildly offensive. Sam saw this as a step in a direction --- as to which direction, he couldn't say.

He was unable to come up with another excuse. He desperately wanted to, but no words would arrive to rescue him. He allowed himself to be whisked away towards Gene's Mondeo.

"I can take my own car," Sam said when he finally realised Gene wasn't getting his wallet, but was instead expecting Sam to climb in.

"You could, but you won't. Shut your trap and get in or I'm shoving you in the boot."

Sam had serious misgivings, but he couldn't deny that there was something within him that was disinclined to ignore Gene's commands. He opened the passenger-side door and sat inside with trepidation.

"What's your driving like?"

"Exciting. Belt up."

*

He'd honestly thought Gene would ditch him once they got to the pub. There were several staff members there, sitting in groups with wines and beers and the occasional spirit. It looked like a regular haunt. But Gene didn't, actually, leave Sam to wallow in self-pity and anxiety. He reserved a patch of the bar for them and bought him a drink, and they talked football for fifteen minutes. More like argued football for fifteen minutes --- Gene was a City supporter and Sam had always been a United man through and through.

“You know what your problem is?” Gene asked, already onto his second pint of the evening proceedings.

Sam swirled his own, first, quarter-drunk beer around. He would ordinarily drink a few, but he was convinced he'd be forced to drive Gene home and catch a bus to collect his car, so he wasn't going to get plastered.

“I suspect you’re going to tell me,” Sam said, glancing mistrustfully at the roasted cashews he and Gene were supposed to be sharing. Gene had also been eating scampi flavoured crisps and the notion of flavour transferral was off-putting.

“Everything you do is by the book, chapter and sodding verse.”

"Yes, well, I do my best."

"This isn't a good thing, Tyler-me-lad. Teaching by numbers isn't really teaching.”

“Then why do we have a set curriculum?”

“There’s a difference between guidelines and rigorously set-out procedure.”

“There’s a difference between one person’s teaching style and another’s. Maybe I teach the way I do because it comes naturally to me?”

“Yeah. Right. You seem so miserable. In who you are. Ever wondered what it’d be like if you let loose once in a while? Lived a little?”

"I've lived a lot already. The things you don't know about me could fill a bookshelf."

"How about remembering some of that for a change, then? Break through your repression."

Sam rolled his eyes. “There’s a difference between repression and suppression, Gene, and it’s all a question of intention. I like the person I’ve become.”

“I don’t believe that. I can see the flickers of the man inside and he’s full of passion, and fury, and wit. You've got a tongue on you, Tyler, and don't try to deny it. You’re not as dull as you want the world to believe. If I can see that, at some point you’re gonna have to take notice as well.”

Sam stared at the bar and willed himself not to scowl.

"Look, how long have you been teaching?"

"Five years."

"What did you do before that?"

"I worked at B&Q."

Gene snorted. "It's terrifying how much sense that makes. Insert Tab B into Slot A, twist the screw four times counter-clockwise and you have yourself a flimsy yet serviceable understanding of Newton's second law."

"Okay, if all you're gonna do is mock me, I'm going home. See you tomorrow."

Sam stood and started for the door, but Gene grabbed his arm for the second time that evening and pulled him back onto a stool.

"Don't be such a wuss. The least you could do is finish off your drink. I don't make enough money to warrant that kind of loss without payback. "

"And what payback would me finishing off a beer bring?" Sam asked, but he immediately downed the rest of his drink. He drew the back of his hand against his mouth and was gratified when Gene was obviously impressed, gaze shifting from his lips to his throat as if to question how he could ever manage such a feat.

"Clearly you now owe me a pint," Gene replied. "A pint. Not a poxy half."

"Not tonight. I'm not getting into your car with you liquored up. It was scary enough when you were sober."

"Who said I was sober? But, no, not tonight. Next time."

Sam wanted to know why Gene thought there was going to be a next time, but he didn’t ask. He changed the subject from teaching back to football.

During one particularly raucous ‘discussion’, he discovered Annie giving him a smile that could only be described as mischievous. He frowned, but she'd turned back to Phyllis, so he continued in his defence of Ryan Giggs's playing.

*

He tried to take both Annie's and Gene's advice, and sometimes it worked. The trouble with teenagers, though, was that, despite being apathetic, they were also perceptive. Joy wasn't easy to fake, and his smile peeled at the edges, no matter the strength of the adhesive he used with which to plaster it on. The damage had already been done. When he realised the most thought-provoking questions he was asked were by the class clown, he couldn't help but bang his head against his desk and hope he eventually did it hard enough he never saw the light of day again.

*

By the end of his second month at the school, Sam finally screwed up the courage to ask Annie on a date. She was lovely and he was not blind and he felt a connection with her. He thought that they could make it work, given time. He decided going with the classic dinner-and-a-movie idea was his best bet and if that went well he'd get more adventurous.

"Who else is going?" Annie asked, absent-mindedly packing band-aids into one of the first aid boxes Sam always reminded people to take on lunch duty. "I'm impressed you had any takers. Friday's usually drinks night."

"No one," Sam said, faltering slightly. "I thought it would be nice with just the two of us."

"Ah," Annie said. She gave Sam her full attention. She looked very sympathetic. Sam's hopes plummeted even before she started to speak. "I thought you knew that I have a partner. Neil. He's a psychologist. He was helping us diagnose one of our year nines for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and he was just gorgeous --- so worldly, calm and laid back. You'd like him."

"No, I didn't know that," Sam said quietly, feeling heat rising up his neck and over his cheeks. "Sorry."

"No, I'm sorry. I guess I just assumed, what with Ge…” She stopped abruptly. “Well, clearly I assumed wrong, but never matter. Come to the pub. Chris has been wondering why you never go and Glen's always good for a laugh."

Sam didn't want to say that he suspected the only reason he hadn't yet quit was because he'd managed to limit his contact with his colleagues, and didn't relish the idea of spending more time with them than was strictly necessary. Instead, he smiled wanly, and said he'd see how he felt on the night.

*

Jenny Bellingham, a sweet but clumsy year eight, broke nine beakers, two petri dishes, one jar and a fellow student’s jaw during one of Sam’s chemistry lessons the next day. An ambulance had to be called and Jenny needed extensive counselling.

Sam didn’t want to joke that it couldn’t get any worse, because knowing his luck, it probably could.

*

He somehow ended up at the pub on Friday night. He sat next to Chris (who babbled on about the hilarity of the word shuttlecock), and suffered all of Ray's many and varied glares, before Gene clapped a hand on his shoulder and said he was waiting for remuneration.

"Thought I'd save you the embarrassment of pretending you need to use the bog," Gene said once they were seated at a small table away, with beers and whisky chasers, well away from the others.

Sam hadn't been going to splash out --- he'd already had three pints --- but he'd let Gene order and made the mistake of giving him a £20 note, so he reckoned he’d have to make do.

"I'm going to thank you now, and I'm not going to be sarcastic," Sam said, feigning seriousness.

"Definitely a revelation that calls for warning," Gene replied. He crossed his arms. "Go on, then."

Sam hadn't thought he'd actually be forced to say it, but he sacrificed what was left of his dignity. "Thank you, Gene."

"You're welcome. Are things going better in the realm of science?"

"I heard the Large Hadron Collider isn't actually going to bring about the end of days."

"I meant at school."

"Next question."

"Stop being such a pansy. We're among friends."

"We are?"

Gene stared him down. "Go on, spill."

Sam found himself wanting to tell Gene his problems. He didn't know if it was the alcohol, or simply Gene's eyes --- glittering green and intent. Damn Gene and his damn insight and his damn unwillingness to leave him alone.

"It's improved, but it's still not great. I want thinkers, I have consumers. I want innovation, I get paragraphs nicked from textbooks. I want discovery, I get the recovery position. And, by the way, I am never letting John Favroli near a Bunsen burner again. I suggest you do the same. The students whine if I attempt to explicitly tell and show them how to conduct an experiment and yet when I leave them up to their own devices they invariably cock it up --- not in the kind of way where they learn from their mistakes, oh no, only in the kind of way that means I spend my break and lunch cleaning up their mess."

"Poor diddums."

"You asked," Sam thundered.

"I did too. Silly me." Gene pointed to Sam's glass. "Same again?"

"Yeah. Use the change you didn't give me."

"Was going to."

Gene got the drinks and settled back down, closer this time. Close enough that Sam continually thought they were going to knock knees. In the haze of alcoholic bliss he thought he wouldn’t mind if they did.

"Do you know where you might be going wrong?" Gene asked, not bothering to be tactful about it like Annie, but not accusatory like Ray either.

Sam had considered that question a thousand times, especially at three in the morning after five cups of coffee too many.

"No. I follow the theories of Vy-fucking-gotsky, I use constructivist pedagogies, but they don't give a shit." Sam gave a bitter laugh, took another sip of scotch, barely sucked it down before he was speaking again. "They're more engaged when they're colouring in cover pages than they are in any actual lesson where real learning occurs."

"They're teenagers, Sam. I don't know about you, but I distinctly remember not giving a shit about anything but myself at that age."

"Is that something you've ever grown out of?"

"Oi, you. I could leave you here to drown your sorrows on your lonesome. O God, that men should put an enemy in their mouths to steal away their brains!"

"Fuck, is that Shakespeare? I hate fucking Shakespeare."

Gene's eyes widened and he banged his glass onto the table with a forceful thump. "You couldn't mean that. Not in a million years."

"I could and I did. I do."

"And you call yourself a teacher? Worse, an academic?"

"Of the sciences. Far superior to your bloody claptrap. Hark, through yonder window breaks, it is the sun and Romeo is the west and all that. Load of cock, if ever I heard it."

"But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun," Gene murmured, shaking his head. "It's bastards like you that make me despair." Gene rethought, ducking his head down to his chest as he raised his glass for another swig. "It's bastards like you that make me strive so hard to teach kids how brilliant literature and theatre can be. What use 'science' without words to communicate understandings of the world?"

"Oh yeah, I task you with reporting the results of an experiment using a simile."

"It's a metaphor. Juliet is the sun, not like the sun. If you're gonna be a pissant, you could at least get it right."

"What does it matter?"

"If this is your attitude towards everything, dearest Samuel, I'm not surprised you can't find it within yourself to inject a bit of energy into your students. Everything matters; every one, every fact, every happenstance. The point of life is not that nothing matters, but that absolutely everything does. We may be a tiny speck, the result of an accidental big bang, but what a fucking speck we are. We have art, and drama, and the written word, and technological invention..."

Sam interrupted, "... and war, and famine, and poverty..."

"... sport, and music, and dance..."

"... bigotry, prejudice, hatred..."

Sam tailed off and Gene didn't continue either, too busy shaking his head.

"You know what," Gene said after a time, "I'm not entirely joking. If the only thing you're interested in is ticking all the 'accepted pedagogy' boxes so you can attain your shiny assessment data, the students will sense it. You've got to wanna learn yourself, show joy in the absurdities and absolutes of the world. Otherwise you might as well pack it in now."

"I do like learning. I believe in it being a lifelong process. But not everyone can be as hyperbolic about everything as you. We're not all so grandiloquent. I've tried."

"Hyperbolic, grandiloquent. You been saving those up just for this argument?"

"Reader's Digest, word-a-day."

"I see you do want to learn. Tell you what --- you let me teach you some Shakespeare and I'll help you win over your students."

Sam squinted. "Ugh."

"Come now, you might even enjoy yourself," Gene admonished, unsuccessfully hiding a smile by taking another swig of beer.

"I can only take so many doths and thous."

"You won't even notice them by the time I'm through."

Sam quirked an eyebrow. "Is that a warning, or a promise?"

"Both."

*

They agreed to meet on Sunday to discuss what Sam could do and so Gene could bore him senseless with 'out damn spot's and 'to be or not to be's. Sam offered his place because one look at Gene's quirked eyebrow confirmed every suspicion he had about a mould-encrusted abode on his part.

Sam’s flat was sleek and modern, full of chrome and glass. He kept clutter down to a minimum, always keen to throw anything he hadn’t used in a couple of months away. He had the latest technology and it showed. His large flat-screen television-cum-computer monitor dominated one wall of his living area.

"Why do you even want to help me?" Sam thought to ask as they settled down with sausage rolls and biscuits, papers littering his glass-topped coffee table.

"I see the makings of a halfway decent teacher in you," Gene said, ever-complimentary. "And the truth is, I was hoping you could help me too. For years Rathbone's been intimating that my planning documentation and recording of assessment leaves a lot to be desired and you're obviously good at all that shit. He's had it in for me since the word go, but last year I was up for Head of English and was passed over in favour of Litton."

Sam's eyes widened. He'd seen Litton in action, and while he had his share of staff members he wasn't fond of, he had to admit, most were capable --- seemingly more capable than him. The same couldn't be said for Litton, whose students roamed the halls and wreaked havoc wherever they so wished.

"If I'd've known this was meant to be a back-scratching affair, I'd never have agreed."

"Give over --- the prospect of a captive audience? It was your dream come true."

Sam unsuccessfully stifled a smile.

"There he is," Gene said.

Sam was perplexed. "There who is?"

"The human version of you. Knew he had to be in there somewhere."

"I'd watch it if I were you, or I may become the monster version of me," Sam said, absently. He spread his daily programme out in front of Gene. "Work your magic."

Sam expected Gene to grumble, but he didn't. He read through the lesson notes for Sam's physics sessions with the year sevens and made a noise that was the cousin of a grunt.

"Thought about simulating walking on the moon?" Gene asked after a time.

Sam was honest. "No, no I did not."

"We've got the wires and harness all rigged up for the upcoming production of Peter Pan. With some technical help, we could probably pull it off. I've got a free, so I'll be an extra pair of hands."

"You're shitting me."

Gene looked up at Sam, expression earnest. "Tell the class you'll allow three volunteers during the lesson and will give a go to anyone who wants to stay during lunch. While getting Jimmy or Jody or Jamal set up, you can show footage of Armstrong's small step and do this pre-testing you've written about."

"This is a surprisingly brilliant idea so long as we don't brain some poor eleven-year-old."

"Let's face it, it'll be all the more memorable if we do brain one of the snotty-nosed little eleven-year-olds."

"So long as it's Bradley. God, he's insufferable. Tells everyone the answers and doesn't listen to instructions. I probably wouldn't mind too much, but he tells them the wrong answers."

"Auburn kid, tall, continually squinting?"

"He doesn't squint, he's half-Vietnamese."

"Same thing."

Sam slapped Gene's hand away from the sausage rolls. "Are you a bigoted shit about everyone?"

"Yeah, it's not bigotry then, just a healthy dose of 'I don't give a fuck'."

"What happened to 'the world is beautiful, the world is grand, there's worthiness in a grain of sand'?"

"I was drunk." Gene grabbed for a sausage roll when Sam wasn't looking and bit into it, speaking around the mouthful. "Your rhyming is horrendous."

"I'd like to hear you do better. And not with fucking Shakespeare."

"Why is the world so beautiful,
said Sam the ever dutiful,
and tell me, pray, how is the sky so blue?
It's nothing to concern you, lad,
spake Gene Genie, scurrilous cad,
now button it and zip me down,
there's something you should do."

Sam boggled. "Did you genuinely come up with that on the spot?"

Gene shrugged. "It's a reworking of an old joke."

Sam knew modesty when it was sitting before him chomping down on pastry. Gene wasn't quite the egomaniacal, arrogant bastard Sam had assumed he was during their first encounter on the stairs. He had deep, dark depths; heretofore unseen, though, Sam was willing to concede, not necessarily hidden. Sam was surprised when he realised he wanted a torch, wanted to know more about this man who could terrify a year seven with a glance and make the year ten girls swoon. (That had definitely been a shock. Sam would have said that Gene was surely too old, pockmarked and round-bellied for them, even though he had to admit there was something about Gene that drew the eye, but he'd seen it in action, and heard squeaks of 'his voice!', so he had to conclude that Gene had some kind of magnetic attraction.)

Sam realised he'd been staring at Gene a little too closely, so he picked up his laptop and began to type up his revised lesson notes.

"You know it's rude to be looking up porn when you've a guest. Especially when you've a screen as small as that."

"I'm writing up the new and improved physics lesson."

"You are joking," Gene said, incredulous. He reached forward and tapped Sam's forehead lightly, fingers cool and firm. "Incapable of keeping anything in this pretty little head of yours for more than five minutes?"

"Professional and prepared should evil prevail and I'm unable to teach on Monday," Sam said, not rising to the bait. "Show me your infamous planning documentation."

Gene pulled a piece of paper out from his back pocket. Scribbled on the left were year levels and subjects. On the right was the occasional 'Marlowe' or 'up to pg 45'.

"Is this it? You haven't even linked anything to the National Curriculum."

"Every few years that thing gets an overhaul, but I promise you it's the same old shit and shine. I did it once, as far as I'm concerned I don't have to do it again."

"But as far as Frank's concerned, you do."

"That's because he doesn't have a single teaching bone in his body. He became a headmaster after six years in the field. And by all accounts, when he was in a class, he was worse than Litton is today."

"Yeah, well, administration takes a different skill set," Sam said, reaching for some food only to discover it had all been eaten.

"Eying off a job as the big, bad boss, are you?"

"One day. Maybe."

"That's a shame."

"Why?"

"Like I said, I see the makings of a halfway decent teacher in you."

Sam avoided Gene's gaze. He didn't know why he felt as proud as he did at getting such lukewarm praise, but it warmed something deep within. Sam had always spent his life working towards winning admiration but rarely receiving the recognition he saw others gain. Sometimes it made him bitter, but usually it just made him work extra hard to attain the same level of approval. Sam turned the conversation back towards Gene to avoid embarrassing himself with his obvious pleasure.

"If you don't write anything down, how do you know what you're doing?"

"I keep all the knowledge in my mind. It's a shockingly effective strategy you should try some time."

Sam was still confused. "And you don't forget activities or the explanation of key themes or whatever else it is you do?"

Gene moved forward and patted Sam on the cheek. "You're so sweet," he mocked, taking longer than Sam would have expected to pull his hand away. "I've been doing this a long time. I know what works. I can judge when to conduct my experiments, try something new. I've honed the best techniques. And I've read the classics, the ones that always come up ten times or more. Yes, I remember whatever else it is I do."

"Then you need to prove that to Frank. That's all he really wants. Evidence."

"Fine. Where should I start?"

"With what you already have. With your routines and procedures."

Gene looked disgusted. "You're getting off on this tedium."

"I find it thrilling," Sam agreed. "Stop stalling, and talk. I'll type. Something tells me we might actually finish by eleven as long as I don't let you near this keyboard."

Sam opened up Word and began to type as Gene told him what he did. He was continually impressed by Gene's methodologies. Everything he did was intuitive, commonsensical. While he didn't pay lip service to educational theory and discourse, he clearly followed it. There was no mention of the zone of proximal development or multiple intelligences, but Gene still catered for these, and more. In Sam's consideration, there was only one thing lacking.

"You don't use much technology," Sam commented when they were finished. "Do you even have one of the computer labs booked?"

"They get enough of that kind of crap at home," Gene countered.

"Yeah, that's precisely why it's a good idea to include it. Look, I'll need to repay you for the moonwalking extravaganza, right? So why don't I come and take your year nines during this session here," Sam pointed to the timetable he and Gene had just drawn up. "Your content, my computer skills. You can see how it's done."

"If you insist," Gene relented. "I'd best be getting off. The Missus doesn't like being kept waiting when tea's involved."

"I didn't know you were married?"

"Oh, yeah. She's a right clever bitch," Gene said. Sam arched his eyebrow up in disbelief. Gene pulled out his wallet and flipped it open. Sam found himself staring at a picture of a large black poodle. "I won her in the divorce three years back. Good thing too, because that joke used to piss people off when I'd show them a snap of me and the buxom, red-haired Julie."

Sam couldn't curtail the laugh that escaped. "You're such a bastard."

"Better a witty fool than a foolish wit. Which reminds me; Twelfth Night is on next Wednesday. It's an amateur production, but it's not atrocious. You should come."

"I suppose, if I must."

Gene gathered his coat and followed Sam to the front door. "See you tomorrow."

"Oh, but parting is such sweet sorrow," Sam mocked as he opened the door.

Gene hesitated, like he was waiting, but then he just said, "You really need to learn something other than Romeo and Juliet," and left.

*

For the first time he could remember, Sam awoke Monday morning without a sense of dread at the prospect of going into work. He was keen to get back home after going for his morning jog, so that he could shower and get to the school a little earlier than usual.

"You're looking uncharacteristically ecstatic," Annie commented when he checked his pigeonhole for memos and the weekly bulletin.

"I have some fun lessons planned today," Sam said, smiling.

Annie raised an eyebrow, but didn't say anything further.

The morning sessions were good. Not earth-shattering, but productive. He incorporated short video segments into his explanation, since students had been asking to watch a documentary since the beginning of the school year. He didn't allow himself to succumb to despondency when his questions were met with blank faces. He remained upbeat and positive, and none of it was fake.

When break came he went to the hall to find Gene already setting up. There was a moonscape background installed that Gene had said had been left over from a previous performance of Le Petit Prince, and a harness and wire that Gene was adjusting.

"Hey, you should have waited," Sam said around the grin plastered on his face.

Gene looked at him quickly and then returned his attention to the harness and wires. He appeared to be wholly consumed, gaze fixed. "Like your scrawny arms could be much help."

"Ah, so you're the brawn and I'm the brains. Sounds about right."

"I'm the brawn and the brains. You're merely a nuisance. Anyway, I've got Tom and Matthew here to do the heavy lifting."

Sam waved at two figures in the wings. They were sixth-formers who were taller than him, built like brick shithouses. They waved when Sam held a hand up in greeting, but continued talking to one another in hushed voices.

"I thought it'd be all motorised," Sam said, surprised.

"Do you have any idea how expensive that kind of rigging is?" Gene asked, incredulous. "No, my little div, we do things the old-fashioned way here. Anyway, manual operation's better for what we want to do." Gene got a slightly manic look in his eyes. "Here, you wanna be some help, you can be the test run."

Sam could feel his eyebrows somewhere near his hairline. "No way!"

"You're expecting some podgy-faced child to do it; you should be prepared to take the risk yourself."

"That podgy-faced child is considerably lighter than me."

"This thing's rigged up to take two of you, trust me."

Sam looked from the harness to Gene. He didn't particularly want to do it, though, for many reasons. He might not object to playing the fool for students, but he didn't, actually, want people to think him a figure for ridicule. As with his surprising love of Gene's praise, Sam didn't want to encourage Gene to think of him as idiotic. But it would be a good idea to test the equipment, they weren't planning on going very high, and Gene looked strong enough to hold him if need be.

"If you even think about photographing this, I'll kill you," Sam said. "I'll slowly and joyously murder you with red-hot pokers."

"I don't have a camera."

"Really? Shit. We better get one before the lesson." Sam looked at the harness again. "How do I get into it?"

Gene's hands were warm and methodical as they helped him attach the harness. Some of his touches would be considered intimate in a different setting and Sam made a mental note to get the students to attach everything themselves if possible.

A giggle was threatening to escape Sam's lips when he was first hoisted a couple of inches off the ground. Gene signalled to Tom and suddenly Sam was gliding above the stage.

"I'm gonna hold onto your hips to pull you down and then you should be able to take a step that sends you airborne," Gene said.

"Not too airborne," Sam returned.

"Depends on whether you piss me off or not."

Gene held onto Sam's hips and tugged him down until his back was against Gene's chest. Sam wanted to joke about how suggestive their pose was, but there were two students a couple of yards away and he didn't want them to witness wholesale slaughter of a science teacher.

"Ready?"

"As I'll ever be."

Gene let go and Sam stepped forward. He was sent into the air, floating for a couple of seconds, before being let down. He took another step and the same thing happened. It was exhilarating.

Sam couldn't contain his laughter. He hadn't had this much fun since he was a child and he hopped across the stage, arms stretching in front and behind like he was running a marathon. It was like being in a bouncy castle on a pogo stick. The imminent danger made it even more exciting. If his students didn't love this, they didn't have souls. He looked down at Gene and was a little saddened that Gene wasn't deriving the same pleasure --- instead looking serious and matter-of-fact.

"Comfortable enough?" Gene asked, waiting until his feet were firmly on the stage before helping him take the harness off.

"Surprisingly so!" Sam answered.

“No chafing?”

“I’ve a feeling I’d have to be in this contraption a hell of a lot longer to warrant that.”

“Girl of delicate skin like you? Doubt it. You’ve a pea under your twenty mattresses and you’re bruised to high heaven.”

Sam ignored the comment. "I'm gonna go get a couple of cameras and collect the students. See you soon."

Gene nodded, but he seemed distracted, rechecking the harness and wires and starting towards Tom and Matthew with instructions. Sam frowned, confused by his non-reaction. He’d at least expected to be mocked for not engaging.

*

The lesson was a gigantic success. The students had a brilliant time, offering up theories, listening to Sam's explanations with little to no talk amongst themselves. They took photographs and video footage and several students stayed behind during lunch to have a go. Simon offered to draw a diagram, and it was not great, but it was a start. Sam smiled at Gene across the stage and to his delight, Gene smiled back.

By the end of the day, Sam was exhausted, but ready to tell the world how wonderful it was to be a teacher. He accosted Gene in the staff room as he was making tea.

"You have to let me buy you a drink," he said.

"Right now?"

"When we're allowed off the premises, yeah," Sam confirmed. "That was the best thing ever. It deserves a celebratory beer."

Gene was midway through agreeing when Frank appeared at the door and beckoned them both over. Sam went straight away, but Gene held back. Sam didn't know why until he noticed that Frank had gone an interesting shade of red.

"I heard you conducted a gravity lesson today using the stage flying equipment," Frank said, cold and clipped.

It should have been a warning sign, but Sam was still confused. "Yeah, it was fantastic."

"Did you fill out a risk assessment form and file it?"

Gene joined Sam's side at that point, crossing his arms against his chest and leaning against the door jamb. "That was my job. I must have forgotten. Sorry about that."

"We did a test run," Sam said.

"A test run? A test run! Is that right?" Frank said, his voice rising in pitch. It wasn't really a question, and Sam realised for the first time that this applied to everything he'd said in the conversation so far. "And what of insurance?"

"The most my students got was a foot off the ground. There were two teachers present and we had a first aid kit prepared. As stated, we tested the equipment to ensure it worked properly. That right there is risk assessment."

"Not in the eyes of the law. You're both damned lucky I'm unable to fire you on the spot. And believe me, if I hear about any of these kinds of shenanigans again, that's it, I’m applying to the Governing Council, and you're out."

Sam didn't know what to say. He didn't think his natural reaction to burst out laughing would be kindly met. In all of his encounters with Frank so far the man had been helpful --- if not kind, at least not antagonistic. But here he was making a big deal out of nothing and Sam was amazed by how ridiculous it all was. If it were concern for the kids, Sam thought he might have understood, but it was clear that all that mattered was the paperwork.

“Right, Sir,” he said, tone cold. “Sorry, Sir.” It took all his willpower not to mimic his students and add ‘three bags full, Sir.’

Frank Rathbone stormed off, ready to terrorise some other unsuspecting member of the teaching staff; Sam turned to Gene.

"You probably don't have to answer this, but is he always such an arsehole?"

"Oh, he's usually worse," Gene replied, glowering.

Sam grabbed hold of Gene's arm and pulled him out the staff room door. "Come on, drink time."

Gene resisted at first, but followed soon enough. Sam beamed back at him.

*

When he thought about it that night, Sam mostly remembered his and Gene’s computer lesson as one long vaudeville act, in which Gene played a technophobic Neanderthal, and he was a character in The Jetsons. He talked about the cloud. And VoIP. And converged infrastructure. At three in the morning, he didn’t know why. He didn’t usually consider himself technologically gifted, was mostly good merely at reading manuals, and yet, there he’d been, spouting buzzwords at a mile a minute. Gene had asked if he came with an appendix attached and Sam had quipped it’d been removed when he was twelve.

Like the gravity lesson, it had been equal parts inspiring and entertaining. The students had each created a five-slide PowerPoint presentation on the poets they were studying, which, for a first lesson, exceeded Sam’s expectations. Alex had made hers stylish as well as functional. He really hadn’t anticipated anything worth looking at, so he was doubly impressed. He had introduced the students to online research: the benefits, the pitfalls and traps. He’d shown Gene, too, ignoring Gene’s insistence he’d forget within ten seconds.

The time had flown by. Sam had been needed at his next lesson before he could discuss things more completely, which Gene had looked on the whole pleased about.

And now, as the world was silent and he should be sleeping, Sam couldn’t stop thinking about it. Not in the same vein as all of his other late-night musings this term, but quite the reverse. The prospects of another lesson like this filled him with heady anticipation.

*

He felt a touch overdressed in his best slacks and stylish leather jacket with an open-necked pale blue shirt when almost everyone else was wearing jeans and t-shirts. At least he hadn't worn a tie. Gene didn't tell him how stupid he looked, though, so he supposed it wasn't too noticeable. In fact, Gene looked at him with an assessing eye and didn't say anything insulting, which Sam counted as a success.

The theatre was full. 'Family and friends,' Gene had said, and they chattered excitedly around them.

"How did you know about the production?" Sam asked, thumbing through his faded programme.

"One of my former students plays Feste."

"Is he good?"

"He's brilliant. And I don't say that lightly. I came opening night and he stole the show."

Sam looked up the name, 'Jim Keats', and put the program in his pocket. "I didn't know you'd already seen it. We could've waited until a different production."

"You can see a play twice, you know. Often it's better the second night because you're not waiting to see how the performers are gonna interpret the characters. You can enjoy it for what it is."

"Like a film."

Gene raised his eyebrow. "Yes, exactly like a film."

Sam expected to be bored during the performance --- to find it tiresome and difficult to understand --- and while there were some things that confused him, Gene explained them, whispering in his ear like a naughty schoolchild. The play was actually very funny, and Gene was right about Feste. He had a charm about him that was disarming. There was colour and action, bawdy jokes and clever turns of phrase. The acting wasn't as outrageous as he thought it would be, more naturalistic than he'd anticipated based on previous encounters. Or maybe it was that he was finally watching it from a theatre audience, whereas previously he had only seen stage performances that had been recorded for television.

Sam enjoyed himself immensely, and was a little ashamed to admit that he may have been denying himself this pleasure due to an arbitrary decision made when he was fifteen.

At the end of the play Gene turned to Sam. "How was that for fucking Shakespeare?"

"Shockingly fucking good," Sam replied.

"Wait 'til you see the tragedies, or listen to the sonnets. And if you liked this, you'll have to see A Midsummer Night's Dream. Not to mention Measure for Measure, that'd be right up your alley. There's an entire universe you've been missing out on, Science-stricken Sam," Gene said, becoming as theatrical as the performers who had just taken their bows.

"Ah, but I have you to guide me," Sam said with a wry twist of his lips.

Gene just stared, and Sam was surprised, but it put him in mind more of a deer caught in the headlights than Gene's usual mockery.

*

That night, Sam dreamed that he and Gene were on stage as Viola and Orsino. When he woke up, he didn't exactly want to question what it said about his psyche, but he found he couldn't stop thinking about it. He thought that maybe it had something to do with the nature of teaching being akin to the nature of acting, and that, like Viola, all too often, he felt like he was burdened with another layer of acting on top of Gene's Orsino. Either that or a part of him deep down was questioning his masculinity in regards to Gene's, that he might even regard himself as a damsel in distress. Neither prospect filled him with glee.

Still, Sam mused, at least his subconscious hadn't brought him scenes of them as Romeo and Juliet.

*

Whenever anyone asked what they were doing (and they did, with alarming frequency), Sam described it as work-shadowing. Sam found he didn’t mind missing a free to help Gene with an ICT/English integrated unit, and considering Gene kept turning up, he figured Gene didn’t mind doing the same for Physics/Drama. By the end of the term, Sam realised he had learnt extraordinary amounts about the nuances of teaching that had been escaping him before.

“What are we up to next term, then?” Sam asked Gene Friday night over two beers and a shared packet of crisps.

He was the most relaxed he’d ever been at the end of a first term. Usually he spent this time quietly agonising over whether he’d be asked back at the schools he’d been haunting, doing administrative tasks teachers purposely left for him as they took mental health days, and wondering if he’d saved enough for the weeks of no actual income.

“We? Is that a royal we? Is that a thing you’re doing now? God save you.”

“No. We as in us, you and me, together,” Sam clarified. “I’d like to do all my planning the first couple of days of holidays so it’s done and dusted, then luxuriate in responsibility-free liberty. So I need to know. At least have an idea.”

Gene peered at him over his beer, eyes saying more than he seemed to allow his mouth to. “You still think you need tuition?”

Sam quirked an eyebrow. “Need? No. Want? Why not? It’s been working well. You must’ve noticed the results.”

“You know, I’m not always gonna be around to provide immoral support. You’ve got to learn to stand on your own two feet.”

“I seem to recall a term in which I showed you support as well. Did I or did I not see you catering for multi-literacies with your year eights yesterday? Was that or was that not directly influenced by yours truly?”

“If I knew what the heck multi-literacies were, I could probably answer that.”

“Technological, spatial, visual and aural as well as written.”

There was a beat and then Gene said, “Okay, you have a point. As for what we’re doing --- it’s Hamlet next. You’ll like that. Not a lot. But you’ll like it. I’m sure you’ll find you’ve a lot in common with the fair emo prince.”

“Did you just say emo? Did that actually happen?”

“Language evolves, I can too. I’m sure even you could, with a little effort.”

“I’m evolving before your very eyes,” Sam said, standing. “Into someone who’s willing to buy the next round.”

“But will you ever evolve into someone who’ll buy every round?”

Sam looked back over his shoulder. “There are limits, Gene. Evolutionary cul-de-sacs.”

“I love it when you talk dirty.”

Sam held Gene’s gaze and only turned around when the barman, Nelson, proclaimed he didn’t have all day.

*

Sam spent Christmas with his mother, drinking too much sweet sherry and eating too many mince pies. It was warm and comforting, one of the best Christmases he’d had since he was a young boy. He’d always loved Christmas, but in the past few years it had mostly been a time for stress. Sam enjoyed being surrounded by food and family, and now he had enough funds, he didn’t have to worry about not buying Ruth or his aunt Heather everything they deserved.

On Boxing Day, at seven-thirty in the morning, he found himself knocking on Gene’s door. He’d been researching Hamlet online when he came across a link to a festival he very much wanted to inflict on Gene, and since he already knew that Gene had planned on spending Christmas alone (and refused his offer of spending it with him and his mother), he was fully intending on doing exactly that. Gene answered after three minutes of waiting, looking both disgruntled and dishevelled.

“Wake-up call for Mr Hunt,” he said, pleasantly, to Gene’s scowling visage.

“What’re you doing here?”

“I have a proposition for you,” Sam announced. “Have a shower, get dressed, and come with me.”

“You must be mad.”

“Definitely. But there’s method in my madness. C’mon, hurry up, time’s a-wastin’.”

“You’re a git.”

“Indeed.”

Gene reluctantly allowed Sam into his semi-detached house and Sam had all of his expectations challenged. There was no mould, filth or grime. No Christmas dishes left over from the day before. It was clean and neat. Not pristine, but not in need of a reality show overhaul. In place of technology Gene had tasteful artwork, chairs that looked like they belonged in a gallery, yet were still comfortable. There was a single decoration; a small, tastefully adorned Christmas tree in the living room corner. The Missus was lying in a plush-looking dog bed in the opposite corner, eying Sam with interest. Sam raised his eyebrows and commented on how cultured it all looked.

“Your approval means the world to me,” Gene said, sarcastically.

He took half an hour to get ready. Sam raided his fridge and cupboards in the interim, scavenging enough for two breakfasts on the go.

Gene stood, checking his wallet, when he noticed. “He hath eaten me out of house and home.

“Not yet. And anyway, some of this is for you. This crust, here, that’s yours.”

“Tell me, scoundrel, what’s this all in aid of?”

“You’ll find out soon enough. Well, soon. A couple of hours is soon, right?”

They climbed into the car together and Sam set off down the road. He made small talk as the hours passed, discussing the weather (bizarrely pleasant), his Christmas Day (the same), and how he’d been feeling lately (ditto.) Gene joined in, but seemed content to let Sam do most of the talking. Sam suspected it was too early in the day on a holiday for mental meanderings requiring coherency. They listened to The Rolling Stones, David Bowie and Clint Mansell’s soundtrack for Moon --- the latter of which Gene had not-so-politely described as ear-piercing. Sam refused to turn it off.

When they passed the sign for their destination, Gene narrowed his eyes at him. “Not only do you wake me up at stupid o’clock in the morning, pilfer my week’s supplies, and remain obnoxiously chipper while doing so, but you’re taking me to Milton Keynes? This was the most unkindest cut of all.

“It’s an Arts in Sciences Fest to celebrate 45 years of the town,” Sam said, excitedly.

“That’s not an advert, that’s an avert!

Sam couldn’t stop himself from smiling at Gene’s countenance. “You’ll enjoy yourself. I’ll make sure of it.”

“… Did you bring booze?”

“Oh no. Even better. I brought all-day passes!”

*

Dragging Gene around the festival was the most fun Sam had ever had with his clothes on. Gene’s sheer unwillingness to let down his guard and take pleasure in the day meant he had to be extra energetic, to make up for them both. And he could, easily, because Gene’s furious expressions were hilarious and spurring him on.

“What the hell is this?”

“It’s a representation of DNA using what appear to be pipe cleaners and ping-pong balls.”

“It’s a travesty.”

“It’s fascinating. It must’ve taken hours, weeks, yonks.” Sam read out the information card and pointed to the picture of the artist. He looked very distinguished; about fifty, with glasses, and a neat pin-striped suit.

“I lament a grown man who’ll waste his time with this kind of lunacy.”

“As opposed to men who sit around all day shouting at football matches?” Sam asked. He spread his hands out expressively at Gene’s irate expression. “I, of course, include myself in that group.”

“It’s as well you do.”

“You know, I genuinely thought you’d like this,” Sam lied, adopting his best wounded expression.

Gene quirked an eyebrow, for a short moment looking contrite. “Really?”

“Yeah. I mean, a day in my wondrous company. Surrounded by the marvels of human imagination and invention. An invigorating exploration of the false dichotomy drawn between art and science. What’s not to like?”

“You’re punishing me for that ‘there’s beauty in life’ speech, aren’t you?” Gene accused.

“What? Me? Never,” Sam said with a blinding grin. He looked at the DNA sculpture again and attempted to put his need to share this with Gene into words. "There's beauty in science." He gestured to the structure before them. "Order out of disorder, harmony out of chaos. If there's something we don't know, we come up with a theory as to what the answer might be, and we don't just stop there --- we systematically test that theory, turn it into a hypothesis, search out the truth. We explore and we examine and we make sense of the world in a way that imagery alone just… can't."

"Mmm," Gene said, looking thoughtful.

"Mmm?"

"That's all. Simply 'mmm'."

“Come on, I’ll buy you a late lunch," Sam said, rolling his eyes. "Something nice and greasy to clog up your arteries. You can’t say I’m a bad friend.”

“Why do you think I’d call you friend at all?”

Sam clutched at his chest, doing his very best to be a pain. “Now you’ve really broken me. There’s a hole in my heart and your barbed arrow was the weapon that caused it.”

Gene gave a long-suffering sigh. “Stop being you and buy me that lunch you promised.”

Sam did as he was told and they ate together in companionable bickering. It really had been the best Christmas break ever.

*

Sam didn’t see Gene again until the second term started, which annoyed him, because he had wanted to check if his planning aligned with Gene’s intentions, but whenever he called Gene was mysteriously out, or busy. He knew it wasn’t a matter of life and death, since they could plan on the run and it had worked out before, and he wouldn’t admit to himself that perhaps it was more seeing Gene rather than planning that had him wanting contact. Still, when the term started, Gene couldn’t very well continue avoiding him, especially when they were scheduled to team-teach a lesson on the first Tuesday.

Gene’s expression was oddly cagey when Sam reminded him of this with a faux glare.

“I haven’t been avoiding you,” Gene said. “I’ve been avoiding impromptu road-trips. To prove it, why don’t I take you to The Scottish Play tonight?”

“What’s that?”

“Everyone knows what The Scottish Play is.”

“Not me.”

Gene shrugged. “Then you’ll have a nice surprise. Dress up, like last time. This is a professional production.”

*

The first day of the second term was not terrible. It was really rather good. Justin treated him with a modicum of respect, Sophie told him about the evening she stayed up with her father and watched the stars, and there was a new student called Colin who started off the session proclaiming his love of science. Sam felt this day was an indication stronger than anything else he could pinpoint that teaching was not the mistake he had begun to think it the first two weeks of first term.

*

Sam had studied Macbeth when he had been a student in secondary school. It was how he thought he knew he hated Shakespeare. There was no way he was going to tell Gene that as a student he had empathised with the eponymous character and found the ending unjust. Not after his fellow students’ reactions at the time. But he found, to his horror, that the production was interesting. Not light-hearted and jovial like Twelfth Night, but dark and laden with betrayal, scheming and the dangers of naked ambition. Sam really hoped he wouldn’t dream about this one.

It was different, being in a larger theatre, in the city, and sat next to a shockingly dapper Gene, who somehow fitted in with the crowd. Not that Gene wasn’t relatively well dressed when he came to work, but he tended to wear his tie slung off to the side by lunch break and somehow gathered stains all down his middle by the end of the day. At that moment, in a deep green cotton shirt that even Sam noticed highlighted the colour of his eyes and a respectable suit, buttoned up and immaculate, he looked the consummate theatre-going professional. Now, instead of feeling overdressed, Sam felt woefully inadequate.

“Horrid?” Gene asked at intermission, passing Sam the red wine he’d requested.

“No, not at all,” Sam said. “Good. Damn you.”

Gene studied him carefully. “You looked discontent.”

“That reminds me. I saw a sign New Year's Eve that said ‘Now is the winter of our discount tent.’ I thought you’d appreciate it.”

“An oldie and a baddie,” Gene said, mock-groaning. He took a swig of his wine, more of a gulp really, and continued,“is anything wrong?”

“You’re being awfully attentive tonight,” Sam teased. “I promise I’m not lying. I’m having a good time.”

“Good,” Gene said.

He gave the barest attempt at a smile, and Sam knew that a confused frown was impolite, but he was very, very confused. He remained so right until the end of the night when Gene dropped him off at his flat and hovered by the doorway, seemingly waiting for something, a few seconds before making his way back to his Mondeo.

*

On Tuesday, the start of the computing unit went well. As Sam had thought, all of Gene’s students were more technically gifted than the man himself, and as long as Sam gave them five minutes each lesson of free time, they were doubtless the best behaved class he encountered. They not only appeared willing to create multimedia projects based on Hamlet, they gave the illusion of being actively excited about the idea --- with Viv thinking up an entire scenario using mobile phones that hadn’t even occurred to Sam.

“Hamlet’s dad’s ghost could, like, text Hamlet about his murder, yeah?” he said, more vocal than Sam had ever seen him before.

“How’d he know it wasn’t a prank?” Shaz queried.

“He could know something only they would know. Anyways, doesn’t Hamlet think it’s a prank at first?”

“There’ve been a fair few modern adaptations of the play, you should look up that goggledegook thing to see how they handle it,” Gene suggested, lazily waving a hand towards one of the computers.

“I swear you say these things just to incense me, Mr Hunt.” Sam shook his head like he was disappointed.

“Just because I can’t remember the name of googly moogly or whatsit? I apologise, Professor Hawking, we can’t all be half man, half machine.”

“It’s the ‘correct’ bit of politically correct that trips you up, isn’t it?” Sam said, rolling his eyes.

Alex and Shaz giggled together at their computers. They none-too-subtly passed a note between themselves and Sam was halfway towards obtaining it before Gene deftly swept it up off the desk, took a look and tore it up.

“None of that, you two,” he growled.

“Sorry, Mr Hunt,” Alex said, not looking at all repentant.

“What was that about?” Sam asked when the session was over a minute and a half later. “How come I wasn’t allowed to see and mock appropriately?”

“You wouldn’t like to know what part of you those girls think is made of metal,” Gene said calmly.

Sam felt his blush spread and had no way of stopping it. Gene smirked.

*

Sam didn’t usually have much to do with Frank Rathbone now that he had fully settled in, so he didn’t expect to be accosted at his desk in the Teacher Preparation area (a room wisely separate from the staff room, but very reminiscent of a cubicle farm, and therefore often empty.)

“Good morning, Sam,” Rathbone said, leaning over his table. Sam raised a quizzical eyebrow. Rathbone was purposefully standing while he was sitting, and looking so imperious, he may as well be king.

“Hello, Frank,” Sam said, deciding it best to keep this short and sweet. “What do you need?”

“I wanted to give you a word of Friendly Advice,” Rathbone said, emphasising the last two words so that Sam imagined they were supposed to be capitalised.

“Feel free.”

“I don’t know what the arrangement is between yourself and Gene Hunt, but end it, now. He’s nothing but trouble.”

Sam thought about defending Gene’s honour. Considered stating that he was considerably more than trouble and if Rathbone weren’t a moron, he’d see and appreciate that. But knowing that Rathbone had recently been given the power to fire him on a whim after a term’s work prevented him.

“Thank you for the advice,” he said, as quickly as he could, then decided to lie in a bid to escape. “I have a lesson to teach.”

For about ten minutes, Sam hid in the men's toilets. At one point, he laughed half-hysterically to himself, unable to discern whether he should be terrified, or disturbed, or just as amused as his body was telling him to be. It had felt exactly like a protective father warning him away from a new motorbike-riding boyfriend, with only a “come back here, Missy” omitted.

*

Sam told Gene about this encounter in lurid detail that evening at his place. They were planning their Biology/Drama unit for the year sevens, or rather, that was the intention. Actually, they were eating cheese and Gene was constantly distracting him with Shakespeare-flavoured quotes.

“Rathbone,” Gene tutted. “All of the odious, questionable charm of Iago and none of the intellect.”

“Is there anyone that doesn’t compel you to compare them with a character from a play?”

“Of course! You, for instance.”

“No? What d’you compare me with, then? Beyond machines and manuals.”

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?” Gene began. “Thou art more lovely and more temperate. Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, and summer's lease hath all too short a date…

Gene continued with the sonnet and Sam sat and listened, transfixed. Gene had a magic skill with words, Sam mused, perching his chin on his hand as he let his smooth, rich voice drift over him. It almost didn’t matter what he said, it was the way he said it. When reciting, his staccato rhythm switched to velvet tones, his brash, harder edges to something soft and malleable.

Gene finished, and mocked him, but looked affectionate all the same. "You are such a girl, Tyler. Going all starry-eyed."

"I'm sure you think that's an insult, but you know what, fuck you, there's nothing wrong with being a girl."

A moment of indecision flittered across Gene’s features, but Sam didn’t have time to wonder why, because he was suddenly being swept into an embrace, Gene’s warm lips against his own.

There was a second in which Sam’s body was relaxing into the touch, but then his brain caught up and he pushed Gene away.

"I'm not---" Sam stumbled. "Sorry if I've ever given you the impression I might be interested in... I had no idea you might..."

Gene's expression became shuttered, closed. He stood and gathered his coat. Sam watched him, wondering where this had come from. He’d always been rubbish at picking up on other people’s attraction to him. It had taken six months before he realised his ex-girlfriend Maya had been flirting before they eventually got together (and two years and six months later when they finally broke up.)

But Gene hadn’t been flirting, had he? Had he been flirting with Gene?

Once or twice, Sam realised. Yes, he had. But only because he’d been convinced it meant nothing. Gene was straight, one of the straightest men Sam knew. Or not. Sam was the most confused he’d ever been.

It took Sam too long to gain the wherewithal to stop Gene from crashing out the door. He rose and lumbered over, tripping over his coffee table and ottoman. "Gene, wait."

"Don't worry,” Gene said, tight, controlled, “it doesn't have to affect work. I promise it won't happen again."

"We can still be friends," Sam said, disgusted by how pathetic he sounded.

Gene snorted. "Of course. And every time we're together neither of us will remember my aborted attempt at seduction nor the unrequited attraction I feel and we'll simply enjoy every moment we have."

"Oh, right, so you don't like me, you just wanna get into my pants. Nice."

Gene's expression became stonier. Sam hadn't thought that was possible. He was aware that what he had intimated was unfair, that after a rejection it was crass, but he was annoyed. He liked spending time with Gene and didn't see why a simple mistake had to ruin what had been developing into one of the strongest friendships he'd ever had. He didn't know what he could say to fix things, and he suspected he'd just made it worse.

Gene walked out of his flat without a backwards glance. Sam thought about stopping him again, but he didn't. He was not equipped to deal with this right now. The thought of losing Gene's company forever made his chest go tight and the realisation that this was all his fault made him feel he was being eaten from the inside out.

*

Sam did not sleep at all. Everything he thought he knew got analysed and deconstructed, rearranged and magnified. Going through the evidence, it was clear to him that he’d unwittingly been dating Gene for weeks. Romantic dates, even! He felt too old to be having a sexual identity crisis, but, well, he was having a sexual identity crisis, because now that he thought about all of the physical reactions he experienced in Gene’s presence, they maintained a pattern of attraction. Sexual attraction. To a man. Not just any man. But Gene.

Sam panicked. He phoned Annie up at six and begged for a breakfast date, explaining that he thought he was having a meltdown. Annie sound too disgruntled to be truly sympathetic, but she agreed to meet him.

“What’s wrong?” she asked as he offered her the coffee he’d bought. They were outside a small café, Sam perched on the edge of a wrought iron table, even though it was freezing.

“Gene kissed me,” Sam said in a rush.

“At last! We were wondering when one of you’d finally crack.”

“We?”

“Chris and me, mostly. Ray said Gene had more taste. Phyllis said you were already going at it, but that Gene had taught you his best acting techniques.”

“You knew?” Sam squeaked. It wasn’t his most dignified. “You knew Gene fancied me and you didn’t warn me?”

“I honestly didn’t think I had to. It’s been obvious since you arrived at Newall Green.”

“No it hasn’t.”

“It really has. And Gene --- you know, he’s not exactly closeted.” Annie stroked Sam’s cheek. “What’s the problem? You’re lovely together. You’ll make a great couple.”

Sam raised his hands to the heavens. “I’m not gay.”

“No, but you’re bi, aren’t you?”

“I didn’t think so,” Sam said, burying his head in his hands.

“Oh, Sam!” Annie said. Sam felt her settling close to him. “Did you freak out?”

“I told him I wasn’t that way and when he acted hurt, I accused him of only wanting to get into my pants.”

“Have you always been bad at relationship stuff?”

“Downright diabolical.” Sam raised his head. He could feel tears prickling the back of his eyes. It had been over a decade since he’d cried. “I've not, you know, in the past I've not been attracted to other men." Sam flailed.

"So? You're obviously attracted to one now. You should see the way you look at each other. Sometimes it's like there's no-one else in the room."

"What if it doesn't work out?"

"That's the risk we take in all relationships. What if it does? I mean, what is it that you like about him?"

Sam could have rattled off a list of thirty traits, he realised. He could have started with Gene’s personality and finished with Gene’s looks. He liked almost everything, and the things he didn’t like were, at least, interesting.

"He makes me feel,” Sam said, slowly. “Often that feeling is annoyance, but there are times, getting more frequent every day, when I'm happy, and I think I'd forgotten what that was like, before."

"Yeah."

"I've been really clueless, haven't I?"

"I think so."

“Annie, what do I do?”

“Apologise. Tell him you needed time to think, and when you had it, you realised he was the only faux-bigot for you.”

Sam narrowed his eyes. “You think this is funny!”

Annie smiled her sweetest smile. “A little. You’re such an idiot, Sam. It’s charming.”

*

Sam thought he was going to be sick when he drove into the school car park an hour later. He waited around for Gene’s Mondeo, a tight coil of terror and discomfort, but he had to be in class before it turned up. He barely made it through his morning lessons whole, thinking he’d shake apart before break.

Because he was on duty, he was unable to talk to Gene during break. He spent the entire time nervously fidgeting and unsuccessfully attempting to calm his nerves. He kept telling himself that their reunion would happen regardless, so he should stop getting het up, but he still didn’t know what to say. He went to the laboratory with a heavy heart.

“Why’s Mr Hunt been fired?” Simon asked the second he stepped through the door.

The pit in Sam’s stomach went cold. “…He has?”

“That’s what Mr Carling said,” Sophie replied. “Swore. Loudly. But he didn’t say why.”

“This is insane,” Sam said. “You two, think you can manage being a teacher for ten minutes? I’ll find out for you.”

Sam didn’t actually give them time to answer. He ran down the corridors, heart thumping a syncopated accompaniment, and burst into Rathbone’s office.

“What’s this about Gene being fired?” he asked without preamble, thinking it was right he should turn the tables on the headmaster.

“I did suggest you divorce yourself from him,” Rathbone said, avoiding the question and looking smug.

“Why?” Sam asked.

“He’s a bad influence.”

“No. Why have you fired him? He’s the best you’ve got.”

Rathbone’s iciness radiated. “The best I have would not corrupt young bodies and minds by allowing them to smoke.”

Sam was on the back foot, hesitant. Rathbone knew about the smoking. But he knew several weeks too late. Unless Gene was as big a fool as Sam himself.

“You have proof he does such a thing?” Sam asked, sure he hadn’t indicated he knew he had.

“I have a witness,” Rathbone said, calmly.

Sam didn’t trust any of this one bit. He left the office with the same vigour he entered it and went back to class already formulating a hypothesis he couldn’t wait to test.

*

Gene had been gone from the school for two weeks by the time Sam had everything ready. Sam missed him every day, exacerbated by the fact Gene refused to answer his mobile, his landline, or his door. Sam had even asked Annie for her expert help, but Gene had seen through the ruse.

Sam had learned that Gene’s unfair dismissal had not been career suicide, as he had worried. He was also confident that Gene hadn’t smoked with the sixth-formers since the day he’d told him off. Sam could only conclude that Rathbone had been waiting for the new rules to be put into place before enacting his heart’s desire. Sam had also been reading through the documentation to discover the loopholes --- of which there were a few.

Rathbone hadn’t accounted for the importance of the school’s Governing Council in determining who was hired and fired, nor Gene’s standing in the community. It didn’t take long for Sam to have a petition with seven thousand signatures on it, and it didn’t take long to gate-crash a Governing Council meeting to display it. Especially when he wasn’t alone. Twenty of the other staff members joined him, and helped him sneak to the podium, distracting Rathbone in wild and inventive ways.

“Ladies and gentleman,” Sam started, taking a leaf from Gene’s theatrical book and photocopying it times a thousand. “A grave injustice has been committed these past two weeks. A pillar of the community, a fixture of our school, has been cast aside merely on the whims of this man,” he pointed at Rathbone, “over nothing more than personality differences.”

“Hunt has been seen smoking with students,” Rathbone sputtered, indignantly.

“Where is your evidence?” Sam asked.

“I have a witness.”

“And who might that be?”

“Justin Pratt.”

Chris brought Justin to Sam’s side. Justin looked nervous for the first time since Sam had met him, but Sam knew he’d come through. He had reassured Justin that Frank Rathbone couldn’t suspend him on fabricated charges, and that he would vouch for him.

“Is it true, Justin?” he asked, kindly.

“Nuh,” Justin said, succinctly. “I ain't never seen Mr Hunt smoking at school.”

Chris patted Justin on the back and led him away.

Sam resumed his speech. “I stand before you with the testimony of thousands of people, some of you here this evening, to decry these actions and present a motion for Gene Hunt’s honourable reinstatement as an eminent English and drama teacher at Newall Green High School.”

There was silence, then shocked whispers, and eventually, after Ray began to clap, thunderous applause. Sam drew his shoulders back, feeling very proud of his performance.

“Motion seconded,” Alex’s mother Caroline called out.

“Motion passed,” Matt’s father, the head of the Governing Council, announced. Rathbone looked murderous as he slumped in his chair.

Sam’s arms flew into the air against his volition and he punched the sky. A second later he remembered he still somehow had to get into contact with Gene to make amends.

*

Sam kept imagining a scene between himself and Gene before Gene came back to school. He’d say sorry, and Gene would forgive him, and they’d kiss and make up. They wouldn’t have to be at school for hours, and they’d spend that time judiciously.

That Sam was fantasising about the kiss proved to him he was making the right decision after all. He frequently awoke in the middle of the night having dreamed about his rejection and lamenting that he did such a foolish thing just when the kiss had started to get interesting.

This wasn’t what happened. No, Sam saw Gene for the first time again, now three weeks after their fateful, tragic evening, in the courtyard outside his laboratory, being congratulated by some very happy year ten girls.

“Do you need us to be teachers again?” Sophie asked, following his line of sight.

“Do you mind?” Sam asked, pouncing on the idea.

“Not at all, Mr Tyler,” Sophie said, seemingly voicing the opinion of several of the students, who nodded their heads in agreement.

Simon and Justin made mock kissing faces at each other. Sam didn’t have the time or inclination to tell them off.

He made his way to the courtyard, rubbing his hands against the leather jacket he’d worn specifically for Gene. He’d remembered Gene’s expression when they went to see Twelfth Night together, and now that he knew how he felt, he knew Gene’s lack of insult meant rampant approval.

“Mr Hunt,” he said, halfway to breathless because of the journey. “It’s good to see you.”

Gene stopped, immediately looking wary. Sam had a fleeting vision of him bolting in the other direction, not caring that there were twenty students standing close by, and another forty or so watching who’d find the action ripe for gossip.

“My class and I have been working on something for you,” Sam stalled. “It’s still a rough draft, but it’s thanks to your inspiration.”

Gene raised his eyebrows. “What might that be?”

“Just listen,” Sam said, hoping he’d memorised all the lines.

“If we could only find the words to speak
How much we enjoy our combined sessions
Involving science-learning happy geeks
Making school challenge our first impressions

We knew we arrived at school to learn
But thought we’d do it via osmosis
School was a place that we’d want to spurn
As if it spawned tuberculosis

Together two teachers have changed this notion
Proving study can be exciting fun
Newton’s first, second, third laws of motion
Are now as simple as a sticky bun

So please come back and join us in study
Without you Tyler is simply cruddy.”

“Your class had a hand in that travesty?” Gene asked, before grinning from ear to ear.

“They supplied all the good parts, I assure you,” Sam replied.

“Tuberculosis?”

“Theirs, definitely.”

“Your meter’s off.”

“I don’t even know what that means.”

“And your rhyming remains appalling.”

“I know.”

“Thank you,” Gene said, heartfelt.

Sam walked close and gave him a one-armed hug, feeling awkward and exposed. He took a deep, steadying breath, then said, “Can I talk to you tonight, please?”

“Sure,” Gene said, giving no indication that this was significant in any way.

“Thank you,” Sam echoed, smiling.

He walked back to the lab and didn’t demand quiet when there was some good-natured hollering.

*

Sam spent ninety minutes determining whether or not to light candles. A similar amount of time was invested in wearing the right clothes. And the right aftershave. And an appropriate expression when opening the door. The words “chronic” and “panicking” were excised from his vocabulary because they were too tempting to use as descriptions.

Gene was ten minutes late, which didn’t help matters. When Sam ushered him in and offered him a whisky, he was so tense he wouldn’t be shocked if he’d shatter with one well-aimed blow.

“I’ve been talking to Cartwright,” Gene said, by way of explanation. “She told me that my reinstatement was all down to you.”

“Not entirely. I was the driving force, you might say,” Sam said, too anxious to be self-congratulatory.

“She also said I’d want to talk to you about the fiasco that is my love life. And wouldn’t listen when I said I really wouldn’t.”

“Yes. About that --- I’m sorry. I haven’t been able to stop replaying it over in my head and kicking myself every time.” Sam took a steadying breath. “I screwed up.”

“Yeah, you did,” Gene said with a spike of anger. “You’d been flirting with me from day dot, but I knew office romances were doomed, so I resisted. And the moment, the second I caved, suddenly you weren’t that person, it wasn’t you. Great. Thanks.”

“I didn’t know I was flirting. I didn’t know that my attraction to you was something very different from collegial appreciation.” Sam rubbed his head, wanting to explain, but finding his ability horribly inadequate. “Emotions are messy, complicated things. They baffle me. I understand that which is neat, orderly. Hence, amateur scientist.”

“Understanding basic human emotion like joy and love should be as simple as telling your head from your arse by the age of thirty-six.”

“Not if you’re not used to them,” Sam complained. “Say you’ve never seen an arse before. No one could condemn you for wanting to conduct some experimentation.” He stopped, was going to retract that statement, but Gene had already sniggered and put his hand on his shoulder.

“What am I going to do with you, eh, Sammy-boy? I like you too much to say goodbye, but only saying hello’s gonna pain me.”

Sam lunged for Gene’s other hand and laced his fingers through. Gene put up token resistance, but went with it after a couple of seconds.

“I’ve been trying to tell you that you don’t have to do either of those things. There’s always a third option, and I’m willing to take it if you are.” To break the tension between them, Sam gave Gene a sly look and added, “If it doesn’t work out, we’ll always have Milton Keynes.”

“Alright,” Gene said, enigmatic as always.

“Alright?” Sam repeated, hopeful.

Gene slipped his hand to the back of Sam’s head, stroking his thumb up into his hair. “Alright,” he reiterated, bending down and kissing Sam full on the lips.

No longer shocked and perplexed, Sam could pay attention to this kiss; the way Gene’s lips were soft, almost tentative, how he only deepened the kiss when Sam craned into it. Sam felt it was altogether too chaste, and took control. His stubble brushed against Gene’s and he found he didn’t mind one little bit. This kiss was better than all of his fantasies.

*

Gene went home after several hours of kissing and discussion of what Gene had done in his three weeks away from work, but they spent the various breaks of the school day trying to decide where to go on their first official date, before settling on Gene’s place for a curry.

The curry would have to wait because the kissing took first priority. Sam had always liked kissing, and he prided himself in his abilities, but he wanted to prove to Gene that he could handle more, so he tried to up the ante. He brushed his hand over Gene’s upper thigh and slid it towards his crotch. Gene stopped him with a hand around his wrist.

“Why are you ferretting around my trousers like a badger snuffling for truffles?” he asked, an edge of rasp in his voice.

“I’m working my way up to a handjob.”

“Are you always this quick with your sexual conquests? I suspect not. I wouldn’t say no to a little upstairs inside before you go in for the kill.”

"You can’t blame me, I don’t know what’s appropriate, I'm new to all this," Sam said, feeling awkward in a way he hadn't since he was fourteen years old.

Gene gave him an expression that could only be described as playful. "Be not afraid of gayness: some are born gay, some achieve gayness, and some have gayness thrust upon 'em."

“That’s the worst of all your quotes. The very worst,” Sam exclaimed, mock-horrified.

“You know you love it,” Gene said, clearly not at all penitent.

“So you wouldn’t want to give me a blowjob later? Is that what you’re saying?”

Gene’s face went blank and he gave what approximated to a gasp.

Sam quirked an eyebrow. "O God, that men should put an enemy in their mouths to steal away their brains!?"

"You dirty-minded little beggar."

"Hey, I'm pure and untarnished, I'll thank you very much. You made that joke all by yourself."

"Aided greatly by your filthy expression."

Sam chuckled, bit his lip. Gene kissed his neck and drew him close.

“Soon,” he said, muffled in Sam’s collar. “Extraordinarily soon if my level of arousal’s anything to go by, but we’re gonna take our time.”

“I suppose, if you insist,” Sam said, not admitting that he appreciated the consideration immensely. “But make no mistake that when the time comes I will rock your world.”

Gene held him tight.

*

Simon was pretending he was an amoeba. It was a disturbing as well as an impressive talent.

“Great, Simon. Now pretend you’re in fresh water. What happens next, everyone?”

“He swells up like Violet Beauregard,” Benedict said.

“True. Let’s get pumping.”

He had six year eights working air pumps to puff up the flotation devices positioned around Simon’s body.

“Good thing we haven’t put him in salt water,” Gene said. “And why would that be?”

“He’d shrink,” Stephanie said.

“Very good.”

Gene continued. “And what happens if we put him in front of a firing squad?”

“Nothing,” Justin answered. “His size ain't the same as an amoeba's, is it? It’d be too hard to shoot."

“Ah, I think Mr Hunt is simply referring to a dangerous situation,” Sam clarified.

“We get to cover him in bubble wrap to turn him into a microbial cyst,” Sophie said excitedly. She gave Simon a truly merciless, yet somehow simultaneously lovesick look.

“Why am I the amoeba again?” Simon whined, looking slightly red-faced now that he was covered in inflated plastic swimming aids.

“We conducted a vote and it was unanimously decided you’re the only one flexible enough to accurately portray a single-celled organism in our play,” Gene stated, very cleverly not sounding evilly delighted.

“I don’t know whether you’re the best or the cruellest of our teachers, but you’re definitely the most interesting,” Benedict proclaimed.

Sam shared a look with Gene across the stage. They smiled in unison. It was ridiculous, really. And that was the best part.