Chapter 1: First Day
Styrofoam cup of coffee in hand (large, extra cream, two sugars), Phil Coulson stood in the middle of his classroom, surveying it one last time. Frowning at the small, low tables, he nudged one about six inches more to the right with his leg. Yes, that was better. Now there was a little bit more room to walk between them without encroaching into the circle time area.
His phone beeped with a five minute warning before the bell rang, and Phil drained the last mouthfuls of his coffee and tossed the cup into the trash. His room was ready and as clean as it was going to be until June. The cabinets were stocked with extra juice boxes and packs of animal crackers, spoons, forks and cups, and the closet held stacks of paper (white and colored construction), scissors, glue sticks and just about every craft supply he would need for the year. The wire racks of the library were filled with picture books and early reader books. The tables were freshly scrubbed, small caddies holding thick, newly sharpened pencils (point down) set in the precise center, and the four small chairs at each one tucked neatly underneath. The blackboards and whiteboards were free of any lingering chalk dust and marker. In his desk were piles of stickers, at least three dozen stamps and several boxes of Band-Aids. And on top of it were ten name tags, all with the neatly printed names of his students, just waiting to be set on the tables.
The bell rang, and the din outside of children screaming and laughing died down as they raced to the appropriate lines. The older grades had already been coming to school for a few days, so they knew the routine, and the aides would be helping the kindergarteners. Phil waited off to the side where he could see all the kids enter and they could see him, listening to the muted sound of instructions being given. Then came the steady patter of little feet walking in the hall as students first entered Maria Hill’s room, and then closer and louder as his own class filed in.
“Good morning,” he greeted them warmly. “For now, sit where you want to, and once you’re settled, I’ll explain what’s going on.”
They entered, quiet and almost solemn, looking around the room with wide eyes. They’d been here before, last week during their orientation, but then it had been informal and they’d been with their parents. This was their first day of actual school, not pre-school or day care, and it was often a little overwhelming for them. Phil just hoped none of them were criers. Not that he begrudged five-year olds missing their mothers, but some were inconsolable and he didn’t like that it took all of his attention to calm them down. Unsupervised kids were never a good thing.
There was a brief flurry of movement as they started to choose seats and then changed their minds and darted for new ones. Phil liked giving them their freedom to begin with. It gave him a good idea for personalities and how they would have to be rearranged. Plus, they sometimes arranged themselves with friends he could keep them with—not always, but he liked keeping them with their friends if he could. Eventually, they all settled, and he grabbed the heavily laminated nametags off his desk. During orientation, he’d asked if the kids had nicknames they used, and had put those on the tags since those were what would be going on most of their papers.
The first table, the one closest to his desk, had three kids. He rifled through the tags and pulled the correct three. First was Peggy Carter, dark hair in a bob, ruffled white button shirt, plaid skirt, and honest-to-God Mary Janes with lacy white socks. She smiled brightly as he set the tag down, thanked him, and folded her hands on the table as she looked at the tag. Next to her was Pepper Potts, long, curly strawberry blonde hair in a ponytail with a feathered headband, pink frilly dress, and glittery, strappy sandals. (Phil would never understand why they even made heeled shoes for children.) Pepper thanked him as well, but ignored it in favor of adjusting her headband every few seconds. And the last was Tony Stark, short dark hair neatly gelled into a fauxhawk, dark blue polo shirt, plaid sailing shorts, and one of the most beat up pair of sneakers he’d ever seen. The last item gave Phil pause as he set Tony’s nametag down in front of him. His outfit declared “rich kid” in no uncertain terms, but the sneakers…. Yeah, the sneakers, battered and dirty, screamed “trouble.” Almost immediately, he frowned at the nametag and reached for the pencils in the caddie.
“Ah-ah,” Phil said quickly. “Leave the pencils alone. You don’t need them right now.” Tony pouted, but did as he was told.
The second table had four kids. He started with Sif Larsson, and so far, she was the most normal girl he had—long, straight dark hair, a sundress and a pair of flats festooned with rhinestones. She said thank you as well, but was more interested in talking to the other kids. Next to her was Bruce Banner, an average looking kid with short hair, if a bit on the thin side, wearing jeans and blue t-shirt. He’d been one of the quiet ones during orientation, and Phil was waiting to see if that was just his nature or if he’d come out of his shell. He said thank you softly and went back to talking to Sif.
Surprisingly, the next one at the table was Bucky Barnes. He was a big kid, not fat, but solid . Like Bruce, he was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, and the knees of his jeans showed grass stains that were probably permanent at this point. Phil hated to prejudge kids, but Bucky’s size and slightly belligerent set of his brows gave him pause. He didn’t thank Phil, but he did nod his head.
The last kid at the table was the one that actually worried Phil the most: Steve Rogers. Like Bucky was big, Steve was small, and Phil would’ve bet money that he had been a preemie. His blond hair was neatly cut, and he was clean , but his clothes…. They were too big, and worn looking. Definitely hand-me-downs, and since Steve was an only child, they hadn’t come from a sibling. His sneakers were even rattier than Tony’s. Out of all the kids, he was clearly the poorest. His mother, too, when they’d come for orientation, had worn older clothes, faded and slightly frayed at the hems. The looks of disdain from the other parents had been unmistakable. Phil frowned to himself as he set Steve’s tag on the table, genuinely worried about the boy’s welfare. Usually, forms for the free and reduced cost lunch program ended up in the trash given how affluent the suburb was, but Phil was going to put one in Steve’s backpack himself.
“Thank you very much, Mr. Coulson.” Steve’s words were very polite and precisely said, and he met Phil’s gaze with a disturbingly adult look of his own.
Phil nodded at him, and smiled. “You’re very welcome, Steve.”
For right then, he put his worries on the back burner and headed for the last table. First was the last girl, Natasha Romanoff—bright red hair, black t-shirt with Hello Kitty on it, stretchy jean shorts and sneakers. Perfectly normal for a kid. As he set the tag down, he got a closer look at her shirt and blinked. It wasn’t a Hello Kitty shirt. Instead of the white cat, the image was a skull with a little pink bow. Phil closed his eyes for a long moment. He would never understand some parents.
Moving on, he turned to the next boy, Clint Barton. Again, fairly normal-looking, short brown hair, olive green t-shirt, jeans and sneakers. Nothing about him warranted any special consideration at the moment, and Phil was hopeful that the quiet kids would help balance out the rambunctious ones.
The last kid at the table Phil had actually been warned about, but not for anything the boy had done. Phil had been cautioned about his parents , and that given how wealthy and involved in the community they were, it would be a good idea not to rock the boat. But for all of the potential havoc he could cause, Thor Fitzwilliam looked like a perfect angel sitting in his seat. And the term angel, Phil thought wryly, was rather apt. He had fair skin, bright blue eyes and long blond hair that just brushed the tops of his shoulders. (Phil wondered if his mother was one of those that refused to cut their kids’ hair.) Like Tony, he was dressed like a rich kid—blindingly white polo shirt, khaki shorts and loafers . And like Bucky, he was a big kid, and Phil hoped that his seemingly sunny disposition was real.
With all the nametags dispersed, and the kids starting to get antsy, Phil clapped his hands once to get their attention. “Good morning,” he said again, watching all the little heads turn in his direction, “and welcome to kindergarten. I got the chance to meet all of you last week, and in case you’ve forgotten my name, it’s Mr. Coulson. If you want, you can call me Mr. C. Before we get started with anything else, I want to go over your morning routine. Don’t worry, we’ll practice every day and you’ll get the hang of it.”
Phil walked them through what they would be doing when they entered. Jackets—when they would be eventually needed—would be hung on the coat hooks and hats and mittens would go in the cubbies above them. Then they would go to their seats, open their backpacks and check their folders. If they had any papers, they would take them out and leave them on their tables, and then wait for Phil to get started with their attendance, milk, and lunch count.
“In a few weeks,” he said, “when you come in, there will be worksheets on your tables. Once you’ve checked your folders, I’ll give you the directions and you’ll work on the papers until it’s time for circle.”
Peggy’s hand shot up in the air, and he called on her. “What do we do when we finish?”
“Well, in the beginning, I don’t think you’ll need to worry. But if you do finish early, I’ll give you a few choices. Maybe a fun sheet to color or let you look at books. Later in the year, you’ll get a chance to work with the manipulatives when you’re done.”
Walking over to the chart on the wall, he showed them where their milk and lunch choices would be displayed, and that when he called their name for attendance, they would come up, bring him any papers they had and their milk and lunch money—envelopes to order tickets would be going home today—make their choices by affixing their names to the appropriate column, bring their backpacks to put next to their coats, and then return to their seats.
“Let’s practice that now,” he said. “Please check your folders.”
Rustling and clattering and chattering filled the room as they unbuckled and unzipped their backpacks and wrestled their folders out. Most were the glossy ones with pictures of kittens and puppies, superheroes and cars, and Phil knew that a majority would be wrecked within the first month or so of school. The only exceptions were Steve’s and Bucky’s, who both had plain, mono-colored folders, the kind you could buy for a penny when they went on sale at the office supply stores. Phil made another mental note.
In short order, filled out forms were strewn across the tables, and Phil gave the kids a reminder to put the folders away, zip their backpacks and hang them on the back of their chairs for now. Then he gave them their hot and cold lunch choices, indicating the pictures, and milk choices, and began calling them one by one, starting with Bruce.
They needed reminders, frequently, as they always did. Phil knew without a doubt that he’d probably still be giving reminders in June. As it was, the next twenty minutes were spent in a litany of:
Bring me your papers first, then choose your lunch. No, if you have a lunch from home, choose “home lunch.” For milk, you can get chocolate, coffee, strawberry or plain. No, I don’t know if you’ll like that. Just choose one you know you like for today. If you have a juice box or water, choose “none.” If you don’t have money, you can charge, but check your backpack first to see if you have a lunch. Backpack!
Eventually, they’d gotten through everything, and all ten kids sat waiting, tables cleared and backpacks away. Phil glanced at the charts quickly, added up the totals and then entered them quickly into the computer. After hitting send, he took a deep breath, stood, and called them all to the rug so they could start circle.
“How’s your day going?”
Phil looked over at Maria and smiled. They were alone in the teacher’s room, their classes having their specialist now at the end of the day—Phil’s with Mr. Fandral for music and Maria’s with Mr. Hogun for art—and Phil was just sitting in a chair with his head tipped back. “Really well, actually. They seem to be a pretty good group. The first days always tends to be a little hectic. What about yours?”
“Pretty good as well, though I’m definitely going to have to move some seats.”
“Mm,” Phil agreed. “I’m going to leave mine where they are for now and see if they settle, but I can already tell I’m probably going to have to make some changes.”
Maria popped a k-cup in the Keurig machine and looked over at him with a raised eyebrow. He nodded, and when her cup was done brewing, she put in another for him. After fixing their cups, they sat across from each other at one of the tables and went over their plans. They taught the same things, in their own ways, and the classes were entirely self-contained, but they shared projects and activities. One of the ones they started with was apples, using different varieties to go over similarities and differences. And then, of course, letting the kids try them all and making a chart out of their favorites.
Phil looked down at his list. “Do you want to do the apple charts before or after the farm visit?”
“I like it better before,” she said. “I just think it leads better to tackle the fall material if we start with that.”
“All right,” he agreed. “I still have your apple template from last year and I can make copies on Friday and then do the tasting on Monday?”
“That works for me. During snack time, like usual?”
“Yeah. You bought the apples last year, right?”
“Yes, so this year it’s your turn.”
“Okay.” He jotted down a quick note to pick up a half dozen each of red delicious, yellow delicious and granny smith. “Think we should add Braeburns or Galas? They have that mix of color, and might be helpful for when we compare.”
“You’re just saying that because you like them better than the others,” Maria teased.
“Maybe,” he grinned back.
“Sure, why not? Just try to get some with a good mix of color.”
“I think I can manage that.”
They went over a few other things—permission slips for the field trip (which would need to be approved by the office, but as they’d used the same one for the last few years, it shouldn’t be an issue), whether they should bring their classes out to the playground together, and figuring out who had what worksheets.
They’d just finished agreeing the split the copying load when Phil glanced over at the clock. “Ah, back into the fray once more.”
“At least it’s the end of the day.”
“Very true. Now to make sure none of them get on the wrong bus.”
“ That’s always exciting.”
Back in the classroom, the kids were giving Mr. Fandral an enthusiastic goodbye, and he rolled his eyes at Phil. “Doom’s gonna love this group,” he murmured, turned to the kids couldn’t see him speaking.
“That bad, huh?”
“Nah, they weren’t that bad, just very…excitable.”
“No problems, then?”
“Nope. Aside from having to repeat everything fifty times, they were pretty good. No getting out of their seats constantly or anything.”
“Good. Well, thanks. Take it easy.”
Getting them settled after Fandral left took a little while, and Phil hurried to get them quieted down so he could go over dismissal procedures. Thor and Tony were his only parent pick-ups this year, and he got them situated first, checking their backpacks to make sure the papers he’d handed out earlier were there. He then explained to everyone that as soon as the intercom came on, they were to be silent . It would take a while for that to actually stick, but not stressing that hard line in the beginning was a bad idea.
He did have to shush them repeatedly, but thankfully they heard Thor and Tony’s names just fine, and he sent them on their way. Then he called the others up. He had them check the big school bus chart one at a time and find their names, making sure they were in the right place. Once they had checked, he showed them where they would be standing, their bus numbers written on cards and taped to the wall near the door, and lined them up, quickly establishing a rotating order of who would get to line up first each day.
Phil stayed with them up front, assuring them that even if they did miss their bus, there was a procedure in place to get them home safely. When each bus was called, he sent them down the hallway, watching as they joined other kids under the watchful eyes of the aides with dismissal duty.
There was an announcement that the last bus, nine, was running late, so Phil was left with just Bucky and Steve in the room. “You guys want to help me clean up?”
“Sure!” Bucky said eagerly, practically throwing his backpack off, Steve slipping his off a moment later.
“Okay. Steve, can you wipe the tables down?” Phil asked, pulling a few Lysol wipes free from the plastic container. “And when he’s done, can you put the chairs up, Bucky?”
Both boys nodded and set to work while Phil erased the white board, and reset all the things in the circle area for tomorrow. “Did you enjoy your first day?”
“How was music?”
“Mr. Fandral’s really fun!” Bucky said quickly, still levering chairs up onto the tables. Steve had finished, so Phil waved him over and let him out the days of the week and weather cards back where they belonged while he wrote out tomorrow’s question of the day.
“That’s good. How did you like it, Steve?”
The smaller boy shrugged. “It was all right.”
“Just all right? I guess music isn’t your favorite, huh?” Steve just shrugged again. “Well, tomorrow is art, so maybe you’ll like that better.”
“I like to draw,” Steve said quietly.
Bucky laughed behind them. “You love to draw. That’s all you ever want to do.”
Steve’s face turned red, and Phil could tell that he was embarrassed, so didn’t push the issue any further. “Well, that’s something to look forward to tomorrow then. Thank you for your help, boys.”
The intercom clicked on again, calling their bus, and the two hurried over to grab their bags. “Walk, walk,” Phil urged. “The bus isn’t going to leave without you.” Well, it could , but Phil wasn’t about to let something that traumatic happen to them on the first day.
Bucky tore out of the room, but Steve stopped in the doorway. “Goodbye, Mr. Coulson.”
“Goodbye, Steve. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
The boy nodded and dashed out the door behind his friend. Phil smiled as he grabbed his bag and swept his gaze over the room one last time. Everything looked good. He left the lights on for the custodians, and then waved to Jane as he passed her office. Once in his car, he enjoyed the quiet for a moment before starting the engine. It had been a good first day.
Chapter 2: One Day at a Time - 1
Phil gave the configuration the kids had seated themselves in two weeks before he began to make adjustments. There were a few obvious pairs he had to break up —Peggy and Pepper, who spent far too much time whispering together, and Clint and Natasha, who when combined seemed to be the dictionary definition of ‘devious.’ He stood in the classroom, dry erase board and marker held in his hands to mock up the new layout, pondering his options.
He didn’t want to split up Steve and Bucky. They were barely two weeks in, and he could tell that the smaller boy clung to his friend like a burr. Bucky seemed perfectly outgoing, but Steve wasn’t and Phil wanted to keep him at a full table of four kids, give him a chance to make friends with other kids. Maybe later he might separate the two, in order to foster some more independence for Steve, but for now, that was likely to be added stress the kid didn’t need.
He tentatively decided to switch Sif and Natasha. The two girls weren’t any problem in and of themselves, and he wanted to keep the even tempers each of them had while removing temptation. Natasha was a strong enough personality to compete with Bucky, hopefully without getting into trouble, and Sif was fairly mature, so perhaps it would rub off on Clint.
Then he hesitated over Peggy and Pepper. After a few moments’ thought, he switched Pepper and Bruce, more because he thought Bruce might be good next to Tony. Neither he or Peggy seemed to tolerate much foolishness, and if Tony didn’t get a reaction from his tablemates, it would likely temper his boisterousness.
Looking at his groups again, he frowned. That was the one big drawback with smaller classes. There was far less room to shuffle them around to find the right mix. There either wasn’t the right kinds of kids to put together, or there was no way to separate some the way he needed to. Or worse, a combination of both. Pursing his lips, he moved the name tags to match his new layout. He was reasonably confident this would work, unless some of the kids really started to change in personality as the year went on, which was always a possibility.
All right, he’d stick with this. There would be some grumbling on Monday when the kids came in, but hopefully no freakouts. As long as they all got along, it would be fine.
Phil checked the time on his phone and then slipped it back into his pocket. Another five minutes and it would be time to head in. He turned and walked the length of the walkway of the playground equipment again, visually tracking his kids as they ran around. The structure was a fort and it always made him feel like some sort of medieval soldier, walking back and forth on a parapet, keeping an eye on his charges.
Today had been a good day so far. No one was throwing rocks or trying to climb the slides backwards—the broken nose from his first year of teaching had made him especially vigilant about enforcing that rule. But of course, as soon as he finished that thought (and he really should have known better), there was a shout, followed by more angry yelling.
Phil whipped around, looking for the source of the commotion. It took him a moment to spot the small group of boys tussling on the ground and he hurried toward them, eschewing the small set of stairs to just jump down. “Boys! Boys!” he called, hoping to get their attention. Clint and Tony, not involved in the altercation and just watching at the edges, looked up and immediately took a few steps back as he approached, letting Phil get a good look at what was going on.
Thor was on the ground, and for a moment, Phil thought Bucky had put him there. The boy was certainly large enough. But as he reached down to sort them out, he realized that Bucky was actually pulling at Steve who was sitting on top of Thor. He nudged Bucky out of the way and, without hesitation, picked Steve up and pulled him off Thor. Steve struggled for a moment, but Phil snapped, “Stop that!” and he went still, staring sullenly at the ground when he was set down.
“Are you okay?” Phil asking, turning to Thor who was picking himself up off the ground. The boy nodded, face angry and confused. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah.” He pointed at Steve. “He pushed me!”
“You pushed me first!” Steve shot back hotly, his whole face red with anger.
“I did not!”
“Enough!” Phil overrode them both and glared at them in turns. “We will settle this inside. Boys and girls, time to line up!” he called. “Uh-uh,” he told Steve and Thor as they went to get in line with the others. “The two of you are with me.” They both pouted, but stayed at his sides while Phil led the class back inside and got them settled with white boards, markers, and instructions to practice the letters they’d learned so far.
“Steve, Thor, come with me please.”
He led them out into the hall, moving them back so the kids inside the classroom couldn’t see them, but so that he could still keep an eye on them. He crouched down, going to one knee for balance. “What happened?”
The both tried to start at once, but Phil held up a hand. “One at a time. Thor, you first.”
“He pushed me and I didn’t even do anything!”
“Yes, you did!”
“ Steve .” The boy shut his mouth, but Phil could see the quivering in his bottom lip. He sighed. This was always hard. Almost all of the time, these things were born from simple misunderstandings and most kids got over them quickly. But Phil had noticed that Steve seemed to have a hair-trigger and that little things could set him off. Still, this was the first time he’d ever acted physically aggressive. He turned his attention to the smaller boy.
“Why did you push Thor down?”
“Because he pushed me first.”
“No, I didn’t!” Phil threw Thor a quelling look and the boy quieted.
“Is it possible that you might have bumped into him, Thor?” From the look on his face, he was going to protest, and Phil quickly added, “On accident?”
“Maybe,” he replied stubbornly.
Phil turned to Steve. “Could he have bumped into you by accident?”
“No!” Phil just raised an eyebrow. “Maybe,” he parroted Thor, just as sullen.
“Accidents happen,” Phil said gently. “And when they do, we apologize for them. We know we don’t mean to hurt our friends and saying we’re sorry doesn’t mean we’re going to be in trouble. You need to apologize, Thor.”
“I’m sorry,” he muttered, looking at Phil.
“I’m not the one you bumped into. You don’t need to apologize to me.”
Thor turned to Steve, eyes down. “I’m sorry.”
“You’re not apologizing to his feet.”
Thor glared at him, but reluctantly turned to face Steve properly. Steve looked away. Phil resisted the urge to bang his head on the wall a few times. “Steve, we look at people when they’re talking to us.”
When Steve finally looked up at Thor, Thor quietly said, “I’m sorry.”
For a moment, Phil didn’t think Steve was going to respond. Then he softly mumbled, “It’s okay.”
Phil sighed in relief. “And Steve? We don’t push or hit people. If something happens, you need to come tell me. It’s never okay to hurt our friends. You need to apologize to Thor.”
“It’s all right.”
“Good. Thor, I want you to go back into the room. Your whiteboard and marker are at your seat.” The boy nodded and dashed back inside, the altercation already fading from his mind. Steve, however, was blinking rapidly, eyes bright, and Phil recognized the warning signs. He moved a bit further away from the door to shield him. “Are you okay?”
Steve nodded, but a tear slipped down his cheek and his chest hitched on a sob. Phil debated with himself for a moment before pulling the boy in close and letting him cry. “Shh,” he murmured. “It’s going to be all right. Calm down. Take a deep breath.” The thin chest rose and fell once, and Phil patted the shaking shoulders. “Again.”
Slowly, Phil got Steve calmed down. “Why are you upset?” he asked gently.
“I didn’t mean to,” Steve whispered, voice raw. “I just got so mad.”
Phil nodded. “We just have to make sure it doesn’t happen again, okay?” Steve nodded. “Now, go to the bathroom. Wash your face, blow your nose, get a drink. Come back when you’re feeling better, all right?”
Steve nodded again and Phil watched him walk down the hall and disappear into the boys’ room. Then he sighed and ran a hand down his face. He was going to need to talk to Nick about this. Normally he’d just let it slide, but he was almost certain this wouldn’t be the last time something happened. Steve was a good kid, one of the genuinely nice ones that he loved having. But something wasn’t right and he didn’t think it was Steve’s fault. If he needed help, he should get it.
He stood up and brushed the knee of his pants off before he went back into the room. “All right, guys, wipe your boards off. Time to put them away and do some math.” There was a chorus of groans, but they all did as they were told, coming up to put the boards and markers away as he called them table by table. Then he handed the first worksheet to Natasha (his paper passer for the week) and got them started on the day’s lesson.
Steve came back about ten minutes later, quiet and subdued, but definitely looking better. Phil just nodded at his seat. “We haven’t started the paper yet, Steve. Just follow along for now and you should be all set.”
The boy nodded and took the pencil Bucky handed him to write his name on the top of the page. Phil turned back to the blackboard where he was drawing groups to compare more than and less than and hoped that was the last bit of drama for the day.
“Mr. C! Mr. C! Mr. C!”
“Yes, Thor?” Phil asked, looking up from the sight word book he was creating as the template that the class would be using for the rest of the year. He’d stayed later after school today than he usually did and didn’t realize the boy was still here after getting picked up.
“Do you wanna meet my brother?”
“Your brother? Does he go to this school, too?”
“Yeah. He’s in pre-school though. His name’s Loki.”
“Well, then I’d love to meet your brother.” It was always a good idea to get a sneak peek at what he might be seeing in the next couple of years.
“Okay!” Thor tore out of the room, sneakers (which his parents had finally sent him to school in) slapping on the tile. He returned a moment later, dragging another boy in behind him by the arm.
Phil had expected a slightly smaller version of Thor, but the other boy was tiny compared to Thor, and paler, with shorter dark hair and wide, bright green eyes. Thor dragged him right up to Phil’s desk and announced proudly, “This is my brother!”
Phil knew that siblings could often look very different, but Thor and Loki looked nothing like each other, and his first thought was that maybe the boy was adopted. His second thought was to be ashamed of himself because it didn’t matter.
“Hello, Loki,” he said. Loki didn’t say anything at first, just tugged his wrist free of Thor’s grip.
Thor frowned at his brother. “Say hi, Loki.”
“He doesn’t have to if he doesn’t want to,” Phil said calmly. “So you’re in pre-school? Are you in Miss Smith’s class?” Loki nodded shyly and Phil smiled encouragingly. “Are you enjoying your year so far?”
“Yes,” Loki said softly, and his voice was unexpectedly grave.
“That’s good. Maybe I’ll have you in my class next year. Are you guys waiting for your mom?”
“Yeah, she’s talking to Principal Fury.”
“Well, do you want to look at some books while you wait for her? You could show your brother the library, Thor.”
“Okay!” Hand firmly clamped around Loki’s wrist once more, Thor dragged his brother over the racks of books, excitedly chattering about them and the other things around his room. Phil went back to sorting through the rhyming poems and selecting pictures to go with them when he heard the sound of a quiet voice reading. It was unfamiliar and he looked up. Thor was sprawled out over the circle area on his stomach, next to Loki who was sitting cross-legged next to him, a book open on his lap. He was the one reading and he was reading flawlessly, even though the book he had was one of the most difficult books Phil had out, The Stinky Cheese Man .
Phil sat back in his chair, listening, Loki’s voice carrying clearly through the empty room even though he wasn’t reading very loudly. He didn’t stumble or stutter or pause over any word, and from the natural inflections he added as he spoke, he was apparently a natural orator. It was...impressive, to say the least.
When Loki finished one story, Phil spoke up. “That was very, very good.”
Thor pushed himself up on his elbows. “Loki’s real smart!” he announced.
“I can tell.”
“Thor?” a woman’s voice called from the hall and both children turned toward it.
“Is that your mom?”
“Yeah. We’d better go before she gets mad. C’mon, Loki!” Thor urged, scrambling to his feet. Loki was slower to get up, carefully closing the book and returning it to its spot before following his brother. He stopped at the doorway and turned back.
“Thank you, Mr. Coulson.”
“You’re welcome. Have a good day.”
“You, too.” And he slipped out the door, footsteps much lighter than Thor’s had been. Phil smiled to himself as he got back to work. He never would have guessed the two were brothers, so different in appearance and temperament, but he supposed it took all kinds.
Chapter 3: Parent-Teacher Conferences
After wishing Maria good luck, Phil headed into his own classroom. Parent-Teacher conferences always made for a hectic day. He was lucky enough that the parents who’d returned forms had all requested their meetings tonight. That meant tomorrow, when other teachers had to still meet with parents, he could concentrate on getting some stuff done. There were some lesson plans to be typed up and submitted for the next week, and that was always easier to do when he was still in the classroom.
He looked down at the schedule in his folder. He’d had eight parents send back requests for meeting times, which was a pretty good response. Only Clint and Bruce had failed to bring back forms, even though Phil had sent them home several times. It was a shame, but he couldn’t force parents to come in to see him.
While he waited for the official start, he went over his notes again. There wasn’t much in the way of grades to go over, mostly his observations of how they were handling the material given to them. During these conferences, he tended to focus more on the social aspect of each child’s education —how they were fitting in, if they were making friends, how they were handling the adjustment and if there were any issues.
He looked at the clock, saw that it was two minutes before the official start of the evening, and decided that was close enough. A quick look at the list and then Phil went to the doorway. “Mr. and Mrs. Romanoff?”
A couple stood up, and Phil quickly shook their hands before letting them inside. “Please, sit,” he said, gesturing to the chairs in front of the table he had set his materials up on. “Before we get started, did you have any questions for me?”
Natasha’s parents exchanged a quick look before her father spoke. In heavily accented English, he said, “We just want to make sure Natasha is being a good girl.”
Phil smiled. “Natasha’s fine. She likes to push, but she listens when she’s told to stop, and is generally very polite and well-mannered.”
Her mother frowned. “We tell her to be good. You should not have to tell her again.”
“Mrs. Romanoff...” Phil stopped for a moment to gather his thoughts. It was often harder to deal with parents from another culture who were used to raising their children a certain way and not understanding or accepting when their kids turned out more “American” than they wanted. “What Natasha is doing is perfectly normal for a child her age. A lot of times, they use school as an opportunity to start figuring out who they are. They test boundaries, they push until you push back, and that’s how they learn what’s acceptable and what isn’t. That’s all Natasha is doing. She’s not bad for it. If her behavior were truly disruptive, I would be the first to bring those concerns to you, but she’s not.”
The woman nodded slowly, the frown between her brows smoothing out. “She...makes friends, yes? There are not many children around us and we worry.”
Phil nodded. “She gets along very well with all the kids. She seems particularly close to one of the boys and they seem to be very good friends.”
“Boy?” her father spoke up. “Not the girls?”
“Oh, no, no, she’s friends with the girls, too. Just that her best friend happens to be a boy. Happens all the time.”
He nodded, but didn’t look entirely happy, so Phil quickly steered the conversation in a different direction. “Have you been going over the papers she’s been bringing home?” They nodded. “Good. I always tell parents that extra reinforcement at home can’t hurt, so if you ever want more writing papers, let me know. It would also be a good idea to read with her if you have the time.”
“We don’t have many books...” her mother began, and Phil shook his head gently.
“We’re going to start going to the library soon. The kids go every Wednesday and they get to take out two books. You can practice with her using those. And if you wanted, you can take her to the public library, too. They run a lot of programs there, for kids and parents.”
Mrs. Romanoff tilted her head. “Perhaps. We will think about it. She has no problems?”
“Not that I’ve noticed, no. I mean, obviously, the work will get harder as the year goes on, but if she starts to encounter any real difficulties, you’ll hear from me.”
“That is good to know.” Her father stood. “Thank you, Mr. Coulson.”
Phil blinked and rose hastily to shake their hands, taken off-guard by the abrupt end to the meeting. For a moment, he wondered if he’d done something wrong, but Natasha’s parents both wished him well and didn’t seem upset. Well, all right. Sometimes, parents were only really concerned about behavior this early in the years. He glanced down for the next names, and when he escorted the Romanoffs out, called for the Carters.
Mr. and Mrs. Carter immediately skipped past the chit-chat. “Let’s get down to brass tacks,” her father said. “How is Peggy doing?”
“Peggy’s doing fine.”
“No problem with her academics?”
Phil hesitated again, for an entirely different reason that he did with Natasha’s parents. “Mr. Carter, believe me when I say that academics is something that’s very important to every educator here. But you have to realize that this is still kindergarten. What these children are learning this year goes far beyond simple learning. Yes, we will focus on the core skills Peggy is going to need for the rest of her school career, but that isn’t our only concern.”
Mr. Carter frowned and leaned forward. “I want my daughter to be challenged. I don’t want her coasting.”
And I can understand that, but...please understand that she’s five . She will have the rest of her life to be challenged. Let her be just a kid for this year.”
Peggy’s father frowned and opened his mouth, but her mother placed her hand on his arm and tightened it. “Thank you, Mr. Coulson,” she said, giving her husband a warning look that was all too clear. “Could you please tell us a little bit about what they will be doing throughout the year?”
“Of course.” Phil spent the last ten minutes of the conference giving Peggy’s parents as detailed of an outline as he could, making sure to hit all the core skills and concepts the students would be learning throughout the year. Her father seemed slightly mollified as he went into more detail, but Phil was irked by the man. Why couldn’t parents just let kids be kids? They weren’t just tiny adults. It was one thing to want them to do well, another to try and force them to be something they weren’t ready to be yet.
At least Peggy’s mother seemed to have her head on straight. She gave Phil an exasperated look as he showed them to the door, one that bespoke of much understanding of how her husband’s behavior came off.
The next person was Bruce’s mother. She apologized for her husband’s absence, citing an emergency at work that needed his immediate attention. She listened politely to Phil as he gave an overview of how Bruce was doing —just fine as it happened —and gave her a shorter version of the rundown he’d given to Peggy’s parents.
“Does he get along with the others?” Mrs. Banner asked.
“Yes. He and Tony seem to get along rather well.”
“Yes, Bruce has mentioned him a few times. I was just concerned because Bruce has a bit of a temper on him.”
“Really?” Phil’s eyebrows went up. “I haven’t noticed anything like that.”
“We’ve been working on it,” she said. “Talking about appropriate ways to handle a situation when he’s upset.”
“Well, it seems to be working. I wouldn’t have known if you hadn’t told me.”
“That’s really good to know. Thank you for telling me. Have a good night.”
He went to the door again. “Mr. and Mrs. Rogers?” The parents in the hallway looked around at each other, but no one got up. Phil frowned. “Hm, well, if they’re not here, I suppose I can just take who’s next. Mr. and Mrs. Fitzwilliam?”
The couple that rose had Phil squaring his shoulders. These were the types of parents his students usually had —wealthy and powerful. Both of Thor’s parents were tall and blond, dressed in sleek clothes that probably cost more than Phil made in a couple months. They wasted no time, sitting silently and staring at Phil as he went over the school year in detail, asking an occasional question for more explanation.
It bothered Phil that they didn’t ask about Thor himself, focused on the schooling itself in a different —and worse, in his opinion —way than Peggy’s father had. He did his best to interject as many personal details of Thor’s days as he could, but none of his comments seemed to hook Thor’s parents into asking any questions. When their time was up, they stood, thanked him, and went on their way. Phil sighed, rubbed his eyes tiredly, and looked down at the next name. Stark.
Standing in the doorway again, Phil eyed the parents in the hall, and said cautiously, “Mr. and Mrs. Stark?” He remembered them from orientation, and didn’t see them now, but he had to ask anyway. Instead of the Starks, however, a older gentleman in a neat, dark suit stood and came forward. “And you are...?”
“Jarvis, Mr. Coulson,” the man replied in a quiet, British-accented voice. “Might we speak inside your classroom?”
“Of course.” Phil hid his frown and held the door for the man, making sure it was shut completely before speaking again.
“I realize this is highly unusual,” Jarvis said, immediately, and his tone was very polite and faintly apologetic. “Unfortunately, the Starks were called away on...business, and could no longer attend their meeting tonight. I came in their stead.”
“And who are you to Mr. and Mrs. Stark?”
“I am the butler, sir. I came to see how young Master Tony is doing.”
That gave Phil pause, for two reasons. One, he’d never had the occasion to talk to one of his students’ butlers before, and two, he wasn’t sure what he was supposed to say in response to the fact that his student’s parents hadn’t come, but the butler had.
“I...uh, Jarvis, listen. Thank you for coming in, but I can’t actually discuss anything with you, as you aren’t Tony’s parent or guardian.”
“That’s quite all right, sir. I didn’t really expect as much. It’s just that it would be good to know that the little master isn’t having any problems.”
Phil sighed and raked a hand through his hair, weighing his options. “Tony’s fine. A little....” He searched for a way to put it delicately.
“We at the Stark household are well aware of Master Tony’s boundless energy and predilection for using his intellect for mischief.”
With a laugh, Phil nodded. “That just about describes him. But he really is fine, perfectly normal for his age. I wish I could give you more details, but....”
“Quite all right, Mr. Coulson. As long as I know that he’s not having any real problems.”
“Then I shall bid you a good night, Mr. Coulson. It was a pleasure to meet you.” Jarvis stuck out a hand and shook Coulson’s firmly. “Good night.”
The last two conferences were with Sif’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Larsson, and Pepper’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Potts. Both meetings went very well. They were Phil’s very favorite kind of parents. They were engaged and invested in their daughters’ entire experience, academic as well as social, asking good question about their girls —which Phil was able to answer cheerfully and honestly, including telling Pepper’s parents that she should probably come in with less jewelry to play with. Mrs. Potts had laughed ruefully when Phil handed over the small pile he’d confiscated and promised to cut down on what Pepper left the house with.
Once Pepper’s parents had left, Phil sat back and sighed. The night hadn’t gone badly, but he was very disappointed that Steve’s parents hadn’t shown. Of all the parents, they were the ones he most wanted to talk to. He pushed back his chair, beginning to gather up his things, when there was a tentative knock at the door. He looked up, blinking in surprise at the sight of Steve’s mother on the other side. Well, better late than never. He hurried over to open and hold the door.
Mrs. Rogers turned away as Phil opened the door, calling down the hallway for her husband to hurry.
“I’m coming,” Phil heard a man growl. “Stop nagging me. I didn’t want to be here in the first place and I’ll damn well take however long I want to get there.” Steve’s mother winced and looked at Phil pleadingly. He gave a small nod to indicate that he understood and moved back away from the door, not wanting to antagonize Steve’s father any more by blocking the doorway.
After another minute, Steve’s father came in, swearing under his breath and dropping heavily into one of the seats. “Well, I’m here. Let’s get this over with.”
“Right.” Phil gave the man a quick look, taking in the battered fatigues he wore, the short cut hair and haggard face, and cleared his throat. “I’m very glad you could make it. There were a few things I wanted to talk to you about.”
“What?” Steve’s father snapped. “He been causing trouble? I’ll tan his hide if he is.”
“Joe, please,” Steve’s mother pleaded. “Let’s just hear what he has to say.”
“Shut it, Winny. This was your idea.”
Phil, growing increasingly uncomfortable with the situation, broke in to try and defuse the situation. “Why don’t we just take a moment to calm down?”
“Why don’t you just tell me what the hell you have to say about my son?”
Phil glared at the man, refusing to be cowed by the angry and belligerent attitude. It did, however, make him hesitate over what he was going to say, now afraid that anything he said might be taken out of Steve at home. “I wanted to say,” he began carefully, “that Steve is a good kid. He’s a genuinely nice boy, and while he’s fine academically, I do have some concerns.”
“I am concerned that Steve seems prone to...anger issues. It hasn’t become a problem yet, but I think it might be a good idea to set up a schedule where he can see the school adjustment counselor a couple of times a week.”
Mr. Rogers pushed back his chair and leaned forward into Phil’s space all at the same time. Phil wasn’t surprised by the faint scent of alcohol that drifted across the space toward him. “You sayin’ my kid needs to see a shrink? Because he doesn’t need any of that mumbo-jumbo bullshit.”
Taking a deep breath to calm himself, telling himself repeatedly that getting angry would only make things worse, Phil shook his head. “Sometimes, if things are rough at home, it can help for a child to have an adult to confide in. Dr. Selvig is very good with kids. I would like to see Steve get in some time with him.”
“You tryin’ to tell me how to run my household? Who the hell do you think you are?”
“Mr. Rogers, please, there’s no need to use that language.”
“I’ll use whatever the fuck langauge I want. Land of the free, home of the brave and all that shit. I earned my right to live my life without anyone sticking their nose into it, and I’ll be damned if I let you start now.” He shoved completely away from the table and stood. “My kid causes trouble, you tell me and I’ll take care of it. Otherwise, keep your advice to your own damn self. I’ll be in the truck, Winny. Don’t take too long.” Then he turned on his heel and stalked out the door. Phil watched him go, and then turned back to Mrs. Rogers, who was wiping an eye with the heel of her hand.
“I’m sorry. He wasn’t always like this,” she whispered.
“Mrs. Rogers.” Phil reached across the table and gently laid his hand over hers. “I need to know if your husband is harming you or your son.”
“Harming?” Her eyes widened. “You mean hitting him? No. No, he’s not. He doesn’t. He wouldn’t.”
“Mrs. Rogers —”
“No, please believe me. Joe, he...he used to be so different, but something happened to him in Afghanistan. He was gone for so long, and each time he came back, the man I married was harder and harder to find. He was better for awhile when Steve was born, but it didn’t last. The doctors...the doctors said that his behavior if due to brain trauma, and I know he’s angry, but I swear, he would never hurt Steve. He would die before he laid a hand on him.”
Phil closed his eyes and tightened his hand on hers. “I haven’t seen any evidence on Steve, so I’ll take you at your word for now. But please be aware that by law I have to report any signs of abuse that I see.”
“Please, I swear, he doesn’t.”
“All right, all right,” he soothed her. “But my point still stands. Steve needs to see someone and it needs to be soon. Whatever’s going on at home is affecting him and without any intervention it’s just going to get worse.”
She nodded. “I know. I know. I just didn’t know where to go.”
“We can help, I promise you. We can get Steve a referral and rush his paperwork through so that he gets in to see Dr. Selvig as soon as possible. You need to call the school and get the ball rolling on this. Tomorrow .”
Mrs. Rogers nodded shakily. “I don’t know how to tell Joe.”
“Don’t,” Phil said bluntly, knowing that telling her this could cost him. “You sign the paperwork, you set it all up. If the time comes that his input is needed, Steve will already be in the system, and once he’s in, it’ll be almost impossible for your husband to put a stop to it.”
“I can...I can do that.”
“It really will help Steve.”
She nodded again, looking scared and tired and so damn young that Phil felt his heart lurch.. “Thank you. For caring.”
“I just want what’s best for you. There are also family counseling sessions that —” But Mrs. Rogers was already shaking her head.
“Joe will never go. They tried to get him to see someone after he came home, but he refused. He blamed them for being the ones to say that he couldn’t go back, that he was a liability in the field and to his unit, his brothers.”
“Then look into it for you. You have an awesome kid, Mrs. Rogers. He doesn’t deserve to be punished for something he didn’t do.”
“I know.” She grabbed a tissue from a nearby box and blotted at her eyes. “I know. Steve’s a good boy and he tries so hard, and he just wants his father to love him.”
Phil smiled sadly. “I know. I should let you go. Please, don’t forget to call. For Steve’s sake.”
“I won’t.” She clutched at his hand. “I won’t.”
He watched her go and then slowly lowered his face into his hands, feeling unbelievable wrung out. As angry as he was at Steve’s father, he couldn’t be blamed for brain injuries and what was likely PTSD. Nor could he blame Steve’s mother for trying to keep what was left of her family together. It sure explained a lot about why Steve had been so tense and depressed all the time.
In the morning, he would come in early and lay out what had happened for Nick. He needed to cover his bases, and hopefully get things going on Steve’s paperwork. And while he packed up, he prayed to every god he knew that Steve’s mother was right about her husband not laying a hand on their son.
Chapter 4: Halloween
“You ready for this?” Phil asked Maria as they stood in the hallway, waiting for their classes to come in from outside.
“Oh, God,” she hissed. “I cannot even believe I let you talk me into this.”
“I didn’t talk you into it so much as you lost a bet, Maria.” She glared at him and he smiled innocently. “The children will be in soon. Smile, Belle .”
“I hate you so much,” came the whispered retort as Maria fixed a pleasant grin onto her face as the kids started walking in.
One of the benefits of teaching kindergarten—or drawbacks, depending on who you asked—was that kindergarten students got to wear their costumes all day, while the older grades could only change into them in the afternoon when they had their parties. That meant the kids could enjoy the fun of dressing up all day. Phil had to admit privately that he thought it was a blast. They were always so enthusiastic in the way only the very young could be, and though he’d deny it, he liked the chance to be a little silly himself and dress up as well.
Though, he reflected, he tried to keep his outfits fairly simple. It must be hard to teach in a bright yellow gown like Maria would have to today.
The hallway was a riot of color and sound as the kids rushed in, excited babble filling the air along with the assorted clacking and banging noises their costumes made. As Maria’s students entered into her room, he got his first look at his class and couldn’t resist the wide grin that crossed his face. Phil stepped back, answering their greetings and ushered them inside. It was going to take them an extra long time to get settled this morning and he wasn’t about to answer the inevitable questions about what he thought about their costumes in the hallway.
By the time their coats were hung, backpacks put away, and lunches and milk chosen, close to an hour had passed, something that Phil would never allow to happen on a normal day. His students were too busy explaining who they were to their friends to pay attention. Again, another thing that would normally irk him, but today came as a blessing, because in addition to being Halloween, it was also one of the school's designated Green Days. They weren’t supposed to use any paper at all, so teachers had to come up with lessons and activities that used as little as possible.
Phil decided to start off with their circle routine and then show and tell, where each child could explain to everyone what they were wearing. He sent the attendance and lunch count to the office from his computer and turned to call them to order, only to find Thor standing right next to his chair.
“Thor, you need to be sitting right now. You know you’re not supposed to just get out of your seat unless it’s an emergency. Is it an emergency?”
Thor bit his lip. “Sorta.”
“Things aren’t ‘sort of’ an emergency. You need to go have a seat.”
“But I wanna show my costume!”
Phil raised an eyebrow. “I know. Everyone wants to show their costume and we can’t get started until we’re all ready.”
“Yeah, but, I can’t show my costume without my brother!”
“I think you can, Thor.”
“No, I can’t. Our costumes go together. We have to show them off together. Can he come in here with me?”
“I’m sorry, but Loki’s in preschool. This isn’t his class. Maybe when we have our party he can come visit for a bit.”
“But I want him here.”
“I know you do, but we can’t just bring other people into class because we want to. What about Clint? He can’t have his brother Barney in here. Is that fair to him if we let Loki join us?”
Thor’s face fell, crestfallen, and his lower lip trembled slightly. Oh, God, this was not a good way to start off a day like today. Phil scrubbed a hand across his freshly cut hair. Loki was only a year younger than his kids, and by all accounts was extremely well-behaved. Maybe....
“Go have a seat, Thor. Give me a minute.”
Thor made his way back to his table with the mumbled “okay” and Phil made a decision. He really should hold his ground on this. There were rules for a reason. But, honestly, it was Halloween . It’s not like anyone under the age of seven was going to be doing any learning anyway.
Opening the door that connected his room to Maria’s, Phil popped his head in. “Miss Hill? Would you mind watching my class for a minute?”
“Of course not.” She crossed over to the doorway, full skirts swishing, and Phil quickly stifled a laugh. Hurrying away before she could plant one of her glittery high heels in his foot, he went across the hall to the preschool classroom. He knocked quickly, but given the organized chaos the room usually was, he didn’t bother waiting for a reply before pushing it open.
Almost immediately, he had to dodge a bumblebee chasing a cat, and called, “Miss Lewis?” pitching his voice to be heard.
“Oh, Mr. Couslon,” she said, hurrying over, pushing a strand of curly black hair behind her ear and adjusting the wide red cowboy hat that went with her Jessie costume. “Can I help you?”
“Nice chaps,” he commented dryly. She grinned. “Actually, I was wondering if I could borrow a student of yours.”
“Loki?” she asked without hesitation. “Yeah, he’s been asking all morning if he could go see Thor. Something about his brother doing his costume wrong or something.”
“So you don’t mind?”
“Nah, take him. Feel free to keep him for the day if you want.”
“I hardly think that’ll be necessary.”
“Honestly, Phil, you’re gonna be watching movies, having a party and playing all day. I think he can handle it and I don’t mind. If he gets to be a handful, send him back.”
“No problem.” She turned back to the room. “Loki!”
The boy came scurrying over, nearly tripping over the hem of the long robe he wore. “Yes, Miss Lewis?”
“Go get your your lunchbox and jacket. Mr. Coulson said you could go to his class for today.”
A wide smile lit up Loki’s face. “Thank you!” he said eagerly and raced for the rows of cubbies, reaching up on tiptoe to grab his lunchbox. With it safely clutched in his hands, he ran back and promptly tripped. With a quick, deft hand that spoke of much experience, Darcy snagged him by the back of his clothing and prevented him from face-planting into a table.
“You okay?” she asked quickly.
“Yes. Thank you.”
“This is why we don’t run, all right?”
“Yes, Miss Lewis.”
She laughed. “Okay, you. Go have fun. I’ll see you for dismissal.”
He nodded happily. “Bye!”
Phil escorted Loki back to his classroom, holding to door open for the boy who was promptly swarmed by his brother and the rest of the kids. Any new arrival into the room was subject to their inquisitiveness, little brothers not excluded. Phil raised his voice to be heard over their chatter. “Everyone, have a seat on the rug. We’ll do introductions as soon as you’re all settled.”
They hurried over to their spots, Thor dragging Loki down next to him. When they were finally quiet, Phil said, “Boys and girls, this is Loki, Thor’s little brother. He’s going to be spending the day with us. Can you say hi to him?”
There was a chorus of “hi”s and “hello”s, and Phil let them introduce themselves one at a time. When they were done and seated again, he moved onto the circle routine, promising again that they could show off their costumes as soon as they were finished. Not surprisingly, they managed to get through the calendar and weather, counting, and the pledge in record time.
“Okay,” he said, “now we can show off our costumes. Natasha, would you like to come up and tell us who you are?”
She nodded and tugged her cowl up over her hair and face as she stood in front of the semicircle of her classmates. “I’m a ninja,” she said, voice slightly muffled by the black fabric.
“Nifty,” Phil said, after letting her turn and show off all the parts of her costume. “You like ninjas a lot, then?”
“Yeah. I’m gonna be one when I grow up.”
“Nice. Where did you get your costume?”
“My mom made it for me. And my dad made me a katana, but they said I couldn’t bring it to school.”
“Well, that was smart of them. We’re not supposed to bring things like that to school. Are you going trick-or-treating tonight?”
She nodded. “Yeah. My dad’s gonna take me.”
“That sounds like it’s going to be a lot of fun. Thank you for sharing. Do you want to choose a friend to come up next?”
“Clint,” she said without hesitation, and the boy jumped to his feet. His brown leggings and green tunic really needed no explanation, but Phil asked the appropriate questions, and tried not to cradle his head in his hands when Clint proudly announced that he had a real bow and arrows at home, but he couldn’t quite hit squirrels yet, and wondered if he needed to call Clint’s parents.
“Thank you, Clint,” Phil said firmly when he’d finished, neatly preventing the conversation from descending further into the topic of squirrel hunting. “Choose a friend please.”
Clint eyed the kids and then said, “Pepper.”
She beamed and flounced into his place. “I’m Cinderella!” she announced, smoothing her pale blue gown and adjusting the tiara on her head.
“Is she your favorite princess?”
“And did your mom make your costume?”
She looked scandalized. “No! She ordered it on the internet. And my shoes. And my crown. Isn’t it pretty?”
“It’s lovely. You make a very pretty princess.” Pepper beamed at him. “Are you going trick-or-treating?”
“No. We’re having a costume party with all the girls from my dance class. Peggy’s coming!”
“That sounds pretty awesome. I hope you have a good time. Can you please choose another friend?”
Naturally. Peggy bounded to her feet, smoothing the green-blue fabric of her costume as she stood next to Phil’s seat, toy dragon clutched under her arm. “And you are?”
“Very nice. Is that your favorite Disney movie?”
Peggy tilted her head, face scrunched up as she considered it. “One of them,” she finally said. “I like that she saves everyone even when they thought she couldn’t because she was a girl.” Then she held up the dragon. “This is Mushu!”
Phil smothered a laugh. “He’s cute. So you’re going to Pepper’s party?”
“Uh-huh! It’s going to be fun!”
“I can’t wait to hear about it. Can you pick a friend, please?”
Usually Phil could tell what the kids were dressed up as. There were times he couldn’t, like when a new show had just become popular and the adults hadn’t caught up to the popularity. But Phil couldn’t quite tell if the armor Sif was wearing was from a show, or was just a costume without any deeper meaning.
“And what are you?”
“I’m a knight!”
“Girls can’t be knights!” Thor protested from his spot on the carpet.
“Can too!” Sif shot back.
“All right, enough,” Phil interjected quickly. “Thor, there’s no reason Sif can’t be a knight.”
“Yes, there is. Only boys are knights.”
Thinking quickly, Phil grabbed for the first idea that popped into his head. “That’s not quite true, you know. Sif could be a valkyrie; they were knights and they were only women.”
Thor accepted this information dubiously and Sif stuck her tongue out at him. “Be nice,” Phil said sternly. “And I think it’s lovely armor, Sif.”
“Pick a friend, please.”
Sif eyed the remained choices dubiously and then said, “Tony.”
“All right. Tony, come on up. Whoa, slow down,” he cautioned as Tony tripped slightly in his haste. He reached a hand to steady the boy and then eyed Tony’s white lab coat. “And what are you, Tony?”
“I’m a mad scientist! I create horrible monsters like Frankenstein!”
Phil blinked. Tony was far, far too excited about that and it couldn’t be good. “I see. Is it fun?”
“Yeah. Wanna hear me laugh?” Without waiting for an answer, he raised his hands in front of him, palms up, fingers curled into claws. “Mwuahahahahahahahahahahahaha!” he boomed out, causing all the kids to immediately start laughing. It was, Phil admitted, an uncannily good imitation of classic TV and movie villains.
“Okay, Tony, thank you.”
“Oh, and Dummy’s gonna come with me trick-or-treating and I’m going to paint him green and Dad made him a collar with those little bolts on it like the real Frankenstein.”
“Paint him green?” Phil’s eyebrows rose.
“Yeah. Mom says it’s okay.”
“I see. Well, you might want to have your parents make sure that your parents check the paint just in case. You wouldn’t want Dummy to get sick.”
“It’s okay. I heard Dad telling Mom that it was not toxkick and that Dummy could lick it off later.”
“Non-toxic,” Phil corrected. “Well, just check to make sure, all right? It’ll make me feel better.”
Tony shrugged. “Okay. Can I pick someone now?”
Bruce hopped to his feet. “Can I go get my hat for this part?”
“Yes, as long as you take it off again after.”
“Okay.” Bruce hurried over to the cubbies, stretching up on his tiptoes to reach his hat and putting it on before coming back to the circle area.
“Welcome, Dr. Jones,” Phil said, grinning, when Bruce all set.
Bruce beamed back at him. “Thanks!”
“I really like your costume.” And Phil did. It was simple enough, white button down shirt and khaki pants, but the hat and the satchel made it obvious who Bruce was. “And I’m glad you didn’t bring your whip.”
“Yeah, Mom said that I couldn’t.”
“Your mom is a very smart lady. What are you going to do tonight? Going trick-or-treating?”
“Yeah. I think I’m going with Tony.”
“That sounds like fun. I hope you guys have a good time. Can you pick a friend?”
Bruce looked at the rest of the kids, who were getting fairly impatient by this point, and had their hands frantically waving in the air. “Thor.”
Thor scrambled to his feet, dragging Loki behind him. He puffed out his chest proudly. “ I’m a knight,” he said, shooting a challenging look at Sif.
“Thor, drop it or you’re sitting down.”
“Okay.” He ducked his head for a moment, adjusting the plastic chest plate he wore. “I can fight real good, and Loki is a wizard! He does magic!”
“I’m not a wizard,” Loki said. “I’m Merlin and you’re King Arthur, not a knight.”
“Oh, yeah,” Thor said and reached up to pat his head, looking disappointed. “My crown is at home. Dad took it away because I was using it like a frisbee.”
“You can bring it with you when you go out tonight,” Phil reassured him. “And King Arthur? That’s very impressive.” Then he turned to Loki. “Do you have wizard hat to wear later?”
Loki shook his head. “No. But I have a staff. It lights up when I do magic.”
“Does it? That’s really neat. Do you do a lot of magic?”
“Yes. I’m very good at it.”
“I can imagine. Could you choose someone else, please?” Loki looked around for a moment, and then pointed to Steve.
Steve came forward shyly and ducked his head down. “And what are you, Steve?”
The boy paused a moment before he looked up at Coulson with painfully aware blue eyes. “I’m a soldier, like my dad,” he said quietly, as if he could be anything else, the large camouflage jacket nearly swallowing him whole and the hat falling down over his eyes and ears. His pants, printed in the same camouflage pattern, fit because they were child-sized, and worn and battered work boots completed the outfit.
Phil weighed his options for a moment. It was impossible to dismiss his meeting with Steve’s parents from his mind, and after meeting his father, it was hard to look at the child, know what he went through, and just accept it. He forced a smile. “That’s really nice of you. Your dad must be proud.”
Steve shrugged, pushing the sleeves back up over his hands, and went back to staring at the tips of his boots. There were few times that Phil truly felt sorry for his students. In this area, most came from upper middle class and well-to-to families. There were always a few the poorer end of the spectrum, but rarely ones that faced the kind of hardship Steve did.
It made Phil want to hug the kid, tell him is was okay, and then do whatever he could to make sure it was. Instead, he reached out, placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder and gave him a light squeeze. “I think it’s great. Do you want to choose a friend?”
“Bucky.” The name tumbled from his lips and Phil nodded Steve back to his spot on the rug while waving Bucky to come up.
He gave Bucky a moment to tug the cowl up over this head, obscuring the top half of his face with the black material, and to adjust the pointed ears of the costume before asking, “And who are you?”
Bucky cleared his throat, lowered his voice to a growl, and said, “I’m the goddamned Batman.”
The girls immediately squealed and began telling Phil —as if he hadn’t been sitting right there —that Bucky had said a bad word, while the boys laughed and Tony crowed, “That was awesome!”
Rarely did Phil get loud and angry, but when he did, it was always enough to quell whatever commotion was going on. “I heard what Bucky said, thank you, it will be taken care of. And unless you want to go back to your seats and do work right now —and no, I don’t care if it’s Green Day, Peggy, I’m sure Principal Fury won’t mind,” he said, quickly cutting off the girl when she had been about to protest. “Now, if you don’t want to go back to your seats and do work, you will calm down and let me handle this later.” He turned to Bucky. “Sit down.”
Phil blew a long breath out and shot a quick look at the clock. Another half an hour and he could start the arts and crafts project with them —making spider webs with chalk on black construction paper and then adding purple foam spiders —but for now he needed to keep them relatively entertained. Stories it would be, then. He turned in his chair, grabbing the small stack of Halloween books off the table next to him and sorted through them quickly, picking his favorite one, Bats at the Library.
Between that story and the next one he read, drawing them out with voices and actions, he managed to eat up another half hour of time.
Phil cleared his throat. “All right, boys and girls. Back to your seats, we’re going to do a Halloween project for you to take home. Loki, you can sit at Thor’s table.”
“What are you, Mr. Couson? You never told us,” Sif piped up as they headed back to their seats.
Deftly, Phil pulled a pair of sunglasses from the pocket on the inside of his suit jacket, slipped them on. From another pocket, he retrieved the modified, pen-like laser pointer. “Agent C,” he said gravely. “Men In Black.”
The kids laughed, and Phil got several compliments, which he accepted without cracking a smile. He hushed them and waited until they were settled before asking Pepper to hand out the construction paper and then the chalk. Then, going slowly and keeping a firm eye on them, he began to model what the spiderweb should look like. When they had the hang of it, he let them work, going around the room, checking and helping as needed.
He paused by Steve, watching the boy painstaking draw the lines of the web, brow furrowed intensely in concentration. The boy had an uncanny knack for capturing the little things in whatever he drew. Unlike Thor’s web, which couldn’t have caught an Atlas moth, or Tony’s, who had whipped out a protractor from somewhere and was drawing a web which was so “perfect” as to be completely unrealistic, Steve’s was flawed —lines too close together or broken in some places, holes that varied in size. It wasn’t neat and pretty, but it did look like nearly every actual spider web that Phil had ever seen.
“That’s really great, Steve. You’re very good at this.”
Steve shrugged again, an action Phil got in response to a lot of things, but he was beginning to recognize the small tells that meant the difference between Steve being pleased and Steve being upset. And this time, the little smile on his face was a good sign.
“Thank you, Mr. Coulson.”
“Maybe later, if we have some extra time, you could make another, if you want.”
Steve blinked, surprised, and then grinned. “Could I use a bigger sheet of paper?”
“I’ll see what I have,” Phil agreed easily. “Keep up the good work.” Steve nodded and went back to drawing his lines.
Forty minutes later, with glue and glitter applied to the webs and set off the side to dry —and Phil looking mournfully at the tables he was going to have to scrub again —foam spiders assembled and also set aside to dry, he decided it was time to take them outside to run around for a while before lunch. It was a nice day, maybe one of the last before the weather truly began to turn nasty, and he figured they could do with burning off some of the energy and excitement they had bottled inside. He carefully helped the ones who needed to take their costumes off, got them bundled up in the jackets, and sent them outside to run amok on the playground.
When they came in, cheeks flushed and winded, Phil herded them toward the cafeteria. Maria had duty today and she waved him off as soon as his kids trooped through the doors. Phil only swung into the teacher’s lounge long enough to grab his sandwich from the fridge, make a quick cup of coffee, and then he headed for the art room. It took him a few minutes to find what he was looking for —a roll of black butcher’s paper that teachers most commonly used as the background for their bulletin boards. It wasn’t as popular as the white and tan because it was so hard to write on, and since Phil hardly ever used it himself, he felt no guilt in unrolling and cutting off a large section. Then he put the roll back in the supply closet, rolled up his own section and tucked it under his arm, and headed back to his room to finish lunch and set up manipulatives on their tables.
Maria escorted them back when lunch was over —for which Phil thanked her as he was supposed to go and get the kids himself —and he turned them loose on the activities until it was time for the small party they’d planned. Normally, they were supposed to adhere to the healthy food policy, but Principal Fury took the stand that cupcakes, cookies and punch a few times a year weren’t going to kill the students. So once everything was cleaned up, he had Pepper and Peggy pass out the plates, cups and napkins, and then sent the kids around one at a time with the snacks they’d brought in while he poured cups of obscenely bright fruit punch for them that Clint had brought in.
The snacks were...interesting. Phil could clearly tell that about some of them came from actual bakeries, professional looking cupcakes and cookies that made the other snacks look like the homemade treats they were. Thor had brought in mini-whoopie pies filled with orange frosting, and Tony a tray of chocolate and vanilla cupcakes, sugar decals of ghosts and ghouls laid over the smooth frosting. Pepper had cream cheese brownies with orange cream cheese, and Peggy had clever little cups of chocolate pudding covered with chocolate cookie crumbs and gummy worms. Sif had boxes of tiny pretzel sticks, Bucky brought in Goldfish, and Bruce a sort of trail mix that was heavy on the Reese’s Pieces. Phil surreptitiously filled an extra cup for himself and stuck it on his desk.
The cleverest ones this year, though, were Clint’s, Natasha’s, and Steve’s. Clint had monster feet, Nutter Butters covered with green chocolate, with cashews on the end, curving down to look like claws. Phil was slightly relieved to see them, actually. Despite his parents not coming in to Parent-Teacher Conferences, someone at home was obviously paying attention to the notices and had cared enough to make something for Clint to bring in. Natasha’s were just as clever, Oreos dipped in chocolate, with little licorice legs attached with more chocolate. On the body of the spider, Natasha herself —as she’d proudly told him —had taken red icing and drawn on little designs. “They’re the same ones as black widows. My dad looked up a picture for me,” she explained. Tiny dots of white icing made the eyes, and each spider had exactly eight. Two more tiny drips of red icing on the side with the eyes made little tiny fangs. Phil refrained from pointing out that spiders weren’t vampires, and accepted one graciously when Natasha came to his seat.
Steve’s, though.... Steve’s were novel, and when he’d walked in that morning, carefully cradling the cake pan, Phil had felt a sense of relief even greater than when Clint had come in. The tray was filled with eyeballs, round shapes covered in white chocolate, with carefully colored irises of brown, green and blue. Miniature, upside down Hershey’s Kisses were pushed into the center to form pupils. Phil had peered into the pan curiously, unsure of what lay under the candy coating. “What are these?”
Steve grinned. “It’s a surprise.”
Phil chuckled. “All right, then. I look forward to seeing what they are.”
Now that they were officially being handed out, Phil waited until all of the treats had been passed out and the kids each were sitting in their seats, told them, “Dig in,” and lifted his eyeball first. Cautiously, he took a bit and then blinked in surprise at the unexpected give of the dessert and the taste of jelly. They were Munchkins, jelly Munchkins, covered in white chocolate. They looked like eyes on the outside, and when one bit into them, the jelly inside looked like blood. Phil laughed as he chewed and swallowed. “Steve,” he called, and when the boy looked up, he held up the half eyeball he had left. “These are awesome.”
Steve beamed. “Thank you, Mr. Coulson. Mom let me draw the eyes myself.”
That, of course, immediately kicked off questions from all the others asking if he liked what they had brought, and Phil immediately reassured them that he did, taking bites from each relevant treat as each child asked.
It took a long time for them to work their way through what they wanted to eat, and Phil refilled cups with punch two and three times before they were all done. He repressed the little surge of glee at the thought of getting to send them home pumped full of sugar. Holding a large trash bag, he went to each table so the kids could throw away their trash, and then asked them to be “silent vacuums.” They instantly dropped to the floor like he’d taught them at the beginning of the year, crawling around the chairs and under the tables to pick up all the little bits of their snacks that had fallen.
One last scan of the floor revealed that they’d gotten as much as they could. He opened the door between his and Maria’s room. “All set?” he asked when she looked over.
“Yup, we’re just finishing cleaning up. You can send your kids in and get them settled on the rug.”
“All right. We’ll be right in.”
He turned back to his class, which was watching him with rapt attention. “Okay, guys, we’re going to line up and go into Ms. Hill’s room to watch a movie. You know the rules, right?”
“Yes,” they chorused.
“We’ll see. Okay, can I have Bucky because he’s the line leader this week? Chair, Bucky,” he prompted. Bucky doubled back, pushed in his chair, and hurried over to stand in front of Phil. “Now can I have the girls?” They rushed to fall into line, giggling, and Phil shushed them. When they were quiet, he said, “ And now the boys.”
The boys also hurried up, and Phil added, “Hey, Steve? Hold back a moment, all right?” Steve nodded and stayed standing near his seat. Phil ushered his students into Maria’s room and set them in two lines on the floor while Maria’s kids sat behind them.
“Give me a couple minutes,” he said to Maria, and she nodded as she popped the DVD out and put it in the player. Phil headed back into his room and waved Steve up to his desk. “I wanted to give you a choice. You can join the others to watch the movie or....” He lifted the rolled up piece of black paper from behind his desk. “Or you can draw on this instead.”
Phil spread the paper out over one of the tables and watched as Steve’s eyes got impossibly wide. “I can use this whole thing?” he breathed.
“Yup,” Phil replied, setting a bucket of white and colored chalk down on top of the paper. “I’m going to say no to the glue and glitter on this one, but other than that, you can go nuts.”
“I wanna do this,” Steve said, his words coming out in a rush.
“All right. I’m going to be in the doorway between our room and Ms. Hill’s. I’ll be able to keep an eye on you at the same time as the others, okay?”
Steve nodded, too distracted by the expanse of untouched paper before him to form a proper reply, and Phil just shook his head and smiled, wheeling his desk chair into the doorway. He settled himself down, grinning at Maria when she dragged her chair over next to his, and sat back as the kids all fell silent as Monsters, Inc. began.
While the kids watched the movie, Phil kept sneaking looks back over at Steve, who hadn’t said a word since Phil had given him the paper and chalk. Right now, he was practically splayed across the table to reach the part he was working on, his hat sitting on the chair next to him. Once or twice he glanced at the doorway when laughter erupted, but he immediately went back to drawing, completely absorbed in the task before him.
Phil hoped the paperwork to get him in to see the school adjustment counselor went through soon, and when he did, he intended to suggest to Dr. Selvig that he try some art therapy with Steve. He couldn’t actually offer input on plans for therapy, but Selvig always talked to the teachers to see how the kids were doing, and took their observations into consideration.
When the movie was close to being done, Phil stood, stretching for a moment before going over to see how Steve was doing. He looked down at the paper and gasped softly. “Steve,” he said quietly, “This is amazing.”
Steve looked up from the bat he was drawing to smile at him. “You like it?”
“I love it.”
Phil crouched down beside the boy, looking over the nighttime scene that he’d drawn. Trees with no leaves, spider webs stretched between the branches. A full moon with a flock of bats flying across it. There was a cemetery complete with tilted and broken headstones, ghosts drifting among them.
“You can have it,” Steve offered shyly.
“Thank you, but don’t you want to take it home?”
Steve’s smile faltered and he looked away from Phil, gazing back down at his mural, his hand falling still. “I don’t think my dad will like it very much.”
Phil bit back the urge to curse the boy’s father. What was wrong with the man that he couldn’t appreciate the incredible talent his son had? Well, he knew what was wrong with him, and that most of it wasn’t his fault, but still. Steve was completely innocent and he deserved more.
“How about we keep it here, then? Any time you want to take it home, you can, and if not, I can put it up next year for my students. Does that sound good?”
Steve nodded. “I’d like that.”
“Then that’s what we’ll do. Come on, the movie’s just about over. Let’s get cleaned up.”
Phil carefully rolled the butcher paper up, using a few rubber bands to keep it from springing open while Steve collected the chalk and put it back in the bucket. Then he washed his hands at the sink. By the time he was done, the kids were filing back into the room. The intercom beeped to announce that dismissals would begin in one minute, and Phil quickly ushered them into putting their jackets on.
That day, a lot of kids ended up getting dismissed, parents concerned over costumes or getting their kids to activities on time opting to pick them up instead of sending them on the bus, so Steve ended up being the last student in class, waiting in the doorway, backpack slung over the too-big army jacket.
“Thank you for letting me draw today, Mr. Coulson,” Steve said quietly, looking down at his shoes.
“You’re welcome. And thank you for letting me keep it.”
Steve flashed him a shy smile. “Maybe I can get Mom to come get it one day if she can pick me up.”
“Of course. I’ll have it ready and waiting when she does.”
The boy just nodded and went back to waiting silently, rocking back and forth on his heels, waiting for his bus to be called. When it was, he paused a moment before heading out the door. “Happy Halloween, Mr. Coulson.”
“Happy Halloween, Steve,” Phil replied, and watched the boy rush down the hall. Then he sighed, rubbed a hand over his face, and turned back finish cleaning up the room before leaving for the night. He’d been planning to join the small staff party at a local bar, but for some reason, he wasn’t really feeling up to it.
Chapter 5: One Day at a Time - 2
Color Inside the Lines
Phil stood near the door, watching the children file in and waiting until Clint, the very last in line —as he usually was —walked through the door before turning into the room himself. The little boy seemed to carry himself with more gusto than usual, and Phil frowned for a moment, until he saw the bright green and black streaks drawn on Clint’s arm, twisting up and coiling around his upper arm, disappearing under the sleeve of his t-shirt.
“Clint,” he asked, pointing to the boy’s arm, “what’s that?”
Clint stopped moving, looking down at his arm before breaking into a huge grin. “It’s my tattoo, Mr. C,” he said, beaming. “Natasha drew it for me.” He proudly held out his arm, cocked at the elbow in an imitation of a bodybuilding pose.
“I see,” Phil said, tilting his head and trying to decipher just what shape had been drawn on his skin.
“It’s a dragon,” Clint said, clacking his teeth together in a mock snarl. “The black parts smell like licorice and the green is apple.” He scowled. “I don’t like the licorice smell, so she used more green.”
“Well, that was thoughtful of her. Did you draw one for her, too?”
“Of course I did!” Clint said, almost exasperated. “And then I drew a spider on her hand. I got to use red and it smelled like cherries.”
Phil sighed. He could try and make the kids wash the marker off, but he knew it would just lead to getting their clothes soaking wet. Besides, the markers were washable and non-toxic. It wouldn’t kill them to leave it on for a few hours and let their parents deal with it.
Movin’ On Up
“Nick, you can’t do this.”
“I think I can.”
Phil gritted his teeth. “We’re not supposed to move kids to other grade levels like this. You can’t take a preschool student and put him in a kindergarten class just because he’s smart. You know that violates district policy.”
Principal Fury eyed the closed door of his office for a moment and then leaned forward over his desk, closer to Phil. “I know that, which is why he’s not moving officially. The Fitzwilliams are going to continue to pay for his preschool attendance and on paper, he’s staying where he is. He’s just going to your class for socialization.”
“Phil, listen to me. You’ve seen that kid. You tell me he’s not ready for the work or that he wouldn’t be able to handle the social environment, and I’ll table this.”
Phil didn’t lessen his glare, but neither did he contradict Nick’s words.
“I know this is irregular. I know we’re not supposed to do it. But we both know the kid’s going to be skipping a few grade levels along the way. There’s no reason to hold him back.”
Phil raised an eyebrow. “And the fact that his parents could make a sizable contribution to the school has nothing to do with it?”
“Well, we could use some upgrades to the playground,” Nick deadpanned back at him.
With a sigh, Phil closed his eyes and rubbed them with one hand. “I don’t like making exceptions like this, you know that. And the only reason I’m doing it it because you’re more right than you know. He could probably already handle first or second grade work, and making him sit through kindergarten next year is pointless, and more trouble than it’s worth. But I’m telling you right now, if the state comes in and complains, this is all on you.”
“I’ll get his stuff set up for when we come back after Christmas vacation.”
“Thank you, Phil. I appreciate it.”
“But you owe me!” Phil pointed a finger in his direction. “You owe me big time.”
“Also duly noted,” Nick grinned.
New Year’s Resolution
The first day back from vacation was always a good one for Phil. The students would be a little hyper and take awhile to settle in, but they were generally happy to see him and filled with stories and tales of what they’d done during their time off. It was a little different this year, with Loki being added to the class. Phil still wasn’t happy about that, not because he didn’t want the boy as a student, but because it set a bad precedent. Still, he couldn’t deny that Loki was more than smart enough to join the class, and he displayed a maturity that Phil wished more of his other students displayed.
However, when the bell rang and they entered the room, his gaze wasn’t drawn to the new clothes and backpacks that most of them had. Instead, he immediately focused in on Tony —who was now almost bald, no sign of his fauxhawk in sight —and Bruce, whose face was oddly pink.
And he appeared to be missing his eyebrows.
Before he could even ask, Tony came tearing over, backpack tossed carelessly on the floor, jacket half-on and dragging across the floor. “Mr. C, guess what!”
“I got a chemistry set over vacation!”
Well, that explained the missing hair. Maybe. Phil wasn’t sure what sort of chemistry set a kid could get these days that was actually capable of blowing up that badly.
“And I take it you used it?”
Tony ran a hand over his scalp. “Yeah, Bruce came over to play and me and him used it. I got stuff stuck in my hair and Mom had to cut it off. And Bruce doesn’t have any eyebrows!”
“I can see that. Um...weren’t your parents watching you while you were using it?”
“Nah. Dad says kids learn best by experimenting. Mom was mad about the rug, though.”
“The rug?” Phil asked carefully.
“Yeah, we set it on fire. But it wasn’t even that bad! Me and Bruce put the fire out, too! It’s not fair that I’m grounded.”
Phil silently thanked whatever power that be that at least one of Tony’s parents had a modicum of sense. Even if it did take their child lighting their house on fire for it to kick in. “Well, Tony, I’m very glad that you and Bruce are okay, but I don’t think you should use the set anymore unless you have an adult watching you. Do you remember how we have our assemblies about being safe at home?” Phil might not be able to control what went on at home, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t suggest things.
Tony made a face. “Dad already took it away. He says I can use it if Jarvis watches me.”
“Well, that’s probably for the best then. Why don’t you go get your stuff put away?”
As Tony charged back off toward his cubby, thoroughly ignoring Phil’s call to walk —and that was going to cost him a few minutes when they went outside —Phil turned his attention to the giggling that was spilling over from one of the table.
Well, it appeared Bruce had eyebrows again.
Phil sighed and didn’t bother to say anything, just held out a hand and waited until Natasha came over and dropped the Sharpie into it. He pocketed it with The Look and she retreated to her seat without a word. The Sharpie went into his pocket until he could put it in his desk later. Where did she keep getting them? He couldn’t see her parents buying her cases of them, and if he wasn’t certain that the pile in his desk kept growing, he’d almost suspect her of stealing them back.
By the time they were all inside the room and he’d managed to get them to head toward their seats, the kids had given Loki a few odd looks. Phil ignored them for the moment and pointed Loki toward his seat. He’d briefly —very briefly —considered putting Loki with Thor. But he was worried that that would distract Thor. It would already be a big adjustment for him to have his little brother in class, and seating them at the same table might be too much. In the end, he’d put him at Peggy, Tony and Bruce’s table.
“Boys and girls,” Phil said, raising his voice to get their attention, “get settled and I’ll explain what’s going on.”
Once they had their things put away and were in their seats, and Phil had instructed Loki where to sit and helped him get his own things out, he stood near Loki’s seat. “All right, guys, this is Loki. Do you all remember him visiting our classroom for Halloween?”
A chorus of affirmatives followed and he nodded. “Good. Well, Loki is going to be joining us in our classroom for the rest of the year. I hope you’ll all help him and show him what to do when he has questions.”
Thor was frantically waving his hand back and forth. “Yes, Thor?”
“How come Loki isn’t sitting at my table?”
“Because his seat is over here.”
“Yeah, but —”
“No ‘buts,’ Thor. This is Loki’s seat and I’m not changing it just because he’s your brother. This is not up for discussion. Do you understand?”
“Yeah.” Thor crossed his arms on the table, laying down on them. Phil let him pout. Best to let him get his disappointment out of his system now rather than fight him on such a small issue like how he was sitting.
“Okay. We’ll let Loki introduce himself and answer some questions at circle time, but for now let’s get attendance taken care of. Thor, if you want, you can show Loki how we do our lunch and milk choices, all right?”
“‘Kay.” That seemed to make him brighten a bit and Phil breathed a silent sigh of relief. Now, if the rest of day went just as well, he’d be all set.
“I think,” Phil said very slowly, easing himself into the seat across from Maria, “that my students might be insane.”
She looked up at him, one brow quirked in wry disbelief.
“Did you know,” he continued, “that Tony set his house on fire over Christmas break?” When her face went lax with shock, he nodded. “Yeah. That was my reaction.”
“Oh my God,” she breathed. “Is he okay?”
“Oh, he’s fine! He has no hair and he somehow managed to blow off Bruce’s eyebrows —which Natasha helpfully drew back on with a green Sharpie this morning —and he has no idea why he’s grounded, but, yes, he’s fine.”
Maria reached over and patted his hand. “You know they can be a handful sometimes.”
“Yeah, but this is ridiculous! How did I end up with all of them and you got all the normal ones?”
“I wouldn’t call mine normal,” she chuckled. “So far this year, I’ve caught three eating paste, one who managed to cut a few chunks of hair off before I could stop him, one who still cries if her name isn’t called right away at dismissal and another is allergic to red.”
“Red?” Phil asked curiously.
“Yes, red. One of the dyes, and it’s in everything . He can’t even use erasers. I had to buy him his own special white ones and he has to sit by himself so that any kids wearing red clothes don’t accidentally brush against him.” She sighed. “It’s a nightmare.”
Phil returned the comforting patting gesture. “Drinks after school?”
“Oh, God, yes.”
Keep an Eye on You
“Is Steve crazy?”
Phil was standing on the playground, watching his kids run around, when Bucky had wandered over to stand next to him. He didn’t seem to want to talk, just standing quietly by Phil’s side, and Phil had let him, waiting to see what was up. He hadn’t been expecting that question, though, and he looked down sharply at Bucky. “What?”
“Is Steve crazy?”
“Why would you ask that?”
Bucky shrugged, hands stuffed into the pockets of his jacket. “He goes to see Dr. Selvig, right? His dad says only crazy people talk to doctors like that.”
Phil frowned. He’d been extremely glad when Steve’s mother had followed through and done the paperwork. After a few weeks, Steve had begun seeing Erik twice a week, and Phil could already see an improvement. He looked forward to his appointments with the counselor, and he usually seemed much calmer when he came back. There was one tense moment, when Steve’s father had found out. He’d called the school, irate, yelling at Fury. But whatever Fury had said, it had caused Mr. Rogers to back down and Steve continued seeing Erik.
Crouching down so that he was on eye level with Bucky, Phil shook his head. “No, Steve’s not crazy. He just goes to talk to Dr. Selvig.”
Bucky looked across the playground at his friend, being pushed on a swing by Thor, and was, quite frankly, getting some impressive height. “His dad is mean.”
“His dad is sick,” Phil said gently.
Bucky shrugged. “Whatever. I’m not gonna let him hurt him.”
Phil smiled. “If something ever happens, Bucky, tell your parents, okay? Or someone at school. Don’t go looking for trouble. Otherwise, just be Steve’s friend.”
The boy nodded, features stern and set. “I can do that.”
“Phil, you got a second?” Principal Fury called from his office.
“Yeah, sure,” Phil called back. “One sec.” He checked his mailbox real quick, grabbed the notices to go home tomorrow and stuck his head into Nick's office. “What's up?”
Nick motioned him into the room. “I just had Bruce Banner's mother in here. Does he sit next to Tony?”
“Well, apparently, Bruce told his mother that Tony told him he had a surprise for him under the table. I'll let you guess what Tony showed him when Bruce looked.”
“Oh, Jesus Christ,” Phil muttered. “Please tell me he didn't.”
“Wish I could,” Nick smirked. “I take it you didn't see it.”
Phil shook his head. “No, I didn't. The tables are so damn low that I'd've had to have been on my knees in order to see that. Is Bruce upset?”
“Nah, he's fine,” Nick said, shaking his head. “His mother just thought she should mention it. She's aware kids are often fascinated with...themselves. She didn’t want to Tony to get in trouble, given that Bruce and Tony as friends.” He rolled his eye. “However, I think Tony need some time by himself. Do you have a desk or something you can move him to for awhile?”
“Yeah,” Phil replied, thinking about the single lone desk he had for kids that for one reason or another couldn't sit at the communal tables. “There's the one near my desk. I'll talk to him about it tomorrow.” Then he eyed his boss. “So...am I gonna have to call his mother?”
Nick came him a considering thought and then sighed. “No, it was reported to me. I'll take care of it.”
Phil flashed him a grin. “Thanks.”
“That's what I'm here for. Though I wouldn't turn down some coffee tomorrow morning.”
“You got it.” Leaving the office, Phil headed back to his classroom and grabbed Tony's nametag and toolbox off the table and set them on the lone desk.
The next morning, Tony didn’t say a word when Phil showed him his new seat, and Phil didn’t say anything to him. He knew that Fury had called home and that Tony and his parents come by the school early that morning to talk to the principal. Tony didn’t need yet another adult berating him for his inappropriate behavior. Hopefully, he’d behave for the next few weeks and Phil could put him back at a table.
He also hoped Tony’s actions hadn’t ruined the pretty good friendship he and Bruce had struck up. Kids did stupid things all the time, and it would be a shame to lose a friend because of one incident. For Bruce’s part, he seemed perfectly fine when he came in, frowning at Tony’s empty seat before looking in confusion over at Phil. “Mr. C? How come Tony’s sitting over there?”
“Tony just has to have his own seat for a little while, that’s all. He’s not in trouble, so don’t worry about it, okay?”
“Okay.” Bruce frowned a little more. “So is he gonna get to come back to the table?”
“Maybe. I don’t know yet. But I hope so, so we’ll see.”
Phil glanced back at Tony, who looked very unhappy, and gave him a reassuring smile. Tony was never likely to be one of those kids who sat still and did everything, but he’d been calmer over the last few months and Phil didn’t want the progress undone. He ruffled Tony’s hair. “A few weeks, Tony. You’ll make it.”
Tony nodded and gave Phil a little smile, looking more relieved, if not quite worry free. “Thanks, Mr. C.”
“Good.” Phil turned the deck of sight words in his hand slightly, flipping to the next word.
Phil paused for only the very briefest of moments, experience lending him the control necessary to not start laughing. “There’s no ‘n’ in that word, Clint, so there’s no ‘n’ sound. Try again.”
Clint frowned at the card for another minute. “Cut?”
“Yes, very good.” And he flipped the card and turned to the next student.
“Natasha! What happened to your arm?!”
The girl looked up at him, left arm encased in a bright pink cast, and grinned. “I broke it!”
“I can see that, but how?”
“You broke your arm from just a fall?” He’d seen it happen before, a kid just tripping on the playground, getting up and having his arm suddenly be at an unnatural angle. He’d been a student teacher then, and while he hadn’t panicked, he still shivered recalling the bent line of the boy’s arm.
“She fell off the roof!” Clint cackled next to her in glee and Natasha shot him a quick glare.
“The roof?” Phil looked between the two of them. “What were you doing on the roof?”
“We were trying to land on her trampoline. You get a better bounce from that high up.”
Phil sighed and buried his face in his hands for a moment. Sometimes, he wondered how any child managed to make it to adulthood without killing themselves. Clearly, someone needed to teach them how to play the “Good Idea, Bad Idea” game.
“That wasn’t a very safe thing to do,” he eventually managed, trying to block out images of the two kids hurling themselves off a roof top.
Natasha shrugged. “I won’t miss next time.” And before Phil could do more than reply with a strangled cry of disbelief, she held up a black Sharpie. “Wanna sign my cast?”
“Okay, girls, if you need to go to the bathroom, go now.”
All four of them practically leapt from their seats and headed for the door. Phil went back to going over their math papers while the boys sprawled out on the rug reading books. He didn’t think much of the quiet in the room until he glanced at the clock and realized about ten minutes had gone by. And none of the girls had returned.
Frowning, Phil pushed his seat back and went to Maria’s door. “Hey, could you watch my boys for a minute? I need to go check on the girls.”
“Sure.” Maria deftly wove her way through her students and put herself in the doorway.
It only took about few seconds to get to the bathroom, and he was slightly concerned by the fact that it seemed deathly quiet. Generally, when the kids were up to mayhem, you could hear them. “Girls?” he called, poking his head through the open door. “Is everything all....”
He trailed off, blinking in astonishment at Peggy who was perched on top of one of the dividing walls of the stalls. Natasha froze where she was on the floor, half-wriggled underneath one of the closed doors. He couldn’t see Pepper and Sif, and could only assume they were in the other two stalls.
“Natasha,” he said very calmly, “get up right now.”
She did, shimmying backward and brushing off the knees to her jeans. The doors to the other stalls opened and Pepper and Sif came scurrying out to stand next to Natasha. Peggy went to hop down, but Phil barked, “Don’t move!” and she stayed where she was. He didn’t even want to know how much trouble they would be if she jumped down from the six foot height and hurt herself.
Instead, he pushed open the door to her stall. Well, tried to, because it was locked. “Is anyone else in there?”
“You guys locked all the doors from the inside?”
“Yeah,” Natasha said. “I’ll, uh, get it.” She slid beneath the door and he heard the bolt slide back. Then she opened it quickly and hurried back to stand with her friends. Phil entered the stall and carefully grabbed Peggy under her arms, lowering her to the ground then pointed to the hallway. “Out.”
They filed out into the hallway. “What, exactly , were you doing in there?”
They didn’t immediately answer, glancing at each other. He gave them a few more long moments and then sighed. “Fine, don’t answer. What you were doing was extremely dangerous. You don’t do that in school, do you understand me?”
They all nodded. “Right. Well, you guys owe me recess now.” And with that, he ushered them back down the hallway.
Naturally, they protested as they went, but all the apologies in the world or tearful eyes weren’t going to move him. When it was clear he wasn’t going to relent, they resigned themselves to their fate. At recess, which was outside as it happened to be a nice day, he lined them all up against the wall, about five feet apart so that they couldn’t talk or fool around.
“How long?” Natasha asked.
“The whole recess.”
“If you’d like, we can make it tomorrow, too.”
She gaped at him and pouted. “No,” she said sullenly and fell silent.
Phil nodded and kept an eye on them. They tried a few times to move closer together and whisper to each other, but he nipped that in the bud. And when the bell finally rang, he waved them over, then dropped into a crouch as they formed a semicircle around him. “Listen, girls, I’m not mad anymore, but I need you to understand that I was worried about you getting hurt. I don’t want that to happen, so when you do things that put yourselves in danger, there are going to be consequences. Do you all understand that?”
They nodded, and Peggy murmured, “Sorry, Mr. Coulson.” The other girls followed suit and he nodded himself.
“All right. Just don’t do it again.”
Frowning at the math book, Phil drew an X through a section with his mechanical pencil. He thought he’d been quite fair in trying this particular activity for a couple years, but it had never really worked very well, so he decided to toss it all together. As long as he taught the core skills, it should be fine. Then he turned the page and frowned at another section. He hated getting new programs. Sometimes it seemed like the people who put together workbooks didn’t spend any time at all in the classroom—well, they probably didn’t—and some of the activities were useless. And teachers were never sure which ones would work in a real classroom setting until they’d tried them. There was a whole lot of trial and error before they had a system that worked for them. And in a few years, Phil might even have this one sorted out.
He leaned back, reaching down without looking to grab some trail mix out of his bag. As he did, he turned back just enough to catch someone standing right next to his shoulder and he started back violently, biting down on the swear that rose to his lips before he could utter it.
“Loki, jeez! Don’t do that!”
Loki tilted his head. “Sorry. I thought you noticed me.”
“If I’d noticed you, I wouldn’t have ignored you. How long have you been there?”
The boy shrugged. “A few minutes.”
Shaking his head, Phil turned to face the child more fully. For all that he usually played and acted like a normal child, Loki was a strange boy at times. He was definitely mature for his age, and because of that, he sometimes had trouble relating to the other students. His reading skills far surpassed theirs and his math skills were nearly as advanced. Phil had been forced to borrow material from the second grade teachers to give to Loki while he held whole class lessons because the boy was bored out of his mind during them. He also had the unnerving habit of just blurting out the truth, no matter how blatant or uncomfortable it might be, prompting several long talks about how people don’t always need to tell the truth if it hurts others and that there was nothing wrong with a few little white lies.
“Aren’t you supposed to be in Mr. Doom’s class? You have health right now.”
Loki made a face. “I don’t like health, it’s stupid. So I came back after I went to the bathroom.”
“Yeah, well, that’s too bad. You need to go back to class.” Loki’s thin, mobile lips twisted, and Phil held up a hand to forestall the coming argument. That was really the only issue he had with the boy, the fact that if he considered something foolish, he would challenge you on it. The worst part was that he wasn’t even wrong a lot of the time. Many of the things they did were to teach structure and responsibility, and to a student that already knew and understood those, the rules and activities were tedious and pointless. He was a challenge for Phil in a way that’d never had before, and Phil wasn’t always quite sure how to handle him.
“Don’t argue this, Loki. You need to go back to class. Can I trust you to go by yourself or do I need to walk you down?”
“I’ll go.” Loki moved away from the desk and headed for the door. Once he’d left, Phil quickly and quietly got up and followed, watching from the doorway to make sure that Loki turned the right way. He didn’t entirely trust him to go back. It made him feel vaguely ridiculous, sneaking down a hallway to follow a five year old, like he was some sort of spy. Luckily, Loki went back to the health room, and Phil breathed a sigh of relief.
Does a Body Good
“I really hate you sometimes, Rhodey, you know that, right?”
James grinned at him. “Aw, c’mon, Phil. Maria’s doing it, and the kids will get a kick out of having you join them.”
“I thought I had finished all my P.E. requirements,” Phil muttered. The kids had been ecstatic to tell him that Mr. Rhodes, their phys ed teacher, was going to try to get Phil to join them when they ran laps around the school. It was a contest James was doing for each grade level, to see who could run the most. The winners were going to get extra recess and all of the students were psyched about it. And somehow, Phil had found himself being dragooned into running laps with his students. They were all watching James talk to him
“Oh, all right,” he finally said, throwing his hands up. “Fine. I’ll run with them.”
The kids all cheered when they heard him, and James clapped him on the back. “There’s the spirit. Bring sneakers on Friday.”
Phil didn’t actually end up running very many laps with his students. When it had begun, almost half of the kids —Thor, Bucky, Clint, Tony and Natasha —had taken off like a shot, joining the other kids who were racing past their classmates. There were teachers everywhere, so Phil wasn’t worried, and instead he kept pace with the smaller group of students who were moving slower. He was listening to Pepper talking about the new kitten she’d gotten last week as they jogged along, when a shrill cry of “Mr. Coulson!” behind him had him whirling around in place.
Steve was on his knees, hands clutching his chest, wheezing and gasping for breath that wouldn’t come. Bruce as hovering by his side, nearly as pale as Steve and looking panicked. Shit. Shit! Phil turned immediately, running over and sliding down to his knees next to Steve, knowing that he’d probably just ruined his pants and not caring.
He spared only a moment to check Steve, before turning to look for Jane Foster. Oh, goddamnit, she’d gone in with a kid that had twisted his ankle a few minutes ago. He scanned the area again, looking for James. “Rhodes!” he yelled back to him. “Call Jane on the walkie! Steve’s having an asthma attack and I’m bringing down right now!”
James nodded, bringing the walkie talkie already in his hand and speaking into it quickly. Phil scooped Steve up and dashed into the building, doing his best not to jostle the boy too much. He tried not to dwell on terrible sounds of Steve fighting for air he couldn’t get, and the fact that the kid seemed to weigh next to nothing, and made straight for the nurse’s office.
Jane was waiting when he got there, Steve’s inhaler already in her hand. She popped it in his mouth as soon as Phil set him on the cot. “It’s okay, Steve,” she said. “You’re okay. Calm down. Just breathe. As deep as you can. You’re going to be okay.” She kept up the soothing litany, and eventually, between that and the inhaler, Steve was able to get his breath back after several long, tense minutes. His face was red and blotchy, damp from where tears had run down his cheeks. He still trembled slightly and it was clear the panic hadn’t entirely left him. Not being able to breathe had to be terrifying, especially for a child and Phil sat down next to him, rubbing Steve’s back while Jane moved back to her desk to call Steve’s house.
He tried not to listen to the conversation, focusing on further calming Steve down. Wordlessly, he handed Steve a tissue when the boy sniffed loudly. “Feeling better?”
Steve nodded weakly. “Yeah,” he mumbled.
“That must have been scary,” Phil offered, trying to give Steve a chance to talk about it he wanted.
Steve gave a kind of half-shrug. “It’s happened before,” was all he said before falling silent again and Phil left it like that.
Jane cleared her throat to get their attention. “Steve? Your mom says she can come and pick you up if you want to go home.”
He nodded miserably. “All right. I’ll call her back then.”
Phil stood up, holding out a hand to Steve. “Come on, let’s go get your stuff packed up and then you can come and wait back here.”
It took no more than a few minutes to gather Steve’s belongings and have him sitting on the cot in Jane’s office again. “Don’t you have to go back outside?” Steve asked, looking up at Phil.
Shaking his head, Phil said, “No, there are lots of other teachers outside. I’ll stay here until your mom comes, all right?”
Mrs. Rogers arrived about twenty minutes later, rushing into the nurse’s office and hugging Steve tightly. “Are you okay?” she asked worriedly, cupping his cheeks in her hands and smoothing his hair back.
“Yeah, but I wanna go home now.”
“Of course, baby. Come on.” She gathered Steve up in her arms and looked at Phil as she stood up. “Thank you so much.”
“You’re more than welcome. He really had us worried there for a little while. Will he be all right to come back on Monday?”
“Yes, he’ll be fine. He just needs to sleep it off now.”
“Okay, I’ll let the others know. Take it easy, all right, Steve?”
“I will. Bye, Mr. Couslon. Thank you.”
Fury flicked the lights in the cafeteria off, and the adults waiting in the seats instantly fell silent, trained long ago in the same way their kids were. Fury waited a moment and then flicked the lights back on before walking to the podium set up in front of the parents.
Phil knew this speech, had heard it lots of times before, so he tuned out most of it. Despite his appearance, which indicated the contrary, Nick was a very good speaker with parents. He was calm and authoritative and they immediately turned their attention to what he had to say. Halfway between Nick thanking the parents for coming and telling them that their kids had had a great year, Phil went out into the hallway where both kindergarten classes were waiting with Maria.
“All set?” she asked in a whisper.
“Almost,” he replied. “He never makes the speech long. A couple more minutes.” He turned to the kids. “Are you guys all ready?”
They nodded and smiled, doing their best to keep quiet as they’d been told. It was hard. They’d been practising their songs and parts for their “graduation” for weeks, and now, so close to the end, it was hard for them to contain themselves.
From inside the cafeteria, applause rose, and Phil and Maria knew that that was their cue. Quickly, they ushered the kids inside and to the front next to the principal, while the parents took pictures and chuckled over the little mortarboards the kids wore. Phil was especially proud of those. He, Maria and Fandral had worked really hard with the kids for the last three weeks until they each had their own, decorated the way they wanted, and there was no surprise in seeing that instead of tassels, there were ribbons or chains or feathers, or that when the day was over, there would probably be more glitter on the floor than on the hats.
They walked the kids through the performance, laughing along with the parents over the inevitable stumbles and mistakes. The kids all took it in stride, and received a standing ovation when their last song came to a close.
Things sort of descended into chaos at that point when Fury announced parents could come get their children and that cookies and punch would be served shortly. Phil wound his way the room, stopping to talk to parents and students, glad that all of his had shown up. It was especially gratifying to see Steve’s father there, holding the boy on his hip. He didn’t look relaxed or particularly happy to be there, but he was there and that was the important part. Somewhere over the course of the year, something had changed for him. Maybe not enough to make a difference for him, but enough to make a difference for Steve, and that was what counted.
He slipped back to his room for a moment, grabbing the rolled up mural Steve had made for Halloween. Back in the cafeteria, he approached the family. “Steve?” he said when he was close enough. “I think you should take this home today.”
Steve’s eyes went very wide and he looked over at his parents nervously. “What is it?” his father asked.
“Just something Steve made for Halloween. He let me hold on to it until now, but it’s his and he should have it.”
Mrs. Rogers reached out and took the mural from Phil. “Thank you.”
“No problem.” He smiled at Steve. “You have a good summer and a good time in first grade, you hear?”
“Yes, Mr. Coulson.”
“All right. I’ll leave you to enjoy your day.” Phil left quickly, watching as Steve and his family left shortly after, and smiled.
It had been a good year.
Chapter 6: Epilogues
Phil snagged two boxes of pasta off the shelf and tossed them into his cart, crossing the item off his list, and then continued down the aisle to get some sauce. He was debating the merits of buying a more expensive brand than his usual fare when from behind him he heard, “Mr. Coulson?”
The only people who ever called him “Mr. Coulson” in public were former students, so when he heard the man’s voice, he wondered if he would be able to recognize the student now that he was grown. It was always hit or miss. Some kids had faces that never really changed, while there were others who were virtually unrecognizable once they were grown.
Phil turned and looked behind him...and then looked up. It was always a surprise when his former students were so much taller than him. The man’s head was tipped to the side, a cautious half-smile pulling up one side of his mouth. He had short blond hair, blue eyes, and classically handsome features, but he was completely unfamiliar to Phil. “Yes?” he replied. “You’ll have to forgive me, but I can’t place your face...?”
“Steve,” the man replied, and before Phil had time to think that he’d had a lot of Steves throughout in his career, he went on to add, “Steve Rogers.”
Phil sucked in a sharp breath. Steve Rogers? Good God. There were some kids one never forgot, not ever, and that boy had been one of them. Phil took another quick look at the man in front of him, tall, well-developed, clearly muscled and strong. This was Steve Rogers? The small, thin boy prone to asthma attacks?
“Steve? Wow, you look....”
“Different?” Steve finished, his grin widening. “Yeah, I know.”
“I didn’t mean anything by that.”
“No, no, it’s fine.” Steve laughed away the start of Phil’s apology. “I get that a lot. Believe me, I know how different I look from when I was a kid.”
“I have to say you’re looking well. What have you been up to?”
“I’m in school, actually, for art.”
“Art school?” Phil grinned, recalling his former student’s passion for drawing. “Why am I not surprised?”
Steve ducked his head, blushing a bit. “Yeah, I know. I’ve only been enrolled for about six months or so. The government’s paying for it.”
“Yeah. Bucky and I joined the Marines right out of high school.”
“The Marines? Wow, I’m impressed. Congratulations. I do recall you saying you wanted to be a soldier.”
Steve nodded, his smile dimming a bit. “Yeah, I did.” He paused, frowning thoughtfully. “It was good for me, you know? I’m glad I did it. It helped...put some ghosts to rest, as it were.” Then he shrugged. “But it’s not for me, at least not for a lifetime. Bucky’s still there and it’s the perfect fit for him, but after fours years I was ready to go on to something I really loved.”
“I’m really glad to hear that.” And Phil was. It was always a pleasure to hear about his kids and see the successes they’d made of themselves. He wasn’t foolish enough to think it was because of him, but he liked to think he might have had some small, lasting influence on them. “Whatever you do, you’re going to be great at it.”
“Thanks. I was thinking of maybe going into education one day.” Steve’s smile returned, sunny and open, so different than the smiles Phil had seen when he was a child. “Anyway, I probably shouldn’t keep you. I just recognized you and wanted to say hello.”
“No problem. It was good to run into you again.”
“You, too, Mr. Coulson.”
“Please, call me Phil.”
Steve laughed. “I don’t know that I could. Kinda weird, you know?” But he stuck out his hand and gave Phil’s a firm shake. “Bye, Mr. C.”
“Bye, Steve. Take care.”
“I will. You, too.”
Steve turned away, hefting his shopping basket in one hand, but he stopped after a step and turned back. “Phil?”
“I...wanted to thank you.”
There was a long pause before Steve answered, and he studied the jars of sauce to his left as if they held the answer to Phil’s question. “When I was kid...it was hard, you know? Hell, of course you knew. Everyone knew.”
“No, it’s okay. It’s fine. I’m glad that people knew because it meant they kept an eye out for me. What I’m trying to say is that I didn’t have the easiest childhood. Between my dad and my health problems, it was rough when I was a kid. I was scared shitless about starting school; I had more than a few panic attacks about it. But...but you helped. You were there when I needed you, when there were very few people who were.”
“I didn’t do all that much, Steve,” Phil protested.
“You let me be myself. You gave me the time and skills to work through things when I had problems. You let me draw .” Steve laughed ruefully. “God, I loved you for that. I think I spent that whole year wishing you were my dad.” He grinned at Phil’s obvious shock. “I know what you did you would have done for any kid, and that it probably doesn’t seem like a lot, but it meant everything to me at the time. So thank you.”
Phil just stared, stunned. Then throwing caution to the wind, he stepped forward and pulled Steve into a hug, ignoring the strangeness of hugging a grown man he didn’t really know in the middle of a grocery store. “You’re welcome.” Steve returned the hug, not for long, but tightly, the way he had as kid when he’d occasionally wound his arms around Phil’s waist.
“If I ever do become a teacher, I’m gonna try to be like you.”
“That, Steve, would be an honor.”
Steve blushed again, just a bit. “Oh, and Mr. C?”
“I still have that mural.”
Phil jotted down the finals notes he had for the last child’s evaluation and then set the completed form off to the side. He would have to enter the results into the computer program later. Technology might have advanced since he first started teaching, but the tests for seeing if kids were ready to enter kindergarten hadn’t changed much, and he still preferred filling the forms out by hand first. It felt a little impersonal to sit pecking away at a keyboard while a four- or five-year old looked on. Besides, at his age, even with how good screens were, it still made his eyes ache to stare at them too long.
Reaching over, he grabbed his coffee cup and took a sip, grimacing slightly at the cool liquid. He should’ve had Ashlynn get him a fresh one when she made a run earlier, but at the time he’d still had plenty and too much coffee at any time during the day either kept him up too late or made him crash early.
“One more,” he muttered to himself, tossing the cup in the bin and stretching as he got up, feeling and hearing the joint in his left shoulder pop. He opened the door to the testing room and stuck his head out. “Ashlynn, I’m ready for the next one.”
“Sure thing, Phil. His dad just took him to the bathroom. I’ll send them in when they get back.”
A good five minutes passed before the door opened, a small, blond-haired, blue-eyed boy walking in as his father held the door open from him. Something jogged Phil’s memory at the sight of the child’s face, and all the pieces fell into place as his father —an absolute bear of man —turned around.
“Thor?” he asked in disbelief.
Thor’s face split in a wide grin. “Mr. C!” he cried, and even though he was now much taller and wider and bigger in every way that Phil, and he sported a full beard, the inflection and enthusiasm were exactly the same as Phil remembered when the man had been five years old himself. “Oh my God,” Thor continued, not even pausing before giving Phil a bone-crushing hug. “I can’t believe that you’re still teaching, that you’re still here . I’d have thought you’d be long retired by now.”
“I wasn’t that old when you had me,” Phil commented wryly. “And I could retire, but I enjoy my job.”
Thor reached down and ruffled his son’s hair. “Hey, if you’re lucky, you might get to have Dad’s teacher.”
“You taught my dad?” the boy asked.
“That’s right, when he was your age. My name’s Mr. Coulson. And you are...?”
“Magni,” the boy said, grinning. “Was Dad a lot of trouble when he was my age? Mom says he was a pain in the butt.”
Phil couldn’t help but laugh. “I wouldn’t go that far. Your dad was a pretty good kid for me. But, for right now, we should get started, so why don’t you guys say goodbye and we can begin?”
“Bye, Dad!” Magni chirped brightly, almost pushing Thor from the room.
“A little too eager there, sport,” Thor muttered, but went. “I’ll be right outside.”
“We’ll be fine,” Phil reassured him. When the door was closed, he pulled the form over and got started with the series of small tests that would determine whether or not Magni was ready to kindergarten, but from what Phil had seen so far, he didn’t think there were going to be any problems.
As expected, Magni “passed” with flying colors, even going to far as to ask if he could keep standing on one foot while they completed other sections. Phil capped his pen after marking the last box and stood. “Good job, Magni. Let’s go get your dad.”
Thor was sitting in one of the chairs in the hallway, his frame making the perfectly reasonably-sized chair look ridiculously tiny. “Everything all set?” he asked.
“We’re done,” Phil said. “I can’t tell you the results, but you’ll get them in the mail after we go over them, along with his assigned teacher.”
“I don’t suppose I could request you, could I?”
“Sadly, no. Besides, I’m not sure I have it in me to go through another year with a mini you.”
Thor laughed easily, without any rancor. “Yeah, I was a handful, I admit it. Magni takes after me in some ways, but he’s got more than a little bit of his mother in him. You remember Sif?”
Phil did remember Sif, and he remembered her being just as stubborn and active as Thor. He cocked a brow. “I’m not sure that’s encouraging.”
Thor laughed again. “She wasn’t as bad as me and you know it. Magni’s a good kid, you’ll see.” He bent down where his son was tugging on his pants and swung him up easily onto his shoulders. “Say goodbye, Magni.”
“Bye, Mr. C!”
Phil and Thor shook hands and Thor turned to go, before pausing and swinging back around. “And, Mr. C.? Know what you said about retirement? Just so you know, Loki’s son is starting preschool. Might want to get out while the getting’s good, because Vali is his old man’s son.”