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SERIES: Part two of Here be Dragons.
Painted wings and giant rings make way for other toys
Ross picks up the phone on the third ring after checking who's calling. "Hiya gorgeous."
"Hiya, ummm-" Tracy trails off, but he can tell even from her greeting that she's stressed, which is unlike her. He frowns.
"Trace. Everything alright? Is the little man okay?"
They're looking after Moses and Johnny while Charity and Vanessa have a couple of nights away, just the two of them. And, as fate would have it, Moses erupted in chicken pox about three minutes after their car drew away. So he's off school ill and Tracy's looking after him.
"Yeah, yeah, he's fine. Little bit grumpy and still itchy, but he's on the couch with the telly on and he seems fine."
"Right, so...is this just a social call, then?" He wiggles his eyebrows. "Listen, if it's a bit of phone sex you're after then I'll just have to nip int-"
"That is definitely not why I'm ringing you."
"Damn. Well what is it if you're not after my body?" He asks, trying to sound playfully hurt. "I've cows here need seeing to."
"Can you get Pete to do it? I need you to go to the school and pick up Johnny."
"Eh? Awww, he's not gone and caught it as well now, has he?"
"'It's only two nights', I said. 'What's the worst that can happen?', I said." Tracy groans. "Now one's got a tropical disease-"
"It's the Chicken Pox, love, not dengue fever."
She ignores his interruption and continues. "-and now the other one's been sent home from school for fighting. They're never going away midweek again. I've decided. It's too much stress."
"Fighting? Johnny's been fighting?" Ross frowns. "Johnny's not...Moses I could see, but not Johnny."
"Well, apparently even sensitive little angels like Johnny can throw a mean right hook in the right circumstances. Anyway, I can't leave Moses here on his own, and I can't get hold of my dad, so can you go and pick him up and drop him off here?"
"Uh, yeah, course I can." He rubs the back of his neck, shaking his head. "Did they say why he was fighting?"
"Ross, I had the smoke alarm going off because I'd left a pot on the cooker and Moses yelling in the background about 'palamine lotion', I didn't have time to go into detail."
"Okay, okay. It's fine." He's getting out of his overalls as he's speaking. "I'll just let Moira know what's happening and then I'll go and get him."
Tracy lets out a sigh. "Thank you."
He makes himself as presentable as he can after a morning shoving cows around and drives down to the school. Once he's buzzed in, he heads up to the offices. Through the glass in the doors, he can see Johnny sitting on one of the chairs in the corridor, his skinny legs dangling inches from the ground and his chin on his chest. Ross' heart aches for the little lad. He's not like Moses; he feels things much more deeply and he rarely gets in trouble. Ms Grant is sitting next to him and she stands when she sees Ross, bending down to say a few words to Johnny before pushing through the doors.
"Hi Ross." She smiles. "Thanks for coming to get him."
"It's no problem." Ross crosses his arms over his chest. "So what happened?"
Jessie sighs and glances back over her shoulder. "I'm not exactly sure. I think a few of the boys were making remarks about Johnny's home situation and then there was some pushing and shoving, well, things escalated." She lifts an eyebrow. "Johnny's never in trouble and I hate having to put him through this, but I can't treat him any differently."
"But you said 'boys', right?" Ross says, scowling. "So there was more than one of them picking on him? So how come he's the one in trouble?"
"I can assure you, Ross, that everyone involved has been dealt with and several of the other boys have already been picked up." Jessie shakes her head. "If he hadn't bloodied one of their noses, then I might have been able to keep him out of it."
Ross fights to keep the smile off his face. Good lad. He nods. "Fine," he grunts. "So, what happens now? He's not suspended or anything, is he?"
"No. I've just sent them all home for today and tomorrow we'll deal with each of them individually. A stern talking to is as far as it'll go with Johnny, since he's never done anything like this before." She smiles sadly. "I think if Moses had been here, it wouldn't have happened. Moses takes care of him and the other boys tend to steer clear when he's around."
His throat starts to throb and his chest expands with pride for his boy looking out for his little brother. Like he used to do for his own little brother. He coughs and nods. "Right. So...uh...can I take him home now?"
"Yeah, of course," Jessie starts to lead the way back through the double doors, but pauses and turns back to face him. She glances around and lowers her voice. "And if Charity asks, the other boy came off much worse."
Ross grins and follows her through. Johnny looks up, his big blue eyes red from crying. The area around his right eye is swollen and starting to bruise. If there weren't kids milling around and coming and going, Ross would pick him up and hug him, but that probably wouldn't do wonders for his reputation. He gives Johnny a smile instead. "Alright, squire?"
Johnny's face brightens a little at the greeting, as if he'd been expecting a telling off or worse; someone being disappointed in him. He nods and sniffs.
"Johnny," Jessie says, putting her hand on his shoulder. "Your Uncle Ross is going to take you home since your mums are on holiday, okay?"
"Okay," Johnny slides off the too big chair and onto his feet, reaching for Ross' hand. Ross takes the tiny hand in his and squeezes. Johnny looks up at Jessie. "I'm sorry Ms Grant."
"I know, Johnny. I know you are." She nods. "We'll talk about it a bit more tomorrow, okay?"
"Right, come on then." Ross jiggles Johnny's hand. "Let's get you off home, eh?"
They walk in silence along corridors lined with bright collages and artwork. It's only when they get outside and are on their way to the car that Ross speaks.
"So, you were scrappin', eh?" He squeezes Johnny's hand. "That's not like you."
Johnny lets out a heavy sigh, his whole body sagging. "They were saying stuff to me. It wasn't very nice."
"What were they saying?" Ross asks, bracing himself for the answer. Kids can be right little horrors.
Johnny sighs again. "They said 'cause I have two mums and no dad, I was weird. Said having just two mums was weird." He looks up at Ross, squinting a bit in the sun. "But it's not weird, is it?"
Ross shakes his head. "Course it's not." He'd kind of thought all this would have died out by now; kids making fun of other kids for being 'different'. But it's a tiny village and there's not a whole lot of diversity round these parts still.
"I said to them, I said 'Moses has two mums too'." He rubs his nose with his fist. "And they said 'least he has a dad an'all'"
"So you hit 'em?" Ross asks. He stops walking and crouches down in front of Johnny.
He nods, his little shoulders hitching with a sob. He rubs his arm across his face. "I was j-just tryin' to be brave. L-like you and Moses are."
Ross gently takes his arm away from his face. His nose is running, the bruise around his eye is getting darker by the minute and he looks completely miserable. He's reminded of the times Finn would come home from school with broken glasses or a thick lip because some kid had roughed him up. On those occasions, Ross had just gone and battered the other kid. But he's a grown up now, so he needs to find another way.
"Hey, you listen to me, mister." Ross makes sure Johnny's looking at him before he carries on. "You don't need to try and be like anybody else, okay? You just need to keep on being you. Because you are brilliant, alright?
Johnny sniffs and then hiccups. "A-am I?"
"Course you are!" Ross nods. "D'you think I'd have picked you as my squire if you weren't?"
Shaking his head, Johnny smiles. "Do you still want me to be your squire? Even though I didn't behave myself?"
Ross' throat burns again and he lifts a hand to Johnny's face, stroking his thumb over the bruise by his eye and wincing when he hisses. "You'll always be my squire. And today you stood up for yourself and your mums. And I think that's exactly how a squire would behave."
Johnny stands up a little straighter. "Really?"
"Yes, really." Ross tickles his ribs until he laughs. He stands back up, taking Johnny's hand again as they start to walk. "Now, what do you say we go and get a steak to put on that shiner?"
"A steak? To put on my eye?" Johnny frowns. "Does that make it better?"
"Yep. That'll make it feel much better." Ross unlocks the car and waits as Johnny jumps into one of the car seats in the back and buckles himself in.
"Did you put a steak on your face to make it better?" Johnny asks as he settles himself in, his crying seemingly over for now.
"Nah, it doesn't work on dragon burns," Ross says. "You need a special potion for that." He wrinkles his nose in exaggerated disgust. "Made of toads' legs and spiders' eyes and other gross stuff."
"Ew." Johnny's own nose wrinkles in response. "I'm glad I just need a steak."
Ross laughs as he checks Johnny's seatbelt. "I bet you are." He pauses before he closes the door. "And hey, next time anyone says owt to you about not having a dad, you tell 'em you've got an Uncle Ross and an Uncle Pete." He lifts his arm and flexes his bicep. "And that we're both built like brick shithouses."
Johnny's eyes go wide and he giggles. "I'm not allowed to say that."
Ross smiles. "Like tanks, then."
"I will." He looks up at Ross and grins properly for the first time since Ross arrived. "Thanks, Uncle Ross."
Ruffling his hair, Ross winks. "Anytime, squire."
Later that evening Tracy's settled on the couch with Moses' head in her lap as he snores gently. Ross is in the armchair with Johnny asleep against his chest. There's something on the telly but neither of them are really watching it. There's a knock at the door, swiftly followed by it opening.
"Only me." Charity's voice carries through. "I know we said we'd be back earlier than this but we stopped at a-" She stops talking as she takes in the sight in front of her. Ross watches her eyes flit from Moses' spotty, patchy face to Johnny's now impressively purple eye. She frowns. "What the hell have you done to my kids?"
Tracy glares at her. "You're never going away again. Ever." She strokes Moses' hair and shakes her head. "I've been painting this one in calamine lotion every five minutes for the past day and a half."
She turns to Ross. "And what about him? What happened?"
Ross looks down at Johnny's sleeping face and smiles. "Johnny fought his first dragon today. And won."
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