Nate groaned and rolled over in bed, the blanket coiled around his body as though it were a ravenous serpent. As he blinked the sleep away from his eyes the events of the previous evening came rushing back to him, and with it the anguish and heartbreak that had reduced him to tears in front of the entire locker room. All of a sudden, even with the day being Saturday and the entire weekend stretched out in front of him, staying in bed for the rest of the day seemed like a pretty good idea...
...and he might have done so were it not for the jerk that wouldn’t stop poking at his doorbell. The young man covered his ears with his pillow but that alone wasn’t enough to drown out the sound. With no other alternative, Nate tossed the covers aside and threw on some clothes, muttering under his breath as he did so. When he reached the front door, he was all ready to unleash the embarrassment and anger that still bubbled within him on the poor soul that had interrupted his sleep...until he threw it open and saw Will standing on his doorstep. Nate’s eyes widened as he felt himself overcome by a whirlwind of conflicting emotions. So lost was he in his own thoughts that he almost didn’t hear Will when he finally spoke.
“Sorry.” Nate mumbled. “What did you say?”
“I asked if I could come in.” Will said in a soft voice. Nate bit his lip and chewed on the idea for a moment...before opening the door and stepping aside. Will nodded and offered his pupil a small smile as he entered the apartment, taking in the young man’s living arrangements as Nate closed the door and stepped in front of his teacher.
“What are you doing here?” He asked, his arms crossed and his eyes cast towards the ground.
Will frowned as he looked his student.
“Did something happen after the game?” He asked. “When you ran by me in the hall you looked really upset.
Nate shrugged and looked away.
“No.” He muttered, a little more petulantly than he had intended. “I’m fine.”
Will drew a step closer. Nate fidgeted but held his ground.
“I want you to know...” Will said, “That you can always come to me if there’s something wrong. If you have a problem, let me know - and I’ll do everything I can to help you.”
The words struck Nate deep within. In an instant he was back in that locker room, bombarded by the jeers and laughter of his teammates, wishing the ground would open up and swallow him whole, remembering how he prayed for somebody, anybody to come and make them stop being mean to him. He shook his head and tried to lose the feelings. No! It’s his fault! It’s his fault they even... Though he wanted to scream at Will, to shout that he didn’t need his help, that he had only made things worse...something was holding him back. Suddenly all he could think of was the way he felt when he looked up in the stands and saw Will looking down on him - and the joy that filled his heart when he saw his teacher’s smile. The way he had nearly broken down when Will said that he was proud. Ever so slowly, Nate looked up at his teacher’s face, at the expression that was so warm, so full of kindness and understanding. You can tell me, it seemed to say. It’s okay. I’ll make everything all better.
He couldn’t hold it back any longer. With tears filling his eyes the young man threw himself into Will’s arms and buried his face in his teacher’s shoulder.
“I-I thought they were my friends...” He got out between sobs. “B-But they made fun of me, and they called me names, and they said I was a little boy and that you were an asshole and - ”
“Shhh, shhh. It’s okay.” Will murmured as he comforted his distraught pupil and gently rubbed his back. “I’ve got you. I’m here.”
Nate’s cries softened to a series of sniffles and hiccups, but even after those faded he was hesitant to pull away. He felt...safe. Happy. Though he knew that it was a silly, childish notion, at that moment he felt as though, so long as he was in Will’s arms, no harm would come his way. A tiny voice deep inside Nate’s mind screamed that this was all wrong, that he didn’t need help from anybody, that he was a man - but it only grew softer and weaker with every second spent in Will’s embrace...until it disappeared altogether.
“There.” Will said as he pulled away. “Feel better?”
Nate nodded - with one last little sniffle - and managed a smile. When the young man stepped back he saw that he had practically soaked Will’s shoulder with his tears.
“I’m sorry!” He blurted out as his teacher took notice. “I didn’t mean to!”
Will chuckled and brushed his shoulder.
“It’s okay.” He turned to Nate with a goofy grin on his face. “This shirt was due to be washed anyway.”
The young man laughed at the stupid joke - and just like that, everything was okay.
“So, now that we’ve got that taken care of...” Will said as he put his hands on his hips and looked around the room. “Why don’t we clean this place up a little bit?”
“Do we have to?” He asked. “It’s not like I’m going to be here much longer.”
“No, you definitely won’t.” Will pursed his lips. “Tell you what - after you help me get things in order I’ll give you a present. How does that sound?”
Nate’s face broke into a big toothy smile - that he immediately tried to repress since it weakened his bargaining position.
“Let me have the present first.” He insisted. “Then we’ll clean.”
Will clicked his teeth and shook his finger.
“That’s not the deal.”
“Aww!” Nate sighed. “Fiiiiiiiiine.”
Will chuckled and gave his pupil a playful little shove, drawing a grin and a giggle from the cheerful young man. The project was seemingly more ambitious than Will realized, as he had not been aware that every other part of the apartment was just as messy as the living room. Still, they worked together well, and on the rare occasions that Nate slacked off it only took Will a bit of encouragement or a friendly slap on the behind to get him going again. Though it took most of the morning and all of the meager cleaning supplies Nate had on hand the job eventually got done.
“Much better.” Will declared as he exhaled and took in the results of their work. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
“I guess not.” The young man admitted. His face suddenly lit up. “Oh yeah! The present! Let me have the present!”
Will held up a finger and raised his eyebrows.
“What do you say?”
Nate cocked his head before grinning in realization of what his teacher wanted.
The teacher smiled.
“That’s better.” Will reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet, his pupil growing so anxious with anticipation that it looked as though he might burst at any moment.
“Ta-da!” The teacher plucked out a pair of tickets as though he were pulling a rabbit from a hat. “I’ve got two passes to today’s Warhawks game with our names on ?em. Fifty yard line, ten rows up. Best seats in the house.”
Nate dimly felt his jaw drop. The Warhawks were the football team of the university in the state’s capital - and tickets were nigh impossible to come by. So for Will to not only get such great seats but to be wiling to share them with him was...
“Awesome!” The young man cried. “That’s so awesome! Thank you!”
“You’re very welcome.” Will chuckled. “The game starts in a couple hours - go put on a coat and then we’ll get going, okay?”
“Okay!” Nate chirped. He half-ran, half-skipped to his room and rifled through his closet for an appropriate coat, finding the task much easier now that he and Will had put them all in order. The young man literally couldn’t stay still, such was the giddy energy that flowed through his veins - but he was stopped cold when he came across his varsity jacket, which had been mixed in with his other garments. When his eyes fell on the jacket, on that coat of arms that he wore so proudly when walking Wellesley’s halls, Nate felt as though he had been slapped across the face with a stiff, unforgiving hand. The young man shook his head as though breaking free from a trance and stared at the ground, his expression fraught with worry and confusion. What the hell am I doing? Nothing about this is right. Not only did I cry in a teacher’s arms but then I let him boss me around like I was a little kid or something. Nate swallowed as he realized that it wasn’t inappropriate for Will to be treating him like a child. After all, he had been acting like one the entire morning. The fact that he came to that realization so casually chilled the young man to his bones - and it was at that moment that he decided to find out exactly what was going on.
“Nate?” Will called out. “Are you all right in there? Do you need some help?”
“Uh, I’m fine.” Nate squeaked as he grabbed a coat at random and threw it on. When he stepped back out into the living room he avoided his teacher’s eyes, which were studying him with genuine concern.
“Everything okay, buddy?” His teacher asked.
Nate looked up at his teacher, at the kind, gentle expression that he just couldn’t bring himself to sour. Not now, he thought.
“Yeah.” He said, managing a smile. “Yeah. Let’s go.”
“Glad to hear it.” The teacher said as he patted his pupil on the back and led him to the door. Nate felt the smile fade from his lips as the two of them headed outside and climbed into Will’s car. He’s been so nice to me, the young man thought. And I don’t want to ruin this day for him. Those tickets must have cost a lot - it’d be rude of me to turn them down. And I really, really want to go...
He looked up at Will, who gave Nate a broad grin as he put his car into gear and pulled it out onto the street.
“Next stop, Warhawk Stadium!” Will declared.
Nate felt a little bit of that now familiar giddiness rise above the uncertainty that bubbled within him. After the game, he resolved. I’ll get some answers then.
When they arrived at the stadium the ceremonies were in full swing. Though the game was relatively unimportant that hadn’t stopped the flood of diehard fans from filling the to its capacity - and even as kickoff approached countless thousands lingered in the parking lot, determined to tailgate right up until the very last minute. As Nate stepped out of the car and took in the scene he couldn’t help but get swept up in the excitement that surrounded him. Questions still lingered in the back of their mind but suddenly they seemed incredibly unimportant - his only concern at the moment was having as much fun as possible.
“Are you excited?” Will asked as the two of them headed for the front gate.
“Who’s your favorite player?”
“Uh...” Nate gave the question a moment of deep thought before looking up at his teacher with a smile that could have brightened a city. “Owen Richman!”
“Oh yeah?” Will mused. “Do you like him because he’s the quarterback, like you?”
“Not only ?cause he’s the quarterback.” Nate informed his teacher, as though it were obvious. “He’s, like, the best player on the team! The best player in the conference! Last year, um, he almost won the Heisman, but the stupid voters gave it to that dumb linebacker from Michigan instead. But he still won the Maxwell Award, and the Davey O’Brien award, an’...”
The young man babbled on about the Warhawks’ quarterback before eventually moving on to the other players on the team that he liked. Will allowed Nate to gush to his heart’s content, even as the teacher and his pupil entered the stadium and navigated its labyrinth innards in search of their seats. When they reached the appropriate gate Nate suddenly fell silent, having taken notice of the concerned expression on Will’s face.
“What’s the matter?” He asked.
“I just realized something.” The teacher said as he looked Nate up and down. “You don’t have a jersey on! How will anybody know who your favorite player if you’re not wearing his jersey?”
Nate’s eyes widened. That’s right! How will they know? Before this moment, it wasn’t a concern that had crossed his mind - but now that Will had brought it up it seemed like the most important thing in the world.
“What are we gonna do?” Nate moaned, crestfallen. Will stroked his chin for a moment before he was seemingly struck by an idea. He turned to his student and smiled.
“Come with me.” The teacher said as he gestured for Nate to follow him. After a moment’s exploration they found a merchandise stand, and without a moment’s hesitation, Will pointed at a replica Richman jersey and asked the woman to ring it up. When Nate noticed the item’s price he couldn’t hold back his gasp.
“That’s so expensive!” He turned to Will with wide, disbelieving eyes. “Are you buying that for me?”
“That’s the idea.” Will said as he handed over his credit card. “Why? Do you not want it?”
“I do!” Nate blurted out before he could catch himself. He squirmed and looked at the ground. “But it’s so much money...and I don’t know why...”
“You don’t know why...?”
When Nate spoke again his voice was almost at a whisper.
“I don’t know why you’re being so nice to me...”
Will laughed softly and wrapped an arm around his pupil’s shoulders.
“Aww, buddy...” The teacher chuckled. “You’re a good student and a great person. I like you very much. Isn’t that enough reason to be nice to somebody?”
“... uh huh.” Nate turned red as he looked into his teacher’s eyes. “I like you too.”
Will ruffled Nate’s hair and grinned, drawing a shy smile from his embarrassed pupil. He turned back to the woman running the stand and took the jersey from her hands, ignoring the strange look she was giving the pair as he did so.
“Here we go.” Will said as he plucked the tag off and tossed it away. “Take off your jacket and put your arms up.”
Nate did as he was told, setting his jacket on the counter and raising his hands in the air. Will lifted the jersey up and pulled the sleeves over his arms - having to stand on his toes to do so, a sight that elicited a giggle from the young man - before bringing it down over his pupil’s head. Once the jersey was on his body Nate looked down at himself, blinked...and then looked up at his teacher with a cheek-splitting grin.
“This is so cool!” He declared. “Thank you!”
“You’re welcome, buddy. Now c’mon - if we don’t hurry we’re going to miss kickoff.”
Will held out his hand - and without even thinking about it, Nate took it and let his teacher guide him through the crowd, his smile only widening as he realized that this was just the beginning to what was sure to be a great day.
The game was a blast. Though it hadn’t exactly been competitive that didn’t temper Nate’s enthusiasm one bit. He took in every moment of the contest with wide, spellbound eyes, not daring to miss a single play. And when the Warhawks scored - especially when the quarterback was the one responsible - he cheered louder and longer than anyone else in his section. Though Will was involved in the game he made no effort to match his pupil’s zeal. The young man was so ridiculously excited to be there that one would think he had never been to a football game before. Even when the final whistle blew and the pair made their way out to the car -Will holding onto his pupil’s hand the entire way - Nate’s excitement refused to dissipate, using his seemingly limitless supply of energy to let his teacher know what his favorite plays of the game were and tell him for what felt like the twentieth time that day just how awesome Owen Richmond was. It wasn’t until Nate and Will were well into their trip home that the young man finally began to tire, finally growing quiet as his eyelids sagged and a heavy yawn escaped his lips.
“Getting tired, buddy?” Will asked.
“No.” Nate insisted, even as he began to nod off. “I’m fine.”
“Well, okay. But it’s a pretty long trip - maybe you should just close your eyes for a few minutes.”
Nate mumbled something unintelligible in argument though closed his eyes just the same - but as sleep began to creep over the corners of his mind the young man was suddenly struck by a thought.
“I was supposed to...” He mumbled with a frown. “I was supposed to ask you something.”
“Oh? What was it?”
Nate knew that whatever he was supposed to ask was really, really important...but for the life of him he couldn’t remember what it was.
Will chuckled and reached over to give Nate’s shoulder a little rub.
“That’s okay, pal - maybe you’ll remember when you wake up.”
To Nate’s exhaustion addled brain that seemed like a perfectly reasonable idea - and so the young man allowed the sleep to swallow him whole, snuggling up best he could in the passenger seat as he drifted off and dreamt of football glory.
“Wake up, bud.”
Nate’s eyes fluttered open. As the haze clouding his vision cleared away he could see Will crouched over him, returning his teacher’s smile with a sleepy grin of his own.
“We’re home.” Will said as he offered his palm.
The young man yawned, rubbed his eyes, and took his teacher’s hand, allowing Will to pull him to his feet and out of the car. Once they were inside Nate’s apartment the young man immediately plopped on the couch as Will headed for the kitchen.
“Are you hungry?” The teacher called out as he puttered around in the fridge. Nate’s stomach rumbled and in an instant he was awake.
“Yeah.” He called back. “Can we have pizza?”
“Mmm, not tonight, pal.” Will said as he examined the kitchen’s meager offerings. “How does spaghetti sound?”
“...okay.” Nate mumbled, unable to work up any enthusiasm for anything that wasn’t pizza.
“I’ll get dinner started. You can watch TV until it gets here, okay?”
After flipping around for a little while Nate settled on a sports highlight show and curled into the couch, watching with drifting interest until Will declared that dinner was ready. Nate turned off the TV and headed into the kitchen, where Will was piling a heaping portion of pasta on his plate. As far as home-cooked meals went, it was pretty basic - but all the same, Nate found himself slurping down the savory strands with a surprising amount of satisfaction. When he had cleaned his plate the young man released a theatric sigh and patted his full belly, drawing a chuckle from his teacher as he rose from his seat.
“I’m glad you liked it.” He grinned. “Why don’t you put in a movie in while I clear the table?”
“Any one I want?”
“Any one you want.”
Though his belly was filled to his brim it didn’t slow Nate down one bit. In a flash he was on his knees in front of the cabinet that housed his DVDs, running his finger over their spines in search of the perfect choice. After a moment he came across a relic of his collection, an animated feature named Oscar’s Grand Adventure that he had received for his thirteenth birthday. The childish title mortified him as much then as it did now...but just the same, his hand lingered on its case, and the young man found himself pulling it from the shelf, looking over the cover as the idea of watching the movie grew more appealing with each passing second. For whatever reason the young man found himself pulling the film from the cabinet, studying the cover as though the cheerful illustration could provide some insight as to why he was unable to move past it.
“Is that what you want to watch?”
Nate jumped and looked up to see Will standing over him.
“No. Of course not.” The young man said as though insulted by the idea. “It’s for little kids.”
“That’s too bad.” Will shrugged. “I heard it was really good.”
“Mmm hmm. But if you want to watch something else...”
Nate frowned and returned his eyes to the cover. It doesn’t look that bad, he reasoned. And the colorful, smiling characters were growing oddly appealing...
“Okay.” He mumbled as he handed the case to his teacher. “We can watch this if you really want to.”
Will grinned as he took the movie from his pupil’s hand.
When the film started Nate sat on the couch with his arms crossed and a sour look on his face, determined to show his teacher that he was too old for this sort of silliness and that they were just watching it to make him happy. But as the story unfolded the young man found himself transfixed by the simple plot and charming characters, laughing at every joke that was cracked and gasping at some of the scarier moments. As the film drew to its inevitable happy ending Nate was filled with a kind of pure, unspoiled satisfaction, exceedingly glad and relieved that the heroes he had grown so attached to over the past ninety minutes ended up okay.
“It’s getting kinda late, pal.” Will said as the credits rolled. “I guess I should be going.”
“Oh. Okay.” Nate mumbled, unable to hide his disappointment. He looked up at his teacher with hopeful eyes. “Can you come back tomorrow?”
“Do you promise?”
“Of course.” Will grinned as he ruffled Nate’s hair. “And if you promise to go to bed after I leave, I’ll let you decide what we do tomorrow. Sound good?”
“Yeah!” Nate chirped.
“Do you promise?”
“Glad to hear it. Good night, buddy.”
As he watched Will leave Nate was gripped by a momentary panic, suddenly convinced that he was never going to see him again. He was a moment away from chasing after his teacher so he could beg him not to go - but just as he was about to fling open the door and call after him the young man managed to get a hold of himself and realize just how silly his concerns were. Of course he’s coming back, Nate told himself. He promised he would.
Though Nate wanted to stay up a little while longer he decided to honor his own promise and go to bed. The young man yawned heavily as he stripped down to his boxer briefs, shucking the rest of his clothing onto the floor before turning off the lights and crawling under the covers. Nate closed his eyes and snuggled up against his pillow - but there was something about the silent, dark stillness that surrounded him that made him uneasy. All of a sudden he felt terribly alone...and it wasn’t until he plucked the jersey off the ground and clutched it against his body that the young man was able to finally, peacefully drift away.