The melodious little chirps of curious cardinals filled the morning air, floating into Nate’s room as the boy roused from his slumber. As he blinked away the sleep a little smile crept across his lips, inexplicably happy to see the sunlight pouring into his room and the colorful birds that roosted just outside his window. That little smile widened into a cheek-splitting grin when he turned over and saw Will standing in the door frame.
“Good morning, sleepyhead.” His teacher grinned. “It’s time to get up. We’ve got to get you ready for school.”
The boy blinked and frowned as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes. School? His eyes brightened. Oh yeah! School is where Will came from!
“Okay!” The boy nodded and smiled at Will. He liked school.
“Alright then!” Will said as he took Nate’s hands and hoisted him out of bed. “Uppsy daisy!”
Still holding onto Nate’s palm the teacher led his pupil into the bathroom, where a warm bath - complete with bubbles and toys! - had already been run. The boy grew so giddy at the sight that he didn’t even think it odd when Will tugged down his briefs - after all, they had to come down so he could get in the tub, and he happily lifted his feet so that his teacher could get them off. Once he was naked Nate hopped into the tub and immediately began splashing about, getting water all over the tile floor.
“Hang tight in there for a minute, buddy.” Will said as he suppressed a laugh at his student’s antics. “I’m gonna go get your clothes.”
“’Kay!” The boy said, too occupied with making motor noises and running little plastic boats over the water to really hear what his teacher said. After a little while he grew bored with that and began playing with the bubbles that floated on the water’s surface, giggling and squirming as he plastered them to his hair, his face, his chest...anywhere they would stick. When Will came back into the bathroom the boy suddenly jumped to his feet and growled at his teacher, his hands twisted into claws and his lips curled in an oddly playful scowl.
“I’m the bubble monster!” He roared. “An’ I’m gonna eat you!”
Will stopped, blinked...and immediately burst out laughing. Though he had tried to suppress it the scene before him was just too cute for words. Four days ago Nate had been the big man on campus, an arrogant, hot-headed superstar that no one dared cross. But now? All Will saw was a silly little boy playing in the tub, covered in bubbles, unconcerned with - in fact, seemingly proud of - his own nudity. For his part, Nate broke out in giggles when his teacher began to laugh, giddy with the knowledge that his silliness had made his teacher happy.
“Okay, bubble monster.” Will chuckled as he laid Nate’s clothes on the counter and kneeled by the tub. “Sit back down so I can rinse you, okay?”
Nate did as he was told, occupying himself with a plastic frog while his teacher grabbed the little bucket that he had mixed in with the bath toys. After filling it up Will poured the bathwater over the unsuspecting boy’s head, causing Nate to sputter and fume adorably.
“Sorry.” Will chuckled. “Time to get out, bud.”
“Just a little longer?” Nate begged. “Please?”
“Tell you what.” Will said as he pulled out the plug. “You can stay in until the water’s gone, okay?”
“’Kay!” It was an abstract enough length of time that Nate felt he had won, continuing to play as the water vanished and left him naked save for the stray bubbles that clung to his muscular frame. It wasn’t until Will took him under the arms and lifted him to his feet that the boy finally stepped out of the tub, dripping on the bath mat as he allowed his teacher to dry him off.
“Squeaky clean!” Will declared as he reached for Nate’s clothing. “Lift your feet, okay?”
Nate did as he was told, allowing Will to slide a pair of briefs up his student’s legs. It wasn’t until they were up around his waist that the boy realized that they were different from the ones he had been wearing when he woke up...though the new pair was white they featured a lizard green trim and a variety of dinosaurs roaming around on the undergarment’s fabric. Nate frowned.
“I’m not s’pposed to be wearin’ these.” He mumbled. Will cocked his head and put a hand on his confused student’s arm.
“Why not?” He asked. “They’re just like the ones you wore to bed.”
“Nuh-uh.” Nate shook his head. “This one’s got colors. And dinosaurs.”
“Well, sure it does.” Will smiled. “Don’t you like dinosaurs?”
The boy’s confusion deepened. ’Course I like dinosaurs, he thought. And though a moment ago he knew there was some profound, important reason as to why he shouldn’t be wearing colorful briefs with tiny dinosaurs plastered all over them...it completely escaped him now.
“Do you want to take them off?”
The question snapped the boy out of his trance. He grinned and shook his head.
“Nuh-uh.” He said. “Dinosaurs are cool.”
“They sure are, buddy. That’s why I got you those briefs and this shirt. Arms up!” The boy raised his hands and allowed Will to bring a t-shirt down onto his body - a baby blue garment that featured a smiling cartoon triceratops on its chest. Nate looked up at his teacher and beamed.
“That’s my favorite!” He declared.
“Yeah? You like the triceratops?”
“Uh-huh. The twicewatopth.”
“Very good, Nate!” Nate blushed at his teacher’s praise as he stepped into a pair of jeans. “Now, go sit at the table while I finish breakfast, okay?”
The boy nodded and scampered out of the bathroom, giggling madly when Will gave him a slap on the rear to send him on his way. It was only a few minutes before the teacher had the meal all ready, pouring the boy a tall glass of milk and setting a heaping platter of pancakes before him. Nate allowed his teacher to tuck a shirt into his collar - so as to not ruin his cool new shirt - and only complained a little bit afterwards when Will wiped away the lingering syrup from the squirming boy’s face. Once he had cleared the table the teacher helped the overexcited boy pull on his backpack and grinned at the squeal of joy Nate let loose when Will handed him his lunch - which was contained within a plastic lunchbox adorned with playful dinosaurs.
“You ready, bud?” Will asked.
“Uh huh!” Nate nodded. “Let’s go!”
On the way to the school Nate was an irrepressible ball of energy - when he wasn’t going on and on about the finer details of his favorite dinosaurs he was telling Will how much he liked school and how excited he was to be going there.
“Why do you like school so much?” Will asked.
“’Cause that’s where you are!” Nate said, as though it were obvious.
“Well, sure...” The teacher grinned. “But I don’t live at school, y’know.”
“You don’t?!” Nate exclaimed, dumbstruck. Will laughed and ruffled his pupil’s hair.
It wasn’t until they pulled into the parking lot that the boy’s enthusiasm began to fade - matter of fact, it disappeared altogether. A moment ago he seemed thrilled at the idea of going to school, but now, as he cowered in his seat and looked worriedly out his window, Nate seemed nothing short of terrified at the prospect.
“Nate?” Will frowned, noticing his pupil’s distress. “What’s the matter?”
“Don’ wanna go.” The boy muttered.
“What? Why not?” Will asked as he placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “A second ago you couldn’t wait to go to school.”
“They’re gonna...” Nate swallowed and shyly looked up at his teacher.
“They’re gonna be mean to me.”
“Aww, Nate...” Will chuckled. “Nobody’s going to be mean to you.”
“Yeah huh!” The boy countered as he began to sniffle. Shadows of what had happened to him on Friday night flashed before his eyes...though the details were hazy he distinctly remembered a bunch of big boys - just like the ones he saw heading for the school’s entrance - making fun of him and driving him to tears. Will rubbed his pupil’s shoulder and looked into his eyes.
“I know you can do this, buddy.” He said, softly and clearly. “All you need to do is be brave, just like Oscar. Can you do that for me? Can you be my big brave boy?”
Nate wiped his eyes and peeked out the window. Though what lay waiting out there petrified him - gripped him with the kind of inexplicable terror usually reserved for little boys with monsters under their beds or vampires in their closets - he wanted to be brave for Will. He wanted to so badly. So, it was with brimming eyes that Nate turned to Will and give him a little nod, letting him know that, with his teacher by his side, the boy could do anything. After rewarding the Nate’s courage with a wide smile and a tweak of the nose, Will got out of the car, opened the boy’s door, and took his hand to help him out into the big scary world that surrounded them.
Even before they reached the front door Nate felt himself growing anxious and afraid. It seemed as though everybody that saw the pair immediately did a double take, turning and staring in their direction, no doubt confused as to why the school’s star quarterback seemed so timid - and, more importantly, why he was holding hands with a teacher. The prying eyes multiplied in number when they entered the building and headed for the central plaza, where hundreds of students relaxed, socialized, and finished their homework in the final moments before class started. When they stepped into the center of the common area nothing happened for a moment - and then people started to take notice, sending a wave of soft murmurs rippling through the crowd. Within a moment it seemed like everyone in the area was gaping at them - and whatever courage Nate had was long gone.
“Will...” The boy murmured as he scanned the staring masses. “I...I...”
“Nate, listen to me.” Will said as he dropped to one knee and looked up at his terrified pupil. “I’ve got to go now, okay? I’ve got a class to teach.”
The boy’s eyes widened and his lip trembled.
“No!” He screamed, drawing the attention of anyone that hadn’t been watching.
“I’ve got to, buddy - ”
“Noooo!” Tears began streaking down the boy’s reddening cheeks. “You can’t go! You can’t! You...you...”
Before the boy could finish his thought he became aware of a strange sound, a sort of low giggling that in a matter of seconds grew to a cacophonous roar of laughter. When he looked up Nate saw that, in addition to staring, the members of the crowd were now pointing and laughing at the boy. At first, he couldn’t figure out what they thought was so funny...until he looked down and saw a rapidly growing dark spot spreading over the front of his jeans. Nate blinked twice...and then screwed up his face and began to bawl. For many in the crowd, it was such a dream come true that they didn’t even question why it was happening - they were taking too much joy from watching the big bad quarterback that had made so many of them miserable wailing in despair as he helplessly wet his pants. Their laughter rung in between Nate’s ears, only deepening his misery, chasing after him and Will as the teacher grabbed his pupil’s hand and pulled him back the way they came.
As they ran out the front doors a thousand different thoughts buzzed through the boy’s mind - but as the flow continued they began to disappear one by one, sucked in the black hole of despair his utter embarrassment had created. By the time the stream stopped and the pair reached Will’s car the boy was still bawling - though he wouldn’t have been able to tell anybody why even if he were calm enough to do so. Words had lost their meaning - thoughts became sounds and colors. And so it was that when Nate was laid down in the backseat and stripped of his soaked jeans and underwear he cried just for the sake of crying, needing to let someone, anyone know that he needed their aid and comfort.
It wasn’t until Will began wiping the boy down that he calmed a little bit, his blubbering turning to little hiccupping sobs as the teacher did the best he could with the tissues and bottled water he had kicking around in the backseat. Once Nate was reasonably clean his crying became nothing but soft little whines, and those too disappeared when Will pulled the boy into a sitting position and gave him a hug and a kiss on the forehead. Nate sniffled and kicked his bare legs, looking around with wide, unfocused eyes as Will buckled him into his seat. After a few minutes it was as though the incident never happened, as the boy had became entranced with the happenings of the outside world, from the birds who bobbed and weaved alongside the car to the children in adjacent vehicles, who smiled and waved at Nate when they saw him. Luckily, the boy went unnoticed by the children’s parents - or else they might have wondered why an eighteen-year-old was wearing nothing but a dinosaur t-shirt and giggling at birds and sunbeams.
Such was his fascination that Nate didn’t even notice they weren’t headed to his apartment - not that he seemed to care when the fact became patently obvious. After pulling into his garage, Will opened Nate’s door...and smiled when the boy’s face lit up at the sight of him.
“Welcome home, buddy.” Will whispered.
The boy’s mouth hung open and his hands were stretched out in search of an embrace. Will was more than happy to accommodate the boy, wrapping his arms around Nate’s body and then using every bit of his strength to hoist him out of the car. It was a bit of a juggling act, but eventually he managed to get the boy inside, carrying him through his home as Nate curiously examined his surroundings.
“Do you like your new digs?” The teacher smiled. Nate responded with a jerky motion of his arm and a string of babbles. “Well, if you think this is cool, wait until you see your room.”
Will walked down the hall and pushed open the door that lay at the end...to reveal the nursery that lay within. With cornflower blue walls, a toy chest filled to bursting, and a bevy of stuffed toys piled in the corner, it was clear that this room was meant for a baby boy - in fact, the only items that were out of place were the oversized crib and changing table, both of which were clearly big enough for a full grown man. After Nate had been laid down on that table Will plucked a diaper from its bin and laid it beneath the boy’s bottom. Nate, for his part, didn’t seem put off by the situation at all - all the boy did was pop his thumb into his mouth and kick his legs as Will brought the front close and sealed the tapes shut.
“There!” He said as he tickled Nate’s tummy, drawing a string of giggles from the squirming boy. “Snug as a bug in a rug.”
With that, Will hoisted Nate off the table and set him on the ground. The teacher crossed his legs and sat down right next to the boy, pulling him - with some effort - into his lap. Nate immediately cuddled up against Will’s chest, still sucking his thumb as the man stroked the boy’s hair and sighed.
“I’m really sorry about what you went through today, Nate.” Will murmured. “The only reason I even brought you to school was because I wanted to make sure you were past it, that you wouldn’t miss everything you had been as a big boy.”
The teacher turned to look into Nate’s eyes - the boy met his gaze for a moment before becoming distracted by the particles of dust dancing in the sunlight.
“From the second you stepped into my class I knew that you needed help.” He explained. “I had seen your type before, but never had they carried the kind of pure spite and anger that seemed to fuel every single thing you did. But you and I weren’t exactly friends, Nate...there wasn’t really a chance for me to get close to you and figure out what had happened to make you so mean.
“That’s why I jumped at the chance when the principal said you needed private tutoring. And as soon as we started talking, I knew exactly what you had been missing.”
Will leaned his head against Nate’s.
“You needed a father, Nate.” He said. “As much as anybody’s ever needed anything, you needed someone to show you what it was to be a man...to teach you kindness and compassion...and how to get along in the world. When you told me about your uncle I knew that he was a great man, that, if given the chance, he would have been everything you needed. I don’t know if I can be the kind of man he was - but I’m damn sure ready to give it a try.”
Suddenly, the boy turned to the man and cocked his head, his wide, innocent eyes examining Will inside and out.
“Da...” He gurgled. “Da-da?”
Will’s mouth hung open and his eyes brimmed with tears. He pulled the boy close and kissed the top of his forehead, openly crying as the boy repeated the word over and over.
“That’s right.” Nate whispered. “It’s da-da. It’s your daddy. Such a smart boy. Such a smart, wonderful boy. I love you so much, Nate. So very, very much.”
The boy squealed and clamped his arms around his daddy best he could, giving him the biggest hug he could manage, both happier in each other’s arms than either of them had ever been before.