It's almost too cold to be playing football outside. The players' breaths hang sharp and white in the air and their faces are wet with sweat or drizzle or both. Teenage boys in uniforms pushing each other around, strands of wet hair clinging to their foreheads, grass stains on their knees, and the air smells like fall. It's the same every year and it never fails to make his chest tighten, a quiet hitch that never makes it as far as an audible breath.
"Okay guys, two lines behind White and Jackson, let's go!" The Coach Voice rings across the field, commanding attention. He learned from his mentor back in college, who reminds him of Beiste, if she were half her actual size and an ex-Olympic field hockey player, that the whistle should be reserved for serious situations. He does carry one, but it means "stop what you're doing right now" and he is careful not to use it too often. Boys are can ignore pretty much anything, if it happens even once without immediate consequence - years of eating pizza on the balcony at two a.m while the fire alarm blares (not his fault that his idiot neighbors fell asleep while cooking again) prove that he is no different. So he just makes sure not to do anything that he's not prepared to follow through to the bitter end, and it seems to work okay. The players are forming two fairly orderly lines, the few stragglers at least realizing that they're out of place. He smiles to himself as his boys run through their drills in order, without being shouted at once. He's taught them well.
Dave sticks around on the field until all the players have left for the locker room. He likes to stay back and watch, it gives him a slightly better idea of whatever craziness is going on in their teenage heads. It also offers them a low key chance to approach him. Usually there will be a guy taking his time cleaning up equipment, or fiddling with a headband, or retying his shoelaces, or any excuse to stay behind and talk to the coach without actually having to go and find him and ask for his time. It's ridiculous the way they'll put their 16-year-old selves in his hands, for doing nothing at all except being a few years older than them and trying to teach them how to play football. He is pretty sure he doesn't deserve it, but he sure as hell tries. If you want to get all philosophical about it, he's got things to make right. But usually he doesn't think about that, he just looks at them, so impossibly young - babies, really, children in six foot bodies. He knows people are scared of them, but he can't really see it. Most of the time he just wants to give them a hug.
He doesn't, though, because come on, he's the gay football coach. Though he isn't explicitly out to the kids (and isn't that a guilt trip for another day), and he doesn't really date or anything, there is no way someone doesn't know. Lima isn't that big, and though it's been years...it's a matter of time. He must have played against some of their older brothers. So, yeah, he doesn't touch them ever and he stays far, far away from the showers. It's a reasonable precaution, but it still makes him sad. He never appreciated how hard it must have been for Beiste, avoiding any risk of seeing too much without drawing attention to the fact that there's anything to avoid, but he's thankful now that he played for her. It gives him a sort of model for how to organize things. If the kids question it, they don't do it where he can hear.
John Jackson is tall, blond, and thin in a way that is probably just a phase. He looks like he should be clumsy, and he moves like he expects himself to be, until he loses himself in the game and becomes thoughtlessly graceful. He hides in big hoodies and headsets, bad hair and worse posture, and Dave's been watching him all year, trying to draw him out. It's not really working. But today... John is not waiting for him, not exactly, but he's walking aimlessly like he's trying to decide between the bleachers and the locker room. Dave sighs. One more try.
"John!" He stops, turns without quite meeting Dave's eyes.
"Great job on the running drills today. How's your knee?" John gives him a half shrug.
"Okay, I guess. It doesn't hurt. I mean, it's...I don't know, I wanna play but the knee...um. I've been thinking about quitting the football team." It all comes out in a mumbled rush so quick Dave isn't sure he heard correctly. He looks at the curtain of hair. Shit. He doesn't want to screw this up, doesn't want to fail this kid, and he's pretty sure he is.
"Okay, first of all you know it's totally up to you if you want to play or not. But I have to say, I would really miss having you on my team this year. You're more talented than you think, John, and you've got a good head for it. So if there's anything I can do to help you make it work, I want you to let me know."
Dave shouldn't be the nervous one, but hey, he's pretty new at this. This is probably his chance to give a kid someone to talk to. He really wants to be that one who makes a difference, but he remembers all too well the ineffectual adults who tried to get through to him at his worst, and he fears that Jackson will have to fight his own way out of whatever this is. Damn, why does it have to be so hard.
"If you're injured you need to tell me any time it hurts too much and you can stop. Any time, and I'll never hold it against you, okay? I know you're a hard worker and I trust you with that."
John smiles a little, but it's a rueful smile, the smile of a guy who is touched by the effort but also pretty sure his problem can't be fixed.
"Yeah, I know. I guess I'll give it another shot."
He shrugs again and wanders off towards the locker room. The other guys are probably almost gone by now. Dave will go do some paperwork, give John some time, and then he can come back and lock up.
It's not like anyone is waiting for him at home, anyway. He sighs, imagining in a flash another life, one where he's eating dinner with his husband every night (and where did that come from, since when does he want to get married) instead of with his father once a week. His imaginary husband looks a lot like Josh Hutcherson, apparently, and he wears a suit to work. He's taken off his jacket and tie, settling in comfortably in Dave's kitchen in rolled up shirt sleeves and suspenders and...
Wow. Someone really needs to get a grip and fill out this damn form.
He enters the classroom carrying a stack of graded tests, three textbooks including one college-level one the size and weight of the smallest plates he'll deign to use in the gym, and a couple of binders. With the help of a student, one of the pretty geeky girls who doesn't know yet that she's destined to break a dozen science majors' hearts in college, he gets through the door and dumps it all on his desk with a loud thump.
"Thank you, Sophia." He smiles at her, then wonders if he smiled too much, if she has a crush on him, if the other students will think she's sucking up. Oh well.
"Good morning, everyone." A mumbled chorus of "Good morning, Mr. Karofsky". He may never get used to that.
"As you can see, I've got your tests graded and ready. No, you won't get them back quite yet" - six hands drop from their raised positions - "as usual, yes, I know you want to see your grades, but there are a few things I want to go over while I still have a part of your attention. Now, as a class you did really well, but there are a few concepts, starting with this function here..." He turns to the board and starts sketching a coordinate system.
He thinks he's doing okay with classroom management. It's not fair, but it helps being physically intimidating. He knows a few of the girls resented him for it when they were student teaching, especially the young-looking ones who were constantly asked if they had a hall pass, and he understands. He does get some authority essentially for free, so at least he tries to use it for good. Like right now, Jayden White is throwing bits of paper at the boy in front of him, who is obviously trying to ignore it. They both seem convinced that he is not only blind but stupid, which should probably go without saying, since he's their algebra teacher.
That must have been his most uncomfortable realization on the way to becoming a teacher. He'd assumed that so many things were simply invisible to adults, but he'd been wrong. He saw so much. And that meant that his teachers must have seen, too, and then chosen not to.
"Jayden! Paper should stay on your desk, in one piece, please. Thank you."
Jayden looks up at him, still surprised to be called on it even though it's about the fiftieth time Dave's done so, and he doesn't want to think about what happens in his other classes to make him so confident. There are a few snickers from nearby desks, which Jayden shuts down with his best co-captain-of-the-football-team glare. Still, he puts his hands on his desk and Dave doesn't see any more flying objects for the ten minutes that are left of the class. Score one for Mr. Karofsky, disciplinarian extraordinaire.
The next week, he makes a point to ask Jackson to stay after practice. John is a pretty cool kid, and he reminds him a bit of himself at 17, except smarter and with fewer anger management issues. He just wishes he knew what was bothering him, because he gets the feeling that it might be more than the usual stressed out teenage angst. And what is that anyway, except a catch-all term for the things they can't imagine telling him about?
"I understand. I know what the pressure is like."
John snorts. "I really don't think you do".
A smile tugs at the corner of Dave's mouth. "You'd be surprised. I know it's hard to believe, but I did actually go through high school myself, not that long ago."
"Yeah, but you were probably like the 2010 version of Jay or something, right? I mean, no offense, but..."
"You mean I was a big guy in a letterman jacket, intimidating freshmen in the hallways for fun?"
"Oh my God...I can't even imagine that, but yes. And, like, you probably dated a cheerleader and ran for prom king and stuff".
They're having a serious conversation here, but this is too good. A puff of laughter escapes and he runs his fingers through his hair.
"You have no idea. But that's a really long story that I probably shouldn't be telling my students."
"Like people have boundaries in this place anyway. I think Ms. Pillsbury was actually telling us about her sex life the other day. It was kind of metaphorical or something, but still."
"Thats...that's actually really disturbing. Did you know, she used to work at my old high school? And in retrospect, considering how much I knew about her private life back then...I completely believe you. I'm sorry you had to go through that."
"Yeah, thanks, I'll live. But man, she's got to be, like, forty."
John smiles at that. When he gets up to leave, Dave thinks maybe the weight on his shoulders seems a little lighter.
"Okay, coach. I'd better go change or I'll miss my ride."
"Okay. See you tomorrow, John."
Dave stares at his back as he walks away.
Is it just him, or is there something...nah, he must just be projecting. His gaydar is shit, always was, and using it on his student is probably crossing some kind of line. Still, he can't help wondering.
He goes to work. He has trigonometry first, which sucks because most of the students are still half asleep, algebra II, and his favorite, honors calculus, then after lunch it's all P.E until football practice. It's a good schedule, but he wonders sometimes, what on earth made him do this, why he has to spend so much of his time with a bunch of kids who clearly wish they were anywhere else.
He guesses the reward is when he can make them forget that they're supposed hate it.
He talks to Jackson on the bleachers most days, partly to give him someone to talk to and partly to help him avoid the crowd in the locker room, just in case that's part of his problem. He's increasingly sure that it is, and no seventeen year old boy full of feelings he doesn't want to be having should need to go through that, ever. Especially not if Dave can help it by giving him an excuse for ten minutes. Strangely enough, the rest of the team don't give him a hard time about it. It helps that John is clearly their best player. Most of them are also a little in awe of the fact that he's good enough to be thinking about college football, the rest of them aware that they're really only good enough for a just-for-fun team. He passes it off as a mentoring thing, helping him with recruiting, planning strategies. Sometimes they do a couple of extra drills, just the two of them.
Then he goes home, cooks dinner for one, and spends the evening watching old superhero movies or something. He's probably kind of lonely, but no more than he deserves. He hangs out with his old friends sometimes, one on one, but he didn't really keep too many of them after his senior year personality makeover. Most of the ones he did keep were smart enough to get the hell out of here, anyway.
Some weekends he drives down to Columbus to see his friends from college, which translates to getting shitfaced with the two guys he still loves like brothers, even after they've slept with each other in every disastrous configuration. It's where he gets his, like, three percent of the casual sex that a single gay guy in his late twenties ought to be having. It's glorious, and it's not nearly enough. It's also incredibly hard to remember that the man grinding on the dance floor is the same one who will, in less than 48 hours, walk into a classroom in conservative teacher clothes. He tries to imagine how it would look to his students, their math teacher drunkenly pulling his decidedly unmusical friends into a karaoke bar where they will do their wingmanly duty and embarrass themselves so he can sing a silly love song and charm the stupidly tight pants off some beautiful man he's only just met. He can't do it, and that's probably a good sign that he's not turning into Will Schuester. Knock on wood.
Fuck his rules about touching. He puts his hand on John's shoulder and bends down sideways, trying to catch his eyes from below. If he's wrong about this, it will be awkward forever, but he's almost completely sure... "Hey. Hey, kiddo, look at me". John lifts his head a fraction, just enough to see his football coach all up in his face, staring at him like he's really hoping he has telepathic powers.
"I know. I know, okay? But John, you have to be the one to say it."
Okay, so he's not wrong.
Dave holds his breath with him, because he's done this before, but never from this perspective. He's never been the one that someone was afraid to tell. The one that someone is putting their faith in against hope, just because he talks to him on the bleachers after football practice and maybe because he's the only teacher who actually tries to stop them from calling each other fags during class. He suddenly wishes he had been more forthcoming about his own life. Maybe then this would be a little easier on John, if Dave had found a way to mention an ex-boyfriend or his short stint as a PFLAG leader. Then again, maybe it would make it more intimidating. Fear of being hated is one thing, but he won't underestimate the fear of not being good enough for what's supposed to be your people.
John draws a few ragged breaths, and oh, Dave knows. Knows how it feels to have walked around with this bomb on the tip of his tongue, unsecured, and just trying to gather up the courage to set it off. Having no idea what the world will look like when the dust clears, just hoping that it's somehow going to be better, doubting that it can possibly be worse. Still being deadly scared that it might. John's hands are visibly shaking with adrenaline.
"I -" Okay, he's speaking, that's a good start. God, Dave has never rooted so hard for this kid. For any kid. His hand is still on John's shoulder, and he doesn't dare to move a muscle.
"I'm - " Almost there. The silence is deafening and he wishes there was something he could do to make this easier. Come on, just say it, he finds himself thinking, I already know. Is he as convinced as Dave once was that nobody could ever guess? He has to admit, the kid is good at hiding. Better than he was. He hears John taking another deep breath, gathering momentum, trying to force himself to just do it already, get it over with, he can see the change in him as he figures out it's too late to turn back now. And then he just goes for it, like the superstar Dave always knew he was.
Obviously nobody's around or they'd never be having this conversation, so Dave puts his arms around him and gives him the biggest hug he's probably ever given. He can feel tears coming on, despite the grin on his face, and they must look ridiculous, a gigantic kid in football gear all wrapped up in his even bigger coach, both of them crying.
"I'm so proud of you," he says over John's shaking shoulder. "I knew you could do it."
John pulls away, wet-faced and confused.
"You really don't care?"
"I really don't care. I kind of already knew, actually. But I'm so freaking impressed, I can't even tell you." He smiles, holding up his hand. "Can I get a fist bump from my bravest and most awesome quarterback?"
John manages a wobbly smile at that, and gives him a tiny, God-my-teacher-is-such-a-geek bump.
"Wait, how could you tell?" Dave can hear the fear in his voice, and the questions he's not asking. What did I miss, where's the leak, can everybody see it, when is the world coming down on my head?
"Hey, relax. You're not being obvious. But you know the saying, it takes one to know one? I didn't come out until the end of my senior year, and I played football and hockey. I know most of the tricks in the gay jock handbook. Also, I can see when a kid is terrified of the locker room, and I was pretty sure you weren't being bullied, so..."
Clearly he's not bad at the stealth thing himself, because John is staring at him in obvious disbelief, shaking his head slowly.
"Way. I would show you the secret handshake, but I don't know if you're quite ready yet. Same time tomorrow?"
Like every Wednesday, he walks into his childhood home and is met by the smell of his father's cooking. It's still weird to him that his dad is such a decent cook. His mom never was, but she still insisted on trying. Since their long-overdue divorce, the quality of food in Paul Karofsky's house has actually improved by quite a lot, but today must be Appreciate your Questionable Culinary Heritage Day or something. He can smell kielbasa and cabbage before he even opens the door.
"Hey, Dave, come on in. Food's almost ready."
"Thanks, Dad. I brought dessert, want me to put it in the fridge for now?"
"Sure. Grab me a beer while you're at it, will you?"
He takes two, opens both and hands one to his dad. Then he drops down on a kitchen chair, startling when it creaks under the sudden weight, and gulps down about half of it.
"Rough day? I would say I'm sorry, but I think of it as a kind of poetic justice that you get to deal with teenagers all day."
Dave considers tossing back an easy reply, but instead he puts down the beer and lowers his voice a little.
"My quarterback came out to me this afternoon."
Paul stops moving.
"I think it was his first time, to anybody. Christ, he's seventeen."
"That must have brought up some memories. Did you know it was gonna happen?"
"I- I guess I did. I definitely suspected. Been there, done that, you know? I just didn't think he'd have the guts to do it this soon. He's such a great kid, Dad, so brave, and he doesn't even know it yet."
His father turns around from the stove to face him. He's wearing the awful apron that Uncle Mark got him for Christmas two years ago. It's red, says "Caution, extremely hot" in big letters on the chest, and is splattered with old stains.
"Huh, that reminds me of another boy I used to know. Now why don't you help me set the table?"
Dave can't believe that ten years ago, they were sitting in this kitchen, in these actual chairs, and he was the shaking, sweating kid choking on two syllables. In a way though, he always knew that had to happen.
Maybe what he really can't believe is that he got to come back.
Just to rub it in, John Jackson has to go and fall in pathetic, helpless love with their new kicker. And okay, he gets it. In a totally abstract, not-creepy-I-swear kind of way, he understands that if he were seventeen, he'd probably be right there with him. The thing is, it's wreaking havoc on their game. John really is the brains of the team, the one keeping everything together, and now that he's spending half his life obsessing over Dylan Torres and the other half trying to keep people from noticing, things are rough.
Dave's heart aches for him, but he also can't help being a tiny bit jealous. It might be nice, however exhausting, to feel that way about someone again. Also, he keeps looking at them and remembering how completely, actually insane he went over the kicker on his high school football team, way back at the very lowest point of his life. Granted there were complications, but compared to him, John's still doing damn good with his strategy of stolen glances, attempts to understand soccer, and general lovesick uselessness.
One day he admits that the reason he's missed every throw that practice is probably that he stayed up half the night watching a replay of Barcelona vs Real Madrid, whatever that is, and Dave can't even bring himself to say anything, he just pats his back soothingly. He remembers that year he sat through three hours of the Tonys for no other reason than the fact that Kurt Hummel must be watching the same thing somewhere, so really, he hasn't got a leg to stand on. He's resigned to planning the next few games around this, he just hopes it will be over soon, and idly wonders if it makes it worse or better that Dylan is almost certainly straight.
Then he remembers that they'll most likely be up against McKinley in the playoffs in a few weeks, and starts to panic again.
His dad has taken to interrogating him about his love life during dinner. That would be fine, if there was anything to say that could possibly be said to one's father over lasagna. But however great their relationship has become, however thankful he is for his accepting, unflappable dad, there are limits.
He can't talk about the beautiful, fragile boy who was probably tortured by guys like him in high school and developed some kinks that Dave frankly isn't equipped to handle. Yeah, sure he has dreams about pushing faceless, high-voiced, swishy boys up against a locker. In some of these dreams, he's pinned them with his much stronger hands on their hips and dropped to his knees whether they wanted it or not. But, very important distinction, those are his nightmares. He wakes up from those dreams soaked in cold sweat, too rattled to go back to sleep.
So he shrugs and takes another bite of pasta.
"I don't exactly meet a lot of eligible bachelors in Lima, Dad."
"No, I guess you don't. I don't want to pry, I just think you deserve to be happy."
Dave wants to tell him not to feel guilty, that he didn't come back here for him, that even if he did it would be totally worth it.
"I am, Dad." It's only sort of a lie.
"Okay, good. Want to stay and watch the game?"
Being Emma Pillsbury's colleague is really incredibly strange, but also not as strange as it should have been. Years have passed since he sat in her office staring sullenly at an array of inexplicable pamphlets, apparently enough years that she is able to pretend that was some other guy who just happens to look like the Dave Karofsky in the teachers' lounge. He feels that way himself a lot of the time, so it's easy enough to play along.
He talks to her about her kids and marvels quietly at how two extremely messed up people have been able to create a sort of happiness. In a way it's reassuring.
"I saw you talking to John Jackson yesterday. I have to say, Dave, I admire what you've done with that boy. I couldn't even get him to open his mouth."
"Yeah, well, I have some experience with that sort of thing." He regrets saying it before he's even finished the sentence, but her wide-eyed look isn't any more stunned than usual.
The shit hits the fan a week before Thanksgiving. He's trying to explain, once again, why the chain rule actually makes sense and isn't something that math teachers have agreed on just to be assholes.
One of the boys by the window raises his hand. He kind of can't help disliking the kid, who honestly shows all the signs of being a sadistic little bastard, but he tries hard to be fair to all his students.
"Mr. Karofsky, my uncle says you're a faggot." Stunned silence. "But, like, you don't exactly look like one" - he makes a limp-wristed gesture, like he's helpfully and reasonably illustrating his point - "so I was wondering if you could help us settle the argument?"
Okay, deep breath, he knew this day was coming. Perhaps he didn't imagine it happening in this exact manner, but okay, he can do this. Game face on.
"QUIET!" There's a lot hanging on what he says next, and there's not a lot he can say that won't feel like he's letting someone down.
"Now, first of all, as I've told you many, many times before, I do not want to hear that kind of language in my classroom. Secondly, that question has less than nothing to do with differentiation."
If only he could get this kind of attention for what he's actually here to teach them. This is explosive material, the biggest challenge they can imagine delivering to a teacher. He has every right to shut it down and refuse to dignify it with a response. He thinks about the one or two kids in this room who are probably holding their breaths not out of greedy curiosity, but in a more personal way.
"It's also a completely inappropriate one to ask your teacher, or anybody else. If somebody wants to tell you about their sexual orientation, they will do so when they are ready. Don't be rude." He has walked around to lean on the edge of his desk.
"However. Maybe this can be a lesson for all of us about believing in stereotypes. Benjamin. If you would care to try again, without the offensive language this time?"
The kid looks genuinely a bit scared of him now. Everybody has some expectations of the world, like the sun will rise again and what goes up must come down, and when you call someone a fag they either hit you or run away in shame.
"Mr. Karofsky. Is it true that you're gay?" His voice is a lot smaller, though there's still an edge of sarcastic challenge to it.
"Thank you, Benjamin. That's much better, though I have to say, still not very polite or relevant to the discussion. Yes, it is true that I'm gay. If any of you want to talk to me about that, I'll be here after class." He pauses and lets his eyes sweep the classroom, looking for signs of imminent crisis. He sees none.
"Good. Now that's settled, I think it's time to get back to our polynomial."
By the time lunch is over, the whole school knows what happened.
One of the English teachers, a woman in her late fifties that he doesn't really know that well, grabs his arm on her way to the coffee machine.
"Hey, you doing okay? If what I'm hearing is true, you couldn't have handled that better, honey."
He needs five minutes in the men's room to compose himself after that.
Nothing much changes. Some of the football players are skittish around him, true, and he suspects that John is getting some jokes thrown his way that they could both do without, but he seems to be coping okay.
He's not really that worried about what the kids say, but he does wonder what happens once this makes its way around the PTA gossip circle. The principal asks him to step into her office for a second, and he's momentarily terrified that he'll get fired until he comes to his senses and remembers that she's never been anything but supportive.
What happens is that she reassures him that everything is fine and if there are complaints from parents, she is going to be in his corner. Since when is this his life? Have things really changed this much, is he just incredibly lucky, or was there really not that much to be afraid of in the first place?
The football team is still a mess, though, and there's no hot boyfriend on the horizon, so he's probably still awake.
Santana is back in town for the holiday, with some extra days off from whatever high-powered things she's doing in Chicago these days, so he takes her out for a beer and some catching up. Though she's technically his ex, and she never misses an opportunity to remind him, there's no actual awkward history. She lets him get away with nothing, and is by far his favorite woman in the world. She asked him once if that includes his mom, he said yes, she nodded, and they've never mentioned it again. You can see why he likes her.
"It's like one of those classic triangle things. Hot, gay or sane, pick any two."
He laughs. Yeah, that sounds about right to him.
"I take it you're not seeing anyone, then?"
"Oh. No, I kind of am."
"I'm almost afraid to ask, but which two is she?"
"Actually, she's probably just hot. But enough about me, Davey. What's your latest drama? And don't say nothing, I can see right through you."
"Um, okay, where to start. I accidentally came out to my calculus class, and now they think I can't hear them speculating about my sex life? The quarterback is gay and it's giving me flashbacks? I went home with a guy who didn't warn me he was looking for a big jock to act out his rape scenario with, and I'm completely traumatized?"
"Whoa, okay. I think we need another round." She considers him carefully.
"At least you have the satisfaction of the truth being more interesting than your students are thinking? Young people these days, they have no imaginations."
"Yeah, true. They're kind of stuck on 'does he take it up the ass'."
"Like I said." She tilts her head with false innocence. "Do you?"
He laughs at that, because what else can you do.
"God, I should be so lucky."
Santana wants to set him up with some guy, but absolutely refuses to tell him his name. It doesn't take Sherlock Holmes to figure out that it must be a name he would recognize, probably someone they both know from high school. Though God knows who they know from high school that is even remotely a candidate for him to go out with, never mind to spring on him as a blind date. Or, more to the point, the other way around. But then perhaps she's planning on telling whoever it is his name. He hopes so, because he really doesn't think any guy who went to McKinley, no matter how closeted at the time, is going to react well to a surprise dinner with Dave Karofsky. It makes no difference anyway, because he won't say yes.
For a moment, he actually wonders if there's any way it could be Noah Puckerman, but not even Santana is sick enough to want a repeat of that train wreck. He's ashamed to discover that his own heart apparently is.
"Dave, come on. How long has it been since you've had a date? One-night-stands don't count. A real date, with someone whose name you know."
"I don't know if you noticed, but you never actually offered that."
"Okay, someone whose name you're planning to find out."
"Look, Santana, I'm not going to sit around at Breadstix waiting for some random guy who's going to scream and run when he sees me."
"He won't. You're hot now."
"Thanks, I think. But no."
"Okay, then will you at least come to Thanksgiving dinner as my fake boyfriend?"
"You've asked me that every year for at least the last five years, and the answer's still no. I have my own family, and your grandma may be Catholic, but she's not stupid. And I think she goes to church with my grandma, so they might join forces on a great-grandbaby campaign just to make us sweat."
He leans forward across the table. "Santana, baby, what we had is over. It was beautiful, but it couldn't be. For both of our sakes."
She gasps and lifts one hand to her chest.
"David! How dare you deny that you still love me?"
"We'll always have Wednesday night? If you really want, you can come by in the morning and help me wrangle the cousins. Nothing better than screaming children for a hangover."
The Jackson/Torres situation is developing into a triangle of epic, worthy of the New Directions circa 2011, proportions. He watches from a somewhat safe distance and keeps his fingers crossed. Torres is pursuing one of the cheerleaders, reminiscent of Quinn Fabray at her worst, who in turn has set her sights on John, probably just so she can brag about dating the quarterback.
God, how did any of them ever survive this? And given that he somehow did, why does it get to be his problem now?
He sighs and gathers up the sprint ladders. Any day now, something's got to give, and his money, unfortunately, is on Jackson's mind.
He feels legitimately sorry for John, who really could have used someone with a better high school track record than Dave for a mentor. He mostly knows what not to do, really, and if he hadn't had Santana to save him from himself and Kurt hadn't been irrationally forgiving...well. Thing could have been different.
He's got ten days. If the kid isn't somewhat functional by then, they really don't stand a chance.
"This isn't really about the eligibility forms, is it."
"It can be, if you want it to."
"You know, you didn't need to bring me in here to tell me how much I've been sucking, if that's the plan. It's not like I haven't noticed."
"Yeah, so you haven't been playing your best. You've had a lot on your mind. But you've still got it, you know? You didn't actually forget how to throw a football. If you can get your head back in place, it's all there."
"So how do I do that? It's just, it's all so much. It's, like, all the time, and my brain won't shut up and the guys won't get off my case and I just need everyone to be quiet for one fucking minute so I can try to think. Sorry."
He knows the feeling.
"And also I have no idea why I'm telling you this, but Dylan fucking Torres will not let go of this idea that I'm stealing his girlfriend, and they're not even together, for fuck's sake." A beat. "Sorry."
"This is a special limited-time-only offer, okay? You tell me what's going on, using whatever words you need to use, and for the next thirty minutes, I can't hear it. Knock yourself out."
He looks at him, wide-eyed, but there's also a glint of humor there that Dave hasn't seen in a while.
"Yes. You look like you might explode, so let's have it. Let off some steam before you snap."
"What, you're actually afraid I'll go crazy?"
"You wouldn't be the first."
He doesn't want to encroach on Emma's territory, but he's actually stolen a couple of flyers from her office that he pushes into John's hand as he leaves. None of the crazy ones, just the ones with phone numbers and support groups and stuff. Just in case he works up the nerve to talk to someone better qualified.
He hopes she did stop counting her pamphlets every day, or that might really stress her out.
Dave gets home on edge and buzzing with discomfort. He fucking hates this, how his brain will decide that things are not okay, and rather than let him know what the hell is up, just flood his whole system with whatever it is that feels like ten cups of coffee with a shot of poison ivy.
He's done some time in therapy, God knows he needed it, but it didn't turn him into a Buddhist monk or anything. Yes, he's all for examining your feelings and the thoughts that led to them. That doesn't mean there aren't still days when what he needs is a whole pizza and to throw some heavy things around. He pulls out his gym bag and tosses in a clean shirt. He's thinking weight room, and a few rounds with the punching bag if that doesn't cut it. He'll pick up food on the way home, and he'll be okay.
At the gym, the music sucks as usual and there are too many people, and he's simultaneously too tired and too jittery to get a rhythm going on the treadmill. He gives up, goes over to the squat rack and starts warming up with the two hundred pounds that some six foot three inconsiderate asshole has left on the bar (he's fine, but come on, you can't assume that the next guy to come along will be a former offensive lineman, so put the damn plates back when you're done, it's not that hard). Three sets of five, and he feels like his feet are touching the ground again. He cranks out another two, just to make sure, before he moves on to presses.
There's a guy next to him doing power cleans, or trying to. It makes the coach in him twitchy to watch, but he also can't quite stop watching. It's part professional interest, figuring out what's going wrong and what corrections he'd give, but okay, maybe he's also checking him out just a little bit.
So on one hand, we have an attractive man with no idea how to do a proper clean who might want to learn, and Dave who definitely wouldn't mind doing the teaching. On the other hand, we have the fact that Dave is kind of scary on first sight. He can try to, like, project teddy bear vibes, and it helps, but not always enough. There's this look that guys get when they don't know if he's going to hit on them or actually hit them in the face, or which possibility they're most afraid of. He hates that. It makes him hate himself for putting it there.
So what he does, instead, is stand next to him and do some cleans the way they're meant to be done. Chest up, drive the hips, and a satisfying clang each time he catches the bar on his shoulders.
What happens next is not what he expected. The guy comes over to him, as he's resting between his sets, sort of leaning on one foot like he's shy about it, and oh, he is definitely the nerdy cute type. And after four years of college math classes? Dave can really appreciate that.
"So, um, I was wondering...I'm kind of new at this, as you can probably tell, and you really look like you know what you're doing, so...ah...obviously feel free to say no, I totally understand, but do you think.."
It's completely charming, but with that kind of guts, Dave feels like he deserves to be saved from his misery.
"If you're trying to learn how to lift, I'd be more than happy to help you."
"Really? That would be great."
"Sure. Why don't we start by fixing your power clean? I'm Dave, by the way."
The guy more or less grabs his big chalky hand and shakes it.
"Nice to meet you, Dave. I'm Thomas."
He hasn't really thought about Puck for a while, but there's a link in his head that seems to be permanent, between the smell of the year's first snow and the feel of a week-old buzz cut under his hands. That, and dark eyes that go from bright with mischief, to wild-animal wary, to completely lost, all under his hands.
Eyes that shift back through the same stages.
It's almost three a.m. He thinks he was asleep earlier, but it's hard to tell.
For him, it wasn't that complicated. He wanted. What, exactly, he's not sure, it was too many things, but it came down to wanting, and something about shame, and then in the end it was just Noah. But Puck? He's had years now to think about it and he still doesn't know.
He's made some guesses, along the way.
At first it might have been just to see if he could, a simple experiment, or perhaps a dare. Then, he thinks, it was about getting the fuck out of Lima, and when that wasn't enough, fucking Lima out of himself. His dad, of course, because with Noah, no matter what thread you choose to follow, that's what you'll eventually find.
Maybe Dave was just there, in the path of boundless, fuck-it-why-not-I'll-take-it Noah Puckerman. He always had that momentum that fences couldn't hold, that let him go crashing through whatever barriers kept other people's lives on track, and barely even feel it. For a while, Dave lived for the rush of being pulled along. He loved how all his walls, all the can'ts and won'ts and arbitrary rules, melted away in the face of that slow smirk and the certainty that every sensation in the world was too meant for them.
It took a while to understand that there really were no brakes. Noah just kept running into whatever he could find, always looking for that one thing that would be strong enough to not splinter, to push back, to finally slow him down.
In his 20-year-old arrogance, Dave had believed he could be it.
Of course he wasn't, so then Noah went to try with Afghanistan.
If he falls asleep right now, he might get four hours.
"Wow, Davey. Who dressed you tonight?"
"Um, I did? I'm a big boy now. I can even tie my own shoelaces."
"Whatever, not what I meant. You look good, that's all."
"Yeah? So do you."
She does. Of course, she'd better, she's the head cheerleader who left. There are plenty of people who would love to see her come home frumpy, or failing that, desperate. Being Santana, she probably sees this night as an opportunity to rub their noses in it. She's wearing what Dave would be hard pressed to describe beyond "black dress", but even he can see that it's perfect for the occasion.
"So, are you ready to face this year's unofficial reunion party?"
"As ready as I'll ever be. It might be mostly college kids, anyway. People have babies now, you know? It's insane. Babies everywhere."
"Maybe. But brace yourself, just in case, yeah?"
"Okay, good. Let's go get drunk and find you a man."
"Santana, what? I thought we agreed that I should stop having drunk sex with guys I don't know. Not to mention, this is Lima."
"So don't have sex with him. I don't care."
They're walking. Even if it's maybe too cold and too far from his apartment to the bar to walk in a dress and heels, Santana won't admit to that kind of weakness and none of them really want to deal with the logistics of a car.
She turns to look at him, and suddenly she's in front, stopping him with an arm across his body and walking backwards around to face him.
"Wait. Did you actually meet someone and not tell me?"
It never stops being scary how she can just look at him and know all of his secrets, but he kind of likes it. She probably knows that, too.
He thinks about Thomas and he can't hide the shy smile, can feel it twisting its way onto his face, and he knows he might as well tell her everything.
How Thomas lit up when he mentioned he was a math teacher as well as a football coach. How Dave touched him, carefully, one hand on his back and another under his elbow, guiding it up to the right position, and how he didn't pull away from his hands.
How he's kind of small, but then who isn't next to Dave, but not exactly skinny, just built on a smaller frame, and he was never really an athlete but he likes to go running in the mornings before work.
His childish excitement when he finally got something right. His blue eyes.
Shit. He's 27, not 17, but this guy is going to be his Dylan Torres, isn't he.
When they get to the bar, it's pleasantly full, but not too crowded, and they can already spot a few familiar faces. Santana says hi to a couple of former cheerleaders, but you can tell they haven't really kept in touch, just stalked each other on the internet sometimes to see who got fat and who got married. Dave ignores a couple of people he would have probably acknowledged if they hadn't stayed in Lima, or if he hadn't moved back, but that he can't pretend to be friendly with now that they actually live in the same place. They don't meet his eyes, either.
He and Santana order beers and find a place to sit, drinking quietly and making the occasional comment about the people passing by on their way to the bathroom. He's enjoying himself. Santana is as ruthlessly funny as she's always been, with the added bonus of developing a sense of when it's too sad to laugh about and when it's so sad that you have to.
Some of the girls who stop by the table want hugs, which is just weird, but they both try to accept them with good humor and as little awkwardness as possible. Santana rolls her eyes at him over the shoulder of one particularly enthusiastic one, mouthing something that might be "girls", or maybe on second thought, "boobs". He smiles back at her. It's all good.
It's all good, until suddenly the girl almost sitting in his lap is Sarah Puckerman. And she's leaning in and speaking in a low voice, not really whispering because the room is too loud, into his ear.
"I think Noah might show up here later tonight. Just so you know, okay?"
Then she's gone, and he's not sure if that was a warning, and if it was, which one of them she's trying to protect.
"Was that who I think it was?"
He nods, suddenly unable to speak, but that's okay, he's got nothing to say.
"I think that's my cue to go get us something stronger." Santana slips off her chair and heads for the bar, where she somehow gets served first despite arriving last, just like she always does.
When Noah does show up, he isn't alone. That would be too easy. In fact, the first warning he gets is Finn Hudson's head, clearly visible since it's sticking up above everybody else's. His first instinct is to look for Kurt, who is in fact following closely behind Finn and whose fashion sense has obviously matured if not exactly mellowed. As if he didn't know that already. God. It still jolts him a little, every time he sees him in the flesh.
Then he notices the back of a head of dark short curls, and the bigger shock of that completely overshadows it. It makes sense - that's how it always was, really, with those two boys.
Kurt is the one who sees them and drags the rest of the group over, probably envisioning some sort of big happy glee club reunion. And it's true that his relationship with Dave, to the extent that they have one, is better than it has any right to be. The problem with Kurt, though, is that while he is smart and empathic and has a bigger, more generous heart than you would think possible for someone so prickly - his laser sight focus can also keep him unaware of some rather important points. This would be one of those times.
He squeals - he would deny it, but that's a squeal - and throws his arms around them in turn. Finn is standing by his side looking vaguely pained the way he does when he can tell that his brother is missing something but isn't sure what to do about it, and Noah is shifting his weight from side to side in the background.
He's still gorgeous. More so now with the hair and a few more years on him, and he still looks so lost, and Dave still wants to stroke his thumb across that stubbled jaw, and he has no idea what Kurt is going on about. He's going to notice that in three, two, one - yes, there it is, the moment when his face goes slack with the sudden realization of what Dave's looking at, and how he has just dragged Puck into an encounter with not one but two of his exes. He makes a quick decision, every thought written loud and clear on his face, takes Dave by the hand and pulls him out of his chair.
"Dance with me. Someone needs to show the straight boys of Ohio how it's done, am I right?"
He is hectic and flirty and a very good actor.
"Dave, I'm so sorry. I didn't realize."
They are dancing, now, together, Kurt holding nothing back, sexy in a way that this place is possibly not quite ready for but can't stop staring at, either, and Dave is okay with showing him off. They have to almost shout into each other's ears, but that's fine, that means nobody else can hear.
"Didn't realize what?"
"That you're not over him."
The noise conditions don't really allow him to explain that no matter how messed up a relationship is, when your boyfriend doesn't actually break up with you as much as stop by to inform you that he's joined the military, kiss you breathless and disappear completely, and the next thing you hear, via other people, is that he's probably somewhere in the Helmand province, that process can take a little longer than usual. So he resorts to a cheap dig.
"How would you feel if it was Blaine?"
Just as he knew he would be, Kurt is instantly on guard, prepared to be offended or, preferably, offend first.
"That was love. Not just sex."
If it was any other person in the world, this conversation would be over.
He takes hold of Kurt and spins him with a little more force than necessary, then dips him low and follows so their faces are an inch apart.
"Why in the world would you think I didn't love him?"
He's all fire and barely restrained anger, Kurt is stunned and a little rumpled. At one time, with different dialogue, this might have been a dream come true.
Oh, look, it's over anyway. He leaves Kurt alone in the middle of the floor and walks out the door.
Of all the people who could have followed him, he really didn't expect it to be Noah.
Because he hasn't actually said that he doesn't want to talk to him, but the whole fucking off to Afghanistan and not calling for a couple of years was a pretty big hint.
Still, here he is, looking older and more tired and not a little haunted, but still unmistakably himself. There's a little less hope in his eyes, a little less faith that he'll be forgiven. But it's Noah, trying to hold himself together, and Dave has seen that before, he's a fucking expert, so he acts without thinking, doing what he did that first night, crossing the space between them and taking him in his arms.
He's so broken. He's so sorry. And Dave sees, with sudden clarity, this man that he still loves, that he still wishes he could keep from making the same mistakes again and again and again. He loves him, yes, he might never stop, but he also thinks he might not want him anymore.
They stand together at the edge between artificial light and darkness.
"It was never about you, you know." He's looking at his feet like a teenager.
"And you couldn't have taken three seconds to tell me that before you left." Angry is the only possible emotion, the only thing he can deal with right now.
"Are you staying? Is that what this is about?"
"No. I came back to see my mom. Tell her she's gonna be a grandma again. For real this time."
Dave is suddenly light-headed and sick with the weight of things he can't have.
"So I've been trying to do the right thing. Take some responsibility. I guess I thought I owed you an apology."
He definitely does. Dave just isn't sure if he can accept it.
"So, yeah. I'm sorry. And you look good, dude."
Let him decide if that was for the apology or the compliment. Dave sure doesn't know. All he knows is that he's standing there, again, watching Noah walk away.
Someone comes up behind him and places a hand on his upper arm. He tenses instinctively.
It's Thomas, apparently, and Dave's just drunk enough not to be surprised. His face is flushed from the heat inside, or the sudden cold out here, or just alcohol, and he's leaning closer to Dave than he probably normally would, but then he has been in a loud crowded place for a while and he's been drinking.
The tension leaks out of Dave, replaced by something else and happier. He's not exactly relaxed, but it's a better kind of nervous.
"Thomas. Hey." He's drained and exhausted and not amazing company, but he hopes it comes through that he's pleased to see him. Then again, the cold wet street outside of bars that must be about to close aren't usually the most cheerful places. They're more where you go when you just need some air and can't take the screamy happy people anymore.
"How are you? Shoulders still sore?"
"They are, thanks to you." It doesn't look like he really minds that much. "And you? I saw you earlier, but I didn't want to interrupt. That looked like sort of an intense conversation."
"Yeah. You could say that." Dave leans on the wall. He almost thinks he can feel the thump of music through it, but decides it's an illusion.
"Good intense or bad intense? Like, should I stop annoying you and leave now?"
"It was...'ex that I haven't seen in years' intense? I'm not sure if that counts as good or bad." He smiles tiredly. "But don't leave. Unless you want to."
"That guy was your ex? As in, ex-boyfriend?"
Thomas' look is half surprise and half a plea not to punch him if he's wrong.
Dave decides to be amused instead of angry. It's proved the better choice for him, generally.
"I know he's out of my league, but I think it might be considered rude to point that out."
"No, oh my God, that's not what I meant. At all."
"Hey, relax. It's not exactly the first time someone's assumed I must be straight." He makes a vague gesture up and down himself.
"Yeah. Guilty as charged." Thomas smiles and looks down, a little embarrassed. "I did wonder. I just didn't want to get my hopes up." He looks up at Dave, checking his reaction to that.
It must have looked good, too, because Thomas hands him a phone. He's so tired and kind of dizzy and his arms and legs don't quite seem to belong to him anymore, but he saves his number on it.
"See you around, Dave."
It's all too much. He goes inside, finds his jacket, and walks home alone.
"David! I didn't expect you to see you here this early. Did you have fun with Santana yesterday?"
"Okay, okay, you don't have to tell me."
He can't help smiling, despite it being early and despite yesterday having been a very long and eventful night.
"So when will they be here?"
"Mark said around twelve, but you know how it is with kids. I'm guessing closer to one. Have you eaten anything?"
"Help yourself, then. Anything but the turkey." Paul gestures to the fridge. "There's coffee left, if you want."
After the chaos and emotional jerking around that the universe gave him last night, it's good to be sitting in his father's kitchen with a mug of coffee and a sandwich like nothing ever happened. His dad is busy with something food-related, but he doesn't ask for help, so Dave takes a minute to just breathe and enjoy the normality of it.
The cousins show up, and chaos is restored, but at least they're cute. Tradition dictates that they get to climb on Dave in the living room, with their dad as backup, while Mark's wife Jenn helps Paul in the kitchen.
They talk about work, and football, and just like every time he's seen him since he was about thirteen, Mark has to ask if he's dating anyone. He says no, because it's true, but for once he doesn't mind the question.
He remembers Thanksgiving, and Christmas, and Easter, and every goddamn holiday, being the only teenager and how his aunts and uncles and grandpa Murray thought it was the height of hilarity to ask him if he had a girlfriend yet, just to watch him squirm and cackle at his embarrassment. He squirms a little now, remembering it. There's something to be thankful for: He'll never have to go through that again. But oh, God, John.
He has his number. It's not too weird to text his student. Is it? And what if somebody else is reading his messages? In the end, he settles on something he thinks is neutral enough to be okay.
"My favorite QB had better be eating lots of protein and watching the game. Call me if you need to get into the weight room over the weekend, or anything. Coach K."
Just so he knows he's there.
When his phone beeps, after dinner, something falls a little in his chest with all the ways that a family holiday can go wrong. Nobody would usually be texting him right now if everything was fine. It's not John, though, or in fact anybody he knows, judging from the unknown number. He can't stop his heart from beating a little faster, with hope and excitement that he tries and fails to smack down, as he reads the message.
"Hi Dave - I hope this really is your number - this is Thomas. Happy Thanksgiving! And if you want a gym buddy this weekend, just tell me when?"
The grin that spreads on his face is undeniable. He doesn't even care.
Then John does call, while he's erasing his fifth attempt at a reply, and he's not as prepared as he could have been. By the sound of it, John's outside somewhere, and Dave is immediately worried, getting up and looking for his car keys before they've even finished saying hello.
"So I told them. The whole damn family."
"Wait, you - are you serious?"
"Yeah. They just...they kept nagging me about the girlfriend thing, and about how Avery is just so cute and how come we're not dating, and then I said she's dating Dylan now, and my grandpa just went off, like it's a crime against the world order or something when the quarterback loses his girl to the kicker. So I kind of snapped and now everybody knows."
"And? Are you okay? Should I congratulate you, or offer you a place to sleep, or what?"
"Congratulations, I guess. I'm just...I mean, they didn't throw me out or anything, I just left. It was kind of overwhelming and I had to get away for a bit. But I think they're fine."
"Yeah, I know. So are you relieved yet, or still too high on adrenaline to think?"
"That. The last one."
"You know, I meant it about the weight room. If you need to work it off, or get out of the house, or anything. It's not too far to drive over with the key."
John exhales, like he didn't know he needed it or didn't know how to ask.
"Yes. Yes, that might be good. Not tonight, obviously. But...tomorrow? If you have time?"
"I do. Actually - would you mind if I brought someone else along?"
"You got a date, coach?"
"I don't think a trip to the high school weight room with one of my students counts as a date. And I haven't actually asked him yet."
"I won't tell anyone. And, don't take this the wrong way or anything, but whoever he is would be an idiot to turn that down. So what time?"
November 25, 9:05
It really is my number. So, I have a proposal. Private lesson, Westside High School, tomorrow at two?
I'd love to. Meet you in the parking lot?
Great. You might have to share me with a high school quarterback, hope that's okay.
I did not mean that the way it might have sounded.
I didn't think so.
Thank God. So I'll still see you tomorrow, then?
Count on it.
Dave has timed it so he'll hopefully have a few minutes alone with John before Thomas arrives. When he steps out of his car, John is waiting by the door. He's wearing a team sweatshirt, and probably several layers under it, at least there's room for it and he ought to, considering the weather. He's such a kid, still, but Dave thinks he seems a little older, calmer, more confident. Maybe it's just knowing what he did yesterday that changes his perspective, or maybe he did grow up a bit and Dave is just noticing it now.
"Hi. How are you feeling?"
"Good. Really good, actually."
"Great. So what's the plan?"
"Weights, and then some laps on the track, I guess? You're the coach here."
Dave's finally found both his card and the right key. They walk into the empty weight room. It's unnaturally quiet and still. It even smells different without people in it.
"Sounds good. Make sure you're nice and warm before you start, and I'll spot you. We can't have any injuries right now, okay?"
"No injuries, got it. Hey, where's your date?"
"It's not a date. But he should be here in a few minutes."
"Yeah, sure. Whatever you say, coach."
John goes to warm up. Dave stares into the empty air for a while and thinks about his not a date.
Thomas is in the parking lot a few minutes before two, but then so is Dave. He waves to him, and Thomas hurries over, hunched a little against the cold wind. Dave holds the door open for him as he walks in, and Thomas gives him a little look that he's not sure how to interpret, so he lets him go first through the next one, wondering all the while what the hell he thinks he's doing.
John is sitting on a bench when they enter, resting between his sets with his elbows on his knees. He looks up without really lifting his head, curious but unwilling to admit it.
"Thomas, this is John, the biggest star on my football team. John, my friend Thomas. I'm teaching him how to lift weights."
"Nice to meet you, John. I'm doing my best, so try not to laugh too much, okay?"
John just nods.
Dave spots him for another set, making sure to ask Thomas to watch and learn, which seems to please and embarrass both of them equally. When John falters a bit on the last rep, he leans over him, yelling "up up up!" and forgetting for a moment that he has an audience that has never seen this version of him before. But, slowly and unevenly, the bar goes up.
"Yeah! Good job!". He bumps John's shoulder. When he looks over at Thomas, he is still watching the two of them with rapt attention. Dave meets his eyes.
"And that's how you do the bench press. You want to go next?"
It's strangely intimate, in a way, to be standing over someone like that, not actually touching except through a metal bar. Dave has two fingers on it, guiding, helping Thomas find the power he really has, if he can just use it in the right direction.
John finishes up, pulls his hoodie on and announces that he's going out to the track. As he passes Dave, he adds, under his breath: "He's not bad. You know, for his age." Dave lets out a surprised laugh. He really didn't think John would warm up that quickly, but the boy is not wrong.
Once he's out the door, Thomas stops pretending to be occupied and looks over at Dave.
"What were you two whispering about?"
"I think he just told me you're hot, for an old man."
"Well, 28 is bordering on ancient, but I like to think I'm aging well."
And then they laugh like hysterical kids at the fact that they're passing for grown-ups.
"You're not from here originally, are you?"
"Oh. No, I've only lived here for about a year."
"Okay, don't take this the wrong way, but who in their right mind would even think about moving here?"
Thomas runs his hand through his wavy hair, leaving some tufts sticking straight up. Dave wants reach out to fix it, but he doesn't. Not yet.
"Someone from the backwoods of Upper Michigan, apparently? Compared to where I grew up, Lima is cosmopolitan, and I never really liked big cities anyway. Not to mention, job offer."
"Anyway, you moved here, didn't you?"
"I moved back. Isn't that different?"
"Maybe. Still, why all the way back? Don't tell me you weren't tempted to stay in Columbus."
Of course he was. Anything else would have been ridiculous. But.
"Family, I guess?" He leans back on the couch, thinking. He doesn't usually talk this much, at least not about himself. "I spent years just assuming that one day my dad wouldn't want me around anymore. He never said it, but...I just, at the back of my mind, I always figured I'd be found out and it would all be over. I guess it was pretty stupid, but...anyway, when that didn't happen, it felt like this unexpected gift, and I couldn't not take it."
He lifts his gaze to find Thomas picking on a loose thread on his jeans, but his eyes are on Dave, soft and maybe a little wistful.
"That's not stupid at all."
"I'm going to get a refill, you?"
As an answer, Thomas hands him his empty glass.
It's only the third time they've met, or the fourth if you count today as two, which you might because Thomas did go home to shower and change while Dave furiously cleaned the apartment. It's amazing what you can accomplish in an hour with the right motivation, and while it's superficial, the place looks okay. He's actually cleaned the kitchen and bathroom, not that he's a total slob, but he lives alone so sometimes things slide a little. The living room is picked up. He even changed his sheets. Living in hope and all that. Not that he's even sure that he wants Thomas in his bed tonight. Well, of course he does, but not at the cost of things being awkward later. At this point - yes, Thomas is really, really attractive, but he thinks if he was forced to choose, he would rather have him as a friend. Friend with benefits. Boyfriend. Dave shakes himself out of it. This is going down some scary roads for a guy he's only met three times. Or four. Whatever.
He takes the two glasses and returns to the living room. Thomas is looking over his movie collection, apparently. He turns half around as Dave enters, making it impossible not to notice the way his pale blue shirt fits over slim, square shoulders. Dave swallows, walks over to stand behind him, slightly to the side so he can see what he's looking at. He finds himself wanting to put an arm around his waist, but again, doesn't, and places it on the bookshelf instead.
"Find anything interesting?"
"Hmmm. I discovered that you really like superheroes?"
"Yeah. Fast cars, explosions, hot men in tight clothes saving the world... what's not to like?" Thomas chuckles, and Dave reaches around him to pick out a cover. "I mean, I watched this when I was...maybe thirteen? I was pretty much in love with Bruce Wayne, but that was okay, because boys are supposed to love Batman, you know? I guess I got attached to the genre."
The heat coming off Thomas' back is almost like a physical touch.
"I don't think I've seen it."
"No? You should, sometime. It's a classic. This is my favorite, though."
It really is. The fact that he has to lean into Thomas to reach it, close enough to feel his hair on his cheek, is a complete coincidence.
"Oh. Yeah, I really liked that one."
"Hey, have you seen The Departed? It's old and it doesn't have superheroes, but it's kind of the same style."
Thomas hasn't, but he wants to, or at least he's interested enough to pretend. A solid win for Dave either way, so he reluctantly leaves his position to go put it on.
During the course of the movie, Thomas has worked himself gradually from one end of the couch to the other. Dave knows because he's been tracking his progress inch by inch, wondering if it was deliberate and if he should do something about it, like move the other way. He didn't, but the final result is awesome anyway, because the end Thomas is sitting on now is the same end that Dave's been occupying the whole evening. Since the armrest and throw pillows are obviously taken on that side, he's using Dave as a stand-in for both.
Dave is very okay with that. Thomas should always be resting on him, really, because it's a shame to waste something this great on a piece of polyester filling that can't appreciate it.
He probably wouldn't say that out loud, but the problem with being friends with Santana for a decade is that now he has a tiny Santana in his brain to deliver bitchy commentary on his thoughts. (He's told her, and she thinks it's the best thing ever. She said she always wanted to be the devil on someone's shoulder, and requested a hot little red costume with a pointy tail and fork.) He's not sure how she can stare at him from from inside his head, but she can, and this apparently warrants an unimpressed glare. He decides the best response is to ignore her and put his arm around Thomas, who sort of wriggles and relaxes into his side. Little Satan can just stuff it.
"So, do you think this count as a date yet?"
Yes, he definitely thinks it does. When he shared his and John's discussion about their not-a-date at the gym, Thomas laughed and agreed not to count it, but he also strongly implied that he wouldn't mind being asked out for real later. It was clumsy and adorable and really made it impossible not to suggest getting dinner together. That it ended up being at his place...yeah, that was maybe a bit fast, not something he'd normally offer, but it just seemed to make sense. Probably because Thomas is the kind of guy he wouldn't mind hanging out with, even if he wasn't attracted to him. It feels easy, which is rare for him. He's tends to fall for, well, guys like Kurt. Beautiful, sometimes terrifying, never easy. Or guys like Noah, who are the same things in a very different way, but thankfully Thomas isn't a lot like him, either.
"Yeah. I mean, it can be. Unless you just want to be friends and it would be awkward to be friends with someone you dated, or something."
This whole discussion is so young. It's like being a teenager again, almost, except of course he did everything backwards and never got to do sweet innocent things as a teenager. It would probably be very different then, both simpler and harder, real.
Thomas' smile, though - that's one hundred percent real, happy and open and he doesn't care about showing off his teeth to the best advantage or whatever those idiots would be thinking about, he's just really pleased with the situation. Dave kind of wants to melt or swoon or whatever it is girls do when someone is just that hot and charming.
"No. No, I definitely think it should be a date. So, Dave. Do you ever kiss a boy goodnight on the first date?"
No, actually, the kind of first dates he's been having have involved a lot of physical contact, but not usually a kiss goodnight. He starts going through the list and is a couple of years back when he remembers that, hello, that was a rhetorical question and there's a guy here waiting for a kiss.
Dave takes a step forward and looks down at Thomas' forehead, the height difference more noticeable now that he's closer. A thought flickers through his head about why that is, something about triangles, but then Thomas tilts his head up expectantly and Dave's done with thinking for a while. He lifts his hand and carefully places it on the back of Thomas' head, combing his fingers into his thick hair so little bits of it stand up between them. The other hand goes on the small of his back, because he can, because he's wanted to do that since the first day at the gym when all he was doing was correcting his form.
There are no singing angels, and nobody tastes like anything except human, but it feels right, they fit together. It's warm and soft and everything you can ask for in a first kiss.
"Good night, Thomas"
"Good night, Dave."
The way he whispers it into his neck, it feels like a promise.
That would be the perfect place to end the evening and fade to black, but this isn't a movie, so Thomas has to scramble around in the hallway to find his jacket and put on his shoes and make sure he's got everything, and it takes long enough that it would be weird to just stand there.
"Drive safe, yeah?"
Thomas stops for a moment with his hand on the doorknob.
"I will. And I'll call you?"
He leaves without waiting for an answer, and Dave finds himself grinning and nodding at a closed door.
Saturday seems like a good time to get some boring shit done, since he's got no plans and the next week might be kind of crazy. He does a couple loads of laundry, then goes grocery shopping. He'd usually save for some other time, like 10 pm on a Tuesday, but the stressed-out crowds don't really bother him. They're probably nice people really, they've just got a lot to handle right now or something. He smiles at them and tries to distract their tantruming kids, because why not spread some good feeling?
Since nothing can apparently touch his good mood, he moves on to grading a huge pile of homework. There are at least three students who can plug in numbers and use a calculator, but seem to not quite grasp what multiplication actually does. He still feels pretty good about himself, and that should probably be worrying, but whatever. He takes the time to write notes on their papers about it, even if it's probably hopeless at this point. He should just give them their passing grade and get it over with. Can't hurt to try anyway.
By the time Santana calls him from the road on Sunday morning, he thinks he's got things under control. Apparently not, though, because it takes all of 30 seconds for her to declare him hopelessly in love. She's one of those people who likes to talk while she's driving, and has correctly assumed that Dave will be awake and not at church.
"It was one date."
"Yeah, yeah. When you marry him, I get to be your maid of honor."
"Not a girl, San. You can be best woman. And, I repeat, one date."
"Fine. Just remember you said that." He should probably act more annoyed if he wants to convince her.
"So when will you see him again?"
"Tomorrow? It's not really a date, we're just going for a run together after work."
"You'll go running for him? If you had told me it was this serious, I'd have stopped by to check on you before I left."
"Good thing I didn't, then. And, hey, I actually know how to run. It's not - oh, I don't know - ballet class."
"I thought we weren't going to talk about that."
"Okay, fine. How's Indiana?"
She does have a point. Dave doesn't exactly love running, most of the time, but he likes the idea of having Thomas show him something he likes. And okay, so maybe he'll leave a change of clothes in his car because maybe they discussed getting takeout Chinese or something after, but it's not like he lied.
As always after a long weekend, Monday is a bit of a slog. He's not tired, but his students sure are, and quite a few teachers seem worse for wear. Of course there are those people who come back energized and filled up with love and happiness. This year especially, Dave is one of them, but he remembers being in the other camp and tries to keep it down. Because there are also people whose families are fucked up any day of the week, whose holidays are actually worse, and when they're finally over those people just don't want to hear it.
And then there's the French teacher at the next table over, who just knows all her students must have had a lovely weekend. He gathers from her huffy complaints that she's spent the morning telling them so and not getting the response she feels she deserves. Dave has some ideas about that, but he's half her age and just another ungrateful brat, so he settles for a meaningful look at her and then at Emma.
She raises her eyebrows back in an expression that says she wouldn't like to speak ill of her coworkers, but yes, she's seeing what he's seeing. She may not act on it, but it's nice to have an ally. He looks at her eating her carefully packed lunch, deliberately arranged to be just on the right side of pathological neatness, and decides it's probably time to confess.
"I meant to tell you sooner, but I went by your office last week when you weren't there and took some pamphlets with me. I hope that's okay."
"Oh, that was you. Yes, of course." Still counting them, then. She doesn't seem upset, but it's hard to tell with her sometimes. "I have an extra stack of those, if you want some to keep in your office. Just, you know, if some students would rather come to you. About things. Considering."
Talking with his mouth full in front of her would just be cruel, so he is careful to chew and swallow before he replies. Which gives her just enough time to connect the dots in her head.
"Oh! So that's...oh."
"Yeah." He doesn't think he needs to tell her not to let on that she knows.
She nods, tight-lipped.
Teenagers make no fucking sense. One of the linemen can't practice today because, as it emerges after a bit of questioning, he got bored and asked his friend to shoot his leg with an airsoft gun. Three days before their biggest game of the season. Up close. With no pants on. Requiring a trip to the ER to remove the embedded pellet from his thigh. At which point Dave kind of wishes he hadn't asked.
At least his dad thinks it's funny.
Paul said once that Dave's students make him feel retroactively better about his own parenting. It's well deserved, Dave thinks. He gave his dad a lot to worry about, once. It's too little, too late, but he makes sure to save up all the best stories for him.
Today, it's also good way to stall while he decides what to say about Thomas. He wants to tell, because he's happy, and knowing that would make his dad happy. Only he kind of hates seeing his father proud and hopeful for him. Dave knows he's not worthy of that pride, but he owes him the illusion, even if keeping it up makes him feel like a fraud. It's all a huge ball of guilt that is better left alone.
Despite what some people think, he's never been good at hiding his feelings. The fact that he's likely to try doesn't mean that it ever works out very well. So he talks about John and their trip to the weight room, because to be honest he's a bit out of his depth there and could use some fatherly perspective.
"So it was just you and him, then?"
"Yeah. Well, not really. There's this guy I've been helping get started with weight training. He was there for a while."
"You're dating him." Paul doesn't even bother phrasing it as a question.
He'd deny it if he thought he could wipe the grin off his face.
It looks exactly the same, and not just the way all football fields look the same on a cold night under floodlights. The bleachers are filling up with parents and girlfriends and just people who had nothing better to do on a Friday. It's just a football field at a high school like a thousand others, small and ordinary, and Dave is hit once again by the surreality of being back, and of being back without really feeling anything. He takes a few seconds to breathe in and out, focusing on the crisp air on his face.
His boys come running out of the locker room, and he's incredibly proud of them, but for a moment he feels a hundred years old. Then the team crowds around him, and he's almost swept up in their energy, but he knows they have more than enough of that. His job is to stay grounded, anchoring them.
"You don't need any more instructions from me, guys. You've been showing me for months now that you're ready for this. You know what to do, so let's just go out and do it."
The captains can take it from there.
He has co-captains, in an attempt to compromise between the kid he thinks should be captain (John, who is smart and hard working and has actual leadership potential as soon as he grows into himself a bit more) and the kid other people expects to be (Jayden, who is big and popular and made for the high school environment. What comes after, perhaps not so much. Then again, that's what they used to say about him.)
Jayden takes care of yelling and chanting, while Dave allows himself to be distracted for a minute. He looks up to the bleachers, where his dad is talking to Burt Hummel and his wife, Hudson's mom, still going to high school football games a decade after their sons played their last ones. He doesn't quite get it, something to do with tradition and community and Kurt's grandpa being a union man, but it's nice that his dad has someone he knows to sit with. Paul still insists on showing up whenever Westside is playing McKinley, but he's very clear about always cheering for Westside.
This is the place where he lived through a lot of painful, fucked up things, and he's back, and it's just sort of dulled and not very important anymore.
It never was, of course. The locker room episode was never about the locker room, just as the stairs themselves are irrelevant to what is said by people standing on them. The music that played back then? Only matters as long as he cares to feel something about it. Shit, even the big scenes are just stories at this point, shorthand for what's bigger and boring and complicated. They were necessary to the drama, the turning points and triggers and sudden breakthroughs, but guess what, he's done with that.
There will be no magic moment when everything is set right. There is no exchange rate of number of touchdowns scored tonight to insults proven untrue, and no matter how many gay boys Dave saves, he can never go back in time and save himself.
This is actually just a football game.
Everybody says that all the time, but they don't believe it, they're just scared. Fact is, people like for things to have meaning.
They may not have won or lost enough to know how empty both are when you try to make them about all kinds of other shit.
That doesn't mean doesn't love seeing his team play their best game of the the season. John goes into the zone after two minutes and never comes back, it's one of those days when everything just flows and the ball is always on your team. He knew he could do that, but he's never seen him keep it up for a whole game before. There's nothing for him to really do but to enjoy it and be happy they're getting it on video for college recruiters to see. McKinley fight hard, but they get behind from the start and never really stand a chance.
One particularly great touchdown has the Westside supporters leaping to their feet and cheering, and Dave notices John's parents on the bleachers. The relief when he sees them stand up and scream for their son is a surprise. If you had asked him, he would have sworn that he was sure they would be there.
When the time is up, he's already known for a a while that they've won, so it's more a matter of finally letting it out. More players than he expected to put an arm around him or move in for a hug, and he shouldn't care about that, shouldn't want it. He wouldn't even think about being hurt because straight teenage boys are afraid to touch him. But now they're not, and it's that reverse punch to the gut that gets him every time.
He tries to shoo them inside to at least put on dry shirts, only of course they won't listen, because who cares about getting cold when they're immortal and invincible. He gives up and lets them run over to be adored. As a matter of fact, he follows.
The Jacksons look like every other set of Lima parents, which is starting to mean, for Dave, too young to have teenagers. It's obvious where John gets the height from, in fact he's an almost perfect physical copy of his father, or will be once he gains about forty pounds. Jackson senior (Mike? Mark?) is probably about forty, and has the look of a former athlete who cares about staying in shape. Dave thinks he remembers hearing that he played some kind of sport in college, and being glad it wasn't football, because that can be a lot of pressure.
Mr. Jackson is being dragged over to Dave by a smaller, rounder woman, probably John's mom. Dave has no idea what her first name is or even if she really is Mrs. Jackson, and wonders if it would be rude to introduce himself when they've met before. Before he can make a decision, she solves the problem for him.
"Mr. Karofsky? I'm Kate Jackson, John's mother? I think I need to thank you."
She's got dark hair and bright eyes and is wearing an unflattering sweater, and she's such a mom that Dave doesn't know what to say for a moment. He's really no good with moms.
"Matt, come over here and say hi to Mr. Karofsky!" Her husband's long-suffering look in return is obviously loving and nothing to do with him, and he relaxes a bit.
"Just Dave is fine. And I think it's me who should thank you, considering your son just won our first playoff game for us."
Mrs. Jackson smiles, but her eyes are serious.
"No. Thank you. Really. You know, John takes is a teenage boy of course, and he takes after his father in the first place, so I'm the one doing most of the talking at our house, but a mother sees things, you know?" Dave gives the sort of slanted nod that can mean anything you want it to, and Mrs Jackson takes it as encouragement to keep talking, not that she needed it. "And from what he says, and what he doesn't, too, it's obvious that you've been there for him a lot this year. It's so important, you know, for kids to have someone to talk to? Someone who isn't their mom and dad, sometimes, and you've been that someone for our son. So thank you. I'm glad he has you as a role model." She puts a hand on his arm. She might be suspected of flirting with him, if it wasn't for the unspoken part of the conversation and the fact that her husband is right there.
He plays along, though, coming up between them and placing a steadying arm around his wife's shoulders. "You'll have to excuse my wife for ambushing you. We really are very grateful for what you've done for John. Kate, you have to let him go, I'm sure Mr. Karofsky has other people he'd like to talk to."
"Thank you. And I have to tell you, you should be so proud of your son. Coaches aren't supposed to play favorites, but you must have done something right with that one." As he says it, John untangles himself from a group of students in Westside T-shirts and every blue and yellow accessory ever made, and comes over. Sweaty and red-cheeked, obviously pleased with himself, he looks young and alive. Dave reaches out to touch him, maybe ruffle his hair or something, but that would actually be really gross, so he makes it a friendly shoulder punch instead.
"Hey! I was just telling your parents here how lucky we all are to have you. Make sure you get the video from Zach tomorrow, okay? That needs to go out to the recruiters as soon as possible." He looks at John's father. "Are you helping him out with that?" Matt nods. "I'm in charge of the NCAA timeline on the fridge. I'll make sure we get some emails out." He turns to his son. "Great game. Should we go celebrate, or are you too big a star now for burgers and ice cream with your old dad?" John seems a little embarrassed, but probably only the minimum that teenage boy rules require of him. "No, Dad, of course not." He looks at Dave with a cheeky smile and points over to the left. "Hey, coach, I think someone here's to see you. You should go and say hi."
Okay? John doesn't know Dave's father, as far as he's aware, and there's really nobody else who would show up specifically to see him. It's strange enough to have his dad here when he's sort of at work. Dave doesn't like having the different parts of his life mix. It's hard and dangerous, when you're keeping big secrets, and his brain hasn't quite caught up to the fact that he isn't anymore.
He's already worried about blurring the lines with John, of being inappropriate, too much friend and not enough teacher. And now he spots his dad walking towards him from the direction John was pointing, along with Burt Hummel and his wife. What has him working hard to control his breathing, though, is the young man Carole Hudson is chatting to. He looks very, very familiar.
Dave can't really focus on all the shoulder slapping and congratulations, because he's trying to figure out what the hell is going on, why and since when Thomas is here with his dad, and whether or not they know who the other is.
He turns towards Carole, the safest option in their little group and the one most likely to know. Back when he and Finn were just kids, he remembers liking her more than the other moms, because she seemed more like a real person. He also suspects she must have worked with Kurt to get him unbanned from the Hudson-Hummel house their senior year. Which he appreciated, he just didn't like to think about what she might have told her husband that convinced him, so he sort of avoided her anyway.
"David, how are you? This is Thomas, but you already knew that, didn't you? He told me you guys have already met." She leans in, excited like a little girl with a fun secret. "Don't worry. We only ran into each other two minutes ago, and I told Burt and your dad this handsome young man happens to be my coworker. Which he is, by the way, and we all adore him. He, on the other hand" - she grins and gestures at Thomas, who smiles sheepishly - "seemed unusually shocked to be introduced to the Westside coach's father".
Bless her and her quick intuition. Whatever stories she's told Burt Hummel about his mom, he forgives her.
"Thank you so much. Thomas, what are you doing here? Why didn't you tell me you were coming?"
"I wanted to surprise you?" Dave just shakes his head, because this couldn't have been predicted.They also have very little time before Burt and Paul, both perceptive men, start asking question, and Dave is either his best or worst under pressure. The shorter the deadline, the easier to ignore his inhibitions and just act. He physically pulls Thomas to the side and growls into his ear.
"Now that you're here, you have five seconds to decide how you want to be introduced to my dad. Go."
Dave thinks he feels a small shiver run through him at that, and goes cold, sure that he's scared him away and there will be no introduction at all.
Thomas looks him straight in the eyes, though, challenging but amused, like this whole situation is some crazy game that he might as well play. "Is boyfriend on the list of options?"
Dave knew there was a reason he liked this man. More than one, actually, but his balls of steel are definitely up there.
"Yes. My favorite, actually." He notices he's still holding on to him rather hard. He softens his grip, but doesn't let go. "Okay, boyfriend. Let's go meet the family."