It took great resolve on Will's part, but the next day, at tea, he again joined Liam. They had studied again together the night before. There was a growing closeness between them. Will was still not very forthcoming about himself and Liam had learned not to press him and so their camaraderie grew. Today, Liam noticed a nervousness in Will that hadn't been there before. He asked about it.
"Oh, it's really nothing, Liam."
"Come on, Will. We're friends now. This is what friends do. They talk about what's bothering them, what makes them nervous. Talk to me. You'll see, it helps."
He looked at Will with beseeching eyes, and Will found himself unable to resist. "Okay, but there's nothing you can do. Yesterday after tea three boys told me not to sit with you."
Liam gulped. He'd been sure this would happen. He'd also been hoping it wouldn't happen this quickly, before their friendship was firmly cemented in place. While worrying that this might be the end of it, he also marvelled that Will was sitting with him today. He hadn't thought he'd have the courage, once challenged.
"Who was it? Wait, I know. It was Hogsford, wasn't it, and probably those two apes that hang around with him?"
Will nodded, looking worried for a second, then noticeably relaxing. "Liam, I don't think they'll do anything to me. I'm much littler than they are and they'd get in so much trouble. They're not that dumb, couldn't be, really. They might say things to me, but I don't think they'll go any further. I suppose, since you guessed who they were, you've had some trouble with them. What have they done to you?"
"They've been the worst of anyone. After Richardson told everyone what I said, everyone was ragging on me for a spell, but then it sort of died down. All except Hogsford. He took every opportunity to call me names and make nasty comments, and then, when other people started to get used to the idea I was different but didn't seem to pose a threat or anything, he saw some people starting to talk to me again and he started telling every one to stay away from me. One boy told them to leave him alone and came and sat with me the next day, and he ended up with bruises. Said he'd tripped and fallen down. But he never came to sit with me again. Maybe everyone knew what happened, because after that, everyone else just seemed to ignore me. Either ignore me or make rude remarks.
"Hogsford has kept up the pressure, telling everyone how sick and disgusting I am, how I want to get into their trousers, how I want to see them naked in the showers and changing room, and I think everyone's just found it easier to leave me alone, even if some of them would otherwise be friendly. I see looks sometimes. Some boys look a bit ashamed, but then turn and walk away. I think when he gets to you, you will too. You can't fight all three of them. You couldn't even fight one of them."
Liam's mood had changed, as the reality of it all had sunk in. By the end of this speech, he was looking down at the table and his voice was cracking. Now he looked up at Will with moist eyes and said, "You know, it would be best for you to get up and leave. I understand. And thanks for saving me, and trying to be my friend. That'll always mean everything to me."
Liam had no more appetite. He stopped eating and just sat with his head down, looking at his tray. He knew he had to compose himself. It would not do at all for all the other boys to see him crying.
When he finally had control, he glanced up, and was surprised to find himself looking right into Will's eyes.
"I thought you were leaving."
"You were wrong. I decided before tea I was going to sit here today. Telling me I could get hurt is something I already figured out. It doesn't change anything, you telling me what I already know. I like sitting here with you and I'm going to keep doing it. I know you're trying to make it easier for me to leave, but I don't want to leave. Let Hogsford do what he wants to. If he beats me up, I'll get him expelled. Then he won't bother you any longer. It might be for the best."
Liam could hardly believe it. Little Will, who had told him he wasn't at all brave, was standing by him. Thinking about that, he suddenly felt in fear of crying again.
Will saw his emotions and briefly lifted a hand to Liam's shoulder and gently hit it. Then he quietly turned to his sandwich and ate.
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