Summary: Bruno and Boots have always touched each other, so when they stop, people notice.
Notes: Thanks to my beta, calathea, who took on a job from a practical stranger, because she is that kind of hardcore fan, and battled my tenses with great success. Thanks also to a certain wikipedia entry, for replacing the part where I had to type INSERT SCIENTIFIC INFORMATION HERE, and to the RL gang who made fun of my capslocked outline at one in the morning, but listened patiently to my hugely gestured explanations of MacDonald Hall anyway.
Bruno and Boots have always touched each other.
They don't sit in one another's laps or anything, but on long bus rides Bruno slumps onto Boots's shoulder, and Boots rolls his eyes at whoever is leaning over a seatback to talk to them, but makes no move to shove him off. Even when they first met, Bruno was the guy Boots leaned on to check the bottom of his shoe.
Nobody thinks or talks about it much, any more than they say, "Hey—so Elmer. Really smart, right?"
Chris notices first. He always notices first, his artist's eye caught by the way people move, pose, gesture. He never told anyone about Wilbur's crush on Diane, so obvious in the gentleness of his big hands when he boosted her up the drainpipe, the slump of his shoulders when her smile flashed in his direction before she turned back to nagging Cathy and Bruno.
He figured out Cathy and Diane long before Miss Scrimmage invited MacDonald Hall to a Pride dance. (Although, of course, once the posters went up, everybody began claiming they'd known all along.)
For a few days, something just seems—off—about Bruno and Boots. It isn't Bruno's ugly new haircut, revolting though it is to his artistic sensibilities, or Boots wearing glasses because he lost a contact. It's frustrating, niggling at him whenever he sees them. He even tries sketching them once or twice, Bruno's waving hands or the set of Boots's shoulders, but nothing is different from the way he's drawn them before.
It isn't till they walk towards him together down a hall that he sees it: the six inches of empty space between them.
In the Headmaster's cottage, everything is peaceful. Mr. Sturgeon rises each morning, breakfasts on his wife's delicious cooking, and departs for the office.
In the evenings they watch television. Once a week, Miss Scrimmage joins them for an evening of board games. Conversation is light and pleasant.
Wilbur knows he gets his love of food from his mother's side of the family, a heritage of rich sauces and delicate marinades. There's a family story that his Uncle Manny recognized potential when Wilbur was only six years old, drawing faces in the ketchup on his hamburger. "Never saw a kid take off the bun and add just a dab more mustard with so much precision," Uncle Manny always says, slapping his nephew on the back.
Since then, he's been a sort of unofficial apprentice, destined for five-star fame, his lessons at his mother's mixer supplemented by Uncle Manny's stories and maxims. He doesn't only know smell and taste, now, he knows people—who will be rude to the waiter, who will need to be gently steered to the right wine. He knows to observe the regular customers, knows that when you take an order you're gauging a mood.
It's habit, by now, and he's been eating with his friends for almost six years; if he couldn't tell with them, he'd have to preemptively resign from the restaurant business. Pete eats double helpings of fish when he's got a test that week; a lack of nutritional balance in Elmer's meals is the earliest warning he's about to go off the beam again. (The morning after Elmer saw Edward go into Marylou's room, he actually ate Froot Loops for breakfast.)
One night, Bruno makes a face at his dessert, and Wilbur is only half-listening as he digs into his own ham. Bruno makes this speech every time there's blueberry pie. "Blueberries!" he exclaims in disgust. "You'd think they'd take into account the opinions of the students around here."
"I like blueberries," Mark says mildly.
"Me too," puts in Pete.
"Blueberries, particularly those of the lowbush variety, are rich in polyphenol antioxidants and anthocyanins," Elmer announces, putting a spoonful of his own dessert in his mouth.
Bruno gets his defeated expression. "Yeah, well, I hate 'em. Want mine, Wilbur?"
"Sure," he replies, before his brain catches up to him. He turns to check, and yeah, Boots is sitting two seats to his left, same as always. So why is Wilbur the one with a second helping of pie?
There's a diversion, just then, as Sidney arrives and trips over a chair leg, splattering Bruno with potatoes and blueberries, and Wilbur has to join in the efforts to get the pie off Bruno before he can start a revolution against blueberries simply because they've irritated him.
It's only when Bruno's left to change his clothes that Wilbur realizes Boots slipped off in the chaos.
Sipping coffee after dinner one evening, Mrs. Sturgeon cocks her head at her husband. "How are Bruno and Melvin doing, William? I haven't heard anything about them in quite some time. They aren't sick, are they?"
"No, same as ever," Mr. Sturgeon says expansively. "One of the constancies of MacDonald Hall, Walton and O'Neal."
"But you haven't told me anything about them in weeks, William! You know I'm fond of them; have you started feeling guilty when you put them on dishwashing?"
"Mildred, when the students of MacDonald Hall disobey the rules of our fine institution, it is my duty, unpleasant as it may be, to see to it that they are duly punished. There is certainly no question of guilt. Walton and O'Neal simply haven't—" He pauses, frowning. "They haven't been in my office in almost a month."
"I'm glad to hear that they are being so well-behaved." Mrs. Sturgeon smiles as she stands to clear the plates.
"Do you know, Mildred, it actually worries me a little."
Mark is putting together a layout on the football team. He's interviewed the players and the coach; even got a quote from Hank the Tank when he visited for the opening game. He's taken casual snapshots and formal portraits in uniform.
For the last section, he wants to put a "then" and "now" shot of the team. He picks up his favorite shot of the whole group, and puts it underneath the team photo from the first year they had a football team.
The team hasn't changed much, since hardly any of the original players had been preparing to graduate. No Elmer, of course, since the subterfuge had been discovered; different haircuts; zits in different spots.
Mark frowns down at the spread. In the top photo, Bruno and Boots are grinning, arms thrown over one another's shoulders, opposite arms yanking in their teammates by the neck.
In the bottom one, Bruno and Boots are grinning, arms around Wilbur and Dave, respectively. In the middle of the bench sit two football helmets.
"A very successful affair, Miss Scrimmage," Mr. Sturgeon congratulates her, pausing in his steady pacing of the periphery of the dance floor. There have been no music substitutions, no movie star sneezes, no spiked punch. Slow music plays as the students of MacDonald Hall approach the young ladies and ask them to dance.
"Let me thank you, Mr. Sturgeon," Miss Scrimmage says, laying a hand on his arm.
"Your young men have been absolute gentlemen tonight. I am so grateful that you took my advice and kept the hoodlums at home."
"I assure you, I—" Mr. Sturgeon breaks off. This has been too easy; he should have known. His mouth sets in a grim line as he performs his usual troublemaker check. Somewhere in this crowd, Miss Grant, Miss Burton, Walton, and O'Neal will be plotting.
But Miss Grant and Miss Burton are in the middle of the dance floor, arms around one another, and he can see a blonde head of hair and Walton's unmistakable hideous haircut across the room. Still frowning, he makes his excuses to Miss Scrimmage and turns to continue pacing the floor.
"Excuse me, sir!" O'Neal exclaims, hastily stepping back.
"Pardon me, I—O'Neal?"
"Yes, sir." Boots gives him a puzzled look.
He turns to check Walton's position again, and this time he can see that the boy next to Walton is shorter than O'Neal, broader in the shoulder.
"Never mind, never mind." He waves the boy off and continues walking; they must have split up for diversionary purposes.
But the dance ends without incident, and Walton and O'Neal haven't said more than ten words to each other the entire time.
One of the reasons it's so hard to stay mad at Bruno is because he's such a good friend, despite the risks. He's been tutoring Pete in history for four years, surprisingly patient and encouraging for someone so loud and restless.
"Library after dinner, Pete?"
"No problem. Still plenty of time for this stupid Dickinson analysis, which is totally kicking my ass."
Pete looks at Boots, who is usually the one to sit Bruno down and make him think about what he's writing. Boots's shoulders are hunched forward as he scoops up peas, and he doesn't say a word.
Late one afternoon, as the sun slips from the sky, the headmaster sends for Walton and O'Neal to consult with them about new uniforms for the football team.
It doesn't take long—Walton's fundraising ideas are clearly having an off day, because they have three reasonable plans in half an hour.
"That was a very productive meeting, boys," Mr. Sturgeon says, standing. "Thank you for your time."
"Anything for the team, sir," Walton assures him, grinning.
"You can go on and finish your homework, then."
When they leave the building, they depart in different directions.
The headmaster frowns.
"Something wrong, Mr. Sturgeon?" Mrs. Davis asks, picking up her purse to leave for the day.
"Walton and O'Neal, Mrs. Davis."
Her forehead creases in concern. "What's the matter?"
"The school is peaceful; Walton just pitched three levelheaded fundraising ideas for the uniforms; O'Neal didn't once call his roommate an idiot or frantically attempt to shut him up during our entire meeting. I don't like it, Mrs. Davis; I don't like it at all."
"Oh, dear. I hope they haven't fallen out, it's so hard on them."
"Yes. I hope so, too."
They leave the building, Mr. Sturgeon locking the building behind him.
Neither notices the figure crouched in the bush beside the front door.
"So I go back to grab my math text, and I hear the Fish and Mrs. Davis talking about Bruno and Boots." Larry chalks his pool cue.
There's too much skill involved in pool for Bruno, and Boots has swimming practice, so they're safe to talk about it. The rec hall is quiet tonight, mostly just their own friends.
"What about Bruno and Boots?"
"They think there's something wrong—like they had a fight or something. Have any of you—"
"My eye!—Goddamn pool cues."
"They are certainly exhibiting a marked difference from their usual behaviors."
"It's been weeks."
"It's getting worse."
"So—what do we do about it?"
Glances dart around the room. They don't settle. Bruno's always been the one with plans.
Finally Chris offers weakly, "...form a committee?"
The Committee to Fix Whatever the Hell Is Wrong—Bruno's always been the one to come up with catchy names, too—marches into room 306 en masse.
Bruno's staring up at the ceiling, his English text open beside him.
Boots is turned toward the wall, his lips moving silently as he concentrates on his French vocabulary list.
"What's up?" Boots asks, twisting around and frowning at them.
Nobody really knows what to say.
"Guys?" Bruno fixes his eyes on Chris, where—in "this was your idea" inevitability—he's standing at the head of the pack.
"Er." Mark pokes him in the back, and Chris bites his lip. "We've formed a committee."
"A committee," Bruno repeats.
"We're here to fix it," Pete blurts out.
"Fix what?" The expression on Boots's face is getting worried.
"Are we—broken?" Bruno sounds more puzzled than anything else.
"Come on, Bruno," Wilbur rumbles. "You two have been weird around each other for weeks."
"We haven't been weird," Boots protests.
"Boots, you have so been weird," Bruno says, sitting up, and everybody freezes.
Slowly, Boots turns his head toward Bruno. "I've been weird. I've been weird? What about you?"
"What about me?"
"You've barely spoken to me in three days!"
"You looked terrified every time I opened my mouth! I thought I was doing you a favor!"
"I thought you were mad at me!"
"Why should I be mad?"
"Because—" Boots breaks off, and shoots a glance at their fascinated audience, who have been watching the two of them step closer to one another with every volley, until they're practically nose to nose. "Well. You know."
"I—" Bruno makes a frustrated noise, and turns to the Committee. "Guys? Can you give us a second?"
They back out the door, picking Sidney up from the floor, and push it shut. For a breathless moment, they stand in the hall, looking at each other.
Mark's the first to crack, shoving his ear up against the door, and the others pile up against him, pushing as quietly as possible to get the best spots.
"Boots, I wasn't mad. I thought you were—"
"Why would you—"
"Well, yeah, but I was the one who—"
"But I thought you got the idea from me. I thought you picked up—"
"I thought you knew I was...and then when I didn't, you thought I'd been teasing or something, and you were—"
"I didn't—I thought I was getting you all wrong. I mean I couldn't tell."
"Couldn't tell? I felt like it was written all over my face—"
"You wouldn't come near me in public—"
"Yeah, 'cause if you didn't—you know—it was scary enough telling you, I didn't want everybody knowing if you were just gonna break my—"
"Bruno, are you kidding me?"
"I like to grieve in private, okay, you know I can't stand being asked if I'm all right—"
"You idiot, have I ever—"
The sound breaks off, and the group stacked up against the door pulls away slowly.
"They sound all right..." Chris says, slowly.
"At least they've talked about it," Wilbur agrees.
Pete looks puzzled. "But what were they talking about?"
"It's none of our business," Larry says uncertainly.
In the pause that follows, Mark's face sets in determination. "Of course it is. We made them do it. We're involved, too."
"—these are somewhat dubious ethical grounds—"
"You don't have any scientific curiosity, Elm?" Chris challenges him.
"Well—" he wavers, and Mark reaches over and turns the knob slowly. The door softly swings open about half a foot, offering a narrow view of the room to the boys standing in the hallway.
Bruno and Boots are standing just where they were, halfway between their beds, but even closer together, Boots's hand under Bruno's chin as they lick at one another's mouths. As the others watch, Bruno reaches up and threads one hand in Boots's hair; Boots moans and begins roughly unbuttoning the collar of Bruno's shirt. Hastily, Mark pulls the door shut again, praying that it won't make a sound.
The broad grin on his face seems to be contagious, spreading to Wilbur and Chris and Larry, Pete and Sidney and Elmer.
"It took them long enough."
"Jeez, I was about to put him in Boot's bed after the next poker night."
"I was about to take out personal ads for them."
"It has been an extremely extensive mating dance, hasn't it?"
Sidney begins to do a celebratory little jig, and they catch him just before he clatters to the floor.
The two boys squirmed uncomfortably on the bench in front of their headmaster.
Mr. Sturgeon leans forward. "Walton, O'Neal, I know that you are familiar with the rulebook."
"Yes, sir," they chorus.
"In the past, we have reviewed together such material as curfew, forming organizations, leaving the grounds without permission, and gambling."
"I begin to think that you have no other method of gaining knowledge of the contents of said rulebook."
"That being said, I believe it is time for us to discuss the section regarding public indecency."
"Well, sir," Walton begins. "I guess it depends on your definition of indecency..."
The headmaster narrowed his eyes as Walton began to defend himself, but inwardly, he smiled.
They might not have been comfortable telling him about their relationship, but he had certainly noticed.
Note: Crossposted to scrimmettes; apologies to those with duplicates