It was a beautiful spring day at the Macdonald Hall School for Boys, and the students filed into the auditorium for an assembly with only minimal grumbling, unaware of the horrors that awaited them. "Good morning, boys," said Headmaster Sturgeon. He looked as though he had just bitten into a lemon, but since that was his usual expression no one paid it much mind. “After the events of the Solstice Dance, it has come to my attention that your education has been deficient in the area of social interaction with the opposite sex. And so, thanks to the… generous offer of Miss Scrimmage, this semester will include an ungraded but mandatory class in ballroom dance, which you will share with the students at the Scrimmage Academy for Girls Education and Awakening. I expect you boys to behave in a manner befitting students of Macdonald Hall. That will be all."
There was a solitary cheer from the indiscriminately enthusiastic crown prince of Malvonia, quickly hushed by his neighbors, and an anxious susurration passed through the crowd as the implications of the Fish’s pronouncement were clarified to less attentive students. Somewhere toward the back of the auditorium, Melvin "Boots" O'Neal felt a chill go down his spine. This was going to be a disaster.
Twenty minutes into their first dance lesson, Boots had upgraded the situation from "disaster" to "debacle". He and Diane had found each other immediately, of course, so he didn't have to worry about his partner intentionally murdering him, but the Scrimmage girls and the Macdonald boys had enough experience with each other to refuse en masse to be partnered with either Bruno or Cathy, and while Bruno seemed to be taking it as more of a compliment than anything else, Cathy had objected in violent terms to being asked to dance with Bruno. Her filibuster speech was still going strong, although she had meandered somewhat topic-wise and was now just listing the ways in which boys (in general) and Bruno Walton (in particular) were a plague of biblical proportions upon the righteous inhabitants of the Scrimmage Academy for Girls Education and Awakening (in general) and the soon-to-be-canonized Saint Cathy Burton (in particular). Miss Scrimmage was making approving noises about a sharing circle. The vein in the Fish’s forehead was pulsing so strongly it looked like it might erupt at any moment.
"We have to do something," Boots whispered to Diane.
"But what?" she whispered back. "If they do have to dance together, they'll probably end up burning down the entire hall."
Boots nodded grimly, staring into the middle distance as Cathy's impassioned speech -- she was now comparing herself to Joan of Arc being sent to the pyre -- washed over him. There was only one thing to be done. It would be difficult and unpleasant, but O'Neals weren't afraid of hard work. "Sorry about this, Diane," he said. He walked up to Cathy, ignoring the burn of Diane's betrayed gaze on the back of his neck, and held out his hand. "Cathy, do you want to dance with me?"
Cathy faltered into silence mid-sentence, and Bruno pivoted to look at him in bewilderment. "Boots, what are you -- "
"I'm sure Diane would be happy to dance with you, Bruno," Boots lied. "It'll be fun."
In a manner bearing more than a passing resemblance to that of a person retrieving a piece of unexploded ordnance, Cathy put her hand in Boots' and closed the distance between them, stepping near enough that he could have actually put her in a ballroom hold. If he'd wanted to lose an arm, anyway. "I'm going to lead," she said.
"All right," Boots said, resigned. It wasn't that he didn't like Cathy. She was a little -- okay, a lot over the top sometimes, but he was best friends with Bruno; he was used to that. And she cared a lot about Diane, and he cared a lot about Diane, so they had things in common. But if he had tried to come up with a list of activities he would enjoy participating in, allowing Cathy Burton to stomp all over his feet while attempting the Viennese waltz backwards would not have ranked near the top. Boots liked dancing, normally, but this was painful on more than one level.
Not nearly as painful, of course, as his periodic glimpses of Bruno and Diane, who both looked like they'd had enough of this ride and would like to get off now, thank you very kindly. The Fish had given up on supervising from a distance and was looming over them, shouting out the beat, but it wasn't helping. Neither were Miss Scrimmage's repeated interventions to reassure them that they were free to interpret the steps more loosely. Nothing short of divine intervention, in fact, was going to stop the impending trainwreck, Boots realized, and let Cathy wrench him through an awkward half-turn to at least put them out of his sight.
"My vengeance will be swift and terrible," Cathy announced, glaring over his shoulder, and it dawned belatedly on Boots that part of the reason she kept yanking him around and stepping on his feet was that most of Cathy's attention was on Diane and Bruno as well. The other reason, presumably, was that she hadn't been listening to Headmaster Sturgeon's instructions about holds or weight, and just didn't know how to dance. "This is an insult to the dignity of the Scrimmage Academy for Girls Education and Awakening. Forcing Diane to dance with Bruno Walton! It's an insult not to be borne."
"I'm pretty sure Bruno is every bit as unhappy as you are," Boots said diplomatically.
Cathy's sniper scope of a glare shifted on Boots instead, and he did his best to keep from cringing. "Are you implying there's something wrong with Diane?"
"No! You know I love Diane, Cathy, come on. I'm just saying that Bruno isn't -- "
Providentially, since Cathy's eyes had been growing narrower with every word that came out of Boots' mouth, he was interrupted by a high-pitched shriek mingled with a very familiar shout of dismay. Cathy jerked to a stop, dropped her hold on Boots, and ran across the room, and Boots closed his eyes briefly before turning to examine the inevitable wreckage.
Bruno and Diane had not only tripped over each other, they had caused a pile-up of three other couples, but Cathy was already dragging Wilbur and his unfortunate partner out of the way in order to reach Diane at the bottom of the heap. It looked like the worst casualty was Bruno himself, lying flat on his back with the breath knocked out of him. Boots wondered if it was wrong of him to wish for at least a sprained ankle -- nothing permanent or disfiguring, of course, just something that would take Bruno out of commission for long enough to convince Headmaster Sturgeon what a terrible idea this was. Judging from the look on his face, it wouldn't take much.
"All right," the Fish said as if on cue, massaging his temples. "Class dismissed for the day. Walk it off, Walton."
Boots got his shoulder under one of Bruno's arms, Wilbur got the other, and between them they hauled Bruno to his feet. Cathy and Chris pulled Diane up the same way, and while they were all standing there, Elmer hovering uselessly nearby, Boots took the opportunity to whisper, "Strategy session tonight in the kitchen." They needed a plan.
Unfortunately, once the usual suspects had been dismissed -- "Absolutely no pheromones of any kind, Elmer," Boots said firmly -- they were left with the same plan as before. "I just don't think the Fish is going to buy the conscientious objector thing, Cathy," he said. "Look, what if -- what if we pretended Bruno was injured and couldn't walk? That way Diane wouldn't have to dance with him. Wilbur, you can switch partners and dance with Diane, right?"
"I don't want to dance with any of the Scrimmage girls," Wilbur objected. "No offense, Diane."
"None taken," Diane said, while Cathy looked at Wilbur with an expression that clearly showed her differing opinion.
"Okay, but I'm not sure we have a way to avoid that," Boots said, frustrated. "Bruno? You've been really quiet. Do you have any ideas?"
"Hmm?" Bruno blinked. "What?"
"Bruno, are you sick?" Boots rushed over to him and put the back of his hand against Bruno's forehead, then grabbed for his wrist to check his pulse. "You don't have a fever. How long have you been feeling strange?"
"Since birth," Cathy muttered.
"Boots, I'm fine," Bruno said, batting him away. Boots backed off, surprised and a little hurt. "Just kind of tired. Look, is this even that big of a deal? So we'll step on each other a couple times a week for the rest of the semester, and then it'll be over. I don't think it's worth making a fuss over."
"I do!" snapped Cathy and -- Wilbur? Boots turned to stare, distracted from his immediate concern that Bruno was either possessed or dying. Now that he thought about it, they were in the kitchen and Wilbur wasn't even eating. Something was definitely wrong. "Look, I don't get a lot of time to spend with Arnold now swim season's over," Wilbur said defensively, blushing. "We were going to take a cooking elective together, but now everyone has to take dance instead, and we have to dance with girls instead of each other. It's not fair."
"Man, that sucks, I'm sorry," Boots said. Diane put a hand on Wilbur's shoulder, Elmer shuffled his feet awkwardly, and Bruno remained uncharacteristically silent. Chris, on the other hand, leapt to his feet and commandeered the whiteboard, scribbling frantically without pause until he completely filled it with arcane diagrams and turned back to them with the particular shit-eating grin he only wore when they were about to pull off something truly spectacular.
"Wow," Boots said, taking it in. "Okay, I think Bruno and I can handle breaking into the Fish's office to get Kip Kipperson's contact information, we've got plenty of experience. We still have all the supplies in the costume closet, right? Even the wigs?" Chris nodded vigorously, so he turned to look at Wilbur. "Do you need to check that Arnold's all right with this first?"
Wilbur stared at Chris and the whiteboard, his eyes suspiciously shiny. "You guys would do all this -- for me?"
"We know you'd do the same for us, buddy," Boots said. Chris and Elmer crowded around Wilbur and Diane, and even Cathy and Bruno shook off whatever was wrong with them and joined the huddle. "What's a little breaking and entering, extortion, cross-dressing and non-fraudulent impersonation among friends?"
"Do you want to tell me what's really wrong?" Boots asked in the dark after they'd snuck back into their room and crawled into bed. Bruno didn't answer. His breathing was slow and even, but it didn't have the faint wheeze that had lulled Boots through every bout of late-night insomnia that had struck him over the past three years, and concern took a momentary backseat to irritation. "I know you're not really asleep, Bruno, quit faking."
"Well obviously I'm not now," Bruno said.
"Great, answer the question. What's going on? Did you have a fight with Cathy?"
"Okay, then why is she so upset about the dance lessons? She was even acting weird with me. If you're starting another prank war, I want advance warning."
Bruno was quiet for long enough that Boots started to wonder if he was pretending to have fallen asleep again, and when he did start talking it was in such a careful voice that Boots almost didn't recognize it. "Look, man, I don't -- Cathy's going through some stuff right now, all right? I'll talk to her about taking it out on you, but if it makes her feel better to yell at me, it's not going to hurt my feelings or anything. You don't have to worry about it."
"Oh, okay." Boots paused, struggling to convert several contradictory reactions into something he could say and not sound like he'd gone off the deep end. He was upset that something was wrong with Bruno, and also angry that Bruno wasn't telling him about it, and also jealous Bruno was prioritizing Cathy over him, and also angry at himself for not sympathizing more with Cathy, and also, just in general, extremely confused. He finally settled on, "That's very mature of you."
"We've got some stuff in common," Bruno said, still in that unnaturally level tone. "We've been texting a lot lately."
"That's good, I hope it's helping," Boots said, and with some effort squashed down the urge to scream into the darkness that Bruno was his friend and he wasn't allowed to have secrets with Cathy Burton of all people that he didn't tell Boots about. He liked Cathy. He did. He was glad that if she was having a hard time she could talk to Bruno, even if she had her own best friend already and she had no business stealing his.
"Me too," Bruno said, and then lapsed into silence.
"So, uh. I was kind of expecting you to be leading the charge to get out of dance class," Boots said tentatively, when the quiet started to get to him.
"I don't know, it doesn't seem that bad to me." Who are you and what have you done with Bruno Walton, Boots mouthed to himself. "I'd kind of like to learn to dance, actually. You were -- at the Solstice Dance, before Hartley showed up and tried to electrocute everybody, the moves you were doing with Diane looked really cool. I'm sorry Cathy and I messed up the class for you, though -- I know you wanted to be Diane's partner."
"I mean, I'd rather dance with her than somebody I don't know," Boots said, staring up at the ceiling. Bruno wanted to dance, after he'd nearly disowned Boots for going over to Diane at the Solstice Dance? Why? Did it have something to do with whatever was going on with Cathy? Boots hadn't been this confused by a conversation with Bruno since their first day of being roommates. "I don't really mind. Cathy would be fine if she'd pay attention to where she's going instead of staring at you and Diane all the time. You really think I looked cool?"
"I mean, uh, yeah, like the spins and stuff? I didn't know you knew how to do all that."
"I used to take lessons, when I was still living at home. Mom said it would help my coordination for swimming." His dad had said it would help him get close to girls and he would understand why that was a good thing when he was older, but that had been a weird and off-putting conversation that Boots really didn't want to revisit, even in his own memories. "You know, if you wanted -- I could teach you the dance stuff."
"That would be -- nice," Bruno said. "I'm going to have to pretend I sprained my ankle so the Fish will let Diane get a new partner, though. No dance class for me."
"I didn't mean in class," Boots said, suddenly determined on a course of action. He'd never heard Bruno sound despondent before, and he definitely didn't like it. Bruno Walton didn't give up -- it was one of his best qualities, and probably also his most annoying one. Whatever was going on that he wouldn't tell Boots about, he was taking it worse than when the Fish had tried to separate them, so it obviously wasn't just the ballroom dance lessons, but that was the only part Boots knew how to fix. "Come on, get up. Come on," he repeated. Bruno did not get up, leaving Boots with no choice but to jump on top of him and wrestle him out of bed.
"Boots, you're not wearing a shirt," Bruno yelped.
"I was in bed, of course I'm not wearing a shirt. Okay, so you put your hand on my back, like -- yeah, like that. And your other hand in my hand. And one two three, one two three -- "
Leading Bruno through the steps of the Viennese waltz in their completely dark bedroom, Bruno's hand on his bare shoulderblade and his hand on the soft warm skin of Bruno's waist, Boots experienced two epiphanies in quick succession. First of all, he finally understood what his father had meant about dancing. Secondly, the thought of Bruno holding Cathy in ballroom position made him so miserably jealous he thought he was going to explode. Neither piece of information felt particularly helpful.
"All right," he said out loud, "I'm going to raise my arm, and you're going to step under it, all right? I'm going to show you how to do a spin." Bruno was his best friend. He liked Cathy. He wasn't going to mess things up for them. He was going to be supportive if it killed him.
Despite Boots' personal turmoil and Bruno's listlessness, Operation: Support Wilbur's Relationship unfolded smoothly -- so smoothly that Boots was beginning to suspect that either there really was a deity out there who looked after star-crossed lovers, or they should have deposed Bruno as chief mastermind years ago and let Chris handle all their scheming for them. Kip Kipperson was recruited for a reprise of the sabotaged dance-off, now a formal ballroom competition suitable to the legacy of Macdonald Hall; Bruno was excused from dance lessons on the basis of his injured ankle and spent several weeks periodically forgetting that he was supposed to be using crutches; Cathy successfully petitioned to take over as Diane's dance partner; Arnold, supposedly recovering from a sudden bout of mononucleosis, was embraced to the bosom of Scrimmage Academy in the character of Cathy's Francophone cousin Geneviève visiting from the backwoods of Quebec; and every night after lights-out Boots practiced dancing with Bruno and lost a little bit more of his mind. He had started scribbling poems about Bruno's eyes in between the run times in his fitness journal just to get some of it out of his head.
By the time the day of the competition arrived three weeks later, Boots was on tenterhooks waiting for the other shoe to drop: they had never, in his entire tenure at Macdonald Hall, had a scheme go off without so much as a single hitch, and blackmailing their way onto a reality television broadcast was significantly more complicated than dyeing all the bacon in the dining hall green. For all of his anticipation, however, he still managed to be surprised when "Geneviève" came racing into the hall at the last possible minute with Bruno on her heels, dressed nearly identically in red lipstick, a fifties-style swing dress, and a remarkably convincing wig. "Wow," Boots breathed, almost involuntarily.
Whatever other makeup Chris had put on Bruno, it didn't stop his entire face from turning bright red when he blushed. "Sorry I'm late," he said. "They didn't call for competitors to start lining up yet, did they?"
"Bruno, I — what? I didn't enter the competition," Boots said, focusing on the only part of Bruno's sudden appearance he felt qualified to handle.
"I know, I entered us for you. It's not fair you don't get to dance just because Cathy stole your partner. Oh, but you'd better call me Brunhilde, that's the name I used on the sign-up sheet." Out of the corner of his eye, Boots saw the Fish bearing down on them like a grim-faced avatar of suspension, and -- more surprisingly -- Miss Scrimmage set on a collision course with him, beaming. Whatever she said to him failed to lighten his expression, but she managed to pull him into the line of couples waiting to dance instead of descending on his wayward students. Boots gulped and followed suit, guiding Bruno with a hand on the small of his back. He had zero faith in Bruno's ability to navigate even the most modest high heels.
"Alllllll right, gentlemen of Macdonald Hall and ladies of Scrimmage Academy! Are you ready to -- TANGO?" Underneath his manic enthusiasm, Kip Kipperson looked pale and sweaty with terror, and Boots wondered idly what sort of threats or blackmail Chris had used to bring him back to the site of so much trauma so soon. That innocent face was definitely a front.
Bruno grabbed at his elbow, and Boots returned to the present moment with a lurch. Tango wasn't his strongest suit, and he hadn't spent much time teaching it to Bruno, either, so he was going to have to pay attention. At least the other competition dance was standard waltz. "I've got you," he promised Bruno. "Just follow my lead and we'll be fine."
"Okay," Bruno said, "I'll do the best I can, it's just I need to tell you something -- "
The opening syncopated beats of the tango played over the speakers, twenty pairs of dancers lurched into motion, and on the other side of the room, Cathy -- dressed in quite possibly the most sharply tailored tuxedo ever seen on the Macdonald Hall campus -- dipped Diane until her hair brushed the ground and pulled her into a lingering kiss when they were upright again. "Huh," Boots said, as his universe reset itself. Cathy being Cathy, that explained more than it didn't. "Go, Diane."
"What?" Bruno twisted his neck around to see what Boots was talking about, lost his balance, and would have slipped and fallen if Boots hadn't caught him. "Oh, no."
"Oh shit, did you hurt yourself?" The inexorable wave of dancers moving counter-clockwise around the room would run straight over them if they didn't get out of the way. Boots improvised a lift and carried Bruno into the center of the dance floor, a temporarily safe eye in the storm, and knelt to unbuckle Bruno's shoes as soon as he set him down. This put him in an excellent position to learn that Chris had not only managed to shove Bruno into pantyhose, he'd shaved his legs at least to the knee, a piece of information that Boots needed significantly more time to process than he had available. He swallowed hard and asked, "Which ankle did you twist?"
"Is it your knee?" Boots finished taking off Bruno's shoes and ran his hands up and down both calves, but he couldn't find any swelling. "Where are you hurt?"
"Boots, stop!" Bruno wrung his hands, which wasn't something Boots had been aware people did outside of books. "Please don't be mad at Cathy. It's my fault, I promised her I would tell you before and I kept trying and it just, the words wouldn't come out right and I panicked and I even got Chris to put me in this stupid dress and make me look like an idiot so I could come and tell you now but I just, I couldn't do it. Don't be mad."
Boots closed his eyes, tried to process the incomprehensible jumble of words that had just come out of Bruno's mouth, gave up, and opened them again. "First of all, I think you look really nice in that dress," he said. "Second, why on earth would I be mad at Cathy?"
Boots had no idea why that would make Bruno flinch and look away, but it did. "You're right," he mumbled. "It's my fault anyway."
"What? No. Bruno, why would I be mad at anyone? Cathy doesn't owe me a heads-up on her love life. I mean, sure, I'm a little hurt that Diane didn't, like, shoot me a text to let me know the details but that's not on any of you, so -- "
"We all know you have a crush on Diane!" Bruno yelled. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Boots remembered that they were in the middle of a live broadcast of a ballroom dance competition, and forcibly wrestled the thought down before he could expire of embarrassment. "Do you think I'm so dumb I wouldn't notice you staring out of windows and sighing and writing literal sad poems in your stupid workout notebook! I'm your roommate and I'm not an idiot! Stop lying to me!"
"You read my fitness journal?" Boots demanded. "Oh my god, what is wrong with you? Also, you are an idiot, because I don't have a crush on Diane, I have a crush on you!"
"You -- what?" Bruno rocked back on his heels, and Boots took the opportunity to climb back to his feet. "No, you don't."
"Are you serious? I didn't participate in multiple prank wars to keep living with Diane. I didn't stay up late every night for weeks to teach her how to dance. I definitely didn't write poetry about her in my fitness journal! And I can't believe you would go snooping through my -- mmmmf!"
"I have a crush on you too," Bruno whispered. It felt like an eternity later, but Boots could hear the tango just coming to an end. He hoped to god that whoever was running the cameras had cut away before he stuck his tongue down Bruno's throat. "And I'm sorry I read your workout notebook. Your poems aren't stupid."
"It's all right. Even I think they're pretty bad," Boots said. "Do you want to make a break for it while everyone's setting up for the next dance?"
Bruno hesitated. "Can we do the waltz first? I got all dressed up for this, I don't want to waste it. And I still want to dance with you."
"I would be honored," Boots said.
"Hey, what were the results for the dance-off?" Boots asked. Bruno, still pressed tight against his side however many hours after they'd worked out all their misunderstandings, sat up straight in sudden interest. "I didn't hear the announcement."
Across the table from them, Elmer and Arnold looked up from their plates; Wilbur, seated between them, kept plowing through his dinner. "I guess you and Bruno must have left the room by then," Arnold said. It was definitely Arnold now, and not Geneviève; he'd washed off almost all of the paint Chris had put on his face, except for a few lingering traces of eyeliner ("It was fun," he'd said earlier, when Boots asked about the dresses and the makeup and Scrimmage Academy. "But I don't think I'd do it again. Or not for that long, anyway. I really missed walking around in sweatpants.") and Boots was pretty sure he was holding hands with Wilbur under the table. "Uh, you were disqualified, because you stopped in the middle of the dance. I guess that's against the rules? And Cathy and Diane did a bunch of moves that they weren't supposed to, so they were out too."
"Wait, wait, wait," Boots said. "Did you and Wilbur win? That's amazing!"
Elmer, Wilbur and Arnold simultaneously burst into laughter. "Uh, have you ever seen me dance?" Wilbur asked. Chris slid his sketch pad down the table to Boots. He'd drawn Miss Scrimmage standing at the podium, her mouth open in mid-speech. The Fish was next to her with his arms crossed over his chest.
"The Fish won the dance-off," Bruno said, almost prayerfully. "This was already the best day of my life but oh my god."
"Are we... in trouble?" Boots asked more cautiously, recalling the look on Headmaster Sturgeon's face when he'd caught sight of Bruno in his Brunhilde outfit.
"I don't think so," Elmer said.
"Miss Scrimmage gave a really nice speech about how proud she was of us all for 'living our truth in the face of oppressive gender-biased systems,'" Arnold volunteered. "And then the Fish was embarrassed, I think. That's why he's scowling in the picture. Anyway, none of us got detention yet, even me, and I skipped three weeks of class pretending to have mono, so I think you're probably safe."
"Don't jinx it!" Boots hissed.
As if on cue, Headmaster Sturgeon appeared in the dining hall doorway. Silence slowly spread through the students as he made his way to the front of the room, pushing a covered dining cart ahead of him. When he turned to face them, he was turning a single folded sheet of paper over in his hands. "Boys," he began, then stopped, made a face, and unfolded the piece of paper.
"Students," he read. "It has been brought to our attention that in arranging your dance lessons, Miss Scrimmage and I have perpetuated an antiquated and exclusionary view of gender and sexuality. This is not what Macdonald Hall stands for. We value our history and our traditions, but the past is not infallible, and neither history nor tradition is worth more than the safety and comfort of you, our students. We will host a -- sharing circle -- tomorrow for all students of the Hall and Scrimmage Academy who wish to explore their feelings in regard to this situation. While joint dance lessons will continue until the end of the semester, from this point forward any student may choose the partner of their preference, regardless of gender."
Wilbur dropped his fork in shock, and Boots exchanged a wide-eyed look with Bruno. "Did the plan -- work?" he whispered.
"On a more personal note," Headmaster Sturgeon continued as he refolded his notes and put them away in his pocket, "I am sorry that those of you who were hurt by my and Miss Scrimmage's actions did not feel comfortable telling us so. I understand that I have not given you reason in the past to do so. It is my hope to rectify this in the future. I am... very proud of you all." He uncovered the dining cart to reveal five tiers of cupcakes, all decorated with rainbow frosting -- he had to have started baking as soon as the dancing was over, Boots thought, stunned -- and the students sitting at the nearest table all made involuntary half-lunges forward. "However," the Fish added sternly as he began to distribute the cupcakes, "if I discover any inappropriate shenanigans after lights-out, rest assured that there will be consequences, including but not limited to the reassignment of roommates."
Boots snuck a glance out of the corner of his eye at Bruno, already muttering to himself and obviously plotting ways to get around the Fish's latest edict, and gave in to the impulse to press a kiss to his cheek. Sometimes there was chaos and sometimes there were cupcakes, but he wouldn't want to be anywhere in the world other than Macdonald Hall.