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You Really Do Love Him, Don't You?

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It started with a joke.

”You really do love him, don’t you,” his mother had teased.

”Yeah, I do and-” because he was too caught up in his story-telling and that’s where his motormouth had gotten him. Because his brain had caught up and stumbled over what he’d just said.

Bruno lay on his back in bed, staring at the ceiling. He couldn’t sleep. Summer vacation was over and he couldn’t sleep. Tomorrow he would go back to MacDonald Hall and he couldn’t sleep. Tomorrow he would face Boots again.

”You really do love him, don’t you,” his mother had teased.

”Yeah, I do and-” and his brain had caught up and stumbled over what he’d just said.

Melvin “Boots” O’Neal, son of an Olympic athlete, captain of the swim team, captain of the hockey team, and roommate for the last few years at MacDonald Hall. He was co-conspirator and conscience, the voice of mischief one moment and the voice of reason the next. He inspired Bruno, then kept him from going too far. He was the best friend Bruno had ever had.

”You really do love him, don’t you,” his mother had teased.

”Yeah, I do and-” and his brain had caught up and stumbled over what he’d just said.

There was a knapsack among his bags, containing all the presents he’d bought for Boots over the summer.

”You really do love him, don’t you,” his mother had teased.

When the O’Neals were considering switching Boots over to York Academy because it had a pool, Bruno had moved heaven and earth to get a pool for MacDonald Hall. Just so Boots could stay.

”Yeah, I do and-” and his brain had caught up and stumbled over what he’d just said.

Die-In-The-Woods. That’s when things had changed. When Boots handed him a pan to fight off the spotted tundra leopard they were certain was heading for their camp, when they had gazed at each other in fear. When he knew that he would bludgeon to death anything that threatened Boots. When he knew that he would protect Boots with his life.

”You really do love him, don’t you,” his mother had teased.

”Yeah, I do and-” and his brain had caught up and stumbled over what he’d just said.

Bruno lay in his bed, staring at the ceiling, and didn’t sleep.

* * * *

He spent the drive up to the Hall in silence. His mother kept glancing at him, worried about him. He wasn’t sure if she hadn’t a reason to be. He unloaded his bags in silence, hugged his mom and dad and wished them well, greeted Mr. Fudge the housemaster of Dormitory 3, and made his way to room 306. He stared at its bland bare beige walls and unpacked his movie posters. He put them up, then opened the bureau drawers to unpack his clothes.

A thump made him look up to see Boots, standing in the open doorway, having just put his case down. They stared at each other. Bruno felt his insides twist, feeling like he was drinking in the sight of Boots after the long summer without him. He’d grown even more. Where Bruno seemed to have topped out at 5’10, Boots had shot up to easily 6’0. Six feet of solid, slender muscle, capped with neatly combed blond hair and huge blue eyes that were staring back just as intently.

”You really do love him, don’t you,” his mother had teased.

”Yeah, I do and-” and his brain had caught up and stumbled over what he’d just said.

Bruno felt himself start to blush and sent private thanks for his olive complexion and naturally ruddy cheeks. His insides stopped twisting and his heart soared, spreading his face into a beaming smile, “Boots!”

“Hey, Bruno!” Boots detached himself from the door frame and stepped over his bag to shake Bruno’s hand, then a brief but fierce hug. “Good to see you!”

“Oh my God I have missed you!” Bruno laughed, “How was your summer?”

“You know what my prick of a little brother did?” Boots began and launched into a series of stories that had Bruno laughing to tears.

Oh man, he’d missed Boots so much. Boots was awesome. No one made him laugh as much as Boots did.

”You really do love him, don’t you,” his mother had teased.

”Yeah, I do and-” and his brain had caught up and stumbled over what he’d just said.

Oh man, he thought as Boots launched into another story, I think I’ve got a problem.

* * * *

“I’m gonna kill him,” Boots moaned.

“We’ll hide the body in the old sand pit,” Bruno agreed, “Nobody’s used it since it blew up.”

York Academy had won the first swim match again but this time it was very, very, very close. At the conclusion, Boots had collapsed against the wall, gasping for breath, and didn’t notice Mark Davies, editor of the school newspaper, lurking nearby with his camera.

Then today’s edition came out. The full front page was of Boots O’Neal, fresh out of the water, leaning against the wall, head back and mouth open, one hand resting atop his forehead, the other on his thigh. The caption banner ran across his hips, covering his swim trunks and cutting his hand off at the wrist. The immediate effect was less “swim team captain catches his breath after close contest” and much more “caught at the high point of a personal activity.” There were screams of laughter all around the school. Everyone in the dining hall was cat-calling and wolf-whistling. They were already calling it “the porno picture.”

Boots caught sight of Larry Wilson, the office messenger, approaching with a paper in his hand, and groaned, “Oh no… Not the Fish… I swear, I didn’t even know Mark was there!”

They watched, stunned, as Larry passed them by and intercepted Mark Davies to make his delivery, then they sagged with twin sighs of relief. Wilbur Hackenschleimer and Arnold Wensleydale took the seats next to them and gazed at him sympathetically… then burst into snorts of laughter. Boots put his head on the table and groaned. “This is gonna find its way over to Scrimmage’s, isn’t it.”

“Oh I’m having fun watching everybody,” Wilbur chuckled, “Half the guys are falling over themselves to no-homo and the other half are suddenly questioning themselves. Good job!” Boots groaned again. “And if you don’t stop that, people are really going to start wondering.”

“Oh my God…” Boots put his face in his hands.

“You gonna be okay?”

“Sure, after I die of humiliation.”

“Embarrassment, yeah,” Wilbur said, eying the picture critically, “But you got nothing to be ashamed about.”

“A-hem,” said Arnold.

“What? It’s a good picture!” Arnold gave him the stink-eye and Wilbur threw up his hands, “I’m hardly gonna make a play for him, he can’t deadlift two hundred.” Boots’s head hit the table again.

Bruno felt his insides twist. It was a bit of an open secret that Wilbur and Arnold were more than just good friends. They were devoted to each other and Wilbur had been a good friend of Bruno and Boots for years. But somehow, the thought of anyone making a play for Boots was… unsettling.

As was that picture. It was deliberately framed to be provocative and it was excelling.

”You really do love him, don’t you,” his mother had teased.

”Yeah, I do and-” and his brain had caught up and stumbled over what he’d just said.

Larry Wilson returned and this time he tapped Boots on the shoulder, smirking as he presented his summons. Boots groaned again and Bruno felt a stab of outrage. “What the hell? Why’s the Fish want to see you? You didn’t pose for it!”

“I didn’t even know he was there!” Boots insisted.

“I’m going with you,” Bruno said determinedly, “It’s not always us.” He put his arm around Boots’s shoulders and walked with him to the Headmaster’s office. The admin assistant, Mrs. Davies, waved them towards the big oak door.

“Come in, O’Neal.”

Bruno pushed the door open, “Mr. Sturgeon, Melvin didn’t-”

“Walton, that will do,” Mr. Sturgeon interrupted, “O’Neal, you may enter. Walton, you will wait outside.”

“…yes sir…” Bruno mumbled. His jaw was tense and he gave Boots a look of support, sympathy, and determination… and helplessness, unable to be present to support his best friend. The heavy oak door closed.

Mrs. Davies gave him some hot chocolate and ushered him to one of the waiting chairs.

Was Boots really in trouble over a picture he didn’t know was being taken?

It was a very provocative picture. It really looked like he was… y’know… doin’ the deed.

Did his face really look like that when he was really…?

”You really do love him, don’t you,” his mother had teased.

”Yeah, I do and-” and his brain had caught up and stumbled over what he’d just said.

The door opened. Boots stepped out and pulled it closed behind him. He looked pale. Bruno jumped up and pressed his cup of hot chocolate into Boots’s hands. “Dude, what’d The Fish say?” he whispered.

They walked in silence for a few moments while Boots sipped the hot chocolate. “He made Mark apologize,” he said finally.

Bruno sagged with relief, “You’re not in trouble?”

Boots shook his head, “No.”

“Thank God for that,” Bruno sighed, “I would have gone to battle for you but I was not looking forward to taking on The Fish himself!”

* * * *

It was a very provocative picture and Bruno couldn’t stop thinking about it. Mostly about how he felt about it. Or didn’t feel about it. The odd (?) thing was, it didn’t get his motor running, so to speak. Not like that. Not really. Instead he felt… admiration, appreciation. He’d be the first to admit that Boots was a very attractive young man. Very handsome indeed. Especially with water running off him like that. But there was no… trip to the netherlands, so to speak. Not really. Not as such.

”You really do love him, don’t you,” his mother had teased.

”Yeah, I do and-” and his brain had caught up and stumbled over what he’d just said.

If he felt that way about Boots, shouldn’t he feel… more?

“You okay?” said a soft voice near his shoulder.

He turned his head to see Wilbur looking at him. “Yeah, I’m fine,” Bruno sighed. He hesitated a moment and added, “For now.”

Wilbur seemed to understand. He nodded and clapped Bruno’s shoulder, then went back to his work without another word. Bruno sighed again and bent his head back over his books.

* * * *

“I don’t know what to do with this,” Bruno whispered. It was the middle of the night and Boots was sound asleep in the other bed. His breathing was deep and rhythmic, slightly rough. Bruno knew it well. “I don’t know what to do with these feelings.” His voice was barely audible. “You mean so much to me. You’re the most important person in my life. You’re the best friend I’ve ever had and I just… I don’t want to lose that, ever. I don’t even know what this means.” He turned onto his back. “I try to picture myself settling down with a girl, like Cathy or Diane, and I just can’t see it happening, but I can see myself with you. But one day soon we’re both gonna graduate and then we’ll go off to university or whatever and it’s breaking my heart. The thought of being without you is just killing me and I don’t know what to do with this information. I don’t even know what it means.” He turned back onto his side. Boots’s breathing was still steady, deep, and slightly rough and he hadn’t moved. “It’s not like I’ve ever even thought of you like… like that. Like the porno picture. I mean, you’re hot, there’s no denying that, you’re a good-looking guy, but I still never thought of… like… ohhh I don’t even know what I’m trying to say,” Bruno sighed and rolled back onto his back again. “Like, that’s not what it’s about, it’s not about… sex, it’s about… I mean, I love your sense of humour, I love that we have so much in common, I love your brilliant ideas for jokes… I love that you protect me from myself… I love that you’re so patient… I love that you trust me so much… I love that I can make you laugh… I love everything about you, Boots. I love… you. And I really don’t know what that makes me. And I really don’t know what to do with all of this.”

He fell silent. Boots swallowed in his sleep and shifted a little, then his breathing smoothed out as he fell back into deep slumber. “I wish I could sleep,” Bruno sighed. Then he rolled onto his side and tried to do just that.

* * * *

The rain was coming down in waves, blown by a powerful wind. Bruno stared at the water pounding the window, unable to concentrate on his class (not that he tried very hard on the best of days.) Boots was in Language Arts class; Social Studies was one of the few classes they didn’t share. He glanced over at Wilbur, to see the big boy watching him. The bell rang for lunch and Bruno picked up his books to file out with the others. He fell into step beside Wilbur. “Not so fine now, I guess,” he said quietly.

Wilbur nodded. “C’mon. Let’s get lunch and we’ll talk.” Bruno nodded and followed Wilbur back to his dorm room. Wilbur was legendary for keeping the contents of a small corner grocer’s in his room. He put the kettle on (”tea or hot chocolate? Or something stronger? I got espresso.”) and poured the contents of a can of pea soup into a bowl to put into his microwave (”it’s bloody miserable out.”) He offered Bruno crackers and then they sat down to eat. “What’s up?”

Bruno hesitated, not sure what to say or how to say it. Finally he said, “How did you… like, know?”

Again Wilbur seemed to understand. “It was pretty obvious,” he said, “I like strength. I really like strength. But it seemed I liked watching strong men more than strong women, although don’t get me wrong, strong women are still really amazing. But there was no.. Y’know.”

“Yeah,” Bruno nodded vigorously. Yeah, he did know.

“With Arnold,” Wilbur said fondly, “Heh, I watched him snatch over ninety kilos and I needed a moment.”

Bruno laughed. Then he nodded. “Yeah, that, that y’know. It’s not there, not really. Not like that. But I, I feel really really strongly for him and I’m… I… But then shouldn’t I feel… y’know? I mean, I looked at that picture for hours and fuck yeah, he’s gorgeous, but…”

Wilbur nodded again. “You feel that looking at women?”

Bruno frowned, “Well… yeah… Kind of… I guess? I never really thought about it.”

“Thought about him?”

Bruno blushed and shook his head, then admitted, “Not until recently. Like, really recently.”

Wilbur nodded again and sipped his tea. “I’m really lucky I have Uncle Manfred to talk to. He knows a lot about this stuff. He and his husband have been together a long time and they’re really active in the Toronto community. He says people have sex without being in love, all the time, but then they think you can’t be in love without having sex. And there are some people who have to be in love first before they even feel like sex. Maybe that’s you.”

“Maybe,” Bruno pondered.

“And if not,” Wilbur shrugged then touched Bruno’s arm, “It doesn’t mean your feelings for him are any less, or in any way flawed. You two have an incredible bond.”

“Yeah,” Bruno sighed sadly, “And I don’t want to jeopardize that at all. I don’t know what to do about any of this.”

Wilbur blew out a breath. “Well… I’ve known you two for years… and if he’s actually surprised, then he just hasn’t been paying attention.”

“…That obvious?”

“Dude.”

”You really do love him, don’t you,” his mother had teased.

”Yeah, I do and-” and his brain had caught up and stumbled over what he’d just said.

“Yeah…” Bruno blushed.

* * * *

Evenings were usually spent in the dorm doing homework or watching videos or thinking up new stunts, or in the rec room watching videos or playing air hockey, or in the dining hall, sometimes even in the library. Bruno was picking up trash. He stabbed a wrapper with the spike and put it into the trash bag.

“Good evening, Walton.”

Bruno glanced up to see The Fish, out for a walk. “Good evening, Mr. Sturgeon.”

The Headmaster nodded as he walked past. Then he stopped and looked back with a puzzled frown, “I don’t recall assigning you any punishment details recently?”

“No sir.”

The Headmaster was even more puzzled, “Then why are you picking up garbage?”

Bruno shrugged and stabbed another wrapper, “Just… needed something else to do, I guess.”

“And where’s your other half?”

Bruno shrugged again, “Don’t know. He’s off somewhere, I guess.”

The Fish stepped back and gave him a concerned look, “Walton, is everything alright? You’ve seemed a bit distant lately. Your teachers have commented that you’ve been unusually disengaged recently. And you and O’Neal are usually joined at the hip, now you don’t know where he is? Did you have a falling-out?”

Bruno shook his head, “No sir, it’s nothing like that.” He stabbed another piece of garbage and looked up at the Headmaster, idly noticing that they were almost equal in height now. “Mr. Sturgeon? You and Mrs. Sturgeon have been together a long time, right?”

“Nearly forty years,” the Headmaster nodded, “We met in school.”

“Were you ever… apart, for any length of time? Like, for years?”

The Fish gazed at him, a complex mix of emotions flickering through his eyes. “Yes,” he said, “We were forced to separate while I attended university. Is that what’s bothering you?”

“Part of it,” Bruno admitted.

The Fish started to walk and Bruno tagged along beside him with the trash bag and spear. “We were of course, afraid that the other would find someone else,” said Mr. Sturgeon, “And in fact, that’s what everyone kept saying. It was hard but we agreed that if we did find someone else preferable, we would inform the other straight away and get it over with.” He sighed, “But that never happened. I never found anyone that I admire more than Mildred.”

“You never fell in love with anyone else?” Bruno asked curiously.

Mr. Sturgeon shook his head, “No. Certainly there have been more physically attractive ladies but physical attraction isn’t all there is to it. No, Walton, I’ve come to believe that falling in love is a choice. Maybe not always a conscious choice, but a decision that we make somewhere in our souls. I’ve never found anyone better than Mildred as a match for me, and I’ve done my best to live up to her.”

Bruno nodded thoughtfully. “Is that hard?”

Mr. Sturgeon actually chuckled, “Oh goodness, yes. Marriage takes a lot of work. It isn’t at all like they show it on television. There’s a lot of give and take and a lot of respect. Respect is essential.”

Bruno frowned, “I guess you’re right. On TV, married people seem to treat each other with a lot of contempt. And they take each other for granted a lot.”

“And that’s never a good thing, in a real relationship,” Mr. Sturgeon affirmed.

Bruno thought back to the number of times he’d taken Boots for granted, and felt chagrined. “How did you handle going to university?”

“We wrote a lot of letters,” the Headmaster replied, “Long distance phone calls were expensive in those days, so we saved up our money to phone each other as often as we could. We visited every holiday, though her parents didn’t approve of me.”

Bruno was surprised, “They didn’t?” His own parents didn’t object to Boots, and had been welcoming the times he’d brought Boots to visit.

“Oh goodness no,” Mr. Sturgeon chuckled, “I was studying to be a lowly teacher. They wanted her to marry an engineer or politician or a real estate agent, that was a very swanky profession in those days.”

“Wow!”

“Me, a school-teacher? Not even a professor? No, that did not go over well with them. Fortunately, Mildred had her own ideas.”

“Yeah, she’s pretty amazing,” Bruno noted with a grin. The next forty-five minutes were fascinating, walking with The Fish and listening as he talked about what went into his long-term relationship, how it differed from cultural depictions, and the expectations and behaviours. It was plain the Fish thought Bruno was in love with a girl, possibly one of the girls from Scrimmage’s, maybe even Cathy or Diane, and Bruno didn’t say anything to correct him.

Finally he heard his name and looked up to see Boots and Wilbur approaching. Bruno waved back and Boots hurried over to him. “Aww noooo… You got in trouble without me?”

Bruno laughed and shook his head, “Nah, just jawing with Mr. Sturgeon. Where’ve you been?”

“We went for a walk. Went to Chutney and got Timmie’s,” Boots held up a box of Timbits doughnut holes, “I brought you your favourite.” He handed Bruno a red paper cup full of white hot chocolate. After the long walk from Chutney, it was stone cold.

“O’Neal… Hackenschleimer… I don’t recall authorizing such an outing,” The Fish said mildly.

“Uh, no sir,” Boots stammered.

“Today I’m feeling inclined to overlook it for a bribe of two Timbits,” Mr. Sturgeon said, “Next time, please seek permission for such an excursion and remember that my wife likes crullers.”

Wilbur grinned, “Yes sir. What’s your favourite, sir?”

“Chocolate white coconut,” the Headmaster sighed, “Sadly they discontinued that one. I’ve had to settle for the apple fritters.”

“Crullers and apple fritters, yessir,” said Wilbur, who never forgot anyone’s favourite foods.

“Run along now, boys,” The Fish said, “And Walton, thank you for picking up the garbage.”

“Yes sir. Thank you sir,” Bruno swallowed and added, “It helped.”

* * * *

Bruno couldn’t sleep. He’d drifted for hours in that liminal state, not quite dreaming, when he became aware that the voice he heard whispering in the darkness was not a dream. It was Boots. He strained his ears, trying to catch what Boots was saying.

“… been kind of distant lately,” Boots whispered, “I’ve had a lot to think about. About you and about me. I’ve thought about it a lot. Ever since the pool, actually. That was when I started thinking that maybe I was important to you.”

Bruno knew his own sleep breathing patterns. He’d recorded himself a few times, for when he needed to fake being asleep, usually on poker nights when they got raided by their housemaster. He let out a snore and let his breathing fall into the rough, unsteady pattern that usually followed.

“…put all that effort into raising enough money for a pool but it wasn’t so I would become a great athlete, or even so we could beat the York turkeys. You did it so I would stay. And I’ve been thinking about that for a long time. You’ve done a lot of things so we could stay together. And you’ve never left me behind, like that time we got trapped by Miss Scrimmage’s dog, you could have escaped but you didn’t. I mean, sometimes you use me…” Bruno thought again about the times he’d taken Boots’s cooperation for granted and he suppressed a wince. “And I’ve gotten better about putting my foot down about that. And that’s another thing… You listen to me. Sometimes you won’t even listen to The Fish but you’ll listen to me. You respect me enough for that.”

”There’s a lot of give and take and a lot of respect. Respect is essential,” The Fish had said.

“But it was Die-In-The-Woods that really brought it home for me,” Boots continued, barely audible. His voice was so quiet, Bruno had to really strain to hear. “When I gave you the pan. When I knew for absolutely certain that nothing was getting to you without going through me first.” Bruno had to fight to keep from giving himself away. “That was when I realized that you were more than just my best friend.” Bruno realized that he was holding his breath, and gasped to turn it into the run-up to another snore. “But it’s like you said, it had nothing to do with… with sex, it had to do with… you. Until the dreams started, anyways.” Wait, what? Boots was having dreams about him? “But it’s… you’re you and you’re impossible and maybe I’m insane for wanting to stay with that for the rest of my life but there it is.”

”You really do love him, don’t you,” his mother had teased.

”Yeah, I do and-” and his brain had caught up and stumbled over what he’d just said.

Bruno couldn’t stand it any longer. “How did you know what I said about it not being about sex?” he whispered.

“Because I did the same thing you’re doing, pretended to be asleep so you’d keep talking,” Boots retorted.

Busted. Bruno rolled over and twitched the curtain open a bit, letting moonlight in so he could see Boots. “So… you too.”

Boots nodded, “Yeah. Me too.”

“That why you were out with Wilbur?”

“Yeah.”

“He’s a good guy.”

“Yeah he is.” There was a long pause. “What do we do now?” Boots whispered.

Bruno opened his arms, silently reaching. Boots slid out of his bed and into Bruno’s and let Bruno’s arms fold around him. “Mr. Sturgeon says it’s important to learn the difference between wanting a cuddle and wanting sex,” Bruno whispered.

Boots stared at him in the darkness, “You talked to The Fish about this?”

“Not in so many words,” Bruno replied, “And he kinda danced around that part a lot but I figured out what he meant. Mostly we talked about relationships.”

“With The Fish?!?

Bruno shrugged, “Well mostly to keep him from prying any further. You know what The Fish is like, he somehow manages to see through me like I’m made of glass. Anyways, he was really kind and he had some good things to say and gave me a lot to think about, even if he does think I’m dating Cathy or something.”

“In his mind, it’d probably explain a lot,” Boots agreed.

After a few moments, Bruno whispered, “Boots? I’m sorry about all the times I took you for granted. And the times I’ve used you.”

Boots stared at him. Finally he squeezed Bruno gently and whispered, “Accepted and forgiven.”

“I’ll be a better boyfriend from now on.”

“I’ll try to get better at telling you when you’re crossing the lines.”

“I’d like that.” They lapsed into silence. Boots curled himself up and lay his head on Bruno’s shoulder. “So… these dreams…”

And buried his face in the curve of Bruno’s neck and started mortified giggling, “Oh god…!”

“Good dreams, were they?”

“Um, yeah…”

“I’m really curious about these dreams.”

“I’ll just bet you are.” Boots peeked up to see Bruno grinning at him. “Can it wait until morning though?”

“Yeah, gotta have the dreams before we can make ‘em come true.”

“Oh my god…!” Boots lost it giggling into Bruno’s neck again. Then he peeked up again, “So… um… since we’re boyfriends now… um… good night kiss? Is that a thing we can do?” Bruno didn’t answer in words.

* * * *

It was a cold and rainy night when Wilbur Hackenschleimer fell exhausted into bed, then sat up again. His pillow had an unusually hard lump under it and had crinkled. He reached underneath and pulled out a pair of objects. He flicked his lamp on to see that someone had stuffed a small flashlight and a copy of Muscle And Strength magazine under his pillow. He immediately knew who it was and boomed with laughter. A small thank-you card fell out. He picked it up and smiled, then got under the covers and turned out the light.

And flicked the flashlight on.