Original Story: Arm’s Length

Premise: Alex is a boy who doesn’t achieve excellence easily, unlike his best friend Leo. He does, however, successfully live his life according to the strict laws of the Edict, just the same as all his peers. When his limits are tested, however, one slip up endangers himself and the one he cares for most.

Arm’s Length

The electric thrum of holiday excitement was already permeating classrooms, kept alive in every cell of the students seeking a vacation from early mornings and late-night studying. Their workload increased in perfect unison with the anticipation for the upcoming break, leaving the remaining weeks until then a cluster of ever busier days. Even this, however, served more as a reminder of the reprieve just around the corner.

Alex and Leo were no exception. Easy smiles stayed plastered across their faces as they traced parallel paths at arm’s length from one another down the sidewalk.

“If my brother’s not using his car, I’ll drive us to the arcade,” Leo proposed, hands stuffed into the pockets of his jacket.

Alex appeared to consider this before finally nodding. “Alright, sure. But we need to use it for a trip to the movie theater down at East Point.”

“That’s an hour away- for a movie?”

“It’s the best theater in a hundred mile radius! Compare it to our local hole in the wall and the literal holes in its walls- it’s time to branch out a bit.”

Leo now took up a look of uncertain contemplation. Like Alex, he relented. “All right, fine, we’ll go.” His companion whooped in victory.

The start of what would become their ritualistic listing of their upcoming vacation’s itinerary continued similarly. More plans were made for where they would go with the car, how long, how far, when. Leo only spared a moment to think I hope we do actually get to use it, before adding to their list.

“I can’t wait to have one of my own,” Alex mused wistfully.

“Max probably can’t wait either, with how little he’s going to see it soon,” Leo pointed out. “But hey, he also said Mrs. Fielding doesn’t give work for over the break, so that’s one class we don’t have to worry about. He had her for physics his junior year too.”

“Oh, thank God, that was one thing I was legitimately dreading.” Alex’s smile grew. “I have my procrastination planned to the minute for how much I could put off till Sunday night, and I did not want to account for physics problems.”

“You’re in luck, then.” Leo shrugged his backpack further up. “Okay, we all are.”

“True that.” Alex turned as they drew near his home. He gave a flourishing wave as he headed up the lawn.

Leo returned the gesture, continuing on for a few more minutes to his own house. Though hardly chilly, the warm air inside was a welcome presence caressing his cheeks as he slipped off his shoes and padded into the kitchen. There, he proceeded with his evening.

Alex sighed tiredly as he mulled over his work, reminding himself that once these next few hurdles were overcome, he could enjoy a much-needed break. A red mark had appeared on his cheek from where he leaned pressed against his knuckles for so long.

Reminders and assurances were easy to parrot, harder to heed. Especially when confronted with math homework involving a criminal amount of statistics. Alex’s head spun as he read the same sentence for the fifth, tenth, fourteenth time, at last sitting back with a groan and closing his eyes.

Alex resolved himself to waiting until his father was home. His finance background exposed him to countless numbers in similar scenarios like those in his workbook.

This always happened, at any point in the school year. Comprehension acted as a transient ally, disrupted as abruptly as the stillness of a lake when a stone skipped across it. Alex needed to thrash in those rippling waters- no matter how gentle the waves- to stay afloat.

This was in sharp contrast to Leo. To Alex, Leo seemed to attract and retain knowledge like he was a magnet for it. He was the type of person you could tell right away would thrive at college, where he could be ever faculty member’s favorite and have an esteemed publication or five to his name by the end of junior year. Alex was sure Leo knew it, too, as his easy confidence could only be from a deep sense of self-awareness that revealed a very easily successful individual.

Alex was at least proud he could look inward as well and not immediately breach the primary edict expected of him. His pride came from a few reasons, most prominent being that he did not make a habit of disobeying the edict, and secondly because it let him actually be more productive.

For the most part.

No amount of obedience could quite keep his head from spinning after the brain cradled inside was battered and tossed about by obscure problems Alex knew he would have no use for in life.

It took about the same time once over for Alex’s father to return home from work. Straight-backed and polished, Adam Rifkin was a prime example of how to follow the primary edict. He was resolute in his ways and firm in his stance – literally. The family knew him to be a rock to lean on in times of need.

Well, Alex needed him now in order to be free of math exercises, if only for tonight.

Almost in place of a greeting, Alex turned his notebook towards his father. Part of Alex remembered just how long a day it had been for his father, and felt regret jab at his stomach and tug his hand back.

Unfazed, Mr. Rifkin shrugged off his suit jacket and sat across from his son, taking up the work. A small smile found a home on Alex’s face; he’d rather not face any of this busywork, but at least he could do so with such an ideal follower of the edict for a parent.

By the end of it all, Alex could not guarantee he would ace the next exam with full marks, but he likely would not be left floundering. He could share his score with Leo with a nonchalance that would actually match his eyes.

*    *    *

The following day proceeded similarly. Teachers reviewed and offered emphatic reminders about upcoming exams. The girls did not suppress sighs of tiredness of exasperation; the boys kept still but swore loudly when let loose into the halls, the words not quite fully lost amidst the blare of the school bell and rumble of feet. Alex and Leo strode between the parallel rows of lockers and students rummaging through them.

Alex paused as Leo, two lockers down, stopped, dial swivelling, plucking a binder from within.

“Well, more for the pile,” Alex mused, adjusting his bag on his shoulders.

“Twenty bucks says I have all that reading done by the end of the bus ride,” Leo through a yawn.

“Oh no, I left my wallet at home,” Alex fibbed airily. He didn’t particularly want to throw twenty dollars away. “You’ll get that anyway when I repay gas money.”

“Oh, right.” Leo fell silent, switching out books from last class for texts for the next. From his position, Alex could only see Leo’s mouth pressed in a thin line, and his book disappearing into the unseen depths of his locker.

Alex opened his mouth to speak when something- or rather, someone- caught his attention.

He smelled her before he saw her. This was not necessarily a good thing. Anna always sprayed just a little too much perfume each day. Because her own sense of smell was lacking, she apparently assumed no one else could smell either, and so compensated to guarantee no one missed each scent of the day.

No one said anything to her, least of all guys like Alex.

As expansive as her perfume cloud was Anna’s insatiable thirst for gossip- all manner of chatter, really.

Anna’s full autumn hair swayed and bounced slightly as she walked by, flashing Alex a toothy grin in greeting. She came to a stop, practically shoulder-to-shoulder with him.

“Almost free,” she said, in a tone reserved for a coach addressing his team before the final game of the season.

“Is it really almost?” Alex replied, flashing a grin of his own. “I have enough work for a few months, not a few days.” They both turned to stare expectantly at Leo.

Leo blinked, nonplussed. “Can I help you?”

“Lend me some brain,” Anna answered immediately.

“Oh, if that’s all, then.”

Alex nodded. “Just a bit to speed through physics and history, then pass a test or ten.”

Leo replied to their smirks with a quiet sigh. “I’ll get right on it.” The discontent was barely audible. There was a pause. Then Leo reproduced his signature mischievous smile.

Once more Alex started to speak, but this interruption came from himself. He barely caught his error.

“Good. Chop, chop.”

*    *    *

Teeth chattered and students huddled in their coats every time the wind blasted them, even on the short trip from the school to their respective buses. Girls huddled close to boys or other girls, while boys without such a match tucked their hands into the feeble sanctuary of their armpits, chins against chests. The final bell of the day had released a tendril of waddling masses slinking in a chain from the warm, vibrant campus into the ruddy monochrome of the chilly afternoon, occasionally breaking off to form smaller chains swerving from the buses to nearby cars, splintering further still to find their own respective vehicles.

Alex and Anna formed such a pair, though they were destined for different buses than he and Leo. They broke apart with reluctance to relinquish any heat, but their goodbye waves were brief.

Leo waited off to the side for Alex to board, not drawing forward until Alex was a respectable two steps up.

*    *    *

Lucas Shapiro’s strength suited his towering height. His size compared to others were reminiscent of a picture that had been expanded in equal proportions. Lucas was aware of his height and power compared to others. He took advantage of it.

The ground fell beneath Alex’s feet as he was hoisted up by his backpack into the air. Pain jabbed into his armpits as his bag’s straps dug into them as he kicked, seeking purchase. Gracelessly, Lucas released his hold from behind him, sending Alex tumbling to the hallway floor. Arms windmilling, he righted himself, turning to send a scowl at Lucas’s smirk. In one fluid motion, towering Lucas had been able to leave Alex scrambling, all from over an admirable two feet away.

An arm’s distance away, Alex saw Leo’s feet materialize beside him as he too glared. Lunch had just begun, and anytime they had the misfortune of crossing paths with their taller classmate, an incident like this always seemed to occur.

“Gotta watch your step, unless you wanna spend break in a cast,” Lucas said coolly.

“And you can spend it in court or juvie,” Leo reminded him, not for the first nor likely the last time. “This stuff does actually have consequences, you know.” Especially when both your parents were lawyers.

“I’ll pass,” Lucas said airily, nudging some rogue papers as he passed. “Stops being scary the twentieth time it’s an empty threat.”

It was then that Alex noticed his bag had been unzipped, and the jostle had sent his papers fluttering and scraping to the floor. Alex groaned, swiping this way and that to grab what he could, some papers stamped with footprints and curling at the edges from slush tracked in from outside. From the corner of his eye, he saw Leo doing the same, forming a pile an arm’s length from where Alex was hunched.

“Thanks.”

“No problem.”

Leo’s crooked smile found its way home. The muscles around Alex’s mouth worked in overtime to return the gesture, to express nonchalance and good humor as he was supposed to.

Something was causing his eyes to burn.

*    *    *

Anna had, of course, heard about the incident. She told any of her other friends who would listen- or not- what a pig Lucas was. After each tirade she stormed away, taking the overly pungent bouquet of citrus and sunflowers with her.

“I swear she has wiretaps and cameras around the place,” Alex mused as they pulled out their essays. The sounds of fluttering paper and scraping chairs mingled with the dwindling rumble of chatter from those around them. Girls leaned across aisles to chat with boys and other girls, boys leaned back in their seats or slouched over desks as they spoke across the gaps at one another.

Alex’s chagrin froze over into a mounting icy chill. He flipped over and over through his papers, yanked his bag close and rifling through it- first meticulously, then fanatically, chanting, “No, no, no, no, no…”

“What’s up?” Leo turned in his seat.

“I can’t find my essay- I know I had it!” The burning returned with a vengeance to his eyes, this time blurring his vision, creating an unfinished watercolor world whose colors were left to run.

Ms. Morrow had already begun her circuit around the classroom, collecting term papers from each row, weaving down the lines of desks to collect from stragglers.

The boiling behind Alex’s lids felt ready to spill over. But he couldn’t let it- he mustn’t let it-

Half his efforts, however, were focused on finding what Alex knew was not there. With a shuddering sigh, he ran a hand over his face, through his hair, finding a small, bitter ember of triumph in the fact that the dam had stood, not a crack to be found. That had to be the real victory here, at least.

That was the idea Alex clung to, anyway, when Ms. Morrow arrived at his desk to collect more essays and Alex had to hand over the entire row’s but his.

Ms. Morrows stared expectantly. Nothing such as this had ever happened to Alex in her class. That trend had been a great source of pride.

Now, his adherence to the status quo would have to be.

When Alex spoke, he forced his voice to maintain an even pitch befitting protocol.

“See me after class,” was all Ms. Morrows said.

Alex nodded mutely, feeling small even as his back remained upright and rigid. The heat from his eyes had traveled to his cheeks, a fact he kept determinedly hidden throughout the day’s lesson. As a result, much of the material became white noise, waves of sound bumping listlessly against his outer ear without penetrating to anywhere meaningful.

By the time class was over, Alex was murmuring a quick request to look over Leo’s notes some time later, dutifully phrasing it as “copying.”

Ms. Morrows sat at her desk, already flipping through paperwork. So engrossed was she that Alex thought perhaps she had forgotten their scheduled chat.

But he could not.

He stood in front of the desk, ready on instinct to shift from foot to foot in anticipation.

Ms. Morrows looked up at him at last.

“I’ll keep it quick so you’re not late to your next class,” she began. “What happened, Alex?”

“I don’t- I know I had it.” Alex paused. Collected himself. When he spoke again, his voice had leveled off. “My backpack… got jostled. And the zipper opened. A bunch of my papers flew out, and I thought I got them all, but I must have missed- everyone was walking by and stuff got moved…”

It sounded weak to his own ears. Ms. Morrows nodded, frowning. Was it disappointment? Disbelief? Anger? He could feel his grade dropping as his shoulders did the same.

“I believe you, Alex, I really do. I don’t think you would do something like this just to not have it in on time.” She paused. “But I do have a policy, and I can’t make exceptions. The deadlines are in place for a reason. It’s going to be a lot more intense in college, and some professors won’t accept late assignments at all.”

Alex nodded, throat too clogged to speak.

“But,” she said again. “You’ve worked hard so far all year. And that has to count for something. Instead of dropping a whole letter grade, I’ll just drop one sign. Any A+ will be an A, an A an A- and so on. Sound fair?”

Alex’s eyes nearly doubled in size before he once again remembered himself, nodding frantically. “Thank you. Very much.”

“You’re welcome. And thank you for always working so hard. Get that in to me first thing tomorrow.”

Alex was so happy he could have-

He didn’t know what he could have done.

*    *    *

Their list of destinations had grown exponentially, beyond the realm of reasonability for one brief week off, all centered around a car they were not even sure they could access- let around borrow throughout nine days. But talking about it had provided Alex and Leo with a distraction, and Alex was glad for one. Gradually, Leo seemed to want to move on from excited, neutral, safe chatter like their short, fantasy road trips- though what else could be discussed between two guys such as them, Alex was unsure. The more Leo drifted from the topic, the tighter Alex held, and Leo’s smile retreated little by little with his enthusiasm.

Perhaps he would rather a friend who would focus more on academics like he, Leo, did. Who enjoyed half of the scholarly success that fell into Leo’s lap with ease, giving him moment after moment to present to his proud parents as a trophy.

Their essays were returned by the end of the week. To Alex’s mingled relief and disappointment, he received an A-. A sideways glance told him Leo had received a 94% on his own, putting him solidly in the A range.

Alex returned his attention to flipping through the pages of his own paper, skimming through the feedback. He knew he should be grateful. He was. But the part of him not proud of the high marks and the part not glad for the smile he managed to wear was disappointed he could not- this one time- have scored evenly with Leo.

Leo, who leaned back in his chair, staring blankly at the blackboard with his trademark smile, even as he clicked his pen restlessly.

It was none of Alex’s business, and certainly nothing they could simply discuss- not without throwing around a few insults at the system and a joke or two- but Alex suspected Leo was not pleased by being scored less than perfectly.

Great, Alex thought. He doesn’t even have to try and he lands an A, and isn’t happy with that. I worked myself into a coma, all for a 91%.

Alex would never classify himself jealous of Leo. No. His envy was directed purely at the ease with which he navigated academics. How naturally suited he was to it. How much his parents had to boast about. Alex wouldn’t have minded just a hint of that. It only seemed fair, as the shuffle of his feet grew more pronounced, and the gnawing in his stomach more insistent. There was nothing else that could be done, no other way to address these and other feelings haunting Alex, no channel through which to release them, than through change and triumph.

There was already enough to address. The added workload was taking its toll on many, Anna included. Seeing her tears on open display, Alex readily offered an embrace, letting her release her emotions, ignoring the strange envy building in him.

When he sought Leo for some distracting chatter, Leo expressed outright disinterest. Instead, he said, he would spend break with his books. He walked off and Alex did not see him the rest of the day.

*    *    *

Fallen leaves scraped across the path leading back inside. The grass swayed gently in that same caressing breeze, stained with renewed emerald vitality as the sun’s presence grew and grew in the early spring sky. The ruckus of students milling to their respective buses was completely absent here, the silence interrupted by the occasional opening and closing of the doors to and from the interior courtyard, until even that too subsided.

Leo sat at one of the wood tables situated among the untended grass, backpack partially obstructing Alex’s view of him. His binder lay open, papers strewn across the rough wood surface, a few looking as crinkled as the bench where he sat. Alex strode over, offering a silent wave.

Leo did not look up, staring instead with deadened eyes at his papers, good-humored smile completely abandoned.

Alex sat down across from him reflexively. Silence further stretched the distance between them, quadrupling the already doubled arm’s length separating the two.

At last, Alex cleared his throat.

“Gonna miss the bus.”

At first, the only indication Leo gave that he had heard was a slight flicker of his eyes, attention wavering from his class work for a single instant. That, at least, was enough to dissolve the silence.

“Yeah.”

A little, anyway.

Alex shifted. “Wanna come? Break can finally start. You can relax…or… study.” He recalled Leo’s mounting emphasis on his studies,  how that was the real purpose behind spring break.

Leo nodded. “I will. I will.” A deep sigh sent his shoulders rising and falling. “I’m just…not ready yet.”

“Why?”

The question spilled from his mouth as instinctively as breathing. Alex pursed his lips, wondering, worrying, if he had gone too far, if the fundamental edict for them wouldn’t allow for this.

Either it did or Leo did not care, for he hunched over the table, fingers knotting in his hair as his other hand showed Alex what he had been looking at.

It was his math exam from Mr. Trudeau, a notorious disbeliever in partial credit. Leo had received a 92%.

The unpleasant churn returned to Alex’s stomach. He himself had been thrilled to get an 88%, and here sat Leo the perfectionist mourning a-

That panting sensation cooled when he looked from the test to Leo’s face and he saw just how wane his best friend appeared. He looked almost fearful.

“It… looks- Leo, this is great, all things considered,” Alex said. He meant to be bracing, to voice the tone he himself would want to hear from his mother, from Anna, from someone with whom he could show his results to and expect a personal, open reaction. Saying these words in this manner to Leo was unfamiliar, and Alex wondered at the feeling of regret he suddenly knew in his gut.

Leo’s eyes flicked around for a moment before dropping. He seemed to be looking inward, weighing his options, debating between choices that provided no ideal results. At last, he swallowed.

“Not to my parents.”

His rattling breath reverberated through the courtyard, ricocheted through the brisk, gentle air with the force of a canon, becoming a sharp, piercing present in Alex’s ears. Another sounded, and another, Leo’s face disappearing further and further into his hands.

“Just go,” came the muffled words, and Alex could understand: if there were no witnesses, then Leo would not be breaking any rules.

Alex rose. Grass crunched underfoot as his legs carried him away from the door and to Leo.

The plank of wood that made up the bench let him sit practically shoulder-to-shoulder with Leo, that same horrible rattling all the more audible here, far too close and real and unavoidable.

Alex felt very aware of his hands and the hunched expanse of Leo’s back, aware of the length of his empty arms and the distance between them, barely the full breadth of his hand.

He watched his friend intently, waiting for a signal he did not know and had never been taught to spot from one of his guy friends.

The bit of Leo’s face that was visible was a splotchy red. When he withdrew from the sanctuary of his palms, his cheeks shone with salty streaks..

A dull ache clutched at Alex’s heart.

“They’re on my case about everything,” Leo went on, swiping impatiently at his eyes as more tears replaced the previous. “If I get an A, it should have been an A+. If I do get a 97, it should be a 100. Nothing’s enough, they want to be able to tell their siblings and in-laws their son gets the highest possible scores. Max is barely allowed in the house and doesn’t want to be here. Nothing is enough!” He slammed a fist down on the cool damp wood before bringing it back to wiping at his eyes.

“This break, I’m not supposed to relax. They want me studying for the SATs again, and to keep taking them until I get the score range places like Yale look for.”

“That’s garbage,” Alex said at last, lip curled in indignation. “Half the class would kill for even your lowest scores. Hell knows Lucas probably would, if he cared.” That was a heavy wager. People like Lucas weren’t supposed to care about grades; his size forbade it.

Leo shook his head, sniffing loudly.

“And yet I’m not following the rules when I talk about all this.” A grimace crinkled his face.

“How?”

Leo’s tone was bitter. “I tried getting them to get Lucas in trouble.”

“You didn’t…”

“Sure did. I had to- he’s right, it doesn’t mean anything if it’s just an empty threat.” Leo deflated in his seat. “It went how I expected and a bit worse. Boys willl be boys, they told me, and there really isn’t anything they can do, it’s how all guys will act.”

Alex dropped his gaze. Right. All guys.

He hated thinking that was how Mr. and Mrs. Harkin saw him.

Leo seemed to agree. “Which means they wouldn’t expect any different from me, being a bullying creep.” A fresh wave of tears welled in his eyes.

Alex’s heart pounded in his chest, setting a painful, stabbing rhythm as he watched his best friend come undone. What could he do? How could someone help what wasn’t supposed to need addressing?

Alex knew what he wanted to do. What he would do.

With a sharp intake of breath, he closed the gap between them and drew Leo into a hug. He felt the slight shaking of Leo’s figure as he cried, and marveled at his own small-mindedness. How could he not have realized any of this was going on? Did he even really know his closest friend in the important ways?

“It’s… been a lot, huh?” he asked.

Leo nodded. “It just added up, I guess.” He quieted, sniffling occasionally, sighing once when Alex gave what was meant to be a bracing pat.

He had expected the geometry to be all wrong, for the gesture to feel unnatural compared to the embrace he had offered Anna. But if he closed his eyes, he could have been hugging her once more. Minor differences existed, but nothing that made embracing his best friend feel wholly wrong.

“Look,” Alex began, mind made up. “I don’t care what plans your folks have for your break. You’re… doing amazing, and you’re going to spend vacation vacationing. Whether it’s with the car- maybe you can talk to Max. I know it’s… not really orthodox. But you can’t keep up like this, and can’t keep putting up with them. We’re going to hang out, have fun.”

Alex could already smell spring in the air, the flowery citrus scents that would come with the good food and drinks, the destinations he and Leo could hit during their week off.

With more and more coaxing, Leo nodded at last.

“Okay.” He sounded too tired to protest. They drew apart. It really had been no different from how he would hug Anna or another girl. And, if he were being honest, Alex felt ready to offer the gesture again should the need arise.

*    *    *

Alex made good on his plans when the promised day arrived and they were officially on vacation. It took some further persuasion, some renewed coaxing, and Alex’s wording grew clumsy from time to time. This personal openness was not something they had shared between them before, and he needed to get through his own slow realization of how unremarkable it was to talk about deeper things with Leo. It was unremarkable, yet made a world of difference, and made Alex feel truly able to call them both best friends to a degree he had not anticipated.

Leo’s exhaustion took time to dissipate. Alex realized- in their newfound, lumbering approach of talking things out, that Leo was battling tiredness from the hard work he put in to maintain his grades, stress from his parents, and apprehension at the idea of having fun as opposed to studying.

Alex found himself glad to know this.

Some of that gladness disappeared when they returned to school flanked by staring, whispers, and looks.

At first, he wondered what had provoke this.

And then he recalled their taboo act in the courtyard. The privacy he thought they had had.

Many things had changed during his week away. Perhaps Leo was not the only one who had received a bit of rejuvenation. And perhaps it was this enhanced strength that prompted Alex to march through the halls and beeline right for Lucas, drawing himself up to his full height.

“Couldn’t just leave us alone, huh? Wasn’t enough to ruin my English grade?” he snapped, jabbing a finger into his chest.

“Oh, please, a few Cs won’t kill your grade,” Lucas replied coolly.

Alex stared with contempt. “You had to go spread rumors? Had to make Leo and I an exhibit at the zoo?”

Lucas rolled his eyes. “I didn’t tell the school about you and Leo. Your girlfriend broke that story.”

“You’re a liar!”

Except for the lack of motive. Lucas had never shied away from claiming responsibility for his bullying before.

But to accept the truth of his words required facing Anna’s betrayal, and the whirlwind of the last two weeks had left Alex able to confront only so much.

“One option is our good friend and a caring girl. The other option is big, hateful you. That’s not how this works.”

Lucas’s nostrils flared. “Of course it’s not.” He shoved past Alex, hard. “Then anything that happens this week shouldn’t surprise you.”

Alex watched him go, aware of a nagging guilt weighing in his gut.

That guilt soon turned to dread as the day continued. The arm’s distance Alex had crossed might as well have been a bounding leap to the moon for the spectacle it caused, even a week later. If anything, the time off had given everyone time to gossip, wonder, cement their conclusions. From what Alex gathered, Anna had mentioned the incident to her peers at the last gardening club meeting. Then brought it up during phone chats with other friends. Told  her study group. Anyone she bumped into at the mall. She became patient zero in a gossip epidemic without a vaccine.

Alex did not talk to her. Did not seek her out. A final chat would be the final admission of truth he did not want to process. There was already so much that sent him reeling, like all his female classmates talking to him and fussing and pointing out the attractiveness of their male peers to him. Most guys gave him an even wider berth, leaving Alex a shell-shocked island waiting for the next blast to hit.

It came when he was on the way to the bathroom, hall pass in hand, eyes fixed determinedly at the tiles below him. When he looked up, his stomach dropped as Lucas walked ahead of him into the bathroom. Alex moved to enter. One of Lucas’s strong arms whipped out and blocked the doorway.

“Ah, ah, ah. That one’s yours.” Lucas jabbed a thumb in the direction of the women’s restroom.

Heat boiled in Alex’s cheeks.

“This is my bathroom.”

“Nope. Not if you’re that okay with breaking rules and getting touchy-feely with another guy.”

“I’m not…”

But he hadn’t minded, really. The openness and physical comfort, to know he had been the one able to offer assurance to Leo.

Leo, whose tears had been the talk of the school as much as the hug was.

Lucas saw his hesitation and smirked wickedly. He made a grand gesture at the neighboring door. “In you go.”

Alex made a quick dash. With a grunt, Lucas grabbed at him, strong hands clamping onto his shoulders and wheeling him round. The weight and pressure behind him sent Alex on a staggering path to the other door.

“Got what you asked for, Allie. You want to break some simple rules, you get treated like it. Want a dumb bully, I’ll provide.”

Alex’s feet scrambled for purchase. “Stop! I didn’t want any of that-“ His words broke off with a wince as Lucas’s grip tightened.

“You did and I’m giving you exactly what you want from me!” He gave a shove, and Alex nearly collided face-first against the door.

Alex turned, staring up at Lucas, painfully aware of the advantage his height gave Lucas, of the anger roiling beneath the muscles. For a moment, he was sure Lucas was not glaring at him, Alex. At least, not only him.

“We can help!”

Whether confused or intrigued, Lucas paused for a single instant.

That was all Alex needed.

*    *    *

“You what?” Leo gawked at him.

Alex did not have Leo’s ease with words. Leo still put in effort for high grades, but even he admitted to possessing a certain magnetism for smooth talk and quick thinking.

Alex possessed neither skills, and when he tried his hand at such actions, a serious lack of grace made itself known.

But the incident with Leo before break had made him suddenly and accurately aware of other people’s expressions. Other men’s expressions. And he found he could tell a lot about them when he dared a lingering, searching glance and listened closer to their tone.

Alex had embraced the very edict that made him and Leo social pariahs, and dubbed Lucas incapable of anything academically great. The same rules that turned Alex and Leo’s first days back full of tension also gave Alex- and Lucas’s parents- expectations in him. While they felt pain from having their identities determined by a simple act of comfort, Lucas endured his parents’ shock at his 68% and being told they “couldn’t expect any better.”

“We don’t have anything to lose. If anything, we’re gaining an ally, one less enemy. That means we get a partial break from being ostracized. Besides, the best way to learn is to teach. You can tell your folks you’re doing so great, you’re in charge of tutoring others, while getting in extra studying.”

Leo looked unconvinced.

“Just… let’s try. There’s nothing to lose.”

Leo sighed but nodded.

That was how Alex and Leo found themselves meeting up with Lucas in the school’s courtyard during lunch hour. Alex and Leo already drew stares, so plenty were watching when they and Lucas exchanged cordial handshakes that transitioned into hugs.

The crowds erupted into chatter.

After school, Leo would help Lucas study and work and pursue a dream that had been laughed at relentlessly by his parents: academic success.

None of them knew if they would change any minds that day. They did not expect to topple regimes or transform policy. They were working against an edict with a long tradition of enforcement by society. The edict was intricate and nuanced. It consisted of one broad policy that comprised an umbrella, under which further rules resided, all in the name of maximizing productivity and streamlining everyone’s roles in society. Men could not draw closer than arm’s length and were to abstain from discussing emotions; rather, they were to confront the issue and skip the processing. Any offenders forfeited their nature as a man.

It was the most enforced rule carved on no plaque, nor penned into any law.

THE END

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