"Hey! Hey, Frea--Dingle!"
Merton froze: stretched out on his toes, arm extended towards the top shelf of his locker. He took a deep breath before looking over his shoulder. Merton recognized the other boy, although he couldn't think of a name. Most of Tommy's football buddies tended to blur together in Merton's mind: largely unimportant with a check or two in the danger! danger! column of Merton's mental list of the Pleasantville High's population.
The other boy was approaching with the same swagger that most males at the top of Pleasantville High's upper echelon affected. Merton's eyes darted around as he catalogued his situation. Empty hallway--not good. Casual but intent stride--open to interpretation. Lack of outright scorn in the football player's voice--promising; at least Merton _hoped_ so. While Tommy had taken a stand against those teammates who enjoyed beating on Merton, some of them still indulged in an occasional spot of verbal abuse.
Merton shook himself out of his startled pose and was readjusting the cuff of his shirt when the other boy reached him. Tall, dark-haired and brown eyed--Trevor? John? Alan?--the boy leaned against the locker neighbouring Merton's. He tucked his hands into his coat pockets and cocked his head, looking at Merton from beneath lowered lashes.
"--to what do I owe the--pleasure of your company?" Merton asked with patently false cheer. Casual, Merton thought, casual, and clanged his locker door shut with a touch more force than he'd intended. No use inviting trouble by leaving the locker open--he knew how much some people enjoyed forcibly introducing him to its contents.
"Well. . . I've been thinking," Rick said slowly.
Merton's lips parted before his teeth snapped back together. He managed to lift his eyebrows into inquiring arches. He hoped that it wasn't _too_ obvious that he was biting his tongue against a less than friendly comment.
"I figured that you can't be _that_ bad, seeing as Tommy hangs around with you and all," Rick continued, seemingly oblivious to Merton's earlier reaction. His jacket fell open as Rick shifted, his hips titling slightly as he set more of his weight against the locker at his back.
"Uh _huh_," Merton drew out doubtfully. "I've obviously fallen into some sort of parallel dimension: cool!" He paused and looked at Rick as he would a particularly dangerous animal. "Not so cool: weird jock bonding moment."
"Dingle," Rick huffed, "I'm trying to be nice, okay?"
Nice. Got it.
"Nice? To me?"
Or maybe not.
"Yeah. Nice. Me to you," Rick said. He slid half-a-step closer to Merton. His expression was too-earnest to be real: it was the kind of face regularly practiced in front of a mirror. "I know that Tommy's been spending a lot of time with his new girl. I thought you might be able to use a new friend. We could be--friends, don't you think?"
Merton gaped. Merton stared. Merton checked the hallway for gnomes because this _had_ to be some sort of nightmare. There was no parallel dimension out there twisted enough to contain this particular moment, Merton thought with a tinge of hysteria.
"Sure," Merton squawked. He smiled awkwardly. Maybe this wasn't what he thought it was. Really, it wasn't as if Merton had much experience being one of the guys--and Rick's hand had made its way to the collar of Merton's shirt. Guys rubbed other guys' shirts all the time, didn't they? "We'll set up a game of Scrabble: wholesome family fun! Games involving a post-primary school vocabulary not to your taste? How about Battleship?"
"Not quite what I had in mind, Dingle," Rick said, mouth quirking.
"You're telling me that there's more to life than Battleship?" Merton snickered uneasily; damn his undeniable good looks! "Really, Rick, I'm flattered and all, but," Merton put on his own earnest face and spread his hands helplessly, "we're from two vastly different worlds. I am a student of the Dark Arts, purveyor of ancient mysteries and--if I do say so myself--a snazzy dresser. You're, well, not."
Rick took a step back and held his arms out to his sides in challenge. "You're telling me this," he rolled his shoulders in emphasis, "isn't a snazzy getup?"
Merton pursed his lips thoughtfully. "It's the shirt. It interrupts the flow of--no! no!" Merton shook his head roughly: this was neither the time nor place for fashion tips. He needed to find a way to extract himself from this situation gracefully and with Rick's pride intact. "Are you sure you wouldn't rather be beating me up right now?"
_Good one_, Merton's inner voice sneered.
"Nice, Dingle--remember?" Rick said.
"Right," Merton said morosely, "nice."
Merton had an amazingly complex vocal range. Tommy heard what he had privately termed Uneasy Snigger Number Two before he rounded the corner. Uneasy Snigger Number Two rarely appeared during life-threatening situations, so Tommy permitted himself an eye-roll: he couldn't leave Merton alone for minutes without the other boy getting into some sort of trouble. Wolf or not, being Merton's friend could be exhausting.
Tommy couldn't help but grin when he caught sight of Merton and Rick: Uneasy Snigger Number Two neatly explained. He knew that Merton was uncomfortable around the guys, but Tommy had always hoped that his best friend would one day be accepted by them. "Hey, Merton! Rick!" Tommy called.
Merton responded with his Thank The Gods, I'm Saved! Yelp: "Tommy!"
Some of Tommy's good cheer faded when he noted how wild Merton's eyes looked. After all the monsters they had taken out, it was incredible that Merton could still be unnerved by a (second-rate) football player. Tommy made sure to slide in front of Merton, his shoulder blocking the two other boys slightly. Best to nip Merton's hysteria in the bud, Tommy decided.
"Tommy," Rick nodded. He cast a quick glance at his bulky watch and frowned. "Damn it--I've gotta be going."
"Sure," Tommy said easily. "See you tomorrow."
Merton clung to the arm of Tommy's jacket as he watched Rick lope down the hall. Rick had barely slid out from view when Merton emitted a squeak. Tommy furrowed his brows: it wasn't his I'm In So Much Trouble squeak or his Me? You're Talking to _Me_? one. And maybe he'd been making assumptions, but Tommy had figured that he'd heard just about every possible squeak, squawk, squeal, snigger, snicker and yelp Merton had to offer.
"Tommy," Merton said, "Tommy, I think he just propositioned me!"
Well, that explained things. Wait, no, forget that: "huh?"
Merton was all but vibrating in place when Tommy turned to face him. "Made a pass," Merton said in high, drawn out tone that was meant to inform anyone within hearing range that he was being Ever So Patient. "Hit on me, if you prefer. Rick is hot for one Merton J. Dingle--" Merton paused long enough for a modest smile, "not, I suppose that I could _blame_ him."
Tommy might not have been a master of the vocal range as was Merton, but he'd mastered a few expressions over the years. He settled on good-natured incredulity and thumped Merton on the shoulder. "Rick was just being friendly, Merton. It's about time that the guys realized how great you are." Tommy paused and his voice was slightly disappointed when he continued: "I thought you'd be relieved to finally be accepted."
"Oh, he was being friendly all right," Merton said darkly. He clutched at Tommy's shoulders. "He said that he wanted to be friends, Tommy: _friends_!"
"The problem being?" Leave it to Merton to blow a simple conversation way out of proportion, Tommy thought. He patted at one of Merton's white-knuckled hands before peeling them off his shoulders.
Merton gasped. "Did you not _hear_ my flawlessly rendered imitation of Rick's words? He said, and I'm quoting, here: 'We could be--friends, don't you think?'" Merton started up at Tommy. "Just _try_ to tell me that line isn't oozing with innuendo."
"It's not," Tommy said firmly.
Merton ignored him. "Tommy. Tommy, track with me here, will you? Rick obviously thinks that it's not my battleship you're interested in." He looked at Tommy expectantly and scowled when Tommy shrugged his confusion. "He think that you're enjoying some of that famed Dingle magic." Another expectant pause. "For God's sake, Tommy! He thinks that we're dating!"
Huh, Tommy thought. That just might explain a few of those odd questions Rick had been asking him recently. Tommy had hardly nodded his satisfaction at a mystery solved when his eyes rounded. "Wait just a minute! Rick's putting the moves on my boyfriend?!"
Merton sighed. He peeked out from behind his fingers long seconds later. "I'm not your boyfriend, Tommy."
Tommy scowled. "That's not the point, Merton. Rick thinks that you are."
"Rick thinks that you ditched me for Lily," Merton said. He sniffed disdainfully. "As if even you'd be foolish enough to dump an near perfect specimen of manhood for--" Merton blinked. Cleared his throat. "Never mind _that_."
Tommy didn't, as he'd hardly been listening to Merton to begin with. "I can't believe him!" Tommy muttered. He glared at the empty hallway and slung an arm around Merton's shoulders. "Don't worry, buddy--I'll straighten everything out." Arm still hooked around Merton, Tommy led his eagerly nodding friend down the hall.
Merton beamed at Tommy. "Good! Good!" He stumbled to a stop against Tommy. "Wait! No! You have a _plan_?"
Tommy might have been insulted by the horror in Merton's voice if he hadn't been busy with thoughts of the thorough talking-to he'd be giving Rick. "Yes," Tommy said, "I have a plan."
"Maybe Rick's not so bad," Merton sighed. "He does have nice eyes."
Hmpff. Nice eyes! Maybe it was time to rethink that whole Merton and football team bonding idea, Tommy decided.
"I'll pretend that I didn't hear you say that," Tommy said and firmly led Merton from the school.
Merton yawned, rubbed at his eyes with his fists and stretched. He blinked owlishly in the early morning light and nodded at Tommy. Wait a minute! Tommy? Merton shrieked--absently noting that his fuzzy early morning throat made his voice sound deeper: note to self, look into that at later date--and yanked the covers up to his chin.
Tommy was unruffled by Merton's reaction. "Morning, Merton," he said calmly while Merton slowly peeled his hands away from their desperate clutch on his blankets.
Deep breaths, Merton told himself, deep breaths. "Tommy," Merton said in a voice that only shook a little. Sure, finding Tommy in his room first thing in the morning wasn't exactly normal--but it was _Tommy_; now if his heart would only stop trying to thump its way out of Merton's chest with fear.
"Tommy," Merton repeated in a firmer voice. "When I told you to feel free to come over at any time--" he cast a quick glance at the clock on his night-stand and shuddered, "I wasn't talking about six o'clock in the morning!"
"Huh. Six o'clock already," Tommy said; Merton wondered how long the other boy had been sitting in his room and hoped that he hadn't been drooling in his sleep. Tommy leaned forward in his chair and looked at Merton with an expression of shining earnestness. "About the plan."
"The--oh, the _plan_," Merton said. He rubbed at his face. Undeniable genius or not, it was too early in the morning to be thinking about anything other than breakfast. Merton hoped that his tone of voice properly conveyed the fact that he was not in the mood to be thinking about football players hitting on him. Not at six in the morning. Not ever. Unfortunately, Merton concluded as he looked at Tommy darkly from under his lashes, Tommy had cheerful obliviousness down to an art form.
"See, I was just going to hit Rick," Tommy said. He looked rather shamefaced at that admission now that he had cooled down a bit. "But he _is_ a teammate and all, and I don't _really_ want to break his nose. So, a new plan. A _better_ plan."
Nose-breakage was a bit out of character for Tommy; but in this case, Merton didn't think he minded. "I like plan one," he said. Tommy's face was pure disappointment as he shook his head. Merton groaned and collapsed back into his nest of pillows. He threw an arm over his eyes and prepared for the worst. "Fine. Be that way."
Tommy rubbed his hands together briskly. "All we have to do is start spending more time together."
Merton directed an incredulous look at Tommy from under the silky line of his sleeve. It was really, really too early for this, he thought mournfully. "And what are the objectives of this plan? Your goal, if you will."
Tommy looked at Merton as if he were an especially dim child. "We'll hang out, Rick will think that we're, you know, 'together' again and he'll move along."
Merton released a much put-upon sigh. He lifted himself onto his elbows so that he could meet Tommy's eyes. "You really thought your way through this one, didn't you Tommy?" Merton snipped at his best friend. It wasn't as if he didn't appreciate the effort, but _really_: "Lily might have an objection or, say, twelve about that."
Tommy shrugged. "We're best friends, Merton. Best friends spend time together--and Lori didn't mind."
"Lori also dumped you," Merton said deliberately: slow and clear.
Tommy shook his head stubbornly. "Lily will understand, Merton. I'll explain things to her and--"
Merton could only gape at Tommy as the other boy continued talking. How was it, Merton wondered incredulously, that Tommy always got the girls? Tommy was delusional if he thought Lily would still be talking to him after he started ditching her for Merton more often than he did already. Merton began to say exactly that before clamping his mouth shut: get rid of Rick, or keep Lily in Tommy's life?
Like there was any question _there_.
Merton nodded. "You're right, Tommy," Merton said brightly. "Lily is a _wonderful_ girl and I'm _sure_ that she'll understand." He smiled winningly.
Tommy blinked suspiciously. "Okay then. Glad we're in agreement."
"_Perfect_ agreement," Merton agreed with a firm nod. He tossed off his covers and swung his bare feet towards the ground. Merton looked at Tommy from the corner of his eyes. "You can have breakfast here, if you want." You see? Merton's tone said, see how nice I'm being even though you woke me up at an ungodly hour of the morning?
Tommy's crooked eyebrow told Merton that yes, he saw how very nice Merton was being--and no, he wasn't impressed. "Breakfast sounds good," Tommy said.
A sudden thought hit Merton and he bit back on a grin. Being woken up at six might be worth it when Becky wandered downstairs in her Boylicious nightgown and pimple-cream to find Pleasantville High's most popular student in their kitchen.
He snickered; Tommy knew him well enough not to ask.
Having agreed on A Plan, Tommy's mind was free to wander in new directions. This one had been lurking along the edges of his thoughts since he had Merton had had their little talk that morning. Sure, Tommy thought, Merton was--excitable and, as his mother might say if Tommy were at all interested in talking to her about this particular glitch in his life, 'a real original.' Still though, Tommy had no idea where Rick had gotten the idea that Merton was gay.
Incoming! Tommy's senses shouted. He readjusted his hand at the small of Merton's back and guided the other boy out of the way of a clustered group of giggling juniors. Merton didn't notice: he was in full rant mode and nothing but an immediate threat to his person was likely to snap Merton back to everyday Pleasantville reality any time soon. Tommy nodded and rumbled his assent when Merton's voice hit a particularly high note: right here, buddy, I'm listening.
". . . highly overrated! And to think that. . ." Merton was saying, slashing his hands about enthusiastically.
Tommy grinned down at his friend indulgently. His smile faltered when he caught sight of Lily waiting in front of his locker. He wasn't an idiot--he _knew_ getting out of his date with Lily tonight wasn't going to be fun. He was sure--almost sure--that he could get Lily to understand where he was coming from, so long as she stayed around long enough to hear him out.
"--Tommy?" Merton said.
Tommy shook his head. "Sorry. Look, Merton, I've got to talk to Lily."
"_Okay_," Merton said, his eyes rounding. "I think I'll just be--elsewhere." His eyes darted around the hallway: Hide me! Someone! Anyone! Merton rounded to look at Tommy, face solemn. "Godspeed, Tommy. Godspeed."
Tommy rolled his eyes. He gripped Merton's tense shoulders, ignoring the people jostling around them. "It won't be that bad, Merton. You just have to have a little faith." Tommy looked over Merton's bobbing spikes. Lily had her arms crossed beneath her breasts and was tapping her foot impatiently. Tommy frowned.
"_Sure_, Tommy," Merton said with finely honed sarcasm. "You're going to need a lot more than faith--I'm sure I have a holy relic around here somewhere," he continued, patting at his coat pockets, "that might slow her down. A bit. Maybe."
Tommy gave the nape of Merton's neck a reassuring squeeze. "I'll meet you in English later, okay?"
Merton mumbled something along the lines of 'so long as you survive.' Tommy pretended not to hear him at all. He didn't know why Merton was making such a big deal out of this. Lily was a reasonable girl and it wasn't as if he had broken off many dates before this. Except last Friday, for that monster movie marathon. And the Saturday before that while he, Merton and Lori had taken out that pop princess/banshee. And--
"Tommy," Lily said. "You're late."
Tommy looked at his watch. "There's a full ten minutes before class starts, Lily."
"That's not what I--" she looked at Tommy, sighed and smiled. "Never mind, it wasn't important anyway." She leaned in towards Tommy, her hand resting comfortably on his arm. "And I have every confidence that you'll make it up to me tonight."
That was his cue, right there. Tommy cleared his throat and shifted from one foot to the next. "About tonight--"
Lily hiked one dark eyebrow into a sharply inquisitive arch. "Yes, Tommy?"
"I'm really sorry, Lily, but something came up that I have to take care of." Tommy risked at glance at Lily's face. Her flirtatious smile had frozen in place but began to crack into something less pleasant even as Tommy watched. Oh, boy, Tommy thought. He rushed to repair the damage: "you _know_ that I wouldn't ditch you if I didn't have a good reason, Lil. And I promise that I'll--"
Lily cut him off. "Lori?" she said, "or--yes, Merton, isn't it?" Lily's voice, cool when she named Lori, turned absolutely frigid at Merton's name.
Tommy nodded: earnest! charming! too cute to resist! "He really needs my help, Lily."
"Of course he does," Lily muttered. Her mouth twisted unhappily and Tommy was sure that Lily was about to let loose with a biting comment. She looked at Tommy, dark hair spilling down her back as she tilted her head back, and swallowed. "It's a good thing you're so cute, Tommy Dawkins."
Tommy beamed. "I knew you'd understand, Lily." He leaned down and pressed a quick kiss to the corner of her mouth. "You're the best."
Lily stared after Tommy as he walked away. It was a good thing that she wasn't interested in anything long-term with Tommy because--"those two are practically married," Lily said, a touch louder than she'd intended. She flinched and looked around guiltily. If anyone had heard her, they weren't letting on.
Lori dropped her tray down at the seat across from Tommy's. She was smirking. A smirking Lori was a dangerous Lori. "So, when were you guys planning on telling me about the wedding?"
Okay, that was--unexpected, Tommy thought. He swallowed a mouthful of chicken nugget and prepared himself for the worst. Lori's smirk had reached all new heights of mockery. "What wedding?" Tommy asked.
"Don't be so coy, Tommy," Lori said. Laughter was trembling beneath her unnaturally sweet voice. "Yours and Merton's, of course."
Tommy stared at her. Closed his eyes tight and peeked at Lori from under his lashes a moment later. Still there. Still Lori. Still watching him with amused expectation. Only one thing to do in a situation like this, Tommy decided: "huh?"
"Andrew said that Ginger said that Peter said that Molly said that Lily said," Lori took a deep breath (she hadn't mastered the run-on sentence as Merton had), "that you and Merton are running off to get married as soon as the semester is over." Lori leaned back, openly grinning now. "You _were_ planning on inviting me, weren't you?"
"Lori!" Tommy cried.
Tommy's voice was drowned out by Merton's. "Tommy! Lori!" he called out, sliding through the cafeteria doorway and nearly colliding with their table. Merton's eyes jerked around as he studied the cafeteria. He was nearly dancing in place. "You won't believe what--"
"Ah, the blushing bridegroom-to-be," Lori said. She had stopped even pretending that she didn't find the entire situation hilarious.
Merton made a garbled noise deep in his throat. He collapsed into the seat next to Lori. "Tommy--what did you _do_?!" Merton wailed.
Tommy shot Merton an injured look. "Me? I didn't do anything!"
"Not even married and you're fighting already," Lori sighed, shaking her head mournfully.
Both boys ignored her. "Some plan," Merton said, "I knew--I _knew_ that it sounded too simple." Merton seemed to wilt in his seat. "I knew that I should have faked my death, changed my name and come back to Pleasantville as an exotic and," he smiled modestly, "charming exchange student."
"You'd rather do all that than have people think we're together?" Tommy asked. He was surprised at the hurt in his own voice.
Merton ignored the question. "You have no idea how many people had come up to congratulate me on the upcoming nuptials." Merton's expression shifted to something between smugness and disgust, "and a surprising number of people have expressed an interest in acquiring a tape of the wedding night."
Lori snorted on her cola.
At least _someone_ was amused by all this, Tommy thought as he and Merton turned to glare at Lori in unison.
Merton had never been so glad to see the end of a school day--and he'd had some pretty miserable days at school before this one. It wasn't as if Merton enjoyed being stuffed into his own locker, but at least that was familiar. Unwavering good will was something rather out of Merton's usual realm of experience.
Pleasantville High had churned up some odd rumours in the past: Chuck's secret sex change operation! The Lunch Lady's torrid affairs! Principal caught burying F-student's body!--but most people got a laugh or two from those rumours before moving right along. But this time, everybody--_everybody_--seemed to believe in Tommy and Merton: Gay Fairytale. From students to teachers to the unilingual Spanish janitor, the school was practically overflowing with well-wishers. Merton shuddered at the memory of his joint session with Tommy at the councillor's office that afternoon: "no need for denial anymore, boys! I'm on your side!"
It was all so _incredibly_ disturbing.
"Hey! Hey, Dingle!"
Merton groaned and let his forehead drop to rest against his locker door. Of course, he thought--the Fates, Gods, Powers that Be, Whoever, weren't finished enjoying the second-rate comedy that was Merton J. Dingle's life.
A sudden anger drove Merton away from his locker. He wheeled around to face Rick as the other boy trotted towards him. "No," Merton said shrilly, waving his hands about in warning. "Just stay back! This is all _your_ fault--I'm more popular than I ever _dreamed_ of being just because you thought I'm a desperate football-groupie willing to put out at the first sign of kindness!"
The rubber soles of Rick's shoes squealed as he came to an abrupt stop. He blinked. Stared. "Whoa! Hold on just a sec, Dingle. I didn't think _any_ of that." Rick cleared his throat. His bent head and shuffling feet might have been cute if Merton hadn't been busy entertaining visions of Rick vs. Fang Face, Round 1. "I just thought that you were, you know. Kinda--cute."
"Beg pardon?" Merton gaped. Fang Face had taken a sudden punch to the gut and a dive face-first into the mat.
Rick rolled his eyes. "You heard me."
"Really?" Merton beamed. He shook his head roughly--he wasn't flattered! He was still grievously offended! Now if only Fang Face would get his spiky rear off of the floor and get back to the business at hand. Unfortunately, Fang Face was still looking a bit too stunned to do much more than look back at Merton and shrug. Merton rallied himself and sniffed disdainfully. "You might want to work on your pickup lines."
Rick actually blushed--blushed! Merton thought with amazement. "Yeah, well. You're the first guy I've ever tried to pick up. So. A little leniency from the judges." He grinned a little at Merton's stunned expression ("your face is going to freeze like that," Merton's mother chided, shooing Fang Face off the mat). "But I didn't realize how serious things were between you and Tommy."
"We're not--" Merton began, took one look at Rick's apologetic face and sighed. "No problem, Rick."
"Good," Rick said with relief, "that's great." He paused, hooked his thumbs through his belt-hoops and looked at Merton from the corner of his eyes. "So. I hear that you might be selling some tapes--"
Normally, Tommy would have waited for Merton at his locker. Today, though, they both needed a little time apart before tackling their current problem. Tommy had never realized quite how much time he and Merton spent together until their classmates began ooh-ing and aah-ing every time they happened to touch. That and the giggling girls with their blushes and bright, inquisitive eyes had made for a _long_ day. Tommy felt like he had barely survived an especially cutsey episode of _Full House_. That, or a Very Special Episode of some teen melodrama.
Sure, Tommy had heard gossip about his relationship with Merton before--but then again, he had also been informed, quite seriously by a terrified junior, that Lori had threatened to beat up any girl who so much as looked at him while they were dating. Tommy just hadn't realized that he and Merton had become TommyAndMerton to most of the school months before now.
It was really, really _weird_, Tommy decided with a sigh.
Tommy froze mid-way up the stairs, flinching at the sound of his mother's Concerned Parental Voice. Maybe he would be lucky, and his parents only wanted to talk about his college applications, or his grades, or, or--ease him through the news that they were expecting a baby. Tommy couldn't manage to draw forth any cheerful optimism: he knew, absolutely _knew_, that his parents had heard about Pleasantville High's new Favourite Couple.
His parents were visibly set up for a bout of earnest parenting by the time Tommy made his way to the kitchen. Tommy cleared his throat and eased into the seat his mom had pulled out for him. Best to cut his parents off before they really got started, Tommy decided and threw himself into a firm: "It's not what--"
Tommy's words were muffled as his mom threw her arms around him. "My baby!" she wept, "my baby is all grown up! And gay!"
"Gak!" Tommy protested.
"You're strangling the boy, Sally," Bob Dawkins said. His voice was oddly scratchy, too. He clamped a hand on Tommy's shoulder the instant Mrs. Dawkins pulled back, wiping at her teary eyes. "Tommy. Son. We just wanted you to know how _proud_ we are of you."
Was _everyone_ going to accept the idea that he and Merton were together without question? Tommy wondered, rubbing at his throat. Not acting to discourage Rick's mistaken impression was one thing; having everyone at school and his parents--his parents!--think he and Merton spent their time at the lair cooing at each other was something entirely different.
"I'm not--" Tommy said. Started to say. He wondered if he would ever be allowed to complete a sentence again as his mom cut across his denial.
Mrs. Dawkins slid into the chair next to Tommy. She took both of his hands in her own and looked at Tommy earnestly. "It's a difficult life, baby, but your father and I are here for you and Merton. We'll support you all the way. Although," she bit her lip lightly, "we do have some concerns about you getting married so young."
"We aren't--" Tommy said. Excited parents must have been calling the Dawkinses all day. Didn't anyone have anything more interesting to think about than Tommy's love life? Tommy's thoughts slid into another, frightening direction: He hoped his parents hadn't heard about those tape rumours. His sudden blush wasn't helping his protests.
"We think that you ought to wait until after college," Mr. Dawkins said, firmly, reasonably.
"That--" Tommy tried again.
Mrs. Dawkins nodded enthusiastically. "That will give us time to get to know the Dingles better as well. We should invite them over this weekend, don't you think?" she said, casting a glance in Mr. Dawkins' direction. "Something fun and not too formal. . . A barbeque!"
"Wonderful idea!" Mr. Dawkins smiled. "Tommy?"
"Barbeque is always good," Tommy agreed before shaking off visions of juicy hamburgers and steaks, "but--"
"Barbeque it is!" Mrs. Dawkins beamed. She leaned in to hug Tommy again. "He is a cute one, baby," she sniffled against Tommy's ear. She paused and lowered her voice. "I do hope that the two of you use pr--"
Tommy's eyes went huge. "Mom!" he yelped and pulled free from her arms.
"Sally," Mr Dawkins said reproachfully. "This isn't the kind of thing a young man wants to talk about with his mother." He turned to Tommy, his eyes shining with determined helpfulness. "There's a book on your bed, Tommy. We think that you might find it--helpful. If you have any questions or concerns, we found the phone number for a support group for gay teens."
This was all some sort of really weird dream, Tommy decided. Or he'd eaten another batch of Merton's special cookies ("the extra sugar is theorized to give those who ingest it--get ready for it, Tommy!--super speed! C'mon, _Tommy_--give it a nibble. Nummy, nummy!") In either case, the best thing to do was probably crawl back into bed and sleep until everything went back to normal.
"I," Tommy said faintly, "I have. . . homework to do." He fled.
Bob Dawkins frowned after his son's retreating back. "Tommy seems rather defensive about his relationship with the Dingle boy," he said.
Mrs Dawkins nodded sagely. "He's probably worried about how people will react to having an openly gay couple in town." She paused thoughtfully before beaming at her husband: "but I think I have the perfect solution!"
"Wonderful!" Mr Dawkins grinned, "just wonderful!"
As much as Becky might resist the siren call of melodrama, over-acting and -reacting was something Dingles displayed a natural talent for. She had been stewing all day ("Really, Becky--your brother is actually kinda cute. I mean, Tommy _Dawkins_ wouldn't like him if he were a total dweeb, right?") and was now hovering at the peak of a righteous snit. She was primed, she was ready, and _oh,_ was the Freaker going to get it _this_ time!
Becky's hands were angled on her hips. She had been biding her time in the lair for minutes, ready to strike the moment Merton slunk through the door and collapsed against the wall. She took a deep breath, hiked her voice into perfect teenage girl shrillness and wailed: "I can't believe you turned Tommy Dawkins gay! You just _had_ to ruin the cutest boy in school!"
Merton might have hugged her for that: finally! someone who _wasn't_ planning out the Perfect Wedding for Merton and Tommy. Still, though, Merton really wasn't in the mood to do anything more than turn up the volume of his dreariest CDs and spend the rest of the night brooding with well-honed stylishness. Merton glanced longingly at his favourite brooding chair; Becky was still bristling irritably when Merton turned his gaze back towards her.
Merton blew out a sharp breath. "Out! Out!" he cried, making exaggerated shoo-ing motions at Becky. Her jaw tightened and Merton knew that Becky wasn't about to be shoo-ed anywhere--and to hell with anyone who tried to remove her before she had spoken her mind to its fullest, in the most disdainful tone she could summon forth. "I'm going to have to write a firm letter to the guys who sold me those anti-sibling wards," Merton muttered darkly. He flung his backpack to the floor, slid past Becky's sharp elbows and marched towards his bed.
Merton dropped face first into the bed, letting Becky's tirade was over him: blah, blah, i can't _believe_ blah blah, so _selfish_, blah, blah, never been so _humiliated_ blah blah, supposed to like _me_, blah, blah, _yadda_. Becky stopped to take a deep breath and Merton was sure that she was about to demand "have you heard a _word_ I said?" before launching into another round of her Why Merton is the Worst Brother Ever speech. Instead, Becky's voice went soft as she ventured a curious: "Freaker? How'd you do it?"
Merton cautiously lifted his face from his pillow. Becky's eyes were wide and vulnerable--and damn it, Merton never could resist playing the caring older brother. "Do what?" Merton asked.
Becky rolled her eyes: you are suck a _dork_! and said: "you know, make Tommy _like_ you."
_Make_ him like me? Merton mouthed: what did Becky think? That he spent his evenings whipping up love potions on his Bunsen burner? Well, _yes_, but that was besides the point. "Must be that fabled Dingle charm," Merton said and offered Becky his best Superior Big Brother Smirk, "give it a little time, Becky, and I'm sure you'll be reeling them in, too."
Becky gave a huffy little shriek of outrage. "You're blackmailing him, you must be," she said fiercely. Merton squawked as Becky tried to shove him off his bed, questing for any incriminating photos under his pillow or the damning letters under his mattress.
Merton clung to his mattress with one hand while batting at Becky with the other. She looked ready to tickle him into submission when the basement door opened and Mrs Dingle's platform shoes could be heard clattering on the stairs. Merton and Becky shot a look at each other: truce for now, they agreed, and set about straightening themselves up as best as possible. They were seated in front of the TV, equally innocent expressions firmly in place by the time Mrs Dingle tottered into the lair.
Despite her appearance, Mabel Dingle hadn't been stoned out of her mind since the sixties and she had _never_ been a fool, thank you very much. She shot her children a look that said, no, she wasn't in the slightest bit fooled by their shiny white grins. "It's nice to see you getting along so well for once," she said dryly. "Becky, I'd like to speak to Merton alone, please."
"You've heard," Merton said with quivering despair as Mrs Dingle smoothed out her skirt and lowered herself into the chair Becky had just vacated. Merton's mother smiled serenely and nodded her head. "Dad?" Merton asked.
"Yes," Mrs Dingle said. "Don't worry, Merton. Your father always did want to have a football player in the family." Indeed, Spencer Dingle had been weeping with joy at the thought of gaining the kind of son he'd always dreamed of. Mrs Dingle had prepared some warm milk for her husband and had tucked him into bed before Mr Dingle worked himself into a state he might never return from.
"Glad that he approves," Merton muttered, "but _Mom_--"
"Did I ever tell you about my best friend back in high school?" Mrs Dingle asked.
"Ms Patterson?" Merton said. Doris Patterson still visited the Dingle household every-other Christmas. She was a dumpy little woman with dyed red hair and she insisted on giving Merton studded dog-collars on every gift-giving day of the year (he'd kept them in a dresser drawer before the combined weight of all that metal had sent the drawer's bottom cracking down the middle). "What about Ms Patterson?"
"Doris and I were very. . . close, too," Mrs Dingle said.
"That's nice, Mom," Merton said, "but what does that have to do with--" Merton choked and squawked and flailed, his eyes bugging out as he realized exactly what his mother was saying. "_Mom!_" he protested with a pained whine, "I didn't need to know that. I _really_ didn't," and by all that was holy, he'd never be able to look at Doris Patterson again without his stomach making as if it were filled with Mexican jumping beans.
"I just want you to know that I understand what you're going through, Merton," Mrs Dingle said, "and that I accept your feelings for Tommy without any reservations."
Merton sucked in a deep breath: "Tommy and I are _not_ together!"
Mrs Dingle nodded. "I know, honey, I know. But you'd like to be, wouldn't you?"
Merton gaped at her. "I. You. Wha--? No. Huh?"
Mrs Dingle smiled and patted Merton's pale cheek soothingly. "Some things, a mother just knows."
It wasn't the sort of thing that Tommy had ever questioned: every night, before turning in, either Tommy or Merton would pick up the phone and call the other. If Tommy had ever thought about this nightly ritual, he might have come to the conclusion that it was something of a survival mechanism. Tommy being Tommy, Merton being Merton and this being Pleasantville, there was a good chance of one of them being abducted by the Monster Under the Bed or being sucked down a sink drain, or--whatever.
Beyond the inherent oddness of there being actual odds in favour of being sucked through a drain into an alternate dimension, Tommy had never considered that being unable to sleep well without checking in with his best friend was in any way out of the ordinary. But the "Tommy and Merton are in Luuuuv!" rumour be damned, Tommy wasn't about to change his behaviour just because it made him look obsessively dependent on Merton.
He and Merton knew the truth, and that was good enough, Tommy thought decisively--
And flinched as Merton finally picked up the phone on the twelfth ring. "Listen here, you freak! There are no tapes, nor will there ever--"
"Merton?" Tommy said, drawing the receiver away from his ear as Merton's voice climbed to a full screech (Hysterical Voice Number Five: I'm At the End of My Rope, the Merton-cataloguing section of Tommy's brain piped up helpfully). "_Merton_!" Tommy shouted at the phone.
"--swear to all the gods man has ever worshiped--heck, that man has ever _considered_ genuflecting towards, that--" Merton said before his voice cracked with belated recognition: "huh? Oh. _Tommy_!" He cleared his throat. "Um. Is anything wrong?"
"Wrong? No. No, nothing's wrong," Tommy said. Tommy punched his pillow into a shape more to his liking and arranged himself more comfortably against the headboard. He shot another look at his door, making sure that he had indeed locked it: he didn't want his mom or dad (or God forbid--another dose of _both_ of them) bustling in while he was talking to Merton. "It's just--"
"Just?" Merton prompted.
Tommy sighed. "My granma called from Florida. She knows of a 'perfectly respectable' adoption agency in Romania. She suggested we start looking into adopting as soon as possible--long waits, you know."
Merton drew in a sharp breath and made a small, distressed sound before countering Tommy's statement with one of his own: "My aunt called, she assured me that she'll plan the wedding: cheap, but it'll be glorious, just _glorious_."
By the time this was all over, Tommy thought with something not quite like humour, he and Merton would be at the center of a worldwide Tommy'N'Merton mania. "My dad has been fielding calls by advertisers who want to sponsor the wedding," Tommy said.
"I've had people calling me all night expressing interest in a threesome," Merton said. "I don't know why everyone is asking _me_ about the weird sex stuff." Tommy's surprised choke set Merton to snickering on the other end of the line. "Maybe I should have started the rumour myself years ago: the girls love it."
"And you make fun of _my_ plans," Tommy gasped around his laughter. And this was good, he decided, laughing with Merton about all of the weirdness springing up around them. Good that they still felt comfortable together when everyone seemed determined to turn their relationship into something it wasn't.
"I have yet to fine tune it," Merton said. "However, I assure you that with a bit of polishing and tender care, that plan would be the envy of schemers and plotters everywhere."
"Uh huh. I wouldn't dare question your scheming abilities," Tommy said solemnly.
"You had better not," Merton said haughtily. "Hey Tommy?"
"I," Merton paused, cleared his throat and forced the sudden seriousness from his voice: "you'll still respect me in the morning, won't you?"
"Go to bed, Merton."
"And citizens throughout Pleasantville shiver at the sound of those words coming from Tommy Dawkins," Merton said, and Tommy could hear the smirk in his voice. "'Night, Tommy."
"You hanging up?"
"In a minute."
"In a minute," Merton agreed.
Oh boy, Tommy realized: we really _are_ dating. And didn't let go of the phone.
Tommy was acting oddly, Merton thought. It had been one heck of a week: the emotional equivalent of a tilt-a-whirl, but still--Tommy was solid and dependable and kind enough to leave the panicking and other emotional overindulgences up to Merton. Not that Tommy was panicking (he _should_ be, Merton thought sourly: "this isn't the time for planning! It's a time for panic! _Panic_!"). Tommy looked--thoughtful, which was disturbing in its own way and damn it, Merton thought with a flush as Tommy turned to look at him, had he been staring again?
Tommy's face reddened too, and they sat there blushing at each other. The blaring music that accompanied Action News reports broke the boys out of their confused staring match and sent their gazes swinging towards the TV screen. Tommy's mom had insisted that he tune into the evening broadcast--considering that cameramen had been stalking both Tommy and Merton for the past few days, they both had some suspicions as to what they were about to see.
"The Love That DARES!" the TV screamed in bold red print as the music swelled to its breaking point. "Oh, God," Merton groaned while Tommy's still-pink cheeks took a sudden dive towards sickly.
Sally Dawkins was beaming on screen. "Tonight, we have a very special episode for all you viewers out there. I think everyone should hear about the bravest two boys in Pleasantville: Tommy Dawkins and Merton Dingle! Two boys with a love so strong that they are willing to stand together and face Pleasantville, America and the world!"
"I'm not," Merton whimpered, "I'm really, really _not_."
"We are speaking to Stacey Hansen from Cheerleading College via phone."
Tommy squawked, so surprised he didn't even try to cover his reaction with a manly bout of throat-clearing.
"Tommy is gay?" Stacey said thoughtfully. "You know, that actually explains a _lot_."
Lori was the next to be interviewed. She was standing in front of her locker, books balanced on one hip as she swung her lock shut. "Yeah," she was saying, "Tommy and Merton have always been close--closer than most best friends I've ever known." The camera panned to Tommy and Merton standing at the other end of the hall and no way did they always stand so close, Merton thought. "They've been through a lot together and I'm sure they'll come out of this stronger, too," Lori concluded as the camera turned back to her smirking face.
"_Traitor!_" Merton gasped. He was rather glad that he didn't have any ex-girlfriends to interview, seeing as both of Tommy's were so enthusiastic about Tommy being gay. He wisely kept that thought to himself.
"We are now speaking to a random sample of Pleasantville students!" Sally Dawkins chirped as she reached into the lunchtime crowd and dragged forth a skinny junior with big teeth and bigger glasses.
The boy nodded as Mrs Dawkins questioned him: "No, I'm not surprised. I've been hearing about TommyAndMerton since my first day of school."
The next random student--this one a girl--that Mrs Dawkins fished out blushed at the camera. "I've seen the limericks in the girl's washroom," she explained while her friends giggled madly behind her. Merton didn't think that they intended the microphone to pick up on their contribution to the show: "Tommy is _such_ a bottom," the first one said; the second one nodded enthusiastically: "Merton has him wrapped around his little finger--or maybe his--"
"Gak!" Tommy said. "_Gak_!"
"I don't know," Merton said, "_I'm_ suddenly feeling rather manly."
Tommy glowered at him: "shut up, Merton."
"Here with me now are some of Tommy's football buddies," Mrs Dawkins enthused, waving at Chuck, Rick and various other guys Merton had never bothered to attach names to. "What is your reaction upon learning of Tommy and Merton's relationship?" Mrs Dawkins asked.
Chuck sneered at the camera. "I'm not surprised in the slightest. I always did figure Tommy was a little gay." The other guys nodded in agreement. "Hell, he practically lives out of Dingle's pocket," Chuck added while the other guys hooted.
"We're rooting for you guys!" Rick added.
"I _knew_ I caught Tommy checking out my ass once," Unnamed Football Jerk Number One said; he didn't sound _upset_, Merton noticed.
"This is really quite enlightening," Merton said, watching as Tommy's face went from red to purple. "You're gayer than I am, Tommy."
Tommy paled then flushed before paling again. He shifted around on the couch so that he has facing Merton. "About that. I mean. It's just that--"
Becky's voice drowned out Tommy's. "At first, I was really upset--I mean, God, Merton is such a freak and Tommy is, well--_hot_. But," Becky squealed as she pulled out a fistful of envelopes from her coat pocket, "since the news broke, I've been invited to dozens of parties! Sure, Merton is still a freak, but he's a cool freak now."
"I'm touched," Merton muttered.
Tim and Travis filled the screen after Becky. Merton looked tiny between T'n'T as they closed in on him, teary-eyed. "We'll miss you, Dingle!" Tim said. "You were always our favourite victim!" Travis said. T'n'T closed in on Merton, crushing him in a bear hug.
Merton winced, watching himself being crushed on the television. "Can't. . . breathe. . ." he mouthed in time with himself.
T'n'T finally released Merton, who sank to the ground, clutching at his chest. The brothers rounded on Tommy who was tugging Merton back to his feet. "Dawkins, man, you've been our friend for years, but if you break poor Merton's heart, we'll pound you into the ground." They nodded at each other and Tommy before grinning at the camera: "T'n'T rule!" they shouted before bouncing their stomachs together.
"I've seen enough," Merton said and turned off the television.
"I don't know what _you're_ complaining about," Tommy said. "I've just learned the school's entire population has thought I'm gay for years now."
"And yet, you've still managed to get more dates than I have," Merton sniffed. "Just look at this as yet another example of the eroticisation of close homo-socio bonds," he told Tommy as reassuringly as possible. Merton nodded in agreement with himself: "unable to comprehend a close friendship between two men--something our culture does not encourage--observers read a sexual element into--" Merton took a look at Tommy's blank expression and sighed. "That is--we're getting all of the responsibilities of being gay and none of the perks."
Tommy's head cocked. Of course, Merton moaned, it was just his luck that Tommy chose to hear _that_ tidbit. "What sort of perks?" Tommy wondered and he suddenly sounded really, really curious.
"Huh?" Merton said with his best look of dumb innocence. Unfortunately, the look rarely worked as Merton was anything but dumb and rarely innocent of what he was being accused of. Still, though: try, try again was his motto in life.
"I think I ought to know about any perks connected with this rumour," Tommy said.
"I didn't say anything about perks," Merton insisted. "I said that we're getting all of the responsibilities of being gay and none of the--_parks_."
"_Parks_?" Tommy echoed. "Was that really the best you could come up with, Merton?"
Merton threw his hands up: "Well excuse me! I happen to be under a lot of pressure, Tommy! Even geniuses have their off days and--"
"I think we should go back to the perks," Tommy said firmly, "and their exact nature."
Merton blinked. And flushed. And lost most of his vocabulary as he reluctantly met Tommy's gaze. "I. I dunno," he said helplessly, "um. See. I meant. You know. . ."
"The other day, I just realized why everyone is so certain that we're together," Tommy said, smiling slightly at Merton's confused babble. "It's 'cause we _are_."
"We are?" Merton said.
"And, well, here's a perk for you," Tommy said and--
And oh, oh _boy_, Merton thought because Tommy's hand was on his hip and his lips were on Merton's and Tommy was _kissing_ him and what to do? what to do?! and maybe mothers really did know best because this wasn't as weird as it should be and _hoo yeah_, Tommy was really, really very good at this and kissing him back might be an excellent idea about now and, yes, yes, it was an excellent idea--award worthy, even and--
"Let's get one thing clear right now," Merton gasped when they finally separated: "I'm not wearing the wedding dress."
Tommy's answering grin was goofy and cute--so cute and Merton would never, ever get tired of seeing it. "Okay," he said, "okay," and leaned back towards Merton and wow, just _wow_ and this had to be the best rumour _ever_ churned up at Pleasantville High.
Merton would think about getting Rick a thank you bouquet later.