After his disturbing encounter with Leper, Gene wants only to see Phineas, who has managed to create for himself a world without conflict. When he gets back to Devon, he finds Finny in the midst of a raucous snowball fight, frolicking in the farthest northern reaches of the campus with a group of classmates, "the cream of the school, the lights and leaders of the senior class." Gene, not wanting to be questioned about Leper, tries to escape discreetly, but he is quickly initiated into the game by a snowball thrown at his head by Phineas. The fight deteriorates into hilarious confusion as, following Finny's lead, all loyalties are abandoned. As the teams disintegrate, the fight ends "in the only way possible": everyone gangs up on Phineas, who goes down smiling beneath a "blizzard of snowballs."
Later, it occurs to Gene to ask Finny if he should not be more cautious because of his leg, which is still encased in a small cast. Finny concedes that Dr. Stanpole has cautioned him not to fall again, but feels that his bone has healed and is even stronger now than it was before. After dinner, Brinker comes to Gene and Finny's room, and asks how Leper is doing. Gene candidly tells him that Leper has deserted, and Brinker instinctively understands that Leper has cracked under the pressures of military life. When Gene affirms that Brinker is correct, Brinker laments that someone should have realized that Leper was not cut out to be in the army. He notes the irony that the senior class of 1943 has "two men sidelined for the Duration" already, before they have even gotten the chance to fight in the war. When Gene asks Brinker who the second sidelined man is, Brinker indicates Finny, and Gene, mindful of his roommate's feelings, tries heartily to downplay the seriousness of his condition, bringing up Finny's carefully constructed rationale that the war is an illusion anyway. For the first time, however, Phineas does not play along; instead, with a tone of quiet irony, he brings to a close "all his special inventions which had carried (them) through the winter." The war is real, and no one will henceforth be able to pretend otherwise.
As spring arrives, there is very little left at Devon which is not directly connected to the war. Recruiters arrive daily, trying to interest the seniors in one of the many branches of service, but now that their time of involvement in the war is rapidly approaching, the boys are no longer in a rush to join the fighting. Gene himself takes no action; he does not feel free to but does not understand why this is so. One morning, Brinker accuses Gene of putting off enlisting because he pities Finny, a charge which Gene vehemently denies. Brinker, however, insists that Finny needs to accept the fact that he is crippled, and that for his sake, they all need to act "perfectly natural" about it. Then, insinuating that Gene has a "personal stake" in finding out the truth, Brinker suggests that there are a lot of unanswered questions about Finny's accident, and that the sooner that these questions are brought out in the open and resolved, the better it will be for everyone. Later that day, while they are studying in their dorm room, Finny tells Gene that he at first doubted what Gene had said about Leper, because to accept it would mean that the war is real after all, something which he has not wanted to admit. Finny knows that Gene is telling the truth, however, because he has seen Leper himself, skulking in the shrubbery near the chaplain's...
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office. When Finny accedes to the fact that the war is real, Gene wistfully tells him that he liked Finny's version of reality better.
Late that night, Brinker and "three cohorts" barge into Gene and Finny's room and force them to proceed to the Assembly Room in the First Building. About ten members of the class are waiting there, sitting on a platform at the front of the room in their graduation gowns. Phineas and Gene are escorted to seats in the front row of the room's benches with a number of other students. It is clear that Brinker's intent is to conduct an inquiry into the circumstances of Finny's accident. Brinker opens the proceedings with a prayer, which immediately establishes an aura of seriousness and officiality. He then goads Finny into telling what he remembers about the evening he fell from the tree. Finny's memories are confused; he cannot recall if he was up in the tree by himself or if someone was with him. Gene, unwilling to implicate himself, does not remind him. Brinker asks who else was present on that fateful day, and someone in the audience calls out that Leper was there. When Brinker responds that Leper is not present to testify, Finny reluctantly reveals that he is indeed on campus. Two boys rush out to find Leper and bring him in after a short time. Under questioning, Leper, who looks "unusually well," reports having seen two figures up in the tree that evening; the one by the trunk had bent his knees, jostling the branch, causing the other to fall to the ground. The inquiry descends into momentary confusion, as Leper, having provided the requested information, becomes uncharacteristically petulant and refuses to confirm the identity of the two boys he had seen in the tree. As Brinker attempts to reason with Leper, Phineas, unable to handle the realization that Gene really did intentionally cause the accident that maimed him, bolts from the room. The crowd gathered in the Assembly Room hear clearly the sound of "his rushing steps and the quick rapping of his cane," as Phineas hurries down the corridor and tumbles down the hard marble stairs.