Gene wants more than anything to see Finny when he gets back to school, so he goes looking for him, eventually finding him at the far reaches of campus engaged in a large snowball fight. Before the fight ends, everyone turns on Finny and pelts him—something Gene can see that he loves. Later, Gene asks if it’s such a good idea for Finny to be playing like this on his bad leg, but Finny assures him that the leg will soon heal and be twice as strong as it was before, though he mentions that Dr. Stanpole emphasized the importance not falling again. Still, he says he’s quite careful.
By this point in the novel, Finny has more or less become the exact person he was before his injury, though he can’t play sports. Still, his constant cheerfulness helps take Gene’s mind off of Leper and the war, allowing him to once more immerse himself in the sheltered world that Finny has created at Devon.
After dinner, Brinker visits Gene and Finny’s room and asks about Leper. Gene is vague, not wanting to talk about what happened to his friend, but Brinker soon intuits that Leper has become unstable. He guesses that Leper cracked under the pressure of his military duties, and though Gene wants to deny this, he can’t bring himself to lie. Eventually, he admits that Leper cries quite a bit now, and this prompts Brinker to lament the state of their class. When Gene asks what he means, Brinker hesitantly points out that Leper is a deserter and Finny is out of commission, rendering their class rather useless in terms of the war. Gene argues that this isn’t true, but Finny agrees that he truly is unable to contribute anything to the military.
Gene is eager to refute Brinker’s claim that Finny can’t contribute anything to the military. This is because he doesn’t want Finny to feel bad about his inability to become a soldier. Of course, he wants to protect Finny from this notion because he cares about his friend, but he also wants to dispel this idea because it makes him feel even more guilty than he already does about causing Finny’s injury. Accordingly, readers see once again the extent to which the accident still informs Gene’s behavior.
Gene says that it doesn’t matter if Finny can’t join the military because there’s no war anyway. Although Finny smiles, Gene detects that he doesn’t really believe his own conspiracy theory. And just like that, the war seems unbearably real and menacing, as all of Gene and Finny’s dreams of the Olympics simply fade to nothing.
Finally, even Finny finds it difficult to ignore the reality of the war. Moreover, he most likely senses that Gene is pandering to him by insisting that the war doesn’t even exist—after all, Gene was highly skeptical of this idea when Finny first suggested it, but now he is desperate to support the theory because he doesn’t want Finny to feel bad about himself. This, however, only makes the war seem even more real, since Finny can see that it is somehow still affecting his life even though he can’t even participate in it.
As time passes, most of the boys at Devon enlist, though those who join only flock to specialized branches of the military that are elite and safe. Nobody is eager, Gene notes, to join the frontlines. This, at least, is his attitude. He decides to wait to enlist, thinking that it will be a long war and that there’s no use rushing into it. At the same time, though, he doesn’t quite know why he’s putting off enlisting. Brinker, for his part, hatches multiple plans to join various branches of the military, each one further and further away from any actual violent action. And yet, he too puts off enlisting.
As the war becomes more and more real, the students at Devon begrudgingly acknowledge it. They used to boast about joining the military, but this was when the entire conflict felt abstract. Now that it feels unavoidably real, the boys shy away from actually following through with their claims. No longer do they brag about becoming heroes, but instead they try to determine which branch of the military will allow them to avoid true combat. In other words, as they mature, they realize just how serious and life-threatening the war really is, and they adjust accordingly.
One morning, Brinker approaches Gene and steers him into a private room, where he accuses him of putting off enlistment because of Finny. Everyone knows, he says, that Gene won’t enlist because he “pities” Finny. When Gene objects, Brinker forges onward, saying that they should all be better about forcing Finny to come to terms with his injury. They should even tease him sometimes, he says. Otherwise, Finny won’t be able to accept the reality of his circumstances. Gene argues against this, but Brinker cuts him off, pointing out that Gene is perhaps too personally invested in this and saying that it would be good for Gene if everyone moved on from thinking about the accident. When Gene asks what he means by this, Brinker provocatively says that he doesn’t know, though he suggests that Gene might know exactly what he’s talking about.
In this exchange, Brinker reveals that he hasn’t dropped his suspicions regarding Gene’s involvement in Finny’s accident. He also correctly identifies the fact that Gene is ultra-attentive to Finny’s needs because of the injury, suggesting that this is ultimately holding both boys back. According to this viewpoint, Gene’s pity for Finny shelters Finny from facing the reality of his situation. Similarly, Gene’s focus on Finny is keeping Gene himself from moving on with his life. And though Gene vehemently denies these allegations, it’s rather obvious that Brinker is correct.
Gene heads back to the dorm in a fit of worry, concerned about what Brinker might do or say. As he goes up the stairs, he encounters Finny, who has blocked a group of boys from ascending until they sing a choral song for him. Back in their room, Gene sits down to do Finny’s Latin homework, telling him about what’s happening in the book they’re supposed to read. As they talk, Gene makes a joke about Julius Caesar not actually existing. Along with his other theories, this is something that Finny frequently talks about, finding it hard to believe that such a man was real. However, Finny doesn’t laugh at his joke. Instead, he says that, though he doesn’t necessarily believe teachers or books, he does believe Gene, since he’s his best friend. And this is why, he says, he believes what Gene said about Leper becoming unstable.
Once again, Gene tries to play into Finny’s skepticism, hoping to fortify the blissful world of peace and ignorance that they have cultivated together. However, Finny appears unwilling to put the effort into this task, instead emphasizing that the only person he truly trusts is Gene. Upon hearing this, it becomes that much harder for Gene to wrap his head around ever telling Finny the truth about what happened in the tree, forcing him to hide his guilt and continue acting like Finny’s fall was an accident.
Finny continues to talk about Leper, saying that he now understands once and for all that the war is real. If a war can have such an effect on somebody like Leper, he says, then it must be real. He also adds that he has always known that it was real but that he didn’t feel like admitting it. Going on, he admits that he wasn’t sure what to think when Gene told his story about Leper, but then he saw Leper himself earlier that very morning. He was, Finny tells Gene, hiding in the bushes near the chapel. When Finny approached, he ran into a teacher’s office. Gene and Finny start laughing in spite of themselves, but then they decide not to tell anyone that Leper is on campus. Returning to the topic of the war, Gene notes that he wishes Finny had never decided that it was real.
Finny has already come to terms with the fact that the war is real, but this is the first time that he verbally admits it. In doing so, he puts an official end to his and Gene’s sheltered world, effectively obliterating the “separate peace” that they’ve managed to create in otherwise turbulent times. Having observed the devastating effect of the war on Leper, both boys find themselves incapable of denying the conflict’s unrelenting influence, finally deciding to face reality for what it is.
Late that night, Brinker and three others burst into Gene and Finny’s room. Not saying where they’re going, they lead them to the Assembly Room, which is a large auditorium in the First Building. Gathered in this room are a number of other students, all of whom are dressed in graduation gowns. Gene thinks that Brinker is organizing some kind of senior prank, but then Brinker addresses the assembled crowd, calling their attention to Finny’s limp. They have come here tonight, he says, to investigate the events that led to Finny’s injury. In an officious voice, he acts like a judge, questioning Finny about what happened. As Finny confusedly answers the questions, Gene notes that his voice sounds uncharacteristically strained.
Brinker’s jokes about the role Gene played in Finny’s injury reach their zenith in this scene, as this staged event proves that he doesn’t actually see the matter as much of a joke. Of course, it’s possible that he still thinks this is in good fun, but it seems more likely that he legitimately wants to know whether or not Gene caused Finny’s fall. Revealing the truth, he thinks, will be good for both boys. And yet, this odd ceremony has not yet revealed itself to be anything more than a humorous charade, which is why it’s interesting that Finny’s voice sounds tense—a sign that he’s actively working to continue denying the truth, which is that Gene caused his injury. In this moment, then, readers see how desperate Finny is—either consciously or, more likely, subconsciously—to preserve his best friend’s innocence.
Gene interjects, but Brinker pushes on, saying that it will be good to get everything “out into the open” so that nobody is suspicious about what happened. This unnerves Finny, who asks Gene what’s going on. Still, Brinker forges onward, continuing to ask Finny questions. In response, Finny says that he simply lost his balance and fell. Hearing this, though, Brinker asks if Finny has ever considered that this isn’t really what happened. Gene can tell that this question strikes something that Finny has been considering in the back of his mind for quite some time. He admits that he sometimes feels as if the tree shook him out of it itself, but then Brinker points out that there was another person in the tree—a fact that Finny disputes.
During Brinker and Finny’s exchange, it becomes clear that Finny has blocked out the memory of what happened in order to deny that Gene caused his fall. Gene recognizes this as soon as Brinker asks Finny if he’s ever thought that he might not have simply lost his balance. As Finny’s face reacts to this notion, Gene understands that his best friend has subconsciously repressed his doubts, though this doesn’t mean he hasn’t entertained certain ideas about what really happened. This makes sense, since Finny alluded to such ideas when he and Gene first spoke after the accident. What’s more, Gene also admitted to the truth to him when he visited him at home. And yet, Finny has managed to put such thoughts out of his mind, demonstrating how important it is to him to see Gene as his kind and loving friend.
Some of the other boys jump in at this point, pointing out that Gene was also in the tree. As he scrambles to answer, though, Finny says that Gene was at the bottom of the tree, and Gene immediately agrees. This creates confusion, as some people say that Gene was in the tree while Gene insists that he was at the bottom. Finny, for his part, begins to get things mixed up, saying that he can’t remember where, exactly, Gene was. This strikes Brinker as unlikely, since he once saw a childhood friend get hit by a car and remembers every single detail about the event.
As the other students begin to indirectly accuse Gene of causing Finny’s fall, Finny himself reverts back to denial, actively working to clear Gene’s name. Once again, then, readers see how eager he is to believe that Gene would never do anything to hurt him.
Amidst the confusion, Finny suddenly insists that he remembers what happened. He says that he was in the tree and remembers seeing Gene standing on the bank. He recalls Gene making fun of him for showing off and posing—the kind of remark that best friends make to each other. Then, he says, he remembers suggesting that he and Gene should jump at the same time, because he thought it’d be fun to do it together. Suddenly, though, he stops speaking. He looks like somebody has hit him hard in the face. After a moment, he says that all of this happened on the ground, and that both of them began to climb the tree after he suggested that they jump at the same time. Having said this, he trails off once more.
Until this point, it has seemed possible that Finny actively wanted to trick himself into believing that Gene had nothing to do with his fall. Now, though, it emerges that Finny has been subconsciously misleading himself, legitimately misremembering the chain of events that led to his fall. And though he does most likely want to protect Gene from scrutiny, he finds himself unnerved by his own realization that things didn’t play out like he thought they did.
Brinker asks who else was present when Finny fell, and somebody says that Leper was there. Brinker remarks that Leper would know exactly what happened because he was always so detail-oriented, but this is unhelpful because he isn’t around to address this makeshift court. After a moment, though, Finny quietly informs Brinker that Leper is at Devon, and several boys immediately rush off to get him. When Leper arrives, Brinker asks him to describe what he saw the day of Finny’s fall, and Leper states that, though the sun was in his eyes, he knows for a fact that there were two people in the tree. One was holding onto the trunk, and the other had walked out on the limb. He says the accident happened like a piston engine—first the figure by the trunk pushed down, and then the figure at the other end rose and fell.
Leper’s account is void of any unstable rants or crying jags that previously characterized him as unstable when Gene visited him in Vermont. As a result, what he says appears to be the objective truth, ultimately casting Gene as guilty. More importantly, Finny has dropped his various mechanisms of denial, meaning that he is unlikely to react favorably to this news.
Brinker asks Leper to identify if the person who fell was Finny, but Leper refuses to do so, not wanting to get too involved. When Brinker continues to pressure him, he lashes out, calling Brinker a “bastard” and saying that he’s no longer willing to be everyone’s “fool.” Meanwhile, Finny gets up and says that he doesn’t care anymore. As he moves to the door, Brinker calls out to him, saying that they haven’t collected all the necessary facts, but Finny screams at him, saying that he can go ahead and gather all the facts he wants. He then rushes into the hallway, and several moments later, everyone hears a disastrous sound as he falls down the marble stairs.
Gene has already mentioned that this tribunal takes place in the First Building. This is worth noting, since Gene revisits the First Building as an adult and looks at a marble staircase, thinking about how small it looks compared to how he remembered it. This very moment, when Finny tumbles down the steps, is the reason that Gene remembers the staircase as so terrible and large. After all, it is responsible for Finny’s second fall.