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In The Subjunctive

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I

 

Todd initially thinks that the insistent scraping and tapping outside the window are a part of his dream.

The room is dark, and he presses his face into the pillow where the vestiges of his thoughts fade; branches overhead (scraping, tapping) and a darkened figure flitting through the trees, silent. 

The tapping just gets louder. He sighs and kicks the duvet down to the end of his bed. Neil’s is dark and empty against the opposite wall, and the covers are drawn.

(Todd considers this mostly because if Neil were here he could lie still and quiet and wait for him to locate the source of the noise, but it’s just Todd on his own tonight.)

After a couple of fraught seconds, he makes up his mind. The soles of his feet are cold on the moonlit floor. Hesitantly, he pads over to the window.

It‘s Neil on the other side of the glass. He’s mouthing soundlessly, fingers tapping against the window, eyes wide, his face chalky white against the black sky.

Todd thinks Neil and then his mind floods with confusion, momentarily preventing him from taking any action towards opening the window and letting him in.

Another sharp tap startles him into action. His fingers are on the latch, fumbling, and Neil’s arms are cold as the night air, his fingers clutching at Todd’s wrists. Todd all but pulls him through; swirling flakes trail after him, bitingly cold, and Todd’s half certain he’s still dreaming.

“What’s… you went home with your parents,” Todd mumbles, “Why are you here? Did you climb up onto the ledge?”

He bites back the string of nonsensical questions when he notices that Neil’s eyes are hollow. He’s just looking at Todd, looking at his face, and Todd thinks he can see the snowstorm reflected back through his eyes.

It’s then that he realises Neil’s shivering. Violently. He’s wrapped in a wool blanket, clutching it around his shoulders, but his chest is bare. Todd finds himself standing up (gently prying Neil’s icy fingers away from his wrists - the scratch and rustle of the circlet he’d worn as Puck -- had he carried that all the way here?) and leaning over his own bed to reach for the still-warm duvet. He drapes it over Neil’s shoulders, tucking it close, and Neil says nothing, just stares.

The immediacy of having to warm a dangerously cold body distracts him from the awful silence. Neither of them speak. The minutes of silence stretch, and Todd’s stilted, fragmentary questions still hang, unanswered, in the air. He rummages in Neil’s drawer, finding a sweater.

“Here… come on, put it down, Neil.” Todd manages to get him to drop the circlet and raise his arms, and he clumsily tugs the sweater down over Neil’s head. He manages the sleeves himself, hands moving slow and numb with cold. Todd reaches forward to settle the blankets around him once more and helps him to stand up. They move over to Neil’s bed and sink down onto the covers.

“I couldn't…” Neil says suddenly. Todd looks up, waiting to see if he’ll offer anything else, but he’s silent.

They stare at the opposite wall. Todd’s not sure how long the silence lasts before he breaks it.

“You walked here?” His whisper is hushed, incredulous. “Why?”

“My dad’s sending me away.” Neil’s voice is raw. “Military school. Tomorrow morning, I'm packing my stuff. After that I'm spending ten years training to be a doctor.”

Todd traces his profile with his eyes in the dim light. The sharp angles of his cheekbone, brow, nose, the fall of his hair. He’s still shivering. He seems smaller than usual, somehow, huddled back against the wall.

“No.” Todd says, absurdly, before his brain can catch up.

He’s still stuck on the reality of Neil’s presence. He tries to imagine an inverse, a space where Neil isn‘t, and he finds that life at Welton is suddenly inconceivable. Neil has to be here, or the equation won’t balance.

He’s fixed with quizzical dark eyes. “…No?” Neil’s mouth quirks, but the expression is empty.

Another inversion. This conversation was meant for daylight, and the roles are all wrong. Todd’s meant to be the one who can’t do things.

Now Todd’s missed his queue.

He opens his mouth, soundless; shuts it. “I… no. No, you’re not.”

And then he hates himself because Neil’s looking up at him with this fragile, trapped expression that Todd’s never seen, never wants to see, and it’s a visceral hatred because he’s the weakest of all of them, and utterly useless against the combined might of the school and Neil’s father.

“Todd, you’re not getting it. I’ve lost. I lost the moment I left the starting block. I just didn’t realise it until tonight.” Neil draws breath and smiles humourlessly at the ceiling. “You tried to tell me, remember?”

Like he’s easily going to forget the day Neil had brandished that audition flyer at him like a beacon, grinning from ear to ear and refusing to let Todd drag him back to earth.

“Yeah, I remember. A -- and I remember how I tried to tell you that I could take care of myself fine, and you said --”

“That was different.”

“How was that different?”

“Because…” Neil tilts his head back against the wall, catching Todd’s eye at long last. “You were right. You could take care of yourself, but sometimes when you were in Keating’s class, or when you were with us, you --”

Todd waits for him to continue but he curls his fingers into the duvet and stares at his knees. He thinks he can make out a faint smile, and he feels cut off from whatever Neil’s remembering.

“What?” He says eventually, soft.

“You had all this… light.” Neil’s definitely smiling, and it’s not his usual unreserved grin, it’s tentative and encroaching, like it might be gone again in an instant. “And it was like, for a few moments, you were there. Really there. More than any of us. And then it didn’t matter when you were quiet, or when you didn’t want to do something, because I knew that you were -- ok.”

Todd stares. He’s struggling to come to terms with the realisation that Neil, unfixed, frenetic, at times frankly maniacal Neil can be... perceptive. Watching, like he himself watches.

He swallows. “I -- I didn’t --” whatever he’d been planning on saying suddenly sounds mawkish and sentimental in his head, so he switches tack. “He can’t force you to do this.”

“Oh yes he can,” Neil says bitterly. “And he will. I didn’t leave a note, but he’ll figure out where I am soon enough. I… I couldn’t stay in that house a minute longer. Couldn’t sleep. So I caught a cab. I only had the money to get as far as Montpelier.”

It takes a second for this to sink in. “But -- that’s five miles from here. You walked in this weather? You didn’t even have a shirt.”

“C’mon, Todd, what are you, my mom?” Neil grins, some of the old light finding its way back into his eyes. “I had to get back here. I had to see -- I had to see all of you. Before I left.”

“You’re not going,” Todd says, quiet and steady. He sits up so he can see all of Neil’s face. “Remember?”

Neil looks up at him, and the look makes Todd want to drop his gaze. “Of course I’m not.”

“I can’t believe you’re giving up,” Todd’s voice is hard-edged. He feels a sudden surge of helpless rage over the beaten, lifeless quality in Neil’s voice, He’s angrier than he can ever remember being before. “You did everything for the rest of us, you organised the meetings, Keating taught it but you lived it --”

“You think this is easy for me? You think I haven’t tried?” Neil’s eyes are hard; his voice shakes with incredulous anger. “I get military school for doing one thing my father doesn’t want me to do!”

“You said ‘nothing’s impossible’ and now you’re just backing down!”

“Todd --” Neil’s tugging him back down onto his bed, listening fearfully for the sound of footsteps, and Todd’s not sure whether he shouted the last part. He mumbles I’m sorry into Neil’s shoulder until it’s clear that no-one’s coming.

Eventually, Todd pulls away and surreptitiously swipes his face with the edge of his sleeve. “Wait a moment.”

Neil watches him get up and walk across the room, a small solemn figure in the darkness, and retrieve his notebook and a pen from his desk. He writes something at the top of the page before returning to his previous position against the wall.

He shows Neil what he’s written.

“…‘Courses of Action’,” Neil reads. “Todd…”

“Number one,” Todd cuts in lightly, raising his eyebrows at Neil over the top of the notebook. “Go to military school, go to college, go to medical school, go the way your father wants you to, etcetera, etcetera.”

He scribbles it down, and Neil hugs his knees and watches him writing in the darkness. When Todd mumbles “a little light over here?” Neil leans back and switches on the small lamp attached to his headboard.

“Two,” Todd frowns, underlining a couple of times, before looking expectantly up at Neil. “Well?”

Neil needs to stop looking at him like that. His eyes are dark, the darkest Todd’s ever seen. It’s a gaze that doesn’t belong in a Vermont prep school in the early hours of Saturday morning. It belongs in some wooded grove, somewhere ethereal and shaded and silent.

“Two…” Todd says again, when he realises Neil’s not going to contribute. “Dig your heels in. Refuse to leave --”

“Cause a massive scene, end up being dragged out of Welton by force. A symbol to all who dare disobey the system, a horror story for generations of students to come.” The corners of Neil’s mouth turn up, and then he’s laughing.

“Three --” Todd mutters, ignoring him. “Try talking to your father again.”

“There is nothing I can say to him, Todd.”

“Well, what have you said to him already?”

It’s about then that Neil realises how much all of this is costing Todd. The lines of his hands are tense on the notebook, and there’s a stiffness in his voice, a fervent urgency that Neil’s never heard before. It’s as if he’s fighting something inside himself to do this.

Neil remembers the scraps of paper he’d found under the radiator the week of Keating’s poetry assignment, furious scribblings out and snatched words, Todd pacing and mumbling. He remembers I’m being chased by Walt Whitman! and truth like a blanket that always leaves your feet cold and the way Todd had looked that day at the front of the class when the poetry had been forcibly shocked out of him.

He must really want this. As much as Neil, even.

“I --”

Todd waits. Neil doesn’t say anything else. It’s as if the words have caught in his throat and erased themselves. For a sickening moment, it’s like he’s seeing himself as the others must see him, every day, dumbstruck, a pair of empty quotation marks.

He’s never seen this before. Not from Neil.

“Neil?” He says, soft and unsure.

Neil swallows. “Nothing.”

“…Nothing?”

“Yes. No! I -- I don’t --” Neil scrubs a hand over his mouth, brushing back his fringe, tilting his head back against the wall like he can’t settle, can’t arrange his thoughts. “-- you don’t understand what he’s like. Every time I try, even in my head it sounds…”

Todd waits for him to continue, but he seems to have hit the wordless blockade again. “Like it’s never going to be enough?” He supplies eventually, so quiet he’s not sure whether Neil will hear. Emboldened by this ambiguity, he continues.

“Like -- like everything he has to say is better. So you feel small and quiet in comparison. A -- and maybe you’re afraid that he’s right, cus you can’t really remember what it feels like to tell the truth to him. So you’re worried it won’t come out properly. Because… you feel like you only have one shot at it. Maybe.” He swallows and looks down; picks at the edge of the duvet cover. “I don’t know.”

“That,” Neil says, “Is the most I’ve ever heard you say in one go.”

There’s laughter in his voice. For a moment Todd’s worried, because Neil doesn’t say anything else, and he doesn’t dare to look at him. The duvet rustles. He almost jumps when he feels an arm settle around his shoulders.

“Oh, relax,” Neil tightens his grip for a second, and Todd tries to hold himself less stiff and relax enough to lean against him. He’s warm now; the duvet‘s fallen away from his shoulder. “You look like I’m about to hit you or something.”

“You’re not mad?”

“Mad?” Neil’s eyes crinkle at the corners as he grins. “I’m furious! You seem to know what’s wrong with me more than I do!” Todd smiles back hesitantly when Neil shakes his shoulders.

“There’s nothing wrong with -- I mean, your dad scares me.”

Abruptly, Neil’s face falls. It’s such a contemplative expression, so unlike his exuberance from seconds before, that Todd's thrown. At times, his friendship with Neil makes him feel like he’s on a pendulum, swinging back and forth between wild, uninhibited elation and sober intensity without warning.

“Option three?” Todd holds up his notebook weakly.

“Run.” Neil says. “Far away.”

It’s the first contribution he’s made, but Todd’s loath to write it down. He clicks the pen reluctantly, and scribbles RUN AWAY?

“Show me.”

Obediently, Todd puts the notebook down between them. Neil reads through the list, looking more and more lost.

“I can’t run away.”

“No.” Todd says hurriedly, drawing several lines through option three.

“I can’t go to military school, Todd, I can’t.”

Todd crosses out military school.

“I want to say here,” Neil says, quiet and miserable. “I want to stay here. With you.”

Todd hopes that it’s dark enough to hide his face, because he’s pretty sure the tips of his ears have gone red. “And Charlie, and Knox?”

“Yeah,” Another implacable glance. “I can’t leave -- not now I --”

“The play,” Todd cuts in, feeling the conversation skate over thin ice. “You were brilliant, you can't abandon --”

“Todd.”

They both swallow; wait for the other to speak.

To his surprise, it’s Todd who cracks first. “You really were.”

Dawn light is beginning to filter through the window, greyish and hesitant. Neil’s half caught by the golden lamplight, strands of his hair sticking up on one side, sleepy and pale.

“Thank you.”

Words don’t come for Todd at the best of times. Here, it’s impossible to find a way to articulate the obvious.

“Um -- get some rest, yeah?” Todd mutters, leaning over to switch the lamp off.

“I have your duvet here,” Neil shrugs it off and drapes it over Todd’s shoulders, another half smile crossing his face.

Todd pulls it closely around him. He digs his fingernails into the fabric, and doesn’t move.

Neil smiles shyly, sheepishly, and climbs under his own covers, shuffling up until his back is against the wall. After a brief but frantic internal debate Todd lies down too, facing him.

“I’m warm here, now,” he mumbles.

There isn’t really room for two, but he doesn’t want to move, and he doesn’t think Neil wants him to either, it’s just that neither of them can work out how to say this without sounding --

Neil rests his head against his hand, and his eyes, at close proximity, have lost that frightening emptiness. “Me too.”

When Todd finally falls asleep again, the morning light has turned the room gold. The last thing he remembers is the sound of Neil’s breathing, soft and close.

 

 

II

 

The next thing he knows the sunlight is bright against his eyelids. Now familiar, the sound of dozens of his schoolmates milling around fills the corridor outside.

He sits up, blinking with disorientation. He’d been lying on one of Neil’s arms. Their calves are tangled together in the duvet. He shifts, and Neil stirs, blinking up at him.

There’s a pointed cough.

Todd jolts with surprise, falling backwards into empty space. He lands on the floor painfully. From the bed he hears Neil exclaim “Charlie!” and sure enough, from his new vantage point he sees Charlie leaning against the (mercifully closed) door.

“Morning.”

Todd crawls up onto his knees, sitting awkwardly with his back against Neil’s bed frame and glancing between Neil and Charlie. The former is glaring, and self-consciously brushes through his hair with one hand, the latter maintains a gaze steady with amusement.

“What are you doing in here?” Neil says eventually.

“I could ask you the same thing,” Charlie hooks his thumbs into his pockets. “Aren’t you supposed to be at your parents’?”

Neil apparently chooses to ignore this. “You can’t just -- this isn’t your room!”

Charlie smirks. “I knocked. Several times.” His gaze flicks to Todd. “You’re up, Anderson.”

“Up?” Neil watches Todd reluctantly get to his feet.

It might be his imagination, but Charlie seems abashed. “Since Nolan didn’t get anything out of me, he’s questioning all of us about the Dead Poets Society.”

“What?” Neil scrambles up. “Someone’s bound to fink, Charlie! I thought he’d let it go!”

“I think he got a phone call from one of the parents,” Charlie says, his voice quiet. “About ‘disruptive influences’ in the school.”

Neil looks at the floor. Todd passes him, shrugging on a jumper. Their eyes meet fleetingly, then he’s out of the door.

Charlie waits until his footsteps have faded down the corridor before turning to Neil. His voice is low, but there’s a lot of weight behind it.

“What the fuck is going on?”

 

III

 

When Todd’s feeling particularly anxious, his brain starts cycling through every problem in a kind of panicked rotation.

The route to Nolan’s office simultaneously lasts forever and is over in seconds. By the end of it his fears switch from lying to the headmaster to Neil to the headmaster to Neil and back again, and again, until the urge to lock himself in a bathroom stall and never come out is so strong he can’t breathe.

He knocks.

“Come in, Mr Anderson.” Nolan is sitting straight backed in his chair when Todd enters the room.

He wonders briefly whether the headmaster sits there 24 hours of the day, even at night, because it’s inconceivable to imagine him, say, in a t-shirt. The thought is oddly hilarious, and Todd has to bite back a giggle. He then wonders if he’s gone hysterical with nerves.

“Don’t hover, Anderson. Stand over here where I can see you.”

Todd obeys. With his downcast eyes, he can make out several open files on the desk; his, Neil’s, and Meeks’ pictures are visible.

“I want you to be aware, scholar, that any attempt to conceal the truth from me will result in an irrefutably severe punishment for yourself and your peers. Is that understood?”

It takes Todd a second to remember that by ‘scholar’ Nolan means him. “Yes sir.”

“I have already spoken to your classmates. If any of your stories don’t match up, the axe comes down.”

Todd remains silent.

“Now. I want you to tell me everything you know about the formation and membership of --” Nolan’s lip curls as he reads from his notes. “-- the ‘Dead Poets Society’.”

 

IV

 

“Nothing.”

“Yeah, ok.”

Nothing, Charlie.”

Heavily, Charlie collapses onto Todd’s bed and turns to look at Neil. He doesn’t say anything.

After a few seconds, Neil stops staring at the ceiling and stands up so rapidly it’s almost frightening.

“What? What do you want me to say?”

It’s one of the very few times Charlie’s seen something fearful in Neil; it happens when something strongly threatens his defence mechanisms. All the power of his usual vivacious physicality is turned inward, subversive and almost threatening.

The truth is just behind his eyes. Charlie can see it, tantalisingly close.

“It’s not wrong, Neil --”

“-- really? You’re giving me advice about right and wrong? That’s just brilliant --”

“-- you’re changing the subject. What I did was stupid, thanks, I get that, but what I really want to talk about right now is how I watch you drive off to your parents’ house last night, looking like you’re gonna die or something, and then next morning you’re -- you’re curled around Todd --”

“Shut the fuck up, Charlie.” Neil’s got his face in his hands. He drops back onto his bed, sounding exhausted, but Charlie’s suddenly incensed with rage.

“-- and my expulsion papers are practically signed already, so if you think that the last memory I want of you before I get shipped off to a correctional institute is some shut in refusal to tell me anything then you really are fucked, Perry.”

Neil looks up at him. “I came back here to say goodbye. My dad’s sending me to military school for being in the play.”

Charlie stills. He waits for Neil to give some kind of indication that he’s joking, or that he plans to rebel, or run away, or set the school alight in protest, but there’s nothing.

He sits down beside him, mind blank. “Maybe we’ll get sent to the same one. I could put in a room request.”

There’s a moment’s silence. Then, Neil splutters with laughter like he can’t hold it back any longer.

“Why d’you come back here so late, though?” Charlie says quietly, after they share a minutes comfortable silence. “The play finished at eleven, and it’s a pretty long drive.”

“Because I was going to kill myself.” Neil says.

His voice is almost mild, as if he’s commenting on a particularly difficult physics question. For a second Charlie’s brain can’t accept the answer. His ears are filled with an odd sort of ringing. He opens his mouth, but it takes him a few tries to choke out the word. “What?”

“I got everything ready.” Neil continues, sounding detached. “Took off my shirt. I didn’t want it to get covered in blood, you know? Took out the gun from the desk in my father’s office. Unwrapped it.”

“Jesus.” Charlie feels nauseous. “Jesus, Neil.”

Neil stares at the opposite wall. “I couldn’t be in that house any more, not for a second. I felt -- I felt it so strongly. There was no way out. I would’ve done it, Charlie, I really would've.”

For about a minute, Charlie says nothing. The admission shocks him, because on some level he knows that Neil’s telling the truth. Neil’s capable of anything.

“What stopped you?”

Again, it takes Neil a minute to respond. “I know that I’m probably supposed to say it was the thought of my family, or you guys, or Todd. But it wasn’t. I don’t know what it was. I realised that I’d never feel the cold on my face again. I wouldn’t feel anything. It was freezing last night, Charlie. I walked five miles. I thought I might die after all, by accident,” he pauses. “But I couldn’t die, because I’d already chosen to live. Does that make sense?”

“Not really.”

“I guess I wasn’t thinking much of anything at all,” Neil mumbles, and Charlie reaches out to put a hand on his shoulder.

 

V

 

“You mean to tell me that you have never heard about, read about, attended, or otherwise been involved with reconvening such a society?”

Todd‘s lips move soundlessly before he formulates a response. “No, sir.”

“Mr Anderson,” He’s fixed with a gaze that would once have reduced him to stammering apologies. “Your classmates have been disturbingly unhelpful about this. I had hoped that you would see sense.”

If the truth gets out, then Neil’s father will know about everything. If he considers Welton a corrupting influence on Neil’s future then he’ll definitely be sent away.

“I -- I mean, I have heard about it, sir.”

“Oh?”

“Neil found an old yearbook, a--and it had that Dead Poets thing in it, one of the student societies, sir. M -- maybe that’s where Charlie --”

Nolan looks up at him sharply, and Todd falls immediately silent.

“And there’s nothing else you wish to share, Anderson?”

He’s about to shatter with nerves, and the force of the headmasters’ glare.

“No, sir.”

Another venomous pause. Then --

“You may go.”

 

VI

 

“Well, have you told anyone?”

“Are you serious?”

“What? I’m just preparing myself to be incredibly offended,” Charlie lights a cigarette, examining it carefully and attempting to project an aura of total casualness that he knows Neil won’t buy. “What if you told one of the other guys before you told me?”

“No-one is telling anyone anything, Charlie. Do I look like I have a death wish?” Neil’s eyes are wide with fear.

“Well --” Charlie takes a drag, raising an eyebrow.

“Appropriate.” Neil mumbles.

“You said it, not me. Besides, it’s ok. Look at the way my life is going. Do you really think I’m going to care that my best friend is a massive qu--”

“Get out, Charlie.” There isn’t any heat behind the words, but they’re tinged with misery.

Charlie exhales once more; he passes the cigarette over, and Neil takes it without looking at him.

“You’re not as screwed as the rest of us,” Charlie mutters eventually. “You’re not as screwed as Knox.”

He watches Neil smile, reluctantly at first, then widely. “Yeah?”

Charlie snatches the cigarette back. “Yeah. At least your fixation goes both ways. Chris let Knox hold her hand yesterday, and the next time I have to hear about it I’m pushing him off the bell-tower.”

“What?”

“I know. Amazing what persistent stalking can get you. Or something.”

“What do you mean ‘both ways’?”

Charlie catches sight of Neil‘s expression; he looks utterly blank. “It’s obvious. Todd’s over the fuckin’ hill for you. Every time you walk into a room, it’s all over his face. And yours,” Deciding this remark doesn't assert his masculinity as well as it could, Charlie adds “idiot.” just to be certain.

There's a long silence. Just when Charlie has given up hope of him ever speaking again, Neil turns to look at him.

“Isn’t the expression ‘over the moon?’” He blinks. “’Over the hill’ is when you’re too old for something.”

“Look, it’s your last chance, if you’re serious about your father sending you away. Might as well --”

“-- if you say ‘seize the day’ --”

“Do whatever, Neil. Just…”

They exchange a glance. Charlie stands up. Ash falls from the cigarette butt between his fingers, but he ignores it.

Wordlessly, Neil hugs him close. “As if my life wasn’t fucked up enough right now.” He mumbles, and Charlie can feel the trembling laughter against his chest.

“Might as well go the whole way.”

He pats Neil’s shoulder several times, throws him a salute from the doorway, and then he’s gone.

VII

Along the empty hallway, Todd’s walking in one direction and Charlie’s walking in the other.

He’s not sure what he’s expecting. Charlie’s always made him feel on edge; he has a way of looking at Todd as if he’s read his thoughts, considered them, and found them faintly amusing but ultimately trite and meaningless. Another day, perhaps, he might imagine that Charlie would nod to him, smile (half-smile, really, and raise his eyebrow in acknowledgement), then continue walking. Maybe throw in an “Anderson,” just for good measure.

This is not what happens today. Charlie waits until they’re parallel before grabbing Todd’s arm and pulling him against the wall. The gesture is more shepherding than aggressive, but Todd bridles.

“Wh -- Charlie, what are you doing?”

“What did you say to Nolan?”

“Oh. I -- nothing. I just said I thought you must’ve got the Dead Poets Society thing from that old yearbook. I didn’t drag Keating’s name into it, I swear.”

“That’s,” Charlie raises his eyebrows, a look of genuine surprise crossing his features. “That’s actually pretty good, Todd. It adds credibility to the cause.”

Todd’s got several inches on Charlie, but it’s of no consequence. He can’t shake the feeling that Charlie’s the head of a criminal operation he’s inadvertently working for.

Abruptly, his anxieties form words, which move forward before the rest of him has time to catch up.

“Did Neil,” He begins, breathless. “Was Neil packing up, when you left?”

Charlie gives him a look. There are always unspoken comments within his scrutiny, and Todd realises with a sudden jolt of alarm that he knows. He can feel his face flood with colour, all the way up to his ears. He isn’t sure how, but Charlie knows. Maybe he can read minds after all.

“I don’t think he’s going to do anything until you get back, Todd,” Charlie says eventually, his voice light. (Mocking? Todd isn’t sure) “Maybe you should take Keating’s advice for once.”

“What d’you mean?”

Two roads diverged in a wood and I -- I took the one less travelled by --! What are you waiting for, Todd? He came back for you.” Abruptly, Charlie grabs Todd’s shoulders and shakes him. “Quit standing around and do something!”

He stands back, apparently satisfied by whatever shell-shocked expression is now gracing Todd’s features. “Go!”

“I’m going! Yeah -- Neil --” Todd gestures vaguely, and Charlie give him a push that makes him stumble, before walking off.

He hears Charlie’s voice echoing back along the corridor as he speeds up his pace.

“You better say the right thing, Anderson, for all our sakes.”

 

VIII

 

Todd doesn’t have the right thing to say.

He doesn’t have anything at all that will convince Neil to stand up to his father. He doesn’t have any of Keating’s inspirational quotes. Every bit of poetry he can recall from the cave suddenly sounds unwieldy and idiotic; he can’t say any of it out loud, not to Neil. He feels a prickly irritation towards Charlie for leaving him alone to do this. Surely Charlie knows exactly how to get Neil to stay. And he’s left it to Todd, Todd, who can barely get a word out on some occasions, at this crucial juncture.

So caught up in his thoughts, he doesn’t realise he’s automatically reached for the door handle.

 

 

VI

 

It’s silent when Neil drags his suitcase from the top cupboard and carries it over to his bed, ready to start packing up his stuff.

He’s rarely alone in here. So familiar is he with Todd’s presence at the desk, or curled up against his headboard with a book, that the room feels too empty and eerily quiet. Todd never says much, but there’s something to be said, Neil thinks, for the way someone can fill a space and make it warmer and more companionable just by existing.

He opens the wardrobe and starts to pull out shirts and sweaters. They haven’t been entirely orthodox putting things away lately; he finds several of Todd’s shirts folded in with his own. He searches for a name tag in one, holds it up, and smiles because it smells like Todd (old books, fabric softener, the chocolate biscuits that Neil knows Meeks gives him).

Something rustles in the front pocket. Paper.

Neil extracts it. Neatly folded into halves; a little worn at the edges, like it’s been in there a while.

As he unfolds it, he realises what it is almost immediately.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM

Neil sits back heavily on his bed. It’s the same flyer he’d shown Todd right here in this room, a hundred years ago.

After a moment he refolds the paper. It feels simple, really, the logical progression of events, to get up and carefully slide it under Todd’s pillow.

It’s I know. And I know that you know too. And I’m sorry.

He’s about three-quarters finished packing when the door opens.

There’s something loud about the click of the latch, the way the handle is turned deliberately and audibly. Neil’s so used to Todd’s silent, unobtrusive appearances that he half thinks that Charlie’s returned.

But no, it’s Todd. Todd, and he’s breathing heavily like he’s been running. His cheeks are flushed, and his eyes are hard and intent and fixed on Neil.

“Todd?” Neil drops the socks he was holding guiltily. “I was just…”

Todd ignores this. He takes a step forward, seems to think better of it, and then hovers a little before backing into the door to push it shut.

“Are you ok?” Neil asks, watching him blink, once, and then swallow.

Then Todd walks across the room deliberately and with determination, and kisses him. They both freeze.

Todd pulls back fractionally. His nose brushes Neil’s cheek, his breathing is shallow and terrified. “I’m sor--”

Neil puts his hand on the back of Todd’s neck and kisses back, tilting his head, and it’s slow and shy but Todd’s responsive; he seems to lose all tension and touch Neil’s face with hesitant fingers before they fall to rest on his shoulders. “Don’t be,” Neil mumbles, pulling away to kiss the space under Todd’s ear. “Don’t be sorry.”

Todd says nothing, but his hands tense. “You had to know,” he whispers. Then, “don’t leave.”

Neil pushes his fingers through Todd’s hair, kissing him again.

It’s then that Todd notices the open suitcase on Neil’s bed.

He looks at Neil; Neil looks back, and Todd realises he has no idea whether or not he’s telling the truth. He’s pretty sure that Neil doesn’t either. And he can’t change the world, or make everything turn out the way he wants it to. Kissing Neil won’t make him stay, even if it pushes him further towards the precipice; on the other side of it lies a confrontation with his father, but it’s dark and unfathomably deep, and Todd knows Neil might not jump.

“I don’t know what to say,” Neil says eventually, voice cracking on the last word.

Todd thinks about saying I knew it the moment I met you but he’s not sure what he knew, even now. In the end he takes Neil’s hand, reaching out into the sunlight falling through their window.

It’s a beginning. It’s an ending. It’s enough.