Todd sunk further into his bed, the scant metal frame probably older than he was groaning quietly as he burrowed beneath the mismatched pile of “bedding” Neil had buried him in. It was comprised of Todd’s regular Welton-issued papery sheets (which had a permanent chill that seemed to suck the warmth from Todd’s feet no matter how many pairs of socks he had on) and their corresponding singular linty blanket, two dry towels one of the boys had managed to nab from the showers, three unclasped Welton-issued cloaks laid open faced (Todd didn’t ask where the third had come from), all topped off with Neil’s equally linty Welton blanket (which, curiously, hadn't been there when Todd dozed off that afternoon) and a smattering of crumpled tissues.
The tower, impressive as it was, couldn’t stop the frigid chattering of his teeth and couldn’t hide his sniffly red face as Neil knelt beside his bed, presenting him with a ridiculously excessive array of food balanced on a tray from dinner. Neil’s expression brought to mind images of a childhood tabby cat of his that would occasionally drop dead things at his feet during supper. Todd would shriek and recoil in his chair as the cat blinked at him slowly, his big brown eyes conveying a sense of pride despite Todd’s hysteric reaction. His parents would scold both Todd and Meringue as Jeff cackled through a mouth full of potatoes.
“Aw, he likes you!” Jeff would tease as Todd scampered behind him as though the dead prey might leap to life and nip at his feet in any moment. Jeff, being the occasionally decent big brother that he was, would dispose of Todd’s little presents after giving Meringue a few congratulatory scritches for scaring the shit out of his little brother.
Maybe it was just the result of Todd’s cold freezing his brain from the inside out, but when he met Neil’s big, brown eyes from over the dinner tray he swore he could hear Jeff’s crooning voice call out a mocking He likes you! from just beyond their window. Todd yanked the covers more fully over his face.
“Come on, Todd, didn’t your mother ever tell you pea soup and pudding is the best medicine?” Neil was saying as Todd finally gathered enough brain power to speak.
“N-no,” he replied nasally, his voice muffled beneath the pile. Neil snorted.
“Gosh, Todd, I didn’t think it was possible, but I think your cold has made you more poetic.” Todd wasn’t usually good at knowing when, as Mr. Keating put it, people were laughing at Todd or near him--but it was always different when it came to Neil. He couldn’t imagine Neil picking on him like other people tended to do--even Keating, though Todd knew it was never out of malice. Neil had latched himself to Todd first, invited him places and protected him with no reason to, and that had to mean something.
Todd knew, somehow, that he was already far too attached to Neil to separate himself even if Neil was less fond of him than he suspected; a thought which was wholly terrifying and strangely exciting to Todd, who'd never before felt so wanted by another person and had never so badly wanted another person himself.
“Well, you know what Mr. Keating s-says,” Todd said, not entirely sure himself where he was going with this. Neil raised an eyebrow, prompting Todd to continue. “I have the gift.” Neil blinked at him for a moment as though he was processing the fact that Todd Anderson had told him a joke before breaking into a broad grin--the kind of smile that had Todd pulling the blankets back over his own mouth to hide a mirroring one he couldn’t stop from spreading across his face.
“I don’t remember him saying anything like that,” Neil grinned as he rose to stand with the tray, still careful not to knock any stray rolls or miscellaneous fruits onto the tissue-covered floor.
“Must’ve been subtext, then,” Todd punctuated with a loud sniffle.
“Ah, subtext,” he leaned over the pile of Todd to deposit the tray securely between him and the wall. Todd instinctively pulled the blanket over his eyes when he caught a glimpse of his torso. “That explains why I didn’t catch it. I don’t have the gift .” He dropped his cotton shield when he felt Neil begin to clamber over Fort Todd to sit next to the dinner tray, which he snatched a roll from.
“You’re a gift,” Todd blurted, aiming for a sarcastic quip but betraying himself by sounding entirely too sincere through his stuffy inflection. Neil turned away from where he had been going through the tray, presumably looking for something to wash down the hunk of roll in his mouth.
“Yeah?” Neil said after a pause that would have been uncomfortable if it wasn't Neil. Neil, who's voice Todd could only describe as soft, and his lopsided smile through a mouthful of too-chewy bread was unbearably endearing, had instantly cleared a place for himself in Todd's head, right where his impulse control had once lived. Curiously enough, it was the same place Todd had recently filled with poetry and art.
"Yeah," he replied in an embarrassing croak, which was basically the polar opposite of a YAWP if there ever was one. Todd’s phlegmy throat felt too dry and his shivering body much too warm. He flung his layers aside and fussed with the sleeves of the flannel he had on that he wasn't quite sure was his, suddenly restless and anxious to look anywhere that wasn't Neil's face and his stupidly prominent dimple.
"Better or worse than a desk set?" Neil asked coyly, his head cocked towards him and a knee nudging gently against his own, and this really wasn't a fair fight at this point because Neil had to know what he did to his judgement when Todd wasn't foggy-brained and snot-nosed and wrapped in Neil's flannel and Neil's blanket and...
"Better," he spluttered, still refusing to meet Neil's eyes and abandoning any hope of sounding nonchalant before shoving a roll that resembled a baseball far more than any sort of bread into his mouth before Neil could start asking him more questions, like do you find me aerodynamic? and would you like me for your birthday? . He couldn't be trusted not to reply with nonsense like you remind me of my cat and I think I would still want you if you were covered in pea soup .
When Todd finally glanced back up to Neil a few minutes later after the burning in his face had subsided and he began to make his way through a bowl of soup that was entirely too cold and too green to have any sort of medicinal purposes, he found that Neil was gazing down at the half eaten roll in his hands, his eyes unfocused and an almost frighteningly giddy sort of smile frozen across his face. Todd wondered to himself if he’d gotten poor Neil sick, too, and how much longer they could expect Charlie to take before slipping inside to finish the remains of their dinner.