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"The cricket's serenade echoes softly through the night.
The stars are on the lake, and the moon is shining bright.
Don't worry, I'll leave the light on in the hall;
Just go to sleep now, close your eyes."
-- Trout Fishing In America, "Lullaby"
Mudville Nine
It's two hours until they have to be up, dressed, attentive, and learning, and neither of them can sleep. The hum of energy from their first meeting pulses crazy and rhythmic as the makeshift drum beat they'd half-danced home to. On the lawn the chant and dance turn into shoves and laughter and wrestling until Pitts and Cameron start frantically shushing them all, and Neil herds them into pulling up hoods and running inside to slink off to their beds.

Todd is stretched out on his bunk, trying to be still and quiet and coax his mind to settle and his body to quiet so he can get at least an hour's sleep. Neil is all restless, keyed up energy, pacing the confines of the room like he might fling the window open and yell out of it just for the sheer joy of noise and the action of doing something. Doing anything. Carpe Diem. Seize the day. Make your lives matter, Keating had said. Todd doesn't know how to do that. Neil just seems to understand, but then Neil just seems to understand everything. He's vital and talented, smart and valued. The others fall into line behind him and Charlie without them even asking. Charlie because he's cool enough to not care, and Neil because there is something in Neil that just makes you trust that wherever he leads, it's somewhere you want to follow.

Sometimes Neil reminds Todd of his brother, that way. Flattering as the comparison would be to anyone else, to Todd it's a reason to stay away. Vanishing into shadows doesn't bother him - it's when they pull him out and measure him up against his brother that he chafes. He's always been the shadow to Jeff's sun. He's learned to prefer when no one was looking, mostly. When they do, he always comes up short. Neil's like Jeffrey, that way. But kinder, Todd learns, and that made it easier to let Neil pull him into his orbit. Once he let himself drift there, Todd started to find all the ways Neil wasn't Jeff, all the little cracks in his veneer that showed who he really was beneath it.

Watching him pace now, Todd envies him the motion. It's one more thing he wants to do too, but doesn't. "Someone will hear-"

"We'll just tell them we're up early to study," Neil interrupts. He drops down with coltishly long limbs across Todd's bed, drawing his knees up and poking at Todd with the worn leather edge of the Dead Poets' book. "How can you even pretend to sleep? How can you just. . . sit there? Don't you just want to. . . I don't know. But not sit there!"

"I'm not sitting, I'm lying down," Todd corrects. But he sits up, knees drawn up beneath the thin blanket, arm draping across them. He watches Neil's head tip back, the way the line of his neck alters when he swallows for just a moment, like he's biting back a million things he wants to say. Todd never has to bite anything back. Everything he wants to say just swims around in his head like a goldfish bowl, round and round but never getting anywhere. Never coming out to say the things he means to say. "What do you want to do? We have to be in class in two hours."

"I don't know. Anything. Read something." Neil shoves the book into Todd's hand, and his fingers brush against Todd's. Todd swallows and thinks of Charlie, who always looks at him like he's something just a little beneath paying attention to, but smiles because Neil does, and how once in a while Charlie and Neil vanish at the same time. Todd's not stupid, and they're not the only boys who pull that act. No one ever talks about it. There's some things you just know but don't discuss. In a school full of boys, people make do, sometimes.

Todd's not at all sure that understanding that makes it any easier to understand the things about himself he doesn't look at too closely. He takes the book and frowns. "You know I don't. . . I don't like to-"

"Not to them. Not out there. Just here. With me." Neil flashes the smile that makes everyone crumple and do what he wants without a fight, and Todd feels himself wavering even as his eyes narrow, because Neil's just a little too sure of himself, sometimes, and Todd's starting to know him well enough to want to kick him a good one when he gets like this, once in a while. "I hear you mumble to yourself all the time when you're studying your conjugations. This is the same thing. Just. . . in English. Come on, something easy." Neil flips the book open, thumbing through the worn pages and then stopping on one with a dark mark in the corner. Etched in the margins is a lopsided baseball bat, Yankees scrawled in an unfamiliar hand, crossed out to be replaced by Red Sox! in Mr. Keating's script. "Here. Everyone's heard this. Or parts of it."

Todd stares down at the book. "It's stupid."

"It's poetry!"

"It's about. . . baseball and mud and-"

"Just read it, okay. For me?" Neil leans in closer to read over his shoulder and Todd huffs a breath that comes out too loud and too nervous. "You can do it. It's just us."

That helps, but at the same time it doesn't help at all. Todd's voice falters and fades in and out as he starts to read, fingers gripping too hard at the book in his hands.

The outlook wasn't brilliant for the Mudville nine that day;
The score stood four to two with but one inning more to play.
And then when Cooney died at first, and Burrows did the same,
A sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game

A straggling few got up to go in deep despair.
The rest Clung to that hope which springs eternal in the human breast:
They thought if only Casey could but get a whack at that,
They'd put up even money now, with Casey at the bat.

But Flynn preceded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake,
And the former was a pudd'n, and the latter was a fake,
So upon the stricken multitude grim melancholy sat,
For there seemed but little hope of Casey's getting to the bat. . .

Todd finds a rhythm as he goes, the words coming easier. Where the worn top of his longjohns slipped down, he can feel Neil's breath warm and steady against his skin. He falls into rhythm with his breathing without realizing it, lines ending on an intake of air, stanzas breaking on the puff out. When he finishes, they're both quiet, and then Neil laughs. "I hate baseball. My dad loves it. White Sox fan."

Todd laughs. "I hate soccer. And the White Sox."

"Why do you play if you hate it?" Neil asks.

"My brother played," Todd answers. His brother played, and plays still, at his Ivy League school with his championship team. Todd never expects any less, and neither does Jeffrey. That's probably why it always works out, for him. He'd tried to switch to rowing - which he liked. The methodical, even strokes, the unity of a team where a win or loss is never really pinpointed to him, the cool of the water and the stretch and pull of muscles - it all appeals to him. But he'd never told his father, and Nolan had put him in soccer, so in soccer he stayed. At least it didn't look like it'd be that bad, with Keating coaching.

"Oh," Neil says, and he smiles, rueful and naked in a way Todd's started to understand Neil never really is. Neil plays the role of dutiful son and inspired leader very well. It's hard to tell what's him and what's not, but Todd's starting to get it. Neil had looked like Jeffrey to Todd. But really - Neil is more like Todd. Pressed in where he doesn't quite fit. Neil just overflows his mold, as if there's too much of him to fit, and he has to be only facets of himself to keep from bursting out. Todd never set fully inside his mold - always half formed and disappointing. They were two extremes of the same basic substance. Maybe.

Sometimes, he thinks he's just lonely, and Neil is Neil. But Neil squeezes his shoulder and leans in. "Charlie plays goal too. Don't worry about it. You'll never play unless we're winning."

It's meant as a comfort, and Todd takes it that way. But it still stings, a little. Neil softens it by adding. "He's not actually any good. But he's loud and he'll dislocate things to stop a kick, so we keep him around."

Todd laughs and Neil grins. He pushes the book back into Neil's hand and flips a page at random. "Your turn?"

Neil laughs too and starts to read, and Todd leans against his shoulder and smells soap and cave mold. It feels like the start of a tradition. Todd loved the meeting, but this - quieter and just between them, he thinks he'll look forward to more.

***

We Write Them There Forever
Neil hates fighting with Todd. Not the way he hates fighting with everyone - though he does. Neil's spent a lifetime pacifying his father. Conflict-avoidance is in his blood and his nature now. He lets Charlie pick his fights and say the things he wants to say, and then he smooths it over, changes the topic, moves them all onto something new. It's a routine they've got down by now, years of familiarity and friendship have left them at a strange sort of crossroads. They know each other's soft spots and vulnerabilities, all the secrets and skeletons in one another's closets. It's security. And at the same time, it's just enough danger to suit Neil, to give him a sense of doing something, anything for himself. Charlie's dangerous in the way that someone with nothing to lose and no real dreams is dangerous. Charlie can throw it all away because no matter how hard he throws, it will all just boomerang right back to him in a different form. The family and future he doesn't want and can't be rid of. Doesn't have the guts to be rid of, Neil supposes, but then that's not an accusation he can make. It's different for him. The math, the learning, the friends, the sports - they all come easy to him. But his father fought for him to be able to know those things and become something, and if he turns his back on that, it's a betrayal. Neil doesn't have the guts to confront his father and let him down. So he smooths over fights he doesn't want to hear at school, but he runs around with Charlie and the others and risks just enough trouble to keep himself free enough to breathe. Sometimes he and Charlie would sneak off to rooms alone and wrap their hands around one another and talked about this girl or that girl. Charlie's hand and visions from their three lonely copies of Playboy in his head bringing him off.

Those are safe dangers. The kind that don't make him choose anything, or be anything other than the roles he usually assumed. Todd is different. Neil fixed it, smoothed it over, but beneath it is still that lurking strangeness. Don't you think you could be? Neil had asked. Todd could be like him if he wanted to be. The part that bothers Neil is that he knows he doesn't want that for Todd. They're different enough that more than once Charlie and Knox have offered to switch rooms around. It's against the rules, but everyone does it. Neil never wants to, though. At first Todd's just quiet, and not in the way, so he doesn't see any reason to. Now though, Todd drops across his bed as he types, or reads lines with him in a hushed voice that's so careful not to be heard, but promises to be adept and liquid if only Todd could let it be. After every meeting they end up draped across one bed or the other, reading poems they'd liked, but Todd never gets a chance to read. Neil didn't even think about giving that up. But he hates the awkward silences that aren't at all like Todd's usual silence.

He's told Todd to be more like him. Be more of a liar, he means. Put on a show that says all is well when really it isn't. Neil doesn't even want that for himself, really. He isn't sure why he said it at all. He wants more from Todd, though. He's not sure what until he sees it, there in the middle of class. Todd's eyes were shut and the words spilling from his mouth disjointed and strange. But there had been passion and life and Neil had wanted him to open his eyes so Neil could watch him when he flared into full color like that, like this whole time he'd just been a black and white picture. Neil was spellbound, and then he got angry. He resents the side Todd had hidden because he thought he knew all of Todd there was to know. He thought Todd was simpler than him, but it wasn't true.

Todd ducks out of class quickly, blushing but still smiling and lit up. Neil stays behind and Keating perches on his desk, legs swinging and hands gesturing broadly. "'Last night it was the song that was the man, But now it is the man that is the song,'" he quotes, though Neil has no idea what he's quoting, he just knows that note in his teacher's voice. Listening to Keating is sometimes like his early days learning Latin, where half the words were familiar, but none of them went together in an order that made sense, yet. Unlike the dreary and endless verb conjugations though, he wants to speak the same tongue Keating does, wants to live in the same world of possibility that Keating makes it so easy to believe is waiting, somewhere.

The teacher twists his neck to look over his shoulder, throwing a playful wink at the picture of Whitman hanging over the desk. "Sweaty-toothed Uncle Walt, reaching a helpful hand out to guide, even now. Inspiration from beyond the grave. Undeath is only dignified for vampires and poets."

"How did you know he could do that?" Neil asks him. "How did you - I didn't even know. I live with him, and I didn't know."

"I didn't. I just knew that he should try. It's not always what you do or how well you do it. Sometimes, it just matters that you do it at all. It doesn't matter where you're called, or what you do, just that you do it with your heart. Todd needs to let his out of its little box to play."

Neil glances at the empty doorway behind him. "Do you know what everyone needs?"

Keating grins. "Well, most of you aren't that big a mystery. A bottle of hand lotion and some tissues will cover half your class. The other half mostly needs a collective kick in the brainpan."

"What about me?" Neil asks.

"You'd know better than I now, wouldn't you Mr. Perry?" Keating rises. "If you'll excuse me, I have a staff conference full of stuffy old men who smell like tobacco to go to. And you, I suspect, have a roommate to catch before he passes out from the adrenaline come-down."

Neil drifts out of the classroom and down the hall to his own room, glad he and Todd have their free period now. Todd is already waiting, and Neil starts to tell him something - that he was amazing. That he's proud. That he wants to know where the hell that Todd has been hiding. Todd cuts him off and starts talking about going over Neil's lines now, because he has a Trig quiz to cram for, and he finds himself sitting cross-legged on the bed opposite Todd, listening to Todd read for Oberon. His voice is soft and wavering, uncertain. Neil thinks one moment that he locked all his passion away again, and wants to hit him or push him or do something - anything - to bring it all back to the surface again. He hears himself make a frustrated sound and he tosses the script to the bed. Todd looks up, wary and with an odd sort of focus, but then looks down, and it starts to slip away again. "I TOLD you I'm not any good at this!" he starts, defensive and a little too shrill.

"You are! I mean, not this. It's not like I think you should take up an acting career - but it's all there. I just saw it. This. . . whole new you. This OTHER you, and. . . don't you just feel like you've got that. . . . stupid blanket smothering you?" Todd flushes, and Neil realizes isn't the wrong thing to say, but isn't sure how to fix it, now that it's already started to go off the rails, so he just rolls on. "Don't you just want to do something bold? When no one's making you? When your eyes aren't covered? Just because it's THERE and you want to let yourself BE? Just once? Be bold and stupid and-"

Neil stops mid-sentence. He nearly stops mid-word because Todd is lunging across the space between them, and Neil is half expecting a punch, but instead there's dry lips pressed too-hard against his, and too much momentum sending him tumbling backward on the bed. He lands with one of Todd's elbows in his stomach and the breath knocked out of him because Todd is a heavy, warm weight holding him down, and his mouth is still pressed against his, half assault and half kiss.

Neil's kissed girls. He's even kissed a boy, once, when he and Charlie had too much to drink. The kisses had been awkward and fumbling, sometimes. But they'd still been better than this. He squirms to try to get out from beneath the pointed elbow, and huffs in a strangled breath as Todd pulls away finally, looking down at him. Neil can map the moment when his courage flags and horror starts to set in, even before he starts to shrink away and stammer apologies. Neil doesn't know what else to do but reach for him, pull him down and kiss him again.

It's still too hard, but there's no stray elbows, and after a moment it settles. Neil thinks it's Todd's first kiss, and wonders what that means. He thinks he already knows though, because Todd's lips soften against his, and his hand slides into Neil's hair, and Neil's arm curls around him and the hard kiss turns into something soft and new and real. Neil feels stripped down to the core, the parts no one sees, and it's that part of him that kisses Todd, that new, surging core of Todd that he's seeing when he opens his eyes to see the other boy's face close-in and strange, unfamiliar with the proximity. He catches his breath as Todd pulls away again, stare uncertain, but wide and intent. Neil smiles and pulls him down again, murmuring against his lips. "There you are."

***

Schooled In Every Grace
Study group runs late and Todd's ears still ring with the sound of Cameron whining about midterm exams, and the merits and detractions of a curve grading system they can't change, anyway. Knox drags Neil out just before lights out to help him with a trig problem Meeks got tired of trying to explain. The room empties out and Todd stretches a crick from his neck, lifting himself from the floor to his bed before he notices Charlie still straddling the desk chair.

Most things stayed the same, after that day. But some things changed. Todd didn't even know if anyone noticed them but him. The way when Knox worked up the courage to call Chris, it was Todd's shoulder Neil leaned against to listen. The way Neil sat on the bed next to him, Todd leaned up against his knee as they studied, instead of Neil and Charlie holding court from Neil's bed while the rest of them flopped wherever they landed. The way Neil smiled at him, the way sometimes their lips looked puffy and their door stayed shut more often.

Todd doesn't know what any of it means, but he knows that it makes him happy. That he wakes up feeling more at home in his own skin, more as if he knows himself than he ever has. He knows he smiles more and worries less. That he doesn't think of Jeffrey and all the things he is that Todd isn't, that much. Instead he thinks of falling asleep with Neil's lips against his skin, and the secret, sinful rush of pleasure of Neil's hands where only his own had ever been. It should be shameful, Todd knows, but it isn't. He knows that he likes it, and that whatever it means, he wants what he can have, for now.

He hadn't known anyone else would notice, but he should have guessed that Charlie would. Todd's not frightened of Charlie, but he's intimidated by him, sometimes. And resents him other times. The stunt with the phone could have ruined everything, and yet Todd can't help but admire the gall that would let someone do something so recklessly selfish. Charlie has the pipe he can't smoke in his hands. Nolan has a nose like a bloodhound and as soon as anyone lights up, he's there, it seems like. It makes Todd nervous because he doesn't trust that Charlie would listen if he told him not to light up. He'd listen to Neil, but Todd's not Neil, no matter if he's starting to discover his own spine.

Charlie just turns it over in his hands, and Todd can't read his expression. Happy Charlie is fun and outgoing and devil-may-care, but since he started at Hellton, Todd's started to figure out that the ones who seem to care the least about what anyone thinks are usually the ones who are working the hardest to make sure people think what they want them to think. Underneath it all, Todd thinks Charlie's as miserable as the rest of them. "Did you finish that reading for Keating?" he asks finally.

Charlie turns the pipe over again in his palm and recites:

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good-morning," and he glittered when he walked.

Todd frowns. "That wasn't the re-"

"Everybody knows," Charlie cuts him off abruptly.

Todd feels every muscle tense, and all the words he wants to say in answer starts to pile up and jam, but nothing would come out of his mouth at all. I don't care, and they knew when it was you, too, you're lying, and you just want something I have, for once. None of them make it past his lips.

Charlie holds his gaze and then smiles, easy and relaxed, rolling his eyes and reaching to ruffle Todd's hair. "About the play," he clarifies, but there's a smile on his lips that's alluding to something altogether different, and his fingers slip down Todd's face, touching two fingers to lips that suddenly feel entirely too swollen to hide. "Everyone knows about the play. His dad will find out. And then he'll drop out. He needs to talk to his dad. It won't work, but he needs to try. He needs. . . this whole acting thing. And his dad's a hardass, but he might listen if Neil told him. If he just finds out - not a shot in hell."

Todd's told him that. It never went over well. "So tell him that?"

"I did. He didn't listen. I thought maybe he might listen to you, these days."

Todd evades his gaze. "I did too. He won't. Maybe his dad won't find out until the play's over."

"'Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,'" Charlie murmurs, rich voiced and eloquent in a way Todd can't help but envy. "It was never anything," Charlie tells him abruptly. "A friendly hand and free time. I like girls." He shrugs. "He's happy. Much as he can be. He should be." Charlie hesitates, uncertain for a second in a way Todd's not used to seeing. "He does what his old man wants him to do, you know. In the end he always does."

"So do you," Todd answers, not sure what it is Charlie's trying to say. "So does everybody."

"Yeah, but when my father kicks me back into line, I just lose my sax and don't get a car when I graduate. Neil gives up things. Neil just gives up. He doesn't change." Charlie says.

Todd gets it, then. He's not being warned off. He's just being warned. "I know." He does. He just doesn't want to think about it. "Night, Charlie."

Charlie grins, lifting the tie he had loosely around his neck and looping it around his head as a headband instead. "Call me Nwanda."

***

Except In Himself
Sometimes, Neil thinks he must be a good actor. He's a good damn liar, and isn't it the same thing in the end? The same skills are involved. Convincing people you're someone else. Whether it be a mischievous sprite or just convincing them you're the sort of person who tells the truth and does the right thing - in the end, it's making someone believe that you're capable of things you don't do in real life. The play's the thing, not the reality.

He feels like his life, the Dead Poets, the play, Todd - all of it is just temporary. Fleeting glimpses of what he wants but can't have. The more he wants them, the more it seems like he's hemmed in by life.

Charlie's said it a million times. To just break away. Finish school and then screw it and do what he wants. But Neil can't seem to imagine his mouth opening and the words coming out. He can see his father's face, hear his mother crying. But he can't see the door shutting behind him, or hear how he would say it. Maybe if he had lines, if he could make himself say it and hear it, then he could do it. No matter how he tries though, he never sees it through. Even in his own imagination, he's too much of a chump.

Todd finds him on the roof, the same spot they once launched his desk set air mission. "You should sleep. The play's tomorrow." There's no one on the roof, no lights in the dorms. It's too late to be out but there's no one to find them, right now. Their own private section of the world. Neil bends his head in silent invitation, and Todd understands, arms curling around his shoulders as his lips slide over the nape of Neil's neck, finding the space behind his ear that always makes his gut clench and his skin shiver. "I hate when you sit on the edge," Todd complains against his skin, arms tightening as if to keep Neil from falling. Neil leans back, lets Todd balance them both as his legs dangle over the wall. "Are you nervous?"

"You don't think I'm aerodynamic?" Neil answers, ignoring the question. He's not nervous. He's desperate. The play tomorrow. And then curtains. It doesn't have to be an end. Neil's not sure why it feels like it is anyway, like it all hinges on one stage and one play and one person who won't even see him, if he's lucky.

"I don't think I'll get another one of you next year," Todd answers dryly.

"I don't know. There's a sophomore who looks just like me," Neil counters, and feels Todd laugh against his neck. He twists out of Todd's arms and swings his legs over, turning to face him and then pulling him down, kissing him hard. "What do you want to be when you grow up?" he asks suddenly.

Todd stares at him with that look that makes him look alive and there, and Neil wants to grab him by the hand and run. Away from the play, away from his father, away from Welton and expectations and futures. "Happy," Todd finally answers.

Neil laughs so hard he thinks he's going to cry, and isn't sure he can tell the difference anyway. Todd's hands are in his hair, tugging him away from the edge until Neil stands and follows him back toward the stairs. "Do you think you ever will be?"

Todd stops and turns, staring again, and then smiles, crooked and slow. "I don't know if anyone really is. But I think maybe I can figure out how to. . . get closer to it, anyway, at least."

Neil knows exactly what would make him happy. Exactly who, too, maybe. But knowing doesn't bring anything any closer. He kisses Todd instead, hard enough that Todd melts against him. He has their clothes half off before they even slam the door shut on their room, and when he comes, he throws his head back and gasps Todd's name loud enough that tomorrow there'll be no question of what went on.

When he opens his eyes, Todd is staring, pink-cheeked and wide-eyed, swollen mouth stretching in a smile. "You were supposed to be quiet."

Neil can't breathe well enough to laugh, yet, and it takes him a moment to manage to answer at all, tongue tripping over the words.

Let every one answer! let those who sleep be waked! let none evade!
Must we still go on with our affectations and sneaking?
Let me bring this to a close—I pronounce openly for a new distribution of roles;
Let that which stood in front go behind! and let that which was behind advance to the front and speak;

He finishes with a flourish and a slow hand along Todd's dick, making him gasp. Todd laughs and curls against him, wrapped around like a blanket. For just a moment, Neil forgets the press of the future hemming him in, and just closes his eyes, breathing in Todd's nearness.

***

The Presence of the Sun
The next day is a rush of getting ready and avoiding classmates with pointed smirks and evasive eyes. Charlie just grins at Todd and winks, but when Neil vanishes to get ready, he hangs near Todd, protective, almost. Todd is appreciative, but he doesn't think he needs it. Today he thinks maybe he could handle anything. And he's half forgotten anyway as the talk turns to the play, and then Knox and Chris. In the rush of it all, he manages to slip away to their room in time to see Neil pushing the last bits of costume and script into his bag. Todd picks up 500 Years of Verse and presses it into the bag. "For luck," he murmurs, and he's smiling. "Are you nervous?"

Neil shakes his head, and there's something resigned in his face that Todd almost recognizes, but not quite. "No. Ready, I think. Much as I can be."

There's something too grim for the occasion, and yet strangely, blindly hopeful in Neil's face. "You don't have to, you know. If you don't want to. There's an understudy. . ."

"I have to." Neil leans in against him and Todd braces himself to hold them both up, Neil's face turning into his shoulder. "I could be good, right? I could be good, and it could matter."

"You'll be great. That's all that will matter," Todd tells him.

"One lousy community play and Hollywood will come running," Neil says, and it's half mocking and half confident. His eyes search Todd's and he smiles. Todd recognizes that smile. It looks like his own - shy and unsure and afraid. "'I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately,'" Neil murmurs. "Fairy woods count, right? I'll be a star," Neil murmurs.

They only have a stolen moment before Neil leaves, and Todd leans forward, kisses him hard and deep. "You already are."

Neil laughs and bows the bow he's practiced for the end of the play, when it's all gone well and the audience comes to its feet. And then he's gone.

~~