"I'm sorry, but I don't know how to read Ukrainian." Charlie, flinging Neil's notes back under his nose, looked exasperated. "How can you even begin to tell me this is from the right class?"
"Don't look at me, I copied Todd's."
Todd had beautiful handwriting, but sketched in the margins and covered them with the sides of his hands as he went along, as if terrified someone might creep up behind him and laugh. Todd tended to go through life in general in that state. Neil hadn't exactly asked before taking his notebook to look over earlier.
"I got in trouble for it," Todd said softly. "At Balincrest. I'd scribble everywhere. Teachers said it was distracting, when really I just did it to distract myself."
The windowpane, prism-painted in the midmorning light, gleamed at them. Todd's face, turned towards it, was an overexposed mask of watery white. "The simplest things are the hardest. You see your own hand every day, but that doesn't mean you can draw it."
For the first time, he flipped open a notebook and passed it over, showing Neil sketches he'd done of his own. "It's hard to get it right when you know how you expect it to look and try to force it."
"Do mine." Neil was already leaning in, saying it instantly. Todd's mouth parted, then closed again. Neil leveled his gaze. "Come on. You know I'm not gonna laugh."
"You've got a good face," Todd said absently. "Symmetrical. Easy to draw."
His eyes were intently fixed on his work. Neil was sure he would never have said anything like that if he were fully conscious of it. Even so, it felt like symmetrical was the highest compliment anyone had paid him in a long time. "Thanks."
Outside, the autumn rain rattled sullenly off the roof.
"There's always some kind of consumption. Taliesin in Welsh mythology, Persephone in Greek, Adam and Eve..." Neil had read about it all and Todd looked intrigued, not scandalized, which bolstered his confidence.
"This guy who accidentally took a drink and ended up becoming a wizard."
Todd looked dubious.
"Essentially, anyway. It's like, as long as you don't try anything new, everything's okay because it stays the same. But isn't it better to be smarter anyway?"
"I guess so, yeah."
On the nightstand beside Todd's bed, a notebook lay open. He'd been drawing desks and chairs, before trig class, all with their legs twisting into tree roots. Academia sprouting from the soil. Or maybe the roots were holding it down. Or it could have just been Todd idly scrawling whatever came to mind. Neil hadn't asked.
In English class, once, Todd had been caught in the act. His face had colored, but Mr. Keating had smiled and continued strolling between the rows, saying nothing.
With Todd, silence was usually the best policy.
Neil had been watching. Hidden under his forearm was a page where he'd been drawing crooked cartoons--Superman with Charlie's head, Little Audrey with Cameron's, that sort of thing. Mr. Keating didn't seem to notice him.
Contrast and composition. Perspective. He was learning the terminology along with the technique, even though his efforts looked harsh and misshapen next to Todd's. They took books out of the library: art history, drawing techniques, or anything with illustrations worth aping. Neil gravitated towards the classical ones, rounded Grecian nudes that made him grin because they made Todd uneasy--and besides, sometimes he found some good ones worth sharing with the rest of his friends, even though he wasn't brave enough to try and draw them on his own. Just caricatures, recreating the covers of crime comics with himself as the hardboiled gumshoe and Meeks as a simpering secretary. His own careless parodies of comics, little jokes he could slide under people's doors or over to their desks, not caring who peeked. Earlier that week, he'd done a decent job of drawing the Dean as Elmer Fudd. Negative space, positive space; those were terms he knew and understood.
Todd worked on shadows, shading simple shapes instead of the curve of a breast, even though Neil was positive they couldn't actually get in trouble for drawing nudes.
"We can say it's purely educational, not obscene or subversive," Neil insisted, punching up the last three words with a posh British accent. "We found it in the library, so this is just a way of paying tribute to our unshakable academic foundations. Taking in what we learn and using it to make something new. That's how legends are born, you know." He jabbed the air with an ink-smeared finger.
At his desk, Todd's brow creased.
A line, a dot, a blade of grass. Little things scattered over his own margins now, and he was thinking in the vocabulary Todd taught him, unconsciously cramming for an exam that never came.
Wandering back into the room with a towel around his waist and his pajamas under his arm--cool beads of water like pointillism on his shoulders, hatches of hair over his forehead, fleetingly cross-hatched with his fingers when he lifted them to push the strands aside. Todd was half-dressed and alarmed, turning too fast and catching his side on the corner of the windowsill. "Shit."
Neil couldn't recall having heard Todd swear before and, unintentionally, his first reaction was to laugh. Todd shot him a glare.
It was a small nick, but the skin was torn and blood was beading at the seam. Neil was going to be, supposed to be, a doctor. "Hang on, let me see it."
A damp corner of the towel worked well enough; his knuckles brushed bare skin and he heard Todd holding his breath, felt him struggle to keep still. Todd, a little soft in the middle, still outgrowing his baby fat. Comfortable, satiny-smooth; Neil couldn't stop touching him, just half-accidental dashes of his fingers. He'd never been chubby, always skinny and gangly. If Todd turned out to be anything like his brother Jeffrey, he'd be pretty decent-looking, for a guy. There were traces of Jeff there, under the screens of awkwardness and insecurity, even though Jeff had been kind of a prick. Neil wanted to brush them aside, find out what was there below.
"Yeah, you're okay. It's nothing." He took as much time as possible before pulling away.
Todd on his knees, velvety-soft lips parted against his fingertips, the back of his hand. Eyes shuttered, head bowed. He could have been kissing the Pope's ring.
Then, head inclining, letting just one finger slip against the padded pliancy of his tongue, making Neil's face heat up. Tittering at nude sculptures was as innocent as skipping through a field of daisies, compared to this. He was still partially hidden beneath the sheets, wiggling and wincing as they bunched underneath him, while Todd was fully clothed. Todd, moving the sheets aside then as if on cue, taking him carefully into the overwhelming warmth of his mouth. The feel of it was like being heated from the inside out, somehow, and too sudden for Neil to do anything but fall back on his elbows. A chair jammed up under the doorknob in case anyone tried to barge in. A cigarette smoldering in the covert ashtray. He wondered if Todd was chronicling again, sketching the moment down in lines and shadows inside his head. Everything fitting together like an Escher woodcut. Neil liked those, the few he had seen; birds becoming houses, fish becoming birds, all black and white and perfectly aligned, distorted chessboards shifting and tilting...tilting.
"How'd you know how to..." do that, "How to..."
Todd kissed him hesitantly on one hip and smiled nervously. "I didn't think you'd..." he began, flushing and trailing off.
It didn't fit. Not with the idea of the wan, wary kid who needed protecting. If Todd was queer, that brought a whole new dimension into all that nervousness and self-isolating. Dressing quickly in the locker rooms as the rest of them horsed around and took their time, always on his guard. He'd hardly ever seen Todd with his shirt off, even though they shared a room--he tended to take his things into the bathroom and change there instead.
"It's okay." Neil wet his lips. He was the one who'd gone along with it, who could never say no when his curiosity reared its head, and Lord knows what that made him. But he couldn't say that out loud. "It was good," he said instead, uncertain how to touch him back, but trying anyway. Trying to reassert and reassure, though he felt so stupid his brain might as well have dissolved. For all it mattered, he could be carrying around a head full of sloshing, blood-bright paint that threw his thoughts and vision off-kilter and stained the walls of his skull.
Fingertips to a cheek, palm cupping a shoulder. Todd's hair was messy and brushed against Neil's nose, but the smell was pleasant. Mild and comfortable and warm, like wood and cinnamon. He was still unsteady and naked and Todd was still on his knees. "Get up?"
Todd excused himself for the bathroom, though, and they didn't talk about it.
He took Todd's clothes off slowly, next time. Kissing him quietly on the cheek--soft, no beard in sight yet, and just as smooth as a girl's--moving both hands gradually, carefully up under his shirt and helping him remove it. Even more illicit than the poetry, getting to touch him like this--here, in the makeshift seclusion of their room, right after saying grace at dinner. Keeping his pants on and kissing clumsily over his face, but not sure how to handle anything lower. Learning touches like textbooks, watching and hearing and feeling and being able to transform Todd with the smallest things. Soft fingers warm against his shoulders, soft skin smooth under his mouth; Todd taking Neil's hand into his own palm and aiding it as effortlessly as he'd drawn it. And Neil, watching with sharp eyes: the blush spread through his cheeks, the tension in his body, blond head thrown back, face agonized.
It occurred to him that this could have been another of the things that had gotten Todd into trouble at Balincrest. For drawing, for shyness, for kissing boys. Todd never said a word about any of it.
Nothing but shapes, in the grand scheme of things, simple and two-dimensional. Stark long lines and a circle for a head. Stepping outside their own world for better or for worse, taking a bite of something foreign and not looking back. Neil had never minded mischief in any form, even if this was a few degrees removed from his usual fare.
Dozing off in the same bed was dangerous, since anyone could try to walk in even with a chair serving again as their lock. It was mildly uncomfortable as well, since the beds weren't built for two, but also companionable. That was as apt a word as any. Neil put an arm around Todd and felt him relax, like ice melting, and exhale a sigh that sounded like a thank-you.