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two roads diverged

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Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
and that has made all the difference.

Sometimes when Neil was angry or upset or overwhelmed he'd go off on his own and look at the lake - just look at it, the calm glassy surface reflecting the trees and the sky. He'd imagine what it felt like to lie beneath the surface, down in the middle of all that calm, where the sounds would be muffled, and the world far away and beautiful through the clear water.

That was sort of what it was like, he thinks, afterwards, when he wakes up at long last. Waking up was like breaking the surface, coming back into the world where sounds were sharp and everything was too bright and it hurt, and for such a long time afterwards he wished he could just sink back down into the cool dark place where he'd floated peacefully.

"Oh Neil," his mother cries, holding his hand and smiling at him shakily through her tears. "Oh Neil, I'm so glad - I'm so glad. I love you so much, baby."

Neil squeezes her hand, the dutiful son, but her touch is like an anchor stranding him too close to the shore.

The doctors all say that he's been extremely lucky, that it's a miraculous thing that he's alive at all. They beam down at him as though it was some special force of character that caused his hand to tremble, or whatever it was that happened to inch the bullet away from his brain and instead sent it carving a short groove thrugh his skull and wrecked a good chair in his father's study (or so his mother tells him). They talk about his will to survive as though it had been some sort of accident, as thought he hadn't unlocked the drawer, unwrapped the gleaming pistol and set it to his temple and then taken one last deep breath and pulled the trigger almost without remorse.

Waking up gives him a sick sense of claustrophobia, the same thing he'd felt as his father pinned him down with the weight of his mapped-out future: school, Harvard, medical school. I'm trapped, he thinks, staring up at the blank white ceiling, I can't get out.

-

They keep him in the hospital for longer than seems really reasonable given his injuries, which are pretty minor, after all. His head is wrapped in bandage all around, and they say he'll have a scar above his temple where the bullet scraped the bone, but apart from that he's fine.

"Do you think my friends could come to visit?" he asks, after a week or so, and his mother smiles her faint smile and pats his hand and says, "Oh, dear, we don't want to tire you now, do we?"

"I should write, at least," he says.

In the corner, his father clears his throat loudly. "Well, Neil," he says, "it's like this."

"No," says his mother, suddenly, with more force than he's ever heard from her before. His father shuts up, and goes back to staring out of the window at the blankness of the snow-covered landscape. "Neil, sure you can write to them. You just give your letters to me and I'll get them to the school for you. I'm sure your friends will be so glad to know you're okay. We were all so worried about you, baby," she says, her voice breaking on the last word.

"Okay," Neil says, but glances from his mother's soft tearful face to his father's grey-cast set one and he knows, he knows, that something is wrong.

-

A letter is a poor thing really, Neil thinks, screwing up another failed attempt. What he wants to say seems to lose something in transit from his brain to the paper, comes out flat and drab or else as overwrought as the bad poetry they'd written for Keating's classes. This is why he should only act - other people's words capture his own feelings better than he ever could.

He shifts in bed, sick of lying around as useless as if he'd actually managed to kill himself. He hasn't even ventured out of his private room so far as the other end of the corridor, and the pale green walls and sickly-yellow tiled floor are worse than the monk-cell rooms back at Welton. A couple of pulp paperbacks and the plain paper for his letters are all he has to keep himself occupied between his parents' visits and the routine checks of the doctors and nurses. The doctors are always too hearty, the nurses cast him faltering, sympathetic smiles, and his parents are the worst of all. His mother holds his hand and chatters at him in a brittle voice about the petty gossip of their dinner-party circle, and his father sits in the chair nearest the window and stares out of it in tense silence. They don't mention Welton, or Keating, or the play - or military school, Harvard, his medical career. The hospital room seems to exist in some sort of limbo outside the real world and the passage of time. He sometimes wants to scream at them, I tried to commit suicide, I wanted to kill myself, just to shatter the peace they seem to have brokered without his consent.

Neil sighs, rubs a hand across his eyes wearily. He gets headaches easily now. But he has to finish the letter. He smooths out a clean sheet of paper, sets his pencil against it, writes, Dear Todd...

-

Todd had kissed Neil for the first time after that first meeting of the Dead Poets Society, when they'd come back to school thrilling with illicit excitement and too keyed-up to go to sleep, and they'd sat together on Neil's bed in the dark room with their shoulders pressed together while they talked about the things that had happened in the Indian cave and looked up at the half-moon that was just visible in the high window, and Todd had been almost trembling with it. He was wide-eyed and half-laughing, brighter and more brilliant than Neil had ever seen him, and the change was fascinating, he couldn't stop staring. And after a little while Todd had laughed and leaned forward and pressed his mouth against Neil's, a feathery-soft kiss that was over in an instant.

"Carpe diem," Todd had whispered, grinning, and touched Neil's hand with his own, his fingers cool and soft.

"Carpe diem," Neil whispered back, head spinning as he leaned in and kissed Todd again.

The pressure of Welton had always produced friendships that ran a just a little too hot, catalysed by the isolation and hormones and the desperate lack of girls into something deeper and stranger than the usual. But it hadn't been like that between Todd and Neil, or hadn't felt that way at least, and it had been weeks of furtive, light-hearted make-out sessions before either one of them had gotten daring enough to slip trembling fingers down into the warm dark beneath the covers. More than that, even, it had been what came after that Neil liked best: the heat of Todd's body pressed up solid against his own in a bed that wasn't big enough for two, so that their legs tangled together and Neil had to drape an arm over Todd's waist as much to stop himself from falling ass-backwards out of bed as it was to keep them close together. The shampoo-fresh smell of Todd's hair against his nose, and the salt taste of his skin as he pressed a kiss to the nape of his neck, the muscles of Todd's stomach jumping against Neil's arm as Todd laughed and called Neil a big girl.

It wasn't as though Neil had put the revolver to his temple thinking of Todd, like some lovesick Romeo parted forever from his Juliet. In a way he hadn't thought about anything at all, except for the calm blankness he'd thought would come afterwards, the longed-for reprieve to the sentence his father had imposed on him. But he'd looked out of the car window as his father drove away from the theatre that night and caught Todd's eye for a brief moment, and felt the tension behind his ribcage as though a cord had been knotted there and was being pulled tight, hand over hand as the car sped away, and for a moment it was hard to breathe.

-

Todd doesn't answer the first letter he sends, nor the second, and neither do any of the other boys: Charlie, Knox, even Cameron.

"Well, baby," his mother says, smiling. "You know what it's like up at that school. I'll bet you they don't have the time to write back, why don't you just wait until the end of the semester?"

His father snorts, and his mother's smile tightens at the corners. Neil's stomach twists.

"I'm not a baby, mother," Neil says. "I want to know what's going on."

Her smile falters altogether. "Neil," she says, softly.

"There's no use in your writing to your friends," Neil's father says suddenly, standing up. He moves over to the foot of Neil's bed and grips the metal rail with both hands. "There's no use, because you're going to military school. The doctors say you'll be well enough to start the spring semester, and that's what's going to happen, Neil. Going back to that place...the doctors agree, it wouldn't be good for you."

The despair, black-edged, seeps in like oil at the edges of his vision. "But I don't see why I can't write to them, at least. We've been good friends for years."

"It's like this, Neil," his father says.

"Oh, let it be, let it be," his mother begs, quietly.

"The thing is," his father continues, without even a glance over at where Neil's mother is weeping softly. "We gave your friends to believe that you...that you achieved what you set out to do."

"You - what?"

"They think that you're dead," his father says, firmly. He looks at Neil without any hint of remorse, and the tilt of his head dares Neil to question it. "We felt it was for the best that you made a clean break with...that place. Those people."

"They think I'm dead," Neil echoes. His head throbs with the blood pounding through his veins, the vicious red-hot anger. "You sick son of a bitch."

"Neil," his mother gasps, and his father's knuckles turn bone-white where he grips the footrail of Neil's bed.

"It was for the best," he says, then turns away. "And one day I think you'll be able to understand that."

-

There are four days left until the end of the semester, when the boys will pack up and leave Welton empty and desolate, and Neil will have missed his chance. The door to his hospital room isn't locked, but there are nurses and doctors and orderlies outside in the halls and Neil's parents visit twice a day. Besides that, he has no clothes except for his thin pyjamas, no coat, not even a pair of shoes other than the bedroom slippers that don't even protect against the cold tile floor, let alone the snow that drifts up six feet in places in Vermont at this time of year. The impulse for self-destruction has passed out of him, and he's got no desire to end up frozen blue halfway between the hospital and the school.

He stands at the window and looks down at the ground, just one story down, an easy drop onto the snow that might have been ten stories for all the use he can make of it. He's trapped.

-

It's two days before gets the chance - a new nurse, one his father hasn't yet had a chance to cow into submission.

"Listen," he says, tipping his head and smiling his charming, private-schoolboy smile, "I've been cooped up in here for so long. Do you think I could just - just take a walk outside? Just for a few minutes?"

"Well," she murmurs, hesitant, and Neil makes the wide eyes that used to work on his mother every single time until she got onboard with his father. "Well," she says, breaking into a small, conspiratorial smile, "I guess it couldn't hurt. Just a few minutes, mind."

"Five, tops," Neil says. "But hey, it's pretty cold outside, do you think there's any chance I could borrow some clothes, maybe?"

Which is how he ends up in the pants that he has to cinch in at the waist with a belt to the very last hole, boots just the wrong side of uncomfortably tight, and a sweater whose cuffs come down past his fingertips, which is just as well, because the nurse (whose name is Gina) managed to find a coat and scarf but no gloves. The clothes all smell a little musty, and he doesn't ask where they're from.

Outside it's a clear day, achingly bright, and he leans back on his heels and breathes out a long plume of breath against the startlingly blue sky, grinning. Gina watches him, laughing. "I guess you really needed the air," she says.

"I really did," Neil says. "Hey, Gina. Do you think you could maybe get me a cup of coffee or something? It's really cold."

She casts him a long, appraising look, but Neil's had a lot of practice at looking innocent, and in the end she nods and says, "You stay right there, though, okay? I don't want to get in trouble."

"Of course," he says. "Right here."

-

It's a long hard walk out, and he's trembling with cold and his head aches fit to split open by the time Welton comes into view at last behind a veil of bare tree branches. The lake is frozen solid and distinguished only by patches of hard blue ice between the snowdrifts. Down at the pier there's a figure in its dark coat, hatless, the slanting late-afternoon sun catching tousled brown hair, and Neil knows, with a fierce beat of his heart, he knows it's Todd.

He begins, heavily, to run, forcing himself forward through the snow, shoving the exhaustion away and ignoring the leaden feeling in his legs. When he falls he pushes himself up again on hands red-raw from the cold and keeps right on running. When he's close enough, he starts shouting, Todd's name and random howls and whoops and for the longest moment Todd doesn't even flinch, doesn't turn around, but then he does, and even from this distance Neil can see the disbelief. Neil laughs aloud and waves his arms up over his head like a madman, jumping up and churning up snow under his feet and yelling, "It's me! It's really me!"

Todd starts to run, slow and then faster, and then there's thirty feet between them, twenty, ten, and then Todd goes down in a really pretty spectacular explosion of limbs and flying snow and a shocked-out wail, and Neil comes to a sliding stop right above him, staring down at Todd staring right back up at him, panting and bright-cheeked and his hair every which way.

"Am I going mad?" he gasps.

"No," Neil says. "No, you're not." He reaches down and offers Todd his hand, and Todd hesitates for just a second before he grips it, as if he doesn't believe that his hand won't close right through Neil's like a ghost's. It doesn't, of course, and Todd lets out a low breath of laughter as Neil lifts him up.

"I knew it," Todd breathes, fierce, reaching out and holding Neil's face between his gloved hands. "Damn you, Neil, I knew it, I knew it."

"Yeah," Neil says, laughing in spite of it all, with the fierce joy rushing up in his chest. "I'm here."

"I could - I could just," Todd breaks off, and he's crying, really crying. He pulls Neil forward and hugs him so tight that Neil can't breathe, but since Neil's holding on just as tightly it's okay. "Damn you, Neil," he says, shuddering the words out against Neil's shoulder. Neil cups the back of his head with hands trembling with the cold and all the things he's been keeping pent up suddenly coming free inside him, shaken loose by the force of Todd's presence the way they'd been shaken free before by Keating and the Dead Poets. Only this time, he thinks, this time it's going to be all different. This time he's not letting go, and he says it out loud into Todd's hair, words made physical by his breath curling in the air. Todd turns his head, his cold lips brushing against Neil's throat.

Everything's gone to hell, and it's all going to go to hell again, but it came right once and he's got faith, for the first time he really does, that it's going to come right in the end.