A/N: Still here! I just have been slightly bogged with school lately, but here it is at last.

Birthdays and Realizations

The day after Knox called Chris was my 17th birthday. That day went almost like any other day at Hell-ton. Hager gave us three pages of trig problems that must've been created by some sadistic mathematician, and I couldn't make sense of anything in Chemistry.

Things began looking up just before English class. I was the first to arrive, as all the boys had gotten caught up in the library, the dining room, or outside. When I arrived in the classroom, Mr. Keating was there.

"Good afternoon, Captain," I greeted as I set my books down on my desk.

"Good day to you, Miss O'Donnell, and a happy birthday to you," he said most amiably as he went to the window.

"Thank you. How did you know?" I asked.

He smiled. "The very stones prate of it," he said as he went away from the window. "It looks like a day too that shouldn't be spent in the classroom,"

I raised my eyebrow, wondering what he meant. "Miss O'Donnell, please find the boys and tell them that we'll be having our class today in the courtyard," the Captain said as he straightened up his desk.

"Aye," I replied, sifting through my desk and grabbing a book, a copy of Whitman's "Leaves of Grass". I went out and crashed right into Neil.

"Whoa there, Van! What's going on?" he asked.

I gestured inside. "Captain says we're having class in the courtyard. Pass it on," I said, managing to smile at him, though he seemed to have forgotten it was my birthday.

"I'll see to it, my lady," he grinned as he went the other way from where I was going. I rolled my eyes. For the past hours, he'd been calling me that.

Half an hour later, we were gathered in the courtyard. Mr. Keating had told Cameron, Pitts, and Knox to take a stroll around the courtyard that was mostly stone, but had a few trees and plants on the sides. I didn't care for the place very much.

For some strange reason, we began clapping our hands to time out some sort of beat with their walking. "There it is," Mr. Keating said. "I don't know but I've been told…"

"I don't know but I've been told," we all repeated.

"Doing poetry is old,"

"Doing poetry is old,"

He now began to walk alongside them, till he told them to stop. "Thank you. If you notice, everyone started walking at their own pace," he began. We chuckled when he began to describe how Cameron, Pitts, and Knox had walked earlier.

"I brought them up here to illustrate the point of conformity: the difficulty in maintaining your own beliefs in the face of others. Now, those of you -- I see the look in your eyes like, "I would've walked differently." Well, ask yourselves why you were clapping" he continued, looking at those of us who stood in line at the edge of the courtyard. I looked at my own hands in front of me, and Todd's as well, and I noticed too that Neil and Charlie had not exactly been clapping.

"Robert Frost said, "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference," Now, I want you to find your own walk right now. Your own way of striding, pacing. Any direction. Any way you want," Mr. Keating continued. "Gentlemen, lady, the courtyard is yours,"

Some of us began jumping around. Some strutted. Todd began striding, small steps at first, then broad and confident. Neil covered the courtyard in long, giant steps. I had begun to skip and dance, letting my arms swing. Not surprisingly, Charlie didn't budge.

"You don't need to perform. Just make it for yourself. Mr. Dalton? You'll be joining us?" Mr. Keating called.

"I'm exercising my right not to walk," Charlie replied.

"Thank you, Mr. Dalton. You just illustrated the point. Swim against the stream," Mr. Keating said as I caught up with Neil and managed to almost jokingly fall in step with him and Todd. As Neil discreetly took my hand, I felt a little uneasy. I knew we were being watched.

That evening, I was studying in my room under the covers, with a flashlight. Suddenly, someone knocked on the door. I threw on my robe and opened the door to find the Dead Poets all there.

"What are you doing here?" I whispered.

Neil emerged with a gift-wrapped package that was only a little longer than my hand. "We just thought we'd give you this. From all of us. Happy birthday, Vanessa!" he said cheerily.

I noticed that the box had been rather crudely wrapped (later, Knox would confess that they'd tried wrapping it in the dark). "Guys, we can't stay long. We'll get in trouble," Cameron protested.

"Oh go to bed if you want to, you baby," Charlie mocked.

"Are you going to open it?" Todd asked.

I quickly ripped the paper off and underneath was a fine blue pen, with my name engraved on it in silver. "You really shouldn't have," I whispered, wondering how much they'd had to pool for it.

"It's not everyday we get to er…treat a girl nicely," Knox said. I smirked at him.

"Thanks," I smiled. The hallway clock struck, and we nearly jumped.

"It's time to go, gents," Neil said, "And you know, it's not even quite ten o'clock,"

I laughed as I grabbed the "Leaves of Grass" off my desk and put the pen in its place. I wouldn't lose it for the world. "Are we going to the cave again?" I asked, putting the pen on my table.

"Is there a better way to spend your birthday?" he asked. I shook my head as I grabbed my coat and pulled on shoes.

"Lead the way," I grinned as we dashed off down the halls. We ran haphazardly to the woods, tracing familiar paths, jumping, laughing, and dashing every which way we could think of.

I had been so blind as not to notice how Neil treated me over the next few days. He would sometimes fall back to wait for me to catch up, and he always, always sat beside me at table. On Thursday, I noticed him apparently watching me after class.

"Did you want anything?" I asked.

He smiled cheekily. "I wanted to ask you if you could accompany me to play practice," he said.

I frowned. "Neil, I've got homework, and really, what will I do there?"

"I just need the moral support," he said.

"Can't you ask Todd or someone else?"

"You're the only other person at school who understands what I feel about…acting, about many things,"

"It would take a lifetime to fully understand you, really. You're so foolhardy that it's scary. I think you take too many risks,"

"So do you,"

By this time, we were standing close, as if there was something neither of us could get across to the other. Unexpectedly, he leaned in and kissed me, just for a second, but it felt like eternity as he drew back.

If it had been any other boy, I probably would've slapped him. This time, though, I could only watch as he pedaled away.

That evening, I was walking when suddenly, a slab of something landed at my feet. Pens, paper and ink were everywhere, even on my uniform.

I looked up and saw two familiar figures laughing at the walkway. "Did you expect this desk set to grow wings, Todd Anderson?" I yelled up at them as I marched up to the walkway. Neil and Todd could only look at me, eyes wide as if feigning innocence.

"So much for the world's first unmanned flying desk set," Todd said to Neil.

"You rascals," I snickered, gesturing to my ink-stained blouse.

"It's Todd's birthday today," Neil said.

"Happy birthday, Todd," I said. "Was that desk set yours?"

"I have one just like that in my room," Todd replied.

I'd forgotten about that. I fished into my bag and found a pack of cookies I'd intended to hoard, but I decided to give it to Todd. "Sorry I couldn't wrap it," I said.

"Thanks," Todd said, smiling. "Want to share?"

"Anything's better than Hellton hash," Neil said. We three sat on the walkway as Todd tore the pack open and gave us a cookie each: oatmeal and chocolate chip.

"To birthdays and romantics," I said before taking a bite.