|Believing In Magic
Author: Aqua Lion PM
Steve and Joe never understood each other. And when you're growing up torn between magic and reality, it helps to have a brother you can rely on. But at least Steve always had his puppy... all Joe has is a duck and a grudge.Rated: Fiction T - English - Angst/Family - Chapters: 3 - Words: 10,047 - Reviews: 32 - Favs: 58 - Follows: 3 - Published: 03-13-10 - Status: Complete - id: 5814421
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Believing In Magic - The Rest of the Story
They are alone in the side yard; alone except for Mailbox, who is sound asleep out front. It is late now, and for the first time since Joe arrived there is no one around to hear them. The relief is palpable even though they both know the worst is yet to come. That they are free to talk means they must talk.
Even so, neither is in any hurry. Steve is sprawled on the grass, comfortably cool against the warm summer night. Joe is flopped on the tire swing, looking a little dazed. That is understandable; after all, it's been quite some time since he was used to dealing with this world—with Blue, with talking condiments and furniture, with all the boundless enthusiasm of those who've never had to grow up.
Steve is actually impressed. His brother has done much better than he did on his first day back here. For a few moments during show and tell, he almost recognized him as the cheerful seven-year-old who was here so long before. But he certainly does not recognize the fragile twelve-year-old he left shivering in bed the day he moved out. His little brother is bigger than him now, wiry and athletic. Steve thinks of the days when Joe was so routinely bullied, and can't quite hold back a chuckle.
"What's so funny?" his companion asks immediately, trying to sound casual. He fails but doesn't seem to notice, or at least, does not acknowledge the failure.
"Just thinking." Steve shakes his head. "Remind me—there really was a time once that I had to protect you, right?" He is surprised, and amused, to catch a note of pride in his voice. But why not? He's allowed to be proud of his brother.
For a few moments, he gets no answer to the question, as Joe is busy giving him a rather odd look. Then he rolls his eyes. "Remind me—I'm visiting my brother, not my grandma, right?" He sounds amused as well. Guarded, but amused. "I get it, I get it, I've gotten taller. And you've gotten old."
As much as Steve would like to give a clever response to that, he can't actually think of one. So he waves it off and sits up. "So what've you been up to?"
"Nothing much." He goes no further and the brief moment of levity is gone, slipping away as quickly as the night breeze. Silence falls over them again. But then Joe seems to decide he is not overly fond of silence. Unsurprising; he never has been. "You seem to be doing pretty well."
"Yeah." He is not going to take that bait—if it is indeed bait. That is not his brother's style. Or at least, it never was... Steve does not know how much has changed beyond the physically obvious, and it has him on edge. No matter how well things have gone so far, he cannot forget that their last conversation ended with the words I hate you.
He doesn't want to hear those words ever again.
So when it looks like no further comment will be coming from his brother, he says what he's been waiting to say for a very long time. "I've missed you."
It does not surprise him when Joe looks away; the lack of response is a response in itself. Steve smiles, careful not to let himself laugh out loud, which can only be misinterpreted. No, Joe will not admit to having missed him. It seems his little brother still has all the social maturity of a pineapple.
Not even Steve will admit he's missed that, too.
"Blue wants to know if you're staying."
Well. Blue wants to know. Somehow, Joe suspects Blue isn't the only one. "It's almost midnight. I'm still here." Which probably is not quite what Steve was asking, but he doesn't want to answer that question. Mostly because he doesn't know the answer. He hasn't even been anticipating the offer.
He is right about the question, in any case; Steve waves off his answer with some annoyance. "Not if you're staying for a day or two, if you're staying."
This seems like it would be a good time to pretend he has some pressing business on the outside world, some life he cannot leave. Which wouldn't fool anyone. He doesn't bother. "I, uh, wasn't aware I had an invitation." He invited himself over to begin with, but that is not the point.
Steve doesn't point that out, though. He looks just a little stricken. "Of course you do. You always have. You know that. I told you before..." Now he looks quite stricken indeed. "Before."
Oh. Right. There it is, then. Joe pulls back as if that can really end the discussion, or better, make the last statement have never happened. It doesn't work. And when he tries to respond he finds that his voice does not want to cooperate; it is a battle to force the words out. "Right. You did tell me that." His eyes narrow, unconsciously. "Was I supposed to believe it? You told me a lot of things."
His brother cocks his head; he looks confused. "What do you mean?"
Joe is shocked by the question—shocked enough that he cannot find words for a moment. Steve should know this. "You... you left," he answers finally, plaintively. "You promised you'd..." His voice gives out with a faint, strangled sound, and for a few moments there is only silence again.
"...My God." Steve shifts position in the grass and looks at him with disbelief. "That's why? That's why?" There is a note of something like desperation in his voice. "You really thought that... Joe, I..." He is struggling for words and his younger brother waits, not from patience, but because his own voice is still failing him. "I did promise," he agrees softly. "I meant it. I've always meant it. And I waited for you to get over—to get better." He shakes his head. "I waited and waited and you never came back."
If his brother's expression is one of disbelief, Joe can't even imagine his own. "You what?" He struggles against the words; they cannot be true, it cannot be so... so... simple. So simple he can still only speak in a shattered rasp. "But you... you never called or wrote or..." The reality of what he's saying sinks in. I hate you is not a sentence which really invites further contact. "I... guess I kind of told you not to, didn't I?"
"Kind of," Steve agrees quietly. "That's not really an excuse... I probably should have anyway. But I didn't even think you liked me all that much to begin with." He shrugs helplessly. "We barely even spent time together, I—"
"You," Joe snaps before he can stop himself, "were busy with your puppy, so I stayed out of your way."
In any other situation, Steve's dumbfounded expression would be comical. But Joe is too shocked with himself to really notice.
He was not expecting that to slip out.
If nothing else, Steve supposes this has been educational. That he does not like what he's learned at all is irrelevant—this all would have been very nice to know seven years ago. Maybe twelve years ago, even better.
He is surprised when Joe recovers first. "Sorry." The word is barely audible, but it is there. "I just..."
"I understand." And he does. Suddenly it all makes sense.
It is not his fault. Intellectually he knows that, but he cannot help blaming himself. He was older, supposedly more mature. Steve does not believe he abandoned his brother, but that doesn't matter. What matters is that Joe feels he was abandoned. And if he has handled it poorly, he is not the only one.
Their eyes lock. Joe's are darker, deeper than Steve's; there may be a metaphor there. Or maybe he's just overthinking. "So my question still stands," he says finally, softly. "Are you staying?"
Joe considers this longer than last time; thankfully he does not point out that it was Blue's question the first time it was asked. As he considers he extricates himself from the tire swing—a gesture which Steve doubts has anything to do with physical discomfort—and sprawls out on the grass. "I don't know. Should I?"
"Of course you should." Steve sighs. He knows the only tiniest fraction of what has happened in Joe's life since he moved out—he has kept in touch with their parents, and while short on details, they have expressed concern. Given how unusual both their sons are, concern is telling. And for Steve's part, hindsight is what it is... again. "What kind of question is that, anyway? You belong here. That's why your life started falling apart around you when we stopped com—don't give me that look."
Despite the order his brother keeps giving him that look, a mix of annoyance and amazement. "I really don't even know how to respond to that," he mutters finally.
"Here, I can help. Three words—'Sure, I'll stay'. Give it a try." Steve grins; Joe doesn't. "Or can you tell me why not? Why shouldn't you stay?"
"Because, well..." Joe looks uneasy. "You're here. I can fake it, but it's... weird."
"Aha. I get it." Steve cannot deny that the words hurt, but he also can't deny that they make perfect sense. He remembers the somewhat awkward hug they shared when Joe first arrived, and that he was rather surprised by it. "Fair point." On the other hand, this gives him a perfect opportunity to bring up what, up until now, seemed like a question that would only make things far worse. "Actually, now that you mention that, I... wanted to get your advice on something."
His brother gives him a curious look. "Yeah?"
"Yeah." He produces one of the letters, finally released from hiding in his pillowcase, and hands it over. And he waits.
It seems that where Joe is involved, he has been waiting forever.
Most of this conversation has gone places Joe didn't expect, but the letter Steve offers him brings it to a whole new level. How his brother even found time to apply to any colleges, given his surroundings, is well beyond Joe's ability to imagine. He supposes that isn't the point, but nearly asks anyway, just to satisfy his curiosity.
"That's impressive," he ventures finally, hoping he does not sound sarcastic. It is impressive; as an achievement in secrecy, as much as in intellect. Though the thought of secrecy brings another question to mind. "How'd you explain these to Mailbox?"
"I, um... had no idea how I would do that, so I went through the post office instead."
This surprises Joe a bit; Mailbox, the only inhabitant of the magical world who seems to have matured normally, was always his first confidant here. Then again, his brother's social circle has always been a bit different than his own, even when the same friends are involved. "How about Blue?"
"She doesn't know either."
Well. That is a surprise. "Seriously?"
"Seriously. Not much point in telling her." Steve sighs. "I couldn't very well just pack up and leave everyone, could I?" Joe opens his mouth to say something he'll probably regret, but his brother anticipates it and cuts him off. "I do learn from my mistakes."
"Fair enough." Joe hands the letter back, then frowns. "So you're not actually asking for my advice; you're asking if I'll move in and take over here while you're at college." Contrary to the beliefs of his peers, he can catch on quickly when needed. "Do you think that'll really... you know... work?"
"Of course it will. It'll be different than before—for you, anyway. But..." He stands, stretches a bit, then moves forward and drops onto the grass next to Joe. "They need someone here. Not so much to take care of them—but to be here. To play with them, to teach them, and maybe most important, to understand them." He reaches out and squeezes Joe's shoulder; the younger is surprised at himself when he does not flinch away. "They're still your best friends, aren't they?"
As long as it has been since he was here last, there is certainly no one in the outside world who has ever come close to taking that title. "Of course."
"Then what's left to worry about?"
Good question. But Joe is worried, he simply cannot put it into words. He is not sure how he feels about this—he wants to stay, but at the same time, he doesn't want his brother to leave. Again. "What about you?" he asks finally, the only coherent thought he can form. "Staying here is all well and good, but... it won't fix anything."
"It'll fix more than you think." Steve is quiet for a moment, then smiles. "Besides, it's not like I have to leave right away. We do have a lot of catching up to do—and, if you're staying here, you'll have to learn to play Blue's Clues."
"I know how to play Blue's Clues. Blue leaves her pawprints on stuff, and you hopefully find them all and clean them up before Mom comes home and kills both of you."
Steve smirks. "Granted, but you've got to learn the finer points." When Joe doesn't laugh his brother's expression softens. "I know... I know. But we'll keep in touch this time—for real. Trust me." He either interprets Joe's expression correctly, or simply thinks better of the request. "If you can."
If he can. The answer to that is not the answer he wants to give, and is certainly not the answer Steve wants to hear. "I... don't know. What if I can't?"
He can tell the question hurts; he regrets it, but that can't be helped. It takes his brother a few moments to respond, and he does so with a nod of understanding. "Then... give me another chance."
Joe nods. He is here, after all... the first steps have been taken. All that is left is to continue.
"I can do that."
Blue awakens in the middle of the night, letting out a few startled barks before calming herself—somewhat. Her first action is to crawl to the edge of her bed and look down; she cannot bring herself to look under the bed, but at least if there is anything fearsome lurking beneath it, that something is not trying to crawl out.
Even so—trying to get back to sleep is a lost cause. But she knows what to do in such cases. The same thing she always does after a bad dream. So after checking once more, to be absolutely certain nothing is creeping out into the room from the darkness under her bed, she jumps to the floor and hops up on Steve's bed.
Of course, when she lands on the pillow she remembers that it is not actually Steve's bed anymore. This fact throws her off for a moment, and only a moment. Steve isn't here anymore. Yes, that's right... her best friend is, for the first time, living somewhere she cannot follow. She misses him already, but tries not to dwell on it. There are too many adventures ahead, so many stories to tell him when he comes home.
Besides, Joe is here. And Joe is Steve's brother, and that is enough for Blue. So she burrows in under the blanket next to him.
One dark eye flickers open as she makes herself comfortable. "Blue?" He sounds more surprised than anything, but it quickly turns to concern. "You okay?"
"Bowbow," she explains. That ought to be enough. But then it occurs to her that maybe this is not so logical to him as it is to her, and decides to ask permission. Just to be safe. "Bow bow bow bow bowbow?"
For a moment he looks confused; it sometimes takes him longer than Steve to interpret Blue's words. He has been gone a long time, and their conversation before that was limited. But then he smiles and scratches her ears. "Of course you can."
Blue licks his face gratefully before settling back in beneath the covers. She is only a puppy; she doesn't understand all the complexities which have gotten them to this point. But they don't matter. She understands what Steve asked of her before he left... that her best friend has entrusted her with looking after his brother. She understands that well.
A creak from the roof; she yelps once before realizing that a monster coming from under her bed wouldn't make noise from the ceiling. Feeling a little silly, she closes her eyes and reminds herself that no monsters can get her here anyway. But just to be sure, she curls up closer to Joe, nestling up against his chest.
She can feel his heartbeat as she drifts off to sleep. It is just the same as Steve's.