Phineas was thoughtful as he stole one of Ethan’s shirts and pulled it on over his own. The extra layer would help him stay warm and would have given him extra padding for crawling on the floor to find items he needed under the shelving units if today had been a day for building. Despite all the ideas circulating in his mind, it wasn’t; today was the day he would go home.
Phineas slithered down from the tabletop where he had been sleeping and stretched his arms over his head, arching his back to pop a few tired vertebrae. Sitting on a tram for hours was not his idea of fun and he didn’t look forward to it. He felt stiff thinking about it.
Despite the uncomfortable trip ahead of him, Phineas knew it was time to return. He was well aware his father would be irate, and while arriving home on his own as though nothing had happened wouldn’t do much to sooth him, at least it might demonstrate some satisfactory trait. Phineas didn’t know what that trait might be, but he was sure there was one.
As he patted down his pockets to make sure he had everything he wanted to take with him, the door opened behind him and Ethan came in carrying a box in his hands. From the smell, it could only have one thing in it. Phineas charged at him and began to climb up his body like a pole as his friend held the box of donuts over his head.
“Hey, come on, if I let you have first dibs and you won’t leave anything at all for me!”
“I know you ate some at the store already. Those are mine,” Phineas announced as he reached Ethan’s shoulders and the box. He snatched it away, grinning like a cat.
Ethan’s arms wrapped around him, steadying him as he lifted him and put him back down on one of the tables. “Didn’t expect you to be up and dressed already. You must have big plans.” Ethan sat on the table beside him. “So, what are you going to build today?”
Phineas finished inhaling his second cinnamon twist and licked the sugar from his fingers. “Nothing. I’m going home.”
“What do you mean ‘home’?”
“Where my dad lives. Where I live. The place where my stuff is,” the redhead answered without looking up from his breakfast.
Ethan’s face pinched a little, a mixture of emotions appearing in quick succession. “You mean you’ve had a home and family this whole time and you didn’t say anything?”
“You never asked,” Phineas pointed out. It had never occurred to him to be deceptive and if Ethan felt led on, it was only because he had jumped to his own conclusions. He was more worried about finishing the box of donuts than about that, though; it was best to be full for his trip home.
Ethan did feel led on, though, and crossed his arms over his chest. “You little prick. You’ve been using me just so you could run away.”
Phineas wiped his mouth off on his sleeve, frowning at his companion. “I wasn’t running away. I just wanted to see some stuff. I’m done now, so I’m going home. I didn’t ask you for anything, you offered. If you feel like I used you, maybe you were too quick to give stuff away. That’s not my fault.”
Phineas only had enough time to blink before his back was pressed against the cold slab of the table, trapped there by Ethan, who had his lips pressed firmly against Phineas’s, sucking hard at his mouth. He had been eating pastries at the shop before coming over. Custard filled ones. Phineas felt one of Ethan’s hands circle both of his wrists, securing them over his head.
Ethan broke off the kiss, his eyes glaring into Phineas’s. “Maybe it’s time I just start taking, then, rather than giving.”
Phineas wasn’t quite sure what he meant by that. He wasn’t quite sure what any of this was about. He felt Ethan’s free hand groping at his pants for a moment before it plunged down under his waistband.
Phineas arched off the table, his eyes search the ceiling for an answer to the stars in his vision. This was different. Rationally, he knew the reaction was due to the stimulation of the parasympathetic division of his autonomic nervous system. He hadn’t expected such a strong reaction, though. As a scientist, he was intrigued: it was different with another male. As a boy, however, he was scared.
The metal door resounded with three insistent bangs that demanded more than requested entry. It made Ethan pause and look over his shoulder at the door. Phineas craned his neck to do the same. Who the hell was knocking at his door at nearly nine in the morning? Didn’t they know most of the time he was still asleep right now?
Still, it gave him a moment to consider. If he took the best interest of science and scientific method into consideration, there were just too many variables in this situation. It was likely that whatever Ethan was doing, he could reproduce it on his own in a controlled environment. That was the most reasonable action to take in the name of science.
With that settled, Phineas laid back and shouted at the door, “As long as you’re not here to steal anything, come in! It’s open!”
Ethan let him go, stepping away as though to distance himself from blame. Phineas sat up and rubbed his wrists, frowning at his lap. Well, there were certainly a lot of bonuses to wearing several layers of clothing.
The door creaked open and Phineas waited for his visitor to appear. He was busy today and he still had a tram to catch. Though he should have known better, he was surprised when it was his brother who appeared around the corner of the door. He was holding a gun.
Phineas blinked at him. “Julian?”
He watched his brother’s eyes find him in the flickering florescent light and saw the tired smile that split across his face. “You owe me big time.”
Phineas hopped down from the table, not quite sure at what point he’d given himself away. His brother was a fine detective but Phineas hadn’t even considered the possibility that he would actually find him, especially when he had no destination in mind himself. He had either grossly underestimated his brother, or Julian had somehow cheated. It was most likely the latter.
Phineas walked over to him, hands on his hips. “I was going to go home on my own, you know. What are you doing barging into my laboratory? I’m supposed to be catching the tram in an hour, so I have no time to waste entertaining you.”
Julian smirked a little at his brother’s dismissal of normality and watched the tall boy in the corner sneak past him and out the door without a word. “Who was that?”
“Oh, that’s Ethan. You probably made him nervous coming in here with a gun like that. Put that away,” Phineas ordered, pleased when Julian obeyed. “Let me guess. Dad sent you.”
“None other. And it hasn’t been easy, I’ll tell you that much. I’ve been looking for you since the morning after you left.”
“Well congratulations, you found me. Got a big prize waiting now?” The bitterness in his tone surprised even him. Maybe it had as much to do with Ethan sneaking out without a word as it did with seeing his brother again after months only because their father had hired him. Either way, he was annoyed at his mouth for letting it come across in his words.
Julian crossed over to him and bent down, wrapping him a hug that made Phineas’s body feel warm and comfortable. The last time this had happened had been a few years ago, when Julian was home from leave from the military police. That had been the last time they’d spent any significant amount of time together. Shyly, Phineas wrapped his arms around Julian’s chest and leaned his head against his shoulder.
“I was so worried about you,” Julian whispered into his ear.
“I’m okay. Just wanted to step out for a while.”
Julian nodded a bit and kissed his cheek before straightening.
Phineas let his arms fall back to his sides. “So now I get escorted back home, yeah?”
Phineas shrugged. “I was going to go back today, anyway.”
“If you want...you can stay at my place tonight instead of going straight to Maxwell’s. Probably better off dealing with him after a good night’s sleep instead of after a long tram ride.” Julian offered a charming smile. “We’re overdue for a sleepover anyway, aren’t we?”
Phineas gave that some thought, the clockworks of his mind turning. He’d already taken into consideration how angry with him his father would be and the length of the tram ride, and the fact that he was almost always hungry and was likely to have to sneak some food that night after being chastised harshly and sent to bed without. If he went with Julian, he could consult with him the best way to approach his homecoming and it would guarantee him another day worth of meals. The advantage of putting of his return by one more day was clear and it might be nice to spend some time with Julian.
He agreed and put off their departure just long enough to show off some of the things he had made while he’d been staying in the lab before gathering the few things he would be taking with him. Then he joined Julian on the tram headed back toward the Core. Sitting side by side, Julian put an arm around his shoulders and offered himself as a headrest for Phineas to nap on. Since Phineas had already seen the view, he got comfortable and shut himself down to rest.
Though it was not a terribly long walk, they took a bus from the tram station where they disembarked. It was a straight shot to the restaurants in Julian’s district, where they stopped and ate, discussing nothing of any weight: Phineas’s exploits in the past few weeks, the kind of jobs Julian had been taking recently, and so on.
They spent the meal catching up with these everyday trivialities and then set off with a boxed up pie for Julian's apartment, where they would eat their desert. Julian threw open the door for Phineas as he put his personal effects down and walked to the kitchen to take care of the pie. Phineas looked around curiously, taking in the small apartment with fascination. It was a bit cluttered, with tablets and a terminal huddled together on a coffee table that had seen better days. The couch had a permanent indentation where his brother sat, probably as he studied the terminal screen or typed up his paperwork, and there were rings on the table from his coffee cup. Among the work clutter was a half empty bottle of scotch and there was a crumpled pillow on the couch.
Phineas took a seat in Julian’s couch indentation, smirking a bit at a thought he would never say out loud: Julian had a bigger butt than he did. He wiggled a bit, getting a feel for what it must be like to be his brother every day that he chose to work. He looked up and saw electronic wanted posters displayed on thin, programmable plastic tacked up to the cream-colored walls instead of the vid-screen most people would have had across from the couch.
Some of faces looking back at him were unfamiliar, and others had names to them that he thought he had probably heard on newscasts. One of them, tacked firmly in the center of the group, didn’t even include a face. All it said was “The Surge. Wanted Alive. Reward: 100 million credits.” There was the bounty of all bounties. There were no leads and no evidence on the man, just the name the press had given him and the legend surrounding him; it was more than enough to initiate the most ridiculous manhunt ever to be sanctioned by government officials. Phineas didn’t know whether to think his brother was foolish for even entertaining the idea of locating and bringing down the Surge or a little miffed that Julian would have the nerve to put a stop to such an interesting character.
Then again, it might have just been an aesthetic decision. What wall of wanted men would be completely without the enigmatic centerpiece? If that were the case, than Phineas approved.
Julian brought a large slice of pie and a glass of milk and set them both down in front of Phineas in a space that he swept clear with his arm. Phineas looked at both servings and grimaced. “You’re holding out on me. I know this didn’t take a whole box to bring home.”
“Just thinking ahead. Maybe you’ll want some tomorrow, hm? Best not to gorge yourself on all of it in one sitting.” He took a seat beside Phineas, hugging his pillow as he picked up his scotch bottle and took a long swig.
Phineas sighed and poked at his desert with his fork. There was hardly the same magic in a piece of pie as there was in a whole one. That had never stopped him before, though.
By the time he’d savored the last morsel on his plate, they had been sitting in silence for several moments. It was a silence that was caught between being comfortable and pregnant. There was something very nostalgic in being together; it was very reminiscent of their childhood in several ways. Phineas had often been pacified with deserts and Julian seemed to have always been familiar with the liquor cabinet. A typical evening at home, before Julian left, might have looked just like this: the brothers sitting in silence on a sofa, each with their particular silencing treat. They said nothing because they never really relaxed; the master of the house was always watching and being too comfortable around family could spell disaster. Maxwells walked a thin line between ally and enemy, even those who were only Maxwell by law.
That’s why the magic of the pie felt so depleted. When Julian had brought it in, the sensation of cameras spying on them everywhere had come with him. It was as though they had been transported back into that cold, lifeless den were scrutiny and punishment waited.
Phineas swallowed hard. He was really going to get it when he got home.
It was a fact he’d accepted from the outset, but thinking about it now, so close to the real thing, he felt like he was drowning.
Phineas jumped a little, looking up at his brother with wide blue eyes. “Done?”
Julian put his hand out for the empty plate. “You look like you could use another.”
Phineas nodded a little, keeping only his fork as Julian stood and faded away behind the wall that separated kitchen from living room. This might be the last time he was ever offered pie. His father might wipe it from existence to punish him. Despite how sick he felt just thinking about the imminent beating, having all that delicious food barred from his lips, increased security, he needed to consume as much freedom and pie as he could get his hands on. It really was down to all or nothing now.
As though sensing this growing need, Julian brought him the rest of the pie. He set it down on the table before taking his seat beside Phineas, licking some stray frosting from his fingers. “Mmm. Not bad.”
“If you get to taste, so do I.”
Julian cocked his head as his brother reached across for his bottle of scotch. Phineas lifted it and took a swallow, smelling the burn of the alcohol as he breathed it in a second before it went down his throat. It roiled like lava into his belly, making him feel cold everywhere in comparison to the heat bubbling in his gut. And it tasted about as good as he remembered, too.
Julian took it out of his hand, giving him a stern look before leaning back and looking him over. “You hate scotch.”
“Yeah, it tastes like gear lubricant mixed with ethanol,” Phineas admitted, going for his desert to correct the flavor imbalance in his mouth. “The pie tastes even better in comparison, though.”
“You hoping to get drunk tonight or something?”
Phineas shook his head and continued to eat.
Julian watched him for a moment and, as though sensing his fear, he put the bottle on the table and left his brother in solitude as he disappeared into the bedroom.
Phineas followed him several moments later to find him putting clean sheets on the bed and turning down the large comforter. Apparently one luxury Julian refused to compromise on was having a large comfortable bed, which was good thing as far as Phineas was concerned. He knew he tended to thrash in his sleep--he sometimes woke up upside-down and half on the floor.
“You didn’t have to make the bed, you know. I’m going to just mess it all back up,” he noted from his post, leaning against the doorframe and rubbing his eyes with one fist.
Julian turned a smile to him and patted the fluffy comforter. “It’s not made so much as it’s clean. Smells nice. I, uh, got this new detergent. I thought ‘clean linen’ was specifically made for bedding and stuff but it turns out it’s a fragrance. It’s really nice.”
Phineas walked over to the bed and gave it a couple pats, feeling out the softness. His hand sank down into layers of foam, swallowed up by warmth as though entering a silky cocoon. It did have smell nice, though.
“When my mom would clean houses, she’d come home smelling like this from doing other people’s laundry. All of our things, though, she’d use flower scents on. She said it smelled like life and not just like soap.”
“Oh...well, sorry it smells like soap,” Julian’s apology lacked any real concern. “Did you see your mom while you were out at all?”
Phineas shook his head. “He’d have looked there first and I’d have had to go back home.”
“Well, want to stop by and see your other family before we go back tomorrow?”
Phineas shook his head again, perhaps to Julian’s surprise. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to see his mother again and hug her neck and get some homemade cookies in his belly. With his father’s displeasure on the horizon, though, it would be hard to really enjoy the moment, and that sort of thing shouldn’t be done halfheartedly.
Phineas slipped his feet out of his boots and crawled across the bed, snuggling down into the depths of the blankets, prepared for an eternity of hibernation. He waited, listening to his brother’s footsteps pace from the bed to the closet, to the bathroom, and back to the bed. He slid under the covers on the other side of the bed and the two of them lay like that for a few moments. Neither said anything or moved closer to the center. Phineas finally just switched his consciousness off, accepting the gesture of a bed to sleep in for what it was.
In the morning, he was less keen. Not only did his brother seem to have a severe lack of consideration, but he had also sabotaged the bed. Now, with Julian crooning some ghastly song in the shower, Phineas was faced with perhaps his greatest nemesis of all: tangled sheets. They had teamed up with the soft mattress and together they were fighting to keep him prisoner. The more he twisted and tried to kick his legs, the harder it was to move. This could be dangerous. One wrong move could mean the end. There was only one thing to do.
He rolled off of the bed, taking half the linens with him and landing on his boots. He made a mental note that those went at the foot of the bed, where they would be out of his way if he needed to make some sort of gyrating escape. Tugging his feet free from the blankets, Phineas sat up and looked for the clock.
It was already way past time to be up and getting ready. His bladder was inclined to agree. He looked over at the bathroom door, which was opened part way to vent out the steam. There was no telling how long his brother’s shower would take, and peeing in a kitchen sink just seemed wrong on too many levels to really contemplate. He walked over to the door and let himself in, and went straight for the toilet next to the shower.
“You know, Phineas, hearing someone pee while you’re standing under a constant stream of warm water isn’t exactly relaxing.”
Phineas gave a small grunt of amusement. “It’s all reclaimed water anyway. It doesn’t exactly stretch the imagination to feel like you’re being urinated on by any number of people, and all at the same time.” He waited expectantly and smirked to himself when his brother shut the shower off. Julian’s weak stomach was a source of endless amusement. Phineas gave two shakes then tucked himself back in his boxers before putting his hand to the handle. “Thus begins another cycle of hygiene.”
“That is so gross, Phineas.” Julian grabbed a towel off the rack and stepped out of the shower with it wrapped around his waist. “You’re next, I hope you know. See if I leave you any hot water next time.”
The redhead spied his reflection, eyeing the haphazard red spikes of hair. “I don’t need a shower. I don’t smell and my hair’s not all greasy.”
“Take one anyway. I’ve got some stuff to look up and it’ll give you something to do other than sit around and wait for me. Won’t hurt to look your best for dad, either.”
Phineas considered that for a minute, then sighed and began the tedious process of undressing. One reason he had slept in his clothes the night before had been to bypass the whole ordeal of dressing again in the morning. Julian was right, though: it could only help him to scrub behind his ears before showing up at home. He tried to keep his things together so that he could slither right back into them once he was clean. To his surprise, Julian helped aid him with some of it, holding the cuffs of his sleeves as he wiggled down and out of his layers.
“So, what exactly is that a tattoo of?”
Phineas blinked and looked over his own shoulder, as though he could see it from there. He’d forgotten about the still-healing design inscribed between his shoulders. “Oh, that’s my lady Science.”
Julian smirked a little at the familiar way in which Phineas had named his woven design. “Going to introduce her to dad?”
“Hell no.” Phineas made a deeply disturbed face. “Contrary to popular belief at this juncture and despite an overwhelming amount of conflicting evidence, I do value my life.” He left the last bits of his clothing on the floor and skittered off behind the drawn shower curtain. “I’ma wash up now.”
“Right. Use whatever you want. Towel’s on the rack, just hang it back up when you’re done.”
Phineas waved his hand through the curtain, dismissing him from the scene. He was quite up to date of bathing etiquette.
It didn’t take long to shower. It was considerably less time than he had anticipated because he didn’t have to be as gentle or careful cleaning his tattoo as he had the last time he had showered. There was no scabbing and no sensitivity, as though it had healed completely. That was a relief. One of his fears had been unintentionally causing part of it to scab and thus ruining the intricately laced design he’d managed to sit still for.
He dried off and slithered back into his clothing, which took longer than the shower had. Once dry and clothed, he joined his brother in the living room, where he was sitting in his indent, typing away on his terminal.
“I promise we’ll stop by and get something real before we get to dad’s,” Julian said, not looking away from the screen even slightly.
“Feel free to buy me anything at all.” Phineas looked over his brother in order to see the screen he was working on. It looked a little like the invoices Phineas sometimes filled out to help Maxwell, but with larger description fields. “You fill out an invoice for every job you finish?”
Julian nodded without looking up. "I won't be bothering with Maxwell's, but yeah, these are from some of my older jobs. We’ll head on out as soon as I finish up this one.”
He typed for a few more moments and looked up. Phineas took that as his cue to run back to the bedroom and slip his boots back on.
“You like coffee, right, Phineas?”
“Yeah, but only the sweet kind with all the stuff in it,” he said, rejoining his brother in the living room.
“You feel like stopping in one of those tram station coffee shops then?”
Phineas gave him an eager smile as his response and hurried out the door Julian held open for him. Once it was closed and locked, they began the short walk to the tram station.
They both seemed a bit more relaxed and comfortable in the other’s presence this morning. The awkward silences of the night before had vanished as Julian recounted some of the work he had done to locate his brother, spending a great deal of time describing the strange magic shop he’d wandered into. Phineas liked knowing he had done a very good job hiding from his family. Maxwell was sure to appreciate the amount of trouble he had put them, through, if only because it showed a certain amount of ingenuity and intelligence in Phineas to have accomplished so much on his own. He’d be angry, but at least Phineas had achieved a small measure of respectability, too. Pointing that out might save him from some abuse, though certainly not all of it.
Halfway to the station, he lit a cigarette he had found in his pocket, ignoring his brother’s disapproving glare. He couldn’t say anything without risking making himself into a gigantic hypocrite, but he still gave him a look that made him look nearly identical to their father. Phineas wondered what kind of look he’d get were he to mention Dao Ming, the girl at the Great Wall who watched him watching her out of the corners of her eyes. Whatever it would be, it was almost worth mentioning her just to see it. But not quite.
At the coffee shop he slapped together the most ridiculous order he could think of, and had to repeat it three times before the cashier had it right. The end product looked ridiculous next to Julian’s small, black coffee. Or maybe it was the other way around. He picked it up in both hands and drank it fast until his brain froze over and he pursed his lips and closed his eyes to force the sensation away.
As the tram pulled up, Phineas disposed of his trash in the bin next to a bench where a man with blonde and blue spiked hair sat picking at a muffin. The brothers boarded alongside the rest of the working class, and stood holding tightly to a pole near the doors.
It wasn’t a long trip, but it was long enough. Phineas looked through the windows as they climbed, watching the lower level buildings fade as the sparkling skyscrapers of the upper levels came into view. It felt odd that he had no attachment to this view. It had been his home for many years but the ritzy glow of the upper levels did not feel like home. He found himself missing the sky in No Town.
They got off the tram a few stops past the normal station and got on a bus back towards the estate. Phineas was unaware of whatever reasons Julian had for doing this; it was best to leave the private detective work to his brother for now, since he wasn’t in an argumentative mood. He felt even more docile once they entered the spacious and elegant lobby of his building. This was it.
The woman behind the counter looked over and smiled warmly to Phineas, her bright red lips parting to show off bright white teeth. “Young Mister Maxwell, it’s been a while since I’ve seen you. You’re looking very nice today.”
Phineas smiled back a bit. “Oh, thanks. You too.” He patted at his pockets and smiled a little bigger, sheepishly. “Actually, I don’t remember which pocket I put my keycard in. Can you send the lift down for me?”
“That won’t be necessary.”
Phineas felt his stomach sink as he turned his head, looking up past his brother at the dark silhouettes against the doors. Even without their features visible, it was easy to tell who they were.
“Good morning, Mr. Maxwell, Mr. Torim,” the clerk’s light and cheerful voice sang.
“Good morning, Helen. Any messages for me?”
She shook her head, looking up at the powerful man with awe and respect. “None, sir.”
“Well, that’s fine. Thank you for the good work, Helen.” He waved to her with his politician smile and wrapped an arm around Phineas’s shoulders, steering him to the mirrored elevator doors. His fingers dug into Phineas’s arm painfully.
“Mr. Maxwell?” Julian’s footsteps quickly caught up to them as he followed. “Sir, if I may have a word with you?”
Maxwell maintained his public charm, well aware of the audience they had. “I’m sorry, but I’m a very busy man. I’m sure whatever interest group you work for has some fine ideas, but I’m not in the mood to entertain a lobbyist at this moment. Have a good day, sir.”
Anyone could tell by the spark of rage in his eyes that Maxwell was in no mood to converse. The elevator doors chimed open. Julian looked down at Phineas, apologies scribbled all over his face. Phineas smiled at him a bit, not at all the response even he himself had expected. This was the way things were, though, and the way they had always been. The only recourse was to accept it, at least for now. At least he had earned it.
He got on the lift with his father and his assistant and waited, watching his brother disappear behind the mirrored doors along with a world that he missed already.