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hey brother

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S: “All I ever wanted was a brother.”
J: “Okay. You've got one.”
—5x02, Boy Meets World

hey brother
there’s an endless road to rediscover

oh, if the sky comes falling down, for you
there’s nothing in this world I wouldn't do

 

“Everything’s going to be okay. It’s going to be perfect. You’ll all get along, and have pizza every night, and there’ll be no curfew and no rules. Maybe you can’t see it yet, but I do. With you and Jack, the connection’s already there. You just gotta find it. And you will! So don’t worry, okay?”

Shawn’s had many years to get used to this. To Cory's big earnest heart, his uncanny ability to read Shawn like a book when Shawn himself could barely get past the first page, and his tendency to launch into grand declarations cheesier than the ones in Full House. Not that Shawn watches it or anything.

And he is used to it. He’s terribly fond of these parts of Cory. But there are still rare moments where Cory’s just so Cory that it throws Shawn off. 

Take this moment for example.

Cory has waltzed into the apartment. Without even announcing himself, he lays this whole speech on Shawn with that dazzling grin of his. Under normal, non-reuniting-with-a-half-brother circumstances, Shawn would return his best friend’s grin, take a break from unpacking the millions of cardboard boxes sprawled across the floor, and greet Cory with a half-hug. He’d be unfazed by Cory’s Cory-ness. 

But it’s a different story right now. 

Right now, Cory’s encouraging words send him into a frenzy, distorting the world around him as the reality of his situation settles. It’s not like he hasn’t thought about it before, but the past few days have been hectic. In less than a week, he saw Jack for the first time in ages, confronted him about abandoning Shawn and his father only to learn that all of his letters, his attempts to connect with Jack, were sabotaged and Jack wasn’t actually ignoring him, and then moved in with Jack, and by extension, Eric. So. Bit of a busy week.

Thoughts about how little he has in common with Jack, how neither really knows each other, and how after all of this, they could still end up where they started—without a relationship—haven’t had the space to flood his mind with everything else going on. He hasn’t had time to freak out, go off into the deep end. 

And now he does.

Shawn can’t move. His legs are heavyweights that he isn’t strong enough to lift. His breathing becomes erratic, his heartbeat a staccato. “What’re you talking about?” His sounds distant to his ears, an octave higher and hesitant in a way that he never is.

Cory winces. He takes another step into the apartment, closes the door behind him. “Shawn—”

“I’m not worried. There’s no reason to be worried because I’m clearly not. You don’t, you don’t have to tell me to relax. I’m relaxed, okay, why would you even—”

Cory crosses the space between them and crouches in front of Shawn. The simple act cuts Shawn off from his panicked rambling, quiets him and his thoughts. Cory touches Shawn’s shoulder. He doesn’t speak. Just looks at Shawn with his painfully patient eyes and holds his gaze.

And it works. Of course, it works. Shawn’s heartbeat rises and settles. From where Cory’s hand still rests on his shoulder, warmth blooms and spreads across his skin. He meets Cory’s eyes and everything steadies, falls quiet. He’s tethered back to the world.

Cory nods encouragingly. With his other hand, he raises his palm up and down. Following Cory’s lead, they take a deep breath in and a deep breath out. For a few seconds, that’s all they do, breathing together.

All of Shawn’s anxiety rushes out of him on his next exhale. And that’s that. Cory must see the moment Shawn returns to himself, because the tight lines of concern in his face smoothen, replaced with a soft smile.

Shawn chuckles an embarrassed, self-deprecating laugh. “How’d you do that?” 

Cory retracts his hand. He plops onto the floor. “I’ve been through enough Shawn Hunter freakouts to know what works best by now.”

Coming from anyone else, Shawn would bristle, fume at the implications behind the comment. But it’s not anyone else. It’s Cory. From him, it’s just an affirmation of something Shawn already knew: that Cory’s always been here, that he’ll always be here, that he’s okay to deal with Shawn when he’s like this. He shouldn’t have to, but he wants to. 

“Good, since you started it.” Shawn extends his leg to foot Cory’s knee. “How’d you even know that I was freaking out about the move? I didn’t even tell you.”

Cory shrugs. He kicks Shawn’s calf back and then hugs his knees to his chest. “You didn’t have to. I know what you’re like when you’re on edge. And I also know that it’s not about the move, more about the reason behind the move.”

“Stop it. It’s freaky that you can read my mind.”

“I know you’re deflecting, but c’mon. You can probably read my mind too.”

“Let’s test it.”

“Alright.” Cory taps his forehead. Widens his eyes because he’s dramatic like that. “Read my mind.”

Shawn presses a palm against Cory’s head. Instinctively, his thumb curls around one of Cory’s curls. His eyes slip shut, forehead scrunching. “Hmm. You’re thinking that I need to address my feelings and stop trying to change the subject away from my brother, and ... you’re also thinking about the scent of Topanga’s conditioner.” He lowers his hand and opens his eyes.

Cory sighs happily. “Green apple.”

Shawn’s eyes crinkle with a faint smile. His heart pangs a little. “I know, Cor.”

“So now that we’ve proven you can read my mind ...”

“It’s really not a big deal. So what I’m living with my brother that I know nothing about, who I thought was actively ignoring me, resulting in all this resentment and anger and hurt that I have no idea what to do with now? It’s cool that he wants to get to know me, even if he could change his mind as soon as tomorrow once he realizes just who I am and how different we are and that maybe DNA isn’t enough. And it’s totally okay that he could possibly leave. He wouldn’t be the first Hunter to do that to me. It’s fine. I’m fine. What’s wrong with your face?” 

“How dare you.” Cory’s voice quivers. His hands fly up to cover his eyes. “There’s nothing wrong with my face. It’s perfect.”

“It’s—” Shawn grabs Cory’s wrist. Pries his hands away from his face. Skates his thumb down Cory’s warm cheek. “Wet. Your face is wet. Why are you crying!?”

“Because I’m sad! And if that’s how I feel just hearing you talk about how you feel, then how must you be feeling?”

“I told you I’m fine! Don’t cry!”

“Don’t yell at me!”

“Could you just. Look at me?”

Shawn tries not to wince as he looks his best friend over. Cloudy eyes, pink nose, damp cheeks. Cory’s a second away from completely sobbing. Ridiculous. “If I’m not crying, then why are you?” He can’t help but smile incredulously, wiping a tear before it falls down Cory’s chin. 

The look Cory gives him would be murderous if it weren’t for the fact that he’s currently bawling. “Because you’re a sociopath!”

“Or because you’re extremely sensitive?”

“How could you say such a thing when I’m already crying—”

Just then, the front door is kicked open. Eric and Jack appear, each carrying a box of pizza as they step inside.

“We brought—oh my god, he’s crying,” Eric says. 

Jack frowns, his forehead creasing. “What happened?” He tries to step towards Cory, but the hand Eric presses against Jack’s chest keeps him in place.

“It’s probably not a big deal. He cries over anything. Right, Shawn?”

“That’s true, but—” Shawn’s throat bobs. His gaze flits from Eric to Jack, who nods encouragingly. “He was crying over how much he’s going to miss Eric.”

“Aw, Cor, you’re going to miss me?” Eric’s laugh fills the air, loud and lyrical and so infectious that Shawn can’t help but chuckle. Delighted, he bends to pinch Cory’s cheek.

Cory bats Eric’s hand away. He hisses at Shawn and kicks his thigh hard. “You’re the worst person I know.”

“Am not!” Shawn leans forward, kicks Cory’s hip. “Am I worse than Hitler?”

“I don’t know Hitler.”

“You don’t know who Hitler is? How’s Feeny failing me in history when you don’t even know Hitler?”

“How are you failing history when we’ve only been in school for a week?”

“How are you not failing history when you don’t know who Hitler is?”

“I know of Hitler, but I don’t know Hitler. You can’t know someone you haven’t met. Get it?

“Yes. And now I’m offended that you think I’m the worst person you—”

“Oh my god.” Eric rubs his temple. “Enough. Please.”

“C’mon, Eric.” Jack takes the box of pizza out of Eric’s hands and sets it, along with his own box, onto the coffee table behind Shawn and Cory. “They’re kind of cute.”

“Oh, my naive new roommate.” Eric claps Jack on the shoulder. He smiles down at Cory and Shawn. “You know what else is cute? Babies. But babies cry and scream and poop all over the place. Would you want to live with that?”

“Are you asking me if I still want to live with my brother?”

“I, what, no, that’s not what I—stop twisting my words, man!”

“I think they’re sweet,” Jack says. “Cory, are you feeling better?”

“Oh, I, I’m fine. I could use a second alone with Shawn though if that’s okay?”

“You’re in our apartment.” Eric grits out. He raises his hand to thwack the back of Cory’s neck, but Jack grabs his wrist. 

“Sure thing. Eric and I will take a walk.” Jack smiles brightly. For a startling moment, Shawn sees the Hunter in Jack. He sees his father smiling right in front of him. 

Their father. Chet is Jack’s dad too. 

Shawn momentarily forgets how to breathe. Has to remind himself to do it, no matter how shaky and difficult it is. He stumbles to his feet, his breathing ragged, and tugs on Cory’s elbow. “No, it’s fine. We’ll take the walk. You guys bought us dinner, you should get to relax and eat.”

“He doesn’t cry AND he lets us have the apartment to ourselves.” Eric elbows Jack, leans in close to shout-whisper into his ear. “You wanna switch brothers?”

“As if Shawn would want you.” Cory scowls as Shawn pulls him up to his feet. He dusts his jeans with the back of his hands and then points to Eric. “I told him all about how you leave your boxers everywhere, including on the ceiling fan!”

Eric gasps. His voice rises octaves that Shawn didn’t know were humanly possible to make. “How dare you!” 

“Please tell me you’re joking,” Shawn says.

“The number of times I have woken up to his boxers on my face is ridiculous!” Cory says indignantly. “So if I wanna hang out with my best friend in his apartment, then I will.”

“And you will. Later. Not now.” Shawn wraps his arm around Cory’s back and steers him towards the door. “We’re taking a walk now. Right, bud?”

“Right.” Cory jabs his finger into Eric’s side as he passes him. Before Eric can hit Cory back, Shawn pulls Cory faster out the door, resolutely ignoring the small flutter in his chest when Cory clings to his arm. 

“Uh, be back soon!” Jack calls out. 

“Okay!” Shawn nudges Cory out the door then shuts it behind them. He replays the interaction, inwardly cringing, agonizing over how his dumb voice cracked over his dumb ‘okay’—why not just say goodbye? What kind of jackass says ‘okay’ then leaves? He didn’t even say bye!

Through the other side of the door, Jack’s muffled voice says, “On the ceiling fan, dude? Seriously?”

“Don’t believe a word my brother says,” Eric insists. “He’s a little liar.”

“I am not a liar,” Cory huffs. “Maybe we should switch brothers. I bet yours is—hey, you okay?”

He considers answering yes, but there would be no point. Cory can always tell when Shawn’s lying. For the first time, he doesn’t want to pretend that he’s fine. “I don’t know how to answer that yet. But I want to. Can you—”

“Of course.”

An unsure laugh bubbles out of Shawn’s throat. “You don’t even know what I was going to say.”

Cory slots his arm around Shawn’s shoulder, walking them to the elevator. With his free hand, he punches the button to open the doors. “Don’t have to. It’s always a yes from me.”

“What if I asked you to help me bury a body?”

“I’d say pass me the shovel.”

Ding. The elevator doors slide open. They step inside, Cory’s arm still around Shawn. They stay like that even after Shawn presses the ground floor button and the elevator begins its descent. 

Shawn leans his head against Cory’s. “You’re the best, you know that? And you know I’d do the same for you, right?”

“Aye, don’t even mention it. I know you would.”

“I still want you to hear it.”

“That’s the most romantic thing I’ve ever heard,” Cory says so seriously that Shawn could almost believe it.

“Well, it’s probably the most romantic thing I’ve ever said. Don’t tell Topanga.” It’s a joke, even though it’s the truth and he’d mean what he said just as much if he said it to Topanga too. 

The elevator dings once more, doors sliding open on the ground floor. 

“C’mon.” Cory pulls Shawn’s wrist, dragging him out of the elevator and into the foyer. “Let’s split a shake at Chubbies, figure this out. Not only will we get this all sorted before I drop you back here, but we’ll also make Eric and Jack unpack the rest of your stuff. Are we geniuses or what?”

He lets himself smile, some of the weight lifted off of his back. The best thing he’s ever done in his life was befriending Cory Matthews.

“Thomas Edison who?” Shawn high-fives Cory, mirroring his grin. He holds the door open for Cory who does a small curtsey as he walks through.

They fall into a steady pace as they walk down the sidewalk. The early heat of September isn’t as unbearable. It’s easier to breathe outside in the fresh air, under the warm glow of the evening sky. It’s familiar, squeezing in to walk together on the sidewalk, his breathing synced up to Cory’s, their elbows knocking, hands brushing. The air between them is easy.

It’s completely the opposite with Jack. Shawn becomes hyper-aware of himself. He tenses, overthinks everything he says and does. With Cory and Topanga and even Eric, he doesn’t have to think about what to do. He just does. And he doesn’t have to think about who to be. He just is.

Shawn pushes the thought away, files it away for later when he’s sitting across from Cory in their booth at Chubbies. 

For now, he thinks about the breeze in the air, how it passes through his hair. Cory’s warm fingers brushing against his. His senior year in front of him, good things waiting for him and his friends. His new apartment, his new roommates, one of them his brother who wants more than anything to know him. 

Cory pats Shawn’s arm. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” Shawn says, surprised by how true it sounds.

.

.

.

Shawn stares at the spot of tomato sauce on Cory’s nose. He’ll lean over and wipe it off with his thumb, eventually. Right now he’s too endeared as Cory gives Shawn advice on how to deal living with Eric. 

Cory holds his slice of pineapple pizza with one hand, the other gesturing wildly in the air, occasionally pointing at Shawn.

“Cor,” Shawn interrupts. “I’ll be fine.”

“I know that! Of course, you’ll be fine, I just want to prepare you. I’ve had seventeen years of experience living with Eric and I want to pass some of my wisdom off to you.”

“You complaining about how Eric talks in his sleep is not wisdom. We’ll have different rooms. I won’t hear him.”

“He shouts in his sleep too. I’ll give you my earplugs.”

Shawn snorts out a laugh. He decides then to lean forward and wipe Cory’s nose with the pad of his thumb. Part of him likes how Cory doesn’t lean away or look confused at why Shawn’s touching his face, instead casually asking Shawn: “Sauce on my nose?”

“Yup.” Shawn wipes his thumb with one of his napkins. He rakes his gaze over the Chubbies. It’s a quarter to seven pm. The joint’s half-empty. A group of middle-school boys surround the pool table, cheering out at a deafening volume when the shortest kid gets a ball in. Two adult women sit two tables in front of them, catching up over coffee. It’s not a Friday night kinda volume, but there’s a steady buzz of conversation and laughter. It’s all comforting and familiar.

Underneath the table, Cory nudges Shawn’s foot with his own. “Where’d you go?”

“Nowhere. I’m right here.” And it’s so sickeningly sincere that Shawn doesn’t know what to do with himself, especially when Cory looks at him like that. It’s just a little smile, soft around the edges, and so fucking fond. Shawn must’ve received a million of those smiles in their years of friendship, a small gesture that always reminded Shawn of how he’s a priority in Cory’s life. He’s not sure what it says about him that he’s still not 100% used to that, that Cory Matthews is the only one who Shawn can say this cheesy kind of shit to.

God. He’s not going there.

Shawn clears his throat. He steals one of Cory’s french fries. “You should come over for dinner.”

“What’re you cooking?”

“Cooking? Dude, there’s pizza.”

“Hey, I’m there. But you do know you gotta learn how to cook eventually.”

“I don’t have to learn. They’re the adults!”

“What? You trust Eric with the kitchen with knives and the hot stove and spoons? That was the first thing I told you about, be careful with Eric in the kitchen! And with spoons!

“There are two adults in the house, remember?”

“Does Jack know how to cook?”

Shawn opens his mouth. Closes it. 

Cory raises an eyebrow. “You don’t know.”

“I know.” Shawn scratches the back of his neck, really tries to think about it. It doesn’t take him long to come to this conclusion: “Oh my god, I don’t even know if he cooks. I don’t even know his middle name. That’s bad. I should know if my brother has a middle name. I know your brother’s middle name, but not my own.”

“Hey, don’t worry about it. You have lots of time to learn his middle name and if he cooks or not. That’s what the move’s about, right?”

“What if he’s an axe murderer?”

“Then I’ll avenge your death, bring you justice.”

“What if he walks around the place naked?”

“Good practice on consistently maintaining eye contact.”

“What if he hates me?”

Cory reaches across the table, firmly grips Shawn’s hand. “That’s impossible.”

Some of the tension drains out of Shawn. He clutches Cory’s hand, his own lifeline. “He might think he likes me now, but once he gets to know me, who’s to say?”

“Do me a favour?”

“‘Course.”

“Trust me. Trust me that I know what I’m saying when I say he doesn’t hate you and that he won’t.”

With the hand not touching Cory’s, Shawn tousles his hair, fidgeting in his side of the booth. “I’m scared.”

Cory gives Shawn’s hand another squeeze. “I know. That’s okay. Trust me anyway.”

Shawn lets himself smile as he squeezes Cory’s hand back. “Yeah, okay.”

Cory returns it, all bright and dazzling. 

It settles something inside of Shawn, keeps him at bay from the reality of life right now. Everything’s either changing or going to. They’re seniors now. He’s not in the trailer park anymore or living with his dad, but with a brother he barely knows, and Eric Matthews.

Shawn snorts. “Isn’t it crazy that I’m living with Eric before I’m living with you?”

“That’s our luck, huh?”

“It might be good for us. You can sleepover, hangout as much as you want.”

“I know, but it’s not the same.”

“We’ll just have to dorm together next year.”

Cory beams. 

Shawn grins. He steals another french fry, dips it in ketchup. 

“I can buy you your own fries, you know.”

“I can buy my own fries! Yours taste better.”

“The sweet taste of theft?” Cory kicks Shawn’s foot underneath the table.

“Topanga doesn’t complain when I take her fries.”

“I’m not complaining!”

“Yeah, you’re whining. But if it bothers you that much, I’ll stop.”

“Wait, wait. Let’s make a deal. You can take as many fries as you want, granted you tell me what’s up with you and Jack. How you’re feeling and stuff. I know I told you to trust me and not be scared, but you are, so let’s talk about it. It’s not good to bottle it all inside.”

Shawn’s jaw drops. “You little manipulator.”

Cory pops a french fry into his mouth, grinning as he chews. “What can I say? You raised me well.”

Shawn’s legs bounce underneath the table. He digs his fingers into his palms, tries to contain the anxious fluttering in his chest. “It’s not a big deal to me, Cor. I don’t know why this is so important to you.” 

“Bull,” Cory says so firmly that Shawn startles. “You’re important to me, so this is important to me too.”

Why? Shawn wants to press but doesn’t. After over a decade of friendship, he should probably get it, but he doesn’t. What Cory sees in him is a mystery. It’s not just some attachment to a childhood friend, a love that’s more of a habit than it is a choice. It’s a choice. Cory chooses him. Over and over again. Every time Shawn goes off the deep end, Cory’s there to reel him back in because he genuinely believes Shawn’s worth it. He sees more than his potential for great things and for change, but actual, real good inside of Shawn, in the person who was, who he is, whoever he’ll become.

It’s a complete mystery to Shawn, but for Cory, it’s a well-known fact. Gravity exists. The sky is blue. Shawn’s a good guy, important to Cory.

And Cory’s an even better guy. He’s just as important to Shawn too.

“I’m scared, okay?” Shawn admits. He grabs his own knee, his grip tight, making his leg stay still. The truth claws its way out of him, the words hurting his throat as he forces them out, but he can’t let it live inside him any longer. “Jack is this completely functional and well-rounded guy. He grew up in this three-story house with a white picket fence, a step-dad who probably played catch with him, and a mom who baked cookies and made lemonade. He’s not a total screw-up like me.” 

Cory’s mouth opens to protest, but Shawn raises a finger. “You know what I mean. He gets good grades and doesn’t know what it’s like to not know where his parents are and he might think he wants to know me, but that’s only because he doesn’t really know me. He doesn’t know what he’s getting himself into. And it’s like—sure, he’s my brother, but what does that even mean? DNA can’t be enough. You and Eric, you guys grew up together, you have memories with your parents and Morgan and albums of photos to prove it. We can’t have that. And—and—”

Cory nudges Shawn’s half-empty chocolate milkshake towards him, nodding his chin at it.

Shawn draws a shaky breath. He takes a sip of his milkshake, swallows, waits for his breathing to even out. “And I keep thinking about his mom. There had to have been a reason for her not to give my letters to Jack. She was probably protecting him. Protecting him from me. What’s that say? What’s that mean about the life Jack’s led, the kinda people he’s used to? I just keep thinking about how different we are, how I’m leading him on by moving in, how we lost too much time. It wasn’t his fault that he never got his letters and lost touch. It wasn’t our fault that we didn’t grow up together, that we only share one parent, not both. But that doesn’t mean we can fix the damage done by all of those things. All we share is some genes and a last name. That doesn’t mean much.”

Shawn stares at Cory, waits for his patented Cory Matthews Pep Talk to save the day and make his heart beat a little easier.

“No,” Cory says. “No, I don’t believe that.”

Shawn waits for Cory to follow up, but that’s all Cory offers. “That doesn’t mean it’s not true.”

“You’re afraid. You want things to work out, and you don’t think you could handle it if things didn’t, so you’re bracing yourself for a fall that you think is inevitable by telling yourself it just won’t work. You’re wrong. That’s all it is.” 

It’s not what Shawn expected Cory to say, but his heart opens. He latches onto Cory’s words. “As much as I disagree, I’ve got to say, your unwavering faith is admirable. Makes me, uh. I don’t know.”

Cory’s mouth isn’t smiling, but his eyes are. “Makes you what?” 

“It makes me feel better,” Shawn admits. “I’m sorry, I—”

“Why’re you apologizing?”

“It’s just—I give you so much to deal with, all the time, it has to be exhausting—”

A french fry hits Shawn squarely in the nose. It bounces off of him and lands on the table. 

“Did you just hit me with a french fry,” Shawn asks flatly. 

Cory responds by flinging another fry at him.

“Cory, what are you—”

Another fry.

“You’re just wasting food at this point!”

“Don’t apologize to me, okay, not when you’ve done nothing wrong. Apologize for stealing my fries, you thief.”

Shawn peels the three fries off of the table and throws one at Cory, cackling when it lands on Cory’s head. “Fine. No apologies from me. Except for the fry thing. I apologize for being a thief.”

“Apology accepted,” Cory says. “And look. You’ve gotta know that sure, maybe you and Jack won’t be like me and Eric, but you guys don’t have to be. Be Shawn and Jack.”

“But what does that even mean?”

Cory shrugs as he removes the french fry from his hair and drops it onto his used napkin. “Whatever you want it to mean. That’s the difference between you guys and us, I guess. You two get to decide. So decide.”

.

.

.

They finish the rest of their fries by throwing them into each other’s mouths. Cory gets four in Shawn’s. Shawn gets six in Cory’s. Afterwards, they play a few rounds of pool. Shawn asks Cory if they can call Topanga using Chubbies’ phone, ask her to come over and hang out with them. But according to Cory, she’s visiting her parents in Pittsburgh for a last-minute trip.

“You miss her?” Shawn asks once his turn ends. He stands to his full height and passes the cue to Cory.

Cory takes the cue, bending as he calculates his next shot. “It’s only for the weekend.”

“You miss her.”

“Yeah.” Cory takes his shot. He misses, just barely, the ball a fraction of inch away from getting in. “Do you?”

“Yeah.” Shawn’s cheeks warm. He tousles his hair just to keep his hands occupied.

For a moment, when Cory hands the cue back to Shawn, their eyes meet. A flicker of something passes from Cory’s gaze to Shawn’s. Shawn doesn’t know what it means but it has his heart pounding anyway, so much so that he nearly drops the cue when it’s in his grasp. 

“She’ll be back soon. After all, Philadelphia’s her home.” Cory claps Shawn’s shoulder, fingers lingering for a beat before he gestures for Shawn to take his turn.

And if it takes him a second longer than it should, if a glint catches his eyes when he smiles at Cory, if his heart flutters helplessly, then so be it.

.

.

.

Shawn returns to the apartment twenty minutes after sunset. 

When he steps into the apartment, he finds Jack and Eric squeezed on their sofa. Crumpled paper plates are scattered on the coffee table, next to where Eric’s feet are propped upon. Jack’s legs are crossed, his left foot tapping against the floor. The television’s playing a basketball game, but they’re speaking over it, so engaged in whatever they’re talking about that they don’t notice Shawn locking the door.

“Dude, broccoli on pizza?” Eric gags, earning an exasperatedly fond eye-roll from Jack. “I don’t know if I can be your roommate anymore.”

“Don’t knock it ’till you try it. Next time we order pizza, just try one slice, and you’ll be singing a different tune.”

“I've lost all respect for you.”

Shawn steps into their line of vision, right in front of the television. He waves to grab their attention.

Eric stops slouching, sitting upright as he waves back. “Hey, man. There’s still some pizza left in the fridge.”

“Pepperoni?” Shawn asks cautiously.

“Pineapple.”

Shawn’s nose wrinkles. “Gross.” 

Eric’s mouth hangs open. He gawks as he points his finger at Shawn and drags it to point at Jack. “How can you both hate pineapple?”

Shawn’s head snaps to look at Jack so quickly that his neck cracks. “You hate pineapple pizza too?”

Jack rises to his feet. “It’s an abomination!”

“Yeah!”

“Yeah!”

They’re both grinning, stupidly excited over the atrocity that is pineapple pizza. It’s small, but it’s not nothing. A spark of hope lights in his chest as he looks his brother over. 

“So neither of you have a sense of taste.” But even as Eric says it, he smiles knowingly. He stands and stretches his arms above his head. “Well, I should really, uh. Go to my room. You two stay here, though. Bond over your awful opinions.” He leans over to Jack to clap his shoulder, his eyes catching Shawn’s and giving him a wink. Then he’s off, half-jogging into his room until his door closes shut behind him.

Now it’s just Shawn and Jack. 

Jack laces his hands behind his head, bounces on his toes with a restless energy that Shawn understands. “Had a good time with Cory?”

“Uh, yeah. We went to Chubbies. You’ve been there, it was that place that we, um, ran into each other.”

“Is he alright?”

“Yea, he’s all good. He really does cry a lot. I invited him for dinner, tonight, but he remembered that he promised he’d help bake something with his sister. He’s really alright, it was just an in the moment thing.”

“Good, good. Don’t tell Eric I asked, but he wanted me to ask if Cory was okay, to make sure. He was really worried.”

“I’m definitely telling Cory that.” Silence falls between them. He refuses to let it stretch out, so he clears his throat, replays Cory’s words in the back of his mind—the connection’s already there, you just gotta find it—and says, “Wanna grab a slice of the leftover abomination pizza?”

“I’m full, actually.” Shawn’s face must drop, his heart sure as hell does, because Jack quickly adds, “But I’ll sit with you while you eat.”

“You really don’t have to—”

“I applied to and accepted a school all the way in Philadelphia just for the chance to get to know you. And you think sitting with you as you eat is too much.” Jack says it all so quickly that Shawn barely has the time to let the implications of his words sink in before Jack guides him towards their fridge with a light hand on his shoulder. 

Shawn opens the fridge. “Man, we really need to go grocery shopping soon.” All they have inside is a single box of leftover pizza, a half-empty bottle of Coke, and a carton of milk. He pulls the box of pizza and the bottle of Coke out, shutting the door with his hip.

Jack opens the cupboard above the sink. He grabs two white mugs, sets them onto the kitchen counter, closes the cupboard, then takes the bottle from Shawn’s hands. “Maybe we can all go tomorrow after breakfast.”

“What will breakfast be?”

“Um. Okay, so we’ll go out for breakfast and then buy groceries. Sounds good?” Jack has this hesitant but painfully earnest smile as he twists the cap off of the bottle. 

“Sounds great!” 

Jack pours the soda into one mug half-way. He raises the bottle to the other mug. “Say when.” 

Shawn waits until the cup is just about to brim. “When.” He watches, equal parts nervous and amused, as Jack returns the bottle to the fridge and carefully lifts their mugs to the small table that wasn’t there when Shawn left with Cory. Circular, small, and baby blue with exactly three chairs around it. Shawn pictures dinners with Eric and Jack, more pizza between them, used napkins in the corner of the table, their fingers greasy, drops of tomato sauce on their chins. He and Jack making fun of Eric for his pineapple pizza. Maybe he’ll try Jack’s coveted broccoli pizza. Maybe he’ll even like it. Maybe it’ll even become their thing.

“You coming?” Jack’s already seated at the table. He pushes Shawn’s chair out for him, nudges Shawn’s mug towards his side of the table.

Shawn ambles towards his seat and plops onto it. He drops the box onto the table, popping the lid open, and takes the largest slice out of the remaining four. He picks the first bit of pineapple on the tip of the slice between his teeth and spits it out into the corner of the box.

Jack’s lower lip curls. “I can pick it out for you.”

Shawn shakes his head, forcing a polite smile. “Sorry, I’m only now realizing that’s kind of gross. It’s just something my dad did when we ended up eating pineapple pizza, so I picked up the habit. I’ll pick it out with my fingers.”

“I’m sure that’s a habit too,” Jack says, his shoulders suddenly rigid. He smiles back, but it’s tight. Doesn’t quite reach his eyes.

Shawn frowns, mid-bite. A voice that sounds a lot like Jon reminds him to finish chewing before he speaks, so he waits until he’s swallowed to ask, “What is?”

“I’m sure you didn’t even realize it, you know what, let’s forget—”

“Jack. Just tell me.”

“You said ‘my dad’. Like he’s not ours, just yours.”

Shawn’s half-eaten slice of pizza falls out of his hands, lands onto the cardboard of the pizza box. He doesn’t reach for it. He’s lost his appetite. “Oh. I didn’t even notice, I didn’t, I mean, it was probably a habit, like you said—”

“Yeah, yeah, I figured. Don’t worry about it.” Jack sips from his mug. He must be really interested in the piece of pineapple that Shawn spit out because he can’t stop staring at it.

Shawn’s well-acquainted with fucking up. He’s used to it. It shouldn’t sting as harshly as it does now. A knot of guilt tightens inside of him, tangles with everything else he doesn’t like to think about for too long. His resentment towards his parents, how much he hates that he misses them, how he wishes Jon was still around and adopted him as they talked about all those years ago. And now, on top of that, his mixed feelings toward Jack. 

The brother he always wanted to know is with him now. They have a real chance. But with every chance Shawn’s had at family, after enough time, things were inevitably ruined. That can’t possibly be a coincidence. The common denominator is Shawn, after all. 

Shawn half-wishes Jack wasn’t as pleasant as he is, that he acted like a rich snob instead of the wall-mannered, earnest, and nice guy he turned out to be. It would be easier to hate him. It wouldn’t hurt as much when things inevitably get ruined between them too. 

None of this would’ve been the case if they’d grown up together. Jack would’ve been trailer-trash, just like him. Like Shawn, he would have shit grades, no money to his name, more baggage than a plane could carry. It would be easy to hate Jack if he really was his brother.

Or maybe it wouldn’t. Maybe each time his parents left, it wouldn’t have hurt as bad because he had an older brother to go through it with. To protect him. Someone to help him with school, have dinner with every night, to deal with their dad when he needed bail money or to be driven home from the bar or one of the million times Shawn needed to find him but could never do so on his own. 

What would that have been like? Shawn doesn’t know. He never will.

“Do you even know how lucky you are?”

Jack’s eyebrows draw together. His back straightens. “What?”

“I don’t get it. You have everything back in New York, so why are you interested in us? In Dad?” His voice doesn’t break. His hands don’t tremble. His chin doesn’t wobble. A strange calm washes over him, even as he’s potentially destroying whatever bond he could’ve had with Jack before they had the chance to find out. 

“We’ve been over this, what—what’s your problem? Why does it personally offend you that I want to know my family?” 

“It doesn’t. I’m serious, I want to know why. Your mom kept you away from our dad. She clearly didn’t think I was good enough for you to keep in touch with. Why do you want to get to know us?” 

It’s not funny. It isn’t. It’s just that Jack slides his hand behind his ear, towards the back of his head. He grips his hair as his jaw tightens. Exactly what their dad does when frustrated. The gesture is so painfully familiar that Shawn starts to laugh. Nothing is funny, but it’s so horribly ironic that he can’t stop. He sounds like a deranged serial killer who’s about to raise a chainsaw and hack his next victim. If he doesn’t shut up soon, that’s exactly what Jack will think of him right as he’s packing his things and taking the next bus out of here. 

Jack's facial expression is torn between confusion and irritation. He glares, but his mouth contradicts it, twisting into a frown. “What the hell is so funny?”

But before Shawn can stop laughing long enough to explain, the landline rings. 

Jack stands so sharply his chair screeches, loudly scraping against the floor. “That should be my mom.” A crack breaks over the last word, his voice hitching. He dashes past the table to the other side of the apartment where their sole landline is placed.

Shawn bites the inside of his cheek to keep from screaming. Barely resisting to urge to slam his forehead against the table, he lays face-down on it instead. He can’t even blame how well-adjusted he isn’t on his Hunter genes anymore. Jack has the same amount of Chet Hunter in him as Shawn but he turned out normal. He has a real shot at life. Shawn meanwhile can’t even have a five-minute conversation with him without saying the wrong thing.

This roommate plan was never going to work. If Shawn really cares, he’d save Jack the trouble. Pack his things, move out before Jack has to ask him to. It’s the least he could do.

Jack runs back into the room, slightly out of breath. “It’s for you, actually?”

“What?” Shawn sits upright, squinting at Jack. “Who is it?”

“She just told me, but I can’t remember her name. It was pretty unusual, I’ve never heard it be—”

Despite the mess he’s created, he can’t help but half-smile. “Topanga?”

“Yeah!” In a calmer, less excited voice, Jack repeats, “Yeah. She’s on the line. She asked for you.”

Shawn nods slowly. Drags himself to his feet. Doesn’t look at Jack as he passes by him. Breaks into a sprint to get to the phone. Leans against the wall, picks the phone up, answers breathlessly: “Topanga?”

“Hey.” The sound of her voice settles something inside of him, makes it easier to breathe. And because she’s Topanga, she doesn’t idle around or make small-talk. She gets to the point. “A little birdie told me you’re having a rough time with your brother. Thought I’d check-in.”

He pictures Cory clutching his phone to his ears. That lovestruck twinkle in his eyes that he gets whenever he talks to Topanga over the phone. Cory babbling on about Shawn’s struggle with the move, adjusting to having Jack in his life. Topanga, all the way in Pittsburgh, listening on the other line. Her deciding to call Shawn, check on him.

He ignores the warmth that bursts in his chest at the thought. “How’d you get the new number?”

“I asked the birdie for it.”

“You don’t need to worry about me, okay? I’m fine. Spend time with your family.”

“I am, I’m talking to you.”

“Not you too. We make fun of Cory’s sappiness together, and now it’s spread to you.”

“What can I say? That boy of ours is infectious.”

He hums in agreement. “How was your call with—”

“Cut the small-talk. Tell me what’s wrong.”

“Nothing’s wrong.”

She makes a buzzer noise. “Wrong answer. Try again.”

“Nothing is wrong.”

“Nope.”

“Topanga Lawrence.”

“Shawn Hunter. I know what you sound like when you’re trying to hold yourself together. It’s okay to let go. If you want to then it’s okay.”

He lowers the phone, moves it away from his mouth, so she doesn’t hear him. The sound that escapes him is guttural, a choked-up sob that can still be heard even when he bites his fist. Hard. Just like that, tears spring to his eyes. He’s leaking. He’s crying now and he can’t stop, tears pouring down his face.

“Shawn.” Topanga’s voice rings distantly from the phone.

His hand trembles as he brings the phone back to his ear. “Topanga?” 

“Oh.” Her voice is a little soft, a little broken. “It’s okay. It’s going to be okay.”

“I don’t know how to do this. All I’ve ever wanted was to know him, but I look at him, and I think about how—how different we are, how he’s never had to grovel for our dad’s love and attention the same way I have, but then I feel guilty, because he’s a real good guy, and—and what the hell does he want from me? Doesn’t he know that nothing I give him will ever be enough, will ever be what he deserves?”

A beat passes. Topanga waits like she wants to ensure Shawn’s finished speaking, before she says, “Hey. You listen to me.”

Every part of him, from his head to his toe, aches. He can’t see through the blur in his eyes. He’s so exhausted from being hopeless. He wants to hope. More than anything, he wants it. But at this point, he doesn’t think he’s capable of it, doesn’t think he knows how to anymore.

“Shawn? Can you take a breath for me? Let’s do it together.”

He can’t bring himself to speak, wiping his cheeks with the back of his hand.

“I won’t breathe until you say you’ll do it with me.”

He laughs wetly. “Are you serious?”

“You wanna test me?” He hears the smile in her voice, finds it in him to smile back.

“No,” he says. “Okay, let’s. Let’s breathe.”

For a solid minute, Topanga leads them. Counts in for their next inhale, then their next exhale. Her voice mixed with the act of breathing and only that soothe him, stop his stream of tears, release the ache in his body.

As soon as he’s back to himself, a realization occurs to him. Topanga counts them into their last breath when he snorts a laugh. 

“I’m sorry,” he says, still laughing. “But it hit me that Cor did this with me earlier. I was freaking out and he counted our breaths until I calmed down.” 

“And it helped?”

“Yeah. Helped when he did it, helped when you did it.”

“Good. You know, he told me you apologized. For ‘giving him too much to deal with’. I know he already gave you crap for it, so I’m gonna ask if you need me to give you crap for it too or if you got the message that you have people who care about you, so let us care about you, you fool.”

“Fool?” 

“Am I wrong?”

“You never are.” 

“So? Are you gonna let us care about you or not?”

“I could never let you and Cor do anything. You two put your mind to something and nothing gets in the way of that. But, I mean—” His breath hitches, but he says it. Maybe one day, after enough practice, he’ll be able to say it mindlessly. “I love you guys. So. Yeah. Okay.”

“You know who else loves you?”

“You?”

“Oh.”

Oh? What does that—”

“No, no, I do! I do love you,” Topanga says earnestly. “You know that. But I meant your brother. Jack?”

“You can’t love someone you don’t know,” Shawn says quietly. “He doesn’t know me. I don’t know him. You know, your call was perfect timing. We were talking for two minutes, maybe, when I messed up. Called our dad my dad. And then, thirty seconds later, I blew up at him, asking why he even wants to know us, what the point of all of this is. It’s been a week and I’ve already ruined things.”

“Sounds like you’re making up for lost time. Half of what siblings do is fight, Shawn. Take it from me. I’m either screaming at Nebula or we’re making fun of our parents, braiding each other’s hair, getting along perfectly fine. Sometimes I want to throw my shoe at her because she’s insufferable. Other times I want to crush her into a hug, tell her she’s the best person in the world. You don’t have to like him all the time to love him. Siblings are messy. But you don’t stop trying. He came here to know you, right? So give him the chance. Let him decide for himself what he wants. From what I can tell, though, all he wants is a relationship with his brother. What do you want?”

The centre of his gravity shifts. Just barely, but he feels it to his very core. He thinks about hope, knows in his heart that he hasn’t ever forgotten how to do it. He’s just afraid of it. Having the audacity to dream of better things and have the worst happen instead is something he’s used to, so it’s easy to expect the worst. Low expectations and you’ll never be disappointed. 

Jack isn’t that person. It’s easy to tell. He wears his heart on his sleeve. He does good and expects the same from the people around it. He hopes for things mindlessly and recklessly, because he sees the world with rose-coloured glasses. 

But that doesn’t make Shawn any better. His glasses may not be rose-coloured but they’re tinted with grey. That doesn’t suddenly change. But for the first time, he understands that just because it’s how he’s always seen things doesn’t mean it always will be. He can just take the glasses off.

Cory and Topanga’s sentiments return to him. True. Neutral. Neither optimistic nor pessimistic. Shawn and Jack get to decide what being brothers mean for them. They both deserve the chance to at least try and see what it’d be like.

Because the truth is this. That little kid who wrote letter after letter to his big brother hasn’t gone anywhere. He’s still inside Shawn. Still wants nothing more than to know his cool older brother and ramble on to him about his best friends and how loudly their dad snores and how Feeny’s history class is simultaneously the most boring class ever and his favourite too.

That’s what he wants.

“You’re the best you know that?” Shawn says breathlessly into the line. “You and Cor. I'm the luckiest guy in the world.”

“You gonna go talk to Jack now?”

“Yes! I am going to go annoy the shit out of my older brother because that’s what younger siblings do!”

Topanga laughs. “That’s the spirit. I’ll talk to you Monday at school when I’m back in town, okay? Go make up with your brother.”

“Will do. Thanks for calling, alright? I mean it.”

“I know,” she says softly. “You told me I’m never wrong, so when I say things are going to be okay, you can trust it.”

“I do,” he promises. He means it. 

After exchanging a few more goodbyes, they hang up. Shawn nearly trips over himself on his sprint back to the kitchen. He finds Jack seated at the table with his back facing him and his left leg bouncing so hard the table shifts.

“Jack,” Shawn says breathlessly. “Can we talk? I promise I won’t be awful.”

Jack stumbles to his feet. His face and neck are flushed red. For too long of a second, all he does is stare at Shawn, his face unreadable. But then his lips spread into a nervous smile. “Yeah. ‘Course. Let me do one thing real quick and I’ll be with you in a second. Talk on the balcony?”

.

.

.

The sun has officially set. The hazy pink from when Shawn had walked back home is gone, replaced with the dark glow of night. A welcome breeze passes through the air, but Shawn can’t stop sweating.

He paces back and forth on the apartment’s balcony. A nervous energy courses through him as he waits restlessly, cracking each of his knuckles to keep his hands busy. 

He can’t be out longer than a few minutes, but it feels like hours before Jack slides the door open, steps out, and slides it back shut behind him. In his hands are two fold-chairs. Before Shawn even steps forward, Jack huffs, “I’ve got it, I’ve got it.”

Shawn darts forward anyway, takes one out of Jack’s hands. “It’s fine.” He unfolds it and plops onto the seat. Laces his fingers. Looks ahead, out towards the upcoming traffic, the streetlights, the nightlife surrounding them. 

He knows how to be brave. Inhale. Exhale. He can do this. 

“I don’t really know how to be a brother,” Shawn confesses. He forces himself to turn his head, to look Jack in the eye, to give as much of himself as he can. “I don’t know what I should be for you or how any of this works. I don’t think I can live up to your expectations, whatever image you had built of me all these years. I don’t want to disappoint you.” 

With the moonlight illuminating Jack’s face, Shawn makes out the concern in his brother’s dark brown eyes, eyes that look so much like his—their—dad that Shawn has to look away.

Jack takes a long time to respond. It should help that Shawn isn’t looking at him, his eyes trained on the night sky as he tries to count the number of stars up above to distract himself. It doesn’t work. Each passing second speeds up Shawn’s heartbeat. The pounding in his chest is so violent he half-expects his heart to burst out.

“You know,” Jack says. Shawn sneaks a glance at him, finds his gaze upturned to the night sky, so Shawn leans back, looks up at the stars, and listens. “When I found out the other day that you’d sent all those letters, I called my mom. I asked her about them. She admitted to hiding them right away, told me that she thought she was doing what was best for me. I’m not proud of it, but I—well, I yelled at her. Screamed, said things I probably shouldn’t. I know she’s always done her best. But that doesn’t mean she’s made the best choices.

“She told me she thought I was too young for it all. To correspond with you, have that piece of my dad with me. I guess she was scared it’d make me want to live with him, leave her, and—gosh, I don’t even know. Maybe you’re right. Maybe she doesn’t think that highly of you, but no reason she could give me would matter. Imagine where we could’ve been right now if she hadn’t done that, you know? I always wanted a brother too. I always had one, but it never really felt like it.”

“Yeah, it never really felt like it,” Shawn echoes. “I get that. And I can get why your mom did it.”

“I told her that I forgave her, but I was still mad. She understood. And then—and then, well, I cried. On the phone. For a while.”

The colour in Shawn’s face drains. “Jack …”

Jack lolls his head to the side, his chin over his shoulder, to look at Shawn. “I don’t want your pity, and I’m not embarrassed okay, men can cry too, and I won’t feel bad about—”

“I was crying less than ten minutes ago on the phone to my friend.”

“About?”

Shawn stares. “Take a wild guess.”

Even in the dark, the blush that creeps up Jack’s neck is visible. “Oh. Really? You cried? Over me?” His voice cracks, not with emotion. But before he can pry, Jack sighs and buries his face into his hands. “Well. We might as well start our relationship with honesty. I might have been listening to your call?”

Might have?”

“Okay, I was! But not intentionally? I could hear you from the bathroom when I needed to go, and I heard you crying, and then talk about how … how all you ever wanted was to know me. I couldn’t help it, I—I froze. But when you and your friend started doing breathing exercises, I stopped. Honest to god, I stopped. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that.”

“I shouldn’t have gotten mad at you earlier for wanting to know your family.” Shawn shrugs, leaning back into his seat. “We’re even.”

“Guess so. But I have to ask you something.”

“Shoot.”

“You really think you’re not good enough?” Jack says like it’s a challenge. An unspoken request for Shawn to prove it to him.

Shawn taps his fingers along the edge of his chair. His eyes track the trail of stars above his head, allowing the glitter to calm him down. “You wanna know what it’s like to be Chet Hunter’s son? You wake up enough times, not sure where your dad is, then you get used to him leaving. Starts out a few days at a time, then weeks, months. The longest he left me was a year. Didn’t give me money, food, or even a phone-call to reach him by. I love the man to death. We’ve had good times. But I’m pretty sure I recognize him more when he’s drunk than sober. He doesn’t remember the name of my high school. My birthday’s in June, but he always thinks it’s the 2nd of May.”

“That’s my birthday,” Jack says slowly. 

Shawn laughs, bitterness mixed with awe seeped into the sound. “That’s who I come from. You, you’ve got a mom who calls you every day, a step-dad who taught you how to ride a bike and change a tire or whatever normal dads do. You’re … you’re good. You were raised right, so you’re the right kind of man. I’m—”

“A left man?” Jack says, dubious. “C’mon. That’s—stop. You’re not who raised you.” 

“No, but it’s a part of you anyway, something you always have to carry. You need to get that.”

“What is this? Are you trying to run me away before we get too close? Or do you just not like me? See me as some straight-laced snob?”

“No. I want you to know what you’re getting into. Starting our relationship with honesty, right? Honestly, I—I’m scared. All the time. My issues have issues, and most of them are because of our loving father. I’m not an easy person to know, and I have so much shit I need to work through, and I need you to know that. Upfront, right now. Let’s get it out of the way.” When Shawn finishes speaking, the world stops. His breathing has grown heavy. His throat dries. His heart soars. It’s terrifying and exhilarating to be this honest, to be this seen.

And all Jack says is, “Okay.”

Okay!?”

“You wanted to get it out of the way, it’s out. I understand. Not entirely, but—but you’ll explain it to me. We’ll talk.”

“We’ll talk,” Shawn repeats. 

“We’ll figure it out. Sort through your baggage, I don’t know. I’m not—I’m not saying I get what that must have been like, being abandoned by our father, but I mean, I’m familiar with having an absentee father.” Jack shakes his head, his smile bittersweet. “You wanna know something?”

Shawn can’t help but smile back. “Yeah, I do.”

“He didn’t call every year, but the handful of years that he did call, he’d do it on the 18th of June to wish me a happy birthday.”

Shawn bursts into laughter. “That’s my birthday.”

“I figured,” Jack admits, scratching underneath his ear. “If we’re being upfront, can I have a turn then?”

“Of course!” The idea that there’s anything imperfect about Jack sends a thrill down Shawn’s spine. It probably makes him a bad person. But it’s comforting. It’s something they can bond over, their matching broken pieces. Something they can share that’s more than a last name and some DNA. 

Jack’s legs bounce. His chair squeaks from the constant motion. He clasps his hands behind his head, starts to speak so quickly that Shawn almost can’t keep up. “I’m terrified, all the time, too. It’s like my mind’s always turned on, moving faster than I want it to, always, and I can never catch a break with my thoughts, ever. The night before I left New York, I couldn’t sleep. My thoughts kept me up. I kept thinking about seeing you and dad again, and what if—what if dad didn’t recognize me or didn’t want to see me? What if you didn’t like me? What if, what if, what if. That’s my mind, on repeat, all the time! And there’s no one to blame for it. My mom never gets like that, all anxious, and clearly, you and dad don’t have that problem. I just—I don’t fit in anywhere. With you two, I’m the odd one out, the square, and my step-dad and half-sister love me, but it’s hard to remember that. They’re all—they’re a complete set with my mom. I’m the odd one out with them too. I don’t—I don’t—”

Jack stops. He’s panting, out of breath. His right-hand clutches his shirt so tightly that he must be pinching his chest too. 

Shawn doesn’t hesitate. He reaches forward, gently pries Jack’s hand down and folds it over Jack’s other hand. Jack’s fingers tremble, so Shawn lays his own hands over his. His cold fingers against Jack’s warm ones. “Take your time. I’m here, okay? I’m here.”

It takes several minutes for Jack to calm down, but it happens. Slowly but surely, his breathing evens out. His shaking fingers stills. The tightness in his face eases over. 

Jack starts repeatedly mumbling something under his breath. It takes Shawn longer than he’s proud of to recognize that Jack’s counting his breaths. This must’ve been how he looked and sounded to Cory and Topanga earlier today. 

Shawn doesn’t let go until Jack grips his hands. “You weren’t done speaking, were you?” Shawn asks knowingly, clasping his hands in his lap.

Jack smiles wetly, eyes bright and sad in the moonlight. He wipes the dried tears off of his cheek with the back of his hand. He looks like their father, but he also doesn’t. The only times Shawn has ever seen Chet cry was when he was drunk, crying about Shawn’s mother, his other ex-wives, the stack of bills he never stuck around long enough to pay. Even then, Chet hadn’t known Shawn had heard him. He’d never quite understood how loud he got when he was drunk or how much Shawn always listened to him. 

But Jack doesn’t turn his head away, doesn’t look anywhere other than right back at Shawn. Another tear rolls down his cheek. He doesn’t wipe it away. “I’ve always felt like inside, something was missing. Like I was an unfinished puzzle or something. I thought maybe it was our dad or you, but now I just—I don’t know. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, why I get so freaked out about every little thing all the time.”

“Freaking out about the dad and brother you haven’t seen in years sounds reasonable to me. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with you.”

“I appreciate that, but in all fairness, Shawn, you don’t really know me.” Jack smiles again, but it’s tight around the edges. Jack smiles a lot, particularly when he’s nervous, sad, uncomfortable. 

Shawn files the thought away, adds it to the list he calls ‘Things I Know About My Brother’. It’s a short list. But he intends on adding on to it. 

“I want to, though.” Shawn sits up, awake with newfound alertness. He can almost feel the same ache in his hand from writing pages upon pages of letters to Jack when he was a kid, full of hope in his dad, in the world, in good things and good people. He would smile whenever he signed his name. Always attempted a cursive scrawl that couldn’t have been more than a bunch of swirly lines. 

Your brother, Shawn. That’s what he would write. Every time. Did he think Jack would forget? Shawn can’t remember. But looking back on it, he’d like to think it wasn’t about reminding Jack. It was about reminding himself. That no matter what, how much time would pass or how much distance stood between them, for better or for worse, they would always be brothers. So many things could change and so many things would, but never that.

“Maybe whatever’s wrong with me is what’s wrong with you,” Shawn says. A spark of hope lights up his face. “Maybe we’re the only ones who can help each other find out whatever it is and fix it. You just said we’ll figure it out, right? Sort through my baggage? We’ll sort through yours too. Together. You chose to come here for us, so it’s my time to make a choice. And I’m choosing to stay.”

A puzzle piece slots into place. Shawn doesn’t know what the picture is yet, but it doesn’t matter as much as knowing that he has his older brother to solve the puzzle with him. He’s excited. Not just regular excited, but kid excited. Like it’s the last day of school, and he, Cory, and Topanga are going to bike to the ice-cream parlour seven minutes away from their middle school, the late June summer unbearably bright as they raced to see who can get there first. Shawn’s pretty sure he’s written about that afternoon to Jack. One of the last few letters he ever sent before he realized he would never get a reply.

“You’re my brother,” Shawn says. “I don’t know what that means yet, but it means something. So? You wanna figure it out with me?”

Jack’s face lifts into a smile. He leans over, nearly knocks Shawn out of his seat with the hug he crushes him in. “Hell yeah, I do.”

For a second, Shawn freezes. His arms hang limply by his side. Jack hugs him tightly, fiercely, his arms strong and warm around Shawn’s shoulders. Even though Shawn doesn’t move, Jack doesn’t let go. His grip only tightens.

Shawn flings his arms around Jack. Hugs him back as tightly as possible. 

They stay like that for a bit. Perched on the edges of their respective seats to reach each other, their arms wrapped around each other, the moon and its stars glowing above them.

And then Jack draws back. He sniffs, chuckling as he rubs his eyes.

“Are you crying?” Shawn puffs out a laugh.

Jack’s forehead wrinkles until he touches the skin underneath his eyes. “Oh.” He looks up. At the sight of Shawn’s face, he laughs so loudly he snorts. “You’re crying too.”

“Am not.” 

Jack rolls his eyes. He pokes Shawn’s undereye with his thumb, digs lightly enough that Shawn feels the wetness on his skin.

“Okay, fine, I’m crying. I guess it’s a Hunter thing to be a total crybaby.” Shawn brushes his tears away with his thumb. “Maybe not a Hunter thing,” he amends. “More ... more of an us thing.”

“I like the sound of that.” Jack pauses. “Hey, I need to ask you something.”

“Shoot.”

Jack leans over the side of the chair that isn’t next to Shawn. He grunts as he picks something up and sets it in front of his feet. A cardboard-box the size of a drawer. Jack’s name and the apartment’s address are scrawled on top with a red Sharpie. 

“What is that?” Shawn asks. 

Jack bends to lift the lid top off. “Recognize ‘em?”

Shawn peers inside and squints through the darkness. Letters upon letters are crammed inside, the seals of the envelopes untouched. Jack’s name is written on all of them in a familiar scrawl, the handwriting so terrible that Shawn can barely decipher it. The only reason he knows what it says is because it’s in his handwriting. “My letters. You have my letters.”

“My mom sent them to me after we had that big fight. But I haven’t touched them. I wanted to ask for your permission.”

“You’re asking for my permission to read the letters I sent you?”

“My thinking is that you were a kid when you wrote them. A lot has changed, you know? You’re a different person now, and I respect it if you don’t want me to read them. If you’d rather take them yourself or just throw them out.”

Shawn’s gaze falls downcast to his letters by Jack’s feet. Part of his childhood and, honestly, part of his heart sit in that box, tucked away in those letters. In the past few years, he never let himself think about those letters or Jack, for that matter, too much. It hurt too badly. But that was when he thought his letters went deliberately unread and unanswered. Now that he knows that they weren’t even seen ... 

“I want you to read them,” Shawn decides. “Screw starting from scratch. We won’t have childhood memories or photos or even embarrassing memories, but we have this, right? I want you to have this.”

Jack beams. He scoops the box up onto his lap and grabs a letter. “Let’s start—”

“Let’s not. When I said that thing about embarrassing memories, I wasn’t asking you to make one now. Do not read my idiotic ten-year-old ramblings.”

“What was that? Do read your idiotic ten-year-old-ramblings?”

“I will fight you,” Shawn warns. “Don’t think that just because we recently reconnected doesn’t mean I won't tackle you to the ground.”

“Let’s do it. I have a black belt in taekwondo.”

“Well, I'm wearing a black belt that I can hit you with.”

Fortunately, they don’t end up fighting over the letters. Jack laughs and sets the box back by his feet, assuring Shawn that he’ll read the letters in his free time on his own. Shawn asks Jack about taekwondo. The conversation goes from there.

Four hours, they sit together on the balcony, talking. The conversation flows easily. When silence inevitably falls between them, one brother breaks it with a question about the other’s life. There’s a lot to ask, learn, and listen to.

At first, they talk about their respective families. Shawn tells Jack about how he hasn’t seen his mother in years, how one of the few things she has in common with their father is that she likes to leave except unlike him, she never returns. 

In turn, Jack tells Shawn about his family. They’re pretty much perfect, but they had an argument over Jack’s choice of college and his last name.

“My step-dad asked me if I wanted to change my name to his last name,” Jack explains. “Everyone else’s last name is Grady except for me. It probably would’ve helped with my whole I-feel-like-an-outsider thing but I couldn’t do it. It wasn’t just about it being the only connection I have to you and our dad, but Jack Hunter is me. It’s how I know myself. My step-dad was hurt but he got it. My mom was hurt and didn’t get it at all. And then a week later, I told them I’d accepted Penbrook’s offer, and they lost their minds. They’re still not pleased about it, and they don’t get it entirely but it’s what I want and they respect that.”

It’s nice to hear about Jack’s other family. How they have a good relationship that still has its faults. 

Shawn tells Jack he understands it and spills his entire story about Jon. Moving in with him, their talks of adoption, moving back in with their dad, Jon’s motorcycle accident. Afterward, how Jon moved back with his rich family so they could take care of him. But as soon as he healed, his father fell ill. Jon had to stay to help take care of him.

It’s been a few months since then. He calls Shawn at least once a week. Updates him on his dad, whose illness hasn’t gone away but is doing okay. Asks Shawn about school and how Cory and Topanga are and if Chet is treating him well. Shawn hasn’t called since before Jack came to town. He can’t begin to imagine what Jon’s reaction will be, but he’s excited, knows that Jon will be excited too, and wants to know whatever teacher-approved advice he’ll give.

Shawn can tell that Jack is shocked by it. Moved by the relationship Shawn has with Jon and that they’re staying in touch. But horrified that their dad put him in that place of needing to rely on a teacher for a place to stay, food to eat, a home to live in. 

One day, they’ll have to address their father. The man he is, the dad he isn’t. But not yet. They still have a relationship to build together. It doesn’t need Chet Hunter as its foundation.

The conversation drifts, moving on from their families to other things. Their opinions on movies, food, clothes, music. They talk about everything and nothing.

“What’re you guys doing up so early?”

Both brothers whip their heads around at the sound of Eric’s scratchy voice. Eric stands behind the sliding door. His bedhead is extreme, dirty-blonde hair sticking in every direction. His Spiderman pyjamas are exactly like Cory described them. (Shawn sets a mental reminder to ask Eric where he got them from later when Jack’s not around.) A mug of steaming coffee is grasped between his hands.

Shawn and Jack snap their heads back to gape at each other.

“Early?” They repeat incredulously.

Shawn shifts his gaze from Jack to look ahead of his shoulder. He only sees it then: the faint glow of morning light all around them. The stars are gone. The moon is a translucent sliver in the sky. 

“You guys.” Eric laughs, the sound giddy and warm. “You talked all night through the morning, didn’t you?”

“Guess so,” Jack says. His last word tears on a yawn.

Shawn only now notices his exhaustion. The heaviness of his eyelids, the slight slur in his words, the bags underneath his eyes. “Damn. I didn’t even notice.”

Jack catches Shawn’s eye. “Me neither.”

“Aw, you guys. This is so exciting! A pivotal moment between two brothers.” Eric’s proud smile takes up his entire face. He sips his coffee, only for his face to completely sour. He swallows, coughing as it goes down his throat. “Oh my god, that was terrible. Our milk is expired. We have no food. I’ll go to the grocery store now.”

“Wait, I’ll come with you.” Jack stands from his seat. He nearly loses his balance, grabbing the back of his pull-out chair to keep from falling.

Eric rolls his eyes. “You two sleep. I’ll take care of it.”

“You sure?” Shawn asks. “We’ve already been up for this long, what’s another hour?”

“People die of sleep deprivation, Shawn. Do you want to die of sleep deprivation? Do you want Cory to yell at me after your funeral?”

“He wouldn’t yell at you after. He’d yell at you during.”

Eric makes a face. “Don’t do that to me. Or to him! Speaking of Cory, him crying last night, that wasn’t—I mean, he’s okay, right?”

“He’s okay, man,” Shawn tells him with a sleepy smile.

“Good. That’s great.” Eric’s lips quirk up into a smile like he’s not aware he’s doing it. “Oh, and one final thing, my parents invited me to dinner tonight. Invitation extends to you guys if you want it.”

Shawn automatically looks at Jack. 

Jack doesn’t even hesitate to answer. “Dinner with your folks sounds real nice, but I think Shawn and I’ll go out tonight. Get some more brother bonding. Thanks to your parents, though. Next time.”

“Sure thing. Alright, I’ll go run to the store, you two sleep.”

“Wait,” Jack says. “I didn’t make the list yet.”

“I don’t need a list. I know what we need. Milk and chips and bread and stuff. I’ve got it.” Eric waves before he steps back inside, sliding the door shut behind him.

“I’m not even going to touch that,” Jack says. “Just hope that when I wake up we’ll magically have everything we need.”

“I mean, we do need milk and chips and bread and stuff. He’s totally got this.” Shawn yawns, stretching his arms above his head. “So. Brother bonding?”

Jack folds his chair and leans it against the brick wall. “Yeah. Dinner sounds nice, right? Unless you have plans. Then it’s all good.”

“Oh, I have plans.” Shawn follows Jack’s lead, jumping up to his feet and lifting his chair towards the wall. You, me, Chubbies with a burger and fries for each of us. Tab’s on whoever loses pool. Deal?”

Jack’s dimples appear as he grins. Shawn sees it then—in the curve of Jack’s mouth, the slope of his jaw, the glint in his eyes—the resemblance between them. He momentarily sees himself on his brother’s face. 

“Deal,” Jack says. 

Shawn grins back. Their hands raise at the same time. They shake on it.

.

.

.

Later that night, after they catch up on sleep and wait for Eric to leave for dinner with his family, Shawn shows Chubbies to Jack. Jack’s already been, but he doesn’t know which booth is the most comfortable or which combo is the best or how to order.

Jack settles into his side of the booth. His eyes scan the joint interestedly, taking the place in. “I like it here.” 

“You haven’t tried any of the food yet,” Shawn points out. He stands by the front of their table. “You could hate it.”

“Eh. I doubt it. If you like it so much here then it can’t be that bad.”

Shawn doesn’t know how else to respond to that other than shake his head and smile. 

It’s only half-past six. There are barely any people here, but the crowd will arrive in an hour like it usually does on Sundays. A song from the eighties plays on the radio in the back, upbeat and vaguely familiar. Chubbie mans the counter, wiping it clean with a washcloth. 

Only one other table is occupied. A pair of sisters—the youngest in middle school, the oldest at least a freshman in high school. They argue over who gets to use a ketchup bottle until drops of ketchup squirt all over the youngest’s hair. Immediately, the scowl on the oldest’s face lets up. As soon as the youngest’s chin wobbles, her sister rushes to her side with a napkin in her hand and starts cleaning her up.

Shawn hastily looks back at Jack, but Jack’s watching the pair of sisters too, his eyes wistful.

“That could be us if you want it to,” Shawn says. “I’d be happy to spill ketchup over you.”

Jack snorts a laugh. “Order our food and I’ll get right on that, starting with a french fry at your head.”

“Right on it.” Shawn turns around and starts walking. He waits until his back is turned to Jack and a solid foot of distance separates them before he giggles. An actual, honest to god, giggle. This is so weird. So wonderfully weird.

He approaches the front counter, idly thrumming his fingers against the counter until Chubbie notices him.

Chubbie grunts in greeting. He drops his washcloth onto the counter. “The usual?” 

“Yeah, but make it two please.”

He nods. He eyes their table, eyebrows furrowing at the sight of Jack. “Where’s the curly-headed boy?”

Shawn stifles a laugh. “Curly-headed boy’s got dinner with his folks tonight. That’s all.”

“So who’s the new friend?”

“Not a new friend, actually.” Shawn smiles so brightly that his cheeks ache. He looks forward to the day when Jack becomes a regular at Chubbies, when they’re both so intertwined in their lives that they don’t have to explain how they know each other. But even then, he doubts that he’ll ever get tired of saying this: “That’s Jack. My brother.”