“You must understand, Mr. and Mrs. Flynn-Fletcher, we just don’t have the resources available to meet his needs here.” the guidance counselor reiterated. “Ferb is an extremely gifted young man, and I strongly believe that it would be in his best interests to be in an environment where he could reach his full potential.”
“Well, I don’t know.” Linda responded, looking worriedly at the pamphlet in her lap. “I see your point, of course; Ferb’s always been very smart. But is leaving all his friends really worth it, just to get a few years’ head start on his education?” She looked anxiously at Lawrence to see if he agreed with her.
“It’s not really about the head start, it’s about avoiding those two years of stalled progress,” the guidance counselor explained. “It can be very discouraging for gifted students to discover at a young age that they can get away with mediocrity. Ferb has already accomplished some amazing things - I’d hate to see him lose his drive.”
“But he’s only 16. Is he really ready to leave his family?” Linda persisted, though by ‘family’ she really meant ‘Phineas’. The boys were so close, they depended so much on each other...
“Dear, perhaps we ought to let Ferb decide for himself if he’d like to apply.” Lawrence suggested calmly. “I daresay he knows what he’s ready for better than we do.”
“A math-science academy, huh?” Phineas asked later. “It sounds pretty great, Ferb. You’d be on a college campus, taking college courses... Tristate University has a fantastic robotics lab, doesn’t it?”
He was trying to sound enthusiastic, but the idea of losing his constant companion was a daunting one. There was no question of Phineas accompanying him; As Ferb’s talent for engineering had become clear over the years, Phineas had developed his charisma into an equally noteworthy skill. He’d gravitated toward social sciences, becoming very active in the community. A math-science school would be a waste of his talents.
Ferb didn’t say anything, but the glimmer in his eyes was more than enough for Phineas to understand how appealing he found the prospect. The robotics lab at Danville High was less useful than the tree in their backyard, as a workplace. Still, he looked uncertain.
“It would be the end of an era.” he finally said. They’d been sitting together under this very tree for over a decade.
“It wouldn’t be!” Phineas insisted immediately. “We never have time to do anything cool during the school year anyways, Ferb. You’d still be home for summers, and breaks, and maybe the occasional weekend, right? It’s not as though anything would really have to change. In fact,” he snapped his fingers, “I think this would be the perfect opportunity for us to start testing those holographic communicators we’ve been talking about!”
Inventions were a lot more work, now that they didn’t just stick to whatever was available at Blueprint Heaven. Between that and the homework increase in high school, they’d been perfecting the design for months, but hadn’t yet gotten around to making a test model.
“Ferb, I know what we’re gonna do today!” Phineas announced, aiming that particular grin at his brother that was just between them. Then he looked around, briefly distracted. “Hey, where’s Perry?”
“Y’know,” Phineas picked the conversation up again later, falsely casual, as they began setting up for production, “if these are faulty, you can probably get time in Tristate University’s photolithography lab.” Bowing to his brother's optimism, Ferb allowed himself to stop worrying, to be genuinely excited by the prospect.
One summer vacation later, the worry came back with a jolt. He’d gotten into the program, of course; they had practically drooled on his application. And now he and Phineas were in the backseat as Lawrence made the 3 hour drive to Tristate University, with all of Ferb’s worldly belongings piled into the trunk - including one fully functional holographic communicator. They didn’t discuss where they were going; Phineas and Lawrence made casual conversation about the antique shop, leaving Ferb with the space he required for his quiet conglomeration of dread and anticipation until they arrived.
“Oh I say, this is very nice.” Lawrence said admiringly, pulling Ferb’s suitcase into the dorm room he’d been assigned. Both beds were empty, so apparently his roommate hadn’t arrived yet. “Much larger than I was expecting. I’ll leave you boys to unpack while I go finish Ferb’s registration, how’s that?”
“Sounds good, Dad!” Phineas agreed, and Lawrence left them to it.
Ferb began pulling clothing out of his bag. “Get the bedding?” he requested of his brother, though Phineas was already pulling the sheets out without instruction. They were well meshed enough to build robots without a word, but Ferb wasn’t sure he could fall into sync on this. It felt like a tragedy, that they were capable of making their parting so efficient.
“So I’ve been thinking,” Phineas announced cheerfully, apparently oblivious to his brother’s dark mood, though Ferb knew it was an act, “we should figure out how to build some sort of haptic feedback into the holograph communicators. Once we do that, we’re a mere step away from some serious virtual reality equipment.” He finished putting the sheets on the bed, and went for the pillow. “There’s really no reason to put anything on hold just because you’re here. We can brainstorm and exchange notes every night, right?”
Ferb nodded his agreement, and carefully placed the holographic communicator on his desk. It was larger than they’d wanted - anything smaller would have meant a serious decrease in the spatial resolution - and he would probably have to find somewhere else to keep it if he wanted to do his homework there, but it was comforting to have it on display.
They finished unpacking and settled on the bed. “You seem kind of nervous about this.” Phineas finally said, having danced around the topic all day. “I didn’t think you would be - you’re usually pretty zen, man.” Ferb shook his head no, and it wasn’t a lie, exactly. He wasn’t nervous about the academy - he could take that as it came, and he was looking forward to the opportunities it would provide him. He was only nervous about what he might miss. ‘Don’t change while I’m gone.’ he wanted to say. A thousand quotations danced through his head, suggesting themselves - goodbyes were such a popular topic.
“I hear the food here is terrible.” he finally settled on, and Phineas laughed. A moment later Lawrence came back into the room.
“And that’s all settled!” He announced, satisfied. “Oh, and look at that - you’ve unpacked already. You boys certainly are efficient. I suppose we’d best be saying our goodbyes then, eh? It’s a long drive, and your mum wants us home for dinner if we can make it.”
Hugs were exchanged, meaninglessly - everything important was already known or it wasn’t. But people liked to say things even if everyone already knew them, and Ferb had long since grown used to it, so he accepted his family’s affection and walked them back to their car.
“See you soon, buddy.” said Phineas again. “Christmas break will be here in no time!” And then they were gone.
When he walked back into his room, another boy was there with his family, unpacking.
“Hey!” he exclaimed. “You must be Ferb - I’m Jake, I just got here.” Ferb nodded in greeting and Jake blinked at him once, then forged bravely onward. “I’m probably going to finish unpacking and then go out to dinner with my family, so I won’t be around until later tonight. It’s nice to meet you!” and then he turned back to his sister. “Is that your idea of folding a shirt? You’re an insult to the solemn history of laundry.”
Further attempts at conversation with his new classmates did not go any better. It wasn’t that Ferb meant to be unfriendly - it was just that he had nothing to say, and people always interpreted silence in the worst ways imaginable. The discomfort of being misunderstood was new to him - he’d always had Phineas to speak for both of them. It was odd, trying to do it on his own.
That was how he found himself alone in the cafeteria, looking dubiously at the limp and tragic salad bar and wistfully thinking of Linda’s healthy cooking.
“Ferb?” came the incredulous voice from behind him, and he spun about.
“Vanessa?” he questioned, though it was obviously her.
“What’re you doing here, man?” she looked delighted to see him, which was somewhat gratifying considering his youthful efforts to attract her attention. “Don’t tell me you’re going to that stupid on-campus high school or whatever.” Ferb nodded once, and she grinned at him. “Well, hey, that means you’re here to stay - grab your salad and I’ll introduce you to my friends.”
He followed her instructions, content to be caught up in her whirlwind, and she dragged him over to a table full of artistic looking youths. “Hey guys, this is Ferb - he’s a cool little dude.” Vanessa announced.
“Cool.” responded a boy with long shaggy hair, and that was that.
A few days later, Ferb had a meeting with Professor Lanning, the head of the robotics lab. The professor was running a bit late, and as Ferb sat in the lab waiting, he noticed an interesting math equation on a chalkboard. It was incomplete, though... and predicting results within an ideal environment, which, given that the environment within the robotics lab was largely static, was completely unnecessary. Thoughtfully, Ferb picked up a piece of chalk.
“Ah, sorry I’m running late,” came the professor a few minutes later, “you must be Ferb, I’ve been looki - good LORD! You’ve solved it!”
So that was access to the robotics lab all sorted out, and his social life wasn’t going badly either. Vanessa’s group of friends seemed willing enough to accept him as her silent shadow, and for whatever reason she liked his company, even sought him out whenever she wasn’t in class. Soon he was spending the majority of his free time in her crappy apartment, doing his homework at her desk as she plucked at her guitar from her beanbag chair, and listening to her wax poetic about how she wanted her music to change the world.
It was a new experience, to listen to someone who wasn’t sure that they could have everything they wanted out of life. Growing up, his and Phineas' lives had been made of easy certainty. Whatever they wanted, be it homemade granola bars or a roller coaster across town, was within arm's reach. In place of certainty, hope and doubt shone out of Vanessa’s every word, making her indescribably complex and beautiful. The first time she invited him to listen to her band practice in the drummer’s parents’ garage, he went prepared to have his world changed, just as she’d described.
It wasn’t that easy, it turned out. Vanessa’s band had a lot of passion and depth but not much in the way of actual musical talent, and their sound system was almost too crappy to listen to. One of those things, at least, Ferb could fix with the toolkit he kept in his backpack.
“Man, I see why you keep him around.” the drummer commented after Ferb finished, and Vanessa laughed. “I keep telling you guys, he’s good company.”
Despite everything, Ferb thought maybe she would change the world someday. It seemed like the degree to which she wanted it was her own kind of genius.
Vanessa answered the door mere moments after he knocked. “Ferb! Good to see you man, I was worried I wouldn’t get a chance to say merry Christmas before I left for my dad’s. Did you finish whatever crazy gadget has had you holed up in the lab for the past freakin’ millennia?”
Ferb nodded, trying to quell the nervousness he felt as he entered her apartment, package in hand. He thought she’d probably understand the gesture better than anyone else he’d ever met, and he wasn’t sure whether that left him more or less nervous about making it. Still, he supposed it was too late to back out now. Trying to be casual about it, he handed over her Christmas gift.
“Aw, is this for me? Thanks man! I don’t have anything for you yet, I figured I’d do my Christmas shopping back in Danville, when I’ve got a little more free time, you know?” she chattered absently as she pulled the wrapping off and opened the box, and then came to an abrupt halt.
“Ferb, this is... this is wicked!” she breathed, reverently lifting the black electric guitar out of its wrapping. “Did you make this?” she didn’t even wait for his confirming nod before continuing, “hang on, lemme plug this in, I gotta try it out!”
Her amp was buried under a pile of dirty clothes, which were unceremoniously kicked under the bed, and then her fingers were running down the strings like a prayer, fiddling with the knobs.
“This is a seriously high quality instrument!” she exclaimed, delight shining from her face. “There are professional musicians who would sell their firstborns for this kind of sound quality, man.”
“It’s to help you change the world.” he explained. She stilled, looked helplessly at him for a moment, and then their lips were meeting.
It was Ferb’s first kiss of course, and he spared a moment to be grateful that he’d never put much stock in the opinion of 80’s rom-coms, because he didn’t think that this was how they said it should go, but it was nonetheless the most incredible moment of his life, filled with all the hopes and doubts and complexities that were becoming familiar to him, and then she was pulling away, much much too early, and he couldn’t help but lean forward, following her for that extra moment.
“I’m sorry.” she murmured, and then stronger, “I’m sorry. I - no one else in the world could ever say that to me and mean it, I think, and I - I’m really grateful to you for loving me enough to take me seriously, Ferb.” her voice cracked a little on the word, because four extra years wasn’t enough experience to make her any more comfortable saying it than he was. “You do love me, don’t you?” she clarified, and he nodded.
“It’s just - you’re 16.” she gave a hiccuping sort of laugh. “I’m pretty sure I can be arrested in this state for what just happened. At the very least, I am a complete and total creepster by anyone’s standards.”
He supposed it was his turn to say something, but she already knew where he stood. He’d never seen the point of saying what was already known.
“It’s - you won’t be 16 forever.” she finally continued, when it became clear that he wasn't going to say anything. “If you still feel this way when you turn 18, we’ll talk about it again, OK?”
He didn’t see the point of waiting two years, really. He was entirely certain that his feelings weren’t going to change. But he nodded his agreement, and she smiled at him, full of beautiful uncertainties.
“OK.” she repeated. “Yeah. Good. I’ll see you next semester, huh?” and then she leaned in, and placed the briefest peck on his lips. “Merry Christmas, Ferb.” Maybe she meant it as an apology, but it felt more like a promise.
The first thing Phineas and Ferb did the morning after Ferb got home was build a Christmas Clubhouse in their backyard. “ Ferb, I know what we’re going to do today!” Phineas announced, and it was exactly like old times.
They were just finishing up the impromptu plumbing for the hot tubs when Isabella wandered into the yard. Ferb waited for the inevitable, “hey Phineas! Whatcha dooin’?” but instead the first words out of her mouth were, “Ferb! You’re back!” and then she surprised him with a hug.
Baljeet and Buford weren’t far behind. A snowball fight broke out, coming to its climax when Buford rolled an enormous ball of snow and then picked Baljeet up and shoved him bodily into it. Their clothing was all soaked through, their skin pink with the cold and the laughter, and it was everything a homecoming should be.
Then Wendy from the math team, who was apparently Baljeet’s girlfriend now, showed up. Baljeet’s face lit up like a Christmas tree and Buford’s turned dark and stormy, and someone suggested that they move into the clubhouse.
It was just beginning to get dark. There was the sound of a car door slamming in the background and then an engine starting up, as Linda and Lawrence left for a dinner party.
“Look what I brought!” Buford announced, pulling a large bottle of cheap rum out of his bag.
“Oh, Buford, perhaps we should not -” Baljeet stammered out.
“Shut up, nerd.” Buford cut him off, only a little bit viciously, and dumped almost half the bottle into the bowl of eggnog sitting in the refreshment center, far too much for it to still taste good.
“Ooh, a hot tub! Baljeet, you didn’t tell me I’d need to bring a swimsuit!” Wendy squealed.
“I’m sure you could make do without.” Baljeet responded, wiggling his eyebrows. Wendy giggled and swatted his arm, and Buford turned a deep shade of purple and helped himself to a large amount of the spiked eggnog. While he didn’t imagine he was coming at it from quite the same place, Ferb could understand the impulse.
“You can borrow my extra, Wendy, my house is right next door.” Isabella offered. Phineas fired up the speakers and started singing along to a christmas carol. He tossed a microphone toward Ferb, who obligingly provided him with a backbeat, and a few more people began to trickle through the door, the party having officially started.
Once the singing came to a halt, Ferb helped himself to some cookies and eggnog, and sat back to observe the room. Familiar faces, all, but it couldn't be clearer that everything had changed while he was gone. Wendy and Baljeet were holding hands and speaking in low voices by the fire, sharing an armchair and a mug of hot cocoa. Buford was sitting in a corner, sulking over the remainder of his rum, something Ferb had seen coming for years, but that he was willing to bet Buford hadn’t. Phineas was settled in the hot tub and Isabella was next to him, draping her lithe body along his length in a provocative manner that was entirely intentional. Far from remaining oblivious to her attentions, Phineas seemed to welcome them, settling a casual arm across her shoulder.
It was strange to realize that they weren’t innocent anymore, that if Candace called their mother and reported their behavior they’d be in genuine trouble and they’d have earned it. It was strange to come home and find his worst fears realized, that everything had changed while he was gone. It didn’t hurt the way he’d thought it would - there was still a place for him here, if he could figure out how to fit into it. But it left him melancholy, filled with a strange sense of his own mortality, to know that there were some things he would never get back.
At that moment, his thoughts were interrupted by the ringing of his cell phone. He glanced at it, unsure who would be interested in calling him that wasn’t already in the room, and smiled.
“Vanessa.” he answered.
“Ferb?? Ohmygod, my dad is driving me crazy! Do you know what he’s doing? He’s just - he’s so - Aargh! Can I come hang with you guys for awhile? I need to get out of here before I actually lose it.”
He hadn’t expected to hear from her over break, had thought that she’d want to spend those weeks apart to let them get over that last conversation. It filled him with a warm sense of hope, that she hadn’t even been able to wait a full day to call him. “Yes, of course.” he agreed. “Come join the party.”
“Party? I’m there!” she agreed. “There’s, uh, someone here I can hitch a ride with.”
In the background he thought he heard someone shouting, “Curse youu, Perry the Platypus!!” but that couldn’t possibly be right. Then Vanessa’s voice, aimed at someone on her side of the line, “hey, wait up a minute!” Back to him, “catch you in a few, Ferb!” She hung up, presumably on her way over.
Everyone here had changed, it was true. But when he’d pictured what that would be like, dreaded coming home to it, he’d forgotten that he would have changed too, that he might like where his life was headed. Change didn’t have to be bad.
“Merry Christmas, and a very happy new year.” he murmured to himself. It was the time of year for celebrating new beginnings.