She loves him, there’s no doubt about this. Never was. Never will be.
He kicked Tommy Monroe’s shin for her after Tommy had pulled her ponytail and made her cry when she was seven. He helped her pass math in 9th grade when nothing seemed to make sense and Marc didn’t ask her to the prom. He didn’t take the blame for Mom’s dented car, but he stood by her when she finally confessed when she was 16.
She loved him when he told her the girls in college didn’t exactly interest him, and she loved him when he kissed her goodbye to move to Washington, D.C. for a boring desk job with the CIA.
She loves him, but she’s no fool.
They’re both back home for Thanksgiving and he already looks different. Sure, he still wears the same worn shirts from Penn State and laughs at the same jokes, but the way he handles the knife when he cuts the carrots reminds her of a documentary about outdoor survival training she once saw, and then there’s something in his eyes she can’t exactly pick out.
“You take care, Will,” she whispers in his ear before Dad drives her to the airport to go back to college.
Their parents know, she’s sure of it. Dad sometimes calls her to ask after Will and there’s this undercurrent of worry in his voice which he never quite manages to conceal. She tells him about the postcards Will sends because he’s old-fashioned like this. From time to time they’re sent from some obscure town like Leipzig or Semarang. Towns she’s never heard of, but he gave her an atlas the day she moved into her first dorm and she opens it every time one of these cards arrive. They never talk about it and there’s barely more than a “Hello Ellie, weather is shit. Love, Will” scribbled on the paper anyway, but she keeps every single one safely locked away in a box under her bed.
The next time she sees him he visits her unannounced and crashes at her place for a week. He looks terrible, with bruises marring the whole left side of his face and the way he moves she suspects a few broken ribs as well. It’s probably more his look than her promise to bake all the cakes her roommate wants for the rest of the semester that makes Anne leave them alone for the whole time. Will sleeps a lot, and Ellie can’t help but be scared for him.
She sits on the floor, leaning against her bed and tries to read a book for her Literature Theory Class when he wakes up again.
“Hi,” he says quietly, barely moving on the bed next to her, but she feels his breath against her right ear. “What are you reading?”
“Stuff … boring stuff,” she replies.
“I like boring,” he says.
“You don’t look like it,” she snaps and bites her lip. Whatever it is, they don’t talk about it. That’s one of the few rules she’s always complied with. “I’m sorry … ” she finally whispers and closes her eyes.
“No, I’m … Ellie.” He sighs and strokes her hair. “I shouldn’t have just come here.”
“Don’t be stupid,” she says and leans against his hand. “You can always come here. Just tell me … is … is your job always so … interesting?”
“No, really, it’s rather boring,” he says after a moment’s hesitation. She’s not sure if she believes him, but she wants to, so desperately she can taste it on her tongue.
“Promise,” he replies quietly and kisses the top of her head.
He’s gone the next day, and she doesn’t hear from him in over three months. She spends the first week of these months feeling sick to her stomach and nervous and sleeps with her cell in her hand. She has a few nightmares, even after Anne sits her down to tell her that no news is good news. She still sees stretches of his bruised skin when she closes her eyes, though.
It only stops when he finally calls her, and she can spend ten minutes yelling at him for being an asshole. He takes it with humor and apologizes, and she instantly forgives him because he’s her big brother and she loves him.
He makes an effort, after that, to stay more in touch with her. They talk once a week and every other month he drops by for a day or two, and Anne continues to be an awesome roommate and always finds another place to stay on these weekends. In the fall, Will starts teaching her a few self defense moves and after she’s gotten intimately acquainted with the hardwood floor several times she surprises Anne with a colorful, soft carpet. She also has to cause a bit of a heartbreak for Anne who thinks that Will is really cool and really hot and wonders if he’s single. Ellie doesn’t really have an answer to that last question, but she gently explains that if anything Will would be more interested in their classmates Phil or Jordan. Anne sighs, resigned, and eats another one of Ellie’s muffins.
Ellie meets Paul on a rainy Friday in an Italian restaurant. Will picks her up from her dorm and although he tries not to show it, he’s incredibly nervous. It’s adorable and if she wouldn’t feel for him she’d laugh. This is important, though. This is the first boyfriend of Will's she's ever going to meet.
“He’s a really nice guy,” she tells Will after they’ve eaten and he drives her home. Will has this quiet, relieved smile on his lips that she remembers from when he was still in school and passed a test with flying colors. “Where did you meet?”
“On a train,” he says, and after her disbelieving look, “Really, I’m not making this up.”
“So, you really think he’s a nice guy?”
“Of course. Otherwise I wouldn’t have behaved so nicely to him.” She rolls her eyes at him. “Are you taking him to meet mom and dad?”
“Probably later,” he says and she nods, happy for him.
Mom and dad never get to meet Paul, though. Instead, Will shows up during yet another finals week and there’s something detached about him, like he doesn’t even really see her when he unexpectedly sits down opposite her at one of the library tables.
“Will? What the hell are you doing here? Did you call me?” she asks, completely surprised. Normally he at least leaves her a text message to announce his visit, but there had been nothing.
“Can I just … can I just sit here?” he asks, his arms wrapped around himself like a protective shield.
“Of course, sure, are you … Will, what happened? Are you okay?” She whispers because the last thing Will needs is for her to cause a scene when everyone else is studying in silence.
“I just want to sit here, okay? You can study. I didn’t want to disturb you.”
She feels a bit hysterical when she hears these words, because in which world wouldn’t it be disturbing to see her big brother appearing out of nowhere, looking like a ghost?
“I … I need to read twenty more pages of this and then we can go, alright?” She knows she won’t be able to focus on the text anyway, but Will looks as if he needs the short break to gather his thoughts and not break apart.
“Alright,” he says quietly and leans back into the chair.
She tries really hard to understand the text in front of her, but it’s all gibberish and her stomach feels like it’s filled with stones. She just wants to hug Will and maybe make it all better, but some voice in the back of her head tells her that she won’t succeed, no matter how hard she tries.