The sinking feeling in Candace’s chest was, once again, the only remnant left behind of her brothers latest inane project – and, of course, the climax of the daily cascade of failure had, yet again, taken place right as her mother reached the first point where she could have seen the truest extent of Phineas’ and Ferb’s capabilities.
And Linda saw nothing, and save for a tired look in Candace’s direction, did nothing, either, beyond inviting the children in for snacks as Candace’s shoulders drooped lower than they ever had. She’d have hoped that last year would have been their last, but she’d also hoped that about the year before last, and the year before the year before.
When, in all likelihood, it was never going to end, and here she was repeating the same routine at seventeen that she’d been after for nearly five or six years straight now.
Stalking over to the base of the tree, she slumped angrily against it, picking up a nearby rock and hurling it over the fence, listening for some sort of impact. Impact that never came, like so many other things she strived for.
The sliding glass door opened, and Candace scowled as Isabella walked across the yard towards her. “What do you want?”
Isabella frowned. “I left my Fireside Girl handbook out here,” she returned, bending down to scoop the offending novel out of the grass. “What’s your problem, anyway?”
“Why don’t you take a guess,” Candace snorted. “It’s only me, who spent all morning running – running, mind you – all the way to Googolplex and back for the fifty-thousandth time… and for nothing. I mean, you saw. Where did the thing go? Who knows, but Mom sure as anything didn’t see it.”
“Yeah, well, that’s kinda your own fault, then.” Isabella crossed her arms. “Maybe if you weren’t so stupidly overfocused on getting your brothers busted in the first place, you’d have a better time of it. You really ought to use your head and call it-”
“Don’t you dare tell me to call anything quits,” Candace hissed. “I have called everything quits so that I have time and energy to keep this up, and this is… this is not something I can just give up on. Not – not now.”
“Oh, go on then,” Candace retorted sarcastically. “Tell me you know what it’s like to have a burning unfulfilled passion that practically tears you apart inside with intensity.” She rolled her eyes. “Tell me I ought to just give up on something that I’ve worked for for nearly a decade, despite everyone thinking I’ve gone clinically insane. Tell me I should just give up, then.”
Isabella stared at her for a second. “Well, don’t give up then,” she said.
“If it’s that important to you, then don’t give up?” Isabella shrugged. “Or do, I guess I’m not your boss, but a new day is a new start or whatever Phineas says?”
“Phineas.” Candace sighed. “Yeah, he can say that. It certainly is for him, at least. Getting to wake up every morning and do whatever he wants without a care in the world. By this point I’d really just settle on being vindicated, honestly, I’m just tired of being the unreliable loser while he coasts so effortlessly. If I could bust him for just a second, even long enough to get his feet onto the ground for once, I… it would probably be enough.”
“You tell me,” Isabella replied. “It’s not like I haven’t been trying the same thing for years myself.” She hesitated, her voice faltering a little, causing Candace to raise an eyebrow. “At least you have the guts to get out there and do something about it. I… I’m just afraid half the time, and too nervous the other half. It’s really my fault for doing nothing, but I – I just can’t bring myself to do any more, and I know it’ll never get better till then, but… welcome to my world.” She shrugged. “At least you’re working for it. At that rate, you’ll probably get there eventually. Definitely leaving me in the dust, at any rate.”
“Like I’m making so much progress.” Candace pulled herself to her feet. “I’m going to mope up in my room now, if you don’t mind. Watch Ducky Momo and complain about my brothers to absolutely no one, because that doesn’t make me sound insane at all.”
Isabella nodded, but as Candace passed her and sat her hand on the sliding glass door’s handle, the girl ran up and caught her by the arm. “Wait up. I’ll go with you. I… I think I could use somewhere to rant. That isn’t the Fireside Girls. They’ll thank me for it.”
Candace gave her a strange look, then nodded. “Oh, whatever. Can’t hurt. C’mon.”
“I don’t even know why I bother to try anymore,” Isabella muttered under her breath, slumping farther down into the wooden chair in the Flynn-Fletcher’s kitchen. She’d been absolutely blown away when Phineas had handed her the envelope when she’d arrived that morning, after all, Valentine’s day was tomorrow, and if there was going to be any opportunity at all for them to finally get together (hopefully before they graduated high school altogether) then that would be it, right?
… and then it’d just turned out that Phineas, being… himself, had gotten everyone a Valentine’s card, including (but not limited to) both Balthazar Horowitz and Ferb and even Irving to boot.
At least Irving had been happy, if a little bit… too happy.
She was still sitting there, her head down on her arms, when Candace staggered into the kitchen still wearing pajamas and rubbing sleep out of her eyes.
“I swear,” she muttered sleepily. “You would think one day a year I could sleep in. But no. Gotta be up at the buttcrack of dawn like always. Why does Phineas have to such a disgustingly morning person anyway.”
“Why does Phineas have to be a lot of things,” Isabella repeated dully, prompting a startled glance from Candace.
“I… did not even realize you were there,” she confessed. “Oh, great, and my hair looks awful, too. I haven’t even had a chance to brush it yet.” She ran her hands through her hair in a superficial attempt to straighten it that quickly failed. “Ugh. Never mind. Between this and freckles I’m about the homeliest person on the face of the Earth anyway.”
Isabella smiled faintly, half-amused. “You know you could stop yourself from getting those if you’d stop to put sunscreen on before you go out in the sun.”
Candace snorted. “As if I have time for that. I’m already too slow to get Mom as it is. Stopping for ‘sunscreen’ would kill any chance to make her see deader than a doornail.”
“There are some people who would probably say that twenty-one is probably old enough to stop worrying about what your siblings are doing.”
“Yeah, well, some people don’t have Phineas and Ferb as younger brothers,” Candace replied. “Besides, stopping now is just gonna let Mom and Dad keep thinking of me the way they always did. Contrary to what you might think, I don’t want to be the ‘black sheep’ of the family, but this is the only way I have left to clear my name.”
“Fair,” Isabella conceded.
Candace plopped a box of cereal down onto the kitchen table and put her hands on her hips. “Why are you in such a sarcastic mood today… oh, it was the Valentine’s Day cards, wasn’t it?”
Isabella snorted. “Lemme guess, he got you one too.”
“Oooof course he did.” She rolled her eyes. “All this time, we’re practically adults, and he still won’t notice me. Not anymore than he notices Baljeet. I don’t – I don’t get it. Am I really that unnoticeable?”
“I notice you,” Candace said dryly. “Mostly because you complain a lot in my face.”
“Gee, thanks. I really needed to hear that.”
“Well, it’s true.” She shrugged and began shoveling cereal unceremoniously into her mouth, spewing bits of it and spatters of milk out everywhere as she chewed. “I mean, I have enough issues with Phineas on my own, it’s not like you have to convince me that he doesn’t notice anything that doesn’t smack him upside the head.” She paused for just long enough to swallow. “Have you tried to smack him upside the head?”
“I wish,” Isabella returned, almost bitterly. “But it’s been so long now that I don’t even know if it’s worth pursuing anymore. I mean… he’s hardly changed a bit, but I… I’m so different now. I don’t even know if we’d be compatible anymore, or if it’s just my ingrained habit by this point.”
“Habit’s a thing,” Candace admitted. “Some days I just don’t feel like trying – and failing – to bust, but I do, mainly because I do it automatically by now. Some subconscious thing. But… well, it doesn’t really matter if I do it by habit or not. The Mysterious Force is always ready to make sure I never get anywhere.” She scowled. “At least you don’t have that. Count yourself lucky.”
“Right.” Isabella sighed. “Sometimes I wish I did, because I feel like I’d feel less miserable over having a physical, real barrier as opposed to getting all woozy inside whenever he looks at me for half a second, and feeling like I can’t speak. If it was anyone else at all, they’d surely have put two and two together by now – I know I’m hardly subtle anymore – but nope. Because it’s Phineas.” She put her head down and groaned into her palm. “Why’d I have to fall in love with Phineas in the first place, Candace? Why?”
“Beats me,” Candace replied. “Beats me.”
“Yeah.” Isabella nodded glumly. “Guess it’s just one of those things I have to deal with. It’s just… I don’t want him to not be himself, but if he wasn’t, this would all be so much easier, you know?”
“Oh, trust me, I know. I – I love Phineas, and he’s a good little brother, despite the fact that he drives me up the wall with his and Ferb’s contraptions. Sometimes I do wish there was a way around all this, because after so long, it’s like…”
“Phineas is having a good time enjoying life and we’re making ourselves miserable trying to hang onto his coattails?” Isabella nodded again. “Yeah. Yeah.”
Candace shrugged. “He’s Phineas. What’re you gonna do?”
Isabella, of course, didn’t know. No one really did.
“I can’t believe I’m not going to be the ‘girl across the street’ anymore,” Isabella said. “Phineas moving out already? It’s like… gosh, should I be moving faster or something?”
Candace snorted. “Don’t tell me you’re gonna try and keep up with him. You’ll just kill yourself. I haven’t even moved out yet.”
“Yeah, but that’s because you didn’t want to,” Isabella pointed out. “You could if you wanted to. I… I hadn’t even really considered it. Maybe I should. I am twenty-three, after all, it’s… probably close to time?”
“Eh.” Candace shrugged. “I didn’t want to because staying close to Phineas meant more shots at busting. Now he’s moving out and… I guess it’s finally becoming too late for me, isn’t it?” She chuckled half-heartedly. “Well.”
Isabella exhaled sharply. “It’s not like I’m doing any better on that front,” she pointed out. “Though… after all these years I guess I should’ve known it was all bound to fall through anyway.” She sighed. “Oh, Phineas. We could’ve been so happy together.”
Candace put her arm around the slightly shorter girl’s shoulders. “Maybe it’s for the best,” she consoled softly. “Jeremy and I… went through some things, and even though I guess it was kind of my fault for what happened, I don’t think I’ve ever hurt worse. At least this way you don’t have to feel anything like that.”
“I – I guess. Though that feels a bit paradoxical.”
“Maybe it is,” Candace sighed. “Maybe it is. I… I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself after he’s gone, though. Without busting to focus on… I really don’t have much. Don’t have anything.”
“Yeah.” Isabella nodded slowly. “I’ve got Mama’s restaurant, at least, but… that’s just a job. And there’s the Adult Fireside Troop, but… how’s a weekly meeting supposed to make up for Phineas anyway? Gosh, I’m so pathetic, aren’t I?”
“If you are, then so am I,” Candace shrugged. “Which I kinda already knew anyway, but… whatever."
“Well, that’s just great,” Isabella replied. “Look at us, then. What is it about Phineas that … does this to people? We can’t even cope with the idea of losing his permanent presence. How sad is that?” She turned her eyes up to Candace’s face, and Candace smiled faintly as she shook her head.
“Life without Phineas Flynn,” Isabella mused. “Just… me. And you, I guess. Me and you, doing… well, whatever it is we find to replace him with.”
“Yeah.” Candace nodded, looking downwards into Isabella’s dark blue eyes, which where somewhat wider than usual – probably result of some kind of eyestrain? She couldn’t imagine over what, though. Poring through binoculars for hours at a time in vain efforts to bust him. Well, no, probably not that, but something.
“Me and you versus… well, not Phineas anymore, I guess,” Isabella continued. “The world? I don’t know. It feels like a big place to start.”
“True,” Candace agreed. “Maybe we ought to just settle on getting the happiness we can out of our lives. Phineas would… probably agree to that.”
“I’m sure he would,” Isabella said. “All the happiness we can. I guess… I guess there’s you.”
Candace put a hand over her heart, pretending to touched. “Why, thank you.”
“No, no, I’m serious,” Isabella reassured her laughingly.
Candace smiled. “I – I guess I’m serious too. You really are a good friend. Better than a good friend, even, whatever’s… past there.” She was staring into Isabella’s eyes again, and Isabella was staring back, her voice sounding distant and echoey even as she replied – starting a sentence and then cutting herself off abruptly in the middle of it to look upwards at Candace, to meet her eyes.
“What do you think?” Candace asked, half-serious and half-joking.
“Us?” Isabella returned. “Nah. It can’t be.” She flashed a smile. “We’re both pathetic Phineas hangers-on who can barely function without him. It’s only by a miracle – and each other – we managed to last this long.
Candace nodded slowly. “A miracle. I guess if Phineas has done anything, he's showed that the thing about miracles is that they… can always happen again.”
Isabella blinked. “Yeah, yeah, I… guess they can.” The two of them stared at each other for a moment more, thoughts racing through both their heads at an insane pace, and yet… neither of them really felt much need to worry. They knew each other better than that by now, trusted each other more than that.
Phineas had a… way of inspiring strange urges in people, whether it was a crush that had endured years of unrequitedness or a ceaseless desire to expose his creations or anything else.
Polarizing. Polarizing was the word. A doer of the impossible. A worker of… a worker of miracles.
As if by instinct, Candace leaned down at the exact moment Isabella stretched upwards, wrapping her arms around Candace’s shoulders for support as their lips met, met with the force of nine years of friendship and caring and encouragement and support through endless frustration and irritation.
And they clung to each other, drinking in the affection, savoring the breathless kiss like ones starved, and suddenly Phineas’ absentmindedness, his insane contraptions, his flippancy about life, and most of all, his impending absence from the two lives that, whether knowingly or unknowingly, he’d shaped so much…
… was not so much of pressing problem anymore.