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The Roads That Lead To Constantinople

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ISABELLA

We all have days on which we feel no desire to get off bed whatsoever – for Isabella Garcia-Shapiro, that day was today.

As she woke up, the thirteen-year-old girl found herself lying in her bedroom, with her dog Pinky at her feet. It was about eight in the morning, but she was still feeling tired. She had no appointments to attend today, and she wasn’t particularly hungry. Her mother wasn’t around, being away on her trip until the next day.

She had no real priorities to meet. There was no reason for her to get up. Staying here would simply be more comfortable. And most importantly, getting out of bed would force her to recognize all the confusing, unnerving and downright catastrophic things that had happened to her.

Just yesterday morning, she had been looking forward to the best day of her life (well, aside from her wedding day – and maybe a promotion in the Fireside Girls) – the day on which she would finally go on that date with Phineas that she had craved for so long. One that he had been the one to ask her out on, no less. The start had been… well, as perfect as she could have expected from him, given his enduring oblivious nature. Even now, Isabella’s memories liked to just flock back to that perfect date and stay there forever, safely sealed away from reality. And as long as she was here in bed, she could do that.

But she couldn’t stay here forever. She knew that. Sooner or later, Isabella would have to confront the true realities of what had happened… and they were very confusing truths.

The truth that Phineas had never been in love with her, and that what she had occasionally been doing the past couple of years by trying to get The Day to happen faster wasn’t her contribution to their inevitable romance, but an act of stalking that was no better than what Irving would do. (Worse, possibly.)

The truth that Phineas had somehow ended up in a relationship with his own sister.

And last but not least, the truth that Ferb Fletcher had kissed her.

It was funny – those first two things should have left her feeling devastated. And they had, for a time. But the third thing had ensured that on this Sunday morning, Isabella was left feeling more confused than anything.

Ferb had a way of doing that, it seemed.

“What happened, Pinky?” she spoke up, shaking her head. “I should be a mental wreck. And yet, I’m… fine, almost.” She pressed her head into the pillow. “My crush dumped me for his sister, but I feel okay.”

Pinky raised his ear, but other than that he had no reaction to this shocking news. Fair enough. He was a dog, after all. She liked talking to him as much as she could and pretending that he understood her (seriously, he probably would have heard more of her rants about Phineas than the Fireside Girls had if not for the fact that he occasionally went missing), but he’d sooner understand television and computers than the complexities of incest.

Incest. Just thinking of the word made her stomach curl up and made her want to hide under her blankets forever, not having to face the cruel outside world – except that first of all, she knew that Phineas wasn’t cruel, as every aspect of the conversation she’d had with him last night pointed to that fact, and secondly, there was Ferb – who, again, helped make dull confusion replace the pain that she couldn’t help but feel in her heart.

“Where did I go wrong?” she whispered. “I… I didn’t try to stalk him. I loved him – or at least, I thought I did. But apparently… apparently he preferred her.” She stared up at the ceiling. “Nice going, Isabella. You lost your crush to his sister.”

She shook her head. Talking to yourself in the third person just wasn’t funny anymore.

The thing about it, though, was that there was little else that she could do right now. Even if she didn’t feel pain, she still had no real direction in which she could go. She had talked to Phineas last night and agreed that they probably shouldn’t interact again over the next couple of days. And although not going over to the Flynn-Fletchers would be strange after so many years in which that had been her routine almost every day, even on days on which there were no projects, actually going over there and pretending that nothing was happening would be even stranger. Seeing Phineas again… it would only increase the awkwardness. She would be constantly aware of the fact that she was looking at her old crush, constantly replaying that kiss in her memories…

…well, that, or it would be replaced by the other kiss, the one she had been involved in, and Isabella wasn’t sure whether that was any better.

So she would be here. Lying down, eating a sandwich perhaps, and just… waiting. It was something all her instincts would have normally rebelled against, but right now she had no real instincts. The reason she would normally be driven to go to the other side of the road was for Phineas, after all – Phineas, whom she didn’t want to see right now, and who had indicated that he didn’t want to see her either. Not in so many words, and not because he disliked her – as strange as everything had gotten last night, Isabella took heart in the fact that they had managed to agree that their friendship still stood – but because he couldn’t deal with all the tension between them either. It was better for things to cool off, he’d argued.

That was… fair enough. Phineas had never been very good with arguments and lingering tensions – he was simply too optimistic for all of that, too used to things going not just his way but everybody’s way. And of course he had only recently found out about her crush on him (or at least, that was what she’d assumed from last night’s chaotic conversations) and since yesterday, she knew that he knew (and he knew that she knew that he knew), and that would be bound to alter their dynamic on top of everything else.

So she would wait here. Wait until… life could resume its normal course, if it ever would.

Isabella sighed. Her crush had always been important to her, but when she was arguing with herself like this it was almost like it was the only thing in her life, which… well, it wasn’t. There were the Fireside Girls, and… her family? And there was her friendship with the Flynn-Fletchers that hadn’t been broken, of course, even if it had been dramatically altered. Still, a large part of what she had imagined to be her future was just gone now. And she would have to figure out how to deal with it.

She wondered if this was how Candace had felt a couple of weeks ago, when she and Jeremy had broken up. From the stories she’d heard, the other girl had certainly been desolate, and although Isabella had grasped that that was a Bad Thing she hadn’t quite realized what it entailed then, confident as she was that her own romantic future was secure, and focusing on details of that hypothetical romantic future rather than on compassion for Candace. It felt very different now that said future had been blasted into smithereens.

Of course, there was one big difference between the two of them – that for some reason, where Phineas only had friendship to offer to her and hadn’t in the end been able to say many supporting words last night over her problems, he had had something else entirely to offer to his distraught older sister…

No. She was not thinking about that. Isabella shuddered. Phineas and Candace… no. That was probably the best reason she had to stay away from the Flynn-Fletcher household. No matter her own romantic interests in Phineas, that was just creepy.

It was the best reason to stay away from the Flynn-Fletchers, for sure. The most understandable reason to… well, to just about anyone else who knew anything about the concept of ‘incest’, even if they would never expect it to enter their lives. But it still was far from being the only thing currently keeping her away from that place across the street. Because her kiss with Ferb…

Unwillingly, Isabella’s mind went back to yesterday evening. Not to that terrible moment on the doorstep of the Flynn-Fletcher home, when she caught her Phineas being more active and loving than she had ever seen him be, a picture taken straight from her wildest dreams and one that would be beyond incredible and unbelievable to see in real life, only with Candace… that moment was easy to remember, far too easy, but it was also strangely easy to dispel as she concentrated on those other things. On the fact that when she had been dumped at Paul Bunyan’s, her thoughts had been of Ferb Fletcher, the boy she trusted to come and get her. That even when she had just seen that kiss, when her mind should be focused on defense against the atrocity that had been committed against her, she had spared thoughts for being disappointed that Ferb hadn’t told her anything, because she had expected better of him.

She would have had the same reaction to Phineas and Candace kissing at any time in her life. There was no way to prepare for that, and there were no circumstances under which that would go easily or normally. It was the most unreal of realities and yet it was what confronted her right now, forcing her to give up the boy of her dreams, the boy of whom she would have kept dreaming forever otherwise.

But Ferb… the aspect concerning Ferb was different. A few months ago, she wouldn’t have thought of him at all in these scenario’s. Ferb wasn’t someone who was supposed to be relevant in all this, not any more than Buford and Baljeet were – probably less than Buford and Baljeet were. Ferb was supposed to be as irrelevant to her and Phineas’ romantic future as Candace was. (Granted, that one had been subverted in any case, but the thought of what might have been, of Candace encouraging rather than blocking her romantic aspirations was still present in her mind.) Under ‘normal’ circumstances, Isabella would have called the Fireside Girls for consolation, not Ferb. She would have been solely mad at Phineas, not feeling betrayed by Ferb, because Ferb was too small a presence in her life for him to ever be able to ‘betray’ her and because surely incest and Phinabella forever being ruined was much more important.

But when Phineas had left her for Candace at that restaurant, she had called that green-haired boy who had always been in the background. She’d been at his side when she barged into the Flynn-Fletcher house, and when she cried her heart out at the pool. She had felt his arms around her, and as shocked as she had been at feeling her lips meet hers she had returned the kiss, returned it not just as a distraction from Phineas, but as if this, not that special moment with Phineas that she had fantasized about for so long, had been what she had truly been waiting for.

It was beyond bizarre – looking back at last night, Isabella felt as if she was watching a movie rather than pulling memories out of her own life. Partly because of Phineas and her, of course, but also because of her own actions. Shouting at Phineas – understandable under the circumstances, despite the conclusions she had been forced to come to later on – and then the passion with which she had locked lips with Ferb instead.

With Ferb.

With Phineas’ brother. A boy whom, outside of the last couple of weeks, she had barely ever had extended conversations with.

She had kissed Ferb Fletcher, eagerly made out with him, and what did she even know about him?

Okay, there was no need to be so dramatic about it. She did know Ferb, she always had, and she’d gotten to know him a lot better over the last couple of weeks. He was friendly. Charming. Quiet, but deep. Witty, not in the way that Phineas was with those silly jokes and corny puns, but in a more sarcastic and teasing way. He was sweet and attentive. Passive, but decisive when he wanted to be – she still remembered the way he had punched his own brother in her defense, which was… probably not the best thing he could have done, but it was understandable and it had been in her defense. Even in the period in which she had truly gotten to know him, Isabella had never seen Ferb angry like that, or embarrassed like he was later on, and the fact that it was for her sake made her feel strangely intrigued towards the deep emotions that lay hidden beneath his stoic exterior.

Ferb was caring. Ferb was a gentleman. Ferb was a listener, but also a doer, competent and capable yet sweet and sensitive. He was, in short, the kind of good catch that she would ordinarily push any Fireside Girl towards. And yet he was not like that for her – because he was not Phineas, he was Phineas’ quiet brother whom she’d never taken any romantic notice of over the past couple of years, and yet also because when a Fireside Girl had come up to her and straight-up asked her to help her build a relationship with Ferb, she had been very uncomfortable with the idea.

Isabella sighed, sitting down on the couch in the living room and just listening to the ticking clock in the background. She was alone with her feelings, and it was all so complicated. Even after a good night’s sleep, her emotions were still a mess. She was… never going to solve this on her own. Not before that date she’d stupidly agreed upon, at least. Because on the one hand, she wanted to go there, she wanted to explore Ferb’s character… and on the other hand, she felt wrong about going with someone who wasn’t Phineas, and she knew that she would be going in unprepared, unsure of whether she wanted to commit to this. Whether she could commit to this. Love, after all, was more than just stacking up reasons for why they might be good for each other. And whether she was good for Ferb was another thing that she had never considered – that she’d never needed to consider.

She needed help.

And she didn’t know where to get it.

Everyone around her knew she was in love with Phineas, everyone but Phineas himself (well, he knew now, of course, now that her feelings had just become irrelevant). How could she ever explain to them that those feelings were either gone or no longer relevant to her? She couldn’t tell them about Phineas and his sister, nor about Ferb. She’d have to defend feelings she wasn’t sure she had, and she had no idea where to begin with that. The Fireside Girls couldn’t understand her, not when she couldn’t understand herself.

That was the problem with getting help, wasn’t it? She didn’t understand her emotions and needed advice, but in order to get that advice she would have to explain things she would prefer to keep under wraps – and, most likely, she wouldn’t get anything useful out of her friends either.

“What should I do, Pinky?” she wailed. (Well, not wailed – that was putting it a bit too strongly. She was upset, but not that upset. It all had to do with that dull confusion from earlier.) “I can’t ask people for help, but I can’t not ask them for help.” She sighed. “I don’t dare ask them, because in order to get any help, I’ll need to explain that I… that I might have feelings for Ferb now.”

That was the crux, wasn’t it? Not Phineas and Candace’s… thing, because she would probably have to keep that one hidden anyway. She seemed to remember promising something like that to him yesterday, and even if she hadn’t held her promises to Phineas highly, she still wouldn’t have wanted to upset Ferb. That would just… confuse things. No, she wasn’t going to tell that secret, which meant that she would have to tell her own. Try to explain her own feelings. And even if the Fireside Girls couldn’t understand her, even if her mother couldn’t understand her, even if everyone else she knew wouldn’t understand her…

Those were excuses, really. Explanation was part of every question. Her friends still had the insights that she lacked, and if she talked to them long enough, she could at least get some answers that she hadn’t come up with yet. They might not be conclusive, but the more people she asked, the better her chances would become.

No, the real reason she was reluctant had nothing to do with her acquaintances’ inability to understand. The real reason was that she was afraid of spilling her feelings for Ferb.

And was it that she was afraid of Ferb, too?

…no. She would not be afraid of him. She was Isabella Garcia-Shapiro, troop leader of Fireside Girl troop 46231. They never gave up, and she had no intention of doing so either. A faint smile came on her face as she remembered how Phineas – the crush that he was, and the friend that he remained – would undoubtedly remind her of all the great things she had already pulled off in the past. She was not going to back down now. She would go out there, and she would ask advice, and only when she got that advice she would consider her options.

But it was probably still best to start close to home. She might need to reach out, but she would do it on her own time. She still had several days to go, after all. A week until she needed to face Ferb Fletcher again. A week until her relationship with the Flynn-Fletchers would hopefully normalize.

And Isabella was planning to make the most of that time.

“You know what, Pinky?” she said. Her dog was probably within earshot, although she couldn’t see him anywhere right now so it was possible that he had disappeared again, as he occasionally did. “Today, I’m going to remain in the house. Having something to eat, reading a book or two, and just thinking things over. But after that?”

She smiled, the memory of her best friends for once not causing any pain or confusion but the simple optimism with which they had always inspired her.

“I know what I’m going to do this week.”

FERB

Ferb Fletcher was overthinking things again that morning.

It was a habit of his that he’d had for as long as he could remember. And although it hadn’t kept him from inventing on his brother’s side – since those were never the things he overthought – it had helped cement his reputation for silence. People didn’t like it when you contemplated their question for minutes before answering them, apparently.

Overthinking was perhaps unnecessary most times – infeasible even, given the pace of the things that happened in and around their house. But that was before there had been something to overthink.

And Ferb figured that almost anyone would share the kiss he had shared with Isabella Garcia-Shapiro under that category.

An act that, at the time, had not been overthought at all.

Ferb still didn’t quite get why he had done the things he had done last night. Confessing his innermost feelings to Isabella. Kissing her. Punching his brother. Regardless of what Phineas would have done, Ferb would normally have expected himself to be the one protecting his innocent sibling, not bringing him bodily harm. But he had been so mad, so offended on Isabella’s behalf, that he  had continued to be unforgiving of his brother’s innocently insensitive behavior even as Isabella’s emerging guilt complex sought to acquit him. That even as Isabella got over her crush and acknowledged its issues, he had tried to justify her actions despite having known for some time that they were deeply flawed.

Love made you do crazy things, it seemed.

Love. More and more, Ferb had become convinced that that was indeed what he felt for Isabella. It was… different from his crush on Vanessa, if only for the fact that he’d known Isabella for ten years. But he was not as oblivious as his brother had been, and the difference between Vanessa and Isabella would not leave him hiding in denial either. He knew how he felt. He knew what it had meant that he had gotten so invested in the wellbeing of the girl across the street. At the very least, he had developed a strong crush – more likely, he was falling in love. In love with a girl who had – against all the odds – actually kissed him back last night.

If anyone had told him only three months ago that he would end up kissing Isabella, he would have considered the thought downright insane. Even as little as a week, heck, a day ago he would have dismissed the thought out of hand. Isabella was in love with Phineas, with whom she’d eventually get together. Even Phineas’ weird crush on their sister didn’t change anything about that, because it was only a crush, Candace would never accept it, and Isabella’s persistence and general appeal would be sure to lead Phineas into her arms some day. She certainly wouldn’t be lead into his, not when half the time Ferb wasn’t sure whether she knew he existed.

But the thing about people was that they could surprise you, even if in hindsight the motivations for their actions were easily deducible from their personalities. Phineas’ determination and Candace’s fondness of him had blossomed into a passionate romance which, as  Ferb found himself believing right now, could actually stand the tests of time. And the ensuing rejection and the way they had bonded by spending time together had made Isabella kiss him last night.

It would be so easy to dismiss that kiss as one impulsive action, especially since he had been the one to initiate it anyway. Isabella couldn’t love him, not even if his brother was out as an alternative for… the foreseeable future. But Ferb wasn’t blind to the way Isabella had been hurt, not just by Phineas breaking her heart but also because he had withheld the truth from her for so long, because she genuinely, independently cared about him and about what he thought of her. And she had accepted his impulsive offer for that restaurant date next week, too.

Isabella cared. She had to care. There was… something there between them. But whereas with other people Ferb could easily tell the intricacies of their feelings, he was drawing a blank when it came to himself and to her.

They were in uncharted waters. Ferb Fletcher had a date with the girl who had crushed on his brother for as long as he could remember, and he literally had no idea where it was going to go. So maybe he should do the same thing Phineas did, and not overthink things at all.

His brother had gotten up before him that morning, as usual, but unlike so often he had not greeted Ferb with the customary pillow. When the British boy finally turned his head to face his brother’s bed he saw the room was empty. It was past 8 in the morning, but there were no sounds coming from the backyard yet. Which meant that Phineas would likely still be at the breakfast table.

Ferb got out of bed, got dressed, and headed down the stairs. As he passed his sister’s room, he shot a glance in that direction and noticed that the door was still shut. He briefly wondered whether Phineas had joined her for another sleepover. Romantic intimacy would certainly explain why Phineas had been absent when he woke up, and why he hadn’t been woken up to come to the backyard yet, even though it was one of those precious weekend days in which the most had to be made before school started again on Monday.

Romantic intimacy. Between his brother and his sister – between Phineas, who had barely seemed to know the meaning of the words sometimes, and Candace, who had been obsessed about Jeremy and about getting them in trouble, and who had long seemed to regard them as being just little kids.

Even now, after six weeks, Ferb still found himself shaking his head in the confusion he felt at the very idea that those two might be doing anything romantic together. But it had happened, it was here, and he also knew that it wasn’t going anywhere. Phineas and Candace’s relationship was clearly here to stay.

He got down the stairs and saw his brother at the breakfast table, writing in their sketchbook. Phineas looked up at him and greeted him with a broad grin. “Hey, Ferb!” he exclaimed. “I figured you might like to sleep in today, and to be honest I didn’t want to get off bed right away either when the alarm clock went off. Weird, right?” He chuckled. “It’s not like yesterday was such a busy day, what with everything being concentrated in the evening, and yet it feels like it was more intense than the day we went around the world. Emotions really can do a number on you. Anyway, I’ve already gotten to work on drawing the blueprints for today’s project, so we can get started right after you finish breakfast.” He paused, the broad grin on his face mellowing for a brief moment. “Did you happen to see whether Candace was awake yet when you went by her room?”

It was a very long barrage of words, and Ferb couldn’t help but smile. His brother seemed to need these things sometimes, particularly in the morning – and he had to admit that it was heartening to be on friendly terms with him again, last night’s argument forgotten as if it had never happened (even though he could still see the bruise his punch had left on his brother’s cheek). Responding to the question, he shook his head.

Phineas looked unperturbed by that news, as he would. “It must have been a long day for her too yesterday” he speculated. “Especially as she went out with Jeremy, and I know now that that’s something she always worried about.” He shook his head. “It’s strange, you know? Candace is my girlfriend again – she’s in love with me, Ferb! – and it makes me so happy inside, but there are all those issues that even until last night I didn’t fully realize she had. And now I’m going to have to help her deal with them, and with many of them, I don’t know where to start. I try my best, of course, and I think it helped last night, but Candace worries so much. And then there’s that whole thing with busting too, and I know that’s tied up in it now.”

Ferb sat down opposite his brother with a bowl of cereal, and as Phineas looked into his eyes he grinned again. “But now you’re here! And, well, you’re not Candace’s boyfriend and I am,” there was a smile on Phineas’ face that was even broader than it usually was, which was saying something, “but that doesn’t mean you can’t help me nevertheless. If you want to, of course.”

The green-haired boy looked at his brother, who was confused at the way he was being stared at. It was almost comfortingly familiar to see Phineas be oblivious – although his brother was usually the best at reading his facial expression, that didn’t mean he always understood just what he was reading. “You mean, no?” the redhead guessed. “You… want me to help Candace on my own?” Ferb blinked affirmatively. “I mean, I could, if that’s what you want me to do – but I’m sure Candace wouldn’t mind if you…” He paused. “Well, I suppose she might mind, after all. She is in love with me, and not with you, and she won’t always want you to be involved in things she shares with me. Huh. Maybe I should want to solve these issues on my own, then – because that’s how it’s going to be for the rest of my life. For our lives. Candace and I will help each other out, as boyfriend and girlfriend, just the two of us.”

Ferb blinked again to confirm his brother’s words, and then pointed to the other side of the street – first by tilting his head in that direction, and then, when it became clear that Phineas hadn’t understood that, he physically stretched out his arm. “Oh, right, that whole… thing with Isabella last night” Phineas remembered. He grinned. “Good for you, bro. Yeah, I guess you’re going to have to spend a lot of time on that now? Romance for the both of us.” He smiled sheepishly. “Still, that doesn’t mean we can’t ask for any advice from each other, right? The fact that I’m Candace’s boyfriend, and that you want to be Isabella’s boyfriend doesn’t mean that we’re going to have the answers to all of our girlfriends’ problems – or the other way around, for that matter. We’re not perfect, you know.”

That point was fair enough, and Ferb nodded just in time to see Phineas get a relieved smile on his face before their conversation was disrupted by their sister walking into the room. Candace still looked tired as she glanced around the breakfast table, but the moment she spotted Phineas there was a slight smile on her face, a smile of fondness that had never quite been on there before the last couple of weeks, but one which clearly indicated a deeply-held infatuation. There was no doubt, then, that for better or for worse, his siblings were in love with each other.

“Morning, Candace!” Phineas greeted her cheerfully. “How are you, sis?”

“I’ve woken up in worse moods” Candace admitted, taking a bowl of cereal and sitting down. “You, though, seem to be even bouncier than you normally are.”

“I guess I am, yeah” her brother replied. “Still, you’ve got to admit that there’s plenty of reason for me to be happy.” He grinned at her. “Yesterday was… mixed, but Isabella knows our secret now and she’s no longer mad at me, and she got all those things she thought off her chest and that’s good, too. And now, we’re dating again, it’s a beautiful morning and I had this really great idea earlier that we could all partake in. You know how we’ve done car races and stuff like that plenty of times?” Candace nodded. “Well, how about an animal race? You know, like they have at the race track – only cooler, because we’d be building mechanical animals. That way, we can go much faster – over a track around the whole state, perhaps? Or maybe just the Tri-State Area, no need to go overboard.” He chuckled. “It could be me and you versus Ferb and Isabella – what do you say?”

“Didn’t you say that you had agreed last night that Isabella should take some time off?” Candace replied before Ferb could. “And as for me… well, I think the whole ‘not busting’ thing is going to be hard enough on its own without me joining up with you. Yesterday was pretty stressful, you know.”

“Oh, I know” Phineas said, smiling. “I’d forgotten all about that deal with Isabella, but that’s true. I mean, sometimes people just need some time off – and I guess that bumping into us would make it all awkward? Since she doesn’t like seeing us together, obviously.” Ferb’s lips curled slightly at his brother’s understatement. “But as for you – well, I’ve always found that there’s nothing more relaxing than just making the best of every day. And if Isabella wouldn’t be there – well, you don’t have anything against Ferb, do you? I know he punched me, but that’s okay.”

Candace briefly gave Ferb a smile as they both reflected on their brother’s… unique character, but the moment Phineas raised his bruise shattered it. Ferb felt embarrassment color his face, while Candace was carefully not looking at him. The quiet sibling suddenly wondered whether Phineas’ questions were more justified than he had assumed them to be. Their sister might have been abrasive and harsh from time to time, and she had done a lot of things that she wasn’t proud of, but she had never gone as far as he had by punching Phineas. And she was fiercely protective of him, too, something he remembered clearly from the first days of him living in America and that would only have heightened now they had fallen in love.

But it turned out that he didn’t need to worry. Candace shook his head. “If Ferb has apologized to you, and you’ve accepted it, that means enough to me” she replied. “I mean, it is Ferb. He couldn’t really have meant to hurt you, right?” Ferb gave her a brief nod. “He lost his temper… and I know what that’s like. But he’d better not do it again.” The expression on her face firmed up as she stared at her green-haired brother. Their eyes met, and Candace shot him a glare so fierce that even Ferb, who considered himself unbothered by most things (well, that was the way he used to perceive himself, at least) shrank back a little. “And I’m sure I can count on that.”

“All right!” Phineas exclaimed, before blushing because even he realized that that attitude was a bit too overenthusiastic. “I know we’ve been having a lot of issues over the past couple of weeks. It’s… taken its toll on me too, and, well, I can try to hide it in order to be my cheerful and optimistic self, but spending time at odds with you – with either of you – did hurt.” He sighed. “But I don’t blame you, and I can’t spend all my time blaming myself either. And if you guys can do the same, forgive yourself and each other, then I’m sure we’ll be able to make something great out of this. We do all love each other, after all.”

“We do” Candace confirmed, smiling teasingly at him. “Although I don’t think you would be happy if my feelings for Ferb ran quite as deep as those I have for you.”

“Well, when I first realized that I was in love with you, I was thinking we could pursue that together” Phineas replied. “Ferb and I, I mean. But I soon realized that that wasn’t what Ferb wanted – and not to be selfish, but it’s not what I want either. You’re my girlfriend, and whenever we go out, I want it to be just the two of us.” He gave his stepbrother a sly grin, and Ferb realized what was coming. “Besides, it’s not like Ferb will get lonely. Did I tell you last night about him and Isabella?”

Candace frowned. “I think you said something about that, yes?” she replied. “But I was pretty tired last night – as I still am now, to be honest – so I didn’t quite catch everything you were rambling about. Because you were rambling, bro.” She reached out to ruffle Phineas’ hair, and their brother’s infectious laughter filled the room.

“Yeah, I guess I was” Phineas admitted. “And I probably was just now, too – still, you can’t blame me for being excited about this. It feels like we’ve finally turned a corner in our relationship. Or, well, restarted it, since it wasn’t really there for the past couple of weeks, but you know what I mean.”

“Yeah, I do” Candace said. “It’s still weird, you know? The fact that I’m in love with my dorky, annoying little brother. But it’s not going to go away. And I want you to be there in my life, because I believe and I know that you’re making it better. That I need you.” For the second time in a row, Phineas’ face colored red, and even as Ferb felt slightly uneasy at his siblings’ display of non-sibling affection (although he knew he should probably get used to that) he couldn’t help but be amused by his brother. “As for Ferb…” She was smiling, but as she turned towards him Ferb could see awkwardness on his sister’s face that was not solely attributable to the fact that his relationship with Candace had, over the past couple of weeks, become even more different than the one Phineas had with his sister than it had always been. “You… and Isabella? Didn’t you always use to have a crush on Vanessa?”

“I did” Ferb acknowledged. “But she turned me down a few weeks ago. And when Isabella asked me for help, feelings started to blossom.”

“You know, if it wasn’t for the whole secrecy thing, you and Isabella and Candace and I could probably do one of those double dates sometimes?” Phineas mused. “Although I guess that Isabella isn’t quite ready for that yet.”

That was probably the understatement of the year… not that Phineas didn’t have a gift for making those, of course. Isabella wasn’t likely to be ready for anything so soon, much less with him, not after everything that had happened between her and Phineas…

…but she had reached out towards him. And she had kissed him back – the touch of her lips against hers still thrilled him when he thought about it, because it was something that he had never gotten to experience with his previous crush (Vanessa had kissed him on the cheek once, but that had been about it) and it had allowed him to relate to the enthusiasm Phineas had displayed a few weeks ago about his first kiss with Candace a little better. Isabella had made him feel like that, had returned his kiss, initiated that second kiss… and she had agreed to him asking her out.

So maybe the problem wasn’t so much that she wasn’t ready yet – maybe the problem was that he wasn’t.

Ferb sighed inwardly. That would be just great, wouldn’t it? It was that same tendency to overthink things, to cautiously stay in the background. A tendency that shouldn’t be cropping up now, not after he had flirted with his previous crush so casually a few years ago – not after he had managed to flirt with Isabella fairly easily too. He enjoyed those things, but he had failed at long-term prospects and serious relationships. That time on the Eiffel Tower still came to mind. And maybe here, he would fail too. Because flirtations or not, the thought of dating Isabella was something he still wasn’t quite ready for.

His brother cut through those thoughts again, as Phineas usually did, and his relaxed attitude made Ferb feel more at ease with himself – which, again, was something that Phineas usually managed to pull off, regardless of whether he was actually aware of the fact. “Come on, Ferb” he said. “We’re wasting sunlight. There are plenty of fun things that we can do outside – do you still have our sketchbook?” His brother nodded. “Excellent. Then I’m sure we’ll be able to find lots of cool ideas so that we can save the animal racing stuff for later. Will you be all right here by yourself, Candace?”

Their sister smiled fondly at him. “Of course I will. You guys…” She hesitated. “Go and have fun, I guess? Man, this is weird. Take care of yourselves.”

“Of course” Phineas replied casually. “Ferb, get the blueprints! The sun is up, the sky is blue, it’s time for action!”

Smiling faintly, Ferb nodded and set off to fulfill Phineas’ instructions. His brother was right, after all. There were plenty of things to do. And although he might, by himself, be perfectly fine with sitting in a corner with a book or just redoing one of the projects they had built over the past couple of weeks. But not Phineas. Oh, no. His brother might not be opposed to repetition, but his creative mind provided him with so many opportunities to build a project that he really wouldn’t need it. Nor, in fact, did he need it today.

Because even just one day after all the dramatic things that had gone down, even with the absence of Isabella, Candace or even Buford and Baljeet, Phineas managed to make it the best day ever.

It was… strange how all that transpired. As if the potential negative consequences of his actions simply didn’t stick to Phineas, and he managed to pull the people around him up from the dumpster they otherwise would have ended up in. Because he saw opportunities where others would only see threats and difficulties, and because he maintained hope even when others would despair. And even after everything he had done wrong yesterday, Phineas had managed to rally himself and delivered the best today.

He and his brother were so different. If Ferb had had the same feelings for Candace that Phineas had, he would not have shied away from them, but he would certainly have acknowledged that nothing would ever come of it. (Well, if he had been in Phineas' exact situation, of course. The fact that he wasn’t biologically related to either Phineas or Candace would probably have given him some leeway in pursuing such a relationship, but none of that was relevant for this hypothetical scenario anyway.) Whereas Phineas had not even seen the possible pitfalls of asking his sister for a romantic relationship at first, and when Ferb had impressed those very things on him, Phineas had been unable to ignore those feelings, and he had eventually (albeit inadvertently) confessed, and then actually won Candace over.

It would be so easy to dismiss his brother as being hopelessly naive at romance, a conclusion that even Ferb himself had not always shied away from (not that it had been very relevant given Phineas' total lack of interest in the subject). But Phineas had proven himself to be much more capable than anyone would think, not even despite but because of that optimism and self-confidence and sense of initiative. He had not engaged in casual flirtation - he had openly approached his crush, and he had a girlfriend now.

So maybe what Phineas had been saying earlier that day about them sharing advice had held some truth after all - with the exception that it would be Phineas advising Ferb.

Of course, the idea of trying to emulate his brother wasn't perfect. Not just because it made him uneasy, but also because Ferb knew he could never pretend to be a chatterbox or open about his feelings for long - and Isabella would see right through it anyway. She might not have always paid too much attention, but she would know enough of what he was like that that wouldn't work. Still, asking Phineas for his thoughts and giving him an honest chance to give out advice wasn't a bad idea. It was, if anything, a good start.

Their project of the day was just winding to an end when Ferb turned his head towards his brother and kept his gaze focused on the other boy for a while. He had carefully picked his moment, when most of their work was already done and all they needed to do was wait for the Mysterious Force – or whatever underlings it might seek to disperse – to clean up the last remnants of their work. Although Ferb had wondered whether the fact that Candace had stopped busting them might affect the actions of the Force, the holographic ultraprojector was still carried up by a swarm of bees and dragged off into places unknown right on schedule. Apparently, it would take more than that to disrupt the status quo in their backyard.

But where Ferb was perfectly fine with the maintenance of one kind of status quo, he couldn’t quite bear to have the other one persist, and thus he kept staring at Phineas until his brother noticed that something was up. “What is it, Ferb?” he asked. “You know, it really is too bad that the project is gone already – I mean, it wasn’t the coolest thing we ever did, but it was cool, and we could have shown Candace now that she’s, you know, not against it anymore.” He awkwardly waved his hand around. “But there’ll be another day for that, and I guess that accepting that Candace is different and has different things she wants for whatever reason I can’t understand is a key step in a relationship. I wonder…” He stared at his stepbrother, a sudden frown on his face. “Wait, that’s not what you wanted to talk to me about, is it?”

It indeed was not. Ferb cleared his throat and pointed in the direction of the house across the street. “I was wondering whether you could help me figure out how to explore a relationship with Isabella.”

There, it was out, in spoken form no less. He desired a relationship with Isabella. That was something that he’d never actually said before, if only because it was such an impossible dream, but now he had admitted to it in front of his brother, who… wasn’t the best at keeping such things a secret from the ones Ferb wasn’t yet prepared to tell anything. Thankfully, he didn’t have the chance to wallow too much on that thought before Phineas frowned. “Of course?” he said. “I mean, I’d love to help you – but I’m not sure if I can? I… well, as you know, I never thought about Isabella in a romantic way. So I don’t think I have any concrete advice to offer, and, well, you’re a natural at this romance stuff. What could I possibly say that you haven’t come up with already?”

In response, Ferb pointed up towards their sister’s bedroom, and Phineas only took a brief moment to grasp what he was referring to. “You mean, Candace? Me and Candace – the fact that we’re together?” Ferb nodded. “Well, I guess that I did get a girlfriend before you, but honestly, I can’t see how that helps you. Candace is… well, she’s not Isabella. I love her, and I’d explain to you why, but we’ve already established that you don’t share my feelings, so that would be pretty pointless.” He chuckled. “I told you how Candace and I got together. I just… well, I didn’t really do anything. Just confessed my feelings, listened to her, and asked her whether she could have feelings for me too. And she could. And she does.”

Phineas grinned his classic silly grin again, one that Ferb had become more and more used to over the last couple of weeks and which would invariably lead to a far-away dreamy smile emerging on his brother’s face. He hastily cleared his throat, and Phineas snapped out of his reverie. “But, well, that would work? I guess? But you and Isabella already kissed, so it’s different in that regard. You know she has to have some feelings for you.”

Ferb shrugged, having made the same analysis but not being entirely sure he could go along with his brother, who subsequently grinned. “Trust me, Ferb. I may not know as much as Isabella as I used to think I did, and certainly not about her views on romance, but she’s not an entirely different person from the person I used to know. The Isabella I know wouldn’t just randomly walk around and kiss people if she didn’t care for them. She would want this to be special, and now that it’s happened, I think she’s going to see it as something special.”

That… was probably true, yes, although it was far from enough to soothe the green-haired boy’s concerns. He gave Phineas a sheepish smile, indicating that it wasn’t quite enough, and then pointed towards their sister’s bedroom window and then towards himself. Fortunately, Phineas got his intended meaning right away. “Well, even if you had been the one to ask me for help with a crush on Candace, I would have assumed that you would know best” he said. “That’s who you are, bro. You’re suave and charming and all those things that I really am not, and you know much more than I ever could. Ferb, I get that you’re questioning things. I did, too, when I started crushing on Candace. All these things that I thought I knew, that I was confident about – and suddenly it was like they were looming obstacles in a way that they never quite had been. Maybe that’s something unique to the two of us, but I would guess that’s just a part of love. You start really seeing something from the other person’s perspective – not that we didn’t do that before, of course, but that idea of wanting to go out with her really makes you think, you know? Candace… she has different thoughts about stuff than I do. And if this thing is going to be perfect, it has to be perfect for her too. And I need to understand her to be able to make it that way.”

He cleared his throat, a slight blush on his cheek from the knowledge that he was getting carried away. “My point is that you shouldn’t overthink these things. I know you do that sometimes, bro. You know Isabella. You’ve always been there, and maybe her attention was more on me than on you, but you’re still her friend, and she cares about you. Right?” Ferb halfheartedly nodded, and Phineas grinned. “That’s what I thought. You can do this, Ferb. Because, you see…”

He took a few steps back and forth before staring at Ferb, looking slightly more serious now. “Isabella is…” he continued, and then he cut himself off. “Well, I always thought that she was just my friend and that she wanted to spend time with me because we were such great friends. And then it turned out that she had a crush on me, and that she’d been trying to get me to become her boyfriend for ten years – but she’s still my friend. I may know now that a lot of things that I… suppose I could have seen as romantic, had I been looking, were attempts by her to win me over. Maybe even lots of things that I wouldn’t have seen as romantic, ever. But even in spite of all that, there were still a lot of friendship moments. When she wasn’t acting on a crush, but when she was just… hanging out with us. Being friends. Right?”

Ferb nodded, and he could see some relief emerge on his brother’s face. “All right. So that means that Isabella could be those two people, as it were, both that great friend and a girl who crushed on me, and it means that even though you only ever knew her as that girl who was only interested in me, there is more to her. There can be more to her, a part of Isabella that we simply never saw. Not even you, Ferb. That side of Isabella kissed you last Saturday. And trust me, bro, that girl wants to go out with you. I fully believe that.”

There was silence after that, with Phineas having said all he wanted to say and Ferb once again being left to mull over everything. Phineas was right, he realized. There was a chance – maybe a small chance, but still a chance – that the girl from across the street would want to explore a full-fledged relationship with him. And that in order to make that a reality, all he had to do would be to approach her as the girl that he had gotten to know. To stop worrying about how to flirt with a hypothetical crush as if she was someone whom he was meeting for the first time and she required some kind of textbook approach. Because he wasn’t, and she didn’t. She was Isabella Garcia-Shapiro, the girl from across the street, the head of Fireside Girl group 46231, and the girl he was infatuated with.

He was doing this, he decided that night. He was going to try to pursue a relationship with Isabella - and if he would, he would have to be serious at convincing her that he was someone she wanted, too. There would be no more winks and teasing asides to catch her off-guard, no souped-up invention of the day driving past, rocking her world before dropping her off again before anything got too serious. No, this time Ferb would get serious. Isabella at least appreciated him, and she had kissed him. She deserved more from him than that.

It was a new adventure. A new type of relationship. But Ferb had pulled off the impossible enough that he knew that he could make this work. After all, it was only next Saturday.

He had a whole week left to go, and he would make the most of it.