Summary: "Matt wasn’t really surprised. This conversation had been inevitable ever since Em had looked up at Vaughn with big blue eyes and called him ‘dad.'"
Rating: T for language and discussion of violence
Word Count: 2,527
Disclaimer: John and Carole Barrowman own Hollow Earth and all related characters, settings, and trademarks. I do not profit in any way from the use of these trademarks.
Pairings: gen, mentions of Vaughn/Sandie
Contains: noncanon marriages
Warnings: spoilers for Book of Beasts, discussion of violence and trauma, mentions of canonical character death
He was, at the very least, indulging Matt when Matt was still raving about it as they sat down at a near-by restaurant with plates piled high with fried rice and orange chicken. Jeannie was an excellent cook, but Matt had missed the culinary variety of London that just wasn't available on a small island.
Matt hadn't missed chopsticks. He fumbled with his first piece of chicken slightly, and glared when Vaughn smirked.
"Matt," Vaughn said in the voice he'd used while tutoring them. "Like this." He showed Matt how he was holding his own chopsticks. "Rest one on your thumb and use the other to squeeze."
Matt fared slightly better on his next try, but he still quickly gave up and switched to a fork.
Vaughn raised his eyebrows. Vaughn the Art Teacher would have made Matt try again until he got it. Vaughn the step-father shrugged slightly and let it go.
Then their table got uncomfortably quiet.
Matt had known where this was heading since yesterday. Zach had one of his Deaf social events in Glasgow today, and although many of those welcomed anyone who could sign fluently, some of them didn’t, so Matt and Em hadn’t thought very much about not being invited to come along to this one. Matt hadn’t even thought too much of it when his mum scheduled a dentist appointment for Em. She had cavities. Matt never seemed to get cavities, no matter how much soda he drank. They had to leave the island to get dental work done, and Matt’s mum had said something about just eating in the village where their dentist was, so they’d probably be gone for four or five hours. While Matt hadn’t been looking forward to a day at the Abbey without Zach and Em, but he’d figured he’d play video games and it would pass.
Then, yesterday, Vaughn had very subtly started prompting Matt to say that he didn’t really want to spend the day alone at the Abbey. Matt had noticed instantly, and known exactly why Vaughn was doing it, and he hadn’t taken the bait. Vaughn had then asked if Matt planned on working on any of his art while he was alone, because that would have provided Vaughn with an excuse to spend the day with Matt without them leaving the island. Matt had shrugged and admitted that he planned on spending the day playing Zelda. Vaughn had walked away looking defeated, but by dinner he was smiling. “Matt,” he’d said casually. “I want to go see the new Captain America movie tomorrow. Do you want to go?” Matt didn’t believe that Vaughn cared about Captain America at all, but everyone at the table knew that Matt cared. How could Matt say no? And Matt did want to see it. He even liked the idea of seeing it with Vaughn, if Em and Zach were there too. That would be fun. But he’d known what was going to happen afterwards. He’d known that they’d end up here, poking at Chinese food (well, he hadn’t known it would be Chinese) and trying to find the right words for a wrong conversation.
His mum had looked so smug.
Matt wasn’t really surprised. This conversation had been inevitable ever since Em had looked up at Vaughn with big blue eyes and called him ‘dad’ so quietly that if he opted to ignore her, she could pretend that he hadn’t heard her, or maybe that she’d never really said it in the first place. He hadn’t ignored her, though. He’d frozen for a second, then he’d pulled her into a tight hug and kissed her forehead.
Matt wished Em had told him that she was planning on doing that. He’d have begged her not to. Given her anything. It was all her fault. That was the worst thing about this situation. Matt didn’t do anything. Em changed something, and now their mum and Vaughn were worried about Matt because he hadn’t changed. It wasn’t fair. And Matt would have explained that to Em, if she’d given him the chance.
Matt’s throat had gone dry and he’d quickly called Vaughn “Vaughn” and then excused himself. He’d made a point to call Vaughn by his name as much as possible since then, at least as often as Em called him ‘dad.’ Em really seemed to like saying that word. Dad. Dad. Dad.
Vaughn. Vaughn. Vaughn.
Matt stabbed at his chicken. "We don't... like... need to talk or whatever," Matt said.
"We don't?" Vaughn asked, but he sounded curious, not challenging.
Matt shook his head. "Unless..." he shrugged. "I dunno. Unless you're mad at me."
"No!" Vaughn said quickly. "God no. Your mother and I were just concerned that you were... unhappy with our new family situation?"
Matt shook his head.
Then it occurred to him to check on Vaughn’s emotions. Vaughn could shield his emotions when he wanted to, even from much stronger Guardians than Matt, so Matt had a feeling that Vaughn was letting Matt look.
Vaughn was sad. Worried. Guilty? Sad.
That was Matt’s fault too.
Matt frowned down at his chicken. He opened and shut his mouth a few times, trying to find the words, trying to figure out how to explain himself, before finally speaking: "Is it because I won't call you 'dad'?” He looked up. “Because I'm sorry! I am! But I just--"
"Shhhh," Vaughn said soothingly. Matt realized then that he'd been getting loud, and now people were looking at them. "It’s okay," Vaughn said. "You don't have to be sorry. Don't ever feel like you need to apologize to anyone for how you feel about..."
"Malcolm," Matt said. The name was easier to say than that other word.
Dad. Dad. Dad.
Vaughn sat back a bit. "This is about him?" Vaughn asked quietly. People had looked away by then.
"Is it only about him? Or is it a little about me? Something I've done? Something I've not done?"
Matt shook his head.
“It’s not about you. You haven’t done or not done anything.” Matt looked back at his food. “Did you think you had?”
“I didn’t think I should rule it out without asking,” Vaughn said. He stared at Matt for a moment, then sighed. "It’d be a lot easier to fix it if it was me. I can change me. Never could change him.”
“Sorry,” Matt said quietly.
“Stop,” Vaughn said, gently but slightly more commandingly. “I mean it. Don’t ever apologize for how you feel about your--”
“About Malcolm.” Vaughn watched as Matt took his first real bite of food since their conversation had turned serious. As soon as Matt was done chewing, Vaughn asked, “How do you feel?”
“Fucked up,” Matt said.
Vaughn the Tutor and Vaughn the Step-Dad both should have objected to that language, but neither of them did. “You or him?” Vaughn asked.
Matt shrugged. He sipped his Sprite. “I guess I am because he was?”
“Fair enough,” Vaughn said. “Is there anything I can--”
“No.” Matt sipped his Sprite again. He wanted to look cool about it, but the dark-haired woman three tables over was wondering if he was okay, so he doubted he was succeeding. “Grandpa says we all just have to live with it.”
“Your grandpa’s a smart guy,” Vaughn said, “but there are various ways of living with it. If you need counselling, I have connections. There are lot of Guardians with degrees in child psychology. You could tell them everything. Many of them are on your side and some of them I would actually trust...”
“I don’t...” Matt shook his head. He swallowed hard and tried again. “I don’t really want to talk about it with anyone but Jeannie. She’s the only one who was there. She’s the only one who gets it. I can talk to her, and sometimes when I need it, Grandpa inspirits me...”
Vaughn looked so sad for a second that Matt almost apologized, but then Vaughn sighed and stiffened a bit. “You’re not supposed to go through things like this before you have a Guardian of your own.”
“Well, I did,” Matt said. He put his soda back on the table and picked up his fork. “I’m okay,” he said, and then he shoved a fork-full of rice into his mouth, as if eating would prove it.
“Alright,” Vaughn said. Vaughn looked down at his plate, briefly, then he looked back up at Matt. “Matt, the things that you saw... Your father’s death... I can’t imagine living with that at thirteen...”
Matt wished he couldn’t imagine it, but instead he didn’t have to imagine it.
“It was my fault,” Matt said, stabbing another piece of chicken.
Vaughn looked taken aback.
Matt shoved the chicken into his mouth quickly.
“No,” Vaughn said.
Matt nodded as he chewed.
But Matt had finished chewing, by then. “I set him free,” he said. “If I’d listened to Simon, if I’d listened to mum and Grandpa, if I’d even listened to Zach, it never would have happened.” Matt sighed. “I trusted him. I trusted him when I had no reason to, because I just really wanted...”
“You loved your dad,” Vaughn said. “That’s normal. You shouldn’t feel bad about it.”
“He was never there to love,” Matt said. “And when he finally was, I really didn't love him."
“So you loved the idea of him,” Vaughn said. “That’s also normal. It wasn’t your fault.”
“I guess,” Matt said. He ate more rice, and he stared at Vaughn as he chewed.
Vaughn. Still sad. Still worried. Still guilty?
“You didn’t do anything,” Matt said.
Vaughn smiled sadly. “I know.”
Matt tried to read him again to figure out what that meant, and he couldn’t. Vaughn wasn’t letting him do that anymore, and Matt’s Guardian powers weren’t strong enough to fight through Vaughn’s defenses even if Matt wanted to. He didn’t really want to.
“It’s just...” Matt said, “I always thought I’d like having a dad. But then I tried it, and it sucked. And I don’t really want to do it again. I know that if I had a different dad, it could be completely different, but--”
"Matt," Vaughn said, "If I try a new food and I'm sick for the rest of the night, I'm not going to keep eating that food to make sure I'm really allergic. Sometimes one bad experience is enough."
Matt nodded. Em could do what she wanted. Matt couldn’t imagine being ready for a new dad until he stopped seeing the old one’s severed head roll around in his nightmares, but Em didn’t have that problem. Em had almost as many reasons to hate Malcolm as Matt did, but she’d never interacted with him directly the way that Matt had. Her hatred had never really had anything physical to target. She could barely remember her one interaction with her biological father. As far as Em was concerned, she'd never had a dad before, and now that she did, she really liked it. Matt’s hatred had a hideous face and a cold voice and that horrible machine. It had a target, and that target was ‘dad.’ Extinguishing Malcolm’s life hadn’t extinguished that hatred. “My dad” was a remorseless murderer, a defiler of sacred objects, a would-be dictator. (And Jeannie had called what he did to Matt “child abuse.” Matt wasn’t ready for that yet.) ‘Dad’ wasn’t a compliment or a term of affection from Matt. Not anymore.
Vaughn nodded. “I understand. You don’t have to.” Matt ate a little more, and Vaughn sipped his own drink. “You can call me anything you like, Matt. This was never about that.”
“Well, not anything,” Vaughn said. “But you don’t have to call me ‘dad.’ Don’t ever do it if you’re not comfortable with it. I understand. Your mum and I were worried that that was a symptom of a problem, not a problem in its own right. We just wanted to make sure that you were okay with us.”
Vaughn stroked his wedding ring with his thumb. “Me and your mum. And all of us as a family. A lot happened very quickly after your dad died. Your mum and I felt like we had lost time to make up for, but maybe in our rush, we didn’t give you enough time to get acclimated. I mean, you were separated from your mum for months and then no sooner are you reunited then there’s a new guy pushing his way into your family. It’s weird, right?”
Matt laughed. “No,” he said. “You and mum make each other happy. It’s cool... You’re cool.”
Vaughn smiled. “Thanks. You’re cool too.”
“Thanks,” Matt said. He looked up at Vaughn and smiled. “Know what else is cool? Captain America.”
Vaughn laughed. “Actually yes! That was pretty good.”
“Beats the dentist.”
"It certainly does."
“Next time we got to the cinema,” Matt said, “Can we all go? You and me and mum and Em and Zach? And Grandpa and Jeannie and Simon?”
“The cinema is hard on Simon and Jeannie,” Vaughn said. “Their bodies don’t like it when they sit still for too long. It’s also probably not the best place for your Grandpa while he’s still recovering from a traumatic brain injury. We can ask, but don't be too upset if they say no."
Matt nodded. "Okay." He picked at his rice a little, trying to separate out the vegetables, then looked up at Vaughn again. "I have the coolest family," he said quietly. "It doesn't need a dad. I don't want one. Just you is fine. Just Vaughn."
Vaughn smiled. "Just Vaughn still going to make you eat those vegetables and do your homework."
"I know," Matt said. You did that before you married my mum. And you didn't let Zach and me play videogames for three whole days that one time!"
"Yes, and then you stopped skiving your lessons to play them!"
"We weren't skiving," Matt explained again. "We just lost track of time."
Vaughn didn't look impressed.
"It wasn't cool of you," Matt said, but he was still smiling a little.
Vaughn laughed. "It wasn't cool of you to make me track you down before we couldn't begin. Eat your vegetables."
Matt ate his vegetables. Vaughn his dad, but he was something Matt had to obey, anyway. There was something different about Vaughn the Tutor making him do stuff and Vaughn the Step-Dad making him do stuff, but Matt was okay with both. He could give Vaughn that authority. And the love. Just not the title.