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you've got the ways and means to make it alright

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When Bloom is seven and Stephen is ten, they sell off all their foster parents' furniture. Everything goes--the kitchen table, the wardrobe in the living room, their own bunk beds. Bloom is too young, then, to know how Stephen manages it; when they get older he won't have that excuse, won't be able to tell himself he'll be as smart as Stephen with age. But at seven, on the long bus ride to wherever they're going, Bloom curls into Stephen's larger coat and asks why he did it.

"I saw an opportunity," Stephen says, "so I took it."

It ends up explaining a lot of things about Stephen, over the years.

--

When he's fifteen, Bloom builds model planes.

It's an infantile hobby, according to Stephen, whose word is more-or-less law in the the run-down apartment they've lately been calling home. Bloom is pretty sure they're squatting here--something about the tightness in Stephen's eyes says whatever they're doing, it isn't legal--but it's hard to know. Bloom feels like a squatter pretty much everywhere he goes, except when he's with Stephen. When he's with Stephen he feels like the world is his candy dish, but that's probably because Stephen honestly thinks it is.

It has crossed Bloom's mind, once or twice, that Stephen's nose for trouble is borne of his sense of entitlement, but it's not the sort of thought he feels much like following through on.

Anyway, Stephen laughs at him for the planes, tells him he might as well be watching Sesame Street, runs light fingers over the lighter wood and tries to sell him on reading instead. But Bloom doesn't share Stephen's interest in the rise and fall of a plot arc, in the intricate symbolism inherent in the everyday, and Stephen knows it. They're not much alike, when you discount their fierce loyalty to each other and their lack of concern for the law.

Bloom likes the planes, maybe all the more for the fact that Stephen doesn't, so he builds them. A F-102 Delta Dagger one week, a Breguet Biplane the next--it's something to pass the time he isn't occupying with high school. He can tell Stephen feels guilty about that, about how easily he'd let Bloom abandon his academic career, but he knows Stephen had felt worse about leaving Bloom alone in that school.

Which isn't to say that Bloom had been doing badly, exactly. It's just that without Stephen there, without Stephen to tell him his next move, he'd been…directionless. He tells Stephen as much one night, bent over a tricky paint job, mostly to see what he'll do.

Bloom says, "I hated school without you."

Stephen says, "I know."

Bloom says, "You know, I'm not really very good at anything alone."

And what Stephen says, leaning over Bloom's shoulder, his hand ruffling Bloom's hair--what he says is, "Talents are best nurtured in solitude, but character is formed in the tempests of the world." But at eighteen he's too young to hide the worry in his voice, the same way he's too young to know he's misquoting Goethe. At eighteen Stephen is a tempest in his own right, too full of stories to be anyone but himself, and Bloom is just a tree that is particularly resistant to lightening.

When, later, Stephen packs them up in a whirlwind and moves them to St. Petersburg, Bloom leaves the planes behind. He builds the people Stephen tells him to be instead, the characters flaws the Dog insists he must perfect, and doesn't think of the comfort of balsa wood under his thumbs and Stephen's weight against his shoulder.

--

They are twenty four and drunk in a bar in Madrid, except that neither of them are twenty four and neither of them are drunk, and this isn't actually a bar. The Madrid thing is true enough, but Bloom is more than prepared to bet that it wouldn't be if Stephen could help it.

Their mark--their first mark free of the Dog, their first solo big con--thinks they're twins. It's a lie that Stephen will end up using a lot over the course of their criminal career, one they always have the same conversation about.

"But we're already brothers," Bloom says, feeling (always) like he's missing something. "Why do we have to be twin brothers?"

Stephen's answer is always different, but it always means what he said the first time: "Bloom, Bloom, you have to start looking for the drama in life. Trust me, twins are better."

By the fifth time, the twelfth time they run that bit, Bloom is used to it. But that first time, in a hastily remodeled apartment with their beetle behind the approximation of a bar, acting drunk because Stephen told him to act drunk, Bloom wants to lean across the table and strangle him. He wants to know why, exactly, they're not good enough as they are, but it's not a question he knows how ask.

Stephen would know how to ask it. Three months ago, Stephen plucked out a man's eye with an antique rapier, and even Bloom'd had to look hard before he saw the tremor in his hands. Stephen is well on his way to not giving a fuck about anything or anyone except Bloom, and Bloom's not sure what that makes him, exactly. Some days he thinks he's a conduit for Stephen's genius. Some days he thinks he's a weight on Stephen's ankle. Some days he's sure he doesn't matter enough to be either.

Today he thinks he's drunk and twenty four and a twin, because that's what Stephen told him to think.

"Another," he cries, brighter and looser than he is when he's actually drunk. When he's actually drunk he's closed off and maudlin; when Stephen's actually drunk he's sharp and aggressive. Later, later, they'll be able to run cons from real bars, because they'll know themselves and their roles well enough to carry a night on a few drinks. But they're not there yet--Stephen doesn't trust them yet--so they've constructed this set instead. Bloom's scotch is actually apple juice. Stephen's gin is actually water.

The mark's sangria is very much sangria, but that's only to be expected.

And you know, maybe it's just the con talking. Maybe it's just three months of nightmares and the way the mark is listing back in his chair, waxing rhapsodic at the ceiling. Maybe it's how easily Stephen wheedles the account numbers out of him, the way he cues Bloom for each and every line he's meant to deliver. Maybe it's the alcohol he isn't drinking and maybe it's just guilt, but when they leave, twenty minutes from being $20,000 richer, Bloom grabs Stephen's arm and whips him around.

He's going to say a lot of things, but Stephen's eyes are narrowed eagerly in anticipation, and Bloom's never been much for grand moments. He sags, lets go, and says, "It bothers me, that's all. I think it bothers me."

"It doesn't," Stephen says easily, looping his arm around Bloom's shoulders. "And it'll bother you even less in the morning. "

I'm not his twin, Bloom thinks, or his conduit, or his ball and chain. I'm his goddamn marionette.

He doesn't shrug Stephen off, though, doesn't push away, because he finds he doesn't mind so much, the way Stephen needles him into a smile.

--

There are years of Bloom's life, entire years, that he loses to riding Stephen's coattails.

Not in the traditional sense, of course. He does his bits and he does them well, and he deserves the cuts he takes. For awhile he tries to insist that they split everything 60-40, because Stephen does more of the work and should get more of the money, but they go everywhere together anyway, spend it together anyway, so there's no point. It's not about the money, not for Bloom, and it's never been about the money for Stephen.

He rides Stephen's coattails like a small child might, clinging to them and letting himself be dragged. It might be more accurate to say he dances through life on Stephen's nimbler feet.

When he's 29, hurtling headlong towards being too old for this, he falls in love. Stephen introduces them, because Stephen's always handpicking Bloom's women, plucking them from the lives they belong to and slotting them into place. Bloom doesn't hate his brother enough at 29 to believe that he's figured out in advance which ones will break his heart, which ones he will leave broken. At 30 he'll suspect it, and try not to; at 35 he'll hate Stephen enough to believe him capable of anything, and love him enough to forgive him anyway.

But he's 29 now, and her name is Aldea, and Bloom doesn't care where Stephen found her. He doesn't care about much, really, except the way his face fits into the curve of her neck, the way her skin bruises easily under his lips, leaving faint marks for him to trace in the morning. She wears his jackets when they go out, deep black and too big for her, the tips of her fingers peeking out through the sleeves.

Stephen either loves her or hates her, depending on the week.

They spend longer than they should in New Mexico that year, because Bloom doesn't want to leave and Stephen doesn't want to make him. They spend longer than they have and Bloom can't tell Aldea what they do and it's terrible, actually, it's so wonderful it's terrible, it's like torture. He waits for Stephen to come up with something new, some new location, to whisk him away from this the way he's always done, but Stephen just watches and waits, steepling his fingers over drink after drink.

After eight months, Bloom says, "I can't do it, I can't be here, you have to get me out of here," and Stephen's face lights up, his smile creasing his cheeks.

But six hours later, loaded into their stolen car, Aldea's slap still stinging his cheek, Bloom shifts and Stephen's expression catches in the rearview mirror. He looks…disappointed.

Bloom doesn't quite know what to do with that.

---

In the mornings Bloom does the crossword while Penelope does tai chi. Some days it isn't tai chi--some days it's yoga and some days it's jogging and some days it's retiling the kitchen and some days, on particularly stressful days, it's chainsaw juggling. Penelope changes, becomes a thousand people just by being herself, but Bloom always does the crossword.

"Sometimes you remind me of him," Bloom whispers into her mouth in Tuscany. "Sometimes I look at you and all I can hear is what he'd say. Sometimes I think he's the reason I love you."

"When your brother was alive," Penelope tells him, her fingers tucked into the hollows of his hipbones, "he dressed like he was going to a speakeasy, and you dressed like you were going to a funeral. What does it matter why you love me?"

It's their third year and their twelfth home when the ad shows up, printed in block letters next to that day's clues. Bloom almost doesn't see it, intent as he is on the shuffle between figuring out 12-across and watching Penelope break-dance, but it catches the corner of his eye the way Stephen's more honest expressions used to.

"Bloom," it says, "never leave a stone unturned."

Bloom spills his tea. He spills his tea and then, just because he can, he spills the sugar, and then he throws his saucer into the wall for good measure. Penelope sidles up next to him, silent and curious, and her mouth twists down when she sees the ad.

They break all the dishes in the entire house, six mirrors and a Ming vase, and then they go to Berlin.

The thing is, Bloom knows his brother is dead. He knows it the same way he knows that that ad ran next to the crossword in every newspaper in every country all over the world; he knows it with a hollow, aching certainty, like a punch to the gut, like a sunset. The properties of fake blood don't really have anything to do with it, not anymore. Stephen--the Stephen he knew--wouldn't have been able to stay away this long.

"Stupid bastard," he mutters, the safety-deposit box key tight in his fingers, "it just figures he'd set up something like this. Leave it to Stephen to speak from beyond the grave."

"You don't have to open it," says Penelope. "You probably shouldn't, really. We can just go."

"You're always saying that," says Bloom, and turns the key in the lock.

He realizes a second too late that he's hoping for the same thing he's dreading--one of Stephen's notebooks, filled to the edges with everything he's ever planned for Bloom, every line he never taught Bloom to say. He's hoping for instructions, still, because as much as he doesn't want them he does, he always has. He hadn't know what he was asking, begging for an unwritten life. It hadn't even been his idea, not really, not in the end.

But it's just a model plane, the paint peeling at the edges, the balsa wood splintering under his shaking hands. He turns it over and over in his palms, trying to place where Stephen had kept it--in that trunk of his on the way to St. Petersburg, probably, and then in that safe in their apartment in Madrid, but they hadn't made it to Berlin until--

"Bloom," says Penelope.

"I never," Bloom says, "I never understood. All those years, and I never--"

"Maybe he never wanted you to," she says, and she threads her fingers through his hair, leans against his shoulder. Bloom curls into her touch and thinks of being seven and fifteen and twenty four and thirty five, of being a twin and a mark and a puppet. He thinks of Stephen, the carved imperfect tempest of him, and laughs because he wants to cry.

He hangs the plane on fishing twine in the window of their thirteenth home, and feels more and less a brother.

--

"You should be writing novels," Bloom says, a thousand times, at every age. "You should be writing plays, you should be doing--you should be doing the real shit, man. You're a wasted talent. You're throwing your life away."

Stephen just smiles, a thousand times, at every age, and tells Bloom to pick a card.