Todd was looking out the window, not at her. His arms were crossed, but it didn't stop his slight trembling, nor keep his voice coming out soft and shaky.
“I didn’t deserve it.”
Amanda closed her eyes, bracing herself, because her brother was punk rock and angry and didn’t take shit from anybody. The man in front of her didn’t look like that at all. But that's who Todd was before her diagnosis. At least, she didn't think the brashness and confidence of his twenties had been an act.
It had been comforting to think of him out in the world, unchanged, because of how much she hated that she’d been forced to change.
But it made sense. He wouldn't have been able to hold down steady employment if he sparked up like flint every time a customer pushed. You couldn’t surrender yourself to the whims of minimum wage and capitalism if you stayed so hard a customer would break against your stare. He’d been forced to change too; to do what was right, to take care of his family, to make up for his mistakes. He softened enough to keep a job, though not enough to form connections with the people around him. He'd managed to survive customer service hell but hadn’t learned any new coping strategies, no other ways to protect himself.
Perhaps it was one part that the holes in his armor let in so much poison he was defenseless. And one part that he'd decided he wasn't worth defending. In the end, it didn't matter, because he had changed. It seemed extreme, from the brother she “knew” a year ago -who was just an overlay of who he’d been prior to her diagnosis- to the brother in front of her now. She hadn’t even noticed it happening. Maybe she'd been too caught up in constant fresh washes of horror in the beginning. But if she closed her eyes, she could see that the progression had been happening slowly the entire time.
He was too tired to jam after he’d cleaned her house.
He didn’t make her fight for an hour to win control of movie night selection.
His voice on the phone was soft at night because he was empty, not because he was worried about triggering an attack.
She’d told the version of her brother that had finally been honest with her, who had (grudgingly, sure) admitted that he was the one who fucked up his life, who wanted more than anything in the world to make her life better, she'd told that brother that he wasn’t the real person. That the asshole who lied and conned and did nothing but take? He was her real brother, the brother she wanted back.
He was the one who hurt her, who hurt their family, who deserved every bad thing that came his way. But that wasn’t the brother she’d pushed away. She pushed away the person who had dragged himself out of the ashes of the life he’d burnt to the ground and started again from scratch. Who showed up when she needed him, who went without if it meant he could provide for her, who cleaned up behind rich assholes before cleaning up behind her.
She wasn’t naive enough to think that guilt wasn’t a motivating factor. But you didn’t have that kind of life-altering guilt if there wasn’t a greater amount of love to fuel it. And she knew now, after being secured in the safety of love from her rowdy boys, how vulnerable that left you to heartache.
She sighed, coming up behind him and putting a hand on his shoulder.
“You didn’t deserve the money, Todd, but that doesn’t mean you forfeited all right to comfort, and affection, and joy. It’s sad you thought it did. It’s a fucking tragedy that it took you so long to crawl out from under that weight.
But it is better now. We’re honest with each other and we can safely drive each other up the wall again. And when we do something nice for the other it is purely about wanting to do something kind for someone you care about. Okay? I don’t hate you. Sometimes I even like you.
And I swear to god if you tell anyone that I let you trick me into being so soft, I’ll give Cross an electric razor and tell him to give you a haircut. I will, don’t tempt me!”
"I believe you!" he practically yelped. Then he laughed quietly, thinking she was done, before assuring her, "I know you will!”
So she took the chance, moved her hand from his shoulder to wrap him in a one armed hug from behind and said “I love you, you absolute loser.”
They both pretended he didn’t sniffle at that, and at least his voice was steady enough when he answered back, “I love you too, you evil little gremlin.”