Shaun and Georgia are one year old, or close enough according to the doctors, and Michael and Stacy couldn't be happier with their new family.
Not when they're on camera, anyway. If Michael's still noticing the way Stacy seems to age ten years whenever the camera leaves her face, or how much less interested she is in playing with the kids than she was in playing with Philip, well, he doesn't say anything, just like she doesn't say anything about how tired he is all the time. It's a different world than when they had Philip. They're different people.
At least the kids have each other. Already, they're happier together than any time they're separated. Videos of them playing together get the most views of any of their other features, and they don't seem to require all that much supervision even at this young age. Convenient for the parents that just don't have the same heart for child-rearing they once did.
The family New Year's dinner gathered even more views. The family together, just Michael and Stacy and their two toddlers, with all the child-safe decorations they could find. It was well before midnight, of course, but people enjoyed it just the same and there were plenty of comments from other parents who were doing the same thing.
The kids are asleep now, leaving just Michael, Stacy, their audience, and all the pain and loss that will never go away.
A little while before midnight, Stacy sighs, leaning against Michael. "Do you think we're doing the right thing? With the kids?"
Michael isn't sure, but it's too late to back down now. Even if they could justify sending the kids back to overflowing orphanages, it would completely tank their ratings to give up like that. "Of course we are. We're gonna give them the best childhood ever." He checks his watch. "Ready?"
She nods, and they set up the camera.
Stacy smiles dazzlingly, Michael looks wise and gives some facts about New Years as a tradition. Together, they count down.
"10… 9… 8… 7… 6… 5… 4… 3… 2… 1… HAPPY NEW YEAR!"
Michael and Stacy kiss.
Upstairs, Shaun and George aren't as asleep as they're supposed to be. Shaun stands up, holding tightly to the side of his crib and says--not his first word, but certainly his favorite. "George!"
She rolls over and smiles sleepily at him. "Shaun." She sticks her thumb back in her mouth.
He laughs and bounces back down on his mattress. They fall back to sleep listening to each other breathing.
We're five and Mommy and Daddy are letting us stay up til nine--midnight in New York--so we can see the ball drop. I told them we're big enough to stay up til California midnight and they said maybe next year, but Shaun keeps falling asleep on me. I have to pinch him whenever Mommy and Daddy walk by so that he wakes up and we don't have to go to bed and they'll know we're old enough to stay up all the way.
I don't know if they're paying much attention though. They have lots of people over. At the beginning of the night all the people kept coming over and giving me hugs and talking about me like I can't understand what they're saying unless they use baby words and a high voice. I didn't like that. But Shaun was awake then. He climbed onto the couch and started jumping on it and shouting about how the floor was covered in zombies until Mommy came over to tell him to stop and everyone started paying attention to him instead of me.
Everyone's mostly stopped paying attention to us now, but then Mommy comes over and sits next to me. I pinch Shaun again and he sits up, rubbing his eyes sleepily.
"Look at my babies," she says, giving a big smile to the woman following her with a camera. She presses a kiss to my head, reaching over to squeeze Shaun's arm. "Ready to watch the ball drop?"
I nod, and Shaun bounces in place. "Yeah!"
She pulls us both into her lap and looks over at the TV, a wistful smile on her face. "You should have seen it before the Rising. Millions of people would pack into Times Square! I never got to go, but I hear it was amazing."
"A million people?" Shaun says, eyes wide. "Wouldn't they get ate up by zombies?"
"It's eaten, stupid," I say, poking him in the side.
"I'm not stupid," Shaun says primly. "People who squish in with a million other people are stupid."
Mommy laughs, hugging us again. A flash goes off. "There weren't zombies then, so it wasn't stupid. But that's why now there are so few people there. Only a few thousand, and over a quarter are hired for security. Not many casual viewers." She tilts her head thoughtfully. But before we have time to ask her what she's thinking, the tv starts showing a countdown. Everyone gathers around and chants along with it. Shaun and me are good counters, even backwards, so we join in.
Mommy pulls us both up to give us big kisses as the countdown finishes and the camera flashes again. "Happy New Year, Shaun and Georgia!"
I don't know why New Year's Eve has so many kisses but I hug Mommy back and give her a kiss. Then she herds us up to bed.
The party's still going on and I can still hear it, so I go across the room and slip into bed with Shaun. He blinks up at me, but rolls over so I can fit. "George?"
"I think a few thousand people sounds like a lot," I say.
He nods. "Uh huh. Pre-Rising people were crazy."
I take his hand and we slowly drift off to sleep to the sounds of laughter and clinking glasses below us.
We're seven and I've started noticing something about Mom and Dad and I don't think George has noticed, which makes me think maybe I'm wrong, cause George always notices stuff. We're seven and she's the one who figured out that Santa's not real, way before anyone in our class figured it out. But she hasn't said anything about how much Mom and Dad film us and how we do all kinds of stuff the other kids in class don't get to do. No one else is going to an actual in person party with more than just their family. Big groups of people are dangerous.
This is the first year Mom and Dad are letting us stay up til midnight if we can, and George is talking to Dad about something boring and I'm trying to figure out where the best place is to pick my nose so the most people will see it and get grossed out when Mom sweeps into the room.
Holding a camera. Which means she's gonna hug us and stuff. And that I probably waited too long to pick my nose. Great.
"It's almost time!" she says, smiling brightly. "Shaun? Georgia? Are you ready?"
George grins and jumps off the couch, going over to her and reaching up for Mom's hand. Mom sweeps her into her arms and gives her a big hug, then reaches an arm out for me.
I hesitate. It's weird. Why doesn't anyone else notice? Why doesn't George notice? She's never like this except when she's filming.
She does notice me hesitating, and she gives me a concerned look. "Shaun, sweetie? What's wrong?"
George has her head on Mom's shoulder and she looks over at me curiously. She doesn't see anything wrong. Maybe I'm the one who's wrong. George is usually right about stuff. Dad's always going on about how smart she is. So I give Mom a big smile and run across the room to her, letting her sweep me up too. George gives a little smile and grabs my hand. Dad comes over and wraps one arm around Mom, the other one going to support me and I know we look like a perfect picture. I'm not surprised when Mom leans down and says, "Smile for the camera," sweetie, at George, who smiles, and I know what picture Mom's gonna put on her blog tonight.
We count down and scream "HAPPY NEW YEAR" and Mom and Dad kiss each other and us and everything's great until the guests start leaving and the cameras turn off and Mom and Dad lose their big smiles and send us to bed.
George still seems happy as she yawns and slides into her bed. "Night Shaun," she says.
She hasn't noticed anything. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'm a bad son because all I can think is Mom and Dad don't really love us and George has no idea. But I don't say that. I just say, "Night George," right back and pull the covers over my head.
We're 10, and Mom has somehow managed to get the four of us to Time Square in New York City for the evening. I don't understand how she gets away with these things, and I really don't understand why. Even Shaun, who likes doing dangerous stunts just for the faces Mom makes, doesn't like being in crowds this huge. But Mom has to give us the pre-Rising experiences she never got to give Phillip.
Okay, that's not true, and I like only saying things that are true. I do know why she's doing this. It's because it'll make a great story and get great ratings. That's why she does anything to do with us. That's our purpose in her life. Shaun might have noticed before I did, but that only means I get to be extra bitter to make up for lost time.
Mom's filming, so she's all smiles and affectionate touches. It makes my skin crawl a little, but I don't flinch away. I'll never hear the end of it if I do something like that on camera.
"We're lucky," she says, moving to put an arm over my shoulder. Shaun notices and shifts enough to casually take my place. I smile gratefully at him. Mom doesn't seem to notice that she's hugging the wrong sibling, and the cameras just see a happy family. "This is probably the best possible time to come here. They keep talking about closing the event to the public entirely, and it's not nearly as crowded as it was pre-Rising."
My Retinal KA doesn't have many upsides, but it's so much easier to roll my eyes and get away with it when the cameras (and Mom) can't see my eyes. Shaun always knows, but Shaun's way better at reading my expressions than Mom or Dad will ever be. Anyway, I've heard this story so many times before. But she has to say it a bunch of times so she can decide which one fits better in the narrative of our family outing.
"Did you know they dropped the ball for the first time in 1907?" Dad asks. "This is the 120th anniversary of the tradition." He starts talking about the history of the ball drop, and I tune him out. This, like everything else, is much more for the benefit of the audience than for us. Let him do his wise professor routine, Mom does the sparkling danger doesn't bother me thing, and all Shaun and I have to do is look vaguely interested.
Shaun leans over to mutter in my ear. "It's not even a drop, it's a gentle lowering. Lame."
I snicker and elbow him. Mom notices and frowns at us. "Stop whispering," she hisses. For a moment, our perfect family tableau becomes more like our actual family, but she can cut that out in the editing room.
There are too many people around us. Mom says it used to be way more crowded, but as far as I'm concerned, this is awful enough. I press close to Shaun to avoid having to touch anyone else, and he holds onto my arm.
When the countdown happens and the ball drops, Mom and Dad kiss in a way we're probably supposed to find embarrassing and the audience is probably supposed to find endearing. I just find it annoying. It's as much a show as everything else they do. I ignore them, and press a kiss to Shaun's cheek instead.
He smiles and hugs me. I like when he hugs me. Cause he does it off camera too. "Happy New Year, George."
We're 12 and we can't share a room anymore and it's stupid. When Mom and Dad announced that I'd be getting my own room, they'd beamed at us like they were expecting us to be happy about it. They'd been really confused when we argued, and I got to have a whole talk with Dad about how as I got older I wasn't going to want to have a girl in my room all the time, especially a girl that's my sister, but I still think he's wrong. It's George. Why should her being a girl have to do with anything?
It wasn't an argument we could win, but it also wasn't a conversation that went well enough for Mom and Dad to put it on the site, so that was nice. Plus, George talked them into putting a door in the wall and we still share a bathroom, so that's okay, I guess.
It's New Year's Eve, and this year we're just doing a small family thing. Maybe cause me and George keep fighting. With them, with each other, with everyone. Dad says it's just hormones in this obnoxious way that makes me kind of want to punch him. George says it's "condescending." I think the fighting all the time is why they split us up, only we just fight more now. But it doesn't play well for the cameras even if this is definitely the most real family we've ever been. Mom doesn't like us being a real family. She likes us giving good ratings.
George pointed out that drama makes good ratings too once. Mom looked like she'd bitten down on a lemon. It was hilarious.
But anyway, yeah, small family gathering, which is kind of nice because George gets stressed when Mom makes us go to big parties, but it also means there's no one for Mom and Dad to annoy except us. And no one else to film.
Not that they're filming now. We're watching a movie, and even they can't make ratings out of that. I'm sitting next to George, sharing the armchair and snuggled under a blanket, casually kicking her leg until she whacks me in the arm and glares at me. Everyone always acts like her expressions are so hard to read with the sunglasses, but I think they just don't pay attention. Though glares are pretty easy to guess. She's usually glaring.
"Georgia, Shaun," Mom says, frowning at us. "Stop that."
"He started it!" George says. I shove her. She elbows me back.
I don't know why we're fighting so much. Maybe it's hormones, like dad says, but it's not like we're usually angry. We just… I don't know. It's dumb.
"If you can't behave, we'll have to call the night early," Mom says. "Can you sit quietly and watch the movie?"
We both mutter that we can, and George leans against me. That's better than kicking her, I decide, and I lean my head on hers. Under the blankets, we find each other's hands.
Everything's perfect until Mom notices how perfect we are and has to snap a picture. The second George sees the flash, she sits up, pulling away from me.
Okay, like I said? It's dumb. But George hates even getting hugged in public now. Even me. Probably because Mom has to ruin everything by photographing it and how us snuggling's gonna be on the blog now and I hate that I can't hug her or touch her at all but I can still fight with her and Mom never photographs that and George fights back so I don't think she minds that much? Sometimes she even starts it.
And right now, I'm so mad at Mom that when I kick her this time, it's hard enough that she turns around and punches my arm for real. "Shaun!"
"That's it!" Mom says, standing up. "To your rooms. Both of you!"
We both get up and make enough noises of complaint that they feel like we're being punished, but once we're in our room–George's room, I mean–we both relax.
"I think you might have bruised me," George says, rolling up her pants leg. Sure enough, there's a purple mark.
I grimace and reach out to touch it lightly. "Sorry."
She shivers a little and I look up at her, my fingers still on her leg. I open my mouth to ask what's wrong, but my words catch. I don't know how long we stay like that, only that at some point we hear Mom and Dad cheering downstairs and I manage to look away and see that yep, it's midnight.
"Happy New Year," she says, her voice small.
I don't know what I'm doing, but I reach up to kiss her and instead of getting her cheek, I get the corner of her mouth. When I pull back she's staring at me, eyes wide, and–
"Happy New Year," I blurt back, and then I run to my room and shut the door. I don't know what just happened, but I don't think I'm supposed to look at my sister like that.
I don't write about that in the journal we share. Neither does she.
We're 14 and finally Mom and Dad are letting us spend New Years not with them. We're at a party with some other kids from school, and honestly Mom and Dad not being there is really the only redeeming feature. It's pretty lame. I might hate how Mom and Dad treat us, but at least they let us do things. It took no less than four blood tests to get into Ellie's house, and there isn't a single thing that isn't soft and rounded and practically baby-proofed in the apartment. Seriously, we're 14, not five. No one's going to impale themselves on the corner of a table and turn into a zombie. It would just be silly.
I'm sitting on the couch, trying not to look entirely bored out of my mind. Shaun's chatting up some girls over by the punch bowl. I'm absolutely not watching him through the corner of my eye, even if my sunglasses make it impossible for anyone to know.
I spend a lot of time absolutely not watching him lately. I'd feel worse about it if I didn't know how often Shaun absolutely doesn't watch me, and he's not as subtle about it. And it's not like I mind.
We're 14, which means our bodies are growing and changing and it's just to be expected that there will be… thoughts. Shaun's always been there, and now he's… taller than me. By several inches. And I have breasts. There are just a lot of changes and it's okay if we notice them.
It's also okay if I notice he's talking to girls. I mean, I'm used to having him all to myself. Not wanting to share him isn't that weird. I know because I've read articles about it. Besides, he never actually does anything with any of them. He always comes back to hang out with me instead.
I mean it wouldn't matter if he didn't. Because he's my brother and I shouldn't care so much who he spends time with or that he might kiss one of those girls at midnight instead of me like it's been every year since we were little….
I'm scowling now, and though he's far enough away that I could be glaring at anyone, he knows, like he always knows and looks up at me with a slight frown. But before he can do anything else, Bernard walks over, blocking him from view, and sits on the couch next to me.
"You look like a ray of sunshine as always," he says, giving me a sardonic smile. He holds up a cup. "Punch?"
I glance past him. Shaun's frowning slightly now, still looking at me, but then one of the girls laughs, pulling his attention back towards her. This is... how things are supposed to be. He flirts with a bunch of girls, I have a sarcastic conversation with someone as cynical as I am. We both get dates, and Mom and Dad are insufferably happy that we're spending time with people who aren't each other. Cue romance, heartbreak, healthy teenage lives, and a future where I'm stealing glances at someone who isn't my brother.
Would that be so bad?
"Thanks," I say, taking the cup. "So. This party, huh? It's so… safe."
Shaun probably doesn't even realize he's flirting, or that the girls are flirting back. For someone as charming and good-looking as he is, he's pretty clueless about women. And I can admit he's charming and good-looking. It's a fact. When we're old enough to officially start our blogs, it's going to make us rich.
"Yeah, that's the only way my parents would let me come. Lame, right?" I make a noise of agreement. My eyes are straying towards Shaun again. I don't think Bernard's noticed. "But it is the only party in town."
"There are virtual parties," I say, turning to focus on him again.
"Even safer," he says, flashing a smirk.
I actually smile back. Bernard's not so bad. "Even more boring," I counter.
He nods. "True, no fun at all." He leans towards me a little. "After all, virtual kisses at midnight? Nothing like actual kisses."
My smile fades. Actual kisses. Like Shaun will probably do with one of those girls he's talking to. Like Bernard clearly wants to do with me at midnight. Though I doubt he'd complain about doing it before. Before I can fully process the thought, I'm standing up. "Excuse me, I'm getting a headache." I adjust my sunglasses pointedly.
There are some guys who used to make fun of me for my sunglasses and migraines and weird zombie eyes, though it's been a while. I've never asked why they stopped, but I did notice it corresponded pretty neatly to one day when we were ten and Shaun came home with blood on his shirt and Mom flipped out and marched him right up to the shower. It was almost like she cared. Or like it made her look bad that he was picking fights.
Anyway, Bernard was never one of those guys, and when I tell him that his brow knots with concern. "Oh, do you want to go somewhere else?" The apartment's got a bunch of rooms set aside for kids to sleep over, since no one wants kids to go out of the house late at night. I do think he's genuinely trying to be nice, but that's not what I want.
"I'm just gonna go to the bathroom and take my medication. It's fine." My head does really hurt, though it's not at the point that I'd complain if I wasn't trying to get out of a conversation. My head always hurts. Generally speaking, it's suck it up and deal or spend my life drugged in the dark.
He doesn't stop me as I rush away. No one stops me, and I make it to the bathroom and close the door without turning on the lights, I pull my sunglasses off and rub my eyes, leaning against the cool mirror. What is wrong with me? He's a nice guy, funny, conventionally attractive, certainly a perfectly appropriate choice for first kiss, both of the New Year and of my life, and everything I've read says this is probably something that should excite me. So why do I so desperately not want to kiss him? Or any of the other guys at the party, for that matter?
I don't think I'm gay. The thought of kissing any of the other girls doesn't appeal either. Asexuality would be a possibility, or not feeling ready or whatever the literature says is totally okay for a young woman going through puberty to be, except that there is one person that I do want to kiss badly enough that here, clutching the sink in the dark and ignoring the way my head is pounding like it always is and the weird burn that's my eyes wanting to cry and not being able to, it's getting harder and harder not to think about it.
There's a knock on the bathroom door.
"Busy!" I shout.
There's a beat, then Shaun's voice comes through. "George? Are your sunglasses on? I'm coming in."
"Close your eyes if they're not."
I do, but I still protest. "Shaun!"
I hear the door open, then close, and Shaun's hand finds my shoulder. "Okay. You can open your eyes. I can't see anything."
I open my eyes and scowl, even as I let him pull me against him. "I could have been peeing, you weirdo."
"Please, I know the difference between a George-needs-to-pee run and a George-needs-to-get-out-of-a-party run." He wraps his arms around me. "What happened? Was it Bernard? Do I need to kill him?"
"No. He's… fine." I'm already starting to relax now. Having Shaun near does that sometimes. I turn my head, listening to his heartbeat. "And I wasn't running. He was just… flirting."
"How dare he," Shaun says, his arms tightening around me in contrast to the light, teasing tone of his voice. "And you didn't want to flirt with him back?"
I stay silent. What is there to say? That I feel a thousand times more comfortable here in his arms than making conversation with Bernard, with any boy?
"No," I say quietly. "I don't think I like flirting very much."
"Oh," his voice is just as quiet. I'm suddenly all too aware of how close we are, his body pressed up against my back as he holds onto me tightly in the suddenly very small bathroom. "Well, that's okay. You don't have to."
"I know I don't have to." I curl my fingers around his wrist, lightly. "What about you?"
"What about me?" He sounds honestly confused.
I can't help but smile. Clueless. "You seemed to be having a good time with Grenda and Tracy."
"Yeah, they're okay." I wait for it. I feel him move his head. "Wait. You're saying they were flirting with me?"
He sounds so perplexed that I can't help but grin. "You're kind of an idiot, Shaun."
"It's not like I was flirting back." It's too dark for him to see anything, but I turn my head to look up at him and raise an eyebrow anyway. "...was I?"
I don't know why I'm so relieved he didn't realize he was flirting. Or I do know why. The knowledge itches at the back of my brain, as persistent as my migraines, but I can't acknowledge it. Acknowledging it would mean dealing with it and dealing with it means risking losing everything. Losing Shaun.
There are some truths even I'm not ready for.
I turn around so I can wrap my arms around him, pulling him in close. "Don't leave me," I mutter into his neck.
"Never," he says, sounding surprised but painfully earnest as he clings back. "Do you want to ditch the party? Cause we're locked in til morning, but there are a lot of empty rooms. I could steal us some cake and we can hide there."
I probably shouldn't. I should probably do what Mom and Dad would want and go make friends who aren't my brother and flirt and fall in love and stop holding on to Shaun like he's my only lifeline.
"Yeah," I say quietly. "Just tell them my head's hurting. Bernard's probably told everyone anyway."
"I can't believe no one ever notices that your headaches just conveniently always get worse when you want out of social situations." Shaun smirks at me, which isn't wise when I can see him so much better than he can see me and when my hands are already in just the right place to punch him in the ribs. "Ow."
"Bernard wasn't this much of an asshole," I tell him primly. He's not wrong, of course, but still. I let go of him so I can put my sunglasses back on. "And I do have to pee. Go get me cake."
He presses a kiss to my hair. "Only cause you're asking so nicely."
It ends up one of the better New Year's celebrations I've ever had. Lying in the dark with Shaun, shoulders touching as we laugh and talk and just enjoy being together and ignoring the world. When school starts up again, Tracy and Grenda will be halfway in love with Shaun for being such a thoughtful person and taking such good care of his poor, disabled sister and Bernard, who is not quite as dumb as Shaun, will take the hint and never make a move on me again. But for now that doesn't matter. For now, Shaun and I end the old year and begin the new year the same way we do everything: together.
At midnight, we kiss each other's cheeks, and I don't know if we linger too long or not. With anyone else, kissing at all would be too long. With Shaun, it doesn't feel nearly long enough. We fall asleep tangled together like we so rarely risk doing at home. It feels… right.
We're 17 and Mom and Dad are having a soiree this New Year's Eve. It's been 20 years since the Rising, and I guess that means we have a big, fancy New Year's party. George pointed out that we should be celebrating that in the summer, if we should celebrate it at all considering it was such a horrible time, but Mom ignored her. She hates when George is right, and obviously she wasn't about to admit to anything that would mean she had to cancel her party.
So I have to wear a suit that I hate, but not as much as George hates her dress. I hate her dress too, but mostly only in that it looks amazing and I want to tear it off her and I can't do that, or even really look at her like I want to when we're with our parents. And I know she ogles me from behind the safety of her sunglasses all the time. I can always, always tell, and always could, even back when we were still working out our feelings for each other, but no one else has ever noticed.
Not tonight, though. Tonight, Mom made her wear her contacts. George didn't fight as much as Mom expected her to, and when she came downstairs with horrifying bright blue eyes, it became clear why. Mom finally let George pick the color. I don't know what she expected to happen. I mean, she's known George as long as I have, and George has always found ways to take advantage of her creepy eyes. She hates how her contacts feel, but she also hates feeling like she's lying to everyone about her eyes being normal. Obviously she was gonna make her eyes weird again the first chance she got.
And the way Mom's face pinched when she saw how weird George looked is almost worth having an alien for a sister all night. Almost.
As midnight approaches, I slide into a chair next to her. She ran out of patience for mingling way before I did, which isn't surprising. She didn't really start with patience for mingling.
She turns towards me with that weird blue stare and smiles. I make a face at her. "You look so weird."
"That's the idea," she says. She doesn't blink any more than usual. The effect is, I can admit, a little too disconcerting even for me.
"Well, you're doing amazing at it," I tell her. "Seriously, though I'm not sure why you couldn't torment Mom in a way that wasn't also tormenting me."
"You can handle it," she says, completely unsympathetically.
She's right, of course. I might complain, but at least, unlike our mother, I'm not simultaneously thinking about what everyone else will think or how it'll turn up on camera. I'm just thinking I wish I could put sunglasses on her. I still wrinkle my nose, even if it's mostly for show. "Still."
"Let your peripheral vision and feet that don't feel like they're about to fall off soothe you." Oh, she's in a bad mood.
I smile at her, bumping my shoulder against hers. "Hey, cheer up. It's almost midnight. Then you can go back to your home planet."
She turns to me and smiles. Midnight doesn't just mean we get to leave, though that's definitely a big plus. "Find anyone to kiss?"
She knows damn well I have. I've known who I wanted to kiss for basically my entire life. I give her a look. "I dunno, I've got some groupies that are all over me."
That's enough to make her actually crack a smirk. "You have groupies now?"
I shrug. "Just a matter of time." We both have a pretty decent following considering how new our blogs are and how young we are. Mostly people who follow our parents, checking out what we're up to after watching our entire childhood. I'd be annoyed about it except we have to get our start somehow, and it would be unavoidable unless we used pseudonyms. George, for obvious reasons, is opposed to that plan. Whatever, readers are readers. "Anyway, I couldn't leave you in a lurch. Since I'm pretty sure your eyes will scare off any potential guys."
"That's the plan." Sometimes George gets self-conscious about her eyes. Less so when she's got them weaponized. And it's not like either of us have interest in her finding another guy to kiss. "This mean you'll spare a pity kiss?"
A pity kiss. It's all I can do not to laugh. "I guess so. But you'll have to fend off the heartbroken groupies."
"I'll manage," George says dryly.
When the countdown ends, I kiss her, just like I have every year for as long as I can remember, chastely on the cheek. No one but us needs to know that she'll get a real New Year's kiss once everyone goes home. No one knows how much this small PDA means when normally we don't risk more than fleeting touches.
No one knows how much I want to punch Mom when the flash goes off in our faces.
"Aww, look at my babies," Mom says, that edge in her voice that means we'll be hearing about it if we don't play nice. I force a smile. George doesn't. But she also doesn't smash the camera to the ground and storm out of the room, so really, there's a lot of restraint going on there. "All grown up and still each other's best friends."
And George is giving that pinched look that means she's considering the benefits of carrying an electromagnet in her bra just to keep this shit from happening. I hate this more than anything else Mom does. What George and I have--friends, siblings, the stuff Mom definitely doesn't know about--it's ours. Mom can't just use it for her blog without asking us. Not that it's ever stopped her.
I can't yell at Mom or punch her or anything that'll make us look like anything but the perfect family. Not tonight. Not with this many witnesses. I can't hug George either. I want to. But right now it'll just make things worse. Mom's twisted it.
So instead I do what I do best. I smile, play the dancing monkey and get the attention off George.
"Yeah, Mom," I say. "Hey, can we be excused? This guy I know got me some fireworks and—"
She gives me one of her favorite patented Mom Faces, this one the simultaneously exasperated and proud one. As the Irwin in the family, I get it more than George does. It's her "I'm secretly proud because you take after me and I'd do the same thing in your place but I have to be the adult and say no" expression. Boy does she love when I act out just enough to make it clear I'm an Irwin but not enough to make it seem like she's a bad mom.
"Shaun, you can't go out and set off fireworks at midnight. It isn't safe. And you only have a provisional license."
"Aw, come on, we wouldn't go far!" I give her my best Irwin smile. The one that makes George either throw things at me or jump me, which is basically what I'm going for.
Mom just gives a more subdued version of her own Irwin smile back. "Maybe next year. Besides, it's late, you two. You should get to bed."
We probably should protest. We're 17, not five. We haven't had a bedtime we paid attention to in years. But we also both want out of the party enough that we don't protest more than token amounts. Then we go upstairs.
I sit on George's bed and kick off my shoes while she takes out her contacts in the bathroom. After a few moments, she comes out and sits on the bed next to me. I don't reach out for her. Mom already twisted our kiss into ratings. Even though we both know that's not what it's about for me, I'm not going to touch her until she wants me to right now.
"Fireworks?" she says finally, turning towards me. Her room is dark as usual, but not so dark that I can't see her usual freaky eyes. The ones that will never creep me out half as much as those contacts because they're her freaky eyes. I love everything about her. How can I not love her eyes?
"Yeah, it's a good thing Mom said no. I don't actually have any." I grin at her, shifting on the bed so that I'm facing her.
"Shaun!" It makes her smile, though, which is what I was going for. She reaches for my hand. "I hate her," she says, voice almost wondering. "She's my mom. I know she just adopted us to boost ratings, but I shouldn't actually hate her."
I squeeze her hand and shrug. "She's not much of a mom. I kind of wanted to strangle her for surprising us with that picture."
George nods, sliding closer to me. I let go of her hand so I can put an arm around her. "It's stupid," she says. She's still tense, but she doesn't shove me off or anything. "It shouldn't matter. She's taken plenty of pictures of us before. It shouldn't ruin our kiss."
"It didn't," I say firmly. She looks up at me, ready to argue, but I shake my head. "That wasn't our New Year's kiss. That was just part of the Masons' party. This..." I touch her chin, leaning in. "Is our New Year's kiss."
We've made out a lot since we finally acknowledged what we both were feeling and stopped trying to pretend we'd ever love anyone else. This kiss is pretty tame compared to a lot of them. But it's not a kiss Mom could ever put on her blog unless she was ready to disown us for shaming the family name. It's tender and real and ours.
I pull back and lean my forehead against hers. "Better?"
She nods, lips curling into a smile despite herself. "I don't think Mom would like that one."
"Well, she doesn't get to know about it." I smile back. "Want me to stay the night?"
She nods and pulls a little bit away. "Help me get out of this dress?"
I grin. "I was hoping you'd ask that."
We're 20 and our blogs are taking off. Well, Shaun's and Buffy's are. My ratings are solid for a strict Newsie, but still a lot lower than theirs usually get. Unless I'm willing to sacrifice my dignity or principles, that's just going to be the way things are. Shaun teases me, but he and Buffy don't seem to mind. Maybe because I also do all the paperwork. Shaun can spend hours annoying the undead, but if you really want to scare him, show him my inbox. I think he'd scream.
Knowing Buffy has finally made me realize at least one of the benefits of having friends outside myself and Shaun: it's a great way to get out of our parents' plans. In this case, we get to go to her New Year's party instead of having to stick around and make nice for our parents and their cameras. Sure, it means hanging out with a lot of Fictionals and watching Shaun do dumb shit in the name of having a good time, but it also means no one's going to be filming us without our permission.
Which doesn't mean no one's filming, of course, but it's our cameras, for our site. This is being livestreamed, both for the people invited who couldn't make it and for our small but growing audience. Not everyone can or wants to attend an in-person party. That doesn't mean they don't want to live vicariously through us. That's what the news is for.
I sit to the side as usual, sipping a wine cooler and observing rather than participating. There are enough bloggers around that are more interesting than I'll ever be. That's by design. I don't want to be the news, just to report it. Sure, there's overlap, but not even the most dedicated of tabloid bloggers have ever been able to run a story about my personal life that isn't held together by evidence that's laughably thin. Sure, some have tried, and some have even come close to the truth. I might have gotten nervous if the reactions to the articles hadn't consistently been either laughter at ridiculous the concept was or outrage that the writers would go so far to try and make up a story. Which was convenient. It meant I didn't have to waste time with denials, and even better, didn't have to lie. I could just continue ignoring the tabloids and let them decide which blogger my cold, emotionless exterior was hiding my feelings for today.
And speaking of the blogger I'm actually hiding my feelings for… Shaun is, apparently, done messing around with the firecrackers he'd gotten his hands on. You'd think after he got retinal scarring that one time he'd be a little more careful. But Shaun's an Irwin through and through. If it's dangerous and stupid, he's there. Even if it's going to get him hurt again.
I won't be able to have him forever. That's a fact I've known since we started down this career path, but the bigger we get the more aware of it I've become. I smile at him as he walks towards me and my heart clenches.
"Hi George," he says, throwing himself down on the couch next to me, bouncing until our shoulders bump together.
Asshole. I try to hide my smile. "Done courting death for the year?"
"I guess I can take a break for…." he looks at his watch. "Ten minutes."
"Ten whole minutes?" I raise an eyebrow. "Wow. Getting soft in your old age."
"Wow, when you put it like that..." he moves to get off the couch.
I grab his arm, yanking him back. I know he's not really planning on going anywhere, but it's all part of the game. Annoying brother. Hard put on sister. We know our roles. "Shaun Mason, sit down or you'll miss the countdown."
He grins. Neither of us are big drinkers. We're both too fond of being able to think straight enough to survive the outbreak that is always potentially around the corner. But he's had a few drinks too, and it has him looking at me in a way he really shouldn't in public.
No one notices. They rarely pay enough attention. I still kick his leg, which gets his besotted look to melt into a wounded one. "George!"
I tug down my sunglasses to give him a look. He shrugs.
Before we can say anything more, one of Buffy's fictionals charges up, reaching to grab Shaun's arm.
"Shaun!" she says, her voice a little too loud for the room we were in. Drunk. Lovely. "It's almost midnight and I have no one to kiss!" she pouts in a way she probably thinks is appealing but mostly just makes her look like an idiot.
Shaun looks at me, alarmed. I raise my eyebrows, amused. I don't get jealous. I know Shaun's as much mine as I am his. That means I'm never above laughing at his pain.
"Uh, sorry, Barb, you see," he waves the hand she's not clutching. "I'm flattered, but--"
He was floundering. I took pity on him. I shifted and sat up, putting a hand on Shaun's other arm. "We've been each other's New Year's kiss since we were children," I said. "Tradition."
Barb gives me a sour look. "Ugh, just because you want to be a cold lonely bitch forever doesn't mean you have to hold him back too."
It's the most perfectly wrong thing she could have said, and I've never been gladder to be insulted. It gives Shaun an excuse to tug his arm away from her and give her a pleasant smile. "Sorry, I have a firm not kissing people who insult my sister rule. Incidentally, have I pointed out lately that I have no problem hitting girls?"
Barb gulps, eyes widening. Before she can say anything, I break in. "Don't start the new year with a fight at Buffy's party, Shaun. She'll sulk."
"Good point," Shaun says "Maybe you should find someone on the other side of the room to kiss."
Barb couldn't have fled faster if zombies were chasing her.
"That wasn't very nice," I say, my hand still resting on his arm.
Shaun shrugs. "Her or me?"
I smirk. "You know I've been called worse. I can handle it."
"Gave me an excuse to cut things off hard, though, didn't it?"
Suddenly, the music stops. We both look over to see Buffy standing on a chair, Maggie holding her hand to help keep her steady. Buffy can't hold her liquor at all. I'm not surprised to see her more than a little buzzed.
"Okay everyone! Countdown's starting in less than a minute! Everyone get ready!"
Shaun and I stand up together, not bothering to take more than a few steps towards the rest of the crowd, We count down with our friends, then give each other our customary kiss on the cheek.
As usual, the real New Year's kiss won't be until later, when we're in private. But this kiss now isn't so bad. We have each other, we have our friends, we have our blogs, and it won't be long until we find the right story to launch our own site. We're going to get everything we want.
It's going to be a sweet New Year.
Becks and Dave might have dragged me out to the office party, mostly by having zero respect for the chain of command, but they couldn't make me stay. A few minutes before midnight I sneak out to the roof, champagne in hand, and stare out over the city.
"Nice view, huh, George?"
Same view we always have, George says in the back of my head.
I smile and take a sip of champagne for us both. "But it's always a nice view."
Maybe, she says. She's quiet, a little distant, and the fact that I can tell the moods of the voice in my head is probably something I should worry about. Then again, if I was going to start worrying, I would have done it when I started having a voice in my head in the first place.
I sigh, leaning forward on my arms and letting the cup dangle from my fingers. The clock's ticking down and I feel her absence more sharply than ever. This is the first New Year's I've had without her. Our one night when we could actually kiss in front of people. It was always kind of nice. I close my eyes as the sounds of my friends counting down inside. "I miss you so much."
I feel the phantom touch of lips against my cheek, the pressure of a hand against my shoulder. I know. Happy New Year, Shaun.
I reach to take a hand that's not there and end up just grabbing my own shoulder. I leave my eyes closed anyway. I can almost feel her breath against my cheek. "Fat fucking chance."
She doesn't respond to that. She doesn't need to. We both know how unlikely it is I'll have a happy year ever again.
Not without her.
Once, New Year's was the only time we ever kissed in public. Now, well, public doesn't happen very much, but if it did, we'd kiss as much as we damn well pleased. Which still probably wouldn't be very much. I'm barely one for private displays of affection, let alone public ones. Just because we're not bothering to keep the nature of our relationship secret doesn't mean I'm all of a sudden crawling all over Shaun every second I can. I just like the fact that I could if I wanted.
I'm sure if we'd stayed, we'd be able to go to any New Year's party we wanted. The president and vice president owe us everything. Our parents would drool over the ratings we could bring if we had any interest in seeing them ever again. Our friends… they probably actually miss us. Sometimes we even miss them. Not enough to change our minds about going back. But we do miss them.
We're not going to any party out here. Even if our neighbors had invited us, we would have declined. You'd think we'd eventually get tired of only ever seeing each other. But we don't. Shaun's always been the only thing I really needed, and he feels the same. We have each other, and during the rare times that's not enough, we have the internet.
This is our happy ending. Watching a movie, my head on Shaun's shoulder and his arm around me. Doing all the dumb couple stuff we got even less often than sex back when I was alive for the first time. Just being together.
The clock strikes midnight and Shaun leans in to kiss me. I'm not at all surprised when he ends up on top of me, movie abandoned in favor of more interesting entertainment. He pulls back enough to look at me. Smiling at me the way he does sometimes. Like he still can't fully believe this is real.
"Happy New Year," I murmur, reaching up to pull him back down.
I don't ask what the voice in the back of his head is saying about all this. He doesn't say anything about how wrong my eyes are now. He just smiles and mutters "Happy New Year" right back before leaning in to kiss me again.
It's our fucking happy ending. Like the rest of our lives, it's not perfect. But it's ours, and I wouldn't trade it for anything.
Happy New Year.
Here's to a whole lot more.