"Shaun!" Liz's voice rang out, punctuated by the slam of the new fibreglass door. "Your boyfriend just about nipped me!"
Shaun stumbled down the stairs, tripped on the runner rug, and spun to a stop before her. "You all right? Did he get you?"
Liz waved him off. Flecks of red clay hit his Brock Samson t-shirt. "I'm fine, I'm fine. Did you remember to feed him this morning?" She not-quite stomped to the kitchen, dumping her gardening gloves in the sink.
"Two Cornettos and a steak," said Shaun. Liz cocked an eyebrow over her shoulder. "Last night. Evening. Er, afternoon before we left for the pub. He's not my boyfriend," Shaun added superfluously, on the off-chance Liz was in the process of rethinking being his girlfriend.
She was thus far switching on the kettle for tea. "Regardless, don't you think it's getting a tad inconvenient to have him in the shed while we're excavating for the Z-Day garden?"
Shaun flinched. "Don't call it that."
"Mmm, sorry. Zed Ess calls it a Survivalist Pantry. Ridiculous, if you ask me." Next thing Shaun knew, there was a frozen hunk of meat flying at his chest. He juggled the package, ducking under Liz to get the defrosting pan. Ed liked breakfast warm and oozy. Liz tapped Shaun with a spoon handle as he came back up. "Are you going to start dead-heading the bushes?"
Liz crossed her arms. "You promised you'd take care of the existing plants if I broke ground for the crops."
"Oh, the rose bushes. Right. Of course, I'll get right on that." The roses had been transplanted from his mum's garden. It still gave him a twinge to look at them, but the scent reminded him of home. "You sure I won't kill them? You've got the green thumb in the family, babe." He gave her a peck on the cheek.
The bit of a smile was a victory. "I'd sort that for you if I could get at the shed more. Shaun, I love Ed to bits and pieces—"
"He is a little crispy."
"—but I never know when he'll fancy a nibble. When I'm on the rag, I can't even go near." The kettle popped and steamed. "Come to think of it, you're always popping off to the shed around then, as well."
Shaun made a face like a gasping fish. "Oh, I, you see we... you know. You and I. We can't—"
Liz patted his arm. "Just consider getting him out of the house, would you? I'm going to get a few rows done before class." She handed him his cup.
He realised she hadn't put any milk in her tea. This was serious. He followed her to the couch, plopped down to watch her wrangle the knitting needles around a black-and-white scarf, and thought about his best friend.
"They do make those Bite Detectors. Got little LED lights." Shaun made a glowing sign with his hand. "I could rig it with an alarm. Or a tinkling noise, like fairies." He glanced out the window to the garden; in his mind he could almost hear Ed muttering, 'Gay.'
"Don't know when to stop," said Liz out loud. "Oh. I mean this scarf." She consulted the pattern. "So you won't even consider it?"
"Where would we put him?" They'd given up Philip's house to his elderly and frightening aunt. She'd apparently butchered all of her infected relatives, then hung them in the smokehouse, leaving no-one to see to her welfare out in her country cottage. They didn't come around much. Or at all.
There was Liz's parent's place.
Liz set her needles down. She looked at Shaun. He looked at her. "Babe, what about—"
x x x
Shaun held up the black-and-white pattern of skulls flipping their finger bones. "Great, isn't it? Liz made it." He shifted in his seat. "For me. 'hem. Thanks for the ride, Danny."
"It's no problem. Gets me out of the bomb shelter."
"Your family still—"
Danny's already conservative family was currently living on the premise that it was Stage Two of the Apocalypse. Their surviving next door neighbour had persuaded them into selling him their lucrative Indian takeaway, and was now making a killing with delivery.
"Yeah," confirmed Danny glumly. "But we're loaded now."
"Turns out Mum was trading commodity futures on the internet. Picked up a new Range Rover last week. It's at the garage for refinishing."
Shaun suppressed the urge to throttle him. His therapist — the helpline caseworker — said it wasn't a productive impulse. "Why are you taking over the store, if you're so well off?" Shaun had been appointed manager by default, and the same was expected for Danny, his only remaining employee. Mostly they chucked paper at each other between deliveries and five-minute sales.
"Mum and the sisters got two widescreens just for musicals." Danny shuddered. "Need a place to crash. Like your friend."
They heard Ed's muffled groan.
Danny swerved around a pack of scooters. "I can't believe you're getting out. There's big money in appliances. You could probably stuff Ed in a fridge."
From within the boot, a necrotic foot kicked the back of the seats.
"He'd get bored," said Shaun.
And he'd always wanted to open a shop.
A few minutes later, they were tempting Ed out of the boot with a pack of cigarettes. Fortunately it only took a few minutes. It had been a good long hour to get Ed into the mandatory mask and standard straitjacket, and then he'd needed a dousing for the smell. The tracking ankle bracelet was Liz's idea. That was part of the new security system in the former pawn shop. Looters had taken care of most of the inventory, leaving lots and lots of shelving for disc keep cases.
Through the magic of streamlined probate, it all belonged to Shaun.
Danny was back in the driver's seat before he could even get Ed chained up. "Sorry about the blood," said Shaun.
"It washes right off, believe me. Keep in touch, Shaun," he said with an uncomfortable genuineness, so common of late. "Don't forget the customer referrals."
Shaun obliged with an equally uncomfortable knuckle-brush. He was reminded of Liz's school's new rules: no open hands, nothing near the neck, and definitely no grabbing.
"You'll drop by, won't you? We're opening next Thursday. Grand opening."
"Nah, it's safer in the bomb shelter, 'specially after dark. They're still talking of the T-word." Danny scrubbed at his dark hair. "You know how it is. If you get your hands on the ZombAid extras, mail it to me at the store. I'll credit your account."
Shaun spun on his heel and back into the shop — his shop! — where Ed was busy worming his way toward the nicotine.
"Ed," he said, clicking a remote. "All this is ours." The speaker system crackled to life. Surrounded by flashing lights, three widescreens descended, all playing the opening sequence of Tekken 5. Ed rolled to attention, and didn't even lunge when Shaun undid his straps.
x x x
"Ow." Shaun scowled at the paper cut, and sucked the bit of red before it got on his new Swordfish 2 t-shirt. "Bloody brochures. 'Differently vital' my arse." He tossed them in the pile for Liz anyway. It was likely from the Zombie Squad. He got the idea they got together to plan charity drives and learn new tricks with knitting needles. Just the other day Liz had been bubbling about a sock pattern from a ZS'er from Las Vegas.
With the post sorted, Shaun drummed the counter and looked around. It was quiet in the front room today. His part-timer, Gaz, had come around for inventory, though Shaun had quickly assigned him to the CDs and DVDs while he handled the vinyl himself. The back room was another story. Yawning, Shaun checked its monitor while he switched on the telly.
Nothing on. Bit of news. Trisha doing a show on civil partnerships. A pale starlet talked of Twilight, some new romantic zombie series. Time travel-bit on Stargate which he passed over, having seen it and not wanting to admit liking it.
He was almost out of satellite channels — some loony was yelling "Coming up! Can zombies eat their own flesh?" — when the door chime went off.
"Yvonne!" He ought to have been prepared for the wallop of a hug, but it took him by surprise. It had been months since any full-body contact with anyone besides Liz and Ed. "Er, wow."
"I heard you had a shop back here! How are you?"
"Surviving. Uh, doing well, actually. Considering. How is it with you?"
Yvonne shrugged, her omnipresent smile faltering. "Broke up with my boyfriend."
"Too bad about that..."
"Couldn't handle the stress. It's to be expected, really. I was at the office all the time after you-know."
Shaun nodded dumbly. "Ah."
Yvonne seemed to catch his hesitation. "My speciality is aerospace and military. Lots to analyse!" She laughed shortly. "Everyone at the bank was quite busy after you-know."
"But it's slowed down a bit, so, trying to catch up!" She punched him lightly. "Oh, are you all right?"
Shaun shook his head. "Wasn't that hard..."
"No, your hand." Yvonne looked a bit wan.
"Oh. Oh! Sorry." Shaun hurried to get to the paper roll. "It's just a paper cut. From the post."
Yvonne said in a light voice, "You ought to disinfect that."
"Yeah. Liz is always telling me..."
"Oh! You're back together? I thought so at the camp, but crisis reactions and all that. It's to be expected. Congratulations!"
Shaun flushed, juggling the paper and the alcohol gel. "Thanks. We've moved into my house. Uh, Pete's house. He, you-know."
"Right. Pete, was he your arsehole friend?"
Shaun burst out laughing. Even through Yvonne's high-pitched giggles, it was an odd sort of relief. "Yes, that Pete. I had no idea he'd made a will. What a shock that was; left the whole boodle to me."
"Good for you! And now you've got a shop..." She spotted the monitor to the backroom. "Is that Ed?"
Shaun fumbled and dropped the roll. "Yeah, that's the back room. Watching Harry Potter with a bunch of club kids. They hang out here in the mornings. He's had all his shots," he said, speaking faster, "and he's wearing his mouth-guard. He's a laugh, they love him." It was true. Ed got more attention now than when he was living. He watched the telly, or played the games, or sometimes imitated customers. Of course, chaining him to the pinball machine seemed harsh, but it wasn't as though he wanted to leave. "Still holding on to a few high scores."
Once again, Yvonne surprised him. "Oh, I won't report him. Some of them are quite docile. Bit of a rotter, wasn't he? If he were truly out for it, he would've mauled you by now!" She laughed loudly; Shaun laughed rather less loudly. "I came around to ask you about, you know."
"I... actually I don't know." He closed his eyes for a second, trying to recall all the Film Board rules so he could say he was up to date on them.
Yvonne leaned forward. "Word is you're hosting some parties." Grinning wider, she did her techno-beat imitation. "Eh? Back in the deejaying business?"
"Oh, not me. The kids like it a lot faster these days. I let them use the turntable and the back room. It's just a little lock-in, sort of like a pub. We, uh, we don't serve anything." That was another reason Shaun liked to keep Ed on the premises. He could sniff a blunt from across the street. One grunt and Shaun could have the miscreant out of his shop before they even got to the lo-fi section.
Shaun blinked. Yvonne's blather turned to white noise. Oh, God. I'm turning into Philip.
"...permits for crowd control. I'm sure you know, the government's having a row about it, but in the meantime, you know, watch your back!" Yvonne stopped. Her eyes going wide, she suddenly pointed behind him, making him jump. "OH! Who knits? That's one of those scarves in the round."
"Liz," answered Shaun, trying to ignore his suddenly elevated heart-rate. On the monitor, Ed paused, and pawed at the air like a monkey after a banana.
Yvonne made a line to the coat rack. "I love these! Thick as chimneys. There's a bloke in Edinburgh who knit one thick enough to repel bites. Isn't that great?"
Shaun quickly lowered his hand — he'd grabbed the nearest thing, a remastered copy of Bride of the Monster — and returned Yvonne's tight smile. "Yeah. Liz is the best."
x x x
Liz hung out at the shop once all her duties were wrapped up at the school. She'd mark papers in one of the tiny listening booths, which Shaun sort of hated; the fact that their padded interiors looked like coffins only made it more appealing to the kids. Most evenings she'd emerge and watch a silent movie on the beanbag behind the counter. Shaun loved the sight of her so close by. He did get around to telling her so, too, thanks to his therapist.
Today she was in one of the booths. Worse yet, she wasn't marking. She was on the phone, and Shaun could see her face getting redder and redder.
Finally she burst out and slammed the glass door behind her.
"Thank-you-come-again," said Shaun to the customer at the outdoor service window. He switched off the mic. "Hey, babe..."
"My mum keeps calling! I wish she'd give it a rest. Do you know what it is now? She wants us to get married. In this day and age! She won't listen at all. I keep telling her that false social constructs are no way to prove the validity of a relationship. Oh, God," she said suddenly, covering her mouth. "I sound like Davs. You... you don't want to get married, do you?"
Shaun had a brief, awful flashback of his mother asking him about a wedding. "Uh..."
"Sorry. Sorry, babe." She hugged him. "What we've got is all right, isn't it? Nice house. Bit of land. Electric fence."
"The garden looks very nice," offered Shaun. It really did. They'd mucked up the first round of canning, but they had enough to tighten their grocery budget further. And of course there was the remote chance that Zed Ess was right on about crop contamination.
"I don't want to make you feel like I'm not committed, because I am." Liz smiled, and Shaun struggled to tune in past the gooey loveliness of it. "I just don't think marriage is, you know."
"Well it will save on buying a ring," said Shaun. "And a wedding. Loads of bills."
Liz snorted and patted his cheek. "Smooth."
"Not too." He gave her a kiss. Crisis averted, he glanced at the monitor. "'Scuse me, the ball-and-chain's calling." He opened up the mini-fridge for Ed's dinner.
"Make sure it's the cheap cuts," Liz said, settling in her usual spot with her new knitting project. "The other one's for us. Beef pie tomorrow."
"Mmm, beef pie—"
At that moment, chaos erupted.
Later it was ascertained that Ed, impatient for his meal, had gotten into a punch-up with someone attending the bi-weekly Easter Egg club meeting. Somehow he'd gotten unchained, and proceeded to topple the discount shelf before Shaun caught up with him. Liz pinned down a particularly panicked nerd; she got it out of him that someone had said some rather rude things to Ed.
"I told you, Larry! No taunting the zombie!" said one.
"What are you doing? Did you just call the police?" said another. "You stupid fuck, we don't have a permit to gather!"
Shaun and Liz exchanged a look as most everyone scattered.
Between the two of them, in five minutes the security tapes were deleted, the back room locked up, and the discount shelf put back in its place. They did make a good team.
But it was too late. The next thing Shaun knew, the door was chiming, and two massive cops were leading Ed away.
"Hey! What are you doing with my best friend? No, no, no, you can't take him!"
A petite policewoman appeared at Shaun's side. "You the employer? You got a permit for this Munder?" she said in a monotone. In the background Ed was grunting like a distressed orangutan.
Shaun blinked. "I need a permit for a multi-user dungeon?"
She scribbled in her notebook. "No Sir, Mobile Undead. Service doesn't like it when we call them Zeds. Answer the question please, Sir."
"No, but. I mean."
Liz cut in. "We have a residential exemption for him. This was just an accident, really. Ed's just the same as he was before, isn't that right, Shaun?"
"Yeah, he's just the same," nodded Shaun. Less yelling 'cunt' at total strangers, but possibly only because he couldn't yell at all. "He's not dangerous. Just..." Ed keened like someone had taken the last crisp. "...ready to eat."
"Is this a residence. Do you live here." The policewoman ticked off a list.
Shaun felt his stomach drop. "No..."
The policewoman eyed him for a moment, then conferred with her fellow officers.
"Stay calm," whispered Liz soothingly. "If they detain him, I'm sure it will only be a fine."
"Sir," came the policewoman's bland voice. "Since all your equipment and licenses are in order, we're letting you go with a Disorderly Behaviour."
"Oh God. How much?"
Liz elbowed Shaun.
The policewoman wrote out the citation. "Between you and I," she droned, "It's best to get your permits taken care of. They're going to crack down any day now. Be much more than a fine."
Shaun stared at her. "...didn't you used to be a florist?"
"Quit the Academy to pursue horticulture. After Z-Day, they gave us all scholarships, then, boom, back into the Service."
"That's inconvenient," he remarked.
"You're telling me. I got stuck on this beat instead of Traffic."
Liz, who was chaining up Ed, asked, "You'd rather be in Traffic?"
She ripped the ticket and handed it to Shaun. "Nowadays everyone in London has a car. PC Angel says Traffic's where the real action is. Good evening Sir, Ms."
The door chimed, and shut.
Shaun looked at Liz. Liz looked at Shaun.
"At least the meat's defrosted," she said.
x x x
Yvonne was only too happy to help.
She was also ten times more frightening in a power suit. Like a bubbly shark.
"You'll like Stewart, bit of a dry stick, but he's all right. A real legal eagle! It'll be fine!" She punched his shoulder.
Shaun wanted to disappear into his denim jacket, or the zombie-repellent scarf, which he'd forgotten at home. All the investment bankers were staring at him. Fortunately Yvonne led him into a cosy conference room and closed the blinds.
Stewart was indeed as dry as a digestive biscuit, though he was a good listener. "Edward is not an employee of yours, correct?"
"No. I mean, yes, I employ him, but he's mostly there as a gimmick." Shaun winced. "I just wanted to get him out of our garden."
"The new labour statutes covering the Mobile Undead limit the number of working hours per day."
"He's not working all the time..."
"Unfortunately, they are enforcing it based on how long the subjects are on the premises."
"Meaning Ed can't live there at the shop."
"For varying qualities of 'live', that is correct. If Edward is not registered, you would also be in violation of the law."
Shaun rubbed his beard. "So you're telling me: if he's an employee, he can't stay in the shop overnight. If he's not an employee, I can't let him do anything in the shop."
Stewart looked pinched. "The latter would be slavery."
"I'm not putting him in those... Zed Motels. I can't afford it, for one."
Leaning over the table, Yvonne said, "Shaun, does Ed have any repeatable skills?"
"He can... unlock combo moves? Play a mean pinball?"
"That's an entertainment license," interjected Stewart. "If he cannot expense rented storage, he can't afford that. The BBC did request the one loophole..."
Yvonne gasped. "You could film a reality show!"
Shaun was at a loss for words.
Stewart was not. "That will likely run him afoul of the BBC and the Film Board all at once. From your description, the M.U. in question would not rate a 15, much less a Universal."
"Point," Shaun sighed. "Guess it's back to the shed for him."
Now to break the news to Liz. Shaun banged his head on the train window and tried to think. Maybe there was a way to leave Ed in the shed without trampling all over the garden or biting Liz.
Build a new shed out of the way, chain Ed to the shed, Liz gardens to her heart's content. Except there was no time to build a new one.
Or hide Ed in the shop, Liz gardens to her heart's content. Except there wasn't any room in the shop besides the backroom.
Or get a car like everyone else in London, drive Ed to the shop, Liz gardens during the day, drive home with Ed at night. Except all the money for a car was sunk into the shop.
Shaun banged his head on the front door.
"Hi hi hi!" Liz called from the living room.
Shaun waved as he unlocked the door. He put on a smile. Maybe Liz wouldn't be mad.
"Did you know you can kill a man twenty ways with a knitting needle?"
"Oh, sorry. My therapist says violence is temporarily empowering."
Funny. His said the opposite. Probably an NHS thing. "You switched to a live one yet?"
Liz bobbed her head in that cute way which always seemed to slay him. "No, still over the helpline."
"I thought you wanted a face-to-face session. Changed your mind?"
"Mm. ...Shaun," she singsonged, and he froze in the middle of drinking milk from the bottle.
Liz bit her lip. She held up her work, and said, in a small voice, "What do you think?"
Shaun's mouth went dry. Hanging from the needles was a half-finished baby bootie.
x x x
Liz was very, very calm. She was also knitting every waking moment.
"...fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. Knit the first six. Purl. Yarn over."
Shaun wanted to tell her to quiet down while he added up the numbers, but he didn't dare. "I think we'll be all right. Financially." The shop was actually pulling more customers, now that word had gotten around of the police visit. Shaun was considering hiring full-time helpers so he could be home at night. Other than one he wasn't paying, of course. "No problem getting child care, thanks to your school. Food, clothes, toys."
"Baby-proofing the house. Knit two together... four times."
They had spent so many months making the house more deadly, and now they had to make it the safest on the street.
Shaun winced. "Uh, babe? What are we going to do about Ed?"
"I'm afraid he can't stay here, not with the baby. Knit. Turn. Purl nine..."
Shaun thumbed through the various baby books and health alerts so as not to picture gory death and infants in the same thought. "It says here the vaccine hasn't been tested on pregnant women, either."
"...five, six, seven... yes, that is what it says."
Shaun popped up and paced their bedroom. It had been Pete's. The nicest one, of course. "This is like that guy on our floor, the scruffy bloke with the enormous python. God, we made so many jokes about— anyway, it got out and ate the lecturer's dog. He was kicked out the next term. So. Better safe than sorry, I suppose."
"That was my thought. Eight. Nine. Knit one."
"Are you..." Shaun swallowed 'angry at me.' "Did your mum ring, just now?"
"Yes," said Liz sharply. The knitting needles stopped clacking. "She was excited for two seconds, then went on about you-know."
Shaun sat at the foot of the bed and squeezed her foot. "If you don't want to get married, then we won't."
Her shoulders sank. "Oh. Good. Everyone's wondering, you know. They think it's you that's holding out."
"Let them," Shaun said with feeling. "Not any different from the usual. Doesn't matter."
Liz tamped down a smile. "We'll both have custody. So." She bounced the bed a little, and Shaun had to kiss her. "We'll be a family. Thanks, babe."
"Ed," said Shaun.
"Ed," agreed Liz.
"Maybe we should ask Yvonne," he said.
Yvonne arrived with Stewart. While she went off to squeal at Liz, Stewart shook Shaun's hand. It was weird being the man of the house.
"Thank you for allowing us to revisit your case, Shaun," he said. "Although we may be out of ideas."
"I have an idea!" exclaimed Yvonne. "The rebuilding camps, eh? Lots of the able-bodied males end up there. Three bits of meat every day."
"Ed's... not that able-bodied."
"Wales is opening a re-education camp," said Stewart. "Very experimental."
"Fresh air!" said Yvonne. "Teaching them to herd sheep, or work as television extras."
Shaun couldn't stand it any longer. He threw his hands up. "Look, Ed is not my dog! He's... he was my friend." He looked up to find familiar expressions on their faces. He'd probably been given that look since primary school.
Before Liz could say anything, Yvonne said, "I understand this is emotional for you, Shaun, but we're trying out different options."
"Did your therapist say that?" said Liz.
Yvonne straightened. "Er, yes."
Shaun turned around so he could flash her a thumbs-up.
"The legislative situation is still in flux," said Stewart. "But you understand with the military involved, the regulations are going to be ... enforced with enthusiasm."
Liz picked up her knitting. "K6. P. K2 together. Y.O. ..."
"Isn't there some kind of loophole?" said Shaun plaintively.
Stewart sat up. He frowned. Shaun knew that look; Stewart had a plan.
"There is one."
"Four times knit one..."
"They've been trying to close this gap for months."
"What are you making, dear?" enquired Yvonne.
"You'd think they would have made sure it was a pre-existing condition, but they were understandably in a rush when they ballsed that up."
"It's a cloche hat," said Liz.
Shaun's mouth went dry. "What is it?"
"Sleeping partners," said Stewart gravely.
"Co-ownership of businesses," explained Stewart. "With so many owners unaccounted-for, one of the emergency acts was to devolve their businesses to their spouses."
"Knit one. Purl nine. Knit one."
"Oh," said Yvonne, "Like your friend's hat?"
"It applies to civil partnerships as well," said Stewart. "And those requirements have not been revised post-Z-Day."
"So Ed could stay in the shop as a co-owner?" said Liz, not looking up.
"If you register a civil partnership with him, I believe so," said Stewart.
Shaun fell out of his chair. "You want me to marry Ed?"
x x x
Shaun woke. Liz was awake in the rocking chair but she didn't speak to him in the mornings, so Shaun waded through the pile of shawls, baby blankets, and yarn spaghetti monsters to get to the sink. The knitting needles clicked. He ate the porridge and strawberries he found on the kitchen table. Brushed his teeth. Pissed. Dressed. Checked his trouser pockets for his phone and suitable projectiles.
"Bye babe," he whispered. "Ring me if... you-know."
Click, click, click.
Walked straight to the tube station without saying hello to anyone. Got out of the tube station without having a panic attack. Walked a bit more slowly to the shop. A bunch of kids liked to intercept him at the corner to ask after the new releases or Ed's next tournament of champions.
Stopped by the butcher's for Ed's breakfast.
Got in the shop. Tidied up a few displays. Picked up the post. Band announcements, bills, sample discs for review, flier for the annual Zombie Squad blood drive, flier for the annual Amble/Run for the Environment. As usual there was a small pile for the GBLT rights people, and one for the Differently Vital people. He saved those for Liz, who was much better at wording things in a socially-conscious way. And one more box.
Shaun ripped it open and grinned.
The phone rang.
"Helloooo, it's me!" said Liz brightly.
Shaun cut open the package from the butcher's and disappeared into the backroom. "'Lo, babe. What are you doing this morning?"
"Oh, watching the telly. Did you know Barrowman was a zom?"
"Uhh," said Shaun, cradling the phone on his shoulder and removing Ed's muzzle. It was always musty in the back. Earthy and familiar, with a tinge of slightly old meat. "The actor?"
"No-one noticed on account of his bum. It's quite a nice bum."
"Did you have a fag?" said Shaun suspiciously.
"No. I put away the kettle since I can't have tea," said Liz, making an 'ugh' noise. "God, we're living like savages."
Ed sniffed at the meat and began to wolf it down lustily. Shaun watched the juices drip down his chin. "Sorry babe. It'll be over soon enough."
"Suppose you're right. Well, I've got to get back to marking, bye bye!"
"Bye," said Shaun. He turned his attention to Ed. The 'Organic Zuds Zoap' bottle was pre-mixed, so it was easy enough to pour it on Ed's head and douse his shoulders while he ate. Shaun stood behind, just in case, and started rubbing the froth into Ed's scalp. They recommended gloves, but it was easier with bare fingers to avoid the bits of flapping skin.
Ed grunted happily.
"Guess what came in the post today," said Shaun conversationally. "Our certificate. Makes it official and everything." There'd been such a fight to get Ed recognised as a Functional M.U., but in the end the Zed Ess movement had prevailed.
Ed bounced a little, and raised his hand.
"High five. Down low. Ohhh, left you hanging!"
With a snort, Ed elbowed him lightly.
"All right, almost opening time. New t-shirt... what do you want, the green or the red?" Ed slapped at the green. "Right. Off with the old one... oh. Oh, God, Ed."
Ed giggled naughtily.
"Left you hanging indeed. You gigantic perv! All right, we've got time. It's official, after all..." Zuds also made a special lotion, which the online forums confirmed as good for multiple uses.
They advised gloves for that one, too. Shaun wasn't keen on that either, since there were bits hanging from the soft tissue, and everything fit nicely in the palm of his hand—
Shaun woke up.
He shook his head vigorously. Liz was sleeping soundly next to him. She was not yet as big as houses.
He was not yet married to his best friend.
x x x
"Shaun? Shaun! Why are you out in the garden?"
Liz slipped on her shoes and followed the new stone path to where Shaun was standing. It was a new moon, but everything was lit with yellow streetlamps, with the occasional burst of a security floodlight.
"What have you got there?" whispered Shaun. She'd brought her knitting; it was always good form to carry a weapon.
Liz held it up.
"Is that..." Shaun made a face at the pink yarn uterus.
"Just rebelling against the collective," said Liz, resting her chin on his shoulder. "It's actually for Jan. ...the midwife, Shaun."
"What's going on in your brain?"
Shaun had all of his records at the shop; he wanted to go down there and spin some tunes and watch Ed do his best to head-bang. He finished off his beer instead. "Maybe we should give Ed up."
"What? Why? You love him."
Shaun poked her uterus. "So I should open a shop, knock you up, and marry my best friend."
Liz wrinkled her nose. "Sounds perfectly reasonable to me. You can't crack up now, Shaun."
"Look." She shook him. "I don't see why you'd have to choose between me and Ed. That's what's eating you up, isn't it?"
Shaun started to say something, then shook his head. "It's just. Why don't you want to be married? Do you think we won't last, or I'll just, run away with Ed or Ed's penis or something?"
Liz guffawed. "If I were afraid of that, I'd have left you ages ago. Ed's the same as when I met you, except he doesn't yell 'cunt' at friends and strangers. Sorry, pregnant."
"So why not?"
Liz blew out a breath. Her hair jumped a little when she spoke, and Shaun put an arm around her. "For the first time in my life," she said, "I know what I want. It's kind of complicated—"
"—but it boils down to... I want you. You're my Something."
"Oh." Dumbfounded, Shaun searched for something, anything to say. "I... love you?"
"Nice hesitation there," said Liz with a laugh.
"I wasn't ready!"
"It's not going to be perfect, Shaun. But we. All three of us. Four of us. We're going to fucking cope. Do you hear me? We will do this and it will work."
"That's the plan?"
"That's the plan," said Liz. "Also, no more King Missile before bed for you."
"How did you...?"
"You talk in your sleep." Liz gave him a look, then softened. "I won't say anything."
Shaun smiled. "Thanks."