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Second Best

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"No, no, no, no, not the blue shell!" Mom holds her controller close as if she can shield Princess Peach against her chest, but the little pink go-kart goes flying all the same. "Noooo! Dave, you're too cruel!"

"Excuse me?" you grumble, slumping against the couch as you navigate Donkey Kong around a tight turn. Even after months of practice with Mom's old Nintendo consoles, the N64 controller still feels clunky in your hands. Who the hell designed this stupid thing? You'd need a third hand if you wanted to reach all the buttons. "I'm in motherfucking eighth place here."

"And this is why I never join in on the Mario Kart festivities," Rose says, seated in front of you on the floor. You can just envision your audience's smug smile as she watches your character fall off a cliff.

You nudge her shoulder with your sock. "Because Mom would kick your ass too?"

"No." She smacks your foot away. "Because Grand Prix mode doesn't work with three players so you'd only be in third place instead of eighth."

You flip her the bird as Donkey Kong goes flying over the edge of a cliff again. "Conniving dick."

Her back's to you, but when has that ever stopped her from predicting you well enough to return your rude gestures? Swear to god, sometimes you think she never lost her Seer powers. "Sore loser," she says.

Mom scowls. "Hey, no squabbling when company's almost here!" She sets her controller aside as Peach shoots over the finish line -- only in second place, courtesy of your blue shell. "Don't make me put you two in timeout!"

You hold back a laugh at such weak sentencing because it's probably in your best interests not to scorn the local fuzz. "Mom, we're fifteen. Fifteen for the second time, no less."

"Fourteen," Rose says.

You roll your eyes. "Fifteen minus a goddamn day, with an extra day for you, squirt. Point being, we're too old for timeouts." You flick your joystick to a hard right, only for the weird cloud-turtle to float across the screen and chastise Donkey Kong for going the wrong direction. You faceplant against your controller.

Mom clears her throat. "Want me to finish for ya?" she says, as if she's not itching to backseat game your ass.

You pass over your controller and definitely do not sulk at how much you suck at Mom's retro games. She's had years to practice on you and these don't even have half as many cool physics glitches as Bro's Xbox games anyway.

Rose hops to her feet with such sudden focus that you almost jump. After living basically a year in this house, you'd think you'd recognize the goddamn doorbell by now, but "regular visitors" aren't much of a thing out in the middle of the woods. You figured the annoyingly delicate chimes were just a sound effect from the game. You never figured you'd miss the buzzer back in Houston, but at least it was so annoying you couldn't mistake it for ambient sounds.

A wintry breeze bursts into the living room the second Rose tugs open the front door. You pull your legs up just to keep a little extra body heat close -- who put the couch so close to the door? It only takes a glance to recognize the tall figure waiting on the porch; the shades kinda make his silhouette a dead giveaway.

"Mom, there's a vagrant at the door!" Rose calls over her shoulder. "I think he has rabies!"

Mom draws herself up and pauses the game rather than finishing your horrendous final lap. "Rose, mind your manners!" she says with a huff. She crosses her legs. "Also, hi, Dirk."

Rose steps aside. "Sorry for teasing you, Dad," she says with a wry smile, finally closing the goddamn door as Bro steps into the entryway.

"Is a parental label supposed to be an improvement?" Bro says. He looks odd with a coat, but you suppose you can't talk much; your long-sleeved, thick-fabricked wardrobe is a far cry from your old standbys. Snow has a way of changing a man and his first choice of shirts.

"Well, I assumed it was an upgrade from daddy," Rose says, locking her eagle-eyed gaze on him. "Should I refer to you by something else?"

Bro drops his suitcase on the carpet and for a few seconds you think he's going to just silently ignore her as if he can fool her into mistaking him for a statue. "Call me whatever you want, kid."

"Of course, Frederick."

He meets her stare. "Y'know what, I'm just calling you Thundercat from here on out."

Mom gasps. "Dirk, don't you dare rename my baby!" she says, climbing to her feet to turn off the Nintendo. She straightens with a huff. "C'mon, Rose, let's throw your dad's suitcase in the guest room before he tries to do somethin' crazy like dye your hair like Jem's."

Rose's eyes light up. "I'm in favor of Thundercat."

Mom marches over and hauls Bro's suitcase into her arms. "I'm vetoing!" she says, nudging Rose to follow her to the stairs.

You suppose it's cool of Mom to give you space for a proper Strider reunion without an audience. There's no risk of a laugh track or, worse, an obnoxious "Awww!" if you break down the irony barriers long enough to get mushy. It's not like you haven't seen him for a week here and there throughout the year, but no one really expected him to tolerate New York in December just for the sacred holidays known as your meteorcrash days -- what normal folks call birthdays.

You tilt your head back far enough against the couch that you're almost frowning at Bro upside-down. "Little sis gets to be Thundercat but I'm stuck with Dave?"

He stuffs his hands in his pockets and keeps his distance. "Fine, you're both Thundercat."

You scoff. "No way, man, who the fuck wants to be a cat, even of the muscular cartoon variety? I'm calling dibs on goddamn Voltron." You always keep your wheelchair in reach, but you think you've saved up enough energy to risk showing off. You push off against the couch and stumble to your feet. "Hey, Bro."

Bro goes still and for the first time in your life you don't doubt you've gained his full attention. "Holy shit, Voltron, check out that rad walking action you've got going on."

It's not rad. It's cautious and awkward and you feel like a tightrope walker -- misjudge your feet by even an inch and down you go -- but it gets you the six feet needed to reach him and that's six feet more than you could manage this time last year. "Savor it, Bro, 'cos I can't go much farther than the length of a room." You bump into him and wrap your arms tight around his torso, just as much for support as for greeting. "Maybe in five years I'll manage two whole rooms before my legs give out."

"Sweet." He slides his arms around your back and it's almost (almost) natural. He can't seem to decide how much pressure to use, but his limbs are relaxed and he rubs a palm against your shoulder blades. "Gonna retire the wheelchair soon?"

"Not in this lifetime, dude. Doctors say I might reach a point where I can swap to a walker, but I'm kinda emotionally attached to the chair now."

"Yeah, the chair's cool." After about ten silent seconds of this tender reunion, he says, "You plan on letting go anytime soon?"

"Nope." You adjust your grip so you can cling tighter. "Wasn't kidding about that one room-length limitation. If I let go, I'm dropping like a plastered college student on Saint Patrick's Day."

He catches you under your armpits and lifts you off your feet, holding you at arm's length. "You little shit."

"Yeah, whatever." You jerk a thumb over your shoulder. "Little help back to the couch?"

"I could just drop you, y'know."

You narrow your eyes and kick him in the chest.

You fully expect him to let your ass fall to the floor, but instead his mouth twitches. He's smiling. Bro's actually fucking capable of a smile. "Not a bad payoff for driving you to rehab five times a week, li'l bro." He slides an arm under your legs and carries you the short distance back to the couch.

"Well, I'm not complaining. It's handy as shit to reach tall cupboards again." You settle back in your seat. "Some asshole at the grocery store yelled at me for 'faking a disability,' though, when he saw me commit the sin of leaving the chair for half a second to grab a box of cereal."

"What a fucking dick," Bro says as he drops next to you. "Did you throw the cereal at his head?"

"Nah, but Mom screamed at him pretty good."

"I did!" Mom says proudly as she makes her triumphant return from being a thoughtful host, Rose still in tow.

"You should have kicked him in the nuts," Bro says, but he reaches back to give Mom a fistbump all the same.

"I was trying to be a proper role model for the kids by not resortin' to violence, thank-" She pauses, tilting her ear up. You hear it too: the steady mewing of a needy asshole who's realized he's being left out of a party. "Hang on, lemme go get a lonely kitty while I'm up anyway," she says as she trots off to fetch Jaspers from his disabled kitty bed in the parlor.

Bro slides an arm over the back of the couch and turns to face you. "So how was year one of living with a couple of crazy broads and too many goddamn wizards?"

Rose flips him off, but he ignores her.

Where do you even begin? Both versions of 2009 had their ups and downs, but this 2010 has been a vast improvement on the last runthrough. You have Mom's Nintendo games instead of a Ghostbusters MMO, John treats you like a person, and you live with a loving parent without any loudass red crocodiles to be found.

"I miss Taco Bell," you say.

Bro's eyebrow quirks over his shades. "They have Taco Bell in New York."

Rose plops down on Bro's opposite side. "Mom thinks it's gross and inauthentic," she explains so you don't have to speak such heresy.

"Well, shit," he says. "You about ready to run screaming back to Texas?"

You smirk. "Just for January, man, and only 'cos it's getting goddamn cold up here." And you've had the airline tickets since September -- three week roundtrip with Rose and Mom, because Rose won't leave you alone that long with Bro and neither of you want to risk leaving Mom to her own devices.

Bro nods. "Pretty sweet deal around here otherwise, right?"

"It's so dope, man. Mom got me all this filming equipment just 'cos she saw me checking it out on Amazon. I mean, it's fucking ridiculous, but who am I to say no to a high grade tripod? You seen how smooth my camerawork's been?"

"I've seen everything on your YouTube and we both know it, bro," he says. You didn't know that, but cool. "Hard to miss your quality's been steadily climbing."

"Yeah, Mom claims at least a little credit for that."

Rose chuckles. "She spoils him to death and he loves it."

"She's investing in the arts," you say, crossing your arms.

Bro snorts, hesitating when he hears Mom's footsteps. He leans closer and lowers his voice. "Is Rox staying on the wagon?"

You hesitate. Damn, go in for the kill, why doesn't he? Mom's always reaching for the wine list at restaurants until you or Rose snatch it away, and you've caught her staring down the spirits aisle at the grocery store more than once, but not one goddamn drop of alcohol has made it home so far and you plan to keep it that way. "She's holding up."

"We have it covered," Rose says firmly.

"Teamwork, yo," you say, flashing a peace sign. "Very important shit."

All three of you straighten and try to play casual as the parlor room door closes. A phone buzzes and you reach for your own cell on automatic before your brain catches up to your hand and informs it that there was no vibration in your pocket. The call is coming from outside the house. Bro's the lucky asshole to whip out his phone and complete the facade of "we weren't just talking about you."

"Guess who's been a good li'l kitty-cat who hasn't made a mess on his bed today?" Mom says, returning with a bundle of black fur in her arms.

Rose sighs. "You say that as if he ever means to, Mom."

"Jesus, why do you even keep that thing around?" Bro asks, almost pulling a face.

Mom gasps and holds Jaspers protectively. "He's still healthy and happy even if he can't walk very good! We just gotta take extra care of him!" She chews her lip and gives the cat an extra scratch behind the ears. "Honestly, Dirk, don't be such a jackas- jackbutt."

"I'm always a jackass," Bro says, his attention still glued to the phone if his fingertips are any indicator.

You lean closer to him. "Who's texting you?"

"How the hell is that any of your business?" Bro says, tilting the phone away from you as he types.

"Ohh, tell Jake I say hi!" Mom says, lacking any qualms that she just abused her power as the sole standing person to peek over the shoulders of the couch occupants.

You try your damndest not to smirk.

Too late.

Bro frowns at you. "What?" he says gruffly.

"Okay, is this on me?" you ask. "Because I totally said that you should talk to the old people and now you're talking to the old people, so I think I have a right to know if I just successfully played friendship matchmaker or not." You pat his shoulder. "First match is free, so don't worry about the bill, but you might consider leaving me a positive review on Yelp."

"I figured you probably knew something I didn't and that it wouldn't hurt to be open minded the next time Harley called, all right?" he mutters, pocketing his phone.

Rose steeples her fingers, eyeing him with a devious expression. "Dad, are you dating him?"

Bro grunts. "He's sixty years older than me."

"That wasn't a denial."

"Rose, stop teasing your dad about his old man crush!" Mom comes around the couch and slips Jaspers onto Rose's lap, where he all too happily sprawls against her legs with his haphazard limbs.

Rose sighs but cuddles Jaspers close. "Mom, it's Thundercat now."

"Excuse you, missy, but I already gave you the prettiest name there is. Jaspers agrees, don't you, kitty?" Mom kneels to stroke his head. "See, so we have to keep the name Rose."

Rose turns to you. "I'll give you Rose if I can have Dave."

"Deal." You reach around Bro to fistbump on it. "I feel prettier already."

Mom facepalms. "Oh my gawd, they get this from you," she says, glowering at Bro.

"They so get this from both of us," he says with the slightest twitch of a smirk.

"Oh, whatever." She straightens and puts her hands on her hips. "Now that we're all settled in, how abouts we give the kids their play time and have a nice grown-up chat in the kitchen?"

"We can talk right here, last I checked."

Mom rocks on her heels. "Yesss, but don'tcha want a li'l more privacy than this?"

"I remain gay, Rox," Bro says flatly.

"And I remain dating a gentleman baker in Washington, you freakin' perv!" she shouts, her cheeks turning pink. "I'm talkin' about, y'know..." She lowers her voice from the "too loud" end of the spectrum to the "too quiet" end and says something you don't quite catch.

Bro's always had better ears than you. "They know their goddamn birthdays are coming up," he says as if she's trying to hide the color of the sky from you.

Mom flings her head back and groans. "Would you stop being a purposefully obtuse jackass before one of us blurts out one of the actual important surprises like what I bought for Rose?"

You sidle closer to Bro. "Hey, I think he should stay."

Rose wraps an arm around Bro's nearest elbow, already on to your game -- or maybe you were preemptively on to her game. "Yes, we miss our dear father."

"Haven't seen him since, like, August," you say, hugging his arm so he's fully trapped on both sides.

"How could you threaten to take him away from us so soon, Mom?" Rose says, her acting melodramatic and flat.

"Guess you two will just have to chat about tomorrow's birthday plans right here."

Rose nods along. "And the day after's."

Bro's pokerface game is strong, but he sinks back against the couch with body language that screams "Why is this happening to me?" All he says out loud is, "They team up like this often?"

Mom lets out an exaggerated sigh. "All'a the dang time. When they ain't squabbling like a couple of hyenas, that is."

"It's called having a strong enough bond that we aren't afraid to show our honest emotions," Rose says, stroking Jaspers's head with her free hand and receiving a steady purr for her troubles.

"What do you call this? A bond so tight you feel the need to make it literal?" Bro shrugs you off. "Let go of my damn arm before Roxy kills me, Thundercat."

You are about eighty percent certain that Rose acquiesces half as fast as she does because he used the new name.

Mom leans in to give you both a quick peck on the cheek. "We'll be right in the other room catching up, babies!" she says.

Bro hesitates, reaches over, and squeezes your shoulder before he follows Mom into the kitchen. "Rox, why the fuck do you keep a vacuum cleaner on a pedestal?" is the last thing you hear before the door closes.

Rose lifts Jaspers so his head rests on her shoulder. "So, are you going to demand Taco Bell for your birthday dinner?" she asks, stroking his back.

"Don't be stupid. A birthday dinner calls for McDonald's." You lean away from the cat's beady gaze. "What are you going to pick? Some fancy French place that serves snails?"

"I haven't decided yet." She glances at you. "Your terror of a harmless cat will never stop amusing me."

"This isn't terror. It's perfectly rational disgruntlement." You gesture at Jaspers. "Look at him and his smug cat grin. He's just dreaming that I'll regrow a pair of wings and we both learn to fly so he can chase me around the goddamn house again."

"He'd never," Rose coos, though she does settle Jaspers back on her lap where he can't stare at you. "I'm glad you're here, you know."

"Me or the cat?"

She nudges her knee against yours. "You, big brother. I wouldn't normally divulge such a dark yet obvious secret, but we'll call it a side effect from the sentimentality of your birthday's eve."

You're pretty sure she knows that, just like Mom still gazes longingly at wine lists, you sometimes have to bite your tongue to keep from blurting out bullshit insecurities like, Am I a good enough replacement for Dave? It gets easier to swallow those anxieties by the day, but you don't know if or when they'll go away altogether. You figure you'll be okay, with her always at the ready to blast your fears with the firehose of truth.

You're not "Dave's replacement." You're you and that's all you need to be.

"Yeah, well, I'm pretty happy to be here, so I guess we're even." You give her a squeeze around her shoulders. "Happy early birthday, by the way."

She leans against you. "Same to you, Dave."

You let the hug last just a second shy of turning awkward, then settle back against the armrest. You put on your best cocky grin. "Hey, so, what sort of insane loot do you think I'll rake in tomorrow?"