“HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DEREK!” we all cried.
He grinned. “I thought we were doing this later?”
I shrugged. “Maria and Dad had something come up, so we decided to do it early.”
“Besides, this is payback for my party,” Akane put in, playfully punching him in the shoulder. “Now you know how it feels.”
Ling smiled, shifting her present under one arm. “Hardly the same thing.”
“Come on,” I said, pushing past Derek and out of his room. “They’re waiting down at the park.”
He glanced around, a small frown beginning to form. “Where’s Lizzy?”
“Sorry, that’s my mistake,” Flynn apologized. “I forgot to tell Ling until the last minute, and she wasn’t able to get a hold of her.”
“She’s in the middle of something with Turgay anyway,” Ling added.
I bit my lip. “Have we met Turgay?”
The blonde delinquent shrugged. “Adam has, and Lily already knew him. I don’t think the rest of you have.”
We finally managed to reach the elevator—with nine of us, it was much harder than it had any right to be—and headed downstairs without any more incident.
“How’s that new job treating you, Flynn?” Derek asked before the silence had a chance to become uncomfortable.
“Good actually,” the swordsman admitted. “The kids are great, and it gives me something to do.” He grinned a little. “I’m not like you guys; with my skills, I really shouldn’t be wandering the streets looking for monsters to slay.”
“Got that right,” Akane muttered, her beads clicking as she pushed her hair back. I noticed that she was wearing the onyx earrings Flynn had bought her for her own birthday earlier in the month. Good for her.
Adam frowned as the elevator doors opened. “You’re…teaching ‘sarian kids sword fighting, right?”
We all piled out into the lobby, past Emily, who was still reading one of her magazines. “General self-defense,” Flynn corrected. “These are eight and nine-year olds. Too early for swordplay.”
Akane shrugged as we walked out the front doors. “I started when I was five.”
“You’re hardly normal,” Lily pointed out with a giggle. “Most kids aren’t from samurai houses.”
“Don’t be mean,” Derek chided.
“Technically, it was a ronin house at the time,” the swordswoman muttered. When she realized she had spoken aloud, she blushed and turned away.
Seena rolled her eyes under her daygoggles and patted her friend on the shoulder. “You’re among friends. Why are you still all meek?”
Simon smiled. “Probably this one here,” he said, indicating Flynn with a nod of his chin. When Akane glared at him, he held up his hands. “Whoa, I’m not judging. I’m just saying.”
I rolled my eyes. “They’re waiting for us at a park a couple blocks north. Come on.”
Everyone dutifully followed, but Adam was hesitant. “It’s getting a bit cold. Is this really the best time for a picnic?”
“We can move inside if we have to,” I pointed out. “Right now, this is the plan.”
Adam grumbled a bit, but didn’t say anything else.
There was a bit of an uncomfortable silence for the next few minutes, as we walked out of the campus, to Kagurazaka Park. Luckily, that didn’t last too long.
“Kids! Over here!”
Maria had already secured a table and laid out everything. My dad was nowhere to be seen.
“Victor will be back soon,” the plump woman explained as she started pulling the presents we had given her earlier out of a bag and placing them on the table. “Come, sit, sit.”
We did as we were asked, crowding around the big concrete table set on the grass. There were a few, scattered around. It wasn’t the most comfortable seat in the world, but it was better than using anything lighter. People would just steal the tables.
“Who else are we waiting for?” Derek asked once we got the seating arrangement worked out. I ended up next to him, mostly to make sure that Akane sat next to Flynn instead. A little juvenile, but they were acting like twelve year-olds, so we didn’t have a choice. Not to mention we still needed to keep her away from Simon.
“Robyn’s not coming,” I admitted. “She’s busy again.”
Akane shook her head. “After my party, she promised to make time.”
I shrugged. “Guess she didn’t. It’s no big deal, though.”
Derek grimaced as he accepted a soda from his mother. “She’s been like this since we were kids. She’s terrible with schedules.”
“You shouldn’t talk about people when they’re not here,” Maria admonished lightly, as she passed sodas around to everyone else. “Besides, with Isaac as that girl’s father, I think it’s a miracle she remembers to eat.”
Derek sighed, recognizing the hypocrisy but wisely choosing not to mention it.
“Where is Dad?” I asked, trying to deflect the conversation back to kinder subjects. The two were normally attached at the hip; if he was off alone, it had to be for something important.
“Just getting some more sodas,” Maria lied smoothly.
Ever since I had got my power, I had noticed them doing that a lot.
“I think we have enough,” I said as calmly as I could, nodding to the cooler chest. At the same time, I tweaked Derek’s kneecap through his jeans. That was the signal. He should be smart enough to not immediately act on it.
“So long as he actually buys them, I guess there’s no harm in getting more,” the blond man admitted. “There are a lot of us, after all. Though I hope he’s not too late.”
“Not too late at all,” my dad called from the direction of the street. He had four cases of soda cans in his arms. How many were in each? Twenty-four? Couldn’t remember. More than we needed, anyway. “Sorry, the line was long.”
And that was another lie.
You understand on a general level that your parents lie every once in a while. It’s quite another to know that they do it all the time.
I sighed, and made sure to tweak Derek’s knee again, though he had probably figured it out for himself. It wasn’t fair, really. Parents shouldn’t keep big secrets from their children. Okay, maybe that wasn’t true, but I had a sneaking suspicion these lies had to do with Butler, and in turn the screamers. That was something we needed to know.
Maria clapped her hands. “Now that everyone’s here, we can start presents!”
Everyone started; Adam nearly choked on his soda.
“Now?” he asked. “I thought the plan was lunch first?”
“Well, we forgot the food,” she lied with a wink (and I tweaked Derek’s kneecap again). “So I guess those sodas are all we’re getting.”
“Here, do ours first,” my father said, pulling a poorly-wrapped box out from under the table. Derek took it carefully—he had probably already figured out that it was some sort of weapon; only an idiot would shake the thing to see what was inside.
As he finished unwrapping it, he smiled and pulled out the item. “Six frag grenades. How thoughtful.”
“And a bandolier for them and others,” Maria pointed out.
“Thank you so much,” the blond man said graciously, as he carefully put them back in the box and into the middle of the table where everyone could see. “But where did you find them? Most stores haven’t gotten their stock in yet, for some reason.”
“Katarina’s Explosives,” my father lied smoothly. I think my had reached out to tweak Derek’s knee before he even started talking. “Just good luck, I suppose.”
I sighed, because I had a feeling that if I let them keep talking, I wouldn’t like what I heard. “Can we move on, please? I think I’m next.”
A little bit miffed, Maria pulled out a small box wrapped in bright paper; Derek accepted it without a word.
He blinked when he got it open. “A watch?”
“Waterproof and durable enough to withstand even what you can throw against it,” I promised. “I remember you said you stopped wearing them because they kept breaking. This shouldn’t have that problem.”
He smiled warmly, his azure eyes twinkling. “Thank you.” He carefully put it on, checking to make sure the time was right (it was, of course). “I’ll be sure to keep it with me always.”
Before things got too awkward—that was always a problem with Derek, he had this way of creating dramatic silences—Maria grabbed another present from the pile, a flat one. “This one is from Ling, I believe.”
Across from us, the blonde delinquent nodded.
It turned out to be a jacket. Not a great jacket, not leather or anything like that, but still nice. It would last a long while. Derek wasn’t really a clothes man, but he smiled and thanked her nonetheless.
Flynn’s gift was a flash card with some violent roleplaying game I had never heard of—I prefer strategy. Derek apparently had, and had been anxiously anticipating it. The two promised to play against each other later.
Surprisingly, Adam and Lily’s present was similar, except the drive was a dating sim instead. Lily seemed to think the entire idea was hilarious.
Obould and Veronica had sent a gift card to one of Derek’s favorite restaurants, one of those live shrimp places. Lizzy (via Ling) gave him a very nice outfit, a suit and tie which might have been made from real silk. That girl had too much disposable income.
Simon and Seena went the obvious route, and gave him a toy voucher. He didn’t really buy toys, but it would cover healing and so on as well. It was a thoughtful gift, though an unnecessary one. It wasn’t their fault they didn’t know we got free healing as Paladins.
After Robyn’s gift (a map of the city alleys that she seemed to have made herself) we were done. I asked Derek in a whisper why Akane hadn’t gotten him anything, and he just said he refused any and all gifts from her on general principle. And then my dad got the cake from the car, and my mind was elsewhere.
As usual, Gloria Nervi had outdone herself. I was glad that hadn’t changed while I was hiding in the north. The ghoul always claimed that cakes were beneath her dignity as a chef, but I had no idea if that was an obscure Italian thing, some baker/chef rivalry I didn’t know about, or just a lie.
But she always made an exception for Derek Huntsman.
People do that quite a lot.
It was a beautiful cake, nearly as wide as the table, and covered in light brown frosting. The words ‘Happy Birthday’ were written on the top with blue icing—the same shade of blue as Akane’s ribbon.
In all honesty, the cake looked a bit plain. But it tasted divine. It had the perfect amount of sugar density, and the cake itself was as light as an angel’s breath.
Despite its size, everyone’s first servings went very quickly. I was picking through my second slice when my dad started talking.
“So Derek,” he began. “Any plans for today?”
The birthday boy shrugged. “Catch up on some reading. Not much else.” The second was a lie, and I’d have known even without my power. He was still stewing over the hypnotism plan. And he would say yes eventually, but he wouldn’t like it.
“What about the rest of the week, then?” Maria asked casually. A little too casually.
Derek noticed it too; he swallowed carefully before speaking. “A few more missions. Just making money and such. Why the sudden interest?”
“No reason,” my father lied through his teeth. “We were just—”
I got up and left. I couldn’t take it any more.
I heard people calling after me, and I heard Derek tell them to calm down, then follow me at just less than a run.
I waited until we were far away from the rest of the group, definitely out of earshot, before speaking.
“Every word out of their mouths is poison,” I whispered, trying as hard as I could not to cry. This was all my power gave me? I would give it up in a heartbeat, if I could. “They lie, and lie, and lie…”
“Not everything,” he said, quietly. “Not everything, right?”
I blinked away tears that I refused to shed, not willing to turn and face him. “Maybe. Or maybe that’s just what’s slipping past my filters.”
Derek shifted on his feet. “It’s possible…nothing. Nevermind.”
I closed my eyes. “It’s possible they’re doing it on purpose. Testing my limits.” Which just made it worse.
“Yeah,” he said quietly. “That’s what I was going to say.”
I started crying.
I wasn’t sobbing. My shoulders weren’t shaking. I wasn’t facing him, so he shouldn’t even have been able to tell.
But he figured out what was happening anyway, and walked over to my other side so he wouldn’t have to turn me to face the others, and pulled me close.
It was strange, and I couldn’t figure out why. It was the same as the last time I remembered, when we were eleven years old. He was still warm, and powerful, though perhaps a little bit less warm, and a little more powerful. It was comforting, but there was something wrong…
That was it.
I hadn’t been hugged by anyone for seven years. Not since this idiot, the night before we started middle school. I hadn’t let anyone so much as touch me if at all possible. Not even my own stupid father.
Then I started sobbing.
He whispered into my ear that it would be okay, kept whispering for however long it took for my tears to stop flowing, and dry in tracks on my cheeks.
I don’t know how long it was. But it was too soon when Derek said “Everyone’s waiting for us.”
That. Moron. I was seriously considering shooting him in the face. I wasn’t a tsundere like Akane; I honestly would be doing the world a favor to take this crazy bastard out of it. Seriously, who tells a crying girl her time’s up?
“Um, Laura?” he whispered. “It’s just that hugs give me headaches, and…”
I frowned. “Headaches? Really?”
“Yeah. And we should probably go back soon anyway—”
“Then we can stay like this a little while longer,” I declared quietly.
Headaches. Not quite as final as a bullet to the brain, but a fitting punishment for now.
Behind the Scenes (scene 104)
The next birthday is Adam’s, in eighteen days.