Happy Birthday

Flynn pulled a tray of cookies out of his oven with a grimace. He sniffed a few times; they were only slightly burned. Hopefully they would still be ok. He'd followed the recipe exactly, measuring out ingredients with an obsessive precision Yuri claimed only he could manage. His cooking experiments usually went wrong when he tried to branch off from the recipe and do his own thing, but this time it was very important that he mimic the recipe as closely as possible, even if it was hard to read the faded writing on the old, grease-stained index card.

The bottoms of the oatmeal cookies were a bit darker than he'd intended, but he'd hastily made them during a break and then been pulled into a brief meeting while they baked, only to rush back to his room to take them out as soon as he could. All things considered, it could have been worse. With care, he placed each cookie on a handkerchief and then folded that into a basket.

With a quick glance at the clock, he left the room. On his way out the castle, he ran into Sodia in the hall.

"Oh, good evening commandant. I was heading to your office to give you a report." She glanced at the basket in his hand with curiosity, but didn't ask.

"You can leave it on my desk and I'll pick it up when I come home. I'm going out tonight."

"Now?" She raised her eyebrows in surprise. "It's only five-thirty."

He smiled slightly. "I'm sorry, with all the papers flying in and out of my office all day it must have slipped my mind to let you know. I'm leaving early today. I have somewhere I need to be."

"Are you meeting someone?"

He squeezed the smooth wicker handle of the basket and during the pause, a whiff of slightly-burned oatmeal and raisin hit his nose, bringing a smile to his face. "Yes. Someone important."

She clearly wanted to ask, but assumed that if he wasn't volunteering details, it wasn't her place to question him. "Very well, sir. I'll leave this file on your desk for you. Have a good evening."

"Thank you, Sodia." Her eyes drifted over him and the basket, clearly desperate to ask, but Flynn started walking again before she could. It wasn't that he was ashamed of where he was going or that it was some huge secret, it was just… private. Tonight was special, and it was supposed to be for just the two of them.

Once outside the castle, he strolled through the streets with a content smile. Spring had finally returned to the capital, bringing warming breezes and twittering birds that expelled the icy clutch of winter. All along the street, he heard the faint dripping of melting snow moving out of the way to make room for summer. He drew the eyes of everyone he passed, especially once he moved out of the royal quarter. He could have avoided this by changing into casual clothes before leaving, but he wanted to be in uniform tonight.

Midway through the public quarter, he turned off the main road and took a detour down a side street. There, he stepped into a small shop with a little bell that jingled when he entered. If he hadn't known it was spring before, the sweet pollen of hundreds of flowers dancing to his nose as soon as he entered would have put any doubts to rest. He edged around a display of roses in the middle of the shop and stepped up to the counter. The desk itself was nearly covered in bouquets, but the middle-aged woman behind the desk didn't seem to mind.

The florist smiled. "Hello, how can I – oh! You're the commandant!"

"That's correct." With just under a year of being the commandant, he still hadn't figured out how to respond to that. Maybe he shouldn't have worn his uniform after all, since it gave people such a shock.

She got over her surprise quickly. "What an honour that you would come to my little shop, sir. How can I help you?"

"I would like a dozen carnations, please. Your best flowers, if you could."

The florist gave him a knowing smile. "For someone special, I assume?"

Flynn nodded. "That's right. Someone very special."

She glanced to the basket in his hand. "You're going to see her tonight, correct? That's best if you want them fresh."

He nodded once more. "Yes, I'm on my way now."

"I'll be right back, sir."

Less than a minute after she left, another head popped over the counter. Flynn wasn't sure what to make of it, because the head was made of cloth with buttons for eyes. Moments later, it was joined by a real head as a small girl peeked at him. "Hi." The doll's arm waved.

Flynn leaned over the counter to get closer to her level and smiled. "Hello, there."

The girl, whose mousy brown bangs nearly hid her eyes, watched him carefully. "My mom's gone so I'm in control of the shop now."

"Is that so? Your mom must be lucky to have a helper like you."

She nodded again. "My name is Samantha. Are you Flynn Sheet-o? My mom said he's the commander-dant."

"Yes, I am, but it's 'Scifo'. You got very close, though." Flynn held out his hand. "It's nice to meet you, Samantha." He still hadn't seen more of her than a few inches above her nose.

Instead of giving him her hand, she held out the doll's arm and Flynn shook that instead.

"Suzy is happy to meet you, too."

"Hello, Suzy. Are you helping in the shop, too?"

Samantha pulled Suzy back and nodded. "Yeah, she helps me lots. You're the one that killed the scary monster thing, right?"

"Which one do you mean?"

"The big one." She pointed up at the sky and wiggled her fingers. "It made the sky look funny and Suzy was really scared. My mom said Commander-dant Flynn killed it and fixed everything. Did you really?"

"Ah, you mean the Adephagos. Well, to tell you the truth, a very good friend of mine named Yuri is the one who fixed the sky. He's very brave."

"But you helped, right?"

Flynn smiled and nodded. "Yes, I helped."

Samantha grinned so widely it nearly took over her face. "Thank you for fixing it! What do you-"

Her mother returned with an armful of carnations. "Samantha, are you bothering the commandant? What have I told you about pestering customers?"

"I'm not!" Her head snapped around, just slow enough for Flynn to catch her guilty expression.

Flynn straightened up. "She really wasn't bothering me, ma'am."

"I'm sorry just the same. Run along now, Samantha."

Samantha waved the doll's arm again. "Ok. Bye, Mr. Commander-dant!"

Flynn waved with a smile. "Goodbye, Samantha." After she ran off, he said, "She's a sweet girl. Do you always bring her to the shop?"

The florist nodded. "Her dad died a few years back and there's no one else to watch her. She doesn't seem to mind, though. To be honest, I like having her around. If she stayed with someone else all day while I worked, I would hardly ever get to see her."

"I understand. I'm sure she appreciates getting to see her mother so much, too. Not every child gets that."

She looked over her shoulder in the direction Samantha had run with a faint smile. "Yes, I suppose we should feel lucky… oh, look at me! What am I saying? I shouldn't be taking up your time with this. Here are you flowers, sir."

Flynn pulled out his wallet while she set them on the counter. "How much do I owe you?"

"Five hundred gald, please." While Flynn counted out the coins, she eyed the pink and white carnations with fondness. "These were the best blooms I could find. I hope they're good enough."

He handed over the money and picked up the flowers. After taking a deep whiff, he said, "They're perfect."

"Whoever's getting these flowers from you must be one lucky girl!"

Flynn didn't bother correcting her and instead thanked her and left the shop. With the flowers in one hand and the basket of cookies in the other, there was nothing else keeping him from his destination. He smiled and nodded at the people he passed on his way through the city until he reached the lower quarter.

Here, the passersby weren't strangers reacting to his uniform but people he'd known all his life, so he stopped to talk a few times. Everyone wanted to know how he'd been, if he was eating right, if he'd heard about the burst pipe at the Comet last week, and a slew of other conversation topics. He got through these as quickly and politely as he could, because the sun was beginning to dip low in the sky and he had somewhere important to be. Luckily, the ones who knew him best and wanted to talk the most were also the ones who saw the cookies and flowers in his hands, remembered what day it was, and understood where he was going without needing to ask. As soon as they remembered, they wrapped up the conversation and let him go, because today was a very special birthday and Flynn didn't want to be late.

He kept walking until he reached the Comet, and paused on the street outside. Light glowed from Yuri's window. For a moment he considered going upstairs, but then decided against it. If he needed him, Yuri would know where to find him tonight.

Instead, he kept walking until he reached the cemetery. It wasn't very elaborate as far as cemeteries went; it was little more than an empty plot of land nestled between lopsided brick shops, with more weeds than grass and an old, gnarly tree that hadn't gotten its leaves back from winter yet.

He crossed the yard to an old slab of stone and sat cross-legged before it. He had a smile on his face as he set the flowers in front of the grave and whispered, "Happy birthday, Mom." He unwrapped the cookies in the basket and pulled one out. After taking a bite and swallowing, he said, "I made your cookies. You know, the old recipe that used to be Dad's favourite? I tried to follow it exactly but… I sort of messed up."

He frowned as he inspected the crumbly bite-mark. All things considered, they still tasted ok. They just weren't… right. For years he'd tried to make his mom's oatmeal raisin cookies just like she used to, but every time they tasted slightly off. Try as he might, he couldn't seem to get that flavour exactly the way she could. "I guess I didn't inherit your skill in a kitchen."

Her voice telling him not to be so hard on himself rang through his head and he gave her grave a sheepish smile. "Sorry. You know, a lot has happened since your last birthday." He sat up a little straighter. "I'm the commandant now. Can you believe that? The entire Knighthood answers to me." He finished his cookie and brushed his hands together. "Last summer, Yuri finally left the capital. He went on a journey all over the world and made some amazing new friends. The world was in a crisis, and he saved it. I'm so proud of him, and I know you would be, too."

Flynn took a deep sigh and leaned back, rough weeds digging into his palms. "The world has changed so much in the past year, Mom." The sun hid behind buildings now, and the moon rose to prominence in the darkening sky. "We don't have barriers anymore. It's dangerous, but there are some plus sides, too. Without its light flooding the sky, we can see so many stars at night. You'd love it."

He curled his fingers around the weeds. "I've changed a lot this year, too. For a long time, I was so confident that I knew what was right and what was wrong. Yuri did some things that challenged me, though. I used to think people were either good or evil. Good people were to be praised and evil people to be punished, and that's all there was to it."

He lowered his eyes from the sky to face the inscription on the grave. "Yuri is a good man, but he does things that I feel are incorrect. Yeager was a bad man who helped abuse the people of Heliord, but sometimes he did the right thing, too. I've heard people debate on whether people are fundamentally good or fundamentally evil, but I think… people are fundamentally people. There are no evil people, just evil acts, and given the right circumstances, an evil act can be justifiable and a good act can be condemnable. We are not inherently good people or evil people, but aggregates of the paths we choose. I'm still not sure how many unjust choices you can make before you deserve punishment, but that's something I look forward to figuring out as time goes by."

Dry grass rustled as he pushed himself upright, leaning forward so he could rest a hand on the grave. "I think I would have come to this realization sooner if you were still here, Mom. Children need their parents to guide them, and after you died… it's scary and confusing to try to make it on your own. When I think of how much you helped be grow when I was small, I wonder how much stronger I might be today if you were still here. I just…" His face ached with the sting of oncoming tears and he squeezed his eyes shut as the first moisture rose in his eyes. "I love you and I miss you so much, Mom. I know Yuri does, too, even if he never says it."

Repede reached him before Yuri did. It didn't surprise him when Repede's wet nose bumped his face, and even though tears dripped down his cheeks, he smiled and wrapped one arm around the dog's neck. "Hi, Repede."

"We can go if you want." Yuri stopped just behind him. "Repede said we should come see you."

Flynn straightened up and rubbed his sleeve across his face. "No, stay. I'm sure she'd want to see you, too."

Yuri plopped to the ground next to him, his face solemn. "It's hard to believe it's been eleven years."

Flynn nodded silently. It had now officially been over half his life since he last saw his mother. For the longest time, he could at least think of himself as someone who'd had a mother for the majority of his life. Now he was someone who'd spent the majority of his life as an orphan, and that majority was only going to grow as the years went on. Wiping his tears earlier had done no good, because they continued to trickle down his face. "Sometimes I like to think about what she'd say about things now. Imagine how hard she'd struggle to keep from swearing when I told her the truth about Alexei."

Yuri managed a smirk. "She'd be furious, all right. And can you imagine bringing Estelle around?"

"Heh." Smiling while crying was a bad idea; he ended up with salt on his tongue. "She would adore Lady Estellise."

"She'd futz around the house all morning making sure everything was clean and tidy enough for a princess to visit, no matter how many times we told her that wasn't necessary."

"She'd come barging into my office with a plate of oatmeal-raisin cookies and apple slices no matter how many times I assured her the castle chefs were feeding me properly."

Yuri reached across Flynn and snagged a cookie from the basket. He swallowed the entire cookie in just two chomps. "Speaking of, I think you're getting better."

Flynn rubbed his eyes again. "They're burned."

"Not too much, though. I could help next time, if you want."

"No." He shook his head, and then glanced to Yuri apologetically. "Sorry. It's nothing against you, I just… I want to make them myself.'

Yuri nodded. "Yeah, sure, I understand." He stared at the grave in deep thought while Flynn managed to rein in his tears. "You know… I think she'd really like the world we're making."

"Yeah. I think so, too."

"She'd be so proud of all the things you've accomplished."

"You, too."

Yuri waved his hand. "You've accomplished more, and you're her actual son."

"Yuri…" Flynn knew without a doubt that his mom loved Yuri like a son and that few things would make her heart swell with pride more than seeing just how far that scrawny orphan she'd taken in off the streets had come. Of course, from the look on Yuri's face, Flynn guessed that in some way he already knew.

"How long are you staying out here?"

"Not too much longer. I just wanted to say hello."

"Do you want to go to the bar?"

"That sounds nice, actually." Surrounding himself with cheerful faces and old friends would be the best way to lift his spirits. Most importantly, it would be nice to hang out with Yuri tonight. He remembered sitting by his mom's bed when she was deathly ill and her firmly telling them that they must stick together from now on, even if they got into a fight, because when she was gone they were going to need to look after each other for her. "You go ahead; I'll catch up in a few minutes."

"Sure." Yuri rose while Repede stayed still, resting his head in Flynn's lap.

Once he was gone, Flynn prepared himself to leave. Idly rubbed behind Repede's ears, he said, "I hope you like the flowers, Mom. Next year, I'll make sure the cookies are perfect." Overhead, the sun had set and thousands of stars splattered across the sky. He still wasn't used to seeing so many stars above Zaphias, and the endless field nearly took his breath away. "Wherever you and Dad are, Mom, I hope it's as beautiful as this. And I hope… I hope you can see the world we're making. It was hard growing up without you, but we stuck together just like you told us, too. We made it. I just…" He rubbed his eyes again and tightened his grip on Repede. "I just wish I could share it with you."

Maybe it was because tears blurred his eyes, but he could have sworn one of the stars winked back.