"Happy birthday," Nik said from the chair at my desk. I'd just woken up, and had just realized that I wasn't alone when he spoke up.
"It can't be my birthday for…" I checked the clock. 8 a.m.. "another four hours. I need my beauty sleep."
Niko snorted, but didn't go for it. "While I have no arguments in the beauty sleep department, you're getting up."
"Why should I have to get up this early on my birthday?" I asked, just to be complaining. I was awake already, and didn't mind that I'd only been asleep for a few hours. I just liked to see Nik's reactions when I whined.
He stood from the chair and extended a hand to pull me up from the bed. I took it and dragged myself up, and he said, "Because I made you breakfast."
I narrowed my eyes. "Breakfast, or I Can't Believe It's Not Eggs?"
Niko let out a long-suffering sigh and led me to the kitchen. He'd made breakfast. Nothing like my chocolate and butterscotch soaked pancakes, but breakfast. Fruit, and bacon (which may or may not have actually been made from a pig), and a coffeecake. I grinned. "Aw, Nik, you big softy. Cake for breakfast?"
"Don't expect any candles."
"Of course not. We're not allowed to play with matches, right?" I said, sitting down at the table and helping myself to the bacon and cake.
"Well you're certainly not."
Nik decorated his plate only with fruit, so I assumed the bacon was real and took a few more pieces. "So," I said, "if you had put candles on the cake, would you have put twenty or eighteen?"
Niko considered this. "I don't know," he said. "Maybe that's part of the reason that I didn't use any candles."
I shrugged and took a bite. "Well, either way, it's some damn good cake. Did you use sugar and everything?"
"Yes. I suppose that since you made it to twenty without dying, I should give up and let you go ahead and continue to clog your arteries."
I looked up. "Really?"
"No. It's Splenda."
I deflated. "Hmph," I said, and Niko rolled his eyes. We ate in companionable silence until there was a knock at the door.
"I'll get it," I said, getting up. "You didn't plan a surprise party, did you? Because usually, it's more effective when the locale isn't the same place that the honored guest sleeps at." I opened the door to find Robin standing there.
"Surprise," he said, letting himself in. He took in the festive food on the table and said, "Is it some kind of holiday? Nothing on the table looks like grass."
I sat back down and let Niko answer the puck. "It's Cal's birthday," he said.
Robin's eyebrows went up. "Really? Well, Cal, I'm insulted that you didn't tell me."
"Why? Would you have gotten me a present? Because I accept Porsches."
"Well, I would have at least made sure you partook in some kind of traditional American birthday fun."
"Such as…?" I said, almost afraid to ask.
"You know. Birthday kisses, birthday spankings, etc. I assume the ninja here doesn't provide those."
Niko rubbed the bridge of his nose and shook his head. "Never tell him when my birthday is," he said to me. Robin just waggled his eyebrows suggestively at Nik and smiled.
I cleared my throat. "Mm. So…more cake, anyone?"
Niko shook his head but Robin held out a plate. He and I had several more pieces while Niko watched, but as a present to me, he didn't protest. When we'd all finished breakfast, Nik began clearing the table and didn't even tell me to help. I loved my birthday.
Leaning back in the chair, I stretched and patted my stomach. "So what's next, Cyrano?"
He raised an eyebrow. "What makes you think there's anything else?"
"There's always something else. Usually wrapped with a nice little bow on top."
He inclined his head toward his room. "It's in there."
That meant he'd hid it. Hmm. "Loman, come help me."
"Help you with what?" he asked, getting up to follow me into Niko's room.
"He always hides the presents. He thinks I'll peek or something," I said, sliding down under the bed to look.
"Ah. Well, I guess I'll just look in here, then," he said, rifling through Nik's underwear drawer.
"Robin…if you value your eyes, I wouldn't let him see you doing that," I said.
He wasn't listening. He was…eh, never mind. We'll not go there. I opened the closet and began pushing Nik's insanely neat clothes around to see if he'd hidden something behind them.
"If you mess up my room, I'm not going to tell you where it is," Niko called from the kitchen.
In the end, I usually had to give up and ask him where it was, but I was determined to find it myself this year. However, after half an hour of searching, I gave up. I sulked into the living room, dejected. "I can't find it," I said.
"Is my room still clean?" he asked without looking up from the newspaper he was reading.
He gave me a suspicious look and went into the room. He opened the door to find Robin in an…interesting position on his bed. Niko spared him a two-second glance, then ignored him. Doing a sweep of the room with his eyes, he looked back at me.
"It's my birthday. I'll clean it tomorrow, I promise."
"No you won't," he said, re-stacking the books on his bookshelf. "Every year…"
"Come on, Nik," I pleaded. "Tell me where it is."
"Why are you assuming that I even got you anything?"
"Because you love me," I said.
Niko shook his head. "I knew I never should have led you to believe that."
"Ass," I said, throwing a pillow at him.
Robin laughed. "You two are in rare form today. I like it."
Nik and I glanced at each other. I grinned and he shook his head, but opened his closet. His hands skimmed over several of his old swords before he pulled out a genuine Bowie knife and handed it to me. My eyes lit up as I pulled it from the leather sheath. It was really a thing of beauty. Polished and shiny, it had a deadly curve and a sharp edge. I ran my thumb lightly along said edge and wasn't all that surprised when it drew blood. The handle was mahogany and was exquisite in its simplicity. "Damn, Niko," I said appreciatively.
"You like it?"
"Hell yeah," I said, handing it to Robin, who was oogling over it, to admire.
"Good," Nik said, and we all went into the living room. I pried my knife away from Robin, and re-sheathed it.
"So how old are you now, Caliban?" Robin asked, settling himself onto the recliner.
"Twenty," I said evenly.
Robin whistled lowly. "You're still practically an infant," he declared.
Niko snorted at this, sitting down beside me on the couch.
"Shut up, Nik," I said, cutting off any sarcastic comments. I may be young in Goodfellow's eyes still, but I was personally glad to have made it all the way to the big 2-0.
"I must say I'm disappointed at the lack of streamers and party hats. Is there at least a pin the tail on the donkey game around here?" Robin asked.
"Oh no, Cal hates that game," Nik said before I could stop him.
Robin look interested, and that was never a good thing. "Why, pray tell?'
Niko glanced at me and I glared. "Don't," I said at the same time that he said, "He's afraid of the donkey."
"The paper donkey?" Robin asked. "Cal, you do realize that it's not real, right?"
I flipped him off. "I was four, okay? Four."
"Yes, and apparently that's too young to reason between an animal and a picture. It was something about its eyes, I think, that scared you," Niko said.
"They were red. Who makes a donkey with red eyes?" I said.
"He couldn't sleep by himself for a week," Niko said to Goodfellow, who laughed.
"That's a lie. I never 'couldn't sleep by myself,' and you know it."
"Oh really? Then why do I remember waking up with an extra body in my bed on several occasions?"
I flipped him off too. "I had a bad childhood."
Niko raised an eyebrow and I lowered my finger with a petulant look. "Let's talk about something else," I suggested.
"No, no. I've been curious about your childhood. Tell me more," Robin said.
"You know, I think I'll go clean your room now, Nik," I said, standing up.
Niko seemed pleased by that idea, but Robin wasn't having it. "Caliban, I think you would agree that I've told you my share of stories—"
"More than," I interjected.
"—but I've heard none of yours. Humor me."
I glared at him, but sat down anyway. Cleaning or talking seemed to be my options, so I went with talking. Less strenuous. "Fine. But just one." I looked at Niko, who was watching me. "I don't know which to tell," I said to him. He shrugged unhelpfully.
"You don't want me to choose," Niko said, "because then it will be your first bath, or—"
"Okay, okay," I said quickly. "Geez." I thought for a moment. "Well, there was my seventeenth birthday, which was my first since I'd turned fourteen. I remember getting three presents that year, because that was Nik's way of making up for my not having had a fifteenth or sixteenth birthday." I rolled my eyes. "Where were we living then?"
"Louisiana maybe…" Nik said.
"Yeah, I think so. So there you go, Robin. One story."
Robin raised his eyebrows. "That was a story? It was barely three sentences. Obviously you never learned the art that is storytelling."
"I think I must have slept through that class," I said.
"As opposed to what?" Niko asked, poking me sharply in the side.
Rubbing my side, I turned back to Robin, who was stroking his chin, trying to appear deep in thought. Suddenly, he brightened. "I know!" he said, "Tell me about the first time you were drunk."
I slouched down in my seat and avoided eye contact with Niko. My legs ached at the memory of my punishment for that night. For a week, I'd done more running than all the people training for the Olympics put together. It was not a good week. "I was fourteen," I said, which wasn't even true. I'd been drunk at least once before then, but this was the first that Niko knew about—to my knowledge, anyway. "And I'd been in a fight with Sophia. After she'd left the house, I stole a few of her bottles and had a little fun."
"Forgetting that it was Friday night and that I came home on Fridays," Niko added, sending a look my way.
"Home?" Goodfellow asked, looking amused. "Home from where?"
"College," I answered for my brother. "Nik went to school for a year before we started moving around so much. But he came home that night for Spring Break, so I had to endure his wrath for two weeks instead of two days."
"You were lucky it wasn't the Summer break," Niko said.
I cringed. "Yeah. Well anyway, he came home and I was pretty much soused and…well, he wasn't happy. Sophia was an alcoholic, I guess, and Nik's always been afraid that that gene was passed down to one of us."
"And Sophia is your mother?" Goodfellow said, and I realized there really was very little that he knew about our past.
"Was," Niko corrected. "She died."
Robin nodded. "Anyway," I continued, "it was fun for the first hour or so until big brother came home, and after that there was just a lot of yelling and lecturing and running."
"Running?" Robin asked.
I nodded gravely. "Running."
"Running," Niko seconded. I turned to glare at him, but he was giving me that look, so I settled for a cower instead.
"It was four years ago, Nik. Six, if you count the other two," I protested because Niko was looking like maybe he hadn't given me enough laps.
"Four, then. Forgive and forget, right?"
He pierced me with a look, but didn't say anything.
"Thanks, Robin," I said, and he just smiled at me.
"That was much more entertaining," he said approvingly. "Tell another."
"We agreed on one story, and now I've told you two."
"You agreed on one story. I did no such thing," Robin said.
"I'm not telling another," I insisted.
"Come on. Please?"
"Enough," Niko said. "I've got one."
Robin turned his attention to my brother, and I did too, but with less enthusiasm, and more surprise. Niko was sitting with his hands resting over his stomach, and a contemplative look on his face.
"When Cal was about ten," he began, and I interrupted.
"Why do all the stories have to be about me?" I asked.
"—he decided he wanted to learn to skateboard," Niko continued as if I hadn't said anything. "So, he comes home from school one day holding one in his hand and he asks me if we can go to the park." He looked at me, "Do you remember this?"
"Yeah…when we got to the park, I wanted to show you a trick I'd learned from the kids at school, but when I tried to do it, I kind of…fell."
"It was some kind of jump trick," he told Robin, "so not only did he fall, but he landed on his arm, and I'd thought he'd broken it."
"Yeah, he totally freaked out," I added.
"I did not 'freak out'."
"Whatever, Nik." I turned back to Goodfellow. "After he'd wrapped my wrist, he made me return the skateboard, which was tricky since the owner hadn't been aware that I'd borrowed it." Robin laughed at that. "Anyway, he never let me have a skateboard after that."
"I'd say that was a wise decision," Robin said.
Five thousand hours later, and they were still talking about me. After the fifth story about one of my pets dying because I'd forgotten to feed it, or clean its tank, or whatever, I groaned. "This is no longer fun for me," I declared. "I'm going to take a nap while you two continue to make jokes about me."
"Alright," Robin said cheerfully. "Don't let the bedbugs bite."
I was going to get up and retreat to my room, but the thought of what Niko might tell the puck while I wasn't there stopped me. Instead, I stretched my feet out in front of me, letting them rest on the coffee table, and closed my eyes. However, before I could get two seconds' rest, Nik's foot collided with my ankle, effectively removing my feet from the furniture. "Fine," I growled. "Scoot over, then." I was going to get a nap one way or the other. Niko wasn't budging though.
"I'm in a comfortable position," he said. "I'd rather not change that."
"Asshole," I said, but I wasn't going to let him stop me. Instead, I shifted positions and threw my feet over the arm of the couch, and let my head fall into Niko's lap. He glanced down at me, momentarily surprised, but didn't make me move.
"Hey," Robin protested. "Why can't I do that?"
Niko gave him one of the glares he'd been throwing me all morning, and Robin shut up. Somewhere along the line, Niko had gotten excellent with the death glares.
"On that note," Robin said, because he can never stay quiet for long, "I have to go to work. Cars to sell, money to make—"
"People to scam," I muttered.
"—so I'll take my leave. Happy birthday, Caliban."
"Yeah, yeah, thanks a million, don't let the door hit you on the way out," I said. Robin left and Nik looked down at me.
"Are you quite comfortable?"
"Yes, actually. Although you could use a little more meat on your bones. Ya know, a nice fatty cushion for a better pillow and—ow." Being in this position made it that much easier for Niko to smack me on the head. I turned away from him so that my head was facing his knees. "Naptime, then."
"You've been up for two hours," Niko said, flicking my ear.
"But those two hours were between the hours of eight and ten, and that makes all the difference. By most reasonable standards, I should still be asleep right now."
"By most lazy standards, you mean."
"Right. By most reasonable standards. That's what I said."
Nik let that one go, but rested his hand on top of my head as a reminder that smart-ass comments weren't appreciated any more today than they were yesterday. I closed my eyes and began to doze off. I felt Nik shift to grab the remote and he turned on the TV to some nature documentary. I knew he was only letting me nap and laze around because it was my birthday—the only day he ever cuts me any kind of slack—but I was enjoying it to the fullest.