My apartment is filled with people: Bedevil front and center; Maisa, Remise, Echo, Epione, Lugs, Krater, Oracle, Linear, and Archimedes. They grin at me, and Remise holds out one of those confetti popper things. Glitter and paper drifts over the coffee table, landing on an assortment of presents.
Pawpaw bounds toward me from their feet, trailed by Bedevil’s five cats. All of her animals are back with us, safe and sound.
“Pawpaw!” I shout, and drop to my knees to meet him.
I am nearly buried in floof as Pawpaw jumps up and slams his paws into my stomach. He whines, wags his tail so hard it might fall off, and tries to lick my face.
Only then do I notice the balloons, the confetti sinking through the air after someone shot it off, and the huge banner that says, “Happy Birthday, Gabe!”
“You threw me a surprise party? This is what Saw Off couldn’t shut up about?”
“It’s a testimony to the density of your skull that Saw Off didn’t spoil the surprise,” Archimedes says. “Also, I didn’t get you anything.”
“But, I don’t even know when my birthday is.” I manage to wrestle free of Pawpaw’s affection, but I don’t stop petting him as I stand up. “The date on my license isn’t real.”
“I know the date of your creation,” Linear says. “The files from Cynic that I thought were purged has the dates of all the clones’ birthdays.”
I stop scratching Pawpaw’s head, unable to voice what I’m feeling. It’s a strange cocktail; gratitude, joy, pain, regret, and love, mostly love. Love for the woman coming up to me, her golden hair tied in a pony tail, her hazel eyes crinkled in joy. “Happy birthday. I love you.” She offers up a small white box tied up by a red ribbon.
I smile at her and open the box.
Inside is a bag of dog treats and a small card. I eye her suspiciously. “Is it Pawpaw’s birthday or mine?”
Bedevil snickers. “I thought you’d want to treat him. But the card, read it later, okay?”
“Okay.” I close the box. I drink in the sight of my friends. Remise and Epione sit together on one of our couches, and Linear, Oracle, and Archimedes sit across from them on the other. Krater stands — stooping so as not to bump his head on the ceiling — by the dining table with Lugs. The balcony doors are open, letting in the soft whisper of waves lapping on the shore. We are bathed in warm, yellow light from Foundation’s lighting.
“Open your presents!” Saw Off demands. She slices her hand through the air in a demanding gesture, pointing to the handful of gifts on the coffee table.
“Wait, what about the cupcakes?” Archimedes asks. “I think we should eat first.”
I chuckle, but Bedevil squeezes my hand. “It’s his birthday. What do you want to do first?”
Honestly, I’m starving from my long day of work. “I never thought I’d agree with Arch, but yeah, I’m hungry.”
Bedevil gets flustered by my request. “Okay, but they’re just cupcakes, they won’t fill you up. We can get food first if you really want.”
“Is there a problem with the cupcakes?” I ask.
“She made them!” Epione says. “Well, I helped. But mostly she made them. It was her idea to make you cupcakes.”
Bedevil is still flustered and trying to hide her face. “Okay, okay. If you don’t like them, it’s okay.” She trudges over to the kitchen like a soldier to her duty, and brings back a tray of cupcakes.
The cupcakes have white icing tinged with red or blue swirls. Captain Crunch cereal tops each cupcake. Bedevil blushes and almost refuses to bring the cupcakes to me. “I… You don’t have to like them, okay?”
I laugh and laugh, which flusters Bedevil. She tries to retreat to the kitchen, but I run over to her, and grab one of the cupcakes. I take a huge bite before she can pull it away from me. It’s delicious. “This is great!”
Bedevil sighs in relief. “You’re sure?”
“Just bring the damn things over here!” Archimedes says. “Or else our tutoring is off!”
Bedevil relents and the party enjoys her cupcakes while I look through the presents everyone got me. To be honest, I’m mostly just happy because I’ve never gotten a real birthday party before. I never told anyone the date on my license so they wouldn’t try to make up a fake one, and Doc never… Doc didn’t want to tell me the date of my cloning. Guess it was too painful for him.
Krater got me some cologne. “It’s actually from a brand I sponsor,” he tells me. “I didn’t know they stocked it this far south but I was damn happy to see it!”
It smells pungent, but I thank him and move on to the next one.
Saw Off got me a little toy grenade that clips onto a key chain. “They wouldn’t let me get you a real one,” she explains.
Flashfire got me a blank military dog tag. “You’re my brother, so I thought it was good.”
“But why is it blank?” I ask.
He shakes his head and tells me to move onto the next one.
There’s one addressed from Oracle, Linear, and Archimedes, though his name looks hastily added, and in the same handwriting as Oracle’s. I purse my lips at her and then chuckle, and she chuckles with me.
They got me a dog collar.
“Okay, I feel like we should just have a birthday for Pawpaw,” I say.
“Keep going!” Epione says.
The next present is from Remise, Echo, and Epione. A dog bed. One that is way too small for Pawpaw.
And the pieces start to come together.
I am sure I look like a wide-eyed dope. Bedevil looks smugger than she’s ever looked.
“Where?” I ask.
“In our bedroom. Be sweet, she doesn’t know who you—”
I jump out of my seat and run to our bedroom.
On our bed there is a tiny, squeaky, yellow Shih Tzu. She barks at me as I approach, kneeling at the edge of the bed, and sticks her tail into the air. She cowers from me at first until Bedevil brings me the dog treats. I tease her over with the treats and hold her close to my chest while she eats. She yips and whines, and licks at my face. I’ve never had a dog of my own. “What’s her name?”
“Whatever you want it to be,” Bedevil says. She offers me the card, and I open it. Adoption papers for the dog, plus a handwritten note from Bedevil herself.
I thought that you had so much love to give, you could spare a little more for another.
I love you to the stars.
My throat catches. I am overwhelmed by all of this. “I love you, too.”
Bedevil runs her good hand through my hair. She kisses me and then smiles at the puppy trying to worm its way between our lips. “So, what are you naming her?”
“Hmmm.” I heft the puppy in my hands and look her in the eyes. She whines. “Isabelle.”
I shrug. “She looks like a little bell. So, she Isabelle.”
Bedevil snorts and laughs. “I hate you.”
“Hey, quit making out!” Saw Off shouts. “And get back in here!”
I bring Isabelle out for everyone to meet. The smug bastards all grin at me. They knew. I grin back and hold Isabelle close to my chest, and enjoy the party.
Hours later, after we’ve all shot the shit, traded stories of the last month, and eaten all of Bedevil’s cupcakes, there’s a knock on the door. Bedevil checks it and finds Longinus and Templar standing outside. Templar holds a box of dog treats in her hands. “I got the memo a little late, sorry.”
Longinus carries a bottle of wine with him, and smiles sadly as he enters behind Templar. “I’m sorry that I couldn’t get you anything on such short notice…” He trails off. “Is that… a puppy?”
He sets the bottle of wine down on the kitchen. Bedevil frowns and swerves away from it. She stands behind me and grips my shoulder. I kiss her hand. It’s tough, even still. Addiction… you never stop wanting it. They say it’s a matter of when, not if, you relapse.
I try to make it easier on her. She sits next to me and pets Isabelle, but she stares off into the distance.
“Would anyone like wine?” Longinus asks. “Gabe?”
“Oh, no thank you. I don’t drink,” I tell him.
Bedevil frowns at me. “Since when?” she asks.
“Probably about four months now.” I lock eyes with her.
She understands that as long as she doesn’t drink, I won’t either. Her eyes glisten.
She lays her head against my shoulder while we spend the rest of the night in good company. I am content to watch my friends drink and laugh, and play with Isabelle and Pawpaw, and the cats. I am content to feel the weight of Bedevil against me and feel her humming. My thermal sense maps out her heat for me, shows me her heartbeat rising and her blood racing as she runs her fingers on my chest.
I am happy to see Maisa laughing with Echo and Remise, saddened to see the discontent between Epione and Flashfire, amused to see Saw Off trying to flirt with Krater. Hopeful at Longinus chatting with Templar.
I sigh and smile, and nuzzle into Bedevil’s golden hair.
Later that evening, the party wraps up. Bedevil’s cupcakes are gone, my friends leave aside from Bedevil and Maisa. Bedevil cleans up in the kitchen, while Maisa and I play with Isabelle. The little puppy pounces around the couch and tries to get Pawpaw to play. The old dog does his best but all he can do is lumber after her as she charges around our apartment.
It’s not a bad place. The late night sea breeze is cool and carries a pleasant scent with it. The size is enormous for an apartment. It reminds me of the one Bedevil lived in back in Houston. There are two bedrooms, one for us and one for Maisa. The couches are spacious, wide enough for four people each to sit comfortably. The coffee table is made of mahogany and polished glass. I’m told this room used to belong to one of the former Foundation capes. When Foundation became OPI, they stopped using the HQ and they offered the room up as a special reservation for tourists.
I’m not complaining. I’ve got to live here, now. I only wish Doc could see the opulence. He probably would have flipped out at me.
“She’s rambunctious,” Maisa says, watching Isabelle dart around the room.
“Yeah.” I grin at the puppy. “When did you pull this off?”
“I got her today,” Maisa says. “Bedevil and I picked her out a week ago, though, and we already filled the forms for you. You just need to sign it.”
“And your lessons with Arch?” I ask Bedevil.
“Today I baked you cupcakes and helped set up the apartment,” Bedevil says. “Archimedes made an exception for today.”
I smile at her. “Thank you. Thank you both. This was really special for me.”
We clean up for the night, and while Bedevil showers, I sit in bed and play with Isabelle. I’m trying to get my mind off tomorrow, and the party helped with that for a while. Now that I’m headed for sleep, though, my mind is a jumble. What am I going to say to the court?
I haven’t really thought about it. I’ve kept myself busy helping the city.
Bedevil returns from her shower, towel wrapped around her. “She’s so cute.”
“Why a Shih Tzu, though?” I ask.
“You’re a sucker for cute things,” Bedevil says. She crawls onto the bed and kisses me, and cuddles into my chest. Isabelle plays with her good hand, still not tuckered out just yet.
“You got me there,” I say, and kiss her back, and take Isabelle outside to put her down for the night.
Bedevil and I celebrate my birthday the best way a young couple in love can.
She falls asleep against me, naked, her body vibrating with energy. I stroke her hair until I am certain she’s out. And I sit there for a while longer, breathing her in.
I hear scratching at my door and find Isabelle whining, wanting to be let in.
“You have a dog bed, don’t you?” I ask.
Isabelle whines at me.
“Hmm.” Bedevil also happened to buy a leash, so I clip that onto Isabelle’s collar. I pick her up and carry her to the balcony, where I fly down to the shore that the HQ overlooks. Sure enough, Isabelle does her business, and buries it in sand.
I take her back to the HQ and decide to walk her around the halls. She bounces happily, still not tired. Her claws make a pitter-patter on the tiles as she leads the way back to the lobby.
The grand entry of Foundation is eerie this late at night. There’s no one but a single clerk at the desks, staring at his computer with a frown, and he ignores me. The fountain babbles, the lone voice within the lobby, and Isabelle charges for it until she meets the end of her leash. I follow her there, amused by her limitless energy.
Guess she really is the dog for me.
I sit down on the tile and hold Isabelle over the fountain water. She yips and whines, and her legs start paddling.
I glance at one of the halls. I tell myself I don’t want to go down there, that I should wait until tomorrow to see her.
Then, something else occurs to me. I pick Isabelle up and carry her into the hall, past the sign that says CONTAINMENT. I march down the hall until I make it to an elevator, where I swipe my keycard. The elevator doors open, I step inside, and punch the button for B-3. The elevator lurches.
Isabelle whines in my arms.
I shush her and whisper into her ear. “It’s okay, Izzie, it’s okay.”
Yet, I agree with her. I don’t like where I am going.
The elevator opens on a more spartan hall than all the others, and I walk past doors with dark windows. Each one of these is a cell meant to hold Heavyweight people. Guards wander the hall, Argentinian soldiers now instead of the OPI capes that were stalking the prison the first day we arrived.
I find the one door with the light on in this level. A guard stands by.
“Uh, are you sure you want to bring that dog in?” he asks me.
I nod. “It’ll help open him up, I think.”
“Nothing’s opened him up,” the guard replies. “Archimedes came down here yesterday. I could hear him from outside.”
“Archimedes won’t get anywhere by yelling at him.” I enter the room.
There’s a single chair facing a huge panel window that is currently dark. I sit in that chair and tap the button that will wake Tim Prince up from his slumber.
His room lights up, and I find that he is currently awake, sitting on his bed. There’s not much in there with him, just a bed, a table that is bolted to the wall and a chair bolted to the table, and a toilet. His gaze falls on me and his blank face lights up.
“Nice dog,” Tim says. “Real cutie.”
“Thanks. I just got her.”
“You come down here just to show her off?” he asks.
I shake my head. “No. I came down here to talk to you. There’s something I’ve wanted to know, since I got free of the Fear.”
“What is it?” Tim asks, his eyebrows raised in curiosity.
“You have a power, don’t you?”
In answer, Tim grins at me, and I’m reminded of a tiger snarling from its cage in a zoo.