Emil opened the panel to the loading dock. “Hey. Happy birthday.”
“Thanks, Emil.” Leon smiled, or at least pretended to. It was the kind of face Emil felt in his bones. He hoped no one noticed this kind of smile on him.
The lieutenant went downstairs first, trying not to cringe as he passed the incinerator room. He saw the mail woman and her ship waiting on deck.
“Sorry to keep ya waiting!” He broke the silence. “My fault. We’ll get this signed off quickly so I don’t waste any more of your… time…”
As the two approached her, Emil noticed that she wasn’t annoyed. She looked terrified.
“Are you doin’ alright?”
The mail lady looked down at the package in her trembling hands, then back at him. “I-Is this safe to hold…? Your captain forgot to turn off his audio the first time, a-and–”
“O-Oh, nonononono.” Emil’s eyes went wide in realization. “It’s not–” He stopped waving his hands and placed his fists on his hips to think. “Tell ya what. We’ll open this after you’re safely outta here.”
“What’s in the box?” asked Leon.
She eyed Leon warily. “You don’t know?”
“Whatever it is, it’s probably not dangerous.” Emil reassured both. He tilted his head toward Leon. “Sign the clipboard, Rookie.”
Leon did as told. The mail carrier thrust the box into his hands and safely got into her ship. He waved goodbye, completely unaware she thought he might be a terrorist.
Emil tapped him on the shoulder. “We should put on our helmets.”
“Hm? Why don’t we just go upstairs?”
He tried to come up with something on the fly. “Uhhhh. Procedure!”
“Okay.” That didn’t take much convincing.
With their helmets on, Lorenzo’s voice clicked in over the headsets. “Is everyone’s oxygen secured?”
Everyone gave him the okay, including the mail woman.
“I will now commence draining oxygen out of the area.”
The other three waited around while that happened. After that, the loading dock opened up into the starry abyss, and the mail ship did its best impression of peeling out of a driveway. The loading dock door closed, leaving the two of them alone with the captain’s voice.
“You may now open the package.”
Leon looked around. “Oh, I was hoping to get back to my room first.”
“You may not enter the rest of the ship until you open that package. It’s a safety procedure.” His excuse wasn’t much better than Emil’s.
A scanner swept the room when Leon opened the box and concluded with a green flash. Surprise, surprise, everything came up clear. Oxygen presumably filled the room, since Emil started to hear his own footsteps while pacing.
“The air is clear of any contaminants. You may now take off your helmets.”
“Thanks, bro. Don’t forget to turn off the intercom this time!” Emil warned.
“What do you mean? Lieutenant, did I–?” The intercom cut off as soon as Lorenzo realized what happened. Emil hoped he’d be okay. Maybe he should bring him that slice of cake.
“What’cha got?” Emil peered over at Leon’s box as they put their helmets away. “Anything good?”
Leon lifted something round. “They sent me these little cheese wheels. They’re my favorite.” He smiled genuinely, not as much as he would’ve normally, but it was a start. “And some crackers to go along with them. There’s these packs of lemonade powder, too, wow! Annnd some gummy bears. That’s really sweet. Both the sweets and the gift, I mean.”
“Aww, that’s nice.” Emil smiled. For a second, it seemed like Leon returned to his normal self some.
“Huh? What’s this?” Leon dug around the package and pulled out a handwritten card. “‘Missing you from planet Earth. Hope our star is shining out there.’” he read.
“I think I see something on the back.”
Leon flipped the card over to reveal a photo. A man who looked like a blond, green-eyed version of him held the phone camera, and in the background stood a smiling woman who shared his teeth.
“Hm? Oh wow, it’s,” his mouth twitched, “it’s my mom and dad.” He moved his thumb down. “And…”
Off to the left stood Angelo in a bike helmet, waving. This might’ve been the first time Emil saw him smile. He looked haggard and frankly a little pathetic, but he smiled. Leon’s happiness, on the other hand, died.
“Those aren’t the only things you got!” Emil broke the emergency glass of his birthday plans with a wink and a smile.
“Wha?” Leon sniffled. Emil needed to act fast.
“Yeah, follow me upstairs!”
Emil hightailed it up the stairs with Leon in tow before coming to a smooth, composed stop in front of the kitchen door.
“After you, birthday boy.” He rolled out his hands.
Leon entered the kitchen first, then Emil. Around the same time, Mia entered from the other door.
“Is… something going on?” Mia looked around, confused.
“Looks like we’re all gathered here for the man on the hour!” Emil winked, motioning to Leon.
Jun stood up to head toward the refrigerator.
“Wait, I didn’t mean for–” He shrugged. “Ah, you might as well.”
Roxie burst through the door. “Did birthday commence??”
“Whose birthday?” Aiden slouched at the table with Emil’s guitar laying there lifelessly.
“It’s my birthday.” answered Leon.
Emil clapped. “Now that we’re all caught up, let’s wish our boy Rookie a happy birthday!”
Everyone wished Leon a happy birthday. They didn’t do it with any coordination or matching enthusiasm, but they did it! That’s what counted.
Jun took the cake out of the refrigerator and placed it on the table. Emil swooped in fancily grabbing–and nearly dropping–a plate and knife before popping open the box to a big, beautiful cheesecake. Half was covered in a lemon glaze, the other, in orange.
“A lemon cheesecake?” Leon reacted, mystified like his normal self. “That’s all the things I love in one! H-How did you know??”
“Only the best for my crew~” Emil tried to hide his pride. He held up the knife. “Let’s dig in–”
“Wait!” Roxie looked around. “Where’s the captain? And Angelo?”
Of course it would come to this. “My bro’s busy with somethin’ right now and unfortunately can’t come down.” The last thing Emil wanted Leon to think about was Lorenzo hunting Angelo. “And Angelo…” Emil looked toward the ceiling. “Hey Captain!”
“Yes, Lieutenant.” Lorenzo answered.
“Can you do a ship-wide call for Angelo? He’s gonna miss the partyyy.”
“Ranger Angelo Summers, report to the kitchen.”
Emil waited for about 5 seconds. “Any sign of him coming?”
“Darn!” He snapped his fingers. “I’d hate to continue without him, but if he’s not gonna show up… Oh well. Thanks, Captain Bro!”
The intercom clicked off.
It clicked back on. “Yes, Lieutenant?”
Emil hovered a hand over Leon’s shoulder to prevent another incident like with Angelo. Once he got the okay, he slung an arm around his shoulder and pointed to him. “You gotta wish him a happy birthday!”
“...Happy birthday, Ranger Summers.”
“Thank you, Captain!” Leon waved, smiling as the intercom clicked again.
The lieutenant turned him around toward the cake and began slicing it into sixteenths. They weren’t even, but they were 16 slices.
He served Leon the first slice. “Here ya go.”
Leon accepted it with the deepest of gratitude. “I…I can’t believe you did this for me.”
“Ahhh, it’s only a cake.”
“Maybe to you, but you really don’t know how much this means to me right now. Thank you so much!” He looked like he was about to cry.
“No problem!” Starting to get embarrassed at all this heartfelt emotion, Emil busied himself serving cake to the others.
“Can I have a slice of the orange one?” Aiden pointed to it.
“That side’s off limits until the 23rd!”
“Okay.” He didn’t seem too bothered, either way.
Emil served slices of cheesecake to everyone else, leaving three for Lorenzo, Angelo, and himself. Instead of eating his slice, he took pride in seeing everyone’s enjoyment of the cake.
“I’m not like the biggest cheesecake fan,” Jun started inbetween bites, “but this is nice. Good cake.”
“It’s good.” Even Aiden gave his vote of approval. To get his and Jun’s praise must mean it’s a pretty cool cake. But then again, he didn’t seem that picky about food. Emil celebrated anyway.
He also hovered his forkful of cheesecake dangerously around Emil’s precious guitar. Just as he feared, the cheesecake plummeted toward it.
“My baby!” Emil snatched it up just before the cake hit the table. He paced around, rocking it in his arms, until an idea came to him. “Why don’t I play a little somethin’ while you guys eat?”
“On your guitar??” Leon lit up.
Emil strummed it. “How else?”
The table wouldn’t give him enough room to play, so instead, he decided to use one of the boxes of food in the corner as a seat. Just his luck, he picked a heavy box. A really heavy box! It was kind of embarrassing how much he struggled with it.
“Whew. I didn’t know I was this outta shape.”
“Do you want my assistance?” asked Roxie. …Were her eyes wet?
“It’s all good. I won’t let this box beat me!”
“That’s the spirit!” She seemed chipper as usual, but Emil couldn’t shake the feeling that something was up. If she’s anything like him, he’d catch her slipping up some other day.
Emil flexed one of his noodle arms, then got back to work. It took using his whole body to get the box to budge. Finally, he got it where he wanted it, and sat down.
Guitar slung over his shoulder, he checked to make sure it was properly tuned. He plucked it a few times just to be certain, and adjusted the volume on his amp so it wouldn’t blow everyone’s ears out.
He played a rendition of Happy Birthday to You, with embellishments, of course. Roxie and Jun joined in. Aiden didn’t, too busy eating his cake. Emil was pretty sure Mia only mouthed the words. He didn’t care.
Looking around, he saw nothing but smiles in the moment. The biggest one on Leon’s face, as it should be. Emil gave him a wink, and somehow it grew even bigger. Eating cake, singing, and laughing, everyone enjoyed themselves. He swore he could hear humming along with the song, but that could just be his imagination. All was well.
Despite everything that happened in the past few days, this party was almost exactly how he’d imagined it. Now if only the other two were here to enjoy it.