The chime at the door took Ken by surprise, prompting him to pause in his work. He briefly closed his eyes and focused his thoughts, then chuckled softly as he went to open the door.
“Happy birthday, Ken.” Rett grinned at him. The two men embraced tightly before Ken stepped aside to let Rett into his home.
“You shouldn’t have come all the way out here, Rett.” Ken shook his head slightly, but his smile stretched from ear to ear. “But it is so good to see you again.” He looked over his oldest, closest friend, marveling at how much and how little he had changed. The years apart were apparent in the weathered lines on Rett’s face and the greying of his once vibrant red hair. But for all the changes, he still didn’t look 61 years old.
“I couldn’t let my little brother turn 60 without paying a visit.” Rett grinned and held up an old, battered cooling bag. Ken laughed and the two walked through the house to a pair of roomy wooden chairs in the back yard.
◊ ◊ ◊
“Hey, Ken.” Rett climbed the slope leading up to the hidden grotto along the southern valley wall. “You ok?”
Ken shifted his seat on the ground, making room for his friend. “Yeah, I’m fine. Ma send you out looking for me?”
“She said she wanted to make sure you don’t miss the party, but yeah, she’s worried.” Rett settled down on the dirt.
“I’m fine,” Ken stated again. “Just missin’ my folks. Didn’t want Ma to think it’s about her, ya know?”
The young man nodded, looking out over the valley and Lyceum Arion grounds. “Yeah, I know what you mean. Missing my parents doesn’t mean I love Arete less, but I don’t say anything cause I don’t want to hurt her.” He looked over to Ken. “But you are coming to the party, right? I mean, it’s for you an’ all. Commander Bet is setting up right now.”
Ken let out a humorless chuckle. “I’m not gonna let her down, but it feels strange having a birthday party when I’m the only kid in the valley.”
“I don’t count?” Rett asked indignantly.
“You’re 18 now. You’re all official.” Ken picked up a pebble and tossed it at a nearby tree. “I’m still a kid.”
“You’re 17 — that’s not a kid.” Rett picked up an acorn and turned it over in his fingers. “Besides, I decided to wait ’til next year so we can train together.”
“Why’d you do that?!” Ken turned his head to look at his friend. He tried to scowl, but couldn’t hide the happiness in his eyes. “I was counting on you going first so you could warn me about what to expect when it’s my turn.” The teen grinned.
“Would be stupid to break up a good team.” Rett bumped Ken with his shoulder. “Besides, if you aren’t there I can’t blame all my bad ideas on you. Speaking of bad ideas, let’s go. Your party is gonna start soon and we need to make a stop first.”
Though Ken asked repeatedly where Rett was going, the older boy refused to answer. It wasn’t until they turned down the hall to the reserve food storage that Ken realized what his friend was up to. Rett motioned for Ken to stay quiet and peeked around a corner. Seeing the coast clear, the two boys scurried through a wooden door into the Lyceum’s wine cellar.
The cellar was divided into sections, each suitable for storing the various spirits served for special occasions. Rett walked past the wine and more potent liquors to the section where beers were stored. Reaching behind a stack of empty crates, he withdrew two bottle of Corinth Ale. “We don’t need more than two, right?”
Ken quickly shook his head. “Not after last time. Either of our moms catch us and we’ll be scrubbing the trash bins for months.”
“Grab that cooling bag,” Rett pointed to a small, blue, insulated bag that was just the right size for two bottles. “We’ll stash this in the garden and get it after the party.”
They escaped the cellar without being noticed and quickly slipped out a door to one of the gardens. They had just agreed on which bush to hide it under when a voice cut through their murmured discussion.
“Excuse me. Sorry. Can I help you with something?” They turned to find a young woman standing behind them. She looked to be about their age, her long brown hair was drawn back in a ponytail and she had an open, friendly smile that crinkled the corners of her brown eyes. She was petite — a bit shorter than Rett — and her gardener’s uniform revealed a pleasantly curved figure. “I noticed you looking at this Cat’s Paw bush. Is there something you’d like to know?”
Rett stammered an incoherent reply but Ken quickly broke in. “Cat’s Paw? I never knew the name of it, thanks. So you’re a gardener here?”
The young woman had been glancing shyly at Rett and didn’t seem to notice Ken’s question at first. She blinked and looked over at him. “Sorry. Yes, I am. Newly hired, so still learning my way around.” She smiled awkwardly. “I’m Meli. Meli Hopewell.”
“It’s nice to meet you Meli.” Ken offered his hand, but withdrew it when he saw that her attention had gone back to Rett. “I’m Ken. This is my friend, Rett.”
“N..nice to meet you, Meli.” A jab from Ken’s elbow loosened Rett’s tongue — barely. “We… uh… we need to go. Party. Ken’s birthday.”
“Oh,” Meli smiled, though looked a bit disappointed. “Well, happy birthday, Ken. I won’t keep you.”
Though Rett had said they needed to go, Ken had to practically drag him from the garden. On their way, they revised their plans for the pilfered beer. “I’ll hide the bag under my arm.” Ken suggested. “You distract Mom when we get to the apartment and I’ll hide it in my room.”
The party was a small gathering and despite Ken’s misgivings, he truly enjoyed himself. As it was winding down, he pulled Rett aside. “You go ahead. I’m going to help Mom clean up and then I’ll meet you by Field D.”
As Ken suspected, Bet shooed him away from the clean-up, telling him he should go find Rett and enjoy the rest of his birthday. He slipped back to his bedroom and retrieved the cooling bag before heading out to search the gardens.
Though it had been a few hours, he wasn’t surprised to find Meli was still by the Cat’s Paw bush. “Hi, Meli,” he greeted her a bit nervously.
“Oh! Ken!” She turned and smiled brightly. “Did you have a nice party?”
“Yeah, it was good.” He fidgeted a bit. “Listen, I was wondering if you could do me a favor? I’m supposed to meet Rett but something came up and I can’t. Could you maybe go find him and let him know I won’t be able to hang out tonight?”
She looked confused at the request but he noticed the gleam in her eyes when he mentioned Rett’s name. “Oh, uh… of course. Just tell him that you can’t make it tonight?”
“Yes, please. Oh, and give him this?” He offered over the cooling bag. “We were going to meet by Field D.” Ken grinned as Meli took the bag and set out to the training fields.
Waiting outside Field D, Rett literally jumped when Meli called a hello and walked up to him.“ He blushed deeply and looked around. “Meli! I.. I wasn’t expecting you to be here. Uh… have you seen Ken?”
“He asked me to bring you this and to let you know he can’t make it tonight. Something came up.” She handed the bag to Rett. “Well… I guess… bye.” She turned to go as a dumbfounded Rett looked at the bag.
He opened the bag and looked inside. The bottles of Corinth Ale had been replaced with two bottles of fizzy juice and a note.
“Rett – consider this my birthday gift. Don’t mess it up!”
Rett looked from the note to the retreating girl. “Uh, hey, Meli?” he stammered but grinned when she stopped and turned around. “Would you.. uh… would you like to take a walk? Maybe I could show you around the grounds?”
Meli sashayed back to him. “I’d like that.” She reached into the bag and pulled out one of the bottles. She looked at it and laughed. “You guys were trying to sneak bottles of fizzy juice?!”
In his bedroom, Ken sat on his bed, his back against the headboard. He tapped a few keys on his tablet, bringing up the title page for an ancient Earth tale: The Three Musketeers. Reaching over to his bedside table, he popped the top off one of the bottles of beer, took a swig, then set it back on the table as he started reading.
◊ ◊ ◊
“So how is my birthday present?” Ken asked as he settled into one of the chairs.
“She’s doing well,” Rett placed the cooling bag on the ground between their chairs. “Sends her love.” Reaching into the bag, he withdrew two bottles and offered one to Ken.