Chapter Twenty Four
One of the many things that did not come easily to Kali was being the centre of attention. Some people, especially at Camelot, seemed to think that she was good at everything. But she was useless in social situations. She was just lucky enough to have met people that accepted her so easily that she didn’t have to try. They put in the effort and seemed content that she was just there. She felt guilty sometimes, coasting by; she knew they deserved better.
Kali was tense on the walk across camp, but she was determined to be positive. Eliza was grumbling under her breath and Kali hated to seem ungrateful so she schooled her expression into one of optimism. When they arrived, Kali didn’t need to fake the blushing cheeks and the nervous laugh. Eliza relaxed, and the others quickly reminded her that it was enough for them that she was there. She didn’t have to pretend to be any more than she was.
Kali was surprised by how happy she was for the fuss. She usually didn’t really take note of her birthdays; it didn’t seem like that big a deal. She spent most of them alone anyway, so there was little point in celebrating. But with her friends beaming at her, with all their hard work decorating the space around her, it felt special.
Willow and Sage had grown and weaved banners of twisting vines and flowers, braided with intertwining branches. They covered the walls and the ceiling, so it was like walking into a fairy grotto. Tom and Carl had strung up fairy lights under Jem’s watchful eye while Eliza had kept her busy.
Jem wasted no time in telling her that Ben had smuggled a bunch of helium balloons in, which were floating in the centre of the room. There were a few platters of food arranged in a buffet on her kitchen counter. And under the balloon was a small pile of brightly wrapped packages. Presents.
Taking it all in, Kali was overwhelmed. Tears sprung to her eyes and she bit the inside of her lip to keep it from wobbling. Carl was closest to her so he got the first hug, then she made her way around the room. Tom was last, a big bear hug that told her he knew. He understood. Tom had been the only person that had ever made note of her birthdays when they were kids. Brushing off the overpowering well of feeling, buffeting her from all sides, she muttered “Prick.”
Tom laughed. “Knew you’d like it.” Tom ruffled her hair and asked how she was feeling. “Your hippie friend said you had some trouble yesterday?”
Kali half-smiled at the fact that anyone with dreadlocks was immediately a hippie to Tom. “Nothing major.” The lie stuck in her throat. Nothing major? She could feel Jem glowering, but she shook herself and said “Just wasn’t feeling right. Jem convinced me to get some rest.”
Tom frowned, but he didn’t push it. “Maybe he is good for something, then. Are you alright?”
“Half left.” She joked, faking a smile.
“Kali…” He stopped himself and sighed “Just be careful.”
She faltered, but replied “Don’t worry so much.”
“That’s the benefit of being the big brother. Worrying and pissing you off.”
“You’re an expert at both.” She muttered drily.
Tom smirked “I try.”
Kali giggled, wiping her treacherous eyes, and they guided her to grab some food. Once they were all settled, Tom decided a distraction was in order. He elbowed Sage in the ribs and the satyr glowered at him. Tom’s stony eyes fixed on him pointedly until the penny dropped.
“Presents!” Sage bleated suddenly, shooting to his hooves.
Tom snorted, everyone soon joining in when Sage blushed right to the roots of his tight curls. He cleared his throat, stamped a hoof, and attempted to sound dignified as he explained “It is time to open the presents.”
He then trotted to Kali and took her hand, linking their fingers. Kali smiled; Sage was the most cuddly member of their group. His skin had an almost earthy texture, and he was always warm. She let him pull her towards the little table in the middle of the room. And suddenly Kali was the centre of attention. She shifted uncomfortably, muttering “You know, you guys really didn’t have to do this.”
“Of course we did! It’s your birthday.” Jem laughed.
Kali didn’t notice that everyone suddenly seemed as nervous as she was. She squeezed Sage’s hand once before letting go, taking a deep breath. Sage had folded himself back onto the floor beside her, his bravado gone. He didn’t even seem to notice that he was munching away at the paper plate his food had been on earlier.
Before Kali could ask, Willow mumbled “Could you open mine first? The suspense is getting too much.”
Kali had to admit that the nymph did look even greener than usual. Huge eyes blinked at her as a fragile twig finger pointed at a rectangular box tied with a pale green bow. Kali smiled warmly and reached for the gift. Instead of returning the grin, Willow bit her lip and sat back down, looking away so she wouldn’t have to see the look on Kali’s face.
Kali took a breath and slowly untied the bow, savouring the silky feeling of the ribbon against her burning fingers. Inside the box was a wooden notebook with an intricate wooden clasp. Surprised, Kali caressed it gently. A smile, like sunlight cracking through the clouds, lit her face. “Willow, it’s wonderful.”
Willow’s eyes widened. “Y-you mean it?” She stammered. “I grew it out of a w-willow tree. I mean…I had some h-help binding it but…y-you really like it?”
“I love it. I just need to find something special enough to write in it.” She hugged her carefully; she was always worried Willow might snap under too much pressure. “Thank you.”
Jem grabbed another box from the table, this one wrapped in ochre tissue paper and tied with a red ribbon. Grinning, he waited for Willow to sit back down and said “My turn.”
Kali giggled and opened the box. Inside was a gorgeous red shawl and Kali gasped at how the gold streaks caught the light when she picked it up. “It’s so soft.” She immediately wrapped it around her shoulders and snuggled into it.
“You made it, didn’t you?” Tom asked casually. He took Jem’s unusual silence as confirmation and admitted “I’m impressed.”
Eliza looked more surprised by Tom’s reaction than by Jem’s skill with shawls. Jem muttered defensively “If you must know, I earned my pocket money growing up by helping our ma’s with their shop. We could sew, knit, embroider, and weave before we could ride a bike.”
“You’re not going to give him a hard time?” Eliza asked Tom, grinning slyly.
Tom simply shrugged. “Why would I? That’s a masterpiece. Besides, I don’t believe in getting down on someone about something that I can’t do myself. Which, by the way, doesn’t happen often! Like I said; I’m impressed.”
“And so modest too.” Kali muttered. She grabbed Jem and pulled him into a hug, whispering “It’s gorgeous. Thank you.”
She wrapped it around her shoulders, her jaw beginning to ache, and took the little bundle Carl offered. He shifted uncomfortably under her smile and muttered “If it doesn’t fit then I can fix it…but I had to guess measurements so…”
“Carl, you’re babbling again.” Jem chuckled.
Carl flushed and clamped his lips together. Kali unravelled the cloth and pulled out a dark brown belt. Carl eagerly showed her the slots for her new long knives. “You can take them wherever you go. Then, people won’t keep attacking you.”
“Carl, that’s really sweet.” The design itself was simple; Carl wasn’t one for embellishment. But there was a subtle beauty to be found in its practicality. “It has so many loops I can use to keep everything with me.”
Eliza pointed out “Plus, it looks pretty damn cool. Just saying.”
“It does.” Kali put it on immediately, though she was a little worried about the message it would send if she wore Hermes’ daggers. Still, she knew it would mean a lot to Carl, so she sheathed them at her hips. “Carl…this is awesome.”
Carl flushed bright red, and his blush only intensified when she hugged him. Jem patted his arm and Carl tried to hide his burning cheeks in his glass of cola. To take the focus off him, Sage mercifully threw a set of beautifully carved panpipes to Kali. She caught them with a curious smile and sighed wistfully. The engravings were shifting through the wood and Kali could hardly keep track of them. There were no words she could find to describe the beauty of the pipes, so she just said “You’ll teach me how to play?”
“Of course. It’ll be a novelty to teach Apollo’s kid how to play an instrument though.” He bleated a laugh and Kali smiled appreciatively.
Eliza shuffled over and grabbed a roll of paper from the table. “It’s nothing special. Just a poster.”
The poster was inked in thick black lines, and a distinctive, stylised art style. It pictured a comic strip of Kali and Eliza crossing swords. It ended with Kali on the ground, and Kali laughed; that was the more frequent outcome of their matched. But looking at the panels, Kali thought Eliza had captured their personalities pretty well.
“I didn’t even know you could draw.”
“Yeah. Well. You know.” She started chewing the end of her braid, and Kali knew it was time to take the focus off of her before she burst into flames. Clapping Eliza one more time on the shoulder, Kali turned her attention to Tom. She felt Eliza tense slightly so she removed her hand with an apologetic smile.
Tom had been sitting back casually, watching the gathering unfold. When Kali turned to him, his smile faltered and he shifted. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
“I can see a box on the table.”
“Maybe you should pick it up and open it then.”
Sage whinnied “For crying out loud! After all this time, if you don’t give it to her, I will!”
“Sage, I swear I’ll break your nose again if you don’t shut up.” He sighed and grabbed the box, handing it to her gently. “You’re so lazy on your birthday.”
Kali laughed, but the cold prickle of dread began to crawl across her skin. She shook it off; she must be tired if she was already that strained. Even with the mild panic, it didn’t take long for her curiosity to get the better of her. She fiddled with the small box and opened it slowly. She froze.
“What? What is it?” Jem asked impatiently.
Kali ignored him and just looked at Tom, whispering “This is…”
“I wasn’t sure it was yours until I noticed you didn’t have it anymore.” He took the charm bracelet from the box in Kali’s hand and fastened it carefully around her wrist. “I know how much it meant to you.”
Sage let out a sob and Kali turned to see that he was shaking, tears streaming down his cheeks. When Kali giggled, he stomped his foot indignantly and sniffled “You should have heard him going nuts about it when he found it. He thought he’d…never…be able to…” Sage clamped his hand over his mouth in a weak attempt to contain his blubbering.
“Remember what I said about breaking your nose?” Tom threatened quietly, but there was a lopsided grin quirking his lips.
“Tom…” She hesitated, an unpleasant memory forcing itself into the front of her mind. She fought a wave of nausea and swallowed the lump in her throat. She looked blindly at the bracelet, finally back where it belonged. “Where did you find this?”
His face darkened, the smile falling from his lips in a heartbeat. “It isn’t important. I just…came across it. When I was on a random quest.” He shrugged “I guess it was Fate?”
“Fate?” Kali repeated, clenching her jaw to keep from trembling. She managed to look back up and meet his eyes, joking “That logical and rational mind of yours can actually understand the concept of Fate?”
He laughed, ruffling her hair, and Kali punched him in the arm. Mockingly, he winced at the force she had put behind it. He sniggered “If it wasn’t your birthday, I wouldn’t let you get away with that.”
“I’ll remind you of that when it happens again tomorrow.” Kali teased, the tension easing slowly from her.
As the chatter started up again, Kali took a moment to catch her breath. Closing her eyes, she caressed the silver lion charm. It warmed against her skin and Kali imagined that it was as happy to be back where it belonged. It had been a part of her as long as she could remember, until someone had taken it. She would almost have rather died than part with it. If she had been alone, she probably would have. But her friend, Jade, had convinced her it wasn’t worth her life. More importantly, it wasn’t worth both their lives.
When she lost it, it was like a piece had been ripped away from her. A piece she hadn’t thought to recover. A piece that was slotting back into place like it had never been gone.
Kali desperately wanted to know how Tom had found it, but one look at his stubborn jaw told her how far she would get with that particular line of questioning. She was tempted to chance her luck anyway until Tom stood up and looked at her expectantly. When she made no move to follow suit, he rolled his eyes and asked “Were you listening to a word we were saying?”
Kali knew that her blank expression would tell him enough, so she didn’t bother to admit she’d had no idea they were talking, let alone what about. Eliza grabbed her forearm and pulled her to her feet, chuckling “Come on, birthday girl. Colosseum time.”
“Oh, sure.” Kali grinned. Before they left the room, she grabbed a sweat band to pull on over her bracelet so it wouldn’t get caught on anything if she decided to train. Then she joined the others in the excited chatter about the upcoming fight.
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