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El Mañana

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                The new apartment is smaller than 212 Wobble Street had been.  2D and Noodle practically share their small conjoined bedrooms.  Murdoc rarely leaves the smoky room tucked behind the narrow staircase.  Despite having shrunk closer to his usual size, Russel still has trouble navigating the perilously thin upstairs hall.  The stairs creak, the water takes ages to heat up, and at night the train rattles the windows.  2D loves it.

                There isn’t an axe stuck in the wall, for starters.  The place is more open, somehow.  It may’ve just been that they’ve had less time to clutter it up, but he was hoping it might not get too bad.  Not that his own room isn’t a disaster area, but having some clothes scattered around is different than risking slicing open your foot on shattered bottles, the way they had back in the old place.

                Temporary.  That’s what Murdoc said about it anyway.  Just a place to lie low for a while, regroup, give them much needed respite to let their frazzled nerves have a break. 

                “Don’t go getting any ideas,” he’d said on the first day, when 2D had started vacuuming and making the beds up.  He’d fluffed Noodle’s pillows and started tacking their posters up, sticking glow-in-the-dark stars up on the ceiling.  She’d smiled, soft.  Her new smile, the one that made him feel somehow very young and very old at the same time, like he was missing something.  He felt like that a lot, come to think of it.  Like if he just looked a little closer, maybe something would shake loose, something would unravel, and he’d be able to make sense of.  What.  Something.

                Some days, he tried not to look very closely at all.  Strange things would creep around in the shadows that pooled in the dusk, thick and soupy in the corners of the apartment.  Bowls of rotten things on the counters and trails of goopy residue on the staircase.  He didn’t often leave his room on those days.

                “Christ, D, trying to make the place look like an old folks home?” Murdoc said on the third day, when 2D hung the floral curtains up over the large windows in the living room.  They rustle when the window is left open a crack and make the place feel breezy.  Russel had glared at Murdoc, who rolled his eyes, but didn’t comment further.

                “Well, I figure it’s good for you to get used to the look of one now,” 2D said, more offended than he was willing to let on.  He’d hurried up the stairs before Murdoc could act on the nasty scowl brewing on his face.  Russel had stood between them anyway.  He’d been doing that a lot, if 2D thought about it.  He hadn’t before.  Thought about it, that is.  Or been so active in keeping them from going at each other.  The floor wasn’t covered in glass, not anymore.  That was good.  But now it was all eggshells.  Skating on thin ice and eggshells, each of them tiptoeing around the others.  It was driving Murdoc out of his mind.  2D knew that much.  He didn’t know how true it could possibly be though.  It’s not as though he hadn’t lost it a long while ago.  He didn’t see him so much anymore, not as much as he had on Plastic Beach.  Murdoc seemed to avoid him mostly, unless to specifically pick a fight. 

                Today wasn’t going to be one of those days.  Today was very special.  It was one of the most special days of the year, maybe the most special as far as 2D was concerned, so no way was any loudmouthed bassist going to muck it up.  He’d been up all night getting ready.  Late all night for about a week, really.  With some help from Russel, of course.  He’d slept maybe two hours, but he’d set an alarm, things were off to a smooth start.  No hitches.  No creeping shadows, just weak dawn sunshine blinking through the curtains.  He padded down the stairs, quiet as he could in the silent house.  None of them could be called early birds.  Russel and Noodle typically got up before nine, but he and Murdoc couldn’t be counted on not to sleep the whole day or otherwise have stayed up straight through the night.  Not today though.

                He unwraps the streamers and banners he’d bought earlier in the week, carefully untangling them from their bags and stringing them up around the kitchen and living room.  Purple and green, hanging from furniture like limp seaweed.  He gets the bunch of balloons from the closet in his room where he’d secreted them away, somehow managing not to let anyone see.  He puts them by the sofa now. 

                The cake is in a plastic container on the counter.  He’d made it the night before.  It had taken hours, the process made longer as he tried, somewhat unsuccessfully, to be quiet.  He’d told Russel a bit about his plans, and hopefully the drummer had done his part to keep 2D’s baking endeavors from any prying eyes.  He takes it out now, allowing himself a moment to admire his work.  The box came with instructions, which he’d done his best to follow, but really it was altogether a little too complicated, in his opinion, when all he wanted after all was just a plain chocolate cake.  He hadn’t exactly had the chance to acquire a lot of baking experience. 

                It wasn’t frosted yet.  He starts on that now, heaping globs of pale purple icing and spreading it around as smooth as he could.  It was fun, he thinks about taking up baking, it would be a pretty useful hobby.

                He doesn’t notice the footsteps behind him, but he does hear the snort, a sharp burst of air exhaled through the nose.  He jumps, the spreading knife flying out of his hand and splattering onto the ground.

                “Someone’s jumpy,” Murdoc grunts.

                2D is caught between a glare and a smile.  Murdoc is in just his boxers and an oversized t-shirt from one of their own concerts, his hair a thick nest of tangles.

                “Maybe if you didn’t go creeping around, I wouldn’t be,” 2D says, bending to pick up the spreading knife.  He considers it, then figures he better get a new one.  If it was anyone else’s cake, he might just…but it’s not.

                “Creeping?  If anyone’s creeping, it’s you, mate.  How long have you been up?” he says, looking around at the decorations incredulously.

                2D shrugs.  “’Dunno, an hour? Um, so, what are you up to?”

                “What, do you want a schedule?” Murdoc sneers.

                2D grits his teeth, then lets out a slow breath.  “No, I just didn’t know if you’d maybe, you know, want to help me?”  It’s special, he reminds himself, fiddling with his fingers as Murdoc stares him down.  Special, not just another day, anything that could never happen might be able to.

                Murdoc’s gaze flickers to the frosting smeared on the floor.  “You’d better clean that up,” he says, pushing past 2D.  He picks up the bag of balloons from the kitchen table, inspecting the packaging.  2D hurries to wipe up the mess, watching Murdoc from the corner of his eye.

                “Where’s your helium?”

                “My what?” 2D says, back to icing the cake.

                “Your helium.  Do you have a tank?  For the balloons?”

                “Oh.  Oh…”  2D says, sagging.  “They do need that, don’t they.  I’ve got some floating balloons, see, I just forgot I couldn’t blow those up myself.  Do you think I have enough without them?”

                Murdoc shakes his head.  2D winces.  But then Murdoc starts to tear open the package.  “This is Noods we’re talking about, faceache.  You can’t just skimp on the balloons.  I guess they can just…sit on the floor.  That’ll look just fine.”

                2D watches him start to blow one up.  He ties it with knobby fingers, letting it drift to the ground.  It doesn’t really look terrible, 2D supposes.

                They go on in quiet for a while, until 2D’s out of icing and Murdoc’s nearly blown up all the balloons.

                “How many of these did you buy?” he complains, taking exaggerated breaths and glaring.

                “You’re full of hot air anyway, what’s the big deal?” 2D says.

                “Ah, shut it,” Murdoc says.  “And your cake’s done.  If you go smooshing it anymore it’ll end up flat.”

                The cake is looking a little droopy, but it’ll be great in a minute, he’s sure of it.  He picks up the tube of green icing, regarding the surface of the cake with narrowed eyes.

                “Don’t have an attack about it, I didn’t say it was completely awful,” Murdoc says, watching him.

                “Quiet, I need to concentrate,” 2D says, raising the icing to write on the cake.  His hands shake.  It’s legible enough, he thinks. 

                Murdoc gets up to look.  “Hotty?  That’s a little sick, D.”

                “Happy!  It says happy, don’t act like you can’t read it,” 2D says.

                Murdoc snatches the icing.  “Let me do that, moron.”

                “You’re going to mess it up!  I’m doing fine, give it back.”

                Murdoc rolls his eyes, swatting 2D’s hands away.  “Get off, get off!  Despite whatever’s going around in that empty head of yours, ruining a little girl’s birthday cake isn’t high on my bucket list.”  Murdoc pauses.  “Though, she’s not really a little girl anymore, is she.”

                “Not really,” 2D mumbles, lacing his fingers and looking forlornly at his cake.  It’s a little lopsided, now that he looks at it.  He wishes he hadn’t let Murdoc see it.  It had looked fine before he’d walked in.  “She missed quite a few birthdays, you know, that we could’ve maybe made better.  I know I always got parties when I was growing up.”

                Murdoc sneers.  “I bet you did.  I bet the whole block came ‘round when Stuart Pot was having a birthday.”

                “Sort of,” 2D says, missing most of the venom in Murdoc’s voice.  He looks away, face going pensive.  “My mum always invited a lot of her friend’s over, to fill space I think, ‘cause I didn’t ever have too many.  A few, you know, they came and went.  So it was usually a bunch of old people just fawning over me.  A bit boring, really, but my parents did always try, you know.”

                Murdoc snorts.  “Wild, 2D.  Sounds like a blast.  You know, I don’t think my old man ever really remembered.  Part of his charm, you know.  A few mates would usually be around though, we’d just go out and get pissed, mostly.”

                “We could’ve done better,” 2D says.  It’s nearly whispered.

                Murdoc looks at him for a moment, then around at the limp balloons and streamers.  “You know what D, you could say that.  But you know what I think?  We’re ok.  I think she got a pretty good deal.  It’s been said, but things really can end up the way they’re supposed to.  For whatever reason, her lot got thrown in with ours, and no, it’s not been exactly, er, the most nurturing environment.  But look at us, we turned out just fine!”

                “I guess,” 2D says, not looking entirely convinced.

                “Look, dent head, you were practically a kid yourself when you met her.  Hell, you still are!  You can’t go back in time!  Crazy things have happened to us, sure, but that’s just not in the cards.  Now listen, I’m only saying this once.  There are…few things that can’t be fixed, but even fewer people willing to fix them.  You understand?  What you’re doing, right now, is more than- it’s, well- it’s enough, ok?”

                2D stares at Murdoc, who meets his eyes shiftily, as though wishing to look away.  Not that he’d ever be the first to do so.  2D gives himself a moment to think.  Then he grins at Murdoc.

                “You know, Mudz, I figure you’re right.”

Murdoc looks at the cake, gripping the frosting.  “’Course I am.  Now hush up, this takes precision.”

                He writes “Birthday Noodle” in looping cursive.  It’s neat and sharp.  2D wants to thank him, is suddenly struck by an overwhelming need to express some kind of wordless gratitude.  It’s something he hasn’t felt so strongly in years.  But he keeps quiet as Murdoc leaves the room, mumbling something about putting on pants and lack of basic penmanship.  2D eats the rest of the icing out of the tube while he waits.

                Heavy footsteps on the stairs draw him from his thoughts half an hour later.  He jumps up from the table where he’d slouched, his grin splitting his face. 

                Noodle descends with her head down, watching her steps.  She hasn’t seen him yet.  Russel walks behind her, winking at 2D with a smile.  She’s in pajama pants and a loose black tanktop, her hair tousled. 

                His voice feels caged.  It cracks when he forces it out.  “Good morning, birthday girl,” he says.

                She looks up.  Pauses on the last step, eyes widening as she takes in the sight of him.  Face smeared with icing, wild hair frames his toothy smile and eyes ringed with tiredness dark enough to be bruises.  Her lips part noiselessly.

                As Noodle looks around at the balloons and streamers, the crooked banner reading “Happy Birthday!” in his messy scrawl, 2D feels suddenly very small, struck with the feeling that he doesn’t know this woman, who seems so infinitely older and more capable than he.  He falters, hands drawing up to his chest as he watches her.

                Then she grins and she’s ten as she bounds down the last step, flinging her arms around him and knocking out his breath with the force of her embrace. 

                “Happy birthday,” he mumbles into the top of her head.  Her arms encircle his ribcage and he’s thankful to them for keeping his chest from exploding, shrapnel ribs tearing up the curtains.

                “2D!” she says, pulling back, staring up at him with bright eyes.  “Did you do all this, just now?”

               “Er,” 2D says.  “It’s not just me!  Russel helped loads, he drove me to the store and everything.  It was all of us!  Murdoc blew up all your balloons, I don’t know where he went, he was here earlier you know and I thought he was coming back, soon I bet, he wasn’t wearing pants so hopefully he’s getting those.”

                “Murdoc what?”  The bassist walks into the room, leaning on the wall and squinting a bit in the bright morning light streaming through the windows. 

                Russel chuckles as he steps down into the living room, walking into the kitchen.  “Speak of the devil.  If you guys want some breakfast, I’ll- 2D, what the hell?”

                “What?  Did Murdoc ruin my- wait, it’s a surprise!”  2D darts after Russel into the kitchen.  “Noodle, don’t look yet!  I- oh.  Huh, yeah, it is a bit of a mess, isn’t it?”

                Russel raises a brow.  2D cracks a smile.  “I’ll clean it, I’ll clean it!”  Dirty dishes from his baking fill the sink, cake powder and frosting smears scattered across the cabinets and counter.

                “I can’t believe you used the oven and didn’t burn the place down.  I can’t believe we even let you use the oven,” Murdoc says.

                “Shut up!  You’re the one who set the tour bus on fire,” 2D says, scrambling past Russel to get the candles out of the cabinet.  “Hang on one second Noodle!”  He calls.

                “I’m not peeking!” she says, and he can hear the smile in her voice.

                “Hey, watch your mouth faceache, I told you, that wasn’t my fault,” Murdoc says, watching 2D frantically search for the lighter in the silverware drawer.

                “You fell asleep smoking Mudz, I don’t really see how that’s anyone else’s fault,” Russel says, getting out the plates.

                “It was those damn groupies!  Rabid, the whole lot of them.  You’re all lucky I made it back to the bus at all, I was drugged!”

                “You were drunk,” Russel says.  “There’s a difference.”

                 “Can I look yet?” Noodle asks.

                 “Almost!” 2D says, struggling to light the candles.  It takes a full minute of watching him fail to light one before Murdoc snaps.

                 “Give me that!  We’re going to be here all day!”

                 Russel places a hand lightly on Murdoc’s shoulder.  The weight of it holds him in place.

                 “Let him be,” Russel says.  “See, he’s got it, you just needed to give him a minute.”

                Murdoc scowls.

                “What’ve I got?” 2D asks, tongue poking through the gap in his teeth as he concentrates on lighting the rest. 

                “Gonorrhea,” Murdoc says.

                2D’s brow furrows as he looks up, all the candles lit.  “I thought you had that?”

                “What are you guys doing in there!” Noodle calls.

                “Sorry Noodle!  You can look now!” 2D says.

                She walks in, eyes widening again, face alight with a childlike grin as she takes in the sight of the three of them around the cake.

                “Happy birthday to-“

                “Wait!” Russel, says, cutting off 2D’s squawking voice.  He hurries to grab his camera from the top cabinet, turning off the kitchen light so the candles illuminate their faces in an orange glow.

                “Jesus D, remind me how you’re our singer?” Murdoc says, wincing.

                “Sod off!  It’s completely different,” 2D says, glaring.

                “Ok, ok, break it up!” Russel says, grinning widely.  He points the camera and starts up the song.  They manage to make it through the whole thing, 2D throwing in exuberant cha cha chas and Murdoc practically speaking the words in a gravelly monotone while Russel wipes his watering eyes behind his camera.  Noodle doesn’t seem to care.  She beams, and leans in to blow out the candles in a single breath.

                “Make a wish!” 2D says.

                “She already blew out the candles, you’re supposed to say that before,” Murdoc says.

                “Did you make a wish Noodle?” 2D asks, ignoring him.

                Noodle nods, her smile strangely wobbly, as if its sheer happiness is difficult to maintain.  “Can’t tell you though, so don’t ask!”

                “Right, right,” 2D says, reaching behind him to grab the large cleaver from its stand.

                “Whoa whoa whoa,” Russel says, gently taking the huge knife from 2D’s hands.  “We’re cutting a cake here D, not a whole cow.”

                “Fine,” 2D says.  “Yeah, fine, ok.”  He lets Russel cut four slices, handing the biggest one to Noodle.

                “Cake for breakfast?  Doesn’t sound like part of your diet, Russ,” Murdoc says.

                “It’s a holiday,” Russel says.  “Can it.”

                 They sit at the kitchen table.  It has to be the first time the thing’s seated them all at once in forever. 

                 “Well, 2D,” Murdoc says with his mouthful, wrinkling his nose.  “I take it back.  Did you even use the oven?”

                “I did, I read the box and everything,” 2D says, deflating.  He thought it tasted fine.  Sure, it could be less soggy.  But it could also be more soggy. 

                “It’s good, 2D!” Noodle says, nodding as she chews.  She gives him a thumbs up, grinning with frosting-stained teeth.  “Really, I love it!  And it’s very pretty too.”

                “You do?  Ah, I’m glad Noodle.  Murdoc actually did the writing.  Well, most of it.”

                Noodle grins, getting up from her chair.  She approaches Murdoc, who’d been moodily stabbing his cake, with her arms outstretched.  He looks up at her, eyes widening in alarm, freezing when she throws her arms around him.

                “Thank you, Murdoc,” she says.  “Your handwriting is even better than your table manners.”

                “Aw, love, that’s so sweet,” he says, glaring, but there’s no anger in his gaze.  2D isn’t really sure what’s there.  Softness.  Something melty and strange looking in his eyes.  Something malleable.

                She walks to Russel next, giving him a peck on the cheek.  “And thank you, Russel.”

                “It’s your special day, baby girl, you don’t need to thank me for anything,” he says, pulling her into a tight hug.

                 She goes to 2D, ruffling his hair the way he used to when she was younger and his hand barely brushed the top of her head when they were both standing.  She leans in to hug him.

                 “And thank you, 2D.  This is…this is the best gift I could’ve gotten from any of you.”  2D is frightened to notice the tears welling up in her eyes.  The cake couldn’t have been that awful.  She smiles through them, laughing a bit as she wipes them.  “It’s just nice to be together again, that’s all.  Sorry.”

                 “Uh, don’t be sorry Noodle, I agree,” 2D says, not entirely sure what to do.  The room is slightly off-kilter.  Just a bit.  Barely noticeable, like squinting to see if the painting across the room is really hung crooked, or if it’s just a trick of the eye.  He thinks it might be exhaustion.

                 “We haven’t even given you your real gifts yet!” Murdoc says.  “Geez, your worse than Russ.  A bunch of saps, the lot of you.”

2D scoffs.  “Don’t let him fool you, you should’ve heard him this morning, he was- ow, let go!”  2D yelps as Murdoc reaches over to tug on his hair.

                 “Nothing’s sacred to you, is it,” Murdoc growls.

2D grins at him with a glazed expression.  “Definitely not you,” he says, before his eyes flutter and his head slumps forwards.

                 “Uh, come on, I didn’t knock you around that bad just now,” Murdoc says.  “Don’t mess around like that.”

                “What’d you do?” Noodle says, reaching over to shake 2D’s shoulder, her eyes worried.

                Russel takes her hand, stopping her.  He shakes his head, smiling.  “He’s out, let him sleep.  He’s been up all night the past couple weeks, if you hadn’t noticed.  He’s working through some stuff, like we all are.  Noodle, I’m gonna clean the kitchen up a little, and then we’ll wake D up and open some presents, sound good?”

                She nods, smiling, casting another look at 2D.  Murdoc’s looking at him too, expression caught between disbelief and awe. 

               “He just passed out, just like that.  Incredible.  What kind of meds is he taking for that head of his?”

                “I don’t know, you’re the one who landed him with half of them,” Russel quips, standing and clearing up the plates.

                “Alright, alright, it’s too early for this,” Murdoc says, standing and getting a beer out of the fridge.

                 “I’ll say,” Russel says, eyeing the drink with a raised eyebrow.  “It’s nine thirty, Mudz.”

                “I know,” Murdoc groans.  “You want one?  You, Noodle?  I guess you’re old enough now.”

                 “Cut it out,” Russel says.  “Or I’m kicking you out of my kitchen.”

                 “It’s his kitchen now, is it,” Murdoc says to Noodle, rolling his eyes and taking a long gulp of his drink.  She can’t help but grin a little, despite wishing she could pour the drink down the sink and watch it fizz in the drain.

                 Russel sighs.  He hands Murdoc a dishtowel.  “Make yourself useful, at least.”

                “Noodle, part of growing up is accepting new responsibilities.  Being an adult figure in your life, it falls to me to help you learn that,” Murdoc says, holding out the towel to her.

                “Oh no you don’t,” Russel says, shaking his head.  “You’re something else, Niccals.  Birthday girl doesn’t need to lift a finger.  Go see what’s on TV, I’ll take care of this myself.”

                 Russel hears them bickering over the television in the living room.  Well, more like Murdoc making comments on whatever channel Noodle flips to.  2D’s soft breaths puff through his parted lips, his back bent awkwardly in his chair.  The water runs hot over his hands as he washes the plates so clean they shine, leaving nothing but the old hairline cracks inevitably formed through use.  The curtains rustle, a surprisingly cool breeze blowing across the back of his neck.  Russel hums quietly to himself as he rinses the dishes.