We ate macarons, and they gave me presents. I had no idea how they’d done all of this without me knowing.
Colette got me white slippers so pretty and fluffy, I could hardly imagine they were meant for feet. “Because stilettos are fun,” she said, “but no one actually likes wearing them for more than a few minutes.” I kicked off my shoes and put the slippers on.
Jack handed me a folded piece of paper. I opened it to find a stick figure drawing of what looked like two people fighting a dragon. “I drew this when I was ten,” he said. “Fitz found it and gave it to me. The girl’s you. Or, it’s Allie Fitzpatrick, anyway. I thought you were pretty great back then. Not that I don’t think you’d be able to fight a dragon these days, because you could,” he said quickly.
We told the story of Fitz’s setting us up when we were kids, of Allie Fitzpatrick and Charlie Emerson. “Thanks,” I said quietly, and Jack just inclined his head, and I could feel a moment, just a moment, of what might have been. But this was how we should be, and I knew it. “Thank you,” I said again.
Elodie got me a new knife. Its handle looked like pearl, with gold-and-silver inlay. Elodie showed me how to close it. “Easier to carry,” she said. “But still plenty deadly. You can stick it in your bra when you don’t want anyone to know it’s there.”
It was a testament to what we’d become together that it wasn’t weird at all when I reached into my shirt right there in front of everybody and lodged the knife in my bra. “I love it,” I said, and I genuinely meant it. I never thought I’d get so excited about a knife. “Thank you.”
“I have to show you your present later,” Luc said mysteriously.
Stellan, still sitting beside me, was quiet. The last thing he’d said before they’d burst into the room knocked around in my mind. Why did I come to Russia? He’d said it like it mattered.
I’d thought I was feeling calm about the experiment tomorrow, but suddenly, it was hitting me hard what it meant.
I could die tomorrow.
It might not matter to me whether Stellan left, because I could be gone. Just like I’d accepted that my life was going to have to go on without my mom, his life, and the lives of the people who I had come to care about so much, might go on without me. After all the times we’d been chased and shot at and stabbed and I’d survived, I might be handing my life over voluntarily.
I tried not to be too obvious about staring at everyone’s faces, memorizing them. Tried not to hug the presents to my chest too hard, or press my foot into Stellan’s too obviously. Tried not to linger too long on my last bites of macaron, wondering whether this might be the last birthday dessert I’d ever get to eat. Tried to tell myself I was being overly dramatic. Knew I really wasn’t.
“Thanks, guys,” I said. How do you soak up the last bits of what might be your last few hours in the world when you’ve only just realized how full your world really is? I’d spent plenty of birthdays wondering if this year would finally be different. Now, for the first time, I could guarantee it would be. “This was really nice of you.”
“She’s funny,” Luc said. Sometime during the festivities he’d ended up with a glass of something harder than wine in his hand. I couldn’t blame him. No matter how strong he acted, it had been a hard twenty-four hours. He pointed gleefully at me with his drink. “You’re funny. You must not know us at all if you think that’s the end of what we have planned. Everyone get dressed. Black tie required. You have fifteen minutes.”
“Until what?” I said, but Elodie and Colette were already bundling me out the door.
Colette had half a dozen dresses hanging from the four-poster bed in one of the bedrooms. “What will be the best for tonight?” she mused. “Sparkly?” She pulled down a dress that was slinky and low cut, with thousands of sequins and beads leading down to a full train.
“She wouldn’t be able to move,” Elodie said.
“What are we doing?” I asked again.
“Maybe romantic?” Colette held up two more dresses, ignoring me, and I gave up.
One of the dresses was white lace with a high neck and a flowing skirt, and one was pale pink and intricately embroidered, flowers and birds and vines snaking across the bodice and down to the hem. I reached out to touch it, emotion threatening to overwhelm me again. This could be the last time I got to wear something that was a piece of art.
“Let me choose,” I said. In the closet, I pulled aside hanger after hanger of charming dresses and slinky dresses and fancy dresses, and then I saw it. I peeked at the tag. My size.
Elodie was sprawled on the bed, sunken into the fluffy comforter, Colette sitting over her. They looked up, and Colette clapped her hands. “Sparkly and romantic and sophisticated. Perfect.”
The dress was a gossamer gray-blue lace with a sheer back. It had lace cap sleeves and tiny pearls sewn everywhere, giving it a subtle shimmer. It nipped in at the waist and flowed to past my knees when I held it against me.
Colette looked at her phone. “Seven minutes!”
“This is the one, then,” Elodie said, and I put on the dress, carefully avoiding the bandages at my shoulder. Elodie did up the tiny buttons down my back while Colette emerged from the closet in a navy-blue low-cut dress with a full skirt.
“There,” Elodie said. “Those will be fun to unbutton.”
“Elodie,” I scolded, but I felt my skin get hot at the implication.
She poked her head in front of me, raising her eyebrows. “That was not intended as innuendo. I was simply saying the buttons are difficult. But I think we can all tell where the birthday girl’s mind is.”
I felt myself flush even hotter. “I didn’t mean—”
“I think you did,” Colette singsonged, arranging the lace over my shoulder bandage.
“She did,” Elodie said. “She seems to think no one knows they’re all over each other all the time—”
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