Henry's Birthday
Summary:Henry Robinson turns two with a party in the Really Very Tiny Auditorium.
Timeline:February 5, 2011.
Rating:G/K - Good clean fun for all audiences.
Players: Neshomeh (Jenni and Henry Robinson, Supernumerary, Ilraen, Derik)
Cassie Cameron-Young (William Marshall, Cara and Stephanie Fielding, Luke Celinus, Vicky and Owen Hayles)
Pretzel (Maeryn/Kaliel)
KGarrett (Miriam Collins, Benjamin Roberts, Dan and Bradley Kent)
Phobos (Barid, Voltarmi)
PitViperOfDoom (Kestrel, Artemis Crowley, Kieran)
Miah (Cali Still, Hannah, Helen, Kevin, and Kyle Still Bellisario)

The Really Very Tiny Auditorium had taken on a distinctly Potterverse cast in the last few hours. Granted, the ceiling only had a bedsheet-painting of a fairly generic cottonball-cloud sky tacked onto it, and the floating candles were battery-powered. The red and green streamers were nice, at least, and the single long table, draped with blue and set with yellow partyware, was laden with snacks that looked to have never seen the inside of the cafeteria kitchen.

The four adults in the room, two of whom wore Hogwarts robes and one of whom was a blue alien, stepped back from the final streamers and surveyed their handiwork.

"You do realize," said the taller of the two robed people, polishing his glasses, "that he won't remember any of this?"

The other robed person, Jenni, folded her arms and tilted her head at Nume with an amused smile. "Well now, I think we both know that isn't necessarily true."

"You should hope for his sake that it is," Nume replied, sliding his glasses back on. "Now, I 'helped,' and if you don't mind, I'm going to be in the stands avoiding the rest of the farce as much as possible, thanks."

"You'll be back," Jenni called happily. "Even you like cake!"

Without turning around, Nume pulled a large book out of a robe pocket and held it up in a display of how he intended to ignore her.

"And he's your friend, is he?" Agent Derik said. "I've seen friendlier watch-whers."

<My partner is not a 'people-person,'> Ilraen said. <But we are his friends, and that means he has to come to Henry's birthday party.>

"Yep!" said Jenni. "It's good for him. Now then . . . how's my kid?"

She crossed to the far end of the room, where a fairly large area had been fenced off, the floor padded, and strewn with the few toys any one RC had room to keep. In the midst, the purported center of attention was chewing on the tail of a brown stuffed fire-lizard, happily oblivious to the strangeness of adults. Henry Rowling Robinson wasn't precisely the most beautiful child in the world, having taken rather after his father, Severus Snape, but he did have one or two saving graces. The first of these was a pair of large green eyes, clearly the mark of his other father. The second was an adoptive mother who loved him and made him smile.

"There's the birthday boy!" Jenni said, stepping into the pen and scooping him high in the air, making him squeal and giggle before catching him up again. "Your friends should be here soon. It's going to be big fun!"

The door creaked open, and three more people entered. The first was William Marshall of the DIC, looking slightly amused. Beside him was Cara Fielding, who looked slightly uncomfortable in her plain black robes and was having trouble not tripping over them. She was carrying a small wrapped box.

Riding piggyback on William was Cara's daughter Stephanie, wearing a miniature Hogwarts robe, a brown plait and a huge smile. She clambered down on seeing Jenni and Henry and bounced over, beaming. "Hi!" After a bemused look at Ilraen and Derik—having missed spotting Nume completely—the two adults followed.

"Hello there." William gave Jenni a smile. "I thought I'd come along and see how things turned out; it's not often we hear about occasions like this."

Cara nodded slightly. "It's nice to see a get-together like this." She passed Stephanie the wrapped box, and the little girl immediately offered it to Jenni.

"We brought a present," Stephanie announced proudly.

"Hello, welcome!" Jenni called, grinning at the new arrivals. "Say hi, Henry!" She waved the boy's hand for him. He stared at the group for a moment, then buried his face in her shoulder.

"He'll come around." Jenni smiled. "Thanks for coming, and thank you for the nice present," she said to Stephanie, reaching down to lightly ruffle the girl's hair with her free hand. "Could you put that over there by the wall for me?" She gestured to a relatively visible but out-of-the-way spot.

"Help yourselves to snacks," she said to the adults. "I'm expecting a few more people before things really get going. Oh, and if you haven't met, this is Ilraen, and Derik, and the lurker up there is Nume. He's our designated party pooper."

<Hello,> Ilraen greeted. Derik stepped forward to shake hands. Nume ignored everyone.

The door creaked open once more, admitting a lone woman dressed appropriately in black robes. A small box was tucked into the crook of one arm; it was wrapped in a shiny bronze-colored paper with a similarly-colored ribbon tied in a neat bow at the top.

"Hello, everyone," Maeryn said, a broad smile forming on her face. She came to a stop near the others, holding up the present. "Where can I put this, Jenni?"

"'Scuse me, sorry. Pardon me . . . "

The sounds of someone trying to squeeze through the crowd in front of the auditorium continued for a few moments, before another young woman half-stepped, half-stumbled through the doorway. Apparently having second thoughts about lapsing into Sindarin vulgarity at a party meant for small children, Miriam Collins smoothed down her own robes and headed over quickly to the other adults, occasionally pausing to avoid tripping over the baggy fabric.

"Trust me to oversleep the one day I need to keep an eye on the time," she muttered, brushing a bit of hair out of her face as she offered a slightly sheepish smile to Jenni. "Hope I've not missed too much of the fun; I did a bit of shopping around just for all this."

At this last, she produced yet another box, wrapped with paper with pictures of puppies on it and containing more than one item judging by the heft. "I wasn't too sure what would be a good present, so I got a few things instead of just guessing."

"Hi, Maeryn, Kaliel. How's your little one coming along? Right over there is fine for presents." She pointed at the aforementioned spot by the wall, then was obliged to turn her attention to Miriam.

"Glad you could make it! No worries; I know how it is for you agents." She grinned, but temporarily traded it for a confused look at the commotion outside the auditorium. "What's going on out there?"

"Good, thank you," Maeryn said, and then wandered over to where the other presents had been put and depositing her contribution on the small pile. Once that was finished, she returned to where the others were, coming to a halt near Ilraen and Derik.

With a brief dip of her head, Maeryn ceded control of her body over to Kaliel, as the Tok'ra symbiote wanted to say hello as well.

"Hello," she said, smiling politely at Ilraen and Derik. "I do not believe we have met. I am Kaliel. And you are?"

Stephanie had hurried off to put the present where Jenni had indicated, and then wandered off to locate other people her own age within the Auditorium. She waved to Miriam as the young woman entered, recognising her mother's partner, and promptly ignored the rest of the adults.

Cara flashed Miriam a smile. "Wondered if you'd wake up in time. Didn't want to wake you beforehand—I know how grouchy you get when you're woken up early, so I took Steph round to William's to get her ready."

William was looking around with undisguised fascination at the others in the room; his natural curiosity was at work already. He hesitated before approaching Ilraen slowly, glancing at a few other people.

Jenni put Henry back down in the pen, where he contentedly toddled off to shove an inflatable ball around and chase it when it got away from him with the occasional shout of "Ball!" His mother rejoined the adults.

Ilraen gazed at Agents Mal with rapt curiosity. <Hello, Kaliel. I am Ilraen-Aroline-Fothergill, but you may call me Ilraen. I do not wish to be rude, but may I ask how you do that with your voice? I have never heard anything quite like that before.> He spared a stalk eye to return William's look, while the other one kept tabs on everyone else.

Meanwhile, Derik turned his attention to William, since it seemed likely he wouldn't get a chance to speak to Kaliel (or Maeryn) for a little while, at least. At least William was someone closer to his own age. He didn't know precisely what that was, but definitely in spitting distance of forty, one way or another. "Hi," he said with his damaged smile, offering a hand to shake. "Agent Derik, DMS. You're a friend of Jenni's?"

Kaliel smiled. "It's a way to differentiate myself from my host, Maeryn," she replied. "However"—and here she softly cleared her throat—"I can speak quite normally if I so choose. I've got to say, hearing your voice in my head is an interesting sensation. I'm only used to hearing Maeryn speak to me like that."

William shook hands with Derik without a hint of surprise at seeing the Agent's damaged face, smiling back. "Not really, no," he replied. "I'm William Marshall, currently DIC. I'm here mostly because of my niece." He nodded towards Stephanie, who had wandered over to Henry's playpen and was peeping into it. "And yourself?"

Cara was making similar introductions to one or two of the other adults nearby.

At the door to the auditorium, two more robed figures had appeared. One was tall, blue, betusked, and wearing his favorite purple robe with matching hat. He was also carrying what appeared to be a hastily wrapped present that had raptors drawn on it.

The other was, because of her short stature and slight frame, easily mistaken for a child, if an odd one. She was wearing bronze-colored robes and had her pink hair pulled into two pom-poms of the sides of her head.

"'Ey, Ilraen," said Agent Barid of the APD. "It's been a while, mon." He waved to the Andalite as passed on his way to hand off his gift to Jenni.

"Hello, indeed," said Voltarmi, as she eyed Agent Ilraen up and down . . . well, mostly up. "Not so well muscled as the last time I saw you, mores the pity." With a blown kiss to Ilraen, Voltarmi went in search of something to eat.

Once more, the auditorium door opened, admitting a grinning, green-robed female ferret. Trailing behind her shyly was a blue-eyed, black-furred fox cub, who was fiddling with the messy bow on his present.

Perched on Agent Kestrel's shoulders, his small thumb tucked firmly into his mouth, was the roughly one-and-a-half-year-old Artemis Crowley. In his free hand was a cloth toy apple, which he chewed on absently.

"Ah, a playpen for the little 'uns," Kestrel noted, lifting him down from her shoulders. "'Ow'd yew like that, Artie? Yew feel like playin' wiv yore liddle messmates, do yer?"

"Um, Kestrel?" Kieran said hesitantly. "I dunno if that's a good idea. He's really, really good at starting fights."

Reptilian yellow eyes widened innocently at this accusation.

"Is 'e now?" Kestrel cast a fond glance at the innocent-looking child. "Doin' 'is dear ol' dad proud, then."

Artemis simply smiled back disarmingly and offered her his drool-covered toy.

Stephanie, who was still hanging over the edge of the playpen, looked up at them solemnly with huge green eyes. "Fighting's bad when you do it to other people," she informed Kestrel solemnly. "'Specially babies. You're s'posed to be nice to babies."

"I am nice t'babes," Kestrel replied, lowering Artemis into the playpen. "'Specially this'un. I loves 'im, I do."

Small black wings suddenly appeared, protruding from Artemis's back. Flapping them experimentally, he rose a few inches off the ground before tiring and touching down again. Looking somewhat disappointed, he gave up and glanced to his adoptive mother.

"Go on an' play, darlin'," Kestrel told him cheerfully.

With a squeal that sounded somewhat like "Play!" Artemis trundled after Henry's ball.

At the mention of the word "host," all four of the Andalite's green eyes focused momentarily on Mal, the main two slightly narrowed, before the stalk eyes returned to roaming the scene freely. To his credit, although a certain racial intolerance for brain parasites had been imprinted on his psyche as part and parcel of his species' heritage, it hadn't had the opportunity to properly take root, and so he didn't immediately say something stupid. There was, however, a decidedly lengthy pause when Kaliel stopped speaking.

For that reason, he only got as far as <So—> before Barid and Voltarmi entered. Slightly dazed, Ilraen waved back to the pair of them before turning back to Kaliel. Maeryn. . . . Them. He gave himself a little shake, scratched an ear, and tried again.

<Forgive me, but you're not a Yeerk, are you? I do not believe any Yeerk ever bothered to differentiate itself from its host so politely, but perhaps things have changed.>

Jenni intercepted Barid with a slightly worried look at his present. She had heard he was trying to get rid of a collection of shrunken Sue-heads at the behest of his partner, and one of them would definitely fit in that package. The raptors were nice, though. Well, creative, anyway. . . . Were they wearing party hats?

"You can put that over there with the others, thanks," she said with a slightly forced grin. "Isn't Eamon with you?"

Derik nodded at William's answer. "Well, Jenni recruited me, and she's done her best to keep me sane since. Not her fault if there's no hope of that." He chuckled a bit darkly. In one of his abrupt shifts in demeanor, though, he looked toward Stephanie and brightened. "Cute kid. One thing I will say for this place, it understands the value of a creche. It's a life-saver in an environment like this, or a fighting Weyr."

Henry, meanwhile, had captured the ball and managed to get a grip on it sufficient to carry it around, with a huge grin on his face at his accomplishment. He couldn't see Artemis coming, of course. A collision was practically inevitable.

There was a quiet knock on the door followed almost immediately by the door being flung open. Two pale complected boys, the slightly bigger one wearing ripped jeans, a black t-shirt, and glasses; and the smaller one wearing shorts, a red t-shirt, and glasses burst into the room. They immediately spied the pile of presents and added impeccably neatly wrapped present to it. An older darker girl followed, much more calmly. She was wearing green overalls and had a green bow in her hair. She put a diaper bag down beside the playpen and went to stand near Maeryn/Kaliel and Ilraen.

Finally, a young man with extraordinarily wild bright blue hair, wearing a PPC uniform, and green rimmed mirrored sunglasses entered holding the hand of a still unsteady girl toddler. He walked her over to the playpen and placed her inside, well away from Artemis and Henry.

He looked around as if unsure of what to do, until he noticed that Kyle had already found a way to climb up a railing. Kevin was close behind him.

He ran over and grabbed Kevin and put him back on the floor. As he pulled Kyle down, he siad, "No climbing today! What did we talk about on the way over here? Huh?"

"That there was going to be cake and ice cream, Uncle Cali!" the boys said as he squirmed free and darted into the crowd.

"Aye, cake an' ice cream," Kestrel echoed, her voice dreamy as she wandered away to the food.

Kieran almost followed her, but he changed his mind and decided to keep an eye on Artemis. It was his job, after all, as Artie's self-proclaimed big brother.

Artemis was still intent on reaching the ball. However, when Agent Cali placed his toddling charge in the playpen, the little half-demon's attention was momentarily diverted to the newcomer. However, even as he looked over his shoulder to see who it was, his feet still carried him forward until he collided with Henry's back.

Both toddlers fell in an unceremonious heap. The ball went flying, and Artemis's drool-soaked toy apple plopped to the floor. Hissing in annoyance, Artemis glared up at Kieran, who was trying very, very hard not to laugh.

Henry toppled with a startled cry of "Uh-oh!" Fortunately, the padded floor prevented any damage from such a short fall, and he quickly recovered, sitting up and looking around to see what happened. Jenni glanced over at the sound, but seeing no major crisis, only smiled and waved reassuringly. He was reassured, and began to search for the ball.

"Ball gone!" he observed with concern. He turned to Artemis. Maybe the other baby would have some kind of explanation. "Ball gone," he repeated, patting Artie's knee insistently. "Baby," he added, noticing Helen's appearance in his world.

Up in the stands, Nume was much relieved to be rescued from the two young boys entering his space. He returned to reading, but resolved to keep a closer eye on the proceedings from then on, just in case.

The squishy cloth apple was hastily returned to its former position in Artemis's mouth. He glanced around uncertainly and, not seeing the missing toy, removed the apple long enough to voice his opinion on the matter. "Fly 'way?" he suggested, glancing upward. He glanced to Helen questioningly, addressing her with a sort of jumbled combination of infantile gibberish and the words "ball" and "where."

Kieran, in the meantime, had gone from fighting back laughter to fighting back the effects of Cuteness Proximity. At least Artie didn't seem to be in a fight-starting mood.

Helen smiled at the toddlers and then crawled away after something shiny.

"A Yeerk?" Kaliel looked momentarily confused until Maeryn reminded her about said parasitic aliens. "Oh, no, I'm nothing like that. Maeryn and I are Tok'ra. We're from the Stargate Atlantis universe, though I can see why you might be concerned. We had similar problems back before we joined the PPC."

Kaliel then proceeded to briefly explain about her kind and the Goa'uld, as well as the enmity between the two races.

"So you see," Kaliel said finally, "Maeryn and I are actually quite good friends. We've been blended for about six years."

Miriam had since excused herself from the conversation with Jenni and the other adults to put her gift down, and was currently alternating between helping herself to some of the food and keeping herself in a position to keep an eye on Stephanie. Luckily, this wasn't especially difficult, as she wasn't particularly hungry and her partner's daughter was easy to watch, but it did mean keeping a little apart from the others. Still, keeping an eye out seemed the least she could do, so she continued looking round, half searching for anything interesting going on and half making sure there'd be no trouble.

Meanwhile, the steady trickle of newcomers continued, as a bespectacled man who looked to be in his thirties or so led others into the auditorium, including a DTE agent with black hair and a red beret, along with a little boy determinedly latching onto the DTEer's leg. While the Technical Errors agent stumbled off to bring his son to the play area, the other—who looked like he could have passed for a Hogwarts teacher himself, with his robes and the way he carried himself—surveyed the area approvingly and headed over to Jenni.

"It looks like your party's starting well," Benjamin Roberts said. The Bad Slasher-turned-Nursery worker shot a look to the play area and couldn't quite help a small smile. "How's the birthday boy doing?"

At the aforesaid play area, Bradley Kent finally detached himself from his father's leg, as the sight of people near his own age seemed to finally convince him to stop playing limpet. After a few moments spent squirming out of the DTE agent's arms, he toddled over to Stephanie with a broad grin.

"Steffie! Hi!"

Stephanie had been watching Artemis and Henry rather closely, concerned in case they started fighting after Kieran's comment, but now gave Brad a huge grin. "'lo Brad! Been watchin' the babies," she added self-importantly, "'cause he said they'd fight." She pointed at Kieran.

William had hesitated at Derik's dark mood, trying to bring to mind a few comforting or at least encouraging words for the big man. He'd seen a few moods like it before, and could never resist the urge to help.

At the sudden mood swing, however, he followed Derik's gaze and smiled at the little gathering of children. "Yes, I don't quite know what we'd have done without the Nursery; Cara and I were both so busy I doubt we'd have been able to take care of her and do our work, back when we rescued her. I still wouldn't have regretted it, though."

"I didn't mean it like that," Kieran told them. "Artie doesn't get into fights, really. He just starts them. Yesterday he pinched Molly's Noodle dolly and put it in my pocket, and she chased me for twenty minutes straight." A somewhat haunted look entered the fox's eyes. "Twenty. Minutes. At a sprint. I didn't even know it was in my pocket until she jumped on me and dragged it out."

Artemis, who appeared to have been listening, gave him such a wide-eyed, innocent smile that it was impossible to believe he hadn't been behind the incident. "Ball?" he inquired.

Kieran shook himself and gestured. "Ball's over there, guys."

With a squeal of delight, Artemis shoved the apple back into his mouth and toddled off in the direction Kieran had pointed. Abruptly he tripped and fell flat on his face, but quickly picked himself up and continued.

"Eamon be workin' wit a new partner," said the Troll as he made his way to the pile of gifts. "Some kinda exchange program. I'll be doin' dat, soon as dey find me a partner."

He put the present with the others and his smile broadened. "Da pup is gonna love dat," he said. "I know I did when I was his age."

Voltarmi was at the table eating tiny sausages that were covered in a tangy sauce. She was quite enjoying this unfamiliar food. She looked up from her yellow plate when she noticed that someone had joined her at the table.

"I'm sure he will, Barid," Jenni said, planning a speech to explain to the two-year-old exactly why he couldn't have it. She had really expected the Troll's partner to provide some kind of quality enforcement, but . . . "Exchange program, huh?"

She was about to ask for details when Benjamin arrived. "Oh, hi, Ben! Yeah, it's a good turnout, and Henry's great. He doesn't really know what it's about, of course, but he's having fun."

Henry was now racing Artemis across the play area for the ball, laughing with the glee of the chase. He'd started out on his feet, but once he, too, fell down he figured it was easier just to keep going at a fast crawl. He plowed into the toy head first, and it rolled off to one side.

"Have you been here long, then?" Derik asked William. "Where are you from?"

Ilraen followed along with Kaliel's explanation with increasing relief. <I am very glad to hear that,> he said at last. <Thank you for explaining it. I shall have to learn more about Stargate. Given the similarities between the Yeerks and your Goa'uld, it would not surprise me to find that there are crossovers between our worlds.>

One of his stalk eyes lighted upon Hannah, who had joined them. <Hello, small human.> His experience with children was limited to having seen them once or twice before, but he did his best to sound friendly.

Cali made sure that Kevin and Kyle were headed away from obvious climbing opportunities and then he slid into a seat next to the small pink haired woman eating cocktail wienies.

"Hi, I'm Cali Still." He glanced pointedly at her hair, and scrubbed his hand over his own hair, which somehow managed to stand up even more. "It's nice to meet another person at the PPC that has unusual hair. Have you been with the PPC long?"

Henry's ball rolled right into Helen's lap. She immediately dropped the shiny rattle she had been chewing on to pick the ball up and gum it.

Kyle stopped so suddenly that Kevin ran into his back.

"Why'd you stop?" Kevin said sulkily rubbing his nose.

"Look," Kyle said pointing at the table laden with food. He handed Kevin a plate and immediately began piling whatever he could reach onto it, concentrating on things that looked sweet.

Hannah listened to the explanation that Kaliel/Maeryn gave with rapt fascination. When she heard Ilraen's voice inside her head, she looked startled for just a moment, then went back to fascinated. "How'd you do that?"

Artemis had been racing Henry for the ball, fluttering his wings in an attempt to boost his speed. At the sight of Helen holding it, he skidded to a halt, looking somewhat put out at being beaten to the prize. The drool-covered apple plopped to the ground.

Then, as though getting over his disappointment, Artemis crawled past her, retrieved the rattle, and bit it. The action momentarily exposed unusually sharp teeth, leaving onlookers to wonder how the cloth apple had managed to stay in one piece for so long.

Kestrel was helping herself to the contents of the food table. There were crumbs in her whiskers and a smear of whipped cream on her nose, but she carried on happily, licking up most of what had missed her mouth on the way down. She spied a tempting-looking cream puff on a platter to her left. As she reached for it, so did Kyle, and the two of them grabbed it simultaneously in an odd parody of Lady and the Tramp.

The ferret smiled down at him, exposing two rows of sharp teeth. "Back off, young 'un, I saw it first."

Brad mulled this over for a few moments, before nodding sagely and turning his attention to the other kids. "Daddy says 's okay to fight if you've got a good reason," he said, his expression grave by four-year-old standards. "Dun' think a baby'd have a good reason though. They're too little."

He watched over the playpen for a few more moments before nodding again, as if he'd discovered something incredibly important. "Tha's right, you've got to be big to know what a good reason is. 'S why the big 'uns do all that stuff."

Ben chuckled, keeping one eye on the various children around even as he kept up his conversation with Jenni. "I can see that," he said, adjusting his glasses briefly. "It's good to see things going well, in any case; I would have come by sooner, but you know what my shifts are like at the Nursery."

A moment passed in slightly awkward silence as he messed with his robes a bit, and then he looked rather sheepish. "I'm sorry, but I didn't have much of any time to think up a good gift; it was on short notice, and like I said, I'd been working . . . "

Stephanie nodded knowingly. "Grown-ups always know best. Like Mummy and Uncle William." She glanced over at the snack table. "C'mon, let's go get some food!" She took Brad's hand and Kieran's paw and tugged them off towards it in a burst of enthusiasm.

William had to consider Derik's question for a moment. "I arrived around the middle of 2007, actually," he replied. "So over three years ago. I'm from the Potterverse—it's all a bit complex, but I originated in a badfic set in Deathly Hallows. Things have changed somewhat since then, but that's the basics. Yourself?"

Laughing, Kieran allowed himself to be led away from the playpen. He hoped Artemis didn't get into trouble while he was gone, but the food looked so good.

Artemis, in the meantime, had managed to bite a considerable dent in the rattle. Seeing this, he frowned and began knocking it against the floor.

Kyle stopped in mid-reach as the large furry creature glared at him. She looked a bit like Molly, but much bigger, so he decided to back off.

"Aw, you can have it," he said sulkily.

Kevin's plate was dangerously over-full by this point, so Kyle grabbed as many treats as he could reach, and pointed Kevin to the space underneath the table. Kevin carefully placed the plate on the floor and began to push it under the table.

Helen's attention was caught by the tiny black wings fluttering in her face. She dropped the ball and grabbed the nearest wing to try to drag it toward her mouth.

Ilraen smiled at the question. He actually had some practice answering it. <We Andalites speak with telepathy. Do you know what that is? I understand that some worlds do not have people with the ability, but many do.>

Having won the race to the ball, Henry seemed to think that was prize enough and sat down contentedly. He watched Helen try to bite it for a little while, though it was too big to really get a good purchase on that way—he would know, he'd tried it before. But of course, one could never be too certain about these things. He left her to it. Artemis was causing a very interesting noise with the rattle, and Henry also noticed that he had dropped the toy apple. This was something New and Different, and therefore the most interesting.

"Ball?" he queried, starting toward it. It had certain ball-like attributes, to be certain. Further investigation was required.

"Oh, don't worry about it, Ben," Jenni said, waving off the man's concern. "You do enough every day. That's a great gift." Steering abruptly away from that line of talk before she could sound any more corny (although absolutely sincere), she indicated the large Warcraft Troll beside her. "By the way, this is my friend Barid, though I suspect he's here more because the invitation had the word "party" in it than anything else," she joked. "But, I should go around and act hostessy, so I hope you'll both excuse me."

Stepping back from them, she looked around for people she hadn't greeted yet, and decided to head for the food table.

"Complex," Derik agreed with a chuckle. "The records say I arrived in March, 2008, just before the lockdown, so technically it's been nearly three T—uh, years. It hardly feels like it, though. I remember fighting in the 'Sue invasion, but I don't think I've lived for three years since then. Some kind of odd time-dilation effect during missions, I suppose." He shrugged. "Anyway, I'm from Pern, though the fic I came from was a crossover with Potterverse. . . . You probably don't want to know the details," he added, contemplating the likelihood that a 'verse native probably heard more than enough horrible things about it already.

Kestrel popped the cream puff into her mouth primly. "Tha's wo' I thought," she managed to say.

Seeing this, Kieran chuckled. "Better hurry," he told the toddlers. "Before Kestrel eats the lot."

Artemis squeaked, nearly dropping the rattle, when he felt Helen latch on to one of his wings. With a hiss that would not have sounded out of place on a python, he swatted her over the head with his free wing, not hard enough to cause any real damage, but enough to convey his displeasure. "No!" he insisted, trying to tug the feathered limb out of her hands.

"Of course, don't let me intrude." Ben stepped out of Jenni's way with a half-bow and a slightly wry smile, before he looked up at the troll the FicPsych nurse had been speaking to. He was only passingly familiar with the Warcraft continuum, but he gave Barid a polite enough nod as he extended his hand.

"Can't say I've seen too many trolls here, if my guess is right," he said. "In any case, it's nice meeting a friend of Jenni's. You probably heard as much, but the name's Ben Roberts."

Brad had tried to protest weakly as Stephanie dragged him across the auditorium, but soon fell quiet, especially as he got a look at the various snacks available. Kieran's comment made him pause, pouting his lips slightly as he eyed the food.

"Prolly an idea," he said to Kieran. "'S too much food for her to eat it all though. She'd get sick."

It wasn't all that easy for someone to sound simultaneously jealous and concerned, but Brad managed it.

Miriam fought down the temptation to look amused at the display, particularly as the toddlers made their way over to the snack tables, instead chuckling to herself and shaking her head a little.

"Kids, huh?" she said, at slightly too high a volume to have been merely thinking aloud.

Voltarmi stood up on her bench so she was looking almost eye to eye with Agent Cali. "Thank you for the compliment, but this isn't my natural color." She looked at Cali's hair. "Blue is a good color on you."

Voltarmi sat back down and looked over her plate again. "To answer your question," she said, "not long. Another gentleman with blue hair brought me back here after a mission where I pulled his bacon out of the fire. And you?"

Barid clasped Ben's hand with a tight, three-fingered grip. "Pleasure ta meet ya, Ben," he said with a smile. "Da name's Barid. I'm not exactly a friend 'a Jenni's, but we know some'a da same people." He looked to where Nume was sitting in the stands.

He turned back to Ben. "Ya got a good point about da numba 'a trolls in dis place. Did ya know dey won' let us in da Cafeteria?"

"Ah, yes, 'don't feed the trolls'." Ben sounded dryly amused. "Either the Nightshade has a grudge, or somebody's taken that old adage a tad too literally. It's a bit of a silly rule if you ask me."

He threw another look around, as if to emphasise his next statement. "If it exists, we recruit from it; you'd think we'd be a bit past questions of species. But I suppose half the things here are a little silly if you think about it."

Stephanie reached the table and climbed up onto a nearby chair, not quite certain what to do now. Fortunately, before she could go diving in, Cara spotted the situation and came over quickly, giving all three children a smile.

"You lot after the food?" She found some of the paper plates and began filling them, one for each; her concern was mainly to prevent the little ones falling or spilling something trying to get to the food. "What do you like, then?"

William nodded understandingly. "Crossovers are never much fun—I've seen far too many things crossed over with Potterverse. Well, I would have, really," he added wryly, nodding at his DIC flash patch. "I've never heard of Pern, though. I . . . won't press you for details, though, if you'd rather not give them." He gave Derik a sympathetic look. "Not many people like to talk about the fics they came from."

"I can get a plate for myself, thank you," Kieran said politely. "Agent Deuce told me I have to stay away from chocolate."

"Sorry, cully," Kestrel told him contritely as she approached, wiping her muzzle on a paper napkin. "I didn't fink to give ye a 'uman disguise afore we came."

"'Salright," Kieran replied. "Ooh, donut holes!"

Cali thought for a moment and then said, "Was it Barid? He's the one that started the food fight a while back, isn't he? That was a blast, except I had to pry Kyle down off the cafeteria ceiling ductwork again. Speaking of which where'd those boys get off to?"

Helen fell back on her back with a thump. Her hands tangled in Artemis' wing.

Kevin and Kyle had already made a sizable dent in the large quantity of sweets. When Kevin realized he had somehow gotten a celery stick onto the plate, he aimed it at one of the feet he could see under the edge of the table cloth and threw it as hard as he could.

Hannah thought for a moment, "I'm from an NCIS badfic, so we didn't have telepathy there, but I've heard of it since then. What continuum are you from?"

Cara nodded and just passed Kieran a plate. "I'm sure you know what you're doing then, hon," she said cheerfully enough, turning her attention to filling plates for Stephanie and Brad. Once the pair of them were satisfied, she sent them off to sit and eat quietly; she wasn't convinced they'd do it for long, but at least they weren't the kind of kids to make too much mess with anything they didn't eat.

She set about getting a plateful for herself, but jerked back as something collided with her leg. "Oi!" Bending down and picking up the celery stick, she raised an eyebrow and lifted the tablecloth to give the two boys under it a slightly stern look. "Can I ask which of you just threw food at me?"

A rather big man, red-headed and with one eye covered, and a smaller blonde woman came into the auditorium, a sturdy boy of nearly five walking between them. He was hanging onto their hands a little nervously, but quite cheerfully bounded off on seeing some of his friends from the Nursery.

Luke was looking rather like he would have liked to make for the door, but Vicky took his arm and tugged him across towards Jenni. "Come on, at least stay long enough to be polite. I've never seen you worried about social gatherings before."

"None of them have been kids' birthday parties before," he muttered, tugging at his collar a little, and reluctantly followed her.

Henry reached the stuffed apple unimpeded, thanks to the other two being occupied with each other. It was soggier than he had expected it to be, but that didn't stop it from going straight into his mouth. On the whole, more like his fire-lizard toy than a ball, he decided.

Derik looked at the floor for a moment to cover the intense surge of anger that accompanied any thoughts of what he had to say about his fic of origin, though he couldn't stop his fists from clenching. By the time he looked up again, the fit had passed and he was smiling again.

"Well, I don't have to talk about that to tell you about Pern," he said. "Technically it's a colony of Earth, in the far future, but by the time I come from, it had been presumed a failure and forgotten about for hundreds of . . . we call them Turns, not years," he explained his hesitation. "It's hard to break the habit." He went on to explain about Thread, which ravaged the planet every 200, sometimes 400 years, and how the early settlers genetically engineered dragons from the indigenous fire-lizards to keep it from devouring all the organic life.

"There's quite a bit of history since then, not all of it pleasant, but essentially the Weyrs, where the dragons and riders live, protect the Holds and Halls from Thread in exchange for the goods and services we can't provide for ourselves—you can't farm in a burnt-out volcano cone, for instance, even if we had the time to spare for it during a Pass." He shook his head. Perhaps conspicuously, he did not mention having been a rider, although his perspective was obvious.

<My home continuum is Animorphs,> Ilraen answered Hannah. <It is a science fiction series in which six youths use a special morphing ability to fight a guerrilla war against the invading Yeerk Empire. My people would have helped if they had known, but they were quite busy fighting the Yeerks elsewhere, and too far away to come immediately,> he added loyally.

Naturally, Jenni reached the food table just in time for newcomers to walk through the door. She did spot them on a routine glance at the playpen, though, and happily waved them over before turning back.

"How is everyone over here? Finding everything all right?" she addressed the lot. "Who's hiding under there?" Seeing Cara bent over, she knelt down herself to take a look. "Bit dark and cramped under there for two big boys like you, don't you think?" she addressed the boys, backing Cara up with a raised eyebrow.

Cali heard the phrase "threw food" and immediately zeroed in on the two women looking under the table.

"Excuse me, ma'am, I think I just located the boys," he said as he stood. He walked over to the table and joined the adults looking under the table. Kyle was pointing at Kevin, who was shaking his head in denial while at the same time attempting the "I'm too cute to have done anything like that" look. Cali saw the plate, and the sticky faces and fingers of the boys.

"You two are sitting with me for the rest of the party. Right next to the babies."

"No, not that! We don't want to sit with the stinky babies! We're big for that!" Kevin whined.

Just then Helen started crying in the playpen.

"Animorphs. I believe I'll look into that. I need to begin learning canons, so I'll be prepared when I can begin going on missions. Are you an agent?"

Artemis had overbalanced and fallen on top of Helen, his surprised hiss growing louder. Beneath him, the girl burst into tears, her high-pitched wail grating in his ears.

The little half-demon struggled up, disentangling his wings from the crying toddler. He didn't blink very often, but he did so now, in mild bewilderment at the situation. Usually, when he was the cause of others' distress, it was intentional. Now, however, he'd caused another child to cry completely by accident. He hadn't known he could do that.

A noise from Henry made him glance over, and he let out a high-pitched noise of protest. He couldn't recall giving the other toddler leave to use his apple.

Kieran snickered at the dismayed six-year-olds when, suddenly, Helen started crying and Artemis shrieked shortly afterward.

"Great seasons," the fox muttered. "Did somebeast take away Artie's apple again?

Kestrel sighed. "I'll go an' make sure none o' the young'uns gets bit."

"Whoops." Jenni straightened up at the cry, homing in on Helen like a beacon. "Little more serious than it looked over there, I guess. I got it."

She stepped into the playpen and sat down to gently disentangle Helen and Artemis, then picked Helen up for hugs. "There we go, kiddo. You're okay. No big deal." She one-handedly patted the little girl's back, while sparing the other one to softly rub Artie's head. "What's all the fuss, hm?"

Henry, startled by all the noise, had let the apple fall from his mouth and stared open-mouthed at the others, confused and not quite sure whether to start crying himself or go back to what he was doing, since his mom was there.

Ilraen didn't immediately respond to Hannah, until he saw that Jenni was handling the crying. Then he relaxed again.

<Oh yes—I work in the Department of Implausible Crossovers. My partner is Agent Supernumerary, up there.> He pointed, then tilted his head thoughtfully. Nume was watching the scene with the babies. <He looks as though he does not wish to be spoken to, but do you know, I think he would if you asked him to. He is a very experienced agent. Much more so than I.>

Brad seemed blissfully ignorant of what was going on with the adults as he wandered off to find somewhere quiet to sit and poke at the selection of sweets and vegetables that had been put on his plate. The sudden cries from the playpen startled him, but the grown-ups seemed to have everything in hand, so he pointed out a quieter part of the table to Stephanie and continued on. After a check to see if she was following or not, he put his plate up and began trying to climb into the nearest chair. Stephanie's mother had given him lots of nice snacks, and it struck him as somehow wrong not to eat them.

Ben almost abandoned the conversation with Barid as the cries reached him, his gaze snapping over to the playpen and demeanour shifting to that of a concerned father figure, but he thought better of being so rude to his new acquaintance. Instead, he looked back to the troll and gave a quick nod.

"Excuse me for a moment," he said. "I'll be back shortly."

Without further ado, he headed over to join Jenni at the playpen, not quite running but certainly making a quick pace across the auditorium, giving the kids around a careful once-over.

"Everything all right here, Jenni?"

A quick look round showed Miriam wasn't needed for anything, so she let herself relax slightly, directing a wry look to her partner.

"Looks like everything's getting off to a good start, at least."

Stephanie clambered up onto her own chair next to Brad and settled down to eat, only sparing the crying babies a brief glance.

Cara watched the scene, rather amused now that the childrens' respective adults were taking control of the situation. On hearing her partner she looked round and smiled. "Well, nobody's actually screaming yet, so I'd say so."

Luke was now standing by the table, looking like an oversized awkward teenager with so many small children around. He was staying very still for fear of accidentally standing on one.

William couldn't help but look utterly sympathetic towards Derik, but said nothing and listened with interest to the description of Pern. "It all sounds very interesting, and a good way to arrange things if one ignores the obvious potential for power struggles—I assume that's part of what you meant by the less than pleasant history?" He sighed a little. "That sort of thing's inevitable anywhere, though, really."

He chose not to comment on what he'd deduced about Derik. It wasn't for him to make assumptions and potentially say something offensive, not after everything the big man seemed to be struggling with already.

Kestrel leaned over the playpen, stroking Artemis's head. "There there, me little 'un, 'tis awright. 'Ere. Beggin' yore pardon, 'Enry." She nudged the toy apple closer to Artemis, who snatched it up and returned it to its original place between his teeth. For a moment Kestrel thought she saw stuffing peeking out of a tear in the toy, but the next moment it was gone. "No 'arm done, young'uns."

Kieran selected a plump strawberry from the fruit tray and bit into it so enthusiastically that juice squirted from the side. "Whoops."

"Is that what it was all about?" Jenni wondered, regarding the apple. Some private thought made her grin a mischievous little grin. "Of course, he likes fruit."

Henry whimpered a bit at having the toy snatched, apparently unprovoked, which drew Jenni's attention from whatever she was thinking about. "Oh. Ben, would you grab that fire-lizard toy for him? It's just over there." She pointed; it was out of reach, and she wasn't quite ready to let Helen go yet.

"Yes, unfortunately, we've all forgotten our Teaching Ballads at some point or another," Derik said. He couldn't help but notice the sympathy writ large on the other man's face, so he felt he had to do something to make up for it. "Let me see now . . . I haven't tried this in . . . well. 'Dragonman, avoid excess / Greed will bring the Weyr distress,'" he sang softly, then abruptly cleared his throat. His voice was noticeably trained, a clear, high-end baritone, but equally noticeably unused for the purpose for some time. "Rusty pipes, I'm afraid. Jenni demonstrated the birthday song for Ilraen and me earlier. That will be a challenge!"

"Gets that bit from 'is father, I fink," Kestrel murmured to Jenni, smiling fondly at the toddler.

Artemis removed the toy from his mouth and clutched it protectively with both hands. Then, still peeved at Henry for taking it, he stuck out his tongue at him. It was a little too long to be normal, and forked at the end like a reptile's.

"That too," Kestrel added.

Vicky had decided to risk leaving Luke alone for a bit in favour of helping Owen get some food. The little boy was less than impressed, but had long since learned that arguing with his mother wasn't a good idea, and just let her do it with a resigned sigh and a glance at Kieran as if to say, "Mothers."

William chuckled slightly. "I'm sure. I've never been much of a singer, myself, but at least the birthday song's pretty much expected not to sound overly tuneful when sung by large groups. Steph's never seemed to mind, anyway." He smiled at the little girl happily eating her snacks nearby, oblivious to the conversation.

"Maybe you should practice more, though—it sounds like something you used to do a lot, and hobbies can be a big help here. I know I've found some solace in my experiments, at times."

Ben gave another one of his quick nods. "Sure thing."

The toy fire-lizard was easily retrieved, and he was soon handing it back to the young boy with a gentle smile on his face. "Here you go, Henry. Keep a better eye on it from now on, hm?"

Miriam rolled her eyes a little at Cara, amused. "Go ahead and tempt them, why don't you?"

Despite the tone of mock-cynicism in her voice, Miriam didn't seem to mind her surroundings overmuch, probably because she herself didn't have to try dealing with a crying child. Even Stephanie could be a handful when she was determined to be upset about something, and as far as the young Assassin was concerned her partner's daughter was somewhat abnormal with how well-behaved she tended to be. As long as she didn't have to test her patience too rigorously, she was happy enough.

Not to say she wouldn't help out if any of the other adults couldn't get around to it. Just to keep her partner from getting annoyed. Really.

Cali had finally managed to get Kyle and Kevin wrangled over to the area of the play pen, with a small plate of healthy foods for each. Neither of them looked very happy, but for the moment they were quietly eating.

He checked in with Jenni. "Is Helen okay? I heard her cry, but she stopped so quickly that I decided to finish dealing with these two hooligans."

Hannah looked in the direction Ilraen indicated and saw Nume trying to ignore the room full of people below him.

"Do you really think he'd talk to me? It looks like he is busy."

Artemis observed Henry carefully, until he was absolutely certain the other toddler was sufficiently satisfied with his own toy, and thus wouldn't try coming after his. Feeling his point had been made, he retracted his forked tongue and busied himself blowing bubbles with his spit.

Kestrel snickered at this, ruffled his black hair, and strode back to the food table. "Crisis averted, I fink. Any donut 'oles left?"

Seeing everyone happy again, Jenni took a look around the room and made a decision. "I think we can do better than doughnut holes. Off you go, Helen. Here, here's a rattle." She did a double-take at the teeth marks in it, but left it with the little girl anyway on the basis that she probably wouldn't mind. Sitting her down a good couple of feet from Artemis, she picked up her own child instead, toy and all, and headed for the table. Although reluctant to disturb the people occupied with plates of food, she decided it was better to err on the side of brevity, and ensure things didn't drag on longer than the little ones could handle.

Derik pulled a wry expression. "To be honest, I don't know if I will take it up again. It seems this face"—he gestured at his scars—"comes with certain baggage in a wider multiverse. Although . . . I could do with something between missions. There's no work to do, and I don't know how often there are gatherings like this, just to socialize. Would you tell me about—oh, now wait a minute." He nodded in the direction of the table, where Jenni was calling for attention.

Ilraen thought for a moment. <He would probably tell you to go away first,> he confessed. <Afterward, though, I am quite certain he would. Ah, but perhaps not just now.>

Jenni made her way to the middle of the table, where a sheet cake sat covered. It was an easy matter to sit Henry in a chair long enough to uncover the cake with its two candles and fix an odd little Sorting Hat-shaped hat to the boy's head, and then lift him up again.

"Excuse me, everybody!"

Kaliel, who had been listening with a quiet interest to Ilraen, turned at the sound of Jenni's voice.

Ooh, cake! Maeryn said, her mental voice excited. I wonder what kind it is.

~I'm sure we'll see soon, 'Ryn,~ Kaliel replied, amused. ~For right now, let's just hear what Jenni has to say.~

Cara looked over to Jenni, then waved Stephanie over. The little girl put her plate aside and came to get a look, grinning hugely as she guessed what was about to happen.

William had been listening, still sympathetic, to Derik's story, and turned to look as the big man indicated the table. He chuckled quietly, remembering the first birthday Stephanie had had with them.

Owen came running over to climb his father rather like a tree and get a better view.

Kieran had been trying to impress the younger kids by flipping strawberries into the air and catching them with his mouth. At Jenni's call for attention, however, the last strawberry missed his mouth and bounced off his muzzle. Hiding his embarrassment, Kieran looked to the Nurse and mumbled something about "Hey look, a distraction."

Kestrel's nose twitched. She could smell frosting.

In the playpen, Artemis heard the Nurse's call and left off blowing spit bubbles. He began to bounce up and down, trying to see over the playpen. His flapping wings carried him a few inches higher as he tried to see what was so important.

Brad had gone over with the other kids when he heard Jenni, climbing into the first free seat to get a better look at what was going on.

Ben, of course, had followed Jenni over to the table once the kids in the playpen no longer needed seeing to, standing back a little so as not to get in the way and wearing a faint smile.

Miriam also kept out of the way once Jenni called for attention, somewhat amused as everyone seemed to head over or at least look their way but without much to add. If Stephanie's birthdays had been any indication to her, things tended to get good once the cake showed up.

Hannah saw that everyone was gathering for the cake. "Thank you for talking with me, Ilraen. It was nice to meet you, Miss Maeryn and Kaliel. Excuse me, please." Her store of politeness ran out and she didn't wait for a response before joining the group around the table.

Cali picked Helen up, and took Kyle's hand. "Daisy chain!" he said loudly, and Keven grabbed Kyle's hand. Kyle looked like he thought he was much too big to be holding hands, but Cali held firm when he squirmed. Deciding he'd better behave if he wanted any cake, he stopped squirming and followed quietly.

With just about everyone's eyes on her, Jenni hesitated. It wasn't as though she hadn't made speeches before, but usually when they happened it was the impassioned result of someone being an idiot and needing an immediate education in Jenni's School of Stop Being an Idiot. Deliberately stepping into the foreground like this was totally different.

Perhaps sensing his mother's discomfort, Henry provided a distraction by squirming and trying to pull his hat off.

"Whoops. Nope, no, not yet. Gotta wear the hat, kiddo." She fixed it and looked back up at everyone with a grin.

"Well, hi, everyone. Thanks for being here—I know how hard it is to get away. Um, as you all know, it's my son Henry's birthday. He's turning two, and this is his first party with friends, which I am very excited about. Dunno about him." She shrugged a bit sheepishly, as if to say "kids; what can you do?" Henry chewed on his toy and looked up at her curiously. The combination reminded her of something, and she turned to call up to the stands.

"Nume! Stop lurking and come participate for a bit. This is mandatory party behavior!"

"I'm not singing," he informed her flatly. However, he did set his book aside and come down to stand with crossed arms at the fringe of the group. Better to suffer a small dose of foolishness now than the subtle revenge the green-eyed woman would take later if he didn't.

"I'll take what I can get," Jenni said, rolling her eyes. "Anyway, we've got a cake here, so I hear there's some sort of ceremony that goes with it. Uh . . . " Shifting Henry to sit on her hip, she freed up an arm to light the two candles. "So, here we go! If you don't know the song, make something up, I guess."

She took a breath and led off a round of "Happy Birthday." Notably, Ilraen's non-voice lent an odd psychic undertone, and Derik managed to carry it off with far less difficulty than he'd implied, though the crowd covered him for the most part. Not notably, Nume did not sing. He did, however, join the customary round of clapping at the end.

Jenni sat down in a chair in order to hold her son at a level with the cake. Fitting the event's theme, it was decorated with the Hogwarts crest. "Okay, Henry. Blow out the candles! Blow!"

Henry stared at the flames for a few seconds, then did his best and produced a slightly wet raspberry. Despite this, the candles winked out simultaneously.

Jenni blinked. "Well now. You are your fathers' son." She grinned and planted a kiss on the back of the boy's dark, fuzzy head.

"Okay, everybody, dig in! It's Convenient Cake, so I know you'll all enjoy it!"