Hater’s innards rumbled so loudly he jumped in his seat and promptly steered his character over a ledge to his death. He bellowed in rage, hurled the controller through the console screen, and stormed out of his bedroom in search of Peepers.
He checked the bridge. No Peepers. He checked Peepers’s bedroom. Still no Peepers. He checked Peepers’s study, the war room, the laboratory, and finally barged into Peepers’s private bathroom, but had no luck. Eventually, Hater gave up, put his hand to the side of his face, and called the help desk, fuming.
“Oh, uh, hello, Lord Hater, sir!” said an overly perky voice on the other end of the line. “How may I be of service to y—”
“I can’t find Commander Peepers anywhere. Where is he?”
“All right, sir, I will find that out for you right away. Please hold!”
“Wait, no, don’t—” Hater began, but he was too late. Classical music was already drifting out of his glove. He groaned melodramatically and started banging his head on the wall.
After what felt like hours, the music cut off. “Finally,” Hater grumbled.
“I’m pleased to report that we found him, sir! He’s in the mess hall eating dessert, and he said very emphatically that he doesn’t want to be disturbed, but he’ll have to make an exception for you, of course, so—”
“Dessert?” Hater interrupted. “Peepers doesn’t eat dessert.”
“Well, I wouldn’t know about that, sir, but today is his birthday. I suspect—”
“Peepers has a birthday?”
“…Um, yes, sir. Most people do, and the commander—”
Hater hung up, flabbergasted.
“…Uh-huh. Well, it’s a nice thought, but I’m afraid we’ll have to pa—” Sylvia glanced over her shoulder and noticed Wander had sat up, still cocooned in his hat. She took her phone away from her ear. “Oh, shoot. Sorry, buddy, didn’t mean to wake you.”
She looked back at the phone, feeling guilty even though the rational (and cynical) part of her was sure she shouldn’t be. It was bound to be a trap…but hey, maybe it wasn’t. And even if it was, they could handle it. She reached out to hand the phone to Wander. “It’s for you.”
He took it and listened intently, and his face slowly broke into an ecstatic grin. “Of course we’ll come! It’s gonna be so much fun, and I’m so proud of you for this—”
Sylvia could hear the response from her spot two feet away. “You’re making it WEIRD! Don’t make it weird or I’ll CALL THE WHOLE THING OFF!”
The call ended with a click and Wander sprang onto her back like a stretched-out rubber band that had been flicked across a room. “C’mon, Syl, we gotta go! It’s an emergency!”
Sylvia rolled her eyes good-naturedly. “Well, if you say so.” And with that they set off; she might not have been able to muster the same sense of urgency as Wander had, but his enthusiasm was enough to get her going at a good clip.
“I had no idea until like an hour ago! And he’s, like, the only reason I have an empire in the first place, and he always throws a huge party for me when it’s my birthday, so it’s just… it’s just unfair!” Hater squeezed his eyes shut, tugged his hood over his face, and dropped his voice to an almost unintelligible mutter. “So, you know… I wanted to do something for him… and then IrealizedIdidn’tknowhow and this is, like, your whole thing, so… I kinda… needyourhelp OKAY I SAID IT.” He cautiously opened one eye and peeked out of his hood to see Wander’s reaction.
Wander’s smile was so big it looked like his face was about to split in half, and his eyes were sparkling with unshed tears of joy. “Hater, I would be honored to—”
“Don’t start thinking this is some kind of sign of character growth on my part, ‘cause it’s not, okay?!” Hater said hastily, cutting him off. “It’s for Peepers and he’s just about the evilest person ever.”
Wander nodded sagely, that stupid hideous smile still on his face. “So, what does he like?”
“I don’t know! That’s the WHOLE REASON I called you here in the FIRST PLACE!” Hater roared, neon green electricity arcing along his arms.
“Hmm…” Wander furrowed his brow and rubbed his chin, then perked up. “I’ve got it!” He pulled a massive chalkboard out of his hat and set it up in front of a very befuddled Hater. “We’ll just write down all our ideas to get started, and go back over and narrow ‘em down when we’re done! Hater, you’re the closest to him, you go first.”
Hater’s eyes roved around the ceiling. “Uh, well, I… How come I have to go first?! I already told you I don’t know!”
“Just say whatever comes to your mind, there’s no judgement or pressure right now,” Wander said gently. Sylvia let out a noise that might have been a snort from where she was lying on the water bed, and he shot a stern glance in her direction.
“This is exactly like that thing Peepers does all the time,” Hater muttered. He fiddled with the neck of his cloak. “Things he likes… well, there’s strategy, and talking, and research and color-coded reference material and proper posture, uh, that guy with the cheekbones who blew up Alderaan… he’s always talking about resources, so, uh, that, I guess. Nerdy stuff like that. And me.”
Wander’s chalk squeaked madly across the board. “And… you. Got it! Sylvia, got any ideas?”
Sylvia rolled over and stared blankly at him. “You’re asking me?”
“Well, yeah, you’ve worked together with him, haven’t you? What do you think he’d like?”
“Weapons of mass destruction, probably.” She looked suspiciously at Hater. “But, uh, he’s probably already got plenty of those, so I say get him a karaoke machine.”
Wander finished writing her first suggestion down and then exchanged dubious looks with Hater.
“What?” Sylvia asked indignantly. “Who doesn’t like karaoke? And the little nerd likes to sing, anyway!”
Wander added it to the list. “Sounds good, Syl! Guess it’s my turn…”
Sylvia looked at the mess of crossed-out items on the list. “So, we’ve narrowed the good suggestions down to a bunch of Hater memorabilia we think he probably already has and a lot of deadly weapons. Wander, can I speak with you privately for a second?”
“Sure thing!” Wander turned to an very tired-looking Hater, who was peering blearily at the list. “You stay here and keep working, Hatey, we’ll be back in a blink!”
Hater mumbled something indistinct but affirmative, and Sylvia tugged Wander out the set of massive, overly-complicated doors into the hallway.
“Look, buddy, I know this is a big accomplishment for you and you’re having a blast,” Sylvia said gently, “but I’ve got a nagging feeling that this is gonna end with us helping Peepers hurt a whole bunch of innocent people, and I really don’t think you want that.”
“I wouldn’t worry, Syl, I don’t think we could get him those dangerous things anyway,” Wander said, waving a hand dismissively. “They’re all super big and complex and made by top-secret manufacturers in far-away galaxies. But that does mean we’re kind of out of ideas, and we need to—” He broke off with a gasp and jumped up to grab her face. “NO, WAIT. I just had the best idea!”
He dashed back into Hater’s bedroom, dragging Sylvia with him. “HATER!”
Hater was leaning against the chalkboard and bolted upright, frantically wiping his face. “Wha-whassgoinon—oh, it’s you.”
“I came up with a solution!” Wander smacked himself in the head excitedly. “I can’t believe I didn’t think of it before, it’s so obvious—”
Hater grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him wildly. (Sylvia got ready to intervene.) “Well, out with it, man, don’t keep me in the dark!”
“It gives you what you need, and what you need—”
“—Is a present for Peepers!” Hater said enthusiastically, and abruptly checked himself. He was catching Wander’s happies. “Yeah, yeah, I get where this is going. Just gimme the stupid hat.” He snatched off Wander’s head, plunged his arm in to the elbow, and pulled out—
—a bomb with a lit fuse. Wander hastily blew it out and took his hat back. “I, uh, think it might remember you. Maybe I should handle this.” He stuck his hand in, rummaged around a bit, and pulled out—
—a card, which Hater immediately swiped and opened. “What—there’s not even any money in it! It’s totally empty! Your dumb hat’s broken!”
Wander peeked over Hater’s shoulder. “Huh. It’s blank.” He looked back down at the hat. “Maybe there’s something more…” He reached in again and pulled out—
—a pen. “Ohhh, of course!”
Sylvia raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.
“Of course, what? I don’t get it,” Hater grumbled.
Wander tapped Hater’s jawbone lightly with the pen. “We’ve been coming up with a bunch of things you could get Peepers, but he’s already in charge of your empire! There’s nothing we can get him that he doesn’t already have—but if you make him something, like a heartfelt card letting him know how much he means to you, it’ll be truly one-of-a-kind, and the effort you put in will make it mean so much more!”
Hater stared worriedly down at the card. “But—but this thinking about others thing is so exhausting already, and that’s so much harder!” He looked to Wander. “What if I do a bad job on it? What if he thinks it’s dumb and sappy?” He yanked on his horns, looking even more distraught. “What if he thinks I’m not evil enough anymore?”
“Hey, don’t worry so much about it!” Wander said, giving Hater a reassuring hug. “You said he’s done lots of stuff for your birthdays, he’s not going to think you’ve gotten soft because you returned the favor. Just be honest! He’s your friend, he’s bound to appreciate that you were thinking about him! And it’s always better to do something than nothing in these situations.”
“Besides,” Sylvia put in, “The little guy adores you. I bet you’d make his day even if you only wrote a sentence.”
Hater pried Wander off of him and fidgeted uneasily. “Well… okay. I’ll try.” He took the pen from Wander. “Now you better leave! It’ll be too hard to be… honest about my feelings and all that junk if you’re still here.”
“All right, if you say so!” Wander hopped onto Sylvia and gave Hater another tight hug around the shoulders, and then the two of them dashed away before he could react. “I’m so proud of youuuuuu!”
Hater stood stock still listening to Wander’s voice fade around the corner. Part of him wanted to give chase, but that part of him was a lot smaller than it used to be. He had something he needed to do, anyway.
Peepers let out a contented sigh as he entered his room. It had been a productive day; he’d yelled at a bunch of watchdogs, gotten the most recent weapons development project started, crushed an uprising on Ichthyon 13, and crossed all his regular empire-maintaining duties off his list. He’d had the mess hall all to himself, just the way he liked it, and he’d gotten to have his cupcake and eat it, too.
He was just about to hop in bed and top a good day off with a good night’s sleep when he noticed several unfamiliar objects on his desk. Peepers walked over to investigate and found a rather suspicious-looking cupcake on top of a glittery card that was nearly half the desk’s size, a karaoke machine with a note attached, and a very plain card sitting on the opposite side of the desk as the other presents—because they had to be presents.
Peepers sighed. He purposely never told anyone it was his birthday. It wasn’t that special, after all. This had to be Wander’s doing; he always knew things he shouldn’t. Maybe one of the medical officers had let it slip. He’d have to have a talk with them.
Sheer curiosity drove him to take a closer look. The cupcake was festooned with a ludicrous amount of bright red icing, yellow sprinkles, and rainbow-colored candles. Definitely Wander’s handiwork. He didn’t bother opening the card. The note on the karaoke machine said, “Knock yourself out, ya optic nerd.” It was unsigned, but it had to be Sylvia. …He might have to try it—after he’d made sure it wasn’t a booby trap, of course.
That just left the second card. There were no decorations whatsoever, in stark contrast to the first one. He opened it and his pupil dilated with shock at the sight of the familiar jagged handwriting.
“Happy birthday or whatever. –Lord Hater #1 SuperStar”