Woo, I got it done with one minute to spare! Victory for Naolin So, anyway. Happy Birthday, Shizuru. Ah, how I love December. To share the same month is an honour indeed.


Tick

Shizuru sighed.

Tock

Shizuru yawned.

Tick

Shizuru rolled over.

Tock

The numbers on the electronic clock on the desk by the bed flashed 8:00pm. Blinking at it, she brushed her hair out of her face and sat up.

"Is it that late already?"

Her voice faded into the dark of the empty apartment. The only answer she received was the continued ticking of the clock. She huffed at it, not fully understanding why Natsuki had insisted on a 'clock that ticks whether it's supposed to or not'. The reason she'd given was that if their clock had to be electronic, it would at least sound the way clocks should. In Shizuru's opinion, that wasn't a very good reason. Still, her Natsuki had wanted it that way, so the clock that ticked had come to stay. And speaking of Natsuki…

She reached over and flicked on the lamp resting on the bedside table. The light winked at her cheerfully, and she felt instantly and inexplicably annoyed. Natsuki had left for classes early that morning with a hastily whispered, 'I'll be back before tonight'. As she was fairly sure eight o'clock qualified as 'tonight', she couldn't help feeling the slightest bit upset that the younger girl hadn't kept her promise. True, she wasn't that late, and yet… It was only a simple thing, but she would have thought that today of all days…

Alone in the suddenly too-quiet room, her insecurities came out to play. They were less insistent these days, but when they appeared they still taunted her as loudly and stubbornly as ever.

Natsuki's grown tired of you…

She's scared of you…

Of course she wants to avoid you, why wouldn't she…?

She found herself wanting to cover her ears, even knowing that it wouldn't make a difference. Settling on laying back down, she closed her eyes and tried to re-enter the dream world she'd been so happy in not half an hour before. It was going fairly well for a few minutes, until she heard what sounded like a herd of elephants trying to be quiet and failing miserably.

"-up the stairs or I'll carry you!"

"Try it and I'll stuff you in the cake."

"Don't you think Shizuru-san would enjoy that more?"

"M-Midori, you idiot!"

Startled, she sat up. Natsuki, Nao, and Midori?

"Be quiet, she'll hear us."

"With the rackets you're making, Tokiha, of course she will."

"Ruckus, Haruka-chan."

"Mai, can I eat the cake?"

"No, not yet."

"I can't take any pictures?"

"Not after last year's Halloween party, Chie-chan."

"But Aoi…"

After that there was a short period of almost-silence, then the familiar sound of a key turning in the lock. The overhead light was switched on, overpowering the steady glow of the lamp. There was a pause, then a deafening blast of sound in the form of "Happy Birthday!"

Finding she was gaping and deciding she really couldn't care less, Shizuru stared blankly at the door. In spite of that, or perhaps because of it, the group stormed in and surrounded the table in the small-ish kitchen. Mai set the cake she was holding down, with a cheery 'Happy Birthday, Shizuru-san' written in purple frosting. Since staring non-plussedly seemed to be working, Shizuru kept it up.

"How did you…?"

Natsuki grinned sheepishly. "I thought it might be fun to invite some people, so I got Mai after school and she helped me drag Nao out of her Biology lecture. Then we ran into Yukino in the hallway, and she got Haruka for us, and Chie found us trying to leave quietly and ran and got Aoi-"

Midori cut in with an amused voice. "And then they commandeered Haruka-san's car in the name of haste, drove across town to get to my house, had Natsuki-chan threaten to knock down my door if I didn't come out, and when that didn't work Nao-chan picked the lock."

"My professor's going to murder me, you know," Nao dryly stated. "I left right in the middle of what's probably going to be on our Winter Exam."

"We'll make it up to you with cake," said Midori cheerfully.

Resigning herself to the facts and deciding that she may as well enjoy herself, Shizuru walked over to the table and sat down, looking around at the familiar faces. Midori was fighting with Mikoto over who would get to cut the cake, Chie was begging Aoi to let her take pictures, Mai and Yukino were watching her expectantly, Haruka was grudgingly smiling, Nao was pretending she didn't want to be there and not fooling anyone, and Natsuki was trying not to look pleased with herself while blushing profusely.

Waiting until things were as quiet as they were going to get, Natsuki spoke up. "So, um… Happy Birthday, Shizuru." Her Natsuki would never be a great speech-maker, but she was wonderful all the same. Smiling, Shizuru blew out the candle.

Indeed.