A/N: Wrote this a long time ago, tweaked it just now, et voila. C'est belle, n'est-ce pas? Ay me, and this isn't even the last of the Animorphs fanfiction I've got stashed on this computer…

Disclaimer: Like I'd have let the series end like that if I owned it. Psh.

The Birthday

When Rachel found Cassie, she was alone in her bedroom. The rest of the house was empty but she remembered Cassie mentioning her father was going to some weekend seminar and her mother, of course, had work at the Gardens.

Cassie was seated Indian style on her bed, the quilt scrunched up around her legs. There was a book open on her lap, but her attention was focused out the window on something Rachel couldn't see. Quickly assessing the situation, she took a deep breath and barged into the room.

"Heeeeeeeeeere's the birthday girl!" she cried in a deliberately obnoxious manner. She threw her arms around Cassie with such force she was nearly knocked from the bed. Having done this, Rachel plopped herself down next to her friend and held out her hand. In it a home made envelope covered in swirls of marker and glitter that caught the light appealingly.

"Hi, Rachel," Cassie said, smiling as she took the card. "How did you get in?" Even as her fingers worked at the tape keeping the envelope closed, it was clear she was not giving her full attention. Rachel casually began inspecting her nails.

"Oh, you know, front doors aren't too much of an obstacle for a certain two-ton, African friend of mine…"

Cassie abruptly dropped the card and gawked. "You didn't," she said.

Rachel burst out laughing. "Jeez, you really are out of it! Of course I didn't, the front door was unlocked so I just came in."

"Oh, of course," said Cassie, her face flushing ever so slightly. "I don't know what came over me."

"Well you didn't think I wouldn't come, did you? It's your birthday! I figure we'd do something fun."

"Fun…" Cassie replied, trying to match Rachel's smile and failing. "Right." She pulled the card out of the envelope. It too was home made and, if possible, covered in even more glitter. Barely legible beneath the sparkles (which were spreading onto her clothes and bedspread at an alarming rate) were the words "Happy Birthday, 15-year-old!"

"Yeah, about that…" Rachel laughed, "I had Sara make the card. You know I'm hopeless when it comes to artistic things. I think she got a little too enthusiastic…"

For that Cassie had a real grin, and upon discovering what was in the card she grinned in wider.

"I can't believe you bought me a mall gift card."

Rachel smiled disarmingly. "You bet I did! We could go right now, if you want! Come on, Cassie, it'll be fun. Just you, me, and thirty dollars worth of anything you want from any store you want. I was thinking the Gap would be a good place to start."

"Why do I get the feeling this present is more for you than for me?" Cassie asked with a laugh. Then she paused, and said "Thank you, I appreciate it."

"Of course," Rachel replied. "Now tell me what you're doing up here all by yourself. The day is almost over! I can't believe your parents left you here on your birthday."

"Oh, they didn't want to," Cassie assured her, "But they both had important stuff to do and I didn't want to interrupt."

"Your birthday is important too," Rachel reminded her. To this her friend had no reply and for a while they sat together in almost-comfortable silence. Finally growing a little impatient, Rachel asked, "Sooo… Jake get you anything special?"

Cassie looked startled. In the gap in the conversation she had fallen into another reverie. "For what?" she asked blankly.

Rachel gave her a patient look. "For your birthday," she clarified.

Once again, she found Cassie blushing and avoiding her eyes. Something was definitely up. "Uhm, no, actually."

"He forgot!" Rachel cried in disbelief. Jake was not the sort of person who forgot other peoples' birthdays. Especially not Cassie's. Was that what was bothering her?

"No, he didn't forget," Cassie explained quickly, seeing her friend's anger, "I just never told him."

Rachel groaned and fell back on the bed. "Why would you do something like that?"

Cassie shrugged. "I dunno. It's just not a big deal. There's no need to make a big fuss over it."

"Not a big deal? Of course it's a big deal! You're fifteen years old! You'll be driving soon, and soon after that you can see R rated movies, and soon after that you can buy cigarettes, porn, and lottery tickets! And you can vote too."

"I have no intention of buying cigarettes, porn, or lottery tickets, Rachel," Cassie replied, wrinkling her nose.

"But you do intend to vote. See? You're a woman now, Cassie!"

"Biologically I've been a woman for two years," she commented dryly. "There's nothing special about being fifteen."

"There's everything special about being fifteen," Rachel affirmed. "Think about it. You're not just some dumb fourteen-year-old anymore. You're a veteran teen at this point. And it's still two months until I turn fifteen, so you have all that time to gloat and make snide comments about it."

Cassie raised an eyebrow, wondering if she could ever gloat about being older than Rachel. It didn't seem to matter. Rachel had always been pretty as a kid, but puberty had struck with a vengeance. Any vestiges of baby fat had fled, leaving her with a sharp, refined face and a startlingly shapely figure, not to mention she'd gone through a growth spurt that was the envy of every guy in their grade putting her at 5'8''. Cassie knew she had some growing to do yet, but she had always been on the short side, not mention somewhat stocky, and didn't expect that to change. Not that she was particularly jealous, nor did she care much about her appearance. It just seemed foolish to boast of an extra sixty days of life to some one like Rachel.

She also didn't bother pointing out that she would still be older than Rachel even after two months. She knew Rachel knew that, and was just being silly. Rachel recognized that something was wrong and was trying to make her feel better. She was grateful for that.

"So what's with all this, anyway? Sending your parents off, keeping your birthday a secret, spending the day up here all alone. Are you going to tell me what's going on or what?" she asked, obviously attempting to look innocently inquisitive. Cassie bit her lip, wondering if she could ever possibly explain how she was feeling.

She didn't want to bring up the fact that, despite being only fifteen years old, she felt older. She felt immensely older, and had for long since before her birthday. Not more mature, or grown-up, just… old. Tired, and world weary.

And how could she explain the sudden paranoia that had gripped her over the past few weeks: that something would go wrong, and she would die without even seeing her fifteenth birthday, like being pulled out of the race just before the finish line. And now that that line had been crossed, it was the same thing all over again waiting for her sixteenth birthday. There was just no knowing anymore how many birthdays they had left. How many years of school, of family. Of each other.

She couldn't handle it. She couldn't spend her days wishing please let me live me to see my fifteenth birthday. Please let me live to see my sixteenth birthday.

She couldn't count the years that way, regarding each birthday as another finish line, and well done for making it this far!

Finally, when she had resolved to try and explain to the best of her abilities, she found that Rachel did not want to hear it.

"Come on," she said instead, grabbing her friend's hand and the gift certificate. "I've got an idea."

--

When Jake opened the door he nearly fell over. He couldn't help it. It was just about completely dark, but there might as well have been a spotlight focusing on the front porch. Vaguely he recognized Rachel as being there as well, but it was long seconds before he could tear his eyes away from Cassie.

The first thing he noticed was that she was wearing make-up. It occurred to him that she was very pretty with make-up on, though of course he always thought she was very pretty. Normally he did not pay attention to what anyone was wearing (particularly Cassie, who he seemed to acknowledge with a sense that went beyond simply taking in appearance) but even he could not fail to notice the turquoise cocktail dress. It was tight. It was short. It was strapless. It was not something he had thought he'd see Cassie wearing in a million years, but now that he had, he wasn't sure he'd ever be able to get over it.

She blushed furiously beneath his stare, and her eyes fell down to her feet which were neatly balanced on strappy half-inch heels—the highest she would let Rachel recommend for her. Rachel had had quite a few recommendations at the mall that day, actually, and certainly knew how to hunt out bargains so the card and only a little extra cash were put to the best use possible, but it had been Cassie (somewhat disbelieving that she was actually going through with it) who made the final decisions.

"Hi, Jake," Rachel said charmingly, sashaying into the house. "You are going to go upstairs and put on something nice because it is Cassie's birthday and you are taking her out."

Jake finally tore his eyes away long enough to give Rachel an amazed look. "Out?"

"Out," she confirmed.

"B-but… but…" he began, scrambling for coherent thought, "I can't drive."

Making a tsking noise, Rachel headed to the key rack that hung on the wall a little way down the hall and pulled off what looked suspiciously like the keys to Tom's car.

"You have your permit, don't you?" she said breezily

"Well, yeah but…"

But at this point Cassie had tentatively come inside, and he seemed to once again forget that Rachel was there.

"I'm sorry, I didn't know it was your birthday," he blurted.

"I'm sorry I didn't tell you," she replied, throwing nervous glances at Rachel. "And it's okay if you don't want to do anything, I really don't mind going home if you're busy or tired or whatever. It's no big deal, it's my fault for just barging in like this, although I guess it's technically Rachel's, but I did go along with it…"

"Cassie," Jake said firmly, his shyness dissipating as he smiled at her. It occurred to her that Jake, like Rachel, was also becoming more and more attractive with age. Or perhaps that was just because of how she felt about him.

"Cassie," he said again, "It is your birthday, and I am definitely taking you out." He dashed up the stairs, presumably to change.

Rachel laughed at the way Cassie watched him leave. She was still blushing, but her eyes had lost that distant look from earlier.

"I'm getting out of here," Rachel said. She paused before leaving, and reached up to squeeze Cassie's shoulder.

"Look, I didn't mean to put you in an uncomfortable situation or anything. It's just… I know you feel old beyond your years. I think we all do. Right now we're supposed to be young and stupid and carefree and making all sorts of mistakes we'll regret later in life like the rose tattoo my mom has on her—well, anyway, I know how you feel. You shouldn't go on thinking of your birthdays as landmarks of your life whizzing by. You're still young, Cassie, and young people need to have fun every now and then. Why don't you let yourself?"

Cassie did not reply for a few moments, but when she did she was smiling. "Thanks, Rachel."

"Happy Birthday," Rachel said, returning the grin knowingly, and set out on the walk home. The night was pleasantly cool, the wind soft on her face. She tried to focus on it, to let it brush away the thoughts that never quite left her mind. Just two more months… please let me have two more months…