Disclaimer: The author rightfully respects the genius of Tachibana Higuchi, creator of Gakuen Alice.
Author's Note: This story is set before After This. Ruka and Mikan went out when they were thirteen years old (My Best Friend's Girlfriend). Ruka and Hotaru got together at sixteen (Natsume Nullified).
"I just want to spend a nice, quiet evening with you."
With that Natsume stood up then planted a kiss on Mikan's forehead. He nodded to Ruka and Hotaru then left the restaurant. Ruka watched him leave with a smile. That careless kiss wasn't something the old Natsume would have done. Not in this lifetime.
Ruka turned to Mikan to say exactly that but stopped when he saw that she was wearing a dark frown and was watching the door with indignation.
"What does he mean he doesn't want a birthday party?" she cried. "Everybody wants a birthday party!"
"He just said he didn't," Ruka said emphatically. "You heard him, 'No birthday cake. No party poppers, streamers or piñatas in the shape of a black cat. No goddamn Class B surprise party.'"
"Oh Ruka, I'm sure he didn't mean it," Mikan said brightly. "You know how he is. He doesn't want to show how sentimental he is."
"You're right," he said at once. "And that's because he isn't."
"Natsume should have a party," she said decisively. "It's his last year in the Academy. He should celebrate his birthday with all his friends. We'll rent a room and invite everyone. He'll love it!"
Ruka raised an eyebrow. "What part of Natsume led you to believe that he's a party-loving guy?"
Mikan didn't answer. She was already too busy listing her party plans and needs on a paper napkin. Seeing she wasn't listening anymore, he turned to the one person who may have a chance at swaying her. Hotaru saw his pleading look and rolled her eyes.
"Knock it off Mikan," she said bluntly. "You should just be grateful that Natsume felt the need to throw in that 'with you' in the end."
"What do you mean?"
"Something tells me all he really wants to do is spend a nice, quiet evening." Mikan looked at Hotaru blankly. "Alone."
"Natsume doesn't know what he wants," Mikan said, speaking like a true girlfriend would. "So he's going to get a birthday party whether he expects it or not." She looked at Ruka, daring him to contradict. "And as his best friend and my best friend's boyfriend, you're going to help me."
"But he already said—"
"We'll call it a non-birthday. It'll be great!" she went on excitedly before coming to her feet. "I'm going to ask Anna to make Natsume a non-birthday cake."
"Mikan— wait!" Ruka cried but their stubborn friend was already speeding for the door. The bell laughed quietly after her. Ruka raked a hand through his hair. "Oh, this is bad. This is very bad."
"I don't know," Hotaru said musingly. "I think it might be interesting."
Ruka glanced at her hopefully. "Could you get me out of it?"
"Not a chance."
"So what are we going to do?"
"I'm going to get Hyuuga a non-present," she said, reaching for her bag and sliding out of the booth. "You should go after Mikan."
"Hotaru, we have to try to stop her!" Ruka said urgently but his girlfriend merely paused to put on her jacket. She looked unfazed.
"Ruka, do you remember when we were fourteen years old and you told me that dating Mikan was like dating a snowball?"
"Like it starts out really small but when it starts rolling downhill, it gains speed, size and momentum, making it impossible to stop so everyone should just jump out of the way."
Ruka laughed. "Ah, yes."
"Well, hold on hon," Hotaru said with a smile that only someone who truly knew her would recognize as affectionate. She held out her hand to him, "Snowball's rolling."
Natsume was on guard. He was vigilant by default but more so now because there was something in the air he couldn't quite put his finger on. Nothing was out of place but he was sure something was brewing beneath the surface. After all, one thing gave it away.
Nobody was bugging him about his birthday.
Sure Mikan had come to his room first thing in the morning, Ruka had caught him before breakfast and the gang had greeted him the moment he sat down for class but after that it turned into an ordinary day.
A less confident person would be offended by the neglect, but Natsume lived with attention on a daily basis. Thus, instead of being hurt, the sudden change in attitude led him to conclude that something big was coming his way and he'd bet anything that his girlfriend was behind it.
"Happy birthday Natsume," Youichi greeted as he suddenly fell into step with him at Central Town. Natsume quickly glanced around and noted he was alone.
"Thanks," he said carefully. "Where are you headed?"
"Same direction as you."
Youichi looked confused. "The party?"
"Aren't we celebrating?"
"I am," Natsume said. "I'm not sure what the hell you're talking about." But deep down he already knew and he was repressing a deep sigh of irritation.
"Where are you headed Natsume?" Youichi asked him. "I'll just walk with you."
Natsume's eyes narrowed then he answered sardonically, "I'm going on a date with Mikan. I doubt you'd be invited."
Youichi made a sound that seemed like he was choking on air. Natsume knew that was the sound he made when he was holding back his laughter. "Cool. Any restaurant I know?"
"If she asks, you didn't hear it from me," he said quickly. Then he started to run away.
"Is it a birthday party?" Natsume called after him.
Youichi started running backwards, grinning widely. "Not exactly."
Natsume and Mikan walked into one of their favorite Italian restaurants where their regular waiter greeted them. Instead of heading for their usual table, Mikan led them to the adjoining room where she had apparently reserved a table for two. Once there, he headed for a corner booth but Mikan stopped him and tugged him to another table at the center of the room.
"Let's sit here."
"Why?" he asked suspiciously.
"It's the one I reserved."
"You couldn't get a view?"
"I prefer the center of the room," she said evasively. He helped seat her before taking the one to her right. Mikan took his hand and gave it a squeeze. He frowned at the gesture.
She looked startled. "Why would you think that?"
"Because you're up to something."
"No, I'm not."
"Yes, you are."
"Natsume, sweetie," she smiled affectionately, "If I'm ever up to something, just remember that you only have yourself to blame."
His eyes narrowed. "What is that supposed to mean?"
He got his answer almost immediately when the door to the room opened. Natsume watched in disbelief as Ruka walked in hand in hand with Hotaru. His friend scanned the empty room then "spotted" them. He grinned widely.
"Oh look Hotaru, it's Natsume and Mikan!"
"Oh, what a surprise," Hotaru responded tonelessly. "We had no idea you two would be here because Mikan never tells me the details of your dates."
"Hotaru, Ruka!" Mikan waved cheerfully. "Come on over!"
Natsume tried to catch Ruka's eye as they approached but it seemed like his best friend was staring at something over his head and couldn't quite look at him directly.
"What a coincidence," he said dryly when they stopped at the table. There was silence. Then Ruka nudged his girlfriend.
Hotaru spoke with impatience, effectively communicating her disgust at the useless line, "Are you here to celebrate Natsume's birthday?"
Ruka brightened then went on with his spiel, "Why don't we put two tables together and the four of us can celebrate?"
"Good idea!" Mikan turned to Natsume. "You don't mind, do you?"
Natsume breathed heavily. "Why should I mind?"
"Great!" Ruka said with relief. He signaled the waiter who came over and helped him set up the additional seats. When they sat down, it was Hotaru who finally caught his eye. She gave him a look of wicked amusement that clearly carried a warning.
"We haven't ordered," Natsume said. "What do you guys want to—?"
He was cut off when the door opened again and Mochu and Sumire walked in. Mochu clapped when he saw them. "Nobody told me it was couples night!"
Natsume watched incredulously as he and Sumire headed for them. Without waiting for the waiter, Mochu grabbed another table and added two more seats to their group. He grinned enthusiastically and sat down next to the Black Cat who glared at him.
"So, what's good here?" he croaked out anyway, as though he had a death wish.
"Oh, the Chicken Parmigiana looks good," Sumire said, studying the menu that only she seemed to have. "And we could order the Quarto Formaggio. It's good for eight."
"Good for eight?" Natsume repeated.
On cue, the seventh and eighth person appeared. Yuu and Nonoko stood at the door, looking around meekly. Yuu locked eyes with Natsume then walked over to join them. Full points to the Class Representative for not faltering.
"Oh look, everyone's here," he said bravely. "How wonderful."
"Do you want to join us?" Mikan asked brightly.
"We'd love that," Nonoko said and the tables were augmented once more.
By then, the group was occupying a third of the room. The way the tables were added were so choreographed and well-orchestrated that it was worthy of Hotaru Imai. People were talking excitedly about food and drinks. Nobody was looking at him. Natsume started playing with Mikan's hair then leaned closer as though to whisper some endearment.
"Did you ask the whole Academy to join us?"
She smiled innocently. "What are you talking about?"
"This is a party."
"But it's not a birthday party," she countered. She gestured around the room. "Do you see anything indicating everyone's here for you? Really, you're so full of it."
"What is it then?" he challenged.
"What do you mean it's a non-birthday?!" came Koko's voice.
Natsume looked around and saw that the door had opened once again to admit him, Kitsuneme, Anna and Wakako. The girls were already waving to their group. Sumire and Nonoko gave very believable squeals then hurried up to their friends as though they didn't just see each other three hours ago. Mikan jumped to her feet too and headed for the four of them. Koko was busy arguing indiscreetly with Kitsuneme while he gestured with a nicely wrapped package.
"It can't be a non-birthday," Koko said as though they did this often. "It never said anything like that on the invita— memo." He quickly amended the last word when he saw the Black Cat looking. Then he suddenly ducked into a booth and started ripping the gift open.
Natsume turned to Ruka this time. "Was that a present?"
"Yes it was," Ruka admitted. "But for today, it's just a brightly-wrapped-package-with-something-you-might-like-inside, okay?"
Natsume gave a long-suffering sigh. "You even sent out invitations?"
"We gave out memos," Ruka laughed. "It was an email blast, very efficient. The RSVP was quite high."
"What? She's your girlfriend," Ruka emphasized as four more seats were added.
Apparently, someone had ordered because Italian food was being laid out on the table and different drinks were being passed around. Natsume had a forming headache. He glanced over his shoulder but Mikan was going off somewhere with Anna.
"Hey guys," Koko greeted. He stopped next to Natsume's chair. "Hey Natsume. Apparently, I got you this for no reason at all."
Koko handed him a baseball cap. Natsume recognized it. "Wasn't this the cap we saw at the comic convention?"
"Yeah, I'm a pretty sweet guy," Koko answered with a toothy grin. "Kitsuneme and I went back for it because… we care."
"Oh, that reminds me," Mochu piped up, still not losing his fake delivery. "Here Natsume. Here's that… thing… you've always wanted to borrow from me."
"Thanks Mochu. I've always wanted to borrow your… t-shirt," he finished flatly when he unrolled a rock shirt that Sumire had obviously picked out.
Not to be outdone, Hotaru held out a small gift bag. The table gasped as though she had broken an unspoken rule. She looked unfazed. "Hyuuga, I'm lending you these video games. Check 'em for the usual."
"Sure. When do you need it back?"
Hotaru shrugged. "I don't really care."
"Hotaru," Ruka chided mildly.
She rolled her eyes. "Two weeks should make it believable."
"Hey Natsume, guess what we… found on the ground outside…" Yuu spoke up lamely. He pulled out an envelope and handed it to him. "We thought you'd find it useful."
Natsume slid out gift certificates for the local bookstore worth 125 rabbits, money that was obviously pulled together from allowances. He almost smiled. "Thanks."
A camera flashed.
"Oops," Kitsuneme muttered, "Forgot to turn off the flash."
"Kitsu," Nonoko groaned and a couple of them couldn't hold back the laughter.
His friends were being so damn obvious and everyone knew that he knew but they were keeping up the charade because they had probably agreed on it early on. Because they know it would embarrass him to have a birthday party. Because they wanted to have a birthday party for him and he was surprised to find out that he didn't mind after all.
Natsume stood up abruptly. "You guys go on ahead and eat."
He forgot to soften his tone and so they watched him walk off with varying degrees of alarm. He headed for the kitchen, sure that's where Mikan would be. Otherwise, she'd be at the front door welcoming the teachers and he didn't want to consider that option. He met Youichi coming out of the restroom.
"Hey Natsume. Fancy meeting you here."
"Save it. What did you get me?"
"You are so full of it," Youichi grinned, unwittingly echoing Mikan. He pulled out a cheerfully wrapped gift. "It's your favorite manga. The latest volume just came out this morning."
"Have you seen Mikan?" Natsume asked as he tucked the present under his arm. Youichi nodded behind him and he saw Anna and Mikan discussing something urgent.
"Then it exploded," he heard Anna say when he was near enough.
"Natsume's non-birthday cake exploded?!"
"My what exploded?"
"Nothing!" Mikan cried, spinning around. She bit her lip and Natsume could practically hear the gears in her head whirring as she tried to come up with a plausible excuse. Then instead of bothering with the lie she put her hands on her hips. "Why did you leave the other room?"
"I was looking for you."
"You need to go back there!"
"Nobody's going to miss me," he said wryly. "They're not here for me, remember?"
"You are being so difficult."
"I'm being difficult?" Natsume said incredulously. "I'm being difficult?"
Anna giggled. "I'll see you guys back at the table. Don't worry about the… thing… Mikan. We'll improvise." Then she half-skipped away, taking a grinning Youichi with her. Once they were gone, there was a pause then they just began arguing.
"I told you I didn't want a party—"
"You say that but you don't really mean it—"
"Your table for two just turned into a table for twelve—"
"Listen Natsume, it's your last birthday in the Academy and I just think—"
"No, you listen," Natsume said in exasperation. "I didn't want people to make a big deal out of today. I thought we'd just hang out and that would be it. So you should know that this… this…" He trailed off when he realized he wasn't feeling as antagonistic as he expected. He wiped a hand over his face. "This isn't as bad as I thought it would be."
He finished his sentence in a whisper but she heard him anyway. Plus, his cheeks had grown slightly pink. The birthday boy looked heartbreakingly adorable.
Natsume cleared his throat. "But if you quote me on that, I will deny it."
"Of course, you will," she beamed excitedly.
"What's your present?"
"Not inviting the teachers," she said promptly.
"Lame but magnanimous," he said, making her laugh. She stood on her toes to kiss his cheek.
"Let's go back to the other room."
Mikan pushed the doors open with a flourish. He was nearly knocked over by the noise. The guests had multiplied. There was a buffet table set up against the far wall and his closest friends were gathered at the center of the room hovering over a small plate. Anna was holding it up proudly. When they saw him, the room burst into song.
"For he's a jolly, good fellow! For he's a jolly, good fellow! For he's a jolly good fellow…"
"Which everybody could deny," Youichi snickered.
Natsume looked cynical, "Jolly? Seriously?"
"You're a good fellow. One out of two ain't bad," Ruka chuckled.
Natsume reached his friends and finally identified what was on the plate. It was leche flan. Someone had meticulously stuck a birthday candle at the center.
"A non-birthday flan," came Mikan's answer. "Make a wish Natsume!"
"You just said it was a non-birthday flan," Natsume retorted. Then he actually shut his eyes for two seconds before blowing out the candle. Everyone clapped then dispersed to resume eating. Mikan hurried off to the door to receive some more new arrivals.
Natsume took the plate of flan then resumed his seat next to Ruka. He removed the candle then picked up a small fork. Ruka watched him with some surprise.
"I thought you didn't like sweets."
"Hn," he said noncommittally. Natsume nodded to the buffet table where Mikan was talking hurriedly to a group of colorfully dressed musicians. "She blows up my birthday cake but manages to hire a Mariachi band. How about that?"
Ruka laughed. "What did you wish for, Natsume?"
He shrugged. "More non-birthdays."