A/N: A "Natsuki's Birthday" story in May, you ask? "But Natsuki wasn't born on May 27th!" you protest. And, of course, you'd be right...but my wife was born on May 27th, and she requested a ShizNat story for her birthday. So, of course, she gets one, with Duran and Kiyohime and plenty of references to her favorite My-HiME episode! Happy birthday, sweetie, and enjoy the fluff.

The Secret Ingredient


"Why Doesn't Anyone Write That in the Recipe?"

(featuring the Kuga-Fujino family pets!)

Shizuru Fujino wanted to scream.

She didn't, of course. Shizuru Fujino did not screech like a banshee. She did not yowl like an alley cat whose tail had been stepped on. She did not erupt into a furious rage at people for things that, however inconvenient they might be for Shizuru, were not their fault. It would be undignified. Unladylike. Unsuitable for the former student council president of Fuuka Academy, now top-ranked scholar in her university class.

She looked down at the shattered remains of the pencil she'd snapped in three pieces upon hearing the news. Ara, but that hardly counts; we're talking on the phone and he can't see it.

"Are you sure there is nothing you can do?"

"I'm sorry, Miss Fujino, but the new oven won't be installed until Thursday. We'll have your cake prepared immediately—"

"I am afraid that won't do; as you are aware, it is a birthday cake, and the birthday is tomorrow."

"I'm terribly sorry," the cake shop owner repeated. "We'll return your deposit at once, of course."

"Yes, thank you," Shizuru replied, a model of the reasonable customer. "I realize how hard this must be for your business as well."

"We appreciate your courtesy, Miss Fujino, and can only again offer our most abject apologies."

"Yes, thank you. Good afternoon."

She hung up the phone.

"Ghaaaaa!" she screamed, hurling the pencil bits against the wall. The shout woke up Kiyohime, who'd been napping at her feet; the hydra burst awake and ended up bonking her third head against the underside of the desk drawers. The sixth head reached up and gave Shizuru a curious hiss.

"It's the cake shop, Kiyo-chan. Their oven broke, and they won't be able to have Natsuki's birthday cake ready for the party!"

The first head made little mewling noises of commiseration, while the fourth head wrapped itself around Shizuru's ankle and hugged.

"What am I going to do now? This is Natsuki's nineteenth birthday! All of our friends are going to be there!"

Kiyohime's second head offered a curious hiss.

"Yes, that's it, I could make a—oh, whom am I kidding?" she wailed. "I can cook excellent Japanese food, but I'm hopeless at baking." She remembered her laughable attempts at baking a cake from the cooking class she'd taken as a high-school third-year. And then there was that absurd make-up session that Midori had arranged, which she'd almost managed to get through by letting Haruka volunteer to do everything for their group, except that Haruka was actually worse at it than Shizuru—even before her sachertorte had been knocked onto the ground. Though it hadn't been as bad as Natsuki's attempt; it had been such an effort to keep from laughing at Natsuki, Nao, and Mikoto's try to create anything edible. But then, even Mai's attempt had been sabotaged when Shiho faceplanted into the cake, so that day had been more or less cursed even for skilled cooks.

"Wait, that's it! Mai!" She looked at Kiyohime. "Mai is a wonderful baker! And she is Natsuki's close friend, so I'm sure she will be glad to help once she hears what happened!"

A couple of Kiyohime's heads bobbled up and down in nods of agreement (although in all fairness, the third might just have been woozy from the bump). Shizuru reached for the phone.

"Hello," a grumpy voice answered on the first ring.

"Mikoto? It's Shizuru Fujino—"

"Hi, Kaichou-san!"

Shizuru didn't bother correcting Mikoto on her use of her old title. "Could I talk to Mai, please?"

There was a long moment of silence.

"Mikoto?" Shizuru asked, a little worried.

"Mai's...not...here..." the response came in a mumbled undertone.

"What was that?"

"Mai's not here! She and ani-ue went off on a trip for the whole weekend and they won't be back until tomorrow! It's not fair! I wanted to play with Mai, too!"

"I'm not certain that you and Reito mean 'play with Mai' in the same way..." Not if they're up to weekend trips...

"They're big meanies," Mikoto grumped. "I had to order in for dinner, and the restaurant's ramen isn't anywhere near as good as Mai's."

"You're right," Shizuru reflected. "Food made with love is the best." She remembered the time when they'd bought the backyard barbecue and Natsuki had insisted on grilling the steaks.

"You're always cooking for me, Shizuru, so this is my turn."

In the months since that first try, Natsuki had mastered the art, so that her grilled meat was juicy and delicious, but Shizuru thought she'd never taste anything as good as that first try when the steak had been charred to a briquette on the outside and near-raw in the center and somehow still wonderful because Natsuki had put herself through it all for her.

It took Shizuru a few more minutes to extract herself from Mikoto without offending the girl, and when she did, she realized that Kiyohime was gone.

~X X X~

"Damn, Kuga, your girlfriend may be a psycho, but she does throw one rocking party!" Nao crowed, clapping Natsuki enthusiastically on the back. The movement made the punch in the redhead's glass slosh, almost spilling; there was something a little too bright in her eyes, the color a little too high in her cheek, making Natsuki wonder just who'd spiked the punch bowl. Probably Nao herself, or Midori, she decided.

Nao was definitely right, though; the party was certainly in full swing. Music blared from the new entertainment center (Shizuru's present, which she'd insisted they'd get set up that morning so that Natsuki could "try it out right away"), and there was enough food set out to feed a small army. Which was good, because there was a small army of guests filling the house: all the HiME (save Fumi and Yukariko), Haruka, Takumi, Reito, Tate, Kazuya, Chie, Aoi, and about another dozen or so classmates of Natsuki or Shizuru or friends-of-friends.

When, exactly, did my life get this complicated? she thought, then figured, Oh, yeah, right about the time I stopped worrying about revenge and monster-fighting and international conspiracies. Which had been easier in a lot of ways, if not nearly as conducive to restful night's sleep. She hardly ever had nightmares any more.

Yeah, all in all it was probably a good trade.

There was a loud squawk, and Yatagarusu launched itself from the refreshment table, a spring roll clutched in its single claw. Apparently someone else had had its eye on that prize, because Kagatsuchi launched himself after the crow and they buzzed around the room along with cries of "Hey!" "Watch it!" and (from Nao), "Damn flying rats!"

Natsuki shook her head, laughing. Exactly how had this somehow become her normal life?

She walked over to the food table and found an absolutely massive birthday cake, a double-decker sheathed in white frosting and decorated with colorful flowers. "Happy Birthday, Natsuki," was spelled out in blue frosting the color of Natsuki's Ducati across the top. But it was the flowers that caught her eye. Natsuki didn't know what they were; honestly, if it wasn't a rose or a dandelion she was lost. But she remembered the shape of those. She'd had her fingers curled around the petals of one, one day when she was in junior high. She'd been about to crush it—she didn't even remember why, now, some momentary fit of pique at some random event that had roused her temper at the time—when someone had called out to her.


Funny, that Fuuka's top student, the elegant beauty admired by her classmates, speaking up to the save the life of one flower. Or maybe she'd seen something about Natsuki, something in Natsuki's posture, expression, whatever, and wanted to help out in her kind-sempai kind of way. Or she'd thought Natsuki was hot and figured it would be a chance to start a conversation. Natsuki had never really asked.

She'd wormed her way right into Natsuki's life, though. Sometimes by being kind and sympathetic, sometimes by being teasing and cajoling, she'd worked her way in, until by the time Natsuki had met Mai and Mikoto and Midori (and what was it with the letter M, anyway?) all the "lone wolf" jokes they'd tossed at her weren't true any more.

"Well, there's my answer," she said, a soft little smile forming on her face despite herself.

Duran was sitting in front of the table; he nuzzled against her leg and she stroked his head in response.

"Protecting the cake until I got here, huh, boy?"

He woofed happily, beating his tail on the rug.

"Thanks. So, can I get a piece, or do we have to do the whole candle-blowing-out thing?" She really hoped they didn't. Natsuki might have been a lot more comfortable in social situations than in her "ice princess" days, but she hated being the center of attention.

In response to her question, several of Kiyohime's heads popped up behind the table. One held a knife, with which it deftly sliced out a wedge from the cake. A second head used a metal spatula to remove the slice and transfer the cake to a plate held by yet another head, while a fourth gave her a plastic fork. The sides of the slice revealed themselves as rich, dark chocolate, and Natsuki dug in.

"Mmm, this is great! I wonder where Shizuru got it?"

"Actually, it's homemade."

Natsuki jumped. The purring voice with its lilting Kyoto accent had come from about two inches behind her right ear, close enough that her breath had tickled Natsuki's skin.

"Aah! Shizuru, don't do that!"

Her girlfriend giggled.

"But Natsuki is so very hard to resist!"

Natsuki gathered another forkful of cake. Luckily she hadn't dropped her plate.

"Try anyway. It'll build character." She transferred the forkful of cake into her mouth.

"But I thought Natsuki liked my weaknesses of character. Why just last night you were—"

Natsuki almost choked on her cake. Duran helpfully thumped her on her lower back with his paw, and she managed to swallow.

"Shi-Shizuru, don't say things like that in public!"

"Ara, but I don't think many of the guests here are under any illusions about our relationship."

"Okay, yeah, but you don't have to just start sharing the embarrassing details!"

Shizuru smiled wickedly.

"But I don't find them at all embarrassing. I'm more than happy for the world to know that Natsuki loves me so much that she wants me to—"

Ears burning, Natsuki clapped a hand over Shizuru's mouth.

"Argh! You can have the perverse sexual favor of your choice if you just shut up!"

"That's really not very much of a bribe, Natsuki. You give me the perverse sexual favors of my choice more or less nightly anyway."

Natsuki grinned back at her.

"Darn, I was trying to get out of this with two things I wanted instead of one."

"Natsuki, how manipulative and sneaky of you!"

"Hey, I learned from the best." She gave Shizuru a playful smack on the rump. "But what do you mean, this cake is homemade? You're a darned good cook, but baked goods hate you. Remember the blueberry muffin incident?"

"I thought we agreed never to speak of that."

"It's my birthday. I get special privileges. So spill."

"Well, I said it was homemade. I didn't say it was homemade by me."

Kiyohime ducked her heads under the table. When they popped back up, they were wearing puffy chef's hats.

"You made the cake?"

Duran woofed.

"You helped, too?"

He wagged his tail, a big doggy grin on his face.

"Wow. This is pretty awesome. I didn't even know you could bake."

"I'd ordered a cake, but the bakery couldn't deliver," Shizuru explained.

"That's okay. Besides, food made with love always tasted better. Like how I can only really put up with tea when you make it?"

Shizuru smiled.

"That's what I said to Mikoto. I think Kiyohime overheard it and it inspired her."

"Smart hydra."

They were interrupted by a startled yelp followed immediately by a high-pitched squeal rising from the far side of the room. Everybody turned to look where Shiho was standing, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, at the bathroom door.

"Akane! Kazuya! What are you two doing?"

"What doesh it look like?" Akane yowled back, voice slightly slurred.

"That's disgusting!"

"You're jusht mad you didn't think of it firsht."

"Midori, what did you put into the punch?" Mai accused.

"Midori? I thought Nao was the one who—" somebody else shot back.

"Both of them?" Natsuki boggled.

"I suppose that explains Akane's sudden...lack of inhibition?" Shizuru mused.

"I'm not touching the punch," Natsuki decided.

"Natsuki prefers to be inhibited?"

"Natsuki prefers to be able to remember it in the morning."

Shizuru laid her head on Natsuki's shoulder.

"You're such a romantic."

"Har de har." She took another bite of cake and savored the rich chocolate. "Seriously, they should have made this for your birthday, instead. I mean, why else call it 'devil's food'?"

"Ikezu. So what does Natsuki consider an appropriate birthday treat?"


She hooked an arm around Shizuru's waist and swung the elder girl around so they were face-to-face, then kissed her deep and forcefully on the lips, a hard, almost bruising kiss that claimed its recipient as the giver's own. Shizuru's crimson eyes were more than a little dazed and unfocused when Natsuki pulled back.

"I love you, Shizuru."

"I love you, too." Shizuru blinked, clearing the fog somewhat. "Ara, whose birthday is it, again? I seem to be the one getting all the presents."


Lovable idiot, though, Natsuki decided, and kissed her again.

~X X X~

A/N: Glossary of Japanese terms used herein, for the benefit of the target audience...well, and anybody else.

Kaichou: "President," in this case referring to Shizuru's previous title as seitokaichou, Student Council President.

Ikezu: Kyoto dialect, "meanie."

Ani-ue: Somewhat archaic version for "big brother," the form generally used by Mikoto for Reito.