You Deserve to Feel Special
"I just don't celebrate those things anymore..."
Peter dropped a stack of paperwork the size of a textbook on Aleesia’s desk with an audible ‘thump’. She scowled at it, as it joined the other scattered papers over her desk, before turning her glare at the man hovering over her desk. “What is this? Ad hoc?” She at least managed to keep her tone even. The last thing she wanted was to start some workplace drama with one of the project managers.
The man shook his head and tapped the cover of the stack. “James named you as his replacement before he went on vacation, remember? We were seeing some backlog with his work and looked into it, and… Well,” the result was right in front of them. “I hate asking you to take this on, and rest assured I’ll take care of James myself, but right now I need someone on this and you’re the best qualified.”
Somehow Aleesia doubted that, and she hoped it showed on her face. Not that she wasn’t qualified – she was – but James was close with the general manager in a ‘we go golfing on Sundays’ way and that meant whenever he pulled crap like this it always somehow managed to slide off him like water off a duck. A very annoying, self-involved duck with a hefty squawk and an attitude problem. “Pete, I’m already snowed in with my regular projects. I can take care of some of it, but can’t we divvy up some of it with the rest of the floor?”
Peter shook his head, giving her a rueful look. “You’re the only one I can rely on, here. What you’re doing right now can stand a little delay, but this stuff’s been sitting for a while.” He patted her shoulder in what he probably thought was a consoling manner. “I’ll let Jake know you’ve got your attention divided. He’ll make sure you’ve got the space.”
Aleesia waited until Peter had walked out of sight before groaning and putting her head in her hands. He didn’t get it, that Aleesia had been staying up over hours trying to perfect their presentation pitch, and he didn’t care. And there wasn’t much she could do about it.
Aleesia rubbed at her temples and looked at the backed-up paperwork, and felt a little nausea roll through her gut at the thought of facing it, when her personal cellphone buzzed in her pocket. She glanced around to make sure no one was paying attention, before checking the caller. Her lips twitched with a little smile, and she answered, “You have reached Aleesia Daniels, Queen of Galaga and Street Fighter extraordinaire. How may I be of service?”
The voice on the other end laughed, and she could imagine the eye roll following. “Geez, not going to let me forget that, are you?”
“Maybe when you manage to steal your high score back, I will. But seriously, what can I do for you, Rina?” Aleesia kept her voice hushed, and though she was delighted to hear from Marina she really wasn’t supposed to be on the phone at work.
“What time are you off work?”
Aleesia brushed stray strands of hair out of her face, looking at the clock on her computer. “I’m not sure… I’ve got this report that I need to file today, and one of my coworkers took off for vacation, meaning I’ve got to pick up the slack… It’s probably going to take me until nine or ten to get home.”
Marina sighed, sounding so put out that Aleesia could practically hear the pout on her lips. “You’re not serious. Can’t they let you off early? Cut you some birthday slack for being such a good employee?”
“Birthday slack?” Aleesia blinked, her brows furrowing in confusion.
“Yeah?” Marina responded, now sounding equally confused. “Birthday slack. Because it’s your birthday? I thought it was rather clever, myself.” …After a brief moment of silence, she said, “Don’t tell me you forgot?”
Aleesia had to check the calendar to be sure, but there it was – July seventeenth. “Yeah, I guess it is. Weird.” That really snuck up on her.
“How can you forget your own birthday?” Marina sounded somewhere between frustrated, bewildered, and aghast. Aleesia had to wonder how she managed to hold those all together at the same time, and the thought just made her smile. “I’ve heard some pretty sad things in my time, but that’s gotta be one of the worst. Well, maybe not the worst, but…”
Pathetic. Pathetic was probably the word Marina was looking for, but Aleesia didn’t feel like supplying it right now. “I don’t know. I guess it just doesn’t matter very much to me anymore? At a certain age you kind of stop celebrating those kinds of things.”
When she was younger, she’d celebrated her birthday, of course. She’d celebrated every holiday with the joy, love, and excitement of a child. Halloweens dressed as princesses, faeries, and ninjas; Easters spent rolling down hills with the cousins and friendly competition; Christmases singing songs and sitting by the warmest fires. Holidays split between families just meant having that many more presents and parties. But after all the court battles and feuding those days filled with cheer and goodwill became just another battlefield, and the holidays lost their sparkle. That meant birthdays too. She’d tried to have her own celebrations a couple of times, of course, but it was hard to find any joy in it when your friends didn’t answer your invitations, and your family just sniped over the table. It was easier to give up any expectations, and let it just slip away into another day like any other.
There was some more silence on the line, before a quiet voice said, “Well, you matter to me, and I still celebrate these kinds of things. Everyone deserves to feel special on their own birthday…” Then, in a more chipper tone that meant she was getting down to business, “What kind of cake’s your favorite? I know you like things like carrot cake and chocolate, but-”
“Marina,” Aleesia said with a note of exasperation, “You don’t need to get me any cake or anything. I appreciate the sentiment, but like I said, I’m going to be home late tonight. You just go on about your day, alright? We’ll go on a date this weekend, to make up for it. Okay?”
Marina was probably pouting even harder, but she eventually let out a gusty sigh. “I’ll see you later, then.”
“Yeah. See you later. Love you, Rina.”
“Love you, Allie.”
Aleesia hung up the phone and sat it back down on her desk. Marina was probably really disappointed by this… She’d sounded so excited when she’d first called up. But Aleesia really did need to get this work done, and burying herself in papers, numbers, and figures was easier than dealing with the empty ache in her chest that came with thinking of difficult things. She’d make things up to Marina later, and make a note of this for the future. After all, just because she didn’t celebrate her own birthday didn’t mean she could just forget her girlfriend’s when it came by.
Aleesia finally pulled into her apartment’s parking spot at 10:30pm and carried herself exhausted and stumbling up the stairs. Too many coffees and not enough hours of sleep were starting to take their toll. Aleesia was thinking about how Marina was right, that she was probably owed some kind of break, when she opened her door and flicked on the lights.
Confetti poppers burst in her face and Aleesia leapt back with a shriek, eyes wide and grasping the door frame for balance. It took her a moment to take in the scene. “Marina?!” Her girlfriend stood there, wide smile faltering, under a child’s ‘Happy Birthday’ banner. Balloons floated tied to chairs in bunches, and Marina set down the spent poppers on a counter.
Marina’s smile turned apologetic as she stepped closer, reaching out a hand to draw Aleesia in out of the doorway. “I know you said you didn’t want me doing anything, but I couldn’t help worrying about it, and I had a whole lot of time on my hands anyways, so…” She shrugged, playing it off like no big deal.
“I- I… You… You really didn’t have to…” Aleesia stuttered, frankly overwhelmed at the unexpected surprise. She blankly let Marina lead her to the kitchen table and sit her down, unsure how she was supposed to feel right now.
“I know, but I did.” Marina quickly pecked her cheek before fluttering over to the counter. “I thought you might be hungry, so I went ahead and made dinner. Or, rather, I ordered dinner from your favorite restaurant, but I plated it to make Ramsey proud!” And indeed she had. The pasta was gathered just a little off-center so that the garlic bread could lay like solar rays on the side, and the chicken was laid carefully on top, almost like a flower. Aleesia couldn’t say why, but the sight of it cracked the ice and she couldn’t help but let loose a little hysterical laughter.
“Oh! And you can’t forget dessert!” Marina flew back to the kitchen counter after setting down their plates, then backed up to the table before turning around with a showy, “Ta-da~!”
It was a chocolate cake – or, at least the icing was brown, and you kind of assume. “Did… you make this yourself..?” If the haphazardly placed berries on top and the messily done frosting trim didn’t make it obvious that this was a hand-made creation, Marina’s handwriting in a vibrant and out-of-place green certainly did.
Marina chuckled awkwardly and scratched the back of her head after she sat the cake down in the middle of the table. “Yeah. I’m not particularly good at it, but since I had the time I thought I might as well give it a try… It might not taste as good as, like, a pro’s, but – you know.” Marina stumbled over her words, obviously self-conscious.
Aleesia reached out and lay a hand over her’s, brushing a thumb over her knuckles. “I think I should be the judge of that,” she said gently.
“Dessert before dinner! Have to say, I love a woman with taste.” Marina’s smile brightened, but there was still a hint of anxiety to it through her bravado.
Marina let Aleesia go and went to fetch the knife. Aleesia watched her with an admiring gaze as she cut the cake, a well of affection bubbling up, which is how she noticed the subtle wince as the knife handle brushed a red mark on the inside edge of Marina’s thumb. She had burned herself a little, probably when pulling the cake pan out of the oven.
“Here you are.” Marina handed Aleesia a slice jovially, before something occurred to her and a look of semi-panic grabbed her features. “Oh! I- I don’t have any candles..! Shoot. How are we supposed to sing Happy Birthday if there’s not any-”
Aleesia halted Marina’s rambling by sticking a forkful of cake in her mouth. “Don’t worry about the candles... Your cake is good.” She then took a bite, herself, and although it was a little dry the taste suddenly brought back a flood of memories… Memories before the fights, before the loss and the aching loneliness, and suddenly Aleesia could feel warm tracks rolling down her cheeks.
She took Marina’s hand and lifted it to kiss the small burn, before resting her forehead against it. “…It’s really… really good…”
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