Buster stretched as he got in his chair, enjoying the warmth and serenity of the early morning. Already the sounds of the city rising from its slumber began to float up; engines revving, light chatter, and, of course, the sound of his merry troupe practicing below. When he gave spare keys to everyone, he didn't expect them to come in so early. But it warned his heart to see them so passionate, even at ungodly hours.
"Aaaand...cue the crazy old lizard." smiled Buster, just as Ms. Crawley entered his office.
"Good morning, Mr. Moon." Ms. Crawley greeted, a mug in her hand. "Would you like some coffee?"
"Is there any in there this time?" asked the koala, lightly teasing. To his surprise, there was. Strangely, there was a mound of whipped cream on it, along with a few rainbow sprinkles. "That's...an interesting way to make coffee."
"Well, it's an interesting day."
Was it? Buster tapped a pencil against his chin. "Oh, that's right!" he said in sudden realization. "Ash comes back from Japan today!" Buster downed his coffee, ignoring the scalding of his tongue, leapt from his desk, and hurried downstairs. Ms. Crawley blinked, at a loss for words.
"He can't have forgotten..."
"Ash!" shouted her castmates, rushing towards her. Immediately the porcupine was hoisted up into a series of crushing hugs.
"We missed you!" smiled Meena, bouncing excitedly and shaking the stage a little. "How was Japan?"
"Did you make any new friends?" Rosita asked.
"Tell me all about the idols!" bounced Gunter.
"Brought back any cool souvenirs?" ventured Johnny.
"Okay, everyone chill!" smirked the porcupine. "In order: hot, not sure about friends, but plenty of fans, Gunter, idols don't get paid nearly enough, and of course I did!" Ash reached inside her bag and began producing dozens of brightly-colored packages covered in kanji. "Pocky, rice crackers, those pretzel stick things, these creme biscuit things...oh, and this!"
Ash grinned as she produced a katana from her bag, making a few of them jump back in surprise. "Cool, right? One of the fans gave it to me after the show."
"How on earth did you even get that past customs!?" exclaimed Rosita.
"Uh, I'm famous?" smirked Ash. She unsheathed the sword and whacked it against her arm, an action that made the housewife shriek. "Plus, it's plastic. I'm not that crazy to get a real sword."
There was a moment of silence as everyone stared at her skeptically.
"Okay, I am, but like you said, it wouldn't make it past customs. By the way, where's Buster? I got something special for him."
All eyes turned to see Buster scurrying towards them, a wide smile on his face. "Ash! How was the Big Chestnut?"
"HOT. If it weren't for Rosita telling me to pack sunscreen, I'd have come back extra crispy."
"You're welcome." smiled Rosita.
"Anyway, here!" Ash tossed Buster a bag of cookies. Each one was a different shape, size, and presumably flavor. Some with frosting, some with drizzle, some with sprinkles, others topped with small, star-shaped candies.
"Wow, Ash, thanks!" He stared at the bag. "Why cookies?"
"Well, cake wouldn't have lasted long enough. It was, like, a 16 hour flight. It'd have gotten all dried out."
Buster raised an eyebrow. "Odd thing to say...alright, people, let's get back on track! It's just under a week to our next big show!" Tucking the bag under his arm, he made his way back to his office.
As he left, Ash looked around at the other confused cast members. "Wait, he does know what today is, right?"
"Apparently not..." replied Johnny.
"He does work an awful lot...maybe he just forgot?" Rosita wondered aloud.
"Well, then!" shouted Gunter. "We have to show him what he's not remembering! In a way he can't just gloss over, ja?"
Inspired, the group nodded.
"I've got a song to write." smirked Ash as she walked to her rehearsal room.
"Meena, Johnny, you're with me." Rosita said, and the two nodded before following her out of the theater.
"And where is Eddie?" asked Gunter. "I have one stellar idea!" His question was answered in the form of a trapdoor opening just beneath him, the sheep poking his head out with a grin.
"Been here the whole time. What's the plan?"
Something was off. Buster could tell. He had a sort of sixth sense for these things. The theater was strangely quiet, save for Ash, whose guitar could be barely heard just below. But there was no piano from Johnny, no dulcet tones from Meena, and the absence of Gunter's boisterous singing melding with Rosita's melody was the most jarring of all.
"Wonder if they're out to lunch..." he asked himself as he looked over the bills for the theater. Before, the act would have filled him with dread, but now that he could actually pay them, it was a different story. "Wait, but then why wouldn't they take Ash..."
Shrugging, he got back to work, barely noticing the one good eye of Ms. Crawley peeking through the office door.
"The eagle is still in the nest." spoke Ms. Crawley into her walkie-talkie.
"But Buster's a koala." replied Johnny, before shrieking as something crashed in the background. "Hey, that pan's not a toy!" There was a louder crash, followed by "And neither is the blender!"
"Kids," came Rosita's voice. "Either you all behave right now, or no one gets to lick the bowl!"
"I mean it!"
Ms. Crawley set down the walkie, wondering just how smoothly this was all going to go.
"Gunter, for the last time, I can't make the lights literally dance."
"Well, not with that attitude!" huffed the pig, ignoring or oblivious to Eddie's exasperation.
"I mean, it's physically impossible. They're lights, my dude. The most I could do would be--"
"Ah, ah, ah!" interrupted Gunter. "Don't tell me, show me!"
Rolling his eyes and wondering how Rosita did it, Eddie went back behind the stage towards the light controls. "I really hope this works..."
Ash collapsed into her chair with a groan, rolling her shoulder as she set down her guitar. "This is the last time I work on a song on less than 24 hours notice..."
She looked around the rehearsal space and smiled. It wasn't so long ago she first came in here with a sulk and a sigh, uncertain of the future. But with the New Moon Theater up and smoothly running, she found herself smiling a lot more.
Her walkie crackled, and she swiftly answered. "Talk to me."
"Hey, Ash." came Eddie's voice. "How good are you at putting out fires?"
The porcupine was on her feet in seconds. "What's on fire? Who's on fire!?"
"Nobody is on fire!" he quickly assured. "I just wanted to know...for reference."
"Eddie, I know you love your pyrotechnics, and honestly, I think they're pretty great, too, but maybe tone it down for today?"
"Don't tell me, tell Gunter."
Sighing, Ash pocketed the walkie and headed out towards the stage. It wouldn't hurt just to be around, would it?
Hours later, and Buster was concerned. Beyond concerned. The entire theater was quiet. Dead quiet. No singing, no instruments, no nothing.
To say it unsettled Buster would be an understatement.
Deciding to see what exactly was going on, he hopped across his desk and began walking down to the stage.
No Ash, no Johnny, no Rosita, no Gunter, no Meena, no Eddie, even Ms. Crawley was gone. An odd feeling gnawed at his chest. "Hello?"
"Where is everybody?"
Still no answer. As he reached the stage, he was shocked to find it pitch black, and totally empty.
"We have scheduled break times for a reason, people!" he shouted, trying to ignore the way his heart was pounding.
Lights flashed on, nearly blinding him. Looking up, he saw the signature crescent moon of the theater descending. Upon it sat Ash, in her classic glam rock outfit when she had performed her legendary original song so long ago, guitar at the ready.
"So much has happened in this past year, doubts and hopes, dreams and fears..." Her voice was surprisingly soft, echoing throughout the theater and mixing perfectly with her guitar playing.
"We came back from the ashes and toasted our glasses, and let out a heck of a cheer..." She strummed faster, the song speeding up. The moon lowered enough she could jump off it and land safely. As she sang, her voice grew louder. "But we'd have never gotten far without our brightest star, so let's hope for one more year!"
The stage exploded in light, with 'Happy Birthday' appeared in a blinking rainbow of colors above the moon. From their hiding spots behind the curtains appeared the rest of the cast, Rosita wheeling out a food tray with something hidden beneath a metal covering. In Johnny, Ms. Crawley, and Meena's arms were brightly colored, wrapped packages, and for some incomprehensible reason, Gunter was waving from the rafters, pointing downwards to Eddie, who waved back as he worked masterfully.
"A happy happy birthday is what we're wishing, and lots of good cheer and presents we're giving! All the days seemed to fly right by, so let's celebrate our special guy!"
Ash blasted a power chord that practically shook the entire building, and it was quickly followed by everyone shouting 'Happy Birthday!' at the top of their lungs.
Buster's mouth hung open limply. A few moments passed as the cast looked around at each other waiting for him to respond.
"Do you think he hated it?" whispered Meena, shaking like a leaf.
"He's not moving...should we poke him a little?" Johnny asked.
Ash plucked one of her quills and was about to throw it at Buster, when she saw a tear fall from the koala's eye. He clasped his hands to his mouth, and the damn broke. Tears flowed freely as tiny shudders escaped him.
"It's my birthday..." he whispered. "How...how'd I forget?"
"Well, you are a bit of a workaholic." said Rosita. "You didn't notice the date?"
"It didn't occur to me...did...did you guys set this up just today? Like, now?"
The group nodded, and Buster felt his heart triple in size.
"You guys...I don't know what to say..." He pointed to the covered dish. "What's that?"
"That is the result of very quick baking, and fending off some very hungry piglets." laughed Johnny. "Check it out!" With a flourish, Johnny removed the dish. Beneath it was an enormous three-tiered cake, each tier a sheer work of art. The bottom was of the old look of the theater, the second the theater how it looked when they assembled the haphazard stage for what they thought would be their last stand, and the top of the New Moon Theater, complete with tiny figurines of his beloved theater family, and a single crescent moon-shaped candle in the center.
"Goodness..." whispered Buster. "This...that...it almost looks too good to eat."
"Well, you'd better." said Rosita with mock stern-ness. "I didn't fend off my entire family and have Meena nearly work her arms into paste helping me for this to go uneaten."
"And don't forget we have presents!"
As Rosita handed him a knife to cut the cake with and the cast swarmed him, each joyously exclaiming 'Happy birthday', he didn't have the heart to tell them the presents weren't needed.
He already had everything he could possibly want.