Birthdays were a funny thing. At least, to Souji they were. A lot of the girls in his Tokyo schools acted excited about theirs every year even when they didn’t have a boyfriend at the time, which Souji found kind of odd. A few of his male acquaintances had brought theirs up on occasion, too - their parents were taking them here, their girlfriends were going to do this, they were planning on skipping school, and on it went. Souji didn’t find any need to celebrate his birthday, even after the half-hearted suggestion to do so by said classmates.
Souji, after all, hadn’t had a birthday in a really long time. He couldn’t remember what he’d even done on the day in question for the past several years. Souji could remember though, distinctly, when he’d stopped celebrating them. He remembered also that he hadn’t been surprised.
The year leading up to his twelfth birthday was the year that his parents’ once regular presence in their home began to peter out, like the two of them were in the home stretch of a marathon they couldn’t wait to quit running in. Seeing a sitter when he came home from school quickly became a familiar occurrence; that meant his parents wouldn’t be home until dinner. He liked the sitters well enough and they didn’t care what he did, so he convinced himself it was fine.
The first afternoon that he came home from school to the sight and sound of no one, however, a pit opened up at the bottom of his stomach. There was no sitter and no note on the fridge (which would happen occasionally if they were late calling them). He was all alone. He spent most of his time alone, anyway, but . . . there was just . . . no one. Anywhere.
He’d held back on calling his mother for hours, and only when he couldn’t take the anxiety anymore did he finally pick up the house phone and call one of the only numbers he knew by heart: the office. His mother explained with a frustrated sigh that they wouldn’t be home until later and to be sure to do his homework before he went to bed, and then Souji had just hung up. He was a placid, rational person - and eleven - but he’d never dug his nails into his palm so hard before.
His parents worked a lot, sure, but they always had. Up to that moment, Souji believed his parents loved him just like all the other kids he knew, even the ones with just one mom or dad. He told them things about school, and asked them for help with his homework, and trusted them implicitly. Because he had believed they loved him. He had believed that.
And finding out after all this time, all these years of raising him, that they didn’t . . . ?
Was . . .
Really scary, actually.
He didn’t have many friends - he was closer with the sitters than the kids in the schools he attended. His parents had been the only constant in his life. And now, as he’d just learned, they could no longer be bothered with him - him. The perfect, quiet son who hardly asked for anything had been a burden all along.
Over time, fear gave way to resentment, which devolved further into apathy. In the complete absence of other options, Souji had simply decided to stop missing the company. He taught himself how to fix the foods he wanted to eat since his parents either left him take-out or nothing. He paid even more attention in class so he was left with no reason to ask for help on his homework. He joined the library club at school, which beat coming home to an empty house even if he didn’t talk with the other members too much. He didn’t miss the company anymore.
And he didn’t miss the company today, either, when he cracked the front door open to be greeted by a perfectly silent, air-conditioned living room lit only by the high-afternoon sun. The clock ticked. He slid his schoolbag off his shoulder and put it next to his shoes. He knew better than to call out to anyone.
It was his birthday, and the world couldn’t have cared less.
In moving to Inaba and being swept up in the murder mystery, along with making actual, genuine friends for what had to be the first time in his life, Souji had put aside his birthday as usual - but now for entirely different reasons. The high schoolers weren’t as gung-ho about them out here in the country, as it happened, and if it hadn’t been for the occasional couple around (rumored or no) to celebrate them, he might have forgotten what a birthday even was.
Truly, if he’d happened to simply not look at his phone calendar at all in the weeks leading up to the date, he might have gone a month before realizing (with a relieved sigh) that he’d passed up his birthday altogether. But he’d become a busy guy in Inaba, and his calendar was the only thing keeping him sane what with the promises and appointments and jobs he’d made in all his time here.
As the day drew nearer, and after becoming only closer with all of his new friends, he began to wonder if he should tell any of them. It felt strange to consider it; he hadn’t considered his birthday as anything of importance in so long. And would anyone care? He didn’t have a girlfriend, and the one person he would date would never date him, so Souji was left miserably turning both painful options in his hand like baoding balls. He might be able to tell Nanako with some confidence that it could stay between the both of them . . . but then he couldn’t ensure it would, and what if she asked questions? And what if she told Dojima?
As fate would have it, the decision was taken out of his hands the day his birthday came to pass.
Nanako had been kidnapped, and it was the combined efforts of all eight of them that had kept him from jumping into the television right away at risk of both life and limb to extricate her. The day of his actual birthday was spent navigating the sickeningly serene hallways of Heaven and battling the unhinged lunatic who’d taken her in the first place, and afterwards, watching Nanako collapse in his arms. (From exhaustion? From the fog? None of them could be sure.) But they had done it. She was breathing and in this dimension and they had done it. He was spent, weary.
And it was his birthday.
He looked around the hospital room at his friends, every one of them present, tearful, relieved. The girls were run ragged. Yosuke and Kanji appeared to still have some strength left in them, but Souji suspected that was as much of a front as the one he was putting up himself. Teddie was solemn, looking forlornly over the bed Nanako lay tucked within.
It wasn’t his birthday anymore by the time they left the hospital, but Souji’s mind was split in so many directions that this fact had been tossed in the back to rot along with the fresh memories of Nanako’s cold form against his chest. His friends made sure the night ended optimistically, at least. Most of the group were already thinking about what kind of party to throw for Nanako. At one point, Rise reached out and curled her fingers through his with a reassuring smile; he returned her smile but ignored the urge to bring her in for a hug (he didn’t need any new rumors). Teddie was even smiling a little again and kept him occupied with conversation as Yosuke, claiming his “crappy” phone had died a long time ago, used Souji’s to call his parents and tell them where they were. For a brief few minutes, it all felt so normal.
He waved at the group as they left. Once he was alone again, Souji started for home himself. The night was warmer than November should have been, than it had been up until tonight, but he still held his arms as he walked the barren streets as the exhaustion finally began to take its toll.
He was dead asleep, still in his school uniform on his loveseat-sized sofa, when he heard the front door. It was a bang and bell and another bang. Souji fell off the sofa, miraculously missing the table on the way down, and fumbled for his glasses and the phone he could feel tumble out of his jacket pocket. The room was pitch black and he had to use the screen’s light to guide him first to the door, then down the stairs. Another bell. No way this was Namatame on the loose, he thought briefly, before deciding to grab a kitchen knife anyway.
“Who is it,” he croaked through the closed door. He adjusted his grip on the knife.
Souji struggled with the locks in his haste to get them undone, tossing the knife in the sink to make it easier and finally sliding the door open to reveal a jacket-clad, half-awake Yosuke. His eyes were sleepy, clothes a little disheveled, like he’d put them on in the dark. He’d seen him more awake on the morning walks to school, actually.
“Yosuke, is everything all right?” He didn’t bother hiding the concern in his voice. Why else would Yosuke be at his doorstep this late at night if something wasn’t wrong?
“Y-yeah, I just . . .” He looked off down the road for a second, huffing, then pocketed his hands in his coat and turned back to Souji, who still stood speechless at the door. “Sorry, I know it’s late, but I had this stupid dream and then I couldn’t get back to sleep and-” his eyes widened like he’d said something wrong, and he began to stutter - “a-a-and then I realized you were alone, so . . .” He sighed, stilling himself. “Sorry to wake you.”
Souji didn’t know what to say. Yosuke had never come to his house in the middle of the night before, and he seemed more upset than he was trying to let on. Souji was still trying to figure out what this was really about when Yosuke cleared his throat.
“T-this was stupid, heh,” he rubbed the back of his head. “I-I’ll let you get back to sleep; you look like you’re still dreaming, dude.”
He was turning away with another muttered apology when Souji’s body acted on instinct and grabbed for his wrist, pulling it out of its assigned pocket and grasping it tightly. “Wait-” he gasped. “It . . . it’s fine.”
Yosuke looked back at him in mild shock. He studied Souji’s expression for several seconds before eventually nodding his head lightly, and Souji released his wrist. Souji cleared his throat as well and stepped back, allowing Yosuke passage into the pitch-black entryway. The only light in the room was what cascaded through the backdoor curtains from the nearby streetlamp but his eyes had already adjusted to the darkness.
He shut the door and locked it while Yosuke wormed out of his boots and slipped his jacket off. “You sure this is okay?”
Souji didn’t know how to tell him “yes” without breaking down, so he just smiled warmly and nodded his head. He wasn’t even sure if Yosuke could actually see him until he heard the other boy sigh in relief.
“Good. I was afraid you’d be mad at me,” he laughed, although it sounded strained.
Souji took his jacket from him and turned away to hang it on the hook behind them. His jacket was so puffy; it took up all the space on their small little hook. Souji found himself patting it down to ensure it stayed on, his fingers lingering over the familiar texture, the faint scent of Yosuke - his whole house probably - drifting peacefully into his lungs.
He felt the weight of Yosuke’s hand on his shoulder as he squeezed it gently. “She’s gonna be fine, Souji. You’ll see.”
He turned around, preparing to don his most brave face and inspired smile to agree with him. But the second he saw Yosuke’s expression - determined and tender and full of sympathy - he could feel his eyes sting and his mouth turning up, and he swallowed angrily to keep the emotions down, because he wasn’t about to do this. He needed to be strong. His friend had to come to him.
He cleared his throat and breathed in deep; it was the only thing that made the prickly feeling in his eyes dissipate for good.
“Hey,” Yosuke whispered, and Souji’s eyes flicked to his wearily, afraid seeing them again would bring him back to tears. “Today was your birthday, huh?”
His . . . birthday? Souji furrowed his brows at him, a million questions flying to escape his mouth at once. “M-my . . .”
“I-I saw the text alert . . . pretty crappy way to spend your birthday, right?”
The what? He rushed to pull out his phone, noticing for the first time that he had an unread message. His heart stuttered - it was a birthday greeting from his parents. His parents, who hadn’t wished him a happy birthday in . . . how long? Souji supposed the guilt for sending him to Inaba (and really, never calling him) might have been the cause of this, but he might not ever know, as he didn’t plan on responding.
All of his surprise and confusion accumulated and expressed itself as a single, “Oh . . .” and he snapped the phone shut, stared at it. So. Now he knows. And so will everyone . . .
“Souji?” Yosuke spoke into the stillness.
Souji looked up at him, his heart thudding and hands sweating without cause. Yosuke had his mouth shut and was looking at him nervously; he clearly wanted to say something but seemed unable to.
“It’s alright, Yosuke. I never celebrated it anyway,” he assured him, and tried to put on a smile to match.
That just made Yosuke look at him more intensely, but he stayed silent. Souji pocketed his phone.
“Do you want to stay for a while?” Souji hoped he didn’t sound as needy as he felt, and blushed at the thought. He didn’t know if they had an extra futon; Souji had always been under the impression he was using Dojima’s only spare, but he could look around. Wait, he also didn’t know if Yosuke even wanted to spend the night -
He cleared his throat before Yosuke could answer and walked passed him into the kitchen, opening the fridge to grab a bottle of water.
“Do you want anything to drink?” That was two questions. Souji was never two questions in debt. The condensation of the water bottle felt weird against the sweat in his palms, which only made him sweat more.
Finally, Yosuke sighed sadly and shuffled on tired legs toward him, stopping before he fully left the entryway. “Souji, why didn’t you tell anyone it was your birthday?” He sounded resigned.
“Technically, it was yesterday,” he corrected, understanding completely it wouldn’t deter Yosuke one iota.
“And?” Yosuke argued, arms rising and falling to his sides. “We could’ve . . .” he gestured in midair and trailed off.
“Could have what?” Souji started to laugh with exasperation. “Yosuke, I told you, it’s fine. We rescued Nanako - consider that celebration enough. Besides,” he shrugged, “we didn’t celebrate anyone else’s.”
Yosuke was silent for about thirty seconds, staring at him in both frustration and pity. Souji didn’t care for it but he did care for Yosuke, so he held his tongue. Then, the boy shuffled the rest of way into the kitchen to join Souji at the fridge, hand wrapping around the handle and pulling the door open. The light baked his skin and Souji could now clearly see the bags under his eyes, especially when Yosuke turned to smile tiredly at him. “I could’ve at least bought you a topsicle.”
“Shiroku doesn’t sell topsicles this late.” Souji took a sip of his water.
“Or a drink,” Yosuke substituted, and sipped his own water after cracking the top.
“Just be quiet.” Yosuke closed the fridge door and closed their distance until they were standing a few inches from each other. Souji looked down and took a small step back; he didn’t want Yosuke to see the blush now that they were in marginally better light.
“I’m sorry again for coming over so late,” he lamented, and Souji tried not to focus on the unfamiliar, gravelly texture to his voice that he was sure was borne from a need for sleep.
“No, I’m glad you did. Thank you, Yosuke.” He smiled at him through the dark - the most genuine one he’d given him tonight.
Yosuke sighed again. “Just be quiet.” And he wrapped him up in a one-armed hug. Although taken aback, Souji immediately returned the gesture, throwing his free arm to land on his opposite shoulder, his other hand awkwardly holding the crinkling water bottle. “Everything’ll work out, you’ll see,” Yosuke mumbled into his shoulder, voice muffled by his uniform jacket, and then, “Happy birthday, buddy.”
Souji laughed silently into Yosuke’s shirt, feeling comfort for the first time in almost two days. He didn’t want to pull away until he was sure he wasn’t going to cry. It had probably been the worst day of his life so far, his birthday, but at least he wasn’t alone. For the first time in years, he wasn’t alone.