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The inn is always quiet around her birthday. Autumn is peak tourist season, its doors open to all the visitors who come flooding in for koyo viewing in the countryside, which, Yukiko muses with a start, must look even better now that the fog has dissipated.

It’s funny, thinking about how she and her friends might have changed things in more ways than one—but not the rhythm, the seasonal rhythm she’s grown up with and knows better than the academic calendar. She works day in and day out, waking up early, racing home after school, asking for notes for the classes she has to miss with a polite bow. The tide of guests rises through October, and then drops off in late November when the chill sets in, leaving her family to gear up for the visitors who stop by during the winter holiday.

It’s a break she’s always cherished, though she’s never given too much thought to her own birthday. Maybe because she’s never really needed to. It’s merely another brick on the road that’s been laid before her since birth, stretching on all the same even if she doesn’t move at all, if she locks herself into place and holds her breath, holds herself as still as possible. If she stayed still enough, Yukiko used to think—like a challenge to defy physics itself—perhaps she could disappear altogether, slip away so that all that was left behind was her body, honed to perfection in its endless tasks. Maybe that, then, would be freedom. 

Time goes on in a wheel of seasons and bookings, and it glides over her, washing over her without really touching. Every year, the chefs prepare a meal of her favorite dishes, the odd flavor combinations she’s always liked sprinkled throughout: omurice with umeboshi, mapo tofu with a hint of chocolate. (“That’s our Yuki,” they would chuckle, and she would think: her tiny rebellion, like the color red, like red snow.) Her parents and the staff throw a party, the waitresses tease her about boyfriends and coo over how she grows more beautiful every year, laughing when she inevitably blushes. And then Chie comes knocking on her door and waving around the latest movie the two of them have been dying to see, and Yukiko’s stomach gets sore by the end of the day, first from food and then from laughter.

Things have been even quieter ever since Yu left, or at least they feel that way, even though Yukiko’s life is far louder than it’s ever been. She amends the thought—no, not louder, exactly. It’s more as if the sound is finally reaching her now, penetrating through the bubble, the thin film of silence she had wrapped around herself. A dial that’s been turned up, the music duly recalibrated. There’s always been sound in her life: the constant hubbub of the inn, the clatter of dishes in the kitchen and the raucous laughter of salarymen after too much sake, the lively chatter of the waitresses and her parents’ quiet encouragement. And yet she had tuned it out like white noise, like static, to retreat into her own world of beating wings and ballgowns and the promise of pounding hooves in the distance. 

“We would have supported you no matter what, Yuki-chan,” her mother had told her, and Yukiko had laughed, later, alone in her room, at the absurdity.

It’s not like working at the inn has become easy, magically, with her decision to stay. There are no princes, no magic, not even the dizzying light and fire of Amaterasu any longer, and there’s hard work, the hard work she’s always known, still and yet more of it. There’s a sketchbook, shoved in her bookshelf with only a few pages filled, designs she had doodled when she thought she might an interior decorator. She can still use them, she thinks when she musters the energy to look into the future that way. 

It’s not easy; it never is. But Yukiko’s listening now. Tuning herself in.

Before, there was only Chie to hear, whose voice could more than fill the silence, so loud and bright that she could fool herself that it could drown out everything she wanted it to. Now, instead of a prince’s gallop, she hears her family’s warmth in their voices, the chefs’ encouragement as she undercooks and burns things yet again, the waitresses doting on her like older sisters. She hears Yosuke’s complaining, and Rise’s singsong lilt, and Nanako humming the Junes jingle with a smile. She hears Teddie’s comments, though she’d rather not. And she hears Yu, or she hears the silence where he was, never the loudest to begin with but leaving behind a space once filled with soft smiles, with solidity.

She hears them now, downstairs: her mother’s familiar greeting as she answers the door, Chie yelling her name. “Yukiko! Yukiko! We’re he-re!”

Her homework, still piled up from weeks of sporadic absences, lies unfinished on her desk. Yukiko stands more quickly than she intends to, smoothing down her skirt.

“Yuki!” her mom calls. “Your friends are here!”

“I’m—I’m coming!” 

She’s running down the stairs, more quickly, probably, than she should in her socks.

When Yu first left, she had been afraid. Afraid that maybe she would go back to the way things were before he came to Inaba. Afraid that the others would go back to their old lives, too, and maybe they would stop seeing each other, and she would shrink inside herself again, clinging to Chie by a thread. Yu had held them together with his unfailing acceptance of everyone, even someone as out of step as her. Would she still have the strength she had found by his side, the strength to see and forge her own path?

But they’re here, all of them, wrapped in scarves, smiling at the doorway. Chie leaps forward and engulfs her in a hug.

“Chie!” 

She’s listening, and maybe opening the bubble means letting out a bit of herself, too, no matter how it comes out. 

“Happy birthday!” 

“Happy birthday, Yukiko-senpai!” 

“Ugh, don’t push, Chie!”

“You’re the one who’s pushing!”

“Knock it off, both of you.”

“So where do you wanna go, Yukiko?” 

Yukiko’s hugging them back. And maybe it’s already laid out, the road in front of all of them, but maybe, seeing it stretch on as far as she can see, with all of them walking it together, maybe that’s a good thing this time.