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give me something to look forward to

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In the first year, they didn't manage to do anything special.

It was June. They had known each other for a grand total of two months. Yuyuko remembered their names before she remembered all of her classmates' because while she hardly ever interacted with them, she literally shared a dorm with the other three of the Acting Department (and really, there were only three. She might seem inattentive, but not that inattentive).

She had remembered Rui's first. It was hard not to notice a person that tall, standing out among all others, in the same classroom as her. When the teacher had asked everyone to participate in one of those lame icebreaker games where you introduce yourself along with a fun fact ("Hi. I'm Tanaka Yuyuko. I love to sleep. Zzz."), that big, tall, slightly intimidating girl had said her introduction in the smallest, squeakiest voice possible, stuttering all the while. 

"H-h-h-hi! N-Nice to meet you! My name is Akikaze Rui! I-I like donuts!"

Then she had given the quickest, deepest bow before plopping down on her desk, hiding her face behind her hands, avoiding everyone's eyes.

And then Yuyuko had gone to her first class with the Acting Department and seen that same tall girl there. 

Suffice to say, it had been a memorable series of events.

Yuyuko had remembered Ichie's second. She remembered being pounced on the second she set foot into the practice room. She remembered being offered a handshake and casually pointing out the whoopee cushion hidden on her hand. She remembered a loud, bright, lively presence, cheerful voice always filling the practice room full. She remembered her grin, as the girl with perpetually messy lavender hair introduced herself with a most confident voice.

"Otonashi Ichie, your favorite idol and senpai in one package!" 

She remembered soon questioning if Ichie was really her senpai or she was just pulling her leg.

Yuyuko had remembered Tamao's final, but it had by no means meant she had been forgettable. They said opposites attract, but Yuyuko, in contrast, had been drawn to her quiet, gentle demeanor, especially whenever Ichie's antics got a little too much to bear. Interestingly enough, whenever Tamao spoke up, gently reprimanding Ichie for the noises, the pranks, the prankster had, though poutily, very obediently settled down. She remembered wondering about their history. She remembered being silently thankful for the intervention.

She remembered the older blue-haired girl, after patting Ichie's shoulder, who was all bummed out about her prank not working out, offering that same hand to her. Slender fingers. Well-kept nails. Hint of a tan, surprisingly enough.

"Nice to meet you. I'm Tomoe Tamao. Let's help each other from here on out."

She had taken it. Warm. Not silky smooth, but not rough either. Gardening hands, just like those of her mother.

June 5th. A day. A very ordinary day. No national holiday. No special anniversary of some historical events. No birthday of some important national figures. Yuyuko planned to spend it like how she spent all other days: sleeping.

So imagine her surprise when Tamao came up to her as she was about to doze off on the common room table and said with a smile. “Happy birthday, Yuyuko-chan.”

Yuyuko blinked, trying to make sense of what Tamao had just said with her already half asleep brain. “Uhhh… I’m sorry?”

Tamao’s smile wavered as confusion and uncertainty seeped into it. Nevertheless, she kept on. “Today is your birthday, is it not?”

Was it? It was, wasn’t it?

Yuyuko had almost forgotten. She would have been content to go this entire day without remembering it was her birthday, only remembering it a day or a week later, if Tamao hadn’t brought it up. 

“Well, yes, but how did you know, senpai?”

Visible relief came over Tamao’s expression. “Ah, forgive me for imposing, but I might have accidentally caught a glimpse of your student file this morning, while I was helping the teacher with paperwork,” her apologetic tone made Yuyuko wonder if she had really just seen it ‘accidentally’. “I thought there might have been a reason you didn’t want to share this with us, so I didn’t tell the others. Still, I want to give you my wish.”

“It’s not that I didn’t want to tell you guys…” Yuyuko furrowed her brows, more in thoughts than in annoyance at anything in particular. 

Again, huh?

"Oh? Then may I ask why?” Tamao cocked her head at her, curious. 

Why indeed.

Yuyuko had not cared much for her birthday for a couple of years now. The glamor of the day through the rose-tinted childish lense of her younger self wore off quickly once she hit middle school. No friends, no one who cared enough to ask. She still had to go to school, do her work. Her family's own celebration of the day was small, a slightly more grand than usual feast for dinner with her favorite dishes, the only participants the few members of the family, passing out congratulations and presents. Her parents had asked every year if she would like to invite someone, but that had quickly become bothersome as she obviously didn't want to, and even if she had, she wouldn't have had anyone to invite. These days, she only cared about whether she got to take a break from school. What tiny anticipation she had for her own birthday had been snuffed out along with her train ride to the city for high school, away from her hometown and the only few people who actually celebrated it.

But that was too much info to dump on her senpai of two months. So she shrugged, "I just don't really care about my birthday."

"I see," Tamao nodded, thoughtful. Yuyuko wondered what she actually saw. "In that case-"

"Did I hear about someone's birthday?" a voice from the entrance to the common room made them both look up. There stood Ichie, fresh out of the bathroom in her pink and cutesy casual wear, eyes wide and curious. 

"Ichie, towel off your hair first, you're dripping water all over the floor," Tamao chided, even though she was still smiling. "Yes, it's Yuyuko-chan's birthday."

"Really? Why didn't you tell us?" Ichie gasped. "I would have thrown a big party and gotten you the best gift ever!"

"It's okay, Ichie-san," Yuyuko didn't feel like calling Ichie 'senpai'. It felt unfitting. "I forgot it is today, too."

Tamao and Ichie exchanged a look, but in the end, they didn't pry. For that, Yuyuko was thankful. 

"Okay, but we have to celebrate!" Ichie declared. "Ah, but we didn't prepare any snacks… I'm gonna go out for some. Get Rui! We’re making this happen!" She promptly turned to head toward her room, presumably to put on something more suitable for the outdoors. 

"Wait, Ichie, isn't it curfew soon?"

"Not if I'm fast enough!" yelled Ichie, already down the hallway and inside her room. Tamao just sighed, though she sported a fond, resigned smile on her face. Yuyuko watched it all with great amusement.

"Same old Ichie… Anyway, in that case, I'll go see if there are enough ingredients in the fridge for a couple of tomato dishes," Tamao smiled at her, standing up. "If we lack something, I'll ask Ichie to get it at the nearby convenience store, since she's heading there anyway."

"W-Wait," Yuyuko called out, blushing a little at the sudden amount of attention she was receiving. Tamao paused, looking at her quizzically. "You really don't have to do this..." she mumbled, her voice almost lost in the hood of her red parka.

Tamao just smiled, simply and understandingly.

"We want to." 

With one last reassuring smile, she disappeared into the kitchen, leaving Yuyuko to stare after her, dumbstruck.

The first-year buried her head in her arms on the table, trying to go back to sleep. She sighed, annoyed at the sudden flutter of feelings, bubbling in her gut.

Her last thought before she finally drifted off to sleep was

Maybe this year's birthday won't be so bad after all.

 

---

 

On June 5th of her second year at Rinmeikan, Yuyuko woke up feeling strangely excited.

She sat up, brushed her teeth and got dressed, all in a daze. Rui's words as she fussed around her, urging her to hurry so they wouldn't miss class, were lost to her ears as she pondered.

The last time she was excited upon waking had been when they had had that excursion to Kyoto to learn about Noh and other forms of traditional Japanese performing art. On that day, she had woken up immediately at Rui's call, and finished her morning routine in record time, leaving Rui surprised and the two of them with plenty of time to gather at their classroom before being wheeled off to their destination.

As far as Yuyuko knew, there wasn't any such excursion scheduled today. Or this year. The Acting Department had been disbanded, and they were still in the middle of rebuilding it, little by little.

The progress was slow now, as Tamao, Ichie and Fumi were now third-years. Technically, they were still in the club, but third-year duty restricted them from doing much other than helping their kouhais out as they learnt to take the rein. They had their futures to think of, a future beyond the gate of this small old high school to prepare for. The responsibilities to manage their small, growing association had largely fallen on her and Rui's shoulders. They promised themselves they would get more members by the end of the year. That was one small, but crucial step they had to take in the hundreds of steps they still had to take to ensure the survival of the Performance Association.

The thought sombered Yuyuko a little. Maybe when they eventually recruited new members, they should hold an excursion like that. Get permission for an extracurricular activity like proper clubs do. Something to spice up the club activities, other than all the practice and plays they had throughout the year.

It only hit her when Rui spoke up, before they entered the dance room for their morning practice.

"Let's have a great day today, yeah?"

Yuyuko looked up at Rui's hopeful smile, blinked, and remembered.

Why did she remember this time?

No, that by itself wasn’t perplexing.

Why was she excited?

Was she expecting something for this day?

Yuyuko remembered, all the birthdays she had celebrated in the past year. 

Right after hers had been Rui’s, falling red leaves filling the cool fresh air. They all stalked after Tamao and Rui going on a donut date at the park they had set them up with, unaware of their own blossoming feelings. 

Tamao’s birthday, a snowed in day in which school was cancelled. Yuyuko slept past noon, and in an attempt to make up for the poor old heater’s inability to raise the dorm’s temperature to a comfortable level, Fumi made hotpot and Ichie pushed them all onto one futon to have their first five-person sleepover. 

Spring came and they had Fumi’s birthday, who, diligent as she was, had refused to call in leave at work, only to come back from her part time job to a surprise party at her own apartment, complete with Tamao’s ponzu feast, one non-blood related family and one blood sister, courtesy of Yuyuko. She grumbled at having her house unconsentingly infiltrated, but she couldn't stay mad for long when they all stood up, Shiori included and gave her a big Fumi-centric group hug.

No birthday was any less memorable than others, but Ichie’s sure had been the funniest: they gave the poor prankster a taste of her own medicine by leading her around on a wild goose chase, going from room to room for her wishes and presents. By the end, when Ichie came back to the practice room, exhausted from running and carrying all the gifts around, they each made up for her with a kiss, effectively wiping the pout off her face.

Not all of them had been there from the beginning, but they didn’t miss. They left no one behind, no birthday uncelebrated. And they made sure each one of them was unique in its own way.

So by the time Yuyuko opened the door to the practice room afterschool, and got greeted with a cheerful chorus of “Happy birthday!”, she had long gotten the answer to her question.

Yes, she was.

Because she could always trust them to make her feel special.

“Just this one, just this one time ,” Fumi warned, though there wasn’t a trace of seriousness in her voice. “I’m letting you all off the hook for afternoon practice.”

“Aw,” Ichie smirked, elbowing her playfully. “You say that, but you’re looking forward to this too. Don’t lie.”

“Not more than Yuyuko herself, I believe,” Fumi shrugged. She turned to Yuyuko, smiling encouragingly. “Come on, let’s head back. I think you would love today’s dinner.”

“Let me guess, tomatoes?” Yuyuko teased.

“Well, yes, but,” Fumi chuckled, exchanging a knowing look with Tamao. She winked. Yuyuko’s eyes widened. “You will be surprised.”

She was.

Yuyuko thought she had seen all there was to Tamao’s cooking, but today the leader of the group clearly wanted to prove her wrong. The older girl had brought some of the freshest-looking tomatoes Yuyuko had ever seen from home, and used them to create a variety of Yuyuko’s favorite dishes. And the taste…

“Mhmm,” Yuyuko couldn’t help herself. She groaned aloud.

Tamao and Fumi chuckled. Rui seemed startled. Ichie let out a long “awwwwww”. Yuyuko hid in her hoodie, face as red as her favorite food.

“Aw, don’t be shy,” Ichie pawed at the hood hiding her face, trying to get Yuyuko to come out. “You’re sooooo cute when you blush.”

“I don’t think that’s helping, Ichie,” Tamao laughed as the prankster’s effort just made Yuyuko sink deeper into the jacket.

“In any case, I guess all that research for new recipes paid off,” Fumi commented. She and Tamao shared a victorious high-five.

Dinner was a fun, albeit hectic affair that way (that day Yuyuko learnt there was such a thing as Russian roulette with tomato dumplings). They dressed lightly for the weather as they headed out afterwards, to a rakugo show. It was one Yuyuko had been eyeing too ever since it came into town, but tickets were sold out before she could get her hand on one. Guess now she knew where five of those tickets ended up.

It was after the performance and they were leisurely walking back home. On summer nights, the atmosphere was significantly cooler than that during the day. They enjoyed the refreshing cool gusts of wind that eased the heat haunting this city in daytime, chatting amicably among themselves, about the show they just watched, one person in particular more enthusiastic than the rest.

“The part inside the cage, I really liked his adaptation of this part. It is a respectful nod to the original, yet it is also a very new and fresh approach…” Yuyuko went on with her opinions of the show. Tamao and Fumi engaged with her, while Ichie and Rui listened, trying to keep up with their limited knowledge of rakugo.

“Ah, yes, I can see that. I just rewatched the original recently before this. What do you think about the part where he…”

“Psst, Rui,” Ichie whispered as the other three sunk further into their heated discussion. “Do you understand what they’re saying?”

“No, but...” Rui whispered back. They wordlessly continued to watch the exchange.

Yuyuko was alive . She had gotten better at expressing herself around them, but to get her to be so passionate still took a special quality that was hard to replicate from rakugo. Still, she didn’t apologize every time she got carried away on the subject anymore, and while the four of them all had seen this livelier side of her multiple times, they never grew tired of it. Her eyes were alight with that peculiar spark, the excitement barely concealed in her body language, her lips were stretched wide in a perpetual smile, and her cheeks were flushed pink. If they were to point it out now, she would probably blame it on the temperature, even though the sun was down and the heat had long given way to the cool summer night air.

Those who didn’t know her would hardly recognize this was the same always tired, always sleepy girl. They knew her, but they were still amazed every time anyway, and it left them wanting to bring that side of her out more.

Rui smiled, looking at them fondly. “It’s always so rare to see Yuyuko so fired up.”

“Mhmm,” Ichie smiled back, agreed. “It’s endearing.”

“Ahhh, that was an amazing show,” Yuyuko breathed out, satisfied, finally finished with her rant. "I kinda wanna see it again…"

"Well, in a sense, you could , if you want to," Tamao spoke up. In front of Yuyuko's wide, surprised eyes, she smiled. "We got our hands on a couple of recordings of some rakugo classics we thought you would enjoy, including that one. Some of them are rather old performances, while some are more modern adaptations. Rui-chan painstakingly sifted through your collection to make sure which one you haven't possessed yet, you know."

"Tamao-senpai!" Rui gasped, scandalized at being called out. “W-Well, it isn’t all that much… I have gotten quite familiar with it that I know which one she has anyway…” When Yuyuko directed a quizzical gaze at her, she stuttered. "I-I didn't break or scratch anything, I swear!" As if that was ever a concern.

"Relax, Rui. I know you didn't," Yuyuko raised an eyebrow in amusement. "If you had, though..." she chuckled in a low, mockingly ominous kind of way. Rui visibly shuddered, which only served to fuel her myrth further.

"Well, birthday girl, the night is still young," Ichie came up behind her and wrapped an arm around her shoulder. "It only ends when you say so!"

"It's your call," Fumi nodded. "Today, we're at your service, Yuyuko. Tell us whatever your heart desires." Then she frowned. “Keep in mind that we still have school tomorrow though. Stay up late, if you want, but we should turn in at a reasonable hour still.”

“What? No late night drinking game?”

“Ichie, we’re underaged.”

“What if we replace alcohol with something non-alcoholic though?”

“That would defeat the point of the game in the first place, and- Tamao, I thought you of all people would back me up.”

Tamao giggled. “It’s fine once in a while. What do you say, Yuyuko-chan?”

Yuyuko looked around, at their patient, expectant look, collectively directed at her.

She sighed, the corner of her lips quirked up. "You guys already know the answer, don't you?"

She didn't have to say more. They understood.

That was one of the many things she absolutely loved about them.

It was past 10PM. They were huddled around the small coffee table in the common room, all five of them, watching rakugo show after rakugo show on the small old vintage TV of the Tokaso dorm that looked like it belonged to the antique store. Yuyuko sat snugly and comfortably on Rui's lap, leaning back on the solid fort of a girl, while she had her arms loosely wrapped around Yuyuko's midsection from behind. On their right was Ichie, on the verge of dozing off on Fumi's lap herself, trying her best to stay awake despite the late hour. Snuggling to their left side was Tamao, body leaning against Rui's arm while her hand found Yuyuko's and didn't let go for the entirety of the time. They were enshrouded in a comfortable silence, perpetuated by the voice coming from the TV, only occasionally broken by the sound of giggles and restrained laughters in appreciation for the storytellers' jokes. They would share some short comments on the show after each one, before Tamao went to change the recording.

It was warm. It was cozy. Yuyuko felt like liquid, like her body’s particles were disintegrating, melting, splaying out all over Rui's lap. She felt the sleep encroaching on her herself, but if there was something she would stay up for, it was rakugo and her girlfriends.

It went on like that until they reached a point where most of them couldn't keep it in anymore. After a particular show ended, Fumi yawned. Infectious things they were, the yawns immediately spread around to the rest of them. Except for Ichie, she was almost snoring already.

Tamao noted the time. "My, it has gotten so late." She turned to Yuyuko, smiling. "How about we call it here?"

"Seems good to me," Yuyuko smiled back lazily. "My rakugo quota for the day is filled."

“Mhm,” Tamao nodded. Then she turned to the others. “Okay, everyone, it’s time.”

"Wwww-wah?" Ichie blinked sluggishly, but as soon as she met Tamao’s eyes, her own eyes widened, and she bolted up more quickly than a dog locked onto a treat, all traces of her previous sleepiness gone. “Oh, it’s time!”

Yuyuko almost forgot birthdays include presents. Wide brown eyes watched on as everyone seemed to summon some gifts out of thin air, and one by one, they gave them to her. 

Ichie gave her a wicker basket. A big one. A very big one. Complete with a soft pillow and covering and everything.

“For your cat nap,” Ichie winked.

Oh hell yeah .

Fumi got her books. “This author has some really interesting takes on rakugo classics, as well as the subject as a whole. I stumbled upon them during my personal research,” she smiled warmly at her. “I thought you might enjoy it. I know I did.”

“Thank you, Fumi-senpai,” Yuyuko returned her smile with a lazy one, albeit no less warm. “I’ll read them as soon as I can. If you enjoyed it, I think I will. You do have a great eye for these things.”

Fumi chuckled. “Well, I look forward to our discussion after you finish with them.”

Tamao made her a blanket. Yes, not ‘bought’. ‘Made’.  

“Well, I didn’t do it alone,” Tamao explained upon the sight of her bewildered expression. “My grandmother helped. You mentioned you missed your childhood blanket that you left at home, so…”

Yuyuko received the item from her in awed silence. It was soft, just the right level of thickness. Its weight was a comfortable burden on her hand, its size just a perfect wrap round her body and maybe another cuddle buddy when she felt like it (they got their own massive blankie for a 5-person cuddle already). It smelled not of metal industrial sewing machines and chemically produced fibers, but of cherry blossoms, home cooked meals, tatami mats and everything that Tamao was. Even just having it on her hand grounded Yuyuko. She closed her eyes, gave herself one second to indulge in the sentiment, then opened them again.

She smiled at Tamao calmly, despite the inexplicable flutter of her heart. “Thank you, Tamao-senpai. I genuinely appreciate it.”

Tamao smiled back, indicating that she understood.

Rui went last. She had been fidgeting the whole time, and while she was naturally an anxious girl, Yuyuko recognized the sign of someone with more to show than she was trying to let on. After Tamao stepped back, she went over to put a hand on her tall kouhai’s shoulder, and gave her an encouraging smile. Rui looked over at her, and Yuyuko marvelled at how far she had come, from freaking out just from being in Tamao’s proximity, to calmly accepting the physical act of support and, after a deep exhale, loosening up and nodding at her gratefully. 

The tall girl cleared her throat. “So… uhhh…” In the background, Yuyuko was vaguely aware of Ichie and Fumi giving her a thumbs up. “H-Happy birthday, Yuyuko. I practiced rakugo as my present to you. I know it’s not the most skilled, but will you listen?”

Now how could Yuyuko say no to that? She had half a mind to make a joke, but opted not to do so on account of how so painfully obviously nervous Rui was (that, and the other half of her mind was actually a little too excited about Rui’s rakugo ). So she sat back, along with the rest, eagerly anticipating, while Rui sat seiza in front of them.

“You got this, Rui!”

“Yeah, you practiced hard for this. Do your best.”

Rui nodded at Ichie and Fumi’s words, a little disorientedly. She looked a little like she might die. Yuyuko felt kinda bad that she wanted to laugh already. 

The tall girl took a deep breath, and started.

It was a simple story. One of the first ones Yuyuko taught her, in fact. It was beginner-friendly, but still entertaining enough on its own. The only difference here was how much Rui herself had improved. The performance was nowhere near the level of the shows she went to watch, or Yuyuko’s own, of course. But still…

It was charming. It was Rui, in all her clumsy effort. Yuyuko found herself hooked.

She wondered when Rui had gotten so good.

She wondered when Rui had found the time to practice all this without her knowing.

She wondered how long it had taken Tamao to knit that blanket.

She wondered how much research Fumi had poured into the dinner.

She wondered how hard it had been for Ichie to acquire five tickets.

She wondered…

……

“Yuyuko-chan?”

She felt Tamao took one of her hands, and Ichie the other. She saw Fumi peering at her worriedly. She felt the first drop of water on her shorts, and only realized then that she was crying.

“Yuyuko, what’s wrong?”

“Oh, whoops?” Yuyuko laughed. “Didn’t mean to do that. I’m supposed to laugh, ain’t I? Your rakugo is really good, Rui. It’s just that…”

She wiped her sleeves at her eyes. The tears wouldn’t stop.

“You guys are so good to me…”

Instantly there were arms around her. Four pairs of arms - four - securing her from all sides. Yuyuko was trying her hardest to hold back the sob, but the comfort afforded to her, so readily and lovingly, forced it out, and she let loose.

“I don’t want to ever lose this…”

“Oh, Yuyuko-chan…” she faintly heard Tamao speak up, in that ever gentle, comforting, motherly voice of hers. There were hands on her hair, stroking it.

“You will never lose us.”

 

---

 

June 5th.

Yuyuko’s third year at Rinmeikan.

“Happy birthday, Yuyuko-senpai!”

So what do you know, participating in the Performance Festival did bring around some merits.

“Thank you, thank you,” Yuyuko addressed the circle of people in front of her, after the chorus of ‘happy birthday’ had died down, smiling. She surveyed the old practice room, raising an eyebrow, “When did you all find the time to decorate this room? I swear these banners weren’t here this morning.”

“We’re still young, Yuyuko-senpai. We got mad speed, unlike you,” one of her kouhais teased good-naturedly.

“Hey, that’s rude to say to your senpai!” another one gasped, frowning, reprimanding the first one.

“Haha, you’re right. These bones are old,” Yuyuko chuckled lightly, taking no offense. “Color me impressed, kids.”

The old classroom had indeed been spruced up; not just because of all the balloons and banners and frilly colorful decorations everywhere that her kouhais had put up for the occasion, but also in general. There were new scripts written in the last year, filling up the space in the small cabinet they owned; some performed, some still waiting to be finished and performed in the future. There were new props and costumes, handed down to them by their seniors, crafted by their own hands, or curried from a favor from fellow stage girls they befriended from other schools. She and Rui worked hard to maintain this classroom for their juniors, and every once in a while, Yuyuko couldn’t help but feel pride at the work they had done, continuing the stage their seniors had left behind.

“I guess we’re not having practice today?” Yuyuko asked as she was ushered into a seat, looking toward Rui in particular.

“As the main coach, I say nope,” Rui said smilingly. She said it so confidently now, Yuyuko had a brief moment in which she wondered where the usual anxiety-laden Rui was. “You all are free today. Sit back and relax, Yukko. I think you will like what our juniors have in store for you.”

“You have been hanging around Fumi-senpai too much, you’re starting to sound like her.”

“Is that a bad thing?” Rui’s brow creased slightly, in that adorable expression she made when she was confused.

“Nope,” Yuyuko lowered her voice. “Confidence is hot on you.”

Rui blushed a little too brightly. Yuyuko, on the other hand, played off her own embarrassment successfully, and turned cooly forward, aware of their kouhais’ eyes on them.

They were still small. Their kouhais, the three of them, put on a small little fun play, with goofy hijinks and upbeat musical (Yuyuko noted how their punchline game had gone up). They bought a lot of potato chips and juice (“How am I gonna finish all of these?” “You can bring them back to the dorm and,” a smirk, “ chip away at them.” A loud, collective groan. Except for Yuyuko, she was on the verge of tears of pride). There were lively banters. There were presents, too - pretty little gift-wrapped boxes - but Rui insisted she open them later.

“Oh, that’s right,” one of their kouhais said. “You guys are going out tonight, right?”

Rui choked on her drink. Yuyuko just answered nonchalantly “Yeah, we are meeting up with some old friends.” 

That line of questioning stopped there, as there was nothing to expand upon.

They parted ways with them at the end of the alloted time for afternoon club activities, and went back to the dorm for a change of clothes, and to leave all these presents there for unwrapping later.

“Have fun on your ‘night out’!” their kouhais called after them. Yuyuko could practically hear the air quote (and the conspiratorial whispering and giggles that followed, as soon as they turned their back).

Rui put forward a question as they walked home. “Do you think they figured it out?”

“With how you are always acting? Without a doubt,” the brown-haired girl groaned guiltily. “I don’t think they know the whole truth though.”

“That we’re not only gay for each other, but also triple gay for three other girls?”

“That we’re not only gay for each other, but also triple gay for three other girls.”

“Jeez,” Rui chuckled. She took Yuyuko’s hand and dragged her forward. “Come on, they’re waiting for us.”

There was so much of it in the air, that flavor of nostalgia, even though it had been barely months since they last held a birthday party. Yuyuko contributed some of it to last year’s blues, the feeling of having experienced this all before, and only realizing now how comfortable it all makes you feel when your time is running out. Next year, she might not traverse these streets every morning and afternoon anymore, with Rui holding her hand, urging her on. She might not ever see this dorm anymore, that specific sensation of old wooden floor underneath her feet and creaky slide doors. She might not even be in Tokyo, and they would have to move the meetup location somewhere else, if that could even be possible.

She blanked out most of the walk. Her mind was buzzing with anticipation, laser-focused on the reunion ahead. She thought both of them might have unconsciously picked up their pace the closer they were to their destination, because before she knew it, she was here.

Whatever the future had in store though, she was ready for it.

Rui pushed open the door to the Tomoye restaurant. “Sorry, we came here as soon as we could! Are we late?”

“Rui! My second-favorite kouhai for the day! Don’t worry, you’re not any later than slowpoke Fumi here. She literally came in seconds before you.”

“In my defense, you two don’t have to take the six o’ clock commute here, and this is literally Tamao’s family’s restaurant. Rui, Yuyuko, come in. We’ve been waiting for you two.”

“There she is, the birthday girl!” It was sheer familiarity that saved Yuyuko from being tackled to the floor by the hurricane that was Ichie’s hug. “Happy birthday, Yuyuko!”

“Happy birthday, Yuyuko,” Fumi echoed, the frown from her previous banter with Ichie softened into a smile upon the sight of the red-hooded girl.

“Happy birthday, Yuyuko-chan,” Tamao greeted warmly from beside Fumi, freed from waitress duty for the day, and god , how Yuyuko had missed that angelic smile.

How she had missed all of them.

Yuyuko returned their smile with a trademark lazy one of her own. “Hey everyone.”

‘I want us to stay together until we grow old’.

She did promise them that, didn’t she?