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it lasts for always

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Tzuyu remembers how the last day of high school went better than any other day of high school. This is easy to admit because it’s true. Her teachers had each said something sentimental, she’d gotten pen all over her paper when she’d fallen asleep during maths, and there had been freshly baked bread available at the bakery she passed by afterschool.

In hindsight, high school had seemed important in the moment, like every moment was slipping through her fingers, like every moment spent had to count for something. It had felt like she’d remember all of it, like high school was permanently engraved into her brain. But on the very first day of university, sitting on a bed that isn’t really hers across from a roommate she only met a few hours ago, nothing comes to mind when her roommate asks, “What was your high school like?”

“I’ve kind of forgotten already,” she says instead, and laughs a little when her roommate laughs.

“That bad?”

“No, not bad, just…” She thinks for a moment. “Nothing crazy to talk about, I guess.”

It’s not really a lie, but Tzuyu doesn’t know how to articulate into words the things she does remember about high school. Doesn’t think there are even words for them, either. Because these are the parts that Tzuyu remembers most about high school:

A hand around her wrist while running to catch a bus, the crinkling of a chocolate wrapper, murmurs from a nearby classroom with an open door, a shoulder pressed against hers as they ate lunch. Scribbled notes for a half-finished problem set, a stairwell she’d cried in once when no one was looking, and the sound of laughter, spilling into the room like an overabundance.

A place I knew, she thinks hours later, when her roommate is asleep. High school was like being known.

::

Dahyun is the first to message her when she comes back, so naturally, Tzuyu sees her first.  

“So! Tell me everything! How was first year?” Dahyun leans forward as she says it, hands wrapped around her cup of hot chocolate.

Tzuyu blinks, refocusing on the moment at hand. “It was okay,” she says, shrugging.

Dahyun raises an eyebrow at that, and Tzuyu’s suddenly reminded of just exactly why there had been a sense of apprehension when she had woken up to Dahyun’s message this morning. She scrambles to find something else to say. “I volunteered at a dog shelter after classes. I think I’ll do it again next year.”

“That’s really cool,” Dahyun says with a smile.

“What about you? How was second year for you?” Tzuyu asks, desperate to change the subject, and that’s all it takes for Dahyun to launch into a comprehensive breakdown of what she’s done for the past year.

Tzuyu smiles as she moves Dahyun’s cup out of harm’s way. Dahyun is still Dahyun, at least.

An hour later, Dahyun only stops when she glances at her watch mid-explanation of something Tzuyu hasn’t quite fully grasped. “Oh!”

“Are you running late for something?” Tzuyu asks. Bites back a more revealing question before she can let it slip.

“Yeah. Sorry. I accidentally overbooked myself,” Dahyun says sheepishly.

“It’s fine. I think I have to be home for dinner anyways tonight.”

“Let’s meet up again. I’ll free up my entire day, I promise.”

Tzuyu laughs. “Okay. I believe you.”

They walk out of the cafe together, and Tzuyu is trying to remember the right way to get home when she feels Dahyun pull on her arm.

“Hey, Tzuyu?”

“Yeah?” She looks up from her phone. There’s a feeling of familiarity as she meets Dahyun’s gaze, because Dahyun is looking at her the same way she did in high school, always ready to provide if Tzuyu needed something.

“Do you remember what I said to you when I first met you?”

Tzuyu snorts. “Of course.” You didn’t even know me then, Tzuyu wants to say, because Dahyun hadn’t, then. Dahyun had been fourteen and Tzuyu had been thirteen, and they had met because Tzuyu had gotten lost trying to find her way to class. Dahyun had brought her to the right classroom, and just before Tzuyu had entered, had said—

“I’m always here, okay?” Present-day Dahyun smiles as she says it, and Tzuyu feels her chest ache in a way she’d thought it wouldn’t anymore.

How can that be, Tzuyu wants to ask, when we no longer see each other every day? But that’s not the right thing to say.

“I know,” Tzuyu says, and Dahyun’s smile grows impossibly brighter.

::

Nayeon is the next to reach out, because she’s Nayeon and because Tzuyu forgot that she hadn’t really told anyone when she was coming back. The morning of, she wakes up to see that the first notification on her phone is from Nayeon.

Dahyun said you’re back!! let’s meet today!! I’ll pay!!

She smiles at that. Sends an okay before going to brush her teeth and wash up. When she comes back, she has ten unread messages from Nayeon, the most recent of which says: is it okay if Mina comes too? she misses you

There’s a twinge in her chest at that, and Tzuyu ignores it in favour of responding.

yeah. I miss her too

what about me!!

what time are we meeting?

noon? we can eat lunch. I have to work after but Mina can keep you company until I’m done. I want to spend time with you after work too, okay?

Tzuyu doesn’t want to think about the sincerity in Nayeon’s message, doesn’t want to think about how Nayeon’s honesty bleeds through her phone screen. She sends another okay before turning her phone off.

Predictably, Nayeon whines about her abrupt absence when they meet.

“Tzuyu why did you stop responding to me?”

“I had other things to do,” Tzuyu answers, and smiles when Mina laughs.

Nayeon pouts as she loops her arm through Tzuyu’s. “If the two of you are just going to laugh at me for the rest of the day, I can go somewhere else while you two hang out by yourselves.”

“No,” Tzuyu says before she can stop herself. “I want to spend today with both of you.”

There’s a moment of excruciating silence before Nayeon breaks it. “Of course,” she says, pressing into Tzuyu’s side. “We want to spend it with you too.”

Oh, Tzuyu thinks, as Nayeon continues, detailing the things they’re going to do later. This is what it’s like to be honest.

She catches Mina’s smile from Nayeon’s left, and there’s a reassuring steadiness to it that reminds Tzuyu of the time the three of them went to a dog cafe for a whole day. That had been a good day.

Today will be too, Tzuyu decides.

::

After they eat, Nayeon leaves for her shift with a hug for Tzuyu and a kiss on the cheek for Mina. Tzuyu looks away as it happens and Nayeon laughs.

“So,” Mina says after they wave goodbye to Nayeon. “Did you want to do anything?”

“We can just walk until we find something,” Tzuyu suggests and Mina nods.

It’s easy, Tzuyu realises as they walk together, being like this with Mina. Mina doesn’t ask about how Tzuyu’s first year at university was, doesn’t have the same hint of worry in her eyes that Tzuyu saw in Nayeon’s when they were at lunch. It feels like before.

“Mina,” Tzuyu says when they find a bench to sit on. “Are you happy now?”

Mina smiles like she knows this isn’t what Tzuyu is trying to ask. “All of a sudden?”

Tzuyu shrugs. “I just… I’m happy for you. I’m glad you and Nayeon are together now.”

Mina hums, and Tzuyu fidgets a little in the silence that follows. “Did you ever regret leaving?” Tzuyu asks, and it slips out without warning. This wasn’t what she meant to say.

“Of course.” Mina doesn’t hesitate. “I wanted to come back the moment I left.”

Then why didn’t you, Tzuyu thinks. You should have come back. I wouldn’t have left if you had. There’s this feeling in my chest now that I’m here, do you know, have you felt something like this—

“But I didn’t want to come back too,” Mina says, interrupting Tzuyu’s train of thought. “There was a part of me that was overwhelmed here, too. Sometimes it felt like I was only here to wait for someone else. I didn’t want to feel like that anymore.”

“Do you still feel like that?”

Mina glances over, and Tzuyu wonders if the older girl can read her thoughts. “No,” Mina says carefully. “But… things could have been different. It was easier that Nayeon had left first. I didn’t feel pressure to stay.”

“I used to be jealous of you,” Tzuyu confesses, and Mina lets out a laugh. Tzuyu frowns.

“I’m serious,” Tzuyu insists. Pushes on because she needs Mina to understand. “Chaeyoung used to talk about you all the time. When you first came, of course, but even more when you left. She kept talking about all the photos you sent, the things you posted. She kept talking about leaving, about how university would be better than high school.”

Mina studies her for a moment. “So you left too.”

Tzuyu swallows hard. “I thought it would be easier.” I didn’t think coming back would mean this, she wants to say, even though she doesn’t know what she means by this.

“You should see her. She’s back too, you know,” Mina says.

Tzuyu knows. She’d seen Chaeyoung’s Instagram stories. Had liked her most recent Instagram post, dated from just the other day, a photo of her and Dahyun with the caption “BROO”.

The thing is, Chaeyoung did try to keep contact. Tzuyu had tried too, but Chaeyoung had tried harder, in ways that mattered. She had even asked Tzuyu if she had wanted to call one time. But out of everything, Tzuyu remembers this, one of the very last things Chaeyoung had sent before she had stopped: This reminded me of you. I was thinking of you.

Mina pats Tzuyu’s knee. “I’m sure she misses you too.”

Does she, Tzuyu thinks, and feels a little ashamed for thinking it. Does she feel like this too? Did you feel like this? This feeling that I ran away from something good so that it couldn’t run away from me instead. It hurts, and I don’t want it.

She thinks she might cry. Today was supposed to be a good day. Mina leans her head against Tzuyu’s shoulder and Tzuyu leans into the quiet comfort Mina provides. It hurts less, being like this.

“Maybe,” Tzuyu says, and it’s the most honest she’s allowed herself to be about Chaeyoung for a while.

::

She sees Sana fourth, even though arguably Sana might be the one she’s closest with now. Sana makes it easy to stay close to, if only because Sana has never let Tzuyu’s horrendous response times deter her.

“Tzuyu!” Sana shouts, waving frantically when she sees Tzuyu standing outside the restaurant Sana had suggested last night.

“Yes,” Tzuyu deadpans when Sana reaches her. “I’m here.”

Sana ignores her. “Finally!”

“You’re the one who was running late,” Tzuyu points out.

“That isn’t the point,” Sana protests. “I haven’t seen you in so long!”

“We called before finals.”

“That’s not the same, and you know it,” Sana whines. She throws her arms around Tzuyu. “See, I can’t do this over a call.”

“Maybe you haven’t tried hard enough,” Tzuyu says, fighting the urge to smile.

Sana laughs at that and reaches for Tzuyu’s hand. “Let’s go in,” she says, pulling Tzuyu inside.

When they sit, Tzuyu notices the blue hair tie around Sana’s wrist. “You still have that?”

“Of course,” Sana says easily, like there’s no other answer to Tzuyu’s question. “It was yours.”

Is it that easy to keep things you don’t want to lose, Tzuyu wonders as Sana ties her hair into a ponytail with a hair tie Tzuyu gave her six years ago.

Sana makes quick work of ordering, saying something about coming here before. Tzuyu nods when Sana asks if it’s okay if they share and shakes her head when Sana asks if she wants anything else.

“Are you okay?”

Tzuyu blinks when she feels Sana’s hand on hers. “Hm?”

“What are you thinking about?”

Tzuyu doesn’t move her hand away when Sana links their hands together. “That it feels like I’m ticking everyone off a list,” she admits.

“Who have you seen so far?”

“Dahyun. Nayeon and Mina. You, today. Jeongyeon and Jihyo soon. Momo said she wanted to get food.”

“And Chaeyoung?”

“I don’t know what to say,” Tzuyu mumbles. She had stared at their chat for a good twenty minutes the other day, trying to think of a less desperate way to say I’m sorry I stopped replying. I didn’t know how to tell you I missed you without being scared. I think I still miss you. Do you want to meet?

“I don’t know what to say to any of you anymore,” Tzuyu adds, because this isn’t just about Chaeyoung. “I keep feeling like I’m going to say the wrong thing. I don’t want to say the wrong thing.”

“What would be the wrong thing?”

“That I want to know you again. I want to know everyone again. I didn’t mean to run away,” Tzuyu blurts, and regrets it immediately. The ache in her chest is back again and it hurts a little to breathe, like there’s still something she wants to say trapped inside of her. She doesn’t know what it is. What could be more selfish than this, she wonders.

Sana only smiles, like she knows what Tzuyu’s really trying to say, and squeezes her hand a little tighter.

::

The day she sees Jihyo and Jeongyeon, Tzuyu has a nightmare. She dreams of high school, of a hallway that’s a never-ending loop and a feeling in her chest that was suffocating. Her heart is racing when she wakes up with a jolt, and she looks over at a drawing on her wall as her heart slows down. by CY is scrawled into the bottom right.

Her phone vibrates. It’s Jihyo, reminding Tzuyu where to meet them. She goes to wash up, and Tzuyu doesn’t look at the drawing again.

“I liked it!” Jihyo announces when they emerge from the theatre. “I think I’ll go see it again.”

Jeongyeon nudges Tzuyu. “What about you, Tzuyu?”

Jihyo had picked the film. It had been based on a manga series. In typical fashion, the film had, of course, been about the main character returning home after leaving. Tzuyu had almost asked if they could go see something else instead.

“Yeah,” Tzuyu says, “I liked it.”

“It was kind of healing, watching that,” Jeongyeon notes. She turns to Jihyo. “You made a good decision this time.”

Jihyo huffs. “What do you mean by that? I always make good decisions.”

The two of them bicker, and Tzuyu zones out a little as they walk to the convenience store to pick out candy after Tzuyu had mentioned wanting it. Everyone here still cares, Tzuyu thinks. They still care in all the ways that matter most. Even now, even when everyone left and came back.

Jihyo interrupts her before she can think more of it. “Tzuyu! Tell her I make good decisions!”

Tzuyu looks up to see both Jihyo’s and Jeongyeon’s gazing at her expectantly. “Well… it depends, doesn’t it?” she muses.

Jeongyeon snickers. “That’s Tzuyu being too nice to say you make bad decisions, Jihyo.”

“No,” Tzuyu starts as Jihyo pouts. “That’s not what I mean. Jihyo can make good decisions. Jihyo was the one who asked me to join her for lunch. That’s how I met all of you. That was a good decision, wasn’t it?”

Jihyo lets out a noise of triumph, and the mischief in Jeongyeon’s eyes soften into something kind. Tzuyu remembers seeing this look in high school when Jeongyeon thought no one was looking. It doesn’t unsettle her as much anymore, these reminders of what things had been like in high school, reminders of what these people had meant to her and how much she had meant to them.

“But Jihyo also used to think drinking milk every day would make her grow taller,” Tzuyu continues after a moment. She shrugs. “Maybe that wasn’t a good decision.”

Jihyo gasps. “Tzuyu! I trusted you!”

Everything is going to be okay, Tzuyu realises as Jeongyeon starts to cackle. Even if it’s not like before.

::

Momo squeals when she sees Tzuyu, asks a stranger to take a photo of the two of them, and takes approximately fifty photos of Tzuyu herself. It’s comforting in a way Tzuyu can’t describe, the fact that Momo acts the same way she did before Tzuyu left.

When they finish eating, Momo smiles.

“Do I have food on my face?” Tzuyu asks.

“No. I was just thinking that you look different, now.”

Tzuyu fidgets, a little unnerved. “What does that mean?”

Momo leans forward, resting her chin on one hand. “I think we were all worried about you when you left. It was easier for us when we graduated and left, you know? Nayeon left first, and that was hard for me. It must have been harder for you, to have to watch us all leave first. We were all surprised when you told us where you were going. It seemed so far, even farther than where Mina went. I think maybe we’d gotten used to you always being there when we came back. I kept thinking, is Tzuyu going to be okay? Will she find people who care about her the way we do? If she has a hard time, will she know she can still talk to us, even though we’ll be in different timezones? We were so busy worrying about you being there we forgot to ask when you were coming back.”

Momo laughs quietly. “I guess it turned out all okay. Maybe we were wrong to worry. It seems silly now, right?”

“No,” Tzuyu says immediately, and her voice catches, because now there’s a lump in her throat and her vision is blurring. Because of course she was wrong, of course they hadn’t thought she was leaving them behind. “No. Thank you for worrying about me. Thank you for caring about me from the very beginning. Thank you for caring about me even now.”

Momo smiles as she hands Tzuyu a tissue. “Of course.”

::

In the end, it’s Chaeyoung who initiates.

do you want to meet?

It’s embarrassing almost, how fast Tzuyu opens their chat. yes. when?

are you free now? let's meet at the bakery? the one we always walked by after school

okay

“Let’s go to the park,” Chaeyoung says when Tzuyu arrives. She lifts the bag in her hands. “I already bought your favourite.”

Tzuyu nods, and they fall in step as they walk to the park.

When they get there, Chaeyoung sits on a bench and pats the spot next to her for Tzuyu to sit. She opens the bag and hands Tzuyu a bun. “I got your favourite. I really got there at the perfect time because they were bringing it out just when I got there. That made me think of you, and I thought you were probably back by now, so I asked if you could meet. It’s good timing that you were free, right?”

“Yeah,” Tzuyu murmurs. “Good timing.”

I used to know you, Tzuyu thinks. I used to know you like this. I used to listen to you with my knees tucked into my chest and my shoulder touching yours. I used to know you so well I could barely remember a time before you. All these memories I have of you are ours. Now I have a whole other life that doesn’t include you anymore. The ache in her chest is back. It feels desperate thinking like this, futile even. But this is all Tzuyu can think about as they sit here, in a park in a city they both left behind.

Chaeyoung moves her hair back as she bites into her own bun, and Tzuyu sees the necklace. Chaeyoung notices her stare and grins. “See, I didn’t lose it!”

“I didn’t either.” Tzuyu smiles and pulls her own out from underneath her shirt.

“I thought of you whenever someone pointed it out. It was a good choice to get it, right?”

Tzuyu nods and takes another bite.

“Actually, can I say something?”

There’s something in Chaeyoung’s voice that makes Tzuyu glance over. “Are you okay?” she asks.

“I thought maybe you wouldn’t want to meet. Like maybe you were mad at me or something,” Chaeyoung says quietly, staring at the grass.

Tzuyu stares. “What?”

“I know I didn’t message you as often as I wanted to, so I wasn’t that surprised when you stopped replying. It’s hard to keep conversations going when we’re both bad at replying, right? That’s why I waited so long to meet up with you. I’m sorry.”

Tzuyu frowns. “I wasn’t mad at you.”

“Oh. I guess it was just all in my head then.”

“I was scared,” Tzuyu admits, and now she’s the one staring at the grass. “Everyone else had already left before us. But it didn’t hurt as much then because you were still here, with me. You always knew what you wanted in high school, but I didn’t. I just knew that I liked being around you, so I wanted to be here too. But I already knew you weren’t going to stay here for university, and I didn’t want to stay here without you. I didn’t want to be the person who was left behind. But I thought maybe you didn’t want to leave together. And I didn’t want to ask you if we could leave together.”

“Why not?” Chaeyoung asks and there’s a tremor to her voice that Tzuyu doesn’t miss.

“No, no wait.” Tzuyu panics, turning towards Chaeyoung. “That’s not what I meant. I didn’t mean it like that.”

“Then what did you mean?”

“I didn’t want to ask you if it would be okay if I could go with you. I thought maybe you wanted to go somewhere new, without anyone you knew. And I didn’t want to ask, because I was scared you would say no, or that you would feel like you had to say yes. I didn’t want to be the kind of friend who holds you back from doing things you wanted to do just because I wanted to be with you. I stopped replying because I missed you, a lot more than I thought I should.  I didn’t know how to tell you that without being scared.”

Tzuyu pauses and before she can continue, Chaeyoung throws her arms around Tzuyu’s shoulders. Tzuyu can feel Chaeyoung trembling. “I didn’t mean to make you cry,” she mumbles.

Chaeyoung burrows closer. “You’re so silly,” Chaeyoung says, voice muffled. She pulls away to look Tzuyu in the eyes. “Of course I missed you. We’ve known each other since we were thirteen. I was really upset at myself when you told me where you were going. I thought I’d done a bad job at telling you how much you mean to me, and that you didn’t know how important you were to me. That’s why I bought us matching necklaces.”

“Oh.”

“Being apart from you was really hard. I wasn’t used to it.” Chaeyoung hesitates for a moment. “I don’t want to get used to it. So I’ll be better at messaging you from now on, okay? And when you miss me, you can tell me, and we’ll call.”

“Okay.”

“Tzuyu?”

“Yes?”

“I’m going to say something really important now, okay?”

“Okay.”

“You don’t have to be scared anymore, okay? I love you too.”

::

Two days later, when Tzuyu walks into the kitchen half-asleep and still rubbing sleep from her eyes, Nayeon is sitting there like she’s still seventeen and Tzuyu is still thirteen.

“Did you break in?”

Nayeon rolls her eyes. “I was let in, thank you very much.”

“Why are you here?”

“We’re going out.”

“We’re going somewhere?”

“Yes, so go get changed. And bring something to sleep in. Quickly! Mina’s waiting.”

Tzuyu pauses. “Mina’s waiting?”

“Yes, Mina’s waiting in the car.”

“You should have said that part first then,” Tzuyu scolds before turning to go back to her bedroom to change.

“Why can’t it be enough that I’m waiting?” Nayeon retorts, getting up to follow Tzuyu.

“Wait.” Tzuyu turns back to face Nayeon. “You have to wait in the kitchen. You can’t come in.”

“Why not?”

“Chaeyoung’s sleeping.”

Nayeon stares. “Okay fine. I’ll wait in the car with Mina. But I have a lot of questions. And I’m going to be expecting answers to those questions when we’re in the car. And wake Chaeyoung up too. I’ll tell Jeongyeon she doesn’t need to pick Chaeyoung up.”

“Do I have to bring Chaeyoung?”

Nayeon throws her hands into the air. “Yes, obviously! Who else will be answering my questions?”

Later, when they’re all sprawled on Jihyo’s living room floor and a film is playing in the background, Tzuyu sits back and takes a moment to memorise this. Nayeon is half-asleep, her head resting on Mina’s shoulder with a blanket fisted in the hand that isn’t holding Mina’s. Jeongyeon’s laughing at Jihyo for saying Jeongyeon is taking up too much space, and Momo is already asleep. Sana’s gesturing to Dahyun about something, her hands flying up into an arc above her head, and Tzuyu can see the blue hair tie on her wrist.

Tzuyu feels a tap on her shoulder and turns.

It’s Mina. “Are you okay?”

Tzuyu looks over at Chaeyoung, the only one of them actually paying attention to the film. She looks back at Mina.

“Yeah.” Tzuyu smiles. “I think I’m really happy right now.”

::

The last day of high school went something like this.

“It’s really pretty.”

A laugh rings out, bouncing around the empty classroom. “You always say that.”

“That’s because I always mean it. I always like your art.”

::

The day before Tzuyu leaves on a plane for a university she’s only seen through her laptop screen, Chaeyoung calls her and says she’s outside.

“This is for you,” she says the moment she enters Tzuyu’s room.

Tzuyu looks down to see Chaeyoung’s outstretched palm, a necklace lying in it, the chain spooled around a charm. “Oh. I didn’t—”

Chaeyoung stops her. “It’s okay. I wanted to.” She pulls another out of her bag and smiles brightly. “We can match!”

Something in Tzuyu’s lungs burns at that, because how can Chaeyoung say that so easily, like tomorrow isn’t the first day Tzuyu will be sleeping in a bed that won’t really be hers, like tomorrow won’t be the start of their lives untangling from each other’s. Tzuyu thinks she might hate today. Maybe herself too, for setting all of this into motion.

“It’s really pretty,” Tzuyu says instead, taking the necklace.

“I wanted to get us something before you left. Just for us. You know I lose things easily, so I’ll wear it every day so that I don’t lose it,” Chaeyoung promises.

Tzuyu’s hand closes around the charm tightly. “I won’t lose it either,” she says, and the charm digs into her palm.

“This way, you can’t forget me, okay? You can’t forget any of us.”

How can I? I don’t even remember a time before you. Who else will know me the way everyone here does, Tzuyu thinks as Chaeyoung moves to hug her. Tzuyu’s hands settle on the small of Chaeyoung’s back, and Chaeyoung feels so much smaller than usual, like the universe knows that tomorrow Tzuyu will look for Chaeyoung and won’t be able to find her.

“Never,” Tzuyu says, and it’s a promise.