“Giant Isopod and Ren-Ren are running very late!” an ash-brown haired girl grumbled while sitting on the floor of her apartment’s living room.
“Do you think it was the best idea to send Sumire-chan out to pick her up?”
“We really had no choice in the end. I had to make the takoyaki, Keke-chan had to stay here to cook the main entrees, and you had to get the sweets from your place.”
The orange haired girl let out a gentle sigh. “I’m aware of that, Chii-chan. I just hope they get here quickly, or Keke-chan is really gonna blow a fuse.”
Chisato giggled. “What gave you the idea to combine Ren-chan’s birthday with Thanksgiving by the way?”
“Huh?” Kanon gave her childhood friend a curious look. “It wasn’t my idea.”
“Not at all.”
Chisato and Kanon turned to the girl who was plomped on the floor, still wearing her pastel blue apron with minor tomato stains on it. Sensing the presence of being stared at, Keke got up from the ground to return the gaze being cast upon her.
“I’m not even American!”
Kanon nervously chuckled while Chisato smiled before gently patting Keke on the head.
“If it wasn’t any of our ideas, who was it then?”
“It would have to be Sumir-”
Before Chisato could respond, the door to Keke’s apartment suddenly swung open with the force of a typhoon.
“ Galaxyyyyyy!~” a familiar war cry rang out across the apartment.
“Wǒ kělián de mén!” the Shanghai native cried out at the sight of her door nearly breaking from its hinges, grabbing the blonde intruder by the shoulders.
As the two dorks of the group began bickering as they normally did, the special girl of the evening stepped forward into the apartment before giving a 45 degree bow.
“My deepest apologies for Sumire-san’s rude entrance everyone.”
“Don’t worry about it Ren-chan. I’m just glad we’re all together now to finally enjoy this evening.” Kanon exclaimed, happy to know everything was going according to the schedule the four planned.
“Did Sumire-chan bring the chicken though?”
“You mean this?” Ren held up a plastic bag of KFC with her left hand. “Sumire-san and I had to wait in line for quite a while just to get this. The cashier was very nice to us though.”
“About that.” Sumire looked over to the three girls as she wrestled Keke’s hands. “I swear I recognized that cashier in a few magazines before.”
“C’mon Keke-chan, you can play with Sumire-chan later. Help me set the table.” Chisato giggled as she took the bag of KFC from Ren.
“Fine.” Keke let go of her friend’s gentle hands. “But don’t think I’ll forget what you did to my poor door, giant isopod girl!” She proclaimed as she pointed at Sumire, much to the amusement of the other three maturer girls.
“I must say, Kanon-san.” the black haired girl gently set down her cup. “You brew a very fine Darjeeling tea.”
“Of course she does! She lives in a cafe, after all.” Keke said happily as she unintentionally interrupted the girl receiving the compliment.
“I’m quite aware of that, Keke-san.” Ren replied with a stern but kind smile.
“While we’re talking about the meal, how about Keke-chan making all of these amazing dishes for us tonight?” Chisato continued the trend of sparkling compliments.
Kanon nodded in agreement. “You should really make salisbury steak burgers more often, Keke-chan.”
“Your Consomme soup was very appetizing. It’s almost as good as Saya-san’s. Keyword: almost.” Ren giggled.
This left Sumire as the only one who had yet to comment, who was still taking a bite from a crispy chicken thigh. Noticing how everyone’s eyes were on her, she sighed before setting down the meat back on the plate and crossing her arms.
“Your attempt at tamago kake gohan was rather subpar if you ask me” she heard the growing growls of a girl to her right “but, it’s kinda harsh to judge someone’s ability to put a raw egg over rice so, you did alright.”
“Hmmph. Just admit you enjoyed my cooking, isopod.”
“Before you two start again, why don’t we get to the main reason we’re here together?”
“Oh, right.” The two goofballs said in sync with each other.
Kanon, Keke, and Sumire disappeared into the kitchen while Ren sat curiously with Chisato.
“Did you all plan this today for my birthday?”
“Something like that. Your birthday happens to fall around the same time they celebrate this holiday called Thanksgiving in America, so we decided to kinda fuse the two together.”
“Does that explain the little ritual Sumire-san did while we held hands before we ate?”
The white haired girl giggled. “I doubt they do exactly what we did in America, but probably something similar.”
“What about the part where we said what we’re thankful for? Is that something Sumire-san made up for this occasion?”
“From what I’m told, I think they do that for real Thanksgiving. At least most people do. I’m sure if you ask Sumire-chan, she can give you a better answer than me.”
“Sorry to keep you waiting!” Kanon reappeared from the kitchen as she turned the lights to the apartment off.
“Oh?” Ren looked on with curiosity as both Kanon and Chisato smiled.
Behind Kanon appeared Sumire and Keke holding a five layer strawberry cake adorned with 17 candles. The pair carefully shuffled their way to the table where Ren looked on in awe at the gesture.
“It’s not exactly the most grandiose surprise, but we know how much you love strawberries. All four of us added our own little touch to the cake as well, as well as all our love. Happy birthday, Ren-chan.” Chisato looked at Ren with a smile.
Kanon sat down next to the special girl. “Happy birthday, Ren-chan. You’ve done so much for all of us, and without you, Liella wouldn’t be the same.”
Keke and Sumire placed the cake in front of Ren before taking a seat with the others.
“Happy birthday, Ren. Your level-headedness and manners is something we can all learn from, isn’t that right Keke?”
Keke ignored that last comment as she helped Ren onto her feet, standing tall enough to face the candles on top of the cake.
“Ren-Ren. I truly believe it was fate that brought us all together, and you were key to all of that. If you weren’t so headstrong in preventing me and Kanon-san from becoming school idols, Liella as we know it wouldn’t exist. So thank you Ren-Ren, and happy birth-”
Before Keke could finish her birthday wishes, she paused when she saw Ren’s face plastered with tears.
Everybody immediately stood up from their chairs, scared if they did or said anything to offend the birthday girl.
“Are you okay Ren-chan?” Kanon asked worriedly while Chisato grabbed a tissue box.
Sumire pinched Keke’s cheek. “Look what you made her do, you idiot!”
“I didn’t say anything wrong, did I?!”
“You all misunderstand.”
The four other girls averted their attention to Ren, who tried to wipe away the tears.
“None of you said anything wrong. So please don’t worry about that. This is just… all so new to me…” Ren softly laughed with more tears coming out.
“What do you mean?” Chisato asked in a whisper, tissue box still in hand.
“As I’m sure you all know… I didn’t grow up with many if any friends at all. The closest thing to a birthday celebration I got was with okaasan and Saya-san, and well…”
Keke unexpectedly hugged Ren, resting her head on the birthday girl. “You don’t have to say more than that, Ren-Ren.”
Ren returned the hug, still with tears coming out from her eyes. “I’m just so happy to have friends to celebrate my birthday with now.” Ren was fighting back more tears. “I don’t want this to end. I don’t want this to all end after I blow out the candles.”
Keke, Sumire, Chisato, and Kanon all looked at each other for a moment before gently nodding at each other.
“But it won’t end once you do that.” Sumire stated before joining the hug.
“We’ll all still be here long after that happens, Ren-chan.” Chisato was the next to join the hug.
And then there was Kanon. “Why don’t we spend the night here? A sleepover with all five of us, just for you Ren-chan.”
“R-really?” Ren asked as she gently nudged herself from the warm embraces of her friends.
“Would you like that, Ren-Ren?” Keke asked as she grabbed a hold of the birthday girl's right hand.
“I…” Ren grabbed a tissue from Chisato with her left hand before wiping her tears and blowing her nose. “I would like that very much.”
“Consider it done then.” Kanon smiled as she took her turn to hug the birthday girl.
“Hey umm, I didn’t actually agree to a sle-”
“Shush it, Gusokumushi. This is the only chance you’ll ever get to sleep in my apartment, so you should consider yourself lucky.”
“You don’t mind if I pair up with Kanon-chan, right Keke-chan?” Chisato let out a smile with a low-key grin.
“Whaaaa, and have me paired up with Sumire? Have you lost your marbles, Chisato-san?!”
Kanon nervously laughed before Ren let out a sly quip of her own.
“Calling her Sumire again, are we Keke-san?”
Both Sumire and Keke blushed bright red before exclaiming in sync together. “Just blow your candles out already!”
The other three girls giggled before Ren decided to take the advice of the pair. It would be a shame if that delicious strawberry cake tasted more like wax than vanilla after all.
Stepping forward, and with her four friends huddled around her, Ren stood in front of the cake as the flames of the candles illuminated the room. That, and the stars of the night sky that shined in through the window screen. Of all the birthdays Ren has had, this is one she would remember best.
An inhale. Ren looked between the faces of the girls she was proud to call her friends, all of them smiling in anticipation to witness her blow out the candles, standing side by side with her as she took the next step into an unknown future. And as long as they were there for her, at least for this moment, she knew she would be okay. An exhale.
And with that, the flames vanished.
“Thank you all...”