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         She starts this morning like most days: feeling the sensation of someone’s hand gently shaking her shoulders, a soft, “Eli, wake up,” uttered above her. She breathes then, and the smell of something cooking fills her senses, and her eyes open to look at the owner of the hand.

Red hair. Purple eyes. Soft frown. Maki, her mind provides the second she recognizes those features, and she smiles blearily. With the soft morning sun highlighting her hair and face, Maki is truly a sight to behold. Maki's frown deepens in response. “Wake up,” she repeats, squeezing Eli's shoulder one last time before moving away, "Umi's cooking breakfast for you."

Eli yawns and covers her mouth, lazily sitting up and letting the covers fall onto her lap. A quick peek at the end table beside her tells her that the time is currently eight-thirty in the morning.

Maki clears her throat, adverting her gaze from the blonde. Her cheeks are pink. “Wear clothes before you head out to the kitchen. Umi’s not going to be happy if you don’t.”

Eli hurriedly grabs the blankets to cover her bare chest, feeling heat creep up to her cheeks. Sure, she’s been naked in front of Maki before, it’s not a bizarre occurrence – but to unexpectedly be naked (and to suddenly recall what happened the night before, articles of clothing thrown to the floor and being pressed against the mattress, two pairs of hands wandering around her body) leaves her feeling a little shy.

Maki notices this and walks out of the room. “Don’t make us wait too long,” is all she says, throwing her a short glance before disappearing out of sight. Eli takes this opportunity to wrap the blanket around her body. It’s only a miracle that the room she’s in is Umi’s – it offers the most privacy out of all their rooms, a fact that puts Umi’s heart at ease.

She makes the walk from Umi’s room to hers, tightly clutching the rest of the blanket to avoid dragging it on the floor. Once she safely reaches her room, she replaces the blanket with her towel and drops it on her bed, grabs a fresh set of clothes, and heads straight to the bathroom.

After her short shower, Eli comes out of the bathroom fully clothed and awake, and joins the two in the kitchen.

“...classes today?” Is what she hears Umi asking while flipping something on the pan with a spatula. Maki makes a noncommittal noise while sipping on a cup of coffee.

“I have one class later in the afternoon. I don’t think I’ll make it in time for dinner.”

“I see.”

Eli pauses in her tracks, and observes the two for a moment. It’s been years since she’s known the two on a personal scale, and years since they’ve all closed the gap between friends and lovers, but she still finds it hard to believe how they all ended up in this situation. Maki and Umi are some of the most reserved people she’s met, and to see them let down their walls in front of her, makes every morning feel so...

Intimate. And the thought makes her smile uncontrollably.

She spends too much time looking at them, and Umi notices her standing by the hallway. “Ah, Eli! Good morning. Breakfast is just about done.” Her hair is tied up in a ponytail, probably to avoid getting strands on the food. Eli thinks she pulls off the look moderately well, but when Umi does it...

“Beautiful,” she subconsciously replies, causing Maki to snort and Umi to look at her in confusion. Eli opts to change the subject. “What are you making?”

“I – well, I hope I’m doing this right...” Umi’s voice turns a little hesitant, and she puts the mysterious breakfast on a plate. The younger woman walks over to Eli and places the dish in front of her. “Alisa taught me how to make these. They’re – ”

Blini?” Eli gapes at the golden-brown pancakes in surprise. It isn’t as though she hasn’t eaten them in a while, but Umi has never cooked any Russian dishes before. And she doubts she would’ve, on any other normal circumstances.

“Yes, that’s what she called it.” She can hear the relief in Umi’s voice. Umi grabs a jar of unopened strawberry jam from the fridge. “Alisa told me that this was a suitable topping?”

“That’s right.”

Umi places the jar next to her plate, along with a fork and knife, and stands behind Eli’s chair. “Then please enjoy your breakfast. And,” she bends down and presses her lips on Eli’s head. “Happy birthday, Eli.”

Breakfast goes off without a hitch, and the three of them end up watching television at the living room. It’s been years since they’ve participated in Love Live, but it never hurts to watch it from time to time and see how popular school idols have become. The competition has certainly become fiercer, and Eli wonders how µ’s would have ventured if they were rivals with hundreds of groups as skilled as A-RISE had been.

A group – check x mates, was it? – is halfway through their performance when Maki stands up. “I have to go to class,” is her explanation when Eli stares at her in confusion, “and didn’t you plan to go out with Nico-chan and Nozomi today?”

“Oh, right.” Snuggled against Umi with a light blanket draped on their laps, Eli doesn’t really want to get up. But she promised Nico and Nozomi that they would hang out before the big dinner, as they would dub it, and she’s not one to break promises with her best friends.

Umi shuts the television off, and smiles warmly at them both. “Please try to be home before six. The others should start arriving by then.” Ignoring Eli’s protests, she pulls away from the older woman’s grasp, and takes the blankets with her as she, too, stands up.

Eli begrudgingly follows suit.

Leaving the apartment, Eli walks beside Maki in comfortable silence. The redhead doesn’t appear to want to make conversation, but her eyes glance by the blonde every now and then. Eli feels a smile tug at her lips, before she opens her mouth, “is there something on your mind, Maki?”

“Not really.”

“Are you sure?” Eli prods. Maki’s better at expressing her feelings now more than she ever did during their relationship’s initial stages, but a person can’t change persistent traits in their personalities, no matter how much time has passed. Umi still gets embarrassed at most public displays of affection, and Eli still subconsciously closes herself off from anyone who wasn’t a part of µ’s.

Sometimes, all it takes is a little push. And because it’s her birthday, Eli feels a little entitled to push Maki out of her comfort zone. Just a little.

Maki stares at her, a familiar but unreadable expression on her face. She doesn’t have time to dwell over it, because the blonde soon finds herself gently pushed against the wall, Maki’s lips on hers.

On the other hand, the years have done wonders on Maki’s preference for actions over words.

Eli responds by closing her eyes and pulling Maki closer, inhaling as she deepens their kiss further. It’s odd, but Maki has always tasted faintly of ripe tomatoes, even when she hasn’t eaten any. Eli doesn’t dislike tomatoes, but she can’t say it’s her favorite fruit, either; in the end, it’s Maki alone that makes kissing her taste so...addicting. 

If only Nozomi could hear her thoughts; she’d tease her about indulging in a healthier alternative to chocolate.

Maki’s teeth home in on her lower lip, sucking gentle pressure and causing her to let out a little sound. They stay in place for a few more minutes, before the redhead pulls away and presses their foreheads together. “I’m sorry I have to go to class on your birthday,” she says, after a while. “Umi has to handle the preparations on her own, and I don’t know how long this class’s going to take – ”

Her apology is cut off when Eli can’t help herself from laughing. “That’s what you were worried about?” Maki scowls in embarrassment, and she reaches up to stroke the younger woman’s cheek with her thumb. “Maki. It doesn’t matter to me whether you’re there or not. I mean, yes, I would love it if you were there, but today’s not the only birthday I’m going to have. And we can always have dinner tomorrow night, just the three of us.” She smiles lovingly. “It’s okay, really.”

Maki looks doubtful for a second, but then she nods her head and takes a step back. “If you say so. Just...I’ll try to go home as soon as I’m able.”

“I’ll still love you whether you get home tonight or tomorrow,” she responds. “Anyway, let’s get going! You’re gonna be late for class.”

After spending nearly an hour going around various clothing stores (at Nico’s suggestion, because with the new season comes new outfits, and Eli can’t wear a summer outfit during fall, now can she?), the three are now resting at the café where she and Nozomi used to buy parfaits at. They used to frequent the establishment so much, the management immediately recognizes them the second they walk through the threshold.

The three of them were enjoy their desserts in peace when Nozomi claps her hands out of the blue.

“Happy birthday, Elichi!” Nozomi has that mischievous grin as she fishes something out of her bag, Eli tilting her head curiously. She yells out, “aha!” And grabs a suspiciously tiny box, which she hands to Eli. Eli squints the second she opens the lid.

“...a box of chocolates? Really?” Eli can’t help the pout on her face. “After all this time, your birthday gift to me is...a box of chocolates? And not even a big box!”

“Well, aren’t chocolates your favorite? I even bought you the brand you liked.”

“I do, and I appreciate it, but – ”

Ahem.

 

Nozomi has distracted her so effectively that Eli neglected to keep an eye on Nico, who had also grabbed something out of her bag. Nico is standing, keeping a moderately sized box balanced on her hands. “We thought about buying our own gifts for you, but we didn’t have a budget for two presents. So here!" she offers – shoves it at her, really – the box to Eli with a satisfied expression on her face. “So accept this gift from the great idol, Yazawa Nico – ”

 

“ – Nicocchi.”

“A-and Nozomi!”

She’s very hesitant to accept the gift, because Nico and Nozomi are two words for trouble – accepting a gift from the both of them is basically setting herself up for a prank. Eli, against her better judgment, takes the box from Nico’s grasp, and opens it.

She gasps.

Inside the box lies a light blue musical egg with silver accents and gems that sparkle against the lights as she pulls it out of its molded container. She can tell that a lot of effort was put into the intricate designs just by looking at the etchings, and Eli knows for a fact that pieces of art like these are ridiculously expensive; Nozomi and Nico probably could’ve saved a lot more with individual presents.

Her fingers carefully pull at half of the egg, and once it opens, the egg reveals a tiny blonde ballerina don in an equally light blue tutu, assuming the arabesque pose.

“You two – ” she stops when her voice wavers, and starts tearing up. “I don’t think i’ve done anything to deserve something like this.”

“Maybe not to you, but you’re one of our most treasured friends, Elichi.” Nozomi smiles fondly as she drags her chair closer to pat Eli on the back. “You deserve everything, and more.”

“Geez, you’re such a crybaby. It’s just an egg.” Nico lets out an exasperated sigh, before giving her a handkerchief to wipe her tears with. “Happy birthday, now stop crying. An idol should always have a smile on her face in public, former or not!”

Eli laughs while she dries her cheeks with a handkerchief. Despite the day, crying hadn’t been a part of her to-do list. All she expected was to receive amazing gifts from her closest friends, eat a nice dinner, and welcome tomorrow with her girlfriends. But she’s always been a sentimental person who got teary-eyed at the slightest display of affection, so maybe she should’ve expected this after all. “Thank you. Really. I’ll cherish this forever.”

“Good. Now that we’ve dealt with this, let’s get to the juicy details!” Nico leans forward conspiratorially, nearly knocking her empty glass. “how’s your relationship with the devil and Umi?”

“The devil…? Is that what you call Maki when she’s not here?”

“Well, it’s what I’m gonna call her when you’re not here, either. But yeah.”

Eli taps her chin thoughtfully. “It’s going okay, I guess? Not much has changed since the last time you asked.”

“That’s not what i’m asking about. You guys have been dating for I don’t know how long – ”

“Nearly four years,” Nozomi supplies helpfully.

“ – thanks. So you guys have been dating for nearly four years, basically moved in together, and…is that all you three plan on doing?”

“I’m not sure where this conversation is heading…”

Nico sighs at her again, as though she should’ve gotten it already. “Take me and Nozomi, for example. She’s adopted into the Yazawa family, uses my surname, and plans on living the rest of her life as my wife.”

Once her point bluntly comes across – if it can even be called that; Nico spells it out for her – Eli’s face turns red and her mouth sputters nonsense in her defense before common sense can catch up. “We plan on getting married! I mean, we haven’t…talked about it, yet…it hasn’t – it hasn’t exactly been a priority!” Or rather, the thought has crossed her mind, but she hasn’t gotten the confidence to mention it to Umi and Maki yet. “And besides,” she breathes in, looking indignant, “whose name are we all going to take? Umi and Maki would both want to keep their connections with their families intact, and I’m not leaving the responsibility of carrying on the Ayase family name to Alisa!”

“So having children isn’t completely off the table, after all!” Nozomi exclaims rather wickedly, an excited glint in her eye – it’s what she has on her face when she catches Eli on a lie and plans to tease her to death over it. Eli flinches in her seat and covers her face with her hands. “You said you didn’t want to have children. What made you change your mind?”

 

“I didn’t – argh! How can you two go from making me cry to teasing me like this?” Eli groans, and takes the time to carefully articulate her thoughts (unless she wants either of them to twist it around again). “Even if I did want children, I don’t plan on having them now. We’re too young for that type of responsibility. And…it just isn’t the right time. Maki’s still in the process of getting her degree, and Umi has an active role in her family dojo. She’s already struggling to make enough time for us as is.”

 

“Well, that explains why you haven’t talked about it yet. But what made you change your mind?”

“Nico, I appreciate the gift you guys bought me, and I care about you a lot, but right now, I really want to punch you – ”

“Don’t talk to my wife like that!”

Nozomi!

Nozomi is giggling to herself, Nico looks smug, and Eli inhales deeply, trying to calm herself down. These two have been trouble since high school, and their relationship has only made them stronger as a team. Eli wonders if she’ll ever see the day where she puts them on the spot. Probably not, she thinks gloomily. “I…don’t know how it happened, exactly. One second I was perfectly content with it just being the three of us, and the next…”

And the next, she muses, she sees Umi sitting on the couch, a tiny child on her lap as they read a book together. She sees Maki coming home from work and two small pairs of feet pattering on the wooden floor, greeting her by hugging her legs and welcoming her home. Eli sees herself singing a song her own mother used to sing to her and Alisa, tucking the little children in bed and wishing them goodnight.

She sighs softly. “The next, everything just changed, I guess? But it’s not like I’m unhappy or anything. No matter what happens, i do want to spend the rest of my years with Umi and Maki. If they don’t want children, then it won’t be on the table.”

“A mature response, Elichi.”

“As expected from the former student council president. Ugh. Your speeches were boring, did I ever tell you that?”

“I remember you saying something similar at last year’s Christmas party,” Eli replies dryly. “Anyway, since you brought up the mention of children, I have to ask, when do you two plan to – ”

“We should probably get going!” Nico interjects, rising from her seat. “We have a dinner to get to, right? So we shouldn’t waste time chitchatting when we could spend it shopping.”

Uh huh.”

Never put Nico in charge of anything, she finds herself thinking hours later as the three trudge up the apartment complex she’s currently residing in. It’s already a quarter past four, and she initially wanted to come home much earlier to help Umi with the preparations, but every time the idea of going home came up, Nico would oppose the idea altogether – all while looking at another store on the horizon.

“Here we are,” Eli announces as she halts on the front door, fishing for the keys in her pocket. She unlocks the door and opens it wide, unsurprised to hear chatter coming from the kitchen. “I’m home!” She calls, taking off her shoes.

The voices stop, and two heads pop out from the doorframe leading to the kitchen. “Welcome home!” Honoka and Rin greet enthusiastically. “And happy birthday!” They drop the utensils they were holding onto a bowl and run up to tackle her – almost to the ground, if not for the fact that Eli finds her footing before the opportunity is successful.

The blonde wraps her arms around the younger two, a laugh coming out of her throat. “Thank you, you two! I’m glad you could make it.” It was admittedly idealistic to think that their schedules would miraculously coincide on her birthday, but somehow most of them managed to make it work. She can’t even begin to imagine the strings they had to pull to be here today.

“Happy birthday, Eli-chan,” Kotori walks out of the kitchen donning an apron and oven mitts as she carries a pot over to the counter. “Umi-chan had to go buy something from the store, but said she’ll be back very soon!”

Eli nods as she shrugs her jacket off and hangs it on the coat hanger. “Do you need help with anything? I can set the plates on the table – ”

“We can handle it!”

“Then I can transfer that on a bigger bowl for you – ”

“No, we’re good.”

“How about – ”

Eli-chan! It’s your birthday today, so please don’t fret over anything!”

“I know you don’t want me to, but I can’t just stand by and let you handle all of this on your own.” It’s already bad enough that her own girlfriend has inconvenienced herself over this party – which, technically, is Eli’s idea, but she hasn’t had much of an active role outside of planning – when Umi could’ve spend her increasingly few days off resting. She can’t allow Kotori and the others to take on the responsibility she should be doing herself. “Let me cut some of those vegetables for you – ”

“Honoka! Rin!” Nico yells out of the blue, and Eli blinks in confusion. She makes a weird sign with her hands and then points directly at the blonde, and within seconds Eli’s being dragged away from the kitchen. “Make sure she stays out of the kitchen until dinner’s ready.”

Eli ends up getting thrown on the couch.

In between the channel surfing and the “no, Eli-chan! You can’t!” from Honoka, Eli goes from watching a variety show with a monochrome bear mascot to falling in and out of consciousness. She belatedly realizes how much walking for hours on end has tired her, and as genuine as her offers to help were, Eli is glad that they all insisted on refusing her.

There’s a group of people talking behind her – assumedly her friends, so she’s not worried too much – followed by the sound of a door clicking shut. All noises suddenly halt, and she scrunches her nose in response. What happened?

A hand rests on her shoulder and shakes it. Eli mumbles a “few more minutes” and tries to turn away. But the person’s palm presses just a little harder, and shakes her again. “Onee-chan?” The person says.

Her eyes fly wide open.

Standing in front of her is her little sister – could I even call her little anymore? – with an amused smile on her face, her eyes sparkling. “Alisa?” Eli whispers, wondering if she was dreaming. “No, that can’t be right. You’re supposed to be in Russia.”

 

“I was in Russia, but I couldn’t not be here on your birthday. Umi-san and Maki-san thought the same thing,” Eli looks around the room, bewildered, until she sees Umi and Maki standing by the dining table, “so they called me a couple of weeks ago, and I booked a flight to get here just hours before your party.”

She can’t find the right words to respond to Alisa’s explanation, and settles for a hug. Standing up, her arms snake their way around her younger sister’s body, squeezing tightly as she feels Alisa return the gesture. It hasn’t been long since the last time they’ve seen each other face to face, but not seeing her for weeks still feels different – especially after living with her for so long. But as she opted to stay in japan, Alisa opted to go back to Russia to continue her studies. It was only natural for them part ways. “I missed you,” she breathes then, closing her eyes shut.

“I missed you too, Onee-chan. And…happy birthday!”

As it turns out, the entire day has been orchestrated by her girlfriends - right down to the breakfast she'd eaten earlier.

“So, you mean to tell me...” Eli starts after they all finish eating dinner, “that you've been planning this for weeks now?” She's astonished that she didn't notice either of the two acting strange at all - particularly Umi, who already has trouble telling white lies.

Umi smiles, looking a little embarrassed. “Well, we hadn't meant for it become this big...it started when I called Alisa a couple of weeks ago to ask for dishes you liked. After she responded, she expressed her wish to be here for your birthday, and it was coincidentally on speakerphone, so...”

“I heard it,” Maki pipes in, her fingers subconsciously twirling around a lock of hair. “And I offered to buy her a plane ticket to get here.”

“Which I will pay back when I get the chance, by the way!” Alisa promises.

“There's no need - you being here for Eli is payment enough.”

“I - Maki...” Eli's voice is a mix between incredulous and amused.

“W-what? I'm serious.”

Eli shakes her head. “Well, anyway. That explains why Alisa's here, but...Maki, i thought you had classes today? And how did everyone else get in on this?”

“Umi-chan can't keep a secret from us!” Honoka chirps, an excited gleam in her eye. “Obachan went to the store and talked about how she was spending more time off for some reason, and when me and Kotori-chan asked her what was up - because we were worried, y'know! - she just...kinda caved in.”

“We offered to help her with anything in case it got overwhelming, since Umi-chan always gets anxious with lying. But, one thing led to another, and...”

“Somehow, everyone found out about this plan except for you. I'm still trying to find out who told who, but,” Umi sends Honoka a suspicious glare, “I’ll figure it out someday. In the end, we accepted everyone's help, and with it, we managed to flawlessly execute your birthday surprise without any hiccups.”

She still can't believe that everyone managed to be sneaky enough that she hadn't suspected any surprise was in the works. She doesn't even remember ever feeling suspicious - maybe a little confused by the sudden changes in their schedules, but not confused enough to warrant a second thought. And the way Maki acted earlier -

“Wait. Maki, when you pinned me against the wall earlier this morning - was that just your way of saying you wanted to kiss me, then?”

She regrets asking that on a whim, because everyone turns a mischievous eye on Maki - with the exception of Alisa, whose face just says “I didn't need to know about this!” And Umi, whose pink cheeks turn shades darker.

“That's saucy, nya.”

“Nice, Maki-chan!”

Maki herself looks nearly as red as her hair. “That was supposed to be just between us, Eli!”

Before Eli can reply, Umi interjects. “we have visitors, Eli! This discussion is shameless!”

-

It's a quarter past nine now, and Eli is thoroughly spent. Their friends stuck around for a couple more hours, going from teasing Maki to talking about their own personal lives - Alisa hasn't been here in months, after all; Honoka was more than willing to talk about how Yukiho was doing in university - before they each left the apartment complex with “happy birthday, Eli” as a parting. Eli hasn't had this much fun on her birthday since she was in Russia, and for the nth time that day, she feels truly blessed.

“Goodnight, Alisochka,” she bids Alisa, who will occupy her room for the remainder of her stay, and her younger sister returns her gesture with a hug and a tired “goodnight”.

Eli helps Umi and Maki wash the dishes - because honestly, she wants to repay them for everything they've done today - and the three of them work together in relative silence; but she feels warm and ready to cry, and she takes a deep breath to whisper, “what did I do to deserve you guys?”

Umi looks up in confusion, “what do you mea - Eli, are you crying?!” she puts the plate down in alarm.

She's so sensitive today, she realizes, rubbing her eyes. “It's just - I love you two so much, and you went through all this trouble to make me happy today, and I...I don't know if words can express how grateful i am for you both.”

“You don't need to say anything. We know.” Maki says softly behind her, wrapping her arms around the other woman's waist and resting her chin on her shoulder. “You've supported us with our careers and been there for us when we got overwhelmed.”

Umi's expression softens, and her eyes - golden brown and warm, accepting - glisten under the kitchen's fluorescent light. “Maki's right. I myself was initially unsure of...us, of whether or not us being together and living together was the right decision. Soon, I will inherit the dojo, and by tradition, I would have to live there again until the next generation inherits my position, and I always worried that I will be a burden to the both of you...but you and Maki have shown me time and again that you will welcome me home with open arms...and I hope that you both know the depth of my feelings for each of you.”

Eli laughs softly, grabbing Umi's hand and tugging her closer. "Thank you, both of you. I've never doubted your love for me, but you still manage to surprise me with every single day. And that, I think, is the greatest birthday present you've ever given me."