Maki Nishikino had very few regrets in her life when it came to rash decision making, but sitting at her kitchen table clutching the acceptance letter tightly in her hand makes her reconsider one of the more calculated choices she’s made.
It’s a letter from the University of Tokyo, and she already knew what would be inside before she opened it. Her papa had congratulated her before anyone had even read it, but the praise still felt awkward in a backwards sort of way. Not that she didn’t think she deserved it after giving her life away to her textbooks once μ's officially disbanded, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. Nothing was wrong, though. Everything’s fine.
Everything sort of felt better than fine, in fact. Maybe she was still revelling in the landmark moment that had been the final members of their long gone idol group graduating from high school, but was that so bad? To still feel accomplished for what she’d done two years ago?
In the days leading to her graduation ceremony, Maki had thought very little about what she would be doing in the near future. Whenever anyone brought it up, she would robotically answer that she would probably be studying for her entrance exams. It wasn’t like her plans had changed in the last few years - or even since she was born. Such was the life of a Nishikino.
The ceremony had been nice, though. Rather, the people there, with her, had made the experience much more bearable than she’d anticipated. She’d sort of expected to feel the same way she did the last two times she’d sat through it - when her closest friends had taken turns graduating - but crippling sadness had been the last thing on her mind when she felt Nico’s tiny arms throw themselves around her neck the second she’d stepped off the stage.
“I’m so proud of you, Maki-chan!” Nico practically screams into her ear.
“Get off, it’s embarrassing!” Maki retorts, red in the face and itching to pick a fight with the walking ego that was Nico Yazawa.
“Aww, Nico is hurt. She took the whole day off just to congratulate Maki-chan, and this is the thanks she gets?”
Surprisingly eager to fall into their familiar dance, Maki had been prepared to hiss a response when she felt an odd tug inside upon seeing Nico’s disgusting pout. She was inexplicably good at looking like a kicked puppy when she wasn’t getting her way, and it was concerning how often Maki let herself fall for it.
So instead of making fun of Nico’s stupid frilly pink dress, she leans over and hugs her for the briefest of moments, before immediately recoiling as she realizes her friends were watching them. If anyone noticed Nico looking more smug than usual, they didn’t say anything.
Nozomi makes a big show of pretending to weep.
“Our little first years have all grown up! Ready to head out into the big scary world, all on their own…”
“S-scary?” Hanayo whispers, clutching her diploma with shaking hands. Predictably, Rin was there to take hold of them and make her funny little cat noises.
“There’s nothing to be scared about, Kayo-chin!” She yells as she dragged her best friend down the aisle in a strange half skip-half run. “We have the whole woooorrrld to see, nya!”
Maki listens to the laughter of her friends and she gave them her own sort of half smile. She can’t help but feel a little displaced amidst the celebration of new doors opening; truly they were opening for everyone but her. But that was okay.
Papa hadn’t been able to make it, but her mother was there, elegant and smiling with the comforting grace she always had about her. She was proud, Maki knew. She glances at the envelope full of scholarship awards in her hand and back up at her mother before handing them over. It was a little surreal, the number of awards they’d announced she’d won before calling her to the stage. Nobody seemed surprised.
She can see Nico still, out of the corner of her eye. She hadn’t followed their friends as they’d paraded out the door behind Rin and Hanayo, instead choosing to stand around like she owned the place, hands on her slim hips. Maki looks at her, and Nico is staring. She probably wanted something.
Maki turns to her mother. “Is it okay if I go to Nico-chan’s first?”
She receives a nod in response. “Just make sure you’re back in time to get ready for the party.”
Nico was wrapped around her arm before she could even turn around.
“Can’t resist spending more one-on-one time with Nico-nii?” she prods, tone sickeningly sweet.
Maki shrugs as they began walking towards the doors. “You were looking at me funny. I just assumed you wanted something.”
“Everyone wants something, Maki-chan,” Nico replies mysteriously.
Maki didn’t really know what to do with herself when Nico was being clingy. Back when they were all in school together, when they used to fight all the time, things were comfortable in a weird sort of way. But now she was seemingly everywhere, all of the time. Calling when Maki was up studying late at night; Maki would put her on speaker and tune her out while she talked about whatever she fancied in the moment. Stopping by the school when the day was over to shove tea and homemade pastries into Maki’s empty hands, bragging about her self taught culinary skills and how they must be Maki’s new favourite whatever-it-was.
It was kind of nice, but Maki figured Nico was just lonely, what with all her friends staying in school. Nico herself never applied for anything once she graduated. As was expected of an up-and-coming super Idol, Nico would say, but she hadn’t really done anything about that either. It wasn’t something they talked about.
They stepped into the sunlight together.
“So what are you going to do now?” Nico asks, as if it were the easiest question in the world to answer.
“Nothing’s changed since the last time you asked me, you know,” Maki says, obviously uninterested in the direction their conversation was about to go.
Nico’s fingers squeezes her arm. “Rin’s right though, you know? You can do anything you want.”
Maki rolls her eyes, even knowing Nico wasn’t looking at her face. “And you know that isn’t really true. When are you going to be an idol again?”
Nico speeds up a little. “I know you love to talk about me, Maki-chan, but you can only avoid the question for so long.”
“I’m not avoiding anything! I have my answers, you’re the one who made a big huge deal about getting signed right out of high school, or whatever.”
Nico huffs. “You think medical school is the answer, but Nico knows it isn’t really your answer. Even after all this time, you still never think for yourself.”
Maki stops them at the gate in the courtyard. “What’s that supposed to mean? Not everyone gets what they want, Nico. Not even people like me.”
Nico looks at her then, really looks at her. She let go of Maki’s arm and reached for her wrists. Her hands are still very tiny, and she has pastel pink nail polish on.
Maki thinks Nico is angry with her, for a moment, but Nico is actually smiling.
“I think I know that better than anyone, Maki,” she grins. “Some of us really don’t get a choice. Maybe one day you’ll realize that you do.”
“What do you mean?” Maki asks. Nico is being funny again.
The petite girl looks thoughtful for a moment.
“Let’s go to my place,” Nico deflects, with unrivaled precision. “I made crepes this morning, and the leftovers won’t eat themselves.”
Maki can only sigh as her arm is claimed again, and they begin walking towards the train station.
Nico lives by herself in Akihabara, in the tiniest apartment Maki has ever seen with her own two eyes. She moved out shortly after picking up a job and graduating, though Maki never really paid attention when Nico talked about work. It was a little surprising for everyone, since it was well known that Nico adored her siblings almost as much as they adored her, but she insisted that it had nothing to do with wanting to leave her family behind, and everything to do with becoming independent and successful on her own terms. Maki still wasn’t sure what Nico considered ‘success’ to be, but she imagined it wasn’t this.
Nico throws her purse on a hook near the door and kicks her shoes off with the grace of a hurricane. They land somewhere behind the TV and Maki stands awkwardly in the doorway, like she always does when she comes over. She isn’t there very often, Nico prefers it when they hang out at the park or an arcade somewhere.
The whole apartment is kind of one big room, with a bedroom tacked on the side. The kitchen is small but Nico has enough room for a little table and two chairs, and she doesn’t have a couch, opting instead to decorate her living space with pillows and her mother’s old kotatsu. There are a few idol related DVDs next to the small TV, but not much else to signify Nico’s idol otaku power level. Everything is pink, though.
Maki carefully removes her shoes and puts them beside the door as Nico rummages through her fridge and mutters to herself. When she looks up, Nico is putting a plate of crepe wraps on the table, as well as a round cake covered in purple frosting. Nico looks up and her brow creases.
“Are you coming in or what? Quit being awkward. What do you want in your crepes?”
Maki doesn’t answer as Nico turns around and shuffles through the fridge again. She walks towards the table, stepping over the pillows Nico has kicked all across the floor. The cake has flowers on top, and written across it in pink (of course) icing is ‘Congratulations you nerd!’
“Really? You couldn’t just put my name?” Maki groans with lidded eyes.
Nico puts a carton of strawberries and whipped cream on the table next to the stack of crepe wraps. She adjusts one of her pigtails before whipping a knife out of a drawer and pointing it at Maki.
“Don’t act so spoiled, I did this out of the kindness of my heart, just for you. If you don’t want it I could always give it to Hanayo.”
“Are you five years old?”
“Are you? Sit down and make your crepes while I cut the cake.”
Maki sits down and looks at it again. She hopes that Nico knows somehow that she really appreciates it. Maybe she even loves it. She’s not a nerd, though. Maybe she should say something.
“Thank you, Nico. It’s nice.” And that’s all she can muster.
Nico sits down across from her at the little table, and has the nerve to wink.
“I’m a generous soul, I know.”
Maki smiles and picks at the flowers on top of the cake. Nico snatches one up and tosses it in her mouth as she cuts ‘Congratulations’ in half.
“They’re chocolate. Do you like it?”
Maki nods, and they spend the next half hour indulging in Nico’s baking.
When they’re done, they find their way to the floor in front of the TV, lounging on pillows and flicking absently between channels. Nico doesn’t have any kind of cable, so there isn’t much on anyway. There’s still time to kill before the party though, Maki notes as she glances at her phone.
“Why do you always work?” Maki blurts out. She almost regrets it, but Nico smiles at her anyway.
“I don’t always work. Just the normal amount.”
“You know what I mean,” Maki says as she picks up a pillow and hugs it to her chest. She feels a little bit tight for some reason.
Nico sighs and lies down on her back, pigtails splayed out every which way. She looks at Maki through half lidded eyes.
“Why are you always so busy? You don’t do anything except school anymore.”
Maki flicked Nico’s arm. “Don’t start this again.”
“Fine, fine,” Nico waved her off. She sat up and tugged the pillow out of Maki’s arms before she knew what was happening, and plopped her head directly in Maki’s lap.
Not the most eloquent response in the world for someone like Maki, but she could never truly be prepared when Nico was around. She should probably come with her own warning labels, or something.
“I’m getting comfy, Maki-chan. You can’t just ask a girl about her work and expect an answer to be all prepared, you know,” Nico said matter-of-factly. Truly one of a kind.
Maki could feel her face burning up, but Nico seemed unfazed, staring past her at something invisible on the ceiling.
“You know Nico’s family has it a little tough, right? Being a single mom with four kids is one of life’s greatest challenges.”
Maki nods, but she can’t really say she understands what it’s like.
“Well, since I’m the oldest I also have to be responsible, right? Like I’ve always been. Every super idol knows you have to consider the important things first, even before you think about what you want for yourself.”
Nico rolls so she’s facing outwards, away from Maki. The redhead tugs at Nico’s pigtail absently before realizing what she’s doing, but Nico doesn’t do anything except grab her hand and hold it gently.
“My fans are the most important to me, and the kids are my biggest fans of all. After Maki-chan, of course.”
Maki chooses to ignore the jab at her and thinks of Nico’s siblings. She knows by now that they’re who Nico is talking about when she refers to “the kids”. They’re small and a little bit loud, just like Nico is. Really they’re all just mini versions of the girl in her lap, though Cotarou is a little more reserved.
“So,” Nico continues, “I’m doing what any responsible adult in my position would do. Mama can’t afford to send them all to school on her own, of course.”
“If I work hard now, then mama won’t have to worry about it when the time comes. Not everyone wins eleven scholarships and goes to doctor school.”
Maki wonders if Nico is making fun of her, but neither of them are laughing. It’s kind of sad. Nico squeezes Maki’s hand, still looking away.
“So, maybe when I have enough money for them, I can try being an idol after that if there’s still time. Maybe I missed my chance already, but it’s okay.”
Maki tugs her hand back gestures for Nico to sit up, so she does. Maki isn’t really sure what to say, actually, but she talks anyways.
“What do you mean missed your chance? You’ve wanted to be an idol since… for as long as I’ve known you, and before that. You’re okay with just giving it up? I know it’s far away Nico-chan, but I didn’t think you’d dismiss your dreams so easily.”
Maki can feel herself frowning as Nico begins to stand up. It’s odd when Nico is looking down on her, for once, especially since she’s grown and Nico hasn’t.
“Why do you think I’m so frustrated with you all the time, Maki-chan? Sometimes I wonder if you you even have a brain up in your head.”
A hand pats her on said head and Maki wants to scream.
She looks down at her hands instead. “I guess it’s just disappointing after seeing you work so hard for μ's.”
Nico is ignoring her now, cleaning up the kitchen and not looking at her. The feeling in her gut when Nico decides she isn’t worth a reply isn’t foreign to her, but she can’t bring herself to be mad. It usually means that Nico thinks the answer is obvious, but typically she just makes things more frustrating between them. Maki knows she’s a little dense sometimes, but really Nico is just like Nozomi, when she wants to be pointlessly cryptic. Maki is a person of logic, and Nico defies it whenever she can.
Maki looks at the time and begins to gather her things, tugging her socks up and digging for her purse amongst the pillows. When she’s back together, Nico is already waiting at the door, looking in that moment as if Maki putting her shoe on is the greatest inconvenience she’s ever had to deal with in her entire life.
“You know,” Nico says as she reaches for the doorknob, “it’s disappointing for me too. Every time I look at you I get disappointed.”
There’s an odd sensation in the pit of Maki’s stomach. She wants to be offended, but Nico is smiling at her again.
“I look at you an awful lot, Maki-chan, so you better do some real thinking if you want to cheer Nico up, alright?”
Maki lets Nico pull her out the door by the hand.
They get to Maki’s place with thirty minutes to spare before everyone else shows up. Her mother greets them at the door and someone who cleans the house takes Nico’s sweater and hangs it up for her. Maki imagines Nico kicking her shoes off again, and wills with all her might that Nico behaves in front of her family. It shouldn’t matter if Nico makes an idiot of herself in front of everyone, but the notion bothers her anyway.
Instead Nico is polite and proper, and offers to help set food out on the table in the living room for everyone.
Maki goes to her room to change into something more suited for a social gathering and puts her high school diploma on her desk. She has a sudden vivid memory of Otonokizaka haloed by the bright blue sky amidst the cherry blossoms. She probably won’t ever go back.
When she comes back downstairs, Honoka and Kotori are at the door, and Rin is lounging across one of the couches while Nico plays games on her phone. The parents have already begun mingling, and Maki feels like retiring for the night already.
Eventually everyone is there, minus Nozomi’s parents for obvious reasons. Mrs. Yazawa even brought the kids, and Maki sees her mother fawning over them after Honoka sneaks them cookies. Nozomi is showing Hanayo something on her camcorder, and Umi is chatting with Kotori over a plate of cucumber sandwiches. Eli is scolding Rin about something, but they’re laughing too, so it probably isn’t anything bad.
Maki is sat in her armchair for barely an entire minute when Nico decides to sit on the floor in front of her, back to the chair. Maki spreads her legs awkwardly so she isn’t touching Nico’s shoulders.
“What are you doing?”
“Sitting, idiot. I brought you some snacks from the kitchen.”
Nico lifts an arm over the back of her head, and Maki takes the bowl of cherry tomatoes from her without saying thank you. Eli excuses herself and gives Rin the ‘I’m watching you’ stink eye before heading for the nearest washroom. Nico starts up a conversation with Nozomi across the table, and Maki is content to listen for no particular reason. It isn’t much of a party, but they could only do so much when every parent they knew was also in the general vicinity.
When Eli comes back, she asks Maki when she’s moving.
“Huh? Moving?” Nico says, as if she’s never heard the word before in her life.
The redhead shifts uncomfortably before pulling her legs up and sitting cross-legged in the armchair.
“Who told you?”
Eli shakes her head. “Nobody, I just heard your mom mention it when I walked through the kitchen. Are we not supposed to know?”
“No, no, it’s fine.”
“You’re moving?! Where?!”
“Shut up, Nico-chan. I’m just moving out, not moving away.”
Honoka’s face lights up. “Woah, you’re moving out? All on your own? That’s amazing, Maki-chan!”
“I’m a little surprised,” Umi says. “But I think it suits you. You’re responsible and level headed, it sounds like a good idea.”
“You’re moving and you didn’t tell me?!”
“Nico-chan, shut up .”
“Fight me!” Nico yells and leaps to her feet.
“Fight who?” Maki’s mother asks from the doorway.
Maki wants to whither away into the void. She sighs instead, and feels traces of secondhand embarrassment. Nico looks a little bit lost, or maybe like a deer caught in headlights. An overwhelming sense of dread approaches as Maki realizes Nico is about to raise her hands up and do what she always does when she doesn’t actually know what to do, no Nico don’t-
“Nicocchi,” Nozomi begins, “I’m sure Mrs. Nishikino will tell us all about it, hm?”
Jesus Christ, thank you , Maki wants to say to her. Maybe another time.
Nico sits back down on the floor, looking meek and a bit guilty.
Maki’s mother laughs behind her hand, in good nature.
“Don’t worry girls, she isn’t going far. It’s our graduation gift to her, to set her up with her own place and give her some freedom.”
Nozomi crosses her legs. “Whereabouts? I’ll have to come visit, when I can.”
Maki can feel Nico twitch even though she isn’t touching her at all.
“Near Roppongi Hills,” Maki says, “Azabu.”
“Isn’t that where all the rich people live?” Honoka pipes up, without a trace of tact. Umi hits the back of her head with an open palm.
Maki’s mother laughs again. “I suppose you could say that. It’s a nice place, I’m sure Maki will invite you all over sometime. We’re just waiting for entrance exams and then we’ll be sending her on her way. You’ve all grown up so fast…” she drifts off wistfully as she leaves, back towards the kitchen.
There’s an awkward silence before Honoka asks Maki if she has to pay rent. Umi hits her again, and Maki tries not to look at anyone.
“Well, I’ll be 18 soon. I get my… inheritance…”
The discomfort in her voice is probably obvious to everyone, but Maki isn’t sure how to redirect the conversation now. Luckily, there’s a Nico for that.
“Let’s watch a movie! This party is shit,” Nico exclaims, and she wanders over to the cabinet full of DVDs beside the TV. She puts something on, some rom-com, and everyone lounges on the couch after the lights are dimmed.
Half an hour into the movie, Maki notices Nico isn’t in the room anymore, so she gets up and goes to find her. She isn’t really interested in the movie, and she still feels… something, from not having told Nico about her moving. It shouldn’t even really matter anyway, Maki doesn’t think it’s such a big deal. Nico has her own unique perspective on everything in the world though, which just makes everything more difficult for everyone.
Predictably, Nico is lying on Maki’s bed playing with her phone again.
“Hey,” she says.
Maki nods, even though Nico isn’t looking again.
“Why are you in here?”
She puts the phone down and rolls over to look at Maki.
Why does she have to have red eyes. Who even has red eyes?
“I didn’t know Maki had it in her to lie to Nico like that, who knew you could be so careless?”
Maki put her hands on her hips and huffed. “I didn’t lie to anyone. Not saying anything isn’t lying.”
“It’s not! Why’s it such a huge deal to you anyway? I thought you’d be happy for me. You’re always telling me to do things for myself.”
Nico tutted and kicked her feet up. “I can’t believe you would treat poor Nico-nii so horribly! I’m the shining star in your life and you have the nerve to move out all on your own without saying a word to me!”
Maki gets frustrated when she realizes Nico is smiling, again. She’s just being a brat. Again.
“Shining star my ass! I actually felt bad for a moment, you know!”
Nico erupts into giggles and tosses all the pillows on the bed at Maki, one by one, and Maki has a lot of pillows. She catches one and deflects the rest, then charges forward and swings at Nico, but Nico ducks and grabs at her waist, pulling her onto the bed. They land in an undignified heap, and Nico is still all laughter. Maki can’t help but smile and laugh a little too, but it’s cut short when Nico rolls over, until she’s on top of Maki, supported by her elbows.
Nico pokes her red, red nose. “How are you gonna survive on your own? You can’t even use a microwave.”
“Ugh, not now, Nico-chan…”
“Remember when you left the spoon in your soup and set my microwave on fire?”
“And that time you got my rug stuck in the vacuum?”
Maki punched at Nico’s shoulders. “I told you I never used a vacuum before! You didn’t even show me how!”
“Jeez,” Nico mocks as she rolls back onto the bed, “you’re totally hopeless. It’s a good thing I’m here to show you how to be a real adult, huh?”
Maki feels less hot now than she did a second ago, but she kind of misses the sensation. “Too bad you still look like a twelve year old.”
“Resorting to short jokes so soon? You’re getting rusty, Maki-chan.”
“Your face is rusty.”
Nico takes her hand.
They lie there for a while, probably long enough that everyone else is wondering where they’ve gone. Nothing really matters anymore though. Tomorrow Nico will go back to work, and Maki will do what she’s always done, and study for exams. Nothing is really all that different.
“Really though, if you need help, just ask. Okay?”
Maki nods. It couldn’t be that hard. Could it?