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“Nicocchi! We can’t do any partner stretching if you won’t let me hold you properly~”

“Ack! What the hell are you doing?! Get off of me!"

Eli watched Nico’s futile attempt to shake the much taller and heavier Nozomi off of her body with a slight smile. It was a losing battle, of course, but Nico wouldn’t be Nico if she didn’t put up a fight. Even if it was a fight she lost every time Nozomi decided to drape herself all over her.

”… Aside from the fact that that really isn’t part of our stretching routine at all,“ - Eli blinked, startled from her thoughts by the voice of resignation beside her, ”- why does she continue to do that?“

Eli spared Umi a glance, and a friendly smile. μ’s had only been practicing together as a group of nine for a few days, and most of the others still had an air of hesitation when coming up to her - even Honoka. But Umi didn’t hesitate to approach when she had questions. Sometimes it was about a dance step, or a particular drill that might be helpful in improving their flexibility.

Sometimes it was about her fellow seniors.

They both watched as Nozomi tried to wrangle Nico into a position that very clearly wasn’t part of the stretch they were going for at all, only for Nico to slip out of her arms and try to backstep away. She managed three and a half steps before she was pulled back with an audible oof! of protest.

"Nico-senpai clearly isn’t… I mean, she’s rather vocal about how she feels whenever Nozomi-senpai hangs all over her like that.” Umi continued, and shot Eli a perplexed and vaguely worried look. Nico’s shriek had been muffled by Nozomi’s enthusiastic embrace, and Umi seemed like she desperately wanted to intervene, get some semblance of order back into their exercise, but wasn’t doing so out of respect to her upperclassmen.

But Eli just smiled.

“If Nico really didn’t want to be the target of Nozomi’s clinginess, I’m sure she would have escaped to the other side of the roof by now.” Eli said, amused. “She’s more than capable of getting herself out of situations she doesn’t want to be in, as I’m sure you’re well aware of.”

Umi finally returned Eli’s smile, even if hers was a bit halfhearted. The memory of chasing an upperclassman down, in the rain, with so much of the school looking on in curiosity, was not exactly one she relished. Even if said upperclassman was Nico.

“In any case, I think Nozomi is just… making up for the past.” Eli said.

"Pardon?" Umi looked at her in surprise. “But I thought they were always friends…?”

Eli hummed thoughtfully. “Something like that. They knew each other from before I transferred here. And even then, Nozomi seemed to have a certain fondness for Nico.” She paused, unsure of what to say next. “… But for a long time, there was this distance that Nico would never let us breach."

Not that Eli herself would have known how to breach it, at the time. Or even now, she thinks to herself, as Nico still held so much of herself apart from everyone. Eli knew that feeling intimately, so much so that most of the time, she wasn’t sure if she had any right to be reaching out to Nico at all.

But Nozomi had been different.

When Nico’s former fellow idols quit, when the club fell apart in every way but on paper, when all Nico had left was an empty clubroom, Nozomi had tried to reach out to Nico every time. And every time, Nico refused to let herself be reached.

Nico never wanted help. Never wanted any charity, any pity. She could do things on her own, she’d insisted. In fact, she would do things on her own, if the alternative was getting half-hearted enthusiasm back.

And all Eli could do was stand by Nozomi’s side as they watched her try to keep herself together from afar. Nozomi wasn’t a dramatic person by any means, but Eli remembered her quiet frustration quite clearly, the hurt and confusion she’d felt, but couldn’t quite articulate.

The distance between them would only grow over time; it loomed before them so menacingly that Eli resigned herself to the thought that it couldn’t really be repaired, not in the way Nozomi wanted. So while Eli had given up on it, choosing instead to preoccupy herself with every other possible thing, Nozomi kept herself as close to Nico as Nico would allow. Even if it was only in the form of a well-loved nickname, or the cheerful offer to help maintain her club’s paperwork as student council protocol dictated.

It was enough. It had to be enough, until the day Nozomi would find the opportunity to not only build a bridge over the gap that yawned between them, but make some friends along the way… And even drag her over it, no matter how stubbornly she’d wanted to stay on her own side…

“There’s a lot more history between the three of you than I thought, senpai,” came Umi’s voice, startling her out of her reverie. Eli hadn't even realized she'd drifted off.

“… I suppose it might seem that way,” Eli smiled, “We do have a year over you, after all.”

”… So now that Nozomi-senpai has the opportunity, she’s taking every chance to keep her close?” Umi said, with a quiet chuckle. “Though it doesn’t really explain why Nico-senpai is letting herself be caught like that…”

Nico had finally calmed down and settled for an irritated frown, like a little, disgruntled puppy. Nozomi was patting her hair lightly, a silent apology, and coaxing her into the right pose for some proper stretches.

Satisfied that the two had gone back to the routine, Umi had turned to walk away and supervise the rest of their little group. So she missed how Nozomi only had a gentle smile and a tender touch for her partner. Or how, when Nico thought no one was looking, she leaned just the slightest bit into Nozomi’s openly offered affection.

After all, Nozomi was not the only one who was making up for lost time, Eli mused to herself with a little smile.