A year had passed since the formation of the legendary school idol group Muse. The nine young women who were part of the said group had experienced many changes since they decided to end all their activities. The then third years especially, who were now on the path of finding themselves and pursuing their future, were adjusting to their college lives.
Still, they all remained close to each other and would get together from time to time. Their friendships were as tight as ever, but some even became closer than before.
Maki, for example, found herself seeking for Nozomi’s advice more often than she’d imagined.
She didn’t really know when she became this close to the older girl. It was surprising, at least to her, that Nozomi would be the one she would come to when she had problems. It wasn’t that she disliked her though. And she knew that Nozomi was great in listening to other people’s problems. But she thought their differences in attitude and interests would give them a hard time in dealing with each other.
Once, Maki was troubled about Rin and Hanayo.
She noticed that her two friends were spending more time with just each other than all three of them. She felt left out. Although she couldn’t really blame them since she knew that they were childhood best friends. It’s just that, with Honoka, Umi, and Kotori busy with student council matters, she had been left lonely without those two. And she was not the best in socializing.
As always, she found it hard to talk and open up her problem. She couldn’t just go and tell them “I’m lonely without you,” could she? She felt like she would just bother them with her childish attitude.
She told herself it would be alright eventually. She’d been more or less alone in her entire life after all. What’s new? And it’s not like they’d completely abandoned her too. There wasn’t even an argument or the sort.
At the very least, she told herself she should be happy since her days had been quieter and nicer without the constant energy around her that was Rin.
But then, when all nine of them met for a little gathering at her place, Nozomi noticed.
Maki was alone at her veranda, gazing at the stars shining above her. It was fun to be with all of them, and it had been a while. But she was somewhat overwhelmed with everything and she needed some time to breathe.
Then suddenly, she heard Nozomi’s voice ask her. “Care for some company?”
Maki looked at the older girl and the latter gave a waiting look. She considered refusing but she didn’t want to be disrespectful and turn out as cold or unwelcoming. Nozomi wasn’t that noisy if she chose not to be too. So she nodded and said, “sure.”
For a while they just minded their own businesses. They both enjoyed the night breeze and its calming aura. Then Nozomi casually asked, “what’s wrong, Maki-chan?” She continued to watch the sky instead of Maki.
Taken aback, Maki turned to Nozomi incredulously. “N-Nothing.” She started twirling her hair with her fingers as she looked away.
“Has it got something to do with Rin-chan and Hanayo-chan?” Nozomi asked again.
Maki’s eyes widened as she looked at Nozomi again. “Wha-? How did you-?”
Nozomi giggled. “I was just guessing. But it turns out I’m right!”
“I didn’t say it was them-” then Maki saw Nozomi’s victorious playful smirk. She sighed, “fine.”
“So what’s going on with them?” Nozomi asked, although she might already have an idea why. “Did you have a fight?”
Maki paused before answering, “not really. It’s just...”
“Hm? Just what?” Nozomi urged.
“I... feel like they’re avoiding me?” said Maki. She too was unsure of the ideas she jumped onto.
“How can you say so?” Nozomi asked.
“Well,” Maki said, “they just greet me in the morning when they come to class and then in the afternoon before going home. Sometimes at lunch they disappear immediately. They used to stick with me and nag me all the time.” Even Maki herself was surprised at how much she was saying.
“Oh?” Nozomi said with a teasing smile. “I thought you don’t like noisy people who’s all over you all the time?”
Maki opened her mouth to retort but she was left speechless as heat crept up her face in embarrassment.
Nozomi let out a small laugh. “I’m just joking,” she said, “tell me more about it?”
And so Maki told Nozomi the details of her trouble. It was surprisingly easy to talk about it with the older girl. Although she was often teased by her, the embarrassment soon lifted off and she was able to talk smoothly. Maki realized she was enjoying the evening with Nozomi. They were just there together, talking about how to resolve Maki’s problem, all night until Honoka decided they should play some games.
A week passed by and Maki knew why she was being avoided.
It was her birthday and the girls all planned a surprise for her. There were tomato soup, cake, juice, and some of her other favorite food. It was held at the music room of their school and Nozomi, Eli, and Nico all came over. They all played games, sang, and danced together.
Rin and Hanayo were the ones in charge of arranging things, that’s why they were so busy and ended up seeming like they’re avoiding her. When Maki found that out, she turned to Nozomi who gave her a knowing grin before she hugged her two best friends.
Rin was so delighted with the redhead’s unusual action so she reciprocated so tightly and excitedly. “Maki-chan hugged us nyaaa! Happy birthday Maki-chan!”
Hanayo prayed she wouldn’t faint from suffocation. “Someone save meee!”
Weeks passed by and Maki found herself consulting Nozomi about her problems. It’s not that she had something against Rin nor Hanayo though. It was just so easy to talk to Nozomi. It’s like she could be all whiny and complain a lot and Nozomi wouldn’t mind listening at all. Nozomi’s teases and laughter comforted her too, for a reason she didn’t know. Maki’s secrets were securely safe with the older girl and she knew that.
They spent a lot of time together when Nozomi was free from university. Sometimes, they would go out to the park and stargaze. Oftentimes, they were just at Nozomi’s apartment or at a cafe. Maki was truly happy being with the older girl. She often found herself giving in to the prankster’s antics. Nozomi even convinced her to call her “Non-chan,” albeit it took a lot of pleads and washi washi threats.
It’s like they formed a special bond of their own, different from the rest of their friends.
Rin questioned it once, “why do you talk about Nozomi-chan a lot these days nya?” There wasn’t really anything wrong with what she asked. Even with them, it was unusual for Maki to talk a lot and about someone who wasn’t even there anymore for the past months.
At first, Hanayo thought nothing much about it since Nozomi was one of their closest friends. But then, sometimes, Maki would mention the older girl out of nowhere; so she became curious as well. She and Rin looked at the redhead expectantly.
“Eh?” Maki froze. Then she twirled her hair. “N-No reason! Nothing! She’s our f-friend, isn’t she? Isn’t it fine to talk about her?” She looked away, avoiding their sights.
Rin leaned closer to Maki. “Is that so nya?”
Maki nodded. “You talk about Non-cha-” She coughed. “I mean, N-Nozomi too, don’t you? And Eli, and Nico-chan, and Hono--”
“Non-chan!?” Hanayo exclaimed with eagerness.
“Oh! Maki-chan’s got a nickname for Nozomi-chan nya!” Rin followed up.
“Bueghh! Wh-What’s wrong with that?” Maki’s face reddened with embarrassment.
“Nothing nya!” Rin answered, imitating Maki.
“What’s that? I don’t get it at all!”
December was approaching and Maki was troubled yet again. And as usual, her feet brought her outside of Nozomi’s apartment door. Her breathing was ragged because of her rush. She knocked at the door and Nozomi came short after.
When Nozomi opened the door, a worried expression flashed on her face. “Maki-chan?”
Maki was looking down and didn’t respond. She continued breathing rapidly. She was frowning.
“Maki-chan, come in! It’s cold out here!” Nozomi ushered the younger girl into her apartment. “Are you alright?”
There was still no answer from Maki. She took off her shoes and stood in front of Nozomi.
“Maki-chan, what’s wrong?” Nozomi asked, worried about the redhead’s uneasiness and obvious... sadness. Was she pouting?
“Non-chan,” Maki finally said, looking at Nozomi’s eyes like a lost little puppy. “Tell me, is it true that Santa-san is not real?” she asked with tainted innocence. She looked so... heartbroken.
Nozomi paused and stared at her, a little surprised at the question. Then she held Maki’s hand. “Maki-chan, dear, who told you that?” She gave her a smile that she hoped could warm her up.
“Th-That’s not important,” said Maki, “just tell me if it’s true or not.” There was a hint of desperation in her voice. Her brows furrowed as if saying, ‘please tell me it’s not.’
Nozomi gave yet another smile. She squeezed Maki’s hand and said, “it is true...” She figured beating around the bush wouldn’t be effective in handling Maki and it might just worsen the situation.
The look of realization and sorrow that Maki wore broke Nozomi’s heart too. It hurt to see the sweet innocence of the younger girl being crushed. It made Nozomi want to take back her words, but that just wouldn’t do any good.
Tears threatened to burst out of Maki’s eyes as she looked down. “Oh,” was all she could utter.
“But it’s alright, isn’t it?” Nozomi suddenly asked. Maki brought her attention back to the older girl with confused eyes. Nozomi smiled and continued, “it means that someone really loves and cares for you that they’d give you a gift every year. Even though they write Santa-san’s name instead of theirs. In your case, it’s your parents who stand up as Santa-san. They love you so much.”
“But why did they lie to me?” Maki asked with a little irritation.
Nozomi paused to think of the right answer. “You see, Maki-chan,” she started, “it’s not that they really wanted to lie to you. They just didn’t want to hurt you. They knew that if you find out the truth about him, then you would be hurt so much. Just like now. They didn’t want your hopes to be crushed.”
“Didn’t they think I would realize it someday...” Maki uttered. She knew that maybe she was being immature and childish, but who could blame her? For 16 years she believed that every year someone besides her parents cared for her. Santa-san was her first friend. Even though she never really met him, she always appreciated the gifts she received and the letters that came with them. “Now I’m looking stupid, believing that some old man comes through our chimney every year.” Her voice was starting to waver. She pulled her hand from Nozomi’s as she looked away with sadness and pain.
“Hey, it’s alright,” Nozomi assured, “you’re not stupid.” She watched as Maki stomped off to sit on the couch of her living room. She followed after and sat beside her, making sure to keep a certain distance so as not to startle the younger girl. “Maki-chan,” she called. But Maki refused to even look at her. “Maki-chan?” Nozomi repeated.
“...ven you...” Maki eventually whispered. She bit her lip to contain her emotions. She was still staring down, not meeting Nozomi’s eyes.
But Nozomi didn’t hear what she said clearly so she asked, “hm? what is it?” She kept her voice soft and gentle, hoping that Maki would open up to her more.
There was a short silence as Maki contemplated whether to talk or not. Then she said, “I said, even you girls lied to me.” She clenched her skirt, bottling her feelings.
“What?” Nozomi asked, confused. “When?”
“Last year,” Maki answered, “on our Christmas party. You gave me another gift and said it was from... Santa-san.” Her voice cracked and a tear trickled down her face. “I’m sure Nico-chan and Rin, heck even Honoka, were making fun of me for believing such a stupid thing.”
Nozomi frowned. “That’s not true,” she replied. “Sure, Nicochi let out a laugh,” she admitted. No use lying now, right? “But that’s just because she found your innocence cute.” She giggled. “Those three were even the most excited ones when we made your present!”
Maki’s eyebrows raised in shock. “R-Really?” Ever the tsundere, she tried not to show the delight in her eyes.
Nozomi nodded with a smile. “Yup! So don’t ever think that we see you as dumb, or stupid, or an idiot, okay? We love you the way you are. Your innocence despite you being smart is one of your charms!” She gave a grin that was so genuine and full of love.
“O-Of course I’m not stupid!” Maki looked away while twirling her hair with her fingers. And her cheeks were painted red. Now there’s the Maki Nozomi knew.
Nozomi chuckled and wrapped her arms around Maki. “Yup!”
Now all that’s left was for Nozomi to find out who told Maki the sacred truth and give that person a washi washi of a lifetime.