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"Seriously, you guys being here has been fun and all, helpful if I were to suck it up and admit it," Nico started, looking at her friends strewn across her apartment as she accepted the plate being handed to her.

"But go home. Oh my god you don't have to do all this for my sake, geez," Nico continued while inspecting the dinnerware.

Beside her at the sink Eli chuckled, her hands lathering another bowl with soap, though eyes wandering their gaze elsewhere.

"Kinda late to be saying that now, Nico, seeing as we're almost done with everything," her light-hearted tone caused Nico to give a small grunt. Eli traded one hand with soap to turn on the faucet, quickly running it under the water for a rinse. Still not looking at her kitchen duty companions, Eli stuck out the bowl to Hanayo, the younger accepting it with her slightly damp towel.

"Thank you, Eli-chan," Hanayo replied to Eli's dish turnover. She leaned back behind the tall blonde to face Nico, "It was fun, Nico-chan! We're always happy to help and eat here!" Hanayo sighed. Damn, was the Yazawa's rice good. She for sure planned to be back here more often (for Nico and her siblings, of course. Of course.)

With another dirty dish in her hands, the motions of the washing slowing, Eli continued to stare out across the apartment, not Nico and Hanayo, and smiled.

"Nico's just too stubborn to admit we're useful. We'll definitely be back, Hanayo." The first year perked up, excited that she'd be able to come back for Good Times at the Yazawa household and most definitely not just for Nico's rice. Definitely.

"Eli, if the damn dishes you're 'washing' keep having little bits of food on them still, you might not be back," Nico thrusted the offending plate in front of Eli's face, snapping the fellow senior out of her trance. A small speck of the curry remained from earlier in the night on the rim of the dish.

Finally facing Nico, Eli gave a guilty smile, took her incrimination, and scrubbed it with newfound fervor, "Aha, whoops! My bad."

"Geez," Nico murmured, a small smile betraying her words.

The maternal figure of the Yazawa family had told her eldest daughter that for the next week, she would be working later shifts, the end of the fiscal quarter nearing. She wanted to show her supervisors her determination and work ethic in hopes of getting a pay raise to help out the family. Nico admired her mother, she really did, and the realization of where she inherited her sense of drive and willing spirit had passed her mind frequently during times like these. And when her mother was home, she treasured the time their family spent together much like how she treasured with Muse.

But that didn't make it any less hard to deal with when she wasn't there.

With the recent discovery by her friends of their family situation, the girls jumped at the chance to help Nico around the house on days the self-proclaimed super idol would have to forgo practice in lieu of family matters. This made her mother's absence 8 times easier to deal with, logistically and emotionally, as much as she'd hate to vocalize it to any of her dumbass friends.

Over the counter at the dining room table, the planners of the group sat, discussing performance and practice details; using time not spent after school for dancing or vocal training to their advantage was imperative for their goals. Umi was bent over her notebook, jotting down ideas and brainstorms for lyrics while listening to her two companions' inputs. Likewise, Kotori had her own work in front of her, albeit flowing with more color and pictures than Umi's (rightfully so), nodding her head enthusiastically to something her friends said. Maki sat across from them, her music player humming a soft melody for Kotori and Umi to draw inspiration from in anticipation for their next live:

The Love Live preliminaries.

Past the planners in the Yazawa's playroom held Nico's three younger siblings, along with Honoka, Rin, and Nozomi.

Nico briefly wondered how the hell that room was still intact, just waiting for a disaster to inexplicably explode from her friends' antics any second. Judging by Eli's gaze over that direction, she imagined the former Student Council President was thinking the same thing, waiting to see how she can best subdue the craziness that was bound to happen with the three playful kids, and the Yazawa siblings.

Good 'ol Eli. Always looking for a place to do some damage control and micromanaging, Nico thought, though silently thankful for Eli's mature and focused nature.

"Ah! Cocoa-chan, ya got me~!"

Wait. Oh-- oh God you're kidding me.

"I got Nozomi-neechan! I got Nozomi-neechan! Honoka-neechan, Rin-neechan, we won! We won!" Cocoa jumped up and down, proudly hopping over to Honoka and Rin, with their high-fives ready, as winners of the group's game. Nico hadn't a clue what they were playing. Tag? War? Who cares.

Nozomi, who was lying on the ground previously after being tagged by Cocoa, pushed herself up and lifted the girl from behind as she was performing her victory Nico Nico Nii, placing her on her shoulders.

"Ehehe! Cocoa-chan did very good! Your power is suuuper strong, that's definitely why you guys won!" Nozomi laughed along with the girl, smiling as the youngest Yazawa daughter hugged the eldest's head. Nozomi gently set down Cocoa off her shoulders and sent her off to Honoka and Rin, who were ready to congratulate their team member in whatever game they had played.

Bending down to Cocoro and Cotarou's level, Nozomi rubbed both of her team member's heads, trying to ease the frowns they had on their faces from losing.

"Cocoro-chan and Cotarou-chan, you both put up a good game as well! We'll be sure to get them with more power next time, right?" she smiled encouragingly at them. Cocoro agreed enthusiastically, throwing a fist up in the air in determination, Cotarou nodding his head fervently.

Nozomi giggled, a blissful grin gracing her lips again, "Alright!"

The sound of continuous water running, Nico looked down from Eli's hands stopping their dish washing, up to the blonde's face. Her fellow senior's eyes were intently watching Nozomi interact with the kids, her cheeks lightly flushed, ice blue eyes shining.

"Xорошо…"

For fuck's sake.

"Eli, stop being gay and staring at Nozomi. Keep doing the dang dishes; you're wasting water. Jesus Christ, you useless lesbian."

Clash!

"Oh my god, Eli…" Nico really hoped her mom got that pay raise, because now that stupid plate needed to be replaced.

Scratch that; Eli's buying them a new one. Fine China. No, wait—plastic, so her useless lesbian hands can drop it all they like when she gets caught being blatantly gay.

Face bright red, her gaze shifting between Nico and the remnants of the broken plate in the sink, Eli shut off the water and quickly tried to pick up (the pieces of her mess of a life, Nico thought) the sharp shards, haphazardly apologizing, stumbling over her words, talking a mile a minute.

"Oh god the plate-- OH! Oh crap, Nico, I'm so sorry I was just-- shoot, oh shoot, did any glass get anywhere? Crap, crap. Nico, I will pay for a new one! Just lemme… A-and moreover, I was not staring at her, but that's beside the point. Ah, Hanayo can you hand me the garbage can for the plate pieces to go in? God, Nico I am SO sorry, I'll make it up to you I prom--"

"Eli, will you shut up for one second? It's just a plate, chill, oh my god," Nico sighed… Way to subtly divert why you dropped it in the first place, you dumb, big, gay oaf.

The rushing sound of 10 footsteps thundered into the kitchen.

"I heard a crash what's wrong is everyone okay??"
"Kayochin, are you okay?!"
"Eli-chan, are you hurt?"
"What on earth happened; Eli, you're not injured, are you?"
"This is all probably Nico-chan's fault."

Nico glared at one of their friends in particular, her red eyes leering at the other, gaze flaming like the girl's hair.

"What the fuck, thanks for the vote of support, Maki-chan."

"It's what I'm here for," Maki peered over the counter to see the contained mess in the sink, deciding it was not her problem to deal with (also ignoring the fact she couldn't properly clean to save her life), tossed her hair over her shoulder, and sauntered back to the table to continue their group's work. Umi assessed the situation, seeing it clear of any danger and harm. With it taken care of, she followed Maki back to her seat as well.

Kotori checked over Eli's hands to make sure her friend was uninjured, then joined her and Hanayo (after Rin also checked to make sure her childhood friend was fine) in cleaning up the broken pieces. Honoka lingered in the kitchen, offering moral support, rather than tangible help to the crew—though still very appreciated—until there were no traces of shattered dishware, cheering them all in a job well done afterwards.

Eli lifted the garbage can and placed it back in its original place, "Thanks for helping guys, you didn't need to! I just had butterfingers for a second," rubbing her neck in modest embarrassment.

Drying her hands with a kitchen towel, Kotori walked past Eli back to the dining room table to join her planning team.

"Not a problem, Eli-chan. It's faster when we all help anyways!"

Still in the kitchen, Rin held Hanayo's fingers up close as she examined them with cat-like eyes.

"Kayochin, are you sure you're okay?"

"I'm fine, Rin-chan. No cuts!" Hanayo assured her overprotective friend in a pleasant tone, wiggling her digits to show they were still in perfect condition (for holding chopsticks to eat rice). Rin took one last look over, decided all was indeed well, and gave her friend a big smile.

"Alright! Rin's gonna go play with Nozomi-chan and Cocoa-chan and the others then! Come on, Honoka-chan!" The leader of Muse 'woop-wooped,' racing her other ginger companion back to where Nozomi and the younger Yazawa siblings were now sitting, looking very engaged in something the eldest girl was saying. Honoka and Rin ran up behind the three kids, tackling them to the ground and tickling them, Cocoro and Cocoa retaliating and fighting back, Cotaru hitting the older girls gently with his toy hammer.

Going back to finishing the last few dirty bowls, the three in the kitchen laughed watching their friends being overtaken by the determined Yazawa children.

Now finally focusing and scrubbing harder, Eli turned to Nico, "Hey Nico, seriously, sorry for dropping the plate. I'll have you a new one by Monday morning after I go shopping this weekend," she said earnestly.

"It's fine. Nico's not mad anyways, it's just a plate," Nico waved off the older girl's guilt while placing a dried dish in the cabinet, "But Eli, seriously, your big lesbian crush on Nozomi is astronomical; you're at like an eleven, let's bring it down to our group's average of at least a six or seven."

Eli choked on her own air.

"Wha-what?! I am- I do not have a crush on her, what would make you think that, and-- group average? What even is that?" Eli sputtered, trying to change the initial topic away from herself.

Nico rolled her eyes.

"Eli, you were staring at Nozomi for like the past fifteen minutes until I called you out and YOU TIGHTEN YOUR GRIP ON THAT GLASS CUP; WE ARE NOT TAKING ANYMORE CASUALTIES TODAY."

The blonde blushed and clutched the cup, running it under water for a rinse, then handing it to Hanayo.

"I was not s-staring at her. I was just watching them, all of them, play their game. It looked interesting; people look at interesting things, right?" Eli retorted, a splash of red heat painting the tips of her ears and cheeks.

"Yeah, uh-huh, sure."

Nico smirked at Eli's blush as she ducked her head, pursing her lips so she wouldn't talk herself into a deeper, more embarrassing hole.

Reading the standstill Nico and Eli were at, Hanayo spoke up.

"Nozomi-chan would be a really good mother though, right?" the quieter girl observed, trying to bring the conversation back to common ground.

"Eh? Are ya'll talking about me behind my back? Should I punish the one who started it?"

The mischievous girl appeared behind Hanayo, hands raised and ready if their answer did not suffice (or just to grope them for shits and giggles) (or because she's a huge perv, Nico kept to herself.)

"No-nozomi!" (OH GOD HOW LONG WAS SHE HERE, Eli internally screamed.)

"N-n-nozomi-chan, no!"

"Tits, back off."

Hanayo turned around and clapped her hands for an apology and bowed dramatically to her senior. "It was nothing, Nozomi-chan! I was only saying how good you are with kids; please don't do it!"

Nozomi hummed in understanding, half-understanding, really. She knew her friends weren't saying anything negative without her knowing, not with Eli there. She was in it for the reactions, the shits and giggles—as always.

"I'm just joking with ya, Hanayo-chan," she said as she walked past the shorter girl, ruffling her hair a bit. Nozomi made her way over to Eli, boldly taking the blonde's hand and holding them up to her face, much like Rin did earlier for Hanayo.

Eli would have to talk to Nico later about lowering the heater in this household, because there's no other logical reason her face should be heating up this many times in the span of ten minutes. No other logical reason whatsoever; most certainly not because of her completely platonic best friend, Nozomi Tojo. Nope.

"I'm sure Honoka-chan and the others checked to make sure everything was alright here while I was keeping the kids busy," Oh, Eli mused while Nozomi was talking, that's why she didn't come over immediately, her gay ass taking comfort in knowing Nozomi wasn't just ignoring her (get yourself together, Eli, Nozomi would never do that to you), "but are you okay, Elicchi? Though I trust the others, I'd just like to make sure myself." She looked up from Eli's fingers, meeting the blonde's blue orbs to her own.

Those sparkling, light, emerald eyes.

That shined just as bright as the gem.

Oh boy, was Eli Ayase gay.

Noticing her best friend's reddened face, concern laced her expression as Nozomi lowered the unharmed hands and leaned forward. Softly with tender fingertips, she brushed the blonde's fringe to the side and pressed her forehead against Eli's.

Nico REALLY needed to lower the damn heat in the house, because Eli could swear she was about to die of heatstroke.

"Hmm, your face is a bit flushed and a little warm, but it doesn't seem to be a fever," Nozomi observed, her breath tickling Eli's upper lip in their close proximity. Nozomi pulled away, replacing her head with the back of her hand to recheck, also testing Eli's cheeks, then comparing it to her own temperature. Eli was at a loss for words, choking on her own gay. Nozomi smiled that damn beautiful smile, the one where she bared all her pearly teeth, and let out a soft laugh.

"Well, Elicchi, looks like you're all fine and checked out by Doctor Nozomi! If ya'll will excuse me, Cocoro-chan, Cocoa-chan, and Cotarou-chan are going to learn how to bring out their spiritual power from me!"

Nico scowled and narrowed her eyes.

"Tits, you better not teach my siblings anything weird," Nico deadpanned.

Nozomi pranced back into the other room, holding her hands up with Nico's signature pose and called out to the idol as she left, "Not as weird as the stuff they learn from you, Niccochi!"

Returning to the Yazawa children, Nozomi plopped herself in front of them, taking out her deck of tarot cards from her blazer pocket, laying them in front of the kids. She drew three cards from the stack, lining them up next to each other.

Reversed Moon. Reversed Temperance. The Hanged Man.

Hmm. Interesting.

"Nozomi-neechan, are you gonna teach us how to be spiritual with cards? Are we playing another game?" Cocoa asked, eyes big and wide, awaiting Nozomi's instructions, with Cocora and Cotarou mirroring similar fascination.

"Yep, you're right Cocoa-chan! We're gonna use the cards to test your spiritual power," Nozomi started, filing the meaning of the cards she drew in the back of her mind to muse on later.

The fortune teller held up a finger up in mock seriousness in her explanation for the kids. "Now, the game is simple. I'm thinking of a card in my head from in front of y'all here, and using your sensing powers, you'll read my mind to pick which card I'm thinking of—easy!"

Cocoro furrowed her brows.

"But Nozomi-neechan, how do we read your mind?"

Nozomi smiled before closing her eyes, pressing two fingers of her hands on both sides of her temple, "Ya have to feel it, Cocoro-chan. Believe you can read my mind, and then you'll start to connect with me."

The shrine maiden opened her eyes.

"Like right now I connected with yours! You were thinking of how you were gonna read my mind!" Or so Nozomi hoped. Simple restatement of her question, play it to safe assumptions.

"Woah, amazing! That's what I was thinking!!"

Nozomi giggled and rested her hands back into her lap, "See! It takes practice, but you have to believe. So, Cocoro-chan, would you like to go first?"

Cocoro nodded enthusiastically, copying the pose Nozomi did earlier to help her think.

"I believe, I believe, believe, believe… Believe!"

Nozomi threw up her hands in exaggerated surprise as Cocora shouted the last word.

"Ah! Cocoro-chan do you know?"

The small girl nodded and emphatically pointed to the middle card, "That one!"

A gasp emitted from Nozomi's mouth as she cupped her hands to her cheeks in surprise, "You got it! On your first try, too! Cocoro-chan, your spiritual power must be really high, I'm impressed!" The experienced card reader reached over to Cocoro and rubbed her head in praise, the girl beaming proudly.

"Nozomi-neechan, me next, me next!" Cocoa shouted, waving her hands.

The Yazawa siblings all took turns 'reading' Nozomi's mind, each time resulting in a successful choice with praise and cheering from the others. After a few more rounds, Nozomi recollected her cards, securing them back in her pocket while listening to the kids gush about their newfound abilities.

"Nozomi-neechan, how did you know you had powers?"

Nozomi blinked, a soft expression gracing her features. She glanced at the clock above the door frame.

8:03PM

Seeing her friends all finished with their work in the kitchen and now gathered at the table, most likely discussing their next live, Nozomi figured it was about time to wrap up their night

"Well, since ya'll were so good at reading my mind, I can share my secrets of my spiritual journey with ya. Up for a quick story?"

Cocoro and Cocoa leaned forward on their haunches, Cotarou also wholly interested. The three gave responses of excitement, wanting to know the 'secrets' and story, causing Nozomi to giggle. The older girl scooted her back against the wall to settle in. Almost immediately, the three children made themselves comfortable on her, ready for a story time—much like how Nico and Mama Yazawa tell them before bed.

Nozomi's breath caught in her throat for a moment, not expecting the kids to find that level of safety in her so quickly. Instinctively, though not without a second of hesitance the kids thankfully did not pick up on, she pulled Cotarou to sit on one of her legs, holding him as he leaned into her, the boy already looking a bit tired from playing. Cocora took her seat beside Nozomi, propping herself on the older girl's side and looking up at her. Finding space for herself, Cocoa laid down, her head on Nozomi's lap, also eager but fighting off the same drowsiness her brother was slowly giving into.

Seeing all the kids curled up in her, feeling the warmth they gave off, Nozomi's heart swelled, and an emotion she seldom felt washed over her. She couldn't place it, but the thought of 'This is what a family should be like' ran in through her head, secretly glad the kids couldn't actually read her mind.

"Alright, now I can share my secret spiritual journey! Once upon a time," Nozomi began, starting with a classic beginning to draw the children into her world, "when Nozomi-neechan was really young, probably your age, Cotarou-chan, she saw little spirit creatures everywhere…"

Across the way in the other room, the rest of Muse looked on, taking a pause in their concert planning to warmly watch the sight.

 


 

"Hey Tits, thanks for helping me put the kids to bed."

Nozomi pulled out a chair from the table and seated herself as she and Nico returned to their friends.

"But Niccochi, there's still one more kid to put to bed: you."

"Oooooh, burrn, Nico-chan!" Honoka drawled.

"Ha! Nico-chan, Nozomi-chan really got nya!" Rin howled, high-fiving Honoka as the two laughed at the expense of their fellow idiot friend. The rest of the group sighed in exasperation.

"You two, can it! And Nozomi, can't you take a compliment like a normal person for once?! Geez!"

Kotori let out a gentle laugh at the trio, then turned to Nozomi.

"But you truly are good with kids, Nozomi-chan! They really liked you," Kotori said, thinking back to the image of the Yazawas giving into heavy eyelids by the end of Nozomi's story, still attached to her as the senior smiled adoringly down at them.

Hanayo responded in agreement with Kotori, "You are, Nozomi-chan! You're very motherly; are you around children often?"

"Well yeah, she's around Nico-chan a lot during class and practice, right?"

"Maki-chan, Nico-nii thinks it's about time for Maki-chan to nico-nico-leave~!"

Not being one to take compliments well, Nozomi paused, pushed back a blush, and hummed in thought as she answered Hanayo's question, "We have kids coming to the shrine a bunch with their parents, especially around holidays. So there's gonna be a lot more soon since it's almost Christmas and New Years time."

"That makes sense. I'm curious, how are you so natural with them? I myself have trouble being at ease with children the way you are," Umi commented. Though she may equate Nozomi's mischievous demeanor to childlike, especially during Lily White practice with her partner-in-crime Rin, she couldn't help but begrudgingly acknowledge the kids' likening to her senior. Being a stickler for rules and regulation, while the students at her family's dojo respected her, they thought of her as too strict. Even Yukiho as she was growing up, would call her 'un-fun' when games went too far, and Umi would step in between Honoka and them.

Nozomi felt that pang in her chest again, the same feeling as when the kids snuggled up to her.

"With kids, ya just gotta treat them like how you wanted to be treated when you were small! You know: important, special, cared for. And then they'll love ya!" Nozomi internally congratulated herself from keeping the answer impersonal, not feeling like delving into her own family care, or lack thereof, and grinned at the group.

Her friends reveled in her wise words. Well, all but two.

Nico and Eli, sitting across from each other, knowing Nozomi the most, caught the longing 'wanted' in her answer, and exchanged concerned glances. Both could see the small hesitance in her smile that the rest of Muse failed to notice, simply from not knowing the extent of Nozomi's relationship with her parents—or what little of it there was.

Nico gave a strange wink at Eli, nodded her head in Nozomi's direction, and blinked twice again, as if trying to convey some weird form of morse code to the quarter Russian.

Eli had no idea what the fuck Nico was doing. But she understood the gist of her message.

Make Nozomi talk more about this later.

She nodded her head back. And gave a wink for added measure.

"Aaah, Nozomi-chan, you're like a mother!"

Nozomi grinned mischievously.

"Well, if I'm like a mother, then Elicchi would be like a father!"

Attention diverted away from any personal issues with the bonus of embarrassing Eli as she heard the blonde do a spit-take and choke, Nozomi gave herself a mental pat on her back.

 


 

"Get her to open up."

Eli looked up from the task of putting on her shoes as the group packed up for the night and left Nico's house. She finished slipping her heel into her boot and stood up straight facing her friend.

"I will," she promised.

"Elicchi~! It's not good for Niccochi to be up past her bedtime, let's get goin'!"

Nico planted her foot and raised a fist at Nozomi, "Tits, shove it and go home!"

"Ooh see, see? Lack of sleep can lead to a cranky Niccochi," Nozomi laughed behind her hand.

Eli rolled her eyes at her third-year companions, accustomed to dealing with their teasing everyday now, "Nozomi, please stop aggravating Nico. You know how she gets when she doesn't get her beauty rest," the blonde added one little jab at her friend with a playful smile and wink.

"Eli, what the hell? First you break my plate and now this?! How can you be so cruel to poor, little Nico-chan?" Nico feigned hurt, giving Eli wide, shimmering eyes.

Nico's eyes were ruby, and not the emerald Eli was infatuated and usually relented in, so she just laughed off her friend's antics.

"Goodnight, Nico! Thanks again for dinner, and I'll be sure to have the plate soon."

"Bye-bye, Niccochi! Sleep tight!"

With all the group saying their goodbyes and departing different ways, Nozomi and Eli walked in the comfortable silence of the night as they traveled the familiar route to their part of town. The sight of Nozomi blissfully walking next to her, her face lit up by the moonlight as she looked in awe at the stars above her, almost gave Eli pause to disrupt the peaceful atmosphere.

Almost.

"Tonight was a lot of fun."

Nozomi broke out of her own trance and turned her head towards her friend, their steps aligning.

"Hm, it was! Niccochi's siblings are really cute and fun to play with."

Eli silently thanked God that Nozomi had made the transition to the topic she anticipated without her having to awkwardly bring it up.

"You know, the others are right: the kids really did like you, Nozomi. They warmed up to you quickly, and I noticed they got all your spiritual card guesses right, too!"

"Ehe, it's easy for them to be right when I decide what card I'm thinking of as they say it," Nozomi revealed, thinking back on the joy in their faces as they successfully channeled their 'spiritual powers.'

Eli's heart swelled at seeing the fond expression on Nozomi's face and in her words. She wasn't exactly sure what outcome she was hoping for, or how to say it, but what she did know was she wanted to support her former vice president. The emotions she saw passing Nozomi's face tonight from joy, to contentment, to the hint of wariness during Umi's question; something felt like it needed to be said.

"I guess you're the clever one now, huh?" Eli let out a soft chuckle, hoping to keep the mood light before bringing up the topic candidly… wherever that may lead.

"You know, I concur with Umi; you were a natural with the kids. I mean, considering… well…"

Eli heard a small shuffle of gravel step in Nozomi's footsteps as she staggered for a moment. Her companion blinked noticeably, then gave her an innocent smile, eyebrows furrowed as if pondering what Eli had said.

"Considering…" Nozomi started, trying to piece together Eli's implications. She knew where Eli was trying to go, and it was not a conversation she'd like to have right now, or really at all. "Considering I'm an only child? That's silly, Elicchi."

"No… No, that's not what I meant," Eli stopped walking forward, hands curling at her sides. Taking a steady breath, she looked Nozomi in the eyes as the girl turned back to fully face her.

Nozomi swallowed hard. "I think you're reading into this too much, Elicchi. Kids are fun; they like fun. I like fun. I don't see anything more than that. C'mon, let's hurry home before it gets too late; we have school tomorrow."

"I meant considering your family—your parents," Eli blurted out. Welp, it's out there now, she thought.

For a moment, a cacophony of emotions hit Nozomi as she felt like the ground suddenly disappeared, her heart pounding in her ear drums, and her stomach shooting up to her throat. Steeling herself, she crossed her arms over her chest and raised an eyebrow at her friend.

"Elicchi, I'm not sure if I'm too keen on what you're implying. Though I hate to use her as an example, Niccochi and her siblings fare well enough considering her father is gone and her mother has to work long hours. I'd rather you not bring up my family where I don't see it relevant. Now, if you may, let's keep goin—"

"Stop," Eli interrupted, her thoughts pouring from her mouth, "stop trying to deflect this. Nozomi, you know why I'm bringing it up. I saw you hesitate to Umi; I heard that longing in your answer. You may think your parent's absence has nothing to do with this, but you and I both know that's not true."

When Nozomi transferred schools for the first time, she remembers the pit of anxiety that sat in her stomach as she stood in front of the class full with new faces. It was that feeling of her mouth suddenly drying right before she made her introduction, of the air seemingly thicker, palms sweaty. She remembered those nerves being there the next few moves as well, dreading and hating it.

Eventually, "I'm Nozomi Tojo, it's nice to meet you," became a practiced script, apathy dominating the initial anxiety. She learned the fast and hard way that investing time worrying about what her new classmates thought of her was a waste when she probably wouldn't see them the next year.

High school came as a new beginning, Eli Ayase being the catalyst.

After befriending Eli, she remembered that same anxiousness from her younger self resurfacing the first time she took Eli up to her apartment. As she'd continually proven, Eli passed no judgement or pity-- just showing up to their next study session/dinner with a plant in her arms for Nozomi's place.

Maybe it was the fact that back then Eli still had trouble voicing her true thoughts and desires, but they never talked in length about the Tojos being gone, or how that affected their daughter. It was simply left to the short explanation of the nature of their work and an impersonal recounting of Nozomi's school history. Eli's actions spoke louder than words through the many invitations for dinner with the Ayases, Eli coming over with food, staying late after school with student council work, or parfaits at the cafe they frequent.

Eli addressing her family situation so candidly shook Nozomi, bringing up that tidal wave of nerves for the first time in a long while of being unsure what to say, what Eli was asking of her. She closed her eyes, trying to calm herself; an image of three cards from earlier in the night flashed in her mind.

Reversed Moon: release of fear, repressed emotion, inner confusion.

Reversed Temperance: imbalance, excess, self-healing, re-alignment.

The Hanged Man: pause, surrender, letting go, new perspectives.

Fumbled words spilled from her mouth almost involuntarily.

"I… I don't know what you want me to say, Elicchi," Nozomi relented, shifting her eyes to her feet as she struggled with this feeling of vulnerability she seldom showed.

"I just want you to be honest with me, with the others, with yourself," Eli stepped closer to the girl in front of her, gently taking Nozomi's shoulders in her hands, rubbing them soothingly.

"That's an important lesson you taught me, Nozomi," she finished with an encouraging smile.

Nozomi, to her own dismay, took in a shuddering breath and stepped out of Eli's comforting hold.

"Elicchi, I… I'm not sure I know what you want from me," her voice wavered slightly, "that you want me to cry on you, or something? To just tell Muse I live alone because my parents are too busy with work? To say I enjoy practice, or nights like these, so I don't have to go back to an empty apartment; that I'm lonely? I'm not here to burden them—that's not something they need to worry about."

Hot tears welled in the older girl's eyes, though she willed herself to not let them spill. Her breath caught in her throat in short huffs, pushing down any sounds from coming out.

"I love my parents, Eli. They work hard to provide for our family, pay for the place I live in, enough for groceries, let me go to Otonokizaka for all of high school. If you're waiting for me to bad-mouth them, then I'm sorry, I won't do that."

Eli stayed in place from where Nozomi stepped out of her hands, respecting the girl's space for her emotions to process. With an understanding expression on her face, she shook her head.

"I would never ask that of you, Nozomi. I know you wouldn't—your heart is too kind for that," Eli assured, "I'm not implying your parents are bad people. And it's not that I'm asking you to tell our friends right tomorrow, that's for you to decide. I guess what I'm saying is…"

Eli took in Nozomi's state. Her emerald eyes were shining, not with their usual playful glint, but watered with confusion and the struggle of finally vocalizing the pent up lamentations.

"You trusted me enough to tell me of your situation, Nozomi; I hope you know I've never taken that as a burden in our friendship. And I've admired your strength these years, supporting me, and now the others."

Feeling a certain shyness in her words, Eli scratched her cheek, but continued.

"So I guess what I'm trying to say is… I'm here whenever you need me. Even if you feel like it's a silly matter, or not worth the time, it's important to me. I care about you, Nozomi, a lot. And I want to support you like you have for me, however you want me to."

Eli averted her gaze, slightly embarrassed how candidly she was speaking. She peeked at Nozomi, receiving only silence on the other's end.

"I'm sorry, that was very forward of me… but I mean it! Sorry, this is probably awkward for you; we can go home now if you wa—"

Eli stopped when she felt herself being squeezed, a purple head burying itself into her shoulder.

"N-nozomi…?"

Nozomi let out a whimper, a sound much lower than her usual register, as she clutched the taller girl's coat. Tears spilled from her tightly shut eyelids, soaking fabric. Her knees felt weak, but she felt a weight and tightness in her chest start to leave with each sob released.

Eli's heart broke at hearing the cries, something she'd never heard from Nozomi in their three years of knowing one another.

"It's—I feel… I don't--," the words struggled to come as she hiccuped through gasping breaths. Eli wrapped her arms around Nozomi's shaking frame, rubbing circles on the girl's back to soothe her.

"Hey, hey, you're good. Just let it out."

She tucked Nozomi into the crook of her neck.

"Nozomi, I'm gonna walk us over to a bench so we can sit down, is that okay?" Eli asked gently, as if not to break the atmosphere they were experiencing. In her arms, a head nodded.

"Gotcha. I'm right here, alright? Walking over now."

Still connected, Eli brought them over to a nearby bench illuminated by the street light, as she continued to support her vice. All restraints gone, Nozomi's tear ducts continued to pour out the years of loneliness pushed down deep inside her, fully conceding in the safety and security of Eli's embrace.

The cold bore no mind to the pair, their bodies serving as warmth. Under the artificial light, time seemed to stand still. A few late-night passersby looked on curiously as they made their ways home, but neither girl noticed. No words were said, yet each understood the other.

Eventually, eyes dried. Nozomi released her hold on Eli, pulling away. She rubbed the corners of her eyes with her fingers, wiping away the remnants and streaks of saline and pain, then met the other's gaze.

Eli's heart skipped a beat as she saw a new shine in Nozomi's emeralds. Not one strained by pain but glimmering with adoration. It felt like looking into a clear window, where she was able to see Nozomi in a new light. Before Nozomi could speak, Eli beat her to it:

"I'm so proud of you."

Nozomi paused, surprised at the declaration, but laughed softly in embarrassment, still somewhat shy in taking such genuine compliments. She took a hold of Eli's hand, lacing their fingers together.

"Thanks for letting me use your coat as a handkerchief," she said lightly with a hoarse voice, a joking yet genuine smile gracing her lips. Eli chuckled in response, giving Nozomi's hand an affirming squeeze.

"And thank you for… ya know, this. All of this. Quite honestly, I'm not sure if, or rather when, I'll be ready to tell the girls everything. But I do want to, sometime soon. Maybe the cards will open the opportunity one day," she said, half kidding in the last part, half having faith in the guiding nature of the readings.

"When you're ready. I hope I didn't put any pressure on you."

Nozomi shook her head and flexed her fingers still entangled in Eli's, closing the hold again.

"It's not a bad thing, I needed this. I feel… lighter. I'm sorry for worrying you, not being fully honest. You're right; I should have been taking my own advice, huh?" Nozomi stood up from the bench, tugging Eli with her.

"Now, come on. I think it's time we head back. We still have school in the morning," she released her grip and took a step forward.

Eli followed suit as the two walked in a comfortable silence back to their respective houses. Both knew there was still more that needed to be said, sentiments they wanted to express with this new, deeper level of vulnerability and trust between them. Whether it be a continued discussion from the night, thoughts as graduation neared, nerves for their upcoming live and lack of plans, the feelings they held for each other.

Time, however, seemed not to be a pressing force for them. At least not yet. Their connection, devotion, and care covered those worries as they enjoyed one another's company. There would always be a new tomorrow.

For now, this moment, underneath the starry sky and cold air around them, was the greatest.

"Elicchi?" Nozomi whispered into the atmosphere. Eli hummed in question, urging her to go on.

"Thank you for being a family and home for me."

Fingers interlocked once more, not letting go for the rest of their journey.

"Always."