Maki wasn’t good at wanting things.
As a child, she’d been spoiled to the point where she already had everything she could want. Any doll she liked, any toy she admired, she could have it with a word. She never needed to wish for things, to pine after them- they were simply there. Then, she’d started to care about something a little more complex. She’d started to like playing the piano, and singing. She’d started to care less about dresses and dolls and more about lessons and chances to improve. But her parents dissuaded her. It was lovely that she liked music, they said, but she shouldn’t spend too much time on it. A hobby was all well and good, but she needed to focus on her studies. After all, a Nishikino had to be perfect. The hospital’s ownership was passed on through the family, but she would have to earn its leadership. Failing to would break the chain that stretched back for generations. So she didn’t have time to waste on an idle hobby.
At that point, she could have rebelled. She could have fought for the freedom to pursue music. She could have said it was more than an idle hobby, that it meant so much more to her, that it was her passion. She could have pushed back against the expectations on her, or accepted them but worked to still pursue music while keeping her grades up.
But she didn’t. She bent her knee to the legacy of her family. She took her place in the line, and accepted the heavy expectations of her father. It wasn’t just that she was afraid to defy him, or anything like that. She respected her father, and her mother, and her grandparents before them. She admired the line of doctors who had managed the family hospital. She was happy to have the chance to be like them.
So she devoted herself to becoming the next head of the Nishikino family, to being the kind of genius that would do their name proud. She studied hard, and let textbooks take more and more of her time. Eventually, her piano practice had dwindled to idly playing when she had a moment, never really improving but managing to stay more or less in practice.
And things would have stayed that way, if Honoka hadn’t caught her that day in the music room. She would have finished playing, gone home, and gone back to studying, and by the time she was out of highschool, she might have abandoned the piano entirely.
But Honoka did catch her, and for the first time, Maki pushed back against devoting her entire life to being a doctor. She let herself be swept up in μ’s and to care about music again. She spent more time on idol practice and writing songs than she’d spent on anything other than schoolwork in years. Than everything other than schoolwork, in fact.
Only for a while, though. μ’s, after all, was an organisation with an end date. Even beyond the third years graduating, μ’s was created to save the school. If they failed, it would fall apart when the school shut down. And if they somehow succeeded, it would lose its purpose.
And they did succeed. The school was saved. And not too long after, everything started to fall apart. Kotori was leaving. Honoka quit. That, Maki couldn’t help but think, was that. Of course, Nico tried to fight against it, but that was never going to be enough. Even if she could pull some of the members into keeping up their practice, it wouldn’t really be μ’s without all of them. It would be Nico’s splinter group. And Maki would wish them all the best, but… she wouldn’t join them.
μ’s had been a wonderful dream. But it was time to wake up. Maki couldn’t afford to spend all of highschool using her breaks for dancing and composing. Her grades hadn’t started to slip yet, but already tests were getting harder, and she was having to do more last minute cram sessions. If she kept this up, eventually she’d slip, and she’d stop getting perfect scores. She’d lose a point here, a mark there, and suddenly she’d start going from “genius” to merely “good student”.
So maybe it was for the best that all of a sudden, her time after school was her own again. She could go back to her old study schedule, and soon she’d be acing tests with ease just like in middle school.
She should have started that schedule right away, but instead she found herself in the music room, sitting at the piano and reflecting on how unlikely it had all been. After all, it was just a passing fancy that had even drawn Honoka to her in the first place. She spent a lot of time studying, but it wasn’t as if she spent all her waking hours on it. She had some time to herself. Sometimes she used it on photography. Sometimes she looked up at the night sky, losing herself in the hugeness of the universe and the bright stars splayed out before her. But sometimes, she let herself play piano again. Just a little. And it was on one of those days that Honoka caught her.
She’d seemed so excited. That was just how she was, Maki supposed, but she’d been so surprised at the time. People had complimented her playing before, of course, but it was always… refined. Polite. Restrained. Not like Honoka’s overflowing enthusiasm.
Maki sighed and closed the piano. She was wasting time. She didn’t really feel like playing right now anyway. It felt a little sad. She should go home and study, and take a break for a week or two.
But the next day, after school, she found herself in that music room again, staring down at the keys.
It was hard to walk away from it all. Harder than she’d thought it would be. It hadn’t been easy to give up music the first time, exactly, but she hadn’t struggled with it. She’d simply… stopped. It wasn’t as important, and so she’d arranged her time accordingly.
But this time, she found herself hesitating. Lingering.
Maki jumped a little, caught off guard by the sudden voice. When had Nozomi gotten here? She hadn’t heard her open the door. She wasn’t so out of it that she hadn’t noticed her being in the room the whole time, was she?
“Would you be willing to keep being part of μ’s?”
Part of Maki jumped for joy at that. But she pushed it down, forced herself to see sense.
“I already said it before,” she said, closing the piano and standing up. “Without Honoka, μ’s might as well disband. It won’t be μ’s anymore.”
“What if Honoka and Kotori came back?” Nozomi asked.
“... Kotori is going overseas to study,” she said.
“Maybe,” Nozomi said. “But maybe not. The second years are… facing their own issues, right now.”
“So what do I have to do with it?” Maki asked, crossing her arms.
“μ’s wouldn’t be μ’s without Honoka,” Nozomi said. “But it wouldn’t be μ’s without you, either.”
Maki’s heart thudded, her eyes widening despite her best attempts to keep her face neutral. But she tried her best to keep her composure anyway. She wasn’t going to let herself be swept along with this just because of a flattering word from a pretty face.
“Even if Kotori and Honoka somehow come back,” she said. “What would we even do? We already saved the school.”
“That’s true,” Nozomi said. “But we didn’t win Love Live.”
“Do you really think we can win?” Maki asked skeptically. “Even against A-Rise?”
The confidence in Nozomi’s voice took Maki by surprise. She’d expected her to smile and say something like “Does it matter?” But instead, Nozomi looked at her seriously, her gaze steady.
“μ’s is something special, Maki,” Nozomi said. “We’re something special.”
Maki’s heart was beating so hard that she could swear Nozomi could hear it. She hadn’t even realized how much she’d been hoping to hear those words until they fell so effortlessly from Nozomi’s lips.
“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, Maki,” Nozomi said, quietly. “Something truly amazing. I don’t want to let it slip away. Don’t you want to give it a chance? To see if it can be everything you’d hoped for?”
Maki’s throat felt dry. She knew Nozomi was talking about μ’s, but part of her felt those words differently. Heard a much more frightening meaning behind them.
“So?” Nozomi said. “What do you say, Maki? Will you give me a chance?”
She extended her hand, and Maki stared at it.
She should say no. This was the perfect chance for a clean break, after all. Why should she give it up?
Waiting backstage as the minutes until they were on ticked away, Maki should have doubted that Honoka and Kotori would show up. Even if, somehow, Honoka would be able to convince Kotori to come, what if Honoka had been too late to catch her? What if they’d gotten into an argument at the airport, and Honoka had taken so long to take Kotori that she didn’t have time to make it back? What if they’d gotten stuck in traffic on the way back?
Logically, there was every reason to believe that they wouldn’t get here on time, if they showed up at all.
But for some reason, Maki wasn’t worried in the slightest.
Standing there, she was sure that they’d get back in time. Even though it didn’t make any sense to assume things would work out, even if it was more likely that everything would go wrong, and this performance would be ruined, and μ’s wouldn’t ever come back together, she was sure that everything was going to work out. Any second now, Honoka and Kotori would come through that door, and they’d perform, and μ’s would continue.
The rational part of her mind screamed at her that she was being ridiculous, that she had to face reality, and start planning for how to delay or cancel the concert. But she ignored it. Nozomi had told her that everything was going to work out. Maki didn’t know if it was the pure conviction in her face when she said it, or her complete calmness as she waited backstage, but she couldn’t help but feel that somehow, someway, Nozomi wasn’t just guessing. Wasn’t just hoping. Nozomi knew .
When the door flew open and the two missing members arrived, just in time, Maki wasn’t even surprised.
And so μ’s reformed.
It was so easy to just go on like that. Worryingly so. Maki had given up on refocusing on studying so easily, and with Love Live coming up, she’d started giving μ’s more and more of her time. Worse, she hadn’t even thought about it until it all struck her one evening when she realised how little studying she’d gotten done.
But the end was in sight, at least. Only a few more months until Love Live. Even if μ’s had a new goal now, it couldn’t last forever.
The thought comforted her. She’d lost control of her investment in μ’s a little bit, but once it was over, she was sure it wouldn’t be long before she was back to normal. A little hiccup in her plan, nothing more.
And then Nozomi started to talk about writing a love song for their prelim performance.
It was a ridiculous idea, and Maki said as much. Fought against the idea, until Nozomi relented and the group agreed to use a song they already had. It was a more sensible plan- one more likely to help them win Love Live.
But Maki found herself unable to let the idea go. No matter how much she told herself that it was good that she was saving some time, and it was what was best for the group anyway, she couldn’t get Nozomi’s disappointment out of her mind. When she confronted Nozomi over it, she had hoped that it would be enough to put her mind at ease. That it would remove the nagging doubt from her mind.
And then it did the opposite. She agreed to compose the new song, and everyone agreed to write it.
But that wasn’t the worst part. That was annoying, sure, but it was manageable. Her schedule could afford a few more hours to compose. Their group could handle a little more risk in their song choice. It might even pay off, after all.
No, the truly terrible part of it was that Maki already had a song in mind. A song that had started composing itself, silently, stealthily, as soon as Nozomi had brought up the idea. A song that had been scratching at the back of her mind as she tried to push the idea of writing it out of her head.
You weren’t supposed to be able to write a love song if you’d never been in love.
Maki shouldn’t have had any idea how to compose it. But the notes were already falling into place as she listened to Nozomi open up about her past. Had started to knit together into bars as Nozomi confessed her reasoning. And by the time she’d agreed to compose the song, it was almost done.
It was a good thing that she was composing, not writing lyrics. In composition, your thoughts were harder to understand. Specifics were more easily lost in translation. Names were illegible, and inspirations were vague.
If she was writing the lyrics, it would have been harder to hide who she was thinking about when she played this love song. And it would be harder to avoid putting a name to the feelings that she’d kept locked away that crept out of her heart and into the keys.
You weren’t supposed to be able to write a love song if you’d never been in love.
And Maki wasn’t sure if she was an exception.
Love Live drew closer. Every day that passed was one day closer to the end of μ’s. And it was one day closer to the third years graduating.
Maki should have been happy about that. It wouldn’t be much longer until the biggest obstacles to her life’s plan were out of the way. She’d just become an idol on a whim, after all. And whatever… feelings she had picked up and turned into a love song, she certainly hadn’t chosen to have them. And it wasn’t as if she’d have to stop music completely, right? All of this had shown that she could make a little more time in her schedule for playing, even when everything went back to normal. She’d gotten better at getting more studying done more quickly, eager to get back to composing. It felt weird, to be trying to get studying over with, but it meant that she was getting faster, and that efficiency would be useful well into the future.
μ’s had always been a temporary thing. She’d accepted that. If anything, it was the only reason why she’d been willing to join.
But as she idly tapped out the notes for μ’s love song- her love song- she found herself entertaining impossible fantasies. Maybe the third years would all catch Nico’s allergy to studying, and be forced to repeat the year. Maybe they’d all go to super local colleges, and maybe the schools they picked would be so easy that they’d still have time to be part of the group. Maybe they couldn’t be school idols anymore, but…
It was all just empty hope. She knew that. The third years would graduate- yes, even Nico, probably- and move on. They wouldn’t linger around the school forever. This upcoming Love Live was the last time μ’s could be nine people. The last time any of the third years could be a school idol.
The last time the third years and Maki would be at the same school.
Maki wasn’t completely sure what Nozomi or Eli were planning to do with their life, but none of the third years were going into medicine. Nico would go off to try to be an idol, Eli might go off to chase her passion for dancing, or she and Nozomi would go to a general college. All while Maki stayed in highschool. Even when she graduated, it would be to go on to pre-med, not the kind of general course that Nozomi or Eli would be taking. After they graduated, that would be it. Oh, they could stay in touch, of course, but they’d stop seeing each other every day. They might not even see each other every week, or every other week. Their lives would drift apart, as Maki waded back into a life of study and memorization, and Nozomi moved off on her own path, leaving Maki behind.
It was for the best. It was what she wanted out of life. What she’d wanted since she was a kid. Having Nozomi around was… distracting. If Nozomi stayed around, how often would Maki get drawn into something like μ’s? How often would Nozomi give her a gentle nudge, a little smile, and then end up getting Maki to do something she’d have never believed she’d agree to?
But did she really regret being nudged towards μ’s?
Would she really be happier when it was over?
With those questions turning over in her head, Maki continued to play the notes of the song she’d thought she could never write, and wondered if she was glad to be wrong.
“When Love Live ends, so will μ’s.”
Maki knew it was true. She’d said as much in their meeting, before. She’d known it before that, known it as soon as they’d made it their new goal. She’d expected to be numb to the idea. No, more than that, she’d expected not to need to be numb to the idea. She expected to feel fine about giving it up, happy to move on. But saying those words hurt too much, far more than she could have known. Her throat burned as they forced their way out, leaving an ache in their wake.
Nozomi tried to keep a strong face as she agreed with their decision. But not even she could hold her smiling mask together. Tears crept down her cheek, and Maki’s heart cried out in pain. Part of her wanted to take her words back, to try to demand of the world that her absurd fantasies come true, and give her a world where Nozomi could be in μ’s next year. But she knew it was pointless. She’d taken comfort from the fact that no one could stop μ’s falling apart before. But even though she realized now how little she wanted it, that inevitability hadn’t changed.
Nozomi stood with her head bowed, and Maki tried to imagine her feelings. The bittersweet knowledge that the group that she’d named, that she’d wanted to succeed so much, that she’d pulled so many strings for, was going to end, but that she’d be there for every moment of μ’s, that it would never leave her behind.
Maki hadn’t expected Nico’s reaction at all.
She knew that Nico’s hostility wasn’t entirely genuine. She could be rude, and crabby, and unfriendly, but she really did love the group. Maki knew that. But she’d expected Nico to try to play off her feelings, to scoff about how unprofessional they were being, giving up their branding for sentimentality, while being so obviously moved that no one believed it. She hadn’t expected her to admit that she agreed. She hadn’t expected her to admit that they were her friends. And she hadn’t expected her to sound so heartbroken at the idea of everything they’d worked for coming to an end.
It was in that moment that Maki made her choice. Or perhaps more accurately, acknowledged it. Perhaps she’d really made that choice a long time ago. Perhaps she’d made that choice as soon as the topic of the third years graduating had come up. Perhaps she’d made it when she’d agreed to wait backstage for Honoka and Kotori. Or perhaps, deep down, she’d already made that choice the moment she’d lingered in the music room, her fingers hesitating to leave the keys as she shied away from returning to her life before μ’s.
“We’ll keep being idols!” she said, running in front of Nico. The tears she’d been holding back pricked at the edges of her eyes, but she ignored them, determined to say what she wanted to. “I promise! No matter what happens, we’ll keep being idols!”
Even when μ’s ended, she wouldn’t give up her music again. She’d wouldn’t lock it back away in a box, tucked away in a closet to be ignored for what was “important”. She’d keep being an idol, even if it threatened her grades, even if it meant one day, she might not get 100 on a test. If she was a such a genius, if she was a such a prodigy, she’d find a way to make it work. But she wouldn’t give it up again. Not ever.
But it couldn’t be the same. It couldn’t ever be the same. Life changed. Time went on.
“But I want μ’s to only be ours!” she said. “I don’t want a μ’s without you! I don’t!”
Even if Nico was annoying, even if she was bossy, Maki didn’t want her to be gone. She didn’t want to keep the name without her, to pretend nothing had changed. She didn’t want μ’s to be a brand, to be a club name, to be something they passed down to their juniors and one day, to be something that she had nothing to do with. She wanted μ’s to be the time they’d spend together, the bond the nine of them shared. She wanted μ’s to be the girls who had pulled her out of her shell, to be the thing that had made her love music again, to cling to her love of music so tightly that she couldn’t let it go anymore.
She wanted μ’s to be the love song she’d written, the one that she was too afraid to say the real name of even in her head. And it couldn’t be that with only the six of them.
But even if she had to move on from μ’s, she could still be changed by it. And she could still be the person she was after μ’s, not the person she was before.
They won Love Live.
Even now, it seemed impossible, but they’d managed it. Nico insisted that it was “at least 50% because of her”, but whatever the percentages, they’d done it, and they’d done it together.
But that was it. That was the end. μ’s was over, and now here they were, at graduation, and Nozomi was about to walk right out of Maki’s life.
“I’m going to miss you all soooooo much!” Honoka said, pulling the third years into a hug that ended up with Nico suspended off the ground between Nozomi and Eli, kicking her legs in fury. The other members weren’t quite as aggressive, but everyone was eager to say their goodbyes. Maki hung back slightly, unsure of how to behave.
Ever since she’d written the love song, she’d felt… a little awkward. Afraid that if she acted the wrong way, she’d give herself away. That the name she’d refused to acknowledge would wriggle its way free, and she wouldn’t be able to keep those emotions vague and confused.
Now, though, she was in the home stretch. Once… once μ’s was broken up, and they were six instead of nine, it wouldn’t… apply anymore. She wouldn’t have to worry. If she just kept herself from behaving strangely for a little while longer, no one would ever know. Her feelings would never be revealed or acknowledged, and with nothing to cling onto, they’d be washed away.
All she had to do was not screw this up. So she hung back a little, and let everyone think that she was just shy to admit how much she was going to miss the third years. But she made sure to say her goodbyes properly, at least. So that… she wouldn’t have any regrets.
She thought she’d made it through. μ’s had split up to see other students, and family, and show visitors various parts of the school. Maki was left adrift, wandering up to the surprisingly quiet and empty music room and watching the milling around of the graduates and their families from the window.
Only a little while longer, and everyone would go home. She’d miss seeing the third years every day, but she was sure that they’d keep in touch.
It had certainly been an eventful first year of highschool, that was for sure.
“So this is where you ran off to.”
Why was Nozomi here? Shouldn’t she be outside, with everyone else? Her parents hadn’t been able to make it, but she could have been hanging out with Eli or something, couldn’t she?
“Were you looking for me?” Maki asked, before she could stop herself.
“I wonder,” Nozomi said, smiling. “Maybe I just wanted to see the music room one last time. Or maybe the cards told me to come here.”
“...Jeez,” Maki said, looking away. “What’s with that? I don’t understand you.”
Nozomi walked over to the window, resting her hand on the sill as she stared down at the people below.
“...You know, I’m not like Honoka,” she said. “I didn’t really have that many good memories of this school.”
Maki looked at her in surprise.
“Of course, I do now,” she said. “With all of us together. With μ’s. But before that… it was pretty much all Elicchi, you know?”
“...Nico’ll get mad.”
Nozomi laughed. “...Me and Nico… well… before this year, I guess you could say that most of my memories of her are painful.”
She reached up and clutched her chest.
“I… wasn’t able to help her, before. And I didn’t feel like I was worthy of trying to be her friend if I couldn’t.”
She closed her eyes for a moment before continuing.
“So this school… never seemed all that special to me. I suppose I liked it well enough, but as long as I had Elicchi, I’m not sure that I would much care if I went to any other school.”
She sighed. “But now… it all seems so impossibly precious to me. I never would have imagined feeling like this just a year ago…”
Maki remained silent. Why was Nozomi telling all this to her , of all people? She’d… never known Nozomi felt like that. She’d always been so in favour of μ’s, so supportive and willing to push things forward, that Maki had always assumed that she loved the school just as much as Honoka did.
“...It’s childish of me,” Nozomi said. “But part of me was disappointed that I passed my exams.”
She turned to Maki and smiled at her, a slightly painful smile. “I think part of me was wishing that I could stay here another year, even if it was impossible.”
Maki’s heart thudded in her chest. This was too much. To know that her… to know that Nozomi was wishing the same, impossible wish as her, it was too much. Her vague feelings boiled and simmered, threatening to burst out.
“...Stupid,” she said, gripping her arm tightly and looking down. “You have to keep moving forward, right? You can’t babysit us forever.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Nozomi said. “But I never thought of myself as babysitting all of you. Weren’t you the ones taking care of me?”
“Really?” Maki asked. Her voice was getting ahead of her, her thoughts spilling out before she could stop them. “You were… always the one pushing us forward, in your own way. I think… I think I only did all this because you were there to give me a nudge.”
Nozomi smiled. “...I’m glad I was there, then,” she said.
Maki clenched her arm tighter. She couldn’t put it into words. Not even in her own head. As soon as she put words to it, it would be real. She couldn’t step past it anymore. She couldn’t ignore it anymore. As soon as she acknowledged it…
“I’ll miss you, Maki,” Nozomi said. “Have a good two years.”
Nozomi started to walk towards the door.
Time seemed to slow to a crawl. Every step echoed in the room, bouncing around and around and drowning Maki in noise. How many steps was she from the exit, from where she’d walk out of Maki’s life and Maki would move on without her? Twenty? Ten? Five?
“Nozomi,” Maki said.
It was one word. It wasn’t even something she couldn’t take back. She hadn’t blurted out something shocking, or something revealing. It was just a name.
But it was the name. The name that she’d been pushing deeper and deeper down. The one she’d been waiting to graduate. The one she’d been scared of acting weird around. The one that made her heart turn somersaults in her chest, made her palms sweat, made her mind wander.
The one who she’d written a love song for. A song that she’d never let herself call by the title that it held in her heart.
All of the feelings she’d tried to hold back broke free as she gave up. As she admitted that if she tried to just deny everything until it was too late, she’d only regret it.
“Nozomi!” she sobbed. “I don’t want you to go!”
“I want you to stay,” Maki said, rushing over to her and hugging her tightly, burying her head in her chest. “I want us to still be μ’s! I want to keep seeing you every day! I want us to still go to the same school, to still be in the same club, to still be… to still be…”
She sobbed again, and Nozomi rested a hand gently on her head.
“I do too,” Nozomi said softly. “But you know we can’t.”
“I know,” Maki sobbed.
“Everything changes, Maki.”
They stood like that for a while, until Maki had cried herself out, and her sobs had turned into sniffles. Finally, she pulled back and wiped at her face with her sleeve.
“S-Sorry,” she said. “I got your blazer all wet.”
Nozomi laughed softly. “Don’t worry about it,” she said.
“I…” Maki said, sniffling again, and then straightening up. “I don’t want it to end like this.”
“What do you mean, Maki?”
Maki’s heart pounded in her chest.
In order to live the life she’d wanted as a child, she had to be a model student. She had to stand out, but not be controversial. She had to be traditional, and proper, and studious. She couldn’t afford to spend her life frivolously. And she couldn’t do anything imprudent.
“I… want us to stay together,” Maki said. “Even if we have to change. I don’t want to lose you.”
She took a deep breath.
All her life, Maki had taken what she was given, and not reached for what she couldn’t have. She’d lost her ability to want things, to strive for something that she wasn’t sure she could get. But μ’s had changed that. She’d picked up the things she’d thrown away, and she’d reached out for an impossible dream. Maybe… it wouldn’t be so bad to do it again.
“Will you go out with me?”
Nozomi’s eyes widened in surprise. It was hard not to backpedal, to try to take it back, but Maki knew that it wouldn’t be right. So she stayed resolute, trembling slightly, and waited for Nozomi’s response.
Maki saw the answer in her face before she said it. Nozomi’s eyes softened, and her cheeks turned pink. And the corners of her mouth turned up as her lips parted to speak the one word that Maki had been waiting for ever since she’d started to deny that she was waiting for anything at all.
It was exactly what Maki wanted to hear.