There was a knock at the clubroom door.
That was… not normal. It wasn’t as if any prospective members ever came to visit her sad little club, and whenever Nozomi came, she just barged in without any consideration whatsoever. The door wasn’t even next to anything that someone might be looking for instead.
Nico sighed and stood up, walking over to the door and pulling it open.
Only to find the student council president on the other side.
She flinched for a moment, and then pulled herself up defiantly, meeting Eli’s eye.
“What is it?” she asked pompously. As if she couldn’t guess. There was only one reason someone from the student council other than Nozomi would be here. Whatever under the table method Nozomi had been using to keep Nico’s club from being shut down had been discovered. And without Nozomi shielding her, it was only too clear what was going to happen to a club talking up a valuable clubroom that hadn’t had more than a single member for over a year.
“Is Nozomi here?”
“What?” she said.
Eli peered past her into the clubroom, furrowing her brow at the darkness within, lit only by the glow of the computer screen.
“I asked if Nozomi was here. She comes by this room sometimes, right?”
Nico stared at her, dumbfounded. She opened here mouth to say “So my club isn’t being disbanded?” but quickly snapped it shut again before she could get more than a word out. She should not be putting that idea in Eli’s head.
“Uh,” she said. “No. She’s not.”
Eli sighed, and to Nico’s surprise, it wasn’t an aloof or mildly annoyed sigh. It was a deep, frustrated sigh, with an edge of genuine despair to it. It was not something Nico had expected to hear from Otonokizaka’s own Iron Lady student council president. The way her shoulders sagged ran contrary to her normal stoicism too. And if Nico looked closely, her eyes were a little puffy. Had she been crying?
“Uh, are you okay?” Nico asked hesitantly.
“I’m fine,” Eli said stiffly.
Nico couldn’t help herself. She snorted. Eli gave her a harsh look and Nico crossed her arms.
“No you aren’t,” she said.
She reached over and flicked the clubroom’s lights on.
“Look,” she said. “I imagine this was pretty low on your list of places to check for Nozomi, right? Just come inside and sit down for a while. Maybe Nozomi will come by later. And you can talk about what happened, if you want.”
“You don’t need to go out of your way to be considerate of me,” Eli said brusquely.
“Look, just call it me paying back Nozomi, okay?” Nico said, and then frowned. “Don’t tell her I said that.”
Nico had expected to Eli to turn her down and stalk off to go search for Nozomi. She’d said it more because she felt like she had try rather than out of any real belief that it would work.
But instead, Eli let out another deep sigh and shuffled into the clubroom, slumping down into one of the chairs that Nico still dutifully set up around the table in the center, as if anyone was going to be using them.
Apparently, today someone was.
Nico closed the door the clubroom again and walked up to stand next to Eli, resting her hand gently on the top of Eli’s head.
“So?” she said gently. “Tell me what happened.”
“It’s… not that anything major happened,” Eli said. “I’m just being foolish. I should-”
“You’re not,” Nico said, softly petting Eli’s head. “Everyone knows how hard you work. How resilient you are. It’s okay to let it go every once in a while.”
Eli sighed again, but it was less deep this time, less of a despairing exhaustion and more of a sheepish resignation. “...My favourite mug broke this morning,” she said. “It’s- it’s not special for any real reason, it doesn’t have any real sentimental value, but I’m partial to it. I tripped and stumbled into the table it was on, and it fell over the edge and shattered.”
She fell silent for a moment, and Nico rubbed her hair a little, silently, waiting for her to speak again.
“It’s not that big a deal, really,” she said.
“It doesn’t have to be,” Nico said. “It can still hurt.”
Eli fell silent again for a moment. Nico let her hand move again, slowly, gently, a tiny piece of unobtrusive physical comfort.
“After that, I didn’t get to finish breakfast because I had to clean up the pieces of the mug and once I’d finished that Arisa needed help with something. And because I was in such a hurry, I forgot some of my homework. And then the vending machine was out of my favourite drink, and…”
She fell silent again.
“This is all stupid,” she said. “None of this is a big deal.”
“You’re not taking the day off for bereavement or anything,” Nico said. “How big a deal does it really need to be? You can get upset over little things.”
“I can’t fall apart every time I don’t get what I want from a vending machine.”
“You haven’t so far, have you?”
Eli went quiet again.
It was… different than reassuring Cocoro and Cocoa. They were, for the most part, still young enough to be selfish. To not be self-conscious about being upset about petty misfortunes. But in the end, it wasn’t really all that different. Sometimes Cocoro got angry at herself for being too childish. For crying over silly things that she felt like she should be too old to get upset about.
“And a TV programme I like is getting cancelled, too,” Eli said. “And I made a mistake on the test, and then I accidentally threw away a form we needed for the student council work, and the teacher got angry… and I just…”
“...Nothing good has happened all day,” she said. “Everything just keeps going wrong.”
“Sounds like a pretty rotten day,” Nico said. “Of course you’d be upset after something like that.”
“I should be stronger than this,” Eli said. “I can’t let every little thing throw me off.”
“How many little things have you shrugged off since the last time you cried?” Nico said.
Eli didn’t answer that, but her silence was answer enough.
“It’s okay to let it out,” Nico said again.
Eli lowered her head onto her arms on the table and sniffled again.
“...I really liked that mug,” she mumbled. “Even though it wasn’t special.”
Nico patted her head again.
They stayed like that for a little while. Nico didn’t bother to keep track of how long, exactly. It wasn’t as if she had any urgent business.
Finally, though, Eli straighted up and rubbed at her face with her sleeves.
“...Thank you,” she said.
“I didn’t do anything special,” Nico said.
Eli smiled faintly at her.
“You didn’t have to,” she said. “It can still help.”
She stood up, and then paused for a moment, thinking something over as she stared at Nico.
“W-What?” Nico said, feeling very exposed suddenly.
Seeming to resolve herself, Eli took a step forward, and then leaned in and kissed Nico.
It was at that point that Nico’s brain switched off. Similar to a flight or fight response, in times of stress sometimes higher cognition had to be suspended in order to react quickly. Nico’s brain stopped trying to parse what the hell had gotten into Eli, or what was happening, or why it was happening. It boiled the situation down to the basic facts- a cute girl was kissing Nico. Using those basic facts, it took it upon itself to react appropriately.
When Eli pulled back, she was a lot more flushed than she had been. “That was-” she managed. “That was my thank you, Nico.”
“Oh,” Nico said. She wasn’t really able to muster much more than that right now, as her suspended cognition was starting to catch up with her and was taking up most of her available brainpower to alternate between “AHHHHH” and “???????????”.
“I-” Eli said, primly. “I’m… going to go back to the student council room to wait for Nozomi. Goodbye, Nico.”
Walking stiffly, she turned and marched out of the clubroom, shutting the door hard behind her, leaving Nico standing there in a daze.
…She was really, really glad Nozomi hadn’t been here today.
In more ways than one.