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An idol’s job is to make people smile, right?

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It had been another rough day at school. Even though the year had only started recently, Nico was already having trouble in her classes.

At least the walk home was pretty. She couldn’t wait to see the leaves all changing colors, but, for now, it was enough to bask in the last of summer’s warmth. Nico let herself linger in the fresh air for a moment before entering her little apartment.

"Nico! You're home!"

Ugh. She didn’t have the energy for her siblings right now. She nodded, a faint smile plastered on her face.

Cocoa and Cocoro cheered, and even Cotaro raised his tiny arms in celebration.

"Did you have a good day, sis?" Cocoro asked.

"Yeah, what did you do today!" Cocoa demanded.

How do you answer that? She did the same thing she did every day: she kept her head down and tried not to feel watched and judged in classrooms full of dozens of horrible people, including herself.

She got prepared to offer some polite non-answer, when her siblings stepped up their cheering, running around her and chanting her name repeatedly. "Nico! Nico! Nico!"

Why would they ask her about her day and not even pretend to listen to her answer? Did it really matter that little to them?

"Nico! Nico! Nico!"

These kids didn’t even know her, and still they were cheering for her like she was some kind of star.

"Nico! Nico! Nico!"

That was right. They didn't know her at all. 

Gears were turning in Nico’s head. Her mind reached out for the first thing it could find, and latched on to Erena Todo's new drama CD. There was something about that idol. Her voice could always soothe Nico after a rough day like today.

And she was so young, too! It was an inspiration to think that someone so young could be such a success and put smiles on so many faces at such a young age.

"Nico! Nico! Ni-"

Before Nico knew what was happening, her mouth was moving. "Today, beautiful Nico-chan started a club for rising stars like myself!"

What happened next was the last thing Nico ever expected from her siblings: a stunned silence. It had never been this quiet in her home, at least since Cocoa was born. Nico was about to admit she was kidding and apologize, when she heard something even more unexpected.

"Whoa..." Cocoro was suddenly still, staring wide-eyed at Nico. "What kind of star?" Her sister completely bought it.

"A-an idol, of course!" Nico continued the bit in the only way that made sense to her.

There was a chorus of awed noises from the kids. What was going on? Did they really believe this? Who would believe that someone like her could become an idol?

Well, for the time being, why not have some fun with it? Why not be larger than life? As the three stared up at her, the chanting began again in her head. Nico! Nico! Ni-

"What's your catchphrase?"

"Huh?"

"Yeah! Your catchphrase!! Every idol has a cool catchphrase they say!" 

A catchphrase fit for an idol, huh? She thought back to all the idols she'd heard. The way they'd inspire, the way they could bring a smile to any face... but all she could think of was her own name.

The adoration of the crowd, cheering for her. Or at least, for who they thought was her, for some idea of her that gave them some comfort. Cheering for a figment of their own imaginations to come help them escape from their miserable lives. “Nico! Come save us! Nico! Nico…”

And then, it hit her. For the first of what would be many, many times, she wowed her siblings with a catchphrase that they had basically made for her. Maybe she really was born to be an idol.

 


 

The next two weeks progressed pretty much as they always had. Nico went to school, tried not to draw any ire from her teachers and classmates, and went home. Her home life was something entirely different now, though. Her siblings were listening to her. They were hanging on her every word.

She would make up exciting stories about her days to share with the three of them. She had crafted a version of her life where she was constantly having to refuse love notes, turn down confessions, and reject propositions from all the other girls at the school. Her siblings would follow her stories in awe, asking her if anyone was up to her high standards.

The answer, of course, was that beautiful Nico-chan belonged to everyone. Her work was too important for her to take time away for silly things like high school crushes. By this point in her stories, her siblings would start begging to hear her catchphrase again, and she would oblige. 

"Nico Nico Ni!" 

Then her siblings would cheer, jumping up and down in excitement. They thought they were so lucky to have an idol as their big sister.

Nico was starting to notice something else changing in her life, too. She was holding her head higher around school. She was speaking up in class. She was smiling at cuties that passed her by in the halls, and they were blushing. She really had everyone fooled. As far as they knew, she really was some kind of idol.

But in the back of her mind, Nico always knew nice times like this were not fated to last. All it took was one simple question to shatter her illusion.

"Hey, sis, what do you do as an idol?" Cocoro's voice was curious and malice-free, but it still sent a shiver down Nico's spine.

"W-what do you mean?"

"I mean like... idols do all kinds of stuff, right? Like recording music, singing and dancing at concerts, meeting with fans... stuff like that."

"Umm, yeah, of course Nico does all that! Who do you think I am? They don't call me the world's number one idol for nothing!"

"It's just... when do you do all that?"

"Huh?"

"I don't want Nico-chan to leave!” Cocoro sniffled.

"Oh, I never thought about sis having to leave..." Tears were forming in Cocoa’s eyes.

They were really laying it on thick with the guilt trip. There was only one way out of it, as far as Nico could tell. "Well, like I told you before, we have a club for that at school!"

"But Nico has been coming home at the same time as always..."

Nico didn't miss a beat in starting her response. "Well of course I have!" That was as far as she got. Of course she had... but why? What could get her out of this? 

Three expectant sets of eyes were drilling holes into her as she considered her response. Her silence was becoming more and more noticeable. She had to say something, and fast.

"And that's because... of course... they told me to take some time off!"

Her siblings all looked back and forth among each other, and then back up to her. Cocoro asked, "But why?"

For some reason, this felt easier to answer. It was obvious, wasn't it? Why would the great Nico Yazawa need to practice with high school kids? "They needed some time to help the others catch up to my level. Didn't want me intimidating the new folks, y'know?" 

There were "Oooh"s and "Ahh"s from her siblings. She had survived this round of questioning. It didn't bring much relief, though. It brought new waves of fear. She had just committed to actually starting some kind of idol club. It was that, or have her entire web of lies unravel in front of her.

 


 

"Good afternoon. How can I help you?" The student council president took a polite, helpful tone, but hadn’t looked up from the paperwork on her desk..

Well, Nico wouldn't let her make the mistake of not giving the world's number one idol her full attention. She gathered up all her energy and courage to give the girl a piece of her mind. "Y-yes."

There was no reaction from the blonde girl. After a moment, her pencil began scratching at her papers again, and Nico realized she should probably continue.

"Yeah, I'm looking to start a club."

"Oh, good, that's easy." She indicated a filing cabinet in the corner, then turned her full attention back to her desk as she continued. "You'll want form 23 in there. Just get that back to me along with the necessary signatures, and, pending review, we should be able to officially recognize your club within a couple of weeks."

Nico hesitated. Honestly, the competent-looking girl was pretty intimidating. A voice in Nico’s head was telling her to run out of the room, that she should never have bothered this girl in the first place.

Another voice was chiming in now, though, and it was getting louder. No, it seemed to say. No! Nico was an idol, damn it. Idols don't wait on "pending reviews". People will bend over backwards for an idol. She could do this. 

Nico took a deep breath and...

"I would really like it if we could speed that up." She felt like she could shrivel up and die. Was this what confrontation felt like? She hated this. She made a mental note to have her agent handle all future interactions like this.

The blonde girl sighed, and, for the first time, actually looked up at Nico.

Score one for the charismatic idol! The girls just couldn’t tear their eyes off of her.

"Well, what kind of club is it?"

Oh. Shit. Nico had not even considered the possibility that she would have to tell another real life human being that she wanted to start an idol club. She would be laughed out of the room! She would be labeled a lunatic. She would be labeled a diva. She would be labeled... an idol. 

Nico smiled, and spoke with newfound confidence. "Can't you tell just by looking? It's a club for radiant idols like me, Nico Yazawa!" Whew. That was a lot. She had closed her eyes and tried to look as self-centered as possible while she said it, but now she braved a look at the other girl. Had she caught on that Nico was lying?

There was a look of disbelief on her face, but Nico couldn't be sure. Maybe that was the natural reaction to being in the presence of a beautiful idol? "A club... for idols."

"That's right." Nico was getting into the rhythm. Her act was getting easier. She didn't even miss a beat this time.

In one smooth motion, the girl threw open a folder on her desk, tossed her papers into it, and stood up. "Follow me."

She turned back as they walked through the hall. "Nico, was it? I'm Eli Ayase. You should know, since it seems we'll be working together."

Despite all her work on her idol persona, following behind Eli seemed to sap away all of Nico’s presence. It didn’t just make Nico feel like less of an idol. It made her feel like a little kid following a grown up. And it wasn't just that the girl was almost twice Nico's height. Well, that was a slight exaggeration, she was really only a head taller, but the way she carried herself made it seem so true.

And that was the problem! She wasn't just taller, she didn't just stand straighter and keep her head more upright. She was competent. She was a high schooler, but she acted like a professional. Next to her, Nico really was like a child. Nico had only known her for a few minutes, but she was thoroughly intimidated by her.

"In here." Eli motioned into the gym. Nico took a look. A messy, handwritten banner read "Idol Club Auditions!" There were a few people gathered around a desk facing the door. They'd already noticed her. There was no backing out now.

She entered, taking a dramatic bow as she did. It was only once she got in the room that the reality of the situation dawned on her, and anxiety set in. Besides the small crowd gathered around the desk, the large room was completely empty. It seemed Nico would be auditioning all alone. Was this what it felt like to be under a spotlight? 

"Yes! All eyes on Nico!" The outburst attracted some confused looks as she approached the others, but she wouldn't let the lack of a reaction stop her. If this was an audition to be an idol, Nico Yazawa would not back down. At least, not this new Nico Yazawa. The world's number one idol wouldn't let the bad taste of a select few get in her way.

That being said, a true idol always knows their audience. She measured up the small crowd.

Standing to one side of the table was a girl that Nico instantly recognized as Nozomi Tojo. Her straight, smooth, purple hair that easily reached her waist had always made her stand out in the classes they shared, as did her tendency to dress up in goth outfits and read the fortunes of the other girls. It was rare to see her without some manner of fortune teller in her hands, whether it was tarot cards or folded paper.

Standing at the other side of the table was a redhead with a nervous look on her face. Nico had never seen her before. She would've remembered such a pretty face if she had. Nico had a tough time looking away. If this was her competition in the idol world... No, Nico Yazawa wouldn't have a problem with it. She could rise above anything, even this gorgeous girl with sharp eyes and striking scarlet locks.

In the center, sitting at the table in front of some forms was the one Nico assumed was the leader - a girl with shoulder-length, auburn hair tied up in a side tail. She hadn’t stopped grinning a big, stupid grin since Nico entered. 

The whole ensemble was dressed up in some ridiculous cheerleader outfits.

Counting Eli, who had come in behind her and was now standing by the table with the others, that made four. With Nico, it would be five. It was a little small for an idol group, but not unheard of.

"She came to me to try to start an idol club. One of your pranks?" Eli turned toward Nozomi, smirking.

"I didn't send her. Perhaps it was fate...?" Nozomi's response elicited a giggle from Eli and a groan from the nervous-looking redhead.

"Would you two stop flirting? You'll scare our newest member." The redhead's tone was harsh.

“Flirting?” Eli sounded offended.

"Now Maki, there is nothing scary about love." Nozomi giggled. Eli gasped and turned a deep shade of red. So, the hyper-competent student council president could lose her composure.

"Exactly. That is exactly the type of weird thing to say that could scare them." Maki was staring daggers at Nozomi, but Nozomi didn’t seem to mind at all.

"Aww, I think they’re cute together!” The leader jumped in to defend them. Maki was hopelessly outnumbered… and poor Eli looked absolutely mortified.

"Of course you'd say that, Honoka. Life isn't like one of your romance novels! Some people don’t want to deal with these saccharine displays all the time!”

"Now who's going to scare the girl?” Honoka said smugly.

“C'mon Maki, quit your arguing and let love into your heart! Who’s ever heard of an idol that’s afraid of love?” Nozomi teased.

Nico was enjoying watching their Four Stooges shenanigans play out, but, as much fun as they were having, she decided it would be better to put a stop to them. It was only natural for an idol like herself to draw the spotlight, anyway. She cleared her throat. "I see my reputation precedes me.” She waited a moment, revelling in the confused looks she was getting. “After all, you said I’m your newest member. I guess renowned idols like me get to skip the auditions.”

There was silence in the gym. The girls all looked blankly at Nico, and then back to each other. They quickly huddled together. 

"Sorry, give us just a moment, please." Eli took a moment to address Nico, then rejoined the huddle. There was a bit of murmuring, but Nico couldn't make anything out. She was starting to get nervous.

"Nico!” Honoka had broken away from the huddle and spoke confidently, seeming to surprise the others. “You're super pretty! You definitely have a place here, you don't have to worry about a thing! But what do you do?”

"Do? I'm a high schooler." The words hung in the air for a moment, before Nico hurriedly added "And an idol, of course!"

Maki cut in. It was like Nico was on trial. "I think what Honoka was trying to ask was, is there anything special you can do? Any particular idol talents? Can you write music? Or sing something for us?"

Nico felt like they'd suddenly turned the heat way up in the room.

Apparently her anxiety was visible on her face, because Honoka jumped in again. "That's okay, we all had to start somewhere. Don't worry about it, Nico!"

What the heck did this girl mean “start somewhere”? Did she have any idea who she was talking to? Time to put her in her place. 

"Umm... I have a catchphrase."

"A what?" Maki laughed at her.

Honoka shushed her. "Don't listen to her! We want to hear it!"

This was Nico’s moment. She was born for this. She struck her best pose and summoned all her energy.

“Nico Nico Ni!”

There was an uncomfortably long silence. Well, that made sense. What do you say to perfection? It was only natural to be speechless when witnessing an idol at work.

After what felt like an eternity, Maki broke the silence. “What was that?”

What did these people want? Well, obviously Nico was prepared for some folks not to understand art. Such is the life of an idol. 

She could wow them still, she just needed to give it a little more. She put all her considerable idol talent to the task of figuring something out. Honestly, if anything, she should be thanking Maki (who was probably just jealous anyway) for giving her the chance to perfect her craft.

She was completely stumped, though. It wasn’t her fault! How could she think in a situation like this, with all these eyes burning holes into her?

And the worst was Maki. Somehow, she was able to twist her face into a scowl every time Nico acted adorable. How could she resist Nico’s charms? Was there just no joy in her life?

All Nico knew was that she couldn’t stop imagining turning up her charms to impossible levels. She imagined her idol talents forming a beam to Maki’s heart that would make even her smile for once. Breaking through all the negativity and seeing her smile a real, genuine smile just for Nico… it was a beautiful image.

“Umm, Nico? Are you alright? Was that it?” Honoka’s voice chased the image out of her mind. How long had she been out of it?

“Stop it Honoka, you’re not helping. She’s obviously done.” Oh? Was Maki feeling protective of her already? Or was she just afraid of the raw idol power that was about to come crashing down on her?

“You’d like it if I was done, wouldn’t you?!”

“Well, y-”

“Because I’m about to show you amateurs what a real idol is! Take notes. Nico Nico Ni!” This time, she accompanied the words with a little dance, and followed it up with, “I’ll send a Nico smile straight to your heart! I’m Nico Yazawa, and here’s a smile just for you!” She smiled wide, imagining the gym’s lights glinting off her teeth.

“What the fuck.” Poor Maki, still too afraid to let the magic of a smile into her heart.

“I, uhh...” Honoka had a hand to her face, not quite fully hiding a shocked expression. “I kinda liked it, actually.”

Disbelief slowly faded from Eli’s face, replaced with her usual confident smile. She laughed a quick laugh, a laugh that said, at least to Nico, “Impressive. You’re full of surprises.”

“We were kinda thinking about like… singing or dancing, though,” Honoka said quietly. “Can you do anything like that?”

“Umm, well, no.” The room felt like it was heating up again. It was all those eyes on her, they were way too intense.

It was Maki who saved her from the painful silence in the room. She laughed loudly, obnoxiously. She acted like it was at Nico’s expense, but it wasn’t the first time she’d spoken up when things were going bad for her. It was definitely a cover for Nico. Or, at least, it worked that way regardless.

“Maki! We all started somewhere. She’ll make a great addition to our group! Besides, she’s so pretty!” Honoka winked at Nico.

Just what was this girl’s angle? She was making Nico really nervous.

"Honestly, I don't know why we're doing tryouts. We pretty much want anyone, right?" Maki asked.

The group huddled together to discuss. Nico couldn't hear a word of it. Not that it mattered, of course. It wasn't like she was worried. Any group would be happy to have the world's number one idol on their team, right?

It didn't take long for them to confirm. It was Honoka who spoke up once again. "We'd be happy to have you join us, Nico!"

“As long as you never use that catchphrase again," Maki grumbled.

Eli grabbed one of the forms off the table - the school's official form for joining clubs - and, with that, Nico’s life as a school idol truly began. No one even suspected she was a fake. But even now, there was a voice in the back of her head that wouldn’t let her forget it.

 


 

“Sis, we missed you!”

“Yeah! Where were you?”

Cocoro and Cocoa were looking up at Nico with big, sad eyes. “You know where I’ve been! The school idol club.”

“Oh! The others finally caught up to you?”

“What do you me-” Oh! Her lie. From before. Nico quickly shifted back into her idol persona. “Well, obviously no one could ever really catch up to me. They’re having me train the others directly now. It’s a huge honor for them, of course.”

The weeks passed. It was starting to feel nice coming home after a long day. It was starting to feel less like her siblings were mocking her with their excited greetings and more like they were her own personal hype team. 

Even school was starting to feel less unpleasant. Despite her nerves, she came to the idol club’s practice sessions day after day. She sang and danced her little idol heart out, trying and failing to impress Maki... or, at least, to get her to admit she was impressed, because obviously she was.

It was like a dream come true. Nico could hardly believe it was working. Can you really just announce that you’re an idol and just become one? Just like that?

Honoka was still showering praise on to her. Maybe she didn’t have an angle, she really was just enamored by Nico’s beauty. It made sense, didn’t it? Who wouldn’t be?

Nozomi had started noticing her in class. Maki was… well, Maki was still Maki. Nico’s mind played a small compilation of Maki’s overly dramatic eye-rolls and sighs in response to Nico’s wonderful catchphrase. She would get her one of these days. She would be so adorable that even Maki couldn’t pretend to gag at her.

 


 

As Nico made her way up the stairs, she realized she was actually looking forward to practice. She had no idea when that had started. The fear of everyone’s eyes on her… the intense heat she felt when she was being watched… it was giving way to a pleasant warmth.

She burst through the door to the roof, and greeted her companions in the usual way. “Nico Nico Ni! Good afternoon everyone, let this Nico smile bring you warmt-”

“No, please stop.” There was Maki, right on cue. Nico was actually grateful she’d interrupted. She had just been winging it with the catchphrase and had no idea how to end it. She would figure it out some other time. For now, her goal was clear. Operation: Make That Angry Redhead Smile was a go!

“Afraid of the magic of a beautiful smile?” She grinned at Maki, then pointed at herself. “By which I mean this one.” She explained, helpfully.

“I got it, thanks.” She had taken a lock of that beautiful red hair and she was twirling it around her finger. “It’s not that I don’t think your whole bit is... cute. Or whatever it’s supposed to be.” The last part was added hastily. “It’s just…” The words hung in the air. If Maki had a point she was getting to, she had abandoned it.

“I think Maki’s stressed out for the same reason we all are. I honestly don’t know how you’re staying so calm, Nico.” Those words meant a lot coming from Eli. Even in all this time, Nico had almost never seen her facade slip. If she was ever anything besides capable, polite, and under control, she truly did not let it show.

Nico let the pride from those words wash over her, but a creeping sense of dread was setting in. What did she mean? Was there something she should be afraid of? At the risk of sounding stupid, she resolved to ask. “What do y-”

“Let's get started already!" Honoka interjected.

Before Nico could finish her thought, the group went into the dance they’d been practicing. She quickly fell into position and did her best to wow the others with her dancing as usual. Honestly, it was almost unfair. How were the rest of them supposed to stay focused on their dancing with such a beauty right in front of them? 

But today, Nico was having trouble focusing herself. Why was everyone so nervous? Was Honoka hiding something from her?

“Nico! You’re way out of position. Take it from the top, everybody.” As usual, Eli was leading the practice, as the only one with actual dancing experience. Nico got back into position. Her burning questions would just have to wait for now.

After a long, hard practice, Nico heard the words she’d been waiting for.

“Alright. Great work today, everybody.” With those words, Eli turned to leave.

“Do you think we’re ready, Eli?” Maki had never sounded so timid before. It was almost cute.

Eli turned back. “I think, if everyone gives it their all like they did today, we’ll definitely make a strong showing.” With that, she disappeared down the stairwell.

Nico saw her chance and took it. Here was a question she could ask fast enough that no one could possibly cut her off. “Strong showing?”

“Yeah. Not all of us are natural-born number one idols, some of us need to actually try to impress the crowd.” Ugh, no, Maki, this wasn’t part of a bit! Before Nico could explain herself, though, Honoka cut in once again.

“That’s just how Nico expresses herself, Maki!” She turned towards Nico. “Hey, do you mind if I walk you home today?”

“Uhh, sure, I guess.” Before the words had even finished leaving her mouth, Honoka had taken her by the hand and dragged her down the stairs. On the way home, once Nico was certain they were safely out of earshot from the others, she finally confronted her.

“Honoka, are you hiding something from me?”

“Nico… I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. It’s just, you always seem so nervous. I didn’t want to make things worse for you until you were ready.”

“Is there something I should be nervous about? Is the club downsizing or something?” The thought of losing the club hit Nico a little harder than she thought it would. Her voice warbled a bit with the words.

“No, it’s nothing like that! And it’s nothing to be nervous about, really…” Honoka kept her gaze firmly locked on the scenery they were passing by, not so much as glancing towards Nico. “It’s just… well, none of us have ever done a live show before, and-”

"A live show? Like, in front of people?"

"Yes. Next week, at school."

"Next week?!"

"On Friday. After school. That gives us four more practices to prepare."

"Jesus."

Honoka finally turned to face her. She was smiling brightly. "Don't worry, you've been doing really well! It’s just gonna be other students there, anyway. It’s time they all saw how good you are!"

“I don’t know, Honoka, I don’t think I’m ready for that.” Those were the words in Nico’s mind. Try as she might, though, she found she couldn’t say them. Not when faced with Honoka’s bright eyes and confident smile.

Honoka giggled, seemingly taking her silence as agreement. “I knew you wouldn’t let us down, Nico. We’ll see you there, okay?” Honoka smiled warmly, but Nico was suddenly feeling a chill.

Nico let herself into her home, but Honoka's words seemed to follow her. A week's time to be ready to perform live… What a nightmare.

"Sis? Are you okay?" Cocoa ran up to her immediately.

"What's wrong?" Cocoro followed close behind.

Cotaro joined them, looking concerned. 

"Oh! No, nothing's wrong, I just need to get the new idols ready for their first ever performance."

"A performance!" There were stars in Cocoro’s eyes.

"Can we come? Can we can we can we?!" Cocoa was jumping up and down.

"No, it's for students only, apparently."

"Awww…"

"Don't feel bad! The audience will only get to see my idol talents for an hour, you three get to bask in my presence every day!" Somehow, saying this eased some of Nico’s anxieties. It would just be an hour. She only had to be the world’s most amazing idol for an hour, and all her classmates would know how incredible and talented she was. Easy.

Her siblings seemed to consider her words, but they still looked a little down. Nico smiled conspiratorially at them. “Hey. You know how many people get home-cooked meals from the world’s number one idol?” She paused for effect before answering her own question. “Only the three of you have that honor.”

She went over to the kitchen and began to cook some rice and curry for them while they cheered happily. Taking care of her siblings… It could be a chore, but she was really starting to enjoy it.

 


 

Practice. The first of the four Nico had remaining. She found herself staring at the door up to the roof. She was feeling pretty terrified, but she resolved to push through it. After all, she was the world’s number one idol. What was one little live show at one little school?

She took a deep breath in, feeling like she was drawing her persona into herself from the air around her. Ready as she’d ever be, she burst through the door. “Beautiful Nico has arrived!”

“Great, just what we needed.”

Maki’s tone was dripping with sarcasm, but that didn’t matter to Nico. “That’s right, Nico’s here! Maki, you’re coming on a little strong, remember that Nico-chan belongs to everyone!”

“Maybe, but who would want her?”

“Hey! I mean, obviously, who wouldn’t wan-”

“It’s time to get started, everyone!” Honoka interrupted.

Nico grumbled quietly, trying her best to ignore Maki’s smug look as she fell into her position. 

Practice went well, though. Nico was feeling more confident already. She could do this.

With her mind full of those thoughts, she barely noticed Maki approaching her. "Nico, are you busy tonight?”

“Oh my, Maki! I can’t say I’m not flattered, but-”

“Ugh, don’t make this weird! I just want to talk to you about your dancing!” Maki was glancing around as she spoke. Nico followed her eyes, and noticed the other girls stifling giggles at their display. Maki grimaced.

Still, Nico wasn’t about to let up. “Of course, I knew it would be my dancing… I was cursed with moves so alluring, they drive other girls mad with desire.”

“Yeah, absolutely, they drive me mad. You know why?”

“Because of my hot bod, obviously.”

“Because you keep stepping on my toes! Just let me give you some pointers.”

“Maki, if you wanted to come visit, you could’ve just asked. You didn’t need to make up a completely unbelievable excuse.”

Maki grumbled angrily but said nothing. It was so cute, Nico couldn’t possibly resist a little extra teasing. “It’s not like Nico-chan isn’t used to girls begging to date her!”

“D-date?! It’s not a date! I told you I just want-”

“To dance the night away with Nico, yes, yes, I understand. Come on!” Nico beckoned for the seething redhead to follow her as she set off towards her home.

Maki lingered behind, and Nico worried she’d pushed the girl too far. Finally, though, she followed her wordlessly. She remained silent the entire way home. It wasn’t until Nico was standing before the door that she braved a look back, a strange feeling in the pit of her stomach telling her Maki might disappear as she did.

But no, Maki was still there, fidgeting uncomfortably. A thought occurred to Nico.

“Oh, should we stop at your place first so we can tell your parents?”

Maki looked up towards Nico, but their eyes didn't connect. She was looking somewhere off in the distance. "No, I think they'll be okay,” she finally said. She motioned for the door.

What a weirdo, Nico thought. She opened the door, deciding to let it go.

Maki followed in after her. "Hey, Nico, I know I sai-"

"Nico Nico Ni!" A chorus of voices interrupted her. Her siblings gathered around and gave their traditional greeting. “Nico Nico Ni!” Nico returned the greeting in kind.

Maki stared, mouth open in some mixture of awe, disgust, and terror. “Oh my god, there’s more of you,” she finally managed to say.

“Who’s this?” Cocoa asked.

“Cocoa! Mind your manners,” Nico admonished.

“She’s so pretty!” Cocoro exclaimed.

Maki’s face turned as bright red as her hair. She was clearly not used to this kind of attention. Nico supposed every idol had to start somewhere.

Cotaro tugged at her shirt, and waved gently when she looked down. She stared in disbelief for a moment before returning the wave.

“As if one wasn’t already too much,” Maki muttered under her breath, just barely loud enough for Nico to hear.

“Is this one of the new idols you’re training?” Cocoro asked.

“E-excuse me?” Maki stammered.

“Oh, don’t worry Maki, you know how kids are.” Nico put an arm around Maki in a comforting motion, subtly guiding her away from Cocoro, then turned back and nodded to the curious girl.

“Sis, can we have stew tonight?” Cocoa asked.

“Stew? Uhh… Let me check.” Nico strode into the kitchen and opened up the drawers. Greeting her was… not much. They had a massive bag of rice, some seasonings, and that was about it. She supposed she could cook some rice in some broth, but that would hardly be a stew.

Besides, the kids needed nutrients. If she was going to make a stew for them, it’d be full of vegetables that a growing child needs. She checked her wallet. It would be tight, but…

“Okay! I’m going to run to the store for some ingredients, I should only be a minute. In the meantime,” Nico looked over at her rambunctious siblings, and then to Maki, “Maki, will you get started on some rice?”

“Oh, no, I-”

“I know you wanted to talk about practice, but I need to do this first. Please help?” She darted her eyes to the kids, then back to Maki with pleading eyes. She couldn’t just ask her to watch them, or they’d get upset and argue about how mature they were.

“Nico, I really…” Maki looked down at the kids, who were currently jumping up and down and chanting “Stew! Stew! Stew!” Maki looked back up at Nico and relented. “Fine. I’ll do my best.”

One quick trip to the store later, Nico was arriving back to her apartment, groceries in hand and money mostly gone. She checked her phone. 15 minutes. Hopefully the rice wasn’t cold yet. She opened the door and gasped. In a split second, she was inside, shopping bags fallen to the floor.

“Where’s the fire?!” She shouted out the words, choking on the smoke billowing out of the room.

“Oh, quit being so dramatic.” The calmness of Maki’s response sent a chill down Nico’s spine. “So it’s a little crispy, it’s fine! ” The redhead was standing by the stove, prodding a spoon at a large pot.

“A little crispy… It’s rice! It should never be ‘a little crispy’, ever!” Nico pushed Maki out of the way and immediately took the pot of charcoal off the heat. She moved it over to the sink.

“Jeez, Nico. You don't have to push me.”

“You were moments away from burning my house down!” Nico expected Maki’s usual snark in response, but the girl was silent. Nico looked over as the smoke began clearing out to see Maki with tears welling up in her eyes. This must have been awfully scary for her. Nico felt a pang of guilt in her heart, but then looked back over to the smouldering rice. This had been an emergency.

Still, she had never meant to make Maki feel bad. Nico wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “No worries, okay Maki? We don’t need any rice. Go hang out with the kids in the living room, and, in a minute, you’ll have the best stew you ever tasted in your life.” Maki looked into her eyes, a faint blush spreading on her cheeks. She nodded.

“Sis! I wanna stay here with you!” Cocoro emerged from the corner of the kitchen, where she’d been cowering from Maki’s crimes against cooking.

“Yeah! I wanna help you cook!” Cocoa followed behind her, with Cotaro in tow. 

Nico crouched down to the kids’ level. “You want a really good stew, right?”

“Mhm!” Her two sisters said in unison, while Cotaro nodded.

“To make it perfect, I’m gonna need to work my idol magic to put a lovely smile into each bite.” She winked and flashed a big smile.

That did it. Her siblings were staring wide-eyed at her, mouths open in awe. “And I can only do that if no one’s watching. So be good, and go keep Maki-chan company, okay?”

The kids stood, rooted in place, but judging by the awe still clear on their faces, Nico was confident that her excuse had worked. Just as she was about to stand up and get started on cooking, however, she heard a tiny voice. It was Cotaro. She didn’t even know he could talk!

“Can you teach me? Idol magic.”

Nico was stunned. Seemingly everyone was. Maki and the kids were completely silent. Even the sound of rice sizzling in a pot had stopped. Even the faint noises she could usually hear from the neighbors’ apartments were gone. It was like the whole world had paused to celebrate what were apparently Cotaro’s first words.

That couldn’t be right, could it? He must’ve spoken before to be able to string together a sentence like that. But, if he had, Nico had never heard it. And judging by the stunned silence in the room, neither had the others.

Nico snapped out of it and answered the question. “Of course I can! I am an expert after all.” Apparently that was the right answer, because every face in the room turned toward her in a bright smile. Even Maki’s. For the first time ever, Nico’s idol persona had brought a smile to her face instead of a grimace. It was worth the wait. That gentle look suited her so well. She was truly beautiful.

An expectant look from Cotaro took Nico’s attention away from Maki. Oh, right, cooking. She still would need her space today, if for no other reason than to clean up Maki’s mess. “But first, you need to learn the basics! So you need to learn from Maki first, okay?”

“The basics ?!” There was that grimace again. It was cute on her too, though, in its own way.

“Yes! Think of it as payment for all the great idol techniques I’m always teaching you!” Nico was pushing Maki out towards the living room now, with the three kids following and excitedly asking questions. Nico did not envy the afternoon she was about to have.

Night fell as they all enjoyed a hearty stew together. The seemingly endless energy of her siblings finally started to abate. As the kids prepared for bed, Nico guided Maki to her room.

"Sorry about all that,” Nico said sheepishly.

“Don’t worry, it was fun. Is your home always this lively?”

“Lively?”  Nico cocked her head to one side. It wasn’t the word she would use to describe her home life. Especially not with her mom so busy all the time. 

The only time she could think of her home being lively was… well, she preferred not to think about it. Her eyes instinctively fell on Erena Todo’s latest album, sitting on her bedside. Even after all these years, just thinking about her father’s shouting was enough to send her into a panic, desperate to find something bright, cheery, and loud enough to cover it up.

Apparently her panicked reaction was enough for Maki to notice. “Whoa, hey, I’m sorry!” Maki reached a hand out towards her shoulder, but stopped short. “Deep breaths, okay?”

“I’m fine, sorry.”

“I didn’t mean anything by the question. It’s just nice. Maybe I could visit more often.” Nico thought that might be nice, too. Before she could respond, though, Maki laughed and added, “I’ll get better at cooking, don’t worry.”

“Maki. You are not allowed to cook in my house ever again.”

“You’ll see! I’ll be cooking better than you one of these days.”

The two shared a smile. It occurred to Nico that Maki was talking about learning to cook the same way Nico talked about being an idol. Then, something else occurred to her. “Oh, right, didn’t you say you wanted to talk about my dancing?”

“Ah, right.” Maki suddenly looked very nervous.

“I’m all ears, hit me with it.”

“Well, I think you should, umm… dance better.”

"Dance better, huh?" A silence fell over the room. Once it was clear Maki was done talking, Nico continued. "Alright, got it. Thanks f-"

"You’re always all over me! You’re always in my space. You’re always…” The fiery look in Maki’s eyes faded away. Despite being a good deal taller than Nico, Maki suddenly looked very small. Her eyes cast downward, she continued, “It’s not your dancing. It’s your presence. It’s your larger-than-life attitude. It’s your confidence.” Maki was getting closer as she spoke. She braved a look up, with sudden, restored confidence. “It’s how I can’t keep my eyes off of you.”

Nico had backed up against the wall, and Maki was still getting closer. Was this… Nico had watched scenes like this in anime, and she couldn’t pretend she hadn’t imagined it happening one day, but this was all so sudden. She closed her eyes and leaned in. 

She could feel Maki get right up next to her. “Teach me.” The words came out in a whisper.

“W-what?”

“Your confidence. Teach me to be more like you. More like an idol.”

“I don’t… uhh…” Maki looked pained as Nico began to reject her. There was no way Nico could tell such an earnest girl that she was lying the whole time, right? That she herself didn’t even feel like she was a real idol? She had honestly thought Maki knew, and that’s why she made fun of her for it.

Before Nico could put her words together, though, Maki interrupted. “No, don’t worry about it. I know it was a silly request. Thanks for humoring me anyway.” She backed away and took in the room. “So, where do I sleep?”

Nico glanced around the room. She hadn’t thought about this before. Her eyes settled on the only bed. “Well, obviously an idol of my caliber-”

“Can handle the couch for a night, yes, I agree.” Maki sat down on the bed before Nico could say another word.

Nico grumbled, but Maki completely ignored her and began nestling herself under the blankets. It was clear she wasn't going to budge. Nico was about to leave, when a thought occurred to her. "Oh, oops, shouldn't we call your parents first?"

“What?” Maki froze up. Just what was up with her? "No need, it'll be fine."

"If you're sure."

Nico spent a mostly sleepless night on the couch. It wasn’t because the couch was uncomfortable, although it certainly was. What kept Nico up were the thoughts racing through her mind. Thoughts of her father. Thoughts of the idols who could always put a smile on her face when things seemed their worst. Thoughts of her doing the same for others. 

Or, better yet, thoughts of her basking in the praise of others. It was fine for an idol to be a little selfish when they give so much to the fans, right?

But no matter what, she always returned to one thought. She didn’t deserve this. She was nobody’s idol. She was nobody.

These were the thoughts that had haunted her since she had created this persona - this lie that she was living. Every time she had talked herself up, a voice in the back of her head reminded her that it was a lie she was telling herself and a lie she was telling others. Sometimes it got quieter, but it never went away.

At least, not until now. Now, no matter what that voice tried to tell her, she just thought about Maki. The way she had wanted to learn from Nico’s faux-confidence… it broke her heart, but shouldering and empowering those dreams was the job of an idol, wasn’t it?

More important was her gentle smile. Nico had really done it. She had made even Maki open her heart up and smile a little. She could truly say now that she brought joy to others. She could truly say she was an idol.

Nico gave it her all at the next three practices. There was always a pit in her stomach, but whenever she needed a confidence boost, she would look over to Maki. It was as she had said. She was always watching Nico. Well, it made sense, after all. Who could keep their eyes off such a beauty?

Those thoughts brought some comfort to her. At least, they did until the moment that she found herself in now. Harsh lights shone directly into her eyes. She could practically feel the heat emanating off of them (or was that just nerves?), and they were so bright, she could barely see the crowd that had gathered. A part of her wished the lights were even brighter. Bright enough to blind her to the situation she was in. Bright enough that she could just melt away under their heat.

If the lights were going to save her from this, though, they were sure taking their sweet time. Honoka signalled the start of the show, and then addressed the crowd. It was all as they’d rehearsed. Which meant… Nico gulped. She closed her eyes and lost herself in the fantasy of those bright lights carrying her away, but no matter how hard she envisioned it, she still felt her feet firmly on the ground.

“...can’t tell you how much we appreciate your time and the love you’ve shown. So we’re going to show you our feelings in the form of a song!”

Honoka launched into their first song. Doves2Pigeons, a sweet, poppy song she had decided would be the perfect way to hype up the crowd. She sang the opening, then everyone joined in for the chorus. After that, the solo... Nico didn’t dare finish the thought. She was drenched in sweat, and not just from her dancing. Not just from the heat and the bright lights.

It was fear. She was drenched in fear sweat. There was no way it wasn’t visible under all these harsh lights, too. She looked out into the audience. It must’ve been half the school out there, at least.

She glanced towards her friends. All were bobbing up and down, keeping up the energy on the stage even while the audience’s eyes were presumably on Honoka. Nico was the only one who was firmly locked into place, legs rigid.

She was starting to feel light-headed. This was a mistake. As Honoka’s solo started wrapping up, Nico began to slowly sidle away. There was an explosion of noise and energy as the chorus began and all her friends started dancing and singing around her. She stayed silent. 

Thank goodness they had placed her furthest to the side for this song. The second she was sure she was fully hidden behind the curtain, she took off running. Before she was out of the auditorium, she heard a spotlight turn on, followed by a silence which gave way to confused murmuring. The auditorium door slamming behind her would be the only answer those murmurs received.

She wanted to head straight home, but she was feeling so sick. She stopped in the bathroom, barely suppressing the urge to vomit. She washed her face. The cool water felt so nice. Her nausea slowly faded away.

Just then, the bathroom door opened and a familiar voice rang out. “Nico?”

She kept still, wet hands covering her face. She was just a girl washing her face. Who’s to say she was Nico? Hell, who’s to say Nico was even a real person? She sure didn’t feel like it.

Unfortunately, it seemed she was real to Maki. As Maki continued to approach, Nico gave up on hiding, removing her hands from her face and turning towards the girl.

“Oh my gosh, are you okay? You look terrible.”

Nico glared silently, and Maki seemed to realize her mistake. With a pained expression, she said, “Sorry! I didn’t mean that. I just mean… are you sick?” Nico remained silent, but Maki was not deterred. “Listen, this was just practice. It’s okay to miss it if you need some rest. Do you need help getting home?”

Maki was exuding warmth. Nico had never known her to be so caring. It was a far cry from the openly hostile side of her that Nico had been expecting.

Wait, what was that she said? “Just practice?”

“Yes. Honoka wanted us to have some experience in front of a real crowd before the competition, and the school was nice enough to help us set this up. I assume Eli was able to pull some strings…” Maki began to trail off, seemingly noticing the surprise on Nico’s face. “D-did no one tell you?”

“Competition?”

“The County Schools Idol Competition. They’re hosting them here next week. If we win, we can go to Nationals and compete with schools all across the country!”

Nico’s mouth hung open, but she had no words. Honoka had never mentioned this. If Nico ever saw that girl again, she was going to throttle her.

Maki continued, “It’s kinda ironic though, right? They’re hosting them here, but we didn’t have enough members to participate. Not until… you joined.” Those last words were added in a quiet whisper. Maybe the look of absolute fury on Nico’s face was scaring Maki. “You really didn’t know? That’s why we were holding those auditions that day.”

“How many people.”

“Huh?”

“How many people besides me. How many applied that day.”

Maki’s silence said everything Nico needed to hear. She was the pity idol. The idol they picked because they were desperate. The one that got in simply because no one else wanted to. The replaceable, forgettable idol. Not even that. The ordinary schoolgirl that dared to dream, that flew all the way up to the spotlight only for her paper wings to catch fire.

She stormed out, pretending not to feel Maki’s eyes following her. She left the building. The wind howled, her only company on her walk home. The mid-autumn weather was cooling down, but the chill she felt was coming from inside of her. 

There was an emptiness gnawing at her. It felt like it was her true identity, the nothingness from which she came, coming back to reclaim her. You had your fun, it seemed to say. It’s time to stop playing pretend.

She entered her home, and the next thing she heard made her feel sick to her stomach all over again.

“Nico Nico Ni!”

She did not return the greeting.

“Sis, what’s wrong?” There was genuine concern in Cocoro’s voice.

“Nothing’s wrong. Just give me a minute and I’ll get started on dinner.”

“Did your idol thing go bad today?” Cocoa asked.

“Oh, did it? If it was Maki-chan’s fault, don’t blame her, okay?” Cocoro said.

“Yeah! She’s new but she’s trying her best!” Cocoa exclaimed.

“Of course she can never be like sis!”

“Of course not! Sis is the world’s number one i-”

“I’m not an idol,” Nico interrupted.

“Huh?”

“What are you talking about, sis?”

“I was never an idol. I’ve been lying to you the whole time,” Nico explained.

“We met your friend from the idol club, silly!”

“They just kept me around as some kind of cruel joke.” An image of Honoka flashed through Nico’s mind. It was the girl smiling brightly while lying to her face. She felt her hands tighten into fists.

“No way, you’ll always be their leader!” Cocoro said encouragingly.

“Yeah! And besides, you’ll always be our favorite idol!” Cocoa added.

“Yeah!” Cotaro agreed happily.

“Don’t you get it? I lied to you!” Nico didn’t even realize how loud she was yelling until she noticed the three faces looking up at her, all contorted in fear, pain, and sadness.

“But you were an idol to me way before you started that club…”

“Don’t talk down to me, Cocoa.” Nico took out her wallet and tossed it on the table. “Here’s the rest of the money mom left us this month. Order a pizza or something, I need to go to bed.”

Nico collapsed in her bed, and didn’t leave it for some time. She thought about playing some of her idol CDs, but the thought made her sick. Instead, she just drifted in and out of consciousness all night.

She didn’t get out of bed on Saturday, either. It wasn’t until Sunday morning, before anyone else was awake, that she braved a look outside her room.

The house was still in pristine condition. Her siblings had been taking care of it for her. She checked the fridge. They still had some pizza, and plenty of snacks. That would be fine for today. She returned to her bed, and tried to will herself to forget about ever being an idol.

Monday morning rolled around, and she still hadn’t forgotten her disastrous idol career. There was only one thing she could do to take her mind off of things. She got up and cooked some omelettes. A nice, hearty breakfast would be good for the kids before they went off to school (and preschool, for Cotaro).

She managed to finish three decently sized omelettes before anyone woke up. She hid herself back in her room mere moments before she heard the door to her siblings’ room open up.

“Sis? Are you cooking?” She could hear footsteps as Cocoa, followed by the others, ran past her room to the kitchen, where she could still hear the eggs sizzling. Perfectly timed. She could barely hear the disappointed “Oh.” from Cocoa once she got to the kitchen.

Nico stared at her school uniform. Somehow, just the act of putting on some clothes seemed an impossible feat. She got back into bed. The day passed by slowly as she stared at the ceiling. She ignored the call that came in, presumably from the school.

She thought about all the things she could do to pass the time. She could listen to her idol CDs. She could practice dancing and singing. She could study her school textbooks. What was the point of any of it?

The day drifted by until she realized her siblings would be home soon. She went over to the kitchen and took stock of what they had. When she saw the bag of rice, her mouth started watering. It didn’t matter what else they had, she was craving onigiri too much to possibly resist. It occurred to her that she hadn’t eaten in days. She supposed she really must have been sick.

She went to grab the pot she usually used for rice, and remembered what Maki had done to it. Even after a full week of soaking in the sink, the charred rice was still firmly attached to the bottom of the pot. Nico sighed, and mentally added “new pot” to her shopping list.

That was a problem for later, though. She had other pots to use now. She cooked up some rice, gave it a minute to cool down, and started forming it into triangle shapes. She left some of them plain, and put fillings in some - bean pastes and cheeses and fruits. She hoped each one would be a fun surprise for her siblings. She grabbed a random selection of them for herself, leaving the rest on a large cutting board on the table.

With that done, she retreated back to her room and chowed down. It was delicious. She hadn’t realized it, but she had been unbelievably hungry.

It wasn’t long after she finished eating that she heard the front door open. Her siblings were home. She heard footsteps approach the kitchen, and then head back towards the hallway with her and her siblings’ rooms.

“Umm, Nico?” This wasn’t one of her siblings. “Sorry to just barge in. We were worried about you!” Nico didn’t respond. It was taking everything she had not to start screaming at Honoka. “Hello? I hope you’re okay. We missed you at practice today!”

Enough was enough. She flung her door open.

“Ah, Nic-”

“What the hell is this about a competition?”

“Ah, well, I was going to tell you! I just didn’t want to scare-”

That’s why you let me into the club? That's why you were always complimenting me?"

“It’s not like that!”

“Get out of my house, Honoka.”

Honoka’s eyes shone brightly through the tears that were welling up in them. She opened her mouth, then closed it again. She began to walk away, but turned back. “Please consider joining us on Friday. We need you.”

Nico wordlessly closed the door to her room. Honoka lingered in the hall. Eventually, Nico heard a muffled “I’m sorry” followed by footsteps heading toward the front door.

She collapsed in her bed once again and cried until she fell asleep.

She awoke early the next morning again. When she got to the kitchen, she noticed a note on the table.

 

Sis:

thanks for the omlets and rise. they were delishus. we love you.

 

Each letter was scarred with eraser marks. It was obvious they had taken care to write this as well as they could. Most noticeable was “delishus”. It was obvious that it had gone through the most revisions, and it still came out… like that. Even so, seeing the note filled Nico with a special kind of warmth. For the first time since the concert, she smiled a real smile.

After cooking some breakfast, she returned to her room. She cleaned up a bit, then pushed the bed to one wall. She made as much room as she could, and, when she was sure she was the only one home, she began practicing her dance moves. She was an idol after all. She wouldn’t let anything change that. She would show Honoka.

That afternoon, she received a visitor once again. “Hey, Nico, sorry to barge in, Honoka wanted me to apologize on her behalf. I don’t exactly know what was going on, but I guess she wasn’t completely honest with you? And she wanted me to let you know how much we care about you.” In stark contrast to how Honoka had acted, Eli sounded super confident talking to a door. Nico supposed the student council president was used to giving speeches to audiences that may or may not be interested.

“Anyway, I hope you’re around to hear this and I hope you can feel better soon. You know you’re a valued member of the team, and we’re lucky to have you. Oh, and I hope you won’t mind if I do this.” A paper was slid under the door. It was a flyer for the competition on Friday. Of course. “Please excuse my rudeness. Hope to see you soon.”

With that, Eli left.

The next day went pretty much the same. Nico left her room to make breakfast, then returned to practice her idol skills. Today, she was practicing her singing. Usually it made her nervous, but this was the one time she could be truly confident no one was around to hear her, so she sang her heart out.

Shortly after she had made dinner and retreated back to her room, she had another visitor. “Hey Nicocchi!” It was Nozomi. She sounded as cheery as ever, but there was a slight edge to her voice. Was she nervous? She did a good job hiding it, if so. “I brought the homework from our classes for the last few days, plus my notes. Some of it was a little confusing, so let me know if you need help with anything!” There was a pause, and then Nozomi followed this up with “We all care about you, you know? It wouldn’t hurt to open up and rely on us.” Another pause, followed by “Be safe, Nicocchi.” With that, Nozomi left.

Thursday. One more day, then she’d never have to think about this idol competition again. Once again, the day went by as normal. Today, Nico wasn’t surprised by a visitor showing up. Even so, her heart skipped a beat at the voice she heard.

“Hey, Nico. Door was unlocked, so I, uhh…” There was a pause, and Maki started again. “Listen, the competition is tomorrow. It’s a big day for all of us. I know you’ve been feeling bad, but it would mean a lot to… everyone if you could be there. That is, if you’re feeling better. Don’t push yourself too hard if you’re still feeling bad.”

Maki paused again. “Nico?” There was a knock at the door. “Do you mind if I come in?”

Nico thought about that. As she approached the door, the air felt heavy, like some invisible force was stopping her, pushing her away. But she really did want to see Maki, and she pushed past it. She turned the knob, and gently pushed the door.

Maki opened the door the rest of the way, and rushed in, catching Nico in a big hug.

“Whoa!”

“Sorry.” Maki backed off, blushing. “We were just… I was just worried about you. Where have you been?”

“What do you mean?”

“Nico, you know what I mean, our idol practices.”

"I don’t go to those. I'm not a real idol."

“What the hell are you talking about?"

“I was lying the whole time. I was never an idol. I lied to you, and I lied to myself.”

"Nico, you're literally in our idol group."

“Yes, I imagine that makes this all the more painful to find out.”

“Ugh, you’re impossible.”

There was a long silence. Maki started pulling at her hair. It wasn’t a rough motion or something done in frustration. The act seemed to calm her. When she spoke, it was barely a whisper, almost entirely inaudible.

She said, “Listen, I think I know what you’re feeling.” She took a deep breath before continuing. “When I first realized I was trans, I didn’t feel like a real person. I felt like I had two lives, and neither was really me. There was a front I put on to be comfortable, a quiet, unassuming idea of what a person could be. And then there was some far-off ideal, a creature only of my imagination. Something I could never be, no matter how much I wanted to.”

Maki was just gripping her hair now, hands still, eyes looking through Nico, locked on some faraway place. It was obviously difficult for Maki to talk about this. Nico had never known. She didn’t know what it had to do with her, though. 

Maki kept going. “Point is, they were both me, and neither was me. I’m more than how I present myself. And, more importantly, I’m allowed to be whoever I want to be. You’re the same way. You have yourself convinced that you aren’t allowed to be who you are. Your idol persona isn’t a fiction. It’s a part of you. It’s a part of you that I… happen to like. Even if it can be infuriating.”

Nico’s head was spinning. What was this girl saying? Why couldn’t she accept the truth, even when Nico was doing her best to come clean? “This has nothing to do with you! Why won’t you listen? You don’t know me, Maki. You don’t know the first thing about me. I’m a fake.”

A pained look flashed across Maki’s face. “I’m sorry if I’ve misjudged you. I really thought-”

“You thought you knew someone you didn’t. I had everyone fooled.”

“I see.” Maki said the words quietly. She stood upright, looking stiff and uncomfortable for a moment. She hesitated, then turned to leave.

 


 

Nico would hear all about it someday.

She would hear about the four of them gathered there.

She would hear about Honoka’s passionate defense of their group.

She would hear about the immovable competition coordinator, telling them again and again that there was just nothing they could do.

She would hear about the hopelessness, the dawning understanding that this was the end of their group.

But today, all she knew was her part. The part where she swung the door open wide, struck a pose, and delivered her “Nico Nico Ni!” to a crowd that was a mix of confused, upset, and hopeful.

“A beautiful idol is ready for the stage! What’s the holdup?”

“There’s the fifth for our group! Can we go on?” Hope and desperation mixed in Honoka’s plea.

The coordinator looked at his watch. “It’s a little late…” He cast a glance towards Honoka, and gasped at her pouting face. Her large, puppy dog eyes were inescapable, even from where Nico was standing. “Err, well, as long as you hurry, it won’t be a problem.”

The group cheered, and ran out onto the stage. Nico followed behind. It wasn’t long before the spotlight was on her. She hesitated. Would that cost them points? Who cares? An idol deserves to appreciate her moment in the spotlight.

She sang passionately. Every time she doubted herself, and every time a pit formed in her stomach, and every time she thought of how she’d let her friends down, she sang louder. She let those emotions fuel her passions, until the only thing she could hear was her own voice rising above everything else, just as other idols had done for her in the past.

She had no idea what it took to win a competition like this, but, as far as she was concerned, she’d already won. Nothing could compare to what she was feeling.

After their set, Honoka began thanking the audience when her voice broke and she started to cry. Eliciting some laughter from the crowd, Nozomi had to grab the mic and finish her speech for her. With that done, they filed out.

“We did it!” As soon as they were out in the hall, Honoka started gushing. “We were so amazing back there!”

“I must admit, that was a rush.” Eli was smiling brighter than Nico had ever seen. Everyone was smiling ear to ear. Except… where was Maki?

Nico caught sight of her. She was slinking away quietly. Nico caught up to her.

“And Nicocchi was- Hmm? Nicocchi?” She heard Nozomi behind her as she hurried away. There was no time to worry about that, though. Let the rest of the idols celebrate, they’d all earned it.

“Maki!”

Maki kept walking away silently.

“Maki wait, I wanted to say I was sorry. I couldn’t stop thinking about what you said.”

Still no reaction from Maki.

“I’m sure that wasn’t easy for y-”

Maki took a sharp turn down the hall, and stuck out an arm to stop Nico from following. She broke into an awkward run. It almost sounded like she was… crying.

Nico watched helplessly as Maki disappeared down the hall. She thought about chasing after her, but it was clear she was in no mood to talk. 

There was nothing else to do but head home. When Nico opened the door, she found three sets of eyes looking at her cautiously. She knew there was only one way to put smiles on those faces.

“Nico Nico Ni!”

 


 

Life slowly went back to normal. Or whatever normal was for Nico. 

Her siblings had forgiven her instantly, but she still wanted to make everything up to them, so she baked them a nice cake- chocolate cake for Cocoa, vanilla icing for Cocoro, and blueberries on top for Cotaro. Despite the somewhat strange combination, it came out tasting really good.

Earning forgiveness from her teachers was a little more difficult. She worked hard to catch up on all the work she had missed. True to her word, Nozomi helped out. It had been scary to ask her, but she couldn’t risk failing classes and getting kicked out of the idol club. Not after her grand return.

She was welcomed back into the idol group with open arms. Well, open arms from all but one person. It was the person she cared about most. She dialed her big time idol act up to ridiculously obnoxious levels, desperate to get a rise out of Maki, but she just couldn’t get any response at all. 

Oh well. She supposed that bridge might be burned forever. Nico couldn’t exactly blame her. She had been very vulnerable, and Nico’s outburst had really hurt her. Nico cursed her misplaced anger, her fear, her guarded nature… She vowed to cherish Maki’s smile if she was ever able to see it again.

One thing about their relationship hadn’t changed, though. During practice, whenever Nico glanced over, she would still catch Maki looking at her. She tried not to do it too much. She didn’t want to scare her away. But on the days she needed a confidence boost, it still worked wonders to see. It filled her with a pang of sadness and regret now, but it still helped her when she was feeling down.

That was how life went for weeks. Eventually, Nico started to settle into an uneasy rhythm. It wasn’t until freezing winter days were upon them that something broke up that rhythm. On an otherwise normal day, Eli was running late to practice.

“This isn’t like her,” Honoka said. She wasn’t wrong. Eli was every bit as serious as was befitting of a student council president. She had never missed a day, and she made it all seem effortless, even with all the obligations on her plate.

“Should we just start without her?” Nozomi ventured.

“It’s dance practice today, though. We need her.” Honoka looked anxiously around the auditorium. Eli had had to fight with the drama club to allow them to use it, but it was so worth it to have a warm room to practice in.

“We can just go through our steps, right? It’ll be a good workout, if nothing else,” Nico suggested.

Honoka seemed to consider her words. “I don’t want us to learn anything the wrong way, though. It’ll be hard to unlearn any mistakes if we do…”

Silence fell over the four of them, all lost in thought. Just then, the door to the roof opened dramatically.

“We won!” An uncharacteristically energetic Eli burst onto the scene.

Nico didn’t even miss a beat. “Oh, another Idol of the Year Award for me? Just leave it by the door, th-”

“We won?!” While everyone else was still looking confused, Honoka’s eyes were lighting up. She looked around to all her confused friends. “The competition! We’re going to nationals!”

“That’s right.” Eli confirmed. “I’d like to ask our fearless leader if we could take the day off to get our comp tickets at the front office? The sooner we get that squared away, the better.”

“Yes, that’ll be fine,” Nico deigned to accept.

“Of course!” Honoka exclaimed simultaneously.

A secretary was waiting for them down in the office. She congratulated them cheerily, then asked how many tickets they would each want. Nozomi asked for two. Eli asked for one. Honoka asked for two. The secretary’s eyes fell on Nico next.

What were the odds her mom would be able to come? Well, better safe than sorry. “Four, please.”

A pained look flashed across the secretary’s face. “Oh, sorry, I should’ve mentioned. They’re only giving two comp tickets per person. You’ll have to buy any extras.”

The secretary handed Nico two tickets and began explaining how to order more. Nico didn’t bother listening. What was she going to do with these? It wasn’t like she could leave one of her siblings all alone.

Maki was next. She immediately asked for two tickets. She must think she’s so elegant, Nico thought. She must think she’s so much smarter than me. 

Tears were welling up in Nico’s eyes. She wanted to tear up her tickets. She wanted to run out of the room. The only thing that was stopping her was the knowledge that this was what she had worked for all this time. If nothing else, the tickets would be a good souvenir.

Instead, she shambled out, a million questions running through her head. The biggest among them - was it time to give up? This time, she really didn’t want to. She didn’t want to abandon the idol club again… but there was no way she could leave her siblings behind.

She approached the exit door. The walk home was going to be rough. It looked pretty cold out.

“Cold out today, huh?”

It was a familiar voice, but not one Nico had heard address her in some time. “Maki?”

Maki’s eyes remained fixed on the door. “Let’s go.”

It took Nico a second to figure out that Maki was asking to walk her home. When it dawned on her, she nodded eagerly, then realized Maki still wasn’t looking at her. She sheepishly vocalized her acceptance. “Yes, please.” She really considered adding something about the importance of an idol having an entourage, but managed to think better of it.

The two walked home together in complete silence. Even if there had been anything to say, the howling winds would’ve carried it away unheard. Still, just being near Maki somehow filled her with a faint warmth that even the freezing cold couldn’t snuff out.

Before too long, they’d arrived at Nico’s door. Nico lingered there, not wanting to ruin things now that Maki was (kinda) talking to her, sincerely afraid the girl would disappear if she looked back. She froze into place. That was when some motion caught her eye.

“What is this?”

“Just take them.” Maki’s hands were outstretched, gripping her offering.

Nico reached out to the tickets, but hesitated before grabbing them. “Aren’t your parents g-”

“I don’t think my parents will be coming.”

“But are you sure? Shouldn’t you as-”

“I barely see my parents, Nico. I’m the only one home most days.” Nico remained silent. She had no idea what to say. Had she messed up? She had hurt Maki again. Maki continued, “Listen, I know my parents, and I know they won’t miss work for this. Just take them, okay? I want to see Cotaro and the others in the crowd.”

Nico accepted the tickets wordlessly. There was an uncomfortable silence as neither of the two turned away. “Maki, I’m sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it. You didn’t know.”

Silence fell over them again. Finally, Nico braved the question that was burning in her mind. ”Does this mean you’re not mad at me?”

“I’m furious with you. But I hate to think of you being all alone for-”

Maki’s words were cut off as Nico launched toward her, catching her in a tight embrace. Nico felt Maki attempt to push her away, but she was immovable. Her legs had locked up. Tears were streaming down her face. She was sobbing. Hearing her crying, Maki slowly wrapped her arms around her. “It’s okay,” she whispered.

Nico cried her eyes out for some time, unable to stop despite feeling like this display was ridiculously embarrassing. Finally, she managed to get her breathing under control, and stop the tears from flowing. She gave Maki one final squeeze, then backed up. “Sorry about that.”

Maki said nothing. She looked at Nico with concern.

Nico supposed she owed her an explanation. “It’s just, this is such a sweet gesture, and I’ve been so rude to you, and I’m sorry and I don’t know how I can-”

“Don’t worry about it.” A smile was spreading on Maki’s face. She began to laugh. “You’re really something, Nico Yazawa. Such is the power of the world’s number one idol, I suppose.”

“W-what do you mean?”

“Nothing. I’ll see you later, okay?” Maki turned to leave. Nico opened her door, but she felt a pit in her stomach. This felt wrong somehow. She had to do something.

“Hey, Maki.” The redhead turned back around and tilted her head to one side. “You like me, don’t you?” She drew out the word “like” with a little lilt.

Face flushed a deep red, Maki stammered, “W-what the hell are you talking about?”

“It’s true! That’s why you gave me these!” She produced the tickets with a little flourish.

“No it isn’t!”

“Face it Maki, you’re head over heels for me!”

“Forget I said anything, give me my tickets back!” Maki began approaching Nico. Perfect.

“Come and take ‘em!” Nico disappeared into her home.

Maki followed close behind.

 


 

Nationals. The crowd gathered before them was tremendous, and their energy was unmatched by anything Nico had ever seen. That was good, because they were about to see an idol without compare. And her entourage was pretty good too, she admitted, looking over at her friends.

Nico laughed to herself. Was she truly an idol now? Was it still just something she wore like a costume? The voice of doubt in the back of her mind had been very quiet lately, but she still didn’t know the answer to that question.

Really though, she didn’t think it mattered. She had an audience to impress. She looked up to where her family was sitting. It was a little tough to make them out from here, but eventually she spotted them. Even her mom. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world!” Those had been her words. Nico had cried. Maki had been there to comfort her.

“Hey, Maki,” Nico whispered. There was no response. Maki probably couldn’t hear her. It didn’t matter. She was just planning to ask if she wanted to come over again tonight. She already knew she would, anyway.

As the stage lights came on, Nico gave one last quick wave to her family. They waved back excitedly. It would be their first time seeing her on stage.

She was going to be amazing.