“I swear to god, Umi, there’d better be a damn good reason for dragging me along on your hour-long hike up the mountains.”
Not even fifteen minutes into the walk, Nico has already suffered scrapes behind her ankles, three mosquito bites along the backs of her knees, and—this is the worst part—dirt. Dirt! On the face of an idol! In other words: absolutely disgusting, unfit for an image as angelic and pristine as hers, and completely cataclysmic for her complexion.
“Hey, did you even hear me?” Nico pesters.
The sound of shoes crunching against gravel is all the response she gets.
Nico curls her hand into a fist and shakes it at Umi’s back. The gesture, of course, is lost to the ether because Umi hasn’t even turned around, much less eased her grueling, brutal pace once this entire trip. The nerve! Forcing her on a hike and then ignoring her!
There’s only so much disrespect that she can tolerate, so when Nico stomps ahead to catch up with Umi, taking great care to hop over roots and swat any insects coming her way, she makes sure to lean in, pointedly and uncomfortably close to her face. “You’re being awfully rude, you know,” she says, and it’s only then that Umi deigns to acknowledge her, sighing as her shoulders slump.
“I did warn you to wear longer pants, but you insisted on wearing a skirt instead. Am I really at fault if you disregard propriety?” She delicately parts the tree branches ahead and steps to the side, allowing Nico to proceed first, but there’s a sour look on her face—almost as though she’s regretting taking Nico along! Good. Maybe next time she’ll think twice about it.
If there’s one redeeming quality about the trip, though, it’s that trailing behind Umi, chivalrous as she is, means no stray twigs whacking her in the face. Not that Nico’s complaining about the great view of her legs. Or the way her butt muscles flex as she’s walking. It’s a shame, Nico thinks, that Umi doesn’t recognize the sort of charm she carries. What travesty it is, how she doesn’t even bother to flaunt it. Nico huffs. A girl as hot as her, being modest. Such a waste.
“First of all,” Nico says, flipping her hair as she passes her, “you’re never catching me dead with any hiking pants. If I’m going out anywhere, I’ve gotta do it with style. Second of all, as an idol, the only ‘propriety’ I need to follow is to look good—damn good. No matter what scenario I’m in.”
Umi pauses for a moment, taking time to appraise her with a blank, cryptic look that makes Nico shrink back. Is she checking her out? Judging her? The moisture that clings to her neck suddenly feels extra sticky, and Nico’s not sure anymore if it’s just the thick murk of humidity latching onto her skin or if she’s just feeling nervous, but either way she feels gross and overly self-conscious.
Finally, after a few beats too long, Umi breaks the silence and smiles. Before Nico can demand an explanation for her strange behavior, Umi grabs her hand and tugs her along. “Truly, your sense of priorities is questionable—”
“—but there is no need to impress anybody out here, much less me.”
Nico frowns and tugs at her sleeve collars, feeling blood rush to her face. “Who said I was dressing up to impress you.”
“Ah, I apologize if it seemed I was implying that.” Her tone is so even that it’s difficult to pick up the knowing sass in her inflection, but it’s there. Umi knows. Nico rolls her eyes, trying to fight down her blush. “But regardless, you wouldn’t need to be fashionable to impress me.” Umi’s hand starts to shake in her grip, and Nico has to strain her ears to hear her next words, faint whispers through the buzz of cicadas: “After all, you already amaze me in so many other ways.”
Nico’s brain short-circuits, and she barely even registers the way Umi promptly lets go of her hand and marches ahead. What. Did Umi really just—
“Here it is!” Umi exclaims, spinning around, and it’s only then that Nico notices the clearing in front of her. They’re on top of a hill, she realizes, and there’s a large expanse of grass in front of them. The dew shimmering under the starlight just makes everything look so beautiful, a pleasant reminder that maybe there are some things that flashy, artificial lights in stadiums can’t beat. As if she knows this, Umi spreads her arms wide, like she’s presenting the scenery as a peace offering for Nico’s troubles.
Well, Nico thinks, craning her neck to revel at the panorama of stars and galaxies dotting the sky, it’s working. “It’s—wow.”
“It is,” Umi agrees, unloading her backpack and splaying a blanket on the grass. “In a way, I suppose this is another reason why I enjoy hiking. Being an idol is what comes to you naturally, but for me, it’s something that I had to adapt to. That’s what makes us different. So all of this—being in nature, not needing to conform to idol standards—it’s a refuge from—”
“—what, getting stuffed in frilly outfits by Kotori and Nozomi?” Nico finishes, grinning, letting herself collapse on the blanket and give her poor muscles a break. She could fall asleep here.
Umi plops down next to her and twists open her water bottle, handing it off to Nico. “Precisely. But that is the admirable thing about you, Nico. Your pride and confidence knows no bounds, and perhaps that is something I envy.”
Nico ducks her face and swipes the bottle from Umi’s hands, suddenly feeling really thirsty and hot. Damn it. She chugs the water, still cool from insulation, but it does nothing to alleviate the burning in her cheeks. “Pride and confidence doesn’t mean much unless you’ve got something to back it up,” she mumbles. “And if we want to talk about that, then you should take a look at yourself. I’d die to have a slamming bod like yours. Or your talent with words.”
“That’s—” Umi scratches her neck. Gosh, even after being an idol for so long, the girl isn’t even used to people complimenting her. “That’s nothing, really.”
“And the modesty! Jeez.”
“No, it’s true,” Umi insists. “Strength of character—perseverance, passion, ambition—means more than any of those things. I was always afraid to try new things, but that’s what’s amazing about you, that you’re always working so hard for the things you love, even if there’s a chance that the payoff won’t be want you want. You’re not scared of failure—not like I am. And that’s beautiful.”
“It’s not that I’m not scared, Umi. I am. I’m terrified. I was terrified, when my old group disbanded during my first year. I thought I’d never get a chance to become an idol. I didn’t know what I’d do.”
“But you never stopped dreaming, did you? Perhaps it is a falsehood to say that you are unafraid, yes, but the alternative—giving up—is even scarier for you, isn’t it? Plowing ahead despite that fear of making a fool out of yourself—that daring vulnerability—that’s what is beautiful about you.”
Some people say that butterflies fluttering in your stomach is supposed to feel nice and fuzzy, but all Nico can feel is a tight knot of nervous energy, buzzing and waiting to implode, and it’s all she can do not to just get up and punch Umi for it. What the heck is up with all these compliments. “Seriously, Umi, why did you bring me here? I’m sure you didn’t do it just to butter me up like this.”
She watches as Umi’s fingers pluck away at the blades of grass. The tips of her ears are pink. Her body stiffens. “At this point”—she swallows, looking down—“shouldn’t you know why?” God, Nico thinks, now she decides to be annoyingly bashful.
“You’re a lyricist, aren’t you?” Nico says, wanting to egg her on. Bait her into saying something bold. “You should have the words for it, right? I want to hear it from you.” She almost wants to lean over and cover her hands over Umi’s jittery ones to keep her from being so nervous, but she’s convinced that Umi would chicken out or pass out from close proximity at this point, so she stops herself. “You just said that being daring and vulnerable is beautiful. So show me.”
Umi takes several deep steadying breaths before she turns to face Nico, and there’s a determined look in her eyes, the sort of look Nico recognizes from watching her at archery practice, like she’s in deep concentration, aiming for the bull’s eye as she draws her arrow taut against the string.
“Nico, will you go out with me?”