Growing Our Garden of Glass

A Love Live! New Melody Project Story

Posted originally on the Archive of Our Own at

Growing Our Garden of Glass

A Love Live! New Melody Project!! Story

Tojo Residence - Tokyo
Saturday, June 7th, 2008

She'd lost track of how many times she'd gone back into her bathroom and checked her appearance in the mirror, how many times she'd adjusted her skirt and tried different necklaces and re-tied her long purple twintails with different bows. It was, she realized, an excessive amount of effort for what was just a simple day out with a friend. Most girls would have put together their outfit, something cute and casual, and not given it a second thought.

Of course, as she had known for quite a long time, Nozomi Tojo was not - in a great many ways - like most girls.

No, for this outing, she wanted to be seen by her friend, to be noticed. She'd eventually decided on a lavender linen blouse with a floral pattern of white lilies (she still wondered if lilies were too obvious, but felt sending the signal was important), a blouse cut just right to flatter her soft form in a way she thought was flirty enough without being too bold. She paired it with one of her favorite skirts, a rich plum high-waisted flared A-line with integrated suspenders, and white thigh-highs she'd finish off with black Mary Janes when they left the apartment. A simple silver crescent moon hung from her neck on a thin chain. She looked at her reflection and thought she looked cute, and classy, and full of warmth.

Of course, it might all be moot, if her friend was incapable of seeing her in that particular way, but she tried her best not to dwell on her worries.

She stepped out of the bathroom and walked across her living room to the small balcony just beyond the sliding glass door. The day was warm, with puffball clouds rolling lazily past in the decent breeze that had picked up, offsetting the summer heat. The breeze passed through the linen of her blouse and cooled her, calmed her, as she closed her eyes and tried to find her spiritual center. It's going to be okay. It's just a nice day out with her. It's not a big deal.

She almost believed herself.

A knock at her door broke the calm, and she turned and walked back into the living room, sliding the balcony door shut behind her. She padded across the floor in her house slippers, calling out in as relaxed a manner as she was capable of at that moment.

"I'll be right there!"

"No rush," came the gently authoritative voice of her friend from the other side of the door.

Nozomi reached the entrance, smoothed her skirt one more time, took a deep breath, and opened the door with a smile, one that grew to a grin at the sight of the statuesque blonde girl waiting for her.

She exhaled. "Good afternoon!"

"Good afternoon, Tojo-san," Eli Ayase grinned back.

"Oh, Eli-chan, silly girl, you know you don't have to be so formal."

"I know, I know," Eli chuckled, "it just seemed appropriate, considering I've never been to your apartment before."

"Well, um, I'm not sure there's anythin' particularly special 'bout my apartment," Nozomi said, shyness and nerves creeping over her as she tried to tamp down the hint of her old Kansai dialect that snuck out sometimes when she felt insecure, "but...I'm very glad you came. Um, please, do come in. I'll give you the tour."

Nozomi held the door open as Eli entered and slipped off her shoes, grabbing a pair of house slippers from the small wire rack in the entryway. Her apartment had minimal decorations - just a few plants here and there, some books on the windowsills, a modest dining table and chairs - so the tour would be brief.

"So, if you'll come this way," Nozomi said with a theatrical flourish, "this is my kitchen, and my living room. The bedroom and bathroom are off to the left, and I've got a balcony through the window there. It's not much, but it suits me."

As Eli looked around, Nozomi took in the sight of her. Eli wore a white camisole and black shorts accented with a pale blue belt, and an unbuttoned gray linen shirt with the sleeves rolled up. It was simple, but the overall look accentuated her fit build, and Nozomi couldn't help but appreciate the way her shorts and those rolled sleeves accentuated her legs and arms - still the form of a dancer, as she knew from conversations at school. Her hair was pulled back into the high ponytail she always wore, tied off with a white bow. Nozomi caught herself swooning - Eli somehow managed to look striking in even simple casual clothes.

"I like your place," Eli said, turning to her with a warm smile. "It's very calm, serene even."

"Thank you," Nozomi said. "It's not much, but I consider it my little sanctuary."

"We haven't known each other that long," Eli said, "but you seem like a person who enjoys the calm."

"It's what I'm used to, I suppose," Nozomi said. " I've lived by myself for months now, and even before I moved to Tokyo, I had no siblings, and my parents were always busy with work. I suppose I've forgotten what it's like having somebody else in the house."

Eli nodded. "That makes sense. I got used to the house in Saint Petersburg, and the noise! There was always something going on with my parents, my grandparents, and Alisa and I all under the same roof. Getting used to the quiet, you know, with Alisa still living back there with бабуля has been an adjustment."

"What was that you just said?"

"Oh, sorry! The Russian slips out sometimes. Babulya, it's one of the words I use for my grandmother."

"No need to apologize, Eli-chan," Nozomi said. "I just didn't understand. It's cute!"

"I've really been making an effort to only speak Japanese since I got back," Eli said, "but I guess you can take the girl out of the Baltic, but you can't take the Baltic out of the girl."

"I can imagine you've had to make a lot of adjustments, if you're used to the hustle and bustle with a big family like that," Nozomi said.

"I miss it, honestly," Eli said. "I'm sure I will for as long as Alisa is still in Russia."

"That's understandable," Nozomi said. A few moments passed. "You know something? You're actually the first person who's been in my apartment."

"Oh, really? Well, I'm honored, truly," Eli said. Nozomi thought she saw a bit of red in her cheeks. "I mean, you know, if you'd enjoy company more often, um, know, I could come over more. Have some tea, or whatever you might enjoy."

Nozomi felt her own cheeks turning warm and red. "Oh! Well, um, I, I would like that very much, actually."

For a few moments, she and Eli just stared at each other with nervous grins on their faces. At last, Eli seemed to regain her cool composure and gestured to the door.

"Well, if you'd like to get going, I'm ready when you are. I was thinking we could grab a little late lunch. How does yakiniku from Jiromaru sound, and some crepes for dessert?"

"That sounds absolutely perfect," Nozomi said. "Yakiniku is my favorite! I love crepes, too."

"I remembered you saying something about it at school one day," Eli said, smiling, "so I filed it away for the future."

Nozomi was more than a bit amazed. "You remembered that?"

"I did! I try to remember anytime you mention things you like," Eli said. "I mean...I like doing things you enjoy. It's nice to see you happy."

"Eli-chan, that's...that's very kind," Nozomi said. "And, um, the feeling is mutual."

Another one of those gleaming Eli smiles. "In that case, would you accompany me, Tojo-san?"

"I would be delighted, Ayase-san."

As they reached the entrance and began to change into their street shoes, Nozomi paused. "Actually, there's something else I've heard you say sometimes. I assumed it was Russian, and just never asked about it. It sounds like horror show?"

"Harasho," Eli laughed. "It's like, good, great, nice, that kind of thing, like an exclamation."

"Well, that's good to know, if I'm hearing that a lot," Nozomi giggled.

Once again, she thought she detected a hint of a blush on Eli's cheeks.

The yakiniku place they'd eaten at had been delicious, a standing-only cafe with service directly on the street. That alone would have been satisfying, but afterward, they'd gone to another walk-up window serving elaborate and outright indulgent crepes, and as she and Eli walked through Akihabara while finishing their treats, talking about their lives and school and whatever else came up, Nozomi felt like she could float away in the warm air on the happiness she was feeling. And whenever she looked over at Eli, and the way her beauty shone, that feeling doubled.

Eli walked beside her, a smile on her face. "So this isn't even the only occult club you've been in?"

Nozomi nodded as she swallowed another bite of her crepe, savoring the chocolate and banana filling before replying. "Oh no, not at all. As we moved around, I always seemed to find my way into that sort of club."

Eli laughed. "There are that many schools in Japan with occult clubs?"

"Eli-chan, have you seen how many clubs there are in middle and high schools here? The occult club isn't even that unusual. There are napping clubs here."

"Fair point," Eli said. "Do the occult clubs get a lot of members?"

"Not the ones I've been in, but that could just be bad luck on my part," Nozomi said. "Though being the only member, like at Otonokizaka, is a new experience for me. Nobody's ever gotten me to join a club, handed me the keys, and just left like Ishida-chan did."

"A lot of Otonokizaka's clubs are pretty small these days," Eli noted.

"The last one I was in, when I went to middle school in Kyoto for a year, it was just me and one other girl," Nozomi said. "Sometimes, the members are girls like me who are interested in spirituality, the occult, tarot, things of that nature. And sometimes, the members are girls like her - Nibutani, that was her name - who are very, very deep into that sort of thing. It becomes like a persona for them. Chūnibyō, they call it. Battling dark forces in a fantasy world, and all that."

"That's not a thing in Russia," Eli said.

"I'm sure there's some equivalent," Nozomi laughed.

Eli smirked with the twinkle in her eye that Nozomi was always charmed by. "And you don't have that problem?"

"Oh, you don't have to worry about me," Nozomi said. "I keep one foot grounded in this reality. Besides, I don't have to imagine fantastical realms. I'm quite certain I'm able to affect things in this plane."

"What makes you say that?"

"I'm a very resourceful girl, Eli-chan. I've manifested a great number of things in my life already, and I..." Nozomi said, then froze as she realized she was getting carried away with herself. There are some things I'm not sure I can tell her, she thought. At least, not yet.

"You what?"

"W-well, that's part of my mystery," Nozomi said with a nervous laugh. "A girl's allowed to have some mysteries about her, right?"

"I suppose that's true," Eli grinned. "You should probably be careful about being so mysterious, though."

"Oh? Why is that?"

"Some people might find that really enticing, and want to get closer to you."

Nozomi blushed. she flirting with me? Am I reading too much into this?

"Well," she said, "is that so bad? Provided it's the right person, of course."

"I guess not," Eli said, "with the right person. Finding them is the hard part, I think."

She decided to press just a little farther. "Finding them, perhaps. I feel like once you've met, you'll know pretty quickly once you spend time with them."

Eli nodded. "Like, a true love, one-and-only sort of thing?"

"I don't actually believe there's only one person out there for everybody," Nozomi said. "If that were true, I think there'd be a lot fewer people in happy relationships, because what if your one true love was born on the other side of the planet? I think there are probably plenty of people you can bond with. Love is something very potent and able to take many forms. It's more that when you meet somebody like that, you get a spark inside you, and you know pretty quickly that this is a person you could spend the rest of your life with."

Eli was quiet for a few moments. "You've done a lot of thinking about this, haven't you?"

"Well, I didn't used to," Nozomi said. "I spent a lot of time alone, after all. I was used to the loneliness. It was just the way of my life. I guess I've been thinking a lot more about not being lonely since I came to Tokyo, and Otonokizaka."

"I remember you talking about that," Eli said. "You dreamed of going to Otonokizaka, right?"

"Well, I dreamed of going to Tokyo, and to a classic, beautiful girls' academy, yes," Nozomi said.

"Was there a particular reason? I don't think you ever said."

There are big reasons, Nozomi thought, but I'm too scared to say them to you.

"I don't suppose I did say. A lot of reasons, I think. I spent so much time in small towns, moving around Kansai, I guess it seemed very cosmopolitan. And I wanted to be the kind of girl who could go to a girls' academy like that. I...wanted to be that kind of girl, very much."

Eli nodded. "There's a mystique, right?"

"Exactly," Nozomi said. "Otonokizaka seemed special, once I looked it up. Exactly the kind of place I'd seen in those dreams, in the heart of a big, colorful neighborhood, close to a seemed perfect."

"Had you always wanted to be a miko at a shrine?"

"Very much, yes," Nozomi said. "I love the work at the shrine. It keeps me spiritually centered and calm. And Kanda Shrine is such a special, beautiful place."

"You really did manifest your life, then," Eli said. "You dreamed it, and here you are."

Nozomi smiled. "And here I am. What about you, though? Was there a reason for Otonokizaka?"

"Otonokizaka is in my blood," Eli said. "My grandmother went there, before she went to Russia. My mother went there. I guess it would have been strange if I didn't. It's a place with a lot of meaning to the Ayase family."

"So you came all the way back from Russia to go to Otonokizaka?"

Eli took a deep breath, and sighed. "You know why I was in Russia for so long, right? I've told you before?"

"I know you were there for ballet," Nozomi nodded. "You spent years working at it."

"Yeah," Eli said. "Well, in the didn't work out."

"Do you mind if I ask why?"

"I don't mind," Eli said, looking into the distance. "It's, well, hard to talk about."

"Oh, Eli-chan, it's alright, I didn't mean to pry, you don't have to-"

"It's okay, Nozomi," Eli said. "Don't worry, you did nothing wrong. It just might take me some time to work up to it."

"That's understandable."

"So, yeah, ballet," Eli continued. "After I'd stopped, my grandmother sat me down and talked to me about the future. She told me to go back to Tokyo, and go to Otonokizaka."

"That seems very specific," Nozomi said. "Just out of tradition?"

"Partly tradition, I think," Eli said, "but there was more to it."


"She told me I needed to go back and save Otonokizaka."

"Save it? Save it from what?"

"She didn't explain, exactly, and I didn't understand," Eli said. "Not at first. But then..." She trailed off as they reached Chuo-Dori Street.


Eli seemed to be looking off in the distance. Nozomi followed her gaze up above the old mid-rise buildings that made up most of Akihabara's city fabric, to a gleaming glass tower reflecting the afternoon sunlight.

"Then...I think I realized what she meant," Eli said. "Say, you want to go another block east?"

"Eli-chan, I'd very much love to go anywhere you'd like to."

Nozomi didn't think she'd ever consciously noticed the building they were approaching. It was a long rectangle of glass panels that rose, by her quick count, twenty-two stories above the neighborhood. In the months she'd lived in Akihabara, it had just been a part of the background scenery, like any other large, minimalist modern tower. She'd never taken the time to walk by it, and as she and Eli walked up the steps leading to the elevated plaza before it, she couldn't contain her surprise at its true nature.

"Wait, Eli-chan, this is a school?"

"It is," Eli nodded. "It's called UTX."

It seemed impossible that a single high school would need to be this large and flashy, and yet, here it stood. Despite it being Saturday, a decent number of girls milled around, many coming and going from the cafe that operated out of the corner space facing the plaza. Above the entrance, a massive video display rotated through school news briefs and a slew of promotional materials extolling the virtues of a UTX education. As video clips and photos of the school's clubs flashed across the screen, she was surprised by their sheer number and variety.

"This is almost overwhelming," she said after taking in the scene for a short time.

"My parents told me it opened two years ago," Eli said. "It's some kind of flagship school with all sorts of new technology, like a blueprint for the future of high schools or something."

An energetic dance beat blared from the video display on the tower, drawing their attention. The screen filled with a flashily-edited music video, complete with dramatic lighting and camera angles, as three girls who appeared to be first-years like Eli and Nozomi appeared larger-than-life above them, dressed in impeccable coordinated costumes of white and black. The trio of girls began singing, a serious-looking girl with sandy blonde hair taking the lead, while performing synchronized choreography. Nozomi would have thought she was watching a new group from a major record label, had Eli not interjected.

"They've even got a school idol group."

"School idols? As in, pop singers?" Nozomi asked.

"Yeah, exactly," Eli said. "School idols have been around in Japan for years now, but I think they're becoming a much bigger thing lately."

"Wait," Nozomi said, thinking back to club recruitment week, "didn't we see a girl handing out flyers for an idol club at Otonokizaka?"

"I remember, yeah, you're right," Eli nodded. "That petite girl with the twintails. Seemed kind of...intense."

Nozomi remembered her now. She didn't know her name off the top of her head, but she remembered the girl being intense, and very cute.

They stood in the plaza, staring up at the tower as the music video wrapped with the group's logo, bold white letters filling the giant screen: A-RISE. Eli was quiet, and Nozomi looked over and noticed that she had that particular look on her face again, the look she got when her brain was grinding away at some problem or another.

"Eli-chan, you look like you have something on your mind."

For a few moments, Eli didn't speak. When she finally did, it was measured, subdued.

"Nozomi, what do you think of traditions?"

The question caught her off-guard. "Traditions? Just...traditions, in general?"

"Yeah, I guess," Eli said. "Are you big on tradition, or do you think change and progress is more important?"

"That's a very big question," Nozomi said. "What brought that on?"

"Well, I think this is the kind of thing my grandmother was talking about, when she said save Otonokizaka. Otonokizaka is a very old-fashioned school, right?"

"I'd say so, yes."

"I never really thought about it that much," Eli continued, "but seeing this place, it's obvious, isn't it? UTX is shiny and new and exciting in all the ways that Otonokizaka is old-fashioned and dated."

"I think a place like Otonokizaka still has a lot of value," Nozomi said.

"Maybe it does," Eli said, "but how do you make other people see it, you know? Why go to some old brick school when you can go to the future?"

"You talk like Otonokizaka is going to close."

"Not right now," Eli said, "but I hear things. People say that new director who came in last year, Minami-sensei, is trying to drive up enrollments. I don't think it's so bad that they're going to make a decision yet, but I'm scared that the writing is already on the wall."

Nozomi looked back up at the gleaming UTX tower. "So this is what Otonokizaka needs saving from?"

"I think so, partly, yeah," Eli said. "You see on the news about how the birth rate is down. There's fewer students, and so, when you get a big, impressive school like this taking up the attention, what place is there for something that doesn't excite people? Something that's used up and run out of chances."

For the first time since they'd met, Nozomi noticed what looked like tears in Eli's eyes.

"Eli-chan, are you alright?"

"Yeah, yeah, I'm alright," Eli said. She paused, looking at a bench nearby with an anxious look. "Could we sit for a minute?"

"Of course," Nozomi said, trying to hide her concern from her own expression, not entirely successfully.

They sat together on the bench, letting the hum of activity of the people around UTX and in Akihabara on a Saturday afternoon pass by like a mighty river.

"I know we haven't known each other for very long," Nozomi said after a time, "but you can talk to me about anything, Eli-chan. I...I enjoy hearing you speak."

Eli stared down at the paving of the plaza, waiting silently for a long beat before looking up at her.

"So, what do you think of traditions?"

"What I think," Nozomi began, "is that there are a lot of traditions that are worthwhile. I think traditions can connect us as people and let us be a part of something greater than ourselves. That's something very special. It's the kind of feeling I get working at the shrine."

"Yeah...yeah, that makes sense."

"However," Nozomi continued, "not all traditions are like that. Traditions that lift us up and make us happy, those can be wonderful. When you use tradition to force people into boxes they don't belong in, or force them to live the way you approve, well, I think that's awful. Tradition that makes you tell somebody they can't do something innocent that makes them happy, or...or tells them they can't love somebody they love, or be their truest self, that's inexcusable and awful and I hate it. I hate it so much."

Eli raised her eyebrows. "Wow, I don't think I've ever heard you get angry before."

In that moment, Nozomi wanted desperately to open the door deepest in her heart, and spill her purest emotions to this beautiful, incredible girl sitting with her. It's because I'm afraid I can't be myself, Eli-chan. I'm scared people will tell me I can't be me. I'm scared people will tell me I'm wrong for falling for you. The ache inside her was almost too much to hold, but hold she did. Just for now. Just for a little longer. Hopefully.

"Well, I...I suppose you could say that I've seen tradition used that way before, and it frightens me."

Eli smiled softly. "That makes sense. Um, just so you know, you don't have to worry about that around me."

"I don't?"

"You don't. I think we feel the same way about it."

The same way? Are you saying what I hope you're saying, Eli-chan?

"That's quite good to know."

Eli leaned back on the bench, taking a deep breath. "You asked earlier about what happened to me with ballet."

"You don't have to tell me."

"It's okay," Eli said. "Back in Russia, I spent years and years working at it. Trained and exercised and practiced and pushed as far as I could."

"That must have been a lot of hard work."

"To put it mildly," Eli said. "When I was young, I was doing well. I wasn't at the top of the class, but I was pretty high up. I went for a big role, tried my absolute best. Thought I'd gotten it, too."

Nozomi scooted closer to her. "What happened?"

"They rejected me, for a girl who was smaller," Eli said. "Can you believe that? I'm not even that big. I was the tallest girl in that class, and I've always been on the muscular side, but I'm hardly too tall for ballet. But...well, the people in charge at the time at the academy, and in the top troupes, they were all big on tradition. It's one of those things that comes and goes, and when I was there, tradition was big. They wanted smaller leads."

"That's awful," Nozomi said.

"I didn't take it well," Eli continued. "It shook my confidence pretty bad. I tried again after working some more for a couple of years, but I'd lost my edge. I didn't believe in myself like I should have, and I blew the audition."

This poor, sweet girl. "Eli-chan, I'm so, so sorry."

"My parents told me that maybe I just needed to stop, not burn myself out chasing it. We could move back to Japan, and I could find something to make myself happy here. But I was so stubborn. I pushed back, and told them I was going to try again. So, I kept working. I practiced until I was raw. After a couple of more years, I tried again. And, again, I lost it. I made a mistake, and fell hard, and that was that. It was really over. I messed up the only dream I ever had, Nozomi. All because I wasn't what some stuffy old rich people thought was correct and traditional, and I let it get to me."

Nozomi moved as close as she dared. She wanted to take this strong-willed girl in her arms and hold her and comfort her, but she was so scared of crossing that line.

"Eli-chan, I wish I knew what to-"

Before she could finish her sentence, Eli leaned over, burying her face into Nozomi's shoulder as she began to cry. There was no line now, and Nozomi's warmest instincts took over. She wrapped her arms around Eli and held her as tightly as she could, softly patting her back.

"There, there, Eli-chan, it's okay, it's all going to be okay," she said, and rested her head against Eli's. "You just let it all out, alright? I'm here. You're not alone."

Between Eli's sobs, words fought their way out. "I don't know what to do anymore, Nozomi. I don't know what I'm here for anymore."

Nozomi squeezed her tighter as she considered her words. "You're a talented, thoughtful person. You don't have to have it all figured out at sixteen."

"But I spent so long trying to do ballet," Eli said through her tears. "I screwed up! I couldn't do it! All those years, when I could have been doing anything else, just wasted."

"Those years weren't a waste at all," Nozomi said quietly as she leaned her head down into Eli's. "You learned so much from them, even if they didn't work out like you hoped. You'll focus for now on finding a way to save the school, and you'll carry those old experiences into the next thing you do, even if it takes time to figure that out."

Eli sniffled. "You really think that's true?"

"Absolutely," Nozomi said. "Besides, you're not alone, you know? Those experiences brought you here, now, and we got to meet. And I promise you, from the bottom of my heart, I'm not going anywhere."

At that moment, Eli's arms wrapped around her and squeezed back, and Nozomi quietly gasped. It felt as though the warmth of their mutual embrace could overpower the afternoon sun falling on her back.

"Nozomi," Eli said softly, barely above a whisper, "ever since we met, you've been like this. care so much. Why are you always so kind to me?"

Nozomi went lightheaded, and felt her words stumbling over themselves in her head without being spoken. Because you're incredible. Because you take my breath away. Because you amaze me. Because you've captivated me since that day I first saw you in class.

" deserve it."

Eli held on for several moments more and began to relax, her crying gradually subsiding. Eventually, she pulled back, but she kept her face close to Nozomi's, that familiar warm smile slowly returning.

"I'm so glad I met you."

Nozomi grinned back at her. "I feel the same way."

Eli leaned back, wiping her eyes. "You want to move on? We're not far from Horin Park."

"That sounds like a lovely idea, Eli-chan."

As daylight began to wane, Nozomi and Eli walked slowly down the street that ran in the direction of Kanda Shrine, between Shohei Library and Horin Park. Nozomi knew their afternoon together would be winding down soon, and in the fading light, she wished more than anything that she could have more time with her, more time to listen to her voice and gaze into her deep blue eyes and feel herself float whenever Eli said something kind or complimented her. She just wanted more Eli. She wanted this to be never-ending.

If only I could tell her. If only I could tell her about the real me, have her accept me, tell her how amazing I think she is. If only I were brave. If only...

"...would make my parents happy, I think," Eli was saying, as Nozomi refocused herself away from her daydreams.

"I'm sorry, Eli-chan. What was that you were saying?"

"It's okay! I was just talking about the Tanabata next month. It's my first festival since I came back to Japan. I was planning on going no matter what, but I'm sure my parents would be happy if I had, you know, somebody to go with."

"Oh," Nozomi said. "Yes, I, I imagine so. you?"

"Do I?"

"Have somebody special to go to the festival with."

"Oh, um, well, to be honest, I'm not sure how much of the dating type I am," Eli said.

"You're not interested in dating?"

"It's not that I'm not interested, more that I, uh, like certain...types. And as much as my parents would be excited for me to settle down with someone, I'm not sure my type would be okay with them."

What is she saying? "That's definitely...interesting, Eli-chan," she said. "I had expected you'd have to fight suitors away with a stick."

Eli smirked. "What makes you say that?"

Nozomi felt herself turn red and tried to rush an answer. "Well, I-I just mean, you're tall and blonde and beautiful, I..."

"Beautiful?" Eli was positively grinning.

"Well, I...objectively, I mean, of course..."

"Besides, the kind of suitors you usually think of wouldn't get far with me," Eli laughed.

Nozomi raised an eyebrow in surprise. "And just what does that mean, exactly?"

Eli blushed - this time, Nozomi was sure of it - and looked away. "Oh, well, I mean, uh...hey, what about you?"

"Avoiding the question, Eli-chan? What about me?"

"I'm just saying, somebody kind and gentle like you, and also, wouldn't have any trouble."

"Well," Nozomi said, "what makes you think I'm interested in suitors myself?"

Eli paused, looking at Nozomi with a slightly goofy grin before regaining her usual composure. "If I'm understanding you're understanding me...I guess a girls' school is the right place for us."

"Eli-chan, are you saying...?"

Eli laughed a nervous laugh, one that seemed to have a rush of anxious relief behind it. "Nozomi, I've never said this stuff out loud to somebody like this. I...I'm sorry if I'm not very good at it."

"Never at all?"

"Never. Not to my parents, not to my grandparents, not to Alisa, not to my friends. Have you?"

"My parents know who I am," Nozomi said. In more than just one way. "I know a lot of people have bad experiences with it, but they are supportive of me. They wanted me to live as my truest self."

Eli sighed. "That sounds wonderful."

They turned, slowly strolling through the park, keeping a respectful distance from the other visitors. Nozomi decided to push just a little farther on this topic.

"People tell me I wear my heart on my sleeve sometimes," she said. "I feel feelings in a big way. When I get closer to someone, I feel theirs too. A good friend of my mother's called me an 'empath' once, and it stuck with me. So, I guess it's hard to hide myself. My feelings always bubble up. It's just that I haven't had too many people in my life lately, so I guess not many people have been around the real me. You're kind of the first in a long time, Eli-chan."

"That means a lot," Eli said, "and honestly, you're really easy to talk to. It's like I can feel the warmth coming off you. You're the first person I've felt like I can just say it to."

"You can. Try it, if you'd like."

Eli took a deep breath, and spoke, loud enough to sound confident, but quiet enough not to draw attention.

"I'm a lesbian."

"And how did that feel?"

" a weight coming off me," Eli said, with a pure, joyful laugh. "I guess maybe just saying it doesn't change much, but..."

Nozomi shook her head. "I wouldn't say that. Being able to tell somebody outright means you've taken a step forward. You've claimed yourself just a little bit more. means so much to me that you felt you could say that to me."

"You can say it to me, too. If you want to."

Nozomi smiled. "Yes, I'm a lesbian, Eli-chan. And..."

She froze. Amid all the raw honesty of their day together, there were still more words she was too scared to speak.


" feels very good to say that to somebody so kind, yes," Nozomi said, looking away nervously.

When she looked back, she was caught off-guard by the brightness of Eli's face, beaming back at her.

"What is it, Eli-chan?"

"I was just thinking, again, how glad I am that I met you," Eli said, "and how lucky it is that we found our ways to the same school. Two people like us, you know?"

"I do know," Nozomi smiled. "Besides being attuned to emotions, I've always felt like I have a certain spiritual connection to the ways the world fits together. It's not so hard to imagine; after all, miko were once said to have visions of the future. Like I said, I've manifested a lot of things in my life already. That day I saw you for the first time, when you stood up and introduced yourself in class, I felt as though I must have manifested you coming to Otonokizaka, unconsciously. I...realize this must sound absurd to you."

Surprisingly, Eli didn't seem to balk at this. "I've never been somebody who believes in many out-there mystical things, but let's say, if you manifested me coming here when I did, why do you think you did it?"

"I was lonely," Nozomi sighed. "I hoped for somebody I could talk to, and somebody who would understand me. Somebody kind, and thoughtful. Somebody who'd inspire me. Someone I could grow close to." The words fell from her more freely than she expected, but being this open with Eli was making her feel intoxicated, and she found herself unable to tone those words down.

Eli just listened, and smiled that one particular smile Nozomi had come to understand meant confidence.

"I'm really happy to be close to you, too."

Nozomi felt her eyes go wide, and a rush of heat in her cheeks told her she must be turning bright red. This girl made her feel such wonderful and exciting things, and she felt she might pass out from the sheer force of her own yearning.

"Eli-chan, I..."

"Hey, Nozomi, would you like to go by the shrine before we call it a day? There's something I've been wanting to do."

Nozomi wrestled herself out of her reverie before she said something she might regret.

"I'd like that very much, Eli-chan."

She'd climbed the steps leading up to Kanda Shrine many times before, but the lump in Nozomi's throat as she took each step next to Eli today made it feel like a surreal new experience. Sunset was truly arriving now, and the sky above glowed golden and red and purple as the light danced its way across the clouds drifting by. The spectacle was only rivaled by the pounding of her heart, desperate to know what it was that Eli had wanted to do at the shrine but too nervous to dare dream that it might be...

"You could get a good workout climbing these steps," Eli chuckled.

"Oh, oh yes, absolutely," Nozomi said, subtly failing to sound normal. "Between coming here and the steps up to the school, I feel like I get my fair share of exercise."

Though everything seemed to be moving in slow motion, she and Eli had reached the top before she realized it. Across the grounds, the shrine's honden stood proudly, bathed in the light of the setting sun. Groups of visitors milled about, some purifying themselves at the choyuza to approach the main shrine, some making offerings and pulling omikuji to get their fortunes, some writing wishes on ema to leave on the board. It was a normal Saturday evening crowd, and Nozomi and Eli stood off to the side, away from the other visitors, in their own corner of the grounds, blending into the general hustle and bustle.

"This place is so beautiful," Eli said, her tone of voice softened, closer to their tender moment at UTX. "I can see why it means so much to you."

"Coming here keeps me feeling centered," Nozomi said. "That's why I work as a miko here so much. It recharges me."

Eli smiled gently and stared off across the shrine grounds, though her eyes seemed to be focused farther away, at some distant sight only she could see. In that moment, Nozomi was struck by the fading evening light playing across Eli's features and glowing in her seemingly bottomless azure eyes, and despite how obvious, how shameless, she felt, she simply stared at her, taking her in.

Nozomi felt like she might burst. Eli Ayase, simply and completely, enchanted her...and she wasn't sure how much longer she could suppress these feelings wrapping around her.

Eli turned back to her, and Nozomi wasn't fast enough to break away from her gaze. Their eyes met, and they stared at each other, wordlessly but with a palpable nervous tension. It was no more than a handful of moments, but it felt nearly endless to Nozomi.

" I said, I had something I wanted to do here," Eli finally said. "I guess I could have done it anywhere, but I know you love this place, and I really wanted to spend the day with you first, so I felt like the wait was worth it."

Nozomi gulped and felt her heart pounding harder. "Oh...okay, Eli-chan, I...what was it you wanted to do?"

Eli took a step closer. "It's your birthday on Monday, isn't it?"

"How did you know that?"

"You mentioned it a while ago," Eli said, "vaguely, but I did the math."

"W-well, you're correct," Nozomi said. "Yes, my birthday is Monday."

"I thought about it, and I wanted to do something for your birthday," Eli continued, "but I wanted us to have more time than we'd have after school. That's why I asked you to spend the day with me today."

Nozomi could feel her blush deepening, but at this point, she was too far gone to care. "You did all this for my birthday?"

"Not just all this," Eli said, a small grin appearing on her face. "I also got you something."

" didn't have to..."

"I know, but I wanted to."

Eli reached down into the pocket of her shorts, and withdrew a small package, wrapped simply in soft lavender paper. She presented it with a flourish, trying - not entirely successfully - to disguise the fact that her hands were trembling.

"Happy birthday, Nozomi Tojo."

Nozomi took the package and turned it over and around in her hands, trying her best to find the right words, stumbling over them.

"This is...Eli-chan, I didn't need anything from you but your company."

Eli chuckled nervously. "Well, now you have that, and my gift. C'mon, open it."

Nozomi gently pulled apart the wrapping on the back, where a small strip of clear tape held it closed. She unfolded the paper, revealing a small rectangular black wooden box with a gold crescent moon on the lid. Lifting it open, she found an ornate deck of tarot cards. The backs of the cards featured a blue diamond pattern with a four-loop design in the center, and as she drew the card on the top, the face of the card showcased an excellent reproduction of the classic Rider-Waite tarot art.

"This is beautiful. Absolutely beautiful."

"A beautiful gift for a beautiful girl. It seemed appropriate," Eli grinned.

Nozomi felt her tears building up in the corners of her eyes. This incredible girl had once again surprised her, and she couldn't keep her feelings in check. When she next spoke, her words were quiet, but unfiltered.

"How are you this amazing? How? How did somebody like you find me?"

The feeling of Eli's fingertips lifting her chin and looking straight into her eyes caught her off guard, and the sheer volume of Eli's smile made her weak in the knees.

"You manifested me, remember?"

Nozomi felt as though she might faint, and in that moment, she did the only thing she wanted to, the one thing that seemed simultaneously inappropriate and deeply, manifestly correct. She threw her arms around Eli, buried her face in her shoulder, and cried the happiest tears she had cried in years, sniffling and laughing as she squeezed Eli tight.

Eli returned her embrace, cuddling them up together and resting her face gently in Nozomi's hair. Several moments passed before either of them dared to speak.

"Nozomi," Eli said, "I...have something I want to say to you."

"I do too, Eli-chan," Nozomi said under her tears. "I've wanted to for so long."

"You first, then," Eli said, squeezing her in her strong arms.

In her mind, Nozomi stood at a cliff. A sheer plunge extended below her, and above, an infinite sky of towering, cathedral-like clouds. She couldn't stop herself from falling over the edge now; she was absolutely too far gone, and she couldn't stop the next words coming out of her if she tried. She would either fall away from this moment, or she would soar into that sky. There was only one way to find out now.

"Eli-chan, I...I," Nozomi stammered, pushing through her fears and anxiety. She grabbed the material of Eli's shirt in her hands and squeezed. "You make me feel special. When we're together, I feel like I'm glowing. I just want to spend all my time with you. And I...I love you. I love you. I've loved you since the day we met."

Nozomi tipped over the edge of the cliff, and held her breath, and moments later, as she felt Eli nuzzle against her, she finally flew.

"Ever since we started spending time together," Eli said softly, "I've never stopped thinking about you. It's been hard adjusting to everything since I came back, but being with you makes me feel like I'm home again. You feel like home, Nozomi. And...I love you too. I love you so, so much. I've wanted to say that to you for a while now, but...I just wanted to do it right."

Nozomi pulled back from Eli's shoulder, and looked up into her eyes again to find that she, too, was crying. Before either of them could speak, as the sounds and activity of the city around them faded away from her conscious, Nozomi closed her eyes and felt Eli pull her by the waist, and kiss her.

Nozomi eagerly returned the affection, kissing back with as much force as she dared use. With her eyes closed, she could feel was the softness of Eli's lips, the gentle scent of her hair, the warmth radiating from her face. She had never kissed somebody before, and was momentarily terrified that she would do something wrong, but those fears quickly melted away as she and Eli deepened their kiss. Nothing about this felt awkward, or unsure. Nozomi felt like she had been created to kiss this girl, and it came to her as naturally as breathing.

In that span of time, as their kiss seemed to be the only thing in the world, she could have sworn she saw something, something beyond her closed eyes. It was just a flash, but in that lingering, slow moment, she saw Eli in front of her, older. She wore fine clothes - a tuxedo? - and seemed to have a ring on her finger. And Nozomi felt, more than saw, the long and layered dress she herself wore. The rest of the scene was dim: a place that felt like a stage, an indistinct blur of faces she didn't recognize, voices she hadn't heard before cheering them on. Just as quickly as it was there, it was gone. It was surprising, but far from unwelcome, and hardly the first time Nozomi's spiritual energies had hit her so strongly.

She had no idea how long they held the kiss, but eventually, they pulled apart, breaking into the laughter of nervous relief. She looked around, but if any of the tourists and shrine-goers had seen them, nobody seemed to be letting on.

"I've wanted to do that for so long," Eli laughed.

"So have I," Nozomi said. "It was more than worth the wait."

"Yeah, it was," Eli said. She took Nozomi's hand in hers. "There's something I heard in my family sometimes, back in Russia. 'Ты согреваешь мою душу.' It basically means 'you warm my soul.' That's how you make me feel, Nozomi. You warm my soul, and...I would love to call you my girlfriend."

Nozomi only wanted to say yes, in a thousand different ways, but she couldn't believe this was real. And she had her fears. Eli doesn't know everything about me...not to mention how hard it might be to do this safely, without getting either of us in trouble.

"I want to be your girlfriend so badly it hurts. I'm just...I'm nervous. You don't know everything about me, and I...I feel like there's something I need to tell you before we commit to each other like this."

"You can tell me anything," Eli said. "Anything at all. Though I don't think anything you could tell me would make me not want this."

Nozomi took a deep breath. "I'm...not just a lesbian. I...when I was born, they - the doctors, my parents - thought I was...somebody else. When I was young, I told them who I was. I told them I was a girl, and I picked out my name, and when I got older, because my parents support me, I started taking..."

"Nozomi," Eli said, stroking her cheek more tenderly than she realized was possible. "I understand. You're here now, and you're the most beautiful, sweetest girl I've ever seen in my life. How you got here is just another part of your story. It doesn't change how I feel about you."

Nozomi sniffled, and squeezed Eli's hand. "That means more to me than I can ever say, Elicchi."

Eli grinned back at her. "That's new. Elicchi, huh?"

"I wanted to call you that for a while now," Nozomi said, "because you're special to me."

"I like it."

"I'm glad," Nozomi said. "Though there's still one problem. How are we going to do this and not get in trouble?"

"Well, we can be subtle," Eli said.

Nozomi couldn't help but laugh at that. "Elicchi, we just kissed in front of the shrine I work at. In public. Do you really think there's anything subtle about us?"

"Okay, we on being subtle," Eli laughed. "I'm being serious, though. We go to an all-girls school. We have a built-in reason to spend a lot of time together. And you live alone, so it's not like we have to hide when we're at your place. My parents aren't around all the time, and Alisa, well, I'll talk to Alisa. She'll understand."

"She's always seemed like a sweet girl," Nozomi said.

"And, eventually," Eli said, "I'll tell my parents. I don't know how that will go, but I think it'll work out alright. They're kind people, and they love Alisa and I. And they like you. It'll be okay. And as we meet more people at school, well, we'll just work on that 'being subtle' part."

"Why, for somebody who doesn't much go for mysticism," Nozomi grinned, "you seem to be taking a lot on faith here."

"I guess so, yeah," Eli said, "but I have to. I just want to be with you. The rest, we'll figure out. Maybe you're rubbing off on me."

"It's spiritual," Nozomi said. "Just think of it as getting your Nozomi power injection. I'm sure you wouldn't object to that, would you, Elicchi?"

Eli stared back at her, eyes wide, a crooked grin on her face, seemingly stunned into unresponsiveness.

Nozomi stared back, then broke into giggles. "You're so cute when you're flustered."

"You're way too good at that," Eli said.

"Thank you," Nozomi said. "You're in for a lot more of it."

Once again, Eli turned bright red. "Harasho!"

"That's my girl," Nozomi grinned. "Now, it's getting a little late, so what do you say we get omikuji before we leave? After that, you can walk your girlfriend home."

"That sounds just perfect to me," Eli said.

They walked over to the boxes containing the small paper fortunes, and after leaving an offering, each drew a fortune. Nozomi opened hers, and upon reading it, beamed down at the paper. A very good fortune indeed. She slipped it into her purse, next to the box of tarot cards Eli had gotten her.

Eli returned to her after reading her own fortune, smiling that warm smile of hers. "All set?"

"All set," Nozomi said. She took Eli's hand, squeezing it and swooning as Eli squeezed back, and they walked off across the shrine grounds together, heading not for the staircase but instead down the main path to the shrine's torii gate.

As they turned out onto the streets of Akihabara and headed in the direction of Nozomi's apartment, Eli squeezed her hand again, and Nozomi leaned in closer to her, feeling the motions of her body as they walked together.

Eli leaned in and spoke softly. "Did you get a good fortune?"

"Yes, I did," Nozomi smiled. "Did you, Elicchi?"

"I got a great one, yeah," Eli said.

"Well now I'm curious," Nozomi smirked. "Come on, show me!"

"Let's see yours too, then!"

Nozomi reached back into her purse and withdrew the omikuji, as Eli pulled hers from her pocket. They unfolded the slips of paper, and held them together. As they read each other's fortunes, Eli stopped dead in her tracks.

"That...that...I can't believe it," Eli said.

Nozomi smiled. "What can I say? My power is strong."

To her delight, and just as she expected, the two slips of paper both carried the same fortune.

The person you seek shall arrive.

End Notes

I thank you all for reading my New Melody Project version of the origin of Nozomi and Eli's romance! I've wanted to write this part of their lives for a long time, and making a version that fits into my bigger fic series was the perfect opportunity.

I love Nozomi and Eli so, so much, and I hope that comes across in my various works. <3