Months passed. The spring morphed into summer. The gang's last trip to Chiyo's summer home had wrapped up a few days earlier. Chiyo was off to Los Angeles for her first year of college. Tomo was still a proud member of the lumpenproletariat, although she was doing work through like five different gig economy apps instead of selling underwear in back alleys to tourists. Kagura was making her way towards being a professional athlete. Life motored on as normal.
But for Sakaki, she'd been mentally preoccupied with another matter. Ever since she came out to Tomo, she'd wondered what had happened to Kaorin. Tomo said during the summer trip that Kaorin was up north somewhere, studying astronomy. She tried piecing together the information she knew. Tomo had sent her north for a reason, using some vague 'connections'. She also said that Kaorin was safe, and had Sakaki's number. Obviously this was not good enough for Sakaki. She cared about Kaorin. A lot. Like, a lot a lot. And not knowing what had happened to her was intensely worrying.
And so, as she rode the bus to school on a morning not much different than the one she woke up on and decided to come out to her friends, she made a plan. Japan is a big country, and the information was scant, but she was going to find her, dammit. She was going to find her Kaorin. She made a list of every national university that could be construed as being in the 'north' that also had a planetary science program. She plotted them out on a map. She found her work schedule–thanks to being a student, there wasn't too much fluidity–and starting blocking out weekends to start looking. She'd start in the far north, in Sapporo, and work her way down. Hokkaido would require a plane ride, so it'd be easier to have the biggest trip be first and get that over with. Hmm...she didn't want to make that trip in the winter. She didn't have any winter clothing. Best go in the early fall, which meant she had about two weeks to plan and gather the funds to make the trip.
The gang still met up quite regularly, to the best of their schedules. Ayumu had gotten a job at a bookstore not far from where she was studying and was apparently doing quite well; she'd heard a rumor she was on the shortlist to be named manager. Kagura was still doing sports and studying psychology. Yomi was top of her class. Tomo was even talking about starting school the next year if she kept working.
Every time they met up, they'd ask Sakaki what was going on in her life. How was school? Work? Maya? Fine, fine, fine, she'd respond, but it wasn't the whole truth. There was a hole in her soul, one that could only be fixed by finding the person who'd meant so much to her in their high school days.
"Got any trips planned?" Tomo asked, downing a hamburger in two bites.
"Oh, maybe. I'm thinking of taking one to Sapporo in a few weeks," Sakaki replied. Tomo stopped eating.
"Is that so?"
"Well, um, have fun."
"Not jealous, are you?" she teased. Tomo put on a pouty face. "NO, I'm NOT!" She went back to hunching over her second hamburger like a little goblin.
"It's okay, I'm only going for the weekend, it's not a full trip," Sakaki laughed. "I'll see if I can bring you back something."
"You better," Tomo muttered, then made a yelping noise. Yomi had pinched her, a new, more discreet way of punishing her brat in public that she'd recently mastered. She glared at Yomi, then housed her fries.
"Sapporo should be fun," Ayumu said. "It's cold up there, though."
"I know, which is why I'm going when I am. Any later, and I'd have to buy winter clothing."
"Have fun, though!" Kagura said cheerfully.
Sakaki looked out the window. "Oh, I'm going to try."
She was about to leave when she felt a hand on her shoulder.
"You're going to look for her, aren't you?"
She sighed. "Look, Tomo, I...I need to."
"I could tell something was up." She pulled out a familiar box. "Cig?"
"You know, it's funny," the wildcat said, lighting up.
"How madly in love with her you are."
Sakaki felt her face heat up. She felt the words I'm not form in her throat, and immediately she felt bad about it. Was it truthful? Was she in love with Kaorin? There was no doubt that Kaorin was in love with her. She thought back, and she remembered.
The first time they looked at the stars together, after that stupid class dance.
The walks home from school they started doing.
The time her mom actually relented and let Kaorin come over, and they played fighting games until Kaorin's head was resting on Sakaki's shoulder, fast asleep.
The time that Kaorin caught a frog on their way to school one drizzly morning.
The time Kaorin gave her a flower of cleyera japonica.
The time she took Kaorin to see the Tokyo Metropolitan play Holst's The Planets and Scriabin's Symphony No. 2 for her birthday.
The time Kaorin drew a picture of Maya for her.
The way Kaorin made sure to jump in every puddle on rainy days.
The way Kaorin would look at her in class.
The way Kaorin stopped calling her 'cool' and started calling her 'cute' because she learned it made her uncomfortable.
The way Kaorin would smile.
The way Kaorin would laugh.
The way Kaorin would say her name.
The way Kaorin would...the way Kaorin would...the way Kaorin would...
"Hey," Tomo said, jarring her out of her thoughts. "You're crying." She handed Sakaki a tissue. The tall girl hadn't even noticed that she was crying. She wiped blindly at her face. Tomo said, "You know, I wouldn't have suggested you go looking for her, but you do you. I'll tell you one thing, though. And only one." She leaned in really close and in a bare whisper said,
"Hang around Nakajimakoendori Station at about 9 pm three Fridays from now." And with that, her friend slipped into the shadows.
As she landed in Hokkaido, she felt her stomach trying to escape her body. Kaorin had no idea she was coming to find her, if she was even there. Tomo hadn't said that waiting around Nakajimakoendori Station at 9 pm was going to yield a Kaorin. She just said to wait there. What if Kaorin wasn't there? Or, worse, what if Kaorin...what if Kaorin didn't want to see her? What if she'd found a new life? What if she'd started dating other girls and Sakaki was the one treating her emotions too seriously the whole time? What if Kaorin hated her now?
About an hour later she found herself in a park across from the station. The sidewalk had a bench that gave a perfectly reasonable vantage point of the street. She stewed in her thoughts even more. Her heart was pounding. Every moderately tall woman that passed by nearly gave her a heart attack.
Then, she saw her. It was her. It was absolutely her.
She was walking alone from the observatory, towards the street. She'd forgotten to wear a hat and had a different haircut now than she did in high school, but Sakaki knew that body outline, walk, and "Dear GOD it's cold!" anywhere. It was her.
She reached the main street, then started walking down the sidewalk away from Sakaki. She was about a dozen meters away. Now was her chance. Sakaki got up, and started walking fast.
"Kaori?" she called out.
The girl turned around and looked directly at her. Sakaki started to run.
"Sa...Sakaki?" asked Kaorin quietly, in disbelief. This wasn't real. It couldn't be real.
They ran at each other, full tilt, Kaorin leaping into Sakaki's outstretched arms, screaming with joy.
"Oh my God, SAKAKI!" she yelled. "I thought...I thought..."
"I thought I'd never see you again," Sakaki cried. "Oh my stars, Kaori..." She smiled through the tears as she looked at her sweetheart in the eyes, eyes she had missed so very badly.
"Did you...did you come looking for me?" asked Kaorin, also crying.
"My heart needed you, it couldn't stand being away from you, I–"
Kaorin interrupted her with a kiss. And not on the cheek. This was a full-on, full-body, time-stopping, world-melting-away-around-us kiss, conveying four years of buried desire and hidden passion. Sakaki's mind exploded, her hands holding Kaorin against her body, pressing themselves together. She felt their hearts racing, their minds soaring through the night sky.
"I didn't know when I'd ever see you, I'd lost the number Tomo gave me, I should've called you, I'm so sorry," Kaorin apologized vociferously. Sakaki held her. "Sh, sh, the important thing is I'm here, you're here."
"Yeah. Y-yeah. God, you're here, in my arms, I'm the happiest girl in the world, I'm the happiest girl in the world..."
"I'm getting cold, I'd love to go someplace to warm up," Sakaki said.
"It's pretty late, not many places are open other than bars, but it's Friday night so I don't have anything going on tomorrow."
"I was thinking..." Sakaki leaned in close. "Maybe your bed? Show you how much I've really missed you?"
Kaorin giggled, as she did when she was flustered. "Oh my, Sakaki, right down to business, are we?"
"I just have so much passion pent up...it needs to be released..."
"God, I do too..."
"But there's something I need to tell you first."
"Anything, my evening star."
Kaorin took it fully in stride. "And? It was never an issue before for us."
"I love you so much."
"I love you so much!"
"God, I wish I was staying for more than the weekend."
"Come up here for the winter holiday!"
"Really? You mean that?"
"Yeah! It's not like I'm doing anything else."
"A winter holiday with my sweetest love..."
Kaorin held Sakaki's hand. "A veritable dream come true."
"Shall we go?" Sakaki pointed forward, into the night, into the future, a future with Kaorin by her side. Hopefully forever.
Kaorin smiled at her. "Into yonder."
Author's Note:God, this chapter felt good to write.