After the conflict with Quartz, Marika passes her exams and when Chiaki tells her she’s staying at the academy, Marika hugs her so tight Chiaki thinks she might have actually squeezed the air out of her. Chiaki tells herself that this is a new beginning.
Despite that, things get back to normal pretty quickly.
Pirating keeps Marika busy, but she still works at the cafe. Chiaki peeks through the store window every day after school to see if she’s working. Not because she wants to see her, that would be ridiculous -- she sees Marika at school nearly every day and at the yacht club and sometimes Barbaroosa and Bentenmaru work jobs together. So when Chiaki peers through the window to see if Marika is working, it is definitely not because she wants to see her.
Chiaki is just making sure Marika is paying equal attention to all of her responsibilities. It would be detrimental to the pirating community if someone as renowned as Marika had recently become earned a reputation of being neglectful or irresponsible.
Yes, that’s the only reason. That and maybe Chiaki was desperately in love with Marika.
Her father is the first one who notices, and the one who suggests she stay at the academy.
“I can’t stand to watch you mope about that Katou girl for another minute! Nothing makes me sick quite like a lovesick puppy. If you’re going to make eyes like that at anyone, make them at her and not me!”
So she does. Chiaki applies to attend the academy permanently and finds an apartment on Sea of Morning Star. She’s in Marika’s class and she’s still part of the yacht club.
When Marika doesn’t have work or captain duties after school, she and Chiaki walk home together. Marika laughs, tells jokes, and puts her arm around Chiaki’s shoulders. Chiaki looks embarrassed and scowls a lot, but she treasures the time they spend together.
At school, Marika taps Chiaki on the shoulder and asks Chiaki for help with her homework. Chiaki sighs, rolls her eyes and scolds her for not having it done before class. Marika always apologizes, ducks her head and raises her hands defensively but Chiaki helps her anyways.
At club, Marika takes charge and instructs the lowerclassmen with a great deal of confidence. The first years always ask Marika to tell pirating stories and Marika gets embarrassed. Chiaki is always there to remind them that there’s a time and a place for Marika to brag about her excursions and that time is not during club hours nor is that place the club room. Besides, they’ve got an upcoming voyage planned and Marika really should be finalizing the paperwork.
“You’re right, Chiaki-chan, you’re right. Sorry, sorry.” Marika beams at her and excuses herself from the disappointed first years with the promise to tell them another time.
The other club members talk about Chiaki and Marika like they’re best friends. Chiaki is starting to believe it.
While she enjoys the warm, fizzing sensation in her stomach whenever she thinks I’m Katou Marika’s best friend it also fills her with a kind of dread. What if they get stuck as just friends and Chiaki spends the rest of her life pining for Marika, and one day Marika gets married to someone else and god forbid, Chiaki be her maid of honour. No, that’s just too cliche for one thing, and by god, she’s a Kurihara for another! She isn’t going to spend her day moping and sulking. No, she’ll confess her feelings to Marika. Even if Marika rejects her, it’s the principle of the thing.
But every time Chiaki builds up enough courage to actually get the words out, Marika takes off. There’s an emergency on the Bentenmaru or there’s a conflict about who gets how much time in the flight simulator and it’s Marika’s duty as president to resolve it. “I’m sorry, Chiaki-chan! E-mail me later and we can make plans for another time!” Marika always shouts over her shoulder, running or cycling away from Chiaki.
“Why do you have to be so formal about it?” Jenny says to her when Chiaki calls for advice. Jenny figured out how Chiaki felt after watching her pining looks at Marika’s back and now she’s the only person Chiaki can turn to for help.
“What do you mean?”
“Why do you have to confess so formally? You don’t have to go out to dinner or take a romantic walk in the park, you can just tell her!”
Chiaki scowls at Jenny’s beaming face displayed on the telephone monitor. “You make it sound as if I’m being childish.”
“You said it, Chiaki-chan, not me. I’ve got to run, Lynn and I are going flying. See ya!” And the screen goes black.
Chiaki retreats from her desk to throw herself on her bed. She doesn’t think she’s being impractical. Telling Marika how she feels formally is important. How else will Marika understand how serious she is? No, Jenny is wrong, she isn’t being childish.
Chiaki catches sight of herself in the mirror across the room from her bed. Her lower lip is curled out and she looks like the poster child for teenage heartbreak with her pillow clutched to her chest and sulky demeanor. Her face goes bright red and she tosses the pillow at her reflection.
Weeks go by and the pattern continues. Chiaki builds up enough courage to ask Marika to meet her so they can discuss something important, Marika cancels their plans, Chiaki’s confidence is shattered. Chiaki begins to wonder if she’s being punished for transgressions in a past life.
“Heeey, Chiaki-chan!” Marika jumps on her in greeting, smacking her in the head with her school bag. “Come with me to the cafe! We’ve started making white chocolate parfaits!”
Chiaki hides her elation by sighing heavily and brushing off her skirt. “Well, if you insist.” She scowls at Marika’s beaming face and her heart twinges.
On the way to the cafe Marika’s shoulder brushes against Chiaki’s and Marika talks loudly about pirating and school. Chiaki hums agreeably at all the appropriate pauses in Marika’s chatter but mostly keeps quiet. Today is the day. She absolutely must tell Marika how she feels or she’ll never forgive herself. She would have to resign herself to spinsterhood and spend her days wallowing in her own failure. Perhap she should emancipate herself to spare her father the shame. Perhaps she could join a nunnery. Had there ever been a pirate nun before...?
“Chiaki-chan?” Marika’s voice pulls Chiaki from her thoughts and she stares at Marika, startled.
“Say, is something wrong Chiaki-chan?” Marika’s eyebrows are knitted together in concern and her mouth is curved in a definite pout.
“No, no it’s--”
“Because you’ve been kind of strange lately. Sometimes, I see you and you look really happy. But then it’s like you notice you’re happy, and you start to look really sad, you know? And you keep saying there’s something you really need to talk to me about, but you never just come out and say it. It’s making me really worried. I’m worried about you.” Marika puts her hand on Chiaki’s shoulder and stares into Chiaki’s face with sad, genuine eyes; Chiaki feels like a deer caught in headlights and she can’t quite remember how her mouth and tongue work so instead she just gapes and sputters.
“Well, um, you see--”
“I care about you a lot, Chiaki.” Marika’s hand squeezes Chiaki’s shoulder and Chiaki swears she could have seen spots.
The brush of Marika’s lips on Chiaki’s cheek is rougher than she expects, but it’s winter time and the dry air must be causing them the chafe. Chiaki should offer her some chapstick later.
The reality of what’s happening hits Chiaki with a great deal of force and she shoves Marika away from her reflexively to soften the blow.
“W-what are you doing!” It isn’t a question and from the shrillness in her voice, Chiaki isn’t even sure it sounds like words.
“Kissing you, a little.” Marika doesn’t react to Chiaki’s shove but rather absorbs the blow and grabs at Chiaki’s hand. “Come on, let’s get parfaits.”
“What! What do you mean, ‘let’s get parfaits’!? You kissed me! Why?!” Chiaki feels dizzy, she needs to sit down.
“Because I like you.”
“What-?!” Now Marika’s lips are fully pressed against Chiaki’s lips and Chiaki notices that yes, they are indeed chapped but also warm and a little sweet.
“I like you,” Marika whispers against Chiaki’s mouth and smiles.
Just a quickly as the kiss came, it’s gone, and Marika is pulling Chiaki into the warmth of the cafe and Chiaki is dumbly stumbling along.
“We have to talk about this!” Chiaki insists as Marika helps her take off her coat at the door “I have to, to...”
“What’s there to talk about?” Marika frowns and shakes her head a little while hanging up Chiaki’s coat and shrugging her own off. “We like each other, that’s all there is to it. Do you want extra cream on yours?”
The most infuriating thing about Marika is also her most loveable trait. Her simplicity. Of course Marika isn’t blind to the romantic tension between them. Of course Marika can see the way Chiaki looked at her. Of course Marika understands that the affection between them is much more than friendship and camaraderie, though that exists between them too. Of course Marika rationalizes all of this and understands it as the simple phrase ‘I like you’. All while Chiaki is berating herself and complicating things with her self-induced bureaucracy; Chiaki doesn’t have to confess, they don’t have to talk about their feelings, they don’t need to do all that. They can just … be with each other.
All the tension in Chiaki’s neck and shoulders slowly slip out of her body and she sighs, heavily.