Nakamura Rio dresses for work in the cold gloom of her apartment bedroom. The first light of dawn, blue through her curtains, trickles in across the off-white carpeting. Her phone buzzes again, the eighth time in ten minutes. Karma isn't letting up. He's determined to pay her back for missing his wedding. The phone screen illuminates with yet another emailed picture, and this time she can't help but look. She pauses in her routine, blouse half-buttoned, and unlocks her phone.

Akabane Karma's face is grinning back at her, one arm wrapped around his bride's waist, the other around his best friend's neck. Rio tries to ignore Shiota Nagisa's gasping face, focusing instead on the blushing Okuda. Rio is still surprised their relationship worked out. Of all the pairings that could have been, bloodthirsty, foul-mouthed Karma ends up with the chemistry nerd. Rio sighs. If that's possible, anything could be. She gives up on getting to work on time and flips back through the other pictures. There's Terasaka drinking with his gang, Kataoka and Isogai with their two little girls, and Nagisa with Kayano-chan hovering at his side. He hasn't changed a bit. She feels the first tears welling up at the corner of her eyes, and turns off the phone.

Against her better instincts, she makes a phone call that night. Not to Nagisa, of course. They haven't spoken in months, not because she doesn't want to, but because she couldn't bear to tell him she'd be missing out on the wedding. At any other time, she would have called Karma, or even Terasaka. Either of them would be blunt enough to rip through her somber mood. But tonight there's only one person she wants to speak to. The phone rings three times, and Rio checks the time in a muted panic, wondering if her call was early. It should be around 7 AM in Japan, and that girl is always up earlier than that. Finally, on the fifth ring, she hears the connection click open.

"Nakamura-san?" The demure voice on the other end is wide awake.

"Kayano-chan, I was just about to leave you a message! Do you have a moment?"

"Of course! I'm sorry we missed you at the wedding."

"Yeah, I'm sorry I missed it too. Work has been killing me, you know? 'Course you do, Miss Movie Star!" She tries to sound cheerful, but the wedding is the last thing she wants to talk about. It's just another reminder that she hasn't been home in more than five years, barring a quick visit for her twenty-seventh birthday.

"I'm lucky I made it too. Thankfully we were on a shooting break."

"I saw the pictures, you all looked great. It's amazing how much Okuda transforms with her hair down!"

"Right? I sent her to one of my stylists. You should have seen Karma-kun's face when the doors opened!"

"Please please please tell me someone has a picture of that. That bastard's probably just hiding it from me!"

"I think Nagisa-kun got it. I'll ask him to send it over."

"How-" Rio's voice catches in her throat. She doesn't want to ask, but has to. "How is he?"

"He's doing fine," Kayano-chan says. Her voice has dropped, and Rio can detect some forced levity in her tone.

In for a penny, in for a pound. "Are you two still. . . you know, dating?"

"I'm not sure if it qualifies as dating." Kayano-chan giggles. "We've dropped back into the post-high school routine. I think he just uses me as a shield to deflect interested women." Rio doesn't know what's sadder: that there's a tinge of disappointment in Kayano's voice, or that she's happy about it. "What about you, Nakamura-san? Any boyfriends of note?"

"None that I haven't already gossiped about," Rio says, just a bit too quickly.

"You still think about him, don't you?"

"I-" There's a lump in her throat that she does her best to swallow. "I do. I can't stop thinking about it, about him. I'm sorry, Kayano-chan, this is turning out to be a chat about my problems."

"You've carried my burdens for me, Nakamura-san. There had to come a time for me to repay the favor."

"I don't know what to do," Rio says. As if to distract herself, she scrolls through her emails on her laptop: the job applications, the wedding photos, the teasing barbs between her and Karma that seem so callous and hollow now. "I regret it all. I never should have left Japan."

"Traveling overseas was your dream. Don't reject it so lightly." Kayano is right. She would have festered in Japan, but is that any better than what she's gone through here?

"Maybe then, I regret leaving everyone behind." Leaving him behind, she tells herself. That's the real truth.

"Class-E is destined to be together, I think. Everyone has ended up together one way or another. I mean, the marriages between our classmates are like eight times the national average. Even Maehara and Okano got hitched."

"That's the one I'm most upset about missing," Rio says, giggling even as she wipes away a tear. "I wonder if there's still a place for me there."

"Of course there is!" Kayano's voice is about as insistent as she can get. "I know two people in particular that would be very happy for you to come back."

"I don't really want to steal him back from you though. I kinda promised myself I wouldn't do that, then ended up doing it anyway. I figured leaving for good was my second chance."

"You can't steal what isn't mine, Nakamura-san. I promise. You'll have a harder time tearing him away from his curriculum. You know he's offering free test answers to anyone of his students who can land a hit on him during P.E.? He's turned that high school around."

Rio lets out a laugh that sounds more like a sigh. "Maybe you're right. Ugh, I think I need to make another phone call. Sorry for hogging all your time, can we catch up later?"

"Sure thing, Nakamura-san. I hope we'll see you soon!"

"Yeah, me too. Bye bye Kayano-chan!"

The phone beeps off, and Rio lays back in her bed, staring at the blank ceiling. Is she really doing this? Is this what it's come to? Yes, she decides. She scrolls down her contacts list, taps the screen, and lifts the phone to her ear. One ring. "Hey, Karma? Yeah stuff it, I'll apologize properly in a bit. Listen, I know it's your honeymoon, but I need to ask you a big favor."

Of all the people to be waiting for her in the airport, Irina Jelavic is the one Rio didn't expect. The blond woman is sitting outside the baggage claim, dressed as fashionably as ever. She looks up at Rio as she approaches, and for a moment Rio feels a chill as she's subjected to the former assassin's discerning gaze. Her cold stare is gone as soon as it appears though, replaced with a motherly smile that Rio had never seen her wear before. "Nakamura, it's been what? Eight years? Karma called me, asked me to give you someplace to stay while you get settled into your new job."

"Thanks Bitch-Sensei, it's been too long!" She pulls Irina into a hug before that matronly demeanor can crack.

"Right from the start it's 'bitch-this, bitch-that'," Irina says. "It's been fifteen years you know? I have a name."

"You'll always be Bitch-Sensei to us!"

"Yes, well don't let the little ones hear you say it. I'll never live it down."

"You sure you don't want me to give your kids some bad habits? I'm sure Karasuma-san is plenty strict on them."

"Oh please," Irina flashes a grin. "The boys take after their mother. They're bad enough already. Now, what's this I hear about that little shrimp? Finally decided to make your move?"

"Something like that. I just got sick of nothing happening, you know?" Rio collects her bags from the carousel and follows Irina to their car. "But I owe Karma a big one, and he'll work me to the bone translating for his new think-tank. I might not have any time to see Nagisa at all."

"Say what you will about Karma, he's true to his word." Rio sits down at Karasuma's dining room table as though she'd just finished one of his ten kilometer ruck marches. She starts to slouch, only to sit up straight as Karasuma turns back from the stove. It's odd seeing him in a domestic light, wearing an apron, wrangling children, all the while wearing his granite-like stoicism like a badge of honor. He could make a great career in comedy television, she decides. He's aged gracefully, with streaks of grey across his short black hair and frown lines like cracks in old stone.

"Keeping you busy? Karma-kun expects everyone else to work as hard as he does, even now."

"Well, if it weren't for Karma's prodding and Terasaka's connections, I'd still be stuck in New York. I owe them both, even if it means eighty hour weeks for the next ten years." She hopes it isn't going to be a ten year ordeal, but she can't put anything past Karma. She's not his comrade-in-arms anymore, she lost that title when she started sleeping with his best friend.

There's also another factor at play. Graduation is less than two weeks away. As much as she wants to see him, she can't get in the way of that. He'll be focused on exams, the last thing he needs is her to come rushing back into his life. "Have you kept up with Nagisa at all? I heard he's taken over Koro-sensei's job as target."

"I heard that as well, and he's doing a good job of it."

"I wonder if he needs a supplemental English teacher." Rio smiles, imagining herself in Bitch-Sensei's place, barging into a class that wasn't hers.

"Forgive me, but you don't seem the teaching type."

"To be fair, neither did you or Bi-" she stops herself. "Irina-sensei."

"True, we grew into it, and so did Nagisa-kun. And his classes might take him more seriously if he had a partner around."

She's sure he meant "teammate" or "comrade", but she smiles anyway.

It's when she's alone at night, between soulless work and restless sleep, that the worst of the thoughts come. Is this really ok? She's been overseas for five years. How can she expect him to wait for her, after only six weeks? She told him then that she might move on. Maybe he did too. Maybe all of this is for nothing. In those terrible moments, she curls up in the sheets, dredging up the faded, frayed memories of their time together. She tries to recall how he felt atop her, the warmth of his arm around her shoulders, the gentle press of his lips against her brow. Are those memories even real, she wonders, or are they just romanticized ideals of what really happened back then?

She hates those questions the most. "It was real," she whispers, even though it was only six weeks. Even though he never said he loved her. She bites back the doubt, and wipes her tears on the pillowcase. She's come too far to back down now.

She stands like a rock amid a flowing tide of elated graduates. The students of Paradise High stream through the gates, chatting in twos and threes as they take their first steps into new lives. Few give any heed to the blond haired woman in their midst, and those that do forget her as soon as they register her. She tries and fails to quell her pounding heart. Even the old breathing exercises do little to help. Karma-kun and Bitch-Sensei both agreed that she needs to make an impression, but grand gestures were never her strong suit.

She sees him first, a slight figure in the company of giants. He still wears a waistcoat in the style of their old school, his rolled sleeves giving off a surprisingly masculine impression. Rio takes one step, and his head swivels around like a drone tracking a new target. He's more alert than ever. She falters. What now? The students mill about around him, unsure of why he's stopped or what he's staring at. His neutral expression cracks, and his mouth drops in mute surprise. With faltering steps, Nagisa breaks from his entourage of students and darts through the crowd towards her.

"Rio!" he slides to a stop before her, his brow furrowed in confusion. "W-what are you doing here?"

She looks down at her feet. Isn't she supposed to have something to say? Something wonderful and poetic? If she thought of something, it's forgotten now. "I'm back, Nagisa."

"Back." He's almost breathless. "For how long?"

She gives him her best smile, the one she's been saving for this very moment. "For good."

Nagisa blinks and looks away, a faint grin appearing and vanishing again. "I don't know what to say, it's been so long."

"You could start with-"

The crowd around them bursts to life as a group of students charge at Nagisa. Each brandishes a rubber knife, and they're all screaming bloody murder. Nagisa puts the first on his back, but his reflexes are slow, distracted. The second knife slides past his collar, and he has no time to counter. The third cuts across his chest, and the gang of students let out a cheer of triumph. "Yeah! We got him! Took us the whole goddamn year but we finally got him!"

One of the students gives Rio a thumbs up. "Nice job, Gyaru nee-san. Don't know who you are, but we finally found something to distract him."

Nagisa shakes his head, laughing, and Rio can't help but join him. Bitch-Sensei would be proud of that distraction, even if it was unintentional. "You really motivate these kids, don't you, Nagisa?"

There's something undeniably proud about his smile. "Someone has to." He turns back to the cheering group. "Aright boys and girls, what will it be? It's not like I can give you answers for your first college exam, so how about lunch on me?"

"As long as Gyaru nee-san is coming too!" says one of the boys, earning a few eyerolls from his female classmates.

Nagisa's smile, that smile, freezes him in place. "Unfortunately she's with me. But there are plenty of fish in the sea, Moro-san." There's still a hint of that icy expression when he turns back to Rio. "You coming?"

"Of course I am." She hopes he can't tell how that smile got her just a bit bothered.

It's probably a good thing that Nagisa is such a good assassin, because his students have expensive taste. Rio can't remember frequenting any semi-decent sushi restaurants as a student, and this place is a step above decent. But Nagisa shows nothing but pride when he tells the students that it's all on him. "You earned it, not just by hitting me, but by graduating. You all did your very best, and I'm excited to see what the future holds for each and every one of you."

"Well we have you to thank for that!" says one of the students.

Another one nods in agreement, "But we'll still take the free meal, if you're still wondering."

Nagisa raises his hands in mock-surrender. "A promise is a promise. Nakamura-san and I are going to have a chat, so you come and get me if you need anything."

"Nagisa-sensei, weren't you dating Mase Haruna? Don't you think she'll be upset if she knows you're seeing this bombshell on the side?"

Now is her chance, and she can't resist. Rio slides her arm around Nagisa's neck, pulling him close to her. "Who is he really seeing on the side though?" She winks, and then drags him off to their shared table.

"Rio." Nagisa fiddles with his chopsticks, unable to look her in the eye. He's smiling though, and every now and then glances up as though making sure she's still there. "Since when? How long have you been back?"

"Almost a month at this point. Karma-kun got me a job, but he's been working me so hard that I haven't had time to get out. And, well, I knew exams would be your main focus."

"You could have called. I've missed you."

"I know. I'm sorry. I don't expect you to let me off the hook, but I hope you'll let me try to make it up to you."

"Of course." To her surprise, Nagisa reaches across the table and takes her hand.

She interlaces her fingers with his and squeezes tight. "Aren't you afraid your students might see?"

Nagisa lets out an awkward chuckle and glances over to his students, who are too busy ordering to pay any attention. "You should hear some of their rumors, Rio."

"You're not exactly discouraging them, you know?" He's stronger than he used to be. Not just physically, though there's a certain breadth to his shoulders that is new (and not entirely unpleasant). His voice has a firmer quality to it, and his smiles, while still meek when turned to her, grow proud when he looks on his graduated class. He's the real deal now. All this time, Nagisa has been growing. What has she been doing? "I wanted to call. In those first few months, hearing your voice was one of the only things that could get me through the day. But as time went on, I figured you didn't want to wait anymore, even though I couldn't find a way to let go."

"I guess we both had it wrong then."

"If it weren't for Karma sending me all those wedding pictures, I don't think I would have found the courage to come back. I owe him everything." And Kayano-chan too. She doesn't say it, but Rio owes her most of all.

They spend the rest of their meal catching up on frivolous topics: Nagisa's unconventional teaching methods, the nature of Rio's new jobs, the question of whether Okano and Maehara's home life is stable enough for children. Finally, as the kids file out in ones and twos, Nagisa turns to her and asks the question she's been waiting for. "Do you want to get out of here?"

Their lovemaking is a frantic, cathartic affair, five years of barely assuaged lust finally boiling over. They tumble onto the couch together almost as soon as they arrive, their clothes flung across the room in a frenzy. He collapses atop her when they finish, and she throws her arms around him, relishing the paired thrums of their beating hearts. Nagisa's breath tickles her ear. "I don't know about you, but that wasn't as satisfying as the movies make it out to be."

He's right. She's still aching for him, physically, emotionally. One roll in the hay isn't near enough to fill the hole in their hearts. "We have time though, don't we?" She asks. Time for another round, and time to get back into the swing of things. At some point they move to Nagisa's bed, and Rio curls up around his arm, her head resting in the crook of his neck. "Despite diving headfirst into your bed, I'd rather not rush right back into things. It's been a long time, and I don't want to do anything that might jeopardize our relationship. Except for maybe the sex."

Nagisa turns red, glancing off to the other side of the room. He's still a dork, even now, but that's just one of the reasons Rio loves him.

"This just in, dating as an adult sucks." Rio sighs into her drink. The alcohol isn't helping her fatigue, and it's only the threat of embarrassing herself in front of Nagisa that's keeping her awake.

"Karma still hasn't let up?"

She shakes her head wearily. "Maybe he wants me to quit. Turns out it's not so easy to manipulate someone who knows all your secrets."

She slides closer to him, taking advantage of their secluded booth to lean on him. She doesn't like how routine their dates have become. Two drinks, then some quality time at Nagisa's, breakfast the next morning, rinse and repeat the next week.

Change. That's what she's afraid of. Afraid there isn't anything between them, that those six weeks they spent together was just a fling. She doesn't want to face the thought that she only loves the idea of Nagisa, clinging to the nostalgia of an old crush rather than the reality of the man next to her.

"I'm not OK with this," she finally says, wrapping her arms tightly around his. She doesn't look up at him. She's not sure she can.

"With what?" There's a fearful hesitation in his voice. That comes closer to breaking her than anything.

"This, these dates. It's like I never got over those six weeks. Every time I see you, I'm afraid that those memories will be better than the real thing. I hate it. I never should have left." Another thought comes to mind, one she can never say aloud. She knows it would break the both of them. Either she never should have left, or she should have never come back.

"I'm glad you left."

She glances up at him, blinking through sullen tears. "What?"

"You had to go. It was your dream, wasn't it? Maybe I was too weak to follow you, but I think we both had to go our own ways. We had different goals in life, and we couldn't meet again until we'd accomplished both of them." He runs his fingers through her hair, and she leans into him even more. "And well, I still love you as much as I did last year and the year before. Time apart didn't change my feelings. That has to mean something, right?"

Rio laughs, pressing her face into his shoulder to wipe her tears before she meets his gaze. Even though she's looking down at him, he feels like a giant next to her. "Geez, since when can you say all that sappy stuff with a straight face?" She doesn't make mention that this is the first time he's told her he loves her.

He smiles. "I don't like watching my girlfriend cry."

"Am I your girlfriend now?"

"Don't you want to be?"

No matter how quickly things change, the mountain stays the same. The heat of the late afternoon brings back memories of long hours spent training, chasing Karasuma-Sensei through the forest and being chased in turn. Rio still remembers every tree and shrub, from the path leading to their class pool, to the winding trail that led them up the mountainside on that final night. Her classmates, ever dedicated to Koro-Sensei's memory, kept it just as it was back then.

"You know, Rio, there are plenty of places to watch the stars from. There's no reason to hike this far up."

Rio grins back at him over her shoulder. Even at their pace, even in this heat, climbing this mountain is nothing at all. It's practically home for them. But Nagisa's not complaining. He's probing. A cold thrill dances in his eyes. He knows this isn't an ordinary date. To start, this is way too creative for her.

They emerge from the forest onto a rocky clearing, a hundred meters long. The uneven ground is matted with weeds and deadwood. Compared to the mountain's other locales, it's an ugly scar in the forest. "This is where we had our little civil war," Nagisa says, shielding his eyes from the glaring sun. "Why would you take us all the way out here?"

"This is my favorite spot on the mountain, believe it or not."

"You're joking."

"I'm not." She nods towards him. "Right where you're standing actually."

Nagisa looks down at the dry earth at his feet, then back up at her. "This is where I knocked you out of the game, wasn't it?"

"Me and Terasaka's gang, yeah." Rio shrugs the backpack off her shoulders and drops it beside her feet. "I don't think you even spared me a glance then. You were so focused on beating Karma."

Nagisa's cheeks redden and he scratches the back of his head. "Yeah, sorry."

"Don't be. Losing to you was one of the happiest moments of my life. It was. . . hard for me to argue against you. I didn't want to be the first one to speak up, but I had to. I thought that if we'd won, then you would have hated me."

"I never would have-"

"I know, but I was fifteen and dumb. So when you took me out, I was happier than I could ever remember. Losing gave me everything I ever wanted. But then I lost you to Kayano-chan, and after our six weeks I lost you to my job. I'm kinda sick of losing."

Rio kneels and opens the backpack, drawing out the three anti-sensei knives within. She slips one into her belt and tosses the other two to Nagisa. He snatches them out of the air. "Two?"

"I know how you like to play. It's been fifteen years, but I'm still an assassin at heart. And my target is you."

Nagisa scans the treeline. "My students didn't put you up to this, did they? I'm half-expecting them to come charging out any minute."

"Nope. All me. How's this for a date plan?"

"You sure know how to pick them. So what's at stake?"

Rio shrugs. "Oh I don't know. I was thinking I'd make you marry me."

"Are you sure? I won't go easy on you." She wouldn't have it any other way.

"That's fine. Even if I lose, I'll keep dragging you back here again and again. I'm never giving up on you again."

"I'll hold you to that, Rio." His smile brightens for an instant, then goes cold. Nagisa's eyes thin as he lowers his stance. He looks down to slip his second knife into his belt.

That's when she attacks. She kicks dirt into his down-turned face and leaps at him, knife raised. This is no time for fighting fair. Blind, Nagisa retreats. He slaps aside her thrust, but she keeps driving in. Her heart is already pounding. She has height, reach, and strength, but her reflexes are rusty. She can't keep this up. He's been doing this for years. Nagisa was strong back then, but he's a monster now. If she lets the fight drag on, he'll take her apart.

"You really want to win, don't you?" Nagisa catches her wrist, and before she knows what's happening, he's thrown her to the ground. She rolls to escape his coup de grace and stands. She barely avoids his knife edge. Rio stumbles back across the rocky ground, desperately fending off Nagisa's attacks. His eyes are closed, still blind from the dust, but that's only just enough to even the fight. She parries another swipe. Nagisa is closing in on her, cutting off her lines of defense and retreat. His presence moves before he does. Rio can practically see Koro-Sensei's aura surrounding him, looming over her like a ghost. Nagisa's smile is nothing like Koro-Sensei's though.

Nagisa forces open his eyes, and at once Rio sees that the game has changed. He can see now, despite the pain and tears. He'll move to end it quickly. Nagisa throws himself forward, his knife-point streaking towards her throat. She parries, but her knife meets air as Nagisa drops his own. Rio lurches back. It's coming. Nagisa has never used the nekodamashi on her, but she's seen the effects. She'll only have one chance at this. Nagisa slaps his hands together in front of her eyes, and Rio freezes. Her breath catches in her throat. Even prepared, it's startling. By the time she opens her eyes, Nagisa is already moving, ducking under her arms and circling up behind her. She can practically feel the knife on her throat. With a hiss of effort, she forces herself to move, driving her arm back behind her, even as she flips her knife to an ice-pick grip.

"Ah." Nagisa halts his knife just a few centimeters from her bared neck, and glances down at his shirt, now marked by a bit of dye from Rio's point.

Rio's limbs, flimsy as jelly after the nekodamashi, finally give out. She collapses to her knees, gasping for breath. Nagisa crouches next to her, rubbing his eyes with the collar of his shirt. "That was a mean trick, with the dirt."

"I wanted to win. I knew it would only work once," Rio says between ragged breaths.

"And you beat my favorite technique too."

Rio forces her aching body to move. She needs to look at him, and is surprised to find him smiling at her. "Back in Class E you were watching Koro-Sensei for all of his weaknesses. All that time, I was watching you. I don't want to look away ever again."

The sun is low in the sky by the time they catch their breath. "Originally we came out here to watch the sunset," Nagisa says. "You want to stick around awhile longer?"

They find the shade of a tree and sit, side by side, as the patchwork moon rises and the stars come out one by one. Night brings a chill wind, and Rio slings her arm around Nagisa's waist, pulling him close and resting her head against his. "I don't think much about shooting stars anymore, you know?"


"Yeah. At some point I decided I liked the ordinary ones better. When I was abroad, I imagined you might be looking up at the same stars, and that one of them would be watching both of us. Dumb, right?"

"Not at all."

They sit in silence for what feels like an hour before Rio asks the question that's been nagging at her. "Did we lose too much time, you think?"

"I don't know, but we're here together now." Nagisa takes Rio's hand in his. "Rio, do you want to get married?"

"You bet." She settles into him and looks up at the sky. They lived out the days of their youth apart, but like the stars then and now, their love hadn't gone out. No matter what the future had in store, no matter the sorrows and joys, those same stars would be shining on and on. Forever.