"What's your first memory of me?" Chihaya asks casually, as she puts away their clean laundry.
Shinobu can't say for certain. People are fluid creatures, and her memories of them are fickle. Honestly, she tries not to hold onto them. Most hurt in some indefinable way, like the sound of something small rattling around in an empty can.
"Don't ask me that," Shinobu snaps, but Chihaya only smiles and hangs one last shirt before taking out the karuta cards, shuffling them on the floor, and restacking them. She counts out exactly 50, then splits the set into two stacks. Her hands move automatically, with unconscious grace.
"It's okay if you don't want to say," Chihaya says. "I don't mind."
Shinobu doesn't tell her that it's not a matter of not wanting. Rather, she isn't exactly sure. Everything about Chihaya is tangled up in chance meetings and tangents to her life, as if they're two runners who've been on parallel courses for years, but only rarely reached an open space where they could catch a glimpse of each other across the gap that separates them.
Instead of saying this, Shinobu picks up Chihaya's Daddy Bear body pillow and hugs it to her chest, closing her eyes and letting the moments wash over her.
めぐりあひて / Meeting By Chance
It was a blustery day, a skittering cloud day, a pink and white petals swirling in the gutter day. The wind carried half-tones, snatches of sound that might almost have been old songs. Shinobu found it irritating.
She'd brought her cards to keep her company in the line outside the shop. She was fairly certain she was among the first fifty, though it was hard to tell who in front of her actually wanted a Daddy Bear body pillow, and who was merely here with their kid or a younger sibling.
The kids were talking, laughing, and that sound was easier to ignore than the wind. But still, focusing down on her cards was impossible. She sighed and slipped them into her pocket.
"Chihaya!" a woman called from further forward in the line, and Shinobu startled. The second half of the poem immediately jumped to mind, bright like a bell and fading slowly as a girl with short, reddish hair ran past the line, away from the storefront, hugging a body pillow with both arms.
"Mom!" the girl called, turning as she ran, and suddenly her feet were twisting up, her face going open with surprise as she slipped.
With a squeak, she started to go down. Shinobu reached out and caught her precisely, a light touch on one shoulder and the opposite elbow, fingertips firm but unbruising. The girl's feet took a moment to catch up, and then they were standing face to face, the Daddy Bear pillow between them, while the girl with a song for a name stared at Shinobu.
Shinobu didn't remember anything after that - not the girl's voice, nor her thanks, nor her mother. Even that moment slipped away in her mind for several years, not to rush back again until she saw the extremely rare first edition Daddy Bear pillow again, a twin to her own.
わたの原 / Over the Wide Sea
The distance between Shinobu and other people could be measured in territories, and with most people, she played defensively. What was the point of getting involved?
But Arata. Arata played differently.
She remembered their games from elementary and middle school. He had been the only person her age Coach Ise had allowed her to play. At first Arata had been about on her level, or just a little above, but after he went away to Tokyo for a year, he came back... different. His posture, the way his eyes tracked. He'd seemed to see her for the first time, and not just the cards.
For a moment, she'd thought she wasn't alone.
But Arata had asked, Would you like to form a team? As if he didn't understand the fundamental bedrock of karuta. It was a lonely sport, a solitary battle. The only person who could enter it with you was your opponent.
When she'd told him so so, he had looked at her with a sad smile and said, Someday I hope you'll change your mind.
And so she taunted him, three years later, fought him on principle at Omi Jingu because, even if it was only the high school individual tournament, it was still a good place to show him that the team competition really meant nothing.
The room was hot. The callouses on the top of her feet scraped damply against the tatami. She couldn't hear cicadas, but she felt them buzzing under her skin, and she twisted with frustrated exhaustion when he won by two cards. But Arata, he only looked at her kindly and told her she had a fever.
And then he went to talk to his friends.
The girl with the broken hand was tugging at him, needy, and Shinobu felt a flash of irritation - she should have beat that girl by 24 cards, not 23 - before she turned away and let one of the officials give her a gel strip for her forehead. They also offered her tea and a futon from who knew where.
She refused, of course. It was already night.
By the time the awards were given and her family's driver arrived with the car, Arata and his friends had gone. It was just as well. She felt like someone had stolen a card from her own territory today. Much as she would like to blame Arata, she wasn't certain it was him.
Someone else was playing.
こぬ人を / She Who Does Not Come
They came to her, women of the East and West, the champions of their own battles.
They never touched her.
The first woman yelled and fought and generally made a fuss; Shinobu found her tiresome. The second woman had big breasts and a child who screamed as his father took him away. She listened and she tried, but she lacked precision, lacked the speed Shinobu was told she once had.
Shinobu felt like she was waiting for someone, waiting and waiting on the tatami, under the lights, yet the space opposite her remained empty.
At noon on the day of the Western qualifiers, she sat alone at the counter by the window of her favorite sweets shop, eating ice cream with a tiny spoon, one lick at a time, and watching people walk by. The murmur of conversation and the occasional laugh rippled around her, rarely reaching the pitch that would recall a poem. It was empty, restful noise.
A cluster of girls walked in, chattering. Shinobu wouldn't have paid them any mind except that one of the girls was wearing a Snowmaru t-shirt. Hungrily, she stared at it, even though she had the pink version at home. Blue, though - blue she didn't have.
The shirt moved away from her toward the counter and then swerved back suddenly, breaking from the group to dart right up into Shinobu's space.
Blinking, Shinobu looked up from the shirt into a half-familiar face, framed by long reddish hair.
"Wakamiya-san," the girl said breathlessly, the twitch of her lips like awe and a grin battling for dominance.
Class A? Shinobu wondered, feeling wrong-footed and annoyed. This girl looked familiar, yet the context was so wrong Shinobu couldn't place her. Shinobu's ice cream was melting, a drip from the spoon landing on the countertop. Out of habit, she glanced down at the girl's hands to check for-
Oh. Oh! She knew those hands, even with a new scar across one finger. Those hands had taken shinoburedo from her. Those hands-
"Um," said the girl, drawing back slightly in confusion, and Shinobu realized she was scowling.
Did she want to scowl? Did she want to run off this girl who had interrupted her (boring) game of watching people pass by and making silent judgments on their (boring) clothing choices? On the other hand, did she want to encourage someone whose name she couldn't remember? What should she say?
"Snowmaru," Shinobu finally managed.
The girl went from confusion to sunny pride in an instant. "Blue," she agreed, tugging on the hem of her shirt. "The company gave it to my sister after she was in a commercial."
Shinobu blinked. "A Snowmaru commercial?" She thought she'd seen all of those, and there was no one who looked like this girl in them.
"No, an ad by the same company."
"My shirt's pink," Shinobu admitted.
She was wondering how she could get the girl to trade when one of the girls across the room called out, "Chihaya!"
A distant memory echoed for a moment, a woman calling Chihaya! and a giant body pillow hugged between her and someone else-
-and then it was gone.
"Sorry," said the girl. Chihaya. "I'm on my school trip. I promised to stay with them and not- not do karuta things."
Shinobu twisted to glance at the other girls, feeling like she was looking down a long, long height at a collection of brightly colored dolls. "That's a silly promise."
"It's okay," Chihaya said, "because I want to become a teacher and advise a karuta club. So I have to learn how to do this, too."
And just like that, the tentative sense of reaching for someone - will she be the one to face me? - snapped. Shinobu turned and sat down, spooning out her now half-melted ice cream. Bored again.
"It was nice to see you," the girl said to Shinobu's back, her voice sounding confused again, but she drew away before Shinobu could ignore her properly, back into the arms of her gaggle of school friends.
Shinobu was alone again, licking melted ice cream off her spoon. Years later, that flavor on her tongue would still be bittersweet, like a broken promise.
朝ぼらけ / The Break of Day
Shinobu defended her title in two matches. Suoh had to play a third, against a man three times his age. He deserved it for calling her at home all week, going on and on about the girl he'd met, the one he wanted to marry. How annoying.
The crowd was a mix of the usual officials and highly placed members of the karuta community, plus a few individuals to cheer each player. Coach Ise sat in the audience, but not Shinobu's family, nor anyone else from her society. Instead, she'd given most of her available slots to Dr. Harada, who'd brought a bunch of his students.
Hubris, honestly. It wasn't like he was going to beat Suoh in front of them a second time.
The time between games was filled with people shifting equipment to get a better angle for the cameras, adjusting the mic on the reader, and one of Dr. Harada's students rubbing his knees for him. Everyone in the audience was focused on that side of the room.
Except one girl.
Shinobu blinked and caught the girl's eyes again. She looked... familiar? It was hard to see with the lights glaring, but something about her open, honest expression caught Shinobu's attention and kept reeling it in.
They made Shinobu a space at the very front to watch the final match, even though she didn't want to, and she knew the cameras would be going to her face between cards, to gauge her reaction for the audience, but really what she felt most was boredom.
And the itchy sensation of someone staring at the back of her head.
She escaped after the third match, slipping out while they reset the cameras for the ceremony. The door at the end of the hall was ajar, someone seated on the step outside. Stepping out, Shinobu paused for a moment to take in the back of the girl in front of her: the fall of red-tinted hair across her shoulders, the moon rising unnoticed in front of her, nearly full, the sun behind them both casting the long, blue shadow of the building over them. Over and over, the girl swept her arm out in front of her, swing after swing, fast and smooth and low.
Chihaya. The name rose to Shinobu's mind, and her fingers twitched to touch a card, to claim a friend.
Her foot scuffed as she stepped forward, and Chihaya looked up, face tipped back to take Shinobu in.
And then Chihaya smiled.
It was like a sudden pulse through Shinobu's body, the shock of that upside-down smile, welcoming and open in a way no one ever was except Arata, who also pitied her for unknown reasons.
Chihaya felt no pity.
"Wakamiya!" Chihaya said, brash and direct like a child. "Are you tired? Come sit down."
Shinobu wasn't tired. Or rather, she'd been weary a moment ago, but now she felt awake and hyper-aware. She shuffled forward and sat on Chihaya's left, a double hand-width of empty space between them.
"Your swing's too high," Shinobu said.
"Still?" Chihaya blinked. "Alright. Show me?"
Coach Ise found her half an hour later, sitting practically on the ground in her hakama, swinging with her left hand while Chihaya mirrored each motion with her right. The whisper of their sleeves as they swung out was like an old friend, now doubled and echoed.
When Coach broke the rhythm by yelling at her about ruining her clothes before the ceremony, Shinobu found herself half-smiling for no reason at all. He stuttered to a stop mid-complaint.
"No one's going to take pictures of my backside," she told him, before standing and dusting herself off to go inside.
"Wait," Chihaya said. "If you ever come to Tokyo-" She fussed about, looking for a pen in her empty pockets, until Shinobu pulled out her own phone and handed it over.
"Put your number in there. I'll call you."
A minute later, she was inside, back under the hot lights with cameras pointed at her, while a woman fixed her makeup again.
In her pocket, her phone held a new number like a secret clutched in its heart.
久方の / In the Sky
Shinobu's phone taunted her. What would you say? it asked, quietly firm in her grandmother's voice. Does she want to hear from you, or does she just want to say she talked to the Queen?
Eventually, Shinobu took a picture of her pink snowmaru shirt and sent it. Then she set her phone down and very carefully didn't look at it.
Five minutes later, it chimed. She forced herself to reach over slowly and count to five before flipping it open.
On her screen was a picture of Chihaya wearing a Mammy Bear top, holding one hand in a peace sign and winking.
Shinobu felt strangely floaty for the rest of the day.
忍ぶれど / Though I would hide it
"Are you sure it's okay to be in Tokyo for winter break?" Chihaya asked. "Won't your family miss you?"
Shinobu didn't answer. She'd already said she would go home for the New Year. What more did Chihaya want? Did she not want Shinobu to visit?
They were in a mall right beside the train station. Oe and Hanano were ahead of them at a makeup counter, engrossed in something that had Hanano gesturing emphatically. Shinobu took the opportunity to duck into a souvenir shop.
Chihaya followed her, of course. Shinobu ignored her.
The shop had mostly boring things, but tucked away under glass was a large selection of seasonal hairclips, and two of them had tiny images of Snowmaru attached.
She leaned forward to call the saleswoman, but just at that moment Chihaya caught up with her and looked down at the display. "Oh wow, those are great! Do you ever pin your hair back when you play, Wakamiya?"
"No." Shinobu dropped her hand.
Oe and Hanano were waiting at the entrance to the store, Hanano kicking her heel on the floor like a bored child. Shinobu sighed and went to catch up with them.
As they were leaving, Oe said, "Oh, wait! Chihaya, we have to get something for each of the club members. Sumire, you can help her." Oe gave them both meaningful looks and practically shoved them back into the souvenir shop.
As soon as they'd turned away, Oe reached out and snagged Shinobu's elbow to stop her from following.
"Come on, while they're distracted," she whispered, and Shinobu was so shocked by the contact - had any of her peers ever touched her deliberately? - that she didn't argue.
Oe dragged her to a sweets shop around the corner, looking back over her shoulder to make sure they weren't being followed. Once inside, she gave a big sigh of relief, almost theatrical in its excess.
"You're looking for a Christmas gift for Chihaya, right?" Oe asked brightly, dropping Shinobu's arm. "This is her favorite cake shop. She prefers chocolate."
Shinobu stared at her. A present? For Chihaya? But she remembered her mother making her bring a gift for Chihaya's family, so maybe this was expected for houseguests? She didn't know. She'd never stayed with anyone but her family. Mostly all her tournaments had been in Kyoto, so she hadn't even needed a hotel room very often.
She cleared her throat and tried to look like she knew what she was doing. "What kind of chocolate?"
Oe smiled. "Don't bother with the really expensive ones - she can't tell the difference."
君がため / For Your Sake
Outside the bedroom window, it was snowing again. It snowed more in Tokyo than at home. Shinobu watched the way the streetlight created a kind of falling haze in the darkness above the empty street.
"Mm," Chihaya mumbled, rolling over in the bed above, "I'm too excited to sleep. This never happens."
"I could give you your present now," Shinobu offered. "Though you're probably wondering what your sister got you."
"My family doesn't really do presents until New Year's," Chihaya admitted. "I just like the snow and having someone over."
She paused, and Shinobu thought she might finally settle down, but then she sat straight up and whipped her head around.
"You got me a present?!"
Shinobu felt her face warming. "If you don't want it-"
Chihaya's hands shot out, making gimme motions. "I want it!"
Shinobu felt the corner of her mouth tip up. "Then we'll have to sneak downstairs, because it's in the refrigerator."
"I can sneak," Chihaya promised.
Honestly, she wasn't very good at it, but they managed to get down the stairs without waking the whole house. Shinobu got out a plate and fork, because she knew how to move her hands silently, not with the kind of force Chihaya used. She also pulled the box from the fridge.
When she turned around, Chihaya was already sitting at the table, plate in front of her, fork in her right hand, and an expression on her face like a excited child. Shinobu felt her heart thump so hard she almost dropped the box.
"Hurry," Chihaya whispered, not at all as quietly as she probably thought.
The cake was big enough for two, and Chihaya insisted they share it, bite for bite, so Shinobu got another fork out, but not another plate. It was strangely intimate to eat from the same plate as someone else, someone who wasn't family. To share. Their forks sometimes clacked, but far from embarrassing Chihaya, it made her grin. When they got down to the end, Shinobu thought about stealing the last piece, but Chihaya saw the glint in her eyes and got there first.
Looking down at the piece of cake on her fork, Chihaya paused briefly, a tiny line between her eyes.
Then she thrust it at Shinobu's face.
"What?" Shinobu tried to dodge.
Chihaya followed Shinobu with the fork. "Just take it!"
Shinobu opened her mouth to ask why, and Chihaya pushed forward again at the same time, and Shinobu suddenly had a piece of cake half-on, half-in her mouth.
"Oh, sorry!" Chihaya came at her with a napkin next. This time, Shinobu not only dodged but also snatched the napkin away, wiping her own face quickly.
"Sorry!" Chihaya's face was red, but the moment was abruptly so absurd that Shinobu had to smile.
Chihaya looked stunned. "Wakamiya-"
"Call me Shinobu," she interrupted.
Chihaya's eyes went wide. "Oh. Call me... Chihaya?"
Shinobu didn't say, I've been calling you that in my head since I met you. Instead, she swallowed like she still had a piece of over-sweet chocolate cake in her mouth and nodded once.
"Shi-Shinobu," Chihaya blurted, going faintly pink in the cheeks. "I got you- wait. Wait here."
Like a particularly thin, two-legged elephant, she dashed up the stairs. Shinobu would have winced if she could have moved.
She got me a present?
The elephant sounded again, and then Chihaya was in front of her, holding out a tiny box with a logo that looked vaguely familiar. The shop from earlier today?
"Open it," Chihaya urged, forgetting to whisper.
Shinobu pulled the ribbon off and opened the box carefully. Nestled inside on soft paper were two hairclips with Snowmaru smiling up at her, one pink, one blue.
For a long moment, Shinobu didn't move. ...the hands that took shinoburedo from me...
Moving a little stiffly, Shinobu set the box on the table, pulled the blue clip out, and slipped it into her hair, pinning her bangs off to the left and out of her eyes. Looking up, she caught Chihaya's open smile. Then, her hands moving without conscious direction, as if she were watching herself, she pulled the pink clip out and reached up. Pushing half of Chihaya's bangs to the side, she clipped them in place. Snowmaru winked at her from just behind Chihaya's temple.
"Now we match," she whispered.
Chihaya reached up and touched the clip, her lips parted in surprise.
"Wear it when you face me in the Queen match next year," Shinobu told her.
Chihaya nodded, but she didn't speak. That was good. If she didn't speak, she couldn't break her promise again.
This time Shinobu wouldn't wait in vain.
百敷や / A hundred stones
The first time Shinobu brought Chihaya home, it was summer break of their senior year, seven months after she visited Tokyo. They should have been training for the Queen match, the two of them pitted against each other.
Instead, Shinobu opened the heavy gate to her grandmother's house, sweat trickling down her back and a cicada crying from somewhere in the garden. There should be a poem in this, she thought, but she wasn't sure which poem it was. It just had that feeling of a moment captured in sound and form.
Chihaya clutched her purse in both hands as they walked side by side up the stone path to the front entryway. Shinobu wanted to tell her not to be nervous, but that was foolish.
An old woman stood in the front hall, watching them both come through the door with an unreadable eye. For a moment, Shinobu saw her as a stranger might, as Chihaya might. A severe woman from an old family fallen on hard times. Would the crinkles beside her eyes be visible? Would her mild voice convey the support she had always given her granddaughter?
"Nice to meet you!" Chihaya said, head down in a full bow, even before Shinobu could properly introduce them.
Grandmother smiled, a tiny curl of one corner of her lips, a slight deepening of her crow's feet.
"Welcome, Ayase. Shinobu has told me so much about you."
It was still summer outside, but Shinobu felt a cool breeze from somewhere deep in the house.
千早ぶる / Chihayafuru
Chihaya leaves the stacked cards neatly on the table and goes into the kitchenette that came with the small apartment that they're paying way too much for every month.
"Are you thirsty?" she calls out, opening the refrigerator.
Chihaya comes back in carrying a can of juice. "Are you mad at me?"
"For what." It's not quite a question.
"For asking intrusive questions." Chihaya's face is still open like a child's, even after four years. Shinobu wonders if that will ever change. She wonders if she wants it to.
Chihaya gets a slightly knowing look. "Are you mad because you're not sure about the answer?"
Shinobu clenches her hands in her lap. People leave her when she's not looking. When she's not careful. People get angry that she cares more about the cards than them. People-
"Hey." Chihaya's on her knees in front of Shinobu, leaning forward to press her forehead to Shinobu's, her breath grape-scented. "I'm not going to stop playing because of one question."
Shinobu snorts and closes her eyes. Is she always this transparent?
Chihaya's forehead is warm and solid against hers, Chihaya's fingers stealing over her clenched fists and uncurling them, Chihaya's attention shifting back to the table....
"Do you think we have time for a game before your class?"
Shinobu can't help but laugh, low and long.
"One game," she promises, a smile still on her lips.