It took Shinobu's new classmates two days to decide irrevocably that she was weird.
On the first day, everyone was excited that there was a transfer student. The girls in particular seemed to want to believe that her quietness was a kind of Kyoto refinement. They clustered shyly at her desk, modulating their own voices and occasionally breaking into giggles and shoving one another's shoulders. Shinobu held on tight to the cards on her lap and waited for them to realise they didn't like her after all.
"I know what those are," one of the girls said. "I've seen that kind of box. Those are karuta cards, aren't they?"
One of the others nudged her. "No, they're not. Why would anyone carry karuta cards around?"
Shinobu's fingers fumbled on the box, trying to draw it out from under the desk too quickly. She tipped off the lid and pulled out 'The colour of flowers', half holding it out. "Do – do you play?" she whispered, fixing her eyes on them.
Both girls drew back, their eyes going wide as if Shinobu's expression was weird or frightening.
She ducked her head, letting her hair fall over her eyes. Her fingers tightened around the box.
"Did you see her with those cards yesterday?" she heard one of the boys whisper. "I think she's in love with them. I don't think she knows they're not alive."
"I saw her wiping her nose on the inside of her collar before," somebody else volunteered.
There was a giggle and an "Ooh, gross."
Shinobu bit down on her lower lip and didn't look up.
She didn't care anyway. Her grandmother had said before they left that Shinobu's mother's job in Tokyo wouldn't last, that they would be back soon because Shinobu's mother had no talent or resources for living alone. In Shinobu's experience, her grandmother was right about most things, so she expected she wouldn't be here for very long. It didn't matter if these girls and boys disliked her as much as the ones in Kyoto had. She had her cards, and they were the only friends she needed.
At lunchtime, a flurry of whispers and giggling broke out behind her as she carried her tray to the empty end of a table. She set it down, carefully so she didn't spill any of her miso soup, then set her card box next to it where she could look at it while she ate.
"I'm going to do it," she heard one of the boys say. "Mashima-kun, do you dare me to do it? I'll do it if you dare me."
Shinobu hadn't learned many of her classmates' names, but she knew that one. Mashima Taichi was the kind of boy Shinobu liked least: the popular class prince type.
Shinobu snuck a glance from under her lashes as she sat down. She saw Mashima pretending to yawn. "Well, do it if you're going to," he said.
The other boy jumped up with a grin, sauntering towards Shinobu. A few other boys and girls looked over, sensing entertainment.
The boy leaned sideways as he passed her. "Whoops," he said. "I think I –"
Shinobu's arm snaked out at the same time he pretended to put out a hand for balance, his fingers swiping towards her card box. She wrapped her fingers around his wrist, yanking on it, and he yelped and really did lose his balance. He stumbled onto his knees.
Shinobu dug her fingernails into his wrist and he squeaked, eyes flying to her face. She glared, putting into it every bit of crackling hatred for someone who would try to sully her friends.
"Don't," she said. "Touch them."
His eyes went wide. She let go and he scrambled back.
Shinobu stood up, slowly, and turned to look at each member of the little audience they'd attracted, her gaze as blackly wintery as she could make it. They each drew back with a shiver. Mashima looked as though she had bitten him.
Their class teacher was on lunch duty today. She came by as Shinobu was about to sit down again.
"Is everything all right, Wakamiya-chan?"
Shinobu blinked and kept her eyes closed until she could make the death glare go away. Then she lifted her face to the teacher. "Thank you, Sensei. Everything's fine."
The teacher smiled and passed on. Nobody looked at Shinobu when she had gone; nobody had the nerve to meet her eyes at all for the rest of lunch.
Shinobu wasn't nine years old anymore, and she wasn't the girl who silently accepted her classmates' bullying. She'd learned how to hiss and snarl until nobody thought of hiding her cards ever again.
She gave a huff of frustration as the umbrella dipped and her shoulder was exposed to the rain. She tucked the card box between her chest and her chin to free up a hand to adjust the umbrella. At the same time something slammed into her from behind.
Shinobu stumbled forward, her hands flying out late, too late to catch the box as it fell. She threw herself into a desperate lunge, her knees landing in a puddle and her hands catching air.
The girl who had slammed into Shinobu sprang forward and scooped up the box with her fingertips, an inch from the ground.
Shinobu pushed back her hair, already beginning to drip with rain, and lifted her eyes. It was Ayase Chihaya straightening up with the card box in her hands, the lid askew. Shinobu remembered her name because she was friends with Mashima. Ayase hadn't been one of the kids at lunchtime, though. She'd been on serving duty, Shinobu remembered.
Shinobu curled her fists in the wet, muddy grass, mustering the coldest glare she could. She'd been too quick to assume she'd fixed the problem, at lunchtime. Ayase could only have caught the box if that had been what she'd meant to do when she bumped into Shinobu.
Ayase was staring at the box in her hands. "Wah," she said, her eyes going to Shinobu. "I caught this instead of trying to catch you! I'm sorry!" Her eyes were contrite. "I did it on instinct because it looked like you were trying to grab it."
Shinobu blinked. She let her hands uncurl a bit.
Ayase dropped into a crouch in front of Shinobu, her eyes searching Shinobu's face. "Oh no, you're mad," she said.
"I – I'm not," Shinobu said, because she was too confused to be mad now. She was still on her knees, and the puddle had soaked into her socks and skirt.
Ayase held out the box, and Shinobu wiped her muddy hands on her uniform and accepted it from her, hugging it to her chest.
"I was running because I forgot my umbrella," Ayase said. "I'm sorry I bumped into you." Then her eyes widened and she sprang to her feet. "Oh no, your umbrella!"
Shinobu twisted around to look as Ayase sprinted away, and saw that her umbrella had blown halfway down the block. It was pinwheeling along the path.
Shinobu got to her feet, her shoes sliding in the muddy grass. She grabbed her bag and pushed the damp card box inside. She zipped it up and stood, hesitating, in the rain. There were long streaks of muddy grass stains on her legs, her skirt was several shades darker than usual, and her shoes squelched when she took a step.
Ayase gave a cry of triumph as she caught up to the umbrella. She bore it back to Shinobu, holding the handle in front of her with two hands as though it was a huge pink-and-yellow flower. She was smiling, dazzlingly bright as she pushed close enough to shelter them both. Then her smile slipped and she bit her lower lip as she regarded Shinobu's wet state from up close. Although Ayase wasn't much better herself – under the umbrella her hair was streaming wet, tangled clumps plastered to her forehead and sticking to her eyelashes. Her uniform was less muddy than Shinobu's, but not much dryer.
"My place is close enough to walk to," Ayase said, lifting her eyes to Shinobu's face again. She was only a few inches away, her gaze very wide. "Do – do you want to come and change into dry clothes before you go home, Shinobu-chan?"
The apartment Shinobu's mother had rented last week was quite close, too.
Shinobu stumbled over Ayase calling her by her name, opened and shut her mouth in confusion for a second, and found herself nodding.
"My sister has a meeting at her agency this afternoon," Ayase explained as they traipsed through the apartment in their wet socks. "She's a model! One day she's going to be the No. 1 model in Japan!"
She turned to hold open the bathroom door, and her gaze dropped to Shinobu's feet.
She clamped her hand over her mouth. "Gentleman Kitty!" she squeaked.
Shinobu glanced instinctively down at the purple cigar-smoking kittens on her socks. Nobody had ever recognised them before.
"Wait here!" Ayase said, breathless, and she left Shinobu in the bathroom as she tore off through the apartment. She was back in a few minutes, beaming excitedly as she held up a light blue shirt with a Gentleman Kitty patch on it, heavy-lidded kitten eyes blinking through a stylised cloud of smoke.
Shinobu stared. "I didn't think they even sold Gentleman Kitty in Tokyo."
Ayase looked delighted. "It's really hard to find! Here." She pushed the shirt along with a pair of shorts at Shinobu, then rummaged for a towel. "For your hair," she said, draping it over Shinobu's head. Then she disappeared under a second towel, attacking her hair in a storm of scrubbing.
Shinobu wasn't sure what to do when she'd changed. She held her wet uniform in her hands. "Ayase-san?" she ventured.
Ayase's head appeared, tousled, from under the towel. "You can call me Chihaya."
"Chi-Chihaya-chan," Shinobu tried. "Can I set out my cards to make sure they're dry?"
Shinobu wrapped her arms around her knees. "Do – do you want to play?" she asked, her eyes on the floor.
Chihaya sat up. "But we don't have a reader?" she said. "I haven't memorised a lot of the poems, either."
"I have recordings on my iPod," Shinobu said quickly. She chanced a look at Chihaya. Chihaya looked doubtful, but she wasn't saying no.
Shinobu already had second thoughts by the time Chihaya got back with an iPod dock and speakers from the living room. When they started setting out their cards, Chihaya seemed to be struggling to remember what to do.
There was no way she would still like Shinobu when they'd played. Shinobu used to be able to let other people win, but she didn't think she could anymore. The cards would hate her.
"Ready?" she said, anyway. Chihaya straightened into seiza and nodded, uncertainly. Shinobu leaned over and pressed play.
The iPod was on random, so there was no opening poem. The first poem was a two-syllable one, and Shinobu's hand swept out the instant the beginning of the second syllable reached her. The card flew cleanly beneath her fingers.
Chihaya squeaked, her eyes going wide. Shinobu jumped up, retrieved the card from the corner of the room, and settled back into stillness to wait and listen.
Chihaya's head jerked up at the next poem, her hand half extending as she tried to follow Shinobu's movement, claiming the card. She made a sound of frustration at the next, and the next.
Shinobu was playing by herself, as usual. She was alone with the poems and the cards beneath her fingers, and nothing else mattered.
At the eleventh poem Chihaya threw herself forward. Her elbow knocked six cards flying but her hand closed on just one. Shinobu stared down at her, frozen. The poem sounded in her ears, melodious syllables marked out in perfect rhythm, but Chihaya had moved before Shinobu heard a sound.
Chihaya rolled to her knees, cradling the card. "I got one!" she cried. "I knew that I knew this one and I got it! My first card!"
"Chihaya ..." Shinobu stared at her.
Then her eyes snapped back to the game, determination spiking through her. She wouldn't give up another.
Chihaya lifted her head. "You're amazing, Shinobu-chan," she said. "Even though I didn't have a chance, I had fun playing with you! I didn't know anyone could play karuta like that."
"I'm going to be the Queen," Shinobu blurted. "The – the best female karuta player in Japan."
Chihaya's mouth opened in an 'o'. Then she smiled brilliantly. "You can do it, Shinobu-chan! I'm sure no one can beat you!"
Shinobu fidgeted. "You took a card from me, though."
Chihaya waved her hands. "I'm sure that was just a fluke!" she said, her cheeks going pink.
Shinobu glared. "No!" she said. "It wasn't. You heard that poem before I did, and reacted. You ..." She curled her fists. "I think you have a talent for karuta. Maybe."
Chihaya met her glare with wide eyes. "I don't ... nobody's told me I have a talent before."
Shinobu glared harder, embarrassed. "Well, you'll have to take more cards from me if you want me to say you have more than an unused talent."
Chihaya's eyes flashed and she straightened. "I will!" she said. "I'll memorise all of the poems, and next time I'll make you fight for every card! I'll make you say I have a real ability!"
When Shinobu went home, Chihaya leaned out of her bedroom window and waved her down the street. "Karuta is fun, Shinobu-chan!" she called, her half-dried hair falling in spikes into her eyes. She shoved it back, grinning and leaning out further. "Thank you for showing me that I like playing karuta!"
Shinobu gazed up at her. She freed a hand from her umbrella to wave, jerky and urgent. It felt as though something was expanding inside her, so big and warm it was almost uncomfortable.
She had always been alone in karuta, retreating further into that space that was just her and the cards as she got better and better. She'd never imagined what it would be like to be the one to share karuta with somebody else. She hadn't known the space could expand this way, to include somebody else, rather than to push everyone else away.
Shinobu ran most of the way home, splashing puddle water up onto her borrowed clothes, her cards safe in the school bag thumping against her shoulder. Inside her head she chanted, Chihaya, Chihaya, Chihaya, like a spell that could keep this feeling inside her.
That meant it was Shinobu's fault that they were going home, so she couldn't cry about it, even in front of Chihaya.
Even though Chihaya cried, unselfconscious and miserable. "Taichi's leaving too," she wailed, burying her head in her arms. Shinobu scowled a bit, because she couldn't care about that. She'd beaten Mashima soundly in the class karuta tournament, but she still thought he was a pain.
"I thought we would play karuta together forever," Chihaya said, hiccupping.
Shinobu ground the toe of her shoe into the grass. "We can still meet in tournaments," she said. "As long as we keep playing, we'll still see each other sometimes."
Chihaya lifted her head, her eyes blazing through her tears. "I'll c-catch up," she swore. "Don't w-wait for me because I'll catch up on my own f-for sure!"
She bit her lip and tapped to read it, then looked up in annoyance as somebody attracted her attention.
"Oh, Wakamiya-san," Sudou Akito drawled. "You're here too. I hope you won't fall out of the competition before I have a chance to beat you today."
Shinobu smiled, faux sweetly. "I almost hope that I might," she said. "It's so terrifying to play you, Sudou-san. I think I've barely beaten you up till now."
His eyes glittered with anger in quite a satisfying way. She went to move past him, then paused. "Is Arata in the tournament today, or is he still absent?"
She and Arata had never entirely been friends, but they had connected through karuta when they were the only children competing at their level, and it burned her that he had stopped coming to tournaments before she could surpass him. And she had thought they were - something, at least, if not friends. Something that would have earned her a word, if nothing else, before he disappeared.
Sudou gulped, his fists clenching at his side. "Don't pass over somebody's challenge to ask them about another player!" he gritted out.
Shinobu sighed. "Never mind. I expect he's not here."
For somebody with such a sadistic streak, Sudou was quite terrible at dealing with somebody being mean to him. It was funny.
She looked back down at her phone as she moved on, clicking on Chihaya's message to view it. She read the first line, I'm going to be at the tournament today, at the same moment that somebody called her name. She jerked her head up.
"Shinobu-chan!" Chihaya called again. She started running towards Shinobu, who found herself frozen in place.
Chihaya stopped a foot away, pressing her fists against her mouth. Her eyes were wide. Her hair was much longer, now, that it had been when she was twelve. It slipped loosely over her neck. Shinobu's heart thudded in her chest.
"I – I'm still in Class B," Chihaya blurted. "I wanted to play you, but –"
"You're competing, though," Shinobu said. She seemed to have fallen into feeling twelve years old again, chanting Chihaya, Chihaya, Chihaya to herself like a ward against loneliness.
"I have to go register in Class B," Chihaya said. "But I'll find you again after the tournament. I – I want to talk to you. It's been so long."
You promised! Shinobu wanted to shout, like an idiot – like she was afraid Chihaya would forget, even though she had come today. You promised you would catch up. You have to keep your word, I'm all alone here.
"I might be too busy after the tournament," Shinobu said, taking a half step back.
"Oh," Chihaya said. "Well. I'll look for you anyway, okay? In case you're not busy."
Shinobu nodded, numbly.
Shinobu was terrified that she was crying, until she saw the slow even rise of her chest. She was asleep.
"How," Shinobu breathed, crouching next to her.
For a moment Shinobu just looked at her as she slept. She looked more like Chitose, Shinobu's least favourite member of the Ayase family, than she had when they were younger. She also looked nothing like Chitose, though. There was a stillness to her that was diametrically opposed to Chitose. Not just now that she was asleep – it had been there in her gaze, earlier.
Chihaya must have felt Shinobu's presence, because her eyes fluttered open. She blinked, her eyes unfocused as she lifted them to Shinobu's face. Then her gaze cleared and she jerked upright, seizing hold of the front of Shinobu's shirt.
"I won the Class B division," she said in a rush. "I'm moving up to Class A, Shinobu-chan."
Shinobu felt her eyes widen. She tilted forward a little further as Chihaya's grasp on her shirt tightened.
"Next time we're in a tournament together, I'm going to play against you," Chihaya said. "Definitely."
Shinobu swallowed. "I – " she said. "I won't let you take a single card."
Chihaya's eyes flashed. "I won't let you keep them from me."
Shinobu wanted to do something. Something to make Chihaya remember this moment the way Shinobu was going to, her heart thumping with a sick mixture of anticipation and loneliness and ... and something else.
Chihaya's fingers loosened and she started to lean back. Shinobu leaned forward, quick before she could get away, and kissed her.
Chihaya's mouth opened on a soundless gasp. For a second the kiss turned into something Shinobu hadn't been prepared for: she felt light-headed, her skin shivering. She bit Chihaya's lower lip, either because she could or because she couldn't help herself, she couldn't tell which.
Chihaya gave a deep shudder and drew back. Her eyes were very wide. "W-what ...?" she said. "Shinobu-chan, why ...?"
Shinobu drew back, running her tongue over her teeth. She didn't know. She'd thought she knew, but now her thoughts were all in turmoil. She couldn't get a clear read on her own feelings yet.
"I'll tell you when you beat me," she said. She cleared the throatiness out of her voice. "Ask me again then."
She hadn't exchanged any texts with Chihaya since the tournament four months ago, but Chihaya called her as soon as the presentation ceremony was over.
"Shinobu-chan!" she cried. "You're Queen like you said you would be. Con-congratulations!" She sounded stilted, as if she was having trouble breathing and speaking at the same time.
For a moment Shinobu didn't answer. "Remember your promise," she said at last.
She heard Chihaya draw in a breath, on the other end of the line. "Shinobu-chan?"
Shinobu tightened her grip on her phone. "Catch up to me," she said fiercely. "You said not to wait so I didn't, but you have to catch up. You promised."
Chihaya let out a long shaky breath.
"I will," she said, and despite the shakiness she sounded utterly sure. "I'll face you in the Queen challenger match, Shinobu-chan."