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love is the king of the beasts

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post-match is always a whirlwind of flashbulbs and television cameras; this year, chihaya isn't a spectator. shinobu is a deep well of stillness in the center of it all, the heavy silk of her kimono newly unbound on her wrists as she answers questions, unblinking. she's enigmatic in a way reporters love, half-moon smile appearing and disappearing like the silver belly of a fish in a muddy lake. even with three tape recorders and a microphone in her face, chihaya finds it difficult to look at anything else. 

how do you feel, everyone keeps asking, how do you feel. how does anyone feel, breaking the surface after three years underwater? more than that, really; almost half her life. it's difficult to process, with the thrill of competition still hot in her veins, sonorous poetry ringing in her ears and the afterimage of shinobu's sharp, beautiful swing replaying behind her eyelids the way it does every time they play. chihaya's not sure what she says but it must be good, because there's a wave of laughter and harada-sensei's hand on her shoulder. later, kana shepherds her off to the dressing room to change, passing through what feels like a jumble of everyone she's ever known in her life trying to speak to her at once. 

she doesn't remember much: the strong, sure line of arata's shoulders; the way taichi's eyes cut to the side; kana's tears warm on her face. she knows that they, at least, understand. eventually they leave her alone, herding the rest of the well-wishers down the hall, and the moment it is quiet, chihaya falls asleep. 

when she wakes, shinobu is beside her, the dark, silky waves of her hair obscuring her face. chihaya touches her hand, barely noticing the limited edition lottery-only snowmaru t-shirt she's wearing, says, "there you are." there you are, meaning i wanted to see you, only you. there you are, meaning please stay with me.

"so it's over, then," shinobu says, and chihaya sits up, alarm tight under her skin before shinobu adds, "for this year." 

chihaya says, "yes." twines their fingers together. gives in and touches shinobu's hair, lifts it away from the steady indigo dark of her eyes.

"make me another promise," shinobu says, lashes lowered under the caress of chihaya's thumb. 

"next year," chihaya says, because this part is easy to understand, "it'll be us back here again." 

shinobu smiles, brighter than any moon, goes soft with tension unwound. chihaya lifts their linked hands, brings them to her mouth to kiss shinobu's knuckles. whatever else happens, this is theirs.