Like Michinoku cloth
patterned with tangled ferns;
Whose fault is it
that my heart is thus confused?
It is not my own...
When it comes to karuta, Taichi knows — has long known — that he'll never catch up to Arata. Sometimes he thinks there are other ways in which he is falling behind, too; that there are places Arata has been which he will never reach. Not least the one in Chihaya's heart.
The thing is, he understands what she sees in him. Or how she sees him, at least: somewhere between a god and a fond childhood memory, perfect because unmet, untarnished by reality. The Arata they think of exists in the pure, rarefied air of the past, filtered through nostalgia. Even after the trip to Fukui, after they've seen who he has and hasn't become, Chihaya still thinks of him as they knew him once: quiet, clear-eyed, sure.
Taichi knows. He does the same, after all.
Back in Tokyo, they build their club one member at a time. The quiet practice room grows lively, filled with an energy different from that of the scattered matches in a karuta society's hall. The club at Kaimeisei was larger, its matches held in a proper tatami room rather than the makeshift playing area they've rigged up in Mizusawa, but something about the latter feels familiar, like a reunion. One afternoon, watching the light fall across the lines of cards and over the bent backs of the others, Taichi thinks — sudden, giddy — I wish we could show this to him.
That evening, on their train ride home, Chihaya is uncharacteristically silent. That day's practice had been rewarding enough, if unremarkable, and Taichi can find no explanation there. He waits, instead. When Chihaya finally speaks, it's in a low, tentative voice, addressed more to her folded hands than to Taichi beside her.
"Hey, Taichi. Do you think... Arata's found teammates yet?"
The question's no surprise. Chihaya must have felt it, too, over the past few days: that in-between place their five-member group occupies, between a larger society and playing with just two others, in the confines of someone's room. Of course she's been thinking of him. So has Taichi, after all.
Chihaya's already rushing on, voice rising: "Today, during the practice, I kept wondering what he was doing. Whether he's joined a society, if he remembers what it's like to play with friends. Whether he's thinking of—" She turns to him, eyes wide, her long hair golden in the evening light. "He'll come back, right? Right, Taichi?"
To karuta? Taichi wonders. To us? Or to her?
The rest of the carriage is quiet. The train repeats its unbroken rhythm against the tracks. In the warm glow of sunset, Chihaya's eyes shine: bright, earnest, too sincere. Taichi doesn't know what expression he's making in response. He wants Arata to return. He doesn't want Arata to return. Arata is already here, has always been here, a presence in the forefront of Chihaya's mind, one which only Chihaya can see.
His mother would tell him to focus only on the contests he can win.
This isn't a contest, he thinks. And Chihaya isn't something to be won.
He smiles, for her sake. Thinks of Arata at twelve, quietly confident; at fifteen, on his bicycle, speeding down the road to keep pace with a departing train. Human after all.
He doesn't carry Arata around in his heart, not the way Chihaya does. But he wants to meet him, too.
"I'm sure he will."
Looking at the moon,
I feel the sadness
of a myriad things.
Yet I am not the only one
for whom autumn has come.
April ends, taking Fukui's cherry blossoms with it. Arata begins May with a folded letter, scribbles on manjuu wrappers, and his memories of that afternoon.
There are replies he could give to Chihaya's words, to all the things she wrote down and didn't have time to ask. But that feels too difficult, after the silence of more than a year; too much weight for mere text to carry.
Still, Chihaya isn't the only one he can reach. So he writes to Taichi instead.
Or, at least, he tries to. Throughout May, Arata finds himself writing a few lines, deleting them, trying again. There was something in Taichi's anger which Arata can't stop thinking about, something beyond simple disappointment or frustration, as if Arata had abandoned more than just karuta. There are so many things Arata wants to say to him: explanations he can't compose, questions of his own. I'm sorry. You don't understand. It's not that I'd forgotten.
Where are you both now, with your karuta? What is it like when you play?
Why did you come?
It's June when Arata finally sends Taichi a message, and then only to wish Chihaya a happy birthday. It seems right, somehow, for the message to be to both of them.
Chihaya sends him flurries of e-mails in the days and weeks which follow. Taichi doesn't send a single one. The asymmetry keeps Arata from replying to Chihaya, unkind though that might be. He doesn't want to read too much into Taichi's silence, but in the absence of a more concrete response, it's all he has to think about.
At some point, the possibility that Chihaya and Taichi are together occurs to him. He's not sure what to do with that thought, either. There's no resentment — it's hardly his place, after so long apart — but a slow disquiet starts to grow.
Swift waters, parted— he thinks, and wants to believe the rest of the poem.
He sees them only briefly at the nationals, in circumstances too confused for it to be considered a real meeting. After that, Chihaya's messages grow less frequent. Taichi's silence lengthens, unbroken. Arata imagines both of them in Tokyo: afternoons shared to the measured tones of a karuta reader, strategies mapped out across tatami mats, a warmth he remembers once being part of. Summer ends earlier in Fukui, slips sooner into autumn's chill.
It's not until the Yoshino tournament — Taichi's tears, Chihaya's determination — that he realises how much they'd missed him, too.
If I live longer,
might I look back fondly
upon these days?
Just as the past I once found bitter
now seems so sweet.
In the spring of their second year, while the cherry blossoms are blooming, Arata returns to them.
That might be an unfair way of looking at it, Taichi concedes. Arata is leaving his own home, after all — his family, his friends, his comrades in the Nagumo Society — for the life of a transfer student. But for Taichi (and for Chihaya too, he's sure), Arata's presence in Tokyo can't be described any other way.
And, for a while, everything's perfect. There's no longer any need to worry about carefully-composed text messages or awkward phone calls. Distances close. Everything falls back into place: him and Arata and Chihaya, passing each other in the corridors between lessons, meeting for the occasional lunch in one of their classrooms; playing karuta together, finally, the way they haven't had a chance to do for years. When they play, Arata's there, sitting across the field of cards — not a figure glimpsed in dreams or memories, but himself, there, now, right before them. Arata grows familiar again, no longer a construct of memory. The distinctive cadence of his voice. His slim hands — larger, now — flicking a card away. His sure, silent gaze. His rare laugh.
But not everything becomes easier. It helped that Arata arrived at the start of a school year, along with a handful of curious first-years coming down to the Mizusawa karuta club. Yet as term wears on and the numbers thin, the meaning of Arata's arrival is starker. Arata is untouchable, even for Chihaya; his karuta exists on a different plane.
A balance's been upset. The others are welcoming, but there's a gulf that can't be bridged. Taichi wonders if they feel what he's felt for a long time: that Arata is leading Chihaya somewhere beyond their reach, somewhere none of them can follow.
The only one who doesn't seem to feel it, of course, is Chihaya. She's happier than Taichi's seen her in a long while, fired up with the enthusiasm that comes from playing a true challenge, the triumph of having such a strong player in their team. The fact that he's Arata.
They play the most matches together, those two Class A players. Taichi watches them as he reads each card, voice calm and unfaltering: their heads bowed in concentration, hands resting lightly on the floor, ready to cut a path through the air. They aren't alike at all — Chihaya's near-instinctive hearing, Arata's surgical speed — but that's what makes their matches worth watching. They're pulling ahead together, each learning the other's style, strengths, weaknesses.
It's meant to be that way, Taichi tells himself. It's for the best.
It's not that he's running away. Not this time. By now he can tell exactly when he's lying to himself, and he can believe this much: that when it comes to Chihaya and Arata, there's never been anything from which to run away.
This has never been a competition.
(Nishida approaches Taichi during a break, once, awkward and mumbling. "Is this really okay, Mashima?"
Behind him, Chihaya's staring at the field they just cleared, seeing cards no longer there for the taking. Arata's laughing at her concentration; a clear, untroubled sound. The light through the window softens their images, paints them with warmth. Taichi thinks he should feel some sort of pain at the sight, and yes, there is that now-familiar ache; but there's also a deeper, desperate wish. He wants it to be this way. He wants that happiness for them.
He knows what Nishida is asking, and it's kind of him to do so. But he's wrong.
"It's fine," Taichi says, and means it.)
Taichi doesn't know what leads him to do it, in the end. It's a cloudy afternoon in late May, just days before Chihaya's birthday. Last year's celebration is still fresh in his mind. This year, he thinks, Arata will be there for her in person. It's as good a time as any.
He catches Arata in the hallway before practice begins, asks to speak to him in a deserted classroom. It's overdramatic, maybe, but he needs at least that much privacy.
"Arata," he begins, not looking at him. "If you and Chihaya were to... you know. Start going out. I wouldn't— I mean, it'd be fine. I wouldn't mind. So..."
It's a stupid, embarrassing, presumptuous thing to say, and in a way that makes the lie easier. He can concentrate on the blush that he feels spreading across his face, and on the strip of floor just by his shoes, and not think about the quiet fear that rises within him at the thought of Arata's answer.
But Arata says nothing. When Taichi lifts his gaze from the floor, Arata's just looking at him, his face unreadable.
"I wouldn't want that," Arata says at last, quietly.
Taichi must have looked blank, or surprised, or something, because Arata hurries on, suddenly flustered: "Not that— not that I don't like Chihaya, or that she's not..."
Arata's blushing, now. There's something painful about the way he's still holding Taichi's gaze, that unguarded honesty; Taichi glances away. Of course Arata likes Chihaya. Of course he wants to be with her. But he's holding back because— He feels something twist within him at the realization, tight and choking. "You don't have to feel sorry for me," he says. The comment is meant to be light, flippant, punctuated with what could have been a laugh. He's not sure he succeeds. "Don't worry about it."
"That's not it."
Arata's voice falters in a way Taichi's never heard before. Slowly, carefully, he looks back up.
"I wouldn't want that," Arata says again, steadier. "It'd feel— wrong. If it wasn't... if it wasn't the three of us."
A platitude, Taichi thinks. An empty gesture towards their childhood friendship. Why does Arata have to be so polite about it, so damned considerate? Why must he make this so difficult? He feels his jaw clench, blinks back what he doesn't acknowledge as tears. "Don't—"
But then Arata rests a hand on Taichi's forearm, his touch light yet sure. Holds Taichi's surprised stare.
"It'd feel wrong," he says, "without you."
Arata's fingers are warm against Taichi's skin. He takes a step closer; pulls Taichi forward, gently, his other hand on the back of Taichi's head.
"You shouldn't make that sort of offer," Arata says over Taichi's shoulder, voice low. "I didn't come back so that I could break the three of us up. When I was in Fukui, I— I wanted to meet you both. So much. I really did. Chihaya kept texting me, but I—" and he makes a small, embarrassed noise "—was waiting to hear from you, too."
Something clicks into place. Taichi swallows, remembers a thousand scattered thoughts he's had since that afternoon in Fukui. I missed you too. I wanted to see you. I didn't know what I could say.
Arata's still speaking, fingers threading through Taichi's hair. "It doesn't have to be me and Chihaya, or you and Chihaya. Taichi, I want... I want this to be the three of us."
Taichi curls one trembling hand around the hem of Arata's shirt. Of all the replies he could have received, he hadn't expected this one. He hadn't thought that there was another answer: that they could all be together. Him. Chihaya. Arata. So there was a name to this, all along, this longing he'd felt on the other end of a four-hour train ride, the strange mix of pride and despair at their achievements, the loneliness while watching the both of them in Tokyo.
He leans in. His eyes are prickling again, and it's harder to blink the tears back, this time.
He must look really uncool right now, he thinks, and finds he doesn't care.
"I didn't know," he says at last.
"You're important to me," Arata says, and Taichi wonders at the ease with which he says it. "You both are."
Arata is warm against him. Taichi breathes in, breathes out, feels his world rearrange itself, slowly, like a spread of cards disrupted. But there's more at stake here, a larger question that they both need to face.
"What about Chihaya?" he asks. "What if she wants..."
Arata moves back, finally, so they can look each other in the eye again; clasps Taichi's shoulder instead. There's a calm, confident smile on his face, one that Taichi remembers from a long time ago.
"We'll ask her," he says. "But I think she feels the same way."
parted by the jagged rocks,
are joined at river's end
She turns, halfway through lifting the cards from their box. It's Arata, and Taichi beside him, both looking uncharacteristically awkward in the shadow of the practice room's doorway.
"Arata? Taichi? Is something wrong?" She sets the cards down, takes a half-step forward. "The others said they'd be late, something about having to plan their attendance at Suihoku—"
"Wait. There's..." Taichi pauses, glances over; Arata gives him a soft, small smile, and nods. "There's something Arata and I have to say. Chihaya, the both of us, we—"
She senses the shape of what Taichi says before he says it, a tremor in the air she reads as easily as breathing. The shock can come later. It will, once she's had the time to think about it, to really hear it, when her mind catches up with her heart. But now, in the moment, the answer is simple. Taichi, Arata, karuta — they've never been separate, not to her.
She loves karuta. She loves them.
She has to let them know her reply, quickly, she thinks: no hesitation, no wavering, a hand cutting through the air towards the right card. Landing where it belongs. She remembers a winter's night, years ago: two small hands, fitting into her own, pulling her up, up, onto her feet, out of the cold.
She reaches out. Flings her arms around them both, pulls them close — Arata laughing as he stumbles forward, Taichi smiling through tears — and thinks, breathlessly, as they fall against her, that this is it, the reunion they've so long awaited: a poem falling back together, whole and perfect, complete at last.