then the voice in my head said
WHETHER YOU LOVE WHAT YOU LOVE
OR LIVE IN DIVIDED CEASELESS REVOLT AGAINST IT
WHAT YOU LOVE IS YOUR FATE
— Frank Bidart, Guilty of Dust
It’s hard to judge how long they spend on the tatami, the hands fisted tightly in each other’s kimono acting as anchor points against the whispering of the onlooking crowd. They’re both crying now, undignified childish sobs that makes Taichi feel like he’s eleven years old again, holding a pair of wire rimmed glasses in his grubby hands and fighting the urge to squeeze until something cracks.
It’s less embarrassing—crying in front of a crowd—when tangled up with Arata like this, even if they’re both crying in that heaving, gasping way that makes other people uncomfortable to watch. Arata has his nose pressed into the skin of Taichi’s neck, so close that Taichi can feel his collar dampening. He’s thought about this proximity, and it sparks a hitch in his breath that comes out as a shaky hiccup, but then, the tears are a factor that his quiet fantasies were lacking.
He could stay there forever, even with the beginnings of a cramp curling in the arch of his feet. Arata is practically lying in his lap, his long legs stretched over their 18-card difference in ability. He knows there’s sadness to come, and regret, and bitter tears that feel nothing like the easy flowing release of the moment. It’d be easier to stay here, crystallised, his heart full of Arata’s praise.
Neither of them get the chance to extricate themselves from each other. A third weight bowls them both over so hard that their skulls crack together painfully. Taichi doesn’t even need to look to know what’s happened. Chihaya is there, crying louder than both of them put together, a red bump already forming in the centre of her forehead where she’s collided with Arata’s temple.
“Arata! Taichi! Arata! Taichi! ” Her hands worm between the tatami and their shoulders until she has her arms tight around both of them, and Taichi relinquishes his iron hold on Arata for long enough to find the back of her neck. He meets one of Arata’s hands there, at the baby hair around her nape, and doesn’t pull away when their fingers brush.
Now it really is embarrassing, the three of them sprawled out on the floor, like elementary school children told they might never see each other again. Between himself and Arata they manage to leverage Chihaya into something resembling an upright position while she bawls their names, and take turns at looking sheepishly at each other and around the room.
The dam is broken now, and the rest of the Shiranami Society make themselves known, doling out hugs and congratulations and condolences in a way that makes Taichi’s heart swell; he feels like floating out of the window and into the wide arc of the sky outside, even though he’s exhausted and sweaty; he needs to dry his eyes, blow his nose and take off his kimono before he passes out Chihaya-style in one of the private rooms set aside for changing.
It’s Nishida and Komano that ferry him away finally, just before enough order is restored in the room for the match officials to hand out the certificates of nomination to the representatives.
“You look wiped, Mashima,” Nishida says, pulling open the door to the room storing Taichi’s sports bag and change of clothes.
He laughs mirthlessly, glad that the crying has given way to the strange floaty feeling and not led to more tears. “I think I’ll need to sleep for a week.”
Komano rustles around the room to produce a bento that looks like it was packed by Oe. “Have something to eat before you get undressed. You really do look ready to keel over.”
Taichi doesn't even want to think about what he looks like, but he takes an onigiri without argument and wolfs it down, with a bottle of water following in record time.
Neither Nishida nor Komano know what to do with him, really. Taichi can tell in the way they won’t bring up the game, even to comment on a good play, or his second match win. He supposes it’s fair; he doesn’t know what to do with himself either, aside from eating the rest of the packed lunch in hungry bites, and allowing them to help him untie his obi. Taking off his hakama and kimono takes a lifetime. He moves as if through syrup, every movement done shakily; even stretching out his stiff calves and running through a cool down for his wrists leaves his hands shaking.
Suou-san might still be here, though it’s as likely that he left after Chihaya’s matches ended, and Taichi swears that he saw his mother in the crowd as he left the room earlier, looking—for once—shaken up. He’s unsure about which order to go about things; who he can face speaking to first. The temptation to sneak out of the building and catch the next train home springs up, but he knows that’s the lingering thoughts of the person he was six months ago.
He grants himself a trip to the bathroom to rinse his face and hair of some of the sweat from his last game, picking the one two floors up from the competition hall, where he’s less likely to run into anyone. His legs wobble beneath him on the stairs on the way up, the tender skin of his knees rubbing against his sweatpants as his climbs, welts from three odd hours on the tatami already raised. By the time he’s washed his face with the lukewarm water from the tap, the exhaustion he’s felt chasing him has caught up and started taking its due. He’s so busy steadying himself he hardly notices the swish of a hakama behind him until Arata speaks his name.
Sure enough when Taichi turns Arata is there, still dressed in his kimono, holding the rolled up certificate that names him as official challenger for the Meijin title this year.
“What are you doing here?”
“Going to the bathroom?” Arata looks puzzled, as if it’s the most obvious answer in the world.
“On the third floor? In your kimono?”
“Uh, yeah. When you’ve got to go...” He sets his certificate down on the countertop by the sink, avoiding the puddles of water thrown up from Taichi’s earlier splashing.
Taichi doesn’t move, and watches him fidget for a moment with his long sleeves.
“I won’t help you take off your hakama.”
Arata blushes beet red and closes his mouth tightly around whatever he was planning on saying next. The sight makes Taichi grin. It’s always comforting to remember that Arata is flappable, even if he never managed to get him to blush quite like this during their matches.
“No, don’t look at me like that. I want to ask you something serious,” Arata continues, sounding a little strained.
Taichi’s heart squeezes, one last dribble of adrenaline flowing around his weary body. He hates the way it makes the back of his neck prickle, and wonders if he’s started flushing as red as Arata is right now.
“You’re always serious, Arata.”
“Would you— I’d like you to—” His mouth is a thin line of concentration. He bows his head to Taichi then, breaking eye contact. “I’d be honoured if you would help me during the Meijin match as my card boy.”
It isn’t what he’s expecting, but what was he expecting? Some impossible half-dreamed fantasy where Arata admits that he’s been thinking of Taichi the same way Taichi thinks of him? But Taichi thinks of this: piecemeal visions of Arata that he only allows himself to imagine when alone at night, long after he should be asleep. Arata’s hands, his slender fingers, the sharp line of his jaw, his shoulder blades moving smoothly beneath a cotton t-shirt.
And things besides. Things Taichi knows he isn’t meant to think about.
Arata has already acknowledged him, out on the tatami, in front of everyone. It should be enough, but Taichi feels like being selfish for once and it’s not.
“No, I can’t.” He turns to leave, but Arata catches his wrist and holds on fast.
“Taichi, I can’t imagine doing this with someone else, I need your support.”
The bitterness that Taichi had thought buried for today bubbles up in him, seething. Arata’s always been airheaded about other people’s feelings, but something Taichi could normally brush off compounds on the fresh wound of losing. “No, you don’t. You got this far without me, despite me, and you’ll do fine whether I’m there or not.” His pulse flutters under Arata’s tight grip, a caged bird straining for release.
“But Taichi ,” Arata says again, looking confused and hurt. “You’ll be able to see Chihaya compete up close, like you said you wanted.”
Mentioning Chihaya is the final straw. Taichi pulls free and storms out of the bathroom, another flood of tears threatening him as he goes. Here they are, the familiar feelings of jealousy, offset temporarily, bloom in him hungrily, looking for purchase.
Once he finds her among the lingering remains of the crowd, his mother calls for a taxi to take them both home. They don’t speak in the car, for which Taichi feels only a sliver of thankfulness. Normally car journeys are a chance for her to lecture him without interruption or escape, but she doesn’t take it this time, not even commenting when he cries enough to wet the participation certificate that she had ended up collecting on his behalf.
The tail end of November catches up on him before he realises it. Tachi stores his kimono and hakama in the back of a closet in one of the spare rooms of the house, packs up his deck of karuta cards and reader tapes, and goes back to spending his evenings studying, both in and out of cram school.
Arata has the grace to wait a week to message him.
To: 真島 太一 [ mailto: email@example.com ]
From: 綿谷新 [ firstname.lastname@example.org ]
I’ve been thinking about what I said the other day at the qualifier, and I’m sorry. Asking a favour from you the same day of the matches was selfish of me. I hope you don’t think any less of me because of it.
To: 綿谷新 [ mailto: email@example.com ]
From: 真島 太一 [ firstname.lastname@example.org ]
Subject: RE: Apologies
It’s fine. I hope you’re able to find someone suitable at your society. How’s school? Chihaya has been talking about the Queen nonstop, she’s driving me crazy.
To: 真島 太一 [ mailto: email@example.com ]
From: 綿谷新 [ firstname.lastname@example.org ]
School is going alright. I think I’m going to apply to some Tokyo universities. They offer some scholarship programmes I might be eligible for depending on how the Meijin matches turn out.
He feels like he should be surprised at the idea of Arata coming back to Tokyo, but some part of it feels like an inevitability. Chihaya was always fond of insisting that they’d all meet again, and it had happened. They hadn’t managed to climb to the summit of the karuta world together, but even Taichi—talentless in karuta as he was—had made it closer than most people ever would in their lifetimes. Even with his deck of cards out of commission and gathering dust in the bottom drawer of a spare room, the three of them seem fated to orbit ever closer every year; whether destined to silently pass nearby or collide remains a mystery to him.
Taichi still can’t help but feel like he’s missed the last boat. He can watch the Meijin and Queen matches online or in person at Omi Jingu if he’s feeling brave, but he will still be on the outside, regardless.
At least, this year a voice supplies, in a cadence almost too low to be heard and sounding suspiciously like something a certain Meijin might say to lure a rise out of his unofficial disciple.
The first Saturday in December Chihaya invites him into the city to a themed cafe, and Taichi takes one of his scheduled rest days to oblige her; even at his most disciplined he’s always had a hard time telling her no.
When he arrives outside the Daddy Bear popup cafe in Shinjuku he’s not surprised to see her there already (tardiness never an issue when it comes to: karuta, Daddy Bear) but he is surprised to see Arata of all people, standing awkwardly by her side. He’s filled out some, Taichi realises. He looks sturdy beside Chihaya, unlike the gangly teen of just last year, all knees and elbows. Taichi marvels at never having noticed until now, for all the staring at Arata he seems to do these days. Maybe it’s a question of the location; he’s more used to seeing Arata in the context of karuta tournaments, either kneeling poised over the tatami or a room away, half obscured by a crowd.
Chihaya lights up when she sees him approach, her smile blinding. She has her hair piled up high on her head and she’s wrapped in a Daddy Bear scarf that would look ridiculous on anyone else, but gives her an endearing quirkiness.
“Taichi, look! Arata’s here!” She reaches out for their sleeves and grabs a handful of their coats in each hand.
“I can see that,” he replies, giving Arata what he hopes comes off as a neutral smile. Trust the two of them to accidentally cook up a surprise for him through their combined cluelessness. Taichi almost fears for a city with the two of them living in at at one time: he’ll be terrorised.
It transpires, after almost twenty minutes of preamble that Chihaya breathlessly rushes through, that Arata is in town to visit a couple of university campuses and to try and reacquaint himself with the Tokyo bustle, if that’s possible after years slumming it in what amounts to the middle of nowhere to Taichi, who has never lived outside the zip code he was born in and feels minorly inconvenienced by anywhere more than a ten minute walk from a train station.
They queue up for coffee and themed pastries—and all get a photo with the Daddy Bear mascot dancing and posing outside the store’s door—before setting off together, Chihaya in the middle, their arms linked until the crowd forces them to separate to save being bumped into.
There’s the beginnings of an argument bubbling between Taichi and Chihaya about how best to navigate from the retail district they’ve wandered into to the next university on Arata’s list when her phone rings. She grows more and more agitated as the call progresses, and when Taichi catches Arata's eyes over her head, he sees a mirror image of his concern staring back at him.
"Auuuuuuugh!" Chihaya doubles over, for a split second Taichi thinks she's in actual pain, but she uncurls herself before he can even ask her where it hurts.
"What's happened?" Arata asks, putting a hand on her shoulder.
"There's a major emergency at my house right now."
"What kind of emergency?"
"Do you need me to call someone?"
"No, no," she says miserably, burying her face in her scarf, not-quite hiding the pink flush high on her cheeks from the afternoon cold. "It's to do with Chitose's photoshoot tomorrow. Some of the clothing she was supposed to wear didn't arrive so I have to go home and help her plan a whole new wardrobe before she has a meltdown."
It's a problem only someone like Chihaya could have, Taichi thinks. It's been a while since he's heard of Chitose having a meltdown, and even longer since Chihaya's been compelled to go and help out in person, so it must be a big one.
"Go on home then, I'm sure Arata and I are up to walking around a campus together."
She doesn’t want to leave, he can see it in her eyes. She’s hardly taken her hands off them all afternoon, as if she's still marvelling at the physical proximity of them both and afraid one of them might disappear on her without warning.
Her eyes widen then, and she clutches her head with both hands, dragging her nails across her scalp. "Oh Arata, you were meant to stay with me tonight... But with everything that's going on..."
The phrase drops in Taichi like a stone, but he doesn't let the ripples show, or so he hopes. "He can stay with me," he says without thinking, the words spilling out of his mouth, and—well—so much for hiding his feelings.
“You’re sure that's okay, Taichi?” Chihaya says, almost wonderingly. He stares at her closely, not wanting to study the look on Arata's face.
“Yeah, it makes sense, there’s more space at my house.”
Chihaya nods sullenly, wrapping an arm around both of them and pulling them in close. “I’ll see you soon,” she says, and means it.
The evening has slid into night by the time the two of them catch a train and walk the final quarter mile from the station to Taichi’s house. Around them their breath fogs as it rises, the clear night sky above draining the heat from the agitated city below.
It hasn’t been awkward, exactly, since Chihaya left the two of them alone, but her absence is notable, Taichi feels it most in the long stretches of silence as they walk side by side, his hands resolutely shoved deep in his coat pockets. It’s not until they arrive at the Mashima household that Taichi realises that Arata has never been in his house. His mother was dismissive of karuta from the start, and wouldn’t have allowed them to practice it under her roof. When they hadn’t gone straight to the Shiranami Society after school, they had gone to Arata’s house. Taichi can still recall the living area; the crackle of the reader tapes, the threadbare tatami against his palms. He hasn’t been there in years, but could still map the room out: seven paces wall to wall, if you avoided the clutter.
“You have a nice house,” Arata says, while the two of them pull their shoes off in the entry hall.
“Ah, thanks.” He takes the eight steps to the end of his front hall and feels embarrassed at the excess, for the first time in his life. “I think everyone’s out tonight, so don’t worry about making noise or anything.”
Arata smiles wryly at him. He doesn’t need to voice his thoughts for Taichi to know exactly what his mind has jumped to. The thought of playing karuta in his living room—with Arata no less—makes Taichi twitchy.
“Do you want something to eat? I think I’m ready to just go to bed.”
He gets a nod in agreement, and the two of them trudge up the stairs.Taichi has his hand on the door handle of the spare room before he remembers the hakama and karuta cards gathering dust inside. It feels like an insult to enshrine the future Meijin in a room where he’s buried the remains of his own karuta career.
“You don’t mind staying in my room, do you? I have a futon I’ll sleep on if you want to take the bed.”
“No, I’m the guest, I’ll take the futon.”
Taichi wants to argue for propriety’s sake, but by the time he’s pulled the futon out of his closet and rolled it out with Arata’s help, he mostly feels like collapsing into bed and not getting up again.
They settle for the night. Arata’s wearing one of Taichi’s shirts since he forgot to pack one of his own to sleep in. It’s big in the shoulders, but overlong on Taichi’s torso, so it fits Arata almost perfectly in length. His room is well proportioned, with floor space to spare even with the futon rolled out, but Arata might as well be in bed next to him for how aware Taichi is of his every move. He strains his ears in the dark, listens for the click of a pair of glasses laid aside.
“Thank you for letting me stay over.” Arata says, shifting so he’s facing Taichi’s bed.
“It’s no trouble. Like I said, there’s more space here than Chihaya’s place.”
“Mm. Thank you for seeing me around too, I know it was last minute.”
“You’re welcome.” Taichi sighs, and glances over at the shapeless outline of Arata’s body, just visible in the watery moonlight from his half-open blinds. “It was nice, spending time together outside of karuta for once.”
“I think it was nice just spending time together at all,” Arata says. “I’m glad you still want to see me after the qualifiers.”
It’s not the first time the two of them have almost caused a scene in a tournament bathroom, and it probably won’t be the last. “Actually, I’m beginning to think we might be stuck with each other.”
Arata snorts a laugh, then coughs to cover it up. “If that’s a promise that you’ll keep playing, then I wouldn’t mind that at all.”
“I guess it is. I’m still coming to terms with losing. I went into our matches trying my best to not care if I won or lost because I think I knew from the start what was going to happen.”
“You don’t regret it, do you?”
“No, I don’t think so."
“Well, I’m glad. Really glad to hear that. I couldn’t stand the thought of you being miserable the whole time.” The relief in Arata’s voice is noticeable.
“The hardship balanced out in the end… I met so many people that I never would have known, and I got to spend so much time with Chihaya. After elementary school there was a time I thought I was never going to see her again.”
“Yeah, I was always a little unhappy that you two were so close but still managed to lose touch somehow. You’re hard to pin down when you don’t want to talk, have I ever told you that?”
“No! But you’re not the first person to bring it up. I guess it’s just something else I need to work on.”
“Taichi…” Arata sits up on his futon, Taichi can just about see him move in the gloom, his eyes adjusted enough to the dark that in the amorphous shadow of his face he swears he can see the shine in his eyes. His breath catches, and he leans over without thinking. His heart is thundering so loud in his chest he’s sure Arata can hear it too. “I was a bit jealous of Chihaya too. For all those years she got to spend with you. You’re my best fri—”
Taichi closes the gap between them, his right hand planted on the edge of Arata’s futon, and kisses him. Or kisses the corner of his mouth, his aim off in the dark.
The world still spins on its axis below, the moon hangs above, low enough in the sky that its still brighter than the light pollution. The tide comes in to Tokyo Bay. But for a moment, in that room, time stands still.
Arata’s hand finds Taichi’s cheek, his fingertips tatami-callused in the same places that Taichi’s hands are, the same place Chihaya and Suou and Wakamiya’s are—marks of effort, and of love.
Taichi pulls back, leaving just enough space to breathe. He opens his mouth to speak - made bold by the warmth of the hand on his cheek, but Arata crashes forward, finds Taichi’s open mouth and follows suit. It’s uncoordinated, and messy. It’s probably Arata’s first kiss Taichi thinks wildly, though it’s not like he’s had many either, chaste pecks from short-lived middle school relationships notwithstanding.
When they break apart they’re both breathing heavily. He feels rather than sees the stretch of Arata’s smile; despite himself, Taichi is smiling too.
“You shouldn’t kiss someone while they’re talking about being your best friend,” Arata chides. He pulls his hand away from its comfortable resting place on Taichi’s cheek. He doesn’t have time to complain about the loss of contact before Arata stands, and pushes a hand against his shoulder instead. “Move over.”
“Sir, yes sir,” Taichi mumbles, shuffling backward to make room. Arata slides in beside him and their knees knock together; even through the layers of their pyjamas the contact feels electric.
“Your feet are freezing,” Arata says, rearranging his slightly longer limbs to lie on his side. Taichi retaliates by jabbing Arata’s shin with his toes.
“You’re the one who wanted in, face the consequences.”
They both laugh, loud enough that Taichi would have worried about waking someone else up, if the house wasn’t empty. He closes his eyes; beside him Arata’s breath sets a comforting rhythm, one that carries him to the edge of sleep and deposits him, warm and dozing until the silence breaks.
“Come with me to Omi Jingu, please. It won’t be the same without you there.” A fingertip ghosts the line of his jaw before Arata leans in to kiss him again with care, their mouths barely grazing before he cranes up to kiss Taichi’s forehead. It’s almost too much: it’s more than he’d ever considered.
That he’d always loved Arata in his own rough way was a constant, but just maybe Arata had spent all these years loving him back.
“You don’t fight fair, Wataya.”
“Historically, I fight fairer than you.”
“Alright, alright.” If his face wasn’t already burning up that would have set him off; as it is he fists a hand in the shirt at the back of Arata’s neck. “I’ll do it. On two conditions.”
The muscles in Arata’s neck jump in excitement. “What are they?”
“You have to win.”
“We talk about this, whatever this is.”
“Okay, Taichi.” He can hear the smile in Arata’s voice, the release of tension in his breath. “We’ll figure it out together.”
The obi slips again, and Taichi curses, his mouth twisting in frustration. Arata twists, craning his neck around to try and see where the issue at hand lies.
“I told you the material is a pain. I can put it on myself.”
“And have it slip in the middle of the third match? Suou-san won’t stop the match to let you fix it you know.” He fiddles with the stiff material again, pulling the knot tighter this time, and breathes a sigh of relief when it stays put. “Alright, I got it.”
Arata takes over, crossing the last set of straps over and knotting them at his front, just under his waist. With that both of them are dressed, camera ready.
Their hands find each other’s, Taichi squeezes Arata’s fingers tightly, giving over whatever luck he has left, to him and Chihaya both.
Taichi knows he can face whatever lies beyond the door to the changing room: the cameras, the crowd, the officials—because in the end it's the three of them, playing karuta together as a team, at eleven years old in Arata's rented living room, or at Omi Jingu, with the nation watching.
They walk out the door to the changing room one after the other, to face the Queen and Meijin together.