The new kid is weird.
That's not the problem, as far as Taichi is concerned. The problem is, Chihaya likes her. She has gone out of her way to try to make friends with the new kid. They are friends, Chihaya announced to Taichi on the way to school this morning, with that unstoppable grin of hers.
Taichi only looked at her when she said it. He does really like Chihaya's smile, but he's smart enough not to fall for it all the time, not to let it drag him down the wrong path or, more likely, off the path entirely. He didn't say anything back to her even when she furrowed her brow, an expression he finds almost as cute as her smile; he didn't say anything at all even when she drew his name out into extra syllables, punctuated with a downturned curve to her mouth.
So Chihaya thinks that she and Shinobu—as Chihaya calls the new kid, since apparently they are using each other's given names after knowing one another for less than a week—are friends. Taichi is not so sure Shinobu thinks the same, but that's not his to tell Chihaya.
Anyhow, she's not here right now. She went flying off "to look for Shinobu's precious item, which she lost!" Shinobu didn't lose the item; it was lost for her. Taichi knows because he watched from the same shadows he's standing in now as other kids from their class went into Shinobu's desk, opened the box she's always carrying around, and took out a deck of cards. He watched as they hid the cards all over the classroom. He didn't hide any of the cards himself but that doesn't make him better. He thinks maybe it makes him worse.
He's watched Shinobu find ninety-nine of the cards, climbing and crawling and searching and searching. Where Chihaya would have grinned and shouted and waved the card around each time she found one, Shinobu has only paused to stand still, holding the card with both hands, gazing at it. Her lips have moved each time but no sound has come out, at least none Taichi has heard. He doesn't know what she's been saying, but it's clear she's talking to the cards. Whispering to them, as if they're her best friends. It's weird. It's why their classmates did that with the cards in the first place.
Taichi has stood here watching Shinobu tell niney-nine secrets to her card friends. There's one more card, one more secret.
He knows, because he's holding the one hundredth card. He would have known when he picked it up that there are one hundred cards, even if Chihaya hadn't told him with such thrill and wonder in her voice that Shinobu plays karuta and "she's amazing at it! She's going to be Queen one day!"
Taichi has played karuta—well, he thought he'd played it, until he looked up a Niconico video of Shinobu playing. She doesn't play like Taichi or anyone he's played against. She plays like—he doesn't know. He felt something watching her play, but he doesn't understand her karuta, how she plays like that or how it makes him feel...
He looks down at the card he's holding. He recognizes this verse. He doesn't have to read all the characters to know Poem #4; he has it memorized. Unlike most of the opponents he's played against in school tournaments, he has all the 100 Hyakunin Isshu memorized.
They aren't his friends, though. The poems, the cards—they aren't his friends the way they're Shinobu's friends. Taichi has friends, but he doesn't think any of them would climb and crawl and get filthy and give up everything else just to find him.
Except for Chihaya. Chihaya would look for him if he ever got lost, he thinks, probably...
He looks at the card he's holding. He didn't hide it and he didn't look for it. He found it by accident.
His mother believes in turning accidents into opportunities.
Taichi takes a deep breath and holds it for a few heartbeats as he steps out of the shadows. He pushes it out as loud as breath can be, but Shinobu doesn't notice, or maybe she just doesn't care; cards don't breathe, so why would she care about anything that does?
The desk she's standing tiptoe on as she tries to stretch up to a shelf that's out of reach wobbles, and Taichi moves quickly to steady it with one hand.
She looks down at him and he holds the card up to her. He was always going to give it back to her—just not like this, face to face, and he has no words prepared. He doesn't say anything.
Shinobu doesn't say anything either. The card slides through his fingers as she takes it from him. Her smile is for the card, not for him; so too the words that are so soft he still can't hear them, even this close.
He extends his hand to help her down but she jumps down on her own, landing in a crouch. She doesn't thank him when she straightens up, simply moving to the card box.
"Hey," Taichi says, watching her sort through the cards and slip this last one into its rightful place, "will you teach me how to play?" Shinobu looks at him. He's played karuta, yeah, but he's never played it in a way that made anyone light up, the way Chihaya does when she talks about Shinobu's karuta. He watched that video but he's never actually experienced such karuta himself. "Will you teach me how to play like you?"
Shinobu's gaze flickers to the side before she nods. She opens her mouth but if any words come out, they're drowned by an exuberant, "Taichi~! Shinobu~!" and the only reason they don't fall over as Chihaya leaps in to wrap herself around them is that Taichi's leg skates out to brace himself, and because they're all bound together in the hug, he ends up supporting all of them.
"Taichi." Chihaya turns to him as they extricate themselves. "You're definitely going to be the King—"
"The Meijin," Shinobu corrects.
"The Meijin," Chihaya amends without missing a beat, "if Shinobu teaches you, because she's the best. She's going to be Queen! Forever Queen—no." Her brow furrows and her mouth slants to the side as she digs for the term she wants, unfurling into that dangerous grin of hers as she finds it: "Eternal Queen!"
"What about you?" It's Taichi's turn to let his mouth quirk to the side. Chihaya is radiating such delight he almost doesn't want to say this, but—"There can be only one Queen at a time, so, what will you be?"
"Oh." Chihaya's expression falls.
Taichi wants to say something to pick it back up, but Shinobu gets there first. "The Queen Challenger. The one who goes against the current Queen for the title."
"Won't it get frustrating to lose the important match all the time?" Taichi looks from one of them to the other. "If Shinobu is going to be an undefeated Queen." He's pretty sure that's what eternal means in this context.
"Maybe," Chihaya says, tucking her fist under her chin as she gazes off at an imaginary future.
"Maybe I won't be an Eternal Queen," Shinobu says, looking at Taichi for some reason, instead of at Chihaya.
Chihaya laughs as she snaps back into their present. "Anyhow, me and Taichi have to learn how to play for real first!" She looks expectantly from one of them to the other.
For real. As Chihaya's words sink into him, Taichi thinks that's it, or at least part of it, the difference between how Shinobu plays and how he does. She's real in a way that he isn't...
He looks at her when she says, "We can't go to my grandmother's," but their eyes don't meet because she's looking at the floor.
"Taichi's house is out, too," Chihaya says. "No way would Mrs. Pressure go for this." Taichi flinches at the nickname she's given his mother, but he doesn't disagree with the nickname itself or with Chihaya's assessment of the situation. "So it'll have to be my place!"
When she turns her wide open smile on Taichi this time, he feels himself grin back even as he tumbles off into an unexpected direction, an unknown future.