The message from her best girlfriend Kana-chan had been simple but direct. You promised me you’ll be back this Monday, so you better be here as you’ve promised or I WILL DECK YOU TO THE NEXT DECADE.
Truthfully speaking, she was surprised that Kana-chan now knew how to threaten people, - and effectively at that. Kana-chan had always been the gentle girl they had known throughout high school who just about knew everything regarding whatever karuta card you ask of her, but she should have known she guessed, -because they already had gotten a taste of her fierce and scary side whenever the former karuta team of Mizusawa high school acted too ignorant of one card that was supposed to be important, in the least.
Her fists clenched unconsciously on her lap as she thought of the one game she had loved and the person who she had always admired who had decided to turn his back on her a year ago.
The pilot’s voice came over the intercom announcing that they were about to land in Narita Airport in twenty minutes, and that they should fasten their seatbelts, first in Japanese, then in English. She was never one who had always followed instructions, but hey, she had to if she didn’t want to experience the rough landing so badly.
Indeed, after the rough landing which just about rattled her jaw and every bone in her body, she was finally back in her home country. She made it past the stairs before she spotted her mother and father waving to her, and before she could react, she found herself engulfed in her mother’s embrace.
She was crying, tears making a wet path down her cheeks. “Oh, Chihaya. You’re back. You’re finally back. Welcome home.”
Ayase Chihaya tried not to cry herself as she returned her mother’s tight embrace, hugging her as if it was her lifeline. “Tadaima…. ‘Kaasan. ‘Touchan.”
Her father forgot to act in a dignified, fatherly way as he embraced two of the three women he loved his entire life, tears also running down his cheeks. “Okaeri, Chihaya. Okaeri.”
Her mother stroked her hair as she wiped her tears away and got one of her bags, leading her away from the crowd of other people waiting for their relatives’ arrival as well. “How was Seoul? Did you have a good time there?”
“Hai.” She responded obediently, kissing both of her parents on the cheeks. “I have omiyage. It’s in one of the bags.” She said albeit a bit more enthusiastically, though her parents could tell that she wasn’t still in the mood. Knowing that she was probably exhausted, her mother just laughed and thanked her all the same, telling her that she shouldn’t have bothered especially since the cost of every little thing in Seoul couldn’t be that cheap.
“Still in the photo shoot in Kamakura.” Her father responded, as she wrapped an arm around his waist. “She had really wanted to come but… you know, work.”
She laughed softly. “Of course. ‘Neechan wouldn’t be able to pass up this chance, especially now that she’s famous and popular. I wish I’d be able to buy some of her magazines…”
“I have a lot of copies at home!” Her father exclaimed brightly, making her and her mother laugh. Chihaya was grateful that her father hadn’t changed out of his admiration of his two daughters. At least, that much hadn’t changed.
What went unsaid was that she was grateful that her parents were trying their best not to mention him, because honestly, even though she had finally accepted things, she still hadn’t been able to understand why he had to do that.
Why he had to hurt her so much.
I’m sorry, Chihaya. We can’t do this.
She shook her head hard, trying not to get her parents to notice it. Now is not the time to remember him, not when she had just come home from her travel supposedly refreshed. A lot of people had helped her try to recover, especially that one person who had done so much for her and she had yet to see again.
Truthfully though, she didn’t know how she was going to react once she saw him again. A mixture of foreboding, excitement and nervousness were starting to boil in her chest.
She really does miss him though.
Her parents called up a taxi once they got out of the airport’s exit, and had told her that a lot of people had been so excited at the news of her finally returning home. She giggled. She had a good guess who they were.
Chihaya looked around the airport and inhaled a good amount of breath, her insides calming down recognizing her home country’s air.
She really is back. For better or for worse.
She had been silent on the way home, and she was grateful that her parents let her be. She had even fallen asleep a few times against her mother’s shoulder. Her mother had just kissed her on the forehead, and she and her father had exchanged knowing looks.
As soon as they arrived and she had stepped inside their home, party poppers popped all over the place and she saw everyone she loved were there, her closest cousin, Keiichi-nii, his daughter and her niece, seven-year old Chizuko-chan, and her older sister, Chitose and her husband, Masaki-nii who had decided to surprise her.
She had laughed and embraced the people who were most important to her, and there were a lot of tears from her, their parents and Chitose, -probably the only ones who were not crying were the two other men who were watching the close family fondly.
They all had a mini-celebration for her arrival back home, -a bottle of champagne had been opened, and all of her favorite foods had been prepared. She had let out an enthusiastic squeal once she found out the food that had been prepared. There were a lot of stories exchanged, mostly something along the lines of “How was Seoul? Was it true that it’s so cold there, even in summer?” or “Were they really pale?” and “Got any photos there? Lemme see!!!” to which she had responded to all enthusiastically.
By the time five o’ clock rolled by, her parents had to break the mini-celebration, reminding them that she still needed rest. After all, she just came from a long travel.
“It’s fine, ‘Kaachan. I was… planning to go to Shiranami society.” She said, and immediately as if the sound had been sucked out, her family exchanged wary, guarded looks.
“But… Chihaya… you had just come home. Aren’t you exhausted?” Her father had asked guardedly, ruffling her hair tenderly. “Can’t it wait until tomorrow?”
“’Tousan. I won’t be there as much tomorrow. You know how I’m gonna be doing dress fitting for my best friend’s wedding, right?” She asked in a playful, complaining manner, just to ease the tension in the room. She could see her mother and older sister exchanging another look, -this time, of worry.
“Chihaya, it’s not like we don’t trust you or anything, but… well, we just don’t want you getting hurt just by going back there again.” Her mother took hold of her hands gently. “We know how much you’ve… been through.”
She gave her mother a reassuring smile as she gently squeezed her hands in response. “I’m already fine, ‘Kaasan. Don’t worry too much. It’s been a year already, -I’ve… accepted that there were some things that were not just for you.”
“I won’t be touching a card. For now.” She said, determination starting to surface in her voice. “I’ll just… visit everyone. I’ve missed them all so much. Especially Harada-sensei. I know he’s worried about me too.”
Her family exchanged another look. As much as they knew that she was telling the truth, there was no escaping the fact that she… just wasn’t the same. Yet. They had rejoiced at her decision to come home, because at least that meant that she was starting to move on, but they didn’t want that to be jeopardized as immediately when things had just started to look better for her, especially now that the only person they could entrust her to wasn’t around either.
Her brother-in-law, dark-haired, good-looking Masaki-nii, cleared his throat. “Will you, at least, let us take you there? Me and Chitose could drive you over.” He glanced at his wife, who looked at him blankly for a second before realizing that she was spacing out and nodding at Chihaya.
“We could even help you buy homecoming gifts for them if you want to.” Her older sister added, trying not to make her worry sound so obvious. “Shall we?”
Chihaya laughed and kissed both of them, taking both of their hands into hers. “Guys, there’s no need to accompany me. I’m a grown up who knew my way to Shiranami society like the back of my hand. I won’t get lost!” She said amusedly, though Chitose and Masaki just exchanged looks of worry.
Keiichi decided to step in. “It’s not about you getting lost, Chihaya. We just wanted to-“
“I know. But really, there’s no need to fuss. Didn’t I just tell you that I’m fine already?” She pouted, though her eyes were glinting with mischief. “And I’m even attending Kana-chan’s wedding. That should at least make you stop worrying you know.” She looked around to every one of them. “At least let me do this. I’ve missed everyone so much. Until now, me being back here haven’t sunk in yet, and I just had to see them again, and I’m so excited that I wouldn’t be able to wait until tomorrow. Please?” She asked sweetly, giving her parents her most-effective puppy-eyed gaze.
Her parents could do nothing but sigh. Her mother stepped forward and gently grasped her hands. “Alright, Chihaya, if that’s how you want it. You’re… right after all. You’re a grown up already. We know you can look after yourself. You did just spend an entire year alone in Seoul.” Her mother stroked her hair. “But… do be careful. If… if you think you can’t… stay there any longer, then call Chitose. Or us. Okay?”
She threw her arms around her mother in thanks. “Arigatou, ‘Kaasan. I’ll be home before you know it.” She then hurried outside, slipping on her flats easily, grabbing one of the paper bags she had brought with her home earlier from the airport, not giving the others a chance to respond. “See you later guys! Love you!”
As soon as she was out however, her family exchanged looks, and Chitose sighed exasperatedly. “Was it really a good idea to just let her go alone like that? Shouldn’t we at least have accompanied her or something?”
Her father just looked at her. “We have to have faith in her, Chitose. Chihaya is right after all. She’s a grown up already. She can look after herself. She just spent an entire year all alone by herself at Seoul.”
“I would feel a lot better at that if she at least, has someone who will be there with her.” Keiichi pointed out, cradling an asleep Chizuko-chan in his arms.
“Your father is right.” Ayase Chieko seconded, effectively closing the matter. “She’s already twenty-six. Let’s have faith in her.”
The three younger people exchanged another look, and Chitose finally shrugged her shoulders gracefully. “Well, if you say so. I hope nothing… untoward will happen with us just letting her go like that. She had just come home, after all, for crying out loud.”
All of them had good reason to worry. After all, nobody wants to once again witness the disappointing events that had happened a year ago.
Well sure, she was exhausted.
She had been lying earlier when she told them that she wasn’t exhausted. She was excited yes, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t tired. With the jetlag and all from the plane, she knew she shouldn’t be moving around too much and should just spend the entire day resting, even if she couldn’t sleep. Well her not being able to sleep was a first from her. She’s always had this uncanny ability to fall asleep everywhere and anywhere, as what he would playfully and teasingly point out to her countless times during the early days.
There she was again, remembering him.
At times like this, she remembers him. There usually is no catalyst or reason at all, she just does. Perhaps she really just hadn’t seen him in a long time.
Who was she kidding? She missed him a lot.
And by a lot, that meant a sharp jab of pain on her left chest.
A lot can happen in a year. In her case, she had discovered a lot for herself during her time away from Japan. How to make ends meet for her alone, -how to deal with other people she barely knew. How to adjust to a culture she hadn’t known before she went there.
How to move on from a person she thought had loved her with his entire being, only to have him suddenly turn his back on her.
She hadn’t been blind to the worried looks her family had exchanged since earlier. They had good reason to worry after all, since the effects of what had happened had resulted to her retreat from karuta, but she couldn’t stand their worry. She wanted to convince them that she was fine now, and that she had accepted the fact that he had already left.
The memories flowed in before she could stop them.
“I’m sorry. We are making a mistake.”
She couldn’t believe what she was hearing, -it all felt as if he had just ripped her heart out of her chest and left her bleeding on the floor. “How are we making a mistake? Explain it to me please!”
He had looked her in the eye. “You do not love me, Chihaya.”
“That’s… That’s… -what? That’s not true and you know it!” She had denied, unable to understand what he was talking about, back then.
He refused to let go of her gaze. “You really don’t see it, do you?”
Chihaya closed her eyes and leaned against the window of the taxi she was in, unwilling to sink back into the memories that had plagued her for half-a-year that she had decided to take off and leave Japan. Though she could remember them more openly now without feeling at least like she had to wrap her arms around her chest as if to hold herself together, she felt unwilling to recall them for now. She guessed that she was unconsciously protecting herself from those memories still until she was fully ready to remember them.
Now the pain brought by old memories was more akin to a prick from a thorn, disagreeable but nothing that couldn't be endured and, sometimes, even forgotten. She was, at least, relieved from that.
She glanced around, realizing that she had finally arrived at the dojo. Asking the driver to pull the car to a stop and thanking him politely, she finally stepped out and stood in front of the Shiranami Karuta Society.
Ah. This place.
She felt something prick once again in her heart. This place had always held good memories for her. This was where she had, after all, first watched and realized that karuta is a sport. This was where she had totally fallen in love with karuta after all.
She unconsciously heaved a deep breath. She stepped forward and went inside, removing her flats and placing them aside. There was no one outside, but she could hear the soft thud of two and so many arms, hear the reading being performed by the reader.
She wasn’t so averse to karuta as she had been a year ago, but she still couldn’t bring herself to touch a card once again, and she hated herself for it.
Chihaya stepped forward and wrapped her hand around the door handle and slid the shoji open. And once she did, all eyes turned to her.
She could see familiar faces. But before she could do more than smile and step sideways so as not to disturb the practice matches currently going on, she was once again engulfed into a strong embrace.
Tsuboguchi-san’s arms were the first ones around her, and she couldn’t help but laugh, tears forming in her eyes as she embraced him back. She hadn’t seen him for a year, and she truly missed everyone from her karuta society, especially this man who had also stood as one of her mentors which had earned her the title ‘Queen’ before everything had gone downhill in her personal life a year ago. The man had taken over heading the Shiranami Karuta Society when their dear, old teacher, Harada-sensei had passed on more than two years ago already.
“Chihaya-chan…” He greeted, his voice not hiding his disbelief. “Dear Lord, you’re back… you’re finally back…”
She laughed, in a restrained tone, trying not to laugh out loud too much lest she disturb the practice match. She may not be able to play karuta again, but she still respected her first love with all her heart and soul. “I didn’t realize you could miss me so much, Tsuboguchi-san.”
He shook quietly, as if he was about to sob. “Of course I missed you, Chihaya-chan. You were gone for a long time.”
She ran her hands soothingly up and down his back, the two of them still locked in an embrace. “I was only gone for a year. Don’t go all weepy on me, senpai.”
His arms tightened. “I’m sorry if I’m this emotional. It’s just that… Harada-sensei had asked me to look after you. I swore I would watch over you and be your guide, be it about karuta, or… or anything else.”
She stiffened in his tight embrace. “Mou, senpai. I’m alright now. I’m over it. Please don’t worry. You haven’t done anything that wouldn’t be able to make you face sensei in the afterlife.” She then finally let go of him, and she chuckled quietly as she helped him wipe the tears that had somehow fallen into his cheeks, staring at the older man with affection and adoration. “Where is everyone?”
Before he had a chance to respond, another girl had broken into their space and had thrown her arms around her in another suffocating embrace. Chihaya laughed as well when she recognized the child prodigy who she had beaten years ago during her first year, the little girl who had cried over her defeat but had sworn that she still had a lot left to learn. “Ririka-chan.”
“Chihaya-neechan.” Her expression was torn between laughing and crying at the same time. “Okaeri. I’ve missed you so much.”
The cute little girl wasn’t so little anymore, and had grown into a beautiful, fifteen-year old girl. After losing to Chihaya that fateful day, the girl had made it a point to practice hard, and her decision involved joining the Shiranami Karuta Society. Since then they had always practiced with each other, until a year ago. “I’ve missed you as well, Ririka-chan. How have you been? I heard you’ve been winning all the practice matches last summer. Have you beaten Tsuboguchi-san yet?” She asked,
The girl –who could reach her shoulder already, also being considerably tall for her age, shook her head. “Not yet. But I’m getting there.” The determination shone in her eyes, that Chihaya could see herself reflected in those determined hues.
There was that familiar pain in her chest once again, and she had the strangest urge to cry. She could literally see herself in this girl, no matter what she said about her not being able to touch a karuta card once again, and it made her remember the good, old days.
They hadn’t realized, though, that the practice match is actually over. Before she could comment on Ririka-chan’s determination, she was greeted with:
And Chihaya found herself embraced by so many people that she lost count of who she had thanked for greeting her, though she did see familiar faces.
She couldn’t understand why she was also feeling strangely disappointed though. Perhaps she was expecting he would be here, but a quick glance around told her that he wasn’t.
Well it was her fault. She hadn’t informed him that she would be arriving, or returning today, more like. The last conversation that they had had been cut off so quickly that she wondered whether he actually had some reason to be mad at her.
But that’s impossible. Why would he be mad over a phone call?
Chihaya knew she was being paranoid once again, one thing that he used to point out to her even back during the early days. That one thing hadn’t changed, -if possible, it had even worsened because of what had happened.
She shook her head before she could begin thinking about those things again.
They ended up having a little get-together party for her homecoming (the second homecoming party for her that she inwardly winced earlier,) at one of the nearest restaurants to the dojo. There were a lot of stories exchanged, and drinks were being passed around. She even held a glass of margarita at one hand.
“Look who’s back!” “I heard you’ve gone over to Seoul! How was it there?” “You look pale! Are you alright?” “You’ve lost some weight but it fits you even more!”
She forced a smile across her lips as she chatted with old and new members of her former karuta society. Yes, Seoul is absolutely beautiful. She didn’t know why she looked pale. She lost weight because she ran out of money which was good because it got her back to her former weight, which made them laugh and tell her that she was still such a joker, and that they were glad to see that she was doing well.
Only Ririka-chan sat close to her with a worried expression on her face, as if afraid that she would pass out in any moment. When she took out her compact for a minute, she saw why. Yes, she really looked pale.
“I think I’ll go to the restroom for a moment. Excuse me.”
Ririka-chan watched her go with an even more worried expression on her face.
As soon as she entered the restroom though, she immediately bolted to the nearest sink and poured the contents of her stomach out. All the excitement may have been too much for her, and considering that she had just come home from a long travel, maybe she really should have stopped to think twice about her immediate visit to her karuta society.
Chihaya smiled to herself. She was relieved to realize that the enthusiastic part of her, at least, had not changed in the slightest.
She rinsed her mouth with the cold, refreshing tap water and shut it off, only to feel the beginnings of a headache. She groaned lightly to herself. She hadn’t drank too much of the margarita had she? She could handle two glasses of it…
But it really felt as if someone was hammering into her skull mercilessly.
Clutching her head, she looked up to the mirror and stared at her reflection.
It was as if a different girl was staring back at her. Her large, usually bright, auburn, doe-like shaped eyes looked dull today, looking as if a storm was approaching from the distance. Her cheekbones stood prominent against her face, lips still glinting with the simple, pink lip gloss she had worn earlier. Despite of the paleness of her skin, it did not manage to mar the features of her face.
Indeed, she was the epitome of loveliness and enthusiasm, and yet for a reason that was unknown to her friends and even her, he had decided to leave without a reasonable explanation.
Or at least he did, but it had never made sense to her anyway. At least not, even now.
Her head still feeling as if someone was trying to crack it open, she decided to arrange her hair into a side braid and make sure she looked fine. She didn’t want to alarm Ririka-chan, though she knew that all the same, the girl had worried for her even after she had hastily left Japan a year ago.
And most importantly, she didn’t want to worry Tsuboguchi-san. He already had his hands full when he had began heading the Shiranami Society, and she didn’t want to add to that. She already knew how he had worried for her ever since her heart had been broken, and until now she knew that he was still adjusting to the fact that their beloved mentor really had already… gone there. To the place where people were thought to be happy.
She tried to contain the sob threatening to escape her lips. Harada-sensei… he hadn’t even seen her become the Queen. She guessed that it didn’t matter now, especially since she had unwittingly given the title and the game up when she had chosen to walk away a year ago, and honestly, she didn’t think she would have the face to show him once she faced him in the afterlife.
Chihaya squared her shoulders and straightened her posture, though she could feel her headache intensify. She couldn’t ruin this night, not when she had just come home and managed to make them think that she was okay now. Well really, she is okay now and had already accepted that life is a bitch, and that she wouldn’t always have her way. It was just that everything she had been through was one of the things that a woman could never wish upon herself, and that was why she didn’t want them to worry even more so than they had done before.
She was still a Queen after all. She hadn’t managed to take that title for nothing.
She went out of the restroom and made her way back to their table, where everyone was seated and laughing still. She stopped for a bit to look at everyone fondly, even when her vision was beginning to whirl. The smiles on their faces told her that they were happy to have her back, and that they were doing well with their lives. Not being able to touch a card doesn’t matter now. All that mattered is that everyone from her former society is doing well with their lives.
She was still a few feet away from them but really her vision was starting to whirl. It felt as if the walls were closing in on her and her heart was beating a hundred miles per hour against her chest. Sweat rolled down her temple.
She didn’t realize that she was feeling this crappy since earlier.
She tried to take a step more forward to at least make it to their table, but that one little movement took it’s toll out of her.
Everything that had happened afterwards was a blur.
She saw Ririka-chan turn to look at her and saw her stagger to the side. Her expression changed into fear and alarm, and the last thing she heard was her alarming scream:
She was in a dream-like state. She vaguely felt that she was being lifted up, voices shouting to one another to bring her back to the dojo, and she even felt a hand touching her forehead.
Have you managed to contact him?
That didn’t make sense before. Who were they trying to contact? She wondered, in her distant dream-like mind. Were they trying to contact my family?
She hoped in her unconscious mind, that they wouldn’t. She just didn’t want them to worry more and make them realize that they were right to be reluctant to let her go alone to the Shiranami Society. The last thing she wanted was them wanting to accompany wherever she wanted to go from now on.
As she slowly regained her consciousness, the things she was hearing became sharper.
Someone was fanning her face.
“Was she alright now?”
That was her mother’s voice and she winced. Oh, no.
“Yes she is, Obaachan. She just needed proper rest, after all. With all that excitement from seeing some of our old friends it had obviously taken it’s toll on her. She’ll be fine.” A male voice responded, something that made her snap her eyes open.
The voice sounded deep and professional but gentle and reassuring all the same.
What caught her attention though was that it was also freakishly familiar, because it tugged at her heartstrings all the same. She recognized it.
She turned a bit so that her cousin Keiichi-nii’s face loomed over hers, making her realize that he was the one fanning her face and he flinched when he saw her eyes open. His worried expression abruptly changed into a stern one. “Finally. You’re awake.”
Chihaya shook unconsciously from the stern, narrowed-eyed gaze Keiichi was giving her. “U-Uhm… yeah… uh… what happened?” She was trembling out of sheer fear from Keiichi. She could feel a good tongue-lashing coming on, and despite of the fact that she was older now, her fear of her elder cousin hadn’t changed one bit. She knew how much he cared for her.
His green eyes narrowed even more. “Oh you are so going to hear it. You just fainted, Chihaya. You lost consciousness in the middle of the impromptu homecoming get-together that your society had thrown for you because you are terribly exhausted. What did we tell you?”
“Uhm, K-Keiichi-nii, it’s not their fault. I-It’s just that I was just so excited and happy-“
“You bet it’s not their fault! Did we not tell you to get rest first? Jesus, what would we do if they didn’t manage to contact him immediately? You would have frozen to death!”
Her eyebrows raised. She was freezing?
“I don’t understand.” She said a bit confusedly. Keiichi sighed as he ran a hand through his hair. It was only then that she noticed that she was already back in her room at their house, and that her room’s door is open, (which was how she probably heard the voices earlier,) and she wondered why the moon is so high up in the sky. “W-What time is it?” She asked, getting more confused as the minutes ticked by.
“It’s two in the morning already.” Keiichi said, finally moving away from her bed. “You were out for five hours.”
She jumped to a sitting position on her bed in surprise, and that made her vision whirl. She winced. Not a good idea at all. “What!?”
“Yes. You nearly died of pneumonia, you idiot. You were delirious, your temperature is at forty degrees Celsius.” Keiichi sighed, rubbing his temples. It seemed that the worst of his temper was over as immediately as it started. “Well, you still got lucky, I guess. It’s a good thing that our resident doctor had just come back.”
“Resident doctor?” She parroted, getting even more confused. “There is a doctor at this time?”
“Of course. Though I’m not specifically on duty.”
She glanced up to the tall man who stood at her room’s door, leaning on the door jamb with one of his hands on his pockets, wearing what seemed to her like a dark-blue polo shirt and cropped ankle pants. He still had a stethoscope around his neck, his eyes looking bright and alert despite of the fact that it was already the wee hours of the morning.
“I had really wanted to see you finally back, but admittedly, not like this. I had never imagined it would be under these circumstances, you know.” He fixed her with the amber-eyed stern gaze she had so missed seeing.
Even though it was only a year when they had last seen each other, she had missed him terribly. He was only one of the few people who had stood beside her and helped her slowly recover from her bout of disappointment despite of the fact that they were miles apart. His brown hair seemed longer than usual, skin slightly tanned, shoulders broader than she remembered, arms lean but muscular all the same.
She had felt anxious to see him once again, her emotions a mix between foreboding, excitement and nervousness. Now though, all she could feel were enormous relief and inexplicable happiness.
Tears were pricking the corners of her eyes. “Taichi…” She gasped out loud, his name a breath of fresh air escaping her lips.
“Okaeri, Chihaya. Welcome home.” A smile formed on his lips, his eyes glinting with simple and pure joy.
And without further ado, she launched herself to his arms.