I sipped my tea, which had already cooled off enough to be drinkable, and put down the book I was reading. My vision became blurry and I blinked repeatedly. After reading for a while, your eyes sometimes needed time to adjust to the real world, as in the case when you had been sitting in the dark and someone decided to turn on the light. This notion was somewhat similar to a significant change of pace, that is uncomfortable and uneasy at first, but gradually becomes your new way of life. I stared at the wall, listening absentmindedly to the never-changing dialogue at the other end of the Service Club's room.
"…And then they, like, found out that he was the culprit all along! Totally shocking, I swear! Hayato-kun said that it was predictable, though, but I don't know… I mean, if you read too much into things, it just distracts you from the story, right?"
"Yuigahama-san, I can't offer you an opinion on the matter. I don't even watch this show."
"But you totally should, Yukinon. Give it a shot, it's awesome! It's all the rage these days."
"Even if you say so…"
I shifted my gaze to the left and was greeted with a usual peaceful scene. Yuigahama was chatting with Yukinoshita, talking excitedly about every little thing that came to her mind, and Yukinoshita, in turn, was reading a book. It didn't mean that she wasn't paying attention to her. Quite the opposite actually: she made sure to properly answer each of her questions and added her own remarks from time to time. A soft smile appeared on her face every now and then, as she was surrendering to Yuigahama's cheerfulness.
I wonder, did my eyes unknowingly adjust to the light of this room as well at some point?
Yuigahama abruptly turned to me, the bun of hair swaying lightly.
"Hikki, what about you? You watch it, right?" her voice held a tone of absolute certainty.
I responded rather sluggishly.
"If I had any intention of letting my brain rot away, I would have given it a try, but I'm not that desperate to fit in with society.
At the other end of the table there was a slight movement. Yukinoshita lowered her book and eyeballed me curiously.
"But wouldn't it suit you? At this point, it doesn't really matter if something else in you gets rotten. It will be like a drop in a vast, vast ocean."
I sometimes wondered if she had a notebook dedicated solely to a list of insults she would use in various circumstances; arranged in a neat fashion, with brightly colored bookmarks labeled "about rotten eyes", "about social inadequateness", "about weird tastes". And I also could easily picture her writing in a diary before going to bed, smiling and humming to herself, "Today was a good day. I managed to humiliate him thirteen times in five different categories. A definite progress."
"Not really, I'm pretty awesome all in all. Besides, aren't your words contradicting with your principle of constant improvement of oneself?"
"Not really," she replied as though mimicking me. "The whole concept of improvement implies that there is something in the first place that you can improve. Multiplying by zero always gives zero."
I grimaced and returned to my book. It seems it was a mistake to indulge myself in social interactions.
"Guys, guys…" Yuigahama, waved her heads with a halfhearted smile, trying to act as a mediator. "Come on, let's take the heat off… Hikki, say, what do you want to do?"
"Hmm… Go home?"
Yuigahama sighed with a sad expression, shook her head and began fidgeting with her phone, giving up on me.
I looked at the wall clock, wondering, for how long she will be able to keep quiet. The seconds passed slowly, and each "tic-tac" was clearly heard in this silence.
"I just wanted to have some fun, you know. Talk about something, or go somewhere. We rarely even meet outside of this room, it's just wrong! You both are such fun sponges…"
"Yuigahama-san…" Yukinoshita's look softened. "But we have club activities, and when they end, it's usually too late to plan anything meaningful."
Oh, thirty-seven, by the way. Thirty-seven seconds.
"Ehh, then let's go on a weekend!"
"But we spend plenty of time together on weekends. We had a sleepover at my place two weeks ago."
Yuigahama shook her head.
"No-no, something is definitely wrong with your idea of 'plenty'. Also, I was talking about all three of us. Including Hikki!"
"That would be a problem if Hikigaya-kun had a sleepover with us, Yuigahama-san."
Yeah, right. Not like I wanted to, anyway. In case it happened somehow against the odds, she would probably just lock me up in a wardrobe or something.
"N-no, sheesh! That's not what I meant." Yuigahama's cheeks turned red. "I mean, karaoke, or something like this?
What was the deal with the karaoke craze, anyway? If everyone loved singing so much, then how came that their career plans featured completely different jobs? As a matter of fact, it wasn't only about karaoke. You probably couldn't walk more than one hundred steps without bumping into someone who played J-pop or rock music in a band, who sang or danced, and the list went on. These particular activities were a magnet to modern youths. And yet, later on in life they all abandoned old hobbies, like lizards shedding their skins.
Yukinoshita had a doubtful look on her face. With a thoughtful expression, she answered.
"But we've been there before, remember? On your birthday. Moreover, I can't say that it is a preferable way for me to spend my free time."
"Whaaat?!" Yuigahama gasped, looking much more surprised than the situation called for. "But your voice is so beautiful, and you sing really good. You're, like… you could totally outperform half of those idols on TV!"
"A person not always likes doing what they excel at, Yuigahama-san."
See, and that's why you were not cute at all. Shouldn't you'd said something like, "No way, that's not true, stop flattering me…" instead of silently accepting her statement? But on the second thought, it would make you dangerously similar to Isshiki, and our school couldn't afford to have another sly fox in its grounds, and…
No, stop! Stop with this line of thought, you. I fiercely shook my head. The thing is, I'd noticed as of late that every time the said fox came to my mind, there was a good chance she would actually come in person to our clubroom on a short notice with some request, and the last thing I wanted right now was more work. I didn't consider myself a superstitious person, but this scenario repeated itself way too often for a statistical error.
Both Yukinoshita and Yuigahama stopped their conversation and stared at me in surprise. Well, I guess it's only natural when you begin shaking your head all of a sudden.
"Hikigaya-kun, you're being even more weird than usual."
I raised my hand abruptly in an attempt to silence them and listened anxiously, trying to make out any unusual sounds. If I heard no footsteps in about twenty seconds, then we were probably safe.
Ten seconds passed. Nothing.
Five more. All clear.
And, surely, my ears caught a quiet pit-a-pat in the last second. Way to go, Isshiki. You have a serious potential as an actress in boring cliché action movies with bombs, which are being defused in the nick of time.
How do I defuse this bomb, though? The task was too hard for an amateur, we needed a professional combat engineer. For now, I just sighed, dropped my hand and picked up the book again.
Three energetic knocks broke the silence of the clubroom. Yukinoshita was still looking at me questioningly, but answered nevertheless.
The door opened with a whooshing sound, and Isshiki Iroha bounced inside with a big smile on her face.
"Yui-senpai! Yukinoshita-senpai! Senpai, too! Congratulations, you are all invited!"
Silence fell upon this room once again.
Huh? What was that, what exactly was that right now? Was she getting m-married or something? That's not good then. Run, Irohasu, run with all your might, I'll somehow stall the fearsome single teacher who will surely annihilate you for beating her to the punch! We need airplane tickets and disguise of some sort, provision, and… and… cosmetics, I guess? Girls can't survive in the wild without their eyeliners, can they?
Wait, hold your horses, Hachiman, it was out of the question. But what was that gibberish about, then?
Yuigahama came to her senses first and waved her hand in a greeting.
''Yahallo, Iroha-chan. Um… We are happy, I guess, but… What do you mean, exactly?"
While talking, she sneaked peeks at us, as if asking, "I'm not the only one who doesn't get it, right?" When our eyes met, I shrugged wordlessly.
Isshiki's pose could only be described as triumphant. She was acting like a bearer of good tidings, eager to deliver an important message to her lord about concluding an alliance with another kingdom. With somewhat haughty and dignified expression, she spoke.
"Bowling, guys! Bowling."
And, hardly surprisingly, my bad premonition manifested itself in the reality.
"…Excuse me?" Yukinoshita tilted her neck slightly.
Isshiki sighed with a look of, "Why should I bother explaining the obvious things?" and took a seat in a vacant chair. After that, she looked at each of us again and went on to explain.
"Tomorrow we are going bowling, and you all are invited thanks to me. See now?"
She deserved no thanks! The last thing I wanted was to waste my precious, delightful idleness on some tiresome get-together on Saturday. When Yuigahama was proposing something like this, I could usually change her mind with a few reasonable arguments, providing that Yukinoshita wasn't really into the idea. But now I encountered a different beast altogether, and I still struggled to find a way to counter her when she had already set her sights on something.
"Wow! Bowling! I've never been there. I'm totally in, we all are!" Yuigahama exclaimed excitedly. Then she paused and took a look at us. "I mean… right?"
Yukinoshita cupped her chin in her hand.
"Putting aside your sudden proposition and our answer… You said, 'we're going,' didn't you? Who is coming, exactly?"
"Well, me," Isshiki pointed a finger at herself, "you three," the finger moved to us, "and also Hayama-senpai, Tobe-senpai, and Hina-senpai."
Who knows, maybe she had attended some kind of cheap psychological studies because this trick was a commonplace among wanna-be-psychologists: make it sound like they'd already agreed to something, and they would subconsciously accept it.
First things first, I decided to clarify the most indistinct part of her story.
"And who came up with the idea, originally?"
"Well, haha…" Isshiki squirmed uncomfortably. "Everyone?"
She practically gave me an answer I needed, but I wanted to make her publicly spill the guts.
"People do not have a hive mind. Even if a group of individuals possesses similar traits and goals and inclines to act in one particular way, there is always someone - a pioneer, you could say, - who will vocalize the suggestion. And who was the groundbreaker this time?"
"Senpaaai… Please, stop with this weird speech, I'm starting to have flashbacks of Christmas event, you knooow." Isshiki visibly shuddered. "And… if it's so important to you, then okay, it was me. The whole bowling affair... I came up with it."
Here we go, nice and loud. Still… an affair, huh? Not an idea, not a plan, but an affair? Isshiki seemed to be in her normal state of mind, alright.
"Huh? Yours? But why were you so…"
Yuigahama started, leaning slightly towards her, but I stopped her with my eyes. I hadn't finished with her yet, and this time I intended to do my job diligently. I opened my mouth, but…
"And why are you in such a dire need of us, Isshiki-san? Is there any particular reason, perhaps?"
…But Yukinoshita beat me to it, having spoken the same question I had in mind. I noticed that her expression became a bit icy, and a chilling smile appeared on her face. I had no doubt that she took note of Isshiki's weird behavior as well. Now, now, my nimble-witted kouhai, what will you do against such a heavy artillery with your back pressed against the wall? The door is still within your reach, and sometimes there is no shame in retreating.
Isshiki was nervously glancing around the room, refusing to make an eye contact with anyone. Well, suit yourself. You're here to ask us for something, not the other way, duh.
I decided not to waste my precious time and reached out for the book - they say that successful people make the most of every second! - but finally, Isshiki sighed deeply, closed her eyes and put her hands in front of her in defeat.
"Alright, geez. Why are you both always so pushy? You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, don't you know? I kindly offered you to come with us and have a good time, but you're mood-killers all the way…"
"So?" we both pressed the matter further at the same moment.
Isshiki opened one eye and peered at me with a sour expression.
"Well, you see, things between me and Hayama-senpai have been pretty awkward recently… at least it seems that way to me. I wanted a chance to reconcile with him, to let him know that I don't hate him or anything after that time in Destinyland, and it's obviously too soon for a face-to-face dialogue! But I don't really want Miura-senpai to show up, and I'm not that well acquainted with others, so… you guys seemed like the best choice."
Isshiki's voice was really subdued during her speech, but then she jerked up her head and snapped.
"Sheesh, you happy now?! That's what I wanted! And you can treat it as a request to Service Club or whatever, but I thought that we could just have fun together without worrying over unnecessary stuff!"
Isshiki's face turned angry, embarrassed and determined at the same time. I broke the eye contact involuntarily. This kind of situations always made you uncomfortable for some reason, even if you couldn't predict the outcome in the beginning. It probably felt similar to scolding your child and finding out later that he was not guilty.
Yukinoshita, Yuigahama and I all shared a look. Yuigahama was switching from me to her and looked like a little puppy who can't decide which one of her owners to follow.
Well… I guess we had nothing else to do if it was technically a request, right? My hopes of lazing around in a house on Saturday slowly vanished, probably along with the last bit of light in my eyes. I resigned myself to my fate and nodded. Yukinoshita, after seeing my reaction, bowed her head a little, too.
Yuigahama joyfully clapped her hands.
"Sorry for these two, Iroha-chan! You know them, they are always like this. Don't worry, of course we'll come. Thanks for inviting us!"
"Yui-senpaaai!" Isshiki looked ready to cry a river at any moment. "I knew I could count on you, thank you so much! It will be fun, I promise!"
Yuigahama nodded energetically.
"Mm! Ah, but I never went bowling before… Is it okay?"
"Of course! And I'm pretty sure that senpai has never been there as well, so it's not a big deal." Isshiki smiled at me, innocently yet fiendishly.
Just what was she implying? This may have looked like a harmless remark for the purpose of keeping the flow of the conversation, but her presumptions sounded offensive all the same. If a person didn't have any friends, did they necessarily have no experience with a team game? If an individual identified himself as a loner, he still had a loving family and maybe even a cute little sister. Hell, he could easily go and play alone, if anything. If we were talking about football or some other kind of sport where at least two persons had to be involved, then I could agree with it, but why did an act of rolling a massive ball in a bunch of pins required more than one man's efforts? But then again, in this world of ours, people even considered Jenga as a social game, so I wasn't really surprised that much. Always and everywhere society tried to tie us down and put in a box, suffocating the sheer creativity of mind and individual's capabilities.
Having said that, she hit the nail. I'd never been bowling before. But that was just a lucky guess.
"Then it's decided!" Isshiki quickly rose to her feet. "Be ready for tomorrow. Oh, and I'll text you the meeting place and the exact time later. Bye-bye!"
"Bye, Iroha-chan!" Yuigahama waved her goodbye. "See you tomorrow!"
After Isshiki left in high spirits, it suddenly struck me. Didn't she recover too quickly after confessing her true intentions? She appeared to be on a verge of tears and yet brightened so fast when we accepted her offer. Was she just such an easygoing person, or…
I felt a bitter taste in my mouth. I've certainly been fooled by her once again.
Interpersonal communication. A pivotal point in the history of human evolution, a crucial social mechanism, which allowed our race to rapidly progress and eventually construct a society where we live today. But what about the first step towards creating a complex and messy web of personal interactions, relationships, and verbal dialogue? Most people tended to believe that labor had been the catalyst, and while this opinion held a grain of truth, it was not entirely accurate. To begin working together, individuals had to come to an understanding first, and such a practical tool as the speech didn't exist at the time. In order to solve this complicated issue, our ancestors learned to use kinetic speech, which consisted of sign and body languages.
Humanity constantly evolved. We have reached unthinkable heights of communication abilities, far exceeding capabilities of primitive animals. That's our pride, that's our heritage from ancient times.
…To conclude, after having come such a long way, why should one return to an inefficient method of conversing? Why was Yuigahama jumping like a silly monkey and waving her hand with such force, that all her muscles were probably screaming in agony?
Not to mention that it felt pretty embarrassing, doing this kind of thing in public on a busy street.
I scowled and made my way to a group waiting for me. Following Yuigahama's example, Tobe started to wave as well. He shouted, making no big deal out of good manners.
"Yo, Hikitani-kun! We're here, dude!"
I can see it, you dumbass.
I approached them without saying a word with my hands in my pockets. The burden of giving greetings fell on the shoulders of the welcoming party, right? At least that was what I hoped for.
"Hey." The leading actor of his clique, Hayama, smiled at me.
"Hallo, hallo!" Ebina-san's eyes sparkled when she saw our exchange. Instinctively, I made a step back. And they dared to say something about me being rotten.
Both Yukinoshita and Yuigahama greeted me as well. I nodded my head.
''Soooo, everybody's finally here. Are you ready, guys?" Isshiki clapped her hands with a radiating smile.
"Yeah!" Yuigahama responded with the same enthusiasm.
"Let's go, then," after making sure that we were all set, Hayama led the way.
We entered a building. It turned out the place wasn't very spacious. It seemed more like a small family restaurant if you could use such a comparison when talking about a bowling alley. But then again, I didn't know for sure what size they were supposed to be; I wanted to check it out yesterday on the internet but blew it off in the end. I just, umm, I thought that everyone's reaction when we come inside would be, like, "Whoaaah!" but it was more like, "Oh, okay, cool." Well, whatever. I decided to think of it as of a trial version of infamous Paris Syndrome.
"Should we take two lanes, I wonder? There are seven of us, maybe it will be more convenient?" Isshiki pondered aloud.
"I think so, too," Hayama nodded. "Do you agree, guys?"
After confirming it with everyone, Hayama went to a clerk behind the counter.
After that, we began to change from outdoor shoes into already prepared sneakers.
"Hey, Hayato-kun, wanna make a bet who'll win?" Tobe spoke, standing up from the couch.
"No, no. Bets are a double-edged sword, don't you think?"
"Come'on! Oh, man, you're just scared, ain'tcha?"
Hayama smiled wryly and answered jokingly.
"Not at all. Just making sure that you'll don't have to cry at the end, Tobe."
"Eh? Look who is talkin'! Nah, we're totally bettin' now!
"Fufu! You both are too overconfident. Time to show you some of my special moves!" Ebina-san moved her hand to her temples and closed her eyes, doing a half turn in the process.
Ehh, what was that? Had she been bitten by Zaimokuza, perhaps, or is it normal for high school kids nowadays? Who determined a borderline between normal and creepy, anyway? I wanted to meet that guy and ask him some questions, accumulated during long years of my school life.
"Gah! Scary!" Tobe boggled dramatically.
What a noisy bunch indeed…
I looked to the left at Yukinoshita. She was curiously looking around, waiting for others to finish preparing. Her gaze stopped at the floor near the lanes, and then she nodded to her thoughts with a soft "um–hum!". As far as I could tell, she was neither bored nor troubled, and the look in her eyes arose a certain suspicion in me.
Her mouth opened slightly, and she uttered in an undertone.
Hmm… That was interesting.
"Let me guess, you've been bowling before?" I inquired.
"Well, yes. I'm quite familiar with it," she nodded seriously. "Earlier in my childhood both me and Hayama-kun, and also some of our classmates gathered from time to time and played together. Still, I haven't been practicing for a while now, so my previous experience is probably irrelevant."
Oho, Hayama as well? I glanced at the others, who were finishing tying shoelaces while chatting. Somehow I got a feeling that such an activity befitted him more. After all, as far as I could tell, a bowling ball weighted quite a lot, and looking at Yukinoshita's slender arms I could safely conclude that from a purely physical point of view men were more suited for this game than women. But then I remembered Hiratsuka-sensei, and my doubt flew away in an instant. She could probably easily knock a bear senseless, providing that the bear handed in an essay touching upon dubious and controversial subjects. Source – me.
"Huh, that so… And who played better?" I asked the question absentmindedly without giving it a proper thought first.
Yukinoshita froze, as if… as if I'd said that her favorite hamster was dead. Then her eyes flashed as if I'd continued and informed her that he was, in fact, brutally murdered. And then the glared at Hayama's back as if I'd pointed at the cruel villain.
"Him. Statistically speaking, that is. My win rate was about 30%."
Well, yeah, she was… a competitive one, wasn't she?
Yuigahama, who had been chatting with the bunch, skipped to us. Somehow I felt that she had more troubles than anyone in such get-togethers, acting as a narrow bridge between two cliffs.
"Hikki, Yukinon! You ready? We're al… Whoa! Yukinon, what's wrong?"
Yuigahama stepped back in shock after seeing her expression. Realizing that her posture was completely stiff, Yukinoshita quickly returned to normal and relaxed her hands.
"What do you mean, Yuigahama-san? Everything is fine. I'm ready," she answered with a distrustful smile.
"You… you sure?" Yuigahama worriedly approached her and whispered. "If you have a stomach ache or something, we could…"
"I'm fine. Honestly," this time, she put more force in her voice.
"Well… If you say so…"
Others followed Yuigahama and walked to us. Seeing this, Yukinoshita and Yuigahama quietened down.
"All right, I've ordered two lanes," Hayama smiled with his usual friendly expression. "And now the question is, how should we split?"
"Dude, it's obvious. Hayama-kun's band and Service Club, o' course!" Tobe answered immediately.
"Haha… Tobe-senpai, and where does it leave me then, I wonder?" Isshiki Iroha's smile was so innocently dangerous, that I got chills.
"Eek! Well, our band, right? We're takin' her in, right, guys?"
Tobe surely felt her murderous intent from afar.
"Of course, no problem. If everyone is fine with it," Hayama looked at us.
I simply shrugged.
"Ahh! Hayama-senpai, thank you sooo much! I was a little worried that you had no room for me, you see…"
Tobe murmured under his breath.
"Actually, it was me who asked others to let you join, Irohasu, but it's cool, no prob…"
Without further delay, we walked to lanes. It seems that near every one of them stood a small marble table and few seats. Huh, that's convenient. Earlier I noticed that they had a menu on the wall beside the counter, and the thought of having a relaxed drink sitting at the table felt really appealing. Why did they even need all the bowling stuff, anyway? They could have expanded the room, placed more tables, added more entries in the menu…
Oh, right, such thing already existed. Apparently, it was called "a restaurant".
Ebina-san immediately seated on one of the chairs, adjusted her glasses and started to talk.
"Actually, guys, I want to propose an idea. How about we play a few practice matches, then a real one, and the winners from each group will clash in a final competition?"
She was darting her eyes from Hayama to me. Now I really wanted to lose for some reason, thank you very much.
"Ooh! Sounds good, Hina," Yuigahama nodded several times.
"Hmph! Sound me-ish," Ebina-san stroke a boastful pose while still sitting. What a remarkable skill.
"Nice idea, Hina-senpai!"
Everyone seemed to agree with this idea, and I wasn't against it myself. After all, the essence of sports lay in the competition. Hypothetically speaking, where would sports be without the element of competition? What would be the point of, say, Olympic Games? I vividly imagined millions of people, stuck to their TV's and computers, watching a bunch of weirdos doing some silly things like skiing with no timers, no placements, no fever pitch, just snowy landscape and peacefully skating sportsmen. No matter how you looked at it, such a concept was no less than alien to the human race. Deep inside, we were all naturals rivals, and that's exactly what undoubtedly made an idea of world peace nothing more than a fairytale, so inexplicably appealing to many people despite its fundamental flaws.
But anyway, a winner from each group, huh? I glanced at Yukinoshita, who was looking straight up with a determined expression. Somehow I got this disappointing sensation as when you had learned the results beforehand and the whole thing became much less interesting all of a sudden. I felt like I'd overheard a spoiler to the book and had to skim through its pages, already knowing the ending.
"Why not? This will make things a little more spicy. I'm in," Hayama accepted the idea as well. "Let's begin, then?"
"Hayama-senpai, but I don't really know how to play… Could you teach me, pleeease? If I'm not a bother…"
Isshiki was already knitting her web, and Hayama surely looked troubled. Poor Hayama. What guy would ever want a cute girl to beg for help in such a manner, right? Right?
The two parties started preparing for the game. I was half listening to their conversation. Apparently, out of their group only Isshiki lacked bowling experience, if this wasn't another trick of hers.
Yuigahama just stayed there, looking at us, probably unsure of what to do. I met her gaze and we both simultaneously stared questioningly at Yukinoshita.
"I guess I should teach you the basics, then," she walked to a stand with all kinds of bowling balls of various sizes and colors. "This game falls under a category of 'easy to learn, but hard to master…'
Yukinoshita went on with her explanations, but I barely listened. Of course, being a highly efficient loner, I googled the rules beforehand, but Yuigahama nodded at her every word, looking very composed and serious. It was such a rare sight that I rubbed my eyes, but the picture didn't change.
"…oh, right. You should do about four steps and assume a pose while throwing for better results. I'm not sure how to explain it, so just watch closely."
Geez, Yukinoshita-sensei. Now I had to thank the teachers in the school for not trying to implement her teaching methods in our educational system. Something in the lines of, "I'm not sure how to explain you this trigonometric equation, so just watch me solving it". If that was the case, I would probably pursue a teaching career. Sounded like a job for me.
Meanwhile, Yukinoshita focused her gaze on the pins in the distances. Her figure stood tall and proud, and now I could easily say that she indeed had had at least some experience with this game.
And then she took few swift, yet concentrated steps towards the lane, slightly bent her knees in the last moment and rolled the ball.
The ball whizzed like a bullet. Yukinoshita, still rooted to the spot in the throwing position, was intensely staring at it. After it made a contact with pins, we heard a loud crashing sound and they flew in all directions.
"Whoa! Yukinon, it's amazing! That's so cool!" Yuigahama suddenly exploded in emotions, just like the pins scattered by a ball.
"Not really. There is still one standing. I have a total of two attempts if I can't bring them all down in a single strike," she responded calmly.
Yukinoshita, not even looking at us, returned to retrieve the ball. After eyeing the lane in the same fashion as before, she made another throw. For a moment I thought that the ball wouldn't make it, but as it turned out she hooked it. I barely noticed a contact, yet the last pin swayed and fell.
"Ahh!" Yuigahama acted as if it was she who scored. "You got them all, Yukinon! I mean… that means you did a good job, right?"
"Yes, relatively. I could have had bonus points if I got down all ten of them in one go."
Still, Yukinoshita was clearly satisfied and she exhaled a deep breath. She smiled softly at Yuigahama's praise. Yes, despite her indifferent attitude, she was weak to praise, but only when it came from close to her people. If a complete stranger said a compliment to her, she likely wouldn't bat an eyelash.
"Nice throw, Yukinoshita-san," Hayama chimed in. "You are a kind of person who never forgets anything she learned once, right?"
"Not really. It's just a muscle memory, after all," she shook her head and looked over at the screen with results. "And you scored the same."
Then she glanced at me out of the tail of her eye. At first, I didn't even realize what was the meaning of it.
"Ah, yes. Um… can't really say much with my knowledge of the game, but that looked impressive," I scratched the back of my head.
"Thanks," she paused and then opened her mouth for a second, but changed her mind and turned away. "Yuigahama-san, would you like to try next?"
"Totally!" Yuigahama eagerly agreed.
"Then let's choose you a suitable ball first. Come here."
They moved to the stand. Yuigahama was nagging her with all kinds of questions about the ball, the stance and so on, seemingly genuinely fired up. Of course, Yuigahama would probably be fired up even if she found a deflated balloon on the road, but still, she was very excited.
I shifted my attention to the other group. Isshiki stood nervously with a ball in both of her hands and with a grimace of pain on her face.
"Hayama-senpaaai… It's so heavy! How am I supposed to throw it?" her legs were shaking a bit.
"I'm telling you, just put your fingers into the holes and hold it steady with another hand before throwing. It will be easier, trust me," Hayama looked like he was suppressing a chuckle, being considerate of her feelings.
"I don't knooow…" Isshiki shifted the ball in her hands and timidly did as she was told. "It doesn't seem this wa… Ooooh, wait, it's actually easier now!"
"Told you," Hayama laughed.
"Hayama-senpai, you're a genius! Now it will be a piece of cake, watch me!" she moved to the lane clumsily.
It suddenly hit me hard. So that's why she decided on bowling! I actually wondered why had she chosen such a strange way to spend time with Hayama, but finally, it all came together for me. This place was her battlefield, it was her castle, where everything served her, the unshakable general Isshiki Iroha. I wasn't sure about her marks on the last math test, but she managed to put all of her weapons in one simple, yet powerful equation. Heavy ball + Clumsy girl = Appeal! No matter how you looked at it, she was not an inapt klutz, but a true scientist, who had calculated everything in advance. I couldn't help but admire her thoughtfulness, even though it was scary as hell. Girls were surely made out of spice.
And when she threw the ball and fall on her butt in the process, I already expected it.
Tobe rushed to her.
"Wow, Irohasu, you al'right? Seemed really painful."
"Ahaha… No, I'm fine, Tobe-senpai. I'm fine."
…Although sometimes even the best generals couldn't predict random events like natural disasters, which could lead to a failure.
Suddenly, I heard a loud crash from our lane. I realized that I missed Yukinoshita's and Yuigahama's return, and the latter one had already thrown her ball.
Yuigahama's shoulders dropped and she signed.
"I knew I would probably fail on my first try, but it was really bad, right? I mean, it rolled to this… erm… ditch at the very beginning."
"It's called 'gutter', and… well… putting aside your performance, I didn't even think that this ball could bounce off the floor two times. It's actually about six kilograms. So… in a way, you're amazing, Yuigahama-san," she said in an astonished voice.
I spoke up as well.
"Indeed, chances are that breaking the laws of physics is much more prominent than winning a bowling game."
"…Uh huh, whatever you say, guys. But still, I'll take it as a compliment. Hmph!"
There you go, one of the infinite special abilities of any girl: taking everything as a compliment. I wouldn't be surprised if a girl in a court reacted to a judge's question, "Do you realize that your actions led to fourteen people's deaths?" with blushing cheeks and, "Ehehe, you're flattering me…"
My turn came next, and I rose from my chair. Yukinoshita stood still near Yuigahama, and it didn't seem she would offer her help to me. Not like I wanted it, anyway. A loner was a type of a person who could do things right only when left alone. A useful, but unnecessary advice remained unnecessary nevertheless.
I picked up a ball that felt right and moved to the lane. From a logical point of view, what were the most important aspects of the throw? The aim, high kinetic force and your state of mind. I firmly believed that a cold-minded and rational attitude was a key factor in success.
With these thoughts, I made several composed steps, bent my knees… Wait, wait a second. Should I bend only one knee? Both of them? No time to think! My arm automatically moved into the position, and… or maybe it was a little too far… and I rolled the ball. With a loud sound, it started its journey to the wondrous land full of pins.
I was watching it closely. Come on, you freaking piece of metal, or whatever you were made of. Do it.
"Nice throw, Zerogaya-kun."
Yukinoshita was smiling and looking at the pins, which remained standing perfectly still, symmetrically and orderly. But sometimes in our lives a bit of chaos was mandatory, and it was exactly such a moment.
Shut up, you. I know what part of you was kinda "zero" as well, and at least my bowling skills can get better.
"Shut up, you," of course, I didn't have the guts to say that last part out loud. "I still have a second attempt. Shouldn't you be supportive of greenhorns or something?"
Yukinoshita cupped her chin in her hand.
"I've always thought that the stick was a more appropriate way to motivate some people than the carrot."
"Both are equally awful, I hate carrots."
I got ready for a next throw. This time I decided not to think too deeply about it and just threw it, relying on a chance. Step, bend, roll!
And, unexpectedly, the ball rammed into the pins. It had rolled fairly slow, and I managed to hit only the ones at the corner, but still, I did it. Four pins fell down, and I sighed deeply.
"Ohh, good job, Hikki! I was kinda thinking that this one will miss as well, but it didn't, huh?"
"Yes, quite surprising."
I returned to my seat.
"Yeah, yeah. You know what, I'll take it as a compliment."
Yukinoshita walked to pick up the ball and suddenly drew her hand back in a hurry.
"Yuigahama-san, one more thing. Don't try to use Hikigaya-kun's ball, it's probably contagious."
As I drank my soda I watched unfolding preparations for the final match. The scoreboard was reset, and the winners moved to one lane. They both were doing light exercises, preparing bodies for a decisive battle.
Of course, it came as no surprise that the last survivors happened to be Hayama and Yukinoshita, and I almost felt with my skin a tinge of tension in the air. Others were joking and having fun, but these two, despite trying to keep their cool, were nervous.
Their behavior was similar, yet different. Judging from our earlier talk with Yukinoshita, she regarded it as a real challenge, a chance to cleanse the stigma of a loser. Hayama, though, felt ill at ease, probably sensing that this game, despite it being just a friendly contest, was important to her nonetheless.
"Hayama-senpai, do your best!" Isshiki pressed her fists to the chest, looking at Hayama, but then came to her senses and hurriedly added. "Yukinoshita-senpai too, of course!"
You couldn't cheer for both of participants when they were the only ones, you know. Otherwise, it completely eliminated the whole point in the first place.
We crowded together now, in one big group. I stood there with Yuigahama to my left and Ebina-san to the right. She had a look of annoyance on her face, and her arms were crossed as she was tapping her finger. Suddenly, she shifted her attention to me.
"You really are a sadistic kind, Hikitani-kun. Couldn't you have won? Did you do it on purpose just to make me suffer? Don't you realize that everyone wanted the final competition to be a heated, fervid clash of two guys?
"…No. I'm pretty sure that you were the only one."
"Hmph! Well, it doesn't matter. All that matters is that now my dreams are shattered in pieces, scattered around just like these stupid pins hit by this stupid ball. Seriously, some people…"
She continued mumbling something to herself and stepped away, having lost interest in me. I couldn't help but question just how many of her words were meant as a joke, and how many were real.
Meanwhile, Yukinoshita checked her shoelaces for one last time and declared seriously.
"I'm ready," she looked at Hayama. "Are you?"
"Yeah. Still, say, doesn't it feel nostalgic? It sure brings back memories…"
He was speaking in a quiet voice, but Yuigahama and I were close enough to listen.
Yukinoshita didn't answer right away. Instead, she simply walked to the lane, picked up a ball and assumed a posture. Now, after three sets of games, her movements were much more confident.
The ball swished. The ten pins flew every which way. A little "X" appeared on the screen.
Yukinoshita raised her hand to move a few hair strands away from her face and finally answered in a calm tone.
"Wow! Awesome, Yukinon!"
But Hayama didn't speak a word. He moved his eyes to the screen, looking deep in thought. Then he smiled and turned to Yukinoshita, but the smile was a little off. It wasn't his usual expression - or maybe it was, but at the same time, it held something else underneath. His whole attitude subtly changed.
With these few words, he waited for his turn and readied himself. His movements differed from hers: more relaxed, more free, but absolutely not loose. This guy knew what he was doing and knew it well.
Yukinoshita didn't seem to react when she saw the ball scattering all ten pins around. She just cocked her head to the side and… smiled. Wait, what?
I watched them, smiling at each other. Undoubtedly, it wasn't a smile that two friends would share, neither was it a fake smile. If I were asked to describe what was going through the heads of these two at the moment, I would probably speculate about a feeling of acknowledging a worthy opponent and a foretaste of a hard-earned victory. But, that said, one could argue that rivalry was a completely different beast from both friendship and hate, and in a sense even more intimate.
For some reason, it was a little unpleasant to watch. Driven by an irrational feeling, I looked the other way and stared at the wall. The wall was… like any other wall, flat and… vertical. Why was I looking at it, anyway? I forcibly moved my eyes to them.
The others from our group, even Yuigahama and Tobe, fall silent. They probably didn't think about it as deep as I had, but could feel a strange ambiance and instinctively quietened down.
"You were always good with curveballs, that's for sure."
"Yeah. It just came naturally."
It was really rare for him to answer in such a straightforward manner.
Yukinoshita paused again and took another ball. This time she rolled it slower, but still precisely. When the ball came in the contact with the pins, it managed to knock down only seven of them, leaving three in the corner.
She was undeterred, however. Picking up the ball once again, she opened her mouth.
"Admirable. But if my memory serves me right…" she made few quick steps and rolled the ball with force, sending the remaining pins flying, "…I had a slightly better aim in general."
She stepped back, making way for him. Hayama nodded nonchalantly and took a ball in his hands.
On his first throw, he knocked down nine pins. But his second attempt was less lucky: the ball missed by a long way.
Hayama chuckled and answered.
"Well, if only a little."
I didn't really "get" this game, or, if I were to phrase it differently, it didn't click with me, but watching their contest was satisfying. And yet unsettling. They continued the game, but my mind wandered off. Time was a cruel thing, cruel and extremely devious. It was capable of turning relationship to dust, making once cherished events all but a whiff, forging a person into something completely different. And, needless to say, when a person changed the relationships and interactions with other people changed as well. That said, the past friends and acquaintances hold at least some value and thus one couldn't ignore this concept. The link between them was, without question, weak and fragile, but it still existed, hiding somewhere in the depths of our minds. You could call it an imperfection of our brain, as it was absolutely illogical that a person with whom you have no ties now but had in distant past stands on a different level than another stranger. And this link was not weaker or stronger, that's to say – no, it was just different.
And if you think about it, this link was faulty. Defective. The broken part of a mechanism was meant to be replaced if it was beyond repair... right? Our brain, though, could easily fool us and make us feel otherwise. Was it for better or for worse? And why was I so fixated on finding that answer?
"Hikki?" Someone tugged at my sleeve.
"Hmm?" I hummed absentmindedly, still lost in thoughts.
But the tugging hadn't stopped, it became stronger.
"Hikki! You aren't watching, are you? Gosh… This game is important to Yukinon, can't you see? Ahh, don't just stand here like a dolt!" Yuigahama whispered frantically.
"Her performance isn't gonna be affected by our reaction, stop being unreasonable. Besides, what do you think I can do?
"It will! She tries to hide it, but from time to time she glances at us, I can see it. At least… at least don't stand there with this look, please."
She was right, and deep inside I knew it. No matter how strong and independent a person appeared to be, our minds were still imperfect. I could always return to my thinking later. Right now, I should just watch the game.
I shook my head to clear thoughts and looked at the screen. It seemed that I really took my time with reflections, and Yukinoshita and Hayama were already playing second to the last frame. They went almost neck and neck, but Hayama had a few more points than she. Still, she could easily take the lead in two last frames.
Tobe's voice broke the silence.
"Daaamn, I'm nervous. I'm so freaking nervous, I don't even know why. Wasn't this nervous since the last physics exam, I swear."
"You were totally fine, Tobe-senpai. I remember you loudly declaring that… - Oh, nice throw, Hayama-senpai! – that in case you fail you'll just become a professional football player, and you sounded reeeally confident."
Isshiki was fixed on the game and didn't bother to look at Tobe. Ebina-san spluttered with laughter.
"Haha! Yeah, I remember this one. I heard in the next practice guys found an old carpet in a storage closet, spread it on the ground and shouted, 'Move your asses, make room for a future champion!' They even wanted to get some rose petals, but couldn't find a flower shop nearby."
Tobe shook his head.
"No, no. I mean, sure thing, yeah, but the fear of exams is like a hunger, it's probably in our DNA or something, ya know."
I listened to their chit-chat inattentively, focusing my attention on the game. The last round, huh. Yukinoshita scored six points in the previous one, while Hayama managed to earn nine. Their movements, confident and fluent in the beginning, were now measured and careful. Something in their attitude changed as well. She still acted composed on the surface, but I sensed from her posture just how tense she was. Hayama, on the other hand, had already lost his spark from earlier, and an expression of uneasiness formed on his face, probably a reaction to Yukinoshita's deafening silence.
It was quite common for a guy to let a girl win in such a situation, especially considering their strained relationship, but I was sure that Hayama Hayato would not cave in. Neither she, nor he wanted it, and it would go against all his principles, no matter how artificial they were.
Yukinoshita picked up the ball and, with a deep sigh, made a throw, marking the beginning of the final stage.
It looked like a perfect throw to my eye, and she knocked down all the pins. Everyone let out a synchronized "ooooh!"
Hayama took his ball without saying a word and stepped closer to the lane. His actions were swift, but it was probably his way to cope with intense situations.
And another strike. And "ooooh!" once again.
It was now Yukinoshita's turn.
"Yukinon… do your best. You can do it." Yuigahama's whisper reached my ears.
"You do realize that she can't hear you when you speak so quietly, right?"
"I don't want to break her concentration!"
"Then why are you cheering out loud in the first place?"
"Well, obviously she will win if I cheer for her!"
Yukinoshita rolled the ball. Eight out of ten. But in the last round, they both had three attempts instead of two.
She can still score decently if she were to hit the other two pins, but the chances of victory were shallow.
Hayama concentrated on the pins. He stepped forward, once, twice, two more, and…
A beeping sound suddenly flew through the air. I didn't realize what it was at first, but then I looked at Hayama's legs. He crossed the line, and it was clearly against the rules. He soundly ground his teeth.
Zero for him, and now Yukinoshita finally had a chance. If she were to score at least seven, Hayama would not be able to outperform her even with a strike.
"Come on, Yukinon!"
"Hayama-senpai, do you best!"
"Hayato-kun, bro, don't lose your cool!"
Ebina-san was still acting disinterested.
Yukinoshita took the ball in her hands somewhat awkwardly. Her stance was so upright that she could be an advertising personality for an orthopedic clinic. She turned her head slightly and looked at us.
She readied herself.
The ball flew.
Streets were crowded more than usual in this area, so when we finally made it out of the shopping district, I heaved a sigh of relief. They shouted about a huge demographic crisis here, there and everywhere, but I had yet to experience its effect. As far as the central parts of Chiba were concerned, in my opinion, the population had multiplied by two in several years.
We parted our ways after the bowling game. Yukinoshita and I decided to leave at that, and after some hesitation, Yuigahama joined us. Others wanted to hang out a little more, and now the three of us were walking quietly in the direction of the train station.
"Yukinon…" Yuigahama started speaking timidly. "Are you okay?"
Yukinoshita brushed her hair aside and responded in a flat voice.
"What do you mean? I'm not tired that much if that's what you've meant."
"No, I mean… you have lost, and…"
"It's just a game. One of us was bound to be a winner, and both I and Hayama-kun performed nearly equally. If anything, I've enjoyed myself and I'm grateful for Isshiki-san's invitation."
Only took her one breath, huh.
Yuigahama sighed and placed her hand on her temple as if mimicking Yukinoshita's features. In her case, though, she added a little shook of the head. Oh, look, this move is evolving! Maybe the next person will upgrade it and do a double flip in the process, now that would be awesome.
"…and you're sulking, Yukinon."
"I am not sulking, Yuigahama-san. Stop with your assumptions."
I opened my mouth, feeling that I needed to say something as well.
"Sulking or not, it does not make a big difference. But if I were to lose like this, I would be discouraged at the very minimum. It's in our nature."
Yukinoshita shifted her gaze to me with a look of annoyance.
"It's really surprising and refreshing to hear you identify yourself with normal human beings, but you're making the same assumption as well. I fail to see how you both came to this conclusion."
"Okay, okay," Yuigahama waved her hands before her chest with a weak smile. "Even so, is there anything you want to do, Yukinon? Mm, like, have an ice-cream, or go do some shopping?"
"Not really. I just want to go home. I still have things to do, even though it's a weekend."
Yuigahama fall silent, unsure how to proceed with the situation. She glanced at me, but I just shrugged. In my opinion getting in the way of someone who wished to go home was a heresy and should be punished with fire, anyway.
Yuigahama decided to take a roundabout way.
"Hikki, what about you? Wanna do something interesting?"
"Nah. I've got to buy some food for Kamakura. My parents are off to visit relatives, and Komachi is probably studying for exams, so it's up to me."
Actually, my poor fat cat was probably starving at this exact moment. Naturally, he should be put on a diet, but my heart always wavered when I saw his mournful look and heard his meowing requiem. Though I recently discovered that he usually performed his manipulations twice in a row, both on me and then Komachi. It felt like cheating. You cheating, fat, fluffy ball of fur. I still loved him though. Was is a variation of the Stockholm Syndrome, I wonder?
Yuigahama appeared to be deep in thought. She was even fiddling with the bun of her hair, something that I had noticed she did during school tests.
Suddenly, she stopped and exclaimed.
"Bingo!" she turned my way, "Hikki, are you thinking what I'm thinking?"
"Um… no? Well, you could be either talking about a game, an aviation term or, maybe, you've thought of something. Which one is it?"
"The latter, obviously!"
Yuigahama quickly approached Yukinoshita and touched her shoulder.
"Yuigahama-san? What are you…"
"Yukinon! Do you wanna pet Kamakura?"
"What?" We both responded at the same moment.
Now, now, just how tactless could you get, Yuigahama? I could be busy, my sister could be busy, and my cat could be busy as well, have you considered it even for a second? And didn't she ought to feel bashful about visiting a boy's house, huh? That's what mass media taught me, and I object to being retaught!
Before giving Yukinoshita a chance to answer, Yuigahama abruptly turned her head towards me.
"It's fine, right, Hikki? Right?"
Her eyes were saying, "Please, just this once, pretty please? Pretty, pretty, pretty please?"
I looked at Yukinoshita. Her eyes sparkled for a moment - just for a tiny moment, but I managed to catch it - but then she put her defenses up and the light was immediately gone. She shook her head.
"Yuigahama-san, you're crossing the line. It's plain rude to Hikigaya-kun now. We really should all go home."
"Well, duh…" I scratched my head and looked away. "You know, technically speaking, it's possible. You can, probably… you can even feed him, I guess. There is always a chance that he'll get scared, though."
Yukinoshita blinked. I could almost literally see the devil and the angel on both of her shoulders. I wonder though, for which answer the devil was responsible?
Yuigahama held her breath. We were both awaiting the answer.
"I…" Yukinoshita stuttered. "I… still, it's probably…"
"It's fine. I don't remember enlisting in an 'ex comitate' squad. I prefer straightforwardness."
I looked her in the eyes. She met my gaze but immediately turned away.
"Come on, Yukinon. I'll come too. I want to pet Kamakura, too! You've heard Hikki, we can even feed him!"
Yukinoshita closed her eyes and sighed deeply.
Come on. You can do it, Yukinoshita. Do your best! It wasn't much harder than throwing a ball and scoring ten out of ten, was it?
"…t-then, if it's really possible, I'd like to go. I love cats."
No kidding, you do? People, come out of your houses, faster. The greatest revelation in the history of mankind, probably on par with the Holy Grail's location, officially happened today in Japan, Chiba city! Hooray!
"Yay! Let's go right now, then! Hikki, where do you buy food for him? Can we choose something, too? Oh, and do they sell there some kind of cat toys? Come on, you two, hurry up!"
Without losing precious time, she dragged both of us forward.
To Kamakura, my dear, beloved pet. I'm sorry. Your life in the near future will be a tough one. But you know, whatever doesn't kill us makes us stronger. And if this commonly used philosophical quote is not enough for you, I will also get you a double amount of your favorite canned food. Get fatter and happier, and don't hold a grudge against me. Bear with us for a while, you poor thing.
If someone asks me what did OreGairu teach me, I'll answer without any hesitation: the freaking Pareto principle is absolutely correct, as I've written 80% of this inelaborate stuff in 20% of time. Or maybe, just maybe, I want to justify my laziness with social science.
Anyway, please don't hesitate to point out any mistakes, be them grammatical, spelling or plot-related. I don't bite and I'll appreciate it. Cya.