1000-State of Play

By Chronic Guardian

Written for Twelve Shots of Summer: Hexa-Code Kernel, Week 8: Play()

It was a day like any other. Rueban Kiryu, freshly returned from a successful run in the Sapporo Slam-Off Circuit, had shut himself up in his study to relax and chip away at his latest exploit away from the Tin-Pin tables. One of his sponsors had caught wind that Pinheads Weekly was soliciting articles from one of his cousins and thought they'd up the ante by asking for a book from him on opening strategies. Rueban accepted the request with an ornamental smile and silently acknowledged that Yoshiya was still probably getting the better deal in the long run. Writing for a publication meant recurring profits, after all. Writing a strategy guide that would only stay relevant for a season or two would likely prove a more thankless and less lucrative endeavor.

Thus, on a perfectly good Sunday, he found himself staring at his laptop screen wondering what was wrong with the sentences he was trying to string together. Writing a book, as it turned out, was considerably more difficult than having a live conversation. The knowledge base was the same, sure, but there wasn't any energy to play off of. It felt like taking a poorly focused picture and then draining all the color before trying to restore it to full clarity.

It was almost a relief when his manager called with an appointment booking for the next week.

"It's a perfectamundo press opportunity, babe," Mr. Tokai asserted. "This kid you'll be playing is a rising star in the Shibuya scene, and she wants an exhibition match with you! You couldn't get better from a blockbuster!"

Rueban, who was right in the middle of reworking a chapter of neutral charges, put aside his laptop and massaged away a developing headache as he deciphered the news. It was a change of pace, certainly, but that didn't mean it was wholly without issue. "And why would I ever go challenging in Shibuya, Tokai?" he sighed into his phone.

"I mean, I could lock it in at Harajuku if that'll groove you better."

"I'm not part of the central circuit," Rueban said, rephrasing his argument in blunt terms. "The most I'll get out of trouncing anyone here is local ire. No one wants to see their favorite lose, you know."
"I know! That's what's so great about it. You win this—like you always do—and they'll be beggin' for you to come back! We'll hook 'em with a grudge match~!"

"Tokai..."

"Yep-yep? Whatcha got for me, Rue-slice?"

"You realize I live around here, right?"

"Oh, don't worry, babe. No one else knows that. Besides, worst comes to worst and I'll just relocate ya up to Hokkaido with me until it all blows over! We got some bomb ramen joints you still gotta try~"

"Or I could enjoy my off-season and meet the deadline you gave me for that manuscript," Rueban pointed out flatly. "You know, since we're trying to beat my cousin to the punch and all."

"Beating punches don't mean nothin' if no one sees it, babe," Tokai shot back smugly. "Like you said, you ain't jiving in the central circuit, so we gonna need something to get your name out there."

"Ah," Rueban slowly nodded as he caught on to the reasoning. "So I'll be set up as the new super villain in town before we sell strategies on how to beat me."

Well, that would certainly affect the warm, confidential tone he'd been trying to write with...

"B-B-B-BINGO!" Tokai crowed back, oblivious to Rueban's reservations. "So, you're down to play, right?"

Rueban forced on a smile to lighten his voice. "Play" was a strong term in this case. Playing was what children did for fun, it was the unlegislated act of pleasure dominating will. It was the kind of word that a Tin-Pin professional like him could only use in a darkly ironic sense to refer to their work.

But Rueban Kiryu, ever the dogmatic, wouldn't let a small, semantic disagreement like that stop him from meeting expectations.

"I'll do what I must, Tokai."

"That's what I like to hear! See you tomorrow, Rue-bee!"

Humming back his understanding, Rueban ended the call and looked back at his laptop. His expression melted into a resigned exhaustion and he shook his head.

Maybe if he was lucky, this would all blow up in Tokai's face and he really would have to move to Hokkaido. Frankly, he would prefer an overseas tour, but refugees couldn't be too picky. Either way, he would have an excuse to leave Tin-Pin behind.

Shaking his head again, Rueban opened a drawer and started organizing his pins. Spite match or not, the least he could do was respect his opponent. Sure, the game was kind of spoiled for him, but it didn't have to be that way for her. And he couldn't think of a more fitting legacy than preserving someone else's joy.

-o-0-o-

Contrary to Tokai's flip-flopping, the match ended up happening in Shibuya. Having been with the man about a year now, Rueban had expected the maneuver, but confirmed early morning anyway as a formality. Really, it didn't seem to mean much to his manager what Rueban wanted, so long as it made the headlines and brought in a tidy profit.

Yoshiya would play him like a puppet, Rueban thought dryly on the ride over. Granted, part of that was because Yoshiya didn't believe managers had souls, but the rest was all a willingness to exercise his free will. It wasn't a difference in resources or talents, in those respects the Kiryu cousins were evenly matched. The real difference was that Yoshiya was willing to put his own enjoyment of life over all else and Rueban simply couldn't justify that to himself.

Maybe that was why Rueban didn't truly play anymore. Maybe he'd put the desires of others so far above his own that he couldn't even process personal enjoyment. It was a darkly amusing thought, but it gave him a reason to smile as he left the car and proceeded on towards the A-East concert stages where the event was precipitating.

He found the venue easily enough. The blaring music from the latest Slammurai TV series and bombastic advertisement for event merchandise weren't hard to follow. Certainly, it seemed a little much for a match scheduled a week ago, but that just confirmed to Rueban that Tokai and the powers that be had set their designs long before consulting him about it.

Still, as an outsider to the circuit, Rueban enjoyed a small amount of anonymity as he made his way to the stage. Whispers circulated about the crowd favorite and how everyone hoped she'd smash the competition. Some of the event-goers seemed to almost recognize him before immediately losing interest. Reminding himself to enjoy it while they didn't have a reason to hate him, the Kiryu boy held his head high and marched on.

Tokai met him backstage with an enthusiastic back pat and a few quick re-introductions with attending sponsors. In a bit of indulgent spite, Rueban beat his manager to the punch and greeted them all by name. They were all charmed that a teenager would put such effort into professional relationships. He didn't bother reminding them that this was his life.

Among them was one Kana Waguchi, a mid-twenty-something woman with a definitely-not-twenty-something fashion sense. Of course, in Rueban's opinion, nobody but a preteen would be crazy enough to wear a cotton candy faux leather jacket with a denim mini-skirt, but who was he to judge? As a representative of the D + B mainline brand, Tokai had trying to been court Waguchi's support for years now. Judging by her appearance here, those efforts were finally bearing fruit.

Rueban's ironic smile twisted a tinge further. D + B executives were bull-headed gamblers, they never did anything halfway. He could only imagine what Tokai had promised to bait them into this event.

"Now, Rue-style," Tokai said once all the introductions were out of the way, "Today I'm gonna ask you for some extra pincredible slamazing action, okay?"

"More 'slamazing' than usual?" Rueban asked wryly.

"Yeah! Like, I'm gonna need you to double the snazz. Also..." Giving Waguchi a knowing glance, the manager reached into his jacket pocket and produced a pin case emblazoned with the D + B logo. "Maybe work your magic and put on a ex-tremely bombtastic show with these?"

Without missing a beat, Rueban accepted the other foot dropping and took the pin case to examine the contents. It was a full set of six, as to be expected from the brand. He'd have to wear his other sponsors' contributions on his jacket lapels. Whatever feelings that might bruise, Tokai would handle it. The bigger question was how the pins would handle on the table.

Unfortunately, when he looked back up to ask Waguchi for a run-down, she had already moved away with the other sponsors and Tokai was ushering him towards the, stage. Narrowing his eyes after their departure, Rueban frowned as a new thought occurred to him. While Waguchi could conceivably be incompetent enough to expect brilliance with untested pins, wasn't it also possible she was setting him up? Up until now, Waguchi had adamantly refused any attempted advances. Why would that change now?

On the other hand, why go through the trouble of a setup? Waguchi wasn't necessarily friendly, but that didn't mean she wanted him to fail. Any gains from that scenario would have to outweigh the damage to her brand, especially if she was insisting on an unmixed set.

Besides, she probably only understood the game as much as any other sponsor. Which was to say: as a source of revenue and absolutely nothing else.

He pursed his lips and pushed the thought to the back burner. It was probably nothing, just a coincidence. Without further evidence, he would just have to assume it was an oversight on her part and win the match.

Finishing his ascent, Rueban approached the pin table at the center and waved to the crowd. The event announcer drummed up enough polite applause for him to feel important while he lined his spare pins along his lapels and settled his hands on the board controls.

Then the crowd erupted.

Rueban arched an eyebrow as a lumpy figure came up the opposite side of the stage, arms waving in the air like two oversized ropes of black licorice. A cat mascot suit, by the look of it. Not his actual opponent, just a little something to get everyone hyped. Pinheads Weekly had run a special on how it was the newest fad among top female slammers seeking to add a little more "cute energy" to their game.

Except… Rueban wouldn't exactly call the giant cat cute. The eyes weren't done in the usual moe style, just two white vertical lines. The craftsmanship was professional grade from what he could tell, but the design didn't match. Assuming this was a publicity stunt for Gatito, the only major sponsor with ties to CAT, he would've expected the eclectic producer's signature flair. This had more of a minor league aesthetic.

Then again, Tokai had said she was up and coming. Maybe it was just her way of showing a little indie spirit.

As the cat arrived at the table, throwing waves, bows, and kisses just about every other step of the way, the cheers died down. Rueban cleared his throat and tried to look around the anthropomorphized feline when he realized the mascot was picking up the other controller. This wasn't the hype for his opponent, the cat was his opponent. This rising star was going to play against him with plushy stump hands in a ridiculous cat suit in what would doubtless prove to be a career defining match.

He had to fight to keep the twitch off his face. They were toying with him. This wasn't a serious challenger, this was a fun challenger. She was only here because she was popular, running on sheer social appeal. Forget unfamiliar pins, if he went all out he he would be making an enemy of Shibuya itself.

Better come up with a good pen name for that book, Tokai… Anything related to Rueban Kiryu after this would need a ten-foot pole and then some.

"Hey!" a muffled feminine voice came from the mascot suit and it waggled one of its licorice arms at him. "Let's have some fun, yeah?"

Rueban forced on a smile as the crowd roared in approval. Should he play this condescending? It wouldn't mesh all that well with his previously established presence in the Hokkaido circuit, but if they were setting him up as a villain, then they might as well go the full nine-yards.

"Thanks," he lowered his head and gripped the controls. "I plan to."

Cat Girl, apparently not expecting the response, actually leaned back and gave him a tilted look even as the countdown flashed over the board. 3… 2…

"Uh… what?"

"On your guard!"

Surging his pin forward while still getting a read on its stats, Rueban pushed her back to the edge of the arena before dancing back. He didn't want to finish her too quickly. As much as he'd like to get back to writing that book, he was still a showman at heart, and nobody was paying to see a thirty second match.

"Something wrong?" he taunted, taking on an airy, disinterested tone.

"...No," the cat's voice, formerly so full of energy, had gone flat. "I'll… figure it out."

The words shot a chill through his next line of banter before settling down in his stomach. Her pin, a gold-streaked abstract terror, came at him with a shuffling weave before breaking into an all out charge. He just barely had enough time to realize what was happening before he was on the defensive. Her technique looked like what he would use for a featherweight build, but the movements were more in line with a medium.

In short, aggressive manual power recklessly linked with innate strength. By maintaining pressure, she was canceling rebound time and brute forcing them both towards the edge.

Well, reckless didn't mean unstoppable. Watching the rhythm of the miniature pushes Rueban waited until he was almost to the edge before throwing in one last emphatic push of his own.

The gambit worked. By slightly adjusting the impact angle, he'd thrown off her rebound. Now her follow up wasn't sending her into him, it was sending her over the edge. His opponent caught on too late and had to use a helping hand to get back on the board, but by then he was ready for her. The porcupine shock of a well placed stinger and her first pin was down for the count.

Okay… Rueban set his teeth and forced himself to relax his grip on the controls. One down, five to go. Just breathe and we'll be through before you know—

His thought cut short as Cat Girl's pin roared out of the re-spawn area. Apparently, she'd memorized the delay counter release times and workarounds. She closed their distance with the same mini-rush technique, but this time with a hatched approach vector, controlling his side to side movement.

Rueban narrowed his eyes at the soulless white slits in his opponent's mask before again focusing on the board. He had her off guard now, second guessing herself. If he played things just right, he could snag another free knock-off before she went into full assault again.

Holding his own piece still to maintain an image of dominance, he watched for a shift in her momentum. Still she came, rushing strong before dipping in close and dancing back, probably trying to bait out a whammy.

Or, rather, trying to bait out a stinger of bomber. By the time she'd retreated, he'd deployed a hammer. Unfortunately, he'd misjudged the ejection angle, giving her the one crucial half-second she needed to leap into a bomber. A sharp impact later and he was over the edge.

After that, it was war.

Rueban lost his second pin, and his third. By the fourth one, he'd finally started to catch his bearings enough to coherently strike back. Whatever disadvantage he thought she'd have by playing in a mascot costume wasn't enough to level the playing field. He wasn't even holding back anymore and it was all he could do to break even.

Finally, after nearly losing his whole stock, Rueban got her down to her final pin: a black and white yin-yang swirl with stylized cats. He had exhausted his last whammies on her penultimate game piece, so now he had to dodge her trump cards long enough to turn it into a neutral game.

With any other player he'd faced, he might have been able to pull it off. Now, though, he was playing against a true master with an unfamiliar pin. Even his refined skills were barely enough for survival, any victory would almost certainly be more a matter of luck than anything else.

Worse still, to an outside observer who didn't understand the game—such as a poorly informed sponsor—it would look like he was playing the fool to a joke of an opponent. A loss like that would make him marketing suicide. The D + B deal would be a bust, and the rest would almost certainly follow if he ever played this girl again.

The price of defeat would likely be his career, his pride, his identity. And yet, what could he do but glare at those soulless white eyes of the mascot costume before him and hope for a miracle?

He strafed around her position, weaving in and out as he waited for some kind of opening to exploit. He didn't recognize the pin she was using, but that didn't matter. All competition level pins had whammies, and he needed to at least know the reaction timing if he was going to get around them.

It was funny, after initially playing the stoic strategist, he was now reduced to playing almost the exact some strategy she had, except with no counter whammies of his own up his sleeve. They weren't playing with a timer, so she could conceivably keep him in stalemate, making an idiot puppet of himself while his sponsors watched on. She could keep this round going until he came begging for his own execution. She held him in her grasp, and she knew it.

Well, if he were to burn either way, then it was better to attempt the impossible than to dance in purgatory. Changing his vector mid-slide, he went in for a charge.

And her pin answered.

She shot at him with the same reckless velocity as before, but this time her vector was off by a slight margin. She was aiming to pass him. A boomerang shot, perhaps? Was she trying to move him towards the center so she could pull a humiliation juggle?

That strategy would have made a lot more sense if her pin had stayed on the board.

Brushing past his own game piece, she hurtled over the edge and ended the match. The buzzer sounded, the even loud speakers roared to life, and Rueban could only stare at the cat suit across from him.

Had the miss been on purpose? It had to be. She'd proven her skill with advanced maneuvers and tactics earlier. There was no way she couldn't know she would miss him. Why had she choked at the last minute?

As he bowed to his opponent, he grimaced. It hadn't been a mistake. She'd thrown the match. She'd already beaten him, the victory was a formality. Whatever it meant had already been stolen by the time she handed it to him.

When he came up, cat girl had come around the table to his side of the stage to throw up his arm in mock victory and elicit some half-hearted applause from the crowd. They weren't clapping for him, they were clapping because she had asked them to.

Then Rueban understood. As she waved and escorted him backstage, he realized her motive for all this. The world was her game, and fools like him were her game pieces. She hadn't destroyed him because he was an amusement, because letting him wallow in his defeat suited her better than simply crushing him outright.

Once they were out of view, he pulled away.

"H-hey, wait!" Cat Girl protested. Funnily enough, she actually sounded bemused, as if even this one little concession to his dignity were ruining her plans somehow.

"You had your match," Rueban said coldly. "Now, if you'll excuse me—"

Reaching up with its plushy arms, the cat twisted and yanked off its head, revealing the girl underneath. Long, blonde hair spilled over the edges of the neck hole, only restrained by a white pair of headphones over her ears, and coffee brown eyes glared back in consternation. "I'm sorry, alright?" she said. "I thought you wanted to win. Did you want me to take you out in front of your sponsors?"

Rueban pressed his lips together. It was a surprisingly accurate read of the situation for a rookie. Either she had connections in the area, or she was just that good at putting together the puzzle pieces. Frankly, he wasn't sure which one he preferred.

Heaving a sigh, the girl set aside her mascot head before looking back at him. "Look, are you okay? Or is this just what you're always like backstage? Because this isn't what I had in mind when I asked to challenge my hero to Tin Pin."

"Your hero," Rueban repeated cynically. "How dumb do you think I am? I don't play in this circuit."

"Yeah, you don't play in any circuit!" Cat Girl shot back. "You make Tin Pin art. You know how I learned to play? It was watching you. Literally everything I do in this game is a based on what I've seen you use. You're a Tin Pin genius, you know that? A total friggin' genius! Ever since you started playing, all I ever wanted was to meet you, to shake your hand, to play a round of Tin Pin with someone else who gets it. So why is it that when I play with you…?"
She trailed off as her voice thinned and tears started forming in her eyes. With a final half-snarl of attempted argument, she turned away. She didn't look like a triumphant puppet master then. She looked more like an indignant child clinging to the broken remnants of her faith in humanity. She looked ignorant and immature, but fiercely determined to be neither.

If he was being honest with himself, she looked a lot like how her felt: lost.

"I'm sorry," he said, keeping his words as even and audible as he could. This explanation would be difficult enough without having to repeat himself. "I… don't really play anymore."

"Oh, bull crap," she spat back over her shoulder. "You just finished the Hokkaido circuit. You think I don't follow you just because you're in a different region?"

"No, I mean… I don't play Tin Pin. It's not a game for me any more."

"So then what is it?" she muttered, "An Idol? A God?"

"Just a job."

Cat Girl fell silent. Rueban kept watching her back, not sure what he was hoping for, but hoping something good would come of it all the same.

Then, after what felt like five minutes...

"Hey, Mr. Kiryu?"

"Rueban, thank you."

"Uh… right, Rueban." she nodded, still looking away. "I think I might owe you an apology."

Biting back on a sarcastic quip about her sense of guilt, Rueban crossed his arms and waited for the rest.

"I thought you liked what you did. I thought the reason you were so good was because you were having fun. But…"

"...But?"

Wiping her face, she turned back around to meet him in the eyes. Hers were red and puffy, but she at least didn't look at distressed as she had earlier. The fire had cooled into sad reason. And yet, he could almost see a glimmer of hesitant hope waiting at the back.

"Well, back there, on the stage, when you were really going for it, I got scared. You said you wanted to have fun, but the way you played… I thought I was doing something wrong. I thought I had to win at any cost because that's what you would want me to do. And then, right there at the end, I couldn't tell anymore. If Tin Pin is just a job to you, what do you want out of it? I don't… I don't understand. If you're not playing the game anymore, then what…?"

She sniffed and grimaced down a sob. Rueban gave her another few seconds to start again, but she just stared, as if she were hoping for him to finish the statement.

The funny thing was, he knew what she wanted. It was the same thing he'd wanted once upon a time, the same thing missing from the cold, calculated mechanics of his book.

"Well..." he sighed and put his hands in his pockets. His stomach was already recoiling at the answer formulating on his tongue, but he forged ahead anyway. "Would you care for a private match?"

"A… Private match?"

"Only in the sense that it wouldn't be official," Rueban clarified. "No spectators, no sponsors, just two people playing Tin Pin."

"Wait," confusion clouded over her face, "but then what's the point? I mean, if Tin Pin is just a job—"

"Silly," he smiled at her. Not a rehearsed display, though. The first real smile he'd felt in a long time, brought on by meeting somebody who cared in a way he couldn't even begin to match. "You think I know everything?"

"I mean… no, I guess."

"Then would you mind giving a professional idiot another chance to understand what he got wrong?"

She looked him over carefully, but as she did the little spark of hope in her eye quietly bloomed.

Finally, she nodded and extended a hand. "You promise?" she asked, a firm edge on her voice.

Rueban took the hand and nodded back. "I Promi—" he paused and withdrew as something slipped into his palm. Frowning, he turned his palm upward and examined the mystery item.

The same yin-yang swirl she had ended with stared back up at him.

Looking back to the girl, he popped an eyebrow.

"It's a limited edition Gatito special," she told him. "I'm gonna win it back from you once you've learned your lesson. That's our promise, alright?"

"Sure," Rueban smiled and slipped the prize deep into his pocket, careful not to lose it. Tokai would probably flip if he found out two high profile slammers were playing without any thought of monetizing the situation, but that was alright. This wasn't for Tokai. This was for the ones who actually cared.

"Sounds fun."

-End-

Author's Note:

It's always interesting writing things for the TinPinverse. Not only do you have to find ways to describe a high-stakes version of (possibly remote controlled) marbles, you also have to figure out whole new character webs and reimagine how and why characters are friends (or not friends). Taking on this challenge with Amber (Hype-chan) and Rueban was trying, but fulfilling as I struggled to adapt the basis for their dynamic into workable terms that didn't feel too contrived. And, I mean, yes, it probably does still feel contrived, but at least I didn't self-plagiarize and try to rip off the feels of "No, Yutsui. I get to Play" for this prompt.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this! I hope it didn't feel too stale. I hope it felt fun. But more than anything, I hope you have a great day! Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to Refresh(). Take care!

Yours,

-CG

[04-AUG-19]