Zero-Sum Game | ゼロ和ゲーム
“Is there something wrong?” Moriyama asks me as she stares straight into my eyes.
I quickly turn back my head. Without realising it, I had been staring at her without saying a word. I can tell from her expression that she’s irritated. Well, that’s to be expected, I guess. I’m flustered. I try to collect my thoughts and manage to blurt out an answer.
Darn it, I stuttered.
“See you on the day of the competition!” shouts the committee member who handled my application as I left the room.
We make our way down the hallway. I’m walking just a few steps behind Kyoko. If I remember correctly, she should also be in college too now since we should be in the same year. But despite that, she doesn’t look any different. Chinatsu took on a more mature look once we hit university, but Moriyama is the same old Moriyama. Blue jeans, sneakers, white shirt, long black hair, and her trademark grey sweater. Unlike the usual backpack I see her carry in competitions, she’s carrying a small black purse, the cute kind trendy girls would bring when they hang out.
I try to imagine her like that: a trendy girl hanging out with her college friends, singing karaoke, watching movies, going to the beach. But I only come to one conclusion: it’s weird. That doesn’t suit her at all.
I pick up my pace and get closer to her.
“So, you’re joining this competition too, huh?” This is a rhetorical question, but somehow I want to talk with her. I need to know how my rival thinks, of course.
She doesn’t immediately answer and just keeps on walking. Then she turns her head slightly towards me before stopping. Looking straight at my face, she makes no expression. Finally, she smiles.
“I’m sorry, who are you?”
I see myself getting knocked down as if somebody delivered a punch straight to my face, but that’s just how it feels. How can you still not know me? That made sense the first few times, but how many times have we met since then?! Gritting my teeth, I answer her.
“Hoshino. Hoshino Kenji.”
She makes no response and just stares blankly at me. I can’t believe she doesn’t remember me at all.
“We’ve participated in six game jams together. Team Silverstorm, you know?”
“Hm?” She’s staring at me so innocently.
“How can you not remember me?! We spoke in the first tournament we met in. The one at that university two years ago! And we spoke again and again at each one.” Well, it was mostly me who was doing the talking, but that still counts, right?
“Sorry, no clue.”
I feel myself falling back again, but that’s just my imagination. As I’m looking down at the floor, thoroughly beaten, she starts speaking.
“Well, if you say we’ve met… Nice to meet you, Hoshino-san.” She smiles brightly at me.
Gulp. That’s not something you say to someone you’ve already met, but I keep that though to myself. My hands feel a bit numb somehow.
“Yes, I’m joining, but that was obvious from me filling out that form earlier. You’re joining too, aren’t you?”
I nod as we start walking again without saying anything. We make our way down the stairs and out of the building. The sun’s still shining brightly and there’s a small breeze in the air. The green trees and the blooming flowers in the courtyard of the building gives off a refreshing aura.
In front of us, there’s a vending machine. When it comes in sight, Moriyama runs over to it. She takes out her wallet from her purse and inserts several coins into the machine. Clicking the buttons, a drink falls into the compartment at the bottom with a familiar thud. And then another. She lifts the glass cover and takes out two drinks: a bottle of green tea and a can of coffee. She walks back and hands me the can of coffee.
“My treat,” she says as she nonchalantly sits down at a nearby bench. “Coffee’s fine, right?”
I nod. I don’t really like it though, but it seems rude to decline. “How much was it?” I ask her as I reach for my wallet.
“As I said, my treat.” She takes a sip of her green tea.
Thanking her, I open the can and take a sip of my own. It’s bitter as I expected.
“I was joking by the way,” she says out of the corner of my eye.
“Huh? What are you talking about?”
“I remember you. I just wanted to tease you a bit. Sorry.” She giggles.
Gulp. “So, you do remember.” I sigh and take another sip of my coffee.
“Of course, how can I forget? At every competition you’d head over to me and say, ‘I won’t lose!’.”
I spit out all the coffee I was drinking onto the ground and start coughing. How could I say such embarrassing things? Ah, I wish I hadn’t said those things.
“And then when you do you go up to me after the ceremony and shout ‘I won’t lose again next time!’.”
I start coughing again. That is so embarrassing, why the heck did I say that? That was so cringey. I wanna die. After I recover from my violent bout of coughing, she continues.
“So, same team?”
“Huh? Yeah, of course.”
“Not even one?”
She’s silent for a while, but finally responds.
“They just went to different universities, so…”
We stop talking. How long has it been? I don’t know. Probably several minutes, but it feels like it’s been an hour. I glance towards her. Her bottle of green tea is open, but she’s not drinking it. She’s looking down at the ground, but eyes are staring blankly at nowhere in particular. I notice again her big eyes and pretty face. If her hair was a bit more kempt (it’s a bit frizzy), she’d be a real beauty. She already is, actually. I can’t believe a girl like this is interested in game development of all things. She could model or act, but why did she choose this, I wonder? As those thoughts are flowing around in my mind, she asks me a question.
“What happened to that guy?”
“First three competitions we were both in, you had four teammates. But after that, you only had three. The guy with the short hair and sharp eyes. What happened to him?”
I start drinking my coffee again, looking away from her. “He left the team.”
A few minutes of silence pass us by. She stands up and stretches her slim arms. Without turning to me, she speaks.
“So, will you not ‘lose again’ this time?”
I clench my fists as I answer. “Of course. This time for sure I’m gonna beat you. Just you wait and see.” Crushing the can, I throw it away.
…But that’s littering, so I stand up and pick it back up. I’ll throw it away later.
“I see. And what if you lose?”
“I won’t!” My tone’s confident and sharp. “But even if I do, I’ll definitely beat you next time.”
She smiles. “I see.”
She picks up her purse and faces me.
“Well then, you better do it quick.”
She doesn’t move, and I sit there staring at her.
“What do you mean?” I finally say.
“We’re in college now. We won’t be doing game jams forever, will we? Eventually, we’ll graduate, and we’ll have to stop doing this. Have you not given any thought about what you’re going to do after this?”
“O-o-of course I have.” Although I haven’t thought that much. I’ll definitely be a game developer. Work at some triple A company maybe. Or try and build my own game studio? Or maybe I should work as a regular programmer, the economy’s not so good right now…
“Good then.” She checks the time on her phone. “I have to go now. It was nice seeing you, Hoshino-san.”
“Ah, yeah. Nice seeing you too. Bye.”
As she starts walking away, she turns around.
“Make sure you try your best to beat me before this all ends.” She smiles, waves, and disappears from my sight.
Two weeks later. The first day of the Urayama Computer Festival. I haven’t seen or met Kyoko again in those two weeks. We’ve just arrived at where the competition is taking place. This time, there are two rooms. Inside one of the rooms is a stage and rows and rows of chairs. This is where the ceremonies and announcements will take place. Meanwhile, we’ll be working on our games in a separate room. It’s a bit smaller than the other room, but it has desks and chairs. Each team gets one desk, and each desk has its own set of electricity sockets.
We’re all gathered inside the main hall. The opening ceremony hasn’t started yet, and many of the seats are still empty. We’re sitting halfway between the centre and the front, all five of us next to each other. Just like usual, the kind of atmosphere in the room dampens our spirits by just a bit. We shouldn’t be nervous. We’ve participated in so many game jams after all. But every time everyone still gets just a bit nervous. Except Miura.
“Wow!” he exclaims over and over again as he looks here and there.
For the past few minutes, he’s been turning his head left and right, commenting on every little thing as if it were something incredible. I understand that this is his first game jam, but this is nothing but a regular hall…
“Pipe down a bit, will you?” I feel a little embarrassed by what he’s doing.
“I can’t help it! I’ve never been in a game jam before.”
He continues looking around, positively beaming all the while. Is this guy not nervous at all? It’s his first game jam and he’s nothing but excitement? But maybe there’s more than meets the eye. As I look at him with an expression of confusion on my face, I see that he’s furiously tapping his fingers on his knees. And his hands were shaking. I guess everyone has a different way of handling that pressure, so I let him be.
Several minutes later, she and her team arrive. I was on my phone when Chinatsu called out to me.
“What?” I turn to her as I raise my head from my phone.
“She’s here.” She points to the seats on the other side of the room, right in front of the stage.
Moriyama is standing in front of the stage, observing its every detail closely. As usual, she’s wearing her grey sweater, but this time she’s wearing a dark grey skirt, similar to the one she was wearing when I first met her. Nearby, her teammates are gathered around at their seats. They’re all guys, but I don’t recognise any of them. She really did change her entire team.
“Who’s that?” Miura asks from my side, confused that every one of us is looking at them.
“That is Moriyama Kyoko, and her team Firetale.” Shinichi pushes up his glasses. “Though it seems her teammates have changed. Maybe her team name’s also different.”
“Moriyama Kyoko? Firetale?” Miura seems utterly confused.
“They’re our rivals!” Mitsuo announces rather loudly.
The volume of his voice surprised me. I turn to look at Moriyama and then her team, but it seems they didn’t notice.
“Yeah,” Chinatsu continues after him. “We haven’t been able to beat them since our second year of high school. Every time we participated in the same competition, we got second or third place.”
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