Zero-Sum Game | ゼロ和ゲーム
It’s been two weeks since Moriyama joined us, and we have been working around the clock to try and make a presentable prototype. Much to everyone’s surprise, Moriyama fit right in. Right now, she’s with Shinichi discussing the contents of the trailer to be sent along with the game for our registration. She’s mostly helped us in things directly related to Artfes. She adapted really quickly to how we work, like a block of clay shaped according to a mold. She’s been getting along really well with everyone – except Chinatsu.
Granted, Chinatsu’s work doesn’t necessarily need her to work together with the others. But whenever she’s involved in something – planning for the trailer, discussing a part of the game design – and Moriyama comes in, she would leave immediately, put on her earphones, and work by herself.
And that’s what’s happening right now too. I’ve just finished coding one of the weapons. Chinatsu’s sitting right next to me, working hard on her tablet and little laptop with earphones in her ears. Meanwhile, the rest of the team are with Shinichi, except for me.
To others, it might look like she was in the zone, focused and completely immersed in her drawing. But someone like me who’s been with her since elementary school, I know better. That face she’s making – a face of determination, intensity, and sharp focus – isn’t one of true focus. It’s one of trying to seem focused.
“Chinatsu,” I call out to her. “You okay?”
I know I’m asking despite knowing full well what she’s feeling.
She takes out one of her earphones and answers without turning to me.
“Uhuh. I’m great.”
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
She didn’t turn my way even once.
The next day. We’re continuing work like usual. Despite it not being her forte, Moriyama’s helping me with the code. Her skills are best suited for art, but if we were to do that, there’s no telling what Chinatsu would do.
“How do I say this? Something’s off. It doesn’t look smooth,” Shinichi says as he stares at the laptop screen, rubbing his chin.
“Really? Which part?” Chinatsu brings her face closer to the screen and squints her eyes.
“I’m not really sure… Kenji, can you come over here?”
Taking off my headphones, I stand up and go around the desk to where they’re sitting. I take a look at the laptop screen in front of Shinichi.
The visual effects Chinatsu made were indeed not up to it. They lack impact. If I were honest, I’d say they’d look somewhat cheap, but of course I won’t say that to her.
“Yeah. There’s something missing. I can’t put my hand on it either.”
Just then, Moriyama appears next to me.
I turn my head towards her and find myself surprised. She’s right next to me, and our bodies are touching. She’s so near to me, and she smells so nice. I gulp, and look away.
“W-w-we’re just, you know, uh, Chinatsu, visual effects are, like, her-”
“Nothing that concerns you,” Chinatsu says flatly.
Moriyama ignores her and takes a look anyway, straining her neck to see.
“Are you talking about the visual effects?”
“Y-yeah,” I say cautiously, glancing at Chinatsu to see her expression.
She’s not pleased at all, at all.
“Hmm… Seems like we could improve on this.”
“I told you it has nothing to do with you, didn’t I? Why don’t you just go back and do whatever it was you were doing?”
Moriyama steps back and looks her straight in the eyes, with an expression partly determined and partly angry.
“Did I do something wrong?”
“The way you’re acting towards me… You’re making it really clear that you don’t want me here.”
“I didn’t want you here. I don’t now either.”
“Then say it straight to me. Or do you have not have the guts to do that?”
“What did you just say to me? You want me to say it clearly? Alright, I’ll say it clearly. You’re our rival, our enemy. Dozens of competitions, you were always our number one enemy. And now, I’m supposed to work together with you as if we’re buddy-buddy teammates?”
“You think that makes me an enemy? Ever heard of sportsmanship? Those were competitions! I was not and am not your enemy. I was just competition. Do you call everybody you can’t beat your enemy just because they won at something you couldn’t?”
“Oh, so you’re bragging now?”
This is bad. The situation is escalating. The others are just watching. As the team leader, I need to do something before this escalates. I stand between them, shielding them from each other.
“Alright, that’s enough,” I say.
“You stay out of this!” they shout me down in unison. And so, I’m staying out of it. I walk back towards my seat in defeat.
“I am not bragging. It’s a competition. There’s bound to be a winner. And the others will lose. You should understand that before you go in.”
“But you don’t need to act all high and mighty just because you keep winning!”
“When did I ever do that?!”
“That’s how you always look! You look like you’re always looking down on us!”
“I’ve never done something like that! Are you sure you’re not just angry at yourself because you felt you couldn’t win?”
“What did you just say to me?”
“Maybe it’s not me you hate, but yourself. But you don’t want to do that, so you project it onto me. You’re hating me because you think you’re not good enough.”
“You don’t know a single thing about me.”
“So, you’re saying it’s not that you think you’re not good enough?”
“Come on, why don’t you just spit out what the true reason is?”
“I said shut up.”
“Why do I have to be the victim of your own thoughts and feel–”
“It’s because of Ken-chan!” Chinatsu shouted out loud.
It was the loudest shout I’d ever heard from Chinatsu. Everyone’s gone quiet, all looking at Chinatsu. We’re all surprised, shocked. But most of all, we don’t understand what she means. She’s looking down, and her entire body’s trembling.
“What do you mean it’s because of me, Chinatsu?” I ask.
“It’s her fault. Keisuke leaving. It’s her fault. If she hadn’t suddenly appeared out of nowhere and hadn’t taken all those victories from us, none of that would’ve happened. Keisuke would still be here, in the same team with us. He wouldn’t have left us.”
Moriyama opens her mouth to say something but decides against this.
“I didn’t know Keisuke meant so much to you…”
“That’s not it. That’s not it at all, Ken-chan…”
She raises her head and looks straight at me. Her eyes are glistening with tears, and at any moment those tears threaten to suddenly flow down her face. She’s still trembling like a pot of boiling water, trying desperately to keep all that pressure inside.
“It’s because of you. You think I didn’t notice? Notice how crushed you were that Keisuke just got up and left us like that? Keisuke was my friend too, so I was sad. But that was nowhere near how devastated you were.”
Flashes of that time passed through my head. Sleepless nights spent thinking what I could’ve done differently. Tired days sitting in class, not paying attention to the teacher. The skies and shadows that seemed darker than before. Keisuke just left me without a word. Was I worth that little to him? I thought we were friends.
“Do you know how painful it was to see you like that? I wanted so bad to help you, to do something for you. But there was nothing I could do. I could only watch you go through that, because I couldn’t even imagine what you were going through. Because of that, because I… I care so much about you as my friend that I…
“I started hating you.” Chinatsu looked towards Moriyama.
“It all happened after you came. After you kept beating us, again and again and again. Ken-chan worked his back off to try and catch up. So many nights he stayed up late, experimenting, learning. All so we could have a fighting chance. He put his heart and soul into it. But you just crushed it like that. He poured everything he had into it. And Keisuke just left, even after Ken-chan was completely spent.
“I know it’s not your fault. I know it’s a competition. Deep down in my heart, I know that. But when I saw how Ken-chan suffered, and when I remember that even now, I just…”
The dam broke, and the tears finally flooded. Drops flowed down her cheeks and fell soundlessly onto the wooden floor, dissipating into the wood and disappearing but leaving behind a trace, just like her words which trailed off, but left its indelible mark on us.
Without a word, Chinatsu turned and ran. She ran as quickly as she could towards the door and left the room. The rest of us stayed still, stuck in the position we had been in since she said those things. No one’s quite sure of what to say or do.
But Chinatsu did all that and felt all that because of what happened. And it was all for me. I had no idea that she was watching me so closely. I thought nobody knew of what I was feeling then. Even if they did, I didn’t think anybody knew as deeply as Chinatsu does.
Chinatsu’s my best friend. She’s my oldest friend. I’ve been with her through so much. She’s stuck with me to this day, and she’s gone through all that because of me. Clenching my fists, I come to a resolution. I won’t let it end like this. I won’t leave it hanging. As her friend, as someone she cared for so deeply that she had to go through all that, I have to do something.
“I’m going after her,” I announce as I stand up. “You guys can wait here.”
Without waiting for their reply, I run out of the room and go after her.
That was what I thought, but I don’t know where she’s gone. She left no trace, and as far as I could remember she left her phone in the clubroom. A smarter man would’ve probably thought it over: what sort of person is she? What sort of places would someone like her seek out in times of like this? But I’m not that smarter man. And in a frenzied and hurried state like this, I can’t hope to think about that.
My only course is to just look for her at random, guessing without much thought. I check all the rooms on the floor. Go up the stairs, check the rooms there. I go down the stairs and check the room there. But I couldn’t find her.
Think. I’ve known her for so long. We’re practically childhood friends. There must be some clue buried deep within my memories. Where would she be after going through something like that?
I stop in my tracks. A memory slips through my mind.
I turn around and run as fast as I can.
I stand in front of the women’s bathroom on the top floor of the building. I can’t very well go in. But there’s nobody in this building at this time. If Chinatsu’s here, then she’d be the only one. I firmly knock on the door, making sure it’s not too loud that it makes a racket, but not too silent that Chinatsu might not be able to hear it.
“Chinatsu, are you in there?”
Silence. Was I wrong? Maybe she’s not here after all. I took a guess based on what happened in sixth grade. But maybe, that was far too long ago…
But a voice calls out.
“Yeah. Are you okay?”
“…How’d you know where I was?”
“How long do you think we’ve been friends? Are you okay?”
“Come on. Come out here so we can talk. I feel kind of awkward standing in front of the girls’ bathroom and shouting like this, you know?” I laugh awkwardly.
She comes out of the bathroom, her hair disheveled and her eyes red from crying. But she’s not sobbing anymore.
“You’ve calmed down?”
She nods. We both lean against the wall and stare at the scenery from the windows. It’s neither hot nor cold, and the light illuminates part of the hallway. But what’s most apparent to us is its emptiness. Every single word we say feels as if it’s echoing against the walls.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
She turns to me with a confused look on her face. “Why are you saying sorry?”
“I didn’t know that you went through all that. I was too preoccupied with myself that I didn’t notice that you were watching me.”
“It’s fine. I never asked for you to notice me. It was just me. It hurt me so much to see you like that. Of course, it hurt me too. I thought he was our friend. But he left, just like that. It did hurt you deeply, didn’t it?”
“Yeah.” More than I care to admit.
“Deep down, I was hoping that he was still our friend. I am still hoping that. And you can’t hate your friends, can you? So, I didn’t. Instead, I hated her. After all, if she had never appeared, Keisuke would still be in our team.”
“I’ve thought a lot about that.”
“What do you mean?”
“Keisuke left us so easily, right?”
“Even if Moriyama hadn’t come into our lives at that time, I think he would’ve done that anyway the moment we weren’t at the top anymore. And if she hadn’t come into our lives, wouldn’t our friendship with Keisuke be just a façade?
“In a way, I’m glad it happened, you know? Friends should stick with you through thick and thin. I’m not sure whether thick is the good one or the bad one, but we weren’t even in that bad a position, and he left us. They say times like that show you who’s a real friend and who’s not. So, I’m glad it happened. Because we got to know that he wasn’t a real friend.”
Chinatsu raises her head and stares blankly at the ceiling, thinking over the words I’d just said.
“And besides, I got to know that you’re a real friend,” I say, avoiding her eyes. I keep my gaze straight ahead. I feel the heat of embarrassment running up my face, but I try to keep my cool.
“Oh, and one more thing. Thanks,” I say. This time, I turn towards her and look her straight in the eyes. “Thanks for worrying about me. I’m fine now.”
She gulps. As her face turns redder than an onion, she quickly turns away.
“Y-y-yeah. We’re f-f-f-friends after all, right? Friends. Yeah.”
She must be pretty embarrassed by serious talk like this to turn that red.
“Wanna go back?” I ask her.
“Yeah. I need to apologise to everyone. Including her.”
“You’re still not calling her by her name.”
“You know what I mean.”
The clubroom door is still open when we reach it. When we go in, everybody’s sitting around the desk. Silence. The atmosphere was so thick you could use a knife to cut through it like a thick block of butter. Before I can say anything, Chinatsu steps forward and bows deeply.
“I’m sorry for causing trouble for everyone,” she says, still bowing.
The others look at her with surprise but are not quite sure how to respond. Finally, Miura speaks up.
“Are you feeling better, Chinatsu-san?”
Moriyama suddenly stands up.
“Chinatsu-san, I’m sorry. I said some mean things that I didn’t really mean. I was just frustrated because we couldn’t get along, and I–”
Chinatsu turns towards her and bows again.
“No, I’m sorry. I wasn’t angry at you. It wasn’t even your fault to begin with, I know that. I always knew that. But I shifted the blame onto you. And that wasn’t fair. I can’t just flick a switch and come to like you after all those years of hating you, but I’m going to try my hardest to become better. Again, I’m sorry.”
“No, no, I’m sorry to you,” Moriyama says as she starts bowing too.
Before those two start an endless cycle of bows and counter-bows, I step forward and address the team.
“Alright, everyone. It’s time to get back to work. We have a game to finish!”
I raise my fist in the air.
In unison, everybody reaches for the ceiling and shout.
As we all settle back down to continue the work we were doing, from the corner of my eye I see Chinatsu walking towards Moriyama.
“Um, I’m going to try and fix the visual effects, so…”
“Ah!” Moriyama says, standing up again. “May I help you?”
Chinatsu still can’t bring herself to ask her, but I guess this is a step in the right direction. Without realising it, a smile forms on my face.