When she'd set up the combined schools training camp, Hisa had expected that her own time at the mahjong tables would be relatively limited. As the club president for the hosting school, it was her job to look after both her own members and their invited guests, to ensure that everyone had a chance to play and no one felt left out. Yasuko might tease her about responsibility and work ethic, but then Yasuko had her own agenda for the camp, and it didn't necessarily correspond with Hisa's. A pro like Fujita Yasuko could afford to look beyond this year's inter-high nationals; right now, Hisa couldn't spare a single thought for anything else.
She'd done good work, she thought. The training camp had provided something helpful for each member of her team. Yuuki seemed to be in her element with the constantly changing action and plenty of East rounds, and she'd been building up her stamina for the longer hanchans -- even if her mental arithmetic for calculating points still left something to be desired. Mako had been able to add dozens of games to her memory, whether she was studying the orthodox playing styles the Kazekoshi girls preferred or tearing her hair out over the clueless victories of Tsuruga's perpetual newbie. Nodoka might still fall back on her digital techniques, but spending more time with other girls who weren't from their mahjong club had helped her relax a little more during games, and made her plays look less like those of a tile-drawing robot and more like something that might be expected from an actual human being. And as for Saki....
Mako hadn't been so sure, but Hisa was satisfied with her decision. Bringing Maho-chan in to play had been the right idea to shake Saki out of her comfort zone. If the stories that Kazekoshi and Ryuumonbuchi had told them were true, there were competitors at the nationals who would be unlike anything that any of them had ever seen before. Saki needed to learn how to push through a loss of confidence, without relying on someone else to save her. Amae Koromo had nearly crushed Saki's spirit during the first half of their match, before Yumi had sacrificed her own hand to give Saki the win for that round, and Hisa hadn't forgotten the sick panic that had risen in her chest then at the thought that she was watching the path to the nationals vanish right in front of their eyes. All the bananas in the world couldn't bolster your sense of self-worth when you were actually at the table, and Saki's sense of self-worth was more fragile than she would ever let herself admit.
All the same, the training camp was nearly over, and it was high time for Hisa to take advantage of the opportunities they had left.
She had the luxury of handpicking her opponents, so to really flex her muscles, she would needed a good mix of playing styles to fight against. Yumi was the natural choice from Tsuruga, more than capable of matching Hisa's tricks strength for strength. She'd wanted to play against Ryuumonbuchi Touka -- or rather, against the cold, ruthlessly efficient Touka who had dealt such a devastating defeat to Saki and the others a few days ago, but that Touka seemed to have disappeared. That left the next logical option, and Amae Koromo was more than eager to play. And from Kazekoshi, it could only be Fukuji Mihoko...the girl she should have had a chance to play against properly, all those years ago.
(No, she couldn't let herself get caught up, thinking about might-have-beens. This was here, and now, and better than she ever could have imagined it would be.)
Hisa led the other girls to the room they had designated as the main playing room, now deserted for the evening. This far out in the countryside, the nights were not quite so stifling as they could be in the larger towns, but the room felt oddly airless without the clatter of the automatic tables and the chatter of a dozen voices to liven it up. Before they could set up a table, Hisa headed over to one of the sliding doors that led out onto the ryokan's long balcony.
'I'll just open this, shall I?' she said, putting a hand on the doorframe.
Yumi nodded. 'Good idea.'
'That would be fine with me,' Mihoko agreed. She stooped down to make sure that the automatic table was plugged in, but suddenly checked herself, drawing her hand back and holding it close against her body, as if she'd received a static shock from somewhere. Her face flushed, embarrassed. 'Kajiki-san, Amae-san, would one of you...ah, that is, I'm afraid that I'm not good with.....'
'Oh, Koromo can get it!' Koromo said cheerfully, delighted to be asked to help. Hitching up her too-long yukata, she dropped to the floor and crawled under the table. By the time Hisa had opened the sliding door a few inches to let some fresh air in, Koromo was back on her feet, and the noise of the cicadas outside had started to mingle with the clunk-whirr, clunk-whirr of the table's machinery warming up.
Mihoko looked relieved that the table seemed to be working without her involvement, and the flush in her cheeks faded as her usual gentle smile settled back into place. 'Shall we draw for winds?' She took four wind tiles from the tile set and turned them over, mixing them with a light, easy touch, then moved her hand away so that the other girls could select their tiles first.
Hisa drew West -- a good pick, since it would give her a chance to observe the others' playing behaviours before she found herself in the dealer's position. Koromo let out a small squeal of glee when she drew the East tile, and Mihoko and Yumi slid easily into place at North and South, respectively.
As they pushed the scattered tiles into the opening in the middle of the table, Mihoko glanced around at her fellow players. 'Would anyone like some tea before we begin?' she asked. 'I'd be happy to make some.'
'None for me, thanks,' Hisa said, fanning herself with her hand. 'It's still a little too warm in here.' Koromo shook her head as well as she pressed the button to close the table's opening and bring up a fresh set of tiles.
'I'll have some, if you're having some.' Yumi reached into her yukata sleeve and took out a tasuki, unrolling the long, thin strip of cloth with a flick of her wrist. 'I should tie my sleeves back before we really get down to playing, anyway.'
The playing room had an electric water boiler, a small container of matcha, and fresh teacups, and Mihoko took no time at all to fix two cups of green tea and carry them back to the table. By the time she had resumed her seat, Yumi had adjusted her sleeves, the table noises had quieted down, and the neat square of prestacked tiles had popped up from the depths of the table and was waiting for the first draw.
'Thanks,' Yumi said with a small smile as she took the cup from Mihoko, then nodded to Koromo. 'Amae-san?'
Koromo's grin went from ear to ear as she pressed the button and spun the dice to break the wall.
The first East round went quickly -- much too quickly for Hisa's liking, since Yumi called tsumo on a laughably cheap pinfu hand before they'd reached the second row of discards. Koromo scowled, her first turn as dealer thwarted before it had truly begun, but Hisa smiled to herself as she closed her own hand and selected her point sticks for payment. Trying to hurry things along, are you? We'll see about that.
As if to make up for the quick-and-dirty ending of the previous turn, Yumi's turn as dealer ended in a full draw. Hisa had just managed to squeak into tenpai with her third-to-last tile, but Koromo and Mihoko had to pay out no-ten penalties to her and Yumi. The bonus round went a little more swiftly, but it was plain that the four of them were still playing rather cautious hands, sticking to safe discards as much as possible, with little calling and without even a riichi in sight. When Mihoko secured a simple seat wind win with one dora off of Yumi to end the round, Hisa couldn't help but stifle a yawn.
'I know everyone's mostly asleep by this point, but we don't have to play in total silence, right?' she said, teasing, as she reached across the table to bring up a new round of tiles.
'Did you have something on your mind, Takei-san?' Mihoko asked, dropping her point sticks into her tray.
Hisa shrugged. 'Not particularly.' A quick glance at the dice, and she broke the wall, selecting her first set of tiles for her dealer's turn. 'I suppose I should ask if you've all enjoyed your time here with us so far?'
Koromo's hair ribbons quivered as she nodded enthusiastically. 'It's been lots of fun!' she said. 'Playing with Saki and Nonoka and everyone else...it's even better than Touka said it would be.'
'I agree.' Mihoko bobbed her head to Hisa, automatically polite. 'I can't thank you enough for giving our players the chance to participate, and for all the work you've done in making everything go so smoothly.'
One corner of Hisa's mouth quirked. 'Hey, you've all done just as much work as I have, while we've been here.' She pulled her tiles up against the table wall, then started to sort them. Two East winds, a 1-man dora, not a bad start. 'You've been a great help with the meals in particular, Fukuji-san. We'd be eating convenience store snacks all week, if I was the only one in charge.'
'Or tacos, if that first-year of yours had her way,' Yumi said dryly. She took another sip of her tea. 'But it's been a good time all around, I'd say. It's a shame that it's almost over -- I could stay here for another week, easily.'
As far as small talk went, it wasn't much, but the atmosphere at the table did feel a little more comfortable afterwards. It certainly made Hisa feel more at ease as she built her first dealer's hand, drawing and discarding tiles and rearranging her plans accordingly. By the time they had reached the end of the second row of discards, she was two tiles away from tenpai with three East tiles safe in her hand, and she felt that it was time to liven things up a bit.
Everyone's still keeping it close, are they? Her gaze flickered down to her tiles, up to the discards, and back down to her tiles again. Lots of dragons in sight, so maybe I'll go for a hell wait on my single red. Green's all gone, Mihoko discarded a red two turns ago, and I bet Yumi's hanging onto two of the whites. But just to be sure, let's start by clearing out some of this unsafe deadwood I've got -- her hand drifted down her row of tiles -- and see what you make of this! She selected the 7-pin, breaking up a 4-5-6-7-pin run, and dealt it into her discards.
Three voices, almost simultaneous.
Hisa's hand froze in mid-air, in the act of drawing it back.
For a long moment, no one seemed to know what to do. And then, one after the other, Mihoko, Koromo, and Yumi opened their hands.
Incredulously, Hisa stared at the three sets of opened tiles, but there was no mistaking what she was seeing. Koromo's sou-ittsuu with her west seat wind, Yumi's pin-honitsu iipeikou with her north seat wind, and Mihoko's junchan sanshoku with three 1-man dora -- all three of them had been waiting on the 7-pin she had just discarded.
Three rons. Some automatic, instinctive part of her brain tried to take control, forcing her through the motions of play. Pay out. She fumbled with the drawer of point sticks, but as she looked from one hand to the other, trying to add up the yaku, it dawned on her that she wouldn't have enough points to pay all three of them. This wasn't the team tournament, where you had 100,000 points for the five players in your group. This was an individual match, where there were only 25,000 points per person, and if Mihoko's hand alone was worth 16,000 points --
They'd sent her under, all three of them. The match was over.
Carefully, deliberately, Hisa shut her drawer and closed her hand, letting the tiles fall face down. When she looked up, she saw that all three of her opponents were watching her -- Yumi with a dark, troubled expression, Mihoko with the beginnings of tears in her open eye, and Koromo with a strange sort of thoughtfulness that made her look much older than usual.
'Good game,' Hisa said, in as calm and natural a voice as she could muster. It was a triumph of self-control; it didn't shake in the least. 'I suppose you wouldn't mind having another match? I'll just run to the ladies' room first, if that's okay with you all.'
Even as she spoke, she was already on her feet, out of her chair, and was halfway to the door before any of the others could react. As she left the room, she heard a clatter of tiles, and Mihoko's wavering voice called out 'Takei-san...!', but by that point Hisa was out in the corridor and walking briskly in the direction of the nearest toilets, the ones adjacent to the women's changing room for the ryokan's natural outdoor hot springs.
No one was in the changing room when she arrived, so Hisa was able to go straight over to one of the sinks and catch hold of the cold, damp porcelain to steady herself. A few deep breaths, and she lifted her head to look at herself in the mirror, gazing blearily through the limp strands of hair that had fallen in front of her face.
Coincidence. She could hear Nodoka's voice in her head, the same dismissive tone that she always used when speaking of any of the strange phenomena that they had witnessed during their mahjong battles. And empirically, Hisa knew that in this case, Nodoka would've been right. There had been no unsettling aura swirling around them during the game, nothing to indicate that Koromo had been drawing on the abilities that had made her such a feared opponent for Saki and the others during the final prefectural tournament match. Mihoko's other eye had been closed the whole time, a sure sign that she was not playing with the single-minded sight that seemed to give her such uncanny knowledge of other players' hands. And Yumi...well, Yumi was Yumi, but even she couldn't have coordinated her hand with Mihoko's and Koromo's in such a overwhelming fashion. It had to have been coincidence.
'Coincidence,' Hisa said aloud, the word coming out on an exhale of breath. But her hands were still gripping the sink, and her stomach was a fluttery mess.
She gritted her teeth, suddenly furious with herself. Losing was bad enough, but at this point she wasn't even thinking about the game. She couldn't react like this during the nationals. What kind of mahjong club president would she be if one bad hand sent her to pieces like this? Even Yuuki had managed to save her breakdown for the end of her match -- she might've sobbed all over her president and vice-president in the privacy of their waiting room, but on camera she had held it together. What would she think -- what would Nodoka and Saki and Mako think -- if they could see their president clinging to a bathroom sink, barely able to look herself in the eyes for fear that she would discover just how frightened she really was?
'Coincidence,' Hisa repeated aloud, more firmly this time. She let go of the sink and shoved her hair out of her face, forcing all of her anger at herself into that single gesture. 'That's all.'
She turned the taps of the sink and flung some cool water on her face, ignoring the droplets that splashed the mirror and the floor around her. She hadn't brought a towel, but the sleeve of her yukata was clean enough to dry herself off with. Jaw tightening, she spun on her heel and stalked back the way she had come. Her heartbeat matched the steady thump of her feet on the polished wood floors.
The sliding door to the playing room was still ajar when she reached it, and when she walked back into the room it was as if she'd been gone for only a few seconds instead of several minutes. The tiles from their last hand, untouched, were still on the table. Koromo and Yumi were still sitting down, but Mihoko was on her feet, hands twisting the tie of her yukata. When she saw Hisa, anxiety lit up her face.
'Takei-san, are you -- ' she began, but Hisa was too quick for her.
'I'm fine, I'm fine,' she said, waving away any kindness before the words could get stuck in her throat. 'Just needed to go, that's all.' She walked over to her chair, Mihoko trailing behind her. 'Are we keeping the same seats for the next round, or do you want to switch it up a little?'
Yumi and Koromo glanced at each other, then looked back at Hisa. Yumi was the first to speak. 'We can stay as we are,' she said, her tone low and careful, 'but first....'
Hisa had to interrupt again. 'Look, I know you guys didn't plan that, or anything.' She dropped into her seat, draping one arm over the back of the chair in a manner that she hoped looked nonchalant. 'That kind of thing could happen to anyone. You're all used to tough competition; you know how this works. Total coincidence, right? It's just that...well, you gotta admit that it was a little unexpected.'
'We know that,' Yumi said. 'But you don't have to say that it's fine. Not with us.' Her expression was serious, but the light in her eyes was kind.
Hisa pressed her lips together briefly. Kindness was exactly what she didn't want. For a split second, she wondered whether it had been a good idea to come back to the room after all -- and then felt more than a little ashamed of having had such a thought.
'The burden falls heavily upon the shoulders of the leader, as it must,' Koromo said quietly, in a sober, world-weary voice that seemed too absurdly grown up to come from someone who looked as child-like as she did. 'But to have strength to bear it, one must not pretend that it weighs nothing.'
Hisa coughed, mostly to stop herself from laughing out loud at Koromo's sudden change in demeanour. 'I don't think it's that bad,' she said.
'But you have been spending a lot of time helping out your teammates, Takei-san.' Mihoko sat back down as well. 'You care about them, and you want to win with them. And I know that you have Someya-san to help you...but we want to help you, too.' She started to reach out a hand to touch Hisa's, but stopped, and withdrew it with a faint blush.
There were all sorts of things that Hisa wanted to say, the usual you don't have to worry about me and I'm not upset, I promise speeches that seemed like the appropriate responses to make. But just as she was about respond with one of those pat phrases, her gaze fell on the table, where the three winning hands that had knocked her out of the game were still laid out for all the world to see. And before she knew it, an entirely different set of words had started to come out of her mouth.
'Y'know, at the start of the school year, I never thought I'd be sitting here having a conversation like this.' Her voice was steady, but it was a strain to keep everything from falling out in a rush. 'The inter-high tournament wasn't even a possibility. I thought it would just be Mako and me, playing the odd game of net-mahjong on the days when we even bothered to turn up for club meetings in the first place. I was ready to spend most of my time with the student congress, or studying for entrance exams, or whatever else came up. But then Yuuki and Nodoka arrived, and Suga-kun brought Saki with him...and before I knew it, I'd started to think to myself, hey, maybe we might have a shot at competing this year.' She looked up at the other three girls, gauging their reactions. 'Suddenly, the impossible was possible.'
Mihoko nodded encouragingly. 'I can imagine,' she said.
'No, I don't think you can.' It was a blunt statement: Hisa was too far down this path to think of choosing her words with more care for anyone's feelings. 'We're not a powerhouse school. We don't have a ton of money, or a big sponsor, or anyone banging down our door to try to get us to compete. If it hadn't been for Nodoka's status as last year's middle school individuals champion, no one would have paid the slightest bit of attention to us. Competing against other schools simply hadn't been realistic for the longest time, and then it was, and I didn't know how much I'd wanted to be a part of it all until we got to the tournament. And now...now I want to win so much that it scares me a little.' She paused, and shivered. 'A lot.'
'The tournament....' This time, it was Yumi's turn to nod. 'It really does change everything, doesn't it. I didn't know how much I wanted it until then, either. Our club was just like yours -- if I hadn't found Momo when I did, we wouldn't have been able to compete. And when it's your last year -- '
'But you're a lot braver than you think you are, Takei-san!' Mihoko interjected, in a sudden burst of passion that made both Yumi and Hisa startle in their seats. 'You wouldn't have put together this training camp otherwise. Kazekoshi has been to the nationals a number of times, but we've never participated in anything like this before. We'd never have thought of getting together with other schools outside of the tournaments.'
'Well, it's not like you have a shortage of people to play with,' Hisa replied, almost amused. Like Saki, Mihoko really could be kind of cute when she was unexpectedly passionate about something. 'You do have about a billion club members. We just wanted to play against more people -- there's nothing brave in that.'
Mihoko shook her head firmly. 'We have a lot of club members, but we don't have your club members. It takes a lot of confidence to do something like this, to actively seek out new ways of getting better. It takes more confidence than I would have had, in your place.' She looked down at her hands, and when she spoke again her tone was wistful. 'Maybe we would have done better this year if I'd thought to have us play more against other schools, instead of pretending to ourselves that we were stronger than everyone else. Maybe that's why we lost to you last year, too, Amae-san,' she added, turning to give Koromo a sad smile.
'Koromo wasn't playing to have fun last year.' Koromo's hair ribbons seemed to droop in sorrow as she thought back on the previous year's tournament. 'Not against Kazekoshi, not at the nationals. And we didn't win, either -- not even with Touka playing her hardest. Koromo doesn't want to play like that any more.' Her chin wobbled briefly, but then her eyes grew bright and hopeful. 'But Kiyosumi can go to the nationals and show everyone that mahjong is supposed to be fun, too!'
Yumi picked up her long-cold cup of tea, and swirled the little liquid left in it. 'What I think we're getting at,' she said, 'is that we've all been watching you, this weekend. You've done more to prepare yourself and your team than any of us ever would have thought to do. And even though it's probably a bit late for some of us' -- she and Mihoko exchanged wry looks, before they both looked back at Hisa -- 'I'd say that we've all become better players because of you.'
Hisa's heart was beating so fast that she thought it would leap out of her mouth if she tried to speak. She could feel the blush creeping up her neck, into her cheeks, burning beneath her skin. She knew she was supposed to say some sort of thank you, something modest and polite and grateful, but nothing seemed adequate to put her emotions into words. Better players...because of me...oh, don't start bawling, don't start....
Before she could internally scold the tears away, the sound of footfalls on the floor outside -- a sudden and welcome distraction -- attracted their attention. A hand appeared at the edge of the slightly open door, and a flash of light reflected off a pair of glasses as Mako peered into the room. When she saw Hisa, she moved into the doorway, but hung back from entering the room itself.
'Am I interrupting?' she asked. 'I saw the light on, but I wasn't sure....'
Thankfully, Mako's hesitation gave Hisa a chance to regain her composure. She even managed a smile, with most (if not all) of her usual, natural confidence behind it. 'We're just about to start a new hanchan,' she said. She gestured to the scattered tiles on the table. 'I got crushed on the last one, y'see, so I'm out for revenge.'
'Revenge, huh?' Mako pushed her glasses further up the bridge of her nose. 'Mind if I watch? I like a good revenge match -- they always produce some impressive hands.'
Hisa wasn't sure how much truth was really in that statement, but in the long run it wouldn't hurt if Mako added another handful of games to her memory bank. 'Would that be all right with you ladies?' she asked, turning to her fellow players.
Yumi inclined her head. 'Certainly.'
'I wouldn't mind at all,' Mihoko said, smiling broadly.
Koromo clapped her hands together. 'Yes, please! Koromo won't hold back on this one!'
'Oh, so you were holding back last time?' Hisa said. One eyebrow arched in lofty disdain. 'Now I'll have even more of a reason for vengeance.'
It wasn't vengeance she was after, not really. But as president of the Kiyosumi High School mahjong club, Nagano's reigning prefectural champion, Hisa wanted to be sure that everyone who faced her left the table a better player than they had been when they'd sat down -- and it was time to show her friends just how much stronger she could become.