He justifies everything like that. I insist, I insist—like I don't know what's best for me. Like his insistence is always right. Even though both he and I know full well it isn't always for the best.
Yet that man never fails to insist. I didn't need his help to find a place to stay while I was in college, and I didn't need his help to fix up my house; you would be forgiven for thinking his insistence on helping me is overcompensation for so thoroughly failing to help me when I truly needed it back in middle school, but I doubt he has such an admirable motive. No, I believe he simply feels sorry for me. And I can't stomach it. No one ought to feel sorry for me.
After all, I've felt sorry for myself quite enough already. Enough for a lifetime.
That isn't to say I've discovered true happiness or attained an enlightened lifestyle or anything like that—on the contrary, over a decade later, I moved back into the very same house where I spent the most volatile and violent years of my life. After everything that happened to me in this city, I couldn't stay away; I plunged headfirst into the morass of misfortune that I arose from. I'm unable to put my past behind me, let alone forget it.
But I'm here, despite it all. I'm doing alright. I don't need your pity.
I don't need your help, Koyomi Araragi.
Which brings me to that man's latest insistence: spending Christmas at my house. Just the evening on Christmas itself; neither of us is Christian, but his girlfriend must want to monopolize him on Christmas Eve, and that woman certainly wouldn't let him squander such a special night on the likes of me. So, Araragi decided to bestow the couple's precious Christmas evening upon me, ostensibly to cheer me up, or perhaps just to make himself feel good.
Well, it's not like I had anyone to spend the holiday with in the first place, so I had no real grounds to refuse—plus, it would be very hard to call the police on a policeman—so, in the end, I had no choice but open my doors to him (metaphorically). Aiming for a date when I was defenseless; he can be crafty, for a fool. Stubborn, too. Not quite as stubborn as me, though.
Good evening, Oikura-san.
That was the first thing I heard when I opened my front door (literally)—of course, it wasn't Araragi who said it; he would never be so polite with me. Rather, it was his other half, his girlfriend: Hitagi Senjougahara. Her smile seemed oddly genuine for someone who hadn't seen me in three years, and whose last memory with me was stubbornly refusing to make up with Araragi even after I threatened to jump off a building... long story. They say time heals all wounds, don't they? Maybe her wounds are healed and her story ended happily, but the same can't be said for me. Time heals all wounds, does it; don't make me laugh. If anything, it makes them fester.
You don't look good, Oikura.
Oh? I must have been grimacing again. I do beg your pardon.
I banished the contortion from my face, but was unwilling to reverse it into an attempt at a smile. These people don't merit a smile, I decided (though part of it is, according to Nadeko-chan, my smile is, well, easily misinterpreted as a rather ghastly sneer). Nadeko-chan, huh; I wonder how she's doing these days over in Tokyo. Standing in the doorway, I felt an unexpected surge of regret about spending a holiday with Araragi and Senjougahara-san, of all people, instead of Nadeko-chan... Can't be helped, though. I might miss her, but I doubt she misses me enough to spend Christmas with me, and who knows, maybe she's made up with her parents and is with them tonight.
Are you... going to let us in? Oikura?
Y-yes, uh, do come in. I stammered out the words. Senjougahara-san's smile was dazzling, and Araragi's face was unpleasant, so I turned my back on them both and headed inside. It surprised me that I'd think of Nadeko-chan at a time like this. Maybe I'll save her to use as a conversation topic... I doubt Araragi would know or care much about one of his little sister's friends, though. It would probably just sound lame.
I had a moment of sheer panic as I walked into the living room. I inhaled sharply and looked down—luckily, I had remembered to change out of my fancy pajamas before my guests had arrived.
Appearing before Araragi in my pajamas is a recurring nightmare of mine. Ever since it happened in real life.
This is... nice. I heard Senjougahara-san give her first impression from behind me.
This house is too big for her. Araragi's reply. I know it's too big for me, you idiot. That's why I need to find other people to live here—maybe a romantic partner is out of the question (it's me, after all), but someone... anyone... I suddenly recalled the stupid, stupid, stupid declaration I'd made to Araragi earlier in the year, when I told him I'd bought this house. “I'll repaint those memories in my own colors. I'll build a happy family in that house.” Ha.
I suppose that's why we're here.
I didn't mean you. You two already have families—you have your parents and siblings, and you have each other. You're two family levels above me. Have you no shame? Still not satisfied with all you have, you insist on coming here, with me of all people... My head burned, and I'm sure I started grimacing again as I sat down in front of the kotatsu.
Oikura, are you sure you're alright? Araragi set two large white boxes on the table, looking concerned. I looked away. His concerned face was the face I could stand least of all. Then, my heart skipped a beat as I realized those boxes might be presents (the thought of preparing gifts for Araragi and his girlfriend had never even entered my mind). Fried chicken and cake; the chicken is from a chain restaurant, but the cake is homemade—I breathed a sigh of relief at Araragi's short explanation.
Wait, homemade? Don't tell me he made it himself, I'd have to be on my guard for poison.
Do you like strawberry shortcake, Oikura-san?
I can't say I've had many opportunities to eat it, but I suppose I do. Oh, I see; Senjougahara-san made the cake. That makes me feel a little better. Although, now I feel guilty for not contributing any food myself... I guess I could have made meringues. Everyone respects people who make meringues. Well, no use now. The least I can do is make tea; if I mess that up, there's truly no hope for me as a homeowner.
I leaned forward and turned on the electric kettle. Three cups. Plates, too. I'd prepared three plates next to the kettle. To think I'd ever have to use three at a time... Feel free to pass on the fried chicken. We're not particularly fond of it, but a tradition's a tradition, right? Araragi sat down under the kotatsu, to my left.
Speak for yourself. This is the one time of year I get to eat it with a clear conscience. Senjougahara-san followed suit, directly across from me.
After a few minutes of small talk, I passed around plates and steaming cups of tea. What a good host I am. The ends of my mouth flirted with a smile, but I held back.
Thanks for the tea, Oikura. Araragi reached into his coat and took out a small bottle. Want to spice things up with some whiskey? It's a trick I learned in college. I stared at him, wide-eyed. I didn't have much experience with alcohol, but what is he planning to do? He unscrewed the bottle's cap and reached over the table, holding it near my teacup. Confused, I looked at Senjougahara-san, hoping for some kind of rescue—of course, none came. She simply smiled. What do you say? It's Christmas, after all. Araragi was trying to make me succumb to peer pressure. I mean, I am 23. There shouldn't be a problem with me drinking alcohol. Especially on... Christmas? And if he really wanted to poison me, in for a penny, in for a pound, right? I sighed.
If you insist, Araragi. And, as I mentioned before, he does insist.
He poured a spoonful of liquor—whiskey—into my cup, then shifted toward Senjougahara-san. Oh, I couldn't. I'm the designated driver, after all. She took his hand and gently pushed it away. He shrugged, and upended the bottle into his cup. I took a tentative sip... it was strange, but not altogether intolerable.
So, Oikura. Been on any dates recently? I nearly spat out my tea (it's happened before; luckily, I managed to avoid it this time). Don't make fun of me. The last time a boy asked me out was during my first year at Naoetsu High School, and we all know how that ended up. Well, that wasn't the boy's fault, of course, but the point stands. A date, huh. I had thought about how something like that might go—and decided it would only work if my partner loved mathematics as much as I do. I can't be trusted to hold a decent conversation about anything else.
But Araragi seemed to disagree. Oh, that's not true. You're good at listening and giving advice, believe it or not.
Believe it or not. Leaning towards not. I just tell people what they want to hear; it's what I did for Amiko Yurugase, and Nadeko-chan too. That much is easy; it's no business of mine if anything good comes of it. And if anything bad happens, I'm forced to take the blame. Really, it would be much better if people stopped seeking advice from someone like me. ...Except Nadeko-chan, maybe.
Yes, Koyomi told me you helped him through our rough patch earlier this year, Oikura-san. I'm very grateful to you for that.
Hah. You make me—I inadvertently giggled out loud, prompting a funny look from Senjougahara-san. I looked down, slightly mortified. Is this the alcohol's fault? I knew it was a bad idea. No, surely one sip wouldn't produce a marked difference right away; this social ineptitude is all me.
That's right, Oikura. I managed to raise my head to look at Araragi, who took a big gulp of spiked tea. You helped me make the right decision; I was really struggling.
Araragi shifted to his right, putting his arm around Senjougahara-san, who leaned against him. It was such a lovey-dovey gesture I nearly had to look away again, and I felt myself get a little bit pissed off. I get it; it's wonderful to have a lover. He then kissed Senjougahara-san on the cheek, making matters worse. I think I ended up glaring at him. He took another sip, and looked right at me.
It's not just that, you know. I was only able to get into Naoetsu High School because you taught me mathematics, and if I hadn't gotten in, I'd never have even met Hitagi. I know we've had a rocky relationship from the start, but it's thanks to you that I'm blessed with so much happiness. It's like...
He trailed off, looking down at his teacup. Then he shifted his gaze to the electric kettle. I know who boiled my water.
Hah? What is he getting at, all of a sudden. I'm sure you think it sounds cool to dredge up a memory from back in high school, but you're not going to make me feel better by reminding me of the second worst period of my life, Araragi. Unlike you, I can't look back on it with rose-tinted glasses.
What on Earth are you two talking about? Senjougahara-san sounded skeptical. Araragi turned toward her, looking a bit embarrassed—I cut him off. Before he could start talking, I cut him off.
Just a silly metaphor. I hate water that thinks it boiled itself. I told him I hate people who don't know why they are the way they are, or something like that.
Oh? She raised her eyebrows. Was this some kind of philosophical argument? I thought all you talked about was mathematics.
I... may have lost my temper at the time. No way to euphemize that, even if it was a fairly common occurrence back then.
She flew off the rails and stabbed me with a pencil, remember? Araragi laughed. Then you came in and said you were the only one who was allowed to hurt me with stationary. Senjougahara-san hummed in recognition and returned his laugh. Is that what people do? Laugh about their past? All I can remember is being angry and scared and overflowing with hatred... I was still annoyed, but now I felt embarrassed too. Even when we were studying together in college, we never had this kind of conversation. Maybe it still felt too fresh, or maybe we wanted to pretend everything really was rosy...
Luckily for you, I haven't felt the need to wield stationary since the first time we met. I thought so before, but she's really mellowed out. I took a very large drink from my teacup. If that's what happens to you when you grow up and become an adult... I wonder if it's happened to me too. You don't really notice yourself changing, I suppose. Until it's too late—no, that's a little too ominous.
I looked back at Araragi and Senjougahara-san in their obscene act of mutual affection. (Putting it that way makes it sound like they were doing something much lewder, but I stand by calling it obscene. Why? Because it annoyed me.) God, they really are happy, aren't they. Ugh. What were we talking about before Araragi dragged us back to high school?
Koyomi asked if you'd been on any dates recently. Of course. I couldn't decide which was a worse discussion topic, that or memories from high school. What's next, the day my mother died? Why do I always get swept up in the flow of his conversation... I focused on the teacup in my hands, feeling its warmth waft around my chin, before taking a long drink.
No. Without looking away from my teacup, I answered. I haven't been on a date since... since... I stared so hard at the cup I must have gone cross-eyed, but luckily, or perhaps unluckily, my guests were too kind to make me finish the sentence. My face grew warm, but not because of the hot tea—I suppose their already intolerable levels of pity for me have increased yet again.
It was Araragi who interrupted. Well, don't let it bother you; some people are just better off alo—I mean, some people just take a while to find that, uh, special someone. Right? Hitagi?
Mm. There's no reason to worry. I'm sure you'll find a companion. Have you tried any of those matchmaking apps? Spoken like a woman who's had the same companion since high school.
No. I tried to stare a hole through my cup. I'm not that desperate—is what I wanted to say, at least, but when I formed the thought in my head, I became unsure. I doubt someone like me would ever be approached with romantic intentions in real life, so maybe an online app is my only chance... I'll think it over.
Well, that's fine. Like she said, no need to worry. Araragi apparently had already finished his tea, and placed the cup on the table. When you do find a companion, let us know. Hitagi and I have a bet, you see.
K-Koyomi? Are you drunk? My eyes didn't leave my teacup, but Senjougahara-san's voice sounded just a tiny bit startled. What, were they secretly betting on whether or not I'd ever find someone to go out with? Hah. That's about what I'd expect from Araragi, and I'd expect Senjougahara-san to go along with him too. And they have the gall to feel sorry for me. I struggled to keep down a giggle.
Maybe a little. As your childhood friend I'm pretty confident that I'm right, but there's five thousand yen riding on this, so—
Please, Koyomi. Senjougahara-san cut him off. Aw; I was curious to see which one had bet for me and which one had bet against me. I would never have thought Araragi to have confidence in my ability to find a romantic partner, but judging from Senjougahara-san's reaction, it seems she's the one who predicted that I'd stay single forever—but I couldn't tell for sure.
Oh, don't worry about it! A little tipsy, Araragi wasn't relenting. Hitagi went with the conventional wisdom and picked cat, but with everything I know from our long relationship, I really think it'll be a dog—
The two lovers fell silent. I uncrossed my eyes, letting the teacup go out of focus. First, some sensible skepticism; jumping to conclusions based on my initial interpretation of a statement has never served me well. So, did I hear him correctly? Perhaps he said “can't”, as in, “Hitagi thinks you can't find a partner.” Plausible on its own, but there's no way to account for “dog” in that framework. So, supposing I did hear correctly, are “cat” and “dog” some kind of slang? Metaphors, maybe? Some new way of categorizing people, like how “carnivore” and “herbivore” refer to aggressive and passive people, or how “cat” can refer to the bottom partner in a homosexual relationship (not that I would know)? But applying the principles of logic, like Occam's Razor, those complex explanations seemed unlikely to be true. As the possibility loomed larger and larger that they were not, in fact, betting on whether I'd find a partner or not, but assuming that I wouldn't and betting on what kind of animal I'd end up choosing to keep myself company in this big haunted house, I felt a familiar sinking feeling. The world swayed. I gently placed my teacup on the table.
I-It was just a stupid joke, Oikura-san... Senjougahara-san dislodged herself from Araragi's side and started reaching over the table toward my shoulder.
I finally looked up. She froze, hand outstretched.
I know what she's expecting. Flying off the rails. Saying, oh, this is why, this is why I hate you. Hate, hate, hate, hate, hate. Hate with hate yet hate for hate to hate in hate at hate by hate of hate.
I reached for the words, but I didn't find them. None of those “hate”s poured out when I broke the dam. Instead, I felt the rumble of something else; I couldn't even process what it was until my mouth opened, almost involuntarily.
Hah. Ha ha ha. Heh heh. Ha ha ha ha ha. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. Heh. Hah hah hah. Ha ha ha ha ha ha. Heh heh. Ha. Hah hah. Ha ha ha. Ha ha ha ha ha. Heh. Hah. Ha ha. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. I inhaled sharply. Heh heh heh heh. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. Gosh, Araragi. That's so morbid. No mercy, eh. Hah. Hah hah. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.
Araragi and Senjougahara gawked at me as if I were some kind of apparition. Ah; it's been so long since I saw eyes like those... I started wheezing. I'd never laughed that much before, so it must have taken a toll on my lungs. My guests remained silent as I had a coughing fit, which wound down into a cycle of barely audible hiccups and chuckles.
I despise Koyomi Araragi. The man who brings his lover to my house, shows off their lovely relationship, and then makes fun of me for being unable to find one myself. Smiling all the while. To be perfectly honest, it makes me feel like bursting into tears. Hatred circulates through my body faster than blood, and if I were to ever lose it, I'm sure my heart would stop—it's a feeling more passionate than love.
Like blood, that hatred is necessary for my survival. But you know, it doesn't have to be everything, right?
What, don't give me those faces. You look just like those stupid high school girls—Suzubayashi and Hatamoto. Scared of Sodachi Oikura, the big, scary monster, huh? It's pathetic. I may be liable to snap at any moment, but it's far more likely I'll shatter into a million pieces than go on a rampage. Surely you know that by now. Senjougahara finally withdrew her outstretched arm, but it was Araragi who replied first.
Looks like you've finally showed up to the party, Oikura. He grinned. I grinned back—an expression which apparently made my face look so hideous that Senjougahara nearly fainted. But those high school girls... I didn't have many friends at Naoetsu High School, but I don't recognize those names at all. He opened the box of fried chicken and put one of the orange blobs on his plate.
Hah, you had more friends than I did. I followed suit—I was a little apprehensive about eating fried chicken, but it is Christmas, after all. Those girls were from the public high school I transferred to.
Oh, really? Did you cause another incident?
Well, something like that. I bit into the piece of chicken; salty, but surprisingly tasty. It was more like I resolved an incident, though.
Hm? Never took you for the hero of justice type.
I have my moments.
So, what happened? At your new school.
I brushed some fried goo off my cheek. Senjougahara seemed curious too—both of them were leaning forward, looking at me expectantly. That wasn't something I was used to.
It's a pretty boring story, but if you insist.
So, there was this girl who hadn't been coming to school for a while—no, I'm not talking about myself! This girl was—