TL;DR. Epic chapter INCOMING!
On the following Monday,
As if to celebrate the lifting curtains of the upcoming-- uh... the upcoming Otaku Word Chain game between our Clotaku Club and MoeRe, the entire school was in a state of unrest.
...That was a joke.
Aside from the sickly patients of the Monday disease, the school was lively as always. It would be a stranger sight, if not a severe issue of our school, if these bright, young teenagers were emotionally affected by some word game happening in a club.
Amidst this school full of energy, I was alone, tense and afraid. My final class of the day had past, and it was my time to go down to the infirmary and begin the match.
I felt like I was walking into an exam room to take the National Scholastic Ability Test-- the ones on June and September, especially. They're the worst, I heard. I couldn't concentrate-- I couldn't settle down. Every step I took toward the infirmary felt heavy and bothersome. But I couldn't back off now; running was no longer an option.
--And I've always known that, but it was good to remind myself. I approached the infirmary's inner door, and entered the room...
"Oh, my... welcome."
...Then I found the room devoid of people, save for Miss Yu Youngseon. For once, she was not sitting in front of the computer, but instead on the couch, staring at an object on the table in front.
The object was.... a cup of noodles?
"Are you having cup ramen?"
"Yep. Want some?"
"No thanks." I only asked because cup ramen doesn't really fit someone like you!
She did not bother insisting further, instead electing to rub her sleepy eyes. "Oh, I'm so sleepy... I didn't get any sleep yesterday! I used to be perfectly fine with skipping two days worth of sleep, and now, I can't even stay up for one day since I'm over twenty-five..."
...I could not find a kind, appropriate remark, so I chose to remain quiet.
Moments passed by as the nurse griped about her long-gone youth, then she suddenly turned her attention to me. "...By the way, did you study for your test?"
It's a match, not a test! I replied neutrally, "Oh, uh, sure, somewhat." It was a little embarrassing to proudly proclaim that I had been spending any amount of time memorizing Otaku vocabulary.
The nurse flashed a smile, accentuating the noticeably darker circles beneath her eyes. "'Somewhat', is it...? I'm jealous, I haven't studied much at all. I'm worried! What should I do...?"
"There's always someone like you in every class!" There's always at least one of those kids in class who cry about not studying enough on the day of exams! And, just as I had feared, you're the third member of our team!
"I felt like I was in school again, having to actually study and learn something... I was pretty excited."
"You spent all night trying to memorize words?!"
"You don't memorize words... you understand them."
That just sounds like a line straight out of a shoddy study guide! I looked at her in disbelief, but the nurse paid no heed.
She slowly lifted her arms, moving as though she was sleepwalking, and mixed the dry noodles with the soup in her ramen cup. "Ah... so fragrant. This beautiful smell-- I think I'm in heaven."
"...Miss Yu, are you going to be okay?"
Those are cup noodles, right? Not drugs?
"Hmm? ...I don't know what you're saying~. I'm always like th-- *Chomp*, *slurp*, *slurp*."
"Can you please eat more gently?!"
She's supposed to be a respected nurse! And a beautiful lady! And she's making the soup fly everywhere and leaving stains on her clothes!
"Don't bother talking! You don't have to reply, so keep eating quietly! Please!"
It's even scarier how your face remains serene and sleepy, while the rest of your body is aggressively attacking those noodles! And Yeonji, too! Why do girls around me always end up eating like a pig?! I don't expect anyone to handle every grain of rice with care, but this is just too much!
I patiently waited. The nurse finished the noodles, drank the remaining soup, and then marked the end of the meal with a relieved sigh, signaling a full stomach. Fortunately, she had no further chance to ruin her image.
"Phew... I can feel my energy come back. Oop, I feel a belch coming up."
"Please, please don't..."
The nurse giggled. She snapped the wooden chopsticks in half, put them in the now-empty cup of noodles, and then threw them away in a garbage bag.
"...You look very nervous," she commented.
She grabbed an empty can that had been thrown on the ground by Yeonji yesterday, placing it into the bag with the rest of the garbage. She turned around, "I'm sure it's about the match today... your legs are shaking hard."
"Ah, oh. I see." I must have been shaking without noticing. I became overly aware of my legs, taking manual control over every muscle so that my instincts could not.
The nurse smiled soothingly. "Why is that...? Does it bother you that, whoever wins, someone's club will be gone?"
"Ack." I gave a look asking 'How did you know?'
She laughed. "Hah, kids always give away what they're thinking through their facial expressions. ...And I like that."
Are all adults capable of reading our minds, then? It's true, though, that I can never tell what she's thinking. Not in the 'I don't know what the hell you're thinking' way, I mean.
'Bother me', huh?
It was more accurate to say that I was being indecisive. Yeonji would be furious if she knew, but... I still hadn't a particular reason to win the match and put an end to MoeRe. Why not? I couldn't answer. It was likely related to the classic question of 'do I really have to?'
A match about putting the lives of school clubs on the line sounds awfully like... something straight out of an anime. This story doesn't belong in my life.
"Well, I'm a closeted Otaku, too." said the nurse, interrupting my soundless sulk. "But I have nothing against people who aren't closeted, either. I don't really care what happens today, but I am still going to try my best."
Fortunately, she had the same mindset that I had about this match. Really, what kind of loser would take this Super Idiot Wars EX seriously? Oh... wait, that's just about everyone else.
...Out of the six people involved in this match, less than half the people are sane? What a cruel world!
"...Although I feel this way, you shouldn't have the same attitude, Injin."
--And the nurse turned her back on me! This was my only chance to connect with someone who was being sane for once! And, what's worse, my thought got read again! Is it really that easy to tell what I'm thinking? My hands sprang up instinctively in an attempt to hide my face.
The nurse explained. "Of course it's because Yeonji--... No, forget that, I said nothing. It's because Yerin...."
"I heard you just now! How sleepy do you have to be to confuse those two?!"
"Don't act all cutesy! You're an adult, for cripes' sake!"
"A-acting cutesy...?" She briefly looked as though she was crying. "Hmph... Injin, you watch yourself when you're alone. Anyway, about Yerin--"
"You just threatened me! In a voice full of contempt!"
"Stop being too damn loud...! Anyway! I've known Yerin since her middle school years."
"H-how do you know her?"
"She got in a huge fight in the first week of class, then she was sent to the infirmary. That was when I met her."
The nurse sat relaxed, and began recollecting the tale. "I suppose no one was crazy enough to try and hurt the Eunsung CEO's only granddaughter, so she was punching, kicking, and screaming all by herself. She got scratched and bruised everywhere in the process, and she lost her voice; she caused a pretty big trouble for the school. I had a little connection with Eunsung, so I did something like a one-on-one counseling session with her. I'm sure she forgot about it now, though."
She got in a fight at the start of her middle school year? This sounds familiar...
"...She fought because--" The nurse looked like she would rather be somewhere else. "'She was bullying a classmate just because he's an Otaku!' was the reason."
--'She confronted the bullies and defended us, asking what's wrong with being an Otaku.'
...Damn it, I should have known.
I frowned, remembering the unpleasant past of Sukyong-sunbae and Yerin.
The nurse merely shrugged and continued, "It was around that time when she started to... change. I never had the chance to meet her afterward, but I've always heard of her amazing exploits through rumors. I knew the rumors were real, because..." She murmured quietly, as if she had no audience. "Because she had that look on her face."
I did not reply. The nurse sat, her eyes distant and unfocused, and then added to her quiet mutter, "Well... I didn't think she'd ruin herself this much, though."
"You never expected her to go this far, did you?!" And you just said she 'ruined herself'! We're all Otakus here, don't be so harsh!
"That girl... She needs to be stopped. Even if it means busting her legs into pieces."
"Why so brutal?!"
"She'll go to waste otherwise." The nurse shrugged. "Yerin is... honestly said, she has great potential. She is capable of directing her own life, and she is kind-hearted enough to endure being a villain for over three years just to help her friends. I think it's a miracle that someone like her is a part of Eunsung's family."
A sudden sense of sadness entered my mind for the fact that being an Otaku was the origin of Yerin's problems.
"We can't let the brilliant granddaughter of Eunsung family cut herself off from society forever. We don't have to stop her from being an Otaku altogether; we just have to put her at a level where she is on friendly terms with everyone again. As a licensed teacher, that's all I can wish for. It's possible that Yerin herself wanted someone to stop her."
"Do you think so?"
Sukyong-sunbae had said the same, but I could not share the thought that the overwhelmingly prideful, haughty blonde princess would want her lifestyle to end.
In contrast to my lackluster response, the nurse appeared to have great confidence that she was right. "So... You should win the match with Yeonji's help, then try to convince Yerin to change her life somehow. Good luck!"
"Don't talk like you're not involved!"
She did say she didn't care who won the match. Just now, however, she sounded like she was siding with us...
"Because Yeonji--..." The nurse began, bearing a grim expression that read 'I don't want to be here', but her reply was cut short by the entrance of Yeonji and the three members of 'MoeRe'.
"I apologize that we are late. I was merely exchanging... unpleasantries with Miss Umji. She was being quite the persistent little peasant."
"It's Seo Yeonji!"
Yeonji and Yerin fought the moment they had entered the room. They appeared almost supernaturally calm otherwise, although their clubs were in the danger of being erased from existence.
They continued their violent, verbal combat; I must have missed the news when they announced that they were holding a martial arts tournament instead. The nurse finally broke her composure, her usually smooth face wrinkled from frowning, and gestured the two angrily. "Stop! ...You're acting like little kids. Stop fighting and sit down."
"You are right. It should be my responsibility, as an adult, to be mature and argue no longer with Miss Umji-- a kid, both in body and mind."
"It's Seo Yeonji! Wait, who's a kid?! You empty-headed blondie!"
"Wh-what did you say? I will not let your insult pass! Miss Sukyong, punish that little kid!"
"Hmph, if you're so confident, why don't you fight me yourself?"
"As you wish! Mister Yujin, bring me my blade!"
"...Please sit down, both of you."
The nurse and I sighed deeply in unison.
* * *
After resolving the conflict, it took a... very long time for the members of the match to gather around.
On one couch sat the nurse and I, already looking exhausted before the match had begun, and Yeonji, whose energy seemed to be tapped from mysterious sources.
On the opposing couch was the butler, the maid, and the golden-haired girl. The three people, sitting together, painted a picture far more surreal than a masterpiece by Salvador Dali.
The combined picture was, exaggerating a little, a little short of complete disarray.
"Let us remind ourselves the rules of the match." said Yerin, radiating with energy comparable to Yeonji, and held up a print. "The match is the Otaku Word Chain, using the 'unique subject pool' rule. The match will be three-on-three, and team members are forbidden from communicating with each other during the match. It will be a Team Deathmatch, where we play until all members of a team are eliminated. Is that correct?"
"That's right." Yeonji nodded.
"The losers must dismiss their club, and take leave from the infirmary for the winner to freely use... Is that also correct?"
"Good. Then, we'll begin the match!"
"--Before that." As Yerin put the printed rule sheet away and prepared herself for the match, Yeonji halted her. "I want to make a small change to the rules, if you don't mind."
"...Changing the rules, at this stage?"
"It won't be a disadvantage to you."
"Hmph, then I will listen."
Yeonji cleared her throat loudly, and then stated her proposition. "I want to increase the time per turn to a minute."
"An entire minute?"
Normally, you need to give a valid word within fifteen seconds since the start of your turn. Yeonji had just asked if she could multiply that by four. Really, even when considering that the Otaku Word Chain game is far more difficult than a normal word chain game, one minute sounded like an incredibly long time. Why did Yeonji ask for a rule change without telling me about her plans beforehand?
Yerin looked briefly confused. Then, after presumably deciding that the change of rules would not impact her team's performance, she agreed, followed by a mocking grin, "Ha! Is that your attempt at remedying your miniscule knowledge? Very well, I will be merciful. Miss Sukyong!"
When Yerin raised her hands and called her, the maid beside her-... Sukyong-sunbae pulled out an object from her front pocket. It resembled a small clock, with a digital display showing '00.00'.
"...This is a digital timer. It is the same one that people use for speed chess." said Sukyong-sunbae, seeming completely oblivious to the fact that we had met on the day before. "After setting the starting duration, it counts down like a timer and will ring when the countdown reaches zero. If you press the button here, it will reset to the original time. Please press this as soon as you say a valid word, and pass it to the next player."
Sukyong-sunbae opened the back of the timer and put her fingers into the device, manipulating it. The timer's digital panel then read '60.00'.
The intensity of the situation quickly rose; I realized that my hands were moist from sweating. I straightened my posture and sat properly in preparation for the match-- though, in hindsight, that was completely unnecessary.
Yerin passed the timer to Yeonji, who was the first player in our rotation. She did a cursory glance around the room and shortly announced,
"Right, then! We will begin the match!"
* * *
The dreaded Otaku Word Chain game that I had feared for the past few days was... quite generic, other than the presence of a digital timer.
Yeonji's answers were usually from huge franchises, which eliminated a countless number of possible answers every turn. Some others did the opposite, choosing to use obscure titles that eliminated very little. Both teams were comfortably leading the game, at least at this stage. Remarkably, Sukyong-sunbae always managed to conjure up a valid answer without a second of thought; I realized that Sukyong-sunbae had not exaggerated about her skills yesterday.
"...'Saya's Music.' Next turn, please."
"...'Mayo Chicken.' Next turn, please."
"...'Mahou Shounen Matsuri*Magica.' Next turn, please."
I was relieved that the nurse's turn came after Sukyong-sunbae, not mine. Her overwhelming speed would have left me pressured and speechless every time.
Our order of turns was like this: Yeonji -> Yerin -> Me -> Sukyong-sunbae -> Nurse -> The butler -> Yeonji ... and this rotation was going to continue until the end of the game.
Yeonji knew that the order of turns would be a big factor in changing the outcome of this game, but without knowing the skill levels of the enemy, there was never a chance for us to strategically plan our turns. Instead, we randomized the order; fortunately, Yeonji was perfectly content having to bombard Yerin with answers that left little room for follow-ups.
After almost thirty seconds of silence, Yerin safely passed her turn with an answer: "...'My Distant Relative's Neighbor Totoro'. Next person!" As I thought, the match was becoming exceedingly difficult as time went on, now that the list of available words had become extremely short.
"Um... Uh, Ro-... 'Robot Takkyeon V'? Next turn!" I answered.
"...'Venusaur'. Next turn, please."
...But this maid-sunbae appeared totally unaffected by the smaller pool of answers. Wait, no one used anything from Pomon before? How many words did she just eliminate with that answer?!
Every answer from Sukyong-sunbae was unpredictable, her subjects having no trend in generation or genre. If not for the nurse, who seemed to know every obscure visual novel title out there, we would have lost long before.
On top of that, no matter how much progress we've made into the match, she maintained her unnatural speed. If there ever was a ruling queen of the Otakus, she'd definitely be one. I began to question if Sukyong-sunbae was serious about wanting us to win; perhaps she was planning to confuse us before the match, after all.
No one had made a mistake yet, but our loss was easily predictable with the pace Sukyong-sunbae played. Even if the other two people were to fail and drop out of the game, it was meaningless if we couldn't beat Sukyong-sunbae.
There was... only one way to win, then-- The unbeatable move of the Otaku Word chain, the final boss of an obscure game called 'Ssuro-Gigan: The Last Vampire', the ridiculously long-winded 'Ssuro-Giganteni-Paraskulssu-()()()()'!
...I still wonder what kind of idiot came up with that name, but it was nonetheless a name that was stuck in my head since my first loss against Yeonji. I had to look it up in Maver afterward, too, just to make sure it wasn't a fluke.
As my research had found, it was a game-breaking answer that guaranteed victory when used, which somehow remained legal in the official game rules. It basically was the Excalibur of the Otaku Word Chain.
Using that answer was not going to be easy; it would only work if someone were to slip up and use an answer that ended with '-ssu'. But there was not a single opportunity yet; clearly, everyone in the game was knowingly avoiding it.
Patience. Someone was bound to slip up eventually. Late into the game... much later in the game, there's always someone who makes a silly, game-ending mistake! Until then... oh, until then--
"...'Futari wa Pedicure'. Next turn!' answered the other maid--... I mean, the butler, after a long silence since starting his turn. It became quickly apparent that he was the weakest player in this match, but he had held his ground thus far. His strange expression, which combined his permanent smile and his state of deep perplexion, somehow seemed to gnaw at my nerves.
The next person in turn was... Seo Yeonji. She observed the timer that had begun counting down from sixty seconds, and she spoke--
"I got some things to say to you, Eun Yerin."
--directly to Eun Yerin.
A look of surprise surfaced visibly on everyone's faces; confusion crossed Yerin's face, as if she had just seen a polar bear in the South Pole. "...What are you doing? The only words that should come out of your mouth should be a name that starts with a 'Ure-' sound. Do you mean to forfeit this game?"
"You know, you've been making weird noises like 'Ugh!' or 'Argh!' before giving a valid answer." Yeonji replied immediately without batting an eye. "Only the members of the same team can't talk to each other, remember? Whatever else I do meanwhile, I just have to give a valid word that starts with 'Ure-', right?"
She continued, "Listen, Korea's view on the Otaku culture is pretty terrible right now. It's all thanks to the media trying to exaggerate and make news, or some Otakus doing stupid things; like the time when a guy brought a real weapon to 'Seoul Comic Mart' convention as a part of his cosplay, or people who publically wear Kimonos on our national holidays. Don't you agree? 'Eureka Ten'!"
Making the end of her minute-long speech, done in a single breath, she gave an answer and passed the timer to Yerin with a couple seconds to spare. That was too close.
"What-..." Yerin became speechless, but soon recovered when the timer in her grasp came to her attention. "You... Are you saying I am acting like them? 'Tenshi Muyo'! Next turn!"
Movement lingered in Yerin's lips as if she had unspoken words remaining. She did not speak further; rather than wasting any energy dealing with Yeonji's sudden outburst, she seemed to be quietly determining if this was another one of Yeonji's deceptions. It was probably a wise move; I had no idea what she was trying to do, either.
Under the collective, trained gaze from the others in the room, Yeonji let loose a furious torrent of words as soon as the timer made its way back to her. "Aren't you, though? You 'recommended' a bunch of porn games to your classmates, and you forced them to do all sorts terrible of things! That's just going too far beyond the line. Do you even know why we keep our hobbies to ourselves? 'Mental Magica'."
"They weren't porn games! They were visual novels! They were for all ages!" Yerin replied, making a defense that was far too often told by Otakus. She became flustered at Yeonji's blunt choice of words, but she remained reasonably calm. "Keeping everything to yourselves? Hah, don't make me laugh! Peasants like you are merely cowards who cannot be prideful of your hobbies! Why do you feel ashamed about being an Otaku? Your meek attitudes are ruining the image of Otakus, not us! 'Ika Musuko'!"
The timer rotated back once more.
"We're the ones doing it? That's the biggest joke yet. How are Clotakus supposed to worsen anything, when we're completely unnoticed to others? You people are the only ones affecting anything, and that's a fact. You asked why can't we be proud of ourselves? Have you seen what's going on in Korea right now? The moment you carry the 'Otaku' label, you're going to suffer for it forever. You could be bullied by anyone who knows of it. And you're telling me to be more open about being an Otaku? 'Densha Onna'!"
"Suffer for having a label? And get bullied for it? Would there be a reason to get bullied if you are sociable, and have other positive qualities to offset it? To me, you are making an excuse to cover your ineptitude in maintaining a social life. Look at me, I have been open about being an Otaku for the past three years; have I ever been bullied even once? 'Natsume's Book of Enemies'!."
"Ha-ha, you're getting everything wrong! You were never bullied, all because you're from the damn Eunsung family. You got your money, your power, and your looks from them. Who in their right mind would try to harm you? And what about all the other Otakus who have none of the things that you have? Are you sure they, in their position, can do the same things that you're doing? Don't flatter yourself. 'Kamisama no Notechou'."
Yerin's blue eyes glittered. She was beginning to understand what Yeonji was trying to do.
Is this supposed to be... BBC's 60 Seconds? Whenever it was their turn, they got to argue however they wanted in the sixty seconds that they were given, as long as they gave a valid answer at the end. They effectively created a match of their own within the Word Chain game, held between only Yeonji and Yerin.
Yeonji had some thoughtful, well-structured arguments for herself, as if she had prepared it beforehand-- she probably did, actually-- but the bigger surprise was that Yerin hadn't faltered yet under Yeonji's relentless verbal assaults.
"You must understand... I have never once believed that having wealth or power has any matter in being an Otaku. Even if I were a humble peasant, I would choose to continue this lifestyle. I never doubted that this was the right path." stated Yerin, clasping her hands on her chest for emphasis. "A lowly peasant like you would not understand why I have gotten on this path. You have no idea what Miss Sukyong, Mister Yujin, and I have went through in these past years. I would like you to stay quiet when you have no clue what you are talking about. 'Chobits'."
"...Nyu." squeaked Yeonji, breaking her confident, upright posture, distraught by Yerin's powerful discourse.
Since Yeonji was the type to enjoy arguing over the Internet all day, she likely started the argument with great confidence that she would win. But Yerin's rebuttals struck at Yeonji's arguments in unconventional ways-- rather than pure logic, her arguments stemmed from her firm resolution in the past, from the time when she saved Sukyong-sunbae and her brother from being bullied. It was also how the MoeRe came to be, as Sukyong-sunbae had mentioned.
Eun Yerin had chosen to openly embrace the stigma to help her friends.
Her path as a 'Pubtaku' began with full justification of her cause-- and three years had gone by without a chance for anyone to point out her wrongdoings.
And, even now, everything she had done up to this day might still be justified in her mind.
She believed that she was on the side of good, her actions correct and just; her past told her so. She let that belief guide her life, a belief that was deep-seated, like an aged tree spreading its roots on her mind; nothing that Yeonji or I could do could change her now.
What's gotten into Yeonji, anyway? No matter how interesting this argument had become, it was entirely separate from the match itself. Even if Yeonji won her little debate, it would make no difference if Yerin's team had won the Word Chain game.
And there was the possibility that Yerin could have ignored her outright. Why did Yeonji start the debate without telling me about it beforehand?
I looked at her out of curiosity. Yeonji appeared suppressed by Yerin's last rebuttal, and strangely, she seemed to be throwing quick glances in my direction every now and then. But, before I could ponder the question of 'What does she want?' The match was already taking a turn for the worse;
"...'Tatami Universe'. Next turn, please."
"...'A Rooster into the Wild'. Next turn, please."
"...'Occult University'. Next turn, please."
While the two girls' exchange spiraled out of control, MoeRe's Ace, Sukyong-sunbae, asserted her dominance over the actual Word Chain game, bombarding our team with quick answers.
"...'All the prisoners in this prison are beautiful ladies, so my life as a warden is in danger!' ...Next turn."
Even the nurse was starting to take a very long time with her answers, and yet the timer never seemed to stay in Sukyong-sunbae's hands for longer than a second. This was getting dangerous.
...What the heck is up with that title, anyway? It was amazing how the nurse still had names to pull from her repertoire of ridiculously obscure visual novels, but disregarding that--
"Stop acting like you're better than us. Aren't you just saying that because you've never been bullied before? You're not in any position to judge us, when we have to face all kinds of crap for being an Otaku! 'Ibara no Jou'!"
"If you are afraid of being ousted, you should be confident about who you are, instead. When an Otaku gets negatively viewed, that is only because they are small in numbers! If you were to stop being cowards and band up publically, you would not be bullied in the first place. Is it not ultimately you people who are ruining the Otaku's place in this country? 'OreOto'!"
Their fight didn't seem like it was going to end anytime soon.
Yeonji's jabs against Yerin were as fierce as Sukyong-sunbae's answers in the Word Chain, but Yerin had always found a way to settle their debate back to its starting point.
Yeonji became increasingly tired, her attempt at an argument making no progress. Heavy breaths escaped from between her lips.
Again, she shot a glance at me.
Her glance was full of despair, like the eyes of a kitten stuck up on a tree with no way back down. She... looked like those times after school, whenever she wanted something to eat, at the cost of my wallet's life.
...She wanted my help, huh?
I mean, it was natural that I should have done something there, since Yeonji and the nurse carried the game this far. But what did I have that can help our game? As for helping in the Word Chain itself, it was flat-out impossible for me to do something about Sukyong-sunbae, who was radiating a powerful Otaku aura by just sitting there. Nuh-uh.
Then the only option I had was helping Yeonji win against Yerin in their debate, even though I still had no idea what kind of help that would ultimately be.
...And, Yeonji, the (self-proclaimed) famed keyboard warrior, needed help from a civilian? Overlooking the clear violation of the Geneva Agreements, I still had nothing to say that could help Yeonji...
...Except for that one thing.
Yeonji clearly said it yesterday. 'The only way we can have equal footing against the Pubtaku is to show how the Otakus are targeted in our society'.
Like the time when I had posted those large walls of text, filled with my shame, followed by Yeonji quickly nabbing it and posting it everywhere...
Was Yeonji expecting me to do that again, and here?
And does that mean... she knew that I was the one who posted it all along?!
My face began burning red. I felt my stomach acid climbing up my throat. Yes, it was true that my tragic experience had a good chance in shaking up Yerin's baseless belief, but...
...It's waaayy tooo embaaarrassinnnggg--!
How could I not be embarrassed at that idea? I was essentially going to be telling her 'Hey, I was quite the loser once!'. No one could do that!
And what did I have to gain if I won the debate for Yeonji? Their debate had no effect on the outcome of the match. What was my incentive for coming out with an uncomfortable story in front of these girls? It wasn't going to happen, no way. It was too bad for Yeonji if she was expecting me to use that story since the beginning, but I had a line that I was not willing to cross.
I carefully evaded Yeonji's glances, suppressing the subconscious reminiscence of my embarrassing past. But Yerin was speaking again.
"Like I have said before, you only hide yourself because you are weak and cowardly. If you are assuming that you are finding trouble solely for being an Otaku, without realizing your own faults, you are everything that is wrong with this society."
Yerin's words became a thorn that pricked at my past.
"If you know of anyone who had been bullied solely because of the Otaku label, and isn't a social reject otherwise, then tell me. Of course, you could not know of someone who does not exist!"
More words damaged my psyche before the previous wounds could heal.
"Those worthless people who can't take care of their own body, and end up being morbidly overweight or terrifyingly bony... Really, it shames me that they are Otakus like I am. Why should I care that those lowly peasants are having a difficult time? 'Yoshinaga-San Chi no Goburin'."
Hearing Yerin's pompous speech, I felt something crawl around my throat, itching to get out. And then, when Yerin casually passed over the timer with a victorious, remorseless smile--
The words escaped my mouth on their own before I could control myself.
Surprised by my entrance into the argument, Yerin glared, her long eyelashes batting. I did not have the time to mind her glares; I had to speak up now.
"How the hell do you explain Sukyong-sunbae, or that guy?" said I, forming the thoughts deep within my heart into a voice.
"...What do you mean...?"
"If you think no one gets any trouble for just being an Otaku, then how do you explain those two? Are you saying they're worthless social rejects, too? 'Rean's Feathers'."
Yerin's mouth shut close, drawing a horizontal line between her lips. She fixed a glare with a clear hostility; she must have understood my intentions.
"Miss Sukyong and Mister Yujin... never received proper education when they were young, so to be honest, they never had the academic abilities to enter Eunsung normally. There may have been some immature students who hated them for that fact, but they had used the Otaku label as an excuse to bully them. If anyone is at fault, it was mine for trying to keep them in the school with me."
"...Is that so?"
They were bullied not because they were Otakus, but because they lacked proper education, which shouldn't affect how sociable or likeable they are...?
"Of course! Do you really believe that, in this day and age, people would be bullied for what they enjoy? What are you trying to say?" replied Yerin, brushing her golden hair back, a hint of anger embedded in her movement.
...Alright, I got it.
Why Yeonji led the match into this direction, and why Yeonji wanted my help-- I understood now, and realized what I had to do. The reason Yeonji entered this silly match had nothing to do with ending their club in the first place-- that wouldn't affect how Yerin lived her life afterward. No, the true reason was to end her life of the 'Pubtaku Queen' altogether.
If we'd win the match and the MoeRe is demolished, that would be the end of it. Even if they couldn't make another club, that was going to be the end of the story. Yerin's belief was rooted in too deeply that the club going away would do nothing to prevent her from being a general pain in the ass to this school.
And so, the time limit was extended to an entire minute. With the extension, Yeonji had given us a chance to enter a long-winded debate to tell Yerin what she had wrought upon this school.
...And then, she asked for my help. The final strike to Yerin's belief, the 'real-life experience' that told the tragic tale of what it means to have the Otaku label here in South Korea, was requested by Yeonji.
That was to be expected from Yeonji, a brilliant mind even among Eunsung. I could almost praise her ability to strategize everything at every turn, but I earnestly wished that she would explain things beforehand; I could have taken longer to come to this realization.
Yes... Surely, if I made this blonde idiot come to her senses, no one would mind how embarrassing my story is...!
I made a decision.
"...Hear me out, Eun Yerin." I began, under an unnerving glare from Yerin, and hopeful, nervous glances from Yeonji. Talking to no particular audience, I told my tale,
"...It happened back in middle school..."
* * *
It happened back in middle school.
As Yeonji had mentioned in her story, I had a time when I was bullied for hanging around with an Otaku friend.
We had been the best of friends since we were in elementary school; it wasn't a relationship that I was willing to drop for a mere difference in hobbies.
"I've always been proud for having a friend like that."
Good looks, great marks, and monstrous athletic abilities-- Until the second year of middle school, no other descriptions were more suited for my friend. Always popular with the girls, too.
And then, the 'Otaku' label stuck. Complemented by such an outgoing, nothing-to-fear-attitude, everyone in the school quickly knew about my friend's new hobby.
...That could not end well.
I was the only friend left who was willing to continue our friendly relationship, and then I was influenced to become an Otaku myself. I wouldn't have done it if I hadn't felt sorry for a good friend who quickly lost everyone who used to be called friends.
And the other reason why I stuck around was--
"...Becoming an Otaku didn't change anything."
Becoming an Otaku did not mean there needed to be a change in personality or attitude. Our lives remained as they were, other than how we talked, or thought-- the felt difference was basically going from saying things like 'Wow, I really like your new headband!' to 'Whoa, that's the same headband that Chinami-chan had! Moe!'.
After I had sufficiently delved into the Otaku culture to maintain our relationship, no one else in the school was able to understand half the things we were saying-... and ultimately, I gained the Otaku label myself.
...I have no excuse for what had happened. It was that time when I was crossing the line into becoming a full-fledged Otaku-- maybe within the 'Half-Otaku'(?) zone. Regardless of however I became lumped into that group, the unfamiliarity came from the bullying that began around us.
They never did that before. I was a good student, always aiming to be the top of the school at all times, and I knew that I was fairly respected and liked. Not even those 'bad kids' of the school crossed my path, and there I was, curiously becoming the target of bullying. Yet, I was still the top of the school, even after the Otaku label was acquired.
I had thought that, maybe, it was entirely the label's doing that my life had changed.
In hindsight, the actual reason should have been obvious--
"To actually flaunt that we're Otakus, to the point of advertising the fact-- that's what ruined everything."
--Every break that we had, we were sitting in the corner of the class, watching anime by ourselves.
--During gym classes, we made excuses to sit on the side bench while we read manga or light novels.
--When we talked, we discussed topics that no one else could understand, and what others talked about was just as big of a mystery to us.
If humans are social animals, then we lacked the trait to be human. We were different, so we were outcast, and then we were bullied.
Being a top student or being an athletic superstar had no significance if we weren't sociable in the first place. They were irrelevant traits. The only defining factor that changed our lives was the way we blatantly exhibited how different we were from others.
"It wouldn't have been a problem if we kept everything to ourselves, but at the time, the thought never crossed me. That was what being a 'Pubtaku' led to, and it's the path you're on right now. 'Dream Drinker Merry'."
I passed the timer to Sukyong-sunbae, feeling my mouth and my throat getting drier every second-- then the timer returned.
"I'm... I'm not hiding because I enjoy acting like a coward. If I weren't an Otaku, and if I were instead a part of some other minority, I would still be a target of negative attention if I tried too hard to get accepted for it."
"Did you say that all Otakus of this country should come out of hiding and group up? That's a huge mistake... How many of us do you think there are in all of Korea?"
Yerin flinched, a flash of discomfort crossing her face. She frowned with a flicker of confusion, and then answered, "...A-about... twenty million, including North Korea?"
That's way too many! Korea would be the land of Otakus at that level! Yeonji was wasting her time all along with her 'Otaku world' plan!
And why would you add North Korea into the equation? Other than Kim XXXX-Nam, is there a single Otaku in that country?! I deeply sighed, so much that I worried for the safety of my lungs.
"I should tell you, if we had every Otaku in Japan come over to South Korea, we would still be the minority of the population. We're never going to have any voice in this country."
"Th-that can't be..." muttered Yerin, bearing a look of shock. I began to suspect that Yerin had been thinking that Japan was full of Otakus. ...Japan, the Land of Otakus? Sounds terrifying.
Realizing how terribly deep she was into her fantasy, I continued. "Being a Clotaku is a natural defense to survive in this country. It means to be able to easily make friends with everyone you meet, and every Otaku should learn to be one."
It was the final realization I had before sending my best friend off to a different school. My friend's final words of regret were the catalyst: 'If I had thought about being on friendly terms with everyone earlier, I might not have to transfer to a different school...'
Looking back, for the two years I've spent in my middle school, I haven't made any other friends. If there was ever a reunion, I would have no reason to go. I've always reassured myself that I don't need any friends as long as I have my best friend with me, but it did not take a while to regret that decision.
"Ugh... Sh-shut up!" screamed Yerin, breaking out of the shock that had kept her mouth sealed. She tightly gripped onto her timer as if to break it, and angrily continued, "We are not like you weak-willed peasants! We have no need for relationships with commoners. Such minor inconvenience can be excused through Eunsung's power! With Miss Sukyong and Mister Yujin by my side, we'll forever continue to live this way! 'Chi no Togainu'!"
What a scary thing to say.
She was well beyond the domain of 'speaking nonsense', and crossed over into the territory of 'indecipherable'. Her argument became increasingly baseless, and it seemed that she had forgotten the part where she had mentioned that having power has nothing to do with her lifestyle. Well, there's nothing wrong with planning around what you have-- However,
"But what if your family's company suddenly went bankrupt?"
"What are you talking about?!" yelled Yerin, forgetting to maintain her ladylike posture and tone. She grew pale, which was unsightly due to her already pale skin.
"Or, what if, you pass away before your two friends? How are they going to survive this world without your help?"
I then came to a grave realization that I had given away how much I knew of their secret, but Yerin was not at a state where she could mind the odd peculiarity.
"So, Eun Yerin, I am telling you..."
The show was now reaching its climax. I needed to say something that would end everything here.
Just like her, I became an Otaku to be able to stay with a beloved friend. I could talk to her confidently, knowing that our levels were equal.
"You are... making a huge mistake, 'Because I Don't Like You at All, Onee-San'!"
...The timer was running out, so I had to add my answer at the end of that sentence. Unfortunately, the drama was completely demolished by the absurdity of the combined sentence. But anyway...
I wonder, for the three years that she acted her villainous role, if there was a single person who had told her that she was doing the wrong thing.
Yerin's face contorted. Her head dropped down like a lifeless doll, bearing a pained expression as if poison was coursing through her body.
"Kuh-- Ugh... Nngh..."
She rapidly looked left and right, panicking like a little animal that realized that the ship was about to sink. Her lips repeatedly opened and closed back, but no further words were heard.
"'Mayoi Wanko Overrun'!"
Before Yerin could recover and form a proper response, the timer quickly returned, much to her chagrin. Yeonji wasn't the one to pass up the opportunity to kick Yerin while she was down; she began giving her answers at a pace that closely followed Sukyong-sunbae's speed.
The timer was ticking down.
"Oh... Oh, no..."
Yerin looked distraught and pale; she was staring at the timer in her hands, unable to form an answer for neither the game nor myself.
Her values that she held onto for the last three years were crumbling, along with her concentration for the game. She blankly stared at the timer, while nervously biting her lips.
But she was only given a minute.
Hurried by the rapidly changing symbols on the digital display, her lips slowly opened to make way for an answer...
"...Ru- 'Run, Nerossu'... ... ...?!"
Her lifeless voice shifted into a scream at the last syllable; she must have realized her mistake before the final syllable had left her mouth. I didn't need to see her widened, wavering eyes, or her face turning a sick shade of purple, to take notice of her trouble.
'Run, Nerossu' was an interesting title; the name ended with the syllable 'Ssu-'.
It was a critical mistake, one that would bring out the unbeatable answer in the very next turn, resulting in their guaranteed loss. The room's atmosphere froze, a cold feeling of tension cooling down the heat from the previous debate. It caused a silent disturbance in the room that was so powerful, I could almost see its physical manifestation. Everyone in the room surely realized the importance of her mistake.
Eun Yerin did not want to give up her club for nothing; this mistake could not have been made normally. She needed more time to recover from my last message to her.
"Ugh...!" groaned Yerin, closing her eyes tightly. It was too late for her to say that she meant to say a different answer, and even if she could, her pride would not allow her to make such an excuse.
With a defeated look, she tiredly passed the timer into my hands.
I breathed deeply and received the timer. It felt far heavier than I last remembered.
I had the opportunity to say the unbeatable answer, knocking Sukyong-sunbae out of the match, and thus guaranteeing our victory. With their ace player gone, we had the advantage of numbers, and there was no way we were going to lose.
I took my time.
I looked at Yerin first.
She was paler than before, her teeth clenched in anguish. Her gripped fists rested rigidly on her knees, and her eyes, a hateful spiral of blue, were pointed towards me. She seemed to have embraced the fact that she was going to lose the match, but her face told that she was not yet ready to give up. Though she may have lost the argument, she was not giving up the word chain game; she was convinced that she was not yet... 'lost'.
That was to be expected.
She held onto her belief for the last three years. Thirty minutes of effort should not be enough to change her life forever. Though we may have won the game, our goal of ending Yerin's lifestyle as the 'Pubtaku Queen' would be forever lost.
I looked at the nurse and Yeonji, sitting by my sides.
I noticed that they did not have much time, that they could not continue if the match dragged on. I prayed for them to hang on a little longer. After all, I had a few more things to say to Yerin.
I looked at the timer; I hadn't much time.
I began uttering the magic answer that would end this match--
1. Reference to 'Naver', a famous Korean search engine/news website. ←
2. Kim Jong-Nam, the oldest son of the late Kim Jong-Il, who was famous for using a fake passport to visit Disneyland in Japan. There were unconfirmed rumors that he frequently visited Akihabara. ←