Winter had arrived in Kamiyama. The snow, which had been falling nonstop for two days, had transformed the town into a veritable winter wonderland, the kind used for photos in calendars and as stock desktop backgrounds.
Houtarou sniffed, snuggling deeper under the kotatsu. The picturesque scene outside was wasted on him. Why anyone would want to leave a perfectly warm kotatsu to mess around outside was beyond his comprehension. It was winter break now, and he was quite content to stay inside for the remainder of the holidays. Of course, things don’t always go as planned…
Across the room, the phone began to ring. Houtarou frowned, deliberating. On the one hand, it could be a completely normal phone call for someone else in the household; on the other, it could be a trap to lure him out from the safety and comfort of the kotatsu. Deciding the risk was worth it in case the call was legitimate, Houtarou slid out from under the table, crossing the room and catching the phone just before it rang off.
“Hey, Houtarou,” the overly-cheerful voice of his best friend answered. Damn, he’d gambled wrong. There was no way Satoshi didn’t have something planned. “You busy today?”
“Yes,” he lied without hesitation. Whatever Satoshi wanted, Houtarou was sure it would involve going outside, which was exactly what he didn’t want to do today.
“Sitting under the kotatsu doesn’t count.” Ah, his friend knew him well. “Are you intending to stay under there all break? What are you, a bear?” Hibernating until spring sounded like an excellent idea, actually.
“And if I am?” Houtarou asked, shifting from foot to foot. The floor was cold on his bare feet. “Cut to the chase, Satoshi.”
“Alright then, if that’s how you want to be,” Satoshi said, undaunted by Houtarou’s curtness. “I just wanted to invite you out to enjoy the winter bounty that is this recent snowfall.”
“Wrapping it up in flowery language doesn’t make it any more appealing.”
“C’mon, we haven’t had a snow day this perfect in ages. We’ve gotta take advantage of it! Mayaka and Chitanda are already on their way too, we need the whole Classics club! Don’t make me send Chitanda-san over there to get you!”
Houtarou grimaced. That was playing dirty. What was worse is that the threat was completely serious. Satoshi would send Chitanda over, and then she would look into his eyes and ask so earnestly for him to join them that he’d of course be unable to say no. It looked like there was no getting out of this, so better to just agree and get it over with.
He heaved a resigned sigh, wishing he’d never answered the phone. “Where and when?”
“Hah! I knew you’d come around! Meet us at Shiroyama park in half an hour! There’ll be a penalty if you’re late~” Satoshi hung up on that ominous note, not bothering to wait for a reply. Houtarou looked wistfully over at the kotatsu, then through the sliding doors facing outside. Oh well, he thought, setting the phone back in its cradle. At least it had finally stopped snowing.
Snow crunched under foot as Houtarou made his way through the transformed town, stepping carefully so he wouldn’t slip. The fresh snow was a pristine white, a soft blanket thoroughly covering every tree, street, and building. Despite the weather, the streets were full of people, some shoveling snow off of the sidewalk, some going about their business, others obviously taking advantage of the chance to play. Snowy winters were the norm in Kamiyama, but it didn’t usually happen so early in the season, or accumulate so much in so short a time.
The park wasn’t far from his house, but gearing up for the outdoors had taken more time than he had anticipated. Houtarou found himself walking quickly to make it on time, not keen to find out what kind of “punishment” Satoshi had in mind for being late. He sniffled, nose already pink with cold, and looked around. Not unexpectedly, the park was full of people, mostly kids making snowmen or having impromptu snowball fights. Wondering if he’d somehow wound up getting to the park first, he followed the path to the designated rendezvous spot.
“Oreki-san!” A familiar voice called out to him. He spotted a warmly bundled Chitanda waving him at him with a mittened hand. She and a similarly clothed Ibara were crouched in front of a waist-high wall of snow. Ibara looked up from where she was reinforcing the base and waved in acknowledgment.
“‘Bout time you got here,” she said, unable to resist giving him a hard time. Par for the course with her. Houtarou shrugged, unbothered.
“I’m not that late. And it’s not like I’m the last one if Satoshi’s not here.”
Chitanda tilted her head in confusion.“Fukube-san? He’s right over…” she trailed off, looking over his shoulder. Houtarou turned to follow her gaze.
“Hey Houtarou, think fast!”
Arrested in mid-motion, Houtarou flinched, unable to avoid the snowball sailing towards him. It him in the face with a powdery “poof”. Satoshi stood from where he’d been concealed behind a snow wall similar to the one Chitanda and Ibara were building. He grinned, juggling another snowball between his hands. “Penalty for being the last one here!”
Houtarou wiped the residual snow from his face, ignoring Ibara’s laughter and Chitanda’s sounds of concern. Alright then, if that’s how Satoshi wanted to play it. The gauntlet had been thrown: this meant War.
A little bit of energy expenditure was in order.
Satoshi was distracted, too busy laughing to pay attention to Houtarou’s intentions. Perfect. Moving swiftly, he crossed the space between himself and his target in a few quick strides, using his momentum, superior height and weight, and the element of surprise to tackle his friend into a nearby snowbank. Satoshi squawked as Houtarou collided with him, struggling to get his bearings while being pushed face-first into the snow. With one hand on the back of Satoshi’s head holding him in place, Houtarou scooped up a handful of snow and shoved it down the back of Satoshi’s puffy winter jacket.
“Ah! Cold, cold!” Satoshi yelped, struggling to reach behind at the icy intrusion. Houtarou rolled to the side, watching in satisfaction as Satoshi wriggled in discomfort.
“It’s the best way to serve revenge, after all,” Houtarou said, lips quirked in the tiniest of smirks.
Ibara sighed, shaking her head. “Boys.” Chitanda looked caught between laughter and concern.
Concern won out. “Are you alright, Fukube-san?”
Rolling to his feet, Satoshi shrugged the last of the snow from his jacket and laughed. “I’m fine Chitanda-san, it’s all part of the game after all. And I can’t say I didn’t kind of deserve that,” he said with a wry smile and a shrug. He turned to Houtarou, the smile on his face turning decidedly evil, “but it’d be better if you conserve your energy for the main event. Alright! Now that everyone’s here, it’s time for the First Annual Classics Club Snowball War!”
Houtarou sighed, not surprised. This was exactly the sort of thing he’d expected (and dreaded) Satoshi to have planned.
“With four people?”
“Yup! Two teams of two. Even numbers are always better for this kind of thing, hence inviting you!”
“Thank you so much for the kind invitation then.”
“Aw, don’t be like that, Houtarou,” Satoshi said, Houtarou’s sarcasm sliding off him like melted snow. “You’re already out, so you may as well make the most of it!”
“He’s right, Oreki-san!” Chitanda said. “We’re all together, so we should have fun! And I promise not to throw any snowballs at you, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
Satoshi deflated a little at that. “Chitanda-san, the point of a snowball fight is to throw them at people.”
Chitanda blushed. “Oh, I know, it just seems a little unkind, especially if someone doesn’t want to be hit.” Houtarou had a hard time imagining throwing a snowball at Chitanda; it’d be like throwing one at a puppy.
Satoshi stepped forward, arms spread. “Here Chitanda-san, practice on me. I promise I won’t get mad if you hit me in the face.” Houtarou’s eyes narrowed. Was that a thinly veiled dig at him? “It doesn’t hurt, right Houtarou?” At that Houtarou had to nod; the snow was powdery enough to not hurt on impact, it was just cold and mildly ticklish.
Chitanda still looked unconvinced. Coming to stand next to her, Ibara knelt, picking up a handful of snow and forming into a ball. She held it out to Chitanda, gesturing for her to take it. “C’mon Chi-chan, just give it a try.” Ah, the power of peer pressure. Reluctantly, Chitanda accepted the snowball. With an uncertain glance a Satoshi, she positioned herself into a throwing stance. Winding her arm back, she released the snowball with an energetic cry.
The snowball sailed in a high arc; Houtarou and Ibara followed its path with their eyes, watching as it fell to the ground at Satoshi’s feet with a wet plop.
The group fell silent. Chitanda blushed again. Ibara patted her on the shoulder consolingly.
Satoshi clapped his hands “So! Teams!” he said, abruptly changing the subject. “How should we pair up?”
“Hmm, boys vs. girls is kinda boring, but you and me would clobber Oreki and Chi-chan,” Ibara wrinkled her nose at this dilemma. With the air of one making a huge sacrifice, she sighed and said, “We’ll each take a handicap then. You take Chi-chan, and I’ll take Oreki.” Houtarou frowned at her. Was he supposed to be the bigger handicap in this situation? Well, whatever. Satoshi had started explaining the rules so he should probably pay attention.
“These are our bases,” Satoshi said, indicating the two snow walls spaced about 10 meters apart. “Rules! You can’t go more than a step beyond your base. Dodging only! No catching or whacking out of the air or it counts as a hit! First team to hit the other 10 times wins! This is a marathon death match, so no timeouts or breaks until one team is defeated! Each team will get two minutes before we start to build up a cache of snowballs, but after that you’re on your own! Let’s have a good match, and may the best team win!” He punctuated the end of his speech with a fist in the air. “Teams, to your bases!”
“You’ll be in charge of ammunition, Chitanda-san,” Houtarou heard Satoshi say to Chitanda, an encouraging hand on her shoulder. “I’m counting on you to make some super-awesome snowballs!”
Chitanda clenched her fists and nodded sharply. “I’ll do my best, Fukube-san!”
Well, weren’t they all fired up. Houtarou looked down at his partner. Ibara was fiddling with her scarf, making sure it was securely wrapped around her neck. A good idea; it wouldn’t do to have it get in the way. Feeling his eyes on her, she looked back up at him, a hand on her hip and a frown her face. Not that that was an unusual expression for her to make when looking at him.
“Look Oreki, I know this isn’t your kind of thing,” she said. “But if you can handle the snowballs, I’ll take care of the throwing. You’re a pretty big target anyway, so it’d be better for you to stay down and out of the way. Just watch my back, okay?” Houtarou appreciated that she was taking his energy conservation into account without being her usual snarky self about it, and decided to meet her halfway. He was already involved; he may as well go all out for once. He could spend the rest of the break recovering.
He nodded. “Deal.”
Mayaka grinned. “Alright, let’s kick Fuku-chan’s and Chi-chan’s butts.”
Each team made their way over to their respective bases. Once situated, Satoshi started the 2-minute countdown. Houtarou and Ibara’s hands moved fast, trying to make as many snowballs as possible. Houtarou could feel the cold soaking through his gloves as he formed ball after ball. The snow was too powdery to just scoop and pack, so it took time to form a stable ball. All too soon, the timer on Satoshi’s watch beeped shrilly.
“Time’s up!” he called across the soon to be battlefield. “On the count of three we start for real!”
The battle had begun. A flurry of snowballs sailed through the air, each team unleashing a barrage of missiles on the other.
Satoshi was tireless, lobbing snowballs as fast as Chitanda could make them. He paid for this in accuracy though, as most of his missiles landed well away from his intended targets. Ibara, to Houtarou’s surprise, made up for a lack of speed with almost pinpoint accuracy. It was only due to Satoshi’s quick reflexes that he hadn’t been tagged multiple times. For his part, Houtarou was content to hunker behind the wall, keeping up a steady supply of snowballs and occasionally tossing one out as cover.
“Chitanda-san, watch the left!”
“Oreki, I need more ammo!”
Mingled cries of surprise and laughter filled the air as each side took hits or dove to avoid them. Chitanda, in a move worthy of play of the game, slipped while making a rare offensive attack, thereby avoiding the snowball Ibara had aimed at her unprotected head, while still managing to hit Ibara’s outstretched arm. On one occasion, Satoshi contorted into an almost perfect back-bend to avoid a powerful attack, landing with a whumph and a peal of laughter from both sides.
As the afternoon wore on, the battle continued. The higher the hit count rose, the more each team began to play defensively. But it couldn’t go on like this forever. Houtarou’s hands were going numb inside his gloves, and he could tell Ibara was beginning to tire. On the other side, he could just see the tops of Satoshi and Chitanda’s heads, presumably taking a short rest. The volleys between teams were becoming more and more interspersed. And yet, neither side would give in. Even Houtarou found himself reluctant to throw in the towel. After spending so much energy, it seemed a waste to give up now, sunk cost fallacy be damned.
Houtarou counted over their cache of snowballs, a plan forming in his mind. It was time to end this. Better to go out in a blaze of glory than this slow dwindling. Gathering as many snowballs in his arms as he could, he moved to kneel next to where Ibara leaned against the wall. She looked at the load in his arms and then up at him, a question in her eyes.
“Cover me,” he said, tilting his head in the direction of the other team. Ibara pursed her lips, held his gaze for a long moment, then nodded. No more words were necessary. In that moment, perhaps for the first time in their long acquaintance, they were in complete understanding. Taking the remaining snowballs for herself, Ibara knelt in position, arm cocked and ready.
Houtarou took a deep breath to steady himself. If he could get in position quickly, his height should enable him to have a clear line of fire over the other team’s wall. He’d only have a few seconds to get as many shots off as he could before he became a big target.This was it; do or die.
He charged over the wall, the armload of snowballs tucked securely against his chest. Planting his feet firmly, he stood to his full height and sought his target. He froze in surprise. Across the field, the other team must have had a similar idea; at the same moment as Houtarou’s charge, Chitanda had stood up from behind her wall, her arms empty of ammo, eyes wide with nervous determination. Houtarou’s moment of hesitation was his undoing; off-balance and his momentum destroyed, he couldn’t react fast enough when Satoshi popped up from behind the wall and started pelting snowballs in his direction. The first couple swung wide, but the third hit him square in the chest, and another on his leg. Ibara rallied as best she could, sending a fastball to smack Satoshi’s arm, but it was too late. With a triumphant shout, Satoshi jumped up, pointing excitedly at Houtarou.
“Ten! That’s ten hits! We win!” Satoshi high-fived his slightly bewildered partner in victory, jumping up and down in joy.
Houtarou’s shoulders slumped, his arms dropping to his sides and releasing the now unneeded snowballs. All that effort, just to wind up losing… it was a bitter feeling indeed.
Ibara slumped to the ground, throwing her hands up in defeat. “Argh, we were so close!” Houtarou tried not to wince. He knew how competitive she could be, and it was his fault they’d lost. Picking herself up, she walked over to where Houtarou still stood. Unexpectedly, instead of the tirade he assumed she was dying to unleash on him, she patted him on the back, brushing away some of the snow that clung to him. “It was a good try,” she said, her expression a mix of annoyance and commiseration. “Fuku-chan was playing dirty sending Chi-chan out as bait. I don’t think I could have hit her either.” She patted him once more for good measure. No hard feelings.
Well, at least Ibara wasn’t mad at him.
Satoshi came bounding up, Chitanda just behind him. “Good game you guys! What a battle! You almost had us there at the end!” His face was lit with the glow of victory. Looking at such honest good cheer, and when compared to what Satoshi used to be like when he won, it was hard to feel bitter. Houtarou decided to let him have his gloat.
Chitanda’s eyes sparkled. “Good game, Oreki-san, Mayaka-san!”
“You did great, Chi-chan,” Ibara said, taking her friend by the hands and smiling. “That was a lot of fun, even if we lost in the end.”
“And you, Oreki-san? Did you have fun?” Three pairs of expectant eyes looked up at him.
Had he had fun? Well, his fingers and toes were frozen, his knees ached from crouching, his nose felt like it’d never stop running... Houtarou opened his mouth to answer, and sneezed instead.
“It is getting pretty cold, huh,” Satoshi said, rubbing his hands together. He smiled suddenly. “C’mon, there’s a pretty good cafe not far from here where we can warm up. Losing team buys the winning team a drink!”
“What? No way Fuku-chan, that wasn’t part of the rules!”
Houtarou followed behind as they bickered out of the park and down the street, Chitanda doing her best to play peacekeeper. It wasn’t until they reached the cafe that he realized just how cold he’d been, stepping through the door to be greeted by an enveloping warmth. He allowed Chitanda to shepherd him to the booth Satoshi had claimed. He was treating them all to a play-by-play of the snowball fight interspersed with his own commentary. Ibara and Chitanda laughed at his colorful interpretation of events, chiming in with their own versions. Houtarou let the conversation carry him along, his chilled hands wrapped around a warm mug of tea, interjecting every now and then to defend himself from teasing about his performance or to deflate Satoshi’s ego. He sipped his tea.
Outside, it began to snow.