It was the third morning after the supplemental exam was announced. The vote was to be held on Saturday, the day after tomorrow. All too soon, one person would be expelled from each class. Cold air seeped into my body the moment I opened the door to the hallway. After descending to the first-floor lobby in the elevator, I spotted Sud? walking out of the stairwell. “You’re using the stairs?” “Sorta. Even if it’s just a short one, I thought I’d get a workout in.” From club activities to studying, Sud? was probably trying his best to lead a standard student lifestyle. Just like that, the two of us headed off for school together. “I may be stupid and short-tempered, but I’ve been making huge improvements recently. That’s why I absolutely don’t wanna be expelled.” Instead of talking to me, it felt like more like he was talking to himself. “Would it be wrong for me to say that you’re fine with being resented as long as you can stay enrolled here?” “Nah, that sounds about right. The strong-willed are the ones who’ll make it through this exam.” “Right.” After arriving at school, I felt a strange sense of discomfort as soon as I walked in the classroom. Sud?, on the other hand, went to his seat without noticing anything. The mood had changed. I was by no means insensitive to things like this either. The moment I stepped into Class C, I noticed a completely different feel to the classroom compared to the day before. The usual, everyday classroom scene was playing out right before my eyes. Everyone was acting as if things were totally normal. The room was immersed in idle chatter and standard friendly conversation. It was the physical incarnation of something being out of place . Just yesterday, everyone had been very cautious of each other, expecting to be kept in check by the people around them. And yet, today, there was a strange sense of unity. “Good morning Ayanok?ji-kun.” Hirata called out to me. “Morning.” After a short reply, I took a moment to examine how Hirata was taking in all of this. “Hm? Is something wrong?” I wondered if he didn’t notice anything strange about the room, or if he just pretended not to. Hirata looked into my eyes with the same expression as always. “No, it’s nothing.” “Really? Well, let’s have a good day today as well.” Hirata finished his greeting and made his way to the girls who were calling for him. The strange feeling that something was out of place gradually faded as more and more students arrived in the classroom. The conclusion I drew from this was that a large group had probably been formed in preparation for the upcoming exam. There had probably been a consensus on choosing not only who to protect, but who to kick out as well. There were eleven people in the classroom. Hirata aside, if the remaining ten combined their censure votes, it’d put whoever they targeted in a dangerous position. Out of these ten people, there were a handful of boys in a group with Ike and Yamauchi. There was also a group of girls that usually had little to do with them. It was possible that everyone in the classroom had united into a large group. Though, strangely enough, some of the girls were members of the group Kei was in. What’s more, I still hadn’t heard anything about this from Kei yet. “Good morning.” Horikita showed up before long. Although her attitude was the same as usual, she did a quick look around the classroom. “…What happened?” “You feel it too?” “Yes. It’s a little unpleasant. Though, if you’re interested, why don’t you go and ask them yourself?” “I’ll pass. It’s better to let sleeping dogs lie.” At the very least, it wasn’t something you could just carelessly look into. [Has something happened?] I sent a message to Keisei, who had arrived at school earlier in the morning. [No idea. But I feel like something’s different from yesterday for some reason.] Keisei didn’t seem to have caught on entirely, but he was on the right track. [Maybe a large group was formed. Our classmates are weirdly calm.] I sent a message to point him in the right direction. After he read it, Keisei looked around the room and then at me. [That’s certainly true. The gloomy atmosphere is clearly gone. Good job noticing it.] [I don’t have many friends, so I’m sensitive to changes in my surroundings.] [Assuming a group of ten or more people has been formed, they’ve probably decided on who they’re going to vote for, right?] [The person they’ll be targeting will be in a pretty tough spot.] [That makes me wonder who formed the group… Will we be okay?] I could feel Keisei’s anxiety from his message. As the number of people in a group increases, in order to increase the overall sway, students who aren’t very close to the original members would inevitably end up joining. Leading a group like that isn’t an easy thing to do. Since more people had arrived in the classroom, I stopped messaging Keisei for the time being. The continuation of this would have to wait until lunch or until after school.
Lunchtime. I joined up with the Ayanok?ji Group for some small talk. Although it was just small talk, the majority of the conversation had to do with the supplementary exam. Naturally, the first topic was the unusual atmosphere in the classroom that morning. Since Keisei had been the one to head to school early today, it started off with him telling the rest of us about how there were signs that a large group had formed. “…I see. You’re right that it did kinda feel more cheerful today than yesterday.” “But… It’s still just speculation at this point… Right?” “Yeah. There’s no evidence that a large group has really formed, and it’s possible they haven’t chosen a specific target for their censure votes either.” In the end, this conjecture was solely based on what had taken place earlier in the morning. “So, who should we try looking into first?” “That’s a tough question. If we choose the wrong person, the leader of the group might figure out that we’re snooping around. If that happens, there’s a risk that one of us may be targeted as well.” Keisei mentioned the one thing we wanted to avoid at all costs. “There’s probably a reason why we weren’t invited.” When it comes to a large group, it would be fine to invite anyone other than the group’s primary target. It would be ideal for 39 people to corner a single person. However, this outcome simply isn’t realistic. “What if… one of us is really close with whoever they’re targeting?” Haruka suggested, quietly, mischievously looking between each of us.
“…Or… what if one of us is the target…” “S-stop it Haruka-chan…!” Airi’s fear aside, Haruka’s joke wasn’t exactly a laughing matter. “It’s possible that they moved to make a group on the very first day and slowly increased the number of people they could trust from there. Then, today, they probably felt that it was fine to come out of the shadows.” Keisei’s deduction was reasonable. The change was quite a lot for a single day. In all likelihood, this group had been taking action ever since the supplemental exam was announced. “If they still plan on increasing their numbers, then they might get into contact with one of us today.” “What if they intend to target one of us? What are we supposed to do if they threaten to have us expelled if we don’t cooperate with them and work against each other…?” Akito inadvertently asked one of the big questions. “Isn’t it super obvious? We’ve already decided to prioritize each other.” “Even if… you become their target as a result, Haruka?” “That’s… but… I don’t think I want to stay in school so badly that I’d betray my friends. If they did something like that, I’d probably complain.” A little timid, Haruka responded to Akito’s question. “Same here. I’d absolutely never betray any of you.” Despite her anxiety, Airi nodded earnestly. “How about you Keisei?” After a short pause, Keisei spoke his honest feelings. “…I pretty much agree with you two. However, reality is never that simple. In this exam, if you really get targeted, you probably won’t be able to avoid it. It may sound better to take an expulsion in place of a friend, but… it would still be really painful.” “That’s… Kiyopon, what do you think?” Everyone turned and looked at me. I felt as though, to a certain extent, I should attempt to unify everyone’s ideas. “I’m against Haruka’s way of doing things here.” “That… Are you saying you’d betray us in order to get along with the large group!?” “No, cooperating with another group to kick out a friend is completely out of the question. However, it would be better to go along with them on the surface. I don’t think it’d be a good idea to be uncooperative or speak out against them.” It’s vital to avoid letting your emotions cloud your judgement in these situations. “By pretending to cooperate with them, we can figure out how many censure votes they already have and who they intend to invite into the group moving forward. This information would be important to get our hands on, right?” “…Certainly.” Haruka, who had been getting riled up, began to regain her composure. If you got riled up and turned down the large group’s offer, you wouldn’t be able to get very much information. At this point, we had no way of knowing who they were targeting. “Even if you just pretend to cooperate with them, it’s not possible for them to find out who voted for who on the day of the vote since it’s anonymous.” In other words, we would be able to obscure what would actually take place. “I guess that doing things your way really would be best for all of us.” I nodded along in agreement. “Additionally, the large group has been quietly expanding its influence since day one and have a sizable following already. The mastermind behind it is probably quite sharp in their own way. They’ve been handling themselves quite carefully, and furthermore, they haven’t specified anything about who they’re going to expel. It doesn’t seem like Hirata and Horikita have noticed them either.” Horikita may have had an idea, but Hirata hadn’t seemed to notice anything at all. I had expected Hirata to take notice, yet surprisingly, it still managed to elude him, even during such a critical moment. “Hirata probably isn’t being held down by a specific group because he views everyone from a neutral position. If they carelessly asked him for support, there’s a chance he might try to make the group disband instead.” “In any case, you could say that the person behind all of this really thought everything through.” “You’re amazing Kiyotaka-kun. I can’t believe you were able to come up with all of this!” Airi clapped her hands happily, sort of as though she was congratulating herself. “That’s certainly true. I wasn’t the one who noticed the strange mood this morning, Kiyotaka was.” “I said it before. When you’re by yourself for a long time, you just unintentionally pick up on the small details. Moreover, there’s no guarantee that this large group actually exists, it’s nothing more than an assumption.” There was no evidence as to whether it actually existed or not. This was just to push the conversation forward. “Still, I think it’s best to be on guard.” “Man, everything we’ve been talking about has been such a drag. Can’t we talk about something a bit more positive?” With a sigh, Akito spoke up as he fiddled with his cell phone. Everyone shook their heads. “Talking about something positive simply isn’t possible. The reality is that we’re going to lose a classmate soon, so even if we did, it wouldn’t be very enjoyable.” These feelings of anxiety would continue to smoulder, regardless of how much we planned things out here. “When you put it that way, I… I really am pretty worried…” “You’re still saying stuff like that Airi? You’ll definitely be fine.” In order to stop her from worrying, Haruka spoke up and gently patted Airi on the head. “But…” “Between the two of us, girls hate me, like, way more than they hate you.” “Maybe so…” When Akito nodded in agreement, Haruka fiercely glared at him. He spoke up to defend himself. “What? You said it yourself.” “It’s fine for me to say it, but don’t you think it’d be annoying to hear it from someone else?” “…I guess.” Faced with such a sound argument, Akito gave in. Seeing them like this, Airi seemed to lose even more of her self-confidence. “Haruka-chan… You’re cute… You have a good sense of humour… and you’re smart…” “No no… At the very least, you shouldn’t be saying that first bit.” Although Haruka was somewhat surprised, she still consoled Airi. “There’s no need for you girls to worry so much. There are far too many better targets among the guys.” Keisei also followed-up with words of reassurance. “Yeah, the boys are the ones in real danger, so there’s no reason to be so serious right now.” “Really, compared to the girls- Hey, isn’t that Hirata-kun?” Haruka’s question sounded somewhat doubtful. The rest of us followed her line of sight. Sure enough, there was Hirata, walking listlessly all by himself. He was the type of guy who would always hold his head up high and never stopped smiling. Now, however, it wouldn’t be accurate to say he gave off a cheerful impression, not even as flattery. “What did you expect? He’s probably worried about the exam.” “Looks like it. Kinda like he’s a totally different person.” The two of them worriedly watched as Hirata disappeared from view. “He looks so distraught even though he doesn’t have to worry about getting expelled. He’s placing way too much of a burden on himself.” “Someone’s going to be expelled. It’s unavoidable.” It felt like, in some respects, they were looking at Hirata with pity in their eyes. I received a text message as I listened to their conversation. The sender didn’t seem to be someone I’d be able to disregard. “Sorry, I’m being asked to meet up with someone.” “Who by?” This seemed to spurn Haruka’s interest, as she shifted her gaze toward me with intrigue in her eyes. Airi looked at me as well, eyes filled with anxiety. “…Horikita. It’s probably about the exam.” “Oh. Cool.” Haruka lost all interest after hearing the details. She probably recalled Horikita’s interaction with Ry?en not too long ago. After seeing them off, I left the cafe.