That evening, after I had gotten out of the shower, I checked my phone only to see that I had several missed calls from Kei. It seemed to be something urgent, given that she had called nearly every other minute. Having barely finished drying my hair, I began to dial her number to call her back, but I was met with yet another call from her, so I simply answered that instead. “Hello?” “Jeez, finally you pick up…!” “You seem awfully panicked.” “No duh I’m panicked… Like, something absolutely terrible’s happened Kiyotaka.” “Something terrible?” “I have no idea who’s behind it, but Kiyotaka… everyone’s gonna vote you out of school.” “Is that so?” “That… does that mean you already knew?” “No, this is the first I’ve heard of it. Though, I was vaguely aware that somebody was being targeted.” The fact that this somebody was me was something I had only just now found out about. “Why are you still so calm?” “Do you know how many people are going to vote against me?” “I dunno exactly… But, from the feel of it, it’s prolly already around half the class. They kinda threatened that if anyone told you about it, that person would be the one getting expelled next time.” Since they were trying to drive me into a corner, it was only natural that there’d be a couple of threats getting tossed around. I wondered if they had already managed to convince the majority of the class. If they had, even with the praise votes from the Ayanok?ji Group and the one I’d get from Kei, it would all still be just a drop in the bucket. “Are you okay to tell me this, then? You could end up being targeted yourself.” Of course, that would only be if I went around telling everyone I had heard about it from Kei. I didn’t know who was behind it, but they had done a good job. Although the strategy of singling someone out and forcing their expulsion was, in and of itself, simple, gathering the votes needed to actually make it happen was not. After all, somebody who singles out a classmate would be seen as ‘evil’ by the people around them. If someone with a strong sense of justice or a close friend of the target was to find out about the plan, it’d be possible for the mastermind to be forced out of school instead. While there’d be resistance when it comes to judging a classmate, there’d be far less resistance when it comes to judging ‘evil’. This was the exact reason why Haruka and Akito, who are both relatively sharp-tongued students in their own right, wouldn’t take the initiative and nominate someone to expel during our group conversations. Ultimately, our entire group discussed the candidates and came to a joint decision about who to vote for moving forward. The mastermind targeting me wasn’t afraid of becoming a target themselves. “You’re gonna do something, right? Like, you can do something about it, right?” “I wonder. It’s troublesome if half the class is against me.” Even if I managed to gather ten praise votes, it wouldn’t necessarily mean I’d be able to escape from such a tough situation. The mastermind’s group would obviously distribute their own praise votes amongst their friends. I was facing a significant risk of being expelled. “Thanks for letting me know this.” “It’s no big deal or anything, but… For real, what’re you gonna do?” “What will I do? I’ll have to think about it for a bit.” “You may seem perfect, but even you have flaws okay? If I wasn’t here, isn’t it totally possible you could’ve been expelled without noticing anything?” “That’s exactly why you’re here.” “Oh. I see…” It was exactly because I had someone capable of obtaining information out of my reach that I was able to find out about this expulsion crisis. “I’ll contact you again soon.” “Gotcha.” I ended the call. While I wanted to talk a little bit about March 8th next week, I dropped the matter for now. Before anything else, I needed to find out why I was being targeted. “Well then…” I grasped my phone tightly and slowly started racking my brain. Who I chose to contact here would greatly influence my strategy moving forward. Contacting the mastermind or one of their followers was simply not an option. That being said, the situation wouldn’t improve at all if I reached out to someone useless either. “…In which case.” I promptly dialed a number directly from my contact list. I decided that, first of all, I should finish what I needed to do. After a while, the call connected. “What is it?” Answering the phone with his ever-unchanging tone of voice was Horikita Manabu. “I need to talk to you about the supplemental exam. It’s fairly important.” “Wait a moment.” I heard the sound of running water from the other end of the call and waited for around ten seconds. “I was doing the dishes. I didn’t want the noise to interfere over the speaker.” “Sorry for interrupting you.” “So, something bad has happened.” The elder Horikita and I had met up earlier in the day. He probably understood that something bad had happened because I hadn’t mentioned anything back then. “Something happened in my class. A large group was formed and they’ve decided on who exactly they’ll be trying to expel.” “Given the exam, the establishment of a large group is inevitable. Who’s being targeted?” Perhaps the face of his younger sister had come to mind. “Me.” “That’s not a funny joke.” “I’m not joking. More than half of my class has already agreed to vote against me.” “Oh?” “I’m in a tough spot, so I thought I’d consult with you about it.” “Even you can’t do anything about this exam? Is that what you’re saying?” “Put simply, yes.” Though, to be precise, I was talking to him because I was trying to do something. “What do you want from me? When it comes to this exam of yours, I don’t think there’s anything I can do to help you.” “Well, there’s only one thing I want from you.” I offered him a proposal. My path moving forward would depend on whether he accepted it or not. “…I see. So that’s what you want.” “As far as you’re concerned, it shouldn’t be a bad offer. You can use it as your reason.” “Indeed. I wouldn’t have agreed if that were not the case.” “You also don’t need to exert your authority as the former student council president, nor do anything to help me directly.” A capable student like the elder Horikita should be able to understand what I’m getting at, even without me explicitly stating my intentions. “You were probably going to use this strategy of yours regardless of whether you got targeted or not.” “Yeah. I had planned on getting in touch with you anyway. I would’ve brought it up earlier today, but…” “You didn’t because Tachibana was there?” Of course, I knew she wasn’t the kind of student to go and let out a secret, but I refrained from saying anything, just in case. “‘I’m in a tough spot’ you say. You aren’t in a tough spot at all.” “That depends on tomorrow. Without your cooperation, I’d have been forced to change tactics, and you should be well aware that it’s not beneficial for me to take center stage.” “…Alright. We’ll act tomorrow.” “You’ve saved me a lot of trouble. I’ll get in touch with you when I identify the mastermind.” I cut the call with the elder Horikita and plugged the charging cord into my cell phone. “Now that I have that out of the way…” It was a strategy I’d been planning on carrying out for this exam since it was first announced. A necessary action to remove an unnecessary student. However, in the case where I ended up becoming the target, it was vital that I raise the accuracy of said strategy. I decided to call Kushida next. “Good evening, Ayanok?ji-kun. I somehow thought I’d be getting a call from you today.” “I assume you have a grasp of the situation, then?” “Yep. Looks like you’re in quite the pinch.” As expected, the news that I had become an expulsion candidate had already reached Kushida’s ears. “Oh don’t tell me that you wanted me to clue you in just because of our cooperative relationship, okay? If I leaked any information to you, I’d be the one being targeted next time, after all~” Of course, this probably wasn’t her real reason for not telling me. “Who did you hear about it from? That you’re being targeted.”
Kushida’s interests lay in finding out who told me I was being targeted. “They were anonymous.” “Hmph. Then at least tell me one thing. What did this anonymous person tell you?” What did they say, huh? I stayed silent since I had no intention of answering that question. “You’re quite the smart one, aren’t cha Ayanok?ji-kun? You’re probably thinking you should be careful to avoid saying anything important.” “Whatever you’re getting at is going over my head. What do you want to know?” “For example, did they tell you who the mastermind is? Or around how many votes there are against you?” This meant Kushida wanted to know the finer details of what Kei had told me. If she told Kei that half the class had agreed to vote for me and told other students the number was one third, she’d be able to narrow down who had leaked the information. “It seems we’re both trying to read into each other’s intentions.” “Could it be that you’re the mastermind, Kushida?” “Oh I wouldn’t do something like that. I’ll have you know that, in our class, I’m a symbol of complete neutrality and peace.” However, even if she wasn’t the mastermind, she had to at least be close to them. I moved on. “That’s true. It wouldn’t be surprising for you to target Horikita if you were the one behind all this.” “Ahaha, fair enough. You knew full well that it was risky to reach out to me like this, yet you went ahead and contacted me anyway. I know you’re in quite the pickle, but… What do you want from me?” “I want to know who the mastermind is.” “Even if you knew now, it wouldn’t help you, would it?” Kushida was the type to always adapt to the situation at hand, so it didn’t seem hard to win her over to my side. “Please tell me.” “You’re quite upfront, aren’t you Ayanok?ji-kun? However, I can’t just betray my friends… Heh.” Kushida let slip a little devilish laugh from the other end of the phone. “No, it might be more accurate to say I couldn’t tell you even if I wanted to.” “Meaning?” “I regret to have to inform you this, but I’m the only one who knows who the mastermind is.” “…I see.” “Indeed. You seem to understand what this means.” The mastermind had selected Kushida as their primary confidant. Then, with her help, they picked out people who had no connection to me and recruited them into the group. Given the abundant amount of trust she had with the class, it would probably be difficult for them to turn her invitation down. “If it’s you, you’ll be able to find out who it is sooner or later, right? So, even if I don’t tell you now, it wouldn’t make too much of a difference.” “No. It’ll probably be difficult if I don’t hear it from you. I’m guessing that this person also wants to try and stay hidden. Isn’t that why they’ve gone and entrusted everything to you?” “You sure do speak your mind, don’t you?” “That’s because, knowing you, you’d probably manage to see through any plans I have if I didn’t.” I had a hunch that my plan to find out about the mastermind would be a success if I went to Kushida. Though, at the same time, it had also been a failure. “I’m surprised you decided to participate in getting someone expelled from school.” “Well, kinda. I’ve been put into a rather difficult situation too, you know? If I turned them down, they’d think I wasn’t willing to help, you know? I’d be troubled if a rumor was spread claiming I was being uncooperative, even though they’re the one who reached out to me.” She was definitely in a situation that called for thorough consideration. “Though, deciding to take action was also difficult. I don’t want you to drop out Ayanok?ji-kun, but I can’t just betray the trust of a student who’s asked for help. What’s more, I think they’ve grabbed hold of this weakness of mine a little bit. If they have, it seems like I might get targeted if I do anything to betray them.” Perhaps someone like Kushida would be able to maintain neutrality until the very end. But even so, I was bothered by the fact that she was deliberately cooperating with them. One explanation was that she’s going along with it to protect herself. If she tactlessly refused the mastermind’s offer, there was a real possibility that she wouldn’t have been allowed to join the group. Alternatively, there was also the possibility that she would be resented, suffering as a result. That being the case, it was better for her to be in a position of control within the group instead, even if it meant taking a bit of a risk. This explanation was valid enough. The girl named Kushida personifies pride and self-importance. Despite that, she’s worshipped and praised by others, preferring to rule over them. She was the type to feel delighted about people being inferior to her. “So, do you understand the situation I’m in? I couldn’t help you even if I wanted to.” If the mastermind’s identity were to be exposed, the blame would end up falling on Kushida. She was being manipulated brilliantly. “In that case, I won’t try to force anything out of you. Sorry for calling so late at night.” “Really? You’re not gonna ask anything?” “I don’t want to trouble you. It doesn’t seem like you’ll be able to help at all this time.” “Do you really think you can figure out who the mastermind is without me?” “No idea. I’m not confident I can.” I started backing off and showed a hint of weakness, enticing Kushida to take a few steps forward. If she didn’t take the bait, there was nothing I could do about it. Either way, the identity of the mastermind was completely unrelated to my strategy. The knowledge would simply make the steps I’d have to take a little easier. “What to do…” But, rather than backing off, Kushida came to a stop. She had taken the bait of her own accord. “Well, Ayanok?ji-kun is my comrade. I suppose I’ll tell you.” With that, I stopped backing off as well. “…Why did you change your mind?” “Because I want to see how you’ll handle it, or something like that. That said, if any of this ends up falling back on me, I won’t forgive you. Are we on the same page?” “I’m capable of distinguishing who I should and shouldn’t be making an enemy of.” As I said this, I had a feeling that there was a slight smile forming on the edges of her mouth. “It’s Yamauchi-kun.” She gave the tentative name of the mastermind. It was ‘tentative’ because there wasn’t enough evidence to determine whether he was or not. “Yamauchi, huh?” “You don’t seem surprised.” “He’s a reasonable expulsion candidate. It’s not surprising that he’d take the initiative and make a move to protect himself.” “…Are you satisfied now?” She asked inquisitively. “Even after hearing this, there’s still something I don’t quite understand. I don’t think you’re stupid enough to be manipulated by someone like Yamauchi. I’m sure you could’ve successfully placated him and refused when he reached out to you. You’re putting yourself at a lot of risk by covering up for him and acting as his mediator.” “Then, why didn’t I just turn him down, I wonder?” “Perhaps you found out that the real mastermind isn’t Yamauchi, but the student backing him up from behind-the-scenes instead.” Kushida had seemed to be enjoying herself, but now her tone became serious. “You knew.” “If I’m not mistaken, Sakayanagi approached Yamauchi not too long ago.” Just before the end-of-year exam, she had come and paid Yamauchi a visit. It had been quite the hot topic within Class C at the time. I presented Kushida with convincing enough reason for why I knew this, my previous direct contact with Sakayanagi aside. “It’s surprising, but, yes, that’s exactly what’s going on. Sakayanagi-san from Class A seems to be the one supporting Yamauchi-kun. I’d like to avoid making an enemy out of her if at all possible.” “How do you know that Sakayanagi is the one supporting him? Did Yamauchi tell you?” “No, Yamauchi-kun’s been keeping it secret. But, you’re aware of the breadth of my information network, right? I found out about it from somebody in Class A. That is, that Sakayanagi-san’s manipulating him in order to try and do something to Class C.” Everything was unfolding all too perfectly. Given the situation, the fact that Yamauchi reached out to Kushida first was probably also a part of Sakayanagi’s instructions. Within Class A, Hashimoto held suspicions about my relationship with Kei. It wouldn’t have been hard for him to warn Sakayanagi if their goal was to establish a group without tipping me off. In which case, Kei shouldn’t have been invited into the group at all. I probably wouldn’t have noticed I was being targeted until later on. “Is it a coincidence that you’re being targeted by Sakayanagi? Or is it intentional?” “Who knows. I haven’t interacted with her very much. Maybe she’s just targeting someone who doesn’t stand out.” “Well, that is possible. After all, other than Horikita-san, Sud?-kun, Sat?-san, and your friends in that group of yours, there’s probably not anybody willing to take the risk to tell you about your situation.” Despite all of this, it was unusual that the mastermind was Sakayanagi. Why had she approached me and asked to postpone our face-off until the next special exam? Did she really want to defeat me so badly that she was willing to break our agreement? She had to be well aware that I’d refuse to compete against her during the next special exam if she started anything against me. Having Yamauchi gather censure votes against me was, without a doubt, a violation of our agreement. In other words, if I had to force some sort of meaning out of this, it would be that our agreement itself had been nothing but a lie. Saying that our competition would be postponed until next time had just been a distraction from her trap. No… From what I knew of Sakayanagi, she wasn’t the type of person who’d be satisfied with winning that way. In which case, what should I make of all this? “You’ve been a great help, Kushida.” “Be careful how you conduct yourself and make sure not to get expelled!” I ended the call and tossed my phone onto my bed. “No matter what they’ve got in store for me, what I have to do still hasn’t changed.” Now that I knew the identity of the mastermind, all I had to do was relay the information to the elder Horikita and get the ball rolling.