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Chapter 3: The Problematic Group of First-Years

Dozens of students, both first and second-year, had gathered together in the gymnasium. The majority of those in attendance were first-year students. Most of them probably saw this meet-and-greet as an important opportunity to meet other students. Since I wasn’t acquainted with any of the attending first-year students yet, the first thing I did was check to see who among the second-years had decided to participate. 
The leader of Class A, Sakayanagi, was nowhere to be seen. I did, however, catch sight of Hashimoto Masayoshi, but it wasn’t clear if he was here as her substitute or not. Sakayanagi’s legs weren’t very strong. Her range of motion was limited, and she couldn’t move very fast. Hashimoto played an important role in helping her compensate for that. As far as I could tell, Hashimoto was the only member of Class A who was here. Moreover, he didn’t seem to be going out of his way to speak to anyone in particular. 
He was probably here on some sort of reconnaissance, figuring out who everybody got into contact with during the meet-and-greet. 
As the organizing class of the event, about half of the students from Class B were present, Ichinose included. I could see Kanzaki standing together with her to support her. However, I didn’t get the impression that, as a group, the rest of Class B was academically insecure or influential. If anything, it seemed like the students in attendance were the more sociable students in their class. On the other hand, there didn’t seem to be any students from Class C participating in this event. It was as if they had completely disregarded the idea of the meet-and-greet from the very beginning. From this one gathering of students, you could roughly grasp the intentions of each of the different second-year classes. But for Horikita, the second-year students weren’t the important ones today. 
The important ones were the first-years we hadn’t had much of a chance to get to know yet. 
As first-years who had only just enrolled in the school, they shouldn’t know their left from right yet. 
The fact that they were suddenly being asked to pair up with second-year students probably put many of them at a complete loss about what to do. During the event, they latched onto their classmates, that is, the students they were already familiar with. 
Seeing this, Ichinose decided to avoid bringing up the special exam in the first place. Instead, she focused on trying to make friends with the first-years by introducing herself and sparking up casual conversations with them. Of course, this didn’t mean that everyone opened their heart to her right away. 
Having understood this, Ichinose didn’t rush the process. She approached them with a gentle smile on her face, slowly melting away the walls of ice that had closed off their hearts. It only took a few minutes of close observation to get a rough idea of what would happen next. 
“Instead of prioritizing the special exam, she’s focusing on building up relationships based on mutual trust. What an incredibly Ichinose-san way of doing things; A dazzling approach that not just anyone would be able to implement.” 
Horikita spoke, expressing her first impression of this meet-and-greet. 
Strategically, it was unknown to what extent Class B would make use of this, but it was extremely important nonetheless. 
Ichinose’s actions provided benefits for first and second-years alike. 
Horikita had described Ichinose as ‘dazzling’ for trying to take on such an active role. 
From a look at the profile of Horikita’s face, I could catch a glimpse of the strategy she had begun to formulate. 
“Are you thinking of a similar strategy yourself?” 
“…I am. A strategy based on private points would be too much for our class to handle. That’s why I thought it’d be important for us to establish a trusting relationship with the first-year students. But, we’re no match for Ichinose-san when it comes to doing that. Or rather, that sort of strategy is pretty much her exclusive way of doing things.” 
A certain ‘something’ was necessary in order to get the other party to accept you as their partner. That ‘something’ could be all sorts of things like private points, trust, friendship, or even obligation. 
“The face and name of Class 2-B’s Ichinose Honami have already become well-known amongst many of the first-year students. The anxious students will flock to her, and I’m certain that she’ll live up to their expectations.” 
They wouldn’t bother with trying to approach a class like ours that they didn’t even know anything about. 
“But, even if we can’t replicate that dazzling approach of hers, we still have options.” 
Apparently, Horikita had gleaned some sort of idea from this meet-and-greet event. 
The key to this probably had to do with how she was constantly looking at the first-year students as she used the OAA app. 
It didn’t seem like Horikita had any intention of leaving just yet, as she continued to observe the first-years. 
I wasn’t the only one watching her observe the first-years either, as a large figure showed up beside her. 
“But you know what I think? Every last one of ‘em looks damn wimpy to me.” 
Next to Horikita, Sud? thoughtlessly shared his own impression of the first-years he had been looking at. 
He had originally planned to head straight to his club activities after class today, but the school had accepted Ichinose’s request to hold a meet-and-greet and hastily decided that it’d be held in the gymnasium until 5:00, so he had asked to accompany Horikita to the event instead. 
Horikita had flatly turned him down, saying that he didn’t need to come, but he probably thought it was fine to come since he’d be heading to the gym later on either way. 
“Don’t glare at them for no reason. We gain nothing by scaring them.” 
“I ain’t glaring though. This is just the face I was born with. Well say what ya want, but is it really alright to be taking it easy like this? Won’t the smart guys get snatched up by Ichinose? Shouldn’t we go and say somethin to ‘em?” 
Sud? impatiently spoke to Horikita, saying that it’d be better to reach out to the first-year students as soon as possible. Even if a student that wasn’t from Class 2-B made advances on one of the first-years at the meet-and-greet, Ichinose wouldn’t be angry about it. In fact, she’d probably be happy instead. 
“What are you gonna do, Horikita?” 
I was curious about Horikita’s actions, so I asked her a question as well. 
“Do you really think we can out-socialize Class 2-B in a place like this?” 
For the time being, Ichinose seemed to be placing more emphasis on saving the first-year students than winning the exam for her own class. 
Nobody from Class B had even left the event yet, and they seemed to be trying to deepen their friendship with the first-years. 
The first-year students had probably picked up on their raw enthusiasm as well. 
“Well, I don’t think so.” 
I conceded to Horikita’s question. It might be possible to out-socialize Class B for Y?suke or Kushida, but the three of us lacked the ability to do something like that. 
She must’ve come here knowing full well that that was the case. 
When the meet-and-greet really began picking up steam, Horikita finally took action. 
“Let’s get going.” 
That is, rather than participate in the meeting and greeting, we were leaving instead. 
This meant that Horikita hadn’t planned on trying to win over the first-years at this event in the first place. 
“Is that really okay, Suzune?” 
“More than half of the students invited to this didn’t even attend. Those are the students I’m going to negotiate with.” 
In other words, she was looking to target the first-year students who didn’t bother with what Ichinose had to offer. 
At the same time, however, winning over those students wouldn’t come easily. 
Some of them were students who felt like they could find a partner on their own without relying on others or simply didn’t have the courage to attend the meet-and-greet. Some might have even already come up with a strategy for the exam. Whatever the case, it’d be safe to assume that most of them would have rather eccentric personalities. 
“Let’s hear your basis for thinking that.” 
“There are two reasons. Based on my observations earlier, there was a higher proportion of academically insecure students out of those attending the meet-and-greet. Right now, we need to be looking for students with a B- rating as a bare minimum. That is to say, we need to find confident students who are ready to put up a fight without even going to the meet-and-greet.” 
I see. With that being the case, it definitely made a certain amount of sense for us to give up on the meet-and-greet. 
“Our top priority is not to pair up students who have A ratings in Academic Ability. Instead, we need to coax the academically gifted students into covering up for the weaker ones so that nobody gets expelled.” 
However, even if Class 2-B chose to save a fair number of the first-years who came to the meet-and-greet, there would naturally be some first-years left out. Moreover, Ichinose was probably going to prioritize rescuing the worse-off students over the more academically capable ones. We could’ve stuck around and picked from the leftover relatively capable students Class 2-B wasn’t able to help. 
Her second reason seemed to have something to do with that. 
“Besides, there was a slight inconsistency in the people who showed up for the meet-and-greet that didn’t have anything to do with Academic Ability ratings.” 
“The students from Class 1-D didn’t attend the event at all.” 
They didn’t attend at all? That was indeed an interesting inconsistency. 
“It seems like you understand, Ayanok?ji-kun.” 
Horikita seemed to catch on to what I was thinking, but… 
“Huh? Is there some kinda meaning behind Class 1-D not attending or somethin’?” 
Sud? tilted his head, unable to understand the significance behind this. 
“There are 40 people in Class 1-D. Some of them don’t know how to study, and others aren’t very good at socializing. But despite that, not even a single person from Class 1-D participated in the event, which obviously reflects the will of the class as a whole.” 
Clearly, somebody had taken control of the class and convinced them not to participate in the meet-and-greet. 
It was unusual, considering that only a short amount of time had passed since they had enrolled here. 
“So, you’re saying that Class 1-D already has a leader, and they’re the one who refused to attend the meet-and-greet…?” 
“If there’s someone we can negotiate with at the class level, it isn’t necessary to try and bargain with people at the individual level.” 
In other words, her strategy was to have the students in Class 2-D and Class 1-D cover up for each other. 
“That’s reasonable, but like, wouldn’t it be hard as heck to win the special exam?” 
It wasn’t a bad idea in that it would prevent expulsions, but it would also make it impossible for us to beat the other classes. 
“You’re right. In that sense, I don’t plan on engaging in the inter-class competition this time around.” 
“I get that I’m not in any position to say anything and all, but like, is that really alright?” 
“Yes. There’s no problem at all.” 
Horikita spoke definitively. Although there were some fundamental differences in the way they were each going about it, Horikita’s strategy was pretty much the same as Ichinose’s. 
At the end of the day, the concept was to give up on the valuable chance to gain class points in the special exam. 
Class A’s Hashimoto had already left the gymnasium, probably because he had finished up with his investigation of Ichinose’s meet-and-greet. 
Horikita followed in Hashimoto’s tracks as she headed toward the exit, Sud? and I tagging along behind her. 
However, just before we walked through the door, I turned and looked at Ichinose one last time. 
She was talking to the first-year students with a smile on her face, completely oblivious to our presence. 
Ichinose would readily extend a helping hand to any student, no matter how low their Academic Ability rating is. 
She had ditched the idea of taking the top spot in the special exam and was instead fighting to prevent any of her own classmates from being expelled. 
It was pretty much identical to what Horikita was planning to do, just with a different approach. 
However, in essence, were they truly the same thing? 
After we left the gymnasium, Hashimoto called out to us as if he had been waiting for us. 
“Ichinose sure is the same as always, eh?” 
“It seems like she has her heart set on saving her classmates along with the first-years.” 
“Sure does. As things are right now, she won’t be a threat. Doesn’t she realise bringing idiots onto her side is just gonna drag her down? It’s like she’s tossing her chances of winning in the trash.” 
Hashimoto spoke as if he couldn’t wrap his head around it. There was no way he could’ve realized that Horikita was going to execute pretty much the exact same strategy. After all, the fact that Horikita also planned on giving up the competition was an idea he had never even considered. 
“Perhaps she set up the event precisely because she knew the first-years were going to drag her down?” 
“Aaah, I see. You’ve got a point there.” 
“Class A… no, Sakayanagi-san understood everything without even having to come to the meet-and-greet. She had already anticipated which students would show up. That’s why she didn’t participate, isn’t it?” 
“Well, maybe.” 
Even so, she had probably sent Hashimoto in alone as a scout. 
“So, how does Class A intend to draw the honor students over to your side?” 
“That’s up to our Princess to figure out. I’m just here to follow orders, ya feel?” 
With that, Hashimoto left, apparently satisfied with what he had talked to us about. 
“Don’t trust a word that bastard Hashimoto says, Suzune.” 
Sud? spoke up after Hashimoto was out of earshot. 
“I don’t need to be told that. Though, are you saying you’re well-acquainted with Hashimoto-kun?” 
“Not even a little.” 
Sud?’s response was confident, if not cocky. 

“…I see. Well, Class A has a huge advantage just by being Class A. To some extent, I suppose it’s only natural that they’ll have people flocking over to them.” 
Having enrolled in this school, it was only a matter of time until the first-years realized that Class A was the best of the best. 
Even if they weren’t aware of that fact right now, word would spread soon enough. 
“Anyway, let’s get moving. It hasn’t gotten too late, so there should still be some Class 1-D students at the school somewhere.” 
We headed off toward the first-year classrooms to try and find out what had gone on inside Class 1-D. 
While the eyes of her surroundings were focused on the meet-and-greet, Horikita seemed to be taking hold of the opportunity that had presented itself to her. 

Part 1 
We made our way to the floor where the first-year classrooms were located, a place where we had spent our days not too long ago. 
There didn’t seem to be very many students lingering in the area, given that most of them had gone to the gymnasium. 
We silently observed the students in the classrooms from Class 1-A through 1-C, but once they realized that a group of upperclassmen were watching them, they uncomfortably turned and looked away from us. The fact that they weren’t very receptive to our sudden intrusion wasn’t all that surprising. 
Those who didn’t care were few in number, as most probably hated the uncomfortable atmosphere our presence had created. 
This atmosphere would only get worse in the days to come as well. The second-year students would constantly reach out to the first-years at all times of the day, desperate to find themselves a partner as soon as possible. However, doing so would be a risky gamble that may end up backfiring on them. 
But even so, within each of the classrooms we checked, we could see first-year students engaged in light-hearted conversations with each other. 
They might have felt like there was no need to worry about the special exam, or perhaps they didn’t think that the exam was a very big deal yet. 
“It seems like most of the students who stayed behind aren’t worried at all, just as expected.” 
“Ain’t that nice. Even though I’m freaking out over here.” 
Even if a pair were to score less than 500 points during the exam, the first-year student would just be cut off from earning private points for the next three months. While this would undoubtedly be a great loss for them, it probably didn’t feel that critical since they should’ve gotten their first payment just after the entrance ceremony. 
“Kuku. You’re awfully late, eh Suzune?” 
Horikita was just about to finish up her inspection of Class 1-C when she was greeted by a familiar voice. 
The voice belonged to none other than Class 2-C’s Ry?en Kakeru, who had his eyes fixed on us daringly. 
The door leading to Class 1-D was behind him, and it seemed as though he had just come out of it. 
“Ry?en-kun, are you here to observe the first-years as well? I don’t think I saw you at the meet-and-greet.” 
“It was all just a buncha dipshits groupin’ up in the gym, right? Going there’d be a waste of time.” 
Ry?en had adopted the same strategy as Horikita. That is, to go after the students who didn’t attend the meet and greet. 
Based on his tone, it seemed reasonable to assume that he was aiming for the best students the first year had to offer. 
He had gotten here a mere 20-30 minutes earlier than us, but… 
With that much time, it was possible that he had already successfully scouted several people. 
We’d have to wait until 8:00 AM tomorrow morning to see what pairings he had made. 
“Chill out. I haven’t found anyone yet.” 
Horikita and Sud? wouldn’t trust his words very easily. 
That is, at least until the app is updated with the pairings that had been finalized for Class 2-C. 
“Looks like you don’t believe me.” 
“At the very least, I’m going to take everything you say with a grain of salt.” 
“That so? Seems like I’ve become quite the untrustworthy person!” 
“Oh? But I’ve never once treated you with anything resembling trust before, though?” 
“Kukuku, ain’t that true.” 
Sud? glared daggers at Ry?en, seemingly displeased with the joking nature of his back-and-forth with Horikita. 
The average person would probably shrink back in fear from the sharp look Sud? was giving off, but it had no effect on somebody like Ry?en. 
“I see you got yourself a bodyguard, but god did you choose a dumb one.” 
“Whadja say!?” 
Horikita casually held out her hand to stop Sud?, who was on the verge of losing his temper. 
“Oh my, does one need brains to be a bodyguard? Talk about a pot calling the kettle black.” 
With her hand still holding Sud? back, Horikita stared straight back at Ry?en, her gaze unfaltering. 
“Are you looking to scare the first-years? You do know that attitude of yours will end up backfiring on you, right?” 
The first-year students would probably shrink back upon seeing Ry?en walk around as if he owned the place. 
“I thought that with a couple light threats they’d immediately agree to help. Somethin’ like that.” 
Horikita had responded to his provocations tit for tat, but this time, Ry?en confirmed what she asked him instead. 
“…You’re kidding. Do you really think that’s an acceptable way of doing things?” 
“Who gives a damn about whether it’s acceptable. What’s wrong with a couple of threats? We were told we couldn’t threaten someone to get a lower score on the exams back when the rules were explained, but I don’t remember being told we couldn’t use some threats to help pair up with people.” 
“That’s because it should be obvious without the rules even needing to say it! You’re the one in hot water if something goes wrong.” 
“Then how ‘bout you make somethin’ go wrong for me then? I ain’t dumb enough to get caught either way.” 
His words were as confident as ever. 
Not only was it extremely likely that he’d threaten the first-years, he even went so far as to declare that the truth about it wouldn’t get out either. 
Regardless of whether he was telling the truth or not, Horikita should’ve realized once again that Ry?en would always toe the line. 
“Well, then do what you want. Just know that if I ever find any evidence, I won’t think twice about reporting you.” 
She probably meant these words as some sort of deterrent, but it most likely didn’t have any effect on Ry?en. 
“Then what? Who’re you gonna persuade?” 
Thinking there was no need to respond, Horikita kept her mouth shut. 
“You figured somethin’ out while you were at the meet-and-greet, didn’t you? Then you came running over here to check out everyone else?” 
“The same as you then, perhaps?” 
“Kuku. Maybe.” 
With that, Ry?en continued to address Horikita, almost as if he was trying to spice things up. 
“If that’s the case, I’ll clue ya in on somethin’ since we’re on the same wavelength here. The first-years this time around only just enrolled here, and yet they’re awfully calm don’tcha think? That is, there’s a good chance that the people from the school told ‘em how things work around here.” 
If what he was saying was true, it would be quite the unexpected piece of information. Back when we first came to the school last April, we had no idea how things worked and goofed off the whole time. Of course, Class A and Class B were far more composed than we were, but that could probably be attributed to the large difference in our perspective backgrounds. 
But in this instance, Ry?en wasn’t just talking about a specific class, but the entire school year as a whole. 
Did the school do this in order to have the first and second-year students partner up from the very beginning? 
Or perhaps the school had another motive altogether? 
“Could it be that this batch of first-years just have things figured out and we were exceptionally dull in comparison?” 
“Seems like some of ‘em have already started up on bringing their classes together. It’s too early.” 
Even if they began to take action the moment the special exam was announced, there was no way they would’ve been able to come together this quickly. 
Ry?en was saying that this wouldn’t be the case unless something had happened beforehand, that is, right after they entered the school. 
“…What kind of cowardly trick are you trying to pull by telling me all of this?” 
“It’s nothin’ like that. I can’t just beat down my opponents in a special exam like this. But, I’ll have to pull some strings in order to come out on top overall.” 
This wasn’t an easy special exam to get students from the other classes expelled. After all, the strong anonymity of the partnering system made it difficult to know who people were partnered with. It would be extremely difficult to figure out who somebody paired up with the OAA app unless they went around telling everyone or you collected information. Even if you managed to get a student with a low Academic Ability rating to partner up with someone specific in a rival class, it’d be virtually impossible to force them to throw the exam. If they were to score lower than their Academic Ability rating would suggest they were capable of, the school would deem it as intentional and they’d be expelled regardless of what school year they’re in. 
In the end, the only thing that would influence the outcome of this exam was the raw ability of your own class and the first-year student you paired up with. In terms of strategy, you needed to focus on persuading as many high-performance first-years into joining your class as possible. Put all of this together, and it wouldn’t be easy for Class 2-C to take the top spot in the exam, as their Overall Ability ratings didn’t seem very good from an outsider’s perspective. 
There was no way that Class 2-C would come out on top if they decided to compete with Class 2-A from a financial standpoint, and their fundamental academic skills were off by miles as well. Things would be tough for them no matter how many private points they invested in trying to entice the first-years. With that being the case, they should give up on the top overall score and instead focus on getting their hands on the rewards given out to the pairs who score in the top 30% in the individual competition. 
Of course, there was no way Horikita would mention all of this to Ry?en. After all, if Class 2-C didn’t compete with Class 2-A to take the top spot overall, we’d be the ones put in a tough spot. Instead of letting Class 2-A effortlessly snatch up the win, I’d like to see the two classes going at it in a large-scale tug-of-war and wear each other out, even if only a little. 
“Just try your best so you don’t get left in the dust.” 
“I could say the same to you. Your concern is completely unwarranted.” 
“Kuku, my bad my bad.” 
With that, Ry?en set off, leaving the first-year classrooms behind him. 
The amount of time he had spent here had been far too short to get things done. 
“The first-year students might be more opposed to negotiating with us than I expected.” 
It made sense that they’d be hesitant if they really had been told about the true, desperate nature of the school. 
“Then shouldn’t we negotiate with ‘em as soon as possible or somethin’?” 
“Yes… Of course we should, it’s just…” 
Horikita turned and looked further on down the hallway. 
Her eyes were fixated on the classroom of Class 1-D. 
“Let’s get goin’. Come on.” 
Sud? urged us to keep moving forward to the classroom ahead of us. 
“I’m afraid it may not be that simple.” 
It seemed Horikita had noticed it during the conversation earlier as well. 
From the time Ry?en walked out of the classroom to the time he left, not even a single student had come out into the hallway. 
We couldn’t hear a single sound coming from inside as we approached either. 
Our suspicions were confirmed when we finally arrived at the classroom and opened up the door. 
“W-what the hell’s goin’ on here!?” 
Panicked, Sud? scanned the room from one end to the other. 
“Negotiating with Class 1-D may be far, far more difficult than I expected.” 
The classroom was completely empty, not a single soul to be found. 
It seemed as though the forty students who hadn’t attended the meet-and-greet had vanished without a trace. 
“This class as a whole might be more troublesome than I thought.” 
However, we couldn’t just stand around feeling anxious about it forever. 
After all, we needed to take measures of our own before the other classes began moving in earnest. 
Horikita’s battle would start tomorrow, from the moment when she finally makes contact with the students from Class 1-D. 
I also needed to go home and memorize the names and appearances of all the first-year students on the OAA app. 
Horikita had her battle to fight, and I had mine. 
And so, on the very day the special exam was first announced, a total of 22 sets of partners had been finalized. 

TL Notes: 
My team and I went and wrote a troll ending for this part. The plan was to post it and act like it was real and linking the real ending in the TL note here, but I chickened out and ended up choosing to do the opposite. You can read it here if you want: I’ve been told it’s funny, but it has a bunch of inside jokes that we make fun of about the translation process, so it might not all make sense. Feel free to take a look.


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