Part 8 On the way back from the Keyaki Mall… “Uhm, do you, perhaps, have a minute?” A somewhat lazy voice of a boy called out to me from behind. I turned around to find a boy and girl staring straight at me. The girl, repeatedly shifting her gaze between her cell phone and myself, was Tsubaki Sakurako from Class 1-C. The boy beside her was her classmate, Utomiya Riku.
“You’re Class 2-D’s… Ayanok?ji-senpai, correct?” I couldn’t see what was on the screen of her phone from where I was, but she most likely had the OAA app open. “I’m Utomiya, and her name is Tsubaki. Could we talk with you for a bit about becoming partners for this special exam?” “Partners?” “Yes. We’re currently going around searching for upperclassmen with Academic Ability ratings of a C or higher who are willing to cooperate with us.” Since I had come out today in search of a partner, this development felt far too good to be true. It almost felt as if they had been waiting for me. I didn’t know whether or not I should trust an undisguised attempt at contacting me. Well, making my decision based on timing alone would probably be the most dangerous mistake of all. “I’ve been having some trouble finding a partner myself. Could you give me some more details?” With the app, you could grasp a student’s face, name, and ratings. However, you’d naturally be left in the dark with respect to their personality. This was why meeting face-to-face and talking with each other was so necessary, as it helped you determine if you could trust the other party. Incidentally, while Utomiya had already decided on his partner, Tsubaki had yet to find one. Since her Academic Ability rating of a C- was by no means high, she probably wanted to partner up with somebody who had a C rating or higher. That said, it wasn’t clear if they were searching for Tsubaki’s sake or for one of their classmates. “Instead of standing here, how about we discuss things at the cafe?” Spearheading the conversation, Utomiya respectfully proposed a change of location. This certainly wasn’t a topic that could be decided in only a minute or two, so I accepted his proposition. Although it was quite crowded, the three of us took up some empty seats in a vacant part of the cafe. “This may seem sudden, but could you please hear us out?” Utomiya turned and looked toward Tsubaki, signaling for her to start speaking. “Thing is, I don’t like owing favors or being in someone’s debt or anything. I wanna one-off kinda deal with no strings attached.” Tsubaki seemed a little aloof, looking down at her fingernails as she spoke. Between a C and a C-, the ratings were nearly identical, more or less. So given the similarity, neither party would really have the upper hand if they were to pair up. “Can I ask something that’s bothering me?” “Please, go ahead.” “Most students have Academic Ability ratings at or around a C. Why didn’t she find a partner earlier?” Out of everybody in the second year, there should’ve been several students who would’ve been more than happy to team up with Tsubaki. They wouldn’t get a high score, but they’d at least manage to avoid expulsion. The fact that she still hadn’t found a partner almost a full week into the exam weighed on my mind. “That’s?” Utomiya choked upon his words a bit. Noticing this, Tsubaki made proper eye contact with me for the first time. “It’s my fault. I never said anything about it.” Using Tsubaki’s words as a starting point, Utomiya proceeded to add on his own explanation. “Initially, Tsubaki didn’t consult anyone about finding a partner. But when Friday came around, I guess she started getting impatient… since she came and told me about what she wanted to do.” So, in a race against time, Utomiya began doing all he could to help out his classmate. After all, most of their other classmates had already decided on their partners. Even though they still had one more week to find somebody, a certain amount of anxiety was nothing out of the ordinary.
“With Tsubaki’s academic ability, the 5% penalty might be a problem.” This seemed to be the reason why they had approached me, a student with a C rating. If there were no special circumstances, I would’ve probably agreed to their proposition without even a moment’s hesitation. However, there was a reason why I couldn’t make such a hasty decision. This scenario was extremely similar to the one I had imagined back when the rules of this special exam were first explained to us. That, the students I was most likely to pair up with were those with a similar Academic Ability rating to my own. And now, Tsubaki, a student with a C- rating, had come along in search of a partner. This was my first time meeting both Tsubaki and Utomiya, so I needed to sound them out before I could make my decision. “I’d like to ask you something. Earlier, you said you’ve been going around searching for upperclassmen. How many people did you reach out to before me?” I decided to start by asking something simple, but Utomiya’s response was rather unexpected. “I’m sorry, the words I chose were a bit misleading; You’re actually the first person we’ve approached.” Utomiya offered me an apology before I had the chance to probe any further. “So, if you aren’t willing to partner up with her, we’ll have to search for someone who will.” “Oh, so I just happened to be the first person you reached out to.” “Actually, there’s a reason why we chose to meet you first. We figured that there might be a private point requirement if we asked somebody from Class 2-A or Class 2-C.” I see. It’s certainly true that, as it is now, the first-year students were being bought off by the second-year students. Given the circumstances, it wouldn’t be surprising if somebody demanded that some points be provided in exchange for partnering up with Tsubaki. However, in practice, she wouldn’t be making any demands of students with high Academic Ability ratings. There were still plenty of students without partners, so she could simply pair up with somebody without paying anything. It was unlikely that they hadn’t already considered this. That said, it would be a bit strange if I told them it would be fine if they partnered up with someone from Class 2-A or 2-C even though I hadn’t decided on a partner myself yet. Objectively speaking, there wasn’t even a single reason for me to reject their offer. My options here were limited. “While I haven’t decided on my partner yet, I already have a candidate in mind. In fact, we’ve spoken with each other several times now about working together.” This was a half-lie, but neither of them had any way of confirming that. Furthermore, if this was enough to make them back down, then the two of them were most likely innocent. “So that’s how it is… I see.” Utomiya glanced over at Tsubaki with a troubled expression on his face. “Then I guess there’s no use, right? Seems like it’ll be faster to search for somebody else.” Tsubaki tried to back down the moment she found out I already had a partner candidate in mind. “I’d like to ask, just for reference… which first-year student are you planning to pair up with?” While Tsubaki herself tried to pull away, Utomiya kept on going at it. “I can’t tell you that. The only thing I’ll say for sure is that they aren’t in Class 1-C.” Though I didn’t give any explanation about why I couldn’t tell him, he should’ve been able to guess the reason well enough. That, I wouldn’t give information to an enemy, a rival, of the student I was looking to work with. “Let’s go Utomiya-kun. We shouldn’t waste any more of Ayanok?ji-senpai’s time like this.” “…You’re right.” I was grateful that they had reached out to me, but I couldn’t make such a hasty decision. There was far too little data on Tsubaki Sakurako. “Just in case, here’s my contact information.” Utomiya handed me a slip of paper with his contact information written on it that he had prepared beforehand. “It’s a bit self-serving for me to say this, but I might contact you if I’m turned down by the person I’m thinking of working with. In which case, if you’re still willing to partner up with me at the time, then please let me know.” “Understood. Let’s go Tsubaki.” At Utomiya’s prompting, Tsubaki uncrossed her arms and stood up from her seat. And then, she lightly bowed before leaving together with Utomiya, in search of somebody else to partner up with. “Tsubaki Sakurako and Utomiya Riku, huh? I’ll have to keep them in mind.” Now that I had thrown away a chance to secure my partner, my actions moving forward would be of the utmost importance. After all, it wouldn’t be very funny if I partnered up with another first-year student and ended up drawing the short end of the stick.