We enjoyed skiing one last time that day. This time, all eight of us skied the gentle beginners' course together, rather than separately. Ryūen seemed bored from start to finish, but it was a good thing he didn't act selfishly on his own.
I also bought souvenirs for the first-year students during the remaining down time. Only the evening was left of the fourth day of the school trip.
After I finished bathing in the public bath, I received a message from Sakayanagi. In response to her request to meet, I went to the designated lobby.
It was just after 8:00 p.m., but there were very few students here today. It was the last night, and there would be a lot of talk happening in the buffet hall and in the rooms.
Perhaps she had anticipated such a situation early on, but there were almost no students in the lobby. With a favorable situation in place, Sakayanagi was sitting on a chair, quietly waiting.
“Did I make you wait?”
“No, not at all. Thank you for coming all the way here.”
Even though there were few people around, the combination of Sakayanagi and I was a bit conspicuous.
In that sense, I'd prefer to get the meeting over with quickly.
“It was short, but did you enjoy the school trip?”
“Yes, I did. I experienced many things that I had never done before. Above all, being able to interact with students from other classes was honestly a good experience. I think I learned a little bit more about Yamamura and Kitō.”
I mentioned both names here, but Sakayanagi looked the same as usual.
“I see. I'm not particularly surprised, since you’re Ayanokōji-kun. You have a voracious appetite for absorbing knowledge.”
“Are you close with those two?”
I asked a little more in-depth.
“I don't see any of my classmates as special. I see them all as equals. If I say we get along well, we get along well; if I say we don't, we don't.”
Whether she was lying or telling the truth, Sakayanagi answered vaguely.
If you singled someone out, it would be easy for that particular student to feel jealousy or other feelings.
As a leader, Sakayanagi may truly see them as equals.
“Let me ask you why you called me here.”
“Are you done with small talk? Are you in a hurry by any chance? If Karuizawa-san sees you like this, she'll suspect our relationship.”
She chuckled like a little devil.
“I wouldn't want to be seen meeting one-on-one with the leader of Class A.”
“Fufu, I'm kidding. I understand.”
After suppressing her mouth in amusement, Sakayanagi began to speak.
“I learned many things during this school trip. Before we return to school, I thought I would talk to you about the person who contacted you at the sports festival.”
When Sakayanagi and I missed the sports festival and were talking in my room, a man contacted me from outside the door.
“I see. That's a story I'm interested in.”
“Good. It seems that you were also interested in the identity of that voice.”
“I have more than a few ideas.”
Including what I felt from Nanase, it remained very unclear whether or not the caller was an enemy.
“Now, on the contrary, let me ask you, what kind of person do you consider him to be, Ayanokōji-kun? Is it possible that he could have the same origins as you, like Amasawa-san or Yagami-kun?”
“No, I don't think so. If the other party only recognized you, that idea couldn’t be ruled out, but he called my father ‘Ayanokōji-sensei’. That makes a big difference.”
“What do you mean?”
“If you were raised in the white room, you wouldn't call him ‘Ayanokōji-sensei.’”
This was obvious among those who grew up in the White Room.
“But is that really an absolute guarantee? If he’s from a different generation than Ayanokōji-kun, the rules may be a little different, right?”
“I can't say I'm 100% certain. It's just my subjective impression. One of the major factors is that he called me last year when my father visited this school, so I can guess that he’s someone who stands beside him. And the fact that you yourself said he sounded familiar could mean that he's closely intertwined with politics and business, right?”
It would also make sense why he went out of his way to call him a teacher.
A little surprised, but still pleased, Sakayanagi closed her eyes and nodded her head.
“That's right. It may have been unnecessary for me to give you advice. I already have an idea of whose voice it was, but I have yet to confirm it. I wanted to clarify it here today. That's why I called you here.”
I looked at the cell phone that Sakayanagi had placed on her lap.
“But before we clarify everything, I'm calling someone here who might know him. I think he’ll be here in a few minutes.”
“You mean there’s a student in the second year who has a connection to that person?”
“I don't think there are any candidates in your mind, correct?”
Correct. I had no idea who she was referring to. Of course, the owner of the voice was in his first year of school, and it wouldn't be surprising if some of the second-year students got to know him, but I don't think that's what she meant. At least someone who would have to know more about the situation than us for her to have a reason to call them to this place. Was there anyone other than Sakayanagi, who knew of either the White Room or the identity of my father, or both?
“Let's continue with our idle chit-chat until they arrive.”
“That sounds like a good idea.”
Letting time drift by in silence wasn’t a wise way to spend a school trip.
“How did you feel about this grouping?”
“I'm sure the table that the individual students input definitely had a major impact. As far as I can see, it seems adjustments were made to incorporate not only my group, but also students with extreme evaluations.”
“I agree. The students who ranked the highest and the students who ranked the lowest. And the middle group who were not in either of those groups. It may not be applicable to all groups, but I think that bias was definitely at play. I think they arranged for a combination that was likely to have an impact on the future of this project”
“In that vein, I'd like to ask you something as well.”
“I'm glad to hear that. If you have any questions you want to ask me, go ahead.”
“What do you think about the final exams?”
The composition of each group for this school trip will surely have an impact later on. Sakayanagi closed her eyes happily and nodded her head two or three times in satisfaction.
“I really enjoy talking with you. We always harbor the same thoughts. I'm sure the end-of-year exams will be even tougher than last year.”
One or two dropouts wouldn’t be surprising. That's how much Sakayanagi seemed to be anticipating.
“You’ll be safe with your protection point, but the class points lost through battles may be large. Aren't you worried that your previous solo reign will be disrupted?”
“Do you think I would lose in a direct confrontation with Ryūen-kun? It's a foregone conclusion that I will beat him.”
Sakayanagi, like Ryūen, couldn’t even imagine herself losing after all.
“He certainly has some interesting ideas. There’s a term called giant-killing, and he seems to have the power to hunt big game at times. However, that will not happen in a confrontation with me. At least, next year, I’ll be the one competing with your class.”
Unshakable confidence. In some cases, the final result is a draw, but that can be seen as an exception.
It was hard to believe that the school would make a rule that would allow for an easy draw in the end-of-year exam. That was what we understood from last year's battle against Class A.
“Or do you think I'm going to lose?”
It was hard to say at this stage when we didn't even know the contents of the exam.
But if I told her that, she would probably feel even more resistant. It was nothing more than an indication that Sakayanagi may lose, depending on the content of the special exam.
No matter who wins or loses...
“For you, no matter how things unfold between Ryūen-kun and I, there won't be any obstruction to your plan will there?”
Because our thoughts were concordant, Sakayanagi also understood my thoughts well.
“But Ayanokōji-kun, the future doesn't always turn out the way you want it to.”
“What do you mean?”
Just as I asked back, Sakayanagi put her index finger to her mouth.
It seemed that her expected visitor had arrived.
“Thanks for waiting.”
I wondered if he hadn’t been told of my presence. Kanzaki stood by my side, his expression conveying he was slightly surprised.
But why Kanzaki? I had never gotten the impression that he was connected to my past in any way.
“The first thing to do is to gather the people we need to get started. I'm going to start right away, so can you please come this way, Kanzaki-kun?”
“What in the world, Sakayanagi?”
Sakayanagi, smiling and beckoning, made Kanzaki, who didn't understand, stand beside her.
Kanzaki, who had his arms crossed in doubt, still didn't seem to understand the situation.
I wondered if there was any point to this arrangement.
“First of all, Ayanokōji-kun. What do you make of the combination of Kanzaki-kun and I?”
“What do I think?”
“Please tell me your frank impression.”
“I feel nothing but discomfort. I've never seen you and Kanzaki-kun together before.”
When they were actually lined up like this, it really showed.
“I'm sure you're right. For the students of this school, there’s no contact between myself and Kanzaki-kun. We’re not in the position of being fellow leaders, and I don't think anyone has seen anything suggesting friendship between us. In fact, I have hardly ever spoken to Kanzaki-kun since I entered this school.”
In other words, she seemed to be trying to say that she had conversed with him to a certain extent before she entered the school.
“How many years has it been since I have spoken with you like this?”
“I don't know. If speaking through someone else doesn’t count, it must’ve been at least three or four years.”
Neither of them could remember the exact date and time.
“May I ask how you know each other?”
“It's a parental connection, but there’s no direct connection between the Sakayanagi and Kanzaki families. When you have parents who are well-known in their own right, you are often invited to parties and so on.”
Sakayanagi's father is the chairman of this school and that he’s from a reasonably well-established family, given his knowledge of the White Room.
“Kanzaki-kun's father is the head of a company called Kanzaki Engineers.”
Does this mean that these two had the same thing in common, the same foundation of being involved in business?
If that were the case, it made sense that I didn’t have any suspicions about Kanzaki.
“What on earth are you talking about? What's the point of having Ayanokōji listen to this? No, before that, let's hear the reason why you called me here.”
“This story is exactly what’s relevant to the reason I called you.”
“I don't understand what you mean.”
“I was hoping you could tell me more about Ishigami-kun, who’s enrolled in our school.”
Kanzaki's expression stiffened even more at this point.
“You said... About Ishigami?”
Ishigami? There was no name that came to mind among the second-year students, and the only student whose last name corresponded was a first-year student.
“That's what you mean. You're saying you're interested in Ishigami too?”
“You may take it that way.”
“But what’s Ayanokōji's reason? He has nothing to do with Ishigami. I don't think he’d get involved with other years for no reason. If he did, it would only be in case of trouble. It's hard to believe that even Ryūen would do such a random thing, let alone Ayanokōji.”
He tried to explain the situation in his own way.
“It's regarding an event in the past, not the present.”
“You still don't understand? You must have deep feelings for the name Ayanokōji.”
“What... No... No way...?”
As if noticing something, Kanzaki repeatedly looked at Sakayanagi and me.
“You've been very slow to notice. Of course, that's understandable.”
“So that's how it is.”
Kanzaki seemed to come to an understanding with Sakayanagi's words.
Then, after looking up at the ceiling and holding his head up, he looked at me again.
“Ayanokōji...? I can't believe you’re his child.”
There was only one thing that could be understood from those words.
Kanzaki must also know or have known someone named Ayanokōji.
And it was no longer necessary to guess that it was my father.
That man had strong ties to the business world. It was inevitable.
“Have you been able to shake off the discomfort of me sharing a seat with Ayanokōji-kun?”
“Ah. I thought you were simply interested in Ayanokōji's ability, but I guess you weren't. Since when did you realize he was Ayanokōji-sensei's child?”
“Of course, from the moment I saw him at this school. And unlike you, I’ve seen Ayanokōji-kun when he was little. Right?”
She replied, not speaking of the White Room, but as if she was pretending to be a familiar figure from childhood.
“So he's not just a random guy. If he's his son, there's no way he's not... Excellent.”
Kanzaki looked me straight in the eye, as if he had reached a point of understanding.
“My father adores Ayanokōji-sensei, and I've met him in person several times at parties and such. However, we've only spoken properly once.”
This was a good example of the kind of case that can come about even when indirectly connected by Chairman Sakayanagi.
Nevertheless, he seemed to have a lot of respect for the man. Since I didn't know his private life at all, I couldn't imagine what kind of behavior he displayed in front of Kanzaki, but I couldn't deny the gap in perception.
“My evaluation of you has changed two or three times up until this point, but it has finally settled. If there was a child of Ayanokōji-sensei in Horikita's class, he must have been a powerful card.”
He seemed to have a high opinion of my father to all intents and purposes and was convinced by himself.
“Well, now that we've corrected the discrepancy in our perceptions, let's move on. You don't know about Ishigami-kun, do you, Ayanokōji-kun?”
The very student Ishigami was the one who approached us, it seemed.
“He’s one of the young men who admire your father. You know him well enough, don't you, Kanzaki-kun?”
“...Oh. He seems to be fascinated with Ayanokōji-sensei. I didn't have the courage to go talk to him, but Ishigami’s different. Since then, he was really proactive in speaking to him.”
“Ishigami-kun's age is one year younger than us, and he’s now a first-year student.”
A student who adored that man was enrolled in this school, and somehow, he had contacted me several times, and even indirectly helped with Yagami’s expulsion at the cultural festival.
The agenda of this man, Ishigami, is still unknown to me.
“I'm sure you've had opportunities to come in contact with first-year students, but how long have you been aware of Ishigami?”
“I noticed him as soon as I saw the OAA. But since he’s not the type to come out in the open, I never had a chance to talk to him; my interactions with first year Class A were through Takahashi Osamu-kun, and it seemed that he was intentionally avoiding contact with me.”
It seems that Sakayanagi herself didn't want to force contact with him.
“Is he excellent?”
“I think that Kanzaki, who’s close to him, knows more about that aspect than I do.”
Kanzaki was entrusted with the explanation, but he didn't seem happy at all. Rather, it seemed the opposite was true.
“It's not that I'm close to him. I just went to the same cram school as Ishigami. But if I were to honestly answer your question, then he’s undeniably a genius. He's come up with several ideas that I can't even think of, and the only thing I'm sure of is that I've seen it up close.”
He didn't seem to like Ishigami, but he responded as if acknowledging the fact.
“It's Kanzaki-kun's point of view, his personal opinion, but I thought it would be a good reference.”
“But so what? All you have to do is just leave the current Ishigami alone.”
“Can't you at least imagine? He respects Ayanokōji-kun's father. If that’s the case, it wouldn’t be surprising if he enrolled in this school to check his son's ability,” Sakayanagi reasoned.
While withholding information about the White Room, Sakayanagi led the conversation.
“Ishigami is testing Ayanokōji's ability...? You can't deny it?”
It seemed that her words seemed to make sense to Kanzaki, corresponding to the image of Ishigami he knew.
“We’re competing against each other in the second year. Kanzaki-kun, even if your class is one step behind, it’s still unclear who the winner will be. Under such circumstances, don't you think it's unfair that Ishigami-kun will play unnecessary tricks to find out Ayanokōji-kun's ability in the future?”
“I don't understand what you mean. But why are you so devoted to Ayanokōji? It should be none of your business what happens to the students in your rival class.”
If left alone, Ishigami would automatically sabotage a strong student in a rival class.
It was obvious to everyone that this was essentially a benefit for Sakayanagi.
“I just genuinely want to have fun,” she said.
“It’s my role to bury Horikita's class, including Ayanokōji. It's frustrating when someone suddenly appears and has taken your purpose away from you, isn't it?”
After a fit of laughter, Sakayanagi thanked Kanzaki.
“Thank you very much, Kanzaki-kun. From here on out, I think Ayanokōji-kun and I will work out a plan to deal with Ishigami-kun together.”
Although it was a thank you... It also strongly implied that anyone who got in the way should leave.
“I have no intention of getting involved with Ishigami-kun, so I'd appreciate it if it stayed that way.”
Kanzaki replied without hesitation and walked away.
“We'll talk again soon, Ayanokōji. I'd like to hear a lot about that man, you know.”
He was eager to talk about my father, but unfortunately, I knew nothing about him.
“Well, Ayanokōji-kun. Let's see who Ishigami-kun really is.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Of course, I'll ask him directly. That would be the fastest way, right?”
Taking out her cell phone, Sakayanagi punched in the 11-digit number with a smooth hand.
It seemed that she had done her homework and had already obtained Ishigami's phone number.
Putting it on speaker, Sakayanagi dialed the number, and within a few rings, the call started.
“I figured it was about time you called, Sakayanagi.”
Ishigami's tone of voice suggested he had foreseen it as soon as he picked up the phone. This voice was unmistakably the one who called me last year and the one who visited me during the sports festival.
“You're very perceptive, aren't you?”
“I told him ahead of time that if anyone other than a first-year student asked for my number, he should report it to me.”
“Let's just say it's as good as it gets. I've heard rumors about you from inside and outside.”
She always had her antennae up.
“You could’ve approached me earlier, couldn't you?”
“I hoped to avoid contact. You don't need to get involved with me either, do you?”
“I don't think so. I thought I had to confirm whether or not you would stand in Ayanokōji-kun’s way in the future.”
“If so, what are you going to do about it?”
“I don't think Ayanokōji-kun will be defeated by someone who isn’t me, but I don't like the idea of him being yanked aside by someone else. If you’re going to intervene, I may have no choice but to stop you.”
“You're going to stop me? You should ignore me rather than do such a useless thing. I chose this school on Ayanokōji-sensei's recommendation so that I could spend my time as a normal student.”
He had entered this school with a similar idea, that was what he implied.
“You can assume that I won’t try eliminating Ayanokōji from this school for now.”
“For now, huh? That's a worrisome implication, isn't it?”
“In the unlikely event that Ayanokōji-sensei instructs me to eliminate him, I will do so. That's all.”
His tone was consistently calm, and it didn’t seem as if he was lying.
“You've increased your loyalty a lot without realizing it, haven't you?”
“Don't go any further, Sakayanagi. If you wish to stand by Ayanokōji's side, you may do so.”
I'm sure he was just strongly warning me that it wasn’t going to be a problem.
“I'm not going to tell you to avoid going against me. Sooner or later, Ayanokōji will find out about me, so you’ll warn him. Isn’t that the best way to protect his school life? No, if you're calling, there's no need for that.”
He couldn’t be sure. But he was considering the possibility that I was eavesdropping.
“I'll let you know if I feel like it. I’ll greet you at school next time.”
At this point, Sakayanagi decided that enough was enough and ended the call unilaterally.
“It was him, after all. It seems he didn't have much of an intention to hide it in the first place.”
“It seems like it. If he came to this school to enjoy student life to the fullest, I have no intention of getting involved in the future.”
At least in all my interactions with Ishigami, I had never sensed any danger, and the same went for the current phone call. There was no need to panic now that the possibility had emerged that Ishigami wasn't trying to expel me from the beginning.
“I see. If you make that choice, I will respect it.” Sakayanagi said.
“I'm grateful. Thanks to you, I was able to recognize Ishigami's existence.”
“Now that we have some sense of direction, I am sorry to make your stay here so long. However, may I continue what I was just about to say at the end?”
“The future doesn't always turn out the way I want it to, right?”
The way Sakayanagi said that was certainly something that had been on my mind.
But someone was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was about to inquire into what she meant when someone else called out to me.
“Um, have you seen Honami?”
I was called by Amikura, who was hurriedly walking down the corridor, looking a little flustered.
“No, I haven't seen her. What's wrong with Ichinose?”
“Look, the school trip is over already, right? So we decided to get together with everyone in the class and chat until lights out, but we couldn't find Honami, so we were worried.”
A good number of people were searching for her, and even as we spoke, the girls from Class D were hurriedly walking beside Amikura.
“From the looks of it, it seems like you've already checked the bathrooms and other rooms.”
“I heard that she looked distressed in the evening... so I was a little worried.”
A concerned Amikura was approached by a girl from the same class.
“Mako-chan. I just had it checked. It looks like Honami's yukata is still here, and I think she went outside.”
“What, outside? But it's almost nine o'clock, remember? And the group is at the inn, right?”
Going outside wasn't allowed after 9 p.m., and if she was out alone, that could be a problem.
“I'll check the big bathhouse one more time!”
Not wanting to waste any more time standing around talking, Amikura walked away.
It was certainly a bit troublesome that Ichinose was absent at this time of night.
“Let's continue our conversation another time. Please go ahead and search for Ichinose-san. Her presence is probably still indispensable to you for now.”
I bid Sakayanagi farewell and left the lobby. As long as she wasn’t allowed to act alone outside of a group, Ichinose wasn’t a student who would break the school's designated rules without reason.
Even if she had a problem, she wouldn’t change her basic principle.
I looked out from the hallway of the ryokan and saw that it was snowing.
If she really was outside the ryokan, there were only so many places she could go.
After returning to my room and putting on my clothes, I headed out through the ryokan's backyard.
There was a hill up ahead where you could see the scenery lit up.
This was exactly the kind of place that was restricted at 9 p.m., the curfew. The backyard, which was completely within the inn's limits, didn’t meet the standard for group activities.
Even though the area was illuminated with lights, it was still dangerous because of the snow.
Many students climbed to higher ground on their first or second day at the inn.
Therefore, few students would go back to see it again under the cold and snowy weather.
And moreover, it was the last day. They would want to spend a relaxing time at the ryokan.