“WE’RE HOLDING A MEETING, Ayanokouji-kun. Can you get Hirata-kun for me?” Horikita asked.
I went to talk to Hirata, and Horikita walked over to Sudou. Horikita and Hirata were gradually becoming the class’s prime movers and shakers. I couldn’t stay in the shadows much longer. So far, I’d kept up the pretense of not being the sharpest tool in the shed. However, after running that relay race, I became well-known practically overnight. Ryuuen and Ichinose wanted the identity of the person pulling Horikita’s strings, without a doubt.
What should I do about that? Distance myself from Horikita? That would look suspicious, though. Should I stick close to her and wait for things to pass? I’d be under suspicion so long as I remained around her, too.
Our list of enemies was growing, and trying to return to the way things were before was out of the question. No matter what, my opponents would ignore my real intentions and contemplate my every move. I’d been able to hang out with Horikita as much as I did because she’d had very few friends, but things were changing. Her interactions with people like Sudou—as well as Hirata, Karuizawa, and so on—would become more frequent. Maybe I’d put some distance between her and myself, then.
I needed to keep Chabashira-sensei happy, and if Horikita and the others could handle the class without me, it would take a load off my shoulders. Chabashira-sensei probably didn’t need me, specifically, to help Class D. Anyone would do. As for why she wanted to threaten me into helping Class D rise to Class A, well, I didn’t really care.
At any rate, it wasn’t time for me to release Horikita just yet. If I let go right here and now, I’d lose control of Class D, and everything might collapse. First, I’d make Horikita even more influential. Then, I’d quietly fade away.
The important thing was the procedure, followed by preparation, and then results.
I returned to Horikita.
“Hirata’s on his way. Same with Sudou.” I’d seen him duck out, probably to go to the bathroom.
“So, what do you think?” Horikita cut to the chase.
“It’s just like Chabashira-sensei said. This exam will be difficult. The bar is high, and the partner system makes it worse. To top it off, if another class comes up with the problems we have to solve, the test could get extremely tough. Depending on how the question’s worded, even something straightforward could appear unsolvable.”
“That’s true. This time, it’s not just about studying. We have to be creative,” said Horikita.
Simply tutoring the weaker students among us wouldn’t be enough. Understanding the other classes’ strengths and weaknesses would be ideal, but they wouldn’t show us their hands easily. Still, we’d overcome trials based on intelligence and teamwork before.
In a sense, this test might be less difficult than the ones on the island or the cruise ship. If the sports festival had tested our class’s accumulated physical strength, this was a test of accumulated academic knowledge.
“I feel as if Chabashira-sensei was hinting at something,” I told Horikita.
“Yes. I noticed,” she replied quietly. “You always pay close attention to people, so I’m sure you aware that the school packs hints into everything. The three key points Chabashira-sensei made were that the short test won’t affect our grades, that the criteria for the combined scores hadn’t been decided yet, and that they’d determine our partners after the short test.”
I instinctively smiled in response to Horikita’s perfect, concise breakdown. Not long afterward, Hirata joined us.
“Sorry to have kept you waiting. You wanted to discuss plans, right?” Hirata called to Karuizawa to join us. Though she glared at us as if it was a huge bother, she came.
“Sorry. I thought that we should talk things over right away,” Horikita said. A few months ago, it would’ve been shocking for her to initiate a meeting like this. Now, though, she was the class’s commander. “I’d like to start right away, if that’s acceptable.”
“Huh? Wait, right here? No way. If we’re talking things over, we might as well go to Pallet. Right, Yousuke-kun?” asked Karuizawa.
Karuizawa tightly hugged Hirata’s arm, snuggling close to him. It was her usual method of getting what she wanted. She’d been doing it ever since I first met her. Incidentally, Pallet was a café on school grounds, one that mostly catered to girls. During lunch breaks and after class, it often overflowed with people.
My eyes met Karuizawa’s for an instant. Though I didn’t know why, she quickly let go of Hirata’s arm.
“We don’t know where the enemy might be watching us from, but… Well, it’s fine, I suppose,” replied Horikita. She probably understood that it would be unwise to antagonize Karuizawa right now. She might not have been consciously aware of it, but Horikita was definitely maturing.
“Excuse me, but would it be all right if I joined you, too?” Kushida Kikyou asked. “Is that okay…?”
“I’m fine with you joining us. You understand our class very well, Kushida-san. Besides, I’d like to hear several people’s opinions,” I said.
Karuizawa’s stance was that she didn’t mind whatever we did, so she didn’t say anything in response. Now, how would Horikita answer?
“Of course, Kushida-san. I planned on inviting you, anyway,” said Horikita.
Horikita had immediately agreed to the idea, almost as if she was saving herself the trouble of calling out to Kushida in the first place. That was a surprising move.
“Could you three head over to Pallet first? I have a few things to take care of.”
Kushida, Karuizawa, and Hirata agreed and left without any particular objections. I turned to Horikita.
“Is that really okay? Bringing Kushida in?”
Kushida Kikyou was a valuable asset, but she also hated Horikita. While their feud wasn’t public, I couldn’t say for certain that she wouldn’t try to sabotage us. Furthermore, during the sports festival, Kushida’s betrayal put Class D in a tight spot.
“Wouldn’t it seem weird to refuse her?” Horikita replied.
That was certainly true. But when I looked at it, had Horikita honestly accepted Kushida’s request, then?
“Sorry to make you wait, Suzune,” said Sudou, coming up to us.
“It’s all right. Hirata-kun and the others are meeting us at Pallet, anyway.”
“Okay, sure. Hey, uh, sorry about this…but, um, would it be okay if I peeked in on my club? The upperclassmen asked for me to be there. It should be over in, like, twenty or thirty minutes,” said Sudou.
“I don’t mind. Come join us as soon as you finish,” replied Horikita.
Sudou flashed a smile, grabbed his bag, and hurried out of the classroom. Horikita picked up her own bag and headed to the door.
“I think I’m gonna head back to my dorm. Give it your best,” I told her.
“Wait a minute. You were invited, too. You’re absolutely indispensable as the intermediary between Hirata-kun and Karuizawa-san. I still can’t control either of them,” said Horikita.
“I saw this coming. You say that, but I think you’re a capable leader. Besides, the final exam will test everything we’ve learned. You and your study group handled the midterm without my help.”
In reality, she had handled everything, from bringing the meeting together to establishing the location all on her own. There was just one more step.
“That might be true. But if Kushida-san is in the group, it’s a different story. I have business to discuss with you, too. Can you at least participate in today’s discussion? Or don’t you want the truth about Kushida?” asked Horikita.
What a cunning thing to say. I figured I should be honest with her.
“If I said I wasn’t interested, I’d be lying.” Kushida showed no favoritism toward anyone, and treated everybody in class equally, so I wanted to know why she held such animosity for Horikita alone. That fact in particular was incomprehensible to me.
“I’ll tell you everything I know about her,” said Horikita. There must have been some reason she’d decided on this timing. “Honestly, I don’t want to go around spreading rumors, but I think informing you is necessary. In fact, I think this will play out in my favor.”
“I wonder why you’re so interested in talking to me about Kushida.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you kept quiet about her until now. I can’t even imagine how you got entangled with her to begin with. When did you two start fighting?”
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that Horikita went quite stiff. “I can’t talk to you about it here. Understand?”
Even the walls had ears, after all. “I understand. I suppose I’ll come along with you.”
I imagined that the story was worth going to a meeting.
Out in the hallway, Horikita spoke to me in a hushed whisper. “Where would you like me to start?” she asked.
“From the beginning. All I know is that you two aren’t on good terms.” I wanted more information on Kushida’s dark side, but I didn’t dare bring it up. I wasn’t sure how much Horikita was aware of.
“I really don’t know much at all about Kushida Kikyou. When did you first meet her?” Horikita asked.
This question was probably just for confirmation, so I answered honestly. “On the bus.”
“I see. I also saw Kushida-san on the bus on the first day of school,” she replied.
I remembered that an elderly woman on the bus had been forced to stand because there weren’t any open seats. Kushida had asked if someone would give the old lady a seat, a good deed in and of itself, a faultless act of kindness. However, no one gave theirs up right away. As one of those who hadn’t offered, the scene had left a deep impression on me.
“You think Kushida started hating you back then? Kouenji also refused to give up his seat. I didn’t give mine up, either,” I told her. “But you’re the only one she hates.”
I didn’t mean to say that she liked me or anything. But it was unusual that Kushida’s hostility was directed solely at Horikita.
“I didn’t know Kushida-san back then. Well, to be more accurate, I didn’t remember her,” said Horikita.
“So, you knew each other before you met at this school?”
“Yes. We attended the same junior high, but it was in a completely different prefecture. Even in her wildest dreams, she probably never imagined that someone from her junior high would end up here too,” Horikita said.
Horikita had solved one great mystery for me. Their relationship had begun to develop before I’d met either of them. Yup, this was the backstory I needed in order to understand the situation.
“I remembered her after the first-semester study group. My junior high was an enormous school with over a thousand students. I was never in the same class as Kushida-san,” said Horikita. “I didn’t know her.”
That wasn’t really a surprise, if I assumed that Horikita had been as solitary back in junior high as she was now. She’d probably immersed herself in studying day after day, without making any friends.
Horikita and I didn’t head straight for Pallet. Instead, we spent time wandering around school, taking a detour. We knew this chat would take a while. Also, the farther away from the café we went, the fewer people were around.
“What was Kushida like in junior high?”
“No idea. Like I said, I didn’t interact with her. However, she was incredibly popular. Looking back, I remember classmates rallying around her during all kinds of events. She was nice to everyone, sociable, and well liked. She had the same level of influence as the student council,” said Horikita.
The Kushida I knew was never that popular, but it seemed she was still just as magnetic as before. I thought Horikita might have remembered her, all things considered, but it appeared as though the two of them hadn’t interacted directly. So, the mystery of why Kushida loathed Horikita so much still hadn’t been solved. Perhaps that secret was still hidden in the story yet to come.
“I don’t think she hates you just because she couldn’t befriend you,” I said.
It wasn’t a question or whether Kushida was capable of making 100 friends or anything like that. Not even Kushida could become friends with every single person in school.
“You’re right. The crucial part comes next. However, please keep in mind that this is nothing more than a rumor. Only Kushida-san herself knows the full truth.” With that preface out of the way, Horikita continued, her voice solemn. “In February of our third year, just as graduation approached, one entire class was absent from the assembly.”
“What, like they all got sick with the flu?”
“No. Apparently, a certain female student triggered an incident that destroyed her class. They didn’t recover until graduation,” said Horikita.
“I don’t even need to ask who that girl was, do I?”
“It was Kushida-san. But I don’t know the details. The school completely buried the incident. If it became public knowledge, their credibility would take a hit. It would even affect graduates who wanted to advance to higher education or find a job. Still, the school couldn’t suppress everything. Rumors started to spread,” said Horikita.
“Do you know anything, even if it’s just a fragment of a rumor?” I asked. I wanted to know the gist of what happened, to find out just what kind of event it had been.
“Some students said that the classroom was in complete disarray right after the incident. The blackboard and desks were covered with all kinds of slanderous scribblings.” She spoke as if immersed in the memory.
“Covered with slander, huh? Is it possible Kushida was bullied, then?”
“I don’t know. So many rumors floated around. Someone was being bullied, or they were doing the bullying. I even heard rumors about violence, though the details were vague.”
So, the rumor mill was extremely active.
“But then the rumors stopped in the blink of an eye. No one wanted to talk about it. Even though a whole class nearly fell apart, people suddenly acted as if nothing had happened.”
There must have been pressure coming from someone, most likely to keep everyone’s lips sealed.
“Still, it’s not like it’s your fault that Kushida made that class fall apart. I’m sure you weren’t paying attention to what happened, anyway.”
“You’re exactly right. I knew I wanted to come to this school, so I was utterly focused on preparing. I didn’t care that much about anything else,” Horikita replied.
I supposed that was true. Even if the school’s reputation had fallen, she was probably confident in her ability to pass anyway.
An even thought to have been triggered by Kushida had caused an entire class to collapse… I could imagine that it had an enormous impact on whether students could advance to higher education or find employment. couldn’t imagine the Kushida I knew doing any of that, honestly. However, if this were true, then I understood why she couldn’t allow anyone who knew the truth about her to stick around. If people found out, Kushida would lose all the social capital she’d gained.
“So, Kushida did something bad, but you don’t know the specific details. However, she doesn’t seem to know that you don’t know. She believes that, because you attended the same junior high, you know everything that happened.”
“She isn’t exactly wrong. I do know that she caused the incident.” Horikita sighed.
I was starting to get an idea of her predicament. The tension between them was all thanks to Kushida’s one-sided misunderstanding and hostility. Kushida would do anything to keep her past hidden. Even if Horikita said that she knew nothing about the incident, Kushida wouldn’t believe her. If Kushida knew what we were currently discussing, she would’ve taken it as proof that Horikita knew about her past. This was extremely troublesome.
“I still don’t understand,” Horikita said.
“About the incident?”
“Yeah. It’s just all so weirdly mysterious. How does a class with no problems collapse all of a sudden?” She shook her head.
“It’s possible that Kushida triggered it, but how could one single student have that much power?” I replied. This didn’t come down to simple bullying. If that were the case, only a few people would’ve been involved.
“Honestly, I can’t imagine,” said Horikita.
Even if I’d wanted Class D to fall apart, I couldn’t cause it just like that. “You’d need a powerful weapon,” I said.
The weapon I referred to wasn’t necessarily a physical one—rather, it referred to a variety of methods.
“If you wanted to destroy our class, what would you do?”
“To answer your question with another question, what’s the deadliest weapon in the world? What can Kushida manipulate? Think about it,” I said.
“As I’ve said before, violence is the deadliest weapon a human being can wield. It has rather unique power. No matter how clever the scholar or how influential the politician, no one is physically invulnerable,” said Horikita. “As long as the conditions are met, it’s not impossible to use force to crush the class, right? You could send everyone to the hospital, for instance.”
Though her example was a dangerous one, what Horikita said was true. In that case, the class would certainly fall apart.
“You’re not wrong. Violence is one of the deadliest weapons. However, Kushida didn’t use violence to corner everyone. If that were true, you’d have heard.” If Kushida had gone on a rampage with a chainsaw, the media would’ve had a field day. “What about something that can compete with violence’s unique power?”
“Do you have something in mind?” asked Horikita.
“Let’s say that I was the one setting out to destroy our class. In that case, I can think of something I’d use. Can you?”
“Wait.” Horikita gave it some thought. “I want to say ‘authority,’ but how many students have authority like that?” She didn’t seem terribly confident about her answer.
“Authority is a powerful weapon, but even the student council president couldn’t create that much mayhem. There’s no way someone like Kushida could reduce a class to nothing through authority.”
“Then what is it? What can bring an entire class to its knees?”
“Forget Kushida for a moment. What powerful weapon is available to anyone? Lies. People are natural liars by birth. Anyone can lie. Depending on the time and the place, a lie can do more damage than simple violence.”
Statistics show that people lie two or three times a day, on average. You might think that seems impossible, but the definition of a “lie” is rather broad. “I didn’t get enough sleep,” “I caught a cold,” “I didn’t notice that email,” “I’m fine.” Everything we say is full of lies.
“Lies. I see. You might be right.”
Lies were incredibly powerful. A single lie could even drive someone to their death. “I’ll cut right to the chase. If you used violence and lies, could you cause Class D to fall apart? Think about it.”
“I can’t say for sure. Hypothetically speaking, I couldn’t overcome some people in our class with violence. I can’t imagine defeating Sudou-kun or Kouenji-kun with my bare hands. Besides, there are also people like you whose strengths I don’t fully know,” said Horikita. “Supposing I had some kind of blunt weapon, or even the cover of night, I couldn’t possibly take on everyone. I just can’t imagine it working.” She seemed to be racking her brains more than I expected.
“Right. Anyone can use violence, but not everyone can use it effectively,” I told her.
“I don’t think I’d be able to lie my way through it either. Besides, there are many students in class who are better are lying than they are at lashing out with their fists, so it’s probably impossible. That fighting style doesn’t work for me,” she answered.
No matter how many simulations she ran in her mind, Horikita couldn’t come up with an answer.
“I can’t see Kushida-san using much violence. So, if the options are violence or lies, it’s only natural to conclude that she lied to destroy her class,” said Horikita.
“But…could she really do that?”
“Dunno. For her, it might not be impossible,” I said. Trying to corner one person wouldn’t be too difficult. Still, bringing down an entire class was an extensive undertaking. “Can Kushida really command such power? Or maybe…”
Maybe Kushida had a secret third weapon? Regardless, she’d certainly been the culprit. If she weren’t the one who destroyed her class, she wouldn’t be this hostile toward Horikita.
“Kushida-san told me that she’d use any means necessary to get rid of anyone who knew about her past. That she’d even work with Katsuragi-kun, Sakayanagi-san, or Ichinose-san to drive me out. She’s already formed an alliance with Ryuuen-kun to entrap me. She won’t stop as long as I’m here, even if Class D suffers,” said Horikita.
“That’s worrisome. So, she’s prepared to destroy our class to hide her past.”
“I have no doubt.”
That couldn’t be an idle threat. Yet, even though Kushida had declared war, she’d wanted to work with Horikita and Hirata today. Maybe that choice was designed to maintain her position in class, but it was likely a hostile act. She was probably trying to gather information.
Still, even if she was a spy, we needed Kushida. She’d built up significant goodwill in Class D. If we started treating her like an outsider, the other students wouldn’t trust us.
“How do you plan to deal with Kushida, Horikita?” I asked.
“My options are limited. I can tell her that I don’t know any details about the incident, or that I won’t say anything to anyone, and hope I’ll convince her.”
“It probably won’t be that simple. Kushida will remain suspicious, and she likely won’t forgive you for even knowing about her past.” Horikita had turned to me for help, which Kushida probably anticipated. It wasn’t surprising that Kushida included me on the list of people she wanted to have expelled.
“I still think my best option is to talk to her. Am I wrong?” asked Horikita.
“No, I agree with you. This matter is a question of making the necessary arrangements and requesting someone’s cooperation. Trying to convince her is probably the only solution.” For now. Eventually, Kushida would push back in a big way.
“In that case, there’s no need to deliberate further.”
“Look, I might be jumping too far ahead, but if we’re going to reach Class A, we might need to give up on Kushida.”
Horikita glared at me. “You mean we should get Kushida-san expelled?”
I nodded quietly. Strike your enemy down first; that was basic strategy. However, Horikita looked disgusted.
“I didn’t think you’d propose something like that. When I decided to let Sudou-kun fail months ago, you were the one who convinced me to help him instead. And I understood. We couldn’t turn our backs on a person with something to offer. To tell you the truth, if I’d abandoned Sudou-kun back then, the sports festival probably would’ve ended even more disastrously. And you saw how much he improved on the midterm. Am I wrong?”
The once-solitary Horikita had changed greatly. I was surprised to see such a radical transformation in her. Still, her plan wasn’t realistic. She’d done a good job of getting Sudou on our side, but I doubted that Horikita, who wasn’t silver-tongued to begin with, could successfully win Kushida over.
“This is different from just tutoring someone. To be honest, I don’t think Kushida’s feelings are solely what drive her. This is more than just a simple lack of understanding on her part. As long as you’re at this school, Kushida will attempt to sabotage you, and Class D may pay the price. Are you sure you won’t regret letting her stay?” I asked.
Horikita didn’t look swayed. On the contrary, she appeared more determined than before. Her brows twitched as she replied, “She’s an excellent student. Not only can she win people’s hearts and minds, she’s also a keen observer. If we make her our ally, she’ll be a great asset.”
True enough, but could it even be done?
“This is my responsibility. I can’t just abandon her. I’m sure she’ll understand,” said Horikita.
“If that’s what you want, then all right. I’ll keep watch.”
So she’s chosen the path of suffering, huh? It seemed as though Horikita seriously intended to face Kushida for the sake of the class. No matter what else I tried to say, she wouldn’t budge.
I wanted to believe it might work out. I wanted to see whether Horikita could really befriend Kushida, just as she’d turned Sudou into someone she could trust.
“I didn’t say I wanted your help,” said Horikita.
“Yeah, you’re right. This has nothing to do with me,” I responded. We’d almost completed a lap around the campus. We would arrive at Pallet shortly.
“I told you about Kushida-san because I thought that you’d keep it secret, and that you’d understand,” said Horikita.
“Sorry I didn’t give you the answer you wanted.”
I had given her my honest opinion, but we just weren’t seeing eye to eye.
“Since I provided all this information, would you answer a question?” she asked.
“What is it?”
Horikita stopped dead in her tracks and stared up at me, her eyes sharp. It looked like she had one more thing to talk about. “What did you do to Ryuuen-kun at the sports festival?”
“What did I do?”
Horikita was referring to when she had been caught in Ryuuen’s schemes. I didn’t know the exact details of what Ryuuen had done during the sports festival, so I could only answer based on how I saw it.
“I compromised, that’s it. All I did was ensure that Ryuuen’s plans were crushed,” I told her.
“You mean, you recorded the conversation Ryuuen-kun had with the Class C students? When he discussed his strategy?”
“It can’t have been easy to get that recording. How did you do it? Ryuuen-kun said there was a spy, but you’re not friends with anyone from Class C, are you?”
“I have my ways. I used what I had at my disposal.” Of course, Horikita didn’t know about the trouble Manabe and her friends had caused Karuizawa back on the cruise ship.
“Another thing. I was angry that you came to my rescue like that, because it meant that you thought I would fail. But I suppose I was about to fail, so…I can’t argue with you. Since you forbade me from prying into your affairs, I can’t demand that you tell me more. Though it was troubling, it… Well, if you hadn’t done anything, I would’ve… Well, thank you,” said Horikita.
“That was an amazingly roundabout way of thanking me.” I’d expected her to give me a lecture, so her gratitude caught me off guard. “I did promise to cooperate to a certain extent, so I could at least do that much,” I added.
“I’d consider it meddling, personally. Are you sure you’re okay with being this conspicuous? Ryuuen-kun is now convinced that someone in Class D is working behind the scenes, and you’re probably on his list, Ayanokouji-kun. I think the peaceful life you wanted is in jeopardy,” said Horikita.
True, my high school life was becoming more stressful than I ever wished it to be. But peace might never have been an option. Chabashira-sensei had already mentioned a certain man who wanted to see me. Then there was Sakayanagi, who knew my past. Ultimately, none of us were clairvoyant; we didn’t know how things would play out. Horikita could become my trump card later on. Now I was scrambling to find a way to get some R&R.
All the while, Horikita waited with an expectant expression.
“Good point. We’ll have to be especially cautious.”
“You reach into the deep recesses of your mind only to come back with that? I’m starting to understand you less and less,” said Horikita.
“You never understood me at all.”
“I suppose that’s true.”
If I didn’t remember seeing her, then she must not have pried into my affairs. At any rate, Horikita didn’t have time to focus on Ryuuen or me. If she didn’t deal with Kushida, her days at this school might be numbered.