I STARTED PREPARING immediately. I spoke to Hirata and Yukimura, then got in touch with Miyake. We talked about holding a study session later. Unfortunately, it wasn’t going to be so easy.
As soon as class ended, Hasebe vanished from the room. “Huh? Where’s Hasebe?”
“Did she run away?” muttered Yukimura.
“Hasebe isn’t like that,” said Miyake. “Maybe she just went on ahead of us?”
“Why would she need to?”
“A bunch of different reasons.” Miyake seemed to understand Hasebe quite well, and wasn’t especially worried.
We decided to head toward Pallet, our designated study hangout. En route to the café, we saw Hasebe in the hallway.
“Why did you rush out?” pressed Yukimura.
“What? Maybe I just don’t like standing around. Hanging out in a group is a little awkward,” she replied vaguely.
Yukimura seemed to take this as a personal attack, as if she found our company embarrassing. “So, you hate being seen talking to us?” he asked.
“That’s not it at all. There are a lot of reasons.”
“Don’t sweat it, Yukimura. Hasebe’s just like this,” said Miyake.
“Well, all the seats at Pallet will probably be taken while we stand around talking. Let’s keep moving,” I suggested. I understood how Yukimura felt, but we needed to stay on target. Classes were over for the day, so students were starting to trickle into Pallet one after another.
“Yeah, you’re right… It’d be a hassle if we had nowhere to sit. Let’s go,” replied Yukimura, regaining his composure and taking the lead.
“You should be a little more careful about what you say,” Miyake told Hasebe.
“Was it that annoying? I’ll think about it, I guess,” she replied. Evidently, she hadn’t been intentionally rude.
We managed to secure four seats at Pallet. Yukimura sat next to me, while Hasebe sat across from us. Miyake was beside Hasebe. It was a really odd combination, and the four of us clearly felt incredibly uncomfortable and out of place. I hardly understood how this group had come to be in the first place. Still, we had to get down to business.
“Um, I guess I’m counting on you, or whatever,” said Hasebe.
“Well, if you have any questions, feel free to ask,” I told everyone.
Hasebe, the only girl in the group, raised her hand right away. “So, you can talk, Ayanokouji-kun?”
“Is that really the question you’re going to ask?”
Hasebe looked as if her interest was piqued. Apparently, the fact that I was speaking to them was quite mysterious. “I guess I don’t have any impression of you at all. Do people even notice when you’re not there?” she continued.
Well…I mean, I didn’t talk to Hasebe on a regular basis, or at all. So, maybe it was understandable that she had that kind of impression.
Miyake brought up the sports festival. “But Ayanokouji was awesome in the relay. Everyone’s eyes have been on him since then.”
“Seems that way. But I went to the bathroom during that race, so I missed seeing it. It all feels kinda bizarre to me. Didn’t you compete against the former student council president? That’s what everyone was buzzing about right after the festival ended,” said Hasebe.
“Did you do track and field back in junior high, Ayanokouji? After seeing you run, a talent scout from the track and field club came looking for you,” said Miyake.
“Ah, yeah. I got some offers. But I refused,” I replied. The track and field club’s enthusiasm was only temporary. They couldn’t keep trying to recruit me forever. The people in the club probably weren’t talking about me anymore. Even if someone was fast, if they had no interest in joining a club, hounding them to join would be pointless.
“To be honest, I’ve never been in a club before,” I added. “I don’t really know much about that stuff.”
“Oh, really? What a shame,” said Miyake.
Yukimura just listened, never speaking once. Hasebe, disinterested, switched the conversation’s topic to Miyake. “Miyacchi is in the archery club. Is it fun shooting bows every day?”
“I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t fun. By the way, you don’t shoot the bow, just arrows,” he replied.
Well, he’s not wrong there.
“I’m just not interested in clubs, I guess. I’m fine with spending time by myself,” said Hasebe.
My current impression of these two was quite different from what I’d previously imagined. They were far more talkative than I thought.
“Hey, Miyacchi. Is it okay for you to miss your club stuff?” asked Hasebe.
“I took time off.”
“Wow. You shouldn’t do that.”
“When something takes priority, I focus on it. Besides, my club’s pretty lenient, so I won’t be in any trouble.”
“Excuse me? I’d like to say something before we begin,” said Yukimura. Finally, he’d spoken up. He focused not on Miyake or Hasebe, but on me. “No hiding anything, Ayanokouji.”
“Huh? What do you mean?”
“Studying. Horikita says you’re quite capable.”
“Ugh, Horikita,” I muttered. What a blabbermouth. I needed to give Yukimura something if I wanted to earn his trust. “Well, I’m relatively good at memorizing things. I think I can get a pretty high score if I concentrate.”
“Are you the type to hide his abilities?”
“Well, I can’t hold a candle to you, Yukimura. Please don’t expect too much of me. I’m not very good at teaching,” I replied.
“You should take this study group seriously, then. With me tutoring you, you’ll definitely score higher than you did on the midterm. Even if it’s just by one point.” Yukimura turned to Hasebe and Miyake. “Did you bring your answer sheets from the midterm and first semester exams like I asked?”
“Yeah,” said Hasebe.
Miyake nodded as well. They took their test papers from their bags and handed them over. I glanced at their papers and scores.
“Both of you excel in the sciences. Your humanities scores are a complete disaster,” said Yukimura.
Miyake and Hasebe had scored relatively high in math, earning around seventy points. But they only got about forty points in language and world history. It was obvious why the two of them were worried.
“I didn’t know you two were so close, but you certainly do share the same strengths and weaknesses,” added Yukimura.
“Well, Hasebe came and talked to me when I was studying in the library one day,” said Miyake.
“Miyacchi and I are both independent people. We don’t really fit in with everyone else,” Hasebe added.
“I feel the same, in a way,” said Miyake. “Even in this group, I feel awkward and distant.”
The two of them were certainly distant from the rest of the class, and they didn’t belong to any specific clique. Was this the reason why?
“So, why did you agree to join us?” asked Yukimura.
“Because this isn’t really a club, I guess. It’s just a study group. Besides, it’ll be quiet with just the few of us, right? When I study by myself, nothing bothers me or gets in the way. I think I’ll have to process my new study method, then. Sorry, but I’ll need a little time.”
“Got it. How about we have a little tea break?” Hasebe asked. She immediately took out her phone and relaxed. I supposed it was easy for anyone to pass the time nowadays, as long as you had a phone. Would it be appropriate for me to take mine out now, too?
Suddenly, I felt as if someone was watching me. I turned around. Several male students, each on the phone with somebody, were in fact eyeing us. I recognized three of them; all were from Class C. I only recalled the name of the one in the middle, Ishizaki.
Hopefully, they weren’t about to drag me into another troublesome mess. It didn’t seem like Ishizaki and the others were picking a fight. Although they looked at me now and again, they walked over to the display case next to the register. The case was lined with various cakes, which you could either order to go or enjoy there in the café. The strawberry shortcake and the Mont Blanc appeared especially popular, but I wasn’t exactly knowledgeable about that stuff.
The cashier seemed to be having some difficulty hearing what the Class C students wanted to order. As she listened, she never leaned over to take out, say, a strawberry shortcake from the case. Before long, she looked anxious and apologetic.
“There’s no way you can do it?!” roared Ishizaki. The lively café quieted at once.
“Sir, we need to have at least one week’s advance notice for any special-order cakes,” the cashier replied. “I’m afraid it’s not possible to prepare something on the same day.”
After hearing the cashier’s response, people began chatting in the café once again.
“What’s that all about?” asked Hasebe. She twirled her pen around and looked at Ishizaki and his friends with disgust.
“Who knows? Doesn’t have anything to do with us,” replied Yukimura, indifferent. He was writing something down on Hasebe and Miyake’s test papers, probably figuring out which subjects they were having trouble in and coming up with a plan.
“Cake, huh?” I wasn’t the least bit interested in what Ishizaki was talking to the cashier about, but the topic of cake reminded me that it was my birthday tomorrow. Honestly, I didn’t know how to spend a birthday like a normal person. My birthday always meant that I was simply another year older.
I knew that a birthday was often celebrated with family, a lover, or friends. I just didn’t understand what I should feel.
“What’s the matter, Ayanokouji-kun?”
Tomorrow was October 20. Some other students or teachers might share my birthday. Nothing unusual there. The only difference between those people and me was that I didn’t have anybody to celebrate with. I wondered whether someone would acknowledge my birthday next year.