OUR STUDY SESSION ended without incident, and everyone started to head back to the dorm.
“Aw, I’m beat!” Ike whined.
For people like Ike and Yamauchi, who couldn’t even concentrate during normal school hours, an after-school study session was the very definition of hell. They beamed with delight at being finally free, but Horikita glared icily at them.
“Today’s not the end. We have another session tomorrow,” she said.
“C-come on, I know that. Isn’t it okay for me to be at least a little happy? I worked hard!” Ike shot back as the two idiots raced out of the library. They looked like startled rabbits.
“Wow, Class D sure is lively. I almost wish you’d share some of that energy with us!” said Ichinose.
“Yeah, but they’re lively about all the wrong things. To be honest, I envy Class B,” replied Horikita.
She wasn’t mistaken to feel that way. The Class B students were more focused than Class D; they were calm and composed, and cooperated with one another.
“Goodbye,” Kushida said to Ichinose. “Horikita-san, goodbye to you, too.”
“Yeah, goodbye,” Horikita replied.
Kushida left without incident, a few other girls in tow. So, she was playing it cool for now. It seemed that both she and Horikita were checking each other out.
“Ichinose-san, can I ask you a few questions?” asked Horikita.
“Hmm? What kind of questions?”
“I’d prefer it if this was just between you and me. It’ll only take a few minutes,” said Horikita, scanning the other Class B students who were about to leave with Ichinose.
“A few minutes? All right. Sorry, everybody, but could you please wait for me in the hall?” asked Ichinose.
“Yeah, that’s okay. We’ll just chat while we wait,” one of them said.
The Class B students had amicably accepted her request, and Ichinose agreed to stay behind with Horikita. After that, the other Class B and D students departed, leaving the three of us here alone.
“Should I stay?” I asked.
“It doesn’t matter either way,” said Horikita.
I thought she was being sarcastic, for a moment, but then realized she was probably employing reverse psychology to make me stick around.
“What did you want to talk about?” asked Ichinose.
It felt a little strange that the pair of them were alone like this. Ichinose and Horikita, two people with opposite personalities, stood shoulder to shoulder.
“Ichinose-san, if a friend or an ally were in trouble, you’d help them. Right?” asked Horikita.
“Um, yeah? Isn’t that only natural?” replied Ichinose.
“Mm-hmm. And it’s very kind of Class B to help us with these study sessions. But ‘help’ takes shape in a number of ways, just as there are myriad types of suffering. If someone reached out to you for help with studying, bullies, money problems, or even relationships between friends or with their teacher, you’d offer them a hand. Right, Ichinose-san?” asked Horikita.
“Of course,” Ichinose answered immediately. There was no indecision.
“Then, do you have clear criteria for determining who is and isn’t your friend?” Maybe Horikita’s conflict with Kushida prompted these questions. She may have been looking for salvation of her own.
“Hmm. I don’t quite understand. What do you mean?”
“Well, would you be unconditionally willing to help someone, as long as they were from Class B? Even if that student didn’t contribute much to the class?”
“No matter how the other person acted, I’d be on Class B’s side. If someone were in trouble, I’d definitely try to help.” Ichinose spoke without hesitation once more.
“Maybe this is a silly question, after all,” said Horikita with a sigh. “Well, let me ask you another silly question. Let’s suppose someone in Class B hated you, making your relationship rocky at best. Would you be able to like that person? Or would you end up hating them in return?”
“Hmm. I’m not sure. That’s a bit difficult. If they really hated me, my best option would be to avoid contact as much as possible, to keep them from disliking me even more,” said Ichinose.
“And if that person were in trouble, what would you do?”
“Help them,” said Ichinose immediately. “Even if they really hated me, I’m always Class B’s ally.”
“Class B seems extremely important to you,” said Horikita.
“Yes. They’re all good kids. I admit that, at first, I was sad I wasn’t in Class A. But now, I think I’m in the best class. Don’t you feel the same, Horikita?”
“Well…home is where you make it, I suppose. Class D isn’t too bad,” said Horikita.
“Oh?” I muttered, a little impressed.
“What, Ayanokouji-kun? Have something to add?” Horikita glared at me.
“Sorry to insert myself into your conversation, but can I ask you something, Ichinose?” I said.
“I understand that your classmates are unconditional allies. I do think it’s necessary to be friends with everyone in your boat, so to speak. However, are the Class A, C, and D students your friends?”
“Well, you and Horikita-san are dear friends to me, Ayanokouji-kun.”
“Then what if we’re in trouble? What if we came to you, begging you to lend us a million points?” I asked.
“If there were a good reason, I’d help. The amount doesn’t matter,” said Ichinose.
“Sheesh. Your generosity knows no bounds. You’ll really help anyone?”
“Ideally, yes, but I know it’s not always that simple. There’s a limit to how much I can do myself. If Ryuuen-kun were in trouble, I couldn’t help him like I help others. But if it’s within my power, I’ll help,” said Ichinose.
I almost wanted to add that normally, an individual’s power had its limits.
She went on, “As long as you’re my friend, a problem’s nature or intensity doesn’t matter.”
“Although I appreciate that, I have my doubts. So, if I came crying to you, begging for help…?”
“I’d welcome you with open arms. My friends are my allies, too.”
Ichinose’s virtuousness must’ve made Horikita feel as though she were being teased a little. Her responses weren’t nearly as composed as usual.
“In that case…what would you do if Kanzaki-kun and I had the same problem?” Horikita asked.
“You mean if I had to pick one of you?” Ichinose was at a complete loss, even though it was just a hypothetical situation.
“If I allowed you to choose both, you’d do it in a heartbeat,” said Horikita.
“Ah ha ha, you got me.” She deliberated about it for a bit. “Sorry. I don’t know how to answer that. Both my friends are suffering from the same problem, and they’ve come looking to me for help—in a hypothetical scenario like that, no matter who I helped, I’d hurt someone else.”
That was just like Ichinose. Horikita seemed both genuinely surprised and impressed.
“I don’t believe purely good people exist. Humans are crafty animals who want their virtues rewarded,” said Horikita. This was her philosophy, but her argument practically dissolved before it had the chance to manifest. “But after hearing what you said… Maybe there really are good people in this world.”
She was being entirely sincere, yet Ichinose didn’t accept what Horikita had said. No, I supposed it would be better to say that she couldn’t accept it.
Ichinose seemed taken aback. “You’re giving me far too much credit, Horikita-san.”
She’d been honest and straightforward with us so far, but now, her eyes darted around the room. Ichinose stood up and walked over to the library window.
“Well, I at least think you’re a better person than anyone I’ve ever met,” said Horikita.
“I’m really not so wonderful,” replied Ichinose. She couldn’t even look Horikita in the face.
“Really, it’s not a big deal.” Horikita obviously noticed Ichinose’s strange reaction. “I’m sorry. Perhaps I went a little overboard. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”
“It’s okay. You didn’t really make me uncomfortable.” Still, Ichinose was clearly shaken.
Judging by everything I had seen of Ichinose until now, I didn’t think anything that could have dampened her spirits. However, I may have been mistaken.
“Is that all you wanted to talk about? Chihiro-chan and the others are waiting on me. Can we call it a day?” Ichinose asked, as if she were trying to escape.
“Thank you for answering my silly questions,” said Horikita.
“No problem. Well, I’ll see you tomorrow,” replied Ichinose.
After she left, Horikita and I, a few third-year students, and the library staff were all that remained.
“Let’s head back,” said Horikita. “I still have things to do.”
“I’m just double-checking here, but what are you going to do about Kushida? It sounds like you came up with something,” I said. Horikita probably didn’t like being asked that question over and over, but I had to make sure.
“She’s special. I’ll have to be extra careful,” said Horikita.
“I’ve been thinking about several things. About the kind of life Kushida Kikyou would’ve had at this school had I not enrolled here. That was when it dawned on me. Everyone in class would’ve trusted and leaned upon her. She could have studied and played sports without any concerns. She would’ve carried on like that until graduation. However, my presence took that easy future from her. She worked with an enemy, Ryuuen-kun, in a desperate bid to drive me out. She didn’t hesitate to attack her own class. Of course, that isn’t my fault. It’s just bad luck that we ended up at the same school.”
So that was why she was trying to persuade Kushida, huh? It appeared she was taking on more of a burden than I’d initially imagined. No, perhaps it was more like she was trying to fulfill an obligation.
“I have a suggestion,” I told Horikita.
“What kind of suggestion?”
“I believe I found the puzzle piece you’ll need to reconcile with Kushida.”
“What do you mean?”
“Would you agree that Ichinose is a good person?”
“Yes. I wouldn’t doubt it, even if I caught wind of unpleasant rumors about her,” said Horikita.
“So, why not get a good person to mediate between you two? Frankly, I think nothing will come from a one-on-one conversation with Kushida. She would never reveal her true nature to anyone in Class D.”
“But wouldn’t Kushida act the same way in her presence? No matter who we asked for help, any students here would cause the same outcome,” said Horikita.
“Well, in that case, is there another student out there who might be able to mediate?” I asked.
“If you had to nominate just one student out of everyone here at school, you would name Ichinose, wouldn’t you?” I asked her.
“I can’t deny that… But even so, I don’t think it’s right to have Ichinose mediate,” said Horikita.
“I don’t think this’ll resolve everything. I’m just saying it’s a step in the right direction. Right now, you and Kushida aren’t even on good enough terms to talk. If Ichinose mediated, you could probably have an actual conversation.”
In fact, Ichinose was just the first step in resolving this problem. More puzzle pieces were yet to come.
Horikita shook her head. “You’re really going for the throat now. But I can’t accept that. I’m going to settle things with Kushida myself.”
In other words, she couldn’t bring Ichinose into it.