KUSHIDA WAS WAITING for us out in the hallway. When she saw Horikita and I, she gave a small wave and smiled brightly. Horikita, however, was anything but surprised.
“Kushida-san. Sorry to have kept you waiting,” Horikita said.
“It’s all right. There’s still a little time left before we were scheduled to meet. What were you talking about with Honami-chan?” asked Kushida.
“I’d still like to know. Is it something you can tell me?” Kushida’s tone of voice and smile remained unchanged, but the tension rose.
“Sure. After all, it’s completely unrelated to you,” said Horikita.
After being deliberately prompted to share what happened, Horikita began telling Kushida about her conversation with Ichinose, albeit with some changes.
“I asked her how I could talk to people equally, without showing distinction or favoritism.”
“I’m not going to lie. I was asking about you, Kushida-san,” said Horikita.
“Listen here, Horikita-san. While you and I may not get along, I’d much rather talk about this without Ayanokouji-kun,” said Kushida. In other words, she didn’t want any more people to know her secret. “Or could it be…that Ayanokouji-kun and Ichinose-san now know something?”
She glared at us. Horikita, however, didn’t flinch.
“Sorry, Ayanokouji-kun, but could you head back without me?” said Horikita.
“Looks like I’m getting in the way,” I muttered. “I’ll get going.”
I left them and made my way toward the exit. After changing my shoes, I headed to the dormitory. En route, I got a call from Horikita and answered it.
I heard Horikita’s muffled voice through the phone’s speaker. “We attended the same junior high. Because I know about your past, you want to get me expelled. Do I have the facts correct?”
Apparently, Horikita had called me with her phone in her pocket. She was letting me listen in.
“Well, this is certainly sudden. Why bring up the past? I don’t like talking about that.”
“I don’t like it, either. But we can’t avoid it.”
“Well, we’ve rarely had the chance to be alone like this. But you’re certainly right—I do want you to disappear from this school, Horikita-san. And, yes, it’s because we were in junior high together, and you know about that incident.”
“I thought about this many times over. Although it’s true that I heard about an incident, I didn’t care. I didn’t have any friends back then anyway. All I heard were rumors. I don’t know what the truth really is.”
“But there’s no guarantee you don’t know, is there?”
“You’re right. That’s why you can’t let it go. No matter how much I deny it, you can’t be sure I’m not lying. I imagine that you’d like to have me kicked out of school because you can’t forgive me for knowing that there was an incident at all.”
Kushida didn’t deny it.
“How about we place a bet, Kushida-san?”
“A bet? What are you talking about?”
All went quiet for a moment. I couldn’t imagine that this was something Horikita had come up with on the fly. She’d most likely planned it.
“You don’t like that I’m here. I can’t do anything about that, right?”
“Right. As long as you’re here, Horikita-san, I can’t rest easy.”
“But we’re both in Class D. If we don’t work together, we can’t advance to Class A.”
“Actually, I think expelling you will solve the problem.”
“Do you plan on dropping out, too?”
“Of course not. Only you’ll drop out, Horikita-san.”
While their voices were muffled, and I couldn’t catch everything, both of them sounded very calm.
“I have no intention of dropping out,” said Horikita.
“Then there’s nothing we can do. I don’t think we can get along.”
“You might be right about that. I’ve been trying to come up with a way we can coexist.”
A solution didn’t come to mind for me, either. Not even now.
“Then. But I concluded that, no matter what I do, it’s impossible.”
“I think so too, Horikita-san. This won’t be over until one of us is gone.”
“We aren’t children. We can’t just fight. But you don’t trust me.”
There was a brief silence. Then Kushida spoke.
“What did you mean when you said ‘place a bet’?”
“If I score higher than you on the upcoming final exam, you’ll cooperate with me from now on without any hostility. I’m not expecting us to be best friends; I just want you to stop trying to hurt me. That’s all.”
“Are you challenging me personally, regardless of how many points we end up with in our pairs?”
“That’s ridiculous, Horikita-san. I didn’t beat your midterm score. Even if we based this bet on our total scores, it would still be hard for me to win. Besides, I’d gain nothing from winning.”
“Yes. That’s true. So…” Horikita’s voice was barely above a whisper now. “Let’s determine the winner based on one of the eight subjects. You’re free to choose whichever subject you’re best in. If your score is higher than mine, I’ll drop out of school. That’s my offer.”
I couldn’t believe this. This was no normal contest between two people of differing skill levels. Horikita was taking a huge gamble by putting her own expulsion on the table, and she gave Kushida rather favorable conditions to boot by allowing her to choose her best subject. If Kushida lost, she wouldn’t need to drop out. She’d just have to stop getting in Horikita’s way. On the other hand, if Kushida won, Horikita was done for.
“But this is just a verbal agreement, Horikita-san. If you lose, you could act like the bet never happened. Of course, I might not uphold my part of the arrangement, either. Can we both really trust what the other person says?”
“To make things official, I intend to involve a reliable witness.”
“A reliable witness?”
“If you would, please…niisan.”
Kushida seemed honestly shocked when he showed up. I was, too. Horikita was so deadly serious about this agreement, she’d brought her older brother to act as witness.
“I’m terribly sorry to ask this of you, niisan. But I absolutely need your help.”
That’s right. She’d actually summoned Horikita Manabu, the former student council president and her older brother, to the spot.
“It’s been a long time, Kushida,” I heard him say. “Do you remember me?”
“I don’t forget people.”
The Horikita siblings had attended the same junior high as Kushida. But Horikita’s older brother graduated before the incident involving Kushida happened, so he couldn’t know that she’d caused it.
“I trust my brother the most in this school. You can trust him as well, Kushida-san. Don’t worry, I didn’t tell him any details.”
“I was called to act as witness, nothing more. I’m not interested in anything else.”
“Are you okay with this, Horikita-senpai? If your little sister loses, then—”
“She made the bet. It has nothing to do with me.”
“I also swear that I won’t say a word to anyone if I lose, Kushida-san. I’d bring shame on my brother’s name if I went around breaking promises. I would never do that.”
The deal couldn’t possibly get any better for Kushida.
“You’re serious, aren’t you, Horikita-san?”
“I’m not the kind to wait around for people to strike.”
“Fine. I accept your challenge. And I’m all right with the terms of the bet. I choose mathematics. Can I assume that if we end up getting the same score, neither one of us wins?”
Horikita must have nodded. They’d agreed to terms right in front of Horikita’s brother. There was no way to back out now.
“I will fulfill my role as witness. Should either of you violate the bet, you’d best be prepared for the consequences.”
Even after retiring as student council president, Horikita’s brother still held a great deal of authority. Kushida would honor the arrangement until he graduated, at the very least.
“Thank you very much, niisan.”
The conversation went silent. Kushida and Horikita were probably waiting for Horikita’s brother to leave.
“I’m looking forward to the final exam, Horikita-san.”
“Let’s give it everything we’ve got. Both of us.”
“Yes. Give my regards to Ayanokouji-kun, too.”
“Because you told him, didn’t you? About my past.”
“Ah, you don’t really need to answer that. I don’t trust you, Horikita-san, so it doesn’t matter. I won’t violate our bet’s terms, so you can relax. Besides, Ayanokouji-kun has seen a little of my bad side.”
I felt Horikita’s panic through the phone. “Yes. I told Ayanokouji-kun.”
“I knew it. By the way, are you using your phone right now? You see, I’ve tried calling you over and over for the last few minutes, Horikita-san, but it seems like you’ve been on a call.”
It wasn’t just intuition. Kushida had some guts.
“Care to join us, Ayanokouji-kun?”
I heard Kushida calling me. It was probably best for me to obey.