Chapter 1: Footsteps of Midwinter
Mid-December has come and passed. The changing of the seasons happened quickly and it’s become freezing cold. Students have naturally started wearing mufflers, gloves and long socks more and more. The sky today is a cloudy grey, almost as though it’s about to snow. Now that I think about it, I’ve never actually seen snow before. Of course, I’ve seen it on television and in books but I’ve never actually held it in my hands and felt it with my skin. I don’t know if it will snow here this year but I do want to experience it. After school, in a corner of Keyaki Mall, four students gathered in the space where students rest and go about their business. They are members of Class D. Sakura Airi, Hasebe Haruka, Yukimura Keisei and me. Keisei’s real name is Teruhiko but in accordance with his wish, we’ve taken to calling him Keisei.
I’ve gotten used to seeing their faces these days. We meet up irregularly two or three times each week to chat without any ulterior motives. The time we spend together depends on the day but we sometimes spend about two hours together and sometimes we split up after just half an hour. If you feel like heading back halfway through it, you’re free to do so too. What I’m getting at is that these aren’t people you need to be formal with. But we often spend more time than usual together after school on Fridays. The reason for that is our fifth member who’s currently absent, Miyake Akito, and various circumstances involving him. “In the end, nobody from any class got expelled. I thought Class C might’ve made a move about now though. The questions we set weren’t easy ones either.” As several girls from Class C coincidentally passed by us, Keisei said that.
“Class C doesn’t really look like it’s better at studying than us though.” Haruka immediately replied while fiddling with her phone. And then she made an announcement. “Miyachi says he’ll be here soon. Looks like he just left his club.”
Apparently she’s been having a conversation with the person we’re waiting for. The only member of our group who belongs to a club, Akito, isn’t able to meet up with us immediately after school. “But we got through the exam so isn’t that a relief…? Besides, it’s also not exactly good news to hear of someone from another class getting expelled.” Airi, who doesn’t deal well with harsh things like this, gave her honest opinion.
“Well, there’s nothing better than being able to get along. But wouldn’t that be difficult with the way this school is set up? To aim for the upper classes means kicking down another class after all.” Sounds harsh but Haruka’s right. Hearing that, Keisei was honestly impressed. “Exactly. I get what Airi’s trying to say but if we don’t kick them down then we’ll get kicked down ourselves. To be a winner at this school means sacrificing three other classes. There’s no need for us to be the sacrifices.”
“I suppose so……”
Airi replied dejectedly at Keisei’s harsh words. “For instance, is there really no trick we can use? Like having all class points be equalized in the previous exam? That way, everyone can be happy and we can all graduate as Class A. Like that’s going to happen though.”
“I think that’d be great.”
“Unfortunately, I think that’s impossible.” Countering Haruka’s strange idea, Akito joined us. “How can you say that?”
“I’ve heard the seniors talking about this. If we happen to be equal after the final exam then additional special exams are apparently held to determine our rankings.”
“What sort of exam?”
“Don’t know. They’re just rumors at best. Apparently we’ve never had a situation like that where different classes end up with the same points.” I suppose the details are unknown even to Akito. But there’s no mistaking the fact that this is valuable information. “Guess it won’t be that simple. I thought it was an interesting idea though.”
“In the end, I guess that means there can only be one Class A”. “So, Miyachi, how was practice today?”
Haruka asked Akito. “What was how?”
“Hmm. Like how well you handled your bow, I guess.”
“Normal. Nothing particularly outstanding or lame. Don’t ask when you don’t even have any interest in it.”
“Isn’t that just fine? To have a casual conversation between friends?”
“Then I suppose that means you’re at least somewhat knowledgeable about archery?” Akito sat down while harboring suspicions.
“It’s not about knowledge or anything, it’s just a competition where you’re supposed to hit targets with an arrow, right?”
“No, that’s the gist of it though…never mind.” Akito tried to explain in detail but seems to have given up on that. “How should I put it? I’ve never been interested in archery from the day I was born. That’s why I’m curious to know what mistakes had to have been made to push you in that direction.” It appears Haruka thinks walking the path of archery is a mistake.
Well, it’s not a particularly dazzling sport but personally speaking, I’m interested. But I do suppose there are quite a lot of students who’ve never held a bow before. “Yeah, come to think of it, why archery? It’s not like this school is famous for it or anything, right?” Listening to their conversation, a question came from Keisei too. “During middle school, a senior who took care of me belonged to the archery club. That’s why I thought I’d pick it up too. That’s all there is to it, no deep reason in particular.”
“The trigger to start doing something. I suppose it’s just that sort of thing.”
Airi too, reservedly joined the conversation. It’s something I’m increasingly seeing these days and a welcome sight. And it’s also because no one acts surprised about it or teases her over it that Airi’s also able to wriggle her way into the conversation naturally. “Airi’s got her digital camera, right? It’s popular these days, I suppose. I guess I can understand that better.”
“Instagram. A hobby unique to girls, huh? It’s really hard to get.” Perhaps Keisei’s unable to comprehend it, since he’s saying rather negative things about it. “Hey, that’s sexual discrimination right there. There are a lot of boys doing it these days too, you know?”
“…really? I don’t think it’s a good idea to spread personal information about yourself like that though.”
“I don’t get it either. What about you, Kiyotaka? Do you do it too?”
“No. I’m not really knowledgeable about those things.” Since this school forbids any contact with the outside, things like SNS and other texting applications will only connect students to one another. If you’re satisfied with that then there’s no reason to speak out.
“Kiyopon doesn’t really look like the type to do those things. On the contrary, if you used Instagram then that’d feel lame. Ever gone partying at a night pool carrying some ice cream and looking cute…hmm?”
“No.” I immediately denied it. It would be troublesome if that’s the sort of person she comes to see me as later. “What about you then, do you use it? Instagram, I mean.”
“Not at all. It’s a bother and I don’t really like showing myself to others.”
“I completely agree.” Keisei nodded in agreement with Haruka’s words. Airi stayed quiet upon hearing that but she seems to have received critical damage from that one blow just now. Apparently she’s stopped doing it now but she used to take selfies and upload them to SNS as a hobby. “It’s pretty popular out there so it’s not like it’s anything weird.”
I covered for her. No point in having Airi getting depressed over nothing. She probably intended on hiding it but it’s completely obvious how she’s flustered over my remarks just from a side glance.
Airi expressively reacts every time even to a follow up like that so Haruka and the others immediately caught onto it. “I know I’m really out of date and not very fashionable so I can’t really object much to that. I apologize to anyone who happens to like Instagram.” Haruka raised her hands and apologized. “Just because I personally dislike it, rejecting something that’s popular out of hand is certainly a stupid thing to do. I didn’t think it through.” And Keisei also apologized. Mainly to Airi. Airi patted her chest in relief.
“Sorry about changing the topic here but there’s something I’m curious about.” Now that the discussion’s settled a bit, Akito interjected. He sounded somewhat irritated and spoke almost while glaring at his surroundings. “Doesn’t Class C seem strange these days?”
“Class C? They’re always a strange bunch though. What do you mean?” Haruka curiously leaned forward with wide eyes. I know what Akito is trying to point out.
It’s about the people who’ve been following us these past few days. It looks like Akito’s also realized. Even now, there’s a boy hiding himself while peeking at us. It’s ‘Komiya’, a Class C student and one of Ryuuen’s henchmen. There’s almost no doubt he’s supposed to be keeping an eye on our group. But there’s quite a bit of distance between us and even if we ask him there’s really no evidence that points towards surveillance. If he insists that it’s just a series of coincidences then that’s all it’ll take to shut us down. On the contrary, there’s the risk that we could be labeled the bad guys for confronting him over this instead. The reason Akito didn’t say it out loud is probably because he still doesn’t have solid proof.
More importantly, the problem is that there is another person who ‘isn’t from Class C’ observing this group. Akito hasn’t noticed that presence. “During our study session a while back, those Class C guys made contact with us right?” It’s back when we were holding a study session to prepare for the written exam that is the Paper Shuffle. Students from Class C showed up in a public space like the cafeteria and suddenly came over to our group. And from then until today, that interference has continued in the form of a tail. “You mean Ryuuen-kun and Shiina-san, right? Could it be that they’re also?”
“Yeah. It’s a different person this time though. Today, Ishizaki and Komiya showed up at the archery club. Said they came to have a look so the seniors accepted it but they were glaring at me the whole time so it was hard for me to do anything.”
I see. In other words, Komiya came all the way here by following Akito. The reason Ishizaki isn’t here is because tailing a large number of people isn’t a suitable task for him. Looks like Akito’s the one most troubled by Ryuuen’s surveillance. “Isn’t it just that they’re interested in the club?” Airi, who couldn’t possibly comprehend Ryuuen’s thought process, said so. “That would be great if it were the case. But it didn’t feel that way.” As though trying to tell us his shoulders are stiff, Akito waves his arms around. Every day, Ryuuen’s repeatedly put pressure on him and the pace has only picked up.
It’s not like I’m talking directly to him but I can almost hear Ryuuen’s fearless laughter. ‘I’ll hunt you down’. I could feel that sort of strong determination from Ryuuen. “Did they do anything? Like jeering at you or sneezing just when you’re about to release the arrow to disturb you? Or maybe they threw little rocks at you?”
“Of course, they can’t do anything in front of the instructors and the seniors. By the time practice ended, they went back.” Ever since that day, although I myself did not change, it’s obvious they’ve hit the mark. I should assume they’ve marked Karuizawa too.
He’s already probably narrowed down his targets to a select few that includes me as well. If I do one more decisive thing, I think he may even narrow it down to me. And the person who holds that one decisive thing is ‘Karuizawa Kei’. But the fact that he’s not acting lightly is proof that he’s given it careful thought. Even if he tries to ask Karuizawa about my existence, doing so upfront won’t get him anywhere. Now then, I wonder how Ryuuen’s going to fill in that last piece of the puzzle. Looking at the pattern of his movements up until now, it’s not that difficult to imagine.
The question is ‘when’ that’s going to happen. While I thought about that, Akito and the others continued their conversation. Keisei then draws his conclusion as to why Class C is disturbing us. “Don’t you think it has something to do with Class D’s growth? We ended up with 0 points not too long after enrolling yet here we are, almost close enough to scratch Class C’s back. There’s also the results of Paper Shuffle to consider, so we may actually end up becoming Class C by the time the 3rd semester rolls around. They must be panicking.” Keisei tries to rationally guess the reason behind Class C’s actions. “Now that you mention it, that’s right. They’re about to be overtaken by the very people they mocked—”
“But…we wouldn’t have overtaken them, right?” Airi, recalling the announcement of the class points, asked that but Keisei then replied. “Yeah. The class points announced at the start of December were 262 points for Class D and 542 points for Class C. There’s still a 280 point gap between us.”
During Paper Shuffle, we fought directly against Class C and triumphed. As a result, we managed to boost our class points brilliantly. 100 points from Class C moved to Class D and we gained a total of 200 points. The gap is now a measly 80 points.
Still, Class C is in the lead at this stage. However—an accident completely unrelated to the exams happened to Class C. “It seems Class C committed a serious rule violation. They didn’t announce the details of it but they got hit by a severe penalty, having 100 points taken from them.” The other day, I remember receiving a general explanation of it from the school. “I wonder what exactly they did to cause this huge fuss. It’s really a very Class C-ish thing to do though.” Haruka said exasperatedly but unfortunately enough, Class D can’t afford to be laughing at other classes. Despite the exam, we lost 1000 class points a month after enrolling.
“Regardless of the reason, the effect of their self-destruction is significant. If things end just like this then after the winter vacation there’s a high possibility we’ll be promoted to Class C”. Keisei concluded without coming off as arrogant. “Is that the reason Miyachi got involved?”
“There’s nothing saying that’s not the reason.” From the perspective of Ryuuen, who rules over Class C, a demotion isn’t going to be fun. To find some sort of weakness in Class D so he can keep his current position, is what he’s trying to do now. If that’s the case, then it’s consistent with his actions.
Everyone here, except for me, concluded that. “A class change is a problem this school cannot avoid entirely but I also think it’s something that doesn’t happen often. In that case, Class D’s growth after its massive tumble must be reason enough for Class C to panic and it’s natural to try and figure out the reason behind that growth.”
“Despite acting high and mighty all the time, Ryuuen-kun’s still a leader. He’s totally going to lose face.”
“I see. I suppose their desperation is understandable.” Akito probably felt gratified imagining a frustrated Ryuuen with his pride torn to shreds and so he agreed with that.
“But we haven’t really changed all that much, have we? It feels like by the time we realized, that gap already shrunk. Why is that? Is it just because Class C took a tumble?” Most of the students in our class don’t know of the battles that occur behind the scenes and simply take the exams head on. It’s understandable that they would be unable to comprehend why the gap has shrunk. “If we’re talking about just Class D then we triumphed over the other classes during the island exam. We were beaten by Ryuuen during the zodiac exam but we made a comeback during the Paper Shuffle the other day. Compared to that, Class C’s been neglecting their class points, haven’t they?”
“Even on the island, they quickly used up all the points allocated to them.”
“In other words…is Class C self-destructing?”
“You could see it that way. Even their rule violation this time around is pretty self-destructive.” A special exam conducted on an uninhabited island right as the summer vacation started. Each class is equally allocated 300 points for use throughout the exam and we’re supposed to clear the exam by using those points over the course of one week. And whatever points are left over by the end will be added to our class points. All classes, including D, did everything they could to save up as many points as they could but like Haruka said, Class C quickly used up all 300 points. “Isn’t that why our class was able to bridge the gap by that much?” There were twists and turns along the way, but Class D managed to save up 225 points.
“That’s true but we don’t know whether they counterbalanced that or not. For all their spending, Class C seems to have enjoyed their vacation. I’m somewhat jealous that they didn’t have to go through all that.”
“Rubbish. That Ryuuen’s always reckless…no, he’s a man child who thinks doing things normal people wouldn’t do makes him cool. That’s why it’s means nothing if the class loses.” To save up class points in order to rise to Class A. From the perspective of Keisei, who possesses such a strong will, throwing away class points like that might seem like an absurd thing to do. But it’s not like Ryuuen was just pointlessly wasting the points allocated to him on the island either.
As a matter of fact, despite having used up all his points, he handed over all the leftover items such as toilets and tents to Class A. I can’t imagine he’d hand them over free of charge. In other words, he must have gotten something in exchange for the loss of the points. Of course, there’s no way he accepted something intangible like trust or friendship. Something he can obtain in exchange for class points. It’s got to be private points. There are only a few students who are aware of this and Keisei doesn’t seem like he understands. “You boys sure have it easy. Don’t you think so too, Airi?”
“Y-Yeah. That’s right. There are quite a lot of girls troubled by this. I think a bit later and I might have also been in trouble……” Airi said so while blushing. The island exam did take the girls into account to a certain degree but even then I’m sure they had a far harder time than the boys did. “Why would you’ve been in trouble if it had been a bit later?” Keisei, who doesn’t know the first thing about a girl’s troubles, looked at Airi strangely. “T-That’s.” Airi, unable to tell him that it’s about a ‘girl’s day’, averted her eyes. Haruka, seeing the situation, gave Keisei a few harsh words.
“How should I put this, Yukimu~. That ignorant side of yours can be cute but when it comes to stuff like this, you need to read the mood? That sort of thing.”
“…what do you mean?” Regardless of whether he just has no tact or genuinely has no idea, Akito gently tapped Keisei’s shoulder.
“People have their own problems, is what it means.”
“I haven’t a clue. What do you mean by ‘their own problems’?” Keisei, unable to read the mood, tried to delve even deeper into a girl’s circumstances. And so Akito changed the topic.
“Class D won because Horikita saw through Ryuuen’s risky strategy, right? If no one realized that then there’s a good chance Class D’s leader would have been uncovered, right?” I nodded and gave my honest reply to Akito, who tried to confirm that. “If that had happened, this current situation wouldn’t have occurred.”
“They were partying the whole time yet still wanted to get that reward at the end, huh? And they made it look like they all withdrew. But why did Ryuuen-kun have to be the one to stay behind on the island? He’s Class C’s leader. Wouldn’t it have been better to leave behind someone less conspicuous?”
Haruka’s not completely off the mark. However, this is something that applies to all the classes. The ones who stand out being the leaders is something everyone would consider first but since literally anyone can be nominated as the leader, it’s also natural that you’d end up doubting it. In the first place, no one would be able to pinpoint Ryuuen as the leader unless they’re absolutely sure he’s stayed behind on the island. And even if they confirm that he’s stayed behind, there’s still a very low chance of him being pinpointed. Because an inconspicuous Class C student could still be in hiding. That possibility cannot be ruled out.
Because it’s an exam where the cost of making a mistake is far greater than the reward of hitting the mark. Ultimately, unless you have solid proof, no one can pinpoint anyone else. “Hey, Kiyotaka. Why don’t you tell us the information you got from Horikita?” Keisei asked with a serious expression.
“What do you mean?”
“I’d like to know what Ryuuen’s thinking and what he’s planning on doing. Considering what happened in the sports festival and during Paper Shuffle, we need to be united as a class.”
“It also feels creepy for me having Ishizaki and his ilk stuck to me. I agree too.” Looks like they’re starting to realize that cooperation has become more important than ever. Even Akito and Haruka, who don’t pay much attention to the class’s problems, appear to share the same opinion. “It’s just hearsay but…” Before I proposed calling Horikita over, Keisei said this. “I’m fine with that. Please tell us.” All four of them turned to me at once. I feel a weird sort of pressure on me.
“Alright. I won’t be responsible for any mistakes.” After adding that, I explained the events of the uninhabited island I experienced with Horikita to the group from the beginning. Of course, all of those events were moves I made on my own but officially it’s Horikita who thought of them on her own. About how Ryuuen used a radio while hiding on the island to communicate with the spy. How Ibuki isn’t the only one and there may be spies in other classes too. And then about how Ryuuen started obsessing over Horikita ever since the exam on the cruise. I also told them about how Ryuuen figured out a way to beat the exam on the cruise.
Of course, I didn’t tell them how it was clearly obvious Ryuuen was planning on crushing Horikita during the sports festival and I also kept quiet about Kushida’s betrayal. “I guess that’s the gist of it. Pretty much what you guys already know about, Keisei.” Now having obtained any new information, Keisei crossed his arms while seemingly deep in thought. “The question is, like Haruka also said, why did Ryuuen go out of his way to stay behind on the island?”
“According to Horikita, it’s because he trusts no one. That seems likeliest. To gather information on the other classes and make an inference from that seems too heavy a burden for any other student.”
The ability to control the spy and to make inferences. The endurance and strength to stay on the island for at least a few days with nothing but the bare necessities. I won’t say it out loud here but that person also has to be someone connected to Class A and capable of working with them. Considering all that, it wouldn’t be an overstatement to stay Ryuuen’s the only one who could carry out this strategy. If the leaders are to be named once all the students have assembled then he wouldn’t have opted for this strategy. However, we’re supposed to name them after the rollcall on the penultimate day of the exam. In other words, it’s done before the classes assemble. That must be the reason he chose this strategy.
“As expected of Horikita…I wouldn’t have been able to think that far ahead. I had given up on trying to pinpoint the other class leaders and I had also stopped trying to sound out the situation.” Keisei and the others reflect on it. “Isn’t that understandable? Food and hygiene problems, the manual got burned and an underwear was stolen. Class D was in tatters. We couldn’t afford to sound out the other classes.” Akito recalls the events that took place on the island. Keisei also recalls unpleasant memories.
“In hindsight, we really had a tough time.”
“But Horikita-san’s amazing. To think she saw through all that in the exam.” Airi praises Horikita as though she honestly admired her. “I can understand why Horikita-san would be marked. She saw through Ryuuen-kun’s strategy after all.”
“As a matter of fact, it seems they’re still disturbing us even now.” I shouldn’t deny that but rather, I should tell them the truth. And so I added that. “It seems even during the zodiac exam, there was a quarrel between people who were in the same group.”
“I can understand the island and the cruise but why is Ryuuen and his men getting involved with the other Class D students recently. They even came all the way over to the archery club to check on me. That isn’t normal, right?” Even if Horikita is being targeted, these questions are understandable ones. “They may be trying to uncover a weakness in Class D. Because Horikita has no weaknesses at all so they may be trying to destroy her surroundings instead.”