Chapter 6: Something Vague
For Hashimoto Masayoshi, the question of whose side he supports was a trivial one.
Or better yet, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that he didn’t care about it at all.
Regardless of whether the leader of the class turned out to be Sakayanagi or Katsuragi, he would’ve chosen the side that turned out most beneficial to himself. That’s all there was to it. While he was fortunate to have started out in Class A, he was always considering the option of falling down to Class B or C.
The important thing for him was to take up the position that would turn things around in the end.
This was the reason why, after sensing his potential, he had gotten into contact with Ry?en Kakeru after he had quickly risen to power within Class C at the start of the year.
His outstanding talent could’ve taken down both Sakayanagi and Ichinose. Hashimoto had realized that the man had an ominous amount of strength. If Ry?en had asked for it, Hashimoto wouldn’t have hesitated to leak him information about Class A. Of course, this behavior was just espionage done under Sakayanagi’s instruction. However, if Ry?en had the potential to overtake the other classes, he was fully prepared to double-cross even her.
This was the same reason why he had targeted Ichinose in Class B. However, Ichinose was different than Sakayanagi or Ry?en because underhanded deals simply wouldn’t work with her. In response to this, Hashimoto decided not to be too pushy, choosing instead to gradually approach from another angle. While they wouldn’t go as far as to betray Ichinose, he established connections with a certain someone from B class who was close to her.
Hashimoto had promptly set up this type of social network with students from each class immediately after coming to this school.
It was better to prepare as much insurance as possible for the sake of any unexpected situations.
And today, once again, he was making preliminary arrangements in preparation for yet another unexpected situation.
“U-um, Hashimoto-kun. Do you have a minute?”
Within the hallways, after school. A girl from Class A, Motodoi Chikako, called out to Hashimoto from behind. Like Hashimoto, she was a member of the tennis club. She appeared to have run to catch up with him after he had left the classroom. She gave off a slightly fidgety appearance, unable to completely maintain her composure.
Hashimoto immediately understood what was going on without having to hear anything more.
Today was February 14th. He had already experienced this sort of scene several times.
However, even though he understood what was happening, he didn’t let that show on his face. Of course, he wouldn’t say anything either.
“Sure thing, Motodoi. What’s up?”
After getting such a gentle response, Motodoi composed her thoughts and came out with it.
“This is chocolate. Because, uh, it’s Valentine’s day today.”
As she spoke, she held out the chocolate, to which Hashimoto immediately accepted.
“Thanks Motodoi. I’m glad.”
Hashimoto had already noticed that Motodoi had been looking at him with affection as a member of the opposite sex. Thus, this chocolate was most likely meant with romantic intentions. While he was confident that he would succeed were he to confess, he felt nothing towards her. This was because, for better or worse, he saw her as a person who simply wasn’t worth using. He had already judged that there weren’t any merits to going out with her.
“You should show your face around the club every once in a while.”
“Sorry, I’ve been skipping out a lot recently, haven’t I?”
“Definitely. Our senpais have been worried.”
“I’ll keep that in mind. Anyways, I’ll make sure to properly show you my thanks next month.”
Motodoi blushed, nodded, and ran off. It was as if she was escaping from the embarrassing atmosphere.
Despite the fact that there was no possibility that the two of them would get into a relationship, Hashimoto made sure to keep his options open.
After all, maybe there would be some sort of change with her in the future.
In order to make up for this delay, Hashimoto sped up his pace as he moved toward the first-year Class C classroom.
For now, there was somebody far more worthy of his attention than Motodoi.
A male student within Class C, Ayanok?ji Kiyotaka.
“Why is it that I care so much about him…”
There was a part of himself that couldn’t help but wonder.
Before the training camp, he had no impression of him. He was just another student with a vaguely familiar face. He could remember that he had run a fierce relay against the former student council president during the sports competition, but that was all he could think of. Even then, Hashimoto didn’t think that his evaluation of someone should change simply because they were quick on their feet. Furthermore, both Sakayanagi and Ry?en were quick to catch on to things like this, yet Ayanok?ji hadn’t caught the attention of either of them.
Recently, however, there was an incident that forced him to change his opinion of Ayanok?ji.
A curious remark from the current student council president, Nagumo Miyabi, enigmatically claiming that Ayanok?ji was somebody that Horikita Manabu holds in higher esteem than anyone. Hashimoto planned on passing it off as a joke, but somehow he was just unable to do so.
As he thought about it again, there had been signs that he had overlooked.
Why did the former student council president and Ayanok?ji personally confront each other during the relay?
What if that confrontation was more than just a mere coincidence?
What if it was intentional? Spurred on by some form of goal, pressing them to race against one another?
Doubts like these began to swirl in his mind.
Hashimoto had also yet to be convinced about what had happened to Ry?en, who was said to have been overthrown by Ishizaki and others from his own class. Moreover, the current Class C, who had started out the year at the very bottom of the ladder, was now steadily starting to close the gap with the upper classes.
What if Ayanok?ji had actually been involved with each of these events…?
“What if… he’s an existence that surpasses both Sakayanagi and Ry?en…?”
At this point, this train of thought didn’t seem very likely to him.
And that was to be expected. For now, it was nothing more than a mere suspicion accompanied by exaggerated delusions. It was missing something definitive to tie it all together. What Nagumo had said was simply an unrealistic joke, and the reality of what had happened during the relay at the sports festival was nothing more than a fantasy that Hashimoto had come up with to fit his own convenience.
That was why Hashimoto chose to confirm the facts.
He usually spent his time acting under the orders of Sakayanagi, spreading rumors about Ichinose, but recently he had been spending his free time shadowing Ayanok?ji, spying in order to find out the truth.
Hashimoto finally reached the Class C classroom, but Ayanok?ji was already nowhere to be seen.
“You never do waste time, do you Ayanok?ji?”
His pool of friends was rather limited, so he seldom stayed behind in the classroom after school.
Was he with Yukimura and Miyake and that group of close friends today as well? Hashimoto considered it, but saw that both Yukimura and Sakura were still in the classroom, so he quickly dismissed the idea.
Awkwardly watching the students of another class would make him stand out.
To avoid that, immediately after arriving at the classroom, Hashimoto called out to Hirata, who had yet to head out to his club activities.
“Yo, Hashimoto-kun. What’s up?”
“I just came by to see whether or not you’ve gotten yourself a new girlfriend.”
“Is that it? I’m not thinking about finding a new one right now.”
“In the midst of healing your broken heart, are you?”
“Haha… Something like that.”
“I’d like to hear all about it sometime. Anyways, I’ve been asking around for the contact information for the guys I was lodging with back during the training camp. I was looking to catch Ayanok?ji, but it looks like he’s gone home already.”
“You didn’t run into him? I think he left just a minute or two ago…”
He had missed him by just a bit. Quickly making the judgment that he could still catch up with him, Hashimoto gave his thanks to Hirata and immediately went back out into the hallway.
The end-of-year exams were coming up soon, so Hashimoto couldn’t afford to keep tailing Ayanok?ji every day. He was hoping to come to a definitive conclusion about Ayanok?ji soon so that he could turn his full attention to the exams and tackle them at peak condition.
“I’d love to catch onto something new any time now.”
He would make his move at the soonest opportunity. With this conviction, Hashimoto moved forward.
Luckily, Hashimoto caught sight of Ayanok?ji standing near the front entryway, his attention focused in on his cell phone. Was he meeting up with someone, or was he just killing some time? Either way, it was a lucky break.
Ayanok?ji was always using his cell phone to stay in touch with somebody. Was he just getting in contact with Miyake and the others? Or was he speaking to someone Hashimoto hadn’t ever met before?
The one thing he could say for certain was that Ayanok?ji was an unusually easy target to track.
Hashimoto had tailed a fair number of students so far. Katsuragi, Ry?en, Kanzaki, and even Ichinose at times. None of them were particularly easy to keep tabs on. It would be a stroke of good luck to be able to follow one of them once every two days. On the other hand, it would take more than an entire week to find out any new information about them if things went poorly.
However, Ayanok?ji lived a monotonous daily life with a very confined amount of friends and social connections.
This made it incredibly easy to anticipate his actions ahead of time. Moreover, Ayanok?ji didn’t show a shred caution in regard to his surroundings.
He never took note of what was behind him, never showing any indication that he had sharp senses or a keen intuition.
Even so, Hashimoto wouldn’t allow himself to grow complacent.
Though it might be overcautious, he decided that he would follow Ayanok?ji from even farther away than necessary.
At that point, Hashimoto got a phone call from one of his classmates, Naoki Shimizu.
“Hello. Has something happened, Naoki?”
“No… Actually, it’s about this morning… I’ve seriously had enough of this.”
“Ah. It would probably be better for you to forget about it, right? There are just a lot of talkative people in our class.”
A somewhat problematic event had taken place within Class A that morning. Shimizu had confessed to a girl named Nishikawa, only to be rejected, and knowledge of his failure had begun to circulate among the girls of the class. Perhaps Nishikawa had carelessly told one of her friends about the confession, and it just spread around from there. Something like this would happen every once in a while.
“You won’t be able to confess to anyone at this rate if you worry too much about every single thing, you know?”
“Th-that’s right… but I still can’t forgive Nishikawa for spreading it.”
“Well, while I’d love to hear you complain about it, I’m in the middle of something else right now.”
“Oh really? My bad.”
Hashimoto made arrangements to call him back this evening and cut the call.
“This is just how confessions end up when you don’t meet all the conditions to ensure your success.”
With the resolution to comfort his friend later on, Hashimoto returned to his mission of tailing Ayanok?ji back to the dormitories.
“If he’s going straight to his room like this, then I suppose I won’t be finding anything new out today either.”
If there was anything painful about tailing Ayanok?ji, it would be the overall monotony of the entire thing.
However, after Ayanok?ji got into the elevator, it passed the fourth-floor, where his room was located and continued to rise. Hashimoto watched the elevator monitor from the lobby as Ayanok?ji disembarked on the girls’ floor.
“If my memory serves me right… that’s the floor Ichinose is on, isn’t it?”
Or was that merely a coincidence, and he was just there in order to meet with another girl?
Though, given the recent events, it was hard for him not to associate things like this with Ichinose.
“Even though it’s weird, it is Ichinose… so isn’t it possible that he’s just making a courtesy visit…?”
While Ayanok?ji only has a very confined amount of friends, Ichinose was incredibly popular with students throughout every school year.
It wouldn’t be surprising for her to be friends with Ayanok?ji. In addition, that wasn’t even considering how cute she is. It wouldn’t be strange for a student to expect to get something by making her a courtesy visit.
However, Ayanok?ji immediately got back into the elevator and rode back down to the fourth floor, where he got back off.
Nothing about it made any sense. Hashimoto continued to watch the monitor as the elevator returned to Ichinose’s floor and several girls from Class B got on. He came to the conclusion that Ayanok?ji had run into all of these girls who had come to visit Ichinose before him, and made the decision to turn back after getting cold feet.
Just in case, Hashimoto immediately rode the elevator up to the fourth floor, but Ayanok?ji had already disappeared.
It was pretty much guaranteed that he had returned to his room.
“So in the end, I don’t find out anything today either, huh?”
Considering whether or not to call it quits for the day, Hashimoto ultimately decided to ponder the situation for a little while in the lobby.
It was still pretty early. Hashimoto decided that it was still rather probable that Ayanok?ji would try to get in contact with Ichinose later on, or even potentially make arrangements with somebody else entirely. In addition, as long as he used the elevator, it didn’t matter if he went upstairs or downstairs because he’d be able to confirm things on the monitor.
Hashimoto’s resolution to stick around paid off after an hour or so.
Ayanok?ji boarded the elevator and began to ride down to the first floor.
Furthermore, he hadn’t changed out of his school uniform yet.
“Is he heading back to the school?”
It wouldn’t make any sense for him to head all the way back to school after deliberately heading home.
For instance, it would make sense that he wouldn’t bother to change his clothes if he was simply heading off to the convenience store, but he had his school bag with him.
Hashimoto quickly got up from the sofa and hid in the emergency stairwell.
“I’m looking forward to seeing where this goes from here.”
As if in response to Hashimoto’s wishes, Ayanok?ji walked out of the lobby, headed toward a relatively unpopular part of campus. With this, the odds of him heading to the convenience store or the school vanished. In which case, who was he meeting with? No, the place he was heading toward wasn’t suitable for the usual simple meeting with a friend.
Given the situation, anybody would be filled with anticipation about what he’s going to do and who he’s going to meet.
The idea that he was meeting up with someone was effectively certain at this point.
If he’s meeting up with former student council president Horikita, or even Ry?en, things were about to get pretty heated.
However, each and every one of his expectations were spectacularly betrayed by what he saw.
“Woah, woah, are you serious…?”
The person who turned up to meet with Ayanok?ji was none other than first-year Class C’s Kei Karuizawa.
She was a girl who, due to her recent break-up with Hirata, had caused a bit of a buzz within Class A. Even though Hashimoto had never had any contact with her so far, he still couldn’t hide his astonishment at her unexpected appearance.
Feelings of weakness began to overwhelm him. The betrayal of all of his expectations.
This had nothing to do with the ‘other side’ of Ayanok?ji that Hashimoto had been seeking to uncover. Instead, this was a matter of love. His brain automatically tried to see it in a different light, but no matter how he looked at it, their relationship with one another was clearly beyond that of just friends.
Hashimoto had witnessed Hirata and Karuizawa’s relationship several times before, but he had never felt a strong sense of ‘love’ or ‘intimacy’ between the two of them.
“…I don’t get it. Why Ayanok?ji?”
In the first place, which one of them was interested in the other? Or were they both interested in each other? He could posture guesses as much as he wanted, but he would still never come to an answer. After all, at a fundamental level, there are no such things as answers when it comes to love. If you were to objectively compare Ayanok?ji with Hirata, 80% of girls would end up choosing Hirata. However, it wouldn’t be strange for the remaining 20% to choose Ayanok?ji.
That is to say, if there were 100 people, 20 of them would end up picking Ayanok?ji.
In which case…
“Ayanokoji… has been in frequent contact with Karuizawa…?”
Hashimoto immediately abandoned that idea. It was just something he had come up with to explain the current situation, nothing more than an aspect of his imagination. He wouldn’t be able to come to any conclusions without investigating things further. However, due to the low traffic of people through the place they were talking, it was impossible to get closer to hear exactly what they were saying.
“What should I do…”
Just as Hashimoto was pondering about what steps to take next…
There was a sudden development between Karuizawa and Ayanok?ji.
Karuizawa handed Ayanok?ji an object that she had been holding onto. Today was February 14th. For her to hand something over in a place so obviously outside of the public eye, anyone would be able to tell what she had handed over without actually seeing the gift.
Due to this, it’s clear that, at the very least, Karuizawa favors Ayanok?ji.
“Well, at any rate, I guess I can leave it at that for today.”
However, this bit of knowledge was unrelated to what he originally set out to discover.
With this in mind, Hashimoto started off back home. However, he then stopped in place.
“It’s a rare opportunity… Why not challenge him directly?”
Given that there wasn’t very much time left until the end-of-year exams, this could also be the best option available to him.
He could shake things up a bit by forcibly dragging the unrelated Karuizawa into this. It was his chance to expose Ayanok?ji’s weaknesses. At the same time, if Ayanok?ji doesn’t show any response to his challenge, Hashimoto could conclude that he had nothing to worry about to begin with.
Satisfied with his decision, Hashimoto began walking toward Ayanok?ji and Karuizawa.
I sensed the presence of someone approaching us from behind. Their pace was quick. So much so that it was obvious that they didn’t intend to overlook the closeness of my conversation with Kei.
It was Hashimoto, who had been concealing his presence behind me ever since I left the lobby.
Kei didn’t appear to know who Hashimoto was, so she turned to me for an explanation.
“He’s Class A’s Hashimoto. I was grouped together with him during the training camp.”
“Oh yeah, and Ayanok?ji as well.”
After this quick greeting, Hashimoto drew closer to Kei.
“For a man and a woman to hold a secret meeting in a place like this… You’re quite the smooth one, Ayanok?ji.”
I had known that Hashimoto would attempt to get in touch with me eventually, but I had to think about why he chose now, of all times, to do so.
Nonetheless, I’d use his plan for my own benefit as well.
“We’re not out here doing anything in particular-”
“Don’t try to hide it. It’s Valentine’s Day. Even if you two aren’t a couple, it isn’t strange to have a secret meeting like this. Actually, you’ve already gotten something from her, haven’t you?”
It seemed that Hashimoto had seen me accept her chocolate and immediately put it into my bag.
“She just gave me this chocolate by coincidence. I didn’t come out here expecting to get anything.”
I attempted to deny it, but Hashimoto saw through my excuse with a sneering grin on his face.
“No, you knew that she’d be giving you chocolate from the beginning, didn’t you? Your bag.”
“Since you’ve already been back to the dorms, there’s no reason for you to take your bag with you as you go out afterward.”
“…No, I was originally intending on heading over to the library. But just before I could head out, Karuizawa called me and I agreed to meet up with her, that’s all.”
“In other words… It’s just a coincidence?”
I nodded in response to Hashimoto’s deduction before taking two library books out from my bag and showing them to him to prove it.
“Well, it’s all the same either way. In the end, you did get chocolate from Karuizawa.”
From Hashimoto’s point of view, even though I wasn’t the one to reach out to Karuizawa, the fact that I had received chocolate from her was truly important.
“I’m not sure I understand… Is there a problem with that?”
“I’m simply curious about what it is about you that Karuizawa’s interested in. Her previous boyfriend, Hirata, was one of the most popular guys in the entire school, right? It makes me wonder why she’d pick you after dumping Hirata.”
In other words, he wanted to know how things managed to get to this point.
Kei, who had been listening to our conversation in silence, spoke up.
“Aah, sorry, but there’s been a misunderstanding.”
“Yep. I originally planned to give that chocolate to Hirata-kun. It would’ve been a pity to throw it away, so I thought about giving it to someone, and then I just decided on Ayanok?ji-kun.”
“You hand over such an intimate gift, but then claim it’s just done on a whim? I’m sorry, but I don’t see it. Moreover, what’s with the location? For a lie, that’s a pretty bad one.”
Hashimoto let out a laugh as he said so, to which Kei responded with a blunt display of anger.
“Haa? You show up out of nowhere and just say everything that comes to your mind. Who in the world do you think you are?”
Kei looked at him with an overbearing look in her eyes.
“I simply want to know the truth.”
Hashimoto was overwhelmed a bit.
Though it was true we hadn’t concealed the unnatural aspects of our confrontation very well.
That was why I decided to change directions.
This would be Kei’s chance to prove how well she could keep up with me.
“Well, it’ll be better for you to just speak honestly here, Karuizawa. If we continue to hide something here, I think it’ll just be troublesome for you afterward. If that guy ends up thinking we’re dating, you’d be troubled, right?”
With that said, I passed her the baton.
Without hesitation, Kei let out a single deliberate sigh.
“Ugh. I’ll say it, but this can absolutely never spread from here, okay?”
With this, Kei pointed at Hashimoto.
“I’ve only temporarily entrusted this chocolate with Ayanok?ji-kun, in order for him to give it to the person I like.”
“So, you’re saying that Ayanok?ji is just the middleman?”
“That’s right. Do you understand now?”
Hashimoto’s expression said that it was simply unbelievable.
“If that’s the case, then who is that chocolate actually for?”
Hashimoto continued his questioning.
“Huh? This is the first time I’ve ever met you, yet you want me to tell you something like that? Are you stupid?”
Kei was definitely stirring things up, but nothing about it seemed like she was being fake.
That was just the guise of the gyaru that Karuizawa Kei had created for herself.
“That’s… Well, I guess you’re right.”
Hashimoto assented with a somewhat surprised look on his face and ended up bowing his head in apology.
“This won’t blow over just by lowering your head. Seriously, spare me.”
“…Is that so? It seems like I really have misunderstood, my bad. When I thought that you two might like each other, I couldn’t help but get suspicious.”
“Why are you sticking your neck into something you have nothing to do with in the first place?”
“Well, when it comes to you, I’m anything but uninvolved.”
Hashimoto drew a few steps closer to the irritable Kei.
He reached out his arm and pressed it against the wall behind her, closing off her way out with his own body.
“I’ve thought you were fine for a while now, so how about you go out with me, Karuizawa? I don’t know who you like now, but if you still haven’t given them any chocolate, that means you haven’t conveyed your feelings yet. Isn’t that right?”
Thinking that he still had a chance with her himself, Hashimoto forcefully made a move on Kei.
“What on earth are you saying… Do you think I’d be okay with something like that?”
“It’s all part of the unpredictable twists and turns of love… Isn’t it interesting?”
With that, he cast a sharp glance at me for a split second.
He may have been attempting to bait a reaction out of me by making a move on Kei.
I spoke up.
“Well then, I guess I’m going to head back.”
“Huh? Wait, I’ll head back too.”
Kei forcibly pushed Hashimoto away and took her distance from him.
Hashimoto smiled bitterly. It didn’t seem like he was going to continue with his aggressive tactic.
Or rather, it seemed that he had lost interest in Kei altogether.
Given the current situation, Kei let out a noteworthy, deliberate sigh and left back to the dorms on her own.
“Sorry for intruding into things like that.”
“No, it’s nothing.”
I walked together with Hashimoto until the point where the pathway to the dorms and the school split up.
“Still, you have it rough when it comes to love, don’t you?”
“What are you talking about?”
Hashimoto gave off a mocking smile before wrapping his arm around my shoulder and whispered into my ear.
“I’m talking about how you’re pretty big. Girls who lack experience won’t be able to handle yours.”
Bringing up that again…
“Don’t look so exhausted. There’s a good number of people that respect you for it.”
I wasn’t happy at all.
Rather, what happened at the training camp was steadily becoming a source of constant discomfort.
“By the way, King. How about we exchange contact info?”
“I’m fine with giving it to you as long as you never use that nickname you just came up with ever again.”
“Hahahaha. I won’t I won’t.”
With that, I took out my cell phone and exchanged contact information with Hashimoto.
“Well, I’m gonna head back myself. See ya, Ayanok?ji.”
Hashimoto came and went like the passing of a storm.
Did he think that he had gotten enough information? Or did he feel like he had pushed too far into something unrelated?
In either case, my existence would continue to remain uncertain for Hashimoto.
If only it would stay that way.
I decided to drop by the library and meet up with Hiyori, who should be on standby there.
And after that, I also had to meet up with another person who had requested to meet up at the school.
I got home that evening later than I anticipated, so I wasn’t able to meet up with the Ayanok?ji Group.
When I had gotten back to my room just before seven, I found that a paper bag had been placed right in front of my door.
I took a peek inside the bag and found two differently packaged boxes. One was square while the other was a circle, and they each came with a first name written on the front. They were Valentine’s Day chocolates from Haruka and Airi.
Based on what was being talked about in the group chat, Akito and Keisei had gotten the same things.
I went into my room and lined up all of the chocolates on my desk.
“I never expected to get five of them…”
Kei, Airi, Haruka, Hiyori, and… one more.
It was a box of chocolates all wrapped up with a lovely pink ribbon.
Later that night, just after ten, I went back out into the hallway wearing a hoodie over some of my casual clothing and got onto the elevator.
The surveillance camera inside the elevator shouldn’t have been able to catch my face.
It was a pre-emptive measure just in case something went wrong. In the first place, it would’ve been ideal for us to meet up somewhere else, but nothing could be done about it if she really did have to recuperate from an illness.
Given that, it wouldn’t even be strange for her to be sleeping at this time of night. To check for this, I had Horikita let me know how to get in contact with Ichinose ahead of time. I had already sent her a text message and confirmed that she was still awake, so I moved forward with my plan.
However, I still hadn’t told Ichinose that I would be going to her room.
I got off the elevator on Ichinose’s floor and went to her door. I rang the doorbell and waited. Ten seconds passed. Then twenty seconds.
I didn’t hear anything from inside the room, so I rang the doorbell once again.
It was only natural for Ichinose to be confused about a visit this late at night.
After about thirty more seconds, I decided to call out to her.
“Ichinose, it’s me. Ayanok?ji.”
It would’ve been a problem for me to linger around on her floor after curfew had already set in.
Ichinose should’ve understood this as well.
She wouldn’t be alright with carelessly exposing somebody else to a dangerous situation like that.
“…Ayanok?ji… kun. Whatsa matter?”
I could hear Ichinose’s voice from the other side of the door. As far as the tone of her voice was concerned, she sounded weak.
Immediately after she spoke, coughing resounded from within the room. It was difficult for me to discern whether or not she was truly sick based solely on how her voice and cough sounded.
“Something important has come up. I was hoping I could speak with you about it in person, is that alright?”
“To be honest, it seems like things might get troublesome if I’m seen by another girl right now.”
I pressured her a little more forcefully.
“Hold on a second, alright?”
She responded with that, and after a short wait, I heard the sound of the lock disengaging from inside the room.
Ichinose opened the door. I could see that she was in unbelievably low spirits.
“Nyaha, that was a bit pushy there, Ayanok?ji-kun…”
She was wearing a mask and seemed to truly be in bad shape.
It looks like she wasn’t feigning an illness after all.
“Sorry. I definitely got a bit forceful. You don’t look like you’re doing very well.”
“Yeah… I’m just a little spent is all.”
“I apologize for coming by at such a bad time.”
“It’s alright. The fever is already almost gone. How should I put it, instead of feeling icky from the fever, I feel more hungry due to oversleeping, y’know? Oh, I’m sorry, but could I also get you to put on this mask?”
So as to not have me catch her cold, Ichinose presented me with another mask.
My immune system was much stronger than average, but nobody is absolutely safe when it comes to things like this. If I was to recklessly refuse her offer and then get sick later, Ichinose would probably end up regretting it. I accepted her offer without a moment’s hesitation and put on the mask.
“So, have you been to the infirmary?”
“I went earlier this week.”
Many students were thinking that Ichinose faked her illness to avoid the rumors that had been spreading about her, but that didn’t seem to be the case.
There was no mistaking it. She had really been sick after all.
“You were probably worried that I was absent because of all of these rumors lately. Thank you for your concern.”
Did she manage to see through my intentions?
“You’re the first person I’ve met up with face to face since I got sick.”
“Is that so?”
“There were a bunch of students who came to visit me while my fever was worse, but I was having a hard time so I had to turn them all away. Since then, some of my friends have been giving me space, thinking I’m depressed.”
I had come to see her so much later than everyone else, yet I was ironically the first person to actually meet with her.
In reality, Ichinose had taken a day off to recuperate from her illness. However, given how she had handled herself so far, it was obvious that she was also the type that attentively makes sure she’s staying healthy. Given how quickly the end-of-year exams were coming up, Ichinose should’ve wanted to avoid getting sick as much as possible. There was no mistaking that this cold of hers came as a result of her recent mental trauma and the weakening of her own immune system.
“I’m not going to skip out on school just because of those rumors.”
Well, Ichinose herself wasn’t going to admit to that part of it.
“How resilient of you.”
“Resilient, you say…? Ah, sorry, but could you shut the front door behind you? I was airing out the room earlier, but it’s a bit cold now. Please also remember to wash your hands thoroughly after you go back.”
She had a humidifier running in her room to prevent the air from getting too dry. The cold virus is one that thrives in cold, dry air. These conditions directly increase how much of the virus is floating in the air. Due to that, it is important to increase the humidity of the room to easily create an environment where the virus would become inactive. Neglecting these precautions could lead to prolonged colds and even increase the odds of infecting any visitors. In fact, the main reason why colds tend to drag on during the winter months is because of the dryness of the air.
Though, a lot of girls have been coming over to my room lately, and I have been going over to a lot of the girls’ rooms as well. It was strange how none of those visits have had anything to do with love affairs thus far.
“What’s the matter…?”
Ichinose looked at me with a strange expression as I stood there staring at the humidifier.
“I really am sorry to intrude while you’re resting.”
“No, it really is fine. It’s definitely safer not to meet up with anyone face to face right now, but it’s probably for the better to let somebody else know that I’ve actually caught something.”
Ichinose was well aware that speculation about the legitimacy of her illness had already begun to spread.
Ichinose showed me her cell phone, as if trying to prove it to me.
There was evidence of several exchanges she had been engaged in with Horikita.
It seemed like Horikita had been worried about Ichinose in her own way.
The two of us didn’t talk for long. I took my leave as soon as the right time presented itself.
The day of the provisional exam had arrived.
That morning, each class would be focusing in on the exam.
Though, nobody in the classroom was diligently studying, as everyone was immersed in conversation instead. None of this conversation had anything to do with preparations for the upcoming exam. Rather, the topic of discussion was something completely unrelated to that.
“It’s pretty noisy.”
“Of course it is. It’s because of those outrageous rumors that showed up this morning.”
“Outrageous rumors? Have there been new ones about Ichinose?”
“No. They’re new ones that have been causing internal chaos within Class C.”
“New rumors, huh…”
With just one look at the restless classroom, it was obvious that this was no trivial matter.
“Incidentally, this has something to do with you too, Ayanok?ji-kun.”
With that, Horikita showed me the screen of her cell phone.
She had written down a total of four rumors on the phone’s memo pad.
Ayanok?ji Kiyotaka has a crush on Karuizawa Kei
Hond? Ry?tar? is only interested in obese girls
Shinohara Satsuki was a prostitute back in middle school
Sat? Maya hates Onodera Kayano
The content of the rumors all followed a similar pattern. The full names of four people, including me, were directly stated as victims of the attack.
“Where did this gossip come from?”
“Are you familiar with the forums that the school set up for each class?”
“The ones in the school’s app, right?”
When students need to look into their point balances or something of that sort, they’re expected to login to an application that the school created for them. Coupled with this application is a set of message boards that students have the liberty to make use of as they see fit. However, because there are several easy-to-use chat applications already available on our cell phones, these boards didn’t see very much use among the students.
“That’s a good catch. Who discovered them?”
“By the time I got to the classroom this morning, the rumors had already started to spread. It’s possible that somebody came across them accidentally while they were using the app. There are also notifications that go out when the forums are updated.”
These forums weren’t just for class discussions. They were also used for general conversation. Due to the fact that anyone could access them, there was a high probability that these rumors were seen by the other classes as well.
“Don’t you think that this is a little different from what happened with the previous rumors?”
“Regardless of whether it’s the same perpetrator or not, there are countless ways to spread rumors. Wouldn’t you agree that there’s no reason to get caught up in the differences? It’s not something that can be covered up now that it’s been posted online.”
With that, Horikita transitioned to another topic.
“I’ll just ask to be sure, but… is it true?”
“No it is not.”
I denied it immediately.
“There are only a few people who know about my relationship with Karuizawa as it is now anyway.”
“So you have an idea as to who posted it, then?”
I gave her a brief summary of what happened during my encounter with Hashimoto the day before.
“There’s a high probability that Hashimoto-kun is the one that spread the rumors about Ichinose-san, so it wouldn’t be surprising if he was also spreading these new rumors about you and Karuizawa-san.”
“But, what about the other victims? There aren’t many ways to verify the truth.”
A student willing to personally look into the truth of each of these rumors…
“Oi! Were you really a prostitute, Shinohara!?”
Unable to read the atmosphere of the room, Yamauchi shouted out such a thing with a smile on his face.
Shinohara stood up in a panic and adamantly denied it. Embarrassment and anger could be clearly seen on her face.
“Well then, how about you show me the evidence.”
“You’re asking for evidence…? How am I supposed to give you something like that!?”
Meanwhile, the audience, captivated by the rumors, began to spread them amongst the incoming students who were just entering the classroom.
Well, it was going to end up like that sooner or later.
“If you’re saying it’s a lie, then are you saying that everything that’s been put online was also a lie? That we’ve all just been running our mouths?”
While watching Shinohara and Yamauchi’s argument unfold, I confirmed my thoughts with Horikita.
“Hmm… I suppose we have no other choice than to check with each of the victims one by one like Yamauchi.”
Though, most people aren’t able to pry into someone’s trauma like that.
“Are you stupid!? You’re getting swept away by rumors and you don’t even know where they came from!”
Shinohara’s anger toward Yamauchi was by no means unreasonable.
It was surprising that she was able to stay calm like this.
“Though~ Don’t you think that all of the stuff posted online seems pretty realistic?”
“You… Knock it off, Haruki!”
In response to his friend’s merciless hounding, Ike reached out and forcefully grabbed Yamauchi by the shoulder to signal that it was time to stop.
“Wh-what’s wrong? This is my chance to get back at Shinohara for always acting so high and mighty.”
“Getting back at her…? No matter what, those rumors have to be lies!”
“How are we supposed to know that? A relatively ugly chick like her could’ve totally done something like that.”
Yamauchi continued to talk mindlessly, without a shred of concern for Ike’s feelings on the matter.
“Oh, I see… Ike, you have a crush on Shinohara, don’t you? So that’s why you can’t admit-”
Ike grabbed Yamauchi by the collar of his shirt.
“Cut it out you guys.”
Unable to sit still and watch from afar any longer, Sud? forcibly separated the two of them. At the same time, Hirata arrived at the classroom and immediately caught on to the atmosphere of the situation. He approached some of the girls and began to hear out the specifics about the rumors.
Since Shinohara was just denying everything, Yamauchi decided to temporarily change targets to someone else.
“Well then, Hond?~ Are you seriously only into fat chicks?”
Yamauchi turned his attack toward Hond?.
“N-no way! Absolutely not! Those rumors are downright lies! Right, Ayanok?ji? You probably don’t even like Karuizawa, right!?”
Naturally, Hond? also denied everything. He then turned to me for help with escaping the spotlight.
Everyone’s attention turned to me immediately. Fortunately, Kei and most of her friends hadn’t gotten to the classroom yet.
I responded to him with a nod.
He shouted out as he turned his attention back to Yamauchi.
“Dammit. What the hell? Are they all just lies?”
With the three of us all denying our part of the rumors, the classroom began to calm down just a little.
“But… Sat?-san doesn’t like Onodera-san very much, does she?”
Maezono muttered these few absent-minded words. They probably came out of her mouth without a second thought because Onodera hadn’t come to school yet.
“Wha-! Ho-hold on, Maezono-san!”
Sat? frantically attempted to stop Maezono, but it was already too late.
“Come to think of it, has anyone here ever seen Sat? hang out with Onodera before?”
Things seemed to be developing in a way where it wasn’t possible for the rumors to be dismissed as simple lies anymore.
In this situation, Sud? confirmed that Ike and Yamauchi would remain separated from each other before walking over to me and Horikita.
“Ayanok?ji. You really don’t like Karuizawa?”
Even Sud? felt like he needed to ask such a question.
“No, I don’t.”
“Hmm. Well, it doesn’t matter to me if it’s true or not. Hey Suzune.”
“Ah, well, it’s just that I managed to overhear part of your conversation. If it’s alright with you, I’d like to help out.”
“Well, I have no shame. I should be able to ask around about the rumors straightforwardly like Haruki did.”
Sud? presented her with such an offer.
It was true that Sud? could be a useful tool for determining exactly where these rumors originated from.
Though at the same time, he said he had overheard our conversation, so he should’ve heard me tell Horikita that I wasn’t interested in Kei.
“You shouldn’t do anything that will lower other people’s evaluations of you. You already aren’t very well respected by your peers. You should be focusing your attention on improving how other people see you. Think about how Yamauchi-kun’s tactless remarks seem to have dramatically lowered his social status within the class.”
It felt as though Yamauchi had managed to instantly overthrow Sud? from his position as the most disliked person in the class.
Most significantly, even Ike, his closest friend, had vented his anger at Yamauchi’s behavior.
“That’s probably true… But I really do want to be helpful somehow.”
Sud? glanced at me for a moment before immediately turning away. I guess that he must have been vaguely aware that Horikita would consult with me about various things. Of course, he should also understand that it was easy for us to talk with one another simply because we sat next to each other.
“In which case, you should keep watch over Yamauchi-kun to make sure he doesn’t spiral out of control. It would be different if there was only one positive rumor going around, but this time, if these troublesome rumors really are true, everything becomes really personal. I’d like for you to look after Hond?-kun as well because these rumors have probably dampened his spirits by quite a bit. You can do that, right?”
“…Yeah, you’re right.”
Sud? seemed a little disappointed, but he still obediently followed Horikita’s instructions.
After confirming that Sud? had left, Horikita went back to the subject at hand.
“In all likelihood, this has all been a part of Sakayanagi-san’s plan as well. She wasn’t satisfied with going after Ichinose-san alone, so she set up the same type of trap for Class C. Then she attacked both classes at once. I think she’s trying to shake us up before our end-of-year exams… What should we do?”
“What do you mean, ‘What should we do’? Do you think there’s a way to confront these rumors? The more we try to deny, the more we’re going to blow up the issue. Even if we were to admit that they’re true, people will just continue to gossip behind our backs. The rumors about me aren’t a big deal, but if the rumors about the others start to be treated like facts, then that could cause a lot of damage.”
“…Yeah. That may be true.”
Horikita nodded approvingly as she looked over at Shinohara and Hond?. The way she did it made me wonder if she was imagining herself in their shoes.
“But, in some sense, this was a dirty move. How can we fight back against something like this?”
“Even though you see the fire starting to spread, you’re still just going to sit back and watch?”
“It’s not that big of a deal to me. On the other hand, Karuizawa is most likely going to be facing some problems.”
“In other words, you don’t care?”
“Yeah, I don’t care.”
For some reason or another, it seemed like Horikita wanted to see me panic.
Due to this, I was able to see Horikita show a rare expression of disappointment.
“At any rate, it’s fortunate that it wasn’t the other way around.”
The other way around. Meaning that Kei was the one with a crush. On me. It would give birth to even more rumors about how she’s chasing after another guy immediately after breaking up with Hirata. There would be all sorts of speculations going around.
Even if something isn’t true, there will always be people who treat it like fact. People that treat fiction like reality.
“But… I just can’t sit back and watch this happen like you.”
“Is that so?”
Even if we were to leave the rumors alone, judging from the current state of affairs, the problem was clearly only going to continue to spread.
Yamauchi attempted to approach Shinohara and Sat? again, but Hirata intervened first.
“Yamauchi-kun. Just because something’s been posted on our class’s forums doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s true. At the very least, it’s wrong for fellow classmates to be hurting each other like this.”
“But just like with Ichinose’s rumors, doesn’t everyone know already? So it doesn’t make any difference whether or not we say anything, right?”
“I’m not sure I agree with you about that. At least not in the current situation. That’s why, right now, I think that the proper course of action is to avoid getting tricked by these rumors while we sort everything out.”
Hirata’s words were met with strong voices of approval from both the boys and the girls. Of course, it was no permanent solution, but it was enough to successfully handle it for now.
At that moment, a single message came in on Horikita’s cell phone.
Saying as much, Horikita took a glance at the message.
“It seems as though Ichinose-san is taking today off as well.”
The very day of the provisional exam. Even if she’s only somewhat sick, she should still want to participate in a test like this where her academic abilities will be measured. Not to mention that Ichinose is the leader of Class B, the one who chose to take on the burdens of all of her colleagues. Well, judging from how she looked the night before, there was no way she would’ve been able to recover completely.
“One more thing… It seems like there were rumors posted on Class B’s forums as well.”
“That is to say, Class B has become aware of the rumors in Class C.”
“So it seems.”
Horikita quickly logged into the app on her phone and checked Class B’s forums. It turned out that there were four rumors listed there as well, similar to the ones found for Class C. The same was also true for Class D’s forum.
“Conveniently, no rumors were posted for Class A. Do you have time after school today? I’d like to hear the details about Ichinose from Kanzaki, and I’d also like to discuss how to deal with these forums.”
I agreed with Horikita’s request.
“For now, let’s focus on the provisionary exam. After all, this is a valuable opportunity for us to confirm the difficulty level of the end-of-year exam and get a good grasp on where we’re at as a class.”
However, while that would be easy for Horikita, the people that had been targeted by these rumors wouldn’t be able to do that so simply.
When Kei and the rest of her friend group finally got to the classroom, they all gathered together and began to whisper amongst each other.
Each of them would periodically glance over in my direction with a look of disgust in their eyes.
Even though I wasn’t able to hear their discussion, it was perfectly clear what kind of things they were saying to each other. Something like…
‘Do you really think Ayanok?ji-kun has a crush on Karuizawa-san?’
‘What do you think about him, Karuizawa-san?’
And there was no doubt in my mind that Kei was responding to them, describing me with words like ‘gross’ and ‘terrible’.
“Didn’t you say that you didn’t care?”
“…It’s still kinda hard.”
I would’ve continued to watch them talk, but I didn’t want to actually hear any of the insults they’d be tossing around, so I looked away.
The real problem was the other students targeted by the rumors other than me.
The provisional exam began despite the traces of the awkward, uneasy atmosphere that were still lingering within the classroom.
It was a critical time for the end of the school year.
The content of this provisional exam was more challenging than that of any of the exams we had taken so far. It was really difficult.
However, the students who managed to get through the previous exams without any problems should probably be able to get through this one smoothly as well. On the other hand, the students who have been just barely scraping by from test to test would probably have to study intensely moving forward.
I had gotten an invitation to study together with everyone in the Ayanok?ji Group, but I was already going to be meeting up with Kanzaki together with Horikita after school, so I got in touch with them and let them know to start without me. Kanzaki didn’t appear to want to stand out very much, so he arranged for us to meet up at Keyaki Mall after the provisional exam was over.
After class, I followed Horikita to the spot where Kanzaki was waiting. It was near the southern entrance to the mall.
It was the place on campus furthest away from the school, so students would only rarely be in the area.
I had no interest in the inter-class struggles that were going on, but as a friend, I was still a little worried about Ichinose.
Getting more information couldn’t have hurt as well.
Besides, Hashimoto had been continuously keeping an eye on me over the past couple of days.
If I was to get into contact with Class B, the looming shadow of Class A would continue to draw even closer.
And that was exactly the kind of development I was hoping for.
In fact, Hashimoto had tailed me from an appropriate distance all the way to the southern entrance of the mall.
“Two days off in a row. And you still haven’t been able to get in contact with Ichinose-san yourself?”
“It’s not that we can’t get into contact with her, it’s just that she’s been slow to respond to us. The most I’ve gotten from her was a notification that she’s been out sick with a cold.”
Recently, Kanzaki has been in a constant state of stress, completely unable to relax. Ichinose has probably told him countless times to stop worrying about it by now, but it doesn’t seem like it’s that easy for him.
Her poor physical condition may be one of the reasons for why she’s so reluctant to meet her classmates face to face, but at the same time, she really didn’t want to have to talk about the rumors.
“What did your homeroom teacher say about it?”
“Nothing different from usual. Just that Ichinose is staying home again because she’s caught a cold.”
Their homeroom teacher should’ve been told the same thing as anyone else.
The reason why Kanzaki’s expression was heavy was that he couldn’t help but question the true reason behind Ichinose’s absences. Recently, Ichinose has been at the center of a maelstrom of rumors. Kanzaki’s uncertainty was entirely justified.
“How about going to visit her? Wouldn’t it all become clear if you go and meet with her in person?”
“Some of the girls from my class have tried to see her, but it doesn’t seem like any of them have been able to get her to open her door.”
Realizing that the situation wasn’t very optimistic, Horikita carefully considered the options before speaking up.
“I guess if there’s a bright side, it’s that she’s excellent with her academics. Even though she didn’t take the provisional exam, I don’t think she’ll run into any problems.”
Sick students who missed the exam like Ichinose still had options. They’d be able to take a make-up exam and reach out to other students to see what the exam was like.
“That’s not what any of us are worried about. We’re just concerned about her state of mind.”
Horikita and Kanzaki.
Just as the two of them were beginning to come up with a plan, a group of people approached us.
It appears Hashimoto already gave her a report about our meeting…
“It seems that Ichinose-san is absent today as well. The end-of-year exams are going to begin at the end of next week. If her string of absences is to repeat itself until then… it may turn into quite the problem, don’t you think?”
Sakayanagi and her underlings approached Kanzaki, making it very clear who she had actually come to meet with. She was accompanied by Hashimoto, Kamuro, and one more student, a boy from Class A named Kit?.
In other words, the main members of the Sakayanagi faction.
“Now what in the world could you be discussing with these Class C students?”
“This has nothing to do with you.”
“It seems like we’re not welcome here.”
“If you wanted to be ‘welcome’, then you should’ve stopped spreading strange rumors everywhere before things got out of hand.”
Sakayanagi and her classmates looked at each other and couldn’t hold back their laughter.
“Oh please. What are you talking about?”
“I hope you know that the unity of my class won’t falter just because of a couple of rumors.”
“I do not know anything about what sort of situation Class B is in, but I am looking forward to the future.”
Sakayanagi may have only come by in order to see the results of her plans in person, but Kanzaki was making it perfectly clear to her just how effective her plans truly were.
“Don’t let her get to you, Kanzaki-kun. This is all a part of Sakayanagi-san’s strategy.”
Faced with a problem like this one, Kanzaki was suffering precisely because of his modesty and concern for those around him.
Even after school, the rumors continued to spread with no end in sight.
“Wait! W-wait wait wait! What’s going on Kiyotaka!!”
While spending some leisure time after getting home from school for the day, I got a call from Kei.
“What do you mean ‘what’s going on’?”
I already knew what she was getting at, but I wanted to ask anyway.
“Stop with the ‘what do I mean’! T-there’s, uh, well, a rumor going around that you have a crush on me! How could you not notice!?”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“N-nonono. Do you think I can ignore it just cause it’s a rumor??? How did it end up like this in the first place!?”
She started speaking so loudly that I started to hear a painful ringing sound from the inner part of my ear, so I moved the phone away from my head for a moment.
I pressed the button on my phone to lower the volume of the call.
“Maybe Hashimoto spread it after what happened yesterday. Or maybe some other student saw us together.”
Kei let out a quiet scream.
“Well, it’s fine, isn’t it? It would be terrible for you if our positions were reversed.”
“A rumor like ‘Kei has a crush on me’ would be pretty troublesome, right? If it ended up like that, I think everyone would be much more suspicious of you than me since you just broke up with Hirata.”
“…I-I guess so, but…”
“Just don’t worry about it. Rumors always tend to fade away with time.”
“That being said, thanks to this rumor, it should be easier for the two of us to get in contact with each other moving forward. If I start talking to you now, people will assume that it’s because of the rumor, and we could leave it at that.”
It all just depends on how we think about it.
I never had any intention of talking with her in a conspicuous place in the first place, but this rumor could act as insurance just in case I needed to at some point.
This time around, she repeated the word ‘no’ several times more than she did earlier.
“If we’re seen alone together, people will totally look at us weirdly, right!? Absolutely weirdly, right!?”
Is repeating yourself like this becoming some kind of trend? What a strange way of talking.
This was the type of information that I was indirectly planting for Hashimoto as he followed me.
“Anyway, don’t worry about it.”
“Even if you say that……… No, it’s still absolutely impossible!”
After a long silence, she still ended up deciding that it was too difficult.
After quietly grumbling about something else for a little while, Kei gave up and ended the call.
The situation began to unfold at a dizzying pace.
The special exam didn’t seem like it was going to happen this month, so everyone should’ve been focusing their efforts on preparing for the upcoming end-of-year exam, yet something troublesome was still developing.
It was Friday, February 18th. Three days after the end of the provisional exam.
A fair distance away from the school campus, students from Class A, Class C, and Class D had gathered together.
Given the importance of the upcoming exam, Hirata had attempted to stem the flow of the new rumors, but despite his best efforts, they still managed to spread around the school.
Class A, the only class that hadn’t had rumors posted about them on the school forums, was also already grasping that information.
“Yo Ishizaki, something you wanted to say to me?”
The same attitude as ever, Class A’s Hashimoto spoke up, posing a question to Ishizaki.
“Something I wanted to say? You tell me, Hashimoto! What are you doing bringing Kit? along with you? Didn’t I tell you to come alone?”
“Well, you brought Albert along with you yourself. I’m just being careful.”
There was a stinging, tense atmosphere between the two of them.
The atmosphere made it hard to imagine that they had lived in the same room together during the training camp. Though, ultimately, their reaction towards one another was understandable.
“We’ve just invited you out here today to have a talk. Isn’t that right, Ishizaki-kun?”
Ishizaki and Albert weren’t the only Class D students that had come to participate in the conversation. Hiyori and Ibuki had also come along with them.
“Well, as long as they’re able to control themselves, I guess everything should be fine.”
Even though she stopped herself, Hiyori’s worry was by no means unreasonable.
Given the personalities of the people present, it was hard to imagine that nothing would end up happening.
“But, what about those guys? I didn’t know you invited people from Class C as well.”
Looking over at us, Hashimoto let out an exasperated sigh.
“Dunno. Aren’t you the ones that invited them?”
It seemed as though both Class D and Class A felt a bit uncomfortable about our presence.
“It’s just like you said, Ayanok?ji.”
Akito spoke up from beside me, accompanied by the rest of the Ayanok?ji Group.
Before coming here, we had all met up at the cafe and were about to start studying together.
“I had been thinking about that time a while ago when Kanzaki and Hashimoto were going at each other. Then I just so happened to see all of you guys heading off campus, so I brought it up to Akito…”
After seeing the Class A and Class D students leave the campus, I let Akito know that there might be something else going down similar to what had happened last time and we immediately went to take a look.
However, Airi, Haruka, and Keisei all unexpectedly came along as well.
“There are more people than there were last time, too. This looks like it might get pretty serious…”
“Jeeze. Why is such a tense situation taking place again?”
Haruka commented, exasperated from having come across a scene like this for a second time.
“Forget it. It doesn’t matter who called them over. Let’s hear what you have to say, Shiina-chan.”
“It has to do with the rumors. You guys from Class A are the ones that posted them, right?”
Judging that they might run into problems should Ishizaki lead the conversation, Hiyori took over.
“Hey hey hey. Why are you asking us something like that?”
“Isn’t it obv-!”
“Please. Leave this to me, Ishizaki-kun.”
Hiyori gently stopped Ishizaki from angrily lashing out at Hashimoto.
“I heard it through the grapevine. I was informed about what you had told Kanzaki-kun when he confronted you about the source of Ichinose-san’s rumors.”
“What a chatterbox. Did you happen to hear that from those two over there?”
He gestured over to Akito and me since we had witnessed the entire exchange in question.
“Please answer the question, Hashimoto-kun.”
Without even looking over to us, Hiyori continued to press Hashimoto for answers.
“…Well, Ayanok?ji and Miyake over there already know about it, so I’ll just speak honestly. Back then, I just happened to hear some rumors about Ichinose, so I decided to help spread them around because it seemed like an amusing thing to do. I wasn’t the source.”
Of course, Hashimoto doesn’t acknowledge the truth.
“What a convenient excuse. Do you think that we’re just going to accept that?”
“Excuse? It’s the truth. Well, I guess it is somewhat sinful of me to spread it around just because it seemed amusing, but it’s still strange, isn’t it? That the students from Class D would come along and butt-in to something that they should be entirely unrelated to?”
With a cheerful, yet piercing look in his eyes, Hashimoto continued:
“Isn’t it possible… that you guys in Class D are ones actually spreading the rumors?”
“You’re full of shit! We already know that Sakayanagi is the one behind the rumors!!!”
“Oh, so you’re jumping to conclusions now? It may be true that the leader of our class is belligerent. There are indeed also times where she heedlessly provokes Ichinose. It’s not like I can’t understand where you’re coming from, but you’re reading too much into it and arbitrarily deciding that she’s the source of the rumors. Honestly, it’s really none of your business anyway. You don’t actually have any proof it was Sakayanagi now, do you?”
Ishizaki was frustrated with Hashimoto’s response, but there was nothing incorrect about what he said. The letters that had been placed in all the mailboxes. The rumors that had been posted online. There was no conclusive evidence tying Sakayanagi to any of it. Though, I was eighty to ninety percent certain that she really was behind it all.
“Which is why I came here today. To question you guys about whether or not you’re the ones that spread the rumors. However, I never expected that you guys would go and try to support Ichinose as well.”
Ishizaki and his friends responded to Hashimoto’s remark with glowering expressions. Understanding the situation he was in, Hashimoto let out a sigh.
“It’s no use playing stupid, Hashimoto. Not only did you guys go and spread rumors about Ichinose, but then you even had the nerve to go and stir up shit about us as well.”
“I see. So that’s the reason after all. You guys don’t really care about the stuff with Ichinose, do you? You’re just upset that Class D got swept up in the rumors. Oh yeah… I heard you were sent to juvie because of some stunt you pulled back in elementary school, isn’t that right, Ishizaki?”
The moment Hashimoto instigated him further, Ishizaki clearly snapped.
Hiyori hurriedly grabbed him by the wrist and held him back, preventing him from jumping at Hashimoto.
The rumor that Hashimoto brought up was one of the lies that had been written on the school forums.
Given the nature of that lie, Ishizaki’s anger was certainly justified.
This sort of outcome was inevitable.
Without showing any interest in stopping, Hashimoto continued:
“Anyways, I’m shocked that you guys are even able to come up with all those rumors. Ichinose’s situation aside, please, do tell me how you guys managed to find out so much about the people from other classes.”
“Stop fucking around Hashimoto!”
“Hold it Ishizaki!”
Thinking Hiyori wouldn’t be able to handle him on her own, Akito hurriedly spoke up to stop Ishizaki.
“Don’t butt in, Miyake! I can’t just stand by and let Class A bad mouth us like this!! I’ll send him flying!”
“Stop it Ishizaki. You’re just gonna hurt yourself. I know you’re confident in your fighting skills, but this isn’t the right place for that, okay?”
Kit? took a single step forward and readied his fists toward Ishizaki and Albert.
It looked like, depending on what happened next, he was willing to accept their challenge.
“Stop it. All of you. You know the school is very strict when it comes to fighting.”
From a fair distance away from them, Akito spoke up, attempting to calm things down.
“Well, that was true… until now.”
“It seems like the current student council president is willing to turn a blind eye to petty disputes, just like this one.”
Hashimoto closed the distance and threw a kick at Ishizaki, but Akito immediately intercepted the blow with his left arm.
“…Seriously? That student council president… Does he think he can just do anything he wants?”
Hashimoto’s words were hardly enough to guarantee that the ban on fighting had really been lifted.
So, he went to prove it by personally making the first move himself.
“Not bad, Miyake. It makes sense now why you were so confident that you could stop us from fighting.”
Hashimoto fell back and took his distance once again.
The atmosphere became even more tense and rigid than it was before.
Hiyori spoke up.
“Fighting still isn’t allowed.”
“I know. I didn’t come here to fight with you. That was just my way of proving to all of you that we’re more than capable of defending ourselves.”
“…Can I trust you?”
Looking Hiyori in the eyes, Hashimoto nodded, but none of us truly believed him.
“Give it up, Hiyori. This guy lies as easily as he breathes. No matter how you look at it, the rumors were spread by Class A. It’s obvious because Class A was the only Class that wasn’t included in the rumors.”
“That’s… Then isn’t there a chance that they aren’t at fault?”
“It’s just as Shiina-chan says. If we were the ones that posted the rumors, wouldn’t we have also posted some lies about Class A on the forums in order to avoid suspicion?”
“It’s hard to say. I don’t think that everyone in Class A would know that Sakayanagi is the main perpetrator for the rumors about Ichinose. If the class wasn’t informed ahead of time, when the rumors are spread, there would definitely be confusion.”
As Akito pointed this out, Hashimoto let out another sigh.
“Well, your deduction isn’t unreasonable, but in the end, it’s still probatio diabolica.”
His excuse was extremely suspicious, but ultimately, we had no evidence to disprove it. At the same time, it was also hard for him to prove his innocence.
“If we want to get information out of these guys, it looks like we have no choice but to talk with our fists.”
“Woah Woah, cool it Ibuki-chan. Picking a fight with us like that won’t accomplish anything, you know?”
“Telling me to stop after picking the fight yourself, well aren’t you full of it?”
“Class A doesn’t have anything to do with it. Believe me.”
With that, Hashimoto let out a laugh, but Ibuki was not smiling.
On the contrary, she seemed to be trying her hardest to hold back her rage.
Ibuki had fallen victim to the rumors posted on the school’s forums, just as Ishizaki had.
“You… Do you really think that you can look down on us just because Ry?en is no longer our leader!?”
Ishizaki finally reached the limit of his patience and pushed Akito aside.
Ibuki stepped forward to confront Hashimoto and Kit? right alongside him.
“Wait wait wait. Take it easy.”
“The rumors about Ichinose and the rumors about us. Get Sakayanagi to apologize for both of them.”
“You’re still misunderstanding something. We didn’t spread the rumors.”
“What a joke!”
Ishizaki forcefully kicked the nearby handrail.
Hashimoto began to understand that the situation was getting a bit out of control.
“…Then, what are you gonna do about it?”
“Isn’t it obvious? We’ll shut you up by force.”
“Are you serious?”
“Yep. If that sounds unpleasant, then you better go and get her to take back the rumors right now.”
“I’ve already told you countless times. We didn’t spread the rumors.”
Even though he continued to deny it, Hashimoto also understood that it wasn’t an excuse that the others would easily accept.
After all, the current state of affairs was essentially the same thing as Sakayanagi having declared war on Ichinose. It would be difficult for him to prove his innocence.
Hashimoto’s expression softened for a moment.
“Oh? What’s so funny?”
“Sorry, sorry. This is all just too absurd. I don’t understand what you want from me.”
Because Hashimoto wouldn’t acknowledge that Sakayanagi was the source of the rumors, he didn’t have any other option but to turn Ishizaki down.
“Then, I guess we’ll just have to go ask Sakayanagi herself.”
“You? Fat chance.”
Hashimoto dismissively waved his hand, as if to say ‘There’s no way that she’d bother with the likes of you.’
Before they all came here, Ishizaki must have reached out to Hashimoto because he knew there’d be no way for him to reach Sakayanagi directly in the first place.
“Kit?. We might not have any other choice.”
Reading the atmosphere, Hashimoto concluded that they wouldn’t get anywhere with peaceful conversation.
Kit? seemed to have already prepared himself for this outcome, as he smoothly transitioned into a fighting stance.
Immediately, Ishizaki yelled out a war cry and charged in, attempting to tackle Kit?.
At the same time, Ibuki attacked Hashimoto with a high-flying kick, but he ended up getting out of the way at the very last moment.
Due to her sudden, jumpy movements, Ibuki’s cellphone and student ID card fell out of her pocket.
Hashimoto realized that Ibuki was faster and stronger than he expected. His expression showed concern for the danger he was in, but was followed up by a look of genuine admiration.
“I seem to have forgotten… Ibuki-chan is more experienced at fighting than I remembered.”
“Stop it! All of you!”
Akito shouted out while picking her phone up off the ground.
However, the Class D students didn’t show any signs of stopping.
Ibuki didn’t seem to care in the slightest that her phone might’ve been damaged from the fall.
I reached out and picked up her ID card that had fallen near my feet.
My gaze suddenly fell upon the small photograph of Ibuki depicted on the card.
Of course, her expression in the picture was as stiff and unsociable as ever.
One particular detail on the card managed to catch my eye.
“What’s going on…?”
From beside me, Keisei spoke up, having heard my mumbling. I immediately shook my head to dismiss his question and temporarily put Ibuki’s student ID card into my pocket for safe keeping.
“No, it’s nothing. More importantly, it seems like stopping this fight should be our top priority.”
“You say to stop the fight… but how?”
The situation had already developed into a two-on-two, and the second round was just about to begin.
“Exactly. It doesn’t seem like we should get involved.”
“It’s dangerous, Kiyotaka-kun.”
Haruka and Airi spoke up as well, suggesting that we stay out of it.
“…That’s true. Then I guess it’s better to just let Akito handle it.”
In order to stop the next exchange of blows, Akito forced himself between Ishizaki and Hashimoto.
“Don’t get in my way, Miyaki!”
Ishizaki attempted to push him aside with brute force, but Akito seized him by the hand and forced him down to the ground.
“You bastard! Let go of me!”
“I’m sorry Ishizaki. It’s nothing personal.”
Ibuki kicked out once again, aiming for Akito’s head.
Akito quickly got off of Ishizaki, narrowly dodging Ibuki’s kick at the same time, but the whole affair caused him to lose his balance.
Making use of the opening, Albert grabbed ahold of Akito from behind him.
“Hold him down Albert.”
Akito couldn’t resist Albert’s otherworldly strength, pinning him down from above.
Class D had concluded that they would win if the two-on-two played out without any obstructions.
Ishizaki called out to her as Kit? lunged forward, aiming for her neck.
“Don’t look down on me!”
She reacted quickly, kicking Kit?’s hand away.
“These guys are seriously fighting, aren’t they… What do we do?”
The four of us, watching from the sidelines, weren’t in any position to stop them.
“It can’t be helped now that things have progressed this far, but you lot from Class C are really getting in the way…”
While keeping tabs on Ishizaki as he got up off the ground, Hashimoto shifted his gaze over in our direction.
“We only happened to come here by chance, but I have something I want to say. Our friend Ayanok?ji was a target of the rumors, just like Ishizaki and the others.”
Keisei appealed to Hashimoto with Airi nodding enthusiastically beside him.
“Hmm, now that you mention it… Something about him having a crush on Karuizawa, right? Isn’t that a lovely rumor?”
“I-it’s absolutely not lovely at all!”
The usually quiet Airi raised her voice in objection.
I spoke up after her, attempting to seem like I agreed with my friends on the matter.
“I hate to say it, but I suspect you as well, Hashimoto.”
“…I guess that makes sense. After all, I was the only one who saw you and Karuizawa meeting up together in secret a few days ago.”
Airi and Haruka immediately looked over at me.
“There’s nothing going on between us.”
“Really? B-but Kiyotaka-kun, I’ve been starting to think that… y-you and Karuizawa-san have been on pretty good terms with each other lately…”
Airi had been watching me carefully, so she should understand that much.
However, what was truly important here was for Hashimoto to hear this.
It was essential for him to know that other people know about my relationship with Kei.
At the time, we had used the excuse that I was just the middleman for the delivery of her Valentine’s day chocolates to her real crush. For that to happen, Kei and I would’ve had to have at least a certain degree of intimacy with each other in the first place.
His actions were an act, done for the sake of testing me. Taking the opportunity to evaluate how my classmates saw my relationship with Kei.
Hashimoto’s excellence had caused him to shut out many other possibilities.
Even though he had been keeping an eye on me, thanks to this testimony, he would now end up with an incorrect conclusion.
As a result, his suspicions about me would start to fade.
“I’m the one you’re dealing with right now, Hashimoto!”
“Good grief… This is getting rather troublesome.”
“Please don’t keep going on like this Ishizaki-kun. I won’t allow you to continue any further.”
Hiyori firmly declared her stance to Ishizaki.
Unable to completely disregard what she said, Ishizaki looked over to her with a troubled look on his face.
“Let’s suppose that you manage to beat Hashimoto-kun and Kit?-kun in a fight here and force them to confess to everything. That still wouldn’t be real evidence. I’m also fairly certain that the person that matters, Sakayanagi-san, won’t admit to anything at all. Isn’t the fact that we weren’t able to get him to admit to it more than enough?”
“So you expect us to just swallow our anger?”
“I know it seems unfair, but it is what it is. Please just bear with it for now.”
“Aren’t you the one that wanted us to come along with you in the first place? But then you ask us to stand down? That doesn’t make any sense.”
“I promise that I will make it up to all of you later.”
Amused by what he was hearing as he listened in on their conversation, Hashimoto let out a whistle.
“Hoooh? So you’re saying that Ishizaki isn’t the one who set up this meeting? It was all done by Shiina-chan instead?”
“Albert-kun. Please let Miyake-kun go as well.”
Following her directions, Albert slowly released Akito.
“We’ve gone and made all of you from Class C worry as well.”
As she spoke, Hiyori turned to us and deeply bowed her head.
“How selfish, wrapping up our conversation like this. Do we just have to accept the beating along with your baseless suspicions?”
“Could you please forgive us?”
Hiyori took Hashimoto’s complaints head-on. Hashimoto should understand that there was no benefit in dragging this confrontation out any longer.
“Well, it’s not like we were injured. Let’s call it a day this time, Kit?. But, please stop pointlessly doubting us. If you want to doubt us again, before you come to talk with us, please make sure you have undeniable proof first.”
Hiyori had managed to successfully get the situation under control before things got too out of hand, but now, Class A had gotten to the point where they wouldn’t be able to repair their relationship with the other classes.
That night, I made a phone call to Horikita Manabu.
“It’s rather unusual for you to contact me.”
“There’s one thing I wanted to ask you.”
“And what is that?”
I filled him in on what I had noticed after looking at the ID cards of two particular students.
“You sure… you aren’t misunderstanding something there, right?”
He answered back in surprise, as if it was the first time he had heard about it.
“Based on the way you phrased that, the student council… No… Does that mean this has never happened before?”
“Exactly. That is, as long as it’s not a simple mistake.”
Of course, the possibility of it being a mistake couldn’t be ruled out completely.
At the same time, it wasn’t the type of mistake that would just casually happen.
“Of course, the school is also gradually changing and evolving every year, so this phenomenon that you’ve noticed is bound to hold at least some meaning. As the first person to notice it, you might just find the knowledge useful in the future.”
Even if that future came, if at all possible, I was hoping to have already ended everything without having to put it to use.
“It’s highly likely that you first-years will have to finish one more special exam this school year.”
The first-years will? Which is to say that the situation is different for students in the other grades?
“At least, that has been the case for all the years so far. While nothing is certain moving forward, if I base my guess on how it’s worked in the past, the third-years should have at least two more special exams left to take.”
“For you, that’s quite the disaster.”
If Nagumo were to utilize his influence over all of the second-years and provide assistance to the third-year Class-B students, the elder Horikita may not be in a very safe position.
“It’s certainly a risky, unpredictable situation, but it’s nothing you need to be worrying yourself about.”
As expected of the former student council president, the elder Horikita didn’t seem to feel as though he was in a particularly desperate situation. He had the ability and potential to overcome his current situation and fight on. That was the extent of the confidence that I felt from him.
Said confidence, however, was limited to Horikita Manabu alone.
After all, Nagumo would focus his attacks on weak points that would be easy to exploit, just like how he had targeted Tachibana Akane during the training camp.
“Instead of worrying about me, you should be worrying about the first-years as a whole.”
“If the student council were to provide Nagumo backup, they’d be able to cover up his actions to some degree, right?”
“Ah, that is possible. Of course, if they go too far, the student council may breach the trust of the school and be forcibly disbanded. Though, it is Nagumo we’re talking about. He should be able to cover it up properly. Did you run into any problems regarding Kushida?”
“If you’re asking about that, it’s been taken care of.”
“It seems as though they’re doing something behind the scenes regarding the whole ordeal with Ichinose.”
“I’ll contact you again.”
After I had gotten the information I needed, I cut the call.
After that, a few days passed in the blink of an eye.
During that period, the ever-controversial Ichinose continued her string of absences, failing to show up to school even a single time.
However, that changed on February 24th, one day before the end-of-year exam.
Ichinose had finally come to school again. While I personally didn’t see her, Ichinose had been absent for more than a week and many people were keeping their eyes on her. The news reached me almost immediately.
That being said, her presence was only truly important for Class B. For Class C, the upcoming end-of-year exam on the 25th was far more important.
“Very good. Ayanok?ji. Akito. Haruka. Airi. You’ve all done excellent.”
During our lunch break, the Ayanok?ji Group had gathered around Keisei’s desk before class.
We had taken a mock exam that Keisei had made us, and the time had come to hear the results.
It was a voluntary exam that he had us take the night before, all for the sake of testing our true abilities.
“Wow~! Kiyopon you got a 90! Totally awesome!”
In the middle of eating her sandwich, Haruka spoke up, surprised by my result.
“Well, the tests Keisei made were flawless. Didn’t you manage to score about the same?”
While there was some variance in the scores, the three of them had managed to get around an 80.
“If you guys are able to get through both the provisional exam and this mock exam I made, the exam tomorrow won’t be a problem for you at all.”
“If Keisei’s saying something like that, this exam will be a piece of cake.”
Akito rolled his stiff shoulders a few times. He seemed to be pretty fired up.
“Thank you so much Keisei-kun. I’ve been… anxious every time I take an exam…”
“Don’t mention it. This much is the least I can do for all of you.”
A little embarrassed from Sakura and Akito’s words, Keisei lightly scratched the bridge of his nose.
“But are you really sure that we don’t need to do anything else today?”
“You’ve all spent a lot of time studying this past week. Since today is the last day before the real thing, I’d prefer it if all of you took a break. You’ve all studied diligently up to this point, and I don’t think you’ll easily forget anything you’ve learned. Furthermore, it’d be dangerous if you push yourselves to the point where you end up getting sick or for you to doze off during the exam. It’d be a shame if you did worse because of a few careless mistakes.”
“Roger that. I’ll follow your instructions, Yukim?.”
As Haruka responded to Keisei with a weird salute, the others nodded along, agreeing with her words.
Suddenly, a loud noise resounded throughout the classroom as the door was violently flung open from the other side.
“Oh my god! Everyone!”
Just as we were about to enjoy the rest of our lunch…
“Ugh. This is the worst…”
Haruka had dropped her sandwich onto the floor, startled by the sudden noise. She spoke up.
“Hey! What’s wrong with you!”
Without attempting to hide her displeasure, Haruka glared at Ike.
“Something’s going down! A bunch of students from Class A marched into Class B just now!”
Ike spoke, full of momentum.
“With Ichinose-san returning to class, Sakayanagi-san is making her move…”
Mumbling that, Horikita, who was also having lunch in the classroom, stood up in a hurry. Without saying a word to me, she rushed out of the room. Seeing her leave, Sud?, Hirata, and a few others followed after her.
Tomorrow was the end-of-year exam.
If Sakayanagi wanted to make a move, she would have no choice but to make that move today.
To make a direct attack in order to bring down Ichinose after she’s come back to school.
“What are you going to do, Akito…?”
“It looks like I don’t have any other choice. If it turns into the same type of thing that happened a few days ago, somebody will have to be there to stop it.”
“Well, that is right.”
“However… Haruka, Airi. The two of you should stay here. There’s no reason for more people to get involved than necessary.”
“Yeah yeah, I get it. We’ll take our time and finish lunch.”
“What are you going to do Kiyotaka-kun?”
Keisei stood up along with Akito. In this kind of situation, it was hard for me to say that I would stay behind as well.
“I’ll come along just in case. Though, I don’t think that I’ll be much help.”
The three of us left the classroom, heading toward Class B.
The commotion had already spread into the hallway, as people were gathering together.
“What are you doing here, Sakayanagi!?”
As we entered Class B’s classroom, we witnessed Shibata approach Sakayanagi.
“What am I doing here, you ask? Why, I’ve come to rescue everybody in Class B, you know?”
Sakayanagi was accompanied by Kamuro and Hashimoto. There was no sign of Kit? or anyone else from Class A. It wouldn’t have been surprising to run into problems if they had come with a larger group, so they probably decided to make their move with a smaller one.
“I wonder what you mean by that, Sakayanagi-san.”
Ichinose spoke up from deeper within the classroom, surrounded by several of her classmates.
“Wait, Ichinose. You don’t need to get involved with this.”
“Yeah! Don’t do this Honami-chan!”
They surrounded her tightly, trying their best to prevent Ichinose from getting in contact with Sakayanagi.
“To start things out, congratulations on your recovery. In fact, I wanted to reach out to you earlier, but I’ve been quite busy studying for the exam. Nevertheless, I’m quite happy for you. You’re just in time for the end-of-year exam tomorrow.”
“Yes. Thank you.”
The two of them spoke to each other from a distance.
It was perfectly clear that every single student from Class B was looking at Sakayanagi with hostility.
After all, even though it was lunch break, every student from Class B was present.
It was highly likely that the entire class had banded together with the goal of protecting Ichinose.
However, Sakayanagi didn’t seem shaken by their unity at all. Rather, she seemed to be enjoying the feeling of being in enemy territory.
She had anticipated Ichinose’s movements. Given that Ichinose was currently in the middle of a maelstrom of rumors, she had foreseen that Ichinose wouldn’t make use of the cafeteria or other facilities on campus during the lunch break.
“You said you were here to ‘rescue’ us, Sakayanagi?”
Responding to Kanzaki’s question, Sakayanagi nodded and let show a bright smile.
“Does that mean… you admit to spreading the rumors?”
‘If you came here to apologize, I guess I kind of get what you mean by ‘rescue’.’ Kanzaki mumbled.
“I’m not the one who spread the rumors.”
“…If that’s the case, then what are you getting at?”
“In the past, there were rumors saying that Ichinose-san was maintaining a large sum of points, remember? At the time, the school announced that there was no foul play going on, so those rumors subsided almost immediately.”
“What about it?”
In order to prevent Ichinose from saying anything, Kanzaki responded without missing a beat.
“This may be nothing but my own imagination, but… there are very few methods available for someone to get their hands on such a large sum of points without breaking any rules. For example, one could periodically collect private points from all of their classmates, gathering them together under a single person. In short, they would be playing the role of a bank, and I’ve determined that Ichinose-san is carrying this very responsibility for Class B.”
“That’s not something I can say.”
Kanzaki’s response was only natural. After all, it was directly related to Class B’s internal affairs.
“Indeed. I didn’t come here looking for a response to that in the first place. It’s just that… If, for instance, Ichinose-san truly does play the role of a bank like I’ve surmised… I think that may be a very dangerous situation for all of you.”
As she spoke, Sakayanagi directed her gaze toward Ichinose, who was intently staring back at her.
Ichinose did not respond. Instead, she simply continued to return Sakayanagi’s gaze.
“Am I mistaken? Ichinose Honami-san?”
Sakayanagi’s question was truly cruel. It had certainly managed to force Ichinose into desperation.
Unable to do anything but respond with silence, Ichinose had finally been cornered, driven to the very brink of a sheer cliff.
With a single push, she’d be sent plummeting to the bottom.
That was the sort of situation that Sakayanagi had created for her.
However, this plan of hers wasn’t going to work.
“Could you give me a little space? Chihiro-chan. Mako-chan.”
“It’s okay. You don’t need to be worried about me. I’ll be alright.”
With a gentle smile, Ichinose calmly moved forward and closed the distance with Sakayanagi.
Ultimately, Ichinose faced not toward Sakayanagi, but to all of her classmates throughout the classroom.
“…Everyone, I’m sorry!”
Standing before the teacher’s podium, Ichinose bowed her head in apology to the students of Class B.
“W-what are you apologizing for Ichinose? There’s no reason for you to be apologizing, right?”
Shaken from her words, Shibata attempted to interrupt Ichinose’s apology.
“Please don’t try to stop her, Shibata-kun. She was just about to confess.”
Sakayanagi smiled happily.
“This past year… The secret I’ve been hiding all along…”
“Hold on Ichinose. You don’t have to say anything else right now.”
Feeling unsettled, Kanzaki attempted to stop Ichinose from continuing any further once again, but she didn’t back down.
“There have been many strange rumors going around about me these past few weeks, and one of them isn’t just a baseless rumor. Just as it was written in that letter… I am a criminal.”
As Ichinose spoke these words, Sakayanagi showed a satisfied smile.
“Is that true?”
The noisy classroom fell into silence as her words sunk in.
“It seems like these foolishly good-natured classmates of yours have been caught completely unaware, so please, do give them all the details, Ichinose-san. What kind of crime did you commit?”
Ichinose stopped and gulped nervously.
“I’ve kept this from all of you… but I’ll confess it all right now.”
Declaring such, Ichinose finally began to speak about the past that she had kept buried within.
“I… was a shoplifter…”
The shoplifting honor student, Ichinose Honami.
In light of her unexpected revelation, the surprise was great enough that it managed to impact spectators outside of Class B, such as Keisei and Akito.
After all, Ichinose really didn’t come across as the type of student who would do such a thing.
“Honami-chan… a shoplifter…? R-really?”
“Yes. I’m sorry Mako-chan.”
While apologizing, Ichinose began to recount her experience with shoplifting.
“I came from a fatherless family, living with my mother and my sister two years younger than me. While we weren’t very well-off, we were never unhappy. My mother had it hard, working full-time as she raised two children all by herself. That’s why, ever since elementary school, I planned to get a job after finishing middle school. After all, it would cost a lot of money to go to high school, so I wanted to find a job to help my mother support my younger sister instead. But, my mother was against it. I think that, just as I, an older sister, sincerely wished for my younger sister’s happiness, my mother wished for the happiness of both of her daughters.”
Ichinose opened up about her past.
“I understood that, even without money, if I studied as hard as possible, I’d be able to make use of the student scholarship system. So, I studied hard. I developed my skills as I managed to reach the top of the school. But… just like that, during the summer of my third year of middle school… my mother pushed herself too hard and collapsed.”
It seemed that, in order to support her family’s livelihood, Ichinose’s mother had overworked herself.
She had given up her own body, all for the sake of raising her children.
“It was almost my younger sister’s birthday. For as long as I could remember, she had never asked for anything from either of us. She was still in her first year of middle school, so it would’ve been acceptable for her to act a little spoiled sometimes, yet she always managed to hold herself back. Instead of getting the clothes she wanted, or accompanying her friends as they played or went shopping together, she just put up with all of it and held herself back from asking for anything. And then, that selfless little sister of mine… expressed that she wanted something for the very first time. A fashionable hair clip that her favorite celebrity wore back then. My mother undoubtedly overloaded her schedule in order to buy my sister that hair clip.”
However- Due to her sudden hospitalization, she was no longer able to get her daughter that birthday present.
“I can still remember everything. My mother, sobbing as she apologized from her bed in the hospital. The face of my sister as she showered our mother with all the ridicule and blame she could produce. The face of my sister as she cried and screamed about the hair clip she was looking forward to getting. Even then, I still wasn’t able to blame her. The only gift she had ever asked for…”
Sakayanagi listened to Ichinose’s confession with an unwavering smile on her face.
“As the elder sister… I thought that I had to find a way to return my sister’s smile. So, after school on the day of her birthday, I went to the department store.”
By now, you could tell that she was just as anxious as she was back then.
“My feelings back then were surely shrouded in darkness. I told myself that it was okay… That it wasn’t a big deal to do something sinful, just once, for the sake of my younger sister. After all, there were so many people in the world constantly doing bad things. The feelings I was holding inside… That there was no reason for my family, who had always held back, to be blamed for my actions. I told myself that it would be acceptable, that it would be forgiven… Back then, that was my selfish, egotistical interpretation of reality. The hair clip that would normally cost over 10,000 yen… The hair clip that my sister wanted so desperately… I stole it for her.”
Ichinose spoke as though she was revealing something heavy.
“Even though it was a decision that I knew would make everyone unhappy, I still wanted to do something for my sister.”
That desire of hers was the cause for all of this.
“…But, that’s still no excuse, is it?”
Ichinose mumbled quietly.
“In the end, a crime is a crime. No matter what you do to repent, your sin will never go away.”
She expressed her thoughts in a disconnected manner.
“Are you saying you got caught?”
In response to Hashimoto’s question, Ichinose simply shook her head.
“I just left the department store with the hair clip. It was the first time I ever shoplifted, the first time I ever committed a crime. Nobody found out. Immediately afterward, I went home and presented the hair clip to my sulking little sister. But, because it had just been stolen, it hadn’t been wrapped yet, so it was a really sloppy present. Still, she was so happy. When I saw her smiling face, for an instant, the guilt of what I had just done faded a bit. But, that didn’t last very long. The pounding guilt in my heart just continued to grow.”
Ichinose’s smile was full of self-ridicule.
“After all, doesn’t it seem impossible for a mother to fail to notice when her daughter’s done something sinful? Even though I had told my sister to keep the present a secret, she wore it the next time we went to visit our mother in the hospital. And why wouldn’t she? There was no way my sister would’ve thought that I had stolen it for her. That time… That time was the first time in my life where I had ever seen my mother seriously angry. She slapped me and took the hair clip from my sister. I don’t even think my sobbing little sister understood why. Despite the fact that she had to stay hospitalized, my mother forcibly dragged me back to the store. I prostrated myself, begging for forgiveness. That was the first time I truly understood just what I had done. How heavy of a crime I had committed. No matter how many excuses I make, nothing would ever be able to make up for it.”
This was Ichinose’s past. The past that she had been hiding.
“In the end, the store didn’t hand me over to the police. But, in the blink of an eye, the commotion still spread, so I closed myself off. For almost half of my third year of middle school, I just shut myself up in my room and stayed there… Eventually, I started to think about moving forward once again. It was all because my homeroom teacher told me about this school. The cost of admission and tuition are waived for you, and if you graduate, you can find a job anywhere you want. I wanted to start over. To start over with a blank slate.”
Finished, Ichinose once again bowed her head to her classmates.
“I’m sorry everyone. I’m such a pathetic, useless leader…”
“That’s not true Ichinose.”
Listening from nearby, Shibata spoke up.
“After listening to everything you’ve had to say, I’m sure of it. You’re still a good person.”
“Yeah! Sure, Honami-chan may have done something bad, but-”
The loud, distinct sound of a cane striking the floor echoed throughout the room.
“I will have to interject. Could you all stop being so ridiculous?”
Ichinose’s support was casually brushed aside.
“Really, what a trivial, boorish farce. Are you trying to gain sympathy by bringing up all these needless details about your past? No matter the circumstances, shoplifting is still shoplifting. There’s no place for sympathy. Your theft came from a place of self-interest.”
As Sakayanagi spoke, Kamuro, standing right beside her, momentarily showed a stiff expression.
“Yes, I agree with that. The circumstances of my past have nothing to do with it.”
“The fact remains: you’ve committed a crime. So, when it comes to the large amount of private points you’ve been entrusted with, isn’t it possible that you’ll steal those as well when graduation comes along?”
“……I’d never do something like that, Sakayanagi-san. Disregarding my classmate’s intentions in order to get into Class A would be an act of betrayal. I don’t think the school would ever allow it.”
“I agree. You’re a clever one, after all. You’d never use an obvious tactic like that. On the other hand, what if you do this little sympathy-seeking performance again in order to get everyone’s permission to go to Class A?”
Sakayanagi was relentless.
“You’re right… Maybe… Maybe all my hard work will seem hypocritical, no matter how hard I try. The sin I committed will never disappear.”
Her criminal past would always follow her.
After all, the suspicion that she may betray the class someday would always be there.
“Does everyone understand now? This, is the real Ichinose Honami-san. As long as you have this sort of person leading you, Class B doesn’t stand a chance.”
Sakayanagi thoroughly exposed the reality of the situation.
“Take this opportunity to return the private points to your classmates and step down as the leader of Class B. You should at least do that much. If you don’t, the slander about you will not disappear, will it?”
Ichinose calmly closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
“What are you going to do, Ichinose?”
Kanzaki spoke as the representative for the rest of Class B, posing the question to her.
The question of whether or not she would continue to lead the class.
A decision that Ichinose would have to make herself.
If this was her first experience with having her spirit crushed, Ichinose may not have been able to endure. She might have decided to give in.
But, Ichinose had already had her spirit broken once before.
Rather, I was the one who had broken it.
But now, she had recovered completely.
That broken part of her spirit was now stronger than ever.
“I’ll wrap up my confession with this…”
As she spoke, she turned to face Sakayanagi with a smile.
“I am certainly a shoplifter, and as Sakayanagi-san said, I don’t think there’s any room for sympathy. After all, a crime is a crime, and I have no intention of running away. However, I’ve never been persecuted for it. In other words, there’s effectively no reason for me to atone for my sin now.”
“You have a lot of nerve to say that despite being so shameless just a moment ago. This defiant attitude of yours is quite a big change from what one would expect from a corrupt thief who honestly regrets their mistakes.”
“Maybe so, but I refuse to keep looking back. I won’t let my past control me anymore.”
Turning her smiling face toward her classmates, Ichinose continued.
“Despite being so shameless… everyone, will you follow me until the very end?”
She asked this, and it was followed by a moment of silence.
By no means had her request come from a place of optimism.
She was ashamed of her past and on the verge of bursting into tears. She simply wanted to run away from all of it.
But despite that, she continued to push forward.
She had gone through thick and thin with her classmates for the past year. It was impossible for them to not understand what she was going through.
“You already have our support, right!?”
Shibata shouted with a smile.
At the same time, every single one of his classmates cheered, showcasing the unity of Class B.
This was the extent of the admiration they had for her.
I could feel the weight behind it.
Keisei and Akito also seemed to be taken in by this display of unity, as both of them had delighted expressions.
With the exception of one class in particular, the students from the other classes were also voicing their support.
“Sakayanagi… What now?”
Sakayanagi’s attack had been negated.
Kamuro appeared to understand this as well, which was why she had spoken up. Her question could be interpreted as a request to withdraw.
Then she laughed again, a little bit longer this time.
“I see. It seems you’ve managed to successfully trick your classmates. However, as you said earlier, a criminal’s past doesn’t just disappear. I’m sure that the rumors about you will continue to spread far into the future.”
“Yeah, but I’m not going to run away.”
“Is that so? Then, let’s thoroughly-”
“Alright, that’s enough everyone.”
As Sakayanagi was in the middle of giving a response, two teachers and an upperclassman entered the classroom.
It was the student council president Nagumo, Class B’s homeroom teacher Hoshinomiya, and Chabashira.
“It seems that a few very important people have shown up, but this is a problem that only concerns the first-year students.”
“You’re correct. This dispute does only involve the first-years. However, as of today, it is against the rules to spread irresponsible rumors.”
“…What does that mean? I’m not satisfied with this gag order on the rumors about Ichinose-san. Regardless of where they came from, if Ichinose-san was troubled by them, shouldn’t she have reported it to the school herself?”
“You have the wrong idea, Sakayanagi. This problem doesn’t just involve Ichinose anymore.”
Nagumo responded to Sakayanagi’s question.
“…What are you saying?”
Just as Nagumo was about to explain, Chabashira intervened instead.
“I won’t go into the details, but we’ve already confirmed that there has been an ongoing exchange of slander amongst the first-year students. There are close to twenty different rumors going around at this point. If this is allowed to continue, it will corrupt the public morals of our school. Rumors are rumors. Regardless of whether or not there’s conclusive evidence backing them up, the school doesn’t want to see rumors that target specific individuals continue to spread. Therefore, I’ll inform all of you right now. Moving forward, anyone found spreading meaningless rumors may be subjected to punishment.”
So far, the school had been tolerating the endless spread of rumors, but now they had taken action.
“…I see, so that’s how it is.”
After hearing Chabashira’s explanation, Sakayanagi seemed to understand everything.
“In other words, the school’s finally taking action.”
Horikita drew closer to me after observing the situation and gave me her thoughts.
“This is only an afterthought, but isn’t this enough to save each class? Because of the school’s intervention, Sakayanagi-san’s faction won’t be able to attack Ichinose-san anymore. This should also silence the rumors about Hond?-kun, Shinohara-san, Sat?-san, and you that were posted online as well.”
“Sakayanagi-san went a bit too far. She attempted to frame each class with the same strategy at the same time, but it backfired because it attracted the school’s attention. It seems like with this one belligerent move, she managed to outdo herself.”
With that, Horikita fell silent.
Then, for a moment, she continued.
“No, it’s nothing.”
Horikita didn’t seem to want to say anything further.
“Let’s withdraw here. Now that the school has made their move, our presence is no longer necessary.”
Understanding the situation, Sakayanagi gave the order to withdraw.
At once, the already noisy classroom became even more excited.
Class A had been successfully driven back.
Haruka excitedly greeted us as we returned to our own classroom.
“Hey, how’s Class B? It looks like a lot went down.”
“It went in an unexpected direction. Ichinose managed to repel Sakayanagi.”
Akito gave a straightforward account of what had happened.
The truth behind the rumors about Ichinose and the details about the ban the school had placed on spreading rumors moving forward.
“There should be an official warning during class this afternoon.”
“Shoplifting huh? It’s surprising to say the least, but I guess I can accept that. If there’s a past mistake floating around that you don’t want to face, it’s only natural that you would take some time off school like she did.”
Haruka, now fully informed on the specifics of the situation, spoke words of support for Ichinose.
“In any case, the whole ordeal is over with this. We can put all these rumors aside and concentrate on the exam.”
“Isn’t that great Kiyopon?”
“Well… I guess.”
And then, my cellphone rang.
“A number that I don’t have registered.”
I showed my screen to Haruka and the others. It was a different number from the one that had called me in the dead of night a little while ago.
I got up from my seat, took some distance from everyone else, and answered the call.
“Is this Ayanok?ji-kun?”
I recognized the owner of the voice immediately. It was Sakayanagi.
“How do you know my number…? Well, it’s not too hard to figure out.”
“Yeah. As there are still about ten minutes left before lunch ends, would you mind coming out to meet me for a moment?”
It would’ve been easy to decline, but it also would’ve been troublesome to make time to meet up with her later.
“Where do you want me to go?”
I walked out into the hallway.
“Well, how about in front of the first-floor entryway?”
I ended the call and headed to the entryway.
I thought that Hashimoto and Kamuro might have come along with her, but Sakayanagi was alone when I arrived there.
“Do rest assured, there’s no one else with me right now. I must say, you’ve really outdone yourself this time, Ayanok?ji-kun.”
“What are you talking about?”
“It seems as though, without me noticing, you’ve gone and made your move behind the scenes. There are still a few unsolved mysteries left, but I’m not interested in talking about what happened back there. That said, there’s one thing that I’ve been curious about. Why did you decide to protect Ichinose-san?”
With that, Sakayanagi stared at me, waiting for my answer.
“Wait. I don’t understand what you’re talking about.”
“Simply because you saved Ichinose-san, she became defiant… no, she was able to stand back up on her own two feet again. I can’t imagine any other reason for what happened. Perhaps it’s possible that this wasn’t the first time she’s confessed to everything. Perhaps she already told everything to someone beforehand?”
“And you think that someone is me?”
It was a completely natural conclusion for her to arrive at.
“Didn’t you use Kamuro to force me to take action?”
“Before Ichinose’s past as a shoplifter was revealed, she told me everything.”
“That was something she did of her own accord.”
“No, that’s not true.”
“What makes you so sure?”
It seemed like, for some reason, she wanted to see what information I already had.
“She presented me with a can of alcohol as proof of her shoplifting. But, she hadn’t stolen it that day. Kamuro had stolen it when she first enrolled here.”
“And what’s the basis for that?”
“The sell-by date. After I saw the sell-by date on the beer that Kamuro showed me, I went to the convenience store and compared it with the beer there. The sell-by date of the cans on sale in the convenience store and the can she gave me differed by more than four months. It’s difficult to imagine that the can of beer she grabbed just so happened to be four months older than the rest of them. Kamuro said that you had received the can of beer she had stolen in the past, telling her that you would dispose of it. If that’s true, she either gave me a can that the two of you had prepared for me ahead of time, or she got in touch with you after she left my room and got the can from you directly.”
Back then, Kamuro getting in touch with me and speaking about Ichinose’s past was all within my assumptions.
“Why would I go about things in such an indirect manner?”
“To lure me out, right?”
“Fufufu. Perhaps an ‘as expected of Ayanok?ji-kun’ is in order here.”
“In this case, it would’ve been easy for me to sit back and do nothing. Rather, that’s what I had wanted to do in the beginning.”
The one that prevented me from doing so was none other than Sakayanagi herself.
She had brought Ichinose down with her own hands, and then went and offered her a hand of support immediately after.
Of course, she had utilized a very roundabout means of doing so.
“It was all for the sake of getting you involved, Ayanok?ji-kun.”
Cane in hand, Sakayanagi slowly walked forward, shortening the distance between the two of us.
“It didn’t matter to me if Ichinose-san broke down along the way, but if there was even a slight chance that you may decide to intervene, I was hoping that you would seize the opportunity to do so. The odds were only about fifty-fifty, but… I got the outcome that I was hoping for in the end.”
In other words, for Sakayanagi, Ichinose’s existence didn’t matter at all.
“Let’s have a competition, Ayanok?ji-kun.”
“What if I say no?”
“While you may claim that it wouldn’t cause much damage, I’d expose you as the mastermind leading Class C from the shadows. You should be able to understand that if I did something like that, you wouldn’t be able to resolve everything with a couple of rumors.”
Even though the school had officially placed a restriction on spreading rumors, Sakayanagi would probably still spread that information without hesitation.
“So how about it? Not willing to accept?”
“What would we compete over? You’re in Class A, I’m in Class C. The difference between us is obvious.”
“I don’t know anything about what the next exam may entail, but how about we compete over the rankings? Should you win, I’ll promise not to divulge your past to anyone moving forward.”
While that condition wasn’t too bad, there was no guarantee that she would keep to her word. I didn’t have any intention of signing an agreement or vocally recording my consent on the matter either.
“You don’t believe me, do you? But it doesn’t seem like you have any other choice but to trust what I’m saying. If you don’t, your past will be exposed under broad daylight. It would become difficult for you to live an ordinary life.”
“Do whatever you want. Just know that if that happens, you’ll never be able to have your face off against me.”
“…Fufu. That’s right, isn’t it? That’s exactly what I’d expect you to say.”
Sakayanagi herself should know that I wouldn’t easily agree to face off against her.
Which was why, so far, Sakayanagi had yet to talk to anybody about my past.
“So what if I wager that I would drop out of school myself? Furthermore, you can have my father, the chairman of the school, act as a guarantor for our contest.”
Sakayanagi gave off an air of absolute confidence.
“Of course, even if you should lose to me, I wouldn’t require for you to drop out as well. I don’t intend to ask for anything special either. I would, however, announce to the school that you’re the mastermind behind Class C. If I don’t have you risk at least that much, you might just withdraw from the contest altogether.”
She looked at me with an expecting expression.
“If you’re really alright with those conditions, I’ll agree to it.”
“Thank you very much, Ayanok?ji-kun. With this, at last, my boring school life will come to an end.”
With a content smile, Sakayanagi took her leave.
I decided to make a call to the central figure behind this entire incident.
Not Kei, not Horikita, and not her older brother either.
“I was just thinking it was about time for you to get in contact with me. Good evening, Ayanok?ji-kun.”