Y1 Vol 1 Chapter 8 | The Association of Failures

May 1 came and went, and before we knew it, the school week was over. Ike and the others had started listening to the teacher. Only Sudou kept unashamedly falling asleep in class, but no one tried to reprimand him. Because we hadn’t yet found a method to increase our points, he’d apparently decided not to fix his habits. However, many of our classmates grew to disdain him.

I was a little sleepy, myself. It was hard to stay awake just before lunchtime. Also, I’d stayed up late last night watching an online video. Ah, sleep would feel so nice…

“Ah?!”

Just as my head started to bob, sudden pain shot through my right arm.

“What’s the matter, Ayanokouji? You cried out. Have you started your rebellious phase or something?”

“N-no. Sorry, Chiyabashira-sensei. I got some dirt in my eye.”

Normally, the other students would have started whispering.

But, wary of potentially losing points, they instead shot me pained glances. As I rubbed the sting on my arm, I glared at my neighbor. Horikita brandished her mathematical compass. This was insane. Why did she even have a compass ready in the first place? You didn’t even really need one of those for this school. After class, I immediately went over to her.

“Certain things are off limits! It’s dangerous to stab someone!”

“Are you angry with me?” she asked. “You put a hole in my arm! A hole!”

“What? When did I stab with you a compass needle, Ayanokouji-kun?”

“You’re holding a dangerous weapon right now.”

“So, just because I’m holding something means I stabbed you?”

I’d spent most of the class wide-eyed, not because of the lecture, but the pain.

“Be careful. If you get caught sleeping, that would undoubtedly lead to a loss in points.”

Horikita had started to take action within Class D. Her protests to the school had gone nowhere. Ah, that hurt! Damn it, if Horikita ever fell asleep in class, I’d return the favor. When everyone got up for lunch, Hirata spoke.

“Chiyabashira-sensei mentioned that the midterm is coming up soon. Remember that if you fail, you’ll be expelled. Therefore, I think it would be a good idea to form a study group.”

Apparently, the hero of Class D had started another project.

“If you neglect your studies, you’ll get a failing grade and be expelled on the spot. I want to avoid that. However, studying won’t just prevent expulsion; it may also help earn points. If we receive high marks, our class’s assessment should improve as a result. I asked some of the students who scored high on the test to help prepare a study plan. So, I would like people who are anxious to come join our group. Everyone is welcome, of course.”

Hirata stared directly at Sudou while making his grand speech.

“Tch.”

Sudou averted his gaze, crossed his arms, and closed his eyes. Ever since Sudou had stomped all over Hirata’s introduction game, their relationship had been rocky.

“Starting today at five o’clock, we will plan to study in this classroom for two hours a day until the test. If you’d like to join us, please come whenever you like. Of course, I don’t mind if you need to leave partway. That’s all I have to say.”

Immediately after he’d finished speaking, several of the failing students got up and went over. There were three people with failing grades who didn’t rush to Hirata, though: Sudou, Ike, and Yamauchi. Ike and Yamauchi seemed unsure of what to do for a moment, but in the end, they stayed in their seats. I couldn’t tell whether they were afraid Sudou might lose his temper, or because they were jealous of Hirata’s popularity.

8.1

“Are you free for lunch? Do you want to eat together?” During our break, Horikita came up and invited me out. “It’s unusual to get an invitation from you. I feel nervous.”

“There’s no reason to be. I can treat you to the vegetable meal set, if that’s okay with you.”

Wait, wasn’t that the free meal?

“I’m joking. Seriously, whatever you want to eat is on me.” “Now I’m definitely scared. Is there some kind of catch?”

An invitation from Horikita was suspicious enough. The suddenness of the request also gave me pause.

“If people can’t honestly accept kindness, then mankind will meet its end, won’t it?” she asked.

“Well, I suppose so, but…”

With no other plans, I decided to follow Horikita to the cafeteria, where I chose one of the most expensive special meal sets. Together, we sat down.

“Well then, shall we eat?” she asked. Horikita started at me intently, as if she were waiting for me to begin.

“What’s the matter, Ayanokouji-kun? Aren’t you going to eat?”

“Oh.”

There was definitely a catch, no doubt about it. Nevertheless, I couldn’t just sit here and not eat. Letting the food get cold would be a waste. I hesitantly bit into my croquette.

“I know this is rather sudden, but I want to talk to you about something.”

“I have a bad feeling about this…”

Just as I was preparing to flee, she grabbed my hand. “Ayanokouji-kun, I’ll ask once again. Will you listen to me?”

“Ugh…”

“Ever since Chiyabashira-sensei’s warning, fewer people have arrived late or talked in class. When I say we eliminated more than half of the reasons our class got into trouble, I’m not exaggerating.”

“Yeah, that’s true. It wasn’t really a difficult issue to begin with, though.” There was no guarantee things would continue in this vein, but at least these last few days had been considerably better than before.

“The next step is to improve our chances of scoring well on the midterm. Hirata-kun started taking action toward that end earlier.”

“The study groups, huh? Well, I suppose that a study group certainly could help. Only…”

“Only what? It sounds like you’re implying something.

What’s the problem?”

“Nothing. Don’t worry about it. I have to say, it’s unusual to see you so worried for others.”

“I can’t truly imagine failing a test. However, it’s true that some students in this world can do just that.”

“Sudou and the others, you mean? You’re vicious as ever, I see.”

“I’m just telling the truth.”

Because students couldn’t leave campus, contact anyone on the outside, or even attend cram schools, their only option was to help one another.

“I’m relieved that Hirata-kun set up a study group. However, Sudou-kun, Ike-kun, and Yamauchi-kun didn’t join, did they?

That worries me,” Horikita said.

“Oh, those guys. I wouldn’t say they’re Hirata’s enemies, but they aren’t on good terms with him. They wouldn’t join.”

“So, in other words, there remains a high probability that those three will fail. In order to reach Class A, we need to avoid demerits and build toward a positive evaluation, correct? I think it highly likely that good test scores will help with that.”

I suppose it’s only natural that a student would expect their grade to reflect how much effort they put into the test.

“What if you also held a study group like Hirata’s, specifically for helping Sudou and Ike?” I asked.

“Sure. I wouldn’t have any objections to that. You probably find that rather surprising, though, don’t you?”

“Well, everything about your behavior up until now has been surprising.”

I wasn’t actually surprised, though. Horikita was doing this all for her own benefit. Personally, I’d never thought that Horikita was that cold of a person.

“Well, I understand that you want to move up to Class A. However, I didn’t think that you’d opt for ordinary methods like tutoring them. Typically, failing students tend not to like studying. Besides, you’ve kept your distance from the other students since the first day, right? I doubt someone who considers friends unnecessary would be able to bring people together easily.”

“That’s why I’m asking you. Fortunately, you’re already friendly with these people, right?”

“Huh? Hey, wait. You couldn’t mean…”

“It’ll be quicker if you try to convince them. It shouldn’t be a problem; they’re happy to say that you’re friends, right? Bring them to the library, and I’ll tutor them.”

“This is insane. Do you honestly think someone who does his best to lead an utterly harmless and inoffensive life would be able to do something that requires actual social skills?”

“It’s not a matter of can or can’t. Just do it,” she said. Was I her pet dog or something?

“You can aim for Class A, but don’t involve me.”

“You ate the food I treated you to, right? Lunch. The special set. A wonderful, delicious meal.”

“I simply received the honest goodwill of another human being.”

“Unfortunately, that wasn’t out of goodwill. I had an ulterior motive.”

“Sorry, I didn’t hear a word you said. Here, have some points, my treat. Now we’re even.”

“I refuse to stoop so low as to accept handouts from others,” she said.

“I think this might be the first time I’m actually angry at you…”

“So what will you do? Cooperate? Or make me your enemy?”

“It almost feels like you’re holding a gun to my head.”

“No, not ‘almost.’ I really am threatening you,” replied Horikita.

The power of violence certainly was effective. Well…if all I did was gather them together, there wasn’t anything particularly wrong with cooperating. After all, due to Horikita’s stance against friendship, she wouldn’t be effective at diplomacy.

Furthermore, it’d taken a lot of time and trouble to become friends with Sudou and Ike. I’d hate for them to have to drop out so quickly. Sensing my hesitation, Horikita pressed me.

“You don’t think I’ve forgiven you for conspiring with Kushida-san and inviting me out under false pretenses, do you?” she asked.

“You said you wouldn’t blame me. Bringing that up is unfair.”

“I said that to Kushida-san. I don’t remember saying that to

you, Ayanokouji-kun.” “Wow. You play dirty.”

“If you want my forgiveness, cooperate with me.”

It looked as though I’d never had an escape route in the first place. At this juncture, the only way to avoid a hassle would be to help her.

“I can’t guarantee anything. Are you okay with that?”

“I believe you’ll find a way. Oh, here’s my phone number and email. If something happens, contact me.”

Although the circumstances were unusual, I’d gotten a girl’s contact information for the first time in my high school life. It was Horikita’s, though, so I wasn’t particularly happy.

8.2

I glanced around the classroom. What was I supposed to do now? If I said, “Hey, want to study with me after class?” would anyone even come?

Sudou and I were close enough that he might, but I wasn’t sure about the others. Well, with nothing to lose, I decided to try.

“Hey, Sudou. Have a minute?” I called as he headed back to the classroom after lunch. He was sweating and a bit short of breath. Probably played some basketball during his lunch break.

“What are you going to do about the midterm?”

“Oh, that. I don’t know. I’ve never really studied seriously before,” he said.

“Oh, yeah? Well, I have just the thing. I wanted to form a study group to meet every day after class, starting today. Want to join?”

Sudou stared at me, his mouth slightly agape.

“You serious? If the lessons are a pain in my ass, why would studying after class be any better? Besides, I have club activities, so it’s pointless. Plus, you’re going to be tutoring? Your scores weren’t great, either.”

“Don’t worry about that part. Horikita’s the tutor.”

“Horikita? I don’t really know anything about her. Sounds fishy; I’ll pass. I’ll be fine cramming for the test the night before.”

Sudou had refused to join, just as I’d guessed. If I persisted, it’d fall on deaf ears. Damn, was it really useless? If I tried to press him further, he might punch me. Perhaps there was no helping it. Maybe I should start with someone more manageable. I called out to Ike, who was playing on his phone.

“Hey, Ike, h—”

“Pass! I heard you talking with Sudou. Study group? No way. Not my thing.”

“You do know you’ll be expelled if you fail, right?”

“Well, yeah. I might have gotten failing grades before, but I’m doing much better now. I’ll just cram the night before with Sudou.”

Was he really fine with that? He didn’t seem to grasp the danger of this situation.

“If the last test hadn’t been such a surprise sucker punch, I probably could’ve gotten, like, forty points.”

“I know what you mean, but wouldn’t it be better to stick together on this?” I asked.

“A high school student’s free time is precious, you know? I don’t want to waste it studying.”

He waved me off, completely focused on texting with some girl. Ever since Hirata had managed to get a girlfriend, Ike was desperate to find a girl of his own. My shoulders slumped as I returned to my seat. Maybe if I told Horikita I’d tried my best, she’d forgive me.

“No good,” she said.

“Uh, what do you mean by that?” I asked.

“I said ‘no good.’ You really didn’t think it would be that simple, did you?”

Damn it. She’d completely ignored my appeal. How shameless.

“No, of course not. I still have 425 plans remaining,” I grumbled.

I looked around the room. Contrary to the tension of class, lunch had a friendlier, albeit noisier, atmosphere.

I needed a method to get reluctant students to buckle down and work. Also, I needed a way to get them to study during free time, not during class. Normally I wouldn’t involve myself, but they were in danger of expulsion.

I was sure that Sudou would participate if given the chance. Now I had no choice but to find some kind of incentive. I needed him to think there’d be a juicy bonus he’d get by studying. I’d require something concrete and easy to understand. Something effective.

And then it hit me!

Blessed with a divine revelation, I turned, wide-eyed, to Horikita.

“Even though you’re the tutor, getting Sudou and Ike to study is no easy feat. I’ll need more of your abilities. Can you help me?” I asked.

“‘More of my abilities’? What exactly am I supposed to do?”

“How about this? If they get a perfect score, you agree to be their girlfriend or something. They’ll definitely jump at the chance if we offer that kind of incentive. Girls are great motivation for guys.”

“Do you want to die?” she asked. “No, I’d rather live.”

“I listened because I thought you had a serious plan. I was an idiot to think so.”

No, I truly believed that’d be effective. It’d be the biggest impetus to study they’d ever had in their entire lives. However, Horikita clearly didn’t understand men.

“Okay, how about a kiss? If they get a perfect score, you give them a kiss.”

“So, you really do want to die?”

“No, living would still be preferable.”

Something sharp jabbed the back of my neck. Damn it.

Horikita definitely didn’t acknowledge the value of my methods. It would be exceptionally effective, though. Well, that meant I had to go back to the drawing board. As I considered this, I noticed someone quite conspicuous. It wasn’t Hirata, but another person who might easily rally the class around her: Kushida Kikyou.

She looked great, of course, and she was bright and energetic. She was so sociable that anyone, regardless of gender, could chat with her freely. Also, Ike was madly in love with Kushida, while Sudou and the others at least had a good impression of her. On top of that, her test scores were relatively high. She was absolutely perfect.

“Hey!”

Just as I called out, I remembered that Horikita didn’t want to be friends with Kushida. I stopped there.

“What is it?” Kushida asked. “Oh, uh…it’s nothing.”

Horikita fundamentally disliked mingling with other people.

When Kushida and I had tried to enact Operation Friendship, it had made Horikita furious. Horikita probably wouldn’t approve of Kushida’s involvement. I’d put my plan on hold until Horikita returned to the dorms.

8.3

Before I knew it, class had ended for the day. Horikita quickly departed and went straight home. The time had come to enact my plan. I needed to capture Kushida.

“Hey, do you have a minute?” I called out as she prepared to head back to the dorm. Kushida turned around.

“Oh, it’s unusual for you to come talk to me, Ayanokouji- kun. Do you need something?” she asked.

“Yeah. If it’s okay with you, could we talk outside?”

“Well, I was going to meet up with my friends, so I don’t really have much time, but…okay.”

Smiling, she followed me, not a trace of unpleasantness to be found. After we turned the hall corner, Kushida waited for me to speak. I was trembling with excitement.

“Rejoice, Kushida. You’ve been selected as an ambassador of goodwill. Tomorrow, your hard work begins.”

“Uh, what? I’m sorry, but what do you mean?” she asked.

Etc., etc., etc. I basically explained to her that I wanted to form a study group to save Sudou and the others. Of course, I also told her that Horikita would be tutoring.

“I thought that you could use this study group as a way to get closer to Horikita. What do you think?” I asked.

“Well, I do want to get closer to her, but… well, I won’t worry about that now. Besides, it’s only natural to help out a friend in need.”

This girl was just way too good. She seemed to truly want to prevent Ike and Sudou’s expulsion.

“Are you really okay with this? If not, I won’t force you to join,” I said.

“Ah, I’m sorry. I didn’t hesitate because I disliked the idea. I hesitated because I was happy.”

Kushida leaned against the wall, gently kicking it.

“It’s cruel to expel someone for getting a bad grade. Isn’t it awful to have to say goodbye after you’ve worked to become friends with everyone? When Hirata-kun told us that he was holding a study group, I greatly admired him. But you could say that Horikita has been much more observant than I. She noticed Sudou and those other guys, after all. It’s like Horikita is now starting to think of her classmates as friends. I’ll do anything I can to be useful!”

Kushida took my hand and smiled. Whoa, she was seriously way too cute! There wasn’t a man alive who wouldn’t fall for that smile.

I couldn’t afford to get carried away, though. I tried to look safe and inoffensive.

“Great! We could definitely use your help. If you’re there, our chances will improve a hundred times over.”

“Ah, but there’s just one thing I want to ask you. I want to participate in the study group, too,” Kushida said.

“Huh? Really?”

“Yes. I want to study with everyone.”

My wishes had all come true. Kushida’s presence would brighten our study group, which would otherwise be pretty glum. However, since she didn’t get bad grades, there really wasn’t a reason for her to be there.

“So then, when do we start?” she asked.

“We plan on starting tomorrow.” In my mind, I added,

Horikita does, at least.

“I see. Then I’ll have to talk to everyone by the end of the day. I’ll contact you later, okay?”

“Oh, do you need Sudou and the others’ contact information?”

“It’s okay. I already have it. The only people whose numbers I don’t have are you and Horikita-san, actually…”

Well, I hadn’t known that.

“This might be too forward, but are you two already dating?” Kushida asked.

“Wh-where did you hear that? Horikita and I are friends…no, just neighbors.”

“It’s a big rumor among the girls in our class, you know.

They say that even though Horikita-san is always alone, she only seems to get along really well with you, Ayanokouji-kun. And you guys eat together, after all.”

Hmm, so the girls had already started spreading rumors about us.

“That’s a shame, because, unfortunately, there’s nothing going on like that between me and Horikita.”

“So, there’s no problem swapping phone numbers, right?” “Not at all.”

And so, I got another girl’s number.

8.4

I WAS LAZING AROUND my room that night when I received a text message from Kushida.

Yamauchi-kun and Ike-kun said okay! (・w・)b That was fast.

Ike had waved me off when I’d tried to invite him earlier. A girl’s presence had likely played a large part in changing his mind. Lust held unlimited power.

I just contacted Sudou right now, but I have a good feeling about it!

(\^w\^)

Another text message. Wow. At this rate, we’d probably get

everyone together tomorrow. Because of these speedy developments, I thought it’d be a good idea to relay information to Horikita. I wrote a message basically saying I had Kushida’s help, that Ike and Yamauchi had agreed to come, and that Kushida would also be participating. Then I sent the message to Horikita.

“All right. Time to take a bath, I think.”

The moment I rose from my bed, Horikita called. “Hello?” I answered.

“I don’t quite understand the message you just sent me,” she

said.

“What do you mean you don’t understand? I wrote it all out

plain as day, didn’t I? I said those three guys would probably come tomorrow.”

“Not that part. The part about Kushida. I didn’t know about that.”

“I asked her a little while ago. Having someone like Kushida on our side increases the odds of getting everyone together. So I asked her, and now Sudou and Ike and Yamauchi are coming. Okay?”

“I don’t remember giving you permission to do that. Her grades aren’t even failing.”

“Okay, look. By asking Kushida, who’s spent more time networking, to help us, our chances of success have improved significantly.”

“I don’t like it. Shouldn’t you have sought my approval first?”

“I understand that you hate outgoing people like Kushida.

But isn’t this just a means to an end? Or would you prefer trying to gather everyone yourself?”

“Well…”

Horikita seemed to finally understand that getting Kushida on board was a good thing. But, being prideful, she couldn’t simply agree to it.

“We don’t have much time until the test, either.

Understand?”

Come to think of it, we really didn’t have much time to make Horikita’s plan work. However, Horikita was clearly stuck and unable to make a snap decision. She remained silent for a moment.

“I understand. I suppose anything worth doing requires sacrifice. However, Kushida may only help gather the students. She’s not allowed to join the study group.”

“But why? That was her condition for helping us. You’re being ridiculous,” I said.

“I will not allow her into our study group. I refuse to budge on this.”

“Is this about what happened at the café? Are you just getting back at Kushida for deceiving you?”

“This has nothing to do with that. She didn’t fail the test.

Inviting extra people will only mean more time spent and greater confusion.”

Although her argument sounded logical, I doubted that was her real reason for excluding Kushida.

“Do you openly dislike Kushida?” I asked.

“Don’t you feel uncomfortable sitting next to someone you hate?”

“Huh?”

I didn’t really understand what Horikita meant. Kushida had tried harder than anyone to befriend Horikita. I couldn’t imagine why Horikita actually hated Kushida.

“Suppose the guys decide not to come if Kushida’s out?”

“Sorry, reviewing these test materials is taking longer than I expected. I’m ending the call here. Goodnight.”

“Hey, wait!”

She hung up on me, as expected of a misanthrope. However, if we wanted to reach Class A, compromise was necessary. I plugged my phone into my charger and lay down, thinking through everything that had happened since the entrance ceremony.

“Defective product, huh?”

That was what that second-year student had called us on our first day. In other words, we weren’t just defective; we were fundamentally failing to serve our purpose. Those were the words they’d used to ridicule us. Even Horikita, who appeared flawless, probably had some defects of her own. I could kind of understand why she’d been angry today.

“What should I do?”

Should I try to force Horikita? In the worst-case scenario, she’d leave. If Horikita didn’t tutor the study group, it’d waste everyone’s time. With a heavy heart, I called Kushida.

“Hello?”

I heard something like a strong wind blowing into the phone.

It quickly died down, though.

“Were you drying your hair or something?” I asked. “Oh, sorry. Did you hear that? I just finished up, so don’t

worry.”

Kushida had just gotten out of the bath… This wasn’t the time to get lost in fantasies.

“Uh, this is really hard for me to tell you, but… Can we pretend that I never asked you to help get everybody together?”

She paused and then replied, “Um, why?” She sounded curious rather than angry.

“I’m sorry. I can’t explain right now. Things got kind of complicated.”

“Is that so? I suppose Horikita-san was opposed to me joining.”

I hadn’t implied that, but Kushida had managed to pick up on it. “It has nothing to do with Horikita. It’s my bad.”

“It’s okay. I’m not particularly angry. Horikita seems to really dislike me, so I expected she’d refuse.”

You could call it a woman’s intuition.

“Anyway, I’m sorry. It’s my bad, since I came to you for help and all.”

“It’s okay. You don’t have to apologize, Ayanokouji-kun.

But, I…don’t think that Horikita-san will be able to bring Sudou- kun and the others together by herself.”

I couldn’t deny it.

“Hey, what did Horikita-san say, though? Was she against me gathering people, or did she not want me to join the study group?”

Kushida was so dead-on, it was like she’d been standing next to me when Horikita called.

“The latter. I’m really sorry to hurt your feelings.”

“Ahh, it’s okay. Really, don’t apologize, Ayanokouji-kun. Horikita-san has this kind of impenetrable aura around her, like she won’t let people get close to her. I expected this.”

She was way too perceptive.

“Everyone agreed to join because I said I’d participate, though… Couldn’t you have just lied and told me that I couldn’t join? I’m worried that if they know I’m not coming now, the guys will probably get mad at Horikita-san…”

Kushida scared me a bit. Nothing escaped her. “Could you leave things to me this time?” she asked. “Leave it to you?”

“I’ll bring everyone over tomorrow. Of course, I’ll be coming along, too.”

“That’s—” I started.

“It’ll be okay. Or can you solve all of these problems, Ayanokouji-kun? You know, gather everyone together without me?”

Unfortunately, such a thing was probably impossible.

“I understand. I’ll leave it to you, then. I don’t really know what’s going to happen, though.”

“Don’t worry. You won’t be responsible for anything, Ayanokouji-kun. Well then, I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Soon after, my call with Kushida ended. Somehow, I was even more exhausted than when I’d finished talking to Horikita. Even though Kushida said everything was fine, I had my doubts.

Horikita relentlessly opposed anyone she didn’t like, regardless of who they were. It was painfully obvious that this would end in disaster. Feeling anxious, I headed into the bathroom.

I decided to stop thinking about tomorrow. No matter how much I agonized over it, tomorrow would come, and it would eventually end. Things would work out, somehow.

8.5

Horikita had been sullen all morning. It would’ve been nice if she got adorable when she was angry. If she puffed out her reddened cheeks, she’d be cute enough to make any man would swoon. However, she remained expressionless and silent, refusing to acknowledge my existence. If I were to ignore her, though, she’d probably take out her compass. After an especially long day, we finally finished class.

“Have you gathered everyone in the study group?”

Her first words to me included “study group.” She was most definitely implying something.

“Kushida’s bringing them. I wonder if she’ll participate,” I replied.

“Kushida-san, hmm? I thought I specified that she wasn’t allowed to participate…”

Satisfied, Horikita left for the library, and I followed.

Kushida gave me a too-cute wink as I left. Together, Horikita and I secured a long table at the far end of the library and waited for the others.

“I’ve brought everyone!”

Kushida came over to where we were seated. Behind her was…

“Kushida-chan told us about this study group. I don’t want to be expelled after only just starting. Thanks!”

Ike, Yamauchi, and Sudou had all shown up. However, they’d brought an unexpected visitor, a boy named Okitani.

“Huh? Okitani, you failed, too?” I asked.

“Oh, n-no. Not exactly. I was just really close to failing, so I was worried… Is it not, er, okay for me to join you? It’s a little difficult to join Hirata’s group…” Okitani looked up at me, puffing out his cute, slightly reddened cheeks. He was slender, with blue hair cut in a short bob. A boy attracted to anything feminine might have shouted “I’m in love!” right away. If Okitani weren’t a man, it would have been dangerous.

“Is it okay if Okitani-kun joins us, too?” Kushida asked Horikita. Okitani had scored thirty-nine on the test, after all. He likely wanted to participate just to be safe.

“As long as you’re worried about failing, I don’t mind. But you need to be serious,” Horikita said.

“Oh, okay.”

Okitani sat down, seemingly happy. Kushida tried to sit next to him, which Horikita certainly noticed.

“Kushida-san, did Ayanokouji-kun not tell you? You—” “I’m also worried about getting a bad grade,” Kushida said. “You…didn’t score badly on the small test.”

“Yes, but to tell you the truth, I was lucky. There were lots of multiple-choice questions, you know? So I guessed about half of them. In truth, I just barely passed.”

Kushida giggled adorably, lightly scratching her cheek.

“I think that I’m about on the same level as Okitani-kun, if not slightly worse. So I want to join the study group to avoid getting a bad grade. That’s okay, right?”

I couldn’t hide my surprise at Kushida’s unexpected scheme. She’d first confirmed that Okitani could join the study group, then turned the tables on Horikita. Now Horikita would have to permit her to join.

“Fine,” Horikita growled.

“Thank you.” Kushida smiled, bowed, and took her seat. Bringing Okitani had probably been part of her plan all along. She’d effectively used him to justify joining the group.

“Scoring lower than thirty-two means failing. Do you fail if you get exactly thirty-two points, though?” Sudou asked.

“No, you’re safe if you score at least thirty-two points.

Sudou, you can manage that, right?” Ike said.

Even Ike was worried about Sudou. Of course those guys would want to know the exact threshold.

“It doesn’t really matter. My goal is for everyone to score fifty,” Horikita said.

“Gah, isn’t that going to be too tough?”

“Aiming to just skate by is dangerous. The fact that you can’t easily reach that threshold troubles me.”

In the face of Horikita’s sound argument, the failures simply nodded reluctantly.

“I included most of what will be covered on this test. We only have about two weeks left, but I plan to thoroughly walk you through everything. If you don’t understand something, please ask.”

“Hey, I don’t understand the first question.” Sudou glared at Horikita. I tried reading the first problem as well.

“A, B, and C collectively have 2,150 yen. A has 120 yen more than B does. Also, after C gives B two-fifths of his money, B would have 220 yen more than A. How much yen did A originally start with?”

A problem with simultaneous equations, huh? The first test question should have been one that a high school student could easily solve.

“Try thinking about it. If you give up right at the beginning, you won’t get anywhere.”

“Look, I don’t know how to study at all,” Sudou said. “Everyone got into this school.”

This school didn’t accept people based solely on test scores, though. Sudou had most likely been accepted because of his exceptional physical ability. If you looked at it that way, wouldn’t he likely be expelled because of bad grades?

“Ugh, I don’t get it either.” Ike, equally bewildered, scratched his head.

“Do you understand, Okitani-kun?” Horikita asked.

“Let’s see… A plus B plus C is 2,150 yen. So, A equals B plus 120. Then…” Okitani started writing out a series of equations. Kushida, seated next to him, glanced over her shoulder.

“Yeah, yeah, that looks right. Then what?”

You could certainly call Kushida bold, or even audacious.

She’d claimed to have just barely avoided failing, and she was now teaching Okitani.

“Honestly, first- and second-year junior high school students could easily solve this problem. If you stumble here, it’ll be impossible for you to continue,” Horikita said.

“So, what, we’re like elementary school kids?” Sudou growled.

“Like Horikita-san said, it’ll be bad if you get tripped up here. The math problems on the short test were about this difficult, but the last problems were really tough. I didn’t understand how to solve them,” Okitani said.

“Listen up. This can be easily solved using a system of simultaneous equations.” Without hesitation, Horikita picked up her pen and got to work. Unfortunately, it looked like only Kushida and Okitani understood.

“What even are simultaneous equations?” asked Ike. “Are you seriously asking me that?” said Horikita.

Wow, these guys had really never studied at all, it seemed.

Sudou threw his mechanical pencil onto the desk. “Stop. I’m done. This isn’t going to work.”

Sudou had quit before we could even begin. Horikita quietly seethed at this pitiful display.

“W-wait, everyone. Let’s give it a shot. If you learn how to solve these problems, you can apply what you learn to the questions on the test. Okay? Okay?” Kushida said.

“Well, if Kushida-chan says so, I guess I can try. But if Kushida-chan were teaching, I’d probably try even harder.”

“U-um…” Kushida seemed ready to ask Horikita about that, but Horikita stayed silent. Her refusal to even answer “Yes” or “No” was troubling. However, if she remained silent much longer, the failures might abandon this study group. Kushida made up her mind and grabbed the mechanical pencil.

“Like Horikita-san said, you can solve this problem by using a system of simultaneous equations. So let’s try writing them out.”

Quickly, she wrote down three equations. It looked like the others were trying their best, but it still seemed hopeless. This was more like detention than a study group. They didn’t seem to understand her methods in the slightest.

“So, the answer I got is 710 yen. What did you get?”

Kushida, confident in Sudou’s ability to follow along, flashed him a smile.

“Um, so you used this to get the answer? How?” he asked.

“Uh…” Kushida immediately realized what had happened.

None of them understood.

“I’m sorry, you’re far too ignorant and incompetent,” said Horikita, who’d been silent until now. “If you can’t solve this problem, I seriously shiver at the thought of what the future will bring.”

“Shut up. This has nothing to do with you.” Sudou slammed the desk, understandably irritated by Horikita.

“You’re right. This has nothing to do with me. Your suffering won’t influence me at all. I just pity you. You must have spent your whole life running from anything that presented a challenge,” she said.

“Say whatever you want. Academics will be useless in the future, anyway.”

“Academics will be useless in the future? That’s an interesting argument. How do you justify that?”

“I don’t care if I can’t solve this problem. Studying’s useless.

Aiming to become a pro basketball player will help me a lot more.”

“Incorrect. Once you learn to solve these kinds of problems, your entire life will change. In other words, studying increases the possibility that you’ll solve the problems you face. It’s the same principle as basketball. I wonder if, so far, you’ve been playing basketball by your own set of rules. When you struggle in basketball, do you run away from it like you do from studying? I doubt you take basketball practice seriously. You’re a natural troublemaker, someone who always causes a disruption. If I were your adviser, I wouldn’t let you on the team.”

“Tch!” Sudou got in close to Horikita and grabbed her by the collar.

“Sudou-kun!” Kushida grabbed Sudou’s arm faster than I could move. Despite Sudou’s intimidations, Horikita didn’t flinch. She simply fixed Sudou with an icy glare.

“You don’t interest me in the slightest, but I can tell what kind of person you are just by looking at you. You want to play professional basketball? Do you honestly believe you can make such a childish dream come true in this world? A simpleton like you who gives up right away could never hope to go pro.

Furthermore, even if you managed to become a professional player, I doubt you’d earn an annual income sufficient to live on. You’re a fool to have such unreasonable aspirations.”

“You!”

It was clear that Sudou was on the brink of losing control. If he raised his fist, I’d have to wrestle him down.

“So, you’re just going to immediately give up on studying or on school in general? Then discard your dreams of playing basketball and spend your days toiling away at a pitiful part-time job.”

“Hmph. That’s just fine. I’ll quit, but it’s not because it’s difficult. I took a day off from my club activities for this, and it ended up being a complete waste of time. Later!” Sudou said.

“What an odd thing to say. Studying is difficult.” Horikita took a parting shot at Sudou. If Kushida weren’t there, Sudou probably would have smacked Horikita. He stuffed his textbooks into his bag, not even hiding his irritation.

“Hey, are you okay?”

“I don’t care. It’s pointless to care about someone who lacks any motivation whatsoever. Even though he’s facing expulsion, he has no will to fight.”

“I thought that it was weird for someone like you, who doesn’t have any friends, to put this study group together. You probably just wanted to call us stupid. If you weren’t a girl, I’d smack you.”

“So, you lack the courage to hit me? Don’t use my gender as an excuse,” Horikita said.

The newly assembled study group was already falling apart.

“I’m quitting, too. Partly ‘cause I can’t deal with studying, but mostly ‘cause I’m annoyed. You might be smart, Horikita-san, but that doesn’t mean you can act like you’re better than us.” Ike, clearly fed up, threw in the towel as well.

“I don’t care if you get expelled. Do what you want,” Horikita shot back.

“Well, I’ll just pull an all-nighter.”

“Interesting. Didn’t you come here because you can’t study?” “Tch…” Even the typically easygoing Ike stiffened under the

sting of Horikita’s barbed comments. Yamauchi started putting his textbook away as well. Finally, the easily influenced Okitani got out of his seat.

“I-Is this really okay, everyone?” he stammered. “Let’s go, Okitani.”

Ike left the library, trailed by the hesitant Okitani. Now only Kushida, Horikita, and I remained. Soon, even Kushida would probably reach her limit and leave.

“Horikita-san, we’re not going to be able to study with anyone if things continue like this…” Kushida murmured.

“I was certainly mistaken. Even if I’d helped them avoid failure this time, we would’ve faced a similar dilemma soon after. We’d have to go through this irritation all over again. Eventually, they’ll fail. I finally understand how unproductive this was. I don’t have the time for it.”

“Wait, what do you mean?”

“I mean that it’s better to get rid of the dead weight.”

That was Horikita’s ultimate conclusion. If the failing students were expelled, then the class’s average test scores would go up, and we wouldn’t have to expend any extra effort.

“So, that’s… H-hey, Ayanokouji-kun. Can you say something?” Kushida murmured.

“If that’s Horikita’s answer, then isn’t it fine?” “You think so too, Ayanokouji-kun?”

“Well, I don’t want to toss them to the wolves or anything, but I’m not the tutor. There’s nothing I can do about it.” In the end, I felt similarly to Horikita.

“Okay. I see.” Kushida grabbed her bag and stood up, her expression darkening. “I’m going to do something. Well, I’ll try. I definitely don’t want everything to fall apart so quickly.”

“Kushida-san. Do you really feel that way?”

“Is it wrong? I don’t want to abandon Sudou-kun, Ike-kun, and Yamauchi-kun.”

“Even if that was how you truly felt, I wouldn’t particularly care. But I don’t think that you actually want to save them,” Horikita said.

“What? I don’t understand. Why do you say things like that, Horikita-san? Why do you try to antagonize people? That’s…very sad.”

Kushida hung her head briefly, then looked back up at us.

She met our eyes.

“Well then. I’ll see you two tomorrow,” she whispered.

With that, Kushida left. Suddenly, it was just the two of us again. We sat in the complete silence of the library.

“Well, that was painful. The study group’s already over,” I said.

“Looks that way.”

The quiet grew almost oppressive.

“I suppose you were the only one who understood me, Ayanokouji-kun. You’re at least somewhat better than those worthless idiots. If there’s some subject you’re struggling with, I could teach you.”

“I’ll pass, thank you.”

“Are you going back to your dorm?” she asked.

“I’m going to find Sudou and the others and have a chat with them.”

“There’s nothing to be gained from associating with people who’ll likely be expelled soon.”

“I just want to talk to my friends. Do you have a problem with that?”

“How incredibly selfish. You call them your friends, yet you simply stand by and watch as they’re expelled. From my point of view, you’re cruel.”

Well, I certainly couldn’t deny that. Horikita wasn’t wrong.

In the end, studying was just the test of an individual’s self- motivation.

“I won’t deny what you’ve said. I can also understand why you’d call someone like Sudou stupid. However, Horikita, shouldn’t you try to understand Sudou’s situation? If he only hoped to become a professional basketball player, then choosing this school in the first place makes little sense. Don’t you think you’d understand him better if you considered his reasons for enrolling?”

“Not interested.” Horikita dismissed me and returned to her textbook. Alone.

8.6

I left the library and chased after Kushida. I wanted to thank for her working so hard to get the study group together, and to apologize. Besides, I wanted to do everything possible to get along with such a cute girl, you know?

Whipping out my cell phone, I pulled up Kushida’s contact information. Although it was my second time calling, I felt nervous contacting her. The phone rang twice, then three times. However, she didn’t pick up. Did she not notice me calling? Or was she refusing to answer it?

Kushida wasn’t around campus, so I continued to search for her. When I got inside the school, I glimpsed someone who looked like Kushida from behind. It was already around six PM, so the only people here should’ve been involved in club activities. Well, this was Kushida we were talking about. She was probably waiting for one of her good friends to finish club stuff.

I decided to keep up the chase. If she were busy, I’d talk to her again later. Bearing that in mind, I pressed on. I took out a pair of indoor shoes from the cubicles in the hallway, but didn’t see Kushida. Had I lost her? I thought I had, until I heard the faint clack of shoes.

I followed her up the stairs to the second floor. The sound of footsteps continued up to the third floor. The next level after that was the roof, wasn’t it? Students were free to use the roof during lunchtime, but it should’ve been locked after class. While I thought it strange, I went up the stairs, trying to hide my presence as best I could in case she was meeting with someone. Then, I stopped partway.

Someone was up there.

I gently leaned against the handrail and peeked through a crack in the rooftop door. Through the opening, I glimpsed Kushida. No one else was with her. Was she waiting for someone?

A rendezvous at such a secluded place… Could she possibly be waiting for her boyfriend? If that were the case, I could end up cornered on all sides. While I agonized over how to sneak away, Kushida slowly set her bag down on the ground.

And then…

“Ahhh, so annoying!”

Her voice was so low that it didn’t sound at all like Kushida. “She’s seriously annoying! God, how irritating. It’d be better

if she just died…”

She grumbled to herself, as if chanting the words to some kind of spell or curse.

“Ugh, I hate stuck-up, snobby girls who think they’re so cute.

Why is she such a harpy? A rotten girl like her couldn’t possibly tutor me.”

Was Kushida annoyed with…Horikita?

“Ah, she’s the worst! She’s just the worst, the worst, the worst! Horikita, you’re so annoying! You’re so damn annoying!”

I felt like I’d glimpsed another side of this gentle girl, the most popular person in our class. She probably didn’t want anyone else to see this darker side. A voice in my head whispered that it was dangerous to stay here.

However, an odd question arose. Why had she agreed to work with me if she felt such hatred toward Horikita? Kushida should have understood Horikita’s personality and behavior perfectly well by now. She could have refused to help, or just left the study group to Horikita, or otherwise washed her hands of involvement.

Why force herself into the study group? Did she want to get along with Horikita? Or did she want to become closer to another participant?

None of it made sense. I couldn’t explain her reasoning.

No. She may have shown signs of this from the very beginning. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but considering the state she was in right now, I had a hunch. Perhaps, Kushida and Horikita were…

At any rate, I needed to get away from there. Kushida probably didn’t want anyone else to hear her diatribe. Still hiding, I quickly tried to leave.

Thump!

I’d kicked the door much louder than I’d anticipated. It’d been unexpectedly loud, really. Kushida tensed and stopped breathing. I’d instantly become her enemy. Turning, Kushida set her sights on me. I’d been seen.

After a brief silence, Kushida coldly asked, “What…are you…doing here?”

“I got a little lost. Sorry. My bad, my bad. I’ll be going now.”

Kushida looked straight at me, clearly seeing through my obvious lie. I’d never seen such an intense gaze before.

“Did you hear?” she asked.

“Would you believe me if I said I didn’t?” I replied. “I see…”

Kushida briskly walked down the stairs. She placed her left forearm against the base of my throat, and pushed me up against the wall. Her tone of voice, her actions, everything about her was completely unlike the Kushida I knew. This new Kushida wore a terrifying expression, one that I could almost compare to Horikita’s.

“If you tell anyone what you just heard, I won’t forgive you.”

Her words were ice, and I didn’t think they were an idle threat.

“And if I did tell?”

“In that case, I would tell everyone that you raped me,” she said.

“That’s a false charge, you know.” “That’s okay. It wouldn’t be false.”

Her words had heft and power, leaving me unable to reply.

As she spoke, Kushida grabbed my right wrist and slowly opened my hand. She pushed my palm up against her soft breast.

“What are you doing?” I asked. I hurriedly tried to pull away, but she pushed on the back of my hand.

“Your fingerprints are on my clothes. That’s evidence of my claim. I’m being serious. Understand?”

“I understand. I really do. So let go of my hand.”

“I’m going to leave this uniform in my room without washing it. If you betray me, I’ll hand it over to the police.”

I glared at Kushida for a while as she kept my hand pressed against her.

“It’s a promise,” she said.

Kushida stepped away from me. Even though this was the first time I had felt a girl’s breasts, I found I couldn’t remember the sensation.

“Hey, Kushida. Which is the real you?” “That’s none of your business.”

“I see. Well, I was wondering something. If you hate Horikita, then you don’t need to involve yourself with her, right?”

I knew she probably wouldn’t like that question, but I was curious about her motivation.

“Is it bad to want everyone to like you? Do you understand how difficult it is to accomplish that? You can’t know, can you?” she asked.

“Well, I don’t have that many friends, so I guess not.”

Ever since the first day of school, Kushida had made an effort to exchange contact information with, invite out, and, of course, talk with the pessimistic Horikita. One could easily imagine how difficult and time-consuming that would be.

“At least on the surface, I wanted to appear to get along with Horikita.”

“But the stress of that just kept building, huh?”

“Yeah. That’s what I want out of life, though. That way, my existence has meaning.” She answered without hesitation.

Kushida had a singular way of thinking. Her own internal rules demanded she get close to Horikita.

“Let me tell you something, while I have the chance. I absolutely despise gloomy, ordinary guys like you.”

The fantasy of a cute Kushida that I’d carried until now had been shattered, but I wasn’t actually that shocked. Most people possessed both a public face and a private, inner self, after all.

However, I felt like Kushida was both telling the truth and lying right now.

“I’m just speculating, but did you and Horikita know each other before this year? Maybe you both attended the same school in the past?”

The instant I said it, Kushida shuddered in response.

“What the… I don’t know what you mean. Did Horikita-san say something about me?” she snapped.

“No, I had the impression that this was the first time you’d met. But something seemed strange.”

“Strange?”

I recalled the first time Kushida had spoken to me.

“You learned my name only when I first introduced myself, right?”

“So what?” Kushida responded flatly.

“Well, where did you learn Horikita’s name? Back then, she hadn’t introduced herself to anyone yet. The only person who knew was Sudou, but I doubt you’d met him by then.”

In other words, Kushida wouldn’t have had the chance to learn Horikita’s name.

“You got close to me so you could spy on her, right?”

“Just shut up. Hearing you talk irritates me, Ayanokouji-kun.

I only want to know one thing. Do you swear you’ll never tell anyone what you learned here today?”

“I swear. Even if I did, it’s not like anyone would believe me.

Right?”

The entire class trusted and loved Kushida. The difference between us was like night and day.

“Okay. I believe you, Ayanokouji-kun.” Kushida closed her eyes and slowly exhaled. “Horikita-san is rather unusual, isn’t she?”

“Yes, I’d say she’s really unusual.”

“Other people don’t influence her, or rather, she keeps her distance from everyone else. She’s the complete opposite of me.”

Kushida and Horikita really were polar opposites.

“You know, Ayanokouji-kun, you’re the only one that Horikita-san opens up to.”

“Wait a minute. She doesn’t open up to me. Absolutely not.”

“Even so, she seems to trust you more than anyone else. Out of all the people I’ve ever met, Horikita seems the most wary of others and yet also the most self-confident. She certainly wouldn’t trust anyone worthless, even if they were unbelievably kind.”

“So, you think she has good instincts for people?”

“That’s why I said I believed you. Ayanokouji-kun, you’re fundamentally indifferent to other people, aren’t you?”

I didn’t remember doing anything that would make her think so, but Kushida seemed confident in her assessment.

“It’s not an out-of-place judgment. Back on the bus, you didn’t show any interest in giving up your seat to the elderly woman.”

Ah, so that’s what she was talking about. She’d picked up on what was happening that first day. She had understood that I’d no intention of giving up my seat.

“If you believe I’m telling the truth, then you won’t spread pointless rumors,” I said.

“If you were really so confident, you wouldn’t have felt up my breasts.”

“Well, that’s… I was really flustered. I panicked for a second.”

Her stern expression melted into one of impatience.

“So, Kushida, would I be right to think of you as the kind of girl who lets guys touch her breasts?”

She kicked my thigh as hard she could. Panicking, I grabbed the railing.

“Hey, watch it! I could’ve fallen and gotten seriously hurt!”

“I kicked you because you said something stupid!” Kushida snapped, her face flushed from anger.

“Hey, wait a minute.”

She still looked furious. Kushida tromped back up the stairs, grabbed her bag, then returned wearing a huge grin.

“Let’s head back together,” she said brightly. “Oh. Sure.”

Her attitude had drastically changed, like something out of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. It was so drastic that I wondered whether I’d had a bad dream. She was her usual sunny self once more. I couldn’t tell which Kushida was the real one.

8.7

I wondered what was going to happen with Class D. Honestly, part of me felt like these were other people’s problems. Back in my room, I started to watch some kind of variety show with a feeling of complete apathy. Glancing at my phone, I saw I had a message from the group chat.

The message read, Satou’s joining the group. Satou was a particularly high-spirited girl in our class.

Hiya! Ike-kun invited me to join when we were talking earlier.

With nothing to contribute, I didn’t respond and continued reading.

I heard about what happened today. Horikita is really frustrating, huh?

I was really pissed at her. Sudou was super mad. He almost lost it. I

think he would’ve hit her.

If I see her tomorrow, I might hit her. I was really annoyed with her today.

Aha ha ha, it’ll be a big problem if you hit her lol. That would be overkill!

Hey, I have an idea. Starting tomorrow, how about we completely ignore her?

Ha, I’ve always ignored her (lol)

I kind of want to hit her with some payback. Bully her a little and make her cry, you know? Do something like hide her shoes.

Ha ha, what are you, kids? Lol lol lol but I do kind of want to see her squirm.

Soon after Satou joined the group chat, Horikita became the main topic of discussion.

Hey, Ayanokouji-kun, you want in on bullying Horikita lol

Nah, Ayanokouji-kun is all obsessed with her, so he probably can’t. Hey, whose side are you on? Ours or Horikita’s?

I supposed everyone’s irritation with Horikita was inevitable.

If you treated others the way Horikita did, you’d inevitably be disliked. But hitting her would be going too far, and I couldn’t understand how anyone might condone ignoring her or hiding her things. That was bullying, and acting like that would leave little difference between them and Horikita.

Hey, you’re reading the chat, right? Hey! Ayanokouji-kun, whose side are you on?

I’m on no one’s side. If you guys want to bully her, I won’t stop you. So, you’re neutral. That’s the craftiest answer lol.

Think whatever you want, but you won’t gain anything from this. If the school learns you’re bullying her, it’ll cause trouble for you. Keep that in mind.

So, you’re sticking up for Horikita, huh? Ha ha.

Because we couldn’t see each other face to face, it was easier for them to be jerks. If Ike and I were having this conversation in person, I doubted he’d act this way.

However, by focusing their anger on Horikita, the others were building solidarity. It would be a waste of time to continue pointlessly chatting like this. I decided to bring this conversation to a halt.

If Kushida heard about this, she’d probably hate you. Lol.

After I sent that message, I closed my phone. I received an immediate response but left it alone. Those guys probably wouldn’t do anything stupid, and Satou likely wouldn’t do anything without the others’ cooperation.

I opened my window, listening to the insects buzzing from the nearby trees. Did the kubikirigisu grasshoppers make that high- pitched chirping, I wondered? The gentle night breeze rattled my window.

I’d met Horikita on the day of the entrance ceremony. We’d just so happened to be placed in the same class, and then I was assigned the seat next to hers. Before I knew it, I’d become friends with Sudou and Ike. On top of that, I’d been caught in the school’s trap and knocked all the way down to rock bottom. Horikita had tried to help repair our situation, but her personality had ruined everything, further pushing her into isolation. Now, other people grew excited at the thought of bullying her.

I should’ve been at the center of this situation, and yet I felt like I was drifting past it.

No, drifting’s the wrong word. It wasn’t a pleasant situation.

I felt like I was in a haze, because I didn’t know the urgency of near-expulsion. This was everyone else’s problem, not mine, so it just didn’t register as important.

“Only a fool wouldn’t use his innate abilities.” Those words stuck in my head.

“A fool, huh? I wonder if that’s what I am, after all.”

As I closed the window, the television’s cacophonous laughter pierced my ears.

8.8

I couldn’t get to sleep, so I got up and left. I bought some juice from the lobby’s vending machine and headed back for the elevator.

“Hmm?”

I could see that the elevator had stopped on the seventh floor.

Curious, I decided to check out the CCTV, which showed what was happening inside the elevator car. I saw Horikita, still dressed in her school uniform.

“Well, I don’t really need to hide, but…”

Seeing her might be awkward right now, so I hid behind the vending machine. Horikita arrived at the first floor.

Looking wary of her surroundings, she exited the building. After she’d vanished into the night, I decided to follow after her. However, I instinctively hid again after I turned the corner.

Horikita stopped in her tracks. I sensed another person was with her.

“Suzune. I didn’t think you’d follow me this far,” he said.

Had she left in the dead of night to rendezvous with some guy?

“Hmph. I’m far different from the useless girl you once

knew, niisan. I came here to catch you.” “Catch me, hmm?”

Niisan? In the dark, I couldn’t see the person she was talking to. Was she meeting her older brother?

“I heard you were placed in Class D. I suppose nothing has really changed in the last three years. You’ve always been fixated on following me, and as a result you don’t notice your own flaws. Choosing to come to this school was a mistake.”

“That’s… You’re wrong about that. I’ll show you. I’ll reach Class A right away, then—”

“It’s pointless. You will never reach Class A. In fact, your class will fall apart soon enough. Things at this school aren’t as simple as you think.”

“I will definitely, definitely reach—”

“I told you, it’s pointless. You really are a disobedient little sister.”

Horikita’s brother stepped closer to her. From my hiding spot, I could see him plainly.

It was Student Council President Horikita. He displayed no hint of emotion. It was like he was staring at an uninteresting object. He grabbed his younger sister by the wrist—she offered no resistance—and pushed her against the wall.

“No matter how I try to avoid you, the fact remains that you’re my little sister. If people around here learned the truth, I would be humiliated. Leave this school immediately.”

“I-I can’t do that… I will definitely reach Class A. I’ll show you!”

“How incredibly stupid. Do you want to relive the pain of the past?”

“Niisan, I…”

“You possess neither the abilities nor the qualities needed to reach Class A. Get that through your head.”

He moved forward, as if about to act. The situation looked fraught with danger. Resigned to facing Horikita’s anger, I leapt out from my hiding space and went after her brother.

Before he knew I was there, I grabbed his right arm, which he was using to pin his sister.

“What? You…” He stared at his arm and slowly turned to me with a sharp gleam in his eye.

“A-Ayanokouji-kun?!” Horikita cried.

“You were about to throw your sister to the ground, weren’t you? You do realize the floor here is concrete, right? You might be siblings, but you should know the difference between right and wrong.”

“Eavesdropping is not an admirable quality,” he said. “Fine. Then let go.”

“That’s my line.”

We glared at each other in complete silence.

“Stop it, Ayanokouji-kun,” said Horikita, her voice strained.

I’d never heard her voice like that before.

Reluctantly, I released her brother. Instantly, he tried to backhand me in the face. I instinctively took a step back to avoid it. For such a lightly built guy, he was a nasty attacker. He then aimed a sharp kick at my unguarded spot.

“Watch it!”

He had enough power to knock me out with one blow.

Looking slightly confused, he exhaled deeply, extended his right arm, and opened his hand.

If I grabbed his hand, he’d probably throw me to the ground.

Instead, I slapped his hand away.

“Good reflexes. I didn’t imagine you could evade all of my blows so quickly. Also, you seemed to understand quite well what I was trying to do. Have you been taught?”

After the attacks stopped, the questions began.

“Yes, I was taught piano and calligraphy. Also, when I was in elementary school, I won a national music competition,” I said.

“You’re in Class D, too, aren’t you? What a unique boy, Suzune.”

After he let go of his younger sister, he turned to face me. “No. Unlike Horikita, I’m pretty incompetent.” “Suzune, is this boy your friend? I’m honestly surprised.”

“He’s…not my friend. Just my classmate.” Horikita faced her brother fully, as if denying him.

“You continue to confuse independence with solitude. And you, Ayanokouji. With you around, things might get interesting.”

He walked past me and disappeared into the night. So, that was the distinguished student council president. His presence explained some of Horikita’s weird behavior.

“I’m going to drag myself up to Class A even if it kills me,” she said.

With her brother gone, the night was silent once more.

Horikita sat up against the wall, her head hanging low. Maybe I’d made things worse by getting involved. I was about to return to the dorms when Horikita called out to me.

“Did you hear everything? Or was it just a coincidence?”

“Oh. Uh, it was half coincidence, I’d say. I saw you when I bought some juice from the vending machine. I was kind of curious, so I followed you. However, I really didn’t mean to meddle in your business.”

Horikita fell silent once again.

“Your older brother is really strong. He doesn’t lack ferocity.”

“He’s ranked fifth dan in karate and fourth dan in aikido.”

Whew, he was really strong. If I hadn’t pulled away, it would’ve ended badly for me.

“You also practice martial arts, don’t you, Ayanokouji-kun?

You must hold a dan rank.”

“I told you, didn’t I? Just piano and tea ceremony.” “You said calligraphy before.”

“I…did calligraphy in addition to those, yes.”

“You purposefully get lower test scores, and you say that you studied piano and calligraphy. I really don’t understand you.”

“My scores were a coincidence. I really did do piano, tea ceremony, and calligraphy.” If there were a piano here, I could at least have performed “Für Elise.”

“You saw a strange side of me.”

“On the contrary, I always thought of you as a normal girl.

Well, not really.”

Horikita glared at me.

“Let’s go back. If anyone saw us out here, they’d probably get ideas.”

She was certainly right about that. Rumors about a boy and a girl hanging out alone in the dark would be bound to circulate.

Not to mention the fact that our relationship seemed to be intensifying.

Horikita got up slowly and walked toward the dorm.

“Hey. Were you really okay with how the study group went?” I asked.

If I didn’t broach the subject now, I’d likely never get the chance again.

“Why are you asking me? I was the one who proposed holding the study group in the first place. Besides, I got the feeling that you considered it a hassle. Am I wrong?”

“It just left a bad taste in my mouth. Look, I think things are going to get worse with the others.”

“I don’t care. I’m used to it. Besides, Hirata-kun picked up most of the failing students. He knows how to study, he seems to get along with others, and, unlike me, he’ll be a good tutor. At the very least, they should all pass. It was pointless to try teaching the failing students myself. We would go through this same scenario for every test until graduation. It would be pointless to try making up for their failure every single time.”

“Sudou and the others don’t much like Hirata. I doubt they’ll participate in his study group.”

“That’s their decision, which has nothing to do with me.

Besides, if they’re facing expulsion, they shouldn’t grumble about trivial nonsense. If they don’t get closer to Hirata-kun, then they’ll be expelled. Of course, my goal is to have Class D reach Class A status. However, that’s for my own sake and no one else’s. I don’t care about anyone else. Really, if we dump the failures on this next midterm, then the better students will be left. That’s what I need, correct? In that case, attaining a higher rank will be simple. Everything will work out perfectly.”

She wasn’t wrong about that. Our conversation continued; Horikita was strangely talkative tonight.

“Horikita, isn’t that way of thinking flawed?”

“Flawed? What’s flawed? You’re not going to give me some gibberish about how there’s no future for someone who would abandon her classmates, are you?

“Relax. I understand you well enough to know that you don’t really understand me.”

“Then what is it? There’s no strategic advantage to helping failures.”

“There are probably very few advantages, certainly.

However, it does help prevent a setback.” “Demerit?”

“Do you really think that the school hasn’t considered this?

They’ve deducted points for students arriving late or playing around during class time. Let’s say these students are expelled because no one helped them. How many points do you think they’ll deduct from us then?”

“That’s—” she began.

“Of course, we don’t have any proof that’s how it works.

However, isn’t it possible? 100 points? 1,000 points? They might even deduct 10,000 or 100,000 points. If that happens, it’ll be very difficult for you to reach Class A.”

“We’ve gone down to zero points because of our infractions. We can’t go any lower. If we’re currently at zero, don’t you think it’s best to eliminate the dead weight? That would be the same as taking no damage.”

“There’s no guarantee that’d be the case. There could be penalties we just don’t see yet. Do you really think it’s okay to take such a dangerous risk? Well. I’m sure that someone as smart as you must have thought about that already. Otherwise, you would never have suggested creating a study group in the first place. You would’ve just abandoned the failures from the very beginning.”

I was starting to sound worked up, or perhaps I was actually

feeling worked up. Maybe because I’d started to, rather selfishly, consider her a friend. I didn’t want Horikita to come to regret her decision.

“Even if there are potential unknown negatives, it’s better for the future of our class to abandon the failing students. Wouldn’t you regret not abandoning them when we do finally increase our points? Right now, it’s a risk that we should take.”

“Do you really think so?” I asked.

“Yes. Really. I’m at a complete loss as to why you’re so desperate to save them.”

As Horikita was about to board the elevator, I grabbed her wrist.

“What? Do you have a rebuttal?” she said. “The problem’s bigger than the two of us. In the end, the school has all the answers. All we can do is argue back and forth. I’m free to interpret the situation as I see fit, and you may do the same. That’s all there is to it, right?”

“You’re quite talkative. I never thought you’d be so loquacious.”

“What… That’s just because you were being insistent.”

If she were acting like her normal self, there was no way she would have allowed me to keep talking. Normally, stopping her in this way would earn me a sharp strike. However, her refusal to hit me indicated that Horikita felt the way I did. Of course, she probably didn’t even realize it herself.

“The day we met, do you remember what happened on the bus?”

“You mean when we refused to give up our seats to an elderly woman?”

“Yeah. Back then, I thought about the meaning behind giving up my seat. Should I give it up or not? Which was the correct answer?”

“I already told you my own answer. I thought it’d be meaningless, so I didn’t give up my seat. No matter what reward it might bring, there was no real merit. It was a waste of time and effort.”

“Merit, huh? I suppose that you think only in terms of gain and loss.”

“Is that bad? People are calculating creatures, for the most part. If you sell goods, you receive money. If you do someone a favor, that debt of gratitude will be repaid. By giving up a seat, you gain the joy of contributing to society. Am I wrong?”

“No, I don’t think you’re wrong. I think the same thing,” I replied.

“So then—”

“If you keep to that belief, you’ll need to maintain a broad perspective on life. You’re so angry and dissatisfied, you can’t see what’s in front of you.”

“Who do you think you are? Do you even have the ability to find fault with me?”

“I don’t know what abilities I have, but I see what you don’t.

It’s the one flaw of the seemingly perfect person known as Horikita Suzune.”

Horikita gave an amused snort. It was as if she was saying, “If you think I have a flaw, say it.”

“Your flaw is that you think of everyone else as a burden, and so you detach yourself and never let anyone come close. Isn’t it possible they placed you in Class D because you consider yourself superior to everyone?”

“It’s almost as if you’re saying I’m the same as Sudou-kun and his group,” she muttered.

“Are you saying that you aren’t equal?”

“Yes. It’s obvious if you look at our test scores. That’s proof enough that they’re mere baggage for our class to carry.”

“If we’re talking about studying, then Sudou and the others are certainly two or three steps behind you, Horikita. No matter how hard they worked, they likely couldn’t overtake you.

However, we know that this school doesn’t only focus on intelligence. Suppose that the next exam was related to sports. The results would be different then. Am I wrong?”

“That’s—”

“You’re physically capable. From your swimming, I can tell you’re one of the most capable girls in the class. Superior.

However, we both know that Sudou’s physical abilities far exceed yours. Ike has better communication skills than you. If the test took the form of a discussion, Ike would certainly be useful.

Really, you’d most likely bring the class average down. So, does that make you incompetent? No. Every individual has his or her own strengths and weaknesses. That’s what it means to be human.”

Horikita tried to throw my words back at me, but she looked stuck.

“This is all pure conjecture. It’s nothing more than armchair speculation,” she said.

“Think back on what Chiyabashira-sensei said. When she called us into the guidance room, she said, ‘Who exactly decided that smart people are categorically superior?’ From that, we can draw the conclusion that academic ability doesn’t solely determine the rankings.”

Horikita looked around, as if searching for an escape so she could weasel her way out of the argument. I quickly cut her off before she could get away.

“You said you wouldn’t regret abandoning the students who failed, but you would. You would feel a great deal of regret if Sudou and the others are expelled.”

Horikita looked into my eyes. She still didn’t seem to grasp our current situation. At least, that was the impression I got.

“You’re rather talkative today, too. It’s odd for someone who likes to avoid trouble to talk so much.”

“You’re probably right about that.”

“It’s frustrating, but what you said was basically correct.

You’ve persuaded me; I have to concede that point. However, I still don’t understand you. What do you want? What is this school to you? Why did you work so hard to convince me?”

“I see. So that’s what you think.”

“If someone lacks persuasiveness, he or she won’t be able to make others believe in their cunning theories.” She clearly wanted to know why I was so desperate to persuade her that Sudou and the others’ expulsion was bad. “Cut the crap. I want to know the real reason. Is it for points? To rise up, even by one class level? Or is it to save your friends?”

“Because I want to know what a person with true merit looks like. What is equality?”

“Merit, equality…”

“I came to this school to find answers to those questions.” The words freely spilled out of me before I could collect my thoughts.

“Could you let me go?” Horikita asked.

“Oh, sorry.” I released my grip. She turned around and looked directly at me.

“There’s no way that you could fool me into believing you, Ayanokouji-kun,” she said.

After she said that, Horikita extended her arm.

“I’ll look after Sudou-kun and the others, but for my own sake. I’ll make sure that they don’t get left behind, but only as a strategic means of securing an advantage for our future. Okay?”

“Don’t worry. I didn’t think you’d do it any differently.

That’s just like you, Horikita.”

“We’ve come to an arrangement, then.”

I took Horikita’s hand. However, I would soon realize that I’d just made a deal with the devil.

Written on August 15, 2022