Y1 Vol 2 Chapter 4 | An Unexpected Witness

The next morning, students busily exchanged information with each other. Those from Hirata’s group and those with Kushida had spent yesterday searching for the witness. Ike and Yamauchi hated ladies’ men like Hirata, but seemed excited about all of the girls who hung around him. They happily tried to chat them up. As I listened in, though, I heard that Hirata and his group hadn’t obtained any

valuable information. They’d recorded the names of the people to whom they’d spoken, and occasionally taken notes on their cell phones.

Meanwhile, I was alone, like always. I could talk to Kushida, but felt disadvantaged when it came to a big group. I couldn’t really talk, so I asked Kushida to fill in me later. Meanwhile, my neighbor—who

continued to reject Kushida’s invitations, no matter what—sat with a nonchalant expression as she prepared for class. Sudou, the person of interest, still hadn’t arrived.

“Man, can we even prove that those Class C guys were in the wrong?” Ike asked.

“As long as we can find a witness, it’s not impossible. Let’s keep

trying our best, Ike-kun.”

“Before we try our best, though, is there even a witness in the first place? Didn’t Sudou only say that he thought someone might’ve been there? Wasn’t that just a lie? I mean, he is violent, and he does provoke people.”

“If we keep doubting him, we won’t make any progress. Am I

wrong?”

“I guess, you’re probably right about that, but…if Sudou is in the

wrong, then our hard-earned points are all going be stripped away, right? We’ll be at zero. Zero! We’ll be back to having no pocket money at all. Our dreams of screwing around to our hearts’ content will remain unrealized!”

“Then it would be a good idea for everyone to start saving up again,” Hirata said. “It’s only been three months since we started here.”

Our classroom hero didn’t waver as he delivered his magnificent speech. The girls immediately blushed in response. Karuizawa wore a particularly proud expression, perhaps because she was the one he’d chosen to be his girlfriend.

“I do think our points are important. They’re tied to our motivation, right? So, I will defend our class points to my last breath. Even if it’s only 87 points.”

“I understand how you feel. However, it can be dangerous to cling to our points and lose sight of reality. The most important thing is to treasure our friends as much as possible.”

Ike, who considered Hirata a goody two shoes, eyed him

suspiciously. “Even if Sudou was at fault?”

Being punished when you’d done nothing wrong was horrible. That much was obvious. However, Hirata nodded without a moment’s hesitation. It was as though he believed self-sacrifice was unimportant. Ike immediately looked downward, as if pressed under the weight of Hirata’s noble intentions.

“I think what you’re saying is reasonable, Hirata-kun, but I still want my points. The students in Class A get nearly 100,000 points every month. I’m super envious of them. There are girls in their class who buy lots of stylish clothes and accessories. Aren’t we just the bottom of the barrel compared to them?”

Karuizawa’s legs dangled over her desk. People looked bitter when

she pointed out the stark difference between our classes.

“Why couldn’t I have been in Class A from the start? If I were in Class A, I’d probably be loving every second of my student life.”

“I wish I was in A, too. I’d be doing so much fun stuff with my friends.”

Before I knew it, the meeting to save Sudou had transformed into a grievance session, with students pleading for a way out of the class. Horikita spontaneously broke into derisive laughter in response to Ike and Karuizawa’s delusions. As her neighbor, I was the only one who noticed. She seemed to be implying that they couldn’t have started in Class A if they’d wanted to. Horikita immediately took out a library book and began reading, almost as if she was trying not to be distracted by the noise. At a glance, I saw she was reading Dostoevsky’s Demons. A good choice.

“It would be awesome if there was some secret trick we could use to switch Class A in an instant. Saving up class points is way too hard.”

There was a 1000-point difference between Class A and us. An absurdly huge difference.

“Then cheer up, Ike, because there is one way to instantly reach

Class A.”

Chabashira-sensei spoke from the classroom entranceway. She’d

arrived just five minutes before class started.

“Wait. What did you say, sensei?” Ike nearly fell off his chair before recomposing himself.

“I said that there’s a way to reach Class A without class points.”

Horikita looked up from her book, probably trying to gauge whether Chabashira-sensei was lying.

“Come on, now. Don’t tease us, Sae-chan-sensei!” Usually, Ike

would’ve sunk his teeth into that information. This time, he laughed it off, as if saying he wouldn’t be fooled.

“It’s true. At this school, there are certain special methods you can use,” answered Chabashira-sensei. Judging from her answer, she didn’t appear to be joking.

“I don’t think she’s saying that just to confuse us.”

Chabashira-sensei sometimes withheld information, but she didn’t lie. Ike’s guffaws gradually stopped.

“Sensei, what are these special methods?” Ike inquired politely, as if not to offend her.

All of the students fixed their eyes on Chabashira-sensei. Even those who didn’t see a substantial benefit to reaching Class A appeared curious.

“I told you on the day you arrived. I said there’s nothing you cannot buy with your points at this school. In other words, you can change classes by using your personal points.”

Chabashira-sensei shot a quick glance over at Horikita and me. We had tested out that very method ourselves by buying a test point from the school. That supported the truth of her claim.

Class points and private points were linked. If we didn’t have any class points, then we wouldn’t get the private points, either.

However, it wasn’t a perfect one-to-one correlation. Based on what

we’d heard, you didn’t necessarily have to lose out on points. Because students could transfer points, it was theoretically possible to collect private points even if your class points were at zero.

“S-seriously! How many points do we need to save up to do that?!”

“Twenty million. Do your best to conserve points. Do that, and you

can enter whichever class you like.”

After hearing that absurdly high number, Ike tumbled out of his chair.

“Did you just say twenty million? That’s impossible, though!”

Everyone in the class started booing. Their disappointment was to be expected.

“Normally yes, it would be impossible. However, as it’s an avenue to Class A, it’s naturally expensive. If I were reduce the number by one digit, there would probably be over 100 people in Class A come graduation. Then there’d be no point to our system.”

Even by maintaining our monthly allotment of 100,000 points, that

still wouldn’t be an easy number to reach.

“Just out of curiosity, has anyone successfully changed their class like this before?”

That was an obvious question. The Advanced Nurturing High School had been in operation for about 10 years. A thousand and some students had struggled to make it through. If anyone had managed to achieve success by that method, there would’ve been talk about it.

“Unfortunately, no. No one has done it before. The reason why is as clear as day. Even if you perfectly maintain your class points upon starting school here, after three years you’d only have 3.6 million.

Class A could raise points enough to reach four million. Normally, you

simply wouldn’t be able to do it.”

“So, doesn’t that just mean it’s impossible?”

“It’s almost impossible. However, that does not mean it actually is

impossible. There’s a big difference, Ike.”

However, around half the class had already lost interest in what she was saying. For students in Class D, who dreamed of a mere 100 or 200 private points, reaching 20 million was a faraway dream. It was beyond the scope of our imagination.

“May I ask one question, please?”

The watchful Horikita raised her hand. She looked quite determined, considering this was a potential road to Class A.

“What is the highest number of points that a student has saved since the opening of this school? I’m just asking for the sake of reference.”

“A very good question, Horikita. About three years ago, one student

from Class B saved nearly 12 million points before graduating.” “T-twelve million?! A student from Class B?!”

“He was expelled before graduation, however, so he was unable to save those 20 million points in the end. He was engaged in a large- scale fraudulent operation to save up points.”

“Fraudulent?”

“He took advantage of the newly admitted first-year students who didn’t yet understand the system. He went to them one by one and scammed points out of them, so he could reach the 20 million points necessary to move to Class A. There was no way the school could overlook such reckless actions, however. I don’t think that his goal was particularly bad, but people who break the rules must be punished.”

That was more than a mere anecdote. That story made the possibility of success sound truly impossible.

“So, you’re saying that even if we were to use criminal methods, 12 million points is about the limit?” Horikita muttered.

“Give up on that method. Strive to save up your points responsibly.”

Horikita returned to reading, likely feeling idiotic for bothering to raise her hand at all. In this world, stories that seemed too good to be true were just that.

“Oh, that reminds me. None of you have gotten any points yet from club activities, have you?” remarked Chabashira-sensei, with the air of suddenly remembering.

“What do you mean?”

“There are cases where individuals may win points based on their efforts in club activities, or their degree of participation. For example, if someone in a calligraphy club were to win a contest, they could receive corresponding points for that award.”

This new information took everyone aback.

“Y-you mean we can get points for participating in clubs?!”

“Yes. The other classes should have already been well informed of

this.”

“Wh-what the hell? That’s so mean! Why didn’t you tell us earlier?!”

“I simply forgot, sorry. However, extracurricular activities aren’t there just as a way to earn points. So it shouldn’t make any difference when you learned this information,” said Chabashira- sensei without a hint of timidity.

“No, no, no! That’s not true at all! If you’d told me before, I—”

“Are you saying you would have participated in extracurricular activities? Do you really think you would’ve been able to see any results after joining a club, results like winning prizes or being in games, with such shallow feelings?”

“Well…you might be right about that, but… It was possible!”

I understood both Chabashira-sensei and Ike’s viewpoints. If someone were to join a club simply for the sake of earning points, he or she probably wouldn’t see great results. If anything, joining a club for such a lazy, indifferent reason would probably make you a nuisance for the students who were serious about it. On the other hand, someone who joined the club for the sake of points might discover that they possessed a talent for it.

At any rate, I deduced that our homeroom teacher was being extremely and deliberately mean.

“You know, if you think back on it now, it was obvious from the

start.”

“What do you mean, Hirata-kun?”

“Think back. Remember what our P.E. instructor Higashiyama-sensei said when we went to the pool? He said the student who got the best time during our first class would get 5000 points. That was a stepping stone to prepare us for other opportunities. It seems plausible, right?”

Ike scratched his head and slumped. “I don’t remember,” he said.

“If I got points for it, I probably would’ve joined calligraphy club, or some other kind of art club.”

It seemed like Ike could only see the positive side of things. I thought there naturally must be a downside.

There might be cases where if someone didn’t participate in their club seriously, he or she would be penalized. The easy route would probably destroy you. However, learning that our points would reflect the efforts we made in club activities was encouraging.

“Horikita. Doesn’t this mean there’s some value in saving Sudou?” I

asked.

“We should save him because he’s in a club?”

“Sudou told us that he may be picked as a regular on the team even

though he’s a first year, right?

Horikita gave a small nod.

“If he was telling the truth…”

She sounded somewhat doubtful.

“It’s better to have a lot of private points, right? He can supplement

his own grade if he fails, and he can save others.”

“I have a hard time imagining that he’d use his points altruistically, though.”

“I’m saying that it’s better to have points saved up, just in case. Right?”

Whether class points or private points, it was better to have a lot of them. There were absolutely no negatives to that. Also, we knew very little about how else to earn points at this stage. If our chances improved with Sudou in the class, then that was reason enough to

make an effort. Horikita fell silent. Even she didn’t have the ability to create any points for us right now.

“I won’t say that I’ll help, but I suppose I ought to acknowledge Sudou’s existence, at least a little.”

Horikita’s language was harsh, but she acknowledged the connection to her own interests. I considered it unnecessary to say more, so I stopped talking. Horikita pondered the issue in silence.

4.1

Our class became temporarily excited by that fairy tale, but we were soon pulled back to reality. After school we resumed the search for a witness. I hung behind Kushida, Ike, and the others, trailing them like a ghost. I was impressed, surprised, and in awe of their natural

conversation skills. It was clear as day that I, someone who couldn’t even converse with my fellow classmates, was not well suited to this task. How could they talk with people they’d never met before and behave like old friends? Monsters.

In this investigation, we sought not just names, but also contact information. Perhaps they felt compelled to give Kushida their information because of her personality. What a wonderful talent…

Though Kushida and the others spent a good amount of time going to the second-year classrooms and talking to upperclassmen, they didn’t turn up any good leads. As time passed, the number of students who remained after class was dwindling. With a lack of new students to speak with, we decided to stop our investigation for the day.

“Looks like we didn’t have any luck today, either.”

Everyone went back to my room to reevaluate our strategy. Sudou came by shortly afterward and joined our discussion.

“What happened today? Did you make any progress?” he asked. “None at all. Sudou, are you sure there was a witness?”

I understood Ike’s doubts. Even though the school had said that’s what happened, there wasn’t any new information.

“Huh? I never said there was someone there. I said that it felt like

someone was there.” “Huh. Is that so?”

“It’s certainly true that Sudou-kun didn’t say he saw anyone. He said that he had a feeling that someone was there.”

“Maybe Sudou was hallucinating? He must be taking some pretty

potent drugs or something.”

Man, that was going a bit too far. Sudou put Ike into a headlock.

“Gyahh! I give, I give!” Ike cried.

While the two of them messed around, Kushida and Yamauchi were wracking their brains. After discussing the matter for about 10 minutes, Kushida spoke up.

“We might want to change our methods a little. For example, let’s look for someone who might have found a witness.”

“Look for someone who found a witness? I don’t get what you mean.”

“Are you going to look for the people who went to the special building on the day of the incident?”

“Yeah. What do you think?”

That wasn’t a bad idea. Not many students went to the special building, but the entrance was well within eyeshot. In other words, if someone testified to seeing another person enter the special building, we’d be much closer to finding the witness.

“That sounds great! Let’s start asking right away.”

I noticed then that the person of interest, Sudou, was completely engrossed in some kind of digital basketball game on his phone. It was completely draining his battery. I think the game was called Generation of Miracles or something, but I still didn’t quite understand. After he won the match, he struck a victory pose.

Even though Sudou couldn’t really help, Ike and Yamauchi still

appeared disgruntled at the sight of him. However, they concealed their dissatisfaction, probably because they were scared of Sudou’s

counterattack. They both chose to ignore him instead.

Tomorrow was Friday. Ferreting out information would be no easier when Saturday came around. That meant we actually had less time than we thought. Just then, my doorbell rang and a visitor appeared. The small group of normal visitors was mostly accounted for already. While I considered who this new visitor might be, she peered through the door.

“Have you made any progress finding the witness?” asked Horikita,

looking as if she already knew the response.

“No. Not yet.”

“I’m only telling you this because it’s you, but I may have found out something—”

While she was talking, Horikita noticed that there were several pairs of shoes lined up by my door. She stopped and made a hard heel turn, apparently ready to run. Kushida peered over at the entrance, probably concerned that Horikita wouldn’t return.

“Ah, Horikita-san!” Kushida said.

Kushida smiled and waved to Horikita. Horikita, upon noticing Kushida, naturally let out a sigh.

“Looks like your only choice is to come in, huh?” “Looks that way,” Horikita grumped.

Looking exasperated, she entered my room.

“Oh, Horikita!”

Of course, Sudou was happiest to see her. He paused his game and stood.

“Did you decide to help out? I’m super glad you’re here.”

“I didn’t particularly plan on helping. You don’t appear to have found

the witness yet, right?”

Kushida nodded despondently. “If you didn’t come here to help, then

why did you come?” she asked.

“I was wondering what kind of plan you’d come up with.”

“Well, I’m happy if you just want to listen to us talk. I hoped you could give some advice.”

Kushida then relayed her plan to Horikita, whose expression remained neutral from start to finish.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a bad plan. Provided you have sufficient time, your labors may actually bear fruit.”

Time was indeed the issue here. Considering we had a mere few days

left, it was doubtful we’d see any results.

“Well. Now that I’m abreast of the current situation, I’ll be leaving.”

In the end, Horikita was going to leave without ever having sat down. She was no lingerer.

“Did you come up with something? Like information about the

witness?” I asked.

When Horikita had shown up at my door, it seemed like she’d wanted to say something. She wasn’t exactly the friendly type, certainly not the sort who’d come to my room for casual conversation.

“I’ll give you just one piece of advice, to help your pathetic odds,” she said. “It’s hard to see what’s right in front of you. If someone actually witnessed Sudou’s incident, then that person is close by.”

Horikita’s information was much more significant than I’d imagined. She spoke as if she had already found the hypothetical witness.

“What do you mean, Horikita? Are you seriously implying that you found this person?”

Sudou appeared more shocked and doubtful than joyous. That was understandable. No one, myself included, really believed her…until we heard her next words.

“Sakura-san.”

Horikita spoke a most unexpected name.

“Sakura-san? From our class?”

Yamauchi and Sudou exchanged looks. They didn’t seem to know who Sakura even was. That was probably to be expected, though. To be honest, I had to wrack my own memory for a moment.

“She’s the witness. She saw the incident.” “Why do you say that?”

“When Kushida-san said that she was looking for a witness in class, Sakura looked down. A lot of students were staring at Kushida-san. Sakura was the only one who didn’t appear interested. She wouldn’t have acted that way without some connection to the incident.”

I hadn’t noticed that at all. I was genuinely impressed by Horikita’s observational prowess. She’d noticed a classmate’s very minor gesture.

“Since you were one of the people who also stares at Kushida-san, it’s not surprising you didn’t notice,” Horikita said to me, her tone heavily sarcastic.

“So you’re saying that there’s a high probability that this Sakura, or Kokura, or whoever is the witness?” inquired Sudou. A sharp observation, something a fool would be unlikely to say.

“No, Sakura-san is undoubtedly the witness. Her actions confirmed

it. Although she may not admit to it, she is definitely the one.”

While we’d been paralyzed by uncertainty, Horikita had stepped up and taken control. That Horikita had done so for our class’s sake was particularly moving.

“Did you really do this for me, after all?!” Sudou looked especially

moved.

“Don’t misunderstand. I just didn’t want to waste more time looking for the witness, and letting other classes see us in such a shameful light. That’s all.”

“Umm. But still, the point is that you saved us, right?”

“You are free to interpret things however you wish, but I’m telling you that you’re wrong.”

“Come on, don’t lie! You’re a tsundere, Horikita!”

Ike went to hit Horikita’s shoulders playfully, as if teasing her.

Horikita grabbed his arm and tossed him to the ground.

“Oww!” he cried.

“Don’t touch me. This is your one warning. The next time you try it,

I’ll despise you all the way to graduation.”

“I-I won’t touch you. Not even if I wanted to…ow, owww!”

She put him in a headlock. It was unfortunate for Ike, but you reap what you sow. Anyway, those weren’t the defensive moves of a normal girl. Since I knew that her older brother practiced karate and aikido, she might have learned something, too?

“Ooh. My arm!”

“Ike-kun,” said Horikita as Ike writhed on the floor in agony.

I thought she was taking things too far.

“Should I amend my previous statement, and say ‘I shall continue to despise you long past our graduation’?”

“Ohh! So mean!”

After delivering what seemed to be his last words on the matter,

Ike’s energy was exhausted.

Sakura, though. Of all people, the witness was from Class D. It was difficult to know whether this was good news or not.

“Isn’t this great, Sudou? If the student’s from Class D, then we can definitely get her to testify!”

“Yeah. I’m happy there’s a witness, but who’s Sakura? Do you know her?”

Sudou didn’t seem to have any idea. Yamauchi appeared quite surprised.

“Are you serious? She sits behind you, Sudou!”

“No, that’s not it. She sits diagonally ahead of you and to the left, I thought?”

“No, you’re both wrong. She sits diagonally ahead of Sudou-kun to the right.” Kushida corrected them, a slightly pouty look on her face.

“Diagonally ahead to the right? I can’t remember at all. I’m sure there’s someone there, though.”

That was obvious. A permanently empty seat would have been bizarre. Sakura certainly didn’t stand out very much. The fact we didn’t really know her was a problem.

“I probably know her. I feel like I’ve heard her name somewhere before,” I offered.

I felt like I almost had something, but not quite.

“Can you tell us about her?”

“Well, I suppose there’s one thing. Would it help if I said she has the biggest boobs in class? Her boobs are insanely huge.” Ike, having returned to the land of the living, discussed one of Sakura’s chief physical characteristics. Personally, I couldn’t identify her based on that information alone.

“Oh, she’s that plain girl with glasses, right?”

How did you jump to that? I was a little stunned.

“It’s not good to remember people based on something like that, Ike-

kun! That’s pathetic,” Kushida cried.

“N-no, no, it’s not like that, Kushida-chan. It’s just, you know. I

wasn’t trying to say anything indecent or anything. You know, it’s like how you can remember a tall guy because of his height, right? It’s the same kind of thing, but I’m just remembering her based on another physical characteristic!”

Kushida was rapidly losing faith as Ike frantically tried to smooth things over. It seemed like it was too late.

“Damn it! No, it’s not like that, it’s not! I absolutely do not like plain

girls like her! Don’t get the wrong idea!”

I doubted anyone had the wrong idea. While Ike broke down in tears, the rest of us started talking about Sakura.

“Then we should see how much Sakura-san knows. Any ideas?” “None. We just have to confirm with her directly.”

“Can’t we just go to Sakura’s room right now? We don’t have much time.”

I thought that Yamauchi’s proposal seemed innocuous, but it all came down to Sakura’s personality and behavior. Sakura was an unusually shy girl. It wasn’t difficult to imagine that if unfamiliar people suddenly showed up, she’d be perplexed.

“Okay, so should we try calling her?”

I recalled that Kushida already knew everyone’s information, including Horikita’s. She listened to her phone ring for about 20 seconds, but then she shook her head and hung up.

“No luck. The call didn’t go through. I can try again later, but this may be a delicate matter.”

“What do you mean by delicate?”

“She gave me her contact information, but she doesn’t know me very

well. She might be confused if I tried to call her. Also, she might not

even have been there to answer the phone.” Sakura might just be pretending to be out, too. “So she’s kind of like Horikita?” Ike said.

Why would you say something like that when the person you’re talking about was standing right in front of you, Ike? Horikita probably didn’t care, though. Really, she seemed pretty uninterested in what Ike said at all.

“Goodbye.”

“Ah, Horikita-san!”

Horikita stood quickly and headed for the door. By the time I managed to get up, the door had clicked shut.

“What a tsundere.”

Sudou wore a happy smile, chuckling and scratching his nose with his finger. She wasn’t tsun and she wasn’t dere. She wasn’t anything, I thought. She was a non-tsun, non-dere. Since we couldn’t prevent Horikita from leaving, we resumed our conversation.

“I get the feeling that Sakura-san’s just a shy person. That was my first impression of her.”

It was strange to discuss someone you’d never talked to.

“She’s plain, that’s it. Talk about a waste, man. Like pearls before swine.” While Yamauchi spoke, he gestured with his hands near his chest, to represent Sakura’s breasts.

“Yeah, for sure. Her boobs are huge, though. It’s really cute!”

Ike seemed to have already forgotten the shame of his earlier remarks, and was now excited again. Kushida gave him another bitter smile. After noticing Kushida’s expression, Ike’s regret returned. He was the type of hapless creature that made the same mistake over and over.

Even though I hadn’t said anything, I felt like I was being lumped into the same category as Ike and Yamauchi. Kushida’s bitter smile seemed to say, You’re also fixated on boobs, aren’t you? You disgusting pervert. Granted, that was my persecution complex speaking.

“What about Sakura’s face, though? It’s no use, I just can’t remember anything.”

I could barely match Sakura’s name to a face. I recalled seeing her back when we were making bets. The bet had been about boobs, though. I guess we were birds of a feather after all.

My image of Sakura was of her quietly sitting by herself, hunched over her desk.

“I don’t know if Sakura talks to anyone. Yamauchi? Wait, hold on… Yamauchi, you said you confessed your feelings to her before, right? If you did, then you can talk to her easily, yeah?”

Oh, Ike was right. Yamauchi had said that. They’d mentioned it before.

“Uh, ahh…well, I may or may not have said something like that.”

Yamauchi feigned ignorance.

“So you were lying?”

“N-no, I wasn’t. I wasn’t lying. It was just a misunderstanding. It wasn’t Sakura; it was a girl from the next class over. Not a gloomy and ugly girl like Sakura. Err, hold on. Sorry, I got a message.”

Yamauchi dodged the question by whipping out his phone. It’s

certainly true that Sakura was plain, but she wasn’t ugly. I’d never gotten a good look at her face before, but she seemed to have very nice features. Even so, I couldn’t say that with complete confidence, probably because Sakura had so little presence.

“Well, I’ll try to talk to her myself tomorrow. I think she might be on her guard if a lot of people approach her,” Kushida said.

“That sounds good.”

If Kushida couldn’t manage it, then I doubted anyone else would be able to get through to Sakura.

4.2

“It’s hot.”

Our school didn’t change uniforms with the seasons, so we had to wear blazers throughout the year. The reason was simple: every building came equipped with heating and cooling systems. The heat was only an issue going to and from school. The morning commute. Sweat had begun to trickle down my back in the few minutes that it took to get from the dorms to school.

I took refuge from the heat inside, where the nice, cool air greeted me. It must have been hell for the students with morning practice. Those boys and girls all gathered around the classroom’s source of the cool air. From an outsider’s perspective, it was like bugs flitting about a light bulb. Perhaps that was kind of a bad example.

“Good morning, Ayanokouji-kun.”

Hirata called to me, his expression as fresh and friendly as usual. The sweet yet subtle fragrance of flowers always emanated from him. If I were a girl, I’d probably unintentionally shriek, “Hold me!”

“Kushida-san told me about it yesterday. She said that you found the witness. Sakura-san.”

Hirata looked over at Sakura’s seat. She hadn’t yet arrived.

“Are you going to talk to Sakura?” I asked.

“Me? No. I’m going to greet her, that’s all. I’ve wanted to talk to her since she’s always by herself, but as a guy I don’t want to come off as forceful or anything. Also, if I asked Karuizawa-san to talk with her, that might cause a few problems.”

A conversation between the super assertive Karuizawa and Sakura- san was difficult to imagine.

“I think that for the time being, we’ll just wait for more information

from Kushida-san.”

“That sounds great, but why are you talking to me? Talking to Ike or

Yamauchi would be better,” I said.

There was no real reason for him to tell me any of this. I wasn’t really

part of the team.

“Not for any particular reason. I guess it’s because you have a connection to Horikita-san. She doesn’t talk to anyone except for you, so I thought you’d pass it along.”

“I see.”

Was that my only area of expertise? Hirata smiled, agreeably. If I were a girl, I would have gone from zero to 100 right there, and my heart would have been beating out of my chest.

“Oh, that reminds me. If you’re up for it, we should hang out sometime soon. What do you think?”

Hey, hey, don’t tell me that you’re not satisfied with girls anymore and are looking to make my heart throb. If I, a known recluse, accepted the hero’s invitation without due consideration, that would be a big problem.

“Sure. It should be fine, I guess.”

Ahh, I said the exact opposite of what I’d been thinking. Damn, curse my terrible mouth. I definitely hadn’t been waiting for Hirata to invite me to hang out or anything. Yeah, that’s right. This is what’s

wrong with the Japanese people: we are incapable of saying ‘no,’ so

we have to respond in a roundabout way when invited out.

“I’m sorry. Do you not really want to?” Hirata sensed my unease.

“No, no, I’ll go. I definitely want to,” I answered, feeling a little disgusted with myself. I tried to act like a proud guy, but I couldn’t help actually wanting to go.

“Are you fine with my girlfriend coming, too?” “Hmm? Oh, Karuizawa-san? That’s okay.”

My response was surprisingly quick. Well, there was a wide variety of “types” of couples. Since they still called each other by their surnames, they probably weren’t that close yet. I reluctantly parted from Hirata, and fiddled with my cell phone while I waited for homeroom to begin. Then, I noticed that Sakura was in her seat.

She wasn’t doing anything. She just seemed to be sitting at her desk, killing time. I wondered just what kind of student Sakura was. In the three months that I’d been at this school, I knew nothing about her apart from her surname. It probably wasn’t just me, either. The rest of the class probably had no clue.

Kushida and Hirata were proactive and able to open up to just about anyone. Horikita didn’t feel the agony of solitude. So what about Sakura? Did she like being alone, like Horikita? Or was she suffering because she didn’t know how to connect with people, like me? Those were the mysteries that Kushida was supposedly going to unravel for us.

4.3

Class was over. Kushida stood up right as homeroom ended and walked over towards Sakura, who was quietly preparing to leave. Kushida seemed oddly nervous. Ike, Yamauchi, and even Sudou appeared interested in what was going on, and directed their attention over to the girls.

“Sakura-san?”

“Wh-what?”

The bespectacled girl with the hunched back peered up with a timid expression. Apparently she hadn’t expected someone to talk to her, and was flustered.

“I wanted to ask you something, Sakura-san. Do you have a

moment? It’s about Sudou’s case.” “S-sorry. I…I have plans, so…”

Sakura was obviously uncomfortable. She averted her eyes. She probably wasn’t good at talking with others. Or rather, she gave off the impression that she didn’t like talking to them.

“Can you please make some time? This is important, so I’d like to talk to you. When Sudou-kun was involved in the incident, were you perhaps somewhere nearby?”

“I-I don’t know. I already told Horikita-san. I really don’t know anything…”

Her words were weak, yet she vehemently denied it. Kushida could clearly see how unpleasant Sakura found this, so she probably didn’t want to press her much more. Although Kushida appeared slightly perplexed at first, her concerned expression quickly melted into a

pleasant smile. Even so, she couldn’t withdraw just like that, because Sakura might have tremendous influence over Sudou’s fate.

“So…is it okay? If I go back…” Sakura whispered.

Something seemed strange, however. She wasn’t simply bad at talking with people. It looked as though she was hiding something. You could see that from her behavior. Sakura concealed her dominant hand while also avoiding eye contact. Even if she weren’t

comfortable meeting someone’s eyes, people generally looked in the direction of those to whom they were speaking. Sakura didn’t look at Kushida’s face at all.

If Ike or I were talking to her, I could have understood that reaction. Though it was mostly out of formal obligation, Sakura had exchanged numbers with Kushida. Kushida’s behavior in a one on one

conversation was different, though. I don’t think Horikita was wrong to feel some discomfort when speaking with Kushida. I’d found something a bit off-putting about it myself.

“Can’t you please spare just a few minutes now?” Kushida asked. “Wh-why, though? I-I don’t know anything…”

If Kushida failed, we’d gain nothing from their conversation. Of

course, the longer this awkwardness dragged on, the more attention they’d attract. This seemed like a complete miscalculation on Kushida’s part. Since they were already acquainted and had

exchanged contact information, Kushida probably had expected this conversation to go more smoothly, and had gone into this situation thinking she wasn’t going to be rejected. That explained why this was currently falling apart.

Horikita carefully monitored the situation. She looked over at me with a somewhat smug expression. It was as though she were saying I know that your powers of observation are incredible.

“I’m really bad at being social. I’m sorry…” Sakura muttered.

She spoke in an unnatural, strained way, and didn’t seem to want Kushida to get any closer. When discussing Sakura earlier, Kushida had described her as a shy but ordinary girl. Judging from her current behavior, though, she clearly wasn’t normal. Kushida must have felt the same, because she couldn’t hide her confusion. Kushida was normally very good at getting others to open up to her, but here she was failing. Horikita also understood what was happening. As she watched the conversation, she came to a conclusion.

“My, how unfortunate. Kushida failed to persuade her.”

Horikita was correct. If Kushida couldn’t do it, then I didn’t think that anyone else in our class would be able to. Kushida was good at creating an informal atmosphere, one in which socially awkward people could converse naturally. However, everyone has what they consider their own personal space. An off-limits area, in other words.

Cultural anthropologist Edward Hall further divided the idea of personal space into four parts. One such zone is the so-called “intimate space.” In this particular space, you’d be near enough to hug someone. If an outsider tries to step into this space, people naturally exhibit strong signs of rejection. However, if that person is a lover or a best friend, then he or she won’t find it uncomfortable.

Even if someone were only a casual acquaintance, Kushida probably wouldn’t mind letting that person into her “intimate space.” That is, she didn’t seem to put high value on the idea of personal space.

However, Sakura had clearly rejected Kushida. No…rather, it looked like she was running away. When Sakura was first asked, she’d said that she “had plans.” If she really did have plans, she’d have repeated that when asked again. Sakura collected her bag and stood, seemingly putting distance between herself and Kushida.

“G-goodbye.”

Sakura had apparently decided to run because she couldn’t find a skillful way to end the conversation. She snatched a digital camera off her desk, and started to walk away. Just then, she ran into Hondou’s shoulder. Focused on texting a friend, he wasn’t paying attention to where he was going.

“Ah!”

Sakura’s digital camera tumbled to the floor with a loud clack.

Hondou simply kept walking, attention still focused on his phone. He

apologized as he left. “My bad,” he called. Sakura, flustered, rushed to pick up her camera. “No way. There’s nothing on the screen…”

Sakura put her hand over her mouth in total shock. The camera seemed to have broken on impact. She pushed the power button over and over, tried taking out the batteries and putting them back in, but the power indicator never came on.

“I-I’m sorry. It’s because I came up and talked to you so suddenly, that…” Kushida began.

“No, that’s not it. I was just careless, that’s all… Anyway, goodbye.”

Kushida, unable to stop the despondent Sakura, could only watch her leave with regret.

“Why is a gloomy girl like her my witness? This sucks. She doesn’t want to help me at all.”

Sudou crossed his legs and leaned against the chair, sighing in exasperation.

“I’m sure there’s something to learn there. Besides, we didn’t ask Sakura-san directly what she saw. Maybe she just can’t say it herself?”

“I know. If she were planning to say something, she would have. She restrained herself, because she’s an adult.”

“It might be better this way, Sudou-kun. Better that she’s the witness, that is.”

“What do you mean?”

“She won’t testify on your behalf. They’ll determine you caused the incident. In the end, Class D will be affected by your actions, but we’ll be okay. We have testimony that they lied about the violence. It’s hard to imagine that the school would penalize us by more than 100 or 200 points for being involved in this incident. That way we’ll only lose 87 points, and you won’t face expulsion. However, we’ll shoulder more of the blame than Class C will.” Horikita relentlessly spoke her thoughts out loud, as if she’d been hiding them deep inside her all this time.

“Don’t make jokes. I’m innocent. Innocent! I hit them, but it was out

of self-defense.”

“I don’t think self-defense is all that helpful in this case.” Ah, I’d accidentally said that aloud.

“Hey, Ayanokouji-kun.”

I tried to act aloof as I turned, but found that Kushida’s face was

super close to mine. Man, Kushida looked super cute up close. Rather than feeling uncomfortable about this invasion of my personal space, I wanted her to come even closer.

“Ayanokouji-kun, you’re Sudou-kun’s ally, aren’t you?” she asked.

“Well… Yeah, I am. Why are you asking me that again, though?”

“Well, it’s just that things seem to a bit tense. Everyone’s desire to save Sudou is fading.”

I looked around the classroom.

“It does seem that way. They probably think that whatever happens, happens. That there’s nothing to be done.”

If even Sakura, the key witness, denied Sudou her help, then we’d

made no progress.

“I can’t imagine that we’ll find a perfect out for Sudou. Let’s just give up on him,” muttered Ike, half-heartedly.

“What the hell, you guys? Didn’t you say that you’d help me?” Sudou

cried.

“Well, it’s just…you know?”

Sudou appealed to our remaining classmates, looking for approval.

“Even your friends don’t wish to help you. How unfortunate,”

Horikita muttered.

The other students didn’t try to deny what Ike and Horikita had said. “Why do I have to suffer like this? You bunch of useless jerks!”

“What an interesting thing to say, Sudou-kun. Haven’t you noticed that everyone is turning on you?”

“What do you mean by that?”

Our class often got very tense, but today was worse than usual. However, since Sudou was talking to Horikita, he seemed to be trying his best to restrain himself. However, the attack came at him from an unexpected direction.

“Don’t you think it would’ve been better if you’d been expelled? Your existence is far from beautiful. No, in fact, I could say your life is an ugly one, Red Hair-kun.”

The voice came from a boy checking his reflection in a hand mirror to fix his hair. It was Kouenji Rokusuke, an especially odd guy even amongst the remarkably strange people of our class.

“What the hell? Say that one more time, I dare you!”

“It would be inefficient for me to tell you, no matter how many times I did. If I know that you’re dim-witted, then it doesn’t matter how

many times I try to lecture you, does it?”

Kouenji didn’t even look at Sudou as he spoke. It was as if this were a soliloquy. Suddenly, there was a huge crashing sound. A desk flew through the air and splintered on the ground after being kicked.

Everyone froze. Sudou, silent and intense, walked over to Kouenji.

“All right, that’s enough. Calm down, you two,” Hirata said. He was the only boy able to move in this awful situation. My heart pounded in my chest. “Sudou-kun. You certainly are part of the problem here. But Kouenji-kun, you’re in the wrong, too.”

“Puh. I don’t think I’ve experienced being wrong since I was born.

You must be mistaken.”

“Bring it on. I’ll smash your face in and take you down a peg,” Sudou

snapped.

“Stop it.”

Hirata grabbed Sudou’s arm, sternly attempting to stop him, but

Sudou showed no signs of being swayed. He looked like he wanted to vent all of his frustrations—including what Horikita had said—by hitting Kouenji.

“Stop it already. I don’t want to see my friends fight…”

“It’s just like Kushida says. I don’t know about Kouenji-kun, but I’m

your ally, Sudou-kun.”

Hirata was way too cool. It would’ve been fitting if he changed his name to “Hero.” That would have been awesome.

“I’m going to stop this. Sudou-kun, you should act more mature. If you cause another huge disturbance, the school’s evaluation of you will only worsen. Right?”

“Tch.”

Sudou glared at Kouenji and left the classroom, slamming the door on his way out. Afterward, a loud voice could be heard in the hall.

“Kouenji-kun. I don’t intend to compel you to help. But you were wrong to blame him.”

“Unfortunately, I’ve never experienced being wrong. Not once in my

entire life. Oh, looks like it’s about time for my date. Well, if you’ll excuse me.”

Watching their bizarre interaction unfold, I realized that our class lacked unity.

“Sudou-kun really hasn’t grown up, has he?” “Couldn’t you have been a little kinder, Horikita-san?”

“I don’t show mercy to people who don’t attempt to better themselves. He’s caused us nothing but harm, and has no redeeming features.”

Well, you don’t exactly show any mercy even to people who do

attempt such things.

“What?”

“Ooh!”

While I shrank away, a sharp knife (well, a sharp look) was thrust into me. I made a small rebuttal.

“There’s a popular expression in this world: Great talents mature late. Sudou could probably become a professional player in the NBA, right? I think there’s a possibility that he’ll make a great contribution to society. The power of youth is infinite.” I uttered a catchphrase that sounded about as original as a television commercial.

“I don’t intend to deny that it could happen in 10 years’ time, but I’m looking for things to help me reach Class A right now. If he can’t help us right now, then he’s worthless to me.”

“I guess so.”

Well, Horikita’s opinion was consistent, which was nice. I was more worried about Ike and the others. Their moods changed frequently, so I wasn’t really able to relax.

“You get along with Sudou, don’t you? You eat together with him.” “I don’t think we’re on bad terms, but I do kind of feel like he’s a

burden. Sudou cuts class more than anyone else. He also fights the

most. I have to draw the line there.”

I could see what he meant. Ike appeared to have his own thoughts.

“I’ll try to persuade Sakura-san. Once I do, things should turn

around.”

“I just wonder about that. Considering the circumstances, even if we get Sakura-san’s testimony, I believe it’ll have minimal impact. The school will probably have doubts about a witness just suddenly appearing from Class D.”

“Doubts? You mean they’d think we were lying about the witness?”

“Of course. They’ll consider the witness’s testimony along with her possible intentions. They won’t take her word as absolute proof.”

“No way. You mean even that evidence wouldn’t be perfectly sound?”

“Well, the best and most miraculous situation would be if there was a trusted witness from another class or grade who saw the entire incident from start to finish. There isn’t anyone who fits that description, though,” said Horikita with confidence.

I thought the same.

“Then no matter how hard we try to prove Sudou’s innocence, we…”

“Had the incident happened in a classroom, however, it would be a different story.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, there are cameras that record what goes on in the classrooms, right? Therefore, if anything did happen, there’d be evidence of it.

Those recordings would blow the Class C guys’ lies away.”

I pointed at the two or so cameras affixed to the ceiling near the corners of the classroom. They were small enough that they

wouldn’t be a distraction, and they blended in well with their

surroundings, but they were undeniably security cameras.

“The school checks those cameras to see if we talk or fall asleep during class. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be able to accurately assess our monthly performance.”

“Seriously?! I never knew that!”

Ike looked utterly shocked.

“I just learned about the cameras.”

“They’re not easily spotted. I also didn’t notice until they talked about points for the first time.”

“Well, ordinary people don’t typically concern themselves with hidden cameras. I mean, most wouldn’t be able to directly point out the cameras in a convenience store, even if they went there all the time, right?”

If that person did know, they probably had a guilty conscience or were extremely nervous. Or they might have accidentally spotted them. Well, considering we didn’t need to search for a witness anymore, I thought it was time to head home then. Kushida and the others might discuss looking for another witness. It would be a pain in the butt to get sucked into that.

“Ayanokouji-kun, do you want to head back together?” Horikita

asked.

” “

After hearing that invitation, I reflexively placed my hand against her forehead. It felt nice and cool, but I noticed the softness of her skin.

“You do know I don’t have a fever? I only wanted to talk to you about something,” she deadpanned.

“Ah, okay. That’s fine.”

It was rare for Horikita to invite me anywhere. With the world going so topsy-turvy, I wondered if it would rain tomorrow.

“You two really have gotten close, huh? I mean, you looked like you

were going to murder me after I just touched your shoulder

yesterday, and now…”

Ike looked at my hand on Horikita’s forehead with seeming discontent.

Horikita, having noticed this, didn’t change her expression as she

spoke to me.

“Do you mind? Your hand.” “Oh, sorry, sorry.”

While I was relieved that Horikita offered no counterattack, I drew my hand away. I was on autopilot as the two of us stood in the hallway. I could roughly guess what Horikita wanted, but I didn’t know exactly what she was going to say.

“That reminds me. I want to make a stop before we return to the dorms. Is that okay?”

“I don’t mind, as long as it doesn’t take too long.” “Of course. It should only take about 10 minutes.”

4.4

It was hot and humid after class. I made my way over the special building, where the incident had taken place. It wasn’t like a murder case where the area needed to be taped off to prevent people from contaminating the crime scene. It didn’t really look any different than usual. I didn’t see any indication that this building’s facilities were used frequently, like the special classrooms, the home economics room, the AV room, etc. This would have been an ideal place to call Sudou out.

“It’s so hot…”

This heat was abnormal. This was probably how summer at school should feel, but I had at least imagined that inside the building would be somewhat comfortable, the cool air balancing out the heat. I

guess I’d gotten too used to air-conditioned buildings. I felt even hotter because of that gap in expectation. The air conditioning was probably on during class time in the special building, but it certainly wasn’t right now.

“Sorry for bringing you here.”

Horikita, who was standing next to me, simply looked around the

hallway. She didn’t appear to be sweating at all.

“You’ve really changed, haven’t you? It’s odd that you stuck your neck out in this case. The witness has already been found, and we’ve confirmed that there’s nothing left to be done. What are you even trying to do?” she asked.

“Sudou was the first friend that I made here. I want to help him.” “Do you think that there’s a way to prove his innocence?”

“I’m not so sure. I can’t really say yet. I decided to take some

initiative by myself, since I’m not very good at interacting with Hirata, Kushida, or large groups of people. Being social’s definitely not my forte. I thought everyone would make me run around the school or the classroom today, so I decided to bolt instead. I like to avoid trouble, remember?”

“That’s certainly true. But then, you’re as contradictory as ever, since you’re helping out a friend.”

“Well, human beings are, for better or worse, creatures of convenience.”

I’d touched on this subject before with Horikita, but she did seem relatively open to my ideas. She usually acted alone, so as long as something didn’t harm her, she tended not to mind. She wasn’t the type to empathize with someone else’s pain, though.

“Well, your way of thinking isn’t relevant to me, Ayanokouji-kun, so you’re free to think whatever you like. Also, I appreciate that you say those two are hard to deal with.”

“Well, that’s just because you hate them, isn’t it?”

“Having a common enemy tends to lead to cooperation.”

“No. Just because I’m bad at dealing with them doesn’t mean I hate them. Please don’t think I’m like you.”

I really did want to get closer to Kushida and Hirata. But Horikita’s interpretation of my stance was rather broad, and she seemed to think that we had similar thoughts on the matter. Muttering, I walked to the end of the hallway and scanned the corners, making sure not to miss any nooks or crannies. Horikita seemed to notice something, and began looking around. She started to ponder.

“Looks like there aren’t any here. Too bad.” “Huh? What?” I asked.

“Cameras, like the ones in the classrooms. If there were cameras here, we’d have solid evidence. I can’t find any.”

“Ah, yes. The security cameras. You’re certainly right about it. If they

were here, this matter would be settled.”

There were electrical outlets by the ceiling, but no signs they were being used. There was nothing in the hallway to obstruct a camera’s view, so if one were installed the whole incident would have been recorded from start to finish.

“Well, did the school have hallway cameras in the first place?”

It probably wasn’t just the special building. The hallways in the main school buildings probably didn’t have cameras, either.

“If I had to think of places where they wouldn’t be installed, I’d

probably say the bathrooms and the locker rooms. Right?” “Yeah. Most likely.”

“If there were security cameras here, the school would have checked

them first and we wouldn’t have any problems with this case.”

I shook my head, embarrassed to have gotten my hopes up for even a moment. For a short while, we loitered around, wasting time and not really achieving anything.

“So, have you come up with a plan to save Sudou-kun?” Horikita

asked.

“Of course I haven’t. It’s your job to come up with plans, Horikita. I won’t ask you to save Sudou, but it’d be nice for you to point Class D in the right direction.”

Horikita shrugged in exasperation. She was probably thinking up a

response. However, she was the one who’d found Sakura, so it wasn’t like she didn’t want to help at all.

“You’re asking for my help? To use me? Me? Here and now?”

“Having Sakura as our witness hurts us more than it helps. I think it’d be better if we looked for something else.”

Horikita likely understood. However, she was acting aloof, cut off from the world, like she was too cool to care about anything.

“Sudou has many qualities I can’t stomach. However, I want to lessen

the blame they’re placing upon him. The best possible outcome is we’ll still have some points, even if Class D’s image worsens.”

She sounded honest. Normally, she wasn’t quite so candid. That

wasn’t an especially bad thing. However, most people aren’t suited for loneliness. Therefore, they sometimes behave hypocritically, like saving someone out of feigned altruism in order to make other people adore them. That didn’t seem to be Horikita’s style, though. Also, unlike Kushida and the others, she’d completely given up on proving Sudou’s innocence.

“Like I said, unless a perfect witness appears, proving Sudou-kun’s innocence will be impossible. If those Class C students admitted that they lied, I suppose things might turn out fine. Do you think that’s likely?”

“No way. They would never admit it.”

The lie would stand, especially because the other class also lacked any evidence. That was what I thought, anyway. Our only proof was Sudou’s word. We were completely in the dark.

“There’s no one here after class.”

“Well, that’s obvious. They only use the special building for club activities.”

One party, either Sudou or the Class C students, had summoned the other to the special building. After that, as if by destiny, the two enemies started brawling. In the end, Sudou had injured the others, and they’d complained about it. That was the whole case.

I definitely wouldn’t come to a hot place like this unless someone had brought me. The humidity was suffocating. I felt like if I stayed even a few more minutes, my head would to explode.

“Aren’t you hot, Horikita?”

While the severe heat destroyed me, Horikita looked around with a cool expression.

“I’m fairly resilient when it comes to temperature. Ayanokouji-kun,

you…don’t seem okay.”

The heat was making me dizzy. I moved towards the window, hoping for some cool air. I opened the window…and then immediately slammed it shut.

“That was dangerous.”

Opening the window had only let more hot air into the room. Leaving it ajar would’ve resulted in tragedy, I was sure of it. When I thought about how it would keep getting hotter all the way through August, I became depressed. However, coming here today had given us

results. Things weren’t impossible…

“What are you thinking about right now?” Horikita asked. “Oh, nothing really. Just that it’s hot. I’ve reached my limit.”

It looked as though we’d done all we could, so we started back. “Ah.”

“Oops!”

Turning the hallway corner, I bumped into another student.

“Sorry, are you okay?” I asked.

The impact of our collision wasn’t very hard. At the very least,

neither of us fell over.

“Yeah. I’m sorry. I was careless,” she said.

“Oh no, I’m sorry. Wait…Sakura?”

Mid apology, I realized just whom I’d run into. “Ah, um?”

Judging from her troubled response, she didn’t know who I was. After staring for a moment, she seemed to recognize me as one of her classmates. It’s kind of pointless if you can only recognize somebody after a bout of intense staring, though.

“Ah, oh. Well, you see… My hobby is taking pictures, so…”

She showed me her phone’s screen. I hadn’t really planned on asking for details. Besides, it wasn’t particularly unnatural to use your phone. Sakura had probably thought we were returning to the dorms, and now she was undoubtedly wondering why we were here.

“You said it’s your hobby? What kind of pictures?” I asked.

“Things like the hallway…and the view outside the window. Stuff like that, I guess.”

Just as Sakura finished her brief explanation, she noticed Horikita and lowered her gaze.

“Ah, um…”

“I have something I’d like to ask you, Sakura-san,” Horikita said.

Sakura appeared uncomfortable, but Horikita, never one to pass up on opportunity, stepped closer to her. Sakura backed away, seemingly frightened. I tried to gently restrain Horikita, gesturing for her for stop chasing Sakura.

“G-goodbye.”

“Sakura.” I called as she tried to hasten away. “You don’t have to force yourself.”

I’d spoken up without thinking. Sakura stopped, but didn’t turn

around.

“You shouldn’t feel obligated to appear as the witness, Sakura. It’d be pointless to force you to testify. But if someone scary is trying to intimidate you or something, please talk to us. I have no idea how much I can help, but I’ll try.”

“Are you talking about me?” Horikita muttered.

Ignoring the existence of such a scary monster, I decided to let Sakura go.

“I didn’t see anything. You’ve got the wrong person…”

She kept insisting she wasn’t the witness. So far, we’d been operating based purely on Horikita’s dogmatism and prejudices. It was quite possible that Sakura wasn’t the witness, like she said.

“Then that’s fine. However, if someone else tries to hound you about it, please tell me.”

Sakura went meekly down the stairs.

“That was probably our one big shot, you know? She probably came here because she was still thinking about the incident.”

“Since she’s denied it, we can’t force her to do anything. Besides, you do understand, Horikita? A Class D witness wouldn’t help our case

much.”

“Yeah, I suppose.”

She would act according to her logic. However, I didn’t know what in the world she was thinking. That was why our investigation was at a standstill.

“Hey, you two. What are you doing?”

We turned in response to the unexpected voice. A beautiful girl with strawberry-blonde hair stood behind us. I recognized her, though I hadn’t ever spoken to her before. She was a student from Class B, Ichinose. Rumor had it she was a superb student.

“Sorry to interrupt you like that. Do you have a moment? Oh, if you happen to be in the middle of a so-so date, though, I’d like you to break it up right away.”

“It’s nothing like that.”

Horikita denied it immediately. She was only quick to respond to suggestions like that.

“Ha ha, I see. This place is a little too hot to be a date spot.”

I had no connection with Ichinose. I couldn’t be sure, but she probably didn’t even know my name. I was only one of many students to her. Perhaps she was an acquaintance of Horikita’s? Or a friend? No. There was no way. If they suddenly said something like, “Oh wow, it’s been too long! How are you?” and “I’m good, I’m

good!” and embraced each other, I’d probably start foaming at the

mouth and then faint.

“Do you have some business with us?” Horikita asked.

Horikita was on guard after Ichinose’s sudden appearance. She probably didn’t think that it was a coincidence Ichinose was trying to talk to us.

“Business, huh? Well, it’s more like ‘What are you doing here?’” “Nothing. We’re wandering around for no reason.”

I would’ve liked to answer honestly, but the pressure of Horikita’s

gaze made me fib.

“For no reason, huh? You’re from Class D, aren’t you?” “Do you know us?”

“I’ve met you twice before. We didn’t talk directly, though. I

remember seeing you in the library once, too.”

It seemed that she somehow remembered me. Perhaps I was kind of cool.

“I have a very good memory, you know.”

Did she mean that if her memory weren’t good, I wouldn’t have

much an impression? I’d been a little happy, but my levity died at the backhanded comment.

“I thought that surely there’d be something here related to the brawl. I wasn’t here yesterday when Class B heard about the witness. Later, I heard that Class D was looking for evidence of Sudou’s innocence.”

“If we did happen to be here because of an investigation, what’s your connection?”

“Hmm, a connection? Well, I’m not connected. When I heard about what happened, I had some doubts. So I thought I’d come here

myself to take a look. Would you mind filling me in?”

Was she really just simply interested? After a brief period of silence, Ichinose sheepishly spoke.

“Guess not, huh? Well, if the other classes were interested…” “No, we’re not saying no, but…”

“I can’t help but think there’s an ulterior motive,” Horikita snapped.

I’d tried to handle this situation peacefully, but Horikita had promptly obliterated that plan. Ichinose, clearly sensing the hostility behind Horikita’s words, tilted her neck and smiled.

“Ulterior motive? You think we’re working in the shadows to

undermine both C and Class D?”

Ichinose wore a baffled expression. “Do you need to be that on

guard? I’m really just curious, that’s all.”

“I don’t want to talk with someone who is ‘just curious.’ Do what you want.”

Horikita tried to put some distance between them. She peered out the window.

“Please tell me something. All my teacher and friends say is that there was some kind of fight.”

I hesitated briefly, but since there wasn’t much information to be gained anyway, it may not have been worth keeping quiet. So I explained the situation. I told her that three people from Class C had called Sudou over, and there was a fistfight. However, Sudou turned the tables on his would-be attackers, and beat them up. I also told her that after the fight, the Class C kids filed a false report with the school. Ichinose listened to the story intently.

“So that’s what happened. This story hasn’t made its way to Class B yet. Hey, isn’t this a pretty big problem, though? It doesn’t really

matter who lied since it’s an issue about violence, right? Shouldn’t you be hurrying to uncover the truth?”

“That’s why we came here to look. But we haven’t really found much.”

This wasn’t anything like a murder case, so I’d doubted there’d be many clear hints left for us to find. However, contrary to our expectations, we did get some results.

“So you believe Sudou-kun because he’s your classmate. And your friend, of course, that much is obvious. So Class D is in an uproar because Sudou is being falsely charged, right?”

It’d be difficult to convince a third party like Ichinose that we weren’t doing this out of friendship or class loyalty. I wasn’t going to try explaining it.

“What would you do if Sudou-kun was the liar? Suppose evidence

came out that proved his guilt. What then?”

“I’d report on it honestly. After all, covering for a lie would only come

back to haunt us later.” “Yeah, okay. I think so, too.”

Even so, it wasn’t like our struggles were really going to have any

impact on Ichinose.

“Are you finished? You heard what you wanted.” Horikita spoke

sharply and with a sigh, trying to drive Ichinose away.

“Hmm. Yeah, how about I help you out? To look for the witness, or whatever. You’re bound to get further with more people, right?”

Obviously more people would have been better. That was true. However, it wasn’t as though we’d gone up and said to her, “Please help us, we’re in trouble!”

“Why would a student from Class B offer to help?”

“Are Classes D and B completely unrelated to each other? We don’t know when these cases will spring up, or whom they’ll involve. Since the classes are in constant competition, there’s always the chance that this will happen. This was the merely the first case. If the party that lied wins, that’d set a bad precedent. Also, I personally can’t turn away now that I know what happened.”

I couldn’t tell whether Ichinose was being serious or joking.

“If Class B works with you, wouldn’t that dramatically improve your credibility? Though I suppose the opposite could be true, too. Class D may suffer greater consequences if the truth’s uncovered…”

In other words, if Sudou lied, then that’d prove Class C’s assertion. In that case, Sudou would unquestionably be suspended, and Class D might suffer fatal damages.

“What do you think? I don’t believe it’s a bad suggestion.”

I glanced over to see what Horikita thought. However, she still had her back to me. She was still looking out the window, unmoving. I wondered what she thought about Ichinose’s offer. Of course, we were worried about what effect this would have. If Class D tried to

prove Sudou’s innocence by themselves, our credibility would be low

unless we managed to find evidence that absolutely, 100 percent

confirmed Sudou’s innocence.

If a student from Class B got involved, there might be tremendous implications.

I decided to weigh the offer’s positives and negatives, even though it was rude. Obviously, I couldn’t trust Ichinose yet. She was a student from Class B, and she gained nothing by involving herself. If helping others out of sheer goodwill was reflected in class or private points, then I could understand her motivation. It wouldn’t be easy to ask, but she might have important information. The only way to be certain was to ask.

“Let’s accept her help, Ayanokouji-kun.”

Horikita had made a decision, probably determining that the benefits outweighed the risks. I was grateful that she’d reached a decision so quickly. I didn’t really have the power to decide in the first place; that was Horikita’s job. Ichinose smiled, showing off her white teeth.

“Then it’s decided! Umm…” “Horikita.”

Horikita gave her name candidly, as if doing so approved our cooperative relationship.

“It’s nice to meet you, Horikita-san. And you too, Ayanokouji-kun.”

We had unexpectedly made Ichinose of Class B’s acquaintance and accepted her as an ally. There was still the risk that this could lead to bad things. No matter what, things were going to change.

“We already found a witness. Unfortunately, it’s a student from Class D.”

Ichinose let out an exasperated sigh.

“Well, that means there isn’t another witness. I mean, I guess someone from another class might have witnessed it, but it isn’t likely.”

Chances were certainly slim. But there was still a chance.

“Anyway, about your friend. He’s a first year, but he might become a regular on the basketball team, right? That’s amazing. Even if he’s holding you guys back right now, he might become a great asset later. I mean, the school evaluates club and philanthropic activities, right? So if he enters a tournament and does well, Sudou-kun could earn points. Those’ll be tied to your class points, too. Wait… Did you guys not know that? Did your teacher not tell you?”

We’d only heard that it would influence our private points.

“This is the first I’m hearing about it affecting our class points. I’ll have to complain to Chabashira-sensei later,” mumbled Horikita, a little disgruntled.

This was yet another oversight, another instance where Chabashira- sensei had failed to disclose something important. I wondered if Class B had heard about this from their teacher…

A usual, our teacher didn’t even pretend to give us equal treatment. I

felt discriminated against.

“Your homeroom teacher is kind of weird,” said Ichinose.

“She doesn’t seem motivated to tell us anything. She’s completely

apathetic. Some teachers are like that.”

I didn’t think that it was particularly concerning, but Ichinose

recoiled.

“Did you know that the school evaluates homeroom teachers when their class graduates?”

“This is the first I’ve heard of it. Are you sure?”

I wasn’t interested so much as I had no choice but to be interested. That was a crucial distinction.

“Our homeroom teacher, Hoshinomiya-sensei, says it like it’s her motto. She says she wants to do her best because the homeroom teacher for Class A gets a special bonus. Looks like it’s pretty different for you guys.”

“I’m envious of your relationship with your homeroom teacher. And your class environment.”

Our teacher appeared to lack ambition, or even an interest in money.

It felt like even if we collapsed into failure, she’d just say it was great.

“I think it would probably be good for us to meet up and discuss things.”

“I never thought I’d receive aid from the enemy.”

“This seems like a problem we need to address before we can fight. We’re not really on equal footing, are we?”

Other classes pitied us. If anything, this showed how little interest Chabashira-sensei felt for her own students.

“I want to switch homeroom teachers with Class B.” “Well, I think that’d be difficult to manage.”

I thought back to my first meeting with Hoshinomiya-sensei. She seemed to come with her own inherent difficulties as a teacher.

“Ah, it’s so hot in here!” Ichinose took out a cute handkerchief covered in panda illustrations, and used it to gently wipe sweat from her forehead. Our thick uniforms really trapped the heat.

“A school that constantly runs air conditioning in empty buildings and is unkind to the environment is the worst,” Horikita said.

“Ha ha ha, that’s probably true. You’re pretty interesting.” Ichinose laughed, even though that wasn’t really a joke.

“I don’t think there was anything funny in what I just said…”

“How about we exchange contact information, so things can progress smoothly?”

Horikita shot me a look that seemed to say, I don’t want to do it. Give

her yours.

“If you’re okay with having my info, here you go,” I said. “Sure, got it.”

After we’d exchanged information, I suddenly realized I had an unexpected number of girls’ contacts. Though it was only the beginning of July, I already had seven names and phone numbers in my address book, three of them girls. Perhaps…I had plunged deeply into the joys of youth without even realizing it. Also, I learned that

Ichinose’s first name was Honami—an unnecessary bit of information.

4.5

Ichinose appeared serious about coming up with strategies and being a trusted ally. Every time she wanted permission to try something she’d contact us, even though she’d already said to leave things to her. I didn’t think she needed to limit herself so severely.

Upon returning to the dorms, I’d thought that we’d go our separate ways, but Horikita followed me all the way to my room. She seemed to still want to talk.

“Sorry for the intrusion,” said Horikita as she entered the room, even

though no one else was there.

I wondered why I felt a little nervous being alone with Horikita behind closed doors.

“Oh, just to check, do you have one too? A spare key?” I asked. “For your room? Ike-kun asked earlier if I wanted one. I refused.”

Just as I’d expect from her. It seemed she was the only one with any

common sense.

“After all, it’s rare for me to visit your room, Ayanokouji-kun. Besides, coming here is a shameful act in itself. A disgrace.

Understand?”

I’d assumed she’d respond like that. I wasn’t hurt at all. I definitely wasn’t thinking anything like, Wow, that was unexpectedly harsh.

“Why are you tracing letters on the wall with your finger?” “To hide my pounding heart. Or something.”

The scariest part was that she didn’t really have any bad intentions. I’m sure that if asked, she’d probably say something like, “But I only spoke the truth.”

“Ayanokouji-kun, I want to hear your thoughts on Sudou-kun’s case

once again. Also, I find Kushida-san’s actions a bit concerning.”

“If you’re concerned now, wouldn’t it have been better to participate earlier in the process?”

“Impossible. The very person in question didn’t recognize what was happening. I’m only now reluctantly offering to help for the sake of our class. Frankly, I still think it would have been better to abandon him.”

“Even though you pitched in to help Sudou during the midterm?”

“That was different. Even if we managed to miraculously prove his innocence, do you think he’ll mature? Saving him might have the opposite effect.”

Her defiant glare seemed to say, Do you understand my point?

“So you’re giving up on proving Sudou’s innocence and letting him face punishment for his own sake?”

Horikita wore a slightly disgruntled expression, but then it looked like realization struck. “Knowing Sudou’s flawed personality, you realized from the very beginning how difficult it would be to prove his innocence, didn’t you? That way, it’s easier to think he’d be better off accepting his punishment. Especially better for those who hate him.”

Horikita seemed to want to add, “You thought the same thing, right?” I felt like I’d been backed against a wall, unable to run. If I tried to forcefully deny, she would just dig deeper.

“Well, wouldn’t it be clear to anyone who took just a moment to think?”

“Probably. Kushida-san and Ike-kun and the others haven’t noticed

at all, it seems. They simply believe in Sudou-kun, and want to save him from the lie for his sake and our class’s sake. They don’t understand the urgency of the situation.”

Her remarks towards her classmates, those who’d already shared joy

and sorrow together, seemed completely merciless.

“Kushida seems to understand at least a little bit, and despite that is working to save Sudou,” I said.

“A little bit? So she realized it by herself, then?” “Huh? Well, no, it…”

“You told her, didn’t you?”

She cornered me with her words. It was like being interrogated. A little scary.

“You came up with the idea of getting the old test questions, and purchasing exam points. I can’t say I’m surprised. You do seem quite cunning at times, but…I’m dissatisfied.”

Those who want to someday live honestly, must sometimes be cunning, too.

“Don’t keep overestimating me,” I replied.

Although it wasn’t my intent, Horikita laughed. However, her smile

immediately faded.

“Honestly, there’s so much about you that I don’t understand. You’re a mystery. You’re the most difficult person to predict in our class.

You’re versatile, yet you often idle your time away. You never seem to stay still. It’s as though you cannot be categorized.”

“All of those are really questionable ways to describe someone. They aren’t the sorts of things you’d say as praise…”

There were nicer ways to phrase all of that. Horikita stared at me with suspicion.

“I guess what I should say is that you’re just blending in and hiding your true talents. You’re hiding in plain sight. You disgust me more than anyone else.”

I see. I wondered if being called out like that was normal. It seemed I’d taken the bait and gotten caught in Horikita’s trap. A small failure on my part.

“Come on, saying that I disgust you more than anyone else is going

too far. Kouenji has his fair share of mysteries, too.”

That was undoubtedly my trump card. If I disgusted Horikita more than he did, that would really hurt.

“He’s surprisingly easy to understand. He studies well, is athletic, and gets excellent grades. His personality is the problem. In the end, I can easily categorize and summarize his behavioral problems in only a

few words: he’s self-centered.”

Honestly, that explanation was easy to understand. Kouenji was simple, after all.

“You’d probably make a good teacher,” I said.

At this rate, when she reached adulthood, she’d probably become a

teacher like Chabashira-sensei.

4.6

There were four dorm buildings on campus. Three were for students, who stayed in the various dorms to which they were assigned from first through third year. In other words, our dorm building this year was the same one where last year’s third-year students had lived. The fourth building housed the instructors and school employees.

What I’m saying is that since all of the first year students lived in the same building, inevitably we would meet students from the other classes. Someone entered my field of vision. Our eyes naturally met.

“Thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure.” The girl spoke these

grateful words to the dormitory manager, then called out to me.

“Hey, Ayanokouji-kun! Good morning. You’re early.”

She had beautiful long, wavy hair and big eyes. The second button of her blazer strained over her large chest. Her upright posture matched her dignified personality. I found myself more attracted to her cool temperament than how cute she was. Ichinose Honami, that first-year Class B student, had found me again.

“I woke up a little earlier today. What were you talking about with the manager?” I asked.

“Some people from my class wanted to make requests about their dorms. I gathered everyone’s thoughts on the matter and told the dorm manager. Stuff like water usage, noise, and so on.”

“You did all that, Ichinose?”

Usually, individuals handled their own room issues. I wondered why Ichinose had gone to the trouble of gathering everyone’s complaints.

“Good morning, Class Rep Ichinose!”

Two girls who were getting off the elevator called out to Ichinose. She said hello back.

“Class Rep? Why Class Rep?” I asked.

I hadn’t heard of any “class rep” position before. Perhaps they called her that because she seemed to study too much.

“I’m my class’s representative. It seems like that, anyway.”

“Your class’s representative? Do all classes except for D have someone like that, too?”

That was the first I’d heard about this. Normally I would’ve been surprised, but considering who our homeroom teacher was, she’d probably decided to leave that part out.

“No, that’s just something Class B set up on its own. I think it’s good to have some assigned roles, right?”

I understood her point, but we certainly weren’t going to assign our

own class representative.

“Are there other positions besides class representative?”

“Yeah. Whether or not they serve a function is a different question, but we do have other roles for formality’s sake. Stuff like vice class representative, and secretary. They could be more useful when we have a cultural fair, or sports festival, or something. We could try deciding things on the spot, but that might lead to trouble.”

I recalled seeing Ichinose in the library before, studying with a small group of boys and girls. Even back then, she’d probably already been fulfilling her class representative duties. Most people wouldn’t want to be class representative. They’d be forced to do annoying stuff, and it’d be necessary to participate in face-to-face discussions about school matters. However, with Ichinose taking the initiative for Class B, she probably didn’t foist things on others. I’d bet she handled her duties smoothly.

“Seems like you’ve taken the lead. Of Class B, I mean.”

Without meaning to, it appeared I’d expressed my honest feelings.

“Do you think it’s weird? It’s all purely informal. Besides, there are quite a few troublemakers. We have to deal with a lot of stuff.”

As she said, “We have to deal with a lot of stuff,” Ichinose laughed.

The two of us began walking to school together.

“Aren’t you usually a little late? This reminds me that I’ve never seen you around this time.”

Ichinose’s question sounded harmless, as if she were following some kind of template. After hearing those words, I felt a little relieved and accomplished. It seemed I could have normal, relationship-building conversations after all.

“I don’t have to leave so early. I usually hang around my room for about 20 minutes.”

“So I guess you make it just in the nick of time, then.”

As Ichinose and I got closer to the school, the number of students around us multiplied. Strangely enough, some of the girls turned one after the other and looked at us with envy. Was this the so-called popularity phase I was told would occur three times in my life? I hadn’t experienced it yet; it was about time that I entered my first phase.

“Good morning, Ichinose!”

“Good morning, Ichinose-san!”

Ichinose, who was walking next to me, monopolized all of the girls’ attention.

“You sure are popular,” I said.

“I just stand out because I’m the class rep. That’s all.”

It didn’t seem like she was trying to act modest. Apparently that’s what she truly thought. She had this charismatic force about her that pulled everyone’s focus.

“Ah, that reminds me. Did you hear about summer break,

Ayanokouji-kun?”

“Summer break? No. I mean, isn’t it just summer break?”

“I’ve heard rumors that we might be taking a vacation to a tropical island.”

That sparked a memory. I’d forgotten about it, but Chabashira-sensei had mentioned a vacation.

“I can’t believe it, though. Could we really go on a vacation?”

It probably wasn’t a normal school field trip. I mean, just look around. It was no exaggeration to say that this school was fancy. Going to a tropical island in the summer and visiting a hot spring in the winter…

It was all incredibly suspicious. I really didn’t think our school was going to be so good to be true. They had to be keeping something from us. I wondered what Ichinose thought. But I saw from her bitter smile that she also had doubts.

“It’s suspicious, after all. I think it’s going to be a turning point.”

“In other words, you think our class points could fluctuate wildly over summer break?”

“Yeah, yeah. I think there might be a hidden task, one that has a bigger impact on us than the midterms or final exams. Otherwise, the difference between Class A and us wouldn’t close much. We could diminish the gap little by little.”

That was certainly true. A big, earthshaking event might very well

occur soon…

“What’s the difference between you and A?” I asked.

“We have about 600 points, so our classes are around 350 points apart.”

It was only natural that their points would drop since the start of the year, but it was amazing how many points they’d retained.

“So far, the midterm is all that’s given us a chance to raise our class points, so losing at least a few points was unavoidable for us. I mean, even Class A has lost points.”

However, as a result of the midterm, we’d managed to gain back points.

“You don’t seem to be panicking.”

“I’m concerned, but I think that there’s a chance for us to make a comeback. I intend to focus all of my emotional energy on making those preparations.”

I thought the first part of what she’d said was definitely correct. However, their cohesion as a class made such things possible. Class D had only managed to get 87 points this month. We weren’t anywhere close to being able to compete with the others.

“I wonder how much this event will change things?”

It would probably be worth more than 10 or 20 points. However, it was difficult to imagine that it would change things by 500 or even 1,000 points.

“We’re in a tight spot ourselves. If the gap widens any further, we won’t be able to catch up.”

“I guess we both have to do our best, then.”

Actually, the ones who had to work especially hard were Horikita, Hirata, and Kushida.

“At any rate, it doesn’t seem like this will get worse.” I didn’t want to

complain, but I felt that something annoying was on the horizon.

“But if we actually did vacation on a tropical island, that would be

awesome!”

“I wonder about that…” I said.

“Huh? That idea doesn’t make you happy?”

Only people who have meaningful friendships can enjoy a vacation to

its fullest. There’s nothing quite as uncomfortable as traveling

without close friends, especially when you’re traveling with a group.

Just imagining it made me feel like throwing up.

“Do you hate traveling?” Ichinose asked.

“I don’t hate it. I don’t think I do, anyway…”

While we chatted, I tried to imagine what it would be like. I’d never traveled with a friend before. I had gone to New York with my parents a long, long time ago. Not a single millisecond of it had been fun. Just remembering that bitter time wore me out.

“What’s the matter?”

“Just recalled something a little bit traumatic.”

My dry laugher echoed through the hot hallway. No, this wasn’t good. If I let my negative aura spread, Ichinose would grow troubled. However, it seemed like my anxieties were unfounded. Ichinose continued talking, seemingly untroubled by my words.

“Hey, I still have some things on my mind. May I ask you some questions?”

Ichinose had a radiant presence, though it was different from

Kushida’s. I could say that she acted without an ulterior motive. Even when talking with a person like me, she put her best foot forward.

“We’ve been separated into four classes from the start, right? Do you really think they separated us by ability?”

“I understand that it wasn’t entirely tied to our exam results. There are people in our class that, based on grades, should have gotten into the top ranks.”

Horikita, Kouenji, and Yukimura were undoubtedly three people who deserved to be at the top based on their academics alone.

“So, do you think it’s something like overall ability?”

I gave a noncommittal answer. I’d thought about it many times, but couldn’t find a thorough explanation.

“I’ve been thinking about it since we started here. Someone might be good at studying, but bad at physical activity. Another might be good at physical activities, but bad at studying. But if students are ranked by overall ability, doesn’t that mean that the lower classes are at an overwhelming disadvantage?”

“Isn’t that how societal competition works, though? I don’t think there’s anything particularly strange about that,” I said.

Ichinose crossed her arms and hummed to herself, as if she weren’t

convinced.

“If we were competing as individuals, sure. But this is a competition between classes, right? If you simply put all of the superior students into Class A, then doesn’t that mean the rest of us have virtually no chance of succeeding?”

That pretty much explained the current, miserable state of our class points. However, Ichinose seemed to think differently.

“There’s definitely a big difference between classes A through D right now. However, I think they’re trying to hide something, but going about it in a weird way. Don’t you agree?”

“Okay, I have to ask. What’s your reasoning?”

“Ha, no reason, really. It’s just something that popped into my head. If it weren’t true, then it’d be fair to say the whole situation is cruel. I think that good students and good athletes were placed into Class D for a reason, as a countermeasure.”

Wasn’t that different from the usual system, though? If the classes were solely divided according to academic ability, there’d be no way

to win against the others. In a system like this, it was important to be an expert in many different fields.

“Wouldn’t it be wiser not to talk to someone from another class

about this?” I asked Ichinose, feeling slightly worried. “Hmm? About what?”

“About what you said just now. Horikita already mentioned this, but you’re helping the enemy.”

After all, it was possible she could’ve given me a valuable hint, and I’d do something with it.

“I don’t think so. There’s a lot to be gained from an exchange of ideas. Also, since we’re cooperating now, there shouldn’t be any problems.”

She wasn’t complacent about being in Class B. That was just

Ichinose’s natural personality. I could understand her disposition and way of thinking. At any rate, she was a good person with no hidden side to her.

“I’m not smart enough to engage in an exchange of ideas. All I can say is, ‘I’m sorry.’”

“I don’t mind if I’m the one who does the talking and thinking. If you think it’s helpful information, then it’s okay for you to use it.”

Ichinose stopped, almost as if she’d just remembered something. I

tried reading her face, noting that she wore a serious expression.

“Hey… There’s something I want to ask you, Ayanokouji-kun. Is that

okay?”

It was like that bright, cheery Ichinose of a moment ago had disappeared. My body stiffened slightly.

“If it’s something I can answer, I will.”

Besides, what question couldn’t I answer with my massively impressive brain, filled with the knowledge of a hundred million books? (A huge lie, of course.)

“Has a girl ever confessed her feelings to you?”

That…wasn’t in the any of the hundred million books I’d read.

“Really? Do I look like a guy who’s ever had a girl confess her feelings

to him?”

Was she going to call me disgusting, or a virgin, or a shitty moron? Would I cry? I was still only a first-year high school student, you know? It was way too early for this. Right? Hey. You think so too, right? Besides, I was certain that, proportionally, the number of people who had confessed their feelings was low compared to those who hadn’t. It was a baseless theory, though. Who knew the real number of people who had died in solitude, hidden in the shadows of humanity’s prosperity?

“Oh no, I’m sorry. It’s nothing.”

It didn’t look like it was nothing. However, it did look like she didn’t plan to make fun of me. Rather, she was actually worried about something.

“Did someone confess to you?” I asked. “Huh? Oh, yeah. Kind of.”

It seemed like many students were striving every day to couple up like Hirata and Karuizawa.

“Well, if you’re okay with it, can you spare a little time after class? I have some questions about confessions. I know all too well how busy you are with the incident right now, but…”

“Sure, that’s okay. I don’t really have much to do.” “Don’t have much to do?”

“I don’t think there’s much point in looking for evidence or another witness. Doing that would be a waste of time and a headache.”

“But you went to the scene of the crime the other day to investigate,

right?”

“That was for something else. Anyway, it’s fine.” “Thank you.”

I wondered what all this confession stuff had to do with me. Had she made up a lie like “Ayanokouji is my boyfriend” to mislead people? I considered it for a moment, but then thought it’d be smarter for her to use a more reliable, pretty boy.

“I’ll be waiting at the school entrance after class.” “O-okay. I understand.”

Even though I knew absolutely nothing was going to happen, I was pretty excited. That was what being a man was all about.

4.7

Students overflowed through the school doors as they made their way home. I was a little worried about finding Ichinose, but my anxieties quickly disappeared. She stood out even in this sea of students. Although her cuteness could have been one reason why, she also had the type of presence that dominated wherever she was.

To be honest, I didn’t really know how to describe it. I could only describe it as an intoxicating, gentle power. A power that was amplified by how many of the first-year students recognized her. It was similar to Kushida, but even more so. Ichinose was popular with boys and girls alike. They greeted her one after another. Because of that, I wasted about five minutes just trying to find the right time to call to her myself.

“Ah. Ayanokouji-kun. Over here, over here!”

Ichinose eventually noticed me and called me over. Pretending like

I’d only just arrived, I casually raised my hand. “So, what should I do next?” I asked.

“I plan to finish this as soon as possible. Follow me.”

I put on my shoes and followed Ichinose to the other side of the building. We arrived at a spot right behind the gymnasium. This did seem like the kind of place where someone would confess their feelings.

“Now then…”

Ichinose took a deep breath, and faced me. No way… Did Ichinose

plan to confess to me?!

“I think…”

No way, there was no way this could—

“I think someone will confess their feelings to me here,” she said. “Huh?”

With that, Ichinose took out a letter and showed it to me. It was a cute love letter adorned with a heart sticker. Although she wanted me to read it, it felt rude to look. The handwriting was pretty, much like the letter’s exterior. The handwriting was cute, definitely not like a boy’s.

I noticed something that concerned me. The meeting time and location were written in the letter. It was set for Friday evening at 4:00 PM, behind the gymnasium. That was about 10 minutes from now.

“Wouldn’t it be better if I weren’t here?” I asked.

“Love is kind of alien to me. I don’t how to respond without hurting her feelings. I also don’t know if we can stay good friends afterwards. I want you to help me.”

“I don’t really think I’m the person to ask for this. I don’t have any experience with romantic confessions. There are probably other people in Class B who could help.”

“The person confessing her feelings to me…is from Class B.”

Ah, that’s what it was. I now understood why she’d asked me to

come.

“I’d like for you to keep this secret. If not, things will probably get unpleasant. Knowing you, Ayanokouji-kun, I doubt you’ll go around telling people.”

“But Ichinose, aren’t you used to people confessing their feelings to you?”

“Huh?! N-no way. Not at all! I’ve never experienced this before.”

If she hadn’t told me herself, I absolutely would not have believed it.

“I really don’t understand why this is happening.”

I didn’t think this confession was surprising, because Ichinose was so cute. Furthermore, judging how she’d interacted with the other students, she had a great personality.

“So…will you please pretend to be my boyfriend?”

Whoa! Had this situation seriously devolved into such a cliché?

“I did a bit of research, and discovered that the rejected person hurts

less if the object of their affection is already in a relationship…”

“I understand that you don’t want to hurt anyone, but won’t it be worse if they find out you lied?”

“I could say that you and I broke up, or that you left me or something.”

I didn’t think that was the solution here…

“Honestly, I think it would be much better for you to talk with this person one-on-one. Truthfully.”

“But— Ah!”

Ichinose seemed to have noticed something, and awkwardly raised her hand. Apparently the person in question had arrived earlier than expected. What in the world kind of visual kei guy was this person? The new arrival had a boyish, androgynous face. He was even wearing a skirt.

No, no. First impressions aside, she was a girl. I’d suspected as much after seeing her handwriting. Unlike when a boy revealed romantic feelings for another boy, this confession would probably be smooth. I might’ve thought that because I was a guy myself, though.

“Um, Ichinose-san… Who is this person?”

The new girl seemed a bit unnerved by the unexpected appearance of a male student.

“This is Ayanokouji-kun, from Class D. I’m sorry for bringing someone that you don’t know, Chihiro-chan.”

“Is he by any chance…your boyfriend, Ichinose-san?” “Ah… Well…”

Ichinose probably meant to say that yes, yes I was. But guilt over lying seemed to stopper her answer. The words got stuck in her throat.

“So why is this Ayanokouji-kun person here?”

Confused by this unexpected situation, Chihiro began to cry. Tears welled up in her eyes.

Is he her boyfriend? Why would he be here if he wasn’t? Chihiro was probably struggling to understand what was going on. Ichinose, seeing Chihiro’s tears, grew flustered. Uncertain of what to do, she started panicking. I’d expected Ichinose to be a stalwart, reliable person, but apparently she had an unexpected weak point.

“Um, do you mind going somewhere else, please? I have something important that I need to talk with Ichinose-san about,” Chihiro said.

“P-please wait a minute, Chihiro-san. That’s, um… Well, to tell you

the truth, Ayanokouji-kun is…”

Ichinose was trying to make the first move and turn her down. She probably thought it would be harder if Chihiro directly said, I like you.

“What is it?” Chihiro asked.

“So, Ayanokouji-kun, he’s… Well, he’s my—”

There was nothing I could do in this situation. Well, nothing except… “I’m just a friend.”

I cut Ichinose off before she could finish.

“Ichinose. I didn’t think this was something I should say, considering no one’s ever confessed to me before. But I think it was a mistake for you to call me here.”

I spoke honestly, for both their sakes.

“It’s true that confessing your feelings isn’t easy to do. You spend every day in complete anguish, as you create the experience in your head over and over. And yet, you still can’t confess your feelings.

Even when you think the time has come to actually do it, you can’t say the words ‘I like you’. They get stuck in your throat. That’s what I think. Don’t you think you should answer someone when they desperately long to express their feelings? If you make the situation unclear, both of you may regret it later.”

“Uh…”

Ichinose had probably never experienced seriously falling in love with someone before. Therefore, she didn’t really know what to do, or if she were doing something wrong. Trying to prevent someone’s pain was useless. If you turned someone down, their feelings would inevitably be hurt.

Well, if you managed to come up with a suitable excuse, you

probably could make things a little easier. An excuse like “I want to

concentrate on my studies” or “There’s someone else that I like.” Or, like what Ichinose had attempted here: “I’m already dating someone.” But no matter what answer you gave, the other person would definitely be hurt.

Even more hurt if the excuse were built on a lie.

I left without waiting for Ichinose’s reply. I headed back, but didn’t

return to the dormitory right away. Instead I stopped by the tree-lined pathway, leaned against the handrail, and sighed as I looked up at green leaves.

About five minutes later, a girl ran past me. There were tears in her eyes. Despite that shocking image, I loitered there a while longer to kill time. Around sundown, Ichinose trudged back from the gym and walked over to me.

“Ah…”

Upon seeing me, she looked a little awkward and hung her head. But then she immediately glanced back up at me.

“I was wrong. I didn’t respect Chihiro-chan’s feelings. I just wanted to

avoid hurting her, and to run away. That was my mistake. Love is

really tough, huh?” Ichinose muttered as she leaned against the handrail next to me. “I asked her if we could carry on like usual, but… I don’t know if we can go back to how things were.”

“That depends on you both.”

“Yeah… Thanks for today. For coming along with me for such an odd request.”

“It’s okay. Days like this happen, anyway.”

“I guess our positions got reversed, huh? I planned on helping you,

but then you ended up helping me.”

“I’m sorry for acting so full of myself back there,” I said.

Ichinose blinked a couple of times, as if I’d said something odd. “There’s no need for you to apologize, Ayanokouji-kun. None at all.” She stretched her arms towards the sky, and hopped off the railing. “Now it’s my turn to help you. If there’s anything I can do, I will.”

I wondered how Class B’s Ichinose Honami planned to resolve this

difficult situation. I had to admit, I was looking forward to seeing it.

4.8

That evening, I got a call as I was doing some online shopping. My phone was plugged into the wall next to my bed when suddenly its screen lit up. Caller ID displayed the name: Kushida Kikyou. I did a double take to make sure of what I saw. Knowing I wouldn’t have the guts to call her back, I rolled my chair across the room, snatched my phone off the stand, and dove onto the bed.

“I’m sorry for calling you so late. You’re still up?” she asked.

“Hmm? Oh. I was thinking of going to bed in a little bit. Did you need

something?”

“Sakura-san’s digital camera was broken, right? I feel like I’m partially

to blame since I made her so flustered. So I wanted to take

responsibility for that…”

“I don’t think you should feel responsible, Kushida. Not in the least. Besides, she’s going to get it fixed, right? Since it’s so important to her, wouldn’t she get it repaired no matter what?”

However, as I spoke I realized it probably wasn’t that simple. Sakura was extremely inept at social interaction, and probably lacked the self-confidence to go to a store by herself. It was probably similar to how someone might feel about dining alone in a restaurant.

It was a little hard to believe she could be that shy, but in this world there were all sorts of different people with different personalities. So it wasn’t particularly surprising to find a person who lacked all communication skills, right?

“So, did you offer to help her then, Kushida?” I asked.

She’d probably been proactive about establishing some common

ground with Sakura.

“Yeah. She seemed hesitant at first, but then said that she’d be fine with the day after tomorrow. I think that Sakura’s digital camera is probably really important to her.”

Kushida had done a wonderful job taking the proper first steps to

earn Sakura’s trust.

“But why are you telling me this? Won’t it go more smoothly if it’s just the two of you?”

“If we were just going to get it repaired, I suppose. But, there’s another thing. I’d like your help with it, Ayanokouji-kun.”

“Do you want me to ask if she knows anything about Sudou’s incident?”

“Horikita-san seems convinced that Sakura saw everything. After getting a bit closer to Sakura-san, I also think she knows something. But there has to be some reason why she’s keeping quiet, since she keeps denying that she witnessed it.”

While taking Horikita along would probably be the best option, it was delusional to think that Horikita and Kushida would spend their day off together. Kushida had probably chosen me through the process of elimination, as I was the least harmful candidate. If she’d invited Ike or Yamauchi along, they would have had eyes only for Kushida.

Moreover, it was convenient. I’d wanted to visit the electronics store for a while now. I sat up and leaned against the wall. For some reason, it felt kind of rude to make plans while lying down.

“Okay, I understand. Let’s go.”

My voice cracked with a little too much excitement. Fortunately,

Kushida didn’t seem to notice anything strange, and didn’t press me about it. I chatted with Kushida about this and that for a little while. I didn’t get too worked up over the conversation; it was casual, so there was nothing to be nervous about. It was proof that she could invade my personal space without causing discomfort. In my mind,

I’d firmly recognized her as my friend.

“That reminds me. It was really scary when Kouenji-kun and Sudou-

kun looked like they were about to start fighting.”

“Yeah. It was a critical situation. It looked like their fists were going to do the talking for them.”

Kouenji always seemed laid-back, but if Sudou started taking swings

at him, he would fight. If that happened, it’d be a disaster.

“I couldn’t even move. Hirata-kun was so amazing, though. He’s definitely an admirable person.”

“Yeah.”

Hearing her praise Hirata like that made me a little jealous. I reminded myself that it was only natural to admire someone with the courage to step up in a situation like that.

“Class D was able to come together, thanks to you and Hirata. The

fact that the boys and girls are separated plays a big part, too.” Sometimes, only a girl could solve another girl’s issues.

“I’m just doing what I normally do. It wasn’t anything special.” “I think Hirata would definitely say the same thing.” Oftentimes, special people did not consider themselves special.

“Speaking of special, don’t you think that Horikita-san is way more special than someone like me? She’s great at studying and excels at sports. It makes me wonder why she’s in Class D.”

Horikita wasn’t special. She belonged to a unique class of people. I kept quiet, though, afraid that if I badmouthed her she’d find out about it.

“Wasn’t she assigned to Class D in part because she’s not very sociable?”

“But doesn’t she behave normally with you, Ayanokouji-kun?” “You think that’s normal?”

Based on the Horikita I knew, I’d have to describe the way she

treated others as miserable… I trembled a little to recall Ike fainting

in agony.

“When I think of my relationship with Horikita, it’s like there’s a wall

between us. Or perhaps I should say that’s the extent of our relationship, if you understand what I’m getting at.”

“Hmm?”

She sounded amused yet slightly doubtful. I didn’t like being

misunderstood by Kushida.

“Ah, that reminds me. I wanted to ask you something. Your room is

on the ninth floor, right, Kushida?”

“Huh? Ah, yeah, it is. Why? What about it?” “Oh, no reason. Just curious.”

Suddenly, Kushida fell silent. It was unexpected silence, without warning. Our conversation, which had been smooth up until now, came to a screeching halt. Usually, Kushida would resume the

conversation immediately, but now she’d stopped. Perhaps asking

her floor number had been in bad taste?

I started fidgeting. Unable to calm down, I began pointlessly looking into every corner of my room. Ah, if only I were a pretty boy with

excellent communication skills. I couldn’t help but wish for that. We

were so quiet that we could hear each other breathing.

“It’s getting late. Should I hang up now?” I asked, unable to bear the

silence.

It was painful to stay on the phone with a girl and not say anything.

“Hey—”

“Hmm?”

Kushida broke the silence, but then stopped talking again. Her hesitation was unusual. This was a far cry from the usual Kushida, who always tried to brighten the conversation.

“I-If… Well… I… I—”

She stopped talking again. Another period of silence followed. Five seconds, then ten seconds passed.

“No, it’s nothing.”

That sure didn’t seem like nothing…

However, I lacked the courage to say, “Hey, what is it? Spill!” to her, so I let it go. Sorry, Kushida. If I were on the battlefield, I’d be the sniper, the chicken who would stay far away from the fighting.

Forgive me.

“Well, I’ll see you the day after tomorrow, Ayanokouji-kun.”

With that, Kushida ended the call. I wondered what she’d been trying to say. I felt like it was going to be a bad, sleepless night.

4.9

On Sunday afternoon, I went to the shopping mall to meet Kushida and fulfill my promise. For someone who generally spent Saturdays lounging in his room, this place made me nervous. One person was sitting on a bench up ahead. I wondered if that person were waiting for someone, like me. After all, most students just went around freely on their days off. While pondering the matter, I sat down on the other available bench.

I’d thought we would go together since we lived in the same dorm, but Kushida was a little fastidious when it came to these things. I decided it’d be better if we met at the agreed location.

“Good morning!”

In the surrounding hustle and bustle, Kushida drew nearer, a wide smile on her face.

“O-oh, hey. Good morning.”

My heart started pounding. I fumbled over my words and managed an awkward wave.

“Sorry. Were you waiting long?” “Oh no, I just got here.”

Our back and forth felt like the template for a date. I unintentionally glanced over Kushida’s whole body. She was cute. Kushida was really cute. Seeing Kushida in casual attire for the first time was so overwhelming, I couldn’t look away.

“This is the first time we’ve met up on a day off. It’s refreshing.”

Kushida laughed, maybe because she felt the same way. What the heck was with that cute smile? Something that adorable was against the rules. Perhaps Ike and the others hadn’t seen this before. Did that make me happiest of all? I had to contain my excitement in front of her. Kushida spoke up, as if she had just remembered something.

“Weren’t you really busy during your downtime last week? I’m glad

that you came despite that, Ayanokouji-kun.”

Last week? Really glad I came despite that? What the heck was she talking about?

“I’m talking about Ike-kun and the others going to that café, of

course.”

This was the first I’d heard about it. I didn’t recall any previous,

hidden event.

“By any chance…” Kushida began.

“A-ah. That’s it. Now that you mention it, I didn’t… I didn’t hear

about it.”

I looked up to the heavens and lamented my worthlessness. It’s not

like Ike and the others were bad for not inviting me. I was the bad

guy, the one who hadn’t been invited.

“I didn’t mean anything… I’m sorry, I guess I said something wrong…” “Don’t worry about it. Really, I don’t care. Was it fun?”

“You do seem to care…”

If I handled this poorly, instead of being the happiest I’d ever been with Kushida, it’d be the worst. Even if it was for just a moment, spending time alone with her made me feel like the luckiest guy. The students who passed us would occasionally steal a glance at Kushida in her casual clothes. In the case of passing couples, the girlfriend would appear upset and grab her boyfriend by the cheek. Even

though I was the one with Kushida, I couldn’t help but feel bewitched

by her cuteness.

What the heck? I was really flattering Kushida a lot. What I’d said had

been completely true, but there was also a whiff of bashfulness.

“What’s the matter?”

Kushida froze, which I thought was strange. Every movement she

made, or didn’t make, was cute.

“I think we’ve had really nice weather lately.”

Worried that we were heading into clichéd territory, I steered the conversation in another direction. I needed to calm down. How many times had I used the word “cute” today? At this rate, I’d probably end up using it 100 or 200 times.

“Ah. Sorry. I think I might look a little out of place next to you,” I

muttered.

I could easily move. I looked simple. I didn’t look good next to Kushida by any standard.

“No, no, that’s not true at all. I think we’re great together,” she

replied.

“So, you’re saying someone simple like me is a good match for you? I should accept an insult like that?”

“Yeah.”

I felt the quick thrust of a knife. Maybe I’d dug my own grave by

setting myself up like that, but it was still a shock.

“You’re that surprisingly delicate, Ayanokouji-kun? I don’t really care what others say. I don’t think it’s an insult at all. I really think we suit each other.”

I felt like she was teasing me somehow. Normally, I’d get angry, but since this was Kushida talking it just felt unfair. She’d teased me so casually with only a few words.

“So, what about Sakura-san?” “I don’t see her yet.”

It was the exact time we’d agreed to meet, but there still was no sign of her.

“But was she okay with it? Inviting me out, I mean.”

“She asked me to invite you, Ayanokouji-kun. Didn’t Sakura-san contact you?”

“Sakura? No. I haven’t really talked to her.”

I recalled meeting up with Sakura at the special building. That had been about the extent of our contact.

“Perhaps it was love at first sight?” I said, laughing and grinning. Such

a dramatic scenario would be absolutely ridiculous.

“Right now, how about we sit and wait?”

“Sure. Well… Hey, uh, isn’t that Sakura-san sitting next to us?”

Sakura, clearly flustered and indeed sitting on the bench next to us, stood and gave a sheepish bow. Had Sakura really been sitting there the entire time? Amazing that we hadn’t noticed her at all. Not a sign of her presence or aura.

“I’m sorry, I don’t stand out much, I suppose… Good morning,”

Sakura said.

“No, I don’t think you blend in too much. I definitely felt your presence,” I said.

“Oh, you don’t need to say that for my sake, Ayanokouji-kun.”

Sakura bowed her head apologetically, and slowly straightened. I wanted her to forgive me for not noticing her. Sakura was wearing a hat, and even a surgical face mask, which made it difficult to recognize her at a glance. I wondered if she’d caught a cold or

something.

“You kind of look suspicious…”

“Rather than saying you look suspicious, I think you actually stand out more.”

“Yeah, I suppose so. I think I do stand out, especially here,” Sakura

responded. Sheepishly, she removed her mask.

She didn’t seem to have a cold. Rather, she seemed like the type to wear the mask in order to avoid attention. She must have really hated standing out.

“So anyway, about my digital camera. Is it okay if we go to the electronics store in the mall?” Sakura asked.

“Well, yes. We did certainly come here to get the camera fixed.” “I’m sorry…for making you come along with me.”

Sakura bowed apologetically, as though begging forgiveness from the bottom of her heart. For some reason, I felt sorry for coming here.

4.10

There were some incredibly famous, nationally known stores that did business with our school. Even though their customers were only students and the stores themselves weren’t too very big, they sold items for everyday use and electronic appliances.

“Let’s see, I’m sure they have a repair counter somewhere. Let’s check it out.”

While Kushida headed towards the back of the store, I wondered just how many times she’d come here. Sakura and I followed close behind.

“I wonder if they’ll fix it right away…”

Sakura, looked rather anxious as she took out her digital camera and held it tight.

“You really love your camera, don’t you?” I asked. “Yeah. It’s weird, isn’t it?”

“No, not at all. It’s a good hobby to have, isn’t it? I get the feeling there’s a significant story attached to that camera. It’d be great if they fixed it soon.”

“Yeah.”

“There it is! The repairs counter.”

The store was crowded with a huge number of products and difficult to navigate, but towards the back was the place where they handled repairs.

“Ah…”

For some reason, Sakura suddenly stopped in her tracks. When I glanced over at her, I noticed she was wearing an expression of blatant fear and revulsion. It seemed that something had upset her quite a bit. However, when I followed Sakura’s line of sight, I saw

nothing out of the ordinary.

“What’s the matter, Sakura-san?” Kushida asked.

She also must’ve thought Sakura’s behavior was strange. “Ah, umm… Well…”

Although it seemed like she was about to say something, all Sakura did was shake her head and take a deep breath.

“It’s nothing.”

She donned an earnest smile, and walked to the repair counter. Kushida and I exchanged looks, but decided to follow her. Maybe it really was nothing, like she said. Kushida talked to the store clerk and asked him to repair the digital camera. Meanwhile, incredibly bored, I checked out the appliances on display.

Kushida’s worldly wisdom was certainly impressive. Even though it was her first time meeting the store clerk, she was soon talking to him as if they were longtime friends. Sakura, the camera’s owner, spoke only when she needed to give her consent or to clarify something. Even so, the store clerk appeared pretty fired up. He aggressively engaged Kushida in conversation, without even pausing for a breath. Although I could just barely hear the conversation, it sounded like he was asking Kushida on a date. He asked if she

wanted to see a certain female idol’s concert, which was being

screened over in the theater.

He seemed like quite the otaku, judging from how passionate he was about a wide range of subjects, from idol elections to idol magazines. Because Kushida didn’t show any signs of disliking the conversation, he probably thought he could successfully ask her out. However, I believed she would try her hardest to sidestep the invitation.

He seemed to be getting excited over talking to such a cute girl, but their conversation didn’t proceed any further. As I’d expected, Kushida began to feel awkward. In order to conclude their business, she urged Sakura to hand over the camera. When the store clerk opened up the camera to confirm the contents, he saw that part of it had been damaged from the fall. That was why the camera wouldn’t turn on properly. Fortunately, because Sakura still had the warranty card, the item could be repaired free of charge.

Finally, all Sakura had to do was fill out her contact information, and we’d be done. But Sakura’s hand suddenly stopped as she filled out the form.

“Sakura-san?”

Kushida, thinking that something strange was going on, called out to Sakura. She seemed to be hesitating for some reason. I didn’t intend to say anything at the time, but her attitude seemed to weigh on my mind. And also—

The store clerk, who had previously been absorbed in his conversation with Kushida, now stared directly at Sakura. Both Sakura and Kushida were looking down at the form, so they didn’t notice. But the clerk had unsettling eyes. Even men would find it a little creepy.

“Can I see that for a second?” I asked. “Huh?”

Standing next to Sakura, I reached for the pen she was holding. She didn’t seem to understand why I wanted it, but she anxiously handed it over.

“When the repairs are finished, please contact me.”

“H-hey, wait a minute. Contact you? She’s the owner, isn’t she? That would be…”

“The manufacturer warranty explicitly shows where the item was sold and the date of purchase. Also, I doubt there’d be any legal problems with me putting my information down. It should be perfectly fine if the user’s name is different than the purchaser’s.”

Before the clerk could say “I understand”, I’d entered my name and

my dorm room number into the required fields.

“Or, is there a reason why she specifically has to enter her information?” I added, still without looking back up.

“N-no, not at all. I understand. There’s nothing to worry about,” the clerk said.

Shortly after I’d completed the form, I handed it over with the camera. Sakura gently patted her chest and sighed in apparent relief, but when she learned it’d take two weeks for the camera to be repaired, she grew discouraged. Her shoulders slumped.

“That clerk sure was something else. He talked with such incredible passion, I was just so shocked,” Kushida said.

“Didn’t you feel kind of disgusted?” Sakura asked.

“N-no, I wasn’t disgusted by him. Do you know something? About

that clerk?”

Sakura gave a meek nod. I guessed that something had been off even when she first purchased the camera. Turning to me, she asked,

“What do you think, Ayanokouji-kun?”

“Well, he had this sort of vibe, like he’s kind of hard to approach.

Especially for girls.”

“That was kind of what I was trying to get at before… I was scared to go to the repair shop alone because of that…”

Kushida seemed to have an epiphany. She turned to me with wide eyes.

“Did you know about this, Ayanokouji-kun?”

“Well, she’s a girl. I thought she might be reluctant to write down her

address or cell phone number.”

Being a guy, I wouldn’t be troubled if my information got out there. “Th-thank you…Ayanokouji-kun. You really…saved me.”

“Nah, I didn’t really do anything. I just wrote down my address.

When they contact me about the repairs, I’ll get in touch with you right away, Sakura.”

Sakura nodded, looking glad. If that’s all it takes to please you,

then it actually makes me sorry for you.

“You really looked out for Sakura-san,” Kushida said.

“Well, you’re making it out to be bigger than it was. Honestly, I was only watching out for that rather weird clerk. I guess he gave the impression that he really, really loved girls.”

“Ha ha… That’s certainly true.”

Even Kushida appeared nonplussed. For someone like Sakura, though, who wasn’t accustomed to fawning male attention, I thought it was the right answer.

“Since you were with me today, Kushida-san, we completed our task without me having to talk at all. Thank you.”

If Sakura had faced that store clerk one-on-one, she probably

would’ve run away.

“Oh, no need to thank me. If you’re okay with my help, then I’m happy to lend a hand any time. Sakura-san, you really like your camera. Don’t you?”

“Yeah… I’ve liked cameras ever since I was little. My dad bought me one before I entered junior high, and I absolutely fell in love with it.

Or I suppose you could say that I just love taking pictures… I’m not

really well-informed when it comes to this stuff, though.”

“I think being knowledgeable and liking things are separate matters.

It’s wonderful to be so passionate about something.”

“Sakura, you usually take pictures of landscapes, right? Do you ever take pictures of people?”

“Huh?!”

Sakura stepped backwards, looking quite flustered. Did she find that question unpleasant? It’d seemed like an extremely natural question to ask. Like, did she just take pictures of landscapes or were they her specialty? Sakura shut her mouth, and her body stiffened.

“Th-that’s a secret.”

Well then. It sounded like she didn’t want to go into the details with me.

“W-well, it’s just… It’s embarrassing,” replied Sakura, her cheeks

reddening. She looked down as she spoke.

Although my imagination ran wild, I couldn’t let it show on my face. I

had to remain neutral.

“Oh hey, that reminds me. Sorry to ask, but since we’re here, is it okay for me to look around the store?”

“Was there something you wanted?”

It wasn’t so much that I wanted something, as there was something

on my mind.

“The two of you can wander around, if you want.” “I think we’ll come in, too. Right?” Kushida said.

“S-sure. After all, I feel bad you both had to come with me… Besides, I do have the time.”

I didn’t exactly want them there, but apparently they’d decided to come along. Kushida and Sakura. When I watched the two of them walk side by side, I realized that they’d managed to grow closer in just one day. Kushida, I wish you’d share a little of your people skills with me.

Since they seemed to be having girl talk, I decided to leave them alone and went to look for what I wanted. I went into my phone’s contacts. Back when Ike had involved me in the whole gambling thing, I’d exchanged contact information with some people. Even though I still only had a few names in my address book, it was clear that my number of friends was increasing. I selected the name “Sotomura (Professor)” and called him.

“Hey Professor, do you have a minute?”

“Hmm? It’s rare to get a call from you, Ayanokouji. What do you need?”

Sotomura’s nickname was Professor, which undoubtedly made it sound like he was rather intelligent. In reality, he was just a huge otaku. He gathered information daily, comprehensively spanning a wide variety of topics, from dating sims to anime and manga.

“Professor, did you buy your laptop computer from the school, with your points?”

“Yes, I most certainly did. It cost 80,000 points. But what of it?” “I’m looking for something.”

I explained the gist of what I wanted. Although many similar products sat on the displays in front of me, I didn’t know which one to choose. It probably would’ve been faster to just ask the store

clerk, but I didn’t want to for various reasons.

“Ayanokouji. Though I am considerably well-versed in that particular

electronic field…”

“It’s okay if you don’t know.”

“Please wait,” said the Professor as I was about to end the call. “I do

know. In fact, I have two of them at my parents’ home.”

“No way! You’ve had them since junior high? Isn’t that bad?”

“Do not misunderstand me. They were only for experimentation, for

the sake of my language studies.”

“Well, could I trouble you to help me set it up?”

“Puh, leave it to me. I’m sure that someday I will have a favor to ask of you in return.”

Clearly, he was the man for the job. When entering a subject that I

didn’t understand, it was important to find an expert.

“Sorry to keep you waiting,” I said to the girls. “Have you already finished?”

“Today was just a preliminary inspection. I don’t have enough points to buy anything.”

Suddenly, Kushida froze while glancing over at Sakura’s profile. “Sakura-san, have we met somewhere before?” Kushida murmured. “Huh? N-no. I don’t think so, but…”

“Sorry. It’s just that when I look at you, I get this feeling that we’ve met before, Sakura-san. Hey, weird question, but could you try removing your glasses?”

“Huh?! B-but that’s… My eyesight is so bad, I wouldn’t be able to see a thing…”

Sakura put her hand up and waved it, signaling to Kushida that she did not want to.

“We should hang out together again, Sakura-san. Not just with me, but with my other friends, too.”

“That’s…”

Sakura looked like she wanted to say something, but she couldn’t find her way to the end of the thought. She said nothing. Kushida seemed to feel that it would make trouble if she pressed the issue, so she kept quiet. Or rather, she didn’t ask anything else. In the end, we returned to where we’d started.

“Umm… Thank you for everything today. You really helped me out,”

Sakura said.

“It’s okay, it’s okay. There’s no need to thank us. Actually, Sakura- san, you can talk to us normally, you know? If it’s okay with you.

We’re in the same grade. It sounds a little weird when you speak so formally to us.”

It was certainly true that Sakura’s speech patterns weren’t exactly what you would expect from a peer. But changing that might be easier said than done for her; she was visibly perplexed.

“I didn’t mean to sound that way. I wasn’t aware of it… I sound weird?”

“It’s not really a bad thing! I mean, I’d be happy if you didn’t speak so formally to me, though.”

“Ah… O-okay… I…I got it. I’ll do my best.”

I thought that Sakura would have rejected the notion, but she managed to squeak out a few words of agreement. It seemed like she wanted to accept Kushida’s proposal. Perhaps this was how people became friends, little by little. Even Sakura, who seemed to have hardly interacted with another person ever, was steadily growing closer to Kushida.

“It’s okay, though. You don’t need to force yourself.”

“I-It’s okay. I…will.”

Sakura kept her eyes down as she spoke. Partway through her sentence she began to sputter, and her words faded so much that we couldn’t hear them. However, it didn’t seem as though she felt uncomfortable. Kushida smiled in satisfaction, but didn’t try to

coerce anything more from Sakura. That specific distance felt exactly right for where they were at the moment. If you tried to strong-arm people who weren’t good at socializing, it could backfire. Rather than be grateful, they’d probably find it off-putting. Rather than draw them nearer, being overbearing would probably end up pushing them further away.

“Well then, we’ll see you at school. Okay?”

With that, Kushida thought the conversation had ended. However,

rather unexpectedly, Sakura didn’t move. “Well!”

Sakura spoke in a small voice, but looked straight at us. When our gazes met, however, she immediately averted her eyes.

“About Sudou-kun… As my way of saying thanks for today, I… Well, that might be a little misleading, but if you like…”

She paused, and started again more clearly.

“I-I may be able to help you with Sudou-kun’s case.”

In her own words, Sakura told us that she was the witness. Kushida and I exchanged glances.

“So, does that mean that you saw Sudou-kun fight with those other

students?”

“Yes. I saw everything. It was a total coincidence, though… I’m sure you don’t believe me.”

“No, we do. Why did you decide to tell us now, though? I mean, I’m happy you did, but I don’t want you to force yourself. You don’t have to do this just because you’re grateful, you know?”

Sakura couldn’t seem to get her words out. She lightly shook her head. The fact that Sakura had waited until now to talk proved that she was more concerned about Sudou’s case than anything else. I wondered if getting a foothold on friendship made her want to cooperate.

“Is that really true? You’re not forcing yourself?” Kushida asked. She

must’ve been thinking the same thing as me.

Sakura nodded sheepishly, as if she could feel that we were worrying about it.

“It’s okay… I think that if I kept quiet, I’d probably come to regret it. I…don’t want to cause trouble for my classmates. But, if I spoke up as a witness, then…I would definitely stand out. I hated the thought of that… I’m sorry.”

While Sakura apologized to us repeatedly, full of remorse, she also promised Kushida that she would testify.

“Thank you, Sakura-san. I’m sure Sudou-kun will be really happy.”

Kushida took Sakura’s hand, and Sakura looked at Kushida’s smiling face. I wondered if a new friendship had been born right here, right now. At any rate, we had Sudou’s witness.

4.11

That night, I clutched my phone tightly. My hand was sweating so

much you’d think the air conditioning in my room wasn’t working.

“We got closer to Sakura, but… Is it really okay for me to say that?” “Yesterday I would’ve said no, but our chances are better today.

Ahh… I think we still have a way to go yet, though. You’re making yourself all frazzled.”

I’d guessed that Sakura would probably grow closer to Kushida, specifically. But I had a feeling that Sakura had erected a rather high wall between herself and other people. Unless we could get her to climb over that wall, calling on Sakura as a witness would be difficult.

“That reminds me, why did you try to get Sakura to take off her glasses?” I asked Kushida.

“Well, I mean… I thought saying so might be kind of cruel, but… I just feel like her glasses don’t really suit her, for some reason. It’s like she doesn’t really need them, or something. I don’t understand it myself. I also thought that we’d met somewhere before, but that was probably just a misunderstanding.”

“Well, perhaps that was just your imagination, Kushida? I mean, Sakura is pretty far from being stylish, right? I mean, so am I, but she even chooses clothes with plain colors so she stands out as little as possible.”

“Yeah, there’s that. I don’t think that she’s concerned with fashion or

anything. But I wonder why?”

Back when her camera fell and Sakura had bent down to pick it up, I’d seen her glasses from the side. Something about them had struck me as being out of place.

“I felt like there’s something a little off, like she’s wearing fake glasses.”

“Huh? Sakura-san wears fake glasses? But she said that her eyesight

was really bad…”

“Although real glasses and fake ones appear similar at first glance, there is definitely a difference between them. Real glasses show some distortion on the lenses. There wasn’t any distortion on Sakura’s glasses. At first, I thought that there was definitely some link between those fake glasses and Sakura’s fashion sense, but then I found myself puzzled over something she said today.”

“Appearing fashionable with glasses? Hmm, that doesn’t sound normal.”

If she wanted to liven up her appearance with decorative items, she should have bought other clothes or make-up.

“Or maybe it’s to cover up some kind of complex? Like how someone thinks they’ll appear intelligent by putting on glasses?”

“There’s that. Wearing glasses does make you look smart.”

“In Sakura’s case, though, she probably wears them because she doesn’t want others to see her true self. She’s always slouching and won’t look people in the eye. I doubt it’s simply because she dislikes other people.”

I felt like there was some hidden way to get over that wall. Something.

“I knew it was right to bring you along, Ayanokouji-kun. I feel like

you’re very observant of people.”

I was a little embarrassed. The best part of interacting with Kushida was how we were able to connect and converse naturally. People who didn’t know how to get closer to another person would bungle and compromise until they got to a point where they just gave up.

“So then—”

Just as I was about to continue the conversation with Kushida, my phone buzzed. I checked the caller ID without Kushida knowing. If it were Ike or Yamauchi, I’d call them back later. But if it were Horikita…I’d have to think about it. That’s what I was prepared for, but…

The name on the screen read “Sakura.”

“I’m sorry, Kushida. Can I call you back in a bit?” “Oh, sure. Sorry for talking so long.”

Though there was a heavy regret in those parting words, I didn’t have the time to address it. I answered Sakura’s call before it cut out. After pressing the call button, I waited several seconds, but the line remained silent.

“Um… Hello. This is Sakura…” “This is Ayanokouji.”

Even though we’d exchanged contact information, I found it a little

strange that she’d called me. Even when I formally exchanged

contact information with someone, nine times out of ten I wouldn’t

get a call.

“Thank you for coming out with me today,” Sakura said.

“Oh, no problem. It wasn’t really a big deal. Don’t worry about it. You shouldn’t fuss so much and keep thanking me.”

“Okay…”

Silence followed, but it wasn’t Sakura’s fault. I didn’t really know how to respond to her. I thought of how Kushida took the lead in our conversation. Still, I had to do my best on this call.

“What’s the matter?”

“Umm…”

More silence. What should I do? Please, Hirata. Teach me.

“What were you…thinking about?”

Sakura asked me a rather ambiguous question. What was I thinking about? She likely didn’t want to know my thoughts on how cute Kushida looked in casual clothing, or how exceptionally interesting I found Sakura herself. I had no idea what Sakura was expecting.

“Did something happen?” I asked.

Something about the emotion behind her words made me uneasy, so I cast a verbal line to see if I could reel in anything else. However, the line tautened and snapped as soon as it touched water.

“I’m sorry, it’s nothing. Goodnight.”

Sakura ended the call without even giving me a chance to reply. No

“please wait” or “hold on.” I thought about calling her back, but I couldn’t understand why I’d failed in our conversation. I thought

about it carefully while washing my face. I’d spent about 10 minutes talking with Kushida, but during that time, there weren’t any signs that Sakura had tried to call or left messages.

Perhaps Sakura had planned on calling Kushida after talking to me? I had a hard time imagining that. Normally when you had to call two people, the first person you’d call would be the one you knew better. In this case, I was the only person she could call and see, so I was the reasonable choice. Just to be sure though, I went ahead and sent a chat message to Kushida and asked her if she had heard from Sakura.

A few minutes later, Kushida confirmed that she hadn’t heard back from Sakura. Just as I’d thought.

“I was asked to invite you as well, Ayanokouji-kun. Did you talk to Sakura-san?”

When I’d met Kushida that morning, she’d said something like that. Because Sakura got really nervous when she was alone with Kushida, I had thought she’d just invited someone else who was suitable for the task, but…was it not like that? Aside from a crazy dream like it being love at first sight, was there some reason I had been chosen to go? I remembered something I’d felt while talking with Sakura today.

Sakura and Kushida struck up most of the conversations, but I’d broached a topic. Namely, the clerk at the store who’d helped with the repair order. I hadn’t brought up anything else. What if that’s

what she’d meant when she asked, “What were you thinking about?”

All of the puzzle pieces I’d collected were too small, and too few. I was able to conjure up several scenarios and speculations, but they all lacked credibility. I didn’t have enough information to come to a definitive decision.

Normally I’d have thought that asking around at school would be fine, but in Sakura’s case, things wouldn’t be so simple. If I just went up and started talking to Sakura, who normally didn’t talk to anyone, it would make her stand out. She wouldn’t like that. I prayed that the anxieties I’d developed over the phone call were unfounded, and decided to get ready for bed.

Written on August 15, 2022