Y1 Vol 2 Chapter 5| Each and Every Prediction

It was just one day until the meeting between Sudou and Class C.

With Horikita’s cooperation and Sakura’s testimony, as well as Kushida and Hirata’s actions, our entire class felt spirited and

courageous. You could say that we were united. However, it was obvious that we lacked firm, irrefutable evidence, and it would still be difficult to prove Sudou’s innocence. Our deliberation would decide the outcome.

“Man, it really is hot today…”

I never thought about global warming more than when I exited a building with working air conditioning. Considering I’d likely suffer every day until August, my spirits remained low. The moment I left my dorm’s lobby, hot and humid air assaulted me. While I endured the pain of my burning skin, I walked the path to school lined with green, leafy trees.

Something was different today, though. There was something on the bulletin board by the stairway’s landing, a little in front of the shoe cubbies. A paper on the board said that they were looking for students with information related to Sudou and Class C.

“This—”

Clearly, somebody was trying to help. It was sincerely appreciated, because we hadn’t even considered taking such measures ourselves. This mystery person was action-oriented. Furthermore, while the sign itself might have appeared a weak effort, the author also wrote that they’d be willing to give points to helpful informants. In that case, even apathetic students would pay attention.

As I scanned the message, I was quite impressed…

“Good morning, Ayanokouji-kun!” Ichinose called out from behind

me.

She must have just arrived.

“I saw the paper on the bulletin board. Did you post it, Ichinose?”

Ichinose joined me in looking at the board. She appeared deeply interested.

“Hmm. I see, I see. So there’s this method, too.” “Huh? This wasn’t you?”

I’d thought that surely this was her strategy.

“This was probably— Ah, he’s here! Good morning, Kanzaki-kun.”

Ichinose raised her hand up and signaled to a lone male student. The boy noticed Ichinose, and approached us with quiet steps.

“Did you put this up, Kanzaki-kun?”

“Yeah. I made and posted it on Friday. Is there something wrong?”

“Oh, no. Not at all. My friend here just wanted to know who did it. Ah, I’ll introduce you two. Kanzaki-kun from Class B, this is Ayanokouji-kun from Class D.”

“Nice to meet you, Kanzaki.”

His demeanor was stiff, but he appeared to be a serious student. He was tall and slender. A pretty boy, but in a different way from Hirata. I took his outstretched hand.

“How’s it going, Kanzaki-kun? Did you get anything reliable?” “Unfortunately, I haven’t received any useful information.” “I see. Well, how about we look at the bulletin board.”

“At the bulletin board? Did you put up another poster?”

Ichinose wore a thin smile, indicating it was something else.

“Have you ever checked out the school homepage? There’s a message board. I requested that people come forward with information there. I said that if there anyone witnessed a violent incident at our school, I’d like to hear about it.”

After she said that, Ichinose showed us her phone’s screen. It showed a message seeking out witnesses, as well as a count for the number of people who’d viewed it. The displayed number was still only in the dozens, but it was much more efficient than asking people directly. Also, the message posted to the homepage offered compensation to witnesses and people with helpful information.

“Ah, regarding the stuff about points, don’t worry. We just decided to do that on our own. Besides, it will probably be difficult for us to get new information now. Ah!”

“What’s the matter?”

“It looks like I just got two messages regarding the post. There might be a little information.”

Ichinose checked her phone for confirmation. After she’d read the

messages, a slight smile crept onto her face.

“Just like this.”

She showed me her phone so I could read the message for myself.

“It looks like one of the boys from Class C, Ishizaki-kun, was a bad seed in junior high. He was good at fighting, and terrorized the locals. A kid from his hometown probably leaked this.”

“Interesting,” Kanzaki muttered, also reading the message.

Like Kanzaki, I found the information quite interesting. Everyone had assumed that the three students Sudou fought were normal kids.

However, if they were troublemakers too, then that was a different story. As for the other two, being basketball players meant they probably had good motor skills. Yet Sudou had turned the tables, and beat them all without once being hit himself. I couldn’t help but feel there was something unnatural about that.

“Kanzaki-kun, what do you think?”

“Perhaps they let Sudou beat them up on purpose. If the three of them had wanted to set a trap for Sudou, the story would make perfect sense. The connection seems natural.”

“Yeah, I think so too. I knew you’d figure it out, Kanzaki-kun. Great work. If we can verify this information, then we could be one step closer to proving Sudou-kun’s innocence. But what we have is still pretty weak, isn’t it?”

“Yeah. Even if we managed to convince people with this new

evidence, we’re really only halfway there. The fact that it was such a

one-sided fight definitely puts a lot of pressure on us.”

Sudou probably wouldn’t want to shoulder some of the guilt alongside the others. Neither party wanted to be liable for this situation. If we got testimony from Class D, though, our chances would probably be 6 to 4, or maybe 7 to 3.

“No, we can’t say anything yet.” I concealed Sakura’s name since we

were still negotiating.

“I see. Is there some reason why?”

Since the whole Sakura situation was rather delicate, I avoided explaining in detail. After all, she might decide to quit after all, even on the day of the decision. I wanted to have an escape route.

“There’ve been no reports of another witness, just as I thought. It

would’ve been interesting if one had stepped forward, but I suppose it was tough. We’re out of time. Our only choice now is to wait for more information from either the Internet or the bulletin board,

right?”

“Is it okay to wait that long, though? I mean, those Class C guys might zero in on us.”

“It’ll be okay. Besides, both Class C and Class A originally targeted us, anyway.”

“Ichinose is right. Besides, even if you wanted to stick by the rules,

everyone is acting out of bounds. I think it’s okay to ask for forgiveness this time.”

Ichinose and Kanzaki made it pretty clear that they wanted to be fair and square when competing against the school and the other students.

“Anyway, we’ll have to transfer points over to anyone who provides us with information. Ah, but what if someone does so anonymously? In that case, how would we transfer over the points?”

“We can tell you, if you’d like. Do you want me to?” I said. “Do you know something, Ayanokouji-kun?”

“I just remembered something when I was messing around on my phone. Do you know the person’s number?”

“It’s a toll-free number, but I remember it.”

Ichinose drew close and pointed at her phone. Being this near to somebody usually made people feel defenseless. I’d thought that a girl wouldn’t want a man to be in her intimate space…and I didn’t know exactly what it was, but Ichinose had a pleasant scent about her.

“Here, open up the points remittance screen. You should see your ID

number in the upper left corner.”

As I instructed her, my heart rate began to skyrocket.

“Umm…”

Ichinose’s fingers were nimble. She pressed the button to open up her own points page. After the page loaded, it was displayed on the screen.

“Yep, yep. There it is. So what should I do now that I can see the ID

number?”

“From your ID number, you can issue a temporary token key. If you

open that, and send the key, you should get a request for payment.” “I see. Thank you!”

“Okay. Let’s go, Ayanokouji-kun.” “Sure.”

Ichinose started walking.

” “

Just then, for a split second, I had seen something on Ichinose’s phone. The fragment of screen I’d noticed had burned itself into my mind and wouldn’t go away. What should I do? Was what I’d seen even possible? Ichinose might prove a huge obstacle for Horikita in her quest to reach Class A.

5.1

“Good morning! Ayanokouji-kun!”

“O-oh, hey. Good morning.” Kushida greeted me looking incredibly

bright and energetic. I was taken aback by her radiance.

“Thanks for yesterday. You really saved me.”

Well, I suppose her dazzling face made me happy, but something else was bothering me that I couldn’t remember. I’d gone on an outing for the first time, and it had been with girls like Kushida and Sakura.

Ah, it was almost too much. Well, I guess for the time being, things were great…until Ike and Yamauchi got to school, that was. If they heard about this, they’d definitely hold a serious grudge over it.

“Let’s hang out again sometime, okay?” Kushida said. “S-sure.”

Even if she’d only said it to be polite, my heart thumped a little

faster. Well, that wasn’t a bad thing.

“Did you spend your day off with Kushida-san?” an icy voice asked. “Yeah, I did,” I answered quietly. “Kushida wanted Sakura’s

cooperation, so she asked for my help. I didn’t have much of a

choice.” “I see.”

“Was there something wrong with…that?”

I looked over at my neighbor, and saw an expression on Horikita’s face that I’d never glimpsed before.

“Wh-what’s the matter?” I asked. “What do you mean?”

“Well, you just had this really weird look on your face.”

“Really? I didn’t intend to make any kind of face. I should look the

same as I always do. However, I will say that I admire how freely

you’ve been moving. When I ask you for help, you’re often reluctant, but when Kushida-san asks you, you accept readily. I was calmly and discretely analyzing the difference between us.”

She did not remotely look calm and discreet.

Just then, someone lightly tapped my shoulder, and told me to go over and see Kushida. Horikita wore a tremendously puzzled expression as I went over to the hallway, where Kushida briefly peeked into the classroom.

“I have a feeling I just saw something really incredible!” she said.

Did Kushida understand the meaning behind Horikita’s expression?

She seemed both delighted and surprised.

“Something incredible? That’s creepy… I think that Horikita was a little angry.”

“That’s not it. I think she feels alienated and lonely over not being invited.”

“Horikita? No way!”

“She probably doesn’t know how she feels… I’m sure she’s probably noticed how much fun it is to spend time with friends and talk to them, though. That’s a good thing, a good thing.”

What a bizarre thought. Horikita didn’t have a good opinion of Kushida. Even so, it was strange for Kushida to say that Horikita felt alienated over not being invited.

“Perhaps you’re realizing something fundamental, Ayanokouji-kun. Horikita-san is upset that you didn’t invite her to come along.”

No, no, that couldn’t be it… I mean, Horikita was a girl who loved solitude, after all. She wasn’t supposed to enjoy going out, certainly not with a guy like me.

In that moment, I had come to a rather baffling realization.

5.2

After homeroom finished for the day, we asked Chabashira-sensei to see us in the faculty room. We did this out of consideration for Sakura. Because I hadn’t been able to discuss it with her fully over the phone yesterday, I waited towards the back of the room for an opportune moment. Kushida was probably going to be able to tell Chabashira-sensei everything that had happened.

“A witness? For Sudou’s case?”

“Yes. Sakura-san saw everything from start to finish.”

Kushida called for Sakura, who stood quietly behind her. She stepped forward, looking slightly nervous.

“So according to Kushida, you saw the fight between Sudou and the

others.”

“Yes. I saw it.”

It’s not that our teacher didn’t believe us, but I felt ill at ease before her skeptical gaze. Sakura, true to her word, slowly gave us the truth. This was the first time that we had heard the full story. None of us, not even the teacher, spoke a single word or even moved until the very end.

“I understand what you’re said. However, I can’t simply accept what you’re telling me,” Chabashira-sensei said.

I would have thought that, as Class D’s homeroom teacher, she

would’ve been delighted to discover a witness from Class D. Kushida,

betrayed by this turn of events, was flustered.

“Wh-What do you mean, sensei?” she asked.

“Sakura, why are you testifying now? When I reported the issue during homeroom, you didn’t step forward. It’s not as though you were absent that day, right?”

“Well… That’s… I’m just not good at talking with other people…”

“You’re not good at talking with other people, and yet you’ve decided to testify now? Isn’t that strange?”

Chabashira-sensei started hounding Sakura, as was typical. If Sakura had stepped forward back when she’d first called for witnesses, though, I wondered if Chabashira-sensei would honestly have welcomed it.

“Sensei, Sakura-san is…”

“I’m speaking to Sakura right now.” Chabashira-sensei cut Kushida off sharply.

“Umm… Well, it’s because our…class is in trouble now, and…I thought if…if I testify, I can help…”

Sakura hunched and shrank away, much like a frog cornered by a snake. As our teacher, Chabashira-sensei should have understood what kind of girl Sakura was. She should have realized that merely by speaking up, Sakura had made great progress.

“I see. So, then you mustered up the courage to come forward?” “Yes…”

“I see. Well if you are a witness as you say, naturally I’m obligated to relay that information to the school. However, while the school will listen to the whole story, Sudou may not be declared innocent.”

“Wh-what do you mean?”

“Are you really the witness, Sakura? That’s what I’m getting at. I think that it may be a lie made up by Class D because the students are afraid of receiving a negative evaluation.”

“Chabashira-sensei, that’s a horrible thing to say!”

“Horrible? If you really had witnessed an event, you should have come forward on the first day. It’s natural to feel suspicious when someone steps up just in the nick of time. Considering that the

witness is from Class D, it’s doubly suspicious. Any reasonable person would have doubts. Don’t you think so? Conveniently, a student from the same class happened to be in an infrequently visited building and happened to witness the entire event?”

Chabashira-sensei had plenty of good points. The fact that Sakura had witnessed the incident was too convenient. People would obviously have their doubts. If I were a third party, I’d probably think Class D had made this story up. Judged impartially, it was only natural to consider this eyewitness testimony weak.

“However, a witness is a witness. I cannot determine if she’s lying, so for the time being, I will accept her testimony. So, Sakura, I will ask for you to join us on the day of deliberation. I understand that you do not like to associate with others, but can you do this?”

Chabashira-sensei’s words shook Sakura, as if she were testing the girl. Sure enough, Sakura, upon imagining this, turned pale and anguished.

“If you don’t like it, you do have the option to withdraw. Also, we’ll tell Sudou that he will be participating in the deliberation.”

“Are you okay? Sakura-san?”

“Y-yeah…” Sakura’s reply lacked confidence. In addition to having to give her testimony in front of others, she was also going to have to sit alone with Sudou. It seemed a little cruel to force her…

“Do you mind if we participate as well, sensei?”

Of course, it was Kushida who spoke up, most likely to support Sakura.

“If Sudou himself consents, I will approve it. However, we cannot allow that many people. Only a maximum of two may sit in on the deliberation. Please think on that carefully.”

We left the faculty room, though it felt more like we were being kicked out. Afterward, we returned to the classroom and explained everything to Horikita.

“Well, naturally that was the result. It’s to be expected.”

“The situation might be different now, but it’s not that huge of a difference, right? I mean, the fact that our witness came from Class D does kind of mean we’re out of luck, though.”

I didn’t know if it would comfort Horikita, but I said it to stick up for Sakura. If we hadn’t convinced our eyewitness to come forward, it probably would’ve been impossible to prove Sudou’s innocence.

“Now then, Kushida-san. It would be best for Ayanokouji-kun and me to sit in on the deliberation. I fully understand you supporting

Sakura-san. However, if it comes to a debate, then that’s a different

story.”

“That’s… Yes, you’re right. I don’t think I’d be particularly useful in a debate.”

I considered saying something about how it would be perfect if Kushida and Horikita worked together, but thought better of it. It was precisely because they might not make the best team that I’d been appointed as a substitute, I supposed.

“Sakura-san, do you mind?” “N-no, it’s fine.”

She didn’t seem to like this at all, but she also didn’t have much

choice right now.

5.3

With that settled, we reconvened in the classroom during our lunch to discuss strategy. Horikita had been reluctant to participate, but thanks to Kushida’s persuasive tears, she’d agreed to join. As for the person of interest himself, even if Sudou said he didn’t care and compromised, he could easily become obstinate in critical situations. While I thought about how he might become difficult at any time, I kept silent.

“Can we really prove Sudou’s innocence tomorrow?” Kushida asked.

“Of course we will. It’s obvious that I was set up. I’m definitely innocent. Right?” Sudou said.

They simultaneously looked to Horikita for her opinion. Horikita simply ate her bread in silence, either because she was unable to answer or because she found discussion to be annoying.

“Hey, Horikita. What do you think?” Sudou, clearly unable to read the room, drew nearer to Horikita.

“Don’t bring your dirty face so close to me.”

“I-It’s not dirty.” Sudou was shaking. Maybe he was hurt by that

unexpected jab?

“I can’t help but be mystified by your belief that your innocence can

easily be proven. Although you’ve gained evidence that works in your favor, you’re still in a very disadvantageous situation.”

“But we have a witness who knows I’m innocent, and the other guys were real jerks in the past. That should be enough, right? Those guys are bad news.” Sudou, completely blind to his own shortcomings, arrogantly crossed his legs and nodded in agreement with himself.

“Ah, hey, wait a second! I’m still reading that! Give it back!”

“It’s fine, isn’t it? I paid for half of it, anyway. I’ll give it back later.”

Ike and Yamauchi scrambled over a weekly manga magazine. I guess they’d been quietly reading manga while we had our important meeting. Considering their bitter tears over having absolutely no points at all, I found it kind of amazing that they still managed to buy a magazine each week.

“Huh?” Kushida, seated beside me as the Ike/Yamauchi spectacle unfolded, appeared deep in thought. “Perhaps…” she murmured.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“Ah, nothing. It’s nothing. There was just something on my mind.” I didn’t understand what she was getting at, but Kushida pulled out

her phone and began looking up something.

5.4

After returning to my dorm, I lay in my bed and absentmindedly watched TV. My mind was kind of a blank, as I let myself relax. Then, I got an email from Sakura.

“If I was absent from school tomorrow, what do you think would happen?”

“What do you mean?”

Even though my reply had been short, I waited a while for her response.

“What are you doing right now?”

That was her answer. I replied that I was in my room by myself.

“If it’s okay with you, could we meet right now? I’m in room 1106.”

“If you could keep this a secret from everyone… That would really help me out.”

I received two messages from her in quick succession. It was more like texting than email. What exactly was she getting at, I wondered? I thought about asking her why, but then stopped typing. If I bungled this, she might keep messaging me, but it would probably get more difficult to pay her a visit. I had the gut feeling that it would be better for us to meet directly, so I started rewriting my response.

“I’ll head over there in about five minutes.”

After sending my reply, I reached for my coat, but stopped. Since we were in the same dorm, going out with just a jersey on was probably fine. I headed towards Sakura’s room. The upper level…in other words, where the girls lived. This was my first time setting foot there. The school didn’t necessarily prohibit boys from entering. Even if someone saw me going there, it wouldn’t be a problem. In fact, the popular guys often headed up there to hang out and have fun.

Although we were allowed a relative degree of freedom, entry was prohibited after 8:00 PM. Naturally, going to the girls’ floor in the middle of the night was prohibited.

I pushed the elevator’s call button. When the doors slid open,

Horikita was standing there. What horrible timing.

” “

For some reason, I was completely unable to move. I just stood there. Was this good luck or bad? In the case of bumping into an acquaintance, I had to wonder.

“What? You’re not getting on?” she asked.

While she stared at me, she tried to close the doors.

“Ah, yeah. I’m getting on…”

While I felt like this was probably a bad idea, I hopped in and pushed the button for the eleventh floor. I saw that the button for the

thirteenth floor was also lit. That must’ve been Horikita’s floor. For some reason, I got the strange feeling that she was watching me from behind.

“You’re…heading home late tonight, huh?” I asked, without looking at her. The silence was unbearable.

“I was out shopping. Did you not see?”

I heard the rustle of vinyl bags.

“That reminds me. You cook for yourself, don’t you?”

It felt like the elevator was going more slowly than usual. We were still only on the sixth floor. Being stealthily invited over by a girl was a stressful situation. My unease meant I had to say something.

“This isn’t the tenth floor. Is that okay?”

Why in the world was she asking me about the tenth floor? What was her intention?

“For someone who dislikes trouble, you’ve been extremely proactive

in involving yourself with this case. Or perhaps you have ulterior

motives?” Horikita was clearly probing.

“If you have something to say, why not come out and say it?” “You’re going to meet with Sakura-san, aren’t you?” she asked.

“No, I’m not.” I immediately denied it, but wondered if Horikita could

see the truth.

“Well. I suppose where you go is none of my business.”

In that case, don’t ask me about it! Well, that was what I wanted to say, but I spoke the words only in my head.

After a long time, we finally arrived at the eleventh floor in complete silence. I stepped off the elevator, trying to remain calm. I didn’t look back.

“Pardon me for intruding…” I said at Sakura’s door. “Come on in.” She greeted me wearing casual clothes. “So. What did you need from me?”

“Umm… Ayanokouji-kun, do you remember what you said before? You said I wasn’t obligated to step forward, even though I was the witness. You also said it was meaningless to force me to testify.”

That was back when I’d met Sakura by accident. I gave a slight nod. “I…just don’t have any self-confidence after all.”

“Is this about speaking in front of other people?”

“I’ve been terrible at it for so long… I’m not good at speaking in front of others. If I’m asked to testify in front of the teachers tomorrow, I don’t think I’ll have the confidence to answer properly. So…”

“So you’re considering taking the day off from school?”

Sakura gave a slight nod before collapsing and laying her forehead onto the table.

“Ahhhhh. Jeez, why am I so completely useless?!” She shrank into herself, clearly ashamed. It was the first time I’d seen her like that.

“Sakura, you’re surprisingly high-strung, huh?”

I felt the gap between the person I saw now and her usual behavior, and was a little taken aback. Or rather, I was shocked.

“Huh?!”

Sakura, realizing she’d let me see this side of her, blushed and shook her head. “N-no! I’m not like that at all.”

So she could be animated. I’d had no idea, considering her usually

depressed look.

“Hey, can I ask you just one thing? Why did you call me?” Kushida or somebody else would’ve been friendlier, easier to talk to.

“That’s because I’m not afraid of your eyes, Ayanokouji-kun…”

Huh? What did that mean? I certainly didn’t have scary eyes or

anything, but…

“If you’re looking for someone to talk to, Kushida is a much warmer, more outgoing person. She has a lot of friends, too.”

“Oh, no. I don’t mean the eyes that you’ve seen me with. I mean the pupils, way back in the eyes… If you look someone deep in their eyes, you’ll understand. I’m sorry, I can’t really explain it well.”

So, was it like insight into a person’s true self? When someone looked at me, would they see that I was insubstantial and lack ambition? This was kind of complicated.

“Well, it’s just… When I see a man…even if he seems kind…I suddenly get afraid.”

Perhaps that came with a woman’s point of view. It might have been natural for her to be uncomfortable around men, but Sakura had an abnormally terrified expression. Speaking of which, I recalled the day we’d gone to get her digital camera repaired…

It was certainly true that men and women generally differed in physical strength and stamina. However, some girls were overly mindful of that fact, and lived in abnormal degrees of fear. I

wondered if something had happened in Sakura’s past to cause her

intense fear of men.

Why the heck was I arbitrarily analyzing her? I felt a little disgusted with myself, as usual.

“I know it would be good to simply say what it is I saw. But no matter

what I do, I can’t seem to imagine it… How can I speak that assertively?”

She was so worried that she’d asked a student like me for help. She’d probably been agonizing over it for the past few days. Even with a helping hand from me, she appeared to be suffering.

“If you want to quit, would you like me to talk?” “You’re not going to get mad?”

“I told you before, didn’t I? If we forced you to testify, it would be meaningless.”

Sakura was an invaluable witness, but her evidence wasn’t automatically reliable. She might not have any influence on the outcome. However, if she were absent, Sudou might get angry. I should probably try to coax her into participating, but I had no idea how to do it.

“Umm… What do you think would be best to do, Ayanokouji-kun?” “I think you should do what you want, Sakura.”

She probably wanted more concrete guidance, but unfortunately this was the best I could do. I wasn’t an outstanding person, and certainly not qualified to guide anyone. I wasn’t suited for that job.

“I see. Well, I suppose it’s probably bothersome to ask you for help like that… I’m just no good. It’s probably why I can’t even make a single friend myself.”

Sakura shrugged and smiled bitterly. She seemed disgusted with herself.

“Sakura, I think you’ll be able to make friends with someone in no time.”

“I’m sorry. I don’t know how to best say what I feel… You seem to get along really well with a lot of people, Ayanokouji-kun. I’m a bit envious.”

“No, I don’t.”

Apparently Sakura believed that I had many friends and lots of fun.

“It might be presumptuous for me to say this, but I think that we’re like friends. We are,” I said.

Sakura and I stared at each other.

“We’re friends? Really?” she whispered.

“If you don’t think so, Sakura, then that’s different.”

“No… It does make me happy…to hear you say that,” replied Sakura,

while still looking somewhat perplexed.

I began to realize that if people didn’t talk face to face, they wouldn’t get a feel for what the other person was really like. I was surprised by the discovery of Sakura’s unexpected side. If she let this part of her out more, she’d probably make friends right away. Honestly, even a minor adjustment would do wonders. But for her, I supposed making even a minor adjustment would be difficult. What might seem trivial to one person could be quite difficult for another, depending on their issues.

“Thank you for coming to see me today,” Sakura said. “It’s no big deal. You can call me anytime.”

If I could ease Sakura’s burdens even slightly, then it was worth it. I’d leave it up to Sakura herself to decide whether or not she’d come to school tomorrow. Thinking that our conversation was over, I stood and started to leave, but Sakura looked like she still wasn’t feeling well.

“Do you have any plans for tonight? For right now?” I asked.

“Right now? No, I don’t have anything planned. Or rather, I didn’t make any plans.”

Hmm. Even I felt a little sad when I heard someone say that.

“Well, why not go out with me for a while? If it’s not a bother, of course.”

I decided to be daring and invite Sakura. She stiffened, almost like she had forgotten the time and realized she had to be somewhere important. She looked like she couldn’t understand what I’d meant. Then, without any hesitation, she shot up out of her seat.

“Huh?!” As she leapt up, she banged her knees against the table and

doubled over in agony. Her glasses flew off her face.

“That looked like it really hurt just now. Are you okay?” I asked.

“I…I’m perfectly fine!”

She wasn’t very convincing; the pain was so intense that she was on the verge of tears. I picked up her glasses. Just as I’d thought, there were no lenses. I handed her glasses back. Her hands trembled when she took them, and she thanked me. Sakura wrestled with her pain for about a minute before she finally calmed down and quieted.

“Wh-where do you want to go?” she asked.

She was on her guard, but I didn’t understand why. Maybe she believed I was some kind of pick-up artist trying to smooth talk her. If that were the case, it was bad.

“I haven’t really decided. Just kind of felt like wandering around, you know? Ah, but I hate being in hot places…”

Sakura responded cautiously, as if worried about what to say. “If you don’t mind…there is someplace I’d like to go. Is that all right?”

“Huh? Yeah, sure, I don’t mind. Please lead the way.”

I didn’t really care about the location; I just wanted to get a change of scenery and talk. If Sakura had a place she preferred, then everything would be going according to plan.

5.5

Sakura took me to the place she wanted to visit. I must admit, I hadn’t expected the location. We went to a part of the building used specifically for club activities, located away from the school. She guided me around a building that had a pronounced Japanese flair, one that hosted things like the archery club and the tea ceremony club. From a short distance away, we could hear the sound of arrows being fired.

“You’re not doing any club activities, right?”

“I’m not, but I’ve wanted to come here at least once. I’d stand out if I came by myself, so…”

If you hung around here on your own, people would think you were interested in joining their club. However, if a couple came together, then people would just assume they were on a date.

“Why did you ask me to come out, anyway?” she asked.

“Hmm? Why? It’s kind of hard to answer when you ask me like that.” I was worried about how everything would go tomorrow. But even if I said something, I’d still feel uneasy. “I asked you because I thought it would be good to get a change of scenery, I suppose. I mean, I’m kind of a loner, so I usually just stay in my room. I have a tendency to hang back all the time.”

Sakura looked somewhat unconvinced by my roundabout answer.

“Ayanokouji-kun, don’t you have lots of friends?” “I do? Like who?”

“Horikita-san, Kushida-san, Ike-kun, Sudou-kun, Yamauchi-kun…” She

listed their names while counting them on her fingers.

“Well, they’re just for show. No, you’re right, a friend is a friend. I guess what I mean is, I feel like that’s all we are. I feel like I’m still kind of standing outside the group and looking in. Do you think we

get all along, Sakura?”

Sakura nodded without hesitation. If she said so, perhaps it was true.

I guess I just didn’t understand myself.

“I don’t know how to make friends at all. I’m envious. You were the first person to call me a friend.”

“What about Kushida? Wasn’t she the first person who invited you

out?”

Sheepishly, Sakura gave a self-deprecating smile. “Yeah. I should apologize to Kushida-san sometime. She was the first one to call and invite me out, because I didn’t have the courage… I actually wanted to hang out with her. I just couldn’t answer her, no matter what I did. I’m so pathetic.”

If you were good at making conversation with other people, you’d have an easier time of it. I was once again impressed by Horikita’s ability to make fun of Ike and Yamauchi while also dealing naturally with complete strangers. That was a splendid talent.

“Can I give you one bit of advice for tomorrow?”

I didn’t intend to give her empty encouragement like “Do your best.”

Sakura should face tomorrow entirely as herself.

“For Sudou. For Kushida. For your classmates. Throw all of those

thoughts away.”

“Huh? Throw them…all away?”

“When you testify tomorrow, speak for yourself. As someone who tells the truth of what she saw, as a witness.”

It was good for a self-reliant person to try doing something for other people. However, Sakura still couldn’t properly take care of herself. She had a tendency to wrap herself up and endure pain, sorrow, and suffering alone. If you weren’t happy yourself, then you couldn’t

make others happy, either.

“Tell the truth for your own sake. Do that, and Sudou will be saved.

That’s enough.”

I didn’t know how effective my advice would be. It probably was meaningless blather, actually. But perhaps it was right to encourage Sakura to speak for herself. Maybe I did it because I understood how it felt to be wanted. Because I needed someone to know I understood the pain and anguish of battling loneliness.

“Thank you, Ayanokouji-kun.”

Hopefully, my words had found purchase somewhere in Sakura’s

heart.

5.6

That night, under Kushida’s orders, everyone except for Sudou gathered in my room. Apparently Kushida had even invited Horikita, but it seemed she didn’t want to join us.

“So. Has there been any progress, Kushida-chan?”

“There has been progress, yes, but I’ve also noticed something incredible. Ayanokouji-kun, can I borrow your computer for a minute?”

“Sure,” I answered with a nod. Kushida went to my desktop

computer, booted it up, and opened the Internet browser.

“Okay. Have a look at this!”

Kushida accessed what appeared to be somebody’s blog. It was rather elaborate, too. Unlike some normal person’s website, it had the sheen and polish of a fully-fledged business.

“Wait, is that a picture of Shizuku?” “Shizuku?”

“She’s a gravure idol. She was just featured in a young men’s

magazine.”

There were many pictures of her. I certainly couldn’t complain about

her looks or proportions.

“Do you recognize her?” Kushida asked. “Am I supposed to recognize her?” “Look closely.”

Kushida clicked on a picture of Shizuku’s face. Ike took a long hard look at her, and then…

“She’s cute.”

“No, not that! This is Sakura-san, isn’t it?” “Kushida-chan, who are you talking about?” “Sakura-san, from our class.”

“Huh? No way, no way. Sakura-san? No, no, no, there’s no way that’s true.” Ike laughed, but Yamauchi’s expression stiffened.

“Hey, Ike… You know, when I actually get a good look at her, I…think she probably does look a little like Sakura.”

“But she’s not wearing glasses, right? And her hair is different.” “Those are simplistic ways to identify somebody…”

Although I hadn’t made the connection at first, I realized that this was definitely Sakura. It seemed like Ike still couldn’t believe it, though. He was still scrambling in confusion while looking at the screen.

“So Sakura is Shizuku? That’s a lie, right? I mean, sure, there’s a slight resemblance, but they’re different people. I mean, look how crazy bright and happy Shizuku is. Right? Come on, Ayanokouji.”

All of the pictures she’d uploaded were cute, so she seemed accustomed to taking selfies. However, I glimpsed one piece of incontrovertible evidence that proved Sakura and the idol Shizuku were one and the same.

“No, Kushida is definitely right. That’s Sakura. Here.”

I pointed to one of the pictures.

“You can barely see it, but the door to her dorm room is in this

picture.”

“It looks like the same as the doors in our dorm.”

In other words, it was likely she’d taken that picture at school.

“Okay, so Sakura is Shizuku after all… I still don’t understand the point.”

“Good job noticing this, Kushida.” I meant it. Even though there was a clear resemblance, I wouldn’t have noticed without Kushida drawing our attention to it.”

“When I saw Ike-kun reading that weekly magazine, I remembered something. I had the feeling I’d seen Sakura somewhere before,” Kushida said.

“Oh my god, there’s a gravure idol in our class! I’m so turned on!” Ike exclaimed enthusiastically, unable to hide his excitement. After such an undignified reaction, I imagined Kushida would want to pull away from him. Although she was kind to an almost reckless degree, I

couldn’t sense that kind of acceptance from her now.

“But just when Shizuku started to become really popular, she suddenly disappeared.”

She lived a double life as an idol and a quiet, inconspicuous student at our school. Why had she wanted to create another life? It was like a coin with two very different sides.

As 9:00 PM approached, it was just about time for our group to split up for the night. I saw them all off at my door.

“Kushida, I still have something I want to talk to you about. Can you

stick around for a little bit?”

“Hmm? Something to talk about? Sure.”

“Hey, Ayanokouji! What do you need to talk to her about, huh?! Don’t tell me it’s…”

I dismissed Ike’s fears with a wave of my hand. But even after I said we were just going to talk about Sakura, Ike got really close and

whispered into my ear that he didn’t believe me. “If you do confess

your feelings to her, I won’t forgive you. You know that, right?”

You don’t need to be so paranoid…

Like heck I was going to do that. Besides, even if I did, I’d get

destroyed in one second.

“Seriously. If you’re that worried about it, then wait in the hallway. We’ll be done in a minute.”

Ike immediately agreed to wait. He struck a pose and stretched himself to his full height, parking himself in the hallway right outside my door. After the guys had left, I started to tell Kushida about the

conversation I’d had with Sakura that day. “Oh yeah. So, about Sakura-san?”

“I was surprised when I found out that she was an idol, but I also kind

of understood it. I wonder if that’s her real personality?”

Though I’d avoided just stating this idea outright, I also thought that Sakura had a hidden side, just like Kushida. However, Kushida, who had a different understanding of the facts, had come to an entirely different conclusion.

“I think that…most likely, Sakura-san would say that her idol self is actually her false face. Well, I guess saying that it’s false isn’t right, either. I think that she’s creating another personality with makeup.”

“Makeup… So in other words, it’s a persona?”

“Yeah. I think with the right pretenses in place, Sakura-san could

even make herself smile in front of people.”

Kushida sounded rather persuasive. There was something true about her words. But at that moment, I began to think about what Kushida had been trying to tell me during our last phone call.

“Hey. Back when we were talking on the phone, what was it you wanted to tell me?”

Kushida’s shoulders twitched slightly in response. It was like she

hadn’t remembered it until just now.

“I’ll tell you later. Right now, our priority is to resolve this case. Besides, it’s a personal request.”

“A personal request?”

I found her wording enticing, but it seemed like Kushida needed help with something. I didn’t really stand out in any way. I couldn’t provide something that Kushida lacked. She could study, and she had ambition.

“I’m sorry. If I told you now, it’d just be a bother.” She smiled bitterly

and clasped her hands together in apology.

“Well, if things with Sudou turn out okay, could you tell me then?” “Yes, that would be fine.”

She turned and grabbed the door handle. However, she suddenly stopped, and remained perfectly still for a short while. Looking at her back, I had no idea what kind of expression she wore.

“Kushida?”

Something seemed a little off. After I said her name, Kushida turned and closed the distance between us. She stood on tiptoe, her heels lifting off the ground as she put her hand on my chest and brought her mouth close to my ear.

“If you listen to my request, Ayanokouji-kun…I’ll give you my most precious possession.”

It was like the whisperings of a witch. As if a sweet, yet potentially deadly fragrance had taken hold of my heart. I couldn’t tell whether Kushida’s smile was genuine or bitter as she whispered in my ear.

The only thing that I knew for certain was that Kushida was no angel. As far as she was concerned, I didn’t know how to feel. Most people had different sides to them, but in her case it was more pronounced, as if another person lived inside of her. This Kushida was just kind of creepy.

I couldn’t tell at all what her game was, what she was thinking or what she wanted to do. I couldn’t even tell where the girl called

Kushida Kikyou had gone. The change was so stark that I even found myself wondering if she had a split personality. The gap was that huge.

When she drew away again, I saw that Kushida had returned to being the girl with the gentle smile. When she opened the door, she called to Ike, who had been waiting impatiently outside. Not even the faintest trace of that frightening Kushida remained.

5.7

After everyone left, I sat in front of my computer and looked at Sakura Airi’s – I mean, the gravure idol Shizuku’s – blog. As I read through the past entries, I saw that she had started blogging about two years ago. Precisely around the time that Sakura started working as a gravure idol. Her hopes and aspirations for the future were spelled out in writing. I didn’t see anything that especially stuck out, no red flags. I checked out other idol blogs just for reference, but they seemed similar.

I had to wonder, how would it have felt for a second-year junior high student to debut in the entertainment world? During one year, she’d updated the blog almost every single day. She wrote about what happened that day and her thoughts. She also responded to almost every single comment from her fans. But, just as I’d expected, she stopped replying after being accepted to this school.

She had strictly adhered to the rule about contacting anyone outside the school. Although she wasn’t really the direct center of attention, Sakura seemed more popular than I had imagined. She had over 5000 followers on Twitter. Many of them were fans that wanted her to return to doing gravure magazines really soon, or asked if she had any plans to appear on television. Among those many comments, a post from three months ago snagged my attention.

“Do you believe in fate? I do. I believe we will be together forever.”

It that had been the only message, it would’ve been the delusional fantasy of a fan. But there was more every day, and it escalated quickly.

“I can always feel you close to me.” “You were even cuter today, huh?”

“Did you notice when our eyes met? I noticed.”

If Sakura saw this, those words would probably frighten her. It was almost as if the poster wanted to be physically close to Shizuku so he could whisper these words into her ear. Were they just delusions?

Within this heavily restricted school, only a very limited number of people could encounter Sakura.

Students, teachers…or anyone who did business with the school. I flashed on a memory of the man who worked at the campus electronic store. Then, a post from last Sunday caused my hair to stand on end. I had a crushing realization.

“Look, God is real after all.”

Sakura had bought a digital camera after she enrolled in school. Of course, she’d probably disguised herself that day, just like any celebrity would. But while a disguise like that would make sense for her to use with fans, that clerk had recognized who Sakura was. Of course, there were only a few ways that they could have contact at that point.

However, after Sakura’s camera broke, he saw her. Since she loved it so, she had to fix it. Given our circumstances it was nearly impossible for someone in Class D to buy a new one. However, because she took it in for repair, there was the possibility that she’d encounter the store clerk.

She’d been hesitant to go get her camera repaired because of the clerk. The clerk, on the other hand, had been in incredibly high spirits. After all, here was his chance to get his favorite idol’s real name and phone number on the form she had to fill out. It also might explain why she’d called me that evening and asked some rather significant questions.

When I thought about it, the answer seemed obvious. I combed through the comments, searching for more he might have written.

“It’s so mean for you to ignore me! Or perhaps you just didn’t notice me?”

“What are you doing now? I want to meet you, I want to meet you, I want to meet you!”

Frightening comments were posted one after another. Of course, other fans had simply been disgusted by these comments, but it was different for Sakura. I wondered if knowing that he was so close pushed her to the point of almost unimaginable terror? But Sakura had concealed that from us, and now she was desperately trying to fight Class C for us as a witness. She was probably hesitant to leave her dorm, considering how much this man’s existence terrified her.

If they were on the same campus, her fear wasn’t surprising. However, there was hardly anything we could do, no plan we could implement to solve the issue of this stalker by tomorrow. In the end, the only option was to wait on an SOS from the girl in question.

Written on August 15, 2022