Y1 Vol 3 Chapter 6 | False Teamwork

While I was sleeping, I could hear girls’ voices from outside the tent.

They sounded like they were in a bad mood.

“Hey, boys. Can you all gather around?”The voice sounded rough, like she’d meant to say, “Hurry and wake already!” I’d just gotten to sleep at dawn, so I rose slowly and rubbed my eyes.

“What the hell? God, I’m so goddamn tired…” An irritated Sudouappeared from the tent and looked around.

“What’s wrong?” Hirata asked.

“Ah, Hirata-kun. I’m sorry, but can you please wake all of the boys?It’s serious,” said Shinohara, sounding apologetic.

Whether she was flustered or angry, the issue didn’t seem to be hersalone. A little further away, the girls glared at us.

“I understand. I think if I shout, they’ll come.”Within two minutes, the boys came out of the tent rubbing their sleepy eyes. When the half-asleep boys looked around, they inferred that this situation was especially alarming. The girls all looked unusually scared.

“What’s going on? Why did you wake us up so early?”“Sorry, Hirata-kun. This doesn’t involve you, but…we’ve gathered everyone to confirm something.”Shinohara gave everyone except Hirata a look of complete contempt.

“Well, this morning…Karuizawa-san’s underwear went missing. Doyou know what this means?” “U-underwear?”Even Hirata, usually calm and collected, appeared visibly shaken. Speaking of Karuizawa, she was missing, along with some of her friends.

“Karuizawa-san is crying inside the tent right now. Kushida-san and others are comforting her right now, but…” Shinohara looked over to the girls’ tent.

“Huh? Huh? What? Why are you glaring at us over her underwearbeing missing?”“Isn’t that obvious? Someone went through her bag in the middle of the night and stole them. Our luggage was outside the tent, so if someone wanted to steal something, they easily could have!”The boys, still in a state of drowsiness, all exchanged looks.

“No, no, no, no! Huh?! Huh?!”Ike, in a complete panic, looked back and forth between the boys and girls. One of the boys who’d been observing all this grumbled calmly.

“Come to think of it, Ike, you were pretty late getting back from the toilet yesterday. You took a really long time.”“No, no, no! That was just, well…I was struggling because it was dark!”“Is that so? You stole Karuizawa’s underwear, didn’t you?” “Y-you’re wrong! I didn’t do it!”The boys started blaming one another for this particularly nasty crime.

“Anyway. This is a huge problem, don’t you agree? It’s impossible forus to camp alongside a bunch of underwear thieves,” said Shinohara, her arms crossed. She looked as though she was going to lose her temper.

“Hirata-kun, can you find the culprit?”“Well, there’s no evidence that the boys stole it. Maybe Karuizawa lost it.”“Yeah, that’s right! We have nothing to do with this!” The boysshouted behind Hirata, proclaiming their innocence. “I don’t want to think there’s a criminal among us.” Doubting our classmates seemed wrong.

“I know that you’re not the culprit, Hirata-kun. But for the timebeing, let’s check the boys’ luggage.”Apparently, the girls weren’t changing their minds on this. They had decided that the culprit was on the boys’ side. Well, I supposed that it was only natural to think that.

“Huh? Don’t give us that crap. We don’t need to do that. Hirata, tellthem no.”“For now, we’ll try gathering the guys together and talking it out. Can you please give us a little time?” Hirata asked.

“If you say so, Hirata-kun. I understand. I’ll try talking to Karuizawa- san. But if the culprit can’t be found, we have some ideas.”With that, everyone scattered. Hirata quickly gathered all the boys in front of the tent.

“Let’s just ignore what the girls said. I hate being treated like a suspect. I’ll fight it!”Ike had managed to get some degree of trust from the girls on the first day, but apparently it wasn’t meant to last. It was only natural that the boys would be unhappy about being unjustly accused.

“Exactly. It’s not like we stole Karuizawa’s underwear or anything.”Yamauchi exchanged looks with everyone individually. It wasn’t as though Karuizawa wasn’t cute or anything, but since Karuizawa was Hirata’s girlfriend, it would’ve been a much better idea to go after Kushida and Sakura.

“I don’t doubt you guys, but we won’t solve the problem like this.”The girls, who were talking together in their cliques, looked like they were about to jump on us.

“It might be better to just accept the baggage inspection with dignity and prove your innocence.” With that, Hirata brought out his own bag.

“As miserable as this might be, I think you guys’ll have to do it. Are you okay with that?”“B-but…"”Of course. I’ll open up my luggage first,” Hirata said.

In order to get us all to move, he had no choice but to take action. Still, there probably wasn’t even one person here who thought Hirata was the culprit. Besides, you could say that stealing his own girlfriend’s underwear made no sense. However, if one person opened his luggage, then the rest of us couldn’t help but follow.

Inevitably, the students who wouldn’t open their bags would besuspected. Hirata’s bag naturally didn’t have the underwear. “Guess we don’t have any choice…“All the other boys began pulling bags out, one after another. Ike and Yamauchi hated it, but couldn’t resist being pulled in. The three of us were the last to go. I reluctantly headed into the tent, following after Ike and Yamauchi.

“Damn, I’m so pissed. Men are always being suspected of stuff. It’s way too unreasonable.” “Well, let’s prove our innocence.” Ike grabbed his bag, but suddenlyfroze.

“What’s wrong?” “Oh, nothing…“He turned his back on Hirata and the others, checked the inside of his bag, and frantically closed it back up.

“Kanji?”Ike’s face was pale, his body stiff. He was completely paralyzed. “Hey, come on. Let’s hurry and get going.”“What, you’re the one that really stole them?” said Yamauchi, half- jokingly.

“Th-that’s crazy talk!”Ike frantically denied it, shaking his head while clutching his bag. What a blatant overreaction. We weren’t dumb enough to believe nothing was wrong.

“Wait, don’t tell me…” Yamauchi said. “What? You don’t believe me?!”“No, I’m not saying that. Show me what’s in your bag.” “Ah, wait!”Yamauchi snatched Ike’s bag to check inside. When he did, he saw…white underwear, definitely not a man’s, balled up and hidden.

“Th-that’s not mine! Someone put it in my bag or something, somehow!”“Come on, don’t give me that excuse…“Yamauchi looked at Ike with pity.

“I’m telling you, I don’t know how it got there! Why would there be underwear in my bag?!”“This is shameful. Let’s go explain things to Hirata and the others.” “Huh?! But if I do that, they’ll make me out to be the culprit!” “There was no culprit…right?”Why was Yamauchi asking Ike? Ike had Karuizawa’s underwear in his bag, making Ike the culprit, right? Putting aside when and how he stole the underwear, the thief likely wouldn’t have hidden the stolen goods in his own bag. It was obvious that in the case of an uproar, a search for the criminal would begin. If Ike was really guilty, he should’ve been panicking when he was told to open his luggage. But I hadn’t seen the slightest hint of that.

I concluded that someone other than Ike was the culprit, and that person had planted evidence to frame Ike. Unless Ike really was that stupid and simple…but he couldn’t be, right?”Ayanokouji, you believe me, right? That I didn’t steal them?!”“Well, if I think calmly, no solid evidence suggests you’re the culprit, Ike.”“Ayanokouji!” he cried.

“It’s unlikely that Ike is the culprit. If he were, this would be far toostupid of him.”“Well, that sounds right, but… Wait, what? You mean someone put the underwear in Kanji’s bag?”“We just have to figure out who!” Ike cried. “Hey, hurry up!” one of the boys by Hirata cried.

“Wh-wh-wh-wh-what am I gonna do? I’m in serious trouble!” If the stolen item were found here, the girls would probably determine that Ike was the culprit.

“We have no choice but to hide them. Now.” “Hide them? Where?! We can’t hide them!”It was certainly true that we currently lacked storage options. If the girls saw us hurry to the toilet or into the tents, they’d become suspicious and demand to search that area. Most importantly, wewere spending too much time in here. It wouldn’t be surprising if wewere already under suspicion.

“We have no other choice. You have to put it in your pocket.”That was the only advice I could give. There wasn’t any time to hide the underwear anyplace else, and we didn’t want to draw attention to ourselves.

“I-I can’t do it! I-I’m already panicking!”Still, hiding the underwear was our only option.

“I’ll leave it to you, Ayanokouji!”Ike removed quickly thrust the balled-up underwear into my hands.

“Huh?”“If you think it’s better to hide them, you can do it. Right?” “Well, that’s…"”Hey, hurry up!” someone called. “I’m coming now!”Ike muttered, “I’m counting on you,” and scurried off. Yamauchi, notwanting to get dragged into it, quickly apologized and hurried away.

“Hey, are you serious?” I broke out into a cold sweat. The longer I stayed, the worse this would get. If I’d had a minute, I’d have hidden it someplace difficult to find, but there was no time. Impulsively, I stuffed the underwear into my back pocket, took my bag, and headed back to the others.

“Sorry, sorry. My bag got a little dirty, so I cleaned it off.”With that excuse, Ike tossed over his luggage.

“Search it if you gotta. I’m innocent. Right, Yamauchi?” “Y-yeah.”The two proudly placed their bags down. Hirata, after lightly declining the duty, inspected the inside of the bags. I also set my bag down and moved away. After everyone’s luggage had been inspected, Ike called over Shinohara, who was waiting with her arms crossed.

“We searched everyone’s bags. None of us did it.” “Really?”“Yeah. There’s no doubt. None of the boys are the culprit.” “Wait a moment.”Shinohara drew nearer and checked the inside of the tent. She seemed suspicious, as though we’d hidden something. Of course, there wasn’t anything there. After inspecting the two tents, Shinohara went back to the girls once again and discussed the situation.

“Hey, Hirata-kun. Could they have hidden it in their pockets? Ike-kun and Yamauchi-kun, and even Ayanokouji-kun were whispering a little earlier. It’s got me curious.”Of course we were being sneaky. The girls had demanded to check every nook and cranny.

“Jeez, enough is enough!” Ike cried.

The girls began to attack him.

“Wasn’t Ike-kun acting all suspicious earlier? Maybe he is hidingsomething after all?”“Huh?! I-I’m not hiding anything! Search me if you gotta!”He spread his arms wide as he proclaimed his innocence. Hey, Ike… If you tell them to do that, then…“Let’s search him. Hirata-kun, can you do it?”“Okay. If it convinces the girls, fine. However, if I don’t find anything, I want you to stop investigating the boys.”This was the worst possible outcome. While the girls watched Ike,Yamauchi, and me, the pat-down commenced. Of course, theywouldn’t find the underwear on either Ike or Yamauchi. They kept still throughout Hirata’s careful search, and he checked them thoroughly. Finally, it was my turn.

It was already too late to escape. Perhaps it was better that it wasme. No, that wasn’t true. There wasn’t anything I could do now. Hopefully Hirata might overlook it, even if there was only a one percent chance he would. I decided to be perfectly still, like a dead fish.

“I’m sorry. It’ll be over soon,” Hirata said.

Hirata, who didn’t doubt me whatsoever, slowly started to search me, starting with my upper body. Then, Hirata put his hand into my back pocket, where I’d stuffed the underwear.

It was all over, wasn’t it?I resigned myself. I felt Hirata’s hand touching the underwear. Well, I couldn’t be completely sure Hirata was touching was the underwear, but I suspected he was touching that rolled-up piece of cloth in my pocket. Hirata’s body stiffened, and he looked me in the eyes. After a brief glance, Hirata examined my jersey without taking the underwear out of my pocket. Finished, he turned back toward the girls.

“Ayanokouji-kun doesn’t have them either.”He walked toward Shinohara. Ike and Yamauchi exchanged shocked looks.

“Those three didn’t take them.”“That’s weird… I thought for sure it was one of them. But if you sayso, Hirata-kun…“If the overwhelmingly honest Hirata said something, Shinohara had no choice but to believe him.

“It should be fine once I tidy up the luggage. We can discuss it more after.”After the inspection had come to an end, I hurried back inside the tent. Hirata followed me.

“Hirata. Why didn’t you tell them?” I asked, straight out. “That was the underwear in your pocket, right?” “Yeah.”“Did you…take Karuizawa’s underwear, Ayanokouji-kun?” “No. I didn’t.”How would this fine young man respond to my denial?”I believe you. You’re not that kind of person. But why did you have them in your pocket?”There was no way I couldn’t tell him the truth after he said that he believed me. I told him they came from Ike’s bag. Hirata looked momentarily lost in thought.

“I see. So it definitely wasn’t you. But I don’t think Ike-kun or Yamauchi-kun did it, either. If they were the culprits, they probably wouldn’t put the underwear in their own bags. They would have hidden it in another place.”Hirata’s usual quick-wittedness had saved me. I didn’t need to go tothe bother of trying to explain.

“If it’s all right with you, may I hold onto the underwear?” he asked. “Sure, but…is that really all right?”Holding the underwear was exactly like holding the Joker in a deck of cards. They were both trouble to deal with.

“In the worst-case scenario, if I’m made out to be the culprit, I wouldtake the least amount of damage. I am her boyfriend, more or less.”After saying that, he took one of the vinyl toilet bags and put the underwear inside. I wondered if it would be painful for Karuizawa to know people were touching her underwear with their bare hands.

“But we did find out one piece of bad news here. If the underwear came out of Ike-kun’s bag, then there’s a high chance that the culprit is someone in our class.”“Yeah…“No matter how you looked at it, if a student from another class had been loitering around, we would’ve seen them. After exiting the tent, I scanned my surroundings. Our bags were individually wrapped in vinyl and placed in front of our tent. The girls’ tent was a few meters away, where Karuizawa and the others slept. Until this whole incident, the girls’ luggage had been piled up out front, unprotected, like ours. If you wanted to steal something, you easily could do so. I was easily able to rifle through Ibuki’s bag on the first day.

When had the underwear been stolen? Since there were no problems up until it was time to take a shower, the crime had happened sometime between eight o’clock last night and seven o’clock this morning. If that were the case, anyone in our class could have done it. However, I doubted that the crime had been carried out in the middle of the night. If the culprit were rifling through luggage with a flashlight, someone would have noticed.

In that case, it was very likely that the crime had been carried out around sunrise, after five o’clock in the morning. Even if I’d narrowed down the crime’s timeframe, it was still difficult to narrow down the list of culprits. What if I tried changing my perspective? SayKaruizawa stole her own underwear and hid it in Ike’s bag. But whatreason would she have for doing that?”I believe you’re not the culprit, Ayanokouji-kun. That’s why I saved you.”“O-oh. Thank you.”“But that’s not all I want to say. I want you to help me find the realculprit, Ayanokouji-kun.”Hirata took my hand as he made his request.

“You want me to find the culprit?”“I think people, both guys and girls, will be uneasy until the thief’s found. To be honest, it would probably be best if I found the culprit, but it looks like it’ll be difficult to get everyone together…” A class star like Hirata had certain restrictions.

“I don’t think it’ll be easy to find someone who would hide things in Ike’s bag.”Hirata should have known that finding the criminal would be difficult.

“Well, I’ll do what I can. Just don’t expect too much of me.”“Thank you! Thank you, Ayanokouji-kun!” said Hirata, almost hugging me and bowing his head deeply. I understood Hirata was thankful, but felt his reaction was a bit excessive. Perhaps the underwear theft was really bothering him, in particular. As a leader, he had to respond seriously to the crisis and try to find a resolution for the class.

“If you do happen to find the culprit, I want you to tell me first. I definitely do not want you to tell anyone else.”His ability to widen his eyes while making such a sincere appeal pretty much destroyed my ability to say no. He looked almost too calm. It was a little eerie.

“If that information becomes public knowledge, our class will suffer a huge blow. I want to avoid that. That’s why I want to find a peaceful method of settling things with the culprit. If it’s coming from me, I think that we’ll be able to resolve the issue through talking.”“So, in other words, you’re going to hide the truth?”“Hide it? That’s a poor choice of words, but there’s nothing I can do about it if people take it that way. Even if one of the guys turns out to the be the culprit, I think it’s better that the truth be concealed.”He focused on me. It was almost as if he meant to protect the culprit.

“I understand. I’ll report to you first. Is that good?” “Thank you. Well then, I’ll be getting back to work.”Upon exiting the tent, Hirata called out to the other students. I saw multiple silhouettes on the other side of the sheet begin to recede.

“Hirata Yousuke. Are you Class D’s hero?”There was one contradiction in Hirata’s story. Right after he said he believed in me, he immediately said the truth ought to be concealed even if the culprit was one of the guys. In other words, even if someone had the underwear, we’d hide it from the girls.

Hirata didn’t have complete trust in me. He probably assumed there was a high chance I was the culprit. That was only natural, of course. From an outsider’s perspective, I was the one holding the underwear, and I’d offered up Ike’s name as the culprit. Hirata assigned me, a potential suspect, the role of detective to offer me a lifeline. At the same time, he’d issued a warning not to commit the offense a second time.

Thinking this way, I was able to get a grasp on the story. I was certain that he just wanted to cover up the truth. I had also tentativelyconsidered that Hirata might be the culprit, but…well, I supposed wewould know soon enough.

6.1“Could everyone please gather around?”When I exited the tent, Hirata’s meeting had begun. I saw Karuizawa trembling with anger, her eyes puffy and red.

“We can’t trust the guys. It’s absolutely impossible for us to stay in the same place as them!”“But there would be problems if the guys and girls lived apart, don’t you think? The test is almost over. Because we’re all friends, we need to believe in and cooperate with one another.”“You might be right. But we can’t stand being in the same place as underwear thieves!”Karuizawa shook her head, dismissing the notion as impossible. If the victim said so, Hirata couldn’t really force her. Shinohara took a tree branch and drew a line.

“We think the culprit is a boy, so we’re drawing a dividing line between boys and girls. Boys are absolutely prohibited from entering our side.”Shinohara’s proposal was gender-based separation to an extreme.

“What the hell? You’re just arbitrarily treating us like criminals. Didn’t we let you check our bags and give us pat-downs?”“It might not have been hidden in a bag, though. Men are perverts. Anyway, don’t enter the girls’ territory until the culprit has been found. Go over there.”With that, she demanded that the boys move their tent. As expected, the guys were not convinced. Booing commenced.

“If you doubt us, then move your own tent. We’re not moving ours, and we’re not helping you, either.” “Ah, I see. Yeah, you only pretended to help out while you fished through our luggage.”“Oh, and you aren’t allowed to use the shower anymore. We’re not joking. We’re not about to let a perverted thief use it.”Our class unity had completely broken down.

“Heh. Can you guys even drive in the tent stakes?”Shinohara, feeling like the situation was taking a turn, looked to Hirata to save them.

“Hey, Hirata-kun. Can you help us, for Karuizawa-san’s sake?” “Okay. I’ll help. It might take some time, though. Is that okay?” “Thank you, Hirata-kun. Aren’t you glad, Karuizawa-san?” “Yeah, Hirata-kun is the only one we can trust.”Karuizawa, looking happy and a bit bashful, blushed.

“Heh. Hirata might even be the culprit.”“Huh? Hirata-kun is not the culprit. What a stupid thing to say. Whydon’t you go jump off a cliff?”“What?! Don’t give me that crap, Karuizawa. Just because he’s your boyfriend doesn’t mean he’s not the culprit!”Naturally, more and more complaints came from the guys, but their words fell on deaf ears. Everyone except for Hirata was a suspect, so there wasn’t anything to be done about it. We quickly reached an impasse, with Karuizawa and Shinohara in complete control.

“Wait a minute. I’d like to raise an objection—especially against you, Karuizawa-san.” Horikita spoke up, calmly and firmly opposing Karuizawa.

“What is it, Horikita-san? Are you not satisfied with what we’re saying?” “I don’t particularly mind dividing up the living areas for men and women. As long as the culprit hasn’t been found, it is certainly a good idea to keep our distance from the men, considering the likelihood that the culprit is among them. However, I don’t trust Hirata-kun. I cannot dismiss the possibility that he might be theunderwear thief. Also, I’m unconvinced that he should be excluded from the ban on men.”“Hirata-kun would never do such a thing. Can’t you at least understand that?”“That’s just your personal belief, isn’t it? Don’t force your way of thinking on me.”Karuizawa stepped closer to Horikita, looking like she didn’t approve of Horikita’s attitude.

“Hirata-kun is definitely not the culprit. You don’t even have friends, let alone a boyfriend. You probably wouldn’t understand.”“Don’t make me repeat myself. Nothing you can say will convinceme.” Despite provocation, Horikita was unperturbed, responding in adetached manner.

“Well, let me ask you something. Would you say there are no other guys as trustworthy as Hirata-kun? Or are there?”“I won’t speak impulsively. Simply put, I would be fine if you increased the number by one more guy. If you did, they’d be effective in watching each other’s backs.”“This isn’t a joke. My underwear was stolen, right? I’ve been humiliated! Don’t you understand? I don’t know what we’ll do when the culprit is found.”“Might this be happening due to your naïve handling of crisis management? Maybe there is an ulterior motive for stealing the underwear that we don’t yet understand.” “What the heck do you mean, crisis management?! We searched everyone’s bags. What’s naïve about that?!”“I don’t care that your underwear was stolen. That kind of thing happens every day, and there’s nothing you can really do about it. It’s likely someone here bears a grudge against you.”Horikita was considering the possibility that the culprit’s ultimategoal hadn’t been Karuizawa’s underwear. The culprit wanted to lash out at Karuizawa and deliberately humiliate her. Horikita was free to reason things out as she liked, but wasn’t airing that idea out in public in front of Karuizawa kind of a bad move? I suppose you could call socializing Horikita’s weak point. She was smart, but had difficulty relating to other people.

If Karuizawa were provoked in front of such a large crowd, she’dgrow more hurt and irritated. Then, her ire wouldn’t be directed atjust the boys, but probably at Horikita, too.

“Listen here, you!” Karuizawa looked like she was on the verge of losing her temper, until Hirata jumped out beside her in a dashing manner.

“Karuizawa-san, it would be great if we could have another guy here help me out. Is that okay?” He’d adopted the role of mediator once again.

“B-but…how can I trust anyone other than you, Hirata-kun?” “How about me?” asked Ike, raising his hand.

He’d just been fighting with Shinohara, and now he was raising hishand?”Wait. If it’s physical work, I’ll do it!” Sudou quickly raised his hand. “Wait. If you’re looking for the guy with the skills, then I’m yourman!” said Yamauchi.

No matter how heated their arguments with the girls, they couldn’thelp but want to get closer to them.

“S-stop joking around. We can’t just casually invite a pervert to help us. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of you were the culprit. Or do you think these guys are okay, Horikita-san?”“I agree with you. Considering how these three behave on a daily basis, they are completely untrustworthy. I’ve thought it over verycarefully, and I intend to choose someone who can’t be the culprit.” “Who? Is there someone other than Hirata-kun?”I regarded the male students. Was there any guy who could put her at ease, next to Hirata? Yukimura was brilliant, but had his share of disputes with the girls. Who could it be?”You. Ayanokouji-kun.”Huh? Why me? How me? My mouth fell open, and I stood there, flabbergasted.

“Ha ha ha! Don’t make me laugh. He’s your only friend, isn’t he? There’s absolutely no way I can trust such a gloomy, lecherous wallflower,” Karuizawa said.

I didn’t especially care what people thought about me, but it seemed like many had written me off as “that guy” or “a gloomy lecher.” Was this the pathetic fate that awaited a loner who couldn’t even make friends in his first semester of school?”If anything, I think Ayanokouji-kun is the culprit. He was acting allsneaky this morning, which was pretty suspicious.”Upon finding the underwear in Ike’s bag, I had been pretty inefficient and slow. Well, it was true that I’d had Karuizawa’s underwear in my hands at the time, which did make me pretty suspicious.

“It’s possible… Ayanokouji-kun was at the bonfire until late lastnight…” The girls’ doubts had intensified, and I had become their next target. Doubters began to appear from the boys’ side, too. Ike and Yamauchi feigned ignorance. Even if I stayed silent or tried to explain, the situation was going downhill. I opted to just keep silent. No matter how much the girls doubted me, Hirata was holding the evidence, and wouldn’t make me out to be the culprit. However, despite knowing the truth, being suspected certainly felt terrible.

“Ayanokouji-kun really is the underwear thief, isn’t he? He’s not making any excuses. He’s gazed at Karuizawa-san with lewd looks before, hasn’t he?”I heard a doubtful voice from the girls’ side. I couldn’t recall having looked at Karuizawa in a lewd manner before, but right now there wasn’t anything I could do to conveniently modify my memory.

“Um… I don’t think that A-Ayanokouji-kun would do such a thing…“I’d thought that all the girls doubted me and no one would back me, but someone rather unexpected spoke up for me. Sakura, cowering behind everyone with her back arched, fidgeted bashfully while she spoke out in my favor. I couldn’t have imagined a girl who disliked being noticed more than anything doing such a bold thing.

“Huh? What do you mean? Why would you say that?” answeredKaruizawa, seemingly upset about Sakura speaking out.

The sheepish, nervous Sakura was an easy target for such a popular girl. Sakura was definitely easier to confront than Horikita. In an instant, Karuizawa changed her target, lashing out at Sakura with her words as if sinking her teeth into prey.

“Huh? Why? How do you know that? How do you know Ayanokouji-kun isn’t the culprit?”“Well…that’s because…he isn’t that kind of person.” Sakura was backed into a corner, and barely managed to squeak out her fearful answer.

“Huh? I don’t understand what you mean. That’s not an answer.” Karuizawa folded her arms and laughed mockingly at Sakura. “Oh? Could it be that Sakura-san likes someone plain and invisible like Ayanokouji-kun?”Rather than saying it contemptuously, Karuizawa said it as though it were reasonable to assume. It would’ve been fine if Sakura had just shrugged off such remarks, but she took them on.

“Y-you’re wrong!” Sakura stumbled back in a panic, her facecompletely red.

“Whoa! That’s such an obvious reaction. It’s like what anelementary-schooler would do!”The other girls joined Karuizawa in laughing out loud.

“That’s…! W-well… Ah!”“Heh, isn’t that a good thing, though? You like him, and no one else does, right? Hey, will you confess to him here? I’ll even help you out!”“Ah!”Sakura, unable to bear this attention any longer, ran off into the forest. Kushida chased after her, wisely judging it dangerous for someone to go into the woods alone.

“What was that about? I was just teasing her. Jeez, that’s why she can’t make any friends.”Horikita, who had silently watched Karuizawa’s public excoriation of Sakura, sighed and brushed a hand through her hair, as if she’d observed something completely boring.

“Is it okay for us to continue the discussion now? This farce is a waste of time.” “Hey, Horikita-san. The way you talk is hurtful and annoying.”Karuizawa, losing interest in Sakura after she’d run away, made Horikita her target once again. “Okay, Horikita-san. Why are you so cold to me? Did something happen?”“Something? What ‘something’?”“Well, isn’t Hirata-kun so cool? He’s smart, too, and he’s even kind toa girl like you. Any normal girl would fall for him.”Giggling, Karuizawa tugged on Hirata’s arm and pulled him close, as ifto boast.

“I suppose I’d say that Ayanokouji-kun is… Well, as for his looks, he’s probably better than most other guys, but isn’t he awful in every other way? You’re probably just jealous. That’s what I think.”“You’re naïve, Karuizawa-san.” “It’s shameful to be so jealous.”I’d heard that the behavior of the collective could bring out an individual person’s position, personality, and psychological state. Some things that couldn’t be voiced in our daily lives at school had started to come to the surface here. This was especially true forHorikita, who was often alone. The other girls in our class treated her poorly, but she managed to get along because, well, she just didn’t care. Both parties ignored each other. Since everyone had to live together now, a clash of tempers was inevitable.

“It’s certainly true that Ayanokouji-kun has many unlikable qualities,”Horikita said.

Hey…I thought you would’ve backed me up…“But we need to ask if Hirata-kun can trust Ayanokouji-kun. It would only be awkward and uncomfortable if you endorsed someone meaningless to Hirata-kun. The truth is, there is not one thing that I trust about him, but I have no intention of inserting my own personal feelings into the matter. By process of elimination, I’ve concluded that he is the most trustworthy boy in the class. Or is another boy in our class preferable? If there is, I’d like for you to tell me.”After Horikita finished, Karuizawa glanced over at the boys as if to evaluate them, and sighed.

“Well, I suppose that out of all the guys here, he seems the most harmless. He has no presence.”I couldn’t help but agree with that point. The girl’s perception wastoo harsh.

“Well, isn’t that good? I have my doubts, but if Hirata-kun iscomfortable with this, it’ll do.”It seemed as though Karuizawa and the other girls had chosen me, but I wasn’t really convinced. Of course, I didn’t dare breathe a word of that. There’d only be another fight. Immediately after the discussion had ended, everyone started to disperse. Our class unity had broken down.

“I understand what everyone wants to say here, but I disagree with suspecting a classmate without evidence. There shouldn’t be anyone in our class who’d do such an awful thing,” said Hirata, unable to stay silent about our worsening situation.

“You’re way too kind, Hirata-kun. So you’re saying someone else stole it?”“I don’t know, but I don’t want to doubt my classmates.”The guys probably felt lousy being thought of as criminals by the girls.

“Hey. What if it was that girl, Ibuki?” someone muttered, shooting alook over at Ibuki, who sat at the far edge of the camp.

Instantly, everyone’s doubts were aimed at Ibuki. The collective hadfound new prey.

“Ibuki-chan is from Class C, right? It wouldn’t be strange if she were working to sabotage Class D. She could be using tricks to make us doubt each other.”“Knock it off, you guys. The boys are without a doubt the prime suspects.”Shinohara remained highly suspicious of the boys. She kept her distance, gesturing with her hands for us to leave.

“Until the culprit is found, we definitely can’t trust the boys. Right,Karuizawa-san?”“Naturally. One of the boys definitely did it.”And so it was decided that the guys and girls would live separately.

6.2I’ve said it again and again, but Hirata Yousuke is a really cool guy. I don’t even mean his appearance, but rather, his principled actions. He took the initiative to do troublesome things that ordinary people didn’t want to do, and he conducted himself respectfully even when responding to opponents. Hirata, in cooperation with the girls, was setting up their two tents further away from the guys. Meanwhile, I was tasked with carrying the stakes for the tent, driving them into the ground, and fixing them in place.

Although I had a hard time at first, what with the stakes slipping loose, I’d soon managed to secure the first tent. It was surprisingly easy. Currently, I was sweaty and pounding in the stakes for the second tent with a hammer. Hirata came around and helped by stretching the rope out and giving me a hand driving in the stakes.

“I’m sorry. I’ve put you in a tough spot again.”The other guys were outside, either playing around or fishing.

“Ah, it’s okay. You don’t have to apologize, Hirata. If anything, I’d feel bad to leave it all to you.”“Oh, it’s not all bad. I do it freely.” His sincere smile only enhancedhis coolness.

“This question might come off as weird, but why do you work so hard?”“Work so hard? I don’t intend to work all that hard. I just do what needs to be done.” Hirata said that in a way that wasn’t boastful. He was dripping with sweat, and wiped himself off with the towel he had hanging around his neck. “I think this special test isn’t actually some kind of battle, but more an important opportunity for us all to become closer. That’s why I want to cherish this moment. I’m glad to work hard for that.” I wondered how it was possible for an ordinary person to be so overflowing with good intentions without actually being two-faced. Wanting to be liked by others, wanting to be showered with attention—most people would think like that, but I didn’t get that impression from Hirata at all. I felt that he just wanted to be good.

“All right, we have about half left. Let’s hurry up and get this done.”The two of us went over to the other side to hammer in the remaining stakes.

“Hirata-kun! Come here for a minute!”Karuizawa and the other girls called Hirata’s name. In an instant they’d surrounded him, and began tugging on his arms.

“Hey, come on, come here!”“Ah, I still have work left to do, though,” he said.

“Isn’t it okay to just leave that to Ayanokouji-kun? Can’t you?” theysaid, yanking him forcefully.

Seeing Hirata’s troubled face, I let him go, even though I thought it’dbe a bother.

“I can do this. Go.”“No, but it’s hard for one person to¾” “It’s okay, there’s only a little left.”“S-sorry. Thank you. I’ll be right back.”Although I kind of got the impression the girls had an ulterior motive, they went ahead and pulled Hirata into the woods so fast he didn’tcatch my words. He probably wouldn’t be back right away. I watched Hirata walk off, then took the hammer in hand and hoped I’d get another chance to plumb his many mysteries. I continued my work, and managed to finish it all myself before Hirata returned.

“It took more time to finish it alone than I thought it would…“There were a lot of things that concerned me, like the tent’s orientation, the stake placement, and the tension of the rope. It was nearly ten o’clock. What should I do now? I couldn’t afford to make a mistake now that the situation was getting dicey. But first, I needed to refresh my physical strength. Working under the blazing sun was way too harsh.

“Do you have a minute?” Ibuki asked.

I’d thought I’d rest for a while, but I guess that wasn’t to be.

“What you were talking about this morning sounded really serious. The underwear incident, I mean. I mean, Class D isn’t a monolith.”“Well, I guess. Our various troubles are never-ending.”“Whatever the reason, stealing a girl’s underwear is unforgivable.”Right, but why was she talking to me about this? Yamauchi had taken Ibuki in, not me, and Kushida’s group was looking after her. We’d only spoken a little before, so there shouldn’t have been any particular reason for her to talk to me.

“Do you doubt me, by any chance?”Ibuki had apparently seen Shinohara and the others treat me like a criminal this morning.

“Are you the culprit?” she asked. “No, I’m not.”“Okay, that’s good. Well, it’s not like I had any evidence or anything. It looks like some of the girls trust you and that boy Hirata. I think the chance of you being a villain is low.”She’d probably come to that conclusion after hearing the exchangebetween Karuizawa and Horikita.

“Do you have any idea who the culprit is?”“Right now, no. I really don’t want to doubt the other guys.” “So who do you think did it?”She’d asked that question as if she were testing me. Ibuki glanced at me out of the corner of her eye when she said that. When I didn’t respond, Ibuki continued talking.

“If a boy isn’t the culprit, then they’ll suspect me—the stranger— next. I’m absolutely certain some people have already said something about me. After all, I could’ve just made it look like the guys stole the underwear. Right?”Ibuki laughed self-deprecatingly, perhaps because she was fully aware she was already a suspect. In response to that, I spoke impulsively.

“I think I trust you, at the very least. I doubt you’re the culprit.”I’d answered Ibuki without hesitation. She looked a bit surprised, like she wanted to verify what I said was true. When our eyes met, she looked away.

“Thank you. I didn’t think you would say something like that.” “I just gave you an honest answer.”I was able to understand Ibuki just by looking into her eyes.

I concluded that Ibuki had stolen the underwear from Karuizawa’s bag and hidden it in Ike’s luggage.

6.3It was the end of the special test’s fifth day, and Class D was depressed. It was like we were holding an all-night vigil over a dead body. A whole day had passed with everyone jumping at shadows. Everyone was suspicious, and no one knew who the culprit was.

Despite the oppressive atmosphere, it was my turn to get the firegoing. As I watched the fire’s condition, I occasionally tossed in some branches. It was monotonous, easy work. We had other problems, though.

“Hey, Ayanokouji-kun! Didn’t we tell you to move the tent properly?” “I moved it like I was told.”“It needs to be more to the left. Otherwise we’re too near the guys.” “Okay.”The girls made unreasonable requests of me, and I had to reluctantly accept. The girls seemed resentful.

“It must be really tough, being forced to do routine chores,” Horikitasaid.

“That’s rich, coming from you. This wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t had recommended me unnecessarily.”“There was no other way. Hirata-kun can’t be trusted, and I needed insurance.”“You’re the only one in class who doesn’t trust Hirata. Life’s betterwhen you stop believing that all people are two-faced.” “I suppose that’s true. I’m certainly not two-faced.”That was an understatement. Horikita lived her life completely true to herself. She threw my criticism back at me rather skillfully.

“However, most create a distinction between their public persona and how they really are on the inside. You do it, too. I do not trust anyone because good intentions and hypocrisy are two sides of the same coin.”I doubted her words were solely aimed at Hirata. She seemed to refer to Kushida as well.

“At any rate, you seem to trust Hirata-kun very much,” she said.

“Yeah. Well, I can count on him, at the very least. He’s really reliable.”“Count on him? Can you say that he’s had a positive effect on the class just by being around?”Horikita must have had something on her mind, judging by her snappish words. She probably thought I was holding ontoinformation she didn’t have. I answered her with an audacious smile.

“Well. Hirata is a man of many talents. He helps when we can’t bringguys and girls together during a dispute. Don’t you think that he’s working hard to bring students together when no one else can?”“It’s certainly impressive that he’s able to take on such a role without being sullen about it. However, without good results, the action is meaningless. Depending on the situation, such actions might even lead to the worst-case scenario. Let me ask you something. Do you know how many points Class D has now?”“Well, it seems like there were some unexpected expenditures. I can’t give an exact number.”“Exactly. Trustworthy Hirata-kun has kept his mouth shut about it.” “What do you mean?”“Come with me.” I wondered what in the world she wanted to show me so badly that she’d leave the fire unattended. As I wondered where she was taking me, I noticed we were at the front entrance of the girls’ tent. Horikita opened the main panel and shoved me inside.

“This is…“Unlike the boys’ tent, which was Spartan-like in its lack of comfort, the girls’ tent was completely different. It was spacious, with a floor mat on the ground so that they wouldn’t have to sleep on the hard earth. There were several pillows inflated with air. On top of that was a battery-powered cordless fan.

“The tent on the other side has the exact same things in it, too. A total of twelve points.”“I thought the girls were putting up with the heat unusually well. Sothis is how you’re getting through it.”They hadn’t sacrificed anything from the very start. They’d simplybought whatever they needed.

“Karuizawa-san and the others asked for these.”Apparently, they’d secretly indulged themselves quite well. “I only found out after they’d already ordered everything. It’sdifficult to do anything when the rules say anyone may buy an itemand spend points.”Just like how Kouenji had withdrawn so early in the test.

“Karuizawa-san reported this to Hirata-kun, so he definitely knew about it. But you didn’t know, nor did he inform anyone else. I think he absolutely should have shared this information.”Horikita had her arms crossed. She did have a point, but I doubted Hirata had stayed quiet out of malice. Maybe he’d just wanted to avoid unnecessary confusion? If Karuizawa had reported properly to Hirata, then the amount could have been evaluated.

“I understand what you mean, but there’s nothing I can really say about it. We can’t get spent points back, and there aren’t many days left before the test ends. Karuizawa and the others probably won’t spend any more points,” I said.

I’d thought she’d be angered by such a short, blunt response, but Horikita seemed to have anticipated my words. She promptly ignored me and kept talking.

“If things stay as they are and nothing happens, people will probablystay quiet. But things could get bad if the case of the stolenunderwear isn’t resolved. If the culprit is nearby, he or she might be trying to hinder us. That’s why I want to find the culprit as soon as possible.”“So, you want me to work with you?”“Yes. Now that there’s a divide between us and the boys, there are many things I can’t do by myself.”The guys and girls were in the midst of a cold war, cut off from obtaining new information.

“Understood. I don’t know if I’ll be useful, but I’ll help.”Horikita seemed confused by my frank answer.

“I’m trying to understand you… Do you have some other intention?”“It’s better for you to just accept favors in a straightforward way. As a guy, I’m rather upset that the guys are being treated like thieves.

That alone should be sufficient motivation. We’re united in a common goal.”Earlier, Hirata had asked me to help him, too.

“Well, whatever. It’s settled then.”The culprit wasn’t stupid. It wasn’t likely they would show their truecolors while suspicions ran high. Horikita probably thought that things would turn out all right. Any more disturbances during this test would probably start affecting our points as well.

About the culprit, though… Well, Ibuki would most likely take action again. No, she would definitely take action. She hadn’t yet reached her goal.

“You have such a serious look on your face. Do you really hate beingtreated like a criminal that much?”“Our class is all messed up because of this. It’s a shame, because we were doing really well.”“Our cooperation was a complete coincidence. Class D didn’t really have any sense of teamwork to begin with. It’s ending rather badly, though, especially because of the broken trust between the guys and girls. Of course it would’ve been better to stay united until the end of the test.”“I wonder what the culprit’s goal is, whoever that may be. Did they intend to steal Karuizawa’s underwear, or did they want to throw our teamwork out the window? I feel like there’s a hidden agenda.”When I said the words “hidden agenda,” Horikita crossed her arms.

After considering it, she shook her head.

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves… Sorry, but I’m going back into the tent.” Horikita turned away, sweeping her hair aside. Her breathing was shallow.

“Hey Horikita, don’t you think it’s about time you confessed?” “Confessed? Confessed what?”Although Horikita pretended to be calm, she was sweaty. Enough was enough.

“Your health has gone rapidly downhill since the test started.” She’d looked ill even before we started traveling, but it hadn’t been that noticeable. Due to Horikita’s loner personality, she’d likely planned keep to her room and avoid socializing.

“Not really any more than usual.” “Liar.”I’d caught Horikita in a lie, and extended my hand to touch her. Feeling her forehead, it was clear she had a fever. Horikita tried to escape, but her movements were dull. I was easily able to stop her.

“When…did you notice?”“On the deck of the ship, when I asked you what you’d been doing.” “Yeah, and I told you I’d been reading in my room.”“You were really sick then, so you were actually sleeping, right?” “And on what evidence do you base that conclusion?”“When you joined us on deck, your bangs were all disheveled. Proof you’d been lying on your side. Also, it was incredibly hot on the boat, but you seemed like you were cold. Even now, you’re wearing long sleeves, and you’re zipped all the way up. Even an elementary school student could figure it out”Horikita, who usually would have responded with strong words, instead fell silent.

“If you could apply that sharp wit toward reaching Class A, you’d geta little more recognition.”“I definitely don’t plan to do that. Anyway, do you intend to hide your condition?”It was pretty clear that she had a fever, close to 38°C. Still, she was hiding it for a pretty simple reason. If you reported illness, the class would be hit with a bigger penalty. The test’s timing was rotten luck on her part.

“I just need to hang in there for another few days. If I give up now, it’ll all be for nothing. Goodnight.”So she intended to soldier through to the bitter end. She had an iron will.

6.4I felt something strange on my cheek, warm and stiff. The warmth instantly grossed me out. I tried to get stretch my neck and move my face away, but I couldn’t move. Someone’s arm was holding me tightly in place.

“Wh-what?”I woke up uncomfortable. Instantly, I found myself in a terrifying situation. Sudou was asleep, with both of his legs laid across my face.

“Suzune…I can’t hold back anymore…” he moaned. “Aahhhh!”I shrieked, and escaped from Sudou’s iron grip.

“Gah, shut up… The hell? Ayanokouji, don’t wake me up like that.”This guy had just tried to force a scarring experience upon me. He had definitely mistaken me for someone else. Still, this wasn’t the type of thing to scream about in a crowd of guys in the middle of the night…My wristwatch showed that it wasn’t even six in the morning yet, but my drowsiness was gone. I exited the tent to get out of that humid, steamy air. Once outside, I noticed that the scenery had changed drastically from yesterday.

“So, am I lucky or unlucky?”Trouble seemed to be at hand as the curtain rose on the sixth day of our special test. It was overcast outside, the skies cloudy and gray. It must have rained last night, because puddles and patches of mud were here and there on the ground. It looked like it was going to start raining hard, probably in the early afternoon.

Of course the weather got stormy right at the end of the test. Just a light rain would have been fine, but there might be heavy rain and strong winds. In the worst-case scenario, we’d have to move. Many things would need to be done, like re-checking the tent stakes and handling our luggage.

As more people noticed the weather, they began to panic. Eventually, we combined the food we’d collected with the emergency food we bought using points. There’d been a lot of grumbling over living such a frugal life, but since it was the penultimate day, everyone appeared to want to power through.

“I’m glad. We haven’t had any incidents,” Hirata said.

That was certainly true. If we’d had another incident like theunderwear theft, we probably wouldn’t have had such a helpfulatmosphere. The guys who’d been standing watch out in front of the boys’ tent were now sleeping like logs. It was a deterrent we came up with to prevent a repeat of the underwear theft. Hirata gathered up a large group of students and gave them a last bit of encouragement.

He also started sorting people into teams to go out and search for food one last time, so we could get through the day. If we got enough food today day, we wouldn’t need to use points. You could call this a critical moment. We all gathered around Hirata.

“Would it be better if we went, too?” asked Ike, sitting on theriverbank with a fishing rod already in hand.

“No. Ike-kun, Sudou-kun, I want you two to continue fishing. Wedon’t have enough time to instruct the other students how to do it.”After settling on a course of action, Hirata set up groups by havingvolunteers raise their hands. Of course, I didn’t raise my hand, but he decided that I would participate as a backup. The members of the group were Horikita, Sakura, Yamauchi, and surprisingly, Kushida.

Horikita’s physical health still seemed to be as poor as ever, but she held up well. The people around her weren’t aware that she was feeling ill.

“Why were you left behind? What about your usual group offriends?” Horikita asked Kushida.

Come to think of it, I didn’t see any of Kushida’s girlfriends. “Ah, yeah. Well, it’s…“Kushida whispered something into Horikita’s ear, as if she wasworried about the boys overhearing.

“Well, to tell you the truth, Mii-chan is having her time of the month.

She always feels awful when it happens. So her other friends arewith her in the tent.”I’d been standing next to Horikita, so I happened to overhear.

“Even if she’s not feeling well, it’s a natural physiological phenomenon. She should be fine. I suppose that’s to be expected,though. However, why did you deliberately choose our group? Youmust have had other options available.”Horikita was grilling Kushida like that because she detested her. Horikita fundamentally disliked people in general, but especially Kushida. Why? Well, for the simple reason that Kushida apparently hated Horikita. I’d always felt a uniquely strange sense of discomfort between those two.

Kushida Kikyou had a hidden side, a dramatic change from her usual persona, to the point where she could calmly abuse other people.

However, I’d only chanced upon this discovery. The everyday Kushida was a fundamentally kind, cheerful, and cute girl who loved to help others. You wouldn’t think there’d be any students who disliked her, unless they were jealous. However, I knew Horikita wasn’t the sort to be jealous of someone like Kushida.

Philosophers wrack their brains over the tough questions like, “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” The chicken is literally born from the egg, but doesn’t that mean the egg came first? I didn’t know whether it was Horikita who hated Kushida first, or the other way around, or when this all started.

“I wanted to talk to you, Horikita-san, and thought this was a good chance. You know, we haven’t really talked at all during this trip, have we? Well, as soon as it gets dark out, let’s head to bed.”Even though Kushida understood that she was disliked, and disliked Horikita in turn, she wanted to try making friends with her. IfKushida’s goal was to make friends with everyone in class, she couldn’t avoid dealing with Horikita.

“I don’t have enough free time to spend it with you unnecessarily.”“You’re so mean, Horikita-san. Even though your face is so cutewhen you’re sleeping.”Horikita seemed a little annoyed by Kushida’s odd teasing. At anyrate, I was going to search for food with the rest of the group.

“Hey, Ibuki. Why don’t you come with us, too?” Just as we wereabout to depart, I called out to Ibuki, who was resting under a tree.

“Me?”“Today’s the last day. If you don’t want to, I won’t pressure you.” “Okay. I owe Class D a debt of gratitude… Sure, I’ll help.”Ibuki slung her bag over her shoulder. Yamauchi looked happy about this.

“Hey, that’s great, that’s great! You know, this kinda feels like a harem or something!” he cried.

The greater the girl to boy ratio, the happier Yamauchi was. Horikita didn’t have any reason to refuse, so she stepped into the forest without a response.

“The forest is kinda eerie… Or maybe I should say that it’s scary, plus hot and humid.”The sky was cloudy, and the forest was completely different from yesterday. Visibility was especially poor. Yamauchi, with great sweat stains under his armpits, dejectedly flapped his gym clothes to fan himself.

“Aren’t you hot, Sakura?” he asked.

Yamauchi had been scheming for a way to talk to Sakura. But his eyes were focused on her breasts, and it was easy to see that he simply wanted to look at her boobs.

“Eh? O-oh, it’s okay. I’m fine.”Sakura leaned forward, as if to indirectly avoid Yamauchi’s gaze. It’s said that girls are sensitive to the lascivious male gaze. In Sakura’scase, she’d had a lot of experience in that regard, so she wasespecially sensitive to it.

“Karuizawa was so mean yesterday, wasn’t she? And even though you were being so kind by sticking up for Ayanokouji, Sakura.”“Ah, oh…“Yamauchi intended to appear kind when speaking to Sakura, but his gaze and topic of conversation had the subtlety of an exploding bomb.

“Yamauchi. It’d be good if you paid attention to the treetops. They might have fruit. Also, we’re pretty tall, so we need to be careful around here,” I said.

“Y-yeah. Of course.” Thus I prevented Yamauchi from gazing lustfully at Sakura, at least somewhat. Still, a supremely horny guy wasn’t going to run out of steam.

“Rain clouds are approaching from the southwest. The storm will be here even sooner than we imagined.”Depending on how things went, it would be better to get out of the rain if at all possible. Rain would make our foraging mission more dangerous. If we did happen to get caught in the rain out in the middle of the forest, we could be stuck or injured. If that happened, we’d lose a great deal of points.

“Hmm…“We looked for food while walking quietly. Kushida alternated between looking at Horikita and me, while appearing lost in thought. Of course, Horikita ignored everything.

“What’s the matter, Kushida-chan?” asked Yamauchi, who’d noticed Kushida’s odd behavior.

“Ayanokouji-kun and Horikita-san have been on pretty good terms from the beginning, right? I was trying to think of what the reason might be.”“Good question. Why are you two close, anyway?”Kushida had opened a troublesome subject.

“We don’t really get along well, though,” I said.

“You always deny it, but you do get along. You’re walking side by side right now.”They could say it, but it wasn’t like I was particularly aware of it oranything.

“Ah. I think I might have found something that Ayanokouji-kun and Horikita-san have in common,” Kushida said.

“Something in common? What’s that?”“Well, look at them closely, Yamauchi-kun. Notice anything?” “Hmm?”Yamauchi got in really close, until he was about a centimeter away from my face. After that, he rushed over to Horikita, and peered into her eyes. You idiot, if you get too close…Slap! Yamauchi’s cheek got smacked. It was a wonderfully vicious slap, the kind you’d see from a humiliated actress in a searing drama. After being hit with such force, Yamauchi shuddered and shouted.

He squatted low, cowering, and cried in pain. He didn’t use any words, but his eyes seemed to ask Horikita, “Why would you do something like that?!”“Wh-what’re yuh doin’?!”“You got too close. Remember to stay out of my personal space.”This was like the time Ike made a pass at Horikita. Really, anyonewould feel uncomfortable if a guy you didn’t like got extremely closeto your face.

“Ha ha… S-sorry, Yamauchi-kun. I started trouble. Are you okay?”Kushida asked.

“Y-you’re so kind, Kushida…“Yamauchi took Kushida’s outstretched hand and stood, his cheeks still red. Ibuki watched the scene with a slightly surprised expression. She probably didn’t see this kind of idiotic exchange in Class C very often.

“Wh-what’s the thing in common that you noticed, Kushida?”“Well, don’t you know? I hardly see the two of them laugh! That’s it. It’s like, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Ayanokouji-kun or Horikita-san smile.” Kushida had pointed out something rather unexpected, thinking that we’d merely accept her word. Regarding Horikita, though, I’d seen her smile many times before when making fun of someone, but her smile never contained any kind of affection.

“It’s certainly true that I’ve never seen Horikita smile before. But I’vesmiled, haven’t I?”“I’ve seen you with a bitter smile, sure, but never a genuine grin, something from the bottom of your heart. I’ve never seen you laugh so hard you had to clutch your stomach, Ayanokouji-kun. Or perhaps you’ve just never shown that side of yourself to me?”She looked slightly dissatisfied as she peeked up at me. My heart started pounding. My pulse spiked. Even though we were on a deserted island, a lovely, perfumed scent tickled my nostrils.

Embarrassed, I averted my eyes.

“A lot of it’s due to genetics. It’s the difference between people whosmile often and those who don’t smile at all.”“Hmm. I don’t think I really like that reason, even if it’s true.”Well, genetics probably weren’t everything. Happiness could also beinfluenced by the environment in which someone grew up. “How about we practice smiling just once? What do you think?” “For the time being, let’s begin with the area,” said Horikita. “Huh? Of smiling?”“How long do you want to travel? We need to search for food,right?” said Horikita sternly. Her tone was forceful. She’d instructedus all to spread out immediately.

“Don’t make any moves alone. Search in pairs. Be especially careful. Let’s go, Ayanokouji-kun.”Horikita called me, and I started walking with her.

“Ah… Ah…"”Hmm?” Sakura seemed to be trailing behind us with her shoulders slumped.

“Come search with us, Sakura!” Yamauchi yelled.

He flashed me a thumbs-up gesture. I guessed he dreamed of taking advantage of this opportunity.

“I’m looking forward to working with you, Ibuki-san!”Kushida, the last one remaining, paired up with Ibuki. Ibuki was a rather blunt, antisocial girl herself, but if she were with Kushida, there likely wouldn’t be problems.

“Horikita, how are you going to handle the key card issue?” I asked. “I always have it on me.”Horikita put her hand in her coat pocket to show me she had it.

“When we update the device, I’ll slip in among the students Hirata- kun’s gathered so I can be undetected. Ibuki-san and the other students aren’t supposed to know.”Well, I wasn’t really worried about her handling that part. Since itrequired being conscientious, she’d probably handle it well. “Can I see it for a second?”“Huh? Here?”“It’s actually convenient to do it here. It’d be too suspicious at base camp.”“Maybe, but what do you plan to do after I show you?”I explained the situation to Horikita while she looked suspiciously at me.

“To be honest, I’d been keeping quiet. I was with Sakura earlier so she can back me up, but on the first day we saw students who had something like a key card.”I told Horikita about seeing Katsuragi in front of the cave, and his card.

“But I don’t know if that was really the key card. I didn’t see it well. I mean, you’d probably laugh if I made a joke about him picking up a telephone card, right?”“Er, right. If you have proof, that would be a huge achievement.”Horikita, satisfied with my reasoning, turned her back on Ibuki and stealthily took out the card. I accepted it, and checked the front and back. The reverse side sported a typical magnetic strip. Just as Chabashira-sensei had said, on the front side was the name “Horikita Suzune”, proof that she was the leader.

Even if I tried, I wouldn’t have been able to peel the name off andsubstitute another.

“Well? Is this the same card that Katsuragi-kun had?”“No. I wonder, though. I thought I’d know by looking, but…it seems like it’s a different color than I remember.”“The keycards might have a different color scheme based on the class.”“Yeah, but we don’t have enough evidence to make a solidjudgment. If we make a mistake, we won’t recover from it.”When I tried to return the card to her, I accidentally dropped it. The card hit the ground.

“Ah!”I let out a panicked shout, but Horikita quickly snatched it up. Sheslid the card back in her jacket, but we’d attracted attention.

“What’s wrong?”Kushida looked worried. Ibuki, too.

“Oh, it’s nothing. There was a bug that surprised me. Sorry, sorry.”While I apologized, Horikita shot me a terrifying glare.

“S-sorry…“Horikita furiously kept her distance from me.

“Did she dump you?” Yamauchi asked with a grin.

“Look, Yamauchi. I need to ask you something. Could you come here for a second?”“What is it? You know my love consultation fee is high, right?”“The ground in this area is all muddy because of the rain, right? Iwant you to take this mud and smear it on Horikita’s hair. Can you do that for me?”“Huh? B-but if I do something like that, I’ll be killed! No way!”Of course, I knew he wouldn’t immediately agree. But this was far too unnatural for me to do myself. I’d thought that a prankster like Yamauchi would try pulling this stunt.

“Listen here, dude. No matter how angry you say you are at Horikita, trying to get revenge on her is uncool!”“If you do this, I’m prepared to offer you Sakura’s e-mail address.” “Whaa?!”“Well?”“S-Sakura’s e-mail address? Man! I-I guess I have to do this now,huh?”The boy who lived for love had decided to die for love. That decisiveness was amazing.

“You’re absolutely going to do it? If you’re lying, I won’t agree.”After I nodded, Yamauchi gathered up a lot of mud and approached Horikita from behind. Had she not been feeling ill, she probablywould’ve noticed him, but right now she couldn’t pay attention to her surroundings. Kushida and Ibuki noticed Yamauchi’s strange behavior and watched him with quizzical expressions.

Yamauchi did it. He covered Horikita’s beautiful black hair with mud. Then he patted and smeared it on her with both hands. Well, he didn’t really need to go that far…“Ha ha ha ha! You’re all covered in mud, Horikita! Hilarious!”Yamauchi laughed and pointed at Horikita, like a little kid. Horikita, almost as if she weren’t able to grasp the situation, didn’t move for a little while. Then she stood up, grabbed Yamauchi’s pointing arm, and acted without saying a word.

Yamauchi let slip a quick, confused “Huh?” as Horikita threw him.

6.5We returned to the base camp before noon with nothing to show for our efforts. Although the sun hadn’t come out, it was even hotter here than inside the midsummer forest. It was impossible not to see a thin layer of sweat even on Horikita, who insisted that she wasn’t sweaty.

“You’d better wash up right away, Horikita-san. You’re really muddy…"”Yeah… This situation is rather painful.”Horikita, her hair and clothes completely covered with mud, couldn’t help but be uncomfortable. It would’ve been uncomfortable even if she weren’t sick.

“I’m going to hold a grudge against you for the rest of my life. You’d best prepare yourself.”Yamauchi, who’d been viciously beaten, cowered behind my back as he trembled in fear.

“I, I, I d-did it! S-so, you have to keep your promise!” “Don’t worry. When the test is over, I will tell you.”I felt bad for Sakura, but I needed to reward Yamauchi for his act of bravery.

“Oh no, looks like it’s impossible to use the shower room…“The girls who’d returned from exploring were gathered in front of the shower, waiting in line. Unfortunately, the three people in line were Karuizawa and her group. If Horikita got in line now, she would have a pretty long time to wait. Due to being covered in mud, she didn’t want to yield. But getting in line behind a hostile Karuizawa make it difficult to cut in.

“What about the river? That’d be easy and fast, right?” I asked. “Right. Looks like I don’t have any other choice.”“I think I’m going to go for a swim. Ibuki-san, do you want to go for a swim with me? I got pretty sweaty. If we get permission, is it okay for someone from Class C to use the river?”Using the spot without permission wasn’t allowed, but thereshouldn’t be any problems.

“I’ll pass. I don’t really like swimming, so I’ll just wait to use the shower room,” Ibuki said.

“W-well, I will, too…“Sakura, following Ibuki’s lead, refused to go swimming. Probably she didn’t want the boys to see her in her swimsuit. Undoubtedly, taking a shower with warm water was best, but since it was quite cloudy outside, it was also fairly hot and humid. Horikita probably wasn’t confident that she could continue waiting in her poor health.

Yamauchi, who’d been beaten black and blue, headed with me toward the tent.

“I’m going to rest for a bit. The parts where I got punched really hurt…“Yamauchi wept a bit as he hobbled inside. Although he’d been a suitable person for the job, it was a horrible task. As for Horikita, I couldn’t see her, so I guessed that she’d already started changinginto her swimsuit. Meanwhile, the number of people waiting to use the shower had gradually increased. Behind Karuizawa’s group was Sakura, and behind her was Ibuki. Then another girl lined up behind them.

Quite a few students were swimming in the river, and it looked as though they were having fun. A few minutes later, Horikita andKushida appeared in their swimsuits. I went to the boys’ luggage pile, then wandered around looking for privacy. When I returned about five minutes later, I saw Horikita washing herself while standing in the river. The cold river water must have felt horrible on Horikita’s sick body, but she must have been happy the mud was gone.

“Whoa, looks like it’s moving now.”I nodded at Ibuki, who was waiting at the tail end of the shower line.

6.6I’d been waiting for about fifteen minutes in front of the boys’ tent before Horikita appeared. She kept her eyes downcast, as if something was wrong. Then she slowly looked up and scanned the area. When her eyes met mine, her pupils trembled, like she was frightened. She approached me with heavy, plodding steps. Despite her seeming frailty, I couldn’t think of her as simply weak.

“Ayanokouji-kun. Could you please come here for a moment?”First, I turned around and checked to see if Ibuki was still lined up for the shower.

“What’s wrong? Did something happen?” I asked Horikita. “Follow me. We can’t talk here.”With that, Horikita walked toward the forest.

“What’s wrong? Are you planning to search for more food?”Horikita walked without answering me. She stopped once we’dgotten far enough away that we couldn’t see the camp anymore. Horikita turned around and looked ready to speak, but then hesitated as though having second thoughts.

“This happened because of my carelessness. I am aware that I made a mistake. Okay?”“A mistake?” “It was stolen.”“W-wait, your underwear was stolen, too?”“No. This is much, much worse. The…key card. A complete blunder on my part.”Horikita looked completely disgusted with herself, a look I had never seen her make before.

“I wanted to talk to you because I trust you. I absolutely couldn’t consult with someone who might be the culprit. This is so humiliating. I want to die…“I felt honored that she trusted me, but I couldn’t exactly rejoice infront of someone so depressed.

“Such a huge failure.”“No, the one who stole it is to blame. Right?”“Even so, this is an issue of responsibility. It has nothing to do withme being sick or covered in mud.”Horikita hung her head. If this got out, it could cause us massive damage.

“I wasn’t supposed to let go of the card for a single second. But I…"”Don’t blame yourself. I doubt this’ll be any consolation, but I think you did your absolute best.”I didn’t know if she heard me. She merely bit her lower lip, as ifoverwhelmed with regret.

“It’s probably better if we don’t make this information public. We should get to the truth first.”“Yes. I think so, too.”Everyone would panic if they knew. I wanted to avoid that at least.

“I suspect two people. Either Karuizawa-san, or Ibuki-san.”The former might have done it simply out of hatred. Karuizawa could have stolen it because she wanted to see Horikita panic after losing the card.

“Unfortunately, the chances of that are low. Karuizawa was in frontof the shower the whole time.” “You’re sure about that?” “Yeah. Same goes for her flunkies, too.”“If that’s the case, it’s highly likely Ibuki-san is the culprit. It’s possible she came to know about the card this morning, and the timing is just far too good. But, wouldn’t stealing it be an extremely dangerous gamble? Since the leader’s name is engraved on the card itself, just looking at it would be enough. Maybe she carried out the crime so she’d get a penalty.”She looked at me, her eyes full of anxiety, as if searching for ananswer from me. I placed my hand on Horikita’s shoulder.

“If we examine the timing and talk with Ibuki, we can understand what happened. If we suspect Ibuki, we shouldn’t take our eyes off of her. Her escape would probably be the worst-case scenario,right?”“That’s right. I’m sorry, but can you go back to camp first? That way you can start following her immediately.”“Sure. I understand. I’ll keep an eye on her.”I felt like Horikita probably wanted to be alone to throw up. I left her and returned to the base camp.

6.7Horikita returned about ten minutes later, rejoining the campsite’s unsettling atmosphere. The cause was dark smoke coming from behind the temporary toilet. It was far too early for the bonfire to be lit, and the location was rather strange.

“What’s that smoke? What in the world happened?” Ike cried.

As I joined up with Horikita, I also caught up with Ike, who was clearly in a panic. I asked what was up.

“This is serious. There’s a fire! Fire! Something is burning behind the toilet!”All of the girls who’d been lined up in front of the shower room weregone now. They must have left as soon as they heard the uproar.

“I can’t see Ibuki. The fire might have been her handiwork. Where isshe?” Horikita asked.

“She noticed the fire, and now she’s just walking around.”I rushed toward the area behind the temporary toilet and saw Hirata and some of the others. Ibuki was also there. Horikita looked ready to call out to Ibuki, but hesitated when she saw her. Ibuki’sexpression was just so genuine. She couldn’t hide her confusionabout the fire.

“Does this mean she didn’t do it?”Horikita was overwhelmed by doubt. If the keycard had indeed been stolen, Ibuki must’ve done it. If a fire had started, then Ibuki must’ve caused it. Even so, Ibuki remained at the scene, and appeared surprised by the fire. When I examined more closely, the source looked like a bundle of paper. Some of it was still legible, but most of it had turned into soot. I didn’t know what it was for a moment.

However, looking at the legible parts, I finally understood.

“Did the manual get burned?” Horikita asked. “Yeah. It looks like it. Who would do this?”“It’s just one thing after another…” Horikita muttered in a low voice, lowering her eyes.

“I’m responsible for this. The manual was in my bag. We piled the bags up in front of the tent and I didn’t think that someone would steal anything in the daytime. But first, we need to extinguish this fire properly…“Rather than searching for the culprit, Hirata headed to the river to douse the fire. While he drew water in our plastic bottles, he muttered to himself, his expression dark.

“Why? Who could do something like this? Why can’t we all just get along?”Hirata spontaneously crushed the plastic bottle with all his might. The shift in his personality was rather terrifying. Hirata, the eternal leader of our class, the one who toiled tirelessly to play peacemaker, was carrying a terrible burden.

“I don’t think you need to take so much on yourself.” I triedcomforting him. He stood and responded with a quiet “Thank you.” “We need…to discuss this incident properly.”“Right. Most of Class D witnessed the fire. I’m sure they’ll want to know the truth.”Depressed, Hirata took the water he’d scooped up and returned tothe campsite.

“Hey, who did this? Is there a traitor in our class?” Karuizawa asked.

When we returned, we found her leading the confrontation between the guys and girls, who glared at one another.

“Why do you suspect us? Isn’t this a completely separate issue from the underwear incident?”“I don’t know about that. Isn’t it possible you burned something to mislead us?”“Stop jerking us around. As if we’d do something like this!”“Wait a minute, everyone. Please, calm down. Let’s talk about this,”Hirata cried.

He gave me the water and I took his place, extinguishing the remnants of the fire. Hirata immediately went to the center of the circle and tried to play mediator. This might have been residual stress from yesterday’s underwear theft incident, but both sides were heated up and showed no signs of settling down. It seemed like quite a few people in Class D wanted to start hunting the culprit right here.

“At any rate, we don’t have to worry about the fire spreading.”I shook the empty plastic bottles twice, then three times. A few water droplets plopped onto the smoldering remains of the fire. I looked up.

“Rain, huh?”Raindrops dripped onto my cheeks. The clouds were even darker than they’d been before, proof that heavy rain was about to start. Once, we’d have all come together as one to make it through this last pinch. Now, the guys and girls were locked in a tense confrontation. They stood, glaring at each other.

“This is pointless. Seriously, this is the worst. We have underwearthieves and now arsonists in our class. This really is the worst.”“We keep telling you it wasn’t us! How long are you going to keep suspecting us?!” The fight would never be resolved. It would just keep going on forever. Hirata should’ve stepped in and stopped this, but for some reason he just stood there in a daze. Was he wondering who the culprit could have been?”Hey Kanji, I can’t see Ibuki anywhere.”Yamauchi had noticed Ibuki was gone. I noticed that one of the bags was also gone.

“Perhaps the person who started the fire…"”It’s rather suspicious. If a fire broke out then, that would mean…“The guys directed their suspicions at Ibuki, and even the girls began to voice their doubts. However, before we could reach a resolution, the rain started to fall, and fall hard.

“Oh no, this isn’t good. Let’s discuss this later. It’ll be awful if we all get soaked.”Ike and the others, panicking, began shoving food and luggage inside the tents.

“Hirata, tell us what to do!”Ike called for Hirata, but he just stood in the same place. Hiratacontinued staring off into nothingness and didn’t budge an inch. Meanwhile, the sound of rain kept growing louder and louder. I was a little worried about the situation. I approached Hirata, but there wasn’t any sign that he noticed me.

“Why…why is this happening? It’s just like back then…“He muttered something in a low voice. I couldn’t understand what it meant, but it certainly wasn’t trivial. This wasn’t like the calm and composed Hirata at all.

“Why was I doing this? Why was I doing all this until now?” “Hey, Hirata! What are you doing?!” Ike shouted.

It wasn’t clear if Hirata heard him at all. I gently placed my hand onhis shoulder. He looked surprised, but slowly turned around.

“Ike’s calling for you,” I said. “Huh?”Hirata’s face was drained of life. He was pale. The second time Ike called, Hirata slowly started to regain his sanity. He finally noticed that it had begun raining.

“Rain…"”It’d be good for you to help Ike and the others. We have to keep ourstuff dry.”“Y-yeah. We need to take care of everything quickly.” “Ayanokouji. Is Hirata okay?” Sudou asked.

“Looks like he’s in shock. I suppose it’s probably because of all these things going wrong one after the other.”“You know, in junior high there was this rich kid honor student. He had a lot of really heavy responsibilities, y’know? Anyway, he took so much on himself that one day, he ended up having a breakdown.

After that, his class became a complete mess.” “You think there are signs of that with Hirata?”“Well, saying he’s gonna have a breakdown would be an exaggeration, but I think there’s danger there.”I wondered if this was just Sudou’s wild imagination at work, but it seemed surprisingly accurate. Since this special test had started, Hirata has taken on a lot of responsibilities. These issues made the troubles we’d faced at school seem easy. Hirata’s carefully maintained environment had definitely begun to change. The theft of Karuizawa’s underwear and the uproar over the fire had turned Hirata as unhinged and stormy as the weather.

“For the time being, let’s take care of the luggage.”We joined up and helped the students put things away. Thankfully, everything got secured pretty fast.

“Okay. All of the preparations are made.”It didn’t surprise me that Ibuki disappeared, but Horikita had vanished as well. By my calculations, the possibility had been fifty- fifty, but it seemed things were progressing favorably. I fixed my eyes on the road that led straight to the beach, and stepped onto the path.

6.8I forced my heavy, sluggish body to chase after Ibuki-san while the hard rain fell. The sky was covered with rain clouds that blocked out the sun, so visibility was poor. Even though I couldn’t see Ibuki-san, she’d left footprints in the muddy ground. If I just followed them, they’d lead me right to her.

She’d walked about a hundred meters from the base camp, sometimes veering off to the right or left. Rather unexpectedly, I found her waiting, as if expecting me. I instinctively hid myself, though there probably wasn’t any point.

“What are you doing, Horikita?”Ibuki spoke without even turning around. Her calm voice cut right through the sounds of the falling rain.

“I noticed you following me. Why don’t you just come on out?” “When did you notice me?” I asked.

“Right from the start.”Her short answer felt ominous. My impression of her as being quiet and taciturn didn’t change, but something was different.

“Why were you following me?” “Do you really not know?”“No, I don’t know.”It was almost like I was the villain here.

“You clearly know why I was following you, don’t you?” “I really have no idea what you’re talking about.” Ibuki-san faced me, looking me straight in the eye. I saw no deception in her eyes whatsoever. It almost made me want to apologize. After all, I had no proof. I only had my intuition.

“Why should I lie?” she pressed further, as if she noticed my hesitation. “I’d at least like to hear why you followed me, from your own lips.”“The underwear theft and the fire. Misfortune continues to befall Class D.”“So what?”“Do you realize that some people suspect you?”“Ah. I suppose since I’m an outsider, there’s not much I can do about that.”“That’s what I’m talking about.”“You’re saying I’m the culprit? Do you have any proof?”“Unfortunately, I don’t have a single shred of evidence related to the underwear theft. But I think it was you.”“That’s a pretty terrible thing to say. You don’t have any evidence, yet you suspect me?”I had to admit, I was impressed by how she was handling this. She’d laid low until day five, and she’d kept her distance from Class D. Contrary to normal expectations, she wasn’t suspected.

“I suspect you because of today. You don’t need me to explain that, do you?”I wanted to hear it from Ibuki-san herself. If I explained all of the reasons for my doubts, that would almost be the same as admitting my identity as the leader. Even if I was 99% confident, so long as there was a 1% chance of her being innocent, I needed to avoid being direct.

“Let me cut to the chase. I want you to return something you took from me,” I said to Ibuki-san, while I stood and stared her in the eye.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”After giving that short answer, she walked away quickly. I followed, matching her speed. Ibuki-san changed course and headed toward the center of the forest.

“Where are you going?” I asked. “Who knows?”It was difficult to walk straight. I’d realized this over the past several days. That was even truer in this weather, which impaired visibility. However, Ibuki-san didn’t seem to care. I couldn’t pull back, though, not after coming this far to find the truth. Since I’d made the mistake, I had to take responsibility and solve the problem.

I have to make up for my mistake. I have to make up for my mistake. I repeated those same words over and over again in my head. Icouldn’t fail here. Besides, I also needed to take responsibility for my mistakes with Karuizawa-san, with whom I had been really aggressive. My heart beat fast. I was breathless. Little by little, I closed the distance between Ibuki-san and myself. Depending on the situation, I might need to retrieve the keycard by force. Considering my considerable skills, I could handle it well. I can handle it well. I can do it. I can do it.

I understood all too well that I wasn’t calm, but I had to do something. I didn’t have anyone else to rely on. I’d handled things on my own up until this point, and I could continue just the same. The rain and winds were a bit easier to deal with in the middle of the forest than on an open road. But the visibility had become that much worse, and the footing even more terrible. Also, as I went right and then left, I lost my sense of direction.

But my biggest problem was my physical condition. With every second that passed, I grew worse. Up until now I’d only had a slight fever, but as the rain came down I reached my limits. My sickness grew steadily worse.

Ibuki-san stopped, and then unexpectedly looked up at a tree. She gazed at a single handkerchief, wet from the rain and tied to the tree.

“How long are you going to follow me? Don’t you think enough is enough?”“Once you return what you stole from me.”“Why don’t you calm down and try thinking? If I stole the keycard, would I have held onto it? If someone saw me with it, that would mean immediate disqualification. I’d only end up losing pointsmyself, right?”I had only asked she return what she stole. I never once said anything about a keycard. Ibuki-san had just confessed. As I was about to press her on that point, Ibuki-san gave a thin smile that showed her white teeth.

“You thought I confessed to something, didn’t you? You’re wrong.” “What do you mean?”“I’m tired of talking with you.”Ibuki-san crouched, and started digging in the ground using both hands.

“Ah, agh…“Wracked by intense dizziness and nausea, I leaned my back against a nearby tree.

“Your condition has gotten a lot worse, hasn’t it?” Ibuki-san turned to look at me. However, she quickly returned to work.

“Ah… Ah… Ugh…“Although I was trying to manage my breathing, I couldn’t anymore. My jersey, soaked from the downpour, leached my body heat away. I’d tried to resist wanting to lie down and rest, but I could no longer hold my head up.

As I thought about my physical strength, I had no choice but to fight.

“Ibuki-san. I’m going to investigate you with everything I’ve got. You don’t mind?”Ibuki-san stopped digging, stood up, and approached me.

“With everything you’ve got? Could you be a bit more specific? You mean you’re going to resort to violence?”“This is your last warning. Return it…“I’d wanted to avoid coercive methods, but there was no other way. I didn’t want to show this side of myself to anyone…I remembered the incident before, with Sudou-kun, where he’d punched some students from Class C. It had led to a trial, with the school getting involved. Back then I’d condemned Sudou, who had dealt with many unexpected difficulties. I’d abandoned him then, and was getting my just desserts now. That I would consider solving things with violence was ridiculously funny.

“My last warning, huh? Oh, I get it. I get it. Why don’t you get your wish?”She dropped the bag to the ground and raised her arms in the air, posing as if surrendering. She was obedient, but I saw no resignation in her face. Still, I couldn’t let this opportunity pass. I reached to check the bag.

Instantly, Ibuki-san’s slender leg went right toward my face. What little alertness I had left saved me. I flew backwards, avoiding her kick. Mud splashed me, and I struck a defensive posture with both arms raised.

“Oh, you’re good,” she said.

“An act of violence means immediate disqualification…"”Someone might see us here, you mean? Weren’t you willing to use violence, too?”While I wondered why she had such a sly grin on her face, shesuddenly grabbed my shoulders and threw me down. I wasn’t able to react in the face of such an unexpected action, and collapsed onto the muddy ground.

“Would you like a moment to rest?” she asked.

As I was on the ground, already wounded, she sneered at me from above. Her face looked all blurry. Ibuki-san grabbed my collar and yanked me up. If she hit me, I would definitely lose consciousness. I slipped out of her grip and rolled, escaping from her. I desperately tried to raise myself out of the mud. That was the first time I was really thankful that I practiced martial arts.

“Oh? You can really move, surprisingly. You practice or something?”Ibuki-san, without panicking whatsoever, seemed genuinelyimpressed as she sized me up. She’d perceived my knowledge of martial arts, and probably wasn’t an average practitioner herself. How could I respond without telling her that I was in the worst condition?”I’ve…been nothing but a complete and utter failure in this test.”I hadn’t contributed a single thing to Class D. If anything, I was probably a hindrance. The rest of them, all trying their hardest, were held back because of my poor physical condition. I wished I’d told them from the start. I could have requested that another person become the leader since I wasn’t feeling well. It would have been fine had I just refused. But my pride got the better of me, which was unforgivable.

I mocked people. I hated useless things, labeling them incompetent, while I was useless myself. Ha ha… I laughed dryly in my mind. Was I really still making excuses for myself?”It was you, wasn’t it? You stole the keycard.”Ibuki-san stopped moving. I shortened the distance between us. She pretended like she was going to strike with her right arm, only to instead go with a high, fast kick. I avoided her attack, and then stretched out my arm as a counterattack. Ibuki-san was aware of the danger and avoided my strike. She then switched into her next attack, a dizzying back-and-forth of offense and defense.

The footing around here was bad, but she wasn’t worried about her footwork. Clearly she had a degree of skill. In addition, she showed no hesitation in hurting people. Ibuki-san smiled, flashing her white teeth as if she were enjoying this. I never thought I’d see such a big smile on her face.

Because I’d been moving around so much, I was wracked by intensecold and nausea. I was barely able to stand.

“You’ve been trying really hard until now. I’ll tell you the truth, as a reward. I stole the card.”Ibuki-san thrust her hand into her pocket and slowly took the card out. She showed me the side with my name engraved upon it.

“You gave up the truth pretty easily.”“It doesn’t matter if I admit it or not now. There’s no evidence I used violence against you. It’s not as though the school can make ajudgment here. Isn’t that right?” Ibuki-san had the right read of the situation. Nothing could conclusively make the school perceive this as it really was. Even if I was the only one who got hurt, Ibuki-san could say whatever she liked to get out of it. Even if I complained, we’d both be punished. And Class D had points to lose.

But if I managed to get the keycard back, we might be saved. If we got our hands on such reliable evidence, Class C would be forced to admit what they’d done.

Her fingerprints were on the card. Maybe we could assert that it was legitimately stolen. If we brought the truth to light, the school might investigate the matter thoroughly. I couldn’t abandon that hope.

However, I couldn’t get the keycard back unless I bested Ibuki-san. But I doubted she was stupid enough to make bold actions.

If she got away, the card probably wouldn’t ever be found. If that happened, we couldn’t prove it had been stolen. I didn’t have enough energy to run after her any longer. On top of that, I lacked the strength to even clench my fists. But I had to make use of all the strength I had left.

I wasn’t sure if Ibuki-san had a reason to hurry or if she was underestimating me, but she rushed over and attacked, a hunter enjoying an easy kill. Her eyes glanced at my feet, but it was a fake- out. While she was concentrating on the lower half of my body, she instantly swung at my face. I narrowly avoided getting hit, but it got so incredibly close that it grazed my hair.

I took advantage of her momentum and applied a little force. Ibuki- san lost her balance, but not enough to make her fall over. I tried to grab onto her arm, but she understood what was going on and slipped through my grasp. She probably realized I was trying to use her power and speed against her. I mustered up the last of my strength and drove my left fist into her solar plexus.

“Ah!”Ibuki-san couldn’t breathe, and fell to her knees in apparent agony. At the same time, my physical strength had reached its limits, and my field of vision grew distorted. I couldn’t chase after her, so I kept her pinned down.

“This is the worst… I’m already… At my limit…“My condition was bad before, but pushing myself so intensely had made things hopeless. But I couldn’t collapse here. My attack was superficial, not enough to knock her down.

“I don’t understand… I thought you were involved.” Ibuki-san stood, wiping mud off her face. “Involved? In what?” I asked.

Ibuki-san seemed to hesitate, but then muttered, “I didn’t burn the manual.”“You intend to keep lying even now?”“What would I gain by burning it? It was inevitable that people would begin searching for the criminal after the uproar. Besides, people would suspect me rather strongly. There was nothing to gain and a lot to lose.”“That’s…“I certainly agreed with what Ibuki-san said. She’d stolen the keycard before the fire broke out. There wasn’t enough time for her to deliberately burn the manual and fan the flames. But then, who did? What did burning the manual mean?”I talked to you in a roundabout way to confirm something. You seem different. But I suppose this is probably really hard for you to swallow. Do you think he’s in Class D? There’s a guy who figured me out before you did.” Ibuki-san sighed as if exasperated.

“So. You can’t mean…“Right after I conjured the image of that person, I noticed that Ibuki- san had disappeared. In the next instant, a blunt instrument slammed me in the head, knocking me down hard.

“This conversation is over.”I had to get up, so I started to push myself. Ibuki-san lightly swept my hand with her right foot, causing me to fall back down. Ibuki-san grabbed my bangs and yanked me up.

“L-Let me go…"”Sorry. I’ve got a lot to do.”She lightly slapped my cheek with her right hand. My mind and body were at their limit, my movements clumsy, and it was impossible for me to stop her. I shook off the hand grasping my bangs. I tried to stand and close the distance between us. But my feet got all tangled up and my strength was exhausted, causing me to collapse again.

“Do you think they’ll permit such coercive methods?” I muttered. “Come on, now. I don’t feel like answering that.”When I drew nearer, she raised her leg high and kicked me in the face. How many times would I repeat this same sentence? I…made a huge mistake. By attempting to fix that mistake myself, I ended up turning it into a situation that couldn’t be fixed.

6.9I let out A deep breath while I stood over Horikita, who was unconscious. It had been a long since I’d gone up against such a tough opponent. Had she been in better health, the match could’ve gone either way. She really was that strong. I resumed my work, and soon I’d dug up a flashlight and a wireless transceiver wrapped in vinyl. I would have rather gotten by without using them if I could, though.

“What?”Right after I took those two items out of the hole, I was overcome by some mysterious sensation. I didn’t know the cause of it. Somehow, the items seemed slightly different from when I had buried them.

“Is it because of the rain?”I decided that I was probably just overthinking things, and used the transceiver. I reported my current location to the man who’d been waiting to hear about my whereabouts, and sat down to rest. About half an hour or so passed before I saw the gleam of a flashlight. It blinked twice, then three times. It was just like Morse code.

I responded with the same signal, using the flashlight that had been near my feet. The guiding light had gotten stronger, as if both lights were resonating with each other. Then I saw an irritating face that I didn’t want to see. Ryuuen appeared.

“Yo. Excellent work, Ibuki. You did well.” “Naturally, yes?”“Naturally? If you hadn’t made any mistakes until now, I wouldn’t have had to risk coming over here.”“That couldn’t be helped. I hadn’t planned for the digital camera to break.” If only the digital camera hadn’t broken, I would have taken a picture of the keycard and that would have been the end of it. I would have had my definitive proof. I wouldn’t have even needed to call Ryuuen using the transceiver. But instead, I’d had to take a huge risk and hold onto the card, which led to Horikita discovering me.

“So, where’s the card?” “It’s here.”I took it from my pocket and handed it over. Ryuuen shined his flashlight on the card and confirmed that the name “Horikita Suzune” was clearly engraved upon it.

“You come over here and confirm it, too. That was your condition, remember? Relax, it’s dark out, and this weather is horrible. There shouldn’t be anyone here. It’s great to be cautious, but don’t waste time.”A man appeared from the shadows. Katsuragi, from Class A. He was definitely the calm and dependable type, the complete opposite of our leader. I pretended to be calm, but in my mind I couldn’t help but be reminded again of Ryuuen’s awfulness. Immediately after the test had started, Ryuuen told me that he would coax Class A into helping us. Apparently he’d done it. But how in the world?Katsuragi took Horikita’s card from Ryuuen and looked it over it carefully. You couldn’t have made a fake or anything on this uninhabited island.

“It looks like the real thing,” he said. “Are you convinced now?”Although he’d been shown definitive proof, Katsuragi’s sternexpression didn’t change. I’d heard he was a cautious man, but to bethis paranoid seemed like a unique kind of illness.

“You managed to infiltrate Class D quite well. Weren’t you suspected?”“Under normal circumstances, I would have been. But as for mymethods, that’s a trade secret.”I unconsciously rubbed my cheek. When we began our spy operation in Class D, Ryuuen slapped me to turn a lie into the truth. But the pain and the hatred I felt toward him were all quite real. Naturally, the students in Class D misunderstood, and thought I’d been beaten and chased out of my class. Maybe if I hadn’t been injured, theywouldn’t have swallowed the lie so smoothly.

“Don’t sit there and think about it forever. The situation is black-and- white, so make your decision. You’re already halfway there. Don’t do something as stupid as pulling out here.”“You’re right.”Despite that, it didn’t seem like Katsuragi had given his consent. Ryuuen noticed this, but rather than get annoyed, he smiled. As if he were getting ready to attack his prey, he whispered, “If this wasn’t an honorable deed, then what are you going to do? Did you know that Sakayanagi’s faction has dominated ever since rumors spread that you failed to get on the student council despite your bestefforts? This might be your chance, right?” “You bastard. Why are you telling me this?”“Class A maintains its position by forming alliances. If you can form those, even those who have double-crossed you will return under your wing, won’t they? Or you could make me your enemy, I suppose? If you do, I wonder what would happen?”Katsuragi hadn’t signed a contract with the devil, but this was much more than a simple negotiation. Well, perhaps that line of thinking was naïve. Once you discussed terms with the devil, you ended up making a contract one way or another.

“Sakayanagi is absent. It’s impossible for someone indecisive to rule Class A.”“We’ve established negotiations, as promised. I accept your proposal.”With that, Katsuragi stretched out his hand to Ryuuen, who smiled audaciously.

“That’s good. You’ve exercised sound judgment.”“Wait, what negotiation? Would you explain?” I asked.

They were free to do whatever they wanted, but I had a right to know the details. When I aimed for Class A, I had to decide if being close to Ryuuen was the right thing to do.

“To form an alliance. With Class A.”“I’ll be heading back now. I don’t want to risk things by lingering for too long.” Katsuragi returned the card to me, and disappeared into the darkness.

“What about the negotiation? What was discussed? What are we getting in return?”A flash of white lightning crackled through the air. Thunder came crashing down immediately afterward, a roaring sound coming from the sea. Ryuuen didn’t even twitch an eyebrow. He told me the details of the contract with a creepy smile on his face. The detailsweren’t really complex, but they weren’t simple, either.

Even with our problems piling up one after the other, making it really difficult to achieve anything, there was the promise of a huge return. Everything was going according to Ryuuen’s plan, including the fact that most of our students had retired. None of us had imagined this situation before the test had begun, when we were enjoying our holiday on the boat. I hated him so much that I wanted to die, but I supposed he was probably the man with abilities closest to those of Class A, after all. I had to acknowledge it.

“But…is there any guarantee Katsuragi will keep his promise? He might renege.”“I have that covered, of course. He will have no choice but to honor his promise.”I walked toward Horikita and, after carefully wiping my fingerprints from the keycard, stuck it back in her hand. There was nothing this girl could have done. All she could do now was endure and keep silent until the end of the test, all while knowing that Class C had discovered she was the leader.

This girl didn’t trust anyone. Even after she knew the keycard had been stolen, she hadn’t reported it to her classmates. Even though she’d opened up her heart to Ayanokouji alone, he was a loner, too. If we factored in her current incompetence, she wasn’t any threat.

Besides, if she had the keycard, then her mistake might not have been leaked to Class D yet. I understood her nature, to a certainextent. She was patient and stubborn, the type of person who didn’t listen to other people’s opinions. In other words, no matter how painful something was, she would endure it silently.

“Use your smarts to protect yourself.”Then we disappeared quietly into the dark woods.

6.10I kicked off from the wet ground and chased Ibuki. The weather was a bothersome problem. If it got much worse, I might get stuck or have an accident. Also, the fact that the sun was going down earlier than I’d anticipated made it difficult to push forward without a flashlight. The passing showers grew even stronger, and the winds started to howl more violently. The weather was just negative all around, no favorable points at all.

I could only see a few meters ahead because of the pouring rain.

Also, if I wandered onto any of the side roads, I’d probably get lost. Thankfully, two pairs of footprints remained in the muddy ground and made it easy for me to follow after them. The footprints just suddenly stopped, though. No, on second glance, they didn’t stop; they continued deeper into the forest.

The fact that the footprints suddenly took a sharp turn meant they hadn’t gotten lost, but rather that they’d intentionally ventured deeper into the forest. When I pointed my flashlight toward the depths of the forest, I saw the two pairs of footprints going deeper and deeper. There was no reason for them to intentionally enter such a dangerous place.

Just to be sure, I tried shining the flashlight on the route that led to the beach, but there weren’t any footprints. The ground was clear. I wiped away the rain dripping from my bangs, and followed the footprints deeper into the forest. Naturally, my visibility got even worse. It was like night had already fallen. The atmosphere was creepy and dark, but I pushed forward, relying only on the footprints.

I continued forward for about thirty meters. Suddenly, a bright light entered my field of vision. I immediately turned the flashlight off and held my breath. Looking in the direction of the light, I saw it shine once, then twice more. A flashlight. It was almost as if someone weresending a signal. Was it Ibuki and Horikita? No, that wasn’t it.

Neither Ibuki nor Horikita should have had a light source on them. I quietly turned in the direction of the light and drew closer to the source. I heard people’s voices, muffled by the rain, and hid myself. Their conversation sounded trivial. So as long as they didn’t find me, getting a grasp on the situation was secondary.

Soon, the light moved further away. It was over, apparently. Just to be sure, I approached cautiously.

Near a large tree lay a muddy Horikita. She’d collapsed, unconscious. A single keycard lay on the ground near her hand. On her injured body were traces of excavated soil. After examining the situation, Iconfirmed that more people than Ibuki had discovered Horikita’s position as leader. After picking up the keycard, I lifted Horikita into my arms.

“Ngh…“Horikita let out a small sound. Slowly but surely, her eyes fluttered open.

“Are you awake?” I asked. “Ayano…kouji-kun?”She sounded dazed, as if she couldn’t understand the situation. “Agh… My head…hurts…"”You have a high fever. Don’t push yourself.” “I see… I-Ibuki-san… But, why are you here?”Even if I told her to sleep, Horikita wouldn’t listen, all while her fevergrew worse. She started to understand the situation little by little.

“I knew it…Ibuki-san stole my card.” “I see.”“I can’t be dumber than Sudou-kun and the others.”She chastised herself and closed her eyes, as if lamenting a situation in which she was powerless.

“This isn’t a test where you can just hide for twenty-four hours a day,right? No matter what you do, you can be open to attack.”I’d intended to keep going, but it seemed like anything more would just make the heartbroken Horikita even more depressed.

“I could’ve avoided this if I knew how to rely on someone…“To seriously protect the leader’s identity, it was necessary to depend on allies that you trusted from the bottom of your heart. If you did that, you could protect the card twenty-four hours a day. However, Horikita hadn’t made a single friend.

She kept muttering, “I’m so pathetic” to herself quietly over andover.

“When I was losing consciousness, I felt like I could hear Ryuuen’s voice… It’s strange, I thought he’d already retired…"”You were losing consciousness. Maybe you had a dream?” “If it was a dream, it was a nightmare…“I wondered if she really had heard Ryuuen’s voice. Even if she were asleep or losing consciousness, her brain had probably heard something. It wouldn’t have been strange if she picked up Ryuuen’s voice when unconscious.

“I’m sorry…“While I was silently lost in thought, Horikita apologized.

“Why are you apologizing to me?” I asked.

“There’s no one I can apologize to except for you…“Hmm. That made me think pretty hard.

“If you think things are bad, then make some reliable friends. Start there first.”“That’s difficult advice… No one would want to be with me.”It sounded like she’d resigned herself to unhappiness. Perhaps there was a trace of masochism in her. I laughed.

“It’s unpleasant to be made fun of, though…"”No, no, that’s not it,” I said. “It’s just that you’ve started to sound like you need allies.”“Nobody would say that…“Normally, Horikita would have been insulting me, but right now her words carried a different weight. She was blaming herself, or shewouldn’t have said something like that. Still, it wasn’t going to be easy. Horikita’s hollow eyes seemed to look through rather than at me.

“I should have understood this a long time ago…“You can’t live alone in the world. School and society are composed ofa great many people.

“Don’t talk. You’re sick.”I tried to convince her to be quiet, but Horikita didn’t stop. For Horikita, there had never been any choice but to rely on herself. She could have chosen no other option.

“I’m going to try to get up to Class A using my own abilities. I’ll definitely recover from this failure…” Horikita weakly grabbed my sleeve as she appealed to me. “I’m prepared to be hated byeveryone else… This was all my mistake.”“According to this school’s system, if you fight by yourself, you won’t reach Class A. We need to cooperate with our classmates. It’sunavoidable.”Horikita closed her eyes, as if lacking the strength to keep them open. Her grasp might have been weak, but I still felt it.

“I can’t accept that. No matter how hard it is, I’m still…alone.”“Ah, shut up already! Stop talking. Right now, you won’t be able to convince anyone.”I embraced Horikita tightly.

“You can’t bear every responsibility. You’re not that strong, unfortunately.”“So you’re telling me to give up? I have a dream to reach Class A, a dream for my brother to acknowledge me.”“No one said you have to give up.” I looked down at Horikita, who lightly groaned against my chest.

“If you can’t fight by yourself, it’s better to fight with a partner. I’ll lend you a hand.”“Why? You’re not the kind of person who would say such things…” “Well, why then? I wonder.”Shortly afterward, her energy was spent, and Horikita lost consciousness again. I had to carry her without anyone noticing. It would be easy to have her retire, but I didn’t know which button on the wristwatch was for emergencies. Besides, if the helicopter were suddenly dispatched, the sound would reverberate in the area.

“Hmm… Did I pick the wrong path? Oh no, oh no!”My route had ended in a steep, sheer slope. If I took one step further, I would fall. I tried shining a light below to see what it looked like about ten meters down. Unfortunately, I’d been walking in the wrong direction. Should I go back to the original route?I tried to change direction slowly, so as not to burden Horikita, butthen right after…The soil underneath me collapsed, and I lost my balance. Alone, I could have braced my legs and grasped the tree, but unfortunately, both of my hands were occupied. I couldn’t avoid falling. I curled up into a ball so I could protect Horikita as we went tumbling down the slope. For several seconds, it was like flying. I don’t remember very clearly what happened afterward.

At least Horikita hadn’t been hurt, somehow. I looked up the slope, but with the way things were now, it didn’t seem like I could crawl back up while carrying Horikita.

“Well, I sure messed up.”However, this wasn’t the time to accept defeat and die. Carrying theunconscious Horikita on my back, I ventured into the pitch-dark forest with a single flashlight. The rain poured down on us, mercilessly robbing me of my physical strength. More than anything else, the heat radiating from Horikita wasn’t normal. If she were exposed to the rain for any longer, it would become dangerous.

However, we were deep in the forest. There were no caves or man- made shelters. We had no choice but to rely on the power of nature. Fortunately, the trees were lush and overgrown, and their branches might keep our bodies relatively dry. I looked around the area, found a remarkably big tree, and moved right under it. Of course, it didn’t block the rain completely, but the overgrown leaves did stop a lot of the rainfall.

I gently laid Horikita down. Her jersey was probably going to get dirty, but we had bigger problems now. I sat there, with Horikita’s head in my lap. If only the area were cool… But the temperature was so high, hot and humid. Horikita occasionally trembled, like she was trying to curl into a ball.

Trying to lessen her burden even a little, I held Horikita close to my chest. After some time had passed, Horikita woke up, sputtering out ragged breaths. Still in a daze, Horikita wasn’t able to understand our situation.

“Why are you? I…?”She didn’t seem to remember what had happened. I explained the whole sequence of events. I had some doubts about whether she understood everything.

“I see… I remember.” “That’s good.”“I remember my mistake, so it’s probably awful.”Well, if she was able to crack self-deprecating jokes, then I could probably relax.

“It’s already almost six o’clock, Horikita. You might think this will sound harsh, but you should retire. Your body is probably at its limit.”She had made it this far by pretending to be okay, but it wasn’tpossible for her to carry on.

“I can’t do that. We can’t afford to lose thirty points because of me… I was the one who confronted Karuizawa-san and the others about using points, right? It would make me look like such an idiot…“The penalty for poor physical condition was severe. In points alone, it was more than what Karuizawa had used herself. Horikita covered her eyes with her arm, probably to hide her tears.

“Not just that… The keycard was stolen from me, too. You understand what that means?”“Class D will lose another fifty points.”Horikita gave a slight nod. Class D would only be left with a few points.

“Just leave me here and head back. If you do, I’ll be the only oneabsent from roll call.”“What are you planning to do?”“By tomorrow morning, I’ll…try to return by myself, somehow. If I can deal with my poor health during roll call, then I’ll do something about retirement.”That way, we would be left with a five-point loss.

“Things aren’t that easy. You’re feeling really weak now, and ourteacher isn’t kind enough to let you act your way past her. It will be impossible for you to get back to camp on your own.”“Still, there’s nothing else I can do… This is so Class D will have somepoints left.” Putting aside the keycard incident, we might retain some points forroll call and retirement. That certainly wasn’t a small number. “Go.”Although Horikita was weak, I felt her indomitable will behind her words. She could bear whatever burden she placed on herself, but couldn’t seem to bear involving others. I rose, and rested her head against the tree. She wanted me to leave her.

“Well then, I’ll leave. But if things continue like this, our classmateswill blame you.”“Yes. That’s the correct decision. Everything was my responsibility.”Horikita praised my cold, calculating decision. She was ashamed of herself for being weak. Trembling, she forced herself to endure the cold. This was the kind of hardship that solitary people faced. The weather was still stormy, with no signs that the rains and winds would stop.

“Can you really make it back alone by tomorrow morning?” “Yeah… I’ll be fine.”“Horikita. Do you really think that not retiring is the right decision?” Icouldn’t help blurting those words out.

“Of course I do. Retiring isn’t an option for me.”She was free to exercise her indomitable will as much as she liked,but it didn’t mean anything if she lost in the end.

“Hey. Why do you think that we’ve been backed into such a corner?”I asked.

“I failed due to my negligence. That’s all.” “You’re wrong. You’re completely wrong.” Horikita Suzune had fought as hard as she could, and had tried to get to the end of the test without making mistakes.

“Go… Because I think of you as my friend, please listen to myrequest…“After Horikita said that, she covered her mouth in surprise. “I’m going to make this right… As if it didn’t happen at all.” “No, this is the wrong choice.”“It’s fine. I can… By myself… Ugh…“Horikita suddenly stood, but the burden was too much. She closed her eyes in pain.

“Go, please…“She lost consciousness again. I gently took Horikita into my arms and shifted my position to make her a little more comfortable. Standing, I looked up at the boundless darkness and let out a sigh.

“It would have been easier if you’d just retired of your own free will.” The stubborn princess didn’t seem like she was going to throw in thetowel. Wonderful. Yes, I thought it was wonderful. You were almost right. But unfortunately, Horikita, you were wrong about one thing. Right now, just for this moment, I’ll tell you.

I have never thought of you as my friend. I’ve never cared about you as a classmate. In this world, winning is everything. Your methods don’t matter. I don’t care what I have to sacrifice. As long as I have my victory in the end, I’ll be fine.

You, Hirata—no, all other people are nothing more than tools. I was complicit in what drove you to this. So, don’t blame yourself, Horikita. You were useful to me.

I walked down the muddy road, shining my flashlight on the path. My shoes were already covered in mud and filled with water. But I didn’t care about that. First, I needed to get an understanding of the location.

When I went down the slope, I’d undoubtedly gotten further away from Class D’s base camp. But I was sure that if I turned the other way, the beach would be near. I could press on and walk through the woods for several days, relying on the map in my head.

“It was close, after all.”Eventually, I arrived at the beach. The ship was floating in the water, and the lights were on. It took a few minutes, but I returned to the place I’d left. Horikita had collapsed. She remained unconscious as I picked her up in my arms. Her beautiful face was splashed with mud.

I started walking toward the beach, rather than our base camp. Somehow, I had managed to make it on time. It was just around seven o’clock in the evening. The teachers’ tents had been taken down to avoid being blown away by the wind.

I went up the ramp to the pier and reached the ship’s deck. One ofthe teachers noticed and raced up to me.

“You’re prohibited from entering here. You’ll be disqualified.” “This is an emergency. She’s got a high fever and has lostconsciousness. Please let her rest right away.”Once I explained the situation, the teacher skipped the instructions and brought out a stretcher. I laid Horikita down.

“Is she okay with retiring?”“Without question. However, allow me to confirm one thing.

Because it isn’t eight o’clock yet, this shouldn’t have any effect on roll call, correct?” It was 7:58. I was cutting it close, but we should be safe. I needed toget the teacher’s promise, though.

“You are certainly right. It is quite close. However, you’re out.”“I understand. Oh, one more thing. I’d like to return this keycard.”I took the keycard from my pocket and handed it over.

“Well then, I’ll be heading back.”I couldn’t stay any longer, so I went back to the beach while the rain was still falling. With this, Class D would lose thirty points due to Horikita’s retirement, and an additional five points due to my absence during roll call.

Written on August 17, 2022