Prologue: Graduation Trip

Spring.

The coming of spring symbolizes many changes.

First, the changing of seasons; the moment when the snow melts and the sakura bloom. The spring breeze that flows through Japan makes it seem like the coldness of winter was nothing more than a distant memory.

Second, the changes in relationships. Over winter break, many couples would get together or break up. For those that got together, they enter spring as a new couple. For those that broke up, after the cold of winter fades, new hope can sprout and they can hopefully move forward with their lives.

For us, spring symbolizes a change in our lives, the beginning of a new chapter. Kindergarteners become new grade schoolers, grade schoolers would become new middle schoolers, and middle schoolers would become new high schoolers. And for us, a new journey awaited past high school.

Of course, for each new beginning, there is also a corresponding end. For us third year students in the Advanced Nurturing High School, spring spells the end of our three years of competition. Three years of hardships, of uncertainty, of victory and defeat, of changing relationships.

Ever since we had entered the school in April three years ago, we've been locked in fierce competition with each other to reach the final goal: to graduate as Class A and obtain all the benefits that being Class A entailed.

We've endured numerous struggles, prevailed over countless challenges, and we even had to say goodbye to some of our classmates in the process. But in the end, here we are, at the end of it all: the graduation ceremony.

In this ceremony, it all came to a head. The winner of our three years of battles would forever be engraved into the annals of this school's history. At the end of the final special exam, all the classes had class points so close to each other that no one was guaranteed to win. Not only that, the results of the final special were not even released, so nobody knew who won.

"Next, I want to invite the students who, after three years of hard work, have graduated in Class A up to the stage. Class A's representative..."

This was it, the moment of truth. Whoever would be called up to the stage as the valedictorian would spell the victor.

Would it be Horikita, who struggled for victory with the class after having been placed at the bottom? Or maybe it was the genius Sakayanagi, who had kept Class A at the top since the beginning? Could it be Ryūen who had used tricks and deceptions of all sorts to reach this far after having been beaten in first year? Or would it be Ichinose, who held her class together throughout it all even after having fallen so far?

At this point, it could be anyone. Tensions were high. Everyone was on the edge of their seat. Then... the next words decided it all.

"Horikita Suzune, please come up to the stage."

The moment that name was called up, various expressions could be seen. Some people were overjoyed. Some had tears in their eyes. Others had expressions of regret and bitterness. Still others had congratulatory looks or looks of contentment, recognizing the hard work and effort that the winning class had given.

However, whether it be joy or sadness, regret or contentment, the feelings that everyone experienced in these past three years would always remain precious to us. Our time in this school would soon be over, but the memories we had made would accompany us into the future and whatever it may hold.

"Still, it really was quite a short period," I whispered.

Three years had passed so quickly for me. It felt like I had only passed through the school gates just yesterday. When I first entered, I thought that these three years would be my only years of reprieve before I went back into a cage.

But as the years passed, I grew in ways I had never known possible. I had drastically changed from when I first entered, and now, I would continue to change. No longer was I chained to my past. I would now actively create my own future, whatever it would be.

'And whatever future I would make, I would do it with her beside me,' I thought as I glanced at the person seated next to me.

It was a girl with waist length hair, tied into a ponytail. She was silently watching Horikita give her speech.

The girl was Karuizawa Kei, my girlfriend. We had been together since the end of our first year, and although there were many bumps in our relationship, our relationship had grown to the point that I could not imagine a future without her.

We had faced so much adversity together over our three years together, spent so much time together, and shared so many experiences and emotions that, in the end, she had become the closest person to me and the person I held most precious in this world.

As if sensing me glance at her, Kei turned her head slightly to glance back at me from the corner of her eyes. Kei and I had become so close that we could communicate a lot of things with each other just through our eyes.

'I'll be with you always too, Kiyotaka,' was what her eyes told me she was thinking. It was a warm and fuzzy feeling, something that I would never have imagined feeling when I first came here. That warmth had changed me throughout these three years.

Suddenly, a soft feeling entered my hand. Glancing down, I saw that Kei was now holding my right hand in her left, as if to reassure me of her feelings and her conviction. Looking back at Kei, she just gave me a gentle smile before turning back to listen to Horikita's speech.

'There are some things I cannot win at, it seems,' I thought as I too turned back to listen to Horikita give her speech, with my and Kei's hands still intertwined.

Eventually, the graduation ceremony ended. The graduating students stuck around for a bit to reminisce on the last three years ago together and ask each other what their plans were moving forward.

"Kiyotaka, I'll go talk to the other girls, alright?" Kei said as she looked over to where the other girls were already grouped together and talking.

"Okay. Let's meet just in front of the entrance then," I said. I also had people I wanted to talk to before I left. Kei and I parted ways temporarily as we each went to talk to the people we wanted to talk to.

Kei had gone to talk to Satō, Matsushita, and the others. It was expected since she was their close friend and the leader of the girls for the last three years. It would probably be a while before they got together again since everyone lived in different places across the country.

Meanwhile, I went to my destination: a small corner of the auditorium where a certain group had assembled.

"Ku ku ku... if it isn't Ayanokōji. Here to gloat over your victory?" one of them said.

Ryūen Kakeru had performed admirably during the second and third year. He had grown to the point where even Sakayanagi had trouble dealing with him.

"Now, Ryūen-kun, we should show some respect to the victors. Congratulations, Ayanokōji-kun, for graduating as Class A," another said.

Sakayanagi Arisu, the leader of Class A... my bad, Class B. She had not only held her spot as Class A until right before the very end, but she was also one of the greatest adversaries I have had. If she didn't have her health condition, I'm sure she would have been an even more fearsome foe.

"Ryūen, Sakayanagi, you did well these past three years. I haven't had this much fun... well... since I was born, to be frank."

"Tsk. So in the end, it was still pretty much a game for you, huh?"

"Well, this is Ayanokōji-kun we're talking about. Still, Ayanokōji-kun, I had quite a lot of fun myself. The next time we meet again, please be my opponent once again," Sakayanagi said.

"Sure, Sakayanagi. You two have been pretty good opponents over the past three years. I'll take you two on anytime."

"Next time, Ayanokōji, I'll make sure you will be the one who will lose. So don't lose before we meet again."

"It'd be nice if you could beat me. It's not fun if you're always the one winning anyways."

"This bastard... I'll make sure you eat your words."

"Fu fu fu, I don't think so. You'll have to wait in line, Ryūen-kun. I'll be taking Ayanokōji-kun's first time, after all."

The clatter of something falling to the ground sounded right behind us. The three of us looked in that direction and saw a cylindrical case containing a diploma had been dropped. The owner of it was red in the face and staring straight at us.

"Sa-Sa-Sakayanagi-san, what do you mean you'll be taking Ayanokōji-kun's first time!?"

"Arara? Ichinose-san, it's good to see you."

The owner of the fallen diploma was Ichinose Honami. Although she had ended up as Class D in the end, the school recognized their class for being the only one that had ended up with no one expelled throughout their three years, a feat that had never before been achieved, or even thought possible.

"Ichinose, huh? Congratulations. You made it to graduation with all forty of you."

Ichinose bent down to retrieve her fallen diploma before taking time to compose herself again.

"Congratulations to you and... Class A, Ayanokōji-kun," Ichinose said. She had probably been about to say Class C, which is what our class had been right before the final special exam, but had caught herself at the last moment.

"It's pretty hard to believe you got all the way to Class A from having zero class points at the end of the first month of school," she continued.

To be honest, it was pretty hard to believe too. Right before the final special exam, even Horikita was really nervous since she couldn't believe that we were one step away from Class A from having almost nothing.

"I thought so too."

I agreed with her. It was true that the capability and possibility were there even at a massive disadvantage. However, as Horikita Manabu had said to me at the end of our first year, you fight together with your class. Even perfect people could still be defeated, and that had never been more true than the times we competed with the other classes. In all honesty, there were quite a few near-misses when we competed with Sakayanagi and Ryūen.

"Right? Anyways, that's not important anymore! Sa-Sakayanagi-san, what did you mean you would take Ayanokōji-kun's first time!?"

"What would you be talking about, Ichinose-san?" Sakayanagi said, with a slight smile on her face.

"T-t-that... I mean... i-it couldn't be anything o-other than..." Ichinose stammered her words at Sakayanagi's teasing.

"Other than what, Ichinose-san? I was just referring to me eventually being the first person to beat Ayanokōji-kun in a serious one-on-one match."

"Hey, Sakayanagi! That's not right. I'll be the first one to beat Ayanokōji!" Ryūen exclaimed.

"Match?"

"Of course. Don't tell me... you thought it was something... ecchi? I didn't know that Ichinose-san was actually a closet pervert."

"That's not it! Ayanokōji-kun, it definitely isn't like what she said!" Ichinose denied strongly.

Ichinose... if you deny it that strongly, you just end up becoming more suspicious.

"So Ichinose still acts like a maiden in front of Ayanokōji, huh?" Ryūen remarked.

"... You can say that cause you don't have anyone you like, Ryūen-kun."

At some point last year, word had spread that Ichinose liked me. When she had eventually confessed, although I thanked her for her feelings, I rejected her firmly because I already had Kei. Still, even though she was turned down, feelings were hard to let go of. That was something I had learned from my experience with Satō.

I didn't comment on the topic more because it would be rude to bring up the topic of Ichinose's feelings towards me, thus I decided to switch the topic to something that we could all talk about.

"So what are everyone's plans for the future?"

It was quite a sudden shift in topic, but the others understood why I did it. Ichinose breathed a sigh of relief at having the conversation steered away from her, while Ryūen and Sakayanagi seemed a bit disappointed that their source of entertainment was taken away from them.

"I might study to become a social worker. It would be nice to be able to lend a hand to the less fortunate, don't you think?"

"Heh. How typical of you, Ichinose. Even now, you still spout out those ideals of saving everyone."

"My 'ideals' kept my class at forty students. I can't say the same for you, Ryūen-kun."

"Well, I'm going to be the one to beat Ayanokōji in the end. That's all that matters to me now. Ayanokōji, I hope you'll be taking business. I'll make sure to build a business so large, it'll take yours down. You'll be begging me to work for you, in the end."

"Fu fu fu, Ayanokōji-kun, you should ignore this brute. It'd be such a waste of your talents to go into something as simple as business."

"Oi, Sakayanagi!" Ryūen exclaimed, as he turned to Sakayanagi.

"You should consider working at this school in the future. I'll one day be taking over my father's position as chairman, but I don't mind being a homeroom teacher for a few good years to compete against you. I do think you have quite a talent for taking care of people," Sakayanagi continued.

"I'll keep your offer in mind, Sakayanagi. I'm still considering what to do. I'll let you guys know about it. That said, I think we should exchange numbers," I proposed.

The four of us exchanged numbers with each other.

"By the way, this might be a bit late, but where's Horikita-san?" Ichinose asked.

"Horikita? I haven't seen her around. I assume she's talking to other people."

Although I said that, I didn't really know who she would be talking to. The best guess I had was the student council members from the second year.

"Is that so? That's a shame. I'd like to have talked to her at least once before we left. I guess I'll have a chance before we leave on the 31st," Sakayanagi said."

"Kiyotaka!"

The voice of Kei called out to me. Instead of waiting by the entrance, it had appeared she had chosen to look for me instead. I might have kept her waiting.

"Mou, what's taking you so long? The others are already waiting outside. Hurry up!"

"Karuizawa, huh? So you're still hanging around Ayanokōji?" Ryūen said with a smirk.

"Of course. No thanks to you," Kei growled.

"C'mon. You should thank me for what happened on the rooftop that day. If it hadn't been for that, Ayanokōji wouldn't have rescued you. Who knows, he might have only fallen for you because he felt obliged to keep protecting you."

"Why you, I ought to..." Kei got fired up from Ryūen's remark.

"That's enough, Kei. You too, Ryūen. If you keep antagonizing my girlfriend, I might not play with you anymore."

"Well, I wouldn't want that. Anyways, I guess I should be leaving then. Later then, Sakayanagi, Ichinose, Ayanokōji. Karuizawa, I'll play with you some other time."

"I'll also be taking my leave. I wouldn't want to interfere with time between you two. Besides, my classmates are probably waiting for me too," Ichinose said. Despite her lingering feelings, she was especially considerate towards Kei and I.

Seeing that Ryūen and Ichinose were leaving, I felt that it was time that Kei and I started leaving too.

"Sakayanagi, I think we should be going as well. Some of the second-years wanted to see me after the ceremony. Horikita might be with them as well."

"I see. Take care then, Ayanokōji-kun, Karuizawa-san," Sakayanagi said, bidding us farewell.

"You too, I guess, Sakayanagi-san," Kei said unsurely in response to Sakayanagi. The two didn't really interact that much so it was expected that there would be some awkwardness.

We turned to leave. However, before we got too far, Sakayanagi called out. What was surprising was that it wasn't me, but Kei, who she called out to.

"Karuizawa-san, take care of Ayanokōji-kun, okay. He's my precious childhood friend. If you don't, then I will," she said with a knowing smile on her face, before walking away, her cane in hand.

"... You don't need to tell me that," Kei muttered under her breath. "Let's go, Kiyotaka."

We walked out to the entrance where we would meet the second-years. Although Kei didn't show it on her face, I could tell that she had been disturbed a bit by Sakayanagi's parting words. Still, considering that she had put up a tough front, I thought it best not to point it out to respect her efforts.

As we went out the entrance of the auditorium, we were greeted by the sight of many of the underclassmen greeting the graduating seniors farewell. Some of them were juniors saying farewell to their club seniors. Others were people who had somehow gotten along with upperclassmen during the special exams.

We waded through the crowd of students to see familiar faces. The group of second-year students we were going to meet was ironically the group of first year students who were after the bounty on me back in our second year.

"Ayanokōji-senpai, over here!" A familiar second-year had called out to me.

As we got closer, it became clear who had called out to us.

The one who called out to us was a girl from Class 2-C, formerly, 1-D, Nanase Tsubasa. At the beginning, we had been at odds, but had gotten close during the 2nd Uninhabited Island Exam. Now, we were as close as the senpais and kōhais that you would see in clubs.

"Ayanokōji-senpai, congratulations on graduating as Class A," the lone boy in the group said with a stoic expression. The boy shook my hand with a firm grip as he said that.

Next to him was a girl who was just staring at us from nearby with a lollipop in her mouth. The other girl, who had been with the three of them a moment prior, had gone over to Kei's side and began harassing her.

The boy, Utomiya Riku, and the girl with the lollipop, Tsubaki Sakurako, were from Class 1-C, now 2-B. We ended up competing quite a few times over the past two years during inter-year special exams, and had grown to have a certain degree of respect for each other.

"Thanks, Utomiya. By the way, congratulations to you and Tsubaki for reaching Class B. Considering your rough start, I can't imagine it was easy."

At the start of their first year, one of their classmates had been suddenly expelled, giving them a major disadvantage in manpower and class points. The fact that they had climbed to Class B with that disadvantage hanging over them just went to show how much effort they had put in.

"It was tough, but we managed somehow," Tsubaki replied, having taken the lollipop out of her mouth. Her words were brief and quite straight to the point, as expected of her.

"Well, make sure to not rest on your laurels. You still have a bit to go before reaching Class A. Besides, Nanase's class is right behind you on points."

"Ayanokōji-senpai, it would be nice if they gave us a break. It'll make it easier for us to overtake them next year," Nanase said.

"Really now? Overtake us? We'll see about that," Tsubaki said, narrowing her eyes.

The two of them have developed quite the rivalry between them. I wasn't quite sure whether it was a friendly rivalry or not, to be honest.

I patted Nanase's head to calm her down a bit. She blushed a bit in embarrassment at being treated like a kid.

"Just stay focused, the three of you. You never know what'll happen by this time next year. By the way, Nanase, thanks for your help all this time."

"No, it's my pleasure, senpai. Thanks to you, I was able to avenge Eiichirou a bit, in the end."

Nanase had helped me throughout the last two years against my father's plans to bring me back to the White Room. There were a few times where it would have been a close call without her help, so I was grateful for that.

"I see. Just don't forget that you need to live for yourself too."

"Yes, senpai. I understand that."

She knew that the time for revenge was gone and that it was time for her to move forward herself. As long as she was aware of that, I felt that she would be able to progress, regardless of whether she got to Class A or not.

"By the way, the three of you, couldn't you reign in Amasawa a bit? Kei's getting annoyed already."

"Senpai, you know that trying to do that isn't going to work," Utomiya said, sighing.

The last member of the group we were meeting was Amasawa Ichika. She was the girl who had gone over to harass Kei. She and Kei got along like cats and dogs. Least to say, she was the most troublesome and annoying of the bunch. I could not recount how many times Amasawa had interfered with our dates.

Over the last two years, Amasawa constantly managed to interfere with our time alone together. On dates, she'd 'coincidentally' bump into us. When we'd gather in my room, she'd turn up at the door, asking me to cook for her. Even at the school building, she'd pass by during lunch, asking to eat with us. It was really troublesome for me, plus it got on Kei's nerves a lot.

"Amasawa, that's enough. Stop messing with Kei already," I called out to her.

If I let her continue, Kei might just blow her top, what with Amasawa's personality and Kei getting constantly annoyed at her. Still, it wasn't like Kei hated her. Although the both of them had quite the bad start, the sight of them bantering (although some people say it looked one-sided) had become a regular occurrence going into the third year.

"Okay, Ayanokōji-senpai. As you wish," she said giggling.

Amasawa moved away from Kei and went back to stand next to the other three second-years. Meanwhile, Kei, who had finally been relieved from having to deal with Amasawa, looked a lot more haggard than she did a minute ago.

"Finally! Really, can't Amasawa-san just leave me alone?" Kei groaned out. It seemed like she had finally had enough. For her, Amasawa was probably ruining her memories of graduation.

"But Karuizawa-senpai, I thought we were good friends, like a normal senpai and kōhai should be."

"If that's how a normal senpai and kōhai act, I don't want to be friends with you."

"You hurt my feelings, Karuizawa-senpai," she said, acting like she was hurt by Kei's words.

Kei glared at Amasawa, who was acting very mischievous, while hiding behind my back. I just sighed at their interaction.

"Senpai, so what will you be doing from now on?" Nanase asked.

At hearing this, Utomiya and Amasawa paid closer attention to me, anticipating what I would say next. Even Tsubaki had slowed down her sucking of the lollipop to hear what I was going to say.

"From now on, huh? ... no clue," I said. "To be honest, a part of me thought I'd never make it to graduation."

"Ehh? But senpai, I couldn't imagine you being expelled. Even at the worst of times, it felt like you had so much control," Nanase exclaimed.

Nearby, Utomiya was nodding alongside her. As someone who had competed with me multiple times, even he recognized me as someone whose abilities guaranteed me to graduate from the school.

"I hold the same thoughts as well, Ayanokōji-senpai. Having faced you, by this point, I couldn't imagine you being expelled by any means," Utomiya said with a discerning look.

Tsubaki didn't say anything, but it was clear from her look that she agreed with Utomiya's words. As the one who came up with most of their class's plans, she had the misfortune of having several of them fail against me. Each and every plan to get one up on me had failed miserably in the end.

"There's no way someone like Ayanokōji-senpai would get expelled from this school. Not against this level of competition. People like us can't possibly lose against them," Amasawa said with confidence.

Her being from the White Room had given her unparalleled abilities compared to normal people, which gave her confidence that she wouldn't be beaten if she became serious.

"You'd be surprised, Amasawa. The people around you are growing as well. That's just the nature of this school. Even at the very end, you can't let your guard down a single bit. Besides, you can't really say much about that when you're the one who's fallen down to Class D."

"I'll think about taking things seriously next year," Amasawa said nonchalantly, dismissing the fact that she was currently at the bottom.

Because Amasawa had played around for most of the past year and because Takahashi wasn't that much of a leader, the class had fallen down to Class D, although they were only Class D by a really small margin.

I stared at the sky and reminisced about words that were said to me around two years ago.

"One of my senpais from when I was a first-year told me that even against a perfect person, there are ways to win. It wasn't impossible for me to have been expelled suddenly," I said, recalling Horikita Manabu's final words in this school.

"You'll understand next year."

The second-years said nothing. Coming from me, it seemed like what I said was something hard to digest given my abilities, but I believed that, deep down, they understood what I meant. Even now, when their class points were so close to each other, the competition between them was heating up and the stakes would only rise from here on.

"By the way, Utomiya, have you seen Horikita? I thought she would have been with you."

"Yes, senpai. She was with us just a moment ago. I believe that she went to go see Yagami-kun to give some final advice."

Of the second-years, only three I knew of had become student council members. They were Utomiya, Takahashi, and Yagami. I wasn't especially close to Yamagi, so he didn't come to greet me. Nanase, too, was invited to the student council, but she had declined in favor of being free to help me out.

"I see. Yagami, huh? Got it. Thanks."

Yagami had been the one elected as student council president. Among the second-year students on the student council, it was clear that he had the best abilities. Still, the point differences weren't that far that the others couldn't reach Class A if they worked hard enough.

"We'll be taking our leave now, and thanks for coming all this way to greet us."

We had been talking with the second-years for a while. It was time that we started looking for Horikita before she got mad at us.

"Thank you so much, senpai! I learnt a lot from you. Take care! Let's meet again after we graduate!" Nanase said.

"Take care and congratulations once again, Ayanokōji-senpai. We'll work hard to reach Class A. And yes, I agree with Nanase. It would be good to meet you again in the future," Utomiya bade farewell.

Tsubaki didn't say anything, but she gave a wave to see us off.

"Bye bye, Ayanokōji-senpai. I'll come find you after I graduate! You too, Karuizawa-senpai!" Ichika said to us.

"Please don't look for us..." Kei said with an annoyed look.

With that, we bade farewell to the group of second-years. As we left, Kei just gave a sigh of relief. Having become very heated talking to Amasawa, she was relieved that we had left them.

"Seriously, that girl... no matter how much time passes, I'll never get used to her. She should be grateful that I haven't hit her once for all the antics she's pulled on us so far."

"Just leave it be, Kei. You won't have to deal with her anymore after we graduate."

"That's true... unless she somehow becomes even more of a stalker and follows us after graduation. That would really be the worst. I don't think I'd be able to handle it. I might have to kill her if that happens."

"I doubt that'll happen. She'll probably find her own path after graduation."

Kei raised an eyebrow at my words. She had a look of doubt at my words. To be fair, I could understand her feelings. After all, I didn't really believe my own words. That was just the kind of person Amasawa was.

"Well, if that happens, I'm counting on you to tell her off."

"Yes, yes, I will."

I, too, found it a hassle to deal with Amasawa, but Kei found it even worse to deal with her, so I had to be the one to deal with her in her stead.

Eventually, we ran into Yōsuke, Sudō, and Horikita. They were discussing something amongst themselves in a heated manner.

"I'm telling you, we should go to the beach! The beach is where it's at."

"We could go to the beach anytime. It doesn't need to be now. What's your aim, Sudō-kun?"

"I'm sure Sudō-kun has his reasons, Horikita-san."

"I'm sure they're impure reasons."

"It's not like that, Suzune!"

"What are you guys even talking about?" Kei and I had approached them wondering what they were talking about.

"Ahhh. Karuizawa-san and Kiyotaka-kun." It was Yōsuke replying. "They're arguing about where we should go for our graduation trip."

Right, the graduation trip. After the last special examination, although we weren't sure if we were going to graduate as Class A, we decided among ourselves that we wanted to go somewhere in order to celebrate the efforts we've made over the past three years.

Originally, it was supposed to be the five of us, with Mii-chan, who Yōsuke had only recently started to go out with, accompanying us. Unfortunately, Mii-chan said that she would probably visit her relatives back in China after graduation and wouldn't be able to come, but she insisted that we should go and have fun regardless, and that she would accompany us the next time.

"Really? They still haven't decided!?"

Kei let out an exasperated sigh. Since Kei and I were fine with any place, we decided to leave the decisions to Yōsuke, Sudō, and Horikita. However, since Yōsuke was the type to take a neutral stance, it was essentially up to Sudō and Horikita.

Unfortunately, neither Sudō and Horikita could come to a consensus on where to go. Although, they've gotten a lot closer, especially in the third year, there were just some things they couldn't agree on.

"I still think that we should go to a beach. Maybe somewhere like Okinawa?"

"You are still an uncultured fool, I see. We've already been to a couple of beaches in the last three years. Why go to another one? Maybe you should learn to appreciate the value of Japan's cultural heritage."

"But we never got to really enjoy those times! Every time we went to a beach, we were in the middle of an exam. We hardly had any time to relax."

Sudō did make a good point in that we never got to enjoy the beaches we went to, but I doubt that was his main reason. He probably just wanted to see Horikita in a swimsuit.

The argument between Sudō and Horikita went on for another minute. Eventually, Kei had had enough of the constant bickering.

"Mou! If you two can't decide, then I'll decide for you. Kyōto, and I won't take a no for an answer. Sudō-kun, you make a point, but I don't want to see another beach for a while. It just reminds me of those gruesome tests, and that's not what I want for our graduation trip."

Kei intervened out of impatience. If Sudō and Horikita were left to decide, we'd never be able to decide where to go. Although Sudō usually followed Horikita's lead, when it comes to his things that have nothing to do with the class standings, he can become quite vocal, leading to situations where Sudō and Horikita would argue for long periods of time.

It was a good thing that Kei intervened. Still, it was curious why she chose Kyōto. Even as Kei's boyfriend, I can't say I completely understand her. The only thing I could guess is that Kei chose Kyōto since it's big enough that we can split off from the group and have some time alone to ourselves viewing the sights.

"See, Sudō-kun. Even Karuizawa-san agrees with me. It's too bad for you, but our destination's been decided. Majority wins, after all. Besides, you might finally graduate from being uncultured."

Horikita shot a smirk at Sudō, having gotten the upper hand.

"Urgh..." Sudō had no retort anymore since he had gotten outvoted.

"It's okay, Sudō-kun. We can probably go to a beach in the summer."

Yōsuke did his best to console Sudō, although he did seem excited at the thought of going to Kyōto himself. A few months ago, we had talked about our lives before high school and he said that he had never visited the Kansai area before.

Having finally reached a decision, our group split the tasks for the preparations for our trip. Yōsuke was in charge of booking our transportation to Kyōto and finding places where we could eat during the trip. Next, Sudō and Horikita were in charge of our accommodations. Finally, Kei and I were in charge of researching various destination spots to visit.

Once we had our assignments, the five of us started walking back to the dorms, taking in what may possibly be one of the last views we would have of the campus we called home for the past three years. It was a bittersweet thought that this place was not only our battleground, but also where we made our most precious memories.

"By the way, Horikita, I ran into Utomiya earlier. He said you were talking to Yagami?"

"That's right. As my successor, I just gave him some advice on how to handle his term. He was quite grateful for it too."

After falling down to Class D for a brief period, Ichinose had opted not to take the helm of Student Council President in order to focus on helping her class. This left Horikita, the only other second-year, as the inevitable successor to Nagumo, whose term only ended when he graduated.

Due to the lack of available time and for the sake of fairness, the school had agreed to make the term period of Horikita as SC President last from the start of the year until the end of February. The succeeding presidents would then be given 11 month terms until such a point where the term would end in December.

Normally, the term would last until mid-October, prior to Nagumo's term, but he had made some good points in regards to the preparedness of the succeeding officers, resulting in Horikita offering a compromise.

"How did it feel, by the way, to walk in the same shoes your brother walked in two years ago?"

Horikita stopped for a bit and thought about the answer to my question seriously.

"I feel like I finally understand the things that nii-sama saw and the pressure he felt as student council president. Although we have very different circumstances, I can appreciate how much effort he had put into his work and into this school."

Having gone through the entire year as SC President, Horikita had undergone all the trials and adversities that her brother had once undertaken. With this, she had gained a new perspective that she would otherwise never have gotten had I not pushed her into the student council back in second year.

Horikita remained pensive throughout the entire walk back to the dorm. The four of us too didn't say anything further as there was no need for more words. The only thing we could do was to hold on to the last bits of our high school lives left.


Soon enough, it was time for us to leave campus. It was now time to leave behind this school and take our first steps as the future leaders of Japan that this school had molded us into becoming.

Our plan was to go straight for our graduation trip after leaving the school premises. As apologies for the trouble my father had wrought on the school during our third year and the scandal that the school had faced when news of the White Room had leaked, the school had given us special permission after the final special exam to contact a relative or guardian.

Horikita used this opportunity to contact her brother regarding what had happened in order to ease him of the worry that may have been generated when the news had spread. During that time, she also brought up the idea of the graduation trip to him.

Horikita Manabu had agreed to partially finance the trip as a graduation gift for his sister as he saw the need for us to take a break after what had happened. As for the rest of the money needed for the trip, we would give us an advance which we would have to pay back to him in installments.

As we were about to board the bus leaving campus, I took a look back at this campus where my life had changed. We had so many memories here, both good and bad. It was a shame to finally have to leave it. I felt a bit sad, knowing my stay here was finally over.

"If only our time here would last a little longer," I said to no one in particular. However, Kei, who was standing beside me, heard me.

"Un~... It's a little sad leaving this place behind. This was the place where we met, struggled, fell in love, and became who we are now. I hope we can return to this place one day."

"Yeah..." I said a bit wistfully.

"It's time to go, Kiyotaka," Kei said, aware of my sudden longing for the school that I was now about to leave.

It was a very emotional moment for me, especially considering that when I had entered this school, I was like a robot in terms of emotionality. I took this moment to catch my last glimpse of the school. Kei stood beside me, holding my hand, and stared at the school and its scenery.

"It's not the end, you know. One day, I'm sure we'll be able to come back here. Definitely."

Although she had nothing to back it up, Kei said those words so confidently. I, on the other hand, was the one who couldn't believe her words so easily.

"You sound really confident, Kei. What makes you say that with such a strong belief?"

Kei thought about it for a while, before flashing a serene smile at me.

"A woman's intuition, I guess. This place is our fated place, a place of destiny. I'm sure fate will lead us back here again one day."

Although there was no way to prove it, I had seen the surprising accuracy of womens' intuition enough times to have to believe in it now.

Kei saw my expression change from disbelief to belief. She gave me a confident smile and planted a chaste kiss on my lips. Then, still holding my hand, she led me to the bus.

The bus ride from the school was quiet, despite the amount of students onboard. Everyone was probably a little sad to have to leave the school. Our high school life, the symbol of our youth, was now over. Everyone had lingering attachments to the school where they spent the most precious time of their youth.

The five of us, too, didn't say anything. Now was the time for us to reminisce on our high school life. There would be time for everything else later, after all. While the memories were still fresh in our minds, this was the moment to reflect on the past three years.

Eventually, the five of us were dropped off at Shinagawa Station, where we would board the Shinkansen headed to Kyōto. Despite the fact that we had graduated as Class A and were now on our graduation trip, the mood was still a bit somber.

After a while, seemingly tired of the sad mood, Yōsuke spoke up in a soft voice so he wouldn't be heard by other passengers.

"Sometimes, I can't believe we managed to graduate. It was really tough, wasn't it? All those academic exams and special exams really gave us so much trouble."

"Yeah. They sure were troublesome. Sometimes, I don't know how I survived half of those exams near the end, much less Sudō-kun," Kei agreed.

"Hey! I got decent grades towards the end. What about you, Karuizawa? Even in the end, your grades were just average, and you weren't great physically either."

"Huh!? Don't be even more of an idiot, Sudō-kun. Do you know how difficult it is to have to manage all the girls in the class? You think you could do it!? It must have been really easy for you, only having to do what Horikita-san tells you to. Besides, if it weren't for Kiyotaka and Horikita-san, you wouldn't have even lasted two months in school. How do you think you even passed the first midterm?"

Whoops. It seems that in the heat of the moment, Kei accidentally said something I asked her to keep secret. Not that it matters anymore, I suppose.

"Is that true, Ayanokōji, Suzune?" Sudou looked at us surprised.

"That's right, Sudō-kun. If Ayanokōji-kun and I hadn't paid 100,000 points on your behalf, you wouldn't have passed that first midterm exam. Know your place." Horikita dealt a considerably large blow to Sudō's pride.

The friendly banter that emerged from the discussion had lifted our moods considerably. We started talking about our favorite moments from school, the relationships between people such as Ike and Shinohara, things such as Ibuki's obsession with watching movies, who would win amongst the new third-years, and more.

The previously heavy atmosphere surrounding us had lifted considerably. That's right. Even if we would no longer be able to spend time in that school, its presence would remain carved in our hearts until the end.

We would always remember our time at the Advanced Nurturing High School. That much was certain.

Soon enough, we were halfway to Kyōto when something unexpected happened.

At the time, Kei had fallen asleep, her head lying on my shoulder. Sudō was looking up some basketball videos on his phone. Horikita and Yōsuke were discussing the pros and cons of the universities they were planning on attending. A peaceful scene... but not for much longer.

All of a sudden, the overhead lights started flickering on and off. It was odd, but it wasn't much of a cause for concern.

What came next was what startled everyone on the train.

Normally, even at high speeds, the Shinkansen was very stable. It truly was a technological marvel unique to Japan. Thousands of people ride the Shinkansen every day and it was maintained by the best engineers in Japan.

Accidents on the Shinkansen were rare and there's never been a fatality or derailment in its entire history. It was as safe as could possibly be. That's why when the Shinkansen started shaking terribly, everyone became worried.

At first, it was a subtle shaking, but then the shaking grew to the point that people started being thrown around the train like ragged dolls.

"Uwaah!" Kei had been sent stumbling down the coach due to the heavy shaking.

Horikita was sent sprawling across the seats due to the shaking. Sudō, on the other hand, stumbled face-first into Horikita's chest. Yōsuke had fallen from his seat and was now holding onto the chairs for stability. I was able to hold onto my seat, miraculously, but I was thinking at a mile per second.

There could only be one reason for the level of shaking that was happening: derailment. The one thing that has never happened in the history of the Shinkansen was happening now while we were on it.

As much as it could be totally coincidental, I didn't believe that such an incident would happen at such a timing. In my mind, there was only one clear explanation: my father.

During the events of the third year, I had become free from the shackles of the White Room. In the process, my father's involvement in the White Room had suddenly been exposed and he lost most of his influence. At the same time, the White Room was forced to shut down.

Despite all that, I had no illusions that that man still had enough influence to do something like this. I was certain that my father would stop at nothing to either get me back, or get back at me.

Although I was sure of why everything was happening now, it was not the time to think about such things. Right now, what was important was making sure the others were safe.

As I thought that and started stumbling through the shaking coach to get to Kei, a loud noise was heard.

The Shinkansen was in the middle of a tunnel when a loud 'boom' sound occurred. At the same time, the people who were already being thrown around so much were sent hurtling through the train, which had now come to a stop. The windows that had previously shown the lighted tunnel were now cracked and showing only darkness outside.

Then it occurred. A series of loud explosions could be heard from the coaches in the front of the train. Screams were being heard briefly before being drowned out by the explosions, the sounds of which were drawing closer at a rapid speed.

I didn't have much time. I ran towards Kei as fast as I could, doing my best to keep my footing as much as I could with the train derailment. I was getting close... but it didn't seem like it would be enough.

"KIYOTAKA!"

That was the last thing I heard before a bright light filled my vision.

"Kei..."

My world became filled with a bright light and all I could feel was pain.

Was this death? I couldn't tell.

The ringing in my ear kept on going for a few good minutes before slowly starting to die down. At the same time, the pain I felt was slowly fading away.

This was strange. Was this because my body was slowly dying? The extreme pain I had felt is probably lessening due to the cold numbness of my dying body, yet I didn't seem to be feeling a chill throughout my body.

Instead, it felt like cold air was blowing against my body, which felt like it was in a relaxed position. The bright light that filled my vision also started to feel like it was fading away. However, what awaited me was something I had not anticipated.

Instead of a broken train, dead bodies and a dark tunnel outside. I saw people sitting on seats, listening to music on their phones or looking outside windows.

When my mind had finished composing itself, the scene before me could only mean one thing: I was on a bus. Is this a symbol of a journey to the afterlife? A bus that carried people from the living world to the afterlife?

What was even more incredulous about the entire situation was that I was wearing the uniform of the Advanced Nurturing High School. Death sure was strange... but it also felt very familiar.

It was only when I heard the next words that I was snapped out of my stupor.

"Excuse me, but shouldn't you offer up your seat?"

It was a familiar line that was said in a familiar place in a time long past. Yet, everything seemed to be playing out the way I remembered; so much that I could only think one thing at that very moment.

"Well... this is awkward."


Author's Note:

Hello everyone. River here, bringing you my third published fic after Secrets Unfolding and Anthology of KiyoKei.

The Returners was actually the first fic idea I had for Classroom of the Elite, but I decided to delay writing about it as I wanted to make it really good and I was still thinking about how to go about it, so I wrote Secrets Unfolding first as my first fanfic in a long time to get into the habit of writing again. Since I first published the prologue of Secrets in December, it means I've been sitting on this idea for around three months.

By the time you read this part, you're probably already aware that this is a time-travel fic (or something to that extent hahaha). I hope the ending was surprising for you. I had foreshadowed it multiple times throughout the chapters with the characters reminiscing, multiple mentions of their time in the school, and the theme of sentimentality that permeates the chapter. It probably wasn't obvious at first, but it is now. I hope you liked it.

As far as I'm aware, there's only one other fanfic like this on Wattpad, and our premises, while sharing some similarities are quite different, so I believe that this is gonna be quite a one-of-a-kind fic.

The ending of YouZitsu is quite a ways off, with us only being approximately 44% through the story. Still, I thought it would be nice to start a story like this since most people would probably not make anything like it. Do bear in mind that the information here is a plot I made up as of writing, which is around the release of V2-4 (or Y2V4), so if you're reading this many months or years into the future, the ideas here were made from the time of release. Of course, as we progress through the story, I might adapt ideas from future volumes. That said, there's a chance I'll make a remake of this story when the main story ends hahaha.

This chapter, Graduation Trip, was actually posted quite a bit ago. I first published this chapter in the YouZitsu Discord Kei Camp on Dec. 30, 2020 with the theme 'an open-ended story'. You can actually find the original version of this at /fanfics too. If you have read this before, I put in plenty of hints in the chapter regarding the premise, but I don't think anyone else noticed it. Also I mentioned in Kei Camp also that this was going to be the prologue for my 3rd fic then, so you know I was preparing to write this all along hahaha.

The original version of this fic was around... 3.3k words, I believe. So in essence, I've more than doubled the word count since then. Of course, most of the additions were dialogue and descriptions. For the most part, I didn't touch the final scene, aside from the bus scene, because it was more or less complete.

The biggest changes I made were the Three Leaders dialogue and the Second-Years dialogue as I considered those to be quite important in setting relationships. It might have been unnecessary though, in hindsight, as the relationships will probably change a lot from here on.

What Kiyotaka will do from here on will be revealed very soon. As to the question of whether or not the others survived... well, it should be obvious from the title. And I suppose some people are going to ask if this is an alternate reality, or the same reality but in the past, and things like that. For that, I'll leave it open to interpretation, but do know that things will not go always go the same way as before, whether it be due to the scenario or due to the characters' actions.

Also regarding the ship, this is a KiyoKei fic, although the story won't completely focus on their relationship. You can expect more intimacy and familiarity though, especially on Kiyo's part.

As always, do keep reading the A/Ns in the future where I post my thoughts and do chapter commentary. And similarly to Secrets, chapters will be done when they're done (I won't bother replying to comments asking when the next chapter is). Just because I'm working on two major fics does not mean they'll still have the same timeframe of publishing. If anything, the wait between chapters might be even longer as I alternate between them (although maybe not necessarily on a 1:1 scale) since my writing speed is still the same.

Also once again, I can never thank my betas enough for reading through my chapters and giving feedback. Thanks to Saransh, Alisa, and EmperorAry for all your help, feedback, and comments (even if Alisa is pretty much just beta-ing for a quick preview hahaha). You guys are the best 3

Anyways, look forward to the next chapter, "A Time Long Past", where familiar characters will start popping up again and where we'll explore Kiyotaka's thoughts regarding the situation. I'll be posting it within the week as I'm trying to finish it by Kei's birthday.

Word Count: 8139

Published: March 2, 2021