It was right when school ended for the day.
In the empty entranceway, a girl threw her indoor shoes into the shoe rack and hurriedly chased after someone.
“Want to go home together?”
“Come on. Don’t. Say. That~”
The girl called out while jumping down the front steps, but the other person didn’t stop.
“The only one who doesn’t do club activities besides me is you, Kujou-san.”
Kujou Orie turned around expressionlessly.
“I decided that I wouldn’t do club activities the moment I entered this school. Shouldn’t you enter some club yourself?”
The girl’s shoulders drooped in response, causing Kujou-san to develop a twitch on her forehead.
Kujou-san turned on her heels and began walking towards the school gate. The girl in question chased after her, looking like a dog in the process.
“You hung out with me last week, though.”
“I hate how boys gather around when I’m with you even though they have no business with us.”
“Come on, it’s not so bad.”
“I said no.”
“No way~. How mean. We both came here from Otowa Middle School, didn’t we? We’re comrades and friends, right?”
Kujou-san finally came to a stop beneath the tall and imposing tree that stood beside the school gate.
The discordant musical performance of the school’s brass band could be heard riding upon the winds.
“In the first place, the two of us haven’t talked much.”
The way the girl tilted her forehead in puzzlement made Kujou-san’s forehead twitch even more.
“You were in classes 1-3, 2-3 and 3-2 during your three years at Otoha. Do you remember which I was in each year?”
“Come on, we were in the same class in our last year, right? Before that… Err, sorry, I forgot.”
“We were in the same class. For all three years.”
“Seriously… Wait, you’re really not joking here, are you? Unbelievable.”
Kujou-san despondently placed a hand on her forehead.
“Hinooka-san. You hardly know anything about me, but I understand what kind of person you are very well.”
“Could it be that you hate me?”
“It’s not that I hate you, but—”
Kujou-san put her hands on her hips and sighed.
“—I don’t really like you either. You and I simply don’t suit each other.”
“You really like to put it bluntly, Kujou-san. Heeh~”
The girl responded in admiration.
Perhaps because it was such an unexpected reply, Kujou-san faltered, but then resumed speaking with a severe gaze.
“You chatter all the time, but you never speak of anything real. For me, that kind of thing is—”
“Like wasting time at a book sale for the entirety of your day off?”
“What on earth’s that?”
“A waste of human life.”
Kujou Orie then departed, leaving the girl standing alone at the school gate.
The tall boys of the Rugby club raised their voices in tandem as they returned from their running session. They all glanced at the girl as they passed by. She smiled back at them.
And once she was alone once more, her smile quickly fell.
She lifted up her expensive-looking bag over her shoulder.
She went out onto the roadway through the school gate and began walking in the exact opposite direction of her usual route.
There was indeed a station in that direction as well. There was, but the road was tight due to being laid around a cliff ridge, and there weren’t any convenience stores along it, making the route unpopular with students. This evening as well, there was some car traffic, but no pedestrians on the sidewalk at all.
The verdant forest alongside the road had just about reached the point where the trees needed to be trimmed.
Before she had walked even a hundred meters up the gently-sloping hill, Homura started grumbling to herself.
“Ah, so irritating.”
Hinooka Homura felt dull and listless.
The idea of participating in a club that would merely tire her out was absurd.
On the other hand, she couldn’t stand the thought of showing the world her lonely figure as she walked home alone. At Seiran High School, the student club participation rate was nearly 100% despite the lack of compulsion to join one from the school administration. Both the sports clubs and cultural clubs were exceedingly active and vigorous. As expected of the number one university-preparatory high school in the prefecture.
“‘How about getting fruit tarts at a café in Honmachi?’ and there we go.”
She typed out a text message on her cell phone.
Her bag felt heavy as it swayed on her arm.
Is there anyone I can press into coming? she thought while meaninglessly surveying her surroundings. At that moment, a bicycle with a thin wire-like frame and its rider passed by.
That’s our school’s male uniform.
The bicycle circled back in a U-turn and then braked right in front of Homura. It was quite a sudden braking maneuver, causing her to be slightly taken aback.
Homura nodded. Without being conscious of it, she returned to holding her bag like a proper lady.
“I’m Touya! From Class C. Ah, among the first years, I mean!”
She could tell at a glance. This was her first time talking to this boy.
Her eyes were suddenly drawn towards the handle of his bicycle.
His two arms peeked out from the short sleeves of the summer uniform that people had recently changed into for the season. He had tight muscles that resembled twisted and bundled wires. It didn’t suit his childish-looking face at all. His glasses also felt unnatural on him somehow.
Jumping off the bike saddle like a vaulting competitor, the boy once more tried to confirm her name.
“You’re Hinooka Homure from Class 1-A, right?”
“It’s Homura, not Homure. Hinooka Homura.”
“Ah, sorry. Homura, huh? What an interesting name.”
The male student looked closely at Homura and nodded as if impressed.
“I’ve heard that you’re easy to identify since you’re the cutest girl at school, but it really is true. You looked like someone straight from a movie scene when I saw you walking there.”
“I was just walking normally. Just what kind of scene were you thinking of?”
“Like the scene of a girl after being dumped.”
He said that without trying to hide his embarrassment. Was this guy courageous or a natural airhead?
It wasn’t rare for her to be called out to like this, and she had often been flattered with even more frivolous words.
It would make things easier for her if she could get him to let her ride his bike the rest of the way home, though.
“…So, Touya-kun. Do you have some business with me?”
“The truth is, I’m here to invite you to my club. I’m in the Exploration Club.”
“The Exploration Club? There’s a club like that?”
“There is. There are only two club members right now, though.”
“Just two? Even counting you?”
That explained why a mere first-year boy like him was going around inviting others to join the club.
“You’re part of the go-home club, right, Hinooka?”
“That’s true, but there’s another girl not in any club within my class if you’re looking for one.”
“No, it has to be you.”
“Has to be?”
Let alone forceful, his words were pretty much incomprehensible.
He had gone as far as to purposefully chase after her, though, so she understood that he was desperate.
“I have no intention of joining any club, but… can I at least hear your reason for asking me?”
“Our club only has two—”
“Yes, I heard that. Not that, I mean, why me?”
The boy scratched his head with an expression of confusion.
Homura was the one who was baffled here. But, without paying that any mind, Touya came close and placed his hands on her shoulders.
“It’s because you’re a Mage, isn’t that obvious?”
…What in the heck is this guy talking about?
“Say that one more time.”
“We want a Mage in our Exploration Club.”
Homura resisted the urge to cradle her head. This conversation seemed right out of a manga, after all. It would have been more realistic if he were inviting her to join the Self-Defense Force.
“You’re talking about some game, right?”
“That’s what you’d normally think. But this isn’t about a game. It’s real.”
“You’re aware that you’re saying something strange, right?”
Touya finally lost his serious face and burst out laughing.
“But, you know, the Exploration Club is fun! I think you’ll like it too, Hinooka.”
He slapped her shoulder heartily as he spoke.
On what basis was he saying that?
Homura’s impression that university-preparatory high schools were filled with nothing but eccentrics was further strengthened.
Touya took something out from his rucksack.
“This is our club’s pamphlet. It doesn’t seem like you’ll decide right now, so please read it later.”
As if there’s anything to decide! …Holding herself back from saying that out loud, Homura accepted the extremely thick pamphlet. She supposed that a club of only two people could at least manage to make a full-blown pamphlet like this—
“Please read it and think about it. I’ll come ask you again tomorrow.”
“T-Tomorrow? Hey, wait!”
Touya turned back to face her, after having already returned to his bicycle and hopped back on the saddle.
Homura hesitantly pointed at the bicycle.
“Give me a lift.”
“I’m heading back to school. You can hop on if you’re fine with that.”
Now that Homura looked closely, the bicycle had no luggage rack, and she would have to ride standing up if she got on.
“In the first place, you’re heading home by Oujidou station? That’s unusual. This road is quite rough. I just came back from looking for you in the direction of Higakubo station.”
“I just decided to go home this way on a whim today.”
“Well, that’s fine. See you tomorrow, then.”
Homura despondently watched Touya leave while nimbly riding his bicycle.
After that, she ended up taking the wrong path, and it took her a full fifty minutes to reach the station by foot.
Just as the train home slipped into the station, Homura received the long-awaited reply to her earlier text.
She flipped open her phone while walking to the train platform.
If she were to return to Honmachi station from here to go to the café, she would need to go to the opposite platform up the stairs, but it wouldn’t cost her much time.
But Homura’s expression, which had slackened in expectation, hardened in the face of the reply’s contents.
‘Sorry. I can’t go out and play for a while. I’ll make up for it next time. Really sorry.’
She couldn’t even count on her friend from her middle school days, who now went to another school.
No, that’s not it. Maybe I’ve just been abandoned.
When she left the local station’s ticket gate, the usual woman was handing out leaflets there. She wore a light blue summer sweater covered in lint. Homura passed by while ignoring her.
After she arrived home, she changed into her house clothes and lay limply on her bed in an attempt to become one with it.
Soon after, there was a knock on her door.
Even when the door opened, Homura didn’t budge from her prostate position.
“There was a phone call from your boyfriend earlier.”
Homura mumbled something into her pillow, but her words were most likely nothing intelligible.
While looking amazed at the sight of this gelatinous life-form, the girl who had entered the room continued speaking.
“He said something about being sorry and wanting to break up? Even though I told him he had the wrong person on the phone, he didn’t listen to me at all.”
The second daughter of the Hinooka family, Homura’s younger sister Tsuyu, was often mistaken for her sister due to their similar voices.
“Rather, why did you tell him our home number? Could you cut that out? I’m always the one who answers the phone here. Hey, are you listening?”
The amorphous older sister turned a small portion of her resigned face towards her younger sister.
As usual, Tsuyu was leaning her glasses against the door while wearing an annoyed expression.
“I already broke up with that guy.”
The younger sister folded her arms and snorted.
“It didn’t look like you two were going out, though. Didn’t you just get him to help you with your studying?”
It was exactly as her sister said.
Once the tumultuous results announcement from the high school entrance exams had passed, he had been the one to indirectly bring up the topic of breaking up.
It’d be nice if we went to the same school together. It wasn’t as if she had believed in such a dream-like conclusion, though. She had merely been happy at soaking in the mood of ‘sharing the same goal’.
But, as if due to some mistake, Homura, who had been tutored, was accepted into her target school, while he, the tutor, failed the entrance exams.
Apparently, there were types who were frequently in the top ranks of the mock exams with excellent results, but were weak when it came to the real thing.
“You used someone once again, didn’t you?”
“Ah, how sad. Haven’t all the guys who dated you ended up with misfortune?”
Homura couldn’t deny it.
Thinking back, it had been a relationship tied together only through studying for the test.
She hated being apologized to as if she were the victim and he the wrongdoer, so she had simply ignored his text messages a few times.
Her former boyfriend was well aware of her academic skill level, and understood quite well how ill-suited she was to the studying environment of her current school.
“Are you just going to leave things hanging vaguely again? You need to clearly own up to your own mistake. That guy feels responsible, you know.”
“Shut up already… you regular customer at the behind-the-curtain section at Tsutaya1.”
“What the heck’s that?”
“An inexperienced girl with superficial knowledge.”
The younger sister merely shrugged.
“Dinner will be ready in a bit, so don’t go to sleep and come downstairs.”
The younger sister left the room to head downstairs. Homura’s bag tumbled onto the floor.
Speaking of which, she had thrown the pamphlet she’d received in there.
She tried reaching for it while lying face-down, but couldn’t reach it at all.
After a little while, she noisily kicked her legs against the bed, but she immediately remembered the abuse she had placed on them from the long walk home and brought them to a stop.
The next day at school.
The current class was Classical Literature, or, rather, Modern Japanese.
The classroom was pretty calm, but Homura could feel the attention of the other students concentrate on her.
Sweat poured down Homura’s hand as she stood up with her textbook in hand.
She rewound her mental recorder and repeated the teacher’s question to herself.
It was about a certain trifling poem.
“Chieko says that there is no sky in Tokyo2.”
“That’s right, that one.”
The female teacher clapped her hand against the rolled-up textbook she held.
“Chieko is mentally ill. Of course there’s a sky in Tokyo. So, just what is Chieko saying here?”
“…She wanted to see the sky above Mount Atatara.”
“This poem’s author is saying that this is the true sky for Chieko. It’s dubious whether Chieko herself was speaking cogently. Now then, why don’t you try thinking of Chieko’s feelings?”
The female teacher lightly sat down at her desk and crossed her legs. Her manners were quite bad.
She wore tight indigo-blue jeans.
“Is Chieko simply a selfish woman? What do you think?”
The author had already given an answer, wasn’t that enough? What was this teacher doing, enquiring them all about it?
“…Chieko has a lot of strong memories about Mount Atatara, so, I think she wanted to see the sky of that mountain again.”
“Hmm. In other words?”
In other words? In other words?
“She wanted to climb Mount Atatara…”
Low laughter trickled out within the classroom, making Homura’s ears burn red.
“Perhaps so. Perhaps not. We don’t know the truth of the matter. There’s another poem where Mount Atatara comes up. Let’s try reading that one next—”
The teacher indicated for Homura to sit down with a gesture.
Feeling like she wanted to disappear, Homura sat back down in her chair.
Homura indirectly questioned the classmates around her desk.
“The Exploration Club? You joined the Exploration Club, Hinooka-san?”
“Err, no. I was invited to join since I’m not in any club. Do you know anything about it?”
“Hmm… I only know what was written about it in the school guide.”
Her classmates wracked their memories while eating their respective boxed lunches and bread.
“If I remember right, the Exploration Club was formed three years ago.”
“Three years? That’s still pretty new.”
“I haven’t heard many good rumors about it.”
“It doesn’t give any advantages to preparing for university either.”
“True. The club activities consist of [exploration], after all.”
“My club’s advisor was grumbling about how it has the biggest club budget in the school. Look there.”
One of her classmates pointed outside the window.
Homura turned around in her seat to look out at the schoolyard.
“The buildings beside the track field there belong to the sports clubs. And there’s a rough-looking building just a little ways beyond that, see there?”
“That building that’s closest to the mountain side? Eh, you don’t mean…”
“That’s right. That huge mansion is solely the Exploration Club’s club building. Compared to that, my clubroom is like a storage closet.”
“Now I kinda want to go inside~”
“No way, no way. The place is obviously secured by Secom3. Their security is quite strict, after all.”
The two-story building, which had an astronomical observation dome on its rooftop, looked a bit like a research facility.
Homura had thought for sure that it was a public facility that opened on the weekend or something.
“In the first place, there’s that too, you know? You need certain qualifications to join the Exploration Club. Hinooka-san, do you have the qualifications?”
Homura shook her head, hearing about this matter of qualifications for the first time.
“Touya-kun didn’t say anything about that…”
One of her classmates widened her eyes and leaned forward with great interest.
“By Touya, you mean Touya Takumi? He’s from the same middle school as me. Heeh, so he joined the exploration club. That’s unexpected.”
“He was in the kendo club in middle school. He was super strong. He used two-swords-style. He even participated in the inter-middle school tournaments.”
It was completely different from Homura’s mental image of kendo.
“He might suit you, Hinooka-san. Well, he’s a bit short, though.”
“Isn’t that fine? How about you try joining the Exploration club, then?”
Now that she was being encouraged by those around her, Homura finally felt interested in joining.
But how many times before had she made a mistake in that way?
Homura gave a smile that only reached her face and cut apart a piece of fried chicken with the tips of her chopsticks.
“But something like the Exploration Club really doesn’t suit me. And I don’t have any particular qualifications either…”
“Hmm, that’s true.”
Thus, the topic of the Exploration Club reached a pause and the conversation changed to the subject of a foreign drama.
It was a show that Homura hadn’t heard of before, and it was a political drama at that. She didn’t understand what was amusing about it at all, but she decided to simply laugh along as if she understood. It tired her out.
The heavy gelatinous substance known as boredom and alienation weighed down upon her.
If the classroom weren’t a public area, she would have immediately turned into an amorphous life-form and dissolved away starting from the tips of her feet.
“According to rumors, there’s going to be some edict or other…”
Homura’s shoulders stiffened.
One of her classmates made an eye signal at her. There was a boy looking around the classroom from the entrance.
A voice resounded through the frigid classroom.
Pushed out by her lunch friends, Homura stood up from her seat with a long expression.
“Have you thought about your answer to my question yesterday?”
He greeted her like that without paying any regard to her classmates.
With a perfectly prim face, she pushed him back out into the corridor as quickly as her feet would carry her.
After they changed location to the front of a practically deserted special classroom, Touya asked her the same question once again.
As he looked at her expectantly with a carefree expression, Homura made a small sigh.
“I’m going to ask a strange question, but…”
The sky, which peeked through the window on the other side of the hallway, was pure blue and clear, the perfect example of an early summer day.
“Does joining the Exploration Club bring me any merits in regard to my school life?”
“Err, you know, that kind of thing. Excluding any reason like ‘it’s fun’.”
Touya raised his head and looked up at the ceiling with his arms crossed.
“Hmm, well, since the club activities are definitely quite hard, we do get preferential treatment. I don’t really care about it personally, though.”
“Preferential treatment, like what?”
And then, he said something unbelievable.
“For instance, we don’t get punished for being late or absent the day after we do club activities.”
The club activities were given priority over lessons?
Was that really all right?
“We also basically don’t have to take any supplementary exams.”
“N-No supplementary exams? Unconditionally?”
“Yeah. When we go all out in our club activities, we don’t have the time for that kind of thing.”
What a shock. That wasn’t just preferential treatment; that was full-blown extraterritorial immunity.
Trembling in astonishment, Homura remembered the warning she’d been given just earlier.
“…But I heard that it doesn’t have any benefits for advancing to university.”
“Huh? What kind of club gives advantages for going to university? Our school mainly consists of sports clubs like track-and-field, rugby or wrestling. For girls, it tends to be volleyball or tennis. Do you want to do wrestling?”
While calming down her nerves which were easily ignited when faced with this bumpkin-like boy, Homura voiced a question that suddenly occurred to her.
“Did you come to this school on a sports recommendation, Touya-kun?”
“No, I took the normal entrance exams. Though I did consider that option too.”
Homura let loose another sigh.
“You’re quite smart, aren’t you…?”
“What are you saying, that goes for you too, right?”
Homura choked as Touya whacked her back.
It was true that she had taken the normal entrance exams, but…
Homura hung her head and sat down while hugging her knees.
“Seems like it’s a different than I thought.”
“You see… that was like a one-time limited edition [Hinooka Homura-exclusive Spring Jumbo]…”
“What the heck’s that?”
“Basically just a fluke. A coincidence.”
“You passed on a fluke?”
Touya froze for just an instant.
“No, that’s impossible. It’s unusual for a public institution to have a mark sheet, but there’s no way you could get in by coincidence.”
“Seriously,” Homura mumbled, facing the floor.
“Then, how’d you do on the tests the other day?”
Her results on the midterm exams a few days ago had, of course, been terrible, and her blood had run cold in the face of her homeroom teacher and her parents.
Luckily, marks weren’t publicly posted in the classroom here, but it was only a matter of time before her terrible grades became well-known within her class.
Afraid to speak it aloud, she traced out her average test results on the wall, causing Touya to freeze once more. This time, the pause lasted a short yet long three seconds.
“…Well, who cares? It’s good that you got accepted here, at least.”
“It’s not good!”
Homura stood up in a swift motion to head-butt him, but Touya agilely dodged.
“In other words, I don’t have the time for any club! It’s taking all I have just to deal with the lessons here!”
“Ah, then there is merit in it for you.”
“You’ll be all right if you join the Exploration Club.”
“Based on your behavior, you didn’t read the pamphlet I gave you yesterday, did you? Well, I also apologize for not properly explaining, then.”
Touya crossed his arms in a confident manner.
“It’s all right. If you become a Mage, something like studying will be easy for you.”
“Are you trying to trick me here? Doesn’t it sound like you’re saying something like ‘If you become a pro wrestler, a hundred squats will be a piece of cake’?”
“Yeah, wrestling really is great.”
Touya laughed in a carefree manner.
For some reason, I’m able to talk familiarly with him, thought Homura with a small sigh.
Was it because his height wasn’t so different from hers? All of Homura’s former boyfriends had been tall; or rather, that was the minimum condition for her to go out with someone.
“What do you do in the Exploration Club, Touya-kun?”
“Me? I’m still a fifth-ranked investigator, so I mostly follow senpai’s lead. I’ve still only gone on two expeditions so far. There are a lot of things I have to remember.”
“Hmm… Is your senpai strict?”
A two-person combo with a glasses-wearing bumpkin junior, in a certain sense, made the perfect picture.
She couldn’t imagine adding herself to that group at all, though.
But his voice matured at that moment, and he made a slightly sad expression.
Homura slightly revised her image of him as a bumpkin.
“I’ve yet to see her get angry.”
“…You’re the only junior in her club, after all. Maybe she’s treating you preciously?”
“If you enter the club, there’ll be two junior members and our activities will become more club-like, though.”
“What should I do…?”
Homura laced her arms behind her neck and dropped against the wall.
“Were you also invited to join by that senpai, Touya-kun? Or did you just want to debut in the Exploration Club when you reached high school? I heard about how you did kendo before.”
“You’re quite knowledgeable, aren’t you? I did enter the club on my own initiative. The reason I joined was…”
Touya froze with his mouth still partly open.
“…I’ll tell you if you join.”
“Hey, isn’t that unfair? Are you really trying to invite someone to join here?”
Touya turned away from her and adjusted his glasses. Homura circled around to face him again and pressed him further.
“It can’t be that you intend to suddenly drop out of the club if I join, can it?”
“Idiot, as if I’d do something like that.”
“Idiot? You’re calling the important person you’re trying to invite an idiot?”
“I mean, you are an idiot, right?”
Touya spoke while scratching his head.
“I get it. If it’s about your studies, I’ll teach you. I’m not so good at teaching, but put up with it for now.”
Homura was startled.
She knew it wasn’t just her ears playing tricks on her due to the school bell ringing just now.
Homura recalled the words of her younger sister yesterday.
“…Is that all right?”
Touya closed his eyes as if resigned and nodded.
“I’m the one making a request of you here, after all.”
“It’s not a bother for you?”
“Not at all. Compared to club activities, that is.”
Since Homura had yet to give a definite answer, the negotiations were put on hold for the time being. The two of them agreed to meet again after classes ended for the day and then returned to their respective classes.
But then, Touya, who had started walking away cheerfully, had his neck strangled.
Turning around with teary eyes, Touya found Homura standing there, holding the collar of his shirt.
“…That hurt as much as being stabbed, you know.”
“I just wanted to ask one last thing.”
Indifferent to the disastrous scene she had brought about, Homura asked him.
“What’s a Mage?”
“Read the pamphlet.”
“We have an experiment next class, so I can’t.”
“…The truth is, I don’t know either. Senpai just said that our club lacked someone with the position of Mage.”
“That so? Then what about you, Touya-kun? You said something about being an investigator.”
“Fifth-ranked investigator. My class is Light-Weight Warrior.”
Homura burst into laughter.
“Warrior? Ahaha, that’s just like a game.”
“Like I said, it isn’t a game.”
“Hurry back to class,” Touya told her as he shooed Homura away.
It seems Homura-san is thinking of something like an attacker or healer Mage from a video or board game. This is going to be hard going.
The two of them headed to the staff room together.
Compared to the refreshed Homura, Touya wore a long face for some reason.
“A personal inspection… huh…”
“Let me at least have a trial membership first. It’s such a mysterious club, after all.”
Completely shelving her studying deficiency, Homura spoke as if it were only natural.
“I wonder about that. Is that really all right…?”
“You really aren’t flexible, are you?”
“Flexible, you say… Well, we can only try consulting with Mori-chan about it.
“The Exploration Club’s advisor. —Pardon us!”
Touya politely and deeply bowed his head before he entered the staff room. Homura imitated him and followed him inside.
Within the staff room, which was one of the places she currently disliked the most, Homura felt as if all the teachers were staring at her, so she ducked her head as much as possible as she passed through.
Touya led her to a familiar-looking female teacher who was facing a pile of documents on her desk with a bitter expression.
“Sensei. It’s Touya.”
Even after being addressed, the teacher fiddled with her bundled hair at the back of her neck with the back end of her pen while continuing to scowl at the documents.
“So Mori-chan is Fujimori-sensei,” Homura softly muttered.
She was Fujimori, the one who was teaching Modern Japanese in Homura’s class.
Even here in the staff room, her manners were so bad you wouldn’t think she was a teacher, and the top of her desk looked to be the messiest in the room as well.
“Sensei, I’ve brought a new club member.”
“I said I’d do a trial membership, remember?”
Suddenly looking up, the teacher’s expression was filled with joyous expectation at those words.
But, the instant she saw Homura, her happiness faded away in the blink of an eye, and she returned to her original frown as if she were suffering from a toothache.
“…By club, you mean the Exploration Club?”
“Are you the advisor of any other club?”
Of course she wasn’t.
After pressing the fingers of both her hands against her forehead for a while, Fujimori pointed at the staff roof’s exit and got up from her chair.
Homura’s eyes accidentally caught sight of a small framed picture that had been buried beneath the stacks of documents at that moment.
It was a black-and-white photo—and on it were neither her family, nor her lover, but Fujimori’s younger self and a group of friends surrounding her.
As Homura pulled back her hair to get a better look, Touya pulled her away.
Fujimori led the two of them to the reception office next to the principal’s office. She was definitely using the room without permission.
“Shouldn’t we talk in a classroom? Like, there’s the matter of confidentiality and all that—”
“This place is fine. This won’t take long.”
Though Touya remained dubious, Fujimori urged them both to hurry up and sit.
The female teacher leaned back against a long sofa in the room, and then circled her arms sloppily around the back of a chair and crossed her legs, directly facing Homura. The atmosphere around her was more like a last boss in a game than a priest advising a pupil.
Fujimori stared at Homura, who was acting meek and quiet.
Suddenly, Homura was hit by a sense of déjà vu. Naturally, this was a teacher who had stared at her countless times in class before. But still, she had quite a roundabout attitude. And her bad manners were the same as always.
“Hinooka Homura, from Otowa Middle School. Of all the places, to think you chose to enroll here at Seiran High School.”
“Sensei, is that the kind of attitude to take when greeting a new club member?”
When Touya admonished her with an amazed expression, Fujimori nodded as if to grouchily say she understood.
Homura tilted her head slightly in confusion.
“I bring it up because that’s where Mount Atatara is.”
“…Guh… Don’t talk about that…”
As Homura blushed in embarrassment, a sense of recollection rose up within her.
She slowly pulled up the faint memory.
“Umm… could it be that… we’ve met before, sensei?”
“I believe we have.”
Fujimori boldly nodded.
“Were you her homeroom teacher? Or an acquaintance?”
Ignoring the puzzled Touya, Homura continued speaking.
“Err… Probably in middle school… during my second year’s… physical… measurement…”
Fujimori gazed at Homura with half-lidded eyes.
While puzzled by the strange situation, Touya gave Homura a helping hand.
“Maybe you’re referring to the aptitude test?”
“Was that it? Yeah, I think that’s what it was called.”
“That test isn’t mandatory. Why didn’t you remember it?”
“I’m in charge of the aptitude tests at Otowa Middle School.”
“Yeah! I remember you there, sensei.”
Homura clapped her hands happily.
However, Fujimori reclined back in her seat in an even more slovenly posture.
“That’s not all.”
“After the test, I detained you and gave you a fiery speech. Ah, that’s right. We were in a reception office like this after school back then as well.”
“Sorry. I don’t remember it well.”
Fujimori looked up at the ceiling as she became even sulkier.
Touya questioned her worriedly.
“Did she do something back then?”
“Touya. You just took the IE aptitude test the other day, right?”
“Ah, yeah. I enrolled through the entrance exams, after all.”
“What was your score? Ah, don’t worry about confidentiality and all that.”
“Is that really all right?” Touya wondered with a little hesitation, but ultimately answered.
“My overall score was [45-C].”
“Hinooka Homura was [80-B]. Though that was from the first term of her second year of middle school.”
Touya raised his voice in shock, and the person in question beside him completely misunderstood as she was immersed in excitement.
“Like I thought, I did meet sensei before~. I must not have noticed because I’m also nervous in class.”
Fujimori stuck out her tongue in amazement and collapsed tiredly on the sofa.
It was certainly true that she couldn’t show such a disgraceful attitude in the staff room.
In contrast to the groggy teacher, Touya become somewhat agitated.
“The IE aptitude test score is calculated through a quadratic curve. The difference between 50 and 70 is in fact two-fold.”
“Haah. I see. There’s that much of a difference between me and Touya-kun, huh?”
“45 and 80 are each squared individually… so the difference between us is more than three-fold! Do you get it?”
Puzzled, Homura compared herself and Touya with a glance.
“Well, you know. Touya-kun is a boy, after all.”
“I’m not talking about chest measurement! What are you acting so triumphant about!?”
Touya stood up from the sofa and approached Fujimori.
“In that case, that makes things easier to explain. This girl seems to have completely forgotten, but there’s nothing to criticize about her aptitude as a precious new member of the Seiran High Exploration Club, right?”
“Noooooo—” One of Fujimori’s jean-covered knees and boot heels appeared from the edge of the reception table.
“Waaaaaa—” The table gradually began to rise. The glass sculpture on top slipped off along with the lace mat cover.
Homura hurriedly backed away as she was pulled back by Touya.
The reception table was kicked up and soundlessly danced through the air, before landing on the carpet after rotating five hundred and forty degrees.
The table splendidly landed face-up in an obedient manner. It would have been a disaster if there were any cups of tea on it.
“…Ah, that shocked me, really shocked me.”
Homura’s eyes shrunk to dots as she held the glass sculpture in her hands.
After confirming that Homura was all right with a glance, Touya agilely lifted up the table.
“Sensei, aren’t you being childish here?”
The sight of him setting the lace cover on the table made him look strangely domestic-oriented.
“In other words, it’s like that? You have a grudge towards her for giving the cold shoulder when you invited her to the Exploration Club in the past?”
“Yeah, got a problem with that?”
The way Fujimori put her chin on her knees as she hugged them on the sofa was just like that of a spoiled brat.
“Rather than a problem, it’s…”
“Most likely, I was with my friends at the time, so my impression of what you said back then was weak…”
“And I tried to dodge the conversation,” Homura said as an attempted excuse.
But that pretty much stirred up a hornets’ nest.
“The Exploration Club isn’t a group of model scouts like you see in Harajuku. As if we’d ever do such a carefree kind of exploration.”
“That’s the impression it gives off, though.”
“Ah, no, that’s…” Touya said nervously while scratching his head, as Fujimori glared at him.
“Well, searching for qualified candidates among the enrolled students is mostly done under the guidance of the club president, but it’s still supposed to be a state secret. It isn’t information that students can pass around.”
Homura widened her eyes.
Watching Homura’s shocked reaction suspiciously with narrowed eyes, Fujimori then slid her accusing gaze towards Touya.
“Did you properly explain everything to Hinooka?”
“Sorry, not yet.”
Touya began to explain from square one.
Touya himself hadn’t known about Homura’s outstanding score, and had merely been told by a certain person that Hinooka Homura had the necessary qualifications to join the Exploration Club.
Even if it was impossible to do a trial membership like Homura wanted, Touya had proposed they go consult with the advisor on whether there was some program that would allow her to gradually grow accustomed to the club activities.
Having not even glanced at a single page of the pamphlet, let alone given it a skim read, Homura had shamefully followed Touya’s idea.
After quietly listening to all this with her chin resting on her fists, Fujimori spoke up.
“Okay, listen up. The major reason why I can’t accept Hinooka’s admission into the club is because I reeeeeally can’t stand the thought of it, but—”
“—That aside! There are also other reasons. Two of them, to be precise.”
“First, Touya, your request to join the club went through because the result of your aptitude test, your IE Response, was just barely within permissible limits—”
“IE Response… what’s that?”
“You really don’t know anything.” “Don’t you even check news sites?”
Daunted by the scolding from the other two, Homura timidly said, “Please continue.”
“The presence or absence of an IE Response is a precondition to joining the club. The issue is Touya’s techniques. For surviving.”
“Surviving, as in ‘survival’4, right?”
Homura acted a bit proud at her deduction. She was finally becoming more like a member of the Exploration club.
“For instance, our current club president has been receiving Ranger training at Iriomote Island since her first year of middle school.”
Homura’s mental image of the club president levelled up even further. She evolved from a giant to a mountain gorilla.
“…Touya-kun seems to have done kendo, though.”
“That’s right. His basic stamina is nothing to criticize. His sword techniques can also serve as a fighting asset for the Exploration Club. In fact, I confirmed it after facing him myself. He still lacks knowledge, but he has extraordinary talent when it comes to his physical senses. Our club was lucky to get a hold of him.”
Touya nodded without displaying any modesty.
Homura went pale.
“W-W-W-W-Wait just a minute.”
Homura stood up, while the other two looked at her oddly.
“How is kendo useful in the Exploration Club’s activities?”
“It’s a state secret.” “Yeah.”
“No, no, no. T-Then, does the club president also do some martial arts?”
“Senpai is stronger than me, naturally.”
Fujimori also agreed with that assessment.
Homura paled even further.
“In other words, what’s your signature finishing move, Hinooka Homura?”
“I never learned any martial arts like that.”
Perhaps they were going to send her to Iriomote Island—!?
“The Exploration Club doesn’t bring in anyone that can’t protect themselves.”
“Sensei, what do you think I’m here for? I’ll protect Hinooka. An expedition fundamentally consists of two people working together, right?”
Fujimori scowled with narrowed eyes at Touya who was playing the role of a knight and snorted.
“I told you we don’t need mere luggage dragging us down.”
Still obstinate, Touya questioned Homura while tapping the table like a keyboard.
“Did you ever play the piano? Or maybe the taishougoto5?”
Homura was surprised by the sudden change in topic.
“Playing music is also a necessary role, right, sensei?”
Fujimori reluctantly nodded.
“Like the Exploration Club president at Hiyoshizaka High School in the neighbouring district, Koma-senpai—”
“Don’t speak of Hiyoshi.”
Fujimori cut him off in a displeased tone. Touya shrugged as he continued on.
Homura was left confused by all the variations in accomplishments and martial arts he had mentioned.
Blinking, Touya asked her a question.
“What do you do when you go home after school?”
“When I… go home…”
Glancing away nervously where she stood, Homura confessed the truth.
“I go to sleep…”
A heavy silence descended upon the reception office.
Touya hung his head in a crestfallen manner, and Fujimori could only look away while stretching out her legs.
Homura plopped back down on the sofa.
There was the sound of the door closing behind Homura.
It appeared the school principal had been peeking into the room.
But no one had noticed.
In order to get out of this unendurable silence, Homura timidly spoke up.
“—Come on, there’s the story of the heavy-eating champion sleeping princess dreaming for a thousand years, right?”
Fujimori raised her head with misty eyes.
“Like, my skill is storing up on sleep and food.”
“Do you plan on storing up a lifetime’s worth of sleep?”
Suddenly, Touya held up two fingers with his hand to Fujimori.
“What’s with that?”
“Sensei, you said there were two reasons.”
“Ah, right,” Fujimori said while scratching her head and correcting her sitting posture, though she was still sitting cross-legged.
“The second reason is simple.”
Fujimori looked into both of their eyes.
“You two are still minors. The agreement of your legal guardians is absolutely necessary to join.”
Chapter 1 END
(1) Tsutaya is a video rental and book store chain in Japan. “Behind-the-curtain” refers to the 18+ adult section within the store.
(2) From the poem “あどけない話” (Innocent Tale) by Takamura Kotaro, part of a collection of poems about his wife Chieko written in 1941.
(3) Secom: A security company based in Japan.
(4) Here, Homura translates the Japanese word into the English word “survival” to demonstrate her understanding.
(5) Taishougoto: Otherwise known as the Nagoya harp, a Japanese musical instrument with two to five strings.