It was still dim outside the next morning when they got up.
The three of them had a light breakfast and finished their preparations to depart.
Unable to bear the awkward silence that hung in the air, Touya finally spoke up.
“…Hey, somebody say something already.”
Homura remained silent while biting her lip.
“Hinooka, I’m not angry about you forgetting to wake up anymore. Senpai managed to get up first on her own anyway…”
Senpai and Touya had prepared breakfast on their own, while Homura had crawled out of the tent just as they were finishing up. Ever since then, Homura hadn’t spoken at all no matter how much Touya called out to her.
“You too, senpai.”
On the other hand, Misasagi-senpai was just moving around silently, and whenever Touya said something to her, she would blush and curl into herself like a wilted flower. She’d been like this ever since she got up.
“There’s nothing wrong with your physical condition, right, senpai?”
“No, I’m fine…”
Senpai nodded and spoke in a voice that could barely be heard.
She didn’t appear to be suffering from a hangover like Touya had secretly feared, but she was burdened by self-loathing and so ashamed of herself that it was pitiful just looking at her.
The three of them sipped some instant coffee after their meal.
The sun still hadn’t risen above the forest trees, but the chirping of birds could already be heard all around them, completely waking them up as they started to act for the day.
Touya defiantly tried to blow away the silence.
“Yesterday evening was really fun. That stone bath was awesome! It actually made me feel relieved to see senpai cut loose like that.”
“But I should have remained the most level-headed as the club president…”
“It’s not that big of a deal. Rather, it was quite beneficial for me—”
Touya exaggeratedly scratched his head and purposely left himself open for a retort, but Homura still remained silent as she chewed on her cup. His attempt to lighten the mood had failed.
“Sorry… If you could give me another ninety seconds, my self-reflection mode will end, so…”
“Ah, yeah. Sure.”
No matter what Touya said, the mood remained like this.
Homura and the others departed from the t-spot and once more returned to the path leading to the mountain ridge that was their destination.
After a while, Homura suddenly stopped walking and spoke up.
“Let’s go back already.”
Touya and Misasagi-senpai turned around in surprise and approached her with puzzled faces.
“What? Go back? From here?”
Senpai walked up to Homura worriedly.
“I don’t want to go any further.”
Touya spoke without hiding his anger.
“The relay camp is just ahead, you know? You can already see it just beyond that mountain ridge. It’s a really easy path compared to the sunken road we walked yesterday, you know?”
“…Are you tired, Hinooka-san? Do you need to rest for a little bit?”
“No. I just don’t care about the mission or whatever anymore and want to go home…”
Homura stared at the Transport Ring on senpai’s finger.
“Can’t we immediately return to Earth from here with that ring?”
Touya tried to draw near Homura angrily, but Misasagi-senpai stopped him gently and spoke in a calm tone.
“We can. However, it’s a method that’s used for emergency withdrawal and one that we want to avoid using as much as possible. We might not necessarily return to the club building’s transport room if we do that. In order to avoid accidents, it’s necessary to return to the base camp where we can stabilize the transport.”
“…Then I want to head straight back to the base camp.”
Misasagi exchanged glances with the disappointedly crouching Touya, and then firmly made up her mind and spoke.
“Very well. We’ll go back.”
“W-Wait, senpai. The goal’s right in front of us, you know?”
“No… Touya, please don’t be angry and listen.”
Facing the other two, Misasagi-senpai spoke formally.
“I’m the one who forced Hinooka-san into this without sufficient preparation. Even after the falling accident yesterday, Hinooka splendidly managed to cheer up and come this far. There’s no need to worry about the mission. This is our goal.”
Touya still didn’t seem convinced, but he was unable to say anything after hearing all that and so just nodded in response.
“Hinooka-san, don’t worry about it—saying you can’t do it when you can’t is very courageous. The trip back will be a constant downhill route, so we’ll arrive by noon.”
Senpai smiled and gripped Homura’s hand as she said that, and the warmth of her fingers shocked Homura and made her come back to her senses.
Even so, she was unable to say anything, and could only start walking after senpai who had changed course. Homura was the one who had wished for that, after all.
Touya’s silence as he passed her stabbed into her heart.
The sky was dyed in the pink color of dawn.
Homura followed silently a bit behind senpai and Touya as the two of them talked. Senpai’s kind expression when she turned to look back sometimes made Homura unable to calm down inside.
On the other hand, Touya completely ignored Homura and didn’t turn around even once.
“……What’s with you…? Who was the one who brought me into the Exploration, huh…?”
Irritated, Homura picked up a pebble and threw it.
Even then, Touya continued to ignore her, even though he definitely had to have noticed.
Her fourth throw at last hit the back of his head.
“Oww… Hinooka, you…”
Touya turned around, but then came to a stop in shock.
Tears were flowing down Homura’s cheeks as she glared in frustration. Even so, she didn’t wipe away the tears and endured them while sniffling.
Unable to bear it any longer, Homura turned her face down and crouched down right where she stood, and Misasagi-senpai gently approached her.
Even as she felt senpai’s hand on her shoulder, Homura threw another rock at Touya.
“…Stupid… Stupid Touya… What’s with that sword, it’s just for show…”
“…I was really scared… I was alone while the rest of you were asleep…”
Senpai and Touya exchanged looks.
“…Did something happen last night?”
Coming down to his knees next to Homura, Touya bowed his head apologetically.
“I see… Sorry, for not noticing.”
“…Can you tell us about it, Hinooka-san?”
Homura quietly nodded at senpai’s words.
Finally feeling relived, Homura haltingly told them both about what happened last night.
Even after hearing her story, Touya seemed dubious.
Senpai also considered it with a meek expression.
“—It might have been a herd of mountain dogs. I once heard howling in this area a long time ago… But they might have come close again after the Exploration Club started to use this route less frequently…”
“It might just be a misunderstanding on my part… or a dream… that I saw.”
As Homura mumbled while rubbing her swollen eyes, Touya tried to cheer her up.
“That sounds so weak-hearted, Hinooka. It doesn’t sound like you at all, you know?”
Homura glared at Touya with a sidelong look.
“Then do you believe that I encountered a human?”
“Ugh… That’s… You should have woken us up back then.”
“Well, sorry about that…”
“Did you talk with them?” asked senpai.
Homura weakly shook her head.
“No, they didn’t say anything.”
Touya picked back up his baggage and stood up.
“Shall we return to the t-spot near the river and examine the area?”
Homura’s body trembled at Touya’s suggestion.
Misasagi-senpai anxiously watched her reaction.
“…No, let’s not. It’s enough if we do so at another time. We’ll go back using a different route, crossing over the rival shoals to hide our scent.
“I see. Roger.”
As senpai and Touya began to resume the journey back, Homura called out to stop them.
“I’m sorry, senpai, Touya-kun, but—”
As the two of them turned around, Homura deeply bowed her head towards them.
“I want to walk till the very end. To the relay camp at our destination. To the top of that ridge.”
Touya happily looked over at Misasagi-senpai.
Still concerned, Senpai questioned Homura.
“Are you all right with that? Even if it’s an easy route, it can be dangerous if you don’t properly concentrate.”
Homura nodded with a serious face.
“Please let me do it. If I give up here, I… won’t be able to forgive myself.”
As senpai considered it, Touya urged her.
“Let’s go, senpai. Hinooka is strong when it counts.”
“Then let’s work hard for just a little while longer, everyone.”
As if competing with the sun, the three of them climbed the last of the mountain ridge path.
Today was also clear weather, and the temperature quickly rose.
After an hour of climbing without breaks, they finally caught sight of the cabin that lay at their destination.
It was at the top of the mountain ridge, with a few trees growing here and there and a beautiful view to behold. They had arrived at the destination for their mission this time, the relay camp.
There was the old tree there that stood tall like the king of the mountain ridge, and on it was a lightning rod that had been installed by the Exploration Club, making it look like a crown.
“We made it!”
The cabin made by the Exploration Club had awaited them while enduring the wind and snow at this altitude.
They used pliers to remove the nails attached to the door to keep it shut.
“It really is a relief to see something man-made after so long,” Touya murmured as he used the tool in an experienced manner.
“Sorry, Touya-kun. We can’t stay here that long…”
Misasagi-senpai climbed up a nearby tall boulder and threw pieces of grass into the air while watching the wind.
“What’re you doing? Are you going to fly in the air?”
“That’s correct, Hinooka-san.”
“Want to try?”
After saying that, Misasagi-senpai passed Homura a spool of string attached to the kind of handle you grip with both hands, and then she headed downwind. Doing as she was told, Homura drew out the string as senpai pulled it with her from the other end.
Touya came over at that point after having finished un-nailing the door.
“Senpai, should I move all our preserved food into the cabin?”
“Yes! Please do!”
Senpai spread out a white cloth that she had been carrying under her arm and swiftly assembled it together with a series of curved metal pipes.
“…Oh, a kite?”
“A kite? That’s a kite? Touya-kun, I’ve never handled a kite before, you know?”
Just as Touya had said, what senpai had spread out before her chest was a small kite.
“Heh, how lucky you are, Hinooka.”
“Hah? Are you a little kid?” asked Homura in disbelief.
“You don’t have much footing, so be careful! Here we go!”
Senpai suddenly threw the kite into the sky.
Instantly, the kite stretched out the string as it flew horizontally, and then began to ascend as it caught the wind.
“Wawah, so strong!”
Homura was on the verge of being carried away with the kite, but Touya caught her and held her back from behind.
“The string, extend the string!”
“Which part!? Where!?”
“The reel brake, use that!”
Touya’s hands overlapped with Homura’s fingers to grip the spool of string.
While repeating the process of loosening the string and stopping, loosening the string and stopping, they manipulated the string handle and made the kite run across the sky in a zigzag fashion, gradually making the white kite climb up and grow small from their perspective.
“…It’s already a dot at this point.”
As the two of them held their breath and watched the path of the kite, Misasagi-senpai came over to them while looking up at the kite happily.
“It’s high enough now. Here, take this.”
Saying that, senpai held out a hammer.
Touya hurriedly separated from Homura and accepted it.
“H-Hinooka, don’t let go!”
“I got it, don’t worry.”
Touya then hammered the stake which poked out from the fulcrum of the thread handle into the ground to fix it in place while Homura kept hold of it.
After confirming that the kite was stable, the three of them returned to the cabin.
Inside the cabin, there were two bunk beds and one small desk. It also served as a storehouse for materials such as sleeping bags and food ingredients for emergencies.
“This place is really dreary…”
Senpai smiled bitterly.
“The wind is also noisy at night, making it hard to sleep.”
As she said that, senpai placed the contents of the durable case she had been constantly carrying onto the desk.
“Ah, that’s the state secret thing.”
“Yes. Thank you for waiting. This is the crux of our mission this time.”
It was a lump of wires, coils and miniature light bulbs.
It had been compacted together quite well, but the main parts that Homura could distinguish consisted of telephone receivers and vacuum tubes. This was her first time seeing actual vacuum tubes.
It was clearly some kind of communication device, but even so, it was the size of twenty cellphones.
“This is a wireless transceiver. I made it myself.”
“Amazing, you managed to make all this, senpai?”
Misasagi-senpai patted the transceiver in a slightly proud manner.
“I got the blueprints from an expert in Nutellan physical phenomena, but I’m the one who actually constructed it. It’s true that it took a lot of effort, but it wasn’t that hard to figure out how to make, you know?”
To Homura, people who could make things like vacuum tubes or portable game devices themselves were beings who existed above the clouds. Yes, speaking of above the clouds—
“Ah, then does the kite act as an antenna?”
“Yes. It’s a makeshift antenna.”
“Senpai, why did you make all this yourself?”
Misasagi-senpai held out her finger and the Transport Ring on it.
“When transporting, it’s difficult to carry over tools whose functioning you don’t personally understand, especially complex things like this. Semiconductors don’t work properly on Nutella either, so currently this is the best method for making a telephone call here.”
She softly put it down on the desk.
“Of course, that’s only if it works right—”
Senpai took out another part. It was a hand-powered electric generator. She affixed it to the desk with a clamp and installed the handle.
“This cabin is called a relay base because it lies at the halfway point between our base camp and the base camp of Hiyoshizaka High’s Exploration Club.”
“I see. But when you say halfway… this is still just the halfway point after coming all this way? It’s far, way too far.”
“That’s why our objective is to make a relay station for radio waves on this mountain ridge and finally make it possible to communicate between base camps.”
“I see~. So our mission was to act as the Kansai Electrical Safety Inspection Association♪.”
“More like NTT DoCoMo1.”
“But isn’t Hiyo-High only three stations away from Seiran? It shouldn’t be that far, even if you walk there.”
“That’s true on Earth. But at this latitude on Nutella, the straight-line distance between locations is changed to twenty times more than on Earth.”
“Twenty times more!? Hiii… Then other schools must be even farther away.”
“Yes, they’re far… very much so.”
Touya sighed while lightly turning the handle of the set-up transceiver and watching its condition.
“Nutella’s surface area is also the same as Jupiter’s, you know? It’s a hundred and twenty times the size of Earth. This much was written on the pamphlet, remember? What are you getting all surprised at now—”
“Wait, please stop, the order of magnitude is getting too big and exaggerated and making my brain overheat.”
“It’s not an exaggeration.”
Either way, Homura felt dizzy at it all.
“It’s wonderful that this world is so wide and huge. Now, let’s start the communication experiment while the kite is still stable.”
Though she said that, Misasagi-senpai herself was the most eager of them all.
“If it works well, we should hear the beacon from Hiyoshizaka High’s base camp. They have the same device installed over there as well.”
They drew out the antenna wire from the stake used to keep the kite in place and connected it to the transceiver inside the cabin. The kite seemed to be steadily rising, but there was no way to tell what would happen in the afternoon if the weather became rougher.
Touya and Homura took turns rotating the generator.
Once the vacuum tubes warmed up, noise soon began to leak out from the transceiver and the sound of a beacon could be clearly heard.
Puu, pii, puu, pii, puu…
“It worked… This is coming from Hiyo-High’s camp, right?”
Touya turned around from clinging to the speaker, and senpai nodded.
“Yes, there’s no mistake.”
“It’s kind, of a, gloomy, sound, though…”
Homura panted as she turned the heavy handle.
“It would, have been, better with, some fanfare… Haaah.”
Senpai smiled wryly.
“The camp there is unmanned right now since the members have already gone back to Earth, so this is the best we can do.”
“What are they doing for electricity while they’re gone?” asked Touya. “Are they using a battery?”
“It should be using water-generated power. Storage batteries deteriorate very quickly. I’d like for us to eventually make an antenna tower and supplement our side with wind-generated power too, but…”
“That’s a, long road, ahead! All right, that’s hundred turns! Switch!”
“That was fast. Did you really turn it a hundred times?”
Touya clicked his tongue and switched places with Homura for power generation duty.
“At this rate, how long will it take until we can send even a single text or email?”
“It’s true that we have a long road ahead. We have to observe the condition of the transceiver next, so please keep working hard a little while longer, Touya-kun.”
While senpai checked over the procedure as she looked through the manual, Homura rested her elbows on the desk with the transceiver and listen to the cold and inorganic beacon.
Suddenly, she heard a voice mixed in with the noise from the speaker.
“—Senpai!? It’s talking! I can hear a voice from it!”
“What!? Switch places with me!”
“You’re so noisy, Touya-kun! Go on, keep turning it!”
[…CQCQ. This is Hiyoshizaka High’s Exploration Club. Please respond—CQCQ, this is Japan Hiyoshizaka High’s Explorers2…]
The voice over the radio alternated between English and Japanese as it called out for a reply.
They had definitely heard the words ‘Hiyoshizaka High’.
[…What… Is it not working…?]
The voice went on to mutter and complain.
Manipulating the transceiver, senpai handed Homura the phone receiver.
Though Homura tried to decline with her eyes, senpai pushed it onto her with a smile.
Giving up, Homura cleared her throat and nervously spoke into the mike.
“T-This is Seiran High’s Exploration Club. Over.”
[Oh, it worked, the radio signal arrived!]
The person on the other end seemed to be shouting at someone behind her.
The cheers from other members could be faintly heard over the speaker.
Homura’s cheeks slightly reddened as she felt as if she were witness to a historic moment.
[Slow! You’re so slow, Mayo! You really kept us waiting here!]
“Sorry. W-We got delayed.”
[Hmm? You’re not Misasagi? A girl? Not Touya-kun, right?]
“Y-Yes. I’m a new club member, Hinooka Homura.”
[Ah, the girl who came to my live concert! I see, congratulations on joining the club!]
“Thank you very much—wait, by concert, does that mean you’re… Kamikoma-senpai!? The one who played the saxophone?”
[The one and only. I’m Kamikoma Sara, the president of Hiyoshizaka High’s Exploration Club. Nice to be working with you from now on!]
That husky voice was unmistakably that of the small-statured female upperclassman who had performed at that live music club along with Kujou Orie.
Other voices trying to name themselves could also be heard as they overlapped over the speaker, but Kamikoma fervently kicked them away.
[I said quiet down and move away, geez, you guys—So, haha, based on your words, did Mayo keep it a secret?]
Misasagi-senpai took over the receiver from Homura.
“This is Hinooka’s first mission.”
[Ah, Mayo. All right, so you Sei-High guys managed to all safely arrive at the relay camp?]
“Yes. Touya-kun is also here.”
Still not relaxing his hand on the handle, Touya moved his head towards the receiver as senpai held it out to him.
“Touya here! Koma-senpai, you guys use water-generated power over there? We’re using human power here, you know? It’s really tough.”
The other end was filled with laughter again.
Homura and the others also wryly laughed along with them.
[Hahaha, keep working hard. Then, until your dear power generator uses up all his strength, how about I do a broadcast about the story of Mayo’s berserk rampage at the live music club? This will serve as our commemorative first broadcast—]
“K-Koma-chan!? You can’t talk about that, you can’t—”
Clinging to the transceiver, senpai showed an open and unguarded expression that Touya and Homura had never seen before.
Both now third-year students, Kamikoma and Misasagi had gone through their school life while deepening friendly relations with each other as fellow members of the Exploration Club.
They had known each other for two years since they had entered high school, or perhaps even longer that that. Homura honestly felt envious of the two of them. And then she suddenly remembered Kujou-san. Even though there had been plenty of chances, Homura still had yet to form any friendship with her.
[Hahaha, well, I’ll stop the joking here… The truth is, there’s something I have to tell you while the transmission’s working. Did anything abnormal happen on your end?]
Misasagi-senpai briefly recounted the herd of beasts that Homura had encountered last night.
However, she didn’t mention the fact that a human-like figure had been seen among them.
[I see… The truth is, we also heard howling over here.]
Homura’s eyes widened.
[We also found corresponding footprints. According to one of our guy who’s knowledgeable on animals, they apparently belong not to wild dogs, but to wolves. And big ones at that.]
Senpai frowned, but then recomposed herself and continued speaking.
“So you extended your stay here in order to wait and tell us that. Thank you.”
[Sure. For now, it’s fine as long as you’re all okay. I’ll pray for your safe return. Depending on the situation, you should also consider doing an emergency withdrawal.]
“Understood. Thank you for sharing your information.”
After that, the two club presidents exchanged information about the weather. There were many times when a bad change in the weather at the Hiyoshizaka camp would also spread out and occur at the Seiran camp.
[Then, we’ll be going back ahead of you. We’ll also inform Fujimori-sensei about this.]
“Yes, please do.”
“U-Umm…! About what happened last night…”
Homura suddenly interjected from beside senpai.
Guessing where Homura’s words were heading, Touya chided her sharply in a hushed voice.
“Leave it be. We’ll discuss it after we all get back.”
“You don’t believe it either, do you, Touya-kun? You think I saw a hallucination? But a herd of beasts really did come, you know?”
“I don’t know either way. But this isn’t something to lightly announce without proof. It’s like saying you saw aliens.”
Sensing the change in atmosphere on their end, Kamikoma also seemed confused.
After sinking into thought while gripping the receiver, Misasagi-senpai finally resolved herself and opened her mouth.
“The truth is—”
A human might have been seen among the herd.
Misasagi-senpai repeated Homura’s words to Kamikoma.
The previously lively Hiyoshizaka club members who were listening in from behind there also fell silent. No one laughed.
Having expected at least teasing cheers if not words of praise, Homura felt completely let down at the anticlimax.
[—If that’s true, it’s our first contact with a Nutellan.]
Kamikoma strove to respond calmly.
[Mayo, you understand, right?]
After watching senpai’s depressed expression from the side, Homura realized that she had stepped over the line here.
Senpai handed the receiver back to Homura.
[Hinooka-san—no, is it fine if I call you Homura? I’ll explain it so it’s easy to understand. This is really bad. News of this won’t just be contained in our country. This is information that self-proclaimed good and bad people alike throughout the world will tear out from your throat just to get their hands on it. Even if it’s true, this is something you should only tell to people you trust. This of course also has to do with the confidentiality agreement for Exploration Club members, but you can’t tell your family either.”
“Even my family?”
[Yeah, it’s better not to get them dragged into it. I don’t think you should tell Fujimori-sensei yet either, but… Well, this is just my opinion. You should discuss it with your club president. Of course, we won’t say anything either. That’s a promise.]
“Yes… Thank you very much.”
[Well, don’t worry too much. Just make sure to be careful. It might unexpectedly have been a witch that you saw.]
[Yes. A witch.]
Having completed their mission, Homura and the others began their return journey.
They left the relay camp and headed towards the old castle of the base camp.
The sun had risen up high in the sky and the weather on the mountain ridge path was a bit clearer than yesterday. The speed of the low-hanging clouds moving across the sky was refreshing as well… It was just right for a picnic.
Though the atmosphere among them wasn’t gloomy, Homura felt worried by the lack of words between them.
“Umm… I’m sorry for butting in from the side and talking without permission earlier.”
She hung her head shamefully as she walked next to senpai down the gentle slope.
Senpai shook her head slightly.
“It’s fine. It was a subject that would have been difficult for me to handle on my own. In the end, I actually felt relieved that you shared it with Kamikoma-san. I’m the one who should be apologizing for failing to act as a proper club president. At such a crucial time, I was…”
“No, I didn’t think that at all. Senpai, you, umm…”
She had also intended to apologize to Touya who was walking a bit further ahead, but he remained silent.
“It’d be best if it was just me mistaking what I saw, right? Everyone would be happier that way, right? Ahaha…”
Senpai made a complicated expression and failed to respond.
“I think we should proactively investigate it, though,” Touya murmured.
“Wait, just who are you siding with anyway!?”
Touya turned around with a serious expression.
“You saw it yourself, right? You managed to cut them with a knife?”
“Yes… I should have.”
“If that’s true, it’s really amazing. We don’t know who they are, but this discovery is much more significant than searching through graveyards. Because they’re actually alive.”
“Were they male or female? Were they wearing clothes?”
When she tried to recall, the piercing fear returned in her chest.
Back then, the camp fire had been extinguished, but nights on Nutella were brighter than on Earth.
“I think they were wearing clothes… probably. I don’t remember the design, but… they were wearing something like a bracelet.”
“Then it wasn’t just one of the monkeys.”
Homura was taken aback in surprise.
“Ah… Ah~, I didn’t consider it might have been a monkey back then… A monkey, huh…”
“Hey, hey, seriously? Well, it’s true that mountain dogs and monkeys don’t seem to form herds. But we can’t say anything for certain about this planet. Well, I was more surprised at your guts for suddenly slashing at an unknown opponent.”
“I’m already reflecting on how reckless that was.”
Touya dubiously shrugged and then turned to senpai.
“Speaking of which, what was that talk about a witch?”
Homura was also interested in the word that Kamikoma had mentioned at the end of the transmission.
“The [Witch] is like a ghost story passed down among the Exploration club members. When something mysterious happens, we often say that it was the doing of a forest witch. Of course, no one has actually seen the witch.”
“A superstition among the Exploration Club? What kind of mysterious events do you mean, for example?”
“They’re all silly and childish things, but let me see….”
As they walked, senpai talked about the superstitious beliefs regarding the witch passed down in the Exploration Club.
Examples included unimaginably huge fish washing up against natural dams made of driftwood and rocks, scratch marks that looked just like letters being found on tree trunks, falling stars so bright they illuminated the night sky leaving behind strangely-shaped vapor trails after they passed by…
“It’s said that when you meet the witch and are beckoned by her, you won’t be able to come back, so make sure to be careful, Touya-kun, Hinooka-san.”
“Ahaha, sure, I’ll be careful.”
“Those who see the witch never come back… is it? If that were true, that kind of rumor wouldn’t spread in the first place.”
“That’s exactly right…” Misasagi-senpai agreed. “But, if there really is a witch, I’d like to meet her.”
“Yeah, me too! I’d like to ask her the trick behind fire magic! Ah, but it’d be a problem if I wouldn’t be able to come back, huh?”
“You should just stick to smoke magic. Use it to smoke fish or meat.”
“What was that?”
Homura was relieved at the sight of senpai’s gentle smile, but that was precisely why she was concerned by the tense face Touya sometimes showed when he looked at senpai.
Just as senpai had said this morning, they walked back while crossing over the river shoals several times and avoiding places where wolves seemed to appear frequently like the campsite last night and where it would be hard to run away should the worst happen.
It was gradual, but Homura became accustomed to Nutella’s landscape as well.
Though it was hard to put into words, it was as if she could feel some faint human warmth in parts of the landscape which seemed completely natural and untouched.
They were walking on a slender path that only members of the Exploration Club should have passed through.
However, the biggest boulders along the rough rock face were split in two as if they had been cut apart by a giant axe, lining up into a path and creating a natural sunken road.
The flowers that bloomed as if to decorate a particularly breathtaking spot looked like vestiges of someone having been buried there in search of comfort.
In the far past, someone had walked along this ridge and rested their body while looking at this very same scenery—perhaps it was just a delusion on her part, but thinking that way was wonderful.
Homura had only ever thought of mountains as inconvenient and unpleasant places with no cell phone reception… For her to feel human warmth in them was something that would have been impossible for her until now.
Once they were close to the entrance to the valley leading to the base camp, the three of them took one final break.
Their journey back had been going well, and they had managed to make it this far while there was still quite a bit of time left until evening.
The three of them sat down together on a big fallen tree.
While senpai and Touya conversed together, Homura absentmindedly recalled the events of these past two days, causing her to inadvertently groan and bury her face in her hands.
She kept sinking down until she had her face crammed between her knees.
“It’s so embarrassing… I made mistakes again and again. I caused trouble for everyone. Even though it was supposed to be my first mission and debut as part of the Exploration Club. If this were an exam, I’d be getting negative marks…”
“Yeah. You’ll be taking supplementary lessons in the club building.”
“But you said that the Exploration Club is exempted from supplementary lessons,” Homura whined.
Supplementary lessons are necessary. You only get exempted from supplementary exams, Homura-san3.
While Homura and Touya noisily argued over what had and hadn’t been said, senpai murmured with a sigh.
“A mealy primrose’s heart, knows the season, and waits for spring.”
Homura turned to Misasagi-senpai in surprise.
“It’s the motto passed down in my family. Everyone goes through hard times. So cheer up.”
“Yes, my family’s motto,” senpai replied with a nod.
Homura opened her eyes wide in surprise at such a phrase that she had only ever heard in TV dramas before.
“The Misasagi family were originally samurai who received a stipend of 500 koku4 of rice, but then went through the bitter experience of having it revoked once. The family went through hard times, but later was revived as merchants.”
“Flowers that bloom beneath the snow aren’t seen by anyone. But when spring eventually comes, the snow melts. There’s never a time when spring doesn’t come. Even if the things you do and accomplish don’t go well, it’s a waste to let your heart wither as well.”
Beneath the dim trees, senpai looked at a small flower that was illuminated by sunlight peeking through the branches and leaves.
“There’s no need to rush. Homura-san, your good points won’t lose their brightness no matter what the time. You’re a flower that blooms beneath the snow.”
Homura nodded in a moved manner.
“So I’m the best remaining as I am, is what you mean, right?”
“Isn’t that wrong? Don’t conveniently interpret it.”
“…Maybe you should train your body a bit more at least.”
Senpai smiled wryly as Homura’s eyes glittered excitedly.
After linking arms and forming a circle together in the old castle’s basement, Homura and the others managed to safely return home from Nutella with the power of the Transport Ring.
When they suddenly appeared in the transport room, Fujimori was there to greet them as if she had been waiting for them.
“All right, everyone, good work out there! Well done coming back!”
Using a remote control, she halted the flashing lights that signaled an intrusion into the transport room—in other words, the return of the Exploration Club members.
“I heard about the wolves from Koma. You guys went through a lot, but don’t sleep in tomorrow.”
“…Isn’t being late not counted for members of this club?”
“That’s our official stance. It’s bait to lure in new club members.”
“Seriously…? You seem to have been sound asleep, though, sensei.”
Touya nonchalantly assessed Fujimori, who had terrible bed hair and visible imprints resembling the patterns from a mattress on her cheeks, but she just defiantly puffed up in pride.
“…Are you okay, Hinooka? Are you suffering from transport sickness?”
As senpai supported her, Homura shook her head with an absentminded look.
“I don’t feel so bad… Just, I got hit by weariness and drowsiness the instant we got back… I feel like I went a whole day without sleeping. Sensei, did you contact our homes?”
“I only told them that the welcome party went on late, though.”
“That’s pretty much a bald-faced lie, isn’t it?”
“It’s not a lie. We did welcome you, right? Keep up the confidentiality agreement!”
In the changing room, Homura sluggishly washed her head several times and somehow managed to change into her school uniform with senpai’s help.
Just as she was about to leave, Homura stopped by the illuminated stand-by room and was shocked when she saw the clock on the wall.
Homura’s first mission. Her stay on Nutella had amounted to thirty-six hours. That was—only six hours’ worth of time on Earth. It was still in the afternoon of the day that she had transported to Nutella.
To be continued.
Chapter 13 END
(1) The Kansai Electrical Safety Inspection Association is responsible for ensuring the safe use of electricity in the Kansai region in Japan. NTT DoCoMo is the predominant mobile phone operator in Japan.
(2) While the first half of this dialogue is in normal Japanese, the second half of the text is in English, which you can notice from the different phrasing used.
(3) To avoid misunderstandings, this part is said by the narrator, not any character.
(4) Koku: an old Japanese unit measurement for volume, equivalent to about 280 liters per unit. Back in feudal Japan, 1 koku of rice was considered enough to feed one person for one year.