Early in the morning at the Hinooka household.
After seeing off her father as he drove off to work early, Tsuyu rolled open the morning newspaper in the yard of their house.
The cool morning air crept in through the sleeves of her pajamas.
Glimpses of clear sky broke through the cloud cover above, indicating that today’s weather would be nice.
“So Kobo-chan is finally in high school too…”
The sound of squeaking brakes resounded through the air. It seemed to have come from the front porch.
It sounded different from the brakes of the mailman’s bicycle she was used to hearing. It wasn’t from one of the Yakult1 salesladies either.
When Tsuyu turned back to look out the door, a boy wearing a high school uniform was there straddling a bicycle and chewing on what looked to be bread. It was Touya.
Noticing Tsuyu poking her head out the door, Touya hurriedly finished swallowing his food.
“Good morning!” Touya cheerfully greeted.
“…G-Good morning,” Tsuyu replied timidly, while still holding open her newspaper.
Who’s this? What’s going on?
I’ve been seen in my pajamas? Should I report him? Should I?
A pile of question marks ran through Tsuyu’s head.
After staring at her carefully, Touya asked a question.
“Could you be Hinooka’s little sister?”
Tsuyu simply nodded.
Touya then took out his cell phone and confirmed the time.
“…Is Homura still sleeping?”
Tsuyu nodded again and then, after a moment, quickly ran back inside and up to the second floor of the house.
She sprang into Homura’s room without knocking and tore off the bed covers as she woke up Homura, who was sleeping while rolled up into a ball on her bed.
“Wake up, Homura!”
“…What is it… I’m still sleepy, you know…”
Homura looked at Tsuyu with half-closed eyes.
“I said someone’s at the door!”
“……We could use some Joa2…”
“Not the Yakult saleslady! An unknown guy! Someone you know? A former boyfriend? A stalker!? Should I report him?”
“…Eeh~? Who is it now…?”
She sluggishly crawled out of bed with her hands and feet and headed towards the window to look outside.
Her younger sister’s sense of gravity, which was quite lacking in the first place, had utterly failed to fully wake Homura.
“Homura, your front button!”
Homura leaned out the window.
Tsuyu quickly moved behind her and covered the open front of Homura’s pajamas.
Touya waved his hand from the front porch.
“Good morning, Hinooka! Are you finally awake? Hurry up and come down!”
Homura finally stopped staring down absently as her eyes came into focus.
“What are you doing in front of my house, Touya-kun?”
“What are you talking about? I already told you yesterday, remember?”
“What was it again?”
“Running. We agreed to go running together!”
“…Ah… Ah… Right, right. I did promise that.”
“Are you okay?”
“Sorry, just wait there a bit.”
“I’m not waiting more than five minutes.”
After bringing her head back inside and closing the window, Homura began to sluggishly change clothes.
She put on some exercise clothing that she had almost never used. She had bought it at some point in the past to match the tastes of her boyfriend at the time.
“Should I do your hair?” Tsuyu asked in a sunken tone.
“Hmm, no, it’s fine.”
After slipping off her pajamas, Homura turned to face the mirror of her dresser and nodded in relief. She removed the cleaning shop tag attached to her shirt.
“I can’t make him wait too long. It’s my fault for sleeping in, after all—all right, this will do,” Homura said as she picked up a running cap.
“Who is that guy?” Tsuyu asked with a suspicious face.
There were a lot of things she wanted to ask, but that was what concerned her the most.
“Hmm? He’s a friend from school.”
“Ah, right, he’s wearing a Seiran High uniform… So, is he your new boyfriend?”
“Things would be simpler if that were the case.”
Tsuyu went over to the window and peeked down at the front porch through the curtains.
The boy in question, with nothing else to do, was doing some trick moves with his bicycle on the spot.
“…Homura, is that kind of person to your taste?”
“Like I said, he’s not my boyfriend,” Homura said as she skillfully tied her hair back behind her head. With her cap on as well, it was just right. “The truth is, I don’t really understand it either.”
Tsuyu stared reproachfully at Homura, who looked good no matter what she wore.
“In any case, it seems he’ll be coming here every morning from now on.”
Homura suddenly said something outrageous right at the start of the morning.
It would have turned into a scene of carnage if their father was still around to hear that.
“Eh? Every morning!? Hey, wait, M-Mom…!?”
Just as she tried to seek aid from her mother downstairs, Tsuyu heard the sound of the front door opening, and she rushed to the window again.
There, she saw her mother Serina just as she was going outside.
She was handing a glass of juice to Touya, who was politely greeting her with a bow.
“I already told Mom about it yesterday evening.”
“Gununu… A-At least meet in the evening instead…”
“All right, perfect.”
Homura finished dressing herself in front of the mirror. Emotionally, at least, she felt like a competent athlete.
She had to make Touya wait another ten minutes in order to wash her face.
As Homura did so, Tsuyu could hear the bright conversation between Touya and her mother as they acted friendly with each other.
Now that it had come to this, Tsuyu had no choice but to seek backing from her father.
“Ah, that’s right. Tsuyu, lend me your shoes.”
“Use your own!”
Homura resolutely bowed her head in apology to her lunch friends.
“I’m sorry, Makino-san and everyone. I’m going to be spending lunch elsewhere for a while starting today… I really am sorry!”
Homura prostrated herself in apology with both hands on her desk.
“…What did you just say?”
In the classroom during lunch break.
The other girls who were sitting with their desk arranged together looked like ominous silhouettes with the sunlight from the window at their backs.
They laced their fingers together while resting their elbows on their desks and solemnly whispered to each other.
“It’s a boy.” “It’s a boy.” “She won’t come back anymore.” “It was a short friendship.”
Makino propped one leg on a chair and leaned forward threateningly.
“Hey, Hinooka. If we make it look like ya can leave our turf and make yourself respectable so easily, it’ll set a bad example, ya know?”
“……” Homura trembled in silence.
“Shall I floor ya…?”
Makino made her hand into a finger pistol and thrust it before Homura’s face.
Her finger lightly touched Homura’s cheek, making her jump with a start.
“…Hinooka-san, you have an eraser imprint on your face.”
“Eh…? N-No way.”
“You were dozing off on your desk earlier.”
“Ah, you’re right. The brand [NOMO] is etched on her face.” “No, it’s not.”
“Then how about [Dostellar]3?” “No!”
Laughter filled the area around the group of desks, with Homura half-crying half-laughing in the center.
Makino spoke gently.
“You decided to participate in the Boxed Lunch Contest during the Shinryoku Festival, right?”
There was a large boxed lunch in the bag Homura held, along with a recipe magazine underneath it.
Appearance-wise, it was quite ‘simple’, but being easily understood was one of Homura’s good points.
“Is that so?”
“Then, that means you’ll be busy for two weeks. Good luck.”
“Who’s going to taste-test it? I feel a bit envious.”
“Yeah. What a shame. Talking with you is always interesting, Hinooka-san.”
“At first, I thought you were a quieter person, and it was a bit hard making retorts to you.”
“How to put it, it’s like you always do counter-throws, I guess?”
“Counter-throws?” Was that from some fighting game?
“Right, right. It’s like you wait for the other person to make a retort to a joke and then you throw in the opposite direction with a heave.” “I don’t get it at all.” “To put it another way, you have the courage to toy with others.”
At that moment, Homura felt like she had returned to the happy atmosphere of when she was in middle school.
With reluctance, she left the class.
Homura inadvertently looked over the classroom as she left, but Kujou-san wasn’t anywhere to be seen in the classroom at lunch time today as well.
“So, how was the running?”
“It wasn’t so hard.”
“Liar. You were gasping for breath when we went up the hill.”
Near the lawn in the courtyard, there was a wooden deck spread out with benches arranged on it. It looked a bit like a park.
This was a popular spot that was quickly filled up during lunch time, but Homura and Touya had luckily managed to secure a bench for themselves. Rather, the people around them might have been trying to be considerate. After all, there was nothing but couples on all the other benches…
“We didn’t have enough time today, so I cut the course in half. We’ll be running double the distance tomorrow.”
“Wait, that’s too sudden!”
Relaxing into a cross-legged posture on the bench, Touya stared pointedly at Homura.
“Even if you’re lucky and manage to win in the Shinryoku Festival, you can’t just suddenly start participating in the Exploration Club’s activities without any training.”
Homura nodded as she clenched her fist.
“Basic stamina is important, right? I read that much.”
Touya raised an eyebrow in surprise.
“You finally read the Exploration Club pamphlet?”
“Well… it’s hard to read, so just a little.”
“That alone is enough. Then, I guess I’ll dig into this.”
There were two boxed lunches on the bench between Homura and Touya.
Homura nodded with a tense expression.
Touya opened the lid and peeked into the boxed lunch.
“It looks normal.”
Homura poured them both cups of soup from a thermos flask.
“Thanks for the food!”
“You’re welcome… Then, I’ll also dig in…”
Homura gave him a cup and timidly picked up her own boxed lunch.
Touya vigorously brandished his chopsticks and began gulping down the food.
After his first bite, he was expressionless.
After his second bite, his expression become dubious, and after his third bite, it turned to certainty and he grimaced.
He gulped down some soup to get rid of the taste until he finally recovered.
Touya silently glared at Homura.
“H-How was it?”
“Could it be that this is your first time cooking?”
“I didn’t mention it?”
“This is the first time I’m hearing it.”
Thinking it might be some misunderstanding, Touya cleared his feelings and tried another bite, but the result didn’t change.
“…Hinooka. Regardless of the taste, I’m the one being fed here, so I won’t say, ‘It’s terrible’.”
“But you just said it, didn’t you?”
“However, do you really have the guts to challenge the Boxed Lunch Contest where girls who have received training in the Home Economics Club will be participating? Are you sure you aren’t trying for the Humor Prize instead?”
“D-Do you really have to go that far?”
“Hey, you. What’s that?”
With a CG-like smile, Homura hid her own boxed lunch behind her back.
“It’s just a boxed lunch, you know?”
“The contents look completely different from mine. What’s with that?”
It was easy to tell at a glance that the lunch box that Homura was hiding had been made by her mother.
“B-But, my mother always makes three persons’ worth of food by mistake, so it gets divided between me, my father and my little sister.”
“Come on, that’s my first prototype boxed lunch, right? The ingredients originally came from perfectly good leftovers, and it would have been a waste to throw it all away and release extra carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from cooking more, you know?”
“Why do I have to be considerate of the environment and you get to eat human food?”
Touya pressed his boxed lunch at Homura’s face.
“Eat this yourself. Why do these omelettes taste like coffee, anyway? Aah?”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
Homura quickly gave in.
Her expression then turned serious and she murmured softly.
“How about we take turns sampling it? Or we can decide by Russian Roulette—”
“Don’t be stupid. Properly make two persons’ worth starting tomorrow. In the contest, you’ll have to make food for five people. Consider it practice.”
Well, she had been vaguely away of it when she tasted samples during her struggle to cook at home last night.
Homura had brought a cooking magazine along with her, but today it appeared she wasn’t at the point where she could even consult it yet.
However, it wasn’t in Homura’s nature to let herself be one-sidedly criticized.
Within her, (unjustified) anger boiled up.
For instance, about this morning’s run—
“…Hey, by the way, why do only I have to run while you get to ride a bicycle, Touya-kun? Isn’t that unfair?”
“It’s to raise your stamina, remember! I had already finished my morning training before I came to meet you!”
“Ooh, as expected of a sports boy.”
In that case, just how early had he gotten up this morning?
It was all completely foreign and unknown territory to Homura.
“Touya-kun, don’t you have friends who you eat boxed lunches with?”
“Ah, no, I don’t,” Touya answered nonchalantly.
“…I see, sorry for bringing it up.”
“Well, I prefer eating bread instead of boxed lunches, but regardless, I usually eat at recess after second or third period at school. The other guys are also like that.”
“A-An early lunch, huh? Then what do you do during lunch break?”
True, Homura could hear the sounds of balls bouncing off the ground and shouts from the other side of the school building that surrounded the courtyard where she and Touya were.
“Sorry for taking up your time here.”
“It’s fine. It’s just playing around. And yet, when I told the others that I was going to be absent for a while in order to eat lunch with you, they strangled me and flipped me over by grabbing my legs. Geez, I should feed this stuff to those guys instead!”
“Haha… Please use discretion.”
Afterwards, the two of them divided the prototype boxed lunch between them and ate while occasionally groaning “Aah” or “Ugh”.
Above, a silver midday moon could be seen floating sublimely in the blue sky.
“Is Nutella far away?”
“Do you want to go there?”
“No, not really.”
“What’s with that?” Touya grumbled with a disappointed expression.
“Rather, most of that pamphlet was pretty much unreadable for me. It was full of nothing but threatening warnings of some kind.”
“It can’t be helped. It’s for the sake of protecting the investigators.”
“With all that, it’s going to be hard convincing my father…”
“Is that so? My dad gave the okay pretty easily, so I can’t give you any advice on that.”
Touya’s eyes were serious as he gazed at the moon.
“Your mother was acting pretty supportive, but she seems to be misunderstanding the boxed lunches. Well, there are times when poison might get mixed into our meals when we explore. I guess I’ll use this as a kind of rehearsal.”
“You’re going as far as to say that the boxed lunch I spent all night making is poison?”
Homura handed Touya more soup while muttering in self-deprecation.
Accepting the cup, Touya bowed his head apologetically.
“…No, I’m sorry. I said too much.”
“That you did.”
“Don’t worry about it. Just bring it on. I’ll taste as much of your food as it takes.”
Homura bowed her head laudably.
“I’m the one who should be grateful here. To tell the truth, I can’t really rely on anyone else for this.”
—Because it’s too embarrassing!
Touya returned his gaze to the sky as he resumed speaking.
“Nutella’s location has nothing to do with distance. I’m still in the midst of studying the theory of teleportation and have only experienced going there twice so far, though.”
“Really? Distance is irrelevant?”
“Yeah. In the end, it’s determined according to the person going there. Nutella is a mathematical existence, so getting there is determined by the results of the teleportation calculation—by your perception.”
“A mathematical existence…”
Leaving aside the actual contents of the Exploration Club’s activities, the pamphlet’s explanation section on the makeup of the Imaginary Earth had instantly made her sleepy.
Staying ignorant like this would be troublesome for Homura if she intended to become a mage, though.
“The way to understand it is the exact opposite of our Earth.”
“What do you mean?”
“Look, the Earth is actually round, but we use flat maps, right? That’s just because it’s easier to record that way. In truth, maps are inaccurate and incomplete since they can’t show things like the surface area, direction and distance in equally sufficient detail. In order to really know the shape and appearance of the Earth, you can only go directly to the place in question or look down at it from space.”
“Ah, that example is easy to understand,” Homura said with a nod.
“…In that case, Nutella is instead closer to being like a map than the real thing.”
“That’s what the pamphlet seemed to say. It was too complicated for me.”
It was at that point that Homura belatedly realized something.
“Is it okay to tell me these kinds of things even though I’m not a formal member of the Exploration Club yet?”
Touya laughed as he saw Homura watch her surroundings nervously.
“This much information can be easily found on the net. There doesn’t seem to have been cases of successful teleportation in the civilian sector yet, but you can research it yourself if you’re interested.”
“I don’t use computers. My cell phone is enough to send text messages.”
Touya reacted in shock.
“Seriously? Being computer-savvy is an indispensable skill in the Exploration Club. Didn’t you at least learn about how to do net searches?”
Saying that, Touya took out a cell phone… or rather, something that looked like one.
It was similar to a recent model released by a big company, but it had an unfamiliar subdued coloring.
“Ooh, so cool! Hmm…? Is that cell phone perhaps the rumored one with a transmitter attached for twenty-four hour surveillance purposes…?”
“Transmitter? You mean the GPS? Yeah, it’s one of the provisions of the Exploration Club. And it’s a terminal, not a cell phone. It’d be bad if it was stolen and misused, so it only works in certain locations. But regardless, it really is amazing.”
Touya proudly flipped open his terminal and showed it off to Homura.
And right at that instant, a call came in. The way it vibrated and lit up was just like that of a normal cell phone.
“…Oh? It’s the club president.”
Homura instinctively went on guard at the mention of the club president.
Touya unlocked the terminal and answered the call.
“Yes, Touya here.”
“…Isn’t it a cell phone if you can take calls?” Homura grumbled.
“Ah, yes. Sorry—Yes. I’ll be careful from now on.”
The call ended in less than ten seconds.
Homura inched closer on the bench in order to try and listen in, but it ended before she could do so, making her click her tongue.
On the other hand, Touya put away his terminal in his pocket in a slightly dejected manner.
“What’s wrong, young lad?”
“I got scolded. She told me not to show the terminal to outsiders.”
Homura nervously stood up from the bench and surveyed the courtyard once more.
The school was peaceful with the sound of the lunchtime ruckus filling the grounds as usual… but the darkness of the hallways and the shadows of the rooftop water tank all looked conspicuously suspicious to her.
“So you really are being monitored…!?”
Chapter 4 END
(1) Yakult: a probiotic dairy product that is basically like yogurt milk and is a staple drink in Japan.
(2) Joa: a particular brand of Yakult milk.
(3) MONO and Dostellar are both eraser brands in Japan.