A rainy morning.
Homura’s room was dimmer than usual.
After stopping her ringing alarm clock, Homura felt that something was out of place.
“Ah, that’s right…”
Today was Sunday.
One week had passed since she started running and making boxed lunches.
Touya had told her to take a break today, but she’d forgotten to turn off her alarm clock.
Strangely, her body didn’t feel tired. Her muscles had been in terrible pain the first two or three days, but her body had gotten used to it soon after.
When she closed her eyes and listened to the rain outside, she felt as if she had returned to her depressed and gloomy self.
The week-long morning runs seemed unreal at that moment, as if they were all a dream.
After falling back asleep out of a coveting for indolence, Homura got up at noon and went out to Honmachi.
There was no sign of that woman at the station today. She glanced at the leaflets on the wall as usual as she went through the ticket gate.
She strolled along the boutiques in front of the station before arriving her destination.
It was a famous traditional Japanese restaurant that she had read about in a magazine.
It was primarily a restaurant, but they also sold boxed lunches at the storefront.
When Homura arrived there, they had just opened up for the afternoon hours, and she was able to buy freshly made boxed lunches after standing in line for only a short time.
Having no motivation to immediately return home, Homura headed to the nearby shopping mall and took a seat at the food court.
“Oh right, gotta take a picture.”
After splitting apart her chopsticks, she realized she had forgotten to take a picture first, and she hurriedly put down her chopsticks. While holding back her hunger, she used her phone’s camera to take pictures of the boxed lunch from various angles for the sake of study.
The taste was good, as expected. Plenty of nourishment was poured into it.
When she reflected on her own efforts, she recalled how she had finally been shouted at by her taste-tester yesterday.
How is it that only the appearance of it has improved despite the fact that the taste hasn’t changed at all? he asked.
There are things you need to do before adding in anything like octopus or rabbit decorations, he said.
But no matter what she did, it seemed like Homura killed the taste of her ingredients the more she cooked them.
She was bad at things that took time to do.
Therefore, she wasn’t suited for cooking.
Even this boxed lunch wasn’t all that impressive in terms of appearance. Though she had studied the photos of it, it didn’t look that tasty to her, so much so that she even disdainfully thought that her own boxed lunches surpassed it.
But when she properly tasted it like this, she would strangely come to think that a gaudy appearance was unnecessary and that this kind of plain decoration was actually the best.
In the center of the food court’s atrium, there was a wide pillar with screens showing news reports on it.
Noticing it, Homura glanced at the news and talk shows being displayed, and a broadcast about the Imaginary Earth caught her eye. Though much less compared to the name of the UNPIEP, the name of the Exploration Club came up often. In particular, the image of the Exploration Club advisor from a public high school in Osaka being interviewed as a commentator appeared several times. He seemed like a kind and interesting teacher.
If I’m going to enter the Exploration Club, I’d rather join his instead. Such thoughts brushed through Homura’s mind.
Of course, that was realistically impossible, and she didn’t think they would accept her over there if she failed to join the Exploration Club at Seiran High.
And though she was currently chasing it off to the farthest corner of her thoughts, there was also the matter of her studies.
Well, she was in quite a pinch in all regards.
Suddenly, she noticed a shadow fall over her table, and she looked up.
“Are these seats empty?”
A group of three boys with jingling keys hanging from their pants stood in front of her. They were probably university students or older high school students. They had matching fired-up hairstyles. She could smell the hairdressing product even from this distance.
“Ah, go ahead.”
Due to the rainy weather, a lot of the seats in the food court were empty.
While feeling bad about it inside, Homura brought a boxed lunch from outside the mall and bought only drinks here before sitting down, but for these guys to purposefully approach her in this situation…
Their goal was, of course, to hit on her.
“Are you alone?”
Speaking of which, it had been a while since she had last come to Honmachi by herself.
“No, I’m waiting for someone,” she replied with a forced apologetic smile.
“Eh, that’s wrong, right? It looks like you’ve been sitting here alone for a while.”
They ignored her indirect hint.
“Or have you been stood up?”
“Ah, it does look that way.”
Just as expected, things were becoming troublesome.
Even though boys all talked to her quite kindly when they were by themselves, for some reason they became absurdly competitive the moment there were two or three of them together.
While knowing it wouldn’t work, she checked her cell phone’s texts and made a disappointed expression.
“I’m not getting any replies, so I guess I’ll give up and go home now.”
“Then that means you have nothing to do. You have some free time, right?”
It’s true I had lots of free time. Until now, that is. You guys are a week too late.
“Rather than that gloomy boxed lunch, how about you eat some grilled meat or grilled meat with us?”
“Hey, what’s with the overblown meat appeal there, dude?”
“No, no, this is quite tasty, actually.”
Ah, she said something unnecessary.
“Really? How tasty? Please tell us.”
“If you’re not going to eat anymore, how about giving some to me?” “Like I said, your gluttonous streak is coming out too much, dude.”
Homura was being gradually pressured.
Since her seat faced the handrail of the atrium, she was in a difficult position to quickly get up from.
She wouldn’t be able to get up unless she stood between the chairs and pushed the other guys aside.
She thought about pretending to cry since it was troublesome, but that would be a declaration of defeat in its own way to her, so she didn’t want to. She disliked the idea of making matters serious by calling for the local security guards even more.
“Sorry for making you wait.”
Just when she was troubled over what to do, a husky voice rang out.
However, the owner of the voice was hidden from Homura’s sight behind the backs of the boys.
When they turned around, a single girl stood there.
She was somewhat shorter than Homura and had a wild atmosphere about her.
She had a slightly long, wolf-cut hairstyle. She carried a wind instrument case over her shoulder, and the case was covered with stickers, giving off a rock punk image. Her clothing perfectly matched that impression as well, making it look as if she really was about to stand on stage.
“Yes, yes, sorry.”
She forcefully cut through the smooth-talking boys and sat down next to Homura.
Going with the flow, Homura received the instrument case from the girl.
“Hey, are you a friend of this girl?”
“That’s right. Got a problem with that?”
The girl, who Homura had met for the first time today, replied nonchalantly.
“Right?” she said as she turned to Homura seeking agreement, to which Homura could only nod repeatedly.
“No, she just said ‘Who?’ a second ago, didn’t she?”
Yes, that she did.
“You really can’t follow along, can you?” the girl said as she glared at Homura.
One of the boys suddenly cried out.
“This girl is Kamikoma from Hiyoshi.”
“Geh!” “Kamikoma… wait, y-you idiot!”
The boys suddenly went into a panic and surveyed their surroundings.
They were just like herbivores from the Savanna who were wary of predators, despite the fact that they’d been making such a fuss about meat earlier.
“This girl? Idiot?”
The girl called Kamikoma expressionlessly tilted her head.
“A-Ah, no, sorry.”
“Pipsqueak? Tiny breasts? Small-boned and scrawny?”
“W-We didn’t say any of that!”
“Oh my, are you guys free right now? How about I treat you all to some tea?”
“We’re sorry. Please forgive us!”
“We’re sorry!” “Sorry!”
After pitifully bowing their heads in apology, the boys left the food court.
No, it would be more accurate to say that they ran away. Homura didn’t understand the reason why at all.
Though Kamikoma is short and had thin arms, they say she’s actually a master at hand-to-hand combat…
They say there’s actually a hammer covered in thorns in her case…
Well, leaving all that aside—
“Thank you very much.”
Homura stood up from her chair while holding the case and bowed her head in thanks.
“It’s fine. You seem like you’re used to that kind of treatment. You wouldn’t have had any trouble with them even without me.”
“That’s not true at all. You really saved me there.”
“It’s just because they were being a bit of an eyesore.”
After saying that, Kamikoma stretched her arms and looked around the food court.
“Oh, there she is,” she muttered and then waved her hand. “Sorry about that, Orie. Over here.”
By Orie, could she mean…
“You really did make me wait, you know.”
Kamikoma turned around and smiled mischievously.
The one who appeared before them was Homura’s classmate Kujou Orie.
She wore a black formal dress and bolero jacket. She held a violin case in her hands.
Unlike Kamikoma, she gave off the impression of a classical music performer.
Her current adult atmosphere made her seem quite different from when she was wearing the school uniform.
“Like I thought, it’s you, Kujou-san. What a coincidence!”
Kamikoma looked back and forth between the two of them.
“Do you know her, Orie?”
Kujou remained silent with an indecipherable expression.
Homura reflexively interjected between them.
“Ah, yes, we’re classmates. We’ve been together since middle school,” she explained as brightly as possible.
Resting her chin on her hands, Kamikoma looked at Kujou in expectation.
But the girl in question merely frowned.
“It… might not be a coincidence. A lot of students from Seiran High tend to come here.”
“Ah, that’s true.”
“…Won’t you introduce me?” Kamikoma asked.
Letting out a small sigh, Kujou began to speak.
“This is Kamikoma Sera-senpai. She’s a third year at Hiyoshi High.”
Like I thought, she’s older than us, Homura thought as her guess based on Kamikoma’s attitude was confirmed.
…That meant that, though it was rude to say, she was naturally quite short.
But the presence she gave off didn’t give that feeling at all.
“My father and Kamikoma-senpai’s mother know each other through their music-related work, and that’s how senpai and I came to meet—and this here is Hinooka Homura-san.”
“Nice to meet you, Hinooka-san.”
Homura shook Kamikoma’s offered hand.
Taking back her case from Homura, Kamikoma pointed at it and spoke.
“By the way, this is a sax.”
“Ooh.” …But even if she was told that, Homura only vaguely understood what it was.
But she at least knew what instrument Kujou held.
“You have a violin, right, Kujou-san? So you play the violin. That’s amazing.”
“…Not really. This is all I have.”
Kujou turned her face away.
“There you go being modest again. Both of your outfits are also perfect… Did you two come from a concert?”
“No, we’re going to one now. We were actually thinking of eating here first before going, but I was late due to some circumstances—”
Suddenly, Kamikoma clapped her hands together in epiphany.
Kujou narrowed her eyes as if she had a bad premonition.
“If you like, would you come listen to our live concert?”
“A live concert! Yay! Is it really okay!?”
“Of course. It’s over at [Rhapso], beyond the arcade.”
“Ah, I know that live music club! Please allow me to go!”
“…Minors aren’t allowed in tonight, though,” Kujou interjected.
“True, minors can’t enter, but it’ll be fine if my name is mentioned.”
“Ooh, the legendary backstage pass?”
“Also, you might end up sharing a table, but you’re fine with that, right?”
“I don’t mind.”
“All right then. We have to do a rehearsal, so we’ll be going ahead first. Hinooka-san, the concert starts at 6:30.”
“Thank you so much! I look forward to it.”
In that case, she wished she had chosen to wear appropriate clothing beforehand.
As they walked away side by side, Kamikoma and Kujou looked like their positions as senior and junior were reversed based on their appearance, but Kujou really did seem like a junior in the way she nodded along to Kamikoma’s talking, which Homura found amusing, somehow.
Just as they were leaving the food court, Kamikoma stopped and turned to Kujou.
“Ah, I have to go to the toilet. And I think I’ll go buy some light food too. Go ahead and wait for me, Orie.”
After dispassionately saying goodbye, Kujou headed to the mall’s escalator.
But, after waving her hand, Kamikoma once again went back to Homura and sat back down on a chair with her knees on top.
While holding onto the handrail, Kamikoma watched Kujou go down the escalator that pierced through the atrium.
Homura also followed suit and watched her go down.
“Kujou-san is quite cute.”
The small senpai gave a small nod.
“Are you Orie’s friend?” Kamikoma asked once again.
“Yes… at least, I feel that way…”
“I see. Is Orie fitting in at school?”
“That girl is shy towards strangers, and she has a bit of trouble with words.”
What was she like in middle school?—Shamefully, Homura didn’t remember at all.
“If I remember right, Hiyoshi High is also…”
“That’s right. It’s a university-preparatory high school just like Seiran. I invited Orie to attend there, but that girl decided on her current course herself. Probably out of opposition towards her parents.”
“Is that so? She really is amazing… Completely different from me, who leaves things to others.”
Kamikoma turned back to face Homura.
“I have an earnest request to ask of you. It’s about Orie.”
“I won’t tell you to get along with her. Asking you won’t change anything. But, if that girl is being bullied, could you tell me? Because she would never tell me about it herself.”
Kamikoma-senpai seemed to be worrying about Kujou from the bottom of her heart.
Even so, what could Homura promise when she herself was flustered over not finding a place of her own at school?
“No one in our class is like that. Please don’t worry in that regard. Also, I do seriously want to get closer to Kujou-san myself.”
Homura clenched her fist as she answered Kamikoma.
“Is that so?”
Kamikoma patted her chest in relief.
“Sorry for suddenly saying something like this when we just met today.”
“You’re kind of like a handsome boy, Kamikoma-senpai.”
“Stop with the handsome bit. At least call me manly.”
Homura managed to easily enter the live music club.
When she went down the atmospheric illuminated stairs, she arrived at a hall that was quite vast in comparison to the narrowness of the entrance.
She had prepared herself to seem out of place since minors weren’t normally allowed in, but, to her surprise, half of the audience were foreigners.
The checkered-tile stage was illuminated by amber lights, making it seem as if you were looking at it through a glass of whiskey. There was a grand piano placed at a corner of the stage. Recording cameras were also set up in the back.
“Ooh, this is the legendary… jazz! Isn’t it!?”
Homura wondered whether it was the jazz that her father sometimes listened to.
All the songs sounded exactly the same to Homura, though.
Just as she was guided through the dim audience seating and arrived at her table, the musical performance suddenly began.
Unlike the concerts Homura was used to seeing, the curtains were calmly raised without any clapping or cheers.
Musicians carrying instruments like trumpets, bass and slightly strange-looking acoustic guitars stood on stage and performed their music while swaying their bodies. As expected, there were a lot of foreign musicians.
In a certain sense, the short Kamikoma-senpai greatly stood out among them as she played her sax.
There was no sign of Kujou on the stage. However, Homura did get the sense that violins weren’t suited for jazz.
Homura became engrossed in the performance, but she noticed the person sharing the same table with her when drinks were brought over.
She met the eyes of the other person, who had been staring at her.
Homura nodded in greeting, and the other person also quietly nodded with her eyelids closed.
The person was a girl with beautiful long hair, who seemed to be a minor as well and was probably Kamikoma-senpai’s friend.
She was so startlingly beautiful that it was obvious even in the darkness of the audience seating, and Homura ended up ignoring the performance as she gazed at the other girl. Her memory circuits started working at full processing power whenever she saw someone overwhelmingly beautiful.
The other girl lifted her glass slightly and bashfully pointed at the stage.
Homura returned to sanity.
The pleasant performance continued, and after several songs, Kujou appeared on the stage.
Surrounded by the tall (except for one) musicians on the stage, Kujou’s white shoulders visibly stood out. She looked like a small queen in her black dress.
“Uooh, she really is pretty, as expected.”
Homura let out a sigh of admiration.
The performance resumed. Based on the time, this piece would probably be the last one.
When her violin entered the melody, the rest of the band lowered their volume and acted as support for her performance.
Homura felt a shiver run down the back of her neck. The way Kujou moved her fingers was so skillful and beautiful.
Kujou’s performance was a shock to Homura as she heard it for the first time.
Homura had felt that jazz was music without a protagonist since there was no conductor and the melody was complex. On the other hand, the violin, a classical solo instrument, could be likened to a lump of self-assertion shrieked and shouted.
And yet, the violin that Kujou played seemed to speak joyful in concert with the melody of the surrounding instruments.
“—What melody is this?”
“‘How High the Moon’.”
The girl next to her answered Homura’s unthinking murmur. She also seemed a bit excited.
Kujou-san’s serious expression came apart as she smiled happily.
It was the first time Homura had seen her smile.
The band’s performance also swelled in pitch alongside the violin, and when they reached the climax, Kujou finished passionately strumming her violin and the performance ended.
The entire audience stood up and applauded. Whistles and cheers showered the stage.
Homura also leapt up from her seat and put all the deep emotion she felt into her clapping.
Kujou-san turned bright red as she was hugged by a foreign guitar musician.
Looking closely, Kamikoma-senpai was also being hugged by someone beside.
When she looked back at her table, the other person was no longer there.
The one hugging Kamikoma-senpai, or rather tightly embracing her to the point of pushing her down, was that beautiful girl. Kamikoma-senpai seemed to be at a loss as she wore a timid expression.
Suddenly remembering the thirst of her throat, Homura took a sip of her drink, but immediately frowned.
“T-This is alcohol… a cocktail?”
Chapter 5 END