The Shinryoku Festival was three days away.
To the participants in the [Boxed Lunch Contest] who had to buy their ingredients beforehand and prepare the day before the contest, it already felt like it was tomorrow.
On the other hand, the posters of the festival’s main project, the “Yamato Nadeshiko Contest”, had been upgraded for some reason, with pictures of the participating female students affixed to them.
It increased the atmosphere of a beauty contest even further.
“So they do these kinds of preparatory measures…” Homura mumbled as she leaned forward to gaze at a Yamato Nadeshiko poster.
“They just put them up on their own. Actually, did they even get the person’s permission for this one…? Ouch.”
Beside her, Touya frowned as he gazed at the same poster.
The pictures that had been chaotically affixed to the posters included both portraits that seemed to have been self-taken and print-outs of photos that had clearly been taken without asking consent. Since the contest winner had the right to double their club’s budget as the grand prize, everyone was using every means available to win, as expected.
“Should I also take a picture of myself!? Like, a picture of me wearing a hat like that of a strong man and crossing my arms proudly with the heading [I’ll make your boxed lunch!].”
“There’s no point in that. The exhibited boxed lunches are judged anonymously—ouch.”
“Right. Yeah, I understand.”
“I wonder if they’re advertising themselves with their clubs—geh.”
Standing next to Homura, Touya was knocked on the back of the head and received a jab to his flank by the boys walking through the hallway as they passed by.
He had already gotten used to it and become resigned to it. Homura didn’t dare make any quips about it either.
Speaking of which, what was the prize for winning the [Boxed Lunch Contest]? She had only been concerned about the conditions for entering the Exploration Club and hadn’t paid any attention to that part.
As she was about to move on down the hallway, Homura suddenly caught sight of a certain picture.
“Cosplay like this is still popular, huh…”
As Homura spoke in admiration, Touya followed her gaze.
“Cosplay? Which one… Ah, eh?”
Touya spurted out in shock.
Homura wasn’t knowledgeable about it, but it was probably a costume of a character from some anime or game. The signature pose towards the camera was also perfect.
Touya’s eyes were glued to the picture.
“Hoh, so your tastes lean this way, Touya-kun? Actually, which class is this girl from?”
It was a girl that Homura had no memory of as far as she knew.
Since she was participating in this contest, she should be a first-year. She was quite a cute girl with an exotic atmosphere, someone Homura would definitely carve into her memory.
“Do you know something about her? Hmm~, why are you averting your face?”
“No… it’s just… you know…”
Touya was flustered as he faltered to speak.
It was rare to see a guy who was so bad at keeping secrets.
“This girl is a transfer student.”
An arm suddenly stretched out and tore off the picture from the wall.
Ah, how cruel. What’s this person doing?
The one standing behind them was, once again, Professor Fujimori.
Homura nodded in comprehension.
“A transfer student, huh? I see, no wonder I don’t recall seeing her before. What class is she in?”
“Don’t inquire any further about her.”
Touya patted his chest in relief. Well, she could just question him about it later.
“Sensei, what a coincidence to meet you here. Are we really being monitored?”
“What are you talking about? In the first place, the staff room is right over there, you know?”
“Don’t mind Hinooka. She seems to be a bit of a day-dreamer.”
As Homura became miffed at those words, Fujimori questioned her.
“So, Hinooka, how’s your prospects for winning the contest?”
“I’m sure to win.”
Homura responded with the signature pose she had learned just now.
“…You really are a day-dreamer, aren’t you?”
As Fujimori glared at her with scornful eyes, Homura nestled up to her.
“Sensei, could you let me use the Exploration Club’s cooking room? It’s such an impressive facility, so it has at least one portable cooking stove, right?”
“Well, we do have one. But what are you going to use it for?”
“To cook, of course. I can’t use the home economics room, after all.”
“Huh? Isn’t it open for student-use after school?”
Fujimori looked over at Touya.
“It’s not like I can’t go in, but that place is full of enemies. It’d be hard to cook there, and it basically makes the secret information battle completely exposed…”
However, Fujimori curtly refused the greedy-sounding Homura.
“Come on, don’t say that.”
“No. And don’t get carried away dozing off in class either.”
Fujimori lightly smacked Homura with a curled-up textbook.
“It is general rule that only club members and authorized staff can enter the clubroom. Do your recipe experimentation at your own home.”
After saying just that, Fujimori promptly left to return to the staff room.
Homura vented her frustration at the teacher’s retreating back.
“And yet you call yourself a teacher~? You look the worst in jeans in this entire school, you know! It’s because I can’t do that that I’m asking you! And I brought all my tools from home too…”
Touya’s shoulders drooped.
“Can’t be helped. How about you come over to my place?”
“Oh, is that really all right?”
Touya reluctantly nodded.
“I also bear some responsibility for this—ack.”
A boy passing by once more smacked Touya’s head from behind.
Touya’s home was in a set of apartments erected on a hill.
It was one station away from the nearest station to the Hinooka home.
Touya was pushing his bike up the hill. Homura grumbled as she walked next to him.
“Tsuyu rebelling against me was completely unplanned for…”
“Well, don’t begrudge your little sister too much.”
“I know, but…”
What had happened was that Homura’s younger sister Tsuyu, having been dumbstruck by Touya’s daily visits, rose up in revolt and leaked the details and circumstances of Homura’s entry into the [Boxed Lunch Contest] to their father.
As a result, Homura’s father, who was still against her joining the Exploration Club, would extract the kitchen stove’s gas pipes after supper every night.
Though she somehow managed to continue her morning running, practicing her cooking at home had been made difficult for her.
“Can’t I ride on this?”
Homura pointed at the bike.
“Think about it, you’re wearing a skirt. It’d be dangerous.”
“I see… damn, how inconvenient…”
As she sustained the conversation by stating something obvious, Homura felt uneasy inside.
Since Touya wasn’t bringing up the very crucial problem here, Homura asked him as nonchalantly as possible.
“By the way, are your parents at home, Touya-kun?”
“Ah? No, they’re not there. Don’t worry about it.”
Ugh, Homura groaned inwardly. The situation seemed to be escalating even further.
“Do you live alone, Touya-kun? Ah, or do both your parents work for a living…?”
“I don’t technically live alone, but it’s pretty much the same thing. My dad got a job transfer away from home. My mom is currently running away from home.”
“Running away from home!?”
Touya calmly nodded.
A heavy topic suddenly had come out. Homura’s polite and controlled expression quickly collapsed.
“T-T-T-Then, you’re the only one at your house, Touya-kun?”
“I just said that, didn’t I?”
The second stage alarm fiercely rang in her head.
Just what kind of nerves did this guy have to be able to easily “Come over to my house” under such circumstances?
Homura suddenly became hyper-aware of the public gaze and started looking around restlessly, while the boy in question called out to her without reservation.
After Touya put his bike in the bicycle parking lot, Touya ignored the elevator and led Homura up the stairs until they reached the entrance to Touya’s apartment.
As expected, this amount of stairs wasn’t enough to make Homura out of breath anymore. It seemed that the fruits of her running were having some effect on her body.
“Pardon me for the intrusion…”
After Touya unlocked the door, Homura followed him in through the entranceway.
After giving a polite greeting even though she knew no one was home, Homura was a bit taken aback by the neat and tidy entranceway and the bright and colorful interior of the apartment.
“Go ahead and make yourself at home.”
“R-Roger. Don’t mind if I do…”
There was a wooden sword placed in the umbrella stand next to the front door.
“What’s with this souvenir wooden sword here?”
Next to it, there was a short bamboo sword that she didn’t recognize.
When she tried grasping its well-used handle, she was surprised by the weight.
Touya’s voice rang through the hallway from his room, where he had headed to for a moment.
“That one’s for practice swinging. You can use it even in the middle of the living room. Maybe I should teach you some practice swings while you’re here.”
“No, before that, I’d like you to teach me cooking…”
“The kitchen is over there. You can wash your hands there.”
After Touya returned to the living room and began giving directions, Homura peeked at his room over his shoulder.
“Now then, let’s check where the lewd books are—”
“Just what did you come here to do? You don’t have much time left, you know!”
“Now, now, isn’t just a little peek fine?”
Pushing onto Touya the cooking tools and ingredients she had brought, Homura casually trespassed into Touya’s room.
Though she expected him to desperately stop her, the room’s owner merely shrugged in exasperation, betraying her expectations once again.
“Wow… It’s cleaner than my room.”
“Really? Is your room that dirty?”
“Tsuyu is always getting angry at me about it—”
The six-tatami-sized room felt very spacious due to the lack of a bed. The only furniture present was a writing desk and bookshelf.
“Ooh, is this for kendo?”
There were trophies and badges lined up neatly on the top bookshelf. A picture of him with his dojo comrades was also placed there. Besides that, the bookshelf contained things like serial historical novels and bike magazines.
The desk was simple as well, with only things like reference books, a laptop and a small audio player placed on top of it.
“Are all kendo boys this stoic…? What about manga? Or lewd books?”
“You’re so nosy. I hid the things I didn’t want you to see just now.”
“Hoh. So you do have them. Now where could they be?”
“Could you give it a rest already? You definitely won’t find them.”
“Are you sure about that? Ah, maybe you’ve got all your secrets collected together in your laptop—”
It was at that moment that a small photo frame on the desk caught her eye.
It showed a very young Touya together with a girl who looked to be in the latter half of elementary school.
As Homura suddenly found herself at a loss for words while gazing at that photo, Touya spoke up.
“That’s me and my big sis.”
“I was still five years old and Nee-chan was in fifth grade when the photo was taken.”
This was the first time Homura had heard of his sister, and there was no sign of her room in the Touya household.
While expecting the answer, Homura had to ask since she had touched upon the topic.
“…Did your sister… die?”
Touya nodded as if it were nothing.
“If she were alive, she’d be an adult by now. She was always joking around and playing pranks on people, so I think she would have gotten along with you, Hinooka.”
“Eh? What’s that supposed to mean?”
In the photo, Touya was hugging a stuffed animal with a tearful face and his small older sister was smiling while holding his hand.
As he smiled and looked at the photo frame, Touya didn’t say any more.
And Homura didn’t pry any further either.
“So, how about it? Have you calmed down a bit after some depressing talk? Are you finally ready to do this seriously?”
“Sorry. I will gratefully make use of your kitchen.”
“All right. Then I’ll help from the sidelines too.”
Homura stood in the kitchen wearing a borrowed apron.
Touya brought his study kit to the dining table and watched Homura work from a close enough distance that their voices could reach each other.
Homura was moving her hands as she strived to make boxed lunches, but her mouth moved even more.
Touya was looking over his notes, but couldn’t manage to concentrate well.
“Since you mentioned a job transfer, what kind of work does your father do, Touya-kun?”
“He’s a police detective.”
“Wow, a detective? This is the first time I’ve met someone related to the police. Was the person shown in the kendo hall photo earlier your father?”
The photo next to the one featuring the dojo gathering displayed a masculine-looking man in protective armor with a towel wrapped around his head standing next to Touya, who truly looked like a kendo boy in the photo.
“Yeah. That photo was taken when we went to the local dojo a while ago.”
“Your father looked really strong.”
“Yeah, he’s so strong that it can piss you off.”
“Then the reason you did kendo was because of your father’s influence, right?”
“Something like that.”
“Did you really use two swords? Isn’t that rare?”
“I guess. There happened to be a good teacher at the dojo. Also, I hated the idea of doing the same thing as my dad.”
“Well, I can’t really tell them apart, but they’re both a form of kendo either way. The key point to it was that, right? The mentality of a boy who wishes to surpass his father.”
While sitting, Touya stretched and raised his arms to either side.
“Don’t you think that Sasaki Kojiro would have won against Musashi if he had used two-sword style1?”
“Hah? What’re you talking about?”
Homura suddenly turned around.
She was holding long chopsticks for cooking in her hands, in the manner of a sword pose.
“All right, it’s done! Here’s today’s boxed lunches!”
Homura placed two differently colored boxed lunches on the table.
Using a recipe book in place of a fan, she fanned the just-cooked side dishes.
“I’d really like to let it cool for a while, though,” Homura mentioned.
“Well, I’ll take that into account as I taste it.”
“Please treat me kindly.”
After bowing, Homura sat down facing Touya.
“Thanks for the meal.”
Touya placed his hands together in gratitude.
“…You made them quite quickly. You took only about thirty minutes to make two boxed lunches with different contents, right?”
“Hehe. First, try this one. The theme is ‘aquarium’.”
The side dishes were crammed with nori seaweed and pieces of sliced dried bonito, as if they were hiding here and there at the bottom of the sea.
It was filled with sausages and mini hamburgers made to look like familiar octopuses, squids, crabs and, not tulips, but sea lilies?
“This consists of my original sea bream, flounder and—”
“…It’s quite complicated.”
“At least say something like ‘What? This is the Dragon King Palace of boxed lunches!’.”
“At most, it’s a fish pond.”
Dissatisfied with his reaction, Homura forcefully withdrew the half-eaten boxed lunch and pushed forward the other one.
“Then, this one is—”
“I can tell without any explanation. It’s a zoo.”
“How unfortunate, it’s actually a safari park. Can’t you feel the savanna in these chicken slices and broccoli? Feel it!”
Touya brought the lions and zebras to his mouth.
After leaning over the table with the tension of a cooking showdown manga, Homura fell back into her chair as her grandiose expression fell.
“…Is it no good?”
“No, I’m impressed. You’ve come up with a lot of ideas day after day.”
“You really don’t have any particular likes or dislikes, do you, Touya-kun?”
“It’s not a matter of like or dislike here.”
Touya pulled back the earlier boxed lunch and lined it up next to the other one.
“The taste is the same for both of them, regardless of how much you changed the appearance.”
“Well, I do think that you’ve progressed from the level of a fish to a monkey compared to your first attempt, you know?”
“Eh, monkey? I haven’t reached the level of human yet?”
“After all, the tastiest things you’ve made in your trial products are rice balls. It’s bad if your repertoire relies almost solely on frozen foods.”
Homura joined her hands together on the table and hung her head in depression.
“Touya-san… Please give me a week. I’ll make a completely new boxed lunch by then.”
“Idiot. The contest is in three days. If you don’t decide on your recipe today, you won’t be able to buy your ingredients in time, right? Ah, hold on, your apron’s slipping off.”
“Eh, so after your appetite is satisfied, next you’re asking for…”
“Enough with the jokes, hurry up and fix it.”
“Yes, yes, the apron.”
“You’d be very popular in the food sampling business,” Touya grumbled while heading to the kitchen.
She stood in a boy’s kitchen.
While Touya took a breather from cooking and surveyed the kitchen, Homura threw all the leftover vegetables into a bowl.
Just when she thought he was making sunny-side-up fried eggs on the heated frying pan, he immediately took it out and fried the vegetables on the pan as it was. While continuing the frying process, he tossed Chinese noodles taken from the fridge into the microwave along with the bag.
It took five or six minutes until it was finished.
“Is this… yakisoba noodles…?” Homura asked doubtfully
It was yakisoba stuffed into a plain aluminum container.
The hardened fried eggs were placed on top of it, causing it to give off a spicy aroma.
Homura picked up her chopsticks, looking as if she couldn’t wait to dig in.
“The vegetables are dressed in Sambal sauce. It’s like Indonesian mie goreng,” Touya explained.
“Delicious… Mr. Detective, it’s delicious. *munch, munch*”
“Who are you calling Mr. Detective?”
Homura raised her face back up while wiping her mouth with a wet tissue.
“But can this be put into a boxed lunch? Won’t it grow stale by noon?”
“I used to bring it with me to the dojo a lot. It’s not a problem as long as you cut off moisture.”
“I see,” Homura said with a nod.
“The magazines you read also mentioned pasta and noodles, right? You don’t have to bind yourself to the usual combination of cooked rice with side dishes, you know?”
“…True. Just what was I doing these past two weeks…?”
Homura’s shoulders drooped.
She looked expressionlessly at the contents of the aluminum container.
“Isn’t it fine if I just use this yakisoba?”
“Hey. I’m not one to say this, but that really would be, you know. It would go against the whole female power and motivation thing.”
“I suppose you’re right.”
“The Boxed Lunch Contest isn’t some three-star restaurant. The judges are going to be high school students anyway, so there’s no need to fuss over it unnecessarily.”
“But isn’t that making light of our school’s students in its own way?”
“It’s better than getting let down when they eat it.”
Homura turned despondent once gain.
Before she knew it, the setting sun was already shining into the room, and three-dimensional shadows fell on the apartment buildings peeking out from the window too.
“It’s about time you went home. I’ll accompany you to the station.”
“…Yeah. Then I suppose I’ll do a household search for sullen criminal suspects as exercise to help digestion.”
“Just go home.”
Leaving the Touya household, Homura headed towards the station while walking alongside Touya, who was pushing his bike once again.
Though they passed by a convenient store, their stomachs were already full, so they didn’t bother buying something to eat.
“Spend the night thinking of ideas. We’ll put a temporary hold to our running sessions until after the contest.”
“Hmm, that so? Sorry about that.”
Though he said that, Touya probably intended to continue the morning training himself without break. Rather, he might be able to do a harder training menu now that his time wasn’t constricted by Homura.
Touya spoke up again.
“Hinooka. You’ve really worked hard. Normally no one would be able to do that much according to what someone else told them.”
“No, that kind of thing is actually my strong point in a way—”
“I’m sorry I hounded you. You have a surprisingly composed face, so I kinda got carried away.”
“W-Wait a minute…”
“It was fun.”
The two of them walked silently.
Homura made a discontent expression. Walking had suddenly become terribly annoying and bothersome.
In the end, Homura had never once gotten to ride on Touya’s bike. While thinking that she should bring roller skates next time to swing around, she glared at the side profile of Touya’s face as it was illuminated by the setting sun.
Chapter 6 END
(1) Sasaki Kojiro and Miyamoto Musashi are renowned Japanese swordsmen from the late 16th to early 17th centuries. They are most famed for their first and final duel against each other, where Musashi overcame Kojiro’s legendary “Swallow Cut” technique and killed him.