The two of them snatched up their equipment and began chasing after the girl and the pack of wolves.
As they walked, Homura hit Touya’s shoulder and let loose complaints.
“Why didn’t you come with us!? You just jumped in on your own! Right in the middle of that huge pack!”
“I just thought that I had to lure them away somehow. Otherwise, they might have taken us all out at once by throwing one of those bomb blasts into the basement.”
“B-But you repelled one, didn’t you!?”
“I just did that on the spur of the moment and… Damn it.”
Touya gritted his teeth.
“Yeah, I was wrong. It’s just as you say, Hinooka. I should have gone straight to the basement with you both.”
Without slowing his walking pace, Touya bowed his head.
“…No, I’m just glad that you’re unhurt after all that.”
“You too, Hinooka.”
Letting out a small chuckle even while sinking in regret, Touya seemed even more adult-like than usual. He was gazing down the path through the woods, still besides himself with worry for the injured Misasagi-senpai.
“The wolves didn’t come at me seriously. It was like they were just buying time by keeping me there. They were aiming for senpai from the beginning.”
“No way. Why?”
Touya shook his head.
They cautiously surveyed their surroundings and searched for tracks left by the wolves.
The natural and gently curving path through the valley was flanked by the river and mountains on each side, and as long as they didn’t try to suddenly cross through the mountains, the terrain didn’t open up except towards the south. If they tried crossing the river for the opposite shore, they should be able to expand their range of sight.
However, at the end of the valley was nothing but a stretch of trees, and the two of them couldn’t figure out how best to chase after them.
Fortunately, Homura was able to keep pace with Touya without running out of breath.
“More importantly, that child. Should we call her the wolf girl for now? Anyway, you said she was a missing child, but…”
“You doubt me? It’s not just the bracelet; when I looked at her closely, she had the same face as the baby in that picture. It’s definitely her.”
“Even if she came to Nutella three years ago, she should, at the very least, be over eighteen years old by now. The numbers don’t add up.”
“Ugh, that’s… maybe there was a problem with her physical growth or something…”
“But, certainly, it’s more believable than her being a Nutellan. After all, we could understand each other’s words. She even used Japanese.”
Homura noticed that for the first time now that Touya pointed it out.
“Yeah! She did! But it seemed like she was using a very old dialect. Her clothes too—I’ve never seen clothes like those.”
As Touya was silently thinking over the range of possibilities, Homura questioned him nervously.
“If we don’t catch up to senpai, are we going to be stuck here on Nutella and die by the roadside?”
Touya reluctantly shook his head.
“We can just go to Hiyoshizaka High’s base camp. It’s quite far, but I know its location. If we don’t return on schedule, Mori-chan will send out a rescue request and help will come. We’d have to wait several days until Hiyoshizaka High’s club members finish preparing and come here, but we won’t die. We have food supplies too.”
“Ah… I see. There’s that option too.”
Homura’s expression brightened for an instant, but then immediately clouded over again.
“But then, senpai will—”
“We might end up leaving her behind. But she has the Transport Ring.”
“…Yeah. If she can just regain consciousness, she should be able to immediately return to Earth.”
Homura nodded with hope.
They cut through the forest and arrived at a river.
The flow was slow and gentle here, with several rocks amid the river to act as footholds, and Homura and Touya had already experienced river crossing during their last mission.
After diligently looking over the soft dirt along the riverside, Touya found what he was looking for there.
“Footprints. They’re heading north!”
There were still wet tracks left on the rocks jutting out from the surface of the river as well.
After picking back up his baggage, Touya glared at the opposite shore of the river.
Just as Touya stepped into the river shallows, Homura called out to stop him.
“Look at these…”
She held out her hands, and grasped in them were the mini-bag with multiple tools and the folding knife that senpai had been carrying.
“They were all abandoned on the ground over there. And…”
With a trembling voice, she held out a silver ring between her fingers.
“This is the Transport Ring…!”
It was definitely the Transport Ring that Misasagi-senpai had been wearing on her finger.
They didn’t know why it had been dropped here.
Even though it was their most important tool and indispensable means of escape, it was the thing that Touya least wanted to see right now. His anguished expression clearly conveyed that.
After a heavy silence, Touya finally spoke, squeezing out the words from between clenched teeth.
“We’re going back.”
“Our base camp, obviously. We can get there quick if we run.”
“Eh… What about senpai?”
“Hurry up. Or it’ll be too late.”
Touya turned on his heels and began to retrace their path, while Homura was dumbfounded as she watched him.
“Why? Why are we going back?”
“We can’t afford for the transport to fail in this situation, regardless of how low the chances are. We have to go back to the basement.”
“I’m asking what we’re going to do about senpai!”
“There’s nothing we can do for her by ourselves! We have to go and get help from Koma-senpai and the others!”
In a daze, Homura turned around and looked at the faint footprints that were being gradually washed away by the river at her feet and the slowly drying wolf tracks on top of the rocks.
“…But we don’t know where senpai was taken. We can’t just leave her alone on this huge planet all by herself.”
“The only thing we can do is believe in senpai.”
“…No. I can’t do that. Senpai was hurt. We have to go rescue her…!”
Touya held back an agitated breath and spoke to Homura as if to admonish her.
“Please understand, Hinooka. You pointed it out to me just now, remember? Inexperienced chicks like us who don’t know anything about Nutella or any survival techniques would just get full of ourselves and jump in recklessly, merely increasing the number of victims.”
In her head, Homura understood that what Touya said was correct. Even so, Homura wasn’t one to back down.
“…Stop acting like senpai!”
Homura struck Touya’s chest and let out her anger.
“Do you feel responsible just because you invited me to the Exploration Club? You think you’re my guardian? We’re the same age! You entered the club just a month before me!”
“Ah? What’d you say?”
Touya glared back at her, but even though she was intimidated, she ignored it and let her feelings explode out.
Homura had always been relying on the serious and diligent Touya and had never been a match for him, but something in her heart was shouting that she couldn’t yield and pull back on this matter.
“Touya-kun… aren’t you worried about Senpai? If we leave now, when do you think we’ll come back?”
“That’s… we’ll need to call an emergency summons of club members and make preparations for a search… The shortest time would be eight hours. On Earth, that is.”
“Forty-eight hours will pass on Nutella during that time! What if it rains? What if the trail is covered up by other animals? We’ll no longer be able to find even the few remaining clues to where senpai was taken! And most of all, there’s no proof that senpai is safe…!”
Paying no heed to the tears streaming down her cheeks, Homura pleaded to Touya as she pressed her fists, clenched in frustration, against his chest.
“We might not be able to come back to Nutella, right? If we leave, we’ll use up all the charged magic energy in this Transport Ring! We’ll have to leave the rest to Koma-senpai and the others afterwards. Are you okay with that!?”
“…It can’t be helped.”
This was hard for Touya too. Homura understood that. But even so.
Wiping away her tears, Homura asked him one more question.
“Touya-kun, if you were alone in this situation, what would you do?”
“Answer me honestly—”
Touya looked back at Homura with a mortified expression.
Eventually, he sighed and spoke.
“I would chase after senpai. No matter what anyone would tell me afterwards.”
Homura smiled and nodded. Their feelings were the same.
“Let’s go. As far as we can.”
After saying that, Homura picked back up her baggage.
Touya took out the map and scratched his hair.
“If we can’t follow their tracks at any point, we’re going to do an emergency withdrawal right then and there, okay?”
“Yeah. Of course.”
They were well aware that this was a reckless gamble.
First, the two of them sorted through their baggage and kept only the bare minimum in necessary equipment.
They had no idea how many rough spots they would encounter during their pursuit. Since they were inexperienced with Nutella’s natural environment, they prioritized tools for aiding in climbing or going through marshland in order to avoid as much danger as possible.
Their food supplies consisted of twelve meals’ worth of food divided between the two of them. It was originally a single person’s portion for this mission. From what they knew of wolves, this amount was nowhere near enough to compensate for the wolves’ range of actions. Even if the preserved food was made compact and portable, it still took up a majority of their baggage space.
It was implicitly agreed between them that this would be their food supplies for a one-way trip. If they greatly lost sight of their target during pursuit, it would be difficult to stay here any further timewise.
The birds also seemed noisy in the direction through the forest that the pack of wolves had passed through.
“Wouldn’t things be easier if we had transmitters or a radar?”
“But we don’t. And no talking from here on out.”
Homura responded by closing her mouth with a “hmph” and straining her ears with an exaggerated gesture.
The two of them focused their senses as they began to proceed through the forest at a jogging pace.
Many clear traces of the large wolves passing through were left behind, more than they’d expected.
Not only were there footprints carved into the soft soil of the forest, there were also traces like snapped branches and distinct tuffs of grey fur visible. Even poop sometimes.
Though they lost sight of the tracks when they cut off at several points, they always managed to find new traces each time, seeming to cultivate their vague instincts for finding which paths the wolves like as they did so.
In particular, Touya demonstrated an extraordinary sense of smell and saw through trackless paths one after another, impressing Homura.
Within a high thicket that made it impossible to see ahead with human sight, they passed through an animal path that acted like a tunnel and crossed a gorge between cliffs that would make any human hesitate, and they finally found new wolf traces again on the other side.
“Amazing, Touya-kun. You always find their tracks every time. Do you know senpai’s scent? Are you a police dog? A Doberman-Man?”
While putting his canteen to his mouth, Touya wiped his sweat.
“They probably don’t think that we’re chasing after them.”
“In that case, we have a chance.”
“I wonder about that.”
In other words, they had that much confidence in their running speed.
Touya looked at the path ahead anxiously.
“They’re getting further and further away…”
At first, the tracks had seemed to be heading southwest, but then they had suddenly switched to southeast. After that, they had turned straight east, apparently taking a path with few rises or falls that generally weaved through the fringes of hills.
The wolves continued to move without resting. The two of them could vaguely guess where they were heading. They hadn’t mentioned it out loud, as they despaired it might lead to the worst possible course.
The wolves seemed to be heading towards the unexplored area which wasn’t mapped.
The northern hills finally turned into mountain ridges, towering high above with snow-covered tall peaks.
During Homura’s first mission, they had taken a wide detour around the mountain ranges that surrounding the unexplored area on either side, planning to instead proceed from the south. It was a much longer detour than through the east, but the mountains that appeared along the path that way were lower in height.
The two of them had miraculously managed to follow the tracks of the wolves, but they finally lost sight of any traces. They looked around everywhere in the woods around them for around an hour, but they couldn’t find the wolves’ path.
Not only Homura, but even Touya wasn’t confident at what route to take next. The fact that they were practically at the edge of the territory that the map covered further fanned their anxiousness.
At the foot of the mountain range that towered ominously to the north, they found animal footprints.
“These aren’t from wolves…”
Touya shook his head despondently.
“These are broken hoof prints. They’re probably from some species of deer or mountain ox.”
The footprints seemed to head in the direction of the mountain range.
“Did they run away because the wolves came? In that case—”
Touya couldn’t think so optimistically like Homura.
“I don’t think so, but I’m an amateur anyway. What should we do? Should we go back and try looking around again?”
“…Go forward or back, huh?”
Or they could do an emergency withdrawal here—
If they continued forward, they would be stepping straight into the unexplored area, and in the middle of clearly treacherous mountains at that.
Until now, they had barely been able to keep track of their location through the map and the markings left behind by Exploration Club members on the mountain ridge, but they would lose those assurances after this.
“Is it all right if I decide…? You won’t hold a grudge no matter what?”
“Yeah. I’m going to bet on your good luck, Hinooka.”
Touya nodded with a humble face.
That made Homura fired up at first, but then she suddenly tilted her head in confusion.
“Ah, you’re not relying on my actual judgement then?”
In the end, Homura made the reckless choice to keep going as far as they could, and in accordance, the two of them groped their way through the mountains. They found hoof tracks every once in a while, but they weren’t very reliable as clues.
After they crossed over a small stream and ascended further, they finally broke out of the trees and arrived at an area with broken crags scattered everywhere, apparently having lain there for a long time.
A scree slope filled with shattered fragments of white stone served as footing, and they couldn’t see anything like footprints anywhere.
Touya calmly looked up at the bare surface of the mountain and pointed a finger.
The sources of the footprints they’d seen were striding over the precipitous rock surface as if clinging to it.
“—Those aren’t deer. Are they goats?”
“Probably, based on those horns. Where are they headed…?”
Ten-odd shaggy goats were jumping up the rock wall that was completely impassable for Homura and Touya. Their regrown fur looked like a patchwork of different shades.
“There aren’t any meadows further up there… are they headed to a watering hole or something up there…?”
“We passed tons of streams just a little while ago.”
“Yeah, that’s true.”
While cocking her head in puzzlement, Homura took a step towards the slope.
Touya hurriedly came up next to Homura.
“Hey, are you actually planning on climbing this?”
“Doesn’t it bother you too? Maybe there’s a secret path up that way?”
Touya was completely reluctant, but on the other hand, he couldn’t refute that argument, so he took out a rope and prepared for the worst.
They ascended the pathless scree slope that was piled far and wide beneath the steep rock face.
As Touya went ahead, pebbles rolled out from under his feet and struck against Homura countless times.
She wanted to complain about it, but on the other hand, she didn’t have the confidence that she could stand ahead and cut their path through while being cautious of their surroundings and watching her footing.
Just when she thought another pebble had fallen towards her, she felt something out of place and carefully stared at the fallen object.
She took a few steps forward to approach the object that had stopped along the gentle gravel slope.
The slope over there was even and easy to walk on, making Homura wonder why both Touya and the goats earlier had chosen to walk on this rough slope.
—Homura’s left leg sank down to the ankle in the slope without any resistance.
She frantically tried to pull her foot back up and braced her right leg, but then that one sank down to the knee as well.
She lost her balance and put her hand on the ground behind her to crouch there, but it too sank down.
The more she struggled to get out, the more she was sucked into the scree slope.
Homura stiffened in place on her hands and legs with her face pointed upwards, as if she were playing Twister.
Cold sweat ran down her back as she saw Touya getting further and further away at the edge of her vision.
Was it her imagination that there were raptor-like shadows flying in the sky above her?
“What? Don’t say my name so creepily.”
“Umm. I thought going this way… would be easier, but…”
When Touya turned around at the sound of Homura’s weak voice, his expression stiffened for an instant, but after a few seconds, he burst out laughing.
“Buhaha… Yeah, you definitely slipped1 there.”
“Hey, it’s cruel to laugh.”
“Sorry. I’ll take out some rope right now, so be patient.”
After approaching cautiously, Touya fixed the rope to a sturdy rock right behind Homura, and then threw the end of the double-looped rope towards Homura.
“Can you pick it up? If you can’t, I’ll come over.”
“No… There’s no need… There we go.”
By twisting her body, she sunk down to her waist, but she still somehow managed to grab hold of the rope.
Homura stopped Touya when he tried to pull her up, and instead slid her body horizontally through the ground by using the rope as leverage.
“Hey, what are you trying to do? If you play around, you’ll seriously be in danger, you know?”
“Sorry… Just another ten centimeters…”
She stretched out her hand with all her might and managed to grab the fallen object from earlier.
Soon after, Homura was pulled out of the drift of gravel.
The item that she’d first mistaken for a dried leaf was in fact a small square piece of paper. And when Homura sniffed it, she could tell that there was a faint sweet scent lingering on it.
She thrust the paper in front of Touya’s nose right after he’d finished carefully repacking the rope.
“Touya-kun, look! Look at this!”
Though he made a dubious face at first, Touya also soon noticed the paper’s true identity.
“….This… is taffy wrapper from our snack supplies…!”
“Yeah, it’s from a piece of candy! That girl and the wolves must have passed through here! Right!?”
If this were a well-traveled area, it would be weak as proof, but there was no mistake in this situation.
Most likely, that wolf girl had eaten a piece of candy and thrown away the wrapper here. An Exploration Club member would never carelessly throw garbage on the ground in the first place.
Touya widened his eyes, impressed.
“Amazing… Hinooka, you’re seriously amazing. I would never have noticed this.”
“Fufufu. Now that we know where they’re headed, let’s keep going, Touya-kun.”
“All right, let’s go. Don’t wander off anywhere strange anymore.”
“I get it already.”
Though they climbed the slope with no destination in mind, the two of them suddenly regained their vitality.
After carefully climbing the scree slope, which became rapidly steeper halfway up, they arrived at a small level plain that seemed to have been made either from the mountain slope cracking in half for some reason or from a landslide.
The first thing they saw there was the goat herd from earlier.
And when they saw another silhouette there further back, the two of them stiffened in shock.
It was a bear.
It was a black, adult male bear with a crescent-shaped white spot on its chest.
The herbivorous goats and the carnivorous bear were standing some distance from each other as they all faced the basin that lay along the rock surface. There were puddles of water here and there on the ground; it appeared that spring water was seeping out from the cracks in the rocks.
Homura extended a hand towards her tear gas spray while gulping loudly.
The spray was a tool she hadn’t used before, since she’d unfortunately hadn’t had it on hand during the wolves’ attack earlier.
“…There’s basically no escape route in a narrow and confined place like this.”
Touya murmured in a stifled voice.
Touya had also unconsciously moved his hands to his sword hilts.
Not knowing what to do, Homura could only hide behind Touya’s back.
However, when the bear raised its head and turned towards them, it only stared at them for a brief time before turning to leave the watering hole.
“I-Is it coming at us…?”
Homura unconsciously put strength into her fingers which were grasping Touya’s shoulders.
However, the bear didn’t show any further interest and calmly passed them by right in front of their eyes. It came so close that they could even detect its body odor, which was distinctly different from the wolves’.
After watching as the bear almost seemed to hop its way down the scree slope, Homura sank down to the ground where she stood.
Even as she lay there dazed, Touya crouched down next to the watering hole and inspected it.
Somehow managing to calm her heart down while listening to the tranquil bleating of the goats, Homura followed after Touya.
“Did that bear come here to drink water…?”
Touya scooped up some water from a blackened puddle and put it in his mouth, then frowned.
“…It isn’t spring water?”
“It’s definitely spring water, but this isn’t drinkable.”
Homura put a finger in the cold puddle and licked it to taste it herself.
“Ugh… so pungent. It’s so bitter… or rather, it tastes metallic…”
“This is salt water.”
When they looked closely, recrystallized lumps of salt were scattered around the watering hole, and the goats seemed to be licking them.
“Most likely, there’s a layer of rock salt nearby, and the thawed water which passes through it drips out here.”
“Ooh. Then, the animals came here for that—”
In other words, it was a natural field for drying salt.
When considered that way, these seemingly insignificant puddles of water looked like holy grounds instead.
“If there’s rock salt, that means this place used to be covered by sea, right?”
“Yeah. If we investigated around here carefully, we might even find fossils.”
“Fossils, huh… If I remember correctly, the Exploration Club hasn’t found any fossils yet, right?”
“Yeah, so it seems.”
Homura suddenly became eager from the thought of digging up ammonites.
Frantically shaking her head, she lowered her head and began searching around the watering hole for traces of the wolves passing by.
As Touya went to stand at the edge of the cliff they had climbed, he looked anxiously up at the sky, which had started to cloud over.
The two of them managed to find something barely like a path beyond the rock salt watering hole as well and continued forward.
The rock face covered in piles of crags continued unchangingly.
When they arrived at a ridge with a good view, Touya spotted the silhouettes of animals running along the spine of the mountain ridge, though only for a brief instant. There was no proof that those were the wolves.
On the other hand, fog gradually enshrouded the base of the mountain and worsened their vision as they tried to catch up.
The wind also picked up, and Homura was surprised at the coldness of her hands and feet, which had become completely chilled without her realizing it.
Coupled with her fatigue, the cold stiffened Homura’s movements and she slipped and fell on the rocks several times.
Touya searched for a place to avoid the continuously blowing high wind without fear of falling rocks, but he couldn’t find a good place to rest.
Keeping his feelings of impatience in check, he waited for Homura to catch up.
“Are your legs okay?”
“I’m fine. Besides, we can’t make a bivouac in such an open and defenseless place, right?”
Touya peered at her face worriedly, but Homura did her best to bluff it off and smile.
“Aren’t your lips turning blue? Try putting something in your mouth. Here, take some candy.”
The sun had almost completely sunk on the horizon and the glow of the Bagel ruled the sky.
Though it had seemed so beautiful on their previous mission, now the Bagel looked solemn and frightening to Homura.
Even that great celestial ring was being covered over by dark blue clouds.
Touya’s expression darkened as he looked up at the sky.
He couldn’t say “Just a little bit more” at this point.
There was no guarantee that they’d be able to get out of this rocky area in time.
And if they slowed down, senpai would get that much further away. Homura also understood that and seemed to swallow back all the complaints that rose up her throat many times.
The dimly-conscious Homura almost barreled straight into Touya, who had stopped to wait for her ahead.
“Are we going to set up a tent here?”
“Hinooka, I promised to let you ride behind me before, remember?”
Touya grinned and turned around his sack so that he now carried it in front of him, with his back facing Homura.
“Yeah, but we don’t have a bicycle with us right now, you know?”
“Just hop on already. It’s fine.”
Touya crouched down and waited for Homura to climb on his back.
“No one’s here to see anyway. Don’t worry about it, come on.”
“…But you’re here, Touya-kun…”
“Think of me as an amusement park ride or something.”
Though she was still hesitant, Homura was pressured by Touya’s expression and finally put her hands on his shoulders.
Touya easily lifted her up on his back and immediately began walking.
“Sorry. You were lighter than I thought.”
“Yes, yes, flatter me all you want.”
Homura’s cheeks were slightly red, but she was the only one aware of that.
“If I’m about to stumble, I might take away my hands from supporting your legs, so make sure to firmly hold onto my neck.”
Doing as she was told, Homura leaned on Touya with her arms around his neck.
Even without that, her fatigue had come to weigh heavily on her, making it hard to keep bracing herself.
They proceeded across the rockface, relying only on the dim light from the overcast sky.
Without hurrying in a panic, Touya moved forward at a firm and steady pace.
Eventually, a light drizzle began to fall.
Though the passing shower was weak, the wind felt all the chillier as a result.
“Are you cold?”
Homura silently shook her head. In truth, Touya’s back actually felt warm to her.
“I’m literally excess baggage right now…”
“Haha, that’s true. You know how to hit where it hurts, huh?”
“Can’t we use some illumination magic?”
“I’m more afraid of the opposite right now. My eyes have already gotten used to the dark.”
As Touya sought a path through the crags while paying care to falling rocks and crevices, Homura couldn’t just talk casually to him in this situation.
Homura dozed off to the regular swaying of Touya’s back.
The incessant sound of wind. Touya’s rhythmic breathing. The cold drops hitting the nape of her neck.
She was worried about the clues to senpai’s whereabouts being washed away by the rain.
A heart that never falters—
She absentmindedly recalled senpai’s words.
In the end, courage and recklessness are the same thing, right?
If things turn out all right in the end, it’s courage. If it ends in failure, people say “I told you so” and call it recklessness.
Right now, there were only their hearts. Their hearts which were trying to keep moving forward.
When she woke up from her doze, Homura was sitting down against the rock wall.
She had a towel around her neck. The feeling of having had her wet hair wiped still faintly remained on her head.
When she looked up, she saw Touya removing conspicuous stones from the gravel-filled ground while keeping an illumination spell lit over his shoulder.
They were in a big horizontal depression where comparatively soft bedrock along the mountain’s surface had been carved out, and though it wasn’t deep enough to be called a cave, it was sufficient to keep out the rain and wind.
“…You found a nice place.”
“And you slept quite deeply. If you’re awake, come and help me.”
She felt like she had been swaying on his back for over an hour. She hadn’t noticed when she was put down at all.
Her clothes were made to be quite water-repellant, so they were only slightly wet even after being drenched in the rain.
“Are we going to make a tent?”
“We can’t resume walking until it brightens anyway. We can only sleep for now.”
Encouraging her sluggish body, Homura stood up.
Though, even if Touya told her to help secure their sleeping area, the only preparations they needed to do was set up a bivouac and their sleeping bags. The shelter consisted of a small, light-weight tent suited to carrying. They firmly set up the poles and ropes so that it wouldn’t be beaten by the strong wind that occasionally blew through.
After finishing its construction and silently eating their meal, the two of them slipped into their sleeping bags without hesitation due to the chill of the wind.
Understandably, it was quite cramped with two sleeping bags lying next to each other in a small tent. Even so, Homura didn’t complain. It had been hard work just to set up this much.
As Touya lay sideways on his right shoulder, Homura couldn’t stop squirming restlessly next to his back.
“My back is itchy… The ground is too uneven…”
“…You’re the one who placed the mat straight on the ground because you said it was too bulky and unwieldy, Hinooka.”
“I can’t sleep like this…”
“It might be a bit better if you spread out your jacket underneath you.”
“I don’t want to make it all wrinkly…”
After stubbornly continuing to stir in her sleeping back, Homura finally did as Touya said and managed to find a barely comfortable posture.
The faint nighttime illumination pierced through the thin tent cloth.
They heard the sound of the incessant wind through the ventilation hole at the top of the tent, and raindrops struck the tent whenever the wind strengthened every once in a while.
“…I feel like I’m in the middle of a painful dream.”
Homura murmured as she listened to the sound of the wind.
“Just go to sleep.”
But even if she was told that—
Partially because she had slept a bit earlier while she was being carried, she couldn’t seem to fall asleep now. Though she understood that these were emergency circumstances, she couldn’t help being conscious of the audacious situation they were in.
Feeling bored, Homura grasped her hands together within her sleeping bag and traced the ring she still wasn’t accustomed to wearing on her finger.
Homura had viewed the ring annoyingly when she had whined and wanted to go back during their first mission, but now it was their only lifeline.
“Did senpai drop the Transport Ring on purpose?”
Homura tilted her head and asked that over her shoulder, and Touya reluctantly replied.
“…Of course not. If she had regained consciousness enough to do that, she could have done an emergency withdrawal, or she could have run away while the wolves weren’t looking without using the ring.”
“Hmm~… That might be the most logical conclusion, but considering senpai’s personality, I don’t think she’d escape back home by herself.”
“…Well, I agree with you there.”
“Maybe the wolf girl threw it away to prevent senpai from escaping?”
“You think she figured out the ring’s functions on first glance? Rather, wouldn’t she want an accessory like the ring for herself? Like those hair ornaments she wore. The issue is who would have told her about the ring…”
“Yeah, that is strange.”
Homura nodded in agreement on that point. But she still wasn’t convinced.
Touya was calm and tenacious, and always thought one step further than Homura. Homura couldn’t think of any other boy who would be able to act this calmly in the same situation. Well, he was a bit inflexible too, though.
Before this long day ends, I should say at least one word of thanks—
But even though she thought that, no words of gratitude came out.
Instead, she felt like pointing out his faults, against her better judgement.
“Hey, Touya-kun… Have you been sticking with me because I’m a member of the Exploration Club?”
After a long silence that made Homura think he’d fallen asleep, Touya responded in a sleepy voice.
“You really like asking the obvious, don’t you?”
That blunt answer was just like him. It made Homura all the more irritated.
“…It’s not obvious.”
She protested as she hit his back through the sleeping bags.
“Ouch… Don’t act violent. It’s cramped here.”
“That’s just a result of coincidence. I just happened to have IE aptitude, and I just happened to not be part of any club.”
“Is there something wrong with it being due to coincidence?”
“Just go to sleep already.”
“If I quit the Exploration Club, would I be just a stranger to you?”
“Why would that be?”
Touya turned around irritated, but Homura ended up right in front of him since she’d been watching him from unexpectedly close proximity.
Though the two of them glared at each other briefly, Touya soon burst out in laughter at Homura’s pouting face. He returned to his original sleeping position and tried to hold back his chuckling.
“Don’t laugh at me~”
“I already fully understand just how funny and interesting a person you are.”
“I don’t like leaving it halfway and vague like that between us.”
“Ah? So what? You want something more stereotypical? Then just think of us as close buds.”
“Close buds… you mean friends?”
“Yeah. Close friends.”
“You’re a close, troublesome friend to me.”
Homura’s fist silently hit the back of Touya’s head.
“Hey, that hurts… If it being due to coincidence is bad, then would you feel relieved if it’s assured by someone? Almost everything in the world is decided through coincidence. The only things we can decide for ourselves are the things within our reach.”
The things within one’s reach. While thinking of the distance that separated her from her home on Earth, Homura touched her finger to the charm hanging from her neck.
“…Was the reason you came to like senpai also due to coincidence?”
“Man, you’re really persistent. I’m quite sleepy here, you know?”
“Senpai is beautiful, kind and accomplished both academically and in martial arts; I guess it’s only natural you would come to like her. Right, Touya-kun?”
“Why are you asking me that, idiot?”
“Tell me. Was it love at first sight?”
Touya let out an intentionally exasperated sigh that resounded through the tent.
“I’ll tell you. But only after you, senpai and I all make it back to Earth.”
“Hmph… That’s a bet with some long odds…”
“Yeah, yeah. It goes without saying, but it’s going to be pretty rough tomorrow. Prepare yourself.”
“It’ll be fine.”
“That mysterious confidence of yours again?”
“It’ll be fine… It’s okay to be lost and take a detour. Just like as long as you take the Oedo Line2… you’ll eventually reach your destination even if you take a detour.”
“…I see. Yeah, that’s true.”
Inside his sleeping bag, Touya suddenly tilted his head in puzzlement.
“…Ah? Hey, the Oedo Line isn’t actually a loop subway line. Wouldn’t the Yamanote Line be a better example? You won’t reach your destination if you just vaguely hop onto the Oedo Line, you know?”
Homura didn’t reply, returning only slumbering breathing.
Though a bit bemused, Touya turned to sleep himself while praying for the rain to stop.
That night, Homura dreamed.
She completely forgot what kind of dream it was when she woke up, though.
Chapter 17 END
(1) This is actually part of a Japanese pun using different Kanji readings that can’t be properly translated in English. Right before this, Homura says “easier” (raku), and Touya plays on it by saying she “slipped/fell”, which can also be read as “raku”.
(2) Oedo Line: An underground subway line that runs in a loop around central Tokyo before branching out towards the western suburbs, making the line look like a “6” lying on its side.