On a certain day off from school.
“To think my next date would be at a hospital… You really have strange tastes…”
Homura grumbled sourly.
Her reproachful glare was focused solely on Touya, who was buying some juice at a vending machine in the hospital hallway.
“You want bread, then? The shop is over that way.”
“That’s no different from our lunches at school. Isn’t there a dining hall around here?”
“I don’t know that much. Also, I’ve never heard of any hospital food being tasty.”
“You call me here out of nowhere and yet you lack any plan whatsoever?”
“I never said this was a date.”
“Hoh, then what is it? What is it, huh? Huh?”
“You’re too loud. Keep it down, okay?”
Touya glared at her while tossing her a café au lait from the vending machine. While plainly disapproving of being hushed with such a meager bribe, Homura still accepted the goods.
“…Why are we sneaking around here?”
“Because we’re not here today, officially speaking…”
Still unable to grasp the situation, Homura disappointedly brought the straw to her mouth.
The weather was on the decline today, so the older sister Homura had forced her begrudging younger sister Tsuyu to accompany her shopping. Just when they had arrived at the shopping center in Honmachi, she got a call from Touya.
“Just come here right away, all right?”
After being told just that, Homura had reluctantly changed bus routes to come here. She forced the shopping onto Tsuyu, and she also added in some troublesome and easily misunderstood products to the shopping list for her to get while she was at it.
Touya ducked back his head after peeking over to the hospital’s service entrance.
Homura and Touya, a pair of high school students, were now lurking behind the vending machine in order to desperately hide from a jeans-wearing woman who had entered the hospital.
“So the leaked information I got was correct.”
It was Professor Fujimori, and beside her was a man wearing chino pants and suspenders.
“So… we came here to catch our teacher’s act of impropriety?”
“What? Look closely at who’s beside her.”
“Oh, if it isn’t Tanakura-sensei from Hiyoshizaka High. He’s not wearing a white lab coat today. What, so they’re the ones on a date, then?”
“Like I said, this isn’t a date.”
“Is this hospital connected to Tanakura-sensei?”
“I wonder. I don’t think so, anyway. This place is a branch of the police hospital.”
“Police hospital? …Really? It looks just like a normal general hospital, though…”
She looked around the waiting room, but there were no signs of any heavily injured police officers, patients in striped prison uniforms or Yakuza bosses followed by bodyguards like she imagined would be in such a place.
“…It’s true that it looks like a normal hospital at first glance. This is my first time coming here too.”
The two teachers were leaning against a pillar in the lobby without talking much, seeming to be waiting for someone.
Out of the two of them, Fujimori was the one who was acting uncomfortable and bored. She kept looking at her watch and trying to use her cell phone only to be reprimanded by Tanakura.
“…What’s with that behavior?”
“Mori-chan is just like a penguin at the zoo.”
“Touya-kun, you say really cruel things sometimes.”
While engaging in such whispered conversation, Homura voiced a subject that suddenly occurred to her.
“Touya-kun, you didn’t come to the Boxed Lunch contest back during the festival.”
“There you go off on abrupt tangents again.”
Touya looked at her in astounded exasperation.
“…I admit that I did wrong there. Actually, I already apologized for this, didn’t I?”
“But if you had been there to vote for me, I would probably have gotten a complete and overwhelming victory.”
“Are you holding a grudge against me for that? Just tying for first place is already a victory, isn’t it?”
“…That’s true, but…”
Homura sipped at her café au lait with an increasingly displeased expression.
“You still haven’t told me the reason why you didn’t come.”
“I was busy with a family matter. I couldn’t talk about it.”
“You’re g-l-o-s-s-i-n-g o-v-e-r the question, aren’t you?”
“Shut up, you idiot with variety shows for brains. I was called to meet my mother.”
“Eh… Your mother who doesn’t live with you?”
“Well, she didn’t come in the end, though. It happens a lot.”
“…You were stood up…? Even though she was the one to call you over? …That must have been a letdown.”
“Don’t worry about it. She’s just an irresponsible person.”
“I would have been able to win first place in my competition too if the pool water had been just five inches deeper…”
Ameno had appeared behind them at some point without them noticing.
She was peering at the two teachers while mimicking Homura and Touya’s sneaking posture.
“Chiayu-san is really cruel. She left me all alone in the car. This is abuse of a minor, you know?”
“So you left the car without permission?”
“Ehehe. Good day to you, Takumi-san, Homura-san. I did come out without permission, but don’t worry, I’m remote monitoring the area through the car’s on-board camera just as I was told to.”
“You mean you’re monitoring the parking lot?”
Ameno was dressed in plain clothes today as well. It would be problematic to wear a school uniform here, after all.
Her outfit consisted of trousers she had probably gotten off Mori-chan, a hunting cap lowered over her eyes, and even a pair of colored sunglasses… It actually seemed to make her more conspicuous.
Inwardly, Homura resolved herself to help coordinate Ameno’s normal clothes outside her uniform and cosplay outfits.
“I see. It would get troublesome if the mass media got wind of this, so you’re keeping watch. We’ll also have to try not to attract attention.”
“…The mass media… Then, to follow the phrase ‘hide a tree within a forest’, we should pretend to be patients. All right, as someone who has never had her feigned illness “The Guilty” seen through by anyone, you can leave this to me—”
“Hinooka, don’t do anything.”
“Shall I stop my heart, then?”
“I’m saying we don’t need to pretend to be patients.”
Suddenly, Ameno’s gaze turned distant.
“It seems—they’ve arrived in the parking lot…”
The three Exploration Club members exchanged looks.
They went up the stairs and moved to a location where the atrium’s entrance hall could be seen from.
Running while bent forward, Ameno rolled along the floor between couches and pressed her back against a low wall facing the atrium.
“We’re in a hospital, you know.”
“Those guys—the members of the agency don’t care about such things.”
“Agency… Ah, you mean the paparazzi,” said Homura with a wry smile.
While having that whispered conversation, the three of them slowly and quietly moved with their backs against the wall.
Eventually, the people they were waiting for entered normally through the front entrance.
The group that appeared at the entrance was two men in business suits and a woman.
“Hmm, that man there looks familiar… Is he Mori-chan’s patron…?”
“That’s my dad.”
“Oops… Speaking of which, I saw him in that photo at your house…”
“The other man is likely the local police director of the criminal investigations department…”
“So he’s also a cop?”
“Probably,” said Touya with a nod.
On the other hand, the woman accompanying the two policemen was someone that Homura vividly remembered.
It was the mother of the wolf girl Suzuran.
She looked healthy and vigorous compared to the last time Homura had seen her. Unlike the two police who seemed nervous and fidgety, she looked extremely calm in comparison. She was conscientiously closing her umbrella as she entered.
The three adults met up with Fujimori and Tanakura, and then they all headed to the elevator.
Homura and the others stealthily followed after them.
They proceeded to a waiting room beside a nurse station. It wasn’t a closed-off room like a conference room, but rather a shared and open space with a clear and unobstructed view through its windows. It was convenient for Homura and the others, as they could secretly peer in to watch what was going on. They might have chosen the location out of consideration in order to make the participants less tense.
Unfortunately, the weather outside was filled with clouds and rain.
Homura looked at the window while thinking it a shame, since clear weather would have been perfect for this commemorative day of reunion.
After several minutes of holding their breath, she arrived.
She was wearing clothing appropriate for a child and her hair was neatly combed, giving off a very docile impression compared to when she was on Nutella.
But she seemed healthy and in good spirits.
“Ah, there’s senpai.”
Senpai was also there, accompanying Suzuran.
Senpai was dressed in traditional Japanese clothing. She seemed very used to wearing them, and the outfit suited her quite well.
Perhaps surprised at the number of people present in the waiting room, Suzuran was anxiously clinging to senpai’s waist.
Homura and Touya were startled by how identical that scene was to that of Subaru-hime and Suzuran nestled together back at the castle on Nutella.
They knew that Misasagi-senpai had frequently visited Suzuran recently.
That was due to Fujimori’s judgment and senpai’s own wish.
Even on the way back to the base camp, Suzuran had been very much attached to senpai, so much so that she kept Homura at a distance as a meddling intruder.
However, during the past few days since their return to Earth, Suzuran had experienced unknown effects from the transport and weakened to the point where she couldn’t even walk, worrying all the club members. Thankfully, though, there was no threat to her life, and with senpai’s nursing she had soon regained health.
Homura and Touya hadn’t been informed of where Suzuran was being cared for and had only learned of this second-hand through senpai’s reports.
“Homura-san, the color of your face is #AA8877… Are you all right?”
“Guh… M-My stomach hurts…”
“Ouch, I’m the one in pain here. Hinooka, stop digging your nails into my shoulder.”
Despite the fact that Homura herself had made that confident declaration in front of Subaru, now that she was actually witnessing the reunion between parent and child, she felt incredibly uneasy.
Her baby had been missing for three years. And now, when the mother was finally able to reunite with her daughter face to face, her girl had grown up to be over ten years old. Just what was that woman feeling after being thrust into these circumstances?
As Homura watched while gnashing her teeth, the woman finally stooped down quietly and spoke to Suzuran.
“You’ve grown a lot, Eri-chan.”
Her voice was gentle and clear.
“You were still small at the time, so you probably don’t remember your Mama. The long hair you had back then has also been cut, I see.”
“Is it all right if I touch you?”
Suzuran timidly nodded.
The girl separated herself from senpai, and the woman wrapped her arms around her shoulders and gently hugged her.
Homura and the others couldn’t see Suzuran’s expression, but she seemed to be in a dumbfounded daze.
“You’re called Suzuran now?”
“…Ah… yes. Hime gave me that name.”
“That’s the person who acted as your mother on Nutella, right? Someday, I have to meet that princess and tell her thank you. Thank you for protecting Erika-chan.”
“…N-Not now. If you’re going to do meet her, it has to be on a clear day. She’s even more easily angered on days when the fog is thick.
“Is that so? Then on a clear day it is.”
Slipping out a giggle, the woman separated herself a bit and fully looked over her grown-up daughter.
“Please let me properly look at your face…”
The woman touched her fingers lovingly to Suzuran’s cheek as she looked at her.
“How strange… You were so small not long ago, and yet…”
Seemingly ticklish, the girl twisted her body to escape the fingers.
The other people in the room silently watched from a distance as the two tried to re-forge their hazy bond as parent and child. The elderly police assistant inspector, who had participated in the search for the girl, had been wiping his eyes with a handkerchief since the moment the mother and daughter had come face to face.
Putting both hands on her daughter’s shoulder, the woman spoke again.
“If you prefer it, I can call you Suzuran too.”
The girl awkwardly averted her eyes and sent a lost and uncertain glance at senpai standing nearby, but then she returned her upturned gaze to the woman and spoke.
“It… It’s fine, you can call me Erika.”
“In exchange… C-Can I call you Mama?”
The woman nodded happily.
Warm tears once more appeared in the eyes of the woman who had long since quit crying—
“Mama… Mama, Mama, Mama!”
The girl’s choked cries began to gush out.
While tightly hugging her clinging daughter, the mother kept nodding over and over.
As their heart-aching voices resounded through the waiting room, Homura suddenly stood up.
“This is enough. I’m going home first, all right?”
Homura abruptly left and headed towards the stairs attached to the side entrance.
Touya stood up to chase after her, but his sleeve was tugged back.
When he turned around, Ameno winked at him while waving her finger.
“What’s wrong, Misasagi?”
“No, it’s nothing.”
After being spoken to, senpai turned her gaze to Fujimori.
“It’s better if you don’t stare at that hallway over there too much. No need to stir up unnecessary trouble.”
“But, another time.”
“Yeah. It’d be nice if it happens.”
After taking time to breathe, the woman came forward to senpai, Fujimori and Tanakura and bowed her head deeply.
With the girl in the middle of them, the group exchanged congratulations and words of gratitude respectively.
“Fuu… guh… *sniffle*…”
Every time she descended a step on the stairs, tears dripped down at Homura’s feet one by one.
When she managed to restrain her tears, this time she leaked out a strange voice.
But she was happy, so happy.
Homura stopped on one of the stairs’ landings—
And then she covered her face with both hands and let herself cry her eyes out.
She was probably making a terrible face that would be quite a sight for anyone to see.
But she didn’t particularly care if she had cried back there.
She truly didn’t care if Touya and Ameno saw her like this.
She would have even jumped into the room and surprised Suzuran and the others without caring about the circumstances.
It was just that she’d had trouble breathing from shock and felt choked.
She felt bewildered and overwhelmed at the fact that from within a person like her, who always tried to spice up her emotions while peeking at the reactions of the people who saw her, such frank and honest feelings could overflow, and that these feelings were a prayer of happiness.
It’ll be all right. She’ll surely be able to share her feelings next time, with her friends and comrades.
Chapter 24 END