The next day marked the second day of the SA.
The sky above Iriomote Island was also clear today as Homura and the others boarded a boat.
The twin-hulled catamaran ship, which resembled two boats connected by a single deck, was quite comfortable to ride despite its slow speed.
It was currently headed to a very small uninhabited island. Apparently, the entire island was made from accumulated coral shells.
This mini-tour was part of the oceanographic workshop that Homura had chosen from the many SA programs, since it was advertised as being low difficulty and geared towards first years. Moreover, the person in charge of it was someone she knew, the advisor for the Hiyoshizaka Exploration Club, Tanakura-sensei.
For those reasons, most of the participants heading to the uninhabited island were first years, including Ishimi and Nagusa from Nagato Fisheries who she’d competed against in the race just last night.
Touya, Ameno and Misasagi-senpai had also come along.
Misasagi was currently talking with a third year boy from Hiyoshizaka, Momoyama Masami.
It looked like the two of them were the only third years on the boat. Momoyama-senpai wasn’t normally seen talking that much, but he seemed very happy as he conversed with Misasagi.
Touya spoke to Homura in a low voice so as not to be heard by the two senpai.
“—So Inari headed home by boat first thing in the morning?”
Homura lifted her head while blinking blearily, having been on the verge of dozing off on a bench.
“…Yeah, she did.” Homura nodded despondently. “I managed to make her stay the night with Himekawa-san’s help, though.”
Last night, Himekawa Shizune had intruded on the Seiran girls’ room just as promised.
Homura’s current drowsiness was less due to exhaustion from yesterday’s race and more from lack of sleep after having chatted with Himekawa and Ameno long into the night.
But even in that sleep-deprived state, Homura had noticed when Inari got out of bed before everyone else and began to dress herself, so she’d tried to stop Inari from immediately departing.
“Trying to pin someone who can wrestle with a polar bear was impossible for me…”
“What exactly were you doing early this morning…?”
“Fujimori-senpai came back to the room dead drunk and wasn’t any help at all.”
“Ah,” stated Touya, roughly deducing what happened. “But don’t the teachers sleep in separate rooms? Her bad habit must have acted up again. She did the same thing when we gathered to prepare the materials for the presentation the day before yesterday.”
Homura sighed, easily able to believe that scenario.
Touya meekly asked another question.
“Did Inari talk with Misasagi-senpai a bit? They slept in the same room, right?”
“Well… the thing is…”
Misasagi and Inari had each placed their futons on opposite ends of the room, and they had refused to close the gap between them, always speaking through Homura as an intermediary for any requests like changing the temperature of the air conditioning or picking up some snacks outside of their reach. Homura had ended up being a middleman even for conversations like the following:
“Will the weather be clear tomorrow, Homura?”
“…Who knows? I didn’t have the time to check the weather report.”
“It doesn’t look like there’s any signs of hurricanes during the SA, Hinooka-san.”
“…It looks like it’ll be clear weather.”
While Homura had been stuck fighting alone, Fujimori had been collapsed on the ground snoring loudly, no help at all.
Meanwhile, Himekawa had been excitedly conversing with Ameno with blushing cheeks, her accent slipping out… kinda. The way her voice and expression had remained dispassionate throughout it all had been quite off-putting.
“I see. That sounds like a scene straight out of hell.” Touya crossed his arms and nodded. “So in the end, senpai and Inari didn’t say a single word to each other. Sorry for not being there, but it’s the girls’ room, after all.”
“I felt embarrassed having Himekawa-san witness the true state of our club…”
“…Yeah… Wait, no, I don’t think that’s true. The mood and atmosphere of the room might have been weird, sure, but I’m positive that it ended up being a good memory for Himekawa.”
“Is that how it is?”
“That’s how it is,” Touya declared confidently. He himself was staying in the Hiyoshizaka boys’ room during the SA.
Had something memorable happened in the boys’ room perhaps? That was an unusually suggestive comment for him.
Thinking back, Hiyoshizaka truly had members that seemed suitable for the Exploration Club, which made Homura feel a bit envious. Even though she knew that there was no point in wishing for something you didn’t have, she couldn’t help comparing the two clubs since they were paired schools.
They’re really well-balanced as a group… Are they aiming for the high score as the best club or something…?
The club president Kamikoma radiated leadership despite her small stature.
The vice president Taga was an unquestionable powerhouse.
Homura had also heard that the carefree Hayashi-senpai was actually skilled at the bow. She disliked his overly jesting manner, but he was really easy to talk to and seemed like he’d be reliable on Nutella.
As for the first years, Saho Akiho was a frivolous guy, but he was also amiable and fun to be around. Kanae Yuri, however, was still a mystery.
As for Momoyama-senpai, Homura still didn’t know much about him besides his seemingly quiet and docile demeanor.
Still, just observing everyone from the side like this was enough for her to sense the intimate atmosphere among the upperclassmen like Misasagi and Kamikoma. Inari should have been in that intimate circle as well in the past.
Yet, when she looked back on her own Seiran club—
No, no, no…
Homura cut off those negative thoughts which didn’t suit the emerald green sea spread out before her and instead turned to ask a question of her own to Touya.
“Hey, Touya-kun. How was that panel you attended this morning? What was it, ‘Fierce Final Battle On The Southern Seas’?”
“No, you got the name completely wrong.”
Its proper name was the ‘Panel On Exploring Countermeasure Tools Against Large Nutellan Beasts’.
It was a gathering organized by the Equipment Division, which developed the survival tools used by the Exploration Club.
The Equipment Division was responsible for the special-made swords that Touya used for his two-sword style, and Homura was also indebted to them for constantly improving the Nutella-use anti-bear spray that Homura had relied on greatly before.
Touya had enjoyed that panel especially among the many programs in this year’s SA.
“It sounds like it was fun. Touya-kun, you like gadgets like those, right?”
“Yeah, I’m glad I went.” Touya nodded in satisfaction. “I didn’t expect to see the scuffle between Taga-senpai and Tenryuu-senpai there either.”
“That kind of thing happened…!? Between Taga-senpai and Tenryuu-senpai?”
“They said that we wouldn’t fully understand without a proper demonstration. Taga-senpai played the role of a bear and Tenryuu-senpai faced him with an elastic spear that had a special rubber and wire net attached at the tip.”
“Hoho… That sounds like quite the story…” Homura had trouble imagining it herself. “It must have been quite the sight to see. But, even if it was just acting, to think he would fight Taga-senpai… Does Tenryuu-senpai practice some kind of martial arts?”
“You don’t know? No, I guess most people normally wouldn’t. He doesn’t participate in official matches, after all. Tenryuu-senpai comes from the lineage that originally created the Shinkage style2. Though he’s not a direct descendent.”
Homura glanced at Misasagi-senpai, and then looked back at Touya.
“Touya-kun, you lose in every aspect.”
“Shut up,” retorted Touya with a complicated expression. “Well, anyway, the panel was nowhere near long enough to be fully satisfying with only three hours to listen and learn. How about you? You went, right? To the mage class discussion.”
Homura instantly slumped depressingly at those words.
“…Not a single thing… I couldn’t understand a single thing they said… A gathering of great mages was too high level for me…”
Homura dramatically sobbed with her hands covering her face.
Even during the presentations by each school which had been simplified for ordinary investigators, she’d barely been able to follow the content on magic. In a gathering where all limiters were off in a discussion between fellow mages, Homura, who openly acknowledged that she was even more inexperienced than a mage trainee, felt like she was a tortoise surrounded by incomprehensible fairies.
“What’s with those people~? They didn’t sound like high schoolers at all. What the heck is a mo…mo…mock data function? What is a monster army? They’re the ones who are monsters…”
This time even Touya couldn’t help expressing sympathy for her.
“Well, it can’t be helped. There are several regular competitors in the Mathematics Olympics present here at the SA. But still, did you manage to get anything out of the panel?”
“This… They awarded it to everyone who participated in the panel.”
Homura perused through the tote bag on her knees and took out a pure white cube.
“A Rubik’s cube? But it has no colors. How do you use it?”
“Try it out yourself.”
Touya took the white cube from Homura and immediately understood.
“Ah—I see—Braille, huh?”
The cube had Braille characters etched across its surface, originally being a puzzle for those with impaired sight. Of course, Homura and Touya were also capable of playing with it by relying on their fingers’ sense of touch.
This cube had been further modified for the Exploration Club, emitting electronic sounds when it was configured in specific patterns.
“Apparently, by practicing with this cube using only touch and hearing, it helps better form a Rubik’s model in your mind on Nutella too… or so I was told.”
“Hmm, that’s an interesting exercise. So you’re going to start doing intensive training with this, right?”
“Gugh… Just what kind of club did I join?”
Before long, the catamaran boat reached the coral reef island.
Homura and the other Exploration club members all disembarked on the island.
Just as the rumors said, it was a long and narrow island of fifty meters in length that resembled nothing more than a sandbar sticking out of the ocean.
There was a beauty in that simple scenery, but it was also quite difficult to walk on it.
“This island is pretty, but it’s better not to take off your beach shoes here,” explained Tanakura-sensei while wiping the glossy sweat on his face.
Since this was hardly the place for his usual white coat, he was instead wearing a Hawaiian shirt patterned with Indian coral trees.
When several female students hesitantly held parasols in their hands, Tanakura urged them to go ahead and set them up along the beach.
“The sun really is bright here. Truthfully, we could have conducted this program in a classroom, but since we went to the trouble of coming all the way to Iriomote Island, I thought this way would be better. If we have some time left over, you guys can even go swimming a bit.”
Naturally, everyone present was wearing swimsuits under their clothes.
While most wore excited expressions at the prospect, Ishimi and Nagusa from Nagato Fisheries earnestly shook their heads with expressions that screamed ‘No way!’. Ameno, who had gone to stand next to the two of them at some point, had her arms full with tools for observing the ocean in its natural state.
Either way, they fully intend to go into the ocean later… Geez, doing something uncalled-for like that… Homura looked at the three of them with a smile.
Then, with no proper introduction, Tanakura began the lecture.
“—Have you ever heard about how no fossils have ever been found on Nutella? You’ve never heard any news of Nutellan dinosaur or ammonite fossils, right? This is true, but in a certain sense, it’s very odd.”
Tanakura took out a white cylinder the size of an index finger from his breast pocket.
“This is a piece of blackboard chalk… But perhaps there are some people here who don’t know what it is—Ah, you all do? Good.”
After anxiously looking over the gathered students, Tanakura patted his chest in relief.
“Right, this is a piece of chalk. This was used to write on blackboards before electronic blackboards were introduced in every school. The chalk that was mainly used in Japan was mostly made of limestone; in other words, calcium carbonate. And speaking of limestone—”
Tanakura’s gaze swept across the island they were on.
“The entire Okinawan Prefecture is situated over a geological layer known as Ryuukyuu3 limestone. This layer is formed from the accumulation of coral on the ocean floor, like this island here. However, the proper meaning of ‘chalk’ is a bit different than the common use of the word.”
Tanakura showed them the piece of blackboard chalk in his hand again.
“The English word ‘chalk’ normally refers to this kind of blackboard chalk too, but its proper meaning refers to the mineral ‘chalk’ itself, as in the chalk from the Cretaceous Period. The famous pure white cliffs along the Strait of Dover in England contain huge reserves of it. This piece of chalk was made in England with chalk mined there.”
Tanakura took out a medical-use computer tablet that he had brought along. Its screen was a bit larger than the kind usually used in schools.
“This is a photo of this piece of chalk magnified under a microscope.”
Tanakura held the tablet in front of his chest and showed it to the gathered students with an expectant smile.
But there was no reaction.
The students were all staring at Tanakura with half-closed eyes.
“…Ah… Is the surrounding sunlight perhaps too bright for you to see the screen?”
All the students nodded.
“Sorry, sorry. Then, could you please come closer? And could the people over there lend me one of your parasols for shade? Man, I should have brought printouts.”
Thus, Tanakura-sensei kneeled on the ground and all the first years approached and kneeled down as well to peer at the tablet’s screen.
Some of them let out exclamations of surprise.
Though hesitating at the sensation of pain from the coral scratching against her knees, Homura also tried to get into the circle around the tablet. But when she abruptly looked back, she saw that Misasagi and Momoyama were sitting down on a husk of coral towards the rear of the crowd and quietly watching over the bustling of the first years.
Misasagi-senpai’s eyes happened to meet Homura’s, and she smiled at her.
Meanwhile, Momoyama squirmed uneasily as he sat next to Misasagi with very little space between them.
Haha… Touya-kun has it tough, thought Homura with some sympathy. At the same time, she finally managed to get a peek at Tanakura’s tablet.
Having carelessly let her guard down, Homura flinched upon seeing the image on the screen.
The image showed countless ring-shaped objects. Their appearance varied between twisted washers and car wheels, overlapping with each other to form several spheres.
It was completely different from the simple mineral photo Homura had expected. It looked organic and alive like a virus, causing instinctual, visceral disgust in those who saw it.
After waiting for everyone to get a look at it, Tanakura resumed his lecture.
“Doesn’t it look cute? …It doesn’t? These are coccoliths, a species of plankton which possesses a calcareous husk. Around the Strait of Dover, there’s a layer of these coccoliths that have accumulated over several hundreds of thousands of years. So the white cliffs of Dover are actually made from gigantic lumps of fossils.”
The fact that extremely microscopic things like plankton had accumulated to form the contours of the British Isle was the kind of knowledge that almost made one want to cry.
“The club members from Hakozaki High probably already know this, but this is the true source of the white tide that occurs in Hakata Bay.”
“Aaaah,” several Hakozaki club members exclaimed in clear annoyance. Their appreciation of the lecture on chalk had instantly plummeted.
“Naturally, there should be accumulated coccolith layers like this on Nutella too. In order to confirm this, geological surveys have been performed there.”
“Have any been found there?” someone asked.
Tanakura nonchalantly nodded.
“Yes, we’ve gradually begun to find them on Nutella—But wait, that contradicts what I just said about how no fossils have yet to be found on Nutella, right? —So, look at this. This is a piece of Nutellan chalk.”
Tanakura took out another piece of chalk.
“Heeh,” some students exclaimed in interest.
“The person who collected the limestone on Nutella to make this was Momoyama-kun over there. Thank you very much for that.”
The gazes of all the first years turned to Momoyama in admiration.
“There was no need to actually make a piece of chalk out of it…” said Momoyama with a bashful smile.
“But you were quite eager about it yourself, Momoyama-kun. This is one of the very few pieces of Nutellan chalk on Earth right now. It’s quite rare and valuable. Here, take a look yourselves.”
Tanakura passed around the piece of chalk, which was wrapped in green tape to differentiate it from normal chalk, to the students in front of him, along with the regular piece of chalk he’d shown them earlier and a small blackboard to try them out on.
Several students had never handled chalk before and looked at them curiously.
In Homura’s eyes, chalk was an antique item, but she had sometimes in the past seen it on signboards in stylish cafés and had used it herself to scribble.
The piece of Nutellan chalk, which was handed around to each student in turns, looked no different from regular chalk.
“It looks normal.”
“Yeah. Though it does seem rare and valuable when you hear that there are very few of them on Earth.”
Touya and Homura weren’t particularly moved or excited by it.
When they tried comparing the two chalks on the boards, the sensation of writing with the Nutellan one was slightly different. But it was doubtful how reliably they could compare them in such a humid place next to the sea.
Ishimi raised his hand and asked a question.
“Is this also made of coccolith? From fossils of Nutellan lifeforms?”
As if having waited for that very question, Tanakura took out his tablet again with a meek expression.
Everyone gathered around him again.
Tanakura spoke in a low and ghastly tone, as if he was starting to tell a ghost story.
“This is an enlarged picture of this chalk.”
Displayed on the screen was an image completely different from the earlier picture of coccolith from England.
“Is this… really plankton?”
“This isn’t CG or something?”
Finally excited a little, several students voiced comments and impressions.
It was completely different from the earlier image of twisted washer-shaped coccoliths. Objects shaped like cylinders, donuts and polygonal pillars lay heaped on top of one another. It was like peering into a box of building blocks.
This actually looked close to the mineral-like image that Homura had first imagined.
“…That’s right. It looks like primitive cubes from CG. However, this is a real, unaltered photograph. Though of course, it was only photographed after the samples were brought back to Earth—”
Is this due to a difference in the performance of the cameras? No, it’s more than that… Homura tilted her head in confusion. As everyone else was most likely thinking similar questions, Tanakura resumed lecturing.
“—Unfortunately, we still don’t know whether this is really plankton or not. It might not be from a lifeform at all. However, there have been countless cases of seeing such geometric patterns in both organic and inorganic objects on both the micro- and macroscopic scale on Earth too.”
Tanakura cited some famous and lesser-known examples such as naturally-formed crystals, beehives, certain germs, snowflakes, clods of Bismuth ore which formed complex and maze-like shapes, geological columnar jointing in Armenia, and Northern Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway where naturally-forming hexagonal stone columns lay stacked together along the coast.
“There also exist minerals like this.”
Next, Tanakura took out a crystal of a mineral known as pyrite. Its shape could only be described as two dice cubes merged together. The crystal was extremely geometric in shape, just like the earlier image that resembled a box of building blocks, and was similarly naturally formed as well.
That’s… a ‘Dodeca-model’!?
A Dodeca-model—one of the most common geometric models used for magic, which specialized in musical scale reproduction.
Homura briefly held the dodecahedron-shaped pyrite, formed with faces of regular pentagons, as it was passed around. She couldn’t believe something shaped so precisely and elaborately was really made by nature.
Tanakura next held out the photos of the Nutellan and Earth chalks side by side for everyone to see.
“If I saw these two photos for the first time, I would probably instinctively believe that the one that resembled a geometrical mineral was used as the raw material for blackboard chalk.”
That was the same initial impression that Homura had.
After that, Tanakura went to compare nature and its working on both Nutella and Earth.
There were still many wonders hidden on Earth that surpassed mysteries on Nutella, and even if something was discovered on Nutella, it would be hasty to assume that it was unique to Nutella. His lecture delved into such interesting topics, but eventually the lecture came to an end and the students were given free time to play and relax on the island.
Most of the first years merrily jumped into the sea.
After being set free, they all instantly became typical beach-goers, and several of them invited Homura to come play with them, but she obstinately declined with words like “No, I’m fine”, “I’m good here” and “Don’t mind me”. Touya was still talking further with Tanakura. Ameno, Ishimi and Nagusa went off to pick up armfuls of sea cucumbers and came back excitedly to show them off to Homura.
Wearing a baggy tunic and hat, Homura sat down on the island and gazed out at the sea.
“You’re not, going to, swim?”
Misasagi-senpai spoke up to Homura upon catching sight of her sitting there listlessly.
“No… I just prefer to play on the beach at night… I guess.”
Homura spoke evasively with an uncertain smile.
Unperturbed by Homura’s attitude, Misasagi sat down with her hands wrapped around her knees and hung her head slightly.
“Thank you, Hinooka-san.”
Homura turned to look at her in surprise, and Misasagi explained further.
“For what, you did, yesterday…”
Of course, Homura hadn’t forgotten about the race and the events on the uninhabited Nutellan island last night, but Nanakubo had declared a strict gag order on talking about the race.
The other first years who participated like Ishimi and Nagusa were also acting as if nothing had happened. Similarly, thoughts about it had fallen to the back of Homura’s mind.
“No, I’m just happy… that I was able to be of use to you in some way.”
As for Touya, he had laughed and teasingly asked “Was that supposed to be some kind of penalty game?” to Homura after her sudden appearance in the club president meeting last night.
Apparently though, after Homura appeared in the meeting, the previously rocky discussion progressed much more smoothly. And the most concerning issue, the establishment and running of a base camp near Subaru-hime’s castle on Nutella, was agreed on to be spearheaded by Seiran and Hiyoshizaka High.
Touya should eventually notice from the unspoken mood among the other first years that something had happened, but it seemed he had yet to pick up on it.
However, Homura had come to notice and suspect something of her own.
“Umm, Senpai… Did you come with us here because it was difficult being around the other upperclassmen? Because of what I did…”
“No, that’s not, it.”
Misasagi exaggeratedly waved her hands.
“Everyone has, their respective positions, in the meeting—and they become stern, and harsh due to, the responsibilities, they carry, but normally, they’re all, very kind and, fun people. They still, candidly approach, and talk with me, even after, the meeting.”
“Really? Really, really? Thank goodness…”
Misasagi repeatedly nodded to reassure Homura.
Homura patted her chest in relief as the worry that had been constantly plaguing her disappeared.
Misasagi’s expression turned serious again.
“I came on, this outing because, I wanted to, thank you, Hinooka-san.”
Hearing senpai’s heartfelt gratitude truly made Homura so happy she could cry.
However, there was still another important matter that weighed on her mind.
“Hey, senpai. Please tell that to Inari-senpai as well.”
Misasagi should have already guessed that Inari had participated in the race.
After all, she was aware that Homura didn’t have the skill to complete a race on an uninhabited island all by herself.
“I really like you, Misasagi-senpai, but I—” Homura’s face turned red at her own words. “—I also like Inari-senpai. I had trouble dealing with her at first, but I’ve come to like and respect her. So I think it’d be great if the two of you could make up with each other. Touya-kun is seriously hoping for that too, you know?”
Misasagi didn’t reply, merely hanging her head with a pained expression.
Even so, Homura couldn’t stop herself from speaking, not after she’d seen all the hard work Inari Sunao had done for their Exploration Club and how much she had exerted herself for the sake of her best friend, Mayo.
“…Fujimori-sensei said that we shouldn’t interfere since it’s a problem between the two of you, but… this is no longer just your problem. Because we all—”
“…I’m, sorry, Hinooka-san.”
“Can you at least tell me what happened? Touya and I can’t understand unless we hear the reason from your own mouth, senpai…”
“You’re, right… I’ll tell you, the whole story. But could you, wait a, little while?”
After agreeing to Misasagi’s request, Homura then shivered under the sunlight.
“Umm, the thing is… I’ve gone over my limit of being subjected to continuous serious talk…”
Homura self-deprecatingly laughed a little while pressing her cheeks, which had gone numb from the tension, with both hands.
The shaky, nearly tearful smile that Misasagi wore at that moment left a deep impression on Homura.
The night of the last day of the SA.
A buffet-style party was held in the lodging house as a last friendly get-together among the Exploration Club members.
Naturally, the club members all wore the uniforms from their high schools.
The female club presidents were dressed up showily.
The male club presidents didn’t get to wear full-blown tuxedos, but they each wore some form of formal attire.
Tenryuu-senpai, for instance, wore a traditional haori-hakama4.
The dishes on the tables didn’t have anything fancy like hors d’oeuvres from a fancy hotel, but the food was extravagant enough to satisfy high schoolers with healthy appetites.
What especially stood out was the large boiled fish that was caught locally.
Beside the plate was a card that displayed the name of the fish: coral trout, an Okinawan specialty. It was famous as a high-class and very delicious fish. Moreover, the card said that it had been caught by Tenryuu-senpai. Just when had he found the time to go off and catch it—?
The coral trout looked splendid as it lay stretched out on the plate emitting a tantalizing scent, but it looked so impressive that no one had the courage to reach for it first. Everyone seemed to be warily gauging each other’s distance to the trout, but the one who first reached out her chopsticks to it in a nonchalant manner was Fujimori-sensei. After that, it was quickly reduced to bone in the blink of an eye as if attacked by a horde of piranhas.
Misasagi-senpai was wearing a gorgeous light blue dinner gown for this banquet that Homura had helped her to put on. Homura had been worried that the knee-length skirt with see-through lace on certain sections and the gown’s design which greatly exposed her back was a bit too bold, but Misasagi-senpai was apparently used to banquets like this and easily wore the gown without being self-conscious.
Misasagi had been eager about it, saying that she didn’t want to lose to the other club presidents, but it was already her complete victory as far as Homura was concerned, easily surpassing Homura’s mental image of a well-dressed Edo-period town magistrate. In fact, she almost appeared to have held back by limiting herself to a gown with a girlish-length skirt.
But what reassured Homura the most was how the club presidents and upperclassmen from other schools gathered around Misasagi-senpai and chatted with her. In complete reversal to the sharp words they’d used during the SA, they were all talking together like normal high schoolers now. The mood among them was so harmonious that Homura even felt a little alienated.
Meanwhile, Homura went with the flow and passed around various circles of people as she was invited to talk with them.
The faces she conversed with changed one after another, and just when she was getting a little tired from the energetic atmosphere, she caught sight of movement in a corner of the banquet hall.
A third year girl stepped onto the stage while escorted by Oozore.
She wore a slender evening dress. She was Furumachi, the club president of the Tazatani High Exploration Club.
She was a dazzling beauty that had caught Homura’s eye during both the school presentations and the club president meeting Homura had intruded upon. If Misasagi-senpai could be compared to a flower blooming on a high plateau, Furumachi-senpai was a graceful bird standing along a clear, rippling waterside.
She had an adult air that you wouldn’t expect from a high schooler.
It would be much later that Homura learned Furumachi’s nickname ‘Songbird5’ and her reputation as an outstandingly clever woman who possessed both the mage and bard class and who had mastered several rhythm spells.
Since earlier, there had been several club members performing some live BGM that suited the mood of the banquet. Furumachi went to stand in front of the stage mic, and all the bard-class members present including Kamikoma-senpai rushed over to stand behind her with their individual instruments to serve as musical accompaniment as Furumachi began to sing.
She sang the Okinawan folk song “Flowers of the Garden Balsam”—it was the perfect song for enhancing the travelling mood of this small trip with its foreign tone.
It was refreshing to hear local Okinawan music performed by instruments besides a sanshin6, and the combination of both Kamikoma-senpai’s lute and the harmonic unison of the stringed instruments of the other bards sounded so movingly beautiful that it felt like it would never be heard again.
The fervent atmosphere within the banquet hall, which had been so heated that it rendered the moderate air-conditioning in the room useless, had now turned quiet and gentle.
Though it felt like a bit of a waste to do so, Homura quietly left the banquet hall on her own while all eyes were focused on the stage.
She wanted to sort out her feelings a little—
Her eyes happened to meet with Fujimori-sensei’s as she was leaning against the wall of the corridor just outside the hall and talking with Tanakura, but she didn’t rebuke Homura for her departure. As Homura passed by, Fujimori merely grumbled out loud, “I can’t believe the party’s gotten so roused up without any beer being served.”
Outside the lodging house, Homura caught sight of the two former reserve members who had just established their own Exploration Club.
If she remembered right, the boy was Kazuma from Sendai Aoba High, and the girl was Fukuda from Ishinomaki Kanan High. They were both upperclassmen.
Homura’s appraisal was perhaps a bit questionable, but the two of them seemed to have a good atmosphere going between them from what Homura could see, so she went away so as not to intrude. Following the foot lights that bordered the garden, she ended up in the garden adjoining the lodging house.
She found a place along a sloped lawn beneath one of the lodging house’s terraces, from which she could see the sea of stars slightly between the tree branches above.
Excited at having found such a nice and refreshing place, Homura walked over to the slope.
Someone wearing a school uniform was lying on the slope in the darkness.
It was a barefoot girl. Her white legs were exposed and stretched out on the ground where she lay.
Her leather shoes were thrown to the side and rolled away in a clutter next to the boy beside her.
Oh my, a crime, Homura couldn’t help but initially think as her eyes were glued to the scene.
—It was Hayashi and Kanae Yuri.
They were, of course, familiar faces to Homura, but she sensed the serious mood between them, so Homura reflexively quieted her breathing and hid in the shadow of the building.
Kanae and Hayashi didn’t seem to have noticed Homura’s presence as they lay on the ground amidst the sound of the waves in the night and the lingering heat from the day.
Hayashi’s shoulder was practically touching Kanae’s languidly stretched out arm.
Kanae poked his shoulder with a slender twig she held in her hand.
Each time she poked the twig with a lot of pressure, the twig bent and shortened until she pulled it back and then persistently poked him again.
It should have been quite painful for Hayashi. He was even bleeding a little.
But he didn’t say anything as he let her poke him.
Homura wavered between leaving right away or appearing before the two of them and shouting ‘Sorry for intruding!’, but she lost the timing to do so, and she couldn’t hold back her curiosity, so Homura ended up remaining in the shadows watching them.
Kanae finally seemed to get bored of playing with the twig, and then…
The one who finally murmured that wasn’t Hayashi but Kanae.
Hayashi lifted his head a little from where he lay beside her.
“I have some medicinal ointment.”
“Apply it on me.”
“Do it yourself.”
Showing no sign of obeying Hayashi’s words, Kanae merely lifted her upper body from the grass.
She held herself up with her hands on the grass and silently opened her mouth with her eyes closed.
With a small sigh, Hayashi moved to sit closer beside Kanae and pushed her hair back to her nape to peer at her mouth.
“It’s too dark for me to see anything.”
Kanae silently pointed at her cheeks.
Appearing to understand the silent message, Hayashi took out his ointment and seemed to rub it on the inside of her cheeks. Homura couldn’t quite see from where she was. The only thing she could tell was that their faces were very close to each other.
And the whole time, the girl, Kanae, just lay there motionlessly, like a high class queen or even a lifeless doll.
Wh…at…? What is… this? What the heck are the two of them doing?
At this point, Homura could only desperately hold her breath as she watched.
After the ointment was finished being applied, Kanae lay back down on the grass and mumbled.
“It’s embarrassing to have a mouth ulcer at your age. You shouldn’t eat pastries all the time.”
Hayashi rebuked Kanae, who didn’t say anything in response.
However, she was clearly irritated.
“Your lips are rough and worn too. You should take proper care of yourself. You really have no self-awareness as a girl, Yuri.”
She was being one-sidedly lectured.
That’s not true at all! Homura wanted to shout that out, but the mood between the two of them wasn’t one that she could intrude upon, and she didn’t have the courage or right to do so either.
Kanae turned over as if tossing in her sleep and murmured with her back facing Hayashi.
“I just wish this whole thing would quickly end. This place is hot and humid, and Okinawan cuisine isn’t tasty at all.”
“I find it quite fun here, personally.”
Kanae spit out those words, speaking as if she had seen through him.
“You’re just playing along with the fun atmosphere here. Deep down, you don’t find it fun at all, Ryou. You’re always like that.”
This time Hayashi was the one to turn silent.
“…I really want to hurry up and go home.”
Kanae brought her knees to her chest and curled up on the ground.
Hayashi spoke up as he watched her from the side.
“Are you angry about those instructions?”
Hayashi asked the question in an unusually serious tone.
After a long silence, Kanae responded with a murmur.
“I… hate it. Having to help that person…”
…Who was ‘that person’?
Homura didn’t know what they were talking about.
But those two seemed be to be tormented by something huge… From Homura’s perspective, they were slightly odd yet smart and jaunty, but at that moment, they both seemed so frail it unsettled Homura.
“Hey, people are calling for you, Homura-san.”
In that instant, Homura felt as if her heart leapt out of her throat.
Homura turned around to find Ameno standing behind her.
“Everyone wants you and the rest of our club to give handwritten letters over to Subaru-hime… Wait, why are you in a place like this?
“M-My skin was feeling a bit prickly from sunburn…” said Homura as a lame excuse.
Ameno peered over Homura’s shoulder at the garden along the lodging’s house.
“—My, my, is that Hayashi-san… and Yuri-san?”
“L-Let’s head back, Ame-chan.”
Homura pushed Ameno’s back and at her urging they both returned to the banquet hall.
Most likely, Kanae and Hayashi had overheard her conversation with Ameno.
While plagued by embarrassment and guilt, Homura rejoined the banquet.
—That was the last notable memory Homura experienced during the SA.
The next day, they all returned home.
On the flight to Haneda airport, Homura’s club once again rode the same airplane as the members from Hiyoshizaka High, but Kanae and Hayashi wore unconcerned expressions and didn’t show any particular reaction when they faced Homura—
Or rather, there was no real opportunity to confront them, as the two of them spent most of the flight fast asleep, and Homura also dozed off as she was attacked by exhaustion and drowsiness on the plane along with Touya beside her.
Chapter 10 END
(1) This is another case of the narrator making a comment.
(2) The Shinkage (meaning “new shadow”) style is a traditional school of Japanese martial arts, which primarily focuses on swordsmanship.
(3) Ryuukyuu: a chain of southwestern Japanese islands comprising Okinawa Prefecture.
(4) Haori-hakama: a traditional form of Japanese male formal attire with a coat and divided skirt.
(5) In Japanese, the English word “bird” is spelled and pronounced the same way as “bard”. This is likely a purposeful double meaning in this nickname, but for the sake of convenience, I’ll be sticking to “Songbird” in the translation.
(6) Sanshin: Okinawan traditional three-stringed instrument; precursor to the shamisen.