After leaving the Inari household, Touya and Homura headed to the local gym.
They drank some juice as they rode in an air-conditioned bus.
Since it was the first day of summer vacation, there were quite a lot of bus passengers, even on a weekday like this.
“It’s so inconvenient that I can’t look right away at the photos I took.”
Homura grumbled on the seat next to Touya.
Using the excuse that it was to commemorate their visit, Homura had taken a picture during the course of the conversation about cameras.
It was a photo of a tense Touya and Inari-senpai’s father smiling while making a peace sign as they stood together, a situation that was hard to decipher from a third party’s point of view.
…But she’d still taken a photo of them regardless.
“The film developing is all taken care of by machines, so that evens out the disadvantages, right? The Exploration Club’s exclusive film developing device is quite valuable, you know?”
“I don’t care about that. Ah, that reminds me, Mori-chan boasted about how she had to develop the film by hand in her club days.”
“I can’t imagine Mori-chan doing that kind of troublesome work.”
“Right? She probably foisted it on someone else.”
It was scarily believable.
Perhaps that unfortunate person’s hardships had been part of what led to the introduction of Nutella-use cameras and automatic film developing devices?
The narrow hill road weaved across the hill ridge as the bus drove on. Beyond the bus windows were summer-like green colors and a cloudless blue sky.
“The gym, huh? I’ve only ever gone there for school events and to go support Tsuyu and her cheerleading. How about you, Touya-kun?”
“Hmm? Yeah, I’ve been there a few times.”
“…Is that so? For matches and stuff?”
The local gym was a place where various sport tournaments including cheerleading were held. It was only natural that Touya would be acquainted with it.
“Inari-senpai’s father said that she’s doing rehab sessions at the gym. Does it have those kinds of facilities?”
“I don’t know. I’m not that familiar with everything there either.”
“Touya-kun, do you regret giving up kendo?”
“Ah? No, I haven’t really given it up.”
“But you used to enter national tournaments for it.”
“I just said I didn’t give it up. Though it’s true I don’t enter tournaments anymore.”
Touya glared at Homura as he adjusted the bridge of his glasses.
“Wasn’t there anyone who tried to stop you from leaving?”
“You really don’t give up, do you…? No, the whole thing was pretty neat and simple and no one really said anything about it.”
“Really? But didn’t that make you feel a bit lonely?”
“I still visit the dojo every once in a while. Though, it seems like my father was disappointed.”
“Hmph… Do not chase those who leave1, huh?”
After thinking it over a little, Homura sighed.
“What we’re doing right now in going to see Inari-senpai is precisely that. We’re chasing after someone who left.”
Homura and Touya arrived at the local public gym.
As expected, there were lots of people here, and the place was brimming with the lively atmosphere of summer.
They went around peeking at the various facilities and conference rooms inside, but there was no sign of anyone that resembled Inari-senpai. And now that they thought about it, they realized that neither of them knew what she looked like either.
“She probably has a nasty face,” said Touya
“And what exactly does a ‘nasty face’ look like?”
“…Well, I’ve only ever gotten a brief glance of her in a photo album before. Was there something of hers in the club building’s female locker room?”
“You want me to find her by following her scent or something? No way, I’m not like you, Touya-kun.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
As they rebuked each other’s haphazard plans while wandering around the gym, they ran into their target at an unexpected place.
“…Touya-kun, wait a sec.”
Called to a stop, Touya looked in the direction Homura pointed at.
Over there was a small indoor court they hadn’t paid much attention to until now.
They could hear loud cheers in a foreign language coming from the practice grounds there, which was divided in half by a low net like what was used in badminton.
In the midst of a group of Southeast Asian-looking dark-skinned players, a petite female figure could be seen running around energetically.
Moving with quick steps, the girl jumped into the air and swung her legs up high, and then kicked down with a sharp shout that resounded throughout the gym.
A ball made of plastic fell deep into the opposing team’s court.
A defender quickly jumped to hit it back but didn’t reach it in time, and the ball bounced in an unexpected direction and smashed past the boundary line of the opposing team’s court.
“Wow…I’ve never seen a ball game like that!”
“K-Kick volleyball? What the heck is that!?”
A convalescent girl and an acrobatic ball sport.
Homura and Touya were taken aback by this unexpected combination.
Unaware of these two onlookers, the girl shared high-fives with her teammates.
The girl, having taken up the same position as before on the court as the game resumed, never fell behind the adults around her despite their height difference, and competed with them equally in both offence and defence.
Her light colored hair was wrapped into a bun, with a single tuft of hair hanging down her back like a tail. She was somewhat shorter than Homura.
Based on the various mismatched clothes all the players wore, they seemed to be an amateur team, but their practice was truly an impressive sight to see. However, when Homura and Touya turned to look at the girl for a moment, her movements were quite skillful and filled with an energetic liveliness, causing them to speechlessly stare at her in particular as she played.
The practice game took a short break, and the girl returned to the court side.
She wiped off her sweat with a towel and slowly regulated her breathing as she pushed her chest in and out.
Her slim body made it hard to believe that she had repeatedly executed gravity-defying feats over the course of the game.
For the first time, the girl turned to look at the two of them.
It seemed she hadn’t noticed them until now due to her intense concentration during the game.
Her shining eyes stared at the Touya and Homura where they had been standing in wait all this time.
Her gaze was clear and transparent, as if she could see through their values and personality with just that look.
Homura nervously began to speak.
“Umm, are you Inari-san—err, Inari-senpai?”
“Yeah, that’s me.”
After gulping down a large swig from her sports drink bottle, she spoke up again.
“Are you students from Seiran High?”
“Yes,” confirmed Homura.
“I’m—” began Touya.
“Ah, I know that voice. You’re the newbie in the Exploration Club, right?”
Without even looking at him, Inari guessed it right on the mark.
“Yes… I’m Touya Takumi, the one who came to visit your house before…”
Touya was obviously quite uncomfortable as he spoke.
Homura quickly introduced herself as well and continued to speak in Touya’s place.
“We visited your house earlier. And we heard you were here.”
At that moment, her kick volleyball teammates began to call out to gather together again.
Their words had a peculiar ring. It was a foreign language with a lot of geminate consonants in it.
Inari tilted her head apologetically and then turned around to reply.
Homura and Touya could only stare in puzzlement at Inari’s words.
After giving that cheerful salutation(?), the players returned to their practice.
Meanwhile, Inari-senpai picked up her bag from the floor and walked away from the court by herself.
“Inari-senpai, that’s amazing! You’re fluent in foreign languages!?”
Homura couldn’t help but express her amazement.
“No, I don’t understand their language at all. I just vaguely get the meaning. I think it’s a Something-or-other-nesian language.”
Homura’s shoulders slumped in disappointment.
“Eh, but aren’t you a member of that kick volleyball team?”
“No. I just thought it looked fun when I saw them playing during a previous visit here. I sometimes come here and join them. They’re good guys. The nasi goreng they make is also super delicious.”
Nasi goreng was an Indonesian fried rice dish.
Perhaps they were a group of chefs who worked at an ethnic restaurant?
“Ah, you also like ethnic cooking, right, Touya-kun?”
Homura changed the topic as she remembered a previous conversation about that, but Touya wasn’t in the mood to reply to that.
After catching up to Inari and matching her quick pace, Touya spoke up again.
“Do you have some free time after this, Inari-senpai?”
Homura and Touya involuntarily slowed down their pace at those words.
Homura was used to this kind of bluntness from Kujou-san.
Though, of course, that didn’t mean that her heart’s defences had gone up in accordance…
However, Inari brought her indoor shoes to a halt and turned back to them at that point.
“I still have business to take care of—so how about you guys accompany me?”
The gym’s entrance.
Just as they saw Inari reappear at the entrance after briefly going into the changing room, she suddenly broke into a full speed dash.
“Ruuuuun!!!” she shouted to the surprised Homura and Touya, and so, despite not understanding what was going on, they ran with Inari to the nearby bus stop and hopped onto the bus that had just arrived.
They were once more riding on a bus through the city, this time with Inari.
For some reason, they sat down on the far back bench of the bus, with Inari in the middle. Homura and Touya wheezed breathlessly as they rode the bus, unaware of their destination.
Inari took out a packed and near-bursting convenience store sack from her bag and put it on her lap, and then began digging into the contents without hesitation.
Inside the sack were—rice balls, sandwiches, jelly drinks, waffles and juice cans. It was a collection of food products that had been chosen haphazardly with no thought given to sweetness, bitterness or nutritional balance. Inari noticed Homura staring at her food.
Inari offered an energy bar.
Homura was startled by the sudden offer.
The lingering scent distinctive of coming right out of a shower drifted off Inari whenever she moved.
“Ah, in that case, I’ll have one!”
Inari gave off a different image with her hair let down.
She had wavy, silky fine hair that looked like it took a lot of time and care to groom.
Homura couldn’t help feeling her eyes drawn to the way Inari’s hair, still slightly wet due lack of time, bounced up and down with each shake of the bus.
Sitting next to her like this, Homura still couldn’t believe that Inari had performed those acrobatic feats earlier with that slender body of hers.
Inari turned around and offered an energy bar to Touya as well.
“How about you?”
“I’m fine… I drank some juice earlier…”
Forgoing any polite words, Touya merely spoke the truth and declined her offer.
Homura desperately tried to signal him through eye contact from outside of Inari’s field of vision.
Her telepathy seeming to have gotten through, Touya held out his hand very, very reluctantly.
“…Well… I’ll have one, I guess.”
Inari handed it over by slamming it into his palm.
She then turned back to the sack full of calories in front of her and resumed her intake of nourishment.
“—Moving my body around makes me hungry.”
Actually, Inari mumbled out something like “Harphhoffmerfhangu” as she stuffed her checks with a rice ball, but their ears managed to barely decipher what she meant.
“I’m going to be moving around some more, so I need to refill my energy while I have the chance.”
Eh, you’re doing more exercise after all that? Homura and Touya thought simultaneously in surprise.
They tried to ask Inari for specifics, but after she finally swallowed and took a moment to breath, she asked a question of her own.
“Homura, why are you accompanying this guy to see me? Are you part of the student council or something?”
“No, well, I’m also technically… *mumble mumble*… a member… of the Exploration Club.”
“Hmph. So there are two new members this year.”
“That’s right,” said Homura, before remembering something and shaking her head.
“T-There’s one more, you know? There are three first-year members now.”
Right. It’d be a problem if you forgot.
“That’s quite a harvest. I was the only new member last year.”
“I see… is that so?”
Inserting a straw into a carton of apple sauce, Inari turned to look at the scenery outside the window.
“Well, that’s a thing of the past—for me, anyway.”
The three of them got off the bus at the last stop on its route.
There lay the most prominent animal natural park in the prefecture.
Homura had visited the place a few times before, but this was the first she’d heard of a sports facility within its grounds.
“—Three tickets with—aaah, aaah—a student discount please—aachoo!”
Inari showed her student ID at the ticket window and purchased their entrance tickets.
When she returned to Homura and Touya, she held out the three tickets like a fan in her hand to the two of them, and they proceeded to take one each.
“Ah, thanks… What’s wrong, senpai?”
Inari was incessantly rubbing at her eyes.
As Homura tilted her head curiously, Inari took out a pollen mask from her bag.
“Senpai, I’ll pay for my own ticket.”
Touya said that and tried to give her money in exchange for the ticket, but Inari didn’t listen and just pushed her way past into the zoo grounds.
Touya and Homura had no choice but to follow after her, like secondary characters in the protagonist’s team.
Inari led them through the zoo without giving a single side glance as they passed by an Indian elephant pair of parent and child, a black rhinoceros, an army of mountain monkeys, a napping capybara, a flock of flamingos and a Malayan tapir.
All the while, she sneezed several times underneath her mask.
Homura’s curiosity was piqued by Inari’s sudden sneezing, but her interest was also aroused by the surrounding animals since this was her first visit here in a long while.
“Uugh… rabbits… frogs… guinea pigs…”
Meanwhile, a certain person among them was painfully reluctant as they passed by the corner for petting small animals…
When they reached a space surrounded by high walls, they found a bluish-white pool modeled after the appearance of icebergs found in the polar seas.
There was a popular booth there for looking down at the zoo’s polar bears.
Polar bear—a type of bear with a white fur coat.
There were two polar bears that were roaming freely inside the pool area.
Inari clung to the stainless and transparent acrylic fence as she stood on her tiptoes to look around the vast pool excitedly.
However, it was clear from the way she didn’t stop searching with her red-swollen eyes that her target wasn’t the two bears below.
“Uugh… he’s not out today…”
She groaned in obvious disappointment.
Homura worried gazed at Inari-senpai from the side.
“Senpai—are you okay?”
“I’b hiine… I’b… hiine…”
…She really didn’t look fine.
Her fingers waved through the air dizzily as if looking for something.
Understanding, Touya handed her a pocket tissue, and she blew her nose.
“Could it be…”
““You’re allergic to animals?””
The person in question immediately denied her juniors’ accusation.
“No. It’s because of the pollen in the air.”
And then she started sneezing again. It seemed to be quite a serious case.
Homura pitifully tried to run with the obvious lie.
“…Yeah, it’s pretty bad… There’s a lot of hairy pollen here…”
Inari nodded with another sneeze.
Though she didn’t reveal it on the outside, Homura was quite taken aback on the inside. Touya probably felt the same.
Homura recalled how, during a previous expedition on Nutella when they’d found tracks of what appeared to be wild animals, Misasagi-senpai had said that Inari Sunao would be able to distinguish what animals they were from in more detail.
And yet, this inexplicable difference. To think she’d be allergic to animals…
As they stood there, a male animal caretaker wearing leather boots entered the animal grounds.
He stood on an elevated platform above the pool and threw down several fish from the basket he carried.
The polar bears threw their huge bodies into the water with a splash and swam around to gulp down the fish one after another.
“Polar bears sure are good at swimming.”
Touya mumbled in amazement.
“That’s right. Touya-kun, is this your first time coming here to the zoo?”
“No, but the last time I came was a long time ago.”
“…Ah… I see.”
At that point, the caretaker heard Inari’s sneezing and turned to look over at them.
After finishing up feeding the polar bears, the man returned to the caretaker hut. At the same time, Inari came down from the fence and began to move.
She walked to the caretaker hut within the iceberg.
She led them to the staff entrance inside that was forbidden to visitors, and at that point the man from earlier came out from the door.
“Hello, Sunao-chan. Welcome.”
Inari bowed her head politely.
Unaware of the man’s relationship with Inari, Homura and Touya just followed her lead and bowed as well.
“So you brought friends along? And not the usual Neyakawa-san either. Technically, only authorized people are allowed to enter, but…”
The man looked at Homura and Touya with a slightly troubled face.
The nametag on his chest read “Kitoro”. Quite an odd name.
“These guys are… my juniors from… the Exploration Club at school.”
When Inari mumbled her reply beneath her mask, the man’s eyes lit up.
“Then I’ll make a special exception.”
Beckoned by him, the three of them went through the staff entrance.
When they entered the caretaker hut, the smell in the air became quite pungent, and the room temperature was also lower.
It was a cave-like place you’d expect within an artificial iceberg. It resembled the atmosphere of the Exploration Club’s building with its few windows.
Touya looked around curiously from the rear of the group, while Homura suddenly spoke up.
Homura stared at a polar bear that was sitting down inside the breeding pen within the hut and rocking its body back and forth.
There was a sliver of innocence lingering in its appearance. It was a cub that had grown to the point where it was almost as big as an adult polar bear.
“Pole… is that Pole? He’s grown so big!” shouted Homura in surprise.
Yes, the cub’s name was Pole.
Homura recalled the polar bear cub, who she had completely forgotten about until now.
When she had visited the zoo in the past, she had seen him in the special glass-walled breeding pen, though he’d been as small as a teddy bear back then.
The caretaker nodded.
“Yeah, he’s gotten quite big. His weight is now two hundred and twenty-five kilos.”
Homura was shocked by that number, but Inari’s expression sank.
“He’s thinned out a lot… Pole!”
At Inari’s call, Pole let out a cry and approached them.
He pressed his nose against the breeding pen’s lattice barred door, clearly agitated.
“Wait, just wait a sec, Pole.”
Inari was also agitated. She turned to the caretaker with a pleading expression.
“Kitoro-san, I’m sorry to ask this, but please.”
“Yeah—You know the place, right?”
As soon as she accepted a key with a tag attached from the man’s hand, Inari headed down a nearby hallway at a small sprint, leaving Homura and Touya behind.
By the time Homura turned around, Inari was already gone.
Meanwhile, Touya expressed his gratitude to the man once more.
“Thank you very much, Kitoro-san. I’m truly grateful for this opportunity, but is it really all right… to let us in back here?”
“Aren’t Exploration Club members accustomed to bears and other animals?”
Touya and Homura both furiously shook their heads.
Kitoro-san smiled at how synchronized they were.
“This place isn’t really kept off-limits to guests. It’s quite common for elementary and middle school students to come here as part of a workplace experience visit. Well, due to certain circumstances, it might be bad if this was revealed on the net. But since you’re Exploration Club members…”
As he spoke, Kitoro-san kept his ears pricked towards the hallway.
The sound of a locker door loudly opening and closing echoed through the halls, and Inari returned soon after.
Her changed appearance was so strange that Homura retreated several steps back to the wall.
“All right, I’m ready to go!”
It wasn’t until she clapped together her mitten-covered hands and let out a muffled yet spirited shout from beneath the huge goggles and mask covering her face that Homura realized that that was Inari-senpai… or rather, an actual human being.
She was covered from top to bottom in white protective clothing, like those used by a bomb disposal professional.
Inari, who had turned from a small and slender girl into a short and stout Michelin mascot, walked over to stand dauntingly in front of the door to the breeding pen—
Homura, no longer able to contain herself, burst out laughing.
“Fu, bu, ahahahaha! Senpai, that outfit is too much, ahahahaha!”
“You really have no tact, laughing like that… buh…”
Though he chided her, Touya also had his face turned away as his body trembled minutely.
Not paying her juniors any mind, Inari earnestly devoted herself to her warm-up stretches.
After Homura and Touya moved back at Kitoro-san’s urging, the white baggy lump slid open the door to the breeding pen and leapt inside with her safety boots.
As Homura clutched her sides and gasped for air from laughing too much, Touya’s thoughts came to a halt.
Furthermore, Kitoro-san went to close the pen door behind Inari.
Inside the pen, the polar bear cub (though he had grown to being two hundred and twenty-five kilos at this point) let out a cry and leapt forward to greet Inari.
Inari’s joyous voice (and occasional sneezing) ran through the breeding pen.
“Ahaha, ahahahaha, Pole, Pole, Po—”
Inari happily hugged Pole around his long neck, but the cub’s excitement caused her to be shaken off and sent flying.
She rolled across the ground like a bowling ball before slamming into the door with a loud bang.
“Ouch! That hurt!”
Despite the anger in her voice, Inari immediately sprang up and leapt forward to hug Pole again.
At this point, Homura finally understood what was going on, and she stiffened in the midst of her laughter.
“W-What the heck is she…? Kintaro2?”
“Well, she often says ‘I do sumo wrestling training in order to deal with bears♪’, though I can’t say whether it’s true or not,” said Kitoro-san.
“Wait, why did it sound like there was a music note symbol at the end there—?”
“That’s not the issue here! Senpai’s going to die! Like being wrung through a dryer!”
Homura turned pale at the caretaker’s carefree response.
When Homura turned back at the sound of laughter swishing around this way and that, she saw the terrifying sight of Pole holding up Inari by the scruff of her neck with his mouth and swinging her around.
“Hey, let me go, LET ME GO! Oraaaaah!”
It might sound nice to call it friendly skinship, but it just looked like a struggle of strength and violence.
When Inari rubbed her cheeks against Pole, she was blown away with a punch; when she jumped onto his back, Pole rolled over and squashed her with his body—
But even then, Inari didn’t give up and wrapped both her legs in a crab hold around Pole’s neck to bend him back off her, and then she used the nearby wall as a foothold to jump off and delivered a kick… the whole thing was completely ridiculous.
If Homura entered this petting corner (on hard mode), she would definitely turn into a pool of blood within ten seconds. The pure white and fluffy polar bear, in contrast to his teddy bear-like appearance, had sharp fangs and a terrifying deep bluish tongue, truly a wild beast.
“That cute Pole is now…”
“Amazing… they’re both ridiculously lively.”
“Well, they’ll stop once they get tired.”
Kitoro-san sat down on a nearby toolbox.
He basically left the situation as is in the breeding pen, which was resounding with indistinguishable shouts that weren’t quite screams or laughter.
Though she was still worried about Inari’s safety, Homura suddenly wondered what that girl, Suzuran, would do in this situation.
She could easily imagine that girl, who had dashed through wild mountains on the back of a giant white wolf, would play with Pole just as energetically and roughly as Inari-senpai.
“…Does senpai come here a lot?”
Choosing to turn her eyes away from the bout of fierce skinship for a moment, Homura questioned Kitoro-san.
“Yeah. And Saho-kun from the same Exploration Club comes often as well.”
“Saho-kun… Ah, you mean Akiho-kun from Hiyoshizaka High?”
After the incident with Subaru-hime, Homura’s Exploration Club from Seiran High had gone to visit Hiyoshizaka High’s Exploration Club to express their thanks for their help back then.
During that visit, they’d been introduced to one of the new male members of the Hiyoshi Exploration Club, Saho Akiho.
He was a Nutella investigator rookie just like Homura.
Touya, who had been intently watching the interspecies hand-to-hand combat show being played out on the other side of the lattice bars, turned around at those words.
“Wait… you mean Saho does the same thing as senpai is doing right now…?”
“Ahahaha, the only one who can do this is Sunao-chan. Sunao-chan is a specialist in dealing with Pole. Saho-kun has been a regular visitor to this zoo even before he joined the Exploration Club. He’s such a steadfast visitor that we even inform him whenever an animal here is unwell.”
“Heh. I’m a bit surprised.”
“Oh, is that so?”
Saho was quite the unique character.
After Homura exchanged email addresses with him during their first meeting, he kept messaging her all the time, to the point where it got too much and Fujimori-sensei and Koma-senpai both had to give him a lecture.
Though, that was mostly because Homura always burst out laughing every time she read his messages and wasn’t able to concentrate on her training and after-school studies as a result.
“Sunao-chan wasn’t able to come play with Pole for a while, which made him quite sad… It was only last month that she was able to start coming here regularly again.”
“…Last month? Then, before that…”
Touya moved to stand next to Kitoro-san with his back against the wall.
Exchanging a look with Touya, Homura meekly asked the question on their minds.
“Could you tell us more about it…?”
“Sure. It’s not a topic she’d get angry over being talked about,” said Kitoro-san in consent.
“—You know that she was hospitalized for a while, right? Sunao-chan didn’t have any appetite for a long time. She was thin like a twig and lost weight to the point where I could even pick her up with a single hand.”
“No appetite… you mean anorexia?” asked Touya.
“But she still pushed her body to come see Pole. The worst was when she was in a wheelchair. Naturally, there was no way I could permit her to enter the breeding pen in that state. After she worked hard to regain her strength, she finally got permission to go in starting last month.”
“I’m not sure… that can be called safe even in her current state…”
—Behind them, they could hear the thuds and bangs of a fierce wrestling battle.
Smiling wryly at Homura’s honest amazement, Kitoro-san continued speaking.
“It was really a tough time. Pole is quite the difficult child himself. He’s managed to become accustomed to this environment, but his physical condition still turns bad frequently. I’d like it if Pole learned from Sunao-chan’s rehab and returned to full health as well… Those two are like siblings, an older sister and her younger brother.”
“Siblings?” questioned Touya.
“Well, if I remember right, Pole was taken in from the wild in some foreign country—” said Homura as she recalled the explanation panels she’d seen the last time she’d visited the special breeding pen.
“Taken in… so he was really born in the wild?” asked Touya.
“That’s right. Pole wasn’t born here, or even in another zoo in a foreign country—”
Hearing that, Homura couldn’t help but recall Suzuran.
After recovering from a brief period of physical debility, Suzuran had safely returned to her mother.
Was she doing well now? Was she feeling lonely in Japan without the wolves she had been raised together with like siblings?
A life filled with things she wasn’t accustomed to awaited her here in Japan. With so many things for Suzuran to learn, Homura had been told to leave her be as much as possible in order to give her time to foster bonds with her new family, but… Homura still worried about the girl.
“The truth is, the one who picked up Pole when he was still a newborn was Sunao-chan’s father, while he was collecting data in the Artic. You should ask her father for the details. In the end, Pole ended up living at the Inari home until it was decided we would take him in here and he adjusted to the new environment. That’s why they’re like siblings.”
“But what about Inari-senpai’s animal allergies…!?” asked Homura in surprise.
“Strangely enough, her symptoms are weaker when she’s with Pole.”
“I can’t believe it…”
A certain scene appeared in Homura’s mind.
A cub that was just a bundle of cuteness happily chasing after a young Inari.
The girl gently rubbing cheeks with the cub as he dozed at her bedside.
Homura switched Inari with herself in that scene and played with the cub in her imagination.
It was enough to make her mouth water.
“I wish I could have had a fluffy white bear young brother instead of a cheeky and mean younger sister…”
“Hey… you shouldn’t say such rash things even as a joke…”
Touya drew back from her.
“You wouldn’t be able to do a no-holds-barred wrestling match against a teddy bear that had grown into a lump of meat and muscle like that…… Hmm?”
As they were talking, they realized that the breeding pen had turned quiet.
As first Touya then Homura noticed it, they nervously went to peek through the door, wondering if the match had been settled in some terrible and tragic fashion.
At some point, Inari and Pole had fallen asleep while hugging each other.
They lay there piled together as their chests gently moved up and down.
For the next short while, the three of them merely silently watched the big younger brother and small older sister’s brief respite.
The three students were now sitting in a corner of a Freshness Burger restaurant.
After leaving the zoo, Homura and the others had returned to Honmachi station.
They’d given their thanks to Kitoro-san for having taken the time to let them visit while he was busy, and then taken the bus route back home.
Inari, who had been sleepy and absentminded for a while, had now pulled through a complete one-eighty and was sitting with her arms folded like an imposing commander before the troops of hamburgers lined up on the table. It was an impressive resource operation that sampled every part of the menu.
“Sorry for dragging you guys around today. You’re both hungry, right? Go ahead and eat.”
There was no way she could refuse when her thoughts were already slowed from hunger.
“Is that all right? In that case, I’ll have the chicken burger.”
Homura reached for it without hesitation.
“Even so, Pole was really cute today. His teeth were a bit scary… but his sleeping face is still just like that of an innocent child!”
Inari giggled and nodded giddily with slightly blushing cheeks.
While drinking her orange tea, she noticed that Touya hadn’t moved to grab any food, so she advanced the Great Hamburger Army towards him with a push.
“You eat some too, Touya Takumi. Or do you dislike hamburgers?”
“There’s no such thing as a male high school student who dislikes cola and hamburgers.”
Homura spoke teasingly, while Touya looked at her annoyingly.
“I think there are plenty of guys like that, though.”
Inari forcefully handed Touya a double-decker burger, the biggest one of the lot.
It was true that he was feeling hungry too, so Touya gave in and thanked Inari for the food.
After letting out a humph, Inari reached for the nearest burger to her.
“Is Pole always in that breeding pen?”
“No… but he still needs to be watched carefully. They let him roam outside as much as possible. But, according to the veterinarian, there seems to be an abnormality in his brain…”
Homura’s face turned grave at those words, but Inari waved her hands to break the mood.
“But he’s gradually getting better. It’s all right, there’s no need to worry.”
“I hope he gets to play around lots outside soon.”
“He will. And very soon too.”
Relieved by Inari’s reassurance, Homura then asked a question.
“Inari-senpai, you traveled around the world when you were a kid, right? Your father showed us photos from back then.”
“Yeah. Though rather than traveled, it’s more like I lived wherever we went, for months at a time. America, the Amazon, Asian mountains and grasslands, the Polynesian jungle, and even Antarctica. We apparently went to lots of other places too, though I don’t really remember some of them.”
The pictures of Inari in the photo album, when she was still a little girl who hadn’t developed her animal allergies.
She’d played with lion cubs, been licked by leopards while she cried, had owls rest on her head, slept peacefully while leaning against a giant lizard…
“There were lots of interesting photos of animals. So, did you join the Exploration Club because of your father’s influence?”
“I didn’t join just because I liked animals. Though it’s true that I’m used to outdoor activities in the wild.”
“Then what made you join the club?” asked Touya.
The interior of a hamburger restaurant wasn’t the ideal place for the discussion about the Exploration Club that Touya wanted to have, but fortunately there were no other customers near them.
“That’s what you want to ask about? I was pulled in by Mori-chan and the club president.”
“Ah, the first club president? I still haven’t met them.”
“…What about Misasagi-senpai?” asked Touya suspiciously.
“Mayo…? She didn’t seem all that eager about me joining the club.”
Homura unconsciously cried out in surprise, while Touya’s expression turned confused beside her.
“Well, of course. After all, I didn’t really have any special skills or knowledge, and I’m even allergic to pollen. Even my IE Response was below average.”
Inari’s answer was probably an accurate assessment, but to Homura it merely looked like modesty.
“B-But Misasagi-senpai was really fervent when she invited me to the club. W-Well, she did mostly do stuff behind the scenes to get me to join that I never saw myself, though. In the first place, don’t you have excellent reflexes, Inari-senpai? Your talents are much more suited to the Exploration Club than someone who’s just for show like me!”
“That’s… like I said…”
As her words faltered, Inari’s hand hung in the air uncertainly while holding her burger.
“Enough! We didn’t come here to talk about this!” said Inari belligerently as she turned to look at Touya and munched on her burger defiantly. “So, what is it you want to tell me!?”
“Please come back to the Exploration Club, Inari-senpai.”
“Did Mayo put you up to this?”
“No. I came to talk to you by my own will.”
“What, so this is a confession? ‘I need you’ and all that?”
“Like we said before, our club currently has four members, but only three can actually go on expeditions right now, and Misasagi-senpai is the only experienced member. The only one. Without you, we won’t be able to maintain our club activities, Inari-senpai.”
Glaring at Touya, Inari silently scarfed down the bacon omelet burger in her hand. And after she finished it, she immediately grabbed another one, this time a bitter-looking salsa burger, and she bit into it without even properly looking at it and aggressively pushed it down her throat.
Homura frowned at this gluttony that was clearly bad for digestion, but Inari’s gaze remained fixed on Touya, and Touya stared straight back at her as well.
After a final gulp, Inari spoke up.
“‘We won’t be able to maintain our club activities’~? That’s quite the model answer. The kind of boring answer that anyone would think.”
Taking the paper napkin Homura offered to wipe her mouth, Inari continued talking.
“Hmph. I don’t care about your official stance. Tell me what you really think. Did you come here just to talk with me cordially?”
Touya faltered for an instant, but immediately resolved himself and spoke.
“Because the club needs you, Inari-senpai. It’s not an official stance or anything like that. We can’t leave Misasagi-senpai all by herself. And I—”
Looking at him straight on, Inari urged him to continue with an unwavering, serious gaze.
“I can’t stand the idea of you just leaving the Exploration Club because you decided it was boring and worthless.”
“So you want to one-up me for that?”
“Oh, as expected of a kendo boy3,” said Homura with a clap. However—
“Do you feel the same way?”
“Eh, me? Err—”
Homura was bewildered from suddenly having the focus shifted to her. Homura herself merely went with the flow and came because it seemed fun… But it would be hard to say that in this atmosphere. Instead, she voiced the words that she suddenly recalled at that moment.
“U-Um, what did you mean by ‘Don’t get deeply involved with the Exploration Club’…?”
“Hmm? What’s that?”
“You said those words to me before. Don’t you remember, Inari-senpai?” said Touya.
“……I guess… I did.”
Inari tilted her head to look up at the ceiling fan above.
Meanwhile, Homura readjusted herself.
“You and Misasagi-senpai helped each other over the course of a year of club activities, right? It seems a waste just to abandon all that teamwork. And we have problems of our own. The base camp you and senpai made was destroyed.”
Did she really just say “Tch”?
It was the Exploration Club’s home, which Inari herself had definitely played a part in building and yet…
Spurred by Inari’s disrespectful attitude, Homura’s words involuntarily turned overeager.
“A-And also! We made an amazing discovery! If you heard about it, you’d definitely want to come back.”
Touya obviously moved to try and stop her impertinent words, but it was too late.
Staring back at Homura, Inari folded her arms and spoke.
“You discovered Nutellans?”
The correct answer was yes.
But even so—
“Ahahaha, who knows? In any case, it’s definitely an amazing… discovery…”
Though her heart had nearly jumped up her throat at Inari’s unexpected response, Homura did her best to give a flat reaction. But it became obvious that her efforts were completely meaningless when she looked beside her.
Touya wore a stiff and astonished expression. That alone made the truth obvious, but he was even bending back to check their surroundings in a blatant manner. There were still as of yet no other customers besides the three of them in the restaurant.
“What, so you came to tell me something like that…?”
Inari stretched back and sighed in exasperation, but she was also nonchalantly checking over their surroundings.
“No, but I couldn’t help it…”
Homura had already known that he was terrible at hiding things, so this was really her own fault in the end.
But even so, Homura felt that Inari’s calm attitude was too odd.
“Inari-senpai… did you already know…?”
Homura lowered her voice and leaned forward over the table.
Homura’s Exploration Club group from Seiran High had encountered a previously unknown resident of Nutella, a woman who was half-Nutellan and half-Earthling called Princess Iotsumisumaru.
How could she stay so composed towards such shocking news that was just as earth-shattering as humanity first encountering aliens?
Ignoring Homura’s fears and suspicions, Inari leaned back in her chair and uninterestedly sipped from her drink.
“You guys… haven’t been taught anything. Mayo’s really making light of you.”
Even if she was their senpai, Homura couldn’t hide the irritation she felt at that contemptuous attitude. She sprang up from her chair to protest, but was interrupted as Touya spoke up, having shaken off his initial agitation first.
“Yes, it’s true that we’re still inexperienced,” said Touya, in a calm voice that kept his anger well in check. “But senpai always kindly instructs and guides us.”
“Well, of course, obviously Mayo would teach you whatever’s convenient for her.”
Inari waved her hand with a scoff.
“In that case… please train us too, Inari-senpai. Please teach us. If we do something dangerous, please go ahead and scold us.”
When Homura said that, Touya widened his eyes in a slightly joking manner.
“To think I’d hear something like that from Hinooka…”
Inari’s expression softened a little as she watched the two of them bicker, but her decision didn’t change.
“Mayo is mistaken. Until that stubborn fool realizes that, I absolutely will not return to the Exploration Club.”
“‘Stubborn fool’… Look who’s talking…”
Homura didn’t know the reason why Inari was so resolute in her stance. But Homura felt that, even if she persistently questioned Inari about it here and now, it would just drive her further away and the atmosphere between them would just turn even more perilous.
Touya also didn’t get overeager and chose to remain patient.
“I won’t give up. I’ll come see you again.”
“Do as you wish. But enough with the formal visits. In the first place, I’ll be attending school starting next semester. You can meet me normally there, you know?”
“I see. That’s true.”
And when Homura imagined Misasagi-senpai and Inari-senpai encountering each other at school, she felt unbearable at the thought of what that meeting would be like.
Inari put the remaining hamburgers on a tray.
“Thanks for the food. Senpai… what are you doing with that?”
“I ordered too much after all. You can take as much as you want with you.”
Inari pushed the heavy tray into Homura’s hands.
“Hmm, in that case, why don’t we divide it up between us? Senpai, how much will you take?”
“I’ve… ugh… had enough.”
Inari painfully held her stomach.
“There’s no such thing as a female high school student who dislikes hamburgers. Here, have one.”
“No… like I said… Fine, give me whichever. I can’t even taste it at this point.”
“Then here’s the newly sold Tandoori chicken burger. I’ll have this one and this one. And I’ll leave the remainder to Touya. I don’t like blue cheese~”
“Yeah, yeah. I saw this coming.”
They walked down the side road through the park in front of the station as the sun began to set.
Homura and Touya were headed to the station. Inari was headed to the bus stop in front of the station.
With the short-statured Inari in the lead, the three of them walked together down the short path to the station.
“By the way, I have some advice for you as your unreliable senpai who skipped school.”
As they were about to part ways, Inari pointed a finger at the two of them.
“The media is going to start taking action in full force soon. Pay attention to your surroundings. You guys are definitely going to be checked out by them. And not just the media. Watch out for each other so that you guys don’t get dragged into any violent incidents.
“That’s nothing really new for the club, and Misasagi-senpai has already warned us about precisely that.”
Inari turned away sullenly after hearing Touya’s blunt reply.
Smiling bitterly, Homura tried to change the mood by speaking up.
“It was like that today too, but it’s hard to keep in mind that we’re involved with state classified secrets… Touya-kun, maybe Inari-senpai found out about it thanks to her father’s intel sources?”
“Eh… Has the media’s net already reached that far?” asked Touya as he turned to Inari.
“Hmph, who knows? I’m no longer a club member, so I don’t know that much. But you’ll probably find out soon, even if you don’t want to.”
With her back still turned, Inari spoke in an insinuating manner. Even so, Homura felt a faint, unpleasant shiver.
And then, just as she was about to leave, their senpai’s unyielding attitude that had lasted up until now faded away, and Inari Sunao turned to face them with the expression of a forlorn-looking girl.
“Touya Takumi—Hinooka Homura—”
Her following words were probably the one small piece of advice that she truly wanted to tell them.
“—Don’t let yourselves be misled by the impression that Nutella is the only reality.”
Chapter 2 END
(1) A saying by the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius.
(2) Kintaro: a hero in Japanese folklore, known for having befriended animals and possessing superhuman strength.
(3) The phrase Inari uses here originally refers to taking points against an opponent in kendo, but it is often used as a metaphor equivalent to the English phrase “one-up someone”.