Tokyo International Airport, popularly known as Haneda Airport. Departure lobby.
“Yay! Airplane, yay! Haneda, yay!”
“In-flight meal, yay! Altitude of forty-thousand feet, yay!”
Having gathered at the meeting place beneath the lobby’s clock, Homura and Ameno shared a high-five with brimming smiles on their faces.
Homura had left her house early this morning and dozed off while taking the train, nearly forgetting to take her carry-on luggage as she got off, but she’d grown excited the moment she arrived at the airport.
Meanwhile, Touya was watching the two high-spirited girls in exasperation when he heard someone approach.
“Yo. Good work on leading the sleepyhead Homura here.”
Fujimori-sensei and club president Misasagi had arrived to join up with them, making all of Seiran High’s Exploration Club members present and accounted for.
“Good morning, Fujimori-sensei, Misasagi-senpai.”
Touya greeted them in a raised voice so as to be clearly heard in the noisy lobby, filled with so many people going on trips for summer vacation.
Fujimori-sensei, who had just called Homura a sleepyhead, let out a big yawn herself.
“…It looks like you guys had to work late on the presentation materials, senpai, sensei.”
As Fujimori lightly sat down on her British travel bag, Misasagi bowed her head at her.
“Thank you, for all your, hard work.”
“No, no, I’m the one who should be saying that. You even helped me finish my work in addition to the rest of your workload.”
“It, concerns us, after all.”
“True. But maybe I should have gotten the first-years to help too.”
“I offered to help from the start, you know,” Touya pointed out.
“But that’s, you know…” said Fujimori as she averted her gaze, looking as if she was holding back from saying something.
In the direction she turned towards, Homura and Ameno were encamped in front of a wide lookout window and were letting out excited shouts at the landing and taking-off jet planes.
“What’s with those two? Do they think we’re going to Okinawa1 or something?”
“We ARE going to Okinawa.”
Touya spoke empathically in an exasperated tone, while Misasagi giggled.
Homura’s outfit consisted of a Hawaiian shirt and denim hot pants with lace design, the stereotypical clothing of an enthusiastic vacationer. And Ameno wasn’t wearing her usual boyish clothes, but instead had on a sailor dress with a refreshing-looking wide collar and ribbon as accents.
Ameno’s dress in particular was the result of Fujimori saying “I don’t really care what kind of street clothes you wear” because she found it a hassle and giving Ameno her wallet, after which Ameno and Homura had gone shopping around boutiques in Honmachi before the club trip.
Ameno was acting embarrassed since she wasn’t used to these clothes yet, while Homura was acting lively and ready to go beside her. Their outfits, though a complete contrast to each other, looked good on both of them.
Fujimori looked at Touya with a suggestive sidelong glance.
“Just trying to guess what you’re secretly thinking. Probably something like ‘I’m so disappointed that Misasagi-senpai is wearing her school uniform as usual!’, right?”
“‘What a waste, even though it’s summer vacation’… something along those lines?”
“Wait, senpai! There’s nothing for you to apologize for. You have the important job of doing the presentation, so you have to dress like a proper student. Sensei, please don’t tease us like that.”
“Yes, I’m very sorry. Ah, you all have carry-on luggage, huh? Then I’ll go take care of our check-in. You guys wait over there.”
Fujimori headed toward the reception desk while pulling her suitcase in tow.
After she left, Touya turned to ask Misasagi a question.
“You’ve already been to Okinawa, right, senpai?”
“Yes. I’ve been there several times, for training.”
“Ah, and this is the third time the Exploration Club meeting is being held there too, right?”
Misasagi nodded, but then suddenly looked down at her bag. It was a leather carry-on bag that appeared to have been used a lot.
“…I also, brought a dress, you know? For the friendly, get-together, just in case.”
Misasagi whispered as if revealing a secret, startling Touya.
“Eh… but it’s a gathering of high school students, right? I brought my uniform like I was told, but no formal wear like that…”
“People from, the UN HQ, will also, be coming, and besides… I can’t afford, to lose to, the others, either.”
Senpai whispered in an enthusiastic tone, apparently just as excited as Homura and the others.
On the other hand, Homura and Ameno were still chatting happily by the window.
“I couldn’t sleep yesterday after I finished helping the club president and Chiayu-san~”
“Me too! This is my first time visiting Okinawa. I’m really looking forward to it.”
Ameno’s words were an obvious fib—at least the part about lacking sleep.
“I couldn’t wait and ended up putting on my swimsuit before coming here,” boasted Ameno. “Fufufu, it’s brand new! Akado-san from the research lab chose it for me—”
“Ah, even I have to admit that’s a bit too hasty. We haven’t even arrived there yet. Wait, wait, don’t show it to me here!”
Homura frantically stopped Ameno as she casually lifted the hem of her skirt. It was at that moment—
“I also put it on. Just wait a sec.”
A long-haired boy suddenly showed up and walked over to them.
“Wha, Akiho-kun? You pervert, stop! Geez~, don’t do that without warning right off the bat in the morning.”
The boy who had suddenly showed up beside them and started to undo his belt was Saho Akiho.
He was a first year member of the Hiyoshizaka High Exploration Club, whose name had just come up the other day at the zoo.
“Good morning, Akiho-san. If I remember correctly, the members from Hiyoshizaka High are taking the same flight as us, right?”
“Really? Nice. But man, Seiran High is really loose and lenient.”
“Loose? How so?” asked Homura curiously.
“Our club is making us all come wearing our uniforms, and just when we finally get to go on a vacation trip to the south. It’s way too plain—Ah, morning, Takumi-kun.”
“Yeah, morning… Wait, why is your belt undone, Saho.”
“No, you see, I’m showing off my new swimsuit…”
After Touya came over to greet him, Saho began to resume undressing.
“Like I said, think of the time and place!”
Homura shouted with a strained smile.
Behind her, the other Hiyoshizaka Exploration Club members appeared together as a group and approached them.
The most noticeable one was the giant vice-president, Taga Taichi-senpai.
In front of him was the president, Kamikoma Sora, carrying an instrument case on her shoulder and wearing a wide brimmed hat and sunglasses in a strange combination. She lifted off her hat and threw it casually at Misasagi in place of a greeting. The hat spun threw the air and landed perfectly on Misasagi’s head.
Behind the front two followed three other Exploration Club members, each of them in a different year. With the club advisor included, the Hiyoshizaka High Exploration Club consisted of a total of seven people.
Fujimori-sensei, having returned from checking in at the counter, went to join up with her fellow teacher Tanakura Hirosuke from Hiyoshizaka.
“So everyone’s here now!”
Ameno commented excitedly, while Touya merely nodded in agreement.
He was quietly gazing over the circle of Exploration Club members gathered, with the two club presidents at the center.
But Homura had seen his expression stiffen a little when the group from Hiyoshizaka arrived. He seemed to have been looking at Kamikoma-senpai, or perhaps Taga.
His expression, which looked sad and lonely somehow, was surely the result of thinking about the person who should have been here—Inari-senpai, who should have been standing by Misasagi-senpai’s side.
When both Homura and Touya became a bit quiet after that, Saho gave them a push to the back and hurried them on impatiently.
“Come on, it’s time to depart! I’m really looking forward to it, the Exploration Club Summer Assembly!”
Inside the plane bound from Haneda, Tokyo, to Naha, Okinawa.
A short while after the plane took off, the seat belt sign turned off.
When it was permitted to use electronic devices, Homura secretly took out her terminal.
She wanted to recheck the pamphlet she’d downloaded to her terminal earlier.
“Are you, looking at, the SA2 program, schedule?”
Sitting next to her, Misasagi asked that, guessing the purpose of Homura’s actions.
“Ah… Sorry. Like I thought, is it bad to look at it here…?”
“It’s, fine. As long as, you do it, stealthily.”
Misasagi put a finger to her lips conspiratorially.
Relieved by those words, Homura began to pretend to read an inflight magazine while actually looking at the screen of the terminal wedged inside.
The Exploration Club’s customary summer event, the “Summer Assembly”, was a huge meeting where all the clubs throughout the country gathered together.
Meetings were frequently held on the district level or between club presidents, but the Summer Assembly was the only time when all Nutellan investigators of every rank gathered together.
Government-owned lodging facilities were located next to the huge training field on Iriomote Island.
The assembly was held at those facilities over the course of four days and three nights.
During the course of the assembly, various programs were held, starting with a meeting with all club members in attendance to introduce the new members this year, followed by individual presentations, discussion panels, performances to demonstrate one’s skill as an investigator, hands-on workshops, and other such events.
And of course, there would be a party known as the friendly get-together!
Additionally, volunteer members could borrow small conferences rooms during their free time and work in independent subcommittees. Therefore, the online program schedule had continuously changed and updated at a dizzying pace right up until their departure.
At first, Homura had been nervous about being thrust into such an academic atmosphere that she’d never experienced before, but when she discovered attention-grabbing phrases such as [Eat delicious food native to Nutella!] and [Showcase of 33 fashionable female Exploration Club uniform sets], she found herself getting interested in it.
“It’s just like a festival…”
Homura concluded thus while reading through the pamphlet.
Meanwhile, at the seats across the aisle from Homura and Misasagi.
Next to Touya who was sitting on the aisle seat, Ameno was still full of excitement since takeoff.
“By the way, did you not go through the security gate, Ameno?”
“That’s right. I used a slightly underhanded trick.”
During the pre-boarding security check, Ameno had temporarily separated from Touya and the others and headed to the priority lane used for special cases like people in wheelchairs while accompanied by Fujimori-sensei.
“Fufufufu, look at this. It’s a special permit signed by the National Transport Minister!”
Ameno took out a passport from her breast pocket.
Touya nodded in understanding. Meanwhile, Fujimori, sitting on the other seat next to Ameno, sighed.
“…It would have been cheaper to just bring her as checked baggage instead of buying her ticket, though…”
Ameno thrust the permit right in front of Fujimori’s face with a pout.
“There you go saying that kind of discriminatory remark, Chiayu-san~. That would make me cry, you know? I’d be hugging my knees with tears in my eyes as I came out on the bag claim conveyer belt, you know?”
“Hahaha, that would be a heartrending sight. Actually, it’d probably shock the other travelers.”
Showing no interest in Touya’s remark there, Fujimori let out another yawn.
“Just don’t cause any strange disturbances, okay? Fortunately, that idiot Saho is sitting in the seat way over there, but still…”
With those final words, she put on an eye mask and went to sleep.
Just as Fujimori had pointed out, the Hiyoshizaka club members were seated further ahead, far enough away that Touya and the others here couldn’t see them. Touya himself was a bit disappointed by that, though.
“Chiayu-san really fell asleep fast. Even though we’re flying through the stratosphere at nine hundred kilometers per hour. Ah, flying through the air at fifty degrees below the freezing point, in a swimsuit!”
Ameno was acting restless again.
“By the way… Is the inflight meal not being served yet?”
“Huh? There’s no inflight meal, don’t you know?”
“Eh!?” Ameno stiffened with her mouth open in shock.
“It’s only going to take around three hours to get to our destination—wait, you don’t need to eat in the first place, right?”
“That’s true, but I can still taste to a degree, you know? …Besides, I was looking forward to watching everyone hungrily eating a meal in the sky…”
“You have some pretty weird interests.”
After tiring of reading through the program schedule, Homura shut off her terminal and took out a book. It was a guidebook of Iriomote Island she’d bought at a book store. The front cover featured the cartoonish image of an Iriomote wildcat with glittering eyes.
It turned out that the Exploration Club’s lodging facilities were on the complete opposite side of the island from the main harbor and tourist attractions, and as far as she could tell from the map, there wasn’t even a proper road near the facilities. But Homura was still making plans to visit the local sights on the off chance that she got the opportunity to go there.
“Seisa Beach… Maryudou Waterfall… Mangroves… Sea turtles… Ooh, Ishigaki beef… sushi… The piglets are so cute… but they look delicious too. What to do…? My souvenir budget alone won’t be enough…”
As Homura turned the page, a tall silhouette stopped beside her along the aisle.
“Fish or beef? —Or perhaps me instead?”
The one who asked that wasn’t a flight attendant, but an older teenage boy.
He wore a high school uniform, with a loose necktie hanging around the collar of his dress shirt. He had firm and solid shoulders, as well as slightly natural permed hair.
He peered down at Misasagi-senpai with a snicker.
Senpai replied with a serious expression, which made the boy groan as if struck in the heart.
“Geez, yer retorts to mah jokes are blunt as usual. I’m at mah wit’s here, seriously3.”
What he held in his uncouth hands were two plates carrying neither fish nor beef, but rather transparent containers of dessert. One was Peach Compote Jelly and the other was Passionfruit Panna Cotta, both of which were apparently part of the in-flight menu. They both looked juicy and delicious.
But even with these desserts suspended in front of her, Misasagi showed no sign of accepting them.
Looking resigned as if he had expected this, the boy offered the plates to Homura who was sitting at the window seat.
“Hey, newbie, wanna eat this? Here’s a spoon. They’re quite tasty.”
“Ah… well… err, thank you very much.”
Homura quietly took the desserts that were forced on her with both hands.
This was her first time meeting this boy, but his face seemed familiar to Homura.
But right now, she was more concerned with the desserts in her hands.
“These are… from first class…!”
In other words, fruit from the heavens. Despite her hesitance to do so in front of senpai, Homura couldn’t help being awed.
Meanwhile, the boy leaned on Misasagi-senpai’s seat with his arms around her headrest as he remained standing in the aisle. Homura was shocked, having never seen any boy approach Misasagi-senpai so carelessly even at Seiran High.
“Hey, Mayo. During the stiff gathering coming up, switch over to our club. We still have a spot open for ya.”
Even in the face of such a forceful invitation, senpai shook her head with a composed expression.
“My current, club is, better.”
“I thought ya’d say that. Well, whatever. Speaking of stiff, Taga got himself jammed in the toilet door, gave me a real laugh when I saw it. Who knows what’d happen if he got any bigger than he already is.”
He cackled with a broad smile. His smiling face jogged something in Homura’s memory.
He commented as he glanced over at Touya and Ameno in the seats across the aisle.
“What, is she still in rehab? She really is hopeless, that girl.”
“…She isn’t, hopeless… She’s already, left the club.”
“You still saying that? Stupid. Just hurry up and make her come back. For your sake.”
After letting out a huge sigh in an exasperated tone, the boy struck Misasagi with a poke to the forehead.
It hit with a snap loud enough for even Homura to hear.
Even so, Misasagi didn’t budge an inch and merely kept staring at the back of the seat in front of her. But Homura caught a glimpse of senpai’s pursed lips and angry expression at that moment.
Touya, who had witnessed that scene, scowled and was about to stand up from his seat.
However, before he could do so, a low voice spoke up.
“—Tenryuu, go back to your own seat already.”
At some point without Homura noticing, Fujimori-sensei had lifted up her eye mask a bit and was glaring at the boy with a sharp gaze.
Having been chided, the boy jokily shrugged in disappointment and dutifully obeyed Fujimori’s order.
“Well, sorry for butting in. See ya later. —Fish, huh? Kuku.”
Inwardly, Homura gasped.
After all, the boy had placed his hand on Misasagi’s head as he left, like a parting gift. She instinctively half-rose from her seat and watched his back as he walked away.
“That’s Tenryuu Kazuma…”
Touya murmured that as he sat back down in his seat, clearly anxious.
Hearing that name, Homura finally remembered him clearly.
—He was the outstanding talent who was widely known as the face of the Japanese branch of the Exploration Club.
He was the official representative of young Nutellan investigators chosen by the UNPIEP’s Japan branch, and the current Exploration Club president at Osaka Prefectural School Nagumo High.
On top of his assigned position, that boy, Tenryuu Kazuma, also had many opportunities to engage in international activities and was frequently exposed to the media unlike other investigators, who were protected from aggressive journalists.
Homura had seen his face just last month in the news.
Tenryuu had been doing an interview while surrounded by many reporters. His humorous image as he spoke calmly and crisply with an adult air, exciting the reporters several times in the course of his speech, had left quite an impression on her.
Even inside the plane, several passengers here and there seemed to have recognized his appearance and voice. Fujimori’s decision to cut the conversation short was quite justified.
However, Homura was honestly disappointed that her observation of such a famous person ended so soon. With nothing else to do, she held out the sweets in her hands to Misasagi, who was acting composed as if nothing had happened.
“Umm, senpai, what should I do with this? I ended up taking them…”
“They’re, tasty, right?”
As if to say that the desserts had committed no sin, Misasagi took all but one of the sweets from Homura’s hand and pushed them onto the chest of Touya across the aisle. Ameno’s eyes quietly lit up in anticipation next to him.
“C-Can I have these?”
“Yeah. I’m going, to rest, for a bit.”
Declaring that, Misasagi then reclined her chair after giving polite warning to the passenger behind her, and closed her eyes.
“…She really is angry…”
Misasagi-senpai’s sleeping face was slightly sullen, and Homura couldn’t helped but smile at how cute she looked like that.
After a two and a half hour flight, the plane touched down at Naha Airport.
The flight had practically gone by in the blink of an eye, but the journey ahead was going to be much longer.
Their group switched airplanes and went from the main island of Okinawa to Ishigaki Island.
From the airport on Ishigaki Island, they then headed by fast tram to Ishigaki harbor.
Then, from the harbor, they boarded a fixed-course high-speed boat which would take them to their final destination, Iriomote Island.
The high-speed boat sailed swiftly across white-crested waves.
Standing on the top open deck, Homura was deeply moved by the pale-colored sea that made her truly feel that she had come to a southern country. But, in truth, physically she was—
“Hot… It’s… hoooooot!”
Homura stepped out from the shade of the deck’s eaves directly into the sunlight shining down from above. She held out her arms wide as she closed her eyes and let out a happy shout.
Having traveled through only air-conditioned places in their journey until now, she felt as if the sunlight was pressing down on her skin.
And that made the sea breeze feel all the nicer, so much so that she felt goosebumps even in this oppressive heat.
As she adjusted her wildly flying hair, she turned to the boy crouching down beside her.
“Are you all right, Akiho-kun?”
There was no reply.
Ever since they had gotten off their first plane at Naha Airport, Saho Akiho’s face had been extremely pale and he hadn’t said more than two words. Right now, he was leaning against the ship’s railing and crouching on the deck, completely at the mercy of the ship’s shaking and obviously in need of aid.
“I’m weak… to moving vehicles.”
Seeing Saho nod weakly, Homura couldn’t help but sympathize with him.
Well, it was a relief that it hadn’t resulted in any big ruckus while they traveled like Fujimori-sensei had worried about, at least.
“Umm, how about some anti-travel sickness medicine… You already drank some? But you threw it up? Ah, I see… sounds tough.”
Regular passengers were quite few on the ship, with most of the available space onboard having been reserved by the Exploration Club. According to Ameno’s explanation, this boat had been specially half-chartered for this trip to transport the Exploration Club members.
The most memorable event while they’d been boarding was seeing a mature-looking, male official at Ishigaki harbor catch sight of Misasagi-senpai and greet her familiarly, to which senpai had smiled and deeply bowed back in return.
Meanwhile, the prominent male Exploration Club member who was a greater source of concern than young Akiho to Homura and the others right now, Tenryuu Kazuma, had said he would wait for his school’s club members, who would be arriving late. He told them that he’d take a later flight, before going off on his own to the Naha Airport’s food court to pass the time until then.
Tenryuu had been accompanied by Nagumo High’s teaching advisor. He was someone that Homura recognized from the news just like Tenryuu.
However, unexpectedly, in contrast to the image of a “bright and cheerful older man” that he’d given off on the news, he had quite a stern air about him in person. Fujimori-sensei had courteously greeted him as a fellow teacher, but the two of them hadn’t talked much and seemed to have a strange atmosphere between them, making Homura cock her head in puzzlement.
Homura’s gossip antenna had reacted sharply as she wondered whether there was some unknown discord between them, but when they boarded the boat, it turned out be a baseless fear as nothing happened (…though, that was mostly because the teacher in question wasn’t on board).
In the passengers’ cabin, Exploration Club members from every school were meeting each other again for the first time in a long while and excitedly chatting. The teachers in charge of them had also temporarily forgotten their positions and were conversing together like old reunited war buddies.
That was quite a relieving sight to see in its own way, but it left the younger new members bored with nothing to do—
So, Homura had left the passengers’ cabin using the excuse to go check on Saho out on deck.
At that moment, a girl behind Homura peered over her shoulder at the poor boy.
“Is he okay?”
It was a girl with wavy hair in a loose bob-cut that reached down to her chin.
While turning her attention to the new girl, Homura checked Saho’s near-death state once more.
“Ah, yeah, he’s okay, technically. It doesn’t seem like… he’ll get any worse, I guess?”
“So he’s already at his worst right now? I see. Yeah, his expression right now is like that of Wasasuke when he was submerged in the bath—Here, have some water if you like.”
The female student crouched down and held out a bottle of mineral water to him, and Saho managed to limply nod and accept it.
“Earth is so inconvenient, not being able to use a musical phrase4 to strengthen our automatic nervous system.”
The girl turned back to Homura and greeted her in a monotonous voice.
“Nice to meet you. You’re a first-year too, right? I’m Himekawa from Tomakomai Denpa in Hokkaido.”
“I’m Hinooka Homura from Seiran High. Nice to meet you, Himekawa-san. I look forward to being acquainted with you—Eh, did you say Tomakomai… Denpa?”
“That’s right. ‘Denpa’ as in radio waves. Its full official name Tomakomai Denpa Technical High School is quite a mouthful. We usually call it either ‘Tomaden’ or ‘Tomako Tech’.”
Himekawa waved her hands above her head with a strange gesture to mime emitting radio signal as she finished her self-introduction.
“Yeah, we do the same thing at our school, we often call it ‘Blue High’5—Ah, but I’ve never seen Misasagi-senpai call it that.”
“What is? And how so?”
Homura was bewildered by Himekawa’s unexpected response.
“I mean, it’s nice how there are other club members besides yourself at Seiran High, Hinooka-san. I’m the only female member in our club. The other six club members are all boys. Even our teaching advisor is a man.”
“Eh, you’re the only girl!? I’m envious of how many members you have, but a single girl among six boys? That’s quite the difficult hurdle… I’m impressed that you can stay in the club. Do they treat you courteously?”
“No, not at all. Every day is a whirlwind of blunders, thick-headedness and sexual harassment for me. But they’re all spineless good-for-nothings at their core, so—well, I’m pretty used to it by now.”
Himekawa calmly spoke of the troubles she went through.
“That’s why I want to make some female friends here at SA at least.”
“I feel the same way,” said Homura in agreement, holding out her hand.
The two girls firmly shook heads.
“So now that we’ve deepened our female friendship—how about you come over too, Otomaru-kun?”
Himekawa called out to a short-statured boy who appeared to be a first-year like them.
The boy, who had been taking pictures of the coral reefs beneath the water below while letting out cries of awe, put away his terminal in his pocket and walked over to Homura and the others.
“You said your name was Hinooka? Then you’re Hinooka-san from Seiran High? I’m Otomaru from Kanazawa Asano High. Nice to meet you.”
“Ah, you’re from a different school than Himekawa-san. Yeah, nice to meet you too.”
When Homura finished introducing herself, Otomaru looked at her with shining eyes of excitement.
As Homura was startled by his reaction, Otomaru began to speak in a heated tone.
“You’re THAT Hinooka Homura, the one who participated on a rescue mission with senior members despite being a first year and brought back two stranded club members, right? It’s an honor to meet you!”
“T-Thanks… But I mostly just acted according to the directions Koma-senpai and the others gave me, and I don’t really feel that I managed to be a good assistant.”
“That’s not true at all. I was really impressed when I heard the story. Could you tell me about it later?”
“I’m also interested in hearing about it,” said Himekawa.
“Uwah, s-sure,” replied Homura while holding her cheeks bashfully.
When she asked Himekawa and Otomaru whether they were previous acquaintances, they replied that they’d only met in person for the first time today.
“He was in the seat next to me on the plane from Naha, and we kinda hit it off, especially after I found out he was in the opposite situation of me.”
“Hmm? Opposite situation?”
Homura tilted her head in puzzlement. Otomaru crossed his arms and nodded as he explained.
“That’s right. My school’s Exploration Club is filled with nothing but girls besides me.”
Saho’s eyes lit up in interest even in his dying state beside Homura.
“From what I heard, his case is even more serious, which actually made me feel better about my own situation, if you pardon my rudeness,” said Himekawa. “My school is a technical school, so the percentage of female students has always been low. But I still have some female friends in my class.”
“Hmm, I see. Then by the opposite situation, you mean?”
Homura looked from Himekawa to Otomaru.
“My school was originally a girl’s school, and on paper, it’s been a co-ed school for several years now. But the male student population is overwhelmingly low. So naturally, the Exploration Club is also—”
“A garden of women, right?”
That was how Homura phrased it, but Otomaru just nodded with a slightly tired smile.
“Why would they make an Exploration Club at that kind of school…?” wondered Homura as she returned a similar bitter smile.
“That’s what I want to ask, truly. But, in any case, Kanazawa Asano High was the only choice of school that fit my needs where I live.”
Homura turned meek as she felt the weight of determination in Otomaru’s words.
“…Is that because you wanted to join the Exploration Club?”
“Was it the same reason for you, Himekawa-san?”
“Well, pretty much. I was interested in the Exploration Club. Though that wasn’t the entire reason that I applied to my school.”
“What does that…” began Homura as she tried to find out the meaning behind that last sentence, but then…
“I heard that Touya-kun also entered your school primarily for the Exploration Club, right?”
Himekawa changed the topic as she turned to look at the corpse lying at Homura’s feet.
Releasing the misunderstanding, Homura quickly corrected her.
“Eh? No, no, that’s not Touya-kun. He’s Akiho-kun. Err—”
“Ah, sorry. I thought for sure it was him since he was with you, Hinooka-san. Then, this person is—”
“Saho, a first year like us, right? He really is no good riding vehicles, huh?” finished Otomaru.
Though she’d been beaten to the punch, Homura still caught up and introduced him.
“—This is Saho Akiho, from Hiyoshizaka High.”
Meanwhile, Saho weakly beckoned at Himekawa and Homura with his hand.
In the end, they all crouched down to peer at Saho.
“As long… As long as there are girls beside me… I’m fine…”
Saho managed to wring out those words in a groan.
“Hey, don’t push yourself. You’ll die,” said Otomaru consolingly. “And speaking of Touya, he was busy talking in the passengers’ cabin.”
“Otomaru-kun, do you already know Touya-kun?”
Otomaru nodded. Himekawa also nodded and elaborated further.
“We’re all online chat friends. That’s how we heard about you, Hinooka-san.”
“Wait, Touya-kun did!?” Homura frantically shot to her feet and shrunk away.
“Is there a problem with that?” asked Himekawa. “I personally don’t like doing face-to-face video chats, so I don’t know what he looks like, though.”
“H…Heeh, is that so? I see. S-So, how much did he tell you about me?”
Himekawa and Otomaru looked up in puzzlement as Homura acted agitated and suspicious.
At that moment, the very subject of their conversation, Touya, came up the steps to the ship’s deck together with Ameno.
“Hinooka, there you are. We’re going to be arriving soon,” said Touya.
“How’s Akiho-san’s condition?” asked Ameno.
When they arrived on deck, Touya immediately noticed the two other first years with Homura.
“Yo, Touya,” greeted Otomaru with a raised hand.
“Otomaru, huh—then you must be Himekawa-san from Tomakomai Denpa, right?”
“Yes, you’re spot on. Hello, Touya-kun.”
Even while she greeted Touya, Himekawa’s gaze seemed to be fixed on Ameno.
“Ah… It’s the real Ameno-chan… Amazing… Your movements are so natural… Umm, Saho-san has recovered to the point where he can crack jokes, so it’s fine to just ignore him now.”
“That’s good to hear.”
Ameno put a hand to her chest in relief, which made Himekawa coo in awe again.
“Stop it with the neglect play…” Saho quietly groaned.
As Ameno introduced herself to Otomaru and Himekawa, Homura questioned Touya with a sour expression.
“Touya-kun, you’re already acquainted with Himekawa-san and Otomaru-kun, aren’t you?”
“Hmm? Yeah. This is my first time meeting them in person, though.”
“Since when… and how?”
“How? Through this, obviously.”
Touya reached into his pocket, and following his example, Himekawa and Otomaru did so as well, all of them taking out their portable terminals, which were distributed to all investigators.
“And we also used the Collab on the Exploration Club’s website,” added Himekawa.
“It’s short for Collaboration Tool. It’s like a sophisticated online bulletin board. You only have your name registered so far, Hinooka-san, so your personal profile is completely blank…”
“There’s something like that?”
Touya looked at her in disbelief.
“…I believe I told you about it once before, though.”
“Sorry. I forgot. I completely forgot about everything I was taught before final exams.”
“I see… Then it can’t be helped.”
Touya grudgingly conceded the plausibility of that, and for some reason, Homura proudly had her hands on her hips.
“—I can see it!”
While leaning her body forward over the deck railing, Ameno turned back to the rest of them with an excited shout.
The sea was so clear that you could see the coral reefs below, and in the distance ahead of the ship, a thick forest was slowly getting closer. It was Iriomote Island’s natural sightseeing landmark, the mangrove forest.
Otomaru drew near the railing and shouted in excitement at the prospect of landing there.
“That’s right! We should take a picture. A commemorative photo.” As she spoke, Otomaru switched his terminal to camera mode. “This may not be Nutella, but as people who’ve never been to Okinawa before, it’s untrodden land for us, right? We should add it to our exploration records.”
“Yeah, that’s a great idea. Let’s do it,” said Homura as she fixed up her messy hair from the sea breeze.
“Then please line up together, everyone. I’ll take the picture,” said Ameno
“Eh… Ameno-chan, won’t you join us in the photo?” asked Himekawa disappointedly
“We can take turns taking pictures, can’t we? Though we might not have time, since we’re almost at the harbor,” pointed out Otomaru.
“Wait five seconds.”
Saying that, Touya took a strip of something and used it to quickly fasten Otomaru’s terminal to a deck pillar, and then he hurried back to the railing.
“Ameno, please activate the camera shutter by wireless remote control at the proper time.”
Now able to join Homura and the others in the picture thanks to Touya’s cleverness, Ameno nodded.
“Roger! …You know, it seems like you’re brazenly taking advantage of me as a robot more and more, Takumi-san… Anyway, everybody ready? Cheeze~☆”
—With Iriomote Island growing bigger and taking up the view starboard side of the ship…
It ended up being a modest photo of them all gathered around Saho, who was still limply collapsed on the deck floor and hanging onto the railing.
Soon after, the ship arrived at Nakama Port, one of Iriomote Island’s chief entrance harbors.
There, a certain group of several first year Exploration Club members excitedly got off at the pier, following the regular passengers…
Then, the ship’s engine roared back to life as it suddenly left port, leaving them behind on the pier. And with the other Exploration Club members onboard, including their teachers and upperclassmen.
The disembarked group frantically shouted “Why!?” and desperately tried screaming at the ship to make it do a U-turn back to the pier. However, there was no sign of anyone on deck or at the ship windows to hear them… Truly a despairing situation.
…Of course, it was just a customary prank done by the upperclassmen and the ship’s captain, who was friends with them.
After going back to pick up the careless first-years (incidentally, Otomaru-kun had jumped into the sea to chase after the ship) and leaving the harbor, the ship left its usual route and headed around Iriomote Island to reach the western side on the opposite end.
After their long trip through land, sky and sea, they finally arrived at a small bay with a rough rocky beach, definitely not a place aimed at tourists. This was the training field run by the state and shared with the Self-Defence force. The pier that extended out from the embankment was its harbor.
An UNPIEP flag hung from the pier in welcome to the young investigators.
Chapter 3 END
(1) Okinawa: a Japanese prefecture that consists of a series of islands to the far south of the main Japanese islands. A popular tourist and vacation spot, especially during summer.
(2) SA: short for “Summer Assembly”.
(3) The male character here speaks with a distinct Osakan accent, roughly similar to what a Southern accent sounds like in English.
(4) Phrase: a music term that refers to a unit of musical meter that has a complete musical sense of its own. To put it in simple terms, it is a short melody that can either exist on its own or be part of a larger piece.
(5) “Seiran” means indigo blue, hence the nickname “Blue High”.