The dining hall within the lodging facilities.
Homura and the rest of the Seiran High Exploration Club each took one of the lunch trays lined up on the cafeteria counter and sat down to eat at a long table.
Truthfully, Homura would have preferred to sit on the outside terrace, but the seats there were already packed. Lively conversation could be heard from the many Exploration Club members sitting under the parasols there.
The members there were limited to schools that had already finished their presentations, and they had an obvious air of liberation about them.
The schools that would be doing their presentations in the afternoon were seated within the hall, each group absorbed in preparatory meetings amongst their club members.
But without paying that tension any mind, the sunlight brilliantly shone through the windows along with the smell of the tide and the roar of the waves.
“……Mumu… There’s something wrong about this…”
Homura narrowed her eyes while enjoying the springy texture of her peanut tofu.
Glimpses of Iriomote Island’s blue sea and white waves could be seen past the palm trees outside.
“Such a beautiful ocean is right over there, and yet here we are… When we will be able to go swimming?”
She glanced enviously out the window and strained her ears in an exaggerated manner.
“We still haven’t done that standard tradition, you know?”
“…Standard tradition?” Touya tilted his head in puzzlement.
“Ah, I know, you mean that,” said Ameno in realization.
She and Homura linked hands and, after taking a deep breath, lifted their arms up and shouted “It’s the sea!” with glittering expressions, before bringing their hands back down to the table with a bang after a few seconds.
“…It’s tradition to shout that while jumping into the air in swimsuits.”
Touya wore his usual expression of disbelief and exasperation, but there was a hint of sympathy there too.
“I know how you feel, but there’s no way we’ll get the chance while it’s still bright out, you know? The presentations are going to continue all afternoon. Besides, it’ll finally be our turn next.”
Homura had already become used to these sound arguments of Touya’s that she simply brushed it off with a triumphant look.
“Well, I was just joking—but even so, all the other schools are really amazing. They all prepared various things and even gave out souvenirs. It’s almost overwhelming.”
Ameno nodded in open agreement at Homura.
“They were really interesting. Each individual presentation was short, but they included new information that still hasn’t been made public, and they were truly a lot of fun to listen to! I was especially intrigued by the Nagato Fisheries School Exploration Club’s presentation on the creatures in coastal ecosystems.”
“I wasn’t able to deal with that presentation myself… The CG models of fish were pretty, but I’m no good with slimy and slippery creatures…”
“That so? But weren’t they cute? And you should check out the toxicity levels and cooking preparation techniques for those kinds of creatures too, Homura-san.”
“Please spare me that kind of variety show display…”
Just remembering the presentation’s images gave Homura goosebumps.
“Hey, calling it a variety show is rude,” interjected Touya, who had been impressed by the presentation just as much as Ameno. “How to put it? The presentation itself wasn’t particularly sensational… but the contents of their routine activities were thick and abundant. That’s why I was honestly more shocked than interested by it. Like, it made me reflect on myself.”
Those words pricked at Homura’s heart, but she maintained her outward calm.
“It’s fine if we go at our own pace. Our own exploration has just gotten started, after all.”
“No, you should feel at least some inferiority on that point. In the first place, you’re acting quite carefree just because you’re not going on stage, Hinooka.”
“Even if you say that, there’s nothing for me to actually do for our presentation. Misasagi-senpai is taking care of the speech, Touya-kun is in charge of presenting the image and video material on the screen—so there’s nothing left for me to do, right?”
That was certainly true.
The last member, Ameno, was busy with organizing the materials for the presentation.
As such, Homura felt quite left out during their club’s preparatory meeting last night.
“Your job is the stay silent so that you don’t say anything unnecessary, Hinooka.”
“Ah, so cruel. I’m a member of the Seiran High Exploration Club too, you know.”
Annoyed, Homura stole a papaya jelly from Touya’s tray.
“Hmm~, it’s a bit meager… Speaking of which, about the Mikawakotobuki High club… there was a foreigner among them. I didn’t notice him at first since he really blended in with them, though.”
“Ah, I talked with that person a bit on the boat yesterday. He’s a second year student.”
“He’s an exchange student from Eton College in England,” Ameno explained. “They’ve been accepting them into Japanese Exploration Clubs for the past few years now apparently.”
“Eton? Like what they use to make boots?” That was sheepskin. “The Wildlife Chronicles?” That was Seton1. “…Well, whatever. So there are even exchange students among the Exploration Club, huh?”
“What’s with the surprise? You might end up going off as one someday yourself, you know?”
“To a school in another country? Ahaha, no way, no way. There’s no point in worrying about things like that2.”
“But it’s not like it has nothing to do with us at all. Even these presentations reach beyond just the Japanese branch.”
Fujimori-sensei murmured as she stuffed her cheeks with pork belly stew.
“Just between us, our club’s presentation is the main act today. There will be double the number of VIP guests present in the afternoon session.”
Fujimori nodded meekly at the shocked Homura.
“Seiran High is the main act? Eeh… but there are still five other schools left to present…”
“Are you, tired, Hinooka-san?”
Misasagi-senpai showed concern for the exhausted-looking Homura. Homura nodded in embarrassment.
“Just a bit… Even though all I’ve done is sit, ahaha. It’s like, even if I listen, most of it just sounds like gibberish to me… The presentations just don’t seem to enter my head, probably because I lack enough knowledge and imagination. But—”
Mindful of the expressions of the other Seiran High Exploration Club members around her at the table, Homura continued.
“The most interesting, or rather, refreshing part was learning that there were all kinds of people in the Exploration Club.”
“I think that’s, wonderful.” Misasagi-senpai’s smile looked truly happy at Homura’s words.
“…Thank you, senpai.”
It was then that Homura suddenly noticed that Misasagi had barely touched any of her meal.
Touya also seemed to have noticed that.
“Senpai, you’re not going to eat? Do you not like Okinawan cuisine?”
“I don’t have, much appetite, right now…”
Misasagi’s forlorn smile at the moment pained Homura. Fujimori was also looking at her worriedly.
Speaking of which, Homura still hadn’t resolved the misunderstanding with Kanae Yuri who suspected Homura of being the one who threw a cup at her while she dozed. Currently, there was no sign of her or the true culprit Hayase-senpai anywhere in the dining hall.
Homura wanted to resolve the misunderstanding before the SA ended, but unbeknownst to her, a sticky situation that went beyond a mere prank soon awaited her.
The afternoon presentations started right on time.
At the back of the auditorium, there were now additional video cameras set up besides the ones originally there for record-keeping.
Just as Fujimori predicted, the VIP seats were now packed full, and additional unexpected visitors were made to watch while standing near the walls. This crowd further increased with the last-minute rush of people entering the hall. There were no journalists here from the start. That huge crowd was comprised solely of government and UN officials associated with Nutella.
“Now then, I suppose we should get started—”
Amidst the solemn atmosphere in the hall, Tenryuu casually jumped up on stage.
The gathering’s moderator Oozore tensed and watched him warily.
Paying no mind to his vice-president’s concern, Tenryuu spoke with the same relaxed atmosphere he’d displayed in the plane. First, he welcomed the newcomers in the audience as the Japanese Exploration Club representative, and then restated that the primary goal of this Summer Session was the mutual information exchange and mingling between Japanese investigators.
He went on to confirm that a period for listening to detailed questions and requests for ministry officials would be held later, before moving onto the main topic.
“—Now then, allow me to introduce the top batter for the afternoon, Seiran High club president Misasagi Mayo.”
Within the hall’s oppressive atmosphere that remained even after Tenryuu’s casual introduction, the presentation began.
The Seiran High Exploration Club members walked on stage.
Homura, who remained in her seat, looked at the stage in breathless suspense, as if she were the one standing up there. Ameno, who had also stayed behind next to her, leaned forward and watched the stage excitedly.
Misasagi-senpai slowly and gracefully walked on stage and went to stand at the podium in the center.
Touya sat down next to her and opened up a laptop. He was obviously stiff and nervous.
Fujimori-sensei, in her role as a mere advisor, sat further back from them. She sat slovenly as if she had come to watch a baseball game with a beer in one hand, her bad manners the same as in the classroom.
However, out of the corner of her eye, Homura noticed many people in the guest seats react to Fujimori-sensei’s entrance on stage. Some smiled as if seeing a familiar face while others frowned as if facing a formidable enemy, ranging equally from Japanese to foreign officials.
……Mori-chan really is well known, huh?
Homura then glanced at the Hiyoshizaka High group sitting next to her, but there was no sign of Kanae Yuri, who had kept her back turned to Homura all morning.
When her gaze met Hayase’s, he seemed to guess Homura’s question and merely said “she ran off” with a shrug.
No time was left for her to ask Hayase the reason for Kanae’s absence as senpai’s cute-sounding cough rang through the speakers all over the hall. Homura hurriedly returned her attention to the stage.
“I’m Misasagi from Seiran High—”
As Misasagi said that and bowed her head gracefully, she honestly looked small and slightly unreliable somehow to Homura’s eyes.
“I believe all club presidents have already been notified, but I will announce it once again here.
“On *** in Japanese time and *** of the third spring in Nutella time, investigators from Seiran High and Hiyoshizaka High encountered a Nutellan in *** area under Kanto jurisdiction within the *** continent under the Japanese branch’s sphere of activity—”
Excited cheers reflexively rang out among the audience at the first official report to come out of Misasagi’s mouth.
Those cheers were the reaction that Homura had long awaited.
—However, those cheers were sucked away into a still silence far more quickly than she’d imagined.
That was only natural, as virtually none of the upperclassmen in the audience had reacted to Misasagi’s speech.
The atmosphere was completely different from the other presentations until now. Even if they had already known about the contents of this presentation, this silence was still far too extreme.
Ameno looked around the hall in shock. One first year (Otomaru-kun) who had overeagerly stood up from his chair awkwardly sat back down.
…What’s with… this atmosphere…?
As feelings of confusion spread among others besides Homura, the last of the sparse cheers from first year students faded away. A strained atmosphere enveloped the hall that made the peaceful atmosphere from this morning seem like a lie.
Even as Misasagi continued her speech on stage, neither she nor Fujimori-sensei showed any sign of being shaken by this. Only Touya was glaring at the rest of the assembly hall with a disbelieving expression that was as plain as day.
Homura was just as bewildered as him.
It was true that this was an important announcement, but was it really something so delicate to touch upon that everyone would become this serious and treat any and all noisemaking as indiscreet? It made her all the more suspicious.
What is this…? It’s so weird…
Pulling herself together, Homura stared at Misasagi-senpai while clenching her hands in the face of this unfamiliar atmosphere.
It took Homura a while later to realize that senpai was speaking smoothly without her usual halting tone.
“—This Nutellan called herself ‘Subaru’. This is a Japanese name. It refers to the Pleiades in English. The name means ‘heavenly bodies’, coming from the phrase ‘The stars are Subaru’ in the Pillow Book3—”
The contents of the report involved events that Homura herself experienced, all of it still fresh in her mind.
The process from initial discovery to negotiations.
The distinctive outward traits of Nutellans. The conditions of their homes and lifestyle.
The exceedingly long lifespan of Nutellans.
The fact that Subaru-hime herself had lived in isolation for a long time.
The fact that it was possible for Nutellans to have children with Earthlings, and that Subaru-hime’s father had been a Japanese man from the Edo era. Etcetera, etcetera.
—All of these things were only summarized briefly, but the presentation contained and organized all the information that could currently be confirmed. Translations by interpreters were also conducted at the same time.
Included as well were conjectures based on Misasagi’s experience as an investigator that couldn’t yet be confirmed and information that they’d only heard second-hand through Subaru. Misasagi had made sure to warn the audience of this before speaking of them.
The photos that Homura had taken were displayed on the large screen.
One was taken on the day they’d gone to pick up Suzuran on Nutella.
It was more like a carefree snapshot than a proper record photo, clearly taken without any regard for keeping the picture level.
When the kimono-dressed Subaru-hime appeared standing beside a huge pure white wolf on screen, Homura could viscerally feel the breaths sucked in by everyone in the hall.
That was the reaction she’d been expecting and hoping for—
When she looked over the photo purely as a photographer, it was an awkward and embarrassing piece of photography, but it powerfully conveyed the deep impressions that had been carved into her heart on Nutella.
Homura and Touya’s names did not come up in the report.
The stranded child Suzuran who they’d encountered on Nutella was also simply introduced as a missing child of unknown age.
The only moment one of their names was directly brought up was regarding the subject of how Misasagi-senpai herself was related by blood to the Nutellan in question from long ago in her ancestry.
The Seiran High presentation was smoothly conducted.
At that point, Misasagi-senpai halted her speech for a moment.
Nagashino, who had seemed stiff and uncomfortable during the entire presentation, then announced that they would be starting a questions-and-answers session in a strained tone of voice.
Just as Homura expected, the entire hall was silent.
As everyone seemed to carefully scrutinize the information and cautiously examine each other’s attitudes, a single hand was raised and limply waved in the air.
“Go ahead, Nana-senpai—ah, I mean Nanakubo-san…”
As Nagashino turned red-faced at saying that nickname out of habit, a long-haired girl wearing headphones feebly stood up.
Behind her glasses was a slightly hard-looking gaze.
“I’m Nanakubo, a second year and low-ranking club member at Nagumo High. I’ve understood the gist of everything. So, I’d like to ask what Seiran High plans to do next.”
“Of course. First, we plan to, prioritize rebuilding, our base camp as, an urgent matter.”
…Senpai’s usual halting tone had returned.
“We’ve already contacted, the UNPIEP headquarters to request, the construction of a new, Transport Ring.”
“So you’re waiting for them to issue you one of Dr. Chandra’s transport keys, huh? Then that means you still haven’t settled on a location to set up a base nearest to the Nutellan. Then let me ask about your plans after that. What do the second and first year members of Seiran High’s club think? Do you have a vision for your future investigations? Or do you plan to stop exploring new unknown regions and shift to focusing on cultural exchange?”
“I don’t think that’s, something we should decide, by ourselves yet.”
“Ah, is that so? But, after all, you can’t say that it’s fair and impartial for an investigator who’s related to the Nutellan in question to be in charge of investigating her. It’d make things difficult if something inconvenient happened with the Nutellan, right?”
“N-Nanakubo-san, if you have more than one question, please sit down and wait your turn again later.”
“I’m just asking what everyone else is already thinking, though?”
Nanakubo coolly ignored Nagashino’s warning.
Unable to let this insolence pass, Oozore reprimanded him further.
“What are you trying to do, Nanakubo? Do you have no intention of cooperating with the moderators of this assembly?”
“Aren’t you the one who most wants probe into this subject, Oozore-san?”
“That’s a separate matter entirely.”
There was a short silence.
As Oozore stared at her with sternly pursed lips, Nanakubo eventually gave in to the pressure and sat down disagreeably.
That short exchange between Nanakubo and Oozore seemed to reflected the internal discord within Nagumo High’s club, the pressure enough to give a third party like Homura a cold sweat.
However, Homura noticed that, as Nanakubo stared at Oozore like a petulant child after surrendering in the face of the vice-president’s pressure, her expression contained more than simple rebelliousness; there was also a hint of expectation.
What kind of effect would a demonstration showing how club members couldn’t be controlled by the moderators in front of government officials have on everyone present…? Homura still hadn’t thought that far, though.
For a while, no hands were raised, as if to support Nanakubo’s words, but eventually one person tentatively raised their arm.
After being given permission by the moderators, a slender female student with slopped shoulders stood up.
“I’m Shiragiku, the Kanazawa Asano High club president. I have a proposal regarding the investigation centered around the Nutellan from now on. I’d like to ask that you accept representatives from every school to join in on the investigation.”
“Of course. For that, too, the increase of, Transport Rings, and a secure base, will be necessary.”
Misasagi reflexively agreed to the proposal, but that discussion was a still bit too far ahead to be settled on right now.
The moderating aid Nagashino promptly asked for that bit to be stricken from the record and warned the questioner.
“President Shiragiku, please leave any concrete requests for the club president meeting later tonight. Please limit yourself to basic questions for now.”
“Then, what I wish to say is… I and the other members of the Kanazawa Asano Exploration Club want to directly meet this Nutellan.”
Nagashino inadvertently turned speechless. Nods of agreement spread throughout the hall.
Bewildered, Touya turned around questioningly, but the advisor Fujimori kept her arms folded behind her head and reclined in her chair with no change.
It seemed that she had no intention of interjecting.
At this point, Homura’s expectations had been completely overturned.
At first, she’d just thought that the profile of an inhabitant of another word, the Nutellan Subaru-hime, would garner interest and excitement. Like a movie actress or a famous celebrity.
Misasagi-senpai had explained the basics of her and her situation, but that was merely a summary, nowhere near enough to satisfy everyone’s curiosity.
In the first place, Homura had yet to interact enough with Subaru-hime to her own satisfaction either.
The woman who Suzuran called Hime and had lived a life of solitude for a thousand years.
“Now, now, wait a bit. I understand everyone’s feelings of dissatisfaction, but there’s no point in reproducing the snatching competition between major powers from before the Antarctic Treaty here.”
Tenryuu stepped forward to intercede.
However, at that moment, accompanied by a huge sneeze—
“Achoo… It’s not pointless! Keeping quiet here is the same as losing!”
A voice that Homura recognized rang out through the hall from the back.
Whispers of “Who’s that?” and “I can’t see” echoed through the hall.
A short-statured girl pushed her way through the crowd of people standing at the back of the hall and spoke up again as she stood atop one of the backmost audience seats.
“You guys, even if she stole a march on you all, try to tone down your jealousy of Mayo, all right?”
Homura gasped. That was definitely Inari Sunao. Wearing the Seiran High uniform for the first time since Homura had met her, Inari continued to walk over the audience desks.
“First of all, get down from the desk, Inari,” warned Oozore.
“I only climbed up because they said they couldn’t see me!”
She casually jumped down to the audience aisle and calmly headed to the stage, many voices calling out from behind at the sight of her familiar small back.
“You’re late, idiot!”
“What did you come here for, you shorty fox!?”
“Is she a child that got lost from her elementary school field trip?”
“Someone call the zoo caretakers. A special natural souvenir ran away!”
…Those were the kinds of merciless comments that came her way. Nanakubo visibly clicked her tongue. However, Homura felt like there was affectionate warmth and happy surprise contained within each of those voices.
Misasagi unconsciously slipped out her name while standing frozen on the stage.
The dumbfounded Nagashino finally managed to speak up.
“Seiran High’s Inari-san… correct? Have you returned to the club? Actually, are your injuries all right now?”
“Can I borrow a tiepin mike? I’m tired of yelling at these guys.”
Overpowered by Inari’s intensity, Nagashino hurriedly handed her a spare mike.
“Umm, just to confirm, Inari-senpai, this is technically a nationally classified meeting, so do you have p-permission to be here—?”
“I called her here,” Fujimori announced.
In Inari’s lightly raised hand was a guest ID card of a different color than those belonging to investigators.
“Welcome back, Inari—however, we’re in the middle of Misasagi’s presentation right now.”
Tenryuu spoke to Inari in a cool voice.
Inari glared harshly at Tenryuu.
“Tenryuu… whose representative are you? The representative all the investigators here? Or are you just a cheap signboard hung up by the adults? Am I wrong?”
And then Inari turned to stare at Misasagi-senpai next. Misasagi was staring down at the manuscript in her hands with her lips tightly pursed.
—Homura could have sworn she heard Inari quietly murmur that single entreating word that only reached up on stage
Holding the offered mike between her fingers, Inari, despite her earlier words, then began to shout in a resounding voice at the entire hall.
“In the end, do you people simply not want to make waves? That’s just doing what the adults tell you. Just what did all you come here from all over Japan for?”
Glaring challengingly at Tenryuu, Oozore and the entire assembly hall in turn, Inari then turned to her gaze to Touya beside her.
“All right! Touya, lend me that Q&A summary! And Homura! Why the heck are you sitting over there while I’m standing here? Come on over!”
Homura stood up with a start, causing all eyes to gather upon her.
“Kuku, when that’s girl’s present, the only thing you can do is resolve yourself and give in.”
Kamikoma laughed and pushed the bewildered Homura’s back with a slap.
“In that case, I should also go on stage, right? Right?”
Unable to wait any longer, Ameno pushed Homura from behind and accompanied her to the stage.
As Homura timidly walked onto the stage, Inari spoke while looking straight at her.
“You’re an investigator, aren’t you, Homura? You went to Nutella. You weren’t made to go there. You went there with your own two feet! You can talk about all your hardships and painful experiences on Nutella here. Everyone wants to hear it.”
“Eeh, but recounting my hardships is a bit… And besides, I didn’t prepare any manuscript to read off of!”
“What, you need something like that?”
“I have it.”
This time Misasagi-senpai interjected. Her expression was still a bit sullen.
“—I also, prepared a, manuscript for, you too, Hinooka-san.”
Just when did she make that…? As Homura stood there dumbfounded, Inari passed her and stood before Misasagi.
“Like I thought. This is the real one, right…? Geez…”
Inari took the manuscript from the silent Misasagi’s hands—though she did stubbornly resist handing it over a little at first—and then Inari pushed the papers onto Homura along with the mike.
—It contained the record of Hinooka Homura and Touya Takumi’s adventure, which had been omitted from the earlier announcement.
This was the account they had told to Misasagi and Ameno after they safely returned to the club building on Earth. They had talked together all night long after school hours, eating the tea cakes on the desk as they talked and adding in jokes every once in a while.
It was an unorganized account full of derailments, which was why they had hesitated to add it to the club president’s log, and yet Misasagi-senpai had written it all down with great care.
“Eh… Eeeh… Err… T-T-T-Touya-kun…?”
Homura was utterly flustered, uncertain where to begin from as she was bathed in the audience’s eager expectations.
Even when looked to Touya for help, he appeared greatly perplexed himself as he looked back at her.
“Sorry, Hinooka… If you give up at some point, I’ll switch with you partway through.”
“I give up.”
“Well, do your best.”
—On the other hand, the moderating assistant Nagashino also looked at a loss as she turned to seek instructions from the people in charge of the meeting, but Oozore was just looking up at the ceiling at this point and Tenryuu merely shrugged with a grin.
“I-Is this really all right? …In that case, please continue with the presentation…”
Still full of uncertainty, Nagashino hugged her stomach from the stress.
Chapter 5 END
(1) Ernest Thompson Seton: famous American author and wildlife artist. In Japan, his works as a whole are referred to as the “Seton Wildlife Chronicles”.
(2) In this sentence, Homura uses a piece of Okinawan slang, which roughly as “things will work out somehow”, but the exact meaning is a bit too complex to properly express in the English language in a single sentence, so the translation here has been unfortunately dumbed down to make sense in this context.
(3) The Pillow Book is a book of observations and musings recorded by Sei Shōnagon during her time as court lady to Empress Consort Teishi during the 990s and early 1000s in Heian Japan.