Even after that tumultuous announcement, the meeting continued on with the presentation from other schools.
A lot of the first years were left bewildered by it, but the senior club members kept going normally as if that dispute had been an expected part of the program.
During the brief break after Seiran High’s presentation, Fujimori-sensei and Misasagi-senpai left the hall and went to a separate meeting room along with the advisor for Nagumo High’s club. Most of the visitors who had flooded into the hall during the afternoon session also headed over there.
According to Ameno, they were resuming the report on the encounter with the Nutellan in more detail over there.
Homura, Touya, Ameno and Inari were left out of this part of the report and remained behind in the auditorium.
Homura felt guilty towards the other school clubs doing their presentations since the gallery had shrunk considerably, but that was apparently needless worry on her part.
In fact, the remaining presentations were even more animated and excited than before, like a class left to self-study. It was almost as if they had taken no notice of the VIP seats from the start.
When the applause was delivered for the final presentation by Tazatani High, it was time for the ending speech, and Oozore respectfully called the name of the final speaker.
“Please welcome the chairman of the Imaginary Earth Task Force Committee, Member of the Diet and the House of Councillors, Councillor Misasagi Yoshihiro.”
A man with grizzled hair wearing a suit stood up and headed to the stage while walking with a cane.
Now that Homura thought of it, that man had been sitting in the most conspicuous seat in the VIP seats, yet had quietly watched the presentations without interjecting a single time.
“D-Diet member? And… Misasagi!?”
Touya nodded, his eyes clearly saying, “That’s right. What are you asking at this late hour?”
As Homura was still having trouble believing it, Inari quietly spoke up next to her in Kanae’s empty seat while gazing at the stage with her chin resting on her hand.
“…He’s Mayo’s father. Though he is comparatively old for a parent.”
“Have you met him before?”
“Yeah, a few times. He came to last year’s SA too.”
Just what have I done in front of such an important person? Homura agonized as she gripped her head. Moreover, Misasagi-senpai’s father? —And by Diet member, you mean the National Diet!?
That meant that he was also distantly related to Subaru-hime like Misasagi-senpai…
As Homura’s mind was in chaos, her eyes were captured by that tall man.
Leaning his cane against the podium and standing dignifiedly on stage, Councillor Misasagi quietly looked over the auditorium.
He had mysterious eyes that seemed to naturally pull in the gazes of the gathered students.
Homura even felt like his gaze had crossed hers in particular for an instant.
“I’m happy to be reunited with all you Nutellan investigators once again this year.”
He spoke before the silent audience.
His voice rang out pleasantly like a bow string.
“For us adults, to have you all go to the far off land of Nutella, where there is no guarantee of safety and where no protection can reach you, and have you come back without losing any lives and tell us your on-site reports is our joy. Every one of your smiles is our pride.”
The gazes of every single club member were fixed on the councillor.
Koma-senpai, Taga-senpai, Nagashino-senpai with her tablet gripped in her hands, Oozore who stood at attention, Nanakubo who’d been chewing gum with her hands behind her head, and even Tenryuu who’d been leaning back in his chair the whole meeting corrected their postures and were listening attentively with their arms crossed.
Only Inari was slouching idly with one arm propped up against her desk next to Homura. It did suit her position as a sudden intruder, though.
However, her eyes weren’t focused on Misasagi-senpai’s father, or even the scenery outside the windows. Rather, her gaze was fixed on the side profile of Tenryuu who she’d vehemently argued with earlier.
Though Homura’s curiosity was piqued by this, her attention naturally returned to the councillor’s speech which pleased the ears.
“—I’ll leave the boring greetings at that. I’ll have time to talk with the club presidents and third years from every club later. Please look forward to it and wait until then.
“I have two announcements to make here that I’d like all investigators to take to heart.
“First, this isn’t public outside of this assembly, but the current government is reforming the register of cabinet ministers. In other words, the heads of each Japanese ministry will be changed over to newly appointed ministers.
“Additionally, the passing of the bill that was previously still in deliberation in the Diet is now almost certain to be approved, and both Houses of Parliament have begun to fine tune it in preparation for the establishment of the new administration. The “Nutellan Development Bureau” will be launched as an external bureau within the Cabinet Office by the end of the year. You could say that our nation’s Nutellan exploration efforts have reached a new stage.”
The Nutellan Development Bureau—it sounded like a boorish name, but even Homura could understand the change in mood as many club members leaned forward all at once. It was an omen of something new starting, like a long-awaited hit-number that’s finally played at a previously unstirring concert.
“The founding of this bureau follows the trend of similar institutions in the United States, The People’s Republic of China and the Republic of India. Though it may be presumptuous of me to say this, current prospects indicate that I will be the one inaugurated as the first director of this bureau.”
The councillor bowed his head at the ensuing applause.
“Thank you very much. It’s been a long road to get here. Though I say that, I myself have never set foot on Nutella. This is all due to the hard work and trailblazing by all you investigators until now, and thanks to representatives Tenryuu-kun and Oozore-kun’s help. I will strive to build up a position that will allow us adults to provide backup to all of you more quickly and effectively.”
Oozore silently bowed in gratitude at the praise. However, right as Tenryuu was about to cut loose and speak shamelessly again in the seat next to him, he folded his arms with his head oddly tilted in puzzlement.
“I have another even more joyous announcement.
“The UNPIEP Japanese Branch will be welcoming a new Exploration Club. Sendai Aoba High’s Kazuma-kun and Ishinomaki Kanan High’s Fukuda-san, if you two could please come up—”
Two students stood up in response to the councillor’s call. They were a boy and girl who’d been introduced among the reserve members earlier.
The two of them walked to the stage and moved to stand next to the councillor.
“As Oozore-kun mentioned earlier, they have acted as reserve club members until now by temporarily transferring to Hiyoshizaka High’s club.
“While also participating in Hiyoshizaka High’s investigations, the two of them independently travelled three thousand kilometers on foot and secured a bridgehead for constructing a new base camp at a site that corresponds to the Sendai district on Nutella.
“At first, the two of them will form their own Exploration Club with Kazuma-kun as the first club president and Fukuda-san transferring over from Ishinomaki, but preparations have already been made to bring in new members starting from the beginning of the next school year.
“According to survey results, there are currently seven confirmed soon-to-graduate middle school students in the area around Sendai who have cleared the necessary IE Response conditions and have expressed a desire to join the Exploration Club in the future. The new club’s future tentatively looks promising.
“Thanks to this, we can also expect that the exploration of the Nutellan region that corresponds to the Tohoku region in Japan, which until now has been limited to long-distance expeditions by Hiyoshizaka High, Ecchuu Takaoka Industrial Arts School and Seiran High’s clubs, will progress much more smoothly and quickly now.”
Another bout of applause naturally arose from the audience.
The two students seemed to be a third year and second year respectively. In other words, the male student who was announced to become the first club president would be graduating before they would be welcoming in new members next year.
Though clearly nervous, the two of them still looked over the auditorium with pride in their gazes.
Their smiles were directed at the Hiyoshizaka High seats.
Kamikoma-senpai, who sat in the middle of the Hiyoshizaka group, was moved to the verge of tears. Her frivolous mouth which had teased Touya earlier had completely disappeared, as hot tears rolled down her cheeks.
Kamikoma clapped in applause herself even as she frequently wiped away tears with the palms of her hands. Her expression contained a mix of pride and loneliness that Homura had never seen from her before.
Taga looked down concernedly at Kamikoma in the seat next to her.
Just before the two Sendai region students left the stage, they bowed their heads and thanked both the councillor and all the members of the Hiyoshizaka High club.
After the applause died down, the councillor turned a hawk-like virile smile at the audience and resumed his speech.
“I heard about the wonderful fruits of many clubs’ labors over the course of the presentations here today. However, what are truly irreplaceable are everyone’s failures. Failure is your treasure and the true shining fruit of your labors. To fail and make a mistake is embarrassing, pains your heart, and trips you up. Even if you look back on it many years later, you can’t beautify or glorify it. Most fortunately, there has yet to be any casualties among the Japanese Exploration Club members. However, there is sure to come a time where we must pay the price for that. There are always failures where there are challenges. At that time, how will we face those sacrifices—? That will be shown by us adults’ and all of your attitudes in the face of every day challenges and failures.”
When the assembly’s program for the day ended, many club members from other schools came over to talk to Inari.
However, Inari didn’t respond to her old acquaintances and immediately left the auditorium at a quick pace.
“H-Hey, wait, Inari-senpai—”
Homura hurriedly chased after her. It was like déjà-vu.
“Are you shy after being gone so long?” Teasing voices like that called out from behind, but Homura, who knew of Inari’s wild side that didn’t stop once she got started, only felt uneasy.
After managing to catch up to her in the hallway, Homura desperately tried to keep her from going off.
“Senpai, where are you going?”
“What, but you just got here!”
“I didn’t come here to sightsee. My job is over. I was asked to come here as a helper from Seiran, in order to give you unreliable first years the push you needed.”
As the two of them continued walking even as they conversed, Touya and Ameno also caught up to them.
Ameno’s eyes widened in surprise and interest at a certain part of Inari’s words just now.
“Job? Does that mean that there was some deal between you and Chiayu-san? What was it? Money!? How much did she promise!?”
“Ah, you’re so noisy. Shut her up, Touya!”
“There are no boats leaving the island at this hour, you know?”
Since that request was too much for him, Touya simply stated the truth instead.
“I’ll walk then.”
“Walk!?” Homura shouted in shock.
Ameno helpfully added, “True, there is a path through the forest to Nakama Port.”
That wasn’t exactly the point, Ameno.
“E-Even so, it’s too reckless to leave when it’s already night! Actually, if you hate being here so much, why did you come in the first place—?”
“The diner at the cafeteria is native Okinawan cuisine, you know?”
Homura and Ameno clung to either side of Inari as they tried to change her mind.
Just as Inari was about to shout in irritation, a foreign UNPIEP official poked his head out from a door and shushed them with a finger to his lips.
They were in front of one of the conference rooms.
From beyond the partially opened door, Misasagi-senpai and Fujimori-senpai could be seen sitting on stage and facing many officials in the audience along with the advisor from Nagumo High, who also acted as the administrative representative of the UNPIEP Japanese Branch.
They were continuing the report on the encounter with the Nutellan.
Even from that brief peek through the door, the question and answer session was clearly heated. It was definitely not the kind of atmosphere you could lightly barge into.
Inari and Homura suddenly stopped there and looked inside the room for a little while.
Moving her hand from Inari’s shoulder to her arm, Homura let out a sigh before turning to plead with her.
“…At least go and talk with Misasagi-senpai.”
“Don’t wanna. There’s nothing for us to talk about anyway. I only reluctantly came here because Mori-chan called me; it’s not like I came to meet Mayo.”
“You’re still saying that after coming all this way…?”
Inari resumed walking.
When they stepped through the front entrance of the lodging house, the sky of the southern island was dyed a deep red in sunset.
Inari shook off Homura and Ameno’s hands and spoke angrily.
“I have no intention of staying the night here. If there’s no ferry leaving the island at this hour, I’ll just go to a hotel over at the harbor.”
“That’s on the opposite end of the island, you know? Are you planning to cross through the jungle at night!?”
Inari glared at Homura with a sour look that screamed “Got a problem with that?”, but then her expression eased with a sigh.
“I can’t stand being here after sticking around for those presentations.”
Inari’s expression suddenly turned serious and she gazed at Homura and Touya.
The setting sunlight illuminated the side of her face.
“You probably thought that all the guys from other schools who presented on stage were cool, right? They looked like they were fulfilling important tasks that no one else could do, right?”
Homura could only nod in agreement.
“But… didn’t you also help, senpai?”
“I admit that it doesn’t feel bad to victoriously stand on that kind of stage and be praised and applauded. But it’s not like any of us are special and chosen humans, though. When you’re thrown onto Nutella, everyone is forced to do what they can. You can’t survive there without doing that.”
“…You’re trying to say it’s like a cult where everyone monitors each other and doesn’t allow anyone to steal a march on the others?” asked Touya quietly.
“That’s right! Touya, you’ve already vaguely noticed it, haven’t you? …They use slogans like ‘honest hard work to be of use to others’ and ‘clearing the path for the future’ because they’re easy for people to understand. You can’t even call that volunteerism; it’s just instinctually following along like worker ants. It’s not a path that you chose for yourself.”
“B-But isn’t the work done by the Exploration Club a splendid thing?”
Homura would never forget Koma-senpai’s proud smile and tears earlier.
“Yeah, it’s splendid and all that, great exploits that go above and beyond what’s expected of high schoolers. But you’ll never reach the bait that’s dangled in front of your eyes. No matter how much you frantically work over the course of three years, nothing is left for you afterwards!”
After spitting out those words, Inari turned towards the forest and swiftly walked off.
“Wait! Touya-kun, help us stop her. It’s almost night time.”
“Even if you say that… That Kintaro girl seems like she could take on even five or ten pit vipers, you know?”
“This isn’t the time to be joking around!”
“That’s right. Please wait, Sunao-san!”
As Inari was getting further and further away, Ameno shouted out to her and ran to catch up to her.
Ameno seemed to intend to change her mind. She took out something from her handbag and fervently spoke to Inari.
However, after less than a minute of talking, she walked back to Homura and Touya.
Ameno returned with quite a pleased look on her face, while Homura looked at her in shock.
“…What happened, Ame-chan?”
“She said ‘Thanks, I’m very much indebted to you’ to me!”
“I was worried that she wouldn’t be able to see her footing on the forest path in the dark, so I gave her the flashlight, first-aid kit and bottled water I was carrying with me just in case!”
Ameno smiled and blushed proudly.
“I said stop her, not encourage her to leave even more!”
“…Geez, it can’t be helped.”
Touya scratched the back of his head and began walking while confirming the time on his terminal.
“Hinooka, Ameno, you guys head on back. I’ll take care of Inari-senpai somehow.”
“I’ll go too…” protested Homura.
“It’s fine. I can’t have you guys participating in some strange contest of stubbornness too. Go back and inform Mori-chan.”
“W-What about dinner? The wonderful Okinawan cuisine dinner!?”
Touya didn’t respond to Homura as he walked away, and after he confirmed that his terminal’s flashlight function was working he held it out above his head to illuminate his path and disappeared into the forest.
“It’ll be fine if we leave things to Takumi-san. As long as he has his terminal, he can communicate with us anywhere on the island.”
Back at the lodging house’s dining hall once again.
In the end, Homura and Ameno ate dinner by themselves.
Naturally, since Ameno couldn’t eat, Homura ended up being the only one eating.
Even though it was the first day of the SA presentations, it was quite a lonely dinner.
Even the variety of local dishes tasted dull when she was eating by herself…
Outside the windows was the dark forest, illuminated by the half-moon and the lights of boats and freighters that flickered on the horizon.
Ameno was innocently peering at Homura’s dishes from the seat across from her. Before sitting down, she had plugged in a power cable and adapter into a nearby wall socket and inserted the other end inside her parka.
“That’s to recharge your battery, right, Ame-chan? Kinda like your version of a meal, I guess? I haven’t seen you do it before at the club building, though.”
“Ah, yeah. For normal everyday activities, it’s enough for me to just recharge at night at Chiayu-san’s room or my home at the research laboratory.”
The battery charge indicator on the adapter was still less than 50% full.
“Hmm, so you take one meal per day, basically. There’s no way I could do that… Does Okinawan electricity taste different from what you’re used to? What’s it like?”
“Yes… it’s quite unique. It’s powerful, but also tastes rough, perhaps because a lot of power is being used simultaneously throughout this facility tonight. It tastes different from the smoothness of mainland electricity. You want to give it a taste too, Homura-san?”
Saying that, Ameno took out the white triangular cable port from her parka.
“No, no, no, that might be a bit too stimulating for me.”
Ameno appeared to recharge through a conductive point on the skin of her abdomen by sticking the cable port against it.
“Ah, but I’ll be switching to a special high capacity, metal–air battery1 when on Nutella, so I’ll be able to be active for much longer over there, you know?”
“But won’t the battery break if you bring it to Nutella? During a lot of the presentations today, they were talking about how things would be much easier if they could use electricity over there.”
“It apparently took five years for researchers to clear the issue of the battery breaking. At the moment, the only ones they’ve managed to make work are batteries used by Nutellan probe units that are equipped with autonomous light circuitry like me.”
Ameno puffed up her chest proudly.
“Only you, Ame-chan? Just how does that work?”
“If you’re interested in the details, you should visit the Honba Institute. The development chief also seemed to be interested in you, Homura-san.”
“The Honba Institute is your home, right, Ame-chan? …Wait, the development chief is interested in me?”
Ameno nodded. “According to Chiayu-san, that is,” she added with a wry smile.
Ameno stuck her hand under her parka and reaffixed the cable port.
“Back on topic, though, I still have to take occasional ‘snacks’ during the day at public cordless recharge areas, the kind that you and everyone else use for your devices without normally being conscious of it.”
“You mean those things with an electricity mark sticker attached, like at coffee shops, train seats and bus stop benches?”
“Yes. I put my hand over it like this. Though it’s a bit bad manners.”
Ameno put her hand on the desk with her middle and fourth fingers opened outwards to form a V-shape.
Homura nodded in interest.
Since such areas were present all over the city, Homura had never experienced having her portable devices run out of battery herself. As long as she didn’t leave them lying around forgotten and unused for too long, that is.
So she really only became conscious of the act of charging at obvious places like the parking areas for electric bicycles.
“The most delicious kind is the electric vehicle lane at gas stands. I’m addicted to that thick and gorgeous taste… Though I haven’t had much chance to visit them recently when Chiayu-san refuels her car due to the growing trend towards fuel cell vehicles…”
Ameno was absorbed in ecstatically recalling the taste, but then looked around the table in thought.
“But, you know, everyone really is late. At this rate, the president and Chiayu-san will be heading straight for the club president meeting right after their presentation.”
“Eh, it’s already that late?”
True enough, it was almost the scheduled time for the club president meeting centered around third years with official posts in their clubs.
“Touya-kun and Inari-senpai aren’t back yet either. Geez… Just what are those two doing out there?”
“…Are you interested?”
“What’s with those eyes?”
After that uneasy dinner, Homura left the dining hall and went to look around the lodging house.
Most Exploration Club members seemed to have returned to their rooms, leaving the hallways silent.
Not in the mood to return to her own room yet, Homura just wandered around aimlessly.
“If it isn’t Hinooka. Are you alone? Where’s Touya?”
The person who called out to her was Otomaru from Kanazawa Asano High.
Accompanying him was Himekawa from Tomakomai Denpa High.
“Good evening, Hinooka-san.”
Homura felt relived at seeing some familiar faces.
“Good evening, you two. As for Touya-kun, he went out a little while ago.”
“Went out? At this hour? Why?”
Homura explained how Touya had gone to chase after Inari.
It was next to impossible for her to properly explain Inari’s extremely willful actions while hiding the complicated circumstances within their club without making Inari seem like she had a completely bankrupt personality, so Himekawa and Otomaru weren’t able to fully grasp it.
“Why are you two walking together? Club business?”
“No, we merely happened to run into each other just now.”
“We were bored since we can’t attend the club president meeting.”
“There are no workshops at this hour either. But still, it’s a bit strange. It’s like I was just suddenly thrown out,” said Himekawa.
“Yeah, same for me. I was left behind with Iguchi-san by everyone else. All the senpai seem to have gone to the baths, though.”
Iguchi was a first year at Kanazawa Asano High and a female member in the same club as Otomaru. The same thing apparently happened to Otomaru as Himekawa. Homura sighed and grumbled out loud.
“The circumstances are a bit different, but I’m also alone after the others left in ones and twos. Suddenly, there was no one else besides me… It’s kinda lonely…”
“I heard that they’re selling flat lemon ice cream at a stand at the café area, so why don’t you come join me, Hinooka-san? Otomaru-kun too.”
Homura nodded without hesitation. Otomaru also had no reason to decline.
As they walked, Himekawa timidly questioned Homura.
“By the way, Hinooka-san, where’s Ame-chan?”
“Ame-chan? She had to attend the club president meeting for some reason and went to join up with Mori-chan. That’s why I’m alone now.”
“Is that so? What a shame… Truly a shame…”
Seeming to resolve herself over something, Himekawa turned to face Homura again.
“Hinooka-san, would you mind if I came over to the Seiran High girls’ room tonight?”
“Oh? You mean you want to stay the night with us?”
Otomaru spoke up to answer Homura’s question.
“Well, it’s not that unusual, since all the rooms are divided between boys and girls. I’m also freeloading at the Tomakomai Denpa room. Though, it seems a bit redundant to worry about separating by gender here when we already sleep together in a huddle on Nutella. Ah, but aren’t you staying at the room for my club’s girls?”
“I’ve already talked it over with the Kanazawa Asano club president Shiragiku. Since this is a rare chance to interact with other clubs, I’ll be staying at a different school’s female room each night. We’re keeping it a secret from the teachers, though.”
“Ah… So that’s your plan to capture female friends, Himekawa-san!? Of course you can come over to our room, no problem. We have plenty of extra bed mats.”
“Thank you very much, Hinooka-san. I’m still in the middle of executing the plan. Please inform president Misasagi about it as well.”
“Yeah, got it.” Homura happily nodded, having regained her cheerfulness from earlier.
“Heeh, that sounds like fun,” remarked Otomaru.
“Otomaru-kun, if you get fed up with the boys from my Tomakomai Denpa club, feel free to escape to some other school’s room.”
“No, it’s fine. It’s plenty of fun as it is… Anyway, do you really have to be so harsh towards your male senpai all the time?”
“Is there anything wrong with that?”
“You know they talk about you like some kind of demon god who causes red snow to fall when you get angry, right? They told me a lot of stories—like how one time when your folded underwear was just five milimeters out of place, all meat disappeared from their stew, leaving something like a bowl of dissolved colors in water—and how you discovered a film roll that was unaccounted for in your photo records and proceeded to lock them out of the camp during a blizzard at night until they honestly confessed what pictures it contained.”
“All of those stories are true, though.”
Not wanting to be beaten, Otomaru also recounted his own miserable tales of hardship in his club.
After conversing with each other for a while, the three of them grew worried at how late Touya and Inari were in returning. Eventually, they decided to put off the visit to the café area and headed to the lodging house’s entrance hall to see if they had arrived yet.
At that point, a voice called out to them from the landing stairs above them.
“Hey, wait! Yeah, you guys down there!”
A tomboyish female upperclassman came sliding down the handrail on her skirt.
“There you are, Himekawa. And you other first years too.”
The one who had called them to a stop was a second year female member from Nagumo High, Nanakubo. It was easy to recognize her thanks to her color frame glasses and multi-purpose headphones.
Homura reflexively called out her name, but Nanakubo glared at her in return.
“I’m not your senpai, ya know? Anyway, you’re all to come gather together at Ufara Beach. Don’t tell the teachers. There’ll be hell to pay if ya do. The gathering’s at 18:45. Equip for BP. And don’t be late.”
“Eh, why all of a sudden?”
“Shut up. Just be quiet and come. Otomaru, tell Iguchi too. Kuwazono… I met just before, so… Hinooka, you’re in charge of Touya. And tell that idiot Saho too, I can’t find him at all. Is he in the boys’ room?”
Though confused by Nanakubo’s fast-paced and impatient talking, Homura managed to stiffly nod. Ufara Beach was the name of a small beach not far away from the lodging house. But there was just one thing she didn’t understand.
“What does ‘Equip for BP’ mean?”
“Haah? Go ask Inari. I’m too busy right now. Geez, I hate pulling the short straw…”
“Umm, Touya-kun and Inari-senpai are…!”
However, before Homura could inform her of their absence, Nanakubo swiftly left and went off somewhere else.
At first Homura stiffened as she was about to reflexively chase after her, but then she stopped and slumped in resignation.
“Eh~, w-what was that all about~? I don’t get it at all~”
“BP probably stands for beach play, I think.”
“Beach play… then, ‘equip for BP’ means to change into swimsuits?”
Himekawa tilted her head uncertainly, not fully grasping the situation either.
“This late at night? But isn’t there already a workshop for going to a lagoon by boat tomorrow?”
“Hmm… Nanakubo-senpai is quite a strange person.”
“You’re one to talk, Himekawa,” Otomaru murmured with a wry smile, before turning serious again. “I find it hard to deal with those Nagumo High guys. They have a kinda of strained atmosphere about them, you know?”
“Yeah, me too…” agreed Homura.
During the question-and-answer session, they hadn’t left a good impression on Homura either. That “hard to deal with” impression seemed to be gradually turning into “scary” as well.
“Is that so?” Himekawa candidly asked. “But Nanakubo-senpai remembered all our names, didn’t she?”
Homura couldn’t help but wonder in admiration whether Himekawa had nerves of steel or was simply thick-headed.
“I guess we have no choice but to follow her orders… But the fact that only the first years are being secretly called there gives me a really bad feeling…”
Faced with such an ominous order, Homura was filled with anxiety. To think that the trip to the beach she’d been looking forward to so much would happen under such concerning circumstances…
Despite their worries, the three of them decided to resume heading to the entrance for now.
It was at that moment that, with truly perfect timing, the two people they’d been looking forward returned to the lodging house.
Shocked by Inari and Touya’s ghastly appearance, Homura completely forgot about Nanakubo’s message. She ran over to the two of them.
“W-What happened to you two!?”
“Hmph! Nothing at all!!”
Inari passed by Homura and entered the lodging while dripping muddy water in her wake. There were fern branches and even vines from pea plants entwined in her hair.
Touya followed next. Behind him were two security guards belonging to the UNPIEP Japanese Branch who’d been out on patrol outside the lodging house, as well as a suspicious-looking man wearing a (torn-up) camouflage-type camera jacket.
The last man was also drenched in mud from head to toe and was being dragged along by the security guards on either side of him.
“You’ll be paying—for the laundry charges!”
Unable to contain her anger, Inari turned around and retraced her steps with a dash, and then delivered a flying kick to the man’s back.
A pathetic croak-like groan escaped from the man’s lungs.
“You damn disgrace of a journalist!”
“S-Senpai, Seiran High is assigned to room 214! Here’s the room key…!”
After returning to the entrance, Inari swiped the offered key card from Homura and walked off with loud, angry footsteps.
“Just what on Earth happened…?”
Still, Inari didn’t seem to have any injuries. In fact, she appeared to have an excess of energy, even.
After watching the suspicious man being carried away, Touya walked over towards the shocked Homura and the others.
“Sorry for being late, Hinooka. Man, am I hungry right now.”
“Sorry for eating before you guys came back… But seriously, what happened?”
Homura peered at Touya’s mud-covered face, to which he smiled bitterly as he took off his dirtied glasses.
“Well, we ran into the so-called paparazzi, a cameraman who was taking clandestine photos to get a scoop.”
“We accidentally caught sight of him as he was hiding in the forest and trying to escape—”
Touya recounted what happened—
Touya, who had ran to catch up to Inari on the forest path, had gotten into an argument with her in the middle of the forest.
After they had continued walking while arguing with each other for a while, Inari had noticed a sound among the trees and bushes not far off the path. Inari was certain that it wasn’t the sound of a wild animal’s footsteps.
Since it was sure to be dangerous either way, Touya had used his terminal to call the security guards to let them handle it. However, Inari had plunged into the thicket by herself before they arrived.
With no other choice, Touya had followed after her.
It turned out that the source of the noise was an unauthorized trespasser, who seemed unexperienced with the jungle as he awkwardly tried to run away, and Touya and Inari had ended up chasing him deep into the forest, and when they finally caught him, they ended up tumbling down a muddy slope together.
“So you captured him…? By yourselves?”
“Amazing! You deserve a medal for this, Touya,” said Otomaru excitedly.
“No, no, no, that was extremely rash, you know!? How could you be so reckless!? Are you okay…? You don’t have any injuries?”
Homura tried to wipe away the mud on Touya’s face with a handkerchief, but Touya annoyingly swatted her hand away as he scowled in frustration.
“No, it’s no good. We were already too late.”
Homura was confused, unable to grasp the meaning of Touya’s words.
“…Ah, Touya-kun’s right.”
Upon hearing the phrase ‘clandestine photos’, Himekawa had immediately taken out her terminal and operated it to check something out, and now she murmured in a dispassionate tone.
“Leaked information has already started to spread through the Exploration Club watcher blogs. There’s been a huge explosion of hits on the keyword ‘Nutellan’. At this rate, top news organizations will soon be reporting on it too.”
Himekawa held out her terminal screen, which displayed an online search results list of news titles that were rapidly increasing in real time.
Homura was shocked.
Otomaru covered his face with his hand as he stared at the heavens. However, he immediately recovered and looked back towards Himekawa.
“—In other words, they beat us to the punch before the official UN announcement could be released. But even so, that’s not such a huge problem, right? The UNPIEP headquarters will probably announce the proper information immediately after learning of this—”
“Was text information the only thing that was leaked out? …What about videos and pictures?”
Himekawa’s tone was a bit more serious compared to Otomaru’s.
Touya merely shook his head.
“I don’t know that much. Right now, buyers might still be negotiating prices over it with the illegal news site that ignored the journalist news pact to leak this. Either way, it’s out of our hands now.”
Homura grasped her head in both hands as her mind failed to grasp the magnitude of what was happening.
“Ah, right. Now might not be the best time, but we’ve been summoned… Ugh, there’s not much time left, you know?”
Homura hurriedly explained things to Touya. Upon hearing about the mysterious call to gather to first years by Nanakubo, Touya unexpectedly said “Seems interesting” with a smile.
“But I’ll leave that to you, Hinooka.”
“Remember? I have to go attend the club president meeting. Ah, crap, it’s starting soon. Now’s not the time to be waiting for my clothes to dry here.”
At that, Otomaru and Himekawa nodded in understanding.
Only Homura stood there surprised.
“Hinooka… did you forget to properly listen again earlier? At the meeting, the usual rule is for each school’s club president, vice president and advisor to attend. Our club’s vice president is still undecided, but I’ll be filling in for the role today… We decided that, remember?”
“Was there a conversation like that? …Umm… but…”
“I have no idea what the whole summons is about, but it’s not like they’re going to eat you, you know? Have Ameno go with you.”
“But, but, Ame-chan also said that she has to attend the meeting. She was enthusiastically rambling something about ‘I’m the representative of the Honba Research Laboratory’s Nutellan probe units!’ today.”
“Ah, right.” Touya nodded as he recalled. Homura’s frown deepened even further.
“Umm~, it’s a bit discouraging having to go alone, you know~?”
“No problem, Hinooka-san. I’ve also resolved myself to go. Let’s go receive the hazing of our sports-minded hierarchical structured society together,” reassured Himekawa.
“I’ll be there too. That reminds me, I have to go call Iguchi soon or I’ll be in trouble—Anyway, good luck at the club president meeting, Touya!” declared Otomaru.
“Yeah. Tell us what happened at the meeting later.”
Himekawa and Otomaru each left to join up with the other first year members in their respective clubs.
Homura and Touya were the only ones left.
Touya tried to comfortingly place a hand on Homura’s shoulder, but she swiftly dodged out of the way. Even if he had dried by now, his hand was still covered in mud.
“Don’t worry, you won’t be alone,” said Touya, seeming happy.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Just bring along a certain second year student who still looks like a first year.”
Chapter 6 END
(1) Metal-air battery: a specialized battery that functions through a chemical reaction between an internal pure metal anode and an external cathode that draws in ambient air from the surrounding environment, allowing it to last much longer than a normal battery.