That night, along the path to the beach.
Homura and Inari were walking together down the sandy path to Ufara Beach.
Obeying Nanakubo’s warning, they had surreptitiously left the inn so as not to be discovered by the teachers, but there was no need to worry in that regard anyway since the club president meeting had already begun.
On the other hand, the fact that the summons had obviously been planned for when the teachers would be absent made Homura all the more uneasy.
Inari, wearing a two-piece swimsuit that snugly fit her body, muttered in complaint.
“What ‘Young mistress, I’ve brought you a change of clothes’!? This is a freaking swimsuit. And it’s a perfect fit, even!”
“Does it suit your tastes, young mistress?” asked Homura in a reverent tone.
“Just where did you get this anyway…?”
“It was quite the challenge.”
Just before Inari went off to take a shower in the bathroom adjoining the Seiran High room, she’d asked Homura to put her mud-covered uniform in the wash and prepare her a change of clothes.
The yukatas that had been prepared in the room were all for adults, too big even for Homura, let alone Inari. She could have borrowed one of Ameno’s jerseys, but they were a bit small and, most importantly, didn’t fit in with Homura’s plan, so she’d conveniently forgotten about them.
At that point, she’d had a flash of intuition and gone to see Saho Akiho.
After managing to catch up to him just as he was about to leave the lodging house, Homura made a request of him.
“You want to borrow a swimsuit? Sure, but why? …You’re not going wear it yourself, Hinooka-san?”
That was how Saho carelessly agreed to her request.
The matter of why exactly Saho had female swimsuits on hand was quite a serious issue, but Homura let the matter slide this time—including the question of why he had one in every size. In any case, the swimsuit he’d given her was a perfect fit for Inari. Most likely, he had prepared a swimsuit of this size for Kamikoma-senpai and Kanae Yuri.
Homura had also changed into her own swimsuit with a parka on top.
Presently, Inari continued to express her dissatisfaction.
“As if my help with the presentation wasn’t enough, now you’re making me tag along for this kind of diversion.”
“Now, now, don’t say that, senpai. You came all this way, so there’s no going back now. When you have bitter melons, you might as well make Chanpuru1.”
After Homura had changed into her swimsuit, she’d begged Inari to accompany her to Nanakubo’s gathering. Inari had just looked at Homura silently, and then switched her sandals for beach shoes and put on a cap even though it was night.
Then, with a long sigh, Inari had changed into a swimsuit with a sweater on top like Homura.
“Was there a gathering like this last year?”
“I see… Just what kind of surprise is waiting there…? Himekawa-san said it might be something like hazing, but…”
“…I can’t tell you anything now. You’ll understand right away once you get there.”
“Hey, do you not get along with Nanakubo-senpai or something?”
“You’re so noisy. Like I said, you’ll understand once you get there.”
After they walked through the forest along the coast for a while, the trees gradually cleared away and the sound of waves grew louder.
There was a faint figure standing further down the path ahead of them.
Considering the ruckus with the trespasser just before, Homura instinctively tensed, but the person’s identity soon became clear.
The flashlight in Inari’s hand illuminated their face.
“Well, if it isn’t Hayashi-kun.”
Ahead of them and walking in the same direction were Hayashi and Kanae Yuri from Hiyoshizaka High.
Their destination was clearly the same.
However, one thing that seemed out of place was the fact that Hayashi was a second year student. Homura wasn’t one to talk since she was bringing along Inari, but the gathering should have been for first years only…
“So Inari-san came too? Now that I think of it, you do fit the qualifications.”
“I’m not doing it.”
“Heeh. Is that really all right? Isn’t that risky?”
“Keep your mouth shut. If you talk too much, you’ll cause trouble for Nana.”
This should have been the first time in a while that the two second years had spoken to each other, but they were talking as if not a day had gone by since they last met.
Since Inari had participated in Exploration Club activities with Seiran’s paired school Hiyoshizaka before she stopped attending the club, it wasn’t all that strange.
However, Kanae seemed disinterested as she watched the two of them talk.
Realizing this was her first opportunity to talk to Kanae since the start of the SA, Homura approached Kanae out of a desire to make a point of contact with her.
“Kanae-san. I’m Hinooka Homura, from Seiran High.”
Kanae glanced at her.
“R-Right. Of course you do. Yeah.”
Homura faltered, recalling the sharp glare she’d received before the start of today’s conference.
“Were you also called here by Nanakubo-senpai, Kanae-san? My nerves are on edge since I have no idea what’s going on… How about you?”
“I don’t want to go, obviously. But it can’t be helped…”
“Eh… It can’t be helped?”
Kanae said nothing further as she sank into silence.
Those words she’d muttered just now didn’t seem to fit this situation.
But since Kanae had come in her swimsuit anyway, Homura guessed that there must be some compelling reason for why she still chose to participate.
As Homura thought that, Hayashi called out from behind her.
“Hinooka-san, Hinooka-san. Just as she looks, Yuri is bad at communicating with others, so you should treat her less reservedly, you know?”
Hayashi offered that irresponsible piece of advice.
“H-Hayashi-senpai, please clear up the misunderstanding from this morning,” begged Homura in tears.
“Ah, sorry, sorry. The culprit was me.”
His apology was careless as well.
“Another one of your stupid pranks? You really are the enemy of women,” said Inari in exasperation.
“Hey, hey, I don’t recall ever having been called that, you know? Don’t fill my junior with weird misconceptions.”
Inari and Hayashi’s exchange continued, but Kanae, the victim in question, maintained her indifferent air.
Suddenly, Kanae turned to Homura and spoke up.
“Eh… Ame-chan? She’s—”
Just as she’d told Himekawa, Homura explained how Ameno wouldn’t be coming since she was attending the club president meeting.
After saying only that, Kanae nodded and regained her indifferent air. But she murmured a single incomprehensible comment at the end.
“Can’t be helped, I guess. In the first place, we don’t have the necessary equipment for her.”
Soon after that, they arrived at Ufara Beach.
There were lights glowing here and there as landmarks, and they could already hear a voice explaining something loudly from a distance.
Homura and the others appeared to be the last group to arrive.
“You’re late! I said to make sure to be on time!”
Nanakubo flared up at them with a fierce threatening look, but suddenly faltered.
“…Idiot… You actually came, Hayashi…!?”
Nanakubo glared at Hayashi. Then, she saw the small figure beside him, and the edges of her lips twisted in frank displeasure.
Nanakubo seemed like she wanted to say something, but Inari beat her to it and spoke in a calm tone.
“Nana, I only came here to escort Hinooka.”
First years from every school were gathered all around them.
Nagashino was here. Saho was here. Himekawa and Otomaru were also here with their fellow club members.
There were about thirty of them in all. Homura worried that having this many people absent from the lodging house would arouse suspicion, but…
“…Hey, Homura, where’s four-eyes? You know, Touya?”
Inari, who’d also been surveying the group of first years, questioned Homura.
“Touya-kun and Ameno-chan aren’t here. Everyone keeps asking the same thing… I guess I really do look that unreliable by myself… Anyway, they can’t come since they’re attending the club president meeting.”
“What? Say that sooner. Even if the golem can’t participate in the first place—Guh!”
A flashlight illuminated Inari and Homura’s faces in turn.
Nanakubo seemed to be confirming who was present and absent for a second time as she checked the list of names in her hand.
Nanakubo was also wearing a swimsuit herself. A pair of binoculars hung from her neck, and a huge tote bag was slung over her shoulder. However, this time she didn’t have her trademark headphones.
Homura had overlooked them in the dim lighting, but there were two second years from Nagumo High, Ikeba and Kadoshimo, standing next to Nanakubo.
“There’s no time. I’ll explain it as briefly as possible.”
When Nanakubo took out something from her bag and casually held it up above her for everyone to see, Homura and all the first years reflexively gasped.
The item was a single ring that released a pale phosphorescent light over the nighttime beach.
A Transport Ring—! Why?
Everyone’s eyes were drawn to the unmistakable glitter of that ring. It was the most important Exploration Club item, which students were forbidden to carry with them outside of official club premises and should have been strictly overseen by every school.
“I don’t even need to explain what this is, right? This is a Transport Ring. This ring was treated as lost and irrecoverable almost ten years ago. During the remaining hour until the scheduled end of the club president meeting, we’ll be sending you first years to Nutella.”
As expected, the first years were unable to hold back their shock at hearing this and clamoured noisily.
When Homura turned around to look, Hayashi was grinning and Inari was glaring at Nanakubo with her arms folded dauntingly.
Nanakubo checked the current time.
“It should be about daybreak on Nutella right now.”
The two other second years went around the group of first years and handed a set of items out to each of them.
Each set included a lifejacket, a bottle of mineral water (with a handle strap to fasten it to the body), and a waist pouch containing a notepad, writing implements and a first-aid kit.
“B-But, Nana-senpai, we can’t go unless we confirm the weather on Nutella…!”
Nagashino spoke up with a bewildered voice.
As a member of the same club as Nanakubo, just how much of this situation had she foreseen beforehand?
Even the uninformed Homura understood that this was an extremely abnormal situation.
However, Nanakubo rejected her junior’s words.
“I won’t accept any questions—However, you can decline and withdraw if you want.”
Nanakubo showed a challenging smile.
“Get it? This is a race between every school club. The detailed rules will be explained over there. Every school can send exactly two members. Hurry up and decide.”
All the first years exchanged looks with each other.
Clubs with more than two members were forced to select which two members to send, in other words.
On the other hand, being the only first year present from Seiran High, Homura didn’t fulfill the two member quota. At this rate, she would end up being directly turned away from participating before she could even stand at the start line.
“Of course, I’ll be coming too, as the referee. We’ve saved up all the magical energy needed to perform the transport, so don’t worry about that part.”
Homura’s nervous voice resounded more loudly throughout the beach than she’d expected.
“Is there… a prize? Since it’s… a race and all…”
Immediately after she said that, Homura recalled the warning that no question would be accepted.
However, there was no help for it since she had already spoken.
But perhaps because she’d planned to explain that part from the start, Nanakubo just smirked.
“Don’t be greedy. There’s not really a prize. Not a physical one, anyway. However—”
Nanakubo paused suggestively.
“—The club that comes in first in this race is allowed to make one request at the club president meeting with no restrictions. The other club presidents won’t oppose it no matter what it is. That’s the agreement between all of the club presidents.”
“O-One request with no restrictions…?”
Homura suddenly felt dizzy.
She hadn’t heard anything about a secret Exploration Club custom like this from Misasagi-senpai. And it seemed to be the same for the first years from other schools based on their agitated reactions.
“Each school has five minutes to choose their members and prepare themselves! After that, we depart! We’ll be collecting all of your terminals here!”
The atmosphere among the new members of every school had already turned hectic and tense as they listened to Nanakubo’s announcement.
Homura turned to Inari.
“We’ll be in big trouble if the teachers find out about it! …That’s what Touya-kun would say if he were here, anyway.”
“They won’t find out, so it’s fine,” Inari calmly replied.
“Eh, that’s the issue here?” Homura weakly sank down to the sandy ground. “…Whether it’s Fujimori-sensei or this super dangerous-sounding race, why is the Exploration Club so determined to surprise me…? I mean, they even prepared a Transport Ring…”
As Inari merely looked at Homura with her arms crossed as if it had nothing to do with her, Nanakubo came over to them.
The two second years from different schools glared at each other.
“…Inari, what are you going to do?” asked Nanakubo. Her tone seemed to be itching for a fight.
Inari remained silent and merely looked at Nanakubo with an easygoing smile.
“…You really just going to head back the lodging house?” Nanakubo continued.
“Aren’t you the one who was shouting ‘Stop, stop, I want to run away’ during the race last year, Nana?”
“…That irritating attitude of yours hasn’t changed, I see.”
Nanakubo was clearly vexed by Inari’s impudent backtalk.
She then looked away from Inari and turned her gaze towards Homura who was kneeling on the sand.
“Hinooka—hey, are you planning to participate in the race or not?”
“Ugh… I-I don’t know…”
“Drag in this brat Inari.”
As Homura almost reflexively said ‘Drag her in the sand? Like an antlion pit?’, Nanakubo irritably pointed at Inari with her thumb.
“This girl was one of the members who stayed behind last year. She didn’t participate last time, so she can participate in this year’s race even if she’s a second year. It’s not unusual for clubs to lack new members. It’s merely tradition to turn over the chance to participate to first years. See, it’s much more advantageous for second years who are more experienced with Nutella to participate, though the convalescent and unsteady Inari would be more like a handicap for your team.
“What was that!?” Inari snapped at Nanakubo.
There was a stark difference of drive and vigour between her and the clearly dubious Homura.
“Umm, I think the bigger problem is the issue of my resolve to participate, you know~…?”
“—I order you to participate as your senpai. Got it?”
With a final cold glance at Homura, Nanakubo then left without waiting for her reply.
“Hmph. She’s gotten awfully full of herself since I last saw her.”
Despite her words of ridicule, Inari clearly admired Nanakubo.
“Hah? The answer’s no.”
“…Why were we given these jackets? Are we going to be sent to a really dangerous place?”
Homura could say nothing in the face of Inari’s usual curt rejection.
Though, since she hadn’t participated last year, she probably really didn’t know where the race would take place.
“…Can’t you just pretend to participate…? If I come back in defeat all alone, I won’t be able to face Misasagi-senpai and Touya will get angry at me, you know?”
“There’s no point in pretending. If you’re going to do it, fight to win.”
“N-No way. Winning’s impossible for me. I’m the weakest member in our school’s Exploration Club…”
Homura couldn’t quite find the right timing to stand up from her kneeling position on the sand. At that moment, a first year boy came over and peered down at her timid face.
“There you are, Hinooka-san. You’re not participating either, right? Since we have the opportunity, how about we both go on a nighttime walk along the beach?”
Homura titled her head in confusion at his sudden suggestion.
“Ah, Inari-senpai, that swimsuit really looks good on you! It’s perfect! Is it comfortable?”
“Comfortable? I guess.”
Akiho made a high spirited fist pump.
Behind them, Homura finally found the chance to stand up. After wiping the sand off her legs while listening to Saho’s attempt to invite Inari on a nighttime walk too, Homura suddenly grabbed him by the scruff of his jacket and forced him to turn around to face her.
“Hey, Saho Akiho-kun? Aren’t you participating as a pair with Kanae-san? Since you’re the only two first years in Hiyoshizaka’s club?”
“Ah, that? Well, Yuri-chan seems to be strangely motivated for once, but I don’t have any interest in aquatic wildlife. It’d obviously be more fun to spend time with you, Hinooka-san. That’s why I let senpai participate in my stead.”
Inari turned a fierce stare towards a certain pair further off behind Saho.
As Nanakubo was waving her flashlight and calling for everyone to gather, Kanae Yuri was walking towards her, and with her was a second year who was accompanying her as if nothing was wrong. Homura was surprised to see him next to Kanae, but Inari was even more speechless.
“…Haya…shi…? He wouldn’t be so childish… No… I see, so that’s how it is… that damn little…”
“Umm, senpai? …Young mistress Sunao?”
Homura peered at Inari’s expression even as she felt the atmosphere of unrest that was developing around the second year.
“Sorry, Homura, but I’ve changed my mind.”
“You mean you’ll pretend to participate?”
“We can’t lose to those two, Homura.”
“Umm, I feel like our views are subtly off here? Will my life and safety be all right?”
With their positions now reversed, Homura was now being completely dragged along by Inari. Saho lightly offered her some obligatory encouragement.
“Heh, so you’re participating, Hinooka-san? How reckless,” he said with wide eyes. “Guess we’ll leave the walk for another time. What a shame. Since we’re technically part of opposing teams, I can’t support you, but be careful, all right? By the way, Yuri-chan wasn’t in a good mood today so you should watch out for her.”
“Yes… thank you for the warning… Give my regards to everyone else staying behind…”
Homura waved goodbye with dead eyes containing zero fighting spirit.
Chapter 7 END
(1) Chanpuru: an Okinawa stir-fry dish, widely considered the staple dish of Okinawan cuisine.