“The ebb and flow of the tide?” repeated Inari.
“The ebb and flow of the tide,” affirmed Homura.
There were no checkpoints along the northwestern shore on the map.
Normally, this would be an area that they wouldn’t need to approach during the race.
Following Homura’s proposal, the Seiran High team had decided to head there regardless. Her plan was not only doubtful, but desperate as well.
They were walking while paying careful attention to the ground which had shifted to a sudden downward slope.
“My instincts are quite good at times when I have zero confidence in it, you know?”
“That makes me feel very reassured, as much as Godzilla felt when he boarded the large boat,” replied Inari sarcastically while brushing away the branches before her. “Now then, what will we find there…?”
The trees parted to reveal the scene before them.
The two of them had arrived on top of a cliff facing the sea. This was truly where land ended and the sea began.
The northern peninsula lay stretched out over the sea four or five kilometers away from them to their right.
“Hmm… I admit it looks like a good place to fish, but…”
From above came the blazing sunshine and the radiance of the Bagel cutting across the sky like a polished blade. All that light was reflected dazzlingly by the sea waves that filled their view as far as the eye could see.
While shielding her eyes from the blinding light, Homura looked down at the seashore below the cliff.
On the map, the cliff served as a barrier that cut off all passage to the base of the peninsula.
A rough rocky area lay spread out below. However, it wasn’t so devoid of footholds that it completely denied human access.
Even so, it was still a treacherous-looking place.
“Hey, I have a question for you, Inari-senpai. Is the tide coming in or receding right now?”
“It’s ebb tide. It’s just about time for the tide to recede.”
“Wow, you can tell that?”
Homura, who had asked the question like a quiz show host despite not knowing the answer herself, was honestly impressed.
“There are several tide pools that are formed along the rocky beach. Those are submerged into the ocean at full tide and have ocean water and fish left trapped in them afterwards. See?”
“Yeah, yeah… You’re really a weird girl, you know?” said Inari in exasperation.
“I wonder how long it will be until low tide—actually, what’s the interval between the rise and ebb of Nutella’s tides?”
“I suppose it’s only natural you’re still inexperienced with the sea in Seiran High’s explorations… Anyway, it’s much more complex here than on Earth. It involves Nutella’s rotation and stellar revolution, the arrangement of the natural satellites, the Bagel’s something or other perturbation cycle… Ah geez, I’m not that knowledge about that kind of thing. Basically, it follows about a twelve hour cycle.”
But even if they knew the cycle period, this place was on the opposite side of the island from where Nanakubo was, so they wouldn’t be able to see the smoke signal to count the hours here.
“…The ocean is really bright, isn’t it?”
“You got that right. My eyes are burning from the ultraviolet rays… I wish I had sunglasses…”
“No, not that. I mean it’s a bright color.”
The two of them squinted their eyes and stared at the ocean.
Their eyes weren’t accustomed to the brightness, but they could still see that the ocean’s color gradation resembled that of the ocean around Iriomote Island.
“Hmm, you’re right. Is it unexpectedly shallow around here? I think I heard about this kind of terrain from someone. Umm, let me see…”
“……Someone’s… walking on the water…”
“Ah, right, right. It’s a lagoon, a lagoon… Eeeh!?”
Inari’s voice turned shocked as she realized what Homura had said. Inari strained her eyes to the left where Homura was looking—
Indeed, there were human-shaped silhouettes nearly hidden by the brightness of the waves on top of the ocean in the opposite direction from the peninsula.
Homura and Inari hurriedly ran over in that direction, and coincidentally enough, they found a natural staircase that descended the cliff and managed to walk down to the rocky beach which was dry at low tide.
“—Who is that?”
The silhouettes appeared to be two male students. In that case…
As Homura recalled the new members that were introduced earlier today, Inari spoke up in an excited tone.
“This is…! Are they crossing over the rim of a reef margin!?”
The coral reef margin extended from the beach at the bottom of the cliff outwards into the ocean.
“Fufufu. Did you finally realize my plan?” Homura wore a triumphant look. “By the way, what’s a reef margin?”
“It’s the edge of a coral reef! Look, there’s a slight path beneath the water! …And wasn’t your plan to find a secret path on the rocky beach along the island? This is the complete opposite of what you had in mind.”
“The water’s so warm! Doesn’t it look like it’s sparkling underneath?”
“Hey, it’s dangerous to skip through the water like that! Homura!”
Inari’s warning didn’t reach Homura’s ears. Her excitement was only natural, considering how disappointed she’d been at having her chance at a liberal vacation at Okinawa snatched away.
The two boys, who had looked to be walking on water but were actually wading through the waves up to their calves, called out to greet Inari and Homura from where they stood on the reef margin.
The two boys acted calm and composed here, so much so that Homura almost expected them to say “Ah, we’re natives here”. And the contrast between the clear blue sky and vivid ocean made the unreal atmosphere of this place very prominent.
“See, look. They’re the Seiran team, just like I thought.”
“The water’s deep over there so you shouldn’t approach. It’s dangerous.”
The two boys on the reef margin turned out to be from the Nagato Fisheries School.
Their school club had done the presentation on slimy-looking coastal aquatic life that had greatly interested Ameno.
Their names were Nagusa and Ishimi.
Ishimi was the one who called out a warning to Homura as she stumbled in the water. Nagusa was squatting in the ocean up to his waist and peering into the water.
“You girls should head back to the island.”
“If you came because you saw us out here, then I apologize for making you worry, but—”
Homura blinked in surprised at their words, which far differed from her expectations.
“Eh? What are you two doing out here? What about the race?”
“We’re not interested in the race.”
“There’s no way we could waste this opportunity, you know?”
Their replies showed just how much they were sea life maniacs. They were both well-tanned.
Inari questioned the two of them with eyes sparkling with interest.
“Hey, does this reef margin continue all the way to the tip of the northern peninsula?”
The two boys nodded casually.
“It’s because this serves as a huge bay. Once it’s completely low tide, parts of the reef flat will probably be exposed here and there. I can’t wait!” exclaimed Nagusa.
“We’ll have to return to the starting point before then, though,” Ishimi pointed out.
It appeared that Ishimi was slightly more prudent than Nagusa.
Homura questioned Ishimi about her idea.
“Hey, is it possible for us to walk along the entire reef margin all the way over there?” asked Homura while pointing from their feet to the edge of the northern peninsula.
“That’s probably impossible. It’s shallow here, but it’s doubtful that it’s like that the whole stretch.”
“You might be able to make it if you swim part of the way,” suggested Nagusa.
“No, the ocean currents are really bad, especially at ebb tide. One mistake and you’ll end up drifting out to sea.”
Even as they stop on top of the calm water, the tide was continuing to recede.
Various bits of coral reef began to poke out of the water along the line of the reef margin that formed the bay.
The original ‘a’ shape of the island was now connected with the dotted line of the coral reef and was beginning to change into the rough shape of the Greek letter ‘θ’ (theta).
“Hinooka-san, you’re an aspiring mage, right? Can you use liquid-type magic?”
“You mean using a limited Icosa (twenty-sided) model?” Homura regrettably shook her head. “But, maybe if it were senpai—”
Those words made the two boys turn to look at Inari.
Inari sullenly turned her face away in a huff. Homura waved her hands frantically at the clear misunderstanding.
“Ah, no. By senpai, I mean Misasagi-senpai. She told me that that kind of magic is her specialty.”
Homura hadn’t heard anything about Inari being talented at magic.
“Should I accompany you guys just to be safe, then?” asked Nagusa.
“Cut it out. If you help them that obviously, it’ll probably be a breach of the race’s rules,” Ishimi chided.
“You can use magic, Nagusa-kun?”
“Not really. But I’m great at swimming. And I’ve done first-aid training!”
“As if that’s enough. Even if this is a race, we can’t let our guards down. Even with a lifejacket, you might not be able to come back if you drift out to sea.”
“So that’s why liquid-type magic is needed…?”
True, if they had magic that could manipulate the water currents, they could use it as an engine to move freely within water.
As someone whose memory of drifting helplessly within a cold lake was still fresh, Homura understood from experience how that kind of magic might determine whether you lived or died in such a situation.
Nagusa completely turned aside the conversation as his eyes sparkled with excitement at his discovery.
These flowers, which drifted across the surface of the clear water, were the source of the glittering Homura had noticed earlier.
At close inspection, the grain-size pure white flowers covered the surface of the sea around them.
If this weren’t the middle of a race, they would have been able to gaze at this amazing, fantasy-like scene at their leisure, but… The thought made Homura feel disappointed from the bottom of her heart.
“Homura, I’m going to make sure your jacket is properly buckled up.”
Inari approached Homura.
She buckled up the jacket that Homura had been loosely wearing and also securely retightened her belt. She then double-checked her own jacket and seemed to be getting psyched up.
“We’re going…?” asked Homura.
“We won’t know until we try,” said Inari encouragingly.
“Then let’s try going as far as we can for the time being…”
Though this was an expansion of Homura’s original plan, she couldn’t help but think that this was quite reckless.
However, if it worked out, they’d be able to reach the blocked off northern peninsula.
The score of the checkpoint there was still unknown, but it could let them come back from being behind in the race depending on the scores of the other teams.
With the two Nagato Fisheries boys calling out cheers of support and well-wishes for their safety from behind, Homura and Inari began to walk along the reef margin.
“Make sure you guys watch out for sharks too, okay?” Homura shouted back jokingly to their cheers.
“As if sharks would enter a reef pool like this!” yelled Ishimi.
“Meeting sharks would be great. I love sharks!” shouted Nagusa as he waved both hands.
There were about three kilometers between them and the opposite shore on the peninsula.
They had to follow a curved path that turned out to sea. With low tide approaching, the path gradually appeared beneath the water. It showed promise. However…
“How do we get back?”
“Hmm… It’d be best if we returned on foot over the peninsula. There seems to be some high score checkpoints located along the rest of the peninsula and the terrain makes it unlikely to get lost there, so it’s definitely worth doing,” suggested Inari.
“But that might be quite reckless in its own way. It might dig into our traveling time too much… Isn’t it about time for the fourth smoke signal to be fired…?”
“No, more importantly, the return from the peninsula—”
Inari was about to say something, but then shook her head with a “Never mind” and resumed stepping firmly along the coral reef while making splashes as she waded her legs through the water.
There were some spots along the way where they ended up submerged up to their waists, but thanks to the approaching low tide and the receding water level, their path through the sea water became increasingly easier to walk on.
When they had reached a certain point with only one kilometer remaining till the peninsula, Homura and Inari came to a stop.
“Oh my… this is…”
The Enhalus flowers covering the water surface were being pulled in by the sea current, which made it clear that the water within the lagoon was flowing outwards towards the ocean.
In front of them, the reef margin path cut off and had a gap of about thirty meters of deep waters before it resumed again.
“It… doesn’t look like we’ll be able to walk… even if we wait for the tide to recede a bit more…”
The water in the gap appeared to be about ten meters deep. The current was flowing strongly and formed a whirlpool further out towards the ocean. It looked very dangerous to cross.
Inari sat down on the edge of the path and glared down at the water, and then she put her face past the water surface and peered down into the clear water depths.
Lifting her head back up, Inari turned to Homura as water was sent flying from her hair.
“Homura… Are you good at going underwater?”
“I-If it’s for only five seconds, I guess…?”
“I’m not talking about merely washing your face like in a bath.” Inari turned to reconfirm the direction they were headed towards. “We’re going to have to traverse through the water a bit…”
Inari stood up with a determined expression. She suddenly began to take off her life jacket.
“W-What are you doing?”
“Listen, you stay here, Homura. Once I reach the other side, throw this over to me.”
Inari pushed the removed life jacket into Homura’s hands.
Then, after taking a deep breath, Inari dived into the water with a huge splash.
“You’re going to swim over!?” shouted Homura in surprise, though it was doubtful whether Inari actually managed to hear her.
Swimming freestyle, Inari didn’t head directly to where the reef margin path resumed, but instead veered right at a 45 degree angle towards the inner section of the reef pool.
Homura could clearly see even from where she stood the way Inari swam with her head under like a torpedo.
However, she still had to occasionally rise to the surface for air.
“Senpai, a strong current is coming…!”
Immediately after rising up for a deep breath, Inari dived down and grabbed part of the coral on the sea bottom.
She withstood the current for a few seconds like that, and then she started to advance by crawling through the water using her arm strength.
After she advanced deep underwater like that for a while, the current trying to wash away Inari seemed to subside.
Inari let go and kicked off the coral reef, and then began to swim rapidly at a slanted angle to the left in order to surface.
When she saw Inari appear on top of the visible reef margin on the other side and wave her hand, Homura let out a deep sigh of relief.
Inari’s mannerisms as she shook her body and sent the water flying off her were very much like those of an animal.
Just as she was told, Homura tossed Inari’s jacket at her over the water, and then she put her hand on the belt of her own jacket to take it off.
“All right… It’s my turn next…!”
As Homura resolved herself to cross next, Inari called out to her from the other side.
“Homura! You go on and head back to the island!”
“I’ll head to the northern peninsula and return over it by myself!”
“This current is too much for you. Besides, if I have to match your pace, we probably won’t make it in time.”
“So mean! But roger that!”
“…Hey, at least try to object a little! Why are you only meek and obedient at times like this!?”
“You’re the one who’s ‘meek1’, Senpai!!”
You’re fine just the way you are, Homura.
Wholeheartedly relying on others when she needed to was Homura’s nature. And trying to rely on others even when not necessary was Homura’s way of being amiable and cordial.
“We’ll meet up at the N checkpoint. Got it!?” asked Inari.
“Yes, the N checkpoint! It’s a promise, right!?” Homura waved her pinky finger2 in the air frantically.
The N checkpoint was the location that people had to pass through if they intended to make a huge detour to reach the northern coast. Homura began to quickly head back along the reef margin.
Did she just see something traverse through the water out of the corner of her eye? But when she turned around, there was nothing in the water.
“Was that… seaweed?”
After reluctantly looking at Inari, who quickly became distant with her surprising leg strength, Homura turned around to head back.
Nagusa and Ishimi were no longer where she’d encountered them earlier, having moved to the inner section of the vast lagoon. The reef flat they’d spoke of had begun to appear inside the bay.
With each step Homura took, crabs reacted and swiftly ran away from the reef flat.
Small fish of various colors had been left behind within the tide pools, like tubes of natural colors had gained life.
Homura had to reach the rendezvous point with Inari as soon as possible, but she was entranced by all the sights she was witnessing for the first time one after another.
The observation point that Nagusa and Ishimi had moved to appeared to be much further back inside the bay. They didn’t notice Homura at all as she retraced her route.
Homura ran while repeatedly making ripples across the calm water with her beach shoes.
Surrounding her was the emerald green sea in every direction.
She even started humming as her thoughts wandered.
Homura hadn’t expected for Inari-senpai to go this far to help her.
Though, she clearly maintained her attitude that she was ‘only giving the unreliable Homura a hand’.
What was Hayashi-senpai planning that Inari suspected…? Homura still didn’t understand the reasons behind the male senpai’s actions.
It would have been better if they could have cooperated with Hiyoshizaka High.
The way he had instigated the other teams right at the start of the race had been beneficial in the end, but she had no idea how much of it had been planned on his part, considering they were in such a strange and unknown place.
In the first place, Hayashi-senpai’s actions had basically caused the Hiyoshizaka team to self-destruct while bringing down other teams with them, thereby dashing their chances of victory. Well, winning might have been a difficult prospect from the start considering that Kanae was pretty much asleep on her feet, but still…
Is there still some secret that’s been hidden from me…? That flash of suspicion suddenly hit Homura.
While she was lost in her thoughts, Homura slipped her foot on a piece of smooth coral eroded by the tides and plunged into a tide pool, creating a huge splash.
“Ugh~… And just when I was in a good mood…”
Fortunately, she hadn’t sustained any injuries.
Homura lay in a ridiculous posed with her upper body and legs sticking out from the tide pool.
I hope no one saw that… She surveyed her surroundings in embarrassment.
She caught sight of Nagusa and Ishimi, who were passionately continuing their observations while repeatedly diving and resurfacing in a deep part of the lagoon.
And there was a bluish-black fin sticking out of the water and approaching them from behind…
—Eh, a fin? A shark?
She didn’t have any time to check it out any further, as the unknown fin calmly headed towards Nagusa and Ishimi at an accelerated pace.
“…Eh? Wait, wait, wait—”
Homura sprang up from the tide pool in a panic.
In the process, she banged her elbow against a protruding piece of coral.
The sensation in her struck arm turned numb for an instant.
However, just when Homura called out to them, the two of them dived underwater at the same time.
“T-There’s a shark! A shark! Damn it, can’t you hear me!?”
At this moment, she didn’t care if people called her the noisy girl who cried wolf (or rather, shark). Homura yelled out as loud as she could.
With no other option now except to get close, Homura jumped forward while aiming towards the coral reef path on the water.
It wasn’t a very skillful jump, but she was going as fast as she could.
The two boys were exploring a hollow the size of a twenty-five meter pool surrounded by coral reef.
Their life jackets had been left defenceless on the surface of the coral.
After Homura ran near to the pool, Ishimi was the first one to surface.
“Uwah—What, Hinooka-san? You came back?”
“Now’s not the time for that. There’s a shark, a shark is here!”
“Ahaha, did your eyes play tricks on you? There’s no way a shark would be in a lagoon like this—”
Ishimi laughed while treading water, but when he more carefully looked over Homura, his eyes widened.
“Hinooka-san, your arm, your arm! It’s bleeding.”
Not listing to Ishimi’s words, Homura looked down into the water and searched for Nagusa.
“There he is—”
Nagusa was staring at a perpendicular wall of coral reef and was neglecting to pay attention to his rear.
Homura was relieved at finding Nagusa, but immediately after, a chill ran down her skin.
The outline of some underwater creature could be seen approaching by smoothly navigating the canals that served as the lagoon’s highways—
“…No way, for real?”
Seeing Homura desperately point at the water, Ishimi finally stopped thinking it was a joke.
He took a deep breath and kicked off a nearby coral reef wall to dive back down to where Nagusa was.
Ishimi fiercely swam down and frantically tapped Nagusa on the shoulder, but at that same moment, the nose of the shark that had been gradually rising through the water brushed against Nagusa’s bare feet.
Nagusa let out a burst of air bubbles in surprise as the sudden sensation and impact.
The shark didn’t give up and thrusted its chin forward again and again to try and bite down on Nagusa’s feet.
Nagusa wildly thrashed in the water and his foot hit the shark on the side of its face, causing it to flinch and recoil for an instant.
Ishimi grabbed Nagusa’s arm and the two of them swam back towards the ledge that served as a foothold back to the surface.
Homura gulped as she watched it all from above the water surface, like she was seeing a silent film.
She reprimanded her fearfully trembling feet and took a step forward.
Homura began to cast a spell incantation while placing her hand on the buckle of her jacket.
The shark, after temporarily retreating, calmly circled back and increased its speed underwater as it swam towards the two boys again.
Ishimi and Nagusa were desperately swimming towards the ledge—but even if they reached it in time, there weren’t enough handholds there for two people to climb up at the same time.
They wouldn’t make it…
Homura impatiently threw off her jacket and then took an approach run to jump out, diving into the water behind the two boys.
—She was suddenly surrounded by a blue world of silence.
As she slowly sank down through the underwater temple, Homura twisted her body to face the tarrying pursuer.
Ox (Oxygen)… Ph (Phosphorous)…
By the time she caught sight of the shark, it was already right before her eyes.
Homura thrust out her arm and completed the last of the pattern.
A bright, white hot line manifested underwater.
It knit itself together in geometric patterns while swaying and formed a sphere the size of volleyball. It was one of Homura’s few incantations, the fireball spell.
For an instant, an abnormal noise was produced and overwhelmed her ears—
And then the glowing sphere soon dulled to the color of silver and became a lump with a mirror-like surface. It looked like a huge bubble, lacking any detectable heat or sense of threat.
The shark merely swam around the fireball and continued to tenaciously chase after Nagusa and Ishimi.
I-In that case—!
The next instant, a fierce stream of bubbles rose up within the water with the silver fireball at their center.
The advancing shark suddenly dipped down its nose and turned downwards to avoid them.
Homura released her concentration, which caused errors to appear in the fireball’s pattern and made it burst and scatter into countless small beams of light.
Homura brought her face to the surface, which was foaming from the scattered bubbles.
She could tell that she hadn’t swum as well as she’d thought.
“Hinooka-san, over here—!”
She heard the splash of someone jumping back in the water.
Either Ishimi or Nagusa had called out to her from behind, but she didn’t have the time or allowance to turn around right now.
Come to think of it, I forgot to take off my shoes first…
While remaining fearful of the shark even after she lost sight of it, Homura treaded water and slowly moved her heavy body backwards.
Eventually, Homura noticed that something was clearly off.
First she felt it on her skin. And then she saw it—
A huge whirlpool was forming on the surface of the lagoon as far as the eye could see.
The heaving and swelling water surface made the lagoon resemble the fiber structure of muscles, or the heterogeneous detailing style of Van Gogh’s paintings.
The current literally grabbed hold of Homura.
Nagusa and Ishimi let out short shrieks. They were also promptly engulfed by the throes of the current.
Homura was roughly whipped and tossed around within the water, leaving her unable to grasp which way was up or down.
I’m being… carried up with the sea water…!
The dizzying view her eyes beheld suddenly changed. The water horizon, sun and Bagel flew into view, revolving around her in every direction.
As Homura was completely at the mercy of natural forces beyond her control, she caught sight of a tall human figure standing on the rocky beach within her upside-down field of vision.
After a suffocating experience that felt like many minutes but was actually only a few seconds, Homura was thrown out from the cluster of raging water currents alive.
She fell and landed in a tide pool the side of a bathtub at a public bathhouse.
“Uuuugh, *cough*, *cough*… That was terrible—”
While coughing out the water she’d swallowed, Homura noticed someone standing next to the tide pool.
It was the vice present of the Nagumo High club, Oozore.
He looked down at Homura with a cold side glance and spoke curtly.
“—Don’t carelessly damage the natural wildlife of Nutella.”
He was wearing the same uniform he’d worn at the podium during the SA meeting.
There were beads of sweat on his face as he wore a perfectly taut necktie, but his expression at least remained cold.
However, more importantly, Oozore shouldn’t have been here on the island.
“…Umm, how did you get here? W-What about the club president meeting?”
“It’s in recess right now.”
I see… But what about the transport ring to get here? Actually, why are you here in the first place? All those questions were important, but what interested Homura the most was…
“A-Aren’t you hot…? I mean, wearing that school uniform out here…”
“……Yes, it’s hot…”
Suddenly Homura noticed the flickering shadows casted over herself and Oozore and looked up. Above them floated a giant ball of water.
It was the main body of the spell that had pulled Homura out from the lagoon.
To be precise, the ball of water wasn’t floating, but was being supported by pillars of water that were continuously sucking up the water from the lagoon and nearby tide pools.
It was a transparent blue sculpture of water that looked like it weighed a bit over a hundred tons in its entirety.
Amazing… Homura looked up at it in amazement.
Next, Ishimi and Nagusa were also spit out from the water.
“Ah! Welcome back, guys!”
Homura hurriedly stood up from the tide pool.
Homura and the two boys, who had been rescued without understanding what was going on, all gazed up at Oozore’s spell with dumbfounded expressions.
Oozore held out his arm straight in front of him, and the ball of water calmly moved away in the air in accordance with his motion.
Within the ball of water, the shark that had attacked them was now swimming around seemingly harmless as if it were in an aquarium tank.
Once it passed over the reef margin and reached the ocean proper, the ball of water silently descended and then finally sank into the ocean without breaking form until it was completely merged. The captured shark shot off into the ocean without a scratch on it.
So this is the magic of the Wizard…
Homura stared at Oozore in honest admiration.
“Oozore-senpai, sorry for the trouble.”
“Thank you very much!”
Ishimi and Nagusa bowed their heads to Oozore repeatedly.
Oozore nodded slightly and then directed his gaze behind the two boys, where there should have been no one.
As the two boys were about to turn around in confusion—
“Damn, Oozore-san stole the best part again…”
The two boys were startled at the sound of that peevish murmuring voice and actually jumped in surprise.
The ocean water was flowing back into the lagoon. The voice came from the center of the lagoon.
“You two… Why are you guys splashing around in a place like this…”
It felt as if the surrounding temperature suddenly dropped.
A female club member wearing a life jacket over a swimsuit was sitting on the surface of the water amidst the flowing and whirling current in an utterly calm manner.
She was sitting well-balanced on her side on a black and white colored chair, about eight meters in total length with a dorsal fin on its back—
Actually, no, at closer inspection, that ‘seat’ was really a huge orca whale.
Nagusa and Ishimi gulped.
“So you guys gave up on the race from the start, huh… Even though you knew it would make things troublesome and arduous for the kids from Hakozaki High without your support…?”
As she dispassionately chided them, the boys clearly began to tremble.
That girl was the club president of the Nagato Fisheries School’s Exploration Club, Suou.
She had a slender build, covered by a racing swimsuit with light blue lines over a black background. Her long and glamorous black hair was braided nimbly behind her head so as not to get it wet.
“W-We were confident in the abilities of Yoshio’s team, s-so we thought it would be all right,” stuttered Ishimi.
While the two boys were being scolded, Homura’s interest and curiosity were completely taken by the orca.
“I-Is that a familiar—?”
“Correct, Hinooka-san. This is the orca Bobby. One of the loyal servants of our club—By the way, is the injury on your arm okay?”
Homura finally noticed her own state.
“Ah, yes, it was just grazed a little—wait, you said servants? There are others?”
“We have an entire pod of orcas!”
“I get it, this island is along the route of migration of Bobby’s pod, right!?”
Nagusa clapped his hands in understanding, but Suou just glared at him. She beckoned them with an ominous gesture, making the two boys turn pale again.
“Nagusa, Ishimi, get over here and climb on. I’ll take you guys to the goal on the southern peninsula on my way back. I feel uneasy leaving you guys on your own after this. Naturally, you guys have been disqualified from this race, so it doesn’t break any rules. I’ll take the time to punish you guys a bit.”
“N-No objections,” Nagusa feebly replied.
“Understood, but… What about her?”
Ishimi looked concernedly at Homura, who finally came to her sense and recalled her current situation.
Oozore spoke up in his usual reserved tone.
“Hinooka-san is still in the middle of the race. If you intend to return to the goal, hurry up and go.”
“Eh—O-Of course… right?”
“Inari-senpai went off by herself to the checkpoint at the northern peninsula…”
“I see. Understood.”
Suou called out to Oozore.
“Oozore-san, you coming along with us? We still have room on Bobby.”
“No, I’m fine. I’ll return by the time limit,” Oozore replied nonchalantly.
Homura bowed her head at both Oozore and Suou.
“Sorry for the trouble I caused you, Oozore-senpai, Suou-senpai—I’ll be heading off now.”
Homura sprinted off, but a voice called out to her from behind.
Ishimi and Nagusa were riding behind Suou on top of the orca.
They were waving their hands at Homura.
“Thanks, Hinooka-san! You really saved us there! Good luck in the race!”
“We’ll treat you to something back on Earth!”
Homura smiled back at them.
“In that case, treat me to the Deluxe Flat Lemon ice cream!”
Eventually, Homura arrived at the N checkpoint where she was supposed to meet up with Inari.
She had followed a simple path with little chance of getting lost, but it had involved constantly climbing over hills, so she was out of breath when she arrived.
A very peeved Inari was waiting for Homura there.
Inari glared as soon as she caught sight of Homura.
“You’re way too slow! What the heck were you doing!? You’ve completely wasted the lead I risked my body and soul to gain!”
Inari vehemently spewed complaints.
“I was bitten by bugs, had to take off my swimsuit, and even fell from a cliff…”
“N-Now, now, I was delayed by an act of God—”
Homura consoled Inari while calming her ragged breathing.
On closer inspection, Inari’s life jacket was now full of holes. Twigs were stuck in her hair and she had scratches all over her body.
However, the score card, which had become worn out in a short amount of time, now proudly held the various stamps that served as proof of having magnificently conquered the northern peninsula.
The unknown checkpoint from the northernmost tip of the peninsula—was a whopping 55 points! However…
“At this point… there’s no way we’ll make it back in time. I’ve already cried my eyes out over it.”
There really were tears in Inari’s eyes.
“B-But the smoke signals…”
“The fifth signal has already been fired! Even running at full speed in a straight line won’t let us make it to the goal in time! Aah~, and after I went so far to get involved… Nana’s going to laugh at me…”
“……I’m sorry.” Homura sadly hung her head. “….As an apology, I’ll put lots of these on you…” Claiming it was the minimum recompense she could do, Homura searched through her pouch and took out a certain packet.
“Those are patches for bug bites…”
Inari sighed at the attempt of mixed good will and light-hearted joking by Homura.
“…By the way…What are you holding under your arm there?”
Inari stared hard at the rod-shaped object that Homura had been carrying since she arrived here.
“This is… a Nutellan… magic… wand?”
“…Haah? A magic staff?”
“Yes. I searched for something I could use in place of a stick and found this by a mountain stream. It isn’t merely a wooden stick. It’s hand-carved. And it looks to be quite old too… Senpai, you were the one who told me to look through the forest carefully, remember?”
“I did say that. I did, but… Could I borrow that for a sec?”
Inari snatched the wooden rod from Homura’s hand. It was about one meter and twenty centimeters long. It had a hand grip like a baseball bat, and was flat on the opposite end. Homura herself hadn’t noticed it, but the initials ‘HT’ were carved in alphabetic letters on the bottom of the grip.
“…Who’s HT?” asked Inari with a quizzical tilt of her head.
“Wouldn’t this be worth a lot of score points in the race!? Right!?” Homura excitedly asked the dubious Inari.
After pondering for a while, Inari glared sidelong at Homura.
“…Where did you find this?”
The teams from every school had arrived one after another at the goal point on the southern side of the island.
A simple rest area had been set up beneath the shade of the rocks, where the exhausted participants were rewarded with water and fruits.
The latest team to arrive just now was Kanazawa Asano High.
Iguchi and Otomaru had returned after declaring they would cut across the jungle and plunging straight into it.
“Kanazawa Asano, goal! Welcome back!”
Nanakubo spoke to them while standing imposingly with a watch in one hand.
Otomaru showed their score card, and then Nanakubo pointed them over to the shade.
“Chiba is doing the core tallying one by one. You guys do rest for now. We have food for you too.”
As Otomaru went to rest with his body drenched in sweat, a female student approached him.
“—Congrashulashions on gesshing back shafely.”
The one to greet Otomaru was Himekawa from Tomakomai Denpa, who had arrived at the goal earlier.
For some reason, she was even more woozy and unsteady on her feet than Otomaru who was exhausted from running.
When he heard the current situation of the race from Himekawa, Otomaru’s eyes widened.
“Eh, Seiran still hasn’t arrived? But I thought for sure we were the last ones.”
Otomaru’s partner Iguchi murmured with a pale white face as if she’d seen hell as he immediately squatted down on the ground.
Himekawa hung her head too when she learned Otomaru’s score.
“Congrashulashions… Your sheam is now in shecond plaze. How unforshunashe, she rankings have been overshurned again…”
“…I can’t really tell well because of your strange appearance, but isn’t your face a bit too pale, Himekawa?”
“Don’sh worry, I’m fine.”
“S-Shizune-san, y-you need to rest in the shade…”
Her partner Kuwazono worriedly ran up to her.
“I shold you nosh to call me Shizuna-san, Yuu-kun—”
Otomaru and Kuwazono made the mumbling and dimly conscious Himekawa sit down in the shade and gave her water and lemon soda flavored salt tablets.
After moving away from her a bit, Kuwazono continued the conversation in her place. He whispered to Otomaru while shrinking his already short statured body even further and keeping an eye on Himekawa.
“Shizune-san seems to have heatstroke. She collapsed after pushing herself too much…”
“Oh my… That must have been pretty bad. Thank goodness she doesn’t look injured,” said Otomaru.
“I said we should just give up on the race, but…”
“She didn’t listen, right? Despite her usual cool attitude, she’s actually quite stubborn. But to think she collapsed—what happened after that?”
Kuwazano’s tone turned even more apologetic as he replied.
“Umm, I carried her…”
Otomaru was more surprised by that than Himekawa’s unexpected rashness. But he kept that to himself without speaking it aloud and instead returned to the subject of the race.
“I see… Your team also went through a lot. Who’s currently in first place?” Otomaru asked about the issue that concerned him the most right now.
“Hakozaki High…” replied Kuwazono.
“Eh, seriously? Then that means the teams that first headed to the hill area all failed…”
Otomaru looked over the first years who had arrived before him, and he caught sight of the two boys from Hamamatsu Central who were splayed out on the ground and Nagashino who was hanging her head in disappointment. Kuwazono followed his gaze and spoke.
“Nagashino’s Nagumo High team is currently in third place… My team is in fourth.”
Hakozaki High was part of the same ‘faction that had given up’ as Otomaru’s team, but they had chosen to leave the northern side of the island as quickly as possible the moment they saw the cliffs.
Nagusa and Ishimi, the members of the disqualified Nagato Fisheries team, had arrived at the goal point a while ago after being carried on Suou-senpai’s orca familiar and going around the island’s coast.
The members of the definitely last place Nagato Fisheries team and the top favorite Hakozaki High team were casually talking to each other without a care in the world.
Nanakubo checked her watch at regular intervals. The signal for fifteen minutes remaining had already been fired into the sky before Otomaru’s team arrived.
Otomaru and Kuwazono sat down on top of a tall boulder and gazed tensely at the northern forest from which the Seiran High team should be returning.
Eventually, the reluctant Iguchi and the two boys from Nagato Fisheries joined them there.
“Three minutes left,” murmured Nanakubo. “…Where the heck is that girl lazing around? Did she decide to play hooky again?”
The two Nagumo High second years assisting Nanakubo began to discuss their worries that an accident had happened. Nanakubo glanced at the two of them sidelong with a slightly pained gaze.
“…D-Did something… happen to them…?” murmured Kuwazono while trembling.
“No way!? Inari-senpai is with Hinooka-san. And Hinooka-san herself is oddly tenacious,” asserted Otomaru.
Otomaru reassured the uneasy Kuwazono.
Soon after, voices called out to Otomaru and the others from behind.
It came from the circular beach where they’d first transported here. The outline of a small boat could be seen entering through the stone arch leading from the outer ocean into the cove and landing along the beach—
“What’s that? A sea kayak?”
“Isn’t that a canoe?”
One of the curious onlookers who gathered around shouted out.
“Wait… Isn’t that Hinooka-san and Inari-senpai…?”
Even upon catching sight of them from afar, Kuwazono was still uneasy.
“I-It’s them…? Where did they find that boat?” wondered Otomaru with wide eyes.
The two girls were indeed riding a kayak.
The kayak looked like the kind of leisure model that you could find on any beach at Iriomote Island, but it was wider in size and covered in cloth, obviously built to resist the head of waves.
Following Inari’s orders, the two of them immediately got off from the kayak.
Homura toppled over onto the beach. She used her paddle in place of a staff to stand back up.
The two girls walked up from the beach while pulling along the kayak in their hands.
Just when it looked like they were walking normally towards the goal point like that, they suddenly lifted up the kayak and put it over their heads for some reason. This time, Inari was standing in the lead.
The sight of a four-legged mysterious life form climbing the rocky hill was quite surreal.
“…………Are they idiots?”
“Nana-senpai… The time…?”
As Nanakubo watched the two girls with a dumbfounded expression, Nagashino called her attention to the time.
Nanakubo hurriedly checked the time and then immediately blew her whistle.
At the same time as the whistle was blown, the kayak arrived in front of the waiting club members.
After throwing the kayak onto the ground, the two girls collapsed on top of it and took gasping breaths with rapidly rising and descending chests.
“Hey, Homura… Why did we have to carry the boat all the way here!?” groaned Inari as she struggled to regain oxygen.
“…But… it brought us all the way here…”
Nanakubo held out her hand in front of Homura. Thinking Nanakubo was trying to help her up, Homura held out her own hand, but it was slapped away.
“Ah, right, the card…” Realizing Nanakubo was asking for their score card, Homura weakly handed it to her. “Nanakubo-senpai… did we make it in time?”
“You reached the goal at the very last minute in the most ridiculous and cliché way… It kinda pisses me off…”
Nanakubo grumbled while checking the point count on the card.
“We found this canoe? Kayak? Anyway, we found it along a river upstream. Inari-senpai said it was probably left behind by other investigators in the past.”
“That much is obvious without explanation! Next time, I’m definitely making sure that boats are forbidden.”
“My, oh my.”
As the other first years gathered around the kayak in curiosity, Nanakubo annoyingly shooed them away.
There had been several close calls, but all the participants had managed to safely finish the race, and now they all gathered around Nanakubo once more.
“Thanks for waiting. I will now announce the score results of the race—
“First, in third place, the Nagumo High team, Nagashino and Hiraoka! Score of ** points.
“Next, in second place, the Kanazawa Asano High team, Otomaru and Iguchi! Score of ** points.
“And… tied with time in second place is the Seiran High team, Inari and Hinooka! Even we upperclassmen didn’t expect anyone to travel downstream in a kayak. We had no idea that something like that was left behind on the island. Tch.”
“Eh, then… it’s against the rules?” asked Homura.
“We don’t mind if you guys use what’s on the island. We’ll forbid the use of boats starting next year’s race, though. Its presence makes it way too unfair for the other teams.”
“Yay! But second place, huh? No, this is quite an accomplishment in its own way, isn’t it?”
Homura scratched her head with a refreshed expression as Himekawa and Otomaru looked at her worriedly.
“What a shame, we didn’t make first place, Inari-senpai. But second place is good too, right?”
“That just makes all our hard work meaningless… Just what was the point of me coming…?”
Inari slumped in disappointment.
Next to her, Iguchi looked even more sorrowful and pitiful than Inari as she hung her head and smiled dully with tears in her eyes.
“Haha… It was all meaningless? Meaningless? All my desperate and brave struggles against the flabby and fidgety and wriggling things we encountered were meaningless? Ahaha, ha…”
While gazing pitifully at Iguchi’s despair, Nanakubo continued the rankings announcement.
“First place is the Hakozaki High team, Yoshi and Kirishima! Congratulations, well done you two. The remaining rankings will be written on the cards when we hand them back to you, so you can confirm it amongst yourselves.”
As the two Hakozaki High members were basked in applause, Yoshi nonchalantly began his victory speech.
“Thank you, thank you. We only managed to win by taking the lead while everyone else was struggling. The key to our victory was not restricting ourselves to our initially planned route and quickly giving up on checkpoints beyond our reach. Ah, but we decline the prize. Please give it to the second place team instead.”
“—Haah!? What!? You think we’ll accept that!?”
Nanakubo flew into a rage, feeling as if the hard work she and the others put into preparing this race was being ridiculed.
And it wasn’t just Nanakubo, the eliminated teams also shouted out “She’s right, she’s right!” in protest.
“Anyway, we’ll be giving the right to the prize over to Seiran High,” said Kirishima. “Hinooka, you saved Ishimi and Nagusa from Nagato Fisheries at the lagoon, right?”
The Hakozaki team’s proposal was quite impudent, but they wouldn’t budge on it.
“…Eh? Ah, yeah, I did. But—”
Homura was confused as the conversation suddenly turned to her. She crossed her open palms in an X in front of her chest.
“That has nothing to do with this race… Besides, even if I wasn’t there, the Wizard Oozore-senpai and Suou-senpai would have surely managed to save them regardless.”
Homura was flustered as all eyes now focused on her.
Nanakubo desperately tried to protest.
“You guys can’t do that. We won’t allow it! If you really want to forfeit your rights as the victor, then hand over the prize to second place in the proper order, idiot.”
Even as they were jabbed in the chest by Nanakubo, the two Hakozaki members crossed their arms and thought of a counterargument.
“Then, what about this?” Seeming to have thought of something, Yoshio obstinately raised his hand. “Please give five extra points to Seiran High for defeating the shark. That much is fair, right?”
“…Five extra points? You think I’ll let them come from behind and win like that? Seiran High and Kanazawa Asano High have an equal score, so Kanazawa Asano wins for arriving first.”
“That’s right. We got here first, so if anyone should be given the prize, it’s Kanazawa Asano, right!? Seiran was third place from the start! Nagumo High is fourth place! The way the rankings were calculated is wrong!” shouted Iguchi angrily.
Iguchi wouldn’t budge on the matter either, waiting to bring back victory as a gift to all her senpai no matter what.
Hearing the actual rankings declared so loudly like that made Nagashino become even more depressed.
Otomaru, who had been silently listening until now, finally spoke up.
“If it weren’t for that lagoon incident, we probably would have arrived last after them… And even without that, the Seiran team is incredible for being the only ones who went all the way to the end of the northern peninsula and made it back in time. That kind of feat is what the Exploration Club is really all about, isn’t it?”
“H-Hey, Omaru!” protested Iguchi.
“It really was difficult.” Homura nodded without the slightest trace of modesty.
“Hey, Homura? I’m the one who got the checkpoints at the peninsula, remember?” interjected Inari, no longer about to remain silent upon hearing that. “—So, what’s the verdict, Nana?”
“Stop with the ‘Nana, Nana’ already. Ah, geez… That’s it, I’ve had it! Just decide it through rock-paper-scissors!”
“Eeeeeeeeeh!?” After everyone present let out shouts of protest and resignation for a bit, the two teams in question gave up and agreed to do it.
“Win, Maru-kun! If you don’t, our future’s going to be dark when we get back!”
Otomaru balked at Iguchi’s pleading.
“What do you mean ‘dark’? Wait, I’m the one doing it? You’re handing all the responsibility to me even in a game of rock-paper-scissors?”
“Rock-paper-scissors, huh? Well, that kind of decision is just like Nana.” Inari seemed a bit happy for some reason. “Well, I’ll leave it to you,” she said as she gave Homura a push on the back.
Thus, Otomaru and Homura came to stand in front of each other.
“Here we go! Rock, paper———”
The winner was Seiran High.
After that was decided, Nanakubo used the Transport Ring to bring herself and Homura back to Earth first.
There was no sign of anyone on the Ufara Beach in the pitch black of night.
Next, Nanakubo would head back to Nutella by herself and recover the other waiting club members.
By repeatedly transporting people in separate small groups between the two planets with one Transport Ring like this, they were able to make prior preparations on Nutella and send Oozore-senpai and Suou-senpai over when they came to inspect the race’s progress.
As the one entrusted with the top secret Transport Ring that was only known to Exploration Club Members, Nanakubo had to continuously use it to jump between worlds at regularly scheduled intervals according to the race’s progress and the time that correspondingly passed on Earth, so she was pretty tired and grumpy.
“—When you arrive at the meeting, ask for ‘karaoke in all the club buildings’. They’ll understand after hearing that coded message.”
“Eh, karaoke? Umm… Isn’t my club allowed one request with no veto?” asked Homura in confusion.
Irritated at being held back from returning to Nutella, Nanakubo replied to her impatiently.
“You obviously want to make a request about the Nutellan, right?”
“In that case, don’t complain and go tell them the message I said! Hurry up and go, the club president meeting will end soon! Besides, if I don’t get back to the island soon, everyone’s going to start worrying, right!?”
Homura hurriedly turned to run towards the path that led back to the lodging house, but then Nanakubo was the one to call out and stop her on a whim.
“…Hinooka, thanks a lot.” Nanakubo grasped her hands together in a loop in front of her chest. “The last part was a complete fluke, but you did well. And you brought back Inari too.”
Nanakubo was making the pose for a single person transport. It was the first time Homura had seen it.
“But sorry, Nanakubo-senpai. Inari-senpai went to Nutella, but she doesn’t intend to return to the Exploration Club—”
“W-Wha…!? After doing all that…? Just how stubborn is that girl…?”
Nanakubo closed her eyes in deep concentration.
“Yeah, so you should tell her to come back too, Nana-senpai!”
“Enough with the Nana already…”
The Transport Ring on Nanakubo’s finger emitted a pulsing light, expanding until the light covered Nanakubo’s entire body, swimsuit and parka included.
The radiating light contracted and looked as if it was being absorbed into the ring until it was floating in the air by itself.
The next instant, the ring suddenly disappeared.
“…But thank you, senpai.”
Homura left the beach and hurried to the lodging house as the club president meeting was approaching its end.
“Phew—” Homura took a deep breath in front of the door to the meeting room.
She had spoken to the security clerk standing in front of the door and asked for permission to enter.
She had hurried straight here from Nutella, but now that she took a good look at herself, her appearance was out of place and in shambles.
Her hair was still wet. Her feet were covered in sand. She had come without the time to take a shower, so she still reeked of salt water.
In the first place, she looked as if she’d just been out playing on the beach at night with a parka over her swimsuit, so what more needed to be said?
Eventually, Homura got permission to enter and was brought into the meeting room.
Within the large and wide room, there were two opposing long desks shaped in gentle arcs, and seated around them were the club presidents, vice-presidents and teaching advisors from every school.
All eyes in the room focused on Homura.
A projector was set up at the front of the room, and faint environmental sounds from nature could be heard from the speakers.
Kamikoma-senpai and Taga-senpai from Hiyoshizaka were present.
So were Inou from Tomakomai Denpa, Chigozuka from Ecchuu Takaoka, and Shiragiku from Kanazawa Asano.
Oozore-senpai and Suou-senpai, who’d Homura had met on Nutella earlier, were also seated at the tables with nonchalant expressions as if nothing had happened today.
And sitting at the front was Councillor Misasagi, with his arms silently crossed.
The Nagumo High advisor was glaring at Homura as if she were an intruder, along with several others in the room.
Unable to bear the tense atmosphere, Homura searched for the familiar faces from Seiran High.
There they were. Touya, the provisional vice president of their club, Ameno, the representative(?) of Nutellan probe units, and Fujimori-sensei were sitting together. And lastly, Misasagi-senpai was staring back at Homura in surprise at her sudden entrance.
However, Misasagi-senpai’s expression was quite different from Touya and Fujimori’s annoyed looks at Homura.
Misasagi reflexively put her fingers to her slightly opened mouth and stared at Homura with widened eyes.
“—You said something about having a special proposal, newbie from Seiran?”
Tenryuu-senpai was the one to call out to Homura as she unconsciously stiffened where she stood.
“…Y-Yes! Umm! I-I’m Hinooka Homura, a first year at Seiran High! I apologize for interrupting in the middle of your meeting!”
Homura frantically bowed her head. Then, after taking a deep gulp, she said the message.
“I bring a request from all the first years. W-We’d like to have karaoke in the club buildings.”
“Karaoke, is it? Very well, we’ll consider it,” Tenryuu replied nonchalantly.
“What? That’s all you came here for?”
The Nagumo High advisor spoke in rough tone, but Tanakura-sensei from Hiyoshizaka gently soothed him by saying “Now, now”.
Feeling so embarrassed she wanted to disappear right then and there, Homura then asked to be excused from the room.
But even so—
Homura didn’t miss Misasagi-senpai’s radiant and proud smile from where she sat next to Touya with his usual stunned expression. The other club presidents also slumped their shoulders, and an atmosphere of both resignation and relief filled the room.
Homura bowed several times more than necessary and was about to leave the room.
However, a voice called her to a halt.
The voice came from the speakers set up with the projector.
“Are you the Fire Girl?”
The person displayed by the projector, who Homura hadn’t paid attention to until now, spoke to her.
The person spoke in slightly accented Japanese—but in real time.
Homura was completely taken aback, not having imagined that the screen was for a video conference.
“You’re Miss Hinooka, correct?”
The person was a very intelligent-looking girl with blond hair and lightly tanned skin.
Homura was bewildered by the unrealistic first impression she had of her blue eyes, which seemed to sparkle.
“Hey, Chia, it’s here, right? She seems to be frozen, though.”
The person who replied to the name ‘Chia’ was Fujimori-sensei.
“That’s right, Miss Chandra. That’s her.”
Homura was annoyed by Fujimori’s casual and careless tone, but more importantly… the name Chandra rang a bell in Homura’s mind.
“Congratulations, Miss Hinooka. Nice to meet you, I’m Meivelle Srinivasa Chandra, the daughter of Anand Ajaib Chandra.”
Homura was confused by the sudden listing of such long names.
Chandra… Chandra… Dr. Chandra!
That name was deeply connected with the Exploration Club.
It referred to none other than Dr. Chandra, the scientist who discovered Nutella.
However, Homura hadn’t known that Dr. Chandra had a young daughter. Later, Homura would hear elsewhere that she was still only fourteen years old.
“I really would like to come congratulate you in person, but I’m in Beijing right now, so I apologize.”
“Beijing… You’re in China?” asked Homura.
“Yes. Your given name is Homura, correct? May I call you Homura?”
“Y-Yes, of course.”
As Homura stood frozen in confusion, Tenryuu interjected from the side.
“Miss Chandra is, just as she appears, in her earlier teens. However, she’s actually a UN representative inspector from UNPIEP headquarters. She’s currently in China inspecting the investigator groups there. By the way, thanks for your hard work despite how much you must be bursting with the urge to play right now.”
Meivelle’s smiled turned cold as if she’d become an entirely different person.
“I don’t deny that I’m young, but for some reason I feel unpleasant when I’m told that by you of all people, Tenryuu.”
“Kukuku. Sorry about that. However, wouldn’t it be ruder not to tease you for it?
“Why, how thoughtful of you. I still don’t see the reason why you were made the Japanese investigator representative instead of Mister Oozore.
Meivelle glared harshly at Tenryuu, but then she shook it off and held out her hand towards the camera in the gesture for a handshake.
“I beg your pardon for that. Once again, congratulations, Homura. You are an infinitesimal kiss mark between two spheres brushing against each other.”
“K-Kiss mark? W-What does that mean?”
“You’ve become a historic personage who initiated first contact with a Nutellan—”
“H-Historic…? I-In that case, there are two of us.”
“Two?” repeated Meivelle.
“Me and Touya-kun over there. We encountered Subaru-hime on Nutella together.”
Homura turned towards Touya, who had been frowning worriedly since the conversation started. Homura’s expression was slightly proud.
“My, I apologize,” said Meivelle with her hand over her mouth in surprise. “Forgive me for the mistake. Then I’ll say it once more. Congratulations, Mister Touya. Please remember that I’m not the only one who was deeply glad that you returned to Earth safely. I pray for the good luck you two are blessed with to carry on into the future—”
Homura shrugged bashfully.
“Y-Yes… Thank you very much.”
Touya also stood up from his seat and bowed deeply to Meivelle.
“Thank you very much, Miss Chandra. It’s an honor.”
Misasagi and Ameno smiled proudly at their fellow club members.
However, Fujimori alone was waving her hand frantically at Homura in a shooing gesture and trying to chase her out of the room as quickly as possible. Naturally, Homura pretended not to see her gesturing.
“Eh~… W-When you say good luck~…”
“Yes?” The tanned skin titled her head with a good-natured smile at Homura’s bashful fidgeting.
“Exactly… what level of good luck do you mean…? Like, as amazingly lucky as opening a Pino3 box and finding it filled with all star-shaped Pinos?”
“—Pino?” Meivelle widened her blue eyes in confusion. “What’s a Pino? But, I see, though it depends on the definition of ‘star-shaped’, if the two objects in question are star-shaped instead of round and spherical, then they can touch at two separate points in the shortest possible distance.”
Meivelle wore a child-like puzzled expression that suited her age. Homura added more upon realizing something.
“Wait, you don’t have Pinos in India!? Is it because the heat there makes them melt? Anyway, Pinos are—”
“Yes! Yes, you can leave now! Thank you for delivering the message!” shouted Fujimori as she ran over to Homura.
Having reached her limit in tolerating this deviation from the meeting, Fujimori grabbed Homura’s arm and dragged her out of the meeting room.
When she peeked back into the room as she was reluctantly dragged away, she saw Ameno tenaciously picking up after Homura and explaining about Pinos.”
“Pinos are 10% milk solids-not-fat and 8% butterfat, and they mainly contain lipids and abundant calcium…”
Chapter 9 END
(1) The Japanese word for “meek/obedient” is “Sunao”, which is also Inari’s first name, hence the obvious pun by Homura here.
(2) In Japan, people often make promises by grabbing each other’s pinky fingers together.
(3) Pino: a brand of small chocolate covered ice cream snacks in packets of six that is popular in Japan. They come in various shapes and flavors, and the star-shaped ones are considered rare and lucky, especially if all six in a single box are star-shaped.