It had continued falling since late last night, a welcome downpour that mitigated the lingering heat of summer.
Homura awoke early in the morning, an ingrained habit at this point. She got out of bed and absently looked at the greyish clouds above through her room’s window.
Oh my…This’ll put a damper on his spirits…Or maybe not, knowing him…
Homura headed downstairs without bothering to change out of her pajamas.
Her little sister Tsuyu was zealously studying for her upcoming tests with her workbooks and writing implements spread out on the dining room table. She was quite diligent right from the start of the morning.
Apparently, she had an easier time concentrating by occasionally moving from place to place rather than simply staying in her room the whole time.
When Homura had previously tried to compliment her sister’s hard work, Tsuyu had always gotten angry for some reason, so after careful consideration, Homura chose a safe and simple greeting this morning.
Tsuyu nodded back while running her mechanical pencil across her notes.
Homura briefly glanced down and saw English words scribbled on the papers.
Homura went to quench her thirst with special-made barley tea. As Homura drank, Tsuyu suddenly spoke up and broached a conversation on her own initiative, a rare occurrence.
“—Are you skipping your morning run?”
“Hey…at least say it’s canceled because of rain. This is legal, perfectly legal. I’m not skipping at all.”
Homura spread out her arms as if to say, ‘I’m safe, safe.’
True, she could run in a raincoat, but Homura wasn’t that stoically devoted to running, and it would be completely pointless if she got caught up in a traffic accident while doing stamina training.
“Ah, is that so,” Tsuyu replied indifferently as she went back to solving her study questions.
“Tsuyu, are you skipping prep school today?”
“Of course not. Prep school is unaffected by the rain.”
Tsuyu furrowed her brow behind the bridge of her glasses, making her older sister come to a halt.
“Right. It’s not like a school club,” said Homura as realization struck.
Unconsciously, Homura broke out into a smile.
“You’re trying to get into Hiyoshizaka High next year, right? With your ability, Tsuyu, I’m sure you can—”
The moment Homura mentioned her sister’s high school of choice, Tsuyu glared at her with a scary expression.
Homura chose to leave the dining room before she said any more unwanted comments and angered Tsuyu further.
But soon after, Homura came back to the dining room, pacing back and forth behind the studying Tsuyu several times, clearly uneasy. After adjusting her clothes for a while, she hesitantly poked Tsuyu’s shoulder.
“I’m going out for a bit of a stroll. Tell Mom for me, will you?”
“…Yeah, yeah,” Tsuyu replied absently.
Just as Homura was grabbing her favorite umbrella by the front door, Tsuyu hurriedly ran over and called her to a stop.
“Wait, Homura, you can’t go for a morning stroll in weather like this. Do you understand what you’re doing? Didn’t you say you were going to skip this morning because of the rain? What about your breakfast? And when are you going to be back?”
Tsuyu questioned her in a tone that was more motherly than their actual mother. Putting on an exaggerated smile, Homura answered nonchalantly.
“Hmm, breakfast is fine. I feel like toast this morning. I might be late, but I think I’ll probably be back very soon.”
“Which is it?”
“Sorry. I don’t know yet?”
“The heck’s with that?”
“I’ll call you later.”
Homura walked out of her home into the light drizzle outside.
Tsuyu was right, thought Homura, half-amazed at herself.
…What am I even doing?
Homura shook her head slightly while inwardly mumbling that beneath her umbrella, its blue cloth and white-lined silhouette looking like a skyscraper.
The apartment building where Touya Takumi lived was only a short hop on the train and one station away.
However, Homura didn’t feel like using the train this time for some reason, so she headed to his home on foot along the rail line in the rain.
The idea of sneaking past the ticket gate to wait for the train on the platform occurred to her…But the accumulation of such small acts seemed like it would give form to the part of her heart that she still couldn’t put into words, and that thought made her feel restless. While telling herself that she was merely taking a stroll on a whim, she walked alone across the drenched asphalt.
Ascending the hill road leading to the apartment building was actually quite easy for her. Normally, she would have long finished her morning run at this hour. Her body was filled with a faint aching feeling, as if her limbs instinctively sought exercise. Even though she wasn’t in a hurry, her legs automatically carried her forth at a quick pace.
She walked up a short stairway with the dull-colored town behind her and quietly entered the apartment building.
Before her resolve could harden, she arrived before the door to the Touya family apartment.
Uugh…I came here, but…
Homura fidgeted in front of the door as thoughts such as ‘If not only the younger Touya is here, but his father, who’s in the middle of a job transfer away from home, has returned, what should I say?’ and ‘In the first place, aren’t I irrational for intruding so early in the morning?’ ran through her mind. Eventually, though, she just went with the flow and pressed the door buzzer.
…Aaaaah, I pressed it! Am I stupid or something!? Stupid, stupid!
Coming to her senses at the sound of the buzzer, Homura felt her heartbeat rise and imagined her face emitting steam as the panic made the heat rush to her head. But there was no use crying over spilled milk, so she waited while nervously gulping.
But there was no response from inside the apartment. She didn’t hear any reply or any sounds at all.
She rechecked the nameplate next to the door and then tried pressing the buzzer again, but there was no change.
It appeared the boy she was looking for was currently absent.
With no other choice, Homura went back down the corridor of the apartment building where she came, dragging along her drenched umbrella and her unresolved feelings.
Just as she was passing by the bicycle parking lot outside the building, Homura suddenly glanced at a spot beneath the shade of the building’s zinc roof. The glint from the silver wheels of a familiar bicycle there caught her eye.
Homura halted in surprise and looked at the bicycle.
His bike was still here—therefore, he must have skipped his morning exercise due to the rain as well.
But if he wasn’t at home, then where…?
Homura crossed her arms and thought it over, but she couldn’t come up with an answer, so she sighed and reluctantly chose to resume walking away.
But soon after, she coincidentally found the boy she was looking for.
Homura passed through the apartment building’s adjoined park as she walked aimlessly. There was a small gazebo made of wood and concrete within the park. Beneath the edge of its eaves which shielded the gazebo’s interior from the rain, Touya Takumi was standing there wielding a bamboo sword.
“Aah, I found the boy…”
Touya held the bamboo sword aloft and sharply swung it down as he repeatedly slid his body forwards and backwards.
He was silent as he conducted his practice swings without interrupting his pace at all. Only the sound of his sword’s tip cutting the wind reached Homura’s ears.
Touya didn’t have his glasses on while training and wore a sweatshirt and pants that were easy to move in.
Homura tried to call out to Touya while holding her umbrella up high, but her lips stiffened midway through saying his name. Touya hadn’t foreseen that Homura would come and stand here at the park entrance. He didn’t seem to notice her at all.
He simply kept fervently concentrating and swinging his bamboo sword—
Despite the fact that there was no one in front of him, the boy focused on a single spot in the air as he wielded his sword, as if an invisible enemy stood there.
Homura watched his side profile and the small droplets trickling down his nape as he earnestly devoted himself to his training.
This was the second time that Homura had witnessed that expression of his, which made her feel strangely forlorn and helpless.
Unable to find any words to say, all she could do was watch from afar as he cut apart falling raindrops.
The sky grew brighter, but was still covered by clouds, showing no signs of the rain letting up.
When Touya Takumi finished his training and headed back to his family’s apartment at a light trot, he looked up in surprise upon finding Homura sitting on the ground in front of his door.
“Good morning~. You’re late, you know.”
Homura raised a hand while remaining seated and airily greeted him.
A black towel hung around Touya’s neck. His glasses were back on his face now.
“Yeah, good morning—wait, the heck are you doing in front of my home?”
“I’m just taking shelter from the rain. Bivouac, you know, bivouac. Good work on your morning training, Mr. Light-Weight Warrior.”
Touya gave his usual sigh in response.
He then held out his hand and turned over his bamboo sword to present the handle to Homura. Homura grasped the handle and tried to stand up.
Some of his warmth still lingered on the handle, transmitting the heat through the palms of her hands.
Touya then lifted Homura up using the sword with unexpected strength, causing her to stagger to her feet. Dusting off her skirt to hide her embarrassment, she questioned Touya.
“Err, what about that thing you usually do? Did you cancel your ‘Three-Stage Enoshima Rocket Tour’?”
“You mean my plan to go touring on my bike today? Yeah, unfortunately. As you can see, it’s raining, and it seems like it’ll be pouring all day long.”
“Then you’re postponing it till next week?” asked Homura.
Though still puzzled by her sudden visit, Touya answered her question while drying his hair with his towel.
“The second school semester starts next week, remember? …Well, maybe. I’d like to go if my schedule matches up with Doi and Moriguchi’s, but the Exploration Club has quite a full schedule of activities coming up, so I can’t say for sure.”
Homura’s gaze instinctively fell to Touya’s hand as he took out his door key from his pocket.
Touya frowned uncomfortably.
“So, why did you come all the way here, Hinooka?”
“……All right. Touya-kun, let’s go to Enoshima.”
Homura nodded with her arms folded in an exaggerated manner.
“—Huh? What? Right now?”
Touya was so taken aback that he almost dropped the key in his hand.
“You wanted to go to Enoshima, right?” said Homura.
“Like I said, it’s canceled because of the rain…There’s no point in going there by train! It’s fun precisely because I pedal there with my own feet.”
“That kind of trivial thing doesn’t matter. You have nothing better to do, right? Even if we can’t do a three-stage rocket tour, we can switch trains three times. Oh, and I’m hungry.”
“I have no idea what you’re saying.”
Touya threw his towel at Homura’s face.
Homura groaned and bent back from the impact.
“…In any case, talking too long out here is a nuisance to the neighbours, so just go home. I’m not going to let my morning turn into some kind of joke by letting you into my home.”
Homura pouted sulkily and glared fixedly at Touya.
Homura threw the towel back at Touya and tried to steal the bamboo sword from his hand.
That kind of surprise attack wasn’t enough to get the better of Touya, but Homura’s persistent stubbornness forced Touya to reluctantly hand the sword over in the end.
“Hey, don’t play with my bamboo sword—Oww, that hurt.”
Homura imitated Touya’s sword form and thrust at him with the sword.
Touya skillfully caught the sword with the towel by holding it out with both hands.
“…Hey, Touya Takumi.”
“…What is it, Hinooka Homura?”
The two of them once more glared at each other.
“…I realized this after the SA, but Otomaru-kun from Kanazawa Asano said that he’s the only boy in a club full of girls, remember? Now that I think about it, it’s the same for you, Touya-kun.”
“First, put down the sword. We’ll talk after that—oww! So what? In the first place, Ameno’s a robot.”
“But she’s still a girl, you know? Even Inari-senpai, the winner of last year’s Yamato Nadeshiko contest, tends to stick around us! Touya-kun, you’re quite blessed, you know?”
“How, exactly? You realize everything you’re saying is nonsensical, right? Though your sword-wielding posture is starting to look good.”
“Thanks. So, you should suck it up and follow along with a girl’s way of doing things, get it!?”
“What kind of logic is that?”
“It’s a matter of money installments and refunds…I-I follow along with your selfish whims a lot, you know! Like with the morning runs and going to invite Inari-senpai back to the club!”
…And Homura’s entrance into the Exploration Club too? Well, I wonder about that.
“Ah? Selfish whims? I told you, the whole thing with Inari was for the Exploration Club. And the running’s for your sake.”
“Just give it up already and come with me to Enoshima! Like the saying goes, come to Kamakura1! Wait, should it be ‘come to Enoshima’? All right, I get it. If you’re that reluctant, I’ll pay the train fare at least. You should feel honored.”
“I’m not really happy. Going on a trip with the likes of you isn’t—Guh!”
Touya bent over holding his stomach.
After a bit of a delay, Homura realized what she had done and approached him.
“Ah, sorry…I stabbed you seriously…A-Are you okay?”
Raindrops bounced off the train window.
Touya watched the rain with a sullen expression. Homura was forcibly resting her chin on her hands on top of the armrest between their seats.
A bit under an hour after their little quarrel, Touya reluctantly boarded the local train with Homura.
“…………It isn’t letting up.”
“…………Yeah, it isn’t.”
Touya and Homura were sitting next to each other on the train heading for Shounan.
Since they’d boarded the train suddenly and without a plan, their breakfast consisted of some adequate-tasting sandwiches and bottle beverages they bought at a stand in the train station. Homura had been hesitant to eat in the train while surrounded by passengers commuting to work, but her empty stomach cried out the instant she saw other passengers opening their boxed lunches, making her perseverance crumble.
The two of them ate their sandwiches while keeping their gazes down and exchanging few words.
Suddenly, the cork heel of Homura’s sandal was poked by the one of the sneakers next to her.
When she looked up, Touya was pointing obliquely at one of the seats facing them.
When she glanced in that direction, she saw a folded newspaper in the hands of an old salaryman. It was a train commute newspaper, a new kind of tabloid that had made a come-back in print after the transfer to electronic reading. Now that she looked closely, there was something familiar about the photos printed on the front page there…
That’s a photo of Misasagi-senpai’s father…and another of Subaru-hime? That’s the photo I took! But…
The news article was from an international report on Nutella.
The headline was about illegal Nutella investigations within the People’s Republic of China. It wasn’t a formal-looking news report, but rather a flashy article that purposefully stirred up gossip.
Following rumors, a UN inspection on Earth had uncovered the overly long sojourns of young Chinese male investigators on Nutella and the construction of a base camp that ignored international treaties.
However, the photos that had first caught Homura’s eye had nothing to do with those topics. The first showed Diet Member Misasagi from the House of Councillors. The second was a side-shot of a noble-looking lady in traditional Japanese clothing, who had become the symbol of Nutella known by pretty much everyone at this point. Homura had taken that photo herself and brought the film with her to Earth.
Based on a brief skim of the article’s provocative headline, it appeared the Chinese were ignoring the results of the investigation, instead raising strong objections over the blood ties between Councillor Misasagi and Subaru-hime which had been publicly announced recently. It was quite a high-handed protest.
I really wish my photo could have been used in a more enjoyable article…
Dissatisfied with what she saw, Homura sipped her café-au-lait.
And then Homura was the one to poke Touya’s sneaker, pointing at the box seat diagonally across from them.
There, a baby in the arms of a woman was chewing on the necktie of a salaryman sleeping in a nearby seat.
Touya turned his face away, just barely holding back his laughter. However, Homura lay in wait for him in the direction he turned, wearing a serious face with the ham from her sandwich sticking out of her mouth.
Ignoring Touya as he violently choked from the supressed laughter, Homura ate her meal with a victorious expression.
Their small trip continued as they switched over to the Enoshima rail line.
Eventually the two of them reached the base of the bridge that connected to the island of Enoshima.
They stood at the beach beneath blue and green umbrellas and miserably looked at the hazy island on the ocean ahead.
“…Why is it raining at a famous sight-seeing island?” said Homura as she turned to Touya with a dissatisfied expression.
“…I told you, the forecast said it would be raining all day. In the first place, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a sight-seeing place or not; rain falls when it falls.”
“But weather forecasts often get it wrong. We came all the way here, and all we get is this lonely-looking scenery…And my feet are cold and drenched too…”
“My glasses are fogging up…It’s going to be humid this afternoon…”
Homura and Touya grumbled to themselves as they stood fruitlessly beneath the unceasing drizzle.
The silhouette of the island was hazy due to the rain and fog. They could only faintly see the viewing platform standing at the summit of the island like a stylish tumbler glass.
“…Should we head back after all?” asked Homura.
Touya’s glasses glinted sharply as he put them back on after wiping them, making Homura shrink back.
Still, Touya sighed and spoke with a reluctant expression.
“Well…I’m not satisfied with this at all, but we came all the way here. We might as well go take a peek at the island…Otherwise it’d be a waste of the train fare you took out from the money you saved up for buying autumn clothes.”
Upon hearing that, Homura nodded happily.
“Right? All right, let’s go, let’s go. Is there anywhere you want to see or any food you want to eat? Now that I think of it, Enoshima is quite tall, isn’t it? I thought it would be more flat and level. Is that a castle on the peak? Enoshima Castle?”
Touya’s head drooped at his companion’s carefree words.
“You forcefully bring me here and now you want me to be your tour guide? Anyway, Enoshima doesn’t have any castles. It has Shinto shrines, if I remember right.”
“Don’t get so mad. I apologize for forcefully dragging you here. So, shrines? Ah, you’re right. This bridge is called ‘Benten Bridge’, right!? So the god they worship here is the goddess Benten?”
“Who knows? This is my first time coming here too.”
“Ah, is that so—Muu.”
Homura’s excitement suddenly came to an end as she started to fret over perturbing thoughts. If I remember right, Benten’s blessings cover…love and passion…?
“……No, no. Let’s visit the shrines with a positive attitude, yeah.”
“What are you nodding about to yourself there?”
Despite the current weather, this island was still a place of pilgrimage that had been frequently visited since the Kamakura Period. Even this early in the morning, there were quite a few travellers on the main road leading to the shrines past the bridge.
Touya and Homura laughed at the souvenir shops with dried foods and sea shells hanging from their showcases while observing the other tourists, and they climbed a steep staircase to then pass through cogon grass leading to the shrines.
“I see. Your bike tour was a ‘three-stage rocket’ because there are three shrines here, Hetsu Shrine, Nakatsu Shrine and Okutsu Shrine, right?”
“Don’t just decide that on your own. That makes the smaller shrines further down the slope seem pitiful.”
Touya retorted to Homura, who had come to a strange conclusion after passing through one of the shrines.
After proceeding down the street, they stopped at a sake steamed bun shop that had just opened for the day in order to take shelter from the rain and have a morning snack. It was then that Touya spoke up with a sigh.
“I was planning to finish my summer homework today, you know.”
Homura’s expression turned meek as she was mid-bite through a steamed bun.
“Yeah. I still have a few assignments left unfinished.”
“I only have…my Math I and English assignments…”
“Wow, that’s amazing. Those are the only ones you have left? Not bad, Hinooka.”
“……finished out of my homework.”
Touya’s impressed smile immediately disappeared as Homura awkwardly averted her gaze.
“Hey. That’s all you’ve done when summer is nearly over? You treated me like I had nothing to do, but you’re the one who’s in a bad situation…Well, still. What change of heart overcame you that made you do your math homework first when you’re so bad at it?”
Now that you mention it… Homura tried to look back through her poor memory for the reason.
“I guess it’s like, after hearing the stories from other mages during the SA discussion panel, I thought to myself, ‘Isn’t this just linear equations?’ Still, I didn’t really understand the details and merely listened to their conversations from the side, so it’s not like my actual skill and proficiency has changed or anything. Maybe…it’s because I dislike the word ‘math’…”
“……Maybe so.” Touya seemed liked he wanted to say something else, but he merely nodded and changed the subject. “And your English assignment?”
“Yeah, I did that one with Masano-san and the others, but Masano-san was quite Spartan. I thought it’d be easier to do it by myself and left partway through…though I regretted it afterwards.”
“Haha. If that’s how your progress is going, what are you going to do about the rest of the homework?”
“For the assignments on the basics of physics and chemistry…I’m thinking of getting help from Himekawa-san who seems knowledgeable about that. I’ve already learned how to use the chat app on my terminal, you know?”
“Haha, Himekawa has got it rough. Don’t rely on her too much, you hear?”
“And as for Japanese history…I’d like to request the help of the expert Touya-sensei…”
Homura fidgeted and twirled her umbrella nervously.
“Me? I’m in the Geography course, remember? Thanks to helping with your studies, both my history and geography knowledge has become perfect. Well, fine, I’ll do it.”
“Uuu…Thank you very much—Well, those subjects at least are fine since I can ask for other people’s help on them.”
“That’s not fine at all—Ah, I get it. Your biggest obstacle is Mori-chan’s assigned homework, right? For Modern Japanese.”
“Exactly.” Homura’s head drooped. “I have to write my personal impression on a book…and then write an essay…an, essay…”
Despite being assigned by the Exploration Club’s adviser, the homework had naturally been mercilessly handed out to Homura.
“But for the personal impression paper, I’m thinking of doing the same book as Kujou-san. I’ve already borrowed it. It’s the biography of a famous cellist. So I feel a bit motivated to do it.”
“Mori-chan will notice right away if you copy from Fujou’s paper.”
“I would never do that… as long as I’m not well and truly at my wits’ end…”
After passing through Nakatsu Shrine and walking for a while, Homura didn’t show much interest in the island’s botanical garden ahead, but she hesitated upon learning that the only way to climb up to the viewing platform that they’d seen even before entering the island was to pass through that botanical garden. Entry into the garden was charged.
Despite having declared ‘I’ll pay for everything today!’, Homura’s expression turned sour at the prospect of further charges. Seeing her obvious reluctance, Touya sighed and took out his wallet.
After they rode an elevator up to the viewing platform, Homura gazed out over the view that extended 360 degrees around her.
The rain still hadn’t let out, but the view was still spectacular from atop this viewing platform that doubled as the island’s lighthouse. There were only a small scattering of other tourists present.
“The Earth…really is small, huh?”
Homura voiced a strange comment while gazing at the far off horizon.
“Look, you can see how the surface and horizon curves so much from here, right? This viewing platform is a hundred meters above sea level. It’s only a hundred meters, you know? And yet the Earth curves so much you can see it from this height.”
“Is it really that astonishing…?”
“But Nutella’s horizon doesn’t look at different at a~~ll to a disturbing degree even if you climb to the summit of a mountain this high, you know?”
Homura stretched out one hand at eye height and spun in place.
Her shoe soles squeaked against the sparsely populated floor of the viewing platform.
“Hey, it’s dangerous with the floor so wet and slippery.”
“I’m fine, I’m fine.”
As he watched Homura try to act tough, Touya suddenly recalled a memory of Homura on her first visit to Nutella. That time they’d worked together to reel in the cord to hoist up the antenna kite for their communicator, back when she was still an unreliable novice investigator—
“…You really are cheerful and energetic as long as you have sweets to eat, Hinooka.”
“Did you say something? —Oops.”
Touya nodded in understanding as he watched the scenery around Enoshima.
It was something that he had come to keenly feel while traversing Nutella’s mountain ridges; that planet’s horizon was only visible at a very great height. A short climb didn’t really convey the sense that you’d ascended to a high altitude there. Touya wondered just how high you had to climb in order to truly see and sense that Nutella was round like Earth.
“…I don’t think Earth is small at all, but you’re right that it’s different. You get used to it after spending a while there, but it does feel strange during your first few visits to Nutella.”
“Right, right. It was the same with the ocean horizon.”
“—The ocean? You mean Nutella’s ocean?”
Touya stared hard at Homura, puzzled over the meaning of her words.
“Ah, crap—H-Hey, I’m starting to feel hungry. Are there any tasty seafood restaurants around here?”
“We just ate some steamed buns.”
After eating at a restaurant that specialized in fresh seafood, they found the continuous morning rain had finally stopped when they came back out.
A small break of clear weather opened up over the ocean, and the far off waves shone brightly in the sunlight.
“It’s become easier to walk around now,” noted Homura.
“I don’t hate the rain, but I have to admit, this is much better.”
The two of them folded back their umbrellas which they had just picked up from the restaurant’s umbrella rack.
They didn’t retrace the shrine path they’d taken here and instead walked down a quiet backstreet that circled the island.
Some stray cats started appearing here and there, lured out by the clear weather, and as Homura tried to play with one of them, Touya suddenly asked a question.
“Hey, Hinooka. Did you find this summer vacation fun?”
Homura was bewildered by that question, one which she would have had trouble saying herself. Even so, she had to raise her head and answer thus.
“Yeah, it was fun—very fun.”
Those were Homura’s honest feelings.
“—Naturally, the highlight was the SA. I chatted with Himekawa-san all night long, won against Otomaru-kun in rock-paper-scissors, and got treated to flat lemon ice cream by Ishimi-kun and the others from Nagato Fisheries. I visited Ame-chan’s room at Honba Lab and met her little sister Samari-chan too. And…I think I managed to get a bit closer to Inari-senpai as well.”
“Is that so? You don’t have to list only stuff related to the Exploration Club, you know?”
It was unknown whether or not Touya had noticed the piece of the secret that Homura had accidentally hinted at earlier, but he certainly acted as if he hadn’t heard it.
“…Ah, and I also enjoyed getting to see Kujou-san’s swimsuit! We went to the pool along with Koma-senpai and Taga-senpai. I took lots of photos there.”
“Ah, you mean that resort pool you went to. But didn’t that end up being a gathering of mostly Exploration Club members in the end? Wait, Taga-senpai went too? Eh, that Taga-senpai? I feel a bit of sympathy for him.”
“What was that? But you know, it was funny seeing Koma-senpai frolicking around too much and getting scolded by Kujou-san.”
“Haha, Kujou is always strong and firm even with people older than her.”
However, Homura felt that ‘firmness’ was actually Kujou’s way of being kind.
Homura nodded as she recalled the days of summer she’d experienced.
“—It was fun. There were lots of experiences I probably couldn’t have done if I didn’t enter the Exploration Club. This might be the first time a summer vacation has felt so short to me…since the time I went to stay at my dad’s hometown with just Tsuyu and me back in elementary school.”
“I’m glad to hear that.”
Those words struck Homura with a sense of déjà vu. She got the feeling that her father had said something similar while hugging her and her sister when he came to pick them up afterwards.
Glancing at the ocean, Homura’s head drooped a little.
“…It’s no good after all. Nanakubo-senpai told me to keep it secret, but I can’t seem to do it. Should I tell you what happened that night during the SA?”
“Is there some problem with you telling me about it? Well, whatever. I think you’ve got some good resolve, admitting that you want to say it without using roundabout methods like asking ‘Do you want to know?’.”
Seeming to resign herself after hearing Touya’s sharp analysis of her thoughts, Homura spoke up.
“…There was a little race.”
“You mean a race between the Exploration Clubs from each school?”
Homura nodded. She spoke while walking slightly ahead of him.
“Just as you imagined, we went to Nutella that night. Two members from each school, making a total of twenty-six volunteers. We went to a southern island on Nutella.”
“—Just as I thought. You got to see Nutella’s ocean, huh…I wanted to see it for myself.”
“Kujou-senpai said that if anyone who didn’t participate this year wants to visit that island next time, they can go on the condition that they aren’t told about the island’s terrain and characteristics…”
Homura swiftly turned around and poked Touya’s nose as he wore a disappointed expression.
“But I think that’s only if you participate in the race itself. After all, next year, we can join in as part of the race’s organizers.”
“Oh, so there was that option too. I see.”
Homura had come up with this idea in order to forget any personal concern over the race itself.
For next year’s race, she could just leave it all to Ameno, who should soon be capable of functioning on Nutella, and the new Seiran Exploration club members who would join then. It really was a convenient arrangement.
Eventually, Homura and Touya found a path that diverted slightly from the island’s main strolling course and led down to the beach along the north side, and they decided to walk down it.
As they walked, Homura told Touya about what had happened on the Nutellan island and Inari-senpai’s actions there. She told most of the events out of order, focusing on the memories that had left a deep impression. She promised to talk about the race in greater detail another time at the club building.
Talking about everything that happened made the excitement of the race return to Homura’s heart, but then she turned dispirited at the regret that gradually creeped up within her along with it.
“What’s wrong, Hinooka?”
“…Sorry. I guess I just wanted to tell someone about it and show off…You wanted to participate in the race too, Touya-kun.”
As Homura peered at his expression nervously, Touya shook his head calmly.
“I don’t mind. Personally, I think it’s better to be a fool who realizes and regrets their mistakes than someone frivolous who remains ignorant.”
Homura recalled his face as he’d been swinging his bamboo sword amidst the rain—
She hadn’t even tried to glimpse into the crack within his heart then. Homura chewed her lip, regretting having made Touya say something like ‘it’s better to realize and regret’.
Did you find this summer—fun—?
She should have just asked it naturally like she always did. That was Homura’s role, yet she sadly failed this time. When she looked at him gaze straight at the ocean from the rockface, she just couldn’t do it.
The evening that day, he learned a shocking truth from Kanae Yuri at the parking lot—
But he had already risen beyond Homura’s worries.
“Sorry for making you act all considerate towards me today.”
“…What are you going to do about senpai?”
“There’s nothing I can do.”
“You’re going to give up?”
“A-Actually, I think the match is just getting starting.”
“Don’t say that so casually, idiot.”
Touya bumped a loosely gripped fist against Homura’s head. Still, Homura worked up the courage to ask another question, fully prepared for Touya to get mad at her again.
“Their relationship might have been like that for a long time now and we simply didn’t know about it…But if Misasagi-senpai and Representative Tenryuu became an official couple, would you still remain in the Exploration Club, Touya-kun?”
Homura was surprised by Touya’s immediate reply.
“Nutella isn’t a place that a single person can deal with alone. You never know what’s going to happen there. We learned that ourselves plenty during the incident with Suzuran. Club members have to support each other.”
Homura nodded. But that didn’t mean she agreed with all of Touya’s words.
“But…Is there any point in protect someone who’s heading into danger of their own will?”
Touya turned to look at Homura with an unsettled expression.
“…What’s that mean?”
“Because, Touya-kun, don’t you think senpai—”
She knew it was something she shouldn’t say.
But she continued even so, even if it meant being alienated by Touya.
She had grown too close to Touya Takumi’s heart and could no longer lie to him.
“Touya-kun, don’t you get the feeling…that senpai, that Misasagi Mayo-senpai is being forced to participate in the Exploration Club? That she’s just doing as she’s told by her Diet member father…that she’s trying to respond to her position, her responsibility, the bonds and ties between people, and is suffering from a harsh sense of duty…?”
For an instant, Touya’s gaze turned sharp, making Homura flinch.
But that harsh gaze of his eventually swayed and vanished.
“…Maybe so. It’s just like you say, I do get that feeling…though even if I directly asked senpai about it, she’d probably deny it and say it’s not out of duty or obligation.”
Homura nodded in agreement and listened to Touya’s next words.
“—There’s no way a girl who just started middle school would willingly choose to undertake Ranger training. But even if she was following orders, senpai definitely worked her hardest, wanting to be acknowledged by that splendid father of hers.”
‘That was her duty as one born as a child of the Misasagi family’—there was no way they could just lightly write it off like that. Homura felt the same as Touya in her feelings of protest at the irrational unfairness binding senpai, including that fiancée matter.
But what occupied Homura’s mind the most right now was, for some reason, Touya himself. She suddenly recalled the photo frame of that small boy and his older sister in his room.
As Homura overlapped that young crying face of his with his current self, Touya continued to speak of his overflowing thoughts and feelings towards senpai.
“—When she entered high school, she became an investigator as if it were only natural, and she was given charge of that fortress-sized club building at our school, making her desperately work hard even if she became the only club member there.”
Touya gritted his teeth vexingly.
“Compared to senpai’s earnest feelings, my love-at-first-sight is truly trivial.”
—Homura’s chest ached.
That sharp pain, brought to light so unexpectedly, terrified Homura. Unable to say anything to refute Touya’s words, the pain penetrated deep within her heart and coiled up there, lurking in the background.
She didn’t want to affirm Touya’s self-derision with her silence. But he spoke up again before she could do anything, his frank tone filled with resignation.
“—She loves the Exploration Club and Seiran High…and she respects her father, so she probably always neglects herself the most. In that case, someone has to act as senpai’s ally and help her.”
But that’s not all—
It wasn’t merely a sense of duty that supported Misasagi Mayo.
That’s the feeling that Homura got, and she barely managed to ask Touya another question.
“Touya-kun…you decided to practice kendo by your own will, right?”
Just as Touya had been on the verge of settling his feelings, a bitter expression appeared on his face.
“That’s just my cheap wish to be a hero. As if it could compare to the training senpai risked her life to undergo. Still, in order to be of use to senpai, that’s the only way I can—”
Touya briefly paused to take a deep breath.
“…The one who’s truly been helping senpai is you, Hinooka. After hearing your exploits in the race on Nutella, I realized it once again. I’m no good at all. I can’t do anything well.”
His outpouring of self-derisive words pained Homura. And then…
“…Besides, kendo is useless.”
Homura couldn’t believe she heard that dry murmur from Touya.
As Homura looked at him in bewilderment, Touya seemed to hesitate for a bit, but eventually continued.
“On Nutella…in that misty forest, I tried to cut down Taga-senpai. I might have hurt you and president Kamikoma too.”
“…That’s…” Homura gulped. “Touya-kun, you remember…? You remember what happened back then?”
Touya hadn’t talked about the time he’d been turned into Subaru-hime’s puppet even once until now. He had left that part blank even when he recounted his experiences to Fujimori-sensei when she was writing down a report of the incident in the Exploration Club building after his rescue.
“I still don’t remember everything…”
Touya dug his nails into his anguished face and murmured in a moaning tone.
“…But lately, there are times when I remember. The memories resurface in my mind every once in a while. When I was captured on Nutella, I spent several days in Subaru-hime’s castle. When I was alone with the witch princess. It’s only bits and fragments, but I remember it.”
Homura was speechless.
“The first time I saw it was in a dream…A dream where I was fighting with all my might in a fierce battle against Taga-senpai. The dream was vague and faint, but I can tell. The sensation that it really happened still lingers in my arms.”
Touya looked down at his hand.
Reflexively, Homura grasped that hand. The trembling feeling wasn’t coming from him, but her—
“J-Just forget it already, okay? No one cares about that kind of thing! The same goes for me and Taga-senpai! It’s all in the past!”
Homura desperately tried to persuade him, but she received sharp words in reply that made her recoil.
“That kind of thing? That kind of thing!? I remember it! I did the one thing I least want to do. I turned my sword against my comrades—!”
“You were being controlled back then, so it couldn’t be helped. It’s not your fault, you know?”
“…If I had dealt an irrecoverable wound to Taga-senpai, would you still say it couldn’t be helped? Are you saying it couldn’t be helped even if I wounded the defenseless Koma-senpai?”
Homura shook her sorrowfully.
“But…then, doesn’t that make it seem like you’re staying in the Exploration Club for the sake of atonement…? That’s no good. You know that, right?”
Homura looked straight at Touya’s slightly wavering eyes.
“You should properly talk to others about this. This isn’t a problem for you to shoulder by yourself. You have to probably face and talk with everyone else in the Exploration Club.”
“And thus increase senpai’s burdens further? There’s no way I could do that.”
Though he wasn’t rough or violent about it, Touya threw off Homura’s hand with a force that broke no refusal.
“Hinooka, please don’t tell anyone about this. Not to senpai or Fujimori-senpai. I actually didn’t want to tell you either, but I feel I owe you a huge debt, so I said it to you alone.”
“Debt, you say… Stop it with that…”
“Still, I definitely have to talk to Taga-senpai. I have to tell him to break my arms without hesitation if I ever go crazy like that again.”
“That won’t happen again! Subaru-san is completely reformed now. She promised to cooperate with us.”
“…If I knew this was how it was going to turn out, I would never have started kendo.”
Homura desperately tried to stop Touya as he became even more obstinate on the matter.
“I know you don’t really think that. I saw the kendo championship trophies in your room!”
“…So what? My sword techniques had no effect on Yukiwarimaru.”
“There’s no way to know whether or not it’ll be useless in the future. I-If Taga-senpai ends up going on a rampage next, who will stop him? —Besides, you’re wrong. The one who’s truly been helping senpai is you, Touya-kun.”
“I’m not! Remember what Miss Chandra said at the SA club president meeting? She said she was thankful that you came back safely. The one who felt that gratitude the most was definitely senpai! After senpai and I returned to Earth by emergency transport, she was clearly feeling very down…Her face looked so sorrowful I thought she wouldn’t manage to recover from it. Fujimori-sensei and I were worried for you too, but it’s because you’re here in the Exploration Club now that senpai is okay.”
“You’re wrong. I’m the one who caused that in the first place.”
“Get it through your thick head! You’ve already helped us plenty—”
“I told you, you’re wrong! To help senpai, I have to—”
Touya’s words tampered off there, but Homura could clearly tell what he was trying to say.
Touya’s true thoughts and feelings—
I have to get stronger—
But won’t I end up hurting someone again like that—?
Homura painfully understood the agony that immobilized Touya as he was trapped by that contradiction.
After a long silence, Touya eventually murmured with a sigh.
“This is no good…”
“We’re so stupid.”
“Yeah. We are.”
“If even we end up quarrelling like this…”
“Yeah…If she saw us seriously fighting like this, Misasagi-senpai would surely be sad. Really, really sad. And when she’s already troubled by the whole issue with Inari-senpai too.”
“Yeah. We can’t let the Seiran Exploration Club break up any further. Ah, we really do look like idiots here, don’t we? Even if we uselessly spin our wheels in a place like this, we won’t advance a single step.”
“……We really do look like idiots.”
Those words were similar to self-hatred as well, but it still showed that he was reflecting on himself in a slightly more positive manner, so Homura relieved somewhat.
For the time being, they chose to soothe their wearied hearts by gazing at the seagulls flying over the ocean for a while. Eventually, Touya spoke up and asked a certain request of Homura.
“…Ah, by the way,” said Touya while scratching his head and averting his gaze. “If you have any photos of Kujou and Koma-senpai at the pool, please show them to me.”
“No…I’m just saying, if you happened to take any photos…”
Homura was simply stunned for a short while, but then she snickered.
She took out her cellphone and dangled it in front of Touya.
“Hmph, I did take some picture. In that case, I’ll offer them to you in exchange for helping with one page of my homework for each photo. How about it, Touya-sensei? Well?”
“Ah? …You little, you’re willing to sell out your friend and senpai!? Are you a demon!? A demon of Enoshima!?”
“If you want, how about I add in photos of me as a special bonus? Well?”
“…Guh…Fine, I get it. I’ll take those of you too while I’m at it. Photos can’t talk, after all.”
“Wha…What’s that supposed to mean!? Idiot! Die!”
Chapter 12 END
(1) Here, the original expression used is “Come to Kamakura City!”, a metaphor often used to say “there’s a major emergency”. It originates from the Kamakura Period, when the government would gather the samurai throughout the land in Kamakura when an emergency occurred.