Afterwards, they boarded the local train from Enoshima and headed to Fujisawa Station through the main rail line—
Homura remained silent and sulky on the train ride home.
She kept roughly playing with the white Rubik’s cube in her hands, her mood failing to improve.
In addition, she completely ignored anything Touya said, perhaps an indication of just how much she cared about his earlier comment.
Nonplussed, Touya reluctantly changed his plans to go home immediately and instead dropped by the shopping street in front of the station.
“It’s pretty crowded everywhere.”
The sky had completely cleared up at this point and a refreshing after-rain wind blew through the traffic circle in front of the station. Even so, Homura still kept glaring at Touya with narrowed eyes, creating a gloomy atmosphere that weighed down on him.
As they stood on the pedestrian deck in front of the station, Homura pointed at a Western confectionery shop that just came into view. It also doubled as a café inside. It’s already decided that I’m paying, huh? With a mental sigh, Touya obediently went along with Homura’s wish.
Just as they were about to head over to the shop—
Homura bumped into a woman who had just walked out of the hotel near the station.
The tall woman nimbly dodged the collision and bowed her head in apology. Homura frantically apologized as well.
“No, I’m the one who should apologize…Wait, Mori-chan?”
The instant Homura said her name, the woman stiffened and let out a stifled shriek.
“W-Why?” She stared at Touya and Homura in turn.
She was wearing a white lace blouse and a knee-length pleated (Eh!?) skirt. The outfit was accented by a mesh belt that loosely adorned her thin waist.
With such a wildly out-of-place outfit, she didn’t look like the teacher they knew at all, but…
“You’re Mori-chan, right?” repeated Homura.
“Fujimori-sensei, what are you doing in a place like this?” asked Touya, cornering her further.
“…Y-You’ve got—you have the wrong person!”
Desperately shaking her head and denying their words, Fujimori, no, the young woman who happened to be passing by frantically hid her face and swiftly walked away. Homura and Touya watched her leave with flabbergasted expressions.
“…‘You’ve got—you have’? Does Mori-chan really think she managed to deceive us with that? Do you think she’s here to meet with someone?”
“I didn’t see anything. I didn’t see anyone in a situation that just screamed ‘What have I done!? This is the blunder of a lifetime!’ or anything like that.”
“—Hmm? That’s unexpectedly tactful of you, Touya-kun.”
Homura jokingly acted impressed at Touya’s choice to feign ignorance.
“Yeah. I have no idea which Fuji-something-or-other-sensei she was, but this is the first time in a while I’ve seen her wearing something besides jeans outside of school. And she was even carrying a handbag. It really suited her. She didn’t have to run away like that.”
Well, this was Fujimori-sensei they were talking about—she came out from a normal city hotel that had absolutely nothing suspicious about it. They tried peeking into the hotel lobby through the front glass door, but they didn’t see any familiar faces inside.
Setting that unexpected encounter aside at Homura’s urging, the two of them walked through the door of the Western confectionery shop.
Homura’s attention was caught by the brass doorbell that rang at their entry. Touya was relieved that she seemed to have forgotten her earlier anger at him after bumping into Fujimori.
As they were being led to their designated seats by the store clerk, Homura’s gaze happened to catch a certain vacant table.
A white porcelain tea set lay on the table. Pieces of cute decorative paper with arrow feather and orchid patterns were scattered around it along with various handmade origami.
Next to the table was an electric wheelchair lying folded away to the side. It was the kind of half-robotic wheelchair that had recently gained popularity, built so that the riders could freely move on and off the seat themselves and it could automatically put itself away into a suitcase after being used. And as for the origami…
A still unfinished origami frog on the table looked like a tadpole on the verge of adulthood with its hind legs sticking out the back.
As they waited for their cake order, Homura immediately figured out who had made the origami.
She heard a familiar voice from the direction of the restroom, and she just happened to meet that person’s eyes at that moment. They were bright and twinkling green eyes.
“—Homura-san? And Takumi-san too? What a coincidence, meeting you guys here!”
The one who happily called out to them was none other than Ameno. She smiled at the two of them while helping an old woman walk. The old woman holding Ameno’s hand turned to question her.
“Are they acquaintances of yours, Ameno-chan?”
After Homura and Touya moved over to sit with them at the old woman’s invitation, Ameno introduced them.
“Let me introduce you. This is Akado Tsuwako-san.”
Homura reacted to that last name, which was still fresh in her memory.
“Yes. She’s the grandmother of Akado Fukiko-san from Honba Institute’s research lab.”
The old woman was the grandmother of Akado-san, the assistant working at the research lab with Toneri. The woman calmly looked at Homura and Touya as she greeted them.
“Nice to meet you, Touya-san, Homura-san. So you’re Ameno-chan’s comrades in the Exploration Club.”
“Yes,” the two of them affirmed with a nod. Now that they looked closely, they could see that her features resembled Akado-san’s.
She also had a sharp gaze despite her elegant demeanor.
However, her knees and back seemed to be weakening from old age, so she apparently had trouble moving around by herself.
“And Takumi-san is my classmate too.”
“My, is that so?”
With a broad smile on her face, Ameno proudly recounted the details of her school life to the old woman, making her look like a loving grandchild despite their mismatched appearances.
“Fukiko-san helped us recently,” said Touya as he greeted her.
“Did she now? Fukiko has been quite lively since transferring to her current workplace. But, funnily enough, these days I’m being assisted by the very Ameno-chan that Fukiko-chan is raising.”
“Ah, you’re right.” Homura nodded in understanding, recalling Ameno’s helping gesture earlier. “Your caregiving form was almost picturesque, Ame-chan. You looked like a real natural at it.”
“Yeah. The guys in our class would be surprised if they saw you, I guarantee it.”
Ameno waved her arms frantically.
“Not at all. Actually, I’m the one who’s always been taught things by Tsuwako-san.”
Though she tried to be humble, she was clearly embarrassed as she covered her face from the sudden praise.
Just the other day, Homura and Touya had glimpsed the Caregiving Robot model room at Honba Institute.
Apparently, Mrs. Akado was one of the people who had volunteered in response to the lab’s in-house recruitment of test subjects from among employee families, for the sake of conducting initial study trials into the application of robotic caregiving.
In order to obtain basic data for mass-production caregiving robots, test subjects were invited to the model room and received caregiving from the robots as a practical test. Ameno had learned how to physically touch and assist human movement properly as one of the caregiving robots there.
It was a valuable experience for Ameno, certain to aid in her Exploration Club activities as well.
“That’s not all. Tsuwako-san used to work for Honba Institute too, right?”
Mrs. Akado nodded.
“Although, saying I ‘worked for the lab’ might be an exaggeration. It’s more like I was employed there as an outside contractor. It was quite a long time ago.”
“At Honba Institute? What kind of work did you do?” asked Touya with keen interest.
“I drew up plans. My job description was machinery drafting, though you might not be able to imagine the kind of work it involves from the term alone. I used tools like Drafter and T-Square to sketch designs,” explained Mrs. Akado while miming the gesture of running a pen straight across an inclined desk with her hand. “Though right before I retired, we did start using CAD software.”
“Then you made motorcycle designs!?” exclaimed Homura.
“No, nothing that extravagant. But I did design plenty of individual motorcycle components.”
While discussing various topics with Mrs. Akado, including how Akado was taught by her grandchild Akado Fukiko, they managed to hear anecdotes from her past.
Having originally started as an office worker at a machine factory, she started learning draftsmanship on the recommendation of the people around her and soon came to be valued highly for her methodical and quick workmanship, apparently leading her to move around various factories.
Eventually, she settled down at Honba Institute and worked there full-time with breaks for maternity leave until her thirties. The name of Honba Institute’s founder also came up here and there as she recounted her past.
“I’m greatly indebted to Honba-san, especially since it’s thanks to working at the institute that I met my husband. Work there was always hectic due to a lack of personnel, but I managed to work hard there until I gave birth to my second child.”
Suddenly, Mrs. Akado looked next to her with a joking expression.
“But I never thought I would end up being helped by Honba-san’s child too.”
Realizing Mrs. Akado was referring to her, Ameno’s eyes gleamed happily. Her proud smile was dazzling under the afternoon sunlight.
“Ehehe. The truth is, when you guys were visiting the lab last week, I was paying a visit to Tsuwako-san at the hospital after her operation with Chiayu-san. Sorry I wasn’t there to guide you guys around.”
“Heh, is that so? In that case, congratulations on getting discharged from the hospital!” said Homura.
“It wasn’t a major operation, you know. I wouldn’t have minded if you prioritized your friends, Ameno-chan.”
“I couldn’t do that! Tsuwako-san is my precious grandma, after all!”
“How sweet of you, Ame-chan. You made the right call,” agreed Homura.
“Yeah. Fukiko-san did a great job of showing us around the lab, so it wasn’t a problem—By the way, how’s your health after the operation, Tsuwako-san?”
“The operation went quite well. I feel a bit better now. Ameno-chan sure has some polite friends.”
Touya looked at her wheelchair with a slightly worried gaze, and perhaps perceiving his concern, Mrs. Akado complimented him on his kind-heartedness before returning to the subject.
“Since I went through an operation and all, I have to avoid moving my body as much as possible for the time being. And since Ameno-chan went out of her way to spend time with me, I’m having her help me out.”
“Ask me for help whenever. I have no intention of falling behind the mass-production models~”
Ameno clenched her fists with resolve.
“—By the way, was Mori-chan with you two earlier today?”
Ameno nodded at Homura’s question.
“Yes. She came with us here by car. She should already have returned by now, but she seems to be late.”
“If the two of them are having a lively conversation, then that’s wonderful.”
Mrs. Akado wore a satisfied expression while Ameno replied in a somewhat doubtful tone.
Mrs. Akado’s words solidified Homura’s confidence in the guess she’d formed earlier.
“Could it be that Fujimori-sensei…went to a marriage interview1 today?”
“How did you know that!? And after Chiayu-san strictly forbade any information leaks!”
Ameno’s eyes widened in shock.
“A marriage interview? Fujimori-sensei?”
Touya’s surprise was equal to Ameno’s.
“I’m the one who is surprised here…A-After all, Mori-chan is…”
Before Homura could say anything further, Ameno’s next words came flying in from an unexpected angle.
“I’d say you and Takumi-san are the real surprising ones, going on a love-love date together. Did you go to Enoshima?”
Touya choked on the tea he’d just sipped. Not paying him any mind, Ameno continued with an eager expression.
“If only Chiayu-san could learn from your assertiveness, then she wouldn’t worry Tsuwako-san so much.”
Meanwhile, Homura’s face turned deadly serious and her hand flashed in front of her as she waved it in denial so fast its movement couldn’t be caught with the naked eye.
“No, no, no, that’s a misunderstanding,” Homura swiftly replied. “I’ve already decided that my heart belongs to Kujou-san.”
Ameno nodded somewhat uncertainly, and Homura proudly put her finger to her chin as she explained.
“Today I went to give a pep rally for the troubled boy Touya-kun. After all, Nutella is an environment that makes it easy to go on a rampage, so—guhoh!”
Releasing that strange gurgle, Homura face-planted on the table.
Digging his elbow into the side of Homura who’d been saying whatever she wanted, Touya desperately tried to change the subject.
“B-By the way, what’s with those origami?”
“Ah, Tsuwako-san and I made these while waiting for Chiayu-san.”
Upon closer look, there were indeed various kinds of origami on the table.
There was a frog, a deer, a rhinoceros, a lion, and a panda made from paper that was white on one side and black on the other.
“It’s just a pastime I have as a way of stopping myself from going senile,” explained Mrs. Akado.
“Tsuwako-san was the one who taught me how to make origami,” added Ameno.
“Heh,” remarked Touya in admiration.
Each origami was so elaborately folded that they could easily be called works of art, clearly deviating from a mere pastime to prevent senility.
“Chief Toneri was also quite obsessed with it for a time, you know?” said Ameno. “He mumbled something like, ‘This could serve as a breakthrough to a renormalized cosmological theory.’”
“Sky-kun shows interest in pretty much everything,” remarked Mrs. Akado.
“But he didn’t keep at it that long in the end.”
“Oh my—Ah yes, before I forget.”
Mrs. Akado took out a small yet thick envelope from her purse.
She then took out from it a small piece of origami that fit snugly in her palm.
“Ameno-chan, you’re finally able to travel to and explore Nutella like you’ve always wanted, right? I’d like to give this to you as a protection charm. If you like…and if it won’t get in your way, please bring it with you.”
Ameno widened her eyes at the light green origami that Mrs. Akado casually held out to her.
It was an origami frog, like the kind that Ameno often made in her free time at the club building. It had a cute form that could even bulge its cheeks.
However, it differed slightly from the ones Ameno made in that it had a small baby frog riding on top of the parent frog’s back.
“Wow, it’s so cute~” exclaimed Homura innocently upon seeing it. “How nice, Ame-chan. You got a wonderful protection charm.”
After receiving the origami, Ameno stared at it intently.
“T-This is amazing…How did you…?”
“…Ah? …Huh? Wait, it’s…all folded from a single piece of paper?”
Touya also noticed the frog’s secret. He brought his face closer to the origami on top of Ameno’s palm to get better look.
“Well, who knows? I’ve always been good at using my eyes for fine and delicate things, so if I was a bit healthier, I’d like to try putting another one on top.”
Mrs. Akado smiled with a bit of pride.
Ameno bowed her head to her.
“Thank you very much. I’ll think of this as Tsuwako-san and bring it with me to Nutella.”
It was only a folded piece of paper, but Ameno preciously wrapped it within her palms, deeply moved.
“Speaking of frogs, Chiayu-san seems to have finally returned. I wonder how things went with her?”
In the direction that Mrs. Akado was looking at—was Fujimori, standing shyly at the entrance to the confectionery shop.
She noticed the table they were seated at but seemed to be hesitating to come over. Her face was dejected, wasting the makeup she had went out of her way to put on. Just where and how long had she killed time after parting from Homura and Touya earlier?
Hmm, it’s a real waste, but…
After eating the last slice of strawberry tart, Homura clapped her hands together.
“All right, Touya-kun—let’s pretend we didn’t hear about the marriage interview.”
“Isn’t it already obvious we know after seeing us here with Tsuwako-san and Ameno?”
“No, no, we didn’t hear anything! If we get up and leave now, Mori-chan might pay the bill for this cake order, you know?”
Realizing Homura’s plan, Ameno leaned forward.
“In that case, how about we pretend I ate your shares?” suggested Ameno.
“That’s pushing it a bit too much,” said Touya with a wry smile.
Naturally, Homura was very interested in the results of Fujimori-sensei’s marriage interview, but even she felt hesitant to delve that far into her teacher’s privacy.
Besides, Homura could just ask her about it the next time they met.
After seeming to finally resign herself, Fujimori entered the shop, and Homura and Touya got up to go greet her.
“Thanks for the meal, sensei.”
“It was delicious, sensei.”
“Y-Yeah… eh, what’s this? A bill for a cake and black tea order?”
Fujimori wore an astonished expression as she was handed the bill by the two of them.
She immediately perceived the intent of her two cheeky students. She glared at Homura bitterly.
“You guys have finished your summer homework, right? …Especially you, Hinooka…”
“I’m going to remember this if you miss the deadline by even a single second…”
Homura cringed as she was threatened by Fujimori, whose atmosphere was completely different from usual.
“I-I’ll do my best…”
“As I thought, you haven’t even started yet—Hurry up and go home!”
“Roger~” And with that, Homura and Touya obediently departed.
A while later, it was finally time for Homura and Touya to part for the day after getting off the train, as the thick shadow of summer enveloped the train platform.
Touya and Homura took different paths home from here. Homura would go straight through the ticket gate and walk home while Touya would switch train lines to head to the next station over.
Homura casually killed time as she stayed with Touya while he waited for the next train.
As she gazed at the evening sky that was starting to turn orange, Homura recalled a certain matter that had been bugging her for a while now and asked Touya about it.
“‘Sandu…leak’? What language is it from? How’s it spelled?” asked Touya in request of more details.
“I don’t know.”
“…Figures. As usual, you never bother to research things on your own, Hinooka.”
“Hahaha, the weather’s really cleared up now.” Homura let out a forced laugh as she turned to look at one of the station’s shop stands. “Is it a bread shop or something? Or maybe an old shop that specializes in pastrami sandwiches that’s been around since the Ero Period?”
“…Did you really hear Toneri-san say that word?”
“He really did ask me about it—‘Do you have any recollection of this work?’, he asked.”
Touya took out his cell phone and did a web search with the spelling that seemed most likely. He immediately found a probable answer.
“Sanduleak…is probably a person’s name. It’s a Romanian family name…It’s spelled ‘Sanduleak’ in English. I don’t know much more than that.”
“A person’s name? That’s nowhere near enough to figure it out,” complained Homura.
“But there’s a certain phrase that pops up with overwhelming frequency on web searches—‘Sanduleak -69° 202’.”
“…Sixty-nine two hundred and two?”
Touya showed Homura his cell phone. The display showed several nearly identical trimmed images.
“Pictures of some galaxy? No, wait, this is a nebula?”
“Yeah. To be precise, it’s an emission nebula—the ruins of a star. The remains of a supernova.”
“The ruins of a star? Ah, that thing. A star’s gravesite, like what’s written in the textbooks.”
“—Not that. Though they both have to do with supernovas.”
Touya nodded while reading the entries he looked up.
“This is in the Dorado constellation. It went supernova in the last century… It was several years before we were born.”
“Hmm. In that case, it seems even more unrelated.”
The star called Sanduleak was originally a blue super-giant 168 000 light years away from the solar system, with twenty times the mass and a hundred thousand times the luminosity of the sun. Or so Touya read from the online database.
“‘—A neutron star should have been born at the center of the supernova, but it has yet to be discovered by visual observation…’ Heh, I wonder where it went.”
Homura half-heartedly listened to Touya’s explanation.
She looked closely at the images in question on her phone after Touya forwarded it to her.
“Heh…But, when you look at it closely, it kinda resembles a ring.”
This time Touya was the one to peek at Homura’s cell phone.
“Now that you mention it, you’re right—A ring, huh?”
Touya brought his face close to the cell phone while knotting his brow in thought, and Homura involuntarily blushed at his close vicinity to her.
Soon after, Touya’s train arrived, and Homura saw him off after hurriedly getting him to promise to help her with her homework.
Thus, the last bit of Homura’s summer vacation passed by in a busy blur.
Chapter 13 END
(1) Marriage interview: a Japanese traditional custom where a single man and woman are introduced to each other to talk and consider the possibility of marriage. It is usually arranged through the participant’s families or a professional matchmaking organization.