A certain day after school, the Seiran Exploration Club members were gathered as usual in the club building’s standby room.
Having finished their ten-day mission on Nutella and safely returned to Earth, Homura and the others were currently relaxing as they ate sweets—today they were eating donuts that Ameno had prepared for them—while they were discussed plans for a light mission before the mid-term tests of the second semester.
It was then that an unexpected proposal was presented.
“You want to accompany the Hiyoshizaka group on their expedition—?”
That was the first thing Fujimori-sensei said after hearing Homura’s request.
Fujimori let out a sigh that went past exasperation to near admiration at Homura’s boldness.
“This is the first time you’ve ever made such a request. Are you okay? Did you catch some strange disease on Nutella?”
Fujimori dramatically turned a raised eyebrow at Misasagi, Touya and Ameno. It seemed this was their first time hearing about Homura’s request as well.
Pouting at Fujimori’s joking attitude, Homura resumed explaining her idea.
“The construction of the base camp is proceeding smoothly, and Subaru-san is helping out with it too. Would it be fine to accelerate our schedule?”
“You say it like it’s so easy. If this is just from your desire to avoid studying for the upcoming tests, I’m going to straight up refuse, okay?”
“Ugh… T-That’s not it at all. Though I do hate tests.”
“But Hinooka, you—”
“Now, now, let’s just put that aside for now,” said Homura, pre-empting Touya from saying any further.
Fujimori briefly lapsed into thought while rocking her chair, but suddenly straightened up with a bright expression.
“Well, why not? A winter investigation sounds like fun, and it’s sure to be beautiful on Nutella in this season. As long as Koma and Misasagi are there, it should turn out all right.”
“Right!” agreed Homura.
“That reminds me, Chief Toneri requested that Ameno be sent out on a winter investigation… Something about testing the special low-temperature resistance of her metal-air electrochemical cell…”
“Really?” said Ameno with an excited face.
However, Misasagi interrupted with a worried tone.
“But, sensei… Hinooka-san, is still, a novice, investigator.”
Fujimori’s expression seemed to say, ‘So what?’, so Touya stood up and fetched a book that contained all the main stipulations of Exploration Club activities from a nearby bookshelf. Once it was placed in front of Fujimori, she finally seemed to remember.
“Ah, right. Novice investigators aren’t allowed to go on missions like this.”
“Sensei… at least remember the basic regulations,” said Touya in exasperation.
“But there weren’t any rules like this back in my time.”
Thanks to that, dear Chiayu-san and her comrades during her Exploration Club days went through quite a lot of trouble, but she seemed to have completely forgotten all those painful memories.
“Our job is to stay on Earth as emergency backup while the Hiyoshizaka members go on their expedition, right?”
“As expected of you, Touya. You don’t forget debts you owe, huh?” remarked Fujimori.
“Enough with the high-and-mighty act. And don’t fill Hinooka with impossible expectations. If it were possible to go, even I…”
Touya’s words trailed off and he turned silent. It was rare for him to be so vague and evasive.
Touya’s remark about backup was correct. The base construction mission had been a joint venture between the two clubs, but that wasn’t permissible when it came to exploring unknown lands.
“And there you have it… Sorry, Hinooka. It’s a no go.”
Homura and Ameno’s cries of protest rang out simultaneously within the clubroom at Fujimori’s offhand apology.
Munching on an old-fashioned donut dipped in coffee, Fujimori spoke further.
“Well, the issue of backup aside, it’s not like there’s no solution to the problem of Hinooka’s investigator rank.”
“Solution…? You mean like… you can use your connections to give me a level-up or something, Mori-chan?”
“You’ve got any idea what you’re asking of a humble public servant? The most I could do with my connections is force my coworkers to treat me to beer during a business trip—The kind of convenient level-up I’m referring to is the tried-and-true ‘special training course’ that’s used throughout the world.”
“Special training course?”
Homura had only ever heard that phrase used in manga. Ameno’s eyes sparkled with excitement.
“Hiyoshizaka High is holding a training camp to strengthen themselves in preparation for this upcoming expedition. You should first try joining that. Even if it won’t necessarily enable you to participate in the mission, the experience itself will be valuable—right?”
Fujimori looked to Misasagi for agreement. Misasagi nodded but clearly held some doubts.
“Are you referring, to the Anchorage, training camp?”
The name didn’t ring any bells for Homura. “Anchorage… is that some university?”
“It’s a town in Alaska, in the US,” answered Touya while frowning at the direction the conversation was going.
“A-Alaska!? You mean going overseas!?”
“It’s a special, training field, within Denali, National Park, and Preserve. It’s at, the base of, Mount McKinley.”
“Senpai, isn’t that…”
It was a famous place that was frequently featured in monthly issues of National Geographic. Based on that and Misasagi’s anxious expression, Touya’s face also turned serious as he imagined what the training entailed.
By contrast, Fujimori was extremely optimistic.
“Right, that. That would be perfect for Hinooka. Hiyoshizaka are mainly going there to train Saho and Kanae. This is a good chance, so I’ll have you guys join them.
Meanwhile, Homura was holding her head and grappling over a completely different worry.
“Overseas, huh… The only overseas experience I have is going to Guam once for a relative’s wedding…”
“You already have a passport, then. Compared to Nutella, Alaska is much closer. It’s only seven hours away on a charter flight. Ah, and don’t worry about the travel expenses. It’s treated as part of the club budget.”
It only takes an instant to go to Nutella, though. And that club budget comes from the taxes paid by Japanese citizens, you know?
“How about you, Touya? Do you have a passport? I see, then you should hurry up and have one made.”
“Eh, I’m going too?”
Fujimori nodded as if it were only natural. Homura looked over at the remaining two members.
“Then what about senpai and Ame-chan?’
“Misasagi is busy. Besides, she has no need to undergo further training at this point. Ameno has other things to do as well. Newbies from the States will be attending the camp too, so use this chance to form friendly relations with them as well.”
“B-But, even if you say we’ll be taught over there, I… I-I CAN SPEAK, ENGLISH… A, LITTLE1?”
“If that’s the best you can do, just how do you get by in English class?” asked Fujimori, her face back to that of a teacher.
“Mostly… through body language…”
Fujimori was astounded at the meaninglessness of Homura’s learning method.
“A little is enough. You can use this as a chance to learn English during training too.” Fujimori mercilessly pressed the clearly reluctant Homura.
“I-I’ll ask my father for permission… I get the feeling I’ve been tricked into this, though. But sensei, I can join Hiyoshizaka’s expedition if I go to this special training camp, right?”
“No, I can’t guarantee that,” said Fujimori with a shake of her head, causing Homura to hang her head dejectedly. “—Sorry, but Hiyoshizaka’s circumstances take priority. They helped us a lot with the base construction, so it’s only natural. However, concerning the rise in investigator rank, the number of days you’ve spent on Nutella is enough to make you a fifth-rank investigator. You could even reach fourth-rank if you successfully clear the written exam portion of the training.”
“There’s a written exam too?”
“Sorry, I could translate for you if I went with you… But do your best, Homura-san!” said Ameno encouragingly.
Meanwhile, Homura had gradually become expressionless, prompting Ameno to shake her shoulders worriedly.
Homura felt as if her rare bout of motivation had been splendidly taken advantage of by Fujimori.
Misasagi spoke up diffidently.
“Hinooka-san… if you’re, saying all this, for my sake, then please, don’t worry. You just, finished a, mission on, Nutella. Won’t you, collapse if, you push, yourself further?”
I really can’t match up to her, thought Homura with a bitter smile. She’d tried to act like she was just proposing this on a whim, but Misasagi had seen through it. But…
Misasagi spoke in a tone as if she were having trouble coming out and saying it.
“The director in charge, of coaching over there, is a tough, or rather, powerful person… I think, you’ll cry at least, five times, Hinooka-san, by the time, you come home.”
Homura’s face reflexively turned serious. If Misasagi was warning her this much, it must be quite gruelling.
“He’s not, a bad, person, but…”
“Ah right, the instructor is that snow gorilla,” said Fujimori. “He still hasn’t retired? Just remembering him irritates me… Well, if you just remember that you were the one who brought this thing up in the first place, I think you’ll be able to endure. The club prez and I will negotiate with Hiyoshizaka. For now, you should just concentrate on getting through your mid-terms. If you don’t, I won’t be able to get permission from your parents. Sorry Touya, but please try and help Hinooka on this.”
Though he agreed, Touya sent a glance at Homura that clearly said, ‘Just what am I supposed to do with her?’
In the blink of an eye, the conversation had progressed far beyond Homura’s control.
“I’m filled with nothing but worry…” said Homura as her head drooped.
Later, after discussing the events that happened during the camp construction, today’s short club time came to an end.
“By the way, what did Subaru-hime write back in reply to your reply?”
“Hmm? That’s a secret.”
Homura tried to hound Fujimori on the matter, but…
“You guys really seem to get along with the princess. Aren’t I allowed to have one or two secrets of my own with her?” was the poor excuse Fujimori gave.
Touya also seemed quite interested and tried to flatter Fujimori into speaking.
“Please tell me too, sensei. I remember how Subaru-hime said ‘Fujimori-dono is both beautiful and cool’, you know.”
Though to be more accurate, she said, “She’s a handsome man fit to be an oyama2 actor.” At first, Subaru had mistakenly believed her to be a man from the contents of her letter and still didn’t notice the truth even after being shown a photo of Fujimori… However, it would be too cruel to mention this to Fujimori herself.
“Err, she found your jeans quite a curious sight…” added Homura, skirting around the truth.
“Is that so? Then maybe I should send some jeans that would suit Subaru-hime as a gift on your next trip.”
Ameno frantically patted Misasagi’s back as the president choked on her coffee from stifling a laugh.
The last day-off before mid-terms began.
It was an ordinary, peaceful afternoon, but even so, this was a precious time that Homura cherished greatly.
She had gone out to shop in town in the (half-forced) company of Kujou Orie.
After making several purchases, they went to a stylish café facing a park.
Homura often stopped by this café on the way back from shopping with her mother for its delicious meals.
By coincidence, Inari-senpai entered the café soon after Homura and Kujou. Nyacchi-senpai was next to her.
Ah… it’s Inari-senpai.
Homura was about to call out to them, but stopped midway.
Inari’s friendly attitude… or rather, clingy behaviour towards Nyacchi-senpai was completely different from the Inari that Homura had seen up to now, and for some reason, she felt guilty at the idea of facing her like that, so she hesitated to call out to the two of them.
“Someone you know?”
“No, I thought I saw someone familiar, but it was my mistake.”
Homura glossed over the subject when Kujou asked about it.
Still, Homura kept hearing Inari’s chatty voice calling out ‘Nyacchi, Nyacchi’ from their seats across the café, distracting her and making her feel uncomfortable—
Homura frowned and turned in her seat so as not to face them, causing Kujou to start worrying.
“…Are you feeling unwell, Hinooka-san?”
“I-I just need to excuse myself for a bit to go wash my hands—”
It was at that moment—
A strange shout rang through the café. It came from Inari.
Homura turned around and saw that a drink had apparently fallen over and scattered all over Inari’s clothes. White cream left over from the drink was splattered over the table.
What the heck is she doing!? Geez!
Inari was frozen stiff as she looked at the spilled drink with teary eyes.
Homura was about to frantically run over on reflex, but Nyacchi-senpai calmly handed Inari a table napkin and propped back up the fallen glass without panicking before calling for a waiter.
It only took her all of three seconds to do so.
Even as an employee was coming over to clean it up, Nyacchi-senpai used the table cloth to stop the liquid from spreading any further.
Thanks to her quick efforts, the other customers nearby didn’t even notice that something had happened.
Immediately after, Inari and Nyacchi-senpai were led into the inner staff room by a female employee. Inari was likely changing into some spare clothes there.
Kujou, being unacquainted with either Inari or Nyacchi-senpai, merely observed the incident disinterestedly as the kind of accident that often happened in cafés.
Homura sighed in relief and then resumed their previous conversation.
“…So, unfortunately, my schedule in the Exploration Club overlaps with the day of your next concert, so it doesn’t look like I’ll be able to go, sorry!” summarized Homura.
“I see—it’s a contest, not a concert, though,” corrected Kujou, seeming quite used to this kind of thing from Homura.
“Ah, right, sorry. A contest. I heard from Kamikoma-senpai. You’re doing a transcendental musical piece, right? A musical composition that requires transcendental violin skills to perform.”
“It’s Sasarate’s ‘Carmen Fantasy’…”
“Ooh. That’s a cool name worthy of the title of transcendental.”
“But… I don’t like this piece that much. It wasn’t my choice to perform it… it’s a set piece of music that’s assigned to contestants. Naturally, I’m practicing it, though.”
“It’s such a difficult piece if even someone as good as you has trouble with it? Then have you been practicing everyday?”
“That’s right. I see it even in my dreams now… Carmen, that is.”
“Wow,” exclaimed Homura. “Sounds tough~, having to prepare for a contest at the same time as mid-term exams.”
“I’d say it’s just as tough for you, Hinooka-san.”
“Ah, you’ll make me blush,” Homura said bashfully.
It was then that Homura noticed Kujou looking at her cell phone which was indicating an incoming call on silent mode.
“—It’s from my house. Sorry, but I have to step out for a bit. I don’t mind if you head home first without me.”
After saying that, Kujou stepped out of the café with her phone in hand.
In her place appeared Nyacchi-senpai, having just returned from the staff room alone.
She happened to meet Homura’s gaze and came straight over to her table to greet her. She avoided Kujou’s previous seat and placed her hand on the seat diagonally across from Homura.
“Hello. Mind if I sit here?”
“Sure, go right ahead. Err, Nyacchi-senpai…?”
Though Homura had met her once before, this was her first real conversation with this upperclassmen and she wasn’t sure how to address her.
“Nyacchi’s a nickname from my family name Neyakawa.”
“Ah, sorry. Then… Neyakawa-senpai,” said Homura, trying out the sound of her name. “Neyakawa… Neyakawacchi… Neyacchi… Nyacchi!?”
“I see. So, is Inari-senpai okay?”
Incidentally, Homura belatedly introduced herself at this point.
“Yeah. She’s changing right now. She’s a bit overexcited today.”
According to Neyakawa, Inari had gone to visit the polar bear Pole at the zoo today. Homura nodded in understanding.
“By the way, Hinooka-san, where did that girl who’s not in any club go off to.”
Neyakawa had apparently recognized Kujou from school.
Homura explained that she had stepped out to take care of some matter, her tone uneasy.
“She might have been called home by her family. I did drag her out here, after all…”
Now then, speaking of clubs…
“What club are you in, Neyakawa-senpai?”
“…It’s time for your morning music. Today’s requested song is from 1-A’s Hinooka Homura-san—”
“Ah, the broadcasting club!”
Now that Homura listened closely, her voice was familiar.
Neyakawa was able to consciously change her voice slightly. She had quite the beautiful voice.
“You know, Hinooka-san, it’s impossible to play ‘Mad Room’ by RafA (Radiance Factor) at school. Thanks for always sending in your requests, though.”
“Ah, like I thought. Well, it was worth a try.”
Despite Homura’s jesting, Neyakawa’s calm and composed attitude didn’t crack. Aside from the few moments when she used her broadcasting voice, she didn’t smile at all and maintained a sour expression. But despite that, she was strangely easy to talk to.
Hmm, I guess it’s true what they say about birds of a feather flocking together.
Their two companions still had yet to return.
Naturally, the conversation turned to their fellow acquaintance Inari. Apparently, Neyakawa had been in the same class as Inari since their first year. Neyakawa then suddenly brought up a certain subject.
“Hey, Hinooka-san, since you’re in the Exploration Club, would you happen to know a girl with glasses and slanted eyes, who has a bit of a harsh attitude—?”
“Hmm? Someone in the Exploration Club?”
“—And she has a Kansai accent.”
“Ah, Nana-senpai,” Homura realized with a clap. “That’s probably Nanakubo Sae-san, a second year at Nagumo High. She’s an acquaintance from the same age group as Inari-senpai.”
“Ah… That reminds me, Sunao did call her Nana.”
“Did something happen with Nanakubo-senpai?”
“It happened at the end of last year. Sunao was still staying at the hospital in a private room at the time.”
According to Neyakawa, Nanakubo had suddenly come to visit Inari while she herself was visiting at the hospital.”
“—Even though she came all the way to visit, Sunao stubbornly refused to let her come in the room. None of her family was present at the time, so in the end, I went out to the lobby and asked Nanakubo to leave with an apology. Even for her, Sunao was unbelievably hard headed about it.”
“But I couldn’t forgive that attitude of hers. So I got all angry at her and ended up never visiting her at the hospital again until she was discharged.”
“Well, I just wanted to inform you that such a thing happened.”
Neyakawa gave off a gentle air, but she seemed to have quite the harsh side as well.
Yet, despite all that, she and Inari seemed to have fully mended things between them. Honestly, Homura wanted to know the secret behind how Neyakawa accomplished that, for future reference. Homura suddenly recalled that Neyakawa’s name had been mentioned at some point during the trip to the local zoo with Inari a while back.
Neyakawa seemed to be recalling something herself as she continued speaking.
“…That person also came to visit back then.”
“…Eh… Who are you talking about…?” Homura asked, though she already had a vague guess as to the answer. In truth, she shouldn’t have asked. But—
“Tenryuu Kazuma—he’s the Japanese Exploration Club Representative, right? I realized later who he was after seeing him on the news.”
Just as she thought—
Unfortunately, it made all too much sense to her—
Homura felt as if the last piece of a tiny puzzle inside her had been inserted.
If Neyakawa weren’t right in front of her, Homura would have let out an exaggerated sigh.
She didn’t let her shock show as Neyakawa obliviously continued speaking.
“You Exploration Club people really are a thoughtful bunch. I wonder if they came to visit because they already had some business to attend here in the city?”
“No… I think the two of them visited because they were genuinely worried for Inari-senpai.”
“I see. Then that makes Sunao all the more in the wrong.”
“I-I guess. Geez, Sunao-san just can’t act honest3, can she?”
“You got that right.”
There were in complete agreement.
But there was one point where Homura and Neyakawa’s views decisively differed.
“Umm… Neyakawa-senpai, what do you think about Inari-senpai possibly returning to the Exploration Club?”
“I’m against it. I think that Inari Sunao shouldn’t return to the Exploration Club,” Neyakawa said smoothly, her tone completely serious.
“I see. Well, she did end up hospitalized, after all…”
“There’s that too, but most of all, I’m Inari Sunao’s friend and ally. So I want to support her dreams. But I can tell that she’s indecisive even now.”
“Indecisive…? Inari-senpai is?”
In Homura’s eyes, Inari always seemed like a straightforward person. She recalled the conversation with Fujimori on the roof about Inari.
Neyakawa nodded and explained further.
“Even after conquering her anorexia and leaving the hospital, her indecision hasn’t been resolved. She’s never been very skilled with matters of the heart—So right now, I think curing her indecision takes priority over returning to the Exploration Club.”
“The other day after school, Inari-senpai mentioned that she wants to be a journalist.”
“Yeah. That’s been Sunao’s dream for a long time… but, I don’t think that’s something just anyone should aim to become. I’m not a specialist in journalism or anything, but I’m in the broadcasting club, so I’m at least peripherally aware of it.”
Neyakawa explained her reasoning.
“It’s hard to convey something to others in this modern world overflowing with information, right? Especially the truth. It’s a small job in comparison, but even searching and selecting the morning broadcast at school is a lot of work, you know? It’d be easy if I could just choose popular songs based on their net rankings, but that’s something anyone could do. So, if you feel indecisive and anxious when there’s something you want to convey, you need some place of your own that you can return to—Ah, I’m talking more about myself than Sunao at this point.”
Suddenly, Neyakawa laughed a little.
“You’re a good person, Hinooka Homura-san.”
Homura was flabbergasted by this sudden compliment.
“By ‘good’, I don’t mean morally or anything like that, but rather that you’re admirable—Lately, Sunao has been talking about you a lot, so I can tell. You live while always being honest with yourself. I admire that part of you. Even while mocked for your inexperience and treated as a fake for copying others in your attempts to catch up to them, you still keep moving forward. That quality of yours is definitely a strength that will benefit you in the future.”
“It’s nothing so grand… I’ve often been told that I’m quite brazen…”
“But not shameless. You seem to already understand that and dress yourself fashionably.”
Suddenly, Neyakawa pointed over Homura’s shoulder.
Homura turned around and saw Kujou standing there, having returned inside the shop at some point without her noticing.
The ever shy Kujou seemed reluctant to go over to Homura while she was talking to Neyakawa and so stood a ways off from their table.
Homura hurriedly stood up and dashed over to Kujou to apologize for the lapse.
It was at about that time that Inari returned, having finished changing into new clothes. Her dirtied clothes were placed inside a paper bag she carried.
Homura introduced Kujou to Inari and Neyakawa. For some reason, she spoke proudly as she did so.
“This is my classmate Kujou-san. We came out out shopping together today. Fufufu.”
“Nice to meet you. Despite mid-terms being right around the corner, you guys are pretty lax. Though I suppose that goes for us as well. Is that thin case what you came out to shop for? What’s inside, a flute?” asked Inari.
“This is… a bow. The kind used for playing musical instruments.”
Kujou gave a short and concise answer, but Homura couldn’t help but add further.
“We went to a workshop to collect a new bow for her violin. Man, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw that the bow was nearly as expensive as the violin itself. I could buy so many sets of clothes with that money…”
“It wasn’t a bow purchase, but rather getting the hair on the bow replaced. And my bow is an ordinary model made in Japan. The expensive ones cost at least a million yen. There’s no upper limit to the prices that the really sophisticated ones can reach.”
Homura let out a shriek of shock at the absurd price range. Meanwhile…
“Kujou…? Could you be…?”
Inari seemed to realize something as she observed Kujou’s face.
“The genius girl violinist Kujou Ayaka? Wow! I saw your performance at an international concert once. You performed Paganini’s transcendental composition! I still get goosebumps just remembering that awesome performance! Please give me your signature!”
Next to Kujou, Homura was frantically shaking her head and hands to stop Inari.
But Kujou herself remained expressionless and responded in an accustomed manner.
“…That’s my older sister. She’s studying abroad in New York right now.”
“Ah, is that so? Sorry.” Finally realizing her mistake, Inari frantically apologized.
“I’m really sorry.”
“No, it’s fine.”
Inari bowed her head in apology repeatedly with Neyakawa and Homura on either side of her.
About two weeks had passed since Homura and the others had returned to Earth.
The training camp in Alaska had also come and gone at a fast and furious pace.
By the time that Homura and the others learned that the American Exploration Club members called the training camp Cocytus, they had already arrived at the camp, making it too late to back out.
Cocytus is a frozen plane of Hell that exists at its bottommost level, featured in Dantes’ “Divine Comedy” and in Greek mythology.
The training field, located over a hundred miles from the town of Anchorage, was a good remote, frozen hinterland that perfectly matched its nickname. They couldn’t escape even if they wanted, and any pleas fell on deaf ears.
The sheer harshness of the training camp was made abundantly clear when even Saho was left unable to laugh or cry or even say his usual crude jokes.
But thanks to the training, the first years from Seiran and Hiyoshizaka all managed to successfully advance to being 4th rank investigators, gaining the qualifications to participate in long range winter expeditions on Nutella.
However, bad news came along with the good news. And this particular bit of news came as a profound shock to Homura and Touya.
It happened during the preparatory meeting for the expedition, right after they returned to Japan.
The club members from both schools had gathered at Hiyoshizaka High. It was there that Homura learned to her shock that Misasagi had never intended to participate on the expedition from the start.
According to the mission plan, they needed to have at least two backup members to remain on Earth. Taga, the vice-president of the Hiyoshizaka club, and Misasagi, the president of the Seiran club, were among those backup members.
This was a foreseeable conclusion the moment first years from Seiran chose to participate, but neither Homura nor Touya had thought that far ahead.
Now that Homura and the other first years were allowed to participate, the mission had shifted from being an exploration of untrodden lands to an excellent chance to enrich the careers of the first year investigators.
However, there was a third year who objected to these arrangements during the meeting.
It was Momoyama.
“We won’t be able to properly instruct and coordinate with the three first years from Seiran High without Misasagi along. So I talked with Hayase-kun, and we’re thinking of remaining behind as backup instead. This mission will be a chance for the Hiyoshizaka first years to gain experience as well. So how about it?”
Thus, the proposed mission participants list ended up like this:
-Hiyoshizaka High: Kamikoma Sachi (president), Taga Taichi (vice-president), Kanae Yuri.
-Seiran High: Misasagi Mayo (president), Touya Takumi, Hinooka Homura, Fujimori Ameno.
(Backup members: Momoyama Masami, Hayase Ryou)
Four students from each school, forming a party of eight members total. The party leader would, once again, be Kamikoma Sachi.
The reason Taga and Hayase would switch places unlike the original plan was so that Taga could help lead the first years as the vice-president and Hayase could gain experience as a backup member. Taga would also join in order to fill the hole left by the similarly 2nd rank investigator Momoyama and maintain the party’s balance. Of course, it would be ideal if there was no need for rescue in the first place.
The Hiyoshizaka advisor, Tanakura-sensei, and Kamikoma agreed to Momoyama’s proposal.
The Seiran advisor Fujimori-sensei left the decision to her club’s president.
Misasagi objected to her own participation and resisted the proposal right till the end, but in the face of Momoyama’s perfectly logical reasoning and the additional need to do some adjustments to the base camp currently in construction, she eventually gave in, reluctantly.
The Seiran club members finished the final meeting and returned to their school from Hiyoshizaka High on a weekend holiday.
Gathered once more in their club building, they tried on the new winter gear that had arrived while Homura and the others were in Alaska and checked all their equipment with zeal.
Among the various Nutella-use tools, there were some that displayed quite a lot of development from the old ones, likely a result of the earnest and detailed feedback from investigators in the field.
Fujimori tossed them a set of items that resembled small sandbags.
“These are the new winter-model sleeping bags! How about you test them out? It’s way different from the standard model for the other three seasons, you know. You should see how well they function to determine the best sleeping wear to use in the field.”
They were light and compact sleeping bags, but despite that, they were actually quite sturdy and made to prevent water absorption. Compared to the ragged sleeping bags they’d been lent to use during the training in Alaska, these were practically Heaven.
“It’s not like we’re debuting new equipment for display on stage,” grumbled Homura. She then added with a puzzled tilt of her head, “But where are we supposed to test these out anyway?”
“Somewhere as cold as we can find around here, like a refrigerator,” replied Fujimori.
Hearing that, Ameno gave her own proposal.
“How about the rooftop of the club building? The latest weather report says that there’s cold front coming in due to radiative cooling, and we might get the chance to see a meteor shower tonight too.”
“Heh~, shooting stars?”
It wasn’t a bad proposal. Ameno was carrying her sleeping bag in anticipation.
Homura quickly called home in order to get permission to stay the night here.
Unfortunately, the one who answered the Hinooka home phone was Homura’s father Masafumi. Homura had resigned herself to her sudden request to stay the night out being refused, but to her complete surprise, her father gave his consent. Perhaps her father was finally starting to soften and become less sensitive about this kind of thing.
After having a supper consisting of delivery pizza, the three first years went up to the roof while Fujimori and Misasagi remained behind in the standby room to discuss a few more matters.
—Seiran High’s schoolyard was covered in darkness, the sun having fully set by now.
The pitch-black school stood in contrast to the sea of lights from the town spread out beyond it.
The weather was quite clear tonight, allowing them to easily see the far-away lights of civilization. Instead of the roar of the waterfall at Subaru’s castle, the distant sound of running trains could be heard as constant background noise.
However, the stars in the night sky were only faint and hazy here.
Compared to the brilliance of Nutella’s night sky, the difference was like Heaven and Earth.
A cold gust blew over Homura and the others as they leaned against the rooftop railing side by side.
They had just come up to check out the rooftop temperature for now, but it was already far enough into the season that their winter uniforms were insufficient and they badly wanted coats.
“Hey, why was senpai so against participating on the expedition? She went on so long that Yuri-chan got bored of listening and fell asleep by the second half, you know?” asked Homura.
Touya answered with a thoughtful tone.
“Sure, from our perspective, having Misasagi-senpai along is reassuring, but isn’t that just for our own convenience? Even the Hiyoshizaka club has plans of their own to take into consideration—and yeah, Kanae was even more lifeless than usual during the meeting. I guess Alaska really tired her out.”
Homura recalled the argument between Misasagi and Momoyama.
Now that Touya mentioned it, having her act of consideration refused basically left her proffered helping hand hanging fruitlessly with no outlet, so Momoyama had her own reasons of pride for standing her ground on the issue. Homura could sympathize.
As they gazed over the nighttime town, Ameno let out a mumbled remark.
“I’m sure the president wanted to let Momoyama-senpai be the one to go to Nutella.”
—was the greatest sign of friendship between the two senpais, who had poured all their efforts into exploring Nutella.
They wanted to entrust one of their few remaining chances to act as investigators to someone they could trust.
It was a sign of encouragement only possible between fellow comrades.
“…I see… That’s right,” said Touya with a nod. “Momoyama-san is a third year too. She’ll only be able to visit Nutella a few more times.”
“Actually, the one who wanted to go together with senpai the most was probably Momoyama-senpai,” said Homura. “Yet she willingly gave up that chance… I don’t know whether to call that a waste or just unfortunate…”
Touya wore a complicated expression at that merciless comment. Homura continued further.
“—Really, I was thinking of offering to be the one to stay behind on Earth myself by the end of the meeting.”
Touya and Ameno turned to look at Homura in shock.
“Honestly, I’ve already had my fill of snowy mountains, diamond dust, sundogs4 and all that stuff in Alaska. Yuri-chan probably feels the same way.”
“Unbelievable… don’t ever say that to anyone else, got it? A lot of people would thrash you for that.”
“How can you say that, Homura-san!? Weren’t you the one who got our club involved in the expedition in the first place!?”
“Yes, yes, I’m sorry. I do think it’s unfair of me to say this, but that’s how I honestly felt during the meeting.”
Homura didn’t falter much in the face of the half-expected reactions she got and continued speaking.
“But you’re both happy to get the chance to go to Nutella, right? So don’t you think you guys should give me a little thanks?”
Homura’s smug words merely made the other two criticize her further.
By this point, their bodies had gotten quite cold and Homura was already thinking of sleeping down in the lodging rooms below, unable to muster the will to carry out their original plan.
In the end, she was dragged by Touya and Ameno back down to the changing room, and after changing into their school jerseys, they returned to the roof with their sleeping bags.
—Misasagi was standing on the roof alone, staring at the town silently. She noticed their arrival and turned around while smoothing down her hair ruffled by the wind.
“Thank goodness… I was, worried that, you might have, gone ahead, to Nutella, without me,” joked Misasagi with a smile. “—Can I stay, the night here, with you all, too?”
“Of course.” The three first years nodded.
They’d been sure that Misasagi would head home after the meeting.
During both their previous mission and the SA, they had slept in different rooms divided by gender, and Ameno had slept in the stables at the castle, so this was actually the first time all four of them were sleeping together.
At the center of the vast rooftop, they laid out their sleeping bags in a cross formation, with their heads situation next to each other.
It almost looked as if they had positioned themselves so they could immediately shoot down any shooting stars no matter what direction they came from.
Homura quickly lay down and crept into her sleeping bag, and she was quite satisfied with the warmth that greatly surpassed her expectations.
In fact, it was so warm inside with her jersey on that she thought that wearing a single shirt or even going naked would still be fine in this sleeping bag.
“………Muu…” Homura slipped her hands out of the sleeping bag and made a finger scope to gaze up at the night sky. “…There’s only airplanes flying up there.”
“What are, you talking, about?” asked Misasagi.
Since Misasagi hadn’t been present at the time, Ameno went over their previous conversation.
“It’s Halley’s meteor shower. The peak period for viewing has already passed, though… Sorry if we don’t get to see it tonight.”
“Which direction should we face as we wait?” asked Homura, turning her head this way and that while still lying prone.
“It’s coming from the east. In the direction of your feet, Homura-san. But it should cover the entire sky when it passed by.”
“Ooh. I don’t think my eyes can open that wide.”
“Hey, Ameno. By Halley’s meteor shower, you’re referring to Orion’s meteor shower, right?”
“Yes—” Ameno nodded while gazing at the sky.
“When the alpha-class star Betelgeuse, which once shined in the sky as the hunter Orion’s left shoulder, went supernova, the Orion constellation was lost… but there are still many people who call it that.”
A red dot that had blinked feebly in the early spring sky. Even now, the remains of it could barely be seen. It was so faint that it was easy to miss if you didn’t specifically look for it.
“That’s… the third star, of Orion’s, waist belt.”
Misasagi, wearing only a T-shirt beneath her sleeping bag, raised a pale white hand towards the night sky and pointed first at Orion’s original location and then a spot further above it.
“And the red star, near the zenith, is Aldebaran, and the cluster, of small stars, further above it—is Subaru.”
Homura squinted at the sky while placing her head against Misasagi’s shoulder and following the direction of her pointed finger.
Subaru. Also known as the Pleiades in English.
“I can’t see that well here on Earth…” complained Touya.
“You have glasses, don’t you?”
Touya and Ameno were also lying down and quietly looking up at the same stars in the night sky.
“The stars look way prettier on Nutella… but Subaru-hime can’t see the stars here.”
“Yeah… I would like, to show them, to her.”
Suddenly recalling the name of a constellation she heard mentioned very recently, Homura asked Ameno a question.
“Hey Ame-chan, do you know where the Dorado constellation is?”
“Dorado? Umm, the Dorado constellation is in the south-south-east portion of the sky, but it’s pretty much only visible below the equator… Why the sudden interest?”
“Just a whim.”
“……Is it because of ‘Sanduleak -69° 202’?”
Shocked by Ameno’s casual question, Homura gave a little jump, sleeping bag and all, from where she lay on the rooftop like a mermaid flung onto the deck of a ship (or a bagworm fallen onto the ground).
“What’s wrong, Homura-san? We were talking about Betelgeuse, so I just thought your mind might have leapt to Sanduleak5 since they both went supernova. I’m surprised you’re so knowledgeable about a topic that has nothing to do with school studies, though.”
“No, it’s nothing that impressive~”
Misasagi wore an honestly impressed expression, while Touya feigned ignorance on the matter.
For a while after that, Misasagi recounted the Greek legend of the Pleiades while Homura and the others listened, their bodies gradually getting accustomed to the warmth of their sleeping bags and getting sleepier and sleepier.
Homura had her sleeping bag’s zipper up to her neck and was facing to the side. She was using a camping pillow that she’d taken from the club building’s storeroom, which felt quite pleasant against her head. During missions, she was always exhausted to the point that she fell asleep before she could remember to take out a pillow.
Just as she was starting to nod off, Touya broke the silence with a murmur.
“Senpai… are you engaged to Tenryuu-senpai?”
Homura’s sleepiness instantly evaporated.
Being far too close to pretend she hadn’t heard anything, Homura could only listen in bewilderment. Touya didn’t seem to have any intention of keeping this conversation secret, either. It’s true that this was a topic that greatly interested Homura as well, but to just bring it up out of the blue at a time like this…
“…I suppose, I haven’t spoken, to you all, about it, yet. My and, Tenryuu Kazuma’s families, are deeply connected, so…”
“I heard that you’re engaged from Kanae. It’s more like I was just ignorant of it until now, though.”
Touya’s tone was calm.
“Sorry for asking about this all of a sudden. I don’t intend to pry into your private matters. It’s just, I can’t help but worry that I’m being a bother to you.”
No, no, no—that’s not it at all! Homura mentally retorted within her sleeping bag. Her ears and neck had turned red-hot to the point that she felt stifled.
“You… a bother, Touya-kun?” asked Misasagi in confusion as she turned to look at Touya. Touya kept staring up at the sky without his glasses on.
“I entered the Exploration Club only because you were there, senpai. Because participating in the club would let me spend time with you. But… ah, I don’t know how to properly say this… Even if you left the club now, I wouldn’t just up and quit, okay? That’s not what I’m trying to say.”
“…Good. Saying it like that would be unfair and cowardly,” Homura reflexively murmured, still not having the courage to look at the two of them.
But—she started to regret not speaking up further when she heard Touya’s weak and self-deprecating laugh.
“…Even my giving up kendo was for personal reasons, not for the Exploration Club. I do feel purpose and meaning in devoting myself to the Exploration Club now, but…”
As Touya seemed to struggle to find the right words again, Misasagi quietly returned her gaze towards the sky and spoke up.
“…Kazuma-san has, always treated me, like a child, for as long as, I’ve known him, so I’m just, bad at dealing, with him. I know that, he’s a good, person.”
Homura wasn’t satisfied with those words.
“Senpai—” Homura pulled down her sleeping bag’s zipper. She poked her head out and turned to face Misasagi. “The whole engagement thing is just a joke of Yuri-chan’s, right? My mother told me that those kinds of arranged marriages are just an old custom with no legal binding power, you know?”
“…Yes, it’s just as, your mother says, Hinooka-san. But… it has, meaning, to me.”
Both Homura and Touya could sense the strong will hidden beneath her gentle tone.
“Is it wrong, for me to want, to answer the wish, of someone who, wishes for my, happiness?”
“I will, marry him. I will marry, Tenryuu Kazuma-san.”
Homura’s breath caught in her throat. Touya was speechless as well.
“Of course, this is all far, in the future.”
It might be a matter far in the future for Misasagi, but there was something that had ended right here and now before their eyes.
“Did you tell… Inari-senpai about this?” asked Homura.
“Why bring up Inari?” muttered Touya irritably.
“That doesn’t matter—does Inari know about this whole engagement and marriage thing?”
“Yes.” Misasagi nodded. “…She knows, about it. Around when, she had, just entered, the club, I told, her and Kamikoma-san, about it. Koma-chan…Kamikoma-san got, very mad, at the talk, of marriage. But when, I told her, I was serious, about this, I think she, understood. Inari-san, too.”
Misasagi continued further.
“…Touya-kun. I didn’t want, to bring, this matter, into our, club activities. I hated, the idea of, being seen as, being protected by, Representative Tenryuu Kazuma’s, authority. But if, my silence, has made you, feel anxious, pained, and considerate, of me, then I think that was a mistake—I’m sorry, Touya-kun.”
She held out a pale white arm to him as she said that, like when she’d pointed at the stars in the sky.
That proffered hand was probably an expression of her desire to respond to his thoughtfulness.
But that hand was met with rejection—touching only Touya’s stiff shoulder.
Homura could tell that Misasagi’s breath wavered in surprise.
And she also noticed Touya’s small breath that, while tinged with regret for his action, was filled with anger.
“I don’t want an apology… That’s not it… Senpai, why don’t you hold any doubts about it? If your father tells you, you just get married as you’re told? If you’re told to die, would you just go and die?”
“Be quiet, Hinooka… I know I’m just being a bother, talking about this at a time like this, but…”
“Stop calling yourself a bother—”
But Homura’s protest was interrupted by Misasagi.
“I already, told you. The reason, I’m able, to be myself, is due to, more than just, the strength of, my own feelings. Everything, and everyone, is connected. If that’s, called old-fashioned… then I can’t, deny that, but…”
“Aren’t you just giving up from the start, senpai?”
“That’s not, it at all.”
By now, Misasagi’s tone had turned stubborn and resolute.
…This is… that kind of thing, huh?
Homura had noticed by now that their respective words were gradually conflicting more and growing further apart. This was the rare, unforgettable kind of pain that she herself had personally experienced when she was still very young.
In order for the two of them to properly face each other, they needed to tear away and destroy the images of each other that they believed to be true—that’s what Homura firmly thought.
It wouldn’t be a pleasant experience for either of them.
But if this conflict dragged on, various emotions would get dragged in and they would only ruin themselves in the process.
So, just when Homura had resolved herself to step in—
A cute sneeze that seemed a bit too purposeful echoed across the roof.
“Ouch… Hey, Ameno.”
Hearing those confused voices, Homura looked to the left and right from where she lay and saw that Ameno, who had remained silent until now, had reached her hands out to Touya and Misasagi’s sleeping bags and was currently grasping their respective hands tightly.
“Fighting is bad,” said Ameno in a slightly miffed tone. “…We’re friends and comrades. You mustn’t fight, president, Takumi-san. I won’t let either of you go.”
“…Are you angry too, Ameno?” asked Touya with his hand in a strong grip.
“I’m not angry. I just said that fighting is bad, right? How could I be angry?”
“…When will you let go?”
“Once my battery runs out, obviously.”
“Eeh?” Touya complained in a slightly pathetic tone.
Homura heard a faint giggle. Upon feeling fingers touch her ear, Homura looked up and saw senpai had held out a hand to her too.
Homura timidly grasped those fingers. They still felt warm even in the cold.
Then, after sullenly glaring at her remaining empty palm, Homura thrust out it in a slightly desperate manner and struck the face of the boy next to her.
“Oww! …What was that for, Hinooka!?”
Homura gestured at her empty hand with her chin.
In the face of the ridiculous situation he was now in and the fact that his earlier irritation had faded, even Touya couldn’t help but smile a little.
He grasped Homura’s hand in resignation.
The great strength she felt from his hand made Homura feel an excitement different from when they held hands during transport and caused her to squirm uneasily. His hand was warm and so supple it was hard to believe he usually held a wooden sword.
The hands of the four club members were clumsily gripped together in a circle.
They formed a roughly-made ring on top of the rooftop in the middle of the night—
In the end, only a few shooting stars from the meteor shower left behind by the hunter Orion passed by over their heads, and only after they fell asleep, so none of them managed to witness the sight.
But it was a strange and funny night that would always remain in their memories and be recalled each time they came up to the roof, even after Misasagi Mayo left Seiran High.
A few days after that, Homura was heading home after school with Kujou Orie.
As usual, the route from school at this hour was pretty much empty except for the two of them.
To Homura, this was a precious time where she could relax in the midst of her frantic and restless days.
She called it the HKH: Happy Kujou Hour.
…However, with the transcendental music composition contest only two days away, Kujou was very preoccupied at the moment, and she had only given perfunctory replies when Homura had talked to her during lunch together and even when Homura brought up the subject of the seasonal Halloween pumpkin sweets that were currently on sale.
Having sensed that this wasn’t a good time to be talking about herself, Homura instead started talking one-sidedly about trivial topics like a radio talk host. It was just like Homura to reject silence even if it was what the other person wanted.
…It’s fine, I don’t mind. An absentminded Kujou-san is cute too!
But then, words that had made an impression on her resurfaced in Homura’s mind, and she brought up the subject to Kujou while maintaining her talk host tone.
“Hey—Kujou-san, is there anyone you would call a comrade?”
“Ah… I-Is that so?”
Homura’s walking pace briefly dropped in clear disappointment, and she pointed at herself from an angle Kujou couldn’t see, as if to say “There’s one right here, you know!”, before running to catch up with her.
“O-Of course, I’m talking about in the music world, you know? Kujou-san, are you saying that performing music by yourself is more to your preferences? What about the other people who’ve played in a jazz band with you before?”
Kujou put her palms together in front of her mouth as if in prayer. This was probably the first time Homura had seen her think deeply like this, so it was kinda refreshing to see.
“Yeah, now that I think about…”
“When I’m doing a live performance or participating in lots of rehearsals as part of an orchestra, I guess I do think of my fellow performers as comrades. But once we disband, it ends there and everyone goes off to work hard with different comrades in different places… Though there are also those who just quit afterwards.”
“…So… If I had to describe it… I do certainly think of those people as comrades heading in the same direction… when we’re all working towards the instant of completing a piece of music and performing a concert. But when I stop and look around myself to search for those people, there’s no one. There’s only the past of having once been comrades.”
…The past, huh?
Somehow, it sounded a lot like integrals in math. That reminded her, would they be learning that in their second year?
“Hmm… I get that. Or at least, I think I do. Thanks.”
After that, they went through the ticket gate at the station, and Homura said “See you” instead of “See you tomorrow” to Kujou as they parted ways to take trains in opposite directions. They didn’t take any detours or go shopping today, but Homura still savored the happiness of having someone to talk to as she headed home.
Just as she arrived home and greeted her mother, her cell phone rang.
Hearing the ringtone for unfamiliar phone numbers, Homura wondered who it could be and looked at the caller ID, and was shocked to see the name Kujou Orie.
As her mother took out a pound cake from the fridge and asked ‘How much do you want?’ with a silent glance, Homura gestured ‘This much!’ before hurriedly running off to her room.
“Hello? This is the first time you ever called me, so I was a bit surprised.”
[Is that so?]
Even over the phone, Kujou’s voice was calm as usual.
It sounded like she was still outside based on the car sounds and other noises in the background.
[I was also surprised to find your number in my phone, since I have no memory of putting it in—Are you free at the moment?]
“Yeah. What is it?”
[There’s something I forgot to ask. I think the teacher mentioned that you would be absent from school again for a week, but is that true?]
“Yeah. I’m heading to Nutella in five hours. Since I’ll be gone till the weekend, it comes out to a full week.”
[I see…… Be careful.]
“Yeah, I will.”
“…Eh, wait, was that the only reason you called?”
“Yeah… I’ll be careful. I’ll be really careful. But I might die, you know?”
[Stop it with the exaggerations.]
“Thanks, Kujou-san. Good luck with the contest.”
[Thank you. Bye.]
Thus, the short phone conversation came to an end.
Afterwards, Homura ran back down to the kitchen and begged her mother from behind her back to increase her cake portion by two, no, three times.
Chapter 19 END
(1) Here, Homura speaks in actual English.
(2) Oyama: male actor in female kabuki roles.
(3) Homura is making a pun here, since Sunao, Inari’s first name, means “honest” in Japanese.
(4) Sundog: bright spot on either side of the sun caused by refraction of sunlight through ice crystals in the atmosphere.
(5) Reminder: Sanduleak is part of the Dorado constellation.