The orange glow of the setting sun shone on her little brother’s slightly curly hair and scruffy neck.
Yuki hurried back to their still unfamiliar home, a shopping bag containing a frying pan and serving chopsticks in her right hand, and her brother’s tiny hand in her left.
The frying pan cost 2800 yen and the chopsticks cost 400 yen. She had bought them both on Inaho’s recommendation. The prices were middle range, perhaps. There were cheaper ones, but Inaho told her that Teflon coating—Yuki had no idea what that term meant—would wear out easily, so she was better off buying this one. It’d be cheaper in the long run, he said.
5600 yen remained in her wallet. Of course, there was ten times this amount in her bank account, but she wanted to avoid wasting it if possible. They had money to spare from not having to pay rent, but their representative wouldn’t transfer them money from their bank deposit until the end of the month. After all, it was their first month living on their own… One could never be too careful.
“Nao-kun, don’t let go of my hand.” Forcefully suppressing her anxiety, she played the part of the reliable older sister.
“I’m holding it right now.”
“…I know you are. I just wanted to say it.”
“I thought so.”
“Doesn’t this sort of thing make me look like a proper big sister?”
Inaho’s voice sounded exactly the same as it did that day when he spoke of how he had defeated the bullies.
It was more or less like it had always been—unfiltered by emotion, empty.
“What would you like to eat for dinner?” she asked in a deliberately bright tone, cutting off the thoughts inside her head.
“Anything Yuki-nee can cook is fine.”
“Guess we’ll have curry then.”
Time to buy some ready-made curry at the dirt cheap supermarket in front of the station, Yuki thought.
“…I wouldn’t call heating up water ‘cooking’.”
It was as if he had read her mind. At those words, she let out an inadvertent “Aww…”
“I-I’ll make rice, at least,” she insisted. “We have a rice cooker, after all.”
“Do you know how to wash rice?”
“…you’re supposed to wash the rice?”
“I thought you’d say that.”
If my eight-year-old brother keeps lecturing me like this, my role as a big sis is obsolete.
Yuki desperately tried to remember her home economics class, where she had only ever been in charge of food sampling.
Oh right, the rice did have to be washed. But that raised another question: how to wash it?
Rice was stirred in a bowl… Come to think of it, they didn’t have a bowl. She had received some used tableware from the Home, but maybe she ought to go back to that store from earlier and buy a proper bowl.
“You don’t have to strain yourself. Today, let’s buy instant rice,” he said, as if once again he had seen right through her.
Yuki sighed softly. “I’m sorry… I’m a hopeless sister.”
I really am, she thought, squeezing her baby brother’s hand tightly.
He had the small hand of a child—slightly bigger than a maple leaf, but thin and shaky, and just a bit warmer than her own… a young child’s hand.
She wondered how his hand had felt when he pushed the backs of those bullies. How did it feel when he pummelled them with stones?
Yuki was frustrated with herself for not being able to understand her brother’s true face.
He was her only family, but still—
“Yuki-nee isn’t that hopeless.” He encouraged her with an expressionless face.
Yuki smiled weakly in response.
That was when it happened.
“Excuse me… are you the ones who moved into the house around the corner?”
The person who called out to the two of them was a young girl around Inaho’s age. Perhaps out of nervousness from speaking to strangers, her round cheeks were faintly red. So were the kneecaps peeking out from under her skirt.
“Yeah, we are,” said Yuki. “And you, young lady…?”
…who are you? She wondered if blurting that out would sound somewhat heartless.
The girl began to introduce herself blushingly, as if she had guessed the intent behind Yuki’s hesitant words.
“M-my name is Amifumi Inko. I’m in second grade… no. I’m a third grader starting from April.”
“Ah, then you’re the same age as Inaho. I’m Kaizuka Yuki. This is my little brother Inaho.”
“My name is Inaho. I’ll be in third grade this April as well.”
Inko’s face lit up at the words ‘same age’. “Really? I wonder if we’ll be in the same school, then?”
“Then let’s go to school together—wait, no! Um, my father wanted me to tell you that we, um… my parents own a restaurant, and they said you can come over for dinner if you like…!”
To celebrate your move here. She cut herself off there, lowering her head and blushing even harder.
Basically, it seemed she was inviting the two of them over for a housewarming dinner.
Yuki looked at Inaho next to her, wondering what to do.
Inaho looked at her as well.
“Nao-kun, what would you like to do?”
“Why not accept? Yuki-nee must be tired from the move.”
Smiling awkwardly at her little brother’s characteristically un-childlike response, she turned to the tiny messenger. “Inko-chan, was it? Sure, we humbly accept,” she said, bowing her head.
“A-all right! Our place is old and not clean like a family restaurant is, but my father’s cooking is wonderful… in my opinion!” she chirped happily, her face bright red in embarrassment. The way she spoke was rather adorable.
She must really love her parents—her family.
Yuki looked at her little brother beside her once more. She shook her head, wanting to deny the slight loneliness that came over her upon seeing that expressionless face of his, so very different from Inko’s.
“Um… do the two of you have other siblings?” Inko asked Yuki and Inaho on the way.
“Why?” she asked back, surprised at the unexpected question.
“I mean, well, because Inaho-kun calls Yuki-san ‘Yuki-nee’. That’s what a kid with lots of elder brothers and sisters says…”
“Ah… I can see how you’d think that.”
She realised it for the first time now that someone had pointed it out.
Inko was right—if someone only had one older sister, they wouldn’t bother specifying her name. They’d just call her ‘nee-chan’. At the Home Yuki and Inaho had lived in, the children called those older than them ‘onii-chan’ or ‘onee-chan’, regardless of whether they were related. However, they couldn’t distinguish between individuals like that. Eventually, it became widespread for people to refer to their elders by name and attaching ‘-nii’ or ‘-nee’ to the end.
And so, even though Inaho had left the Home, he still called her ‘Yuki-nee’. Maybe he knew no other way of referring to her, or maybe he just didn’t feel the need to change it after all this time… It was probably the latter.
The first day they started living alone, dinner was a sumptuous feast beyond their wildest expectations.
Perhaps someone heard that war orphans had moved into the apartment. Inko’s parents welcomed Yuki and Inaho with open arms and treated them to a massive banquet of curry rice and beef cutlet.
Dinners at the Home were lively and fun as well, but they were different from this warmth. Maybe, just maybe, this was what a real home felt like.
“It must be tough living alone, so come on over anytime,” Inko’s mother said.
Bit by bit, those words warmed Yuki’s heart.
The prices on the menu were rather fair, so visiting twice or thrice a week wouldn’t cause a big strain on their living expenses.
“Considering what we lose when Yuki-nee fails at cooking, I think coming here will be much cheaper.”
Of course, Inaho was the one who said that.
“Okay, so for now, we’re coming here tomorrow?” Yuki suggested.
Her young little brother opened his mouth wide, his cheeks stuffed with curry potato, and nodded firmly like she had never seen him do before.