Time passed and no birds appeared. Not a single spec in the expansive white sky.
Seated on a sheet spread out on the sandy shore, Yuki glared resentfully at the blank sky. Inaho, who seemed to have completely given up on bird watching, amused himself by the curved edge of the shore, digging up the sand around the rock face.
“Nao-kuuuuun!” Yuki called out, prompting Inaho to turn around slightly some distance away. “Don’t go running off any further!”
He raised the stick he had been digging up the sand with, as if to say yes, yes, I get it.
“Geez…” Her simple sigh was swept away by the sea breeze. “I feel like an idiot…”
Perhaps it had been presumptuous of her in the first place to assume that she could give her brother something to remember. After all, she might be Inaho’s older sister, but she wasn’t his parent.
It might have been hypocritical to think she could give something to him now, after so much time had passed. No, not might. It was conceited hypocrisy.
She might be the only family he had, but the ones responsible for raising Inaho at the Home were the staff members of the institution and the nurses.
She felt as if a weight bore down on her shoulders. Sometimes, when she played with children her own age, she put on an aloof older sister act as if that was the only thing she thought she could do.
She wondered if things were different now.
Back then, they slept under the same roof and ate the same food, and yet—
Why had she assumed that only now she would be able to understand her little brother?
“I’m such an idiot…”
The sound of the waves breaking on the shore felt painful to her ears at that moment. It was perfectly in time with her throbbing heart, as if those waves were ushering in a distinct sense of unease.
Carried away by her frustration, Yuki snatched up a small branch that had fallen on the sandy shore. She had no idea herself whether she wanted to hit something with it or fling it far away. Either way, she wanted to vent her anger through some convenient outlet.
But the branch didn’t fly over the beach or the sandy shore.
It soared diagonally behind her. Her brandished stick flew backwards out of her hand and—
Against all odds, it had fallen on a complete stranger’s head.
She flinched. “Ah, s-sorry!”
Startled at the voice, she swung around instantly. A young man was sitting on driftwood, glaring at her sharply.
Beside him lay the branch Yuki had flung—or more like let loose.
Tripping over the sand, Yuki ran up to the man in a panic.
“S-sorry…! Are you hurt?”
“I am,” the man declared coldly.
“Huh…?! How are you hurt?!”
When she looked, there was a large cast over his left leg.
“Huh? Is this…?”
This was clearly not the doing of Yuki’s tiny branch.
“It appears I didn’t hurt you, even though you’re hurt.”
The man was clad in what appeared to be a hospital gown. Had he been hospitalised for his broken leg, and then, spotting Yuki at the beach, decided to make fun of her as a way of killing time?
Yuki glared at him huffily.
With a nasty chuckle, the man took out a wrinkled cigarette and a match from his pocket, lighting the cigarette with a practiced motion. After taking a long puff, he turned to Yuki and exhaled smoke.
“Hey!” Yuki said indignantly.
“Oh, my bad. I was so shocked from getting hit by that branch I acted without thinking.”
His manner of speaking was rather childish, even compared to the kids. Far from feeling indignant, Yuki was astonished. Could it be that he was more immature than the countless adults she had seen up until now?
“You think I’m childish?”
“Yeah, I do.” She nodded frankly. Normally, she wouldn’t adopt such a rude attitude towards an adult, but with this guy, it was a matter of levelling the score.
“…you two on your own?”
“Huh…? Well, yeah.”
The man’s eyes had fallen upon Inaho’s wandering figure. “What about your parents?”
“They’re not around. They died in Heaven’s Fall,” Yuki answered frankly. In her head, she screamed, “Oh, crap!”
Now that she thought about it, this unpleasant character wasn’t necessarily any ordinary unpleasant character… What if he’s lying about his broken bone and using this chance to attack us?
Just as Yuki was about to edge away from the man—
“I see… I’m sorry,” he said in a subdued tone.
It was a total anticlimax.
What the heck? He’s apologising over this?
No longer able to think suspiciously of him for some reason, Yuki laughed and smiled. “You don’t have to apologise… We’re not the only ones.”
The man’s eyes snapped open.
Yuki was puzzled at this unforeseen reaction. “W-what is it?”
“Nothing… I didn’t think someone could say something like that with a smile on their face…”
Yuki laughed sheepishly. “But you know, we’re not the only orphans in this day and age…”
After all, war orphans numbered in their millions. There were so many that it was ludicrous to feel sorry for each and every one of them.
“It’s true that many people lost their parents in the war.” He paused. “But that’s exactly why you shouldn’t feel sorry.”
“Huh…?” For a moment, she didn’t comprehend, wondering what he was even saying.
“Everyone’s in the same boat, so you’re not the only one… That’s what stops you from feeling sorry for yourself.”
As the words kept piling on, Yuki shook her head frantically in denial. “That’s not really what I meant…!”
“I lost an important friend from the war as well.”
Yuki blinked in surprise.
“I’m a soldier. I could drop dead any minute when the fighting starts. It’s that kind of job. That’s why you can’t file away a buddy’s death as ‘something that happens to everyone’.”
Yuki did not understand.
She did not understand what the man was saying. She did not understand what she was supposed to say to this strange person.
“But that boy… my little brother never knew his parents. It’s like they never existed in the first place… and you still insist that I’m the only one who shouldn’t feel sorry about that? That’s just putting on a show. That boy has nothing… He won’t express his emotions—he can’t stay like that…!”
“My sister can’t grieve over her family because I’m here… if I were your little brother, I wouldn’t be preoccupied with such negativity.”
Yuki was startled.
“Cry when you’re sad. Smile when you’re having fun. Feel free to blow your top when you’re feeling mad. I don’t know about your little brother, but the way I see it, you’re the emotionless one.”
“You can’t show your true feelings with just surface gestures. If that’s the side of you that you show to your brother, then”—he put out his cigarette on the driftwood and flicked it into the sand—“quit being an older sis.”
She turned bright red with anger before his eyes.
No, she didn’t actually do that, but Yuki was so furious that she felt she did.
“What do you know?!” she yelled at the man vehemently, all but grabbing him by the shirt. “It’s because he’s my only family!”
Surely, the tip of her nose felt so hot because of her agitation.
“He’s my brother, you hear me!”
“…that’s not how it really is, is it?”
Furious at this nonsensical turn of conversation, her voice rose louder and louder.
The man poked Yuki’s cheek teasingly. “You’re a crybaby at heart, aren’t you?”
It was at that moment that Yuki finally realised that she was crying. The tip of her nose wasn’t the only part of her that felt hot. Whatever was flowing out of her eyes, whatever it was that came gushing from her deepest self, felt so hot that she never could have imagined it.
She scowled. “Stupid idiot! You half-rate soldier!”
With those heartfelt parting insults, Yuki ran off.
She knew even without looking over her shoulder that the man was watching her with a faint smile on his face.
Quit being an older sis? What was he saying?
“Like hell I’m gonna quit!”
She wanted to throw her arms around her brother right at that very moment. She couldn’t bear to hold it in…