Ex-Chapter: Another Dreamer
My name is Kishinuma Miki. Today, I've come to see Kishinuma Yoshiki; ex-delinquent, overly sarcastic, and my bigger brother.
I try to come over at least twice a week; once on Tuesday, once on Saturday. After all, it's my sisterly, responsibility to make sure he's eating something else besides fast food and lunch boxes full of preservatives!
I walked up the street to his apartment as always, groceries in hand.
The way this usually worked was he'd either be inside at home or out at work. Thus, he'd either be surprised when I walked in unannounced, or be surprised when he finds his front door unlocked with me cooking at his stove.
However, today neither of those happened.
Because, to my surprise, he was standing in front of his apartment and saw me approaching.
I know he did, because he waved when he saw me.
And he wasn't alone.
He was with a girl. A girl with two pigtails and blue eyes.
Oh, and a big frown as well.
"So, is this her?" She said grumpily, as I stopped in front of them.
"W-well, yeah…" My brother looked strangely nervous. He turns away the moment she looks at him.
What is this? The atmosphere is strangely tense.
"Um… what's going on?" I ask. "Who is she?"
"Oh, right. I guess introductions should come first."
My brother seems relieved by my question.
If it wasn't for the angry aura emanating from the girl in front of me, I'd be amazed at how meek my brother had become since I last saw him. Sure, he was a bit too aggressive before, but this isn't exactly what I had in mind when I thought he should soften up a little…
"Miki, this is Shinozaki Ayumi. She's the class-rep at my school."
"Nice to meet you."
Her answer is curt. Yup, as I felt earlier, this is anger. Her name sounds vaguely familiar, but I can't remember where I heard it.
"Shinozaki, this is Miki, my little sister."
Before I could reply, Shinozaki Ayumi's mouth drops and eyes widen.
"Umm… Is something wrong?"
She looks me once over, then glares at my brother.
"Hey! You didn't tell me she was your sister!"
"Huh? Didn't I?"
"No you didn't!"
"Sorry! Sorry! Guess I forgot."
"Ugh… I feel like a complete idiot now…"
The girl in front of me slumps a little, while my brother scratches his head as he always does when he's confused. He says he's thinking while he's doing it, but I've never seen him come up with a solution while he does that.
"Hey, brother, could you explain to me what's going on?"
"Don't ask me. I'm the one who's confused."
Yup, I can tell. You're still scratching your head.
Shinozaki…-san recovers from her slump with a sigh, and faces us again.
"Sorry for that earlier."
She bows to me earnestly.
"No, it's alright. Although, could you tell me what all that was about earlier?"
Shinozaki-san turns a little red, then sighs again.
"It's probably a long story…" She fidgets.
"You busy today?" My brother seems to have given up trying to figure out what's going on.
"Well, not really…" Shinozaki-san continues fidgeting.
What's going on?
From that weird atmosphere at the beginning, to this even weirder atmosphere now…
At best, I can see she's embarrassed about something; maybe a misunderstanding that my brother started. Something to do with my relationship with him…
My brother's definitely worried about this girl. Enough that his usually prickly attitude isn't getting in the way.
… I smell a mystery.
"If you're free, why not come in for lunch? It's about that time, and you don't have any other plans do you?"
Both my brother and Shinozaki-san look as surprised as a pigeon shot by a spit ball.
"I've got enough for three, and it should last as long as my brother keeps his appetite in check. You came here because you were worried about him, weren't you? Take this as thanks for looking after my brother at school."
I bow as the two in front of me splutter. As I get up, I send my brother a wink. He takes a moment to process it, then nods slightly.
"W-well, it's true you've helped me out a bunch at school. Plus, you came out all the way here on a weekend. How about it?"
"Wha? Wait! I really shouldn't…" Shinozaki-san waves her hands in front of her.
"Don't say that Shinozaki-san. Really, it's the least I can do for you. You know, for having to look after my troublesome older brother. So, please, please come on in."
I gently grab the hands being waved to reject my offer, and start tugging their owner up the stairs. My brother mutters something about 'a few words too many' and follows after us.
I'm not letting something this juicy get away. Also, the groceries were getting heavy.
By the time we enter the house, Shinozaki-san has stopped resisting and sits sulkily at the coffee table. I stand at the kitchen and start pulling the various ingredients out of the bag.
Today's menu is chicken karaage with some boiled vegetables seasoned with; ginger, soy sauce, mirin, and sugar. Oh, and some miso soup as well. Throwing in some powdered bonito soup stock into a pot, stirring once, and putting some miso paste into a pot, I close the lid and turn back to the (figurative) main dish already at the table. I have until all the pots start to bubble to dig through this one.
"So, what were you here for, Shinozaki-san? Did my brother do something bad?"
"Well, I thought he did, but it looks like it was just a misunderstanding."
She's not looking me in the eye; a sure indication of someone hiding something.
I turn to my assistant interrogator. Inexperienced as he is, his aggressive nature might make him a good bad cop.
"Don't look at me! I don't know why she was angry either."
Looks like my bad cop has become a total wimp in front of the perp. I guess, it can't be helped. He is sort of like the victim in this case. Perhaps I should treat him as a witness?
"About when did she get angry at you, brother?" Shinozaki-san starts fidgeting again. Looks like I'm on the right track.
"Huh? Hmmm… I guess, it was about lunch time this Wednesday? We were eating together and I was comparing lunches with Satoshi when she started acting funny."
"Funny?!" Shinozaki-san glares at my brother, enraged.
Hmm… the perp silenced the witness. This looks like this case will be harder to solve than I thought. Sorry big brother. I should have gotten you into witness protection before starting this case.
"Was there something strange with his lunch?"
Shinozaki-san stops glaring at my brother, and sighs.
"Your brother was comparing lunches with a friend of ours. They seem to have been doing it for a while, but it was the first time we saw it."
"Our other friends. A friend of ours got some good news, but she's busy with clubs and a few other things in the afternoon, so we decided to have a little gathering at lunch." Shinozaki-san glares at my brother again. "There, a different friends had a little happening with his lunch."
"I wouldn't exactly call it a 'happening'…" My brother quips from the sidelines.
"Brother, be quiet." My brother blinks at my command. "Sorry, Shinozaki-san. So, what happened?"
Shinozaki-san sighs again. She's been doing that a lot since she got here. Is the pressure too much? Is she going to fess up?
"His mother didn't actually make him a lunch. She just put in a note and some money asking him to buy something from the school shop. He didn't make it, so Kishinuma-kun said he'd give him one of his shrimp tempura out of pity."
"Hm hm." I nod. Shrimp tempura? The term sticks in my mind vaguely, but I haven't finished the interrogation. We haven't gotten to the point my brother thought she started acting 'funny'. "Continue."
"When he went to give him the shrimp, Mochida-kun complimented him on being able to make anything. He started to brag, so Morishige-kun… oh, sorry. He's one of our friends that was there. Told him to show us his lunch."
"I see, is this the part where you got angry?"
"I didn't!" The perp blushes, and then starts again more quietly. "I didn't really get angry. I just noticed that the contents of his lunch box looked rather girly for him."
My brother and I both ask the same question in exactly the same tone. Giving him a look to keep him quiet, I turn back to Shinozaki-san.
"By 'girly', what do you mean?"
"Well, it was the little things. Like the fact that; all the vegetables were cut into cute shapes, or all the sausages had been cut to look like octopuses."
I take a look at my brother. He is suddenly very interested at what's outside the window.
"So, what happened next?"
"The other girls who were there thought the same thing." My brother swallows nervously at her comment. "Then, one of them said that maybe Kishinuma-kun had gotten a girlfriend to start making him food."
"Brother, please be quiet." The ex-witness shuts his mouth, and resumes his previous activity of not meeting my gaze.
"Of course, it's not against the rules to get a girlfriend at our school. But… your brother lives alone, right?"
"Hm hm, so you thought he might be in an illicit relationship with a girl?"
"No!" Shinozaki-san rejects my statement before my brother can. "No, I didn't… But, high school students are easy targets for all sorts of people, right? So I was worried that someone might be trying to trick him by exploiting his emotions."
"Oh, I don't think there's any worry of that."
After all, I'm the one who made those shrimp tempura.
To be honest, that theory sounds a bit farfetched, even if you believe the old saying, 'The fastest way to a man's heart is through his stomach.'
Meanwhile, my brother looks both happy and surprised that the perp was worried about him. Enjoy that feeling while it lasts, big brother. We'll see how long that expression lasts when I pull you in for exploitation of labor and food embezzlement.
"So, what happened next?"
"I asked Kishinuma-kun about his lunch a few days later. His replies seemed suspicious, so I threatened to bring it up with the teachers. Then, he said that 'Miki' was the one who was making them."
"I see. I guess he didn't mention who 'Miki' was did he?"
"Not a word! He just said 'Miki made them' and clammed up!"
"I see. I see. And then you asked if you could meet this 'Miki'?"
Shinozaki-san nods, and I glance over at the ex-co-interrogator, then witness, now 100% criminal. He looks relieved, as if he just figured out why something had gone wrong.
Don't look too relieved, big brother.
Anyways, back to the case.
They do say 'only the guilty have something to hide'. My brother's strange behavior must have made Shinozaki-san imagine the worst.
I guess that's why she was so angry when I met her.
She must have seen me and thought I was the girlfriend that was making lunches for him. On top of that; I was a middle schooler, from a different school, and carrying groceries. She probably thought my brother was the one who was exploiting me to make his lunches. All the trust she had in him and worry that he was being tricked or something must have turned into anger at being betrayed at that point.
"Anyways." Shinozaki-san sighs again. "Now that I know that you are his little sister, my main worries are gone. Again, sorry for my earlier attitude towards you." She bows in apology again.
"It's alright, I'd be angry as well if I thought my brother was exploiting a little girl like that." I reply with a smile.
"Anyways, that's the whole story. Sorry to have worried you Shinozaki." My brother smiles at Shinozaki-san, and she sighs once before begrudgingly smiling back.
"Yes, thank goodness it was nothing serious."
"Yeah. Nothing shady or suspicious at all."
The two nod at each other, content that the mysteries they came to solve have been answered.
Sadly, there's one small detail left.
"Big brother, the food almost ready, could you take a seat?"
"Huh? Oh, yeah… sure."
Oops, I guess my curtness made him a little suspicious. Stay calm Miki. Calm. Now's not the time.
The pots are boiling. It's always nice to see the world mirroring your mood. I finish up the meal, set the table, and bring the food.
"Now, let's eat!" I sit down at the table, opposite Shinozaki-san, my big brother is in between us.
The three of us start eating.
"This is really good, Miki-san."
"Please, call me Miki-chan, and thanks! I get a lot of practice at home, and at my brother's"
"It must be tough, cooking so many times a day."
"Not really. Although, my brother eats a lot so it can take a while."
"Really? Kishinuma-kun doesn't seem like that at school."
"Really. I swear, at times he eats enough for two people."
"Hmm. I never knew that. He always eats a normal amount at lunch."
"'Does he'? Don't you make his school lunches for him?"
"No, I've never made a school lunch for my brother in my life."
Both of us look at my brother. He's frozen with his chopsticks halfway to his mouth.
"Now that I think about it, I've never seen my brother finish a meal."
"Is that so? That's rather wasteful of you, Kishinuma-kun."
He manages to put down his chopsticks, before replying.
"W-well, Miki just never stick around long enough for me to finish. You know I get back late from my part-time job, right? She still has a curfew to keep, and can't stay too long."
Both of us continue to look at my brother for a while, before returning to our meals. He starts breathing again the moment we do.
"You know, Miki-chan." Shinozaki-san says in between bites. "I think you're probably a better cook than me."
"Oh, don't say that Shinozaki-san."
"I'm telling the truth. I thought that when I saw Kishinuma-kun's lunch box. I mean, the reason the girls of our group started talking about it was because we couldn't believe Kishinuma-kun was better at cooking than us. I mean, he doesn't even show up for the home making cooking classes at our school."
"I'm not that good. Anyways, they say cooking becomes easier the more you make."
"Do you mean you getter better with practice?"
"No, no. It's about the seasoning. If you cook a large volume of food, you don't have to pay as much attention to how much stuff you put in since it averages out easier."
"Wow, I didn't know that at all. I guess it shows how much experience you've had."
My brother resumes eating, and remains silent while we chat. I catch him sending the occasional look at both of us to judge our mood.
Sorry big bro, but your sentence is in the present continuous state of being carried out.
"So, Miki-chan. What else can you make?"
"Oh, the usual stuff you'd see at home. Grilling and broiling fish, making miso soup, sautéing vegetables… oh, and of course tempura."
We both look at my brother at the last word.
He's managed to avoid looking at us by drinking his miso soup. It's pretty hot, but he continues drinking it as we watch him.
"Have you made any of those recently?" Shinozaki-san sends the sign to stop staring at my brother as he begins to turn red from the heat. The moment we stop, he puts down the empty bowl with a clatter, and glugs down the glass of water in front of him.
"Not really… Oh, wait. I think I did make tempura recently."
"Tempura? What kind?"
Again, we look at my brother. He's completely given up trying to act oblivious and just sits there. His bleached hair seems to be losing even more color by the moment, even his skin is starting look white.
"When did you make those?"
"I think it was last Tuesday. I made enough for two people that time as well."
The three of us sit in silence for a while; only the ticking of the clock, and the drip of water from the kitchen sink breaking it.
"So, Kishinuma-kun. What do you have to say for yourself?" Shinozaki-san asks my brother with a smile.
He shakes himself a little and looks at her, before swiftly turning away. The angry aura I felt earlier is raging around us again. A violent storm of emotions is hidden behind her Mona Lisa smile.
"Well, um… uh…" He scratches his head, and looks at me.
I merely mimic Shinozaki-san's smile.
Finding no refuge anywhere, he turns back to Shinozaki-san's smile, smile's back, and says, "I at least pay for the groceries?"
The sound of something snapping echoes in the room.
"KISHINUMA-KUN! ! ! ! !"
"Thanks so much for the meal, Miki-chan."
Shinozaki-san and I smile at each other, truthfully this time, outside my brother's apartment. The owner of said apartment stands next to me with dead eyes, staring at the ground.
"It was nothing. I'm usually cooking three portions anyways, Shinozaki-san. Oh, or should I call you Shinozaki-sempai?"
"Shinozaki-san is fine. Although, I won't stop you if you want to call me that."
"Thanks Shinozaki-san. If my brother does anything else stupid at school, don't hesitate to tell me."
"Okay, and if he starts doing something stupid at home, call me as soon as you can, alright?"
She turns to leave, before turning back.
"Kishinuma-kun." My brother wakes up a bit, and looks at her. "If you really need help, come talk to me. Got it?"
He scratches his head, sighs, then nods.
"I might not be as good as Miki-chan, but I can bring some apple slices, or vegetable sticks if you need something healthy, okay?"
He blinks in surprise.
"Where's your reply!"
"Y-yeah. Thanks, Shinozaki…"
She frowns at him a little, then sighs.
"Okay then. Thanks again for the food, Miki-chan."
"Not a problem, Shinozaki-san."
"Well then, see you at school Kishinuma-kun."
"Yeah, see you."
She leaves us behind, down the street. The sun has begun to set. We met at around lunch time, but it's closer to dinner now. That's how long she was lecturing my brother.
"So, that's the girl you like, right?"
"I never said it like that."
I wondered why the name sounded familiar.
It was the name of the girl my brother sometimes brought up.
Every time he came back in a good mood, it was usually to do with her. It wasn't anything romantic, or lecherous. They were small things, like he managed to help out something she was working on, or a project they were doing was going well. Really small things, so small that I thought he was simply happy because things at school were working out.
Except for the first time he mentioned her… The time he quit smoking. The time he started caring for himself again.
I smirk at him, and he gives me the stink eye, before sighing and scratching his head.
Looks like big bro is still pretty much out of it. He doesn't even have the strength to retort.
Well, I'd probably be in the same state if I got scolded like that.
"Cheer up, big brother. If she can be worried about you this much, you've probably got a chance."
"Yeah, yeah. Whatever." He sighs and scratches his head again. "Anyways, how do you know?"
"Call it a woman's intuition."
"Humph." He looks unconvinced.
Seriously, after what you've been through, I have a harder time believing you can't accept its existence.
Then again… a few apple slices and vegetable sticks, was it?
Either that's the limit of Shinozaki-san's cooking skills, or the limit of affection she has for my brother.
I sigh, and look at him again.
"Anyways, don't go taking credit for other people's work, okay?"
He sighs as well, then smiles begrudgingly.
"Mhmmm..." A feminine grumble. The groan of a high schooler waking up. She tosses and turns in bed, and burrows under the blankets before poking her head out again. Daylight streams in from the windows. The hands of the small alarm clock next to her bed read 6:05, far too early to wake up.
"Too early..." Mumbling to herself, Kishinuma Miki rolls around before closing her eyes again. A few moments pass; the ticking of the clock and the chirps of sparrows outside the window.
Sighing, Miki gives up trying to go back to sleep. Arms throw the blankets off her, as if to vent some of the frustration of waking up.
"And it felt like I was having a good dream as well..." Crawling out of bed, Kishinuma Miki yawns and steps across the carpeted floor. Picking a beret off it, she hangs it on a coat rack with her collection. Multiple caps and hats of various colors hang like Christmas tree ornaments.
A pair of sunglasses are left on her desk. Folding them, she opens a drawer. Rows after rows of various glasses reflect the sunlight. Putting the pair into an empty slot, she slides the drawer shut and stretches.
A single laptop rests on her desk. Files and notebooks sit on the shelves beside it, along with textbooks and novels. A smartphone is plugged into the machine. Drawing a finger across the mouse pad, Miki wakes up her electronic companion. Nodding at the message, "Copying completed." she disconnects the phone and deletes everything; audio recordings, photos, and movies are swiftly removed from its memory.
Opening the closet at the foot of her bed, she takes out a change of clothing before walking out of her room.
Only the clock ticks and the birds chirp for a while. Then, the bed creaks; as if someone is getting off it.
The sparrows chirps are joined by the cooing of a pigeon.
The light from the window dims slightly, and fluttering wings sound as the birds fly away. Only the ticking of the clock remains.
Miki enters the room again, hair still slightly damp from her shower and dressed in her school uniform. Pulling out a notebook from the shelf, she taps the mouse pad again, and opens up the files she had transferred during the night. Her hands flip through the note book in the meantime, searching for the latest page. Theories and ideas are scrawled, then scratched out over and over again. Notes, rumors, and recorded conversations are highlighted and joined to related topics on both paper and machine. Months of brainstorming are recorded on the pages.
Her hand stops at a half filled in entry, and she continues her train of thought from yesterday.
An hour passes, and the sounds of her parents waking up start in the house. She quickly closes the .png files she was looking at, and puts the notebook back on the shelf. She'd prefer that her hobby wasn't known to her parents.
Going down the stairs, she greets her father at the breakfast table and moves into the kitchen to help her mother.
Breakfast is laid out and passes normally; buttered toast with a small salad and orange juice or coffee.
"I'll be going." She says back to her parents.
Her father looks at the clock.
"Isn't it a bit early?"
Her mother nods at this. "Why don't you take it easy? You came back pretty late from studying yesterday as well."
"Well, there's not much time till the exams." Miki shrugs. "I'm fine mom, don't worry."
"Alright, just don't wear yourself out." Her mother begins cleaning the table as her father goes to prepare for his own departure.
"Will do." With those words, Miki grabs her bag and walks out the door.
Outside, she breathes out deeply and slaps her cheeks. Lying to her parents was still tough, even if she had been doing it for a number of years.
Her feet take her the long way to school; the reverse direction, further into the suburbs.
As she walks, a man appears. Black bag slung across his shoulder, he blinks and sighs before walking up to her.
"Didn't I tell you to worry about yourself first?"
"Morning, Kishinuma-san!" She jogs up to him and walks by his side.
"You've got exams soon." Yoshiki sighs again. "Seriously, if you don't study hard, you're gonna end up like me."
"Self-employed, well paid, and doing something mysterious?"
Yoshiki pats her on the head. "More like exploited, blackmailed, and bullied." He smirks, then musses up her hair.
"Hey!" Miki shakes her head free from him. "Don't play with a girl's hair!"
"It's just a ponytail." He shrugs.
"Still, it's rude!" Pouting, she redoes the ponytail quickly then refuses to look at him.
The two walk down the street, towards the train station. The morning rush is begging to build, and they join the crowds of people.
"So, did something good happen?"
Miki glances at Yoshiki at his question, then turns away again.
"Why do you say that?" She counters.
"Well, you always ambush me in the morning whenever you find something big or get excited about something."
"Yup." Yoshiki nods. "You know you can e-mail or text me those things, right?"
"You never reply though!"
"I confirm the read receipts."
"And you call that a reply?!" She glares at him.
"It's the best I can do." He smirks back. "Anyways, my contract doesn't allow me to hire a helping hand. Officially, I'm supposed to pretend to have never seen those, y'know?"
"Liar." Miki pouts again. "Niwa-san let you go ages ago."
"In name only." He sighs. "Either way, tune down the detective stuff for a bit. Things are getting rough again."
"Got it." She nods, face serious.
As they line up at the turnstile, Yoshiki's phone rings; a text message has just arrived. His eyes scan the contents quickly.
"Miki, sorry. Go on without me."
"Something's come up. Go to school."
"… Got it."
She watches him push his way out of the line and out the station. A few men in business suits send him annoyed glances as he passes.
A worried look passes her face. She bites her lip slightly, then turns back to the turnstile. Passing it, she is locked into the station.
This is as far as she can go. She knows that.
The dream she had this morning passes her mind; a fuzzy image of a girl and a boy. Details are already gone, but the feelings are still there.
Her mouth moves unconsciously, whispering something; barely even mouthing the last word.
"Give it your best… brother."