It was the afternoon. All of a sudden, Yume talked to me while I was just lazing about in the living room, reading a book.
“Hey, Mizuto-kun. Where’s the bookmark for this book?” she asked, and I was forced to look up from my book.
She was talking about a book I’d just borrowed from her… Bookmark?
“Ahhh… Now that you mention it, yeah, there was one. I think I put it somewhere on the table.”
“Whaaat? On that messy table? Why didn’t you tuck it in the book where it belongs?”
“Sorry, I don’t use it anyway. I’ll look for it la—”
“Do it now! You’ll forget about it later!”
“Haa!? What a hassle…”
“Huh? Aren’t you to blame? You should take good care of the things you borrow!”
“Ah… yes yes.”
I sighed and got up from the sofa. Yes, yes, you’re right, I get it, I get it.
I wanted to find it and hurry back to reading, but before I could leave the living room, I felt some stares on the two of us.
It was Dad and Yuni-san, who had a rare day off.
They were seated by the dining table, giving us surprised smiles.
Yume sensed the same stares too, and then Yuni-san giggled.
“No, well, how do I put it… I guess?”
“Hm, yes. I agree, I agree.” Dad just shrugged as well.
Yume and I tilted our heads in confusion. Was there anything odd about what we just did…?
Yuni-san continued to giggle. For some reason, the two of you look like a couple going through a rut.”
Huh!? Yume looked as surprised as I was.
A rut. We knew what it was, but only through second-hand accounts.
When we speak of a ‘rut’, we refer to when a couple slowly gets used to living together, and then gets bored of the relationship. It’s when they start nitpicking each other’s flaws.
It was a terrible ordeal for couples, including the married ones. Depending on severity, it could even result in break-ups…
“That surprised me,” Yume said, as she pressed her cushion onto the floor.
“I thought once I got used to living like this, nobody’d be able to figure it out… I didn’t expect we’d get too comfortable and make it obvious instead…”
“A rut… Well, now that I think about it, it does feel like the sort of thing that happens to real couples. Fake couples wouldn’t be able to pretend they were in one.”
“But we’re not a couple right now!”
“So you say. The problem is that others think we are.”
Well, Dad and Yuni-san were joking when they said that, of course. They likely haven’t figured out yet that we actually were a couple in the past. But we slowly got used to living together. It’s been four months, and we couldn’t deny that we started to get a little too casual.
What occurred before went beyond ‘a pair of step siblings who got along well’, and straight into ‘a couple in a rut’ territory. Or maybe even ‘actual siblings’. It wasn’t unlikely that others might think “Hang on, that’s too fast for two people who’ve just met!”
“Looks like we need to get back to plan A…” Yume grimaced as she said so. “We need to get back to how we were four months ago, when we were so tense about living together.”
“Dad and Yuni-san aside, you’ve been getting way too comfortable lately. Making calls in the middle of the night like it’s normal, dressing so casually, and lounging around the living room.”
“I-I wasn’t being casual! My clothes are just a little thinner since it’s summer, you know!?” Yume embraced the cushion firmly and retreated, as though hiding her body.
She was wearing a slightly oversized shirt and some rather short culottes. Because of how hot it was, she wasn’t wearing knee socks. Just high socks.
She was so obsessed about not affording people a glimpse of her bare feet whenever she went out. At this point, though, she showed more than half her thigh. And because her shirt was a little on the large side, whenever she bent down, there was this little opening in her collar, giving a glimpse of her cleavage…
I’d never look, though. Never.
Also, she was wearing glasses.
She usually wore contacts, but ever since summer vacation started, we had more stay-at-home days. Probably because she found putting the contacts in a hassle, Yume started wearing glasses more frequently. To me, it always reminded me of the time we shared in middle school.
It was pretty bad for my mental hygiene.
“…You’ve got a lewd look in your eyes.”
I sensed a condescending look through the glasses. She folded her legs before me, and her thighs were exposed. I wanted to ask if she was doing that on purpose, but I barely resisted the urge to sneak a peek, and averted my eyes.
“…Anyway, you wouldn’t have dressed this casually in front of me four months ago. Feels like we’re back in middle school or something, frankly…”
“Ahh~ geez, you complain a lot! We just need to get through this rut, right!? Just this rut!”
“Gotta say, since we’re not even dating, there can’t be a rut…no, hang on, maybe we can use this.”
“I mean, maybe we can use the way couples get past a rut?”
“Ahh, I see… We don’t really have an idea of what to do after all…” Yume muttered, her thumb against her lower lip. “But…how are we supposed to get past this rut?”
“…Why’re you quiet?”
“…Just thinking. We broke up because we couldn’t get past that period, right?”
The more we noticed the other wasn’t perfect, the unhappier we became. That was the state we ended up in. Back then, we didn’t realize that’s what they called “being in a rut”. If I had to guess it started around half a year ago or so, from last summer on.
But nothing noteworthy or big happened in that period, so there wasn’t anything to remember about it.
“Looks like we can only rely on the wisdom of our ancestors,” Yume said.
“The wisdom of our ancestors?”
“They call it the internet.”
“…Say, is it just me, or do you turn to the internet whenever you need anything?”
“D-Definitely just you.”
Her eyes were really swimming. No wonder she did weird stuff from time to time.
“Rut, how to get over it.” Yume flipped out her phone and used voice input to search. It wasn’t good to air the dirty laundry like that, but it’s not like we had a choice.
“Erm…” Yume tapped away on the phone incessantly, and her eyes went up and down.
“…‘The earliest moment of the rut starts about three months after dating’.”
…Wasn’t that when we were the most intimate?
“‘The most important thing about a rut is to check the partner’s feelings’ —or so it says.” Yume glanced aside at me through her glasses.
What do you want me to say?
“Enough nonsense. Find something specific. Something practical..”
“Hmm…” Her eyes were glued to the screen again. “A way to get over a rut—…go someplace you wouldn’t normally go on a date to.”
We couldn’t help but exchange looks, and there was a long silence.
So to make sure Dad and Yuni-san wouldn’t mistake us for a couple, we’d go and do something couple-like.
What the heck?
“…So what now?” Yume hugged the cushion, put her legs down and sat like a mermaid, her head tilted slowly as she looked towards me. “…Shall we… go on a date…?”
Personally, I wish you’d ask that with a smile…
…She’s been way too chill lately.
“……Easier said than done. Where would we go? Somewhere we don’t usually go?”
“Wouldn’t that just be anywhere but a bookstore or library? …Ah no, that was only true back in middle school.”
True, we often went to the bookstore or library back in middle school. Ever since we started living together, our trips there were infrequent, though.
Speaking of, if we excluded our usual haunts, then…
“…Sounds like anything goes as long as it’s not home or school, huh?”
We were always together at home, or at school. We were so relaxed around each other that others assumed we were a couple going through a rut.
Maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea to change our usual environment.
“Hmm… I see, I see…” Yume muttered, while scrolling on her phone.
What do you mean, I see?
“…In that case, maybe this will work.”
“Go anywhere so long as it’s not home or school, right? There just so happens to be something I want to buy, so come with me.”
“Something you want to buy?”
Other than books? It’s a little too late to buy summer clothes…
Yume put her chin on the cushion in her clutches, and smirked away.
“A s-w-i-m suit.”
“I’m off to the bookstore.”
“Oh, take care not to get heatstroke!”
“Hurry back soon~”
Dad and Yuni-san didn’t doubt me for a moment. This was one of the benefits of a routine lifestyle.
I stepped out of the house, walked a little down the street, and after turning the first corner I stopped.
I stood under the shadow of the electric pole, and looked up at the clear summer skies where the cicadas cried. The surrounding hot air felt like a sauna, strangling me with silk threads as it raised my body temperature. I really wanted to return to my air-conditioned room ASAP.
She told me to leave first, because she was going to come, too. But she just wanted me to die from heatstroke, right?
“Kept you waiting. You still alive?”
Right when I thought that, Yume popped ’round the corner all of a sudden.
Ah, she’s probably dressed up like a princess, like always. …or so I expected when I turned to look at her. My thoughts were instantly thrown into chaos.
I could hardly even recognize her.
To make a long story short, she was dressed breezily. She wore a white shirt, blue denim shorts, and black knee-highs.
The big shocker was just how revealing it all was. The sleeves of her shirt only covered her shoulders, with a low enough collar that I could spy a bit of collarbone. Her thighs were completely exposed between her denim shorts and knee-highs. I could even visibly see the rubber bands of the socks sink into her calves.
The most dangerous part was however from the neck up.
She wore a large hat, probably to shield against the sun, and her annoyingly long black hair was tied in twintails that dangled in front of her chest.
Those were enough to trigger my PTSD, but the real killer were her eyes.
She was wearing the glasses she normally reserved for exclusive at-home use.
“Kukuku.” Yume looked at my face, and smiled like a mischievous kid who successfully pranked someone. “This is another way to get over the rut. Surprises are super effective.”
I frowned. She did that on purpose, didn’t she? Twintails down her shoulders, glasses… she’s definitely the same Yume Ayai from middle school.
But the impression she gave now was completely unlike back then.
“Well, it’d be a pain if someone recognized us. Just think of it as a disguise… speaking of. This is for you,” Yume said, and she handed me something that resembled a blue baseball cap.
“You got first place for the midterms, and quite a few people know what you look like. You’ll be harder to recognize with this cap on, right?”
“…You make it sound like I’m an artiste.”
“Well, if you don’t mind some after-vacation rumors about us dating, then you don’t have to wear it.”
“And also,” Yume popped the hat onto my head before I gave consent, “it’s pretty sunny today. It’d be a pain if you got heatstroke.”
From under the bill of the cap, I saw her face. It wasn’t the face of Yume Ayai, who’d totter on after me. I wasn’t sure if it was because she’d grown, or because she was dressed a little differently from normal.
Or maybe it was the impression I got from her maturing.
I don’t plan to be your little brother though.
I lowered the bill of the cap once again.
I figured we should be heading off, but before we could, Yume was fidgeting and looking at me.
“What. Anything else?”
“Ehh, well, erm~… J-Just one more thing…”
Yume fidgeted around as she fished something out of her shoulder bag.
A pair of glasses.
She lifted her eyes and stared at my face, then opened the glasses up and brought them towards me.
“Just think of it as a disguise. I’m also wearing some, so…”
“Why~!? You’d look so cool with them on!”
Don’t call me cool.
I had enough of walking under the hot sun for dozens of minutes, so we took the bus to the department store.
There were a few shopping malls near our house, but those were the places we ‘frequented’, and thus the places we had to avoid. Basically, the plan was to reintroduce some stress to our slow lives. If I forgot about it, it’d just be me and her on a shopping trip.
Once we went inside, a cool breeze swept over us. I let out a long sigh. “Shopping for a swimsuit? Are you going to the sea?”
Yume wiped the sweat off her neck. “Not really. Akatsuki-san and the others wanted to plan something, but they’ll pass on being catcalled. The sea’s far away too.”
“Are you happy now, you siscon little brother?”
Yume slid her head before my chest, and glanced up towards my face.
I continued with that poker face, but Yume mockingly giggled.
It felt like she’d been taking me for a ride the entire day. I had to be careful.
“So why do you still want the swimsuit?” I asked to seize back the initiative.
Yume looked at the display on the shop window, and replied, “Because of what uncle Mineaki said. It’s for Obon.”
“Dad? Obon?—Ahh, we’re not going to the sea, but the river.”
We planned to visit Dad’s hometown during the Obon vacation.
The house we’re living in originally belonged to my now deceased grandfather. Dad’s a local, but it’s a tradition to go back to the hometown during every Obon because my grandmother (still alive) was living elsewhere.
What’s more, we had a new addition to the family this year. I had to show up.
Basically, the home grandmother stayed in was ‘the countryside’. The only thing that went for entertainment there was the river. Compared to modern society, it was a magical wonderland of fantasy. When I was younger, I spent just about all my hours there just flipping through grandfather’s book collection. Guess that’s how I ended up an indiscriminate bookworm.
But if that was the reason she wanted to buy a swimsuit, I could guess why she didn’t ask Higashira or Minami-san, and instead asked me. It’d be a bit tough to get the girls to go with her if she told them she was the only one who needed a swimsuit.
“A fine high school girl needing to sacrifice her dignity to buy a swimsuit for the riverside? It’s so tragic I could cry.”
“What’s wrong with the riverside? It’s a lot more enjoyable than a crowded seaside.”
“Well, you say that, but if we’re just showing off to family, can’t you just wear last year’s?”
“…Are you insulting me?”
Yume gave me a dumbfounded look, and had a hand on her abdomen.
“You said that on purpose, right? Since you know what I looked like last year.”
I was stunned, and unwittingly (really unwittingly) looked at Yume’s chest.
The visible swell of her breasts, non-existent a year ago, now stretched the white shirt she wore. No, my impression was that she had a belated puberty during her third year of middle school, so she might have been rather stacked last year. I didn’t have an opportunity to check before, since we had that argument before summer vacation.
“…You’re getting too into it.” Yume covered her chest with both hands, and took a step away from me. “So what? You gonna be horny all day? I’ll be trying on a swimsuit later. Are you going to assault me or something?”
“Like hell that’s possible. If I were that much of a gorilla, Higashira’d be a goner.”
“…I hate to admit it, but you make a good point…”
For the first time in my life, I was really grateful that Higashira was so defenseless.
Yume closed the distance slightly, and returned to the original distance. “Try not to ogle me though. It’s not fanservice day for you.”
“Huh? You think that’d be fanservice? You in a swimsuit? Whoa. Talk about confidence. Respect, respect, respect!””
“You annnnnoooooyyyy meee!!”
Yume kicked my calf, and we went to the swimsuit shop.
They had a mannequin placed at the most obvious spot, in a bikini. And when I say bikini, I mean the bold type, the type that’d be inappropriate everywhere except for a Brazilian beach. Seemed a stretch to me that someone like Yume, who wore knee socks in the summer, would want to wear such a thing.
“…Erm, it’s embarrassing when you stare at it so intently…but nope, no way, okay? Half my butt’d be exposed in that, y’know?”
“I know. Who the hell’d let you wear that? Who knows who you’re going to show this to…”
“…………So you mean it’s fine if nobody else sees, right?”
“……How’d you reach that conclusion?”
“What’s with that long look?”
“Nothing at all. Speaking of which, I do remember a certain someone grumbling when his girlfriend wore a miniskirt, saying that he should have boxed her up somewhere.”
…………She actually remembered that?
“Now then~ Let’s pick a swimsuit that won’t make a certain someone’s disgusting possessiveness flare up.”
“You annnnnoooooyyyy meee!!”
Just as I stepped into the store with a feeling of almost murderous intent…
“Dear customer, what are you looking for~?”
…A wild attendant appeared!
She had an ultrasound-like shrill voice, the smile plastered so perfectly that it was so uncanny.
Of course, she was only performing her duties in her capacity as a sales clerk. But to me, she was obviously a monster encounter in a dungeon. Fight or flee, pick one.
A split second before I tapped the ‘flee’ option, a girl boldly advanced on the monster.
“Erm, we’re looking for a swimsuit…”
“Swimsuit? A bikini? Or a one-piece?”
“Ah, let’s try a one-piece first…preferably one that doesn’t expose much,” Yume said, as she shot me a sideways glance.
The female clerk quickly swung between Yume and me, and then the smile on her face got brighter.
“But I don’t think you have to worry about exposing too much in a bikini if it is a skirt-type, you know? I’m sure your boyfriend will be relieved!”
“E-Erm…he’s not my boyfriend…!”
“I shall look for one then. May I know of the sizes you usually wear?”
“Eh, ah, si-sizes!?”
Yume blushed, back and forth between me and the clerk. She was obviously flustered. Finally, she leaned up to the clerk’s ear and whispered something.
The clerk nodded away. “I understand! Please wait a moment~!”
And then she vanished deep inside the shop.
Yume pressed her red ears down and let out a long sigh.
“I-I’m a little anxious because she said something ridiculous…”
“You’re doing just fine. Didn’t think you’d be able to handle something like that.”
“Of course I can’t handle it, not at all. I just overcame it… a certain~ person didn’t notice it, but I couldn’t always be like that as a girl.”
I didn’t deny that, and instead recalled the first time she wore her personal clothes.
Her social relationships were a mess, but the first time I saw her in her plainclothes, they were so normal it shocked me…in hindsight, I guessed she did work hard in places I couldn’t see.
Well, at this point, none of this mattered to me—
“—Hey! You see that!? You see that!?”
“I see it I see it! So~ cute~! What a sweet and sour high school couple ~!”
Can you please say that at a place where we can’t hear you, staff?
The mood between us got increasingly awkward, We just stared aimlessly at the swimsuits and the passers-by on the path, and soon after, that same clerk returned.
“Kept you waiting~! I found one that might suit what you’re asking for, so if the sizes aren’t right, don’t hold back and raise the issue! Ah, also, when trying it on, please start from the top!”
The clerk handed a swimsuit to Yume, gave me an intentful glance for some reason, and returned to the counter. What’s with the ‘do your best’ look written all over her face?
“Hm—I’ll go try it out then …”
Yume took the swimsuit, turned to the changing room, and suddenly turned back to glance at me.
No, you want me to look or what?
“Go look in the mirror and decide for yourself.”
“I-it’s my first time buying a swimsuit. I just want to hear someone else’s opinion, that’s all!”
“So will you buy once you hear out my likes?”
“That’s…I-I’ll buy it anyway! I’ll pick out one you don’t like!”
I see. That’s a relief.
“…Well, it’s a little unbearable to be left hanging alone like this though.”
“Of course. You really don’t suit such a place at all.”
“Thanks to you.”
I moved towards the changing room, Yume disappeared behind the curtain, and I sat down on the stool in front of the fitting room.
Swimsuit, huh….we had swimming lessons back in middle school, but there’s no pool around in high school. I never thought I would see her in a swimsuit again in my life…
I could hear rustling of clothes from beyond the curtains, dropping onto the ground, zippers pulled aside, and so on. I didn’t think she would undress with only a thin curtain between us—and with me loitering nearby.
It might sound very plausible—that I’d bump into Yume while she was changing, but luckily, none of this happened once at all. I did bump into her when she came out of the bath once though—
The sight I so happened to witness, the image of that pure white flesh and the meaty curves appeared in my mind, and I immediately purged it out of my mind.
Am I a middle schooler?
We’ve lived together for four months—I shouldn’t be so conscious of this now.
I tried to purge the evil from my heart and mind, and the rustling inside the changing room stopped.
Ten seconds or so later, the curtain was opened slightly, and Yume popped her head out—while still wearing those glasses.
“No, erm…nobody’s around, right?”
Yume looked around to check the situation. There was a lot of noise outside the store, but there wasn’t anyone around except me. The most I sensed was the stares from the clerks at the cashier. They couldn’t see the changing room from this angle though.
“Nobody’s around. Besides, aren’t you supposed to show this swimsuit to others? If you’re going to be embarrassed just from trying it on, what are you going to do when the real thing happens?”
“S-shut up! It’s just my first time wearing something that shows so much skin…actually, now that I calm down and think about it, I don’t think this is any different from underwear …”
“The more you hesitate, the more likely someone’s going to see you like this.”
“Stop pushing! Do you really want to look!?”
“I just want to finish this hassle ASAP.”
“You…! I-I’ll bark at you!”
Whoosh! And the curtain was pulled aside in a fury.
The first thing I saw was the white thighs reaching out from under the white skirt.
My eyes then naturally went up to the abdomen. There’s a little belly button on the nerve-wracking thin waist.
And looking further up, I saw a frilly white fabric. The twintails rested on the lumps that didn’t seem to match the slender body, and formed shadows around the rib cage.
And finally, she had her lips pursed, as though she was enduring something.
The familiar looking glasses formed quite a visual shock contrast with the exposed cleavage at my eyes, and I felt a little dizzy.
“…How is it?”
She rubbed her thighs about, and looked towards me through her glasses.
I just couldn’t reconcile the nostalgic face with the minimal fabric wrapped around her body. To put it nicely, Ayai wasn’t the kind of person with a nice body. Even when we kissed and hugged, or even when I felt a little excited, I never thought about touching her breasts or her ass. That’s supposed to be the case, so, how in the world …!
I racked my brain for a few seconds, and somewhat managed to form a coherent reply.
“…Looks good. Sorta..”
“N-nope. Not this kind of opinion. Say a few more things.”
“You want me to say more, but …”
Yume rummaged her phone from the bag hanging from the wall hook in the changing room, and showed the screen of her phone.
“Method number three on how to get over this rut. Find a way to praise each other on their good points.”
—Wait, was that another of Koumei’s traps!?
If I refused this request, there would be a lapse in the definition of this outing. So she suddenly asked me out for shopping to humiliate me…!?
Yume smiled triumphantly.
“What’s with you? Hurry. What are my good points? Tell me already, Mizuto-kun.”
Once again, I looked towards Yume who was wearing the white bikini.
The legs beneath the skirt-styled bikini bottom were thin and long, and there wasn’t any excess fat from top to bottom. She’s so white that I wondered if the pores really existed. I’d guess there were countless women who would be so envious of these legs.
Above the ass that formed a triangle with the legs was a thin waist. Why was the waist so thin? It hadn’t changed much since middle school, but they felt so thin compared to her breasts and ass that it feels they might break easily.
And the biggest difference since middle school were the breasts.
I didn’t know if the swimsuit itself came with such a function, or maybe it’s because she already had a thin body to begin with, but her breasts looked even bigger than usual. The cleavage was clearly emphasized, and the two ponytails flowed like a river…we used to embrace each other firmly when we embraced back in middle school, but at this point, there probably would be a gap at the abdomen…
It seemed any compliment from me would constitute as sexual harassment.
I did my best to purge all notions of the voluptuous breasts and the slender waist and the long legs and anything else, seeking an answer that wouldn’t offend her. Appearance…then what about something other than appearance…!?
After much desperation, I finally eked out a voice,
“…Considerate for family…or something like that.”
Yume’s face froze.
The stare directed at me was one with a mouth half-opened, the cheeks half twitching.
Her eyes started to swim about, her mouth kept opening and closing, and she held her cheeks down with her hands.
“Wh-why are you talking about the inside right now …?”
“Wh-what else do I say? I’ll die socially if I talk about how good you look in a swimsuit!”
At that moment, Yume’s face was flushed. She covered her chest and belly with her hands, and bumped her back into the wall of the changing room.
“P-pervert! You morose pervert! You, you could have praised the swimsuit style here!”
“… So that’s what you mean……!!”
I immediately regretted it. The clerk chose the swimsuit, so I immediately eliminated the idea of praising the swimsuit.
Yume covered herself with the curtain, poked her head out, and stared at me.
“…Now I know how you usually look at me.”
“You’re the one who showed me!”
“I-I didn’t show you my body!…And, this isn’t what I mean …”
“I said nothing!”
Yume turned her face aside, and slowly got changed behind the curtains.
I found it a little hard to accept, so I pondered with my arm propping my cheek, resting on my knee.
It’s a rare moment for me to praise you, so don’t nitpick about that. And seriously, why always me…
“Hm, eh? W-wait, I’m still changing …”
“You said that we should gain some tension by praising each other’s good points. So don’t let me do the talking. Say something.”
The sound of changing clothes stopped.
The ruckus of the department store filled the place.
“A-anyway, you better accompany me…until the very end, or something …”
The feeble voice clearly reached my ears, even in this bustle.
With that hand holding up my cheek, I covered my mouth.
Why the comments on the inside from you too?
I thought she would say something like, ‘glasses suit you’ or something….
“Ahh~…Now I know how you usually look at me.”
“W-what do you mean, look at you?”
“Erm…like an instant gopher?”
“If you’re easy to order around, then everyone in the world is!”
Don’t deny it already. You really aren’t flexible at all.
So I stopped, and waited for Yume to get changed.
Yume finally came out from the changing room, and this time, she spent more time compared to when she changed into the swimsuit.
“I’ll go…pay for this swimsuit.”
“So you like this?”
“Sort of. Well, that’s that. I see this, I like this.”
I like this. Like there was ever a doubt.
Yume and I went to the counter, and when I saw her hand the swimsuit to the clerk’s hand, I spotted a label attached to it.
The word written on it was ‘9M’.
Faced with this mysterious measurement, I was driven by curiosity and opened my phone. 9M, 9M—a circumference of 83cm? A C, D cup…hmmm ….
“(Erm, sorry, )”
Yume leaned over the counter and whispered to the clerk, but her words reached my ears anyway.
“(The chest was a little tight when I tried it …)”
“(Eh? Really? That was a little larger than the size you mentioned though.)”
And right when I attained Muga no Kyōchi, the clerk showed a smile that was way beyond a professional one, “Thank you very much~!” so she said.
Yume received the shopping bag with the swimsuit from the clerk, and I reached out my hand towards her.
“Gimme that. I’ll take it for you.”
Yume looked down at the shopping bag she was carrying,
“W-what? Why are you so gentlemanly out of a sudden?”
“What’s there to be wary about. It’s just an issue of balance. You got a bag, I’m empty-handed.”
I snatched the bag as I found it to be a hassle. There’s just a swimsuit in it anyway, so it hardly weighed anything.
I took the lead and left the shopping mall, and Yume too gave chase.
And then, she looked back and forth between her empty hands and the hand with the shopping bag.
“No, erm…well…just thinking, if you think of us as one set or something …”
I spent a lot of time choosing my words.
“…Isn’t it obvious? Since we’re walking side by side like this…we may be just stepsiblings, but we’re still labeled as family.”
“I see…I see.”
There were a lot of people at the department during summer vacation. There was a risk of us getting split up, but neither she nor I tried to hold each other’s hand. We didn’t think there was a need to.
It’s true that we were affirming once again.
We were affirming how I viewed her, and how she viewed me.
“We’re done. Let’s go home.”
“Yes. Let’s go.”
“Now we’ve got some tension back, right?”
“I see. I do understand that you usually look at me lewdly.”
“…I say that’s just you flaunting at me.”
Yume giggled by the side.
I didn’t need to look back to see how her expression was. She definitely had a hand on her mouth, glancing up at me, a gentle smile there.
First, we became lovers.
And then we became family.
At this point, I knew her faces all too well.
In hindsight, it’s no wonder why we experienced a rut—we had no need to look at each other’s faces.
That voice, that profile, that existence.
To me, her presence next to me—was to be expected.
This might never ever change again, whether it’s the clerk assuming us as a couple, or when we ate at the dining table with dad and Yuni-san.
“You want to drop by at the bookstore first?”
“Sure. I wanted to read some books when we go back there”
“You really don’t intend to enjoy the countryside at all, huh?”
We just went forward without holding hands.
—For I thought this was enough for me.
In the evening, we returned home.
The clear summer skies of summer were dyed crimson. We passed the shadows of the electric poles that seemingly cut the road horizontally, one after another.
“Since we left at different times, should we return at different times?”
“Doesn’t matter now, right? Just tell them that we so happened to bump into each other on the way back.”
“…That’s true. We’ll look very suspicious if we mind too much about it.”
The empty surroundings formed a stark contrast with the crowded department store.
There was some noise of kids playing around, along with the sounds of dinner being prepared from the houses by the side of the road, but there’s only Yume and I forming shadows on the asphalt.
The memories that were unrepentantly revived in this tailor-made scene were banished back into the shadow realm.
There was no need for that.
There was no need for all of that.
We could continue on like that. Everything and anything was resolved by time and habit. There’s no need for us to be bound back to our black history back in middle school, and we could embrace daily life that wasn’t exactly new.
It’s been four months since we became family.
The time for us to feel lost was over.
We were siblings who used to be a couple. But, the past’s the past, and the present’s the present. There’s no possibility of us getting it mixed up. There’s no hindrance in distinguishing them, nor was there a chance of one identity taking up the form of another.
I knew that well already.
—I already did.
Yume suddenly stopped.
There was some distance between me and her.
It was a fork on the path.
That’s the path we took to school back in middle school, which we hardly used nowadays
I can say now that I was young and foolish, but I had an existence called a girlfriend between my second and third years of middle school.
—On the fork to school, under the sunset.
—Where the paths to our houses split.
—Ayai’s face was slightly red.
—There was a soft touch imprinted on the lips.
The flashbacks came one after another, overlapping with the scenery before me.
Yume, with glasses on and a ponytail, looked up at me at a closer distance than she did in my memories.
And then at this moment, a sudden cool gust blew by, and nearly sent Yume’s hat flying.
I hastily reached my hand out.
Yume too hastily pressed her hat down.
And then our hands covered each other’s.
It’s the first time I touched Yume’s hand on this day, and it was a smooth, somewhat cooling touch, which caused me to feel a sharp sting in my fingertips.
That’s the only feeling I had.
It’s all just a feeling, just a moment of confusion. Yep. Didn’t I already figure this out five months ago?
But, ah—I did think of it.
When I heard that dad was going to remarry—I too felt that the creatures known as humans would have their moments of carelessness even at this age.
In that case, for us who were still high school students—
—Yume grabbed my hand.
She firmly grabbed the hand, which she had no need to, as though she wanted to remain connected forever and not let go, and then she slowly removed her hand from the hat.
Following that, she removed the hat with the other hand.
The face that was clearly seen after she removed it looked expectant of something under the red hue of the sunset, and stared intently in my direction.
“…The fourth method of getting over the rut.”
And then, she placed the chess piece known as the excuse onto the board, intending to checkmate the king.
“Convey your feelings through actions.”
That’s way too simple.
After all, we repeated that over, and over, and over again.
In contrast…we didn’t do this a year ago, and our relationship was fractured, until we broke up.
Yume gently closed her eyes.
I just needed to take a step closer, and bend down.
It’s that simple.
Really, it’s just that simple.
It would be so simple if it was a year ago.
I reached out to flick at her, and she gave blank white eyes as she held down her forehead.
“Wh-what are you doing (stepbro)!?”
“Method number two of getting over a rut, surprising is effective—right?”
Yume shivered with blushing ears.
I ignored that little stepsister, and went off to our house.
“Y-you, that was just…!”
“At least I conveyed my feelings through my actions as you wished?”
“What kind of feelings do you have towards me anyway!?”
But…I thought of it.
Such actions might have reconciled us a year ago, but were nothing more than an obsession at this point.
We couldn’t pretend that everything over the past year didn’t happen.
Whether it was the rut that took half a year, or the eventual breakup, or the fact that we became stepsiblings.
And my rejection of Higashira.
I couldn’t go back to the time a year ago as if it hadn’t happened.
I didn’t have any lingering feelings.
I rejected Higashira not because I had feelings for my ex-girlfriend.
The need to look back to the past no longer existed.
That should be the case.
That should be the case….
We returned back to the same family.
It’s just because we’re family living under the same roof.
“Mizuto-kun. This is the book I borrowed from you yesterday.”
“Ahh…how was it?”
“It’s very interesting. I thought it was a novel about characters, but the mystery part was also very good.”
“Ahhh. I thought this book would be to your liking, Yume-san.”
“If there’s another interesting book in the future …”
“Yeah, of course.”
We managed to get back the tension we had at the beginning.
We managed to recall the subtle distance we had when we first started living together, and we were no longer as vulnerable to each other as we had been until yesterday.
Thanks to that, we managed to free ourselves from the shameful display of being labelled as a couple going through a rut by our parents.
We were free of it—or so it should be.
“Feels like you two are a little distant now?”
Yuni-san echoed the sentiment.
“Now you look like a couple thinking carefully of the appropriate time to propose.”
They said with a laugh, Yume shivered and jolted from the sofa.
“Ahh—seriously! What do you want us to do? I don’t know what to do when you keep saying this and that!!”
“Ahahahaha! Sorry sorry . I’m just not used to seeing Yume get along with a boy.”
“It’s just practice, practice. When you meet our relatives and friends, you’ll definitely be teased by them, you know~? All arms will be on deck if we tell them Mizuto has a new sister.”
“…You’re making me reluctant to go …”
In any case, we were just overreacting, and they were just joking.
What a hassle. So I wanted to say, but it’s for the best if everything was fine.
After all, we could still spend every day as a family as long as they’re just joking.
Yume gave a mystified look, and peered at my face from the side.
She’s not wearing those nostalgic glasses.
I wouldn’t remember the past, but maybe instead of that, I ended up remembering the swimsuit I saw the previous day.
I looked towards the book once again.
Where exactly was this past we spoke of? Where exactly was the start of this so-called present?
I don’t understand. Seriously…goodness sake.