Summer Comes Again
Midday heat filled the air. Summer's final days had baked the ground, leaving it cracked and dry. Wooden slippers clopped against the pavement, as Shiki made his slow walk through the town. Sweat beaded on his forehead, and fog covered his glasses. He wore a dark blue yukata, tied off with a simple sash. Though the cloth was light, it clung to his damp skin. The discomfort was silently endured, as he continued his walk.
Though the day had already passed its hottest point, the afternoon was still sweltering. Everything would cool off slowly until the night, when the city would be temperate for a little while. If Akiha hadn't been out of town, he'd have been sorely tempted to ask for a ride. Just as well that he couldn't, since the family car was an expensive model, and tended to turn heads.
The house was far from the mansion, nearly on the opposite side of town. After passing his school, there was a thirty minute walk. If he ran, it would take about ten minutes, but he didn't want to push himself in this kind of heat.
They hadn't met often since he left the Arima house. The last time had been in spring, when he visited her school entrance ceremony. She seemed like a different person while making her introduction, so confident and sure of herself. Completely unlike the awkward and shy girl who always followed him around.
Then, out of the blue, Miyako came by herself to the Tohno mansion, early in the morning. When Shiki answered the door, she shoved a scroll of paper into his hands, made a stiff bow, and tore away from the house, red jacket fluttering behind her.
The message was painted in ink, with harsh strokes, evocative of a letter of challenge. Despite that frightening appearance, it was just an invitation to a local festival, the last one of this summer. They had gone together many times before. Miyako always ran about wildly, and it was a constant battle to keep her excitement down. Though, she had calmed down a little over the years.
He was quite surprised, though, that she had approached him directly. The very first time they went to the festival, it had been at Keiko's urging. Perhaps it was an effort to bring him closer to the family. He'd been quite reluctant back then, but, every year after that, the person who became his mother had wrapped the two of them up in traditional clothes, and brought them to the shrine on the outskirts of town.
That first visit was inscribed in his memory. A hot, muggy night, wearing a too-loose yukata, and Miyako, laughing happily with her arms around his neck. Without a care, they ran around, taking in everything around them. It had been extremely fun.
And then the night had violently exploded into color. A brilliant explosion filled the sky, showering streaks of color in all directions, and filling the air with thick clouds of smoke. He'd heard those sounds before, those faraway bangs that rang through the quiet night.
But that was the first time Shiki Tohno had actually seen fireworks, with a newfound little sister.
And that was the first time Miyako Arima had seen fireworks, with her newfound older brother.
"Miyako, stop moving around! The ties are going to come loose."
"But it itches, mom!"
Keiko sighed, "Then tell me first, so I don't have to work around your squirming." She turned away from her daughter, and picked up a long strip of cloth. "Do you want to wear the red obi again this year?"
"Of course! There's no color better than red!" Miyako pulled her hand out of the folds of the kimono, her itch taken care of.
Keiko smiled. "I thought you might say that. Alright, let's get this on before Shiki arrives."
Miyako lifted up her arms, allowing her mother to wind the cloth around her waist, once, twice, before tying a tight bow at the front. She stole a glance at the mirror, and nodded with satisfaction. Her hair was tied into buns at the sides of her head, and her white kimono fell neatly above her ankles. Everything had come into fruition perfectly. Her invitation was flawless, the occasion perfect, and Akiha could do nothing to stop her.
She would show those demons of the Tohno mansion; her brother was still hers.
Meanwhile, her brother had just reached the house's front yard.
He took a deep breath, and wiped the sweat from his brow. At the sight of the house, he had nearly walked straight in. A few months away had not erased a habit formed over years. He glanced to the yard, covered by neatly trimmed bushes. A stone walkway cut through the green and led straight to the front door. The setting sun painted the sky orange, just like it had every day he returned from school.
He brushed his thoughts aside, and made for the door. It wouldn't be polite to just walk in after such a long time, so he would have to knock. After two raps on the door, he waited a moment to see who would greet him.
"Miyako, wait! Your bow is still in front!"
Something rattled inside the house, like a herd of elephants stampeding through a village. It crashed down the stairs, and made a straight dash for the door. The flimsy sliding door was fortunately shoved out of the way, and avoided its untimely destruction at the last second.
She saw him clearly, bathed in the light of the setting sun. His smile was dazzling, outshining the fiery red corona that encircled him. On his lips was the ghost of the smile that promised a night of fun, just like she had expected. Though she wanted to act more dignified, she couldn't hold herself back, and rushed at him with a joyful cry. "Onii-chan!"
Before she tripped on the doorframe, and rammed her head into his stomach.
"Erm, I'm really sorry, Miyako. I didn't think that this would happen, so..." his voice trailed off, as he worked the metal plate out of his yukata. "Kohaku-san insisted, said it was for protection, and I didn't understand what she was talking about at the time."
Miyako sniffed, and wiped away the tears from her eyes. Kohaku, that schemer. She couldn't be sure how deep the plot went. Hmmph, it was meaningless anyway. No matter what kind of tricks that woman tried, she'd just smash them away with her fists. She drew up her spirits, and stared furiously at Shiki in a way that said, behind a thin film of water, "I'm really glad you could make it! Let's have a lot of fun today, okay?"
"A—are you okay, Miyako? Oh, I see. Your bow's on backwards."
He knelt down, and neatly spun the obi around.
"There, it should be good now. Is that a new kimono? It looks pretty good."
She stared at him with increased intensity, trying to say "Thank you!" without actually making any words.
Shiki readjusted the ties on his yukata, and tucked the folds into place. As an afterthought, he flung the bulletproof armor plate into a bush. "Ahh, well, anyway, is Keiko-san in there? I know you're eager to get going, but I should at least say hello first." Shiki said, smiling lightly.
Quite conveniently, that person had just found her way to the front door. With a huff, she placed her hands on her hips, quite ready to remind her daughter of proper door-answering etiquette. She could have straightened out a plate of spaghetti with her rebuke. As she noticed the person at the door, her ire fell away, and she gave a soft grin.
"Hello, Shiki. I see you've been well."
He ducked into a quick bow. "Keiko-san, hello."
"You're welcome to call me 'mom' like before." she said. "You've lived with us for eight years, after all." Even as an adoptive mother, she felt that her position had tenure.
A little of the stiffness left his shoulders. He smiled a little more easily, and said, "Right, it's good to see you again, mom."
"Same to you. I hope you've found your new home to be agreeable."
"Yeah, can't say I have any complaints. It's a bit bigger than what I'm used to, but I've learned to like it."
Miyako tugged on his sleeve. If they didn't get going soon, it would be dark already. The festival would only last for so long, and fireworks waited for nobody. If he didn't start moving, she'd have to drag him, which would be terribly difficult up those temple steps.
Shiki acquiesced. "Ah, looks like we need to get going. I'll visit again soon, mom."
She waved them away. "Sure, have fun, you two."
And they left, in quite more of a hurry than Shiki liked. Miyako trotted along, taking complete control of their pace. Her fingers were wrapped around the cloth of his sleeve, and she showed no signs of letting go. Likely nothing would stop them until they were at the fairgrounds.
"Miyako, you forgot your slippers!"
Somehow, they had made it in time, not quite running, but instead walking very briskly through the countryside. The shrine was just out of town, on a hill covered with bamboo plants. It overlooked the empty fields for about a kilometer around, making it the best spot to view the fireworks.
Miyako hadn't said a word to him, neither responding to polite small talk, nor to any more detailed questions. She marched on, with purpose, and that purpose was evidently to bring him to the festival as soon as possible.
Even on the long flight of steps, she didn't break her pace, and almost raced upward with a constant clop-clop of wood on stone. Shiki broke into a sweat all over again just trying to keep up. The sounds of the festival were already at a dull roar.
Breathlessly, they cleared the last few steps. Past the decorative red gate, the festival was in full swing. The smell of countless food stands mingled together in the humid air, primarily the aroma of noodles and various things frying simultaneously. They took a moment of pause, Shiki to regain his breath, and Miyako to think about which stand to visit first.
Still collapsed on the paving stones, he scrambled to his feet as Miyako found her destination, and started off. He recognized some of the old stalls from previous years, but the one she marched toward was new. Though, there was nothing terribly unusual about a shaved ice stand. Miyako reached up over the counter, and held up two fingers.
Behind the curtain, the stall attendant nodded and began to scrape away at a crystal clear block of ice. Shiki pulled out his wallet and prepared a few notes. Miyako hadn't said a thing to him so far, which was somewhat concerning.
While the vendor started to fill the second cup, Shiki said, "It's really...festive, tonight, isn't it?" He was quite lost on how best to start a conversation with her. "There aren't as many people as last year, but it's a little more quiet."
It was indeed a little more quiet, since Miyako couldn't seem to manage to open her lips. She glanced up at Shiki, and some words swelled up in her throat before dying in her mouth. With a blush, she turned her head to the ground.
Just then, the vendor pushed over two cups, filled with shaved ice and drizzled with a bright purple syrup. Shiki thanked her for the service, thanked her silently for preventing an awkward silence, and handed over the payment. Taking one for himself, he handed the other to Miyako, who was too excited about all the fun she planned to have to actually start having fun.
With an internal shrug, he let himself be led on toward a shooting gallery. He popped a spoonful of ice into his mouth, and was rewarded by a cloyingly sweet yet disgustingly bitter flavor. Even though the ice had the scent of sweet plums, its taste could only be described by a punch to the stomach.
He spat it out, and flung the cup into a nearby bin. Miyako had lifted her spoon to her mouth, just inches away from tasting her own cup. Before Shiki could stop her, she had already popped it into her mouth. Her eyes curved up, and she made a little smile.
"Itsh delishus." she mumbled.
Without a word, Shiki plucked her cup from her hands, and tasted a small spoonful. It had a feathery texture, and tasted of grapes. He handed it back to her, and walked on.
Back at the stand, the vendor took notes. "Shiki-sama did not enjoy his ice, though I made sure to add all of his favorite ingredients. Next time, I will try a curry flavored one."
Her sister shook her head sadly.
It seemed that Miyako's problem was not with talking; she could do that just fine. It was talking to him that seemed to stump her. At the shooting gallery, she had been so flustered by him watching that she fired the cork directly into the ceiling, from where it ricocheted into the stall manager's head.
At the next three stalls, she failed to catch any goldfish, accidentally ordered the wrong flavor of udon, and dropped a plate of yakisoba onto the floor. She sat on a bench now, glaring angrily at the stone floor.
While she contemplated the complete collapse of her perfect scenario, and marked a few primary targets for blame, he ambled off to a particularly colorful stand, that sold various painted masks. Something caught his eye. Behind a frightening tiger mask, and a rather intricate red dragon, there was a simple piece. A flash of white, with large spots of black. After a quick exchange with the stallkeeper, he handed over a few bills, and walked off with his purchase hidden behind his back.
Miyako was staring at the floor, now feeling quite alone. It would have been excellent if there was something for her to punch.
"My disciple, why do you lament on a night like this?" a pair of feet said. They were very familiar feet, and she looked up at the panda to whom they belonged.
"I'm not a little girl anymore, Onii-chan." she replied, quite morosely.
Without missing a beat, the panda that was not Shiki said, "Stand, Miyako. This is not the place for your regrets. Your fists are still hard, these troubles so soft. Why be defeated by such an enemy?"
A raw charisma emanated from his words. It called back to those days in the family dojo, where her brother had donned a rather tasteless costume during their play. It was at Keiko's insistence, for safety, but it had given everything so much more character.
And it had been fun. No matter how hot it was, he was always willing to climb into that overstuffed panda suit and have a bout or five with her. On the days where he didn't feel too unwell, they sometimes spent the entire day in the dojo.
To hell with it then, there was nothing wrong with being a little girl.
She stood straight, "I have dishonored you, master! I beg your forgiveness."
"Hmmph! There is no dishonoring me, only yourself. I see you have found your spirit, so come! Let us show this night the power of our second strike."
Miyako grabbed Shiki's hand, and they charged back into the festival.
A cotton candy stall was ravaged, and they came out with balls of sticky sweet fluff the size of their heads. Miyako ate hers in savage bites, sure to finish it quickly, while Shiki politely held his near his head, tearing away small pieces when the urge hit him. When Miyako had polished off hers, he handed the remains of his own to a random passerby and moved off.
Another stall sold only fried curry bread, which they ate with abandon, despite the tears, and the constant burn of spice that promised a bad night and a worse morning. It was followed down by karaage, all washed down by two cans of coffee. By all rights, they should have been too full of food to move, but there were things yet to do with the night, and only so long to do them.
And then they made straight for the shrine, casting a few coins into the donation box. They drew fortunes; one promised death, and the other promised bad finances. The two omikuji were torn up and discarded. At the main shrine, they clapped their hands in prayer, and tore off into the festival again.
When they came out, their stomachs were full of food, and their arms were heavy with trinkets, ranging from a small gachapon ball to a scaled replica of the temple's lion-dogs. Shiki's glasses were pressed onto his face by the mask, but he didn't bother to remove it. It brought back some terribly embarrassing memories, but he'd have to endure it.
They settled on one of the benches at the edge of the festival, away from the noise and activity. Shiki leaned back and stretched his arms. His stomach felt several different kinds of discomfort, but it was well worth it.
Facing Miyako, he made a smile that somehow made itself visible through his mask. She returned a goofy grin, still quite giddy from the night.
It had been so much fun, she wanted to have it all over again. "Onii-chan, next year, do you wanna—"
And the night exploded into color.
Colors scintillated in the sky, exploding out into brilliant streams of red and green and blue. Each flower unfolded with a deafening blast, and withered away into clouds of smoke. Each one was followed by another, and another, and another, turning the air into a screen of light and heat. The last fireworks of summer flashed away in the sky, sounding a farewell to these days, both peaceful and exciting.
Miyako watched silently. For all the thought of the future, the moment was good enough, though it lacked a certain atmosphere, since Shiki was still wearing his mask.
That deserved an immediate correction.
She tapped his shoulder, and as he turned, tugged him down by the shoulders. Fingers wrapped around the mask, and wrenched it upward. As the last of the lights died in the sky, she pressed her lips to his cheek.
"Thank you." she whispered.
He had the decency to blush, but smiled all the same.
The walk back was quite uneventful, though by the time they made it back to the town, the bags had left their arms sore. Past a few of the buildings, they soon found the Arima house, lights still on.
"It was a fun night, wasn't it?" Shiki said.
"Yeah." said Miyako.
They waited in silence.
"So, are you going to go in?"
She shook her head. "I'll walk you home."
It was a terribly strange thing for her to say, since the town was, as of late anyway, quite safe at most hours, and somewhat safe at all hours. A young man like Shiki would have nothing to worry about.
But he shrugged anyway, and said, "Hm, sure, if you want."
She left her bag on the doorstep.
The panda mask was now held in place atop his head, tilted to one side. He felt rather silly wearing it, but couldn't bring himself to take it off. It was like an old friend, constantly clinging to him like gum on the sole of his shoe.
As they walked, Miyako talked, quite less reserved than before.
"What's that big house like? You don't get lost in there, do you?"
"Not really, it's actually pretty simple to navigate. You should visit sometime, I think Akiha wouldn't mind."
Miyako's fists tightened. "I've heard that the house is a portal to the underworld, ruled by a tyrannical demon lord."
It was quite frightening, how accurate some rumors could be.
"Well, I think she does seem a little unapproachable, but she's quite kind if you get to know her."
She huffed, and looked to the side.
"I'll free you, one day. And then you can come back, and we'll be able to play whenever we want."
With his free hand, he ruffled her hair.
"Nothing is that convenient. Some days will be good, and some days won't be as good. I don't think I've lived long enough to be talking like this, but if you look back, I'm sure that you'll see that the days you've had so far have been pretty fun.
So, when you look to the future, don't even think about it. There's plenty of fun left."
He finished with a small smile, wind blowing through his hair, and wondered quietly in his heart, just how many days he had left.
"Say, Onii-chan. Next year, do you want to come again?"
"No, that's probably impossible. I'll be going abroad in a few months for some...business."
"Eh!?" No way, she thought, they'd only just had a chance to meet again, and he was leaving so soon? She didn't want to think about it. A few droplets of water formed at the corner of her eyes.
"I'm sorry, Miyako. There's this idiot, you see. She's been sleeping for a long time, and she won't wake up again unless I remind her."
No, no way. Her brother was leaving to become somebody's alarm clock?
"You can't, I—I don't want that..." she muttered.
"Remember what I said? If you can hold on long enough, the future will be just as fun as the memories we've made today. I'm not leaving forever, you know." He knelt down, putting him on level with her face. "And besides, there's still some time. If you want to spend it together, that's fine with me."
"Yeah," he brought his little finger to hers. "It's a promise."
At the gates of the mansion, Hisui was waiting, he wasn't sure for how long. She opened the gate with a bow, and then escorted Miyako back to her home. With a yawn, he walked through the unlocked doors, and into the foyer, where he pulled off his slippers. A few bags were leaned against the wall, and their owner waiting in the living room, as indicated by the lights that flared out from within.
Akiha sat at the table, reading over a few papers. When he walked in, she glanced in his direction, noting with marked distaste the disheveled state of his clothing, and the silly mask that was perched on his head. This expression of pure disapproval vanished in an instant, as she finished her reading, and set down the documents.
"Welcome back, Onii-san."
"Welcome back, Akiha."
She stood up, and strode over to him with the elegance of a viper closing in on its prey. When she was close enough to touch him, he felt a strange sense of danger.
Crimson hair enwrapped his limbs, denying him an inch of movement. Akiha moved in, closer and closer, eyes on her neck.
And pecked him on the cheek.
"This is something that a little sister can do, isn't it?" she said.
She walked off immediately, releasing the hold on his body, retrieved the papers from the table, and went upstairs.
Shiki held a hand to his face, wondering what it all meant. Then, he decided that he'd be better off not thinking about it. He removed the mask from his head, and flopped down onto a couch. Sleep came over him in a few moments.
Kohaku's report was very detailed, Akiha thought. She congratulated herself for the brilliant idea to send the maids over to the festival to watch over things. She'd only arrived that night, so the information was simply invaluable.
Still, that little girl was bold. She had to give her that one.
She flipped her hair over her shoulder triumphantly. Well, she gloated as she settled into bed, beat that, Arima.