"I think we'd fit well together," Yukiatsu says, idly tossing his apple up and down. "Don't you think?" They're sitting next to one another on the swings at the abandoned playground, the rusty metal creaking with every shift of the uncomfortable plastic seats.
Anaru sighs, scuffing her feet against the damp wood chips. "We've been over this already, Yukiatsu."
It's a warm August night, muggy and swampy. The cicadas chirp, the moon twinkles, and children shriek as they dart back and forth through the sprinklers- the sort of occasion Menma would smile down down upon.
"I'm a very tenacious guy," he quips, cocking his head to the side and smiling his little smile. "Besides, we're both beautiful, so why not?"
"That's not poetic at all," Anaru retorts, twirling a ginger curl between her fingertips. "Don't you have any sense of romanticism? I thought Tsuruko taught you better than that."
"Hm, I thought you'd be a little bit more favorable," Yukiatsu says, pensive, before letting out a bitter chuckle. "No girl would dare refuse me after such blatant flattery."
"Well, I'm not like most girls," she mumbles.
He quiets, eventually murmuring, "You teeter."
Anaru arches a delicate brow at him. "Pardon me?"
"You're puzzling," he says, by way of explanation. "Sometimes you're the little girl who loves anime and games, sometimes you're trivial and selfish and girly, and others...well, it's what you're like when you're with me. But, of course, there's something all parts of you have in common."
"And what would that be?" She's morbidly curious; Yukiatsu has always managed to worm the strangest things out of her.
"You're hopelessly in love with Jinta Yadomi."
They lapse into tense silence.
"But could you ever love me?" Yukiatsu leans in closer, the gaze in his tawny eyes unbearably intense. She just has to look away, her cheeks tinged with pink. "Think about it, Anaru: I'm in love with a ghost, and you...you might as well be."
He smells a little like lemon soap and cheap cologne and sweat.
She's drunk on it, drunk on love and regret and hate.
"Maybe if you tried hard enough," Anaru murmurs.
His lips curls into a smirk.
"We're going out now," Yukiatsu announces before the group, prompt and business-like, slipping his hand into hers on a whim. They're at a Super Peace Busters reunion- a rather rare occurrence now that they've all graduated.
He counters her quizzical look with a prompt squeeze, and she concedes with a little flare of her nostrils, brushing a quick kiss against his cheek.
Even as her lips linger, he can feel her slipping away, can feel her gaze rest on Jintan.
Poppo's jaw goes slack; he freezes in place, spatula in hand, gaping at them in almost comical shock. An acrid burning smell begins to waft from his grill.
"Your sausages," Tsuruko chastises.
He jolts back to reality, letting out a sheepish laugh. "Ah, sorry!"
She turns back to them, lips pursed and eyes steely. It's almost unnerving, the calm way she regards him over her glasses, like those blue, blue eyes are peeling back his mask and exposing him for the raw, ugly person he-
"Congratulations," she eventually says, lifting her cup of tea in toast.
"Yeah, congrats," Jinta echoes, a little bewildered, before managing a half-smile, half-grimace. "It's sort of weird to think about it that way, but...yeah. Good for you guys. Menma would be really happy."
And that, Yukiatsu thinks with a little jab of amusement, is what stings the most.
Their first proper date is a trip to the movies.
Anaru waits for him, apprehensive, on a bench just outside the local movie theater, fisting her hands into her cashmere sweater. An inexplicable flutter in her stomach, she clumsily reapplies her makeup, smearing rose pink lipgloss dangerously close to her chin.
She snaps to attention, nearly dropping her mirror in surprise. Papering over the awkwardness with a nervous giggle, she manages a feeble smile. "Oh, hey, Jintan. Fancy meeting you here."
"Um, yeah," he mumbles, a little dazed. A bouquet of carnation is cradled in his arms. "What're you doing here, anyways?"
"Waiting for Yukiatsu," Anaru replies. The words taste foreign on her lips.
"Ah," Jinta says, eloquent as always. After a moment's hesitation, he shoves the bouquet into her arms, flushing tomato red. "Here. They were for Menma, but...I think she'd rather you have them."
Tears threaten to well in her eyes as she gazes down at the pink blossoms.
She thinks of her tangles of her silvery hair, her musical laugh, her bare feet as they twirled in the dirt. You'll love a memory before you'll love me.
But past that gnarl of jealousy in her heart, it feels like betrayal.
"I-" she falters "-I can't accept this."
He frowns at her. "Why not? I bet that bastard never even gets you flowers."
Anaru gives a watery chuckle, clutching the bouquet a little tighter to her. "Yeah, well, that's our Yukiatsu." She sniffs the carnations, exhaling shakily.
They smell a little like summer.
She's propped up on his lap, her arms draped over his shoulders and fists curling into the collar of his shirt. It's filthy, all sliding tongues and clicking teeth, unapologetic bites and harsh nips; his fingers leave a trail of bruises across her collarbone.
His hands drop to her waist, and his eyes gleam as they surface for air.
"You're not her," he breathes.
She's too full, with her wide hips and the swollen curve of her chest and sweaty tangles of effervescently orange hair, where there should be silver and pale and slight with eyes like the summer sky and a fragrance like honeysuckle-
"And you're not him," she chokes out, biting back a sob.
Grabby and needy and keening, with her hands that take and never give, hands that snatch onto his hair and pull, the smell of sex and that drenching, sickly sweetness-
He gives her a coy grin. "Looks like we'll just have to pretend."
He and Tsuruko walk home in the rain one afternoon, standing beneath a single polka-dotted umbrella. As they traverse the slick pavement, beneath the pale gray sky, their shoulders brush uncomfortably against one another.
"Sorry to make you do this," he laughs apologetically. "I just can't believe I was stupid enough to forget my umbrella on a day like this. Sounds like something that dunce Yadomi would do, right?"
Tsuruko murmurs in assent, even quieter than usual.
But then, out of the blue:
"How's your girlfriend?" The words are the teeniest bit acidic, tinged with a measured amount of venom.
Yukiatsu lets out a brittle laugh. "Oh, that? Same old, same old."
Nothing but hate, hate, hate.
"You're very petty, aren't you?" she says tartly.
Her outburst surprises him; it's rare to see the usually reserved Tsuruko lose her composure. "So what if I am?" he drawls, giving her a wry smirk. "Why, if I didn't know better, I'd say you were jealous."
Tsuruko flushes angrily. "You're using her for your own satisfaction, and you know it. It's absolutely disgusting. I always knew you were a two-faced bastard, but who knew you could be so goddamn selfish?"
She flounces off and takes the umbrella with her, leaving him stranded in the middle of the road.
Anaru lays with her head in Yukiatsu's lap, vibrant hair stark across his rigid slacks. She peruses a fashion magazine with her lips pursed, pausing to scrutinize a new brand of nail polish or the latest Gucchi bag. It's a lot of work, after all, having a boyfriend.
The stack of Shounen Jump magazines in her room has long been discarded.
"Say, Anaru," Yukiatsu says, and she perks up, "if I ran away...would you come with me?"
She gapes at him for a moment, her eyes as round as saucers, before letting out a derisive snort. "Like hell you will. Stop spouting bullshit, Yukiatsu. It's just a waste of our time."
A moment's pause.
"Yeah, you're right."
He proposes the day of his college graduation.
They're with the gang, crowded around their dingy little clubhouse, when Yukiatsu suddenly bends down on one knee and slips the ring on her finger. It's absolutely stunning, an oval-shaped emerald flanked by two diamonds, set in white gold.
"Marry me?" he whispers.
It's a nightmare.
This can't be happening.
She's rosy from Poppo's sake and pleasurably unsteady on her feet, but now, staring at that perfect ring, she feels like she's about to vomit. The happy faces of her friends swim in her vision; a scream threatens to tear itself from her throat.
Her first instinct is to refuse.
She has never loved, and will never love, Yukiatsu.
Her heart, faithful to a fault, had always belonged to Jinta Yadomi.
But really, why should she refuse?
With him, she'd have a small semblance of happiness. She'd have a cozy spring wedding and security and a nice house in the country with blue shutters and pretty jewelry on anniversaries and two rosy babies on her knee.
Painted-on smiles, glasses of Chardonnay, pink nosegays, and pretty lies.
Lies much more beautiful than the terrible truth.
Anaru swallows back her gulp and straightens her spine, forces herself to look away from Jinta. Tucking back a strand of loose red hair to stall for time, she gives everyone a dazed smile and settles her shoulders.
And for some odd reason, it feels like a death sentence.
Yukiatsu lays cocooned into her in the still of the night.
She feels so small, curled up like a child in his arms, lipstick smeared and eyelashes still clumped with old mascara. He traces the light wrinkles lining her forehead, worn in by tears and screams and shards of broken glass. Like the veins in his grandmother's prized china.
Like she'd break at the slightest touch.
And, inevitably, he thinks of her.
Menma, a beacon of hope. Menma, strong and tall and unattainable.
Menma, a pile of dusty bones in the ground. Menma, a mere memory.
Menma, who had been perfect and much too good for him and his petty lies.
Menma, who had never, ever loved him in return.
"I love you," he murmurs to Anaru, running his fingers through her hair, holding her closer to him.
If he tries hard enough, he can almost believe it's true.
"A pale pink would go nicely with your skintone," Anaru says cheerfully, pointing out a ruffled ensemble to Tsuruko. "I'm thinking just a classic sleeveless, but this would really pop, wouldn't it? A similar color for the flower girls would be great, too."
It feels like an escape, to smile and giggle and plan for her dream wedding.
But this isn't a fairytale.
Tsuruko nods curtly, indifferent. "Whatever you think is best."
"Oh, and I'm still deciding between marzipan and buttercream for the cake. And whether or not roses are too cliche for the flower arrangements." She giggles coquettishly, so fake it disgusts her. "Gee, who knew planning a wedding would be such a hassle? It almost makes me dread the marriage."
The meaning of her words sinks in.
"Be honest, Anaru," Tsuruko says abruptly. "Do you really want to marry him?"
She freezes. The dreaded words creep to the tip of her tongue, threaten to form on her lips.
But the truth hurts, like a thousand daggers knifing into her, scooping away until nothing remained.
So Anaru lies; she's learned from the best, after all. "What do you mean? Of course I do! Do you think I would've said yes otherwise?" She thinks of their stolen kisses, her wrists pinned over her head to the closet wall, his palms heavy and rough with need, going at one another until they were too numb to feel.
In the end, they're just two children, lonely and abandoned and scared.
"I'm just worried that you're not thinking clearly," Tsuruko replies, a little resentful, "that you're not making the right decision-"
Her throat constricts.
"I've changed, Tsuruko," Anaru says firmly; the words worm past that little knot in her gust, make her sound more confident than she's ever felt, "and this is what I've chosen. This is what I want."
A flicker of pain is visible in Tsuruko's eyes, just for that one instant.
It's funny, how little some things seem to change.
She's hunched over the toilet bowl, the sour taste of bile tickling at her throat. A trembling hand reaches out to flush for the umpteenth time; her vomit swirls around in a sick vortex before being sucked down the drawin.
There's a lump in her throat and an unbearable ache in her head, a line of fire trailing down her spine. Sweat plasters loose tendrils of hair to her forehead; she feels completely, utterly hollow, simultaneously feverish and chilled to the bone.
The door creaks open, accompanied by the clack of high heels.
"Sweetheart?" her mother calls out. "Are you alright?"
"Yes," Anaru chokes out. Swaying unsteadily to her feet, she opens the bathroom stall; her mother's simpering look is almost enough to send her tottering back to teh toilet bowl.
But somehow, she manages to keep it together, just like she's been doing for the past six years.
"Oh, you poor dear!" her mother fusses. "Pre-wedding jitters, hm?"
Anaru manages a minty smile, turning to regard herself in the bathroom mirror.
She can hardly recognize herself, gaunt from two months of endless dieting, her skin pulled taut over her bones. Her hair has been pulled into an elegant bun that rests at the nape of her neck, a silver circlet perched upon her head; her veil almost entirely conceals the bags under her eyes.
And the dress- oh, her beautiful dress, gauzy and decorated with tiny pearls like tiny pinpricks of sunlight.
She is radiant in ways she's never wanted to be.
She deserves none of this happiness, none of this perfectly planned celebration.
All she wants is to curl up into a ball and hide, to duck away from their prying eyes, just to run-
"Everyone is waiting, darling," her mother says, achingly gentle. "Are you ready?"
She gives a jerky nod, her quaking fingers grabbing at her mother's. Anaru allows her mother to lead her away and into that tiny, suffocating hall, where he'll be waiting, handsome with his hair slicked back and a rose tucked into his pocket.
Her father is waiting there, pot-bellied with a twinkle in his eye. He gives her hand what's clearly meant to be a reassuring squeeze when she takes his, whispering, "I'm so proud of you, sweetheart."
His words are like a kick to the gut.
Proud of a liar. Proud of a fake.
And then, they are off.
She glides across the thick burgundy carpet, past the pews, past the smiling faces, past the grim-faced Tsuruko, to where he is waiting, beaming at the guests, his eyes glazed over, his fingers tense, fingers that had traced over every contour of her body-
Too fast, too soon, her father's comforting presence has melted away, and alone they stand, naked and vulnerable and stripped away for everyone to see.
His hands are unbearably cold, gaze empty, eyes blank.