notes — These two are amazing together. I wanted to finish writing this fic before the final episode, I didn't want the ending to influence my feelings when I was writing this (happy or sad). The feeling I had while I wrote this was the ambiguous feeling I felt when I saw that Tsuruko cut her hair.
Streets in Summer
"What did you find, Yukiatsu?" she asks, standing behind the group hounding Jintan. Apart from her and Yukiatsu, the rest are oo-ing and ah-ing at the massive beetle their leader had managed to capture.
"Huh? Nothing much." He turns in surprise, before looking down at his own bug, wriggling and writhing between his thumb and middle finger. It's a chubby caterpillar, with what feels like fur that tickles when she reaches out to prod it.
"It's cool," she decides.
Yukiatsu smiles, just a bit. She can't help but find that it looks good on his perpetually stoic face.
She crouches down low to the ground, ignoring the mud and dirt that stains her skirt and the soil getting under her fingernails. It doesn't take long for her to find the hairclip. She smiles at the flower, wonders what its name is, before pocketing it.
"Tsuruk– Tsurumi," the young boy says, clenching his teeth.
"Yukiatsu?" she replies easily, blinking as she raises her eyes from her book. "We're in the same class? That's nice."
He hasn't changed much over the quiet summer, with that mean, thinking look on his face and the way he likes to put his hands in his pockets. It's odd. They are only eleven-years old, but Menma's death has shifted many things out of equilibrium. Poppo loses his loud laugh, Anaru doesn't come by her house to play video games with her anymore, and Jintan's spirit of adventure has been buried along with the girl with the pretty white dress.
Yukiatsu had never been too close to Tsuruko, but seeing him here like this, it makes her think that maybe not everything has to change.
But everything does. Yukiatsu's just amazing at hiding, is all.
"You liked Menma, didn't you?" she asks him out of curiosity during lunch. They sit at his desk, picking at their lunchboxes, exchanging tomatoes for sausages. She stares down at the rice in her bento, almost daring to count the grains.
His tiny hands pinch the chopsticks closer together, and he looks almost violated. "How do you know?" he whispers, tone sullen and uncomfortable.
Tsuruko shrugs. She wants to reach out and pat his head, but contents herself by watching him squirm in his seat.
"Do you still like her?"
She gets the answer she expects, but not the one she wants.
"Do you want to come over to my house after school today?"
"Huh, what for?" his reply is strangely hostile.
Tsuruko's smile fades away and her eyes lower to the floor. It'd slipped her mind that they used to be six, not two.
"Just like old times?" she ventures, just to try her luck.
He arches an eyebrow, his expression mixed with disbelief and something that almost resembles sadness, and looks at her like she's insane. She just might be.
When they take the bus home from middle school together, she spots two empty seats beside each other, and moves to sit down. Yukiatsu doesn't join her, preferring to stand, holding tightly onto the cold support beam like a lifeline. Tsuruko's eyes fall, but she decides to avoid his gaze and revise multiplication tables in her head.
She draws a faceless boy and girl holding hands in her math textbook when she is twelve. When she is thirteen, there are only pencil scars and the profile of a boy she wishes she didn't understand as much as she did.
"You look funny."
Tsuruko furrows her brow. She makes an indignant sound before walking away, nearly banging into a desk because she hasn't gotten used to wearing glasses yet.
"Why won't you go out with any of those girls?" The question just slips out of her as they walk down the hill towards the station. She counts the lines on the pavements, swinging her bag in one hand. The setting sun stretches the shadows at their feet, and when she squints, they begin to blend together. He's already taller than her, his shoulder at her chin.
"Not interested," he replies, sounding almost bored.
"Meiko Honma," Tsuruko states. It's not a question, it never was. It's surprising how bitter a fourteen-year old can sound.
Yukiatsu nearly reels, but he doesn't reply. He only thrusts his hands deeper into the pockets of his school uniform, frowning at her as a sad smile spreads across her face. She turns to look at the streetlights and the shops on the other side of the road so that he doesn't see. She wonders why she does this to herself.
"Hey, you okay?"
Tsuruko opens her eyes. Standing over her is Yukiatsu, who's blurred at the edges. He's gotten big, with broad shoulders and a face sharpened with time, but there's still something about him that reminds her about the sulky ten-year old she'd known.
She can just make out his face, vacant of anxiousness or worry. He looks dumb, with that blank, indifferent expression on his face. She wants to laugh. The snow is cold and biting on the back of her head, and she realizes that she'd skidded on the icey pavement on their walk to school. Tsuruko immediately reaches her for skirt.
"Don't worry, I didn't see anything," Yukiatsu smirks, bending over to pick up her glasses, askew on the ground.
She lies there for a moment, closing her eyes and recalling the time when the six of them made angels in the snow. That had been only five years ago, but it feels so far away. The sun is warm on her freezing skin, and she wishes she could smell summer instead of snow.
Suddenly, a hand grabs onto her elbow and hoists her off the ground and onto her feet. Her head spins and she brushes the snow off her hair. Her spectacles are in Yukiatsu's palm, and he's standing too close to her and why is he staring at her and he should let go for her arm now.
Tsuruko snatches her glasses back, slipping them on and stepping away. "Yes?" she asks, keeping her composure.
"Nothing," Yukiatsu says.
They continue walking to school. Tsuruko does not pursue the matter because he'd meant it.
"Leave Matsuyuki alone!" the generic lovestruck girl orders, trying to be fierce but desperately failing.
Tsuruko ignores her and continues doing the work she's laid out on her desk, pen scratching against the paper. She's adapted to the constant stream of jealous girls, knows how to play the silent game like an ace. Sometimes they give up and leave her alone, at others –
"Hey!" A manicured hand slams on the table, kicking up flecks of eraser dust.
She shoos the fingers off her work with the nonchalant wave of a hand. "I'm not doing anything," she says softly, adjusting her spectacles.
"You little bitc– " the girl is cut off when she realizes that someone else has walked up to the desk.
"Calm down," Yukiatsu sighs. He shifts his weight from one foot to the other.
"Oh – um," the girl starts, running a hand through her hair and chewing her lip and frantically trying to come off as attractive, with her short skirt and blouse with the first two buttons lose. It's sickening.
Tsuruko shoves everything into her bag, zips it up, and turns to leave the classroom. After inspecting the girl from top to bottom and deeming her unworthy of conversation, Yukiatsu walks over to grab his bag too.
Her footsteps start to slow as she brushes past students and hallways. By the time she's at the school gates, Yukiatsu is behind her, strolling leisurely without a care in the world.
They are sixteen, in the same class like always, battling with puberty and trying to understand algebra. It is Yukiatsu's birthday. His desk is piled high with melting chocolates and cakes and gooey love letters that mean nothing to him. He still pretends to be grateful and happily surprised when girls with no names approach him in class or on the hallway to offer him presents.
She has to help him carry one plastic bag full of chocolates. Her hand slips on the way to the train station, and some of the sweets fall out of their boxes. "Nevermind them," Yukiatsu says without much concern, continuing on his way. Tsuruko likes to dislike this side of him.
"Happy birthday," she mumbles as she reads her book, three train seats apart from him.
Yukiatsu lights up a little when he hears the words. He smirks expectantly - so very confident that she wouldn't have the heart not to wish him. "No present?" he teases.
When she doesn't reply, his smug grin subsides and he leans back and crosses one leg over the other. "You always remember my birthday, don't you?" he comments, his voice every essence of deliberate casualness. Tsuruko flips the page.
It's not that she remembers. It's that she can't forget.
"Matsuyuki." The teacher checks his name off the list.
"181cm, 68kg," Yukiatsu tells him, ignoring the stares the girls who aren't even in phys-ed class give him. Tsuruko doesn't look to him. She's on the weighing scale, staring at the white socks on her feet.
" –mi. Tsurumi?" the teacher calls.
"Oh! Uh," she snaps out of her thoughts, looking at the numbers on the screen for her measurements.
"You seem out of it today, are you alright?" he asks.
"Sorry," she tells herself.
"Try this on." He holds the dress out for her. It's white with cute ruffles and an innocent ribbon to complete the look. It looks hauntingly familiar somehow. And it's something she wouldn't be caught dead it.
"Never," she replies, skimming through another rack of conservative button-down shirts.
Yukiatsu, who's learned to live with her nonchalance, steps in front of the full body mirror at the back of the store. From the corners of her eye, she nearly catches him holding the dress up against his reflection. The hangers on the rack crash together when she clutches and pulls down on one of the shirts.
"… you bought it," she observes, incredulous.
"Yes. It's for my girlfriend," Yukiatsu breezes, thanking the cashier before hefting the bag over one shoulder. They walk beside each other out of the department store and she overhears a group of middle-schoolers mistaking them for a couple.
"Who, again?" Tsuruko succeeds in restraining the mock, shoving it down her throat like all the words she's never said. She lowers her eyes and watches how their feet walk out of sync.
"It's not you," he says without a second thought.
She turns to glare at him. When the train comes, she gets into a separate carriage. Yukiatsu frowns, but doesn't bother to chase after her.
They've walked the same road to and from school for – two-hundred and eighty days multiplied by seven – one thousand, nine hundred and sixty times now. Nothing has changed.
But when they reach the quiet train tracks, a scrawny boy is talking to himself and leaping for the empty ground. It's Yadomi. Tsuruko is surprised to see the boy, who looks so unsure of himself and so different from the confident leader of that summer.
When she glances sideways to the boy next to her, his eyes flash with something she's never seen. She brushes her hair behind her ear.
Maybe this is it.
It's his turn to stare at her when he climbs out of the trench, struggling in a white dress with ruffles and a ribbon. She just looks at him and tries not to show anything on her face. The skirt of the torn dress swishes at his ankles as he stalks off, and perhaps this time he'll leave his feelings in the forest instead of carrying them back home again.
That doesn't happen.
"I'm sorry, but I already have plans." Yukiatsu smiles in that marvellous plastic way, the one that makes her positively sick. His only plans are going home to study until he's tired, or alternatively making conversation with a worn wig and a dress. She tightens her grip on the handle of her school bag, fingernails digging into the skin of her palm in the process.
She thinks, for a second, that maybe she's even more twisted that Yukiatsu, who crossdresses and cries like a fountain and kicks at inanimate objects and throws insults at others just so that they boomerang back to him. To stay with someone like him, who's obsessed with the bones of a dead girl, might be the only mistake of her life.
But he's strong and smart and even though he lies he does it in such a terribly obvious way that he's practically honest. He's like a book she's read from back to front, leaf to leaf, memorized the most important quotes and the way the words feels under her fingertips. She knows all of his merits, which are harder to see because of his magnificent flaws, she knows where is his heart as much as she knows where is hers.
She can hardly remember how he looks when he's earnest, but she remembers the feeling of it all – a summer smile and a fuzzy caterpillar. There is a boy worth a heart somewhere under the hate in his eyes.
She watches him talk to another girl for more than five minutes for the first time in seven short years. What Anjou has that she doesn't is not bigger breasts or a wonderful fashion sense or those bright, emotional eyes. It's the fact that she doesn't like Yukiatsu one bit.
And it hurts.
The hairclip is still beautiful even after so long. The smile on her drawing of Menma is still unsymmetrical, but she can't bring herself to fix it. Nothing has changed. Jintan still thinks he can do anything he sets his mind on. Anaru's sleeves are still blotted with her heart, and Poppo smiles and laughs to chase his troubles away. Menma is still the life of the party. All of Yukiatsu's tears are for a girl who can cry for everyone but herself, and Tsuruko looks at him looking her.
"You'll never understand," Anaru sobs and sobs like she's been betrayed by the world.
"I understand," Tsuruko corrects her.
"Because I love Yukiatsu."
She raises her eyes off the ground. The words are finally free.