ENTITLED: A Colder Morning
FANDOM: Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae o Bokutachi wa Mada Shiranai
LENGTH: 7,100 words
DISCLAIMER: I do not, and never shall, own AnoHana.
SETTING: Alternative timeline, where Jintan dies and Menma lives.
NOTES: Obviously, complete speculation. But this idea has been biting at me ever since episode one, and it was really only a matter of time until somebody wrote it. Also, I must warn you that despite my sincerest attempts to make this gen, Yukiatsu/Anaru snuck in. I TOTALLY DON'T EVEN KNOW. Tsuruko/Yukiatsu, Anaru/Jintan, Menma/Yukiatsu, and Jintan/Menma are scattered throughout as well. Because WHAT IS FANFIC WITHOUT SHIPPING!
SUMMARY: In some other place, a little boy takes his turn drowning in the river.
On question twenty nine, her nail chipped. Or perhaps it didn't. But she became aware of it, and anyway, it was as distracting and damning as the boy occupying the seat directly in front of her own. And she didn't know the answer to question twenty nine. She wasn't really sure how to solve it in the first place. Or what the subject matter was.
She needed to get home. Get home and get her nail file, or maybe the clippers. Something to fix it. Something—
She looked up, startled.
Thirty-two minutes after one.
She held her breath, and checked the teacher, and risked glancing four rows back, and two seats over.
But Poppo was bent over his test, broad shoulders hunched protectively around his answers. Not looking at the clock. Not holding his breath, as she was, as she did every day, every 1:32.
The instructor's chair scraped backwards, and Anaru hastened to crane her neck in an exaggerated arc, feigning a stretch. Eyes on the paper, question twenty nine.
Her nail was chipped.
"God, I'm tired. Let's go for burgers."
"Anjou, you take too long."
"Eh? Oh, who?"
"I'm not," Anaru said hastily, jerking her head back around, and hastily snatching her outdoor shoes from her locker. Seven lockers over, Poppo was doing the same, but slowly, almost laboriously. She wondered if he had heard, but— probably not.
Haruna made a show of following her gaze, "What, him? No way, Anjou. Too weird!"
"It isn't like that!" Anaru protested immediately, but some ugly fear twisted in her stomach. Fear for herself, or for Poppo, she wasn't sure. Her hand clenched, and she noted again the chipped nail. In her peripheral vision, Poppo flinched.
She'd never been able to look at him without feeling guilty. And then angry for the guilt.
It wasn't like she was his mother. It wasn't like she was responsible for him. It wasn't like it was her fault. It wasn't like everything was perfect for her either, like she wasn't sad, like—
Her hand slipped, and she slammed her locker closed with more ferocity than she had intended.
Haruna and Aki's mouths rounded, and they cooed knowingly, mockingly.
"Who'd like him?" Anaru snapped, before she'd meant to say it, before she could catch herself.
She was too ashamed to turn and see if he'd heard her, and too ashamed to walk past him. She took ages doing up her laces, and by the time she was done, Poppo was gone.
She pretended not to notice for the first hour. Her friends made no such efforts.
"He is so hot."
"Hey, do you think he's looking at me? He's looking right?" Haruna threw a flirtatious glance across the restaurant. Against her better judgment, Anaru checked his reaction in the window's reflection.
Her stomach sank as he stood. Aki almost fainted.
"Oh, gosh. Oh, gosh. He's coming over here. What if he asks me out!"
"You have a boyfriend," Anaru pointed out.
"I know! How'm I supposed to get rid of him in time!"
Anaru savaged her hamburger, and kept her eyes furiously on the plate. She wondered, wildly, if it would be possible to climb over Aki and take the window seat. But by that point his footsteps had stopped, and Yukiatsu's thumb swept against the corner of her mouth. Anaru jerked back, her eyes enormous and her face hot.
"Ketchup," he said, with a languid smile.
She could almost feel Haruna's seething jealousy.
She tried not to grind her teeth, "What do you want?"
"Just wishing you a happy birthday."
"Happy Birthday, Matsuyuki-san," she muttered sullenly. He'd been obsessed with their shared birthday when they were children, and had even gone to the hospital to make sure he was the older one. (He was, by three hours and forty minutes.)
"Anjou," Haruna said, pointedly, "I didn't realize you had a twin."
"He's not." Anaru said quickly. Yukiatsu smiled benevolently, and Aki eyed him, still hungry.
"So? Who is he?"
"Just someone I used to know."
For a second he just looked at her, and she wondered if it was possible to hurt him with something as innocent as the past tense.
"I'm Haruna. Haruna Tachibana," Haruna interupted, sticking her hand forwards. Yukiatsu's gaze flicked away, and towards her. His reply was just a second too late.
"Atsumu Matsuyuki," he said, coolly. Haruna was not deterred.
"So! Born on the same day, huh? That's cool."
"Monday's child is fair of face," Yukiatsu recited, with a cryptic little smile towards Anaru, then shifted his weight towards her, somehow managing to cut the others out. "I want to talk to you about something."
"I'm busy right now."
"Give me your number, it can wait a bit a few hours. Just don't make plans tonight."
She rolled her eyes, and rattled it off without even thinking about it.
"I'll be waiting for my present," he said, just to ruffle her, and slid away. Anaru caught herself watching him leave at the same time he did, and she looked down again, annoyed.
Her friends exploded, "Monday's child is fair of face? What is that? That old rhyme? Did he just call you hot?"
"I'm sure he was talking about himself."
"He asked for your number," Haruna pointed out.
"I've known him for years."
"No, he was hitting on you," Aki insisted. Anaru sighed, thinking suddenly of Tsurumi. She wondered if they were still together. If they'd ever been 'together' at all.
"I seriously doubt that."
Aki lowered her voice to a strained, suave baritone that sounded nothing like Yukiatsu, "'I'll be waiting for my present.' What the hell is that! Anjou, you harlot."
"I can't believe you had such a hot one hidden away! You're the worst. God. I could just kill you," Haruno groused, shooting her a vicious look that was a little too real.
"Did you hear him call her Anaru? Not Anjou-san?"
"I'm surprised he didn't call her 'Matsuyuki-san.'"
You're empty, Anaru thought, looking at both of them. How manufactured their laughter seemed. It was an ugly feeling. She pushed it away.
Menma was beautiful when she laughed. Poppo, too. Yukiatsu and Tsuruko had never really been much for laughing, even when they were little. Wry smiles had felt more natural. Or she imagined so, anyway. It was hard to remember.
Except Jintan. She remembered the way he'd laughed.
She remembered everything.
Not that it mattered.
She was ready to answer the instant her phone rang, but made herself wait for the fashionable third, and then the fourth just to be sure he'd know how low he was on her priorities list.
"Anaru," Yukiatsu greeted, "Can you come out?"
She had a sudden, horrible suspicion that he was waiting in the street outside her house. Like some stupid, shoujo manga. "Why?"
"We're at the old club house."
"Can you come?"
"Hey," Anaru protested, "Wait, what's going on?"
"I'm luring you into a dark, uninhabited place so that I might ravage you without interruption," Yukiatsu informed her cheerfully, then, "Hurry up."
Anaru made an angry noise. "Fine."
"If you could pick up some snacks on the way here, that would be good."
"You are seriously pushing it," Anaru grumbled, and hung up.
She reached for her coat, and paused, thumbing the sleeve's thick material. Anaru. He'd called her Anaru. That was even worse than Naruko. Even worse than pretending that it hadn't been years since they'd talked, that last year of elementary school, when they were twelve.
She shook her head. She'd never understood why Yukiatsu had always invested so much in harassing her. If it hadn't been for the years she'd watched him stare after Menma with a longing too fierce for childhood burning across his face, she might have suspected something. Some weird, masochistic obsession.
But then again, Anaru scolded herself as she paid for the snacks he'd ordered, it wasn't like she was any better.
There was light in the clubhouse. She stopped, some fifty paces from it, hidden in the dark trees, breathing a little harder from the climb. She could hear the faint murmur of voices. Too quiet. Her heart waited in her mouth.
"Jintan," she called, without meaning to. She snapped a hand over her mouth and looked around, absurdly worried that someone had overheard her. That a little boy would come rushing out of the forests, hands clamped around a cicada.
No, of course.
She swallowed back the sudden pain, like knocking against a forgotten bruise, and made her way inside.
There were three of them, gathered around a lantern. She noted how close Tsuruko was standing to Yukiatsu. An ambiguous distance. Close enough to touch him, but far enough to be platonic.
Poppo's forced, almost frightened smile made her feel sick. "You brought snacks."
"It helped me stall," Anaru lied, and tossed the bag at Yukiatsu, who only smirked as he caught it. "There. Happy birthday."
He studied his prize, "Did you forget that I'm allergic to peanuts?"
He smiled at her, and she caught the edge of Tsuruko's stare. Blank. Hard.
Shoot. She cleared her throat, "So, what is this about? This place gives me the creeps."
"I got a letter," Poppo said, his voice too loud. He flushed a little, then dug into his pockets, "From Menma."
Anaru waited to feel something. Some big emotion. "Okay."
"It's to all of us," Poppo said, paused, "Should I read it?"
When nobody replied into the trailing silence, it grew stiff, awkward. Anaru snuck another look towards Tsuruko and felt ridiculous, and frilly, and childish at the sight of the other girl's basic, streamlined clothes. She felt the gap of separation, then, the one Yukiatsu had almost tricked her into forgetting.
"Fine," Tsuruko said, low voice carrying. Anaru shivered. Poppo looked around them nervously, and she was reminded again of how he had been when she'd first met him. He'd be the last to join their band, and had forever trailed after Jintan, imitating him, idolizing him. The afterthought.
She sunk her fingers into the wooden bench. She shouldn't have come.
"Hello!" Poppo said, too loud, always too loud as he read off a folded paper. Anaru winced.
"I hope you are all doing very well. I am sorry that I didn't write all of you your own letters, but Poppo's address is the only one I can remember. I should have written them all down before I left. Sorry."
As for me, I am awesome! Yesterday I made a snowman. It was even taller than my brother! He is too big now. Younger siblings should have some respect and stay small. I guess it's summer there, right? Have you already gone to see the fireworks?"
I miss all of you. I miss the clubhouse, too. And school. And Rocky! They don't have any in Russia. I looked everywhere. I am sad."
Please write to me soon, and tell me how you are getting on. I saw Nokémon Diamond in the store last week and thought of Anaru. Have you already beaten it? Oh! And there was a movie I thought Tsuruko would have liked. It was about cowboys. So cool!"
I know that you are all very busy and that it is selfish of me to ask, but if you see Jintan's Papa, please tell him hello for me. And Jintan! He should always have pretty flowers at his grave. I think he must be lonely. I wish I was there so I could go talk to him, but I guess he can hear me anywhere, so it doesn't matter. But being so far away makes it hard to hear him back."
Well, that is all! I will put my contact information at the bottom! Bye-bye!" Poppo looked up, clearing his throat, "And it's signed, with her contact info, just like she said."
"Is this for real?" Anaru shook her head, "She still sounds like a kid!"
"Stupid. She wouldn't have learned any kanji after she left. It's likely that she speaks Russian now." Tsuruko folded her arms, snorting. "Cowboys. Honestly."
Anaru thought about retorting, then gave it up. She wasn't sure she liked this new, colder Tsuruko. "Nokémon Diamond came out years ago."
There was a brief pause.
"How many years?" Yukiatsu asked, suddenly, voice sharp. Anaru stared.
"I don't know. Four?"
She understood suddenly, and looked over towards Poppo in disbelief.
"When'd you get that?" Yukiatsu demanded. Poppo shrunk into himself. Anaru blinked. She hadn't realized how large he'd grown until this moment, when the futility of his size became so apparant.
Poppo looked agonized. "I don't— "
"When'd you get it?" Yukiatsu shouted, taking a step forward, "About the time that cowboy movie came out, I bet."
Anaru shot Tsuruko a pointed look, waiting for her to intervene, to call it off. But the other girl only folded her lips, and stared at Poppo, hard.
"She could have moved. She could be gone forever. She thinks we got this letter years ago and that we just didn't reply." Yukiatsu spat, now looking almost feverish, "Or did you? Did you send her some note? Some lie about how the rest of us couldn't be bothered, didn't care, hell, maybe we were all dead too."
"Stop it!" Anaru snapped, on her feet now, furious that she'd let it run this far. Furious that she had tried to pass the responsibility to Tsuruko. Furious that she had waited for a dead boy to speak.
Yukiatsu rounded on her and she braced herself for the poison in his eyes. He still got angry like he had when he was a child. Like she did, to be honest. The vicious and cutting kind, immediate and destructive. But she had always been better at tearing herself down.
He looked at her for an excruciating pause, then turned on his heel and stormed out, hands clenched and shaking at his sides. Tsuruko sent her an indecipherable glance, before following him with what seemed like almost deliberate slowness.
Anaru watched their exit, nervous tension rattling through her. After a minute had passed and it became clear that they weren't coming back, she let the breath gush out of her, and dropped to the floor, passing a hand through her bangs.
She had been worried that Poppo would be crying. He wasn't.
"Did you have it all this time?" she asked.
He took a long time in nodding. She let her head fall back. It didn't really matter now. Nothing mattered now.
Story of her life.
"Why'd you do it?" she asked, not really expecting an answer.
"I didn't. I didn't want Menma to know." At her questioning look, he elaborated, "That we were...done. Me."
He looked away. She sort of got it.
"So, why now?"
He didn't answer this time, only stared at the lantern. He cut his hair too short, she decided. It was weird to never change your hair like that.
She got to her feet, and made her way home.
The shadows below her eyes did not go unnoticed.
"Oh my god." Aki whisper-screamed to Haruna when she met up with them in the morning, "Anaru. What were you up to last night?"
"Don't call me that," Anaru said, more sharply than she'd intended.
Haruna's face pinched, "Why not? Is it some special pet name? Is it off-limits?"
Friends, right, friends.
She pushed the breezy dismissal, "No, it's just a stupid name. He never even called me that when we were kids, anyway."
"Anyway," Aki jumped the word, "Our baby Anaru has been a very naughty girl."
"What...?" Haruna sniggered.
"I was not," Anaru protested, indignant. She tugged at the hem of her skirt. "Seriously, you guys. Not so loud."
"Right, right, sure," they exchanged knowing looks, "Sure. So, what did you...talk...about?"
Anaru was pretty sure she'd missed the implication. Well. Not so much what they were getting at, as the method to getting there. What did stressing "talk" even mean?
"Nothing," she said, and then realized how suspicious that sounded, "It was just a...kind of an elementary reunion."
Aki rolled her eyes, "Um, we went to the same school, moron."
Haruna laughed, hard and loud, "Elementary reunion. I am so sure."
She squeezed her eyes shut, ignoring the lecture on micro-molecular explosions, or whatever, and pushed as hard as she could against the inside of her skull.
Tick, tick, tick.
A dull ache dug in behind her temple.
Her phone vibrated silently against her hip.
She looked four rows back and two seats over. Poppo's head was bent towards his notebook. She watched him for a long moment, but he didn't notice, and so she slipped her attention back to the board, flipping her phone open under the desk.
"What is it now?"
Yukiatsu looked up, wry smile isolated to his mouth. It made him look sort of predatory. Like a shark. "Bought you a present."
She gawked at him until his eyes began to crinkle, and he nudged his chin towards the other side of the booth. "You gonna sit?"
"I ordered you a raspberry mocha."
"I hate those."
She sat. Unsure of her hands. She settled for folding the paper napkin meticulously across her lap. The uneasiness she felt was different from last night's. More like anticipation.
He drummed his fingers absently against the table. He hadn't, before. She wondered if people learned nervous ticks the way others unlearned them. She'd bit her nails, once.
"I'm sorry," he said, slowly, testing the words. She got the feeling he didn't apologize very often.
She shrugged, "It's not me you should be saying that to."
He sent her a cool look, "I don't feel the need to take back anything I said to him."
She remembered, suddenly, the one time Jintan had snapped at Poppo. The littler boy had been in tears for hours. They'd found him hiding under bridge, red-eyed and sniffling. And she remembered the flicker of relief that had crossed Yukiatsu's face, masked almost immediately with impatience.
Jintan had hugged Poppo.
There was the bruise, again.
"You didn't have to shout it, though," Anaru muttered, and looked away from him, out the window. She looked different than she had a few days ago. It was difficult to say how.
The waitress came. Anaru wrinkled her nose. Yukiatsu snickered vindictively. "At least your throat won't swell up until you can't breath if you put it in your mouth."
She shot him a look, and dragged her spoon in idle circles around the mug. It was oddly hypnotic.
They fell into a peaceful sort of silence, while the sunlight darkened to orange. It was a good light. It made the boy across from her look warmer, less polished. More human than stone.
"She didn't even mention me," he said. And she knew, then, that this was what had really been bothering him.
She looked up, and didn't need to ask. "Are you still in love with her?"
It was strange, seeing him so lost. "I don't know."
"It's just," he paused, took a breath, "He's dead and she's still talking about him. I can't beat him even when he's dead."
She hated the way he said it. Dead.
"I'll never have Menma," he said, slowly. "I haven't seen her since I was nine. You heard Tsurumi, she probably doesn't even speak Japanese anymore. She probably doesn't even remember me. But I'll bet you she remembers Yadomi."
Anaru swallowed. Her legs felt horrible, sweaty enough to stick to the vinyl of the booth's seats.
Because it was the right thing to say, "I'm sure she remembers."
"Really?" he says wryly, "Then what about you? How much do you remember?"
Everything, she thinks immediately, but hesitates to say, because he's got that look again, the angry smile. "How old were we?"
"Are you sure? I thought it was six."
"No..." she shakes her head, but doesn't break his gaze, "No. We were seven. I'm sure."
"Six. It was the summer just before elementary school. We had to have been six."
It felt as though her insides had frozen. He was right. Of course he was right. Six. How could she have misplaced an entire year?
"And how tall was Yadomi?"
She hesitated, wanting to stop, but too late. Her hand wavered at what would be halfway up her ribs, if she'd been standing. He'd been the tallest, hadn't he? Surely.
Yukiatsu shook his head, and pushed her hand down another foot, to where her hip would be. "Things seem bigger when you're small. Have you seen a six-year-old? They're tiny."
She let her fingers curl, and fall. Tired of whatever point he was trying to prove to her. Tired of all of it.
"You remembered that I hate raspberry mochas," she said, finally.
He just looked at her, "Are you still in love with him?"
Love was a difficult word.
She remembered, as she always remembered, the one thing Yukiatsu would never be able to convince her she'd forgotten, that last day in the club house. The question she had never gotten an answer to. The question that had killed him.
Hey. Do you like Menma?
"Does it matter?" she asked, instead, her armor and her sword.
"No," he said, and kissed her.
It was a long, light thing. Almost sweet, until she remembered.
Yukiatsu had walked her most of the way home, which she decided not to think about too deeply. She didn't want to get too tangled in whatever game he was playing.
But the last few blocks, she went alone. And so it was alone that she saw the man selling balloons at the corner by the gas station. She stopped, watching as he filled one, shiny and red, with helium.
And then she had suddenly bought it. And then she was walking in completely the wrong direction. And then she was standing before a little boy's grave, the hand clutching at the string feeling as wet and puffy as a child's at the carnival. She sucked in a breath, and waited for something huge.
But it was just a grave, and the flowers were three days old, brown eating inwards. She shifted, swallowing, unsure of how to start. But there was no one here to listen.
"Hi, Yadomi. Jintan." She corrected, and added in a stupidly self-conscious rush, "Menma says hi. She's probably always saying hi. But I guess she can't hear you say it back, or something, so I was supposed to— " she stopped then, floored by the overwhelming sadness of what she had just said.
The breeze pushed quietly at her bangs.
"So I'm supposed to listen," she finished, message over. And still she clutched at his shiny red balloon.
"I miss you," she said, because it was true. And then, "I miss us. I miss all of us. I miss that time, and I miss that summer, and I miss just...being happy. I miss having friends," because that was even more true.
"I don't even really know who I am, anymore," she confessed to the ground, to the trees, and to the wind.
She wondered if she was waiting for an answer. "You were just a little boy," she said, hollow. "You were only six. I'm...I'm so sorry, Jintan. I'm just really sorry. I hope you and your mom are together so that she can take care of you. Your mom was really nice. I really liked her. And your dad. I really liked you, too. I wish you were here."
She wiped hastily at her eyes, collecting herself, reassembling. And her fingers slipped.
The red balloon swam upwards, brilliant against the evening sky. She watched it go, brave and free.
"Bye, Jintan," she called after it.
She held her breath, and looked at Poppo.
This time, he stared back at her.
He'd made her laugh, once.
Sadness was a learned thing.
She ignored Haruna and Aki after class, chasing him down the hallway. It was one of the most satisfying things she'd ever done.
And she copied down the contact info that was four years old.
She wrote a letter, at first. Tried to stick with the most basic kanji, things a grade-schooler could read. She tore through endless drafts. Inspid, shallow. All of it. Now she knew why no one could explain death to a child.
She saw Tsuruko before she saw Yukiatsu. They'd run out of eggs.
The other girl was there with her mother, who was perusing the tomato selection. Anaru's stomach knotted, meeting Tsuruko's flat stare, the coldness of her neutral mouth.
There was no way she could have known. No way.
He wouldn't have told her. Not even Yukiatsu could be that cruel.
No. No, he could have.
Anaru looked down, as she wondered for the thousandth time what they were to each other. How could two people who had been together for so long, who knew each other so perfectly, be so distant?
She picked up a milk cartoon and pretended to study its caloric content. Perhaps she just didn't understand.
Her nail was still chipped.
Tsurumi's nails were probably perfect. Too proud for something as frivolous as polish.
She put the milk back on the shelf.
We're so stupid, Jintan, she thought.
She tracked Poppo down at lunch. He was sitting with his legs thrust between the bars of the fence running around the school's roof. She crouched beside him, squinting.
"Why'd you bring out that letter?" she asked him, again.
He looked away, "Because I couldn't stand how unhappy you looked that day."
She thought about that for a while.
She waited for Yukiatsu at the gates to his school. It was probably not her best plan. If the hoards of catty girls nursed her doubts, seeing Tsurumi walking just a few steps to his side was enough to solidify it. She wasn't that brave.
She made a hasty escape, cursing all the while. It was even more humiliating when he called her on it the next day.
She froze mid-stride, staring in disbelief as he made a show of checking his phone's messages, loitering elegantly just a hair's-breadth off her school grounds.
"I thought it was cute," he told her, when she was near enough. She wondered, for the briefest moment, if Haruna and Aki were watching.
She crossed her arms, and took a breath. "You can't use me as some sort of pawn in whatever it is you're doing with Tsuruko."
He frowned. "Tsurumi? I'm not."
"Then what are you doing?"
He almost looked defensive. "Nothing!"
"You are so!" she narrowed her eyes, "Are you some kind of Casanova? I hate guys who just screw around."
"I'm not screwing around!" Yukiatsu protested. She was almost proud that she had reduced him to unpracticed, straight-forward denials.
She leaned forwards, accusatory, and definitely not blushing. "You kissed me."
"Have you ever considered the possibility that maybe I just like spending time with you and you're a pretty girl?"
"Have you honestly not noticed that Tsuruko has been in love with you since we were kids?"
Yukiatsu snorted. She didn't. This, more than anything else, seemed to convince him.
He frowned, suddenly, blinking.
There were issues to be resolved there, Anaru knew, but for the time being, she had done her part. She turned to leave, and had gotten some ten steps before he called after her, "Hey, Anaru?"
She neglected to turn, "What?"
"I'm serious, you know. I do like you."
She turned. So did half the school. Anaru's face flamed, and Yukiatsu grinned wickedly.
Menma had given them more than an address.
Anaru spent an hour pretending not to stare at her phone, lying with her back to the window, forcing sleep. It didn't work.
She sat up, exasperated with herself, and reached...retracted.
She held her breath.
But it was the wrong kind of 1:32. AM instead of PM. Menma would be sleeping. Of course.
How many hours back would she be? Four? Five?
She plugged in the number. Long distance was tricky. The call dropped four times so that when someone finally picked up, she wasn't ready for it.
"M-Menma?" Anaru, hedged. There was a pause.
"Anaru!" Menma cried, Russian lingering in her accent, but she hadn't forgotten, she hadn't. "I thought...did you ever get my letter?"
"Just now," Anaru was almost giggling, though she couldn't say why, "There was a delay, I guess. I went and told Jintan you said hello."
"Thank you!" she could almost hear Menma beam, "How are you, then? Are you tall now? I bet you're really pretty. Do you still play videogames?"
She wanted to, suddenly. She hadn't played in a very, very long time. "I'm good," she said, slowly, "I think I...did something good."
Menma made a little, approving noise, "You always were level-headed! I'm good too."
She hasn't changed a bit, Anaru thought. Always a kid. Always honest. Always brave.
No wonder Jintan had been in love with her.
"Is your hair still long?"
"Yes! It's pink!"
Anaru choked on an incredulous laugh, "Seriously?"
"Really. I like pink."
Anaru smiled. In her head, the girl on the other end of the phone was six years old and tiny. And blonde. "Hey, Menma. Can I ask you something?"
"I just...Did you ever...Were you in love with Jintan?"
"Of course," Menma sounded surprised, "I still am."
Of course she was. Menma's was a good love. A selfless, eternal kind, that took joy in its own existence.
Anaru was too tired to feel jealous. She knew the sad, frightened thing she called a heart. "Is it okay to talk about this?"
"Yes," Menma said, calm and sure, "I...actually would like to. I can't, here. My friends don't know, and my parents would just be sad."
And so with this permission, Anaru clutched at her phone, the shiny pink plastic, and asked the question time and distance had made her brave enough to utter, "Did you see it happen?"
There was a slight pause, and then Menma's girlish inhale, "I was right behind him, you know. I don't know how I managed to catch up. He was always such a fast runner and I kept tripping over my dress. I thought I was going to go rolling down the hill a few times, and then I'd crash into him— you know those silly scenes in anime, where they end up on the ground, face to face, and then they blush and scramble away from each other? I was imagining that happening. I really wanted..." she trailed off.
Anaru was quiet. She wondered if Menma was crying. She wondered if she still wore dresses.
"But he was so much faster than me," Menma continued, "So I called out to him. And I think he might have started to turn. Then he just tripped. It was so fast."
She was definitely crying now, Anaru could hear the water in her voice. Her own throat seemed to shake as she pictured it, the little boy with messy hair, his strong legs fumbling, so close to the river. But he had always been a good swimmer. He had always been so much stronger than the rest of them.
"I was m-maybe five meters away when he went over," Menma continued— and Anaru wanted her to stop, suddenly, but it was too late to stop now, it was too late and airborne, "And when he hit the water I-I started to laugh. Because he looked so surprised when he was falling and I thought...I thought he'd looked silly, making such a huge splash. I didn't think he'd..."
The river had been shallow from the summer's heat, was what she'd been told. Shallow enough for a little boy to knock his head against the stony bottom.
"There wasn't any blood." Menma said, "He floated back up in just a few seconds, face-up. I thought he was looking at me. So I yelled at him. I yelled, 'Jintan, I'm sorry! It's okay if you don't like me, because I like you anyway!' but he didn't say anything. Jintan just..."
Menma had to stop then, and Anaru she wasn't the only one crying. After a minute, Menma took another brave breath.
"And I watched his eyes fill up with blue," she whispered.
They'd hung up, hours later, and Anaru had really, truly cried. She had forgotten which thing she was crying for, but it was enough to keep her going until the first, peachy blush of morning.
She fell asleep shaking.
In the morning, she looked at herself in the mirror, trying to see what was different. Trying to see what had been there before the red and tired eyes.
And then she understood.
There was a man already praying at Jintan's grave when she arrived, balloon in tow. She waited at a respectful distance, content to breath in the warm, summer-edged wind. It was nice here. Peaceful. Maybe she would rest here someday.
The man turned as he finished his prayer, and she bowed solemnly.
"Is that for Jintan?" he asked, his eyes immeasurably kind in their sadness. She nodded. He smiled gently, turning to look out over the neat row of tombstones.
"I have a shrine back at home, of course," he explained, "But I like to think of him here. He always loved to run around outside."
She nodded, and then stepped up beside him, bowing her head to tell Jintan of all the things Menma had told her. That the girl he had run from was still giving chase.
When she had finished, she let the balloon trail through her fingers, out into the open blue. Her message in a bottle.
Jintan's father stood with her, and together, they watched it fly into some unknown, distant place.
When she looked, she saw tears running silently down his face. And she remembered again how Jintan had put his arms around Poppo as he'd wept— as he had done for her. For all of them.
And so she reached for his father's hand as they waited for that flicker of red to be swallowed into the blue.
"Thank you," he whispered, his soft voice shaking, "Thank you."
To specifically address the changes made to the canon timeline's characters, and my arguments for taking them in the direction I did...
MENMA: Does not completely collapse, like Jintan did when she died. Menma is not a mirror of Jintan. Her in-show character is a frozen copy of what she behaved like as a young child. People change, and Menma is no exception. So while she retains her dreamy, kind-spirited nature, she also withdraws from people a little due to the trauma of losing Jintan. As a result of this, her concerned parents move back to Russia when she is around nine, thinking that getting her away from where the incident took place will be good for her.
ANARU: Her character-type is the closest to Jintan's, and she was as in-love with him as Menma was. But Anaru is also the type of girl who pushes her negative feelings inwards, and stews over them. Getting over Jintan is difficult for her, but her development as a character is largely unchanged from the canon-timeline. The only real difference is that her bottled frustration is instead bottled grief. As a side note, I could tell you that the reason why I wrote primarily from her POV is because hers is the closest to Jintan's, but that would be utter bullshit. I just really like Anaru.
YUKIATSU: Begins to drift away from Menma. She is not stuck as a perfect ideal in his head, and as she changes, so does he. He still loves her, but the obsession-element is not there. By the time she finally moves away, he ends up paying Tsurumi more attention than he does in canon. He does not leave the incident completely unscarred, of course, but manifest more as Anaru's did: insecurity and resentment at being beaten out by a dead person. Furthermore, with Jintan out of the picture, Yukiatsu is the one who adopts the 'leader' position. His weird little bond with Anaru still exists, to her dismay.
TSURUKO: Probably the least-changed of the group, as she was pretty equally close to Jintan and Menma, and so would likely respond to their death in a similar way. The elimination of Yukiatsu's obsession with Menma, however, results in his growing closer to Tsuruko, resulting in their vague relationship being slightly healither. When he is reunited with Anaru, her reaction is even more hostile than in canon, as the possibility of Yukiatsu/Anaru is more likely to happen, with both Jintan and Menma out of the picture.
POPPO: Easily the most affected. Losing Jintan smashes the concept of mortality into his face, as it did with Menma, but the trauma then progresses even further to the point of "Even Gods Die." He responds to Jintan's death with a period of extreme shock, and thereafter comes across as highly unstable, as his efforts to appear cheerful and carefree are systematically burst by his subconscious conviction that everything can, at any moment, shatter.
JINTAN: Remains dead, and in the ground. There is no promise to drag him back to the world of the living.