"True love is eternal," the graffiti read. Briefly, it flickered out of view, obscured by a sheet of dense summer rain, and then emerged through the murk once more. Someone had painted it with graceful flowing letters in vivid neon yellow, making them seem to glow even in the gloom.
Anzu sat in the bus shelter, watching it rain. She was in no hurry for the bus to come. For now, it was enough to sit and listen to the drumming of rain on the roof of the shelter, to watch it shimmer as it passes through the light of the street lamps. There wass a kind of music in it: the steady drumming of the raindrops, the softer rush of the wind, the occasional crescendos of passing cars, punctuated by the far-off slam of a door or the blare of a horn, underscored by murmurs of conversation. She could see in her mind the steps to go with the music, and her feet itched to perform it.
Instead, she looked at the wall across from her. She wondered who painted that message, and why. Were they thinking of someone specific? Was it someone still with them, or someone whose memory they cherished even though the one they loved was gone?
The rain wass coming down harder, now, a rush of heavy fat drops that burst up like blooming flowers when they hit the pavement. The air was heavy with the scent of warm wet asphalt. She watched it roll in branching patterns down the plastic sides of the bus shelter like the vines of some strange plant. Beyond the walls of her shelter, she could see almost nothing but rain.
But she could see something. There was someone there.
Honda didn't like the city in the rain. When the sun was shining, you could forget that you were basically boxed in on all sides by metal and stone, but when it rained, there was nothing to distract you from the grayness everywhere and the narrowness of the streets that surrounded you. Maybe it was different if you had a penthouse apartment by the beach, where you could admire the sweeping panorama of the storm over the ocean, but where he lived...
He turned the collar of his coat up in a vain attempt to keep the rain from running down his neck. His shoes were already full of water, and he grimaced as he splashed his way through yet another puddle. He was picking his way through the back streets, and they were less than well-paved. There was a definite odor of garbage and worse things that the warm, muggy air was making more noticeable than usual. As he walked, he could see the shadowy shapes of people looking at him from around corners and through dirty windows, sizing him up, and deciding they would really rather not tangle with a man like him in weather like this. He'd already earned his reputation here. They knew picking a fight with him was liable to lead to them not only getting soaked but getting a few fractures into the bargain.
He reached the far end of the alley he'd been crossing and was immediately struck by a gust of rain-soaked wind. He spluttered, wiping water from his eyes. A car rolled past him, throwing up a plume of oily water.
"Screw this," he muttered, trying in vain to wring water out of his sodden jeans. "I'm taking the bus."
He altered his course, making for the nearest bus shelter. There should be one just a couple of blocks up and around a corner. He didn't often use the bus, since there weren't many places he needed to go that he couldn't reach on his own two feet, but in weather like this, he was willing to shell out the cash.
As he approached the bus stop, he realized that he wasn't the only one crazy enough to be out in weather like this. There was a young woman sitting on the bench already, and he squinted through the rain, trying to work out if it was his imagination making him think there was something familiar about that half-seen profile.
Then the rain slacked off for a second or two, and familiarity solidified into recognition.
"Anzu! What are you doing here?"
She flashed him an impish smile. "Waiting for the bus."
"Well, yeah, I figured that," he said. "I mean, why are you waiting for the bus here right now?"
"I was out for a walk," she said. "It seemed like a good day for it."
Honda gave a significant look at the pouring rain. "Yeah, I see."
"It wasn't raining when I left," she said with dignity. "Besides, I like walking in the rain... in moderation. Anyway, why are you out in the rain?"
"My mom sent me to pick up some stuff for her," he said. "She said I was rotting my brain staying inside playing video games all day."
"Well, maybe you were," she teased.
He stuck his tongue out at her. "Anyway, I'm going to the bookstore. Were you going somewhere particular, or...?"
"I could go to the bookstore," she said. "I mean, if you don't mind company."
"Nah, I don't mind. That'd be great."
He sat down on the bench next to her. It was good to be out of the rain, even if it was still dripping off his clothes and puddling at his feet. The world felt very small and dark, with the rain hemming them in on all sides. From time to time, a vehicle would swish by, spraying them with a fine mist. It should have felt utterly dismal, and yet he couldn't help but notice that the warm damp air that had so effectively carried the scents of garbage and tar seemed to be even better at enhancing her perfume.
The bus was chilly. It was summer, and the air-conditioner had been going full-blast to counteract the heat of the day and the press of many bodies. In her wet clothes, Anzu shivered.
Without being asked, Honda slid out of his jacket and offered it to her. She smiled at him. From beneath his rough exterior, these occasional flashes of gallantry always came as a pleasant surprise, like bright fish surfacing in a dark pond.
"You don't have to do that," she said.
"I'm dressed warmer than you are," he answered with a shrug.
That was a lie. He was wearing a long-sleeved shirt, but the material was thin, and mostly still damp from the rain. It clung and slid against his skin when he moved.
There was a seat near the back of the bus that was still empty, and he made a lunge for it before anyone else could snag it, standing guard until she caught up to him. He let her have the window seat, which she appreciated. She liked to watch the world go by while she rode, and he made an effective shield from the interference of other passengers. He had a very comforting presence, really. The alertness of his posture and keenness of his gaze made him rather like having her own personal bodyguard. It occured to her, as the bus began to move, that she and Honda seemed to end up side by side together a lot - not by choice so much as by way of mutual interests. She was Yugi's oldest friend, and he was Jonouchi's oldest friend, and Yugi and Jonouchi went nearly everywhere together. It was only natural that when the two of them were on the dueling field, it was Anzu and Honda who made up the cheering section. She more or less had to become friends with him, simply by dint of shared experience, but it occurred to her now that they had never really gone out to do things together, just the two of them. Doing so now felt a little like getting away with something - as if they'd slipped away from their chaperones. She smiled and snuggled more deeply into his jacket, feeling daring and adventurous.
"Hey," she said, "after we've picked up your books, do you want to get a cup of coffee or something?"
Surprise flashed across Honda's face, followed closely by a smile. "Sure! Sure, I'd like that."
She smiled back at him. The bus continued lurching along in its own dance, making a stately pavane around the city, pausing now and then to change partners. It was nice to know that for a little while, anyway, she had a partner too.
The bus was enough to remind Honda of why he rarely took busses anywhere. The faux- leather seats were cracked and fraying, and there was trash and unidentifiable grime lurking in the crevices along the walkway and against the walls. There was a general scent of damp bodies, not all of them clean, and lingering overtones of stale cigarette smoke and cheap perfume. Definitely better to walk if you could.
On the other hand, if he had not decided to ride the bus, he would not have run into Anzu, and she probably wouldn't have invited him for coffee, and that would have been a sad loss. It wasn't every day an attractive woman asked him to go anywhere with her for any reason. Not that this was, you know, a date. Anzu was his friend, and anyway, he was pretty sure she had a thing for Yugi. Still, he wasn't about to turn her down. She might not have had Shizuka's ethereal loveliness, but she still had a certain appeal of her own. She wasn't some delicate princess, but she looked wholesome and healthy - she positively glowed with a vibrancy that made it easy to get caught up in watching her. Besides, she was always good company. If nothing else, he would get a cup of coffee out of it, which was no bad thing on a wet day like today.
One or two other men on the bus were giving him looks that suggested envy. He glared at them, warning them not to try anything. Not that he was planning to pick a fight over her - if anything, she was more likely to take offence and start showing off how hard she could kick with those dancer's legs of hers. It was just that they didn't know that, and he didn't really want to see something get started if he could prevent it. He continued glaring until they finally gave it up as a lost cause and turned their attentions elsewhere.
Anzu didn't seem to have noticed. She was looking out the window. He wondered what she was seeing that was worth looking at. All he could see was rain and mist, street lights turned on in the middle of the day, and people hurrying to get elsewhere. He didn't see anything so fascinating about it.
She glanced up and saw him looking at her, and he quickly looked away. She laughed. Quickly, she breathed on the glass, creating a foggy patch, and drew a happy face with her fingertip. Then she looked back up at him, and he grinned. Leaning in over her shoulder, he breathed on the glass as well, and pressed a handprint there. She copied his movements. The two handprints overlapped a little.
"Hey, look, we're holding hands!" he said, and immediately regretted it. He felt his face burning with embarrassment.
She only laughed. "It kind of looks like we are, doesn't it?"
He relaxed, and decided maybe he hadn't said the wrong thing after all.
The bus sighed to a stop. Anzu almost didn't realize that their stop had arrived until she noticed Honda scrambling to get up. She hastily pulled herself together and followed him. The rain was still coming down steadily, but even without his coat, he stood there in the rain with his hand outstretched, helping her keep her balance on the steep and slippery steps. He looked so somber that she almost laughed. She was utterly sure that if she weren't already wearing his jacket, he would have spread it over the puddles for her. Whatever he thought his role for today was, he was taking it very seriously.
The window of the bookshop was a patch of warm golden light amid the grayness of the rain. Honda hurried ahead of her to get the door, spilling more light and warmth out on the sidewalk. She flashed him a grateful smile as she stepped through the entrance.
The sight of the shop made her smile, too. It was clearly a very old shop, with a floor of creaking wooden boards. Channels between the shelves showed where generations of feet had worn grooves into the old wood. The air smelled of dust, old leather, crumbling paper, and secrets.
"I never knew about this place," she said.
Honda grinned and rubbed the back of his neck, looking unsure as to whether that was a compliment or a criticism. "My parents are friends with the guy who runs the place. It's actually pretty cool, if you like old books. And they're pretty good about ordering stuff for you if you ask."
She laughed. "Don't apologize! I think it's wonderful."
"Really? Thanks! I mean..." He stumbled and laughed. "Aw, you know. C'mon, let's look around a little."
He ducked out of sight behind a shelf. She smiled and shook her head. Sometimes she just didn't understand boys at all.
She browsed the shelves for a while. The selection is wonderfully eclectic, with shiny new paperbacks sitting sandwiched between ancient clothbound hardcovers with missing dust jackets and cracking spines. It was hard to imagine opening one of them. The suggestion of potential, the feeling that these books could contain anything, was too tantalizing to destroy by opening one of these covers. Far better to just lose herself among the shelves and imagine the stories they must hold.
But by the time she found Honda again, she had given in to temptation enough to take a single book from one of the shelves, one so glossy and new that she felt it wouldn't spoil anything by its absence. When she encountered Honda, he was also holding a book and staring into it with a look of keen interest mixed with guilty fascination. It was pale pink, she noticed, with a border of twining roses. She smiled.
"Find something interesting?" she asked.
He jumped and fumbled, nearly dropping the book. His face turned almost as pink as the cover of the book.
"Just looking," he mumbled.
He started to put the book back on its shelf, but Anzu stopped him with a gentle hand on his shoulder.
"Want to trade?" she asked. "I'll pay for yours if you'll pay for mine."
She held up her book. There was a space ship in the background, and a group of people on the front holding ray guns. Honda grinned.
"Good deal," he said.
They traded books and conspirational smiles. Now they had a secret to share, just between the two of them.
They paid for the books, and Honda picked up his parcel. Then they hurried out of the shop, laughing, and stopped just beneath the awning over the door. Rain rolled down it to make tiny waterfalls all around them. Honda smiled as he fished around in the plastic THANK YOU FOR SHOPPING bag and took out the book.
"Got a present for you," he sayid.
He held it out for her, grinning foolishly. She feigned surprise.
"For me? You shouldn't have," she said. "How can I ever repay you? Oh, wait, I think I know..."
She handed him the book with the roses. Both of them were laughing, now. Everything else around them was cold, dark, and damp, but here in this place they had created a little refuge of warmth and laughter. For a moment, she met his eyes. They crinkled appealingly at the corners when he laughs, and shone with honest happiness. She found herself wondering if she'd ever actually looked into his eyes before. She was sure she must have, after they had been through so much together, but she couldn't recall ever seeing what she was seeing just then. She want ed to ask him what he was feeling what made things change, but she couldn't find the words, and wasn't sure what she wanted the answer to be anyway, so was the one who finally spoke.
"So... coffee now?" he asked.
"Sure," she says.
She smiled, but somehow, she couldn't help feeling a little disappointed.
Predictably, the nearest coffee shop wasn't anywhere near a bus stop. They ended up having to walk - or, more accurately, to run, splashing down the wet sidewalks from one protective awning to the next. Honda was starting to feel like he'd never get dry again.
"Stupid rain," he muttered, trying in vain to get the water out of his hair.
"I don't know, I sort of like it," Anzu admitted.
Honda tried his best to reorganize his thoughts. He didn't want to disagree with Anzu. He just wasn't seeing what was so good about getting repeatedly drenched.
"If you say so?" he offered.
She laughed. "You don't have to sound so enthusiastic. I just like rain, that's all. Rain like this, anyway." She smiled, looking a trifle guilty. "When I was young, I used to get into a lot of trouble with my parents for going out in it without an umbrella or anything."
"You wanted to play in the rain?" he replied.
She shook her head. "No. I wanted to dance in it."
Honda gave that answer some weighty consideration. Then he looked around, making enough of a show of it that he was sure Anzu could tell what he was doing. There weren't a lot of people left. Evening was fast approaching, and thanks to the rain it was even darker than usual. The street lights were already coming on. Several of the businesses had already closed up for the day, and the few people left on the sidewalk appeared to be in a hurry to get somewhere else. They walked quickly with their heads down, hunched into their raincoats or with their umbrellas pulled closely over them like turtle shells.
"I don't think anyone's watching you," he said. "You want to give it a try, now's the time."
She gave him a long measuring look, as though suspecting him of pulling her leg. He put a hand over his heart.
"I won't tease you. Scout's honor," he assured her. "I'll applaud and everything, if you want."
Anzu studied him a moment longer, then nodded. "All right."
Honda grinned. He struck a pose, flinging out his arms and declaring to the empty street, "Ladies and gentleman, I give you Mazaki Anzu, performing her famous rain dance!"
He applauded wildly. Anzu gave him gave him a look that said she didn't entirely appreciate his clowning, but she took a few steps away to give herself some room to move. He watched her pause, close her eyes, and take a deep breath. He had the sudden sense of her gathering energy, drawing it out of the earth and the wind and the rain and taking it into herself. Then, without any warning, she went from being perfectly still to becoming pure motion.
If anyone had ever asked him, he would have said that he didn't know much about dancing. He'd never really gotten the hang of it, himself. He couldn't have told a waltz from a fox trot if his life depended on it, and his knowledge of ballet was limited to a few vague notions that people spent a lot of time leaping about in frilly skirts. He couldn't have said exactly what she was doing now, only that she was dancing.
Only... there had to be more to it than that. It had to be some kind of magic, the way she moved. It transformed the grungy streets into a stage, the sheets of rain into silver curtains, the street lights into spotlights. The longer he watched, the more he realized that there was a rhythm to her movements, and that he could hear it. It was the sound of the wind and the rain, the passing cars and the footfalls of pedestrians. All of it had been there all day, but he hadn't seen the stage or heard the music until Anzu had put it into a dance.
She gave a final leap, let herself fall gracefully back to earth, and then paused there for a moment. When she straightened again, it was clear that the dance was over. She let herself relax, watching him inquisitively. It took him a moment to realize that she was waiting for some kind of response. The thought that she'd been dancing for his enjoyment made him feel suddenly warm.
"Wow," he managed. "That was..."
He ran out of words. How was he supposed to tell her that for a few minutes, at least, she'd elevated the whole gray, wet, dirty city into something beautiful? He really wasn't good at that sort of thing.
Rain had saturated her clothes and slicked down her hair. A single raindrop clung to her chin. Without thinking about it, he reached out to brush it away.
It must have been the dancing that did it. She'd been hearing the music all day, and now at last she's had her chance to do what it's been telling her to do, and it feels wonderful. It's always that way, when she dances - it makes her feel as though she can do anything. Far from feeling tired by her efforts, she felt alive with energy. Her heart was racing.
And Honda was touching her face with his hand. It felt good. He had warm, strong, capable hands, slightly work-roughened, but made slick by rain, and their touch was gentle on her skin. Without meaning to, without thinking about it, she leaned into the touch, brought her body a little closer to his.
She was not surprised at all when he kissed her.
If she had expected anything, she would have expected that he'd be rough and forceful, but he wasn't. He was gentle, almost shy, a bit uncertain - a little as if he hadn't done this very often, and a little as if she was something so marvelous that he was afraid to sully her with his coarse touch. She pressed a little closer to him, slipping her arms loosely around his neck, and he draped his carefully around her waist. She could feel the warmth of his body, the warmth of his lips, the warmth of the rain trickling down their faces, and from somewhere inside herself, she felt another warmth that was harder to put a name to. It occured to her that the graffiti at the bus stop got it wrong. Love didn't have to last forever to be true. It could last for an afternoon, or a bus ride, or the length of a single kiss. All it took to be true was to be sincere while it lasted.
Then suddenly they were pulling away from each other and laughing.
"Why are we laughing?" he asked.
"Because it's funny," she said.
It was hard to explain what she meant, but that didn't matter. She was pretty sure he already knew. This wasn't some romantic movie, and they weren't a pair of perfect lovers having their dramatic moment of confession in a romantically-timed rainstorm. He was no sort of prince charming, and she was hardly the perfect flaxen-haired princess that a prince charming would rescue. They were just two friends who always seemed to be thrown together by circumstances they didn't quite plan on, and this was only a summer rain like any other. They were just getting thrown together by circumstances again. The only difference was that this time, they had taken matters into their own hands and chosen to get a little closer than usual.
"So," she said, "ready for that coffee now?"
"Sure," he said. He was grinning, his expression the one of mixed relief and triumph that only came from getting away with something risky. "Yeah, that sounds great."
She smiled back at him. "Well, what are we standing around in the rain for? Come on!"
She took his hand, and he closed it around hers. It was a reassuring feeling, to know they could still be friends. It was reassuring enough to make her think that maybe she could risk something that lasted beyond a wet gray afternoon.
They reached the coffee shop door at a run, dripping and laughing. Honda pushed the door open for her, and together they stepped through it and left the rain behind.