Concerning the Rain

She was in the dream again, and the setting sun colored the waters of the San Marco basin pink and purple and all in between. She ascended the same steps that Alicia had taken long ago and turned around. On the water before her, the white gondola bobbed gently as its lone passenger bowed.

"Thank you for all your hard work," the young woman said, her voice husky. Though she straightened, she kept her face averted, so that all Akari saw was the green hair.

Akari bowed in return and, mind lit by the twilight of half wakefulness, knew that the tears welling in her eyes were real. She felt their warmth as they trickled down her cheeks, felt her mouth open as she sobbed. But the knowledge didn't give her the power to cast off slumber; as a performer of the stage is bound to perform to the play's end, so did she act, turning away and walking down the pier, amidst the cheers and clapping of smiling onlookers, searching for someone. She found the faces of her friends in the crowd a comforting sight as her steps carried her away from her former life—Al and Aika, Woody and Alice, Alicia and her husband, each holding on to one of their children. Grandma and Antonio, the glassblowing apprentice and his master, they were there as well.

But he was not there. It took a long time for Akari to reach the end of the quay, and by that time she had grown somewhat disappointed. Maybe he was in the crowd and she just couldn't see him. She paused momentarily before stepping onto the concrete dock, glancing down at the ground and gathering herself to smile and wave at her well-wishers and the members of the Gondola Association in their somber, dark-hued clothing.

When she looked up, she found the Piazetta utterly deserted, the winged lion and the crocodile on their columns reigning over her silent, empty surroundings. Startled, she looked around and confirmed her solitude; when she looked back, she saw that the gondola was also gone, and that beneath the dark sky the water was as smooth and still as blue glass.

-oOo-

Opening her eyes, Akari found herself looking out the bedside window. The first flush of dawn was creeping into the sky, and somewhere outside a sparrow chirped. Wiping the wetness from her cheeks, she turned to her left. There, in a silver-gilt frame on her nightstand, was a picture of Akatsuki and herself, taken at the surprise party her friends had arranged for her on first anniversary as a Prima. Afterwards he had taken her to dinner at a place called The Blue Glass on St. Erasmus. To this day, he still insisted it was just part of the celebration and nothing more—but she had found out more when Aika accidentally remarked afterward that he had gone to her for help in planning the evening.

"You?" Akari had laughed at the time. They were sitting at a table outside the Caffe Laveno, beside a white-canopied bandstand that, for the moment, was empty. "He went to you for help?"

"Well, what can I say? Maybe my charm and wit convinced him I was the right person to talk to." Aika puffed her coiffure with a hand.

"Or maybe there was no one else he could ask," suggested Alice, deadpan, from beside Aika.

Akari giggled as Aika cast dagger looks at Alice. The latter seemed mildly amused and waved a hand, forestalling an outburst.

"I'm sure Akatsuki was smart enough to realize that in a case like this a woman would be a better person to ask than a man. So he had to approach either you or me sometime, since we know Senior Akari well. He probably figured you were a better source of information."

Mollified, Aika subsided and they sipped their drinks. Akari called on a waiter to order another special milk latte for President Aria. She then turned to Aika and wagged a finger.

"For shame, Aika. Conspiring against me."

"Hah! Turnabout's fair play, last I heard. I know Al asked you some questions about me before, don't deny it."

"I won't. But I thought you were only friends." Akari grinned, remembering the visit to a store that specialized in mounting photographs and a sweet, sweet picture of Aika hugging Al just outside a Gnome restaurant.

"Did I say anything to suggest otherwise?" Aika retorted, raising a fine brow as she looked sidelong at Akari, who in turn kept smiling. Both knew the Himeya heir was fooling no one, but why embarrass her with the truth when it was evident enough?

"We all ought to be in the same company, seeing how beneficial we are for each other."

"They'd never let us," Aika said in a low voice, sidling over to Akari.

"Eh? Why not?"

Aika's expression was conspiratorial and serious. "'Cause they know none of the other Primas would stand a chance. We'd totally own Neo-Venezia." Akari looked nonplussed at her, and she broke out into a wide grin.

"Aika!"

"It must be the sugar," said Alice.

"It must be," Akari agreed, smiling. "So thank you."

"Tsk! In truth, it would be that. But we're older now." Aika contemplated the dark liquid in her demitasse. "People change. The roads we were on met once, and now they run side by side. Who knows where they'll—argh!" She covered her face with a hand.

"What's wrong?" asked Alice, half rising from her seat.

"You made me say something embarrassing!"

Akari and Alice laughed.

The waiter returned with President Aria's latte, which the strange-eyed cat eagerly accepted. "I propose a toast, then," declared Alice, raising her cup.

The two other Primas held their own drinks. "To what?" asked Aika.

"To the ones whose roads run side by side. To friendship, and the world never ending!"

Aika chortled and Akari tittered, but they raised their cups all the same. "To friendship!" they chorused. "And the world never ending!"

"Puinyu!"

-oOo-

Akari sat up, lingered for a while at the window, scattering tidbits for the sparrow which had taken up residence in a nook under the eaves. She took a shower and dressed. Breakfast was a cup of tea and two slabs of bread slathered with orange marmalade. She decided on a scarf—it was beginning to get nippy in the mornings, though winter was still two Manhome months away.

She almost always walked to Aria Company. At this time she loved the quiet of the morning, the pit-pat of her shoes on the calle, the city beginning to bustle as the sky changed color from deep purple to yellow to blue. Back on Manhome she had often imagined what the sky on Aqua looked like, and now she knew. It was an ever-changing jewel, full of colors too brilliant for any image to capture, laden with feelings too evanescent for any record to contain.

Even the gray of a rainy heaven was something to be appreciated, she thought as she opened the front door and stepped into the morning light. It made the flowers glow all the more brightly. Rain-wet leaves glistened with a newness that made the world feel young and eager to burst into life. For centuries the rain had brought people together in Manhome, in shops and houses and under umbrellas, and would conceivably continue to do so, even here on another planet. And were it not for the rain, and she and Akatsuki getting caught out in the open in the Giardini Pubblici . . . .

People change, Aika had said.

-oOo-

"Morning, Ai dearest."

"Morning." Up and down went the skillet in the hand. "Hope you like pancakes."

"So long as there's butter, cream, and strawberry." Akari took the little bowls of said ingredients from the counter and carried them to the dining table. "I tried peanut butter and chocolate once, but I think that's more of a dessert dish than something for breakfast."

"Peanut butter and chocolate on pancakes? I've never thought of that."

"When I mentioned that to Aika, she looked at me like I had a screw loose, so I kept it to myself."

Ai shrugged. "I honestly don't understand," she remarked as she slid the finished pancake onto a growing pile on a serving plate. "If you think about it, a pancake's not much more than a round of bread."

"People have been serving griddle cakes of one kind or another since time immemorial," said Akari as she stood beside Ai. "It's the tradition of the thing, I suppose. Woah, that should be enough for us, don't you think?" She gestured at the tall stack on the plate.

"Ah." Ai cast a momentary look back. "He said he wanted a little more than usual. Right there, on his desk, all typed out."

Akari smiled. "Really? That I've got to see."

The cooking finished, Ai and Akari called President Aria, who came bounding down from Ai's room. Akari seated him as Ai poured the smiling-face kettle, and everyone sat down and ate.

"Busy day today in school," said the Pair as she wolfed down her breakfast. "I might be back a little late. Research at the library."

"Okay, then. Got your key?"

Ai nodded and took a sip of barley tea, then stuck her tongue out as she scalded herself. "Eeewch!"

"Careful." Akari waited as Ai doused her tongue with a glass of cool milk. "Speaking of ice-cold, it's getting a bit frosty, isn't it?"

"I noticed."

"We have two customers this afternoon. I suppose I could clean out the fireplace and make sure we have enough firewood afterwards."

"Oh, would you?"

"No problem." Akari winked at her young charge. "Leave it to me."

-oOo-

Ai left soon afterward, taking President Aria with her on a morning walk that they felt would do the both of them good. Akari took their customers out and returned by three. She was filling in some entries in their records when a shadow fell upon the table. The Aquamarine looked up.

A tall man with black hair tied up in a ponytail stood in front of the counter, gazing quietly at her.

"Yo."

Akari smiled. "Well, this is unexpected. Come in, Mr. Salamander," she said. "Like some hot coffee?"

"No thanks, just had some," Akatsuki Izumo replied, bowing slightly. He came in by the side door and approached the desk. "What's that you're doing?"

"Just updating the schedule." Akari straightened and stretched. "Speaking of which, I promised Ai I'd clean out the fireplace and get wood."

"I'll help."

Akari looked up at him. "You didn't come down from your lair to get all sooty, did you?"

"Of course not." Akatsuki placed both hands on the table and leaned forward. "But I'll never forgive you if you smudge your uniform, since it represents Aria Company, Alicia's keepsake."

"Don't worry, I'm an expert at keeping it clean. For the company's sake, of course."

Akatsuki smiled. "Of course."

-oOo-

Two hours later, Akari stood on the stern of a black gondola, sculling wordlessly towards the mainland. Akatsuki sat on the sental, arms crossed, a scowl on his face.

"I can't believe you're still mad," he said without looking at her.

"I'm not angry."

"Yes you are. You can't hide it from me, Momiko."

"Well, I can't help it. I wish you'd listen to me when I say I'll do something myself."

"But it's such a little thing!" Akatsuki threw his hands up in the air in frustration. "I'm sorry, okay? I-I just can't stand being on the sidelines."

"Just because you think it's a little thing doesn't mean it's a little thing for somebody else. And anyway," said Akari in a conciliatory way, "if I were really mad at you, I wouldn't have brought you with me. Thanks for helping me with the fireplace."

Maybe he was being a little bullheaded, Akatsuki thought. If there was one thing he had noticed about Akari after Alicia had left Aria Company, it was her desire to be independent in many things. It was as if she had something to prove.

Akatsuki then thought of Aria Company and his own career. He was just a Salamander among others, but Akari was the only Prima to follow in Alicia's footsteps; her position was more difficult than his. Chastened by the realization, he leaned back on the seat. "You know," he said after a few minutes of listening to the steady sound of Akari's rowing and watching the forested mainland getting nearer, "this is the first time I've gone gathering firewood with you."

"Huh? It is, isn't it?"

A few minutes later found them tying up at an old wooden pier. They got off, Akatsuki carrying a large straw basket, and Akari led them up the slope, shaded by the canopies of many trees.

"Just pick out any nice-sized branches on the ground," Akari instructed. "Try to pick the ones that are dry." A minute later she had gathered a load in her arms and heard the huffing sound of Akatsuki's voice.

"How's . . . this?"

Akari turned. "That's too large. It's probably still wet inside." She chuckled.

Akatsuki woofed as he let go of the tree limb. "W-what's so funny?" he asked as he stood up, smiling himself.

"I'm sorry," Akari said. "Your face . . . ."

"W-what? Do I have a smudge on it or something?"

His increasing consternation only served to change her chuckle into a laugh. "Sorry, sorry. You just looked so funny carrying that log, somehow . . . ." She wiped her eye.

Now a little needs to be said about Akatsuki. When he begrudgingly applied for advice to his least favorite of the three Primas, he nevertheless listened carefully to her. It was a trying task—the first thing the Himeya scion did was laugh in his face (startling the other customers of the little pastry shop they were in) and ask, "Why is pleasing Akari so important to you, Pony-boy? You're starting to like her, hmm?"

That naturally precipitated a spat, but Akatsuki humbled himself and said, "I must look after her. It's because of Aria Company, of course—a valuable and much-loved part of Neo-Venezia. And seeing as she doesn't seem to have—" he cleared his throat "—much in the way of male friends, I thought getting along with her would be the best way to provide assistance. Don't you think so?"

Aika, still skeptical, said that he should be straightforward about himself. There was nothing worse, she said, than a dishonest person. Akatsuki agreed inwardly and kept her words in mind; what harm could be there in voicing out the truth? This seemed an opportune time to practice such a course of action, because Momiko did look cute smiling the way she did.

So he said, "You have a nice smile, Momiko. Just like the time when we were had to take shelter in that gazebo in the Public Gardens—"

It baffled him mightily when the Aquamarine's smile faded. She stared at him, then whirled around with her load of kindling and marched back down to the gondola.

He hurried after her, but the branches kept falling out of the straw basket he bore and he had to stop to pick them up. By the time he got to the landing, Akari had deposited her bundle inside the gondola and was waiting for him on the stern, sweep in hand.

"I think we've got enough," she said brightly, "don't you? We should head back before it gets dark."

"Akari."

"Mmm?"

"Come down, please." Akatsuki extended his hand. "Undine feel most secure on the water, because they get their power from it. I'm just an Ukijima man unused to tree roots and hills." Quietly he added, "I'd consider it a great favor if you'd talk to me here, on solid ground."

With great reluctance Akari laid her sweep down and stepped off the boat. She slowly put her hand in Akatsuki's, her eyes not leaving his as he led her off the creaking wood and up the hillside a bit, underneath the shade of a birch.

"Akari—" Akatsuki gulped, seeing the expression on her face mirroring the turmoil in his heart. "Akari, I wish you'd tell me what's wrong. Ever since that day in the Public Gardens, you . . . you act this way. Like you're afraid of me or something. Where's the Momiko I knew before then, the carefree one who'd run around like a child, amazed at everything?"

"She's right in front of you, Akatsuki," the Aquamarine replied, her face reddening. "She's confused. She's hoping you'd understand her situation. She wants to tell you so much but can't because she isn't sure she'd be able to say the right thing." A pair of pleading eyes looked at him. "Please, Akatsuki . . . please don't say anything that I might hold in my heart."

It was a long while before Akatsuki could muster the will to reply. "I do understand. I guess I do. I'm sorry if she felt like I was pressuring her into something—but she does have a nice smile."

The expression on her face, parts relief and sadness, threatened to overwhelm his reserve.

"I'm sorry, Akari."

"For what?"

"Causing you such unhappiness."

"It's okay. I'm doing the same thing to you, aren't I? I apologize for that."

"Then we can call it even?"

Akari looked thoughtful, then gave a subdued smile. "I suppose."

They shook hands on it, falling silent as they loaded the remaining firewood into the gondola. Akatsuki insisted on checking the whole caboodle for termites, causing Akari to chuckle at him.

"I can assure you, Mr. Salamander, that if shipworms have a hard time munching on our gondolas, termites should be no problem at all."

Akatsuki favored her with his customary scowl and shouldered the last bundle into the boat. Attempting to board the gondola with a rough step expressing his displeasure, he nearly fell overboard when it swayed under him. Flailing his arms, he plopped down onto the sental in an undignified heap.

"Well, what're you waiting for?" he snapped at Akari, who still stood looking at him from the pier, trying unsuccessfully to stifle her giggles with both hands. "Let's go, let's go! Who knows, you might find something interesting and we'll take forever getting back and I'll miss the cable car."

"Yes, sir, Mr. Salamander!" Akari said, saluting him. She walked up to the gondola and took up her sweep, untying the craft as did so. "A journey of a million miles begins with a single step," she quoted, stepping on board with a dainty hop. "Ours begins now."

She deftly turned the gondola around and began to make for the open water of the lagoon. Now and then a breeze tickled her cheeks and played with her hair.

"This is a nice place for relaxing," remarked Akatsuki, without looking back at her.

"Think so?"

"Yeah, sometimes in Ukijima it gets so busy I feel worn out at the end of the day." He breathed in deeply. "You don't get smells like these up there."

"Hmm. Maybe one day I'll take you to a place Alicia brought me to. We could have a picnic there, if you like."

He twisted around. "Where?"

She winked. "It's a secret."

"I might have known."

As he turned away, Akari looked down at him. The expanse of Neo-Venezia's lagoon spread before them; to the west, a tiny vaporetti was churning towards the mainland, leaving wakes on the green water. It gave two short blasts of its horn, and Akari waved. "Hi!"

Akatsuki sniffed. "They can't even hear you."

"Does it matter?"

"Oh, you never change."

"Well . . . I wouldn't know about that. People change all the time. I had the courage to take a long journey on my own, to come here. You learned how to command people, or in Aika's words, to be a slave driver."

"Hey! Don't go ruining my good mood by mentioning that monster girl."

Akari chuckled. "Now I wonder if I could ever do what I did again. The courage of the clueless, maybe. But I had a dream. Something I wanted. Sometimes, that will carry you farther than you might think."

"Say not 'the clueless,' Momiko," rejoined the Salamander without turning. "'The innocent' would be a better thing to call it. Were you truly witless, do you think Alicia would have picked you, out of all people, to succeed her? She saw something in you."

Akari remained quiet as she let his words sink in. "Can I ask you something personal?"

Akatsuki shrugged his shoulders, which she took as acquiescence.

"What if you had found out earlier than you did that Miss Alicia was about to get married? Would you have had the courage to pursue her still?"

"Well . . . it depends. Before . . . I would've said yes. But now . . . if she was happy with him, I guess . . . I'd be happy too. I mean, why would I go and spoil her happiness?"

"Love can be a powerful and selfish thing."

"I know that. Don't I know it." Something in Akatsuki's voice caught Akari's attention. Anger? Sadness? Disappointment? Or all three?

"You were crying at her retirement and at her wedding."

"What is this, an inquisition?" the long-haired man burst out, turning towards her. "Who wouldn't? It was Alicia. You were crying too, if I remember correctly."

"Oh, yeah."

"Tsk. Like Gachapen said, you space out too much."

Akari smiled sheepishly. "It isn't like I can do much about that."

"I envy you sometimes. I enter a room, and it's just a room. You'd find a dozen things to be amazed about it in five minutes flat, I bet."

The Aquamarine let a minute pass without replying. "Am I that terrible?" she then asked quietly.

"What? I didn't mean it that way." Akatsuki flushed. "You sure make a guy think carefully about his choice of words." He happened to glance at the receding shoreline. "Hey, what's that?"

"What?" Akari turned to follow his gaze.

"I thought I saw someone standing near that hill." He leaned over and squinted.

"Where?"

Akatsuki pointed. "There." He squinted. "No, it's gone now."

"It must be one of the local fishermen," said Akari. "Not many live near this part of the mainland. Everyone wants to be in Neo-Venezia, where the action is."

"Maybe my eyes are playing tricks. It must be the light. Or it might be a ghost."

"Hey, don't say that!" Akari protested.

"What's this? Don't tell me you're afraid of old wives' tales."

"There's more truth to them than you know, Akatsuki."

"What are you talking about?" The Salamander continued to smile, but he was a bit unnerved by Akari's apparent sincerity.

"There's Casanova in the Carnevale."

"Played by actors."

"The seven wonders of Neo-Venezia."

"A story made up by those with nothing better to do." Akatsuki laughed heartily. "And anyway, we're on the water."

"Who says there aren't any ghosts in the water?" Akari gave one long slow, smooth pull of the sweep, and it cut through the water with a heavy, swishing, dripping sound. "Remember all the people who died when the Black Plague came to Venice on Manhome. Do you know what happened?"

Akatsuki nodded. "Some of the sick were on ships, and when they died they pitched the bodies into the water because the cemeteries were full and there was no one to bury them anyway . . . ."

Akatsuki looked up at Akari and found her gazing out at the lagoon. Her hair and beret cast shadows on her face. She had stopped sculling.

"There were accidents too. Back on Manhome, a vaporetto once collided with two gondolas in a fog, sinking them. All the people were rescued, save for a little girl." She turned to him, eyes distant and unfocused, dark green in the light reflected off the water. "Her sister was approached by her ghost in a dream, telling her where her clothes were. They found them, but never found the little girl herself."

Akatsuki knew what she would say next but couldn't help staring at her, waiting like a helpless penitent for the dirge of inevitable doom.

"People tell me that sometimes a coffin can be seen floating in the water between San Michele and Murano, lit by candles so that passing ships won't hit it . . . ."

"Alright, you've made your point!" Throwing up his hands, Akatsuki surrendered. He felt exposed under the cloudy sky, alone and vulnerable, expecting skeletal arms to suddenly reach out of the water and drag him down into the murky depths. And Akari, she wouldn't help him, would she? he thought crazily. She would stand there, beautiful and queenly and immobile, il gondoliera macabra, and watch as he struggled, listen as he screamed—

Then he found her looking at him with a small smile. "Gotcha."

"Momiko . . . ." he began peevishly.

"That was on Manhome, remember? Not here. You're safe with me. Anyway, don't dismiss those bedtime stories out of hand," The Aquamarine shook her head. "I believe all stories started out from some grain of truth." Saying nothing more, she continued on towards the city.

-oOo-

"I had a dream this morning," the woman with the pink hair said as they neared the northern end of the Grand Canal.

"About what?"

"My retirement." Akari told the black-haired man about it, leaving out the part about her searching for him among the crowd.

"And how does that make you feel?"

"Scared, because I don't know what it means."

"I don't think you'll have to worry about that for a long time. Right?"

"Huh? Oh, right. Of course. Anyway, not all undine have that kind of a send-off."

"Ah, but not all undine are from Aria Company." Akatsuki raised a finger, wagging it. "Have a little more faith in yourself, Momiko."

Akari smiled in thanks. "I remember when Miss Athena formally retired, it was just a few of us inside the Procuratie Nuove." The gray-walled building with its many columns and figures formed one side of St. Mark's Square. "A lot more came to her 'Farewell Concert' than to that."

"Just like they swarmed her performances last month, eh? Good thing we got tickets, or we would've had to wait until the last shows."

"Yeah."

"How is Alice, by the way?"

"Oh, she's really happy her surprise worked on Miss Athena, even though she lost her voice afterward."

"Yeah, poor girl. It was a very busy time for all of us. I almost missed the show. Well, how is she now?"

"She's got her voice back, though she's stopped trying to sing. I think she's getting ready to go with Miss Athena over to the other side of Aqua for a ski vacation."

"You mean Olympia?"

Akari cocked an eyebrow. "How do you know?"

"Where else would you find a ski resort on a planet like this? You're not joining her?"

Shaking her head, Akari replied in the negative. "I'm afraid it's business before pleasure."

"Aria Company won't collapse if you take a small trip, I'm sure. You've never once taken a vacation since Alicia left. It'd do you good."

"I'll keep that in mind."

-oOo-

"Well, we're coming near San Marco Square. Do you want me to let you off here?"

"No, Aria Company, please. We've still to offload the firewood." He tapped at the gondola's burden with his right foot.

"You're too kind. I can do it myself, you know." Akari looked up at Ukijima. "You might not make the last ride back home today."

"I'll live. Dumb brother of mine isn't in town, but at least he gave me the keys to his apartment."

They rounded the bustling Piazza, watching the people going about their business. All sorts of watercraft plied the lagoon, coming and going, powered by oar or sail or motor. A couple of undine waved at them; Akari returned the gesture, smiling each time.

"It's funny how you know more people than I do," Akatsuki remarked, quiet and reflective. "And yet I've lived here all my life."

"You said yourself you rarely come down here," Akari replied. "And I bet there are tons of people up there in Ukijima I don't know—the people you work with, your friends, your family."

Akatsuki smiled, looking back at her. "That's what I like about you."

"What?"

Akatsuki just kept smiling.

"Whaaat?"

"Let it be my secret, Momiko. A man has his own secrets, just as a woman does." Even though the Aquamarine harried him about it all the way to Aria Company, he refused to speak more about the matter.

-oOo-

The firewood was stacked, and they had a simple vegetable stew for dinner. The four of them—Akari, Akatsuki, Ai, and President Aria—talked past sundown and into Deimos-moonrise. Then the Salamander excused himself and placed a call to the floating island from the wall phone. He hung up and turned to the others.

"Guess I have to go now. I have an early start tomorrow."

"Would you like me to take you to your brother's?" offered Akari.

"No, I have to pass by a few places," Akatsuki said. "Besides, I'm sure of the way only from the Piazza. If you dropped me off somewhere, I'd probably get lost."

She walked with him as far as outside the old Metropoli. Other people were also out on the Riva degli Schiavoni, passing them by as they halted on the bridge near the hotel.

"You sure you'll be okay?" Akari asked. "It can get pretty dark away from the tourist areas and the last thing I want to hear tomorrow is you being fished out of a canal."

"Relax." Akatsuki waved her concern away. "I live up there, and falling from the sidewalks there—well, you see what I'm getting at. You'd better go now. Ai is waiting for you."

Akari felt loath to leave, and she was pretty sure why. "You're not going to share that secret with me?"

"No."

"Hohe, suit yourself. Good night." She began to turn away.

"Ah, but tell me one thing."

Akari paused in mid-stride, looking sidelong at him. "What?"

"That day in the gardens . . . would you rather that we . . . had never gotten caught in the rain?"

Akari lifted her head up to the starry heavens and considered. "I'm glad we got caught," she replied, in a voice so low and quick that he barely heard it. In a flurry of white she turned and left him standing on the bridge, looking into the cool night after her.