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HISAO: "Are you sure you want to go?"

NARRATOR: "The weather that has been wonderful for all of June has finally taken a turn for the worse. The leaden clouds drooping over the town look worrisome and the air feels heavy and still, just like before rain. The forecast says there's a 60\% chance of rain this afternoon. Maybe this will mark the beginning of the rainy season."

EMI: "Of course I'm sure! I've been waiting for this all week!"

NARRATOR: "Emi had planned a picnic at some nearby park, with snacks aplenty bought from the convenience store, but with the weather this gloomy, it seems risky."

EMI: "I asked some other people to come too, but they didn't want to go because of the weather. We have to prove them wrong!"

HISAO: "Wrong how?"

EMI: "You know, like how it always rains when you think it won't, and when you think it will, it doesn't? We'll go no matter what, so it's a win-win situation! I've been going without sweets for weeks because of practice for the track meet. But now I can splurge on anything I want. Nothing is going to stop me now!"

HISAO: "I thought you were all about a healthy lifestyle and stuff."

EMI: "Ohoho, Hisao, you understand so little. There's not a single girl on this planet who doesn't love sweets!"

RIN: "I don't like sweets."

EMI: "She doesn't count. Anyway, is this clear?"

HISAO: "Completely. We will go and eat our fill of sweets."

EMI: "Damn straight we will. I'm going to have to work it off later but it's so worth it."

NARRATOR: "Emi seems to be extremely determined about this. She is positively exhilarated, brimming with energy as always, but something seems special today. It looks like she can hardly stop herself from jumping up and down on the spot."

EMI: "Come on!"

NARRATOR: "I grasp the wooden handle of the umbrella I brought and start to follow the two girls, who seem to have no qualms about leaving me behind if I keep daydreaming. My umbrella is really fancy, the old-fashioned kind with a curved handle and a metal spike at the end. It used to belong to my grandfather. It looks like an antique, but it's in really good shape; almost as good as new. It's really big, too. I remember how my grandfather, my grandmother, and I all fit neatly under it when a rainstorm caught us on an afternoon walk years ago, when I was around nine or ten. My grandparents are both gone now, but I still have the umbrella to keep me dry when it rains. We walk along the road leading down from the school towards the convenience store, the clouds casting their dark shadow down on us. The weather seems to be taking a turn for the worse and I am pretty sure I just felt a raindrop on my head."

HISAO: "Didn't you guys think of taking umbrellas? It really looks like it'll rain."

NARRATOR: "Rin looks at her limply hanging sleeves and shrugs her shoulders."

EMI: "I don't have one. Besides, a little rain won't kill us."

NARRATOR: "She pushes her chest out, looking very confident about that."

EMI: "We aren't made of sugar!"

HISAO: "I thought that's exactly what girls were made of, especially considering what you're planning to gorge yourself on today."

NARRATOR: "She just sticks out her tongue in reply. The walk down from the school to the local shopping district is not a long one, but it's not very short, either. It's all downhill so our steps roll easily, but time stretches out nevertheless. The distance is right there, in that gray area where you don't expect the trip to be quickly over with, but you aren't preparing for a long walk, either. Thus, the trip is slightly too long to stay comfortably quiet the whole time, though the girls don't seem to mind. Rin walks calmly ahead, seemingly lost in thought. I'm kind of wary about starting a conversation, since the last time didn't end very well for either of us. I haven't exchanged a single word with her since then. Emi, on the other hand, is way too happy about just walking. She seems to literally jump a little on every step, or skip over cracks, or balance on the edge of the sidewalk. Every now and then she comments on something to which Rin replies in an automatic-sounding, nonsensical way that makes Emi giggle a little. As we reach the bottom of the hill, the first raindrops begin to fall. I feel one hit the top of my head, then two more hit my nose in quick succession. It's not one or two rainclouds any more. The entire sky has turned shadowy gray, billowing rainclouds swirling right on top of us."

EMI: "Oh, shoot. I guess we aren't going to have a picnic then."

HISAO: "What now?"

RIN: "Maybe we could have a rain picnic. A picnic in rain."

EMI: "No, we'd all just catch a cold and I don't like getting me or my snacks wet."

RIN: "I kind of like it. Not the snacks part though."

NARRATOR: "Emi considers our problematic situation for a moment while I open my umbrella and lift it up, trying to hold it so that all three of us get covered."

EMI: "Hey Hisao, have you been to the Shanghai yet?"

HISAO: "Yeah, our class president took me there on my first week."

HISAO: "It's a café somewhere around here, right? I've heard of it."

EMI: "It's a nice place. Let's go there and wait out the rain. If it's just a really quick shower, we can still go for the picnic, and if it gets worse, we'll just order cake there instead."

NARRATOR: "Neither Rin nor I have better ideas, so with Emi taking the lead, we start walking briskly along a side street. The café is only a few blocks away, but even with the umbrella, we can't avoid getting slightly damp. The rain keeps coming down harder and harder. Raindrops leave tiny dots on the black asphalt road, which then combine into bigger patches like pointillist artwork being made in front of our eyes in mere seconds. It's pouring heavily, drumming on the hoods of the cars parked on the sides of the street and already flowing in little creeks along the sidewalks. The yellow light shining through the rainwater streaming down the windows looks very warm and inviting."

NARRATOR: "I shake the excess water off the umbrella and head inside with them, following Emi to a vacant table in the furthest corner of the small café. The place is almost full; apparently other people had the same idea as Emi, and now we are all stranded together here in this cozy little place. Varnished wooden pillars and paper screens mix with Parisian-style tables and chairs in discordant harmony, a contrast of old and new. Light jazz plays quietly in the background, though it's mostly drowned out by the murmur of the customers."

NARRATOR: "I notice Yuuko is at work here today, but it seems like she's serving a full house all by herself, frantically gliding from one table to another and trying to keep up with everything. I watch her deliver a tray of tea cups and pastries to another table taken by Yamaku students, then take an order from a middle-aged couple sitting across from us before finally turning to serve us."

HISAO: "Hi, Yuuko."

YUUKO: "Umm... ah, welcome to the Shanghai. "

HISAO: "Looks like you're busy."

YUUKO: "Ahaha, I'm completely over my head here. I wish I had another pair of hands."

YUUKO: "What can I get for you today?"

NARRATOR: "There's only one waitress serving the full house, frantically gliding from one table to another and trying to keep up with everything. To my surprise, I think I recognize her. I watch her deliver a tray of tea cups and pastries to another table taken by Yamaku students, then take an order from a middle-aged couple sitting across from us before finally turning to serve us."

HISAO: "Yuuko?"

NARRATOR: "Now that she's close and facing me I see that it really is her, the part-time librarian of Yamaku in full waitress attire. It's a pretty cute outfit, and she has tied her hair up in buns to match. It's a completely different image from her mousy, plain style at her other job. Yuuko blinks a few times looking confused, then remembers that she was about to say something."

YUUKO: "Umm... ah, welcome to the Shanghai. "

HISAO: "So you work here too? I thought you were a university student or something."

YUUKO: "Ehh, yes, that too. It's a part-time job as you can see, ehehe. It's Sunday, so there aren't any lectures. Good thing, too, since today has been so busy I'm wishing for another pair of hands. Anyway, I'm in a bit of a rush as you can see. What can I get you today?"

NARRATOR: "Emi doesn't hesitate even for a second. Her eyes glitter like those of a kid in a candy store."

EMI: "Tea for everyone! And cake for me!"

NARRATOR: "Yuuko tries to stay as formal and professional-looking as possible, smiling cheerily at my ravenous companion."

YUUKO: "Ahh... yes, today we have a choice of strawberry shortcake, raspberry layer cake, or lemon meringue pie."

EMI: "Strawberry... no, lemon! No, actually I'll take both!"

NARRATOR: "She looks at me in challenge."

HISAO: "Err... I'll take just the pie."

RIN: "Nothing."

NARRATOR: "Emi makes a face at Rin as though she had bitten into a lemon. She's clearly unhappy with her for not joining in."

EMI: "Oh come on, Rin. That's not polite at all."

RIN: "Nothing, thank you."

EMI: "No, no, you silly! I meant that you should order something too."

RIN: "I'll take a straw then. My feet are all wet."

YUUKO: "Sorry?"

RIN: "The drinking kind of straw. One, please."

NARRATOR: "Yuuko is obviously uncertain of what to think about this. She fiddles with her pen and stationery for a moment, looking like she's about to cry, before deciding that we've finished ordering."

YUUKO: "Thank you very much!"

NARRATOR: "She bows down a little bit too deeply and scampers to safety behind the counter. After that ordeal is over with, I have a chance to relax a bit and take a better look at the surroundings. Almost every table is occupied by people happy to be out of the rain, thankfully sipping their tea while waiting to dry off. Fragments of grumbling about the lousy weather or discussions over recent homework carry from nearby tables to my ears. Each one overlaps the other, but all are covered by the sound of falling rain. After a while Yuuko returns to our table, carrying a tray with a huge teapot, three cups, a slice of cake and two slices of pie. She slaps the tray onto our tiny table with a clatter, almost sending the teapot toppling over into Rin's lap. We barely recover before she bows again and leaves, hurrying off to serve the other customers."

NARRATOR: "Emi has been eyeing her strawberry cake very hungrily all this time, but somehow she managed to contain herself until Yuuko was out of sight. She digs in with gusto, while I content myself with pouring tea for everyone and placing the straw in Rin's cup. Rin looks at the way the tea swirls round and round in her white china cup, her eyes half closed, almost like she is being hypnotized. I pick up my fork and eye the food in front of me. The pie I got looks perfectly done, a thick layer of meringue atop creamy lemon custard. After having the first bite, I pause, savoring the combination of tangy citrus and smooth, sugary meringue. It's quite good, though a bit too sweet for me."

EMI: "Iff ver’ good."

NARRATOR: "She's talking through a mouthful of cake, already halfway through her slice even though it's not exactly small."

EMI: "I want to taste some of that."

NARRATOR: "Before I get to respond, she strikes out at my delicious pie, takes a piece with her fork, and escapes with it."

EMI: "This is pretty good too."

HISAO: "What are you doing? You have a slice of your own!"

EMI: "Yeah, but if I started on that before finishing the cake, it'd be rude, don't you think?"

NARRATOR: "Her insolence is outrageous, but the gentleman in me allows for no retaliation. I glare angrily at her, and she replies by sticking out her tongue impishly. Emi is even more hyper than usual today, but I don't mind. It's good for her to let off some steam. I take another sip of the tea in my cup. It's good and hot, even though I don't usually care much for tea, and the atmosphere in the café is very relaxing. I don't mind spending the rest of the afternoon here, not even after Emi orders her second piece of strawberry cake and Rin spends most of the time staring fixedly at the rain streaming down from the heavens. Even Yuuko rolls her eyes at the third piece of cake disappearing into Emi's bottomless stomach just as quickly as the previous two. Despite the passing of time, it's still raining outside when we exit the Shanghai, though it seems to be letting up a little."

HISAO: "Too bad it had to rain on your parade."

RIN: "Weren't we supposed to have a picnic?"

NARRATOR: "Emi doesn't look too distraught over this turn of events."

EMI: "Nah it's fine! We had a good time, didn't we? I feel really pumped up. It isn't even raining that hard any more. I kinda want to hike back to school to get rid of this energy and work off some of that cake."

NARRATOR: "She stretches her arms out, and arches her back like a cat. After rolling her shoulders around twice, she smiles brightly."

EMI: "Man, I can't really run with these legs, though, especially uphill. I wish I'd brought my other ones."

NARRATOR: "This notion sounds odd, spoken so casually. But I guess for Emi, changing legs is sort of like someone else changing shoes."

EMI: "Maybe if I walk really fast, that'll be kinda like running. I think I'll do that."

HISAO: "I won't be able to keep up with that going uphill, though; I really am in bad shape. Plus, you'll get wet without an umbrella."

EMI: "It's hardly even a drizzle, now. A few drops won't hurt. I think I'm gonna go to the track after I change my legs, too."

NARRATOR: "Emi skips away from the protection of my umbrella and goes on ahead at a brisk pace. Suddenly, she seems to remember something as she stops and spins around."

EMI: "See you tomorrow! Come eat lunch with us on the roof! I'll bring enough for three."

NARRATOR: "Rin and I are left to watch her wave at us and skip off again. Soon she disappears around a street corner. I'll never understand why Emi is perpetually in such a hurry to get somewhere."

HISAO: "So, would you like me to walk you back to school so that at least one of you won't get wet?"

RIN: "If you are happy with it."

NARRATOR: "It seems neither of us wants to keep alive the strained atmosphere from the argument a few days ago in the art room, which makes me feel relieved. I don't want to bear grudges and I'm happy that Rin feels the same way. Thus it is decided that we are content with each other's company for now, and we start walking in the same direction as Emi, albeit at a considerably calmer pace."

Rin rain away close

NARRATOR: "I get a bit closer to Rin, even though the umbrella is already big enough to shelter us both. I can feel her nearby warmth providing a contrast to the chill of this rainy weather. Raindrops hitting the umbrella make a distinctive sound, playing the staccato melody of rainfall for nobody in particular. I realize I haven't been outside in the rain in what feels like forever. I inhale, taking in the scent of rain, feeling the weather with all my senses. The world melts into a blur inside the rain. The colors of the sky have deepened from gray to dark blue, with hues of red added to the mix from the sunlight reflecting off the clouds. The low-hanging sky looks pretty, as if I could reach out my hand and touch it."

RIN: "Have I told you how much I like rain? It's like painting. It makes me feel connected."

NARRATOR: "Almost echoing my thoughts, Rin lets out one of her own. It slips out of her mouth, circling around us gently."

RIN: "Everything looks so soft, like the outlines of things just disappear. I like that. It's like the rain is hugging me."

NARRATOR: "Her voice sounds different from usual; more gentle, now, and soft. I wonder if it's only because of the rain, or because of the mood the rain brought upon the quiet artist girl. I feel that mood in myself too, enhanced by her words."

Rin rain towards close

HISAO: "Yeah. I like rainy weather too. It's nice every once in a while. I wonder what is it about the rain."

Rin rain towards

RIN: "Everything."

NARRATOR: "A silence follows the statement, as it allows for no continuation. I decide to push the direction of the conversation a little."

HISAO: "But you know, if you like the feeling of being connected, what's the problem with showing your paintings to others? Don't you want to be connected to other people?"

Rin rain away

RIN: "It's not the same thing. You're comparing apples and squids."

NARRATOR: "I brought up the subject Rin wants to avoid, and it shuts her down again. The question stays hanging between us for the rest of the trip back to school, and I can't help wondering what on Earth I could have said to truly reach Rin. Does she feel that she's lacking an identity? She has a strong personality, but if pressed to elaborate, I'm not sure I could describe it accurately. She feels like a person who is in constant conflict with herself. I never know what to expect when I talk to her. I wonder how she herself experiences that disconnect. If Rin is asking herself every day “Who am I?” and obsessively paints images to define herself day after day, what does she think of that way of living? The irony is, that's the exact same question I've been asking myself for the past four or five months. For me, it was miserable. I can only assume that it's the natural state of being for this girl."

NARRATOR: "When we stop in front of the dormitories Rin turns to face me, as if sensing my thoughts from afar. Her gaze travels emptily past my left shoulder into the shapeless rainfall. Her dark eyes seem to suck the low ambient light into themselves, like a reverse mirror. That empty gaze lets nothing out. If I want to understand what's going on behind those eyes, I have to work it out myself. Rin opens her mouth, then closes it without saying anything. The silence lasts for a few more moments before she takes a step towards the dorm building door."

RIN: "See you tomorrow."

Next Scene: Six Meters Closer to Heaven

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