Its raining again. I note this through the classroom windows with a sigh as I gather up my books and prepare to head out. As I walk down the main stairs I take out the red umbrella I always carry with me -the one with a red-billed duck head for a handle that was popular a few years ago. With another sigh I take my shoes from their locker -nope, no note today, so she should be on time- and wait by the main door for my traveling companion to arrive. Her name is Hiraii Keiko-san. My name, by the way, is Yuuhito Hiroki. Pleased to meet you.

A drizzly day with no apparent sun means lower light levels, and a more leisurely walk home with Keiko-chan -much better than the hot and bright days, when we're in a rush to get home and Keiko sometimes moves so fast I have trouble keeping the umbrella centered on her. Rain or shine, I walk by her side, mostly in silence, holding this red umbrella over her. We've earned a lot of memories together, Keiko, the umbrella, and I. Just as I'm about to slip into memory lane, nodding to passing friends and ignoring -as usual- the good-natured stares and giggles, Keiko shows up, quiet as a mouse before the cat's cradle. I push off from the post I was holding up, and open the door. Keiko steps through first -which she wouldn't do if it was sunny out- and I open the umbrella, stepping up behind her to make sure it covers her.

You see, Keiko has this particular skin condition: she literally wilts in contact with direct sunlight. I've learned to live with it; she can't help it, doctors can't cure it -some deficiency or other that isn't easily replaced with medicines -and it doesn't change who she is. We head out, leaving the sheltering haven of the porch roof, and head for home. There's no telling when the sun may pop out, so no loitering at the arcade, or the cafes, or even the 7-11s for us. After reaching the base of the incline, we head west along the banks of the canal for about half a kilometer or so, watching the drops stir up the surface with all their competing ripples is pleasant somehow -don't ask me why. It just is. Anyway, after the second trestle we head away from the canal and strike out along the labyrinth of residential streets. We used to get lost to and from school here all the time, probably spending hours, or so it seemed -wandering around till we found the police stations, and the kindly police man would direct us -or take us if a police woman- to the school.

I pause at a traffic light waiting for the signal, and take note yet again of her black, rain and wind swept hair -today she's wearing the red and white polka dot bob, the one I gave her shortly before Junior High commencement. Its comforting to see it in her hair. True, it doesn't match all that well with the colors of our winter uniform with its dark blues and yellows but still, I'm happy all the same. I don't tell her though. It just wouldn't do. Then she might stop wearing it, and I wouldn't want that to happen. For that matter, most of our journeys to and from school are like this. Its always been like this way, walking home in silence unless directions are needed, or the occasional desire for a fruit drink. For that, we avoid the park vending machines and walk through Nagoya Valley Shopping District, populated by small shops run mostly by people from Nagoya, strangely enough.

As I said, most of our walks home are in silence. I walk her to her front door and see her inside before taking my leave. That's our routine. I'll be back between 7:30-7:35 tomorrow morning to pick her up for the walk to school. It doesn't make sense to use the bus -its a much further walk to the nearest transfer station for us, so walking it is. Only this time she turns to me and speaks:

"Let's run away and get married," clutching my uniform jacket. Okay, so she doesn't say that, it only happens in manga and dramas. Instead she says simply, softly: "Hiroki-kun, will you always be there to protect me?" Without waiting for an answer, though, she turns and closes the door. I blink once, twice, before realizing she has indeed left me at her door. Again. But, like I said, I'm used to it. What I do know is something's bothering my Keiko (hmm, saying my Keiko as though she belongs to me, I mean, all these years and we've never even held hands, never even touched accidentally holding the umbrella together -its only ever one of us who holds, and most of the time its me).

"You know we're going to be together." There, that is what I wanted to say to her. As if. Still, I cannot help her out of this small depression, plus I have tons of homework, and if I stay here any longer I'm bound to catch cold. So its home I go, I think to myself, making an about face and walking out the gate -never noticing whether or not the front curtains are pulled back watching me leave.

There's always tomorrow.

Another day, another walk home. The walk to school was accompanied by the ever apparent weather of the Rainy Season and no change was forecast for the afternoon. Good thing I brought Aka-san. Aka-san, say hello. Aka-san, by the way, is the name of my umbrella -red, with a red-billed duck head for a handle. He's been with us from the beginning. Different models sometimes, but still the same Aka-san.

Today, Keiko indicates she'd like to cross the bridges, so we walk down the canal to the first trestle, find the pedestrian path and start across. In this weather we are not alone in this thought, we are always with earshot of another walker. This is a shame, because whenever Keiko-chan really has something she wants to say or talk about, we always make a walkabout on our way home. When she has something to say and can't say it aloud for fear of being overheard and misunderstood, she fidgets. Just like now. She's fidgeting an awful lot, in fact. Once across the bridge, we step by a closed ice-cream van, and watch the rain. I'm holding Aka-san up, as always, so its hard to to tell if I'm seeing tears or rain drops circling her ruddy cheeks. Maybe a quarter hour passes with no hint of a conversation. But I've never needed words to be comfortable around Keiko. Just her presence is enough. It may sound sappy, but its true. After the next light cycle, she heads across the street. I follow, Aka-san held close to so she won't get wet. It doesn't matter -its as though she's trying to outrace me and the umbrella. Not a comforting thought.

We make splashy steps or sploshes on the sidewalk until we come to the next trestle. More trains and less people walking, probably explained by the more frequent trains and their wet, electrical sparks. So, we're walking across, and I'm thinking she's been scared off from whatever she wanted to talk about, when from out of the blue it comes: "I'm to be married. Soon after graduation, okasan says."

Nine words, and suddenly my world is turned upside down as the bottom drops out from under me. "What?" I say, hoping I have misunderstood. "Surely not. Who would you marry?" not believing what I heard.

"It's true. Okasan has it all arranged. I overheard her." Keiko says in that small voice of hers. She said those words so mechanically, so casually, like dinner party conversation, yet I stop dead in my tracks, unable to get my mind around the concept. Keiko, meanwhile, keeps moving forward by inertia before the falling drops make her stop as well, and turn back. "Yuu-kun?" I'm hit with the sudden sense of loss. Irrational, because we don't share anything like a dating relationship.

"Why?" I croak. "According to okasan, to have someone take care of me." she answers calmly. Too calmly. What, am I not good enough? I want to shout, but keep it to myself. No need to unsettle her more. I don't want to loose Keiko-chan, she's too much a part of my life now. Don't want to be without her. I can still remember when we first met. My parents informed me we were going to meet some neighbors and needed to look presentable. So we dressed up, and walked two blocks over to a house in the traditional mode. It was sunny that day. Or was it raining? I cannot remember, the weather changes each time. We were met at the door by an older woman in a lavender shaded kimono, though she remained in the shadows so maybe it was sunny. we were ushered into a large tatami room with a long ebony table. Facing us was this girl -Keiko-chan- also dressed in white and pink kimono. To the side was a woman introduced as an old friend of the family -to whom ha-ha and otosan bowed to. But I even then only had eyes for Keiko-chan. Like a bright jewel or shiny corral in the sea she stood out to me. Or so I tell myself. The memory does play tricks with us.

Hiraii Noako-san (Keiko-chan's okasan, it turned out) beckoned us to sit and we exchanged pleasantries over Tea. Hiraii-san explained that she had a skin condition that precluded her from leaving the house, or doing many things for her daughter, who also bore the ailment. That explained the near translucence of her skin, I thought. Hiraii-san seemed uncomfortable relating this. She further explained that her daughter's condition required much supervision -the need for constant watch for sunlight and UV, how few playmates she had as a result, the need to go everywhere with an umbrella to shelter the sun's rays. I was told, if it was not too much trouble, that I would walk with Keiko-chan to and from school each day, be available to run errands, and go with her to other places if need be, pretty much to be her companion. She told ha-ha and otosan other things which I as a child paid no attention to, I suppose. Keiko-chan, for her part was silent the whole time, eyes downcast, pretty much as she is today -the shy, quiet, withdrawn girl one hardly notices beside you. I remember thinking how frail, how pretty, how mournful she looked, like a Girls Day Doll -which she still gives the appearance of -and how I needed to see her smile. So the me that was back then suddenly got up off the cushion, leaned over and reached out to grab her hand, until then clasped together in front of her. Impulsive of me, you'd say, but until right then I had been sullen and bored, and probably not too happy, but something about Keiko-chan moved me and I responded.

"Look, Hiraii-chan" I said, pulling out my new red umbrella from my own kimono and waving it before her. "Aka-san and I will take care of you. We'll have fun together, so cheer up!"

"Oh yes, do cheer up Keiko-chan" my duck head umbrella breaks in in a ducky voice. "See, its raining outside -we can go play in the rain, maybe see a rainbow!" Keiko-chan looked up from following the umbrella, locked eyes as large as saucers with me, caught in the act, and laughed, catching the adults off-guard. Ha-ha's hands went to her mouth, otosan's stern gaze peered at me over his glasses and Keiko-chan's okasan gazed at me levelly, then relaxed visibly, previously unknown wrinkles disappearing from her face, chased by the half-smile forming around her lips.

"Keiko-chan, Aka-san is right, it is raining -why don't you and Hiroki-kun go and play? Okasan will sit here and talk with Yuu-kun's parents a while," she said, and ushers us outside. And that is how our relationship -our silent relationship- began, in the rain. Pivotal events always seem to follow rain clouds. So, I opened up Aka-san, and Keiko-chan and I made a stroll around the garden, and around the block. Our walk even earned us the title 'Oku-chan to danna-kun" (Little Wife and Small Husband) from the elderly among the block -a name that did not easily die out, we still get hailed occasionally by some passing obasan as Okuchan. Funny how I recall that old nickname, after Keiko's announcement.

After that we said our goodbyes, and left a still flushed Keiko-chan at the door watching us leave, a small day-lily flower branch clutched in her hand. From that day on we walked, or went everywhere together, rain or shine, and Aka-san was our constant companion: when he wore out, another one took his place. It may seem a little childish to carry around a duck head umbrella, but I don't mind, its as much a part of me as Keiko-chan.

When I first met her she was Hiraii-chan, but after the first few days she stopped being Hiraii-chan and became Keiko-chan. Not on my own, mind you, but Keiko's okasan noticed how stiff I acted around her. She told me, not unkindly "There's no need for you to be so polite around her, Hiroki-kun. Feel free to use her first name." And with that she was Keiko, and has been ever since. We were the talk of the neighborhood, at least among the older generations, and I'm quite sure to this day we come up in neighborhood gossip.

The rain is still coming, and Keiko is getting wet. I snap out of my reverie and bring the umbrella over her to keep the the rain from soaking her any further. The red umbrella which is her lifeline. Which some other boy may soon be holding for her. The knot in my stomach that hatched at her first words grows and my chest palpitates in sympathy. She pushes a stray lock of hair blown by the wind back out of her eye. She looks at me: we're the same age, in the same grade, same class even, though that was not always true. Once in elementary school, again in Jr. High we were separated -my chest draws in at the thought of separation- but it never lasted long. One of us would quickly be sent to the other class by summer break.

Never been to the sea, has Keiko-chan. Or amusement parks. Or camping, or other class-related field trips. Probably never will, unless they build an all-indoor park -like the indoor ski park, or the indoor water park we have visited. But never in a bikini. Its too dangerous. There are times when its unusually sunny out, that she can't come to school. And when I get sick she is house-bound as well. She never comes to visit when I'm sick, though I visit her. Of course she wouldn't. She tried once, without the umbrella, and received a severe scolding for her trouble. I was glad she came though. So its understandable that she doesn't come. See...not much of a relationship to loose.

We've been standing here in the rain on the pedestrian bridge for some time now, without exchanging words. Keiko pushes back that same lock of hair and says, breaking the silence, "Let's go home now. We should go." She turns from me to face the direction we were headed. With nothing I can say right now, we pick up our walk where left off, chased by yet another train along the bridge. We walked home in silence. We got to her house, and I waited while she let herself in, waiting for an explanation, maybe? But nothing else came up. She turned and bowed briefly to me then closed the door leaving me in the rain with the umbrella, on her front steps. Just like every other day. But today is different. Today a barrier has been erected between us. Unseen perhaps, but not unnoticed. I'm headed home with a leaden heart. Its only two blocks, but its a million miles away, each step an eternity. Its not the end of the world, but I'm not sure I could tell the difference. Keiko's words are echoing savagely in the suddenly empty chambers of my heart, fading yet growing in intensity all the same.

I don't want to think about it, so I'll switch topics. We've made a lot of memories together under the red umbrella we share. Memories -my mind cries- I don't want her to be just a memory! Stop that, I tell myself, hoping I'll listen. We've shared a lot of memories together -ha, take that!- ordinary moments mostly, but exciting ones as well. Happy ones too, though not as many as I now would like to have had, but they're there. I'm not willing to give them up -or her. I just need to think of a plan. Confess to her? Elope with her? -not likely with her condition and without parental support. So, push that aside. We haven't always been in the same class, true, yet everyone always knew that where one of us was, the other would sure to be nearby.

There, she relies on me, maybe I can work with that thought. Yes, she's always been with me, and I with her, never far one from the other -even in gym class, so there Na-kun! -and I was okay with that. Other boys might have resented such an intrusion on their lives -like having a younger sister you had to take care of perpetually, being kept from enjoying all the carefree days of youth: roughhousing in back lots or playgrounds, combing the stores for exclusive anime goods or other treasures, chasing after girls! (my friend Natsuki's favorite exercise -no wonder he does so poorly with homework.) I never minded though- it let me be close to her in my own way. Walking with her, studying with her -you see her light sensitivity has her sitting in the seat furthermost from the light, normally the corner left by the classroom door, so if sensei's voice doesn't carry -and some don't, especially math, history, and modern Japanese- she'll get lost, until I go over it later that day with her. I, not her other friends, of which she doesn't have many -that worries me too, but in a different way. And when she has to shop for girls' supplies -everything from hair ribbons, swimsuits, and, erm underwear -don't think that, brain!- to other less mentionables, my mother or Nobue-neesan takes her to the stores, always with Aka-san, so I'm there in spirit. Yes, my whole family helps to take care of Keiko -even Otosan does something, he visits Hiraii-san every month for bank business.

Being close to her is important to me. Helping her is important to me, what else is there? I'm protective of her and her best interests, that's what. I think I fell in love with her the moment I laid eyes on her -only I didn't know it at the time -not that my parents would understand. I've always been fiercely protective of her, defending her against slights, and bullying. The hardest part has been the boys who -well they say they do- want to go out with her. Three's a crowd especially when it comes to love confessions, so I can't exactly follow her -and she can't exactly go outside. and other boys get intimidated -I think- by my presence or my nearness. I'm not an obaa they would use as a go between that's for sure. Then again I suspect the majority of our classmates -if not the school and faculty- think we're going steady anyway -we've been given plenty of warnings by overzealous discipline and school spirit committee members and teachers that is for sure.

Oh, I have even had a girl or two -or more? confess to me, as well, but I have always turned them down -gently, though, for her sake. The reason's always the same: I'm flattered, and thank them for their feelings, but I explain, so much of my time (and attention!) goes to watching out, and over Keiko, that I wouldn't have much free time to offer. I could hardly be with them like they want and deserve when I might have to leave to take Keiko somewhere, so I must sorrowfully decline the gracious invitation. At least I like to think that's what I tell them, maybe without the flowery language, perhaps. Then again, this is why I think everyone else suspects Keiko and I are going out, that my feelings are for Keiko alone. There are less tears of recriminations then I would expect from the girls. They thank me for my time, thank me for my devotion to Keiko's well-being, admonish me to always look out for her. One girl even remarked -and it stood out in my mind- that she was glad I was so protective of and for Keiko, that I was a good man, and Keiko a lucky girl to have so ardent a defender. Wow! Its a wonder I don't get puffed up by compliments like that! Still, that's not much to go on, and time seems to stand still and to drag on endlessly as I make my way home.

I think that I'm so wrapped up in my thoughts that I forget to come in -standing in front of my own door- for who knows how long? My reverie is interrupted by the arrival of oneesan home from her part-time job at a local clothes boutique -thankfully not an overly chic one. She comes in behind me and yells "boo!" at me in a loud voice, which evidently startles both her and me, because I jump and drop the umbrella.

"Geez, Hiro-kun! What are you doing out here? Pining for Keiko? Shouldn't you do that over by her front-door? Come inside before you catch cold!" she says, reaching around me to unlock the door, then push me in ahead of her. Inside, ha-ha has dinner cooking -for a wonder she's a stay at home mom, otosan's income and a small inheritance being enough to allow us that luxury -and I realize how late it really is -nigh 7:00. Dad's due home soon, and there are per-dinner chores still to do.

"Look who I found wool-gathering outside the door." Nobue-neesan announces gaily, pushing past me once her shoes are off, to grab our tawny cat Crookshanks-san -in honor of Harry Potter. Ha-ha looks up from her vegetable slicing or meet prep and shakes her head.

"Goodness, Hiroki, did you swim over here from Keiko-chan's? Get out of those wet clothes! The bath's ready for your father -but you obviously need it more right now. What were you doing outside?" she tsks tsks.

I'm still standing in the doorway saying nothing when Nobue-neesan wisecracks: "Oh you know Hiroyuki-chan, mom, so caught up on his Akari-chan that he forgot where he was!" That does the trick, snapping awake I fling my umbrella in her direction, splashing both her and the cat with umbrella spray. She glares at me. I glare back. "I am not Hiroyuki. And Keiko's not Akari-chan -get your nose out of all that anime, neechan, it'll rot your brain." I quip up a little harshly.

"Hiroki" ha-ha warns "don't fight with your oneesan. Now go take your bath."

I groan inwardly -no one understands! -but how could they?- and with a nod cross the hall and trudge up the steps, turning right down the hall to the bathroom. I strip down, wash off and climb into the tub.

I hear neesan's voice at the door. "Hiroki?" I don't answer. "Is everything all right? You two didn't have fight or anything did-" "No." I cut in. "I'm fine- Just leave me alone." I hear neesan give up. "All right. Dinner's at 8:00. Otosan will be here in 15. Don't drown in there, okay?" and she heads to her room. 30 minutes later I'm a prune, and dad still hasn't shown up. Neesan knocks on the door for her turn, and I get up to dry off. Neesan will wash, soak, and turn over the water for Otosan.

Eight o'clock, neesan is done with her bath, Otosan has finally shown up -the trains were held up to clear obstacles from the tracks. He's more hungry than travel weary, plus he doesn't want to keep okasan or her cooking -which is good- waiting any longer. So they touch hands briefly, trade synopses of their day, and we sit down to eat.

Now, I'm not one to stew over things endlessly -but this business about Keiko getting married -without me! -has me jumpy, and the additional wait for otosan's return home has given me plenty of time to stew over it. Too much time, I'm afraid I'll burst out about it. Which is exactly what I do given the right provocation, thanks, once again to my sister. I'm alternating between the miso and the rice, eating deliberately, not contributing to to the nightly table talk. Ha-ha's (and Otosan's) eyes are on me -they know something's bothering me, but won't bring it up if I don't -good Japanese family that we are. And then she has to tell Otosan all about my strange behavior today. Loudly. Smacking her lips on the fish at the same time. Giving me a shower of stray particles -uggh!

"You know otosan Hiroyu -ah Hiroki" (after a kick to the shins) "been real moody today. I think he feels guilty about something. I think its something to do with Keiko-chan." she finishes with a grin like a mischievous imp, like a temple cat with an interloping rat in its claws. Otosan looks at okasan. I say nothing, my chopsticks loaded with rice stopped halfway to my mouth, which has suddenly clenched shut.

Oh no -here it comes I will not be responsible for what comes out of my mouth. Father looks at me, his eyes inviting a response. Mother looks at me. Nobue-neesan looks at me. Crookshanks looks at me.

"She's getting married" -without me- "That's what's wrong!" I explode, throwing my chopsticks down to the table, rice falling and sticking to neesan's sleeve -ha, revenge for the spittle, I gloat. Neesan to her credit, looks taken back.

Okasan still holds her chopsticks perched in her left hand, right hand holding her soup. Otosan blinks, his eyebrows raising his glasses a bit. "Who is?" he asks calmly, almost knowingly.

"Keiko! Keiko-chan's getting married! That's who. She just told me herself this afternoon!" Nearly screeching with that last part. Okasan's lips move as to say "Oh" or "Ah" but no sound comes out. She puts her bowl and chopsticks down slowly, deliberately, controllable, unlike my own decanting. "Can you believe it!" I follow up with.

"Yes, we know." Otosan says. That shocks me as much as Keiko's own words did. Even 'neesan looks shaken at Otosan's pronouncement, as if he'd just said he'd been elected Emperor.

I draw a sharp intake of breath..."How how long?"

"Have we known? Since you two were little." he replies. I stare at him flabbergasted. 'Since you two were little?' Now I know I'm going to explode. My own parents, keeping secrets from me! My face must betray my thoughts, since otosan wants to add something else. He blinks again -saying just as much as a twitch would. Opens his mouth. Closes it. Opens again slightly running his tongue along his upper lip.

Okasan says in the pregnant pause that follows Otosan's statement and before I can start up again "Dear we've let things go too long unsupervised." What? "Sit down and finish your dinner, son. We'll talk afterwards," this is Otosan evidently agreeing with okasan. By this time I am half out of my seat, neesan is backing away from me wary perhaps of more thrown food.

"How can you think of food at a time like.." I say, scream? but okasan breaks in in that no-nonsense, calm and oh so quiet voice of hers guaranteed to arrest one's attention.

"Do not yell at your Otosan, Hiroki" I quell at her implied words, but struggle to get my say. "Or your okasan" Otosan finishes for her. Another shared look between them, another half-sigh, and the temperature in the room suddenly jumps back to normal -my confrontation having sent a chill into the atmosphere.

"Nobue-chan," Father says, addressing neesan. "Evidently, Hiroki, okasan, and I need to have a talk that cannot wait. Do you think you can find somewhere else to be for the next" a glance at okasan "30 minutes or so?"

"Sure, 'tosan," she answers, not bothering to ask why; she must be rattled herself -I think. "Thank you" he says. She doesn't fool me though, she'll be at the door peeping. Its what I would in this situation. But, she leaves, the sound of her feet on the stairs -okay, maybe to the Hall where the peeping crack is. I raise my eyes briefly to the ceiling, my parents' eyes do not follow mine.

"Now then Hiroki" Father says, obviously taking the conversation back to the beginning. "I can see how you're a little upset right now. With us."

Vast understatement that.

"But bear with us."

Not very likely from where I'm sitting, Otosan. "Now, I understand that you said Hiraii-chan is getting married. How do you know this to be true?" He said pleasantly.

"Because Keiko told me. And she wouldn't lie. Not to me. Not about this." I retort.

"What did she say, exactly?" Otosan goes on. 'Exactly'? Do I still remember through the fog of the afternoon?

"She said she was to be married off, soon after graduation." Did she say married off, really? "that her mother has arranged it."

"And what does that tell you?" Otosan presses. Okasan sits beside him, watching.

"That her mother has this all planned out -without telling her own daughter!"

"Yes, this is true, there is a wedding arranged for when you graduate." Otosan says.

"But she hasn't even mentioned the omiai (arranged marriage meeting)" I but in, determined to have my way.

"But that's already happened. Back when you were six." Otosan tells me.

"Seven, dear." Okasan clarifies.

"What?" I say, now thoroughly confused at the direction the conversation is heading in.

"You two met for the first time about nine years ago." Otosan explains patiently, as to an obtuse duckling that not, it can't join with the swans.

"Yes, but that was because we were neighbors, and we went over to be introduced, and after that I began walking Keiko-chan to school with the umbrella." I say, in my defense -unsure of what Otosan is driving at -quack quack.

"'Neighbors'?" Otosan echoes my last words. "Is that...what did you think we were doing all those years ago? You don't think Hiraii-san would let any boy -especially a boy she just met, a near stranger- escort her daughter to and from school each day, do you?" He asks, making me blink. "You didn't really believe that Hiraii-chan..."

"Keiko-chan dear, don't confuse him.?" Okasan breaks in. "Believe that H... Keiko-chan actually needed you to _carry_ the umbrella for her, do you?" He asked in quick rotation throwing me for a loop. That certainly stopped me. I don't think I _had_ ever wondered why she couldn't hold her own umbrella. It was just the way things were. I thought all boys and girls did so. A sudden dawning insight left me slack-jawed. Surely that first visit, all those years ago could not have been...

Okasan, noticing my hesitation chimes in, "You were given time to grow into it, to see if you really were compatible. We could hardly arrange two children to be wed and not allow them opportunity to grow into the idea of being around each other, could we?" I'm speechless, there is nothing really I can say.

Two shocks in one day, from Keiko and this extended shock from my parents. Keiko and I -married? Doesn't seem possible. I don't even know if I like her. Oh that's a lie, I tell myself. Maybe, but you've never told her, have you? my hidden self retorts. My eyes must have glazed over -and its a good thing I was already seated, or I would have no doubt fallen- for both my parents reached a hand to steady me.

"I'm sorry you had to learn about it in so abrupt a way, yet I'm glad you do know," Okasan said, relief in her voice.

"We hadn't meant to bring this up until a little closer to the time" -Keiko and I are second years- "and we did mean to sit you down -both of you- and discuss the matter of your marriage and support fully." Otosan said, "But I think you are adult enough and ready to hear the rest. This your future we're talking about, after all."

My Future -I thought, replaying these new words in my word when it hit me: marriage. Soon after graduation? The college entrance exams! "Otosan...we're to be married" -the thrill of that word with Keiko in mind! "but how soon after graduation?"

Otosan looked at me. "As soon as it is convenient -when one of you turns 18." 18? but that's...

"But what about my college exams?" I start, a whole new crop of worries coming over me.

"Mmm, as to that, Keiko's otosan -before he passed away- did well for himself on the stock market, and was possessed of a number of favors owed him that passed on to his wife and daughter. This is something you should know. One of the favors spoken of has enabled a spot to be reserved for you at Eitou University, available to you whether or not you pass the entrance exams."

'Regardless of exams'!. A veritable golden ticket! I'm beginning to get giddy. "but that does no mean you can slack off." Otosan appraises me sternly.

"Hai (yes sir)" I say automatically, though I had no intention of slacking on my studies. "As to the rest, with Hiraii...Keiko's skin ailment" spoken softly here, "she cannot obviously lead as full a life as she might otherwise want. Thus the need for someone to care for her and watch over her. Part of the care involves joining her family. As a family -our family- we have watched over her when away from home, as her mother wished. For you...it will mean the additional step of joining the Hiraii family register." Woah- a big step that. I would be a Yuuhito no longer but a Hiraii- no wonder Father is treading lightly here.

"Now to assist her in her life, and in consideration of the burden her husband will assume in joining her family and taking the Hiraii name, a Trust Fund has been set up and and administered in her name." A Trust Fund? That says money. But what about a job? "Now, you're not guaranteed a job -but you will be accorded a number of introductions," for practical purposes, that guarantees a job. Obviously another round of favors, "and the Trust ensures that you won't starve, but the rest is up to you." The rest?

"You...you mean all that's expected is for me to continue to take care of Keiko -like I've been doing, and they'll take care of us?" I ask, finding my voice. "For your continued support of Keiko, you will be supported in your endeavors." Okasan corrects me.

"That...that's a lot to take in," I say. My parents nod. 'We know, but we're here for you', the nod says. "Now, all this is what was arranged at the time of your omiai," Otosan says -his spreading hands indicating the totality of our conversation, "and was agreed upon in principle, and in substance, on your behalf. It is expected that you will affirm the agreement and the its obligations upon your majority." oh yes, yes, yes I will agree to it! "I know it may seem outdated to arrange marriages between two unrelated families in this day, even more so considering your ages at the time- but I hope you don't think too badly of us for it."

Okasan offers an apology for keeping me in the dark. But all I hear, all I can think about is Keiko-chan. I get to be with Keiko-chan! The reality is still sinking in. "I think, that if he was this distraught and concerned for Keiko-chan over a mythical other husband, that he'll be just fine, kasan." Otosan says, a mark of pride in his voice. "Ganbatte (continue the hard work) son."

"Hai!" I answer in echoing pride. I'm at the pinnacle of existence right now -the King of the world- and it all comes tumbling down with a great "raaeep" gurgling sound from my stomach. The tension is broken, the moment is gone, as everyone laughs. And then neesan's plaintive voice comes from the door.

"Are you guys done yet? Can we finish eating now?" And just how long were you standing there, neesan? Mother gets up to warm the food and I become conscious again of the flow of time -when did I fell it stop?- as I realize more than 30 minutes has passed us by. No wonder neesan was being petulant. After dinner, emboldened with what I have learned, I reach for my cell to call Keiko -but wait, matters of the heart such as this should be told face to face in person, not over the phone! I put it back on my desk, anticipating her vibrant face when I tell her tomorrow! and settle down to more mundane things like tonight's homework. What a difference a day can make! But not the following one. I get up extra early, dress, and quickly leave the house, actually running the whole 2 blocks to Keiko-chan's house -something I never do, even when running late- and breathless knock on the door, and reach for the doorbell..only to be met with Keiko's mother's voice over the intercom:

"I'm sorry Hiroki-kun, but Keiko-chan's not feeling too well today, and the forecast calls for strong sunshine today, so I'm keeping her home today. I apologize for having you come all this way for nothing." What's with the polite language, I wonder. "Its no trouble ma'm. I'll bring her schoolwork over after school then." I say, hitting the intercom switch. A long pause emerges before her response comes back. "I..see. Well then, thank you."

So I have to wait to give my ardent -ardent? love confession and make things right for her. Ah well, rainy days are always better for us anyway. Let there be rain tomorrow gentle kami-no-ume (rain god). At school I answer for Keiko at roll call. Nothing new, I've done it before without batting an eye. This time, for some reason, I trip up opening my mouth. Strange.

"Kei-Hiraii-san is absent today due to..."

"Ah, Yuuhito-kun there's no need to be overly polite when discussing Hiraii-chan here." Sensei says "Just don't overdo it overmuch," followed by general laughter from the room -tacit acknowledgment of an existing relationship -or tacit acceptance of a relationship when before there was none?

"Hai, sensei. Keiko-chan is home today because of the weather, probably tomorrow as well." I reply.

"Yes, Yuuhito-kun, I know." Sensei says. I blush good-naturedly to both sensei's statements "her okasan phoned this morning." More laughter. "Oh," I blush even deeper, to the accompaniment of various comments.

"Baka! doesn't he know how to pick up a phone?"

"I think its sweet that he'd go over there!"

"what a dork!" I try to slouch right out of my seat, and wish I wasn't so prominently placed in the class. More giggles from the girls and eye-rolling from the boys led by Natsuki-kun -some friend he is- before sensei restores order. After school lets out, I pick up Keiko's work for today and the next day from class monitor Morikama-san and the faculty office, grab my books, and Aka-san, and head home -waving bye to my friends in he hall. Wish I had time to hang with them, but Keiko calls!

Or so I think, but in the event, must leave the packet in the mail slot when no one answers my ring. Maybe tomorrow then. Its not to be. Or the one after. Each day dawns bright and sunny, with promise of more of the same, if we're to believe in the weatherman. My faith is in the weather kami, an offering and prayer at the shrine can't hurt either. And next morning, low and behold, contrary to all expectations a storm front sneaks up on us and we have rain! I nearly skip over to Keiko's house: surely she must come today! And she does. Only, there's too many other students along the way, and anyway who makes a Kokuhaku (Love Confession) on the way to school? Its always at lunch, or after the last bell that the magical moment can arrive (or so my neesan's manga assures). So with butterflies in my stomach fluttering all around I await the coming opportunity for glad tidings. This afternoon I'll confess for sure! Only, I don't get the initial response I was building up for. In fact it was quite the opposite.

In retrospect I could have, should have seen this coming. I mean she was especially quiet at the door when I picked her up this morning. She made no reference to our conversation of three days ago. She was more withdrawn than usual in class, answering only 3 or 4 times all day any questions put to her. She ate lunch alone, not even sitting with two real friends she does have -that alone should have alerted my trouble-radar. It did not, of course, and that's where the trouble began. On the other hand, with nary a word between us for two days I can see how feelings can achieve a disconnect. I may be a guy, but I do have some understanding of how feelings work, you know. The rain outside built into a proper storm by lunchtime, so I was doubly glad Keiko was here today -otherwise I might have forgotten Aka-san. Huh, fat chance of that. Aka-san is never far from my side, he even resides on my nightstand, with my watch and wallet. I am no ashamed of my duck bill umbrella. I probably should be, but I'm not. But Aka-san is not Keiko-chan. I digress.

The rain slacked off enough by close of school to allow a comfortable walk -just what I needed. I look over and see a number of girls congregated around Keiko's desk, murmuring -probably platitudes on her health- but what else are girls gonna do? I gather my things and strive to catch her eye as I leave, shaking Aka-san by his base so his eyes can roll freely. She barely glances up before looking down again -her fingers moving across the desk. I walk down the hall to the stairs when I hear my name called. Its one of the girls surrounding Keiko's desk, bearing a note from Keiko. This raises a few eyebrows along the hall. I shrug, place the note in my pocket, and thank her -Kotori-chan I think her name is. I head to, and down the stairs to the shoe lockers, stopping at my box where I pull out and read "Hiroki-kun, sorry for the short notice, but I have things to do here to make up for my absence" -oh, cleaning duty, I think -"so please go home without me. Keiko" I look at the note entire on its blue with pink flower surface and think 'no way am I leaving her to walk home by herself in the rain.' So, I set my mind to haunt the lockers until she comes down, and plunk myself by her shoe-locker getting a head start on tonight's homework. My butterflies are growing, by the way. I'm engrossed enough in the Kamakura period that I don't hear the voices or giggles that have snuck up on me until I hear Keiko's gasp, "Hiroki-kun! You...waited for me?"

"Yeah," I said sliding up against the lockers. "But I thought...my note it said..."

"It did", I say taking out the carefully refolded note. "But I decided to wait anyway. Didn't want to think of you walking home uncovered."

"Oh, but I brought..." she says belatedly trying to hide her school Trading Post bought umbrella, looking for all the world like she wanted the earth to open up and swallow her whole. "And leave Aka-san by himself?" I joke "who knows what trouble he'd get into."

"Yeah, you're right." She says lamely. "You know Hiroki-kun I.." she starts to speak up. I try putting my finger to my lip, but we're both interrupted by Kotori-chan again -or was it Arisa this time? "Well, lucky you, Keiko-chan, your dashing Knight is here to rescue you." I blush. The other girls murmur assent and head out. Arisa -or Kotori- is the last to leave, and pats me on the back of my shoulder "Good luck," she whispers as she passes.

Soon, they've departed and its just the two of us. Awkward silence reigns for a moment. Then I remember my purpose. "Nice day for a walk, huh?" I ask as she gathers her shoes.

"Hm-mmm." she replies.

"Well then, shall we?" I say, holding open the door. She precedes me out onto the porch and I open Aka-san like any other day -but this is not any other day, I whisper to myself. We head down the incline to the base, we turn west on Canal Street -as I call it- and we walk in silence- not the usual comfortable silence, the one punctuated by the pitter-patter of little drops and the splatting of larger drops, but rather the silence of dreaded expectation, a silence even the rain cannot drown out. By now we have past both trestle bridges and have come to the edge of the residential section of town. We pause for a minute, awaiting a walk signal. Strangely, traffic has all but disappeared along the route we must take -a good sign, I think, failing to see how Keiko clenches and releases her hands. Never even touched accidentally holding the umbrella together, huh? I reach over with my free hand and enfold her right hand, raising it to just above mine on Aka-san's handle. Her only response is an in take of breath -she does not move it when I release her. The butterflies have quieted down some now. "Makes it easier to share" I offer by way of needless apology.

We both know what is coming, I think. Hindered only by the beating of our hearts -our one heart, beating in unison? Finally, along a particular windswept stretch of road, notable only in that we once stood there for those words. I uttered the words I dared not think about even three days ago. The effect was equally unimaginable, and instantaneous. She stopped. Right there, in the middle of nowhere, causing a scar to swerve and honk noisily at us.

Her hand flew off from Aka-san's handle so violently and suddenly I nearly lost him in the strong gust from the car. "Inai!" She said. I turned quickly to shelter her hair and face with the recovered Aka-san.

"No. You cannot mean it. No. Take it back. No! You can't mean it. Take it back, oh please take it back. You can't know what you are saying, what you are doing!" she must have been working herself up to a lather all day to shape a response this quickly.

Wait.."Take it back? How can I do that? Even if I wanted to, I could not. What's said is said. Please accept them as the words of my heart.

"No, no, no! Anything but that! Say that you hate me -that you despise me, never want to see me again. I can bare anything but that. I cannot bear to be separated from you, should you mean what you say!" she cried, tears freely intermingling with the rain and a runny nose, her hair wet as it is, whipping about her in now storm tossed fry like some new Medusa come to turn men to stone, but No! I scream in my mind. She cannot mean that, for my heart is now breaking. "Please, please" she pleads, rocking back and forth on her feet. Obviously, she should be happy to hear these words, but her face shouts otherwise. Oh, how she is torn. Ah, her mother must have given her less to go on, in her search for validation. My way is clear.

"Please, if you say those words and mean them, my heart must break to be parted by this wretched arrangement mother has forced upon me." -Aha, not marriage, a good sign.

"But Keiko-chan." I cry in turn, shouting over the rising wind. Other cars must swerve around or stop, "didn't your mother? About the omiai?"

That must have been lost amid the rushes, for she does not answer. Not knowing what else to do, I let go of Aka-san and grab both her shoulders, just as she makes a grab for Aka-san before the wind can grab it. I don't know if she's successful, the rain I can no longer feel anyway. "Look, you know we're going to be together." I say into her eyes, and I can feel her reply:

"Only until graduation, only until graduation!" she sobs.

I shake her. "Not so!"

So her mother has not told her _who_ she's marrying, if she was confronted by Keiko, relying on Keiko to draw the obvious conclusion. She looks at me bewildered.

"Remember when and where we first met, across that long table, where our parents introduced us?" She nods blankly, not comprehending why but remembering, -ah she treasures that memory also- "I just found out 2 days ago, that was our omiai!" Her mouth begins to curve up in a negation; I plug forward, "its true. Your okasan, she arranged _our_ marriage with my parents. Nine years ago. You're not going anywhere. I'm not going anywhere. We're not going anywhere!" I cry exultantly, flinging my arms up and back down on her. She must have not been successful in recapturing Aka-san earlier, because my sudden jarring causes her to loose her grip to another wind gust, and Aka-san goes flying off, his long limbs bent backwards.

"Oh!" she gasps, then back to me. "Really?" she asks hesitantly, a gleam of desperate hope in her eyes and voice.

"Really." I confirm with a vigorous nod. Suddenly conscious of where we are -in the middle of an intersection with cars around us, I pull back, prepared to drag her across the remainder of the street.

"Ahh" she breathes, and then as if whatever resolve she has kept bottled up has left at last, like tension leaving a taut rubber band, she goes limp under my fingers and collapses. I barely keep her from falling to the ground, guiding her to her knees as I follow her down. Her skirt hem s dragging the street surface now, but we're already so soaked a little street grime is not going to make any difference to the condition our uniforms. She lifts her head up as if noticing me for the first time, and with a hint of her earlier sparkle -from the time she first laughed for me- she cries aloud "Hiroki-kun!" and falls on me, face streaming with fresh tears which I can feel, even against the rain, hot tears down a cold cheek, her hands encircling and clutching my back as if for dear life I suspect this is true -it is for dear life with her. Our dear life. Soon to begin.

"I'm sorry Hiroki...-kun" between sobs. In between pounding heartbeats that I can hear not just feel. "I ...didn't ...mean..what..I..said."

"Shhh, now, of all the things to apologize for that is not one of them." I say, soothing her with my voice, with one arm wrapped around her back, the other stroking the back of her head, taking in her lush hair stroke after stroke. We remain this way for a few minutes? hours? time there had no meaning. Even the cars and their ever present hint of danger held no fear for us. Finally I removed my arm from her back and set it to lift up her chin.

"Um, not get to get prosaic on you and all, but do yo think we can get out of the street?" I ask gently. "Eeeek! The street! What?" she exclaims, looking around and acknowledging her surroundings for the first time since school, I warrant. "What, why...how did we get here?" she wonders, the gauge of panic beginning to well up again.

"Not now, later. come, lets get you home. Can you stand?" I ask, getting up. "I think" She stammers, starting herself up. "..not." as she begins to sink. "Okay, I've got you." I say and scoop her up in my arms, bending down so she can retrieve our bags. We...I walk o the edge of the sidewalk, a sodden but happy, Keiko in my arms -to the sudden accompaniment of clapping- and a photo flash! I wave a hand weakly, to more cheers, and arrive on the sidewalk, catching my breath. he until now unknown observers retreat to their cars and life returns to its normal-not-quite hectic pace.

As we head back into familiar ground Keiko gasps again. "Oh no, Aka-san! We've...I've lost Aka-san!" she wants to cry again but has no more tears. Silly to cry over an umbrella, after what we just went through, but I agree with the sorrow of loosing such a fine friend.

"Don't worry Keiko. I promise there'll be another Aka-san before you know it. We can even have a bigger one done up just for the wedding, if you like." Keiko looks up at me in wonder again. "The wedding. Our wedding." She says with renewed vigor, and snuggles into me as I walk. "Hey, stop that! It tickles!" I complain. "Ha!" she snorts. "Get used to it." "I already am." I reply. "Still, there's just one problem." "What's that?" she asks, her face turned into my chest, listening, I guess, to my own heartbeat. "What are we going to tell my parents when we show up as drowned rats flopping on their door step in the middle of the night? You're so white, everyone'll think I'm in love with the school ghost or something." For answer, she just laughs.

Owari

(c) MMVII (Sep 14-18) Michael H Lilly, Jr.