The cherry trees had bloomed early.
Alas, they wouldn't last, and that was fitting enough.
Nolan leaned against "their" tree and watched people stroll past in the dappled light as sakura petals fluttered free in the slight breeze. All unsuspecting, more than a few people cutting through the park left with pale pink litter in their hair.
Nolan reached up and swiped at his own head, just in case. He glimpsed his watch as his arm came back down but deliberately avoided looking at the time. He was always early. Dane was usually a minute or two late.
Another reason it could never be more than this. Actually, Nolan didn't know all the reasons, or even very many of them. One of the rules was not to ask.
Dane's tell-tale blond hair appeared in the distance as he loped down the path, his lean form slightly hunched. Nolan supposed it was from being tall — not a problem he could relate to — and trying not to stand out as much, particularly in a foreign country where he was already clearly not a native. Nolan wasn't either, but at least he had dark hair and didn't tower over everyone.
Dane didn't look up until he had almost reached the tree, and even then he lifted his gaze slowly, as though afraid Nolan wouldn't be there. Five years and Nolan had always been there. Five years and Dane always appeared nervous, as if it were a first date.
It felt like that in a way, though. Once a year meant each meeting felt like the first. A lot could happen in the course of a year. One of them could move, marry, die, and the other might never know.
Their eyes met, and Nolan witnessed the shy smile that sometimes haunted his dreams. He noticed Dane's blue sweater brought out the green in his eyes.
Pushing off with a shoulder, Nolan leveraged himself off the tree. "Hey."
"Oh, don't start," Nolan told him. "You know I'm no good with Japanese."
"After this long? Surely you've learned enough to get by."
Nolan didn't answer — not because he didn't want to, but because if he said anything too personal Dane would change the subject. So he just began walking. Beside him, Dane slowed his natural stride in order not to end up leagues ahead.
"Think it's still there?" Dane eventually asked.
"We're about to find out."
They emerged from the park and entered the urban landscape of the city that surrounded it. From green to gray in a single step. They waited in silence at the crosswalk, and Nolan wondered, not for the first time, why he did this to himself every year. Why did Dane?
Across the street and down the block, Dane's tall figure cut through the crowd like the tall prow of a ship through waves, until they arrived at the izakaya. "Still here," Nolan remarked as he pulled open the door.
It was warm inside, both in temperature and in light. Everything was bathed in a buttery glow. Dane pushed the sleeves of his sweater up over his elbows as they took seats at a table near the back.
Is he afraid of being seen? Nolan had come from far enough away that he didn't worry about being recognized, but he had no idea whether Dane lived in the city or what he did for work. His casual dress — the sweater, the corduroy pants — suggested he wasn't an office worker. Or maybe he'd taken the day off?
He wasn't allowed to ask.
They ordered a cluster of dishes to share: karage, tebasaki, korokke. Dane asked for a beer, but Nolan drank only water and requested a side salad to lighten the fried fare. Watching Dane eat never failed to amaze him. So tall, so thin, but the man ate like a horse.
"Where does it go?" Nolan wondered aloud.
Dane grinned and patted his remarkably flat stomach. "Good metabolism," he said.
"You lucked out in every direction, didn't you? Tall, thin, handsome…" Nolan paused. He'd come to the end of the list of things he knew about his companion. All so superficial.
"Well, you didn't get 'tall' but you're doing all right on the others," said Dane.
"I'm average," Nolan told him. "You're off the charts."
The bravado slipped from Dane's face, and the shyness Nolan had witnessed at the tree returned. Dane ducked his head. "Only here," he said. "I only really stand out here."
Nolan took 'here' to mean Japan. "It's true that you're much taller and fairer than…" He swept a hand to indicate the people eating around them. "But you have to admit you're just as fit and…" He hesitated then stepped out onto the limb. "Just as smart, I warrant."
Dane lifted his head just enough to look at Nolan askance. "And what do you base that on?"
Forcing a smile, Nolan retreated. "You're here with me, aren't you?"
To his relief, Dane chuckled. "Only the best for you, eh?"
Nolan swallowed; this felt dangerously close to personal. "I'm very selective," he said.
It wasn't a lie.
They left the izakaya smelling like the cigarette smoke that had accumulated in their hair and clothes. Nolan braced himself for the awkward point in the ritual. The met by the tree, they ate at "their" pub, and then they had to choose something else to do. Nolan always spent the weeks before their meeting poking around online in search of suitable diversions. They'd visited temples, they'd wandered fashionable shopping districts, they'd haunted museums. But not knowing very much about Dane, Nolan could not anticipate what he might actually enjoy. In fact, he couldn't tell what Dane had enjoyed in the past. Dane was, after all, incredibly and unfailingly polite — something that played well in Japan, or maybe had simply rubbed off via constant contact with the country. Nolan was therefore not convinced Dane would ever let any semblance of disappointment or boredom break through his pleasant demeanor.
Does he even like me? Nolan asked himself this question any time Dane sprang to mind, and nearly constantly when in Dane's actual presence. He answered himself the same way each time: He must if he keeps coming.
Still, the question nagged at Nolan. Maybe Dane found him amusing. Maybe Dane pitied him for some reason. So many maybes and no liberty to demand an answer or explanation.
Nolan turned his steps toward Skytree, the destination he'd finally settled on. It had a mall, an aquarium, cafés, and of course the views of the city; surely at least one of those things would please his companion.
As usual, Dane did not ask, merely followed. They made small talk about various people and places they passed — that place looked interesting, that person appeared distraught. Well, it was White Day, and hearts were bound to be broken over disappointing returns. Every man who received something on Valentine's Day would reciprocate — it would be too impolite not to — but what they gave would be telling. Nolan supposed many women learned on White Day that they were not thought of as romantically as they wished.
But at least they'd know where they stood, which was more than he could say.
Meeting once a year meant he really couldn't lay any claims. He only hoped he wasn't a cause for Dane to cheat; he didn't relish the notion of being "the other man."
Then again, once a year didn't make him even that much.
What is this?
The first meeting had simply been a matter of chance. But when they'd parted, Dane had said, "Maybe next year, eh?" Nolan had laughed and waved it off, but as the next White Day neared, he thought more and more about the possibility… He'd felt so stupid going to the park, had armed himself with a book and prepared for a letdown, but a little over an hour later Dane strolled up. "What are the odds?" he'd asked with that smile, and Nolan tried to pretend he'd just happened to be there, no plans or expectations, but he was sure Dane had seen right through it.
Of course, Dane had gone back to the tree, too. Had he worried Nolan wouldn't show? Dane always seemed so self-assured and easy going that Nolan had difficulty picturing him being at all concerned about anything. Ever.
They stopped amidst a small crowd to wait for the crossing light. It changed and they followed the flow, Dane hanging back as though to be polite and let everyone else go ahead of him. Nolan suspected that if Dane walked at his natural pace, he'd step on everyone in his path. Living in Japan had seemingly taught him to wait, hold back just enough to keep that from happening.
Nolan stayed a step ahead as they crossed, well aware that Dane could catch up in a single stride if he wanted, and probably would once they had reached the pavement. Even as he stepped from asphalt to pavers, Nolan did not sense anything amiss. Not until the screech of car breaks and the gasp went up around him, the immediate commotion above and beyond Tokyo's typical bustle and noise. Only then, as he noticed the flow of people changing to move towards then past him, did realization sink in.
Only a bit of blue sweater — an arm, Nolan realized — was visible within the whirlwind of people. Dozens crowded Dane where he had fallen; dozens more blocked the offending car from going any further. A man stood at the open driver's door: "I didn't see him! I didn't see him!"
It took Nolan a moment to understand the man was speaking English. Caucasian, thinning dark hair that had receded past the point of rescue, a white shirt and dark tie. Middle management of some kind.
"You!" a woman said from under Nolan's nose, and he refocused. "With him?"
He wasn't sure if she meant Dane or the driver.
"Walk? With him?" she insisted, gesturing at Dane's prone figure.
Nolan nodded sluggishly. He felt weighted, unable to move his limbs without great effort.
The woman turned and shouted something in Japanese to the crowd. The people parted to make room. Even still, it took Nolan a moment — and no little gesturing from the woman — to understand the gap was for him.
In the distance, sirens echoed, the sound bouncing down the corridors of tall buildings.
He picked up first one leaden foot then the other, half shuffling, half stumbling to where Dane lay. His gaze flew to the blond hair, but to his relief no blood painted the roadway. Dane was, to Nolan's amazement, blinking at the faces surrounding him, though he seemed unable to focus on anything; his blue-green eyes roved restlessly: blink, dart, blink, blink, dart.
The ambulance swung to a stop beside the gathered crowd. A police car followed, pulling up behind the blocked car and its increasingly frantic driver. Nolan understood enough from the gestures that followed that he was being pointed out as someone of import in the situation.
"Nihongo o hanashimasu ka?"
He knew enough to shake his head.
"English?" the ambulance driver asked.
A gesture at where another ambulance worker was examining Dane. "Friend?"
Nolan hesitated then nodded again.
Nolan blinked. "His or mine?" When the driver looked confused, Nolan just chose one. "Dane," he said, pointing to indicate the injured man . "I don't know his last name."
The man gave a curt nod, but his expression suggested he hadn't entirely comprehended the exchange. He turned to his coworker and spoke rapidly. She responded with something that sounded affirmative, and the driver went to the back of the ambulance. The subsequent clattering presaged the appearance of a gurney.
The crowd began to dissipate save a few people giving statements to the police. Nolan watched them wave their hands as they mimed the accident. One or two motioned in his direction.
"You see?" the police officer called.
Nolan deduced the officer was asking whether he'd seen the accident and shook his head. "I was ahead… mae ni," he added, dredging up some little bit of the language that had been squirreled away. He made finger people and showed one walking ahead of the other.
"Ah," said the officer. He wrote something down on a small notepad then asked, "You? Go?"
Nolan followed the thrust of the officer's pen and saw the gurney bearing Dane being loaded into the back of the ambulance. A lightning bolt of panic broke apart the odd, cottony cloud of shock that surrounded him. Should he go? What if they called Dane's family?
What if they didn't?
What if Dane had no family in Japan?
He doesn't want you to know anything about him. Yet going to the hospital with someone during an emergency would almost certainly result in a flood of information.
And if he didn't go? Nolan couldn't imagine meeting again in a year after abandoning this man after he'd been struck by a car. If he walked away, it would be for good.
Which would Dane prefer? He had no way of knowing.
The woman in the back of the ambulance was waving him over. The driver was climbing in, ready to leave.
Now or never. Literally.
Nolan hurried over and jumped in the back just as the woman swung the first door shut. The second slammed closed at his heels.
The medic pointed to a vacant spot beside her on the small bench, and Nolan obediently sat. He frowned at where Dane was strapped to the gurney, and the woman said something firm but chipper. Nolan looked at her, smiled slightly, and shook his head.
"Maybe…" She tapped the top of her head. "Or…" She tapped her arm and then mimicked breaking something. "But alive!" she added. "Good!"
He nodded his agreement and looked back at Dane, eyes now closed. Had they given him something? A pang of anxiety knotted Nolan's gut, but then he saw Dane's chest rise and fall and relief escaped him like air from a balloon.
"No," the medic said. She reached over and hit the sole of Dane's foot with the back of her hand — only then did Nolan realize he'd lost a shoe. "Stay awake!"
Dane's eyes opened.
The medic looked at Nolan and tapped her head again.
Concussion, he realized.
"Need talk," the medic told him and looked at him expectantly. When he only stared back, she moved a finger back and forth between him and her patient. "Talk," she said again. It took Nolan another minute to understand she wanted him to talk to Dane.
He slid down the bench a little to be closer to Dane's head. "Dane," he said quietly.
Dane's gaze ricocheted off various instruments around them before finding and fixing on Nolan.
"Can you talk?" Nolan asked.
Dane's mouth (a very nice one, Nolan had always thought, the kind people described as "generous") worked for a moment before any sound emerged. "No…lan? What…?"
"Do you remember the car?"
Dane started to shake his head but stopped short and winced.
"Try not to move too much," Nolan told him. "Not sure if anything is broken. We're in an ambulance, by the way."
Dane's eyes began to roam again.
"I wasn't sure…" said Nolan, "whether you would want me to come with you. If there's…" He lost his words, or maybe his courage, when Dane's gaze found his face once more. "If there's someone else you want them to call…"
Dane grimaced, but Nolan couldn't be sure it wasn't from the pain more than anything he'd said.
The ambulance bucked to a halt and the doors burst open almost immediately. The female medic motioned for Nolan to stay back while nurses jumped in to take the gurney. Dane blinked surprise at the sudden movement all around him. Then, as fast as they'd come, they were gone, taking Dane with them.
Nolan stood in the back of the ambulance, bemused, until the medic said, "Go!" and waved him out.
"Arigatou," he mumbled and climbed out.
Inside the hospital, Nolan realized he had no way of asking about Dane. He didn't know Dane's last name, and he spoke very little Japanese. So he stood in the emergency waiting area, not sure what to do next.
Just leave. Dane hadn't said he wanted him to go, but he hadn't begged him to stay, either. And who knew how long whatever the doctors were doing might take?
But every time he turned toward the doors, guilt prevented him from going.
Eventually, someone noticed and took pity on him. A woman in a dark suit walked over to him. "Excuse me," she said. Perfect English, no accent. Nolan blinked at her as though seeing something mythical.
"I'm the translator," she said. "The ambulance medic said you don't speak Japanese."
"Not really, no," Nolan admitted in a rush of relief.
"Your friend has a fractured hip and a mild concussion."
"Oh." He paused. "I'm Nolan, by the way."
She smiled, but it was perfunctory rather than warm. "Suzue," she said. "Would you like to see him?"
"Of course." She turned and said something to the woman behind the long counter then, turning back to Nolan, said, "This way."
He followed her through a series of sterile corridors and wished he'd brought bread crumbs. Though, given the efficiency he saw around them — the unwavering focus, the steady bustle — he supposed any crumbs would have been promptly swept up. Finally, Suzue halted in front of a door, knocked twice, and opened it. "Ku-ri-su-ten-sen-san," she said, "your friend is here." She glanced over her shoulder and added, "Nolan-san."
Nolan, for his part, had been deciphering her careful enunciation. The sound of his own name startled him. He leaned for a better look into the room.
Dane lay in the hospital bed, neatly tucked with blankets. "Pardon me for not getting up," he said with a wry smile as Nolan took a few steps in.
"Did they say how soon you'll be on your feet?" Nolan asked.
"Not any time soon, I don't think," said Dane. "From what I gather, I'll need surgery on the hip. At least the head's okay, brain not swelling or anything."
Dane Christensen. It took a surprising amount of will power not to pull out his phone and do an immediate search. How common must the name be? Not very, not in Japan, anyway.
Then guilt rained down once more. And doubt. Maybe it was better not to know. Otherwise, surely Dane would have been more forthcoming with his personal details? They'd have a more normal relationship… Or any kind of relationship, since what they did have hardly qualified.
"That's good," Nolan heard himself say as if from a distance. He edged toward a chair near the bed, still unsure whether he should settle in for any length of time. Dane gave no indication one way or another. "The driver said he didn't see you, but I'm not sure how he could miss you. What are you, six-two?"
"And a quarter," said Dane. "Very important."
"Ku-ri-su-ten-sen-san," Suzue said from where she still stood in the doorway, "we could not find a record for you for emergency contact?"
Nolan froze. "I can, uh…" He pointed toward the door.
Dane paused then gave his head a small shake. "I can write it for you, Suzue-san, if you bring me paper and a pen?"
She gave a small bow and departed.
"Sit," Dane told Nolan. "Unless…" He frowned. "Maybe you don't like hospitals, eh?"
"I don't mind them," said Nolan, taking the final few steps to the chair. It was vinyl and creaky in a not-much-used way. "That is, I don't think I do. Not much cause to be in them."
"Sorry to be a cause," said Dane. "Where would we be now otherwise?"
"I was only thinking Skytree. I know it's touristy," Nolan added, "but I've never been."
Dane smiled, and Nolan fancied it was a tad wistful. "I haven't been in a long time," he said.
Suzue reappeared with the requested paper and pen. Nolan pointedly looked around the room at everything except Dane and what he might be writing. Not been to Skytree in a long time… Which means he's lived in Japan for a while at least. Though maybe not so long given that Skytree hadn't even opened until 2012.
Dane handed the paper and pen back to Suzue and, after glancing at what he'd written, she hurried off again.
"My phone broke, apparently," Dane said. "When I hit the asphalt."
"You could use mine," Nolan offered, regretting it the moment he said it. Of course Dane would not want to use his phone. It might give him too much information, and it would certainly leave some behind. "You can delete the number after," he added.
But Dane only smiled. "No one memorizes numbers anymore, do they? I don't, anyway. No idea."
Nolan glanced at the door through which Suzue had disappeared. "But…"
"I gave her a name and address, not a number. They can do the rest."
"Then I should probably go before he or, er, she gets here." Nolan pushed himself to his feet, but to his surprise Dane reached out and snatched at his sleeve.
"Might as well stay," Dane said, and Nolan thought he detected a grimness in the tone. He looked down at the figure on the bed. Fair hair awry, and lines deepening around the eyes… A certain resignation in the expression.
How old is he? Nolan wondered. He'd long had an idea Dane might be a handful of years older than his own twenty-nine but of course had no solid number. But what he asked was, "Are you sure?"
Dane released him. "It's up to you, of course. I'm just saying you don't have to leave. She, by the way."
"It's a she. The person I'm having them contact. If I'm lucky, the painkiller will have knocked me out before she gets here."
Nolan lowered himself back into the chair, the vinyl moaning in protest at his return. He carefully considered all his and Dane's "rules," trying to determine what questions might be allowed, and settled on, "Anything I should be forewarned about?"
He could see the smile Dane tried to repress and couldn't decide whether it was a good sign. "I think it's best if you witness it for yourself," Dane told him. "Let her do the talking… Not that you'll have much choice."
Mother? Daughter? Sister? Wife? Each possibility upped Nolan's heart rate until he felt like he'd just finished a marathon.
Dane's soft chuckle drew him out of his spiraling thoughts. "Don't look so worried. If anything, I'm the one…" The corners of Dane's mouth fell a little.
At that, Nolan's heart almost halted its progress altogether. Something bad is about to happen. I'm about to learn something I don't want to know.
Yet he couldn't bring himself to go.
He opted to deliberately misinterpret Dane's concern. "I'm sure the doctors here are very good," he said brightly. "You'll be in and out and walking about in no time."
Dane eyed him as though he might be the one with the concussion. "There will be some physical therapy in there somewhere, I think." But he didn't sound particularly put out about it, instead offering another tantalizing tidbit: "Well, I work at a desk all day anyway. So long as I can sit, I'll be fine."
"But can you work lying down?" Nolan asked.
To his astonishment — and delight — Dane laughed outright, much too loudly for the quiet of the hospital. Nolan glanced at the door Suzue had left open, sure someone would come to chastise them.
"Not easily," Dane admitted. "I could, probably, but it wouldn't be comfortable."
Nolan knew he was being scrutinized for a reaction, so he worked to keep his expression neutral, indifferent. "And are you comfortable enough now?" he asked solicitously.
"The medicine is doing its job. Actually feels a bit like a wool blanket has been laid over me, if that makes sense? I feel fuzzed up and slightly itchy."
Nolan allowed himself to smile. "And your words are starting to sound soft in your mouth," he said. "You'll be asleep soon."
"And you'll be free to go," said Dane, adding, "Not that you weren't before. Or even now, if you want."
All at once Nolan felt exhausted. Not by the events of the day, but by all the pretense. Neither of them willing to say what they wanted, each of them tiptoeing around the other. "This is ridicu — "
"Daaaaane-san! What have you done?"
Nolan's head whipped toward the open doorway. A Japanese woman stood there, her shoulder-length hair cut in a blunt fringe across her forehead, her beige suit providing a veneer of professionalism her energy and shrillness belied. Seemingly oblivious to him, she strode to the bedside and threw up both hands, her long nails manicured and glossy though not painted.
Dane closed his eyes the way people did when fending off a headache. "Not asleep soon enough," he murmured.
"You are on deadline!" she said, then, "Don't pretend to sleep!"
Dane's eyelids lifted a fraction. "Yuka-san, this is…" He paused, and Nolan froze where he sat, unsure of the reason for Dane's hesitation. Second thoughts? Or was he just not feeling well?
Yuka finally turned to look at him, her lips pursed and eyebrows drawn downward with impatience. But then her eyes widened and her mouth fell open. "Oh. My. God. Dane-san! Is this…?"
Dane's eyes closed again.
"You are Hideki?" Yuka demanded.
"Ah, oh," said Nolan. "No. No, my name is — "
"Yes," Dane sighed, eyes firmly shut. "This is Hideki. But his name is Nolan."
Nolan could not be entirely comfortable with the way Yuka's gaze seemed to devour him. "You look just like him," she said.
"Of course he does. He was the inspiration," said Dane.
"How can I be Hideki if my name is Nolan?" Nolan wondered aloud. "I'm not Japanese," he added, knowing even as he said it that he sounded stupid and slow witted. "I don't even live in Japan."
There. He'd said it.
To his gratification, Dane's eyes opened, his blue-green focus fully on Nolan.
"It's why I can't speak it," Nolan explained. "I did live here, briefly. But I moved three years ago."
Dane only stared, but Yuka's hands flew to her mouth as if to hold in the squeal… which she didn't. "You come back to meet him? Every year?"
Nolan sought a reasonable response, something that wouldn't sound clingy or make Dane question his emotional balance. "I wouldn't want him to worry something bad had happened to me. At least if I show up, he knows I'm still alive. If it matters," he added half to himself.
"Of course it matters!" Yuka cried. She clasped her hands together and pressed them to her sternum. "This is better than your manga, Dane-san! No! It is the source! We could do a magazine story…"
"No," Dane said flatly.
Yuka turned to Nolan as if for commiseration. "You see how he is. He doesn't want people to know his real name, or what he looks like."
"Manga?" Nolan asked. He felt a step and a half behind everything that was happening.
"Hideki Tokidoki Dokidoki is one of the most popular series in Japan! We are contracting to do an anime." Yuka threw a pointed look at Dane. "But we need to know the rest of the story to plot it, and Dane-san will not tell us the end."
Nolan struggled to catch and hold of all the threads of information being thrown at him. "Hideki… is a manga?"
"He is the main character," Yuka told him. She turned back to the figure on the bed. "Don't pretend to sleep!"
Dane opened one eye, and the iris swiveled in Nolan's direction. Nolan couldn't entirely decipher the ingredients in Dane's expression: amusement, he thought, but also uncertainty, and maybe a small pinch of hope?
"Hideki is a manga character," Nolan said, trying to weave the threads into a complete picture, "and I look like him?"
"He looks like you," corrected Dane. "That day… I thought I was done for as a writer. Maybe I could keep drawing for someone else, but I was sure I didn't have anything more of my own to say. And then there you were, under that tree."
"Dane-san is the best writer and illustrator in Japan," Yuka avowed.
"Can't go on forever, though, can it?" Dane asked, his words half mumbled. Nolan supposed the medications were too strong for him to continue fighting to stay awake. "Ends… in a hospital…"
Nolan waited for Yuka to yell at — what was Dane to her? A client? But she only watched him fall asleep with a small frown on her face. After a minute, she turned back to Nolan. "A hospital is a terrible ending," she said. Then, brightening, "Let's get tea!"
Nolan expected Yuka to lead him to the hospital's canteen, but instead they exited the building, navigated a couple streets, and ended up in a cozy bookstore that had a café attached. Yuka marched Nolan toward the back of the shop, scanned several shelves, then reached up and extracted an orchid-colored tome, which she handed to him. When Nolan only stared at the big "1" and the barcode, she huffed and flipped it over in his hands so he could view the cover.
With a start, Nolan recognized himself — or what he would be if he were a Japanese-style comic book character. Dark, messy hair that was just a tad too long, and dark eyes that somehow managed to convey both curiosity and apprehension. That's how he sees me?
The character — Hideki, Nolan supposed — leaned against a cherry tree, one hand in his trouser pocket, the other holding a book. From behind the tree a trio of heads leaned out, one male and two female, at least at Nolan's best guess. The male was blond, but that was the only similarity to Dane that Nolan could see.
"I can't read it," Nolan said as he tried to make sense of the stylized writing. He couldn't even distinguish the title from the author's name. He flipped open to a random page, wondering if he might be able to understand the story from the pictures alone. The illustration showed one of the girls embracing a very embarrassed-looking Hideki. Behind them, the other girl looked angry and the blond man watched from between his fingers.
Nolan shook his head, closed the manga, and handed it back to Yuka. Only then did he realize they'd drawn an audience. A woman scuttled by, eyeing him and the manga in his hand. At the far end of the aisle, another person peered around the shelving at them; he suspected the person might have a phone camera aimed their way.
Yuka finally relieved him of the book and slipped it back onto the shelf. "You see?" she said.
Nolan wasn't sure what, exactly, he was supposed to see or how he was supposed to feel. Flattered? He thought he probably should be, but he was more disconcerted than anything.
His skepticism must have showed because Yuka tilted her head and said, "Hmm." She turned away and he followed her toward the café, where she ordered tea and he asked for water.
"You made a big impression on him," Yuka said when they'd settled at a table.
Nolan couldn't fathom it. He'd never made an impression on anyone that he was aware of.
"And he did on you, too," Yuka said. "Else you would not come back every year, right?"
"I don't know why I come back," Nolan admitted.
Yuka nodded. "Hideki is a mysterious character. Everyone tries to get with him, but he always slips away. But Shinobu is getting closer and closer. Most people are wanting them to be together."
"Shinobu is the blond one," Nolan guessed. Alarm bolted through him at his next thought. "And he's stalking Hideki?"
Yuka waved her hands as though to ward off the thought. "No! Only, like…" Her brow furrowed as she sought a way to explain. Her English was very good, in Nolan's experience of Japan, but she clearly believed much depended on her choice of words. "Shinobu watches, but…" Nolan thought of the image of Shinobu peering through his fingers. "He doesn't chase. He waits. And when Hideki needs someone, always Shinobu is there to help or to listen without being trouble for Hideki."
What did that mean? That Dane wanted to be there if Nolan needed a friend? Then why not say so? Why not give Nolan enough information to keep in touch? Instead, he'd written a kind of love letter that everyone but Nolan had read.
Yuka's gaze, which had been trained on him, shifted to over his shoulder as a sibilant murmur of whispers rose behind him. She smiled at whoever was there and the whispers grew louder and more furious.
Nolan became aware of someone tiptoeing up beside him. He glanced over at a young woman whose age he couldn't determine. High school? College? Younger than he was by half a decade at least in any case.
"Kare wa eigo o hanshimasu," Yuka said.
"Hideki desu ka?" the stranger asked.
"Souseiji, ne?" Yuka replied.
The woman looked at him. "Picture?" She mimed using a camera with her fingers.
"Oh, uh… Okay."
The woman handed her phone to Yuka and he stood up and tried to smile. Soon a group had gathered and Yuka accumulated a pile of phones to work through. Nolan felt sure he looked utterly bewildered and somewhat stupid in every photo, but based on his impression of Hideki Tokidoki Dokidoki, that probably made the experience more authentic for them.
At last he took a photo with the café staff and then he and Yuka made their escape. As they turned back toward the hospital, Yuka said quietly, "He did not know you were not in Japan. Or that you don't read Japanese."
It took Nolan a minute to deduce her meaning. "He thought I would read it? And know it was about me?"
"He should have given me a copy," said Nolan.
"Then it would seem like bragging. Dane-san is shy."
The smile… Every year, the bashful smile and the worried expression, as though he was sure Nolan would stand him up. And maybe a little bit of worry that Nolan had discovered the manga and might want to confront him with it? At the same time, perhaps that would have been a relief.
"Better out than in," Nolan muttered. More directly, he asked, "Are you his, er, publisher or…?"
"He says 'editor,'" Yuka told him, pronouncing the word carefully. "I make sure he turns in his work on time."
"Doesn't he usually?"
"Ha!" she said, drawing stares and glares from the people around them in the hospital. "It takes him a long time. We only get two or three volumes out a year, and only because I bother him."
Nolan had no idea how many volumes a manga was supposed to publish in a year, but evidently two to three was on the low end.
"He always wants it to be just right," Yuka went on, "in case you see it. He wanted it to be something you would be proud of."
"Why didn't he just tell me how he felt?" Nolan asked.
"Why didn't you tell him?" Yuka countered. She shook her head. "Whether they love women or other men, men are dumb. But," she added as they approached the door to Dane's room, "it cannot end in a hospital. Everyone would be angry."
She pushed open the door.
7 months later
"Beautiful, isn't it?" asked Dane.
Nolan squinted out the window at the sprawl of Tokyo below, the grays and beiges of never-ending urbanity. He hadn't learned to love it so much as tolerate it. "Not sure I'd call it that. Certainly unique, though."
Nolan stiffened at the familiar hesitancy. Thank God for Dane, who turned around with a genuine smile, giving Nolan time to mentally gird himself.
He didn't hate the requests for photos. Didn't resent them. Just couldn't get used to or comfortable with them.
The girl was maybe fourteen. They took a picture with her, a couple more with her two friends, another with all three… Meanwhile, the murmuring began: "Hideki… Shinobu…"
To Yuka's delight, Dane had revealed himself as the author and illustrator of Hideki Tokidoki Dokidoki. Signings and interviews had followed. Though nothing formal had been announced regarding Nolan's role in inspiring the manga, it wasn't difficult for fans to connect the dots. Particularly when they were seen in public together.
Eventually they were able to extract themselves, though Dane's dependence on his cane slowed their escape. "It won't always be this way," Dane promised. "They'll move on to the next thing soon." Nolan wasn't so confident; though Hideki Tokidoki Dokidoki had put out its final volume three weeks prior, the anime series had only just begun airing.
Nolan didn't watch, and he'd adamantly refused to be told the ending of the manga. When Dane had appeared hurt, Nolan had explained, "I'd rather we write our own ending — if there's going to be one — together. If that makes sense?" Dane had smiled at that; he understood.
As they made their way to the restaurant, Nolan asked, "And what's your next thing?"
"Inugoya." It was Yuka's word for their apartment; Dane had told Nolan it meant "doghouse," assuring him Yuka meant it affectionately.
The restaurant hostess appeared startled when they arrived, another common reaction that Nolan could not get used to. When he was alone, he got doubletakes, but he and Dane together received flat-out stares. At least the hostess was polite enough not to whip out a phone or camera. Surely far more impressive people ate at Skytree.
Once seated — again by the windows — Nolan asked, "You're going to write about our apartment?"
Dane laughed. "Wouldn't make much of a story. But I thought something about a group of roommates could be fun."
"What does Yuka think?"
"We've yet to discuss it. I need to flesh it out a bit first."
As Dane continued describing the characters he'd created for his new project, Nolan's gaze wandered back to the windows. The sun was setting, haloing the city in pinkish-orange and lavender gray. Slowly, like stars appearing, lights in the buildings began to wink and glow. At night, and decidedly from a distance, Tokyo almost was beautiful.
Nolan's brain clamped onto the unfamiliar word and pulled his attention back to his companion. In the few months since relocating, Nolan had been taking Japanese lessons, but due to the complicated language, he still only knew the basics.
Dane's lips twisted, but he appeared more amused than annoyed. "You haven't been listening."
"Sorry." He gestured at the window. "I was just thinking it looks prettier at night."
"Most cities do. In any case, I was suggesting we go away for a bit, maybe go leaf hunting."
"Leaf hunting?" As far as Nolan knew, Dane did not collect leaves or have an especial interest in botany. But they had only been living together four months so he supposed there was still much to learn. Certainly Dane did not know everything about him. One didn't come flat and blank to a new lover; rather, one unfolded like origami. The twisted shapes inflicted by previous relationships were slowly and carefully smoothed out so that new folds could be made.
What shape was I in when this started? What shape will I be in by the end of it? He hoped it was something he liked, and that he wouldn't have to be folded again some other way later.
"Tokyo doesn't seem to charm you," Dane was saying. "So maybe we can explore other parts of the country. It's a nice time of year for it."
Nolan wondered how recognizable they might be farther afield. Though they'd made a few forays out of the city, they'd done no extended traveling. "That would be nice," he decided. Then, "Can you do origami?"
Dane blinked at the change in course. "Uh, well, I know cranes are the popular thing, but I can only make a swan. Oh, and a fox. And a rabbit. Why?"
"Just curious." A server appeared with drinks Nolan couldn't remember ordering. Perhaps Dane had done it for him while his mind had been on walkabout. When asked what he would like to eat, Nolan found himself at another loss until Dane suggested he might enjoy the tuna.
"Do you know origami?" Dane asked as the server departed.
"No…" It was no good waiting for someone to shape you into what they liked or wanted or needed. Better to decide for yourself and then have someone else choose you because they liked the shape of you.
Dane, Nolan realized, had done just that: chosen him because he'd liked what Nolan already was. Not what others had tried to make him, but his natural form, the one most comfortable to him.
"No," Nolan said again, "but I think I'd like to learn."