The first time they met, Jun was twenty. It was Monday, which he remembered because it was also the day his celebrated his coming of age. He wasn’t supposed to work that day, but Aiba was ill and couldn’t make his shift, so Jun had rushed from the city office where the ceremony was held, to cover for his friend. He regretted his decision to wear a hakama instead of a suit; he had thought that it would be interesting to wear traditional clothing, but as he stood behind the counter of the florist’s, all he felt was silly. High school girls tittered as they paid for their single-stemmed flowers, with the cards dedicating them to friends, boyfriends, and in one case, a sister. Kawamura-san, the elderly woman who owned the diner next door, was vocally approving of his choice of dress, which was equally embarrassing. Fortunately, there weren’t a lot of people coming in the store that day, besides the regular influx of high school girls and neighbours. When the bell hung on the door jingled, telling him another customer was coming in, he stood up straighter, and plastered a smile on his face as he called out a welcoming greet to the customer.
The man that had walked in looked bemused by the cheerful greeting. Awkwardly, he explained that he only wanted to ask for directions. Jun was visibly disappointed, but helped him anyway. Before the man left, he had decided to purchase a small pot of flowers that were on sale – the kind that people often buy to put at their window ledges, and then forget about. Jun was gratified, thinking that the man had felt bad about coming in without the intention of buying anything, but the man then gave Jun the flowers.
Surprised, he asked why.
“You’re celebrating your coming-of-age today, aren’t you? It’s just a present, to thank you for helping me.”
He never gave the man much thought after the first meet. It wasn't as if there was anything about that moment that stood out, other than the fact that he was overdressed for work and received flowers from a stranger. Now and then, when he glanced at the poppies set by his bedroom window, he would think of the man, but that was only to be expected. After all, it wasn't every day that a man received flowers from another man. Jun felt heat rising to his cheeks as he contemplated the thought. He was, at the moment, just getting over a crush on a senior in his department in college. Or rather - he was slowly coming to terms with the fact that the senior he liked was a guy, and that he himself might be into guys.
"You don't know that," Aiba had said. "It could be just senpai. You have to admit that senpai does have a kind of feminine look about him."
"I know," Jun had responded. "But I don't think that's it." After a year of nursing his crush, alternating between admiration and denial, he found that he was no longer able to lie to himself. Ohno-senpai might have been the first that made Jun feel conflicted enough to question his feelings, but he wasn't the only person Jun had ever been attracted to. Hell, if he really thought about it, even Aiba was somewhat attractive to him. That really wasn't a good train of thought to follow, though, so he left it alone.
But still. Ohno-senpai would be leaving the school that year, and he had never really contemplated wh Aat it would have been like to be in Aa relationship with another man. Now, every time he looked at the flowers, he wondered. What would it have felt like, to love someone enough to buy them flowers? What would it have felt like to receive them from someone he cared about? He had worked at the florist since he was in high school, and he had helped hundreds of teenagers choose bouquets for Valentines, or harried, impatient husbands looking for flowers for a quick anniversary present (or as an apology for things Jun would wish they didn't talk to him about) - but he had never asked himself that before.
It would be four months before Jun saw the man again. He didn't seem to remember Jun from their last meet - understandable, Jun figured, because he had been in a hurry the last time, and Jun's hair was much longer then. This time, he wasn't looking for directions, but for flowers. A bouquet so carefully chosen, that Jun thought that it must be for some girl the man cared about, but the choice of flowers made him frown. "Um," he said. "I don't mean to be rude - the flowers you chose are all pretty , but..."
"By all means," the man said. "Be rude. I don't mind." He smiled to show that he really didn't mind, but Jun saw that the smile was strained, and there was worry in his eyes. "But these are the flowers I'm choosing."
Jun thought that he understood, then. "Is she waiting for some kind of exam result, that you're wishing her the best for?"
A far away look in his eyes, the man shrugged. "Something like that, I suppose."
Jun nodded. "Courage, then. She'll need courage." Adding Edelweiss to the bouquet, balancing the colours with its whiteness, he said, "I won't charge for this one."
The man thanked him, and paid for the full bouquet anyway. "It's perfect," he told Jun. "It should be paid for." He thanked Jun again before starting to leave, turning when Jun called out.
"I wish her all the best."
The man's smile seemed genuine, then, Aas he thanked Jun yet again. Jun wondered why he felt Aa strange tugging within him, seeing that smile.
The next time the man came in, it was three weeks later. He remembered Jun this time, although Jun almost didn't recognise him. He seemed thinner, almost haggard, as if he hadn't been sleeping or eating properly since they last met. "Are you okay?" Jun blurted out, before he could stop himself. He didn't know what was wrong; he never talked to his customers in such a personal way. Perhaps it was the fact that he felt like he knew this man, because of their previous exchanges. Silly, he admonished himself. You don't even know his name.
"Hmm? Oh, I'm fine," the man replied, distractedly. "Thank you for asking." He was looking for something for Mother's Day, and asked if the shop did delivery. Jun assured the man that they did, and proceeded to take his order.
When the man left, Jun held the order form a little longer than usual before placing it in its folder. Sakurai Sho, the name read. He almost said the name out loud, but Aiba had come by to pick up the previous month's paycheck, and was asking if Jun wanted to have lunch together on his break. He put the order form away, and thoughts of Sakurai Sho fled his mind as he listened to Aiba.
One month, and about a week and a half. Jun had almost forgotten all about the man when he walked in the door. He picked the most cheerful flowers Jun had seen in a single bouquet, before. He still looked tired, like he never got enough rest, and had too much on his plate for him to handle, but he sounded happy enough as he spoke to Jun. The man watched while Jun arranged the flowers. He asked how long Jun had worked there.
"Since high school," Jun replied. "I'm not sure how long ago that is. It's pretty long. This place is owned by my best friend's aunt, so both of us have worked here since then."
He told Sho about his school - a small liberal arts college, which he preferred over the bigger schools available, because it offered more freedom when it came to choosing projects he wanted to pursue. He told Sho about Aiba and Shun and Ohno-senpai - who wasn't really studying there anymore, but dropped by every now and then. He told Sho about his classes. When he was telling Sho about something funny Aiba did in class, and Sho laughed loudly, he paused, startled by the sound. Sho had barely said anything to him throughout the whole time. He remembered that Sho was a customer, and felt his face warm in embarrassment. "Sorry," he said. "I don't usually get verbal diarrhea."
His laughter subsiding, Sho shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. I usually talk too much, so the fact that I’m actually pausing to listen means that you’re interesting. And it’s good to have someone else’s life to think about, for awhile.”
Jun wondered what was it in Sho’s life that he needed an escape from, but he didn’t ask. He supposed that it wouldn’t be his place to ask. So he finished his flower arrangement, and as Sho paid for it, he commented on how happy the girl receiving the flowers was going to be.
Sho’s smile dimmed a little. “He’ll probably chew me out for buying him flowers instead of something he could actually use for his birthday, but. I really hope that this will brighten up his room more.”
He, Jun thought. His. Whoever Sho-san’s person was, it was a him. He wondered what he thought of that, as he gave Sho his automatic plastic smile, and saying that he hoped that Sho would come back.
A few hours later, when his shift was finishing and Aiba was taking over, Jun thought that he had the answer. He was relieved, and disappointed. Relieved because he had been half-hoping that Sho might be the sort of person who wouldn’t hate him for being into guys. Disappointed because Sho seemed nice, and someone he’d like to get to know better, but Sho already had someone else.
Sho had dropped by a few times in the weeks that followed, buying new arrangements all the time. Jun wondered who it was all for; surely Sho hadn’t been giving all those flowers to the same person? They got to know each other better, but Jun always ended up talking more than Sho did. When Sho spoke to him, he would talk about his work and his family, but he never mentioned his friends. He never mentioned the man that he kept buying flowers for. Jun didn’t push the matter even though he wanted to, because he could tell that Sho needed to keep his silence, at least for the time being. He wished that there was something he could do, because Sho seemed to look worse and worse each time he came to the store.
“Have you eaten at all today?” Jun asked, once. “You look like you’re wasting away.”
“Sorry,” Sho said, contrite. Jun found it amusing how Sho was always meek when scolded by him, despite the fact that he was a paying customer, and Jun was just a part-timer. “I just haven’t got any appetite lately, that’s all.”
There was one entire week when Sho didn’t show up. Jun was used to seeing Sho at least once a week by then, and he wondered if anything was wrong. He wondered if he should call Sho up to check, but then he remembered that he didn’t even have Sho’s number.
“He could be away on a trip or something,” Aiba said, when they were having lunch. “Or, he got into an accident. That would be tragic, wouldn’t it?”
“I don’t think that’s the reason he didn’t come, Aiba,” Jun said drily, but he was frowning at the thought of Sho laid up in a hospital. The man had been looking unhealthy; what if he had collapsed at work? “He should’ve told me if he was going on a trip,” he muttered. “Making people worry,”
Aiba gave him a funny look, but refrained from commenting. Instead, he asked, “are you in love with this guy, or something?”
“What? No.” Jun laughed. “I hardly know him.” But that wasn’t quite true, Jun realized. By then he knew Sho almost as much as he knew some of his close friends. He may not know Sho’s phone number, or how many siblings Sho had, or where Sho lived, or anything personal like that, but he knew a lot. He knew, for example, that Sho was easily annoyed by people who take up an entire sidewalk but walked slowly. He knew that Sho sometimes wore horribly pressed shirts to work, and had a comfortably rumpled look more often than not. It didn’t matter how meticulously Sho cared for his clothes, the moment he wore them, it’s like they took on a different personality. He knew that when Sho laughed, it was impossible not to laugh along. He knew that when Sho stared into the distance, silent, he sometimes wanted to reach over to touch Sho, it was too fascinating a sight. He knew that Sho made fun as his position at his work place, but was secretly happy with his job. He knew that Sho loved someone, some boy who doesn’t seem to like flowers but Sho buys them in abundance for him anyway. He knew a lot. He knew enough.
He thought that if he knew too much then the situation might end up too deep for even him. He already cared more than he probably should. They were friends – perhaps barely even that.
There was certainly no reason for him to miss Sho.
“He came in the other day,” Aiba told Jun, when he walked into the store. It was his last week. His job-hunting had been successful, sort of, and he was going to start as an intern in a big photography studio. He preferred other kind of graphic works, but the studio had ties with a magazine that he was interested in, so he thought that it might be a good chance anyway.
“Your guy. What’s his name again? Sho?”
Hearing the name caused something to run down his spine, a short skitter of something that was almost electric. It surprised him. He didn’t think he cared that much. He hadn’t been that way over Ohno-senpai, and he had liked Ohno-senpai for a much longer time. “How did you know it was him?” he asked.
“I saw him once, remember? I came in when he was leaving, or something like that. Anyway, he did ask about you. I told him that it’s your last week. He said to wish you good luck with your new job.”
“What did he buy?”
“Hmm? Oh. Crysanthemums.” Aiba shifted uncomfortably. “I don’t think he’ll be coming over again.”
Jun thought about what the flowers meant, and thought back on all the flowers Sho had been buying before. He realized the possibility that he might not have known anything about Sho after all.
He didn’t think that he would see Sho again. After some time have passed, he stopped thinking about the other man. He started at his new work, and enjoyed it more than he thought he would. Aiba started an internship with an art magazine, but after his internship was over had decided to teach instead of continuing at the magazine. Jun figured that it made sense; Aiba would make a fun teacher. He loved his job at the studio, but he didn’t know yet whether or not he would say that he was passionate about it, the way Aiba was about teaching. Shun had decided to refuse all the internship offers that he received, preferring instead to travel and work at his own pace. Over time, both Jun and Aiba started to lose touch with him, unable to keep track with his change of addresses. Ohno-senpai, surprisingly, was still around, and they would meet him for drinks every now and then.
He dated, sometimes, but it was never serious. Sometimes it still surprised him that he didn’t feel the need to be “attached”. Aiba was seeing someone, a teacher from the same school, and Jun expected that his best friend would be married by the following year. Even Ohno-senpai had a long-term girlfriend, although neither Jun nor Aiba has heard much about her from their senior.
He wondered if there was something about him that was different.
“You just haven’t met the right person,” Ohno-senpai had said, in that quiet, reassuring voice he had, when Jun voiced out his thoughts. “That’s all.”
“What if I never do?” Jun didn’t really mind the idea of being alone. But everyone else seemed to think that it was the worst thing that could happen to them.
“Then that’s okay, too. There’s no secret rule that says that you have to have someone,” Aiba interrupted sagely, before ruining the effect with a fit of giggles. “Although I think in your case, you’ve already met the right person, but he got away.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Jun said stiffly. He really didn’t. But he laughed when Aiba made a face at him, and the blush on his face wasn’t from the drinks he’d been consuming, when Ohno-senpai gave him a reassuring hug and a kiss on the cheek.
“We love you, Jun,” Aiba said, yawning. “That’s weird. I’m sleepy.”
Jun turned to Aiba to remind his friend that he had school the next day, when he saw someone walking into the pub. Someone familiar.
It’s not love, he thought. At least, it wasn’t just love. They didn’t know each other well enough for it to be love. But it was something, and in a way, it had made his life stop when they no longer saw each other – it was like there was a sudden break in the path he was supposed to take, and he didn’t know how to choose another.
It was a possibility.
Sho had been equally surprised and pleased to see Jun there, although the way the other two men sat just a little too closely to Jun gave him a pause. He went up to them, but then found that he didn't have anything to say.
"Hey, guys," Jun said. "I need to go."
"But you're supposed to make sure I get home okay," the man on Jun's right whined, before he saw Sho fidgeting before them. He immediately straightened up, as if his drunkenness had been (mostly) an act. "Oh. Go ahead. Have fun." He wriggled his fingers as Jun left, making a face at him.
"Your friends?" Sho asked Jun, as the younger man ushered him out of the place.
"Yeah. I think I've told you about them. Aiba? And my senior, Ohno?"
Sho remembered, and told Jun so. He remembered everything Jun had told him, although that was something he would keep to himself. "So how have you been?" he asked. He had missed listening to Jun talk, he realised.
Instead of going off on a long speech about his life, though, Jun merely shrugged. "I've been okay." He looked at Sho, and smiled. "You look a lot better."
"Is that your way of telling me I looked terrible?"
"Not - terrible, really. But not good, either." His gaze on Sho was inquisitive. "I guess that you were going through a rough period of time."
Sho laughed, but there was no humour in his laughter. "It's not good, that's for sure." Jun's hand slipped into his, and he didn't pull away. Both of them wondered about how natural it felt.
"Tell me about it," Jun said.
The first time he had met Jun, Sho was in a panic. It had been a perfectly normal day at work, until he received a call saying that Nino was hospitalised. His best friend had a blackout when he was driving, and had got in an accident. In a hurry, Sho had asked Jun for directions to the hospital. The accident turned out to be minor, but the doctor wouldn't release Nino until he had a proper check up. And then, not telling either of them anything more, Nino was told that he needed an MRI. The second time he went to the Jun’s store, he was on the way to meet Nino in order to get the results.
He had spent most of his life in an accelerated speed. He had finished high school a year earlier than others his age, thanks to his parents’ meddling and helping him jump a year in middle school. Instead of using the extra time, he had went to college immediately, taking on more classes every semester than was usual, and finishing early, again. He didn’t know what was it that he wanted, but he never felt like anything was missing in his life. Then he heard that his best friend was dying, and everything fell apart.
He’d rarely seen Nino by then, even though they talked on the phone, or through e-mails, whenever they could. Nino knew he was busy with work. He knew that Nino was busy with school. They both knew that the other missed them, but they didn’t have the time to do anything about it. Sho regretted that, and tried to see Nino every day after the results were out. It was hard – seeing Nino get smaller, and thinner, and weaker. Nino was already so small in the first place. The treatments available would only be able to make Nino’s remaining days better, the doctors said, but there was nothing they could do at that stage that would save Nino. Why don’t you try, Nino had raged at them. Nino wasn’t one of those people Sho had read about, who accepted death gracefully and tried to make things better for the ones they loved. He was angry, and scared, and sometimes cruel – not just to Sho, but to the doctors, to his mother, his sister, his girlfriend. His girlfriend and sister showed up less and less, over time. His mother showed up, but she was too overwhelmed by the fact that her only sons was dying, that she would usually sit silently or chatter incessantly about unrelated things, trying to forget. It ended up with Sho being the one who would remind Nino to take his medication, or accompany Nino for his treatment sessions, or argue back with Nino when he was being particularly difficult. He’d rush to the hospital from work every day. He started bringing in flowers with him, hating the joyless room Nino had to live in. Nino had flung the flowers at him, once, but it didn’t stop him. He had come back from a short trip to the cafeteria once and caught sight of Nino touching the flowers, a sort of wistful smile on his face. It was then that he decided that it didn’t matter what Nino said or did to him – what mattered was that he did everything he could. He brought Nino’s favourite manga and games, and he even played together with Nino on the weekends. It was like trying to make up for all those years when he hadn’t bothered to see his best friend – no matter what he did, it would never be enough.
Those days had felt dense and heavy, like all his fears turned into shadows that haunted him no matter where he went. The only time of lightness was when he was at the florist’s. Jun would get excited telling him about everything that was going on in his school and with his friends, and it was as if Sho had stepped into a different world. He’d been to college, but he had never stopped to make any long-lasting friends – he had always thought that Nino was all the friends he ever needed. He had never thought of it as a place to have fun. But Jun seemed to love school, and for those brief moments while he waited for his flowers, a space opened up for him where he was someone else, where Nino wasn’t going to be gone, where there was nothing at all that would worry him.
When Nino had died, it happened without fanfare. He knew he was going; he was getting too weak to go to his treatments. Everyone who loved him was there – Sho was glad for that, that Nino could see that he was loved. Sho was the only “non-family” who stuck around, after, to help Nino’s mother with everything. He would have helped more, donated for what would have been appropriate for family, instead of just a close friend, but Nino’s mother had asked him not to.
“We couldn’t take money from you,” she had said. “Nino wouldn’t have wanted that, not after you’ve done so much for us already.”
Sho thought that Nino might be gleeful about using his money for the funeral, but didn’t mention that to Ninomiya-san. Instead, he just insisted that he wanted to givesomething.
“Flowers, then,” she had said. “You’re always bringing him flowers.”
He hated to admit it, but he was looking forward to seeing Jun again. He needed Jun’s presence, Jun’s chatter – if he felt like he was being crushed under the weight of so many shadows, he thought of Jun as someone completely untainted by them, bright and optimistic and beautiful. It made him wish that they could have met under different circumstances, that the thought of Jun wouldn’t have brought up the thought of Nino. He would have wanted to keep that radiance by his side forever. Another part of him was glad that it was all he would know of Jun, because he didn’t want any of his own shadows to fall on Jun’s light.
As (bad) luck would have it, Jun hadn’t been around when he went to make the order. The man who helped him was sunnier, chirpier than Jun would ever be, but it seemed like he was made of energy, bouncing all over the place, and it made Sho feel tired. He didn’t wait for Jun to come in, thinking that it was probably for the best, because their relationship was superficial, in the end.
Jun was quiet after Sho’s story. He didn’t know what to say. In the end, he said the only thing he could. “I’m sorry to hear about your friend. I’m glad that I helped, in what little way I could.”
They saw each other more, after the chance meeting. They exchanged numbers, and would meet for lunch one day, or for dinner on another, or a movie. Neither of them thought much about it – they were becoming friends, this time for real. Jun still talked too much with Sho, and Sho too little. Jun realized that Sho was usually a talker, though, when he went out with Jun and Aiba once, and the other two couldn’t stop talking. Jun was a little jealous, but he was happy that both of them got along well.
Sho was still grieving, Jun told himself at first. He should wait before finding out if they could have been more. Then there were always excuses – it was a happy time and he didn’t want to ruin the mood, Aiba was around, they were going to be late if he insisted that they talk… until it all just seemed too late to him, and they had settled too much into their friendship for it to change. If Sho still made him feel like a love song cliché, he tried not to dwell on it.
The first winter since Nino – to Sho, time would forever be divided into “before Nino” and “after Nino” – the two of them were walking in a park near the theatre house. Aiba had helped out in the stage design of the play, and they were waiting until it was time to go in. It was snowing lightly, and Jun was delighted.
“Aiba’s going to be jealous when I tell him we were out here when it started snowing,” he said, looking up at the sky.
Sho was struck again at how much he wanted to never leave Jun’s side. Jun made him feel lighter, inside. He used to think that it was betraying Nino, the casting away of his shadows, but at the moment he wished that Nino could have met Jun, and Aiba. Perhaps even Ohno, although Sho hadn’t seen Jun’s senior often enough to be sure. Nino would have loved them, he thought, just as much as he did.
He wondered if Nino had, in some way, guided him to the pub where he had met Jun again. He wanted to think that, however ridiculous it seemed. He wanted Nino to see that he was finally doing what his best friend had always been nagging him to do, what he had always said he didn’t have the time to do – live. And love, he thought, smiling again at Jun. He wasn’t sure if it was sudden, or if it was something that had been growing since the first time he walked into the shop where Jun worked, but it was getting to a point where he couldn’t deny that love was there.
“Jun,” he said. Jun turned around with an unguarded half-smile. “Will you come with me to see Nino?”
Whatever it was that lit Jun up dimmed a little; he knew what Sho meant. “Now?” he asked, sober.
“No. We’re watching Aiba’s play, remember?” Sho reminded him. “Later. Tomorrow. I don’t know.”
Jun took his time thinking about it, but finally nodded. “Okay.”
When he first heard that Nino was dying, Sho thought that he had never been so scared in his entire life. He was scared now, although it was a different sort of fear. He didn’t know how Jun would react. He didn’t know if Jun felt the same way.
With Jun by his side, standing before Nino’s grave, Sho told Nino about his life since the last time he’d been there. He told Nino of all his first times – going out with a lot of friends, watching a play, falling in love. Especially falling in love.
“I’m not sure if he loved me back, but I brought him here anyway,” Sho said. “Because I wanted you to meet him.”
He wanted to tell Nino Jun’s name, he wanted to explain the whys and hows and his fears that Jun might reject him, but he found that he couldn’t. He held his breath, as Jun digested his words, and turned to him wonderingly.
“Did you mean that?” Jun asked, his voice a thin whisper of disbelief.
“Me, too,” Jun said, sounding like he was letting all his breath go with the words. “I mean, I feel the same way. About you.”
As they stare at each other, with too-wide smiles appearing on their faces, the clouds above them shifted, letting light shine through to the previously shadowed area they were standing in. That was when Sho thought that he didn’t have to tell Nino about Jun; Nino had probably always known.
“Come on,” he said, laughing slightly with relief. “Let’s go back.”
Jun took the hand he offered, and he knew that he would never again be burdened by shadows.