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Rory stood tapping his foot in line behind about a hundred others who wanted an autograph from the singular Ran Yamane. His trip to California and the complete dedication it required to drive fifteen hundred miles in three days made it the first opportunity he had to relax and just enjoy the pleasant sensation of inertia.
In fact, in the fragrant, floral-scented bubble of space he was occupying, Rory took immense pleasure in imagining the moment when he would first see his idol. He imagined her shy surprise, and perhaps her humble acceptance of his floral tribute. From there, he would ask her to autograph his book and then his line drawing from eBay.
Rory was certain she would remark on his accent, because thirty or forty minutes away from the bayou simply everyone did. While it made an excellent icebreaker, he didn't like the way people thought it made him slow. On the other hand, it never failed to interest women, whether they thought he was slow or not.
What that said about women, he didn't know, but he hadn't been too proud to use it to his advantage on more than one occasion. He could simply say, "Please allow me," in New York City and open a door for a woman, and he wouldn't have to look for a hotel room for the night.
Behind his floral tribute, Rory was wondering just what he would do to attract Ran Yamane's attention when he reached the front of the line. He could see her from behind; her long black hair hung in a loose braid down her back. She sat at a desk on a large platform three steps off the ground, flanked by two men standing almost at attention. She faced away from the line of autograph seekers. She chatted briefly with each person as she signed hername; then they moved on. Rory could see she wore some sort of long black coat with the collar turned up, so he was tormented by his inability to catch even a brief glimpse of her face.
At last his turn came, and one of the men flanking her motioned for him to come up. He mounted the three stairs and went to stand before her. He took a deep breath and held his floral tribute out with a low bow. In the dark recesses of his mind, over the pounding of his heart, he thought he heard someone murmur something that sounded like "another one."
When at last he raised his head to look at the woman of his dreams, he froze with his mouth gaping open like a fish. Before him, with his arms folded demurely across his chest, was the most beautiful man he'd ever seen, but still, a man. Nothing less than a man, with a pitying expression on his face.
"You thought I was a woman, didn't you?" he asked. "I get that a lot."
The men next to Yamane chuckled, and one motioned with his head toward a pile of lovely floral tributes in a heap on another table, which was also stacked with stuffed animals and heart-shaped candy boxes like a vast pyramid made out of the dashed hopes of countless would-be admirers.
Rory looked at his flowers. He looked back at Ran Yamane. As if the last fifteen hundred miles were a film going backward, he saw the whole thing slipping away from him.
Yamane stood and leaned over the table. "Look." He spoke with a soothing voice. "I know it's a disappointment, but surely there's someone else at this convention who would enjoy receiving flowers from a nice young man? I've seen no less than fifteen Princess Celendriannas. Maybe you could make a new friend."
Rory couldn't speak right away. He waited for Yamane to sit back down and then wordlessly drew his portfolio out of his bag. "I bought this on eBay, sir, and I wonder if you would be kind enough to sign it for me."
"My," said Ran. His pen stopped in midair. "That's quite an accent you have. I presume you're from the South?"
"Yes, sir," said Rory politely. He noted another one of his cherished notions was being destroyed before his eyes. His artist was as American as he was. "New Orleans. You're American?"
Yamane nodded. "My mother is Japanese, but I lived in New York with my father until I was in my teens. I now claim Japan as my home, and Ran as my surname, but I sound as American as..." The man trailed off and grew silent.
"As what?" asked Rory, used to his accent being the subject of much conjecture. He frankly thought the man was rethinking saying, "As you do."
"I'm very sorry to have to tell you this, but this drawing isn't one of mine," Yamane said quietly.
Rory digested this. "Are you sure?" He frowned, looking at the picture in question. "There's no mistake?"
"I'm sorry." Yamane shook his head. "Did you pay for this?"
"Not much," Rory lied. "I got it on eBay."
"Here." Yamane motioned to one of the men standing beside him to get him a book from a stack next to all the abandoned flowers. "Here, I'll sign this instead. It's a safe bet you don't have this. It's brand-new." He slid his thumbnail into the top of the shrink-wrap covering the book and removed it. "What's your name?"
"Rory Delaplaines," Rory answered, swallowing his disappointment.
"Fine," said the man as he autographed the book. "Thank you for your interest. I'm sorry I wasn't what you expected." He handed Rory the book and turned on a smile of such detached Asian politeness that Rory's heart shattered into a million tiny pieces.
"Thank you, sir." He opened the book Ran Yamane had signed for him and gave himself wholly up to his quiet despair. It read, Best wishes to Laurie Dellplane from, and some kanji characters Rory could never hope to read. He felt tears sting his eyes and hesitated on the platform that had been his dream destination for half his life.
Rory briefly studied the cover of the book he held in his hands. He felt an immense, almost consuming desire to convey what he was feeling to Yamane. He lowered his head again, holding the flowers out before him. If anything, his bow this time was deeper.
"Excuse me," Yamane said in a stage whisper. "What are you doing?"
Rory didn't lift his head. "Well, as to that, sir, after careful consideration, there is no one in the world on whom I can bestow these flowers but you."
"No," Yamane said implacably.
Surprised, Rory straightened. He leaned over to speak to Yamane quietly. "I've thought about this, sir, I really have. I came to venerate the artist who created the work I admire, and I simply must be allowed to offer this token of the gratitude I feel."
"Don't you see I have enough flowers?"
Rory frowned and felt himself dig in his heels a little. "That is why I don't understand why you won't take mine with a simple thank-you instead of giving me a hard time." He pushed the flowers at Yamane. The men who'd been flanking Yamane stepped closer.
"Your flowers were for a woman named Ran Yamane who does not even exist and into whose image you have been pouring fantasies from your fevered imagination." Yamane pushed them back.
"Well, of course they were!" Yamane blinked in apparent shock, and Rory gained the upper hand. He smacked the flowers against Yamane's chest so the artist had no choice but to wrap his arms around them. "But it cannot be considered your fault that none of it was true. I love your work. I really, really love it." Rory bowed again and took a deep breath.
He continued. "I traveled a long way to get here. I left my home and my job and I arrived here this very morning with no plans, no place to stay, and nothing more than the cash it took to get in and buy some food. Whether you are a man or a woman, surely you can accept that graciously." He remained with his head bowed, but he didn't really know why except that maybe he was afraid if he lifted it he would see people laughing at him.
"Hey, Forrest Gump," someone behind him called. "You're holding up the line; get a move on."
Rory stood and began to walk away.
"Wait," called Yamane, "wait a minute."
He said something quietly to the two men who stood next to him and motioned Rory to follow him. To the assembled crowd, he said, "I need a cigarette. I'll be back in five minutes." He mimicked smoking with his free hand. Holding his flowers against his chest like a shield, he left the platform.
Rory trailed after Yamane as he wove between exhibits and vendors of every kind. Where normally Rory strode briskly, he found himself taking smaller and slower steps than usual, noting that Yamane's way of walking was rather furtive, even timid by comparison. When they reached the end of the convention center floor, Rory noticed they were headed straight for a burly security guard standing before a door that said NO EXIT.
"Perhaps," Rory said tentatively, slowing down, "this would be a good time to mention that I mean you no harm, and even had you been a woman, you would have been safe with me. I am not any kind of stalker so there's no need to..."
Yamane nodded to the security guard, who let him through the door. "He's with me." He gestured toward Rory behind him and went through to the brightly sunlit area behind the convention center.
Rory followed him out.
"You scared me; I thought you were going to have me arrested," said Rory with a sigh.
"Is there any reason why I should?"
"No, sir, there is not," Rory said, practically standing at attention. "I'm sorry we got off to a bad start. I was just rather surprised by you."
"And disappointed," Yamane added.
"Perhaps a little," Rory agreed. He took that opportunity to look, really look, at the man standing before him. Yamane was a diminutive man, reaching no higher than Rory's shoulder. He wore his long hair in a braid, but some wispy strands floated around his face in what seemed, to Rory, a rebellion against the man's perfection. He wore a pair of black jeans and a white linen shirt buttoned all the way to the collar. Over that, he wore a long black overcoat made of some lightweight fabric, probably silk, which accentuated his shoulders and chest. Instead of buttoning down the center from a traditional trench coat lapel, this coat buttoned down the side and was held together by knotted black silk ropes, the style at once exotic and distinctly Asian in its design. His hands where they clutched his flowers were long-fingered and elegant, even though they bore ink stains from the marker he'd been signing autographs with all day. Rory had to give credit where credit was due; this was a very, very beautiful man.
"Sorry." Yamane fumbled in his coat pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes and an expensive-looking gold lighter. He tapped out a cigarette and placed it in his mouth. Rory stepped forward. He took the lighter out of Yamane's hand, which trembled very slightly as he relinquished it.
"Please allow me." Rory reached out and removed the cigarette from Yamane's lips, threw it on the ground, and crushed it under his foot. "Those things will kill you dead."
"Are you insane?" Yamane seemed shocked. He tried unsuccessfully to retrieve his lighter.
"Now, how can I stand by and watch you kill yourself?" Rory drawled.
"You remind me of a dog I once had as a very small child. I used to twist its ears until it howled in pain, and still it came running whenever I called it."
Rory frowned. "Well, to my mind, that does nothing to recommend either you or the dog." He held the lighter out. Yamane took it but merely put it in his pocket with his cigarettes.
"Are you always like this?" Yamane asked. "Like a radio tower, broadcasting everything you think on your face as clearly as if it were written there?"
"You're very simple."
"But enough about me--what do you think of me?" Rory leaned against the wall, enjoying the feel of the sun on his face. He closed his eyes for a minute. When he opened them, Yamane was staring at him with something like ... interest.
"Why did you really come here?" Yamane asked. "I want the unvarnished truth."
"To find someone I thought..." Rory remained silent for a minute. "Someone I thought I loved."
"Give me your arm, please." Yamane uncapped his marker.
"Why?" Rory did as he was told.
"Blind faith should be rewarded, and outright stupidity should be eradicated. I haven't decided which we have here, yet." He wrote something on the interior of Rory's forearm.
"What is that?" Rory asked when he saw the numbers on his arm.
"That's the number of my room at the Hyatt. I'll be in and out at events all evening and into the early morning. If you wish, you may rest there since you have nowhere to stay. I'll let the hotel know I have a guest. Ask for a key at the desk."
"That's very kind of you, but--"
"Do you have a cell phone?"
"No, sir, I do not."
"Hm," murmured Yamane. "I see. Then if you are a complete fool, I'll probably never see you again." He knocked on the door of the convention center and the security guard let him in. When Rory made to follow him back inside, the guard closed the door in his face.
"Well, now," he said aloud, picking up the paper and filter part of the cigarette he'd crushed, watching its loose tobacco blowing lazily around on the ground. "That was unexpected."