Renee appeared from behind a yellow chipped door labeled ‘Employees Only’ holding a large pot of violets in her arms. “Oh, hello, Neil! Thank you for coming in today. I wasn’t sure if you’d make it.”
Neil nodded his head towards the front window, shrugging off his bag and leaving it in a wet puddle on the floor. “It kept getting worse so we called it quits for today.”
Renee’s gaze flickered briefly to outside, where the rain was continuing to pour down in sheets, and nodded in understanding. “You can grab those daisies off the counter and follow me. I’m moving them upstairs to make room for the new shipment of baby’s breath coming in tomorrow.”
Neil would never say it out loud, but he loved being inside Happy Petals almost as much as he loved playing Exy. After Renee graduated from Palmetto, she rented out a small two-story building crammed in between an antique shop and a tattoo parlor. With help from nearly all of the foxes (Andrew never did much besides stand around looking bored, and Aaron simply never showed up), she covered the place in yellow and blue paint, installed shelves along the walls, and sat angelic figurines on the dust-covered window sills. Under her direction, the small, deserted building bloomed and flourished. Neil always wondered what made her decide to pursue a career as a florist, but as the months went by and the shop filled with arum lilies, bell flowers and seed packets, he realized it didn’t really matter. With her pastel colored hair, and cozy, light blue overalls, Renee fit into the job as if she was born for it.
Even after Happy Petals was functioning and well-underway, Neil kept coming back. Whether it was because of the warm sunlight pouring in from the too-large windows, or Renee’s comforting aura, he couldn’t even begin to guess. But while the others moved their attention on to other things, Neil continued stopping by. He would come in after practices or early on Sunday mornings, helping her to re-arrange flowers or to sweep the floors. He helped her pick which breeds to have shipped in next, and gagged obnoxiously whenever one smelled particularly awful. Before long, it had become pattern, and neither he nor Renee ever thought to question it.
Scooping the large pot of daisies off of the counter, Neil followed Renee up the rickety stairs and into the large, open room that made up the second floor. The entire front wall was nothing but window, with long, skinny tables laid out before it. They sat the pots down on an empty corner, and Neil found himself observing the daisies with a curious eye. He had never cared much about symbolism or meaning before Happy Petals, but as the weeks flew by, he found himself learning more and more about all the different things a few petals and a couple of leaves could mean.
Renee caught the question in his eye, and a small smile tugged at the corners of her lips. “They have several different meanings, actually. Daisies are a common flower that come in many shades, as you well know. But some of the more popular meanings are innocence, purity, new beginnings and true love. A gifted daisy shows someone that you can keep your word. It’s a sign of trust.”
Wordlessly, Neil nodded and, without thinking, stole one of the prettier ones from its soil. Spinning it between his fingers, his thoughts drifted to Andrew. Andrew, much like Renee, never bothered to ask what Neil’s fascination was with Happy Petals. He occasionally made jabs at Neil, saying he was turning soft, but Andrew’s words never held any real bite, and Neil took that as the acceptance that it was. He had debated giving Andrew flowers before, as a gift, but never truly sat on the idea. He just assumed Andrew wouldn’t care much in the end, and he doubted Andrew read up on the different meanings of flowers, anyway.
But when he left the shop a couple hours later, dirt under his fingernails and the daisy still captured delicately between his index and his thumb, he decided that maybe just this once it wouldn’t hurt to try.
Andrew said nothing, but he glanced at Neil in acknowledgement and sat next to him on the edge. They were close enough for their thighs to brush, and Neil couldn’t help the way the contact sent warmth flooding through his veins.
They stayed like that for awhile, breathing in smoke and letting the cool evening wind flutter through their hair. Around them the silence hung comfortably, content enough to simply exist. As the minutes crept by, Neil’s thoughts turned back to the flower he had been carrying around with him since leaving Happy Petals. He had talked himself in circles about whether or not he would really give it to Andrew, and he had finally settled on just sucking it up and giving into the temptation.
“Your thoughts are deafening.”
Startled, Neil looked over at Andrew and saw a pair of hazel eyes already looking back. “What?”
Andrew rolled his eyes, looking back out and over the city below. For a few moments, Neil thought that was it, but then Andrew looked back again. “You’re thinking about something, Josten. It’s loud.”
Neil was once again reminded of how easily Andrew could see through him, how easy it was for the other boy to pick him apart like he was nothing at all. After a beat of indecision, he picked up the daisy from his side and held it out for Andrew to take. “I brought you this.”
Andrew continued to stare at him for another moment until his eyes slid from Neil’s and to the slightly crushed daisy in Neil’s hand. The first second crawled into the second, and the second into the third, until Neil was cursing the stupidity of this decision all together. Finally, Andrew spoke:
“What is it?”
Nervously, Neil itched to take his hand back. “A promise.”
Andrew’s eyes flickered to his, and in the next second he reached out and took the flower from Neil’s fingers before Neil could think to steal it away.
Neil watched silently as Andrew observed the flower, carefully turning it over in his palm. Another question was heavy in the air, but Neil decided to let it hang there undisturbed. The moment already had him feeling open and vulnerable, and he feared what would spill out if he opened his mouth. After a beat, he pushed himself up from concrete of the roof, and shrugged when Andrew raised an eyebrow at him.
“It’s getting late,” was all he said.
Deciding to make an escape, Neil slipped back inside of the building, immediately aware of the heat in his cheeks. Downstairs, he could hear his family making a mess in the kitchen, all visiting from their respective homes and lives for a dinner party that doubled as an excuse to get drunk. Running down the stairs, Neil joined them and even managed a smile when Nicky beamed at him from across the room.
“Neil!” A long line of sauce stretched from Nicky’s cheekbone to his chin, and Neil thought better than to ask. “I was wondering when you would finally join us. Is Andrew coming?”
Neil was mid-shrug when he heard the stairs creak behind him, and Andrew came walking in without a word. Andrew didn’t look at him, and Neil didn’t know what he would say, anyway. He could still feel the embarrassment hot on his face.
Across from him, Nicky froze, eyes locking on Andrew. Neil only had a second to ponder what had caught the boy’s attention before he heard Allison’s sharp intake of breath and Renee looked up from where she was stirring something with slightly more force than necessary. Renee’s eyes fluttered briefly over Andrew, and then she turned to Neil with a familiar hint of a smile.
Moving forward so he could get a better look, Neil stilled when he noticed what everyone else was staring at. Behind Andrew’s ear sat the slightly crumpled daisy, white petals laid bare against a blond backdrop.
Heat spread quickly within Neil’s chest, dripping through his sternum and pooling in the pit of his stomach. Andrew turned and looked back at him, and in a rush, Neil felt the air leave his lungs. For a moment, Neil could hear nothing but the sound of his heart. He felt as if he was falling.
Refusing to help the moment drag out, Neil tore his eyes away from Andrew’s before he said something that he wouldn’t be able to take back. No matter how many days went by, those three words still left an uncomfortable hole in his chest. Neil knew that they didn’t really need them, anyway.
Eventually, Renee took pity on him and turned to ask Matt if he could pass her another spatula. The moment broke and slowly conversations resumed around the room. Neil felt some of his discomfort lift as the attention moved away from him and Andrew.
Still feeling a pair of eyes boring into him, he waited until he felt like he could breathe again and finally looked back. Neil felt a nervous smile tug at his lips before giving in, smiling in full as he kept his eyes locked. Andrew didn’t smile back, but he did glance sharply at Neil’s mouth before he turned away, leaving their silent conversation reverberating between them.
A promise, Neil had said.
A promise, Andrew answered.