Mr. Ackles’ Flower Shop was located on an unassuming side street tucked away at the far end of Howler’s Walk, a place that was beloved by its regulars and went unnoticed by just about everyone else. Even people who had been before occasionally had a hard time finding it again. Many of them found themselves so turned around by the rows upon rows of brick houses, lined up side by side in a silent guard of honor, that they eventually just gave up and returned home, and every once in a while, over dinner, brought up that flower shop on the outskirts of town, the amazing one, the one that had simply… disappeared.
It was bad for business, without a doubt, but Jensen liked it that way. He was the owner, manager and sole employee of his little shop, and despite the fact that he had not been able to afford so much as a new suit in quite some time, one of the things he enjoyed most about his shop was the fact that there was rarely more than one customer vying for his attention.
He had not, however, planned it that way. After his mother’s death, when Jensen could barely reach for the handle of their old store’s front door without the grief turning his stomach, there had been a single greenhouse for sale in the entire city, and Jensen had barely even hesitated. The fact that the nearest store was over a mile away, and another flower shop to boot, didn’t bother him. People would just have to go out of their way to visit him. Maybe that wasn’t the smartest decision financially, but Jensen was a florist, not a business man, and he remained firm in his belief that his customers recognized quality, and would return for more.
For a florist, Mr. Ackles’ Flower Shop had always done reasonably well. The shop and the two-bedroom apartment above it were Jensen’s property, and the money Jensen made every month had been enough to cover the upkeep and acquisition of his plants, food, bills, the occasional glass pane when drunken teenagers roaming the neighborhood decided it would be funny to throw rocks at his greenhouse, and even allowed him to set aside a little for presents for his extended family. Not that he saw them much, but he usually simply picked out plants for his friends, and his family tended to expect something a little more… extravagant.
Jensen didn’t see them much, and he suspected everyone involved liked it that way.
Recently, though, the paint had begun to flake from the door, and the little bell above it rang out less and less. And it was a recent development, because even at seventeen, when he had first gone about the tedious business of setting up a greenhouse as a flower shop, Jensen had had more customers than he did now.
In fact, for a while, he’d done remarkably well. Mr. Ackles’ Flower Shop had achieved local fame when Jensen, aged twenty-three at the time, created a flower that, sweet-smelling and beautiful as it was, filled the air around it with gentle pheromones. It wasn’t much, not really – just enough for the plant’s owners to wake up in the morning elated and refreshed, enough for them to stretch out on the sofa after a hard day and simply relax. The plant had, and continued to sell well even if nothing else in the shop did, and Jensen was well used to people trying to coax, pry, bribe or occasionally threaten his design plans for it out of him.
Jensen had yet to give in. He preferred his integrity to money, regardless of how tight it was at the moment. It was cold comfort, however, on days when the bell above the door rang once, or perhaps twice at most, and in recent months, Jensen had taken to seeking solace in his flowers even more so than usual. He loved them, and for the most part they loved him back, and Jensen had figured somewhere along the line that if he didn’t have customers to satisfy, then he could at least make his plants happy. He created the perfect environments for them, made sure they had all the nutrients they needed, showered them with affection and attention and always, always looked out for their safety.
Some of the ways he did things were subtle, others less so, but they were the reason why, in one of the window panes, there was a handwritten signs asking visitors to please close the door quickly upon entering and exiting the shop. It did not state why, but the twice-underlined ‘quickly’ did lend a sense of urgency to the request. Jensen tended not to ask for things, not really, but his plants were the one thing he was serious about.
It was just as well, since his plants were all he had.
On the particular Monday on which our story begins, Jensen, our reluctant protagonist, went about his morning routine just as he usually did. He cleaned up his store a little, tidied whatever mess his plants had created in the night, and took a good look around. The greenhouse was only a few paces wide, enough to set up two show tables side by side and still move around comfortably, but lengthwise it took up the entire building. The far ends were shielded by brick, not glass, which Jensen preferred. Not many people ventured that far, unless they had Jensen as their guide, which gave Jensen leave to store some of his more… eccentric flowers there. He kept a small assortment of decorations, as well; mechanical bugs that scuttled over their shelf, cogwheels whirring, brightly colored pinwheels, even the odd garden gnome with a mechanism that allowed it to tip its hat or lower its fishing rod, much as it pained Jensen to stock something so… inorganic. He had a small back room for soil and packaging materials, and if his selection maybe wasn’t as showy as, say, Pellegrino’s flower store on Lombard Street – well then, he preferred it that way.
Jensen very determinedly liked both his store, and his life. What he had was good. He refused to ask for anything more.
While not much of a morning person in general, getting the mail was officially turning into the worst part of Jensen’s pre-opening routine. It had never been particularly pleasant for him – he didn’t know anyone who’d travel to exotic places and might send him a postcard, and there just wasn’t anything particularly exciting about free advertisements. Lately, though, the take-out menus were being replaced by bills upon bills upon bills. There was the water and the heating and the deliveries, the broken windowpanes, soil and fertilizer, his license, his mortgage payments, his groceries.
Jensen closed the door firmly behind him, flipped the hand-painted sign to OPEN, and looked through the stack of letters on his way over to the counter, squinting a little through the lenses of his eyeglasses. Four of them were bills (one marked ‘late notice’), one a flyer advertising accounting classes for small-time business owners, and one a plain envelope addressed in an unfamiliar hand. He opened that one first, knowing what the others would say, and unfolded the plain sheet of paper tucked inside.
Jensen, it read, in an easy, flowing script. We should have a talk sometime. I daresay you know why.
It wasn’t signed, but Jensen nevertheless knew who it was from. And that, perhaps more than the presumption of the note itself, or even simply the note, made him so angry he had to grip the edge of his white-washed counter to keep from hitting anything.
He had yet to unclench his hands when the bell above the door rang out, signaling his first customer of the day – a short, squat gentleman in a thick coat. But he managed a smile, because professionalism was important, and said, as kindly as he could on a morning that had already turned sour, “Close the door, please.”
The man blinked but obeyed, pushing the door shut roughly, and took a few shuffling steps into the greenhouse.
“How do you do,” Jensen said. “Are you here for anything in particular?”
The man shook his head, huffing a little bit, and Jensen smiled again.
“Well, feel free to have a look around, and let me know if you have any questions. And try to stay away from the Birds of Paradise,” he warned. “They peck.”
The man cast a quick, panicky look over his shoulder, and then skittered further towards the counter when two or three of the stalks swayed closer in interest. “So,” he said. He shuffled closer. “You’re Ackles, right? The Ackles?”
Jensen, who had had similar conversations several times already, smiled tightly. “What can I do for you, sir?”
“Well.” The man took another step towards him. “Because I have to tell you, Ackles, you’ve really made a name for yourself, you know?”
So it was going to be that conversation. Well then. Jensen leaned his elbows onto the counter and raised an eyebrow. “Is that so?” he asked tiredly.
“Uh-huh. And I’ve gotta say, I’m really liking those happiness plants you’ve got by the window.”
“The crimson felicitas?” Jensen asked.
“Uh-huh, those.” The man waved a vague hand. “Now, you see, those plants of yours, I’ll admit they made me a bit curious. Like, how does an untrained florist like yourself come up with something as successful as that?”
“Trade secret, I’m afraid,” Jensen said, still smiling.
The man’s smile, if anything, grew in intensity. He leaned an elbow onto the counter and lowered his voice, as if there was anyone else in the shop to overhear them. “Now, Jensen,” he said. His tone seemed to imply that Jensen was nothing more than a particularly stubborn toddler, and Jensen had to struggle to keep his carefully pleasant expression in place.
“Jensen, Jensen, Jensen.” He waved a dismissive hand. “Go on, you can tell me.”
“I really can’t,” Jensen said.
“But I won’t.”
The man kept smiling, and Jensen kept smiling, and after a moment the man pushed himself off the counter and huffed his way out the door.
Jensen sighed. The worst part wasn’t even that they tried to pry his secrets out of him – it was that they didn’t even bother buying anything in apology when he called them on it.
To calm himself down, he went to water the few plants that actually needed it, and then spent another hour and a half organizing back issues of Strange and Exotic before the doorbell rang out again.
This time it was a woman, in a sleek black coat, who took a slow look around and frowned before Jensen so much as had the chance to say hello.
“Don’t you have any arrangements?” she asked, letting her disapproving gaze sweep over the rows of potted plants. “I can’t show up at my sister’s with an armful of dirt.”
Jensen swallowed back an angry retort. He managed to conjure up a polite smile instead. “I’m afraid not, Ma’am,” he said, and rubbed his hand over his eyes when she headed for the door without another word. Jensen wasn’t really the type to hate Mondays, but sometimes he understood why other people did. Sometimes he really understood.
He’d just decided to trim the Japanese bonsai – Jensen had been overfeeding it with the blowfish soup, judging from the way it had grown – and gone to fetch it from the leafy green jungle at the back of the greenhouse when the bell rang out for a third time.
“Jensen!” someone demanded. “Where are you? Come out here so I can tell you about the tragedy that is my life.”
“Coming!” Jensen called back, laughing. It felt good to laugh, and it was certainly a relief to find someone in his store that wasn’t about to berate or belittle him. “I’m on my way, Lindsey, just give me a minute.”
“Come faster!” Lindsey groused. “I don’t think I can stand it for another second.”
“Your date didn’t go well, I take it?” He picked up the little plant and hefted it in his arms. He tried to find solace in the fact that he was not the only one struggling with his existence at that moment, but it was cold comfort, especially considering Lindsey was one of his closest friends and not someone Jensen would wish ill, not under any circumstances.
Lindsey was, like most people Jensen considered friends, someone who had come into the shop as a customer and had then refused to leave. She was a receptionist at the Howler’s Glen Wildlife Clinic, Jensen had learned, just a few minutes up the road. She liked to stop by after work and soak up the atmosphere, even though she didn’t always buy something, and Jensen honestly looked forward to her visits.
Perhaps not everyone would have prided himself with being her friend, but Jensen liked to think that he was a reasonably open-minded character. Lindsey liked short sleeves and low-cut dresses – indecently so, perhaps, but it wasn’t as though Jensen had any interest in her dress and what lay underneath it, so he saw no reason to frown upon it.
When Jensen had fought his way back to the counter, he found Lindsey slumped in front of it, drooping from her lace-up boots and lacy hemline all the way up to her hair. She brightened when she caught sight of Jensen, but not by a lot. “It was a tragedy, Jensen,” she said. “A tragedy, I tell you.”
“Apparently so,” Jensen said. “Give me a moment and you can tell me all about it.”
He set the tree on the counter before he slid behind it, pulled two shears from a basket underneath it and set them down. He picked up one of them and went to work, leaving the other for Lindsey – sometimes she liked to help him out, but today, it seemed like her tragic tale of woe had her entirely preoccupied.
“I can’t believe I went out with him,” she muttered, more to herself than to Jensen. When she did look over at him, her eyes were the size of small flower pots. “Jensen, I can’t believe I actually went out with him!”
“He must have done something truly appalling,” Jensen said carefully. “Last time you came in, you could barely contain your excitement.”
“Oh!” Lindsey exclaimed, in the tone of voice she only adopted when she was truly working herself up about something. “Oh, Jensen, I don’t know how he ever managed to fool me.”
“You don’t even know!” Lindsey exclaimed. “God, it was so awkward, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. And he brought me roses,” she groused. “Seriously. Who does that?”
Jensen shuddered in sympathy. Every once in a while, on the rare occasions that he went out to a family gathering, someone or other would remark that he did, after all, own a flower shop, and what did he think of the oh so lovingly arranged buckets of dead flowers by the door? They meant well, Jensen knew, but there were few things he could imagine that were worse than asking a florist’s opinion on carelessly slaughtered plants.
“That sounds fairly bad, I’ll admit,” Jensen said.
Lindsey shuddered again, dramatically, and mimed thrusting a bouquet of flowers at someone. “‘Here, I’ve brought some lovely murdered plants for you to enjoy.’ Ugh, he was such a prick.”
Jensen chuckled a little, and after a moment, Lindsey joined in.
“I might have overdone it a little, telling him off,” she admitted. She stood for a minute, then she picked up the shears on the counter and took careful hold of a leaf. “Anyway, that’s done with now. I’m not ever going to see him again.”
She said it haughtily, but Jensen had known her long enough to recognize the disappointment in her voice, and despite what she was saying now, he also knew she’d been looking forward to her date since the moment the unfortunate miscreant had finally managed to ask her.
Seeing her here, now, mouth flattened into an unhappy line, it only took him a moment to make up his mind. He raised a finger into the air. “I might have something to cheer you up,” he said, stepping around the flower beds and venturing deeper into the jungle at the far end of the greenhouse. Lindsey followed him, keeping a possessive hand on her purse when she had to edge past the long-fingered fern.
Jensen lead her to a shelf in the back where he kept his less popular, less space-consuming plants, and lightly felt across the top shelf until he found what he’d wanted to show her; a small, dry bundle of leaves, tightly curled together in a shade of unappealing olive-brown.
“Here she is,” Jensen said, and placed the plant in Lindsey’s outstretched hand.
Lindsey took a moment to inspect the plant resting on her palm. When she looked up again, her eyes were sparkling. “I’m upset about getting a dead plant as a present, so you decide to give me a mummified one to cheer me up?”
She didn’t seem particularly upset, despite the misunderstanding, so Jensen laughed before he hurried to explain. “It may look mummified,” he said, “but it’s actually perfectly alive and healthy. It only needs a little water to restore it to its full glory.”
Lindsey took another, closer look at the plant. “It lives without water?” she asked.
Jensen nodded. “The crusader’s rose is a desert plant,” he said. “It can survive for decades without water, but merely the slightest bit of moisture causes it to unfurl and blossom. As long as you store it in a dry place, it’s virtually unkillable.”
“And invincible plant,” Lindsey mused. She grinned. “I think I like it.”
“Wait ‘till you see it bloom,” Jensen told her, and gestured her back to the counter. “Don’t even think about it,” he said, when she made to dig for her wallet. “This is a pick-me-up. Those don’t get paid for.”
“Jensen,” she began, but she thankfully refrained from reminding him that he had enough debts to pay without giving away his wares. It wasn’t like Jensen didn’t know. It wasn’t like he could ever forget.
“I’ll just get this wrapped up for you,” Jensen said, overly cheerful perhaps, but she remained silent, watching him wrap up the flower with a tight-lipped smile. It softened into something more real when he waggled her new darling in front of her face, and she pushed – carefully – at his hands.
“Jensen,” she chided.
“Let me do this for you, alright?” Jensen asked quietly, and after a moment, she nodded and gave his fingers a light squeeze.
After Lindsey had left, Jensen was just about ready to declare the entirety of the day a complete wash. Pride insisted he keep the store open until his regular closing time, but that didn’t stop him from going into the back room to tidy up a little and check on the plants that preferred a less bright environment, and then dust off his equipment. He found a set of shears behind his work table that were covered in bright red, sticky sap and spent a good half an hour scrubbing at them, so engrossed in the task that he almost didn’t hear the doorbell ring.
He dropped the shears into the sink to soak for a while and then had to unstick his fingers, and then he slid back into the greenhouse, an apology already on his lips.
The customer was peering into the tanks of water plants Jensen kept against the wall just by the door. He was tall, and tan, with dark hair just curling around his ears where it wasn’t tucked underneath a newsboy cap. It reminded him a little of the Ross boy who came in sometimes, looking ‘for inspiration,’ or whatever it was he did between the flower beds. Jensen was a little afraid to ask.
Despite the hat, however, there was little similarity between the two. Ryan was of average height and so rail-thin Jensen had to remind himself sometimes that it was unprofessional to offer to feed his customers, and his sense of dress often crossed the line into the flamboyant. Jensen's current customer had broad shoulders and the frame to match. His shirt, vest and coat were held in subdued greens and greys that suited him well, and Jensen took a moment to appreciate the way the colors worked with his skin tone. Here was a man, he suspected, who liked straightforward plants with a little bit of spice. Nothing crazy, nothing high maintenance, but nothing boring, either. Perhaps some whistling grass – he looked like a fairly cheerful person, as far as Jensen could tell, one who would appreciate a little musical accompaniment in the morning, when the first light hit the blades just right.
Jensen bit his lip, considering. The customer had an easy-going air about him, that much he could see. He certainly didn’t seem upset when the aquatic mockingbird in the water tank moved suddenly, leaves tilting to imitate a frowning face. He jumped, yes, but then he laughed and flicked his finger against the glass in greeting. He looked over a moment later, startling – though not as badly as he did Jensen – and straightened quickly.
“Hi there,” he said, with a smile that just about melted Jensen’s heart in his ribcage. “Are you Mr. Ackles?” He gestured vaguely upwards, perhaps indicating the sign above the entrance, and Jensen nodded.
“Jensen,” he said.
“Right. Jensen.” The customer bit down on his lower lip. “I’m Jared.”
A first timer, then. Looking for flowers to impress someone with – a date, or perhaps a girlfriend’s mother. Jensen let his professional smile melt into something a little more honest, more reassuring, and leaned his elbows onto the edge of the counter.
“Jared,” he said. “What can I help you with?”
He wasn’t particularly surprised when Jared’s face flared a bright, hot red. He hemmed and hawed for a moment, not quite looking Jensen in the eyes, before he finally swallowed, cleared his throat. “Well, you see,” he said, tugging on the brim of his cap, “I’m going on a date tonight.”
“Oh,” Jensen said. He had been expecting it, of course, but perhaps he had been hoping that Jared had been looking for a flower to gift his mother on her birthday, or something similarly unlikely.
Jared nodded without meeting his eyes. “And, well, someone told me that this store – you, I suppose – is good at figuring out what to bring. You know, on an occasion like that.” He hesitated for a moment, and then said, “And, and also, I know it’s bad form to bring cut flowers, but I wasn’t really sure how to go about bringing someone an entire potted plant without it being, you know. Awkward.”
“It doesn’t have to be awkward at all,” Jensen assured him. “We can find you something tasteful, subtle.” At Jared’s jerky nod, he asked, “Are you looking for anything in particular? How well do you know this person?”
“Genevieve?” Jared shrugged. “Not that well.”
Something generic, then. “A midnight rose, perhaps?” Jensen offered. “Its blossoms open in dark surroundings. Very suitable for romantic restaurants.”
Jared chewed on his lip for a moment. “Yeah, that – that could work,” he said.
Jensen brought him a single-stemmed rose in the smallest pot he had, and Jared nodded at his offer to wrap it. He paid and took it carefully, large hands almost entirely engulfing the clay pot.
“Thank you,” he said quietly. He fidgeted with the plant for a moment. “Jensen.”
“Yes?” Jensen said, but Jared only shook his head quickly. Pre-date jitters, Jensen decided, and smiled at him. “Good luck with your date,” he said.
“Oh, yeah.” Jared’s returning smile was a little strained. “Yeah, thanks.”
“I hope I’ll see you again,” Jensen offered, which was the truth, and Jared’s eyes crinkled.
“I hope so too,” he said.
He smiled, and waved on his way out the door that he closed carefully behind him. Jensen waited until he was out of sight before dropping his head into his hands. It just wasn’t fair.
A few days after Jared’s visit, of which Jensen thought more often than he liked to admit, he was bent over his calculations when there was a knock on the back door.
Jensen, welcoming the distraction, slid off his stool and opened the door to the storeroom. He didn’t keep many plants there, mostly just the dodder plant that burned in sunlight, but he liked having extra stock of wrapping papers and the occasional ribbons and decorations for special occasions. The storeroom also held another door leading to the back of the building, where Bernie from the plant delivery service parked every Tuesday morning when he came round to drop off whatever Jensen had asked for that week.
“Thanks, Bernie,” Jensen said once he’d unlocked the door, stepping back to let Bernie head for the work table with a crate full of fledgling plants. “How goes it?”
“Not bad, not bad,” Bernie huffed. “Although you have no idea how glad I am to be here.”
“Oh?” Jensen asked him when he was already on his way out the door again. He was vaguely flattered, he had to admit. “How so?”
He peered out the door, watching Bernie pull another crate from the back of the truck.
“I was just at Pellegrino’s,” Bernie confided. He laughed when Jensen pulled a face. “Exactly,” he said. “Man, I’ve never met anybody so picky in my life.” He grimaced. “The leaves are the wrong color, the blossoms aren’t big enough, bla bla bla. I mean, they’re living things, you know? They’re not gonna be picture perfect every damn day.
“Sign here please,” he said, and tipped his head while Jensen did.
“You have a good day, Jensen,” he said, and Jensen watched him carefully back his truck out of the driveway before he turned and shut the door.
“Jared,” he said, just barely concealing his surprise. “Another date?”
“Well." Jared touched the back of his neck, somehow managing to look up at Jensen, the way he ducked his head. “Sure. Yes. But that's not why I'm back."
"Oh." Jensen frowned. "Was the midnight rose not to your satisfaction?"
"No, it was fine," Jared was quick to reassure him. "It's just that - this is embarrassing, but it appears I've lost my wallet. I've already looked everywhere, and to be perfectly honest, this is the last place I remember having it." He smiled. "You wouldn't have found it, by any chance?"
“Right,” Jensen said, coloring again. “I think I have an idea what might have happened.” He gestured for Jared to follow him.
They didn’t go far, just past the first display table, where the long-fingered fern sat in a fat pot on the ground. Jensen made it a point to avoid Jared’s eyes as he crouched down in front of it, pushing a few of the bolder leaves away when they gently but insistently honed in on the pockets of his shirt. Reaching down, he bent the stems apart carefully at the bottom, and sure enough, there it was, laying in the pot’s soil – a plain brown leather wallet, along with an earring and Jensen’s spare basement key. Jensen tucked the jewelry and key into the pocket of his slacks before he rose to hand the wallet over to Jared.
“I’m terribly sorry,” he said. “I’m usually better at warning visitors about him, I don’t know what happened.”
Jared grinned and said “No problem,” even though Jensen was sure the lie was written all over his forehead. The truth was, Jensen had been so distracted by Jared’s sweet smile and his delighted laugh and his easy closeness that Jensen had let professionalism fly out the window and entirely forgotten how to do his job.
“I’m terribly sorry,” Jensen said again while Jared tucked his wallet away.
“It’s alright,” Jared said, waving him off. “Your store is amazing. It’s kind of worth coming back to for a closer look.”
“Oh.” Jensen’s smile was quick but real. He loved his shop, despite all the trouble it brought him, and it warmed him to the core whenever someone complimented it. “Do you have any questions about any of the plants?” he asked. There, that was almost smooth. “I’d be happy to answer them for you.”
“Well, since you asked.” Jared waved a hand at the many plants on display. “Do you think you could find something for me? My landlord doesn’t allow pets, but she never said anything about plants.”
Jensen tapped his forefinger against the side of his jaw, allowing himself to take in Jared’s appearance. He tended to recommend the Scandinavian pussy willow to customers looking for a pet substitute, because it was tactile and the purrs were enough to satisfy even the most dedicated cat person. With Jared, however, he found himself reluctant to resort to something so ordinary. And it wasn’t merely that all the rumbling could become impressively annoying at three in the morning – no, he wanted to (and could even admit it to himself) find Jared something special.
“Let’s have a walk around,” he suggested finally.
Jared seemed all too happy to, pausing here and there to look without touching anything. When they passed the yellow vanity cozied up to the greenhouse glass, he hesitated. “What about…?” he asked.
“No, no,” Jensen said, waving him away. “She’s far snooty, trust me. Unless you spend two hours in front of the mirror every morning, the two of you really aren’t going to get along.”
He started walking again, only realizing Jared wasn’t following when the other man laughed.
“You’re one of those people, aren’t you?”
Jensen froze, and blinked, and whatever was showing on his face made Jared laugh again, sheepishly this time.
“I mean, one of those people who try to match up their customers with their best fit, or whatever. Not just whatever’s most expensive.”
Jensen looked down at his hands. “It just feels wrong,” he said. “Selling someone a bad fit just because I’d make a little more money. The customer wouldn’t be happy, and the plant wouldn’t be happy, and,” here, he smiled a little bit, “as you can see, my plants are somewhat important to me.”
“I figured as much,” Jared said, and when Jensen looked up, Jared was smiling at him. “Don’t worry.” He winked at him from underneath the brim of his hat. “I like that in a man.”
Jensen looked away, flustered. “So,” he said quickly. “How did your date go? Well, I hope?”
“Oh.” Jared reached up to finger the back of his head. A flush spread over his cheekbones and quickly disappeared again. “Yeah, it went well.” He turned, and then hesitated, attention caught by the broad-leaved dracaena that had become a permanent staple in the shop when, in a time of gross negligence on Jensen’s part, it had grown too big to fit through the door.
“That is one big plant,” Jared said, awed, and gently stroked over a leaf that was easily twice as big as his hand. The leaf quickly, but gently, folded around his fingers, startling Jared into laughter.
“It likes you,” Jensen concluded. “It’s probably because you’re both so tall,” he said, and promptly blushed.
Jared thankfully didn’t draw attention to Jensen’s bumbling. Instead, he reached out with his free hand to pat the broad trunk, and his grin, when he flashed it at Jensen, was anything but pitying. “I’d adopt it if I thought I could move it,” he confided. He placed his hand on another leaf, grinning again when it achieved the same effect as the first.
“What’s special about this one?” he asked.
“The fact that it likes you,” Jensen said. “Dracaenas are notoriously bad-tempered. It’s had years to get used to me, and still…” He took a step closer, holding out a hand that the dracaena’s leaves instantly shied away from. “Imagine what it might be like if it didn’t.”
“I’m honored,” Jared said earnestly. He took a slow step back. “Wish I could take you, buddy,” he said, then turned away reluctantly. “Any chance you’ve got anything a little less – massive?”
Jensen tilted his head to the side, insight striking him unexpectedly. “How do you feel about books, Jared?”
“Uh.” Jared blinked. “They’re all right, I guess? Nice to read on long train rides.”
Jensen felt his lips curve into a smile. “Then I may just have the perfect plant for you.”
“Now I’m intrigued, I’ll admit it,” Jared said, trailing after Jensen when he beckoned the other man to follow him. He found the parchment sylvatica with ease, picking up the leather-bound book the plant had dug its roots into and holding it up for Jared to see.
“It lives off the paper?”
“And the ink, and the glue,” Jensen said. “It evolved in old libraries, to no one’s surprise. It’s not just bookworms you need to watch out for.”
“Cool,” Jared said happily. “You think we’d get along?”
“I could see it,” Jensen said. And he could – the sylvatica wasn’t particularly high-maintenance, but just peculiar enough to interest someone like Jared, and he’d love for the two of them to find each other.
Jared brushed his fingers across a velvety leaf. “So how does me liking books factor into this?” he asked.
“Well, you need to have some books around, obviously, or she’ll starve.” Jensen reached up to scratch at the back of his head. “But if you’re the kind of person who thinks books are sacred and should never even be taken out of their packaging, then I wouldn’t try to give you a plant that eats them. Naturally.”
“Naturally,” Jared agreed with a laugh.
“She’s a little greedy,” Jensen admitted. “She’s probably going to go through a book a week, although that may vary somewhat depending on how big the book is, and how interesting.”
“Interesting books get devoured faster?” Jared hazarded, and Jensen smiled approvingly at him.
“You got it,” he said.
“Alright,” Jared smiled. “I think you’ve found me a new friend, Mr. Ackles.”
He insisted on paying the full amount, waving off Jensen’s offer of a discount for the missing wallet and cradled both book and plant in the crook of one arm.
“Take care of yourself, Jensen,” he said, waving on his way out the door. He made certain to close it firmly behind him, and from his vantage point, Jensen could see the creeping parvifolium droop dejectedly underneath the display table by the door. The plant’s incessant attempts to escape made it fairly unpopular with the customers, for obvious reasons, so Jensen had had more than enough time to get used to its antics.
He pointed the end of a pen at it. “I’m keeping my eye on you,” he told it.
When he looked over again a few minutes later, halfway through marking down Jared’s purchase, it had slinked away, and Jensen allowed himself a grin before he returned his attention to his paperwork.
The first time William had come in, Jensen had mistaken him for an extraordinarily tall woman. William had been clinging to the arm of an even taller man in a headache-inducing suit, head turned towards the mockingbird’s shenanigans in the water tank, and it wasn’t until he’d said “Gabe, look!” in what was undoubtedly a man’s voice that Jensen had bitten off the “Sir, Ma’am,” hovering at the top of his tongue and said, “How can I help you, gentlemen?” instead.
He didn’t realize Gabe, the man in the horrific suit, had been making faces back at the mockingbird until he turned to Jensen mid-grimace, cheeks puffed up dramatically. He deflated after a moment.
“I think we’re alright for now,” he said. “Bill?”
“Hmm?” The not-woman turned a surprisingly young face towards Jensen when Gabe tugged him closer. “Oh.” He smiled. One long finger indicated the water tank. “Your plants are lovely,” he said.
“Thank you,” Jensen murmured, flushing. He nodded at the water tank. “It reacts to light,” he said. When William’s eyes widened a little, he smiled. “That’s its primary defense mechanism. It mimics the way the light falls onto your features, creating the illusion of expressions – yours, to be exact. So if it looks like it’s making faces at you, it’s really because you’re making faces at it.”
“That’s amazing,” William had said, and stuck out his tongue experimentally, and laughed in delight when the mockingbird returned the gesture. “Gabe,” he said over his shoulder. “Gabe, we should come back here all the time.”
William had smiled at him then, and Gabe had winked, and they had returned at least once a month since then – always together, always smiling, always utterly absorbed in each other without ever making Jensen feel as though he were intruding. They’d quickly climbed the ranks of Jensen’s favorite customers. He loved it when they came in, loved William’s sweetness and Gabe’s wry indulgence of the former, and he loved spending those quiet afternoons searching through books and magazines for a new friend for them to take home with them, even if he wasn’t sure where they managed to store them all.
They liked simple plants, the pair of them - they always bought them together, so Jensen assumed they also shared a house or an apartment, and they both clearly preferred the clean-cut plants: the somber lilacs, or perhaps the frozen clover, or sometimes the gorgeous mimicry with its clear, lovely voice. Jensen had seen both of them, on separate occasions, shy away from the sweet-smelling honeybell with its sugary leaves, and both frowned unanimously at the yellow vanity. Jensen could appreciate that. He loved all his plants, no matter what their peculiarities were, but he enjoyed people who knew what they wanted without having to resort to rudeness to get it.
Today, William was utterly entranced by the year-long bonsai, small trees existing in a state of all four seasons at once, constantly rotating so that they were simultaneously blossoming, carrying fruit, turning colorful and losing their leaves at any given time.
Gabe’s interest was mildly picqued, it seemed, but only mildly, and he turned away from the display the moment Jensen slid behind the counter.
“So,” he said. He set all ten fingertips onto the wooden surface. “Blow my mind, Jensen. I dare you.”
“I just might,” Jensen said, returning Gabe’s grin. He nodded into the greenhouse. “If you’ll follow me?”
“William?” Gabe asked, but the man in question waved him off.
“You go ahead,” he said. “I’m good here.”
Gabe rolled his eyes fondly, but gestured at Jensen nonetheless. “Lead the way, sir,” he said. “Show me what I’ve been missing.”
Jensen quickly found him the plant he’d stored on the lower level of one of the display tables, lest someone come and claim it for themselves before Gabe could get his hands on it. He set it down on the table’s surface, holding the wide bowl with both hands, and then quickly took a step back.
This particular plant was made up of several different stalks, each green-red in color. They had the appearance of snakes rising from the ground, tongues swirling and flickering in their direction, never hesitating, never settling.
As predicted, Gabe looked utterly delighted. “Oh my.” He lifted his hands up, clearly itching to touch. “And who is this exceptional beauty?”
“It’s a common snakehead,” Jensen said. He’d known it was the right one as soon as he’d seen it in the new Spring edition of Garden Plants for Temperate Regions - it was hard to miss the oversized gold ring shaped like the head of a cobra that sat on Gabe’s middle finger. “Also called Medusa’s grave. The flickering ‘tongues’ attract pollinators.”
Gabe carefully, after a quick glance to Jensen for permission, lifted the pot into the air for a closer look. “Oh man,” he said. “Jensen, this is possibly the greatest plant under the sun.”
“I assume you’ll take it?” Jensen asked, swallowing back a laugh.
“Yes, I’ll take it.” Gabe winked at him. “And I’ll be back for more once I convince William we need one in every room of the house.”
Jensen carried the plant to the counter with him and set about wrapping it up carefully while Gabe dug through his wallet and laid a few bills on the wooden surface.
“It’s been quiet here, hasn’t it?” Gabe asked, letting his gaze sweep over the empty shop.
“Yes, well.” Jensen shrugged. “Not a whole lot of people have been interested in buying flowers lately.”
“People aren’t buying much of anything, these days,” Gabe said, smiling a little.
“I suppose not,” Jensen said, finding himself smiling in return.
After a moment, Gabe added, “You know Pellegrino’s? On Lombard Street? He’s been having these crazy elaborate sales. Signs so big you can read them from a block away.”
Jensen tried to curve his lips into a smile, but it was hard. He just couldn’t compete with Marc’s prices. And if it was just a one-time shopper looking for a thoughtless dinner present, that was one thing, but losing customers he’d known for years – that hurt.
“I’m afraid my shop doesn’t do well enough to allow for those kinds of deals,” he finally said, when Gabe raised an expectant eyebrow. “Your change.”
Gabe pocketed the coins without so much as glancing at them. “Shops that are doing well generally don’t need to hold sales, you know.” He gestured at the snakehead plant in its newspaper wrapping. “Thank you, for this.”
“You’re welcome,” Jensen replied, while Gabe looked around for his companion, still preoccupied with the bonsai.
“William, are you ready to go?”
“In a minute,” William said absently, and Gabe sighed, loud and demonstrative.
“Don’t ever go and fall in love,” he counseled Jensen wisely, with a quick look over his shoulder. William was still poking at the trees, blissfully unaware.
Gabe shook his head mournfully. “It’s not worth it, take my word for it,” he said to Jensen. “You go and give your heart away, and then you rise and fall by someone else’s decree. It’s the world’s most cruel undertaking. Chinese water torture cannot even begin to compare.”
He pushed himself off the counter and raised his voice. “William, my love, are you ready now? Not worth it,” he insisted to Jensen, when William mournfully pulled himself away from the flowerbeds. “You mark my words.”
“Of course,” Jensen said, and handed over the plant wrapped in newspaper, but he privately thought the small smile hovering around Gabe’s mouth made him a liar.
Still, disaster had struck, regardless of whether or not Jensen had been expecting it. His worktable and shelves were waterlogged and dark almost up to his knees, the bag of extra-fine soil he kept in the corner turning the liquid into slick, slimy mud. Sighing, Jensen tucked up his slacks at the knees, hoping that might be enough to keep the hems from soaking through, and edged towards the door opening into the drive.
It was the hose, of course it was, but instead of having become leaky like Jensen had expected, it was simply… on. It lay on the ground as if it’d fallen off its hook in the night, but the faucet had most definitely been turned on.
Jensen took a moment to cover his face with his hands, water soaking into his shoes and the socks inside. He was barely making ends meet as it was. A bill covering what could well be twelve hours of unstopping water flow would almost certainly mean cutting out a few meals here and there. Jensen could already hear his aunt’s voice in his head, scolding him for not taking care of himself as if he were still an awkward teenager, living on his own for the first time.
He sighed. There wasn’t really anything he could do about it now, so he reached over the threshold to firmly close the tap and coil the end of the hose carefully around the hook.
He went through the motions of opening the shop that day, mind reeling. He hadn’t even used the hose in days – how had it become undone? He couldn’t imagine it being a simple act of vandalism – yes, sometimes children threw rocks at his windows, but it was always from a safe distance. No one had ever even dared step foot on Jensen’s property, as far as he could tell.
It was just as well he had a delivery of new spider plants that morning to take his mind off of things, or he possibly would have wracked his brain for the rest of the day. He loaded his arms with the pots from the back room to take to the front, not remembering until it was already too late that the door to the shop was fairly heavy and just about impossible to open with both arms full of flowers.
He managed to get his foot into the gap and edged forward, twisting his body to squeeze through after it. He was hot and slightly sweaty and the pot in the crook of his elbow was dangerously close to sliding out of his hold when there was suddenly a hand on the door, pushing it open and allowing him to slip through without losing hold of anything.
His efforts were almost in vain when he finally looked up at his savior and nearly dropped his armful in surprise. “Jared,” he said. His glasses were sliding off his sweat-slick nose, of course, and he could barely see, because the laws of the universe dictated that Jensen look his absolute worst when an attractive man actually returned to his shop.
“Jared,” he said again, schooling his features into the semblance of a smile. “Another date?”
Jared’s smile stiffened somewhat, but Jensen didn’t have time to contemplate what that might mean – he could feel two of the pots slipping from his grasp, and he had to hastily sidestep Jared and let them all drop gently onto the counter before they shattered on the tiles after all. He righted the one that had tipped over onto its side, brushed the loose soil from his hands, and pushed his glasses back into position. Then he conjured up a smile and turned to face Jared, who was still standing by the open door to the storage room.
“Um. Sorry,” Jared said, gesturing at said door with his thumb. “I mean, I’m probably not supposed to be back here, but you looked like you could use some help.”
“It’s much appreciated,” Jensen assured him through the heat rising in his cheeks. “Is there – um. Is there anything I can do for you?”
“Yes, well.” Jared shuffled to the front of the counter, and Jensen noticed for the first time that he had a bundle, wrapped in some sort of fabric, held in the crook of one arm. “I think I might need some help.”
He pulled the cloth down, revealing the plant Jensen had sold him not so very long ago. The parchment sylvatica looked decidedly worse for wear than it had just days ago, long leaves not brown, exactly, but without a doubt limp and drooping.
“What did you do to it, for Heaven’s sake?” Jensen burst out before he could stop himself. He reached out to take it from Jared, which Jared allowed without protest.
“I don’t know,” he said plaintively once the sylvatica was safely cradled Jensen’s arms. “I gave it a book, I gave it water, I gave it sunlight, and somehow it turned into – this!”
He gestured at the sad affair on Jensen’s arm, clearly agitated, though it seemed to be out of frustration rather than anger.
Jensen forced himself to take a calming breath. Whatever it was, Jared was clearly not out to make Jensen’s plants miserable on purpose, which meant that the root of the problem was a misunderstanding, or some sort of accident. And, well, there was really only so much it could be.
“What book did you give her last?” Jensen asked, cradling the flower carefully. It wasn’t a particularly big book, and the roots obscured the tittle, and Jensen wasn’t sure he knew anything that was both short and depressing.
“Romeo and Juliet,” Jared whispered, like just saying the words might make the flower even worse.
When Jensen raised his eyebrows in disbelief, Jared’s shoulders settled into a defensive slouch.
“I thought she might like the language,” he said.
Jensen petted one of the drooping leaves. “It’s a good thought, but try to stay away from anything too depressing,” he warned. “Or too sappy, or you’re going to be vacuuming away flower petals for weeks.” He moved behind the counter and used his free hand to grope around on the top shelf for something neutral for the sylvatica to latch onto. “Hm,” he said, lifting up the biggest thing he could fit his fingers around. “Phone book?” he asked the plant. “How’s that sound? Something nice and factual after all that drama?”
One root twitched weakly towards the paper.
“Alright then.” Jensen let the book drop onto the counter with a thud and set the plant down next to it. He offered Jared a reassuring smile. “Would you like to help?” he asked.
Jared did, and though he had to ball his hands into fists to keep from intervening, Jensen let him do the majority of the work. He was going to have to learn to do it eventually, if he didn’t grow frustrated and return it. Which, Jensen had to admit, was not all that likely – Jared was obviously concerned enough to return for advice, and to his credit, he was more than careful in transferring the plant, movements slow and controlled.
“Just like that – good,” Jensen said.
Jared smiled up at him for a moment before he focused on the plant once more. It wasn’t long before the sylvatica had a new, less heart-wrenching new home, and Jensen gave the stem a light stroke.
“Go with adventure stories if you’ve got them,” he said to Jared. “Robert Louis Stevenson, maybe some Mark Twain. Make sure it has a happy ending.”
“Yes, sir,” Jared murmured, ducking his head again. He held out his arms for the flower, and Jensen gently deposited it into them. “I’ll take excellent care of her, I promise.”
“I’m sure you will,” Jensen said, a little surprised to find it was the truth. “Better luck next time.”
“Thank you kindly,” Jared said, shifting to tip his cap, the other arm tucked firmly around the flower and the phone book. “I’ll see you soon, Jensen.”
“Do come back,” Jensen said immediately. “I’ll look forward to it.”
“That’s what a guy likes to hear,” Jared said, grinning. He laughed when Jensen flushed, but not meanly – fondly, perhaps, friendly and warm. “Until next time.” He smiled brilliantly and turned to go, pausing to hold open the door for Lindsey, who was just on her way in. “Ma’am,” he said, and then he was gone, pulling the door firmly shut behind him.
Lindsey’s smile, when she turned to face Jensen, was wicked. “And who was that handsome gentleman?” she asked, expression promising all sorts of teasing to come in the future.
“Just a customer,” Jensen said, looking down.
“’Just’ customers never have you blushing like that,” Lindsey pointed out. “Admit it – you think he’s cute.”
“I don’t see what that has to do with anything.” Jensen crumpled the rest of the newspaper into a ball and turned stiffly away to drop it into the wastebasket. “He came in for help. Apparently I was neglectful in telling him everything he needed to know to properly care for his new plant.”
Lindsey laughed. “’Neglectful,’ huh?”
“Lindsey,” Jensen chided. “I would never let a plant suffer like that, you know that.”
That did not mean he hadn’t been hoping. It wasn’t uncommon for first-time owners of unusual plants to come in a second time, sometimes to ask for more information or – more often – to return them and request a refund. Many people underestimated how much work the proper care for a plant, especially ones as diverse as the ones for sale in Jensen’s shop, would actually be. Like children with a kitten or puppy, they focused on the flashy, impressive characteristics and entirely overlooked the fact that plants were living, functioning organisms and often needed dedicated care.
But he’d gotten his wish. Jared had returned to the shop, and even seemed open to the idea of coming back again, and that was really all Jensen could ask for.
“Hello,” the man said. He cleared his throat and shuffled forward, stepping carefully around the swooning protea that had sprawled out in the entryway. “Um.”
“Hello there,” Jensen said. “Welcome to the shop. Are you looking for anything in particular, or just having a look around?”
“Well,” the man said. He took another step closer, twisting his fingers in the chain of his timepiece. “Um. You’ve got a flower lying on the ground, here.”
“Ignore her,” Jensen said. “She just does it for the attention, most days.”
“Um. Okay.” His customer shuffled a little closer to the counter. He had an oddly pointed nose and an entire mouth full of sharp teeth that he bared at Jensen in what Jensen assumed was intended as a friendly gesture.
Just in case it was, Jensen smiled back. “What can I help you with?”
The man instantly turned a startlingly bright red. “Well,” he stammered. “Uh. There’s this girl.”
Jensen kept from assuring him that there was always a girl, or perhaps a guy, or perhaps something in-between. In Jensen’s experience, people tended not to like being reminded that they weren’t particularly special. And in all honesty, he thought that people who went through the trouble of picking up flowers from an actual flower shop for a date were just special enough that he wanted them reassured, not thrown out of balance by a lonely flower shop owner who was already half-way in love with a taken man.
“Alright,” Jensen said. He gave his customer a reassuring smile. “Why don’t you tell me a little bit about her?”
“Okay,” the man said. “So, I took her out, I guess, but I guess it’s not cool to bring people bouquets. Like, that’s murder.” He rubbed his hands together, fingers splayed as wide as they would go. “She got pretty angry with me.”
Lindsey, Jensen thought, smiling a little, which made the man in front of him Gerard, the failed date from not so long ago.
“But she still wants to meet you a second time?” Jensen asked gently, lifting the dracaena’s wide leaves out of the way so he could squeeze out from behind the counter. “You must have worked some serious magic.”
“I begged a lot,” Gerard said, and turned bright red.
“That’ll do it,” Jensen said, even if he hadn’t been positive that it actually would, with Lindsey.
He turned to walk into the shop, beckoning Gerard along, and the man shuffled awkwardly after him.
“I just – isn’t it awkward to bring someone an entire plant on a date? Like, with the roots and dirt and everything?”
“Well,” Jensen said, and licked his lips. “To Lindsey,“ and here, Gerard blushed furiously once more, “bringing just the stem of a flower is the equivalent of bringing her someone’s leg or an arrangement of fingers. They might be lovely fingers, don’t get me wrong, but wouldn’t you prefer the whole person?”
“I’d rather not bring a whole ‘nother person on our date,” Gerard muttered. Then his eyes widened. “I mean – I get it. Whole flower. Not single pieces. Not so macabre.”
“You never know, she could be into that,” Jensen said before he could stop himself. Apparently it was now his time to blush. “But I don’t want to know about that. That is completely between you two. Or three, or whatever.”
“Right,” Gerard said.
“Let’s take a look at our collection,” Jensen offered, and Gerard nodded vigorously.
“Let’s,” he said, and Jensen pretended not to notice the relief spreading over the man’s face.
They made it exactly as far as the display of crimson felicitas by the door when Gerard stopped for the first time. “What are they?” he asked.
“There are our best-selling plants,” Jensen said. “They release pheromones to allow their owners to relax. Quite popular.” When Gerard’s eyes lit up, Jensen shook his head. “Lindsey already has one of these.”
“Her apartment must be a veritable jungle,” Gerard muttered.
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Jensen, who had never been to Lindsey’s apartment, said neutrally.
Gerard let his hand sweep over the plants in the flower bed, and Jensen just barely managed to pull the stinging pepper out of the way before his guest managed to give himself first degree burns.
“Do you think it would be too forward of me to ask to see it?” Gerard asked hopefully.
Jensen blinked at him for a moment before he nodded, slowly. “Wait until she offers,” he said. “She might misconstrue the question.”
Gerard took a moment to think about that before he nodded. “Yes,” he conceded. “Yes, you’re right. I wouldn’t want to impose.” He wandered a little further, hesitating over a white perennial. “I like this one,” he said, reaching out to run a finger over the blossom.
“The lovers’ vow”, Jensen said. “Once it’s imprinted on two owners, it needs to be watered by both at the same time, or it’ll die. Very common as a wedding gift,” he said. “And the bane of divorced couples everywhere.”
“I’m not going to divorce her,” Gerard said, still fingering the plant, but Jensen shook his head firmly.
“At least wait until the third date,” he advised.
Gerard’s face fell, which Jensen took as his cue to point out the flower he had actually been intending to show him.
“This is a Darwin tulip,” he said, holding it up to the light. It had just a single stem, with a single blossom. In fact, the only outwardly remarkable thing about it was the fact that its roots were a fine net spanning the top of the soil in the pot, rather than sinking into the ground.
“It just looks like a regular one,” Gerard said slowly, like he wasn’t sure if he was confused or disappointed.
“It isn’t,” Jensen assured him. “It may look like one, but when you tug on it, like so,” Jensen said, demonstrating, “the roots straighten and stiffen.” He held the flower out to Gerard who, frowning, reached out his hand and hesitated just shy of touching it.
“As you can see,” Jensen said, “it’s virtually indistinguishable from an actual cut flower, the roots locking into position to look like a natural extension of the stem. And when they touch soil again…” He returned the flower to its pot, watching fondly as the roots unraveled and spread a wide net across the earth inside.
A moment later, Gerard’s head was at his shoulder, peering wide-eyed at the pot. “That’s amazing,” he said.
“Flowers adapt to changing times, just like animals do. Like people.” Jensen smiled. “Do you think this flower could work for you?”
“Definitely,” Gerard said. He hesitated. “I mean – you think so too, right?”
“I think it’s worth a try,” Jensen said.
“Okay,” Gerard said. He sucked in a deep breath before releasing it all at once. “Okay, I’ll take it.”
“That’s wonderful,” Jensen said, and carried the flower, sans pot, over to the counter to wrap it up.
Gerard followed, keeping the watchful eyes of a newly minted owner on the tulip.
“Make her promise to let you explain before you give her the flower,” Jensen told him, tucking the newspaper around the stem with care. “She might murder you with it otherwise.”
Gerard rubbed the heel of his hand against his sternum. “I do hope she won’t,” he said. “That might end the date on a sour note.” He looked up at that, and grinned, and Jensen found himself smiling back before he could help himself.
He held out the flower for Gerard to take. “Here you are.”
Gerard took it gingerly, and then dug one hand into his pocket and pulled out a crumpled wad of bills that he dumped in Jensen’s hands. It was, from what Jensen could see, at least three times as much as the flower actually cost, and he shook his head, but Gerard was already on his way out the door.
“Make her promise!” Jensen called after him.
He didn’t catch all of Gerard’s response, but the tail end sounded vaguely like “…thank you,” so Jensen marked it down mentally as a success before he rushed over to forcefully close the door behind him.
His good mood carried him through the rest of the day, and into the next. Jensen caught himself whistling some tuneless melody time and time again, and although the shop was empty, he flushed and stopped himself every time. And yet the song didn’t quite die on his lips until he looked up just past midday to see a familiar figure standing in his shop.
For all that they were in the same business, and their respective shops were located not far from each other, Jensen had not interacted with Mark very much. There was just something about the other man that set Jensen’s teeth on edge, something that wasn’t mere professional rivalry and extended beyond Mark’s insistence on unethical flower trade, and Jensen had always attempted to avoid the other man as much as possible. An effort made useless, of course, when Mark came to seek Jensen out in his own shop.
Jensen hadn’t even seem him coming through the greenhouse windows, preoccupied with taking a customer’s order over the telephone mounted on the wall, and was so understandably caught off-guard when he looked up from his notepad at the jingle of the bell to find Mark standing in the doorway of his shop.
“…I’ll be in on Thursday, then,” the customer said, and Jensen replied, “Yes, thank you,” to the dial tone and hung up the receiver, eyes never straying from Mark. He didn’t quite know the man well enough to judge his character, merely his ethics, but he had to admit that he certainly looked the part of a somewhat-successful business owner. He tended to dress impeccably, if a little blandly, in suits with waistcoats and bowties and the occasional fedora thrown in on special occasions. Today rated, apparently, because there was a grey hat perched on his head at a jaunty angle, the cream-colored band matched with his vest and the buttons of his coat.
He stood in the door for a moment, letting his gaze wander over everything – everything except Jensen. After a moment, a small smile stole onto his lips.
Jensen fought to keep the scowl off his face. “Excuse me,” he said, perhaps a little colder than strictly necessary. “Could you shut the door, please? I’d prefer it if my plants remained inside.”
“Oh, of course.” Mark tossed a casual smile Jensen’s way. “My mistake.” He made a show of laboriously closing the door. “Is that better?” he asked. “Jensen?”
“Very much, thank you,” Jensen grit out.
Mark took a step closer. “How are you, Jensen? We haven’t crossed paths in a while.”
‘Thank Goodness for that,’ Jensen was tempted to say, but he refused to sink that low. He was a professional, and he was going to be professional if it was the last thing he did.
“So it has,” he finally settled on. “To what do I owe the pleasure now?” He tugged a rag from his belt and wiped his hands on it, because he’d be damned if he’d let the man outclass him in Jensen’s own shop.
Mark shook his head, smiling faintly. “Your lips say one thing, and your tone another,” he accused.
Jensen tossed his rag onto the counter. “I’m sure you can figure out which is the more accurate,” he said.
“I don’t understand why you’re so determined not to like me, Jensen.” Mark spread his arms wide. “Am I not a likeable guy?”
“You murder plants,” Jensen said tightly. “You murder them for a little bit of profit, and you somehow expect me to do the same, and I will never, never work with someone so unethical.”
“This is about the bouquets?” Mark asked. “Because really, Jensen, you have to go with the times a little. People want dead plants, we give them dead plants.” He waved a dismissive hand at the greenhouse’s windows. “This shop, right here, is a relic, Jensen, and it’ll die out if you don’t learn to adjust to your customers’ needs.”
“You say that like you actually care about your customers,” Jensen said. “But you don’t. You don’t care about them, and you certainly don’t care about your plants.”
“I don’t, do I?” Mark tapped a finger against his chin. “And what do I care about, Jensen? Please, enlighten me.”
“You care about money,” Jensen told him. Anger was making his voice shake, and he gripped the counter hard to distract himself from it. “So far, you’ve suggested to me to artificially shorten the lifespan of my plants just so you can sell a couple more of them, to starve my plants of water and nutrients to save money, and what now? Are you still trying to convince me to heighten the amount of pheromones the felicitas releases?”
Mark shrugged casually. “I really don’t know why you’re so against it,” he said easily.
“Because it’s dangerous,” Jensen burst out. He took a deep breath to steady himself. “Because we’d be endangering our customers for a marginal profit.”
Mark smiled, a disquietingly honest smile. “Is that so bad?” he asked. “We’re not forcing anyone to buy more. If they do, it means our product was satisfactory. They’re happy, we’re not starving ourselves to keep our shops open another few days, so we’re happy, and it’s not like the plants themselves know any better.”
“That is not the point,” Jensen said through gritted teeth.
“Making yourself miserable just to satisfy a few customers isn’t the point either,” Mark said quietly. “Customers who neither realize the gem they’ve found in you, nor would fully appreciate your genius if they ever did.”
He smiled, a little sadly, and touched his fingers to Jensen’s wrist. Jensen could feel the warmth soak into his skin like poison, seep along his veins and settle small, frail roots in his mind, whispering Is he so wrong?
Jensen pulled his hand away. “I’d appreciate it if you left now,” he said quietly. He balled his hands into fists and didn’t look up again until he heard the bell above the door signal Mark’s departure.
The customer was followed by another man, one almost as short and decidedly better dressed. He had a pair of drum sticks protruding from the pocket of his coat, where a handkerchief should have been, and the sight made Jensen smile. This man was most likely a candidate for Jensen’s telegraph plants, once they grew a little bigger. Jensen could see them getting along.
“Pete,” the second man sighed. “Pete, please?”
The first, Pete, held up a silencing hand. “There’s no use arguing, Patrick,” he said. “This is happening.”
Patrick flushed furiously, huffing out a breath and looking ready to read Pete the riot act, so Jensen smiled his most welcoming smile.
“Gentlemen,” he said. “What can I do for you?”
Pete leaned up against the counter, hands shielding his chest from the pressure. “I heard you have lovers’ vow in stock, is that true?”
“Yes, that’s true,” Jensen said slowly.
Pete grinned, broad and happy. Jensen had to admit it was a good look for him, transforming him from a slightly disheveled, slightly overdramatic man into someone decidedly handsome. “We’ll take it,” he said. “Patrick and I, we’ll take it.”
“He has a wife,” Patrick told Jensen helplessly.
Jensen bowed his head to hide his smile. “I’ll just go and get that for you, shall I?” he said, and pretended not to see the way Patrick sighed, or the way Pete grinned in delight.
Instead, it was a cream-colored envelope, made out to one Mister Jensen Ackles with no return address, but the number of people who would send Jensen elegant letters on expensive paper was limited. Jensen had a fairly good idea who it was from, and he’d been dreading opening it ever since he had taken it out of the letterbox that morning.
But there was no helping it, was there? He slid his thumb underneath the flap and slid it open slowly. The card inside, just as expensive looking, with white and cream decorations, read Invitation. Jensen tilted it from side to side for a moment before he took a deep breath and flipped it open.
He came as far as Dear Jensen, you are cordially before the bell above the door rang out, clear and sharp.
“Hi Jensen,” Jared said cheerfully. He closed the door firmly before he bounded over to the counter. “Ooh, you got mail,” he said, smiling wide.
Under other circumstances, Jensen might have felt himself responding in kind, but today, all he did was shake his head. “It’s not a particularly joyous occasion,” he said.
Jared’s expression immediately turned sympathetic. “Bad news?”
Jensen’s lips did curl into a wry smile at that. “In a manner of speaking,” he said. “It’s nothing horrible, not really,” he hastened to assure Jared, when the other man looked anything but at ease.
“If you say so,” he said. He bit his lip, craning his head like he didn’t want to pry but also couldn’t quite contain his curiosity. “Who is it from?”
“My cousin,” Jensen said. “Or rather, my aunt, on behalf of my cousin.”
“How mysterious,” Jared said. He waggled his eyebrows. “Well, what’s it say?”
“My cousin,” Jensen said slowly, “is getting married, apparently.”
Jared pursed his lips. “And you’re invited?”
Jensen folded up the invitation, scraping one thumbnail along the edge. He was going to have to clean his nails – he’d long since given up on ever removing the half-moons of dirt underneath them, but he supposed that was bad form, for a wedding. “Not only that.” He offered Jared a wan smile. “Not only that, they’d also love it if I did the flower arrangements, and the bride’s bouquet, and provide the flowers to go into the flower girls’ hair, and their baskets.” He waved a vague hand. “They’d pay me, of course. For my generous contribution.”
“They want you to provide bouquets?” Jared raised his brows. “To go in vases?”
“That’s terrible,” Jared said.
“They mean well.” Jensen pushed the letter underneath his battered copy of Pollination and Floral Ecology. “They think they’re doing me a favor.”
Jared pursed his lips. “They must not know you at all.”
Jensen laughed quietly. “No, I don’t suppose they do.”
“That’s a shame,” Jared said carefully. “I’ve quite enjoyed getting to know you so far.”
Jensen smiled wryly. “I expect they don’t see it that way.”
Jared looked down at his hands. “Is all of your family like that?” he asked hesitantly, like he was afraid of crossing some invisible line.
Jensen slid off his stool with determination. “You don’t want to hear about all that,” he said firmly. “You’re here for a reason. Another date, I take it?”
“Well.” Jared laughed awkwardly. “Not just yet. I just figured I’d take a look around, so I’ll know what to bring next time.”
“I could-" Jensen began, but Jared waved him off.
“You read,” he said. “I’m just going to go say hello to the dracaena for now.”
“Alright,” Jensen said reluctantly. He sat back down. “But please let me know if there’s anything I can help you with.”
“Will do,” Jared said firmly. “Sit.”
Jensen sat, pulling the abandoned stack of mail towards him once more. He fought hard to keep from watching Jared walk away, even though he listened keenly to the sound of Jared’s heels against the tile. It wasn’t until he heard Jared speaking softly, too softly to be understood, that he tore open the first of the bills.
There weren’t any unpleasant surprises, thankfully, but no particularly pleasant ones either, so Jensen took out his ledger and a slip of notepaper and set about trying to figure out if he could pay them all this month without bankrupting himself. It wasn’t anything he particularly enjoyed doing, so he was almost relieved when he heard Jared’s voice again.
“Um, Jensen?” came the hesitant call from somewhere within the labyrinth of plants. “Could you come here for a moment?”
Jensen obeyed, mind reeling with possibilities of what had drawn Jared’s attention. He found Jared standing, apparently frozen, in front of one of the less popular plants that sat against the back wall, a short, squat tree of a reddish-black color. It had thick, purpling leaves and blossoms that bloomed red, and an open gash across its middle where the thinner, blue-green leeching ivy had taken up residence.
“I think your vine-y plant is eating your fat plant,” Jared said, caught somewhere between helpless and horrified.
It was, in fact – the ivy had several long tendrils extended into the tree’s innards, raising the bark in thick strands, much like a tree’s roots distorting a covering of asphalt. They were coming close to the last stage of the cycle, and the thick hornbeam certainly looked the part, leaves hanging discolored and fragile from its branches.
“Oh, that’s fine.” Jensen couldn’t help but smile at Jared’s incredulous expression. “They do that. It’s the best way to keep them, actually – they’re both symbiotic, and they each thrive on the nutrients the other plant produces.”
“They… live off each other?” Jared asked faintly.
Jensen smiled again and, after a moment’s hesitation, reached up to squeeze Jared’s arm. “Perfectly,” he said. “If they didn’t need water to survive, they would be a perfect perpetuum mobile.”
“But-“ Jared waved a hand at the hornbeam’s yellowing leaves. “I mean, you’re the expert, but that doesn’t look very healthy to me.”
“Well, it’s dying,” Jensen said.
“You said they keep each other alive!” Jared protested.
“They do.” Jensen reached out to run his fingers over the hornbeam’s rough bark. “It’s a constant circle, you know. The ivy will leech off the hornbeam’s nutrients, becoming stronger and stronger until the hornbeam is almost dead, and then it will grow weaker again, allowing the hornbeam to become the dominant partner.” He smiled at Jared. “I’ve kept them like this for, oh, four years now. Trust me, the system works.”
“Well.” Jared laughed, but he sounded somewhat flustered. “It’s still kind of terrible.”
“Sometimes you just have to let nature take its course,” Jensen said, and then winced at how pretentious he sounded.
Jared, though, Jared just laughed. “I suppose so,” he said. “You are the expert, after all.”
“Self-taught expert,” Jensen corrected, unable to completely bite down a smile.
“Whatever,” Jared said, waving him away. “That just makes it even better. I can’t even imagine what that must be like, just looking at a plant and knowing everything about it. That’s just – that’s amazing, Jensen, is what it is.”
He caught himself and grinned a little sheepishly, spots of color appearing high on his cheeks. “I probably sound like a dork, huh?”
“Me?” Jensen gestured, a sweeping arc that encompassed the leafy jungle of his shop. “I would be hard-pressed to call anyone a dork when it comes to plants, Jared.”
“You’re pretty cool, for a dork.” Jared smiled a little nervously, but he didn’t take it back. Instead, he reached out to lightly rest his hand above Jensen’s elbow, nothing more than a touch, his fingers crinkling the fabric there.
“Thank you,” Jensen said. He couldn’t think of anything else to say in reply, and the feeling of Jared’s fingers on his shirt proved to be far more distracting than he’d expect.
“Alright, then.” Jared ducked his head, but Jensen could still see him smile.
“What can I do for you, sir?” he asked. Extravagant, he thought, mentally tallying which plants he had available. Here was a man who enjoyed attention, though not in an unpleasant way - he was comfortable in his skin and he was fully prepared to prove it to the world. He clearly had no issues with Jensen's scrutiny, either, because rather than scowl or look away, he held out a solid hand.
"Adam," he said. "Are you Mr. Ackles?"
"That's me," Jensen confirmed. "Jensen."
"It's a pleasure, Jensen," Adam assured him. "A friend recommended this shop to me. She assured me I'd find something amazing."
There was a light challenge in his tone, but not an unpleasant one, and Jensen gladly took him up on it.
"My customers are rarely disappointed," he said, smiling a little. "What kind of plant are you looking for? Something decorative, or something for the garden? Perhaps a gift?"
"Something decorative, I think," Adam said. "My boyfriend insists my apartment is woefully bare, and I'm afraid he might be right."
"Well, that will never do," Jensen said. He smiled. “And I think I have something that you might like.”
He let Adam wait by the counter – no use in inviting disaster by letting loose his plants with that coat – while he went to fetch the camouflage trillium. It had taken on a leafy green shade, echoing the plants around her, but quickly took on a darker color when Jensen lifted her against his black vest.
“Here you are,” Jensen said cheerfully, pushing the plant into Adam’s arms.
“What does-?” Adam began, but then the flower began to change color, leaves taking on a startlingly turquoise hue to match his clothing, and Adam’s confused expression softened. “Oh,” he said. His hands, Jensen noted, shifted to cradle the plant more safely against his chest.
Love at first sight, Jensen mused, and then found his thoughts wandering to Jared, to his eyes and his laugh and the way his big hands were so infinitely careful with Jensen’s plants.
“She’s beautiful,” Adam said, awed, and Jensen laughed.
“She’s yours if you want her.”
“Name your price,” Adam said immediately.
Jensen reached over to tap the price tag stuck into the pot’s soil base. “I’ll wrap her up for you, if you’d like,” he said.
“Please,” Adam said, so Jensen did, and exchanged the trillium for the bill Adam handed to him.
“I’ll just get you your change, sir,” he said.
“Keep it,” Adam said, smile sweet. “This place is a treasure, Jensen.”
He turned with an elegant flourish before Jensen could protest any further. He paused on the threshold, and tipped his hat, and Jensen had to admit to a charmed smile even as he hurried to close the door in his wake.
And then the skittering vine went missing. Jensen usually let his mobile plants roam freely around the shop, but the creeping parvifolium’s near constant bids for freedom necessitated semi-regular checks, just to make certain it was still lying in wait underneath the display table by the door.
Instead, it was the vine that Jensen couldn’t find. She liked to hide, so it really wasn’t that unusual, but she also wasn’t in any of her preferred hidey-holes. She wasn’t behind the counter or in the branches of the dracaena or tucked away in the small forest of verbena lupos.
“Come on, darling,” Jensen said softly. “Come on, don’t scare me like this.”
It didn’t help much – his heart was still pounding painfully when he finally discovered her tucked into an overturned flower pot in the corner where Jensen kept his supplies. “What happened to you, darling?” he asked, getting on his hands and knees in the dirt. He tried to edge closer, cheek almost brushing the floor in an attempt to see her in the dark space, but relented when the vine curled away from him. “It’s okay,” he crooned. “We’ll figure it out.”
He tried extending his fingers once again, more slowly this time, and though the vine tensed, it didn’t move away. “That’s right,” Jensen crooned, and shuffled just a little closer.
The bell over the entryway jingled happily. The vine, now inches away from Jensen’s hand, ducked away and disappeared between two tilting towers of pots.
Jensen sighed. “I’ll be right there,” he called to his customer. “Come on,” he muttered to the plant. “Time to stop hiding.”
He edged closer, as quickly as the vine would let him. It was too safely entrenched for Jensen to reach it with his fingers, but he had customers to attend to now, and as disquieted as the plant seemed to be, he really didn’t want to leave it in its current position. There was really only one thing left for him to resort to, as much as he hated it, and he withdrew his hand to undo his cufflink. Skittering vines liked warm, dark places, and sure enough, when he offered the plant his sleeve to crawl into, it swayed forward, tempted.
“That’s right, sweetheart,” he whispered, and the plant made a mad attempt for the cuff of his shirt, disappearing almost instantly underneath the fabric, rough hairs dragging along Jensen’s skin. It was an odd sensation, not entirely pleasant, but not, Jensen imagined, any worse than a cat dragging its tongue along one’s arm.
“It’s okay,” Jensen whispered to her. “I’ll figure out what’s scared you, I will. I promise. It’ll be okay.”
“Jensen,” Jared said behind him, sounding a little strangled.
Of course it was. Jensen smacked the side of his head into the table top in his haste to get up, and then stood there, temple smarting and knees covered in grime and his shirt bulging in the armpit where the skittering vine had taken up refuge.
Jared had a flush sitting high on his cheeks, and when he spoke, he looked a little past Jensen. “I should have waited by the counter?” he mumbled.
Jensen could feel matching heat rising in his face. “It’s alright,” he said, dusting off his hands like that could somehow restore some of his dignity. “Can I help you with something?”
“Well, I was hoping – Are you sure you’re alright?” Jared gestured vaguely at Jensen’s torso, which reminded Jensen of the vine creeping along his collarbone. “You look a bit agitated.”
“Let me just,” Jensen said, gesturing at the lump curled along his collarbone, and turned away slightly to fumble with his tie and shirt button. He lifted the vine carefully out and gave her a moment to curl herself into the empty space between the fuzzy chickweed and the whistling grass, thankfully silent today. When he faced Jared again, there was a flush high on Jared’s cheeks, eyes on Jensen’s fingers as he did up his shirt and settled his tie.
“Jared.” Jensen cleared his throat. “How are you today?”
“I’m fine,” Jared said, a little bewildered. “How are you?”
“I’m fine,” Jensen said. “I’m fine.” He was rattled, and he wanted to be alone so he could coax the vine from its hiding place and soothe it with quiet words and gentle touches, but he couldn’t. He wasn’t sure he could soothe anyone, considering the state he was in.
He turned and headed for the safe haven of his counter, gritting his teeth when Jared’s footsteps were close behind.
“I’m serious, Jensen,” Jared said. “Please, tell me what’s wrong.”
Jensen closed his eyes, took a deep breath. “Did you want anything?” he asked. “Because this really isn’t a good time.”
Jared shook his head. “Jensen, I just want to help.”
“You shouldn’t,” Jensen said firmly. “I’m managing just fine, Jared, I have for years. And besides, won’t your lady friend miss you?” He brushed a few specks of dirt from the counter with a decisive movement. “You shouldn’t make her miss you, Jared,” he said. “That’s not good, this early in a relationship.”
Jared pressed his lips together, not quite meeting Jensen’s eyes. “I suppose you’re right,” he said. “I’ll just go then,” he said, and Jensen pressed his hands to his burning eyes and didn’t say anything.
“What on Earth,” he murmured, which was when Lindsey burst through the door, face flushed with exertion.
“Jensen!” she said, dropping her messenger bag onto the counter. “Jensen, I have to tell you something.”
“Just a moment,” Jensen murmured, leafing through the forms again. He recalled quite clearly that he’d ordered them by urgency a few days ago, the most pressing ones at the top, but there was one request for next Tuesday in between the ones that weren’t due for another three weeks. He pulled it from the stack, staring down at it, and then he remembered that he was keeping a friend, a customer waiting and gave Lindsey a quick smile.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “What was it you wanted to tell me?”
“No, it’s fine.” Lindsey reached across the counter to squeeze one of his hands. “What’s wrong?”
Jensen lowered his voice. “I think someone’s been here,” he said. “Last night, after the shop closed.”
When Lindsey stared at him, eyes wide, he leaned in even closer. “You haven’t seen the skittering vine,” he said. “She’s completely beside herself. Even more so than she usually is. And, just – things are wrong, here. They’re not the way they should be.”
“Are you sure?” Lindsey asked. “I mean – the skittering vine is kind of insane.” She hesitated. “All I’m saying is, is anything actually missing?”
Jensen let his head drop. He wasn’t sure, not at all, which was precisely the problem. If he were sure, he could call the police and have them deal with it, but what would he call them for – an unsettled plant and a disorganized stack of paper? Nothing was missing, as far as he could tell, and he knew from experience that law enforcement didn’t always have the most positive reaction to cases involving plants.
The wailing carnation, the beautiful but oftentimes obnoxious plant that sang beautifully when its owners were unhappy and gave screaming cats a run for their money when they weren’t, the one Jensen had moved to the counter for a little more sunlight, was humming a hauntingly sad little tune.
“What else could it be, Lindsey?” he asked, pushing the flower aside. “It’s not as though I’ve an employee who could have shuffled my orders around, or upset the vine by sneaking around late at night.”
He cast a quick look over his shoulder when someone pushed the door open, and though his stomach gave a now-familiar jolt at the sight of Jared standing in his shop, smiling tentatively, his conversation with Lindsey was important enough to prevent distraction.
“I’m not saying you’re wrong, Jensen,” she said. “I just think that that’s a pretty harsh accusation to level at someone, without any proof.”
“What do you want me to do instead, then?” Jensen bit out. “Just sit back and take it?”
She rolled her eyes. “No, I want you to be rational about this.”
“Like how rational you were about Gerard?” Jensen asked her.
“Oh,” she huffed, reaching for her bag and shoving past Jared with quite a bit more force than was strictly necessary.
“Lindsey,” Jensen said, quietly, but she was already gone.
Jared gave him a rueful smile. “I suppose that didn’t go the way you wanted it to go?”
“Somebody’s been here,” Jensen insisted. He explained the occurrence with the skittering vine, and about the order forms, finishing with, “Someone’s broken in. There’s no other explanation.”
“Alright.” Jared undid his cufflinks and pushed his shirtsleeves up to his elbows, exposing lovely, tan, muscular forearms. “I’m going to go around the building and check that none of the windows have been tampered with. You just look through the rest of your papers, see if anything else isn’t as it should be.”
Perhaps Jensen’s face showed how overwhelmed he was, because Jared’s expression softened a little. “We’ll figure it out, Jensen,” he said. He laid his hand on Jensen’s arm, just briefly, fingertips bleeding heat into Jensen’s skin through the fabric of his shirt. “It’ll be alright. You’ll see.”
Jensen allowed himself to soak up Jared’s compassion for a moment before he nodded and turned to his paperwork. “Let’s take a look, then,” he said, and didn’t look up again until he heard the bell signaling Jared’s departure.
“Anything?” he asked.
Jensen shook his head. “It’s all a bit more… orderly than I can recall leaving it, but I can’t tell if it’s because something is actually different now or because I’m trying too hard to find some sort of disturbance.”
“I might have.” Jared nodded his head towards the door. “There are scratch marks at one of the windows, towards the back. Nothing’s broken, but someone might have gotten inside. I can’t tell.”
“Alright,” Jensen said. “Thank you.” He laid a hand across his forehead, trying to ease his impending headache.
Jared gave him a worried look, and Jensen forced himself to smile at him.
“I’m sorry,” he said. He pushed sweaty bangs off his forehead. “You’re not here to watch me panic over nothing. How is everything with you?”
“Fine, fine,” Jared said, nodding distractedly. “Hey, listen, I wanted to apologize for the other day. This is your work, and I shouldn’t expect you to always have time for me.”
“That’s alright,” Jensen said. He could feel heat rising in his cheeks. “I like spending time with you. I shouldn’t have snapped at you like that, you didn’t deserve it at all.”
“So we’re both really sorry,” Jared said, grinning.
Jensen smiled back at him. “It looks like it.”
“Well, that makes it easy,” Jared declared. “We’ll just have to make it up to each other.”
“Oh yeah?” Jensen raised an eyebrow. “And how do you propose we do that?”
Jared placed a grave hand on Jensen’s shoulder, thumb dragging along the side of Jensen’s neck. He managed to keep a straight face, but the dimples appearing in his cheeks gave him away. “I think we should have tea.”
“Yes, tea.” Jared darted his tongue over his lips. “It should be a suitable punishment for the both of us.”
“That’s not much of a punishment,” Jensen said. He gently moved his shoulder out of Jared’s grip, before the heat soaking into his skin made him forget himself. “I’ll get the tea started.”
“Just one second,” Jared said. He pushed his hands into his pockets, bulging out the fabric. “Before I forget: I did have a reason for coming in today.”
“Alright,” Jensen said slowly. “What is it, then?”
“I.” Jared reached up to finger the back of his neck. “I actually wanted to ask you a favor.”
“Oh,” Jensen said. “Alright. I mean, of course. Ask away.”
“Okay.” Jared smiled at him, looking determined, and dropped his hand. “I don’t know if you know this, but I’m in my third year at the university,” he said. “I’m in the engineering program.”
Jensen did some mental math at that new information and came to a startling conclusion. “You’re twenty-one?” he asked, perhaps a little too loudly.
Jared blinked at him, and Jensen flushed.
“Just – you look older than that,” he mumbled, willing Jared to take it as a compliment and not stalk off in a huff.
“Oh.” Jared smiled. “I’m twenty-six, actually. I spent the first couple of years out of high school with my father’s firm, building dams in flood-endangered areas, and didn’t actually begin my studies until I was twenty-three. A bit late, I’ll admit, but I think it was worth it.”
“No, I’m – I’m sorry,” Jensen said. “Carry on, please.”
“Right,” Jared said. He brushed his hair out of his eyes. “Well, one of my lectures this term is on sustainability, and there’s a term paper that I’ve yet to find a suitable topic for.”
He glanced up over at Jensen, and then away. “I’ve spoken to my professor about various options, and, well, I might have told her about your shop?” He smiled sheepishly. “I was just so fascinated, I couldn’t help it. But she definitely approves,” he rushed on to explain, “and she thinks the hornbeam and the leeching ivy are great subjects for a paper. So what I’m really asking, I suppose, is if I could perhaps come in every once in a while and observe their development. I’d be entirely unobtrusive, I promise.”
Jensen blinked at him, vaguely stunned. Whatever he had been expecting, it certainly hadn’t been Jared asking to spend more time with him, or at his shop at least, and it took a moment for his startled expression to morph into a smile. “Of course,” he hastened to assure Jared who stood quietly before him, unsure and perhaps a little crestfallen at his silence. “Of course, Jared, you don’t even have to ask.”
“I do,” Jared insisted, but he was grinning widely enough for it not to matter.
“You’re more than welcome,” Jensen said. He absently drummed his fingers on top of his ledger. “Anytime.”
Jared was still grinning, and Jensen looked down for a moment, licked his lips.
“If you have any questions, you know, that your professor can’t help you with… Well. Maybe I can be of assistance.”
“That’d be great. I’ve started researching, but there’s just so much information, you know, I’m not really sure where to start looking.”
Jensen leaned back against the counter. He crossed his arms in front of his stomach and tilted his head to the side. “What have you looked at so far?” he asked.
“I’ve been reading a lot of Steinhower’s Handbook to Parasitic Plants,” Jared offered, and, at Jensen’s approving nod, went on, “And I recently started looking at Wilfred’s Introductory Plant Biology.”
“No, no, not Wilfred.” Jensen shook his head vehemently. “Half of its content is inaccurate, and the other half is outright wrong. You’re much better off relying on something like Invasive Plant Ecology and Management, or The Vancouver Illustrated Glossary of Botanical Terms, or Parasitic Plants of the World – that one is less detailed, but it draws some interesting parallels between the evolution of plants and that of society.”
“Alright,” Jared said. He looked around. “I should probably make a note of that,” he said.
“I should have them right here,” Jensen offered. He pushed himself off the counter and rounded it to get to the bookshelf behind it. “Here’s the Vancouver Glossary,” he said. “And this is Earthbound Parasites, another good one, and Pollination and Floral Ecology: A Handbook,” and then he spotted Physiology and Behavior of Complementing Plants at the end of the row and pulled that down as well, and when he turned back to lay them on the counter, he found Jared watching him with wide eyes.
Ah, yes. Of course. All Jared had done was ask him for advice, and Jensen practically offered him an entire library. He smiled carefully. “Only if you want them, of course,” he said.
Jared laughed. “Are you kidding?” he asked. “Jensen, of course I want them. This is wonderful.”
Jensen smiled again, a little more certainly this time. “You don’t have to read them here, if you don’t want to,” he said. “You could take them home with you, if you promise to bring them back safe and sound.”
But Jared just shook his head, letting his gaze wander. “I like it here,” he said. He smiled. “I like the atmosphere.”
It wasn’t the first time Jensen had heard someone say that, not by far. Most of his regular patrons had, at some point or another, exclaimed over how cozy and adorable and quaint his shop was. But it was Jared saying the words this time, and Jensen could feel his cheeks growing hot.
“Thank you,” he managed to get out. “I’m glad to hear that.”
Jared smiled at him, eyes crinkling at the corners. “You don’t mind, do you?” he asked. “I really wouldn’t want to be in the way.”
Jensen hastened to assure him that no, he really wasn’t, and procured another stool from the back room so Jared could seat himself in front of the counter and leaf through Jensen’s collection of reference books.
“These are perfect, Jensen,” he said, about three pages in. He looked up and smiled. “Seriously,” he said. “Thank you so much.”
“I could see if I could find my notebooks for you, too,” Jensen offered hesitantly. “There might be something useful in them.”
“That would be amazing, Jensen,” Jared said. He looked like he meant it, too, eyes wide and a small smile tucked away at the corners of his mouth. He let the cover drop shut. “I have to go to class now, unfortunately,” he said. “But I’ll be back for these. And for your notes.”
Jensen nodded, trying not to smile too broadly.
Jared hesitated for a moment, fingers tangled in the strap of his bag, before he leaned in to press a soft, dry kiss to Jensen’s cheek. “Thank you,” he said. “For everything.”
Then he was gone, and Jensen had to take a moment to catch his breath.
“You’re amazing,” he whispered into the empty space Jared had left behind.
Next to him, the wailing carnation began to howl.
“Jared,” he said, ignoring the flush that had formed high on his cheeks from having been caught looking utterly indecent.
“Jensen,” Jared said again. His eyes widened a little at Jensen’s appearance, and it really wasn’t fair that Jared had chosen today of all days to look particularly gorgeous. He was wearing a light blue shirt under a cream vest, and a cream tie, and not even the sweat beading at his forehead made him look the slightest bit unappealing.
“You look nice today,” Jensen said, trying for neutrally. Jared looked – dressed up. Like he was trying to impress someone. Jensen swallowed past the lump in his throat and asked, carefully pleasant, “Dinner plans?”
Jared looked away, clearly flustered. “You know,” he said quickly. “If that’s what makes them happy, right?”
Jensen forced a laugh. “Of course,” he said. “You know, we’ve had some shying daisies come in. They’d match your vest, and you’re just about charming enough to make them show it.”
“Right.” Jared bit his lip. “Maybe later, okay? I wanted to see if I could take a look at your books. Maybe pick your brain a little.”
Jensen gestured at the counter. “The books are all back there,” he said. “Feel free to help yourself. But I’m afraid I won’t be much use to you today. It’s harvest time for the weeping mulberries, and I’ve learned the hard way that that takes priority over anything else.”
“Oh, that’s perfectly alright,” Jared assured him. He bit his lip again when the corners of his mouth curled upwards. “I really wouldn’t want to keep you from anything, Jensen.”
“You aren’t,” Jensen assured him, though if he was being truthful, he had to admit that he most likely would have said the same even if Jared had been. “It’s a fairly mindless task, to be honest.”
“Oh yeah?” Jared sat up a little straighter and folded his hands in his lap. “Anything I can help with, by any chance?”
“No, no.” Jensen smiled at him over his shoulder even as he headed out to retrieve the first of the plants. “I’m fine. You just read.”
“I’m tired of reading,” Jared said while Jensen was rummaging around on the lower level of one of the display tables, trying to decide which of the mulberry bushes needed his attention most badly, just in case he didn’t get through them all today.
“Jensen,” Jared said, drawing out the word. “Reading is all I do, all day. Come on, let me help.”
“I couldn’t,” Jensen said, picking out one of the bushes that was furthest along. “You’re not here to take over my duties.”
“You let Lindsey help,” Jared pointed out.
It was true, he did. Lindsey had been his friend for longer, much longer, but Jared was in the shop more than she was, certainly.
“You’ll ruin your clothes,” Jensen pointed out.
Jared made a dismissive noise. “It’ll come out.”
“It really, really won’t,” Jensen said, allowing himself a laugh. “But if you’re so determined, then yes, you can help.” And what was the harm, really? Jensen could contain his hammering heart for a few hours.
He picked up a second pot, then took a moment to close his eyes and try to relax. It was just like with Lindsey. There was really no need to be this infatuated. “Alright,” he said, when he walked over. “You can help.”
“Perfect.” Jared rubbed his hands together. “What are we doing?”
“Picking berries,” Jensen said. He deposited the first two pots on the counter, then reached underneath it to procure two sets of workman’s gloves. “They need to be removed before they become ripe enough to burst.” He handed one set of gloves to Jared. “You’re going to want to wear these,” he said.
Jared obediently slid one hand into a glove. “What happens when they burst?” he asked.
“Well, as you can see,” Jensen said, pointing out the clumps of berries on the bushes, “the berries are a dark blue, and the riper they grow, the darker they become. When they burst, the juice runs down along the stems and leaves as though the plant were crying – which is all very pretty and fascinating until you’ve realized you’ve gotten it all over your clothes, and that you now have to part ways with your favorite shirt.” He smiled at Jared’s rapt expression. “So wear the gloves?”
“Oh yeah, yeah, of course.” Jared fumbled his fingers into the second one while Jensen procured a bowl for them to collect the berries in.
“So what do you do with the berries once you’ve picked them?”
Jensen pulled on his own gloves, shrugged. “Grow more,” he said. “They’re too bitter to eat, but I was thinking of perhaps crossing the mulberry plant with some sort of vine or ivy, to grow around windows and doors as protection against burglars.”
“Huh,” Jared said, and burst out laughing when he picked off one of the berries and it dissolved between his fingertips, staining the gloves a deep, dark blue. “Yeah, I think that could work.”
Jensen dreaded telling him, but he was honest.
Jared’s jaw dropped. He asked, “Do you usually do all this by yourself?” with his expression caught halfway between impressed and horrified.
Jensen forced himself to smile when he turned back to the plant in front of him. “Usually I hire someone from the florist school to help me out, but this year, I-” can’t afford it, was the honest answer, but that was not something he really liked to contemplate, let alone talk about.
From the corner of his eye, he could see Jared sitting quietly for a couple of moments, watching him. But Jensen didn’t say anything more, and eventually Jared picked off another berry and said lightly, “Well then, it’s a good thing I’m here.”
He sold a daisy chain to Ryan Ross when he came in, who nodded vaguely through Jensen’s explanation that sunlight and a nightly soak would keep the circular plant alive and healthy, long, spindly digits repeatedly drifting up to finger the blossoms in his hair in infatuation. He could barely even take his fingers away to pay, but before he left, he looked up at Jensen, eyes suddenly sharp.
“I hope he’s good to you.” He nodded at Jensen. “The one who’s got you smiling like that.”
“I don’t, I haven’t,” Jensen stammered, but before he’d regained his power of speech, Ryan Ross had already waltzed out the door.
Jensen couldn’t. He just couldn’t bring himself to scare Jared away, even when it was for both their good, and so he did what he usually did: He distracted himself with his plants.
“What’s that?” Jared asked, eyeing the quivering mass of stems that Jensen carried over to the counter in fascination.
“Twisting hazel,” Jensen told him dutifully. “The older stems need a trim, or they’ll grow too hard and break.”
“Huh,” Jared said, after a moment. “What happens to them in the wild? If there’s nobody around to trim them?”
“They get eaten.” Jensen smiled. “Like a large number of wild plants, to be honest.”
“Did you know the rotting valerian has evolved to look and smell like it’s already dead, to avoid exactly that?” Jared tilted back on his stool so he was leaning against the wall and lazily stretched to tap the page open in front of him. “I just read that.”
“I did know that.” Jensen smiled down at his hands for a moment before he reached out to take hold of the first twisting leaf, testing it for bendiness. It passed the test, and he kept a tight hold on it while he reached for a second with his free hand.
Across from him, Jared laughed. “Oh yeah,” he said good-naturedly. “You already know everything there is to know about plants, I forgot.”
“Not everything.” Jensen worked his way through a third stem, and a fourth. “But it sort of comes with the territory, you have to admit.”
“I suppose.” Jared reached for the pencil lying on the counter top, tapping it against the surface while Jensen worked. “I’ve been wondering about that.”
“Oh?” Jensen said carefully.
“Yeah,” Jared said, smiling a little. “When all the little boys wanted to be firemen, were you the kid talking about owning a flower shop one day?”
Jensen had never been so thankful for a customer as he was right then, and the smile he aimed at the woman pushing open the door was perhaps a little wide. “Welcome,” he said. “Would you like some help, or are you just having a look around?”
“Oh, I’m just looking,” she said, waving a vague hand.
“Well, let me know if you need anything,” Jensen said. When he risked a glance back at Jared, the other man was frowning at him, and Jensen, caught, dropped his gaze.
“So tell me more about twisting hazel,” Jared said, a peace offering of sorts. “Where is it from, originally?”
Jensen smiled gratefully, and had just launched into a description of European flower trade in the fifteenth century, when he heard his customer make a faint noise of outrage.
“Is this a joke?” she asked, holding up a price tag.
Jensen could see his own startled expression reflected on Jared’s face. “Uh, no, ma’am,” he said. “All prices are as displayed.”
She scoffed and jabbed the sign blindly back into the soil. Jensen cringed, but it looked like she had avoided spearing any errant leaves. She read over a few more signs, expression growing darker with each one, and finally shook her head and turned away from them entirely.
“These prices are ridiculous,” she said. “That flower shop on Lombard Street, what’s it called?” She snapped her fingers. “Pellegrino’s. They sell all of these for half price, at least. You don’t even have bouquets.”
“There are ethical reasons,” Jensen began, at the same time Jared snapped “Hey!” but the customer merely said “Yeah, yeah, whatever,” and headed for the door.
“Have a good day,” Jensen called after her, and was answered by the sound of the door slamming shut. He didn’t let himself droop, not exactly, but he still hunched his shoulders and bowed his head. He could hear Jared move, after a moment, but he didn’t look up until he felt his hands settle on Jensen’s back.
“People are cruel,” Jared said. His hands were broad and warm against Jensen’s shoulders.
“They can be, yes,” Jensen whispered.
Jared took his hands away. Jensen concentrated on the twisting hazel while he returned to his seat, and while he turned a page and made a couple of notes.
“You never answered my question, you know,” Jared finally said, deliberately light. “About what made you decide to open a flower shop.”
Jensen finally found a stem that wouldn’t bend like the others, cracks already marring the sides, and it was then that he realized he only had sharp-nosed shears on hand. He tried them anyway, but the stem in question twisted so violently Jensen almost cut off the one next to it instead. He could hear the bark crack. “There’s not much to tell, really,” he said, launching another attempt that, predictably, also failed. “My parents owned one, and I’ve always loved plants. It was only the next logical step.”
“What’s wrong?” Jared asked, when the twisting hazel bent away from Jensen’s hands a third time, and Jensen sighed.
“I need the snub-nosed shears,” he said. “Twisting hazel doesn’t like sharp things, but apparently I’ve left them in the back, and if I go get them now,” he indicated the hand full of wriggling strands, “I’m going to have to start over.”
“You could have just said something,” Jared chided, springing to his feet. “I’ll go get them. The back room, you said?”
“You don’t have to,” Jensen protested, but Jared was already gone. “They should be on the worktable,” he called, and then gave his handful of hazel a gentle tug. “This is all your fault, you know,” he said quietly.
“Got them!” came the cheerful reply. Then a worry-inducing silence. “Hey Jensen?” Jared stuck his head through the door, cobwebs clinging to his bangs. “Did you know you have a radio back here?”
“A radio?” Jensen asked. He remembered making room for one, vaguely, but what exactly he had intended to do with it escaped him.
“Uh-huh.” Jared disappeared only to emerge again a moment later, shears in one hand and, indeed, a radio under his other arm - one of the old, upright, wooden ones that Jensen had always preferred, no matter how outdated they were.
Jared handed the shears to Jensen, who snipped off the now pliant stem in question, and returned to his own side of the counter. He set the radio down and ran a flat hand across the top of it, grinning when he came away with a palmful of dust. “Man, Jensen,” he said. “I hope this still works.”
He looked around for an electrical outlet, then back at Jensen, faltering slightly. “You don’t have any plants that react badly to music, do you?” he asked.
“Not at the moment,” Jensen said evenly, though the fact that Jared was so thoughtful of his plants sent a pleasantly warm shiver down his spine. He gestured at the radio with his shears. “Go right ahead.”
“Alright,” Jared crowed, and went to plug in the cord. When nothing happened, he lightly smacked the radio’s wooden side a couple of times, muttering, “Come on now, come on.”
Jensen figured they were both about equally surprised when that actually worked, though Jared’s grin at the first sign of white noise was decidedly bigger. He fiddled with the dials for a moment, going through several stations, before finally settling on something rhythmic and lighthearted.
Jensen, on the other hand, was merely waiting for the moment Jared noticed the shelf of fledgling plants mounted on the wall.
Which he did, a moment later. “Jensen,” he breathed. “Jensen – are they swaying?”
“They are.” Jensen finally gave the hazel up as a lost cause, at least while Jared was still exclaiming in delight over Jensen’s treasures. He untangled his hand and turned in his seat to give Jared his full attention. “Telegraph plants,” he said. “Though I prefer the less common name dancing lords and ladies.” He thought about explaining how the music’s vibration in the air affected the young leaves, but in the end he merely smiled, deciding that a scientific explanation would only lessen the magic.
Instead he said, “If you turn the music down a little, you’ll be able to hear them humming.”
“But then I’d have to turn the music down,” Jared said, smiling, though he immediately reached for the knob that controlled the volume. The humming that accompanied the swaying wasn’t particularly pretty, but it was certainly impressive, and Jared immediately wandered over to peer at the plants with interest.
“This is amazing,” he said, after a moment. “They’re like a tiny choir, right here on your shelf.”
“I agree,” Jensen said quietly.
With a quick grin over his shoulder, Jared began conducting the plants in grand, sweeping motions, and Jensen couldn’t help it – he laughed, loud and bright, and then laughed again at the way Jared startled and promptly lost the beat entirely.
“Are you laughing at me?” he demanded, grinning wide, and set his hands on his hips.
“I would never,” Jensen said, but he was still smiling, and Jared shook his head and then a finger at him.
“Come on,” he said. “Just for that, I’m forcing you to dance.”
“No!” Jensen protested. He held up one hand, laughing. “No dancing!”
“You can’t fool me,” Jared crowed. “I see those fingers twitching, Mr. Ackles!”
Jensen stilled his other hand – indeed, merrily tapping away – immediately, but Jared didn’t seem to care about that, twining his fingers through Jensen’s instead.
“Come on,” he said, giving Jensen’s hand a little tug. “I know you want to dance, Jensen. I can see it in your eyes.”
Jensen wasn’t sure he could, considering he was having a hard time tearing his gaze from the sight of their clasped hands, but he let Jared pull him around the counter and into the small bit of open space in front of it. There wasn’t much room for dancing to be had, but he spun obediently when Jared urged him to, and laughed when Jared attempted some sort of swing step that almost sent both of them flying. He turned again, and then froze when he saw someone standing in the door, watching with interest.
He realized a moment later that it was only Gabe, but Jared had already stilled, one hand settling protectively on Jensen’s hip.
“Hey, lovebirds,” Gabe said, grinning.
Jensen took a hasty step back. “It’s not like that,” he said, and when he chanced a glance at Jared, his friend was frowning in agreement.
Gabe shrugged good-naturedly. “Too bad,” he said. “That was seriously cute.”
He gestured at the greenhouse windows, and Jensen flushed a hot red. He’d completely forgotten how visible they were from the street. Anyone walking by could have seen him being utterly unprofessional. Thankfully, the only person outside was William, who hurried across the driveway and into the shop, a bright flush on his cheeks.
“Sorry,” he said, not unhappily, after he’d pushed closed the door. “I’m late, I’m late, I know.”
“One of these days,” Gabe said, extending a hand, “you’re going to be on time to something, William, and I won’t know what to do with myself.”
“Hold your tongue,” William told him. He allowed Gabe to draw him in and press a warm kiss to his lips. “No bad-mouthing me in front of Jensen. He might think less of me, and if that happens, I think I might die.”
“I would never,” Gabe stage-whispered against his lips before he let him go – though no further than an arm’s reach away. “Well then, Jensen,” he said, and Jensen keenly felt Jared drifting away but he didn’t dare turn to ask him not to go.
Gabe, perhaps sensing his distress, softened his smile. “We’ve come for the rest of those snakeheads.”
The representative who answered his call – Isaac – ‘hm’ed, papers rustling, before he finally came back on the line.
“We have no such bill on record, sir,” he said. “According to our files, you’ve actually acquired less balance than last month.”
“That’s – fine,” Jensen said. “It must have been a mix-up in the paperwork, then.”
“I’m very sorry about that,” came the reply. He laughed a little. “But hey, better this than the other way around, huh? ”
“Certainly.” Jensen’s smile was a little weak. “You have a good day.”
“You too,” Isaac said and hung up.
Jensen himself was slower to, and when he finally pulled his hand away, his fingers were shaking. What on Earth was going on?
He knew for a fact that it wasn’t, considering he’d used it to create a child-friendly version of the raging daffodil just last year, as a special request from a client with no small case of nostalgia but also a hefty dose of concern for her children’s safety. The inherent quality of a trait had nothing to do with how strong it was when crossed, everyone knew that. But there it was, printed in black and white. The blue butter daisy is a plant too docile to cross.
“Ridiculous,” he muttered, not realizing he had spoken aloud until he noticed Jared giving him a curious look. He lifted the magazine to give Jared a better view of the cover, simultaneously hiding his reddening cheeks. “This is possibly the least accurate journal I have ever read,” he said.
“You know a lot about designing plants?” Jared asked casually.
Jensen shrugged his shoulders. “A little,” he said. “I’ve designed a couple, like the felicitas, but mostly my creations are the result of a happy coincidence.”
“Most people would call that ‘brilliance’.”
Jensen shook his head quickly. “I combined a few lucky discoveries with what I already knew about plants,” he said. “It wasn’t a coincidence as such, but it certainly wasn’t due to my own brilliance.”
Jared, smiling a little, shook his head. “I highly doubt you’d ever attribute anything to your own brilliance,” he said, and then clapped his hands and looked away before Jensen could respond. “So!” he said brightly. “Tell me which of these are your own work.”
“Anything in particular?” Jensen asked, indicating the greenhouse and its mess of plants crowded on every available surface, occupying tables, shelves, chairs, the floor and even the rafters. They weren’t all his, but a significant number of them were. “Otherwise we might be here a while.”
Jared laughed. “What about your earliest one? The earliest one you have available, at least.”
That was easy, at least. Jensen slid out from behind the counter and reached up to pluck it from a shelf, presenting it to Jared. “Here you are,” he said. It was a clumsily assembled plant, its stems varying in thickness and length, with a lone marguerite blooming in the center.
“She doesn’t even have a name,” Jensen said. “But at the time, I thought it’d be an excellent idea to have a plant that opened a different color blossom every day of the week.”
He’d spent days on it, weeks, figuring out how to combine the marguerite with three different color carnations, a dandelion, a violet, and a tulip. It had still turned out horribly disfigured.
“Oh wow.” Jared took the pot from Jensen’s hands to turn it this way and that. “How young were you?”
“I don’t know.” Jensen laughed. “Young.” He gave Jared a small smile. “Not the finest work I’ve ever done, I’ll admit, but I find myself oddly fond of it all the same.”
“Is that why you still have it?” Jared asked, “Because this might be your first attempt, but I still can’t imagine that no one would be interested in buying it.”
“It’s not that.” Jensen shook his head. “There have been interested parties, and I’m willing to part with it, I am. I’m just not willing to sell it to just anyone, you know? I know it’s stupid, but I can’t bear to let it go if I don’t know that it’s going to a good home.”
“I don’t think that’s stupid, Jensen,” Jared said quietly.
“That’s good,” Jensen said, just as softly. He smiled. “Want to see my latest, in contrast?”
“I’d love to,” Jared said, but the smile faded when he registered the plant Jensen lead him to. “Doesn’t that look like… a mother of millions?” he asked.
“Yes,” Jensen said easily.
Jared gave him a sidelong look. “The plant that kills grown men if they so much as brush against the blossoms with bare arms?”
Jensen allowed himself a grin. “I did say it was one of my creations, didn’t I?” he said. He reached past the star-shaped blue blossoms to point out a short, thick branch that didn’t quite seem to fit with the others. “This is purpureum,” he said. “It can be used to create antidotes for just about any kind of poison. This plant is a cross between the two, and it’s entirely harmless.”
He brushed his hand against one of the blossoms, ignoring Jared’s sharp breath, and smiled. “See?”
“That is amazing,” Jared breathed. He turned to Jensen, a wide grin spreading over his features. “You’re amazing.”
His smile was so brilliant, so breathtaking, that Jensen had to swallow and look away. It wasn’t for him, he reminded himself firmly. Jared was interested in girls, in women, in one woman in particular, and Jensen needed to abandon the fluttering in his stomach before it got him into serious trouble.
“I,” he began, but Jared was already entirely entranced by Jensen’s creation once again.
“How did you do it?” he asked. “Everything I’ve read says that the mother of millions rejects any foreign implant, making a cross impossible.”
“No, you see,” Jensen said, heading for his books and drawings, letting Jared’s enthusiasm carry him. He took hold of one of his references, flipped through a notebook. “You see, that’s what you’d think, with the mother of million’s aggressive characteristics, but if you use the sap of the leeching ivy to seal the cut, the parasitic element in the liquid absorbs the rejecting trait of the mother of millions, protecting the purpureum, and by the time the effect wears off, the added branch has already absorbed enough of the mother of millions’ sap for it to accept it as a native extension, and then the mother of millions adopting the purpureum’s antidotal characteristics and neutralizing its own venom is just a matter of time.”
“That’s genius,” Jared whispered, tracing Jensen’s sketches with one long finger. “Jensen, that’s – the ivy sap, how did you come up with that?”
“Oh.” Jensen shrugged a little. He was hugging Malcolm’s Field Guide to Flowers to his chest, he realized, but wasn’t sure how to let go without drawing attention to the fact. “It wasn’t a brilliant discovery, or anything,” he said.
“I think it’s pretty great,” Jared said.
“That’s because you’re almost as fascinated by flowers as I am,” Jensen said. He hesitated. “I mean, judging from your interest in the subject, I simply assumed-”
“No, no, you’re right.” Jared looked down at his hands. “I think I might specialize in Botanical Engineering. You know, plant design?”
“Because of my shop?” Jensen asked. His heart was hammering so loud he was surprised Jared wasn’t already calling a doctor.
“Yeah.” Jared smiled at him through his bangs. “I just never realized how cool plants are, you know?”
It was certainly the first Jensen had ever heard of it, but it wasn’t like he was going to argue the point. “I’m glad you think so,” he said, and found himself smiling back.
The days grew warmer slowly, bringing a welcome respite after the chill of winter, but they also brought along Jared’s mid-term exams.
Despite Jensen’s fears, Jared still came into the shop, but he was red-eyed and dragging his feet and spent most of his time bent over his notes and books, scribbling comments and muttering to himself.
“Two more days, Jensen,” he said at one point. “Two more days, and this is finally over.”
Jensen looked down at the crown of his head for a moment, and then he went and fetched the honeybell from the back of the greenhouse. “Here,” he said, setting the plant down by Jared’s elbow.
“What’s this?” Jared asked, staring at it with bleary eyes.
“Honeybell,” Jensen said. He broke off a part of one stiff leaf and offered it to Jared, holding it carefully to keep the milky sap that welled up immediately from dripping onto the counter. “Try it,” he said.
Jared took it from him carefully, tongue flicking out to taste the liquid. His eyes popped open. “This is really good,” he said.
“I usually reserve them for children with overly stern parents,” Jensen said, smiling down at his hands. When he looked up, Jared was watching him.
“Why?” he asked, tone without censure.
“Everybody needs a little happiness in their lives,” Jensen said.
Jared licked at the sap running down the side of his thumb before he dragged his finger out of his mouth with a satisfied pop. “Words to live by." He looked down at his notes and sighed. “Can you pass me the Landon again?”
"Please tell me you're not actually thinking of going out in that," Jensen said before he remembered himself. Jared wasn't his to command - if Jared decided to walk home in abysmal weather, then Jensen had no right to criticize him for it.
"What are my other options?" Jared asked in return. He looked around again, and then sighed once more. "And today, of course, is the day I decided to leave my jacket in my room."
"You could stay here," Jensen said, impulsively. "At least until the worst is over."
Jared smiled. "Jensen, you're closing in twenty minutes," he said. "Don't think I haven't noticed what a stickler for punctuality you are."
Jensen cast him a careful look, but Jared seemed amused rather than critical, and that's what gave him the courage to point out, "I think I'll survive allowing someone to stay past closing time for one night," he said. "Whereas I'm not entirely convinced you'll survive the walk home in this weather."
Jared looked outside again, where the thunderclouds gathered overhead gave the impression of a premature dusk. "I think you might be right," he said. He set his bag down on the counter once more, sat down on one stool and patted the one at his side. "Well then, Jensen," he said, turning to him with an expectant smile. "Since you won't let me leave, I fully expect you to keep me entertained now."
Jensen sat down at Jared’s side, but couldn’t quite meet his eyes. Instead, he looked down at the rag in his hands. "How would you like to be entertained?" he asked. His voice was soft and a little shaky, which he hated, but he hated not knowing what to expect even more. He never knew what to expect with Jared.
"Well." Jared drew out the word until it was barely recognizable. "You could start by telling me a little bit about yourself, oh mysterious Mr. Ackles."
"There's not much to tell," Jensen replied automatically. There really wasn't, though people always appeared determined to believe the opposite. He owned a flower shop, he tended to plants, and occasionally he even had a customer. That was really all there was to it.
"That's what they all say," Jared chided him. "You could at least come up with something original."
Jensen twisted the rag between his fingers. He couldn't bring himself to look at Jared, even though he knew Jared was looking at him. "I don't know what you want me to say," he said.
Jared made a considering noise. After a moment, he huffed a breath. Jensen could see him turn away, towards the rest of the greenhouse, out of the corner of his eyes.
"You could tell me a little bit about why you like plants so much," he finally said.
"Why wouldn't I?" Jensen returned, confused.
Jared laughed a little. He gave Jensen a smile. "You'd be surprised how many people really aren't that interested in plants," he said.
"You're lying," Jensen said, smiling a little to show he was only teasing. "There is not a single person in the whole wide world who doesn't love flowers."
"My sister doesn't," Jared said, and now Jensen truly was shocked.
Jared smiled at his expression. "She's allergic to most of them," he said. "It's unfortunate, but since she rarely comes to visit me here, I can still keep all the flowers I want."
Jensen put down his rag and reached out, tentatively, to straighten a stack of forms. He couldn't imagine being allergic to plants - what a terrible illness to have. "Isn't it odd, then?" he asked. "That you're so interested in plants?"
"Not entirely." Jared shrugged. "I suppose they've always fascinated me just for that reason. The forbidden fruit, you know?"
"I suppose," Jensen said.
Jared was silent for a moment before he smiled again. "So, Mr. Ackles, now it's your turn: How did you decide to become a florist?" He winked. "Be honest, now. Don't say it was to impress the ladies."
"I'm not," Jensen said. "I don't. I mean. My parents owned a flower shop," he forced out, before he could embarrass himself any further, or flush an even darker shade of red. “I grew up taking care of plants. I ended up being better at it than they were, some of the time, once I’d hit my teens.”
“I can imagine.” Jared nudged Jensen’s knee with his own. “You’re scarily good at it.”
Jensen, somehow, found it in himself to return the gesture. “That’s what they said, too.”
They fell silent, after that. Jensen noted absently that he’d need to pick the rotting leaves off the toadflax before it began to devour itself, and didn’t notice how tense Jared had become until he spoke again.
“Are your parents…?” A look of regret passed over his face immediately, as if he was wishing he hadn’t opened his mouth. That, more than anything else, gave Jensen the courage to duck his head in agreement.
“They died,” he said. “My father when I was very young, my mother when I was almost an adult.”
Jared’s knee knocked into Jensen’s again, but this time it stayed there, warmth bleeding through the fabric separating them. Jensen folded his hands between his knees to shift his attention away from the sensation.
The sting at being alone was mostly gone now, anyway. He didn’t have any particularly vivid memories of his father – a few hazy recollections of tottering around the greenhouse, held steady by large, calloused hands; clinging to the man’s neck, gazing up at enormous leaves; digging his hands into the soft, fine soil in the flower beds, his father not too far away, doing the same. He didn’t even remember him falling ill, and his mother had understandably been reluctant to talk about it. She’d also refused to return to the family who’d turned their backs on her when she had left to find herself and found herself married to a florist and soon pregnant instead. She’d tolerated the presents they’d sent Jensen, and even brought him along to some of the family gatherings they asked her to attend, but for the longest time, it had been him and his mother tending to their flowers, struggling on, no more and no less.
“I’m sorry, Jensen,” Jared said. “That must have been hard.”
“She just got careless,” Jensen said. “She had this grand idea about modifying a constrictor plant, making it less aggressive so it’d be like a living security blanket instead of crushing the life out of you. It was all she ever talked about, in the end, but she knew, she knew that it was dangerous and she still kept working on it when I wasn’t there, even though I told her not to.” He looked over at Jared whose eyes had grown wide. “I told her it was going to happen, and she still went and got herself killed.”
“Jensen,” Jared said, and Jensen let his gaze drop. He didn’t cry over it, not anymore, but sometimes he couldn’t help but wonder how she could have been so careless with her own life. Like the fact that her seventeen-year-old son might have needed her didn’t even matter to her anymore.
“Jensen,” Jared said again.
Jensen smiled at his knees, knowing what the next words out of Jared’s mouth were going to be some empty platitude. But Jared didn’t say anything at all. Instead, he reached over to cover Jensen’s hand with his own, and when Jensen glanced over at him in surprise, there was a faint smile hovering at the corners of Jared’s mouth.
“I think you’re really brave, Jensen,” he said.
“It’s not the constrictor’s fault,” Jensen said automatically. He cleared his throat. “It was acting on instinct, that’s all.”
“That doesn’t mean it wasn’t hard for you, going through all of that alone.”
“It’s alright,” Jensen said. “It was a long time ago.”
“Did–” Jared asked, glancing around, but Jensen shook his head.
“Not here,” he said. He knew, rationally, that the entire thing was nothing more than a truly unfortunate accident, but there was a difference between understanding that and continuing to spend every day of his life looking at the place where he’d found his mother on the floor, unmoving, limbs barely visible underneath a tangle of leaves.
He let his body drop forward, catching his forearms on his knees, and breathed in the damp, dusky smell of his greenhouse. It was reassuring, and it was home, and it made the hurt ease a little bit. After a moment, Jared’s hand settled between his shoulder blades, large and reassuring, and Jensen took another deep breath, allowing himself to revel in the warmth soaking through his shirt.
“How about some tea?” he asked, when the silence had stretched on for several minutes. “I have a kettle and hot plate in the back room.”
“Sounds great,” Jared said, beaming at him.
Jensen found himself smiling back, and went to boil some water while Jared volunteered to quickly sweep the aisles. Outside, the rain came down harder and harder, but Jensen’s smile remained firmly in place.
She’d finally come by again, and they’d both muttered heartfelt apologies. One of the things Jensen liked best about Lindsey was that he could fight with her, and make up again, and they were both equally easy.
“Oh really.” Jensen lifted one of the dark red strips higher, and the flower drooped.
“Really,” Lindsey said. She looked down at her hands, but Jensen could still see the blush staining her cheeks. “He sat outside my store for four hours, waiting for me,” she said. “I just – thought he couldn’t be all bad, you know, if he cared that much.”
“I suppose not.” Jensen finally relented, reaching over to tie the ribbon around one quivering stem. “It went better this time, then?”
“So much better,” Lindsey said.
“Not that it could have been much worse,” Jensen reminded her, smiling.
“No, it was.” She flushed. “It was really nice.”
“Remind me to never give you a wailing carnation,” Jensen laughed.
Lindsey wrinkled her nose. “What, the one that whines louder and louder the happier its owner is? Why would anyone do that to themselves?”
“It sounds very pretty when you’re unhappy,” Jensen felt obliged to point out, and then looked away when Lindsey turned her sharp gaze on him. “It was a long time ago, Lindsey,” he said.
Lindsey kept on watching him for a moment. Then, deliberately accusing, she asked, “So I assume you’re going to tell me that Gerard hasn’t come in for advice.”
“It’s possible,” Jensen said non-committedly. “You know people do that at times.”
Lindsey narrowed her eyes at him, but she smiled when Jensen did, expression melting into something soft.
“It was really nice, Jensen,” she said. “He’s really nice.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” Jensen said. He reached over to cover Lindsey’s hand with his own. “Really glad.”
Lindsey smiled, which was when there was a loud on knock on the back door.
“Delivery!” someone called, but when Jensen went to open the door, smile already on his face, it wasn’t Bernie on the other side. Instead it was a guy in his mid-forties or so, smiling sheepishly.
“Hey there,” the man said. “Jensen Ackles?”
“That’s me,” Jensen said. He stepped back to let the guy maneuver the dolly across the doorstep. What happened to Bernie? was burning at the tip of his tongue, but he didn’t want to be rude. It was possible this man didn’t even know.
Instead, he waved his hand at the empty tabletop. “Right over there is fine,” he said, when the delivery man cast a helpless look around.
“Thanks,” he said. He took the clipboard off the topmost crate and narrowed his eyes at it. “So I guess it’s this, and… three more crates in the back?”
Jensen gave the man another once-over. There was just something off about him, something Jensen couldn’t quite put a finger on. And it wasn’t just that he obviously had no idea what he was doing, or how to lift crates properly, for that matter – he was going to strain his back before long if he kept that up.
Jensen took a step forward to help and the man gratefully fell back.
“Thank you, seriously,” he said. “I mean, I’m sure that’s supposed to be my job, but. I mean. I haven’t been doing this for very long.” His lips twisted into another sheepish look. “I’m sure you can tell.”
“It’s not that bad,” Jensen lied. “I’m sure you’ll catch on quick.”
The guy smiled again, scuffing the tip of his shoe into the rough concrete floor, and Jensen finally figured out what was bothering him: Bernie had been a jovial guy, comfortable in his skin and in his grey coveralls with the company’s logo stitched above the right breast pocket. He’d moved easily, stood easily, smiled easily.
This new delivery man, on the other hand, held himself as stiffly as if he were afraid of rumpling some invisible suit. And it wasn’t as though Jensen, who had given up on the topcoat for convenience’s sake but nevertheless insisted on a button-down shirt, vest, and tie with his slacks, was unfamiliar with the desire to keep his clothing as tidy and orderly as possible, but this man’s posture was just about ridiculously correct, so flawless it was uncomfortable to witness. Merely looking at him made Jensen want to loosen his tie.
“The delivery?” Jensen finally prompted, and then discreetly rolled his eyes when the man, utterly lost, began to leaf through his papers.
Together, they managed to unload the right crates, though Jensen honestly had to say he did a lot more of the paperwork and a lot more of the actual lifting. But the delivery man looked contrite, at least, and offered Jensen a hesitant smile when they were done.
“Thank you, again, for the help.” He held out his hand. “I’m Sheppard. Well, Mark, but everybody calls me Sheppard. I’m replacing Bernie.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” Jensen said, gripping firmly. He kept his smile in place until Sheppard had closed the backdoor behind him with another nod. He held it until he heard the delivery truck back out of the driveway, then he dropped the expression and went to quickly turn every single lock on the door. That done, he leaned his back against the wood and took a deep breath. This was getting ridiculous.
When he returned to the front, Lindsey was still sat at the counter, leafing through this season’s issue of Your New Best Friend and shaking her head at the many full-page photographs of people posed in their living rooms with a variety of plants in their laps. Unlike before, however, Jared now leaned against it from the other side, head bent over Steinhower’s Handbook, pen and notebook under one hand. He raised his head to smile at Jensen when Jensen eased into the greenhouse, but his expression quickly faded into concern.
“What’s wrong?” he asked. “Did something happen?”
Lindsey turned her head too, eyebrows creasing, and Jensen shook his head.
“I’m fine,” he assured them. “But I think we should have an emergency meeting.”
“Um, sure.” Jared pushed the book’s heavy cover closed. “What’s up?”
Jensen took a deep breath, and then another. It wouldn’t be like last time, he told himself. This wasn’t the police, these were his friends. “I think someone is doing his or her best to sabotage the shop,” he said.
“The – the flower shop?” Jared asked.
“Yes, the shop.” Jensen silenced the snippy comment he could practically see dancing at the tip of Lindsey’s tongue with a sharp glance.
She rolled her eyes at him, but her tone was civil when she asked, “What makes you say that?”
Jensen took another deep breath, and then listed everything that had occurred recently that had caught his attention: The fake bill, the water hose, the way the skittering vine had been so upset. He told them about Sheppard, too, but only vaguely – he didn’t want to go accusing the man of anything before he had learned more about him. It was entirely possible, after all, that he was just having a bad first day.
“There’s no other explanation,” he finally said. “This isn’t just bad luck anymore. There’s something else going on here.”
“But who would do something like that?” Jared asked, eyes wide in disbelief, and Lindsey nodded in flummoxed agreement.
“Unfortunately,” Jensen told them grimly, tucking his papers into an organized pile, “I have a pretty good idea.”
“Well, who else could it be?” Jensen ran his hands through his hair, no doubt creating the impression that he’d recently crawled through a hedge, or touched an electrical outlet. “Nothing else makes sense! He’s obviously invested in me and the shop, he’s tried to convince me to share my design plants with him before, and he’s a low enough person to resort to these methods.”
“So says you,” Lindsey cautioned him.
“Who would you say it is, then?” Jensen asked, throwing his hands in the air.
“It might not even be anyone we know,” Lindsey said, jaw growing tight.
“Just a minute,” Jared cut in before Jensen had a chance to snap back at her. “If this person’s broken in before, chances are high he or she will do it again, correct?”
Lindsey narrowed her eyes at him. “What’s your point?”
“My point is,” Jared said, lifting a finger into the air, “that it doesn’t matter who it is, as long as we catch them in the act.”
Jensen stared at him. It wasn’t a bad idea, of course, but if it hadn’t been for the skittering vine, Jensen doubted he’d even have noticed someone had been in his shop. “And how do you propose we do that?” he asked.
“Why, Jensen.” Jared smiled at him. “With the help of your plants, of course.”
“This isn’t getting us anywhere,” he said.
Lindsey looked up with a hesitant smile, most likely ready to give up herself, but Jared tapped the page he was reading thoughtfully.
“Hang on a moment,” he said.
“Did you find something?” Jensen asked.
“I have an idea,” Jared said slowly. His eyes flickered to Jensen, but he looked away when Jensen tried to meet his gaze. “You’re not going to like it, though.”
“Tell me?” Jensen said anyway.
Jared wouldn’t look at him. “Your mother’s theory,” he said. “A constrictor plant that captures rather than strangles.”
“No,” Jensen said. He couldn’t breathe, and for a moment it was as if it had already gotten a hold of him. “Jared, no.”
“You’re brilliant, Jensen, and we’d never work on it alone,” Jared said quickly. His eyes were wide and dark. “We’d be careful, Jensen.”
“That’s what she said, too,” Jensen snapped at him, and went to hide himself at the very back of his greenhouse, where the leaves were almost impenetrable and he could breathe, just a little.
When he returned to the counter, a good half hour later and noticeably calmer, Jared was still sat where Jensen had left him.
“I’m sorry,” he said the moment he laid eyes on Jensen. “We’ll think of something else.”
“No, it’s.” Jensen swallowed against his dry throat. “It’s fine. I’ll be fine.”
He could tell from the looks on his friends’ faces that they didn’t believe him, but that was alright. It was fine, as long as they got this over with.
He didn’t think he let it show, but at their vantage point at the doorway, Jared let one hand rest at the small of Jensen’s back. He didn’t say anything, but he didn’t have to. The sharp, tense line of Jensen’s shoulders probably said it all.
Sheppard spent several minutes hovering by the door, asking questions just this side of nosy, but he bid them a hasty goodbye when Jared leveled a truly impressive glare at him.
“Thank you,” Jensen said once he’d gone, his smile just a little shaky.
Jared waves his words away. “He was ridiculous,” he said. He draped his arm over Jensen’s shoulders and gave the constrictor a thoughtful look. “You ready for this?”
Jensen wasn’t, probably wouldn’t ever be, but he still took a deep breath and shrugged out of Jared’s comforting hold. “Let’s get to it,” he said.
“Jensen,” he said quietly. “Jensen, are you sure?”
“I said I was, didn’t I?” Jensen snapped at him.
Jared didn’t look up, but Jensen could see him flinch, and that more than anything allowed the tension to leak out of him, leaving nothing but regret and a heavy heart.
He took a slow step closer, and then another, until he was close enough to take Jared’s hands in his own. “Jared,” he said. “Look at me, please.”
Jared did, after a moment, and Jensen smiled at him. It was small, he knew that, but it was real, and from the way Jared sat up a little straighter, his friend knew that, too.
He ducked his head a little, letting his gaze drop to their clasped hands. They looked so similar now, calloused and stained with dirt and sap where only a few weeks ago, anyone would have been able to tell them apart by nothing but their fingers.
Jensen brushed the pad of his thumb over Jared’s knuckles. His smile came more easily this time. “Jared,” he repeated. “I’m not going to lie and say it’s easy, because it isn’t. But please trust me when I say that it’s okay.”
“I just.” Jared ducked his head. “I just don’t want to make you unhappy, Jensen. It wouldn’t be worth it.” He squeezed Jensen’s hands between his own. “It wouldn’t ever be worth it.”
“Thank you,” Jensen said quietly. “Thank you, but. We should do this. We can do this.”
“If you’re sure,” Jared said, and didn’t raise the matter again.
Jensen stared at him for a moment, earnestly afraid for his friend’s sanity. Then he deflated. “Sure,” he said. “Constance it is.”
“Theoretically, yes,” Jensen agreed, pinching the bridge of his nose.
“We should probably repeat the process several times,” Jared said. “Just to be sure.”
Jensen nodded his assent. “We should start as soon as possible,” he said, but that didn’t mean the blade in his hands wasn’t quivering when he made the first cut, Constance roiling angrily underneath the netting.
Jared didn’t comment on it.
He’d banished it to the back room some two weeks earlier, when it had latched onto a customer browsing the shop with her little boy, and it had taken Jensen almost twenty minutes to extract her. The customer, suffice to say, had not bought anything – she hadn’t even stuck around long enough for Jensen to offer her another, complementary flower in recompense. So Jensen had sighed and taken the clinger to the back until someone asked for it or until the incident had become less painful in Jensen’s mind. But there was still the matter of maintaining the clinger’s good health – there wasn’t much for it to latch onto in the storeroom, not much for it to damage itself with, but Jensen wasn’t willing to take any risks.
Still, the mostly hazard-free environment meant the task was quickly done as well as generally mindless, and he entertained himself with humming snatches of songs and shuffling his feet in place, careful to stay far from Constance’s reach, and he continued to do so even after he’d realized that the songs stuck in his head were the ones he’d listened to with Jared on his old radio. He didn’t even mind that he was smiling.
He heard the bell above the doorway jingle while he was still elbows deep in soil, so he called a “Just a moment!” and set about extracting himself from the clinger’s steely grip. It took him a while, stems and leaves winding around his forearms with grim determination, but in the end he managed without doing any damage to the plant, and he only had to raise his voice twice.
He rinsed the bright blue residue the clinger liked to leave behind off his skin in the sink and slid into the shop, a warm smile and an apology already on his lips, but when he saw who was waiting for him, both froze on his face.
His customers were Gabe and the willowy William, but instead of clinging to each other the way they usually did, they were standing a full four feet apart, a tabletop flowerbed between them. It was a jarring sight, and Jensen stared at them for a moment before he even registered their low, but heated voices.
William had cut his hair, short enough that when he ran his fingers through it, he left a jungle of unruly strands in their wake. “Gabe,” he said, stuttered, choking on the word, but when Gabe’s eyes softened in sympathy, William’s own blazed up.
“You always do this,” he hissed. “Every time, Gabe. Every – single – time.” He choked again, sucked in a breath of frustration and let his head drop, hands pressed against the table’s surface.
Gabe, it seemed, might have been sympathetic to William’s plight, but that didn’t mean he was any less angry. “Maybe if you’d learn to have a little bit of a sense of humor, then we wouldn’t have to have this fight every damn time.”
“Oh, I don’t have a sense of humor, do I?” William bit out.
“Gentlemen,” Jensen said, raising his hands imploringly, but they were too preoccupied to pay him much attention.
“If you do, you certainly hide it well,” Gabe hissed. He reached up to pinch the bridge of his nose. “God, just. Why do you always have to take everything so seriously?”
“Why can’t you ever take anything seriously?” William snapped back. He pushed his fingers into his hair. “You know what, this is ridiculous. I’m going home.”
And without giving either Gabe or Jensen a chance to react, he brushed past them and out the door.
“Bill, you get back here,” Gabe snarled, already stalking after him. The door swung closed behind him and then clattered back open from the force, and Jensen rushed to close it. He peered through the glass panes into the street, but the only thing he saw was Gabe’s coat flaring as he turned a corner. William was nowhere to be seen.
The day they declared the treatment finished, the day Jared handed the plant a balloon and they both watched Constance wrap limbs and leaves around it tightly without actually popping it, Jensen vowed to not return to the back room until the damn thing was gone.
"My apologies," he said earnestly, especially when the speaker turned out to be the well-dressed gentleman, Adam, smiling at him from the other side of the counter.
He was wearing black today, with rows of polished gold buttons running down the length of his coat and soft-looking leather gloves on his hands. Hovering at his elbow was another man in a more traditional topcoat-and-cravat combination, a fringe of blonde hair falling into his eyes and a pair of welder's goggles slung around his neck.
"You came back," he remarked, a little belatedly.
Adam nodded with a good-natured smile. "I did," he says. "And I've been telling all my friends about you."
"He really has," the man at his side put in.
Adam glared at him briefly, but there was without a doubt a fond look in his eyes. "This is Tommy," he said, running his hand down the man's arm. "He likes to think he's funny."
"I'm hilarious," Tommy said.
Adam rolled his eyes, even though he was grinning. "Go look at flowers, or something," he said, pushing Tommy into the greenhouse. "Go. Go!"
Tommy went, flashing them a glimpse of his tongue over his shoulder, and Adam watched him go for a moment before he turned back to the conversation at hand.
"Are you sure you're alright, Jensen?" he asked.
"I'll be fine," Jensen said, which was true enough.
Adam fixed him with a critical look. "Is your heart giving you trouble?" he asked seriously. "Are you tragically in love with some thoughtless Adonis?"
Jensen, who really didn't want to get into the details of business espionage and childhood traumas, simply nodded.
"That's a shame." Adam shook his head. "You're lovely, Jensen. I really can't see you becoming all shy around some attractive boy."
Jensen twisted his lips into a wry smile. "It's different when it matters," he said.
"Isn't it just?" Adam cast quick glance in Tommy's direction. "But we shouldn't let boys, no matter how attractive, make us sad, don't you think?"
"If only I could take my mind off these things," Jensen said, more dramatically than he really felt.
Adam nodded knowledgably. "Come distract yourself, then," he said. He tucked his hand into the crook of Jensen's elbow, despite being just that little bit taller than Jensen was. "Come, Jensen. Tell me all about your lovely flowers."
"Please do," Tommy put in, emerging from the leaves. He had a couple stuck in his hair. "And come tell me why you're keeping this one in a cage."
Jensen had a good idea which one he was speaking of, but he stayed silent until Tommy had let them over to a birdcage hanging from the rafters, where a large ball of fluff was inching back and forth across the bottom.
"Tumbling cotton," Jensen said, freeing himself from Adam's grip and reaching up to undo the latch on the door. "This is one of the particularly mobile ones." He lifted the plant out and set it down on the tiles, where it immediately rolled forward and bumped into the tips of Tommy's boots. "I let it out at night or on a slow day, but I try to keep it up here where I can keep an eye on it when there are customers."
The plant did a quick circuit of Tommy's legs, and then Adam's, before it bumped into Tommy's shoes again. Jensen intercepted it before it could hype itself up, or disappear underneath the display tables, lifted it up and set it down on top of one. Both Adam and Tommy were watching raptly, and Jensen grinned at them both.
"Children in particular are always tempted to play with it, and I prefer not to let that happen."
Tommy nodded. "Because it's fragile?"
"Because of this." Jensen parted the cottony fluff to prod at one of the sensitive flowerbuds underneath, and then quickly snatched his finger back when the plant immediately raised vicious, inch-long thorns in defense. "That's really not one you want to have to explain to the parents."
"Soft on the outside, hm?" Tommy grinned, quick and easy. "I can dig that."
Jensen waited until the thorns had retracted back underneath the flower's soft white outside before he lifted it into Tommy's arms. "Keep your hands away from the blossoms," he said. "And avoid giving it caffeine. You'll never catch it again."
Tommy grinned again, but it was more at the plant he was holding than at Jensen.
Adam, in the meantime, had turned away to look at the flowers arranged nearby, frowning at some, grinning at others. "What about this one?" he asked, pointing out a midnight lantern.
"It glows in the dark," Jensen said. "But only if it's been raining."
Adam laughed delightedly. "Why are you hiding these in the back?" he asked. "They should be front and center, if you ask me."
"They're the more dramatic plants," Jensen said. "Most of them are a little volatile, and quite demanding, so they tend not to sell that well."
Adam shook his head in disbelief. "I love these," he said, trailing his finger over the stem of a roaring lily. "Why get something boring when you can get something like this?"
"There's no accounting for taste," Jensen said neutrally, because he tended more towards the understated, undervalued plans himself.
Adam scoffed but didn't pursue the topic. Instead, he pointed at one particular specimen, unremarkable except for what it was covered in. "What's this?" he asked. "Is that glitter?"
"Pollen," Jensen said, hiding his grin behind a thoughtful hand. "There aren't many individual plants, so it does shed rather violently."
Adam lifted the plant into the air, immediately covering his hands, the front of his coat and even the tip of his nose in the silvery substance. He sneezed, digging out a handkerchief at the very last second, and then smiled wryly. "I see what you mean."
"I could get you a clothesbrush," Jensen offered.
The other man waved him off. "I don't mind," he said. "I like this one. Tommy, I assume you want that ball of fluff?"
Tommy looked up from whatever he had been crooning to the tumbling cotton. The desire in his eyes was plain to read, and Adam huffed fondly.
"We'll get it," he said. "It's ugly, but we'll get it."
"Your face is ugly," Tommy muttered, but let Adam lead him back to the counter.
Adam overpaid dramatically while Jensen wrapped up their purchases and wouldn't take no for an answer. "Consider it a tip for the entertainment," he said. He took his glittery plant with one hand and draped the other arm over Tommy's shoulders. "Say goodbye, Tommy."
"Goodbye," Tommy said, rolling his eyes.
Adam ushered him towards the door, although he passed briefly on the threshold and fixed Jensen with a grave look. "Things will work out for you, Jensen," he said. "I'm sure of it."
Jensen smiled and waved at them both, but it felt a little forced. Adam was sure. If only Jensen could be that certain.
Instead, he met Lindsey’s eyes for a significant moment before he went over to pull open the front door instead. “Around here, please,” he called, and a moment later, Sheppard stood in the doorway, wide-eyed, bumping the corner of his crate against the frame.
“What’s wrong with the back door?” he asked, once he’d set his load down.
“I’m afraid I’ve been working on a new plant that’s taking up most of the room,” Jensen said, trying for kind but implacable, as he returned to his seat. “The one you brought by the other day. I really can’t let you back there.”
“Oh really.” Sheppard seemed to try hard to look surprised, but he really wasn’t a very good actor. “That’s fascinating,” he went on. “Do you do that a lot?”
“Quite a bit, actually.” Jensen eased his sheet of notes between the pages of Systematics and Evolution of Unusual Plants. “It comes with the territory.”
“You’re a bioengineer?” Sheppard asked. His greedy stare unnerved Jensen enough that he tucked his hands against his knees to stop himself from fidgeting.
“I’m a florist,” he said, perhaps a little more forcefully than strictly necessary. “That’s why I own a flower shop.”
“Of course, of course,” Sheppard said easily, but the look in his eyes didn’t quite fade, and Jensen struggled to keep the smile on his face when he asked, more lightly than he felt, “So, have you gotten everything unloaded, then?”
“Oh! Yes. I mean, yes.” Sheppard took a startled step backwards, as if he couldn’t quite remember what it was he was supposed to be doing. “Yes. I suppose I should be going now.”
“I suppose so,” Jensen said, and walked him to the door, and made sure to close the door firmly after him.
“Who was that?” Lindsey asked, frowning, once Jensen had returned.
“The delivery guy who replaced Bernie.” Jensen couldn’t quite hide his scowl, and he could tell she noticed immediately.
“The one you think is spying for Pellegrino?” she asked.
It sounded ridiculous like that, and Jensen shook his head. “Something’s off about him, that’s all,” he said.
Lindsey opened her mouth, no doubt to ask further questions, but Jensen was saved by Jared bursting in the door with the widest grin on his face.
“Full marks on my midterm, say what,” he crowed, and proceeded to perform a silly little victory dance right there on Jensen’s doorstep. Then he quickly closed the door and came closer, hesitating when he saw their faces.
“What’s wrong?” he asked. “What happened?”
“Jensen thinks the delivery guy is spying on him,” Lindsey scoffed. She slung her bag over her shoulder, ignoring Jensen’s blazing cheeks. “I’ve got to go pick something up, but I’ll be back in a little while, okay?” She squeezed Jensen’s shoulder. “Don’t worry so much, you’ll get grey hairs.”
Jensen already had grey hairs, but he refrained from saying anything until Lindsey had left, waving merrily over her shoulder.
“Spying for Pellegrino?” Jared confirmed. His long fingers toyed with the hem of his vest. “You really think Pellegrino would do that?”
“I really would, yes,” Jensen said. And he would. He didn’t want to think like that, but when it came down to it, he thought Pellegrino capable of just about anything.
“Why do you dislike him so much?” Jared pushed his fists into his pockets, shoulders hunching up around his ears. “You seem to get along with just about anybody.”
“Besides the fact that I see no reason to cheat my customers out of their hard-earned money?” Jensen asked, raising a brow.
Jared nodded. “Yes, besides that,” he said. “Jensen, I’m sorry, but I know you pretty well by now, and this isn’t just your usual ethical rambling.” He waved a helpless hand. “It feels personal, this time.”
“The crimson felicitas.” Jensen looked down at his hands. “It’s addictive,” he said, after a moment. “If the exposure is too intense – and it would be, were I to make the changes Mark wants to make; when used too frequently, and in too high a dosage, the body starts to crave the sensation, and the detoxification process is something no one should have to go through.”
Jared picked at the sleeve of his shirt. “You must have attempted a change yourself,” he said. “To be so aware of all the side effects.”
Jensen pressed his lips into a thin line and forced himself not to look away. “I did, yes.”
“Oh,” Jared said softly.
“It’s not him I have a problem with,” Jensen said. “Not really. It’s his ethics. His complete and utter lack thereof.”
“Voila,” she said. “Here’s your plan.”
“’Jensen Ackles Original’?” Jensen read off the invoice. He blinked. “Lindsey, what is this?”
“Advertising,” she said. “Hey, Jared, take that end.”
“Is that a banner?” Jensen asked.
“Yes,” Lindsey said. “Obviously.”
Jensen raised his eyebrows at her. “Would you like to enlighten me as to why you’ve brought me a banner?”
Lindsey fixed him with a stern look. “Well, it’s not as if Mr. Pellegrino’s just going to waltz in here without a reason to, is it? He’s not stupid.”
That was true, unfortunately, though it would have made Jensen’s life a whole lot easier if he was. But it didn’t automatically mean that Jensen was entirely on board with the deception.
“What about the customers who are going to come in, expecting a ‘Jensen Ackles Original?’ They’re not going to be pleased.”
Lindsey glared at him. “They’re not going to be pleased if you go bankrupt, either.”
“Alright, fine.” Jensen turned away, throwing his hands into the air. “We’ll put up the banners.”
Lindsey’s stormy expression instantly turned sweet. “Thank you,” she said, and directed Jared to stand further back.
Jared, his hands full of waxed canvas, shrugged easily. “I kind of like it,” he said. “It’s very dramatic.”
There turned out to be two banners, not one, both reading NEW JENSEN ACKLES ORIGINAL – COMING SOON in blocky black letters.
“Lovely,” Jensen couldn’t help but comment, once she and Jared had unfurled it for him to inspect.
“It’s nice of her to help out, though,” Jared pointed out, and it was, it really was, so Jensen leaned over and pressed a quick kiss to Lindsey’s cheek.
“Thank you,” he said. “Will you help me string it up?”
“Do you own dirty work,” Lindsey said, crossing her arms, but Jensen could see her fighting a pleased little smile.
“It was a special offer,” Lindsey said when Jensen asked, and then primly gathered up her bag. “I’m going on a date,” she said. “Jensen, stop scowling. It’ll work, and that’s what’s important.”
“She’s right, you know,” Jared said once she’d breezed out the door. “We’ve got the plant. Now we just need to draw him in.”
“I know,” Jensen said, looking away.
A moment later, Jared’s hand settled on Jensen’s shoulder. “I should go too, it’s getting late,” he said. He squeezed gently. “It’ll be fine, Jensen,” he said. “You’ll see.”
He was so intent on one day seeing Mark in his back room, limbs trapped among the plant’s coiling branches, that he was entirely caught off guard when he looked up at the sign of the doorbell to find the man standing in front of him instead.
“Hello, Jensen,” he said easily. He nodded his head, he said, indicating the second oversized banner that they had strung up. “You’re gracing the world with another one of your creations, I see.”
“Not that it’s any of your business, but yes.” Jensen’s voice remained remarkably calm. “What are you doing here, Mark?”
Mark smiled pleasantly. “A little bird told me you’re working on something new,” he said. “I just wanted to come see it for myself.”
“You won’t,” Jensen said. He lifted his chin. “You can wait to see it just like everyone else.”
“What if I don’t want to wait?” Mark asked, lips quirking into a teasing smile. When Jensen scowled at him, it merely grew wider.
Jensen gripped his hand and tugged him behind the dracaena, out of immediate sight from the door. The last thing he needed was for someone to see him in an argument in his own shop.
“I don’t know what you’re playing at,” he hissed, “but this ends right now. I’m tired of your games, do you hear me? I don’t want to work with you, and I’m not ever going to work with you, and I want you to leave.”
Mark tilted his head at that, considering, and maybe he would have or maybe he wouldn’t, but Jensen would never know because that was the precise moment the bell above the door let out a happy jangle. Jensen drew in a sharp breath, because it was Jared, of course it was Jared, waggling his fingers at the mockingbird in the tank by the door. With his head turned away, Jensen only caught a sideways glance of Jared’s smile.
Mark followed his gaze, and his smile, Jensen could fully appreciate. “My, my,” he said, gaze intent, before he leaned in and pressed a soft kiss to Jensen’s lips.
Jensen was so completely, utterly floored that it didn’t even occur to him to push Mark away. He simply stood, motionless and wide-eyed, Mark’s lips firm but gentle against his own. A moment later, they heard Jared’s soft “Oh,” and Mark pulled away from Jensen and turned to Jared with a faint smile on his lips.
“My apologies,” he said. “I just had to steal Jensen here away for a moment. It’s all my fault, I promise.”
“That’s – okay,” Jared muttered. His eyes were fixed on the floor, and it occurred to Jensen suddenly that Jared had no idea who this was, who Mark was and why Jensen would never, ever even consider kissing him.
Mark smiled widely, and thumbed fondly at the corner of Jensen’s mouth. “I should get going. I’ll see you, Jensen,” Mark said, and then pressed another kiss to Jensen’s lips before he strolled casually away.
He left the door open, of course, but Jensen didn’t move until a sharp noise had him flinching and looking up. Jared had his hand still on the door where he’d pushed it shut, gaze still on his feet, shoulders tense as if he were angry.
“Jared,” Jensen said.
“It’s alright,” Jared said stiffly. “You don’t have to explain anything to me.”
“Jared,” Jensen said. “It’s not like that.”
“It’s fine,” Jared insisted. “You can be with whoever you want. I mean, I’m happy with Genevieve. There’s no reason you shouldn’t be happy too.”
Jensen had wanted to insist that he had neither asked for nor encouraged Mark’s attention, but hearing Genevieve’s name from Jared’s lips startled him into silence. Jared didn’t care who Jared was with because Jared was a good guy and didn’t mind that Jensen was gay, but he also didn’t care who Jensen was with because he was with someone else, and Jensen would do well to remember that.
“In fact,” Jared said, “in fact, I think I was supposed to meet her right now, so I’m going to go.”
He fumbled blindly for the doorknob, practically tripping over his feet in his haste to get away.
Jensen scooped up the creeping parvifolium that hovered just by the door, pressing it against his chest. “I guess it’s just you and me, now,” he whispered.
Unlike it had in the past, it really didn’t make him feel any better.
Jensen made himself meet Mark’s eyes for a moment, and then he went and dialed Jared’s number with shaking fingers.
Jensen wordlessly pointed at the door to the storage room.
Jared went to open the door, taking in the sight before him. Jensen peered over his shoulder, deeply thankful that the plant had shifted, hiding most of Mark’s body from view. The sight of the two legs protruding from the plant’s coiled mass was unsettling, but Jensen didn’t think he wanted to look at the man’s face, ever again.
“Alright,” Jared said, pulling the door quietly shut. “Is that who you thought it was?”
Jensen nodded. “Even if I’m not sure why,” he said. “Why wouldn’t he just hire someone else to do his dirty work?”
“Probably didn’t want to risk it getting back to him,” Jared said. He shrugged. “Besides, I’m not sure I’d know where to go if I wanted to hire a petty criminal to break into someone’s shop. Would you?”
Jensen wrapped his arms around his middle. “I suppose not,” he said, looking away. He chewed on his lip. “I didn’t think he would actually go this far,” he confessed into the silence.
For just the tiniest moment, Jared’s expression softened a little. “I’ll call the police,” he said. “You should go sit down for a moment.”
Jensen obeyed, but after Jared had made the call, his face was once again closed off and distant, and they waited for the officers to arrive in silence.
It wasn’t very much longer until a number of plant specialists were brought in, because apparently, Constance was quite reluctant to release Mark from her clutches. Next came a whole slew of whirring, ticking gadgets. Jensen looked around for Jared, but just as he’d spotted him hovering by the water tank, trying to coax the mockingbird out of hiding, one of the government agents stepped into his way.
He wore a sharp, dark suit, cut to accentuate his broad shoulders and clearly toned chest, paired with a severe white shirt and dark grey tie. Jensen figured him for a man who preferred low-maintenance plants - perhaps childish sedge grass, with its endless ability to entertain itself with the shadows it cast on the wall.
“Agent Morgan,” he says, holding out a large, calloused hand. The cogwheels of his watch spun wildly. “Pleasure to meet you.”
“Likewise, Agent,” Jensen said faintly.
Morgan’s suit had creases along the lower arms, and scuff marks across the top of his shoes, but it didn’t seem to bother him very much. It certainly didn’t make him look any less intimidating, nor did it stop him from immediately following Jensen’s line of sight to see what had caught his attention.
“Ah yes,” he said, reaching over to tug ruefully at one sleeve. “That’s quite a plant you’ve designed there,” he said lightly.
“I didn’t do it alone,” Jensen was quick to point out, but Agent Morgan shook his head.
“I know that,” he said. He gave Jensen a careful, considering look. “But it’s not the first plant you’ve designed, is it? Not by a long shot.”
He looked a whole lot less well-meaning all of a sudden, and Jensen narrowed his eyes and pressed himself a little more firmly against the wall. Morgan kept watching him, and Jensen had just about worked up the courage to tell the agent that that was really none of his business when Sheppard suddenly appeared at the man’s side.
“Hey, Jensen,” he said, with a sheepish little wave.
“He’s with you?” Jensen asked Morgan. He suspected his eyes were a little wide.
“He is,” Morgan said. “Mr. Ackles, meet Agent Sheppard.”
“Agent?” Jensen echoed.
Sheppard smiled quickly, uncomfortably, before giving Morgan’s elbow a quick squeeze. “I’ll go have a chat with the other one,” he said quietly, and Morgan nodded, eyes never leaving Jensen.
Jensen looked back for as long as he could. When he glanced away, Sheppard was watching Jared explain something earnestly.
“He’s a terrible actor,” Jensen said without thinking about it. Then he flushed. “I mean. That’s probably something you should know.”
Morgan didn’t look particularly annoyed. Instead, he looked like he was trying hard not to smile. “We do,” he said. “He’s still new. This was a test run, and I doubt we’ll be putting him undercover again.”
“Good,” Jensen murmured, for want of anything better to say. “So – does the government always come in to investigate flower shop break-ins?”
“Usually not,” Morgan admitted. “But this is a special case.”
“So you’ve been keeping an eye on Mark?”
“Uh, no, actually.” Morgan gave him a questioning look. “We’ve been keeping an eye on you.”
“But I haven’t done anything,” Jensen protested. He flushed again a moment later.
Morgan’s eyes crinkled at the corners, but Jensen had to give him credit for the fact that he didn’t reveal his amusement at Jensen’s retort in any other way. “I’m well aware of that, Mr. Ackles,” he said. “To be frank, we’re more interested in what you can do than what you sell, or who you sell it with.”
“You’re here because I design plants?” Jensen echoed. His eyes widened at Morgan’s nod. “How? No one ever comes into my shop, and if you’re after the felicitas, I designed it a decade ago.”
Morgan nodded sagely. “Actually, you have Mr. Padalecki to thank for that.” He gestured towards Jared, who now leaned slumped against the water tank, answering Sheppard’s questions. Jared startled at the mention of what was apparently his last name, and their gazes locked for a moment. Jensen looked away first.
Morgan’s eyes were sharp, watching Jensen, but he thankfully declined to comment. “I’m sure you know that Mr. Padalecki is in the engineering program at the university?” he asked. At Jensen’s nod, he continued, “His thesis advisor, Ms. Harris, is a liaison for our local bioengineering department, and when Mr. Padalecki mentioned your shop, and your creations, to her, she brought you to our attention.”
Jensen laced his fingers, bit his lip. “I’m not sure I understand,” he said quietly.
“We’d like you to work for us,” Morgan said. Into Jensen’s stunned silence, he continued, “You’re, quite frankly, one of the best plant designers I’ve encountered, and the constrictor plant in there is proof that you’re a talented engineer, as well.” He paused for a moment. “You’d be well recompensed for your efforts, of course.”
“I,” Jensen said. “Well. I don’t really know what to say. Or think, to be honest.”
“That’s fine,” Morgan said. “There’s no rush. You have plenty of time to think about it.”
“I have very strong ethics, I’ve been told,” Jensen felt obligated to point out. “I won’t ever unquestioningly follow your orders.”
“That’s good,” Morgan said without hesitation. Some of Jensen’s skepticism must have shown on his face, because the man laughed, a low, raspy sound that suited him. “I assure you, that’s a good thing.” He reached out, slowly, to squeeze Jensen’s shoulder. “We’re not the bad guys, here, Jensen. We’re not after world domination.”
Jensen looked at him intently, but Morgan didn’t even flinch. He was either the best liar Jensen had ever encountered, or he was being sincere, and Jensen could admit that the offer was more than tempting. It would certainly solve his money problems, and it wasn’t like he’d be doing work he didn’t enjoy.
“I’d have to think about it,” he said finally. “I mean, I’d need time to work in my shop, because I’m not going to work for you if that means not having my shop, and I’d need some questions answered, and I’d need to keep tabs that the government’s actually using the plants I engineer to do what it said it would.”
Morgan nodded. “Whatever you need,” he said easily. He took his hand away, and Jensen narrowed his eyes.
“I said I’d have to think about it,” he said, a sharp note creeping into his voice.
Morgan nodded again, a dignified tilt of his head. “Please do, Mr. Ackles. But if you’re at least willing to consider it, I’d like to put you into contact with Miss Harris. Mr. Padalecki’s professor,” he reminded him at Jensen’s blank look. “She’s been our liason for many years, and she might be able to put your mind at ease better than I can, given the similarities of your positions.”
“Alright.” Jensen swallowed, raised his voice a little. “Alright,” he said again. “That should be fine.”
“Excellent.” Agent Morgan smiled at him, warm and honest. “I’m glad to hear that.” He hesitated. “We’re going to have to confiscate that plant of yours,” he said.
“Please do,” he said fervently, and if Morgan was surprised at the urgency in his tone, he certainly didn’t show it. “We’ll take them out the back,” Morgan offered, and Jensen nodded gratefully.
Morgan nodded in return, and gestured to someone, and before long, he could see the agents milling around begin to retreat, to back up their equipment and their flashing cameras and head out the door.
“We’ll be in touch,” Morgan said with a significant nod, and then he, too, was gone.
Jensen took a deep breath, and then another.
It was over now. It was done.
He looked around, hoping to catch Jared’s eye, maybe share a smile, only to realize Jared wasn’t there. Jared had left, had left him, slipped away in a quiet moment because he couldn’t bear to even look at Jensen anymore, and Jensen still didn’t know why.
And he had to know why, because besides his plants, Jared was the bright spot in Jensen’s life. And Jared was cross at him, for Jensen didn’t know what, but instead of making Jensen angry, it just made him miserable. He’d gotten so used to having Jared in his shop, to turning around and seeing him there, that he scarcely knew what to do with himself now that he no longer was.
Because he didn’t know if he could do without Jared. And he certainly didn’t want to.
He threw open the door, uncaring of the creeping parvifolium, and headed for the street, the soles of his shoes slapping against the bricks.
“Jared,” he called, turning wildly. “Jared!”
But Jared wasn’t there. The street was deserted, and there wasn’t anybody but Jensen, turning on his tail and yelling like a crazy man.
Outside, the sky was turning pink, which brought with it another dilemma he wasn’t quite able to forget: He still needed to cover the verbena lupos. It was a full moon tonight, and if exposed to its light, the usually docile plants would become vicious and turn on each other. He had to get up, he had to, but the edge of the bed was so very far away.
In the end, it was only his unfailing sense of responsibility that allowed Jensen to fight his way back downstairs. There were boot prints all over the tile, and leaves littered on the ground where unthinking agents had brushed too closely past his more delicate plants, and marks on the back door frame where Constance had no doubt resisted her removal.
Jensen took a deep breath. He wanted Jared, wanted him with him so badly it hurt, but there was nothing for it. The only thing he could do at this point was pick up and carry on.
He tucked the creeping parvifolium into a basket, tied the lid down firmly, and pulled the door open, allowing the cool night breeze to sweep away some of the sticky-warm air inside the greenhouse. He found the plant covers in the back room and set to work, and had just about finished the second layer of verbenas – and just in time for the moonrise, too – when there was a knock on the door.
“We’re closed, I’m afraid,” Jensen said, straightening, but froze when he saw Gabe fidgeting in the doorway.
“I was hoping you could make an exception for me,” he said. He had his hat in his hands, turning it round and round, and even though he was as impeccably, if garishly, dressed as always, Jensen had never seen him quite as – unraveled.
“Gabe,” he said, once he’d finally found his voice. “Of course. Come in.”
He bit his lip, hoping against hope that William would come breezing through the door after him, but there wasn’t anyone.
“Jensen,” Gabe said, once he was close enough. He held out a hand. “I’d like to apologize for the scene we made the other day.”
“It’s alright,” Jensen said. And then, because he was still feeling raw and couldn’t quite help himself, he asked, “I trust everything worked out?”
“It did,” Gabe said. “Or it will. I hope it will.”
“Oh,” Jensen said. He locked his fingers together, rocked on the balls of his feet. He tried a smile, but it didn’t feel right. “Anything I can do?”
“Well,” Gabe said, uncharacteristically somber. “If I wanted to, say, present an object with the help of one of your plants, what would you recommend?”
Jensen pursed his lips. Usually he probably wouldn’t even have hesitated, but the day’s – week’s, perhaps month’s – events had left him unsettled and unsure. “Well, that depends,” he said. “What kind of object are you thinking of?”
Gabe huffed a laugh, smiled a little. He cast Jensen a quick look, laughed again, and had it been anyone else, Jensen would have sworn he was blushing when he lifted his hand, held his thumb and forefinger about an inch apart. “Like this, perhaps?” he said. He dropped his gaze. “The general size and shape of a ring, really.”
“A-“ Jensen caught his own shocked tone, cleared his throat. “A ring. Yes, of course. Perhaps – perhaps an oyster fern would suit.” He made an aborted gesture further into the greenhouse. “If you’d follow me?”
He picked out a small, blue-green plant for Gabe, offering it up for inspection without any of his usual enthusiasm. “This is the one,” he said. “Stroke along the outside of the leaves, like so, and it opens to reveal a chamber just big enough to keep a coin in, or a ring.”
“That’s great, Jensen,” Gabe said, unusually quiet himself. “Wrap that up for me, would you?”
Jensen did while Gabe waited, looking around the room, his face set in somber lines. “I feel like I should ask what happened,” he said. “But I won’t.”
Jensen drew in a sharp breath. “Thank you,” he said. He held out his hand to take the bill Gabe handed him, but they both knew that wasn’t what he meant.
“You know, Jensen,” Gabe said, eyes firmly on his wallet, “a fight or two isn’t automatically the end of the world.”
“It’s not that,” Jensen said. He fell silent after that, but when Gabe raised his eyebrows, he hunched his shoulders and added, “I’m no good with anything but plants.”
Gabe tilted his head to the side, watching him, and then he smiled – not his usual big smile, but a small, soft one, one that Jensen had only ever seen him aim at William. “Maybe you don’t have to be, Jensen,” he said. “Maybe that’s enough.”
He reached out to take the plant from Jensen’s hands and lifted it into the air. He said, “Thank you, for this.”
“Good luck,” Jensen replied.
Gabe rewarded him with a warm smile. “Keep some for yourself,” he said. He reached up to gently drag his thumb across Jensen’s cheek, giving him plenty of time to pull away, before showing him the specks of dirt now caught on his skin. “You look like you could need it.”
Jensen stared at the door for a long time, until long after Gabe had left, before he finally managed to force himself into action. He found his book of customer contact information and leafed through it, pausing at a set of unfamiliar numbers written in his own hand. He’d never actually called her, even though she regularly reiterated that he could, and his hands shook ever so faintly when he reached for the receiver.
The disk was slow under his fingertips, seemingly taking ages to rattle back into position so Jensen could dial the next number, but he managed them all eventually. He cradled the receiver against his ear with both hands, breathing slow and steady while it rang an agonizing four, five, six times. He’d almost convinced himself to hang up and go to bed when someone picked up with a breathless “Hello?”
“Lindsey?” Jensen asked.
“Jensen?” she returned incredulously. “What’s wrong?”
Nothing, he almost said, but that was a lie. Instead, he relayed what had happened, and he had barely closed his mouth when Lindsey said, “I’ll be right there,” and hung up on him.
Jensen occupied himself with taking down the banner above the water tanks with methodical movements, and then the one outside, leaving both in the doorway to the back room he couldn’t quite bring himself to enter. He closed the door and locked it, checking it twice, and went to sweep the aisles and wipe down the counter.
He freed the parvifolium last, scooping it up from the corner it had curled itself into and set it gently on the ground. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. Within moments, it had disappeared from view underneath one of the tables, and Jensen rubbed his face and sat down behind the counter to wait.
Lindsey arrived in a flurry of skirts, tapping her nails against the window until Jensen had fumbled the door open.
“Oh, Jensen,” she said as she swept into the shop, hair disheveled and dress slightly askew, as though she’d hastily put herself to rights before rushing out the door.
“You were with him, weren’t you?” Jensen asked. “You were with Gerard. I’m sorry.”
Lindsey shrugged. “He understands,” she said. “And now he can snoop around my house without any disruptions. I’m sure he’s thrilled.”
Jensen smiled, but even he could tell it wasn’t very convincing. “I’m sorry,” he repeated. “I didn’t mean to make you leave him.”
“You didn’t make me do anything,” Lindsey said. “Go sit down. I’ll make us some tea.”
Jensen didn’t particularly want tea – he didn’t really want much of anything, at the moment – but it was easier to obey than it was to argue. Lindsey made quick work of it, too, returning what seemed like mere moments later with a steaming cup in each hand.
“Here you are,” she said, handing Jensen one of them. She settled down in front of the counter with the other. “Now will you tell me what’s wrong?”
There was so much Jensen could say to that, so many things, but when he opened his mouth, what came out was, “Jared’s upset with me, and I’m not sure why.”
“Oh,” Lindsey said quietly.
“Mark kissed me,” Jensen said, which made Lindsey’s forehead crinkle in confusion. “He kissed me, and Jared saw, and now he’s upset with me, and he has his lady friend, and how could he not know how I feel about him?”
“Maybe he doesn’t,” Lindsey said, still quiet, when Jensen took a hasty sip of his tea, nearly scalding his tongue.
He set his cup down again. “He has to know.” He balled his hands into fists on the counter’s surface. “How could he not?”
Lindsey smiled sympathetically. “You’re not the kind of person to wear his heart on his sleeve, Jensen,” she said. “Quite the opposite.”
“Not with him,” Jensen said quietly, miserably. “Not with him.”
“He’ll come around,” Lindsey said. She reached over to brush a lock of hair off his forehead. “He’ll come around, or he won’t. But either way, you’re going to be okay.”
What Jensen really wanted to do was go back to bed, but he had a shop to tend to, so he pushed himself away from the counter and went to work. He found Agent Morgan’s ID badge on his routine inspection of the long-fingered fern and stored it in a basket behind the counter (with a bracelet, a pair of gold-rimmed sunglasses, and somebody’s shoelace) to return later. He wiped down the counter and attacked the glass panes set into the door with a rag. The blandness of the tasks was comfortable, soothing enough that he found himself falling back into his usual routine: Sweep the entrance area, double-check his sheet of customer requests and this week’s order, update his stock of wrapping materials, count his available change. He unlocked the door at 8:59, flipped the sign in the window around, and retreated behind the counter.
God, how often had he sat here, with Jared or Lindsey on the other side? Lately, it seemed like no matter where he turned, people were finding each other. Gerard and Lindsey seemed more than happy together, and while they obviously had to iron out some kinks in their relationship, William and Gabe were just as clearly not intending on letting that keep them from building a future together. And Jared – Jared had Genevieve, much as it hurt Jensen’s heart to admit it. Jensen couldn’t have him like that. But maybe… maybe Jensen could still have him as a friend. He’d have Jared as a friend, and he’d have his plants, and that would be enough.
That decided, he suddenly couldn’t sit still any longer. He dialed the number of the local courier service and asked them to send someone by as quickly as possible. Then, he went to fetch his very first creation from the shelf that had housed it for over two decades.
He’d just about managed to wrap it up when the courier knocked on a window, shuffling through the door when Jensen beckoned him in.
“Be careful with it,” Jensen cautioned him, twisting the package in his hands.
“Yes, sir,” the courier said with a quick, easy grin. He tipped back his cap. “Is this it?”
“One minute,” Jensen said.
He took one of his business cards from the stack behind the counter and, on the back, wrote, I don’t know what I did, but I’m sorry. He looked down at the words while the ink dried, every moment a temptation to crumple up the card and send the courier away, but then he thought of Jared’s smile and Jared’s laugh and Jared’s dead, dead eyes when he’d walked away, and he tucked the card underneath the wrapping paper and presented both to the courier with a pounding heart.
Jared came inside slowly, shoulders hunched and head bowed. He kept his eyes hidden underneath the brim of his cap. “Hello, Jensen,” he said.
“Jared,” Jensen said, ignoring the painful jolt his stomach gave at the word. “Did you -?” He swallowed, throat dry, though it didn’t help much. “Did you receive the plant?”
“I did.” Jared smiled, but Jensen’s gaze was fixed on the way Jared’s fingers were twisted in the hem of his sweater vest. “That’s why I came by.”
Jensen nodded quickly. “Do you not want it?” he asked.
Jared hesitated in whatever he had been about to say, eyes growing wide. “Do I – Jensen!”
“I’m sorry,” Jensen said, looking down.
Jared was silent for a moment. “No, Jensen,” he said. “I want it very much.”
“That’s.” Jensen cleared his throat. “That’s good.” He bit his lip, hating how small he sounded when he asked, “Did you – did you need something?”
Jared started, and then took a closer look at him. Jensen wasn’t sure what it was he read in Jensen’s face, but his expression softened. “Maybe there’s something you could help me with,” he said.
“Anything,” Jensen promised quietly.
Jared reached up to tug on his cap before he smiled a little at the ground beneath his feet. There was yellowish, sticky sap spread over a couple of the tiles. Jensen had been meaning to clean it up.
“Let’s say there was a person in my life, a person that I loved very, very much but who didn’t know it – would you have a plant of some kind that could help me make that person understand?”
“Oh,” Jensen said, like that could somehow alleviate the hot despair spreading through his veins. “Come-” He cleared his throat. “Come with me, please.”
He lead them down a random aisle, trying to remember if he had any violet confessions on hand, and then he imagined giving them to Jared and Jared going on his knees before his girl, face turned upwards, smiling hopefully, and stopped in his tracks.
“Jared, I’m sorry,” he said, turning to face him. “I’m sorry, I can’t sell you a plant like that.”
“Why not?” Jared asked quietly, and he wasn’t looking at Jensen, not really, but he sounded vaguely… hopeful.
Jensen ran a hand through his hair. “Call it a conflict of interest,” he said. His voice shook, but only a little.
Jared sucked in a breath. “Why, Jensen?” he asked quietly. “I know you have someone.” He looked down, flexed his fingers. “I was here, remember?”
“Jared, that was – he was – no.” Jensen bowed his head. “I would never.”
Jared didn’t reply.
When the silence grew too thick, too heavy, Jensen glanced up again, further words of explanation dying on his tongue when he saw Jared fighting a smile.
“That’s – okay,” Jared said. He blew out a breath. “Okay. That’s great, actually. That makes this a whole lot easier.”
“Makes what easier?” Jensen asked.
Jared smiled at him, but he was nervous, too, Jensen could tell. He bit his lip and took a deep breath, and then he smiled again, eyes crinkling at the corners. “Mr. Ackles,” he said, “of Mr. Ackles’ Flower Shop for Unusual, Extraordinary, and Peculiar Plants, would you do me the honor of accompanying me to dinner?”
Jensen shut his eyes very firmly for a moment. When he opened them again, Jared was still there, smiling bemusedly and perhaps a little uncertainly at him.
"Are- are you sure?" Jensen stammered out, and that wasn't what he'd meant to ask at all, Good Lord. There was no reason at all for him to remind Jared that taking Jensen out for a night was possibly a bad idea. No reason at all.
Thankfully, there was a small smile blooming across Jared's face. "I'm sure, Jensen," he said. "I've been sure for a while."
"That's - good," Jensen said slowly. "I'm glad to hear that."
"Does that mean you're taking me up on my offer?" Jared pressed, after a moment, ducking his head to meet Jensen's eyes.
Jensen bit his lip. “But what about your lady friend?”
Jared smiled sheepishly. “Well,” he murmured. “We actually only went on the one date. I just needed an excuse to come see you.”
Jensen wanted to belabor the point, to ask, Why didn’t you say something?, but it wasn’t like he’d given him much of a chance to, was it? He took a moment to marvel at the look on Jared’s face, so hopeful, so determined, and he found himself answering without even thinking about it.
“I – yes.”
“I’d love to,” Jensen said. And if he’d had any doubts about his decision, Jared’s smile would have blown them all away.
“I’m really glad to hear that,” Jared said. He curled his hands around Jensen’s, hanging loose at his sides. “You have no idea how happy I am to hear that.”
“Jared…” Jensen looked up just in time to see Jared’s lips twitch, an aborted smile. “What?”
“No, just-“ Jared shrugged one shoulder. He released one of Jensen’s hands to gesture at Jensen’s glasses. “You’ve got some dirt, that’s all.”
“Oh.” Cheeks warming, Jensen pulled out of Jared’s grasp entirely to take off his glasses and polish them on the corner of his dress shirt that had come untucked. Why did he have to choose today, of all days, to look like such a mess?
“Jensen,” Jared said, amused and fond, and when Jensen shot him a flustered look, Jared leaned in and kissed him.
“I’ll go to dinner with you,” Jensen said, drawing back. “On one condition.”
“Oh?” Jared no doubt tried hard to look considering, but he was grinning too hard for it to be particularly effective. “What’s that?”
“Be my date to my cousin’s wedding?”
“Only if you promise not to provide any bouquets.”
“Deal,” Jensen said easily, and Jared ducked in to kiss him again. This time, however, he was the one to break away.
“Hey now,” he said. “I’m keeping an eye on you.”
Jensen followed his gaze down to the floor, where the creeping parvifolium had taken up post right inside the threshold. He laughed, squeezed Jared’s arm. “Nah, that’s alright,” he said and reached over to pull the door open.
“Stay safe, sweetheart,” he said, and turned back to Jared with a smile on his face.