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tied like two in tethers

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It was the beginning of July when he first came into the flower shop Alexei had helped Jack and Snowy open almost seven months prior.

It wasn’t like Alexei had any particular ambition or talent when it came to flowers or floral arrangements, not like his friends did, but they had come to him when they realized they needed more money to invest in opening, and Alexei knew too-well how much this was their dream, the same way that getting out of Russia and coming to America had been his dream. He could never turn down giving his friends a helping hand, and he had figured, if he had an investment in the place, he might as well work there part-time.

Alexei was glad he made this decision when he heard the little bell over the door ring and watched a— well, he was not small, but he was small compared to Alexei’s broad, 6’4” frame— blonde man walk in, looking a bit like he was lost.

Alexei told himself there was no such thing as love at first sight, because his older sister had teased him for most of his life about his daydreams and romantic tendencies. No. The blonde was just very, very attractive.

The lost look on his face was more than enough reason for Alexei to wander over to where he was standing a few feet into the doorway, and ask: “You needing help today?”

The blonde looked at him, gray eyes wide, lips drawn into a semi-frown. “Uh, yeah…” he said. “I need… a bouquet of— something.” He shrugged. “Something pretty. For someone I haven’t seen in a while. Uh… She likes purple. You got purple flowers, or— or something?”

Alexei wasn’t disappointed, he insisted to himself, because he only found the blonde man attractive, and of course he was straight, getting a bouquet of flowers for an ex-girlfriend he was reconciling with, maybe. Alexei still had to do his job, though, so he nodded his head, and led the blonde around the store, pointing out some arrangements that featured purple flowers. It had taken Alexei a long time to grasp the different meanings behind different flowers— but he had finally learned enough, and although he didn’t say anything about the meanings to the blonde, he knew that the flowers he showed him were all supposed to be about love.

He was sure the blonde didn’t know anything about flower meanings, though. He mulled over a couple of the options Alexei had pointed out, then finally snatched one up with a smile. “She’ll like these,” he said— it was almost a question, like he wasn’t totally sure the woman he was picking them out for would agree. Alexei hoped she would.

The blonde paid for the flowers, and then he was gone.

 

_/ x \_

 

In October, he came back.

Alexei wasn’t always so good with faces; he saw about twenty different clients— in his other job as a personal trainer— and endless amounts of customers trickle through at the flower shop. The conversations always felt the same, blending into each other, and he only remembered the regulars.

But when he glanced toward the door, that same bell ringing, he instantly recognized the face. He had forgotten about the not-actually-small blonde in the three months that had passed, but now he remembered. He was just as attractive as he had been last time: sharp cheekbones, messy blonde hair. A little more fit, thinner, maybe, than Alexei remembered. But it was no doubt him, wide gray eyes and still with a lost look on his face— until he found Alexei behind the counter and fucking smiled like Alexei was the best thing he’d seen all day.

“Hey,” the blonde said, pausing on the other side. Alexei noted his eyes were a lot greener than he remembered them being in July.

“Hello,” Alexei greeted, trying for his customer-service voice.

“I need more flowers,” the blonde explained.

“For same person?”

The blonde nodded.

Alexei wondered if it was some sort of on-again-off-again relationship, then. It was something he had never understood himself— if a relationship didn’t work out the first or second time, why keep returning? He tried not to judge, though. Just nodded. “We still having purple flowers.” Because, of course, he remembered that; hopefully the blonde wouldn’t find that weird.

He just smiled again. “You have a good memory,” he commented. “Can you help me, please? I’m fuckin’ awful at this.”

Alexei couldn’t say no even if he wanted to, so he walked around the counter and showed the blonde what they had this time. He was much quicker to pluck out a bouquet today, seemed a little more confident, and then Alexei rung him up at the register.

“Are you Russian?” the blonde asked as he handed Alexei a credit card.

“Uh— da,” Alexei said, surprised. He was used to getting asked where he was from, in the four years he had lived in America; it was rare that someone placed him so easily. Especially someone who was as clearly full-blooded American as the blonde was.

“Cool.” The blonde gave a smirk again, then took the receipt that printed out. “See you, then.”

Alexei nodded, still feeling shocked, and watched him leave. He glanced at the store’s copy of the receipt from the credit card: signed Kent Parson. The name rang a bell, but Alexei wasn’t sure why it would.

He’d forgetten about it by the time he got home from his shift at the flower shop and having a meeting with one of his most frustrating clients from his other job.

 

_/ x \_

 

Sure enough, the blonde did come back again.

It was December now, the week before Christmas, and the shop was busy with orders being placed and customers coming in for last-minute arrangements.

But it was still Alexei’s job to note every customer that came in when the bell jingled, to make sure that no customer was ignored if they looked like they needed help. So he didn’t miss the sharp-boned, gray-green-eyed blonde walk in. The problem was, he was in the middle of helping an elderly man create an arrangement for his wife, and it was proving to be a difficult task: the man’s hearing was clearly not the best, and he kept asking Alexei to repeat himself, saying he couldn’t understand his accent, either. Alexei was half-tempted to call Snowy over to finish the order since it was getting nowhere fast.

Eventually, though, they seemed to reach an agreement, and the man was on his way out the door seeming content.

Alexei glanced around the shop, certain the blonde must have gotten what he needed and left by now, and Alexei was trying not to feel disappointed about missing his opportunity for another conversation.

But then a voice spoke up by his side: “Poinsettias, right?”

He jumped, then realized it was the blonde. “Huh?”

“For Christmas… Poinsettias, right? That’s what I want?” And damn it, he was smiling up at Alexei, and— his eyes were blue? Alexei wondered if his memory was going bad, that every time he saw this man, he remembered his eyes being something different.

He shook himself from his thoughts with a nod. “Da, that is right.”

“You have them?” the blonde prompted.

“Yes, uh— Yes, we do.” Jesus, he was embarrassing himself. Get it together, Mashkov. “Is this way.” He led the way over to the quickly emptying shelves of poinsettias that he had to keep restocking.

“Cool,” the blonde said, looking over the decorated pots, presumably deciding which one would be best.

“How you knowing I’m Russian?” Alexei couldn’t help but ask. “Last time you coming in, you know.”

The blonde looked over, and shrugged. “I work with a lot of Russians, I recognized the accent.”

Alexei was about to ask what kind of job the guy had that led to him knowing a lot of Russians, but just then a voice approaching called his name: “Alexei—” It was Jack, Alexei knew, and turned his head to see what the other man wanted, when he realized Jack had paused a foot away and was looking at the blonde with some surprise. “Oh— Kenny?”

Kent Parson. Alexei remembered the receipt now, and that he had meant to look up the name before, to see if he could figure out why he possibly knew that name.

Alexei looked at Kent— Kenny? “You’re knowing Jack?”

He couldn’t read the look on the blonde’s face as he looked at Jack. “Uh— Yeah. It’s… um, it’s been a while…” Alexei knew he was missing something. “You look good, Zimms.” Jack bit his lip, but nodded his head. “Mom told me you opened the shop when I came back over the summer,” he explained, still looking at Jack. “I wanted to come in and say hi, and, uh, I’ve popped in every time I came to town, but this is the first time you’ve been here…” He ran a hand through his hair. “It’s good to see you.”

Jack looked like he was having some sort of internal debate, then his lips turned up into a half-smile. “It’s good to see you too, Kenny. Can— Uh— Do you need help?”

Kent shook his head, and Alexei thought his smile seemed more genuine now. “Nah, this guy’s taken good care of me.”

“Oh, good,” Jack responded, giving Alexei a smile. “I’ll, um, leave you to it, then.” He looked back at Kent. “If you want to stop by for Chanukah, I know my parents would love to see you,” he offered, then walked away before Kent could give a yes or a no.

Alexei would have to see what Jack was willing to tell him later. For now, he turned his attention back to Kent, who shook his head like he was literally shaking himself from a stupor, and then reached out and picked up one of the poinsettia arrangements.

“Is pretty one,” Alexei commented quietly. “Good choice.”

Kent looked at him, and half-smiled. “Thanks.”

This time, ringing up Kent’s order was silent and awkward, and then he was gone, and Alexei wondered if he’d ever come back at all.

Alexei didn’t have a chance to confront Jack about his exchange with Kent until the shop was closed, and they were straightening up. Then, with a deep inhale, steeling himself because he wasn’t sure what he was about to ask Jack, he turned to the other man and spoke up: “How you knowing Kent?”

Jack stiffened for a moment, and Alexei had known him long enough now to pick up on his body language, and knew this was an unpleasant topic.

“You not having to tell, if you not wanting.”

Jack chewed on his lip a moment, then seemed to decide. “No, it’s okay… I know him from hockey. We kind of grew up together. He was on the teams my dad coached.”

Alexei had met Jack’s dad a few times: Bob Zimmermann. Alexei paid vague attention to hockey, as a general fan of athletics and sports, enough to know that the man was a hockey legend as much as Wayne Gretzky was. He was a nice man, and had spent his years after retiring from the NHL coaching kids teams and junior leagues. Training kids to be the next Stanley Cup champs. Teams which, apparently, Kent had been on.

“Kent playing hockey, then?” Alexei asked, thinking back to Kent’s comment: I work with a lot of Russians. He knew there were a lot of Russian hockey players in the U.S.; Alexei had once upon a time wondered if it’d be his escape from his home-country, but his skills hadn’t been good enough in the end.

Jack tilted his head, giving Alexei a weird look. “You really don’t recognize him?”

Alexei shrugged his shoulders.

“Oh, I thought— That’s— He’s the captain for the Aces.”

And it clicked for him, then, why the name had sounded familiar, on the tip of his tongue. Because Alexei had heard of Kent Parson, captain for the Las Vegas Aces, in his mid-twenties, who’d already won multiple Stanley Cups and all sorts of awards and put his name on so many various records. Probably the greatest active hockey player, maybe even the best hockey player alive today, one article he’d glanced through on ESPN’s website a few weeks ago had written. But he’d never really seen Kent Parson’s face before. Regretfully.

All he could get out, though, was a breathless “Oh.” He’d developed a massive crush on Kent Parson— who was probably straight, probably had an on-again-off-again or long-distance girlfriend here, and who undoubtedly had at least a thousand other people also lusting after him.

Well, fuck.

 

_/ x \_

 

Alexei started watching hockey more after that, paying attention to the Aces with closer attention than he’d ever paid to the teams that were more local. He confirmed that Kent Parson was, indeed, both the not-actually-small blonde man who had come into the flower shop thrice and also the small-for-a-hockey-player captain of the Las Vegas Aces. He was a damn joy to watch, too, his talent unquestionable even though Alexei’s knowledge of hockey was rusty at best, and surely children’s Russian leagues were quite different from the NHL. He learned quickly, though.

It also wasn’t a surprise, then, when months and months passed by and Kent did not show up in the flower shop. Alexei watched as the Aces progressed from being a shoe-in for a playoff spot, then entering the first round of playoffs, the second… Then they were playing the Penguins in the Stanley Cup Finals. Alexei found himself at the Zimmermann household for those, because Bob and Alicia threw parties every year to watch the games. Alexei had gone to a spare few before, but his lack of serious interest in hockey meant he had declined more often than accepted. Jack had extended the invitation, as usual, and this time Alexei had agreed, and shown up at each one; Jack seemed like he had known Alexei would do so.

Alexei knew that Bob had played on the Penguins before retiring, and many of the attendees seemed to be flashing the yellow-and-black gear. Alexei noted with some interest, though, that Bob himself was in Aces gear— supporting Kent? Alexei had shown up in his normal attire, unsure if he was ready to admit that he had bought a Parson jersey recently, because maybe that was a little weird.

The game that would make-or-break the Aces as the Stanley Cup victors was expectedly intense. Alexei watched with rapt attention, eyes following Kent on the ice when it was unnecessary more times than he’d have liked to admit.

It was a close game. Alexei felt his chest tightening as the clock ticked into the final two minutes and the score still read 3-to-3.

Then, one of Kent’s teammates— Troy— snuck one in past Fleury, and if the Aces could hold it for another thirty seconds, they’d be hoisting the Stanley Cup…

The players on the ice seemed a blur after that, the Penguins taking full-advantage of the remaining time on the clock, but the Aces defense came back just as hard, and in the end, the timer buzzed with the Aces still in the lead.

The Zimmermann house broke into a cacophony of groans and cheers, and Alexei was trying to process if the amount of pride he felt in that moment for the smiling blonde captain with the gray-green-blue eyes that the television was showing was justified or creepy.

 

_/ x \_

 

Kent still didn’t come back to the flower shop for a while, and with the hockey season over and no updates to stalk, Alexei could almost forget that the blonde had become some strange part of his life.

Then, it was the very end of June, and Alexei looked up to the bell ringing— a customer, thank god, they had been dead all day— and felt his breath catch in his throat as Kent Parson walked in, looking a lot more confident than he had any of the other three times.

“Kent Parson!” Alexei greeted, grinning.

Kent seemed surprised at the exclamation, but then smiled back at Alexei, walking over to the counter. His eyes were a light green, almost gray, today. “Hey— Uh, fuck, you know, I don’t think I ever caught your name, man.”

“Is Alexei,” the Russian introduced.

“Alexei. Cool.”

Before Kent could say anything else, Alexei spoke again: “Congratulations on Cup win, very exciting. I’m watching games. You very good.” And he was not blushing, please, he couldn’t be. It was just a little too warm in the flower shop.

“Oh.” Kent looked surprised again before a bigger smile overtook his face, and made Alexei even more aware that he was probably in love with Kent Parson. “Wow, that’s— Thank you, that’s really nice.”

“You are welcome,” Alexei returned, still smiling himself— then remembering there was probably more of a reason Kent was here than to talk to a guy whose name he hadn’t even known two minutes ago. “You, ah, needing flowers? Or… to talking to Jack, maybe…? He’s not being here, but—”

Kent was shaking his head. “No, I’m not here for Jack.” There was a bit of tension in his voice, and Alexei once again had that feeling he was missing something more than what Jack had revealed to him back in December. With a bit of hesitation, Kent continued on: “I’m glad you’re the one here, actually.” Oh. Alexei wasn’t sure how he should take that. He probably shouldn’t take it any sort of way beyond the fact that he had good customer-service skills. “But, I did come in for some flowers…”

“Purple?”

Kent laughed, and it was a really nice sound, Alexei thought. “Yeah, purple,” he confirmed.

Alexei walked out from behind the counter, and lead Kent around the shop to show him various bouquets. “Is very lucky lady, to be getting so many flowers from you,” Alexei remarked, after steeling himself to say it.

This time, Kent’s laugh was more of a snort. “Yeah, my mom really likes having flowers around the house, so… I try to bring some whenever I come home to visit.”

His mother. Not girlfriend, fiancee, wife. Mother. Alexei froze for a second at the realization, struggling to push down any sort of hope it brought alone. “You are very good son,” he managed to get out.

“Ha, well, I was a pain in the ass son before, so I try to be a good one now.”

Alexei chuckled, then grew quiet as Kent seemed to think about which bouquet was the right one to bring home to mom.

He must be in town for the off-season, Alexei realized. It was the only time he must have during the year to genuinely catch up with his family and old friends left behind when he’d been drafted to Vegas. Alexei thought it was sweet that Kent made sure to visit when he could. He himself hadn’t been back to Russia since he had come to America. He was so grateful to be here, and be allowed to be himself more freely, but no amount of Skyping could truly calm the ache of missing his family and pets in his home-country.

Kent broke Alexei from his reverie, looking at him curiously. “What?” Alexei asked.

“I— uh…” Was Kent Parson blushing? “Sorry, if I’m totally off here, but— I was wondering— If… we… could get coffee, sometime? I’m, uh— well, obviously you probably know I’m not playing right now, right? So, like— Anyway, I’m here for a few weeks, and… I kinda like you. I know we haven’t really talked much, but I do, and— I hope this isn’t weird, but I kind of… asked Jack about you, and well, he just… had a lot of nice things to say.”

Alexei was grinning for far too many reasons as Kent rambled, then finally ground to a halt. One: Kent didn’t have a girlfriend, he just bought flowers for his mom. Two: Kent was, apparently, not straight. Three: Kent was, not only not straight, but into Alexei. Four: Kent was into Alexei so much so that he wanted to go on a date with him while he was in town to catch up with his family. Five: Jack, who without fail always proved himself a true friend, despite having some mysterious tension between himself and Kent, had still told Kent that Alexei was a guy worth pursuing.

Da— Yes, of course,” Alexei stammered out, “Yes.” He grinned, laughed breathlessly because this was insane. “I’m liking you, too, Kent. Have been since you come in last year.”

Now Kent laughed. “Yeah, well, same here, Alexei.”