The god damn bell over the door didn't ring again.
Andrew has replaced it twice now but it must be something to do with the angle, or maybe Neil can somehow walk through doors without opening them. Whatever it is, Andrew hates being caught off-guard like this – coming up from where he's been crouched behind the counter with his hands full of thorny greenery, sweat ringing his hairline and mud down his front, just to find that his pretty, annoying neighbour has managed to creep up on him again.
“What do you want,” he asks, rather more brusquely than he probably should considering Neil is one of his regulars. Neil smiles and fingers one of the pale pink chrysanthemums on the counter. His outfit is, as always, utterly ridiculous – purple three-quarter length skinny jeans and a loose orange Garfield top that slides down strategically to reveal the intricate spiderweb tattoo on his shoulder. He is barefoot; a really bad idea in a flower shop, and Andrew can't stop looking at his winged eyeliner.
“I don't know,” he murmurs. He never does. “Something orange, I think.”
Pepperberry winds around Andrew's legs and he nudges her away, hauling himself out from behind the counter. She makes a bitter sound and tries her luck with Neil instead, looking smug when he kneels down immediately and coos at her, stroking his long, beautiful fingers along her orange tiger stripes.
“Traitor,” Andrew mutters, setting off on a circuit around the shop. He pulls out a Calla lily, sticks it back in; tries one of the yellow Asiatic ones and goes back to the Calla after all. Collects some bits and bobs from other pots and buckets and throws the whole mess down on the counter, then sets about tying them up into a bouquet that looks like something set on fire and left to smoulder in the autumn sun without even waiting for Neil's verdict.
Neil always takes what Andrew makes for him. He never tells him whether the person he buys them for liked them, but the fact that he keeps coming back implies that they do.
Fuck romance, Andrew thinks and stuffs another angry red flower into the bouquet. He scowls at the finished product, a wild bonfire of a thing raging around three smooth Calla lilies. Maybe some purple next time. Maybe less yearning next time.
“Done,” he grunts, shoving the bouquet at Neil who is still making kissy noises at his cat. Neil blinks slowly at him, not even looking at the bouquet, and smiles his lily-smooth smile again.
“Beautiful,” he hums. “Thank you. How much do I owe you?”
Andrew's face does a twitchy thing and he loses control of his hand for a moment, which waves around in big pumpkin loops. No actual words make it out from behind his angry teeth. Neil puts the usual outrageous amount on the counter, tells him to keep the change and picks up the bouquet like it's something breakable and fragile.
The stupid bell tinkles merrily when he leaves.
“Traitor,” Andrew grumbles at it, letting his head sink down onto the dirty counter. Pepperberry jumps up beside him and Andrew remembers that she's not supposed to be around lilies because they're toxic for her, or in the shop at all to be honest, and carries her upstairs for the third time that day.
Damn cat is always hanging around waiting for Neil to show up, like she doesn't have anything better to do. Pathetic.
Andrew is perched on a precarious stack of boxes in the back room eating ramen noodles with a spoon when Neil unexpectedly shows up on a Thursday rather than a Friday.
It's raining and the afternoon is thick and black outside, slipping through his hands like crow feathers and twine. The last customer he had was four hours ago and the ramen are the first thing he's eaten all day. Pepperberry woke him up with a spider on his pillow this morning and Andrew thinks that's a pretty good metaphor for the rest of this day so far.
The voice is like a match struck in the gloom and then blown out. Andrew inhales the lingering smoke of it and puts his bowl down, noting absently that his hands are shaking. Maybe he was hungrier than he thought. Maybe Neil's presence in his shop makes everything tremble with want, a living breathing thing surrounded by undead plants and the hollow shell of Andrew's body that continues to put on a passable show of liveliness each day, much like the cut flowers.
Fuck. He's getting maudlin again.
He walks out into the shop, squinting against the thin lamplight with one hand curled around the keys in his pocket, and finds Neil in a neon orange parka with his hair plastered to his forehead and a grin blooming on his face like weeds when he spots him.
“There you are,” he laughs. “I almost thought you'd abandoned ship. Where's Pepper?”
“Upstairs in my bed, the lazy fuck,” Andrew grunts, instantly irritated at himself for revealing more than he strictly needed to. Andrew let her have the bed when she started eating her spider this morning and the couple of times he's checked on her since she was still curled up tight on his pillow, her breathing strong and even under his touch.
He is suddenly terrified that she might have stopped breathing since the last time he went up there, but he shoves it down in the mental box labelled 'stop being a fucking idiot and pull yourself together' and tries not to imagine that the lid won't close on all the crap inside the box.
“Hmm,” Neil smirks. “Relatable.”
Andrew doesn't say how badly he wants Neil upstairs in his bed, curled up and breathing, maybe naked. There are, he is sure, a lot of tattoos under Neil's clothes that he hasn't seen yet. Today only the barbed wire around his throat and the ones on his hands and face are visible, because for once he is wearing shoes. The shaved side of his head is growing out, rough and scruffy and deep burnt copper, an intriguing contrast to the soft pink curls on the other side. Andrew wants to touch it all and finds himself fantasising about what Neil is or isn't wearing underneath the parka.
“I need a rose,” he nearly misses Neil saying. It's a much more specific request than normal and Andrew's stomach tightens involuntarily in surprise.
“A rose,” he echoes.
“A big one,” Neil confirms, tilting his head to the side and squinting at him. His eyeliner is lightly smudged from the rain. “Probably. And I need you to choose the colour.”
Andrew doesn't feel capable of seeing colour today, let alone choosing one, but he marches over to the display table in the middle of the room and stares at the roses he has on offer. The yellow ones feel off-key. He doesn't have red ones on principle and the white ones just look sad; there's a spray of bubbly pink ones left in a corner, but those just make his stomach turn.
After some indecisive pacing he finds a single deep purple one, stuck in with the pepperberries. The petals are large and heavy like velvet and the thorns haven't been clipped off. He hitches it out of the water and twirls it to check for damages, but it looks pristine.
“Oh,” Neil says when he holds it out to him. “Yes, perfect. I'll take it.”
He drops a handful of bills on the counter and tells him to keep the change. Then he turns around and walks to the door, leaving Andrew standing there like an idiot with the rose in his hand.
“You forgot your stupid rose,” he feels compelled to say, feeling its thorns dig into his palms. Neil pulls open the door and throws a grin over his shoulder, shaking his head.
“It's for you,” he says and taps a two-fingered salute against the small tattoos above his eyebrow. “Say hi to Pepper from me. See you tomorrow!”
He goes. Andrew looks down at the purple rose and feels something prick and prod inside his throat, like tears except not. What a stupid fucking flower. What a stupid fucking day.
Andrew dreams about purple roses made out of velvet and lace. He wakes up around five, which is – not great, but he's had worse nights – and puts his hand on Pepperberry's small round stomach to feel her breathing. She's warm and doesn't even wake up. How he deserved such a friendly, trusting creature is beyond him, but here she is, on his pillow, submitting herself willingly to his shoddy care.
Slowly the sun spills over the lip of his window sill, dripping stale morning light on his frayed old rug that has long since been claimed as a scratching post stand-in by Pepperberry. Sometimes Andrew wonders if he should sell his car and buy her some proper cat trees and toys and shit, but the car is old now and probably not worth half of what he originally paid for it, and he needs it to drive Pepperberry to the vet and make deliveries on the rare occasion that someone hires him for a funeral or, even rarer, a wedding.
It's a Friday, which means it's Neil day, officially, and Andrew opens up the shop a little earlier with a mug of hot chocolate in his hand and Pepperberry at his heels. He bans her to the office – a cramped, dingy back room full of filing cabinets that barely merits the word office, a cat basket taking up most of the available desk space. He tucks one of his fleece sweaters in with Pepperberry and leaves a fresh bowl of water and some treats on a shelf, checks the litterbox under the desk and drags himself back to the front to deal with the morning's delivery of perky orange freesia, coral pink roses, berry red dianthus and more Asiatic lilies.
He needs a cigarette after to dispel the onslaught of scents from his lungs.
When Neil comes in that afternoon, Andrew has already made him a simple bouquet of sunflowers, big and bold and rough. He runs his hand over the raspy stems and makes sure they're tied properly, and when Neil has paid for them and gone through his usual spiel of tipping him far too much Andrew takes out the single rose – sweet orange in the centre, fanning out light pink at the edges – that he's kept under the counter all day.
“For you,” he bites out. “Now fuck off.”
Neil laughs, low and sticky, and lets his fingers brush against Andrew's as he takes the rose from him. His collar is sliding down again, revealing one kissable collarbone and a deadly shoulder, and Andrew bites down hard on his tongue and checks that his keys are still in his pocket with unsteady hands.
“Does that mean you like me?”
Andrew nearly bites through his tongue. “I hate everyone,” he says. “You most of all. Now get out of my shop.”
“You should come to my shop some time,” Neil says without moving. “I can show you some of my designs.”
He taps the spider on his shoulder then points the same two fingers at the flower tattoos on Andrew's biceps. Too late Andrew realises that he has his sleeves pushed up and all of his scars on display, though Neil seems much more interested in the bee nestled in the crook of his elbow.
“I'm right next door,” Neil says.
“I know,” Andrew says.
“Come visit me next week,” Neil says, sounding like Andrew's already agreed to it. “I'll design something just for you.”
Andrew watches him leave, laden down with sunflowers that look comically big on his small body, the single rose with its smooth stem tucked behind his ear, flirting with his pink-and-auburn hair.
Maybe it is time to get a new tattoo.
“Why a key?” Andrew asks, following the lines of Neil's drawing with his middle finger. The sketchbook is thick and heavy, stuffed with extra bits of paper and magazine clippings and a few napkins with doodles on them. On one side of the page currently open before him Neil has sketched the outline of a key; the other is taken up by a drawing of Andrew's arm to show where the key tattoo would be, complete with the existing rose tattoos and fleeting lines demarcating his scars. It makes him feel oddly exposed and he tugs the sleeves of his hoodie down over his armbands. Today is not a good day for scars.
“I don't know,” Neil shrugs. “Because you're always checking if that door's locked, I guess. And sometimes you're fiddling with your car keys. It was just the first thing that came to my mind.”
He points at the door that leads up to Andrew's apartment above the shop. Behind it is a small, cramped staircase and an equally small, cramped room with an even smaller, more cramped kitchenette and a bathroom so tiny even Andrew has trouble squeezing himself in there. It contains no valuables. Few personal belongings. His cat.
Andrew feels the weight of his keys in his pocket and bats away the irritation at having been observed so closely without realising.
“Fine,” he says. “Whatever.”
Neil beams. “Come by whenever. I'll make time for you.”
“Give me an appointment,” Andrew grits out. This is a business transaction, nothing more.
“I'll make time for you,” Neil repeats. He smiles and sucks on his lip piercing, sliding the sketchbook back across the counter and tearing out the page with Andrew's arm on it. “Keep it,” he says. “Let me know if you want anything else.”
He leaves the shop without buying anything and Andrew looks down at the drawing, fingers finding the light, delicate lines of his scars. Sometimes he wants to say fuck it and have them tattooed over until they're virtually invisible. Sometimes he wants to pick a different colour for each of them and mark them up instead, turn them into a rainbow of gruesome survival.
Today he just wants to hide them under the sleeves of his softest hoodie. He turns the drawing face-down.
Rosehip, aster, amaranthus, marigold, a single burgundy carnation. Andrew considers the dahlias and the gerbera and discards them as usual. He can feel Neil's gaze on his hands as he arranges the flowers, warm like the last patch of evening sunlight, and tries not to let it get to him.
“Why Fridays?” his mouth asks without permission. He frowns at the bouquet that still looks wrong and rearranges the sprigs of rosehip. Neil drums his fingers against the counter and hums.
“I visit my mother's grave on Fridays,” he says. Andrew thinks he should probably say something appropriately sympathetic, but all he can think of is the one and only time Aaron stopped by his shop on his way to a medical conference and asked him for flowers to take to Tilda's grave.
Andrew threw him out without a word. He doesn't regret that now because Andrew doesn't believe in regrets, though it vaguely amuses him to think that they haven't seen each other since, have barely talked on the phone. Three times in the last year, if you count the time Katelyn called him to ask if he would do the flowers for their wedding. She sent him a link to her Pinterest last month that Andrew hasn't looked at once.
He already knows what kind of flowers they need for their wedding. He also knows he's not going to do them.
“Last week the bus broke down,” Neil says absently, looking out at the dark stormclouds that have been fermenting in the sky for several hours now. “I had to walk ten miles in the rain.”
Andrew leans slightly over the counter to glance down at Neil's feet, which are bare again today. Christ. He finishes wrapping up the bouquet and tosses it at him, then checks that the door to his apartment is still locked, grabs his jacket and car keys and walks toward the door.
“Are you coming?” he grinds out when Neil still hasn't moved.
“Car,” Andrew grunts. “I'm driving you, idiot.”
Neil's face crinkles into amused wonder, the expression sticking like poppyseed between teeth. He drops a bill on the counter to pay for the flowers before following Andrew outside and waits patiently for him to lock and unlock the door three times until he's satisfied the locks will hold.
“Thanks,” he says when Andrew holds open the passenger side door of his car for him. “If you stop by Renee's at the edge of town, I'll buy you a coffee.”
Andrew doesn't mention that Renee's is – not exactly his favourite, but at least the most tolerable coffee shop in this dump of a town, and turns on the seat heating. Might as well have a warm butt if he's going to be driving out to the middle of nowhere just so Neil can dump an ugly bouquet on a shithole grave in a thunderstorm.
The rain is loud on the tin window sills of Neil's crappy apartment on the other side of town. Purple string lights glow faintly along the headboard of his bed and there's a cheap fox-shaped night light perched on a nearby chair, giving off barely enough light to see by. They've been lying on Neil's bed for an hour, Andrew with his feet on the pillow next to Neil's head, their wet clothes draped over all the available surfaces in the apartment, eating their way through a box of cinnamon doughnuts from Renee's and taking it in turns to smoke out of the window.
Turns out Neil has a cat, too.
Turns out the cat really likes Andrew even though Neil swears she doesn't like anyone much, not even his best friend Matt who is the most likeable person Neil knows.
There's a growl of thunder and Andrew buries his hand in the cat's scraggly fur, feeling for the rapid ticking of her small heartbeat. Her chest expands as she sighs in her sleep.
“My mother died when I was sixteen,” Neil says into the darkness, fiddling with the string lights. “My father killed her and then made me burn the body. There was a beach just outside our house...”
His voice is perfectly flat. Andrew waits, frozen in the soft cocoon of Neil's sheets, but nothing else comes, not even the hitching of an unsteady breath.
“My mother died in a car accident,” Andrew says, hating how his own voice sounds brittle and worn like old floorboards. His throat goes tight at the unfamiliar sensation of calling her mother rather than merely her name. He doesn't mention that he was also in the car. He doesn't mention that the accident was his fault, that he picked a fight with her, antagonised her until she lost control of the vehicle; that he spent two weeks in the hospital and doesn't know to this day if he meant for her to crash the car and die, or if he meant for her to crash the car and kill them both.
He's managed to avoid the topic with Bee so far. Maybe it's time to dig up some of that particular dirty laundry in one of their next sessions.
“I can't even remember if she ever liked flowers,” Neil confesses. “I just hate turning up empty-handed.”
“I've never been to her grave,” Andrew confesses back. It's not really a confession, but saying things out loud outside of the controlled environment of Bee's office still feels like something's being dragged from him with rusty hooks and nails.
Neil shifts a little on the mattress, rustling the sheets. “Thank you for coming to the cemetery with me,” he whispers. The words feel warm and intimate, meant to be spoken under a blanket with a flashlight on. Andrew can't remember the last time he's been genuinely thanked for something. He knows it wasn't at Tilda's funeral, because Aaron still refused to look at him then, and it wasn't at the police station when Nicky came back from the hospital with nothing worse than a couple of stitches after the incident outside Eden's, and it also wasn't the last time he saw Kevin.
Bee likes to thank him for sharing things with her, but it's more an acknowledgement of the meaning and weight of whatever ugly thing Andrew has handed over into her care that day.
“Andrew?” Neil murmurs.
“Shut up,” Andrew says. He puts his fingers on the jut of Neil's ankle and taps it twice. “Can I kiss you there, yes or no?”
Neil thinks about it for a moment, which Andrew appreciates, no matter how nerve-wrecking of a moment it is.
“Yes,” he decides. Andrew breathes out, then he turns his head and presses his lips to the rabbit-soft, exposed skin just under Neil's ankle; once, twice.
He can feel goosebumps where his fingers are still resting on Neil's calf.
“Hold still,” Neil says, his fingertips on Andrew's jaw burning comet trails into his skin. Andrew is already holding deathly still and is tempted to start fidgeting out of protest at the unnecessary reminder, but then something smooth touches his lips and he locks all of his muscles down again until Neil is done. “Okay. Open your eyes.”
Andrew blinks them open and purses his lips at the unfamiliar sticky feeling on them. Neil puts the cap on the lipstick and tosses it back into his make-up bag before holding up a small hand mirror.
“Suits you,” he grins. “Very kissable.”
Andrew swallows down the turmoil that these words create and leans down to snag the hem of Neil's atrocious orange tie-dyed dungarees. He's sitting cross-legged on his bed and Andrew tugs the denim up until his ankle is revealed, then he steals another glance at Neil's face, waiting for his nod, before pressing a perfect lipstick print to his skin.
Neil waits until he's upright again and says: “Do you have a weird foot fetish or are you going to kiss me up here as well?”
He taps his lips, twice. Andrew cups his face with both hands and pulls him in, smearing his lipstick between both of their mouths, chasing Neil's tongue underneath the waxy taste and breathing hard through the fist-clenching sensation in his stomach. Kissing Neil is like the sudden feeling of falling as you just drift off to sleep.
“That was nice,” Neil says, breathlessly, when they peel apart. And: “You're a mess.”
Andrew looks at the red smudged around Neil's mouth and the cowlick of hair where Andrew had his hand twisted in his curls; the big, heaving rise and fall of his chest and the chipped polish on his nails. One side of his winged eyeliner has been wiped into obscurity by Andrew's careless thumb and there's still the bright bold lipstick print where Andrew kissed his ankle.
He quirks an eyebrow at Neil and Neil grins and breathes and quirks an eyebrow right back.
“Don't ever fucking buy me a rose again,” Andrew growls, and pulls him back in by his hair.
Neil gets the lipstick print tattooed on his ankle.
“To commemorate my first kiss,” he smirks when he sees Andrew glaring at it.
“First,” Andrew echoes, promptly dropping the Sedgegrass in his hands. He's been fiddling around with possible wedding bouquets for an hour now, after maybe, possibly taking a look at Katelyn's Pinterest out of boredom this morning. He's not going to say yes, of course. It's just practice. “How.”
Neil shrugs. “Just like that,” he says vaguely, flapping his hand around. “Are you free after work? I want to visit Pepper.”
He's fingering one of the purple roses, humming something that sounds distinctly like an out-of-season Christmas carol, and Andrew slaps his hand away from the bucket and crowds himself up into his space, blocking his view of the roses. They nearly tumble into the Japanese anemones and Neil laughs, leaning against Andrew to steady himself. Andrew presses two fingers to the side of his throat, feeling his pulse, and swallows hard.
“Yes,” he says grudgingly. It's difficult not to think too closely about what other firsts Neil may or may not have had yet, and whether he wants to have them with Andrew and if so, when. He takes a deep breath instead and digs his keys out of his pocket, finding the spare to his apartment and prying it off the keyring.
It feels a bit like ripping off a limb, but also like setting down a weight he's been carrying for a long time. Bones creaking in protest, he pushes the key into Neil's palm and closes his fingers around it before stepping away.
“Oh,” Neil says.
“Get out,” Andrew says, meaning come back.
“I will,” Neil smiles, meaning the same.
The bell above the door rings out a clear, exalted sound at his departure, and Andrew feels caught off-guard all over again; only this time by Neil's absence.