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Aster for Devotion

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The building of a truly meaningful bouquet took a thorough understanding of the language of flowers and their arrangement. It wasn’t something one could learn overnight, but took years and no small measure of intuition. Often someone came seeking a bouquet for one thing but actually meant something quite different. Yellow roses from a mother to her daughter for her dance recital, for example, expressed the mother’s jealousy, not her love. Or including aster in an arrangement for a date on which one has expectations for moving things along: it conveys the patience the giver doesn’t have.

Hux had learned them all after he had found his estranged mother again and started working in her shop, Arkanian Flowers. He had many warm memories of her passing among the rows of flowers in their colorful tin buckets, her red apron tied around her waist and her graying red hair braided down her back. She had written in her delicate hand the meaning of each flower on a placard, all of which were still pinned in place, even after her death a decade ago. Hux had had to replace a few, all of which stood out because his handwriting didn’t match hers.

He was straightening one of them that afternoon while his brother William worked on boutonnieres for an upcoming wedding in the back room. Strains of whatever music William was currently addicted to drifted out onto the main floor of the shop in an oddly pleasant ambience. Hux adjusted the fall of the peonies in the bucket and, pausing briefly to smell them, he walked down the aisle to the front door.

Arkanian Flowers had occupied this corner of Pratt Street for going on forty years, thirty of which Hux had presided over. He’d seen restaurants and boutiques come and go in the surrounding storefronts, but only a few had survived as long as Arkanian. One was the coffee shop down the block, Bean and Barrow, and another the tobacconist across from it. Hux had once been a patron, but he had quit smoking in his late thirties. The coffee shop he still visited from time to time.

The newest addition to the neighborhood wasn’t a trendy consignment store or a record shop that sold actual vinyl albums to the hipsters who had begun to listen to them again, but a tattoo parlor called First Order. Hux had watched as the specially-designed black chairs and benches had been moved in and the fluorescent sign had been put up over the door. They certainly needed it, since they kept unusual hours compared to the rest of the businesses on the street. Arkanian was open from nine in the morning until seven o’clock in the evening, but First Order often didn’t unlock its doors until after noon and there were still patrons visible through the windows at eight or nine at night.

Hux couldn’t help but be nosy about its operations, as it was right across the street from Arkanian. At first—and somewhat to his embarrassment—he had been concerned that the clientele would drive away more reputable customers in the area, but it turned out that most of the people who came and went at First Order were young and often very well dressed. They drove nice cars, which they parked on the street out front or in the pay-by-the-hour lot behind Arkanian. Apparently tattoos were more mainstream these days than they had been when Hux was in his twenties in—good God—the mid-1980s.

At three o’clock in the afternoon on a Wednesday, there were clients in the shop at First Order, but Hux couldn’t see them very well from the front windows of his own shop. He adjusted a spray of baby’s breath in the front display before wending his way back to the counter. He was just about to check on William in the back when the bell at the door tinkled merrily.

Hux stayed behind the counter for a few seconds to judge whether the man who had just come in would come to him or if he was going to browse the flowers first. There were a few prearranged bouquets in a cooler to the right of the door, but generally Hux made each bouquet to order. This customer looked past the cooler and moved to the fresh flowers clustered nearer the center of the shop.

Hux counted a very steady two minutes while making himself look busy at the counter before he stepped around it and approached his guest. “Welcome to Arkanian,” he said with a smile. “Are you looking for something in particular, or can I advise you on an arrangement?”

The customer, who had his hands shoved into the front pockets of his tattered jeans and wore a black V-neck t-shirt that was a little too light for the still-chilly spring weather, turned to him. “Uh, I’m not really sure what I’m looking for,” he said, voice resonant and deep. “I’m not buying for anything, really. I just wanted to come over here and look.”

Hux’s brow creased as he tried to puzzle out the meaning, but as he studied the elaborate tattoos that covered the man’s bare arms, he recognized the symbol of First Order at his elbow. “Oh, you work at the tattoo parlor across the way.”

The man perked up, offering a half smile. “Yeah. I pass by here every day and had never stopped in.” He stuck out his hand, providing Hux with a view of what looked to be a lightsaber from Star Wars tattooed on his inner forearm. “I’m Kylo. I own half the shop.”

His handshake was firm, his large hand all but swallowing Hux’s narrower one up. Hux tried not to stare too hard at his other tattoos to see if he could identify them.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Hux said. “I’m the owner here, Armitage Hux. But please, use my surname.”

Kylo’s smile widened. “Nice to meet you, too, Hux.” His features were defined, if a little asymmetrical: a long, straight nose with a small silver septum ring through it, high cheekbones, heavy brows, and the wide, smiling mouth. He had dark hair that hung longer on one side, the other shaved close to his scalp in an undercut. In his ears were gauges, though not the really large kind. With the tattoos, he came together in a very striking way.

“So,” said Hux, “you’re not looking for anything in particular?”

Kylo reached out and touched the stem of a red tulip idly. “Not really. I just kind of wanted to stop in and get to know my neighbor. But it smells amazing in here.”

Hux chuckled. “I’m afraid I’ve gotten used to it over the years, but sometimes it is nice to, well, stop and smell the flowers.”

Kylo’s laugh was loud and seemingly earnest. “I can imagine. If I’m here, I might as well get something to take back to the shop.”

“Of course,” Hux said. “Something fragrant, perhaps?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I’d like that.”

Hux moved past the tulips to the lilacs and jasmine. He pulled out a few individual flowers, the beginnings of a bouquet.

“You had this place long?” Kylo asked as Hux worked, trailing along behind him.

“It was my mother’s shop before it was mine,” Hux replied. “But I took over when she passed away.”

“Oh, sorry.”

“Thank you, but don’t worry; she’s been gone a long time.” He selected a few sprigs of decorative Queen Anne’s lace. “First Order seems to be doing very well since you opened up last month.”

Kylo had his hands in his pockets again. “It is, yeah. I had a client base before we opened, and so did Phasma, so we had some people already, but the walk-ins have been coming steadily. It’ll take us a little while to really get a reputation established, but I’ve been around the convention circuit enough that I can drum up business.”

“There are tattoo conventions?” asked Hux.

“There’s a convention for pretty much everything,” Kylo said. “Don’t they have florist conventions?”

Hux glanced at him sidelong. “Yes, I suppose so, but I haven’t been to one. There are really only so many things you can do with flowers. But I do occasionally set up a booth at the Arkanis Borough Wedding Showcase. It always yields quite a few contracts for the spring and summer.”

“No doubt,” Kylo said. “You ever do funerals?”

Hux stopped next to the sunflowers and raised his eyebrows.

Kylo backpedaled: “That was a weird question, wasn’t it?”

“Not necessarily,” said Hux. “And yes, we do make wreaths and arrangements for funerals, though not as many as we do for weddings. Planning a funeral by any chance?”

“No,” Kylo huffed. “Not for a long time, I hope.”

Hux smiled. “Indeed.”

They made the rounds of the shop, until Hux had a nice-smelling bouquet to take to the counter. Kylo followed him there and pulled out his battered leather wallet while Hux tied the flowers together and wrapped them in plastic.

“No need,” Hux said, waving Kylo’s twenty-dollar bill away. “You only came to meet your neighbor. Consider these a welcome-to-the-neighborhood gift.” He produced a little packet of flower food and set it on the counter. “I’ve trimmed the stems for you, but mix this into the water in your vase and they’ll last longer.”

“Uh,” Kylo said, rubbing the back of his neck, “I don’t have a vase. You don’t happen to have one for sale, do you?”

“In fact, I do. Just a moment, please.” Hux ducked into the back room, waving to William as he picked up a clear cylindrical vase. He brought it out to Kylo, who insisted on paying him for it. “Very well,” Hux conceded. “It will be twelve dollars.” He made change for the twenty and passed it back to Kylo.

“It was really nice to meet you, Hux,” Kylo said as he picked up the flowers and vase. “If you ever want to come over to First Order, you’re always welcome.” He flashed a grin. “Colors would really pop on your skin.”

Hux had a tattoo already—an elaborate rose in blackwork on his right forearm—but it was hidden by the sleeve of his shirt at the moment. He said, “I don’t think I’ll be getting something anytime soon, but thank you. Come by whenever you like, Kylo.”

Kylo backed away a step, waving. “See you around, then,” he said as he turned and headed out of the shop.

“Who was that?” William asked from behind Hux. He was leaning on the door jamb, skinny arms crossed over his chest. His red hair was longer than Hux’s and pulled back into a low ponytail, but people said they looked very alike.

“The proprietor of the tattoo parlor,” Hux replied. “He came to introduce himself.”

“And offer his needle, eh?” William laughed.

“I suppose so.”

William came out and stood next to Hux at the counter, both of them looking across the street, where Kylo was jogging back to First Order. He pulled the door open and disappeared inside, the flowers a bright flash against the black and red of the parlor’s interior.

“Seems like a pretty nice guy,” said William. “Good-looking, too.”

Hux had to agree, but he didn’t say it aloud. William read his silence, of course, and bumped his shoulder against Hux’s.

“He sure was smiling at a lot at you.”

“Oh please,” Hux said, dismissive. “He’s just over thirty at most and I’m still fifty-five, William. Kylo is no more likely to be interested in me than I am to get onto one of those awful dating apps you created profiles for me on.”

William sighed heavily. “It’s 2019, Armitage. People your age are out there trying to meet people. You haven’t been on a date in, what, seven years? Branch out, will you?”

This was an old refrain Hux knew well. His brother had good intentions, but Hux was perfectly content with his townhouse six miles away and his cat and his garden. He wasn’t lonely or lost without a partner. His mother had lived happily after she had divorced his father and gone off to start a new life for herself.

But she had you, and then William.

“Leave off of it,” Hux said. “I’m just fine as I am.”

William opened his mouth as if to say more, but once again the bell at the front door tinkled and both of them looked up to see the future Mrs. Abigail Wilshire come in. She was decked out in designer trousers and a light turtleneck sweater, her pearl earrings large and weighing her lobes down. She had a radiant, artificially white smile for both of them.

“Hello, Armitage, William!” she called, adjusting her Dior bag on her arm. “Are the boutonnieres ready? It’s almost that time!”

“They sure are, Abby,” said William. “Let me just get them.” He disappeared into the back room, leaving Hux with the bride-to-be.

Hux didn’t have to wait long for her to launch into how the wedding planning was going. He listened idly, nodding when it was necessary, but his eyes kept tracking across the street to First Order.

 

****

 

The Wilshire wedding order was a considerable one and Hux and William had been putting it all together since four in the morning. The lilies and sprays of blue were a pretty mix that would suit the bridesmaids’ gowns for a late afternoon ceremony. Once the arrangements were finished, Hux would be driving the van over to the their venue to set things up. They still had a few hours of work before then, however.

Business was usually slow on Friday mornings, but Hux was just twisting some wires into place on a small bouquet when the bell at the front door rang. He exchanged a look with a harried William, who shook his head.

“Fine,” Hux grumbled. “I’ll get it.”

He set down the flowers and, wiping his hands on his apron, came out onto the floor of the shop. To his surprise, he found Kylo there, still dressed too lightly for the weather and with his tattoos on display. His hair was braided back from his face in an rather intricate way, and Hux could see the petals of a rose tattooed on his neck. Hux honestly hadn’t expected to see him again, let alone so soon after his first visit.

“Kylo,” Hux said, rounding the counter. “Good morning.”

“Hi, Hux,” Kylo replied. He was carrying a paper tray with two disposable cups nestled into opposite holders, both marked with indistinguishable Sharpie scrawl.

Hux approached him, asking,“What can I do for you?”

Kylo held the tray out to display it. “Do you like coffee?”

“I do,” Hux told him. In fact, it sounded like exactly the kind of pick-me-up he needed after five hours of wedding preparation.

“Great!” Kylo plucked the cup nearest him from the tray and held it out. “It’s an Americano.”

Hux accepted the cup gratefully, cradling it between both of his hands. “Thank you.” He hesitated for a moment, but then asked, “Did you order an extra at Bean and Barrow?”

Kylo had taken his own cup from the tray and tucked the tray under his arm. “A likely excuse, but no,” he said. “I wanted to thank you for the flowers. All the people I’ve had in my chair since Wednesday have said they’re really nice.”

“You put them by where you do your tattooing?” Hux said.

“Yeah. They’re good to look at and they smell nice. You want to get first-timers to relax and they seem to help.” He took a sip of his coffee. “I might just be stopping in more often to pick up a fresh bouquet.”

Hux drank a bit of his own, finding it rich and almost chocolatey. “I’m happy to arrange something new for you today, if that’s what you’d like.”

Kylo shook his head. “No, the other ones are still fine. I used that powder you gave me in the water. I’m not really good with growing things—I killed a cactus once—but I figure I can keep flowers looking okay for a week.” He glanced around at the full buckets around the store. “Do you grow these yourself?”

“No,” said Hux. “I couldn’t manage an operation big enough to supply Arkanian, but I do have a garden at home. The daffodils and hyacinths are just starting to come up now that it’s spring in earnest.”

“Daffodils are the yellow ones, right?” Kylo asked. “I really don’t know anything about flowers.”

Hux replied, “They are yellow, yes. I have some here.” He went around the corner to pick one from its bucket. “It’s a symbol for high regard or chivalrous affection. A single flower can foretell a misfortune, but a bouquet of them represents joy and happiness.”

Kylo had been reaching for the stem, but he stopped. “Guess I don’t want just one, then, do I?”

“Perhaps not,” said Hux. He plucked two more out and handed them over. “Perhaps for your partner at the parlor? I’m afraid they don’t match the bouquet I gave you on Wednesday.”

“Phasma’ll like them.” Kylo eyed the proffered flowers, clearly trying to decide how to carry them and the empty drink tray.

Hux curled his forefingers around the edge of the tray, bringing him closer to Kylo. “Here. I’ll recycle this. Have the flowers.” They exchanged tray for bouquet.

Kylo smiled as he raised the flowers to his nose. “Thanks.”

“The least I can do,” Hux said, just managing to hide a smile in his paper cup. “Phasma is your partner?”

“Business partner, yes,” said Kylo. “We’ve known each other for years. Met in Vegas at a convention five or six years ago. She’s from England...like you?”

Hux had been in the area for so long that sometimes he thought his accent was fading, but he did still sound like the Englishman he was when it actually came down to it. “I grew up across the pond, yes, but came over here after university. My mother had left England when I was a boy and opened this shop here. I came to join her and learn the trade.”

“Seattle is home now?” Kylo asked, blinking at him with soft brown eyes.

Hux inclined his head. “It is. Are you from this area?”

“Nope. New York originally. The state, not the city.” He laughed lightly. “I always have to clarify.”

“I imagine so,” said Hux. “My mind went immediately to Manhattan.”

Kylo tapped his fingers on his paper cup. “Not quite. Think more upstate. Anyway, I moved out here for college and stayed. I like the west coast. And it doesn’t snow. I hate the snow.”

Hux had to agree. “I’m not particularly fond of it, either. It would be picturesque in the countryside in Surrey, but it never stuck like snow in New York would. I assume, anyway, if you say it was tiresome.”

“Three feet in twelve hours is definitely ‘tiresome,’” Kylo said. He seemed as if he was about to say more, but he looked over Hux’s shoulder, spotting something there. “Oh, hey.”

Hux turned to see William coming out from the back room, looking pink in the cheeks and annoyed that Hux had left him to make small talk. However, when he recognized Kylo, his impatience faded.

“Hello there,” William said. His accent was all Washington, as their mother’s second son, born here rather than in England. “You must be the guy from across the street. Kyle?”

“Kylo,” both Hux and Kylo corrected.

“Right,” William said, nodding. His keen eyes flicked between the drink tray and cup in Hux’s hands to the flowers and coffee in Kylo’s; a slow, pleased smile eased across his face. “I must have missed the breakfast delivery.”

“Oh, man,” Kylo mumbled. “I had no idea there was anyone else here, or I would have brought another cup.”

William waved him off, the mention of it in the first place just a ruse to make him admit he had been the one to bring Hux coffee. “No bother, but I think I might run down to Bean and Barrow and grab something for myself.” He slipped past Hux and then past Kylo. “Nice to see you!” he called as he swung the front door open and headed out onto the street.

“Is he your brother or something?” Kylo asked after he had gone. “The resemblance…”

“He is, yes,” said Hux. “Younger by some twenty years, however.”

Kylo’s brows shot up. “Could have fooled me. What is he, eighteen?”

Hux almost choked on his coffee. “Certainly not. He’s thirty-nine.”

“Oh,” Kylo said. “Well, don’t tell him I said he looks like a kid, then.” He wet his full lower lip. “But I wouldn’t have pegged you for any older than him.”

“I appreciate the compliment,” Hux said—and it was true; he did—“but my gray hair begs to differ.”

“Where?” Kylo said, leaning in to scrutinize him.

Hux felt himself flushing under the attention. He reluctantly gestured to his temples, where the vibrant red was indeed fading to gray.

Kylo clicked his tongue. “You can hardly see it. And even then, it looks good on you. Distinguished.”

The heat in Hux’s face only burned hotter. It had been a very long time since anyone had paid this much attention to his appearance, especially someone as young and attractive—in his unusual way—as Kylo. “Ah, thank you, I think.”

“You’re welcome,” Kylo said, smiling. He put the daffodils up to his nose again, breathing in. “Anyway, I should probably get going, but I’ll be back for some new flowers soon.”

Hux lamely nodded. “All right.”

“See you later, Hux.” In long strides, Kylo left the shop and made his way back across the street. Only a few seconds later, William reappeared.

“Well, that was a nice visit, wasn’t it?” he said, giving Hux a pointedly knowing look. “He brought you coffee.”

 Hux fiddled with the plastic lid. “In exchange for the bouquet I gave him.”

William’s blue eyes widened. “You gave him flowers? Of your own volition?”

“It wasn’t like that,” Hux insisted. “It was just a neighborly gift. There was no ulterior motive.”

“There should have been! Bringing you morning coffee is not just a neighborly thing to do, Armitage. He wanted to come see you.”

Hux went to the counter and deposited the empty drink tray into the recycling bin under it. “He’s being friendly, nothing more.”

“Bullshit,” said William, slapping his hand down to prevent Hux from getting around him to the back room door. “You were blushing talking to him.”

Averting his eyes, Hux tried not to acknowledge that. William, of course, saw right through him.

“You’re attracted to him, at least,” William pressed.

“It doesn’t make a difference whether or not I am,” said Hux. “He’s just calling to be kind.” He wanted to say that they probably wouldn’t see him again, but he had told Hux he would be back for more flowers. Hux wasn’t about to say that to William, though.

William sighed heavily. “You’re the worst sometimes, you know that? Is it so terrible that I want you to see someone? It would be good for you.”

Hux took a breath of his own and let it out. “If I do decide to date, it should be...someone else. Kylo is too young and too…”

“Hot?” William supplied.

“No! I mean, well… He’s just very different than any of my past partners.” Not that he had had a real relationship since his mother had died. But all of the men Hux had seen in the past where clean cut and wore just as many button-down shirts with crisp collars as Hux did. Kylo did not seem to be that kind of person in the least.

“Maybe that’s a good thing.” William grasped Hux by the wrist and squeezed. “If he comes back, maybe give him a shot.”

Hux couldn’t see that happening, but he nodded. “Come on. Let’s finish this order and then get something to eat before we head to the venue.”

They retreated to the back room and returned to work, finishing up the last of the garlands and bouquets for the bridal party. Hux’s empty coffee cup sat at the corner of the counter and was still there—a reminder—when they got back from delivering the flowers that afternoon. He tossed it out before they closed that evening and, as he locked up for the night, he gave a long look at the neon sign of First Order and tried to imagine where Kylo might have put three yellow daffodils.

 

****

 

It was the next Tuesday when Kylo appeared again. A cold front had passed through the area, bringing rain and chilly winds, so he was actually wearing a jacket when he came through the door to Arkanian Flowers. Hux was just finishing up with another customer, but he saw Kylo walk in and duck into one the aisles. The middle-aged woman at the counter paid with her debit card and left the store with a bouquet of thirty pink roses—more than Hux had expected to sell that day. As soon as she was gone, Hux came around the counter and sought out Kylo, who was seemingly browsing.

“Those are delphiniums,” Hux said, coming up next to him and pointing out the flowers Kylo had been looking at. “They symbolise big-heartedness and levity. A more intimate meaning is ardent attachment.”

“Is that so?” Kylo asked. Up close, Hux could see the rose tattooed clearly on his neck. It was all done in blackwork, but very elaborately shaded. “They’re nice. Could you make me a bouquet with these today?”

“Certainly,” Hux replied. “Will purples and blues go well with your decor?”

Kylo snorted. “No, not at all, but I like them, so let’s do it.”

Hux passed through the aisles, selecting flowers and telling Kylo their meanings. He found that his customers enjoyed that, and Kylo seemed no different.

“What about these?” Kylo said, stopping in front of a bucket of white gardenias.

“They have a few meanings,” said Hux. “Mostly they symbolize purity and sweetness.”

“Oh.” Kylo sounded a bit put out.

Hux continued, “However, given to someone, they generally convey the message that the recipient is lovely. That could be kind or good or attractive, depending on who is giving them.”

Kylo pulled one from the bucket. “This doesn’t go with the bouquet, I know, but I’ll have one of these, too, yeah?”

“Of course,” Hux said.

They went together to the counter, where Hux could wrap the flowers and provide Kylo with another packet of flower food.

“Is business good?” Hux asked as he worked.

“Oh, sure,” Kylo replied. “I have three more appointments today. One is returning for a second session and the others are new designs.”

“Do you draw them yourself?”

Kylo grinned. “Yep. They tell me an idea they have and I mock them up. Sometimes there’s a lot of revision involved as we get the design right for what they want, but usually I get it on the first or second try. I have a good sense of things, or so Phasma says.”

“How long is a session, usually?”

“A couple of hours. Three, maybe four at most. I don’t want my hands to totally cramp up, so I have to take breaks every so often.”

Hux fitted a rubberband around the stems of the flowers, but spared the plastic, since they were just going across the street. “How long have you been tattooing?”

“Hm...ten years, maybe? I apprenticed in college, but I didn’t get a real start until after.” Kylo leaned on the counter. “Do you have any ink?”

“Well,” Hux said, “some.”

Kylo’s attention zeroed in on him. “Where?”

Setting the flowers down on the countertop, Hux unbuttoned the cuff of his right shirt sleeve and rolled it back to bare the tattoo there. “I got it when my mother died, in memoriam. Roses were her favorite.”

Kylo studied the tattoo for a moment before saying, “It’s good, clean work. Simple, but it suits you. The black lines really come out against your skin.” He glanced up to meet Hux’s eyes. “But like I said before, colors would really pop. You ever think about getting more?”

“I think I’m a little old for it now, I’m afraid,” Hux admitted.

“Age isn’t a factor,” said Kylo. “I tattooed a guy yesterday who was in his late sixties. When the skin gets too aged, it can be hard, but as long as it’s not too loose, I can work with it. And your skin is firm. Perfect.” He winced. “That sounded really creepy. I’m not going to Buffalo Bill you. I just meant you could still get a tattoo if you wanted one.”

Hux handed him his flowers, which Kylo had insisted he pay for this time. “I’ll consider it, but not at the moment.” He hesitated, but then asked, “Did you design the tattoos you have?”

“Most of them, yeah,” Kylo replied. “Somebody else inked me, of course, but the art is mine.” He pointed to the lightsaber on his left arm and the black helmet above it. “I got these when I was a teenager. I loved Star Wars. The rest of the sleeve I filled out later.” There were starships from the franchise and fields of stars and a sun, perhaps. On his other arm seemed to be a supernatural theme. The largest piece was on his wide bicep: a flying saucer with light beaming down on a crop circle below. “I was an X-Files nerd on the other side,” he said.

“It’s very impressive,” said Hux. He gestured to the flower on Kylo’s neck. “Does that one have a story?”

Kylo’s left hand came up to cover the rose. “Phasma did this one in Vegas when we first met. She was doing a whole exhibition on flora and this was one she had designed for herself. She couldn’t find anyone to do it right, though, so I told her she could just put it on me.” He laughed. “She took me up on it. I did one for her in exchange. It’s on her ass.”

Hux sputtered, “It is not.”

“You’re right,” said Kylo, grinning, “it’s not. It’s on her thigh. A couple stargazing. Way too romantic for her, but she liked it in my style.” He pressed his lips together, looking Hux over. “Really, I’d love to see some color on you. It would be vibrant for years.”

Hux shook his head. “Not right now.” He picked up the flowers again and held them out. “Here you go.”

Kylo took them and tucked them into the crook of his arm. The gardenia still lay on the counter. As Hux went to lift it, Kylo said, “That one’s for you.”

“For me?”

“Yep.” He leaned in and winked. “You’re lovely.”

Hux stared speechlessly at him, but Kylo just smiled and left the shop. Hux watched him dart across the road and into First Order, holding the gardenia all the while. There was no mistaking it now; Kylo was outright flirting with him. He could barely fathom it; it made no sense. Kylo was colorfully tattooed and pierced, kept himself in good shape, and had to be around William’s age. Hux was a man in his middle fifties who hadn’t seen in the inside of a gym in his life and went home every night to Blue Apron and his cat. They couldn’t have been more ill-suited. And yet…

Trimming the stem of the gardenia, Hux produced a bud vase from under the counter and set it there in a bit of water. Maybe when Kylo came back, it would still be there by the register.

 

****

 

It was William who was working the floor on Saturday afternoon. He had on his red apron with his initials—WH—stitched onto the corner and was topping off the water in the various buckets of flowers. Hux was doing the books with his reading glasses perched on his nose when he heard William speaking with someone. He didn’t think overmuch about it until he heard the customer laugh. That he recognized immediately: Kylo. He froze with his fingers over the keyboard, debating, but then set his glasses aside, ran his hands over his hair, and ventured out from the back room.

Kylo was standing with his back to the counter, speaking animatedly with William, who was smiling at him. He brushed his fingers over the shaved side of his head, catching the shell of his ear and then fingering the hollow black gauge in the lobe. Hux hesitated, just watching him for a moment, but then stepped resolutely toward him.

“Armitage,” said William, “we were just talking about you.”

Hux shot him a warning look. “Were you? You might have come to get me.” To Kylo: “Hello.”

Kylo grinned. “Hi, Hux. How’s it going?”

“Well, thank you. Have you come for new flowers?”

“Not exactly,” Kylo said. He blinked between William and Hux, seemingly made a decision, and continued, “I was actually wondering what you were doing for dinner tonight.”

Hux balked, caught off guard. “For dinner? I...ah, I have leftover curry, I think.”

“Oh, my God,” William said, making both Hux and Kylo look at him. He glared at Hux. “You are too dense.” His glance at Kylo was kinder. “Ignore him being an idiot. As far as I know, he’s free tonight. Now, if you’ll excuse me…” He snuck away, but not before turning to shove Hux a step toward Kylo. Hux nearly stumbled.

“You okay?” Kylo asked, reaching out as if to steady him.

Hux pulled himself upright, rigid. “Yes, I’m fine.” He tugged his apron to straighten it. “I’m sorry, what were you saying before?”

Kylo pulled back the hand he had had extended and ran it again over his hair. “I was hoping you were available tonight. For dinner.”

“William and I?” Hux asked, before thinking the better of it.

“No,” Kylo replied. “Just you.” He turned away and peered at the flowers as if searching for something. “Damn,” he muttered. “Don’t you have any ranunculus? I spent two hours trying to figure out if that would work for this.”

“I have some,” said Hux. He went to go to it, but Kylo caught his wrist.

“Don’t worry about it,” Kylo said. “I don’t really need it. I just thought it would be kind of charming. But anyway, Hux, will you go out to dinner with me tonight?”

Hux could feel the panic building in his gut and filling it. He had thought perhaps they would exchange some playful flirtations from time to time, but he had never expected that Kylo would actually ask him on a date. All of their incongruencies could be overlooked if they were just talking in Arkanian, but if they were together in a restaurant, it would be painfully obvious. Anywhere they went, they would stick out as different and even opposite. Not to mention the fact that Hux was so much older. If he had started early enough, he might have—God forbid—been old enough to be Kylo’s father.

“I…” Hux started, floundering. “I’m...busy.”

“You are?” Kylo said. “I mean, of course you are. It’s Saturday night. You probably have plans.” He bit the inside of his cheek, but then: “If you’re free later this week, though… Or next weekend?”

Hux’s chest was tight, but he forced himself to breathe and keep calm. “I’m not sure,” he lied. “I’m very busy.”

Kylo hunched his shoulders a bit. “Absolutely. That makes perfect sense.”

“It does, yes,” Hux was quick to say. “So, I can’t go tonight. Or later. At this point.” He was almost babbling, but if it got him out of this conversation, he would be glad for it.

“Okay,” Kylo said after a moment. “Well, I’ll see you later, then. You know, for new flowers.” He gave Hux a last look and then turned on his heel and left.

Hux all but collapsed against the counter, burying his face in his hands. He certainly could have handled that better.

“What the hell, Armitage?” William demanded, charging out of the back room, where he had surely been loitering close enough to hear the entire exchange. “What are you thinking turning him down? You’re not busy!”

“I know,” Hux said, “but I thought about being old enough to be his father and I couldn’t dare imagine going to dinner with him.”

To his affront, William burst out laughing.

“His father? Armitage, you can’t be serious. He’s thirty-four. Sure, that’s younger than you, but what difference does it make when you’re both adults?”

Hux groaned. “He’s twenty-one years younger than I am, William. I could be his father.” He rubbed his palm over his brow. “Christ. This cannot happen. What on God’s green Earth was he thinking?”

“That he likes you,” said William. “That he wants to take you to dinner. He’s a grown man and can be attracted to someone older than him if he wants to be.”

“No,” Hux said. “I won’t do it. It can’t work.”

William came out and took Hux by the shoulders. “Why not? You like him, I can tell. Nobody else would have you this flustered.”

Hux hung his head. “He could do much better.”

“You’re wrong,” William told him firmly, “and I hope you change your mind.”

“I’ve already said no, in a manner of speaking,” Hux murmured. “He’ll not be coming back.”

William tugged playfully at his apron. “I think you’re wrong about that, too.” He let Hux go and stepped back. “If you’re not going out with him tonight, then why don’t you come to the Lightbox and see an old movie with me and Matt? Leftover curry on a Saturday night is a little too pathetic.”

Hux managed a weak laugh. “I don’t want to impose.”

“You wouldn’t be. And maybe Matt can talk some sense into you, if I can’t.”

“All right,” said Hux. He paused to hug his brother before heading back to the computer to finish the books. He set his glasses back on his nose and caught his reflection in the screen: a man long past his prime. Kylo could do better, indeed.