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Regret and Regrowth

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Mingjue sees a flash of yellow peeking out from the corner of his shop’s window, amber eyes boring holes into the side of his head, and he needs to take a moment to fix his face.

It seems he’s caught the interest of a little duckling.

The kid, who can’t be more than six (seven maybe?), has been stopping by his shop almost every day for the past week, staring at him from behind bouquets and displays. He hasn’t stepped foot inside yet, and every time Nie Mingjue forgets he’s supposed to pretend he doesn’t know the kid is there and accidentally makes eye contact, he scuttles away, clutching his little chick themed bag close to his chest.

When he doesn’t forget, and properly goes about his business of not knowing he’s being watched, he notes that the kid leaves at the same time- no later than 4:00 pm.

He’s expecting today to go very much like all the other days, so he continues his work watering and tending to the various plants that flood his store. It’s calming work, and Nie Mingjue finds a certain kind of enjoyment in tending to the small potted plants.

His store does offer bouquets of various kinds for all sorts of occasions, but that’s never been his forte. Nie Huaisang will claim that it’s because he lacks the creative fortitude to truly master his craft. He might be right, although Nie Mingjue happens to think that the plants are cute enough as is without cutting them up and placing them in frilled papers.

Potted arrangements are available. They just don’t seem to be that popular for some reason.

Moving from ferns to flowering, Nie Mingjue chooses the pieces he’ll be using for this next order. He sighs as he remembers how difficult this particular customer had been, asking for an arrangement with azaleas, lilies, and orchids. All in one bouquet.

Now, it is Nie Mingjue’s belief that the customer is not always right, especially if they’re coming to him for his specialized knowledge. He had to put his foot down rather firmly because that bouquet was simply not going to happen.

It irked him even more because the customer had clearly put in the effort to learn all of the flowers’ meanings and symbolism, but hadn’t spared a second to consider if they would look good together. Nie Mingjue won in the end, he always does, but it still ticks him off a bit when he remembers.

He’s setting the flowers he’ll actually be using in the bouquet (chrysanthemum, oncidium, celosia plume, cosmos, a few other plants for foliage fillers) on his workstation behind the counter when a chime sounds throughout the store, the backswing of the door quickly following.

Patting his hand quickly on his apron to remove any dirt, he turns to greet the customer. Surprise, surprise, it’s his tiny secret admirer, standing there with a determined look on his little face.

Nie Mingjue smiles a bit at the image of a six-year-old child, standing amongst a sea of flowers despite looking like he’s about to enter a battle. “Can I help-”

“Do you like dogs?”

The child interrupts Nie Mingjue abruptly, and it takes a moment for him to truly understand the question being asked. “Yes?” He responds, unsure if that was the right answer, and also unsure why he seems to care if it is or isn’t.

It seems he’s grown attached to seeing the new hiding spots the little chick has managed to come up with each day.

Lucky for him, the boy huffs and crosses his arms in approval. A firm “good” leaves his lips before he turns and runs out of the store. Nie Mingjue is left staring, blinking at the space the child once took up before looking up at the clock to check.

It’s 4:00 pm.

Right on schedule, gold flashes in Nie Mingjue’s peripheral vision as he finishes up helping out this customer.

Whatever hesitancy it was he previously had about entering the store must no longer exist, because the kid enters with no problem and walks right up to the counter. He politely stands off to the side, clutching the straps to his little chick backpack while he waits for Nie Mingjue to finish.

It isn’t long before the customer is happily on their way, the chime of the bell following them out.

Nie Mingjue looks down to greet his new little friend and finds amber eyes staring at him intently, almost calculating. Which seems stupid, he’s like, seven probably.

“Mister Flower Boss, do you like spicy food?”

Once again, the kid asks the most random questions Nie Mingjue thinks. “First of all, my name isn’t Mister Flower Boss, it’s Nie Mingjue. And since we’re on the topic of names, I’d like to know yours before I answer any further questions.”

Little brown eyebrows scrunch together and Nie Mingjue resists the urge to coo. The kid hums for a moment. “Jiujiu said never to give my name to strangers.”

That… is good advice, he thinks to himself. Good on that kids’ jiujiu. Nie Mingjue considers conceding then and there because he doesn’t want to push the kid if he’s uncomfortable, but the choice is made for him after a moment’s pause.

“But A-ling isn’t A-ling’s full name so it’s okay,” the kid – A-ling, apparently – explains, triumphant little smile and all. “Now, Flower-shushu, do you like spicy food?”

Nie Mingjue isn’t sure how he feels about getting moved from the ‘mister’ category to the ‘uncle’ category (his heart hurts just a bit actually, does he really look that old? Maybe Huaisang was right…), he’ll have to fix that. Regardless, A-ling so kindly answered his question, so he needs to return the courtesy.

“Yes, I like spicy food.”

He didn’t like it when he was growing up, at one point he hated it, but after several experiences, he began to learn to love the flavor. Even missing it from time to time. It’s not part of his daily repertoire when cooking, but he does crave it every so often; searching out places with the best mala soup base has become a bit of a hobby of his over the years. It’s even better since he moved to this town, there are more restaurants to try in the area.

“Good! Bye-bye!”

The sudden salutation brings Nie Mingjue out of his food-induced daze; he shouldn’t have skipped lunch. A-ling doesn’t seem to mind his lack of attention too much though because he’s out of the door before Nie Mingjue can even say “bye” back.

Well then, he thinks. Getting back to his work at hand, he makes a mental note to look for a new restaurant to try soon. The phantom tingle of spice lingering on his tongue as he thinks back to all the different soups he’s tried over the years.

Nothing has beat homemade so far.

Their little routine continues for a week or so. A-ling rushes in to ask a question, Nie Mingjue answers honestly, then A-ling rushes right back out at 4:00.

So when the door jingles again, Nie Mingjue instinctively calls out to the kid, asking how his day at school went. The silence that responds immediately has him on alert, and he was right to feel that way.

It is A-ling who walked through the door, but instead of the chirpy greeting he’s grown so accustomed to, the boy stands in the middle of his shop, gripping the straps of his bag until his knuckles are white as he kicks his foot lightly against the floor.

Nie Mingjue walks over and crouches down to look A-ling in his eyes; his eyebrows are pulled forward, down, and his nose is scrunched up. He looks absolutely hilarious, face reminiscent of a pug, but Nie Mingjue worries about the tears that threaten to fall.

“A-ling, are you okay?”

The boy begins to shake his head no, before quickly readjusting to nod yes. He sniffles, trying to hold back any snot that might run (he’s not doing a very good job of it), before he opens his mouth to speak.

“Flower-ge, what’s your favorite color?”

Nie Mingjue blinks, taken aback by a question that seems so completely unrelated to the topic at hand. And then he remembers he’s talking to a child and actually, maybe it’s not so unrelated. Kids can be mean these days. So, he takes this question as seriously as he takes every other one of the questions thrown his way.

He’s briefly taken back to a memory of lakesides and blue eyes, and he knows his answers; it hasn’t changed for the past seven years.

“Blue,” Nie Mingjue says, low and soft so as not to break the memory. “My favorite color is blue.”

He doesn’t know if that’s the right response or the one that A-ling wanted to hear because the young boy’s nose scrunches up even further.


“Because it reminds me of someone; someone I miss very much.” Nie Mingjue says truthfully.

And that must be the right thing to say because A-lings face is no longer scrunched, eyes brightening along with a gummy smile. “Right! A-ling’s favorite color is pink! Because it reminds me of mama!”

…Nie Mingjue forgot how fast the moods of children could change, but he listens as the boy rambles on and on about how his mother “is the best and she always has something pink on so, of course, it’s A-ling’s favorite color.”

He huffs out a relieved breath; this is much better than an upset A-ling, and not for the first time, Nie Mingjue thinks about how familiar that pouting face looked.

“Flower-ge, are you single?”

Sirens go off in Nie Mingjue’s mind and immediately every joke he’s made about having a little secret admirer comes to slap him in the face. This has never happened before. What does he do? Is he really going to have to reject an elementary school child? And what does that say about him? That an elementary school child just confessed their feelings to him? Nie Mingjue thinks-

“My Jiujiu has been single for longer than an A-ling. Everyone says he needs to find a new partner. A-ling thinks you should do it.” The kid says, playing with the scrap ribbon on Nie Mingjue’s workspace and completely ignorant of the mental turmoil he just put Nie Mingjue through.

Nie Mingjue has to take a deep breath and reorient himself. “A-ling, I don’t think your jiujiu would be very happy knowing you go around asking people out on his behalf.”

Completely ignored, A-ling continues. “You’re jiujiu’s… style? Type? It’s okay!”

Nie Mingjue thinks it is very much not okay and he wonders if all kids these days are like this, or if A-ling is just a special case. Actually, thinking back, is this the reason he started scoping out Nie Mingjue’s shop in the first place? All to get his jiujiu a boyfriend?? It’s been almost two months since this started. If anything, Nie Mingjue is impressed by this kid’s dedication.

But Nie Mingjue is a responsible adult, so he needs to set things straight and let A-ling know he can’t go around asking questions like that.

“...Is your jiujiu handsome?”

So far, Nie Mingjue has learned that A-ling’s jiujiu loves all kinds of dogs, cooks really super delicious food, always reads A-ling’s favorite stories, is super smart and can solve any math problem, and is the “handsomest man A-ling knows.”

Nie Mingjue feels a slight sympathy for A-ling’s father when he learns that last fact, but it’s very obvious that A-ling and his jiujiu have an extremely close bond. And any person who can make a kid rant and rave about them the way A-ling does for his jiujiu can’t be that bad.

Nie Mingjue almost wouldn't mind meeting the kid’s jiujiu just to see if the tales match up to reality. But the chances of that actually happening are slim to none and he’s perfectly okay with that.

He hasn’t been able to bring himself to consider a relationship since his last one ended nearly a decade ago. It was an amazing relationship, one more special, more meaningful than any other he had ever experienced. But it just wasn’t the right time, for either of them. They parted amicably enough, but Nie Mingjue was never really able to let go, always considering the other as the one he let slip away. The main reason he even moved to this town was because it was a place they both had dreamed of, and even without the relationship, Nie Mingjue didn't want to let that dream die when it is such an integral part of the path he has taken.

So while it’s nice to hear about A-ling’s amazing jiujiu, meeting them would be an entirely different story. Nie Mingjue is thinking of telling A-ling as much the next time he sees him while he sets up shop for the day.

A-ling’s elementary school is most likely the one close by because he never stops by during the weekend. He must attend extra classes at one of the other private schools and is just killing time, waiting to be taken there during his visits to the flower shop.

Sweeping up fallen leaves in the house plant section, a loud chime, quickly followed by the door of his shop banging open, and an excited, shout of “Flower-ge” alerts him to an unexpected guest.

He’s still trying to figure out what to make of this situation when a loud, angry “A-ling” floats through the door. Although, the shout doesn’t seem to scare or deter A-ling, in fact, the kid looks more excited than he’s seen him since that time he talked his ear off about his mother.

“Jiujiu! Jiujiu! Over here!”

Nie Mingjue suddenly has a very bad feeling about this.

A-ling fully enters the shop, and closely behind in storms an unamused, very pretty, and very familiar man.

A man that Nie Mingjue has not seen outside of saved pictures and secondhand social media posts; a man that he has spent summers and winters with, lakeside and in the mountains; a man that Nie Mingjue envisioned a future with – who he, at one point, wanted to marry and build a home with.

A man that, for better or for worse, Nie Mingjue could not justify keeping by his side, not when he had a whole future ahead of him in a new country.

A man that, apparently, is A-ling’s jiujiu.

Suddenly everything makes sense and Nie Mingjue feels like he’s been punched in the gut. Because of course it had to be Jiang Cheng- the man he hasn’t been able to get over since they broke up seven years ago. Of course.

Jiang Cheng doesn’t seem to be doing too well either. Seeing him, that is. Any anger he held towards his unruly nephew instantly dissipates into confused shock, hurt. Nie Mingjue almost wishes he didn’t hear the soft “Ge” that leaves the other’s lips.

“See jiujiu,” A-ling says, breaking their attention from one another. For once, Nie Mingjue is thankful that this kid remains to be completely oblivious to the internal chaos he creates. “I told you he was your type! He looks just like the man on your desk.”

The sound of air sucking in almost echoes throughout the small shop, and Nie MIngjue can’t for the life of him figure out if it came from him or Jiang Cheng. But if what A-ling said is true, if Jiang Cheng really has been single as long as Nie Mingjue, if Jiang Cheng is here - in this town - then maybe it isn’t just him.

Maybe there’s still a chance, a chance that he is not willing to let slip away this time around.

“Cheng’er, it’s been a while.”