John opens his shop every morning.
He insists on doing it himself. He's proud of it, proud of himself. The morning always smells like peace, their corner of the little piazza still silent at this hour. He drinks his coffee and watches their little part of the city slowly getting ready.
He likes it.
It takes him a while to notice the shop next to him has been sold.
"I could ask, if you want." Selina is smiling at him, almost purring at the new addition to her arm. John likes her. She's beautiful, of course, but beneath this whole persona, she's loyal, and nice. "I wonder who's crazy enough to come here of all places."
"Who knows ?" John helps her with the bandage, and doesn't even lose his breath telling her how to take care of it. She pays and leaves the shop, promising him new customers very soon.
People always assume. When they hear tattoo artist, they picture the biker type, beard and heavy muscles. When they hear ex-cop, they imagine sordid stories, alcohol and blood.
John, thinner now and always proper, make them think twice. He smiles into his cup, and watches the piazza in front of him. It's cleaner now, than it was months ago. Cosmetics and cupcakes are everywhere, and he even has a decent choice of coffee around. It feels safe, almost cozy.
When he goes back inside, he notices the flowers being delivered into the shop next door.
He wants to go and introduce himself, and then he forgets. Selina didn't lie, and he has customers, many customers. He works on big pieces, intricate and time consuming, and small little things, making people happy in a matter of minutes. He answers e-mails, and spends way too much time uploading pictures.
The shop, a flower shop, looks nice, and quaint. The flowers are amazing, and a whole new crowd comes around, rich people who stop by, and ask him about prices and portfolios.
He considers working Sunday, too.
The first time he meets one of the tenants, he's cleaning the little alleyway, getting rid of all the garbage people think is okay to leave behind.
"Hello ?" The man is nice, and his smile, if a little guarded, doesn't seem fake. Strong handshake, eyes frank. John likes him. They talk a little, cleaning everything. "I was thinking about putting out flowerpots here, so people wouldn't think it's a disposal. This is disgusting."
John laughs. He remembers the first days, having to clean after drug addicts and homeless people. This is disgusting, sure, but safer.
"Don't bother. People are going to take them as urinals, with the pubs too close."
"Funny." The man, Barsad, lights a cigarette and smiles. "My brother said the exact same thing."
John doesn't meet the brother, Bane, but he meets Talia, the niece. She's arrogant, but smart, beautiful, but cold. She asks him about an appointment, and explains she wants her father's name on her body.
She goes back home with a soft smile but no ink on her skin, and Barsad buys him a beer.
He learns a little more about Bane. Bane, the magician. Bane, creating compositions so beautiful even John wants to buy them. Bane, ex-cop, just like him. Bane, who raised Talia like his own, and managed to open the shop to keep them all safe and happy.
Flowers are waiting for him, in the motning. Living on top of the shop means not having to wake up too early to enjoy is morning ritual. He's not even ready when he spots the huge vase in front of his door, in the alley. Someone cleaned, already, he notices, and the flowers, beautiful and bright, smell amazing on the wet pavement.
It's from Bane, he knows. He wonders why.
"It's to thank you for Talia." Barsad smokes, hidden behng a huge bush of freesia. John pretends to watch for him, but they both know Talia loves to play in the shop. "They had a fight about the tattoo, but mostly because he didn't react to it the way he was supposed to."
"She's interesting, your niece."
"She's interested in you." Barsad snorts. "Don't play dumb, she is, and Bane is glad you're treating her with respect." John laughs, too, because yes, he noticed.
"Tell your brother to sleep in peace. She isn't exactly what I'm looking for." Barsad doesn't say a word. "I'm gay. Is that going to be a problem ?" The cigarette is crushed under black boots. Barsad is smiling.
"Actually, I think he'll be glad to know. We had no idea how safe it was, around here. My brother doesn't date much, but it's nice to know you won't be a problem."
"No." John sighs. "No I won't." They part, cleaning the rest of their luches away. "Say thank you to your brother."
The first time he meets Bane, he's lying on a puddle of something that makes him want to gag. The guy in front of him is drunk, too drunk to know what he's doing, and John curses himself for being soft, for not thinking the guy could attack him.
The alleyway is still in the dark, and John waits for the kick the man was aiming at him, when someone moves. The guy is hauled away, and thrown in the street. John tries to stand up, to get a small part of his dignity back, but the other man is on him on a second, helping him up and looking at him.
He's... massive. That's the first word that comes to mind. His eyes are focused, his hands checking any injuries.
"Thank you. I'm fine, I think."
"You fell on your head ?" The voice is deep, so deep. John isn't scared, he spent to many years at the orphanage to be scared. But the man, this man, is terrifying, and he can't help but wonders what exactly he's doing here so early.
"No. No, I'm good, I think." That's when he notices it. The whistling. The man is struggling to breathe, and John frowns, because he can still smell the dirt on himself. "Are you okay ?"
"I'll send. Barsad. Be safe."
The heavy back door of the flower shop slams close.
He closes the shop, because he's probably too shaken to touch anyone today. When he's back from his shower, the alleyway has been cleaned, and someone put a cup of coffee in one of the flowerpots close to the window.
John walks to the bakery, and buys a few things. Selina sees him from her shop, and she runs to see if he's okay.
"We heard about something this morning, I wasn't sure if it was you."
"I'm fine, don't worry." It's almost touching, the way Selina fusses over him. She inspects his face, eyeing the bruise with a delicate snarl on her face.
"You've been rescued by Big Guy, right ?"
John comes home, and leaves the whole bag of treats at Bane's window.
"I can't leave you alone for a second." Barsad jokes, but he scans John's face, looking for other injuries. "How are you feeling ?"
"Like shit." He moves to let his friend sit next to him. "Wayne contacted me to say he would pay for any type of remodeling, if I decided to build a fence, or to install and alarm."
"Wayne, uh ? You must be a really important tattoo guy."
"Or Selina made a new friend."
They stay silent for a while. John can feel the worry radiating from the man close to him. It's weird, he's not used to it.
"Your brother, he saved my ass."
"Yeah. He heard it and came to the rescue, from what he told me. He's glad he could help."
"People know him." John blurts. He's ashamed after saying it, but he's not a coward, never was. "Seems like I'm the only one who doesn't know about Big Guy."
"Yeah. Wouldn't be so sure." Barsad lights another cigarette, and John goes to the coffee machine. When he's back, his friend asks. "You have nothing to say ?"
"Thank you ?"
"No, about his face. Him. People always have funny jokes to share."
Barsad studies him, behing the smoke. He looks dangerous, suddenly, not at all th smiley and friendly florist he plays everyday. But something, something must convince him John isn't faking it, because he smiles, a real one.
"Good boy. I knew you weren't like them."
"He couldn't breathe. This morning."
"Yeah, he's sick."
Barsad is almost in the shop, when John suddenly asks : "He can hear us ? When we're here ?" He doesn't need an answer.
He wakes up half an hour before his alarm, and watches Bane clean up the alley, hidden behind a huge hoodie.
He wakes up an hour before his usual alarm, and has breakfast ready for them.
"I didn't say thank you properly." He hands one of the coffee cup to Bane, and sits on the floor, probably ruining his jeans on the soapy water. "For everything."
"You don't need to." The voice is still deep, so deep, but the man can breathe. After a slight hesitation, he sits, too.
"Thank you anyway."
"You don't have to make conversation to me." John frowns, but lets him finish. "I don't need you to."
"Good." John smiles. This is Bane. Amazing flower artist Bane. Bodyguard Bane. Amazing neighbour Bane. "Now that we established that I'm not under any obligation, want to have breakfast with me ?"
They meet in the morning, and clean together. They talk about getting a fence, and maybe an alarm. It's nothing personal, it's safe. Bane slowly starts to look at ease here with him. He still disappears when people start to rise, and he still hides inside the shop until late at night, but John doesn't mind.
One morning, after Bane almost hides behind him when one of his customers shouts a good morning at them, he speaks :
"I have asthma." After a while, he adds. "It was easy to deal with, before, but then it became a problem. The doctors think it's the fear of an attack giving me anxiety. I had to stop working, and to find something else to do."
"Did it happen on the job before ?"
One day, Selina stops by, still wearing last night clothes and smelling like cigarettes and perfume. She watches them from afar, and smiles when intoduced to him. Bane retreats to the shop shortly after, and doesn't come back for a week.
It takes a lot of courage for John to enter the workshop. The flowers are everywhere, and it smells like Heaven. Bane is sitting, putting together small carnations when he spots him.
"I missed you." Bane almost jumps at his words. "Selina won't come back. She noticed you weren't comfortable, and she won't force you to talk or..."
"She was lovely."
"She usually is."
He puts he flowers aside, and brushes his fingers on the countertop. John looks at his hands, his massive hands. He wonders when he started to feel so much for Bane.
"I don't like it, when people call me big guy." Bane sounds sad, almost. "People see me, and think I'm always angry. I'm not angry, I'm in pain, or just wary. I don't like it, that's all."
John tries to think. He thinks about the way Bane's fingers are working their magic on the flowers. The way he cares, for Barsad, for Talia, and even a little for him. The way he would laugh softly at John stories, and how happy the sound makes him feel.
"You want to know my real name ?"
When he tells him, Bane laughs, and John feels a robin dance in his chest.
It gets cold, too cold to eat outside. Barsad smokes alone, because John isn't crazy enough to stand outside for nothing, but they share coffee, or a beer when John closes for the day, and it feels good, it feels really good.
Flowers start to pop here and there. On his doorsteps. On his pockets. Inside his mug, clean and waiting for him in the flower pot. It makes him smile, it makes the robin in his chest sing and dance, and it makes him do stupid things like whistle, and smile. He smiles a lot.
"What are you doing, with the beast ?" Selina is letting him help her with the bandage. "She leans a little too close, and smiles at him. "You're hiding things from me ?"
"I don't know what you're talking about. Here, it's done. You know the drill."
"Come on, you and the florist, Beauty and the Beast, you have to admit it's a little funny."
Barsad is a little short with him that night. John helps with with their last orders, but something is off, and he can't put his finger on it.
"Your friends, they're callig him a beast."
He gets most of the water of the vase in his hands on him. "What ?"
"Yeah. New nickname apparently."
Bane's appartment is small, smaller than his. He knocks at the door, and is almost ready to leave when it opens. The hoodie is back, and Bane avoids his eyes.
"I'm sorry. They aren't my friends, really. And it's a shitty joke. I'm sorry." he rushes.
"It's fine." John tries not to stare too much, but it's the first time he's inside, and it smells good, like Bane himself, and like books and coffee. It smells like a home. "Barsad got into a fight. He does that. But it's fine."
"No it's not. It's not." He huffs. "It's because of me, and I'm sorry."
"How ?" Bane is looking at the window, and everything in him is shouting uncomfortable, and hurt, and John wants to hold him close. It's not time to be a coward. He's not a coward.
"They know I have a crush on you, and they think it's funny. Beauty and the beast, and all that. I'm sorry."
Up close, the scars are a beautiful lace around his lips. Up close, his eyes are very soft.
"You have. A crush on me ?"
"I'm pretty gone on you."
Up close, Bane isn't that tall, but he's so big, John feels small in his arms. When they kiss his hands are huge on John's face.
Bane's bed is soft and warm. Nothing happens, it's too new, and too fresh. This isn't a one night stand he will forget in the morning. John traces Bane's lips with his own, and they talk in the dark.
"Please be careful with me. Sometimes I just get sad and I don't know what to do. I'm sorry."
He feels the words against his ear, rumbling through him. He kisses Bane's fingers, one by one.
"You didn't leave the academy because of the asthma only" It's not a question.
"No. I didn't." Bane looks almost small, scared.
"It's okay. It's fine."
John kisses him again, and again.