“Wonder how long this one’s going to last,” Sun Xiang stretched his arms over his head and followed that up by an impressive yawn as he and his childhood friend Zhou Zekai walked past the new flower shop that’d recently opened about a week ago on this quiet, little street.
Zhou Zekai had lived in this neighborhood his entire life so he was familiar with every nook and avenue around here, the locals and some of the store owners too, and for whatever reason, no one single shop had managed to stay operating for more than three months at this particular spot that the flower shop named Samsara Florals currently occupied. Some said the location was cursed, and there were rumors about the spirit of a murder victim or ghost of someone committed suicide decades ago haunting the place that had floating around for the longest time, none of which had been actually proven so far.
And so it remained that every few weeks or months, that particular storefront would be a ramen restaurant one Wednesday and then three weeks later, it’d suddenly become a stationery store without much of a warning or announcement.
At the sound of Sun Xiang’s nonchalant comment, the flower shop staff who’d been arranging potted plants and a variety of adorable succulents along the wooden racks outside the store paused and turned to look at them. It was at that precise moment that Zhou Zekai and the staff member’s eyes met, and he wished he could force Sun Xiang to take his damn insensitive comment back and shoved it back down his throat.
He was a young man wearing a pale green apron and a sweater half a size too big for his slender frame, but it complemented his smiling eyes and dark, wavy hair that got swept off his forehead in the early summer breeze. He didn’t seem angry, Zhou Zekai swiftly observed; he tore his gaze away in self-consciousness, the tips of his ears growing too warm at being caught with someone saying something so rude. Without another word, he pushed a protesting Sun Xiang on the shoulders so that they could disappear before the stranger’s sight as fast as their legs could carry them.
He totally missed the utterly amused way the flower shop employee lifted one of his eyebrows as he watched the two college students turned around the corner of the street before he returned to his work.
After resisting and dying for exactly four days of unsated curiosity, the sandwich chalkboard sitting innocently outside the flower shop informing pedestrians of the store’s featured bouquets had finally caught Zhou Zekai’s attention enough that he actually stopped in front of the sign to read it more carefully.
The top of the board was a simple but elegant drawing of small bouquet of white, yellow, and orange flowers that Zhou Zekai didn’t know the names of, and below that, written in smooth, flourished text, read:
Looking for a passive-aggressive bouquet to send to your enemy?
¨ Orange Lilies
Zhou Zekai’s lips twitched, pulling himself straight and casually glancing into the display window, through which he could see the same man from a few days ago watering plants that hung delicately above the counter. The sunlight was streaming through at just the right angle so that the man was squinting a little as he carefully sprayed water over the flourishing greeneries and blossoming flowers. Elongated shadows of the spider plants’ thin, curved blades of their leaves, the rounded, waxy foliage of several hoya plants, and the reedy, needle-like verdure of the asparagus fern danced and waved along the wall at the slightest caress of a breeze.
His feet were already moving on their own accord, a hand reaching for the handle of the glass door, and he entered the shop with his mind still buzzing with too much information. The windchimes above his head resonated a silvery series of notes, notifying the employee that a customer had arrived.
The man turned to Zhou Zekai, and a look of recognition crossed his face for just the briefest moment before it disappeared once more, and he smiled in that perfectly polite, friendly manner an employee did towards a customer — nothing overly excessive that would let others misinterpret.
“Hello, is there anything in particular you’re looking for today?”
“The sign outside…” Zhou Zekai started. He thought maybe he could impress the cute flower shop staff — this Jiang Botao, according to the nametag (gosh, even his name was pretty, Zhou Zekai thought blankly before he could yank his attention back into constructing a sentence) — with something humorous.
The man named Jiang Botao blinked twice before he chuckled lightly, the ends of his eyes crinkling just the slightest, the sound lovely and sweet and there were many descriptions Zhou Zekai would use if he were a poet, but he was a calculus student who was almost failing his language pre-requisite course so he didn’t. He only let the corner of his lips curve up into a clumsy smile, hoping that by itself would be charming enough.
“You want to get a bouquet for an enemy?” Jiang Botao asked, his eyes actually brightening in genuine excitement. He was the one who came up with the sign contents in an attempt to pull in more customers from the street, and he usually switched them every few days to match the assortments of flowers they’d received in the most recent shipment, and to make his job a little more exciting, if nothing else. It seemed like his creative sign today had indeed pulled in a customer — a very… attractive customer, if Jiang Botao was being absolutely honest. Definitely his type. “The most gentlemanly way to insult someone, isn’t that great?”
“No, no, I want to…” Zhou Zekai had never loathed his inability to carry small talks as much as this precise moment. If only he had one-third — no, even one-tenth! — of Huang Shaotian’s talent for talking people’s ears off, then he probably wouldn’t even find himself in this predicament.
“Flowers for, um…” he continued to stutter uselessly as he stuck his hands deep into his pockets, his gaze shifting focus to the left of the other man’s face, his cheeks growing warm as a loose lock of dark hair fell into his eyes.
A lightbulb popped up in blinding brightness in Jiang Botao’s mind: he finally understood.
“Oh, flowers for your significant other, eh?” Jiang Botao clapped his hands once in realization, his grin growing wider as if he’d like nothing more than to help this handsome man search for the perfect flowers to give to his lover.
To say he wasn’t slightly disappointed would be a lie, but Jiang Botao wasn’t the type to dwell on these sorts of things, and half of him knew that such an eye-catching specimen of a man wouldn’t be single; he hadn’t had luck in this department for the past few years.
On the other hand, Zhou Zekai had given up.
“Well, there should be something perfect for them. Come on,” Jiang Botao gave him a confident smile, which Zhou Zekai returned weakly as he followed the employee to the other side of the shop, where buckets of freshly cut flowers — roses in a variety of popular hues, fragrant lilies, brightly tinted gerberas, timid carnations, plush and voluminous chrysanthemums, and a lot more — lined the shelves. “What kind of flowers or colors do they prefer?”
“You’ve never given flowers to anyone before, have you?” Jiang Botao half-guessed, hiding a chuckle behind his hand. Zhou Zekai didn’t mind that though, because good god he’d like to see him laugh like that again.
“No,” Zhou Zekai shook his head.
“In that case…” Jiang Botao turned his gaze back to the wide array of flowers before him with a thoughtful expression, one arm crossed over his chest while the other one was angled as he tapped his lower lip with his forefinger. “Maybe something small and dainty — you don’t want to overwhelm them the first time, right?”
“Right,” Zhou Zekai nodded, only because he didn’t know what else to say — it wasn’t as if he had someone to give the damn bouquet to!
Jiang Botao carefully picked up a few stalks of flowers and gathered them in his arms; the blossoms had lush snow-white petals that transitioned into a soft, pale pink at the very edges as if they’d been dipped into strawberry cream. Next, he plucked out several stems of a plant with tiny white flowers enclosed in a whorl of bell-like, pale green calyces and rounded leaves. As they made their way to the counter to wrap up the bouquet, Zhou Zekai could make out the delicate yet pleasant scent of the blossoms just teasing his olfactory sense; it reminded him of something pure and simple, the sensation of dew drops smearing on bare skin as one walked within a field of wild flowers early in the morning.
“Pink peonies symbolize romance and good fortune while white peonies represent beauty,” Jiang Botao explained his choices to a clueless Zhou Zekai who could do nothing else but nod in response, and he continued while wrapping a silvery-grey silk ribbon around the stems with practiced hands, “and then a few stalks of bells of Ireland to give it some height and colour…”
He presented the bouquet to Zhou Zekai with both hands, head tilted slightly to the side, his smile seemingly more open and spirited than before.
“And there you are!”
Zhou Zekai took the bouquet of peonies and bells of Ireland from Jiang Botao, the motion gentle and steady as if any sudden jolting movements would break the elusive balance that they were sharing right now. Inevitably, their fingers brushed against each other’s — just lightly, just as intangible — but it was enough to cause Jiang Botao to let go first as if he’d been scorched, and Zhou Zekai turned his head away, teeth gnawing at his lower lip, the tips of his ears burning.
“Will you be paying in cash or card?”
And just like that, Jiang Botao managed to shatter the awkward stillness.
That evening, Zhou Zekai got home later than usual.
“Hey, I boiled some dumplings for dinner. You want some?” Sun Xiang called from the direction of where the kitchen was, and when he didn’t hear a reply, he stuck his head out from the kitchen entrance with a deep frown of annoyance, only to see that his friend was still standing at the entryway of their apartment like a statue, his shoes still on his feet, his bag still slung across his shoulder, and in his hand was a small bouquet of flowers, making the entire image that much more peculiar.
“Oi, Zhou Zekai!”
“Hmm?” Zhou Zekai’s head snapped up at the call of his name, and with a sheepish expression, he announced softly, “I’m home.”
“Yeah, I can see that,” Sun Xiang raised a brow and decided to abandon his dinner for now. He padded over to where Zhou Zekai was and scowled apprehensively at the flowers in his hand. Having known Zhou Zekai for most of his life, Sun Xiang knew for a fact that Zhou Zekai wasn’t the kind to waste his money on flowers that’d die within the week. If he wasn’t the one who bought the flowers, then that must mean someone gave him the bouquet!
Sun Xiang gasped, slapping a hand over his mouth in an overly-dramatic gesture which made Zhou Zekai wanted to roll his eyes, if he were the type to do so.
“Well, well, aren’t our publicly-voted-as-most-handsome-boy in campus popular?” Sun Xiang wrapped his arm around Zhou Zekai’s shoulders and leaned in to examine the bouquet more closely. “Did you get confessed to today again? Damn, son. I mean, you always bring home letters and little trinkets from those admirers of yours, so that’s nothing new. But you’ve never been given flowers before, have you? That’s actually pretty old-fashioned, but hey, it’s a lot more tasteful than some of the ‘gifts’ you’d received. I approve. Who is it? Do I know them?”
“You…” Zhou Zekai ducked out from Sun Xiang’s arm before quickly making his way to his room, but not before leaving a last comment behind just to rile his roommate up, “… too nosy.”
Soon enough, Sun Xiang would know the truth behind the bouquets and potted plants Zhou Zekai continued to bring home every day thereafter for the next two and a half months.
The windchimes by the door tinkled cheerfully when Zhou Zekai entered Samsara Florals. He was here earlier than usual, mostly because Sun Xiang wouldn’t get off his case about “confessing to the guy like a normal human being” — as Sun Xiang so elegantly put it — and practically kicked him out of the door, threatening to lock him out of their shared apartment if he brought home yet another goddamn succulent plant.
“But the plants, they–” Zhou Zekai pointed towards an innocent pot of dracaena that had found its home in a little corner of their living-room, “—they absorb bad chemicals in the air.”
Any other available surfaces in their apartment were covered with vases of flowers — from fresh, vibrant ones to half-decaying ones that had beginning to turn brown and dead — and they bought a new shelf just so they could properly organize the tiny pots and baskets of succulents and leafy plants.
“No, Zhou Zekai, don’t look at me that way, don’t you dare look at me with your goddamn puppy eyes, you know that shit won’t work on me— No, stop that!” Sun Xiang pushed Zhou Zekai’s face away from him so he could stop being distracted by the ash-grey irises that were begging him to take pity on a love-sick fool. Sun Xiang spread his arms wide, and only said in a dead monotone, “look at this, our place is looking more and more like a fucking botanical garden.”
“Makes apartment healthier to live in though?” Zhou Zekai struggled one last time before he got shoved out of the door.
“Please, can’t you just… like, talk to the guy and ask him out already?” Sun Xiang huffed in irritation.
Zhou Zekai had it bad, Sun Xiang could tell, and the man had never been this infatuated with anyone before, so he knew this was serious business, which was exactly why he was doing this to his friend. He wasn’t being ‘cruel’, as Zhou Zekai had so unfairly labelled his actions; he was being a helpful and supportive bro.
“Good morning, Xiao Zhou,” Jiang Botao turned around to greet him with a bright smile, a pot of jade-green English ivy in his hands.
“Morning, Jiang,” Zhou Zekai replied, lowering his head as strands of his forelocks fell haphazardly into his eyes at the slight motion.
“Here to get something for your SO again?”
Zhou Zekai nodded wordlessly.
“You sure are dedicated,” Jiang Botao commented with a casual smile and set to work right away. Since the first time they met, Zhou Zekai had visited Jiang Botao’s flower shop on a daily basis; most of the days, he’d buy small bouquets for his non-existent lover with the help of Jiang Botao, who aided him in picking the freshest and most fitting flowers every time, but on some days, Zhou Zekai had also purchased potted plants and succulents. “He’s one lucky man to have found someone like you, Xiao Zhou.”
Zhou Zekai shook his head, cheeks heating up at the unfounded compliment.
“Jiang,” Zhou Zekai suddenly reached out and wrapped his fingers around the other man’s wrist to stop him from picking flowers from one of the buckets. “Wait.”
“What is it?” Jiang Botao was still too distracted by Zhou Zekai’s skin directly in contact with his. His fingers were warm, slender yet flowing with unstated power.
“I’d… like to pick out the flowers myself,” Zhou Zekai murmured, retrieving his hand once he realized belatedly that grabbing someone’s wrist — even if they’d known each other for almost three months now — was probably quite a rude thing to do.
“Sure,” Jiang Botao was surprised by the initiative the usually reticent man was taking today, but he only sent him an encouraging smile and left him to it. “When you’re done, just come up to the counter. I’ll wrap them up for you.”
Zhou Zekai nodded and turned to face the rows and rows of flowers as if he was confronting an entire enemy battalion; he took in a deep breath, his eyes searching for the flowers he needed to make the bouquet that would best deliver his sentiments and feelings towards Jiang Botao. He’d done enough research so he knew he wouldn’t be making any weird, embarrassing mistakes of picking the wrong flowers or the incorrect colors to impart the opposite meaning.
About fifteen minutes later, Zhou Zekai was waiting at the counter, where Jiang Botao proceeded to assemble the flowers, tie them up into an elegant arrangement, and receive Zhou Zekai’s payment, as they had done just about every day for the past few months.
“Thanks for your business as usual, Xiao Zhou,” Jiang Botao said.
Usually, Zhou Zekai would be out the door by this time, but today, he stood fixed to the ground like an old willow tree that had taken root at the spot, the hands that were still cradling the bouquet were trembling ever the slightest, and his gaze was lowered, eyes veiled behind his too-long forelocks so that it was impossible for Jiang Botao to read him.
The morning sunlight climbed in from the windows and encased everything it touched in pale gold. Staring at Zhou Zekai, who still refused to look at him, Jiang Botao couldn’t help but admire the man who was outlined by a sheen of sunlight behind him, making his figure, his presence almost surreal and absolutely divine.
The tranquility in the air, the rustling of the whispering leaves and murmuring flowers in languages neither man understood.
Zhou Zekai lifted his head up to face Jiang Botao, his eyes blazing with the kind of quiet determination that could take anyone’s breath away; he held the bouquet more securely and handed it to Jiang Botao, who turned a little pale at first before heat began to pool in his cheeks, painting his porcelain skin a lovely pale peach color.
“Jiang, for you,” Zhou Zekai said. His heart might be quivering from waiting for the other man’s answer, but the pure commitment and adoration in his voice was obvious enough that even Jiang Botao could tell that it couldn’t have been easy for Zhou Zekai to divulge his emotions like that.
He took the flowers from Zhou Zekai, this time he was the one whose hands were shaking like leaves using their last strand of strength to hold on.
“F-For me?” Jiang Botao was puzzled and stuttering, which were two things that almost never happened to him. At this point, he was downright confused. Didn’t Zhou Zekai said that the flowers he bought from him was for a significant other? Had he been lied to for the past few months? But… what did all this even mean? Why would Zhou Zekai do that?
“I…” Zhou Zekai started again, a hand instinctively reaching for his dark forelocks as he started to fiddle with the strands self-consciously, “I didn’t find a good opportunity to correct you when you thought—”
“When I thought you were getting flowers for someone important the first time you came in!” Jiang Botao wanted to smack himself in the head, or smash his face against the nearest wall, whichever that would allow him to stop his mind from thinking over and over again how he’d misunderstood Zhou Zekai’s intent all this time.
“I came in because I wanted to talk to you,” Zhou Zekai admitted, the blush on his cheeks growing deeper.
“Why didn’t you let me know sooner?” Jiang Botao was caressing the petals of the creamy white gardenia flowers, soft beneath his fingertips. There was no hint of reproach or rejection in his voice, but when their eyes met again, Zhou Zekai noticed the amused curve of Jiang Botao’s lips, as if he found this entire instance of misunderstanding all too humorous.
“I was scared,” Zhou Zekai said, his tone barely audible that Jiang Botao had to lean in to hear him more clearly, “I didn’t… want you to think I’m weird.”
“I don’t think you’re weird, Xiao Zhou,” Jiang Botao laughed, one hand holding onto the bouquet while he ruffled Zhou Zekai’s hair with his other, the gesture playful but somehow more intimate than any of their other exchanges in the past. “So. Talk to me. Why these flowers in particular?”
“You know why…”
“I want to hear it from you though,” Jiang Botao said.
Fair enough, Zhou Zekai thought. They’d been dancing and tip-toeing around this for far too long. He inhaled a steady breath and reached over the counter to take Jiang Botao’s hand — the hand that was holding the arrangement of flowers he prepared for him — into his own.
“Gardenia,” Zhou Zekai touched the petal of the white blossom between his thumb and forefinger, and then extended his hand to caress Jiang Botao’s flushed cheek, his eyes serene but bright, “means ‘you’re lovely’. Blue iris…”
He traced a delicate finger over the curve of Jiang Botao’s ear, “…is for faith and hope. And heather…”
He presses his lips softly against Jiang Botao’s forehead, the kiss unbearably sweet and tender, and Zhou Zekai pulled back slightly so that he could gaze directly into the other man’s slate blue irises once more, “…is for admiration. Also, it’s your favourite.”
Jiang Botao’s smile deepened, making the small dimples on his cheeks even more prominent.
“Don’t go anywhere, okay? I’ll be right back,” Jiang Botao slipped to the backroom and reappeared in a minute with a single stalk of flower — six-petaled, pale pink in color, and ruffled-edged — in his hand.
“For you, Xiao Zhou,” Jiang Botao offered him the flower. “On the house.”
Zhou Zekai nodded his thanks after taking it and started to inspect the nameless flower more closely.
“Do you know what this flower symbolizes?”
Zhou Zekai shook his head and looked at him, eyes expectant, hopeful.
“Ambrosia,” Jiang Botao whispered as he winded his hand around to the back of Zhou Zekai’s neck, and the dark-haired man leaned down without further prompting, so that Jiang Botao’s next words ghosted over his lips like a promise, “‘your love is reciprocated’.”