A/N: Trying my hand at a multi-chaptered fic for Valentine's Day. Please let me know what you think!
The bell above the door announces a tall young man- no, that's a lad yet; for all those scars and muscles, and the gleaming swords secured at his right hip, there's a youth in his face that's unmistakable when he glances toward you with a flick of a single green eye. He doesn't hesitate in making his way over with long, unhurried strides, an economy of motion you haven't seen the likes of in years.
"'scuse me, old man," he says without preamble, "but I was hoping I could ask you a small favor."
You take a pull from your cigar then set it aside in an ashtray behind your desk. "I'm running a business here, son. Don't have any time for silly shenanigans." Your voice is gruff and harsh, not by any design of yours, and it's off-putting for some people; but the boy's mouth tugs up in a smile, easing some of the hard lines of his face. He pulls a plain envelope out of his pocket and holds it up for you to see.
"I just need to leave this with you," is what he says, and you take it. "Someone will come by for it soon. Is that alright?"
Intrigued, you grunt noncommittally. "'spose I could do that much."
The boy bows his head slightly in thanks, and leaves without another word. You set the envelope on your desk, safe behind the counter, and return to your booklog.
Today is a local holiday, and you know you won't be busy. The sunlight is warm, pouring through the open windows like translucent gold, and a few of your windchimes ring outside. You sit back in your chair with a sigh, feeling the full weight of all your years.
The silence is broken some time later, by the bell again; and this time it's a child standing in the door, blinking wide eyes at you through the half-lit room.
"Hey, old man," he says, "is this an inn?"
You take your time sitting up, old bones protesting every inch of the way, and give him a once-over. He's a gangly little thing, dressed in denim shorts and an eye-smarting red jacket, and a hat hangs around his neck on a string.
"Aye," you finally say. "Odd to come looking for a place, not knowing what it is."
He trots in, looking around at the antiques lined on shelves, the framed portraits and loose photos tacked to the walls, the dog-eared books lying on one of the tables.
"I guess today is special or something," he says, eyes tracing the pencil drawing of a dragon left by a little girl three years ago. He glances at you and frowns. "They told me I had to chase flowers. But I don't know what they meant!"
"Ahhh, so they have you chasing flowers, do they?" You chuckle, and he tilts his head at you. You beckon him over, warming to the little slip of a boy as he leans on the counter with round eyes. "It's a tradition in our town, has been for as long as I can remember. On the second week of the second month of the year, you leave flowers for the one you love for them to follow back to you. By their house, where they work, nooks and corners that are special secrets between the two of you. Nowadays, it ain't uncommon to leave candies or presents, or even letters, instead." At this, you pick up the envelope for him to see, and his face lights up. "But we still call it Chasing Flowers anyhow."
He tears it open and lays the paper flat on the counter so you can see, too; you pull the lantern a little closer, and blink in surprise to find not a letter or a love-note, but a riddle.
What has a bed, but needs no sleep?
Has a mouth, but needn't eat?
O'er stick and stone it rolls and bends,
while not forever, it never ends.
Most by its name speak not at all,
but for you one sings should you call.
You both pause, look at each other, and then bow closer to read it again. The kid is turning his head this way and that, like a different angle might shed a new light on the puzzle, and you rub your chin.
"Huh. It has a bed and doesn't sleep." You ponder it, and snort. "First time parents?"
"Flowers have a bed," the boy pipes up. "Robin says so. She plants all sorts of flowers in a flowerbed, and when they open up all pretty she puts 'em in my hair."
"That may be, but flowers don't have mouths, do they?"
"Most don't." That was certainly a strange remark, but he misses your bewildered stare because he's casting his gaze around absently in thought. "So it has a bed and a mouth, and it doesn't end but it does someday, and it rolls and bends over sticks and stones- "
His frank summation has it all making sense to you, and you smack the countertop. "I think it's talking about a river. A river has a bed, and a mouth, where it meets a larger body of water, like a lake or a sea." He beams, delighted, and you feel a grin of your own stretch across your aged face.
"A river, then! You're a smart guy. But what river?"
"That must be in these last two lines, here." Most by its name speak not at all, but for you one sings should you call. Well, you'd certainly never heard of a river singing, and certainly not at anyone's beck and call. "I admit, I'm stumped."
Suddenly the boy is laughing, a rich, thrilling sound that fills the room. "Oh! Oh, I know! It's not a river after all, old man!"
You're amused just watching this lively child, and unbeknownst to you, your grin has softened into something fond. "Alright, smart lad, then what is it?"
"It's a brook!" He shoves away from the counter to race for the door, calling gleefully over his shoulder, "It's my Brook!"
You fold the page and slide it back into it's ruined envelope carefully, chuckling to yourself. What a wild thing.
It's been a long, long time since you've chased flowers; you had all but forgotten the thrill of it, of blossoms left to guide you, of the care that went into arranging each one so you'd see, thoughts of you in every leaf and every petal.
You had all but forgotten.
When the boy comes bursting back inside, tugging a skeleton, of all things, in after him, his eyes are eager and bright, a smile about to split his face in two.
"Brook has the next flower!"
The skeleton laughs, and tips his hat, and you move out from behind your desk to join them at a table, setting down with a sigh in an armchair, smiling when the kid scoots Brook's chair right up against yours and settles himself on the skeleton's knees, holding out his hands for the clue, giggling when bony fingers card fondly through his hair.
You think of orchids, left on your windowsill and in your coat pockets, pressed between pages of your books, held to your lips- when you were young and handsome, when you thought you had forever.