When Arthur returned to the check-out, he found a young-looking, blond man waiting for him. There had been no one in the shop when he ran to use the bathroom, and he hadn't heard the bell ringing as the door had been opened. For a moment he hesitated in the doorway leading from the stockroom to the actual shop as he just watched the guy. He was tall, tanned and seemed to be in a good mood. His attention had been momentarily distracted by the big bouquets of roses by the entrance, and Arthur immediately assumed him to be looking for flowers for a girlfriend. He closed the white door behind and smiled friendly at the man as he turned around by the sound.
"Sorry, I was just checking up on the tulips." The guy nodded.
"That's okay, I am in no hurry."
"Do you need any help?" Arthur asked as he walked up to the man and gazed over at the roses. "We also have them in pink."
"Oh," the guy said and scratched his chin, "oh, I don't know…" Up close Arthur could recognise his eye colour as baby-blue. When the man smiled, his lips poked dimples into his cheeks which raised and narrowed his eyes a bit. He looked handsome, but his oversized shirt made him seem a bit dorky; that and his clumsy shaving which had left a few stubbles on his cheeks. Arthur wasn't sure whether or not it was charming.
"Are you looking for flowers for a special occasion?" Arthur asked as the guy kept hesitating. "Are they for a girlfriend?" The man swiftly looked down at him.
"Arthur," he said, and Arthur raised his brows puzzled.
"Arthur?" he repeated. "They're for me?" The man blinked and his cheeks started to turn red.
"No-no, sorry!" he blurted and pointed to Arthur's name badge. "I was reading out aloud." Arthur laughed unaffected and ran his fingers through his hair.
"They're not for a girlfriend," he continued awkwardly. Now even his ears were red, but despite being flustered he was still smiling. "I am Alfred. I am single." The last sentence was added in a stutter.
"Well, Alfred," Arthur said with a shrug and walked over to pick up one of the bunches that had already been wrapped in paper. "If you're hoping not to stay single, roses are surely the choice. Classic and romantic."
"Is that so?" Alfred reached over and peeled off a single, brown leave from the bunch. As Arthur handed him the roses, their fingers shortly touched, and Alfred hastily pulled the bouquet into his arms. His bigger hands were very warm. Arthur stretched his fingers from the feeling before putting his arms akimbo.
"It's a promise," he winked smiling.
Arthur Kirkland had just turned 35 and was the proud owner of a small flower shop by the newly built mall. He'd had the place for ten years now and after having had his troubles with teens hired to look after the place for him during weekends, he'd decided to run it all by himself. It meant he had very little spare time, but he enjoyed his work and the frequent visits by the town's elderly women who always enjoyed chatting. And then there were of course the stuttering, blushing bachelors that turned up on Valentine's Day to spend their last bucks on something for the ladies. Guys like Alfred. But for the fact that it wasn't Valentine's Day, but a hot day in June.
"I'll go for these, then," Alfred decided after having turned the roses around a few times.
"Should I wrap them up nicely for you?"
"Yeah, that would be great." Arthur walked to the check-out and pulled forward a roll of white foil which he started cutting up. Meanwhile Alfred was looking around the shop. "It's a nice place." The little room was crammed with flowers and small plants on the floor and on the woodened shelves. The door was constantly kept open to let in air to freshen up the many heavy scents, but as Alfred breathed in deeply, he didn't seem to mind.
"Thank you," Arthur said and shortly looked up from his work before slipping the scissors through the paper. "I'm happy for it myself."
"Isn't it hard to compete with the mall, tho'?" Arthur reached for the flowers and was handed them. He tied a bag of water to the stems before rolling the paper up around them. His every move was as if professionally rehearsed.
"It is," he admitted, "these days I mostly get to see my regulars."
"So today is your lucky day?" Alfred beamed. Arthur raised his brows at him. "I mean, I am a new customer."
"You're certainly welcome to come back," Arthur said and tied a pink ribbon tightly around the bouquet. "There you go."
"Great." Alfred picked up the roses and looked at them with a little smile before pulling forward his wallet to pay. Arthur accepted the note.
"Have a nice day," he smiled at Alfred as he headed for the exit. Alfred turned around in the doorway and waved with the roses.
"They really aren't for a girl," he said with a shy grin, "but my mom is coming by." Arthur laughed and waved him off.
"Such a charmer," he mumbled and leaned up against the desk with a little headshake. It was refreshing seeing a young man in his shop for once. He just hadn't expected him to be back the very next day.
"Do you give a discount for good looks?" Arthur turned around and glared at Alfred who'd walked up to stand behind him. He was dressed in a loose, blue tracksuit; his face was glistening with sweat and the water bottle in his hand was empty. Arthur shortly looked him up and down before leaning back over to correct the box with petunias.
"Why, do you know someone who might apply?"
"Ouch." Arthur smirked. Alfred waved his hand as if he was hurt before he walked to stand next to Arthur. He looked down at the flowers. "They're nice," he said nodding towards them.
"They came in this morning." Arthur straightened up and patted a little dirt off of his hand with a sigh. "But they're proving to be hard work."
"How come?" Arthur glanced up at Alfred with a gentle smile as he rubbed his spine.
"My back," he explained. "It's not what it used to be."
"Is that because you're getting old?" Arthur grimaced:
"No more discounts for you!" Alfred laughed lightly and walked alongside the boxes with flowers. His voice was still a bit high-pitched from his jog around the neighbourhood and his cheeks were shining red. Arthur watched him as he screw the lid off of his bottle and poke his tongue down into the hole as he tried to catch the few drops of water that had stuck to the inside. Then he looked up at the sky.
It was going to be a warm summer. These days he hardly ever saw a cloud on the sky, and he constantly had to run around watering the flowers not to have them die on him. He was almost getting blisters on his hand from holding onto the watering can all the time. Being reminded of it, he reached down and picked it up from the ground before looking back at Alfred. He was still battling with his bottle.
"Do you want to fill it up inside?" he asked, and Alfred looked at him puzzled. Arthur gestured to his hand with his can. "Your bottle. Seems like you need it."
"Right, thanks, that would be great!" He sounded as if he'd just won a million, and Arthur shook his head and lead the way to the back of the shop.
"You can fill it up in the kitchen."
"You have a kitchen here?"
"I live here." Alfred caught up with him and walked by his side around the place.
"You live in a shop?" he blinked.
"No," Arthur said patiently and stepped onto the sloping fire escape that was leading from the backside of the building up to a door on the first floor. He pointed up at it. "I live upstairs." Alfred pursed his lips.
"Oh, you must have a nice view of the street."
"I'm just above the street lights, so I can actually see the stars at night."
"Sweet." Arthur grinned and walked up to unlock the door.
"Sweet? You're all about planets?"
"I dig 'em," Alfred joked before shaking his head, "no, really, everything up there fascinates me." Arthur opened the door and untied his shoes while looking at Alfred curiously.
"You're some kind of astronomer?" he asked.
"Almost," Alfred said and kicked off his shoes. "I'm an astronaut." Arthur rolled his eyes and put his shoes to the side.
"The jokes just keep coming, hah?"
"That's not even a joke."
"Sure." Alfred pouted, but Arthur just shrugged him off as he walked to the kitchen. "It's in here." Alfred followed him, but a bit more slowly as he was looking around. Arthur's place was as small as his shop though not as packed. The hallway was tiny, the bathroom even smaller and outdated. As he passed by the open door, Alfred spotted brown tiles on the wall and a rusty showerhead.
Arthur was waiting for him in the kitchen. He'd turned the tap on to let the water run cold, and he was looking out the window as he was watching the street. Alfred walked over and started filling up his bottle. He glanced at Arthur. "Looking out for customers?" he asked.
"Mhmm." Arthur reached up and opened the window letting in a nice, warm breeze. "But as you might've noticed, I get very few this early in the morning."
"Yeah." Arthur shortly looked over his shoulder and smiled at him. "Too early for pensioners."
"Oh." The kitchen was green and white and kept extremely clean. Even the magnets on the refrigerator were shining. They were holding up notes and postcards. Alfred took a gulp of his filled bottle while walking over to have a closer look. A single picture had been put up in between the recipes. He could recognize Arthur on it, but not the other guy. He had a slim face and long, blond hair. They both looked happy. "Is this your boyfriend?" he asked teasingly, but as Arthur turned around, he could tell from the look on his face that he didn't find it one bit funny.
"No," he said shortly, and he looked like he wanted to add something to that, but he didn't. Alfred bit the inner of his cheek and just nodded.
"Yeah." Arthur eyed his bottle. "Are you good?" Alfred nodded again and shook his bottle.
"Yep." Arthur headed for the door again, and Alfred followed. While Arthur was tying his shoes, Alfred noticed yet a photo of this blond, skinny man hanging by the mirror in the hallway. He didn't point it out this time, but just put his shoes back on. He had a feeling that some things should be left unsaid.
"Isn't it too warm a weather to be running in?" Arthur suddenly asked and opened the door. Alfred smiled a bit.
"I have to work out all the time."
"A fanatic," Arthur assumed and locked the door again as Alfred was heading down the stairs. He turned around and grinned up at him.
"No, told you already - an astronaut."
"You're really keen on that one, aren't you?" Arthur smiled wryly and jogged down behind him.
"I never tell any lies," Alfred defended himself. Arthur whistled shortly.
"Of course, the romantic roses were really just for your mum, right?"
"Yeah!" He nodded eagerly. Arthur gave his arm a friendly pat, but regretted it as he felt the sweat going through the thin fabric and onto his hand. He wiped it off in his apron with a grimace. "How much water do they need, anyway?"
"Oh, just pour a fair load into your vase and change it every now and then. They aren't hard to keep alive for a while." Alfred nodded ponderingly.
"Should I cut the stems?"
"It's a good idea to shorten them a bit." Arthur looked at Arthur with a cheeky glimpse in his eyes. "You really don't know much about flowers." Alfred shrugged and shyly scratched his neck.
"I know more about mathematics," he admitted.
"I should have you doing my financials, then." Alfred snorted, and Arthur stopped by the entrance to the shop. He was looking Alfred up and down. "Do you want a bit more of a work out?" he asked, and Alfred gave him a silly grin.
"Depends on the kind?"
"I think you could carry those boxes more easily than me," Arthur said unaffected by Alfred's dirty smile. He knew his men as well as he knew his flowers. There was no need to exaggerate either. "I still have four in the back I need out here. I would pay you a few bucks if you helped me out."
"I don't need the money," Alfred said and put his bottle down by the petunias as he zipped his jacket a bit open, "but I'll gladly help."
"Astronaut-honour?" Arthur joked, but Alfred gave him an honest nod.
There was no way Alfred could be an astronaut, and Arthur knew it. Though he was muscular and claimed to have an IQ that would put most to shame, he seemed too silly and awkward to qualify for a high-end job like that. Besides, what kind of astronaut would make a flower shop his preferred place to hang out?
Arthur couldn't help but to think that he could be unemployed. There had been a massive lay-off recently all across the states and not even a young, virile guy like Alfred could be assured work. He'd barely turned 28 years old and he probably had very little experience in any field of work. Arthur wasn't sure and he didn't like to push for answers, though he had many questions. Whenever he brought up the subject of work, Alfred stubbornly insisted that he was indeed an astronaut. "Why can't you believe me?" he asked one day, but Arthur had just laughed. He'd been wearing a Spongebob-shirt as he asked the question. Alfred was a guy who was hard to find sincere. He joked way too much for that. But it was uplifting.
"Do you enjoy hanging out with me?" Alfred asked after he'd been coming by for six weeks. Every time he would help out with whatever was needed, and Arthur had even gained enough trust in him to let him be around the register without being watched. He'd never lost a cent, and Alfred never asked for money in return for all the work he did. Instead they had tea and biscuits at Arthur's place as the shop closed.
Arthur turned around at the question. He'd been counting the earning of the day while Alfred had been having fun poking his cactuses to see if they would all sting. "You don't give me much of a choice," he smiled, but then he gently added: "Still it's nice having someone around." Alfred grinned smugly and moved away from the shelves.
"I'm learning a lot about flowers," he said.
"I should charge you for being a student."
"Oh, where's my scholarship?" Alfred leaned against the desk and smiled at Arthur who whipped his nose with a banknote.
"It's right here."
"Unh, I don't want it," Alfred said and pushed Arthur's hand away as he offered it to him. "Keep it."
"Are you sure you don't want some kind of payback?" Arthur asked while wrapping the note up with the rest. "I am starting to feel bad about all the work you do."
"Don't," Alfred said, but he seemed to be thinking. Arthur closed the register and locked it off before turning off the lights in the store. He grabbed his key, and Alfred swiftly skipped to the door and held it open for him. "After you," he said, and Arthur walked out with a headshake.
"I'm no lady."
"You don't have to be a lady to be flirted with."
"Is that what it is, courting?" Arthur looked up at Alfred amused and the younger man blushed and looked away without a word. He locked the store off and put his key in his pocket. "Okay, should I brew us some tea?" Arthur walked past Alfred to head for his place as usually, but his arm was grabbed and he was pulled back a few steps.
"Wait," Alfred begged, and Arthur patiently turned to face him.
"Yes?" Alfred's fingers shortly tightened around his arm before letting go.
"Uh, about the payback.." He was hesitating. Arthur clucked his tongue waiting, but as he parted his lips to speak, Alfred blurted: "How about a date?" Arthur snorted.
"Those pictures upstairs, they really aren't of my boyfriend."
"Does that mean you don't date men?"
"You are on the market, right?" Alfred smiled softly and poked his own dimple. "And so am I." Arthur gave him a long look. Standing there he looked surprisingly handsome. His hair was messy from work, and his eyes shined tired in the dim light from the streetlamps. Arthur felt bad about turning him down, but still he looked away and mumbled:
"Let me think about it." Alfred kicked a stone.
"Okay," he said, "okay, I understand." Arthur shyly corrected his shirt before clearing his throat.
"Coffee?" he suggested.
"Yeah," Alfred smiled, but then he added: "But I won't mind your tea either."
The next morning Arthur was sitting by the check-out while looking through his drawer. He had two; the top one was for work, the second one for more private matters. It was the second one he had opened. Besides a notebook and some small gifts he'd been given by the older ladies, he had a little box of photographs. He'd put it in the shop as there had once been a time where he simply couldn't part with the pictures. These days he had them there because he wasn't sure if it would be bad luck to let them back inside his place.
They were all of the same skinny, blond man whom Alfred had noticed photos of all over his place. These pictures were less formal, though, and from vacations and private parties. He flickered through them slowly while lingering at some of them as he was taken over by the memories. Francis. He wondered what he was up to right now.
As the bell rang and the door slipped open, Arthur quickly dropped the pictures back into the drawer and closed it. He stood up and wasn't surprised to see Alfred poking his head inside. "Hey," he said and waved with his fingertips and Arthur snorted and waved him closer.
"Leave the door open," he said, and Alfred pushed a potted plant over to keep the door from shutting. He was in oddly fitting clothes this time and though he was wearing a simple, white shirt and some jeans, he looked smarter than normally. Arthur allowed himself to discreetly watch his muscular arms flex as he stretched them while walking up to the desk.
"I'm not staying for long," he said, "I just wanted to hear about yesterday." Arthur scratched his ear.
"Oh, the date?" he asked. He glanced towards his drawers, but Alfred knocked on the tabletop to get his attention.
"It'll be totally informal. I know a good place. I'll pay it all," he promised eagerly. Arthur looked into his blue eyes. He took in a deep breath.
"It's not about the money," he started, but he was distracted as the bell rang again, and a young woman walked in. He took a step to the side to look past Alfred over at her. "Can I help you?" he asked. Her red hair had been braided on the back. When she looked over, Arthur saw shrewdness in her brown eyes.
"I'm just here with Al," she smiled. Arthur blinked and looked at Alfred. Alfred cleared his throat and turned to her.
"I'll be out in a moment."
"There are some lovely tulips out here. Do you like red?" Alfred nodded, and the woman disappeared back outside. Arthur could see her through the window as she was inspecting his box of tulips. Alfred was looking at him again.
"Who is she?" Arthur fiddled with a lock of hair by his ear before he clumsily gestured towards the woman and knocked over his glass with pencils. "Crap!" He fumbled around for the pencils, and Alfred bowed down to pick up two that fell on the floor.
"She's another astronaut," he said and handed him the pens. Arthur gave him a glare, but he couldn't even be bothered to point out the obvious. "Really, Arthur, the date-"
"I'm in." Arthur dumped the pencils back into the glass. Alfred blinked and slowly lit up in a smile.
"Really?" Arthur nodded and crossed his arms.
"Really. When will it be?"
"Uh, when do you have time?" Alfred was looking surprised and almost flustered. Arthur had no idea what to answer. He never kept to a tight schedule as he hardly ever did anything outside of work. He started looking for his notebook.
"I need to keep the shop open as normally.."
"I close at-"
"-four." Arthur looked up at Alfred who smiled gently. "I remember. How about I pick you up at nine?"
"That late?" Alfred nodded and looked secretive.
"The later the better for the place I've picked out." He placed a finger on his lips as if he wanted to keep himself quiet. Arthur raised his brows a bit and chewed on the inner of his cheek.
"Okay." He shrugged. "It's a date, I suppose." Alfred gave him a thumb up and turned to leave, but just as Arthur had taken a seat again, he swiftly turned around, leaned in and pecked his cheek gently.
"Just wear something common," he mumbled to his skin before pulling back. Arthur placed two fingers on the wet spot and blinked at him.
"Common," he repeated as if to remember it. Alfred gave him a grin before leaving the store. Arthur watched as he joined with the woman outside, and they started walking side by side down the street. He couldn't help but to get up, walk around the desk and casually stroll out the door to check up on his flowers while desperately glancing down the street. Alfred was a real charmer, he knew that by now. He was the kind to look out for.
Saturday Arthur closed his shop like usually after very little business. But instead of dressing down to his robe to sit and watch telly, he showered, shaved, brushed teeth and found himself puzzled about what to wear. He sat on the edge of his bed and stared at his closet annoyed with himself. It was easy for him to dress up for work, and when he had to shop for groceries he would cover himself up with a coat anyway, so his clothes didn't really matter. But he hardly ever dated. He didn't know what was proper for such. He wasn't one to socialise in this way.
Alfred had said common, so in the end he picked out a white, starched shirt and some black trousers. The black tie was a necessity more than a formality. He put his wallet in the back of his trousers just in case Alfred would go over the top and make him feel bad for not spending any money, grabbed his coat and sat down in the kitchen to wait. He stared at the picture of Francis on the fridge. It made him feel keen and sick at the same time.
"I'm not letting you ruin this," he whispered while staring at the photo. Obviously he got no response. Ten minutes past nine Alfred knocked on his door and invited him on a ride. His car was parked outside in the backyard.
"Are you ready?" he asked as Arthur opened the door, and Alfred wriggled with his eyebrows. He was wearing some torn jeans and a leather jacket that smelled heavily of perfume. Arthur waved his hand in front of his face as he stepped out.
"Did you use the whole bottle?" Alfred sniffed his arm.
"Is it bad?"
"I just hope you haven't picked out a crammed place," Arthur said and locked the door. As he turned back to face Alfred, he could see a glimpse of worry in his eyes and he awkwardly added: "But it's okay. Really." Alfred just nodded. Arthur bit his lower lip, tip-toed and swiftly pecked Alfred's cheek. He wasn't even sure if he touched the skin or just kissed the air. "Okay?" Alfred smiled.
"Yeah. Come." He grabbed Arthur by the hand and led him down the stairs. Arthur watched their hands as he followed. His fingers seemed swallowed up between Alfred's big, strong ones which had a firm grip around him. Though the air was getting a little chilly, he felt warm inside.
"Where are we going?" Arthur asked as was seated and Alfred jumped in. The guy smiled at him.
"To watch stars." He gestured to the back of his car while pulling out and driving back onto the road. Arthur turned to look at the backseat. He saw a basket with a bottle of wine poking up from it, and next to it was a pair of binoculars.
"It's a picnic?" he asked surprised.
"Disappointed?" Arthur shook his head, and he leaned back into his seat and watched the road.
"No," he said and rested his hands in his lap. He shortly looked down at them and smiled. "Strangely relieved, rather." Alfred laughed.
"You don't date often, hah?"
"I never date." Alfred shortly glanced at him.
"Never?" he questioned with doubt in his voice.
"I think the last time I went on a date was... Four years ago," Arthur pondered out loud. Alfred choked:
"Damn, that is never!"
"Told you." They were quiet for a bit. Arthur fiddled with his jacket while trying to come up with a subject to talk about besides flowers. Then Alfred spoke up:
"I know you don't want me asking," he said, and his fingertips slipped a bit down the steering wheel, "but… does this have anything to do with that guy? On the photos.."
"It's only fair you ask," Arthur said gently and looked at Alfred as he nodded: "Yes. Yes it does." Alfred pursed his lips and seemed curious, but he didn't ask him about it further. Arthur breathed in deeply. "We used to be boyfriends. But it was five years ago now."
"Why is he still on your wall, then?"
"..Because he's been hard to let go of." Arthur shrugged. "I know it's not logical. Especially not at my age, but… we were supposed to run the shop together. He pretty much bought it for his own money. He just couldn't stay."
"Did he have to go to war or something?" Alfred asked. Arthur snorted.
"He had to go see a lot of ladies."
"Sorry I asked."
"It's fine." Arthur could feel the awkward silence as a heavy weight on his shoulders. It was as if he could only choke up sad stories when he was supposed to be having a good time. He struggled to carry on with speaking: "He told me many fine stories and I believed in them. I was really the stupid one. But it's okay. I like my life as it is." Alfred shortly licked his lips and stopped for red. He turned to look at Arthur.
"You know - you should love it," he said, and Arthur looked into his eyes. "You have a nice shop, a fine home and now you have a handsome date." Arthur laughed and pushed his shoulder.
"You're as arrogant as ever."
"Don't I have a reason?" Alfred wriggled his brows. The light turned green, and the car behind them honked. Alfred grimaced and speeded up. "We'll be there soon," he promised Arthur who just nodded. He was in no hurry. Having told Alfred about Francis, he felt strangely at ease. He even reached over and stroked his cheek shortly.
"I appreciate it." he said. Alfred pecked his hand and smiled.
Not long after Alfred turned down a smaller road leading out of town. The asphalt soon ended, and the uneven ground made the car bump up and down. Though Arthur begged him not to, Alfred kept imitating the sound of a plane crashing and by the time the road ended in the middle of nowhere, they were both laughing loudly.
"We're here," Alfred said with a big grin and turned the engine off. Arthur looked out the window. He could see nothing but grass beneath him and stars above.
"This is a pretty good place for watching stars." He admitted, and as Alfred exited the car, he did as well. The air had turned cold and he zipped his jacket up and hugged himself while looking back down the road. In the distance he could see the lights from the town, but out here between two big fields of grass, no lights disturbed the clear sky from being studied. Arthur leaned back and looked up. Alfred joined his side shortly after holding the basket and the binoculars.
"Do you know what stars are?" he asked, and Arthur smiled silly.
"Honestly?" Alfred chuckled and led the way through the field.
"They're big balls of gas. And they're very friendly to the environment - they recycle!" Arthur snorted.
"They can't glow forever. It's like having an oil lamp. If you run out of oil, you can't keep using the lamp." Alfred stopped a few metres into the field and put the basket down. He pulled out a big blanket from it and spread it out on the ground before gesturing for Arthur to sit down. He took a seat on the edge of it, letting his feet stick outside into the grass. "When they stop working, so to speak, they let go of their material. In time it's collected into a new star. Cool, right?" Arthur smiled and nodded:
"That is neat." Alfred pulled out the wine and two glasses. He handed them to Arthur who held them while he popped the cork off of the bottle. With a smile he started filling the glasses.
"But what I like the best is that we don't know which are still there." Arthur looked at him puzzled. Alfred put the bottle back into the basket and took one of the glasses as he gestured to the sky. "It takes time for the light to reach us. What we see might already be gone in reality."
"Oh…" Arthur looked up at the sky. "That's a bit troubling, hah? That we never know."
"Well," Alfred looked at Arthur and smiled warmly, "we just have to believe in what we do know." Arthur looked at him and knocked their glasses together lightly with a chink.
"Cheers to that."
"Cheers!" Alfred emptied his glass in two, big gulps. Arthur gagged on what he'd just swallowed.
"Slow down!" Alfred put the empty glass aside and crawled over to Arthur.
"But I feel like speeding up," he said and kneeled right in front of him. Arthur felt his breath hitch as Alfred shyly placed his hand on his cheek. Despite the cold he'd managed to keep them warm. He automatically leaned into the touch. "Is it okay?" Alfred asked. Arthur put his glass down and nodded.
"Yeah, it's okay." Alfred smiled happily before leaning in close. His heavy perfume filled up the air and made Arthur feel dizzy as the man's thinner, soft lips pressed to his. It had been long since he had anyone kiss him this gently. He could taste Alfred's breath softened by the sweet wine and as the tip of his tongue wetted his lips, he could feel a shudder go down his spine, and he swung his arms around his neck to bring him closer. He wanted to feel Alfred and get his warmth and he was honestly disappointed as the man's lips slipped from his and across his cheek as he instead hugged him close.
"We can take things slow," Alfred whispered.
"Yes," Arthur agreed with a nod. They lingered in each other's arms as Alfred watched the sky and Arthur relaxed with his nose buried in Alfred's neck. A few minutes later he mumbled: "But it's okay to go on." He could feel Alfred smiling. A moment later he was on his back on the blanket, and Alfred was busy keeping him warm the best he could.
If Arthur had to believe in something he knew - then it was that he really liked what he was getting into that evening.
Arthur found that surprisingly little has changed after their encounter that evening. Alfred still popped by to help him out, and afterwards they would have tea and biscuits. But now Alfred would sometimes stay the night, or at least not leave until having kissed Arthur goodnight. There was something honest about the way he would whisper sweet words into Arthur's ear until he dozed off and he felt he didn't need to label their relationship right away. They weren't boyfriends. They were dating. But Arthur didn't know what boundaries dating set to a person.
Francis never had any boundaries. It wasn't that the man hadn't wanted any, he just couldn't control himself. He'd wanted for Arthur to have it good, and Arthur knew that. The Frenchman hadn't even complained as he kept the shop and house despite having invested little money in the project. Rather he'd shrugged it off as his own fault. But five years leave a mark and as Arthur two weeks later saw Alfred at a cafeteria with the redheaded woman from the shop, he found himself not even surprised. But he was genuinely hurt.
Arthur had been out shopping for groceries and was making his way home as he noticed Alfred outside the place alone by a table. He was just about to greet him when the woman came out carrying two cups of coffee and a slice of cake for Alfred. He hadn't been able to just walk on, but he'd been standing there staring at them while logically reasoning with himself. A man could have friends of the other gender without it meaning anything. But the way he would sometimes offer her a bit of cake on the fork made Arthur think of them as more than friends. He'd quickly walked home as he saw that happen. He didn't know how to react.
Alfred kept referring to her as his astronaut-friend. The lie made it harder on Arthur to believe him. He'd known Alfred for a couple of months by then, but still he hadn't been told his true profession, and he couldn't make sense of the way Alfred's weeks worked. Sometimes he had a lot of time on his hands, other times he was nowhere to be seen. The pattern almost reminded him too much of another golden haired man he'd once known. But he tried not to think about it.
That Monday morning he hadn't seen Alfred all weekend. He was rearranging the cactuses inside as he entered smiling brightly. "Hey," he greeted, and Arthur let him peck his lips.
"Hey there, handsome," he smiled. Alfred put his arm around his shoulder and looked at the shelves.
"You're moving it all?"
"Just a bit. I'm going to start selling some cards as well. Just small cute ones to go with the flowers." Alfred nodded and picked one of them down. It was pink and said 'Happy Birthday'.
"It's soon Ann's birthday." Arthur looked up at him.
"Who is Ann?"
"Oh, you met her. She was in the shop with me." Alfred said and put the card back up. Arthur clucked his tongue.
"Don't remember her." He lied and moved from Alfred's arm over to the check-out.
"I hang out with her a lot."
"Is that so?" Alfred could feel an annoyance hugging at his heart. He opened his top drawer and searched for something he could keep his fingers busy with.
"We're training for a mission."
"Oh, for God's sake!" Arthur smacked the drawer shut and glared at Alfred. He looked confused. "Can't you stop acting like an astronaut and be serious for once?" Alfred huffed:
"I am serious."
"Sure, we suddenly have an astronaut running around town dating a man. That sounds real!"
"It is real!" Alfred scratched his forehead. "What is up with you in all of a sudden?" Arthur slipped his fingers alongside the desk while looking away. He could still feel his heart pounding rapidly against his chest, but his immediate anger had passed. He felt silly.
"It's nothing," he mumbled.
"Arthur," Alfred said and stepped around the desk. "I don't care what you think about my work, but I am not doing anything with Ann. Okay?" Arthur glanced up at him. "I'm not a cheater." He bit his lower lip, looked down and then leaned in, his forehead resting against Alfred's chest.
"I know," he whispered. "I'm sorry." Alfred's big arms wrapped around him and the man buried his nose deep into Arthur's locks. Arthur almost felt like sobbing. "I'm just… still so new to all of this."
"I know," Alfred shushed. "I understand."
"I just don't know what to think and do." Alfred's big hands slipped up and down Arthur's back comfortingly.
"Should I stay?"
"The shop-" Arthur gestured towards the door. Alfred kissed his scalp.
"Close it for one day. I am sure it'll be okay." Arthur hesitated, but then he nodded.
"Will you nap with me?" he whispered, and Alfred laughed.
"I will nap with you," he promised. Arthur pulled forward his key and Alfred walked with him to the door as he turned off the lights and then locked it. Alfred pecked his cheek outside. He smelled nicely of shampoo. "If you want for us to be more than dating…" he began, but Arthur shook his head.
"You don't have to make me any promises," he said.
"But I want to," Alfred assured and grabbed him by the shoulders. He was smiling. "Then I don't mind being your boyfriend." Arthur could feel his cheeks go warm. He tried to look at anything but Alfred.
"Don't mind, hah?" he mumbled, "what a charmer." Alfred laughed and kissed his forehead, but soon his lips travelled down Arthur's nose and underneath it to his lips. They kissed shortly while just outside the shop. "I would love to be your boyfriend," Arthur whispered and Alfred smiled deeply.
"Come on," he said and led the way back up to Arthur's place, the promise of a nap completely forgotten.
Two days later Arthur spotted Alfred standing outside the local school in a fine suit. He stopped on his bike right next to him with a confused smile: "Alfred, what are you doing here?" Alfred turned to face Arthur and smiled surprised.
"Arthur," he greeted shortly.
"You're in a suit?" Arthur glanced from Alfred to the school. "Are you a teacher?" Alfred rolled his eyes.
"I told you, I am an astronaut."
"At a school because-?"
"I was giving a speech." Arthur leaned against the handlebars as he smiled wryly.
"Sure." Alfred looked around.
"Now isn't the best time," he said, and Arthur was about to ask why as a pair of slim arms hugged Alfred from behind, and a well-known redhead popped her head up to rest her chin on his shoulder.
"Surprise!" she chirped, "babe is here!" Then she saw Arthur. "Oh, am I interrupting?" she asked.
"No," Arthur hastily said, "seems like I am." He could feel the anger all the way to his cheeks. As he stomped the pedals, he didn't make it far before Alfred had his hand tightly holding onto the handlebar. "Let go," Arthur hissed.
"You're misunderstanding," Alfred said hurriedly.
"What is there to misunderstand?" Arthur glared back at Ann who was standing back watching them. "Babe?" he repeated.
"It's all fun and games," Alfred assured him, "she knows I am gay. You know I am gay!"
"I don't know anything!" Arthur ripped his bike free of Alfred as he stared at him disgusted. "I don't even know what you work with! And don't say astronaut-" Arthur added as Alfred parted his lips with a tired look on his face. "Standing there with a suit on. More like a businessman! …or a pimp!" He started stomping the pedals again. Alfred tried to catch up with him running.
"I am not lying!" he yelled. "Arthur!" Arthur didn't even look back. He headed straight home, parked his bike by the shop and ran upstairs. He knew what to do. He turned on his laptop and searched up the needed phone number as he grabbed his cell phone.
"Hello, Arthur Kirkland speaking," he said professionally though his body was shaking, "may I ask - do you have an Alfred Jones working for you?"
It was late at night as Arthur heard the knocking on the door. He'd fallen asleep on his sofa with his lights still on, and he blamed himself for the poor choice. Whoever walked down the street would believe that he was still awake. He sat up grumpily and sneered as the knocking just wouldn't stop. At first he'd believed it to be coming from his dream - having been drinking heavily all evening wasn't helping on his imagination - but the more he listened, the more he realised that there really was someone at his front door. He got up, but he didn't even bother to try and correct his clothes as he walked out and opened. Alfred was standing outside. He was holding a box of chocolates in his hand.
"Arthur, I'm sorry about earlier, I-"
"Spare it!" Arthur sneered and clumsily leaned up against the door as he partly closed it again. His eyebrows were knitted tightly together. "I know the truth now."
"The truth?" Alfred repeated.
"I called them."
"Those with the spaceships! Who else?" Alfred still looked confused, but then his eyes widened.
"You're not listed! All this talk, all these… lies. Of course you're not an astronaut!"
"How did you ask for me?" Alfred pressed on. Arthur tiredly bumped his forehead to the door.
"That I could be this stupid to believe you… I should've known. Men! We're all the same."
"How did you ask for me?" Alfred repeated patiently, but sternly. Arthur couldn't ignore his question this time.
"Simply!" he said, "I asked for Alfred Jones." Alfred smacked his forehead.
"I'm not listed as Alfred Jones."
"Stop it-" Arthur hushed annoyed, but as he started to close the door, Alfred put his foot in. "Go away or I'll call the police!"
"I am listed as F. Jones," Alfred said peeking in the creak. "I am listed with my middle name."
"You never told me you had a middle name!" Arthur shouted.
"But I do!" Alfred shouted back. "Please, Arthur-"
"No!" he yelled, and as he let the door slip open, he stepped out himself and pushed Alfred back up against the banister. "Enough of your lies! I am tired of being lied to and… led around by the nose!"
"No one is leading you along!" Alfred said. It made Arthur feel hopelessly tired. His head and body was hurting, his eyes had started to blurry a bit, and he felt weak as Alfred tried to put his arms around him. "No one," Alfred whispered, "please, love." Arthur slapped his cheek harshly.
"Shut up!" he yelled and backed away. Alfred had let go of him to touch his cheek surprised. He was staring at Arthur in the doorway who was glaring back at him. His face was all red, the anger in his eyes burning. "I can't do this anymore!" he shouted and ran his fingers through his hair. He shortly looked up, but then he glared back at Alfred. "Go away!" Alfred still hesitated. Arthur reached over, ripped the box of chocolates out of his hands and threw it down the stairs. "Go! I don't want to see you again!" Alfred looked down. Then, without a word, he started walking down the stairs, around the building and away. Arthur watched him until he couldn't see him anymore, then he leaned up against the door and took in a deep breath. He was shaking. "How stupid can one be?" he mumbled as he slipped back inside alongside the door. It closed behind, and he stumbled his way back to the living room to sit down.
He'd fooled himself to once again believe in someone. And once again he'd faced disappointment harshly. He leaned back into the soft sofa as he eyed the photo of Francis above his cupboard. He was getting too old for lies. "I am just getting too old," he whispered.
Alfred didn't show up again. Arthur pulled himself together and opened the shop the very same morning, but there was no sign of Alfred, and as the weeks passed by, he could only believe that the man had really listened to him and decided to leave for good. He knew he should be happy about it. Still he felt strangely empty inside.
He'd thrown out all his pictures of Francis. Even those that had taken up space in his private drawer had been trashed. He couldn't stand to keep thinking of what he'd once had but had no more. He just wanted to go back to a quiet life working at his shop and sleeping in his bed. But after three months he still hadn't gotten into the rhythm. He missed someone at night to hold and at day he needed someone to help him out in the shop. But he'd only managed to get a student to come every Tuesday to move around the boxes for five bucks each time. He tried to remind himself that he would've paid Alfred the same had the man wanted money. But still it was a great loss for his economy.
Then suddenly Alfred walked into the shop. It was a Wednesday and Arthur was closing down the place as the bell rang, and he walked from the stockroom to the front of the store. He stopped in the doorway and stared at Alfred. The man looked more mature, though it hadn't been very long he'd been gone. He was looking at the roses while scratching his cheek ponderingly. Even his clothes were the same as the very first day Arthur met him. He felt taken back in time. Then he closed the white door behind.
"Can I help you?" he asked breathless. Alfred looked at him and bit his lower lip.
"Hey..." Neither of them moved for a while. Then Alfred picked up a bouquet of red roses.
"I'm here to get these."
"Yeah." Arthur slowly walked to the check-out and reached in for some foil.
"…is it for a date?" he asked in a whisper, and Alfred nodded.
"Yes." Arthur picked out the white foil with small hearts all over. He started cutting it up. He cleared his throat.
"Maybe…" he was stuttering: "Maybe you would like a card to go with it?" Alfred shook his head.
"It's okay, I am delivering them myself." He reached inside his pocket and withdrew a picture. He dropped it in front of Arthur. He only looked at it shortly. On it there were Alfred and Ann. He looked away.
"Are you trying to hurt me?" he asked restrained.
"Look at it well." Arthur gave Alfred a nasty glare before he looked down at the photo again. That's when he noticed it - they were floating. He leaned in closer. They were wearing big, white costumes like the ones he saw on science fiction movies, and they had taken off their helmets as they were smiling and waving at the camera. They were inside some sort of ship. And floating. Arthur felt his mouth turn dry. His eyes had widened completely.
"You…" He looked up at Alfred. "You really… are an astronaut." Alfred smiled a bit.
"I told you," he whispered and shrugged.
"And… now you're going on a date." Alfred nodded. Arthur looked down at the foil. "Wow. Talk about feeling stupid." Alfred picked the photo back up while Arthur wrapped up the roses. He was working mechanically, because his thoughts were elsewhere. Alfred had never been lying. He was an astronaut. And now he had a date.
"I've been on that mission I was training for," Alfred explained and accepted the bouquet as Arthur handed it to him. "That's why I've been away… It was my first mission, so this is the first photo from up there I've been able to show you.."
"Oh." Arthur just stared at him. Alfred handed him a note and he accepted it with a little nod. "Oh… but… good luck?" he said and faked a smile. Alfred nodded and left the shop with his roses. Arthur kept watching the door even as it had closed and Alfred had disappeared down the street.
He'd thought Alfred had been the one pulling tricks on him and lying his way through their relationship. But he'd been telling the truth all along. He slowly sat down on his chair and glanced down at his hands. They were shaking. He couldn't believe what had just happened. He slowly raised them to cover his face. "Am I going insane?" he asked himself in a whisper. Then the bell rang as the door was opened. He was not in the mood for facing a customer. "Sorry, I'm closed!" Arthur yelled without even looking up, but still the person crossed the floor heavily and walked up to the desk. Arthur dropped his hands to his lap and looked up into a flood of roses. Alfred's blue eyes were shining above them.
"Do you want to go on a date with me?" He asked. Arthur blinked and slowly grabbed around the roses that were offered to him. He looked up at Alfred. The guy was smiling shyly. "I intended them for you all along, I just… I never know how to go about these things, but… I am an astronaut," he nodded. "And I am Alfred. And I am single. Gay single," he added. Arthur closed his eyes and took in a deep breath as he tried to get back up standing, but his legs just wouldn't let him. "And do you want to go on a date?" Alfred repeated.
"Stop talking so fast," Arthur whispered and softly hit Alfred with the roses. The man laughed and leaned in over the desk.
"But I have a lot to say," he said. Arthur looked into his eyes with a soft smile. He could feel his sight getting blurry.
"I know," he said and gently ran his fingers across the roses, "but we'll have plenty of time to talk in." Alfred cupped his face with his fingers. The rough fingertips dug into Arthur's softer skin.
"Is that a date?" Alfred asked, and Arthur nodded.
"My treat," he whispered and grinned up at Alfred. He felt it was about time he followed his heart instead of his logic. With Alfred it seemed like his logic came in short anyway. Alfred blew him a kiss.
"I'll pick you up at nine," he said, and Arthur nodded.
"Bring the binoculars," he said, "I want for you to show me the sky."
Note: Happy birthday, Haku! I know I am late by over a month, but when I make a gift, I want to be sure that I write on a storyline that's fitting for such. Please forgive me! I hope you enjoyed the story still this long after you've been celebrated. I popped up as an anonymous questioner on your Tumblr long ago as I tried to get you to speak about space. I don't know enough about what's around us to write about such from Alfred's point of view, but I tried to fit in elements that you mentioned you find fascinating.
The story was beta-ed by Smart-chan in here. Thank you! It's nice to be able to publish a readable piece.