Alleyways are not precisely prime wooing territory, but James works with what he has.
"Very nice," Lily drawls, pivoting idly on her sandaled toes, sweeping an amused look around the cramped, shadowed lane between two encroaching buildings he's just unceremoniously dragged her into. Her skirt skims her knees as she spins, and she gives the umbrella hanging off her wrist an absent swing as she rotates toward him. Promptly, he thrusts the iced latte he'd brought for her at her nose. Emerald eyes blink, then she gives a delighted little laugh. Her fingers curl around the drink. She lifts it for a sip. "Mmm."
As she lowers the cup, James lowers his head.
"Ah, ah, ah!" Five fingers prod with playful firmness at his angling face. James grunts as Lily twists, giving her latte another jaunty tip. (Though does she really reckon he misses the stealthy skim she gives his hair before her fingers drop?) "None of that," she orders sternly. "We're on the clock."
"We have fifteen minutes until the clock," James argues. "And we're over a hundred paces from the florist. I counted."
"You did not count."
He hadn't done. "Google Maps it."
"No," she laughs. He is about to object further—he will go count pavement if need be—but then she's up on her toes, fingers nudging at his chin, pretty grin covering his.
It's brief and bussing and barely enough, but James still feels the familiar wash of heat spread through him. It's been three days since he's seen her—kissed her—and in full honesty, he hadn't been certain how this would all go. He'd thrown his every card upon the table Thursday night, grappling for a possibility of something he just…couldn't let go of. Not even with her reasons and rationality and resolve. Not when…this. Whatever this is. He isn't sure. He's still trying to sort it. Trying not to jump ahead of himself. Trying not to make her sand art or that winter two years ago between projects where he'd gone deep into Mario Kart. He similarly senses there are banana peels littering this particular course, easy enough to dodge with a deft hand, but he can't get so focused there that he misses the red shell coming from behind.
(God, it's been ages since he's played Mario Kart. He really ought to pick that back up.)
"C'mon," she says now, threading her arm through his. "Flower time."
"You make it very difficult to woo, you know," he complains, trudging sulkily out of the alley.
"Got to keep things interesting for you." She gives his bicep a friendly pat. "Besides, your mother's version of on-time is early. So get your professional face on."
"I've only the one face, I'm afraid."
Lily tilts up her chin, eyes narrowing in assessment.
"Suppose it'll do," she finally allows.
They are twenty paces from the florist, and he desperately wants to kiss her again.
She drops his arm as they reach the front door to the large nursery. He steps in obligingly after she swings the portal open, and the overpowering aroma of floral instantly assaults his senses, tickling his nose, making his eyes prickle. The wash of color spreads around them across various shelves and displays, and though he can't quite stop himself from mentally capturing a half-dozen angles and plays of light he might use to shoot the myriad blooms, it's instinctive more than intentional. His presence at this appointment is superfluous. He knows shit about flowers.
He sighs heavily.
"We won't be here long," Lily assures, accurately reading his exhale. "Your mother is nothing if not incredibly decisive when it comes to flowers."
James squints down at his watch. "Get us out of here by one, and lunch is on me."
"Who said anything about lunch?"
"Even professionals need to eat."
Lily almost smiles. "I'll do what I can. C'mon." She jerks her head toward the far end of the shop, and he dutifully follows.
It's a busy nursery, with pods of customers perusing the stock and a handful of employees in stately polos assisting. James weaves when Lily weaves, her navigation through the blooms letting him know she's on familiar turf. There's a long white counter at the distant rear of the space. A woman stands behind the slab, on the older side, hair a glaring shade of blond. She's wearing earrings that dangle so long they almost reach her shoulders. When she turns and spots them, she blinks.
"Lily," she says.
"Hi, Bess," Lily greets brightly. "Ready for us?"
James doesn't reckon it requires much observant power to clock the way the woman's smile goes a bit frozen, surprised, maybe even alarmed. She opens her mouth, then closes it. Tries for another smile.
"Oh." She breathes it more than says it. She is so very clearly caught off-guard, and James doesn't understand what's happening. "Lily…you…I thought—"
"You canceled," the woman blurts. "I thought you canceled the appointment?"
"Canceled the—" The play of emotions across Lily's face are almost identical to the florist's—frozen, surprised, alarmed. She steps closer. "What are you talking about? I didn't cancel the appointment."
"Your sister rang," Bess explains, slightly frantic. "Friday afternoon. Said you were using a new vendor. Elbert's. I thought…I was sorry to hear it, but—well, she insisted, so…oh, dear. I scheduled another appointment. I hadn't…it was a mistake, then? Oh, I knew I ought've rang you! But she was very clear—"
The woman continues to babble, but James tunes her out, his focus instead on Lily and the sudden ashen pallor of her face. The frozen smile had melted into a deadened line, so devoid of the teasing, confident cool he's used to from her. It's something decidedly more akin to the numbed distress in a different alley, back in SoHo, returned again.
And alleys weren't the only recurring theme.
We've never got on. It's been...worse. Since. I don't think she ever meant to work. Certainly not in events. But when my mother left the business to both of us…
With a sunken feeling, James realises he's watching one of the blocks in Lily's perilously-stacked tower topple in real-time. As her structure wobbles…fucking hell, he can't just stand there. He can't.
"Can you squeeze us in?" he interrupts Bess.
The woman's eyes fly to his, desperate and fretting. Perhaps it's merely the prospect of losing their business, but from the way her gaze keeps flickering to Lily with anxious concern, James reckons it's more. She, too, is eager to prop up the wobbly tower. They are on the same side. James instantly vows to spend buckets of pounds here.
"Yes! Maybe! I…" She glances down at the paperwork she'd been sorting when they approached. "I'm almost through. They're finalizing their order now. Fifteen minutes? Twenty?"
It's not an insignificant amount of time, but James can manage. He grabs Lily's arm, and her dull gaze drifts to his.
"Stay here," he says. "I'll waylay Mum. Distract her."
"Distract her?" Lily repeats the words like her tongue is heavy, but those emerald eyes are beginning to blink back into alertness. Her face is still pale, but her flat mouth dips in skepticism. "For twenty minutes?"
"With my mother, it's always best to have potential distraction fodder ready for deployment at all times," James assures her. "I'll tell her I'm moving to America. Or investing in crypto. She'll rant for ages."
Lily releases a little noise that could almost be a laugh, and James is instantly encouraged. In another world, he would kiss her before he leaves, a little peck of support, but apparently this face is his professional face—or at that very least, his decorous one—because he only gives her arm a small squeeze, then speeds for the door.
James does not quite subscribe to fate, but it feels like destiny when he makes it outside with about two minutes to spare before a familiar black town car pulls up to the curb. He moves to open the door before his mother can, and she blinks up at him in surprise when he immediately slides himself into the backseat beside her, closing the car door behind him.
"What's this?" Euphemia asks, eyebrows raised.
"I needed to speak with you before the flowers," James tells her. "Privately."
His mother's expression immediately goes cagey. She gives a prim sniff.
"If this is about Lily—"
"It's not about Lily," James says, but then kicks himself, as it could've been about Lily. Ought to have been. That's excellent fodder, actually. Much better than crypto, which Mum will never believe. He attempts to swerve. "Though, now that you mention it—"
"Oh, hush. Left off, haven't I?" She pats at her hair, unconcerned. "What you now choose to do with the opportunity I so thoughtfully presented you—"
"—is your own business. There. Are we through?" Euphemia scoots across the plush backseat, reaching for the door on the opposite side. "We've an appointment—"
No, we haven't. "I said it wasn't about Lily. It's something else. Something important."
Mum's hand stills on the door handle. She glances warily over her shoulder at him.
James clears his throat. Right. America it is, then.
"I'm giving plenty warning—"
James stops. No? Already?
"No," Mum says again, firmly. Sharply, actually. "If you're about to tell me you're leaving again—"
Ah, a golden segue!
"No," Euphemia repeats a third time, but this one is tinged with—James sits up. Is that…alarm? Or…angry, even? What? "You've only just returned. We've hardly had any time with you. You've hardly had any time to…to sit. To stop for even a moment. To—" She firms her lips. Goes steely and stiff. "You can't keep on this way, James. You can't."
"Keep on what way?" he asks, genuinely perplexed.
"Leaving! Running!" She's yelling now. "Why won't you let yourself settle for even a moment?"
Settle? James feels like he's utterly lost the thread somewhere. "What?"
"Always dashing off—for months on end—"
"Mum." James scowls. "That's my life. My work."
"Life isn't only work!" Euphemia cries. "Weren't you speaking with an agency?"
"IME? It's freelance." James shakes his head, shocked by this turn, by her vehemence. "Mum, I understand you miss me—"
"I'm not talking about that," Euphemia dismisses, words cool and cutting. "It's what you're missing. Does it even make you happy, all this flitting around? Or are you only displacing restlessness? Restlessness, because you never allow yourself something to settle you—something to fulfill you—all these temporary thrills, creative bursts—"
"We've all been concerned—"
"We? We, who?"
"Your father. Your brother. Remus worries—"
"You're worrying Remus with this?"
"You've been worrying Remus!" his mother shrills, unrelenting now. "Years, we've watched—hoping you'd see—you'd realise how it all drains you, leaves you anxious, unhappy—"
"Are you happy?"
At this present moment? James almost snorts. With his plan gone terribly awry and everyone he loves apparently secretly questioning his every life choice?
Oh, yes. Ecstatic.
Boom, topples one block he hadn't even realised was hanging loose from his own firmly-stacked tower.
And it was firmly-stacked…wasn't it?
In the end, James does manage to detain Euphemia for a grand total of thirteen minutes.
Bloody red shells, he thinks.