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Last week of May

Remus eyed the list of tasks on the counter in front of him as he tied the strings of his apron behind his back: 1. prune + dehead, 2. pull overgrowns, 3. price, restock, and face, 4. sweep, 5. water. Zones - annuals, roses, houseplants. As he finished the knot and slipped the list in his pocket, Dorcas turned the corner from the greenhouse into the shop.

“Oh, hi! I didn’t see you come in,” she said as she ducked behind the counter. “I was just finishing tagging trees, a shipment came in this morning. Ran out on my last row, of course.” She reemerged with a sheet of orange plastic tagging strips, which she placed in the printer feeder below the register.

“Been busy today?” he asked. Dorcas straightened up and started clicking away on the computer, her dirt-stained fingers gliding over the keys. She shook her head easily and Remus watched as the printer roared to life.

“Nah, just getting things ready for the weekend,” she said. She grabbed the printed sheet from the tray and began tearing off the new tags along their perforations. “Frank is stocking mulch and soil so you won’t have to worry about that. I worked the vegetable plants – people are starting to transplant tomatoes and peppers this time of year, so I set a lot of those out.” Remus nodded and glanced over to the large laminated poster on the wall labeled ZONE 7 PLANTING GUIDE. “Sprout was here this morning to meet with a vendor and take in orders. She left around 11.”

“I saw the list you left for me,” he said, pulling it back out of his apron pocket. “Is there anything you didn’t get to?”

Dorcas squinted at the slip of paper and then scanned the room. Her eyes landed on the houseplants, which must have triggered a thought.

“We should probably get in more fertilizer and pest controls. Do you mind doing a count when you have time and updating the order?” She turned to the wall of clipboards hanging behind them and grabbed one. She put it on the desk and dragged her pointer finger down one of the columns on the top sheet. “And then when you’re done you can input all of these numbers into the computer and send it off. Marlene has shown you how to do that, right?”

Remus nodded and grabbed a pencil to scrawl the addition to his list. When he finished writing, he nodded again and looked up at Dorcas, who continued.

“Maybe you could do the same for the houseplants once you’ve got them restocked from what we have left on the carts. That’ll save me some time in the morning.” She grabbed another clipboard from the wall, and Remus squeezed that at the bottom of his list as well. Dorcas stacked the two clipboards and placed them next to the register for easy access. When he glanced up again, Dorcas was looking at him. After a few seconds she spoke, and the tone of her voice moved from business mode to companion mode.

“Next week marks a month since you started, right? How are you feeling about everything?” she asked, and Remus was pleased that he could answer honestly. Then again, he supposed, he would answer honestly to someone like Dorcas either way.

“Great, actually,” he said sincerely. “I haven’t needed to look at the instructions binder this week. It’s getting easier to answer the phone, too.” Dorcas nodded and smiled happily. Her face glowed with genuine pride.

“Good! And how are you doing with ID-ing plants and care instructions? I know you already had a bit of a head start coming in.” She leaned back against the counter and stuck her hands in her pockets. Remus tilted his head back and forth, considering.

“Okay, I think. I’m still learning some of the varieties, and I’ll probably have to start all over once fall shipments start coming in. But for now, I’m alright.” Dorcas hummed in agreement.

“Yeah, a lot of stuff is learn-as-you-go, especially since Sprout has her own way of getting things done. But after a season or two, everything starts to feel repetitive. ‘Same thing, different font’ or whatever. Would you feel okay if I stopped leaving those task lists for you? They’re starting to feel a little condescending,” she laughed.

“Yeah, that’s fine, I think I’m getting better with looking around and knowing what needs to be done. And when I feel empty-handed I have Marlene to tell me what to do.”

Dorcas smirked knowingly and nodded at her feet. She shoved her hands deeper into her pockets. Just as Remus clocked an almost indistinguishable blush on her dark skin the shop door banged open, in great contrast to the small trill of the shopkeeper’s bell hanging above it. Dorcas jerked upright and turned to the door, and her hand shot up to fiddle with her earring when she saw who had joined them.

“Hiya!” Marlene shouted. “I come bearing gifts!”

She nodded to the drink carrier and paper bag hanging from one hand and made her way to the register while she looped her lanyard over her neck with the other.

“Did you just come from the bakery?” Dorcas managed as she took the drinks from Marlene’s haphazard grasp. The blush had not yet left her cheeks, Remus observed. He felt rather smug, if he was being honest.

“Yes, and I absolutely scored on throw-aways,” Marlene said proudly.

She plopped the bag on the counter for them to peer in and then ducked through the storeroom door, re-emerging seconds later with her apron and beat-up garden center boots. She began swapping out various pieces of one uniform for another. Dorcas watched her sidelong while Remus took the drinks out of their carrier and identified the intended recipient of each by the names scribbled on the sides.

“Remus your teabag is in there too somewhere,” Marlene added, nodding to the bag again. “I didn’t want it to steep the whole time on the drive here.”

Marlene began tying the apron around her waist, at which point Dorcas frantically averted her gaze. Remus caught her eye and had to bite the inside of his cheek to stop himself from laughing. He slid her iced coffee across the desk slowly and with an insuppressible smirk. Dorcas glared at him as she grabbed it, fighting back a reluctant, bashful smile herself, and she shakily turned to the computer where she distracted herself by printing out more plant care instruction sheets to distribute to each of the shop zones. A moment later she was gone, taking refuge in the greenhouse, tree tags completely forgotten by the register. Remus scooped them up and slipped them in his apron, mentally adding that task to his list too.

Of everything Remus had to be grateful for over the past six months, his coworkers at Sprouts were near the top of the list. He hadn’t thought he would mesh quite so easily with the long-established family at the garden center and, as far as he could recall, it was among the first of a short but priceless sequence of Good Things that happened once spring hit. He reflected on that in moments like these, moments of banter and gentle teasing and small acts of service which he couldn’t have expected from strangers of three weeks but happened nearly every day nonetheless. He reflected on it several nights a week, too, during catch-up calls with his mother. ‘Laughter is the best medicine,’ she said every time he recounted stories from work, and Remus was miles away from any position where he could disagree, literally and emotionally.

On day two, after some of the new job adrenaline had finally burned off, he registered that Sprouts provided the same feeling of camaraderie he’d experienced in his college dorms about eight months prior. At the end of week one, Marlene had his bakery order memorized and in-hand at every shift change. He’d finally had the guts to dip his toes into the quips and wisecracks that were thrown around nearly constantly. Dorcas had cheerfully welcomed him into the ranks of “Team Introvert,” which to her glee finally outnumbered the opposition. And at his progress meeting with Sprout at the start of week three, she had asked about whether he felt his accomodations were being met in just about the most sensitive and conscientious way he thought possible.

He was still reflecting on his good fortune from the sidelines of his conversation with Marlene ten minutes later when Dorcas rejoined them, apparently now collected, with Frank on her tail. After methodically scrubbing mulch grime from his hands in the washtub, he fished a pair of forklift keys out from his pocket, hung them securely in the safe below the counter, grabbed his drink and a croissant from the bag, and gave Marlene a one-armed hug in thanks, ruffling the buzzed undercut at the nape of her neck in the same brotherly way that Remus himself had already been subject to. A half-hour later when they were sufficiently caught up on status reports and whatever else, Dorcas and Frank finally clocked out to leave Marlene and Remus to their daily closing shift, and Remus set to work on his to-do list feeling particularly high-spirited.

For the next few hours, he was only interrupted by the occasional customer, question over the phone, and call over the walkie-talkie. He worked through his list item by item, taking small breaks at intervals when he and Marlene (who was clearing the stock room of whatever inventory that could be moved to the floor) crossed paths. By the time 4pm rolled around he had already finished the majority of his list with an entire hour to close. He coiled up the hose, hung it in its respective place on the shop wall, and returned to the register to grab the clipboards to do the quick inventories Dorcas had requested.

He had just scrawled the number of in-stock spider plants in the side margin of the order sheet when two people arrived, the shop bell announcing their entry. Remus threw them a polite smile of acknowledgment, which they returned, and they made their way to his section where they started to browse the houseplants and talk amongst themselves. Remus walked back to the register, and while he inputted numbers into the order sheet he overheard bits and pieces of their conversation.

“Will they even care that you’ve got plants in your room? I don’t think I would even notice something like that,” one said.

“Well, even if they don’t notice, I enjoy them,” she said pointedly. “It’s nice to have something else around that’s living.”

Remus looked up and watched the taller of the two, a boy with long black hair, raise one eyebrow and shrug as if to say, ‘Well, if you say so.’ The other, a short, pale girl whose red hair contrasted spectacularly with her skin and the greenery surrounding them, turned to face the shelf again. She picked up a succulent in either hand.

“Which one?” she asked. The boy looked between them.

“I like that one,” he said pointing to the spikey Haworthia on the right. The girl glanced at the care tag poking out of the soil, nodded decidedly at his pick, and placed the reject back in its place on the shelf. She smiled and continued to browse, the other boy followed her through the aisle, and Remus returned to his order. A few minutes later just as he hit ‘Send’ on the order, he looked up to see the girl approaching him at the register.

“I was wondering if you can help me?” she asked meekly. She gestured over her shoulder at the boy, who was hanging back at the end of one aisle and now had two armfuls of plants in addition to the forest surrounding his feet. “I’m having trouble deciding between a few, and I don’t know enough about them to figure out which ones will be happy in my dorm.”

“Yeah, no problem,” Remus nodded and walked out from behind the register to follow. He grabbed a basket from the rack beside the counter to relieve the boy of his load. The girl glanced at his nametag as they made their way back to the aisle.

‘Remus.’” She looked up at him and smiled. “I’m Lily. Thanks so much, I’m kind of out of my element. I love plants but I’ve never really been responsible for my own before. I thought I came prepared, but...” she trailed off. Remus shook his head and gave his best customer service smile.

“No trouble at all,” he replied simply.

When they reached the aisle, Lily stopped in front of the boy, did a once-over of all plants in his arms, and took a deep breath.

“Okay,” she said on the exhale. Then she began reciting quickly, like a child reporting everything they’d learned at school that day. “So I have all west-facing windows, my dorm is on the fourth floor with no other buildings around to obstruct the light, I bought sheer curtains in case I need them, but without them I think it would be considered bright direct light near the windows and bright indirect everywhere else…? Like I said, it’s a dorm, so I don’t think I can hang anything so they’ll all live on the floor or tables. Uh…” she scrolled through her mental list of information, and Remus glanced at the boy, who was standing there still as stone staring at her with eyes wide and an expression of pure alarm, arms still full of plants. Remus laughed.

“Here, let’s put those down,” he said, unloading the largest ones from the boy’s grip first. “I just watered them, they’re probably heavy.” The boy nodded.

“Thanks.” His voice was full of relief. He helped Remus line them all up on the concrete floor in front of Lily. Remus saw him glance at his nametag, but he said nothing as they stood back up.

“You’ve decided on this one?” Remus asked, gesturing at the succulent still in her hand. He could practically see her cognizance land back on Earth.

“Oh – yeah,” she nodded quickly and took the shopping basket from Remus’ hand, depositing the plant into it and hooking the handle over the crook in her elbow. She and Remus scanned the plants sitting on the floor in front of them.

“So, you definitely have plenty of light,” he mused, working through the information she’d recited in his head. “It doesn’t sound like any of these would be absolutely wrong for the space. How many are you trying to narrow it down to today?” Lily’s mouth shifted to the side while she considered his question.

“Maybe two or three?” she said after a beat. “I think I want to make sure I can keep some easy ones alive before I go all in.” She nodded to herself, eyes still scrutinizing her options. Remus hummed in thought. The black-haired boy stood perplexed, looking between the Remus, Lily, and the plants.

“Well, like I said, all of these would do just fine with the light you have. Do you know anything about the water in your building? These two,” Remus pointed to the two on the far left, “are a bit picky. They don’t do well with unfiltered water, actually, so maybe we can eliminate them for now as long as you’re not too attached.” Lily nodded appreciatively and Remus stooped down to shift them away from the huddle.

“And you said you can’t hang any. These two,” he pointed to the ones on the far right, “are vining, so unless you keep them trimmed they’ll keep getting longer. They’ll do just fine on a table, of course, but they’ll start taking up space pretty quickly. Do you have a bookshelf or somewhere tall to keep them? Or we could look at poles for them to climb up. But in the interest of keeping things simple...” he trailed off, and Lily nodded again.

“Yeah, maybe someday, but I’ll skip them for now.” She seemed to become more relaxed with each elimination. Remus crouched down to delete them from the pool of options, too.

“Okay,” he said to the remaining four once he returned. “These will all grow upwards, they’ll do fine in bright direct and indirect light, and they’re not picky about water. Do you like one of them more than any of the others?”

“I like these two,” she said immediately, pointing to the two in the middle of the line. A Monstera and a Rubber Tree. Remus smiled.

“Great. They’re both pretty easy. Let me put these other ones back quick and we can go over care instructions.” Remus made to grab two of the discarded plants from the floor. Lily crouched to do the same to his left, and the black-haired boy on his right. When they stood, he’d turned slightly and Remus looked him square-on for the first time. A split second later, the boy did the same, and Remus found himself staring directly at his piercing blue eyes. Sky blue. Forget-Me-Not blue. How corny, his brain offered unhelpfully.

The boy’s mouth twitched into an open-mouthed smile, and Remus foraged for anything to say, anything at all. But the chip in the boy’s left front tooth monopolized the bulk of Remus’ brainpower and he honestly couldn’t come up with a word even if he had a dictionary. ‘Endearing’ floated to the front of his mind. He doubled down on his efforts.

“Were you looking for anything?” he went with. Dummy, his brain chipped in. Remus distantly hoped his self-directed grimace wasn’t misinterpreted.

“I… No, definitely not,” the boy laughed softly. Oh, and he has a soft laugh, that’s wonderful – literally shut up. Then Lily chimed in, and she swiftly became Remus’ favorite person on the planet, above all of his coworkers combined.

“Why don’t you, Sirius? Remus can help you pick out an easy one,” she said simply, obliviously, with her back toward them to move the two plants she had picked up back to their shelves. Correction, his least favorite person, further down his list than all of his coworkers combined. Remus’ gaze bore into her left shoulder and didn’t break until she turned back around. The three syllables thundered resonantly in his head, like a bass drum. Sirius.

“I – Sure. Yeah,” Remus put out. How had he gone from All-Star Plant Oracle Remus to jumpy, Day-One-At-Sprouts Remus? He looked back at Sirius (Oh. That’s how.), who was now scanning the hundreds of plants sitting and hanging around them, looking like prey surrounded. Remus hastily set his two plants in a random spot on the shelf. Then immediately regretted it, for he now had nothing to fidget with. Oh, let me just take that… He grabbed a plant out of one of Sirius’ idle hands. But the motion seemed to garner Sirius’ attention, and Remus was stuck looking at his eyes once again. Jesus Christ.

“Well, uh, where do you live?” Remus immediately wished he could swallow up the words he’d spat out. “I mean, what kind of light do you have?” he stammered. Sirius stared at him blankly.

“I don’t even know what that means,” he said and turned to Lily.

“Oh, don’t ask me,” she said defensively. “You think I ever set foot into that room before you moved in?” she laughed. Sirius snorted and nodded in understanding, then looked at his feet.

“I don’t really know, I just moved into this apartment,” he said with… was that worry? Nonetheless, Remus nodded and trudged on.

“Okay, uh… Do you have any cats? Dogs? Rats? Anything that might chew on it?” he asked. Remus could practically taste the nervousness pouring from his mouth. Lily and Sirius glanced at each other and started laughing, tension broken in an instant.

“No, the only rat moved out last month,” Sirius said merrily, and Lily laughed even harder. Sirius looked back at Remus. “Lily’s boyfriend’s old roommate,” he explained. “One of those ‘you think rooming with someone you already know will be easy as pie’ situations.” Remus nodded jerkily, still a bit confused but more than willing to move on while Lily regained her composure.

“Alright... Well, there are a few that are pretty tolerant of almost any light condition. But some of them might struggle right in front of a window, you know?” he said reasonably. He consciously tried to slow his pace to something resembling that of a person not spiraling. “If a plant isn’t from a natural environment where it gets direct sunlight, it will get sunburn just like a human.”

Sirius tilted his head as he scanned the plants once more. Remus thought he looked genuinely interested, so he went on. Back in his element. Perfect.

“See, this one,” Remus pointed at a snake plant near the end of the shelf, “will tolerate low light, like the kind of shade you might find in the corner of a room. Of course, they’re happier with more light if it’s available. But they’ll live almost anywhere, they might just grow a bit slower is all.”

“I don’t know which direction the windows face or anything,” Sirius said slowly. “My room definitely isn’t as bright as Lily’s dorm, but I don’t think it’s as dim as a corner.” Remus nodded.

“Yeah, that can matter,” he said. “An east-facing room will get gentle morning light since the sun rises in the east, whereas Lily’s dorm will get the more intense afternoon sun.” Remus paused to let him take that in and rewarded himself for his efforts by watching Sirius’ shoulders raise and lower with each breath he took. He tried to match his rhythm. Sirius’ eyes widened and he nodded in understanding, and he rocked forward and back on the balls of his feet. Watching his movement made Remus feel almost meditative, calmer than he had been through the entire duration of the conversation.

“Maybe I’ll figure all of that out first before I buy anything,” he said turning back to Remus. They were standing so close now that Sirius had to tilt his head back to look at him, and while Remus still felt a bit on edge, he was able to look Sirius in the eye while maintaining some facade of a normal breathing pattern.

“Yeah, come back next week or something,” Remus said as nonchalantly as he could manage, and he finally put down the plant he was holding and immediately replaced it with the two Lily had chosen.

They made their way to the register, where Remus printed out care instruction sheets and reviewed them with Lily. Sirius stood quietly, listening attentively, and a few minutes later he enthusiastically helped Lily choose planter pots from the wall of clay and ceramics for her picks. Sirius and Lily chatted by the register while Remus potted them up on the small wooden workbench off to the side, and Marlene wandered in and started ringing up the transaction.

As Lily worked with the card reader, Remus stole a glance at Sirius, who had his hands in his pockets and was looking back over his shoulder at the houseplant section again. Opportunely – or inconveniently, as Remus corrected himself a moment later – the May orange afternoon sun was cutting through the windows at the far wall of the shop and lit Sirius from the side. It created dramatic shadows in the angles of his face and gave the impression that his hair was made not of individual strands, but a single slab of orange-streaked obsidian. Luckily, he turned his head back around slowly, giving Remus time to avert his gaze subtly.

While Marlene wrapped things up Remus busied himself with sweeping the bits of soil that had fallen on the floor and boxing up the plants. He walked them over to the register just as the receipt printed, and his hands were once again regrettably empty. He fiddled with a seam of his apron until the pleasantries and promises to return soon were exchanged, and Sirius and Lily walked back out the shop door.

As soon as the shop bell trilled in their wake, Remus let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding, and for the next half-hour, an entire recap of the interaction projected in his head while he and Marlene worked through the closing checklist.

He only became lucid again after they locked up and said their goodbyes for the day. Remus plopped into his car and rubbed his hands across his face, where he felt something crumbly on his cheek. Broken out of his trance, he pulled his hand away to look. And then exasperatedly flipped down his visor to peer in the mirror, where he saw a streak of dark brown dirt smudged down his face from the end of his right eyebrow to just above his ear. Presumably less than there'd been originally, since so much had rubbed off on his palm.

He threw his head back against his headrest when the realization hit. Wouldn’t Dorcas have a heyday to see Remus now.