(A/N): I'm having a hard time with this fic, guys. There are reasons and excuses I could give, but - just know that I am still trying to work on it. This chapter is for kurosora1984 for putting up with my wandering into her room at odd times to try and talk through some problem or other (even if she doesn't recognize it as such). She's the only reason this chapter got finished as soon as it did.
Disclaimer: Don't own it.
The kitten dragged Roxas out of sleep early the next morning – by climbing onto his chest and yowling into his face. Roxas jerked upright with a startled grunt, one hand flying to the weight dragging at the front of his shirt. He groaned when his fingers sank into soft fur; collapsing back against the headboard, he cracked an eye open far enough to glare down at his chest's sudden appendage.
"That thing's been bitching all morning."
Irritably wiping his free hand across his eyes, Roxas swung his head around far enough to scowl at Axel. The redhead was seated on his own bed, dressed in a pair of beat-up jeans and vigorously toweling his hair dry.
"So why didn't you feed it?" Roxas mumbled before succumbing to a yawn.
Axel snorted. "It's your freaking cat. You feed it."
Roxas grumbled wordlessly as the kitten meowed up at him again, its tiny claws catching in his shirt. "All right, all right," he groaned. Getting one hand around the scruff of its neck, he pulled it off of him and deposited it none-too-gently on the floor, where it immediately ran for its food bowl. Roxas pulled himself to the edge of the bed, rubbing the heel of one hand against his eye as he swung his legs to the floor and stood up.
Axel draped the towel around his shoulders as Roxas took the few steps over to the counter and picked up the can opener and a can of wet food. "You can always stick it back outside, you know," he said.
"What is it with you and cats?" Roxas grumbled as he set the metal top aside and spooned the food into the kitten's bowl. His lips tugged up in an involuntary smile as the kitten pushed its head forward, bumping against Roxas's hand as it began to scarf the food down. Roxas gave it a brief scratch behind the ears before he tossed the empty can into the garbage and stood.
He turned at the sound of rustling cloth to find Axel dropping the towel to the comforter and pulling a black t-shirt from his bag. The flames on his back flickered in an unfelt breeze as he slipped it over his head, absently running one hand through mussed red spikes. "You gonna be gone again all day?" Roxas asked, dropping back onto his own bed.
Axel dragged a dark hoodie over his head, shrugging as he shoved his arms into the sleeves. "Probably." His eyes flashed in the low lighting as he grinned. "Why? You getting bored without me already, kid?"
Roxas glared at him. "No." Axel only chuckled, retrieving his pack of cigarettes from the jeans he'd worn the day before and tapping out a fresh one, settling it between his lips as he moved toward the door. "It's just – there's nothing to do," Roxas muttered, letting his eyes slip closed for a second. When he opened them again Axel was standing at the door with his hand on the knob, head cocked at an angle, still and silent. Roxas bit his tongue as a flush began to creep up the back of his neck. "Shit Axel, I – I didn't mean it like that," he said. "It's just…you're gone all day and – and I don't have anything to do…" Axel glanced back over his shoulder at him, and Roxas trailed off, cheeks burning. "I – I could help," he finished lamely, trying to pretend that had been the point he'd been driving toward all along.
Axel regarded him silently for what felt like forever before he somehow managed a wry grin while keeping the unlit cigarette pinched firmly between his lips. "All right, Roxas," he sighed, drawing his lighter out of his pocket. He flicked it open and ducked his head to the flame until the end of the cigarette caught. "There's a job I wasn't sure I'd get around to today," he said, lifting his head and exhaling a thin plume of smoke. He snapped the lighter closed and returned it to his pocket. "If you want, you can head down and check it out. Tell 'em I sent you and it shouldn't be a problem." He glanced around before grabbing up a scrap of paper, then patted his pockets with a frown. "You got a pen?"
Face still flaming, Roxas snared his duffle bag and pulled it onto the bed with him, unzipping an outer pocket to retrieve a ballpoint pen. He tossed it to Axel, who snatched it deftly out of the air and scribbled an address on the scrap before handing both pen and paper to Roxas. He held onto the pen until Roxas glanced up. "You don't have to do this, Roxas."
Roxas frowned and tugged on the pen. "I said I'd do it."
Axel held his gaze for another moment before relinquishing his grip on the utensil. "Okay. Dress warm, kid."
"Quit calling me that," Roxas grumbled as Axel turned back toward the door. The kitten came and sat at his feet, licking its chops. "What am I supposed to do with this while I'm gone?" Roxas called after Axel's retreating back.
Axel paused in the act of closing the door, smile sharp and completely unsympathetic. "It's your cat, kid." Then the door closed and he was gone.
Roxas blew his breath out in an aggravated sigh and glanced down at the paper in his hand before he set it on the nightstand and stood up. The kitten regarded him silently from where it sat at his feet, tail twitching against its front paws. "Oh, shut up," Roxas told it as he stepped over it and headed for the bathroom.
He took a quick shower, made even quicker when the hot water ran out on him soon after he got in – he barely finished rinsing the shampoo out of his hair before he slammed the faucets off, cursing the absent redhead under his breath as he toweled himself dry and pulled his clothes on. Throwing the towel over the only open rack, he ran his fingers through his hair, frowning when it only caused his damp spikes to stick up in new, more interesting ways.
He almost tripped over the kitten when he tried to exit the bathroom. He caught himself on the door jamb, irritated expression easing as the white ball of fluff shrank away from him and meowed reproachfully. "Shit," he breathed, steadying himself before he dropped into a crouch and patted the animal awkwardly on the head. "Sorry." The kitten arched up into his touch, purring, and Roxas sighed. "What am I supposed to do with you while I'm gone?" he asked, scratching underneath its chin when it tilted its head up. The kitten only meowed at him again. "Exactly," Roxas said, bracing his hands on his thighs and pushing himself back to his feet. He glanced around the room, frustrated, dragging a hand through his hair before he grabbed his coat. He zipped it halfway up, then bent and snatched the kitten, stashing it inside. He collected the paper from the nightstand, made sure he had his room key, and stepped out the door, one hand cradling the kitten's weight.
The sun was just beginning to peek over the horizon as he pulled the door closed behind him; he couldn't suppress a shiver as he watched his breath ghost away on the chilled air. Hunching his shoulders, he turned toward the office.
Jim was ensconced behind the counter with several sheets of paper spread around him and a calculator sitting close to his right hand. He glanced up when Roxas pulled the door open, eyes widening when he saw the cat. "You can't bring that thing in here," he said, voice a low hiss. "Do you want my mom to see it or something?"
Roxas paused, shifting from one foot to the other. "I have to go," he said, striving to match the other boy's low tones. "I don't know how long I'm gonna be gone. I can't just leave it by itself."
"Just put some food and water down for it – it's a cat, it'll be fine."
"It'll get in my stuff," Roxas insisted.
Jim blew out an aggravated breath and threw a glance over his shoulder at the darkened room behind him. "Well you can't keep it here." He and Roxas glared at one another for a couple of tense moments; finally, Roxas broke eye contact and, scowling, dropped his gaze back to the kitten. Jim sighed and made a show of shuffling the papers around before glancing over his shoulder once more. "Look," he muttered grudgingly, "just stick it back in the room and I'll check on it later. If I get a chance." Roxas cut his gaze back to the other boy, but Jim was glaring at the papers spread before him, fingers flying over the calculator's buttons.
Roxas ducked his head, re-adjusting his grip as the kitten squirmed inside his jacket. "Okay." He hesitated for another second. "Thanks." Jim didn't say anything, the sound of his pen scratching across the paper filling the silence between them until Roxas cleared his throat. Jim glanced back up at him, irritation writ clearly across his features, but Roxas chose to ignore it as he thrust the scrap of paper at him. "Where do I go to find this address?"
Jim arched an eyebrow when he saw the numbers scribbled across the paper, but he only handed it back and gestured toward the door. "Go straight up the street until you hit the supermarket, then take a left. Go up a block, take a right, and it'll be on your right." He frowned. "Will you please get that thing out of here before my mom sees it?"
"Thanks," Roxas muttered as he turned back toward the door. Jim only mumbled under his breath, the sound of his fingers ticking against the calculator's buttons following Roxas out of the office.
When he reached the room he removed the kitten from his jacket and deposited it back on the floor just inside the door, crouching to scratch behind its ears. "Don't destroy the room, okay?" he muttered. It yawned in response and lay down, curling into a tight ball and tucking its nose beneath its tail. Roxas sighed and pushed himself back to his feet, taking one last glance around the room before he turned and pulled the door closed behind him.
Roxas checked the address Axel had scribbled down for him against the numbers on the building, brows settling low over his eyes as he shoved the scrap of paper back into his pockets. It was a bar – what the hell did Axel think he could do in a place like this? Frowning, he stepped up to the doors and peered into the darkened interior, cupping his hands against the glass to try and cut some of the glare. The small floor space was littered with tables, the legs of the upturned chairs atop them limned by the faint glow of a light source somewhere beyond his line of sight.
He stepped back, chewing unconsciously at the inside of his lip before he reached for the door handle. The door swung inward under his hand, and Roxas stuck his head through the opening and rapped his knuckles against the glass. "Hello?" he called tentatively. "Anyone here?"
"In the back," a woman's voice called.
Roxas stepped fully into the establishment, letting the door fall closed behind him and stuffing his hands in his jacket pockets. His sneakers squeaked against the polished wooden floor as he followed the spill of light back to an open door in the rear of the room. He paused when the voice spoke again. "You're early – I thought you weren't going to be able to make it at all today." The owner of the voice appeared in the doorway as she finished speaking, resting a case of glasses against one shapely hip and flicking her dark hair away from her forehead. Her eyes narrowed when she saw Roxas. "Who are you?" she asked, and something in the way she subtly shifted her center of balance made Roxas think she could kick his ass if she decided to.
"Roxas," he said quickly. "I'm Roxas. Axel sent me." He dug the scrap of paper out of his pocket and thrust it at her with a nervous smile. She studied his face narrowly for another moment before her gaze flicked to the piece of paper and she plucked it from his fingers, bringing it closer to her face with a frown.
Abruptly she sighed and crumpled the paper in her hand. "That idiot." She cocked her hip, shoving the paper into her pocket as she looked Roxas up and down. "Roxas, huh?" She smiled and extended a hand when he nodded hesitantly. "Nice to meet you. Mind giving me a hand?" Roxas didn't even have time to shake his head before he found the case she'd been carrying shoved into his arms, the glasses rattling in their pockets. "Take that over to the bar for me, okay? I'll just grab another…" She turned and disappeared back behind the door, leaving Roxas to blink owlishly in the sudden murkiness.
He hefted the case a little higher, getting a firmer grip before he shuffled the few steps to the side needed to set the glasses on the corner of the bar. He pushed at it, prodding it first one direction and then another before he let it be, returning his hands to his coat pockets and waiting for the woman to come back.
There was a brief surge of light as the door opened again, but the woman flicked the light switch off and swamped them in gloom once more. She slipped past Roxas with a murmured "Excuse me" and set an identical case of glasses next to his on the counter before reaching beneath the bar. Low-set bulbs flickered to life behind the counter, causing strange reflections and refractions of light amongst the bottles of liquor lining the shelves. Movements brisk and industrious, the woman whisked both cases from the counter, stowing them somewhere out of sight before she turned her attention back to Roxas; propping both elbows on the bar, she rested her chin in one hand and regarded him with a cautious smile. "So, Roxas," she said. She paused, but he only stared back at her, waiting for her to continue. She huffed a quiet laugh and shook her head. "What does that idiot think he's doing, trailing a kid like you around with him?"
"I'm not a kid," Roxas bristled, stung. "And he's taking me to Destiny Islands."
"Is that so?" She tapped an index finger against the bar before she straightened, pulling her hair back from her face. "Okay, then." She sighed at his expression, spreading her hands wide. "I didn't mean to upset you, Roxas. Just forget I said anything, okay?"
Roxas shrugged jerkily. "It's fine," he muttered, glaring at the floor.
Something flickered in her eyes for a moment before she shrugged it away. "Okay, then," she said. "Let's get started." She bent to retrieve a thick stack of flyers from below the bar, dropping them to the counter with a loud thud. "These," she announced, laying one hand on top of the pile, "are for you." Her lips quirked into a small smile when his brows knitted together in confusion. "Have you ever been flyering before, Roxas?" Roxas only blinked. "I'll take that as a no," she said. She patted the pile of papers before shoving it toward him. "Take those and stick them under every windshield wiper and in every door you see until you run out."
"O…kay," Roxas said slowly, trying to get his fingers under the bottom few papers. "Then what?"
"Then you come back here and get some more."
Roxas glanced up sharply, wondering if she was just trying to yank his chain, but there was no hint of mockery in her expression. Dropping his gaze, he finally got a grip on the entire stack and pulled it against his chest. "Okay," he muttered, turning toward the door. The woman didn't speak again, but Roxas glanced back before letting the door fall closed and found her still standing behind the bar, arms crossed as she watched him, her expression thoughtful. She smiled a little when his eyes met hers and raised a hand in a wave goodbye, which Roxas awkwardly returned before stepping back out onto the sidewalk.
He paused just outside the door, juggling the flyers from hand to hand until he managed to secure them under one arm; raking his free hand through his hair, he gazed down the street, quailing a little inside at the number of cars parked along the curb. He bit at the inside of his lip, frowning, before he blew out a noisy breath and stepped up to the nearest car, slapping the first flyer into place.
Time blurred and ran together, the world narrowing to the beat of his sneakers against the pavement and the next windshield, the next doorway. The size of the pile under his arm shrank slowly – if he'd known what sort of job Axel'd been sending him on, he thought sourly, he would've brought his headphones to help fill the empty time. His stomach rumbled from time to time, reminding him that he hadn't had enough sense to bolt down even a rudimentary breakfast before leaving the hotel. After a while his nose began to run; he muttered and cursed under his breath when he had to sniff twenty times a minute just to keep the mucus from dripping down his face.
Finally, he was down to his last few flyers. Giving himself a stern mental shake, he threw off his self-induced apathy and looked around him for the first time in nearly an hour. He had no idea how far he'd come from the bar, but nothing about his surroundings looked familiar. Heaving a sigh, he slipped the last few flyers underneath the nearest car's windshield and stuffed his hands in his pockets, leaning against the car's hood for a moment's rest.
He found himself watching the faces of the people moving past him, eyes scrutinizing every plane and pore. He wondered if any of them were really happy with their lives, actually content to live each day just like the one before, on and on until they passed away peacefully in their beds. Every day he'd remained in Twilight Town he'd felt as if another part of him was slowly dying, strangling under the pressures of what everyone else expected him to be.
He pushed himself upright with a grunt and began the trek back to the bar. He kept his head down and his eyes trained on his sneakers the entire way.
When he arrived he found the doors had been partly blocked by chairs, which had been pulled down from the tabletops to allow the woman he'd met earlier to move between them, rag and spray bottle in hand. She glanced up, pausing in the act of spritzing the nearest surface to regard him with a guarded sort of warmth as he squeezed through the gap the doors afforded him. "How'd it go?"
Roxas shrugged, straightening his jacket. "Okay."
"Why don't you sit for a minute before heading back out?" she asked, gesturing toward an upright chair. "Would you like some water? Maybe a soda?" Roxas's stomach grumbled loudly, drowning out his mumbled response, and he ducked his head as a flush raced up the back of his neck. The woman shook her head, a smile curving her lips as she pointed back to the chair. "Go on, sit." Roxas sank into the indicated chair, blushing to his hairline. "Good. Give me just one minute." So saying, she turned smartly on her heel, depositing the rag and spray bottle on the bar as she swept past it and back into the rear room.
Roxas leaned over to rest his elbows on the table, then straightened again when he remembered she'd been cleaning. Folding his arms across his chest, he slumped into himself, letting his bangs fall into his eyes as he waited for the heat in his cheeks to cool.
When the woman reappeared a few minutes later, she balanced a plate containing a large sandwich and chips on one hand and carried a glass of water in the other. Pausing beside Roxas, she slid the plate smoothly from her hand to the tabletop, setting the water glass down with a click that echoed faintly in the empty room. "There," she said, stepping back and wiping her hands against her shorts, "eat up."
Roxas straightened, reaching for the sandwich with a muttered, "Thanks."
She watched as he took a noisy bite and began to chew with fervor, then shook her head and reclaimed her rag and spray bottle. "Doesn't he feed you?" she asked indignantly.
Roxas washed a mouthful of turkey down with a gulp of water. "I just forgot to eat breakfast," he managed before shoving another bite in his mouth.
"Uh-huh." The look she shot him clearly broadcast her doubts, but she kept any further thoughts to herself, attacking the remaining tabletops with single-minded dedication.
By the time Roxas downed the final chip and sucked down the last of his water every table save his was gleaming and the room smelled of oranges. "All done?" she asked, coming to stand beside him again.
He nodded. "Yeah. Thanks, um…"
"Tifa," she supplied, smiling as she snagged his plate. "More water?" When he shook his head, she grabbed up his glass as well. He tried to rise and help, but she shooed him back into his seat. "This'll only take a moment," she said, already moving toward the back room. Roxas relented, resettling himself and heaving a full-bodied sigh as his lips turned up in a drowsy smile.
He was just beginning to doze when Tifa dropped another pile of flyers in front of him; he jerked awake and away from the table in surprise, almost tipping his chair over backward before he managed to grab the edge of the table and right himself. "Whoa – you okay?" she asked, arms hovering uncertainly, ready to catch him if he pitched backward again. "Sorry, I didn't think you were actually asleep."
"'s fine," Roxas mumbled, swiping a hand across his eyes. He eyed the pile of flyers – it was significantly smaller than the last one. "Is that it?"
Tifa nodded, keeping a wary eye on him as she stepped back and crossed her arms. "That's it," she confirmed. "Get these out and then you can come back for your pay, all right?"
Roxas nodded and pushed himself away from the table, pausing as he scratched at the back of his head. "Thanks for the food."
Tifa smiled, waving away his thanks with one hand. "Don't worry about it, Roxas. Someone has to get a decent meal in you."
"I really did just forget to eat this morning," he said.
Tifa regarded him with pursed lips before she shrugged. "Whatever you say, Roxas."
He sighed and nodded, gathering the pile of flyers under one arm and turning back toward the door. "Um…" Tifa grinned and shoved the chairs away from the entrance, holding one of the doors for him. "Thanks." He pulled a hand through his hair as she closed the door behind him, glancing down the street in the direction he'd traveled on his first trip, then turned and started along the sidewalk in the opposite direction.
Roxas only had to travel half the distance to distribute the remaining flyers, and by his watch morning had barely crept over into afternoon when he found himself at the bar for the final time. Tifa glanced up from her perch on a bar stool, then set aside the newspaper she'd been reading as she hopped down and came to meet him. "Finished?"
She nodded, holding up one finger to indicate he should wait as she walked around the bar and crouched down out of sight. When she popped back up she had one lone bill clutched in her hand. "Here you go," she said, pressing it into his hand.
Roxas blinked down at the rumpled twenty-dollar bill. "That's it?" he asked, then bit his lip.
Tifa regarded him with what might have been sympathy. "'fraid so. Axel doesn't usually bother with these little jobs – he must be really hurting for money."
"Oh," Roxas mumbled, feeling a flush creeping up his neck for what felt like the thousandth time that day.
"Listen," Tifa said, leaning forward conspiratorially. "Are you sure you don't want a sandwich for the road?"
Roxas managed a watery grin and shook his head, shoving the money into his pocket. "Thanks anyway, Tifa."
Tifa hummed in faint disapproval as she straightened, flicking her bangs away from her face. "All right. Take care of yourself, Roxas."
"Yeah. You too, Tifa." They remained in place for a moment longer, then Roxas rubbed at the back of his neck and offered her one last awkward smile before he turned and left, hand fisted around the money in his pocket.