Disclaimer: Hssssss… no. Not yet. Still… biding my time. The only ownage going on for me, when it comes to Kingdom Hearts, is… Seph. Owning my ass. Which he then kicks… mercilessly (hangs head)
A/N: Hiiiiiii guyyyyyyyyssssssss. So, we're back at square one, and I'm enjoying it more than I thought I would. With two chapters left of TU, I was like, "SHIT! ALL MY CAREFUL PLANNING – GOONNNNNNNEEEEEE!" But now I'm back to evil snickering, so it's all good :D The whole reason I'm posting this now is because I suck at time management :( Still got some reviews to reply to, and I swear, I'm getting through them, but I'm moving at the most painfully slow rate – I blame the new school term :S I'm running on so little sleep it's not funny.
Okay, time: I'm easing up on the punishing schedule, especially since I'm writing two stories at once, at least to begin with – if it works out, I'll continue, if not, I'll focus exclusively on this. I'm giving myself a loose week for each chapter (incl. both stories) – not planning on using it all, but, for example, this chap took me four days. Be nice to not have to keep apologising every time that happens :D Lots of love, guys, you own big chunks of my soul (DON'T ABUSE THEM!)
PS: HAPPY BIRTHDAY NIGHTMARE FAIRY! YOU TOTALLY DIDN'T THINK I WUZ GUNNA, BUT I DIIIIIIIDDDDD!
PPS: Choose is frigging weird word. Look at it. Choose.
Darkness. Height. An ice to the air, though it was dry. It cut, cut through the black fabric, cut through the hood, cut through the gloves. It reached slowly through the material, caressed cold fingers along skin, a pretend lover's touch, before ramming deep in search of bones. It found them, in the end, clutched tight and made him shake. His hands readjusted, made sure everything was in place, a nervous gesture, unlike him. His breaths came, one puffing after another, muscle twitching under skin. Eyes pierced the black with uncanny perception, waiting for the chance to strike.
Music ran through his head, strikingly off-beat with the current situation, just another factor to make his heart constrict a little. For a long time, he stood on the edge, perched at the precipice, and gazed down, out at the world. It twinkled, it glittered, it moved, it didn't even know he was here. He was a king above it all. That's what they told him – a king. What they tried to make him believe.
It was bullshit.
It was breaking him.
He was falling apart, piece by piece.
But still he waited, to perform his lies, to perform his duty. Because this was what he did. This was what he was these days, and there was little he could do to contest it. The blood was too thick on his hands to stop now.
He paced impatiently, also not like him, not how he usually behaved. But there was this, there was this friction inside his brain, there was something up there, and it was making focus more than a little difficult. He was frustrated, held the device by his side and dug one hand under the cowl of his hood, scraped ferociously at his hair for a moment. "Fuck you," he hissed at the air, but it didn't relieve the tension building in his chest – just made it squirm, made it churn, made it the tiniest bit more uncomfortable than it already was.
He prowled, the wind blowing at the hem of his long coat, the stars burning overhead. He ignored the world around him, focusing instead on the brightly-lit window one building over, down a level, through which he could see a party taking place. A celebration, happy people, cheerful fuckers. He waited for the chance to make his move, for the right face to come into view. Alone on his rooftop, Roxas waited.
At last, he stilled, the aggravating energy fleeing abruptly, leaving him standing there on the low wall, tool touching the ground, its thinner, colder end clutched between tense fingers. He supposed that, in a way, they were right, as the face he'd been searching for came into view. It felt like sweet words designed to bloat ego, but in a twisted sort of fashion, kingliness was a reasonable description of what he was in this moment. Or – godliness.
He was frozen in place, frigid azure gaze fixed upon the one he'd been sent here to find. The wind, though it blew harder, went unnoticed. His coat swelled and flapped, but his black-clad legs, the small exposed section of his t-shirted middle beneath, remained rock-solid. The decision was here, in his hands. He held it like an egg wrapped in silken threads, fragile, valuable – disposable.
Mm. Godliness. Ridiculous, that any mortal should hold such raw power. Roxas lifted the rifle, settled the butt against his shoulder, lowered his eye to the cross-hairs, the telescopic sight to the victim. There was a silent moment, in which he brought all three together, connecting them, Roxas on the roof, the gun, the woman at the party. They each inhaled, at precisely the same time, sharing even a similar heartbeat, and suddenly he was closer to her than a whole night of desperate intimacy could have provided. It fascinated him that she didn't feel him, too.
Her heartbeat stayed steady, while his fluttered for a brief spike of adrenaline.
The window didn't break. But she did.
Sora clutched his chest, faltering, sucked in a struggled breath, eyes widening. He staggered to a halt, surrounded by bodies, lights, sweat-noise-smoke thickening the air. Up til now, he'd been having fun, had been dancing wildly, skilfully, feeling the eyes upon him, visible and otherwise. This is what Sora did, what he loved – coming out, night after night, and blowing the world away a little with his bright rush. He'd been jammed in among them, feeling the hands on his body and ignoring them, arms above his head as he swung to the throbbing beat, sucking in each polluted breath like his first and last, and luxuriating in it all. There was something untouchable about him when he was like this – okay, so, physically, the gropers were out in force tonight, but no one with a shred of decency would have dared to grab him, and no one ever spoke to him, not unless he spoke first. There was just – something about him. Something that was so vibrant, they didn't feel he'd want to know them, there were other, brighter stars out there better suited to his company. It was true, that old adage – it's lonely at the top – but Sora wasn't out to make friends, anyway.
As a result, when he stopped dancing, when he shifted off the dance-floor with a hand massaging his chest over his heart, choking, unable to catch his breath, there wasn't anyone to meet him. No one came rushing over to see if Sora was alright – they just watched, as he frowned with a brief spike of concern and went over to the bar. He wasn't well-known here, wasn't anywhere he went, since he never frequented the same club more than twice or three times a month, so when he made a drinking motion at the barkeep, the guy just stared dully at him. Frustrated, Sora bent, hiked up his pants-leg and jammed a hand into one short boot, yanking out a wad of bills. He counted off a couple fives, slipped them over the counter, shouted his order dimly above the noise, anxiously waited. He replaced the leftover money, got his ass squeezed as he bent, whipped around with a glare. It was one thing to put up with it on the dance-floor – quite another when he was innocently buying himself a drink. The guy in question smiled slyly, gave him a wink, the expression fading slightly as Sora just coldly stared. The boy turned away with disgust, found his drink waiting for him, grabbed it up and pushed his way out of the bar area, heading for the balcony.
Outside, under the stars, it was cooler, gave him space to inhale. He loved the smell of the clubs, the feel of smoke in his lungs that didn't even belong to him, but he had to admit, it was good to get out and take a break. Unmindful of the couples already out here, for the most part making-out, one pair going just the slightest bit further still, he found an unmolested corner and leaned against it, bare elbows touching the icy, rusted metal. Ice cubes clinked in his glass, condensation rolling down the sides, slick under the fatty padding of his palms, fingertips. There was a breeze blowing stiffly, shuffling his spikes silently. For the first time since the pain had stabbed him on the dance floor, Sora was able to draw a deeper, more satisfying breath. It soothed his suddenly jangling nerves, quietened him enough to allow his gaze to slide from the amber liquid in his glass down to where the traffic flowed back and forth. The constant, commonplace noise was a comfort, with the background of music and raised voices.
Sora smiled slightly, hearing a nearby moan, shaking his head a little as he took a sip of his drink. He enjoyed this life – the fast way everything happened, the instant gratification of food, beverage, company – anything you wanted, you could find on the night-circuit of Traverse Town, while all around you the city continued to move and breathe, even way past when the sensible, and then less sensible people, had given up. Sora was in a special class, all of his own – he wasn't sensible, he wasn't foolish – he just never went home. Not until unconsciousness threatened to seize him, to send him tumbling under the veil.
He felt better now. The pain was gone – he hardly remembered that it had been there in the first place. He must've just been pushing himself too hard – one song too many. This was what he'd needed to do, needed to rest, relax, take a drink, catch his breath. He was nearly ready to head back on in, resume where he'd left off. A hand slid over his shoulder, plucking at the top button of his shirt, startling him mildly. He twisted his face around, found a woman smirking into his eyes, red-painted lips spread wide. "Hi, there," she murmured, breath a minty stain of menthol cigarettes and alcohol. "Buy me a drink, cutie?"
He smiled, turned on the charm, countered, "Buy me a drink." She arched an eyebrow, lips pursing with amusement.
"Sure, if I can use your money, honey – I'm fresh out of cash."
Sora shrugged. "Then I guess I go back to dancing." He straightened, downed the last of his purchase, left the glass balancing on the rail beside the disgruntled female and headed inside. He was instantly swallowed by the pounding, the smothering atmosphere, and couldn't have been happier if he'd tried.
The hotel room was dingy, but appropriate. There was brown carpet, stained, a window covered by green curtains that looked like they'd been unhooked to wipe up cum and then restrung. The bed was, in contrast, quite clean-looking. Roxas eyed it, could idly imagine sleeping on it without too much revulsion. The alarm clock was bolted to the nightstand, the crappy black-and-white television equally burglar-proofed on the small table at the foot of the mattress. The ancient tape-player sitting above it was just made for ridiculous pornos. You'd fuck, lie there with your bare feet blocking the screen as you watched someone get pounded, then fuck some more and sleep among the mess. It's what the whole damn room was created for. Its walls had witnessed a lifetime of joie de vivre.
Mouth curling witheringly at one corner, he took the two paces from the door to the bed, dropping his duffle bag on the covers, unzipping it. He drew out his hygiene products, took them into the scummy bathroom and set them up where nothing destined to enter his mouth could touch any surfaces, while being within easy reach for the morning start. He returned to his bag, drew out a long leather belt. He paused, fingers absorbing the feel of it, running along it, testing and tasting the individual bumps and loose threads. It was old, but tough. He'd had it for a while now. Most of his belts were shorter, to suit his narrow build, but this one was special, it was his lucky charm, it was long enough for its purpose, if he ever chose to indulge.
Speaking of which, it needed setting up. One never knew when the urge could come bursting through. He didn't want to have to wait if it did, just wanted to get right in there and complete it, start to finish. He went to the closet, slid the thin door to one side, eyed the hanging bar critically. This was always the deciding moment, it chose which way his mood would flip – peaceable and smug, or pissed-off and aggravated. He reached in, wrapped his hand around the cold silver, tightened his grip til his knuckles went red with spots of white, gave it a hard wrench. It held. Brows rising thoughtfully, he gave it another sharp pull. Evidently, it was stronger than it appeared. Good enough. He relaxed, contentment flowing slowly through his veins as he got to work, looping the belt around the bar, slipping it back through the buckle and cinching tightly.
Behind him, the door opened, startling Roxas into spinning around with a jump, eyes briefly flashing wide. "I got you some of those weird things you – " A man stood there, white shirt rumpled, expression tired but eyes sharp as he stopped and stared, one hand still on the doorknob. Roxas' heart leapt a little, stomach dropping. Neither spoke. The man, wild red spikes of hair, an armful of snacks, blinked at Roxas, at the belt. "Roxas," he said at last, a blankness to his tone. "What are you doing?"
White absorbed the world, and Roxas went drifting away.
Blue eyes opened to warm, pale light, filtering through white gauze curtains, swaying gently with the breeze whispering in through the cracked-open window. The swell of air swirled around bare toes, up golden legs, dulled by boxers and a white t-shirt. Roxas frowned sleepily at the ceiling, reached up to rub his eyes slowly. One hand went down to grab a fistful of the bedding, he pulled himself up to sitting with a grunt, blinking blearily around. Faint bewilderment touched him as he took in the sights of his room, the messy ensemble of shelves pigeon-holing one wall; TV on its short cabinet, games and controllers littering the floor around it like bomb debris; the weird-ass fish lamp and flashing star the others had bought him for his housewarming party, after he'd once confessed to having a fondness for lights.
At last, his attention returned to himself, eyes falling on his open hands, palms-up, brow furrowing slightly. He murmured, "Another dream about him…" The nearby sound of the tram's bell rang out, bringing his gaze up, over to the window. A small, rueful smile appearing on his features, Roxas climbed onto his knees, stretched forward and pushed at the window, swinging it open, letting the world enter, the slow, warm wind swishing happily in. He drew a contented breath, leaning on the windowsill. It didn't matter how often he saw this view, he never tired of it, not ever, not even on his bad days. He could wake up feeling like a cold razor had taken place of his personality, and it would be warmed by Twilight Town greeting him, without fail, without fanfare, going about its daily life and allowing him to be one with it.
Dreams could wait. He had a job to get to.
Roxas emerged onto the pavement, dressed in long black shorts, a fresh white tee, flip-flops. Such were the only requirements for a twenty-one year old male in the middle of a heatwave. It shimmered up from the roads, the cement of the sidewalk, bringing a sheen of sweat to the blond's forehead. The sun burned mercilessly overhead, already baking, and it was barely eight-thirty in the morning. Man, today was going to be a killer. Roxas hoped Aerith would be kind, and not obliterate him with physical labour.
He jogged to the tramline, waited for the car to come swinging by, grabbed a bar and sprang effortlessly up onto the moving vehicle. He took a seat in among the other commuters, all of them as widely spaced as possible to avoid bare arms sticking together. He waited with elbows on knees, idly inspecting his fingernails as the car rumbled and rattled along its route, collecting a measure of the populace as it progressed. It was a good thing they all more or less got off at the same place – Roxas didn't ever feel like trying his luck at leaping off through the mass that always ended up clinging to the edges and back towards the end of the circuit. The flailing limbs and bruises would be horrific. It'd be like the three-car pile-up he'd seen on his way to live in Twilight Town all those months ago, only, very possibly, messier.
Eventually, the tram filled all the way, every poor bastard crushed between two others in the same position, misery evident in the rivulets of perspiration trickling down flushed faces. The best part of the journey was the very end, when they all poured off onto the street, the fresh air like a long, slow, cool kiss against damp, burning flesh. Roxas tipped his head back with a groan as his step jarred after the deep descent from the car, slicking the wet hair against his skull, wishing, like he did every morning, that he could bring a bottle of water along to douse himself with at this point. But Aerith would object – she was very image-conscious when it came to her employees, and if he had any chance of working in the shop today as opposed to hauling pots around the back, he'd need to keep respectable.
Feeling distinctly less fresh and energetic now than he had when leaving his apartment, the blond stamped along the final few minutes to work, trying not to melt before he could reach the air-conditioning. Stepping inside, little bell tinkling over his head, Roxas let out a loud sigh of relief, shut his eyes, spread his arms and let the cool air encase him. "I'm home," he announced rapturously.
"Dude, please – arms down. Inhaling your B.O is not on my list of shit to do today," came a grunted voice. Roxas cracked an eye, glared, kept his arms resolutely aloft, swivelling his wrist to flip off the speaker.
"You're just jealous," he informed him, "because I'm experiencing the cold, when you've already long-adjusted and are just as much of a hot bitch as ever."
The other blond, taller, rangier, but with a firm roping of muscle, flicked him a coy glance, eyelashes fluttering as he carefully lowered a heavy terracotta pot housing a rich, green fern to its plate on the shop floor. "Oh, baby, you think I'm a hot bitch? I didn't know you felt that way, Roxas."
"Roxas! Hayner!" Aerith's scolding floated from the back room. "Language!" She came out wiping her hands on a dishcloth, a displeased expression in place. "If any early customers came in, what would they think?"
"That you've got some beefy, manly guys working for you?" Hayner replied hopefully. "Everyone knows that swearing is what all the super-hot dudes do."
"Then maybe I should employ some less conceited boys, and have a suitable working environment that way," she responded archly, hands on hips.
"Or maybe," Roxas supplied, "Hayner could shut the heck up – I said heck, it's not a curse – and we could actually get to work!" He clapped his hands. "Who's with me?"
Hayner smirked, flipped his nose. "Dude, got a spot of brown, right there."
Aerith was similarly amused. "Am I to assume you'd like to work indoors today, Roxas?"
The puppy-dog look came bursting out in full force, wide eyes, pouting lower lip, unvoiced begging reaching out to whimper to the woman. She sighed, shook her head. "Well…" She smiled, a wicked glint. "Sorry. Not today."
"Aw, come on, Aerith," Roxas protested desperately. "I'll die out there!" She shrugged, floating over to the till.
"Not today, Roxas," she reiterated. "I've got a whole stack of orders in, they need to be filled and shifted, and this is why I originally hired you guys, remember?" She turned, placing her hands on the counter. "You're my labour monkeys," she added with a grin. Hayner snorted, while Roxas' puppy-dog look became more kicked.
"But, but, but! I love flowers! I want to be a florist when I grow up! Teach me, won't you? I need on-the-job training," he wailed.
Aerith flicked a hand at him, already focusing on a notepad on the counter, scribbling something down. "Get to work, gentlemen." As Roxas whined and threw himself about some more, she took pity, lifting her gaze one last time. "Tell you what – I feel like something from The Usual Spot today – you and Hayner can take a long lunch and pick me something up, okay?"
Roxas shuffled to the counter, crossed his arms on it, thudded his head down. Aerith patted his spikes. "There, there," she said lightly, sounding thoroughly unsympathetic. Roxas would've tried the tack of, 'but you don't know what it's liiiiike, it's haarrrrrd' except that Aerith did know, quite well – when the flow of business permitted it, she was out there with them, shifting pots and pouring mulch, no matter the weather. She just couldn't move them as fast, and the shop needed attending to, being one of only two florists' in the district. So instead, he glowered resentfully, stomped through the back room, out the rear exit, into the yard where Hayner had already relocated and was busy scraping the bejesus out of the paving dragging a giant pot over to the door. The cords of his neck stood out, teeth gritted, muscles like rock as he struggled. Roxas paused, watched in amusement. "You know, you could've waited for me," he pointed out, as Hayner let out a sharp breath with a curse, a muscle pulling in his lower back. The taller blond straightened, rubbing at it, hands clad in garden gloves, squinting through the light at him. "Oh, sure, waited for you to tick Aerith off. I figured, if she was going to fire someone, it'd be your sorry ass instead of mine, thank you very much. I need the cash this month." He rolled his neck, glistening with sweat. "So, you gonna help me out, or what? I'm gonna get a hernia at this rate…"
Roxas walked over to the workbench, grabbed up his rough gloves, yanked them over his skin. Over the course of the next three hours, the pair lost both their shirts and flip-flops, straining the new load of killer pots into the pink-walled shop. At some point, Aerith had turned the air-con down, letting the natural humidity of the place rise and swirl. Roxas was gasping, dripping, bent almost double as he shoved and scraped alongside Hayner. Things definitely didn't improve when the dirtier-blond decided it'd be fun to start snapping the protruding elastic of Roxas' underwear, as his shorts slid lower on his hips. A brief slap-war erupted, and was broken up by Aerith sending them out for their shirts and down the road for lunch.
It was still as hot as hell, but there was a rubbery relief at not having to be physical for a while. Simply walking felt like floating. Roxas was sure he'd be able to leave the ground like a helium balloon, go drifting off into the stratosphere.
The Usual Spot was quiet when they got there, their regular table empty, the lunch hour not quite ready to begin. It was sitting in the sun, the mosaic top hot to touch. Apparently not finished with punishing himself, Hayner sized it up, grabbed the edge of the heavy table and rammed it several inches into the shade. Roxas quickly grabbed the coolest position, flashing the outraged blond a mock-loving grin. Grumbling, Hayner took the next seat over, a shoulder sticking out into the light to be steadily burnt over the next hour.
Drawn by the noise, one of the waitresses came out, green eyes wide, brows drawn together. She pursed her lips as her gaze settled on the pair, the knuckles of one hand finding her hip, the other tapping a small order-pad against her chest. "I should've known it was you two," she dryly sighed. Both males looked up, brightened.
She spread her hands. "The one and only." She sashayed to their table, making a show of drawing out a pencil. "So, to what do I owe the pleasure, gentlemen? What brings you two half-dead-looking creatures to such a fine establishment?"
"Food. The usual, with lots of iced-water," Roxas commanded lazily, leaning back in his chair, folding his hands behind his head as his legs stretched out.
"And while we're on the subject of creatures," Hayner interjected, sounding disgruntled, "how's everything going with Seifer?"
Olette narrowed her eyes, jabbed the pencil in his direction. "Just you watch yourself, Hayner," she warned. "Seifer's good to me."
"Oh, sure he is, he's such a great guy,after all," the blond replied, a sharp edge of sarcasm lining each word.
Olette smacked him with the orders pad. Sounding irritated, she said, "I'll be back soon with your lunch." After she'd disappeared back into the café, Roxas grabbed a serviette from the silver dispenser in the middle of the hot table, balled it up, and tossed it to bounce off Hayner's forehead.
"Way to go – see if she gives us free sodas this time," the blond complained. Hayner snorted, threw it back, hitting his chest.
"She had it coming. You are such a whiner in the heat, man. What, it never got this hot where you come from?"
"Okay, yes, she did," Roxas admitted. "Seifer's an epic moron, and I don't know."
Hayner cocked an eyebrow, slumping over the table with elbows splayed, fists holding his chin. "You don't know?"
Roxas shrugged uncaringly. "Yeah, you know – these things just kind of fade from your mind. I don't know. I don't really remember."
"Psh." Hayner drummed his fingers. "Weird." Obviously bored, he leaned across, stretched, and managed to poke Roxas in the ribs. "Weirdo."
"Guys!" The pair turned, to see a beaming brunet approach the table from out of the café, camera bag hooked around his neck. "Olette told me you were out here!"
"Pence, man, what the hell are you doing here?" Hayner greeted amiably, toeing out a chair for him to sit down. "Shouldn't you be snapping pics?"
"I'm taking some of The Usual Spot," the brunet replied brightly, taking his seat and wiping the shine from his forehead. "My editor's running a piece on local restaurants, with the increase in tourists coming past from the beach." He unslung the camera, opened the bag and drew the device out, switching it on. "Here, check it out." He passed it over, and Hayner dutifully went through the collection, grunting his appreciation every now and then.
"Nice," he commented, handing it to Roxas, nudging the blond when he didn't respond, too busy with his head tipped back, eyes shut, enjoying the respite from Aerith's slave-driving. Roxas opened an eye, squinting, groaned and accepted the camera, held it up over his face and quickly flipped through the selection. "They're good," he said, the single eye taking in each image. "It's a good idea – I've seen a bunch of tourists around town. Hopefully it'll increase business."
"That's the plan," replied Pence happily. He took his camera back, tucked it away, and the three friends lounged together. At last, Olette returned, toting two plates and a brown paper bag.
"Two burgers," she recited, "and a take-away chicken sandwich."
"Olette, you have crappy taste in men, but you're a goddess in the kitchen," Hayner declared, pulling his food close. Olette glared witheringly.
"She doesn't cook it," Roxas pointed out, to which the blond shrugged, taking a large bite.
"And I already knew my taste in men was crappy," the brunette sniffed, "I hang around with you guys, after all."
"Hey, don't include me in this," Pence protested.
Roxas' hand thrust into the air a second later, voice chiming, "Seconded!"
Hayner scowled. "Your support is overwhelming, thanks so much." Olette went to get their drinks. Pence whapped him with his chicken sandwich.
"Shut up about Seifer," he urged in a low voice. "He already shit-talks us to her – you wanna lose her altogether by being the one to make her choose between him and us?"
Roxas' head lowered sharply, burger as yet untouched, the luxuriating quality dissipating fast into a frown. "Say what? Choose?"
"It's going to happen eventually," Hayner grumbled, picking some meat from his teeth.
"Yeah, no kidding," Pence replied patiently. "But who's going to look like a jerk, huh? The one that demands she choose, or the one that tells her to live her own life?"
Roxas sat forward, elbows crashing to the little, coloured tiles, eyebrows elevated. "Okay, so, back up a sec – I haven't been spacing out for that long – why was I not aware that there was some kind of power struggle going on here?"
Hayner sent him a pitying look. "Because you're a short-sighted douche?" Roxas glared, Olette returning before he got the chance to retaliate. Tall, clear glasses were set on the tabletop, ice-cubes clinking, deliciously cold, the glass frosted.
"See you guys when the check comes," Olette said, a chill to her tone.
"Can you have Aerith's usual waiting when we pay?"
Olette's gaze found Roxas, softening slightly. "Sure thing, I'll add it to her tab."
"Why don't we get a tab?" Hayner demanded, an old, worn argument.
"Because you're an unreliable ass," she snapped, sweeping back into the restaurant, leaving the three of them blinking.
"Okay, I think I'll go now," Pence said, lips pursing, eyebrows high. He saluted them shortly. "See you guys after work." He was up a moment later, loping down the sidewalk towards the newspaper building, camera bouncing around his neck. Roxas shifted onto the edge of his seat, eyes narrowed, mouth opening – was cut off by a broad hand snapping up, Hayner grunting, "Not now, Roxas. I just wanna eat my lunch, okay?"
Scowling, the blond allowed silence to develop. They ate their food quietly, ended up heading back prematurely, none of the easy laziness they'd come with lingering like it usually did. Roxas was the one to go in and pay, while Hayner sulked. He gave the money to Olette's co-worker, the brunette nowhere in sight, accepted Aerith's sandwich. Heading outside, he saw that Hayner was already up, halfway down the street. Sighing with exasperation, wondering how life had become a soap-opera when he'd been looking the other way, Roxas jogged to catch up.
Aerith was surprised to see them back so soon. Hayner, moody as ever, stalked into the back room, already stripping off his shirt in anticipation of the desperate sweating to resume. Roxas just shrugged and shook his head at the woman's questioning glance. He handed over her lunch, headed outside, found Hayner throwing himself at another gigantic pot. Figuring he'd probably end up snapping at Roxas if he tried to help, the shorter blond donned his gloves and went to the pre-potted plants and flowers, smaller, started carrying them in to set on the long shelves inside the shop. Since he was within view of the customers, he was forced to keep his shirt on, though it clung uncomfortably to his skin, unsightly stains drenching the armpits and chest. Still, no one could say he didn't work for his money.
During a lull, Aerith went out the back to check on Hayner's progress, the youth having remained silent the entire time since returning. Roxas wearily wondered at precisely what was going on. He hadn't known Hayner, Pence and Olette for more than six months, but he'd slotted into their group dynamic flawlessly. Oftentimes, it felt like he'd been as much a permanent fixture as anything else in this town, but during instances such as this, the blond was reminded of just how much of their local history he'd missed. He frowned, bending at the knee, placing a larger plant down in with its brothers and sisters, their young branches intertwining, pink flowers in various stages of decay. Taking a moment to catch his breath, Roxas knelt, twisting a couple of the pots to bring out their best side, making it so that, if Aerith returned, he'd look productive instead of slack.
A peripheral flash of motion caught his attention. Curiously, he glanced up, saw someone moving in the next aisle, glimpses evident between the vegetation. They were heading towards the counter. Surprised, not having noticed the bell ring, certain no one had been in the shop when he'd entered, Roxas straightened, wiped his forehead with a wrist. He strode along the aisle, promised the customer, "Someone'll be with you in a moment." The boy leaned against the desk, nodded faintly. Roxas passed into the back room, pushed open the door to the yard, called, "Aerith! Customer!" She came hurrying back from where she and Hayner had been conversing in low tones, nodded gratefully and swept back into the shop. Roxas went over to where Hayner stood, a dark expression on the taller blond's face, hands on his hips. "Everything cool?" he asked cautiously, figuring that, if speech had resumed, things had to be looking up. Hayner grunted.
"Gonna help me again, or do I have to hurt myself?" Roxas gave him a half-smile, slid out of his flip-flops, bare feet preparing to dig into the rough paving as they neared the end of the new collection of giant terracotta containers. After this, they'd start filling some with mulch, plant the small flowering trees Aerith had bought specifically to fit. Roxas dreaded when people started buying the monsters – the first few would be for display purposes only. Once they were purchased, the two blonds would be stuck delivering the huge pots to homes, setting them up to look the same as in the shop. It wasn't that it was too difficult, but at Aerith's, they could crunch away at the ground without fear of reprimand – customers started getting snarky if you dragged a hundred-fifty pounds of floristry over their nicely constructed gardens.
Aerith stuck her head back out, voice puzzled as she asked, "Roxas? Didn't you say there was a customer?"
He glanced up, already hunched over, knuckles whitening against the rich golden-brown stone. "Yeah," he called back shortly, a dribble of perspiration entering one eye. He reached up to scrub at it. "Some guy."
"That's funny," he heard her murmur. She shrugged, replied, "He must have left again, there's no one there."
"What?" He frowned, wiped his face. "He was at the counter, though – what'd he do, run to the exit?"
"Maybe he remembered he left the stove on," Hayner cut in impatiently. "As long as he didn't steal the register while you conveniently left him alone, I don't see a problem."
Aerith's eyes widened. "I'll just check…" she said worriedly, disappearing back inside. Roxas waited until she returned, ready to tug off his gloves and follow her, but when she reappeared, it was with a shrug and shake of the head. "Must've just darted out," she called. "Nothing obvious is missing."
"Yeah, let me know if something turns out to be gone, okay?" he requested, concerned. "I sort of got a good look at him – I could probably hunt him down."
"I'm sure it's fine," her voice floated back, the brunette already back within the air-conditioning.
"Dude, pot," Hayner said, patience at its end. Roxas rolled his eyes.
"Sure," he sighed. He grabbed the lip of the container, the pair of them gathering strength before the big initial shove. "What is it with you and pot?"
"Hardy-fuckin'-ha," the blond gritted through his teeth, as they threw themselves into it.
The end of the day approached, the sun dipping to kiss the horizon of Twilight Town, disappearing from sight behind the tall fences bordering the yard of Aerith's shop. At long last, the woman wandered out to them, donned her own set of gloves, and helped pack the mulch, making certain everything was in the right decorative position. She called a halt as blue velvet touched the sky, aching backs and arms stretching. "I'll finish up here," she offered, with a smile. "You two head home. You both did well today, I appreciate the effort."
"Hell, we appreciate the wage," Hayner muttered, yanking off his gloves and tossing them over onto the workbench. The boys grabbed their flip-flops, personal effects from the back room, pausing briefly to take turns washing their hands and splashing their faces in the small fountain in the middle of the shop, and bid Aerith adieu. Roxas' last glimpse of her was as she calmly, deftly buried the roots of a semi-mature bush into the soil, tired-out but in her element. The little bell above the door jangled, the blond making sure to lock it again from the inside before tugging it shut, the 'closed' sign knocking against the glass.
Hayner, backpack slung over one shoulder, was already heading down the road into the setting sun, forcing Roxas to quicken his step to catch up. They spent a while walking in silence, hands in pockets, Hayner's eyes fixed straight ahead, Roxas' wandering. He enjoyed this cusp-of-night journey they made together, either back to Hayner's place or parting at the tram for Roxas. In essence, they hadn't known each other long, but a rapport had quickly sprung between them, fixed them firmly as close friends after only a few short weeks. That was ancient history by now – Roxas had been in Twilight Town long enough for each day to seem as if to melt into the next. His presence had long gone from being a pleasant surprise, to being expected. He was one of them.
They headed to Hayner's apartment under tacit agreement, taking turns in the shower, washing away the grime of the day's labours. While he waited for the taller blond to finish gelling his hair up for the night's gathering at the bar near The Usual Spot, Roxas went out onto the short balcony jutting from the side of the building, dressed in the fresh, clean clothing he always kept spare at the apartment for just this sort of happenstance. He slid the glass door shut in his wake, to keep the mosquitos from entering and causing Hayner to go bugshit from the incessant, droning hum of their wings.
The good thing about Twilight Town, Roxas found, was the nightly sea-breeze. The days might be enough to turn you to sludge on the sidewalk, but the coolness of the evenings made up for it – you always knew that, if nothing else, you'd get a chance to breathe again, and relax with the disappearance of the burning sun. Hayner's apartment was on just the best side of the building to benefit from the wind that came sweeping in after five-thirty. It was nice to come out with a beer sometimes, and sit on the crates the blond had swiped from the local grocery store, talking shit until midnight, just the two of them.
Neither had really felt the benefits of having a best friend before meeting each other – Hayner had had Pence and Olette, but there was a similarity between the blonds that set them apart in their own little side-relationship, strong outside the group. Very possibly the crappy moods both were susceptible to. Nothing quite like common ground for building a friendship.
Roxas had lost count of the amount of time the two of them had slumped in one or the other of their apartments, watching mindless TV and glowering. It was different for him, though – he didn't get pissy and mean like Hayner could, like some kind of male PMS. He just – stopped feeling for periods of time. A numbness would steal through his chest, and he'd forget to react to outside stimulus. A joke would be told, and he wouldn't laugh, wouldn't even know what made it funny. A pretty girl would smile at him, and he'd stare blankly back until she wavered and moved on. Olette would have a fight with Hayner, or on occasion Seifer, and be crying buckets all over his and Pence's shoulders, and he'd not know how to handle her, be incapable of finding enough room to care enough to even offer a few empty words of solace. These episodes were rare-ish, but it definitely lumped him into the almost-jerk category with Hayner. Where Hayner could be hot-tempered, Roxas was cold, but somehow they were each able to handle the other's emotional malfunctions with aplomb. It made for company during the lifeless times, which even at the time a small section of Roxas found room to appreciate. Being alone sucked. It was scary, when you couldn't feel.
He leaned against the rail, head craned back, gazing at the pinpricks of star glittering down at the world, taking in the swirls of galaxy, feeling a sense of peace. This was what he needed – peace, above all else. It was what endeared him so strongly to Twilight Town, the unending tranquillity of the place as a whole. No matter what dramas happened in the individual lives during the daylight hours, there would always be the calm nights, the silent sky, the whispered flitting of the black shapes of birds swooping over the rooftops.
There was a sudden rapping at the door, jarring Roxas out of his reverie. He twisted, eyebrow arching at Hayner, who pulled faces through the glass, before motioning him inside. Roxas hesitated, then smiled, nodded. He joined the taller blond, the two heading out to meet the others at the bar, and Roxas couldn't have been happier if he'd tried.