(A/N): Belated birthday fic for Suzaka, because she's awesome like that. And because our weird conversations helped inspire this fanfic. As did the fact that we all need to laugh at ourselves every once in a while. All the titles contained in this story are real, for better or worse. And I don't own them, either. Hope you like the fic, hon.
Merlin's Rare Book and Curiosity Shop was something of misnomer. For one, Merlin was no longer the proprietor of said shop. In fact, the old man had passed away peacefully in his sleep nearly fifty years prior – the store was now owned by one Dr. Ansem, who, for reasons no one quite understood but didn't care enough to question, had elected not to change the name. For another, the shop no longer housed rare books, and the only curiosities it boasted was its eclectic group of employees.
Despite these oddities, the shop remained moderately successful, employing two full-time workers and a host of part-timers from the nearby Hollow Bastion University campus. It was among these not-so-rare books and mixed company that one Zexion, assistant manager extraordinaire, passed what would turn out to be perhaps the most memorable – and downright embarrassing – few months of his life.
It started – and ended – with romance.
Zexion sighed irritably and brushed his hair out of his face as he bent over the receiving bay, transferring armloads of romance paperbacks onto the hand truck. There had to be a better way to spend forty plus hours a week – forty plus salaried hours a week, which, he reflected grimly, he never would've agreed to if he'd realized how often that plus would come into play.
Not to mention the romance novels. God, the fucking romance novels.
One of the first things Marluxia had done upon his promotion to manager – a promotion Zexion had fully expected to be his – was to put Zexion in charge of the largest, most asinine section of the store. He'd flashed a sharp-toothed grin when Zexion had tried to raise some well-founded objections, brushing the slate-haired man's arguments aside. "No one else can keep a handle on it, Zexion," he'd pointed out.
Zexion grudgingly had to admit he had a point. And while he loathed the books with every fiber of his being, their sophomoric storylines did have a formulaic quality he could appreciate. The man and woman met, had their misunderstandings – often so ridiculously transparent they strained credibility to the breaking point – engaged in the obligatory sex scene or ten, had more misunderstandings, yet finished the story hopelessly devoted to one another, and everybody who mattered had gotten their some and would never have to deal with inconvenient matters like aging and the subsequent dampening of their libidos.
It would be fair to say that Zexion was not the romantic sort.
Still, under his supervision the romance section took on a military precision. Titles were alphabetized by the author's last name, grouped by their individual sub-genres – romantic suspense, supernatural romance, historical, regency, contemporary, and the odd erotica masquerading as romance – and their sub-sub-genres. He could quote the five most recent titles from the more popular authors on demand, and the other employees knew that if Zexion ever found a title out of place among the overstock, it was punishable by cleaning the entire store, top to bottom, by one's self.
With a sigh, Zexion dumped the last armload of books onto the truck. Brushing his hair out of his face, he opened the door separating the back rooms from the store proper before pushing the hand truck through. Axel glanced back at him at him briefly as the automated bell chimed, then turned his attention back to the magazine on the counter. Zexion frowned as he swept past him.
"A little more productivity and a little less lounging please, Axel," he said stiffly. Axel rolled his eyes at him.
"There's no one here, Zexion," he muttered. Zexion closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger, trying to stave off a headache.
"You have things to do," he reminded him, shaking his hair out of his face. "You were late again." Axel smirked, returning his gaze to the magazine.
"Class ran late." Zexion lifted an eyebrow at him.
"Again?" Axel grinned, the expression sharp and completely unapologetic.
"Yep." Zexion blew out an aggravated breath.
"Fine. Please make an effort to be on time from now on."
"Sure" had been Axel's answer to the same request from the day he'd started working. Zexion still didn't know why Marluxia didn't just fire him. Shaking his head, he began wheeling the hand truck away from the counter.
"You know, Zexion, just 'cause you're not getting any doesn't mean to you have to take it out on the rest of us," Axel called after him. Zexion didn't bother dignifying the statement with a response; he wheeled the hand truck into the stacks, pausing next to the appropriate row of books, and rubbed gently at his temple.
Yes, there were plenty of other things he could be doing for forty plus hours a week.
A career as a serial killer was an increasingly attractive option.
Sighing, Zexion reached for the books.
Zexion paused, shaking his hair out his face as he turned and stared blankly at the young man standing in the center aisle. The blond flinched a little at the level gaze, but crossed his arms over his chest and pushed on. "Do you sell textbooks?"
"No." Zexion turned away from the other man, shelving the titles automatically, fingers flying as he shifted books as needed, pulling older titles from the shelf when he needed to make more room. He'd talked to Marluxia about putting up a sign about the lack of textbooks – the store was a mere two blocks from the campus, and students came in all the time.
Marluxia, of course, had ignored him.
Zexion glanced up again. The customer was still standing in the aisle, staring at him. Zexion waited for a minute, but when the blond didn't speak he frowned. "What?"
The other man shifted from one foot to another for a moment before he blew his breath out in a sigh and glanced to the side. "Forget it." He turned and disappeared toward the front of the store. Zexion spared the young man exactly enough time to wonder what the hell that had been about before he shrugged it aside and turned back to his shelving.
He'd managed another row when a resounding crash echoed through the store. Zexion froze for a moment, fingers curled around the book he'd been making room for, before he turned and sprinted toward the front of the store, visions of a personal-injury lawsuit flashing through his head.
Axel was crouched at the foot of one of the ladders, leaning over an unrecognizable lump buried under at least a shelf and a half of paperbacks. The redhead's expression was more amused than sympathetic, and Zexion made a mental note to make him read the thick packet on customer relations – again. He sat back as Zexion hurried up to them.
Axel shrugged. "He fell off the ladder – grabbed at the shelf as he went over and pulled it down after him." Zexion's eyes narrowed.
"What was he doing on the ladder?"
"Excuse me." They both blinked and glanced back at the pile of books, where the unfortunate customer had managed to free his upper body. Zexion's eyes narrowed further as the blond student who'd inquired about the textbooks waved his hands in aggravation. "Sorry to bother you guys, but do you think I could get a little help here? I can't feel my legs." Axel grinned, bent back over the young man and began shifting the remaining books away from him. The blond groaned as Axel took a hand and hauled him to his feet, pounding him on the back and smirking when the guy yelped in indignation and pain. Zexion watched them silently, crossing his arms over his chest and letting his hair fall forward into his face.
"Axel, who's watching the counter?" Axel arched an eyebrow at Zexion.
"You're kidding, right? There's no one here, Zex –"
Axel tore a hand through his hair and blew out an aggravated breath before turning and heading back to the counter. Zexion turned his gaze back to the customer. The blond had his hands stuffed in his pockets and was scuffing one toe against the carpet with an expression caught somewhere between a scowl and a pout.
"I thought I made it clear we don't have textbooks." The blond twitched and jerked his eyes up to meet Zexion's, gaze flinching away a second later.
"Yeah, sorry," he muttered. Zexion swallowed a sigh and swept his eyes across the books scattered across the floor.
"Were you looking for anything special?" Something that required clambering around on the ladder clearly marked 'For Employee Use Only'? Zexion bit back the words, reminding himself that while forty plus salaried hours a week left something to be desired, it was certainly better than unemployment. The other man shrugged and mumbled something under his breath. "I'm sorry, what?" The blond sighed and rubbed at the back of his neck.
"I said I wanted to ask about a job," he mumbled.
Zexion opened his mouth. Closed it. Pinched the bridge of his nose and heaved a loud sigh.
Oh. Oh, dear.
"You want a job." Through great force of will, Zexion managed to keep his voice level. "You've been in the store a mere –" He glanced at his watch. "– a mere fifteen minutes and have managed to create a mess that will take the better part of an hour to undue." The blond fidgeted and glanced away.
"I said I was sorry, okay?" he mumbled piteously. "And anyway, I'm the one who fell, you know, you could be a little –"
"You fell because you were where you had no business being," Zexion cut in, eyes narrowing. "The ladder is clearly marked 'For Employee Use Only' – any fool could deduce that if he were not an employee, he shouldn't be on the ladder." The blond stared at him, slack jawed, before a spark of anger appeared in his eyes. Zexion watched as he straightened, jaw clenched and hands curling into fists at his sides.
"What's your problem?" he demanded, eyes blazing. "I said I was sorry."
"You did," Zexion acknowledged, pulling his hair out of his face with a sigh. "It doesn't change the fact that you've effectively destroyed any hope of being hired." The other man stared at him for a moment before his face twisted.
"Who's your manager?" Zexion blinked at him.
"Who's your manager?" the blond repeated, resting his fists on his hips and glaring at Zexion. "You're being a complete dick, and I –"
"What's going on here? Zexion?" Zexion's heart sank as he slowly turned to stare at Marluxia. The pink-haired manager was standing beside the counter, next to a highly amused Axel. Before Zexion could respond, the blond customer stepped forward.
"Are you the manager?" Marluxia kept his gaze pinned on Zexion as he nodded, a lazy smirk slipping across his features. Zexion felt a sickly sort of horror creeping over him at the expression. The blond jabbed a finger in Zexion's direction. "I wanna lodge a complaint," he snapped. "I fell off a ladder and all this asshole's done is –"
"You had no business being on the ladder," Zexion cut in hurriedly, heart sinking even lower at the light shining in Marluxia's eyes.
"I just wanted to ask about a job!" the blond burst out, throwing his hands over his head. "But you couldn't be bothered to talk to me!"
The smile that stretched Marluxia's lips was enough to make Zexion shiver. "A job? Is that all?" Zexion took a step forward, voice a tad sharper than normal.
"No." Marluxia only spared him a second's glance before turning his attention back to the blond.
"Why not, Zexion? You've been complaining that the romance section is too much for a single person to handle." Zexion froze, tongue cleaving to the top of his mouth. Marluxia wouldn't.
The blond hesitated, eyes darting between Marluxia and Zexion. "I don't wanna work with him," he muttered, scowling. Marluxia shrugged and flicked a piece of imaginary lint off his shoulder.
"Unfortunately, it's the only area we need help with at the moment," he purred, expression deeply self-satisfied as Zexion choked on his objections. "It wouldn't necessarily be every day," he continued soothingly. Zexion wondered how the blond couldn't see that that shit-eating grin practically screamed I'm lying – badly. The blond fidgeted, tugging at the hem of his shirt. "I'll start you at ten dollars an hour," Marluxia offered, eyes glinting as Zexion managed a strangled groan.
Zexion stood still and silent, turning his thoughts idly over in his mind. If he murdered them all right now, surely there was a temporary insanity defense in there somewhere. Marluxia had been abusing his managerial privileges since his promotion, and Zexion was only human. There was only so much a man could take before his mind snapped like a cheap rubber band and –
Zexion closed his eyes and rubbed a hand over his temples. And if he swore loudly enough for his present company to catch, well – he felt it was his right.
Zexion swept his hair out of his eyes and tried to keep his eyes from straying toward the small clock set above the employee door for the fifth time. It was two forty-eight. The new employee – Demyx, he reminded himself – was supposed to come in at three for training. Zexion was holding out hope that the idiot wouldn't show up. Or better yet, show up late so that Zexion could fire him to his face. Marluxia had been unbearably smug for the past week, and it would be a wonderful opportunity to knock the irritating man down a peg.
Though knowing Marluxia, he'd find some way to make it Zexion's fault.
With a sigh, Zexion bent over the box he was currently emptying, placing newly received merchandise onto the receiving bays and breaking the boxes down to be taken out with the trash. Despite his stringent inner objections, his eyes kept straying to the clock.
Demyx walked through the door at two fifty-eight. Feeling vaguely cheated, Zexion straightened and pushed his hair out of his face, regarding the blond with a perfectly blank expression. Demyx shifted from one foot to the other uncomfortably under Zexion's gaze.
"What are you doing here?" the blond grumbled, frowning.
"I'm supposed to train you."
Demyx's frown deepened. "Why?"
Because Marluxia is a sadistic bastard and takes some sort of perverse pleasure from my pain. Zexion bit the words back with effort and shrugged. "If you don't like it, leave." Demyx's eyes narrowed as he crossed his arms over his chest. Zexion blew his breath out in aggravation before turning away from the blond and gesturing to the shelves they were standing next to.
"These are the receiving bays," he started in a monotone voice. "Anything sitting here is new and needs to be put out as soon as possible. They're grouped by section." His lip curled a little as he gestured at the overflowing romance bay. "The romance section in particular needs constant supervision."
Demyx opened his mouth, but Zexion brushed past him and into the larger of the two back rooms. "These shelves are for overstock. Older material or multiples of the same title. That's the bathroom." He pointed to the small room in the rear corner, then waved his arm at the closed door set in the adjacent wall. "And that is Marluxia's office. You are never to touch the desk or filing cabinets. It also doubles as the overstock area for oversized materials, boxed collections, and other miscellaneous merchandise that isn't easily sectionalized." Turning on his heel, he marched briskly past Demyx and pulled open the employee door, pointing to the ceiling when the automated chime sounded. "The chime must be kept on at all times during business hours." He paused and cocked his head to the side, a small smile curling his lips at Demyx's expression. "Any questions?"
Demyx's eyes narrowed. "No."
"Good." Zexion swept through the door, not bothering to look back to see if Demyx followed him. He stalked down the center aisle, pointing out each section as they passed it. "Romance. History. Biography. Performing arts. Social science. Reference. Children's."
"Cooking. Diet. Medical. Self-help. Family care. Relationships."
"You expect me to just remember all of these?" Demyx demanded, tearing his hands through his hair. Zexion allowed himself a small smirk.
"Of course not. Science fiction. Fiction. Thriller…"
Demyx trailed behind him disconsolately, hands stuffed in his pockets as Zexion rattled off section after section, making a short circuit of the store before arriving back at the counter. "Any questions?" Demyx shrugged. "Good. We'll work on the registers tomorrow." Demyx gaped at him as Zexion started to turn away.
"That's it? I came in just for that?" Zexion paused, brows knitting in confusion.
"What did you expect? You're only on the schedule for thirty minutes." Demyx's brows settled low over his eyes.
"I'm here until five," he bit out. Zexion blinked at him.
"That's not possible. Training never lasts longer than half an hour the first day –"
"I'm telling you I'm here until five!" Demyx insisted. Zexion stared at him for a moment, his stomach sinking a little more with each passing second before he turned and consulted the planner on the back counter.
Demyx Kinneas…three to five.
"So?" Demyx demanded impatiently from behind him.
Zexion managed to unclench his jaw enough for his voice to sound relatively level. "I'm sorry, but Marluxia made a mistake. I have nothing more for you to do today."
"Oh well, that's just perfect," the blond grumbled.
Zexion pinched the bridge of his nose, not bothering to bite back his heavy sigh. "Listen, could you just –"
Both men glanced up at the young woman standing behind the counter, lips turned down in a slight frown. "I'd like to buy this," she murmured, pushing a paperback over the counter.
Zexion rubbed two fingers against each temple before he glanced back over at Demyx. "Just stand there and watch, then," he grated out, moving to the register. To his surprise, Demyx only nodded and leaned against the counter with one hip, crossing his arms over his chest.
Zexion flew through the transaction automatically, barely waiting for the girl to finish saying "Thank you" before turning back to Demyx. The blond was regarding him with an expression of patience that Zexion found rankled for some reason. Frowning, he breezed past the other man and let his hair fall into his face.
"I'm sorry," he said, voice clipped. "I really have nothing else for you to do today."
Demyx regarded him silently for another moment before he shrugged, his shoulders slumping a little. "Fine." Zexion suppressed a wince as the blond slammed the employee door behind him.
Zexion's fingers flew along the shelf as he placed titles in their respective places and did his best to ignore the fumbling progress of Merlin's Rare Book and Curiosity Shop's newest employee. Demyx's tongue was sticking out of the corner of his mouth as he concentrated on trying to keep pace with his superior, but it was a hopeless task. Zexion worked at a feverish pace, his every motion practiced, fluid, and completely unconscious.
Reaching the end of his section, Zexion bent and scooped the books he'd pulled from the shelf into his arms. He spared a glance at Demyx – the blond was still concentrating on the shelf in front of him, somehow managing to tap a rhythmic beat against the books and shelve at the same time – then turned away and headed for the front counter. Larxene glanced up as he skirted a pair of browsing students and slipped behind the counter.
"How's the new kid working out?" she asked, one elegant eyebrow arched and a sardonic smile on her lips. Zexion kept his expression neutral as he shrugged.
"He hasn't destroyed anything yet."
To be truthful, Zexion was a little surprised – and disappointed – that Demyx seemed to be working out so well. He'd half expected the man to pull some stupid stunt and be back out the door within his first week. He'd even entertained himself on occasion by wondering what exactly Demyx would do that would result in his being fired. He'd been holding out for the blond to somehow injure Marluxia in the process, but as one week bled into two, Zexion grudgingly had to admit Demyx probably wouldn't be doing anything that would lead to his termination – or Marluxia's maiming – any time soon.
Stifling a sigh, Zexion swept through the door marked 'Employees Only' and into the back room, settling his armful of books on Marluxia's desk and alphabetizing them without really looking at them.
Not only had Demyx managed to avoid being fired, he was surprisingly swift. He'd mastered the ancient registers more quickly than Zexion would have believed he was capable of, and while he couldn't keep pace while shelving, he remembered a startling amount of the system Zexion had developed – a fact Zexion wasn't sure amused or annoyed him more.
When he came right down to it, working with Demyx wasn't nearly as annoying as it should've been – which was a surprisingly frustrating experience. He'd been fully prepared to hate the idiot, but Demyx refused to furbish any reason to hate him.
In fact, on his second day Demyx had taken the bull by the horns, stalking up to Zexion and offering the slate-haired man his hand. "Look," he'd sighed. "I'm pretty sure you don't wanna be working with me any more than I want to be working with you. Honestly, I think you kind of suck. A lot. But," he'd hastened to add as Zexion's brows drew together in the beginning of a frown, "there's no reason we can't tolerate each other while we're at work, right? So…truce?"
Zexion had stared at him silently for a moment, head tilted to the side and hair falling into his right eye. "At work," he'd said at last. "And not a minute longer." Demyx had grinned and nodded, and Zexion had clasped his hand before turning away from him and gesturing at the receiving bay. "We're starting here today."
Zexion was shaken out of his thoughts as the automated bell chimed, and he let his hair fall forward into his face as Demyx shouldered his way through the door, arms filled with romance novels. Zexion slid to the side as Demyx dumped his armload of books down next to Zexion's. The blond flexed his fingers with a sigh before throwing his head back and rubbing at the back of his neck.
"Do people seriously read this crap?" he muttered petulantly, lifting his arms over his head in a long stretch. Zexion shrugged.
"Romance novels account for about sixty percent of books published in any given year," he replied, frowning down at one of the titles. Demyx groaned and wiped a hand over his face.
"Are you kidding? You're telling me this –" He plucked a book from Zexion's pile, ignoring the way the slate-haired man frowned at him and waving it through the air. "– makes up sixty percent of what gets put out every year?" Zexion nodded dryly and held his hand out for the book. Demyx ignored him, grimacing at the book's cover. "Big Spankable Asses," he recited, head cocked to the side before he tossed the book back at Zexion. "You've got to be joking." Zexion shrugged and returned the book – whose cover boasted a young woman with better than half of her posterior bared – back to its pile.
Demyx scratched at the back of his head with a distracted smile, opening his mouth as if preparing to say something. He glanced at Zexion, shrugged, and closed his mouth and began helping alphabetize the remaining titles. They worked silently until Larxene poked her head through the door, cracking her gum loudly and grinning at the irritated look Zexion shot at her. "I need someone at the counter." Demyx nodded and followed her out; Zexion had a brief glimpse of the line that had formed before the door swung shut, silencing the chime. He turned his attention back to the books, filing them carefully into the overstock shelves.
It wasn't until he was locking the store later that evening that it occurred to him that those had been the most words Demyx had spoken to him at one time since he'd been hired.
And there hadn't been a single exchanged insult.
The next few weeks passed uneventfully. Demyx settled into the routine of the shop with what Marluxia smugly called "remarkable rapidity." Zexion managed not to hit the man right in the middle of his arrogant face.
Once sure that Zexion was committed to keeping to the terms of their truce, Demyx proved to be an ebullient conversationalist; Zexion found himself more than content to let the blond fill the hours they worked together filling the air with whatever topic struck his fancy. To his surprise (though as time went by his surprise became less and less) Demyx turned out to be an individual whose company Zexion could not only tolerate but could, on occasion, enjoy.
Not that he shared that information with the blond.
Marluxia never would've let him live it down.
The end of HBU's semester drew close, and Marluxia began to advertise for seasonal help over the holidays. One of the employees taken on was a diminutive blond with an icy stare named Roxas. From Roxas's first day, Axel's productivity dropped from barely there to nonexistent. One day Zexion took the boy aside and let him know he had the right to file a harassment suit against the redhead if he so desired. Roxas only stared at him, expression impenetrable, until Zexion shrugged and sent him back out to man the counter again.
The semester ended and the store was flooded with students buying last-minute gifts before returning home for the holidays. Demyx and Zexion had less time for idle conversation, and Zexion was surprised and a tad disturbed when he realized he missed the sound of the blond's chatter.
Christmas sped toward them, and with it came the store's annual Christmas Eve party. Demyx managed once again to surprise Zexion (and really, Zexion had thought he was past surprise when it came to the man) when he shoved a small, sloppily wrapped present into his hand.
"What's this?" Zexion demanded, blinking down at the rectangular package. Demyx rolled his eyes and shifted the plastic bag he'd pulled it from to his other hand.
Of course it was. The part Zexion was trying to get his brain around was that it was a present from Demyx. This hadn't been a condition set forth by their truce.
"I didn't get you anything," he finally managed, brain still whirling at a sickening speed. Demyx shrugged.
"So you'll make it up to me," he grinned, landing a shallow punch on Zexion's arm. He glanced around the front of the store, pushing himself up on his tiptoes. "You seen Axel anywhere?"
"I think he's stalking Roxas with some mistletoe."
Demyx's grin morphed into a smirk. "Ah. Well, then." He laughed and walked off, the plastic bag swinging at his side as he tossed Zexion a wave over his shoulder. Zexion watched him go silently, still trying to come to terms with the badly wrapped present clutched in his hands.
He needed to think.
Making a hasty retreat to the back rooms, he set the package on one of the receiving bays, staring at it as if he expected to spontaneously combust at any moment. Demyx had given him a present. Demyx. Had given him a present. Demyx had given him a present. No matter how often he repeated it to himself, the words didn't sound right strung together in that order. He was missing something of vital importance here.
With a thoughtful frown, he reached out and slid a finger underneath the seam where the wrapping paper met. The single piece of tape fell away with a dry rasping sound, and Zexion's eyes widened just slightly as he pushed the wrapping paper aside.
Demyx had given him a pocket-book size edition of Etiquette for Dummies.
Zexion startled himself with a bark of laughter; clapping a hand over his mouth, he tried to stifle a succession of quieter guffaws. He leaned back against the wall opposite the receiving bay, eyes resting on the obnoxious yellow cover and insultingly large font size. Beyond the door, he heard Demyx yell something that sounded suspiciously like "Jesus Christ, Axel, I think he broke your collar bone!" Seemingly of their own volition, Zexion's lips twisted up in a wry smile.
Axel came into work the day after Christmas with a black eye and his arm in a sling. Zexion arched an eyebrow, but the redhead simply smirked at him and offered no explanation. With a sigh, he stuck Axel on the registers and made sure Roxas was kept busy at the opposite end of the store for the duration of their shifts.
The day wound on slowly, and when Zexion's eyes drifted toward the clock mounted behind the counter for the fifth time, he had to admit to himself that he wasn't waiting for his shift to end; he was waiting for Demyx's shift to begin. But one o'clock came and went with no sign of the blond college student.
Maybe he just got a late start.
Maybe he's sick and forgot to call in.
Zexion brought his thoughts to an abrupt halt, his eyebrows settling low over his eyes. He was making excuses for the idiot. Zexion tilted his head forward, pinching the bridge of his nose and refusing to wonder why in the hell he'd given the blond almost an hour to show up before reporting his absence to Marluxia. His mind flashed to the present Demyx had given him two days ago. Was that supposed to have been some sort of bribe?
Jaw tightening, Zexion spun away from the counter and walked into the back room, closing the door with a little more force than was necessary. Marluxia looked up from where he was ensconced behind his desk, and the arrogant set of the man's jaw only angered Zexion further.
"Demyx didn't show up for his shift," he said bluntly, coming to stand in front of Marluxia's desk and crossing his arms over his chest. Marluxia smiled at him, and Zexion's stomach immediately dropped into his shoes.
"He went back home until after the new year," he said, eyes twinkling with an almost manic intensity. "I'm sure I mentioned that to you, Zexion."
Zexion did his best not to gape at the man. "You most certainly did not," he spit out, swiping irritably at his hair when it fell into his eyes.
"It must have slipped my mind," the pink-haired sadist said smoothly. "Things do get so hectic this time of year." For a second Zexion had an urge, as intense as it was fleeting, to tilt his head to the side and imagine he saw little yellow feathers sticking out of the corners of Marluxia's mouth – just so that he could complete the picture of the man looking like the cat who'd finally swallowed the proverbial canary. "Was that all?"
No, it wasn't all. Zexion wanted to hit the man square in his smug face, but he managed an admirably indifferent "Yes" before he spun on his heel and marched back toward the door.
Taking up his position at the counter again, Zexion let his hair fall into his face and told himself the tightness in his chest was a result of his increasingly murderous intentions toward his manager. That was all.
The next week passed in something of a blur for Zexion. He wondered if he might be coming down with the flu and took to laying his hand against his forehead at odd times, trying to determine if he had a fever. He stopped when Axel began to wonder aloud whom he was pining for.
The last of the Christmas rush ended, and the rush to return or exchange unwanted gifts began. Zexion accrued an alarming number of incidents involving voided sales and miscounted change, yet failed to work up sufficient irritation when Marluxia chastised him. He worried that his mind might finally be going, a lamentable but inevitable consequence of too long a period of time spent working under the insufferable man.
The store was closed New Year's Day, and Zexion took the opportunity to spend the day in bed, covers drawn up over his head, wondering just what the hell was wrong with him. Then Demyx walked into the store for his shift the next day, wide smile in place and full of chatter about how he'd spent his holiday, and Zexion knew.
"So did ya guys miss me?" Demyx asked, grinning broadly and poking at Axel's bruises.
"Zexion did," Axel replied, waving him off and shooting a sly smirk at the slate-haired man. "He's hardly said a word since you've been gone –"
"Axel," Zexion interrupted, secretly relieved at the steadiness of his voice, "you're staying after hours to clean the stockroom tonight."
"What?" The redhead's expression was enough to restore most of Zexion's scattered senses. "How'm I supposed to do it with one arm, Zexion?" Axel demanded, running his good hand through his hair in agitation. Feeling much more in control, Zexion only shrugged.
"You'll think of something," he said smoothly.
"You have to got to be fucking kidding me –"
"I'll help him."
Everyone turned to stare at Roxas, eyes wide. The blond scowled back at all of them, eyes flashing as he crossed his arms over his chest. "What? It's my fault he's only got the one arm."
The smile that broke across Axel's face was the most honest expression Zexion had ever seen the man wear, and he turned away with a sigh. "Fine. I expect everything to be spotless." Demyx latched onto Roxas, throwing an arm over the shorter boy's shoulders and ignoring the way he frowned up at him as he launched into a soliloquy about the healing power of love.
Zexion retreated back to the stockroom, staring unseeingly at the receiving bays as he listened to Demyx rattle on on the other side of the door. Well, this was…problematic. He jumped when the bell chimed, reaching for the romance novels in the receiving bay automatically, letting his hair fall forward into his face when he saw it was Demyx who was coming through the door.
"Roxas has promised to feed me my own intestines sometime in the near future," the blue-eyed man announced cheerfully.
"You don't seem very worried about that," Zexion pointed out, taking down another armful of books.
"It was worth it. Did you see his face?" Zexion nodded distractedly and shuffled the order of the books he was laying on the handcart. "So did I miss anything?"
Only a week of personal torment. Zexion left the words unsaid and shrugged. "Did you enjoy your vacation?" Which you didn't see fit to tell me about? He closed his eyes and rubbed at his temple. Dear God, he sounded like one of the slighted heroines found in the books he stocked.
"Yeah, it was great," Demyx grinned, expression sobering when he caught sight of Zexion's face. "Uh, sorry I didn't say I was leaving. It was sort of a last-minute thing."
"It's none of my business," Zexion said briskly, fingers tightening just slightly around the books in his hands. Demyx's smile dimmed for a moment before he shrugged and leaned forward.
"So tell the truth, Zexion – didja miss me?"
Zexion considered the question carefully, head tilted to the side. "Yes," he said finally. "I believe I did." He turned away from Demyx, privately pleased at the way the blond's face lit up. "We're starting here today."
Zexion stared at the counter, glad for the momentary lull in customers. Demyx had been back for a week, and Zexion was even more sure of the conclusion he'd come to when the blond college student had returned the day after New Year's: he was, if not in love with the affable idiot, at least very deeply in like.
Which was something of a problem.
Because, despite the alarming number of bodice rippers the slate-haired man stocked each given week, romance was not something he had ever had any personal experience with. To say he was a virgin was almost an understatement. He had, in fact, begun to wonder if he wasn't somehow completely asexual.
Yet he liked Demyx. He. Liked Demyx. He liked Demyx. No matter how many times he rolled that concept around in his mind, it refused to settle properly in any one place. It was all incredibly frustrating.
Zexion looked up to find an attractive middle-aged woman standing on the other side of the counter, shoving a large pile of Harlequin paperbacks at him. "I'd like to get these, please."
Zexion went through the motions of the sale automatically, only pausing when he reached the bottom of the pile. The very last book was not a Harlequin romance. No, it read Orgasms: How to Have Them, Give Them, And Keep Them Coming. Zexion completed the sale, handed the woman her bag, and finally allowed the scream he'd been biting back to reverberate silently through his skull.
"You should just tell him, you know."
Zexion glanced up from the paperwork spread across Marluxia's desk, blinking at the willowy blonde standing in the doorway. "Excuse me?"
Larxene's grin, already a little too feral for Zexion's taste, widened a little more as she leaned against the doorjamb and cracked her gum. "Demyx. You should just tell him you like him and proceed to screw him into the wall. I mean, it really is almost too pathetically obvious, even for me."
"I have no idea what you're talking about," Zexion returned, hoping she didn't notice the hitch in his voice.
"Sure you don't," Larxene scoffed.
"Was that all?" Zexion inquired coldly, returning his eyes to the papers in front of him.
"Sure." She turned away from him, but paused in front of the door leading to the counter. "Marly 'n' me've had sex on that desk three times since New Year's." Then, with a cheery wave, she was gone.
Zexion knew she was probably lying. In her own way, Larxene was just as sick and twisted as Marluxia. Still, he opted to finish doing the paperwork on the floor.
When Demyx arrived, Zexion was busy plastering bright orange Damaged stickers on every piece of merchandise in Marluxia's office. "Uh, hi," Demyx said, eyeing the stacks of merchandise spread across the floor. "What are you doing?"
"Sending all this back," Zexion muttered, flicking his hair out of his eyes. "Hand me that boxed set, would you?"
"Okay…" Demyx stretched to retrieve the books Zexion had indicated, handing them to the slate-haired man with obvious confusion. "Um, why are you sending all this back? There's nothing wrong with it."
Zexion carefully pressed a Damaged sticker to the set and then tossed it over his shoulder, near the other piles of merchandise quickly taking over the floor. "Discretionary returns, then," he muttered. "Hand me that atlas, please." Demyx handed him the oversized atlas with a bemused expression. "Can you stay late tonight?"
"I need your help burning this desk."
January rolled into February with little fanfare. As the last of the holiday insanity ended, it came time to let go of the seasonal help. Demyx made much of Roxas's leaving, grabbing him by the hand and wishing him a melodramatically tearful farewell, imploring him to visit often. Roxas kicked him in the shins, but there was a grudging smile on his face as Demyx howled and grabbed at his leg, hopping around on one foot and crying about his broken humerus. When Zexion pointed out that the humerus was found in the arm, Demyx recovered almost instantly.
Larxene kept trying to shoot Zexion innuendo-laden looks whenever Demyx was anywhere in his vicinity, but Zexion staunchly refused to meet her eyes. Valentine's Day rolled around, and Demyx decided the most appropriate way to celebrate was to grab the nearest Harlequin special and hop up on the counter. Clearing his throat, he flipped through the thin paperback until he found one of the love scenes, then proceeded to mock the hell out of it by reading it in a screechy falsetto. Axel laughed so hard he almost choked. Zexion retreated to the back room and clapped his hands over his ears, trying to block out the blond's breathy moans.
Spring gave way to summer, and the store's air conditioning broke down right as the city of Hollow Bastion entered the first week of a debilitating heat wave. The company responsible for the store's maintenance were apologetic, but insisted they couldn't get a repairman out to the store for at least a week. Marluxia fumed at what he saw as a personal slight, and Zexion decided a week without air conditioning was almost worth the pink-haired man's offended glower.
Until he walked into the stockroom one day and found Demyx handling the receiving with his shirt off. Now, Zexion felt it was very important to note that he did not blush. He had too much pride to blush, dammit. If there was a slight flush on his cheeks, it was a result of working all day in the stifling stacks. "What are you doing?" he demanded, grateful his voice came out strong and steady.
Demyx looked up from the box he was in the middle of opening, wiping an arm across his forehead. "Receiving," he replied, as if it should be blatantly obvious.
"I meant, why are you –" Half naked. "– that is, why did you feel the need to take your shirt off?"
"Are you kidding? I'm dying back here, Zexion."
"It's not professional," the slate-haired man protested, somewhat feebly as Demyx hauled an armload of books out of the box and the muscles in his back bunched and shifted. Zexion closed his eyes and swallowed hard, marshalling for the center of icy calm that had always been so easy to maintain.
Demyx snorted. "Customers don't come back here, and this is all I'm scheduled to do all day. Gimme a break, Zex." Zexion opened his eyes at the new moniker, then immediately wished he hadn't. Demyx's face was flushed and shiny from his exertions, and the muscles in his arms and shoulders were straining with the weight of the books he was carrying. Dear God… "You okay?" Demyx asked, throwing a glance over his shoulder. "You look a little green."
"I'm fine," Zexion got out, then hastily turned tail and fled. Yes, fled. Pride or no, there was no other word for it.
And so Zexion's torment continued for the next few weeks. Larxene and Axel took to laughing behind their hands at the dark circles that developed underneath Zexion's eyes as a result of lack of sleep. The slate-haired man went to great lengths to keep himself awake for as long as possible each night, because when he slept, he invariably dreamed of Demyx. Said dreams made working with the blond idiot very awkward, for Zexion's part. He wondered with a morbid sort of curiosity when it would all get to be too much and his mind would simply crack under the pressure of it all.
Then, one day in late summer, Demyx strolled into the store with a pretty redhead on his arm. "Guys," he beamed, giving the girl an affectionate squeeze, "this is Ariel."
"Demyx, may I speak to you in the back room?" Zexion asked.
Every head in the vicinity swiveled to stare at the slate-haired man's tone. Zexion ignored them all, stalking back to the stockroom with what was left of his dignity. The automated bell chimed as Demyx followed him. "What's up, Zexion?"
Zexion pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger and looked anywhere but at the man who had to come to star in each and every one of Zexion's recent wet dreams. "I think it's better if we don't work together any more," he said quietly. "I'm going to speak to Marluxia about changing your schedule."
"What?" Demyx stared at him, apparently truly flabbergasted. "Why?"
Well, that was the question, wasn't it? And, to his horror, Zexion realized he didn't have an answer. Well, not an answer that wouldn't humiliate him to hell and back. Because you've become the focal point of my every waking thought, and watching you walk in with that girl just about killed me. No, no that wouldn't do at all. "I'm sorry," he said instead.
"What happened to the truce?" Demyx demanded, scowling. A bitter smile curved Zexion's lips. The truce. He'd almost forgotten about it.
"Oh." He sighed and shook his hair out of his face, massaging his temples. "I see."
"I should think you'd be relieved," he continued, unable to stamp down on the feelings of hurt that burbled up in his chest. "If we don't have to work together, you don't have to worry about the truce anymore, right?"
"What are you talking about?" Demyx demanded, reaching out and spinning the assistant manager around to face him.
"I am talking about my inability to work with you because –" Zexion clamped his lips shut, eyes widening ever so slightly. He'd almost said it. Dear God, what was wrong with him?
"Because what?" Demyx demanded, eyes narrowed. Zexion couldn't help a wry smile – here they were, how many months later, right back where they'd started.
"Nothing. I'm going to speak to Marluxia, that's all. Shouldn't you be getting back to your girlfriend?"
Demyx blinked at him, some of the anger going out of his expression. "Girlfriend?"
"The girl you walked in with," Zexion reminded him dryly.
"Ariel? My cousin?"
Zexion stared at the blond-haired man. Opened his mouth. Closed it again. "Your…"
"Cousin," Demyx repeated.
"Ah." There seemed like there should be more to say. Zexion shook his head and opened his mouth, but nothing came. "Ah."
"Wait a minute." Laughter sang just underneath Demyx's words, and Zexion's stomach sank. "Is that what this is all about? You're jealous?"
"Don't be ridiculous." Zexion frowned at Demyx, but the blond's grin only widened.
"Well, it's about damn time."
"I was starting to think you'd never crack," Demyx said, smoothing his hair out of his face with both hands. "I don't think you realize the depths of your stubbornness, y'know?" When Zexion only stared at him, he shook his head and reached out and flicked his superior on the forehead. "The Christmas present, genius?"
"You got everyone a present," Zexion protested through numb lips.
"So maybe that was a little too subtle," Demyx admitted, grinning at the slate-haired man's expression. "But the shtick with the romance novel on Valentine's Day? Working shirtless for an entire day? Any of these ringing any bells for you? C'mon, I did everything short of hanging around your neck and demanding you notice me. Everyone else got it."
"You – I…what?"
Demyx heaved a melodramatic sigh and leaned his face in close to Zexion's. "Y'know Zex, for someone so smart you're incredibly dense." He closed the small space between them and touched his lips to Zexion's.
It wasn't anything like what it was supposed to be. Zexion hadn't been prepared for the kiss, and he remained stiff and unresponsive for a few seconds. Then he felt Demyx's lips curve against his and the blond cupped the back of his neck, gently tilting Zexion's head. Zexion let his eyes fall closed. He didn't know what to do with his hands – he settled for looping his arms loosely around Demyx's waist. It was clumsy and awkward, and when Demyx pried Zexion's mouth open with his tongue he found it the slightest bit repellent at first. No, it wasn't anything like what it was supposed to be.
It was perfect.
Demyx grinned at Zexion's expression as he pulled back. "I got something for you," he chuckled, spinning away and slipping through the employee door. When he came back he was carrying something in a plastic bag. "I've been waiting to give this to you for months."
Still feeling slightly unbalanced, Zexion drew a book out of the bag. Blinked. Felt his lips lift in a grudging smile. "Romance for Dummies," he read, lifting his eyes to meet Demyx's again. "How…thoughtful."
Demyx smiled and leaned in for another kiss. "Surprise, genius."