"Congratulations, Roxas, on successfully securing the cushiest summer job available to a teenager in a fifty-mile radius. Short of flaking the summer away on Daddy's yacht and Daddy's money or something, but that's kind of not an option for us anyway." Axel ruffled his brother's hair cheerfully, an act that was sure to get Roxas's goat every time. "You get to spend every day on the beach, except Sunday and Monday, you're in an air-conditioned building instead of out in the hot sun, all the hot girls in their cute bikinis are coming up to you all the time, you get to learn everything you ever wanted to know about ice cream, and you get paid to do it."
Roxas only scowled at him, trying to force his hair back into some sort of order, as if that was possible. "Great. That's wonderful. I don't even know why I have it at all."
"Pure nepotism, little brother, pure nepotism. I told the boss that my kid brother needed a job, and coincidentally Larx has graduated and no longer needs hers. Therefore, you're hired." Axel was still grinning to himself as he unlocked the back door of the shop. "Stand" would have been more accurate, given the size of it; there was only room for the employees behind the counter, the stock room and walk-in freezer in the back, and the unisex outhouse that made airplane restrooms look generously sized. That last must have been required by law or something. "And while we are technically supposed to be working different shifts, overlapping between 11:30 and 2:00, since I'm not only technically the manager, but the only person available to train you, I shall be working with you for the first week or so."
"So there's nowhere I can go to get rid of you?"
"Well, there's the bathroom. But this is only for the first week, until you know what you're doing. Besides, just admit it, I'm too awesome to get away from."
"You have no idea how fondly I'm looking forward to the day you finally move out and I can have your old bedroom."
"...Okay, that was cold, got it memorized? Cold." Axel didn't look too badly hurt as he picked his way carefully through the boxes in the stock room, into the little room behind the counter, and unlocked the metal screen that protected the shop during off hours. "See, look at this. Not even a pane of glass between you and the ocean air. You get all the breezes, the conversations, the roar of the waves...God forbid it rains, though. By the way, the grill is my private domain, got it memorized? If someone tries to order something from the grill when I'm not here, tell 'em the grill doesn't open until 11:30." Roxas nodded lazily and leaned back against the counter, staring up at the wall where the T-shirts they sold were pinned up on display. "Okay, earth to Roxas. This is the part where you have to pay attention now." Roxas jerked slightly and focused his attention on Axel again as the redhead started opening up the big freezer chest between the cash registers. "We keep all the different kinds of frozen treats - to separate them from the ice cream we sell by the scoop - in their own separate compartments. That way, we don't have to dig around for an order. The sea salt is in this one here, and the rocket pops are right next to 'em, both front and center - they're our most popular."
For the next several minutes, Roxas's attention was fully absorbed with trying to take in all the various nuances of running the stand that Axel was delivering with the practiced ease of someone who'd been doing all of this for the past six summers. By the time Axel was done explaining, he remembered a grand total of four things - which bins in the freezer had the sea salt and rocket pops, which boxes had the child-size T-shirts, that he wasn't allowed to operate the grill, and...well, maybe it was only three things. While he was leaning back against the counter again, trying to sort his thoughts out into some useful order and maybe remember what that fourth thing was supposed to be, he was distracted yet again by what sounded an awful lot like guitar music. Axel hadn't mentioned a sound system in the whole spiel. Leaning out the window, he saw some guy he'd never seen before, some guy who couldn't be older than Axel, with dingy blond hair in a punk-rocker style and a T-shirt and shorts that looked like he'd been sleeping in them all week. The stranger was sitting against the wall with his eyes closed, playing guitar like he didn't have a care in the world. Not sure what to make of him, Roxas tugged gently on Axel's sleeve. "Is that anyone you know?" he asked in a low voice, so the guitarist wouldn't overhear. "And is he allowed to be here?"
Axel peered over the counter, gave the stranger a looking over, then shrugged. "No one I know," he answered in an equally low voice. "And I guess as long as he doesn't make an ass of himself, he can stay. He's good - he might be good for business." He leaned over a little further, then chuckled and punched Roxas lightly in the arm as he pulled his head back inside. "He's got the case sitting open next to him like he's hoping for tips. Now there's a summer job for you. I prefer paychecks, myself...now look sharp, little brother. We're officially open for the season."
Axel had always talked about his job like it was no more difficult than his college coursework, except he got paid to do it instead of paying for the privilege. If that was really the case, Roxas decided, he could stand to wait for college, because this was a lot more difficult than he'd been led to believe. The basic math involved in taking money and making change seemed to boggle his mind all of a sudden even with the help of the register, he still needed Axel to point out where stuff was in the chest freezer and the ice cream freezer, and now that Axel had the grill up and running, he had to take care of every single order that didn't involve anything grilled. Fortunately, since it was lunchtime, every other person seemed to want a hamburger or a hot dog or a chicken sandwich, or some combination of the three in sufficient quantity to feed a whole family. But there were still all sorts of people asking for a scoop of chocolate in a paper bowl or two of black cherry in a waffle cone or whatever that dinosaur thing was with the gumball in it plus two sea salt bars and a rocket pop...his hands felt frozen from spending so much time in the freezers, the fingers of his right hand were cramping up from using the scoop so much, the rest of him was overheating because it was hot out and he was working and the air conditioner didn't really work all that well, and it seemed like the line would never end.
And Axel thought he was doing me a favor by lining up this job...I have a bad feeling that I'm only pulling in minimum wage, to boot. If even that much.
The guitar player had been hanging around all day so far, and listening to him play helped cheer up some slow and boring hours, but Roxas couldn't hear him anymore; either he'd left or was being drowned out by the crowd. Hopefully he'd come back sooner or later; slow times got even slower without something to listen to besides Axel...of course, Roxas was technically supposed to leave and catch the bus home at 2:00. It felt like it couldn't come soon enough right now...when would he get time for lunch? He'd had a short break earlier, but before the grill was running, and besides, it wasn't like he could eat the stock...
"Hey, could I get a...um..." The hesitant, interrupted order was accompanied by rattling coins, which wasn't exactly normal - usually, people who had nothing but change had brought exact change because they already knew what they wanted, and people who didn't know what they wanted brought bills. Roxas actually looked at this customer, and was surprised to see the guitar player, his instrument now slung over his back, carefully counting a handful of change. He kept looking up at the menu, too, as if he was checking to see what he had enough money for. It was probably his accumulated tip money. Was he honestly going to spend it all here? His parents must be paying all his real expenses... "A hot dog," the musician finally declared, almost triumphantly, as if he was proud to have earned so much. Well, hot dogs were 3.25, which seemed pretty steep even to Roxas, but still, it wasn't all that much. Why didn't he, say, bring some money from home with him when he came, so he could afford to eat something without having to rely on other people's generosity?
At any rate, he couldn't fill the musician's order, just handle his money. "Do you want a drink or a bag of chips with that?" he asked him, and added to Axel, "Need another hot dog."
The musician frowned regretfully at his little pile of change, as if he really did want the extras but didn't have the money for them. "No, just the hot dog," he said finally, in such a soft voice Roxas had to strain a bit to hear him. "That's all."
"...All right, then, that'll be 3.25." The musician carefully counted out exact change and handed it over, leaving him with only a dime and a few pennies, as Axel set yet another freshly grilled hot dog on the counter for him. "Thank you. Have a nice day." For some reason, the words Roxas had been rather mindlessly repeating all day actually seemed to mean something this time. Something was definitely up with the musician; for all he'd looked utterly carefree and content while he sat by the wall and played, without the guitar in his hands, he looked strangely anxious and vulnerable. And he wolfed the hot dog down in...probably less time than it had taken to cook it, and looked like he'd cheerfully eat another two if he could pay for them.
"Hey! Ground control to Major Tom! You still in there, Roxas?" Roxas shook his head, firmly jarred back to reality by his brother's sharp words. "You don't get to take off for another 45 minutes! So stay here mentally too!"
All right. That had been a bit of a rude awakening, but Axel was nothing if not blunt. "All right, um, what would you like?" he asked the next pair of customers, two giggling girls about his own age, exactly the sort of customer Axel had touted as a positive of the job. They were cute, but...somehow, that just didn't seem all that important right now. He just wanted work to be over with.
The week seemed to blow straight by, or at least the time Roxas spent at work. Once he started to get the hang of it, it was a lot easier than he'd thought it would be when he'd started working; by Saturday, he hadn't needed nearly as many pointers from Axel to get the job done as he had on Tuesday (though that hadn't stopped Axel from dishing them out). He was actually starting to feel confident in his ability to do the work he was supposed to be doing, without relying on Axel to tell him how every time.
It was Tuesday again, and all his confidence had been left at home with Axel. Today, he was going to open the stand and run it by himself for two and a half hours, until Axel's shift actually started. No matter how ready he'd thought he was Saturday, he didn't feel ready at all right now.
Relax, he reminded himself. You were doing fine on Saturday; you even wished Axel would shut up, you knew what you were doing. Besides, it shouldn't get really busy until after he gets here.
...This is the bus stop for the beach coming up, isn't it? I should be getting off here...
Resisting the urge to just stay on the bus and go downtown for the day instead, he hauled himself up out of his seat and headed for the door, trying not to drag his heels with every step. He felt like he'd left his stomach on the bus or something - how was he going to keep track of everything without Axel's help? How was he going to keep every flavor of ice cream in the back freezer straight, or all the different styles of shirts in men's, women's, and kids' sizes, or which key opened which door...He had to stop on the sidewalk and take a deep breath before he could keep going, just so he wouldn't work himself into a panic.
While he was standing there, the guitarist walked past him, towards the stand, his guitar over his shoulder and the beach towel he always sat on draped over his arm. Roxas almost jumped to see him - he'd been there every day, within minutes of opening, and had stayed at least until Roxas left. As far as he knew, he always stayed until closing; he'd have to ask Axel about that. But he had yet to exchange a word with him except when the man was ordering something. It was as if he was just another fixture of life on the beach, like the seagulls and the umbrellas and the noisy all-day partiers. It was almost a shock to think of him doing something so mundane as riding the bus in each morning. But obviously, he had to get here somehow; he couldn't exactly live on the beach full-time... Actually, where the guy lived and how he got to the beach every day was none of Roxas's business. Shaking his head to clear it, he took the keys out of his pocket and followed him down the sidewalk to the stand. When he stopped to unlock the back door, the musician kept going, presumably to his usual seat in front of the building. At least he'd have something to listen to during the boring hours...
All right. What was he supposed to do first? Make sure nothing had been stolen overnight? Well, everything seemed to be in order...supplies. He had to restock the freezers, the chips, the candy bars, check on the T-shirts, the frisbees, the towels, the fountain drink dispenser, the ice machine...and quick, because the stand was supposed to open at 9:00... With all the scrambling around he had to do, he didn't actually get the metal screen up until 9:05, but all things considered, he thought he was doing pretty well to be that close to on time. And...of course, seeing as it was only 9:05 in the morning, hardly anyone was on the beach yet, and those that were, weren't hungry yet. This was going to be boring.
9:10 ticked by. 9:15. 9:20. At about 10:15, Roxas checked the clock, saw that it only said 9:25, and checked his watch to make sure the wall clock was still running. His watch also said 9:25. Could time move any slower?
Roxas found himself falling into a sort of trance, lulled by the boredom and the waves and the ever-present guitar. When the guitar suddenly stopped, it was as jarring as if he'd been hit over the head with it. It took him a moment to figure out what was wrong and what had woken him up, and another moment to figure out where the source should have been and lean over the counter to investigate. The musician was still there, just flexing his hands as if they were getting a little stiff. "Your hands all right?" Roxas asked, almost without meaning to.
"Oh. Yeah, they're all right, just a little tired," the musician answered, looking surprised that Roxas had bothered to talk to him. "I play a lot of guitar over the course of the average day."
"I know. I was listening to you all last week." Roxas fell silent for a moment as the musician started playing again, not really wanting to sink back into the boredom. "...Out of curiosity, do you stick around until closing?"
"Usually, unless the weather turns bad before then." There was another long pause. "...You're kind of young to be working by yourself, aren't you?"
"As long as I'm not operating heavy machinery or anything with a dangerous blade, and providing I only work 40 hours a week or less when school is out for the summer, I'm okay. If I keep the job until school starts again, it's down to 20 hours a week as long as my grades are okay." Another long silence; local child labor laws weren't exactly Roxas's favorite topic, nor were they one he really knew in-depth. But how to keep the conversation alive? "...What's your name?" he finally asked, as the obvious course.
The musician blinked, as if surprised Roxas would ask him such a simple, obvious question, then gave him a half-smile that seemed more genuinely pleased than many full smiles he saw from other people. "Demyx. And you?"
"Roxas. Roxas Strife."
"Strife, eh? Hell of a last name, but I suppose your father didn't ask your permission."
"His parents should have asked his. His first name is Cloud."
Demyx, as expected, cracked up; Roxas had lived with the joke for so long that it had long stopped being so funny to him, but strangers always seemed to find his father's given name hilarious. "Well, then. Aren't you lucky that you weren't named after him. Or was that honor reserved for an older brother or something?"
"I only have one, and his name is Axel. For which I'm sure he's grateful."
"There are worse names...as your father could surely tell you." Demyx laughed again, then shook his head. "Then again, what am I talking about?"
"I dunno. Demyx isn't such a bad name. There's this guy in some of my brother's college classes named Marluxia. Yeah, a guy. Even when I saw him, I wasn't completely convinced, but his voice was way too deep for a girl."
"...That's a bad sign, when you have to hear a person's voice to tell what gender they are," Demyx mused. "Then again, if you heard the voice and still couldn't tell, that would be worse." There was another pause, which Demyx spent idly strumming his guitar and Roxas spent staring off into space. "...Where's the big redhead who's been working with you? Is this his day off or something?"
"Oh, that's Axel. He doesn't come in until 11:30. He's just been coming in early the past week to train me. Seeing as he's been working here for years and I just started."
Demyx nodded silently, a strange expression crossing his face - one of envy, almost, or maybe something like longing. Was he out here playing for tips because he couldn't find a summer job worth having? He looked like he wanted to say something, but he didn't seem able to get it out. "You have a customer," was all he finally said, pointing out towards the beach where a beleaguered-looking young woman was herding two preschoolers towards the stand. By the time Roxas straightened up, he'd gone back to playing like the conversation had never happened.
"Hey, Demyx. How's it going? Haven't let Roxas loot too much from the till, have you?"
"Hi, Axel. You're finally here. I thought for sure this was the day you were going to spin out taking a curve at double the speed limit and nail a cop car."
"...Roxas, what have you been telling him while I'm not here?"
"The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. At least where your driving skills are concerned. Or lack thereof."
"You little jerk!"
"He's learned from your example pretty well, from what else I've heard..."
"Okay, you shut up. I have a job to do." After a month working at the stand, Roxas felt like an old pro at pretty much everything he was supposed to be doing. He could practically find a particular sort of ice cream in the freezer or a particular T-shirt on the shelves with his eyes closed, and point out exactly where to find everything in the back room in his sleep. He could have picked some of the more regular customers out of a police lineup if he had to. He wasn't exactly pulling down big bucks or anything, but it was tons more than his parents had ever given him by way of an allowance, and honestly, it was kind of fun.
Demyx was still around, of course; he'd been there every day all along, arriving on the bus with Roxas or even earlier than that by means unknown, and he stayed after Axel left, it seemed. In between, he hung around the stand and played guitar, like their own private musician; he probably did more to draw in more customers than any amount of advertising. And he still seemed to be relying entirely on tip money for everything he bought at the stand, and the stand for everything he ate while he was at the beach. If he ever brought anything besides his guitar and a beach towel with him, Roxas never caught him at it. For the most part, he accepted it as just how the musician was, but sometimes, he just had to wonder. The more often they actually talked to him, the harder it was just to think of him as part of the scenery anymore.
His business is really not our business unless and until he chooses to make it our business, Roxas thought hard to himself as he filled a customer's order almost by rote. It wasn't until he glanced up and saw the printed receipt waiting on the register that he realized he'd picked up one too many rocket pops, and hastily dropped one back in the freezer before ripping off the receipt and handing it and the rest over. Odd, the crowd was surprisingly light for a Friday. Normally, everyone who could get a day off today did; it usually didn't get really busy until after Roxas went home, if Axel was to be believed, but there should have been more people around than this.
"Ground control to Major Tom. Roxas, get your head on straight."
Demyx laughed aloud as someone dropped a few coins into his guitar case. "Hey, he's a David Bowie fan, he can't be all bad." He sounded and looked preoccupied, totally ignoring the glare Axel gave him for that; when he followed Demyx's gaze, Roxas could see a dark line building on the horizon, out over the water. He also saw what looked like half a family reunion heading for the stand, which meant it was time to straighten up and look sharp again. On instinct, he glanced up at the clock - 12:00, or close enough.
12:15 ticked by. 12:30. 1:00. Normally the line would have been almost endless right now, but there was hardly anyone here. He shouldn't have had a chance to stand still, let alone look at the clock, until 1:30 at the latest. And that dark line on the horizon just kept getting closer, and darker, and uglier, until it seemed like it was almost on top of them...and he may or may not have been right about this, but he could swear he was seeing lightning...
All of a sudden, the phone rang, and Roxas nearly jumped out of his skin. Thankfully, Axel was quicker on the draw, and answered the phone before Roxas even remembered where it was. "Afternoon, Blind Shark Ice Cream - oh, hey, hi, Mr. Killian...yeah, we've been watching it...oh. Seriously? Now? I mean, it's only - right. Right. Well, you are the boss...Right. All right. Talk to you later. Bye." He set the phone down at the receiver and looked out over the water with a tense expression. "They're closing the beach," he said without preamble. "There is apparently a really ugly storm coming. That means we have to close up shop. Like, now."
"Now?" Roxas repeated blankly, his eyes also locked on the dark clouds ahead of them. Yeah, that one was definitely lightning.
"I dunno, you want to stay out here running the stand in the middle of a thunderstorm?" Axel was already powering down the grill as he spoke. "Get the screen down before it starts raining. I'll give you a ride home. Yeah, I know, aren't I generous."
Roxas had never had to help close the stand before, and he was a little proud of himself for how quickly he caught on and how fast they got everything shut down and locked up, but even in that short time, the dark clouds had kept crawling closer, a nasty wind had kicked up, and an ominous rumble filled the air every so often. When he and Axel finally locked the back door and headed for the parking lot, he felt like it wasn't an instant too soon - it was tempting to run for Axel's car, but that would be pointless, since Axel was the only one who could unlock it. Instead, he kept pace with his older brother all the way, hugging himself and wishing he'd brought a jacket. Thank God they were going to get out of here before it got really nasty...
Axel dropped his keys when he heard that timid greeting. Roxas whipped around in surprise - Demyx was right behind them, his guitar in its case over his shoulder and his beach towel wrapped around him like a blanket. He looked frankly scared to be there, like he was sure either Axel or Roxas was about to jump him and beat him senseless. "Can...can I...catch a ride with you guys?" he continued nervously, chewing at his lower lip. "I, uh...don't really want to have to wait for the next bus, and, uh...I mean, with the weather turning so fast..."
Axel recovered his poise, and his keys, quickly; he looked at Demyx, at the car, at the sky, and made his decision while Roxas was still staring at Demyx wondering what was going on. "Get in," he grunted, unlocking the doors; Demyx and Roxas didn't need to be told twice. The first raindrops started hitting the windshield as they slammed their doors shut. "All right, where do you live?" he asked Demyx as if this kind of thing happened every day, while the musician was still trying to get his guitar safely settled. Whatever the reply was, it wasn't particularly clear. "Sorry, what was that? Didn't catch it..."
Demyx didn't seem to want to repeat whatever he'd just said, or look up to meet Axel's eyes in the rearview mirror, but in such an enclosed space, he really had no choice. "The...City Rescue Mission," he said finally, looking like he wanted to cry with shame.
Axel and Roxas just stared at each other for a moment; Roxas didn't trust himself to say anything. All he could think was I knew there was something wrong with this picture, I knew it, normal people bring pocket money to the ice cream stand and don't let other people's generosity dictate what they have for lunch and own more than five T-shirts...oh, God, he looks thin, does he even eat on days the stand is closed? "The City Rescue Mission," Axel repeated blandly, as if to make sure he'd heard it right. "The homeless shelter."
"Yes, the fucking homeless shelter," Demyx spat, looking like he was going to burst into tears at a moment's notice. "Before you ask, yes, I am in fact homeless. No, I don't have a real job other than playing for tips, though God knows I'd trade ten years of my life for one. No, I do not drink or do drugs or go a week between showers. I shower every day, in fact. When I'm not at the shelter, I use the public showers at the beach." He sounded bitter, as if he was more used to being harassed for being homeless than otherwise.
Roxas knew it was probably a bad idea, but he couldn't help but ask - "Where do you sleep when you're not at the shelter?" The way Demyx was talking, it sounded like he sometimes slept on the beach overnight. Roxas could see the lure, but it lost its luster without the knowledge that you had the option of returning to a comfortable home with a warm bed whenever you wanted.
"Right behind your dumpster, next to the wall," Demyx said with a bitter smile Roxas could see in the rearview mirror. "I spend more nights there than I do at the shelter. Beach towels make decent blankets on a warm night. Unless it's raining, I usually only sleep at the shelter Saturday through Monday." His smile evened out a little, becoming less bitter but more...well, sad, was the only word Roxas could think of. "I love the beach."
"Wow," Axel said, shaking his head as he navigated his way through the pouring rain onto the main road outside the parking lot. "Here, I thought you were lucky to do as you damn well pleased all day all summer...not so lucky when you don't really have a choice, is it?"
"No," Demyx said, biting off the word and scowling down at the floor.
"How did you even get into this situation anyway?" Axel pressed on, long after Roxas thought he should have shut up or at least changed the topic of conversation. There was being sympathetic and curious, and then there was being just plain rude.
"Ran away from home," Demyx grunted, and stopped at that. Roxas assumed that was it and hoped Axel would stop with the prying questions, until Demyx started talking again. "At one time, long ago, I was a happy kid living in a normal family. Then my mother started going batshit insane. She got a divorce from my dad, accusing him of sneaking around on her and seeing other women, and then she convinced the judge that he was abusing me in some sly way that didn't leave marks, which was pure bullshit, but made sure that she got sole custody and he didn't even get visitation rights. He contested that like his life depended on it, but before we could get another hearing, Mom packed up and moved to a different state. I was twelve years old - old enough to know what was going on around me, but too young to do anything about it. I haven't seen my dad since," he added, sounding for a moment like a scared and vulnerable child. It seemed to take a moment before he could collect himself enough to keep talking.
"After that, we kept moving - maybe once a year, at first, and always far away from wherever we'd just left. Usually in the middle of the school year, too. She seemed to be convinced that someone was after her, and that if we stayed in one place too long, they'd catch up with her - I have to assume they were supposed to kill her or do something else horrible if they did catch her. The last few years, we moved twice a year or more, always to a whole new state. She wouldn't let me go outside without her, then she wouldn't let me go outside after dark at all, then she refused to go out in daylight, then she wouldn't let me go out either, then when the school I was supposed to be attending started asking why I wasn't showing up, she'd assume her pursuers were about to catch us and pack up again. I couldn't watch TV or use the phone or the Internet, because then the aliens would access my brainwaves and reprogram me, and I wasn't allowed to make any friends even if anyone wanted to hang out with the new kid with the psycho mom, because they might be spies trying to use me to get to her. I couldn't go to the library because there were coded messages in the barcodes and mind-scrambling rays in the barcode readers. I couldn't even read the freaking junk mail because I might learn something I wasn't supposed to know, and then the aliens would come for me too. And the only reason she dared leave the house was to get more booze, which she needed to do maybe twice a week. Since it never occurred to her that the voices in her head weren't real, she tried to drink them away or something. She was totally incapable of holding a job by that point; she just lied about seeking employment to collect welfare, and we lived on that.
"Eventually, I just couldn't take it anymore - I had to get out of there or I'd go as nuts as she was. So I gathered up all the money I could get my hands on, took my guitar - the last birthday present my dad ever had a hand in giving me - and caught a train back here, where we'd lived back when my mother was sane and we were a family. I wanted to find my dad again. I haven't yet. He wasn't at our old address - the neighbors said he'd moved out of state - and I was so dead broke I didn't have the resources to begin looking elsewhere even if I knew where to start looking. I was also unemployed, undereducated, had no family I could find that I wanted anything to do with, stranded in a city I hadn't lived in for seven years, and legally old enough to take care of myself. How? The guitar was the only thing I had, so...I kind of went with it." Demyx sighed heavily and looked down at his guitar, looking like he was struggling not to cry. Roxas didn't blame him. "That was over a year ago now," he whispered.
"That's horrible," Roxas breathed, his eyes wide after that recitation. "How did you survive that? How did you stay sane?"
"I don't know," Demyx mumbled to the floor. "I just...had to. Like I said, I was old enough to realize the problem was that my mother was cracking up, not that she was being relentlessly pursued by aliens. I just had to make sure I didn't start thinking it was the aliens."
"Wow," Roxas repeated, shaking his head helplessly. He couldn't even imagine - if Mom suddenly got the idea that the world was out to get her and that Dad was cheating and sneaking around on her, even without the aliens, and then lied and accused him of being abusive...it would be crushing. Even if Axel was old enough to move out and Roxas was old enough to choose who to move in with (including Axel, if it came to that), instead of getting dragged all over the country. He couldn't imagine the hell Demyx's life had been...nor could he imagine how Axel was planning on getting downtown from where they were, when he actually looked up and through the windshield. "Axel, um...so you know, downtown is the other way," he pointed out, wondering how Axel could have missed that no matter how rainy it was.
"A very astute observation, Roxas," Axel said in a somewhat clipped tone. "The truth of the matter is, we're not going downtown right now. We are going home."
"What?" Demyx spluttered before Roxas could find even that simple word. "But - I mean, you can't - how would I - what about your parents?"
"Fortunately, Mom, at least, is a total bleeding heart, and she's hardly the scion of wealth and privilege herself," Axel said blithely, totally ignoring his passengers' reactions. "And if she's okay with you, which I'm sure she will be, Dad will also be okay with you, or spend the rest of the year in the doghouse. So don't worry. I do know what I'm doing. Sometimes."
They'd left the stand at 1:11, by the clock in Axel's car. After a drive of some three or four hours, they finally arrived home at 1:49, much to Roxas's surprise. It was still pouring rain, and he didn't much want to get out of the car, but there really wasn't much point in sitting in the driveway all day, no matter how much he didn't want to have to see Mom and Dad's reaction - "oh, hi, Mom, Axel and I got sent home early because of the rain, and we brought this homeless guy with us, can he stay for a while?" At least Demyx looked pretty clean and didn't smell like smoke, tobacco or otherwise, but...still. This was not going to go over well. He was strongly tempted to just sit in the car anyway, and let Axel deal with the inevitable fallout himself, but Axel promptly got out of the car, in the pouring rain, and opened Roxas's door for him. Clearly, staying in the car was not an option. Demyx stayed in the car the longest, and made the slowest time to the front door; apparently he wasn't best thrilled with this turn of events either. Axel was the only one who seemed pleased, despite the downpour, as he held the door open for the other two. "Get inside, you'll be warmer and dryer," he said cheerily, as if rain was the only thing bothering Roxas or Demyx.
Roxas could already hear his mother's voice as the three of them stood dripping in the entryway. "You two are home early - or at least I hope there's two of you. I take it the stand got shut down because of the weather? Why didn't you call? You -" She actually looked around the corner at them, and Roxas could feel the impending doom building in the air. "...All right, why didn't you at least call and tell me you were bringing someone over?"
"It was a spur-of-the-moment thing," Axel offered, using his best sweet-and-innocent face that Roxas privately thought he'd outgrown ages ago. "He's been hanging around the stand for a while, we've all gotten to know each other, and he asked for a lift home after the stand closed down. I was gonna do it, but then I found out that home for him was the City Rescue Mission, so I brought him back here with us."
Roxas could watch the way his mother's expression changed as she heard that, and he wished he was in some other city right then. "The...City Rescue Mission?" she repeated blankly, as if uncertain that she'd heard Axel correctly, then all but threw herself at Demyx and hugged him tightly enough to crack ribs, somehow not at all bothered by the guitar case on his back. "Oh, you're so thin," she complained, pinching Demyx's arm as if to show how he was nothing more than skin and bones. "Don't they feed you at all there?"
Demyx looked even more embarrassed than Roxas felt, which was saying something. "Um...well...see, Mrs. Strife -"
"Please, call me Aerith."
"...All right...Aerith. Um...if you don't want me here...if there's a bus stop handy, I can just -"
"Oh, no! No! Stay as long as you like! I mean, if your parents don't object..."
Demyx looked deeply ashamed, though he managed to force a weak smile; Roxas suddenly felt twice as embarrassed on his behalf, especially for how he knew his mother was going to react to what he said. "My parents are...really a non-factor in my life right now."
"...Oh, you poor thing!" Exactly what Roxas had expected. "And - you must be younger than Axel! You're much too young to be out on your own - living in a homeless shelter -" Axel rolled his eyes, looking plenty embarrassed in his own right; he was 23, and there was room to be younger than him and still legally an adult. Of course, Mom, being who she was, wouldn't consider Axel an adult even after he got married and started providing grandchildren, so of course anyone younger than him (including Roxas) was hardly more than a baby. Demyx looked like he wanted to sink into the floor. "When was the last time you ate anything? Have any of you had lunch yet? You two, get out of those wet clothes and into something dry before you catch pneumonia. I'll make you something to eat. Axel, do you have a clean shirt you could loan him so he doesn't have to wear his wet clothes all day?"
Roxas could tell from Axel's expression that he was working on some sarcastic rejoinder, like "I was thinking about loaning him a dirty shirt instead," so he tugged tactfully on Demyx's sleeve and motioned for him to follow him to his bedroom before the situation got any more embarrassing. "Axel's room is always such a mess I don't know how he can walk in it; you can change in mine," he said in a low voice. "So, um...that's our mother. As you probably figured out already."
"Yeah. I...did get that impression." Demyx rubbed the back of his head, trying to hide how embarrassed he was. "Is she a good cook?"
"...She's not the most inspired cook ever, but you can eat what she serves," Roxas said, not sure how else to answer that question.
"Hmm." Demyx didn't seem to be paying much attention to Roxas's answer; his eyes were closed, as if he was lost in his own thoughts. "...She's an improvement. Over my mother, I mean."
"I guess," Roxas grunted, not wanting to delve any deeper into that than necessary - prying any further into Demyx's past would seem like a bigger invasion of privacy than Demyx moving into his house. "Anyway...well, you saw how she was. Figure you're welcome to stay indefinitely, unless you make an ass of yourself. There's a guest room downstairs you can probably stay in."
Demyx shook his head, regretfully but firmly. "I appreciate the offer, if it turns out there actually is one, but I don't exactly want to move into you guys' house permanently. Besides...I still want to find my dad." Roxas didn't think the odds of that were very good - after all, he hadn't heard from the man in nearly ten years and he'd moved out of state - but he kept his mouth shut. The last thing he needed to do was dash Demyx's hopes.
"Absolutely not, Demyx. There is no way I'm going to let you help with the dishes. You're a guest. Guests don't have to help with the housework."
Axel chuckled slightly at the stricken look on Demyx's face. "Enjoy it while it lasts. If you stay too long, she'll adopt you, and then you'll have to work with the rest of us."
"Axel, if all you're going to do is make smart remarks, you come help me. As you kindly pointed out, you do have to work."
It was Roxas and Demyx's turn to chuckle as Axel scowled down at the table and stood up to follow his mother. "Why always me? Why can't you make Roxas help you for once?"
"Because Roxas is less annoying than you are."
Roxas snickered into his hand as his mother and brother disappeared into the kitchen, leaving him alone at the table with Demyx. "Occasionally, there are benefits to not being an only child," he said, shaking his head slightly. "Especially if you have an older sibling. Axel would never get away with bossing me around, at least not at home."
Demyx nodded, but he still looked distracted. "I wouldn't know...because, you know, I was an only child..." He sighed. "Sorry. I'm just...preoccupied. I mean, yesterday, far as I knew, I'd be camped out on the beach playing guitar for tips for the rest of my life. I'm not totally sure I'm not passed out and dreaming. If I'm not...part of me still wants to run away, because I've spent so much time isolated with a crazy woman...I'm just not used to, you know, being around a normal family, or normal people in general, except as part of the background. Part of me wants to just sit back and set down roots, because absorbing myself into some other family is better than being alone forever and I am so very sick of being alone. And part of me is trying to make the rest of me get off its ass while I have a chance and try to find my dad again. At least see if I could find a phone number or mailing address and get in touch with him again. Except I don't even know where to start."
Roxas nodded sympathetically - he couldn't imagine how Demyx was feeling right now, but he didn't need to to figure out that it wasn't all happiness and joy. "Have you tried looking online at all? Like, Googling his name or something?"
"...Huh?" Demyx said blankly. Not a why-did-I-never-think-of-that "huh", but a what-the-hell-are-you-talking-about "huh". "What do you mean?"
...Boy, had Demyx's mother kept him isolated for a while. "...I mean, search for his name on an Internet search engine or something."
Demyx squeezed his eyes shut, looking deeply embarrassed. "...I told you that my mother wouldn't let me use the Internet for fear the aliens would use it to brainwash me...you're gonna have to show me what you're talking about."
"...Right." As Axel emerged from the kitchen, wiping his hands on a dish towel, Roxas led Demyx over to the computer and opened Google for him. "There. Just type your dad's name into that box and hit enter. Your dad's name isn't something like John Smith, is it?"
"...Uh, no. Definitely not." Demyx squinted at the box for a moment, then sat down in the desk chair and typed in the name Xigbar Killian.
"...No," Axel breathed, as Roxas tried to comprehend whether Demyx was being serious or messing with them. Well, he had no reason to mess with them, but...no. That was ridiculous. That was just...not even possible. "You can't be serious. That's your dad's name?"
"Yes it is," Demyx replied, sounding nettled, "and I'd rather not hear any comments from the son of a man named Cloud Strife."
"No, no, that's not it -" Axel shook his head firmly. "All right...what's your dad look like? About five foot ten, skinny, must be past fifty by now, hair going grey in chunks so that it's about half-grey, half-black, former pro surfer, only has one eye, refuses to get a glass eye because an eyepatch looks more bad-ass? That sound like him?"
Demyx stared blankly at Axel, his mouth hanging wide open. Yes, Roxas decided, this was for real. "W-well...last time I saw him, his hair was still more black than grey, but...he...he would be over fifty by now; he was in his early thirties when I was born...he lost an eye in an accident when I was a kid...but...but...how? How do you know him?" he demanded.
"He's our boss!" Roxas exploded, without waiting for whatever dramatics Axel had in mind. "He owns all the Blind Shark stands! Granted, there's only, like, five of them, but...he's your father?"
Axel let out a low whistle. "And here I thought he was just a diehard bachelor. I never knew anything about a wife and kid."
Demyx shook his head slowly, his face still a picture of shock and disbelief. "You're kidding me. You're kidding me. Last I knew, he was the manager at Waikiki Jack's..."
"Waikiki Jack's closed, like...five years ago. The Blind Shark was already open by then - the one here was the first one. There's four more now. One more south of here, and the other three are north, all along the coast."
"You're kidding me," Demyx repeated. "I...I mean..."
"You know what our logo looks like," Roxas interrupted. "The shark with the eyepatch - it's like a caricature of him. That ring any bells?"
Demyx nodded blankly, still looking dazed. "I...I don't believe it. All that time...I never thought. I never guessed."
"Well, now you know," Axel said succinctly. "And you know what? I think I'll just bring you along tomorrow. Maybe set up a little meeting." Before Roxas or Demyx could say anything, he'd pulled out his cell phone and was already dialing. "Hey, Mr. Killian? This is Axel Strife...yeah. Did you want us to re-open this afternoon after the storm broke, or...all right. Well, when we open tomorrow, would it be inconvenient for you to stop by for a while ahead of opening? I mean, the wind is just...I'm worried about storm damage...Well, I was just thinking, better safe than sorry. If you can't...okay. All right. See you then." He hung up the phone with a triumphant gesture and grinned down at Demyx. Demyx looked like he wanted to cry a little.
8:15. Normally, Roxas would be just catching the bus to work right now, and he would arrive at work, obviously, by bus. And yet, somehow, he was here already, and in Axel's car. In the backseat behind him was the guitar player who'd been hanging out at the stand for a month, who'd turned out to be a homeless runaway trying to find his long-lost father, who turned out to be their boss, who was coming to meet them on the spurious excuse of inspecting the stand for storm damage... Roxas could already tell, this was going to be a day. A good day? A bad day? He had no way of knowing until it got properly started, but...boy, was it going to be a day.
"All right, everyone out of the car," Axel said cheerfully, though his cheer sounded more than a little strained. "We have a...day ahead of us." Clearly, adjectives were failing him too. "...Come on. The doors are unlocked. I can't drive you any further than the parking lot." Roxas sighed and forced himself to get out of the car, but Demyx didn't budge. "...Come on, man," Axel said, opening his door and leaning in. "There's no way you can just sit in there all day."
"Try me," Demyx grunted, slouching into the seat as if he wanted to melt into the upholstery.
Axel shook his head in disbelief. "You've gotta be kidding me. You should be thrilled."
"What if it's not him, though?" Demyx said, his voice half a whisper. "What if he's got another family now? What if he's just so fond of being a lone, independent bachelor he doesn't want to see me again?"
"Yeah, what if pigs flew and shit on your head?" Roxas had to smack Axel upside the head for that one. "Ow. Anyway, my point is -"
Conversation died as another car pulled into the parking lot - a much newer and nicer one than Axel's near-junker. At this hour of the morning, very few people would be here yet except for the diehard surfers...or people who had business here. Roxas could almost feel his blood freezing. Mr. Killian wasn't the scariest man in the world, except maybe in appearance, but there was so much on the line right now... "You guys look like you're hard at work," Mr. Killian was saying in his bluff, easygoing way. "Seeing as dragging me out here was your idea and all -"
Demyx actually shoved Axel into the next car over in his sudden hurry to get out of the car. "...Dad?" he said in a weak, cracking voice, as if he still wasn't sure he wasn't dreaming. He seemed to want to say something else, but no more words would come out.
Mr. Killian was now wearing the same dumbstruck expression Roxas had seen on Demyx's face last night. "...Demyx," he said after a pause so full of tension you could choke on it. "You've...grown...since the last time I saw you." Demyx nodded tearfully, clearly unable to speak, then abruptly ran over and flung himself at the older man, and the two of them embraced like they were afraid to ever let go again. "Do you have any idea how long I've been looking for you?" Mr. Killian said finally. "It seemed like every time I seemed to be getting close, your mother would just pack up and run off with you again...or I'd just hit a dead end...and then you seemed to disappear completely..."
"Eight years, give or take," Demyx choked, rubbing tears from his eyes and grinning like an idiot. "I finally ran away, like I should have ages ago...except when I finally got back here, I couldn't find you. I'd heard you moved out of state."
"No such luck; I love the beaches here too much," Mr. Killian said, stepping back a little and resting his hands on Demyx's shoulders. "So. You're a...grown man now," he added, shaking his head slightly. "Last time I saw you, you weren't any more than yea tall...oh, fuck it, I was starting to think I'd never see you again, ever." He pulled Demyx into what must have been another rib-cracking hug, which Demyx only returned with the same enthusiasm. "Where the fuck have you been? And how did you get mixed in with these punks? I had a feeling they were pulling something...storm damage my ass..."
"I've been hanging out at the stand since it opened for the season," Demyx answered, seemingly forgetting that Axel and Roxas were even there. "I had no idea you owned the place - I was just hanging out, playing guitar for tips. Talking to the guys during slow times. They let me go home with them during the storm yesterday..."
"Storm damage my ass," Mr. Killian repeated, and pointed accusingly at Axel. "You set this up! How the hell did you know?"
"It's Roxas's fault," Axel said easily, jabbing a thumb at him. "He suggested Demyx try to look you up on Google. We were looking over his shoulder when he typed your name into the search box, and we were both like...no."
"You bastard, why didn't you tell me what the hell you actually wanted over the phone? Storm damage my ass!" While Roxas feared briefly for his and Axel's jobs, Mr. Killian took a few deep breaths and hugged Demyx again. It would probably take the two of them ages to get sick of that. "So...you're still playing guitar, I take it?" he said, once more forgetting Axel and Roxas were even there.
"Still playing the same guitar you gave me for my twelfth birthday. Kept it through all the crazy moves and everything, brought it with me when I took off. You couldn't torture me into getting rid of it."
"I don't believe it. I don't believe it...where are you staying? Moved in with those two?"
"Uh...no. Just for a night. I've mostly been staying at...at the City Rescue Mission..."
"What? Oh, hell no. You're coming home with me, son, you got that?"
Roxas was definitely feeling like a fifth wheel now, not to mention sort of like an intruder. Besides, he, at least, had to work this morning. He was about ready to excuse himself and go open the stand, but he had to get a look at Axel's reaction to the whole process first. Axel was just leaning against the car, with a goofy grin on his face, apparently having forgiven Demyx for shoving him into another car. "So...apparently, Mr. Killian was Demyx's father," Roxas said, feeling stupid for saying something so obvious, but he just had to say something.
Axel only nodded absently, still grinning. "You know, Roxas, I've been working at the stand pretty much every summer since it opened," he said, seemingly out of nowhere. "That'd be about six years now. And, you know...this is the first day in those six years where I really feel like I've truly done a good day's work."
AN: There is so much I wanted to add to this story and didn't because I was trying to keep the length down...and it's still within an nth of ten thousand words. Auuk. I write too much.
Anyway, yes, it's another AU. Yes, it's for another contest. No, it has nothing to do with "Prodigal Sons". Yes, Cloud and Aerith were the only KH-related couple I could think of who could conceivably be the parents of both Axel and Roxas. Yes, Xigbar is old enough to be Demyx's father. No, they don't look a thing alike. No, that really doesn't bother me. Yes, I have a thing for making Demyx homeless/a runaway/from a broken home/bad family situation/all of the above. Yes, "guitarrista" still ends with an a even if you're describing a male guitarist.
Storm damage my ass.