I was content to sit behind the counter, leaning back in my stool and absentmindedly flipping through a magazine I'd taken from the shelf on the opposite side of the room not even five minutes earlier. I was perfectly content to pick at a cupcake with bright yellow frosting I'd never bother to pay for as I propped my big, black combat boots up on top of that very same counter, much to the protests of the blonde standing next to me. I didn't particularly care about his rambling, or much at all, for that matter. As long as I was satisfied, then nothing else mattered.
It probably wasn't the greatest outlook to have, but it was the only way I knew how to feel, to survive. You see, when your parents, the people who are supposed to look out for you, are too busy fighting and tearing each other down to pay attention, you kinda have to learn to take care of yourself. And that was my childhood in a nutshell.
When my parents weren't busy hurling insults across the living room or breaking dishes in the kitchen, they weren't around at all. My mother worked two jobs to support our family, only it was more to support her drinking habit and my father's love of gambling. My father could never hold down a steady job but always managed to make it to the race track in time to lose everything on a 'sure bet'. It was a never-ending cycle that always set the tables for another argument that would send me to my room, desperately searching for a way to block it all out. But I discovered that even with my headphones securely over my ears and the music helping to drown out the rising war, nothing could stop the tears from falling. Nothing could erase the images from my mind.
I think it goes without saying that I grew up pretty fast. Didn't have much of a choice, really. By ten years old, I was making myself dinner almost nightly, and soon I was doing my own laundry, packing my own lunches and tucking myself into bed at night.
Seeing as any extra money in my house went towards another pack of smokes or a case of beer that wouldn't last the week, I learned to live with very little. Necessary things like new clothes and shoes were almost always forgotten, and when I was fourteen, I decided to do something about it by applying for work at the local Fresh Market, located just a few blocks away from my house. It was close enough to walk to and from, but also far enough away to make me feel like maybe, just maybe, I'd never go back home.
The market was fairly small, but it was warm and welcoming and more like home than anything I'd ever experienced before. It was there that I met my best friend, Zexion. Zexion was quiet in a way that was totally different from the way I was quiet, like he just didn't want to talk to people instead of not knowing how to. There was something about the way his lavender-colored hair haphazardly covered one side of his face and his apparent inability to smile that drew me to him, so I decided to befriend him. Little did I know that, in the young teenager, I was finding a friend for life.
Working at the Fresh Market taught me a lot about life and people, and, over time, I learned to open up, to let people in, if only just a little. I became quite the social butterfly and never had a problem making friends or acquaintances or coming up with things to say in idle conversations with customers. But there was still a distance between me and the world, a wall of sorts. I never let anyone in too deeply, not even Zexion. For years, he had no idea about my home life because I was almost certain he'd walk away if he did. And I wouldn't have blamed him in the least.
Despite having a new friend and a completely new and different life away from home, I still walked through the door, every evening, to constant bickering and misery. And I would still continue to lock myself in my room and pray to God, or whatever higher power was out there, that it would just end. But it never did.
By the time I turned seventeen, Zexion and I had a plan worked out to perfection. We'd been saving the majority of our paychecks over the past few years, and the minute we turned eighteen, we were getting out of our houses and never looking back. Not if we could help it.
Zexion's home life wasn't as bad as mine, but he knew his parents resented him for being gay, and the sooner he got away from his father's judgmental stares and verging-on-condescending advice, the better. I never said a thing about it, but I was a tiny bit jealous of Zexion. I mean, at least his father cared enough about him to pay attention. If I'd told my father I was gay, he probably would have just ignored me.
The day of my eighteenth birthday, my stuff was already packed in leftover boxes from the market and being loaded into Zexion's old, beat up puck-up truck. I hadn't bothered to give my parents a warning of any kind, but I figured they wouldn't care. I was just one less problem they'd have to pretend to worry about. So, I'd seen it coming – for practically my whole life – but that didn't stop the hurt of hearing my father's disinterested grunt or the lackluster well-wishes my mother gave, as I stood in the doorway with the last box in my arms and told them I was leaving.
It's stupid, but even when Zexion and I were settled in our new apartment and everything was quiet and peaceful and exactly the way it should be, I would still lock my bedroom door at night, slip my headphones on and turn the volume up full blast to block out the shouting that wasn't really there.
A few years later, the Fresh Market closed down, and I felt a little more than lost. The place had served as a sort of safe-haven during my teenage years, and I didn't know what I was going to do without it. Zexion had already moved on. He quit a year prior and was already employed at a smoothie shop that had opened recently.
It was on my way to break the news of my recent unemployment to my friend that a help wanted sign caught my eye. It was sitting in the window of a small bakery next to the Smoothie King. I'd never noticed the place before.
Walking through the front door of the Wonderland Bakery was like walking right into a living fairytale – carefully painted murals on the walls, tables shaped like mushrooms, hanging lamps that resembled vines and flowers of all varieties. Even the floor was made up to look like grass. After the awe of such detailed and amazing decoration wore off, I noticed there was a florist stand to my left, and right next to the huge case of fresh baked goods was a magazine stand and espresso maker.
Almost at once, I was greeted by a grown man with bubble-gum pink hair that flowed past his shoulders. That's the exact moment I knew Wonderland Bakery would be the place for me. During the interview, I came to find out that Bubble Gum Hair was the owner of the establishment, Marluxia. And I wasn't surprised for a second. Pink hair and a Wonderland themed bakery just seemed to go hand in hand.
Luckily, Marluxia wasn't put-off by the fact that I didn't want to wear a uniform, hide my unruly red hair under some gross hairnet, or the fact that I was pretty cocky and demanding for someone who desperately needed a job. In fact, he just smiled and told me he never upheld the rules very strongly, anyway - even his own – and he liked his employees to have a bit of personality, just like his bakery. All he said I had to do was show up the next morning at nine AM sharp and then proceeded to throw a frilly, pink apron at me. Now, I wasn't one to wear pink, and I definitely never, ever wore anything lined in lace, but I figured it was a small price to pay for a relatively easy job that didn't require a lot of actual work and required even less skill.
I arrived the next day, right on time, and was promptly introduced to one of my new co-workers. Except, it was more a complete invasion of my personal space than anything else. As soon as I walked behind the counter and right before I finished tying my apron behind my back, I found myself suddenly staring directly into a pair of blue eyes and felt my hand was being shaken excitedly. The guy in front of me, whose blonde hair was styled into some kind of mullet-mohawk combination, was already rambling on a mile a minute.
All I could do was stand there and blink stupidly. I was used to friendly people, but I wasn't used to people being so spastic and all up in my face in that way. Through the constant babbling, I was able to catch a few important details. His name was Demyx, he was twenty-one, and he'd be working behind the counter with me when he wasn't busy making cakes, pastries and other assorted treats.
Before I had the chance to introduce myself or say anything at all, I was being dragged over to the cash register, where a very annoyed looking blonde woman sat, flipping through a magazine and loudly smacking on a piece of gum. She never did bother to look up, even when Demyx announced our presences and informed her I was fresh meat. I knew right then and there that the girl was a bitch, and I kinda liked it. Eventually, Demyx spoke for her and introduced her as Larxene. She'd been working there since the bakery first opened two years prior.
He then continued to explain how everything came to be. Apparently, Marluxia had been left some money after his grandfather died, and instead of using it towards college like his parents wanted, he opened Wonderland Bakery. The place took two whole years and a lot of work and heart to complete, but after its first year, the place had become a sort of staple in Radiant Garden. I wondered how I'd never even heard of it before.
Over the next three months, I learned to love Wonderland Bakery. It was totally different from the Fresh Market, but it was comfortable just the same, and I found it was pretty easy to enjoy myself when around my co-workers. We were all so totally different, such a mixture of personalities and quirks that it was almost too easy to fit in.
It was the middle of October, which, in Radiant Garden, meant the weather was somewhere in-between being able to wear a t-shirt or having to put on a jacket. It was bizarre, to say the least, but that description fit the city perfectly.
There was always a lull in customers during the mid-afternoon hours. Apparently, not very many people had a craving for sweet rolls or a piece of cherry pie during lunchtime. Not that I was bothered by that. I preferred just sitting on my stool and lounging around to having to deal with a line of customers.
"Get your disgusting feet off of my counter, Axel!" Demyx suddenly threw his entire weight against my legs, almost sending me face first into the glass display case of sweets.
Fortunately, I was able to catch myself before hitting the counter and possibly chipping my beautiful teeth. Or worse, causing any unsightly marks to appear on my face. The only marks I wanted there were the small, black tattoos under each of my eyes. In the process of saving myself from a face full of glass, the magazine and cupcake I'd been holding onto went flying to the floor below.
"Your counter?" Marluxia was behind the florist stand, cutting the stems off of some roses and completely ignoring my near fatal accident. He glanced up for a second, and Demyx rolled his eyes. "I do believe this place belongs to me."
"Yea, yea, yea." Demyx nudged me in the ribs with his elbow and silently pointed to the mess on the ground where the cupcake had fallen. "If this was my place," he turned back to face Marluxia and pulled at the pink apron tied around d his waist, "we wouldn't have to wear these hideous things."
"Amen," Larxene agreed as she blew a particularly large bubble with her gum and tossed the gossip magazine she'd been reading off to the side.
"If you don't like them, then there's a very simple solution to the problem." Marluxia put his freshly cut roses in a vase that was sitting on the counter and smiled at them. My boss, despite being straight as they come, had some rather feminine tendencies. Thankfully, I'd learned how to conceal my amusement in that.
"And what's that?" Larxene asked, not appearing too interested in whatever the answer was going to be.
"Quit," Marluxia said simply, picking up on of the freshly cut stems and pointing it in her direction. "And stop destroying the merchandise, while you're at it. Unless you plan on paying for it."
Larxene scoffed but picked up the discarded magazine, anyway, and straightened it out as best as she could before setting it back on the shelf with the rest.
During their exchange, Demyx had going into the back. I sat back in my stool, content to let the cupcake rot there on the floor, but upon my co-worker's return, I was presented with a broom and dustpan. And I just sat there, staring at the items in Demyx's outstretched arms and blinking. I had absolutely no intentions of moving, and Demyx let out an aggravated sigh.
"Well…" He dramatically gestured to the cupcake. I remained seated, unfazed. "Clean it up!"
When I realized he wasn't going to let go, I groaned and hung my head. "Demyx, my main man. My buddy. My pal," I pleaded and tried to come off as pathetic as possible. It wasn't working as well as I would've liked, if the unfazed expression on Demyx's face was any indication. "Please, can't you do it for me? I mean, you're already up."
"No one likes a lazy slob," Larxene called across the room, and I was just about to give her a pieced of my mind and throw the magazine I'd stolen from the shelf earlier at her annoying face, until I was interrupted by a sudden rush of noise and a million flashing white lights. All heads turned to face the entrance of the bakery as the door opened and the room was filled with ever more commotion than before, voices shouting over one another but all pretty much demanding the same thing.
"Where's your brother?"
"Is that your girlfriend, Roxas?"
A large crowd of men – I counted at least ten, holding cameras – were gathered around a group of kids, who were desperately trying to squeeze their way through and make it into the bakery. One of them, a boy with wavy, dirty blonde hair and cargo pants, was holding the door open for his friends. I shot a curious glance in Demyx's direction, but he just shrugged and focused his attention back on the scene in front of us.
A full two minutes later, the kids were still struggling to make it through, and the men hadn't stopped shouting their questions or taking their damn pictures. By that point, Marluxia had stopped his flower arrangements and made his way towards the door, along with Larxene. I couldn't even pretend like I didn't care about all the chaos because my eyes were glued to everything going on. It wasn't everyday – or ever – that things like that happened at Wonderland Bakery.
Marluxia did his best to grab a hold of the kids and pull them through the massive crowd of paparazzi outside the entrance while Larxene cursed and threatened the men with what she would do to them if they even stepped one toe inside of the bakery.
The second one to make it through the crowd was a short, plump boy with crazy brunette hair that almost stuck straight up. I couldn't figure out what was so special about him or Cargo Pants that had the paparazzi so riled up and desperate to get a picture. I'd heard them calling out for Roxas, so I was busy trying to decide which of the two standing in front of me was the sought after boy.
Finally, the last of the group made their way out of the cluster of flashing cameras and the fat men holding onto them. A short boy with unruly blond hair and a seemingly permanent scowl on his face emerged with a skinny brunette girl, clutching onto his arm for dear life.
"Talk to us, Roxas!"
"Tell us how Sor-"
The questions were cut short, and the loud, obnoxious voices were stifled as Larxene slammed the door shut. She proceeded to stick up both of her middle fingers and give the evil eye, before turning back around and walking back to her spot behind the register.
My eyes were instantly drawn to the blonde boy who was the last to enter. He looked so young, not much older than 18, and it was obvious that he was the Roxas the men had been calling out for. I wasn't sure how I knew it because I'd never seen him before in my life, but something about him just radiated importance. My instincts proved to be correct when the boy and the rest of his friends walked up to the pastry counter and Demyx visibly tensed while Marluxia walked over with a grace I'd never seen the man use before.
"Welcome to Wonderland Bakery." Marluxia bent over slightly, almost a bow, and stuck his hand out for Roxas to shake. I tried not to roll my eyes at how stupid he looked.
Roxas didn't respond at first, keeping his hands buried deep in his pockets. After a careful study of my boss, though, he reluctantly took hold of the offered hand and shook it.
Marluxia responded with this way overdone smile that he used with all his customers. "Please, let me know if there's anything you need. Anything at all."
Roxas nodded politely before moving even closer to the counter. The girl, who was previously attached to his arm, finally let go and turned around the talk with the boys behind her. I tuned everything else out and focused my attention on Roxas, who wasn't paying attention to his friends or anything else, for that matter. Except the display of sweets.
Studying him, I got the feeling that Roxas was a little too serious for someone so young. He'd not once smiled since he entered the building, and his face looked too full of worries that had no business being there in the first place. I felt like I could relate, in some small way, so maybe that's why I continued to stare. Maybe that's why I let my mind wander, wondering just what his life was like. I tended to do that when I looked at people, which probably came from years of wishing I was someone else.
Somewhere along the line, I got kinda lost in his big, blue eyes. They were, undoubtedly, the bluest I'd ever seen in my life. Eyes like that didn't deserve to look so unhappy.
I was broken out of my thoughts by the voice and immediately realized how stupid I must have looked, just standing there and staring rather intensely at some random stranger. After clearing my throat, I opened my mouth to speak, but I never got the chance. Demyx had taken over and was eager to do so. I didn't mind much. In fact, I was grateful because I wasn't even sure what I'd say. Plus, it gave me more time to study the fascinating new subject known as Roxas.
As Demyx cheerily took the orders, I noted, for reasons unknown, that Roxas wanted a cupcake. Specifically, a cupcake with blue frosting. Not long after the treats were handed over, the group was checking out with Larxene and then they were exiting the bakery and, once again, joining the mob of paparazzi that had been waiting anxiously outside the door.
Once they were completely out of sight and everything had gone back to normal, I decided to say but I'd been wondering all along. "What the hell was that all about?" I was answered by three blank stares.
Demyx was the first to reply. "You can't be serious," he said while slopping some frosting onto a batch of freshly baked cupcakes. I didn't respond because I didn't have to.
"Do you even live in the same world as the rest of us?" Larxene picked up a magazine from the shelf and brought it over to me. She slapped it on top of the counter, causing Demyx to jump in surprise and squirt some frosting onto the wall. He groaned, but Larxene ignored him and slid the magazine over to me. "I swear, sometimes I really believe you're socially retarded."
I didn't bother to form a retort of any kind and, instead, just peered down at the gossip magazine. 'Sora Strife in a Love Triangle' read the huge, red letters on the front cover. Underneath was a photograph of a young, brunette guy with huge spikes and big, blue eyes full of shock. He was pulling on the arm of a redheaded girl, and in the corner was a separate picture of a blonde girl. Supposedly, the three of them were in some scandalous love triangle. That is, if gossip magazines were to be believed. But what was that supposed to mean to me? I looked up at Larxene, completely confused. She didn't bother answering my unspoken question and walked back over to her area.
"Who the hell is Sora Strife?"
Demyx let out and exasperated sigh and dropped the tube of icing, focusing his attention on me. "You're killing me, Axel."
"He's a famous actor," Marluxia informed while trying to concentrate on yet another flower arrangement. Flowers were his specialty, which always plagued me with the question of why he opened a bakery instead of a florist shop. I'd never gotten around to asking, but I planned on it someday.
"Really famous!" Demyx threw his arms up in exclamation. "Like massively, super famous. I seriously cannot believe you've never heard of him."
"And what does this have to do with what just went on in here with that Roxas kid?" I asked.
"Open the magazine to page 25," Larxene informed through her incessant gum chewing.
I grumbled at the lack of a straight-forward answer but did as I was told. Page 23. page 24. Finally, I arrived at the desired page, which covered the story on the cover about Sora. At first, I was not amused in the least, but then I spotted a small piece in the corner of the page. Roxas Strife on the rise? Is the brother of 'it boy' Sora Strife the next big thing? And there, clear as day, was a picture of Roxas, the boy who merely minutes ago had been in Wonderland Bakery asking for a cupcake.
I hated magazines like the one I was looking at, but for some reason, that didn't stop me from reading on. Besides the usual gossip that I didn't give a second thought to, I learned that Sora was 20 and had broken into the acting scene just a few years ago when he was 16. Roxas was his younger brother at 19. I felt stupid for not knowing a thing about either of them, especially Sora, since he'd been famous for so long. That was all the Solid information the article gave, so I tossed the magazine to the side and waited for Larxene to come back over and pick it up. I couldn't be bothered to move, after all.
At the end of the work day, which meant six o'clock for me, I clocked out and left the rest of my co-workers behind to clean up. Finally walking out into the cool, evening air was refreshing. It had grown chillier during the time I'd been stuck inside, and I hadn't even thought to bring a jacket with me that morning, but I didn't care because I was just glad to be outside again. It didn't even matter that the air in Radiant Garden was a bit stagnant and always smelled of exhaust from the thousands of cars racing up and down the highway. I hardly noticed anymore, anyway. That's what happens when you live in one place your whole life.
After inhaling a deep breath and running a hand through my hair, which was looking particularly droopy, I shoved my hands in my pockets and turned left. I was going to head over to the Smoothie King and keep Zexion company for his last half hour of work as I usually did on the weekends.
The bell overhead chimed upon entering, alerting whoever happened to be inside that a new customer had arrived. The place was pretty much dead like it typically was on Sunday evenings. Zexion was nowhere in sight, but the short, bouncy, dark-haired nuisance known as Yuffie was behind the counter. She noticed me almost instantly.
"Hey, Red!" She waved excitedly as the door eased shut behind me. I wasn't very fond of nicknames, but I let that slide when it came to Yuffie. She and Zexion had become somewhat close since they started working together, and that made her something to me. Although, I wasn't quite sure what that something was yet.
"Where's Zexion?" I brushed past the tables in the middle of the floor and walked up to the counter.
"Oh, you know," Yuffie began, a smirk growing on her face as she wiped down the counter. "Probably off being creepy somewhere, like usual."
"I heard that!" Zexion emerged from the back room, carrying a box in his arms. Yuffie cringed once she realized she'd been caught but still turned around and flashed Zexion the sweetest smile she could muster. He ignored her and raised an eyebrow at me. That was my cue to speak.
"So, today something…peculiar happened at the bakery." I placed my elbows on the counter and rested my chin in my hands.
Yuffie perked up immediately, eyes wider than before and attention completely focused on my mouth, waiting with bated breath for the rest of the words to come spilling out. "Ooh, do share," she said eagerly. I knew Yuffie would be interested in my story. She was the queen of gossip, after all.
"Well…" I trailed off, unsuccessfully hiding a smile. I was dragging it along on purpose because I loved to watch Yuffie squirm, to dangle a potentially juicy story in front of her until she almost couldn't take it anymore. Her cheeks puffed up and she started to pout when she figured out exactly what I was doing, but before she had a chance to throw a complete fit, I continued. "This kid named Roxas Strife stopped by…"
Yuffie's eyes lit up like she'd just been handed a slice of heaven, like all of her greatest hopes and wishes were coming true in the form of my words. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't the slightest bit amused by the way she seemed to be having a hard time forming any coherent words. When you rendered Yuffie speechless, it was a true miracle to be cherished.
I decided to turn my attention to Zexion, at least until the girl was able to pull herself together. He had a look of complete disinterest on his face as he took a few cups out of the box and set them in the cupboard below the counter. "Am I supposed to know, or even care, who Roxas Strife is?"
"That's totally what I thought earlier," I said in delight at the fact that Zexion and I were on the same page. It happened a lot more than the two of us ever cared to notice.
"Oh. My. God." Yuffie had overcome her temporary shock, voice calm and controlled, at first. She turned sharply towards Zexion and pointed an accusing finger at him. When he gave no response, she looked back to me. "How can you guys not know who Roxas Strife is? You mean to tell me you've never heard of Sora Strife?"
"Save it," I said, effectively stopping the imminent freak out. "I know all about them now, but when he walked through the door, I had absolutely no idea."
"That is incredible!" Yuffie picked up the dishrag and began to furiously scrub the counter. "You guys are sad. Pathetic, even." She seemed satisfied with that, but I could tell by the way she suddenly froze and how her face scrunched up that we were about to get an earful.
"How could you let Roxas Strife walk into your work place and not get an autograph? How could you not let me know so I could go meet him?" She threw the rag at me, but I caught it in my hands as if I'd been expecting it. And I had because that wasn't the first time she'd assaulted me with things lying around counter.
"What I want to know…" Zexion trailed off as he pulled the last few plastic cups out of the box, "is why someone as rich and famous as this Roxas kid would willingly enter that crazy ass little bakery."
"I know, right. That's what I'm saying!" Zexion and I laughed as Yuffie, who had resorted to cleaning off tables, continued her pouting.
I spent the next twenty minutes in the Smoothie King, leaning over the counter and talking to Zexion as he waited to serve customers who never showed up. Yuffie decided that a silent treatment was in order, so she didn't say one word to us the whole rest of the time. I couldn't decide if her silence was a gift or a curse, but I figured it to be the former. It was only as we all exited the small shop that the girl returned to her normal, jovial self when she bid us farewell and promised to see us tomorrow. I never had any doubts that we would.