Warning, this is a double update! If you didn't read the last chapter, this one will be over your head!
Hahaha, don't hate me after this. D:
Everything But Rain
The office was… different.
Though Christmas was over, there was still the ever-dreaded New Year's Eve party just around the corner. And by 'party,' it was really just everyone casually loitering together at Sully's. Sully's was an Irish themed pub a block away from the office. It was sticky and dark and altogether rather unpleasant, but more coworkers would usually show up at the New Year's gathering than the Christmas party because Sully's was as good a place as any to get drunk for another unexceptional year. To be in the company of people you could quasi-trust to lean your shoulder on after a rough night of binge drinking was just a perk.
The snow this year was piling up fast. Snow plows ground their way down every city street. Sidewalks were nearly impassable, covered in a soupy mixture of frozen slush and not enough tossed salt. Vaughn found his tires sliding as he came to a rickety stop in the parking lot. He turned the key and the junk car rumbled to a halt.
Vaughn leaned back in the seat and yawned. Christmas had been the usual. Since his own family was few and far between, he had made the trip with Denny to his parents' house. That included his on-again, off-again girlfriend Lanna. The blonde was particularly perky, carting a fruit cake as a welcoming gift. But by the time dinner was over, and Denny's parents had used every bad joke in the book (just as obnoxious as their son), Lanna and Denny were at it again. They fought over the fruit cake. They fought over the Christmas tree. They fought all the way back to the city, Vaughn getting an earful the entire way. He couldn't have been happier to finally drop them off at the curb, still bickering senselessly about nothing.
The trip was a long one. By the time he had made it back to his apartment, it was nearly three in the morning. And he was too tired after his couple hours of sleep to meander into a coffee shop for fuel.
Vaughn's eyes had drooped as he dozed in his seat. He suddenly bolted up, hitting his head on the roof in the process. Grumbling to himself, he grabbed his briefcase and quickly left his car out into the cold, biting air.
Terry wasn't anywhere to be seen in the lobby and a quick knock on the soda machine was also negative. So Vaughn stumbled to the elevator, hoping to crash at his desk with as little work as possible today.
But something was decidedly wrong.
The doors let out a ding! as they opened on the third floor. To stony silence.
Vaughn stepped carefully by the cubicles, passing Louis and Candace's office door that was shut tight with the blinds down. Luke and Tina's office was open, and with a quick glance, Luke was still nursing a hangover from the holiday rush, and Tina was busily clacking away at her keyboard.
It was strange enough to see the source team looking productive, but the row where Alice, Rod, and Allen sat side by side was equally eerie, as they all wore similar, tight frowns. Allen looked particularly upset, not bothering to look up or jeer as Vaughn watched them. Basil hurried away from Gill's desk, set with an errand coming his way. The boy looked startled to see Vaughn, holding the stack of papers in his hands close to his face as if it was a safe barrier.
"H-Hello, Vaughn, sir!" Basil squeaked, edging close to the wall to get around him. Vaughn noticed he was wearing the collar Hamilton got for him. It had an official office tag, so the boss really wasn't kidding – it was the poor kid's ID. Once by, he practically ran to the elevator, rapidly tapping the button to escape.
What the hell was going on? Did the coffee machine break again? Vaughn passed Molly's empty desk and paused. It wasn't empty. Molly was just tucked in the back by the floor, blowing her nose into a tissue.
"Molly?" Vaughn propped his arms up onto her desk wall, looking down where the girl was huddled. "What's going on around here?"
Molly shook her head, taking a deep breath to calm herself. She straightened up and eventually pulled herself to her feet. She rocked on her high heels as she absent-mindedly pulled the pink blouse tucked into her skirt down and out, making her look sloppy. She paused when she caught sight of the scarf wrapped around his neck and attempted a smile. "It's nothing… I'm just over-reacting…"
"What about?" Vaughn pressed. He was too tired to beat around the bush, and he wanted a straight answer for once.
She just shook her head again, adjusting some of the papers on her desk. Her hands lingered on an old file folder before she dropped it with finality. "I'm getting coffee."
And just like that, Molly buzzed from her desk and into the break room. The door clattered behind her as she left Vaughn in the dark.
Even more irritable since Molly wasn't talking to him either, Vaughn trudged to his desk and dumped out his things. He pulled off the red scarf and tossed it in the corner with his jacket. Sitting down in his swivel chair, he swirled around to find a bright pair of eyes watching him closely.
"What?" Vaughn snapped.
Gill broke contact, going back to his computer monitor and clicking his mouse.
"You, too? What? Don't have any snide remarks? I'm late, you know," he tempted, firing up his computer in the process.
"I know," Gill answered easily. He gave him a sideways glance, appraising him. "You're taking this better than I would have expected…"
"What?!" He growled, his fists clenching as he resisted pounding his desk with them. "What are you talking about?"
"You don't know?" Gill's eyebrows shot up in surprise, his hands freezing over the keyboard.
"How could you not know?" Allen stood up as he listened in on their one-sided argument, glaring over the cubicle wall that separated them.
"How could I know? What am I supposed to know? Jesus, what's the big secret?" Vaughn asked, looking between both men as he sat in between.
Dan was up at his desk and watching the exchange, his lips securely shut. Molly exited the break room with two cups of coffee and puffy eyes, marching over to the accounting office and entering, the door swinging shut behind her. Alice stopped her faux business act and took out her nail file.
Rod popped up in his cubicle next to Allen, resting his elbows on the wall. He bit his lip. The words following felt surreal. "Lay-offs? …It was Candace."
Vaughn felt very stiff suddenly. Candace? Laid off? It couldn't be. How could they let her go? They needed her!
He quickly shut his mouth when he realized his jaw had dropped. His eyes shot to Allen, whose sour expression had intensified. "It's true? When?"
Gill picked up the professional side, straightening out his new black tie as he read from a report on his desktop. "Miss Candace, formally terminated on December the twenty-third. Given warning on November thirteenth and clocked out after four years, five months, and twenty-seven days," his eyes were cold and shrewd going over the facts, looking to Vaughn at the last sentence. "Her last day was Monday."
The Christmas party? She had looked so happy and cheerful. And it was all an act. One she had been putting on for weeks, apparently. November? Vaughn stood from his seat, ignoring the buzz from his phone. "But why didn't she tell anyone?"
"Who knows?" Alice said, still filing away at her nails. She looked up, her eyes glowing like a feline's. "We were notified by e-mail – it was sent out Monday night, so unless you bothered to check your work address over Christmas, you wouldn't have had a clue. Not even Molly knew."
Vaughn stared at the closed door that was now just Louis' office. It was so hard to believe. That if he opened that door, a girl with braids in her blue hair wouldn't be smiling back at him with a Styrofoam cup of herbal tea. All the recent times he had flubbed asking her out were surging through his brain like a drill. When he whacked her in the head with a Frisbee, finding out she was a Hooters girl, and getting stuck in an elevator. His eyes widened with realization, all of the things she had said throughout November and December now making more sense. Even her rejection. She had known then. And she had turned him down, knowing she wouldn't see him ever again in a few weeks. And she had said she deserved it. While everyone was betting and voting who would get the boot, Candace was standing there well aware it was her regardless of her colleague's theories and stupid jokes.
But it wasn't her fault! Vaughn's mental voice was sounding like Molly again, arguing on the positive. She needed the job. She couldn't afford her rent. What was she supposed to do? And what was she supposed to do – now that her main income was cut out from under her?
"Vaughn?" Allen tentatively asked.
"Hey!" Gill shouted to stop him.
Vaughn's hand hovered over the handle to Hamilton's office. He froze. He wanted to barge in and throw a fit. Sucker punch Hamilton's bulbous nose. Demand answers. Why her? Why not… someone else…? But who else, really?
Questions were being posed around him. Explanations were pouring out. Accounting needed down-sizing. It was the slowest working sector. Not much to do. Not enough for two people. Louis did the better work—
Like bees buzzing around in his brain, Vaughn tried to ignore the reasons for letting her go. He let out a sigh and let his arm fall limp at his side. He stiffly turned around, feeling the eyes of nearly everyone on the main floor glued to him. Before he knew it, his feet had carried him to the closed office for sanctuary, and his wrist turned the door knob.
"—she requested it not be announced. You know how she didn't like to make a show of things… Worrying people. The Superintendent approved, and that was that…"
Louis' sentence drifted off as Vaughn slowly shut the door behind him, awkwardly looking between the two bleary-eyed people in the brightly lit room. His eyes fell to the desk in front of him. The empty desk. He should have known – it was completely clear the day of the party, but for the little, gift-wrapped box she had never seen. Not even a desk lamp or a notepad was left behind. She had somehow boxed it all away without anyone noticing. Except for one person. One person who had to have known.
Molly was sitting in Candace's old chair by Louis' desk, both had their mugs of lukewarm coffee in their laps. Their heads had snapped up in alarm when the door was opened. Once they realized it was Vaughn, they avoided eye contact.
Vaughn grumbled and shuffled his feet, reaching a hand to his hair and shielding his face in the process. "I… heard…"
Molly gave him a reassuring, half-felt smile. "I should have known you wouldn't have checked your e-mail."
He nodded and ran his hand through his hair to the back of his head. His violet eyes locked on Louis. "How long have you known?"
"She made me promise not to tell!" Louis was quickly on the defensive, but it was a sorry front. He looked down into his untouched coffee. "The beginning, really… we had to interview with Superintendent Vivi. We've been on warning since performance reviews, but I was picked over Candace a couple months ago."
"I just can't believe she's not going to be around here anymore…" Molly sighed, stirring her drink with her pinkie. She scoffed. "Who's going to hang out in the break room with me? Talking about everyone else… She was my best friend…"
"She's not dead," Vaughn stated flatly, even surprising himself. Both Louis and Molly jumped. He cleared his throat and coughed into his fist, back to being awkward and avoiding eye contact. "Er… she still works downtown…"
"That's right," Molly suddenly smirked like a mischievous cat. She uncrossed her legs. "I forgot you knew about that."
"Her other job?" Louis whispered like it still needed to be a secret.
"We can visit whenever we want," Vaughn said, now clenching both fists in his pockets. "After work…"
"Yeah!" Molly perked up considerably, downing the rest of her drink and leaving the empty mug on Louis' desk. She let out a satisfied sigh and stood, letting out a little chuckle as she took in her appearance and righted her outfit by tucking in her skirt. "It'll just be around the corner! No big deal. You want to meet there at six?"
Vaughn nodded, feeling the pit in his stomach lift with the happy plan. Because that was right. Candace wasn't gone for good. She could still be their favorite, local waitress.
"Oh, shit, I'll need a ride," Molly snapped her fingers, picking up her mug again.
"I can drive you," Vaughn volunteered, Louis now looking between them like he was watching ping pong.
"Thanks! Is there room for Lou, too?" Molly beckoned a thumb over her shoulder.
"Sure," Vaughn shrugged. He reached for the door knob to follow Molly out, but both turned when they heard a light cough.
Louis pushed his wiry glasses up his nose, lifting a hesitant hand in the air for attention. "Um… where does she work exactly?"
Vaughn kicked his car door closed, not bothering to lock it. No one would want to hijack his old, rust bucket anyways. He tossed the keys over the roof to Molly. "Yup."
Louis gulped at the orange sign, eyes wide and searching like he was about to board a roller coaster. He pulled at the collar of his coat, running to catch up with Molly and Vaughn as they crossed the parking lot. "W-wait! What does she… do…?"
Molly looked over her shoulder at Louis with an incredulous expression, zipping her purse shut with Vaughn's car keys safely tucked away. "What do you think? It's a restaurant!"
"W-well, I've never been…" Louis started, fumbling with his words again as he started to sweat. Vaughn held the door open, and the three slipped inside, Louis bouncing on his heels as he stared around at the sport logos and gear hung on the walls. "I, I mean, I knew it was a restaurant, but here?"
"Chill," Vaughn said. Louis then hung his head, biding his time by staring at the tiles on the floor.
Molly crossed her arms with a small smile, tucking her hair behind an ear as they waited at the front for the hostess to return. Girls wearing the Hooter's orange T-shirts and brown shorts swarmed the restaurant, serving guests chicken wings and beer for happy hour. So far, there was no blue hair in sight between the crowded seats.
"See her?" Vaughn asked, making Molly jump that he was thinking the same.
"Not yet," Molly shrugged, hiking up her purse over her shoulder. She puffed out her bangs. "I hope she's working today…"
A sophisticated waitress with locks of pale blonde hair wrapped in a ribbon over her shoulder sauntered up to the hostess' stand and looked over the papers there. She picked up three menus and smiled brightly at the trio in front of her. "Howdy there, and welcome to Hooters! Table or bar?"
Vaughn noted her ruby eyes and remembered her from last time. She seemed to be a friend of Candace's then. "Is Candace working today?"
The girl with the name tag 'Eve' seemed surprised by the question, her retail persona faltering. Her brow furrowed as she narrowed her eyes in suspicion. "I'm sorry?"
Molly took the cue, stepping forward with a wave. "Hi, Eve! Just stopping in to say hello!"
Her eyes lit up in recognition, but Vaughn didn't like how her face fell for a second before the friendly smile. "Oh, Molly! Sorry, I didn't see you there. Friends of yours?"
"Yeah," Molly nodded, indicating the stoic, glaring Vaughn and shaking, red-faced Louis behind her. "Coworkers and more friends of Candace. Is she in for a shift tonight?"
Eve bit her lip, looking past the three at a group of four entering behind them. She gave an almost imperceptible shake of her head. "Uh… Sorry, no… I thought she would have told you… Candace quit last Friday."
"What?" Louis piped up at long last, a look of despair overwhelming his features.
The waitress was even more startled by their reaction, snatching up another menu. "She said she had to clear out since money wasn't good enough. Went back to her family, I heard. Um, I'm sorry."
"Thanks," Vaughn said, pulling a frozen Molly aside so the patrons behind them could be seated. Eve cheerily greeted them and showed them to their table. Vaughn shook Molly's shoulder, successfully rattling her like rag doll in her floppy state. "Hey. Let's go."
"But she was supposed to be here…" Molly's voice was almost too small to hear.
"C-come on, Molly," Louis held the door open, eager to leave.
Vaughn ushered her out, and the three found themselves on the sidewalk next to a few snow covered hedges. It was bitter cold outside, but the sun was shining out its last on the horizon as the streetlights flickered dimly in the winter evening. A dishwasher on break was struggling to smoke a cigarette against the wind, shivering in their shoes by the back door.
Molly dejectedly leaned against the mustard-colored hood of Vaughn's beater car, staring numbly ahead of her. "Now what do we do?"
"Go home," Vaughn suggested, holding his hand out for his keys. Molly procured them and dropped them in his palm with a jangle.
"That's it?" Louis asked, hands held in his pockets against the cold he was squinting through as the wind whipped his hair across his glasses. "She's just… gone?"
There was a strained silence between them as they shuddered at the subzero temperatures and the grim prospect. They'd probably never see her again. Gone. Just like that. Vaughn morbidly thought it was like Candace really was dead…
Molly propelled herself forward, making a brisk pace towards the street. Louis and Vaughn watched her go in confusion before they each called out to her at once. "Hey! – Molly?"
She held up a hand over her head to assure she was alright. She walked backwards up the street, waving her hand over her head to summon a car.
"Hey!" Vaughn shouted again over the wind that was picking up.
Molly shook her head. A taxi soon appeared and came to a neat, professional stop before her. She stated a quick housing district address and hopped in.
Vaughn looked over his car, shaking his head. Louis blinked at him in startled surprise. "Is she going to be alright?"
Vaughn just shook his head again and opened the car door. "Get in, Louis. Your car's still back at the office, yeah?"
"Right…" Louis nodded, struggling into the passenger's seat. He fiddled with the twisted seat belt, hastily clicking it as Vaughn revved up the motor and sped over the curb with a bump. Louis didn't right himself in time, and his head clunked against the roof.
"Sorry," Vaughn shortly apologized, spinning the wheel much too quickly and setting them onto the street.
"N-no worries!" Louis tried to smile though he had bitten his tongue. "I've got a thick skull…"
Vaughn switched his lights on as he dodged traffic he deemed too slow. The city buildings and unfortunate, shivering pedestrians flashed by them. The engine shuddered and the muffler rumbled and rattled with rust underneath.
"I… was hoping to give it to her," Louis looked at the neatly wrapped, little gift box in his hands. He shoved it back in his pocket. "Doesn't matter now…"
Vaughn silently agreed, still unsure how to take the whole situation. It was such a strange mess Candace had left behind. Did she even know how much they needed her? Or how she'd be missed? He absent-mindedly considered picking up tea as a habit but soured when he remembered the bitterness on his tongue.
Louis' eyes were downcast as his hand found the handle on the ceiling, holding on for his own safety. The car hopped over a pot hole, swaying them both. "I guess it can't get much worse… can it?"
A pair of green, shining eyes turned to look at the speeding car roaring towards it. The alley it had left was littered with overturned trash cans. Vaughn slammed on the brakes, but bright headlights behind them engulfed the little car and made it impossible to come to a stop. The raccoon hissed at the approaching tire but was no match. With a great, jarring smack, the animal collided with Vaughn's side of the car and slush and ice sent the squealing tires sailing into the wide alley of clanking garbage cans.
The car came to an abrupt stop, half of a garbage can wedged underneath the front tire that had murdered the raccoon. Louis picked up his glasses off the dash where they had flown off his face. He blinked around in the darkness in paralyzed shock. Vaughn was gripping the steering wheel with white knuckles, but he looked more cross than scared. Louis haltingly called out to him, worried despite the dark expression on the silver-haired man's face. "Vaughn…? Are you okay?"
His hands gripped tighter, the rubber squeaking under his angry palms. He released a tired sigh. "You just had to say something…"