Roxas stood on the curb, a duffel bag slung over his shoulder and a sleeping bag tucked under his arm. He pulled his cellphone out of a hoodie pocket and checked the time: 6:30 PM. He's late, Roxas thought, a tinge of annoyance creeping in. He shuffled his position and cast a nervous glance at the apartment building parking lot; being out here for too long, especially in late afternoon, gave him a serious case of the willies. The rent was cheap enough and the place was mostly insect-free but the neigborhood it was located in left something to be desired. Part of him felt guilty complaining, even to himself, about his living situation since it was Axel who helped him get the apartment in the first place, even if the stairway always smelled of weed and they'd been woken up by gunshots a few times. And it had also been Axel who had gotten him this job, this dead-end, mindless job.
Being a pencil pusher was far down on Roxas' list of desirable careers. But it was either this or minimum wage flipping burgers at some greasy fast food joint. No matter which, he was wasting his life away here. The day-to-day monotony, the bickering, the meetings, stale doughnuts and bitter coffee in the break room. This particular jaunt was the result of a outbreak of food theft. He had groaned audibly when he had gotten the email in his inbox: "team building retreat." Mandatory. Even the hour and a half drive was some ham- handed attempt at "team building" by having workers car pool.
"Hey, is he here yet?"
Roxas started and nearly toppled over as Axel came jogging over. "Axel!" he said, a tad breathless. "Man, don't scare me like that. I thought you were gonna mug me or something."
Axel rolled his eyes, grinning. "Don't be so dramatic." He took a peek at his cell. "I hope he can find the place. I just told him to look for the shittiest apartment building in town."
"Wait, did you give him actual directions?"
"No, I told him to just keep driving around and he'll eventually find us - yeah, of course, I gave him real directions. I even printed them out and everything." He sighed, jamming his hands in his pockets. "I can't believe we have to do this, all because Larxene got pissed someone stole her yogurt."
"There's probably more to it than that, right?"
"Yeah, probably but man...what kind of a dick steals food anyway?" He peered over Roxas' head. "Here we go...I think."
A sporty SUV came rolling into the parking lot, horn blaring. "Oh, that's him, all right," Roxas heard Axel mutter under his breath. A tinted window rolled down and Def Leppard washed over them like a wave. Xigbar leaned across Demyx and shouted, "What are you waiting for? Come on and get in!"
"What, did you get lost or something?" Axel said, as he slung his and Roxas' overnight bags and sleeping bags into the small storage area behind the backseat. Xion, already sitting behind Xigbar, gave a small wave and a weak smile. Roxas was in the process of returning the wave when Axel climbed in, sending him sprawling into the seat. Xigbar peeled out of the parking lot as soon as the door was closed, leaving Roxas and Axel to scramble to buckle their seat belts while the vehicle reached dangerous speeds.
"No, but somebody wasn't ready when we swung by to get him," answered Xigbar, daring a glance with his good eye at Demyx, who was thumbing through an mp3 player and pointedly ignoring any accusations. "So we're probably going to be late now."
"Well, don't kill us before we get there," said Axel, clutching the interior handle. He glanced around the SUV for a moment. "So, uh...what's with the soccer mom car here? This yours? Where's the Charger?"
"In my garage," Xigbar said. "Did you think I was going to ferry you guys around in my car? As if! Probably wouldn't fit everyone in there, anyway. So I rented this baby here for the weekend." He patted an armrest.
Roxas inhaled, relishing the scent of new car and pine air freshner and some soft scent that he couldn't place. "Well, at least it smells nice in here."
"I know, right?" said Axel. "I keeping thinking about those poor bastards riding with Vexen. It smells like an old folks' home in there."
Roxas gave an involuntary shudder. He remembered all too well the morning Axel's car, some model that had seen its fair share of wrecks and rust, had refused to crank. Axel sent a mass text out and it was their bad fortune that the one who answered the call was Vexen and his van.
"And he wouldn't even let us roll down the windows or anything," Axel was saying. "He said it messed up the gas mileage or something stupid like that. Wait, isn't Larxene with them?"
"I think so," said Roxas.
"Good, so there is justice in the world. I'm blaming her for all of this, you know."
As a slightly awkward silence fell, it occured to Roxas that, save for Xion and Axel, he hadn't spent much time outside of work with the rest of his coworkers. Beyond the office-friendly demeanor most of them put on, he hardly knew a thing about them. As much of a pain in the ass this retreat was turning out to be, some small part of him was starting to feel a sense of excitement at being able to glimpse a small peek into the after hours version of everyone. He wondered vaguely if they acted the same off the clock or if they'd manage to keep up the same guarded air during the entire thing, given there might be secret evaluations. The company president loved secret evaluations almost as much as he loved 8:00 AM meetings.
At a red light, Xigbar pulled out an earbud from Demyx's ear. "Hey, kid, come up for air. This car pooling bullshit is part of the whole thing, you know? If I have to suffer through it, so do you."
Demyx groaned. "Do I absolutely have to? Man, this is so lame." He slouched like a petulant child in his seat. "Just because someone kept taking Larxene's yogurt..." He trailed off, grumbling himself into silence. "At least play something halfway decent on the radio."
"So, what are you saying, you don't like Zep?"
Demyx sighed and rolled his eyes nearly out their sockets and put in his earbuds back in. "Look, I'm going to take a nap. Wake up me up when we get there, okay?" He reclined his seat only a few inches above Axel's knees.
"Urgh," Axel groaned. "He is a waste of front seat privileges."
Vexen listened to the easy listening station. It was the same station he listened to in his office on his ancient stereo, way down in the makeshift lab (formerly the basement and presently the storage space for the holiday decorations.) Zexion had been a good sport and decided to take one for the team and sit shotgun but he was now regretting every bit of this decision as he watched Vexen down his third Arizona iced tea and hum softly to Bryan Adams. Zexion also worked in the research department but the hours were passed with work and theories and the conversation was always business-like. Here, alone in the front seat, trying to make small talk was something akin to torture; there were only so many times one could nod and say "mm-hmm" as Vexen ranted on about the state of the economy and the president, that damned socialist, pardon his French.
Although the speed limit on the interstate was 70, Vexen barely drove above the minimum. He sat close to the dashboard, hunched over, white-knuckling the steering wheel and spat venom at every driver that dared pass him. He also didn't tolerate any eating or drinking in his van unless it was him doing the partaking ("That's how you get ants!") and the interior smelled musty and dank, especially in the front seat, near the air vents. Part of Zexion envied his coworkers sitting in the back two rows: Xaldin and Lexaeus on the closest, both of them stony-faced and silent, and Marluxia and Larxene in the furthest back, whispering and conspiring together.
"So, how about this retreat?" said Zexion, trying to steer the topic towards something the two had equal footing on.
"Hmph, what about it?" Vexen said sourly. "I should be in the lab right now instead of on this asinine trip. I stay later on Fridays, you know," he added, in case Zexion had not noticed this habit in the past year and half of employment.
"Mmm," Zexion said. Truth be told, Zexion agreed; spending any extra time (especially a weekend!) with coworkers he barely tolerated had the makings of a nightmare. "You know, rumor has it it's because of the food thefts in the break room - "
Vexen snorted. "Food thefts!" And then he was off again, talking about proper labels, the honor system, the nerve of some people!, a rant that quickly turned into a commentary on the current state of affairs in the country, ad nauseam. Some small part of Zexion was amused to see this side of his coworker; he had never taken him to be political, especially the frothing, militant kind of political. He observed him with a detached sort of fascination, as Vexen became so incensed he spit on the windshield.
A peal of laughter came from the backseat, high and feminine. "Sorry!" Larxene said as Marluxia shushed her, barely stifling a laugh himself.
Vexen's mouth twitched a bit in annoyance. In his mind, the ride to the retreat had been no one but him and Zexion, the like-minded scientist, the only other intelligent one in the company, save the president. He had had visions of the two exchanging ideas, having a serious discussion on current topics, a real meeting of the minds. Instead, he got two silent man mountains, a pair of gigglepusses, and Zexion, who was not digging in to the real issues at hand with him as he had hoped.
The iced tea suddenly caught up with Vexen in a rush. "Oooh," he said. "I'm afraid we're going to have to get off at the next exit, I've got a bit of business to attend to."
The nearest gas station turned out to be about five miles off the exit, some run-down, backwoods place with a separate room selling deer feed and fishing tackle. Vexen parked at the pumps and took the keys inside with him and locked the doors. For a few moments there was silence until Larxene let out a barking laugh and said, "It smells like a fart in here!" and begin to furiously try rolling her windows down.
"I think the locks are on," said Xaldin, who had tried to the automatic windows earlier with little luck.
"Oh my God..." Larxene sighed loudly. "All right, okay, Zexion, turn your ass around and listen up, okay?"
Zexion peered into the backseat, taking somewhat longer than necessary, just to needle her a bit. "What is it?"
"Marluxia and I have been talking - okay, well, Marluxia, you tell them, it was your idea to begin with."
Marluxia cleared his throat dramatically. "I say we stage a mutiny."
Xaldin made what he hoped was a derisive laugh. "And how do you propose we do that? Hold Vexen down and take the keys away from him?"
"Exactly," said Marluxia. "Larxene suggested we tie him to the roof but I think that's a bit much - "
"It'll never work," Xaldin interrupted. "Besides, it's his van, isn't it?"
"So?" Larxene sneered. "Just because we - "
"What do you think, Lexaeus?" Zexion turned to his friend, making a show of ignoring Larxene.
"Hmm." Lexaeus seemed to be in silent contemplation for a few seconds. "I...don't think that's the best. Remember, we still have the retreat itself and this entire thing is about trusting one another and building - "
Larxene gave a strangled scream and flopped back in her seat. "I can't believe you people."
As if settling the matter, Vexen came out of the store, swinging a bag of what one would assume to be more iced teas, and began pumping gas. He also had on a pair of new sunglasses, the tag still dangling from one lens.
"Forget the mutiny - let's just take the damn iced teas. I'm gonna die of thirst before we get there," Larxene whined.
After a quick stop for snacks and a heated argument about cereal-flavored milk ("Look, I know everyone has had this idea at one point, I'm not saying it's a bad idea but - "), Xigbar was entertaining the car with stories about the several months he spent rooming with Xaldin in their youth.
"And so there he is, standing in the middle of the living room, buck-ass naked, and pounding his meat...oh." Xigabar peered at Xion in the rearview mirror. "Sorry there, poppet, forgot we had a lady on-board."
"I-it's fine," Xion said quietly, staring down at the bottle of Coke in her lap.
"So, anyway, as I was saying, there he is, doing you-know-what to his you-know-what - "
"Hey," Roxas whispered to Xion and nudged her in the shoulder. "You've been really quiet this whole time. Is everything okay?"
Xion shook her head. "Oh, no, I'm fine, I'm just...you know...a little nervous about this whole thing. It's kind of silly, isn't it? It's not like I don't see everyone every day - "
"It's not silly," said Roxas, attempting to keep his voice down lest Xigbar overhear. "I mean, you're new here, right? It's only natural to be a little nervous, especially outside of work and everything. But Axel and me are here with you, okay?"
Xion gave Roxas a smile, a real one this time, and nodded. Roxas understood Xion's feelings all too well, having been in the same position himself not even a few months ago, trying not to look out of place with his thrift store clothes and bologna sandwiches. Axel had taken him under his wing, as Axel was wont to do, and showed him the ropes a few days, getting him used to the tempermental copier and the courtesy flush policy. Roxas had tried to do the same with Xion when she'd shown up one cold morning a few weeks ago, although his department was different from hers, in another wing of the building. But it wasn't long before the three of them were eating lunch together and making coffee runs and hanging out at McDonald's after work.
As corny as it sounded, he sometimes thought that if the three of them were together, no matter the storm, they'd weather it. The concept of "friends" was beginning to grow on him, strange as it was. Friends weren't just people you say "hey" to sometimes; they were people you laughed at dumb jokes with and who helped you put together furniture from IKEA and sat up with you after a scary movie marathon even though you insisted that you were okay but you really weren't -
The SUV went over a bump and Roxas' bag of M&Ms went tumbling out of his hands and all over the floor. "Nooo," he moaned, trying not to crush the mutilcolored candies under his tennis shoes. "They were tear n' share size and everything..."
"Here," said Axel, shoving a bag of Skittles under Roxas' nose. "You can share mine with me. Besides," he added, plucking an M&M off the floor and brushing it off on his shirt, "five second rule and all that."
The car lurched forward as Xigbar passed an 18-wheeler chugging along the interstate. "C'mon, shit or get off the pot!" he shouted as he rode the tail of a car in the fast lane. "Man, Saix is really going to have my ass for being so late. He and Luxord are probably already there. All right, hold on to your asses, things are about to get fast here."
"Remember what I said about getting us there in without killing us?" Axel said, grimacing as he watched the needle of the speedometer move.
"We'll all be dead if we get there after the barbecue starts," Xigbar said through gritted teeth, a sheet of sweat glistening on his forehead.
"Barbecue?" Demyx rolled over, one earbud dangling. "Nobody told me there'd be barbecue!"
"It was in the email. Didn't you read the email?"
"There was an email?"
Roxas turned to give an encouraging smile to Xion, who, like Axel, was gripping the interior handles and looking rather sick. "They don't call 'em the 'oh, shit handles' for nothing," Axel joked to Xion over Roxas' head. "Relax, I think we're almost there - "
There was a screech of tires as Xigbar forced the SUV into another lane. The car behind them laid on the horn and Xigbar stuck a hand out, middle finger waving in the wind and gave a rather hysterical laugh. "Here's the exit!" he yelled, barely having enough time to put on the blinkers and decelerate. Xion gave a small yelp as the SUV barreled up the exit and merged on nearly two wheels. Roxas let out a breath he wasn't aware he was holding.
The roads became more tiny and twisty as they ventured deeper in the woods, trees becoming nothing more than blurs of green. Roxas could barely make the words of the sign as they turned down a small lane: the something-and-something conference center. Within seconds, a small building came into view, with a rather nice looking luxury car already parked out in front. The SUV came to a screeching halt on the gravel drive, pelting the car's rear window with a spray of rocks. Luxord, who had been bent over inside the car, almost dropped the 12 pack of sodas he was hefting out of the backseat. For what felt like an eternity, nobody said a word, all of them just sitting there and breathing and enjoying the fact they had arrived alive, in one piece, and without the SUV catching on fire.
Then Xigbar started to laugh, startling everyone. "Hey, what do you know, looks like we're the first ones here."
Axel threw a Skittle at him.