BHM The Lodge - by BrokenCassette (~BHM, ~FFA, ~~WG, Romance)

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BrokenCassette

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~BHM, ~~WG, Romance -

The Lodge
by BrokenCassette

(Author's Note: I really hope I did all this right, I haven't submitted anything to the literature section of Dims quite yet. I apologize if I messed something up.)


It must have been hours since anyone had said a single word. The only sound came from the awkward clatter of silverware against silverware, the kitchen lights tired and fading as the employees at the White Lake Lodge worked cautiously and quietly. Xavier had never gotten used to the strange silence of those late nights, when patrons at the inn had long since gone to sleep and there was little to do except clean. True, he couldn't imagine what they might talk about if anyone should happen to speak up, but it never stopped being awkward, even after having worked there for months. It almost seemed like the silence had intensified since the season turned, as though the snow outside had muffled their spirits along with the forest.

Still, there was something else about that evening which had made him uneasy. Somehow the year's end had snuck up on them, and within a few weeks it would be the holiday season, the lodge's most hectic and stressful period. Even though November hadn't quite ended yet, already the foyer was sprinkled with fake holly and legions of ornamental pine cones - Christmas Eve was quite the production at the Lodge. It felt an awful lot like a calm before the storm. Trying to keep this in mind, Xavier made an effort to appreciate the time he still had before all the chaos set in, realizing that silent kitchens would soon be the least of his worries.

It had gotten dark outside hours ago, as it typically did in the winter, and the skies above the outskirts of Kortedala blushed with wafts of clouds likely filled with snow. The White Lake Lodge had stood as a monument to the local lore for almost fifty years now, garnering attention and acclaim almost exclusively through word of mouth. Perhaps this was the reason that it had managed to retain so much of it's original charm, despite the fact that it was always full come Christmas time. Nestled in the middle of a large patch of woods that opened up into the eponymous lake, the lodge sat at the top of a lofty cliff overlooking the rocky beach below. Only a single road ran through the forest - a narrow, clumsy pathway barely big enough for two vehicles, and hardly paved at all. Though sunlight would flood the forest floor in the summer, come wintertime snow piled high on the pine trees, making the lodge feel more beautifully secluded than usual.

Suddenly remembering that this evening he had meant to get around to washing the lodge windows, Xavier cleaned the last of the dishes he had been nursing in the sink before drying his hands and moving on to the lodge's lavish dining room. Walking in heavily, Xavier took a thin rag from his back pocket and swiftly went to work polishing one of the windows that offered a wide view of the lake. Xavier always thought the room felt like a greenhouse, each wall being little more than a pane of glass that reached all the way to the ceiling. It was the next best thing to outdoor dining.

It had been almost a year since he had started working there, first as a dishwasher and now as a waiter, but it felt like much longer on nights like this one when he had time to reflect. His quiet disposition and general reclusiveness hadn't earned him many companions, but his indispensable work ethic had helped make him stand out as an employee, sometimes to the chagrin of his less-motivated coworkers. Perhaps this was another reason the other workers never seemed to warm to him.

There was, of course, also the matter of his size. Standing at just over 6'4" and weighing close to 350 pounds, there was little doubt of his presence when he entered a room. Try as he might to keep a low profile, there just wasn't getting around the fact that he towered over most people he came across; he was easily twice as big as the next-largest employee. It was hard not to be intimidated by him, as most of his coworkers had discovered early on, though those who persevered found that a much different kind of person than who they might have expected hid beneath his mountainous form.

Everyone who worked at the lodge knew all too well that Xavier was, for lack of a better word, a 'softie', in more ways than one. Watching him for more than a few minutes would quell any notion that his bigness was indication of a gruff, extroverted personality. If anything, you would be hard pressed to find a more kind, sensitive person nearby. Unfortunately for him, those normally admirable qualities weren't much appreciated by Xavier's coworkers, who would often enjoy shooting daggers at his head whenever his back was turned. In a strange way, there was a kind of mutual understanding between Xavier and the rest of the staff. Their frustrations, though very real, usually went over his head. For all of his kindness, Xavier also tended to be a bit naîve. Still, outside of their disapproving glances and exaggerated groaning, they left him alone. Perhaps they were afraid that there really WAS a fierce persona lurking beneath Xavier's tenderness, just waiting for the first stone to be cast.

Most of the workers lived on site during the winter months when demand was high and business was booming, and Xavier was no exception. Residing in one of the apartment suites that littered the tower on the far end of the lodge's longhouse, he spent a good majority of his time by himself, though it didn't seem to bother him much. Work began early in the morning and usually continued into the evening, depending on how high occupancy was at the time. The common quietness of the spacious lodge during the slow season made some workers a bit nervous, but Xavier had always found it to be rather comforting.

Tonight had been a night like any other, with only a few families staying at the lodge for the time being. Thanksgiving had passed rather uneventfully this year, and like clockwork, the rooms began filling up with reservations for the month of December. In a few days they would be entirely full, if the past was any indication. For many families staying at the lodge had become a sort of tradition, especially Christmas Eve dinner, the busiest night the kitchen would experience for the entire year.

Quietly wiping away a small parade of child's fingerprints, Xavier looked out the window he was standing in front of, watching the stars leisurely hang over the stillness of White Lake. The small string of mountains that curved around the other side of the water bit into the dark night sky like jagged teeth, the moon's reflection the only source of light now that the sun had set. Even in the winter, the beach was a popular location at the lodge. Xavier could spot a legion of withered summer canoes sitting idly on the shore. Even in the blackness Xavier thought the lake was rather hypnotic.

Xavier's infatuation with the lakeside was interrupted by someone coughing loudly beside him, surprising him. Looking down, he could see that it was January, the current dining room supervisor. Her hair pulled into it's usual too-tight ponytail and a scowl on her face, she crossed her arms, looking exasperated.

"Taking your sweet time, I see." she snapped.

She couldn't have been much taller than 5'5", yet Xavier felt his gaze quickly fall to the floor as it often did when he was chastised by her.

"I'm sorry." he responded quietly. "I was a little distracted."

Still sneering, January scoffed, dragging her index finger across the clean glass window and loudly creating a long smudge where the fingerprints had once been. Xavier grimaced.

"I think I see the real problem." she snarled. You just do lousy work."

A tiny, sinister grin blossomed on her face.

"You've got a lot of windows to wash, so see to it that you get it all done before you leave." she spat, tapping her foot irritated. Xavier, now wringing the limp cloth in his nervous hands, nodded.

"Of course." he agreed, still not looking January in the face.

He let out a tiny gasp when she loudly snapped her fingers less than an inch from his face.

"Look me in the eye when you speak to me." she growled, pointing an accusing finger.

Looking down into January's angry brown eyes, Xavier nodded again, this time with a bit more enthusiasm.

"Of course." he said again, tiny beads of sweat dotting his forehead. January's eyes narrowed, but she finally turned and stomped away. When Xavier turned back towards the window to resume washing, he noticed that it had begun to snow.


* * *

It was almost midnight by the time Xavier had finished washing the last pane of glass. It was snowing so hard by now that the windows had become freezing cold to the touch, the once clear view of the lake now obstructed by webs of frost. After returning to the kitchen and running his hands under warm water to thaw them out, Xavier gathered his things, closing the doors to the dining room quietly so as not to awaken any sleeping patrons.

Though feeling had returned to his fingers, Xavier's eyes now felt heavy with sleep, and the idea of his warm bed became almost intoxicating. Walking quietly out into the foyer, he could see that someone had erected a very tall pine tree that was frosted all the way to the top with baubles and silver bells. The fireplace crackled weakly, casting festive shadows onto the foyer walls that were glowing faintly in the wispy darkness. The thought of a night's rest kept him conscious as Xavier trudged carefully across the floor, looking forward to finally kicking off his shoes. Walking down the long corridor leading to the tower, he watched the snow slowly falling to the ground, the lake looking like it might turn to ice. The hallway leading down to the tower stairs were lined with rows of tall windows that Xavier never took much notice of. Although tonight, something seemed off.

The windows were narrow. Very narrow. From what Xavier could tell, they were a little too small for a person to fit though. But that didn't seem to be stopping someone from trying.

In the middle of the hallway, trying to push themselves through one of the tiny portals, was what appeared to be a young woman with long, brown hair that had fallen in her face as she squirmed helplessly. Tenseness began creeping into Xavier's chest. His first instinct was to confront what he guessed was some kind of awkward burglar, but as he cautiously approached the intruder, he could hear her ululate a faint, pained whimper. After a few more attempts at freeing herself, she eventually let her hands drop to the ground, going limp as a rag doll in defeat. Doing his best to mask his somewhat thunderous footsteps, Xavier tried to recall what a strong, authoritative voice was supposed to sound like. When he was a few feet away from the suspended girl, she let out another pitiful sob.

"...Hello?" he called out, forgetting to sound stern and intimidating.

Her hair still covering her face, the girl suddenly became silent. Lifting her head slowly she looked at Xavier with worry in her eyes; Xavier was looking at her with an equal amount of confusion. A few moments of stoney silence followed, cold air and sleet from outside pouring in from the open space above the trapped girl.

"I can explain." she finally squeaked, looking rather miserable.

A long black scarf was slung around her thin neck, drooping down and skirting the carpet below. Shivering from the sudden cold, Xavier looked at her curiously, slowly realizing that if this was an attempted robbery, he was conversing with the most tactless burglar in existence.

"Do you need some help first?" he asked softly, beginning to feel his confidence slip as the girl continued looking at him intently, her own expression hard to read.

He also began wondering how long the poor girl had been wedged in the window frame: The girl's face looked very pale. Only the tip of her nose, which was bright red, seemed to have any color. She sighed helplessly as the cold wind started to sting Xavier's face.

"...Yes. Please." she finally confessed.

The girl stuck her hands out towards his, beckoning to Xavier silently. Cautiously, Xavier took both of her gloved hands and began pulling. First gently, then with a bit more force when the girl didn't seem to be moving.

"Does that hurt?" he grunted, tugging with more force than he thought would be necessary.

"I'm fine...you've almost got it..." she assured him, wriggling in the tight frame as vigorously as she could in an attempt to jar herself loose.

In one quick, fluid motion, the girl finally came tumbling in through the window, followed by a rush of snowy air that covered them both in powder. Newly freed from her window prison, the girl started falling head first onto Xavier, who could feel his shoes begin to slip under the now snow-filled hallway.

In an equally fast moment, Xavier began stumbling backwards frantically, letting go of the girl's hands as he felt both of his feet leave the ground. With an impressive quake as his considerable backside slammed onto the floor and what sounded like a muffled crunch, the two of them hit the ground, Xavier sprawled on his back and the frozen girl falling neatly on top of his soft, squishy stomach. Within a few seconds the girl realized where she had landed, the red of her nose quickly spreading to the rest of her shocked face.

"Ah, oops-" she lamented quickly, doing her best to sliding off of Xavier's belly and rolling down on to the floor beside him, letting out a relieved groan. For a few moments the both of them lay there still, out of breath but at least intact.

"That was crazy..." The girl breathed, slowly wobbling to her feet, knees knocking.

Xavier, still on his back and feeling a little like an oversized tortoise, also did his best to get to his feet, though it proved to be a difficult task after such an energy-sucking day. Seeing him struggle, the girl immediately grasped one of his massive hands in her gloved ones.

"I'm so sorry...here, let me help you." she offered, pulling rather impossibly at his largeness.

"Oh...thank you." Xavier muttered, knowing full well that such a small person probably wouldn't be able to pull him up, though it seemed kind of her to try. Once they both were on their feet and had a chance to catch their breath, they looked at each other for a few seconds, unsure of who was supposed to say what now.

"Um..." the girl started, breaking the silence before tucking her snow-frosted hair behind her ears, "I wasn't just saying that so you would help me, you know. I really CAN explain." she insisted, rather convincingly.

Xavier was so relieved that he hadn't had to confront a serial killer that he had forgotten that he still had no idea who the girl standing in front of him was.

"Oh, right..." he remembered, peering down at the girl who looked like she was about a third of his size.

"This is like, the sixth time I got locked out..." She explained, brushing the snow from her coat and pants. "Usually I can get someone to open the door for me but it's so late, and everyone's gone to sleep..." she trailed off, looking as if she just now realized how cold she really was.

Noticing her start to shake, Xavier quickly pushed the offending window shut, sighing in relief as the air began to warm once again. Turning back to the girl, Xavier finally got a good look at her after having allowed his eyes to adjust to the dimness. She was noticeably slender with small, delicate hands and a quiet kind of calmness that seemed to put him at ease.

"So then...do you...work here?" Xavier asked, feeling more confused than ever.

It didn't help that, as the girl in front of him continued to speak, he continued to feel his confidence fade away and his face begin to sting with a strange kind of heat.

"Kind of." she said, looking a bit distracted after touching her hand to her face. "Damn...my glasses...did they fall out of my pocket?" she asked out loud, now crawling on the floor with her face pressed close to the ground. "Ugh...not again..." she lamented, grinding clods of snow into the carpet as she continued to scan.

It was around this time that Xavier remembered something from their little tumble: the crunch. Looking behind him where he had landed after unhinging the girl, he could see even in the dark hallway that a pair of flimsy glasses sat lifelessly, looking as if someone had put them down a garbage disposal. His heart sank.

"I think I found them." Xavier said grimly, carefully picking up the destroyed spectacles.

He held the glasses out to the girl, who looked at them curiously.

"I'm sorry...I didn't mean to break them." he started, feeling his voice start to crack with guilt.

It wasn't the first time he had destroyed something by accidentally falling on it. The girl took the glasses from Xavier's trembling hands, her expression turning soft after seeing how troubled he had become. She quietly tucked the remains back into her coat before smiling up at him, surprising Xavier quite a bit.

"It's alright. These ol' things were old as dirt. Good riddance,I say."

The girl laughed lightly, but her laughter quickly degenerated into a fierce cough that left her reeling. She had begun to shiver again, wrapping her scarf around her neck several times.

"I guess I was out there for longer than I thought." she sniffed, rubbing her arms in an attempt to warm up.

"Can you see alright?" Xavier asked, his voice still sounding a bit regretful.

Though he was little more than an orange and pink blur at this point, the girl looked up at Xavier with what he now saw were fatigued, bloodshot eyes.

"Well, sorta, everything's pretty blurry...do you know which way number 403 would be? I have another pair in my room, so if I can just get there I'll be fine." she told him, starting to stumble a bit.

"I'm going that way, I can show you." Xavier said brightly, a bit surprised at his forwardness. The girl took his hand once again, still smiling weakly.

"Thanks a lot, I really appreciate it." she remarked, her puffy eyes becoming softer.

Xavier held the girl's hand carefully, guiding the would-be burglar down the corridor towards the tower while trying his best to remember to breathe.

The halls grew a bit lighter as they went on, the soft hum of vending machines offering them a break from the night's quiet stillness. Feeling not unlike he was in the midst of some kind of misty dreamscape, Xavier guided the girl cautiously up several flights of stairs leading up to the fourth floor, which Xavier remembered was one of several floors that had recently been renovated. He moved across the wooden floors towards the girl's room, hearing her tiny footsteps following his clamorous ones. Perhaps he really had actually made it up to his room and was in the middle of some sort of strange wintertime delusion. Perhaps it was the late hour or the overwhelming dinginess of his path, but Xavier could feel his entire face beginning to ignite with an intense excitement and a strange, unplaced nervousness.

"Here we go." he said finally, feeling the girl's hand fall out of his own almost reluctantly when they finally reached their destination.

Seeming to catch a second wind, she reached into her pocket, extracting a green card that she held up triumphantly.

"Ah, at last..." she sighed. Quickly she unlocked the door, which creaked open lazily.

Turning back towards Xavier, her expression was now one of sincere gratitude.

"Thanks again for helping me out...and sorry if I gave you a scare. I promise I'll never try something like that again." she assured him. Xavier nodded, hardly able to believe how bizarre the last thirty minutes had been.

"It's alright, don't worry about it..." Xavier could barely bring himself to look the girl in the eye at this point, almost as though the light had made his remaining grain of confidence shrivel like a raisin. Pushing the door open a bit, the girl turned back towards Xavier again. She was grinning now.

"Do you mind if I ask your name, my good sir?"

At first no words came out, even after Xavier opened his mouth and was pretty sure he knew the right answer. At first it seemed like perhaps the cold had sapped his ability to think, or maybe his severe exhaustion was what accounted for his muteness. In reality, and as he would realize later, it was that despite her frazzled demeanor and obvious fatigue, in the peaceful light of the Pepsi machine, Xavier couldn't help but think the girl was fascinatingly beautiful.

Thankfully his composure returned in a few seconds, and Xavier looked back at her, looking sheepish as ever.

"Xavier. I'm Xavier." he said, his voice starting to quiver with a tired bashfulness. The girl looked pleased by his answer.

"I like that. I've never met a Xavier before." The girl put her hand out, which was looking even tinier without it's mitten.

"I'm Ilene."

Shaking her hand delicately, Xavier could feel that even his palms were starting to glisten with nervous sweat, though Ilene didn't seem to notice or mind.

"Nice to meet you." he said meekly before clamming up again.

"Thank you again, you really saved me." she said, grinning up at him with worn but grateful eyes. Xavier shoved his hands in his pockets as he shifted weight from foot to foot. "Oh, no problem at all." he mumbled, forgetting his own tiredness for the moment.

"Well...good night, Xavier." Ilene whispered gingerly, flashing a tiny smile before closing the door gently.

Finding himself alone in the vastness of the empty lodge once again, Xavier started down the hall towards his own room, feeling his shoulders begin to relax and his heartbeat return to it's normal, comfortable state.

"Good night", he thought.

In spite of everything, it certainly had been.
 
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This was fantastic! You're writing style is very appealing, as are the characters. I can't wait for more!
 

agouderia

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Lovely little short story with a lot of atmosphere! (Or is it the first chapter of a longer tale??)

Very nice to see you posting stories here - your drawings already are an adorable and much appreciated contribution!

Keep up the good work in every respect!
 

Undine

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This is a very nice start; I'm loving the setting. Hope to see more!
 

xxeell

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Oh and by the way, I like the cover drawing you had for this story on Deviantart.com. It was awesome.
 

BrokenCassette

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clockworklove - Thank you! I'm glad you're enjoying it so far. : )

xxeell - XD Oh thanks! I'd really love to do something a bit more complex eventually for each chapter.

Undine - Your stuff is so dang awesome and inspirational, thanks so much for checking out my novice attempts at writing <3

CHAPTER TWO

By early morning the snow had finally stopped, leaving a flaky white crust on the roof of the lodge. Breakfast wasn’t served until seven, and though that had once seemed a steep wake-up time, Xavier didn’t seem to mind usually. He had certainly gotten used to keeping odd hours in his time working there.

Still, even with the rush of last night still very much alive, Xavier found it a bit hard to leave the safe security of his futon. Suddenly realizing how comfortable his pillow was, he finally made an effort to heave himself to his feet. Grunting at no one, he felt a shiver run down his spine, the cold air against his skin making him rethink the entire idea. As he lumbered towards the bathroom he kicked the radio gently, one of his sleepy toes eventually finding the snooze button.

Stretching a bit as his insides growled, Xavier scratched at his puffy stomach, which hung effortlessly over the taught band of his briefs. Cringing at the touch of cold linoleum, he climbed onto the scale hesitantly as he usually did when he woke up. It had been his ritual every week for at least a year or two now, and felt like little more than routine. He hadn’t been able to see pass his belly in years, so he relied on the scale’s audio. A slow, robotic voice called out to him:

‘three. hundred. and. fifty-seven. pounds.’

“When did I...” he began to think, blowing a small tuft of red hair out of his face before deciding it wasn’t worth stressing about. He had meant to get a haircut before the year was up, but it was hard finding a salon with chairs big enough for him to squeeze into. It didn’t seem worth the embarrassment.

Feeling a thick handful of his belly dip into the sink as he brushed his teeth, Xavier could feel his formerly snug sleepwear getting tight around the back and sides. That particular morning his fingers and toes felt especially plump and raw. “That time of year again.” he quietly mused, rubbing his stomach absentmindedly. For as long as he could remember Xavier tended to put on weight during the winter months, even when he was a kid.

After crawling out of the shower a few minutes later at least slightly conscious, Xavier wrapped a lengthy towels around his middle before standing in front of the mirror again. Looking at his reflection was a strange experience for Xavier. He had always been shy, and his sudden jump in size during college had only exaggerated that. When he graduated from high school he was a lanky 160 pounds, but it was obvious things had changed quite a bit since those days. He would sometimes search his image fruitlessly, running his fingers over whatever curve or roll looked most threatening on that particular day. It never felt like a negative experience - more like an intense curiosity.

“Oh, great...” Xavier moaned, pulling a pair of black slacks from the dryer that were now several sizes too small. He scowled as he realized his clothing had shrunk in the wash again. Turning red at the very idea of wearing such tight clothes, he squirmed in place.

“Can’t wear those to work...but...”

Realizing that his dress shirt was in that load as well, Xavier figured it had probably also shrunken. The briefs that he had on were already snug from an earlier load of laundry, and even in the privacy of his own home Xavier felt silly wearing something so revealing. Taking a deep breath, he held his shrunken pants tightly, gulping as he shoved his first leg inside, feeling it become tight before long. Frustrated, he pulled them as far up as he could, somehow managing to convince the seams not to unravel despite their protests. “I guess that’s good enough.” he moaned to himself, all too familiar to the feel of clothing stretched tight against his skin. The button of the jeans pushed into the bottom of his belly irritatingly. Already feeling his skin start to sweat from the stuffiness, Xavier sucked his middle in as much as he could, holding his breath as he quickly did up as many buttons on his shirt as possible, relieved when none flew off upon releasing his bulging stomach.

“Okay.” he sighed, reassuring himself.

Though he didn’t like talking about it, it was true that Xavier had put on a lot of weight since graduating from high school. He could never tell for sure if it had been the freedom to eat whatever he wanted whenever he wanted, or merely the fact he was constant cooking and had no one else to eat any of it. One day he felt himself getting a bit soft around the middle, and it never seemed to stop. His clothes grew too small at a frightening rate. There was a time when he was able to turn around in the kitchen without knocking things over, but now he had to be careful not to hit anything in his path. Most of the things Xavier wore came from thrift shops and such, since he outgrew things so easily. With another deep breath, Xavier gathered his things before taking one last look in the mirror and then starting off downstairs.

* * *

It was dark outside still - almost as dark as it had been last night, which is what Xavier had been thinking about for the last while. The more he thought about it, the more surreal and choppy the memory seemed to become. A small, silent part of him was still wondering if it was nothing more than an elaborate dream.

As he finally touched down on the ground floor, the soft crooning of strings started wafting in from the foyer. Unsure how anyone could possibly play the harp this early in the morning, Xavier took his time meandering towards his destination, hovering for a few brief moments beside the site of Ilene’s late night break-in attempt. The surrounding carpet was still a damp, soggy red.

His hopes for an uneventful morning were dashed as soon as Xavier saw that January, dressed in casual clothing today, was approaching he made his way down the hall towards the dining room, looking sour as always.

“You.” she growled, always making it a point to never use his actual name, “Eliza’s going to be late, so you need to get in there before it starts filling up.” Xavier looked at her quizzically, though her expression remained annoyed.

“Well...who’s in there right now?” he asked cautiously. January shrugged, rolling her eyes.

“Not my problem.” she whined before waltzing off. As she passed the harpist she sneered - just her presence seemed to muffle the gentle sound of the orchestra.

Rattled, Xavier pushed his way into the kitchen, noticing for the first time that his thighs both brushed up against the sides of the narrow door jam. Thankfully, he thought, the kitchen was almost empty save a few stern-looking cooks, none of whom took notice of Xavier. When he had the chance, Xavier enjoyed watching them work - though he was only a waiter, his true passion lay in cooking. The sound of vegetables being diced and boiled filled his ears as he sighed happily. From a few feet away, the sound of a sturdy fingernail tapping against plastic suddenly caught Xavier’s attention.

“Fancy meeting you here.”

Leaning on a chair propped against the kitchen wall, a girl fiddling with a small novelty teacup was smiling at him with tired brown eyes. Struggling to finish buttoning up his vest, Xavier closed his eyes as though trying to catch a few more seconds of sweet sleep.

“I didn’t know you were working today, Marah.” he grumbled. Marah took another sip of her cup, which Xavier could see was just water. She had always been a bit of an eccentric.

“Oh, I don’t.” she replied happily, gently pushing her chair up and down. “But they’re working on something in my room right now so I figured I’d chill out here for a while.”

Xavier shrugged, playing with his shirt cuffs absentmindedly as he wore a contented expression like Marah had never seen before. Putting her cup on the ground, she popped up from her seat, resting her chin on one of the supply shelves as she looked at him with intense curiosity.

“You look happy today.” she mused.

Xavier paused for a second, but continued adjusting his uniform, now struggling to finish lacing his tie. “I guess.” he said simply. Marah, hardly satisfied with such a vague answer, rested her chin on Xavier’s shoulder, though she was barely able to reach so high even on her toes.

“Oh come on, you gotta give me more than that.” she groaned, talking into his ear like a persistent mosquito. “Don’t make me beat it out of you.”

Xavier shook her off casually, pulling at his taught trousers one more time.

“I need to get out there, maybe later.” he insisted, giving her a friendly glance before pushing open the doors. Pouting, she took her seat again.

“Secretive as always.” she muttered, taking another long sip.

The dining room was usually busy at breakfast, despite the hours being so early, and that day was no different. Luckily someone had the good sense to always schedule at least two waiters at any given meal, so Xavier’s workload didn’t seem so daunting. Though it was faint now, the smooth smell of food wafting in from the kitchen made Xavier wish he had eaten something before coming. Though breakfast food was probably his favorite kind, he had the terrible habit of skipping it some days.

“Xavier!” someone called out. Seated at the table closest to the window facing the lake was an average looking man wearing a smart red shirt that made him look a bit like a lumberjack. Doing his best to navigate past the sea of eating patrons, Xavier made his way over to the man, who looked like he had been up for several hours already. Sitting in front of him was a thick stack of flapjacks, smothered with butter and syrup. Xavier’s stomach rumbled.

“Mr. Romstead, good morning...feeling hungry?” he added, the very scent of buttermilk pancakes only adding more fuel to Xavier’s current voracious appetite. The man chuckled, nodding his head.

“You know it! I need all the energy I can get today.” Xavier looked at him, his expression one of surprise.

“What’s going on? Something big?” he asked, knowing that Rick Romstead (though one of the nicest members of the staff) wasn’t usually much of a hard worker. Instead of a reply, Xavier felt someone tap him gently in the middle of his back, surprising him.

“Pardon me.” said a soft, familiar voice.

Turning around a bit too quickly, Xavier looked down to see that he had almost bowled Ilene over with his sizable belly, who looked unfazed as he tried his best to give her room to move. She was looking up from behind sleek silver eyeglasses.

“Hi there.” she said brightly. Looking rested and cheerful, she almost seemed like a different person. The butterflies that had taken up residence in his belly came back to roost in seconds flat as Xavier carefully maneuvered himself out of the way, cheeks burning.

“Oh, excuse me.” he said quickly, beginning to realize how close the two were.

“That’s alright, you’re fine.” Ilene assured him, laughing. Xavier began twisting the menu he’d been holding in his nervous hands. Ilene took a seat next to Rick, who looked quite pleased with himself.

“Xavier, this is my niece Ilene.” he announced, holding his hands up as if showing off a fish he’d wrangled. Ilene waved sweetly, looking much more perky now that she had a chance to get some sleep.

“Y-yes, we’ve met before.” Xavier croaked, feeling his muscles tense up.

“Nice to formally meet you.” she chirped, looking genuinely happy to see him. The glasses she was wearing today did indeed look much nicer than the ones he had accidently destroyed the night before. Rick, who Xavier could now see had the same eyes as Ilene, spoke up.

“Ilene’s here to help us set up internet connections for the lodge - first the communal areas and then hopefully to all the individual rooms.” Xavier could remember that Rick had been talking about doing such for years now, but never seemed to have the opportunity to make it a reality.

“So that’s what you meant...” Xavier trailed off, recalling what Ilene had told him last night about her being there. Ilene nodded.

“I’ll be here for the rest of the year getting everything ready. It’s been so long since I came to this place, everything looks so different.” Though Ilene was just now beginning to nurse the glass of orange juice in front of her, Rick had already inhaled a good portion of his meal. For such a small man, he ate an astonishing amount.

“I’m glad that I ran into you, Xavier,” he started, still picking apart his stack of pancakes. “I’ve got some business to take care of with another new employee, but I’d love for Ilene to learn the lay of the land, since she’ll be spending time all around the lodge. Would you mind showin’ her around for a bit while I take care of some things?”

Feeling the hair on the back of his neck begin to prickle, Xavier swallowed hard before responding.

“Oh, well, of course. That’s no problem...but...I’m working right now.” Xavier lamented, unable to hide the disappointment in his voice. Rick laughed. “Well of course you are, my boy, but that’s no trouble. I think I saw Marah slinking around in the back, I’m sure she’d be able to cover you for an hour or so.”

* * *

“Hey, Marah...” Xavier started, feeling himself start to relax again now that he was once again in the sanctity of the backroom.

“Can you cover for me for a little while?” Marah, who was now bouncing a rubber ball against a refrigerator, jumped up.

“Are you kidding me? If it’s something to do, I’m your gal.” she boasted. Taking a moment to toss her coat aside, Xavier could see that she had been wearing her work uniform underneath.

“So what’s so important that you’re taking off from breakfast duty? Your favorite duty?” Marah inquired, now playing with her stringy black hair in the reflection of an oversized toaster.

“It’s something Rick wants me to do.” Xavier told her. Looking up from the pile of clothing in his hands, Xavier could see from Marah’s expression that his description had hardly satisfied her curiosity.

“I’m just gonna be showing someone around, that’s all.” he said sternly, though as soon as he turned his attention back to the contents of his locker he grimaced.

“Dirty...dirty...way too dirty...” Xavier mumbled as he began dropping several pieces of clothing to his feet, looking desperately for something he could wear that wasn’t quite so revealing.

“I knew I should have taken this stuff home with me last night.” he groaned, looking at his now-empty locker.

“You look fine.” Marah insisted, now working at removing the cluster of rings laced onto her fingers. “Besides, who cares? You’re just showing someone around, right?” Xavier remained silent, reaching into his locker effortlessly in hopes there was something he had overlooked. He finally gave up, shutting the locker begrudgingly.

“Right.”

Glancing through the pick-up window into the dining room, Marah saw Ilene slowly getting up from her chair and gathering her things before walking towards the door. She smirked, edging closer to Xavier.

“Oh. I get it now.” she said smoothly, sliding in front of Xavier before he could leave. “Are you heading out with that internet girl? Rick introduced me to her before you came in.” Xavier tugged at the strained buttons on his shirt, trying fruitlessly to somehow hide their anguish.

“If he introduced you, don’t you think you should use her actual name?” he replied smugly, all too familiar with conversations like this one. Pouting, Marah threw her hands up in pseudo-defeat.

“Oh whatever. Go have fun with Irene.” Xavier pushed the door open before calling back to her over his shoulder.

“Ilene.” he corrected. Marah grinned at him before pushing the door leading to the dining room open.

“Fine. Have fun with Ilene.”

* * *

Ilene was standing near the glass doors leading into the foyer, holding her coat in her hands when Xavier came out, his knees wobbling slightly.

“There you are.” she said, quietly cleaning a bit of dust off her glasses. Immediately the butterflies returned just as Xavier knew they would, but somehow he managed to speak through their uproar.

“Are you all ready to go?” he asked, wishing he was wearing something a bit more casual and roomy. Ilene didn’t seem to mind.

“Yep! Lead the way.”
 
Joined
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Nice start to what promises to be an interesting story. Your writing is wonderful -- you really know how to paint a picture with your words. ("Quietly wiping away a small parade of child's fingerprints, . . . The small string of mountains that curved around the other side of the water bit into the dark night sky like jagged teeth," etc.) - That's really great. Have you written anything else? Where can we find it? This might be your first posting here, but I find it hard to believe this is your first story ever. Or is it? Keep it up. ;)
 

BrokenCassette

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Thanks so much J.T, your comment made my day. : )

This is basically my first piece of WG-related literature, outside of a few awful things I wrote years ago. If/when I write anything new I'll definitely post it here or on my deviantart page.


CHAPTER THREE

The foyer looked like it had been awake for a few hours now, the chairs huddled close to the fireplace now filled with families playing chess and fiddling with jigsaw puzzles. Though snow was still falling gently outside and the clouds had turned the sky overcast, it was still a rather bright day for late November.

“This is the foyer.” Xavier explained, rubbing his hands together eagerly. As though it knew someone was talking about it, the room suddenly seemed to flood with an almost unnatural sunlight. “It’s sort of like the hub of the lodge, with most other areas branching off from it.” Xavier pointed out the doorway leading down to the swimming pool as well as the steps that led to several floors of resident lodging.

“There’s a swimming pool here?” Ilene asked excitedly, chewing on the end of the pen she was holding. “I had no idea. I guess I don’t really relate winter lodges with pools.” Xavier had to admit, most people who came to stay at the lodge didn’t expect it to house an indoor swimming area, himself included.

“It’s a very nice pool, though it’s a little shallow”. said Xavier, who stifled a yawn. Despite his attempt to cover it, Ilene giggled.

“I guess you didn’t get much sleep either.” she suggested, rubbing some sleep out of her eye. Xavier nodded, feeling a little foolish.

“I suppose it was pretty late by the time I got to bed.” he admitted. “But I’m used to getting up early.”

As they began to walk again, Xavier could feel himself instinctively sucking in his gut while trying to suppress his normally distinctive waddle. He was nearly three times as wide as Ilene plus a good head taller, and the glances they received while touring the lodge’s amenities seemed to remind him every chance they had. In truth, Xavier was actually rather well known by some of the annual patrons, who always praised how helpful and kind he could be; but none of them seemed to have arrived quite yet. Instead the two were greeted with -- glowering and other insignificant noises of seeming disapproval.

Xavier wasn’t terribly successful on either count of fat masking, though he couldn’t help but notice Ilene subtly glancing at him, still smiling. Butterflies.

With Xavier still doing his best to disguise his puffiness, they walked on in silence for a while, the jubilant heralding of the orchestra echoing behind them. As time went on and their casual trip grew longer, Xavier could feel himself growing less tense and more at ease around Ilene. Though he tried not to stare, he had a hard time not making an effort to get a peek at the girl walking beside him, who just hours ago had fallen on top of him in a grand, wintery tumble.

“I’m glad I have another chance to talk with you.” she said suddenly somewhere along the way, breaking the silence and detouring Xavier’s train of thought. “I’m really much nicer to be around when I’m not stuck in a window.” It was true, Xavier had to admit, for as memorable as the last night had been, it wasn’t what he would call leisure. he chuckled, fruitlessly trying to keep his soft belly from jiggling around too much. Soon Xavier began feeling his nervousness melt away, though he still held the menu close to himself like a shield.

“I wasn’t sure I would see you again.” he admitted, silently muffling the hot, fuzzy tickle in his gut. “This place is pretty big, and people come and go all the time.” Ilene nodded, carefully slipping off her jacket and hanging it on her arm. Her face was beaming.

“I know I said it last night, but thank you again for saving me. If it weren’t for you I’d be a popsicle right now. And not a very good tasting one, either.” Xavier was a bit taken aback, but clearly pleased by the sentiment as he slowly let a small grin appear on his face.

“Aah, it was nothing.” he insisted. “Just trying to help.” As time continued to pass, Ilene seemed to loosen up a bit too.

“So you work in the kitchen?” she asked, their pace having slowed to a leisurely stroll by now. “Maybe one day. I’m a waiter.” Xavier said. The corridor they were making their way down was all but vacant, some of the crown molding having collected small, wispy spider webs. . “Oh, well a waiter, that’s...” Ilene started, making hand motions that she hoped would communicate whatever it was she was trying to get at. Xavier shrugged, being used to such responses when people learned of his ‘profession’. “It’s not the most glamorous job out there, but I guess it could be worse.” Ilene nodded firmly in agreement, lacing her fingers together behind her back.

“That’s a good attitude to have.” she said brightly. It was around that time that Xavier noticed that she started walking a few inches closer to him. Never one to excel at small talk, Xavier tried desperately to evade the uncomfortable silence that seemed to be looming, though Ilene seemed to be perfectly content admiring the cracked, ghostly paintings that hung on the walls.

“And you...set up internet connections? How’s that?” Xavier asked, hoping he was at least a little close. Ilene waved her hand in the air apathetically, like she were just asked about a relative she wasn’t terribly fond of.

“Eh, it’s alright I guess. I work for a company in town that mostly deals with customer technical support, but these days we aren’t gettin’ so many calls, so I’ve done a little training in a few other areas.” As they passed by a sudden gaggle of enthusiastic carolers, Xavier remembered how many times he’d been that clueless person on the phone trying desperately to find someone that could help make technology cooperate with him.

“Not too many crazies call in?” he joked, looking a bit shocked at his casualness. Despite that, Ilene looked amused.

“Oh no, we get plenty of crazies. Most callers are just normal people in over their heads though. I remember this one time a few years back.” Ilene glanced out the murky window at a filmy view of the still lake, as though she were about to recount a childhood memory rather than one of her batty customers. “This guy called in asking what was wrong with his computer. After about ten minutes we figured out that he thought a computer battery was interchangeable with 12 “C” batteries. He was a keeper.” Xavier laughed, having to admit to himself that it sounded like the sort of thing he would do.

“Ah, and here we are at Zoe’s.” Xavier breathed, standing in front of an ancient-looking shop carved into the lodge wall, as if someone hollowed it out and pushed it into the opening. Having led Ilene into a slightly secluded pocket of the lodge’s eastern side, Xavier opened one door of the quaint-looking cafe. “This is one of the only things that hasn’t changed about this ol’ place in all these years. If you get the chance you should check out their Tiramisu, it’s out of this world.” Out of the corner of her eye, Ilene saw two tiny red buds of shy enthusiasm blossom on Xavier’s cheeks.

“I love Tiramisu.” she said happily, realizing that she herself hadn’t gotten a chance to have anything to eat that morning. As they walked inside, the collective smell of breads and cakes filled their senses. A few tables sat idly on one side of the buttercup-yellow room, each one adorned with a small, plastic daffodil. From the corner came a slow, gnarled grumble.

“Morning, Bruno.” a squat, strange looking woman called from behind the counter, her bony fists handling several rolls of coins. Xavier greeted her in a friendly tone that seemed like a stark contrast with the woman’s gloomy appearance. “How are you, Molly? This is Ilene, she’ll be working here for a few weeks.” The woman looked Ilene over silently before grunting what she assumed was a noise of approval. “Nice to meet you.” Ilene said weakly, wondering whether or not Molly was just stoic, or born with out the ability to smile.

“Are you hungry? Would you like something to eat?” Xavier asked, already pulling out a chair from a nearby table. Ilene eagerly joined him. “Oh, that would be great, actually. I didn’t eat anything this morning. Sitting next to those pancakes was torture.” Happy to get off her feet after the first part of their journey, Ilene took the vacant seat across from Xavier, who had his pink nose buried in another menu.

“Do you like sandwiches?” he asked hopefully, his hands fidgeting with the chipped vase their flower was sitting in.

“I love sandwiches.” she responded, putting her hands in her lap eagerly. Hesitating at first, Xavier went towards the counter to order, retuning in a few moments with two plates - one with a single turkey sandwich and a tiny grouping of greens, and another piled several inches into the air that looked like the same basic spread, but in a considerably larger quantity.

“Here we are.” Xavier remarked as he sat the plate down in front of Ilene. Ilene thanked him, watching as he carefully lowered himself onto the chair below, wincing as he released his grip on the aged-looking sides. “These chairs are pretty old.” he said quickly, almost forgetting that today he was with someone. Ilene nodded appreciatively. “I’ll be careful with mine.” she promised, taking her tiny-looking sandwich and biting it happily. Xavier began working on the first of his towering sandwiches, piled high with meat and crisp vegetables.

“Do you eat here a lot?” Ilene asked brightly, picking apart the rest of her meal. Xavier, who was quietly nibbling at his mountainous lunch, nodded through his light chewing.

“Pretty often, it’s out of the way but it’s always good.” Xavier began, his normally soft voice gaining some strength and vibrancy. “I didn’t have breakfast yesterday so I took kind of a big lunch down here. They were out of this kind but I had a couple of roast beef sandwiches, (which are awesome here, that’s another good one,) and I think a few pieces of pie, and then usually I get...uh...” Xavier stopped, looking at an attentive Ilene and then down at his partially-consumed sandwich. Whenever he started talking about food, Xavier often found it hard to know when to stop. His excited tone shrank back into a faint mumble. “Sorry, you probably don’t wanna hear all this.” he said quietly, taking another tiny bite of his sandwich. Ilene was gently picking slices of cucumber from her own sandwich and folding them into her mouth.

“Oh, that’s okay. So what else did you have for lunch?” she asked, looking genuinely interested. Xavier felt his cheeks go red again, letting the bit of crust he was toying with fall onto his plate. He smiled, though there was a clear sadness in his eyes. “You’re not...making fun of me, are you?” he asked sheepishly, beginning to regret that he hadn’t said he skipped lunch, too. Ilene nearly her own fork, looking as though someone had punched her in the gut.

“Oh, no, of course not!” she exclaimed so loudly that Xavier immediately sat up straight, looking rattled. Even Molly turned her head in their direction at the sudden outburst, fiercely snapping a fat bundle of quarters onto the counter.

“I mean...” Ilene began, lowering her voice, “I’m just curious, that’s all. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean for that to sound hurtful.” Starting to release the iron grip he now had on his utensils, Xavier’s look of sadness melted away, and was replaced instead by one of relief, and then, bashfulness.

“No, it’s alright, it’s fine.” Xavier assured her, temporarily forgetting the irritation that his straining shirt was making him experience.

“I don’t like to make fun of people.” Ilene continued, still smiling but now looking at Xavier with seriousness. Xavier ran a finger along the edge of his still overflowing platter, nodding in agreement.

“No, I don’t either.” he said softly. “I just get so used to when Ja-”

Xavier stopped, the very thought of January beginning to tarnish his pleasant state of mind. He quickly discarded the edge of napkin he had torn off. “...Some people think it’s funny, I guess.” he finished.

Ilene had finished her sandwich, and was now resting her head in her hands, still looking a bit stern. “I don’t think it’s funny at all. People can be really cruel.” she said solidly. Xavier could see that her soft, green eyes were filled with an empathy and understanding that was entirely new to him.

“Yeah, they can.” he said finally, slowly pushing his fork back and forth over his salad. Ilene smiled again, her expression turning softer. She had finished the second piece of her fun-sized sandwich, looking a bit surprised at the nearly full meal that sat in front of Xavier. He looked down at his untouched salad and sandwich, still looking like he could use a bit of food. “I guess I wasn’t as hungry as I thought.” he decided, pulling a small cardboard box from the end of the table and carefully packaging the remains of his meal tightly. Though the two of them didn’t say anything more before getting up and shuffling towards the door, they both wore such content expressions even Molly’s grunting seemed to sound a bit softer. “We’ll see you around, Mol.” Xavier called back as the two left as simply as they came.

“She seems nice.” Ilene lied, scrunching her face up. Xavier couldn’t help but laugh at her surprisingly good imitation of Molly’s scowl.

“It’s just because it’s so early. She’s even less of an early bird than Ja-” he began, but again stopped himself.

“...-net. Janet, she works down at the market. Maybe that’s where we should head now.” Ilene nodded compliantly.

The rest of the tour went by uneventfully, but enjoyably. In fact, within minutes, Xavier and Ilene had both forgotten they were technically on the clock. The sun looked like it was beginning it’s slow decent from high noon when they found themselves back at their starting point.

“Alright, so we’ve seen the café.” Ilene began, noticing that the foyer had become significantly more crowded. “The market, pool, foyer, veranda, dining room...anything else I should know about?” Xavier looked pensive for a moment, closing his eyes contemplatively before responding.

“I think that’s just about it.” he deduced, just the slightest twinge of disappointment hanging in his voice. Ilene thought to herself for a moment before grinning.

“Now that you’ve shown me the ropes, why don’t you tell me about your favorite part of this place?” she asked, eagerly awaiting his reply. Xavier had been able to block the thought of his skin-tight outfit up until now, but the sudden attention caught him off guard, causing him to fuss with his straining buttons again while searching for an answer.

“No one’s ever asked me that before.” he confessed, rubbing the back of his neck. He stopped after a few moments, a sudden realization spreading across his face. “Actually...there IS a place.” he declared, growing excited. “This way.”

* * *

By the time the two of them finally made their way to the door they had gone up more flights of stairs than either one cared to think about, and though Ilene didn’t look terribly fatigued, Xavier was practically soaked, trying to causally gulp for fresh air. His face had become a harsh, vivid pink. Still, once realizing they had reached their destination, he did his best to straighten up and grabbed the handle, clearing his throat. “Here we are, the most exclusive spot in this entire lodge.”

Xavier gave the massive door a shove, forcing it open loudly. After pushing through the sudden rays of winter sunshine, Ilene could see that they were looking out over the lake, tall brush-like trees standing all along it’s shores. Though it was a small area, it felt cozy and intimate. It appeared to be the closest thing the lodge had to a roof, planted at the top of lodge’s tallest tower.

Ilene took a few steps out onto the landing, which was only big enough for two or three people to stand comfortably. “Wow.” she breathed, her hair catching tiny rogue snowflakes. The air, nearly too cold to breathe, suddenly began to feel surprisingly warm. Ilene looked over to see that Xavier had turned on a very small space heater that was nestled between a scattering of snow-covered fake house plants.

“So, is this your favorite place because of it’s charm and elegance, or...?” Ilene asked, feeling like she had been let in on a juicy secret. Xavier looked a bit embarrassed, but also rather proud of himself.

“More because no one wants to walk up all those stairs.” he admitted. “I’ve always found it to be a nice spot to get away from things. No one ever bothers me up here.” Even now Xavier couldn’t help fantasizing about the good times he had spent on his rooftop ‘oasis’.

“I know exactly what you mean.” said Ilene, who was pushing clods of snow off the roof’s rusted railing and watching it skirt down the roofside. The uncomfortable buzz Xavier had been feeling lately seemed to have settled at last, if only for the time being. Breathing in deeply, he finally let go of the instinctive grasp he had on his belly, letting it slowly fill out the rest of his shirt as tension started leaving his body, though he still kept a protective hand over it. They both stood there in calm silence, too enamored with the view to mind that they were in such close quarters together.

“I guess we should be getting back.” Ilene said quietly, feeling like a buzzkill. Though they had worked up a sweat getting there, already the cold was becoming a bit too much. Xavier opened to door again, taking one last look at the snow-covered landing.

“Yeah, I suppose you’re right.” he agreed.

* * *

The warm foyer was a welcome sight when the two finally came down, Xavier still holding his packaged sandwich protectively. Though their trip had taken a good amount of the afternoon, Xavier couldn’t help but feel like it was over all too soon. Ilene, who looked a bit tired but quite satisfied, folded her hands comfortably.

“Well, Xavier, I’d say you make a very nice tour guide. I’m impressed.” They couldn’t have been gone for more than thirty minutes, but already the foyer seemed to have calmed down. In fact, there was almost no one in sight, though most of the chairs and tables looked like they had been abandoned quite recently. A bit confused, Xavier turned back towards Ilene, still feeling a little bit chilly.

“No problem at all, it was-”

Xavier’s ears began to ring as he was interrupted by a voice that sounded a bit like a dying buzz saw.

“Where the hell have you been?!”

A very tall girl with pale blonde hair and sharp features came barreling towards the two of them at light speed, boring her gaze into Xavier’s frightened face. “What is your problem? You think you can just take off whenever you want to? January is pissed beyond belief.” Xavier looked to be at a loss for words, though the woman continued to glare at him hatefully, clearly having only begun. Ilene, taken aback by the woman’s sudden outburst, was courageous enough to interject.

“I’m sorry, this is really my fault. He was just showing me around-” she began to explain. Without so much as looking in Ilene’s direction, the woman continued her assault on Xavier, who was now staring down at the ground again. It was an expression Ilene had seen before. She noticed that Xavier was holding the tiny box of leftover food behind his back now, as out of sight as possible. Though she knew it was coming, Ilene still grimaced when the girl, whose name tag read “Eliza”, clamored forward almost as if she were about to hit Xavier as hard as she could. Instead, she angrily pushed through him, her eyes growing even crazier when she spotted what Xavier had been trying to conceal. Nothing good could possibly come next.

“Why am I not surprised.” Eliza nearly cackled, holding the small box in her hands and looking like she’d love nothing more than to throw it into the still-roaring fireplace. “You wanna spend time stuffing your face, do it on your OWN time.” Ilene began to feel her own insides begin to fill with hot anger.

“Hey, you don’t need to be so-” she started, but even her most forceful voice wasn’t enough to overpower Eliza’s cringe-worthy chortling. “You think you can just wander off whenever you want and expect others to pick up your slack? Next time you better think again, you whale.” The girl gave a curt scoff before giving Ilene a quick, condescending glance and stomping back into the kitchen, shoving the box into a nearby garbage can. Ilene stared at the girl’s now turned back in horror, petrified by her vile behavior. She looked up at Xavier, who remained silent. He had pushed his hands into his pockets, looking as though he’d like to crawl under a rock.

“I think I should go.” he finally said, almost inaudibly. He kept his eyes glued to the floor, shifting from foot to foot glumly.

“Oh...alright.” Ilene said sadly, still a bit shaken by what had just occurred in front of her. Xavier looked her way, clearly doing his best to smile despite his worried expression. Ilene hadn’t seen someone look so miserable in a long time.

“I hope you have kind of an idea of the place now, if you have more questions than I’m always willing to help you out.” Xavier had started pulling at his shirt again, his voice nearly cracking. Ilene pulled her jacket back on, wishing that somehow there were something that she could do or say. Putting on her own almost-smile, she pushed all the questions she was dying to ask down somewhere deep, for a day that wasn’t today.

“Thank you so much, Xavier, I really had fun. I’m sure I’ll see you again soon, right?” She asked, realizing that it must be nearly dinner time by now. Xavier nodded.

“I’m sure I will.”

Starting off towards the staircase, Ilene gave Xavier a gentle wave before departing, leaving him in the middle of the empty foyer. As soon as she had vanished Xavier groaned, finally letting go of the now painful hold he still had on his stomach and backside, no longer caring if any buttons popped off. The butterflies were gone. All that was left now was a gnawing hunger that Xavier wished he had satisfied when he had the chance.
 

BrokenCassette

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It's been a while coming, but here's the next installment!

CHAPTER FOUR

Four o’clock felt more like eight o’clock on busy days, and Xavier was feeling it all over his body. He had just sat down for the first time that day, his feet howling with a hot aching that rose through his leather shoes.

The comforting sight of his suite had immediately put Xavier at ease. Closing the door quietly, he already could feel his energy beginning to return.

It had gotten dark by the time that Xavier got back to his suite, a hallmark of winter evenings in the Pacific Northwest. Even when the sun was shining, uninterrupted by schools of snow clouds, the collection of evergreen trees outside kept his room peacefully dim. Some patrons would complain about it, but Xavier had always enjoyed the mood it lent to the sometimes overcrowded building.

Listening to the nearly inaudible crash of the shoreline growling, Xavier lay back onto his bed, closing his eyes and undoing the first few buttons on his jacket. He hadn’t turned the lights on quite yet, still enjoying the somewhat somber sensation his room had greeted him with. It had been another long day, as they usually were, even when duty ended at a reasonable hour. After hours upon hours of seating and serving energetic visitors clad in skiing equipment and knitted caps, he was happy to have a moment to himself. In fact, the only thing that had kept him from collapsing was the memory of the day earlier that week: the last time he had seen Ilene.

Before Eliza’s ambush, things had gone well. Better than he had expected. It had taken him a while to let go of the tension he usually carried in his clenched gut, but once he let it loose he had found himself having an enjoyable time. It had been a long while since anyone had taken a real interest in what he had to say outside of Marah and Ron. It was both gratifying, and a bit intimidating at the same time. For such a big guy, he seemed to fade into the background with remarkable ease most days.

He sighed at nobody, glancing over at a cluster of well-worn candles arranged on one of the end tables. Open flames were strongly discouraged in the lodge, but Xavier had always been a careful kind of person. He never worried about things like that.

With some reluctance Xavier heaved himself up onto his feet, pushing his shoes down below his bed. Though the main room was still filled with a peaceful green haze, the bathroom was as dark as the night outside. Letting his tie and vest drop to the ground he stepped inside, his eyes already used to the lack of light. His scale lay in a particularly uninviting corner of the room, almost like an unwanted child put in a perpetual ‘time-out’. Still, like he did every day and every night, he heaved himself on top of it, forgetting that he was still wearing most of his clothing.

“Three Hundred and. Sixty-three pounds.”

“Mmm.” he muttered apathetically, unable to remember if that meant he had gotten larger or smaller since that morning. He never could tell from just looking at himself. The scale had been a ‘gift’ from his sister a few years ago, when she was going through another one of her many ‘diet fads’ that were dominating the airways at the time. It never made much sense to Xavier, since she had always been underweight, if anything. She had encouraged him to weigh himself every day to see how his weight loss was going. She didn’t ask if he was even TRYING to lose weight. It was just implied, she must have thought. Xavier didn’t think about it much. He and his sister had never gotten along well.

Stepping down and unsure of what to do with himself for a few moments, Xavier thought of Ilene again. Like what sometimes happens when you meet someone new, he was still unsure that her existence was in fact legitimate and not a product of his imagination. He hadn’t met someone that seemed so happy to share his company in a long time. She didn’t seem to even notice his massive frame - if she had, she certainly wasn’t showing it. It was typically the first thing people took notice of. There was always a distinct change in a person’s expression once they got the chance to take a long, hard look at him. Eagerness would grow dull, apparent friendliness would start to sag. At one point in his life he could get away with masking his weight with baggy shirts and pants, but by the time he was over three-hundred pounds there was no getting around his pronounced curves and bulges. It had been hard enough finding a dress shirt that would offer enough slack that it could be tucked in, though just barely. Such garments left little to the imagination. Even his normal clothes tended to struggle to contain all of him.

But Ilene’s smile hadn’t drooped when she put her glasses back on and looked him up and down that night; not even the next day in a room full of normal-sized people. Perhaps that was why Xavier couldn’t seem to stop thinking about her. They hadn’t left each other on very good circumstances, but it didn’t seem to matter. Not even being so cruelly spoken too seemed to shake her kindness towards him. Her smile seemed so enchanting and natural, he wondered if she had ever frowned in her entire life.

Carefully getting to his knees Xavier surveyed the inventory of the small refrigerator wedged between his bed and the wall. He was allowed one complementary meal in the dining room each day, but by now he had gotten a chance to try just about everything on the menu, and often craved something different. Sitting on the top shelf was a large deli sandwich reminiscent of the one that was snatched from him when he dined with Ilene. Feeling his present hunger suddenly escalate, he pulled the morsel out happily, quickly forgetting about the troubles that had clouded his thoughts recently.

Rubbing his hands together Xavier took a seat at his diminutive table, pouring himself a short glass of cider. As he was about to take the first bite, there was a gentle, swift knock on his door.

Panicking for a few moments, he quickly deposited the offending piece of food in a small container, tucking it back inside the ice box. Getting up, he peered out the peephole to see a full head of silky brown hair. Xavier felt his body temperature escalate several degrees. As silently as he could, he started turning on the lights and shaking his head as though trying to snap himself back into reality.

With a bit of a shaky hand and a deep breath, Xavier opened the door. The hallway felt oppressively bright after spending so long in dimness, but the sight of Ilene dispelled any discomfort he was experiencing. In her arms she held a box overflowing with brambles of plastic and plugs.

“Hi there.” Ilene said with a smile, looking a little frazzled herself. Feeling what was reminiscent of a hiccup getting stuck in his throat, Xavier opened the door up completely, letting light flood the room.

“Hi, Ilene.” he stuttered, already feeling his knees going weak. In his head Xavier silently was hoping that the next time their paths crossed he would have himself a little more pulled together, but instead he was standing in front of her exhausted and looking less than dapper. He casually pulled the front of his shirt down a bit, though it didn’t seem willing to budge.

“Can I come in?” Ilene asked, wiping a bit of sweat from her forehead as Xavier noticed that she looked as though she hadn’t gotten enough rest the night before, despite appearing chipper. He nodded, pushing himself up against the wall so that there was room for her to enter.

“Thanks.” she said, bouncing inside with a newfound happiness. Xavier couldn’t remember the last time someone had been inside of his room - not even Marah came by very often. He wasn’t terribly messy but as soon as Ilene had come inside Xavier spotted a number of piles of rubbish littering the ground. He carefully pushed one of them beneath the dresser as Ilene placed the box she was carrying down on the table.

“Mmm, it smells good in here.” she mused as she rifled through the tangle of black cords, eventually pulling out a bulky grey device. Xavier quietly closed the door, realizing that he hadn’t even asked why she had come by yet.

“Well, You’re one lucky guy, Xavier.” Ilene suddenly remarked, turning back towards him, cradling the device in both hands.

“You get to be the first employee at this establishment with wireless internet!”
Ilene looked at Xavier, her face pulled up in an overly excited expression as though expecting him to start jumping with elation. Obviously caught off guard, Xavier felt his mouth go dry and fall open for a few seconds before realizing she was joking.

“Really? Me?” he asked, still a bit dumbfounded. Xavier almost never used his computer, mostly because he had little clue as to how it worked. Ilene stopped untangling the cords for a moment, pulling from the box a small clipboard. Her eyes narrowed, though she was still smiling.

“You’re...’Xavier Bruno’, right?” she asked, looking him over as though they had never met before. Xavier sank his hands into his pockets as he usually did when he was flustered.

“That’s me.” he said, brushing the back of his hair lightly so as to flatten it a bit. He was thankful to not have a mirror anywhere in view, as it seemed likely that he must’ve looked like he’d stuck his finger in a light socket.

“Well, that’s what you get for having a last name that starts with B. First on the list.” she teased. Noticing his hesitance, Ilene stopped her work, turning back towards him.

“Is this a bad time? I could come back later...” she started, beginning to put the device in her hands back inside the box. Xavier shook his head, surprised by the sudden arrival but happy to have another chance to see her.

“Oh no, this is fine. Please, go ahead.”

“Alright, great.” Ilene said, resuming her work. Still rummaging through her box and pulling out a whole parade of strange looking devices, Xavier took a seat nearby, his eyes still stinging a bit from the sudden light.

“I think that’s everything. ” Ilene finally decided, admiring her set of materials. Suddenly putting a hand to her forehead again, she let the clipboard fall to her side. Though she was visibly fighting it back, a long yawn escaped from her lips and she nearly stumbled backwards.

“Actually, Xavier...do you mind if I lie down for a few minutes?” she asked, taking her glasses off and rubbing her eyes. “I’ve been on my feet all day.” It seemed like a reasonable request, but Xavier felt himself growing nervous.

“Oh, sure...go ahead.” he said, now pretending to rearrange the things on his desk meticulously. Smiling with sleep still in her eyes, Ilene dramatically flopped down on top of his bed, letting out a sigh of relief. “Thanks so much, I really, really appreciate it.” she told him, closing her eyes and stretching her arms outwards.

“I haven’t been sleeping too well lately.” Ilene explained, happily dangling her legs off the end of the bed. “I guess it’s just taking me a while to get used to a new place. I keep thinking I’m back in my apartment.” The red shirt that Ilene had on blended into the deep scarlet sheets on Xavier’s bed as she tossed and turned a bit, eventually ending up on her side. Her eyes were closed so tight it looked as though she were sleep talking.

“This is the life...the other rooms are nowhere near as nice as this.” she said sleepily, resting her head on her hands. “I don’t think I even have a heater in my room.” SIlently cursing the creaking of the chair he was wedged into, Xavier look surprised.

“Really? It must get awfully cold.” Ilene chuckled.

“Ah, it’s alright. I’ve got pretty thick skin.” she assured him, clearly still enjoying the softness of the bed beneath her. Xavier had risen from his seat a bit hesitantly, noticing that he had left the bottle of open cider out on the table.

“Um...would you like something to drink?” he asked carefully, picking the bottle up with his trembling hands. Sitting up, Ilene noticed what he was holding. She put her hands on her knees, looking rather flattered.

“My goodness, how kind of you, Mr. Bruno.” Xavier turned pink, having no remembrance of anyone ever calling him anything so formal before, even in jest. Ilene inched her way to the end of the bed so that her knees were a few inches from Xavier, looking up at him thankfully as she pulled her hair back.

“I’d love something to drink, actually. Thanks.”

Carefully pulling another glass from his cabinet Xavier poured Ilene some cider, still impressed with himself for not tripping over his words. As Ilene took the drink in her hand, she seemed to admire the candles Xavier was noticing earlier. Even unlit they gave off a pleasant, vanilla aroma.

“It really is nice in here.” Ilene said, looking around with an impressed expression as she nursed her half-full glass.

To Xavier’s credit, the room hadn’t looked nearly as nice when he had first moved in. It was no different from any other room in the lodge, but Xavier had invested a considerable amount of TLC into it over the years. He was a simple man when it came to needs and wants, but a comfortable living space was something that was rather important to him. Ilene seemed particularly impressed with the potted plant perched on the windowsill, it’s leafy tendrils swooping down nearly to the floor. “It feels so cozy.”

In a moment of unexpected courage, Xavier responded before taking another drink, his face now as red as his sheets.

“You’re always welcome to come by.” he said quietly, content in the fact that he truly meant it. Ilene turned from the plant to it’s owner, speechless for just a moment. She rested her glass in her lap, looking genuinely thankful.

“Really?” she asked, fidgeting with the bracelet on her wrist for just a second. Xavier nodded, pushing his knees together coyly.

“Thank you, Xavier.” she said as she leaned forward, her sleepiness now looking more like glowing gratitude. Her normally ebullient personality seemed to be charmed for just a moment by his words, though it certainly didn’t seem like she minded. She patted the remaining area of the bed gently, inviting Xavier to take a seat next to her. Hesitating only for a second this time, he made his way over to the mattress, cautiously lowering himself onto the space remaining next to Ilene. Though he sank down several more inches than she did, he grew comfortable quickly.

“So how’s it going, you? I haven’t seen you in a little while.” Ilene asked, not seeming to notice that the two of them barely fit on the bedside. Xavier cupped his glass tightly, remembering for a moment how things had gone the last time they spoke.

“Oh, I’m doing alright.” he said, staying perfectly still after realizing that their legs were pressed against each other. It wasn’t entirely truthful, but it wasn’t a total lie, either.

“Good, I’m glad.”

Ilene slowly traced the rim of her glass as they sat in silence for a few seconds, comfort filling the air rather than tension. The sound of the waves started to grow louder as wind began whistling through the trees outside. Ilene quickly stood up, suddenly captivated by something wedged just to the right of Xavier’s desk. Ilene grinned as she realized what it was she had discovered.

“Is this you?” she asked, putting her glass down in favor of a small wooden frame, with what looked like a portrait of a very young Xavier pasted in the center slightly askew. Xavier put his hands up in front of his chest as though Ilene were going to throw something at him.

“Oh, you don’t wanna look at that...” he started in a strained tone, wishing now more than ever that he had a chance to clean things up before inviting Ilene inside. She stuck her tongue out just an inch, clearly enjoying his hesitance.

“Oh, pish posh.” She held the tiny frame carefully, holding it close to her face so that she could see the small image inside. She giggled, putting one hand to her mouth.

“Look at you, you were so cute!” she remarked, taking a seat next to Xavier again, who looked slightly uncomfortable. Admiring the fading photograph a bit more carefully, Xavier could see Ilene’s eyes light up as she continued to admire the small image. Flipping the frame over casually, Ilene noticed something scribbled on the back of the cardboard.

“Xe, 1995.”

She looked up at Xavier, as though she had just stumbled upon something strange and valuable. “Xe?” she asked, inquiry in her voice.

“That was my nickname when I was a kid.” Xavier said, looking content. It had been years since he had heard it said out loud. “I’m not sure how it all started, to be honest. You can’t really shorten ‘Xavier.’” Ilene carefully put the picture back down, looking very satisfied.

“I really like that.” she said finally, taking a seat on the bed once again. “Is it okay if I call you that?” she asked, looking at Xavier eagerly. From Xavier’s expression, it was likely that this was the last thing he expected her to say.

The dark trees outside seem to hold their breath as Ilene looked up at Xavier, awaiting his response.

“If you’d like to, sure.” he finally said, his hands again finding his pockets now that his drink was finished. Ilene looked as if she might clap her hands out of delight.

“‘Xe...I like the sound of it.” she confessed, rocking lightly back and forth like a child with a new, shiny toy. As though she had stepped on something sharp in the seconds that followed, Ilene suddenly let out a muffled gasp that gave Xavier a start.

“Oh my gosh...the wifi!” she exclaimed, gently smacked her head and clearly having forgot her original reason for stopping by. In all honesty, Xavier had forgotten about it too, despite the fact that they’d only been talking for about 15 minutes.

“I got so distracted...here, it shouldn’t take long.” Ilene said, quickly grabbing one of the black cords as Xavier carefully moved out of her way. In a matter of minutes two small adapters found a home next on Xavier’s desk, happily blinking their green signals on and off. Despite moving with what Xavier would call super-human speed, Ilene looked unfazed by her feats when she connected the last of the device’s wires.

“There. Hopefully that should work. If you have any kind of problem, just let me know, okay? These things are pretty simple, though, so I think you’ll be fine.”

The atmosphere of leisure that Ilene had walked inside with began to grow more urgent as Ilene checked to make sure she hadn’t forgotten anything, once again picking up the box she had come in with. She stood in place for a few seconds, as though she’d forgotten which door led to the hallway.

“Well... I guess I should get back to work. These routers aren’t gonna connect themselves.” she announced finally.

“Oh. Right.” Xavier realized, for a moment forgetting that his was one of dozens of rooms awaiting connections. Tucking the box under her arm, Ilene took one last look around before reaching the door. Though she’d only lay down for a minute or two, she looked quite a bit more rested than she had when she came in.

”Thanks again for that drink, it really picked me up.” she said, looking very content but a bit sad that she had to depart. Xavier looked the same way, snaking his hands back inside his trousers as his eyes finally stopped aching from the sudden light.

“Of course, anytime.” he said, standing by idly as Ilene carefully twisted the doorknob and started out into the hall. She turned on her heels as she was standing inside of the door jam.

“Well...goodnight, Mr. Bruno.” she began to say before pausing. The beginnings of a smirk started to form on her face.

“I mean...goodnight, Xe.”
 
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This is really a cute story. Not trying to rush you, but I hope you continue as soon as you can. But what about Marah? I caught something in one of the earlier chapters - it seemed to me like she had a bit of a crush on him too. Or am I just imagining it? Competition always makes for an interesting plot twist!
 

BrokenCassette

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CHAPTER FIVE

“Either tell me why you’re so happy or I’m gonna wipe that stupid grin off your face.” Marah threatened in her best ‘angry’ voice, though it wasn’t terribly convincing.

The kitchen was nearly empty, the brilliant winter sun muffled by a thick school of rain clouds that were squeezing out a frozen rain at the moment. Xavier was busy wrapping napkins around sets of silverware, his mouth seemingly stuck in what appeared to be a permanent smile underneath his rosy red mustache. The busywork hardly required his full attention, so he was free to let his mind wander, which only annoyed his co-worker more.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” he retorted smoothly, not even looking up from his work as Marah continued to steam in the corner, entertaining herself with the sound of a hard-boiled egg spinning around inside a metal bowl.

“You’re a dirty liar, you know that?” she sneered, neglecting the pile of forks and knives that she was meant to be folding.

Xavier had been in a good mood lately, there was no denying that. Even January seemed to have noticed, as evidenced by her attempts to bring him down by putting him and Marah on silverware duty, though not even that could dampen his spirits. Xavier gave Marah a quick, almost condescending glance before starting in on her set of silverware.

“Seriously, it’s nothing. I have good days and bad days, just like everyone else. Sometimes both in one day, even.” As though trying to prove his point Xavier let his lips slide into an exaggerated frown, though it only lasted a few seconds before the corners of his mouth sprang back up into the stupid grin he’d worn since that morning. It’s not that it was unlike him to be cheerful - as part of his job he’d learned to put on a happy face even in the face of despair. But rarely was he so elated that he couldn’t even control his own face muscles.

He would be reluctant to admit it without some kind of protest, but since the previous day he had thought about little other than Ilene. They’d only known each other for a week or so, but she populated even the most unexpected of thoughts - all paths, it seemed, led back to her. Even what he could remember of his dreams last night had a hint of Ilene to them, though most of it was too surreal for him to want to dwell on. The soft, swirling feeling in his belly that usually accompanied a long overdue and satisfying meal had been tossing and turning inside of him the whole time, though it felt a bit different now. Whatever it was, it was hardly a feeling Xavier wanted to go away anytime in the near future.

“Or ever, for that matter.” he thought, no longer paying attention to the motion of his hands as they engulfed the last set of utensils.

Clearly fed up with his recent behavior and now dissatisfied with her new instrument, Marah rubbed her hands together contently.

“Alright, fine. Be that way. Looks like we’re done here. Hey, Jan!” January, who had just come through the swinging door leading to the dining room, leered at Marah like she were a dead snake the cat had dropped on her doorstep.

“I told you to never call me that.” she hissed, visibly close to popping a blood vessel. Marah smacked her forehead lightly, looking not the least bit sorry.

“Right, sorry about that. January. We’re finished here, is it okay if we go to lunch?” January’s already stoic expression grew even more incredulous.

“Oh gee, done already? Whatever, go ahead. When you get back you better brace yourself - we’ve got two parties of ten coming in at two and guess who gets to take care of them?” Like a siren sucking the life out of a pack of seduced sailors, January let out a cackle as she tossed back her poker-straight hair, waltzing into the backroom. Marah stuck her tongue out after her.

“I hear her new broomstick gets thirty miles to the gallon. She should be in a better mood.”

~

“Thanks a lot, Glenn.” Xavier and Marah had taken a seat next to one of the windows overlooking the translucent lake, the cold rain beating against the glass relentlessly. Unraveling her napkin and spreading it into her lap, Marah rested her head in her hands, sighing. She was looking rather exhausted, despite the fact she hadn’t done a lick of work that day.

“Why do they even make us do this anyway? Like people aren’t gonna unwrap their napkins in the first five seconds.” she lamented. Xavier shrugged, glancing out the window at the damp landscape outside. Even the distant mountains, somehow, seemed to remind him of Ilene.

“I mean it Xavier, I’m getting tired of this ‘Little Mister Sunshine” crap. What, did January get diagnosed with terminal hangnails? ” Xavier fidgeted, picking at the button of one of his shirt cuffs while gently biting his lip. If there was one thing Marah was better at than annoying January, it was squeezing information out of him.

“No, nothing like that. I’ve just been feeling happier lately. I told you, it’s nothing unusual.” As Marah continued to glower at Xavier with her beady brown eyes, a shocked, excited expression suddenly appeared on her face. Her eyes grew wide as her mouth fell open in a serendipitous gape.

“Wait. WAIT just a minute. I’ve seen this look before. It’s the same look Glenn had when they hired that cute bellhop.” She pointed her fork at him accusingly, still skewered into a juicy piece of asparagus. “Xavier...did you meet someone?”

Xavier didn’t say anything, but the sudden rush of color to his face told Marah more than she needed to know. She may as well have found a cure for cancer, the smug satisfaction she suddenly began radiating.

“I knew it. It’s that new girl, isn’t it. She came by my room the other day, what with her modest but quirky way of dressing and her shiny hair.” As she talked Marah looked like she was slowly convincing herself more and more this was the truth, though Xavier remained silent, stuffing his mouth full of turkey burger.

“Ugh...It all makes sense now!” After swallowing hard, Xavier finally put his hands up as if trying to calm down a particularly surly child.

“Marah, slow down for a second.” he tried to coax, but Marah looked like she was about to burst.

“What’s she like? Is she nice? She seems really nice. Are you two friends now? Is she funny?” Xavier took a swig of his glass of water, feeling his face go even hotter just thinking about it. Without thinking he almost comically pulled at the collar of his shirt.

“Yeah, I guess we’re friends. She’s really a nice person.” he said simply, getting more nervous now that he was saying all of this out loud instead of tumbling it inside of his head. He decided not to mention his tendency to lose the ability to form complete sentences when she was around, at least for the time being. Marah had all the evidence she needed already. As she pushed the remaining asparagus heads around on her plate, Marah’s enthusiasm quietly morphed from exuberant to genuinely pleased.

“Well that’s great, Xavier. I’m really happy for you.” she said, now raising her glass to his, clinking them together before any protest could arise.

“Don’t think this means you get to eat lunch with her from now on, though. That’s strictly my territory. It’s in our contract, seriously. Look it up.”

~

Ilene had gotten in the habit of stopping by and chatting with Xavier between jobs, and soon the tension that had originally prevented Xavier from speaking with complete words subsided, and he was finally able to relax a bit. Ilene had a way of speaking that was both comforting as well as inviting, like a particularly friendly school teacher. One afternoon, after hanging smilax and holly on every flat surface she could find, she told Xavier about her family in Vancouver, and being the only girl in a household full of boys, among other things.

“I think they forgot about it after a while.” she began, settling into her now usual spot on the ledge beside Xavier’s window. “They were always so busy, one Christmas they just bought four basketballs. If I remember right, I dressed mine up as the first female sports ball president.” Before he could possibly stop himself, Xavier let out such a great belly laugh that Ilene started in as well, as typically happened when they were together. Xavier came to the conclusion that it was this kind of laughter that had finally convinced him that Ilene was the sort of person he could get along with. The only other person who could so expertly push all his buttons was Marah, and even she would be impressed at how well Ilene had become at it.

“You’re making this up.” he finally challenged, feeling a strange sense of confidence that was rather foreign to him. Ilene rolled her eyes, part exasperation, part amusement.

“I wish.”

“What about you?” she asked one afternoon when taking her lunch break from updating the Christmas Eve schedule pamphlet. The internet connections had all been established within a few days, and she was now on call for technical support and anything else the management needed help with, which seemed to suit her just fine. Xavier had joined her on the window ledge, which was just barely big enough for the both of them. Though at first he kept his hands protectively to his belly, he’d gotten in the habit of resting them on the ledge. The frozen rain that had made an appearance that day cast long, sharp shadows of them on the floor.

“Me? What about me?” he answered back, already sporting the beginning of a smile.

“I mean, what about your family?” Ilene clarified, now tossing a Rubick’s cube she’d found in the lounge between her two hands. Xavier had been fidgeting with one of his fountain pens, but let it fall to the ground as he gave a subtle wince.

“I’m very close to my father.” he started out, clearly trying to sound positive but hesitation quickly slipped into his voice. “I don’t get to see him much, though. He travels a lot.” As Xavier spoke he became more and more fidgety, until finally he grasped both his hands together.

“I have a brother and sister, but we don’t talk usually.” His head dropped down just an inch or two as his gaze became transfixed on the fibers of carpet beneath his feet.

“And my mom passed away when I was five.” he said finally, with as much strength as one can when sharing such a thing. Ilene stopped playing with the cube as well, settling it beside her as it seemed to lose any importance it might’ve had.

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have asked about something so personal.” she said finally, a twinge of guilt in her tone. Xavier shook his head, glancing out the window before turning back to her.

“It’s alright, really. It was a long time ago.” They sat in silence for a few moments, nothing but the slow hum of an electric fan around to disturb them. It wasn’t an uncomfortable silence. Not really. That was another thing that the two discovered they had in common - the invaluable ability to differentiate an unpleasant quietness from an appropriate one.

“So tell me, Mr. B...what about this, huh?” Ilene finally questioned while motioning to the top of Xavier’s head, clearly trying to get their conversation back onto a positive note. “Is this natural, or are you secretly a closeted brunette?” she jeered, her gaze settling on Xavier’s thick, deeply orange hair.

“Very funny.” he scoffed, giving his head a subtle scratch. “This is what happens when an Irishman marries a Scot.” he explained, almost triumphantly. Ilene gently rocked back and forth on the cushion, looking at Xavier with an almost child-like fascination.

“You should feel special. I’ve never seen anyone with such intensely red hair.” She reached out to feel a tiny wisp of it, making Xavier seize up for a second or two from surprise. Her smile was warm and sweet.

“It’s like a superpower.”

~

It was two days later when Ilene came upon Xavier perched at his desk, looking at his computer screen with such confusion he might as well have been trying to decipher an alien language. Ilene poked her head around the doorway, hardly able to keep herself for giggling at how intently Xavier was staring at his console, his expression equal parts determination and complete befuddlement.

“Xe?” she called out, realizing how funny she must look to anyone who would happen to pass by at the moment. Xavier’s head turned before his gaze did, but the sight of Ilene seemed to visibly smooth the wrinkles on his brow, his eyes blinking ferociously after squinting for what Ilene figured must’ve been quite some time. He looked both relieved and, after noticing that leaning forward had made his shirt ride up just a few inches in the back, a bit embarrassed.

“Ilene, hi.” he said, casually tugging at the rather taught fabric with such a feigned ‘coolness’ Ilene was already smothering a giggle.

“Hope you don’t mind me coming by a little earlier than usual.” she said, causally letting herself in. Before answering, Xavier’s intense concentration seemed to catch up to him, making him rub at his pink eyes.

“Not at all.” he replied, switching off his monitor as Ilene sat across from him on the bed.

“What’s going on? Are you working on something?” she asked, helping herself to the usual small saucer of wrapped candies on the night table.

Xavier sighed, looking like he hadn’t had a very restful sleep the last night. His usual black dress shoes were today replaced by a pair of scruffy sandals, showing off his large but strangely chubby feet and toes. Even the slacks he had on looked like they hadn’t had a proper wash in a while, though perhaps they’d been beaten against a rock sometime in the recent past. Although they were a lovely navy blue color, they looked one or two sizes too small, as did Xavier’s desk chair. Anyone else might not have noticed how well he filled the aging seat, but then again, Ilene wasn’t like most other people.

“I’m just trying to get this hunk of junk to cooperate with me. For once.” Xavier lamented, giving the aging computer a dirty sideways glance. “I just want to check my e-mail, but even that seems to be beyond me. I’m just no good with this kind of thing.” He sighed again, looking as if he were seriously considering throwing the whole thing out the window down to the frozen pavement below. Despite a moment of amusement at seeing Xavier so worked up over something, Ilene sat up straight, crunching up the peppermint she had in her mouth quickly and resting her hands on her knees.

“You know, I know a thing of two about hunks of junk like this one.” she said, approaching the computer cautiously, as if about to disable a particularly nasty jungle beast. Her eyes nearly sparkled with eagerness as she ran a hand across the plastic keyboard. “I could help you out, if you’d like.”

The offer hung in the air for a few moments before Xavier seemed to completely digest their meaning. His eyes darted from Ilene to the computer.

“No, really, that’s alright, I’m sure you’re busy...” he started, feeling his usual sheepishness start to bubble to the surface. Ilene didn’t look the slightest bit deterred, already pulling over a folding chair in front of the offending device.

“Are you kidding? I’ve got more time than I know what to do with right now. Besides, I’ve taught a room full of thirty hyperactive kids how to do this stuff before. I think I can handle teaching you.” Even after such a strong argument, Xavier itched at his hands restlessly.

“I dunno. I think I might be a lost cause.” he said, finally.

“Alright, well how about this.” Ilene started, folding her arms against her chest. “I’ll make you a deal.” Xavier also sat up, looking attentive, if a little hesitant.

“If I show you how to work this here computer - don’t worry, we’ll take it slow,” she added after seeing Xavier’s eyebrows curl up with skepticism.

“...then YOU can teach me to cook something. Something easy. How’s that sound?” From the look on Xavier’s face, it didn’t seem like an offer Xavier had seen coming, but still, he remained intrigued.

“You want me to teach you how to cook?” he asked slowly, sounding out each word as though he hadn’t put the sentence together adequately enough in his head. Ilene nodded, looking more and more excited with each passing second.

“Why not? It could be fun, and trust me, I bet I’m way worse at cooking than you are at computers.” Unable to do so with a straight face, Ilene offered her hand out.

“Well? What do you say? Deal?”

It didn’t seem like there was anything to lose, and since they spent so much of their free time together anyways, Xavier decided that if nothing else, it would be a memorable experience. He took her hand in his own, which had to be twice as big, and gave it two swift shakes.

“Deal.”
 

Tad

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:bounce::bounce::bounce: The updates to this come infrequently enough that I pretty much forget about the story in-between. When I first see the update I have a vague feeling of "Oh yah, I was reading that story, I should read the new piece.....what was it about again, something at a ski resort?" The a couple of paragraphs in the basics come back to me, and a few paragraphs after that I start grinning as I remember just how much I love your writing style. And I finish eager for there to be a new addition soon....but suspecting it will be long enough that I will have again all but forgotten about this story.... :bow:
 

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