It all started with a handmade sign that read "Fresh bread inside: FREE!" The curvy letters were huge and multicolored, likely the end result of someone with a box of Crayola markers and not a lot of time to devote to creative signing. 'FREE' was written in gold and pink glitter-glue, and the bottom line of the second 'E' was beginning to peel free from the poster-board. Beside it was a printed sign reading "Opening Soon," but it paled in comparison to the over-exuberance of the larger sign. Charlie stared at the signs on the window for a long time, hunger warring with skepticism until his stomach rumbled loudly and made up his mind.
"It's the middle of the day," he reassured himself quietly as he opened the building's front door and walked hesitantly inside. "And at least it's not in a residential area. There are businesses and people all over the place. I'll be fine."
The place, or as much of it as he could see, was rather small: one room with a handful of chairs and tables, a long, empty glass display case, and a few barren shelves. Everything was in black, red, and white except the ceiling fan whirring overhead. It was hard to tell, but its blades looked black and neon green. The overall effect was sharp, modern in its lines and almost Hot Topic-ish in its colors, but it was all slightly dizzying as well. Charlie waited for a moment, hoping someone would appear. When nobody did, he turned to leave, only to be stopped in his tracks by a voice from behind him.
"Wait, wait!" said a male voice. A somewhat feminine male voice, to be more precise. "I didn't hear you come in, I was in the back pulling a loaf from the oven. Please don't leave yet!"
Charlie turned to face the speaker, and barely managed to keep his jaw from dropping. The young man in front of him was gorgeous. He was slightly over six feet tall, with pale skin and black hair that stood up in tall, artfully mussed spikes. Despite his height, his bone structure and willowy build rendered him slightly more androgynous than masculine, and the eyeliner he was wearing only added to the impression. Charlie had never been particularly attracted to pretty boys—he'd always preferred his men buff, and thought five o'clock shadows were the sexiest things ever—but he was hardly going to protest. At least the guy was tall.
"Umm... Hi," Charlie said at last, staring down at his shoes before he could gawk any more obviously and make an idiot of himself. "I'm Charlie. I saw the sign on the door, and I just thought..."
The man walked towards him—bounced, really, which was impressive given how tight his black jeans were—and wiped one hand off on his red apron before thrusting it in front of Charlie's chest. "My name's Civic," he said. Charlie shook his hand, then found himself being dragged towards a nearby table and shoved into a chair. "I'm so glad you're here. You're the first person who's come in here besides me and the renovators and the real estate lady, you should feel special!" He flashed Charlie that manic grin again, then started to move swiftly towards the back of the building. "I'll be right back with some bread. It's a new recipe, three herb and olive. Do you want butter? How about something to drink?"
Civic was gone before Charlie could even process the questions, let alone formulate a reply. The cheerful man reappeared a minute or so later carrying a black plastic tray on which sat a plate piled high with slices of steaming bread, a stick of butter, and a bottle of water. He sat the tray on the table in front of Charlie, then plopped down in the seat across from him, head propped up by both hands. His dark blue eyes were huge. "Eat up, and please, be brutally honest. Tell me what you really think."
Charlie stared at the tray for a moment, almost scared to reach out and take a slice in the face of such earnest enthusiasm on Civic's part. He wasn't very good at giving criticism, constructive or not. It would be twice as hard to give criticism to a guy this far out of his league. But Civic looked so happy and hopeful, and it had been days since Charlie had eaten anything but ramen noodles or peanut butter crackers... He'd just have to do his best. He took a slice of bread, wincing at the slight burn, and took a bite. It was the best bread he'd ever had.
"This... Is amazing," Charlie said after a few more bites. "Between the salt from the olives, and the flavoring of the herbs, it doesn't need butter at all." He finished the rest of his slice, then looked up at Civic and smiled. "You have a lot of talent. If the rest of what you bake is even half this good, your bakery is going to be a hit, I'm sure of it." He paused for a moment as he remembered that neither of the signs out front had said what this place was, exactly. "This is going to be a bakery, right?"
Civic nodded, head bobbing up and down so hard and fast that it gave Charlie a headache. It also made a slew of involuntary and completely inappropriate images fly through his mind, all focused on an entirely different situation involving head-bobbing. He imagined his face was probably as red as his hair by now. He faked a cough and grabbed the water bottle, opening it and taking a few swigs. He hoped the other young man would accept the coughing fit as the reason for his embarrassed flush.
"Yes, it's a bakery," Civic said once Charlie had put the bottle back on the table. "I took out a loan to get things up and running. I hope it works out. I'm already in debt thanks to college loans; this place is pretty much my only chance to work my way out of debt without pulling two jobs I hate, or rooming with a half dozen strangers, or some other equally depressing scenario." His nose wrinkled in apparent disgust at the idea.
Charlie would have loved being whatever Civic thought of as 'miserable' if it meant having a steady income, but he kept that thought to himself. Now wasn't the time or place to get into it, especially with a stranger. Instead, he took another slice of bread—this time with butter, just for the sake of taste-testing—and prodded Civic into continuing the conversation. It didn't take much effort on his part, just a couple of simple questions. "What did you major in?" he asked as he swallowed his first bite. "And when will you be opening? This is great with butter too, by the way."
Civic beamed at him, looking pleased as punch. "Thanks! I have degrees in business and culinary arts, thus all the debt," he said with a laugh. "And I still have some finishing stuff to do... Like coming up with a good name, buying another breakout cart, and hiring someone to help me. But I should be throwing open the front door next month, if everything goes well. Which reminds me! Do you happen to know anyone who's looking for a job?"
Charlie's heart skipped a beat at the minor miracle of timing, but he forced himself to play it as cool as he could manage. Which, admittedly, wasn't very cool at all. Not after two months of joblessness and a bank account that was quickly starving to death. He cleared his throat and tugged at the neck of his shirt, realized what he was doing, and let his hand fall back to the table. "Ah... Well, I'm actually looking for a new job myself, actually."
"Really? That's great! Do you have a food handler's card?" Charlie thought of the string of fast-food jobs he'd worked over the past couple of years and nodded. "Fantastic. We seem to be getting along well so far, which is a plus... How are you with working early hours? Are you a morning person?"
"I'm fine whenever," Charlie replied promptly. It was almost a true statement. "I can maintain whatever schedule I set for myself, as long as I have a few days to get used to it. If you hire me I can start waking up early ahead of time, just to make sure I'm in the swing of things by opening day. Just how early are we talking, by the way? Six o'clock?"
Civic flicked his lip ring with his tongue, spinning it around and around as he thought over his answer. "I have to be here at five," he said after a moment. "The bakery opens at eight, and it takes quite a while to get everything set up, prepped, and started. But you wouldn't have to be here that early since you won't be making any of the breads or the fancy pastries, so let's say six thirty?"
"That sounds great," Charlie said, too pleased to care how goofy his smile must have looked. A tiny part of his brain wondered why a guy with a business degree was being so casual about the hiring process—no postings, no background check, no application of any sort!-and going with the first guy he met who wanted the job. The rest of his brain was busy throwing a party. "I really appreciate you giving me a chance, Civic. Honestly. So... When do I start?"