“Attention customers, the store will be closing in 5 minutes, please proceed to the nearest register.”
Felix dropped his head to the shelf in front of him, tasting salt on his lips as a stray tear escaped. He opened his eyes and stared helplessly at the empty shelf in front of him where the orange chocolate aero bars should have been. Taking a deep breath he pulled his head off the shelf, letting it sway on his unsteady shoulders. Keeping his gaze solidly on the black and white checkered floor tiles at his feet as an unfamiliar set of feet walked past. When he reached the end of the aisle, he methodically scanned the shelves in front of him. Bright candy wrappers and boxes of chocolate hearts were carefully noted as he made his way back down the aisle for the 3rd time. This was the last store open at this hour. It had to be here.
His tears dried up as the numbness started to spread again. He shook his head as he walked, desperate to keep himself balanced on the narrow tightrope of sanity over the abyss of his most recent depression. He had to hold on for Ethan. No one else was going to.
His phone vibrated and he pulled it out to find another message from his ex.
CLAIRE: My flight got moved up for tomorrow morning so I’m actually dropping Ethan at yours tomorrow at 5 instead of 6, k? School isn’t until 8 so maybe he can go back to sleep first.
Felix scoffed. His eyes pricked again, and he made a very deliberate decision to laugh instead of cry that his ex assumed that their insomniac of a teenager would be able to go back to sleep after being driven halfway across London before the sun came up.
If he could just find that stupid chocolate.
Felix jumped as he heard footsteps coming around the corner, walking down the aisle towards him.
“I’m sorry sir, the store is closing, can I help you find anything?”
Felix glanced up at the employee that had approached him. His long black hair was pulled back in a ponytail but a few strands fell loose in his face. He looked about the same age as Felix, and he was pretty sure he could glimpse some ink sticking out the edge of his employee shirt. A dark curl by his collar, a dark stripe by his right wrist. His arms were crossed over his chest, almost obscuring the employee badge.
It was only when the man shifted his weight and cleared his throat that Felix realized he had been staring. The man gestured to the empty shopping basket in Felix’s hand.
“I let the cashier go a little early tonight. I’m the last one here. Were you looking for something? My brother owns the place, but I do need to get out of here eventually so if there’s anything I can grab?”
“I’m so sorry, I don’t mean to keep you. You’re just the only ones still open at this hour.” Felix stuttered.
The man paused for a second. “So… what are we looking for tonight?” He asked.
“Aero bars…” Felix answered quietly.
The man’s eyebrows furrowed and he turned to glance between Felix and the display next to them, with several rows neatly filled with Aero bars.
Felix flushed and dropped his gaze back to the floor. He focused on a particularly interesting crack in one just to the left of the employee's feet. The crack seemed to ebb and flow as his vision blurred.
“I’m sorry sir, I think I’m missing something,” the man said. Felix raised his hand in dismissal and started to walk towards the exit. But right as he passed that blurring crack in the floor, the man gently caught his extended hand, stopping him in place. Felix’s eyes shot up to meet the strangers. He looked genuinely concerned. And wasn’t that just the final straw? The first person in his life to be worried for him in months was a stranger in the grocery store. To be fair, the stranger was probably more worried about this grown man having a breakdown in his store at night and was probably debating if he was supposed to call someone about this. Whether it was the concern or the fear of anyone else being brought into this mess, the dam was broken and Felix’s vision cleared as the tears that had built up blurring his vision finally fell.
Ignoring the tears casually tracking their way down his face, Felix tried to compose himself, squaring his shoulders and turning to face this stranger who shouldn’t care less about his midnight breakdown.
“You’re out of the orange ones,” Felix said, pointing to the one gap in the display under which there was a price tag for Orange Chocolate Aero bars.
“You’re right. I’m sorry about that, we restock in the morning if you want to come back when we open tomorrow morning.” The man said.
Felix ran a hand through his hair and glanced down at his watch. When he looked back up he found the man’s eyes tracking the movement of his hand.
“I’m sorry. I knew it was super last minute, but my ex just texted me that she was going to drop my son off in the morning. He’s been having a rough time lately and they’re his favorite. I just… I wanted something to go right for him for once. It’s been a mess the last few years, for all of us.” Felix met the eyes of the man in front of him, who was staring at him with active interest. “I am so sorry. I shouldn’t have just dumped that all on you. You’re just trying to do your job, I’ll let you close up.”
“No don’t worry about it.” Felix noticed the man was still touching his outreached hand as he squeezed it gently before releasing it. “We all have bad days, right mate?” Felix met his eyes briefly and nodded in gratitude. “My name’s Orion by the way. Let me just check the back for you real quick.”
Felix opened his mouth to ask him not to go to the trouble, but the words got stuck in his throat. Instead, he managed a quiet, “Thank you.”
Orion made it a few feet down the aisle before turning back to face him. He looked back at him apologetically.
“So sorry, but would you actually mind coming with me? I sent everyone else home and I’m not supposed to leave anyone alone in the store.”
Felix moved to follow him then slowed as he realized that he was following a stranger into a back room alone… Well, he’s made far more questionable decisions, this can’t be the one that ruins him. It would be worth it to have the chocolate for Ethan either way. Orion had reached a door marked STAFF ONLY at the end of the aisle and turned to make sure that Felix was still following. Felix flushed and jogged a little to catch up to him.
“Sorry, I don’t normally get invited into private back rooms.” His eyes went wide as he realized how that might come across. He waved his hands desperately in front of himself. “Not like that. You’re just… I’m going to stop talking now.” He buried his nose in his hands and resolved to avoid eye contact for the rest of this interaction. He broke that resolve pretty fast when he heard a cutoff laugh. He met Orion’s eyes hesitantly.
“I was gonna say I don’t get guys like you back here that often,” Orion said with a smirk.
Felix’s face dropped and he turned his face to the side, bringing his hand up to cover the worst of his scar. Orion had continued walking as they had talked but he paused when Felix stopped following him.
“I’ll just wait here. I promise I won’t get into anything while you check. I’ll get out of your hair.” Felix said.
Orion looked him up and down for a second, taking in how he was covering most of his face. His eyes stayed resolutely on Orion’s feet. His head was tucked lower and his shoulders slouched in to cover himself subtly. The effect made him look almost the same height as Orion.
“Don’t worry about it, it’s just around the corner, it’s not far,” Orion said. He looked at Felix questioning but Felix didn’t look up. “Okay… I’ll be back in a second then.”
Felix gave a tiny sigh of relief as he disappeared around the corner. Standing alone in the back arena left plenty of mental space for the spiral he had started earlier to return with fresh fuel to add to the fire. Maybe Ethan really would be better off without him. Everyone else seemed to be. He couldn’t even hold a normal conversation with the grocery store manager.
Before his spiral made it too far, he heard Orion’s footsteps as he approached, and Felix focused on his black combat boots. Orion cleared his throat and Felix raised his eyes to see a full box of Orange Chocolate Aero bars in Orion’s hands.
Felix shook off his demons weighing his shoulders down to straighten up. “Thank you. How much to just get the whole box?”
Before Orion could respond, that little voice that told Felix to stand up for himself got past that brain-to-mouth barrier. “Sorry if that’s not normal for guys like me.” The bite of it satisfied that small part of him. Orion took a half step back and his face wrinkled in what Felix assumed was a prequel to his own defense, so Felix brushed him off before he could. “I get it a lot, it’s nothing new.” He regrated that the bite in his voice was now suspiciously close to bitter.
But as he watched, Orion’s face changed from confusion to shock. His hands flailed in front of him as he tried to backtrack the conversation. Unfortunately, he was still holding the box of chocolates. They slipped out of his hands and crashed to the ground, scattering between the two of them. Orion stared blankly at the floor before dropping down to pick them up. He sat down on the floor with his legs splayed out to the side like a little kid staring at their block tower that had just been toppled. He glared at the chocolate bars as if he could levitate them back into the box.
“Promise me that none of this gets back to Jack. I’ll never hear the end of it.” Orion said.
“Excuse me?” Felix still felt indignant but he also needed to get home so he crouched by the mess to start collecting the bars and replacing them in the box as Orion watched from his place on the floor.
“I’m an idiot. And Jack will never let me hear the end of it.” Orion said, then waved his hand to add, “He owns the store. Technically he is my boss.” He wrinkled his nose at the last part. “I still think I’m his parents’ favorite child though.”
Felix had to stop picking up the chocolate to beg his brain to catch up to this conversation. “I’m sorry, you lost me.”
Orion looked up to meet his confused gaze. “I flirt with a cute guy in the store. Completely offend him. And spill a whole box of chocolate.” He shook his head at Felix as if that explained everything. “Do you have any siblings?” He asked. “Well, if you do, you know that’s not the kind of thing they’re gonna let you forget about any time soon. So…” He waved his hand meaningfully towards Felix.
“So… we’re not telling your boss.” He paused. “About the box of chocolate.”
Orion nodded, “Or the flirting. Definitely skipping the flirting.”
“I think I missed that bit.”
Orion sighed loudly, “Yeah, I figured that bit out. I just thought you weren’t into guys and I didn’t want to make it more awkward.” He stopped short and his eyes widened in alarm, “Unless you aren’t and I ‘ve just made this ten times worse.”
Felix had to laugh at that. “I am actually.” He rubbed the back of his neck, “My ex says I’m just a bit dense. So, when you said, guys like me…”
Orion laughed with him. “I meant it’s not every day that a fit bloke who clearly loves his kid needs my incredibly specialized help.”
Orion helped grab the last couple of bars as Felix stood up. Felix offered his hand to Orion, who now looked up at him. Box in one hand, Felix’s hand in the other he stood back up and brushed himself off.
“Well, now that I’ve made a right fool of myself, let’s just get you checked out.”
Orion made it to the door before he paused again. “And all the registers are closed up for the night…” He glanced back at Felix apologetically. “I should’ve thought this through earlier. My bad mate.” Felix watched him stare down at the box for a second. “You know what? This box is all damaged now, right? Because I dropped it, yeah?”
Felix’s eyed him suspiciously. “They all look fine to me, I’m still happy to buy them.”
Orion shook his free hand, “Nah mate, because if they’re damaged, we can’t sell them. But, I have to get rid of damaged goods, so…” He shoved the whole box towards Felix. But Felix held his hands up in front of him and refused to take it.
“I can’t do that, please let me pay for them.”
“You’d actually be saving me some time if you just took them. Please?”
Felix eyed him another moment.
“As an apology?”
Felix flushed, “You don’t need to apologize, I’m just used to… you know.”
“Fine. It’s for your kid, right?” Orion said. That made Felix stop. He groaned.
“You’ve known me ten minutes and you’ve already found my weak spot,” Felix said. Orion grinned at him and that toothy grin directed at him made Felix’s heart skip for a beat. “But I will pay you back for this.” He said as he accepted the box of chocolates.
“I accept payment in the form of dinners… If that’s something you would be interested in.” Orion said with that toothy grin still shining.
“I think I can do dinner sometime.” Felix let his smile widen a hair. “I really should be going then if I want to get any sleep before my son comes over. His mom is dropping him off at 5.”
Orion opened the door and stepped to the side, holding it open for Felix to walk through, his hands full of the box of chocolates.
They chatted casually as Orion followed Felix to the front door, holding the door for him once more.
“I’ll see you soon then, yeah?” Felix asked.
“I’m looking forward to it.” Orion grinned.
Felix found the smile on his face didn’t leave even as Orion locked the door and turned out the lights. It lasted all the way to his car where he carefully situated the chocolate box to avoid another clean-up tonight. It lasted the short drive back to his small apartment where the darkness didn’t feel quite so lonely as it had earlier that night. It stayed with him as he set his alarm for an unholy hour and as he drifted off to sleep with the image of another grin in his mind.