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“Are you gonna pay for that?” Bel asked, slumping against the counter as Freddie grabbed a bottle of Ribena from the cold display next to her register.

“Do I ever?” he said as he hopped up onto the counter. He held out the bottle towards her after taking a sip. “D’you want some?”

Bel wrinkled her nose in disgust. “I can’t stand blackcurrant, you know that.”

“I know, just thought I’d be polite.”

“Why would I want some after it’s got your germs all over it, anyway?” she added.

“I can assure you, my germs are very friendly,” he said with a smile.

“I bet you say that to all the girls.”

Bel looked up when she noticed someone approach them, afraid that it was a customer waiting to check out, but it was only one of the other cashiers back from her break. “Hi, Sissy,” Bel said to her.

“Morning, Bel,” Sissy replied before turning her attention to Freddie. “You’d better get out of here; Mr. Brown’s in the building,” she added.

“Right,” said Freddie, jumping down from Bel’s counter. “I guess I should pretend to do some work, then.” He gave each of the girls a small nod before he returned to his trolley full of items he was supposed put back on the shelves.

He noticed Mr. Brown heading in his direction with a young man he did not recognize, and quickly shoved his half-empty bottle of Ribena to the bottom of the trolley. “Morning, Mr. Brown,” he said with a wave as the storeowner got closer.

“Mr. Lyon, yes, good morning,” said Mr. Brown.

“Who’s your friend?” Freddie asked, gesturing towards the young man accompanying Mr. Brown.

“Ah, of course, Mr. Lyon,” said the older man. “This is Mr. Madden, the new store manager.”

“Hello, nice to meet you,” said the younger man. “And you can call me Hector.”

“Freddie,” said Freddie as he shook Hector’s hand.

“Mr. Madden here is going to steer us in the right direction, isn’t that so?” said Mr. Brown.

“Have we been heading in the wrong direction, sir?” Freddie asked.

“Look around, Mr. Lyon. We have hardly any customers.”

“To be fair, it is a Tuesday morning, sir. Everyone’s at work.”

“We are a discount department store, Mr. Lyon,” said the storeowner. “The majority of our customers are shift workers and the unemployed.”

“Your problem is that most of them would rather travel across town to Al’s Bargain Superstore because it’s cheaper,” said Hector. “What we need to do is make this place appealing to a wider demographic; clean it up a bit.”

“You hear that?” said Mr. Brown, patting Hector on the shoulder. “He’s got big ideas for us, this one.”

“Indeed, sir,” Freddie replied with an insincere smile.

He didn’t want this place getting cleaned up. He didn’t want more customers. He didn’t want to have to do more than the bare minimum of work at this terrible job.

“We’ll let you get back to work, Mr. Lyon.”

“Thank you, sir.” Freddie smiled again, and hoped they couldn’t tell it was sarcastic, before carrying on with his trolley.

He looked back over his shoulder as the two men headed towards the checkout, presumably to introduce Hector to the girls, and sighed.

***

“Did you meet our new store manager?” Bel asked as she sat with Freddie on a dilapidated old lounger in the break room.

“I did,” said Freddie before munching down on a crisp from the packet in his hands—which he did not pay for.

“He seems nice,” said Bel.

“Yeah.”

“And he’s very attractive,” she added offhandedly.

Freddie stopped crunching. “You think?” he said with his mouth full.

“Sissy and I have been talking about him all morning.” Bel laughed a little. “She thinks I should ask him out.”

“But he’s so… old,” he said, frowning.

“He’s probably only thirty or so,” said Bel.

“That’s seven years older than you, my dear.”

“Yes, but I’m mature.”

“And you think I’m not?” he asked.

She laughed again.

“That wasn’t a joke,” he said.

“Sorry,” she replied, trying to compose herself. “You’re plenty mature, Freddie, you just… you know… would rather have a laugh than actually do something with your life.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“It means you’re fine working in a place like this in your twenties—”

“So are you!”

“But I want to get out, Freddie! Don’t you see that? I want more than this,” she said.

“Then why don’t you leave?” he asked glumly, looking down at his shoes.

Before Bel could answer, the door to the break room opened and Hector walked in. He frowned when he saw the pair of them sitting there. “What are you two doing in here?” he asked.

“We’re just on break,” said Freddie. “We are allowed breaks, yes?”

“Of course,” said Hector. “I just didn’t realize you were allowed to have concurrent breaks. I might suggest to Randall that we stagger break times,” he added, muttering the last part to himself, though it was loud enough for the others to hear.

“My break’s just about over, so I was about to head back down anyway,” said Bel as she got up from her seat.

“I’ll walk down with you,” said Hector, then, looking at Freddie, added, “And you?”

“I’ve still got another five minutes, thanks,” Freddie replied with a smirk.

He watched Bel leave the break room with Hector before dropping his head into his hands.

***

“Morning, Moneypenny,” Freddie said cheerfully as he hopped up onto Bel’s counter again.

“Don’t call me that,” said Bel, who kept rearranging everything around the register like she was trying to make it seem that she was doing actual work. “I’m not your secretary.”

“I believe the term now is ‘executive assistant,’” he replied, grinning.

“I’m not that, either,” she said. “Now, go away before someone sees you.”

“Like who?” he asked. “There’s not a soul in sight.”

“I just saw Hector making the rounds a few minutes ago.”

“I said ‘a soul.’”

“He’s not that bad,” she said.

“You’re only saying that ‘cos you fancy him.” Freddie looked over at Bel, whose head was lowered like she was embarrassed. “I’m only teasing you,” he added.

“I know,” she said quietly.

“Freddie,” said Hector as he approached the two of them, startling them.

“Hector!” said Freddie, faking enthusiasm, as if it would hide the fact that he was clearly slacking off. “How’s it going?”

“If you don’t mind, I’d like to speak to Bel about something,” Hector replied.

“Oh, right, sure.” Freddie got down off the counter and took a step aside, standing with his arms folded like he was waiting for them to finish.

Hector glared at him. “I believe there are some skids in the back that need unloading,” he said.

“Good idea, Hector,” said Freddie as he began walking backwards. “I’m on my way.”

He turned around as he continued walking, so as not to bump into anything, but glanced back over his shoulder and noticed Bel was smiling as she talked to Hector. He quickly looked away again, as he just couldn’t stand to watch.

***

Freddie clocked out at the end of his shift before going to meet Bel at her locker. “Are you coming over tonight?” he asked her. “My flatmate’s out for the evening, so we have free reign of the television.”

“I can’t tonight, sorry,” said Bel, pulling on her jacket.

“You never have plans, though,” he said.

“Sometimes I do!”

“Fine, but you never have plans that don’t involve me.”

“My whole life doesn’t revolve around you, Freddie,” she said.

He was about to argue with her when Hector poked his head in the door.

“You still want that lift home, Bel?” he asked.

“Yes, thank you,” she replied as she grabbed her bag and shut the locker.

“Yes, and you’d better get her home quickly,” said Freddie. “She’s got plans tonight.”

“Has she?” said Hector as the corner of his mouth turned up into a smile.

“Goodnight, Freddie,” Bel said, giving Freddie a pat on the arm. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Yeah, see you.”

Freddie watched them leave and then slumped against the lockers.

***

“How was your hot date last night?” Freddie asked Bel as he restocked the candy in the display next to her register.

Bel snapped her head up to look at him. “Who told you?” she said.

“What?”

“Did Hector tell you?”

“I don’t know what—”

“Why do guys always have to brag about that sort of thing?” she continued. “Are they keeping score?”

“Wait, are you saying that you and Hector…?” he said.

“You… You didn’t know?”

Freddie pulled his mouth into an apologetic line that was not really a smile and shook his head.

“Then why did you ask me about my date?” Bel asked, clearly agitated.

“I was only joking about that…” he said.

“Freddie,” she said with a frustrated groan, “you can’t tell anyone, okay?”

“I won’t,” he replied. “I just don’t understand why—”

“Shut up, shut up, he’s coming this way!” Bel hissed.

Freddie turned his head to see Hector heading towards them. “Morning, Hector,” he said. “Did you have a pleasant evening yesterday?”

Hector looked at Freddie and then at Bel. “You told him?”

“I thought he’d figured it out on his own,” said Bel. “Besides, he was going to find out sooner or later; he’s my best friend.”

“I’m not going to tell anyone,” Freddie assured Hector. “What the two of you do in your personal time is none of my business, anyway.” He forced a smile.

“Thank you, Freddie,” said Hector. “Now, shouldn’t you get back to work?”

“I am working,” said Freddie, holding up a box of candy before putting it on the shelf.

“Bel can do that,” Hector replied. “Your skills would be more useful in the back, I think.”

Freddie tried not to let his discontent show. “As you wish.”

***

It had only been a few weeks since Hector began as store manager, but in that time Freddie did notice an increase in customers. The whole store was cleaner, the aisles were better organized, and everything was much easier to find.

In order to get things to that state, however, Hector had cracked down on employees for goofing off, socializing, and overall enjoying their lives. Which wouldn’t have been so terrible for Freddie if it weren’t that (a) he hated this job, and (b) he hardly ever got to see Bel anymore.

He was always busy unloading skids and stocking shelves during the day, and she was always busy dating that meathead swell guy at night.

“Alright, Moneypenny?” Freddie said when he managed to catch Bel at her locker at the end of the day.

“Don’t call me that,” she replied, “especially not anymore.”

“Why especially not anymore?” he asked, leaning against the lockers next to hers.

“Well,” she began, lowering her voice, “you can’t tell anyone, but Hector’s convinced Mr. Brown to make me an assistant manager!”

Freddie felt his stomach drop. “But… But I thought you hated it here!” he said.

“Yeah, but this is a promotion, Freddie,” she said.

“It’s assistant manager, though,” he said. “You’ll do twice as much work and get a tiny pay increase, and that’s it!”

“At least I’m going somewhere with my life!”

“You’re not going anywhere while you work here, you know that!”

“You’re one to talk, seeing as you’re perfectly content being a stock boy!”

“You think I’m perfectly content?” said Freddie, nearly shouting. “I’m miserable, okay? I hate it here!”

“Then what’s keeping you here?” Bel retorted.

“You are! Or, at least, you were…”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I only took this job because of you, Bel,” he said angrily. “It was supposed to be a laugh. And it was, until he came along and took you away from me.”

“He didn’t take me away,” she said.

“You spend all your free time with him, and now that you’ve got this promotion, you’ll be spending all your work time with him, too.”

“And what would you have me do, then?” she said. “Live my life alone in some dead-end job forever?”

Freddie frowned, like her words had pained him. “You aren’t alone,” he said. “You have me.”

“I don’t want to spend the rest of my life goofing off with you,” she said. “It was fine a few years ago, but we’re in our twenties now. We need to grow up.”

“Fine, then let’s go somewhere else, you and me,” he said, grabbing her arm. “We can get real jobs and a house and—”

Bel pulled her arm away. “I have to go now, Freddie.”

He slammed his fist against the locker after he watched her walk away. He knew one thing, though; he was never coming back to this place.

***

There was a knock at Freddie’s bedroom door.

“What is it?” he called out.

“Your friend is here,” his flatmate, Isaac, said on the other side of the door.

“What friend?” said Freddie, getting up to open the door. “I don’t have any—” He stopped when he saw her standing there.

“Hi,” Bel said meekly.

Freddie looked at Isaac who was giving him an apologetic expression, and then back at Bel. “Hi,” he said to her.

“Can we talk?” she asked.

“I’ll just… be over here…” said Isaac, backing away awkwardly.

Freddie nodded his head at Bel, letting her know she could come into his room.

“So,” she began, clasping her hands together as she paced, “you quit your job, I see.”

“What’s it to you?” he asked, folding his arms over his chest.

“I just haven’t seen you in a while, that’s all,” she said.

“You hardly saw me when I was there, either.”

Bel looked down at the floor self-consciously—which only made Freddie aware of the fact that he should have tidied up before inviting anyone into his room.

“How have you been, these past few weeks?” she eventually asked him.

“Fine,” he answered, arms still folded. “Got a job working for this online magazine. It’s just office work, filing and stuff, and it’s only temporary, but it beats stocking shelves, right?”

“That’s… I’m glad for you, Freddie,” she said.

“How’ve you been, then?” he asked.

“Oh, you know, good, I guess…”

“You guess?”

She shook her head. “Actually, things have been pretty terrible since you left,” she said. “It turns out that being assistant manager there is just as awful as being a cashier, which was only bearable in the first place because you were around.”

“So I quit, too,” she added. “You were right, I wasn’t going anywhere in that place.”

“I am sorry it didn’t work out for you,” he said. “Honestly. I only want the best for you, you know that, right?”

She nodded solemnly. “There’s something else I should tell you…” she said.

“What is it?” he asked, concerned by her long pause.

“I… I ended things with Hector.”

He frowned, though inside he was delighted. “How come?”

“Well, because… there’s someone else,” she said.

Knife. To the gut.

“Oh?” said Freddie, trying not to let his soul-crushing disappointment show.

“There has been this whole time,” Bel replied, taking a step towards him, her eyes still fixed on the floor. “I just didn’t realize it until…” She finally looked up at him.

“Until what?” he said as he lowered his arms.

“Until you weren’t there anymore,” she said.

He found himself unable to keep the smile off his face. “Really?”

“You’re my best friend, Freddie,” she replied, placing a hand on his arm, “but I love you even more than that.”

“Me too,” he said. “I mean, for you. I mean, I love you, too.”

She smiled as well. “I know.”