He closed his box of cans up, pushed it out of the aisle, and went up front. "Welcome to Howard's," he said amiably as he passed her to station himself at the register. Whatever it was this woman needed, he'd make it easy for her and leave himself available.
She jumped a little when he spoke, and recovered with a belated, nervous half-smile before scurrying further into the store.
Howard watched her surreptitiously in the mirrors installed strategically around the market. Middle-aged, decently dressed, hair clipped back neatly. Fragility didn't look like a chronic condition on her. Maybe she was just having an off day. He divided his attention between her and the view outside again, just in case there really was someone unsavory lurking around.
She hovered uncertainly in the cereal aisle, fiddling with the boxes, occasionally picking one up to read the nutritional facts on the back. Her eyes kept straying to the front of the store, however. Howard left his post for a small broom and dustpan. Cleaning dirt, no matter how imaginary, was always a good excuse for lingering in any part of the store.
It took her seven minutes to finally come to the register with a bag of apples in hand. Howard rang her up with no more haste than usual. "Will that be all today?"
"Uh... yes," she answered, a little breathy with indecision. Her anxiety appeared to have mellowed out to a faint sense of defeat.
"Three ninety-eight, please."
She snapped open her handbag and went for her wallet, needing a moment to sort through the bills. Howard employed his years of experience at being subtle and sneaky and snuck a peek at the driver's license she had on display under the clear plastic in the front flap of her wallet. How many times had he counseled people not to store their licenses there? It was easy to flash ID that way, but the inconvenience of having to pry one's ID out of its pocket and show only that when necessary far outweighed the risks of exposing the contents of the rest of one's wallet to the public. 'Public' like him.
By the time she handed the money over, Howard's eyes were back where they belonged. He completed the transaction with his typical mom-and-pop charm and sent her on her way. Her step was hesitant as it crossed the threshold, but it crossed, and she disappeared quickly enough, leaving him to ponder whether or not she'd left some of her uneasiness behind.
He'd finished stacking the box of cans he'd left off when the woman had entered, and another besides, when he heard the door chime again.
"Hey-o!" No stranger this time. Duo bumped knuckles with him as he approached.
Howard returned the nod given to him by Duo's companion before turning his attention back to his nephew. "Hey. One more great day of learning behind you?"
"And one more great night of homework in front of me!"
The older man snorted. The kid loved learning, but not that much. "What are you going to do with all your free time after you graduate?"
Heero tugged Duo's braid lightly and smiled at Howard over Duo's shoulder. "Don't worry, I'll keep him out of trouble."
Duo turned his head, pulling his hair out of his boyfriend's light grasp. "But who will keep you out of trouble, huh?"
"Obviously not you."
"Hey, what are you implying?"
Heero shrugged innocently and breezed past him, jumping forward a few steps when Duo moved to smack his shoulder.
"Hey, Duo," Howard called after them, halting them before they got very far in their journey to the back.
Duo snagged Heero by the backpack and stopped him before turning around. "Yo."
He had his nephew's attention now, but he wasn't sure what he wanted to say. It was far too early to be jumping to conclusions based on half-baked hunches and uncertain memories. Duo had other concerns right now. He shook off the disquieting feeling that stranger had left in the store and grinned. "We got a fresh shipment of brussel sprouts in today."
Duo turned around sharply and smiled with a thick charm. "Hey, let's go back to your place tonight instead."
Heero blinked at him. "But we're already here."
"Yeah, well, I just feel like hanging out at your place, okay?" He took Heero by the hand and pulled him back toward the front of the store.
Howard laughed. "Hey, want to bring some veggies home for your dinner? The sprouts look pretty good."
Duo shuddered dramatically and tugged Heero forward. "Absolutely not!"
Heero tugged back. "Well, if we're going back to my place, I do need to pick something up for dinner..."
Running through the inventory in his head, Duo realized he was right and frowned. "Okay, fine, but hurry up." He realized belatedly that Heero was still holding his hand as he marched toward the vegetable section with a confused furrow on his brow. He tried shaking his hand loose without being too obvious about it. "I'll, uh, be over--"
"Duo!" Heero stopped and turned abruptly. "What's--"
"Oh holy mother of mercy!" Duo whimpered, suddenly burying his face in the crook of Heero's neck. Heero's arms went around him automatically, and Duo took advantage of that anchor to back away slowly. "Get them away from me!"
"What the bloody hell...?" Heero glanced over his shoulder, trying to figure out what was wrong. He saw nothing but innocent stacks of vegetables. "Duo... if you don't like brussel sprouts--"
"Ugh, eww, gross, say not its evil name!" He emerged from hiding to get behind Heero and push him away from the veggie aisle faster, but Heero wasn't as cooperative this time around.
"Okay, so I won't buy them for dinner, but is this really necessary?"
Howard smirked. "Ever had brussel sprouts, Heero?"
He stared off thoughtfully for a few seconds, allowing Duo to gain some ground. "Don't think so."
"Bet you'd love 'em."
Duo clutched Heero protectively from behind. "No, he won't! You can't have him! I'll not have him corrupted by your evil influence!"
"What's so evil about... 'them'?" He was fairly proud of himself for remembering to avoid speaking the vegetable's name.
"Have you ever seen them? They're like... like... evil pod cabbages! They're creepy as all hell! 'Sprouts' is right, 'cuz they're all sprouty on their-- Ugh, they give me the heebie-jeebies just thinking about them!"
Heero looked sternly over to Howard. "What did you do to him as a child? First clowns, and now this?" He absently squeezed Duo's hand reassuringly when he shuddered at the name of his other arch-nemesis.
Howard shrugged. "Hey, it was my job to mess him up as a kid. Now it's your job to fix him. Have fun."
Yep, Duo had Heero to kiss all his boo-boos now. Maybe he should just stop worrying so much. Even if something weird did happen, Heero would make it all right for the kid.
last modified : 12/1/2007 01:08:42 PST