Shortly after Always on Duty
-=Harrods Department Store: England, Earth=-
Starfleet cadet Carrick O’Sullivan was not an easy young man to shop for, but once Aubrey Church had politely and gently made the point to his mother that perhaps he should pick out the gift, he finally found something to his liking.
O'Sullivan had been Aubrey's bitter, irritable roommate in this, his senior year at the Academy. He'd done all he could to try to make the Irishman feel at home, at least in the small space they shared.
Carrick had scoffed at scones and tea and spent far too much time nursing a beer and sucking in putrid tobacco smoke, still, Aubrey had managed to make a little progress in reaching him.
By the end, O'Sullivan had finally opened up just a little, and for all the talk he had done about patching things up for with his father, he had never had the means to do it in the style Aubrey thought appropriate for such a task.
So, with his mother still insisting the horrid scarves were the way to go, Aubrey had picked out a full stationery set for Carrick, believing the young man would appreciate the chance to write his thoughts out in ink and parchment rather than just dictating to a soulless computer, as Aubrey had seen him do from time to time.
“Let’s get in that line, it’s shorter!” Beatrice Church said, giving her youngest child a gentle push towards a cashier who only had one customer.
“Right, Mum,” Aubrey said, moving to take his place at a respectful distance behind the woman at the register. She was speaking in a hushed tone to the cashier, and looked a bit agitated. He could not help but eavesdrop on the conversation, which seemed to be revolving around one of the items she was attempting to buy. He could not quite make it all out however, due to his mother incessantly elbowing him in the side.
“What is it, Mum?” Church finally asked.
“She’s beautiful. A little pale. Too much make-up and dressed like she's going to a funeral, but still. Maybe you should invite her to dinner.”
“Are you serious, Mum? That’s why you wanted to get in this line, wasn’t it? I don’t even know who this person is.”
“Oh Aubrey, but she’s lovely! When are you going to bring a nice girl home?” His mother asked, sounding frustrated as she shifted her heavy handbag from one shoulder to another before finally handing it over to Aubrey, who dutifully took the weight onto his own arm and, strong as he was, nearly toppled over in the effort to remain upright.
“I have my whole life in front of me and my first position on a starship, Mum. Not just any starship, either. I'm on the cusp of adventures I've never even dreamed of, the last thing..." he stopped, changing tack. There was no point in risking upsetting his mother's delicate mood so close to the holidays.
"I’ll bring a girl home as soon as I meet one I’m interested in. But right now there is a whole galaxy out there to explore and I cannot wait to get started!” Aubrey tried again to reposition his burden, shifting the stationary set from one arm to the other, and fumbling with the straps of Mum's purse.
Finally he turned back towards the woman at the head of the line, whose hushed tones were growing increasing loud as the cashier refused to comply with whatever it was she was demanding.
"The sign said that they are fifty percent off. I just want the discount the sign promised." The young woman insisted. She tugged on hair that was so black it had almost a blue sheen to it, yanking it into a frustrated knot positioned at the back of her head,
"As I've already explained to you... several times..."The sales associate, a woman who looked old enough to be Aubrey's nan, huffed, "the sign only applies to the other colors. Black is new for spring, and you'll find that this is actually quite a good value for the price. The thread count is quite high."
"Yes, it is and do you know how difficult it is to find black 1000 thread count sheets that will fit the inside of the shell of a quantum torpedo tube!" The young woman's voice rose even higher now, actually squeaking as she spoke.
"No, Miss," the woman replied, unaffected. "I do not. But again, the sign only refers to the other colors on display."
"The sign was TOUCHING this PACKAGE!" The woman's voice climbed another octave and got even louder. "How can it not apply to it? I want to speak to a manager."
"I am the manager."
The young woman growled, dropping her head into her hands. "Eight weeks of clean-up duty in the stinking, lousy, out of control weather on Sibalt and this is the welcome back to Earth I get."
Her mind flashed back to much darker, sadder times than that. To the planet of her birth, to a life she wished she could forget and only seemed to be able to when too tired to dream in sleep or waking, more unconscious than resting beneath the closed lid of a highly modified quantum torpedo shell.
She stared off into the distance, trying to lose the sights and sounds and smells of the life she'd long left behind, for brighter days that never seemed completely able to escape the shadow of the blackest ones before them.
"Miss, you're going to have to make a decision."The saleslady insisted. "Either purchase the item, choose another, or move out of line while you continue to debate our company policies with zeal and righteous indignation."
"This is totally against fair trade regulations. "The customer continued. "I expect you to honor the sale price!"
Finally, Aubrey could stand it no longer- he had to intervene. The line had grown exponentially behind them, and people were grumbling, tapping their toes impatiently and he feared that there might be a scene if this situation wasn't handled quickly and efficiently.
"Can I be of assistance?" he asked politely.
"Can you make them honor the lousy sale price?" The customer inquired with marked frustration.
He tilted his head curiously. "I'm not sure." Aubrey thought about it for a moment, and began digging around in his pocket for a few credits. “How about this, Ma'am…”
“Ma'am?” The customer folded her arms over her chest and dropped her head to stare down at Aubrey. It was a look she was only able to accomplish because of the enormous platform shoes she was wearing. "Just how old do you think I am!"
“Mate?” Aubrey offered the term generally reserved for greeting another male. The customer shrugged, finding it more appealing then Ma'am. “I’m shipping out soon and I’ll have little use for any credits. What if I just pay the difference in the bill?”
She laughed. "I should have known you were Starfleet..." she muttered. "That's very...strange...of you, Ensign, but-”
"How do you know I'm an Ensign?" Aubrey blinked, brow furrowed, perplexed. He'd always been told his maturity made him seem older than he was, and her assessment of him and the accompanying expression of bemusement threw him off a little. "How young do you think I am?"
"I still see apron strings." The woman answered completely sincerely, jerking her head in the direction of Aubrey's mother and lowering her voice.
"Now now, there's nothing wrong with a man escorting his mother for a day of proper holiday shopping for family and friends."
For a second her pupils constricted, and she seemed lost in thought. "No, you're right, nothing at all."
"Then perhaps you could just forgive the store their error and pay for your purchase so we can all get on with our day."
Her face scrunched up in disapproval once more. “But that doesn’t change the principle of it that they should have to honor the sale price. It’s not about how much I have to pay, it is about how much they are entitled to.” She wagged a finger at the cashier, who still seemed wholly unimpressed.
“Let’s go, ya cabbage!!!” A man shouted from the back of the line.
“What is that? What’s a cabbage?” The customer asked Aubrey. She extended herself even higher on the tips of he shoes to see where the voice had come from.
“British slang. He called you a dimwit, dear.” Aubrey’s mother answered, completely unhelpfully.
“Now now, everyone, let’s remain calm,” Aubrey piped up to be heard by the entire line, in attempt to gain control of the situation. “It’s Christmas!” He punctuated his statement with a cheerful smile, but the woman had punctuation of her own to offer.
"Don't remind me," the female customer replied, closing thickly mascara'd eyelashes for a moment before finally taking out her credit pass and swiping it through the reader. "Fine. I'll pay full price, this time. But I am writing a very strongly worded complaint to the head of this company when I get to my new place."
The cashier sighed with relief, placed the package of sheets into a shopping bag and handed them to the girl. "Thank you for shopping at Harrods."
The customer snatched the bag, started to say something, caught out of the corner of her eye Aubrey's disapproving glance, and then stopped. She took two fingers, pointed toward her own eyes, then back at the cashier, seething as she turned away.
"Would you like to join us for tea, my dear?" Aubrey's mother asked hopefully as Aubrey moved forward and paid for their purchase as quickly as humanly possible.
"That's..." the girl, began, then again, she stopped. "Thanks, but I can't, there's somewhere I have to be." She leaned forward and whispered into the matron's ear. "He's gonna get himself into a lot of trouble, that one, with all his do-gooding."
"Don't I know it." Beatrice sighed, watching as the girl disappeared into the crowd until the clomping of her platform shoes was lost to the song of the store's army of carolers.
"Pity the folks who have to work with her every day," Beatrice muttered as Aubrey offered his arm and they headed toward the exit.
"Now, Mum, everyone has something to offer in this world. Some people bring light and life to a room, and others...make us appreciate that fact."
Soon aboard the USS Serendipity
Lieutenant Madeline Moth, MMSc
also soon to be aboard the USS Serendipity