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Trapped in the checkout line, Youneda had no desire to give advice to baby dragons.
He was old and did not want desperately earnest questions that could not be properly answered.
As the oldest dragon in the store, Youneda was trapped between questions and broken cash registers.
A sweet slice-of-life fantasy, Checkout Line speaks of hope, change and the freedom of being yourself no matter what.
By Meyari McFarland
Youneda stalked through the grocery store aisles, his cart of cheese, tea and carefully chosen cuts of meat hovering at the end of his tail. Annoying to have to shop this time of the evening but he’d fallen asleep on his basking couch. The hours of sleep had done him some good. His wings didn’t ache as much as normal for the rain falling outside and his perpetual backache was down to a mere ache near the base of his tail, but the lack of pain didn’t make up for the number of people haunting the store with him.
Packs of werewolf children ran past Youneda, half of them in wolf form and yipping, the other half in human form and shouting. He growled at them. Not one of them noticed. Typical. A little dragon, not more than five or six years old, scampered after them. To Youneda’s relief one of the older pack members followed the baby.
He nodded as he passed Youneda and then squawked as the baby dragon’s nostrils steamed. “No flame!”
“Awww,” the baby complained. “But!”
“No flame, not in the store, Mori,” said the werewolf, Gary? Neal?
Youneda couldn’t remember. The local pack was a big one, easily thirty adults and three times that children of all ages. Not one of the alphas who fussed over everyone like matriarchs but that was all right. Every time Youneda interacted with Deidre they ended up snarling at each other which most definitely wasn’t Youneda’s fault. Deidre should have known better than to marry a fire-mage and then be upset when he chatted up local people who could control fire as well.
Though he was somewhat curious how the baby dragon had ended up in the wolf pack. It might be temporary but little Mori looked entirely too happy to let Gary-Neal-whoever run a hand over his wings and rub his knuckles under Mori’s chin.
Both Mori and Gary-Neal-whoever stopped and stared at the end of the aisle. Youneda did too once he arrived there, belly sagging and wings snapping out for an instant before Youneda tucked them tight against his body once more. No need to scare Mori with the sight of his ragged, scarred wings after all.
“What happened?” Mori breathed, steam rising from his nostrils unremarked this time.
“I have no idea,” Youneda said, equally surprised.
Every single check stand had a line, a long line full of irritated people. A centaur stamped over by the entrance, her head and shoulders clearly visible over the crowd. Fuwa, his book hoarding neighbor, was two lines away. Already he had added four paperbacks from the rack to his basket even though the boy had a house stacked to the rafters with books already. That left aside the wolf pack who’d taken four lanes all by themselves and a small group of highly twitchy elves who glared at the checker as if personally offended by the need to wait. He thought he glimpsed the traditionally peaked hats of witches further towards the deli but couldn’t be sure.
“I wonder if Lorraina was in,” Youneda sighed.
“Oh Goddess, I hope not,” Gary-Neal-whoever groaned. “Every time she shops in person the registers stop working until purged.”
“Why?” Mori asked. He tugged on Gary-Neal-whoever’s pant leg. “Why Uncle Ron?”
And that solved the name issue, Youneda thought with a huff of amusement at himself for getting it so very wrong. Ron scooped Mori up, holding him in his arms even though Mori’s tail dragged low before wrapping around his waist and his wings stuck out into the aisle.
“Lorraina hoards spells,” Youneda explained because Ron looked as though he was far more focused on figuring out how to rejoin the rest of the pack. “So many that they sometimes overflow her control and cause problems with electronics.”
“Oh,” Mori breathed. He blinked at Youneda, ears perking up as his wings began to tremble with excitement. “What do you hoard? Mama Deidre said I’m too young to properly hoard anything but I like collecting rubber bands. And bubble gum. And dolls! Just the ones with brown hair, though, not the ones with yellow or red or blue or no hair. Brown haired dolls are pretty.”
Youneda tried not to laugh, tried to keep his ears from sliding backwards and down at Mori’s excited baby-babble but Fuwa looked up and laughed quietly as he added a sixth book to his cart. And Louis, Youneda’s sort-of rival, sort of friend of an Oriental dragon who hoarded green tea pots, poked his head up from Fuwa’s other side.
“I hoard English tea pots,” Youneda said. “That’s my job, too, identifying ones that were created before, during and after the Opening. Louis over there,” he pointed and Louis bowed his head towards Mori who waved a wing, “hoards oriental green tea pots. They’re a very different design.”
“Iron, preferably, not pottery,” Louis agreed.
“Books,” Fuwa said and then glared as both Louis and Youneda scowled at him. “I can afford them!”
“But do you have room?” Youneda muttered.
Not quietly enough to keep Fuwa from huffing at him but at least not so loudly that it called attention to Fuwa’s failures to properly manage his hoard. Little Mori blinked at them all as he set his head on Ron’s shoulder. Ron, to Youneda’s consternation, looked at Youneda as if he was the answer to all their problems. Uncomfortable that but then Youneda was the oldest dragon in the checkout lines currently. In the town, actually. Ugh.
He didn’t remember growing older so much as he remembered living through a whole series of events and then finding himself old and not any wiser than he’d been when he was Mori’s age. So of course Mori looked up at him with eyes wide and ears pitched forward, trembling with that childish faith that Youneda could remember but no longer sustain.
“What should I hoard?” Mori asked.
“Whatever you want,” Youneda said and then winced as Mori flinched and wilted as if he was a blade of grass that had just been hit by a blast of fire at Youneda’s highest intensity.
Youneda sighed and looked at Louis but he had a small tin of green tea in his claws so that he could ostentatiously study the thing for the secrets of the universe. And Fuwa, the traitor, had three books in his hands as he studied them so that he wouldn’t have to meet either Mori or Youneda’s eyes.
“That’s the only answer I can give you, child,” Youneda huffed. “A hoard is a personal thing. You’re too young yet to know what you’ll want and all the Gods know that you can change what you hoard over your lifetime.”
“Oh nonsense,” Fuwa snapped.
He set the books back on the shelf which said something for how annoyed he was by the statement. Louis glared, too, though he clutched his green tea tin to his chest as if trying to protect it from anyone who might take it. There was less irritation there but it was still obvious that he was offended.
“You used to buy nothing but hardbacks, Fuwa,” Youneda snarled at him even though the other shoppers, especially the centaur at the far end, looked nervous. “Now you buy paperbacks. And Louis, don’t think I’m not aware of your side collection of tea and those sake sets of yours. Dragons change, just like everyone else. What you collect when you’re young may change as you age and what you collect when you’re old will probably be something entirely different.”
Mori blinked at him over Ron’s shoulder, slowly uncurling as Ron petted his wings and rocked Mori in his arms. His pack mother, Deidre, glowered at Youneda from the check station two lines over. She had to have heard the whole thing. Youneda would have to expect a visit from her later with a lecture on proper ways of talking to young dragons asking impossible questions.
“Um,” Mori asked, ears quivering again, “what did you collect when you were younger?”
Out of the corner of his eye, Youneda saw Louis shake his head ‘no’ urgently but Mori didn’t see him until the question was already out. Youneda sternly shut his eyes, focused on his breathing and listened as people shuffled their feet, flipped their wings and generally went as silent as a grocery store full of impatient, trapped and annoyed people could.
Of course the child would ask. When Youneda was a child he’d asked the same thing of his great-aunt Ougi and gotten a solid smack to the head for it. But then Ougi had been a grumpy old dam and Youneda had been the impudent one of his clutch.
Little Mori was cast adrift from his clutch, living with a family that was completely unlike his own kind, and he was sweet. Not rude. It wasn’t as though he could know how the question brought back Youneda’s memories from the Opening, the fire that had blasted him from the sky and tumbled him down to the earth. Or the traumas that had happened after that as the world, torn apart and reassembled from the fragments of a dozen magical realms, tried to survive.
Youneda opened his eyes and let out his breath slowly. It didn’t steam. That was good.
“I collected money when I was young,” Youneda said. He snorted at the way Fuwa and Louis stared at him. “Before the Opening? None of it survived so I had to start over.”
“Oh, well,” Fuwa murmured with a thoughtful and vaguely horrified nod. “Yes, that would change one’s focus.”
“We don’t even use the same money now,” Louis said. He shuddered and petted his tin of tea.
“Exactly,” Youneda said. He looked at Mori and shook his head. “You’ll hoard what you hoard, child. It may change completely as mine did or shift slowly over time as Fuwa’s has. Or you may hoard several things as Louis does. The Meo clan, up the Skagit?”
“They came to the school and brought a sheep, remember?” Ron said. His eyes were entirely too bright with approval for Youneda’s comfort.
“It was fuzzy!” Mori squealed and then ducked his head as people laughed around them.
The cash registers gave a sudden squeal as a fountain of purple and green sparkles erupted from them. Voices rose as the cashiers started hurrying through checking people’s goods. Progress at least. Youneda nodded, happy that they were going to start moving and people’s eyes and attention had moved off of him and Mori.
He leaned closer, letting his nose nearly touch Mori’s so that what he said would be only between him, Ron and Mori. No need for the whole world to hear, after all.
“You can hoard living things, child,” Youneda murmured. “Werewolves do it all the time though they call it ‘pack’, not ‘hoard’. The Meo clan raises sheep, not for the wool or the meat or anything other than that they love sheep, the animals themselves. You can share a hoard or keep it all to yourself. You can have one hoard or several, always depending on space and money. So when I say you’ll hoard what you want, I mean just that.”
Mori’s eyes went wide and his ears quivered. So did his wings and the tail that unwrapped from Ron’s waist. He started wagging his tail as he giggled with delight. Ron laughed, too, barely able to hold the squirming baby at this point.
“You should hoard what you want,” Youneda said as their line finally moved forward. “People or things or money or even special memories. Give yourself time, little one. Who you are now is not who you will be when you are grown and that is not who you will be when you are old. Let yourself and your hoard change as time goes on. Hoard what makes you happy and keep it close. That is the only proper way to answer your question.”
Little Mori’s giggles cascaded into delighted laughs. He stretched his neck to lick the very tip of Youneda’s nose before tucking his face against Ron’s neck.
The line moved and Ron slipped out of it with Mori in his arms so that they could rejoin the pack. That was good. Youneda certainly didn’t have the patience to pay mentor to baby dragons, or any other children. Occasional encounters in the checkout line was one thing. Children running rampages through his house and potentially damaging his teapots was another thing entirely.
He ignored the approving look Fuwa threw his way. And the consideration in Louis’ eyes. There’d be another request to come and talk about the Opening coming his way soon. Youneda just knew it. Youneda even managed to ignore Deidre’s stern nod of approval as if it hadn’t happened.
Really, if the grocery store was this busy next time he needed to go shopping he’d turn around and go home. So much fuss when all he wanted was some cheese, tea and meat to roast for dinner.
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