An Imprint on the Heart
Eli – the owner of the Elite Boutique, the most exclusive shop at the NC Mall – straightened out the crinkles on his crisp white tuxedo and pushed aside the glass door. Directly across the way from his store was the ever-changing holiday shop. Throughout the year, many different tailors would overtake the rental space, each with a very different sense of style. If there weren't green shamrocks pasted all over the windows, there were snowflakes and mistletoes hanging over the door. Now was the season of hearts, so Hasee cherub plushies lined the windows while a garland of paper hearts was draped over the door.
As Eli made his way over to the store, Noda looked up from his bustling stand and said, "Ahh, Eli! Comin' out of the Boutique, I see! Would you happen to want a snack in the form of a fortune cookie?" He waggled one of the small treats in the air. "Only 125 NC!"
"No thanks, Noda," Eli stated in a firm voice, never once glancing at the hearty Cybunny as he made his way over to the Valentines Shop.
Eli opened the heart-covered door, a tiny bell chiming over his head. "Welcome here!" said a candy-sweet voice. The store owner – a pink-wearing Chocolate Kacheek – poked her head up from behind the counter. There was a yellow streamer draped limply over her golden locks. "Oh, it's you, Eli!" She stood upright and batted the streamer off her head. "We were pretty busy this morning, but tomorrow's the big day, so I was over here preparing for all the lovely customers! What can I do for you on this fine day?"
Eli pushed a velvet hat into her hands. The pretty Kacheek smiled. "For me? What is this, an early Valentine's gift? How sweet, although I can't say that this is my sort of style. The colors are too dark, you know?"
"It's not for you, Val. It's an item from my store. There's a chocolate stain on the ribbon."
"Oh my, there IS a stain here!" Val waggled a finger at Eli. "You really ought to be more careful with your merchandise, friend."
"It's not my fault, it's YOURS!"
"My fault! How is this my fault?"
"Customers are coming out of your shop with chocolates and sweets, and then they go over to my boutique and dirty up my wares with them!"
Val shrugged nonchalantly. "Why, everybody gets chocolate stains during Valentine's, Eli. It's like... leaving a little imprint of love on the heart!"
"It's not love, it's chocolate. And it's not my heart, it's my merchandise!" He swiped the hat away. "I hope you'll open your eyes and place some sort of code of conduct on your store; the other store owners are starting to find this quite annoying."
Val pulled herself up onto the counter and sat beside the register, legs crossed. "Hun, you really need to open your heart during the SEASON of hearts! I mean, where's the point in having a store that not everybody can visit? I think you'd be a lot friendlier if you went ahead and opened the Boutique to everybody who passes by."
"It's the ELITE Boutique, which means members only. It wouldn't be Elite if we allowed just anybody into our establishment." Eli glanced into a corner of the store and pointed at a pair of chocolate-covered children. "We don't need people like THAT in our store."
"Seems to me like it wouldn't matter. You're already getting chocolate over everything!"
Eli grumbled and began to make his way out of the store.
Val called out to him. "Hey, if your customers are all about the season of hearts, then why aren't you, Eli?"
"Don't worry about it. As soon as this season ends, you'll move out, and I won't have to worry about taking my merchandise to the Laundromat for another year."
Valentine's Day was always a slow, quiet one for the Elite Boutique. Eli sat in the silence of his own store, reorganizing the racks that hadn't been touched and counting the money in the register without needing to. He'd occasionally glance over at Val's store, which had a mile-long line in front of it. As bored as he was, Eli was content with the stillness and took pity upon perky Val and her army of bumbling cherub employees. It was only the beginning of a long, long Valentine's Day for them. Eli smirked at this and kicked up a lazy seat behind the counter.
But, just as soon as he'd found a comfortable position, the door into the Elite Boutique swung open, and a pink-wearing Chocolate Kacheek made her way in.
"Val, what in Neopia are you doing here? It's the busiest day of the year for you." He glanced out the window. "You're keeping your customers waiting."
"I know, I know. I just needed to drop this off to you." She set a ribbon-tied box of chocolates on the counter before him. "Hope you'll have a lovely Valentine's, Eli! Oh, and sorry about yesterday!" With that, she scampered out of the establishment as quickly as she'd arrived and scurried across the way to her own store.
Eli sat upright and, after watching Val slip into her shop, pulled the ribbon off of the box of chocolates. There were about twenty treats waiting for him, all nestled up in a plastic tray. It was odd that anybody would bother to give HIM a gift, especially on Valentine's Day. Eli decided to try just one candy, even though he wasn't good at this sort of thing. When it came to boxes of chocolates, he always wound up picking the cherry-centered ones: his least favorite flavor. Eli swiped up a single chocolate and popped it into his mouth. Figures. Cherry again. Although, this time, it tasted alright. Sweeter, even.
The young Kacheek shrugged and allowed himself to indulge in more chocolates. He didn't care how undignified it looked. He thought he hated chocolate and cherries, but today, chocolate and cherries were something he enjoyed.
It was sundown at the NC Mall, and shops were closing down. Valentine's Day had already passed, and Val the store owner had just about finished packing crates with the remaining unsold merchandise. All the heart-themed stickers and posters had been pulled off the walls, cake crumbs swept off the floor. There were a couple of wires dangling awkwardly in the air where cupid arrows previously soared, but Val was confident that the next seasonal store owner would be willing to take those down. She turned off the lights, and the shelves were once again empty and draped in darkness, the same way they had been when she'd returned to the shop earlier this year. It had been a fun season, but now it was time for her to come up with more Superpack themes and lovingly stitch together some dresses for next year.
Val backed out of the store with a heavy pink box in her arms. She hobbled over to the cart she'd stacked high with crates and found a suitable spot to squeeze the box into.
"Need a hand?"
Val spun around and saw that Eli was standing nearby. She waved a hand and wiped her forehead with the other. "Oh, no thank you, but I appreciate the offer." She patted one of the crates. "I've just about finished up here. Perhaps if you'd come a bit sooner..."
"Ah, I see." Eli twiddled his fingers. "By the way, thank you for the gift the other day. I'll accept your apology."
"Good to hear!" She grabbed the handle of her cart.
"...And, maybe I will be a little more... considerate in the future."
"What do you mean?"
"I... Well, I..." Eli rubbed the back of his head. If there was one thing he hated, it was admitting that he was wrong.
Val sensed the hesitation in his voice and grinned. "I see. Well, it's a start. The next time I come around, I expect to see more people in your boutique than usual!"
"Well, I'm not so sure about that, but, err, I will at least tolerate the chocolate."
She giggled at this and grabbed the cart's handle. "I'll see you next year, Eli!"
He watched as Val pushed her heart-covered boxes of gifts and chocolate along. He was usually happy to see her go, but this time, it was different. "Yeah. See you next year."