Captain Stellar had couple of lengths of two-by-four in his trolley. When he reached the cashier he realised he'd put them in the wrong way around, and the woman at the checkout couldn't get at the barcodes. It was a stupid mistake. Cycloman always did that and Stellar would have to correct him, and now here was Stellar doing it himself.
Annoyed, he'd flipped the two-bees end-over-end. He must have whacked the poor cashier while he was doing it. Her eyes were shut tight in pain, and was clutching her temple.
"Oh! I'm so sorry!" Stellar said. "How careless! Here, let me…"
Let me what? Apply a tourniquet? Kiss it better? What could he do? What could he do?
The cashier let go of her forehead and smirked. There was no bruise; no cut. "Nah, I'm fine. You're the third person I got with that one."
Someone in the queue behind Stellar gave a short, mirthless laugh. A joke. A cruel, unnecessary joke. Stellar forced a smile nevertheless. Jokes are the unkindest form of assholery. You have to pretend to be a good sport about it.
The woman rang up his two-bees, his Ant-Rid, and his ferns. Cycloman always hated ferns. Guess that didn't matter anymore.
He pushed his trolley out towards the car park. He'd been so out of it that morning that he'd nearly driven the Stellar Wagon in to the Handy Pavilion. The day before, he'd almost gone to his day job in his mask. Concentrate! Needed to concentrate. Hold it together. He was better off without that rat bastard anyway.
He checked his phone. No messages in the three minutes since he checked it last. Good. If Cycloman called, he'd get a piece of Stellar's mind. Coward probably knew that, and that was why he wasn't calling, and… Oh. Terrific. There, by the entrance, checking people's purchases was Professor bloody Devistato.
"Captain," the Professor smiled.
"Professor," the Captain sighed, showing his receipt.
"Oh, don't worry about that," the Professor said, waving the paper away. "If I can't trust you not to steal, who can I trust? And please, call me Axel."
The little man turned away to check the receipt of a teenaged boy carrying a box of spray paints. Stellar glowered at the kid. Graffiti was usually beneath his notice, but right then he would have accepted even the most trivial call to justice.
Axel laughed. The sound surprised Stellar. He'd heard Axel's evil supervillain laugh often enough, but this was the first time he'd heard the man laugh in genuine amusement.
"Don't worry about the lad, Captain. He's with the drama club at the local high school. Uses those spray paints to make scenery and backdrops. Quite a promising artist, I'm told."
Why is it that the people who you least want to talk to are always the keenest to chat? Why can't they see that their being nuisances?
"I wish you wouldn't call me Captain," Stellar said.
"I don't know your name."
"Is Vince okay?"
"Vincent it is. I got my promotion by the way."
"So why are you watching the door?"
"The guy rostered on for today called in sick and, well, rank has its duties as well as its privileges. How's Cycloman?"
"How the Hell should I know?"
Axel had been smiling. Not a genuine happy smile, Stellar thought, but that dutiful customer service smile. The smile faded, to be replaced by a look of concern. "Yeah," he said. "I feel the same way about Empress Zagona of Ceres. She… Its… Look, I know that you and I have had our differences, but if you need to…"
"No! I don't 'need to!'" Stellar snapped. "I don't need to 'talk', I don't need to 'take some time', I don't need 'some space' or 'some help' or any bloody thing. I help people. That's the way the help runs. You don't help me, understand? You, especially, do not help me!"
Axel backed away a step, his expression carefully neutral. "Of course. It was wrong of me to presume. Forgive me."
"If you want to help, tell that damn cashier over there not to make jokes at customers' expense," Stellar said, relenting slightly. "She made me think I accidentally hit her! That's not funny, playing with people's empathy like that. It's just mean."
"Would you like it to be a formal warning or informal?"
"What's the difference?"
"Three formal warnings and she's fired. She's already on one."
Stellar sighed. Sometimes a good person was the worst the worst thing to be. "No," he said. "Just tell her to pull her head in."
Axel nodded. "I will. She knows she's on thin ice."
"Thanks." A million thoughts crowded Stellars mind. He was sorry he snapped at Axel. It was wrong to take out his frustrations on others. He wanted to apologise, but couldn't force the words out of his mouth.
"I got to go," he said.
"Watch out for the Wellington Rd exit," Axel said. "Its usually the quickest way back onto the Hurley Rd, but the lunch rush is starting now, so it's easier if you go by Kurrawong."
Axel watched Stellar push his trolley away. It was loaded with heavy items, and Stellar ought to be pushing it slowly to emphasize that fact that he was an ordinary man. Instead, he just barrelled along as if the cart was empty. How was it that no one ever put two and two together and figured out his secret identity?
Perhaps no one cared. Maybe that was it. Maybe superheros put all that effort into protecting their identities, and everyone else just went about their lives as if it didn't matter.
Stellar's presence had been an unexpected complication, but Axel was good at thinking on his feet. He checked his watch. If Stellar took the Kurrawong Ln exit, he'd miss the armoured car heist by minutes. Still, he did feel bad for the big galoot, nasty breakup and everything. Perhaps Empress Zagona would know how to help. If he called…
Axel gave a rueful smile. The heart and its tricks! Just when you think you know them all, it tries to pull another one. He looked over to the checkout, and gave the girl on duty a thumbs up. She gave a thumbs up back to him, and they both went about their business.