335: Give And Take

on December 24, 2008 in Book 12

In Which Products Are Placed

Ian got his purchase rung up while I was looking at some modeling figures in the art section.

“What’d you get?” I asked, looking at the little bag.

“A surprise,” he said. “I figure it fit the theme.”

“If you’re worried it’s not any good, you don’t have to do more than the card,” I said. “I don’t think her cooking classmates are…”

“No, I think it’s good,” Ian said. “It’s just a surprise.”

“Ian, it’s a college bookstore,” I sad. “They sell pens and paper and tourist mugs and lodestones for the fridge with the school crest on it. They don’t sell good presents.”

“Maybe you don’t know how to spot a good present,” he said.

“Hey, I spotted a great present,” I said.

“In a big chain bookstore in town,” he said. “That’s like finding hay in a haystack. I’m just a tiny bit more ambitious than that.”

He wouldn’t say anything more or let me get a peek in his gift bag, which had wads of green and purple tissue paper sticking out of it. We made it back to the room with barely minutes to spare. There were some more people there, but Hazel was chatting with them so I figured they must have been the guests. Kyle from the food court had showed up, too. I gave him the least weak hello I could muster, since he was standing off by himself, a stranger even to the other humans.

I hurriedly signed the card. Lacking any way to attach it to the gift bag, I simply put it inside its envelope and slipped it into the bag.

I was thankful I’d found a card that summed up what I wanted to say so simply and succinctly. A personal message was personal, but I didn’t know what to say to or about Two that could fit inside a card. She was the best of us, and not just because she was the innocent one. She had come so far since her first days at MU, and whatever of that progress could be said to be because of us, it could not be denied that after the first few hurdles, a lot of it had happened without us… and some, perhaps, had even happened in spite of us.

Amaranth arrived just after that. Her face told the story more completely than Steff’s absence did… they hadn’t been able to find her.

“I’m so worried, baby,” she said, without having to explain what she was worried about. “And even if she’s okay, she’s going to hate herself for missing this… I checked some of the places I thought she might have gone, but if she wandered into the trees or something… I wouldn’t know where to start.”

“What did Viktor say?” I asked.

“He was going to get another student who has a pass to the vaults to go and look for her there,” Amaranth said. “But, if she’d actually gone there like she said she was going to, she would’ve been back, right?”

“Not necessarily,” I said. “She might have gone there… she might even have intended to put the knife back, at least a little… and then got enraptured by it again once she got there.”

I found myself not believing it as I said it… Steff had already been off in her own special place when she’d left, supposedly to return the knife. If she’d decided to go play with it a little more before returning it, I couldn’t see her going to the place where someone might recognize it and ask her what she was doing with it. No, she’d probably go somewhere that she could be alone with no chance of being interrupted. After all, if someone saw her cutting herself again and again, they’d probably do something to stop her.

Unless they were into it, that was.

“Callahan,” I said.

“What?” Amaranth asked.

“She might have gone to Callahan’s office,” I said. “I mean, if Steff’s in a self-injuring mood and she wanted an audience or a partner… she wanted me to try the knife but I wouldn’t. She might have gone to Callahan next.

“Yeah,” Amaranth said. “Hopefully Callahan would recognize the potential for danger and take it away from her, though.”

“Are you serious?” I asked.

“She is a teacher,” Amaranth said. “Oh, they’re here.”

“What?”

“Dee and Two… Dee says they’re almost here,” she said. Louder, to the room, she said, “Everybody get ready.”

“Should we turn out the lights?” one of the cooking class girls asked.

“Um, I think she can see in the dark,” Amaranth said.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Let’s do it anyway,” Hazel said. “Sake of form and all that.”

Amaranth started to reach to do that, but at that moment the door opened and Two walked in.

I froze up completely. It was only after the sound of the others yelling “Surprise!” was fading away that I remembered that this was the thing to do. It was too late to yell it myself, so I just kind of moved my mouth like I might have just said something and was only now closing it.

If I had been momentarily at a loss for what to do, I was in the very best of company… Two stood there in the doorway, just in front of Dee, and looked around from her classmates to her friends, blinking and thinking.

“It’s a surprise party, love,” Hazel said gently. “For you.”

“Oh,” Two said, and then she smiled rigidly. “What do I do?”

“You gasp and you shout how surprised you are,” Hazel said. “And then you enjoy the party.”

“Okay,” Two said. She gasped rather theatrically, and then yelled, “Somewhat!”

Now that she knew what was going on and had played her required role, she visibly relaxed quite a bit and headed for the food. It seemed likely that this was her idea of what a party was about. I knew she’d had class parties in her cooking classes that had probably just involved everybody bringing a dish, and she’d held her own little dinner party before. If she’d had any experience with parties in her former life, I had to imagine it would have involved holding a tray full of tiny foods or something.

“Oh, hold on,” Hazel said, and Two stopped. “Don’t you want to open your presents first?”

“Presents?” Two repeated.

“Yeah, some of us got you presents,” Hazel said. “Like it’s your birthday, you know?”

“But I wasn’t born,” Two said.

“Neither was I, but most people were, and they get birthdays” Amaranth explained. “So we wanted a day to celebrate you.”

“Oh,” Two said. “That’s fair.”

“You can open mine first,” Hazel said, holding up a box that was about a foot and a half across, though it didn’t seem to weigh much.

Two accepted it with a thank you and began carefully unwrapping it, first untying the ribbon and slipping it off and then finding the edge of the paper where it had been taped and undoing that. She got the plain white box uncovered and then opened it.

“Oh,” she said. “A stuffed alligator.”

She pulled it out. It was a very big, very squishy-looking alligator, but an alligator nonetheless.

“Like in the song,” Two said, and then she laughed. “Alligators don’t eat raspberries.”

Two’s laughter was like her singing and her crying: honest and uncontrolled. It was a lot more pleasant to hear, though. I wondered for a moment if we’d done her a terrible disservice by telling her it was okay to cry but not giving her a similar order for laughter, but I decided otherwise, for two reasons. One was that it didn’t seem to be necessary. She thought alligators were funny for some reason, and she laughed. Maybe Hazel had seen the need and taken care of it. Maybe she’d worked it out for herself by analogy to crying.

The other reason was that an order to laugh when things were funny would require Two to figure that out, which could be stressful for her and could also lead to awkwardness if she judged incorrectly.

“Why don‘t you set her down here for now, so you can keep your hands free ,” Hazel said, leading her over to the carom table. “You can put your gifts here as you open them, so they’ll be out of the way.”

“Okay,” Two said.

I wanted to press forward with my present, but Honey was sticking to Hazel’s side like she’d been glued there, and she held up her package, which was a long, flat bundle of paper with gold ribbon. Two opened it and found a pair of pens made from brightly colored feathers with designs painted on them.

“I didn’t know what you would like?” Honey said, her nervousness making it into a question. “But I saw these in a stall in the bazaar and I thought they were pretty?”

“Yes, they are,” Two said. “Thank you, Honey.”

“Oh, you’re quite welcome,” Honey said, and she relaxed, too.

Dee got hers in next, since she was standing right next to Two. It was a slim box wrapped in plain black paper.

“Oh, pretty,” Two said when she saw it. She opened it to find a rack of ten little jars of different kinds of jelly. “Thank you, Dee.”

“You’re very welcome,” Dee said. “I discovered the concept of jellied fruit while researching methods of preservation. I had seen grape and strawberry jelly in the cafeteria, of course, but I did not realize its true nature at the time, nor had I realized that the concept could be applied to other fruits.”

As strange as it was to hear somebody talk about jelly like it was some esoteric alchemical preservation, I could kind of understand her fascination. We all saw grape jelly, but did the average person stop and think about how it had come to be? Hell, there had been a steady trade of jars in and out of my grandmother’s pantry in the nine years I’d lived with her and I probably wouldn’t have been able to name ten different kinds of jelly without thinking about it.

“You don’t have fruit preserves back home, Dee?” Amaranth asked. “Considering how valuable fruit must be…”

“Had there been any sources of fruit in the nomadic ages, I’m sure preservation techniques would have been discovered,” Dee said. “But our magical orchards know no barren season, and the demand is such that there is never any surplus to speak of.”

I took advantage of the conversation to step forward with my gift bag, which I handed to Two. She took it, glanced down, and then looked at me in confusion.

“It’s my present,” I said. “For you. Your present from me.”

“Oh,” she said. “You’re supposed to wrap it, but that’s okay. I’ll take it this time.”

“Yeah, sorry,” I said. Apparently she didn’t know about gift bags. There’d be time to explain that later.

She set the bag down on the table and pulled the books out one after another, reading over the title of each one. She then pulled out the card, opened it, and read it.

“Oh,” she said, and she looked up at me, smiling. “You’re welcome.”

“You mean ’thank you’,” Amaranth said.

“No, I mean ’you’re welcome’,” Two said. “But thank you, Mack. It’s a very pretty card.”

“What about the books?” I asked. I didn’t want to sound like it was all about me or anything, but the lack of reaction was killing me. I thought she’d at least respond to the gnomish cooking book. “Do you like them?”

“I don’t know, I haven’t read them yet,” she said. “I think it would be rude if I did that at my party.”

“Oh,” I said, chuckling a little. It was a very honest answer. “Okay.”

Contrary to my prediction to Ian, her classmates had brought gifts. They included a little beanbag penguin, a set of stirring spoons coated in different flavors of chocolate, a little self-warming teapot, and a bookmark that could pick up the contents of pages it had been put against. Judging from the picture of crossed utensils at the bottom, it was intended for use in cookbooks.

I hadn’t even noticed that Feejee was missing until she came back into the room with a giggling apology. She had a tiny gift bag with a fringe of tissue paper sticking out of it. The bottom was bulging quite badly. I guessed the contents were made of some particularly weighty substance, like metal.

“Sorry, I didn’t even think about a gift before we came over, so I had to run back and then to the store,” she said.

“Oh, you didn’t have to,” Amaranth said. “We only did because we care for Two so very much.”

“But I wanted to,” Feejee said. “I would like to be better friends with everyone. Here,” she said, holding the badly strained little bag to Two.

“Thank you,” Two said, forgetting to lecture Feejee about wrapping as she pulled out the contents. It was a heavy gold medallion on a gold chain. There were gasps and one “holy shit” from the non-Harlowe crowd. Two had gone rigid and pale, and she thrust both her hands, one with the necklace and one with the bag, out towards Feejee.

“I’m sorry, but I am not able to accept gifts of more than five silver pieces in value,” she recited.

“Oh,” Feejee said, looking a little hurt. “Um… is that a lot? I don‘t know what else… I have some pearls, too?”

“I don’t think that’ll make the difference, Feejee,” Amaranth said.

“I’m sorry, but I am not able to accept gifts of more than five silver pieces in value,” Two repeated, her voice rising a little in pitch and volume.

“But it’s not worth that much to me,” Feejee said. “I mean, I got it for free, so if you want to be technical about it, it’s worthless, isn’t it?”

“I’m sorry, but I am not able to accept gifts of more than five silver pieces in value. Please consider a donation to Hearts of Clay as an alternative,” Two said, her arms beginning to shake. She looked and sounded desperate with the urge to divest herself of the forbidden gift. “Please take them,” she said.

Amaranth stepped forward and grabbed the necklace, putting it out of sight.

“I’ll just hold onto it as a sort of trust until we can talk to these Hearts of Clay people,” she said. “Two’s a free being. She should be able to decide for herself whether or not to accept a gift.”

“Thank you,” Two said to Amaranth. “And thank you for the thought,” she said to Feejee. “It was very nice.”

“Maybe you could sell one of your pieces of jewelry and keep that money aside to buy more reasonable gifts when you want to give somebody something,” I suggested to Feejee.

“Okay, but it’s not really that big a deal,” she said.

There was a soft knock on the door.

“Is this where the party is?” Iona asked.

“Yeah, come on in,” Amaranth replied.

The door opened and Iona and Celia walked in. Iona held up a wire basket with a plastic pouch full of bath products in it.

“Sorry it’s not wrapped,” she said, smiling a big, dazzlingly tooth-filled smile. “I didn’t have time.”

“That’s okay, I forgive you,” Two said, accepting the gift.

“Where’d you find that?” Amaranth asked.

“Oh, I had it on hand,” Iona said. “I’d meant it for somebody else, but I thought it might suit Two just as well.”

“Coconut lime body spray, body wash, lotion, and bath salts,” Two read.

“I love the taste of coconut,” Iona said. “And lime brings out so much taste in meat.”

Yeah, the mermaids’ privacy be damned… we needed to talk to Two. I trusted her more to keep the secret for Feejee’s sake than I trusted Iona. If Feejee ended up being caught in the same net because Iona wouldn’t reform her habits on land… well, that would suck for her, but if she was the worst-hit victim of the incident, it would be a very lucky thing.

Despite the last minute invite, Celia had not turned up empty handed, either. She had a rolled up piece of leather, which, when unfurled, had a scale-like pattern pressed into it. The hexagonal scales were dyed orange and turquoise, and the individual colored scales made a pattern of swirls and lines.

“Thank you,” Two said.

“Oh, it’s nothing,” Celia said. “But, you invited me to your chicken thing and you didn’t invite Puddy, and that was kind of awesome. So… well, that piece is from my back. Two summers ago.”

“Wait, it’s what?” I said.

“It’s the skin off my back,” Celia said.

“That thing is you?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said.

“Do you shed?” I asked.

“Not naturally,” she said. “It’s a religious thing.”

“You flay yourself, religiously?”

“Every year on my birthday,” she said proudly. “Most girls only do it the first time, when they turn eleven.”

“That’s, er, a good year,” Hazel muttered.

“Auspicious year,” Honey agreed.

“I’m not so sure about the auspices of a year you start by getting skinned alive,” Hazel said. “Though, surviving it’s a good sign.”

“Well, you don’t just take a knife and start cutting yourself,” Celia said. “What kind of an idiot would do that? There’s a shaman on hand and everything.”

“I think as long as you’re being safe, it isn’t anybody’s business,” Amaranth said. “And I’m sure it’s a very personal gift to give.”

“It’s nothing,” Celia said, and she actually blushed. “It’s junk. I’m not happy with the staining. I’d be embarrassed to give it to anybody back home, who knows what a good skin piece is supposed to look like.”

“And speaking of personal gifts,” Amaranth said, beaming, “I think you should open mine next, Two.”

Under the gold wrapping paper, it was obviously a garment box, and I entertained a brief hope that she’d thought better of her initial plan. But the way the box wobbled in transit between them, it was obvious that one end of it was heavier than the other.

Two undid the paper with the same care as she had shown the other packages, and then lifted off the top.

“Oh, pretty!” she exclaimed, and she lifted out a long, glittery icy blue camisole. It seemed pretty voluminous, which meant that somebody had used an awful lot of material to cover up almost nothing, as it was completely see-through except for a pattern of flowers that would vaguely obscure the chest region. She held it up to her, and it became apparent just how roomy it was. I couldn’t see the shoulder straps working on Two’s narrow frame. “Oh, but I am afraid this is not the right size. This is too big for me. I think it would fit you better.”

“What?” Amaranth said. She’d gone very pale, and she grabbed it out of Two’s hand. “L-let me see that, Twoey, please.”

“Hey, my name isn’t Twoey,” Two protested, but Amaranth wasn’t paying attention. She turned away from everybody for a moment, and then turned back, holding out a clearly smaller version of the same garment.

“No, this is the right size,” Amaranth said holding it out. “Check again, I think you’ll find you were mistaken.”

Two did as she was bade, looking at the tag and then holding it up. She shook her head.

“It is my size, but this is a different one,” Two said. “It’s like you bought two of the same thing, only one of them is in my size and the other of them is in yours.”

“What? No,” Amaranth said. She shook her head emphatically. “No, you silly… just no.”

“Okay, but it looks like…”

“It’s probably best if you just drop it,” I said to Two.

“Okay,” she said. “But I don’t think I’m wrong.”

“Oh, and there’s more in there,” Amaranth said.

“No, there isn’t,” Hazel said. I hadn’t even noticed how close she’d come to the table with the box on it.

“What?” Amaranth said.

“I think there was,” Two said. “It was a heavy box.”

“No, that’s all she got you and that’s fine because it’s a very lovely present,” Hazel said. “So much that I think after the party I’m going to have a conversation with her about where she shops for presents for you.”

“Hazel, you’re being ridiculous,” Amaranth said. “Why is everybody trying to blow this out of proportion? It’s just a little…”

“I know little,” Hazel said. “It’s not a little anything. Two, love, Amaranth got you a nice… undergarment, and that’s all she got you.”

“This is a very confusing present,” Two said, looking sideways at the box, her eyelid twitching as she tried to reconcile what she knew with what she was being told.

“Maybe this will be less confusing,” Ian said, stepping forward with his gift bag.

“I hope so,” Two said. “My head is starting to hurt.” She looked at me. “You should pay attention to how Feejee and Ian did it. They know how to wrap presents in bags.”

“Told you,” Ian said. I stuck out my tongue.

She pulled out the tissue paper and inside it was a desktop model of a candy or gumball dispenser, the kind with a penny bank inside, and a little bag of fruit-shaped candies to fill it.

“The only thing I knew you like is candy,” Ian said. “But I didn’t want to get you just candy, so…”

“Oh, thank you!” she said, and the enthusiasm in her voice burned me like petty, petty fire.

“It’s going to be hard to keep the different flavors sorted out inside the globe,” I said.

“That’s okay,” she said. “I can sort them as they come out. Thank you, Ian. That was a very thoughtful present.”

“Try not to let your jealousy get the better of you,” Ian told me.

“I’m not jealous,” I said. “She just hasn’t read the books yet.”


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11 Responses to “335: Give And Take”

  1. pedestrian says:

    would it be politically in-correct if
    I used the term “the green-eyed monster jealousy,
    reared it’s ugly head”?

    Current score: 7
  2. dylon says:

    ad whore 😉

    Current score: 0
  3. Guy-Man says:

    Amaranth’s wearin’ clothes again.

    Current score: 5
  4. LogicSwitch says:

    It’s funny that Amaranth is completely accepting of everybody else’s kinks, but she’s got one that she’s completely uptight about.

    Current score: 0
    • Leila says:

      If whatever god you believe in suddenly showed up in front of you and told you that -insert your kink here- was absolutely forbidden, how would you feel?

      Current score: 5
      • Kanta says:

        I would probably wonder where something that calls itself, “The Crawling Chaos,” gets off setting rules at all.

        Current score: 8
  5. Duke says:

    She’s “uptight” about it because nymphs wearing clothes is in direct violation of one of Mother Khaele’s edicts.

    Current score: 5
  6. Ryzndmon says:

    Though, if one of her… customers? Clients? Umm, field plowers… oh dear. Start again. If one of her sexual partners had a fetish for, let us say, women wearing tightly laced boned corsets, maybe with garters and fishnets, would she be in violation of Mama Kh’s edict if she wore them for zem?

    Current score: 4
    • MentalBlank says:

      Projecting Ryzn? If so, I’ve gotta say, the image appeals…

      Current score: 1
  7. Jechtael says:

    “Well, you don’t just take a knife and start cutting yourself,” Celia said. “What kind of an idiot would do that?”

    The kind of idio- …Iiiii mean perfectly intelligent but addictive person who has a self-healing knife? …Screw it. I’m willing to admit that Steff can be an idiot.

    Current score: 6