In Which Hazel Takes It All Off
I woke up again to the sound of the door opening and closing, and Two’s tuneless humming. Amaranth awoke more slowly.
“Ugh… morning, baby,” she said, getting off of me and sitting up.
“Morning,” I said.
“Good morning!” Two said from outside our enclosure. I sat up and opened the curtain. She was wrapped in a towel, with her hair up.
“Good morning,” I said. “How come you didn’t wake me up for meditation?”
“My friend Dee said she’s sorry but she needed more sleep,” Two said.
“Oh,” I said. Now that I thought about it, I wasn’t sure I would have liked being awakened any earlier than I needed to be.
“Poor Dee,” Amaranth said. “I wonder if she was already awake, or if the commotion woke her up?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“On the subject of sleep schedules, though… Two, what time does your friend Hazel usually wake up, do you know?” Amaranth asked.
“Ten,” Two said.
Amaranth bit her lip.
“Well… could you tell her that I’d like to speak to her about something?” Amaranth said.
“Okay,” Two said.
I doubted there had ever been an easier person to plan a surprise party around than Two. She seemed completely incurious.
“And don’t forget, you need to talk to Steff,” Amaranth said to me.
“Why?” I asked. I added quietly, “She already knows about it. It was her idea, remember?”
“About your date,” Amaranth clarified.
“Oh… yeah,” I said. “Shit.” I looked at Amaranth and said, “You could order me not to go with Sooni.”
“You’re the one who insisted I not order you to spend time with her,” Amaranth said. “Then you went and promised to, anyway. If you want to get out of this one, little missy, I’ll support you entirely, but I’m not going to solve this problem for you.”
“Oh, don’t forget… Ian told you to wake him up for breakfast, right?” Amaranth said.
“Right,” I said. It was Wednesday. Dance night. At least I had one date that wasn’t complicated by conflicting engagements. Maybe I could forget about everything else for one night. If only I could put off telling Steff until tomorrow… but, no. That was only one day before she thought we were going out. It had to be today.
Oh, well, I thought. First things first, and at least the first thing wasn’t a bad one. I went and got the mirror off the dresser, flipped it open, and asked for Ian.
“Turn around so the mirror’s pointing at the wall,” Amaranth said. “Two’s getting dressed.”
“Oh, right,” I said. “Sorry, Two.”
“That’s okay,” Two said, from over by the closet. “I forgive you.”
The image swirled around for a bit before Ian finally came into focus.
“Mackenzie,” he said, his eyes half-lidded. “Whuh… what’s up?”
“Breakfast?” I said.
His eyes opened.
“Oh, right,” he said. “Just let me grab some clothes.”
He turned away from the mirror, and I got a flash of his cock and then the top of his ass before he was out of sight. He came back a moment later with an armful of clothing.
“Doesn’t your roommate mind you, um, flopping around like that?” I asked.
“He doesn’t even sleep here most nights,” Ian said. “I think he’s got a girlfriend or something.”
“Oh,” I said.
“I keep a pair of boxers by the bed just in case, anyway,” he said.
“You didn’t grab them before you answered?”
“Didn’t think to,” he said. “And anyway, I figured I was out of frame. I got time for a shower?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I should get one, too.”
“Okay,” he said. “Want me to meet you over there or at the union?”
“Here’s fine,” I said, smiling like an idiot. At first, he’d been reluctant… afraid, even… to set foot in Harlowe. Now he was offering like it was no big deal. I didn’t know what the turning point had been, or even if there had been any one thing. Maybe he’d just got to know so many of us that it seemed silly to be worried?
“Okay,” he said.
“If you get over before I’m done, you can check to see if Two’s in the room, or hang out in the lounge.”
“Alright. See you in a bit.”
“Bye,” he said. “Oh, hey! It’s Wednesday.”
“Is it?” I said, smiling even more widely. “I’ll see you.”
We waved each other away. I snapped the mirror closed and then put it back on the dresser. With my arm stretched out, I caught a stale remnant of the spicy amber spray and a faint smell of night sweat. I held my arm up to my face and sniffed.
Nothing else. Nothing that I could smell.
“Amaranth, how do I smell?” I asked.
“Um, like yourself?” she said. “Which is pretty good, to me,” she added quickly. It sounded like she was covering.
“I think you smell much better now that the stinky spray wore off,” Two said.
“I’m going to go shower,” I said. “And put on some body spray.”
“If you want to, baby, but maybe use a little less than you did last night,” Amaranth said. “It was a little overpowering.”
Good, I thought, but I didn’t say it. Maybe I just needed to use a different scent? I grabbed some vanilla-raspberry body wash and shampoo. The plain vanilla was a little… well… vanilla, but the sharper scent of the raspberry would probably do the trick.
“I think I’ll come along, too,” Amaranth said. “To shower. It would probably be inconsiderate to do anything, this time of day… other people will be at the sinks and looking to use the showers.”
“Nobody ever comes in to use the shower when I’m using it,” I said.
“I guess people are probably shy about the open showers?” Amaranth said.
I really doubted that was the whole explanation, but I let it go.
I put on my robe and we headed out of the room, hand in hand. Sooni’s room was open. She was nowhere in sight, but Suzi and Maliko were hauling garbage bags full of kindling out of it.
Looking at that made me feel strangely sad. Six gold. That was like tuition for one semester, and she’d spent it on a whim and then destroyed the proceeds in a fit of panic. That kind of money was apparently nothing to somebody like her, Feejee, or Puddy, but it was painful to see it going to waste.
“Poor girls,” Amaranth said quietly as the nekos trudged towards the stairwell. “I hope they’re alright.”
“A little heavy lifting won’t hurt them,” I said.
“I meant Kai and Sooni,” Amaranth said. “They both had a rough night.”
“Yeah, Kai was almost murdered and Sooni was almost arrested for it,” I said.
“Baby,” Amaranth said, sternly. “You can’t tell me the pain on her face wasn’t real.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m just having a hard time finding sympathy for her.”
“Well, it’s not that simple for me,” Amaranth said. She sighed. “Let’s just go get cleaned up, okay? I don’t want to argue about this.”
“Okay,” I said.
We walked hand-in-hand down to the bathroom. Kai was brushing her teeth at a sink, but she turned and walked out without a word, clutching her toothpaste and brush. With the toothpaste suds on the fur all around her mouth, she looked rabid. Amaranth gave me a sad look, but didn’t say anything.
Trina was in one of the stalls, talking loudly to somebody… her friend Gladys, unless she‘d managed to find another one somewhere… about Sooni going “way psycho and demolishing the dorm.”
At least she was gossiping about somebody else this time.
It was nice to get in the shower with Amaranth, even if we weren’t going to be doing anything. Anyway, after having spent the whole night pressed together naked, it just felt natural. We kissed before letting go of each other’s hands and going to stand underneath separate fixtures.
I turned the hot water on all the way and waited for the air to warm up before I took off my robe and went to hang it up on the pegs just outside the curtained door. Not wanting to fully expose myself to the cold, I stuck my arm out through the gap. The bottom of the robe caught on something.
“Hey, watch where you’re swinging that, Mack!” Hazel said. She was wearing an ugly brown bathrobe, with a cap over her curly hair, a wicker case in her hand, and what looked like a canvas folding chair under her arm.
“Sorry,” I said, lifting the robe off her face. I hung it up quickly and stepped aside so that she could come through.
“Is that Hazel?” Amaranth called.
“’tis. I’m not, er, interrupting anything, am I?” she asked.
“No,” Amaranth replied. “Just showering. Come on in!”
“Okay, then,” Hazel said. She came in and set up her folding seat on the floor alongside one of the showers, then climbed up to turn it on.
“Isn’t that dangerous?” I asked. It didn’t look terribly steady.
“A bit, maybe, but it’s quicker than waiting for the rain,” she said, climbing down and taking off her robe. She hung that over the back of the seat and then moved it so that it was facing the spray.
With the rather modest dresses that Hazel wore, it was easy to miss the fact that the gnome was a woman and not a surprisingly mature little girl. I almost felt like I was seeing her head pasted on top of another body… then I realized I was staring, and turned my attention back to my own shower. I started to lather my hair up. I figured I’d do everything twice, just to be sure.
“You know, Two said that you usually sleep in later,” Amaranth said, after a few minutes.
“Who could sleep with that row, last night?” Hazel said. “I never got back to sleep properly after that, and finally decided to give up when I started hearing folks moving about in the hall.”
“Well, I wanted to ask you about something, anyway,” Amaranth said. “What are you doing next Tuesday?”
“Can’t think of a blessed thing,” Hazel said. A spurting hiss made me glance over, to see her squirting shaving gel all over the top of her foot.
“Are you shaving your feet?” I asked her. As far as I had known, gnomes had… and were proud of… the thick hair on their feet. When I’d caught a glimpse of Hazel’s feet, bare in every sense of the word beneath her dress, my thought had been that I was mistaken.
“Why, don’t you?” she asked. She’d frozen, gel can in one hand and razor in the other.
That took me aback. I’d made a distinction in my mind between ordinary human “maintenance” and the idea of Hazel de-furring her feet. Was there really a difference?
“Well, yeah,” I said. “I guess I do, sometimes. When they get to be really noticeable. I mean, I have dark hair, so even tiny little hairs show up.”
“Oh, alright,” Hazel said, visibly relaxing. She gave a shaky laugh. “The way you said it, I thought maybe I was doing something weird. I wouldn’t be shaving my delicate parts with anybody else in here, but you two don’t seem very prudish.”
“Whatever you care to do with your body is nobody’s business but your own,” Amaranth said.
“Got that right,” Hazel said. “On that note, I’m almost afraid to ask what you were thinking of inviting me to on Tuesday.”
I snorted, getting some vanilla-raspberry-shampoo-infused water up my nose in the process.
“Baby!” Amaranth cried as I coughed and spluttered, my nostril burning.
“You alright, there?” Hazel asked.
“I’m okay,” I said, with my hand on my nose. “I got shampoo up my nose.”
“Oh, I made that same mistake,” Hazel said. “Apparently, it goes on the hair.”
“Funny,” I said.
“Anyway, Hazel, a few of us are throwing a party for Two,” Amaranth said. “But we want it to be a surprise. We wanted to invite you, of course, but we also thought you might know if she had any other friends from class who might want to come?”
“I’d have to think about that,” Hazel said. “It’s a chummy enough class but I don’t know if that makes anybody chums, you know? And I’m not sure who all would take to your crowd, no offense meant.”
“None taken,” Amaranth. “Also, we hoped you might be able to take care of the refreshments, since obviously we can’t involve Two in that.”
“That one, I might be able to help with,” Hazel said. “Tuesday, you say?”
“Yeah,” Amaranth said. “I’m going to see if the party room in the union can be reserved.”
“Honey and I wandered in there once,” Hazel said. “We were after a few rounds of darts, but we couldn’t figure out how to lower the boards and she wasn’t interested in balancing on stools.”
“I’ll ask if they can be taken off the wall,” Amaranth said.
“What kind of spread are we talking about?” Hazel asked. “Finger foods, a full meal? Oh, are we going to want a cake?”
“If it’s not too much trouble,” Amaranth said. “I think we’re leaning towards something like a birthday party.” She giggled. “Steff called it ‘Two’s Day’.”
“A Two’s Day party,” Hazel mused. “How ’bout presents, then? I gather you tallfolk don’t usually give them out on birthdays.”
“Actually, we do, but I think we’ll leave it up to individuals whether they want to bring something,” Amaranth said. “Being as it’s short notice.”
“Oh, no, I meant, the honored guest doesn’t give them,” Hazel said. “Be hard to do that, anyway, when she doesn’t even know it’s her Two’s Day. Well, I’ve had my eye on a little something for her, anyway. Goodness knows, if anybody deserves a bit of a party, it’d be Two.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I think we all feel like that.”
Amaranth and Hazel talked back and forth about the menu for a bit, Hazel talking over her shoulder while she shaved her legs. They were both thinking big, but Amaranth had everybody’s dietary needs in mind and reminded Hazel of them.
I only half-listened, though some of the delicacies being mentioned made my mouth water. I was concentrating more on getting myself clean, and drinking in the scent of the body wash. It really did smell good, when it wasn’t going directly up my nose… tart and a little sweet.
“Maybe what we need to do is make it buffet-style,” Hazel said after several other ideas had been shot down. “Instead of trying to find one menu that’ll suit everybody. We can do something similar with the desserts, so Miss Delia Daella could have a little cheesecake, for instance, and you could have… maybe crystallized pineapple? Chocolate strawberries?”
“Chocolate has milk in it, usually,” Amaranth said.
“Oh, right,” Hazel said.
“Dee likes fruit, I think,” I said. “She might go for that pineapple thing.”
“We’ll put it on the list for sure, then,” Hazel said. “Hey, you don’t mind if I invite my cousin, do you? A proper party would do a world of good for her spirits, but she won’t go anywhere there’s drinking.”
“Oh, well, I don’t see why not,” Amaranth said. “I mean, it might be rude to exclude her, since you couldn’t really keep the planning from her.”
“Let’s not go crazy and invite the whole floor, though,” I said.
“Baby, honestly,” Amaranth said, giving me a hurt look. “I know better than that.”
“Sorry,” I said.
“I just want there to be a big enough crowd, so that Two knows she’s loved,” Amaranth said.
“I think you might do that better by sticking to the crowd that loves her the best,” Hazel said.
“Maybe,” Amaranth said. “I guess so.”
“And their boyfriends,” Hazel added. “Andy’ll grumble less when I make him take me shopping for this if he knows he’ll be getting some of it himself.”
“Oh, bring him,” she said. “And you can bring Ian, baby. I think Two’s warming up to him, a bit.”
“I think so, too,” I said.
This might sound sappy, but it really warmed my heart to know that Two could inspire such loyalty in such a diverse group of people. I wondered how long she’d languished in that group home, with nothing to occupy herself but household chores… and nobody to protect her from the advances of her fellow abandoned golems. She’d come here thinking, in so many words, that there was “nothing interesting” about her… but a change of scenery and people who cared about her had been enough for her to find her voice.
“Er, are you two going to be much longer?” Hazel asked, interrupting my running thoughts. “I’ve a bit of a date tonight, and there’s a few more things I was planning on shaving if I could get the place to myself.”
“Oh!” Amaranth said. “If you’re not comfortable… baby, are you still scrubbing under your arms? Just rinse off and we’ll leave Hazel to it.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said.
Technically, I had been scrubbing under them again, but I didn’t want to argue.