Almost Never Disclaimers & Chapter Index
Breaking and Entering.
Hazel took her time answering the door, but once she saw him standing on the step with one hand pressed firmly against his forehead, she ushered Stuart in at once.
"Just look at the state of you," she said, corraling him into the kitchen, taking his arm when she saw he had a bit of a limp. She gestured him onto the counter, and he hoisted himself up, blood escaping down his face the second he moved his hand.
Hazel thumbed the trickle of blood off and shook her head in mock disbelief. "What was it this time? Queer, Irish, smartarse? All of the above?"
"Didn't stop to ask," he said. "Too busy kicking teeth in. Think I might've broke a toe."
She gave him a hard look. "You need to go to hospital?"
"They'd just tape it up. You can do that, can't you?"
"Yeah," she said, "reckon I can."
A wave of blessedly cool air rolled out of the freezer when she opened the door. Stuart closed his eyes and leaned to catch it, a breath of snow in the middle of this dull wet spring heat.
"Hands," Hazel said. He stuck them out and she plopped oozy blue icepacks into both gritty palms. She stepped back and considered him with a mild frown. "Sadly, you've only got two hands, and at least three spots that need ice. Where does it hurt the most?"
Stuart pressed one icepack gingerly just below his right eye, over the spreading bruise, and shaped the other against the lump on the opposite side of his jaw. "That should do it."
"I'll fetch the tape, and peroxide for that cut," she said, sparing a clinical glance for the split above his brow. "Just a scratch really, but we'll play it safe for the sake of your vanity."
"Appreciate that," he said, a bit muffled, most of his face already gone numb.
Hazel veered around the house searching for tape and sticking plasters; he could hear the absurd amount of bustle she made as she lifted and shoved all the litter of her latest projects. His hands were getting cold and stiff.
"Here we are," she said, returning with her hands full. "Won't be a moment."
"Take your time," Stuart said. "I've heard bleeding to death is a pleasant way to go. First you feel cold, then you feel warm and safe..."
"Keep running off at the mouth, you'll find out if death by clouting's a good way to go." She upended the peroxide, choking the spout with a cotton ball, and swabbed it over his cut. He sucked in a breath through his teeth.
"Can't be that bad."
"Always such a baby when you're on the mend," she said, shaking her head. "What I want to know is, if you're so squeamish, how d'you get into fights in the first place?"
"I'm not squeamish," he frowned at her. "I come to you, practically dead man walking, and what do you do? You have a go at me."
"You'd worry for my health if I didn't. Close your eyes."
He did. "Don't try telling me to open my mouth now," he said. "I'm not falling for that one again."
Hazel chuckled. "I don't imagine anyone ever has to trick you into anything," she said drily as she cleaned off the blood, "even if they could."
Stuart smiled faintly. "Fair enough."
"Is it?" she asked, pressing the bandage to his brow.
"You can open your eyes now." Hazel was right there, looking straight at him, taking his measure. "I asked, is it? Is it fair? Is it enough?"
"My hands are freezing."
She raised an eyebrow, not diverted in the least, and turned to rummage in a drawer until she found a pair of dishtowels. "Here," she helped him keep the icepacks in place while he insulated his hands with the towels. "Better?"
Hazel seemed to have let her question go, if it had even been a real question; Stuart wasn't sure. "Which foot?"
"The right." He lifted it to give her better access to his shoe.
She undid the lace, yanking his trainer wide open, and tugged at the heel. "Slide your foot out, I don't want to pull it off, it might hurt you. Which one is it?"
"Can't tell," he said, lifting his foot gingerly out of his shoe. "It all hurts."
"Black socks, with trainers?" Hazel asked politely, working the sock off with care.
"I hate white ones."
"Oh, I know," she said. "I'm familiar with your opinions on most things, Stuart. I've heard 'em all."
She looked up at him and caught it, and after a moment, she smiled too.
The sock slipped off. Stuart's second and third toes were impressively purple.
"All right, hang on there," Hazel said. She prodded one injured toe. "How's that?"
"Not so bad."
She prodded the other.
"You're going to run me out of icepacks, you are." She got another one out of the freezer and held it at waist level. "Just rest your foot on it, try to get it numb before I tape it up. You're sure you wouldn't rather have this done by a professional?"
"I'm sure," he said, pressing his toes on the icepack, teeth gritted.
"Look at you, you're like Cinderella," Hazel said suddenly.
He shot her an incredulous look. "Encroaching senility," he said.
"I never. I'm twenty-nine."
"You're thirty-four. Paleolithic."
"Listen to that. They've taught you to count and everything." She studied him. "Are you learning anything worth knowing?"
He shrugged. "Not really. Having to work a bit to keep up with all the nothing, though. That's new."
Hazel was looking at his foot again. "I think you're probably going to lose the nail off the broken one."
"I can't get it numb, the angle's weird, it hurts to hold it like that," Stuart said. "Just go ahead and tape it, it'll just take a second."
"I hate to put you through that, love."
She knelt down with the tape. "Can you do this?" She splayed out her fingers.
He tried that with his injured foot. "Fuck, ow, no."
Hazel got a piece of tape ready and positioned his bruised but whole digits with one hand. "Last chance for hospital."
"No. Just--" he clamped his jaw tight as she carefully tugged the broken toe straight and made a loop of stiff tape around it. For a few seconds his vision swam, sweat broke out on his face, and he felt an urgent floaty sense of nausea, but each successive layer of tape hurt a little less. By the time she'd finished, he only felt like it would be pleasant to die; he was no longer actually praying for death.
When he blinked himself back to some semblance of self again, Hazel had her hands firmly braced on his shoulders.
"No," he said.
"What can I do?"
"Fine by me, what's your poison?"
He grinned weakly. "Got any Galliano?"
"Drank it all up. Wouldn't waste it on you if I had it. I've got Kahlua, I could make White Russians."
She set to it. He lowered the icepacks and made a face. A little sore, but not so bad now. The bump throbbed a bit. He flicked open the freezer and shoved one of the icepacks back inside. Pressed the other back against his jaw.
"Can't help but notice, now you're off at uni, my son seems to get into a lot fewer fights," Hazel said as she poured the vodka. "But he smiles less, too. How should I feel about that, I wonder."
Stuart looked at her, waiting.
She handed him a drink. "Cheers."
"Cheers." It was good; sweet. He instantly wanted about ten more just like it, and said so.
"I've got enough for six, maybe," she said, weighing the Kahlua bottle. "And half of those are mine. But I'll keep pouring, if you've got nowhere to be."
"Can't go anywhere, can I? I'm crippled."
She sipped at her drink, looking over the glass at him, friendly, attentive, suspicious.
"He's at work," she told him.
Hazel smiled at him and patted his cheek gently, minding the bruises; her hand cool from the glass, warm underneath. "Good to see you, kid."
Next Story: Father Figure.
Almost Never Chapter Index