Late afternoon, and Dark Owl Records was pretty much deserted. It didn't help that the swamp cooler was broken. Michelle was sitting on the edge of the counter, lazily kicking her legs and mentally running through the list of people who owed her favors, trying to figure out if any of them were mechanically inclined, when the door opened in a jangle of bells.
Noticing who it was, she smirked. "And here I am all out of juice boxes."
Maureen flipped her off, rolling her eyes. "Your hair looks like shit," she said, grinning. "What the hell is this, ABBA?"
Michelle pressed her lips together and Maureen realized the comment about her hair had gone too far for their usual banter. Her usual sleek bob had gotten shaggy and shapeless, and the bright streaks she habitually dyed into it had faded to the point where Maureen couldn't even tell what color they'd been last. But she bounced back quickly enough. "It's Frida's first solo album in English," she said with a sniff.
Running a hand through her hair, Maureen sighed. She didn't have the strength for a snark-off, even with Michelle. "I need a place to stay, 'Chelle."
"I thought you might. I heard the radio." The playlist switched to a barely recognizable Buddy Holly cover; Michelle slid off the counter, expression softening slightly. "You haven't been around much. Even when you weren't in an alternate dimension or blown away by a freak wind, that is." She chuckled, shaking her head a little. Even for Night Vale, Maureen had had a few odd months. Michelle's smirk faded into something gentler. It had been a difficult time for the whole town. "Is this you asking to crash here?" There was a loft over the store, and Michelle was fiercely protective of her little nest. The staff were never invited to visit. Maureen had spent a few nights there.
"At least then you'd have someone around to fix your swamp cooler?" She tilted her head, doing her best to look appealing.
Even without the prospect of Maureen's company, a working cooler was a tempting prospect, and Michelle knew she had the skill for it. It was a good thing Michelle had a decent toolkit; it didn't look like Maureen was carrying one and Michelle suspected she didn't want to go home to fetch it. Although from the hollow expression lurking behind Maureen's sarcastic grin, Michelle had the feeling it wasn't really 'home' any more. Which made the idea of her staying here a much more serious prospect.
But it's not like any day came with a guarantee of survival, especially for an NVCR intern like Maureen. Why shouldn't Michelle keep her close?
"Fix the swamp cooler first and we'll see," Michelle said in her snottiest Boss Voice.
Maureen raised an eyebrow, and a little life flooded back into her expression. Michelle was being herself, and that was a good sign. It wasn't natural for either of them to let down their guard; even with each other they needed a little time to thaw. "Get your tools, then," she said, and curled her lip in a sarcastic smile. "And lock up. I don't want to stain my shirt if it gets messy."
It wasn't a big surprise that she'd want to take good care of her blouse. Michelle knew she'd done the delicate embroidery herself, a skill Maureen had extrapolated from learning careful stitching to earn her Emergency Medicine badge in girl scouts. She flipped the sign from 'Open' to 'Closed' and turned the latch shut, and watched Maureen pull the light gauze blouse off over her head out of the corner of her eye as she fetched the toolbox from its spot under the cash register. A lifetime in the desert sun had given Maureen a freckle-blotched tan on her face and arms, but her torso was still starkly pale. Michelle handed Maureen the dusty toolbox and took the blouse to set aside for her. When Maureen wasn't looking, she sniffed it; still the same perfume, rich with myrrh and cocoa.
Maureen hummed showtunes as she unscrewed the cowling of the swamp cooler, clashing with the carefully chosen obscure songs on Michelle's playlist. She groaned as mucky water splashed on her bare chest and soft, worn jeans. Well, at least she hadn't taken her shirt off for nothing. "You know you're letting me use your washer and dryer, right?" she called out, poking around in the guts of the cooler. "And your shower," she added, frowning at the dank water.
Michelle was sitting on the counter again, still holding Maureen's blouse. "Yeah, you need a shower," she teased. "And maybe some help getting all that hair clean." The hair in question was a mass of red curls, better suited to a Pre-Raphaelite painting than appliance repair. In one of their less guarded moments, Maureen had admitted that she thought it balanced out her freckles, which she hated. Michelle admired it but was just as glad that she didn't have to brush it every day.
As Maureen burrowed into the guts of the cooler, her humming evolved into singing under her breath, until she was belting out 'This Is The Moment' at the top of her lungs. Michelle cringed, but she was a bit relieved too. It was good to know Maureen hadn't changed too much.
"Jeez, Michelle, this thing's a mess. You ever heard of regular maintenance?" There was a clatter of wrench and screwdriver, and an aggravated shout, but when Maureen sat back, dirty water splattered on her face and dripping off her chin, she was smiling triumphantly. "You had a blocked pipe." She sang to herself again as she reassembled the guts of the cooler and snapped the cowling back into place. "That should be worth a few nights," Maureen said, looking over her shoulder with a proud grin.
Michelle rolled her eyes, but she was grinning as she leaned her chin in her hands. "You're taking a shower before you do anything," she said, eyeing Maureen's damp and filthy torso. Hopping off the counter, she walked over to Maureen, resting a hand on the bare skin of her back. "I'm closed up anyway, we might as well relax."
"A shower sounds good," Maureen agreed, leaning into the touch. "Help me comb out my hair?" Although she'd be loath to admit it, one of the things Maureen had missed all that time flickering about that lonely otherworld was Michelle's gentle touch with a comb, smoothing out the tangles in her mass of curls.
"I'll wind up needing to shower too," Michelle mock-complained, and leaned in close to whisper, "I missed you," before sliding her hand down the length of Maureen's back and leading her behind the curtain that hung behind the cash register, and up the stairs leading to Michelle's snug little loft.
Maureen wasn't especially tall, but she still had to hunch down a little in the close confines of Michelle's loft. Michelle herself barely had room to stand up straight. But despite the low ceiling, it was comfortingly familiar, and the place she had missed the most during her misadventures. She sighed happily as she slumped into the beat-up fiddleback chair Michelle was constantly swearing she'd refinish.
"You've got some nerve putting down my hair," Michelle said, grabbing her sandalwood detangling comb from her dresser and getting to work on Maureen's thick mass of curls. "Yours looks like a rat's nest."
Maureen closed her eyes, tipping her head back. Michelle's harried employees would never have credited her with the gentle, careful way she worked the comb through Maureen's hair while she complained about the mucky water that had splashed all over her during her repair work. Her free hand caressed the nape of Maureen's neck. The knots seemed to melt at the touch of the comb's sturdy, wide teeth, and it felt good and solid in Michelle's hand. Maureen herself was relaxing, the tight muscles in her neck and shoulders loosening, and she let out a soft, involuntary sigh. With Maureen facing away from her, Michelle indulged in a tender smile, a rare unguarded moment she hadn't allowed herself since... well, since Strex started moving in, not that she'd ever made a habit of it. "Okay, time for you to get into the shower," she said with feigned snappishness. "Give me your jeans so I can wash the gross out of them."
Maureen turned and stood languorously, used to Michelle's ways. "Will you be joining me?" she asked in a gentler tone, unbuttoning her jeans. "After all your complaining it would be a waste not to."
"I have to keep you from using up all my soap somehow," Michelle grumbled. Her smile was hidden as she pulled her t-shirt over her head. Her skin was darkened by the desert sun as well, and from the relative privacy of her roof Michelle would often lie out and bask, giving her a deep all-over tan. She kicked off her cutoffs and Maureen stood to embrace her.
"I should have come to see you sooner, I know," Maureen admitted, burying her face in Michelle's maligned and unmaintained bob. "I was having trouble thinking straight. Sorting everything out. I'm sorry, I am, it must have been a real bitch for you here in town."
"They were gonna tear the place down," Michelle said, barely audibly. It was easier to say without having to meet Maureen's eyes. "Not productive enough. They were gonna put in a warehouse." She laughed shrilly, with a strong edge of hysteria, and hugged Maureen tighter. "You're filthy. We should take that shower."
It was unsettling to see Michelle allow herself to be so vulnerable; Maureen couldn't bring herself to tease her for it, walking Michelle to the bathroom instead. It wasn't luxurious but at least the ceiling was a little higher, and Maureen wouldn't have to duck. A peek at the towel rod reassured Maureen that they wouldn't have to wander around naked and drenched after the shower, and started fiddling with the faucets, trying to hit the narrow sweet spot between freezing and scalding. The familiar jug with the blue label covered in tiny white print was still perched on the edge of the bathtub. Maureen chuckled internally; she was going to smell like peppermint again. Finally the shower settled on a comfortable temperature and Maureen stepped in, taking Michelle by the hand with a little tug.
"Let's see if there's a person under this grime," Michelle said, as if the grime hadn't come from doing hard work on her behalf. She poured some of the liquid soap from the jug and started lathering Maureen up, enjoying the way she giggled at the soap's peppermint tingle. "Oh man, your hair really is filthy." Michelle frowned; Maureen usually took good care of her hair and it couldn't be a positive sign for her to have been neglecting it - not that Michelle had been keeping up with her own hair.
"Are you ever going to just get a bar of soap and a bottle of shampoo?" Michelle had used the 'all in one' liquid soap for as long as Maureen had known her. She was used to it now, but still felt it was her duty to tease Michelle about it.
"This is all-natural," Michelle chided. "Better for your hair and skin. Rinse off, it's your turn to wash my hair."
"It makes me smell like doublemint gum," Maureen grumbled, gently lathering up Michelle's hair. "And it tingles in all the wrong places."
"What's wrong with mint?" Tipping her head back, Michelle relaxed into Maureen's touch. "And it makes me feel clean."
"You can be clean without reeking of mint." Maureen savored the smooth feel of Michelle's skin under her fingers; as lonely as she had been in the desert, Michelle was the only one she'd really missed. "I think you just buy it for the label."
"I like the label," Michelle said with a sniff, and changed the subject. "I'm going to grow my hair out. Bobs are over."
"Hmm." Maureen studied Michelle's hair as she lathered it. "What are you going to do about the streaks? Touch them up, dye over them, do your hair a whole new color? They're a mess as they are."
"I still have some of that nice teal," Michelle said distantly. "Not enough to do my whole head if I'm growing my hair out, but it looks good as streaks."
"I think I remember that teal." Maureen was a little worried; this was how Michelle acted when she was trying hard not to be upset and got a little detached from herself in the process. "Rinse time now, okay?" The timing was close to perfect; just as the last of the suds swirled down the drain, the hot water ran out, making both women yelp under the freezing spray. Michelle hurriedly turned the water off as Maureen grabbed the towels. She handed one to Michelle and started towel-drying her hair. "Why don't you keep conditioner? My hair's gonna be all tangled again."
"So I'll comb it again." Michelle sounded a good deal more herself now; the cold water had shocked her out of her daze. "You can borrow one of my nightgowns." Maureen was the only person in Night Vale who knew of Michelle's fondness for white cotton eyelet nightgowns, and she knew better than to tell anyone.
"Does that mean I'm staying?" Maureen tried to keep her voice and her smile casual as she rubbed herself dry with Michelle's threadbare towel.
Michelle pulled a pair of nightgowns from her dresser and tossed one to Maureen. "Was there any doubt?" she asked, the fabric safely covering the warm look on her face as she spoke. Dipping her hand back in the drawer, she held up a tightly-rolled joint. "Have a smoke with me?"
Maureen laughed. "Where did you get that?"
"Traded it to Old Woman Josie for some old Mozart CDs. She grows a patch for her arthritis."
"Everyone knows that." Maureen rolled her eyes, but she was still laughing.
They curled up on Michelle's big mattress on the floor (Maureen knew full well she could afford an actual bed and was just having fun being 'bohemian') and lit up, passing the joint back and forth and staring at the ceiling, a mosaic of shattered CD shards glittering in the light of the bare bulb Michelle used for a lamp. For a long time they watched the shine of the reflections from the ceiling and just enjoyed the deep feeling of relaxation. It was Michelle who finally spoke.
"When I was in that... in the 'picnic'. I promised myself the first thing I would do would be to touch up my hair. But then when it was all over, I just couldn't bring myself to do it. Isn't that strange?"
Maureen knew better than to turn to face Michelle when she was letting herself be so open; it would be too much vulnerability for her. But she did take her hand. "I'll help you in the morning, if you want," she said, and took a deep breath. "When I was in that place. That weird desert. All I wanted was to come see you. But... when it was all over... I didn't know what to say." There was a long silence before they rolled to face each other. It was no time for word; they leaned in for a kiss as if it were choreographed.
She was a deep sleeper anyway, but Maureen slept especially deep after a dose of Old Woman Josie's finest. It took a clattering of pans in the loft's cramped kitchenette to rouse her. She rolled over to find a crumpled note on the pillow beside her (Gone to fetch breakfast, back soon -M) that was already out of date. It smelled like breakfast was eggs of some sort. The mattress creaked under her, and Michelle looked over her shoulder.
"You sleep like a dead thing," she snorted. "Why don't you take a shower before breakfast?"
Rolling her eyes, Maureen peeled off her borrowed nightgown and padded into the bathroom. There was a new bottle next to Michelle's jug of all-purpose liquid soap. The label was a lighter blue, covered in the same tiny, rambling text. Curious, she took a closer look at the label.
Dr. Bronner's Unscented Baby-Mild Castile Liquid Soap.
It seemed she had been invited to stay.