Never Say Thank You
Normally Conall had no problem whatsoever with tuning out his co-workers' incessant gossiping. It was all pointless chatter that had gotten on his nerves at first until he'd finally figured out how not to hear it, which had occasionally caused problems when someone called his name but for the most part it made life considerably more tolerable.
Today, however, the conversation managed to make its way past his self-imposed blocks and trickle into his brain to be processed. After a little while he looked up, frowning, and started paying actual attention.
"And she said the whole house looked like a professional cleaning crew had come in and done it top to bottom, only they hadn't heard a thing! How can someone sneak in and do all that and no one hear anything?"
"Don't forget the brownies. It happened to Georgia four days ago, and she told me there was a plate of hot brownies waiting for them when they woke up. They didn't touch them, of course, who knows what might be in them, but still! Brownies. How strange. Who does that?"
"I'm making Charles put extra locks on our doors this afternoon, just in case. I don't want any strange people sneaking around our house in the dead of the night. It's all harmless now, but you just wait. This is just build-up for whatever this creep is planning later."
"Oh, good idea, Alice. I'll get Fred to do that too."
Conall tuned them out again as their chatter turned to all the things they were going to do to keep out the nocturnal visitor going around town. They could take any extra precautions they wished, but he suspected it wouldn't do any good. Not if what he suspected was true.
Which of course it couldn't be. Such things didn't exist. There had to be some other rational explanation that didn't involve... childhood stories.
He spent the rest of the day trying to figure out who could have pulled off such a stunt, why, and how. He had a few working theories on the how by the time he got home, but the who and why eluded him. It was just too bizarre. The only explanation that made complete sense was the one he felt a fool just thinking about. There was no such thing as magic, or faeries. He was just clinging to memories of his childhood, of his parents, and their stories had always been bright and vivid and easy to remember, even now.
Somehow, telling himself that really didn't seem to help matters any. No matter what he did, he couldn't quite shake the feeling that it was all happening. All real. In the evening gloom, all of his careful theories on how such feats could be accomplished by ordinary humans seemed flimsy and dubious. Surely it couldn't hurt, just in case. No one had to know.
Feeling ten kinds of foolish, Conall filled a glass with milk and fetched a cupcake from the package he'd purchased yesterday, setting both out on the back porch before going to bed. So a few stray cats might enjoy the treat of milk, and maybe a raccoon might discover the cupcake, but there would be no real harm done. And it would let him sleep better to think that, if there really was a Brownie roaming about his town, it might appreciate the treat.
When he woke the next morning, Conall made it all the way to the bathroom before his sleepy brain caught up with the rest of him and he stared around in shock. Everything was spotlessly clean, right down to the hideously stained carpets he couldn't afford to replace yet. The bathroom practically sparkled, and when he stumbled wildly into the kitchen, it almost seemed to gleam.
Wide-eyed he unlocked and yanked open the back door, but both plate and cup were nowhere to be found. Slowly, hesitantly, he made his way back into the kitchen and opened cabinets, counting first his small collection of glasses, then his handful of thrift store plates. They were all there, every last one, including the ones he'd put outside the night before.
It seemed unreal, but the proof was staring him in the face. Someone had found his offering, gotten past the locked doors, and completely cleaned his entire house, all without him ever waking. Nothing human could do that.
But a faerie, that was a different matter entirely.
Conall went to work in something of a daze, going about his routine as best he could while his mind was still spinning with the implications of what he'd seen. It took Christine calling his name - from the exasperation in her voice probably not the second or even the third time she'd done so - before he finally returned to reality.
"Honestly, Conall. Head out of the clouds." Christine scowled at him. "Phone call. Dr. Brown. I'll take over your current client."
Nodding his thanks, Conall made his way into the back and picked up the phone. Really, at this point it was only a courtesy. He already knew what Dr. Brown wanted from him.
"Good morning, Doctor Brown."
"Conall, honestly, I've told you you can call me Kent. Can you come in? Got a couple scared ones. Almost took a chunk out of Kay when he got too close."
Conall rolled his eyes. Doctor Brown's assistant really needed to get his head checked. "I'm on my way, Doctor. Why don't you lock Kay in a closet or something until after I get there."
Doctor Brown chuckled. "Believe me, I'm considering it. Thanks."
"Sure." Conall hung up the phone and changed clothes, waving to the girls as he left the shop. Doctor Brown was one of the two veterinarians in town, probably the best in the whole county, and some of that could probably be attributed to his friendship with and willingness to call on Conall.
Which was in turn why people brought the problem cases to Doctor Brown, who then in turn wound up calling Conall again, and the cycle continued.
That was fine. Conall didn't mind. He liked being around the animals.
When he arrived at Doctor Brown's clinic, the secretary waved him through without so much as a blink. Conall liked her. The last one had always seemed so suspicious of him.
"Ah, Conall. There you are," Doctor Brown said cheerfully as he closed the examination room door behind him. "Good to see you, good to see you."
Conall murmured an absent greeting, heading straight for the three large carriers sitting up against the wall. He crouched down in front of one, peering inside.
It was a medium-sized dog, scruffy and underfed, with blood oozing down its hind leg from a long gash. Conall frowned, then unlatched the carrier door and swung it open, holding out his hand. "Here boy, c'mere." The dog eyed him uneasily for a long moment, then slowly limped out, sniffing his hand cautiously before licking it.
Conall smiled and reached up with his free hand to pet the animal's head. "I thought so. Let's get you fixed up, hmm?"
The dog blinked at him, but didn't make a protest as Conall lifted him up onto the table and convinced him to lie down. He whined faintly as Doctor Brown came near, but otherwise did nothing, watching Conall the entire time.
"I don't know how you do it," Doctor Brown said in amused awe as he administered both painkillers and sedatives. "That dog would have taken my arm off."
Conall shrugged diffidently. "Animals like me."
"That's putting it mildly," Doctor Brown observed, chuckling.
Two hours later Conall returned to work where his first task upon walking in the door was to calm Mrs. Peachly down from one of her tirades about how they weren't giving her poor Fluffles enough tender love and care while they groomed him. People like Mrs. Peachly drove Conall insane, and from the looks of it Fluffles felt the same way. Conall was certain that if he was Mrs. Peachly's dog, he'd be doing his best to die of mortification.
Mrs. Peachly dealt with, it was back to work as usual. One animal after another, wash and clean up, wash and clean up the rest of the shop as Marissa, Christine, and Alice weren't exactly what one would deem tidy, then at last it was time to go home.
Dinner was a microwave meal; he wasn't feeling up to attempting to cook. He pitched the empty carton in the garbage and was about to toss the plastic fork he'd used as well, then reconsidered. Slowly, feeling somewhat odd about what he was doing, he deliberately placed it in the sink instead. He took a step back, shook his head, then poured a glass of milk and got out another cupcake.
Rather than the porch, which was really too blatant a place once you actually had a Brownie in your house and weren't just inviting him, he found mostly-secluded corner of the kitchen that looked like it ought to fit a broom just fine. If he had a broom, anyway.
Still feeling rather silly that he was acting on old, fanciful stories, Conall changed out of his work clothes and went to bed.
The next morning the milk and cupcake were gone, as was the fork in the sink. It wasn't immediately obvious what had happened to it, as Conall tended to buy large bags of plastic silverware and wash them only when he felt like it, but all the bags seemed... neater, somehow, and not as full. Perplexed, Conall started opening all the drawers and cabinets in his kitchen, finally finding the missing pieces of plastic silverware tucked neatly away in a drawer and separated by delicately carved wooden dividers.
Conall blinked, closed the drawer, then opened it again. It hadn't changed. "Huh."
Shaking his head, a slight smile on his lips, Conall set about getting ready for work.
Every night he came home, set out his little gifts in various places around the house, and woke up to find everything neat and put away. It became something of a game for Conall to try to find the trickiest hiding places for his offerings, though the Brownie never seemed to have any difficulty whatsoever in finding them.
It was strange to know there was someone else in his house, but also somehow pleasant. He'd lived alone for so long, he'd gotten accustomed to the feeling of emptiness that tended to come with houses. This house, though, didn't really feel empty anymore.
The odd... whatever they had... continued on for weeks, no one really noticing anything different (although one or two had remarked that he seemed more cheerful) until one afternoon he got called out to a local stable to assist Doctor Brown with an injured horse.
The animal was clearly in pain when he arrived, as well as terrified. Doctor Brown was standing some distance away along with several other people that Conall assumed were the owners or proprietors. Dismissing them from his thoughts, he walked up confidently to the shivering horse, making quiet nonsense sounds. It trembled when he ran his hands down its nose, but quieted as the petting went on. Conall continued stroking down its neck and back, smiling to see the nervousness slowly bleeding out as the minutes went by.
Then there came a shout, a boy's piping soprano calling out "Mother!" and a small shape darted into the barn. The horse threw up its head, whinnying in fear, and kicked.
When the hoof connected, pain flared up bright in his body. When the momentum hurled him against the floor, the pain doubled for the brief moment he remained conscious before the blow to his head plunged him into darkness.
Spending most of a week in a hospital was something Conall never wanted to do again. All those people poking and prodding at him, all the pain in the air, the suffering, it was with a sense of profound relief that he finally hobbled through the door to his own home. It was quiet, it was peaceful, and it was his.
He'd made it all the way to his bedroom before he remembered the Brownie. He'd been gone a week; was the faerie upset that Conall hadn't been here to set out its treats? But then, they weren't really supposed to be for the Brownie lest the Brownie interpret them as thanks and be offended. But it was their game, and the only link Conall really had to the mysterious creature, and he didn't want to give that up. For his own sake and not just the Brownie's.
So he hobbled back out to the kitchen, awkward on the light aluminum crutches he'd been given, managing to get the door to the refrigerator open mostly by luck. He managed to get the milk, but when he went to turn to set it on the counter he unbalanced himself, body twisting, crutches tangling with his arms and legs, and the last thing he saw before darkness claimed him was the edge of the countertop rushing up to meet his head.
He had no way of telling how long he remained unconscious, though the sky outside the windows was still dark when he came to. He was still in the kitchen, apparently on the floor, but his head seemed to be propped on something more forgiving than the hard tile of the floors and there was a soft cloth pressed to his head. Dazed, Conall managed to tip his head back far enough to take in messy brown hair and eyes that seemed to be pitch black.
As well as a pair of delicately pointed ears poking out through the mussed hair.
Conall smiled up at the Brownie, then closed his eyes and let himself pass out again.
Waking up slightly disoriented seemed to be becoming the norm rather than the exception. There was daylight seeping in through his windows, from the angle of it he judged it to be mid morning. He was also in his own room, in his own bed, though he had no recollection of how he'd gotten there. The last thing he remembered was being in the kitchen, and falling, and then-
Conall blinked and sat up as the aroma of hot food wafted by him. There was a lovely little portable side table that he'd never seen before in his life sitting by the edge of his bed and holding a plate of eggs, toast, jam, and those little seasoned potatoes he was particularly fond of. He stared at it for a moment before carefully reaching out to pick up a potato slice and pop it into his mouth, fairly humming in pleasure. Perfect.
He made short work of the rest of his breakfast, savoring every last bite, until he had to reluctantly conclude that licking the plate would be rather silly. Still, he'd never had a better breakfast before in his life. Chuckling softly, he added cooking to the list of things Brownies did better than anyone else.
Though he was tempted to get up and take the dishes back to the kitchen, memories of last night's fiasco convinced him that he didn't really want to make that kind of attempt just yet. Instead, he managed to successfully retrieve a book from his bookcase and curled up with it, getting all of about two chapters before nodding off again.
The next time he woke breakfast was gone, and lunch was waiting in its place. A sandwich of some kind that Conall couldn't readily identify, but the tentative bite he took tasted excellent just the same. His gaze flicked from the sandwich to the windows, eyeing the bright afternoon sun outside.
"Huh," he mused aloud. "I thought Brownies couldn't function during the day..."
He nearly jumped out of his skin when someone responded.
"Not couldn't, don't."
Conall jerked his head around to stare at the man leaning casually in the doorway. He wasn't overly tall, shorter than Conall for sure, and seemed almost painfully thin beneath his patched and worn clothing. His hair appeared somewhat tousled, as though he'd been out in a strong wind, but it was the eyes that caught him. Black, even in the light of the day.
"Brownie..." Conall found himself breathing in surprise.
The Brownie rolled his eyes and crossed his arms. "How very astute of you. Eat your lunch."
Stifling a laugh, Conall obeyed, never taking his eyes from the lean figure in the doorway. Faerie. There was a faerie in his house. Watching him. Watching over him. It seemed so unreal.
When he finished his sandwich he licked his fingers to be sure he'd gotten every last taste, and the Brownie made a muffled sound. Conall peered at him curiously, watching the way the corners of the Brownie's mouth were twitching. Was the man laughing at him?
Smiling sheepishly, Conall gave a last lick to his fingers. "I'm sure my manners are atrocious," he said apologetically, "But it's been a long time since I've had actual good food." He sighed in pleasure, briefly closing his eyes to savor the feeling.
Opening them again, Conall started to find the Brownie at his bedside, leaning over him. Long fingers darted out to the bandage wrapped around Conall's head (and he couldn't remember that getting there either, so he supposed the Brownie must have done it after he hit his head) and carefully unwound the cloth before replacing it with a fresh one. That accomplished the Brownie yanked up the side of the bedcovers and Conall yelped before realizing that the Brownie was simply examining his cast.
With a slight nod the Brownie stepped back, letting the coverings fall back into place. "Mending," the Brownie announced, turning and walking firmly toward the door.
Conall blinked. "Wait!"
The Brownie paused, turning around to eye him cautiously.
Conall put on his best smile, the one he normally reserved for particularly skittish animals. "What's your name?" he asked.
The Brownie stood there for a moment, considering, then shook his head. "Not yet," he said. "I'll tell you later."
Before Conall could do more than open his mouth to protest, the Brownie was gone. No smoke, no flash of light, just... gone. Conall stared at the spot where he'd been for a long minute, then settled back into bed, smiling.
He didn't see the Brownie the next day, or the day after, or the day after that. When he went into the doctor's office for a check-up on his leg, the doctor was baffled by the fact that Conall's leg appeared to be mending faster than anything he'd ever seen. He ran four more tests to make sure the first one hadn't lied before finally giving up and declaring Conall was going to have the fastest recovery time in all the years he'd been practicing.
Conall privately wondered if perhaps his Brownie might have something to do with it, but something about that thought rang false. Brownies were house faeries. They cleaned and sewed and did chores. Healing broken bones was a little outside of their area of expertise. Though he'd never heard of a Brownie cooking for someone before either, so he supposed anything was possible.
The worst part of being injured and unable to work, however, was anticipating what was going to be waiting for him when he got back. He dropped by the shop one day to say hello and could barely refrain from wincing at the mess that had accumulated during his absense. He excused himself as soon as he could to return to his nice, tidy home, made even nicer by the presence of the Brownie.
"They really are nice people," he said aloud to the air, never knowing if the Brownie was listening or not but pretending he was all the same, "They just wouldn't know cleanliness if it hit them upside the head. It's going to be a disaster by the time I get back." He grimaced, then sighed as he changed for bed. "And poor Doctor Brown. He feels so guilty for what happened to me, but it really was an accident. I hope he doesn't call me less just because of it. If he's got a frightened animal and I'm not there, there's more of a chance that someone will get hurt."
He fretted over it until sleep stilled his thoughts, waking only to the incessant ringing of his phone. Still groggy, it took him several blindly groping attempts before he could manage to pick it up.
"Conall! Conall, the night burglar snuck into the shop last night!"
He blinked slowly, trying to figure out what Christine was telling him. "Night burglar?" he echoed. "What'd he steal, grooming brushes? Flea shampoo?"
"He didn't steal anything," Christine said, hysterical and yet still slightly exasperated with him. "He cleaned it. There's even brownies on the cash register! I thought he only snuck into houses!"
Conall blinked again, biting his lip to keep from laughing. When he felt he could safely speak without giving away his mirth, he shifted into the tone of voice he used on spooked animals. "Christine, listen to me, it's okay. It's probably just a practical joke by someone who's seen how messy the shop gets and decided to play with our heads. He didn't take anything, and no one was there last night, so no harm done, right?"
Christine hesitated, and Conall could almost see her biting her lip. "I... I guess..." she said doubtfully.
"It'll be fine," Conall said warmly. "I'll be back in a couple more weeks and I'll make sure it's so spotless that there'll be nothing dirty enough to clean, okay?"
"Okay," Christine replied, sounding a little more confident. "Hope you come back soon, Conall. We all miss you."
Conall smiled. "I hope so too, Christine. Now go, you've only got about ten minutes before the shop opens, and it's the first Wednesday of the month."
He could almost hear Christine grimace. "Ugh. Marie Perkinset. Bye Conall."
Conall chuckled. "Bye, Christine." He carefully replaced the receiver in its cradle, then slowly looked up at the doorway to his room where the Brownie was standing, watching him.
Conall promptly doubled over in laughter.
"What is so funny?" the Brownie demanded, arching one brow.
"Nothing," Conall managed around his chortles. "I just wish I could have seen her face when she walked in." He managed to get himself more or less under control and met the Brownie's eyes, laughter still thick in his voice. "Maybe it will convince those three to be neater if they think you'll come back if they let it get that messy again."
The Brownie snorted. "Not likely. Have you seen their houses?"
Conall shuddered theatrically. "No, and I don't want to. The shop gets bad enough." He eyed the Brownie for a long moment, then smiled. "So, do I get to know your name now?" he asked.
The Brownie's lips quirked up in the faintest semblance of a smile. "Not yet," he said, and disappeared.
All of the changes the Brownie had made endlessly fascinated Conall. His entire kitchen had been reorganized, and he was amused to realize that he had a much easier time remembering where everything was than he ever could before, despite the fact that he'd been living with the old organization for two years and the new one only a matter of days.
The changes to the other rooms were fairly minor, aside from his closet and dresser. Why the Brownie had felt the need to sort his clothing (his socks had been color coded) he couldn't fathom. But it amused him none the less.
When he'd bought this house, he'd never been quite sure why he bothered. It had always felt empty. Lifeless. Now, for the first time, it finally felt like a Home and not merely a house.
He was exploring a cabinet full of odd things he wasn't sure if he recognized or not when there came a knock at the front door. Conall hobbled his way to the front room, unlocking the door and awkwardly maneuvering himself out of the way before pulling it open.
Conall started. "Jared."
Jared smiled, the expression still as devastatingly handsome as it had always been. "Conall. Heard you had a nasty accident." His eyes flicked down the length of Conall's crutches, expression turning concerned. "You okay?"
"I'm fine," Conall replied, forced to shift awkwardly out of the way as Jared stepped inside.
"Hey, you got the carpets done," Jared observed, wandering in farther. "Nice. What else have you changed?"
Conall hurridly closed the door, limping after Jared as well as he could. The man wandered down the hallway, poking his head into rooms, and stopped dead upon reaching the kitchen. Conall winced.
Jared turned around slowly, his eyes narrowed. "You didn't do this."
"New boyfriend?" Jared asked casually, a dangerous edge to his words. "Must be pretty serious if he's cleaning house for you."
Conall shook his head. "There's no one, Jared."
"You did not do all this yourself," Jared said darkly. "I know you, Conall. Now tell me, who did this?"
Wincing again, Conall drew in a deep breath. "It... you know that story that's been going around town? Of the person who sneaks in at night and cleans people's houses? Well it's not really a person sneaking in, it's a Brownie."
"Brownie," Jared repeated flatly.
"It's a kind of faerie," Conall explained. "They only come by night and they clean and do chores and-"
"Fairy," Jared sneered, cutting him off. "That's a lame excuse, even for you Conall. I'm not stupid."
He stormed toward Conall, lashing out and backhanding him across the face. Conall lost his balance, crutches skittering out from beneath him and he fell with a startled cry. This time he didn't hit his head on the way down, but that really didn't make it hurt any less.
"Who is he?!" Jared demanded, standing over him furiously. "Tell me, Conall!" He leaned down, drawing back a hand to hit him again, then yelped as he was suddenly yanked backwards away from Conall and pinned to a wall. By nothing. "What the...?"
Before Jared could get the rest of his sentence out, what seemed to be every single knife Conall owned, plastic ones and all, flew out of the kitchen and hovered menacingly in the air before Jared.
Jared swore quietly.
"I suggest you leave," a quiet, deathly calm voice announced into the stunned silence. "Before I lose my temper."
Conall and Jared both jerked their gaze toward where the Brownie was standing, though he certainly hadn't been there only moments before. His expression seemed calm, but there was an odd gleam in his dark eyes that made Conall want to shiver.
Apparently, Jared felt the same way. He inched slowly down the wall, his eyes fixed on the flotilla of flying knives, nearly tripping over the rug at several points. When he finally reached the main room he turned and bolted, fleeing in such haste that he failed to close the front door behind him.
The Brownie walked over to the door and closed it before returning to carefully inspect Conall's new bruises before helping him up. "Nasty," he clucked in annoyance, "But at least they'll mend easy."
That reminded him. "You haven't by any chance been doing something to make me heal faster?" he asked. "The doctor says it's unreal how fast my leg has been knitting."
The Brownie gave him a funny look. "No, our magic is not designed for such things. That is all your doing."
Conall blinked, feeling more than a little bit confused. "My doing? What do you mean?"
The Brownie smiled mysteriously. "If you do not already know, then it is not my place to tell. Now come, you are going back to bed before you invite more trouble inside." He helped Conall back to his room, telling him quite firmly to stay there this time.
Conall smiled slowly. "I will, if you'll tell me your name."
For a moment the Brownie hesitated, then he straightened his shoulders. "It's Niven."
Conall smiled. "Th-" He stopped, cringing inwardly at what he'd almost done. Never thank a Brownie. That was the number one rule regarding them. If you ever thank a Brownie, they'll leave for good. His smile softened as he met Niven's suspiscious gaze. "I think I love you," he said instead.
Niven blinked, dark eyes going wide as he stared at Conall. His lips moved soundlessly, then he turned and bolted out the door.
Conall didn't see his Brownie again, though the house remained spotless, until after the cast came off. His doctor remained utterly baffled at the speed with which Conall had healed, muttering about how that shouldn't be possible. Laughing, Conall had told him it was faerie magic.
"It's something, all right," Doctor Michaels replied, shaking his head even as he wrote Conall a clean bill of health.
Going back to work was a pleasant surprise as well, as the shop, while not exactly neat, was considerably less messy than he'd expected. It took every ounce of willpower he possessed not to snicker as the girls greeted him, pointing out all that they'd done to keep the 'evil night brigand' away. While the shop might be clean by their standards, Niven would likely take one look and sigh in disgust.
Three days later he'd finished cleaning up the rest of the shop and had fallen back into his usual routine when Marissa informed him he had a phone call. Conall smiled. Looked like it really was back to business as usual.
"Ah, Conall, I didn't... I hope... That is..." He could just picture the faces Doctor Brown was making on the other end of the line. "How are you?"
Conall chuckled. "Well enough to do whatever it is you're trying to avoid asking me to do," he replied.
Doctor Brown sighed in defeat. "I didn't really want to call you in so soon, but I've got quite the problem on my hands. Someone brought in an injured eagle and I can't get near it to see what the problem is. And the nearest trained falconer is over a day's travel away."
Conall winced. No wonder the vet had called him. "It's okay, Doctor. I'll be there in a few."
The relief in Doctor Brown's voice was obvious. "Thank you, Conall."
Conall smiled. "No problem Doc."
As usual, it only took a minute before the bird was fairly preening beneath his hands. She seemed utterly oblivious to her broken wing, even when Doctor Brown splinted and wrapped it. Conall wished he had something to feed her, but he doubted Doctor Brown kept rodents on hand to feed to chance stray birds of prey.
Once he got her all settled and sleeping, Conall looked up to find Doctor Brown eyeing him the same way Doctor Michaels had before. Bafflement and a measure of awe.
"I really don't know how you do it, Conall," Doctor Brown said, shaking his head. "It's like you're more animal than human, sometimes."
Conall laughed, ignoring the faint spark of unease that the vet's words inspired. "Guess I should've had you treat that broken leg, huh?" he teased.
As expected, Doctor Brown laughed before thanking him again and sending him on his way. Conall thought about what the vet had said the entire way home trying to make sense out of his confusion. All his life he'd been exceptionally good with animals; now apparently he healed amazingly fast, and supposedly Niven had nothing to do with it. Certainly Niven hadn't been around for as long as Conall had been working with skittish and frightened animals.
He was still puzzling over the problem as he let himself inside, making it three steps into the kitchen before stopping.
Niven was waiting for him, leaning up against one of the counters.
"What am I?" Conall asked, apprehensively.
Niven shrugged. "Human," he replied. "Mostly."
Conall tensed. "Mostly?"
Niven shrugged again. "There's faerie blood in you. Faint, but it's there. Several generations back, I'd guess."
Conall stared at him for a long moment before speaking. "Faerie blood."
Niven's lips quirked. "It happens. One of the Fae dallies with a mortal, an offspring results, and the blood is passed on down the generations. It's not common by any means, but it happens." He gestured around the kitchen. "Haven't you ever wondered why all your silverware is plastic?"
"More convenient..." Conall said slowly.
Niven snorted. "Less iron. We Brownies have a better tolerance for iron than most of faerie, as we work so closely with humans, but the others tend to shun the stuff as best they can." His lips quirked again. "Even those who are more human than Fae."
"But... I..." Conall stopped, gesturing helplessly. What was he supposed to say to that? All evidence indicated there was something strange about him, and it would certainly explain all the stories his parents had told him before they'd died. Still... Fae?
"I'm not going to suddenly sprout pointed ears, am I?" he asked warily.
Niven stared at him for so long that Conall was afraid he'd offended the Brownie, then the man doubled over, his shoulders shaking in silent mirth. Conall waited patiently until Niven could stand up straight again, grinning sheepishly. "It's a valid question..."
Which only started Niven off again. "You... oh!" When his giggles ceased a second time, he looked at Conall and grinned. "No, you aren't going to spontaneously gain Fae features. Just because you know what you are now doesn't change what you've always been." His smile turned mischievous. "Besides, I rather like your hair, and I've never known one of the faerie with red hair before."
Conall reached up rather self-consciously and ran a hand through his hair. It was getting long again. He really needed to cut it. "My mother had red hair," he said, trying not to sound defensive. From the way Niven's nose crinkled up in amusement, he'd obviously failed.
"I didn't say there was anything wrong with it," Niven pointed out. "Humans, always so tetchy."
Conall arched a brow. "We have nothing on certain faeries who storm off at the slightest sign of gratitude," he refuted.
Niven grimaced. "It's demeaning. No properly modest creature should ever desire thanks," he shuddered, "for the doing of simple tasks."
Conall rolled his eyes. "De-staining that nasty excuse for carpet isn't exactly what I'd call simple."
"Pish." Niven waved a hand. "Child's play. Those swine you call co-workers, on the other hand, those might require a modicum of effort."
Conall arched a brow. "So my house bores you?"
Niven smirked. "Well you're hardly a challenge, all on your own."
"So why stay?" Conall asked curiously.
That actually seemed to surprise Niven, who took a moment to recover his cocky smirk. "You invited me."
"I..." Conall blinked. "Oh. The milk."
"It would be even better with honey," Niven suggested, dark eyes almost appearing to shine.
Conall laughed. "Faeries can have sweet tooths?"
Niven sniffed indignantly. "Now he insults me. How rude."
Conall watched him posture for a moment, trying not to think about Niven and honey at the same time, and what he'd like to do with that honey instead of put it in milk. It was a battle he seemed to be rapidly losing.
Visibly losing, if the odd way Niven was eyeing him was any indication. "Ah... I think I forgot what we were talking about," he admitted sheepishly.
Niven snorted and rolled his eyes. "Then obviously it's time for you to sleep, before you forget anything important." He pointed down the hall imperiously.
Hiding a snicker at the Brownie's officious manner, Conall obediently complied.
Conall spent most of his shift the next day pondering faeries. He started paying attention to the way the animals behaved around him as opposed to around others; the girls had always complained that he never got the unruly ones, but now he realized it was actually his... what? faerie-ness? (what was the proper phrasing for that anyway?) that caused the animals to behave themselves around him.
On a whim, at lunch, he went out behind the building and looked up at the sky. It was clear, sunny, with a few birds flying overhead. Perfect. Conall pursed his lips and whistled, concentrating on what he wanted. There was just long enough of a delay that he thought it wasn't going to work, then one, two, five wild birds swooped down out of the air to land on his shoulders and in his hair. One hopped down his arm to examine his fingers, then turned to cheep inquisitively at him.
Laughter bubbled up inside. Oh, this was wonderful!
"Well, well," a voice sneered. "Look what we have here."
Conall's blood froze; he sent the birds away quickly, not wanting them to be too close if Jared did anything. He turned slowly, trying to convince his heart not to beat quite so loud. "Jared."
His ex strode toward him calmly, his eyes cold. "I didn't like that little stunt you pulled, Conall. It wasn't very nice."
Conall took a step back. "I didn't do-"
"Liar!" Jared snapped, reaching out and backhanding him across the face. Conall managed to keep his feet, only swaying a bit at the sting.
"I'm not lying! It was the-"
"Fairy?" Jared sneered. "I'm not stupid, Conall. There's no such thing. Just stupid whores and their sad little replacement lovers." His nose scrunched up in disgust. "Your taste certainly has gotten abysmal."
Conall grit his teeth at the implied insult to Niven, regardless of the fact the Brownie wasn't actually his lover. "Actually, I'd say my taste has gotten considerably better," he retorted.
He was expecting Jared's swing this time and was able to dodge it. Of course, that only infuriated Jared all the more, and in moments Conall found himself unable to do anything more than dodge as best he could and try not to get anything broken - or worse. His parents were proof that faerie healing magic had its limits, after all.
Unfortunately Conall had never been much of a fighter and Jared had both size and strength on his side. Eventually he found himself on his ass on the ground, his lip bleeding and other areas aching. He stared defiantly up at Jared, who loomed over him threateningly. Jared looked furious, far worse than Conall had ever seen him before.
"You would dare-" he spat, kicking Conall in the side. "When I get done with you you're gonna-"
The rest of his threat was lost as Jared crumpled to the ground. Niven stared dispassionately down at him, looking very strange by the harsh light of the sun. "Did your mother never tell you not to anger one of the fair folk?" he asked Jared's unconscious body. "You are lucky we are in the new land, else I would call the Wild Hunt down upon you."
Without a second glance, Niven stepped around Jared's prone form and reached down to offer Conall a hand. Conall took it gratefully, feeling every single new bruise as he levered himself to his feet.
"Thanks, Niven," he said, testing his lip and wincing. "That could have been really bad if you hadn't come..." He broke off upon catching sight of the strange expression on the Brownie's face, sad and a little hurt. Hastily he ran over what he'd said, swearing aloud as he realized he'd thanked a Brownie.
"I'm sorry," Conall said quickly. "I didn't mean-"
But it was apparently too late, for Niven vanished into thin air before Conall could finish the apology.
Life went on, though Conall didn't really notice. He went through all the right motions through sheer force of habit, lost to a state of bleak numbness. A few of the girls and Doctor Brown asked if he was all right; he didn't know what to say. How did he explain that he'd lost something he hadn't really had the chance to have, through his own monumental stupidity?
He had no one he could talk to, and nothing to talk about.
He came home to an empty house every evening; it felt so much emptier than it ever had before. Every day he dragged his feet more and more, inventing excuses to stay at work so he wouldn't have to go back to that cold, lifeless house. Finally, about the time he was contemplating putting a cot in the file room, Conall gave up and put the house up for sale.
He would never be happy there again.
Instead he found a new place, a small, simple apartment on the other side of town. Half of his things wouldn't fit; he sold them without a single regret. Watching it go, looking at what remained, Conall smiled sadly to see how true Niven's words had been. All wood, plastic, cloth. A few bits of aluminum and bronze. He really had been avoiding iron all his life without ever even realizing it.
He kept the little wooden side table beside his bed in the new apartment, suspecting that Niven had made it himself. Certainly it bore no maker's mark or any obvious sign of having been produced by mortal hands. For all its simplicity, it was beautiful.
Listlessly he roamed around, most of his things still packed. His wandering steps took him to the kitchen, still virtually untouched, and on an impulse he opened the nearest box. Neat rows of plastic silverware stared back at him, snug in their little tray.
Conall stared at them for what seemed an eternity, seeing them but not. Reminders everywhere. Reminders of Niven. He swallowed.
What could it hurt?
Resolutely he got out a glass, opening the fridge before realizing he had no cupcakes. No cupcakes, but maybe...
Conall flung open cabinets, pulling out flour, soda, sugar. It was too late to buy cupcakes, but that didn't mean he couldn't make his own. Maybe not a very good one, it had been years since he'd baked, but he could at least try.
The hours stretched on into the night. The cake went into the oven and came back out again. It wasn't the prettiest thing he'd ever seen, but it would work. All it needed was a little frosting.
His first attempt slid right off the cake as the frosting melted. Not giving up, Conall set everything aside and waited for it to cool. While he was waiting the empty glass, forgotten in his rush to make cake, caught his attention.
Milk... and honey.
Smiling wistfully, Conall filled the glass with milk, then got out the small bottle of honey he'd purchased at the store when by chance it had caught his gaze. He drizzled a bit into the glass, stirring slowly, watching the contents go around and around and around.
It was still dark out when he blinked bleary eyes open, his face sore where it had been pressed against the countertop. Slowly he sat up, trying to figure out what had woken him. The cake should be cool by now - only it wasn't where he'd left it.
Whirling around frantically, Conall's heart leapt into his throat as he stopped and stared. He had to still be asleep. He couldn't possibly be seeing...
"Niven..." he managed to choke out. "I thought... you couldn't come back, after..."
Niven smiled faintly and shrugged before gesturing around them. "It's a new house. Besides, you've got faerie blood. That ought to give you some immunity, don't you think?"
It took a few moments for the words to process, so certain was Conall that what he saw was only a product of his wishful imagination, then he reached out tentatively toward the Brownie. His fingers met soft cloth, a warm arm, solid. Real.
With a rough sound he yanked Niven into his arms, putting all his misery, longing, and desire into a single, desperate kiss. What he got back was an intensity at least as strong as his own, the Brownie wrapping his arms around Conall's neck and kissing back with almost a desperation, as if it had been Conall who had vanished into thin air.
"You-" Conall started, only to have his words swallowed in the heat of Niven's mouth as the Brownie kissed him again, hot and hard and near-overwhelming. He moaned, muffled by the press of Niven's mouth, as there was suddenly entirely too much of his body pressing against Niven's.
Then the touch was gone, the kiss ended, and Niven's hands were tangled with his own as the Brownie drew him one step at a time toward the bedroom. Once they were close enough, Niven spun them around and shoved hard, Conall tumbling onto his bed with a startled yelp.
Before he even had time to process the tumble Niven was straddling him, leaning down to take another searing kiss before sitting up again, looking wild and fey as he stared down at Conall.
"You're beautiful." Conall said the first thing that came to mind.
Niven blinked at him, those impossibly dark eyes, then his lips quirked up in a half smile. "I must disagree." He ran one finger lightly along the side of Conall's face. "You are the beautiful one. Brownies such as myself are rather plain compared with the rest of the fair folk."
Conall stilled. Brownies... how could he have forgotten?
Swallowing, Conall caught Niven's gaze. "If I mess up and thank you again," he asked carefully, "Are you going to disappear?"
Black eyes blinked once, then a slow smile spread across Niven's face. "You almost thanked me once before, but you said something else instead." He leaned closer until their noses were almost touching. "Why don't you just say that?" he suggested impishly.
For a moment Conall was confused, trying to remember what Niven was talking about, then memory surfaced. He flushed, dropping his gaze, fighting an embarrassed smile as he licked his lips slowly. Haltingly he brought his eyes back up to meet Niven's, drawing in a deep breath.
"I love you," Conall said softly.
Niven smiled, a slow, sultry one that made him look absolutely breathtaking regardless of his own opinion on the matter, and set about divesting Conall of all his clothing as he leaned in for yet another bruising kiss.