Title: Milk and Brownies
Rating: T, so far
Genre: Fantasy, romance, general
Warnings: Eventual m/m slash, probable fluff, spelling/grammar mistakes (as this is unbeta-d)
The matches were a mistake, Hugo admitted to himself as another one snapped in half. If he had known how flimsy the little matchbook matches were, he wouldn't have bothered stealing them from the Westmont Motel lobby. He would've just lifted a little food from the complementary continental breakfast buffet (only the wheat bagels that no one else wanted to eat anyways, because he wasn't a bad person, just a poor one) and bought a lighter from the general store next door.
"Hugo, you're an idiot," he told himself. But it just hadn't made sense to buy a lighter at the time, not when there were free matches just waiting to be taken. It hurt enough to watch his last few twenties dwindle into petty change to buy the second-hand tent he couldn't quite get to stay up by itself and the packets of instant ramen he wouldn't be able to cook if he couldn't boil the damned water.
His father would've told him to view it as a learning experience.
"Lesson learned, dad," the young man muttered to himself. "Camping sucks."
Hugo tried to strike another match. It snapped. He threw it into the growing pile, which held the little corpses of three books lying in the dirt.
The young man groaned in frustration. "If you'd ever taken me camping, I would've known better, dad," he hissed at the empty woods around him. Hugo paused. "No disrespect to the dead," he added.
A drop of water fell from the sky and made a tiny pat on the leafy canopy above Hugo's head. Hugo snorted. "Great," he muttered, tossing his firewood sticks on the ground. A second drop fell through the tree cover and landed on his holey sneaker. A moment later, the bottom dropped out of the sky and the clouds began pouring water into the woods.
"Screw this. I'm going to Dean's," Hugo declared. His half-collapsed tent took a few fumbling minutes to pack up into a duffle bag. He pulled an old tarp he'd fished from a dumpster out of his book bag and draped it over himself and his two bags. Hugo hated having to carry everything he owned with him when he went to town, but he didn't trust his non-sense of direction to get him back to where he left it, and he couldn't afford to replace anything he lost.
Looking back on it, Hugo decided that he was a pretty spectacular idiot. He'd left the relative financial security of his aunt and uncle to rely on non-existent survival skills and the unrealized belief that he'd be able to find a job and support himself. Stupidly optimistic, Hugo had thought he could just camp out in the woods for a few weeks while he searched for a job and made enough money to rent out an apartment.
He had blame for his aunt and uncle, too, for living in such a podunk county like Westmont. A city would've had a youth hostel or a shelter he could've stayed at. But Westmont wasn't a city, and it didn't want vagrants and runaways staying and settling there. Westmont was comprised of tiny tight-knit communities, and an outsider had no chance of getting hired when everyone had a cousin or a friend of the family to fill the job.
Hugo might have used his Uncle Bryan's connections to get a job at the local power plant, or gone to work with Aunt Kate at the Willow Park Day Care Center, but those bridges had been mutually burned.
Reflecting, Hugo decided he could have worked a little harder on his end to get along with his relatives.
He trudged along in the rain, huddled under his tarp. Damp leaves and mud stuck to his sneakers, oozing in through the holes in his soles.
If Uncle Bryan and Aunt Kate had only shown a little understanding, Hugo thought, they could have worked past their differences and he wouldn't have had half of the Faydale forest floor seeping into his socks. But they looked down on every decision he made, tried to change him to be a mirror image of their own perfect children. Bryan wanted him to invest the little money Victor Harper had saved before his untimely death. Hugo had considered his uncle's advice, but decided not to follow it. He used it to pay for his father's funeral. It was his father's money, after all, and Hugo wanted his dad to have a respectable resting place.
Aunt Kate scoffed when Hugo ignored acceptance letters from prestigious schools in favor of the local community college. He just wanted to stay nearby the library, the one place he liked in the whole of Westmont County; he volunteered there in his free time, and the head librarian had promised to use his connections to get Hugo an internship. Besides, if Kate and Bryan always had 'secret' whispered conversations about how having a third child in the house drained their budget, why would he accept admissions to a school that would cost double the amount of WCCC?
Hugo's coming out wasn't the reason he'd been told to leave. That was only the straw that broke the horse's back. His relatives had never liked him, only tolerating him because his long-dead mother had once been Kate's black-sheep sister. When his twenty-first birthday came and passed quietly, and Bryan had joked at the dinner table that Hugo spent too much time at the library, because he was twenty-one and had never dated a girl, Hugo didn't lie or change the subject. His father had taught him that honesty was the best policy.
"I don't like girls," he had told his uncle quietly. He took a sip of lemonade and waited for his flabbergasted uncle to respond.
The thick canopy of trees and the heavy rain clouds blocked the sunlight out almost completely. Hugo stopped walking, sat his backpack down on a fallen rock, and fished out his flashlight. Its beam of light shot forward, creating a small tunnel of light. Hugo shouldered his pack and continued walking toward Dean's roadside diner. At least, he was pretty sure he was walking the right way. Left led back to Westmont, right led to Faydale, the small town in Hauntswood County where Hugo bought supplies. Unless he'd gotten turned around in the dark…which was entirely possible.
Hugo headed right. In all the old legends he read at his library, the hero always took the right path, never the left. Once he found his way out of the woods, he could reorient himself and find Dean's place. He was sure the little restaurant had a real name, but he couldn't decipher the worn wooden sign that displayed it, and he didn't want to ask and look stupid. Dean already thought he was a starving runaway teenager; Hugo wanted to avoid adding the impression that he couldn't read.
The young man supposed he could just give up on worrying about Dean's expectations of him. He'd already begged food off of Dean three times since he'd left his uncle's house two weeks earlier. The grizzled old man had taken to checking the back entrance to see if Hugo was there before he threw away food around closing time. Even when he tried to work things out on his own, he ended up on the diner's porch, usually sopping wet and hungry like he was tonight. Like he would be tonight, once he found his way out of the woods.
The fallen stump Hugo shone his light on looked an awful lot like the one he'd passed five minutes earlier. 'It's dark and rainy. They all look the same when it's dark and rainy,' he assured himself.
The muddy size 7 1/2 shoe prints beside the log didn't look all the same, though. They were definitely Hugo's, and definitely more full of rain and mud than his more recent footprints.
"Crap," he muttered to himself. He shone his flashlight around the fallen tree, looking for anything familiar that might point the way out of the forest.
The beam of light shone defiantly against the darkness for a moment before faltering. It flickered a few times, fighting bravely to keep Hugo's path lit. But whether due to battery failure or water damage, the light fizzled out, leaving Hugo in the pitch blackness of the forest with rain beating down on his tarp not quite loudly enough to cover his frustrated groan.
Rain-slicked hands groped blindly ahead of him, feeling for trees and brambles to step around with his halting baby-steps. Hugo knew he'd never make it to Dean's in the dark. The best he could hope for would be somewhere dry to set up his ramshackled tent to wait out the storm. Streams of water flowed down every tree trunk he felt, though, and he'd never seen any sort of rocky ledges or caves in the light, much less stumbling in the dark.
"I hate my life," Hugo proclaimed to the dripping forest around him. "I hate it. It sucks."
The forest's response came in the form of an upturned root, which Hugo's ragged pants cuff hooked on to. He fell straight down into the leafy-mud soup of the forest floor, duffle bag, book bag, and all.
His eye-glasses protected his eyes, but his nose and mouth filled with mud. He stumbled up on his hands and knees and spat out as much as he could. He tilted his face up and let the driving rain rinse away the rest of the filth.
Once the mud and leaves dripped off, Hugo opened his eyes and saw a shimmering light in the distance that distorted with every new water drop that ran across his lenses. Hugo stood up. Mud and muck dripped off of his hands and knees, and his clothes were soaked up to his thighs and his elbows. He shivered.
In his weeks of camping, Hugo had never seen another person in the woods. He didn't know what sort of person he'd find at the light source, but he was just cold and wet and tired enough not to care. He pulled his tarp back in place and trudged slowly toward the light. He felt around stumps and roots and managed to keep his footing in the darkness. The going was slow, but eventually he found the supply of the light. A candle, flickering through a thick, old-fashioned glass window, illuminated the side of a small cabin.
Hugo could just make out the outline of a door on the front of the house. He knocked on it quickly, before he could talk himself out of it. He craned his head toward the door and listened as best he could through the wind and the rain. He thought he could hear feet shuffling over a floor and murmuring voices speaking indiscernibly.
After a few tense moments, the door inched open. Light flooded out of the tiny crack in the frame, silhouetting the face that peered out. Hugo couldn't make out the expression on the face with the light streaming in the wrong direction, but he smiled back at it just the same.
"Excuse me. Would you happen to have a place for me to stay for the night?" he asked, trying not to look too sopping wet and miserable. Guilt trips weren't really his thing.
The figure in the door didn't respond. A second head appeared in the shadows under the first.
Hugo's smile faltered a little, but he forced it back in place and offered, "I don't have much money, but I will pay you for your troubles."
The lower head turned up toward the higher in a silent conference. Neither spoke to Hugo.
"I swear I'm not a murderer or a convict or anything. I was just camping in the woods and I got caught in the storm. I'm-"
"Lost, completely harmless, and in need. We know," the top head cut him off impatiently.
"You couldn't be here if you weren't, dear," the lower figure added in a woman's voice.
"But what's a human boy like you doing in Faydale Forest to begin with?" The gruff voice of the top figure added. "You're not supposed to come to us!" he snorted.
Hugo blinked, confused. "I'll…I'll just be on my way, then," he whispered, and turned back towards the woods.
"Broom!" The female voice scolded. "We can't just leave the poor boy out in the rain! It's our duty to help him."
"I want to help, but it's completely against protocol, love."
The door opened wider and the female leaned out for a moment. "This'll just take a minute, dear. Stay put," she commanded. Hugo froze, unable to move. A shock reminiscent of static electricity ran up and down his spine.
"You know how the elf-king feels about humans in the forest, Quilt. It's never smart to make him angry, and he has such a short temper," the male pleaded.
The woman snorted. "King Gerald can shove his temper up his fairy-ring. It's our nature to help, Broom. He can't punish us for that."
The taller figure sighed. "I suppose…one night wouldn't hurt," he ventured slowly. "We'll have to spell him not to tell the other humans about us."
The female, Quilt? , nodded. "Of course. The children have been asking about that spell. This will be wonderful practice for them."
The door opened completely, and the two figures moved to the side to clear the way. "Come inside, then," the male ordered.
Hugo's feet moved of their own accord. The rest of him wasn't sure he wanted to follow. He'd known anyone living in Faydale forest wouldn't be completely normal, but spells and elf-kings? What sort of drugs were these people on?
The light inside the cottage blinded him for a moment as he passed over the threshold. He blinked as his eyes readjusted. He looked at his hosts and blinked again. He cleaned his glasses off on his shirt and took a second look at them.
'Nope.' They still were decidedly non-human.
The main difference, he decided, was in the face. Their mottled brown skin looked dirty even though his hosts appeared otherwise facetiously clean. Liquid brown eyes with flashing gold flecks watched him study them. High cheekbones and low hairlines left their faces looking distorted, like sculptures that had been molded out of shape. Pointed ears peaked out of hopeless tangles of green-brown hair, which resembled roots more than human hair. The woman's brown lips curved in a welcoming smile; the man's pulled thin in a disapproving frown.
Their bodies were…small. The man couldn't have been an inch more than five feet, and the woman shorter still. Both had thin frames and spindly limbs, as if they'd started out even shorter and been stretched out the rest of the way. Their arms and especially their fingers reached unnaturally long, and flexed with a strength Hugo didn't want to test.
Hugo had read books about creatures like these. 'They aren't real,' he hissed in his mind. Some sort of fairy folk…they'd mentioned it was their nature to help humans, so one of the benign types…
"My name is Hugo Harper," he began to ramble nervously. "I didn't mean to intrude. If you'd be so kind as to direct me out of the forest, I'll gladly be on my-"
"Hugo Harper? What a strange name," the female remarked. With a sinking feeling, Hugo recalled reading that one should never give a fairy creature one's real name. At least he'd kept his middle name in reserve, whatever it was worth.
"You can call me Quilt," she continued. "This is my husband, Broom," she gestured to the sullen man beside her, who gave a half-hearted smile that quickly faded.
"And these," she nodded to Hugo's side, "are our lovely children."
Hugo looked down and saw two unnaturally scrawny arms retying his ratty shoe laces. A second pair scrubbed the mud off of the floor behind him. A third was reaching into his pocket and pulling out the various objects he stored there. Each set of arms led back to a grubby child.
"Kids, it's rude to start cleaning while your mother is introducing you," the father scolded. The arms retracted from around Hugo.
"But Father, he's dirty!" protested the tallest, a skinny girl probably just into her teens.
"And holey!" the preteen boy added. Somehow, he'd managed to sneak Hugo's tennis shoe off of his foot without the young man even feeling it, and was currently exploring the various rips and tears in the soles with one knobby finger.
"And wet!" the tiny little one screamed delightedly as she splashed in the puddle of water Hugo had tracked in.
Broom rubbed his temples with the ends of his spidery fingers. "Children," he growled, "just because the human is filthy and obviously needs to be cleaned," all of the creatures twitched a little as he spoke the word, "doesn't give you the excuse to be rude. You can wait until you've been introduced."
The children looked away sheepishly, and the boy handed Hugo back his dripping sneaker.
"I'm Grub," he mumbled without meeting Hugo's eyes.
"I'm Key. I'm the eldest," the girl teen declared proudly.
The littlest one stood up from the puddle, tugged on Hugo's sleeve until he leaned down to her height (barely three feet tall), and whispered in his ear. "I'm Chair."
Hugo nodded at her and stood back up to full height (five foot seven inches, which felt much taller than it usually did, given the present company). Introductions finished, the children descended upon his belongings, prying them away from him so nimbly he didn't even feel them being taken. His bags disappeared, his pockets emptied, and soon he was standing in a puddle in the cottage's kitchen in only his undershirt and pants. Broom followed the children out of the room. Quilt handed him a hand-woven towel to dry his head.
"You'll have to excuse the children. Living out here, they haven't had the opportunity to serve a human before. This will be excellent practice for them." She smiled, as if she thought this explanation clarified all the questions in Hugo's mind.
Hugo stood, puzzled, for a moment. He eyed his tarp, which lay folded on the table now. It had been cleaned, dried, mended, and a draw string sewn in to hold it in place as a poncho next time Hugo needed to use it.
"You're…are you…brownies…?" He felt incredibly dumb as he stuttered out his question, but Quilt just nodded.
"Of course we are. What else would we be?" she laughed.
Hugo winced at the hysterical chuckle that forced its way out of his mouth. "Well, you're certainly not a dragon." If he ran for the door, would her magic (magic?) stop him again?
"Oh, no. Dragons would never live in a wooden house like this. Much too flammable," Quilt pointed out.
Hugo took a sneaking step backwards. His bare feet slipped around on the wet floor, but he caught himself before he fell. "Shouldn't you be living in someone's house then?" he asked, mostly to distract the she-brownie from his retreat.
"We're commuting at the moment. Once Chair gets a little older, we'll look and see what's available on the market. It's so hard to find a good household in this day and age. No one respects the old traditions." She sighed.
Broom and the kids returned to the little kitchen, carrying Hugo's belongs. His book bag looked like it was in better condition than when he'd bought it, and his clothes appeared to have been washed, ironed, and possibly redyed.
"The shoes and tent are going to take some time to repair," Broom announced gravely.
"Ma, his shoes are made with rubber!" Grub whispered enthusiastically from across the room. He bounced up and down as though it was pure gold he held in his hands, instead of a decrepit left shoe.
"Da says it'll take all night to fix them. We can stay up and help, right, Ma?" Key pressed.
Chair jumped up and down. "Please, Mama, pleeeease?" she begged beside her sister.
Quilt sighed. "I suppose you can help for a few hours…after you clean this floor and set up the spare room for Hugo."
The children cheered with the same exuberance that Hugo usually associated with football games and Christmas parades. Grub produced a sponge and a bucket of soapy water from some hidden nook and attacked the floor with sudsy vigor. The girls ran out; Hugo heard the sounds of feet on a staircase.
Broom smiled fondly after his children. He turned to Hugo.
"Alright, then…if you're staying here, at least we can get you out of those wet clothes."
"Have you eaten, yet, Hugo dear?" Quilt asked. Hugo shook his head.
"A bath, dinner, and bed, then," Broom declared. He reached a hand up and seized Hugo's shoulder. "This way," he ordered, turning Hugo around and leading him out of the room.
Hugo allowed himself to be led, still too stunned at his circumstances to protest.
-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
AN: Hello. Sorry the exposition fairy has taken over the majority of this chapter. I swear once we get everyone settled where they need to be, there will be more action-y things going on. This is a work-in-progress, and hopefully I'll come back and edit this more once I figure out exactly where I want it to go. Don't worry, I have a general idea. I'm just gonna say, though, that if there's something you wanna see, review and let me know, and I might make it happen. Thanks for reading. I'll try to update soon. -drd
Quick notes: Place names-
All the places in the story are fictional. And sort of crappy. And fictional. Here's what they are:
Westmont- the little farming county where Hugo's aunt and uncle live. Hugo runs away from here and goes one county over to…
Hauntswood- the other little farming county, where Hugo currently resides. Within it lies…
Faydale- a small-type town, with a nearby forest of the same name
Faydale forest- a forest that the inhabitants of Faydale seem to avoid. Strange things are reported to happen inside of its boundaries.