Milk and Brownies 11

Morning three at the farm passed by uneventfully. Hugo's blisters were healing, and with the lovingly-made equipment his adopted family had made, he wasn't doing any more damage to himself. He still woke up sore, but less so than the day before, and the brownie children were more than happy to add pre-and-post work massages to their agendas.

Once again, Hugo turned down the packed lunch the kids offered him. "Less for me to carry if I get my lunch at work," he told them.

Key winced. "We've almost gotten the commute solved. We just need to negotiate payment," the teen told him, refusing to elaborate further.

Hugo followed his watch-compass through the forest and found the farmers once again waiting for him in their truck. He waved at the two in the front before climbing into the trunk bed with Brad and Jeff.

"You a convict or something, Harper?" Jeff asked.

"Good morning to you, too, Jeff. Hiking enthusiast, actually," Hugo joked.

Brad raised an eyebrow. "Crazy hippie stoner, more like. You actually live in there, Harper?"

"I live in a house," Hugo answered, not quite lying. He just didn't mention that his house happened to be in the forest. "I just enjoy a brisk walk in the morning. Does the body good."

Both boys gave him a skeptical glance-over, and Hugo swore he heard muffled laughter from the front of the truck.

"Oh, shut up. It's a work in progress," he sniped.

…..

Hugo didn't complain when Ben assigned him shoveling duty, because being death-glared by Brad was rather exhausting. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise when, just when Hugo had finished mucking out the empty stalls and was moving toward the pregnant cow-filled ones, the bottom dropped out of the sky.

Some cows shuffled in out of the rain, but they seemed content to just stand in place and nibble at the hay in the troughs on the far side of the barn. Hugo had to guide the pregnant ones when they moved stalls to keep them from joining their fellow cows, but it only took a hand on their necks to steer them in the right direction.

"I am the awesomest of cowboys," Hugo declared when all of his bovine charges had been successfully placed. His domesticated audience stared, unimpressed. "Or maybe you ladies are the most docile of creatures, that works too."

Whether due to his new-found cow herding skills or to the docile nature of the beasts in the barn, Hugo had the barn and the milking platforms shoveled out by the time the others returned to collect him for lunch. They were sopping wet and very unhappy.

"You're some weird weather-controlling alien, aren't you, Harper?" Jeff accused.

Mary Stone bopped his head with her clipboard, then frowned at the wet marks his blond locks left on it. "That's not very polite, Jeff," she scolded.

Jeff turned to her and pouted. There was not a manlier word Hugo could use to describe it. "Mary, that storm came out of nowhere. 'got soaked."

There was at least a foot difference in height between the two. Mary crooked her finger and Jeff obediently bent down so she could kiss his forehead. "You poor dear thing," she crooned. "Go dry off and stop blaming that sweet boy for changes in atmospheric pressure."

She turned to the rest of the men. "As for you lot, you can stop dripping all over my floors any time now." She smiled sweetly as she spoke, but she flashed that stare that Hugo was beginning to associate with all members of the Stone family. Andy grabbed hold of Hugo's sleeve and tugged him out of the room.

"Don't you forget to come mop this up after lunch!" Mary called after them.

"Yes ma'am," three voices chorused back.

The rain still pounded down heavily, so the guys led Hugo to the farm house instead, taking a route from the barn and through a garage filled with tractors to avoid the rain. There was a quick, muddy dash from the garage to the porch, but Hugo escaped relatively unscathed because Ben tossed his not-quite soaked through flannel jacket over his head.

"Too much paperwork if you get pneumonia on my watch," he explained, before ducking out into the storm with nothing but his white undershirt to shield his upper body.

Hugo decided that the giant angry farm man was worth obeying, and besides, he'd had his fill of being soaked through during his failed attempt at camping. He used the jacket as an umbrella and crossed the final obstacle to the house with only a little water splashing up on him from the ground.

He followed the others' lead and left his muddy boots on the porch. Hugo entered the house behind the rest, not waiting for a specific invitation as he usually would have. The rain had plastered the farm hands' clothes to their bodies, and the sight was much too wonderful to miss. Ben's white cotton tee was functionally transparent, and damn if Andy's jeans didn't conform to every muscle he had beneath.

"Ma, we're gonna need some towels!" Brad shouted down the hallway. He was already starting to strip out of his shirt.

"Hands full at the moment, boy," a woman's voice shouted back. "You army of stomachs don't feed yourselves, you know." A loud clatter and a sharp curse followed.

"Looks like we're on our own," Brad mumbled.

Jeff was down to his jeans, holding his dripping shirts and socks in his hands, and Andy was slowly unbuttoning his shirt, shaking his wet hair out of his eyes like a male model.

"Harper," Ben called.

"Uh-huh?" Hugo replied, tearing his eyes away from those long fingers working at those buttons and turning to the gruff Stone.

Ben's shirt was still on, for all the good the soaked fabric did, and had his chest always been that broad and muscled? The other man cleared his throat.

"Eyes are up here, Harper," Hugo flushed, turned his head up to meet Ben's raised eyebrows and the barely-there twitch of his lips, and immediately decided his own feet were a much safer target of his focus.

"Towels 're in the cupboard at the top of those stairs. Mind fetchin' us a few?"

Hugo shot up the stairs to the magical land of the second floor, which was gloriously devoid of people in front of whom he could embarrass himself. He opened up the closet door and took a deep breath.

"Not thinking about the wet, half-naked men in the hallway. Not when I'm about to sit down with their mother for lunch." Forcing a litany of unsexy things through his mind (old shoes, dwarfish hang-overs, cow poo), Hugo opened the closet and gathered up an armful of fluffy bath towels.

He crept back down the stairs and handed Brad and Jeff their towels. He forced his eyes to stay on Andy's left ear as he handed over the softest piece of terrycloth the closet had to offer. The handsome man had shrugged off his shirt while he'd been upstairs, and as rewarding as the sight would be, Hugo was not about to check him out in close quarters to three other gargantuan men who could probably throttle him one-handed and have fingers to spare.

Hugo turned to give the last towel to Ben, which was a strategic error. He couldn't not look at Andy and not look at Ben at the same time. The dark-haired farmer encompassed too great a portion of his field of vision. Before Hugo could hand him his towel, the larger man started peeling off his t-shirt, which Hugo thought was horrifically unfair.

He threw the towel at Ben and practically tore the glasses off of his face to separate himself from the metaphoric black hole that was Ben Stone's abdomen. He wiped the lenses, which, had, in his defense, gotten foggy. 'Which means my face is bright red,' he thought, feeling the heat of the blood rushing in his cheeks now that he was aware of it. 'Great.'

The glasses slid back on his face, and the floor suddenly became the single most interesting thing in the house. That was Hugo's story, and he stuck to it, keeping his head down all the way to the kitchen. The Stones did have a nice throw rug, so it wasn't all that much of a lie.

Behind his back, Andy chuckled and Ben, growled, "Shut up." A dull thud indicated that someone hit someone else. Hugo didn't dare look up until he was seated at the table and Mrs. Stone was cooing over him.

"Oh, the new one's here. Chicken or meatloaf, dear? Oh, you need some meat on those bones," she exclaimed, filling his plate with both.

….

Hugo hadn't realized, before that moment, how grateful he was that the farmers didn't try to force conversations. They told him what to do, they did their work, and they sometimes chatted with each other, but they mostly left Hugo to himself and expected him to do the same.

"So, Hubert…"

"Hugo, ma'am."

"Right, Hugo, where are you from?" Mrs. Stone had no such unspoken agreement of silence.

"Uh, Westmont. One county over." He took a long sip of sweet tea to avoid having to elaborate.

"Lovely. They grow such lovely squashes over there. They win every year at the faire. Bradley, boy, go fetch us more tea."

Brad hopped up quickly to follow his mother's orders, although Hugo was pretty sure that he was as embarrassed as Hugo was about his mother's attention. It seemed to be a common sentiment. As soon as the matriarch had started in on her questioning, Ben had leapt up to go toss their wet clothes in the dryer and Jeff had disappeared to go deliver Mary some lemonade. Andy seemed to be the only one unaffected. He smiled as if he could imagine nothing more amusing.

Mrs. Stone chattered about the faire and Faydale's prize-winning cows for a few minutes. Hugo sank into his chair, relieved that she'd moved on from him. He carved up his meatloaf and began eating.

Ben had just returned from the laundry room and taken his seat beside Andy when Mrs. Stone waivered in her commentary on the Hauntswood Heifers.

"But that's enough on that. Hugo, what do your parents do?" She smiled at him as he swallowed a bite of beef that now felt like lead in his throat. He took another sip of tea and a fortifying breath.

"My dad was a teacher. Sixth and seventh grade science." He pushed peas around his plate with his fork, looking nonchalant. He wasn't sure he could take another bite of food at the moment.

Mrs. Stone paused. "Oh…oh dear," she exclaimed. The uncomfortable silence that Hugo had grown used to in the weeks after his dad's funeral filled the kitchen, stifling.

"How about your mother? What does she do?" Mrs. Stone asked at least. She pressed on so determinedly; Hugo got the impression she wasn't used to quiet.

Hugo abandoned the fork completely. "She got pneumonia in her last months of nursing school. Drug-resistant strain. There were complications." He wouldn't say it was easier to account for his mom than his dad, but it was more familiar. He'd been explaining her absence for years. Long enough, at least, that he knew to bite back any further remarks. 'Don't worry, I barely remember her' never seemed to relieve the tension like he hoped, and 'Ironic, huh?' was a disaster every time.

He waited. He was a coward and he knew it, but he couldn't think of a damned thing to say and he knew if he looked up and saw pitying eyes staring at him, he'd break down. He didn't think he'd make it home to the brownies before collapsing if he walked out, not with the storm still raging.

A morbid part of his brain wondered what would be next. 'How old were you?' was a common response. Or if they were continuing with the questions older folks ask twenty-somethings, it would either be a quick subject change to, 'What are you studying?' or 'Are you dating someone yet?' Hugo formed his preemptive answers in his mind, 'Dropped out of community college, not seeing anyone, and if I was, you probably wouldn't approve of their gender, no offense meant.'

"Tax forms."

Hugo startled as Ben's words broke the silence. The farmer scooted his chair back from the table and stood. "Harper, we have paper work to fill out. May we be excused, ma?"

"O-of course," Mrs. Stone agreed weakly.

Ben put a hand on Hugo's shoulder. "Come," he ordered.

Hugo hopped up. "Thanks-for-the-food. Sorry," he stammered quickly, before retreating with Ben.

"Ben…" Hugo invoked, pen hovering over the forms the farmer had placed in front of him. It had been too much to hope that the paperwork was merely an escape plan from prying mothers.

The dark-haired man looked up from the other side of the make-shift office. Really, it was just a long folding table set up in the laundry room, papers and pens spread around in no order that Hugo could detect. Ben had sat him down on one end with federal and state tax forms and settled down on the other side to open up the mail and start sorting through it.

Hugo had managed to get his name and his social security number down before stopping, stumped.

"You have no idea how to fill those out, do ya?" Ben interpreted.

Hugo nodded. "Help?" he pleaded. There were many things he would stubbornly try to do for himself, but official government forms were not one of them. Despite knowing real supernatural creatures, Hugo still envisioned the IRS as a horde of angry goblins that would hunt you down if you messed up your withholdings.

Ben sighed, tossing down the envelope he'd been examining, and stood. He strode across the tiny room and stopped behind Hugo's chair, leaning down to read over his shoulder.

"You put your address next."

Hugo shifted in his chair. "And if I don't quite have an actual address to put down…?"

Ben sat down next to Hugo. For a moment, the only sound in the room was the rhythmic tumbling of the clothes in the drier. When Hugo finally turned to face him, the farmer had one hand on to his mouth, studying Hugo.

"Harper…if you need a place to stay…"

"No," Hugo interrupted quickly. He wasn't sure what exactly he did to put out these 'homeless and needy' vibes. "I have a home, and I'm staying with a very nice family. They just, they don't have a physical address that a mailman could deliver to."

Ben raised an eyebrow, but nodded after a moment. "Unless you've got some other secret job, you're gonna get a refund come tax time. So we can either get you a PO box in town, or…"

He paused, and grabbed one of the discarded envelopes he's been sorting through. He jotted down an address on the back of it.

"I have a place not half a mile down the road. If you want, you can put that down, and I'll bring you any mail that comes for ya." He slid the envelope to Hugo and then went back to his pile of mail.

Hugo smiled, a little shakily, but he figured it counted. So, maybe, big scary farmer wasn't quite so scary. Still big, though. Maybe one of those 'gentle giant' types.

"Harper, I'm not payin' you to stare at paper all day. Get a move on," Ben growled, pulling him out of his apparently incorrect thoughts.

"Yes, sir," he responded, and wrote Ben's address on the form.

…..

Somewhere between federal and state taxes, the drier finished its cycle and Hugo took a break while Ben delivered their now-dry clothes back to the others. A moment passed in sheer retro-active embarrassment when Hugo realized that Ben had been shirtless the entire time they'd been in the laundry room/office, but even when the mortification passed, the boy didn't resume his paperwork. Ben, apparently the god of forms, had all but filled out everything that Hugo had put down so far. As far as Hugo was concerned, there was a reason people hired accountants for this sort of thing.

When Ben returned, fully clothed, he glanced at Hugo's (lack of) progress and sighed.

"Harper, we already filled in the worksheet at the top. All ya gotta do is plug in those numbers and sign at the bottom."

Hugo cringed. "If I mess this up, the IRS goblin horde will descend," he muttered, mostly to himself.

"If you mess this up, we print out a new form and you'll fill it right back in. This is just so your employers know how much of your paycheck to withhold. Heaven help you come April."

Hugo dropped his head to the table. "God, I will be paralyzed with fear."

Ben gave his shoulder a tentative pat. "Don't worry, Harper. If you're still around, I'll walk you through it. Lord knows, I do everyone else's paperwork 'round here."

He stood up. "Now, two more minutes for you to finish those, or you're on your own."
…..

Under Mary's watchful eyes, Brad, Jeff, and Andy were finishing the mopping down in the milking room by the time Hugo and Ben rejoined them.

"Have fun?" Andy purred.

"Tax forms, a barrel o' laughs," Ben deadpanned back at him.

"Storm doesn't look like it's lettin' up. What'd you want us to do for the rest of the day?" Brad asked his brother.

Ben shrugged. "See if Uncle Lou has anything for ya here, otherwise, you can head on home." The brothers looked at each other, carrying on some sort of silent argument. Ben snorted. "Ain't my job to babysit you."

"Forecast only called for a drizzle. Weather-controlling alien," Jeff muttered, eyeing Hugo suspiciously.

"Maybe Harper'd like to witness the miracle of life. Lou said there're two cows liable to drop calves today, if you're interested, Harper," Andy offered, slinging his arm over Hugo's shoulders and smiling that movie star grin he'd been flashing all day.

Hugo entertained the notion that he'd be able to survive the sight of cow-birth in the interest of impressing Andy for almost a full five seconds, before his brain helpfully offered up images of blood and fluid and the strangled moo-screams of some poor dying cow as a twisted calf-creature burst from its stomach. Hugo freely admitted that his picture of birth relied solely on the information gleaned from the movie 'Alien', but the knowledge couldn't stop the involuntary drain of blood from his face. He ducked free of Andy's arm.

"I…"

"Brad'll help with the calves." Ben corrected his friend. He snagged Hugo's sleeve and tugged him out of Andy's reach. "Harper's coming to town with me to set up a bank account. I'm tired of having to scrounge up cash to pay him every day."

"Yes, I'm doing that," Hugo agreed, still trying and failing to banish the cow-alien baby from his mind.

…..

The rain beat down, deafening, on the cab of Ben's truck, making a conversation impossible on the drive to town. Ben concentrated on the road, leaving Hugo to fidget in the passenger seat. He watched rain-blurred fields pass by as he tried to decipher which song he could just barely hear playing on the radio in between gusts of wind.

He fiddled with the cuff of the borrowed flannel jacket he wore. Ben had taken back his wet coat and borrowed a near-identical one from the house, which he insisted Hugo put on before they left. Apparently, the farmer took pneumonia very seriously.

By the time shops and stoplights popped up in the distance, Hugo had curled up inside his jacket to watch rain drops race down the passenger side window. He picked a drop at the top of the window, silently rooting for it to devour other drops as it slid down and avoid the drops that in turn tried to envelope it.

"Harper, we're here."

Hugo abandoned his raindrops to their life-or-death struggle and followed Ben into the bank. Inside, Hugo froze and looked up helplessly at his companion. The farmer sighed.

"Come on. You've got an ID with you, right?" Ben asked as he walked them up to the customer service desk. Hugo nodded. He carried his wallet with him mostly out of habit these days.

"Good afternoon, Mr. Stone. How can I help you?" the woman at the desk asked.

Ben looked down at Hugo, who shrugged. "Janie, he'd like to set up an account," he explained. Janie smiled at Hugo.

"Of course. Step right into that office. Someone will be in to help you shortly."

Hugo sat down in the office, wondering when his life had changed from mythical orphan adventure to boring IRL coming-of-age story. He'd have figured the one would lead to a more exciting version of the other. Literature had lied to him. There was no rafting down rivers that symbolized life or killing choir boys on a jungle island. There was only paperwork and middle aged men in ties asking if he wanted a checking or a savings account.

"Need me to stay with you?" Ben asked. Hugo thought he heard joking in his tone, but he nodded anyways. The farmer was gruff and scary, but familiar scary trumped unknown scary any day.

Twenty minutes and two forms of ID later, Hugo had a checking account set up at Faydale Community Bank, with a bank card and a box of checks slated to arrive at Ben's house within two weeks. The bank staff had to think Hugo and Ben were together; on the address section of the bank forms, Ben had leaned over and filled it in. But Ben didn't seem to notice the raised eyebrow or the way Janie smiled at them as they left, so Hugo said nothing. Best not to point these things out to the man twice his size who was also his only ride back to the farm.

….

"Need anything else while we're in town?" Ben asked as they climbed back in to his truck. The rain still pounded down outside, but they could at least here one another now.

"Not if you need to get back. But, if you need to run some errands or something while you're here, I am fine with that. I mean, I know it was a long drive," Hugo rambled, wishing he knew the right answer to not make himself more of a burden on the Stone.

"I'm gonna stop by the store for groceries, then. I'll be quick," Ben promised.

Hugo wandered around the store while Ben made a bee-line to the refrigerated section. He glanced at the blurbs of a few paperbacks in the tiny book section before he spotted a How-To origami book.

"That might keep the kids busy," he mused to himself. He picked up the book.

"I have money," he realized a moment later. He dashed past the magazines and birthday cards and down the next aisle to the condiment section.

"Honey. I know they've mentioned honey before," he mumbled as he passed the ice cream toppings. They've have to work their way up to Reese's candy shell. Probably best to keep the preservatives to a minimum to start.

The honey he finally found came in either jars marked, 'locally farmed' or little plastic bear bottles. Hugo grabbed one of each. The brownies would probably prefer the more natural sweetener, but Hugo had a bias for the honey bear, which he remembered his dad using to sweeten hot tea for his mom after a long shift. It was one of the few memories he had of her.

He headed back to the front of the stores and paid for his three items. He waited near the toy and gumball vending machines at the entrance, dropping a quarter and pretending not to notice so a little boy waiting for his mother to get through check-out with her full cart could buy himself a bouncy ball.

The brunet contemplated buying a ball for himself, too, but Ben emerged from the bread aisle and went through the express line. He'd save his quarter for another day.

"Wanna give lunch a second chance before we head back?" Ben asked when he met up with Hugo at the door.

Hugo paused. Now that food had been mentioned, he realized he was starving. He'd eaten all of three bites before he'd lost his appetite before.

"Can we go to Dean's?" Ben had already wasted half a day for Hugo; why not drag him along to visit Hugo's friend as well.

"Sure," Ben responded easily.

"You know where I'm talking about. Thank god," Hugo breathed.

"Sure. Everyone knows Dean's."

"What is his place actually called?"

"Hell if I know," Ben snorted. They blinked at each other, and laughed.

….

"Hugo! Been months since I've seen ya, boy!" Dean bellowed when they walked through the door. He left the till and came to pat Hugo's back. "I was worried," he said, soft this time. "Where've you…" he trailed off as he noticed Ben standing beside him.

"Ah," he said, and gestured for them to find a seat.

"I got a job," Hugo explained. "I can pay you back now."

"Don't you even dare try, boy." Dean swatted him on the head with a menu. "Now, what can I bring ya to drink?"

"Lemonade, please."

"A coke."

Dean left to fetch their drinks. Ben looked at Hugo, eyebrow raised.

"Before I moved in with my landlords, Dean helped me out. He fed me a few times, even though I couldn't pay," Hugo explained in a low voice. "I really should have come back sooner to let him know I'd found a place. I didn't mean to worry him."

Ben nodded. "Dean's a good guy. I'm sure he's glad you came by."

The man in question came back with a tray. "One lemonade, one coke, and two hot chocolates. Can't have you catchin' pneumonia." He placed the mugs on the table with a defiant clunk, just daring them to question his judgment. Ben just shot Hugo a look that Hugo interpreted as, 'See, pneumonia is a problem and you are silly to question either of us'.

"Thanks, Dean," Hugo told the older man. He took a scalding hot sip while the chef explained that he could bring over menus, but that you boys really oughta try the special.

Ben shrugged, and Hugo didn't think Dean would listen if he bothered protesting, so he said, "Sure" and let the man do what he would have done anyways.

The special, which Hugo was sure had been made more special than usual, consisted of good ol' country cookin' that would've made Mama Stone proud. Chicken and dumplings, green beans, fried okra, fried apples, and three different types of biscuits, and when he and Ben struggled to shove the last bites in their mouths, Dean descended with a second tray. Hugo was certain it was some kind of mortal food combat and Dean was going for some fancy finishing move involving pumpkin pie with whipped cream.

"Please, just leave me to die," he begged.

"Nonsense. You're a growing boy. Eat up," Dean ordered.

"I'm sorry I brought us here," Hugo mock-apologized to Ben. "I thought this man liked me. I didn't know he was a food assassin."

Ben soldiered on bravely through the pie. "This is nothin'. If he's an assassin, my mother is a serial murderer. Don't come around at Thanksgiving, Harper. You wouldn't make it through appetizers."

Hugo forced down a bite of pie to please Dean before he surrendered. "No Stone household at Thanksgiving. Understood," he agreed. The brownies were bad enough, and they were used to cooking for creatures with tiny stomachs. Ma Stone regularly fueled an army of giants. She would have to be a force to be reckoned with.

"The week or so after will be spotty with left-overs. We'll have to make some sort o' signal before then, warn you to stay in those woods 'til it's safe."

Hugo blinked. There was a smile, an honest-to-God smile on Ben's face, quicker and brighter than lightning before he schooled it back down to his normal, barely-there quirk of lips. 'Huh,' was all his mind supplied.

"Morse code. With flashlights. It's a plan," he stuttered. "Now, let's pay and get outta here before Dean realizes his murder-plot has been foiled."

Dean fought Hugo for the bill.

"Congratulations on the job," the chef said, handing Hugo a peppermint and pushing him toward the door. The brunet dug down his heels.

"The job that gives me money with which I can pay for goods and services rendered to me," he pointed out.

"You're ruining the romantic mood," Dean protested.

"What mood? Nobody but us was crazy enough to come out in this storm. We're not interrupting anyone else's date."

Dean sighed and shot Ben an exasperated look over Hugo's shoulder.

"May I have my bill, sir?" he asked, suddenly the epitome of politeness. Dean snorted, but printed him out a receipt from the register.

Ben pulled out cash from his wallet and left it on the table. As soon as Dean disappeared into the kitchen with their plates to clean, Hugo tossed everything he had in his wallet into the pile. It wasn't enough to repay what Dean had done for him, but with the milk and treats for the brownies and the money he'd had to put in his account to start it up, it was literally all he had.

"Run," he hissed at Ben, as the kitchen door opened once more.

….

The rain didn't fall quite as heavily as they drove back to the farm, but the water still made it difficult to finish up their work for the day. Ben stopped his truck by the barn and dashed inside to grab Hugo's jug of milk, then dropped him off at the fence beside the forest.

"If the rain lets up, be back here in the morning," the farmer commanded. Hugo nodded.

"Your jacket…?" Hugo started shrugging it off.

"Hold on to it 'til the storm stops."

Hugo gathered up his jug and his shopping bag and opened the car door. "Thanks," he said, climbing out. "For everything." He retreated quickly, more thankful than he'd even been in his life that he didn't stumble and fall on his butt as he climbed over the fence and disappeared into the woods.

"Hey."

"Hey."

"Huuuuuuman."

"Hey!"

Hugo ignored the hissing from the shadows as he let his watch direct him home. He'd read enough stories as a child to know not to listen to creatures who tried to lure you off of a path in the woods.

"Huuuuumaaaaaaaan! Brownies' pet! Tall one! Hey!"

"What?" he said when the persistent whispering and the feeling of eyes on him finally became overwhelming. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a small, bearded creature in a pointed hat.

"What's in your pocket? Smells good. Want it!" it cackled. When Hugo turned, it disappeared.

"Great, I've found Gollum." The boy kept walking, consulting his compass watch once more.

"Trade? Wanna trade? Gift for a gift?" It sounded closer now, right at Hugo's back.

"I just want to get home," Hugo declined.

"Brownie-home? I can do that. Outta the rain, quick quick quick! Wanna trade?"

The human paused. It was such a long walk, and even with the trees shielding the worst of the rain, there was so much mud and foliage to stumble through.

"Could you take me straight to Broom's cabin, without stopping anywhere else, without doing any harm to me or anyone else?" The fae couldn't lie outright, from what Hugo had read, but it was best to leave no loopholes when making an agreement with one.

"Yes," it agreed.

"All for what I've got in my pocket?" he clarified.

"Yeeessss."

"Ok," Hugo assented. His hands weren't in his pockets, and he didn't have anything of value that he carried, other than the enchanted watch. He put down his milk and his bag and emptied out the pockets in his jeans and Ben's jacket.

The bounty they yielded amounted to a crinkled receipt, Hugo's empty leather wallet, and the mint from Dean's restaurant. The creature appeared and seized them up greedily.

It crumpled up the receipt with knobby hands and shrieked in delight.

"Ho ho ho, foolish human," it, he, chortled. "Trading treasures for tricks."

Hugo wasn't sure what type of creature stood before him. Perhaps a goblin, one of the more benevolent lines. He'd have to confirm it with the brownies, if the creature kept his promise.

It took a bite of the wallet, pausing to pull out Hugo's driver's license and school id, the only cards he kept inside of it. Hugo realized what a danger he'd put himself in. His full name, right there for the creature to use if it chose.

The maybe-goblin snorted and threw down the cards without even looking at them. He took another bite of the wallet and chewed noisily.

"Ah. Stupid human," he muttered, as if he couldn't comprehend why Hugo hadn't devoured such a mouthwatering treat already.

"Can we please go?" he reminded the creature.

The goblin tucked the wallet and the receipt into his tunic and held up his last treasure. "Ha, foolish human traded away GOLD and SWEETS!" He danced around, the mint held up proudly between his forefingers and thumbs. It had a golden plastic wrapper, shiny, but worthless. Worthless, except to a goblin, he supposed.

"The human didn't realize I'd not notice," he sang. He unwrapped it reverently. He slurped and crunched the hard candy inside, garnering so much joy that Hugo wondered if he shouldn't just walk home and give the goblin some privacy. When he finished, he held the wrapper up.

"Knows his mistake now, doesn't he? Thought I'd throw it down for you to take back, like a human? Nope, mine, mine forever!" He crinkled the wrapper, then smoothed it out again. Hugo began to see what appealed to the creature.

"Another trade, then?" he proposed. The goblin stopped his dance.

"Yesss?"

"Only humans leave trash lying around. I'll take those boring cards back, and give you this." He emptied out his plastic shopping bag and held it up.

"It keeps your treasures dry, and listen to it." Hugo shook the bag, letting it crumple loudly.

"Done!" the goblin shouting, snatching the bag before Hugo could change his mind. The human did the same with his IDs, slipping them back into his pocket thankfully.

"Now, take me home," he commanded.

The goblin hopped between two trees, chanting, until the light shimmered between them. "One portal home, step right up, foolish human," he chattered, shaking the bag around like a tambourine.

Hugo stepped through, right to the brownie's front porch.

Key, Grub, and Chair were nearly overwhelmed with excitement when Hugo walked in. Home early, with treats and requests for a rain jacket and a new wallet. So incapacitated with glee were they, Hugo got through the door and almost to the kitchen in his muddy boots and wet clothes before being tackled.

"Tell us everything!" they begged.

Hugo took them through his day, censoring a little here and there. He told them he lost his appetite at lunch with the Stones, but didn't elaborate as to why, and he removed some of Jeff's more colorful language from the story.

"Such a damsel," Key sighed when he was done. They all sat together in the kitchen, Key working dragon-scale for a new wallet, Grub tailoring a pooka-wool coat, and Chair standing on a stool by the stove, cooking every recipe she could think of that used honey.

"Am not," Hugo protested, as he flipped through the slightly-rained on origami book.

"I count 5 times you got rescued today," the eldest brownie shot back.

"Six, with the scary food man," Grub asserted.

"No, five. I'm combining all the saving him from the rain into one overarching rescue."

"I handled the goblin by myself," the human pointed out.

The three brownies snorted. "He's only half-gob'in," Chair confided.

"And that was actually really stupid," Key chided. "Kobbin's pretty harmless, but you couldn't have known that. You have to be very careful in the forest." Hugo could hear Broom's voice in her warning.

"Ok, so I'll avoid him in the future," Hugo conceded. He didn't want to worry his family, and he did admit it had been a pretty close call. Kobbin had done exactly as he'd promised with no mischief, but there were more malevolent spirits out there.

"Oh, no need for that. Kobbin's fine. We're gonna see if we can work out a trade for you, have him zap you there and back every day," Grub explained as he sewed in new buttons on Hugo's coat.

"Point still stands, though," Key reminded. "Totally a damsel."

AN: Sorry this has taken such a long time. All of the silly human-type things I made Hugo do this chapter took forever to write. I promise it will have a purpose later, and progress has been made! Sorry to make everyone read about banks and tax forms. There will be more supernatural hijinks soon.

Also, just in case people find it as amusing as I did, links on the inspiration for Dean. He started out as a grizzled vet-turned-diner-owner with a soft spot for kids and ended up a cross between Angelo from Sherlock ( watch?v=W148cnPENBY) and John Pinette's Italian Restaurant experience ( watch?v=jEjbMw9ol2Q). We'll probably see him more later.