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Jared doesn’t notice at first that he has a brownie. His second year on the farm is shaping up to be less of a total disaster than his first, but still there’s plowing and seeding and watering, and also collecting prunes before they fall on the ground - and never after, of course not. Not to mention he has to keep the goat fed (because, he asked himself eighteen months ago, what was the point of having a farm if there’s no fresh milk?) and the chickens likewise (because eggs). The way Jared’s days go, a dragon could live in the back of the tractor shed and he wouldn’t notice as long as there was still room to park the tractor.

Still, it occurs to him one day as he slops the beef stew out of the can that there ought to be more dirty bowls in the sink. Also spoons. All he sees in there is the one from breakfast. When was the last time he did dishes? He checks the cupboard, and there are nice clean stacks of bowls. The silverware drawer is full of shining, somewhat dinged silverware.

Then the microwave beeps, and it’s time for five minutes of stew and another afternoon in the orchard.

--

Adrianne blows through on her way to Chicago – which obvious lie Jared doesn’t call out, even though Iowa is by no definition on the way from the Twin Cities to Chicago – and they spend an evening working their way through the specialty brews she brought along and talking old times. By the time they’ve downed two six packs between them, she’s in his lap, kissing him sloppily between giggles. “We shouldn’t do this, should we?” she says while squirming like she’s bound to answer the question for him.

“Probably not,” he agrees, skimming his hands up her under her shirt anyway. “I didn’t even shower.”

Adrianne sinks her nose against his collarbone and heaves a breath. “Mm,” she says, discontent. “Sour.”

“Told you.”

She rolls herself out of his lap and onto the couch. “Little late, anyway, huh?”

“Yeah,” he agrees. The thought tips him over into melancholy. “But I’m glad you’re doing good up there, Adrianne. Wowing ‘em all.”

“You will, too,” she tells him, drunkenly earnest. “The farm looks good, Jare.”

“Thanks.” He rubs his hands together. The calluses are hard-earned.

“Even the house looks good. Who’da thought you’d make any kind of housekeeper?”

“Thanks,” he says again, though it feels less deserved this time. In fact, “I don’t clean, really.”

Adrianne snorts. “Yeah, right. It’s like my mom lives here. Spotless.”

That doesn’t sound right to Jared, but he’s a couple of beers past sobriety, so.

Eventually Adrianne sacks out against his shoulder, and he stretches her out on the couch under an afghan and finds his own bed. In the morning he feeds her oatmeal and instant coffee, which she’s too polite to make a face about even though he knows what she considers necessary in a cup of coffee, and then he sends her on her way. Once she’s gone, he takes care of the goat and the chickens, refrigerates the eggs and sets the milk to cool in the freezer, washes a day and a half of grime off, and then takes a serious look around his house.

The sink, once again, contains only breakfast dishes, although he definitely didn’t touch the ones from last night. Adrianne could have, he supposes. Maybe she rinsed the beer bottles out, too, and lined them all up on his counter, ready for his next run to the recycling center. He doubts she cleaned the toilet or the sink in his bathroom, though, or even set foot in it, and he’s fairly positive she didn’t cycle his laundry or stack it on his closet shelves.

He’s fairly positive he didn’t, either.

There’s a sprinkler system timer that needs looking at, though, and crops to water. He puts the question to the back of his mind and goes to get his toolbox. He comes back for lunch and again for dinner, and before he takes his shower that night he counts the bowls in the sink – four – and he leaves them very firmly where they are.

When he gets up the next morning, the sink is empty.

--

“Weird neighbors?” Grandma Chandler asks. “What do you mean?”

“I mean someone’s sneaking into my house and doing my dishes and my laundry. Did you ever have anything like that happen to you, when you were working the farm?”

There’s a pause, and then Grandma Chandler laughs a big, full-bellied laugh. Jared wishes with a pang that she were here to laugh with him and work the farm and tell him all her secrets, that her health weren’t so fragile. “I know your problem,” she says. Of course she does. Grandma Chandler always knows. “You’ve got a brownie.”

Or not. “I don’t really bake, Grandma. Or get baked, either.”

She snickers. “No, Jared. Brownie. Person out of folklore, comes out at night and cleans up after you. Try putting out some milk, porridge, honey. Some of them like a whiskey. See which one it eats and don’t say thank you.”

“Why not?” Jared asks automatically, staring at the phone. He didn’t realize things had gone so far with Grandma Chandler.

“Then they’ll leave, and you’ll have to do your own housework.”

“You’re kidding.”

“You young whippersnappers, never believe anything your elders tell you.” Now he knows she’s kidding; whippersnapper is not a word Grandma Chandler uses unironically.

“Have you ever had a brownie, Grandma?” he can’t help asking.

There’s a long pause. Jared wonders if his grandma’s lost track of the conversation. It’s been happening more often lately. Finally, she says quietly, “You know, sometime it seemed I didn’t clean that kitchen for quite a while. It always looked fine, so why bother? But you know I don’t always remember what I did five minutes ago.”

She sounds wistful, and it makes Jared’s heart ache. He ends the call not long after that and puts the call back on the hook.

That night, feeling impossibly stupid, he leaves a congealing bowl of instant oatmeal and a shot of honey out on the countertop. In the morning, he finds the shot glass turned upside down on the top cupboard shelf, gleaming once again.

Okay, then.

--

So he has a brownie. That’s cool. He maybe doesn’t quite really believe it, but he’s totally willing to sacrifice some honey and oatmeal to his delusion, if his delusion includes dishes he doesn’t have to clean and clothes he doesn’t have to wash. Even the floors are shining, now that he finally looks at them, although he forgets and tracks dirt in on his boots at least twice a week.

But now he wants to get a look at the thing. He supposes that’s probably discouraged, given how these fairy tales go. Eventually he thinks of looking it up on Wikipedia, which tells him that if his brownie is Scottish and not actually a brownie, then it’s going to be invisible anyway. Otherwise, situation unknown. No indication that catching a glimpse would sour the deal, though. Which is good, because imaginary or not, it’s a pretty sweet deal he’s got right now.

That night he sets out the honey and the whiskey within sight of the living room, and he lies down on the couch. It’s got to take his brownie at least an hour or two a day to keep his poor, neglected house as clean as it is. He’ll just keep watch, and when the brownie shows, Jared will know.

He falls asleep, of course.

The second night, he sits up in one of his fairly uncomfortable kitchen chairs. And falls asleep again. He’d count it some kind of brownie magic – if he believed in magic, or was entirely sure he believed in brownies – except he’s been working himself so hard that he could probably pass out on his feet and not even notice when he fell over.

He gets smart the next time. He sets out the brownie lures, and he puts his laptop right close by with the screen angled so that the built-in camera is focused right on the plate. He’s downloaded a program that will take photos every few seconds, like a security camera. Tomorrow, he’ll know what his brownie looks like.

--

It’s a girl. Jared’s brownie is a girl. Or woman, rather – she looks about Jared’s age, as best he can judge despite pixilation and poor lighting. She appears to be of normal human size, if a bit on the short side. She has dark hair pulled back in a ponytail and a generous mouth that looks like it’s made for laughing, although she isn’t doing any of that in the picture. She’s concentrating on her work, focused, blandly expressionless.

There are three more images of varying blurriness. She must have closed the laptop after that – to put it away, he supposes. That possibility hadn’t occurred to him when he set things up last night.

She’s hot, he thinks, looking at the first image again, the one with the clearest view of her face. It’s a mystifying face. How is there a person who sneaks into his house every night? Does she have a key, or...? He’s not going to consider what the alternatives to that might be; magic is still not a word he’s willing to deal with. Yet. But where does she live?

Another glance through Wikipedia suggests that she lives there in his house, which is ridiculous. It’s not that big a house. He’d know.

He searches it anyway, upstairs and down, and the basement, too. There are mouse droppings by the furnace, but no evidence of any other living creature. She must sneak in at night, he decides. Maybe she can pick locks.

She, the strange woman obsessed with keeping him in clean shirts. There’s no sure thing about a person like that.

“This is ridiculous,” he tells his living room. “I cannot possibly have a brownie in my house. Brownies are a fairy tale.” A thought occurs to him. “And anyway, if I had a brownie, she’d have dusted the top of Grandma Chandler’s china cabinet by now.” The china cabinet is almost as tall as Jared and probably hasn’t been dusted in thirty years. After all, no one shorter than Jared would be able to see it needed it.

--

The next day, Grandma Chandler’s china cabinet is dusted.

--

It should be creepy, that Jared has a person in his house, within speaking distance. He should worry about stalking. Instead, he starts leaving out more whiskey. He buys sandwich fixings at the store the next time he goes, too; surely brownies get tired of honey and oatmeal? The sandwich disappears with the rest of the offerings, anyway. He decides to keep making real food to leave out. It forces him to get the grocery store more than once a month, which is probably a good thing. He might turn into a can of Dinty Moore himself soon if he doesn’t vary his diet a bit.

“The sprinkler system out in north cornfield is broken again,” Jared says wearily one night, waiting for his stew to finish heating. “It’s just old. If I can just keep it functioning through the fall... Not that this is your problem, obviously.”

The sprinkler system doesn’t seem to break quite as often after that. Possibly it’s Jared’s imagination.

“I wish you’d come out,” he says another evening. “Just for someone to talk to. I mean, I talk to you anyway, which is kind of pathetic, I guess. But don’t you ever want company? Everybody wants company.”

Nobody responds.

“The other chickens are picking on Missy,” he says a few weeks later. “Her comb’s bloody, and I don’t think she’s getting enough to eat.” He doubts she’s laying, either, but that’s not the point. “I guess I should build a separate cage for her. God, I so don’t have time, though. Did anyone ever tell you how much work it is to run a farm?” He stares vaguely down at his empty, crumby plate. “I mean, it’s kind of proverbial, right? I did get a farmer’s tan.” After repeated farmer’s sunburns, anyway.

He looks up to the ceiling, like maybe his brownie is there listening through the second story floorboards. “It was probably a dumb idea, thinking I could keep my grandma’s farm going,” he confesses to her, or to empty space, he’s not sure he even cares which. “Nobody makes a living farming these days.”

--

Following that are a few weeks when even talking to himself would take more energy than Jared has to spare. When they’re over, though, the hay is in, the wheat is sold, and he has a few weeks’ breathing room before he has to deal with corn. Also he has a lot more sympathy for the monocroppers of America than he did before he started this gig. At least they only have to deal with the demands of one crop.

He uses the time to build Missy a coop of her own, and he puts Clarice in with her, for company. Clarice is his lone Rhode Island Red, and he has a soft spot for her because she lets him hold her. He’s hoping that patience translates into being nice to Missy. If not, he’ll switch her out and try another companion chicken. No chicken should have to live in a coop all by itself.

“You should come out and say hi,” he tells his brownie again. “I’ve got beer. And I made oatmeal cookies.” They’re a little burnt around the edges, but you can’t have everything. They’re very sincere cookies, anyway. Not that brownies work on the same logic as the Great Pumpkin. Probably they don’t. “Please?”

No pretty dark-haired girl appears. Not that he expected she would, but maybe he hoped a little. He ends up drinking the six-pack himself and eating the entire tray of cookies, which leaves him feeling gross on multiple levels.

The cookie tray is washed when he wakes up, of course.

He goes a little crazy after that. Possibly he can’t handle the high of getting a full eight hours’ sleep. Anyway, he uses his mini vacation to make a mess. He wears his boots into the house every night. He changes clothes at lunchtime, so his hamper’s full every two days. He cooks things – not well, because he’s not much of a cook, but prolifically and with as many dishes as possible.

When the results of his cooking adventures are edible, he leaves some out for her. “I’m going to keep doing this until you come out and say hi,” he tells the breaded cod one night as he arranges it on the plate. If his brownie takes any notice of this, he can’t tell.

It rains. It pours down in buckets, and when the sky runs out of buckets it uses bathtubs. Jared thanks his lucky stars he got the wheat in last week; by now, it’d all be lying flat, unrecoverable. He spends two days in the shed, tinkering on the tractor while the rain falls like bullets on the aluminum roof. He isn’t great with engines, but it was sounding a little rough, that last time out.

At dinnertime on the second day, he cuts across the corner of the tiny neglected pumpkin patch on the way to the house. His foot hits a slick patch and slides right out from under him, and he lands flat on his back with a soft thud. Soft, because the fall is cushioned by mud at least an inch deep. “Ow,” he says, blinking against the rain falling into his eyes. Cautiously he pushes himself to his feet and shakes out his shoulders. He looks himself over as mud drips down his arms and his back and along the backs of his ears. Only mud-wrestling could get him any dirtier. At least he has his brownie to deal with the laundry.

That gives Jared an idea.

Jared considers the ground for a few moments, and then he kneels in the mud, scoops up a glob in each hand, and smears the stuff across his face and down his neck. Then he does it again. Only when he feels completely and thoroughly plastered – heh – does he get to his feet and squelch wetly to the house.

“I’m all muddy,” he calls, as soon as he manages to get the door open. Mud makes doorknobs tricky. “I’m completely covered in mud. And I’m wet. And now I’m going to go lie down on my nice clean sheets in my boots.”

It occurs to him as he tracks mud across his grandma’s thirty-year-old carpet that this is going to be a real pain to clean up if his brownie decides she’s had enough and takes off. “I’m lying down now,” he announces to his bedroom. “I’m going to lie on this bed all filthy until you come wash me off.” He sits down and stretches out in a resolute sprawl.

And waits. It’s pretty uncomfortable, being covered in mud. His skin itches as the mud begins to dry. Also it’s cold, since his clothes are pretty well soaked through.

“Anytime now” he says. “If you don’t, I’ll—”

“Oh my God, shut up.” There she is. His brownie. Big as life and pretty as hell.

“Hi,” he says, grinning a little loopily. Not that she can tell, probably, through all the mud. “Oh my God, hi! I’ve been waiting so long to meet you—”

“You’re a punk, you know that?” The brownie scowls at the bedspread. Which is fair. “This gig is supposed to be discreet. You leave me goodies, I wash your linens, everybody’s happy.”

“I’m happy,” Jared can’t help but say. He shifts to sit up, so he can appreciate her from a better angle, and he can’t. He can’t sit up. “Uh?”

“You want me to wash you? I’m going to wash you.” In her hands, like, well, magic, there’s a bucket and a stack of wash rags. “Now, off with the clothes.”

Thirty seconds later, Jared has been stripped naked via some process he couldn’t quite follow. “I can’t move,” he ventures.

“Nope.” The brownie slops a rag around in her bucket and then pulls it out and applies it, still dripping, to his face. Jared shuts his mouth and his eyes, because the other option is to get soapy water in them. As soon as she moves down to his throat, though, he opens them again. There’s an efficiency to her motions that he’s pretty sure not even practice can fully account for. It’s mesmerizing.

Eventually, though, he remembers all the questions he meant to ask. “So what’s your name?”

She purses her lips. “Names are power. I don’t just toss mine around to whoever wants it.”

“I’m Jared,” he says.

“I know.” She doesn’t bother to look up.

Jared summons another question from his very long list. “Did you know my grandma? She used to live here.”

The brownie pauses a moment, biting her lip. When she dips her cloth in the bucket again, she says, “I never met her, if that’s what you mean.”

“That wasn’t what I meant. So you’ve been here a long time?”

“Long enough.” She’s moved down to his chest now, scrubbing mud away in firm, even strokes – the epitome of professionalism, like a nurse on her rounds. Not that getting her hands on him was actually the point, strictly speaking. In fact it has not occurred to him until right this minute that she’s probably going to clean him everywhere. He is suddenly not sure how he feels about that, under the circumstances. Not that he’d mind at all under other circumstances, and wow is that not the thing to be thinking about while his dick is lying all out in the open like it is. “Good thing, too,” she continues. “If it weren’t for me, your farm would already have gone under.”

Jared’s completely over this can’t-sit-up thing. “What?”

She casts him a sideways glance as she washes around his bellybutton. “Who do you think keeps the tractor running?”

“Uh.”

“Or the sprinklers?”

“That was you!”

“Or cleaned the black mold out of this house so you didn’t develop some chronic respiratory illness?”

“You did?” He cranes his neck to get as clear a look at her as he can. “You did all that?” She doesn’t answer. “Why did you do all that?”

She shrugs tightly. “It’s what I do.”

“God, th—mmph,” Jared mumbles against her hand.

“I know you know not to say that,” she says darkly. “I heard her tell you.”

Jared swallows, and after a moment, she takes away her hand. “So you, you want to stay?” he asks.

She stills. After a moment, she pushes a strand of hair out of her eyes and says, “I’m saying, if you’re going to get rid of me, make sure you do it on purpose. That’s all.”

Jared doesn’t get a chance to think about that, because now she’s reached his balls. He hastens, “It’s okay, I can do that part.”

“You asked for it,” she says, unyielding. “You’re going to get it.”

And so he lies there as she wipes around his balls in the most unsexy manner imaginable. Once she reaches his inner thighs he can breathe again. And speak. “Are you magical?” he asks. “Like an elf or something? You look human.”

She casts him a single, unimpressed look and then begins scrubbing harshly at his knee. “That’s for me to know and you to not ask stupid questions about.”

Next topic, then. “Do you live in my house?”

A breath explodes from her. “Yes, I’m magical. You want to know where I live? Well, it’s magic, okay? So just shut up.”

The next question sneaks out without any input from Jared. “Will I see you again?”

She bites out, “The next word out of your mouth, I’m going to gag you.”

Jared snaps his mouth shut.

She works in silence, smooth and quick. When she reaches the soles of his feet, she slaps his shin and tells him to roll over. He finds that he can, so he does. Then she works her way back up his calves to his ass. He finds himself holding his breath again, but she doesn’t even pause. She scrubs out the dirt he soaked into his ass when he fell, and then she’s working on the small of his back.

Seconds later, it seems, she gives his shoulders one last swipe and steps away. “Your hair’s nothing a shower can’t fix.”

Jared forebears to mention that there was nothing about him before that a shower couldn’t have fixed. He shoves against his bed and finds he can turn over. “Do you want lunch? I just went to the store yesterday, I have this fancy foccacia bread I could make sandwiches with, there’s beer in the fridge...” He pauses when he sees her edging for the door. “I don’t want to go back to not seeing you,” Jared says, fisting his hands in his poor abused comforter to keep himself firmly on the bed. “I just met you.”

“I can’t,” she says. “I have a job, I can’t just, just hang out.”

Can’t, not won’t. Jared’s clung to thinner hopes than that. “You sure there’s nothing else you want to clean?” He winces - it sounds like a line, now that he’s said it.

“What, you want me to squirt a little water where the sun don’t shine?”

“...Sure?” Jared says. Or maybe squeaks.

She rolls her eyes. “It was a joke. Anyway, I don’t have the stuff.”

“Bring it next time,” he blurts, before he can’t think. “I mean. If you want?”

She grimaces. “I have to go.”

And just like that, Jared’s sitting bare-ass naked on his muddy comforter, alone in a room so empty he could swear there’d never been anyone in it but him. “I mean it,” he tells the room. “You can... do whatever the hell you want, if it means I can talk to you.” He slumps. Just to himself, he says, “I just want to talk to you.”

He makes himself a really spectacular sandwich that night, and he saves half of it to set out on the counter before bed, wrapped in plastic wrap with a beer beside it and a note: Until next time?  It’s gone when he wakes up, and he takes that for a good sign.

--

Of course, just because she’s not around to talk to him doesn’t mean he can’t talk to her. He wonders if she has some kind of magical eavesdropping device stashed somewhere around the house. Even if she is around the farm 24/7, she can’t possibly hear him complaining about dust if she’s out fixing tractors and sprinklers.

He doesn’t catch another glimpse, though. He wonders if he’s going to have to go roll around in the mud again to get her to come back. It’s not that he isn’t willing. He’d just be happier about it if he were sure that she wasn’t going to be pissed. He doesn’t want her pissed. He wants her to like him, and to come visit him because she wants to.

Then it’s time for corn, and he’s working too hard to think about his brownie except sometimes in the morning when he admires his clean sink.

--

It’s in. The corn’s in and sold to the wholesaler, and the animals don’t need feeding until tomorrow, which may be a problem because Jared’s not sure he’ll get up again for a week, once he finally manages to get horizontal. He sits on the couch to unlace his boots.

A light shines in his eyes. “Whah?”

“You fell asleep,” says a voice. A familiar voice.

“Brownie?”

“I have a name,” she says. He can sort of see her now that his eyes have adjusted to the light from the end-table lamp.

“You never told me what it was.”

Her hands are on her hips. He can’t read her expression, but his vision is still a little fuzzy, so. “You didn’t take a shower.”

“Uh.” Jared has to think about that for a moment. He is kind of itchy. And – yep, also smelly. “I guess I fell asleep.”

“Yup.”

He blinks at her a couple more times. “Why are you here? Did you— Are you going to clean me up?”

There’s a pause. “Do you want me to?”

Jared shakes some of the sleepies out his brain and wonders what time it is, aside from after dark. “That’d be really awesome,” he tells her honestly. Maybe he’d be less honest – more embarrassed, more cautious – if he were a little more awake. “If you want.”

“All right, up you get. I’m not doing this on the couch.”

Jared pushes unsteadily to his feet and follows her to his bedroom. When he gets there, he strips of his own accord and lies down on his back. He didn’t see the brownie carrying anything when she walked in, but now suddenly she’s leaning over him, her wet, soapy rags in hand. She sets to wiping him down and firmly working the grime out of all his crevices.

It’s nice, kind of. It’s not like he’s spent a lot of time on physical comforts lately. Or physical contact, either. “That feels really good,” he mumbles.

The scrubbing pauses. “Yeah?”

“Yeah.” He opens his eyes, which have somehow fallen closed. “Like a massage, kind of.”

“I thought this was all a ploy to talk to me. I didn’t think you had a fetish.”

“What? No!” Jared sits up before he remembers that he can’t. Except he can. Huh. She must not have magicked him this time. “I’m sorry, I’m really tired.” Then he gets a closer look at her expression. He thinks there might be a smile, hidden somewhere in the shadows of her face. Tentatively he tries on one of his own, and hers disappears, if it was ever there in the first place.

“Lie back down,” she says, and he does.

“You don’t like me asking questions,” he says. “Anyway, this time it wasn’t a ploy. I was just tired.”

“You’ve put in a lot of long hours lately.”

“Yeah. Now I just have to get the place battened down for the winter.” Jared’s almost been looking forward to it after the last few weeks of frantic activity. Almost. Preparing for winter is hardly less urgent; they’re predicting first snow any week now.

“Well, your tractor attachments are all put away. Your furnace is working fine, and the heat lamps in your chicken coop have new bulbs.”

“They do? They are?”

She rubs furiously at some terrible blemish on his right hip and doesn’t look at him. “Yup.”

“Wow. Um, th—”

“Don’t even,” she says, glaring at him with her index finger in the air.

“Right. Um, are all brownies so full-service? Winterizing the tractor, that kind of thing?”

“No.”

When she doesn’t say anything more, he prompts, “You’re basically a full-time employee around here.”

“Basically, yeah,” she says, not giving an inch. “Except for getting paid.”

Jared grimaces. “We could do something about that.” God knows this farm isn’t making him rich, but when the woman says it wouldn’t run without her, he believes her. Surely he could figure something out.

“No. Brownies don’t get paid. We get very offended if you offer.”

“Seriously?”

“Yep.”

He gives her a hard look. She doesn’t look offended. She doesn’t look inclined to budge, either, though. “Is there something I could do for you, though? Better food, or something?”

She hesitates, and then she starts washing around his balls, which is very distracting, however clinical she is about it. She doesn’t answer his question, and he sort of falls asleep for a while, although he wakes up long enough to turn over for her. It is nice, being soundly scrubbed, having someone’s hands all over him. He wishes it could be mutual. Sandwiches and beer are not a fair return for cleaning out a guy’s toe jam.

Anyway, he’s not convinced she’s getting a lot of that physical contact, either.

“Okay,” she says, and he realizes she’s finished. “Now it’s time to clean out your insides.”

Jared’s brain stutters. “Uh.”

“You requested an enema?” She crosses her arms, her eyes daring him to back down.

Okay, so yes, that was what she meant. He was never certain. “Yeah. Sure. It’s fine with me. If you’re nice about it?” Because getting an enema from someone who hates him is on his please never list, even if she’s cute. Not that he thinks his brownie hates him now. He doesn’t really think she ever did.

She slants him a look. “I’m always nice.”

He blinks, searching for some politic response to that, and then he sees the beginnings of a smirk. “Hah!” He points at her. “You do have a sense of humor.”

“I’m hilarious,” she says, and snaps him with her washcloth.

“Ow.”

“So how’s your sphincter?” the brownie asks casually.

“Uh.” Jared stares. “Fine?”

“I mean, you’ve got pretty good control? We can put a plastic sheet on the bed, but the bedspread needs a wash anyway. A few drips won’t hurt it. So unless you think you’re gonna just let go...” She trails off and looks expectantly at him.

“I should be fine?” Not that Jared is speaking from any prior experience, here.

She nods once, firmly. “You have any preferences about position?”

“Not really.”

“Lie down on your side, then.”

Jared does. From behind him and across the room, something rattles up next to him. He twists and sees, “An IV stand?” There’s a bag hanging from it. Jared declines to think about what it’s for. “Do you just have every kind of cleaning equipment at your fingertips?”

“Mostly,” the brownie agrees gravely. “I need a special permit for the atmosphere scrubbers.”

This time, Jared catches on faster to the quirk of her lips. “You’re right. You are hilarious.”

“Told you. Now, back on your side.” She takes him by the shoulder and rolls him over again.

The next thing he feels is his asshole being prodded. “Um?”

“Just opening you up. Don’t worry, I've got gloves on.”

Well, that resolves all his concerns. Not.

Her questing fingers poke into his ass, and okay, he should maybe have considered the part where his hot housekeeper would be putting her fingers in his ass. Then something else pokes at him, something less giving. Jared holds his breath, and slowly the... nozzle? Whatever it is, it slides further in.

“Okay? Did I get enough lube on it?”

“Sure,” he manages to say. “I think this might be a terrible idea.”

“Maybe, but you’re definitely going to be very, very clean. And now for the water.”

He expects it to be cold. It isn’t. It’s a trickle of warmth seeping into his belly, pooling like the morning’s first cup of coffee. A gently intrusive cup of coffee. It’s nice, kind of. Carefully he lets go of the breath he was holding.

“Okay?” the brownie asks again.

“Yeah,” Jared says. “Yeah, I’m fine.” It’s weird, is all. He closes his eyes, and he tries to ignore the sense of fluid fluiding around inside him. After a few moments, though, the warmth starts to feel like a kind of pressure. “Um.”

He startles when her hand falls across his lower abdomen. She rubs a circle below his bellybutton, gentler than he’d have thought she was capable of. “Better?”

“Yeah.” She keeps her hand there through another two turns. Then Jared feels a twinge, sharp and deep. He grunts.

“Cramp?”

“Yeah.” She presses a little more firmly against his stomach, like she thinks she’s going to rub the cramp out. Maybe she does; it passes after a moment. Now, though, that hint of internal pressure he felt before is stronger, more insistent. “How much more?”

“You’ve got plenty of room still. Stop whining.”

“I wasn’t -- oh.” This cramp grips him and doesn’t let go. Jared digs his chin into his chest, trying to curl into the ache. The press of the brownie’s hand on his belly is less comfort than distraction at this point, but even distraction is something. Jared moans, his eyes squeezed shut.

“Just breathe through it. It’ll feel better in a minute.”

“Are you sure?” Jared grates out.

“Pretty sure.”

Jared squints one eye open. Raggedly, he asks, “How are you only ‘pretty sure’? How many times have you done this?”

“How often do you think people want their brownie to clean out their ass?”

“Oh, God.” Jared shuts his eye again.

“It’s okay, I did a bunch of reading.”

Jared doesn’t even dignify that with a response. He focuses on the breathing. It’s hard; he wants to hold his breath until the pain goes away, and he has to keep remembering to exhale. Slowly, an eternity later, the cramp eases. For a moment, Jared only revels in the sheer lack of pain he’s enjoying right now. Then he becomes aware of just how weird he feels. How full, where there should be no fullness. He opens his eyes and peers down at his gut, but all curled up as he is, it’s impossible to see anything.

“Just a little bit more,” his brownie says. “How are you doing?”

“Okay,” Jared says uncertainly. He doesn’t dislike the sense of swollenness, necessarily. Or like it, either. He has no idea how he feels about what he’s feeling right now. Quietly he lies on the bed, trying to decide. The pressure continues to build. The brownie’s fingers brush across his taut, heated skin, and somehow that’s the trigger that decides, oh yes, he likes this. He really likes this, and his dick is perking up and telling him so. He feels his face flaming, and he buries his head in his arms. The brownie doesn’t make any comment, on either his sudden shyness or his erection. Maybe she didn’t notice.

Another cramp worms into him, but it’s a little one, and it passes soon enough. He starts to pant against the pressure. He’s not sure how much more he can take.

“Okay!” The brownie says, startling him. “Bag’s all empty, so you just need to stay still for a couple more minutes, and then we’ll empty you out.”

“God,” Jared mumbles into his arm. “Can’t we do it now?”

“Nope,” she says cheerfully. She pats his chest, which isn’t so far removed from his dick that she could miss seeing it. Jared doesn’t hear any horrified brownie noises. Cautiously he peers up at her, his face hotter than ever.

She gazes back. Eventually, she arches an eyebrow. “What?”

“I’m sorry? I didn’t mean to, um.”

She fails to look nearly as horrified as he thinks she should. “Enjoy it?”

“Yeah,” he mutters.

“I guess I didn’t do a terrible job, then,” she says. “Go me.”

“You don’t mind? I swear, I didn’t know, you don’t have to—”

He’s cut off by the brownie leaning over and kissing his swollen dick: a touch light and sweet and wholly insufficient, and then gone. Jared stares. “Not a word,” she says, her finger in his face. Hers is bright red, too, now. Then she turns abruptly and walks around behind him. A moment later he hears her fiddling with the IV stand.

Okay, then. Jared really doesn’t have enough brain to process that right now. He huddles in on his belly and waits. It feels a little like he’s floating, on the ocean, maybe, except the ocean is inside him. It wants out. He really, really can’t let it out.

“You ready?” the brownie asks, softer than last time.

“Please,” Jared says, more desperately than he’d like.

“All right, out comes the nozzle.” A moment later, he can feel her sliding it out of him. Then the brownie is in front of him, her hands under his elbow. “Up you get. And don’t you let go yet.”

Jared doesn’t need the reminder; the risk of relaxing even a little and spilling filthy water all over has him flushed and clenched tight as he can. The brownie helps him upright and then pulls him to his feet. Together they stumble him to the bathroom, and she guides him onto the toilet. “I can do this part,” Jared says. Pleads.

“I should hope so.” She disappears back into the bedroom, pulling the bathroom door gently to behind her.

For a moment Jared can only sit there. Cautiously he looks down at himself, at his flushed, swollen dick, at his aching abdomen. He spreads a hand across his belly; he can feel the swell the water makes, the heat of it under his fingers.

Then the toilet seat beneath and the aching pressure within catches up to him. Somewhere deep in his brain, something relaxes, and everything in him drains into the bowl.

He sits for a while longer, just breathing. Eventually he starts to think about moving again. His dick has wilted some, and he eyes it for a moment, uncertain. That kiss earlier - was that supposed to mean something? Whatever this is that he has going on with the mythical person who cleans his house, it’s very confusing.

Better be safe than sorry, he decides. All it takes is a few flashes of memory of that warm pressure filling him, the brownie’s fingertips grazing his skin, to get himself fully hard again, and a few practiced strokes to bring him to completion. After another few moments to recover, he wipes himself off and makes his shaky way out to the bedroom.

“How do you feel?” asks his brownie. She’s sliding a fresh pillowcase onto his pillow; the rest of his bed has already been stripped and remade. The IV stand and everything with it is gone.

“Uh, okay.” Jared slumps onto his bed. The comforter is cool against his skin. Probably he should think about some clothes soon. Or sleep. He was sleeping before all this started.

“Yeah? All cleaned out?”

“Squeaky clean. I feel pretty good, actually.” Jared finds himself smiling. “Sort of, uh, wrung out?”

“I bet.”

“Do you have to go now?”

She comes and sits next to him, her fingers fiddling with the pillowcase hem. “Pretty soon.”

He turns and searches her face for a hint of what she’s feeling. Without her scowl and her fierce efficiency, he can’t tell what’s left. “I don’t get it,” he says finally.

Her brow bunches in a familiar scowl. “What?”

“Why you do all this. The farm, and the... the personal stuff. You already said it’s not standard brownie MO, not that I even understand what that is. Don’t get me wrong, it’s been great, and you’re great, and the damn enema was great, but...”

The brownie drops her eyes to the pillow in her lap, still fiddling with the hem. Motionless, she seems smaller – she’s barely half his size, probably a head and a half shorter even sitting down, and suddenly he wants badly to put his arm around those slim shoulders and pull her in.

Her head comes up. Jared could swear tears shone in her eyes. “It feels like something worthwhile – taking care of your farm. Taking care of you.” She flashes him a sad smile and pokes him in the stomach. Jared grunts; he’s feeling a little tender there. “This way, the stupid cleaning all means something. I’m not just doing it to do it. I’m doing it for...”

“For me?” Jared asks disbelievingly.

She rolls her eyes. “For a person. Who is you, granted.”

“Oh.” Jared is stupidly warmed by this. It doesn’t last long; she looks so defeated. “You can’t tell me why, can you? Why you’re here at all. Why you’re a brownie when you seem to hate it so much.”

“No. I can’t.”

“Is there anything I can do? Anything at all?”

She pushes to her feet and takes a step for the door, and for a split second he thinks he’s back to square one, no questions, no talking. Then she stops and says, “My name’s Genevieve. Or Gen, usually.”

Jared is flummoxed. It takes him a moment to find his tongue. “It’s pretty.”

“And I like bananas.”

“You do?” he says blankly.

“Yeah. Fresh or, like, banana bread. That’s my favorite.” She turns around and pats his knee, finally sliding her gaze over to meet his. “I’ll see you around, okay?” She leans in and gives him a peck on the corner of his mouth.

Then the house is empty except for him.

He stares at his wall for a while. He feels obscurely like crying. Maybe that’s aftermath from getting his bowels flushed out. Eventually a chill comes over him, and he realizes he’s still sitting in the open air buck naked, so he turns out his light, crawls under his fresh sheets, and falls asleep.

--

It snows that night. The next morning Jared cleans his truck off and drives carefully into town on roads slick but not yet packed down. At the grocery store, he takes out the recipe he copied from one of Grandma Chandler’s cookbooks, and he picks up bananas and sour cream along with his usual supply of beef stew and frozen pizzas.

Once he gets it all out to the car, he sits for a minute just looking out over the steering wheel, across the snow-gray parking lot. Finally he gets his cell phone out of his pocket, and he dials. After six rings, it goes to Adrianne’s voicemail. Jared listens all the way through before ending the call. He doesn’t leave a message. He doesn’t know what he’d have said to Adrianne even if she picked up. I might be falling in love with my housekeeper? I think she’s in trouble and I don’t know how to help?

I miss you, Adrianne. You and Osric and Aldis and the gang, and the city, and everything that isn’t this damn farm.

--

It starts snowing again on the way home. Jared brushes himself off outside the door. Inside he takes off his coat and his damp jeans, and once he’s in dry clothes he starts a fire in the fireplace and sets about figuring out how to make banana bread. He’s not much of a baker, but it doesn’t look that hard. He didn’t think he had any loaf pans, but there at the back of the cabinet he finds a stack of them: yet more tools for living left behind by Grandma Chandler when she moved.

He doesn’t talk – to the brownie or the ceiling or anyone. He doesn’t know what he’d say.

Eventually the bread is done. He dumps a loaf out onto the cutting board, cuts a heel off, and slathers it with butter. He’s not much for bananas, honestly. Still, bread is different, and it tastes pretty good once it cools enough to put in his mouth. Like cake, kind of.

When he’s done, he doesn’t know what to do with himself. He puts more fake logs on the fire. He putters around on his laptop for a while, thinking about spring seeding, but that just makes him tired. More tired. The gray sky is clotted with falling snow and already getting dark, and here inside Jared feels muffled, like no sound can properly reach his ears. Somewhere unimaginably distant, the world carries on, but here time stands still.

At seven o’clock, he slices up the rest of the banana bread and arranges the slices on a plate, and he sets a full glass of milk next to it, and he goes to bed.

All the bread is gone when he wakes up. The glass and plate are of course in the dishwasher, clean as new.

--

Jared doesn’t count the days since he saw Gen last. He doesn’t really understand the rules, but he thinks she has at least some say in how she applies them. It wasn’t like the night of the enema was the first time he ever fell asleep without a shower. So if she wants to see him, she’ll come.

It’s a good couple of weeks before he’s woken out of a sound sleep by fingers poking insistently at his shoulder. Blinking, he pushes himself up and winces at the crick in his neck. He hadn’t meant to sleep on the couch. Fortunately the fire in the fireplace seems to have died without burning the house down. “Gen?”

“Hey.”

His bleary eyes can’t make out her expression, not by just the light shining slantwise in from the kitchen. “You came back.”

“I didn’t say I wouldn’t.”

“No, I know.” He wishes he could see her face. Cautiously he lays a hand on her arm, just to be sure she’s solid. She stiffens, but she doesn’t flinch away.

He can’t help what happens next. His body does it without him. He pushes to his feet, circles his arms around her, and he pulls her against him. It’d serve him right if she threw him across the room with her ninja brownie magic, supposing she has some of that, but she doesn’t. She stands there, real and warm, and lets him hold her. He holds in a sob, barely. The kickback of it shudders through his chest.

“Hey,” Gen says. She pats at his arm. “Hey.”

Hurriedly Jared lets go and stumbles back. His arms fall to his sides; he folds them across his chest just for something to do. “Sorry. I’m sorry.”

“Did something happen?”

He laughs, sort of. It’s a wet sound. “No. I just. I didn’t know if you’d come back.”

Gen leans over and turns on the lamp on the end table. She squints up at him, but only seems more puzzled the longer she looks. “Did you think I wouldn’t?”

“I don’t know! I don’t know how you get here or why you visit some times and not others or whether you’ll get tired of me or if what happened last time weirded you out or...” He ducks his head and confesses, “You’ve got me all messed up, Gen.”

In the silence his pulse rings like a hammer on an anvil. His face burns. He wants to look at her, because who knows how long she’ll be here tonight, and he doesn’t want to spend what time he has with her looking at his floor. He can’t face her, though. Instead he takes in the ragged hems of her jeans, the white wornness of their seams.

Fingers lace through his. He stares at his hand, with Gen’s smaller one tangled in it. He lifts his eyes. Her scowl is familiar, but the wet glisten in her eyes is new. “I’m sorry,” she says.

“What? For what?”

“I didn’t mean to mess with your head. It, um. It takes a lot out of me, to show myself to you.”

Horror washes over Jared. “You mean this is hurting you? Do you need to leave? I don’t want to—”

“Stop,” she says, and his mouth snaps shut. “I mean it tires me out, and I can’t again for a while. That’s all.”

“But you don’t have to,” Jared urges.

She squeezes his hand. “You’re right. I don’t.”

He gulps a breath. “Oh.”

“But it tires me a lot slower if I’m cleaning something, so, you want a sponge-bath?”

He blinks at her. This conversation keeps wrong-footing him. “Uh. Sure.”

So he follows her to the bedroom, strips, and lies on the towels she lays out – on his stomach this time, at her direction. She lifts her wet soapy sponge to his face and began to scrub around the back of his neck. Against the towel, Jared mumbles, “I missed you.”

“So I gather.” Behind his ears, a thorough exploration along the back of each one. “You quit talking to me, though.”

“I didn’t know what to say.”

“You’ve never had that problem before.”

His eyes are prickling again. “I know.” The sponge pauses. Jared twists to glance upward at Gen’s inscrutable face. When she doesn’t answer, though, Jared ventures, “Maybe you could talk for a while.”

“About what?”

“Anything.” It doesn’t matter. He just wants to hear her voice. He wants to know she’s there.

So she tells him about cleaning agents. He’s surprised at first, when she describes how best to clean a hardwood floor until it gleams, but when he makes a noise he glares at him until he ventures a conciliatory smile, and then she goes back to scrubbing and narrating. Maybe that’s all she can talk about, he thinks. Not that she ever talks to anyone but him anyway. Does she?

It’s relaxing, the steady scrub of the sponge, cleaning grubbiness out of his creases and crannies. Already he feels better than he has in weeks. He fights to stay awake; he doesn’t want to miss anything. “I wish I could touch you,” he murmurs, only half-meaning to.

The sponge pauses. A fingernail flicks against his arm. “Like that?”

He turns his head to get towel out of his mouth, and he drags his eyes open. “No, like, touch you. All over. Clean between your toes and behind your ears.”

You want to wash me.”

Jared squirms. “And do other stuff to you.” He hopes he hasn’t gone too far, but she snorts, and it’s not an angry sound.

“Yeah, well.”

“Would you let me? If you could?”

Out of the corner of his eye, she stares down at him, half her face in shadow cast by the bedside lamp. “I guess maybe.”

“Yeah?”

“Don’t go sounding so hopeful. I can’t. So it doesn’t matter.” Her tone brooks no further discussion, but she’s wrong. It matters to Jared. He holds the hope of it tight to his chest.

After that, he loses himself to Gen’s efficient rhythm. Her notices her hands more this time, just touching, brushing across his shoulder blade or over his ass, trailing down his spine, like maybe she sees something she likes. There’s none of that cool professionalism he remembers from before.

“Over,” she says eventually. Jared squirms over onto his back. As fresh air tingles across his dick, he realizes: there’s no way he’s not going to get hard over this, even without the internal clean-out.

Especially not when she gets down past his belly and starts fondling him. Her bare hand slides up his dick. He squawks. Pushing up on his elbows, he says, “I really hope you’re doing that on purpose.”

And she grins at him, so devilish she might as well have horns. Deliberately she spits into her palm, eyes still locked on Jared, and she runs her hand up the length of him again. And then she reaches down and starts cleaning inside his thighs like nothing happened. Ever so casually, she says, “So, you want the full service cleaning?”

“Uh.”

“Outside and in?”

And he wants to. Damn him, he really wants this bizarre thing that nobody in their right mind would want – well, almost nobody – and he wants it with her. But. “Could you stay, afterward?” Her face begins to shut down, and he hastens, “Just for a little while. You could do my nails or something?”

“I could do that now, if you wanted.”

“No, uh. After.” She’s still looking at him inquiringly, one eyebrow raised, and finally he says, “It was just hard, last time. Coming down by myself.”

“Oh. Sure.” She drops her gaze to the toenail she’s scrubbing at. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think of that.”

“It’s all good,” Jared promises. He wiggles his toes for emphasis, and Gen laughs. She laughs. It’s so unexpected, so free as it bubbles up out of her like some thawing fountain that it makes Jared want to cry. He’s already cried enough tonight, though.

And then Gen’s sponge has disappeared and she’s saying, “Okay, so, I was thinking we could try you on your back tonight, if you want. For your enema.” Her lips curl upward over the last word, and the sight of it sends a spike of heat through Jared. His enema, as delivered by his own personal brownie. Shit, yeah.

So he stays on his back, spreads his bent knees and plants his feet on the bed as she directs. The IV stand and the enema bag have appeared, by actual magic, and who thought that if actual magic existed in the world that it would be to enable Jared’s heretofore undiscovered kink habit?

This time he can see as Gen reaches down between his thighs and presses one jelly-coated finger into him. It’s cool, and his asshole isn’t expecting it even if his mind is. He has to fight not to squirm. She slides the jelly all around the entrance, and then she pulls the finger free, applies more jelly, and does it again.

She’s teasing him, and he huffs a complaint. “Patience,” she says, and pats his stomach.

The bag is already filled and hanging on the stand. Gen takes the tube slung over the bar of the stand and holds the nozzle up for him to see. It doesn’t look as big as he remembers it feeling. Then again, he could say the same for Gen’s fingers. She snakes the tube down between his legs, and a moment later it’s pressing into him. He grunts. Yeah, definitely bigger than it looks.

“Good?” Gen asks. She kneads his stomach a little, which is when he realizes he’s gotten tense.

He lays his head back against the pillow and takes a deep breath. “Good.”

The first trickle of heat makes him jump. “Just breathe through it,” Gen says.

He tries. He takes slow, deep breaths while the warm water fills his ass. “God, it’s weird,” he mutters.

“Tell me about it,” Gen says, like a command. “Tell me what it’s like.”

“Uh.” He tries to bring his brain back online. Words, Jared. “Warm?”

“Mm,” she says encouragingly.

“And, uh, sort of like I have to go?”

“Not for a long time, yet, Tiger.” Gen presses lightly against his stomach for emphasis. “We’ve got a lot of water left to put in you. Fill you up and flush you out.”

“Guh,” Jared says.

That wicked grin appears again. “Yep. We’ll push your belly out, all pretty and round and full.”

Words are difficult, on account of all his blood rushing south. He snags just one out of her litany. “Pretty?” he manages to ask.

“Really pretty,” she says, although the smirk has gone out of her voice. “All over, in fact.” Her palm slides up his bicep, and she cups the side of his jaw. “You’ve got all that farmer muscle, and this bizarre scoopy nose and these gorgeous eyes.”

“I do?” Jared says, bewildered. Whatever script they’ve switched to now, he hasn’t read it. “Uh. Thanks? You are, too, you know. Pretty. I like your mouth.”

She dismisses this with a shake of her head. “My mouth’s too big.”

“It is not,” Jared says, offended on her behalf. “It’s generous.” That’s more a Grandma Chandler word than a Jared word, but it fits. Feeling very daring, he adds, “It’s made to laugh. And kiss.”

“Oh, yeah?” Gen considers him a moment, and then she leans over and presses her lips to his, warm and insistent. He gets over his shock and puckers, and then the lips are gone, and she’s looking down at him, eyes fever-bright. “Like that?” she asks.

Before Jared can agree with her, a cramp knots in his stomach. “Ow.”

The impishness disappears off Gen’s face like it was never there. She smoothes a hand over his stomach. “Keep breathing,” she orders.

The cramp eases eventually, but now the pressure is building, and he’s started to feel waterlogged. His breaths come shallower and faster. A whine slips out of him before he can help it. Gen’s hand lands on his lower belly and massages, and the press and pull of her fingers across his overheated skin makes him groan. She adds fingernails, scraping lightly, and it’s all Jared can do not to buck against the touch and dislodge the all-important nozzle in his ass. “Goddamnit, Gen,” he mutters.

“Mmm.” She sounds much too pleased. “I told you it was pretty.”

“It?”

“Just look at yourself,” she says, in a tone that brooks no disobedience. Jared has to take a moment just to breathe, and then he works himself onto his elbows and looks down his naked chest to his stomach, cupped by Gen’s tiny hand.

“Fuck.” He’s visibly rounder. His lower belly rises gently up from his abdomen like a happy crescent moon. “Am I almost there?”

“Just about. Close your eyes. I’ll tell you when it’s time.”

Jared eyes her for a minute, searching for some hint of mischief – though he’d do if there was any, he has no idea – and then he does as she says. She keeps on rubbing, and the water keeps on trickling in, and Jared’s world narrows to the mingled ache of pressure and friction and heat. Groans leak out of his mouth, barely noticed. He keens against a tangle of sensations he can’t be bothered to tease apart anymore.

“Okay,” Gen says suddenly. Jared blinks his eyes open, disoriented. “How are you feeling?”

Jared would laugh, but he’s afraid he’d spill. He grins, feeling a little stoned. It probably shows, judging by Gen’s smirk. “Awesome,” he says.

“Good boy.” She pats his belly. “You are going to be so clean in just a minute.”

Jared feels new heat flushing through him and all the way down to his dick. He doesn’t want to know whether it’s the pat or the praise that does it. “I don’t know if I can get up. Did you put more in this time?”

“Little bit. And you are so getting up. Hold on, let me get the nozzle out.” Jared feels the slide of the nozzle out of his ass, and automatically he clenches. While Gen fiddles with the stand, he lies back and ventures his hand over his stomach in fascination. Then he’s sorry he did, because his dick is eager and mostly hard and right there.

If Gen notices, she makes no comment. “Okay, on your feet.”

“I can’t. I think I just have to lie here forever.”

“Oh yeah?” Gen reaches over and presses on his stomach, not gently, and Jared practically jackknifes upright in panic.

“Don’t do that.”

Looking not even marginally sympathetic, Gen raises an eyebrow and points across the room. “Bathroom.”

With Gen’s hand on his elbow, Jared wobbles his way to the bathroom. He has never in his life been so glad for Grandma Chandler’s 90s remodel that put an en suite in the master bedroom. Gen gets him settled onto the toilet, and then he heaves in quick, shallow breaths and waits for her to leave.

She doesn’t.

“Little privacy?”

“Nope,” she says, gravely folding her arms across her chest and leaning her butt against the counter top. “This is my job. I have to make sure it’s done right.”

“Are you kidding me?”

“Nope,” she says again.

Jared waits. She stays right where she is. There might be the beginning of a smirk at the corner of her mouth. “This is weird,” he tries again.

“I’m being thorough.”

“I can’t just— Not while you’re right here.”

“Well, that’s just too bad.” She inspects her nails. “Didn’t you say you were feeling sort of full?”

And goddamn, he is. It’s even harder to hold it in now than it was on the walk in from the bedroom, but even as his blood pulses with the urge to let go, every potty training instinct ever instilled in him in the fuzzy pre-dawn age of toddlerhood is fighting back. Embarrassment flushes hot and red from his chest all the way up to his cheeks. “Damn it, Gen.”

“Do you really want me to go?”

The earnestness of the question draws his eyes up to her face. She looks earnest, too, like she really will leave on his say-so. But he also sees just a hint of challenge in those dark eyes, and suddenly Jared wants to live up to it. He shuts his eyes and grits out, “No.”

He doesn’t open them to find out Gen’s response. After a short pause, she says, “Did you ever wonder how much water there is in the ocean?”

“No.”

She proceeds to tell him about it. Given that she spent the first half of the evening talking about cleaners, he thinks she might be making it up. Then she talks about Niagara Falls, the crash of whitewater into the pool, the wind kicking spray up across the observation deck. Some tiny part of him thinks either she’s a hell of a storyteller or she’s actually been there, which raises all sorts of questions. He’s beyond asking them, though, because the descriptions of free-flowing water has his entire overfull gut trying to rebel. A stray cramp bites at him, and he groans.

“Anytime now,” Gen says.

“Don’t you have to be cleaning something?”

“What do you think I’ve been doing?”

Jared squeezes his eyes open. Gen has a bottle of window cleaner in one hand and a paper towel in the other. “Oh.”

“I could talk about round things instead,” she says. To his horror, she kneels in front of him on the bathroom rug. He’s hunched over, knuckles white with the effort of holding himself in, but her hand sneaks past his limbs and probes his belly gently. “Globes,” she says. “Oranges. Basketballs. The moon.”

“Stop that,” he says weakly.

“Tomatoes. Water balloons about to explode.” She pokes again, less gently, and combined poking and exhaustion and the image of himself one hatpin away from puncture and collapse sends him over the edge. His body lets go, and there’s a mighty splash.

Jared tucks his chin to his chest, flushing so hard he can barely see straight.

“Good boy,” Gen says again. “Do you want me to wipe you?”

No,” Jared says.

“Did you... was it good?” Her hand lands uncertainly on his shoulder.

It takes a moment Jared to find his answer, and another few moments to find words. “Yeah. Yeah.” He hopes the feeling in them conveys the feelings the words themselves lack.

“Good,” Gen says warmly. “Just come on out when you’re ready. And you know, if you save that boner for when I can watch, I’ll clean you up afterwards.”

“Fuck,” Jared says blankly.

Gen ducks out, and eventually Jared pushes to his feet and wipes himself. He carefully doesn’t look into the toilet bowl when he flushes. Meanwhile the promise of being watched has perked his dick up again after having flagged under the sensation overload of the last... half hour? Jared suddenly cannot begin to guess how long this has been going on.

Slowly he makes his way out to the bedroom. Gen’s there, waiting on the bed with a nail kit and a towel. She watches as Jared gingerly sits on the edge of the bed. On her nod of encouragement, he slides his hand down his dick. He hesitates. He hasn’t jacked off in front of someone since his freshman year of college, and despite all the ways he has forsaken dignity recently, he suddenly feels a little shy. “Could you talk to me?” he blurts. “Tell me what I. What I looked like. And stuff.”

“Hot,” she says promptly, and he blinks, because that wasn’t in the script. But she continues, “Flushed all over. And shaking, especially your knees. I don’t know if you noticed.” Jared didn’t. “And you were whimpering like you didn’t know if you loved it or hated it. But you wanted it either way.” The corner of her mouth lifts. “And you lay there all sprawled out while you belly filled up like a little reservoir.”

His breath’s coming faster now. His thoughts catch for a moment, embarrassed at himself, but the embarrassment only gets him harder.

“And you were so red, sitting on that toilet,” Gen is saying. “We could have heated the whole house, because God forbid you ever go potty in front of anyone.”

Jared’s been working himself all along, and now with a shudder and a heavy sigh he comes all over his stomach. He flops back onto the bed and laughs; there is nothing left in him anywhere but good humor. Gen only smirks at him. Eventually he explains, “I used to date a girl who thought I was the least kinky guy on the planet.”

“Obviously she never tried the right thing.”

“Obviously.” After a moment, Jared remembers and scrambles upright. “Nails?” he asks, sticking out a hand. He isn’t letting Gen just disappear this time if he can help it.

Of course Gen pulls a nail bag from somewhere. She gets herself and Jared arranged up against the headboard, Jared still naked but tucked halfway under the covers. Gen pulls his hand into her lap and squints critically. “They’re a mess.”

“Farmer,” Jared says.

“Mm.”

They sit like that for a while, Jared in a post-everything glow, Gen retreated to her usual quiet. Jared doesn’t mind the quiet, as long as he can still hear her breathe. Eventually she crawls over him so she can reach his other hand more easily.

“That was really good,” Jared says at last. “I hope... did you enjoy it, too?”

Gen snips at his hangnail. “What do you think?”

“I don’t know,” he says honestly. “I really hope you did, though. It’d be awful, if you... if you did all that to me and didn’t like it.”

Still bent over his hand, she says, “I wouldn’t have offered if I didn’t like it.”

“Oh. Good.” Jared thinks about that for a while. “Did you like it a lot?”

She slants a look over at him. “Where is this going?”

“I just thought, maybe...” Cautiously he slides his free hand across her thigh. She watches him and doesn’t slap it away, so he keeps going, down into the V between her thighs. Again, no slapping or smiting. He drags his newly filed nail up the crotch seam of her jeans, and she huffs softly. “Yeah?” he asks. “Or no?”

She gives him a hard look, and then she lets go, unbuttons her jeans, and slides them down to her knees, all in one awkward motion. Her panties are faded pink cotton. “Okay,” she says, grabbing for his hand again.

“You gonna multi-task?” He’s stuck between amusement and a deep, hungry need to go exploring.

“Take it or leave it.”

Oh, he’s taking it. He straddles her knees and sits back his heels – and it’s cold, here in his house in the middle of the night without a stitch on him, but he’ll make do for now – and slides his free hand between her legs again and begins to rub his thumb up and down against her panties. She grunts, and he starts to grin. “Good?”

“Just keep doing that.”

He does, crowing in delight when his thumb starts to feel damp. He pauses to take a deep breath, and grins again at the rich, heady flavor on the air that he wants suddenly, desperately wants to put his mouth to. Another time, maybe; tonight alone, Gen’s already exceeded all his expectations. He burrows his hand deeper, still massaging, and she jerks underneath him. He keeps going, trying every moment for another shudder, another hitch of breath, and then her thighs tighten up around his hand and her fingernails dig into his shoulder.

Then she collapses back against the headboard, eyes half shut.

“Good?”

She snorts. “Do you have any idea how long it’s been since someone got me off?”

“No?”

She comes back to herself and blinks at him. “Never mind,” she says. “Here, I’m still not done with your other hand.” So Jared burrows back under the covers and returns his nails to Gen’s arguably gentle care. His eyelids begin to droop. He closes them, to save energy, but that’s the only reason. Gen’s right there, and he’s not going to miss a moment of it.

He falls asleep to the rasp of Gen’s nail file.

--

He wakes at seven thirty, hours later than usual. Still groggy, he stumbles out and feeds the chickens and the goat, and then he goes back to the house and heats canned stew. While it turns in the microwave he contemplates the tidy stack of clean bowls in his shelf.

“I wish I could see you all the time,” he says finally. “I know I can’t. But I wish I could.”

Into the silence, the microwave beeps.

--

He doesn’t hold his breath this time, but he tries not to worry, either. Gen’ll be back. He’s the first person who’s gotten her off in a long time, after all. Underneath that smug reasoning, though, is the hopeful suspicion that she likes him. As a person, at least. A friend. He tries not to follow this line of thought too closely, because it makes him want things.

Still. Jared is cautiously hopeful that there will be more brownie-enabled kink in his future. He daydreams about eating her out while she files his nails, and he wonders just how awkward that would be for his shoulder.

But the next time Gen wakes him in the night, something’s wrong. “What is it?” he asks, trying to untangle himself from the sheets and sit up and reach for the lamp all at the same time. Before she can answer, he recognizes the stinging in his nostrils. “Smoke. Fire!” He stumbles out of bed and nearly falls over his own feet. “Crap, did I leave the stove on? Crap. Crap!”

“Jared,” says Gen, and although Jared voice is firm he can hear a tremor underneath that scares the shit out of him. “Jared, the house is on fire, you have to get out.”

“What?”

Now.” She propels him out the door and down the hall by sheer willpower. At the front door she thrusts his winter coat at him and practically forces his boots onto his feet.

“My computer,” he says blankly.

“I’ll get it, just go.”

And then he’s standing in his yard, ankle-deep in snow. He’s honestly not certain she didn’t teleport him straight there. Mindlessly he pulls his coat on, because it’s freezing out here, and as he does he sees an unsteady light in one of the upstairs windows. A candle, he thinks. But no. Flames. He reaches for his cell phone and realizes it isn’t in his pocket, because his pajamas don’t have pockets.

Gen runs out the door, Jared’s laptop under her arm. She’s panting as she hands it to him, and then she slaps something else on top of the case: his keys.

“My cell phone’s in there,” Jared says blankly.

“Coat pocket,” Gen says.

He manages to dig it out, but his hands are shaking too hard and he keeps pressing the wrong keys. Finally he gets 911, and he tells the dispatcher that his house is on fire. Except then he can’t remember the address, and Gen has to tell him.

Eight minutes, the woman tells him before he hangs up. “Eight minutes,” he tells Gen.

“We should let your goat out and open the chicken coop.”

“What?”

Gen points. There are flames in all the upstairs windows now, tall, orange ones that must be licking the ceiling.

“My house. My house is burning down.”

“The animals,” Gen says urgently.

“God. God, yeah, the animals.” Jared stumbles through a snow drift to the chicken coop, gets the latch open, and swings the door wide. In the red glow of the heat lamp, the chickens squawk quietly, confused but not yet distraught. He leaves them like that; he doesn’t want to shoo them out into the freezing temperatures unless he has to. Then on to the goat barn, where he grabs Daisy by the collar, hauls her out into the night, and sets her loose. She’ll find her way back in time for breakfast, fire or no fire.

Gen’s nowhere in sight. “Gen,” he calls. Sudden panic claws up his throat. “Genevieve!”

For a moment she’s standing next to him, a flicker or a ghost. He can barely see her in the dim orange light. She says, “It’s old wiring. You can’t save it. The whole house is going to go.”

“What’s happening to you?” He reaches for her, and it’s like passing his hand through a pool of warm water: temperature, a bit of resistance, but that's all. “What the hell, Gen?”

“You weren’t so bad,” she says.

Then she’s gone.

--

There’s insurance money. Grandma Chandler insists that she’ll give some of it to Jared, over his protests that the house burned down under his care. A corporation expresses interest in leasing the acreage and planting the whole of it with corn. A local family come for Daisy and the chickens. They promise Jared that Missy and Clarice will get their own coop.

When their truck has driven off, Jared stands and looks at the blackened struts of the house, rising jaggedly like stones above breakers of fresh-fallen snow.

“Genevieve?” he says. He tries again, louder, a yell that’d reach anyone for a quarter mile around. He doesn’t need to worry about feeling self-conscious; there is, after all, no one around to hear.

--

He moves to Chicago. Aldis puts him up. Adrianne is thrilled to see him. They both seem to know he’s grieving more than a farmhouse and an ill-conceived dream, but he doesn’t know how he’d explain, even if he wanted to.

He thinks back to those last moments. She didn’t seem to be in pain. That’s all he can find to cling to. At least she wasn’t in pain.

--

Someone knocks on Aldis’s door. Aldis is out with Adrianne, so that leaves Jared. He sets his laptop aside, checking first to make sure he’s saved the job listing. Then pushes up off couch, ambles down the hall, and swings the door open.

Gen is standing on Aldis’s welcome mat. She has a backpack over her flannelled shoulder and jeans he doesn’t recognize – darker, somewhat newer. Her eyes are huge, and she’s afraid. Jared can see it in the white of her knuckles and the taut lines of her face.

His mouth catches up to him. “Gen?”

She licks her lips. “Hey.”

“You’re alive. Right?” He reaches out to make sure she’s solid. She flinches at the touch, and he draws back – slowly, because his brain’s not fully online yet. Still, he felt her under his hand: solid. “I thought you were dead.”

Gen hauls the backpack higher up her back. “Can I come in?”

Jared snorts; the question seems so backwards. She doesn’t seem to see the joke, though. He steps aside to let her pass, and he closes the door behind her. He follows her to the living room, where she stands awkwardly, clutching her backpack strap. “You can sit, I guess,” he says.

She settles on the couch, pack in her lap.

“I thought you were dead,” Jared repeats.

“Brownie, remember?” she asks, half-apologetic. “Or I was. It’s not that easy. It just took me this long to get myself together again.”

“You’re not a brownie now?”

Gen shakes her head.

“Are you human, then?”

She shrugs. “Close enough.”

“Are you... why are you here?”

“Your grandma gave me your address.”

“Okay, but—”

“I wanted to see you,” Gen says. Something of that long-familiar scowl returns to her face. It’s almost a relief to see it there, so much better than her pale slow panic. “Besides, you and your grandma are the only people I know.”

It takes Jared a moment to catch up to this. “You mean in the world?”

“I was a brownie in that house a long time, Jared.”

“And there’s no one—” But he can see in her eyes there isn’t. “And you came to me because I’m ‘not so bad’?” Gen’s eyes widen, and Jared immediately feels sick. He’s clung to those words for months. “I didn’t mean—”

“This was a mistake.” Gen pushes to her feet, pushing her bag over her shoulder as she goes. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to bother you.”

He catches her halfway to the door, his hand closing around her arm. She stares up at him with huge, stricken eyes, and under his fingers she’s as warm and real a thing as he’s ever known. She’s here.

He pulls her into a hug. She resists for just a moment, and then her arms go around him and her head tucks under his chin. “Oh my God, Gen,” he says. “I missed you so much.”

“Yeah,” she agrees, squeezing tighter.

[end]