The air had a sharp chill to it, which always seemed to make every noise throughout the house ten times louder. Every creak and groan the old house made echoed through the halls, piercing the still silence of the morning in infrequent intervals. Alex carefully pulled the door shut, one hand on the doorknob, twisted so the latch wouldn’t click, and the other bracing against the wooden panel so he could ease the whole thing shut. Even the low thud as the door met the frame seemed louder than it ought to have been, making him cringe as he froze in place to listen for the sounds of a grouchy old man being prematurely risen from sleep. No such grumbles could be heard, so Alex hurried up to get on with his day.

His day started with a shower, which was already extra awful before he even got the water going. Before he even got there, he had to walk along the cold floors in his bare feet. He wasn’t allowed to use Greg’s bathroom, even though it would have been more convenient and let him get to his morning chores faster. Instead, he had to go downstairs to the area that was specifically his, away from the rest of the staff. His room was barely more than a cupboard and a small bathroom with a small shower cubicle. It had been weeks since he’d last slept in his own room though, and it was starting to get a musty smell to it that would need to be dealt with soon.

Hot water had never been plumbed to this part of the house, and addressing this oversight had never been a priority. By now, Alex had accepted his morning ritual of a shockingly cold shower, and sought to get it over with quickly rather than trying to put it off. Even bracing for it wasn’t enough, and he still had to struggle against shouting as the ice cold water hit him right in the chest. He showered as quickly as he could, and then rushed to dress if only to get the chill off him. Alex didn’t have much of a grooming routine to speak of. He might trim his beard every now and then, but he wore aftershave regardless because he knew Greg liked the scent. As he rubbed it into his beard, he noticed that he ought to at least square up the edges, but he was already running late. Greg would care more about his breakfast being late than whether or not Alex tried to look nice for him.

Greg kept a small staff, but Alex was the only person allowed to attend to him directly. The other staff dealt with the house and the grounds and anything else that didn’t directly involve Greg. Alex alone dealt with all of his personal care and needs. His first chore was always the washing, collecting it from the basket in Greg’s bathroom. Greg always threw his waistcoats in with everything else, making Alex have to separate them out so they didn’t get ruined. He had made that mistake enough times to know to be extra careful as he went through everything, checking each pocket. He found a phone in one of them, and wondered if it was a test. There was a time Alex might have been tempted to try to figure out who it belonged to, or what was on it, but that time had long passed. He slid it into his pocket for safe-keeping and finished sorting through everything.

With the washing machine going, Alex moved onto the waistcoat and jacket. He knew Greg threw them both in with the rest just to be difficult, but there was no point in complaining about it. He brushed out both the jacket and the waistcoat before pressing and hanging them. Alex worked in silence, with no music or distractions. His morning chores were amongst the few moments of near-total silence he got each day, and he wasn’t going to waste any of it.

After the washing, Alex headed to the kitchen. He had one of only two keys to the door, which locked itself automatically as it shut. Greg had the other key. No one else was allowed to cook for Greg. He was a paranoid man, but it was a paranoia that was well-earned. He trusted Alex, and Alex alone with his meals, but even that trust only went so far. It didn’t bother Alex though, because even though he knew he’d never do anything to harm Greg, he knew there were plenty of people who would, given the chance.

The kitchen was big and airy, and Alex moved quickly through it. It was the same thing for breakfast every morning, as as Alex opened the fridge to get started, he realised he had fallen behind on his shopping. He pulled a small pad from the drawer and began writing out a list for himself, penning in his aftershave and a few other things he needed at the very bottom of the sheet. As he poked through the fridge, a cuckoo clock somewhere in the house chirped out the hour, telling Alex it was time to get back on track. He set his pad down and began preparing breakfast, trying not to bang the pots and pans too loudly. There were still plenty of eggs under the window, but he used up the last of the pork sausage and bacon for Greg’s breakfast. He hadn’t yet got to the cupboards during his inventory, but now he found only a single tin of beans left as well. Cringing at the bollocking he knew was heading his way, Alex opened the tin and tipped it into a small pot to heat up.

As he rushed to get everything ready in time, Alex made the same realisation he made every morning, and scrambled to get the kettle going. It felt like he was an hour late on getting it started, and by the time the kettle was boiling the kitchen had descended into a one-man band of chaos. As he scrambled to get the hob shut off and put everything on the plate, the dining room door slammed shut with a force that seemed to rattle the entire house. No matter how many doors Greg carelessly slammed shut, Alex still jumped at it every time. It was the signal that Greg was ready for breakfast, so Alex made sure he had everything on the plate, and the tea just as Greg liked it, and took it all across the hall. Greg was already sat at the table in his pyjamas, staring out the glass door to the garden.

“Here you are,” Alex said, setting everything before Greg.

Greg hummed gruffly and sat back in his seat, giving Alex more room. Alex pulled a second fork and knife from his jacket’s inner pocket and very deliberately took a small bite of each item from Greg’s plate, making sure Greg saw there was no tricky business going on. As he cut into one of the sausages, Alex could tell his day wasn’t going to be easy just from the way Greg stared at him. Alex pretended not to notice and finished off his performance with a few baked beans.

“The tea,” Greg said, nodding toward it.

Greg had definitely woken up in a paranoid mood, and Alex dutifully indulged him. He took a small drink from the mug and hoped it would be enough to satisfy Greg. Only once he swallowed it did Greg nod and sit forward again. He picked up his knife and fork, but it was clear just by his hesitation that he still hadn’t been fully convinced. Greg’s paranoia was not going to make Alex’s day any easier, and it took him a few moments to even build up the courage to say what needed to be said.

“I’d like to go do some shopping today,” he said, trying to sound casual.

Greg sat up again, giving Alex a sideways glare from behind his chunky, plastic glasses. It was the sort of glare that suggested Alex was already on thin ice, and the day had barely even started.

“It can wait until tomorrow,” Greg said.

“No, I don’t think it can,” Alex said.

He regretted his choice as soon as the words had left his mouth. Greg turned his sideways glare straight toward Alex, making him wish he could walk backwards through the wall.

“Then why wasn’t it done yesterday?” Greg asked.

“I didn’t noticed it needed doing yesterday,” Alex said, hoping his lame excuse was enough of an excuse for Greg.

The silence that spanned between them only lasted a moment, but Alex felt like it went on for about a year. Even as Greg shook his head and returned his attention to his plate, time seemed to be going in slow motion.

“Remind me why I keep you around again,” he said.

Alex knew it was rhetorical, but he still spoke all the same.

“Because you need someone to wash your back for you?” he said, wondering why he felt the need to answer at all.

Greg sneered at him then, and Alex knew that even his very best behaviour wasn’t going to make this day go by any easier. Of course, it would be even better if he could learn to simply keep his mouth shut.

“Well, get cracking on with the rest of your chores then, so you have time to go,” Greg said suddenly, waving his hand in Alex’s direction.

Alex did not need to be told twice to leave the room. He rushed back to the kitchen to wash up and finish his shopping list. Sometimes he thought he had got the timing of it down perfectly, so he finished just as Greg was done with his breakfast. As he rushed to get through it all, carefully rinsing each pan and cup and spoon before loading it into the machine, he was reminded that Greg usually just took his time with breakfast for the sake of making his own morning go more smoothly. This time, Alex was barely halfway through before Greg shouted across the hall for him. Each little change to the routine was only making Alex more flustered, and didn’t even take the time to put his jacket back on before returning to the living room. Greg’s critical stare fell to him immediately, his sleeves rolled up to the elbow, and wet patches on his shirt drawing an all-too-familiar disgust from the man.

“Sorry. Yes, I’m here,” Alex said, still not quite able to give up on the hopes that good behaviour could salvage something between them.

Greg never ate everything on his plate, and this morning was no exception. His breakfast sat half-eaten before him as he silently glared critically at Alex, studying his every imperfection. Alex tried to hide his bare arms by holding them behind his back, but it was no use. Greg had already seen, and he wasn’t stupid. Occasionally Alex wondered if Greg’s dislike of bare arms came down to Alex’s tattoos, but that was a bridge crossed and burnt to ash.

Alex had long given up on trying to hide his fear and apprehension. Greg saw any amount of confidence as obstinate defiance, and responded to it as such. But it wasn’t difficult to play the role Greg wanted him to play. The man could be terrifying without uttering a single word, and all Alex had to do was let him see that. The tension between them finally broke as Greg sighed and picked up his plate.

“Go draw my bath, then you can finish that off,” he said, handing it over.

Alex took it and nodded before Greg could change his mind.

“Yes, thank you,” he said.

He took the plate back to the kitchen, barely pausing to leave the plate on the worktop before turning right back out again to go draw Greg’s bath for him. By that point in the morning, others had started their work for the day, cleaning the house and getting it ready for use. None of the other staff said so much as hello to Alex as he walked past them. A part of Alex wished someone would say hello to him every now and then, but his infrequent attempts to be friendly with the other staff always seemed to end with him somehow coming off as rude and insulting. After a certain point, it was easier to simply not bother.

Greg’s bathroom was immediately next to his bedroom, with one door connecting the two, and another leading to the hall. There were bigger bathrooms in the house, but this one with its exposed plumbing on the walls and hand-painted tiles was the only one Greg ever used. Alex opened the curtains, letting light in from the single window, and began getting to work.

As the water filled the bath, Alex made sure there was a flannel and a towel ready, and took a quick inventory for his shopping later. He made sure the soap and shampoo were out and in their places, and then checked the water temperature as it ran, and adjusted it so it was just how Greg liked it. Once the water was at the right level—which Alex had only once remarked that it didn’t need to be very deep at all, and quickly learned never to make such comments ever again—he shut off the water and returned to the kitchen to finish washing up. He could hear Greg pottering about just beyond the door, and pretended not to. Soon enough, Greg took his paranoid attitude with him to the bath, giving Alex a little more room to breathe.

Once the rest of the washing up was finished, Alex quickly ate what was left of Greg’s breakfast and washed that plate up as well. With the dishwasher going, Alex returned to the washing, taking a few quick moments to move everything to the tumble dryer. Finally starting to feel like he was getting back on track, Alex returned to the kitchen to make Greg a fresh cup of tea. Every morning was the same, constantly running back and forth from this room and that, and as he scrambled to stay on track Alex let himself nurse a small resentment at not getting any help. He liked taking care of Greg, and the trust afforded to him in doing so, but it would have been a lot easier to see to him directly if he wasn’t in charge of every individual facet of it.

The second cup of tea for the day was more cream and sugar than actual tea, prompting a familiar musing over how Greg could even stand to drink the stuff. Alex fixed his sleeves and put his jacket back on, hoping to appease Greg just a little bit, and took the tea to the bathroom. Alex knocked twice on the door, but didn’t wait for an answer before letting himself in. Greg was already in the bath, his hair not yet even wet and still carelessly mussed from bed. He barely looked up at Alex as he brought the tea over, stopping awkwardly beside the bath.

“Do you want me to taste it?” Alex asked, still holding the mug.

Greg finally looked up at him, thinking something knowable. Then, he shook his head and motioned to the small stand beside the bath.

“Nah, set it there,” he said.

Alex nodded and set the tea down next to the old mug. Before he could pick the old one up to take it away, Greg reached out for him, grabbing a handful of his shirt and pulling him toward the bath. Alex struggled to keep his balance, and only avoided disaster by catching the sides of the bath as he fell forward. He looked up to find himself just inches from Greg, so close he could barely focus on him.

“What’re you playing at today?” Greg asked lowly.

Alex shook his head. “N—Nothing,” he said. “I’m not playing at anything.”

He didn’t need to see Greg in clear focus to know that Greg didn’t believe him.

“Then why are you irritating me more than usual, huh?” Greg asked.

Again, Alex shook his head. “I’m not trying to,” he said. “I got a bit of a late start, and then I noticed the fridge, and I promise it won’t happen again.”

One way or another, Alex knew he was going into the water. But then Greg surprised him again and let go, allowing him to step back to a safe distance. He wondered if he had done something wrong the previous evening, and was only now being punished for it, but he couldn’t think of anything he might have done to annoy Greg. Before he could ask about it, Greg took off his glasses and held them up to Alex.

“Clean those for me, would you?” he said.

Alex took the glasses off Greg and used a fresh flannel to get the lenses clean of any smudges. Greg was good at keeping his glasses clean all on his own, but Alex did as he was told all the same. There was no noticeable difference even after he’d taken the flannel to each of the lenses several times, but he still spent what he’d hoped was a sufficient amount of time on them before handing them back. Greg seemed pleased, and dismissed him with a single nod.

With Greg in the bath, safely out of the way, Alex was able to continue on with the rest of his morning chores. He tidied up Greg’s room, making the bed and setting out a fresh suit, but his mind kept drifting back to the night before. He couldn’t recall saying or doing anything that might have upset Greg, but he had clearly done something. If he knew what it was, he could at least apologise for it, but Greg didn’t work that way. He either assumed Alex already knew what he did, or assumed that he’d figure it out eventually. Usually, it ended in Alex taking his punishment in silence and hoping he didn’t accidentally do it again.

Alex picked up the envelope left for him on the small table near the door, and took it to the study. It took him only a few moments to gather all the paper and wax ready. Greg would spend the next hour or so in the bath, until his phone ran out of battery, giving Alex plenty of time to do his work. He opened the envelope and pulled Greg’s task list from it, finding the list longer than usual. Alex carefully read over the whole thing, finding a solution to his late start buried in the incoherent demands scribbled out on the page.

He fed one of the heavy sheets of paper into the typewriter, carefully rephrasing Greg’s demands in a way that would benefit himself. Amongst the list were a statue that needed painting, and the construction of a device capable of firing snooker balls. Those would be the only two tasks he got done for the day, but it would at least let him do other things that needed to be done at the same time. It had been quite some time since Alex had questioned any of Greg’s demands, even as they grew more and more incoherent with time. He typed up both items onto their own sheet of paper, and then carefully folded each into thirds and sealed them with wax. Each got an inconspicuous mark on the outside so he knew which was which, before he slid them both into his jacket’s inner pocket. Finally, he was well and truly caught up, and even had a bit of time to get ahead, so he typed up more tasks and stacked them neatly in a small tray on the corner of the desk.

He was still typing up tasks when Greg got out of the bath. Greg said nothing to him when he walked into the bedroom with a towel loose around his waist, trailing puddles of water along the floor. Alex quickly cleaned up behind him, and once he had the bathroom cleaned, he locked both doors so no one else could get in. Greg didn’t like help getting dressed, so Alex simply stood nearby to wait patiently until he was needed. He took Greg’s towel and hung it to dry before it went into the washing bin.

“Oh. I found this in your washing,” Alex said as he walked back into the bedroom.

He pulled the strange phone from his pocket and held it out, trying to ignore the suspicious way Greg looked at him. Greg didn’t take the phone right away, letting an uncomfortable silence span between them that made Alex once more wish he could disappear. But then Greg took the phone from him and casually slid it into his pocket like nothing had happened.

“You’ve got work to do,” Greg said as he slid into his jacket.

Greg left moments later, heading off to whatever it was he did during the day. Alex’s few early attempts to find out went unanswered, and he had long given up on wondering. But Greg was right. He did have work to do. Alex quickly made sure he had everything he needed, and locked up Greg’s room as he headed out to do the the other job Greg trusted only him with.

It was only a short walk across the estate, but the morning was still cold enough that Alex took the time to put on a heavy overcoat and a woolly hat. Once more, just to be extra certain, he checked his pockets to be sure he had everything, and then headed out into the cold. There had been a light dusting of snow during the night, just enough to change the landscape and hide the trail. Alex had walked along the edge of the golf course enough times that he didn’t need to see it to know where to step to avoid any hidden hazards.

The big house sat on one end of the course, away from the busy road. Alex followed the line of trees all the way down to the old cottage on the other end, and found the gate hidden in the tall hedges that surrounded the garden. The first item on his agenda was a perimeter check to be sure everything was in order. He made sure the gates and the shed and the caravan were all still locked, and that nothing had been disturbed in the night. Foxes had been getting into the garden again, so he checked the grass as well to make sure nothing needed cleaning up. Thankfully, he was able to move on without having to pick up fox shit, which was always a good way to start the morning. If he could figure out where the breach in the fence was, he wouldn’t have to pick it up ever again, but every search around the perimeter had been a pointlessly fruitless endeavour. He was starting to think the little bastards could fly.

Confident that nothing had been disturbed in the night, by man or beast, Alex unlocked the front door and quickly got the house ready for the day’s guest. He made sure everything was tidy and in its place, and turned on lights and radiators throughout the whole house. Alex wasn’t allowed to eat anything from the kitchen, unless he was told to, but Greg did allow him to have tea, so he put the kettle on in the hopes it might help him warm up a bit.

He barely got his cup prepared when a car horn cut through the air. Alex quickly rushed out to open the gate at the top of the drive, letting his guest through. He spared just a moment’s glance to the driver who had brought her to the house, before swinging the gate shut.

“Good morning, Alice,” Alex said as she walked past him.

“Morning, Alex,” she said.

She was always cheery, and this morning was no exception. Alice was a small woman, and wore a red cape with her blue patchwork boiler suit. It was her seventh week at the house, which made Alex sad to think about, because it meant she’d be leaving soon. Alice was a rare guest who was nice to him, and she even waited at the front door for him to catch up after he locked the gate again. She was also there because she had answered and ad, which always made them more cooperative through their stay.

The ones who didn’t want to be there were the ones Alex dreaded.

The costumes were another thing Alex had long stopped questioning. Greg liked Alex to look a certain way, so it only made sense that he liked his guests to look a certain was as well. Usually, the costumes were the first clue Alex had over whether a guest had answered an ad, or if they’d been brought in through other means.

He walked with Alice through the house, stopping to unlock the door to the first bedroom. Alex held the door open for her as she stepped inside and sat down on the small sofa without needing to be told. There was no bed in the room, or in the other bedroom. They were both furnished comfortably, with old magazines and outdated video games to keep the guests occupied between their tasks. Alice immediately got settled on the sofa and picked up one of the tattered and dog-eared magazines from the table.

“Come to the living room in ten minutes, please,” Alex said.

Alice smiled at him, and Alex remembered how much he hated this part of his job. It was almost easier when they hated him, because then he didn’t feel bad about what he was about to do to them. But when they were nice, that small bit of conscience Greg hadn’t managed to completely stamp out of him got in the way of everything. He closed the door and went to the living room to get everything ready for Alice, glad that he had at least picked tasks she might find more fun than frustrating. Alex laid the first task out on the table and got his clipboard ready, making sure it had enough sheets of paper on it to get through the day. His clock had been charging all night, and was ready for another day of counting down the seconds, but lately he’d been finding his new phone slightly more convenient. He hadn’t put anything that would need to be done from a distance on the agenda, so Alex decided he would use his phone.

He hadn’t needed to tell Alice to wait for so long, because nothing needed to be done before she got started. Alex just wanted a few minutes of silence, without having to do anything. He sat in his seat in the corner and listened to all the little noises the house made. The low creaking from the radiator in the hall, a quiet rattle as the wind knocked something against the outer wall, the dull, constant roar of traffic from the road just beyond the gate. It was never truly quiet in that house, but these little moments were the closest it ever got.

The little reprieve didn’t last nearly long enough. Alex was pulled back to reality by the sound of the door opening as Alice stepped inside.

“Hello, Alice,” Alex said.

She smiled at him, and once more, Alex hated his job. “Hey there,” she said.

He watched her sit down and get comfortable before she picked up the task and broke the wax seal on it. She read it over silently first, and then read it once more out loud.

“‘Construct a device to propel a snooker ball the farthest. You have twenty minutes to order your supplies, and thirty minutes to build your device.’”

She sighed, already tired, and looked out the door to the garden.

“Last line, please,” Alex said, hovering his finger over the start button on his phone’s screen.

“Your time starts now,” Alice said.

Alex started the timer on his phone, counting down from 20 minutes while he waited for Alice to figure out what she would do.

“What’s this for?” she asked finally.

Alex shook his head. “I’m not given that information,” he said.

Alice picked up a pen from the table and started writing something out on the back of the task.

“The frustrating part is I still want to do well,” she said. “It’s a bit like that Stockholm syndrome, isn’t it?”

Alex hummed, somewhere between critical and confused, and wrote down what Alice had said.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“Stockholm syndrome?” Alice said again.

“Yeah, what is that?” Alex knew what each word was individually, but he didn’t know what they meant put together.

Alice laughed, and he wasn’t sure if she was laughing at him, or because she thought he’d made some joke he didn’t understand.

“You know, where people fall in love with their kidnapper and that,” she said, still laughing awkwardly.

Alex wrote that down as well. “Is that what you think this is?” he asked. “That the Taskmaster’s kidnapped you and you’ve fallen in love with him?”

Alice’s laughter this time was loud and almost manic. “Haven’t you?” she asked.

Alex didn’t like this conversation. He needed to shut it down.

“Clock’s running, please,” he said.

Alice resumed writing down her ideas, and with ten minutes to spare, she had a full list for him. Alex took her back to her room, this time locking her inside so he could go do all the shopping that needed to be done. Even with only two tasks on the agenda, it was going to be a long day.

Alex was still on his hands and knees, scrubbing the floor with a stiff brush when Greg walked into the bedroom.

“Oh,” he said, pausing at the entrance to look around at the freshly-scrubbed floors. “Somebody’s been busy.”

“Sorry, yes. Almost done,” Alex said. Once again, he had his jacket off and his sleeves rolled up, rather than looking nice and presentable the way Greg liked. “You’re done early.”

Luckily, Greg didn’t seem too bothered by it this time. He stepped into the room just long enough to pick up the envelope Alex had left on the table.

“Need to keep you on your toes somehow,” Greg said. “Finish that and start on my dinner.”

He didn’t see Alex nodding. He disappeared back through the door to wait in the sitting room, but Alex knew he wouldn’t wait patiently for long. Hoping he hadn’t missed anything obvious, Alex stopped where he was and put his coat back on. He left the floor to dry and hauled his brush and bucket back to the kitchen to empty it.

Dinner was a much less frantic affair than breakfast tended to be. Greg always took his dinner in the sitting room in front of the telly, and remained much more patiently occupied while he waited. Unlike breakfast, dinner was a different meal each night, going in order through the cook books on the shelf. After enough cycles of it, Alex had most of them memorised, and needed only open the page to see which one he was up to. Tonight, it was a basic bangers and mash, which was easy enough. Alex got it all thrown together quickly, and found Greg still watching the darts from the sofa. Tasting it would have been a bit easier if Greg had sat at the table. Instead, Greg held the plate aloft, making it tricky to cut into the sausages without knocking anything over. But Alex managed it, and it seemed to please Greg. With Greg’s dinner taken care of, it was time for the evening chores. Alex took the washing from the machine and got it all pressed and folded and hung up and put away. He took the trash out to the bins, and did his evening walk through the halls to make sure all the doors that ought to have been locked remained that way. Once that was done, he did the washing up, and went to go collect Greg’s plate when everything was done.

He found Greg no longer paying attention to the telly. Instead, he held his plate on one knee as he read over the notes Alex had taken over the course of the day. Without a word, Greg handed his plate up to Alex. Greg never cleared his plate, but Alex knew it was too much to hope that he’d be allowed to have two meals that day. Instead of finishing it off, he threw the rest into the bin, and put Greg’s dishes into the dishwasher. Alex returned to the sitting room, expecting to wait patiently until Greg decided how he wanted to spend his evening. Instead, he snapped his fingers and pointed to the floor by his feet, clearly still irritated by something. Alex didn’t need to be told with words what Greg wanted. He sat down on the floor by Greg’s feet, half expected to get pulled around until Greg was happy. Instead, Greg surprised him by bringing his hand down to card his fingers through Alex’s hair. Alex let himself lean into his touch, grateful for even this small scrap of affection.

“Your hair’s getting too long,” Greg said suddenly.

“Oh,” Alex said. He hadn’t thought it was getting unreasonable, but he had apparently thought wrong. “I’ll take care of it tomorrow.”

“Good,” Greg said.

He hummed lowly, and Alex leaned a bit further into Greg’s touch and let himself relax against his leg.

“Rather interesting conversation you had with our guest today,” Greg said.

Alex wasn’t sure what Greg meant. “Was it? I don’t recall,” he said.

Greg’s gentle touch turned abruptly violent. He grabbed Alex by the ear, twisting so hard Alex nearly screamed. Alex scrabbled for anything to hold onto as he tried to keep quiet, but all he could find was Greg.

“You think you’re gonna get away with this?” Greg asked, his voice low and even.

Greg shouted when he wanted attention, but he got quiet when he was angry.

“I—I—I’m sorry,” Alex stammered out. “I won’t do it again.”

He didn’t even know what he’d done in the first place, so he had no idea what he was meant to avoid doing again.

“I’ve just about had it with you,” Greg said. “You’re easily replaceable, you know that? I could have someone in here tomorrow if I wanted.”

“I’ll do better,” Alex said, praying it was enough.

Greg twisted his ear harder, drawing a pained yelp from him, before he shoved Alex away from him.

“Get out of here. You reek,” Greg said.

Nodding, Alex quickly scrambled to his feet.

“Sorry,” he said. “I’ll—I’ll fix it.”

“You come back home smelling like that again, and you’re getting the garden hose,” Greg said.

Alex nodded, already backing out of the room. Even with the door shut between them, he could still feel Greg’s hand on him, pulling ever harder. He still did not know what he’d done, or how to make it better, but he knew it started with a shower to get rid of what very well may have been pickled onion vinegar.