"You going to be all right on the long drive, kiddo?"
"Fine, Dad," Stiles said with a roll of his eyes, tossing the last of his clothing into his bag. "It's nine hours, not a week."
"I'm just saying," his dad replied, sounding a little hurt. "You've never done this drive before and the roads can get a little tricky at night."
"I'll be fine, Dad," Stiles repeated. "I've got the Jeep. If I have to, I'll go off-road and make my own path."
"Don't you dare," his father snapped. "If you wreck that car — "
"I'm joking!" Stiles laughed. "Calm down, Dad. I've been working too hard keeping your heart healthy for you to fall victim to a heart attack."
"Uh huh," his dad grunted, unimpressed. "Well, you drive safe and call me when you're close."
"I will," Stiles promised. "I'll see you tonight."
"Love you, son."
"Love you too, Dad."
Stiles tossed his phone onto his mattress and heaved an irritable sigh. He was really not looking forward to the nine hours in the car — he gets fidgety when he has to sit for too long. It was the end of the school year, though; he needed to be out of the dorms by noon and it was already ten-thirty. At least he had everything packed, which was more than he could say for his roommate. Jay still had clothes piled everywhere and he wasn’t even awake yet. Stiles shook his head and started carrying loads out to the Jeep. It all fit — barely — and he frowned at the pile of belongings stuffed in the back, wondering just how much junk he’d managed to collect over the school year. He didn’t remember the car being this full on the way down.
Everything loaded, he trudged back inside and punched at Jay's arm until his roommate rolled over with a groan. Stiles grinned down at him and said, "See you, dude. I'm heading out."
"To the boonies?" Jay said blearily, rubbing at his eyes. "Hah, have fun wasting away out there all summer."
"Fresh air's better than LA smog," Stiles retorted. He offered his fist to Jay, who bumped his fingers against Stiles'. "I'll see you next fall, dude."
"Don't die of boredom," Jay called after him.
Stiles flipped him off cheerfully and headed back down to the Jeep. It was a nice day, at least; he kept all the windows open as he drove, enjoying the breeze as he headed north.
His dad, newly appointed sheriff of Beacon County, moved to the county seat of Beacon Hills just after Halloween from their old place near Santa Rosa. Stiles hadn’t seen the new house in person yet; his dad came down to LA for Thanksgiving and Christmas, grumbling about the flight and how the new house was still in shambles. He seemed more upset about the move than Stiles had been, which made sense; the house they'd moved out of was the one his dad had married his mom in, and the one she'd died in. For Stiles, it was something of a relief, but he could tell it had hurt his dad, leaving the place behind. He was kind of looking forward to exploring a new town, settling into a new place.
His route wound up the coast, the sun pacing him to his left, settling lower and lower in the sky. He stopped at a roadside diner around six and had quick burger and fries before the roads led him away from the sea and into the forest, where the trees grew dense and tall. He hit Beacon Hills just as the red light faded from the sky, the sun long dipped past the horizon, and he slowed as he hit city limits. Beacon Hills was a small town. He remembered looking it up on Wikipedia before his dad moved up there and if he recalled right, the population was only around five thousand people — pretty tiny, considering it was the county seat. All the surrounding towns were even smaller.
There was a small main street about two blocks long, fairly empty at this time of night, which made sense — it was a little past nine on a Friday, not exactly the time of night to be out. He saw a pizza parlor and a laundromat, a hardware store, and a couple of small restaurants. The sheriff's station sat at the end of all the businesses, a separate, low building with no cars in the parking lot, no lights on in the windows.
The GPS guided him away from the neat rows of houses that surrounded the main street, down a couple of roads where the space between the houses grew greater and greater, wide lawns separated by hedgerows, then small patches of forest, then thick swathes of trees. Their new house was in the woods proper and Stiles liked the look of it; it was painted some pale color he couldn’t make out in the evening gloom, but there was a front porch and the light on it was warm and welcoming. His dad's car was parked out front, right next to a police cruiser that had Beacon County Sheriff painted down the side. Stiles grinned and pulled up on the other side of the cruiser as his dad stepped out onto the porch.
"Hey!" Stiles said cheerfully, clambering out of the car. "Long time no see, Dad!"
His father pulled him into a tight hug when Stiles trotted up onto the porch, slapping a heavy hand between his shoulder blades. "Good to see you. Want the tour first? Or should we unload the Jeep?"
Stiles flapped a dismissive hand toward the Jeep and lifted the small overnight bag he’d grabbed. "That can all wait 'til tomorrow; I'm good with this for now."
“All right,” his dad said, looking cheerful. “C’mon in.”
It was a small house, but cozy and brightly lit. There was a small living room that led into the dining room, which led into the kitchen and, past that, a small office that looped back around to the front of the house. Upstairs, there were three bedrooms and a small bathroom, and his dad already had Stiles’ bedroom all set up, even had his books on their shelves and a photo of his mom on the dresser.
“Do you like it here?” Stiles asked, his throat a little tight as he turned to look at his dad, who leaned against the doorframe.
His dad thought about it for a moment before nodding. “I do,” he said, and hesitated only a moment before adding, “A change of pace is good sometimes.”
Stiles knew he was thinking about their old house in Santa Rosa, with the sagging front steps his dad had always always been promising he’d fix, and the dent Stiles put in the bathroom door in a fit of teenage angst, and the fine splatters of paint on the floor in the dining room from the time his mom painted the walls. He smiled, trying to disperse the sadness in the air. “Yeah, this house will be great when I’m bringing over grandkids.”
His father laughed, the tension disappearing in an instant. “You just finished your second year of school. I hope that’ll be a while yet — unless you’ve got some secret you’ve been hiding?”
“You caught me, Dad,” Stiles said dramatically, clasping a hand to his stomach. “I’m with child.”
His dad waggled a finger at him before turning to go downstairs, saying over his shoulder, “Stranger things have happened.”
Stiles sneezed himself awake the next morning. He sat up in bed with his eyes burning and his throat feeling like someone had rubbed it raw with sandpaper. Stiles staggered out of bed with a groan and made his way down to the kitchen, where his dad was doing dishes.
“Did you get a dog? Stiles croaked, and his father dropped a mug. Luckily, it landed in the sink, splashing soapy water onto his dad’s uniform. His dad sighed.
“Yes, Stiles,” he said dryly, and Stiles wondered why people didn’t get where he got his sarcasm from. “You’re allergic to dogs and I definitely went out and got one.”
“I’m dying, then,” Stiles told him piteously. “Dad, save me.”
“Sit down,” his father sighed, shaking water off his hands. “Let me see if I can find any allergy meds.”
Stiles sat at the breakfast nook and listened to his dad rooting around in the bathroom cabinet upstairs. “There must be something in the house I’m allergic to,” he told his father when he came back into the kitchen, a small bottle of pills clutched in his hand.
“Maybe dust in your room,” his dad replied, handing him the bottle and stepping back over to the sink. “Give your sheets a wash and see if that helps.”
Stiles nodded and downed a couple of pills. He waved his dad off to work and spent the morning unloading the Jeep and sending his sheets through the wash. It was an overcast day, but it was warm, and he opened all the windows in the house to let in the air and hopefully air out whatever was still making him sneeze.
When he got sick of unpacking, Stiles wandered around the house for a while, poking through cupboards and acquainting himself with the location of light switches and other essentials. He went out the back door and explored the outside of the house. There was a small back deck a couple of feet above the grass — which was super long; it didn’t look like his dad had been paying too much attention to landscaping — and a small back yard surrounded by trees on all sides. It looked like someone had once had a garden and he surveyed it with glee; he’d been wanting to try his hand at growing vegetables. Maybe he’d mow the lawn after lunch, provided they actually had a lawn mower.
There was a small shed around the side of the house, tucked back in the trees. It was locked, but Stiles had seen a set of keys hanging by the front door. He’d check it after eating. He’d gone back inside and was just pulling the ingredients to make a killer sandwich when he heard a car door slam outside and a knock on the door a few seconds later.
When Stiles opened it, he found a curly-haired woman in hospital scrubs standing on the front porch, a casserole dish in her hands. She beamed at him, tucking a dark curl behind her ear. “Hi!” she said warmly. “You’re Stiles.”
“I am,” he agreed, grinning faintly. “And you are…?”
“Melissa McCall,” she replied, holding her hand out to shake. “I live just down the road. Your dad said you were coming home today so I thought I’d stop in and say hello.”
“Thanks,” Stiles said. “You want to come in?”
Melissa shook her head, nodding down toward her uniform. “I need to get to work. Let me know if there’s anything you need, all right? Your dad wouldn’t have even hung pictures on the walls if I hadn’t gotten after him.”
“Yeah,” Stiles agreed cheerfully. “He can be useless like that.”
Melissa rolled her eyes, a faint smile hovering around her lips. “Well, if you get bored, we’re number twenty-two just down the hill. My son’s your age and he only works mornings. I’m sure he’d love someone to play video games with. This is for you,” she added abruptly, offering him the casserole dish. “Your father’s a terrible cook.”
Stiles laughed. “Yeah he is. Thanks, Melissa.”
“No problem, Stiles,” she smiled. “I’ll see you around.”
“Bye!” he called after Melissa, watching her climb into her beat-up sedan and back out of the driveway. He looked down at the casserole dish she’d shoved into his arms. It was still warm. Stiles grinned and carried it into the kitchen, stowing it safely in the fridge before texting his dad.
Are you dating our neighbor?
Stiles almost immediately received a flurry of responses from his father and he had to laugh because his dad always typed in all-caps like he was shouting, and he didn’t think he’d ever heard his father shout before, which made it ten times funnier.
WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT
I WOULD HAVE TOLD YOU
Stiles snorted and leisurely put together his sandwich before typing back, The woman down the street — Melissa?
I’M NOT DATING MELISSA I’M NOT DATING ANYONE
10-4, Stiles replied, and set to work eating his sandwich, grinning. He didn't care what his dad said, he was prepared to tease him mercilessly. It wouldn't have bothered him if his dad was dating someone; as far as Stiles knew, Dad hadn't been on a single date since Stiles' mom died eleven years ago, and he still wore his wedding ring (Stiles had his mom’s; his father had pressed it into his hand after the funeral and Stiles had carefully tucked it inside an envelope between the pages of his first edition Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban). Not that Stiles blamed him for not dating. He didn't know much about love, but he could see that his parents had been that forever type of couple really only found in fairy tales. Still, his dad deserved to be happy, if he wanted to be and Stiles, as his only child, got to make fun of him for it.
After lunch, Stiles grabbed the ring of keys hanging by the door and headed out to unlock the shed. It took a couple of tries and the lock was pretty stiff, like it hadn't been opened in a while (which, if he knew his dad and his distaste for lawn work, was probably true). He had to shove his shoulder against the door to get it open because, as it turned out, one of the shelves had collapsed, piling a bunch of rusty paint cans against the door.
He looked at all the dried streaks of paint on the floor and then around the shed and blinked.
“What the hell,” Stiles said out loud. The walls of the shed were covered in weird symbols and there was a deer skull hanging on the far wall. “Uhhh.” He’d seen way too many episodes of Supernatural to believe this could end well. Maybe there was a reason why the house had been on the market.
“Cool beans,” Stiles said, deciding to go for casual cheer in case whatever the symbols were had summoned something and it was hanging around behind the bags of potting soil. He’d spotted a lawnmower in the back, anyway, and since he’d already stepped inside and gotten himself cursed or whatever, he might as well get the lawn mowed, so he shifted the fallen paint cans aside and dragged the mower out into the yard.
By the time his dad came home, Stiles was sweaty and covered in a faint sheen of green grass clippings, but he’d managed to get most of the lawn cut before the mower had coughed and run out of gas.
“Shoulda come home sooner,” his dad said, clapping him on the back. “The spare bedroom’s got some cracks in the ceiling if you want to patch them up.”
“I didn’t come home to be your handyman,” Stiles said irritably and his father raised his eyebrows.
“Oh?” he asked lightly. They were sitting in the kitchen, Stiles back on a stool at the breakfast nook. “You going to find yourself a job, then?”
“Maybe,” Stiles said evasively. He’d been hoping to spend the summer vegging out. Hoping to distract his father, he added, “Hey, did you know the shed’s home to some very terrifying Satanic ephemera?”
Dad frowned at him. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“Weird writing on the wall, a deer skull,” Stiles replied, gesturing vaguely. “You know. The usual.”
His father didn’t look as worried as Stiles had hoped he’d be. “Uh huh. Well, you can do me a favor and clean it out. This house was full of junk.”
“Weird junk?” Stiles asked uncertainly. “Whoever lived here before us didn’t die here, did they?” He thought about demons and ghosts and wished they had more than a saltshaker's worth of salt.
“No,” his father replied with a roll of his eyes. “She taught French at the high school and was offered a better-paying position in San Francisco.”
“So no one’s died in here.”
“No,” his dad said again. “Now tell me what you want for dinner and go take a shower.”
“So pushy,” Stiles sniffed, hopping off the stool. “Your girlfriend brought over a casserole; she says you’re a terrible cook.”
His father whirled around, his cheeks going a splotchy red color the same way Stiles’ did when he was embarrassed. “I’m not dating anyone!” he exclaimed irritably.
“Keep telling yourself that,” Stiles cackled, escaping the kitchen before his dad could throw anything at him. “Melissa seems like a very nice woman!”
The casserole was pretty delicious; it was tuna, Stiles’ favorite, and he judiciously told his father that Melissa was allowed to stick around, which earned him a whap on the back of the head as his father headed to the fridge for a beer. He wouldn’t let Stiles have one, either, which Stiles thought was rude. He was only four months away from being twenty-one.
They watched baseball on the couch after eating and Stiles shoved all thoughts of the weird shit out in the shed to the back of his mind in favor of shouting at the television while the Giants absolutely bombed against the Cardinals. He went to bed that night feeling warm and full; he’d missed his dad a lot, and it felt good to spend some time with him. He’d patch the spare bedroom ceiling and clean out the shed, because his dad was good and kind and worked a hell of a lot harder than he needed to.
Stiles didn’t wake up sneezing the next morning, which was a two hundred percent improvement over the previous one. He spent the midday hours outside cleaning the freaky shit out of the shed. There wasn’t that much of it, to be honest, and the shed didn’t so much as quiver when he took the deer skull off the wall and chucked it among the trees. There was more junk than anything; mostly broken pots and empty seed packets. He found a couple of jars of dried herbs — no pot, sadly; the French teacher was boring in the more normal, non-Satanic ways — but he couldn’t identify their scents, so they went in the trash because he wasn’t about to sprinkle mystery herbs on his pasta.
He noticed a lot of people passing by on the road – a lot more than seemed to inhabit the quiet road, anyway. No one said anything to him, though a couple waved when they made eye contact and he wondered if they were all passing by to see him. That seemed…odd. Though then again, it seemed like a quiet town and his dad was a fairly important townsperson. Maybe that made him some kind of small-time celebrity. A B-lister of sorts.
At any rate, he was out by the trash cans, stuffing a bag full of mystery herbs, terracotta pieces, and dead leaves into one of them, when a dark-haired girl around his age slowly cycled past on a bike. Stiles could see her glancing surreptitiously his way, so he sighed and raised a hand in greeting. She smiled and turned her head fully in his direction, waving back. Stiles decided it was time to be outgoing.
“Hey!” he called. “Do you live nearby?”
The girl turned her bike in a lazy half circle, skidding to a halt at the end of the driveway as Stiles walked toward her. “No,” she admitted. “I was just visiting my boyfriend.”
“Oh, cool,” Stiles said lightly. “I’m Stiles.”
“The sheriff’s son,” the girl nodded, her eyes crinkling at the corners when she smiled. “I’m Allison.”
“Nice to meet you,” Stiles said cheerfully. “Tell me, Allison, have I become some sort of attraction? People keep walking by the house and staring.”
Allison laughed. “Probably,” she told him. “Not a lot happens here. A new face in town is exciting for everyone.”
“Oh, awesome,” Stiles sighed. “I would have put on a nicer shirt if I knew I was going to be ogled by a bunch of soccer moms.”
Allison laughed again, scrunching her nose up sympathetically. “It’ll pass,” she said. “Someone’s opening a new bakery next week and that’ll be the talk of the town for awhile. You’ll have to be brave until then.”
“Story of my life,” Stiles said gallantly.
She tossed him a cheerful smile. “If you’re not doing anything, a bunch of us usually do pizza and board games on Friday. You’re welcome to join us.”
Stiles brightened; he hadn’t been sure how he was going to meet people in this town. “Really? Thanks!”
They swapped numbers and Allison promised she’d text him with more details before looping her bike around and riding off down the road with one last wave. Stiles grinned after her.
That night, Stiles awoke from a dead slumber because something was howling outside. He lay in bed for a couple of minutes, skin crawling at the lonely sound. It sounded like every wolf howl he’d ever heard in a movie, but a thousand times more melancholy. Close, too — it sounded like it was just in the woods outside.
He twisted his head to look out the window, where the moon hung huge and full and silver over the woods. The wolf — or whatever it was, as Stiles didn’t think there were wolves in California — stopped howling after a while, and it was only in the silence that Stiles realized that it had been calling with no response. It was a sad thought; he felt bad for the animal out in the woods, crying to no one. He hoped it found someone soon.
Stiles went into town the next day. He needed to get gas for the lawn mower and paint for the bedroom ceiling, and the house was starting to get boring. Walking down the main street was a little intimidating; people stared at him here, too. It wasn’t like he was that unusual, was he? Stiles nervously ran a hand over his hair, wondering if maybe it was sticking up funny or something, but that didn’t seem to be the case. He went for a cup of coffee at a small diner and the waitress said smugly, before he’d even opened his mouth, “Oh, you’re the sheriff’s son!”
Stiles went to see his dad after that. He wasn’t irritated, exactly, but the way everyone knew him was kind of weirding him out. The woman in uniform at the front desk smiled when she saw him, but obviously she knew who he was because she gestured to a door and said, “Your dad’s office is in there, hon.”
“Thanks,” Stiles said dryly, and headed for the door with the plaque that said Sheriff John Stilinski. “Did you pass out headshots of me or something?” Stiles asked when he opened the door.
His father sat behind a desk, a pile of papers spread out before him. He looked up when Stiles spoke, a smile creasing his face. “What do you mean?”
Stiles plunked himself down in the chair opposite his dad. “I’m talking about the way everyone in town knows who I am. Did you make an announcement?”
“I told a couple of people you were coming home,” Dad replied, bending his head to look at his papers again. “Word gets around in a small town like this, I suppose.”
“It’s creepy,” Stiles declared, looking around the office. A California state flag hung on the wall behind his dad’s desk, and there were a couple of filing cabinets and bookshelves filled with books about town bylaws and state codes. “Hey, whoa, what kind of skull is that?” He pointed to an off-white animal skull sitting on top of one of the bookcases next to an old framed family photo of Stiles and his parents. “A dog?”
His father glanced over at it. “They tell me it’s a wolf.”
“And why do you have it?”
Dad shrugged. “Passed down from my predecessor. They say it’s lucky. I’m not going to go messing around with that.”
Stiles got out of his seat to investigate, running his fingers over the hard bone. “I heard a wolf last night,” he said thoughtfully.
“No you didn’t.”
Stiles glanced over his shoulder, frowning. “Yeah, I did.”
His father gave him an exasperated look. “You did not. There are no wolves in California.”
“Oh yeah?” Stiles retorted, picking up the wolf skull. “Where’d this one come from, then?”
“It could be a hundred years old,” his dad replied, pulling a sheet of paper toward him before repeating, “There are no wolves in California. You probably heard someone’s dog.”
“Maybe,” Stiles said, giving up. He wandered back over to the chair, throwing himself down into it. “It sounded sad, whatever it was.”
His father looked up at him and for a brief moment there was an expression on his face that Stiles’ didn’t know how to interpret — a little sad himself, and maybe regretful — before it faded into neutrality. “So what are you going to do with the rest of your day?”
“Pick up some spackle and paint for the spare bedroom,” Stiles shrugged. “You got any other maintenance requests?”
“Front steps are a little wobbly,” his dad said, his mouth twisting into a wry grin.
Stiles snorted, getting to his feet. “Fine, I’ll check it out. See you later, Dad.”
His father raised a hand in goodbye and Stiles left the station, heading for the hardware store. Just before reaching it, though, he passed the town library, a small stone building set further back from the road. There was a sign out on the sidewalk proclaiming Book Sale! 50¢ Paperbacks! $1 Hardcovers! and Stiles brightened; he was always up for a good book sale. Maybe he could find some books about gardening.
He headed inside, glancing up at the name carved into the stone lintel as he passed: Joshua Hale Memorial Library. Inside, the library was cool and quiet, few people in sight — Stiles remembered that it was a Monday and most people were at work. That was fine with him; it gave him the freedom to walk around and stare at things without bothering others. This library was clearly his favorite type of library, the kind that didn’t give a shit about the modern world — they still had an actual card catalogue, and he didn’t see a computer anywhere. There was all sorts of awesome shit hanging on the walls and tucked on top of towering shelves. There were taxidermied birds in glass cases, old yellowed maps in gilt frames, and minerals with little descriptions typed on a typewriter probably five decades ago. It was half-museum, really.
He was staring up at a black and white photograph of a severe-looking old man with impressive facial hair — a small label below the circular frame told him this was Joshua Hale (1814–1897), founder of Beacon Hills and benefactor of the library — when he became aware of the fact that someone was standing next to him.
Stiles turned his head to find a red-haired girl around his age watching him, her arms folded across her chest. She raised her perfect eyebrows when he turned and he flushed, embarrassed for no reason. “Uh, hi,” Stiles said.
“Hi,” the girl returned politely. “You’ve been in here a while. I just wanted to make sure you didn’t need any help finding anything.”
“Oh, no,” Stiles said. “I came in for the book sale, but I, uh, got distracted.” He made a vague gesture toward the portrait, and the girl’s eyes flicked over to it.
“There’s a lot of interesting stuff in here,” she agreed. “Let me know if you have any questions.”
“Oh, uh — ” Stiles said, as she turned to go, and the girl turned back, raising her eyebrows again. “Where is the book sale?” He’d done a full lap of the library by that point — it wasn’t all that big — and he hadn’t seen any books laid out.
“In the basement,” the girl replied. “I can show you.”
She gestured and he followed her to the back of the library, where an iron staircase spiraled downward. It was even cooler down in the basement, slightly damp and smelling of musty paper. It was just one large room with some filing cabinets up against one wall and maybe ten or so tables covered in books laid out in the middle under a row of fluorescent lights.
“Thanks,” Stiles said gratefully. “I’m Stiles, by the way.”
“I know,” the girl replied, pulling her red hair over one shoulder. “But I figured you’re probably already sick of people knowing who you are. Lydia Martin,” she added, by way of introduction.
“Hey,” Stiles nodded. “Thanks for showing me down here.”
“Not a problem,” Lydia replied. “If you find anything you want to buy, I’ll be upstairs.”
“Thanks,” Stiles said again, watching her head back upstairs before turning his attention to the books. He wandered up and down the rows of tables for a while, picking up books and putting them down. He found one on vegetable gardening and another on basic home repair, since he seemed to have become his dad’s maintenance man, and a couple of trade paperbacks that looked interesting. Stiles was just picking up a book on macramé, lured in by the horrible seventies typeface on the cover, when a light caught his eye and he looked up.
As it turned out, the basement wasn’t one huge room; there was a room behind the stairs he hadn’t noticed before, a dark metal grille covering the doorway. Stiles, forever curious, set his books down and wandered over to it, peering between the bars to see into the room beyond. It wasn’t much of a room, really, more of a closet, with just enough space for shelves to line the walls and room to stand in between. Tucked away at the far end sat a simple wooden chair and a small table. There were a couple hundred books in there at most, all old and leather-bound with peeling spines. Stiles squinted at the gilt titles but he couldn’t focus on them, which was strange because he usually had pretty good vision. There was a buzzing in the back of his head that made his teeth ache, also strange. He wondered if there was something happening with the electricity that was messing with his body. That was a thing, right? Magnetic waves and all that? It was an old building, there was probably old wiring that was doing crazy things.
Stiles shook his head and retreated back to the book sale tables, the buzzing in his head fading as he went. He grabbed the books he’d set aside and headed upstairs, where he found Lydia sitting at the circulation desk, tapping away on her phone. It looked weirdly out of place in the old building. “Hey,” she said, not looking up. “Did you find what you were looking for?”
“I think so,” Stiles replied, digging around in his pocket for some cash while Lydia set her phone aside and counted up his books.
“Three dollars,” she informed him.
Stiles handed her two dollars and a bunch of change, which she made a face at but dutifully counted out. “What’s that room downstairs?” he asked her as she dumped the cash into a tin box.
“Research room,” Lydia replied, pulling out a plastic bag and sliding his books into it. “Rare books. You have to have permission from the town or the head librarian to get in there.”
“Oh,” Stiles said thoughtfully. “You’re not the head librarian?”
Lydia laughed, a surprisingly sweet sound. “This is just a summer job. I have to go back to school in the fall.”
“Oh,” Stiles said again. “Do you happen to know of any place that’s hiring for the summer?”
Lydia pursed her lips, looking thoughtful. “Not off the top of my head,” she said finally. “But we might be. Laura’s not back until tomorrow but you could stop by and ask. She was saying she wanted to overlap shifts. It’s just the two of us right now.”
“That would be awesome,” Stiles said earnestly. “I’ll definitely stop in, thanks.”
“See you around,” Lydia said, a faint smile quirking one side of her mouth. Stiles grinned back, grabbing his bag of books
Stiles spent the rest of the afternoon spreading putty over the cracks in the bedroom ceiling, then outside in the grass with his book on vegetable gardening, trying to figure out what he was going to grow. According to the book, he was kind of behind on planting, seeing as it was already mid-May, but he figured he could try his hand at it anyway. He’d found a couple dozen small bottles of seeds in the shed when he’d cleaned it out the other day and so he spread them out over the grass, peering at their faded paper labels. Some of them he’d never heard of — weird herbs, he found, when he looked them up on his phone — and some of them didn’t have labels at all, which was intriguing. He split them into three piles: grow, maybe, and no, and headed inside to veg out for the rest of the day.
There was no howling outside his window that night. Stiles slept like a baby.
“Lydia told you we were hiring?” the woman behind the circulation desk repeated, looking doubtful.
“She said maybe,” Stiles said. “It’s okay if you aren’t.”
“Hm,” the woman said, raking her eyes up and down Stiles. “I suppose it would be nice to have someone for back-up. The town will be pissed if I add you to my budget.” That, for whatever reason seemed to delight her. Her eyes lit up as she nodded. “Yep, that’ll piss Finstock off, all right. You’re hired.”
“Er,” Stiles said. Far be it from him to look a gift horse in the mouth, but — “Do you need to see any references or anything?”
She gave him an exasperated look. “Have you ever burned down a building?”
“Uh — no?”
“Have you ever been arrested?”
“Have you ever mistreated a book?”
“Um,” Stiles said uncomfortably. “I cut a hiding spot for my pot in a copy of War and Peace when I was in high school, but my dad found it in like two days. I don’t smoke anymore either,” he added hurriedly.
The woman narrowed her eyes at him, considering this tale. Finally, she nodded; he seemed to have past the test. “War and Peace is an abomination,” she declared. “I may have done something similar when I was a teenager. You get a pass on that one.”
“Oh,” Stiles said. “Cool. So, I’m still hired?”
“Yeah,” the woman nodded, getting to her feet. She held a hand out over the desk. “I’m Laura. I’ll grab you the paperwork and we can get you started.”
Stiles spent the rest of the morning getting acquainted with the library. It wasn’t complicated, and there were few patrons on a Tuesday morning. Laura told him about all the various programs — children’s reading hour, the Agatha Christie book club and murder mystery nights, and the historical society that met in the basement every Thursday.
Stiles liked Laura. She certainly didn’t fit the typical librarian stereotype; she was loud, and cheerfully greeted familiar patrons who came through the door. An old man with an armful of James Patterson novels told her a dirty joke and she laughed like a hyena. A mom came in with her four year old and Laura got into an argument with the little boy over who would win in a fight: a bear or a shark. Stiles was maybe a little in love.
Laura sent him off later in the afternoon, telling him to come back the next day and they’d work out a schedule. She couldn’t promise him full time, but Stiles was fine with that. It would allow him to still have an easy summer without getting too bored lying around at home. It allowed him time to work on his garden, which he did that afternoon, laying out the edges and turning over the old soil. Dad laughed at him when he got home, coming out onto the back deck with a beer in his hand to watch Stiles root around in the dirt.
“You laugh now,” Stiles warned, pointing a dirt-stained finger at him, “but you just wait until we can make fresh salad and grilled zucchini and, and mashed cauliflower.”
“Ambitious,” Dad said, making a face at the mashed cauliflower comment. He watched Stiles for a moment, his face softening. “Your mom loved gardening.”
“I remember,” Stiles said, his stomach tightening at the mention of his mother. Eleven years and it still hurt. He could remember her garden, lush with wildflowers and climbing roses. She’d never been into growing vegetables. She used to take him to the farmer’s market on the weekends and teach him how to pick the best produce. Whenever he went to the grocery store, he still heard her voice in his head, making sure he didn’t pick out bruised apples or too-ripe avocados.
“Well,” his father said, tone a little too light. “I’m gonna warm up the last of that casserole. You want some?”
Stiles shook his head. “Thanks,” he said slowly, “but I’m not hungry.” He stayed outside until the sun started to set and the gnats got bad, enjoying the feeling of his hands in the soil and the quiet sounds of the forest.
Later, he was up in his room getting ready for bed with his window open to let in the cool night air when he heard what sounded like laughter outside. Stiles paused, then zipped up his hoodie and stepped over to the window to listen. He could hear, indistinctly, a group of people off in the woods somewhere to his left, further away from town. Stiles frowned. He wasn’t sure exactly how big their property was, but his dad had mentioned that it went back into the trees some distance. Well. He couldn’t have teenagers starting bonfires in the woods or getting into all the weird shit he’d thrown out of the shed.
Stiles pulled his jeans back on and headed downstairs. His dad was asleep on the couch with the television turned to Jimmy Fallon, but Stiles didn’t wake him. He went into the kitchen instead, digging through the drawer of miscellaneous things until he found a working flashlight, and headed outside, closing the back door softly behind him.
The moon hung heavy and full overhead, so bright he actually didn’t need the flashlight until he reached the trees. He could still hear the group of people chattering somewhere ahead, their conversation too soft to hear. He moved a little faster and, for his trouble, tripped over a tree root and face-planted into the loam. Stiles groaned softly, sitting up slowly. His nose had made a gross clicking noise when he hit the dirt and he could feel it now, something wet trickling down his lip.
He was wiping the blood from his face when he realized the forest had gone silent and he could no longer hear the people he’d been stalking. Stiles stifled a frustrated noise. Jesus, he’d just been trying to keep people out of trouble.
Stiles got to his feet with a sigh, swiping at his nose with his sleeve. He ventured another couple hundred yards further, figuring if he was already in the woods, he might as well give it a little more effort before giving up. He got all the way to the top of a rise before deciding that this was his end point and when he swung around, someone stood there.
“Jesus!” Stiles yelped, overbalancing and landing flat amongst the leaves. He raised his flashlight and his heart stopped for a moment when the light landed on the dude’s face, which was harsh and inhuman, his brow heavy, thick hair coming down the sides of his face. Stiles was afraid for about two seconds until the rational part of his brain kicked in and decided that there was no way monsters were real and if they were, they would not be in the middle of Nowhere, California, wearing Converse and jeans that were torn in the knees. And now that he was looking, the dude’s makeup really looked like a vampire from Buffy, and those things had never been scary.
“Dude,” Stiles said, picking himself up onto his elbows. “I know everyone’s into Joss Whedon at the moment, but you know Buffy was canceled, right?”
The guy snorted, the corners of his mouth lifting. That’s when a couple of other people stepped out of the trees around them — a tall, lanky guy with curly hair, a curvy blonde, and a big black dude. They all had their faces made up the same way.
Stiles raised his hand in a mock toast. “Nice job with the make-up, seriously. Are you guys LARPing or something?”
The guy in front of him laughed. “Something like that,” he said, his voice muffled by some impressive fake fangs.
“You’re the sheriff’s kid, aren’t you?” the girl asked him.
“Yeah,” Stiles agreed. “Hey, do you guys play D&D?”
The guy in front of him brightened as the others groaned. “We do on Fridays, sometimes! You should come!”
“Sweet!” Stiles said excitedly. “I’ve got my character sheet somewhere. I — oh, hey, wait, do you know Allison, then? She said some people play board games on Fridays — ”
Everyone groaned again except for the dude in front of him, who grinned brightly. “You know Allison?”
“I’m going to the pond,” the tall kid said impatiently, pulling a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket. “Erica, you got your lighter?”
The blonde girl passed him a lighter, saying, “I’m coming with you. Scott’s got his gushing face on.”
“Me too,” the big guy agreed. “Scott, meet us there.”
The guy in front of Stiles — Scott? — waved them off, extending his other hand to Stiles to pull him out of the dirt. Standing, Stiles had a better view of his face and he was super impressed by the quality of his makeup; he couldn’t even tell where the prosthetics began. He was even wearing yellow contact lenses. “I’m Scott,” the dude told him earnestly. “Allison’s my girlfriend.”
“Ohhh,” Stiles said. “You live down my road, then.”
“Yeah, a couple houses down,” Scott agreed cheerfully. “I think my mom dropped off a casserole the other day.”
“Oh!” Stiles exclaimed. “Melissa? She said she had a son.”
“That’s me,” Scott grinned. “So you’re going to come over on Friday?”
“Yeah, sure,” Stiles agreed. “It sounds like fun. What are you guys up to tonight?”
“Oh, it’s — ” Scott glanced around the trees. “It’s kinda a secret thing. Not a cult or anything. We’ve just got this thing we do, and, uh…” He trailed off, looking a little lost.
Stiles decided to cut him some slack. “No worries,” he said. “I just heard you guys out here and I thought it might be someone getting up to trouble.”
“Nah,” Scott shook his head. “We usually come out here because no one’s going to bother us. Guess we were wrong about that tonight.”
Stiles laughed. “Sorry. I’ll let you get on with it. See you Friday?”
“See you Friday,” Scott confirmed, holding out his hand for a brofist.
"Have fun howling at the moon or whatever," Stiles said cheerfully. Scott laughed, waving over his shoulder as he trotted off into the darkness.
Stiles was almost back to the house when two things happened: one, it occurred to him that none of the people he'd met had been carrying flashlights and that was kind of strange, wasn’t it?; and two, something started howling in the trees off to Stiles' left. It began low, so low he almost didn't notice it until it was rising high and clear and really fucking close. It didn't take any time at all for Stiles to burst into a run — distracted by the people in the woods, he'd completely forgotten about what he'd heard the other night and now it only sounded a couple hundred yards away and he was so, so stupid sometimes. Running was probably the most idiotic thing he could have done, but it wasn't like he was going to wait around for whatever it was to rip out his throat.
He couldn't be sure he was being followed — he'd given up all pretense of being quiet and crunched through leaves and snapped branches — and the way the moonlight came through the trees was deceptive, casting the world stark black and silver, but he was fucking sure he saw something running through the trees beside him, no more than ten yards away. The terror he felt then was real and visceral in a way he hadn't felt since he'd lost control of the Jeep during a heavy rainstorm his senior year of high school. That had ended the way this ended now, with Stiles nearly avoiding crashing into a tree. Instead he just missed it and fell out onto the back lawn, the lights of the house shining soft and promising security.
He flew across the grass, not daring to look over his shoulder, and crashed through the back door, startling his father, who stood at the sink filling up a glass of water. Stiles slammed the door behind him and leaned back against it, his chest heaving. His dad raised his eyebrows.
"Didn't know you'd gone out," he said mildly, eyes taking in Stiles' flushed cheeks and bloody nose. "You get into a fight with a tree?"
"There is something out there," Stiles said adamantly, jabbing a finger toward the dark woods. "Did you hear that?"
"I just woke up," his father replied, infuriatingly calm. "Told you, son, it's just someone's dog."
"Hah," Stiles said scornfully. Now that he'd gotten his breath back, he noticed how much his face itched under the dried blood. Shit, Scott and his friends must have thought he was such a dumbass. "I met some people out in the woods."
His dad looked at him sharply. "Did you?"
"Yeah," Stiles said, stepping over to the sink so he could splash water onto his bloody chin. "They had some pretty rad make-up on."
"Make-up?" his father repeated, looking bewildered.
"Yeah," Stiles said again, gesturing vaguely toward his face. "Heavy brows, fake teeth, yellow contacts. It was pretty cool."
"Yellow — oh, dear god," his dad sighed. "Only you, Stiles."
"What?" Stiles asked, offended. "What does that mean?"
His dad sighed again. "Only you'd go venturing into the woods and come out with new friends."
Stiles grinned. "What can I say? People like me."
His father rolled his eyes. "How's your nose? Broken?"
"I don't think so," Stiles replied, prodding at said body part gently. It ached a little, but it didn't feel swollen. "I tripped."
"Seems about right," his dad said, and Stiles scowled at him. His father snorted softly. "I'd take some ice and get yourself in bed. You're working tomorrow, aren't you?"
Stiles' nose was not broken, though there was a nice cut across the bridge of his nose he spent a few minutes admiring in the mirror. He thought, privately, that it looked kind of badass, though when he walked into the library that morning, Lydia looked like she was trying not to laugh.
"What happened to you?" she asked, the corners of her mouth quivering.
"I tripped," Stiles said moodily. He'd had trouble with the Jeep that morning. It hadn't seemed to have appreciated the long drive up from San Francisco as he'd come out that morning to find it leaking brake fluid and had had to spend fifteen minutes underneath it trying to stop it.
"You've got dirt on your face," Lydia pointed out, sounding half sympathetic, half amused. Stiles made an irritated clicking noise with his tongue and wiped at his face. It felt more like grease than dirt and that was great — just great. "Is Laura in?"
Lydia shook her head. "It's just you and I this morning."
They spent the hours before lunch putting together letters for the library’s summer donation drive — Stiles folded letters and stuffed envelopes while Lydia sealed and labeled them and they talked quietly as there was a group of young moms with babies over in the children’s room doing activities with their kids. Lydia had stories about every single one of them. She told Stiles, quite proudly, that she knew the name of every single person living in Beacon Hills and at least one detail about their lives. She proceeded to prove this by greeting every patron who entered the library by name, then whispering about them to Stiles, who wasn’t one hundred percent sure that she wasn’t making most of it up. There was no way the buff dude from the hardware store collected porcelain dolls, or the mom in the pink Victoria’s Secret sweatpants was a practicing Wiccan.
Stiles said as much to Lydia, who gave him a pitying look and said, “You can’t trust your eyes alone, Stiles. You need to collect evidence.” That sounded like something his dad would say and he sat quietly, thoroughly chastened, when Lydia pointed at a tiny old man and told Stiles that he was on his seventh wife.
Lydia was much more reluctant to diverge information about herself than she was about the townsfolk of Beacon Hills — “Knowledge is power,” she told Stiles solemnly — but he at least managed to get it out of her that she went to Stanford, where she studied chemical engineering.
Around noon, a lanky young man with the curls and jaw line of a Roman statue came sauntering in and leaned over the desk. He murmured something to Lydia, who smiled faintly and said, “Not yet.”
Stiles stared — not because he was nosy (and no shame if he was because Lydia was clearly the goddess of getting into other people’s business) but because there was something familiar about the young man. Lydia caught him looking and said, “Stiles, this is Isaac.”
“Hey,” Stiles said, offering his hand.
Isaac shook it, his mouth lifting on one side in a sarcastic grin. “Hey,” he echoed. “Don’t recognize me?”
“I — oh,” Stiles blinked, his memory finally clicking. “You were in the woods last night!”
“Bingo,” Isaac grinned.
“That make-up must be a bitch to get off,” Stiles said. “What do you use? Silicone?”
“Make-up?” Lydia repeated, frowning up at Isaac.
He smiled down at her, batting his long lashes beguilingly. “You know,” he told her. “Full moon. Full shift.”
“Oh,” Lydia said, her face clearing. Her eyes flicked over to Stiles and she snorted. “I see.”
“Well,” Isaac said, tapping his fingers against the polished wood of the circulation desk. “I came to see if you wanted to go out for lunch.”
“I don’t think I should,” Lydia said, glancing over at Stiles again. “Stiles — ”
“Will be fine,” Stiles said with a wave of his hand. “Go eat.”
Lydia hesitated a moment longer before rising, patting Stiles on the shoulder before leaving with Isaac.
The hour passed by without incident. It got busy; people running in during their lunch breaks to drop off overdue books and collect an armful of new reading material, but never too many people for Stiles to handle. He hadn't even realized an hour had passed until Lydia came back in, sans Isaac, looking pleased.
"I like you working here," she told him, cheerfully pushing him aside so she could take over the checkout line, addressing the pile of romance novels Mr. Sanderson — the old man on his seventh wife — shyly passed over. "I never get a lunch break."
"Glad I could help," Stiles said, amused.
Lydia gave him a sincere smile as she handed Mr. Sanderson his books. "I'll give you some free information as a thank you," she said. "Choose someone. Anyone in town."
Stiles considered for a moment. He was almost tempted to ask about his dad, just to see how much she knew, but changed his mind at the last second. "Tell me about Laura," he said. "She doesn't really fit my mental image of a librarian."
Lydia snorted derisively. "Like you or I do?"
"Fair point," Stiles agreed. "So? Is she from around here?"
"She's a Hale," Lydia said, like that explained everything. When Stiles didn't react, she raised her eyebrows and said, "A Hale? As in Joshua Hale, who founded the town?"
"Oh, like the library?"
"Like the library," Lydia agreed patiently. "Everything in here — the paintings, the specimens — basically everything except the books are on permanent loan from her family."
"Are they a big family, then?" Stiles asked curiously. Lydia hesitated, her expression going serious, and Stiles felt an odd twist in his stomach. "Did something happen? You don't have to tell me."
Lydia shook her head. "You'll find out sooner or later," she said softly. "Everyone knows, it's just…it was really sad. The whole town was devastated."
"Oh?" Stiles pressed, the nervous roiling of his stomach intensifying.
"There was a fire," Lydia said quietly. "They had this big house out in the woods. This was maybe five years ago, I was in high school. A lot of people died."
"Shit," Stiles whispered. He felt like an ass for having brought it up. "Laura's the only one left?"
Lydia hesitated for a long, long moment before admitting, "No. She has a brother but…no one's seen him in a while. He keeps to himself."
"Oh," Stiles repeated dumbly.
Lydia got to her feet, towing him over to the biography section, where a collection of picture frames hung over the shelves. "That's what the house looked like," she told Stiles, pointing to a large black and white photograph in the center — it showed a grand house, almost a mansion, really, surrounded by trees. Around the photograph of the house hung family photos dating all the way back to the 1860s.
"This was taken a couple of years before the fire," Lydia said, directing Stiles' attention to one of the few photographs in color. He looked carefully at the group photo, spotting Laura, looking younger and happy, amongst a sea of dark-haired, pale-eyed Hales. "There's her brother," Lydia added, tapping her manicured fingernail against the face of a smiling teenager. "And there's her mom. She used to coach girls' soccer. Her dad was mayor before Finstock, and her grandmother…"
Stiles listened to Lydia spout off facts about the various members of the Hale family, staring at the family photo with a heavy heart. He'd lost his mom over ten years ago and that had hurt bad enough. Lydia never explicitly said how many of the Hales died in the fire but if they were all in this photo and only two were left alive, that meant that at least ten people had passed in one night. At least he'd had months to say goodbye to his mom. He couldn't even fathom the sense of loss that the sudden deaths of ten family members might bring.
"Don't say anything to Laura," Lydia said suddenly, snapping Stiles out of his thoughts. "It's not something she likes to talk about."
"Understandable," Stiles replied, shoving his hands in his pockets. He hesitated before asking his next question. "Was it an accident?"
Lydia bit her lip, shaking her head. "They still don't know who did it."
"Oh," Stiles said. That was even worse — that someone murdered ten people. "Jesus."
Lydia shrugged, an expression on her face like what can you do? "You're off for the rest of the afternoon, anyway," she said. "You're not back until Sunday, and I think Laura scheduled you alone. Do you know where the key is?"
"Laura showed me," Stiles replied. She’d given him a thorough, albeit brief, tour of the library on his first day, and he knew there was a key hidden under a brick outside.
“Well,” Lydia said, her smile a little tense. “Thanks for your help today.”
“No problem,” Stiles replied, sticking his hands in his pockets. “I guess I’ll see you later. And, uh, thanks for opening up to me. About Laura, I mean. I’m not going to say anything, I promise.”
“I know,” Lydia replied, her face softening. “Go enjoy your afternoon.”
Stiles did; he spent the rest of the day in the garden, carefully planting the seeds he’d chosen, using string to lay out grids. There was something satisfying about getting his hands dirty, in seeing the soil laid out clean and without weeds.
When his father came home, he cooked up some chicken on the grill and they ate out on the back deck. His dad hadn’t yet invested in any deck furniture, so they sat on the edge with their feet hanging over the grass. It was quiet, peaceful. Stiles could hear the faint sound of a banjo playing and his dad told him that one of their neighbors down the road was in a bluegrass band and he liked to sit outside and practice.
“Are you liking it here?” Stiles’ father asked abruptly. “I know it’s pretty different from Santa Rosa, but — ”
“I like it, Dad,” Stiles replied simply. “I’ve met some really nice people. It seems like a very close community.”
“It is,” his dad agreed with a nod. “I’ve never lived in a place where people care so strongly about each other.” He set down his empty plate, then picked up his beer. “This community’s seen a lot of tragedy in the past couple of years. Car crashes, home invasions, you name it. The sheriff before me got shot responding to a domestic dispute. Didn’t die,” he added hurriedly, at the way Stiles blanched. “Just retired early. But from what folks tell me, the place has changed a lot in the past five years or so. A lot of people are moving away. It’s almost like the town’s starting to die.”
Stiles shuddered. “And you moved us out here.”
“Change of pace,” his dad said, like he had on Stiles’ first night in town. He took a sip of beer and nodded toward the trees. “Country life took some getting used to,” he added. “Not used to not hearing cars all the time.”
“Yeah,” Stiles agreed. “I like it, though. ‘s kind of refreshing.” He drummed his heels against a wood support, then asked, “Do you know about the Hales?”
“I’d be surprised if there was anyone in this county who didn’t,” his father replied. “You heard about the fire?” Stiles nodded and his father continued, “Sad business. I took a look at the file when I started. It’s still an active investigation, but they haven’t had any new leads in a couple of years.”
“Who would do that, though?” Stiles wondered. “Who could kill a bunch of people, just like that?”
His dad shook his head, looking solemn. “The world’s not as simple as we’d like to think it is, son — if there’s anything being a cop has taught me, it’s that. Sometimes people don’t need a reason to do bad things; they do it because they enjoy it. And until we find whoever was responsible, all we’ve got is speculation. We may never know.”
Stiles sat silent for a while, thinking. “Have you met Laura?” he asked curiously.
His father nodded. “Many times. She’s one of those people who likes to be involved with everything in town. She’s got a good heart.”
“And her brother? Have you met him?”
His dad shook his head again. “He keeps to himself,” he said, echoing what Lydia had said early. He nodded toward the woods again. “The house is still out there in the woods. You been out to the preserve yet?”
“Not yet,” Stiles said with a shake of his head.
“You should go,” his father told him. “There are some walking trails and a reservoir. Nice scenery.”
“Maybe I will,” Stiles replied, getting to his feet. “Maybe you should come too; I found that bag of Snickers you tried to hide in the vegetable drawer.”
“Damn,” his dad cursed, following him into the kitchen. “I thought I was the investigator here.”
“Like father like son,” Stiles snorted, piling their dishes in the sink. His dad laughed and clapped him on the shoulder, heading for the fridge to grab himself another beer.
On Friday, Stiles left the house around eight and walked down the road to number twenty-two, the home of the McCall family. Allison, the girl he’d met earlier in the week, had texted him a couple hours previous with the time and place. No D&D tonight, she’d said. Our DM can’t make it. :( Stiles didn’t mind, though; he was just happy to have met some people he could hang out with.
Scott opened the door before Stiles even made it up the steps, a wide grin on his face. Stiles assumed it was Scott, anyway, from his hair and familiar Converse — the only time they’d met was in the forest when Scott had all his make-up on. He looked a lot friendlier without it, his brown eyes twinkling with good cheer.
“Hey, dude!” Scott said happily. “You made it!” His eyes dropped to the casserole dish in Stiles’ arms. “And you brought food!”
“This is your mom’s dish, actually,” Stiles replied, grinning. “I thought I’d make brownies, though.”
“Excellent decision,” Scott enthused. “Come in!” He stepped back, giving Stiles room to step inside and kick off his shoes. Scott waved him down a short hallway and into the living room, where he found Allison sitting in an overstuffed armchair and the big dude and the blonde girl from the woods the other night sprawled on the couch. “You know Allison,” Scott said cheerfully. Allison waved. “And this is Boyd and Erica.”
“Hey, sweetheart,” Erica called, her head in Boyd’s lap and her legs over the arm of the couch. Boyd raised a heavy hand in greeting.
“Hey,” Stiles said, lifting the casserole dish like an offering. “I brought brownies.”
“You’re my new favorite,” Erica declared.
“Lydia couldn’t make it,” Allison said apologetically.
“Yeah, her dad took her to Redding for the weekend to try to buy her love back,” Erica cackled, drumming her heels against the couch. “Isaac’s sobbing in the kitchen.”
“I am not,” Isaac said indignantly, appearing in a doorway off the side of the living room with a bowl in his hands. “I was just getting salsa!”
“Don’t mind them,” Scott said cheerily while Isaac and Erica started into what sounded like an argument they’d had hundreds of times before. “You want something to drink? We’ve got beer.”
“Sure,” Stiles said agreeably. He set the dish of brownies down on the coffee table because both Erica and Boyd were eyeing it hungrily. He followed Scott into the kitchen and accepted a cold beer from the fridge.
Scott cracked open his own bottle and said, “I know we’re still strangers to you,” he said, “but I’m really glad you came over.”
“Thanks,” Stiles replied. “I am too. My dad’s good company, but it’s nice to mix things up a bit.”
Scott grinned. “You’re welcome here any time, dude. I work mornings most of the time, so feel free to drop in if you get bored.”
“Where do you work?” Stiles asked curiously, following Scott back into the living room.
“At the local vet,” Scott replied, squeezing himself into the armchair with Allison. “You’re at the library, right?”
“Yeah,” Stiles said, looking around the room. “What about the rest of you? Are you guys students?”
“We all go to the community college,” Isaac informed him. “Lydia’s the only one who decided to leave home.”
“Not me,” Erica put in with a sharp grin. “I’m going to the police academy in the fall. I’m gonna sweet-talk your dad into giving me a job.”
Stiles laughed. “Good luck with that,” he said. “Dad’s pretty impervious to all forms of charm.”
“Maybe no one’s tried hard enough,” Erica replied haughtily. “No man can stand up to the Reyes charm, right, baby?” she added, nudging Boyd in the ribs. He rolled his eyes as everyone else laughed.
The hours slipped by fast; they played several rounds of games, drank beers, ate food, and laughed a lot. Stiles found himself liking the group immensely. Scott and Allison were good-natured and laughed at everything. Erica was loud and vulgar and picked on everyone without discrimination. Isaac was quiet, but sharp, and Boyd was the king of dry humor. It was disappointing when Melissa came home after a late shift at the hospital and broke up the party, but she patted him on the shoulder and said, “There’s always next week, sweetheart.”
The next week passed quickly as Stiles adjusted to life in Beacon Hills, his days settling into a rough pattern. He usually worked into the early afternoon, which gave him time to go home and take care of the garden and whatever little things his dad had found around the house for him to fix.
On Wednesday, temperatures soared. Stiles was working with Laura, who grumbled that it was time to get the ACs put in. When Stiles expressed his disbelief that the building didn’t have central AC, Laura growled and gestured violently as she snapped, “This building’s a hundred years old, Stilinski — does it look like it has central air to you?”
Okay, Stiles thought as Laura retreated to her office, muttering under her breath, Laura gets testy in the heat. Noted.
It was even hotter when he got out around one, and the prospect of standing outside and taking care of the garden sounded utterly unappealing. He sat in the Jeep for a moment, sweat rolling down his spine, when he remembered that, one: his dad had mentioned a reservoir in the preserve, and two: Scott had the afternoons off. He’d gotten everyone’s numbers on Friday night, so he shot Scott a quick text before kicking the Jeep into gear and heading for the west side of town.
Yo, you interested in going swimming?
Scott’s reply came quickly; Stiles glanced down as the Jeep bounced down a dusty country road. Hell yeah! You know where the lake is?
Think I can find it, Stiles texted back as he stopped at an intersection. The road turned to dirt, raising clouds of dust behind him as he drove past a sign that read Beacon Hills Preserve • 5 MPH. No dogs. The road was rough; Stiles gritted his teeth as the Jeep jolted over potholes. It didn’t seem well traveled and there was a strip of vegetation growing down the middle of the road. The parking lot — if that’s what it was — was more like a field with grass shooting up in sparse patches. His was the only car and there were no further signs to guide him to the lake, only two trails branching off from the lot. Stiles shrugged; he couldn’t see the water through the trees, but his dad had made it sound like the trails did a big loop, so he was sure he’d get there eventually.
He decided to take the path to the left and followed it through the trees, listening to the sound of the forest; cicadas buzzing and birds calling overhead. It was peaceful, the world bathed in green light, and Stiles didn’t notice the path had faded away until it simply wasn’t there any longer.
“Oh,” Stiles said aloud, pausing. It probably wasn’t the best idea to just wander around in the woods — the preserve was a couple hundred acres, he knew — but it looked like the trees thinned ahead. He decided to head that way and if the lake wasn’t in sight, he’d turn around and head back for the parking lot and try the other trail.
It wasn’t the lake. What Stiles found through the trees was the blackened skeleton of a once huge house and it didn’t take long at all for him to realize that this was the old Hale house — what was left of it, anyway.
Stiles' eyes took in the once magnificent façade — the broken windows and the vines overtaking the crumbling wall, his stomach churning as he thought about the people who died here. His eyes dropped to the sagging front porch, dark with shadows, and froze instantly, his entire body going tense. There, paws hanging over the top steps, lay a massive black dog. It watched Stiles with pale, pale eyes, head resting on its front legs, ears pricked forward. Stiles stared back, one foot still half-raised in movement. He could feel sweat slipping down his chest, sliding down the back of his neck, itching at his hairline, but he couldn’t move.
What if this was what he’d heard howling in the woods? He couldn’t help but recall that the sign to the preserve had explicitly stated No dogs, though it didn’t look as though there was an owner around to reign it in. And Stiles knew that his dad had said there were no wolves in California, but it was hard to keep that in mind when there appeared to be one laying right in front of him — because if this thing was a dog, it was bigger than any dog he’d ever seen, and it looked wild.
It wasn’t moving, though, and Stiles wasn’t sure what to make of that. He knew that some predators were only interested in the chase — were wolves one of them? Was he safe so long as he didn’t move? Stiles didn’t know what to do.
The wolf — or dog, or whatever it was — watched him for another minute or so, then shifted slightly, turning its head and closing its eyes. Stiles only grew more bewildered. So…was he okay, then? Like, if this thing was human, that’d be a pretty clear dismissal, but maybe it was some sort of clever tactic to lull him into a false sense of security.
Stiles set his foot down carefully, wincing at the noise it made on the dry leaves carpeting the forest floor. The wolf didn’t look up, though. Stiles took a cautious step backward, then another, then another, until there were enough trees between him and the house that he couldn’t see the wolf any more. That was both encouraging and frightening, because now he couldn’t be sure that the wolf hadn’t slunk off to stalk him, but Stiles kept going until he built up the courage to turn around and trot off through the trees. He wouldn’t run, he refused to run, but there was definitely some urgency to his jog.
When Stiles got back to the parking lot, Scott was just riding up on his bike, his face shiny with sweat. “Hey,” Scott greeted breathlessly. “You all right, dude? You look like you saw a ghost.”
“I, uh — ” Stiles glanced toward the trees, half expecting to see the wolf standing there, watching them. “It’s nothing. Just got a little turned around in the trees.”
“Happens to the best of us,” Scott replied cheerfully, leaning his bike up against a tree. “Lake’s this way.”
They spent the afternoon splashing around in the shallows of the reservoir, reveling in the cool relief of the water. Scott was apparently capable of some very kung-fu-esque backflips off rocks that Stiles was definitely not jealous of, but it felt good to hang out. Scott was one of those types of people who could get along with anyone.
"That is not true," Scott laughed, wiping water off his face. "You should have met Lydia's ex. He hated me. He hated all of us."
"Lydia doesn't seem like the type to date jackasses," Stiles replied.
"”Jackson was just an ass,” Scott said with a shake of his head. “But, high school, I guess. You learn a lot about yourself and what you like."
"Amen," Stiles agreed solemnly, his eyes sliding to the tree line. He kept doing it, fully expecting the wolf to be standing there.
"You okay?" Scott asked again, his face wrinkling in concern. "You smel— I mean, you seem kind of freaked out."
Stiles sighed. "No, I just — when I got all turned around in the woods, I saw this dog and I thought it was a wolf and I just — " he cut himself off at the anxious look on Scott's face. "What? What is it?"
"What did it look like?" Scott asked urgently.
"Uh, it was black," Stiles offered, confused. "I saw it at the old Hale house."
"Oh," Scott said, the tension seeping out of his shoulders. "That's fine, then."
"Er," Stiles said. "You know what I'm talking about?"
"Yeah," Scott nodded. "He's not any trouble. I wouldn't try to go near him, but he won't hurt you."
"Okay," Stiles said slowly. That wasn't an entirely reassuring statement. "So…it's not a wolf, then?"
Scott squinted thoughtfully. "No," he decided, and the way it took him so long to do so was also not entirely reassuring, but Stiles decided to leave it at that. He remembered the wolf skull sitting in his dad's office. Maybe it had something to do with the town, like the dog was a mascot or something. Better in this case, he thought, to let sleeping dogs lie.
Friday night (or possibly Saturday morning, Stiles wasn't too sure about the details) found him stumbling home after another enjoyable night of board games and booze at the McCall house. They'd played Carcassonne for three hours straight and Lydia had brought a huge jug of what she said was punch, but Stiles was pretty sure had been some kind of hallucinogenic potion. There'd been flowers floating in it and everyone had gone suspiciously mute when he tried to figure out what they were. He'd decided to call it a night when he'd gone to use the bathroom and found his mom in there braiding her hair, like she'd always done before going to bed. Hallucinations were too hardcore for board games night.
Now it was raining out and Stiles could feel himself sobering up as he walked home. Scott had tried to give him an umbrella, but Stiles had waved it off, though this meant he was soaked to the bone by the time he stumbled up the front steps and unlocked the front door.
His dad had fallen asleep on the couch and Stiles did his best to tiptoe past him, into the kitchen for a glass of water. He was filling his cup at the sink when he noticed a cool breeze rolling across his toes and turned his head to find the back door ajar.
"Jesus, Dad," Stiles muttered, swinging it shut and locking it for good measure. "Do you want a bear in here?"
He headed upstairs, leaving water droplets in his wake, and stripped out of his sodden clothes in the darkness of his room, too tired to bother with the light. He pulled on a clean t-shirt and boxers and threw himself onto the bed, which grunted underneath him. Stiles, much to his almost immediate embarrassment, rolled off the warm, hairy lump on his bed with a scream, hitting the floor with a thump that rattled his bones. His dad came pounding up the stairs, roused by Stiles' yell, and reached the doorway just as Stiles managed to hit the light switch.
He blinked in the sudden light, then kept blinking, because there was a big black dog lying on his bed and he was one hundred percent sure it was the dog he'd seen at the Hale house on Wednesday.
Once Stiles got his breath back he pointed an accusing finger at his father, who had yet to say a word, and gasped, "Didn't get a dog, huh?"
Dad gave him a bemused look. "Not my dog."
Stiles turned to look at the dog, who seemed utterly uninterested in either of them, sniffling at Stiles' comforter in a half-hearted way. "Uh huh. And what's he doing in our house, then?"
"Well, sometimes I leave the door open on rough nights," his father replied calmly, like it was a perfectly reasonable thing to do.
"Uh huh," Stiles said again, unimpressed. "And that sounds like a good idea to you? To let a feral animal into the house? What about everything else in the forest? You want to wake up with a possum in the kitchen?"
His father rolled his eyes. "Nothing else is coming inside while he's in here, Stiles. Look at him."
Stiles had to concede that this was probably true, though, unsurprisingly, it didn't make him feel any safer. He also didn't feel it was fair for him to feel like the crazy one. His dad made it seem like it was perfectly rational, letting a wild dog into the house, which left him grasping at straws. "Why my bed?" he protested petulantly.
Dad shrugged. "Guess it's more comfortable than the guest bed." He heaved a weary sigh and turned, seeming to address the dog when he said, "Sorry, son. Looks like you're taking the spare room tonight."
"Am I going nuts?" Stiles complained as the dog shifted and hopped off his bed. "Dad, seriously?"
His father frowned at him as the dog padded out of Stiles' bedroom, claws ticking against the hardwood floor. "Does he look like he's hurting anyone?" Dad asked, his tone sharper than Stiles expected. He seemed angry now, which caught Stiles off guard. "If you spent every night in the woods, wouldn't you like to get out the rain once in a while?"
"Well, yeah," Stiles muttered, suddenly feeling under siege.
"Then leave him alone," his father snapped, and disappeared back downstairs.
"Okay," Stiles murmured, thoroughly chastened. His dad had reacted so strongly that he did feel bad, though some of that guilt dissipated when he went to get into bed and found his sheets muddy and covered in dog hair. He had to strip his bed and grab extra sheets out of the hall closet, and he glanced into the spare room as he passed, the dog a deeper black in the darkness of the room. "Enjoy that freshly painted ceiling," Stiles hissed. The dog flicked an ear in his direction, but otherwise didn't move. Stiles scowled and retreated to his room to rebuild his bed.
The dog was still in the guest room when Stiles got up to take a shower the following morning, but it was gone by the time he reemerged from the bathroom. When he went downstairs, he found the back door open again and closed it with a sarcastic, "Hope you enjoyed your stay." He was glad his dad wasn't there to laugh at him, because he knew he was being childish. Whatever! His dad had taken a dog's side over his. He was allergic! He could die.
"Whatever," Stiles repeated out loud, and headed for work.
Another week passed by slowly. There were no more rainy nights, so he didn't find the dog in his bed again, but a couple of times he was out in the garden and glanced up to see a dark shape moving through the trees, or standing at the tree line watching him. It was unnerving at first, the hair on the back of his neck prickled every time he felt the dog's eyes on him, but he ignored it. If the dog wanted to lie in the shade at the edge of the trees, fine. If he noticed his dad putting a bowl of water out there behind the shed, Stiles kept his mouth shut. Not his dog, not his problem.
At any rate, the dog got pushed out his mind a couple of days later. It was a Thursday and Stiles had a solo shift at the library — Laura was at some kind of librarian's conference, and Lydia had the day off. It was quiet. There were no programs running that afternoon. The library was empty and Stiles was bored. He didn't handle being bored very well. He'd gotten into a lot of trouble back in high school through not being able to stay in his seat, for tying people's shoelaces to their chairs, for a whole slew of practical jokes he'd brewed up while sitting bored out of his mind in history class.
He was getting antsy now. He'd already organized the circulation desk, placed all the returns on their shelves, picked up all the toys in the children's room, and dusted every shelf and taxidermied animal in the place. He itched to get into something, and the small room of rare books downstairs called his name.
Laura had been clear on Stiles' first day: only people with permission from her or the town were allowed down there. This was not good news for Stiles, because it only drove his already curious mind into overdrive. He didn't understand just what was so special about the books that anyone who wanted to get at them needed permission from the town to view them. Anyway, he was different, right? He worked at the library. It wasn't like he was going to steal any of the books. He just wanted to know what was so special about them that he wasn't even allowed to look.
So, after he closed the library for the day, locking the front door and turning off most of the lights, Stiles took the key to the grate and went downstairs. He could hear that buzzing again, almost as soon as his feet hit the concrete floor, and he wondered if he should mention it to Laura when she came back from her trip in case there was actually something wrong with the wiring. It really kind of hurt as he approached the door; he could feel the vibration in his teeth and down his spine. It certainly wasn't comfortable, but he wasn't planning on lingering.
He tried to ignore the way the air beyond the grate had gone distant, putting it down to the buzzing in his head, and slid the key into the lock. It turned without a fuss, but the moment Stiles put his hand on the grate to pull it open, the buzzing increased, shuddering up his arm. He took a deep breath, said, "Nothing to worry about," and yanked the grate open.
The shock he received was powerful enough to lift him off his feet and throw him back several yards, sending him crashing into one of the book sale tables, sending books flying and the table smashing to the ground with Stiles on top. He stared up at the ceiling as it grew further away and the lights faded and thought Laura's going to kill me.
Stiles resurfaced from a peaceful black nothingness to find himself still lying on the cold concrete floor of the library, books and broken bits of table underneath him. His father stood over him, Lydia on his other side, the two of them wearing twin looks of exasperation.
"Hi," Stiles said weakly.
His father sighed. "What the hell were you doing?"
"Getting into trouble," Stiles replied with a wince, trying to sit up and giving in when there was an intense flare of pain along his arm. "Ow, fuck."
Dad sighed again and knelt down next to him, getting his hands under Stiles' armpits so he could lift him to a sitting position. Stiles noticed he was still in his uniform — had someone called him here? Who would have known? Lydia? He looked up at her curiously.
"Laura's going to kill you," she told him mildly.
"Figured," Stiles said despondently.
"Come on," his father said, tugging at his shoulders. "Let's get you to the hospital."
"Hospital?" Stiles repeated, alarmed. "Why the hospital?"
"You take a careful look at your arm and tell me," Dad replied, getting him onto his feet and catching him when his knees shook.
Stiles stretched his arm out in front of him — which hurt, wow — and saw how his skin had gone red and shiny, bubbling and peeling in places. "Oh."
It didn't hurt that much as Dad led him upstairs and out to the cruiser, which was parked on the street in a no parking zone. Stiles sat in the passenger's seat and stared at his injury, morbidly fascinated at the way the skin on his palm had split and was now oozing plasma, while his father talked to Lydia outside. He could only hear pieces of their conversation, their voices muffled.
" — told him," Lydia said. "I know she warned him."
"I'm sure he wasn't expecting that," his father retorted. "He could have died!"
"I'll ask Laura to turn it down. She— " Stiles didn't catch the rest of Lydia's sentence, her voice muffled by a passing truck. By the time the air cleared, his father was coming around the front of the cruiser, climbing into the driver's seat.
"What happened, Dad?" Stiles asked dazedly. He was still having trouble focusing, his vision swimming slightly.
"Electrical shock. Probably a live wire touching that grille somewhere," his father replied briskly, pulling away from the curb and flipping on his lights. "How are you feeling?"
"Fine," Stiles replied, but maybe he was in shock or the adrenaline was wearing off or something, because by the time they reached the hospital the pain was rolling up his arm in pulsing waves and his entire body shook. His dad had to keep a hand under his uninjured elbow as they walked through the front doors into the emergency room, where his dad greeted the nurses by name. It must have been a slow night — that, or his injury was indeed an emergency — because he was shown into an examining room immediately and a nurse carefully cleaned his burns. That hurt. That hurt a lot, actually; he had to bite his lip hard to keep from making any noise while she wrapped his arm in bandages and he got a prescription for pain meds from the doctor.
His dad drove him home after, stopping along the way at the pharmacy in the grocery store to pick up his medicine. When they got back to the house, his father laid him out on the couch — he said he didn't trust Stiles on the stairs — and headed into the kitchen to make some dinner so Stiles could take his meds on a full stomach. Stiles lay quietly on the couch, staring up at the ceiling and trying not to concentrate on the waves of pain radiating up his arm and across his chest. When his dad came into the living room with a plate of food, Stiles took it with a quiet word of thanks and asked, "How did you know to look for me?"
"I was on my way home when I noticed some lights still on at the library," Dad replied, settling himself down in the recliner. "Got worried when I knocked and you didn't answer, so I got Lydia's number from dispatch, since Laura's out of town."
"Oh," Stiles said. "Thanks. Sorry I worried you."
"If you weren't twenty, I'd ground you," his father sighed. "For all the good it would do."
Stiles grinned lopsidedly and finished his dinner, accepting the two small pills his father handed him. It didn't take long for them to kick in and Stiles settled back on the couch, mind in a haze. His father turned on a baseball game, but paying attention to the television was far beyond Stiles' ability at that point so he stared up at the ceiling instead, drifting in and out of sleep. At some point he surfaced from a drunken sort of unconsciousness and his dad was talking to someone. At first Stiles thought it might be Scott's mom, stopped by on her way to or from the hospital, but no one was responding to his dad's words and he dropped his eyes from the ceiling — which was doing a weird undulating thing that was making him nauseous, anyway — and found the big black dog sitting on the floor near the end of the couch.
" — got zapped by the rare books door," his father was saying. "I told you he was an idiot."
"Hey," Stiles protested groggily, and his father and the dog both looked over at him.
"Some of the time," his father amended graciously.
"Jerk," Stiles muttered. His head felt like it had been wrapped in cotton wool. He couldn't even muster the strength to be concerned about the dog in the house. The beast in question had risen to his feet, turning to sniff up Stiles' pant leg before nosing gently at his bandaged arm. Stiles hissed in pain; even the slightest bump to his skin sent little throbbing shockwaves racing up his arm. The dog took a step back, ears flat, and Stiles waved his uninjured hand.
“Hey, no, it’s okay, buddy,” he slurred, holding out his fingers for the dog to smell. The dog bumped his cold nose against Stiles’ hand before sitting again, watching him intently.
“His name’s Derek,” Dad put in.
“Derek,” Stiles repeated, and the dog’s ears pricked forward. “Did you name him that?”
“No,” his father replied cryptically. Stiles was too out of it to make much of the simple statement or inquire any further. He heaved a sigh and resettled himself amongst the pillows, watching the dog — Derek, that was — shuffle closer, gently pushing his nose under Stiles’ burnt hand. It hurt for just a moment, but then the pain faded, cool relief spreading up his arm, making his head feel distant. Must be the meds hitting again, Stiles thought sleepily, his eyes fluttering shut. Thank fucking god.
When Stiles woke, the living room was bright with morning sunlight and his phone, conscientiously placed on the coffee table next to his head, rang loudly. Stiles groaned, smacked at it with his injured hand, whimpered at the pain this caused, and managed to roll onto his shoulder far enough to grab it with his uninjured hand.
“Stiles,” Laura sighed on the other end, and his heart sank.
“Oh,” Stiles said quietly. “Hi. Um, I’m sorry — ”
“No,” Laura interrupted wearily. “It’s my fault. I should have gotten that door checked out sooner. Are you all right?”
“I’m okay,” Stiles replied, twisting his injured arm cautiously, not that he could see anything through the bandages. “Second-degree burns.”
Laura cursed. “Dammit! I’m sorry, Stiles. That shouldn’t have happened.”
“Well, I shouldn’t have been poking around down there,” Stiles said glumly. “Are you going to fire me?”
“What?” Laura laughed sharply. “Don’t be stupid. I’ll see you on Monday — and just let me know if you’re not feeling up to it, all right?”
“I’ll be in,” Stiles promised. Laura hung up and he leaned over to place his phone back on that coffee table, which was when he noticed the dog — Derek, he reminded himself — lying on the floor next to the couch, his chin on his paws. “Hey buddy,” Stiles said softly, and Derek lifted his head, looking up at Stiles with a bored expression. Stiles reached out with his uninjured hand and Derek went stiff, but allowed Stiles to pet his head, a resigned look on his long face. His fur was soft and not a true black, more of a deep warm brown.
After a minute, Derek seemed to have enough of Stiles petting him for he rose to his feet and trotted out of the living room. A moment later, Stiles heard the creak of the back door and Derek’s nails on the back deck, then silence. Dad must have left the door open for him, Stiles thought blearily, wiping his hand over his eyes.
Navigating life with only one useable hand — and his non-dominant hand, at that — was much more difficult than Stiles had ever suspected. Even levering himself off the couch was a chore. His dad had left a note in the kitchen next to his bottle of pain meds that said Be back around six. Don’t abuse these; I will arrest you. Stiles rolled his eyes and made himself a plate of bacon and eggs — all done in the microwave because Stiles didn’t relish the thought of cooking with only one hand — before taking two more pills and then a three-hour nap.
After that, he wasn’t sure what to do with himself. He couldn’t change out of his clothes — he’d tried and nearly suffocated himself trying to get his shirt over his head — so he resigned himself to yesterday’s clothes until Dad got home. Stiles texted Scott, but he wouldn’t get out of work for another couple of hours. Eventually, he wandered outside and managed to untangle the garden hose, literally single-handedly, and watered the garden. Some of the seeds had already sprouted, which he was extremely proud of; little green sprouts dotted the soil. The beans had grown especially quick, some of the plants were already an inch high and he grinned, thinking about Jack and the beanstalk.
Stiles noticed Derek standing at the edge of the trees like he’d done all week, and waved. Maybe he should be more concerned about the dog hanging around. He remembered what Scott had said the other day: I wouldn’t try to approach him — advice that his dad clearly hadn’t been given. But the second part of Scott’s statement — he won’t hurt you — certainly seemed to be true so far, and he hadn't woken up sneezing, which was encouraging.
Derek didn't move, however; he remained where he sat in the shade of the trees and the next time Stiles looked up, he was gone. Stiles shrugged, not offended, and headed back inside.
When Scott came over he let himself in and strode into the living room, looking inappropriately cheerful. “Hey, dude,” he said cheerfully. “How’s the arm?”
Stiles looked up from the TV — he’d stuck in a random disc of Battlestar Galactica — and blinked wearily. “Aches,” he said, which was true. Scott plunked himself down on the couch next to him and Stiles added, “I apologize in advance if I fall asleep on you. I just took some more meds.”
“No worries,” Scott said, patting his knee. Stiles noticed he seemed a little distracted, sniffing discreetly.
“Everything all right?” Stiles asked warily, suddenly self-conscious of his day-old clothes, wondering if he was starting to smell.
“Huh? Oh, no,” Scott replied. “Did you get a dog?”
Stiles met Scott’s earnest brown eyes, not exactly sure what to say. If he told Scott his dad let a stray wander in and out, he’d sound crazy, so he went with the technical truth, which was, “No.”
Scott studied him for a moment before shrugging, his eyes turning forward and landing on the television. And just as Stiles warned, he fell asleep a half-hour later, curled on his side with his feet against Scott’s thigh. He barely notice Scott’s hand on his ankle, or the way the pain seemed to get sucked out of him, blessed relief spreading through his body like magic.
Stiles spent most of the weekend on the couch, listening to the rain. His dad took him back to the hospital two days after the accident to get his bandages changed. His arm looked horrifying, but he at least had the pleasure of seeing his dad talking to Scott’s mom and getting incredibly flustered when Stiles popped up and chimed, “Have you guys picked a date for the wedding?” Melissa McCall just laughed and smacked him on the shoulder.
Stiles forgot about Derek; even though it rained all weekend, Derek didn’t make any appearances until late Sunday night. Stiles woke suddenly as thunder shook the house and in a flash of lightning he saw Derek standing in the hall, looking into his room. Normally this would have startled the shit out of him, but Stiles was a little loopy on meds and sleep, so all he did was hang his uninjured hand over the side of the bed and pat the mattress, mumbling, “C’mere, buddy.”
Derek stood there a moment longer, watching him silently, before padding into the room, gently touching his nose to the back of Stiles’ hand.
“You’re very polite,” Stiles told him. He rolled over, careful not to jar his injured arm, shifting away from the edge of the bed. “You wanna share? I know the guest bed’s not as comfy as mine.”
He and Derek watched each other for a long moment before Derek moved forward, jumping onto the bed in one fluid movement. He settled down beside Stiles, head on the other pillow.
"Good boy," Stiles muttered sleepily, his eyes growing heavy. Derek heaved a sigh next to him, sounding put-upon, but he didn't move.
Derek showed up more often after that. Stiles noticed that his dad started leaving the back door open even when it wasn't raining, but he didn't say anything. It was kind of nice having a dog in the house; they'd never been a family that was huge on having pets — there'd been no dogs because of his allergies, and his mom had had a cat that passed away before she did. Stiles had a snake in junior high, which his mom never would have allowed and his dad hated but tolerated — at least until the time it escaped and Dad found it curled up in his bed — and anyway, he couldn't really cuddle with a snake.
He couldn't really cuddle when it came to Derek, truth be told. He didn't seem to like being touched all that much. He'd allow Stiles to pet his head for about thirty seconds before turning slowly and deliberately, letting Stiles know he was done. He never wagged his tail, either, so Stiles had a hard time judging his mood. Even so, it felt good having him around. When Stiles worked in the garden, Derek stopped hanging around at the edge of the trees and laid in the grass next to him instead, following bugs with his nose or dozing in the sunlight.
Stiles took it as a good sign that Derek hung around him. He didn't seem to like anyone beside Stiles and his dad. Scott showed up unannounced one night while they were eating dinner and a good thirty seconds before he opened the door, Derek lifted his head, lip curling back in a silent snarl before he’d slipped out the back door, tail held stiffly behind him. Stiles was glad he hadn't mentioned Derek to Scott that first time Scott had asked if they had a dog.
Stiles went back to work a week after the accident. He tried to go back on Monday, but his dad patiently convinced him to take one more day off. Stiles could see the sense in that; he couldn’t hold anything in his injured hand, couldn’t drive, couldn’t shelve books, couldn’t write. When he did go back, his dad had to drive him because the Jeep was still parked in the library parking lot.
Laura was on shift and she wrapped him into a tight hug when he came through the doors. Stiles winced as she jostled his arm — it wasn’t so bad now, but his slowly healing skin was still bandaged, as some of the blisters had popped and his doctor said it needed to be kept safe from infection. It didn’t hurt so much, but it was sore, tender all over.
“Stiles, I’m so sorry,” Laura said, stepping back with her brow creased in worry. “I’ve taken — I’ve taken steps. It won’t happen again.”
“You don’t have to apologize,” Stiles told her. “I shouldn’t have been snooping around.”
“Second degree burns are not a proportional punishment,” she admonished. “Come on.”
Stiles followed her through the stacks, bewildered when she headed for the basement stairs. “Uh — ”
“Come on,” Laura insisted. “You wanted to know what’s down here. I think it’s only fair I show you.”
“Are you sure?” Stiles said hesitantly, stepping down onto the concrete floor. Someone had tidied up the book sale tables, no sign of the mess he’d made getting thrown across the room the week before.
“Certain,” Laura said, pulling a key out of her pocket. She unlocked the grille and Stiles winced reflexively as she pulled it open, but nothing happened. “See?” Laura asked. “All fixed. C’mere.”
Stiles stepped forward cautiously, giving the gate a wide berth as he stepped into the small alcove with Laura. He could still feel a faint fizzling in the air but it seemed far off, not jarring his vision like he had before. Now, he could squint at the gilt titles on the spines of the books, and his eyes widened at what he saw.
“What is this?” he asked.
“We have, er, the largest library of the occult on the west coast,” Laura said, sounding a little sheepish, but proud too.
“Uh huh,” Stiles said, reaching out and taking Teutonic Curses off the shelf. It appeared to be written half in English, half in German and he put it back. “Why?”
Laura shrugged. “My family’s always been, hm…a little superstitious, you might say. Know thine enemy, or whatever.”
“Enemy?” Stiles raised an eyebrow at her. Laura shrugged again, but didn’t elaborate. “So why’s it locked up? It’s not like anyone can actually use this stuff.”
“Right,” Laura said heavily. “I don’t know. Some of these books are rare, they’re worth a lot of money. And anyway, there are some really weird by-laws on the record in this town.”
Stiles thought about the bookcase full of code books in his dad’s office and figured she was probably right.
“Anyway,” Laura continued, “this is what you sacrificed your skin for. Hope it’s not too much of a bummer.”
“I don’t know what I was expecting,” Stiles admitted, stepping out of the alcove so she could lock the gate behind them.
Laura winked at him. “Fooled ya,” she said. “Half those books are hollowed out and filled with gold and jewels. It’s the town’s secret treasure trove.”
Stiles grinned. “Good thing I know where to find the key.”
Laura narrowed her eyes at him. “You just try it, mister,” she said, then ruined the threat by laughing. Once they got back upstairs, Laura told him, “All right, now that that’s out of the way, you need to head over to town hall. They’ve been getting after me to have you go in to file a workman’s comp claim.”
“Do I still get paid for the time I spend there?” Stiles asked hopefully.
Laura grinned. “And wring more money out of the city? Obviously.”
"Sweet," Stiles said. "I'll head down, then."
"Might as well take lunch while you're out," Laura told him cheerfully. "We'll bill it to the city."
Stiles raised his eyebrows. "You really like spending their money, huh?"
"Sure do," Laura agreed jovially. "Finstock hates me. I've got a competition with myself to see if I can beat last year's expenditures and I'm winning."
Stiles laughed as he headed out the door.
Town hall was a long, two-story building equidistant from the sheriff's office and the library, built of blocks of pale stone. Inside, it was cool and quiet, muted with the noise of many people talking in low voices. A man at the front desk pointed him down a hallway to a small room with four desks, all of which were empty except for one, where a woman with dark hair sat in front of a computer. She smiled at Stiles as he came into the room.
"Can I help you?"
"Yeah, I need to fill out workman's comp forms?" Stiles said. "Are you Jennifer?" The name plate on her desk said Jennifer Blake, but it never hurt to be sure.
"I am," she said, offering a hand to Stiles, who took a step toward the desk so he could lean over to shake it awkwardly with his uninjured left hand. The second their hands touched, Stiles felt a sharp shock run down his arm and he jerked back with a cut off swear. It felt exactly like getting shocked by the door, though nowhere near as powerful. “Sorry!” Jennifer exclaimed, shaking her hand as if to rid it of excess energy. She gave Stiles a rueful smile. “You’ve got quite a spark, don’t you?”
“Guess I haven’t gotten rid of all that electricity yet,” Stiles joked, trying to ignore the way his arm still tingled.
Jennifer laughed sweetly and gestured at a chair across from her desk. "Sit down and I'll help you out. I'm guessing you're Stiles?"
"Yeah," Stiles said awkwardly, plunking himself down in the seat.
Jennifer gave him a sympathetic smile as she rifled through a pile of papers on her desk. "How's the arm?"
"Getting there," Stiles sighed.
"Raw honey's a good way to draw the fire out," she told him, handing him a clipboard and a pen.
"Er, thanks," Stiles said uncertainly. He'd stick with the ointment the hospital had prescribed, not some weird folk remedy, thanks. He turned his attention to the form instead, trying to hold the pen without hurting himself, which was a losing battle.
Jennifer watched him for a moment, her brow creasing, before saying, “Let me take care of that. I’ll ask the questions, you tell me the answers — how does that sound?”
“Fine,” Stiles said, simultaneously relieved and embarrassed. “Thanks,” he added, as he handed over the pen and clipboard.
Jennifer smiled at him before turning her eyes to the papers in front of her. “First name?” she asked, her pen hovering above the top sheet.
She blinked at him. “That’s your real name?”
“Uh — no,” Stiles said, his cheeks coloring. “I didn’t realize it needed, uh. It’s Stanisław.”
He spelled it out for Jennifer, who wrote it down dutifully, then looked up at him with a smile. “That’s Polish, right?”
“Yeah,” Stiles replied uncomfortably. He didn’t like people knowing his name. Stanisław had been his grandfather’s name and he’d died before Stiles was born, but his grandmother had always been weird about it. “Names have power,” she’d told him when he was little and had, in fact, been the one to start calling him Stiles. He didn’t really think there was anything to that statement but whether it was out of respect for his grandma or something else, he shared it with as few people as possible.
“All right,” Jennifer said, after watching him for a long moment. “Middle initial?”
Stiles returned to the library an hour later with a sandwich from the deli across the street from town hall and a brownie for Laura, who took it with glee, proclaiming, “You’re my favorite.” The afternoon was quiet except for a meeting of the geological society, which had gathered at the library to look at the Hale family collection of minerals. Stiles watched them idly from the circulation desk, swinging his feet back and forth.
He was distracted; his mind kept slipping back to the woman at the town hall, and the way he’d felt that shock when he touched her. It could have been static electricity, he supposed, but he’d never felt a resulting shock that strong before. He was probably being paranoid.
It was Friday, which mean board game night, although they abandoned the board games to play an increasingly rowdy game of charades. Lydia didn’t bring her hallucinogenic punch this time, for which Stiles was thankful, although at one point in the evening he picked up Scott’s beer by mistake and found it had that same sweet, almost herbal taste to it.
“It’s, uh, a homebrew,” Scott said, hurriedly snatching the bottle out of Stiles’ hand when he noticed the face Stiles made. “Still working on the recipe.”
“Definitely needs some work, dude,” Stiles said, wishing he could scrape the taste off his tongue. He settled for pounding a couple of regular-tasting beers instead. It occurred to him that people probably got bored in a small town like this — there probably wasn’t a huge drug market and they’d probably found some kind of weird local plant everyone used to get high. Stiles shrugged; they’d clearly all gotten used to it ages ago.
Hallucinogenic beer or not, Stiles was still astoundingly drunk by the time he left Scott’s house. He managed to keep his feet on the road, though he narrowly avoided collapsing into the ditch once or twice, and stumbled back to the house in one piece. He was surprised to find Derek waiting at the end of the driveway, sitting primly on the gravel with a look of disgust on his face.
“Hey, buddy,” Stiles slurred cheerfully, ruffling Derek’s ears. The dog huffed, jerking out of his reach, but followed at his side as Stiles tottered down the driveway. He leaned against the Jeep for a moment, looking up at the house. All the windows stood dark, no sign of his dad up watching late-night talk shows, but he didn’t feel like going inside yet. The night was cool but not cold, hinting at warm summer days to come. Stiles looked down at Derek, sitting by his feet with his head turned toward the road. “You know what would be cool?” Stiles said. Derek turned at his voice, looking up at him. “It’d be awesome if you could talk. Wouldn’t that be rad? A talking dog.”
Derek made a soft noise, pressing his wet nose into Stiles’ palm. Stiles watched him, a little surprised — he could probably count on one hand the times Derek had touched him voluntarily. Moving carefully, Stiles slid down the side of the Jeep and leaned back against the tire and to his further surprise, Derek moved into his space without hesitation, sinking down onto the gravel next to him, his head on Stiles’ thigh.
“What do you do all day, huh?” Stiles asked him softly, reaching out and gently stroking Derek’s head. The hair there was short and soft, getting longer and more wiry down his neck, growing into a thick ruff, almost like a lion’s mane around his broad chest. “Do you get lonely? It’s okay if you do; we all do. I do.”
He liked Beacon Hills a lot, but he still felt like a stranger. He imagined it was like moving to a new school where everyone already had a history with each other, their own groups of friends and enemies. Even though everyone he’d met had been nothing but welcoming, he still felt like an outsider, blind to inside jokes and people’s histories. Even his dad had all the people at the station. And here sat Stiles, drunk in the dirt in the middle of the night, talking to a dog. He snorted. At least he had Derek.
"At least I have you," Stiles repeated out loud. Derek beat his tail against the ground just once, but it was enough.
The next morning found Stiles sitting sullenly behind the circulation desk. He'd somehow managed to pass out on the ground and had woken up dew-soaked and shivering to his dad standing over him with a bewildered frown on his face. He’d called Stiles by his real name, which told him he was going to be in a lot of trouble later. At least Derek had stayed with him, though he'd trotted off into the woods when Stiles' father had hauled him to his feet and pushed him towards the house.
Now, he had the worst hangover that he'd had since his first few weeks at college freshman year. Thank god the library was quiet for a Saturday, because every echoing whisper ricocheted through his head like a gunshot. Lydia sat at the other chair behind the desk, silent as the grave, dark circles under her eyes. Isaac lay under the desk, faint groans floating up to Stiles every couple of minutes.
Laura burst into the library about an hour after opening, looking inappropriately cheerful. "You're all looking pretty sorry for yourselves," she said brightly. Stiles winced at the volume of her voice and she grinned at him, rapping sharply on the counter with her knuckles. "Lahey!" she called as Isaac groaned. "Don't you dare puke under there!"
"Can we help you?" Lydia asked tiredly.
"I brought my beloved employees donuts," Laura announced, setting a bag down on the counter in front of Stiles. "I will now accept your praise and thanks."
What she got instead was a couple of half-hearted smiles and a muttered, "Thanks," from Stiles, but she didn't seem deterred. "Don't eat too many," Laura warned, putting a hand on Stiles' arm as he reached for the bag. She paused, a strange expression flitting over her face.
"Something wrong?" Stiles asked nervously.
"No," Laura said after a moment, eyeing him steadily. "Do you have a dog, Stiles?"
"Huh?" Stiles looked down at himself. He'd changed, but he hadn't showered since yesterday. Did Derek have a really strong smell or something? He'd never noticed. Maybe it was time to give both of them a bath. "Uh, not really."
"Hm," Laura said softly. She seemed a little thrown. "Well — um. Have a good day, you guys."
After she left, Stiles turned to Lydia. "Did she seem off to you?
Lydia shrugged noncommittally. Under the desk, Isaac offered, "You do smell like dog."
"Seriously?" Stiles complained.
Isaac scooted out from under the desk and sat up, his nose wrinkling. “You smell like — ”
“Isaac,” Lydia said sharply.
Isaac gave her a mutinous look and muttered, “Never mind. Where are those donuts?”
Stiles gave him a suspicious look as he handed over the bag. "What were you going to say?"
"He was just going to be rude," Lydia said, narrowing her eyes at Isaac.
He took a donut from the bag and retreated back under the desk. "I'm surrendering," he said, his voice echoing up to them. Lydia smiled smugly and bit into a jelly donut.
The only interesting thing that happened at the library that day was an older woman who came in with a note from the town giving her permission to get into the book room downstairs. She was the first person Stiles had seen come in to use the rare books, and he watched with interest as Lydia carefully read through the letter, then stamped it with an official-looking seal before sliding it into a drawer. She made him show the woman downstairs and unlock the grille for her, which he did carefully, tensing as he pulled it open.
"Why are people so interested in those books?" Stiles asked once he'd returned upstairs. "People don't believe in that stuff, do they?"
"If you look hard enough, you'll find people who believe in anything," Lydia replied evenly. "It's not necessarily a question of belief, but a question of knowledge. Aren't you curious?"
Stiles shrugged. "Not really. Laura showed me around downstairs yesterday."
"You should spend some time down there," Lydia told him. "You might learn something interesting."
"You sure that's a good idea?" Isaac asked, looking a little uneasy. By this point, he'd emerged from under the desk and was leaning against the circulation desk, his curls limp.
"Why, Isaac?" Lydia asked, her voice sweet and pointed. "The door already shocked him. What do you think is going to happen?"
"Nothing," Isaac muttered.
"All right," Stiles said slowly, not sure what he'd just witnessed. "Uh. I'm just, uh, going to put some books away."
Lydia gave him a tight smile. "You do that." When Stiles retreated into the stacks, pulling a book cart along behind him, he could hear the couple whispering furiously at each other. He decided it was best to stay out of it.
"How'd you guys meet?" Stiles asked his dad a couple nights later. Dad was sprawled in his armchair with a beer and he kept tossing Derek pieces of pepperoni. Derek himself was sprawled across the end of the couch next to Stiles, who had his feet up on the coffee table.
"Who?" Dad asked guiltily.
"Derek," Stiles replied patiently. He poked a finger at Derek's furry hindquarters and the dog snapped at him irritably before whipping his head back around to snatch another piece of pepperoni out of the air.
"Oh," his father said thoughtfully. "Well. When I first started in the fall, a couple of people in town told me about a — a stray that hung around the Hale house so I headed up there to see if I could catch him. Took a couple of visits before I even saw him so I started going up there with my lunch and I'd talk — I'd tell him stories about you and me, things going on in town. It took a few months, but after a while we were sharing lunch every day."
Stiles rolled his eyes at his dad's big heart. "And then what? You snatched him one rainy day and brought him home?"
"I told him if it ever got too cold, he could stop by," Dad replied loftily. "And one night last January, I looked out the window and there he was. He's got a lot of pride," he added, eyeing Derek, who huffed. "Waited until the coldest night of the year. I don't think he likes being helped." This was apparently too much for Derek, who made a low, angry rumbling noise deep in his chest — one of the few vocalizations Stiles had ever heard from him — leapt off the couch and left the room, the back door creaking a few seconds later.
"I think you offended him," Stiles said mildly, stretching sideways to take the space Derek had just vacated.
"Sometimes you have to hear these hard truths," Dad replied, tossing a piece of pepperoni at him.
"I'm not a dog!" Stiles protested, but picked the meat off his chest anyway. Just as he was about to pop it into his mouth, there came a sudden storm of noise from the backyard, a deep, thundering snarling that made Stiles jolt upright in surprise. "What the hell was that?"
His father was already halfway out of his seat and he crossed the room as Stiles twisted around on the couch, trying to peer out the window into the darkness. His dad strode into the kitchen and flicked on the back light, which lit the backyard and cast the trees in deep shadows. Stiles thought he saw a flurry of movement at the edge of the light, a mash of dark and light, and his blood ran cold.
"Shit," Dad swore, striding back through the room.
Stiles leaned after him, his heart pounding. "Dad, was that Derek?"
"I don't know," his father replied grimly, disappearing into the den. Stiles could hear him rummaging around there and when he reappeared a moment later, he had a shotgun in his hands. Stiles opened his mouth to speak, but they both paused when a howl rose up through the trees, rough and wild.
"Dad — " Stiles said hoarsely, but his father shook his head as he headed for the kitchen. "Whoa, wait, you can't — "
"Call Laura," his dad told him seriously, "then call the station. Tell them I've got a 10-91AW."
"Wait, Dad — " Stiles protested, but his dad was already out the back door, stepping out into the dim pool of light in the backyard. Whatever was going on in the trees was still audible and whatever it was sounded violent. He scrambled for his phone; he had no idea why Dad wanted him to call Laura, but he wasn't going to question it, not when he was out there walking into probable danger.
Laura picked up on the first ring, sounding tense. "Stiles."
"Hey," Stiles said breathlessly. "Uh, my dad wanted — "
"I know," Laura interrupted abruptly. "I'm on my way."
"Oh, uh, okay," Stiles said, but he spoke only to dead air; Laura had already hung up.
Next he called the station, only to hear a recorded message telling him that the station was closed and his call was being forwarded to whichever deputy was on call. After a few rings, a woman picked up with a sharp, “Deputy Knox.”
“Hi,” Stiles said. “Uh. This is Stiles Stilinski, John’s — ”
“What’s going on?” she interrupted.
Stiles blinked. “Dad said to tell you there’s a 10-91AW and — ”
“Where?” Deputy Knox demanded.
“At our house. Uh — ”
“On my way,” she snapped, and hung up. Stiles gaped at the phone for a moment before twisting back around, peering out the window. He couldn’t see his dad or whatever thing — things, maybe. It sounded like a fight of some kind, though he could hear them snarling and his dad shouting, too far off to hear what he was saying.
Stiles dithered there, unsure what to do. He knew the combination to his dad’s gun safe — his mom’s birthday. He knew how to handle a gun, but he hadn’t gone shooting in probably five years and anyway, he knew how dangerous it was to wander around the woods in the dark with a loaded weapon. He couldn’t just leave his dad out there alone, though, he hadn’t even taken a flashlight.
Just as Stiles made up his mind to head outside, he heard a car door slam in the driveway and he spun around, expecting a knock on the door. Instead, he heard fast footsteps come round the side of the house and he turned around again just in time to see a woman flash past the back windows, heading for the trees, her long dark hair streaming behind her. Stiles stared, pretty sure that had been Laura.
Before he could shout after her, there came the sound of more cars coming down the driveway, and when he went around to the front of the house, it seemed that Deputy Knox had roused the entire deputy roster. They all went pouring around the side of the house after Laura, most of them clad in civilian clothes, but all carrying rifles.
“Jesus,” Stiles whispered, his eyes going wide as he watched them flow en masse across the backyard and into the woods. What the fuck was going on? He’d thought there was a bear out there or something.
Most of the snarling from the forest had died down, replaced by the sound of human voices. Stiles could see lights flashing amongst the tree; some of the deputies had had the good sense to bring flashlights with them. Stiles sat staring into the dark woods for what seemed like ages, draped over the back of the couch while he waited for some kind of revelation.
Eventually, there did come movement from the trees; a shadow burst from the woods and Stiles jumped, startled, but it was Derek, sprinting across the backyard. He banged through the back door, but slowed as he came into the living room, head raised and ears pricked forward. Stiles sighed, relieved to see someone he knew, even if it was only a dog.
“Hey, dude,” Stiles said. “Was that you making all that noise out there?”
Derek leapt up onto the couch next to him and shoved his nose against Stiles’ neck, huffing wetly against his skin. Stiles yelped in surprise and twisted away from him, falling sideways against the cushions. Derek gave him a pitying sort of look and put his paws up on the back of the couch to watch out the window while Stiles rubbed at the wetness on his neck.
“Ugh, gross,” he muttered, then froze as he glanced at his fingers. They glistened in the light, streaked red with blood. “Shit, Derek!” He surged up onto his knees, leaning in to examine Derek’s face. He hadn’t noticed at first, as it blended in with Derek’s dark fur, but there was blood smeared all over his muzzle and chest, matting his fur. “Dude!” He tried to poke at Derek’s fur and see if the blood belonged to him or whatever he’d been fighting, but Derek shifted away from him, curling his lip above his blood-smeared teeth.
“Come on,” Stiles pleaded. “Let me take a look at you, buddy. I just want to make sure you’re okay.” He got to his feet and Derek watched him suspiciously. Stiles gestured toward the ceiling. “Will you come to the bathroom with me? The light’s a lot better up there.”
He took a step toward the stairs and gave Derek a hopeful look. Slowly, like it caused him a great loss of dignity to do so, Derek slipped off the couch and slunk upstairs ahead of Stiles. He even sat while Stiles perched on the edge of the bathtub in the bathroom and though he curled his lip while Stiles carefully combed through his fur, he made no further noise or protest.
The only injury Stiles could find was what looked like a bite on one of Derek’s back legs, the skin torn and weeping blood onto the linoleum floor. Derek whimpered when Stiles prodded gently at the skin, muscle shuddering under his touch. “Sorry,” Stiles murmured, and sat upright, wondering what to do. Clean it, maybe?
“Stay,” he told Derek, and went out to the hall closet, where he dug through the shelves to see if they had any antiseptics. He found an old bottle of iodine way in the back and paused there, because right next to his hand was what looked like a set of hinges, but he had things he needed to take care of. He grabbed the bottle and a roll of bandages and went back into the bathroom, where Derek sat patiently.
“All right,” Stiles declared. “Sorry about this.” He poured iodine onto a towel and then leaned forward, gently dabbing at the wound on Derek’s leg. Derek snarled and Stiles froze because it was not an entirely encouraging sound to hear with the back of his neck exposed. After a moment of slightly terrified silence, Stiles felt the press of Derek’s cold nose against his skin, nudging him gently as if to say sorry to interrupt, do go on. Gathering up his courage, Stiles pressed his hand forward again, gently cleaning the dirt and clotting blood from the wound.
Once it was clean as he thought it’d get, Stiles washed his hands but paused over the bandages. He looked down at Derek, his muzzle stiff with dried blood, and said, “I don’t suppose you’d be up for a bath, would you? Only, I’ve already had three people accuse me of smelling like a dog, and now you’re covered in blood.”
Derek looked up at him, unimpressed, and Stiles sighed. “Fine. But you’re not hanging out on the couch until you get yourself clean, all right? Fair’s fair.”
Derek gave a long-suffering sigh and, after another moment of staring up at Stiles, got to his feet and hopped lightly into the bathtub. Stiles blinked in surprise. “Oh — really? Jesus, you’re smart.” Derek gave him a smug look and Stiles laughed. “Like I didn’t already know that.”
He really was, Stiles thought, turning on the warm water and pulling the shower head down. He was much more perceptive than any other dog Stiles had ever met, and a thousand times more intelligent. Stiles knew that Derek could understand what he was saying, it was clear by the way he’d gone straight up to the bathroom, and jumped in the tub, and just the way he looked at Stiles when he talked. Stiles knew he was listening and he didn’t know if that was awesome or frightening. Maybe a little bit of both.
At any rate, he didn’t put up a fight when Stiles rinsed him. No, he leaned into Stiles’ fingers as he combed through Derek’s coat — a difficult task with one hand still unable to function all that well. The water that came off Derek swirled red and brown down the drain, though, and clearly the bath was long overdue. Stiles didn’t have dog shampoo so he used his dad’s bottle of Suave, which smelled like green apples and made Derek sneeze. Stiles laughed at him and Derek very carefully and deliberately took hold of Stiles’ calf, his teeth pressing against the denim of Stiles’ jeans in a way that seemed to suggest that he could cripple Stiles if he truly wanted to.
Stiles was so distracted taking care of Derek that he’d almost forgotten about the earlier commotion in the woods. He was sitting on the floor toweling Derek off when he heard the back door open, followed by soft voices from downstairs. Derek, who’d been snuffling at Stiles’ hair while Stiles dried him off, stiffened, his entire body going rigid as Stiles dropped the towel and got to his feet. He headed downstairs to find his father and Laura standing in the living room, talking quietly, though they both stopped when he appeared.
“Hi,” Stiles said warily. “So, uh, what was the big deal? Why’d you call in the cavalry?”
His father glanced at Laura and said, “I thought we had a mountain lion on our hands.”
“Oh?” Stiles asked, startled. “Why’s Laura here?”
She gave him a faint smile. “You might call me something of an expert when it comes to big carnivores,” she said. The way she said it made it sound like a joke but Stiles could tell she wasn’t lying, which was a surprise to him. He definitely never would have expected her to have any sort of experience with wildlife.
“Well,” Dad said to Laura, “thanks for your help, anyway. I’ll keep you updated.”
“Please do,” Laura said, taking a few steps toward the front door. As she passed the stairs though, she froze, her eyes looking past Stiles, still standing halfway down. “I thought you said you didn’t have a dog,” she said quietly.
Stiles turned and saw Derek standing at the top of the stairs, his ears pinned back against his skull. “He’s not ours,” Stiles said awkwardly. “Dad says he hangs out at the old Hale hou— ” He cut himself off, remembering who he was talking to and what she’d lost in the fire.
Laura didn’t seem to notice; her face had been overtaken by a very unhappy expression and Stiles shifted uncomfortably as a couple of things slotted into place. The fact that Derek hung out around the Hale house, combined with the look on Laura’s face, made him suspect that Derek was in fact Laura’s dog. He hoped it wasn’t true because he suddenly, desperately, didn’t want to lose Derek’s company.
“Is he yours?” Stiles asked, his stomach heavy with dread.
Laura blinked, then gave a hollow laugh. “No,” she said. “He’s not. He doesn’t belong to anyone. If anything, this town belongs to him.”
“Okay,” Stiles said slowly, not understanding what she meant.
“Do you know who he is?” Laura asked him. Stiles’ father made a short, abortive movement like he wanted to stop her, but he didn’t say anything, and Stiles gave him a curious look before he replied.
“I know his name’s Derek. That’s all.”
Laura seemed to relax, real humor sneaking back into her expression. “That’s enough,” she said. “I think you’ll be good for each other. Don’t you, Sheriff?”
“I think so,” Stiles’ dad agreed, sticking his hands in his pockets.
"Well," Laura said softly, her eyes still focused on Derek. "I guess I'll be heading home."
"Drive safe," Stiles' father told her as Stiles said, "I'll see you tomorrow."
"Yeah," Laura nodded. "Bye, guys." She paused before adding, "Bye, Der."
Stiles glanced up the stairs to see that Derek had retreated. Laura sighed quietly and raised a hand in farewell as she left the house. After the door swung shut behind her, Stiles looked at his father and said, "A mountain lion, huh?"
"Yes," his father said wearily. "A mountain lion. Can we talk about this tomorrow?"
"…Fine," Stiles said. "But only because I gave Derek a bath and now I need to take a shower."
His father waved him away and Stiles went back upstairs. He didn't go into the bathroom immediately, though, he headed for his room instead, where he found Derek as he'd expected. Derek had crammed himself under Stiles' bed, only the tips of his black paws sticking out from beneath it. Stiles got down on the floor, lying on the rug next to his bed so he could see underneath the box spring. Derek was just a dark shape in the shadows, though Stiles could see the glint of his eyes reflecting the light from the hall.
"Hey dude," Stiles said softly. "You all right?" Derek made a very quiet noise, which sounded distinctly unhappy, but Stiles didn't move; he knew better than to reach out to him. He rested his hand on the floor between them though, palm up like a peace offering. He didn't say anything else, just laid there on his stomach breathing steadily, watching Derek. After a long, long moment, Derek shifted forward slightly, bringing his head out from under the bed just far enough to bump his nose against Stiles' hand. Stiles relaxed slightly and reached out to scratch at Derek's damp fur. For once, Derek didn't seem to dislike Stiles' touch; if anything, he shifted closer.
"I know you can't tell me what's wrong," Stiles murmured, rubbing Derek's soft ears, "but you can stay here whenever you want, you know? Obviously you've got some kind of history with Laura, but that’s fine.”
Derek sighed softly and Stiles ruffled his ears. “I’m gonna go take a shower, but I’ll be back.”
Stiles took his time in the shower, scrubbing blood and dirt off his hands while he tried to process the night’s events. He didn’t believe his dad, was the bottom line. Dangerous or not, he didn’t think the entire sheriff’s department would have gone swarming, heavily armed, into the woods after a mountain lion. He was pretty sure that was what game wardens were for.
He also couldn’t figure out where Laura fit into everything. He could tell she hadn’t been lying that she had experience with “big carnivores,” as she’d said, but if the mountain lion thing wasn’t true, then what the hell was she doing out there? And how did she know Derek? This town belongs to him, she’d said.
Stiles washed shampoo out of his hair, gritting his teeth thoughtfully. Scott had known about Derek, and his dad had said some people had told him about Derek. If he was a stray, it made sense that a lot of people in town were familiar with him, so maybe it wasn’t so weird that Laura knew him too, but she’d seemed almost upset by the sight of him.
He shook his head as he climbed out of the shower. He was pretty sure he was missing something; he had that feeling again of being a stranger, standing outside the window looking in. It wasn’t a great feeling, but he hoped his dad would be willing to open up to him, maybe give him some insight.
As Stiles toweled himself off, he caught sight of the bottle of iodine sitting next to the sink and paused, the sight jolting his memory and reminding him of the hinges he’d noticed at the back of the closet. He didn’t know how old the house was, but he’d found enough weird quirks already to be unsurprised by a secret compartment at the back of the hall closet.
After he was dry, Stiles wrapped his towel around his waist and left the bathroom to investigate the closet. He could hear Dad downstairs, thumping around in the kitchen, and Stiles moved quietly, unwilling to get caught for some reason that he couldn’t quite understand. He carefully shifted aside bottles of cures for various ailments — some of which he didn’t even recognize and looked as though they’d been sitting there for years, probably left there by the previous homeowner — until he had enough space to see the back wall clearly.
There was a small door there, half as wide as the closet and only a foot high, with a porcelain knob and brass hinges, totally innocuous. Stiles reached for it but paused just before touching the knob, remembering the last time he tried to open an unfamiliar door. His burnt hand throbbed at the memory, as if to say proceed with caution. And Stiles did; he kept his hand hovering there, just millimeters from the doorknob, while he considered. He was almost certain he could feel something like the buzzing by the gateway in the library, but not — it felt softer, friendlier somehow. He didn’t know how to explain it, but it felt all right, so he took a chance and put his fingers to the knob, pulling the little door open.
Stiles didn’t feel anything, not even a tingle, which was kind of a relief, if he was being honest with himself, and leaned into the closet to peer inside.
Beyond the door was a shallow hole in the wall, framed on all sides with wood. Sitting inside were two books and, on top of them, a note. When Stiles reached forward and pulled them out, he found the note said only, If you’ve found this place, then you’ll need these. M.M.
“Huh,” Stiles said softly. His head turned as he heard his dad come into the living room. It sounded like he was heading for the stairs so Stiles hurriedly stepped back, shutting the little door and shoving bottles back in front of it before closing the closet door and retreating to his room. Once inside, the door only slightly ajar so Derek could get out if he wanted, Stiles slipped on a pair of boxer and got into bed. He paused there a moment, wondering if Derek was going to come out from under the bed, but there came no movement from below, so he settled back amongst his pillows and turned his focus to the books.
One was a leather-bound journal. Flipping through it, Stiles found that it was written in French, which led him to believe that the book had belonged to the old homeowner. He had a vague memory of his dad telling him that she'd been a French teacher at the high school — that and the fact that the entries only went back to 2009, which told him it’d been placed in the cupboard fairly recently. He didn't know French so it wasn't of much interest to him, but there were drawings mixed amongst the entries, sketches of plants and wildlife. He paused over a drawing of a dog that looked just like Derek, brushing his fingers over the faint imprint of the pen strokes in the paper.
"You ever going to come out from under there, dude?" he asked out loud, glancing toward the edge of the bed. There was no response from Derek though — either he'd fallen asleep or he was ignoring Stiles, who bet on the latter. "Fine," he muttered, and turned his attention to the second book.
This one was smaller, almost pocket-sized, bound in aged turquoise canvas with no title, just a embossed image of a flame on the cover. Stiles touched the worn golden lines, hesitating before he opened the book. He thought he could feel something again, that buzzing at the back of his mind, so faint he was probably imagining it. No, he was definitely imagining it, because there was no reason for it to keep happening. No reason. He was definitely not going crazy.
Stiles opened the book at random and frowned down at the page in front of him. “What the hell?” he murmured. The spread before him looked like a recipe but it wasn’t a recipe. The heading at the top of the page said Levitation (Inanimate Objects) and was followed by step-by-step instructions on how to, apparently, levitate inanimate objects. Stiles flipped the page and there was, sure enough, Levitation (Living Creatures). Stiles turned the pages, fascinated, and saw Raising Winds, Basic Glamours, Scrying (Mirrors), Scrying (Water), Defensive Wards, and pages and pages of…spells.
Stiles flipped to the front of the book, certain he’d somehow found a prop from Harry Potter, but there was no sign that this book was anything other than earnest and he shut it, tapping his fingers against the cover. All right, so the lady who’d lived here before them was…a witch? He guessed that kind of made sense, considering all the weird shit he’d cleaned out of the shed. And his dad had said there’d been a ton of strange things in the house, too. And hell, the library had that whole collection of books on the occult. Spend some time down there, Lydia had said.
“This is so fucking weird,” Stiles said. He turned his head, attention caught by Derek, who was finally coming out from under the bed. He straightened and shook himself all over, then turned and put his chin on the edge of the mattress, looking at Stiles. Stiles looked back, his eyebrows raised. “You’re clean,” he said. “You can get up here.”
Derek gave him a long look before leaping up onto the bed without any effort, his entire being exuding a nonchalant air, like he didn’t need Stiles’ permission (which he didn’t, really; Derek was big enough that Stiles wouldn’t have fought him if he wanted to get on the bed, but it was nice to feel like he had a choice). He curled up in the space next to Stiles, who watched him shift closer and closer, pretending not to notice when Derek put his head on Stiles’ stomach. Play it cool, he thought, though he was actually pleased that Derek was finally getting friendly.
“You ever seen anything like this?” Stiles asked Derek, offering him the book of spells. Derek sniffed the book carefully, sneezed explosively, and it was probably — definitely — a trick of the light, but Stiles could have sworn that his eyes flashed red. "I think it's time to go to sleep," he muttered, setting the books on his nightstand. He shut off his light and settled down in bed, Derek shifting with him so his head ended up on Stiles' chest.
Stiles exhaled slowly, absently sinking his fingers into the thick ruff of fur at Derek's neck. "Been an exciting day, huh? Mountain lions, spell books — what next?"
Derek sighed in what sounded like agreement and Stiles patted his back comfortingly. “At least you’re clean now, buddy, so I guess some good came out of the day.” Derek huffed at that, his hot breath wafting across Stiles’ face. Stiles grimaced, pushing at Derek’s head. “Gross, dude; what have you been eating? I guess a toothbrush is next on the list for you.”
Derek snapped at his fingers, but it seemed more playful than anything. Stiles let himself be caught and Derek gently gnawed at his hand for a moment before shoving his nose against Stiles’ palm. Stiles laughed quietly, sweeping his hand over Derek’s head and down his back. “I’m glad you decided I was worth hanging around,” Stiles told him softly. “I hope you’ll stick about, because I really like having you here.”
Derek huffed again, but it was a softer noise, and he shifted around, scooting up the bed until he was crammed up against the crook of Stiles’ neck, breathing warm air against his throat. Stiles grinned, unreasonably pleased, and looped an arm around Derek’s neck, holding him close as he slipped into slumber.
Waking up sneezing the next morning from having his face shoved into dog hair all night was well worth it.
He went in that afternoon to see his dad at lunch because he was an awesome son and also because he was ready to get some answers about the previous night’s events and his dad wouldn’t be able to get out of it if Stiles trapped him at his desk. Also because he was an awesome son, he brought his dad food, although because he also cared about his dad’s health, it was a veggie burger and a salad. His dad looked at it sadly while Stiles thumped himself down into the chair across the desk. He still felt a little itchy; he’d had to take some allergy meds when he’d woken up because his throat had been half swollen shut, but hey, small sacrifices were to be made when making friends with feral dogs or whatever. At any rate, he had the day off work and he was going to make the most of it.
“Sooooo,” Stiles drawled as his dad glowered and dumped ranch dressing on his salad. “Last night.”
“Last night,” Dad echoed moodily. “What about it?”
“You really expect me to believe there was a mountain lion in our backyard?” Stiles asked.
His father frowned at him as he picked up his fork. “There are mountain lions in California,” he said. “They’re not as uncommon as you might think.”
“I’m aware of that,” Stiles said. “But in our backyard? There’s no way Derek could have fought a mountain lion and not have gotten away with only a bite on the leg.”
“You might be surprised,” Dad muttered.
Stiles frowned at him, opening his mouth to ask just what he meant by that when someone knocked on the door and a deputy poked his head into the office. “Dan’s back from the preserve,” he told Stiles’ father. “Wants to talk to you.”
Dad nodded and got to his feet. “You stay here,” he said to Stiles, who stuck his tongue out at him, but stayed where he was. He tapped his feet absently as he waited for his father to return, staring around idly. He looked at the wolf skull by the window, then at the bookshelves beneath it, and his feet stilled. He’d looked up the code his dad had told him to tell the deputy last night, 10-91AW, but Google had given him nothing but some kind of racecar.
Stiles got out of the chair and walked over to the bookcase, where he found a slim volume titled Beacon County Sheriff’s Department Codes and Regulations, 2014 Edition. He flipped through it, past chapters on ethics and bylaws, all the way to the back where he found a list of radio codes. He ran his finger down the list, past 10-60 – kids playing in the street; past 10-71 – a shooting; until he reached 10-91 – a stray animal. Below that was 10-91A – a vicious animal, and below that — Stiles’ eyes widened.
Stiles’ eyes snapped to the wolf skull on top of the bookcase. “None in California, huh?” he said sarcastically, slamming the book shut. No wonder Derek had attacked. Jesus. He shoved the book back onto the shelf, glared at his dad’s desk for a moment, then slipped out of the office. He didn’t know why his dad was trying to hide things from him, but he wasn’t super pleased about it, and he’d be happy to tell his father as much.
Stiles headed down the hall that led to the room where all the deputies had desks, but jerked himself backward as he turned the corner because his father was standing there with a group of deputies and — Stiles peered carefully around the corner — Laura was there too, her arms folded over her chest. She did not look pleased. His dad was standing with his back to Stiles, his head turned slightly as he listened to one of the deputies speak.
“ — Definitely living in town somewhere, not the preserve. Abandoned house, maybe.”
“I don’t understand why now,” Stiles’ father said. “It’s been five years since the fire and Peter — ”
“Derek’s been distracted lately,” Laura said, then pointedly added, “Your son’s waiting around the corner.”
Stiles was too busy wondering what Derek had to do with anything to realize he’d been found out until his dad came around the corner, looking grim. “Oh,” Stiles said hurriedly, forcing a smile. “Hey, Dad, I was looking — ”
“Uh huh,” Dad said, looking unimpressed. “I think it’s time you headed home.”
Stiles scowled at him. He was twenty years old; he didn’t need bossing around. “What’s going on? Why are you being so secretive?”
“This is police business, Stiles,” his father sighed. “Do me a favor and stay out of it.”
“Like that’s ever happened,” Stiles scoffed, heading for the exit. “If you won’t tell me what’s going on, I’ll just have to figure it out myself and you know I will.”
“See you at home,” his dad said, as if Stiles hadn’t said anything. “Why don’t you pick us up something for dinner? I like the sound of steak.”
Stiles grumbled to himself all the way out to his car. Whatever his dad had been talking to the deputies and Laura about, it didn’t sound like it had anything to do with what happened in the woods the night before, but why was his dad being so closed-off about it? There’d been cases in the past that he’d tried to keep under wraps, usually without success, but more often than not he shared stuff with Stiles. He said it was good to get a fresh perspective sometimes, and Stiles had been able to offer helpful suggestions before. He didn’t like feeling as though he couldn’t be trusted.
He drove to the grocery store and headed inside, muttering mutinously the whole way in, only stopping when an old lady gave him the stink-eye. The store was quiet and he stood in front of the meat counter for a while, absently humming along with the nineties music playing over the store radio. He was just reaching for a couple packs of sirloin when someone stepped up beside him and he jumped.
It was Jennifer, the clerk from the town hall, and she smiled apologetically. “Sorry,” she said. “Didn’t mean to scare you.”
“It’s fine,” Stiles replied. “I was off in my own world, I guess.”
She smiled again. “Stanisław, right?”
“Er, Stiles, actually,” he said uncomfortably.
“Right,” Jennifer nodded. “How’s your arm doing?”
“Oh,” Stiles said blankly. “Uh, it’s fine. Thanks.”
“That’s great,” Jennifer said, leaning forward to snag a package of ribeye. “Well, have a good day.”
“You too,” Stiles replied, and watched her disappear down the canned foods aisle. There was something strange about her, he thought, though he couldn’t put his finger on it. She made him uneasy.
When Stiles got home, he shoved the steaks in the fridge and spent the rest of the afternoon out in the garden. The woods were quiet and he couldn’t help feeling a little unnerved being outside — whatever was out there, whether it be a mountain lion, or a wolf, or something else entirely, it was obviously dangerous. He didn’t know where Derek had disappeared off to; he hadn’t hung around after Stiles woke that morning, slipping out the back door while Stiles made himself breakfast. Stiles would have felt a lot better if he knew Derek was around.
He made do with his own company, weeding out the garden. Things were coming in nicely now, the dirt mostly covered in a carpet of green growth. He was proud of himself; there was nothing like seeing the tangible results of hard work, even if it was still weeks away from actually being edible.
His dad came home around five-thirty and Stiles took a shower while his father got their steaks on the grill. He’d hoped that Derek might show up, lured by the smell of the meat cooking, but he didn’t. Stiles and his dad ate alone, sitting on the back porch again, toes brushing the grass.
“Dad,” Stiles said after a while, setting aside his plate. They hadn’t spoken much since his father got home, and Stiles had been thinking about what he’d overhead at the station.
His father sighed, sounding tired, like he already knew what Stiles was thinking. “Stiles,” he said. “I told you. It’s police business — ”
“I know, I know,” Stiles said impatiently. “I’m not trying to pry, I promise. I just want to know, for my own peace of mind; is everything all right? Like, are we safe out here?” He watched his father chew at his lip and added, “it’s just — it’s weird being out here. With the woods all around and everything. It’s different than the city.”
His dad nodded slowly, looking grim. “I understand,” he said, and sighed again. “I’m not too sure what’s going on myself, but I can tell you that there have been some reported sightings of a suspicious man hanging around town, and we don’t know what his intentions are.”
Stiles stared off into the woods, tapping his fingers against the deck. “So,” he said eventually. “Dangerous or not?”
“I don’t know,” his father replied. “But I’m leaning toward dangerous. Man disappears for five years before showing up out of the blue? Doesn’t seem right to me.”
“Okay,” Stiles said slowly. “That’s not super reassuring. What’s he look like? Should I be worried?”
Dad shook his head. “No, no. I’ve got people looking for him. There’d be no reason for him to show up out here.”
“Who is he?” Stiles asked curiously. “Can you tell me?”
His father hesitated a long moment before he said, “His name’s Peter Hale.”
“Peter…” Stiles straightened, his eyes going wide. “A Hale? Is he related to Laura? Is he her brother?”
His dad shook his head, getting to his feet. “No, he’s her uncle. You done?”
Stiles nodded slowly, handing his father his empty plate and following him inside. His dad looked hunted, and Stiles could tell he didn’t want to continue the conversation, so he took a step back for the moment and changed topics. “I haven’t seen Derek all day.”
His father gave him a dry look as he loaded their plates into the sink. “You know, for someone who was so up in arms about me letting a stray into the house, you’ve certainly changed your tune.”
“What? I’m not allowed to like animals?”
“All I’m saying,” his dad said, his tone lofty, “is that you freaked out about finding him in your bed, and as far as I can tell, he slept on your bed last night.”
Stiles glowered at his father. “Whatever,” he muttered, retreating to the living room. The worst part was his dad was right; Stiles had done a total one-eighty on Derek, and why not? He seemed to like Stiles and Stiles liked him. Nothing wrong with that.
“Don’t worry about Derek,” Dad said, coming into the living room a few minutes later. “This town basically belongs to him. He’s got territory to look out for.”
“Uh huh,” Stiles muttered. Hadn’t Laura said the same thing last night? This town belongs to him. He supposed that when someone didn’t have a house, the whole world was their home. It didn’t really make him feel any better, especially now that he knew there was a potentially dangerous man roaming around outside somewhere.
“I could start taking you to the gun range again, if it would make you feel better,” his dad offered, but Stiles shook his head. He didn’t like guns all that much; didn’t trust himself not to accidentally shoot his foot off. He couldn’t see himself threatening anyone, not even a home invader.
When he went to bed later, Stiles picked up the book of spells and flipped through it idly. A question of knowledge, Lydia had said, not belief. It seemed so…unreal to him, almost like a prank, and yet — Stiles landed on the page titled Defensive Wards and tapped his finger against the paper thoughtfully. It couldn’t hurt, right? And no one would ever know.
Stiles lifted his head, listening carefully, but the house sat silent. His dad had gone to bed at the same time Stiles had, and there was still no sign of Derek. No witnesses. Stiles swallowed, scanning the instructions, which seemed too easy, but he got out of his bed and rooted around in one of his desk drawers until he found a box of chalk, then sat himself down on the floor. He used the compass app on his phone to orient himself to the north and then it was just chalking four symbols in the cardinal directions. Stiles double and triple-checked them with the book, then dusted off his hands and, feeling a little silly, read the words at the bottom of the page.
Nothing happened. Stiles expected some kind of frisson or something, but the air was still, the house quiet. He put his hand out and met no sort of invisible resistance. Stiles snorted; so much for that. He hadn’t really expected it to work, anyway, but it would have been cool. He’d been so into fantasy as a kid, finding out magic was real would have been fulfilling a childhood dream.
“Stupid,” Stiles muttered, getting to his feet and scuffing out the chalk marks before climbing back into bed. He was glad Derek hadn’t been there; for an animal with no means of communication, he had a fucking expressive face and Stiles didn’t need that judgy look.
“Stupid,” Stiles said again, but his eyes strayed to the book on his nightstand. He picked it up again, and instead of flipping through the pages, he turned to the first chapter. Summoning Light, it said.
For most inclined to magical abilities, the most rudimentary of skills is the ability to summon light from within. Commonly referred to as a ‘spark,’ the center of your magic lays somewhere inside you. To find it, close your eyes and focus on your being; some may find meditation is necessary to find the balance of mind and spirit that will allow you to see your spark.
Your spark may be influenced by any number of circumstances within or beyond your control: your mood and mental state, the proximity of other people or beings with magical abilities, and the very lay of the land and the ley lines that run below the earth. All of these things can negatively or positively affect the power of your spark. Areas where ley lines converge may amplify one’s spark to above-normal levels, while places that do not sit on ley lines may make it impossible for users to find their spark at all. It is not unheard of for people from these areas to go many years without any sign of any magical ability only to move to an area of high magical significance and discover their latent powers. Some of the most powerful enchanters of the last century came from the most magically barren places on earth.
Once your spark has been located, become familiar with it. Understand how it moves through your veins. Your magic is as an innate part of you as any organ, but significant in that, like muscles, it can be built upon and made more powerful with practice and exercise. Understanding how it works with your body will only give you greater control over it in the long run.
To summon light, focus on your spark. Trace its path from wherever it may reside — your brain, under your tongue, the pit of your stomach — and follow its path to the center of your palm. It should take the merest push, the slightest suggestion of a thought, to will your spark into manifesting.
“This has to be a joke,” Stiles muttered, shutting the book. Who could write that and take it seriously? Honestly, some people were so fucking weird. He’d heard of ley lines, but it was some stupid New Age crap. He put the book on his nightstand and shut off the light, flipping around until he got comfortable.
Stiles laid there listening to the crickets for a while, but he couldn’t sleep. Despite his best efforts, his mind kept slipping back to the book. Stiles scowled up at the ceiling, but really, no one was going to know if he tried again.
He shut his eyes and made himself relax, breathing slowly. He listened to his heart beat, to the blood rushing in his ears. He exhaled evenly, wondering where his center was. He’d taken yoga one semester and back then it seemed to be somewhere below his heart, just above his stomach, but he was pretty sure that wasn’t what he was looking for in this case. He thought through every part of his body, starting at his toes and working his way upward. It would have been hilarious if his spark or whatever was in his dick — he had a hilarious mental image of shooting flames — but he found it, quite suddenly, in the hollow at the base of his throat.
Stiles couldn’t say how he knew what it was, or how he even really found it, but there it sat, pulsing warmly beneath his sternum like a second heart. He could hear a very faint buzzing in his head, something gentle.
“Is this real?” he whispered, touching his skin. It felt as warm as it should be, but in his head he could feel his spark pulse in response to his touch. “Holy shit.” He kind of wished Derek was there for that moment; Derek would have been impressed, he was pretty sure, and not much seemed to impress Derek.
“Okay,” he murmured, a little nervous. He squeezed his eyes shut, holding his palm out. Trace a path. Okay, easy enough — and now that he knew to look, he could feel the spark radiating through his body, spiraling along his limbs and splitting to reach the very tips of his fingers and toes. He focused on the piece that lay under his palm, took a deep breath, and pushed.
Light flared behind his eyelids and his eyes flew open to find a small globe of light hovering a couple of centimeters above his palm. “Holy shit,” he murmured weakly. “Holy shit.”
The sphere was maybe five inches in diameter and glowed a soft, flickering yellow-white, like candlelight. Stiles held his other hand up to it, fingers trembling, but it wasn’t hot. He poked at it with one long finger and it avoided him gracefully. Curiosity growing, he tilted his hand; the light didn’t fall, but followed the movement, bobbing until it hung securely over his knuckles. He was able to pass it to his other hand, then onto his knee, where it lost its balance and rolled slowly down his leg and ended up over his toes. It wouldn’t leave his body, though. When he tried to put it on the bed, it clung to his fingers like a piece of staticky Styrofoam.
“Hmm,” he said absently, reaching for the book. He almost turned on his light until he laughed a little hysterically and realized he didn’t exactly need it. He held his hand over the first chapter and scanned the text because now that he had the light, he didn’t know how to get rid of it.
The book made no mention of how to turn it off, though, and there was nothing in the following pages — the next chapter was on how to summon fire. Stiles shut the book again and frowned down at the light ball of light hovering in his palm.
“Go away,” he told it. The light did not in fact go away. Stiles frowned. He tried closing his fingers over it, like maybe he could snuff it out in his grasp, but the light nimbly avoided his grip. He glared at it. “C’mon!”
Stiles shut his eyes moodily. It must have something to do with his “spark.” He frowned, once again following the golden path that lined his bones, right up to his palm, and imagined jerking it backward, his fingers twitching at the movement. It worked, though, however stupid it seemed. He noticed the light fading behind his eyelids immediately, and by the time he opened them it was gone. Stiles grinned.
He’d fucking summoned light and either he was hallucinating or magic was real. It was everything he’d ever hoped for when he was a kid. Stiles had to do it again, just to prove that it wasn’t a fluke, calling forth the little ball of light and banishing it just as quickly. He laughed excitedly. After a few tries, he didn’t even need to shut his eyes any more, he could watch it bloom into existence and fade into nothing. With some experimentation, Stiles found he could even change the size, growing it from just a pinprick to an orb a foot wide that hovered two feet above his head, bright enough to fill his entire room with soft, golden light.
It took a long time for him to fall asleep that night, his body thrumming with excitement. He ended up oversleeping the next day and stumbled into the library forty-five minutes late. Laura sat behind the circulation desk, that day's copy of The New York Times spread out before her. She didn't even look up at him.
"Rough night, huh?"
"Not really," Stiles lied. "Just couldn't sleep."
Laura did glance up at him then, her brow furrowing momentarily before smoothing out. She looked back down at the paper and nodded, deftly filling in an answer on the crossword puzzle. "Okay," she said. "Try not to be late next time. There are donuts in my office."
"You're the best boss," Stiles said loyally, and slipped off to grab a jelly donut before shelving the cart of returns Laura had let build up.
The day passed quietly. It was a slow day anyway, a Thursday, and Stiles spent most of it lost in thought. Laura gave him a stack of new arrivals and a brief lesson on how to wrap the covers in their protective plastic covers, and he welcomed the mindless task, standing at a rickety table down in the basement. It gave him plenty of time to think about the previous night, about what he'd done. For a while he wondered if it had just been some kind of weird dream, but then he built up the courage to try again. He glanced around nervously, but he was alone in the basement, so he took a deep breath to settle himself and watched the little globe of light flare up between his fingers with wide eyes. Not a dream, then.
As Stiles stood there, rolling the little ball between his fingers, he realized that beyond the faint buzzing his head that he was now pretty sure came from magic, he could hear a deeper noise beneath his feet, so low it was almost beyond his range of hearing. He could feel it more than anything, a thrum in his very bones. Curious, Stiles dismissed his light, but the buzzing in his mind didn't leave him as the light faded. His head came up as he realized that he'd felt it before, felt it multiple times, and it was coming from the grate over the rare books room.
"Fuck," Stiles breathed, realization smacking him in the face. The door was magicked; of course it was. Laura had said, hadn't she, that the room held rare books and if there were other people out in the world using magic, a simple gate probably wouldn’t stop them. Stiles stepped closer and the buzzing got louder. He wondered if the volume of it had anything to do with its strength. It’d been pretty loud when the door zapped him. That made him wonder about the deep vibration he could feel now. Why hadn’t he been able to hear it before? Maybe he’d needed to find his spark first, awaken his senses, as it were.
Stiles stood in front of it and listened to it buzz, but his attention wasn’t on the gate, it was on the stone around it. He found what he was looking for at the very peak of the doorway; he had to stand on the tips of his toes to see them, but they were there right enough, faint symbols carved into the stone. If memory served him right, they weren’t unlike the ones in the warding spell he’d tried the night before. Stiles stepped away from the grate and went back to his work at the table, but his mind kept churning.
Just what could be done with magical powers? Was there an upper limit on power? Did people have to level up like in video games? Stiles’ eyes slid toward the rare books. There’d be an answer in there, he was pretty sure.
Stiles knew where the key was, but considering the shock he’d received the last time he’d tried to enter the room without permission, he knew he had to do it the right way. Around noon, he went upstairs. Laura still sat at the circulation desk, chatting with Mrs. Martin, Lydia’s mom.
“What’s up, sweet cheeks?” Laura asked him, grinning faintly. “You heading out for lunch?”
“Er, no,” Stiles said awkwardly, flushing at the pet name. “I was wondering if I could get into the book room downstairs.” He picked at the surface of the circulation desk with a blunt fingernail.
“Sure thing,” Laura said casually. “You know where the key is.”
“Thanks,” Stiles said, and ducked away before anyone could ask him why he was so interested.
It felt strange going into the collection for his own purposes. The last time he’d been in here, he hadn’t known what to think, but now Stiles stood still for a while, slowly scanning every title. It took a while, even though half the books seemed to be in other languages. A couple volumes he pulled off the shelf and flipped through their contents before slipping them back into place. He wasn’t quite sure what he was looking for; a guide for beginners, maybe. He grinned wryly to himself, fairly certain he wouldn’t be finding Magic for Dummies down here.
Stiles didn’t have much luck finding what he needed — there were several hundred books on the shelves, and without any sort of catalog, it made research a little difficult — but he did find a book titled A Compendium of North American Supernatural Beings that looked interesting enough, so he settled down in the uncomfortable wooden chair at the end of the room to glance through it.
Without a window or even a clock in the room, it was hard to tell how much time passed. Stiles grew thoroughly engrossed with the book, reading through entry after entry on the weirdest creatures he’d ever learned about - almas and rocs and hodags. He was all the way to the Ds — deer women, djinn, drac — when something moved next to him and he jumped, completely startled.
“You okay?” Laura asked, leaning over him with her eyebrows raised.
“I — yeah,” Stiles gasped, one hand over his heart. “Jesus, you scared me.”
Laura smiled. “What’d you find?”
“Oh — this,” Stiles said, showing her the cover of the book. Laura’s eyes widened slightly, her smile widening. “Anyway, sorry, am I late?”
“It’s five,” she told him gently. “I’m heading home.”
“Five?” Stiles repeated, bewildered. “What? Why didn’t you stop me earlier?”
“Slow day,” Laura shrugged, smiling. “And I know what it’s like to get lost in a good book.” She nodded toward the one in his hands. “You can take that home tonight, if you’d like. It’s not worth anything.”
“I shouldn’t,” Stiles said with a rueful look down at the volume. “I might miss work entirely if I get too wrapped up in it.”
“Good point,” Laura laughed, watching Stiles get to his feet and reshelve the book. They carefully locked up the grate and left the library together, separating in the parking lot to head for their respective cars, calling goodbyes as they went.
When Stiles got home, his dad’s car was already in the driveway and Derek lay on the porch, his head on his paws. “Hey, dude,” Stiles said as he approached the steps. “Not hanging out with Dad?” Derek lifted his head as Stiles came up the steps, touching his nose to Stiles’ outstretched fingers. Stiles headed toward the door, grinning when he heard Derek get to his feet and follow him.
Stiles was glad to see Derek; he hadn’t been at the house since the morning before, and Stiles had missed him. He’d kind of started to think of Derek as his, and he’d been a little worried when he hadn’t showed up at the house last night. Now Derek followed him inside, into the living room, where Stiles’ dad lay stretched out on the couch, sound asleep.
“No wonder you didn’t want to hang out with him,” Stiles whispered to Derek. “He’s turning into an old man, I swear.”
Derek huffed and it sounded like a laugh. Stiles grinned and headed for the kitchen, but rather than clanking around making dinner and waking his dad up, he and Derek made their way to the backyard, where Stiles hauled out the hose and watered the garden. Stiles watched Derek circle the backyard before coming to rest at Stiles’ side, head up and ears alert as he watched the forest.
“What do you hear, bud?” Stiles asked him, spraying water over the soil. Derek’s ears flickered back toward him but he didn’t turn his head. “Must be interesting,” Stiles continued innocently, waving an expressive hand. “You must be able to hear for miles.” He grinned and adopted his best movie announcer voice. “Derek thought he was safe. Little did he know, his best friend was about to betray him.” And Stiles turned the jet of water on Derek, who yelped and spun around, looking wounded. Stiles laughed as Derek tried to escape the spray from the hose, snapping at the water like he could hurt it. He was still laughing when Derek gave up and charged at him instead, smashing into his knees and sending Stiles tumbling to the ground.
“Hey!” Stiles protested, blinking hard as his head smacked against the grass. Derek huffed and flopped down on top of him, his wet fur quickly soaking Stiles’ shirt and pants. “Get off me!” He aimed the hose at Derek’s ribs, hitting him point-blank in the side, but Derek just gave him a smug look as the cold water ran off his side and pooled on Stiles’ stomach. “C’mon, man,” Stiles complained, shoving at Derek. He was fucking heavy. “Lemme up!”
Derek took his sweet time getting to his feet. Stiles groaned as he got up, his shirt soaking wet and smeared with dirt. “This is your fault,” he informed Derek, who bumped against Stiles hard enough to send him staggering. Stiles swore and swiped at him, but Derek leapt backward, his tongue hanging out of his mouth. It took Stiles a second to realize that Derek was being playful — he’d never seen the dog remotely interested in catching a ball or chewing on a toy — but here he was practically skipping around Stiles, mouth open in what was clearly a smirk. “You think you’re funny, huh?” Stiles panted, lunging after him. “We’ll see!”
Derek spun away with a noise that was almost a bark — another surprise as Stiles had never heard that before — and Stiles chased, running through the backyard, looping through the woods and back toward the house. Derek was clearly playing with him — Stiles knew he was fast, but he’d stop, wait until Stiles got close enough to touch, before ducking under his grasp and sprinting forward a couple hundred yards. Stiles was laughing and red-faced by the time Derek allowed himself to be caught on the back deck, and Derek himself was open-mouthed and panting, pink tongue lolling over his white teeth. Stiles was almost dry by then, his shirt cool, Derek’s fur a little damp, but he didn’t really mind. Derek spread himself out over the deck and Stiles sat next to him, absently running his hands through Derek’s dark fur as they both watched the woods, Derek’s ears twitching occasionally as he caught far-off noises.
If Stiles closed his eyes he could hear stuff too, but it wasn’t natural, at least, it wasn’t a part of the natural world he was used to hearing. He could hear that thrumming he’d heard at the library that morning, a pulse of noise that started deep and faded away, almost like a heartbeat. It was fainter here than it had been at the library, but still strong — strong enough to pull him to his feet and head toward the garden, a vague frown on his face. Behind him, Derek got to his feet — Stiles could hear the click of his nails on the wood planks of the deck — and followed.
As Stiles walked, he was almost certain the noise grew louder. He kept walking, past the garden and toward the trees, then into the woods, and he was definitely sure, the deep noise grew louder as he went. “Hey, Derek,” Stiles said over his shoulder. “Do you want to go for a walk?”
Derek tilted his head curiously and took a few quick steps forward so he stood at Stiles’ side. He bumped his head against Stiles’ hand and Stiles grinned. “Now, I’m counting on you, dude. If there are any mountain lions out here, I need you to keep them away, all right?”
Derek made a soft noise, bumping his head against Stiles’ hand once more before moving forward. Stiles followed, curiosity pulling him along. It was dim under the trees, the sun sinking toward the horizon, but there was still plenty of light to see by. Derek walked a couple yards in front of him, the line of his dark form relaxed, tail swinging from side to side as he walked. If there were mountain lions in the woods, Stiles would take his cues from Derek; seeing as how he was completely relaxed at the moment, Stiles wasn’t super worried.
The hum grew louder as they walked. Stiles wondered if Derek could hear it too. He was certainly headed in the right direction without Stiles even saying anything. Stiles knew that dogs could hear a lot of things that humans couldn’t; he’d probably been hearing the hum long before Stiles noticed it.
They walked for a while, maybe fifteen minutes or more. Stiles wasn’t really keeping track; he was watching the woods. Judging by the direction of the sun at his shoulder, they were heading north, probably on the preserve by now. He wondered how far they were from the lake, how far from the burnt out shell of the Hale house. He wondered about Derek, why he hung out there. Because it offered shelter, probably. From what Stiles remembered seeing of it, it hadn’t been completely burnt down; much of the first floor seemed intact or, at least, had walls and a ceiling. Maybe he’d come out and explore it some time.
Stiles almost tripped over Derek, who’d stopped walking. He made an irritated noise as Stiles collected himself, brushing bark off the hand he’d thrown against a tree to catch himself. Stiles looked up and realized they were at the edge of a clearing and in the middle of it stood the largest tree he’d ever seen.
Stiles had seen large trees. He’d seen sequoias a couple years ago at Sequoia National Park and the tree before him was nowhere near as tall — it was no taller than the rest of the forest around it, but its trunk was massive, at least twice as big around as General Sherman’s. The pulse was loud here, almost deafening, though, confusingly, even though Stiles knew what he was hearing was loud, he could easily hear his own breathing, and the sound of Derek and his feet on the leaves lining the forest floor, and Stiles was almost certain he’d reached the source of it.
He crossed the clearing slowly, head tilted back to take in the massive crown. The bark of the tree was smooth, a light brown, covered in moss and lichen. Stiles reached out a hand to touch it before remembering the last time he’d touched something without permission. He looked down at his arm, at the burns still healing there, shiny and red. He looked down at Derek, who looked back up at him, his expression neutral. “Is this thing safe?” Stiles asked him. Derek blinked but didn’t move, and Stiles sighed. That’d probably been stupid, to expect an answer. Derek wouldn’t have any idea what he was talking about anyway.
Stiles turned his attention back to the tree in front of him and concentrated. It sounded kind of dumb, but the tree didn’t feel unfriendly. The grate in the library basement definitely put off a Don’t touch me sort of vibe, but the tree in front of him felt…completely neutral, actually. It wasn’t particularly welcoming, but it wasn’t telling him to go away, either.
Stiles took a deep breath and laid his palm flat against the tree and what he felt was like the way his spark had felt, really, a pure, clear energy. But…Stiles’ brow furrowed, his eyes settling shut as he tried to figure out what he was feeling. It was pure, but there was darkness at the edges, creeping in, unsettling. He opened his eyes and squinted up at the huge limbs spread above him. They looked healthy at first glance, lush and green, but there were branches that were dead, the wood split and dark with decay underneath. It was too bad, he thought, taking a step away from the trunk. The tree was clearly sitting on, or made of, great power, but something was warping it.
“You know,” Stiles told Derek conversationally, “this time yesterday, I wasn’t even thinking about magic, and now I can tell there’s something wrong with this fucking tree.” Derek looked up at him, ears pricked forward curiously, and Stiles brightened. “Oh yeah, I wanted to show you!” He lifted his hand to summon forth the light, then hesitated, glancing back up at the tree. He didn’t think anything bad would happen using his spark so close to the tree, but then again he was new to all of this. What the fuck did he know? “Let’s wait til we’re back at the house, huh?” He looked for the sun and found it sunk below the trees. “We better get back anyway. Dad’s probably up making dinner.”
Derek stuck close to his side on the way back to the house. His body language had changed, slight tension along the lines of his body. It made Stiles a little nervous. He didn’t know if it was because of the tree or something else entirely, so it was a relief to see the house through the trees, his dad out on the back deck grilling hamburgers. He twisted around when Stiles and Derek came out of the woods, lifting a hand in greeting. Derek broke away from Stiles and loped across the backyard, leaping up onto the back deck where, Stiles saw, his dad had laid out a bowl of water. Stiles felt bad; Derek was probably thirsty after all that playing around earlier.
“Where have you guys been?” Stiles’ dad asked as Stiles climbed up onto the deck.
“Taking a walk,” Stiles replied nonchalantly. “There’s a big-ass tree out in the woods back there, did you know?”
“That so?” his dad asked, not sounding interested at all — he’d never been much of a nature guy. Come to think of it, Stiles hadn’t either.
“Yeah,” Stiles shrugged. “Looks like it’s not doing well, though.”
His father set the spatula down next to the grill. “What do you mean?”
“Some of the branches were dead,” Stiles told him. “All rotten.”
Dad’s brow furrowed. “Where was this tree?”
“Way out in the preserve,” Stiles said, pointing. “I mean, it’s nothing you have to worry about, I don’t think. It’s so far out there, no one’s going to get hurt if it falls over or something.”
“Hm,” his father said grimly, turning back to the grill.
They ate on the deck (“We really need to get chairs or something,” Stiles said as he offered lumps of hamburger to Derek, who plucked them delicately from his fingers. His dad didn’t look too concerned about deck furniture, either.), then headed inside. They caught most of a Lord of the Rings marathon, Stiles’ dad slumped in his recliner while Stiles sprawled on the couch, Derek between his legs, head resting on Stiles’ stomach. Stiles ran his fingers over the soft fur on his ears and asked his dad, “Where do you think he gets his food from?”
Dad snorted. “Have you seen the size of him? He probably takes down deer.”
“Is that so?” Stiles asked Derek, tugging on his ear. Derek made an irritated noise and jerked his head out of Stiles’ grip. “I think that’s a no.” He watched Derek’s eyes follow the movement on the tv screen; if Stiles didn’t know better, he’d swear Derek was actually watching the movie.
Dad fell asleep fifteen minutes into The Return of the King and Stiles forced himself to get up off the couch before he did as well, heading upstairs. By the time he’d brushed his teeth, Derek had followed, sprawling himself out over the entire bed. He gave Stiles a smug look when Stiles tried to shove him aside.
“You asshat,” Stiles told him, worming his way under the sheets and kicking Derek’s paws out of the way. “You think you’re so special. You wouldn’t be able to move me either if I spent all my time chowing down deer. What do you do, swallow ‘em down whole like a python?”
Derek snapped at Stiles’ arm playfully and Stiles let himself be grabbed, allowing Derek to gnaw on his arm for a moment before pulling away. “There,” he said to Derek, wiping slobber onto the sheets, “now you’ve had a taste of me. Pretty nasty, huh? You’re better off sticking with deer.” He ran an absent hand over Derek’s head before brightening. “Oh, I never got to show you! Watch.”
Stiles held out his hand. Derek nosed at it, looking unimpressed, and Stiles said, “Just wait.” He concentrated; it took no more than a second for his little yellow light to bloom into existence. “See that?” He waved it in Derek’s face. “Pretty cool, huh?”
He tried balancing it on Derek’s nose, but Derek jerked his head backward and sneezed. Stiles dismissed the light with a laugh and reached out to scratch at Derek’s ears. “It’s pretty cool though, right?” he asked. “I mean, I never would have thought that magic was real.”
Stiles laid back in bed, Derek shifting himself around so his head was on Stiles’ chest. “Kinda makes you wonder what else is out there,” Stiles said to Derek. “You know? What else have I missed?”
He fell asleep with his fingers curled in Derek’s fur, Derek’s nose pressed against his arm. He dreamt of standing at the base of a massive tree, hands pressed to its mossy bark. Someone stood behind him, gentle fingers pressed to the back of his neck, and they said his name in a voice he’d never heard before, soft and sad. Stiles jolted awake in a cold sweat. Derek was gone and outside his window, the moon hung full and silver.