He was ten years old when his father was dispatched for an arson.
All available units to the 800 block of Woodfern Lane. Code 451. Ambulance and firefighters enroute.
The Sheriff had assured him it was a routine dispatch, teenagers who had wandered onto the preserve to stir up trouble. But Stiles had noticed the way his father’s smile was tight, his shoulders stiff with tension, officers around them were abandoning their reports, suiting up and barging out of the door like something was biting at their heels. More than necessary, more than routine.
I’ll be back soon, okay kiddo? He had told Stiles, quickly and with an urgency Stiles could just barely pick up, reminding him to be good, to finish his homework, to keep Officer Martin’s desk tidy.
But the Sheriff didn’t come back after an hour, or even after two. Melissa McCall came to the station before the third hour mark, Scott at her side, wearing the same clothes he had on earlier in school. Her expression was equally pinched, the smile she offered to Stiles was small and forced.
“You’re sleeping over!” Scott announced as soon as he had squeezed past the front desk, eyes excited and body vibrating with happiness. Stiles couldn’t muster the same enthusiasm. He looked to Melissa for something more.
She gave him another small smile, this time sad.
In the car, on the way to Scott’s, she explained that the Sheriff got held up with the dispatch, that he would be late coming back. It had happened in the past, Melissa showing up just before eight, picking up Stiles with Scott in tow. They would get to the house, Melissa fixing up dinner to fill Stiles’ empty belly, Stiles helping himself to a shower, and borrowing something of Scott’s to sleep in.
But this time, it felt different somehow. Stiles couldn’t understand the complexity of the situation then, but he could notice the way everyone seemed to be speaking with their eyes, the looks the deputies gave each other as they had suited up, the way his father had looked at Stiles, direct and lingering, the way Melissa looked worn and somber under the florescent lights of an empty station.
They were all saying something Stiles couldn’t comprehend.
And it seemed to last, the tension coiling tighter for days, until one afternoon, Stiles came home from school, and his father told him Laura Hale would be staying with them for the time being.
And it had all snapped, just like that.
When it had been bought, the house was going to be a stepping stone for growth, a start for newlyweds, home for a family one day. She had wanted two children, but when the cancer developed, she was thankful for just one. One boy, happy and healthy.
The house had three bedrooms, one for the Sheriff, one for Stiles, and a spare. The guest bedroom was at the disposal of anyone, although they hadn’t had an immediate need for it in years. The Sheriff kept it tidy, dusting and changing the sheets every few weeks, but mostly it was forgotten in the corner of the house.
Laura Hale arrived past Stiles’ bedtime, with hushed whispers and quiet footsteps, the creaking of the wooden floorboards as she passed by Stiles’ bedroom to the empty room down the hall. After that, Stiles couldn’t ignore the very new presence of another in his childhood home.
It didn’t feel like an intrusion, having her there, and if Stiles was honest, he didn’t notice much of a change in those first initial weeks. He knew Laura was there , but he didn’t see her with any frequency. The Sheriff continued on with his long shifts, Stiles kept on in school, getting picked up by the bus and walking himself home on the days the sheriff couldn't pick him up and Melissa couldn't watch him. Their routine didn’t change in the slightest, that was the strangest aspect of it all.
But even then, Stiles’ natural curiosity couldn’t be piqued. He would find himself feet from the guest bedroom, restlessness particularly high after he had come home from school, wondering if he would ever see his house guest. And as if on cue, he would see shadows of movement from beneath the space where the door and the wooden flooring would hover between each other. They would be little flashes of blacks and grays, from Laura pacing, and suddenly stopping. It would get eerily quiet after that and Stiles would retreat, afraid he had somehow been found out.
The Sheriff would tell him that Laura had quite a lot to work through, that she had always been a very independent person, the Hales are--were good people Stiles, he would say, they were all very reserved, considerate people. She lost her entire family, it’s going to take time.
And Stiles could understand that, as much as Sheriff believed him to be too young to, he could.
Laura Hale worked odd hours, Stiles believed. She would often be gone when he would leave for school, the guest bedroom door left ajar, still open when he would return.
He would sometimes hear her soft voice when she arrived back, the Sheriff welcoming her, letting her know there were leftovers, all very polite and collected.
She would thank him, and shuffle down the hall, the door clicking shut, where it would stay closed for the next few days.
Other times she would be gone for a days at a time, Stiles’ only indication being the same open door.
He would ask his father about it, where Laura would go, what she would do, why he hadn’t met her yet.
The Sheriff would look at him, tired blue eyes, from across the table.
His uniform would creak with stiffness from the starch it held to keep it orderly, wrinkle-free.
“I’m not sure, kiddo,” he would tell him, lips just over the rim of his favorite coffee mug.
Would it have been any other topic, that would not be enough for Stiles. His father knew everything, after all. He was the Sheriff of Beacon Hills.
But Stiles could still note the same tone in his voice, the distant hum similar to the night of the arson, careful and short. He still hadn’t told Stiles just what had happened that night, why he didn’t come home for a full twenty-four hours, why he looked so shaken and gone, why he would only hug Stiles the second he had him in his sights.
For that reason, he didn’t ask again.
He meets Laura Hale in his kitchen, two months later.
She’s wearing a gray, oversized sweater and worn jeans. Stiles sees a cascade of dark, loose curls laying gently on her back, a few resting on the round of her shoulder. But she seems immersed with a task at her hands, not turning around even when the flooring creaks beneath Stiles’ light weight.
“Are you hungry?” she asks him, her voice just as gentle as the one from his nighted memories.
Stiles says nothing, a bit shell shocked, he can’t even move.
Dark curls move as she looks over her shoulder, green eyes striking. She must sense his anxiety, how fast his heart is beating in the small cavity of his chest. Stiles can almost feel her soften, a closed smile forming at the corner of her mouth.
“I’m going to make some grilled cheese, do you want one, Stiles?” she tries again, more direct, and tugs straight at Stiles’ hungry tummy.
He still doesn’t know what to say, if he should say anything. I’m sorry. I lost my mom too. Are you okay?
“Yes,” he says softly, and nods for better measure.
Laura nods back, and turns around once again. She tells him it will be ready in a few minutes and Stiles continues to hover in the doorframe. When Laura doesn’t shoo him away, or look at him strangely for simply standing there, Stiles creeps into the kitchen slowly. He drops his backpack onto the kitchen table, unzipping his notebook and getting out his homework, as he always would after school.
He begins his Language Arts homework, looking over definitions of words he’s only heard in adult conversations, and tries to let that be his only focus. But only minutes later, a plate with perfectly browned bread and oozing cheese is placed next to him. It is cut in half, like Stiles remembers his mother use to do. He tries not to think of the coincidence much.
“Thanks,” he almost whispers, and sees that she nods again, chewing on her own sandwich from the counter. They continue like this, in awkward silence, each munching on their grilled cheese, Stiles pretending to be doing his homework, but instead stealing glances at the house guest he’s seeing for the first time. Stiles thinks Laura notices his starring, subtly clearly not his strong suit, but for whatever reason, she indulges his curiosity.
“Still hungry?” her voice breaks Stiles’ silent concentration, the only direct sound in the house.
He shakes his head, looking at her just once more before drawing his eyes back at his definitions.
“Good, because I don’t think there’s anything edible left in that fridge. I’m going on a grocery run, any suggestions?”
Stiles notes how she doesn’t invite him to come along and he can’t think of anything to suggest. Laura smiles at him, small but warm, and nods her head as if in affirmation.
“And here the Sheriff told me you’d talk my ear off,” she comments, either to Stiles or herself, he’s not sure.
“ Well , I’ll be back in about an hour, okay?” she looks at Stiles for a few seconds, and he can’t understand what could be so fascinating about himself, but Laura smiles just once more before he watches her curls bounce behind her and she closes the door out the kitchen.
She’s not there each time Stiles comes home from school, but he sees her with more frequency. She sits with them at dinner, she drinks coffee at the kitchen table in the morning, she comes in and out on the weekends, she sits with the Sheriff on the couch watching a muted football game, she crouches over scattered papers that are rumpled and piled on the hardwood of the guest room.
Laura never mentions just what the importance of those papers hold, the ones her green eyes rove over time and time again, and Stiles never dares to ask. Whatever they are, Stiles is sure he wouldn’t understand, but his curiosity always lingers on them, on Laura Hale.
She leaves them six months after Stiles had first heard the soft whispers of her voice. She parts with a mantra of thank yous , with tights hugs for both the Stilinski men, with a smile that is genuine and a little melancholy.
“You’re always welcome back, you know that right? Anytime you need it, you have a home here, Laura,” Stiles remembers his father telling her, earnest and shy, but with all the authoritative presence of the Sheriff.
Stiles remembers Laura smiling, mouth becoming tight, green eyes becoming glassy with tears. She nodded, not speaking, and hugging the s\Sheriff one last time. Giving Stiles a pat on the head, hand traveling down the softness of his face to cradle it just for a second.
She was going to New York, that was what she had told the Sheriff only a day earlier. She had extended family there, her late mother’s cousin.
But Stiles knew she just couldn’t bear to be in Beacon Hills any longer. It feels like I’m suffocating here, everywhere I look I can still see them , Stiles had overheard her say once.
She promises to keep in touch, to call or email. But she doesn’t say she’ll visit, or if she will ever come back. She loads a single suitcase in the back of a taxi, waves at them behind the streaked glass, and then she’s gone.
They don’t hear from her again.