“You aren’t supposed to be here,” a voice barked at him from above.
He looked up from the hole he was crouched in, squinting up through the spots of light let in around the Elm’s tree roots. All he could see was a vague shadow looming over the edge. “Actually, I have permission from the park director and from the chair of the Ecology department at the University to study the caves and the stone formations in the park.
“Those are in the south area. You’re in the North.”
“Yeah, well,” he shrugged at the mysterious voice and went back to uncovering the little stone figures, “you know how it is! You get distracted, you follow a trail, and suddenly you’re in the deepest depths of YouTube, watching disturbing personal videos when all you really wanted were some kittens.” He paused. “Well, except, you know, apply that to archaeology and ecology and here I am.”
“I really have no idea what you just said, but I’m going to need you to climb out of there.” A hand reached down and grabbed him, pulling him up with such strength that he had to scramble so as not to be dragged face first.
“Excuse you!” Stiles choked on his own outraged breath as he registered the most beautiful face he had ever seen hovering angrily an inch or two away from his face. The man who had hauled him bodily from the pit had dark hair, a shading of stubble along sharp cheekbones and strong chin, and the craziest, lightest, green-blue-brown eyes he had ever seen. He swallowed an awed “Holy shit” and instead spluttered, “I was studying artifacts down there!”
The beautiful face frowned, heavy eyebrows drawing down menacingly. “Artifacts?”
“Yes,” Stiles gestured behind him, or tried to. The man’s hands were still clamped like irons around his upper arms and all he really managed was a shrug in the right direction. “Little stone wolf figurines, buried in a strata with some ash. They look to be pre-settlement.”
The man’s eyes shifted down and he stepped away from Stiles, pulling a walkie-talkie from his belt and muttering some directions into it, asking someone named Laura to meet him. “You need to either leave or go where you’re supposed to be,” he said when he was finished.
“But, I found them….”
“And they belong to the Park, by law, and will be documented properly. Thank you for your discovery.” The man, who was wearing a Park Ranger’s uniform scowled down at him until he sighed and stooped to gather his bag, still where he had thrown it before jumping down the hole.
“Fine, be a dick then,” Stiles muttered as he walked away. He resisted the urge to look back the entire walk to his jeep, not wanting to give the rude park ranger the satisfaction of checking him out.
But he did narrate the man’s epic hotness, and his epic rudeness, to Scott over drinks that night.
“Seriously, man,” Stiles complained as he slumped over his second beer. He was a little buzzed, but that was mostly because he hadn’t eaten all day and he was counting his hops as his serving of grains for the day, “Dude was hot.”
Scott smiled, “But also a jerk.”
“A complete asshole,” Stiles agreed affably, leaning back in the creaking vinyl booth. The Green Door Pub wasn’t exactly a classy joint, but Stiles liked the low, warm lights and the dusty jukebox. The people here were calm and a little rough, not the type of crowd to really dance or have a good time, but they were honest and Stiles had always found the place calming.
“Did you ever even make it to your site?”
He chugged back a third of his beer, wiping his mouth with his shirtsleeve. What? He was a grad student, he was supposed to be a bit uncouth. “Nah, got distracted and then harassed. Decided to call it a day.”
Scott laughed at him, throwing a friendly arm over his shoulder. “Always were distracted by a pretty face.” He made a face at Scott. His friend just shrugged. “I know his sister, you know, I could always get him in trouble for you.”
“His sister? I don’t even know his name. How do you know he has a sister?”
“Park ranger, right?” Stiles nodded. “Tall, dark, and broody?” Another nod. “Gotta be Derek Hale. There are only two rangers at the Park, and only one of them is a guy. Laura Hale, the sister, is the other ranger and she’s a total badass. She would chew out her brother for being such a dick.”
Stiles beamed at his friend, warm and fuzzy with knowing that his best friend for life, his sworn blood brother since the first grade, still had his back. “Nah, I’ll just let the guy stew in his own guilt for a while. I’m sure the knowledge that he scared me off my work is haunting him right now.”
“Who’s being haunted?” Kira asked as she slid into their booth, forcing all of them even closer together. Scott threw his other arm over the back of the seat, encompassing friend and girlfriend in his arms.
“An epically hot but totally douchey ranger.”
Kira raised her eyebrows at Stiles, and then smirked at Scott. “He met Derek, huh?”
“You know Derek, too?” Stiles leaned over Scott, who just leaned back and made room for him. “Did he throw you out of the park, too?”
Kira laughed and her eyes sparkled, mischievous in the low light. “Oh no, he was my study buddy for a while during undergrad. He’s a good guy.”
“No,” Stiles pointed at her, “you like everyone, so you’re not to be trusted. He is not a good guy. He’s a work-ruining asshole.”
Kira shrugged, and went to order another round.
“I’ll have to find a way to sneak around him next time,” Stiles murmured to the table, hands stroking his chin. Scott looked sideways at him.
“Um, Stiles, he was actually right about the law, you know? Those artifacts do belong to the park.”
“I don’t plan on taking them! I just want to look at them.”
“Uh huh. Just don’t ask me for help.”
“Don’t worry, dear Scotty, I got this.” Scott didn’t seem convinced.
The next day, as Stiles found himself pressed into the rough bark of a pine tree, 6 feet of angry, snarling Park Ranger in his face, he admitted to himself that maybe he didn’t really have this.
It began that day with a visit to Dr. Blake’s office, the head of Ecology at the University. Stiles was a little wired, had been up half the night researching early Native American settlements in the area and wolf mythology, and the line of coffee mugs on his desk just meant that now he was jittery, excess energy drumming itself out through his feet and fingers.
Dr. Blake just sat at her desk, speaking on the phone to someone in her quiet, calm voice. Her office was a light blue like still water. It seemed to fit Dr. Blake; she was always together, body still and eyes focused. Absently Stiles noticed how her hair glinted red in the light and how her toes were pointed, tense even while sitting.
“Thank you, Doctor,” she murmured into the phone and hung up, turning to him with a wide smile. “Dr. Deaton says your archaeological research is coming along well. Are you having any trouble integrating the scientific sources I’ve sent you?”
“No! Not at all; they’re fascinating and the way Dr. Wilson explains keystone species actually sheds a lot of light on some of the prehistoric myths and superstitions that Bell writes about…” he trailed off in the face of her polite smile, shoulders shrugging absently. “Yeah, it’s all, uh, going well. Except for the park.”
She raised a dark eyebrow. “The park?”
“Oh yeah, yesterday I was digging and I found these wolf sculptures in the strata—I’ve never seen anything like them and they were so well preserved, probably because of the ash—but then this Park Ranger forcibly removed me. I’m not sure I’ll be able to go back.”
Dr. Blake had leaned forward in her chair, green eyes bright and hands hovering over her knees like she was about to reach out. “Wolf figurines? How old are they?”
He scratched his cheek, “Um, probably pretty ancient, judging by how deep I found them.”
“Where were they?”
Stiles leaned back. Her voice had an odd current to it, like it was thrumming with deep water. Her face seemed paler, this close. “In the north part of the park. I know I wasn’t supposed to be there, but I saw this huge hole at the base of an elm and I just wanted to look in and then I found the wolves and I started digging. But I wasn’t supposed to be there, so I guess Park Ranger Hale had a point…”
“Hale?” Dr. Blake leaned back, turning her head to the window. Her mouth was stiff. “Laura Hale?”
She relaxed and leaned back and all of a sudden Stiles felt a lot less nervous. He tried to sit back, too, and relax, but the caffeine was still bouncing around his nerves. He bounced his knees. “You should go back,” she said. “If the find is that valuable, I’m sure I can get you access. Let me call the Park Director and clear the way for you.” And before he knew it she was smiling and dialing a number, and a moment later he was ushered out of her cool blue office with a note in hand that said he could return to the Park.
With a quick dash into his dark little office on the 14th floor, he was roaring down the road in the Jeep, excited. The Park entrance was beautiful, green and lush with trees that soared above, a shade below that separated him from the harried world outside, insulating him. He rolled down the window and took a deep breath as he parked, noting that only one other car, an aggressive looking black Camaro, was parked in the lot. He was grateful that the Park wasn’t popular, that he wasn’t fighting crowds of mothers and children and college students out on hikes or picnics. But at the same time he was sad for this place, sad that it was unappreciated, that people didn’t share his love of the dark, leaning trees and soft green undergrowth.
He crunched up a narrow, almost invisible path to the elm he had discovered yesterday. The hole was covered now, a garish green tarp overlaying it. There were small flags placed around, probably to warn people of the danger of falling in, but he ignored them, taking one surreptitious look around before flinging the tarp aside and praying no one had touched anything.
The hole was dark, slightly damp, and seemed completely undisturbed. He took one last scouting look, and jumped in.
HE couldn’t really see the movement of the sun from down in the hole, and the trees motions in the wind made every moment seem just the same as the last one, so for all he knew he spent hours digging. The strata here was clearly defined, layers of stone at the very bottom, the bedrock, piled high with dark and lights strips of dirt. In a black layer near the bottom a small, gleaming black snout pushed out of the ash. “Hi, little guy,” Stiles whispered as he used his brush to chip away some of the hardened soot. An ear and an eye appeared. “You’re quite beautiful. Do you mind if I take you out? I bet you’re ready to see some sun, aren’t you?” After several moments of careful brushing, stopping every few minutes to snap a picture—Dr. Deaton would kill him if he didn’t keep good records—he had in his hand a small black wolf, neck arched towards the sky like he was watching a full moon. It was only a few inches long, and about six inches high, but the details were incredible, ruffles of fur evident along the back and tail. Stiles could even see the suggestions of tiny fangs in the wolf’s mouth. He ran long fingers over the stone, noting distantly that it was warm, like it had been sitting in the sun, and then wrapped it in a soft cloth he had brought, setting it carefully in a pocket of his bag.
Then he got back to digging. He found six more wolf figurines, all made of different stones, and several teeth that looked like they had belonged to real wolves. Dr. Blake would know. He also found several shards of what looked to be pottery, one of them with a stark black design on it, three spirals curling over its edges.
When his back and arms ached and he could feel his stomach rumbling angrily at him, he rose from his crouch, grimacing, and started to scramble from the hole.
And just like yesterday, a large hand grabbed him and dragged him up to the surface.
Derek’s hazel-green eyes were hard as flint and narrowed in on his face. He swallowed. “Oh, uh, hey Derek! Nice day, huh?”
The man growled and shoved him back, bodily pinning him to a rough trunk. Stiles grimaced as he felt the burn of scrapes against his back.
“What are you doing here?”
Stiles gestured to the dirt streaking his hands, face, and clothes, brush still in hand, and spoke before his hindbrain could warn him of the danger. “Digging, obviously.”
Derek’s arms tensed and his lip curled up. My, what sharp teeth he had. “You’re still not supposed to be here. Wasn’t I clear yesterday? Weren’t the tarp and flags sufficient warning to stay the hell away?”
“I am supposed to be here,” Stiles protested, pushing at Derek’s chest. He was warm, like he had a fever, and the muscles were like wood under Stiles’ hands. Despite Stiles’ pushing, though, the man didn’t move out of his space. “Dr. Blake from the Ecology department called the Park Director and got me permission. I even have a note.” He tried to reach his bag. Another shove yielded him half an inch and he dug the note out with his fingertips. He shoved it in Derek’s face. “See?”
Derek growled again, the sound rumbling in Stiles’ bones, and took a step back. He snatched the note and as he read Stiles made a great show of brushing himself off. The Park Ranger rolled his eyes. “The Director didn’t tell me about this.”
“Yeah, well, maybe he or she just assumed you wouldn’t go all rabid on unsuspecting researchers and start shoving them into trees.”
“Oh no,” said a woman’s voice, “she knows him way better than that; Derek’s not really a people person, after all.”
A tall, slender woman in the dark green uniform of the Park Rangers walked down the path towards them, long, dark curls swaying behind her and laughing brown eyes fixed on Derek. Who, interestingly, was looking at the ground, scowling but not talking back. The woman stopped in front of Stiles, hand outstretched and a wide, warm smile on her face. “I’m Laura, Laura Hale. I’m the Park Director. Sorry about Ranger Derek. I really did forget to tell him you were coming.”
Stiles smiled back, already liking the glint of mischief in Laura’s eyes, and shook her hand. “That’s OK, I can handle Ranger Sourwolf here. I’ve had undergrads who were more intimidating.”
Derek’s fists tightened as Laura’s laugh echoed in the trees. She used his hand to pull him into a headlock, and the strange physicality and sudden friendliness of the action reminded him of Scott. He squirmed in her grip until she was just gripping his shoulder. “Oh, I like you already. Why don’t you come back to the office and tell us what you’re working on?”
He readily agreed and the three followed the path deeper into the Park until they came to a large, wooden A-frame, large windows glinting in the sun. It looked like a cabin at a mountain resort and Stiles thought of his dark cube of an office with only a spark of jealousy.
The inside was full of light and honeyed wood, colored posters advertising state parks and summer camps on every available wall space. There was a loft that Stiles couldn’t see into no matter how subtly he craned his neck, and behind a small counter were two large desks, one cluttered with papers and mugs and one lined with neat stacks. They were pushed together. Laura plopped into the cushy looking office chair that matched the messy desk, but Derek just stood behind his chair, staring at Stiles. Stiles stared back. Derek’s eyebrows moved down in a furrow, but Stiles didn’t speak eyebrow-ese, so after an awkward moment (in which he could swear he heard Laura laugh) Derek sighed and said, “You can have my chair.”
Stiles sat. He could feel Derek looming behind him, radiating warmth. In a desperate attempt to not look like he was nervous, he leaned back in the chair, forcing the Park Ranger back a step if he didn’t want Stiles leaning back into his crotch. “So, um, my work. What do you want to know?”
Laura looked down at a pad on her desk, seemingly reading some notes. “Dr. Blake said something about ancient artifacts and wolf figures?”
“Yeah, they’re really cool. I’ve unearthed a few,” he said, reaching into his bag for the little black wolf he had first dug out. He liked to think they had a special bond. He put it in his palm, still half in the protective cloth, and showed Derek and Laura. Neither of them reached for it, but Laura leaned in, looking almost hungry for a minute.
“How many are there, do you think?” She asked, eyes never leaving the figurine.
He shrugged, feeling that same pressure of attention he had felt in Dr. Blake’s office. But here he felt warm, almost, and Laura’s intense gaze was only slightly awkward, and not oppressive like Dr. Blake’s had been. Idly he wondered if Dr. Blake’s position on his committee made her more intimidating, or if he just liked Laura’s easygoing personality. “Don’t know. I’ve seen about six so far, along with some pottery that have some pre-Celtic looking symbols on it. I’ll have to keep digging to see what else is there.” He could almost feel Derek’s frown from here, but Laura was nodding.
“Of course,” she said, reaching for a pen and scratching something on the pad of paper,” Dr. Blake and I had already agreed. But you’ll need supervision, and,” she waved off his protest when he opened his mouth, “it’s not because you don’t know what you’re doing. But, well, the park can be dangerous and I’d feel more comfortable if you had someone with you who knew the woods.”
“My own personal Smokey the Bear, that’s cool.”
She smiled and the expression was sharp. “More like Sour the Wolf, really.”
It took him a moment, but when he realized what she meant he swiveled around to look at Derek, who was scowling so hard at Laura it looked like he might sprain his face. “Oh boy, that ought to be interesting,” Stiles said.
Surprisingly, as Stiles and Laura set out his dig schedule, Derek didn’t protest, just stood silently, staring out the windows. He nodded when a response was required, or grunted at Stiles if the grad student said something particularly witty (or offensive, it could have been either), but didn’t move and didn’t speak.
Finally, as the light was down the walls, Stiles stomach rumbled and he looked at his watch. “It’s late, I should really get going. I haven’t eaten since breakfast and Scott will freak if I miss dinner.”
“Scott?” Laura questioned.
“Oh yeah, you know him. Scott McCall.” Derek and Laura exchanged a quick glance and then she was nodding.
“Yeah, good kid. Helps out with injured wildlife.”
Stiles smiled, imagining his friend patching up Thumper. “He’s a good guy like that. Big softy.”
They exchanged pleasantries and a few more details for tomorrow as he packed up. They walked him to the door, Stiles firmly refusing an escort to his car—it was a relatively straight path back to the lot—and as he stepped back into the daylight he was momentarily blinded by the gold glint of the sun over the nearest ridge.
Suddenly a large hand clamped down on his shoulder, and yanked him back, helping him to narrowly avoid crashing into a stout man only steps outside the door. Stiles muttered a thanks and shook off Derek’s hand. “Sorry sir, didn’t see you there.”
“Nor did I see you, young man. It’s quite all right,” said a smoothly accented voice, and Stiles felt very much like an ass when he saw that the man was wearing sunglasses and carrying a cane. With one last, hurried apology and a wave at the Hale siblings, he trotted down the path.
As he rounded a curve, he thought he heard Laura say in a voice radiating ice, “What do you want, Deucalion?”