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Hello, Stiles. The letters appeared in the freshly turned soil.
Stiles laughed to see the casual magic. Hello, he wrote back. Who are you?
I am, first and always, your friend.
He scrunched his nose up. His friend sounded like his parents or teachers, someone old. But he should try to be nice. Friends were always good to have. Even invisible ones. His mama had told him so.
What’s your name?
That’s a secret for when you’re older.
Stiles frowned at the dirt. That didn’t seem fair at all.
The words appeared faster. I can see that I’ve offended you. Please take this as an apology.
Silky, white petals poked through the earth, revealing a huge, perfect narcissus. Stiles clapped. His mama loved them. She covered the grounds with them every spring, but none of hers had ever been so big or so nice.
Even for a boy surrounded by magic, it was an impressive trick. The flower leaned towards him in clear invitation, so he plucked it. Thank you, he replied in his nicest handwriting.
When he was twelve, the whispers started.
He’d thought it was his secret friend, the one who talked to him in the garden soil and gave him gifts of fruits and flowers and tiny figures carved from stones. On the days he ate the fruit, Stiles dreamt of vast caverns, full of spirits and wonders.
Let me in.
A seam in his mind rippled and pulsed. He had thought that it was the natural progression of their friendship, or, in his more arrogant moments, proof of his growing powers.
Open the door.
He should have known better. His friend had never been rude or pushy, had never frightened him. He had only hovered at his side in those dreams, a faceless guide in those strange lands. His hands had been cold but comforting.
“Who are you?” Stiles whispered back, shaken from sleep with nightmares he couldn’t remember. There was only the lingering sense of shadow and drowning.
I’m your friend, Stiles.
Stiles opened the door.
The House had done its work well. Re-opening the parlor was akin to unsealing a time capsule. Rosewood and leather chairs were as soft and supple as the day they’d arrived. The brass wall sconces gleamed like they’d just been polished. Even the air was the same: sweet woods, lavender, and incense. If Stiles closed his eyes, he could catch the merest whiff of fragrant cups of tea and hear the clink of dainty silver spoons, stirring in cream and cubes of sugar. His mother would be in her pink velvet chair waiting to receive guests or give a reading. His father would sit by the fire, reading his paper or watching baseball from a helpful mirror.
Except they would never do those things again.
During the past six years, it had just been him and a rapid succession of caretakers who couldn’t stand the gloom of his parents’ estate, or the increasingly heavy-handed intrusions by the House.
Now, he was Stiles Stilinski, the last son of a lonely House, celebrating his eighteenth birthday in the traditional way of necromancers.
He licked his lips and concentrated, wishing he could wipe his sweaty palms, but the rules of the night were clear: one hand on the planchette at all times.
Under their fingers, Claudia’s planchette quivered on the old board, happy to be of use again.
“Is it moving?” Scott whispered loud enough to be heard in the far corners of the room.
Jackson glared at him. “It’s one of you losers.”
“We haven’t even asked a question yet,” Lydia said with a toss of her long, strawberry-blonde hair.
Kira bit her lip and raised her free hand, waiting for them to notice her. “What should we ask?”
Danny sighed. “We could ask anything, but it doesn’t change the facts. Spirit boards are obsolete. You should welcome your technomancer overlords.”
“Not all of us whisper sweet nothings to our motherboards, Danny.” Stiles rolled his eyes. “Keep the machine priest bullshit to Sunday morning.”
“Machines are the superior tool for divination.”
“Well, let’s just see about that.” Stiles jerked his head around the circle of his friends, seated at the same cozy table his mother had used so often. “Let’s do this.”
In a few seconds, Stiles had their agreements and enough quiet to really consider the matter. What did he want?
The silence grew stifling as he thought, and finally, when he sensed his friends were out of patience, he nodded.
He’d seen his mother with clients often enough. He’d go with a classic.
Lips shaping soundless words, Stiles asked, “Will I marry Lydia?”
Immediately, the heart-shaped bit of wood shot for the “No” corner.
He frowned. That was disappointing but hardly a shock. “Will I marry anyone?”
It zipped straight across to “Yes” and then returned to “No” before gliding to rest exactly halfway between “Yes” and “No”, where someone had carved Spirit Board in large, gothic letters.
Weird. Stiles had never seen this behavior, almost like it was confused.
“Well that was awesome,” Jackson sneered. “Not. I’ll go next.”
He tapped a finger to his lips in a parody of contemplation. “How about… will Stiles always be a loser?”
The planchette didn’t move a single millimeter.
“Really, Jackson?” The judgement was clear in Lydia’s tone.
“See, Danny was right. It’s broken!”
“Well, you asked a dumb question,” Scott said. “Stiles’ spirit board is too smart to pay attention to things like that.”
Kira nudged Stiles with a knee. “Why don’t you ask another question. Something real.”
“Sure,” he agreed easily—anything to keep this from devolving into another fight between the two.
“Will someone want to marry me?”
Their hands glided the rest of the way to “Yes”.
“Is it a woman?”
Without hesitation, it swung back to “No”.
“Is it a man?”
“What kind of fucking question—” Jackson cut himself off when the planchette trembled and circled “No” before drifting to the same middle spot of indecision, directly on “Spirit”.
Puzzled, Stiles tried again. “Where will I meet them?”
This time, it struggled across the board as though it was moving through syrup. Eventually, they were rewarded by the message: Hello Stiles.
His heart leapt into his throat. It couldn’t be. He’d stopped going into the garden after his parents had been laid to rest, so he’d left his magical friend with no way to contact him.
A chill crept across the back of his neck, like some ghostly hand had touched him. “Are you—” he began, but Lydia stopped him with a hand to his wrist.
Stiles blinked down at the board. She’d taken her hand from the planchette, a clear violation of tradition. He turned to her, and his mouth fell open. Her hair had dark streaks running through it, and it whipped around her face as though she was caught in a breeze.
“Stiles,” Lydia whispered. “I think we should stop.”
“For real.” Danny looked at him with huge eyes. “I will swear for the rest of my life that spirit boards are totally valid and equal to machines if we stop now.”
“Just one more question,” he insisted. “Come on! Scott? Kira?” He looked to them, his best friends, expecting support, but they shook their heads.
Scott shrugged at him apologetically. “It seems weird, dude. We should ask about it in school. But hey!” He brightened as some thought occurred to him. “Maybe Deaton will know something!”
“I agree. We should ask before doing anything else.” Kira pursed her mouth. “Something is talking to you, Stiles. Directly.”
“That’s sort of the whole deal with a spirit board,” he pointed out.
Kira’s face was grave. “Not every spirit is our friend. You know that more than most.”
Stung by the reminder, he reared back, hands curling into involuntary fists. He didn’t even care that he’d let go of the planchette. “That was… that was a long time ago,” he choked out past the guilt.
He couldn’t blame her for bringing it up. She was right. If he hadn’t listened to the fox. If he hadn’t opened the door. If he hadn’t kept so many secrets or done so many stupid things as a little kid… maybe his parents would still be alive.
Her face softened. “I’m not saying it’s anything like that, but maybe we shouldn’t listen to it.”
“Yeah, well maybe it’s my mom trying to help us out. Or my future not-spouse is reaching out.” Or it’s my nameless friend.
“Do you really believe that?” For once, Jackson wasn’t mocking him. He didn’t have the usual asshole look on his face. He just looked… concerned. And scared.
“I don’t know. You don’t either.”
“And that’s why we should stop for now,” Lydia said.
His eyes darted from one face to another. If he pushed it now, they’d be pissed off at him instead of just scared… but what if it was his friend?
“Fine,” he agreed, forcing a smile onto his face. “But you all owe me! The MCU marathon starts now, no arguments.” His smile widened into an awful teeth-baring grimace.
The palpable relief—the smiles—at his announcement made it worth backing down. There had been a reason Stiles had chosen to forego the usual party with its creepy debutante vibe. His friends cared about him. They loved him.
It wasn’t enough.
He stroked the weathered varnish, wishing his parents had been here. His mother would have known how to interpret the strange messages he’d received tonight.
“I’ll just clean up here. The board needs to go back in its case.”
“Come on, Danny.” Jackson grabbed Danny’s shoulder. “We’re on popcorn duty.”
“Thanks, guys!” Kira said, wiggling her fingers at them. “Mom says that I should be able to touch more appliances soon.”
The House dims the lights for him as his friends drift out; sensing his wishes, the door shuts and locks with a quiet click.
“You’re a good House,” Stiles said. “I’m sorry it’s been the two of us for so long.”
The House sent him waves of warm affection through their bond.
“If anything bad happens, you know what to do. Engage emergency protocols and get them out, okay?”
A face materialized in the fireplace. “Your will be done, young master.”
Reassured by the avatar’s presence, Stiles slapped his hand onto the planchette and spoke, “What did you give me when we met?”
Still sluggish, wood moved on wood, guiding him from letter to letter to out the word he’d hoped to see: narcissus.
“Friend, my friend,” he breathed. “What’s your name?”
Drops of sweat fall on the board, wetting it, lending it more of his power, and the planchette raced over the alphabet.
“Peter,” Stiles read aloud, savoring the syllables as they rolled off his tongue. “Peter. It’s nice to meet you.”
I’ve missed you.
His hands trembled as he pulled back. Hope and terror bubbled up in him. Could he trust another voice in the dark; more importantly, did he want to?
The avatar coughed quietly, a reminder that his friends were waiting. Stiles lurched out of the chair and smoothed his shirt, abandoning board and question. When he stepped out of those doors, he had to be the joking, laughing Stiles his friends expected, not focused on the mystery of his “friend”. With a deep exhale he shoved the thoughts of Peter to the back of his mind and leaned on the House’s steady presence.
The doors opened and shut behind him without a sound, and Stiles nodded his thanks. No matter what, he could always depends on the House.
The next afternoon, after coffee, brunch, and the sun cordial they’d finagled out of him, his friends all made their goodbyes.
Stiles was alone again.
Without conscious thought, his feet took him back to the parlor. He sat in his mother’s pink chair, luxuriating in the softness. It would be easy to sit here at the table where the sweet scent of rosewood and incense could lull him into a temporary peace. Hadn’t he camped out here for weeks at a time when the reality of his parents’ death had been too much to bear?
Once again, the spirit board drew his gaze. The weathered varnish and nicks had disappeared. Their collective energy had been enough to restore its former glory. The warm red tones of the wood gleamed in silent invitation, so he traced the straight, fine grain of it. His fingers tingled as the spirit board took its due, drinking his power with the greed of one starved.
I’m sorry. So sorry, he thought and opened the channel wider, from a trickle to a stream, shamed at the clear sign of his neglect.
Stiles sighed and moved his hand, breaking the connection. “I won’t wait so long next time,” he promised. Perhaps, it was even the truth.
He was good at running from problems.
Like his friend in the garden. His conscience pricked at him. He hadn’t stepped foot there in almost six years. The House’s maintenance spells were superb, so he had no doubt that each plant and shrub, down to the last blade of grass, would be pristine.
At eighteen, Stiles was a man and master of his House. He should see for himself.
Stiles blinked, unprepared for the afternoon sun’s assault on his eyes. They adjusted as he crossed the neatly cut grass, all but shrouded in soft drifts of pink petals. Last night’s rain had been unkind to the cherry trees.
All too soon, he reached the preservation seal. Stiles stood at the evergreen arches and closed his eyes. Did he really want this? No one would blame him if he kept it closed and allowed the House to look after the grounds, the garden.
He had other priorities, other distractions, but this was danger and mystery and everything his dull life had been lacking. He wanted this. He’d been good and dutiful—guilt-ridden—for six years. Didn’t he deserve to be young and reckless like everyone else?
Stiles put his hand in the air and twisted an invisible dial. With that gesture, the garden that had been held at the height of summer re-joined reality on a wet April day.
He crossed the fallen barrier, the transition between spring and summer perfectly seamless. Though six years had passed, his feet knew the paths to take, and in minutes he’d found his way past mint and rosemary, peony and myrtle, and into the wisteria-strangled hedge maze.
His heart clenched when he caught sight of the twin ossuaries which flanked an ancient yew tree. Bright beds of red and white flowers surrounded the deceptively small buildings, and narcissus bloomed beneath the dappled shade, marking the spot where he’d met his friend.
Here it was: the scene of the crime, his own original sin.
Stiles fought the rising bile as he stared at the newer ossuary, final resting place of his parents’ bones. He should have visited them sooner.
Slowly, he shuffled closer, not quite crossing the final gate of greenery, and make no mistake, it was a gate. How had he never noticed? Not even when Danny had been obsessed with satellites and shown them aerial shots of their homes.
He could forgive the child for not seeing or knowing. Later, he’d driven all thoughts of the garden and his friend from his mind. The grief had been too fresh, but now it was a slap to the face just how blind he’d been.
In a daze, he knelt by the flowers and touched them, stroking the soft petals of white resurrection lilies before running his fingers against the long stamens of red spider lilies. The bones of his family sheltered under the shade of a yew tree, in air perfumed by mint and rosemary and myrtle. All located in a maze shaped like a key.
Wetness gathered in his eyes. For centuries, his family had been faithful servants to The Good Death. They had raised him on the lore, taught him the symbolism of every plant here. When he’d brought them sparkling jewels from the garden, they had called him blessed, beloved
Yet the child he had been had not cared who spoke, only that there was a speaker. When he tumbled into fantastic, lucid dreams it had only been part of the magic, a secret too holy for sharing.
Last night he’d been surprised and happy, but now? A small, childish part of him cried out in betrayal. For who else could have reached through the earth, into the heart of his family’s power? In this place, built on and around the symbols of His divinity. His friend was no wayward spirit or lesser demon but Hades himself.
His parents had been wrong. If he truly was blessed, then where had The Good Death been when the Nogitsune had taken him and killed his parents in the casting out?
An even smaller part whispered, Lord, lord. Why did you leave me alone?
Stiles clenched his fingers around fragile stems, and he yanked, uprooting handfuls of flowers to reveal dark, loamy earth. Ignoring the worms and scuttling insects, Stiles put his finger to the dirt and wrote.
I know who you are now. Dis Pater.
His accusing scrawl smoothed out, and beautifully formed letters took its place. You have always known—I am your friend. Or do you feel as though I have lied?
Stiles gnawed on his lip in consideration. With the exception of withholding a use-name, “Peter” had always been straightforward, even blunt at times, always acting in Stiles’ best interest.
No, he admitted, slicing the word into the ground. In hindsight, this ignorance had been his own fault.
I’m sorry for what befell you during my inattention. Dirt churned under the sentence, spilling out chunks of amethyst and black tourmaline that rolled themselves into a heap by Stiles’ knee.
Stiles plucked an amethyst from the pile, accepting the apology and offer of protection. The tense line of his shouldered drooped. He sighed as the grief-fuelled anger slipped away. The gods were ineffable, not bound to observe time or human morals; they didn’t promise intercession in all things. How arrogant did he have to be to think that the Lord of Death should have stopped it all just for Stiles Stilinski?
In the end, Stiles had been the prodigal, turning his back on Hades and his friend when he’d closed the garden maze. He was blessed beyond belief that a god would apologize and speak to him after his years of impiety.
I’m honored by your attention.
When his words melted into the ground, Stiles felt the distinct impression that he’d pleased the god, and to his surprise, Hades explained further.
I was too late to save you or your parents, but the fox has been punished for his crimes. He is still punished, even to this day, and so shall he be until the last bones of your ancestors crumble to dust.
A smile flitted across his face, and something in him unclenched for the first time in six years. Death had not forgotten them after all. His parents could rest easier with this vengeance, and so could he.
Thank you, my lord.
Haven’t I told you? Call me Peter.
Inexplicably, Stiles blushed. He’d already been rude beyond measure, but something about the demand—or was it a request—flummoxed him.
He fiddled with the amethyst, rolling it across the backs of his fingers as he thought. What did it mean for the god to ask this, to desire such an intimacy? And more, who was he to refuse this generosity from his patron?
He was Stiles Stilinski, the last of his Name and a servant to the Lord of Bones… and he was beginning to believe his parents had not been wrong to call him beloved. His choice was clear.
Peter then. Thank you.
Stiles watched his words, but they didn’t fade as immediately as his others. He knelt and waited for a sign, anything to assure him that the god was well-pleased with him.
Slowly, the ground before him trembled and bulged, precious stones trickled up from the dirt like a strange and gentle geyser, tumbling and rolling until they arranged themselves into concentric circles. Each hue melted into another, a sparkling, crystalline rainbow. When they had all found a place, the center of the innermost circle cracked open. Stiles glimpsed a pale hand shining in the half-light of the underworld, and the sight of godflesh so close to the mortal world dazzled his eyes.
He turned away, regretting the necessity, recalling with bittersweet clarity when he had been free to look upon Peter as much as he’d wished, when they had walked hand in hand, surrounded by the mineral riches of the earth… but that had been in another time and place altogether.
When his eyes recovered, the crack was gone. What had been left in its place was astonishing.
The skeleton of a fox lay in the circle of gems. The bones were the ivory of true age, and immaculately preserved. Something within the joints seemed to glint in the sun, so Stiles reached out in curiosity.
“What are you?” he whispered.
When it turned its skull to stare at him with empty eyes, Stiles fell backwards with a yell, but he had his answer. Wires. The skeleton was fully articulated—and sentient.
It tilted its head at his reaction and dropped open its mouth in silent laughter.
Then, suddenly, it was no longer silent.
“Hello, Stiles,” said the fox in Peter’s voice. “This isn’t the Nogitsune’s skeleton of course. One of its young cousins, but I thought it fitting for me to take the fox’s seeming after it had stolen mine.”
“Peter, my Lord,” Stiles stammered. “I wasn’t expecting you.”
The fox trotted up to him, butting its skull into Stiles’ chest. “I won’t be personally animating the skeleton at all times, but this will make future visits much easier. Consider it something in the nature of a…” the god paused in thought, “a pet.”
“A pet,” Stiles repeated, stroking the smooth skull.
“It will serve as a mark of my favor and protection. No other would dare raise a hand against you now.”
“Thank you, Peter.”
“You’re welcome.” Stiles heard the smile in his voice. “Go in peace, Beloved. No nightmares will haunt your rest now.”
Once the weight of the divine presence faded, Stiles realized how much lighter—insubstantial—the air felt. Now that Peter had left the fox, it was as though all the color had been leached from the world
“Well, I guess you’re my pet now.”
The fox patted him with a skeletal paw and began trotting out of the garden.
Stiles let out a noisy exhale. He felt like a wrung out rag. What a day, and now he had a new responsibility—one that he had to hide from his friends.
And yet, as he chased after the fox, Stiles couldn’t stop smiling, for every other second the happy moment played and replayed in his head.
Go in peace, Beloved.