“There’s a boy alone in the woods,” Talia said with a furrowed brow, hanging her coat up by the door.
“Yes, sister dear, there is,” Peter drawled back from the couch.
“He seems a little young to be out there by himself,” she continued. “Do you know how long he’s been there? Maybe we should ask if he’s lost.”
“Considering that this is his third visit this week, and eighth in the last month, I think he can probably find his way home. He’s in the little aspen grove, right?”
Talia’s eyebrows raised accusingly.
“You knew he’s been visiting the forest? Why didn’t you say anything?”
Peter shrugged, uncaring.
“He’s not on our property. It’s close, but technically on the public side of the line. Besides- did you not recognize him?”
Talia narrowed her eyes at him.
“… No,” she admitted grudgingly.
Peter waited for a beat, reveling in the moment of holding information over his sister’s head, before saying, “It’s the fox boy. The son of the fox shifter who just died.”
Talia’s eyes widened slightly.
“I hadn’t realized she had a child. I wonder what he’s doing in the woods?” she mused out loud.
Peter shrugged, turning his eyes back to the TV.
“He’s definitely a shifter. As for what he’s doing in the woods, I don’t particularly care. The woman used to go out to the same area fairly often before she fell ill.” Peter shifted his weight, getting more comfortable on the couch. “Perhaps it’s some kind of devious fox shifter tradition,” he threw out in addition, tone sarcastic. Talia glared at him.
“I’m just trying to keep our pack safe, Peter. It’s my job as Alpha.”
Peter nodded with ridiculously wide, innocent eyes, still not bothering to look away from the TV.
“Oh yes, it’s so lucky we have you to keep us safe from the ten year old who turns into an animal slightly bigger than a loaf of bread.”
“He can do a full shift?!” she exclaimed, clearly shocked.
“Well I’ve certainly never seen him do any other kind, nor did I ever witness his mother shift any other way either. But to be fair, I only saw either shift a total of three times. They took your lack of welcome to heart, after all.”
He deliberately continued to not look back at her.
Talia had dismissed the woman immediately upon meeting her fifteen years ago. She’d been the young wife of a new deputy then, asking for permission to run on their land occasionally. Talia, however, shared the distaste of werefoxes taught to her by her parents and grandparents. She’d denied the woman permission, suspicious of ulterior motives.
Peter, at the time just nine years old, found her more interesting than threatening. Especially when a few months later, he caught her mid-shift just outside the aforementioned aspen grove. He watched with amazement as she changed from a woman to a beautiful grey fox, slinking off into the woods faster than he could follow.
His sister treated every full shift as an event with near religious sanctity. One for which she was to be praised and held up. It was used as a show of power, either to other packs or her own betas.
The last time he’d seen the woman turn into a fox, it had been to catch butterflies with her son.
Behind him, Talia huffed and turned away, walking toward her office. Peter continued to look at the TV, though his attention was nowhere near it.
The boy was in the woods alone again.
Peter wondered what he was looking for.
Stiles sat still on a stump in the pitch black woods. The moon was new that night, and the clouds covered most of the stars. He could see just fine anyway. His nose twitched at the smell of someone’s perfume, probably from some hiker earlier in the day, he thought.
Movement from small insects caught his eyes here and there, only interesting because there was nothing else to notice. No ghostly lights, no phantasmal visions… no soft words from his mother.
He was alone.
He would remain so for the rest of the night. It was late enough that it wasn’t likely anyone would be coming. Not his mom, or grandma, or great granduncle. He could go home, but no one was there either.
Instead, he tucked his cold hands in his jacket, and watched his breath puff into the night, debating whether or not it would be worth it to shift for the warm fur.
A few minutes later, the perfume reached him again, and he wrinkled his nose. It was stronger this time. That didn’t make any sense.
He focused his sense of smell, trying to tell which direction it came from, but he couldn’t catch it again. Abruptly, every other smell was covered by the smell of smoke.
Stiles stumbled off the stump, swiveling around to where the smell was coming from and took off into the woods. There couldn’t possibly be a forest fire in January, could there? It had just rained last night. He followed the smell, soon seeing the trail of smoke and then the glow of a huge fire.
It was a house fire. The Hale’s house.
He cringed against the crackle and roar of the flames battering his sensitive ears. It was nearly overwhelming, but he focused because he thought he could hear something beneath it-
Screams. The Hales were still inside.
Stiles was baffled. He knew at least some of the Hales were werewolves; his mother had been firm in her insistence that they were to be avoided. Not because they were werewolves, but because the Alpha was rude, and because his mom thought wolf Alphas in general hold an excessive amount of power over their packs. Regardless, they certainly had power, and they certainly should have been able to escape a burning house.
He pulled out the cell phone his dad had given him for emergencies as soon as he reached the house clearing and dialed 911. Dora Hastings was the operator who answered, which he was grateful for because she’d known his mother and was more likely to take him seriously. He rattled off the relevant information in an urgent tone as he crept around the edge of the clearing, looking for a reason the Hales might be trapped.
The only strange thing he could see was a thick line of dust running along the base of the house… but it was very close to the flames. He didn’t want to get burned, but…
“Hold on Dora,” he said, hearing her say Stiles, no-! as he set the phone on the ground. He broke a stick off the nearest tree with a great crack, and then ran up to the line of dust and scrambled it. There was a slight feeling of his ears popping, and then suddenly the screams from inside became much louder. Quickly, he ran back to the phone and reassured Dora that he was still there. No more than a second later, the first people came stumbling out of the house, limping as they carried unconscious children.
Stiles hesitated, waffling on whether or not he should or even could do anything to help now. No one seemed to have noticed him yet, but he couldn’t really leave since he had the open line to 911. Instead, he shrunk back into the shadows of the trees and watched quietly as the Hales coughed and cried and tried to stabilize the ones with the most severe burns, giving Dora as much information on their state as he could glean from his vantage point.
With great relief, he soon heard the sirens of the fire trucks. He waited a few more minutes until the humans outside the Hale house began to react to the sound as well.
“The trucks are here, Dora. Thanks,” he said, voice tired. He just wanted to go home.
“Just doing my job sweetie,” she answered, sounding nearly as tired.
“Is… do you know if my dad’s going to be here? Or is he going to go home?”
“I imagine he’ll need to at least talk to a few of the family members, sweetie.”
“… Okay. Bye.”
With nothing left to do, he went home.
“The sheriff’s son?” Talia clarified, setting down another set of insurance paperwork on Peter’s hospital table two weeks later.
Her husband Alexander nodded.
“Apparently he’s the one who called emergency services.”
“Does he work for the station too? How did he notice the fire?”
Alexander shook his head, opening his mouth to answer, but was cut off by the croak of Peter’s voice.
Talia and Alexander looked over, Talia’s brow pinched with concern over his burn roughened voice.
“Fox,” Peter repeated, the word grating out of his mouth like gravel. His one unbandaged eye looked directly at Talia. “Shifter… boy.”
“The fox shifter? That’s the sheriff’s son?” she said, mouth falling open.
Peter would have rolled his eyes if he’d had the energy. As it was, filling in his sister’s ignorance took pretty much everything he had to spare, so instead he settled back to watch her and her husband fret over the information.
“What should we do?” Alexander asked. “Do you have any ideas on how to repay him?”
Talia floundered for a moment.
“He saved the life of everyone in our pack, Alex. I don’t have the slightest clue on how to repay a fox shifter for a favor, much less for something like this.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t focus on his heritage,” Alexander suggested. “He is, after all, a ten year old boy. What do ten year old boys like? We can start there.”
Peter closed his eye, submitting to his tiredness. It sounded like Alexander and Talia would be talking themselves in circles for a while, and he didn’t need to listen to any of it. Something about the boy made Peter think he would shun any kind of repayment that his sister would consider appropriate.
Besides, the reason Talia came to visit him in the first place was to tell him that the Argents were dead. That kind of vicious satisfaction that inspired was terribly tiring.
Peter heard about the failure of the first two attempts while he was still in the hospital. Alexander brought cookies to the boy, hoping to get to know him a little. Instead, the boy had answered the door with a suspicious glare, asked Alex to wait for a moment after taking the cookies, and audibly dumped them in the trash before returning the empty plate to flatly say, “Thank you, they were delicious,” and then shutting the door in his face.
Laura tried to offer him a ride home from school, but Stiles had immediately yelled “CHILD PREDATOR, CHILD PREDATOR!” and Laura had to spend the next half hour explaining to various school officials exactly what she was doing.
When Peter came “home” to their temporary rental after being released from the hospital, the first thing Cora did was complain to him about her mother hounding her to find out what Stiles liked, or to help him out socially.
“He doesn’t want help socially! He’s got his weird asthma friend, and that’s all he wants!”
“The others don’t tease him for just having one friend?” Talia pressed as she drew away Peter’s pain from the trip home.
“Well, Jackson does,” Cora said with a duh in her tone, “but Jackson is just kind of a jerk to everyone.”
“Why don’t you try standing up for him the next time Jackson picks on him then, okay?” Talia persuaded.
Cora looked doubtful, but capitulated with a grudging nod.
The next day she came home from school, dumped her backpack on the floor, and posed dramatically with her hands on her hips as she announced, “Stiles Stilinski doesn’t want or need anyone’s help dealing with Jackson. He said he thinks mom’s a cult leader, and that if he needed help hiding Jackson’s body then his first call would be to the county coroner, not the werewolf Jim Jones.”
Talia’s mouth gaped like a fish for a moment, before finally saying, “Hide Jackson’s body??”
A rough, crackling sound distracted her, and she glanced over at the couch to see Peter laughing. His burns were slowly healing, but his mood had certainly been a far cry from laughter since the fire.
“Werewolf Jim Jones,” he managed to say between rough bouts of laughter. Talia tried to purse her lips against a reluctant wry smile, and then sighed.
“I think I made a mistake turning away Claudia Stilinski,” she finally admitted.
“No shit,” Peter said, relaxing back into the cushions, energy used up by his sudden humor. Talia shot a dry look at him.
“I don’t see you coming up with any suggestions,” she said, the accusation biteless. They both knew exactly how much healing he’d gone through so far, and how much he had left. More importantly, they both knew why he’d been more extensively burned than anyone else.
He took his job as pack protector very seriously.
But that didn’t mean he didn’t have a suggestion.
“Pay attention,” he said. “Just watch. Everyone needs something. You’ll see it eventually. In the meantime, stop bothering him, otherwise he might actually get us put on a cult watchlist somewhere.”
Cora nodded like that was a perfectly reasonable possibility.
Talia gave in with a sigh, deciding it was probably best to trust the two who seemed to know the most about him anyway.
Talia personally took over information gathering on the Stilinski boy.
Rather than finding possible answers to the question of filling their debt, she found growing horror at what was happening in the boy’s life.
The fox shifter spent more time in the woods than anyone, even Peter, had realized. He visited every day, staying out in the aspen grove at least two nights a week, but usually more often. He was able to do this because his father worked double shifts three times a week, and drank himself to unconsciousness the other four.
The ten year old shifter was doing the cooking and cleaning for the house, as well as ensuring that his father got up for work in the mornings before he left for school.
It was the worst kind of child neglect Talia had ever personally witnessed.
And she still didn’t know what he was doing in the woods.
That question was pushed to the far back of her mind, however, as she realized that the Stilinski home environment had to change immediately. She thanked the moon that she was already registered to be a foster parent, and quickly started making calls to get ready to take Stiles in after reporting the sheriff.
However, instead of the expected call from foster services, she got a visit from Stiles. Or rather, she got a visit from an enraged, murderously furious Stiles.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing? What makes you think you have the right to take away my dad?” he demanded as soon as she answered the front door. Talia leaned back a little in surprise at the venom in his voice.
“Your dad is sick, Stiles-” she started to explain, but he cut her off.
“I saved your family from burning, but I swear I’ll do worse than that unless you fix this.” His eyes were deadly serious, far too serious for a ten year old face. “My dad is sick, but he’s my family. My pack,” he spat venomously. “I saved you from losing your pack, and now you’re trying to take away mine?” His face was a mask of anger and contempt, but Talia caught a flash of fear at the end of that sentence. “Take it back. Fix this,” he demanded.
“Stiles, I can’t-” she tried again.
“You can and you will.”
But she really couldn’t.
She couldn’t leave any child in an environment like that.
Talia took a deep breath.
“No one will make you leave your home-”
The slightest hint of relief sagged across Stiles’ face.
“-but only on the condition that your father attend outpatient rehab.”
Talia watched closely as Stiles’ face tightened again for a moment before relaxing again, this time a little deeper.
“You pay for it.” He looked her straight in the eye. “This makes us even, or whatever it is you’ve been trying to do since the fire. Just- just leave me alone, okay? My mom didn’t trust you. You were rude to her, and that means I don’t trust you either. We’re even.”
He started to walk away, but Talia’s heart tugged at her- the pull of her own past mistakes, and the pull of a boy who needed more than he would allow himself to have.
“Stiles, I apologize,” she called after him. “I’m not trying to gain any more of your trust than you want to give, but I’m very sorry that I wasn’t more kind to your mother. She deserved better than that, and so do you.”
Stiles hesitated, looking back long enough to nod once, and then walked away.
Peter watched from the upstairs window as the boy walked away. He watched him reach the end of the drive, hesitate, and then turn into the woods, toward the aspen grove.
From the floor below him, he could hear Cora trying to talk her dad into making more cookies. Laura was helping Derek with his trig homework, and Talia was on the phone with her contacts at CPS while also on hold with the rehab clinic. The rest of their pack was scattered throughout town and the preserve.
He imagined being the only one left to mourn the others. Imagined what that might turn him into, having a heart full of broken pack bonds and a body that burned without the help of an Alpha to heal.
Slowly, he got up, and started putting on his shoes.
Stiles sat on his stump, waiting patiently. It wasn’t too late yet. There was still a chance of a visit.
Half of his thoughts were still fuming over the audacity of Talia Hale. Her actions, however well intentioned, were infuriating.
He’d changed his mind, though. Talia Hale clearly wasn’t a cult leader. She was a Karen. She was the kind of person who was sure that she Knew Better™, and she’d definitely asked to speak to a manager within the last month.
He honestly wasn’t sure if that was better or worse than cult leader.
Slowly, though, the relief of her offer to take care of his dad’s rehab made him slump forward as he rubbed his forehead.
Stiles could clean. He could cook. He could make sure his dad woke up.
He couldn’t make his dad stop drinking.
The empty bottles loomed in the corner of his vision whenever he was in the house, a beast bigger than he could deal with. He hadn’t wanted to admit it, but he needed help with it.
Stiles couldn’t handle it alone.
God he missed his mom.
The crunch of twigs behind him took him by surprise, startling him out of his deep thoughts.
“Mind if I sit? This is the farthest I’ve walked since- well. You know. You were there, after all. In any case, I could use a rest.”
Stiles looked up to see one of the Hales; the one he remembered lying on the lawn, completely covered in burns. He was standing in the grove. His skin puckered and pinched along his left side, but Stiles could see it was healing. He must have been a werewolf, then, because the burns that Stiles remembered wouldn’t have begun healing that quickly on anyone else.
He looked tired, though.
Stiles gestured silently to another stump, and then went back to waiting. He didn’t think anyone would come visit while there was a werewolf here, but maybe the Hale would go away if Stiles ignored him.
“My name is Peter by the way.” The man paused, but didn’t seem to expect a response. “I know my family have all been trying their own various ways of saying thank you, but I’m not sure if any of them have actually said it yet. So, for my own part: thank you, Stiles.”
And then, wonder of wonders, he said nothing else.
Stiles looked over despite himself, surprised. He waited, expecting another ridiculous or infuriating attempt at payback.
But Peter just sat there quietly with him.
Slowly, Stiles relaxed.
Somehow the wait wasn’t quite so long or heavy with another heartbeat in the grove. Peter didn’t seem to be on any sort of timeline. For the first time in a long time, Stiles found himself just listening to another heartbeat, not thinking about whether alcohol would slow it to a stop, or thinking about its presence possibly preventing Stiles from achieving his goal in the grove, or thinking about anything at all.
He felt calm. Almost peaceful.
“Is that a Hale?”
Stiles’ head snapped up, a pale transparent fox standing on the ground in front of his stump.
“That’s Peter, right? I heard about the fire.” Her dark eyes turned back to him. “I heard about how brave you were. I’m so proud of you, Mieczysław.”
Stiles couldn’t check to see if Peter was looking, couldn’t tear his eyes away from his mom for even a second.
“How are you, mom?”
She placed her weightless paws on his legs to bring herself closer.
“I’m good, Stiles. I’m wonderful. Grandma says hello, though she couldn’t come this time, and Uncle Stan said he wants to wrestle you next time he sees you.”
Stiles gave a slightly watery little laugh.
“Tell him I’m gonna find a way to pile drive a ghost fox.”
“If anyone can do it, I’m sure you can,” she said, confident and laughing. She kneaded her paws against him a little, as if seeking the tactile comfort they were both being denied. They were both quiet for a moment, drinking in the sight of each other, and then Claudia sighed a little.
“How is your father?” she asked in a voice harder than it had been before.
“He’s going to go to rehab,” Stiles answered, the relief still evident in his tone. “Talia Hale is going to pay for it.”
“Is that right?” Claudia looked over at Peter, somehow conveying a suspicious eyebrow even as a ghost in the shape of a fox.
Stiles finally managed to tear his eyes away from his mother to look at Peter, who Stiles was surprised to see looking straight at Claudia.
“Yes,” Peter answered. “Talia has reserved a place for John in the outpatient program, in thanks for Stiles saving our family. Though I should say she is willing to do much, much more.” While his words were leading, his tone wasn’t, simply leaving the information there in case Claudia was willing or able to do anything with it.
Claudia looked at him for a moment longer.
“Is she willing to let Stiles run in your section of the preserve?”
“I’m willing to say, on behalf of the entire pack, that Stiles is allowed wherever he damn pleases,” Peter said pleasantly.
Claudia nodded and looked back at Stiles.
“I’m going to have to go soon. The door wasn’t open very wide tonight, but I had to try to see you anyway.” She leaned her nose to his cheek, the touch visible but sensationless, and then leaned back, dropping her paws. “I love you, my little Mischief.”
Stiles’ eyes began to water, as they always did when she said goodbye.
“I love you too Mom. I miss you.”
But she couldn’t reply, because she was already fading.
Stiles continued to stare at the spot where she stood, trying to see any trace of her momentary presence. But, as always, the veil was thin, and completely impenetrable from this side.
Eventually, Stiles looked back up at Peter, who was still sitting, still quiet. Still a second heartbeat. He looked back at Stiles.
“I’ll bring a thermos of something warm next time, alright?”
Stiles hesitated for a moment, and then nodded.
He wasn’t alone in the woods any more.