Sheriff John Stilinski has just enough time to think that this is it, he’s a dead man, when the kid spins out of the darkness like some sort of whirling dervish, and slams his baseball bat into the side of the woman’s head. Again and again and again, until she stops moving. Until the bottoms of the boy’s jeans are splattered with blood and hair and fragments of bone and brain matter. Then he turns to face John, his fingers flexing on the grip of the bat, his dark eyes unreadable.
“Get on the ground,” John tells him, pointing his gun at him. “Put your hands behind your head.”
The kid’s brows draw together. His eyes narrow. “I just saved your life.”
John doesn’t even blink. “Put your hands behind your head. Now.”
The bat clatters to the ground as the kid obeys.
“John,” Chris Argent says. “I’ve got a lead on those killers you—”
“I don’t need a lead, Chris,” John tells him, gun still drawn on the kid. The kid is cuffed now, resting on his knees. His head is bowed, but John sees the way the kid’s gaze tracks him still. He’s hyper-vigilant. A predator. A hunter. “I’ve got one of them right here.”
The kid looks up, eyes wide.
If John didn’t know any better, he’d say the kid almost looked vulnerable.
There’s a sea of blood and bone fragments lapping at the kid’s knees, and a file on John’s desk, five inches thick, that both say different.
John never signed up for any of this. Okay, sure, apart from the time that he literally signed up to protect the people of Beacon Hills. It’s just that John had no idea at the time what that actually entailed. Because werewolves? Seriously? Sometimes John wonders if he actually got shot in the head or something, and all this is some kind of wild hallucination while he’s in surgery, or a coma, or maybe he died and it’s a really strange kind of purgatory.
Because werewolves. Seriously.
And not just werewolves either but pretty much every monstrous thing that John’s imagination can dredge up, plus a few he couldn’t even if he tried. And sometimes the most monstrous of them are the humans.
John glances in the rearview mirror and catches the kid looking at him.
“You got a name?” he asks.
“Stiles,” the kid says, his gaze never leaving John’s.
“What’s a Stiles?” John asks.
The same flash of something crosses the kid’s expression again, and then it’s gone again before John can put a name to it.
“It’s Matthew,” he says. “Matthew Stiles.”
“Matthew Stiles,” John repeats, and doesn’t believe it for a second. The kid would have gotten a look at his name badge when John had manhandled him into the cruiser, and right now they’re waiting at a red light just outside Saint Matthew’s church. The kid’s trying to Keyser Söze him. “Are you human?”
The kid—Stiles will do for now, John supposes—quirks his mouth in something that’s not quite a smile, not quite a grimace. “What would you say if I told you I think I’m a ghost?”
John snorts. “I’d say you felt pretty solid when I was getting those cuffs on you, kid.”
He expects the kid to at least smirk or roll his eyes or something. Instead the kid’s mouth wavers on a smile he can’t quite form, and when he blinks tears side down his cheeks.
John fights the sudden compulsion he feels to comfort the kid in some way.
Where the hell did that come from?
He reaches up and angles the rearview so Stiles can’t meet his eyes. The kid looks human, but that doesn’t mean he’s not trying to influence John with some spell or another.
Still, he can’t help checking on the kid again when they’re driving past the high school and for some reason the kid chokes down a sob.
“How old are you?” he asks Stiles an hour or two later. It’s long past midnight. The station is empty except for John and Parrish and Chris Argent. And when Stiles doesn’t even blink at the fact the hunter’s in the interrogation room, well, that’s all the confirmation John needs. Stiles didn’t complain when John didn’t read him his rights, and he hasn’t asked for a lawyer. He knows the score. The very unofficial score.
“Twenty-one,” he mutters.
John’s been in law enforcement long enough to know when he’s being lied to. And Stiles, slumped down in the seat on the other side of the table, cuffs rattling as he makes his fingers dance across the chipped laminate like he’s playing an invisible piano, is clearly lying to him.
“Try again,” John suggests.
“Nineteen,” Stiles says.
“So you lied to me?” And John would be willing to bet that nineteen is a lie too.
Stiles’s expression sharpens suddenly. His eyes brighten. “It depends on how you define lying.”
John shrugs off the creeping sense of déjà vu. “Well, I define it as not telling the truth. How do you define it?”
“Um… reclining your body in a horizontal position?” Stiles’s cuffs rattle as he gestures. He makes a sound that’s almost a snort of laughter, and then suddenly ducks his head. “Sorry. Sorry. Fuck.”
His voice is muffled, thick. Distorted again by tears.
John exchanges a look with Chris. Chris’s expression doesn’t give away much. It never does. John’s known him long enough now though to tell when Chris is wary. And to know that’s a damn fine indicator that things are once more about to turn to absolute shit.
“You want some water?” John asks.
Stiles lifts his head again. Shakes it. “I’m fine.”
John is a man not unfamiliar with grief. He knows the way it hollows a body out from the inside, leaving just the shell, thin and fragile. He knows the look it leaves on a man’s face, the judicious application of shadow leaving cheeks gaunt and eyes dark-rimmed. He sees it in Stiles, with his fake name, his fake age, and his unknowable history.
He’s a killer, still wearing the blood-splattered clothes to prove it, but he’s also a kid. Is that why the fuck John wants to walk around the table and pull him into a clumsy hug?
He’s a killer.
“Where are you parents, Stiles?” he asks instead, because he doesn’t believe for a second the kid is over eighteen.
Stiles stares at him blankly for a moment, and just shakes his head.
There is no Matthew Stiles in the system that matches Stiles. John isn’t even the slightest bit surprised. He sits at his desk and brings the link to the CCTV up on his computer. Stiles is sitting on a bench on a cell. He’s wearing a pair of orange prison-issued track pants and a gray shirt. There’s a meal sitting on a tray beside him. It looks untouched. He’s turning the bottle of water over and over in his hands, and rocking back and forth slightly.
There’s something familiar about him. Something John can’t quite put his finger on.
Chris flips through the files on John’s desk. “He killed a striga with a baseball bat?”
John nods, stomach churning at the memory. “It was brutal. He was brutal.”
“That’s new,” Chris says mildly. “They haven’t been unnecessarily violent in the past.”
John raises his brows at one particular photograph.
“The darach in Ukiah was killed by a werewolf,” Chris says. “Arterial spray. It looks messy, but it would have been very quick.”
Unlike tonight’s display with the Louisville Slugger.
John knows every case in the file. They’re not all his. In fact, none of them apart from the striga tonight falls into his jurisdiction. But there’s been a pattern in these killings. Beacon Hills attracts supernatural creatures, and for the past eight months someone’s been killing most of them before they hit the town limits. At least one of the killers is a werewolf. John wasn’t expecting the other one to be a kid, but there are enough comfits in the files to at least give the vague impression of the kid who says his name is Stiles. Tall, pale, slim, dark-haired. One or two even got the moles on his face right.
John had known who he was the moment he’d seen him.
Even before the bloodshed.
“His partner will be coming for him,” he says at last, tapping his index finger on one of the other comfits. An older man. Sharp-eyed. A goatee that somehow manages not to make him look like a pretentious dick or a community college history professor. Or both.
Chris nods sharply. “I can take down a werewolf.”
Doesn’t John know it?
“Dad,” Scott says hesitantly.
The word is still new enough that it makes John feel warm inside. It always leaves the strangest ache behind it though, and John can never figure out why. Because he missed a lot with Scott, he thinks. Strange. He loves Scott, and not just because he was part of the package deal with Mel, but when he closes his eyes he dreams of teaching a little kid to ride a bike. Dreams of making bubble beards at bath time. Dreams of tickle fights and Halloween costumes and hugs that only reach his knees. He misses the moments he never got the chance to experience with Scott, but, strangely, it’s not a mini Scott he dreams of. In his dreams his son is a little boy who looks a little like Claudia.
“What’s up, kiddo?” he asks Scott.
“Um, you know Allison Argent?”
Of course John knows Allison Argent. She’s apparently the only girl who has ever existed in the entire history of the world.
“What about her?” he asks, an indulgent smile already hovering on his lips.
He’s expecting Scott to tell him that he’s finally worked up the courage to ask her out. Or maybe he’s already done that, and he’s about to hit John with some awkward questions he doesn’t feel comfortable asking his mom. He’s certainly not expecting what comes out of his stepson’s mouth next:
“Allison’s dad’s a werewolf hunter and he wants to kill me.”
They don’t know who bit Scott and turned him. Derek Hale was hanging around for a while, and it turned out he was a werewolf too, but he didn’t bite Scott. And, as much as John dislikes Derek for being at the center of the shit storm that engulfed them that summer, he can at least admit that Derek was only a symptom of the disease, not the cause. And Derek turned out to be something of a godsend. He taught Scott how to control his newfound supernatural powers. Taught him that just because he was a werewolf he didn’t have to be a monster.
Even Chris Argent saw the truth of that eventually. It was hard going for a while there—John remembers one particularly tense encounter when he held a gun to Chris’s head and told him exactly what would happen to him if anything happened to Scott—but that’s water under the bridge now. They’ve all seen too much shit to hold grudges.
It’s a little past two in the morning when John goes to check on Stiles.
He’s asleep, twisted up like a pretzel on the bench, one foot on the floor, one halfway up the wall, one arm jammed underneath him, and one somewhere behind his head. He must have a spine like a Slinky.
John watches him silently.
The problem with keeping Stiles in a cell is that sooner or later someone’s going to ask why. Parrish has booked him in as a drunk, but that cover’s not going to work for long. He’ll either need to be released, or put up in front of the judge in the morning. Hopefully Chris will get the scene where Stiles killed the striga cleaned up before anyone finds it.
But what the hell are they supposed to do with Stiles? He’s a killer, but so is Chris. So is John. So are Parrish, and Scott, and Allison and even Mel. Hell of a weekend that was. Relaxing weekend getaway John’s ass. And as far as John can tell, Stiles and the werewolf are only killing killers. John’s not sure that makes it right. He figures it’s been a long time since he’s had the right to pass moral judgment on anyone when it comes to dealing with the supernatural. The normal rules do not apply. Which seems like the thing a sociopath would say, right? But it might also be the truth. Jesus. Sometimes John really regrets giving away the booze. The world made a lot more sense when it was blurry.
Stiles stirs in his sleep, mumbling something. He snuffles.
His tray is on the floor. The food is untouched.
John doesn’t wake him.
He looks like he can use the sleep.
Parrish manages to keep the other deputies out of the station by dispatching them from job to job to job, most of them imaginary.
Scott arrives at the station just before six, with Allison. Allison is her father’s daughter. She could be a cover girl for Guns & Ammo. John has no doubt she’s smuggling an armory under her jacket.
“That’s him?” Scott asks when John shows them the CCTV feed on his computer. “He doesn’t look like much.”
“Neither does Ally,” John says. “No offence.”
She shows him a dimpled smile. “None taken.”
Of course she’s not offended. They both know she could outgun him in a heartbeat, and he’s an officer of the law with a military background. Allison, though, is an Argent.
“Do you think the werewolf will come for him?” Scott asks.
“I don’t know,” John says. “He’s not exactly been forthcoming.”
“It’s almost unheard of,” Allison says. “A hunter and a werewolf teaming up.”
“You think they’re like us?” Scott asks her.
Allison regards the screen for a moment. “If they are, then the werewolf is definitely coming for him.”
That’s what John was afraid of.
John was there when Deucalion and the Alpha Pack almost tore Scott to pieces. He’s not going to let another killer wolf get close to his son. Never again.
John leans against the doorframe and listens as Chris and Scott and Allison and Parrish run through different scenarios. Then he straightens up and heads back toward the cells. Stiles is on the floor now, on his back with his legs on the bench.
Stiles snuffles awake, and pulls himself into a seated position. “Da—What?”
John leans against the bars. “Tell me about the wolf.”
“Peter,” Stiles says. He draws his long fingers along the floor. “His name is Peter. You wouldn’t approve.”
It’s an odd thing to say, and John smiles. “Is that right?”
“He’s terrible,” Stiles says, echoing the smile hesitantly. “He’s an asshole.”
“You say that like it’s a good thing.”
“Sometimes I’m an asshole too,” Stiles says, his smile fading.
“Does he love you?” John doesn’t know why he asks.
Stiles is silent for a moment, and then he nods.
“And do you love him?”
Stiles’s eyes are dark. They shine. “For certain values of love.”
John curls his fingers around the bars. “What does that mean, son?”
“He keeps me alive,” Stiles says at last, his forehead creased as though he’s not sure if staying alive is a good thing or not. “I would have died a hundred times without him, but he won’t let me.”
It’s another strange thing to say. Won’t let me. John hates the implications that hang from those words. Hates that words like that can fall out of the mouth of someone so young. John knows it’s a cruel world. He knew it long before he learned about the supernatural. He’d thought he was beyond horror, to be honest, years ago. But it can still surprise him, and sometimes in the quietest of moments.
Like now, in just the space of a few soft words.
“He helps me protect the people I care about,” Stiles says at last.
John seizes on that. “Have you got people missing you, Stiles?”
For some reason that makes Stiles bark out a harsh noise that’s only partly a laugh. He drags a hand through his hair, leaving it standing up at odd angles. “I said people I care about, not people that care about me.”
John feels a rush of pity for him.
Stiles swallows. “Do you ever think you’re in a nightmare and you just can’t wake up?”
John’s reminded of his thoughts from earlier. The crazy fantasy that grips him sometimes. That he’s flat-lining on some operating table, that he’s in a coma, that he’s already dead. That he’s a prisoner chained in a cage, watching a parade of shadows on the wall and never glimpsing the real world behind his back. People have been asking if it’s all just a dream since people could first hold thoughts in their skulls. It might even be the oldest question in existence: Is this real?
“Why is it a nightmare, Stiles?” he asks. “Because of the things you kill?”
“No.” Stiles closes his eyes for a moment. When he opens them, they’re shining. “Because I’m a ghost. Because I can haunt the places that I lived in once, and everyone looks right through me.”
John feels that old familiar ache tugging at his chest. “I see you, Stiles.”
Stiles closes his eyes again. He draws his legs up and wraps his arms around his knees and doesn’t answer.
John leaves him.
As dawn approaches, Scott gets anxious and starts to pace. John can’t blame him. They’ve all seen the file on John’s desk. They all know exactly what Stiles and his wolf are capable of.
“Maybe we should just let him go,” Allison suggests.
Chris meets her gaze, and holds it. She doesn’t even flinch. “Let him go? You know what he’s done.”
Allison shrugs. “It’s probably exactly what we would have had to do, if those things had made it as far as our territory.”
Parrish exhales heavily. “I think Allison’s right. They might be a killers, but there’s no indication they’re a threat to us or to this territory. In the eight months we’ve been keeping tabs on them, they’ve never even come near us before tonight. And when one of them did, he saved you, John.”
John feels the stir of fear inside his guts again. That moment when he was sure he was going to die. When he blinks, he can see the rain of blood. Can feel the hot spray of it against his face. He can hear the crack of the baseball bat against the striga’s skull, and he wonders if Stiles has even managed to wash all that blood out from the lines in his hands, from under his fingernails, or if it’s dried on him. Stiles’s attack had been brutal. Frenzied. Desperate.
That should scare him more than it does.
Stiles should scare him more than he does.
But John just looks at the CCTV, looks at the boy curled up on the floor, and has the strangest urge to rub circles into his back, like he’s a small child John is trying to send to sleep.
“They might not have been a threat to us before now,” Allison says, “but all bets are off if the wolf thinks we’re going to harm Stiles.”
“Allison’s right,” Parrish says again. “I think we should let him go.”
“They’re killers,” Chris says.
“So are we,” John reminds him.
A conversation like this, John knows from experience, could go for hours, around and around, back and forth, getting absolutely nowhere. Because it’s not John who has the final say here, or Chris, or Allison or Parrish. It’s Scott. The alpha werewolf.
Scott stops pacing. His brow is creased in thought. He looks as though he can feel the weight of every potential decision already pressing down on him.
Funny that he’s the same kid that John still has to yell at to pick up his wet towel off the floor every morning.
“I want to talk to him,” Scott says, his expression grave. “I want to hear his heartbeat when he answers.”
They don’t cuff Stiles to take him out of his cell and into the bullpen, but Chris and Allison keep their distance. Keep him in their sights with enough space between them to get off a shot if they need to. The way Stiles maps the distance between them with a narrowed gaze, John’s sure he knows exactly what they're doing.
Parrish points Stiles toward a chair at Ramirez’s desk, and Stiles sits down. He folds his hands in his lap. His gaze flicks to Allison, then down to his hands, then Allison again. Even John can hear his breath hitch. He circles the thumb and fingers of his right hand around his left wrist, where the cuffs from earlier dug into his skin a little.
“Hi,” Scott says, leaning on Ramirez’s desk. “Your name’s Stiles, right?”
Stiles lifts his wary gaze. “Yeah.”
“I’m Scott McCall. The alpha.”
“The true alpha,” Stiles corrects him.
“You heard about that?” Scott asks.
“Everyone heard about that, dude,” Stiles tells him. He drops his gaze and folds his arms over his chest.
“Why are you in Beacon Hills?” Scott asks.
“Tracking the striga,” Stiles says.
It doesn’t feel like the truth to John, or at least not the whole truth, but Scott doesn’t react so maybe it’s not a lie.
“You’ve killed more than just the striga,” Scott says.
“That a problem?” Stiles asks. He shifts in his chair. Twists his fingers together.
“I’m just trying to figure out how dangerous you are,” Scott tells him.
“Dangerous,” Stiles says. “Very fucking dangerous. But we don’t hurt innocents. We have a code and we stick to it.” He shoots a quick glance at Chris. “Stole it off the Argents, actually. Changed it up a little to avoid copyright issues. We hunt those who hunt you.”
John feels a jolt of some emotion he can’t name when Stiles looks at him.
“You’re not lying,” Scott says.
“Yeah.” Stiles shrugs. “I live with a werewolf. Kind of learned a long time ago that lying is pointless.”
“Okay,” Scott says. He nods, and looks to John. “I think we can let him go, Dad.”
John looks to Stiles, expecting to see him pleased. Instead, he’s frozen. His head is bowed and he’s sitting unnaturally still, as though he’s afraid the slightest touch will shatter him.
John has a flash of memory to seeing Claudia sitting like that, perched on the edge of the chair in their doctor’s office, thin fingers clenched into white-knuckled fists, every line of her body sharp with tension.
“Claude?” He’d reached out and tried to take her hand.
That small touch had broken her. She’d thrashed, yelled, screamed herself hoarse while the startled doctor had babbled about sedatives, and John held her close until she finally subsided into small sobs.
A sedative? he’d wanted to say. You just gave her a fucking death sentence. How is she supposed to react?
How was anyone?
Stiles looks a little like her. That strange mix of vulnerability and volatility. Like a cornered animal, claws and fangs bared. Like he’s walking a high wire, where the next step could send him spiraling into chaos. Like he’s barely holding himself together. John can see the cracks appearing in his composure as he watches him.
Claudia had his complexion too, and those same dark eyes. No wonder John’s emotions have been a mess all night.
It’s not Stiles he wants to comfort. Not Stiles who causes pity to rise up in him, to threaten to overwhelm him.
It’s Claudia. His clever, funny, beautiful Claudia, who was never meant to die young. Mel always says John hasn’t fully come to terms with Claudia’s death, and maybe she’s right. Or maybe what he hasn’t come to terms with is the way she was in those last few months. Yelling and screaming again, but this time about crazy things. About things that weren’t even real. About their kid, who was trying to kill her.
“Claudia,” he told her that night on the hospital roof, his heart breaking. “Claudia, we don’t have a child. Remember?”
And she’d looked at him like he was the one suffering delusions.
It’s not Stiles that John wants to protect, to shield from harm, to love.
It’s always been Claudia.
John gives Stiles his cell phone back, and watches as he texts Peter to come and collect him at the gas station on the edge of town.
“I’ll drive you,” John says.
He half expects Stiles to decline but instead, clutching his bloody clothes in a plastic bag, he nods silently.
The drive is quiet. John is baffled by the waves of misery rolling off Stiles, and even more baffled by the urge he’s feeling to just reach out and touch the kid. Squeeze his shoulder, pull him into a hug, do something. It’s inexplicable.
“You hungry?” he asks when they pull into the gas station. The food is pretty disgusting here, but it’s hot, and it’s cheap.
Stiles shakes his head.
“Stiles…” John sighs. “Son, I’ve got no place telling you this, but you look like you’re at the end of your rope. And I’d prefer if that stayed a metaphor, you understand?”
Stiles’s eyes widen and he nods. “Y-yeah, I understand.”
“I don’t know what the hell you did to get mixed up in this life.” John sighs again.
“I was friends with someone who got bitten,” Stiles tells him. “A long time ago.”
“Peter?” John asks.
Stiles snorts. “No. Peter doesn’t have friends.”
They both fall silent as a car slows, headlights arcing across the gas station forecourt. The car doesn’t stop.
“I’m not always like this,” Stiles says suddenly. “Kind of at a low point tonight. Like, I’m not a walking death wish is what I’m saying. Most of the time I deal. Me and Peter, we make sure we remember we’re not nothing. We make sure we leave a mark.”
John thinks of the file on his desk. “Well, you certainly do that. If you’re not careful the FBI will think they’ve got a couple of serial killers on their hands.”
“Oh, please,” Stiles says. “They’d never be able to figure out the pattern. Unless you know about the supernatural, there’s nothing connecting our victims.”
“What about the fact they were all headed for the same small town?” John asks.
Stiles jolts. “Okay, there’s that. But, I mean, they’re probably not going to notice that, right?”
Another car slows. This time it turns into the gas station.
Stiles unhooks his seatbelt, and opens the car door.
“Stiles?” John reaches over and curls his hand around Stiles’s forearm. “Be careful, okay?”
Stiles tenses under his touch, and John can feel the anxiety thrumming through him. “I will,” he says, his voice cracking. “Thanks.”
And then he climbs quickly out of the cruiser and stumbles toward the waiting car.
For certain values of love, Stiles had said back in the cell, but John can only see one true value as he watches Stiles reunite with his werewolf. Peter doesn’t wait for Stiles to reach the car. He’s out of the car, the door hanging open, and halfway across the forecourt when Stiles gets to him. He’s older than John imagined—“You wouldn’t approve.”—but when Stiles goes to his knees on the cracked concrete Peter follows him down, hands smoothing his hair, curling around the back of his neck, following the line of his spine.
Peter holds Stiles as he sobs into his shoulder.
John's throat aches in sympathy. It’s almost impossible to reconcile this Stiles with the one from his files, from the one who bashed the striga to death with a baseball bat. It’s hard to imagine he’s like this after every kill, or after every brush with the law. John doesn’t like knowing there’s something he’s not seeing. Some piece of the puzzle that he’s yet to fit in so that he can see the entire picture at last.
He watches as Peter rises to his feet at last, drawing Stiles with him. Watches as Peter tucks the boy against his side protectively, like Stiles isn’t the same person John saw beat a striga to death tonight. Like Stiles is fragile instead. Like he’s made of spun glass.
The crazy thing is, John wants to do the same thing.
He puts the cruiser into gear instead, and rolls slowly toward the road.
Peter watches him go, his expression unreadable.
Stiles turns his face into Peter’s shoulder as though he can’t bear watch John drive away.
John stays at work long enough to greet the morning shift. He finishes up his paper work—Matthew Stiles was drunk, and released several hours later once he slept it off. There were no charges. John has that discretion, and he’s used it in the past when stupid kids do stupid things but don’t deserve a criminal record for it. Nobody will challenge it.
He’s heading out the door when he hears Ramirez swearing, and diverts to the bullpen instead.
“Problem?” he asks.
Ramirez flushes. “Sorry, Sheriff. Just… there’s graffiti on my desk. How the hell did that happen?”
John crosses over and inspects the words. They’ve been scratched into the desk. The bent paper clip lying on the floor is probably the culprit. Well, that and the kid who was sitting here last night.
Kocham Cię, Tato.
It’s been a long time since John spoke Polish, let alone read it. It takes a little while for him to parse it out.
The irrational ache in his chest, that empty tug, pulls at him again.
It fades after an hour or so, but it doesn’t entirely vanish.
John thinks that it probably never will.