Beacon Hills was the same.
Not that Stiles expected anything else. The Wal-Mart right at the edge of town still needed a facelift. He wasn’t going to be getting a Whole Foods there, he’d be lucky if the local Mom and Pop grocer was still even open downtown.
As he waited at the first stop light coming into town, he stared at the buildings surrounding him, there was a carwash to one side, a building that used to be a Blockbuster that he used to go into every Friday night with Scott and his parents, then only Scott and his dad to pick out a few tapes for the weekend. Now it was a phone store, but it had probably been a phone store for awhile and he just hadn’t noticed.
A honk broke his concentration as he looked up at the green light with a yellow tinge on the lens. He gave a small wave of apology out of his car window and drove on. Fast food chains and small corporate retailers lined the main four-lane road until it narrowed as he neared the college.
Where the road narrowed, the speed limit dropped, and the buildings got older, but they at least put effort into keeping it charming instead of rundown. With the university that kept the town alive at the end of the small main street, it benefited everyone that way.
Stiles turned right at the third light into downtown street, seeing his car that seemed too shiny and new compared to the dusty, later-model SUV and trucks surrounding it. Off the main road the houses started popping up, small, but well-maintained for the most part. The farther away from the university center he got, the larger the lots got and the houses with it.
A handful of blocks away, he pulled into his dad’s driveway. A late-2000s Explorer was sitting in front of the garage, the rusty brown it was painted dulled with dust and road grime.
As soon as he stepped out of his car, he heard the screen door screech on its hinges before his dad came around the front of the Explorer, smiling then holding out his arms.
“Could you have driven any slower?”
“Really, Sheriff?” Stiles asked, hugging him.
“Maybe,” his dad said, squeezing him tightly. “Missed you, buddy.”
“Yeah yeah,” Stiles said, shrugging him off, but smiling before going to lift the hatchback of his car.
“Do you need some help?”
“Yeah. I’ll just take a few things up. Hopefully I’ll be in an apartment by Friday or something.”
“You know I don’t care how long you stay,” he said, as he took the computer case Stiles handed him and put it over his shoulder.
“I know,” Stiles said, pulling his large duffle bag over his shoulder then grabbing his small suitcase.
“Whatever,” he said, squeezing his shoulder. “I get it, all grown. Can’t live with Dad for longer than strictly necessary.”
“I’m up all night. I sleep during the day. I’d drive you crazy.”
“Are you forgetting the weird hours I keep, kid?” his dad asked as they walked up the gravel pathway to the front porch then held the screen door open for him.
The smell of the house was strong and unplaceable, not really good, but Stiles couldn’t imagine a smell that could make him more relaxed, a little closed up, but mostly it just smelled like his dad some intangible, unnameable scent that was like reaching the jungle gym on the playground when they used to play tag. Safe. A place to sit and catch his breath, even when he was heaving for air.
“How was your drive?”
“Long. Boring. I probably need new tires.”
“I can check them."
“I know how to check my tread, but thanks.”
His dad shrugged Stiles’s computer bag off his shoulder and onto the couch. “I’m your dad. Part of me still thinks of you as 17 and not even knowing how to put gas in your Jeep.”
Stiles snorted. “I always knew how to pump gas.”
“Yeah tell that to Parrish, who caught you trying to force the diesel pump into the tank.”
His dad smiled, his half smile that finally made Stiles smile a little bit.
“Fine. You’re dad, you offer mostly unneeded help. I’ll get used to it again.”
“That’s all I ask,” he said, coming close enough to squeeze him in a half hug again before walking toward the living room.
Stiles followed him, putting his things beside the stairs before he sat on the couch near his dad’s recliner that squeaked the way it always had. The national news was on, not surprising. Stiles sat on the edge of the couch before getting up. He hated the news. It made him anxious. That feeling was already bad enough.
“I’m going to put my stuff up.”
“Okay. I’m going to make dinner in about an hour.”
“Yeah? That’s new.”
“It’s just Hamburger Helper.”
“I’m surprised you turned on the stove while I was gone,” Stiles said.
Stiles smiled slightly as he picked up his bags and went up the stairs. His bedroom was to the left, while his bathroom and his dad’s and the office were to the right. The hallway smelled stale as he opened his bedroom door.
It was like a time-capsule, his posters on the walls, his pictures on the corkboard, the thick desktop computer with a faded neon green mouse pad beneath the wireless mouse his dad had gotten him for Christmas when he was sixteen or seventeen. He’d been able to use it on any surface, even on his bed with the laptop his dad had gotten him the same year.
Now that laptop was in a landfill somewhere, but the mouse was saved, gathering dust.
He sat on the end of his bed, on the solid navy bedspread from a Wal-Mart set. It wasn’t dusty like everything else. When he leaned down, it smelled clean.
Stiles pulled his phone out of his pocket and laid back, checking his messages, one from his old roommate and one from a friend. He told them both he was home and locked the screen. He was tired, but he didn’t know if he could sleep.
He didn’t want to unpack, he wouldn’t be there that long, but he didn’t want to sit in the living room with his dad either.
So he closed his eyes and focused on his breathing, entering his nose, down his into his lungs, feeling them expand. The sunlight through his windows colored his eyelids pink. He stared at nothing until he fell asleep.
When Stiles came down the stairs an hour later, the box his dad poured dinner out of was still beside the skillet. Neil Young was playing from the radio beneath the cabinets beside the fridge. His wavering voice mixed with the tiny popping of grease as his dad browned beef. The scent of garlic made his mouth water.
“Wow. It smells edible.”
“Thanks for the confidence, son,” his dad said, looking up from the skillet.
Smoke was building up. He noticed it against the sunset glowing through the kitchen window. Stiles leaned over his dad to turn on the hood vent, then clicking it down so it was still at a volume they could talk.
“Did you sleep good?”
“Yeah,” Stiles said.
“Good,” his dad said, stirring the mostly browned meat around until it was all uniform. “I work tomorrow, but then I’m off for two days. When are you going to look at houses?”
“I have an appointment with a realtor on Friday, but I was going to call on places tomorrow from online and stuff.”
“Can’t wait to get away from your old man, huh?” his dad asked.
“I just want to be in a place before I start school,” Stiles said, chewing at his thumbnail. His cuticle caught on his teeth and snagged.
“I know. I’m just giving you a hard time,” he said. “There’s an apartment for rent above the bookstore by the college. I got the woman’s number if you want to call her.”
“Do you know how much she’s asking?”
“I didn’t ask. I don’t think it would be much. It’s probably not the nicest either.”
“Send yourself the ID card, she’s in my phone. Ellen Argent. Just tell her you’re my son.”
“I get to pull the ‘sheriff’s son’ card again? I really am back home.”
“Yep you know people in high places,” he said, right before grease from the skillet popped and he jumped back, shaking his hand. “Son of a bitch.”
Stiles laughed and bumped him out of the way, turning down the heat. The meat had gone from a nice brown, to gray, verging on black. At least he’d tried to cook. That’s more than Stiles could’ve said for him before he left.
After dinner, they watched TV for a few hours. His dad put it on something not stressful and Stiles tried to relax. He faked it well for an hour an and a half before his dad went up to bed. Stiles went up to his room again. He sat a glass of water on the bedside table and turned on the lamp, saturating the room in dull yellow light. He went to his backpack and dug through the pockets until he found his prescription bottles and took them back to bed.
He wasn’t tired, but there wasn’t anything else to do. The TV wasn’t hooked up to cable or a streaming box, so that wasn’t helping. His laptop was in the bag beside the door, but he couldn’t think of anything he would do on it. The radio on his dresser probably still worked, but he didn’t want to listen to it.
He laid back on the bed and stared at the texture of the ceiling.
His posters were in the peripheral of his sight. Panic! At the Disco, Fall Out Boy, and Tool. He had sat on the same bed for so many hours with Scott and played video games. Sometimes he’d studied. Sometimes. It never seemed to matter. He always made the honor roll. He was smart.
It was easy to forget that. Sometimes.
Stiles scratched the inside of his elbow and closed his eyes, letting out a breath slowly.
Smart people did stupid shit.
At least that’s what people told him.
He pushed himself back up and grabbed his pill bottles, taking one of the antidepressants and one for the insomnia. He swallowed them both, watching the water level fall in the glass before he got up from the bed and laid on the floor, pushing himself into upward facing dog, and focusing on his breathing.
He slowly went through his regiment, feeling his muscles relax, his breathing even, focusing on the carpet under his hands and calves, taking in the scent of his bedroom without trying to analyze it.
It smelled like home.
When he let himself crawl back into bed, his arms and legs burned just a little bit. He set the alarm on his phone then made himself put it down before logging on to any apps.
He was asleep before he realized it.
When his alarm went off the next morning, Stiles rolled over and stared at it for a moment, the high pitched beep throbbing in his ears before he turned it off. He gave himself a minute of laying in bed, staring at the ceiling that was slowly turning from black to dark blue with sunrise. He could hear the hum of the water lines in the walls as his dad’s shower ran.
Finally, he pushed himself up and dug through his bag, pulling on his wrinkled running clothes, then slipping on his shoes. He grabbed his water bottle from his bag and went downstairs. He filled his bottle with the tap in the kitchen, then started the coffee maker, dumping out the old grounds and filter his dad had probably left in it the morning before. By the time he had switched everything out and the water was warming, his dad was coming down the stairs in his uniform.
“I didn’t expect you to already be up,” his dad said. “Going for a run? I’m impressed.”
“I’ve always run.”
“I know, but not at eight in the morning.”
Stiles shrugged, then pulled his headphones from his pocket, putting one in his ear before giving his dad a half-hug.
“See you after work,” he said.
“Okay. Be careful.”
Stiles put the other earbud in, turning up the volume on his phone before putting it in his pocket. Even with the sun barely above the horizon, it was hot, humid and sticky without the cool breeze from the ocean to level everything out.
It had been nicer to run at night, the streets mostly quiet except for the sound of his footfalls. He’d run faster then, too. Burning off a high when he couldn’t sit still without feeling like there were ants beneath his skin. He’d been able to run miles.
Stiles made his pace stay steady as his thoughts slipped back to not even three months ago, standing in the dark, staring at himself in the glow of a streetlight in the reflection of a dark store front. He didn’t know how long he’d stood there, his mind racing and beginning to feel sluggish as the speedball dropped out.
He remembered the blip of a siren before red and blue illuminated the glass, throwing his shadow up the bricks. The police officer had shined a light in his eyes despite the street light, making him flinch.
The man had worn a black uniform, not tan, like his dad. He’d had a serious face. He looked like an asshole. He wondered if that’s how people saw his dad when he was on duty. He remembered slurring that his father was a sheriff, the first time he’d said it in years.
“He must be so proud.”
Stiles could still hear the sarcasm. He had to be driven home when none of his friends would answer their phones. The sun had barely been coming up over the flat horizon of ocean.
Stiles started to run faster, his feet slapping the pavement in the early morning hours, until his legs were burning and a stitch was stabbing hot and heavy in his side. When he wanted to stop, he picked a point farther along the street. The fountain in front of the college. He ran harder until he reached it.
The air was too hot in his throat as he slowed to a stop and walked in circles, his fingers laced behind his head, breathing, panting, until he made himself start taking deep breaths through his nose and out of his mouth. When the urge to vomit subsided, he sat on the edge of the fountain and stared at the stores and restaurants lining the main drag from the college. It was okay. Quaint even in a way he hadn’t appreciated when he was younger, stupider.
When he could breathe without pain in his chest, he stood up and started back the way he’d come.
After Stiles got home and took a shower, he grabbed his phone off the bed, where he’d left it before going to the shower, and looked at the contact his dad had sent him the night before. Ellen Argent. He checked the time to make sure it was late enough to be calling someone before hitting dial.
“Fables and Folklore, how may I help you?” an older sounding woman answered on the second ring
“Hi. I was trying to reach Mrs. Argent?”
“Ellen. Yes, this is her.”
“Hi,” he said again. “I’m Stiles Stilinski. My dad, John, gave me your number for the apartment you had for rent?”
For a moment, he could feel his face getting hot. He wondered how many people knew why he was back or what he’d done while he was gone. Probably more than he’d like. Even one was more than he’d like.
“Oh! Well, it’s a one bedroom, one bath. It needs some touching up, but the plumbing and electrical we’re just redone, so there aren’t any issues there. I’m asking $450 a month.”
“Where is it?”
“Above the bookstore by the college.”
“When could I come see it?”
“Whenever you’d like. I’m here all day,” she said, reading him off an address. Stiles scrambled for a pen and wrote on the back of an envelope.
“I’m only about 10 minutes away, so I’ll swing by soon,” he said.
“I look forward to meeting you,” Ellen said.
Stiles hung up, plugging the address into his phone. He used to know the downtown well, but now it was all fuzzy. He knew there was a bookstore, but he got it mixed up with the handful of restaurants, a bicycle shop, antique store, a hair salon.
He looked at the map for a few minutes, weighing if he should drive or walk, but it was almost ninety-five degrees. He didn’t really want to be swimming in sweat when he met his possible new landlord, not with the other shit she probably already knew about him. He jogged up the stairs, back to his room and pulled a tube of concealer from his overnight bag. He squirted some of the pale makeup on his finger and smeared it on his inner elbows, where a few healing track marks still lingered. They were at least healed to the point of disappearing under a thin layer of the thick cover-up. When he was finished, he licked his finger and wiped it on his dirty work out t-shirt before heading downstairs again.
Ten minutes later, Stiles pulled off the main road onto a small side street. There wa small parking lot next to a building with a wooden sign reading Fables and Folklore above the door with blue lettering.
When Stiles walked in the bell above the door clanged against the glass. The scent of peppermint and books hit Stiles as he walked in the door. There was a line of twenty-somethings toward the back, checking out at two temporary looking stalls.
“Are you looking for the used textbooks?”
Stiles looked toward his right at the older woman behind the register. “No. I didn’t even know that was an option in town. I was going to be a sucker and buy at the campus store,” he said. “I’m Stiles. Are you Ellen?”
“I am,” she said, smiling before holding out her hand.
Stiles shook it firmly, but gently, aware of how thin her hands were. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“Oh of course it is,” she said. “The sheriff talks about you all the time.”
“Yeah? The old man has a soft spot.”
Ellen laughed before getting off the stool behind the register, then looking behind Stiles toward the booths.
“Jessica, I’m showing the apartment. Keep an eye on the front,” she called.
Someone, Jessica he guessed, said she would before Ellen walked toward the back of the building, then pushed open a heavy-looking metal door. It creaked on its hinges and opened to a side parking lot where a deep blue Porsche was parked.
“Wow, that’s awesome,” Stiles said.
“Thank you. My son helped me pick it out,” she said.
“He has good taste.”
“He has taste too refined for his own good,” Ellen said.
Stiles laughed a little as he followed her up a set of black stairs beside the door. They creaked under his weight, but they were freshly painted and shined in the sun. When they reached the metal landing at the top, Ellen pulled a ring of keys off the belt loop of her jeans and flipped through them. He could see the creek that separated downtown from the college campus from where he stood and the nicest restaurant on the strip was right across the alley. He could even see the building where most of his classes would be held.
“It has a pretty view,” she said.
“Yeah, it does.”
“Well it sometimes smells like garbage out here in the spirit of full disclosure.”
“I lived in LA. Trust me, some trash isn’t going to hurt me.”
Ellen smiled as she opened the door. “Keep in mind, it does need work. I just haven't gotten around to doing it.”
“Okay,” Stiles said, stepping into the apartment behind her.
The front door opened directly onto the living room, the kitchen was to his left, and it was all painted red and yellow. Ellen laughed and he realized he’d been making a face that reflected just how bad it was.
“I know, I know. I wanted to list it under Ketchup and Mustard Paradise, but my sons said that was a bad idea.”
“Maybe true though?” Stiles said, as he walked around.
The hardwood under his feet was nice and looked original. That was about the only good thing he could say about it, except that the living room was decent sized and would fit his shit.
“Here. Look around, let me know if you like it. I won’t get my feelings hurt if you don’t. I haven’t even listed it yet. When you’re done just lock the doorknob and come back into the shop the way we came.”
“Okay. Thank you.”
She closed the door behind her. It sounded like it stuck.
Stiles looked up at the ceiling. It still had texture. The walls had some texturing on them too, but he could get rid of that, if Ellen was okay with it. The kitchen had a small pantry and newer looking cabinets, but the appliances were off-white, almost yellow. He thought it was probably age-stained. The counters were white laminate and starting to peel a little.
The bedroom was on the other end of the living room, down a small hallway. The bathroom was surprisingly good with an updated tub and shower combo with glass green tiles. The bedroom was a dull yellow tinged green, but had a good sized closet and the room would fit his furniture with room to move around.
Stiles walked around the place a few times, testing the water pressure in the bathroom, then the kitchen. It had hookups for a washer and an electric dryer, which he would need to buy, but that was okay. It was better than doing it in a community room like most places he’d lived.
When he couldn’t think of anything else to check, he closed up the apartment, making sure the doorknob was locked before he turned to go down the stairs. The view struck him again, the large trees that lined the creek bank, the college campus he could see, the view of other small shops. There would be other places that were prettier and updated, but he wasn’t going to find one in a better location.
He pulled open the back door of the bookstore and walked into the dimness, letting his eyes adjust as he went to the front counter again. Ellen was checking out another teenager with a stack of thick books. When they walked away, she turned to him.
“What do you think?”
“I like it,” Stiles said. “I can’t live with those colors, though. Would you be okay with me painting?”
“You’d be doing me a favor. Keep the receipts for your supplies and I’ll deduct it from your rent.”
“Just please, don’t go crazy.”
Stiles laughed. “No hot pink and yellow?”
“I guess I could just burn it down when you move out.”
Stiles smiled. “Nah, I was thinking grays. I can run the colors by you before I do anything though.”
“You don’t have to do that. Oh and with your first month’s rent, I’ll get a refrigerator. That one works, but it’s loud.”
“Okay,” Stiles said. “What do I need to do?”
“Just fill this out,” she said, looking behind her desk before pulling out a piece of paper. “Bring me the first month’s rent in a cashier’s check and a $300 deposit and you can move in whenever you’d like.”
“Great,” Stiles said, scooting down the counter so Ellen could check out another customer.
The application was the thinnest he’d ever filled out for an apartment, his social, phone number, a second contact address and an encase of emergency contact. When he finished the first page, he flipped it over, but it was blank. He waited until Ellen was done with the next customer before he held up the paper.
“Do you want me to write my references on the back?”
“Your dad is the sheriff. I know where to go if you start being a hellion.”
Stiles laughed slightly. Whatever, she was old school, laid back. He could deal with that.
“Are you going to run my credit?” he asked.
“No. If you don’t pay rent, then I’ll just evict you,” she said.
“No one’s perfectly clean and the things those show aren’t quite fair, now are they?” she asked. “You’re fine, Stiles. As soon as I’ve got the checks, We’ll sign some papers and it’ll be yours.”
“You’re pretty awesome.”
“Thank you. You seem nice yourself.”
Stiles held out his hand. “I’ll run down to the bank. I’ll be back in about a half hour if that’s okay.”
“Thanks again,” Stiles said.
“I hope you enjoy it.”
Stiles gave her another smile before he walked out of the bookstore and into the bright sunlight, the heat hitting him just a second after as the door fell closed behind him. He walked down the sidewalk tucked against the side of the building, the small parking lot stuffed with cars. He hoped his own parking wouldn’t be mixed with this lot, but it didn’t really matter. His car already had scuffs and dings from years of city parking.
As he was going to his car, someone called his name. Stiles looked up, not recognizing the voice until he saw Lydia Martin, walking toward him from a pearl white Beetle. She smiled at him, sliding up her Gucci sunglasses on her head as she came into the shade of the building.
“I can’t believe it’s you. I thought you were a mirage.”
Stiles laughed slightly and stepped in to hug her when she held out her arms. Her perfume smelled expensive and clean.
“Yeah I just got back yesterday,” he said. “It’s good to see you.”
“God, stop. You sound old. We sound old,” she said.
“We are old.”
“Speak for yourself,” she said. “What are you doing? Visiting?”
“No. I’m moving back. Renting the upper story, actually,” he said gesturing to the bookstore.
Lydia squealed, her face lighting up. “That’s fantastic!”
“Calm down. I am not worth that kind of excitement.”
“Have you even kept tabs on who stayed around?” Lydia asked. “Trust me, you are a pearl in a pile of shit.”
“Has his place.”
Lydia looked at him like he was the stupidest person in the world. “Are you done?”
“Okay fine, I’m a pearl in shit,” he said. “Why are you here?”
“I’m getting my books for my classes,” she said.
“Fuck. Yeah I need to do that when I bring my deposit back,” he said.
“Buy my books.”
“You’re taking classes?” she asked, hitting his arm. “That’s so exciting! What are you going for?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I still need to finish my basics, because I’m a fucking slacker.”
Lydia smiled, only one corner of her perfectly lipsticked-mouth turning up. “From what I’ve heard, you weren’t ‘slacking’ at all.”
Stiles stared at her, not laughing, like she was clearly expecting. Her smile disappeared as she reached out and touched his shoulder.
“Shit I didn’t mean to upset you. I looked you up and it wasn’t easy,” she said. “Really, no one that I’ve talked to has any idea what you were doing.”
“Yeah, not a big deal,” he said, pasting on a smile. “If you’re good at something don’t do it for free, right?”
“Exactly,” Lydia laughed. “Which bank do you need to go to? Let me drive you. We can come back and get our books together.”
“Are you sure? It’s up on 7th.”
“Which is all of five minutes away,” she said, “I want to catch up.”
“Okay,” Stiles said, following her to her car.
The interior was as decked out as the car could probably come, nice leather seats, pretty shiny things on the shifter that looked like crystals, but even Lydia wasn’t that extravagant, he hoped. He listened to her talk about how she hated how small the parking lot was, but that was okay, because Stiles would get to park around the back.
“How do you know?” he asked as they pulled onto the main street.
“I knew the girl who lived up there before,” she said. “She had a strange design aesthetic.”
“That’s a really nice way to put that fucking dumpster fire of a paint scheme.”
Lydia laughed. “She was really into vibrant colors for studying. I had a few cram sessions with her before finals.”
“Whatever works, I guess.”
“The landlord’s son is a contractor too, just so you know. Megan had a pipe that wouldn’t stop dripping and mentioned it once to her, like three weeks after it started, and her son was out in two hours.”
“It’s a perk,” she said. “We should go eat after we get our books. I’ll take you to the cafe across the street from the bookstore. The good one isn’t open until next week.”
Stiles let her talk and went along with the plans. They were better than anything else he’d had planned. He hadn’t even remembered that Lydia stayed in Beacon Hills. Then again, he hadn’t kept up with anyone from home. It had been a fight to even return calls to his dad and it didn’t happen nearly as often as his dad had wanted. He’d once gone a month and by the time he talked to his dad he’d sounded panicked, angry, and hurt all at once. He remembered, because he’d been coming down and it had just made his headache worse.
As they walked into the bank, something in Lydia’s purse was rattling. Stiles glanced at it and tried to ignore that tellers and mortgage brokers walking around in button ups and khakis. Until the first one he saw had his tie tugged down and his shirt was wrinkled. He didn’t look much older than himself and was chugging a cup of coffee like it was a life line.
Stiles rolled his neck and looked away, back toward the counter where all the tellers were busy.
“What classes are you taking?” Lydia asked.
“All introduction shit. I think they’re all 1000 levels.”
“I might be teaching one of them?” Lydia asked.
Stiles read off his class list and Lydia shook her head.
“Nope. You should take Physics next semester. I’ll probably be teaching that again.”
“Why the hell would I sign up for that kind of torture?”
“Because you get to have special teacher attention?” Lydia asked, looking at Stiles and fluttering her lashes.
Stiles snorted at her. “I don’t know. We’ll see.”
“It also looks good on your transcript?”
“Transcript for what?”
“When you go to apply for jobs.”
“No job I have ever had has asked for my transcript.”
“And what jobs have you had exactly? $7.50 an hour at Dixie Stop n Go when you were 17?”
“Jobs ask for transcripts, at least reputable ones.”
“Thanks for the advice, counselor,” Stiles said, starting toward one of the tellers as an old woman with white hair finally walked away. Lydia’s heels clicked behind him.
He made small talk with the teller, filling out the slip she gave him and waiting for the cashier’s check that would get the apartment secured. He had a weird feeling that some other weird son of a bitch was going to come in off the street and offer Ellen the money first.
“What colors are you going to paint the place?” Lydia asked, reapplying her lipstick without even using a mirror.
“Probably neutrals. I’ve got some funky colored shit to go with it.”
“Is it at your dad’s?”
“No it’s in a storage locker. I didn’t want to swamp Dad’s house with stuff.”
“I would help you color coordinate?”
“Sure, we can do it over lunch,” Stiles said.
When the teller gave him his check, Stiles got some cash out for his books and walked out of the bank with Lydia. They passed the hardware store he’d be going to get paint. It seemed like a miniature version of the one in his town in California.
When they got back to the bookstore, the parking lot was less full. Lydia parked near the door and they both got out. The scent of peppermint and books hit Stiles again as Lydia peeled off to go to the used textbook stalls. Stiles went to the front counter where Ellen was reading a yellow-tinged book.
“So here’s the check,” he said, passing it to her.
Ellen looked up from her book, looking at her counter before grabbing a few papers from the wooden top. “Okay, just sign where I’ve marked. It basically just says you won’t trash the place and if you do that I can and will sue you. Also, pay your rent on time. If you get roaches, I’ll spray the place once, every other time will be out of your pocket. Also, let me know if anything is wrong in the place. The last girl let a pipe drip for a month before telling me and my son had to patch my ceiling down here, so please do not be that girl.”
“Deal,” Stiles said, starting to sign, reading the weirdly short paragraphs that all said what she had.
When he finished signing in the few spots, Stiles shook Ellen’s hand. She smiled and it crinkled the corners of her eyes. He never knew his grandparents well, but she seemed like she’d be a good one to have.
“I hope you’ll take good care of it.”
“I will,” he said.
“Now go buy your books before they’re all gone,” she said. “And next semester, give me your class list when you have it and I’ll make sure I keep the ones you need. I can even order them at a lower cost.”
“Really? Thank you.”
“Just think of it as a perk,” Ellen said.
Stiles stopped himself from saying thank you again. Instead he forced himself forward, “If you don’t mind, I’d like to start moving things in and painting tomorrow.”
“Of course not. It’s your apartment. I can leave a new copy of your key in the sheriff’s mailbox after I get off work or have Chris run it by.”
“My son,” she said.
“Oh okay, cool.”
Stiles walked away then to join Lydia at the used book stalls. He pulled up his class list and showed it to the second girl working. She looked younger than him. That was a weird feeling, someone being younger than him. It felt surreal. She messed with the course numbers in the computer for a few minutes, fumbling with his phone and him having to unlock it a few times before she had a stack of books in front of him.
When she gave him the total it was half of what he expected. Two of the books were beat to hell on the covers, but the pages looked pristine, like a kid had bought it and never cracked it open.
As soon as Lydia paid for her books, Stiles followed her out into the heat that was near suffocating. They put their books into their cars and met back on the sidewalk with Lydia shielding her eyes against the noon sun, scanning the store fronts.
“Let's go to Iguana. It has decent wraps."
“Okay,” Stiles said.
The traffic was lazy a little over a week before classes started, so they crossed the road easily to a large stuccoed cafe that had a large lizard on the dangling sign out front. A man was playing an acoustic guitar, singing beneath his breath as they walked into the scent of warm bread and fresh cut vegetables.
They sat in a nook by the window overlooking the street, waiting for their orders while Stiles sipped on some fruity flavored tea. It was trying too hard to be hip with super fruits and chia seeds, but it tasted alright.
Lydia sat beside him at the square table and pulled up a few apps with home ideas. Stiles pointed out colors he liked until she was refining them down to basic hipster shit that he was too much of a loser not to love.
“Please tell me the landlord is fixing that kitchen.”
“She’s getting a new fridge.”
Lydia shuddered. “The whole thing looks like a roach motel.”
“Thanks, since I’ll be keeping my pots and pans and shit in there.”
“I’m just saying, keep a lot of Raid.”
“Noted,” Stiles said, “I like that gray best. My couch is almost the same brown as that one.”
“But your chair is green?” Lydia asked.
“Yeah. It’d look cool. Earthy.”
Lydia tilted her head to the side and nodded. “I can see it. I’ll find the paint code.”
Lydia sent him the paint code from the walls in the picture and he saved her number, trying not to show that her number wasn’t underneath a contact. A few new phones and all of his Beacon Hills contacts had been lost. It was so easy to stay in contact with people now, but so easy to lose them just with a phone transfer.
After they got their food and ate it, Stiles stared across the street at the white bookstore with settlement cracks in the brick beneath. It didn’t look great. It didn’t even look well kept. He wondered if Ellen’s son really ever came around.
“Do you want help painting?”
“With your manicure? No thanks,” Stiles said.
“I’d wear gloves, obviously.”
“Nah, I want it to be a surprise,” Stiles said, “It’s such a shit hole. The before and after will be great.”
“True,” Lydia said before she looked at her watch. “Shit. I have a meeting in 10 minutes with a professor I’m teaching for,” she said, grabbing her purse and tossing a tip on the table. “Text me,” she said emphasizing each word. “I know where you live now.”
“Yeah you do,” Stiles said, smiling slightly.
She smiled at him then came around the table and kissed him loudly on the cheek. “I’m just so glad you’re back!”
Stiles laughed, wiping her lipstick from his cheek. “Yeah it was good to see you.”
Lydia blew him a kiss before she was out the door. Stiles watched her walk by on the sidewalk, almost jogging, or as much as she could in heels, toward the campus. When she was gone, he poked at his lettuce wrap and watched the street, his eyes inevitably ending up on the apartment again.
He’d make it great. It would take time. It was a shit hole now, but the bones were good. In a week he wouldn’t recognize the place. He thought of that as iceberg crunched beneath his teeth and he stared at the white building.
That night, Stiles sat with his dad in the living room of his house, watching a late season baseball game. The scent of soy sauce and ginger was thick as he ate his low mein and his dad chowed down on Mongolian Beef in his recliner.
“So you liked the apartment?”
“Yeah, the location. I can throw a rock and hit Seminary Hall.”
“What kind of condition is it in?”
“Cosmetically? It’s trash. Red and yellow in the kitchen and living room, but she doesn’t care if I paint, wood floors, really shitty appliances, but she says she’s going to swap out the fridge.”
“Good,” he said. “Her son is a contractor so I’m sure it’s well taken care of.”
“Lydia told me.”
“You saw her today?” his dad asked.
“Yeah. She was coming into the bookstore to get her books as I was leaving. We got lunch and stuff.”
“That’s good. I know Scott is still around too. I think Danny is too.”
After a beat of just the sport’s announcers and the cheering of fans on the screen his dad’s chair creaked.
“I’m glad you saw her. That’s nice.”
Stiles looked down at his food and picked at the carrots and broccoli left. He could normally knock a tray of this out in a go, but the noodles he’d already eaten felt too thick, pressing against the back of his throat. He set his plate down on the coffee table and rubbed the knot of his jaw. An ache had been toying with him all day, now it was kicking in full swing.
“Yeah I’m good,” Stiles said, pressing his thumb into his jaw until it hurt to massage in slow circles.
He could taste the metallic flavor on the back of his tongue from how an injection would hit. His taste buds contracted beneath the thick greasy sauce of the lo mein and saliva pooled in his mouth.
It came on strong, but tapered faster than it used to until he was staring at the TV without seeing. He could see his counselor sitting across from him in his mind’s eye, the walls of her office bright and pale yellow in afternoon sunlight. He could see her lips moving and nod of her head as she listened to him.
“I’m glad I saw her, “ he said, “But she’s almost finished with her masters, teaching classes, has a 4.0. She’s going to have a doctorate. I just have a lot of catching up to do.”
He didn’t look at his dad as he said it, but he heard the recliner squeak again as he moved it. The blue bar for the TV volume came on the screen and went down.
“I’m not going to say you haven’t done some things I wish you hadn’t. I’m sure you’ve done a lot of things that you wished you hadn’t, but you’re not catching up with anyone, son.”
Stiles looked at his dad and his chest felt like it was being compressed. He wasn’t crying, but his eyes were glassy.
“I’m proud of you. You’ve come a long way in a short amount of time. You’re going to do good things. Don’t let a few years make you feel like you’re thrown off forever.”
Stiles nodded, wiping beneath his nose. “Yeah. Thanks.”
His dad’s chair squealed again as he stood up with his bowl in hand. He bent down as he passed and kissed Stiles on the hair like when he was a kid and like when he was sitting in the hospital with him a handful of months ago.
“Love you too, Pop.”
Stiles picked up his plate again and picked at it some more. When his dad came back in the room, he turned the TV back up to the normal volume.
“Do you need some help painting in the apartment?”
Stiles shook his head. “No, but you can come help me look for paint if you want. I’ve got to paint some cabinets and I don’t really know what I’m looking for.”
“Sure. Do you want to go tomorrow?”
“Yeah. I want to get it done before I start back to classes.”
“Sounds good,” his dad said.
Stiles didn’t finish his plate, but he ate some more before he got up and put it in the fridge. A picture of him, his mom, and his dad still hung on the fridge with a magnate. It was a picture his dad had taken of them when they’d gone to the zoo, selfie style with a camera. His dad looked so much younger. His mom was frozen, exactly the way he remembered her. His own smile was so naive and honest, his mouth and eyes still too large for his face.
He opened the fridge again and looked for beer, but apparently his dad had stuck with his plan. Stiles was proud despite the fact that a beer felt like it would hit a spot. A joint would do the same thing, though, only better.
Stiles pulled out his phone and pulled up Lydia’s information.
Do you have any contacts for weed?
He almost wrote out another text to make sure the dealer didn’t dabble in anything else. He trusted his will power just far enough to buy some good hydro. It took less than a minute for Lydia to respond
Danny. I’ll send his number.
Danny had always been the person he’d bought off in high school, but it had always been through Danny’s older brother. He was almost sure he’d moved, though. He thought he remembered that from before he moved himself.
Lydia sent Danny’s contact information and Stiles saved it to his own phone before starting a message. He had gotten as far as, This is Stiles . When his dad asked if he’d bring him the M&Ms from the island.
“No problem,” Stiles said.
He deleted the words and almost deleted Danny’s contact, but he knew he’d just end up asking Lydia for it again in the future, so he kept it. He grabbed the bag of chocolate for his dad and went back into the living room, kicking up his feet on the coffee table and trying to make himself relax.
After awhile, he fooled himself into thinking it had.
The next morning, Stiles woke up for his run an hour later, took a shower when he got back to the house, and started to make breakfast before his dad came down the stairs. He was wearing his standard off-duty outfit, a t-shirt, jeans, and boots. His hair was damp, but his eyes were still foggy.
“I could smell it from upstairs,” his dad said, going to the pot.
Stiles flipped the last of the pancakes off the pan onto a plate stacked with them. He sat them on the table while his dad made his coffee, sugar and vanilla creamer. Stiles put a short stack on his dad’s plate before doing the same to his own, pouring microwaved maple syrup over them from a coffee cup. When he was done, he pushed it toward his dad, who grunted a thank you. Stiles watched him take the peanut butter than he’d set out and slather his top pancake like he always had before pouring the hot syrup over.
“Smells great, kid,” his dad said.
They ate with the click of silverware in the quiet kitchen. The only other noise was the chirping of the birds outside. Stiles realized it must be this quiet a lot. His dad didn’t seem fazed at all, he just ate, wrapped up in his own world. Then again, at barely nine in the morning, that foggy world might be just fine.
“Do you want to see the apartment before we go buy stuff?” Stiles asked.
His dad nodded, gulping his coffee that was steaming against the dark cabinets. When he put it down, he shook his head. “That’s hot.”
Stiles laughed slightly.
“Do you already have the keys?” his dad asked.
Stiles lifted enough to reach into the pocket of his jeans and pull out his keys. It had been in the mailbox when he’d left for his run earlier. His dad nodded then went back to eating before pushing his plate away when it was empty.
“That was great.”
“Thanks,” Stiles said, finishing his last bite before picking up his dad’s plate and rinsing it in the sink. He put them in the dishwasher with the rest of the shit he’d cooked with and started the load.
“You’re kind of handy to have around,” his dad said.
Stiles snorted. “Did you do a load of clothes or dishes when I lived at home?”
“Not a lot,” his dad admitted, but then Stiles hadn’t really wanted him too.
It wasn’t hard to fold laundry while he watched TV after school. He had mostly just slapped it on hangers anyway. Then loading a dishwasher for two people, that took all of ten minutes every two days. It had been a trade off since his dad had picked up take out on his way home basically any time Stiles wanted it and any materialistic bullshit, he got it.
“Are you ready?” Stiles asked.
“Can we take your car? I don’t think there will be enough room in mine.”
“That’s fine,” his dad said.
His dad grabbed his keys from the table beside the front door, beside his Glock that he’d stopped trying to hide when Stiles was a teenager. Not like he had needed to, the one time he had touched out without his dad’s permission and he found out, he had lit his ass up, one of only a handful of times his dad had done it.
Stiles stepped out on the porch as his dad locked the door behind them. The screen door clapped against the frame as he walked down the steps, the gravel crunching under his shoes as he went to the passenger side of his dad’s SUV.
As he pulled himself into the cabin, it smelled of dust and hot vinyl already. The sun was still far from the top of the sky.
His dad drove straight to the bookstore and the backlot without any direction from Stiles. He parked next to Ellen’s Porsche, where Stiles would normally park, because she trusted her tenants to be too terrified to ding her Cayman. Her few employees parked across the narrow gravel lot in a parallel line. Stiles had one more spot of visitors. He had a feeling his dad and Lydia would be the only ones ever filling it.
Stiles climbed the steps to his apartment in front of his dad, feeling them vibrate beneath their footsteps until they reached the small landing. Stiles messed with his keys before coming up with the shiniest. It slid into the lock with a little bit of resistance, but turned easily.
“Just,” Stiles said, pausing and looking at his dad. Sweat was already beading on his forehead in the humidity. “It’s really bright.”
“Okay,” his dad said.
Stiles twisted the knob and stepped into his apartment, his dad close behind. He closed out the heat behind them quickly. It was nice and cool. He remembered he needed to get the utilities in his name. That would be a few wasted hours of his life. He almost missed the look of disdain warping his dad’s face.
“Paint will fix a lot of it.”
“How much are you paying again?”
“At least she’s being fair,” his dad said. He walked around the living room, looking at the red paint drips on the white baseboards. Then he went into the kitchen and opened some cabinets, then the fridge before covering his nose and closing the door. “She’s replacing that, right?”
“Yeah. She said with the first month’s rent. I don’t know if that means the money I just paid her or my first month actually living here.”
“She needs to replace it now. You can’t keep food in something that smells that bad.”
“I’ll get some vinegar and shit while we’re at the store. I need other stuff anyway.”
His dad looked at the peninsula with its peeling laminate top. He brushed his thumb against it before wiping his hand on his jeans.
“Stiles, you know I don’t care how long you live with me.”
“I know you don’t, but this place really isn’t that bad. It’s cheap, she doesn’t care if I paint, and it’s right on downtown. I can’t ask for much better than that.”
“A refrigerator that didn’t smell like rotten cheese would be nice or counters that didn’t look like they trapped every ounce of bacteria where you make your food.”
Stiles rolled his eyes. His dad would’ve had a heart attack if he’d seen Stiles’s first apartment in Los Angeles. “I promise to buy bleach and at least two cutting boards. It’s not like I’ll ever be prepping things right on the surface.”
His dad rubbed his finger against the yellowed linoleum harder. Then rubbed at the residue left on his fingers. Finally, he let out a deep breath through his nose.
“Let's go to the store so I can at least hope that it will look better in the end.”
“God, you’re such a dad bear.”
“Whatever. I’d just like you to not die of asbestos poisoning.”
Stiles laughed as he held the front door open for his dad until he passed by him still looking at the apartment like it had committed murder. He went down the stairs and Stiles could see the irritation in the stiffness of his shoulders alone.
Fifteen minutes later, they were in the paint department of Lowes. It wasn’t nearly as nice as the one near his old house, but it still had the different wattages of lighting to compare the colors swatches beneath. He and his dad stood side by side swapping different shades beneath the lights.
“What about this one?” Stiles asked.
“I don’t know. It looks dark,” his dad said. “How many windows are in the living room?”
“Two. One that will be behind the couch and the other beside the front door.”
His dad cocked his head and reminded Stiles of the Lab they’d had when he was younger.
“Do you want to get samples?” his dad asked.
“I don’t really have time for samples,” Stiles said. “Fine. You’re right. The lighter would probably be better.”
“Get what you want, son. I just don’t want you to feel like you’re in a cave. Brighter colors are better for depression,” he said.
“No, you’re right,” Stiles said, “But I’m still painting my bedroom navy.”
He’d picked out the navy almost as soon as they’d entered the paint section. His dad helped him pick brushes, rollers, and paint pans. Stiles probably knew more about it all than his dad after all the shitty apartments he’d lived in, trying to make them less disgusting with a few layers of pretty colors, but he still listened to him and got a few of the brands he recommended. His dad did actually get him the right paint for the cabinets, not that he couldn’t have asked an employee if he wasn’t there, but it was nice to have. They bought drop cloths, edgers, sandpaper, and some white paint to touch up the baseboards. He grabbed a bottle of bleach on the way toward the cash register to see if he could get the yellowed stains off the kitchen counters.
As they checked out, Stiles pulled out his wallet, but his dad bumped him out of the way and swiped his card before Stiles could.
“I can pay for it.”
“I know you can, but I want to,” his dad said, putting in his pin number. “If you aren’t going to let me help you paint then the least you can do is let me pay for the supplies.”
“Fine,” he said.
“What’re dad’s for?” he asked before helping Stiles load his shit back into the basket and leaving the store, walking across hot expanse dark asphalt toward the SUV. “Is this all you needed to do?” his dad asked as they loaded the supplies into the cargo hold of the Expedition.
“I need basic shit like shower curtains and stuff. Most of my stuff I left to Isaac.”
“I don’t know. It seemed fucked up that just because I had to move that he should lose half the shit in the apartment.”
“But you paid for those things.”
“Yeah,” Stiles said. “It’s not like I left everything. My TV, couches, bed, mattress, all that stuff is just in storage. I’ll get it as soon as I’m done painting. Speaking of, do you care if I use the trailer?”
“You aren’t moving things in by yourself.”
“Dad-,” Stiles called after his dad shut the back doors of the SUV and went around to get in the driverside. Stiles pushed the cart to the cart holder before climbing in the passenger side. “I can move by myself.”
“No way. You don’t need to pull your back out at twenty-five,” he said, putting the SUV into drive and starting across the parking lot to the street that led to the stoplight. “How about you go home, at least get the bedroom painted, so I can help you move your bed and things in. I’ve got some deputies I can wrangle into helping.”
“Most people would say thank you to that.”
“Thanks,” Stiles said.
“You’re welcome,” his said.
Finally, Stiles gave him an exasperated laugh. He had friends in LA that acted like him needing canned soup when he was sick was the worst inconvenience in the world. When he had the flu once, he’d complained to his dad on the phone that he was hungry, but no one would just go get him something to eat. The apartment’s door bell had gone off thirty minutes later with four containers of soup from his favorite place, already paid for.
Fuck his life. He had a dad that would give him the shirt off his back. He had the kind of dad that would fly halfway across the country to sit by his hospital bed after he overdosed, hold his hand while he was unconscious and just barely aware of the warmth.
“Do I have something on my face?” his dad asked, glancing at him and realizing he was staring.
“Nah. Thanks for the stuff. Really.”
“Glad to do it, buddy,” his dad said, as he drove across the parking lot, toward the road that led to the stoplight.
As soon as his dad dropped him off and helped him bringing the things upstairs, Stiles sent him on his way. He put the drop cloth down on the tile in the kitchen and started with the cabinets that were painted the worst shade of green he’d ever seen. Luckily, there were only a few drawers and no door pulls so after a few YouTube videos, he had an idea of what he was doing.
He plugged in his headphones as he painted out the boxes of the drawers in a ring around him on the kitchen floor. Between paint drying, he watched more YouTube videos. He scrubbed out the insides of the cabinets, trying to get the old boxes as clean as possible before he started laying down a fresh layer of white paint.
By the time they’d gotten home from the hardware store, it was almost ten in the morning. By the time, he had some of the kitchen reassembled, it was nearly ten at night.
He continued to paint in the harsh yellow halogen of the kitchen, covering the puke green they’d been covered with before. He took a few pictures as he went, happier and happier with the result of sanding, cleaning, and painting in a non-stop cycle.
By midnight, everything was painted. He’d have to do some touching up when he woke up and wait for things to harden before he put everything back together, but it already looked better. It was definitely a kitchen he could live with.
As Stiles locked up and went down the stairs to his car, he was sore, but it felt good. It was the kind of sore that meant as soon as he showered and laid down, he’d pass out for a good seven to eight hours.
When he got back to his dad’s house, the light on the porch was on, but the kitchen was dark through the front window. As he pulled into the driveway, he could see the flicker of the TV glowing from inside. He dragged himself in the front door, and down the hall to the living room. His dad was in his recliner, watching a rerun of a baseball game.
“How’d it go?”
“Messy,” Stiles said.
“It looks like you got more on you than on the cabinets.”
Stiles flipped him off. He barely realized he’d done it until his dad laughed. If he’d done that when he was nineteen, he would’ve been given the danger-dad-look in a heartbeat.
“Do you have pictures?”
“Nope,” Stiles said. “You don’t get to see it until it’s done after all the trash you talked.”
“I didn’t mean it as trash.”
“I know,” Stiles said. “I just want it to be finished before you see it.”
“I have to go to bed. Ellen texted and said her son was going to come by tomorrow morning to measure. I want to get the kitchen done before then.”
“I should probably call it a night too,” his dad said, turning off the TV, then standing and stretching with a groan. “Can’t wait to see it, kid.”
Stiles smiled before giving his dad a half hug. “Night, Pop.”
“Sleep tight, buddy.”
Stiles climbed the stairs to go take a shower. He hadn’t even turned on the water yet when he heard his dad climbing the stairs then the sound of his bedroom door closing at the other end of the hall.
The next morning, Stiles skipped his run, but he was at the apartment before seven, cranking music through his headphones, and putting the kitchen drawers back into their spots, screwing on the last of the cabinet doors. He spent about thirty minutes doing touch ups, where some green was still showing through the white before he took a few minutes to stretch and focus on his breathing.
After all the crouching, bending, and stretching last night, he felt like he’d been hit by a truck. He should’ve painted it all slower, but he wanted to see results.
A pressure was building in his head, like a spring being wound tighter and tighter. If he could just smoke a small bowl of meth, he could knock this whole thing out in a day. Without sleep, the results would be sloppy, but still. He could get it all finished.
The urge for that was easier to shake than the dig for a nod. That came on often and hard. He was never really happy with the outcome of his cleaning tangents on meth, his half-assed home renos, cooking attempts. None of them were great, they were just done and most of the time had to be touched up or tweaked after he came down.
He didn’t want the kitchen to just be done. He wanted it to be as good as he could possibly make it.
By noon, he had moved his drop cloth, changed out paint rollers, and started on the living room. He’d opened the front door and windows were open, making a cross breeze to cut down on the paint fumes, starting to make his head pound. His music drilling straight into his ears probably wasn’t helping. The restaurant across the alley had opened for lunch. The smell made his stomach growl.
The gray shade he’d picked was really nice. As he rolled more on, over the layer of red, the more he liked it. It looked clean. It even made the texture on the walls look smoother.
He was rolling another layer on the red walls, music blaring from his headphones before he thought he heard something. He paused then took one of his earbuds out.
He almost dropped the roller when he saw a man standing in the open front doorway. For a split moment, he thought of the gun he’d always kept in his bedside table, but there was no bedside table yet. His pistol was still in a lockbox in his storage unit. Then his panicked mind caught up with his paranoid thoughts. The man was wearing a shirt that said A&H Construction. He was holding a tape measurer.
“I didn’t mean to sneak up on you. I’m Chris Argent, Ellen’s son. I need to get measurements for the new refrigerator.”
“Hey, hi,” Stiles said, putting down the roller and going over to shake his hand before noticing the paint and pausing.
Chris didn’t hesitate to shake his hand. “It’s good to meet you. The sheriff’s son?”
“Yeah,” he said.
“I like your dad a lot.”
“Thanks,” Stiles said. “I like your mom, so I guess we’re even.”
Chris’s smiled. His graying beard made his teeth look whiter. Then he looked at the living room walls and nodded. “That looks nice.”
“You painted the cabinets too?”
“Yeah, I asked your mom first, but she didn’t care.”
“They needed it,” Chris said, walking into the kitchen. “They look great.”
“Did you seal the paint?” Chris asked, looking at him across the peninsula.
Stiles shook his head. “I didn’t know I needed to. I’ve never painted cabinets before. I can get some though.”
“I’ll get some and bring it by,” Chris said, crouching down until Stiles could barely see the top of his head as he looked at the lower cabinets.
Stiles heard the tape measurer extending near where the dishwasher was, not the fridge. He picked up his paint roller again and started back on the wall. Whatever the guy was doing wasn’t his business.
“You even painted out the insides,” Chris said.
“Yeah. I don’t know I like things to look clean before I move my kitchen stuff in. Not that it wasn’t clean, but you know.”
“I get it,” Chris said. “What color are you painting the walls in here?”
“Same color as this,” Stiles said. “I figured it’d make it look brighter. At least that’s what the shows say.”
Stiles glanced back and saw him picking at the countertop. A small pit formed in his stomach.
“Sorry. I tried to get up some of the yellow on the counters, but it stained a little.”
Chris looked up like Stiles had broken his train of thought and shook his head. “I wasn’t looking at that. The pieces are coming unlaminated.”
“I’ve lived with a lot worse,” Stiles said.
“Yeah, but if I’m putting in new appliances, I don’t know. I’ll talk to the boss. The electrical and plumbing were all redone before her last renter took it over. I’d like to go ahead and fix what needs to be fixed. At least that’s what I’d talked to her about. That’s why she hadn’t listed it yet.”
“Sorry. I kind of sprung it on her.”
Chris shrugged before coming back around the peninsula and standing in the living room. He looked over Stiles progress again before nodding.
“If I do go ahead and update this, will you take care of it?”
“The kitchen. I’d like to go ahead and swap counters and do a set of appliances. It needs them and I don’t necessarily want to wait until things have broken to do it.”
“Oh yeah. Of course,” Stiles said. “She wouldn’t take references, but I have them if you want them, for landlords. I’ve got some personal ones too-.”
“No you’re fine. If she trusts you then that’s all that matters. You’re already putting more work into this place than any of her other tenants, not that we ever expected them too.”
Stiles put the roller back in the pan. When he did, he saw Chris’s eyes fall to the crook of his elbow. He felt blood immediately starting to rush toward his face and neck as he tried to not cover the tracks with his other hand. He normally wore concealer on them or long-sleeves, but he’d been working alone.
“I’m going to go look at appliance sets today. It’ll probably be a few days before I can get them in.”
“Okay,” Stiles said, trying to will down the heat in his face and only feeling it get stronger.
“You do good work,” Chris said, walking toward the front door. “I’ll give a heads up before I deliver.”
“It was good to meet you,” Chris said.
“Same,” Stiles said.
Chris raised his hand in a small wave as he walked out the door. Stiles looked back down at the light gray paint in the pan and closed his eyes, forcing himself to focus on his breathing. People knew what he’d come back for. He was sure Ellen knew. Chris had probably known too.
It took ten cycles of breathing before he could open his eyes and start back on the room.
The next week, Stiles started classes.
The semester started on a Tuesday, so he’d only had a session of his Creative Writing class and Humanities II. Neither of them seemed like they’d be too bad. The Creative Writing professor seemed pretty chill and the Humanities professor seemed stoked about the material, a lot more than any of his teenage classmates, but that was okay. The fact that he’d only seen a handful of people his age or older in the classes was more of a downer, but he’d deal.
He was walking down the sidewalk that bordered the bookstore parking lot, on the way back to his apartment from the campus to his apartment with his headphones in, when something caught his eye behind the tinted glass. When he saw Ellen’s pale face, he jumped, and he could see her laugh. She gestured that he should come inside, so Stiles walked back to the front of the building and in the front door.
He took out his earbuds as he did, letting them hang against his shoulders. There were still a few strangler looking kids at the back buying books. He wondered when their classes started. Then again when he’d taken two semesters before he moved to LA, he had been those kids.
“How is the painting going?” Ellen asked, behind the front counter.
“Good,” Stiles said.
“Chris said it looked nice. I told him to let me warn you before he dropped by, but he was on the way to a job and popped by.”
“It’s fine,” Stiles said. Then he saw the large bucket of sealer beside her counter. He gestured to them. “Is that the sealer he was going to bring for the cabinets?”
“Yes,” she said. “I swear I would forget my head if it wasn’t attached to my neck. He brought this too,” she said, bending down and digging through her counter before coming up with a sack. “I think they’re applicators. He told me, but I’ve slept since them.”
“I’m sure I can figure it out,” he said, looking into the bag. “Thanks. I thought he’d forgot.”
Ellen huffed. “Chris doesn’t forget anything.”
“That doesn’t sound like a bad thing,” he said, smiling slightly at her look of exasperation.
“No, I guess I need someone to remember all the things I forget.”
Stiles smiled before he picked up the paint bucket and the bag. “Did you need anything else?”
“No, wait, there was something,” she said, clenching her eyes for a moment before they shot open. “He’s coming by in two days with the appliances. Is that okay with you?”
“It’s a mess when they work, so I’d recommend finding something to do while they’re there, or at least going to your bedroom.”
“I’ll figure something out,” he said. “Thanks again.”
“Of course. I can’t wait to see all the changes.”
“I’ll have you up when it’s all done,” he said. “Have a good day.”
“You too,” she called as he left, the bells clanging against the glass door as he went around the side of the building again.
Carrying his backpack, the sealer, and the hardware bag was tricky, but he got up the stairs without dropping anything before he twisted his key in the lock.
The apartment still smelled like fresh paint. The coloring on the walls wasn’t an immediate assault on his sight so he took it as a win. There were still a few places he needed to touch up, but overall it looked good. His dad had worked over the weekend, but he did get a few deputies ot help Stiles move in his furniture, some younger guy named Jordan and an older guy he thought was named Andrew. His dad had paid them before they even showed up, but he’d at least tipped them. Dragging a couch and a bed up a steep flight of stairs in ninety degree weather hadn’t exactly be fun.
With everything in place, the walls done, and kitchen painted, it actually looked pretty homey. As soon as the appliances were in he’d have his dad over to see it all.
Stiles put his bag down on the couch and set the five gallon bucket of sealer on the coffee table. He needed to read a chapter for Humanities and do some questions at the end. For his Creative Writing class he needed to go back down to the bookstore and buy the book of short stories by Chekhov, but he could do all of that tomorrow after Intro to Psychology and his afternoon Algebra II course, so he read the directions on the sealant then started on that.
Between the first and second coat, he started reading his Humanities chapter with the TV on as background noise. When he was halfway through, he finished sealing the few cabinets then went back to it.
He didn’t realize the light on his phone was going off until it caught the corner of his eye. It was a text from his dad sent about fifteen minutes before asking how his classes had gone. Isaac had texted him too, asking how he was.
Stiles wrote basically the same reply to both of them, he was fine. Classes were good. The reply to his dad looked basic, so he added that Chris was bringing his new appliances the next day. His dad replied within a few minutes which meant that he must be home. Stiles considered going over there, but it was getting late. He had class in the morning and he needed to get a run in before.
He’d make time to go see him before the weekend.
As he was about to exit his messages, he saw the draft he had from the other night to Danny. He opened it again and typed out a quick text before he could think better of it.
Hey, this is Stiles. Can you hook me up with an ounce?
He left his phone face up on the couch while he read more of the chapter, highlighting large sections and writing other things in a yellow notebook with Humanities II written in large bold sharpie letters on the cover. His hand was starting to cramp by the time the light at the corner of his phone started to blink.
An ounce of what? Last I heard, you were on stuff harder than I carry.
Okay. Come by my store tomorrow.
I’ll be there around 1 PM tomorrow?
Cool. See you then.
Stiles tossed his phone back on the couch and finished his chapter. It was nearly ten by the time he put it down and headed to his bedroom. He rolled out his yoga mat, changed into his loose sleep clothes, took his pills, and did his easy regiment that still managed to turn his muscles to jelly.
Like it had been, by the time he fell into bed, the pills were all combining and he was out before his mind could start to spin like a top.
After his morning Psychology class, Stiles pulled up the address Danny had sent him the night before. He hit an ATM on the way. He was thinking walking was stupid as fuck, as the temperatures crawled toward the triple digits when he found Tech Solutions tucked off the main store fronts, less than a half block off College Avenue, but about six blocks from his apartment, nearly out of the Main Street center.
Inside the store the walls were covered in paneling, but painted a light color that took advantage of the little sunlight that came in. The overhead lights seemed dim for a few moments as Stiles’s eyes adjusted. There were computer and phone chargers hanging on the wall to his left, mixed with other kinds of hook ups he didn’t recognize. To the left was a large curving counter with three computer monitors set to face the person working behind it. No one was there, though. He thought about calling out before he heard movement behind an open doorway behind the register.
Then Danny stuck his head out and smiled, a wide toothy smile. It was infectious.
“Stiles,” he said, coming around the counter and grabbing Stiles’s hand and pulling him into a hug. “It’s good to see you.”
“Same. This is crazy,” he said. “Lydia told me you owned a place, but it’s still weird to see.”
“The bank owns it, but ya know,” Danny said, smiling again.
“Just modest compared to Lydia. That doesn’t take a lot.”
“True,” he said. “How’ve you been?”
“Good. Not really anything interesting except this thing,” he said, looking at the store.
Danny shrugged. “I see a guy.”
“I like the commitment.”
Danny laughed. “Yeah, because I’m sure you’ve got a husband, two kids, and a dog.”
“Dude, I’ve barely got a fucking car.”
Danny laughed again. “So what’re you doing back? Lydia said you were taking classes.”
“Like always,” Danny said.
Stiles told Danny about his classes and the apartment. Danny listened like he always had in high school, like he was actually listening to listen and not just to respond. That was a rare quality. He hadn’t appreciated it enough then.
“Have you met Ellen’s son?” Danny asked.
Danny shrugged. “He’s hot.”
“Whatever. Anyway, you wanted some of the green stuff.”
“Yeah, you don’t sell anything harder, right?”
“Even if I did, you’re not getting it from me,” Danny said. “We’ve already covered that Lydia’s a gossip right? I’m not going to be responsible for that kind of backslide.”
“I don’t want to backslide,” Stiles said. “I just wanted to make sure I couldn’t get it easily.”
“Well you can’t, and I’m pretty sure your dad has put a bug in people’s ears to not sell to you, so really good luck getting it anywhere in the county. No one wants him on their ass. He even came by here and told me he, and I quote, I like you, but I’ll throw you in jail if you sell him anything hard .”
“Fucking grizzly bear, I swear.”
“Just a little bit.”
Danny walked around the counter and dug behind it, pulling out a small scale and a box. He measured out an ounce and put it in a ziplock. Stiles gave him the money and Danny gave him the bag.
“Full disclosure, I’m not selling you any more for awhile, so make it last.”
“Fair,” Stiles said. “Thanks. The fucking speedballs are hard enough to wean off of. Having nothing at all is a fucking bitch.”
“Yeah that has to suck.”
“Have you ever tried them?”
“Yeah. Tommy got them for me a few times,” Danny said, meaning Tommy his older brother they’d used to get their weed from in high school. “I think I was hooked for about two weeks before I realized I couldn’t afford it.”
“It’s an expensive habit,” Stiles said, not that he’d paid for it a lot with money. He’d be broke as fuck if he had. Luckily he was cute, and luckily he’d found a few drug dealers that thought the same.
“I’m glad you’re kicking it, though. That shit’s terrifying.”
“Yeah it is. That all gets a little clearer every day.”
“Good,” Danny said.
Then the door opened and a woman with a young girl walked in. Danny had already put the scale up, but he wiped the counter top with his hand as he smiled at them. Stiles knocked on the counter.
“See you later, man.”
“Yeah, keep in touch. We need to hang out soon,” he said.
“Yeah we do,” Stiles said and meant as he walked out of the store, hearing Danny start to talk to his customers behind him.
It was surreal thinking of Danny having customers. Danny the guy who had the hopeless crush on Jackson for years in high school, who had been the quiet rebel the teachers loved. He wondered if they’d known what a lowkey wild kid he was and overlooked it because of his brain like they always had Stiles. Then again, he’d never been any teacher’s pet like Danny had. He couldn’t really blame them. He’d always been a handful.
It didn’t really look like that would be changing any time soon. Stiles pulled his phone out of his pocket and checked the time. He had just enough left to drop the weed off at his apartment before going to his next class. Just knowing he had it made the idea of going to Algebra II, which he’d been dreading a little easier.
I'm going to try updating this thing on Tuesday/Friday schedule. We'll see how it goes. I've got quite a few chapters stock piled and working on more every day.
The next day as Stiles rounded the back entrance to his apartment after his second set of session with Creative Writing and Humanities, there was a large box truck where Ellen’s Porsche normally was and a Silverado across the gravel alley with A&H Construction written on the side.
The glossy black paint of the stairs was covered with gray boot prints as he climbed them. He had just reached the top when an extremely handsome man a few years older than himself came out, almost running into him.
“Sorry, excuse me,” he said.
He had hazel eyes, but Stiles barely saw them, because the guy quickly looked away.
“You’re good,” Stiles said before the guy started jogging down the stairs. He smelled like sweat.
As soon as he stepped in, he froze. The air was hazy with dust. His couches were covered with large white drop cloths covered in, what he hoped, was dried paint. The cabinets he’d spent hours painting were top less. There were chips in the white paint he’d used toward the top. The sink was gone, the fridge, stove, and he was sure if he walked around the peninsula, he’d see the dishwasher gone too.
There was a group of men working around each other. They looked like a pile of ants in the small space.
“What the fuck?” Stiles asked.
Chris jerked from where he was talking with another man and came over, holding his hands up like it was a treaty.
“It always looks bad before we get it back together.”
“It’s fine-,” Stiles said, but he felt dizzy. It was probably the dust, but his heart felt like it was in his stomach. If Chris had just told him to wait on painting the cabinets, he would have.
“You look like you’re going to throw up,” Chris said, then he put his hand on Stiles’s shoulders moving him to the side.
The hot guy walked back by them with a bucket of something in his hand. Stiles couldn’t even bring himself to check out the guy’s ass.
“Is there anywhere you can go for a few hours while we finish up?” Chris asked.
“No. I need the internet.”
“Great. Okay, why don’t you go down to the cafe six buildings down. It’s called Wolf Creek. Ask for Peter. Get something to eat, drink, and take a deep breath. It’s going to look great and we’re going to touch up all the places we’ve messed up.”
“Okay,” Stiles said, staring at his kitchen passed Chris’s shoulder.
“Get out before you give yourself a heart attack.”
“Okay,” Stiles said again, backing away from Chris toward the door.
He drug his eyes away from the kitchen and jogged back down the stairs, turning right on the sidewalk and trying to clear his head. He sneezed, raising his arm, then sneezed again. Gray snot speckled his arm. He wiped it on his shirt. Now he had snot on his shirt, a torn to pieces apartment, and probably an oncoming sinus infection from inhaling five pounds of dust.
He almost walked past the cafe Chris had told him about, but stopped right after it caught his eyes. As he walked in, people were calling orders to each other behind the counter. The inside had rough wood furniture with canvas seating and soft velvet looking bean bag chairs mixed in.
If he had ever taken the time to imagine a coffee shop for college kids in his hometown, it would’ve checked every single box. Chalkboard menu above the counter, suspended by rough rope, exposed beams, and trellises, a few succulents, the smell of fresh ground coffee, and dough.
As he walked to the counter, he stared at the menu. He expected only sweet things, but there was a lunch menu along with the breakfast and brunch items. After a few moments, a large guy stood in front of him behind the register.
“What can I get you?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Stiles said, his head still spinning. He’d spent so much fucking time on that place in just a few weeks. Now it would take him a month just to get all the dust out. “What do you like?” he finally asked.
“Are you Stiles?” a man asked, behind the one helping him. He was older a few days of stubble on his face. He was a fucking knock out and Stiles had to make the conscious effort to close his mouth.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” the man said. “Boyd, you can go help Marcus in the back.”
The first man changed out with the second and the man’s mouth turned up.
“You were supposed to ask for me.”
“How’d you know who I was?”
“My husband, the fairy godmother of dust,” the man who must be Peter said, gesturing to Stiles’s shirt.
Stiles looked down at the dust on his red shirt. He brushed at it and puffs came off.
“What can I get you?”
“I guess the ruben. The other guy said it was good.”
“It is good. We pickle the sauerkraut in house,” Peter said. “Anything to drink?”
“I don’t know. Coffee?”
“Normal? I don’t know.”
“Not a coffee drinker?”
“No not really.”
“We make other things.”
“Yeah? How about you surprise me,” Stiles asked, reaching into his back pocket for his wallet.
“Keep your money. My husband’s in the process of destroying your house. It’s the least I can do.”
“He’s making it nicer.”
“Yes, but in the meantime I’m sure it looks like a pit.”
“You’re not wrong,” Stiles said, putting his wallet back. “Thanks. Do you guys have wifi?”
“Do you think these vagrants hang out here for the food?” Peter asked, nodding to the other customers. He said it loud enough for them to hear, but almost all of them had headphones in.
Stiles laughed slightly. “You’re a charmer.”
“Of course I am. Have a seat. I’ll bring your food out.”
“You’re welcome,” Peter said, walking away.
The neck strap of his black apron was leather, even the strap around his stomach was worn buckled leather. His hair had some gray in it. Stiles wouldn’t have noticed if the majority of it wasn’t so dark. Beneath his tight black t-shirt Stiles could see he had a body that didn’t stop.
Stiles looked away and for a place he could sit away from groups. He settled for a table by the window. It was turning to evening and people were walking by in pairs, a few alone with headphones plugged into their ears.
There was some kind of indie music playing through the overhead speakers. Not music Stiles listened to often, but it sounded like new school Americana folk. It would be good music to get high on weed to. Heroin would be a little sweeter, nodding off to good music that he could melt into.
Stiles pinched the inside of his arm, hard steady pressure until he winced, then for a few moments longer. He had just stopped when Peter came to his table, weaving between the other chairs and setting a sandwich in front of Stiles and a green drink in a clear glass.
“Do you like tea?”
“Yeah,” Stiles said.
“Good. If you don’t like that, let me know. I’ll get something else,” he said.
Stiles took a drink and his taste buds were hit with tart bitterness before a smooth sweetness evened it out. He nodded, taking another drink and getting pops of citrus on his tongue.
Peter smiled. He was disgustingly handsome when he did that. “I’m glad you like it. Let me know if I can get you anything.”
“By the way, your glasses are dusty.”
“Fuck,” Stiles said, taking them off and rubbing them on his shirt as Peter walked away.
He looked down Peter’s back to his ass in a pair of well-fitting jeans. He wasn’t the only person looking at him. Almost all the girls watched him and another boy in the corner. He had the kind of face and body that would be at home in LA. Some misplaced model.
When Stiles put his glasses back on his face, he took a bite of his sandwich, then another as the sauerkraut nearly stung his tongue. Grease dripped off the pieces of bread and down his fingers, but he didn’t care. He ate like he was starving, then he realized he couldn’t remember the last time he sat down and ate. It was always a banana, an orange, apple on the way to class, maybe a bag of popcorn while he did his homework.
He finished, making a mess of his plate and licking the grease from his fingers. He sucked down the drink to clear his throat and it felt like a waste. It was so good. He wiped his hands on a napkin Peter had brought and pushed the plate away before unzipping his bag and taking out his laptop and notebook.
He needed to read Joyce for his creative writing elective. He’d finished his composition courses before he moved, but he needed an upper level English course to round out his degree plan, at least that’s what his counselor had said when he’d gone in to meet with her. It could’ve been technical writing, but he had no fucking clue who would rather write essays than a few poems and a small short story.
Araby was already pulled up in one of internet tabs. He blew up the font size and started to read about the kid in Ireland wanting to go to the market to buy something for his girl. As Stiles read, he took notes for his swiss cheese brain. He didn’t know if it was the heroin, the meth, or the ADHD, but in the last two years his memory had gone to shit.
He had filled two pages with large scrawl as he read, trying not to pull himself out the story. Half the time sentences ran into each other, but he evened them out so they only grazed each other.
“I guess you liked everything.”
Stiles looked up at Peter standing beside the table. It was purple outside now, getting closer and closer to dark. There were less people in the cafe, but he hadn’t been paying attention.
“Yeah it was great,” he said.
“Good,” Peter said, pulling out a chair and sitting across from him. “What are you working on?”
“I’m reading Joyce for a class.”
“The big white canon?”
He’d heard a few people in his refer to the syllabus that way, then the professor had said the same thing. He didn’t want to look like an idiot by asking what the fuck it meant. He got the gist of it. They’d be reading a lot of dead old white guys. It made him feel just a little bit stupid when he heard people two and three years younger say it with such casualness when the dead white guys were the only names Stiles knew anyway.
Stiles shrugged it off as Peter sat across from him. The entire point of the fucking class was to learn. He wasn’t ever going to know other names if he didn’t take classes.
“I like them anyway, although you aren’t supposed to,” Peter said. “I was never one for Joyce, though. He was long-winded for me. I do love Cheever.”
“We’re reading him in a few weeks,” Stiles said.
“That’s one of them.”
“It’s beautiful. Tragic and repressed, but beautiful.”
“I get the feeling that a lot of these are going to be tragic,” Stiles said. “No wonder writers drink.”
Peter smiled. “What are you going for?”
“I don’t know. I’m finishing my basics.”
“What are you taking?”
“Creative Writing,” he said, gesturing to what he was doing, “Then Algebra II, Intro to Psych, and Humanities.”
“You’re going to be reading a lot.”
“Algebra should be a break at least.”
Stiles almost laughed in his face until he saw Peter was smiling, like a smart ass. He snorted.
“I’d rather be dragged out back and beaten than do math, but fuck me, right?”
Peter laughed. “I guess so. Chris called. He’s done with your apartment. They’re just cleaning up now. He wants to talk to you about some things.”
“Okay?” Stiles asked.
“Just about the appliances. Some of them have filters.”
Stiles marked where he was near the end of the story and shut his computer putting it back into his bag then his notebook.
“Chris thinks you’ve done great work on the apartment,” Peter said.
“He sent me pictures. It’s beautiful.”
“I just slapped on some paint,” Stiles said.
“And molding and the cabinets.”
“Honestly, she’s charging way too little for the place. I wanted to do something to it.”
“She isn’t actually. This is Beacon Hills, not California.”
“It’s still right by the college. I don’t know. She’s nice.”
“She is a very good person,” Peter said.
Stiles stood up, pulling his backpack on. “Thanks for dinner.”
“Of course. Come back.”
“I’m sure I will. Free wifi, right?”
Peter smiled, “Of course.”
“See you later.”
Stiles walked out of the cafe as the street lights were kicking on. A few blinked feebly and before burning bright, blue, green, and a handful of them orange. They left pools on the concrete. He thought of the story he was reading, the kid who just wanted to go to the bazar.
The buildings stood around him against the dark night and he thought about the imagery of faces. The semi-dark had a way of making it all look scarier.
In a handful of minutes, he was climbing the stairs to his apartment, with the A&H Construction pick-up that Chris drove parked beside his car. Ellen was already gone for the night, the shop closed up and dark.
When he walked into the apartment, the scent of newness hit him.
“Wow,” he said, putting his bag down by the door before going into the kitchen.
He had a split second to wonder where Chris was before he heard the creak of the bathroom door opening then his footsteps in the short hall.
“Do you like it?”
“It looks fucking sick,” Stiles said.
Chris laughed. He had a warmer laugh than Peter, quieter. When he looked away from the new dishwasher, Chris was standing in the shadow of the living room, leaning on the counter. A new pretty light stone that brought the whole thing together. They’d even put in a backsplash. He could tell it was done on a tight budget, but it was perfect for the small space.
“Wow,” he said again.
“I’m glad you like it.”
“I really do. What can I use on this?” he asked, tapping on the counter.
“Granite cleaner, soap and water, it’s pretty resilient stuff. On the appliances you can use water and vinegar for the most part. If you ever want to make them shine just get some stainless steel cleaner.”
“The fridge has a water spigot in the door,” Chris said, coming closer to Stiles where he was near the single door fridge. He opened it so close to Stiles that he could feel his body heat before the cold air cancelled it out. “Try and switch it out every 6 months or so. I have two up here,” Chris said, closing the door then going to the cabinets above the sink and pulling down one of two boxes. “When you run out, let me know.”
“Okay, cool,” Stiles said.
“Otherwise,” Chris said, putting the filter back up and closing the cabinets. “Just take care of it. I hate putting money into a place then seeing it trashed in six months.”
“I won’t,” Stiles said.
“I wouldn’t have been so eager to do it, but your dad really thinks you’re something,” Chris said.
“I know he does,” Stiles said.
“And the fact that you cleaned this place up,” Chris said, looking around it. “You really did a good job. If you weren’t going back to school I’d offer you a job with me.”
Stiles laughed slightly, feeling his face heat. “Thanks. I lived in some shitholes when I first moved to California. It’s amazing the shit you can overlook when your bedroom is your favorite color.”
“Navy?” Chris asked. “I just saw it through the open door. I closed it before we started working. I didn’t want your bed covered in dust.”
“Yeah, navy. This year.”
“It looks good too,” Chris said before he reached into his back pocket. He pulled out his wallet and handed Stiles a business card from inside. “If you have any issues with the place give me a call or send a text to my cell phone. I try to take care of Mom’s tenants same day or the following day.”
“Okay. Cool,” Stiles said. “And thanks for sending me down to the restaurant, by the way. Peter’s a good cook.”
Chris smiled. For the first time his light blue eyes lit. They were a strange shade of blue, unsettling almost from how light they were. They made the gray in his hair look even lighter.
“I’m glad you liked it.”
“Loved it. First real meal I’ve had in about a week.”
“Well now you’ve got no excuse,” Chris said, looking at the kitchen.
“Good point,” Stiles said. “Really. Thanks again. I know… I know it’s not easy to take a risk on someone with my history, but I really appreciate it.”
“No more a risk than anyone else we ever rent to.”
Stiles cleared his throat and nodded.
“Stiles,” Chris said.
Stiles looked up at Chris.
“I don’t care what you did six months ago, three, two months ago. That’s none of my business. You’re getting back on the right track and really we’re just glad things lined up so you could be here. No one has a clean past.”
“Why?” Stiles asked. “Why did you guys care if I ended up here?”
“We like John in town. More than anything, he wants you to have a good jumping off point. He works for us every day, so we work for him when we can.”
Stiles nodded, feeling his throat constrict. “That’s really nice.”
“I still wouldn’t have done it if you’d shown up and been a bum,” Chris said, giving him a slight smile. “Enjoy the apartment. Keep it nice. Don’t make us regret it.”
Chris held out his hand and Stiles shook it firmly. “You’re going to do well here.”
“Yeah. I think so too.”
Chris squeezed his hand before he walked toward the front door. “Have a good night.”
“You too,” Stiles said.
He stopped himself from saying thank you again before Chris was gone and he was standing alone in his nearly new kitchen. The scent of new appliances and materials strong and clean.
On Friday, after his morning Intro to Psychology course, Stiles went back to his apartment, being hit with the scent of newness again. He took a deep breath of it as he went into the kitchen and grabbed a coke from the refrigerator. As he cracked the top, he looked around the kitchen at the shine and neatness, like something out of a magazine for Rentals Daily. Aside from the bungalow he’d lived in last with Isaac, it was by far the nicest kitchen he’d had.
The window above the sink got a lot of light. It would be perfect for some kind of plant since the sill was wide. He could take his dad to pick one out. His dad liked plants. He’d put in vertical planter boxes in the backyard at the house. The last time Stiles had visited they’d been filled with tomato and pepper plants. His dad tended them almost constantly. The man needed a dog.
Stiles took his bag to his bedroom, turning on his small TV on his dresser, and taking out his computer to start on his first assignment for Psychology while it was fresh in his mind. Two episodes of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia passed and a third had just started before he saved the document he’d been working on, finished with the questions, but wanting to go over it one more time before he submitted.
His ass was going numb on the bed from sitting so long and he was starting to yawn. The dark blue on the walls was great when he wanted to sleep, it sucked when he was trying to stay awake. He debated taking an hour nap or going down and getting a coffee. A low growl in his stomach decided for him.
He swapped his Psychology for his Algebra book, checked to make sure he had his calculator before zipping up his backpack, pulling it onto his back and leaving the apartment.
On his way past the bookstore, he waved at Ellen. She waved back, looking up from a book, probably Austen. That seemed to be a favorite of hers. The cafe was only a block and a half away, but at the beginning of September it was still hot enough for him to sweat with the thick humidity that made the air hard to breathe. His grandma used to say if they’d been meant to breathe this much water they would’ve been given gills. As sweat prickled Stiles’s brow, he thought she might’ve been right.
When he reached the cafe, a chime went off as he entered. Peter and the other guy from before, he thought his name was Boyd, were behind the counter, Peter on one side making a drink and Boyd on the other making sandwiches.
Peter smiled when he looked up. “I didn’t expect to see you again so soon.”
“Free wifi,” Stiles said going to the register. “The tea might have been good too.”
“Might have?” Peter asked before he called a girl’s name and passed her her drink over the counter. He wiped his hands on his black apron before coming to the register. “Is that all you want?”
“Yeah I’ll get something to eat after I cool off. It’s hot as fuck outside.”
“It tends to do that in the summer,” Peter said, ringing up Stiles’s total.
Stiles passed him his credit card. “Smart ass.”
Peter smiled at him again before giving him his card and receipt. “I’ll bring it to you.”
Stiles took the same table he’d had the day before. He pulled out his algebra book and notebook. He started on the first set of practice questions with the answers in the back, warming up on those before starting on his homework.
Stiles had just written on the first equation, nice and neat, on the lined paper when Peter sat his drink on the table. Stiles looked up and Peter started to say something before a crowd of students came in, talking and laughing. Peter went back behind the counter and started to take orders with a smile that had to be fake. It was too professional, too full of charm. Stiles had done a handful of scenes with men with easy smiles. Their real smile was almost always different.
Stiles went back to his problem, staring at it and trying to remember what his professor had done. It had all made sense then. He tore out the piece of paper and went back to his notes, looking at the professor’s example and comparing it to the one he was working. It had been easy in the classroom, but starting at the letters and numbers now it seemed like hieroglyphics.
It took him thirty minutes to get the correct answer on the first problem.
He thought he’d started to pick it back up before he started on the second and slammed into another mental brick wall like he had with the first.
The tea Peter had brought caught his eye and he took a long drink, then let out a deep breath, rolling his neck as it started to cramp. The group of kids that came in were loud. He’d heard study group at least five times, but they didn’t seem to be studying shit.
Then Peter took a seat across from him. He was holding two small plates with fluffy croissants and honey on them. He put one in front of Stiles and broke his own in half.
“What are you working on?” Peter asked.
“Algebra,” Stiles said, picking up the bread.
“You’re either hating it or you have a severe case of resting bitch face. I can’t tell.”
“I fucking hate it. I used to be in honors Algebra. You wouldn’t fucking know it by this shit.”
“I fucking hope so,” Stiles said, taking a bite of the bread and sucking his fingers. “Jesus.”
“They’re good aren’t they?”
“It’s Ellen’s recipe.”
“She can cook.”
“The rare times she wants too, she really can,” Peter said, dipping his bread again. “Are you enjoying the kitchen?”
“Yeah. Chris did a good job.”
“He has good taste,” Peter said, winking at him.
Stiles snorted. The algebra was gnawing on him. He should be fucking finished with it. He should’ve been done with his basic math classes before he was twenty. But then again, he should be done with all of this. He should be in a career by now, at least have a degree to show for his time if nothing else. Instead he had a bitch of a heroin and meth addiction and the attention span of a ferret.
“Did you repaint the putrid green in your bedroom?” Peter asked, pulling him out of his thoughts.
Stiles closed his book and his notepad. “Yeah. Navy with some wood shelves. I’ve got a picture.”
He opened his photo gallery on his phone and showed Peter his bedroom.
“It looks peaceful.”
“I took the colors from a yoga studio I used to go to. I loved that place,” Stiles said.
“Mhm,” Stiles said, flicking through his pictures. “I had to go to a new place, but that space was always my favorite.”
“Why did you switch?”
“I was fucking the instructor and his wife found out.”
“That’s one way to cancel a membership.”
“Yeah. Not one of my proudest moments.”
The instructor had come up to him after one of their classes and asked if he did porn, if he was the actor he recognized. When Stiles had said yes they’d ended up in the classroom after it ended, fucking like dogs on a mat.
It wasn’t the first time someone recognized him from a video and wanted to fuck. It wasn’t the last time either. He had sucked one guy off for a bag of heroin that spotted him. The guy hadn’t been bad looking, he’d wanted to get high, it hadn’t seemed like a bad choice at the time.
Stiles ate the rest of his croissant, sitting across from a snarky asshole who probably had never seen heroin, let alone been on a steady diet of speedballs for nearly two years. He’d probably never sucked a dick to get a fix or on camera to pay his rent.
“I’ve got to go,” Stiles said. “How much?”
“They’re from this morning. It’s on the house,” Peter said.
“Thanks,” he said, putting things in his backpack.
“That stuff will come back to you, Stiles,” Peter said. “Don’t be too hard on yourself.”
Stiles laughed, staring at the counter across from him as his zipper jammed. “If I’d been a quarter as hard on myself as I should’ve been, I would’ve been done with this shit years ago.”
Peter didn’t say anything as Stiles stood up and pulled his backpack onto his shoulders.
“Thanks for the food.”
“Of course. Come back anytime.”
“Will do,” Stiles said, pushing the cafe door open and heading back to his apartment.
He wanted to get so fucked up he didn’t know, or care, what way was up. He wouldn’t say no to a good dirty fuck either, but more he wanted a big fucking bump of heroin. He bit the inside of his cheek as he walked toward his apartment until he could taste metal. At least he had weed at home. It wasn’t enough, but he could make it work.
He tried to pull up his senior year book in his head. His mind racing with people he’d known in high school, wondering if they were still in town, if they could get ahold of anything heavier. Even if they could, he didn’t have their numbers. There was always Facebook. He could look up anyone.
“Shut the fuck up,” Stiles said under his breath.
As he reached his apartment, he jogged up the stairs, unlocking the door. His hands were shaking. He dropped his bag by the door and went to his bedroom. He got on his knees beside his bed, dragging out a small stash box, and flipping open the lid to a bland pile of green. It used to hold a lot better shit. Then again, so had Stiles’s skull.
Stiles grabbed the small bong from his bedside table and loaded it with as large a bowl as it could hold. He stood up and pulled a lighter out of his pocket before sitting on his bed and fitting his lips against the mouth of the bong. He pulled long and hard on the first hit. When he pulled off, he started to cough, but pushed it down. His eyes watered and his hands shook. When his lungs were throbbing, he released the smoke toward the ceiling, staring at the crease of the wall.
He took four more large hits, burning the bowl steadily with his lighter until his head was spinning. Sounds were pulsing against his ears, but he was alone in the apartment. He knew that. It still made anxiety trace up his spine before he turned on his TV with clumsy fingers and got another episode of Always Sunny going. He stared at the screen, seeing what was happening, taking it in, and letting it slide through the holes eaten into his brain.
It wasn’t as good as a nod. It wasn’t a tenth as good. He wasn’t forgetting what he hated, it was just dulled. The harder stuff made it go away. Everything was fine and good and he wasn’t destroying his life. Everything was just fine when he was high.
Stiles took another hit, drawing hard and getting the last of the life out of the small bowl.
He stared at the TV for awhile before looking toward his bedside table. The book he was reading for his Creative Writing course was on top, he grabbed it with fingers that didn’t feel like his and opened it to where a bright blue sticky note was. Stiles peeled it off and tapped his fingers against it as he read the first few sentences of The Lady with the Dog at least six times.
It was said that a new person had come to the sea-front: a lady with a little dog.
A guy named Dmitri had been in Yalta less than two weeks and was taking an interest in new comers. For all Dmitri knew, the woman had been born there. Maybe he was the new person, maybe he had no fucking fight to judge how, why, or when she was there. Maybe it was exactly none of his business.
He flattened the book more and read, forcing himself to get through the first paragraph before the words started to flow, snagging over the jagged parts of his thoughts, poking up through his high like downed trees in the river. Their limbs sticking up to snag whatever came close.
They had floated the river a lot when he was younger. He remembered Lydia getting her leg caught between the raft and the trees when they were young. Her scream has been piercing then watery as she slipped under the water before his dad caught her shirt and dragged her out.
Stiles realized he’d started to stare at the TV again and went back to the book.
The second he realized the story was about infidelity, he laughed. It sounded bitter and shitty in the small room. A more paranoid part of his brain wondered if he was sabotaging himself, it something larger at work was. He deserved it. Maybe it was all the cycle of shit, he’d doled it out and now it was going to rain down on him.
Then someone knocked on his apartment door. He barely heard it over his TV and he didn’t have time to get up before he heard his dad say his name in the living room.
Stiles got up, kicking the top of his stash box closed before leaving his bedroom, closing the door behind him.
“Why didn’t you answer your phone? I’ve been trying to call you,” his dad said.
“Yeah sorry I was taking a nap.”
His dad just stared at him. Stiles rubbed his closed eyelids. His eyes were so dry.
“I could smell it out on the stairs, kid,” his dad said.
Stiles looked away, staring into the kitchen without really seeing it. He shrugged. “Sorry.”
“Whatever. Do you want to go get something to eat?”
“Sure. I guess.”
“When have you ever said no to free food?”
“A lot actually,” Stiles said, walking out of the front door when his dad held it open. He heard him turn the lock on the door knob as he went down the stairs. His dad’s off duty car was parked beside his own. “I could go shower. I don’t want to smell like this when I’m out with you,” Stiles said, starting to go back up the stairs and running into his dad’s chest.
“I can’t smell it on you. Just in the apartment,” he said, “Get in the car.”
“Fine. Don’t say I didn’t try.”
“You could’ve not smoked it in the first place,” his dad said under his breath.
“Kicking meth and heroin right now, okay? I think that’s enough,” Stiles said.
“Which is why I’m not ripping you a new one. But next time you decide to get high, you keep your goddamn phone beside you.”
Stiles stared at his dad in the harsh green glow of the security light. It mixed with the sunset and washed him out in a lot of colors. None of them were flattering and all of them aged him about ten years. He just looked sad. Sad and worried.
“Okay. I’m sorry.”
“Come on. I didn’t mean to upset you,” his dad said, grabbing him by his shoulder and pulling him into a rough hug. “It’s alright. Just don’t worry me when you don’t have to. I worry enough anyway.”
“Yeah I know,” Stiles said against his shoulder. Stiles rested against him for a few more seconds than he normally would’ve. He had missed him. He’d missed him more than he realized.
“Fucking shitty day,” Stiles said, pulling away. He wiped beneath his eyes when he realized he was crying. It took longer than it should’ve.
“You can always call me,” his dad said, his hand resting on Stiles’s shoulder.
His dad gave him a half smile. It made the wrinkles in his face look deep. Stiles hated how old he looked.
“Let’s go. What sounds good?” his dad asked.
His dad laughed. “I don’t doubt that. Well trust your gut. Make up your mind so I know if we have to walk or drive.”
They settled on walking to a diner a few doors down from Peter’s shop. It was still hot, but not as sweltering as it had been that afternoon. He was bitten by a handful of mosquitoes before they reached the small restaurant he and his dad used to go to at least a few times a week when he was in high school.
They ordered their usuals. A cheeseburger with mayo, no pickles for his dad and chicken fried steak for himself. He ordered cheese fries with jalapenos before the main food came out. His dad huffed a slight laugh at him when the waitress put them on the table and Stiles started to inhale them.
“Do you want some?” Stiles asked.
“No. Have at them.”
They ate in relative silence. The other diners had more interesting conversations. Stiles was coming down from his high slowly. The fries, cheese, gravy, and chicken fried steak should’ve been disgusting, but he was still loaded enough for it to taste delicious.
“Have you tried that place down from here about two buildings? They’ve got tea and coffee. It seems like your kind of place. Ellen’s son owns it with his husband.”
“Yeah Chris sent me down the other day when he was working on the kitchen.”
“I’m going to have to look at that closer before I go home,” he said. “Did you like the place?”
“Yeah. I like his husband too. He’s cool.”
“Good. They’re good people.”
Stiles nodded. “I went in again today. Peter sat down and had lunch with me.”
“Don’t flirt with your landlord’s husband.”
“Chris isn’t not my landlord. Ellen is.”
“Fine. Don’t fuck with your landlady’s son-in-law and hurt her son’s feelings,” his dad said.
“I’m not that dumb.”
“I’ve seen him. You’re not that smart either.”
Stiles rolled his eyes. “Thanks, Dad.”
“Just saying. He’s a handsome guy.”
“Sounds like Chris needs to watch out for you, not me.”
“You’re so funny.”
When they finished, his dad paid despite Stiles trying to get him to split the bill instead. He was in uniform, there was no way the waitress was going to take Stiles’s word over his. They walked back to his apartment in the kind of silence that Stiles didn’t have with anyone else in his life. Growing up most of his life with just his dad, the house was quiet a lot. He just wasn’t a big talker and when Stiles got absorbed in researching something asinine, he wasn’t chatty either. But they never had a problem just hanging out without a word. He loved that about him. He’d missed that about him. The only person in the world that Stiles’s ADHD could take a fucking breather with.
Stiles listened to the cars passing by, the bell tower on campus ringing out that it was seven or eight, crickets, and cicadas. It all mixed together and it sounded nothing like where he’d been for years.
When they got to the apartment, the stairs rattled as they climbed them. Stiles used his dad’s key to unlock the knob then stepped inside, giving him back his keyring that was way too full. Stiles could probably still pick the key that went to the house, the police station, his dad’s office, the safe in his bedroom.
His dad looked around when they walked in, flipping on the lights as he went into the kitchen.
“He did a good job,” Stiles said. His head was pounding. He knew he hadn’t drank enough water. He never did when he was high on anything.
“He did. You did a good job on the living room,” his dad said, looking at the walls. “It’s a complete 180 from where it was.”
“When did you learn to put up crown molding?”
“You can learn anything on youtube, Mr. Planter Boxes.”
“I guess so,” his dad said.
You could even learn how to inject yourself in the safest possible way, how to make your veins bulge so they were easier to find. He wondered if they had a video on Algebra. They had to.
“Do you mind if I stay and watch TV for a while?” his dad asked.
“I’m really okay if you want to go. It was shitty earlier, but I feel better now.”
“I really don’t like that your impulse was to come back here and get stoned. That’s not healthy, kid. Not for you.”
“I didn’t get high on anything but weed, I swear,” he said, showing his dad his arms.
“I didn’t think you had.”
Stiles stared at his dad for a moment again before he sat on the couch and started to chew on his thumbnail. He wanted heroin. He wanted it so badly he could taste the bitter metallic flavor it left on the back of his tongue when he injected. He put his head in his hands. The couch moved as his dad sat beside him then rubbed the back of his neck.
“God knows I can’t judge you on this one, buddy, but you can’t do this. If you feel the urge then you need to do something healthier, not something in the same zip code.”
“Weed and heroin aren’t in the same zip code. Not even in the same fucking state,” Stiles said, breathing out slowly.
His dad didn’t say anything. He just kept rubbing his hand across his shoulders. Stiles propped his face on his hands and let him.
“It wasn’t easy the first year, it wasn’t easy the first six months,” his dad said. “The first two were hell and I wanted a drink every single hour of every day. If I got stressed then it was more than that. I still want to drink when I’m stressed.”
His hand stuttered on Stiles’s back for a moment before he started to rub again.
“I got shit-faced the first night that you were in rehab. I drank the day after too.”
Stiles looked up and his dad gave him a weak shrug, only meeting his eyes for a split second.
“I don’t wonder where you got your addictive personality. You came by it naturally.”
“None of this,” Stiles said, gesturing to himself. “Is your fault. I just- after the first time, I couldn’t stop.”
“I just thought I’d raised you better than to try it at all,” his dad said.
“You did,” Stiles said, rubbing his eyes. “I knew it was wrong. It was all on me.”
His dad squeezed the back of his neck before dropping his hand. Stiles’s tear ducts burned. He’d made his dad fall off the wagon. That was a great fucking feeling. Right up there at the top with seeing his dad’s terrified face when he woke up from the induced coma after overdosing.
“I love you, kid.”
“I love you too,” Stiles said, his throat feeling thick. “I’m sorry that I made you drink again.”
“You didn’t make me do anything,” his dad said, touching his face until Stiles was looking at him. “Buddy, nothing. You didn’t make me do anything. I’m just saying that I know what it’s like to struggle, but it’s going to be alright. You can be stronger than it.”
Stiles nodded, but his eyes still burned. Then his dad hugged him tightly. Stiles buried his face against his shoulder.
“You’re the most important thing in the world to me. Day or night, if you need me, you call me, come get me, I don’t care.”
Stiles nodded tightening his hold on his dad who he’d ignored for the largest part of his time away. It hadn’t been lack of trying on his dad’s part. He’d visited, called everyday or every other day, texted. It was all on Stiles. His dad was great. He was one of the best people Stiles’s knew. He’d done some shit. He’d fucked up his life and he was still great.
Some of the heaviness in Stiles’s chest lifted as he pressed his forehead against his dad’s shoulder before pulling away.
“I didn’t just have you to eighteen. Kids are like a dog, a lifetime commitment,” his dad said.
Stiles laughed slightly, wiping his wet eyes. “Lucky you.”
“You’re a damn good kid. Even a few huge fuck ups don’t change that.”
Stiles leaned his shoulder into his dad’s side with his dad’s arm around him.
“Thanks,” Stiles said again.
“Turn on the TV. Do your homework or whatever. I can’t leave with you upset,” his dad said.
“I don’t have homework,” Stiles said, turning on the TV and putting his feet on the coffee table. Soon his dad did the same thing and they watched something stupid.
Stiles didn’t realize he had fallen asleep until he felt his dad putting something over him and moving his feet. He was so fucking tired that he just let him do his thing before he felt his warm hand on his cheek. He vaguely remembered the sound of the front door closing.
A few hours later, Stiles woke up on the couch, the light above the stove still on and his TV nearly muted, washing the gray room in tones of blue. The blanket from the other couch was spread over him. He was tempted to roll over and go back to sleep, but his bed was more comfortable, so he grabbed his phone out of his backpack and dragged himself down the hall to his room.
He’d had four missed calls from his dad that afternoon before he came over and two unanswered text messages.
It was midnight, but Stiles sent him a text anyway. His dad was good about keeping the home phone beside his bed and muting his cell phone on work nights.
Thanks for hanging out. I feel a lot better.
He plugged it up to his charger on the bedside table and crawled into his bed, falling asleep a few minutes after his head hit the pillow.
After his Psychology class, Stiles was walking from the main lecture hall when he heard Lydia call his name. She was walking toward him from the other side of the building, her heels clacking on the sidewalk. He stopped and waited for her to reach the circle of concrete where the sidewalks merged. Her patent leather bag shone in the sunlight. A piece of paper was sticking from the top of it.
“Can you get lunch? I’m about to explode,” she said.
“Sure,” he said, hitching his backpack higher on his shoulder.
Lydia looked at her watch, sliding a notification for a text off the face of it before looking at the time. “God if it was five I’d be dragging you to C.J.s.”
“I don’t really drink anyway.”
Lydia rolled her eyes. “Sorry. I forgot.”
Stiles shrugged walking down the sidewalk on the campus toward where it met with the downtown strip. “Bad class?”
“I hate teaching sometimes.”
“Do you know how many extensions I’ve had people ask for on homework? It’s the second week of class.”
“I said no to all of them. Only so many people can have grandparents die in a semester before you question it.”
Stiles laughed slightly. It was hot. He forgot how much he hated summer in Oklahoma. He wiped sweat from his forehead then on his jeans. The cicadas were already screaming in the trees like they were being murdered.
“How did your class go?” Lydia asked.
“Good. I like Psychology so far.”
“What about Algebra?”
“It can suck my fucking dick,” he said.
“It isn’t that bad.”
“Maybe not for you, math major.”
“Please, I’m not a math major, but I can help you if you want.”
“I’ll take you up on it, because I have no fucking idea what I’m doing.”
“We took the same AP math classes.”
“Yeah well one of us spent two years doing hard drugs while the other was keeping sharp on those math skills, so.”
Lydia squeezed his arm. “I’ll tutor you. You’ll pick it up in no time.”
“Thanks,” he said, as they stepped into the shade of a large oak tree on the bank of the creek that separated the campus from town. Stiles stopped and took a breather in the relative coolness above the water and in the shade. “Do you care if we do it over lunch? I can stop and get my books.”
“That’s fine. I have classes tonight anyway.”
Stiles stared down at the mostly clear water flowing over mossy rocks before it disappeared under the bridge. He looked back at the main lecture hall. Its red brick almost glowed in the overly bright sunlight.
“Let’s go. It’s hot,” Lydia said.
“Okay,” Stiles said, following her down the sidewalk.
She waited on the sidewalk as he ran up his apartment to trade out his Psychology books for his Algebra ones. His bag was heavier as he closed his apartment door and went back down the stairs, the sweat that had started to cool in the air conditioning of his house getting hot again. Lydia was leaning against the side of the bookstore in the sliver of shade, looking at her phone as he came down.
It didn’t surprise him that she led him to Peter’s cafe, but he wished she hadn’t. After his minor meltdown a few days before he would’ve liked to have avoided Peter longer, but there was no point in making a big deal out of it. It was her favorite place and she was helping him, he’d go where she wanted.
The chime that sounded when he walked in was starting to be familiar. Peter was behind the counter again, pulling out trays in the deli shelves and barely squeezing the soft pastries.
“Hey,” he said, going to the counter with Lydia.
“You look like you need water,” Peter said.
“I could. A sandwich too. Not a reuben. Something cold.”
“The old fashioned?” Peter asked, still looking at the pastries before he dusted his hand on his dark apron and closed the glass backing.
“Surprise me,” Stiles said, handing Peter his card.
“Nope,” he said, popping the p in the word and taking his card back when Peter held it out.
“Okay. I’ll bring it out to you,” he said, then looked at Lydia. “And what can I get for you?”
Stiles moved away as Lydia ordered, getting them a large enough table that he could spread out his books and they could still eat. Lydia came over a few minutes later with two glasses of water.
“Thanks,” he said.
“Peter gave them to me,” she said. “He looked at your ass when you were walking away.”
“Whatever,” Stiles said, taking a drink of the ice water. He could feel it all the way down in his chest.
“He doesn’t greet anyone by name either.”
“He probably don’t know their names. I rent from his mother-in-law.”
“I came in with Megan a lot and I’m pretty sure he never recognized her.”
Stiles shrugged, pulling his books out of his backpack. “Can’t fault the guy for having good taste.”
“I can fault you for sauntering away.”
“Oh bullshit,” he said.
“I know when someone is trying to make their ass look good, okay?”
“Whatever,” he said again. “He’s married. It’s not like it matters.”
“Yes, because married men never sleep with other people.”
“Exactly,” Stiles said.
He opened his notebook to the chicken scratch he’d made the day before right before his break down. He tore out the sheet and balled it up. He wrote out the problem and Lydia scooted closer to start helping him work through it.
They had just finished the first equation, when Peter came over, carrying a tray with the tea Stiles normally ordered, some kind of red smoothie looking thing, and two sandwiches. He set them on the table and looked over Stiles’s shoulder.
“Back at the math?”
“Unfortunately,” he said.
“Good luck,” Peter said.
“Thanks,” Stiles said, but Peter was already backing back to the counter.
“And you aren’t even subtle about checking out his ass, nice,” she said.
“Fuck off,” he said, without heat, picking up the sandwich Peter made.
It looked like chicken salad with pecan and grapes. A risky choices for someone Peter didn’t know well, but it was one of Stiles’s favorites. He ate a half of it while Lydia took small lipstick-saving bites of her own.
“So the basic rule is the same,” Lydia began, wiping the corners of her mouth with her napkin as she pointed at the equation with a pen. “Whatever you do to one side, you do to the other, right?”
“Right,” Stiles said, chewing and trying to listen to Lydia over the mechanism of his own jaw.
Within half an hour, he’d gotten through his practice questions, mostly by himself while Lydia pulled out some grading she had to do for one of the classes she was teaching. The shit written on those pages looked intensely more complicated than the bullshit he was already struggling with.
As he started on his homework, he worked the problem, and showed it to her to check. The first one he got on the first try. The second took three times, but when it clicked, it clicked. He knew how to do Algebra. He wasn’t in honors classes in high school for nothing. He’d clepped out of Algebra I in college for fuck’s sake.
That confidence lasted all of two more equations before they got trickier. Someone had come over to their table, a younger girl and was talking to Lydia. It sounded like she was one of Lydia’s students. Hearing her called Ms. Martin was one of the strangest things he’d ever heard.
When she saw him waiting, she looked at him and arched her brow.
“I’m stuck. Take your time though,” he said, gesturing to the student. The kid that was probably fumbling with Physics II or Calculus.
“Look up Kahn Academy on YouTube. He helps,” Lydia said before she turned back to her student. The girl had pulled out a notebook. Lydia turned and was helping her with something or another on the table behind them.
Stiles pulled up YouTube on his phone and searched for what she’d said. The channel had all kinds of math, from the basic shit he was doing to complex physics.
“Yes,” he said under his breath, when he saw a video titled Polynomials, the exact concept he was struggling with.
He drug through the top zipper of his backpack and pulled out his headphones. He plugged them into one ear and watched the video, opening to a new page and taking notes as the guy spoke. The instructor was a better teacher than his Algebra professor, which might be a rude comparison. The guy was obviously good at what he did or he wouldn’t have an entire channel with a fuck ton of hits.
“How was it?”
Stiles jerked as he looked up at Peter.
Peter smiled slightly, like he’d known he was going to scare him.
“Dick,” Stiles said, “It was good.”
“Of course it was, I made it.”
Stiles rolled his eyes.
“Do you want me to turn that down?” Peter asked, pointing toward the ceiling.
Stiles looked up and didn’t realize what he was talking about for a moment, before his hearing tuned back into the college indie that had fallen to background noise.
“No I’m fine. Thanks though,” he said. “I meant to ask, is it a radio station or-?”
“It’s a playlist.”
“I can send it to your email?”
“Really? Awesome,” Stiles said, writing out his email on a corner of his scrap paper and tearing it off, giving it to Peter.
“I’ll send it tonight,” Peter said, putting the slip of paper into his back pocket.
“No problem,” Peter said. “Do you need anything else?”
“No,” Stiles said, but at the same time he realized that he and Lydia had been there for two hours and only spent about eight bucks a piece, but they were holding up a table. “We’ll get out of here in just a few minutes.”
“Stay as long as you want. I was just checking before I left for the evening.”
“No we’re good. Thanks.”
Peter winked at him and Stiles laughed slightly. Okay, so Peter was flirting. That wasn’t really in question anymore. He could question if he’d do anything about it, but then that didn’t really matter either, because Stiles wasn’t willing to do anything with him.
“Could he be any more obvious?” Lydia asked, her student had walked away to join a friend. Lydia was staring at Peter’s back as he disappeared into the kitchen.
“I don’t know what you mean,” Stiles said.
“It’d be sad to see you living with daddy again, because you put your dick where it didn’t belong.”
“I don’t plan on it,” he said, flicking a crumb at her.
“Okay,” she said, with an inflection like she didn’t believe him.
Stiles didn’t give a fuck. He believed himself and that’s all that mattered.
That night, Stiles sat in the glow of his computer screen, scrolling through his Facebook when he should be working on an essay for Humanities. He had started it, at least he’d put his name and the class number at the top. He’d mostly watched TV in the background, but it he had a few days and he knew his topic, had a few sources. He was doing okay.
He was considering turning his computer and the TV off when a notification from his personal email popped up at the corner of his screen with the subject Playlist . Stiles clicked on the email tab and opened the message that had to be from Peter. He checked the time. It was almost two in the morning. The body of the email had a link to a Spotify playlist.
I hope you enjoy. - Peter.
Stiles typed out a quick response.
Thanks. You stay up late.
After he hit send, he pulled up his essay again and stared at the blinking cursor. He wrote the title Byzantine Empire . It was imaginative and innovative. The teacher would be floored. He was getting delirious.
Then another email notification popped up. Stiles clicked back on the internet. It was a reply from Peter.
I could say the same of you.
College student , Stiles responded.
Stiles got back on Facebook, giving up on the essay. It wasn’t due for a few days. He had time. A little pop up dinged in on his computer screen within a few minutes. Another response from Peter who was obviously a night owl.
Ah yes, well bakery owner . I can’t stand missing the night so I compromise sleep .
An intelligent and wise man, you are.
Stiles clicked around on Facebook for a few more minutes. Waiting for the soft ding of his email in his quiet room. It didn’t take long.
Of course you like Star Wars. I split shifts. Sometimes I work until 10 AM, leave to sleep, then go back around seven.
I don’t like Star Wars, I love it. So get your facts straight. Wow. That’s some work ethic. Doesn’t the boss set his own hours? Why do you set such bad ones? Stiles responded.
He kicked himself slightly for asking a direct question. A little nudge of guilt lingered at the back of his head for emailing Chris’s husband when he was no doubt asleep, but it was harmless. Just as harmless as sitting down and having lunch with the guy the other day.
I am the boss so I come and go as I please, but the bread needs my tender touch. Even Boyd doesn’t work them the same.
Well I guess it works well for you. I’m sure Chris loves all the hours , Stiles responded. Bringing in the spouse almost always killed flirting for the other person, almost always.
Oh yes, he’s a very neglected man , Peter responded.
Stiles thought of typing out something else, something that would keep the conversation going. Maybe Peter was just bored. There was nothing wrong with being bored. But it was late, he needed to sleep if he was going to run before his first class.
Haha. I’m sure. Thanks for the playlist.
He waited a handful of minutes, counting down to five before he shut off his computer and got to sleep. He went ahead and set the clock on his phone. He skipped his sleeping pill. It played hell with him when he didn’t get at least six hours of sleep and right now he’d get about five.
You’re welcome , Peter responded.
Stiles considered responding, but there wasn’t really anything to say, so he closed his laptop and put it on his bedside table before laying down and rolling over.
Stiles liked his Creative Writing class.
He did, but as he sat in the circle of desks the professor had them move into for the class, the overhead lights off, with just the afternoon sun coming in through the wall of eastern facing windows, he just wanted to go outside.
A large sycamores’ branches were swaying right past the window. The white splotches on its gray bark were almost hypnotic as his professor read in front of him. He had a really nice reading voice. It was probably a requirement to get whatever degree it was he needed to teach this course. All Stiles knew was that he wasn’t a doctor and when students called him a doctor it made the guy act weird as hell.
“Stiles, what did you think of the story?”
Stiles looked away from the window, back to the professor.
“The guy was an asshole.”
A few people laughed quietly. People were never loud in this building. There was one professor who could get loud, but Stiles only knew about him, because his class was next door to this one and their times overlapped by about five minutes.
“How so?” the professor asked, staring at the floor in front of his desk, like he was actually wanting to process what Stiles was saying without mixing it up with the visual of him talking.
“I mean, he doesn’t even like his own wife? He really just likes the Lady with the Dog, because she’s young and something he can’t have. His opinion of women is complete shit and okay, good for him that by the end of it he meets one woman who he thinks is worth of companionship, but his wife probably was too? Just not to him, because he didn’t care to look for it.”
The professor nodded before looking around the circle. “Does anyone else feel the same way or differently?”
A thin girl with wavy hair and thick black-rimmed glasses pushed them up her nose as she started to speak. Stiles let out a tiny breath of relief when she agreed with him. By the time the discussion had closed, most people had agreed, the guy was a sexist asshole. Being redeemed by one pretty woman didn’t change that. Now he was just a sexist with mistress.
After class ended and they had their new assignment, Cheever, Stiles pushed his desk back into the rows they’d found them in. A few of his classmates lingered to talk in the halls. He heard words like Linguistics and had no fucking idea what they were talking about. If it was the same shit they’d been talking about before class he was sure that he would never care.
He jogged down the stairs of Seminary Hall and listened to them creak under only his own weight. Most classes had already let out of the day. The sun was casting the building’s shadow far in front of it as Stiles went down the steps to the sidewalk and passed the statue of someone he was sure he should know.
The campus was on a slight rise, letting him see the downtown spread out for about a quarter mile. He could see the creek that divided the campus from the privately owned shops and buildings, he could barely see the white of the bookstore and his apartment above it. He hoped the bookstore was still open. He needed to get the book his instructor recommended. It kept weird hours though. He had come down from his apartment a few times to find it locked up, especially during the last week.
He crossed the small bridge that lined the roadway over the creek and passed into downtown, only going a block farther until he reached the bookstore. He was going to put his bag upstairs when he heard knocking on the glass. Ellen was on the other side, waving him in.
Stiles went around to the front door and was hit with the same smell as always, peppermint and books. Some days it was muskier, sometimes cleaner, all the time it was a smell he could handle just fine.
“Hello, Stranger,” she said.
“I just paid you rent last week,” Stiles said, sliding his bag off his shoulder and letting it thump to the floor.
“Then a stranger who pays me,” she said. “How are classes?”
“Good. Okay. Some are better than others,” he said.
“Is still letters and numbers, which really shouldn’t be together.”
“Agreed,” she said. “How is the remodel?”
“It’s great. I actually picked things up to start cooking, so that’ll be nice.”
“Just don’t burn it down is all I ask.”
“Boy scout effort.”
“Were you a boy scout?”
“For like two weeks,” he said, smiling slightly. “I need to get a book, though, while you’re open. I came down yesterday, but I guess you were out.”
“That’s what I wanted to ask you about,” she said. “Someone quit on me, more like they started to not show for their shifts and now I have nobody to fill the gaps when I need to run any kind of errand,” she said. “Do you want a job? Have you worked any kind of retail?”
“Yeah. I worked the register at a novelty shop for about two years,” Stiles said.
Novelty shop was better than saying sex store. One that had paid him really well when he was at the peak of his popularity in West Hollywood. The money had been easy. The clientele had mostly been fun. He looked around the bookstore that was almost silent and couldn’t imagine anything less similar. Then again, he probably wouldn’t catch chlamydia during a break with a customer either.
“Do you want a job?” she repeated.
Stiles shrugged. “I hadn’t really thought about it. What kind of hours would it be?”
“Late shift, so from five or six until eight or nine,” she said.
“Do you get much traffic through here then?”
“Surprisingly it’s when we get the most. It’s not busy by any means. I make most of my money on the textbook sales at the beginning of the semesters, but it’s steady.”
Stiles nodded, looking around the place. There wasn’t anyone in there now. He couldn’t really blame them. It was kind of a dim place without a coffee counter or anything like that, like most indie bookstores he’d been in. There weren’t even places to grab a seat and read a few chapters of a book to see if you liked it.
“I’d have to be able to do homework during downtime,” he said.
“That’s fine. All my employees have. I understand that your classes come first. As long as the books are put away and the customers are checked out, I don’t care what you do when it’s slow.”
“Okay,” Stiles said. “Yeah. It sounds good.”
Ellen smiled and it was a real one, crinkling the edges of her eyes the same color as her son’s. He wondered if Chris’s face change that dramatically when he smiled and the seriousness faded.
“Can you come in tomorrow? We can do some training.”
“Sure,” Stiles said. “I get out of class at two, but I have to get an essay done, so I’ll be down here by five?”
“That’s fine. Training won’t take long,” she said, touching the old register. “There’s only so much it needs to do.”
“Okay. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Have a good evening.”
“You too,” he said, picking his bag back up and leaving the store.
Even with evening coming in, it was still sticky and warm. He went upstairs and into his apartment, dropping his bag on the couch and kicking up his feet on the coffee table. He should cook some of the groceries he’d bought yesterday, but he wasn’t feeling it yet. Maybe in an hour or so.
The job would be good for that, paying for his groceries and side things like that. Then Stiles cussed out loud to the quiet apartment. He’d forgotten to buy the book he needed and he was too lazy to go back downstairs and get it. He’d just get it tomorrow. It didn’t have to be read until the next week anyway.
Then his phone buzzed on the couch. Stiles picked it up and read a text from his dad.
Stiles considered the salad stuff he had in the fridge. He was being lazy and he knew it, but he wrote back.
Fifteen minutes later, they were at the Chinese restaurant his dad loved and Stiles liked decently enough. The lo mein noodles were oily, which was really all he required to eat his own weight in them. His dad was actually eating white rice with his low sodium brown sauce over broccoli and beef. Overall, he couldn't bitch.
“How was class?” his dad asked.
“Good. I turned in that Algebra assignment this morning.”
“How do you think you did?”
“Good. Lydia checked all my answers for me.”
“I know. She’s going to hate me by the end of the semester.”
“I doubt it. She likes showing off how smart she is.”
“True,” Stiles said. “Ellen offered me a job at the bookstore in the evenings.”
“If I’d known you were looking for a job I would’ve hired you at the police station.”
Stiles shrugged. “I don’t really want a job from nepotism.”
“I don’t care what it is. You’re a good worker.”
“And I don’t really want to work around a bunch of people who know exactly why I’m back home. Not when you’re the sheriff.”
“That doesn’t matter to me.”
“It does to me,” Stiles said, glancing up at his dad. “It doesn’t look good for your re-election or-.”
“My re-election isn’t for three years. I love being sheriff, I’m glad people vote for me, but I’d never want to do it if it made you feel bad,” his dad said. His voice was somehow gruff and dripping with earnestness at the same time. “You come first.”
“I know,” Stiles said. “But I think this’ll work out. I can’t get a better location. The hours are good too. And she’ll let me do homework in my downtime.”
“That’s a good deal,” his dad said.
“That’s what I thought. But if I don’t like it, I’ll hit you up,” Stiles said with a slight smile.
“It’s there if you want it.”
His dad brushed him off. He also paid for dinner again, which Stiles was just starting to resign himself to being a way of life. His dad had picked him up, so he drove him back to his apartment. By the time they were parked at the curb, the bookstore’s lights were off and the closed sign was hanging in the door.
“But she closes early?” his dad asked.
“Just for right now. She’s short-handed.”
“Ah,” his dad said.
“I’ve got homework, so I have to go. Thanks for dinner,” he said, leaning over the console to hug his dad. His dad squeezed his shoulders.
“I’m proud of you, buddy. She must like you.”
“And she likes you,” his dad said.
“Maybe,” Stiles said. “Have a good night.”
“You too, kid. Get some rest,” his dad called as Stiles shut the door.
Stiles climbed the steps to his apartment, hearing them creak and the water moving in the creek only a few hundred yards away. Ellen hadn’t lied, it did smell a little like trash in the warm evening, but at least there were nice sounds. Stiles glanced back toward the road and his dad’s SUV was there like he knew it would be, waiting to make sure he got inside okay. Stiles raised his hand in a wave as he pushed open the door. He watched as his dad flipped a U-turn on the nearly silent street and moved toward home.
After he finished with his essay around five the next evening, Stiles went to the bookstore. He’d forgotten to ask Ellen if there was a dress code, but he’d seen the people working there before. They were all dressed about as formally as he was, jeans, t-shirt, and casual shoes. Ellen never really dressed any better.
As he walked in the bookstore’s front entrance, Ellen was behind the counter, checking out a middle-aged man in business looking clothes. Stiles couldn’t tell if he was a professor or just a professional in town. He didn’t recognize his face.
When he left, Ellen looked at him and gestured to him to come behind the counter.
“Just put your bag under the register,” she said. “How was class?”
He had Psychology again today. It was interesting at least. He’d gotten his essay back and he’d gotten an A, so that was great. He thought the teacher was going easy on them though. He knew he needed to brush up on his formating. Comp I and II had been a long time ago.
“I don’t know how much there really is to show you,” she said. “The books have their prices on the cover. Just key it in to the register, like I’m sure you did at your other job, make change if they pay in cash, run the credit card on the iPad. Have you done the Square thing?”
“Yeah. That’s how they did most of the transactions at the store I worked for,” Stiles said.
“Okay, great. Just be sure to get them a receipt if they want one. The printer is under here,” she said, gesturing beneath the counter. “But until someone comes in I don’t necessarily know what to show you. You know which sections are where and how to search in alphabetical order?”
“You’d think I wouldn’t have to ask that, but you’d be surprised,” Ellen said.
“Not really. People can be dense.”
Stiles sat on the edge of the second chair Ellen had put behind the counter. She sat on a stool about the same height. Music was playing through bad speakers. They crackled when the singers hit higher notes. Stiles drummed his fingers together and looked around the store. There was a register right in front of them and a shelf of books immediately to his right.
“What are these books?” he asked, looking at the glossy covers.
“Mostly books people have ordered. Their names will be inside the front cover on a sticky note,” she said, picking up a copy of Twilight and opening the front hardcover to the pink note. “I don’t carry a lot of hardbacks for older books and some people want them for gifts. It’s mostly older people who don’t want to bother with the internet and ordering themselves.”
“Yeah I get it,” he said. He drummed his fingers some more.
The walls were off white. Chris needed to get his crew in here and touch it up. He wondered how Ellen afforded the car outside, not for the first time. He knew it was nearly ninety thousand new. There was no way this store was bringing in that kind of cash, but he couldn't exactly ask. It was none of his business. He was just curious.
“So since I’ve met Chris and Peter now, I have to know, who picked out the Porsche?”
“Peter. I’m sure that shocks you.”
Stiles laughed. “Yeah, stunned.”
“He has taste too high for his own good,” she said, but there was a faint smile on her lips. “I shouldn't call him my son. I know it confuses people, but they’ve been together so long that if Chris wanted a divorce tomorrow I’d still expect to see Peter at Thanksgiving, so he’s my son.”
“How long have they been together?”
“Well they’ve been friends since Chris and I moved here when he was little. I think he was eight at the time. They didn’t start to date until the later part of high school.”
“That’s really nice.”
Ellen scoffed. “You should see them together. They fight like siblings. They’ve been together too long.”
Stiles laughed slightly. “I can see it from Peter for sure.”
“Don’t let Chris’s serious face fool you. That’s just his boss-face. He’s just as big of a smart ass when you get him and Peter together.”
“He hides it well.”
Stiles tapped his foot on the metal support of his stool. Maybe that’s why Peter flirted. Maybe it was just boredom. Maybe he flirted with other people a lot. It probably meant nothing. Or maybe it did mean that after so long together he was tired of the same sex and wanted to try something else out. It didn’t matter either way, but he was curious which one it was.
“If you have homework, you can do it now,” Ellen said. “I have some payroll to do while we wait.”
“Sure,” Stiles said, grabbing his bag and taking out his laptop.
He opened the electronic copy of his Humanities textbook, still open to the page he’d left off on and dragged out his notebook. He could barely hear the scratch of his sharp pen against the paper, but what he could hear mixed with the clicking of Ellen on her laptop on the other side of the register as they worked in near silence.
The next customer didn’t come in for twenty minutes, Stiles glanced up occasionally to watch the woman browsing the shelves. When she came up with a paperback, Stiles watched Ellen work the iPad with the little chip that she ran the card through.
A group of college aged kids came in while the woman was checking out. Stiles glanced up at them occasionally. They talked more than they read, but he didn’t really care. At least they were mostly quiet. He thought he recognized one of the kids from one of his classes, but he couldn’t say one way or the other.
Stiles checked them out with only a few pointers from Ellen. He talked to them about the books they were buying. Most of them were young adult, which was pretty much the only genre he read. Then again, he’d done most of his reading about five years ago when he’d still been a teenager.
“You’re good with customers. They like that,” Ellen said.
He was good at bullshit small talk. Nothing would make you learn that faster than selling a huge dildo to a dude who was so red he looked like he might pass out from lack of oxygen. Asking how the weather was outside was normally a good one, traffic had been a good one in LA too, although he doubted that would really fly in Beacon Hills.
“Is it always this quiet?” Stiles asked.
“Most of the time,” she said, “But it comes in waves.”
“Are you sure you really want to hire me?” he asked, laughing slightly. “I’m going to feel bad if it’s this slow.”
“When I opened a bookstore, I knew it would be slow. As long as I break even each month then I’m happy. It gives me something to do. I employ a few good people and the text book season is a nice perk, so don’t worry about me, because I’m not worried about me.”
“What do you think?” she asked.
“As long as you’re really okay with me doing homework a lot, then okay,” he said.
“I don’t care. There’s only so much restocking you can do,” she said. “Just make sure it looks neat before you close up at night, be social with the customers, if you have some free time pick up a newer book and skim it for recommendations. But only if you have time.”
“I can do that.”
“And the short story collections you keep buying? Just take them to your apartment, read them, bring them back when you’re done.”
Ellen looked at her watch, old school, without any of the fancy notifications that Lydia’s had. Just a second hand and minute hand.
“Let’s go ahead and close up. I’ll show you how.”
Stiles gathered up his stuff and Ellen showed him the code for the alarm system before she armed it and they went out the front door and she locked it from the outside.
“Yep,” Stiles said.
“I’ll see you tomorrow?”
“Sounds great,” he said.
They walked around the side of the building together. Voices from the restaurant beside them drifted over with slow music. Their warm lighting clashed with the green and blue of the security lights, but it was still nice. He contemplated going over and grabbing something to eat. His mouth was watering from the scent of steak on the air, but he had food upstairs. He needed to cook it. He bought it and he needed to stop dragging his feet.
When Ellen reached her car, they said goodnight and Stiles climbed the stairs to his apartment, taking enough time for Ellen’s car to start then for her headlights to wash over the parking lot as she pulled out. As soon as she was gone, Stiles pushed open the door to his apartment and went inside flipping the lock behind him.
He put his backpack on the couch and pulled up the recipe for a philly cheesesteak on his phone. He connected his phone to the bluetooth speaker in the living room and cranked the volume, so the quietness of the apartment vanished as he flipped on the light in the kitchen and started to pull out his skillet and cutting board.
It took less time than he thought. He came out of it with a house that smelled a little like smoke, a nicked finger when he was cutting up the bell peppers, and a pretty good sandwich if he said so himself.
He was also left with a kitchen that was a fucking mess. After he finished eating, he started cleaning, wondering what the fuck was really so wrong with just cooking all of his dinners out of a box like he did when he was a teen.
The next evening, Stiles went to the bookstore at five. They had three customers in an hour. Ellen put her keys on the bar by six-thirty.
“I’m going to leave. Do you remember the code for the alarm?”
“Yeah. I can send you a message when I’m done.”
“Don’t bother. I’ll get a text from the alarm company when you set it,” Ellen said, as she leaned down to grab her purse from beneath the counter. “Call if you need anything.”
“Will do. Have a good night.”
“You too. I’ll have a schedule for you tomorrow.”
She left with a goodbye and the clang of the bells on the glass of the front door. Stiles got up from his stool and walked around the register, taking a few books from the bin where people put them if they decided they didn’t want to buy. He restocked them and walked around the store, making sure the shelves were neat and righting the books he caught in the wrong order.
For a small town set up, Ellen had a good diversity. It wasn’t anywhere near the huge retailer in the city, but that was also almost two hours away. He grabbed the book he needed by Cheever off the shelf and went back to the register.
He grabbed his notebook from his backpack and started to read a little bit. He was barely into The Swimmer when some kids came in. They stumbled over each other and were laughing too loudly to not be drunk. He didn’t really care though. It made reading pretty much impossible though.
He put the book of stories into his backpack and took out his laptop. At least he could outline the rough draft for his next essay or fuck around on social media until he got bored. As the laptop booted, he watched the college kids. They were too loud to be shoplifting. Whoever thought coming into the store drunk was the idea of a good time, he didn’t know, but they seemed harmless.
His Facebook was a mixture of stupid ass videos, a lot of people he wouldn’t recognize if he passed them on the street, and a very few good friends. He went through the feed liking the few things his friends from LA had posted. He had liked some food type profiles recently, trying to get into the spirit of cooking his own meals that didn’t come with directions on a cardboard box. His recipe last night had been from one of them. He watched a few to kill time before two of the kids from the group came up with books.
“Oh 50 Shades, good pick,” he said.
That was a lie. She could find better shit on the internet for free, but he didn’t tell her that as he rang up the total. The girl was probably younger than twenty. She turned red and laughed slightly. So it wasn’t so different from the sex shop he’d worked at.
“Has it cooled off out there?” he asked.
One of the girls in the group took the bait.
He chatted with them a little bit, but kept his hands moving. Friendly, but efficient. There were out in less than five minutes. Then he sat back on his stool with on the music from the piss pour speakers keeping him company.
He was about to close out Facebook completely when he stopped and typed Peter’s name into the search bar. He figured he’d have to put in a few filters to pull it up, but Peter was the top return. His profile picture was professionally done. He was standing behind the counter at his cafe in his apron, writing something on a coffee cup. The picture caught his profile perfectly, nice forehead, straight fine nose, but his lower face was covered with a short dark beard Stiles hadn’t seen him with.
He clicked on Peter’s picture and pulled up his profile. The banner image to his profile was a man using a circular saw with a saw horse. There was backlighting, making the saw dust look like gold and barely casting the man’s face in any light. It took Stiles longer than it should’ve to realize it was Chris.
Stiles clicked on the picture and read through the comments. Ellen was the first comment, saying how handsome her son was. The second was someone asking Peter to take their wedding pictures, begging actually. Peter’s reply was beneath, from almost a year ago, telling the woman he was flattered, but he just enjoyed taking pictures as a hobby. He told her he could give her local recommendations though.
Stiles clicked out of the comments and went back to staring at Chris’s picture. There was just enough light to make out the bone structure of his face, which was a lot better than Stiles had given him credit for. He didn’t know if it was the lighting, the editing, or what, but Chris was handsome.
Stiles clicked through a few more pictures, all of Peter’s pictures that were public as he waited for the bell above the door to ring. Peter had a few promotional pictures for the cafe. He had pictures from six years ago of Chris building the bar in the cafe, of him making the wooden sign that hung over the door. There were a few pictures of them together, taken like a selfie. The best was of Chris kissing Peter’s cheek with his arm around his shoulders. Peter looked like he wasn’t even paying attention to the camera, smiling like a teenager and looking away.
Seeing Chris out of his work clothes and not covered in dirt and dust was almost a shock. It wasn’t that Stiles didn’t know Chris was attractive. He was. There was no doubt, but the pictures of him off the clock were something else entirely.
After some more snooping, he exited Peter’s profile and pulled his book back out for class. He leaned over the counter and read The Swimmer. It took a few minutes for his mind to sink into it. He kept wondering if Peter really was flirting with him, before reminding himself that it didn’t fucking matter either way.
Then he was sucked into the story and he was able to shut out the questions. He read about Ned Merrill crossing the county by swimming through his friends’ and acquaintances’ pools. The guy seemed like a dick, like most of the stories they’d read, but it was light-hearted to start. He was going to swim back home from his friends’ house. Stupid, but whatever. As it got darker, Stiles leaned closer to the pages, reading faster and not taking notes.
Ned kept saying that he didn’t like to think about negative things.
He crossed a four-lane highway in only his swimming trunks and barefoot to swim in a public pool he couldn’t stand. Stiles felt his chest tighten as he read faster. Something was going to hit the fan, something bad was happening, the day had gone from sunny to bad, the water was colder, people went from enjoying him being at their pools, to being ambivalent, and finally to outright disdain.
When Ned reached his home, Stiles closed the book and looked up at the store. It was still empty and too dark. He put the book back in his bag and looked at the time. It was ten minutes past closing. He got up and turned off the lights, grabbing Ellen’s keys, setting the alarm and leaving.
The girl from earlier was wrong. It was still hot and sticky. The cicadas in the park across the street were still screaming bloody murder even with the sun long gone.
He couldn't go home. Not yet. The story was spinning in his head. Sometimes they did that to him. They were hard to shake. He walked down the street, knowing Peter’s cafe was probably closed, but wanting to check anyway. He let out a heavy breath when he saw the lights were still on. The numbers on the door said they’d still be open for another thirty minutes.
Only a handful of students were in the place, on their computers, or in tiny clusters, looking panicked as they were hunched over text books.
He hadn’t really expected Peter to be there, but he was, at the far end of the back counter. Stiles watched the roll of his shoulders as he kneaded something he couldn’t see. His shirt was tight enough for Stiles to imagine how good he looked without it.
“What’re you making?”
Peter jumped slightly and turned around with a slight laugh when he saw it was only him.
“Bagels for tomorrow,” he said as he turned around and dusted his hands on his standard black apron.
Stiles wondered how many of them he owned. It couldn’t be the same one.
“I read The Swimmer ,” Stiles said, leaning on the counter. “It was depressing as fuck.”
“It is,” Peter said, washing his hands at one of the sinks then drying them on a rag before coming over to where Stiles was.
“You should’ve warned me.”
“What stories have you read for that class that aren’t depressing?”
“I just didn’t realize that Literature, with a capital L, was so fucking dark.”
“I don’t think it has to be, but it helps.”
Peter leaned on the counter, his arms not far from Stile’s own. His eyes were such a good shade of blue, really multiple shades and he was sure that Peter knew exactly how pretty they were. He wondered if he realized how good the late night stubble on his cheeks made them look.
“The kitchen is closed, but I can get you something to drink?” Peter asked.
“What do you like?”
“Something strong enough to get me through a chapter of Humanities tonight.”
“Do you like it bitter?”
“It doesn’t come any other way.”
Peter scoffed. “What flavors do you like?”
“I don’t know. Throw an espresso shot in a cup. I’ll make due,” he said.
Peter rolled his eyes at him before straightening and turning around to go to the coffee machines. He had a great ass. Stiles wondered what he looked like naked.
“You like chocolate, don’t you?”
Peter did some things with a stupidly shiny and expensive looking machine. Stiles didn’t know what. He wasn’t a barista, but it looked complicated it started to hum as Peter grabbed a coffee cup and squirted a few different syrups in the cup from his large collection.
“I got the dirt from your mom, well I guess Chris’s mom, on you and him,” Stiles said. “You guys are like a story book.”
“Oh is that what she said?” Peter asked.
“High school sweethearts? Pretty much.”
“She’s a bookstore owner. She sits around and reads romances all day. Don’t let her flair for storytelling sway you.”
“Yeah? How mch of it’s flair and how much is true?” Stiles asked as dark liquid started to pour from the machine and into the cup Peter had prepared.
Peter looked up with a half-smile. “None of it really. When you’re lucky enough to find someone like Chris, you don’t let him go.”
“Hot guy that’s good with his hands? I don’t blame you.”
“Are you telling me you think my husband’s hot?”
“I’m not saying he isn’t. Don’t worry. You’re pretty too.”
Stiles smiled at Peter, but inside he wondering exactly what the fuck he was doing. Peter smirked. A real one that couldn't really be classified as anything else.
“You’re a romantic.”
“Of course I am,” Peter said, bringing his coffee over. “Give it a minute. It’s hot.”
“Okay,” Stiles said, holding the paper cup between his hands.
Peter went over to a large white box on the counter and took out a few bagels, put them on a plate then into the microwave on the counter. He only let them go about ten seconds before bringing them over to the counter. They were both the same kind. Peter took one and bit into it. Stiles grabbed the other.
“I thought the kitchen was closed,” he said.
“It is. That’s the box I take home for Chris to take his crew in the mornings.”
“That’s so grossly domestic,” Stiles said laughing slightly.
“That’s what happens when you marry a baker.”
“What a spoiled guy.”
“He is,” Peter said, between bites.
Stiles bit into his own. It was as good as always before he saw the photographs of pump jacks on the wall beside him. The sunset in the picture was a red band against the flat horizon. He’d seen it before, but in Oklahoma, he figured it was just for neaunce and Peter had bought a copy from someone.
“Did you take that?” Stiles asked.
“Why do you ask?”
“I might have stalked your Facebook,” Stiles said. “You take nice pictures.”
“Thank you,” Peter said, “And yes. That’s mine.”
Stiles took a sip of his hot coffee and licked his lips. “That’s good.”
“Good,” Peter said. “You know, you could add me on there. That way the stalking could be mutual.”
“I like it one-sided.”
“That’s not fair.”
“Life’s not fair.”
“You’re too young to be so cold,” Peter said with the accent of a Deep South debutant.
Stiles laughed. “If you can find me, I’ll add you.”
“You won’t be hard to find, Stiles Stilinski.”
Peter finished his bagel and dusted his hands on his jeans. He was looking at Stiles though, staring. Stiles raised his brow after a second.
“Have you ever modeled?”
“No,” he said immediately, probably too quickly. Modeling dildos around and in him didn’t count. Neither did the promo pictures for big videos he was going to release. Peter didn’t seem to notice though.
“That’s a shame.”
“Because you’re beautiful,” Peter said.
Stiles scoffed. Producers had called him cute, fuckable, sexy, they’d said he had a cock-sucking mouth, but not beautiful. He’d even been younger then, better looking. The drugs had done a number on him. He knew he didn’t look like a skidmark, but he wasn’t what he used to be. He knew that.
“Thanks,” he said anyway.
“Would you consider doing a promo shoot for the cafe? I need updated pictures. I’ll pay you of course,” Peter said.
“You could find someone better.”
“Maybe, but I doubt it,” Peter said.
Stiles looked back at Peter, judging his expression. It had to be pity, but if it was then Peter was a good fucking actor. He looked serious, so Stiles shrugged. He’d like to do some shit to the apartment bathroom. Maybe he’d get enough scratch for that.
“Come on Sunday? We’re going to be closed. Wear the blue flannel you have.”
“You know what clothes I have?”
“Just the ones that look best on you,” Peter said.
Stiles laughed slightly then pulled out his phone and checked the time. Peter would be closing in less than ten minutes.
“I’m sure you have stuff to do before you close up, so I’ll get out of here,” he said.
“I’m glad you came by. I hadn’t seen you in a few days. I thought another handsome bakery owner had stolen you away.”
Stiles snorted, taking a sip of the still scalding coffee. “No I’ve been cooking for myself.”
“How is that going?”
“Some wins and losses,” he said.
“What are you making next?”
“Probably another philly. I have some left over meat and stuff.”
Peter straightened from the counter and went to the other counter. He moved some things, making paper crinkled before he came back with a small paper bag of sandwich rolls.
“Try it with these, toast them in a buttered skillet until the edges are brown.”
“Cool,” Stiles said, pulling out his wallet.
Peter pushed it away. “They’re going to go bad if they don’t get used.”
“At least let me pay for the coffee.”
“You’re too nice to me,” Stiles said, putting his wallet back.
“I’m not,” Peter said.
“Sure you’re not.
“Goodnight, Stiles,” Peter said.
Stiles smiled slightly, grabbing his rolls and coffee. “Night.”
When he left, he’d forgotten about the story, and the shitty feeling he’d walked in with. The bag of rolls crinkled as he walked, something in his bag jingled, and occasionally a car drove by, some of them noisier than others.
As soon as he walked in the door, he went to the kitchen and started a skillet with butter like Peter had said, then threw his leftover meat and vegetables in microwave. His toasting came out a little more burned than brown, but it was crispy as he bit into it and the bread was soft and warm.
He pulled out his phone as he ate, leaning against the counter like normal. He opened Facebook and searched for Peter again. He didn’t let himself overthink as he added him. He sent a message with it.
Thanks for the bread and the tip. It was great.
Peter was probably still closing the shop, so he didn’t expect a reply and he didn’t get one as he finished his sandwich then went into the living room to start reading the chapter for Humanities he’d been assigned.
He was almost to the questions at the end when his phone buzzed. It was a messenger notification from Peter. Another notification said Peter had accepted his friend request.
You’re welcome. I’m glad you liked it.
I’m going to gain 30lbs from your store.
That would be okay , Peter replied.
Stiles smiled slightly, but put the phone down. It was almost eleven. They were flirting. He knew it. He was sure Peter knew it. It wasn’t okay. Which was fine as long as he ended it when he should, which was right then by just not responding.
His phone didn’t vibrate again for the rest of the night. Stiles tried to feel less disappointed by that than he was.
Sorry, chapter count got upped. This think keeps growing. I was thinking this story would be 30k and as you can see... I'm at that point as we speak with more chapters waiting to be posted soooo. Buckle down. She's going full-sized.
On Saturday morning, Stiles walked into the diner a few blocks from his apartment. His dad’s cruiser was already outside and he spotted him in the same booth they always sat in. He had his reading glasses on and was still holding his phone as far from his face as he could.
“Hey, kid,” his dad said.
“Hey,” Stiles said, taking off his gym bag and put it in the booth next to him.
“Did you go to the gym?”
“No. I did a sunrise yoga session with Lydia. I don’t know why I let her talk me into shit like that.”
“I thought you liked yoga?”
“I do, just not in the park, trying to pretend like we’re one with nature when all I can smell is gas fumes from the Shell.”
His dad snorted, putting down his phone and taking a drink of his coffee. The waitress came over then, pouring Stiles his own mug of coffee. He dumped in some sugar and took a long drink that scalded the tip of his tongue.
“Are you two ready to order?” she asked.
His dad ordered what he always did, a short stack of buttermilk pancakes, eggs, bacon, and hashbrowns. He never ate it all, so Stiles didn’t give him shit about it. Not to mention that he had no fucking ground to give his dad shit for what he put in his body.
“French toast and scrambled eggs,” Stiles said, giving her the menu he’d barely looked at.
When she walked away, he saw his dad staring at him, one arm along the back of the booth. Stiles didn’t like it. It was his analyzing face. He could be guaranteed to not be happy with the next words out of his mouth.
“You look tired.”
“I was up working on a poem for a class then I had to read for another course to do an online quiz tonight.”
“What time did you get to sleep?”
“What time did you get up for yoga?”
“That’s not enough sleep.”
“I’m going to take a nap later.”
He didn’t want a nap. He wanted a bump of crystal. It was a pretty easy want to curb, without the heroin, meth just made him a nervous fucking wreck. Yeah he wasn’t tired when he smoked it, but he wanted to claw out of his skin.
But the idea of not having to sleep, of being able to do his homework, exercise, cook, have a social life, and classes. That was harder to shake, knowing he could have that life. He had had that life, but instead of missing out of sleep for all of that shit, it had been to just not sleep. To party, to fuck, to work, the gym to keep a body that anyone actually wanted to jack off to.
“You could start going to sleep earlier and do your homework in the mornings. The nocturnal cycle isn’t good for depression.”
“You know what I mean. It’s always easier to give in to stuff at night.”
Stiles rubbed the back of his neck and shrugged. His dad had always drank at night, when Stiles had been asleep. Stiles had mostly used in the evenings too. But when it got to the worst of it, he’d used whenever he wanted.
“I’ll work on it,” Stiles said.
“Okay,” his dad said. Then he started to play with a Sweet and Low package. “How would you feel about coming to a meeting with me?”
“I thought you quit going.”
“I started back a few months ago, occasionally. I thought it would help. The first year is the hardest.”
“I don’t know. AA groups don’t like druggies.”
“We have a few people in the group who were hooked on heavier things. Small town. We kind of have to combine. They’re good people for the most part.”
Stiles was about to tell him no, but if his dad was asking, then he was worried about him. That wasn’t new. It was his default. The idea of getting him to the meeting had probably been nagging at his dad for awhile.
“I don’t know what my work schedule is, but I’ll talk to Ellen. When is it?”
“There are some different times. I normally went on Friday evenings. It’s at the community theater. They have a few on the weekends though during the afternoon.”
“Okay,” Stiles said.
“I’d really like you to try and make it.”
“Good,” his dad said. “How was work last night?”
“It’s really slow, but whatever. I won’t get behind on my homework that way.”
“That’s good,” his dad said. “How are classes going?”
Stiles told him about his writing class that he liked. It was like recess to his brain compared to Algebra and Psychology. At least he liked the Psychology course. It was just challenging. The Algebra wasn’t getting easier like his dad and Lydia had said it would. His mind just didn’t want to function that way anymore.
Stiles asked him about work and before long their food came. When they finished eating, his dad sipped on the last of his coffee and Stiles started on his third cup that he wouldn’t finish or he’d be coming unglued.
His dad paid again, but Stiles left the tip as they got up from the booth. His dad was in his work clothes, which meant today was his later shift at the station, when he got to go in at nine instead of seven.
“Come over for dinner this week,” his dad said, as they stepped out of the diner and onto the sidewalk.
His dad hugged him and Stiles patted him on the back after a minute. He hated how much he liked hugging his dad. After years of being away and hugging no one, it hurt his chest how much he missed it. His dad never minded.
When he pulled away, his dad squeezed his shoulder.
“Get some sleep today.”
“I will,” he said.
He meant it. He needed to do some homework, post on some discussion boards, but he could do that later. Maybe the coffee hadn’t been a great idea, but he was pretty sure he could sleep through it.
“Be careful,” he said.
“I will be,” his dad said, walking around the front of his Charger. “Love you, kid.”
“Love you too,” Stiles said.
As his dad climbed into his car, Stiles walked back toward his apartment. The thought of his bed was making his limbs heavy. He still set his alarm as he walked, giving him plenty of time to post his discussions before midnight.
The next afternoon, Stiles walked to Peter’s cafe in the flannel he’d told him to wear, enough shit in his hair to actually make it look like he chose how it laid, and a clean pair of jeans. There was only one car parked in front of it on the street, a black Tahoe that shone in the afternoon sun through the thin layer of dust. He tried to open the door to the cafe, but it clanked on its lock. The sign in the door read closed.
He saw some movement behind the glass, but it was hard to tell with the brightness of the sunlight on the street and the reflections. Then Chris was close enough for him to make out his face before he unlocked the door and held it open.
“Hey,” Chris said.
Stiles walked into the cafe and looked around at the empty tables. Light stands were set up around the bar, the kind that would flash when Peter hit a button and cast nice lighting for the pictures.
“This is weird. It’s always kind of loud in here.”
“Yeah it is,” Chris said.
Then Peter came from the direction of the kitchen behind the wall that separated it from the prep area that the customers were allowed to see. He had a nice camera around his neck with a woven looking strap. He was holding the body of the camera in his hand.
“Hi,” Stiles said.
“Help yourself if you’re hungry,” Peter said, looking at few sandwiches on the counter. “I’m going to start with Chris then I’ll get to you.”
“Okay,” Stiles said.
He got a sandwich and sat at a table, watching Peter sit Chris in a chair, moving his hand, a few inches to the left or right. Chris let him, like his puppet, until he finally swatted at Peter as he kept rearranging his hand on the table.
“It’s fine. Just take the picture. If you still think I need to move it then I will then,” Chris said.
“Fine,” Peter said.
He stepped back and started to take pictures. The lights weren’t flashing, but there was a lot of natural light coming in through the windows. After taking a few, Peter looked at the small screen on the back of his camera, pressing buttons to scroll through. Stiles glanced at Chris and Chris made eye contact rolling his eyes a little bit. Stiles laughed.
“I saw that,” Peter said without looking up.
“You didn’t see anything,” Chris said.
“It’s going to be a long day if you’re already making fun,” Peter said, bringing the camera back to his eye and snapping another picture. “Move your hand closer to you.”
Chris scooted it near the edge of the table.
“Do you want it on my chest? I can’t go any closer.”
“Just look natural.”
“Having my hand in my mouth isn’t natural.”
Stiles laughed again, just enough to inhale a crumb of wheat bread. He choked, coughing as his eyes started to water.
“If you kill my model with your antics I’ll be pissed, Christopher,” Peter said.
“There’s water behind the counter,” Chris said.
Stiles gave him a thumbs up and went behind the counter, coughing again. He found a row of bottles and chugged. Peter’s camera was still snapping in the lobby.
“Are you okay?” Chris called.
“I’m fine,” Stiles said hoarsely. “Thanks.”
He looked around himself, as he cleared his throat and waited for his eyes to stop watering. He was behind the counter, the other side of life. The place that Peter saw every day. Stiles walked farther back, looking at the prepping surfaces closer, and peaking into the back where there was a flat top grill, another stainless steel prep station, cutlery, a walk-in freezer and fridge in the corner and a huge brick oven on the very rear wall. Stiles went back out and looked up at the chalkboard menu.
“Why don’t you use the brick oven?” Stiles asked.
“Because it’s a pain in the ass,” Peter said.
He was taking a few more pictures of Chris, who was now holding a cup and trying to pretend that was the most natural feeling in the world. The pose made the muscles of his arm tense, though. He had good arms. Nice tattoos on his bicep. The black shirt he wearing was tighter than his work shirts, but not so tight that Stiles would think it was vain. He just looked good. He looked really good actually, dark jeans, nice or at least not covered in dust boots. It shouldn’t matter, but seeing him not on the job and cleaned up was different.
“It isn’t polite to stare at people’s husbands, Stiles,” Peter said, looking at the preview on his camera again.
“You didn’t even see me,” he said.
“But you admit you were,” Peter said.
“Shut up,” Stiles said. He could feel his face getting hot. He hated that he did that. The least bit of teasing from people he thought were hot and it was over. “I hadn’t seen your tattoos.”
“It’s mostly covered up by my work clothes,” Chris said, lifting up the short-sleeve of his shirt farther.
Stiles went closer, glancing at Peter, but he was still flipping through pictures. He crossed the makeshift set and looked at the black and white artwork. It was some kind of crest. It was pretty in itself, but the detailing of the tattoo, deep black, and straight lines was beautiful.
“It’s really good.”
“Thanks. It’s my family crest from France.”
“That’s cool. Where did you get it?”
“In town. I can give you his name.”
“Awesome. I only have a few, but I’d like to get more,” Stiles said.
“He did a piece on my back and thigh too-.”
“It would be nice to see you drop your pants for Stiles, sweetheart, but I don’t have time for you two to play show and tell,” Peter said. “Stiles, sit down across from Chris.”
“You’re bossy,” Stiles said, sitting in the metal chair across the table from Chris.
“I am,” Peter said.
Then the shutter clicked.
“You didn’t even tell me how you want me to sit,” Stiles said.
“Because you’re sitting how I want you to sit,” Peter said. “Well not now. Now you look constipated.”
“Thanks,” Stiles said.
“Chris, make him relax.”
“Ignore him,” Chris said, looking at Stiles. “That usually does the trick.”
Stiles laughed slightly. In the pictures he’d looked at on Peter’s profile he knew how blue Chris’s eyes were, but in person it was different. They were so light with such a dark outline. In his kitchen, the night Chris finished the reno he’d noticed them too.
“Have you been using the kitchen?” Chris asked, like he could read his mind.
“Yeah. I’m not a big cook, but I’ve been trying. I actually bought groceries yesterday and not just stuff I put in the microwave.”
Chris smiled slightly. “Not much of a cook?”
“No. Where I lived there was so much takeout and it was so easy…” Stiles glanced at the camera as it clicked again. Then Chris touched his hand and he flinched. If he looked at the camera on accident when he wasn’t supposed to people lost their shit on some sets.
“Ignore him,” Chris said.
“It’s hard,” Stiles said, making himself breathe. He wasn’t on some hardcore type-A asshole’s set. Someone who wanted him to tense his ass and thighs, but still look like he was relaxed while he rode a dick or a dildo. It was just Peter and his husband, who seemed cool too. “He’s like a fly.”
Chris laughed and Peter grunted.
“What classes are you taking?” Chris asked.
Stiles read off his class list like it was seared behind his eyes.
“Algebra sounds bad. The rest sound interesting.”
“That’s an accurate description of the semester,” Stiles said, laughing slightly. “I like the Creative Writing class at least. I thought the writers were really pretentious-.”
“Stiles, move your hand. It’s in front of the cup logo.”
Stiles brought his hand back toward him then Peter came over, taking his hand, not harsh and jerky like a lot of photographers he’d worked with. He took time to place his hand. Stiles could’ve pulled away if he wanted, but he let Peter do his thing. A small shot of cold went down his spine. He didn’t like to be arranged, but the intent felt different. He knew Peter, Peter knew him, they liked each other. He was a person to Peter before he was a model.
And he had yet to mention Stiles’s dick, which was enough to make the shoot different.
“That’s better. Just relax,” Peter said, squeezing his shoulder as he walked back to his mark.
“Sure,” Stiles said.
“Which authors are you reading?” Chris asked.
“We’ve read Joyce, Chekov, and Cheever so far,” Stiles said.
“I’ve read one of Cheever’s.”
“The Swimmer,” Peter said. “I made him when I took my class.”
“I hated it,” Chris said.
Stiles laughed. “I came down here to bitch at him after I read it.”
“Because he doesn’t warn anyone that it’s soul-sucking.”
“Oh my God, I told you both that it was depressing,” Peter said, pausing and scrolling through the pictures again.
“Sure,” Chris said. “I don’t know any of the other ones. I didn’t go to college like some people,” he said, looking at Peter when he did.
“My degree doesn’t count,” Peter said.
“What’s it in?” Stiles asked.
“I took a lot of classes, spent a lot of time and money, to study things that would get me nowhere financially. My degree ended up being in Philosophy.”
“Don’t let him fool you,” Chris said. “He’s knows just enough about everything to make people feel stupid.”
“What else is a college education for?” Peter asked, raising the camera to his eyes again.
Stiles laughed slightly. “I don’t know. It’d be nice if when I get done I could get a job.”
“Plenty of them will do that, just not any majors that are any fun,” Peter said.
“Yeah true,” Stiles said.
“What did you do in LA?” Chris asked.
“I was a personal assistant,” he lied.
“Did you like it?”
“It was at a stuck up law office. It was alright. Not a dream job,” Stiles said.
Chris smiled. “No I’d probably last a day having to work for someone else.”
“Good thing you’re the boss then.”
“It was either be my own boss or keep getting fired.”
Stiles laughed. He couldn’t picture Chris back talking an employer, but he was married to Peter and he could see Peter doing it easily. Ellen had warned him to not let Chris’s work facade fool him.
“Do you know what you want to do after school?”
“Not yet. I still have to finish my basic classes, so I have time.”
“It takes awhile to figure out what you like. I was lucky. I don’t know how other people figure it all out on their own.”
“It’s not easy,” Peter said, snapping one more picture and scrolling through the preview. “You waste your twenties in college, taking a million different classes, in a thousand different majors before you graduate with enough credit hours to have a doctorates if you’d been concentrated, but you weren’t so instead you have one finished degree plan and four more that are almost there and a large amount of student loans.”
“That is so cheerful, thanks for sharing that,” Stiles said.
Peter glanced up and smiled. It was such a smart ass smile. “I enjoyed it? If that helps.”
“What shattering my college dreams or studying all the different things?”
“Studying all the things. Just enjoy it while you can. I would go back if I could.”
“What for?” Stiles asked.
Peter shrugged, still taking pictures. “Anything. I love the atmosphere.”
“He would’ve been a good professor,” Chris said.
“Why didn’t you go for that?” Stiles asked.
“I would’ve had to have gotten my masters to even be considered for positions. Then I would’ve had to have taught 1000 level courses in the hope of ever being able to teach classes I was actually passionate about. As appealing as it sounded, I figured for more financial stability, I could open this, be near the creativity, express my own creativity with the food, and have time to dabble in the other things I’m passionate about.”
“That makes sense.”
“It doesn’t really, but I’m happy doing what I do,” Peter said. “That’s the most that someone can hope for.”
Stiles nodded. He tugged at the rolled up sleeves of his shirt without thinking about it. He’d put concealer on the faint purple marks that morning. There were nearly gone. He looked up when he heard the camera snap again.
“Don’t look at the camera,” Peter said.
“Don’t take a picture of me while I’m looking at the camera?”
Chris laughed. Peter looked up and frowned.
“Don’t encourage the workers to be mouthy. You already have Boyd being a smartass.”
“I didn’t do that,” Chris said.
“Bullshit. He was so nice before you started coming around in the mornings.”
“Sorry,” Chris said.
He didn’t sound sorry at all. Stiles smiled and the camera clicked again. He frowned and looked at the camera. Peter lowered it.
“I got it anyway,” Peter said.
Stiles flipped him off. Peter snapped another picture. Stiles laughed and shook his head, burying his face in his hands as Peter took another picture. Then he felt a warm hand on his back. It had to be Peter, but he didn’t look up to see as he rubbed for a second.
“Do we need a break?” Peter asked. “I have cookies from yesterday.”
“I’ll take one,” Chris said.
“Sure,” Stiles said, looking up.
Peter paused when he looked up, looking at his hair. He ran his fingers through it and Stiles let him. He was just fixing it for pictures. It was better than having the professional crew work him over between shoots. Peter’s fingers were soft and didn’t yank. When Peter pulled away, he tilted his head, like a dog hearing someone whistle.
“Do I pass inspection?” Stiles asked.
“Barely,” Peter said with a small smile. “You’re doing great,” he said, as he walked behind the counter and Stiles heard the scrape of the paper boxes that Peter normally put his leftovers in. He came back into the lobby holding a box that he slid onto the table.
Peter grabbed one himself then a chair and pulled up to the table. Chris flipped through the cookies before finding one with Reeses pieces. Stiles took one of the chocolate chip, pecan, and coconut ones he loved. It was still soft as he bit into it.
It was quiet as they ate, but not the silence he felt like he should be trying to fill. The pictures were wearing on him faster than they used to. Then again he couldn’t remember the last shoot he’d done without a little something to help him along. It had been at least a year, probably longer.
“Split one with me,” Chris said, looking at Peter.
Peter shook his head, standing up with his mouthful, and wiping the crumbs from his lips.
“What about you?” Chris asked.
Chris picked up the last cookie, peanut butter with something else in it, and gave Stiles half. Stiles couldn’t even bring himself to be surprised when he heard the camera starting to click again.
Stiles sat through a few more hundred pictures, Peter occasionally moving this or that, or having Chris stand up or Stiles. Until he moved them to the bar and had them sit there. He got close ups of Stiles’s face while making him look out the window. He felt like a fuck up in a noir movie. He wondered if Peter was going to photoshop the shadow of some blinds over his face, his eye perfectly in view, all of his moles photoshopped out as God intended.
An editor took out the moles on his ass once. He didn’t remember his name, but he remembered the photographer and his producer being pissed. When the image had been used on a dildo advertisement, his moles had been intact again, although they’d photoshopped out any of the hair on his ass.
After Peter had moved them around the cafe for the better part of three hours, looking at pictures on his preview, moving them, adjusting the lighting as the sun started to go down, until it was dark outside. He kept looking over his shoulder at the natural light fading until he let the camera hang around his neck after getting in Chris’s face, snapping close ups, and Chris just let him do it.
“Okay, we’re done.”
“Good,” Chris said.
Stiles got up from his chair he’d been sitting in for at least twenty minutes. His ass was numb. His muscles were stiff from sitting in one position for too long. When he got home, he’d do his regime to loosen himself back up.
“Do you want to eat dinner with us?” Chris asked.
Stiles shrugged. He didn’t have anything else to do. His earliest class the next day was eleven.
“Our house,” Chris said.
Stiles thought about saying no. He’d just worked with them for three hours. But he wasn’t tired of them yet. Dinner sounded good too, anything that wasn’t take out again.
“We can drive you or we can wait for you to get your car?” Chris asked. “I don’t care either way.”
“I’ll go down and get my car. It’ll only take about ten minutes.”
“We should be almost finished loading up the equipment then,” Peter said.
“Okay,” Stiles said. “Be right back.”
He left through the front door after Chris unlocked it. He didn’t run, but he walked quickly down the sidewalk the few blocks down to his apartment. He got in his car and cranked the ignition. It started easier than it had yesterday when he went to buy groceries after letting it sit for two weeks. He needed to replace the battery. He should do that with the money Peter was paying him. But he wanted to buy things for the apartment. He’d see which impulse won out in the end.
Stiles drove down the quiet street, parking behind the black Tahoe that had its back doors open. Chris was just closing it up as Peter checked the door of the cafe again and got in the passenger side. Chris got behind the wheel.
When they pulled out, Stiles followed the red taillights through downtown, then as they made a left, going farther east. They took the road that Stiles and his friends had always taken to go out to the river, either to fish, hang out, or a few times during the summer they would float it from one of the rafting companies. It was never anything too exciting, but they’d enjoyed it anyway. He always came home with his back bright red and swearing he’d wear sunscreen the next time.
The street lights fell away quickly and Stiles was left to follow the lights of the Tahoe in front of him down the two-lane sun faded asphalt. Most of the lines were mostly worn away, but with a few drives out this way he knew he could remember where was the best place to pass a slow driver.
He watched his odometer as they drove. It was nearly five miles before they turned off the main road onto a smaller paved side road. It was the kind of road that people liked to call a two-lane, but was really about a lane and a half.
They didn’t meet anyone coming the opposite direction though and less than two miles down the road, Chris turned onto a thick gravel driveway.
He followed the winding trail of the driveway with tall thin trees on either side. They didn’t keep the underbrush cleared, so he couldn’t see between the trunks after about halfway down in the moonlight. It was only a few hundred yards before the trees widened and a medium house was sat in a clearing. Chris parked in front of the garage. Stiles parked behind him and stepped out of his car.
The sound of Peter and Chris getting out of the Tahoe echoed in the hollow. Stiles stared at the house. It looked like one of the Colorado ski resorts he’d stayed in on a miniature scale. It was dark wood that was lit by perfectly placed landscaping lighting. That didn’t used to be anything he even paid attention to until he realized how much the shit cost.
“Wow, nice place,” Stiles said.
“Thanks,” Chris said.
Peter went ahead of them, pulling out a set of keys from his pocket. The porch smelled like cedar as he stepped beneath the roof. It had a spiral of wood inlay on the bottom. It was the kind of design that could make him dizzy if he was high.
“Did you build this?” Stiles asked.
Chris nodded. “With Peter’s dad.”
“A few men from our construction crew, but yeah, most of it was done by the two of us,” Chris said.
“It’s really nice.”
“Wait until you see the inside,” Peter said, pushing open the front door.
Something was beeping as Peter hurried to the wall closest to the door and plugged in a code to a keypad. The beeping stopped. Stiles hardly noticed as he looked at the foyer that was tall, but small. Cozy. Still the height made it nowhere near claustrophobic, not with the window above the door that he could see the full moon through.
“Come into the kitchen,” Peter said, putting his hand on his back as he steered him down a short hall beside the stairs and into a large kitchen.
Stiles had been in plenty of rich people’s homes, millionaires, even a few times movies stars who were fans of his. He’d seen more elaborate, over-the-top kitchens, but he hasn’t seen one quite like Chris’s and Peter. It had nice appliances, but they were just Kitchen Aid, not Viking or Wulf. The counters were stone, but probably weren’t taken from a quarry that could only be reached by helicopter three months out of the year.
It was nicer than anything Stiles had ever lived in, but it still felt comfortable with the slightly rustic woods they had used. He wasn’t really surprised that Chris used reclaimed wood given his profession, but it was still nice to see. The island was made up of all different shades and grains. He didn’t eve think they were all from the same kind of tree.
“That island is awesome,” he said, leaning down to look at it closer.
“Thanks. We used some of the wood from Peter’s dad’s old shop,” Chris said.
“Grab a seat,” Chris said, pulling out one of the stools. “Do you like beer or wine?”
“What are you guys drinking?”
“Wine,” Peter said as he was going through the refrigerator. He handed a bottle to Chris, then took out a plate of steaks and sat them on the white counter.
Chris opened a drawer Stiles couldn’t see and took out a corkscrew, winding it into the top, with the wings on either side lifting. Once it popped, Chris took down three glasses and set them on the bar, pouring out equal amounts of red wine. Stiles laughed a little at how exact he was being. Chris noticed and smiled.
“Sorry. It’s a tick,” Chris said.
“Hey, I’d rather have a contractor with a perfectionist streak than not,” Stiles said, taking the glass that Chris passed him.
“I guess that’s true,” Chris said. “Can I help you do anything?” he asked, looking at Peter.
“You can prep potatoes,” Peter said.
Chris took a large drink of his wine before going around the island, opening the panty and taking out a bag of yellow potatoes.
“How do you want them?” Chris asked.
“Just use the mandolin and cut them medium. Then season with olive oil, garlic, salt, and pepper.”
“Can I help?” Stiles asked.
“You’re fine,” Peter said as he poured spices into a bowl then poured the mixture of the steaks. He already had a cast iron pan on the burner. When he finished, Stiles watched him drop some butter into the pan along with fresh garlic and some herb he didn’t recognize. It was already starting to smell good and they hadn’t even started to cook anything.
“What have you started cooking?” Chris asked.
It took Stiles a second to realize that Chris was looking at him and wasn’t talking to Peter.
“Oh, just stuff for some sandwiches, but you actually have to cook them in a pan, so baby steps.”
“It’s a good jumping off point,” Chris said. “Pasta too. You’re young. You can still eat that shit without blowing up.”
“Not really. Pasta gets me. Bread is okay as long as I get decent stuff.”
“Allergies?” Peter asked.
“I can’t usually eat white bread, but the stuff you use never fucks with me.”
“I use organic whole-grain things. You’re always welcome to come get it from the shop.”
“Thanks,” Stiles said.
He took a drink of his wine, then a gulp. He shouldn’t be nervous, but he was. It’d help if he could just keep his hands busy, so he pulled out his phone. There was a text from his dad asking how his job with Peter had gone. Stiles was in the middle of texting him back when he froze.
“Chris, I was going to ask, I want to replace the lights in the bathroom and the mirror, if that’s okay. I get if it isn’t.”
“That’s fine,” Chris said. “Just let me know when you want to do it and I can take the old stuff to Mom’s storage unit.”
“I don’t want to be a pain in the ass.”
“It’s not. I go by there at least once a week. I’d rather you do stuff to the house that make you like it. If you like something you’re more likely to take care of it.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“If you need help wiring the fixture, let me know. I normally have a few free openings during the week.”
“Okay, awesome,” Stiles said.
“What style are you doing?” Peter asked, as he started to lay the steaks in the pan.
They sizzled and Stiles’s mouth watered. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten. He needed to get one of those apps for that that Isaac had told him about. Although he didn’t know why Isaac used one. Even when he did look at it, he wouldn’t eat. But when they were constantly naked for a camera, it was par for the course. Everything they ate translated to how many hours at the gym they’d have to do to burn it off. At least the meth had helped with the weight. Maybe he should start smoking cigarettes, he’d heard those were good for hunger pangs.
Then he remembered the message he was typing to his dad. He finished that before going onto the app store and looking for a food reminder app.
“Are you feeling okay?” Chris asked.
Stiles looked up and Chris was looking at him across the large island. “Yeah, why?”
“You got pale,” he said.
“He’s always pale. It’s because he doesn’t eat enough,” Peter said, as the sizzling in the pan increased. “Get one of the smoothies out of the fridge.”
“Really I’m fine.”
Peter looked over his shoulder and smiled slightly. “Then drinking a shake won’t hurt you.”
Stiles rolled his eyes, but got off his stool. He went to their fridge and pulled open one of the top doors. There were a few different colored liquids in mason jars inside.
“What’s in the purple and red ones?” Stiles asked, looking for labels. He figured the row of green ones were similar to the ones he got at the shop.
“Purple is beets, carrots, and spinach,” Peter said, “They’re disgusting, but Chris likes them after he worksout. The red is strawberry, blackberry, and kale. You won’t taste the kale. The green is close to your green tea order though.”
Stiles took one of the green ones and went back to the island. He unscrewed the top and drank the icy liquid. He drank too fast and clenched his eyes against the brain freeze.
“Do you want at straw?” Chris asked.
“No I’m just stupid and I’ll drink slower.”
Chris laughed slightly and started to mix the sliced potatoes with oils and spices, then laid them on a parchment lined sheet pan. Stiles watched cooking shows sometimes. He should probably watch them more now that he actually wanted to learn, but seeing how someone who actually knew how to cook do it was neat.
“It’s easy stuff once you learn some things,” Chris said.
Stiles jerked his eyes up to Chris’s. He hadn’t realized he was paying attention to where he was looking. Chris just smiled. When he smiled he got tiny lines around his eyes. It was hot. Stiles didn’t know why Chris’s looks had taken a second to grow on him, but now that they had, it seemed like they were stuck in his head. A small part of him thought he was a fucking idiot for ever entertaining the idea that Peter would cheat on him.
“If you want to learn some staples, you should come over sometime,” Peter said. “We cook almost every night.”
“How? You’re always at the cafe.”
“I just have been recently, because I’m waiting for my niece to get back for Guatemala. She went with the Peace Corps. But I still make time to come home and cook with Chris in the evening.”
“Otherwise I’d barely see him,” Chris said.
“Aw, don’t pout,” Peter said, coming over to Chris and kissing him.
They didn’t touch each other, because Chris’s hands were covered in oil, but they kissed for a drawn out moment before Stiles saw a flash of tongue and looked away. He normally wasn’t one to stare at people like a fucking idiot.
“It’ll be over soon and I’ll be back to being your domestic god,” Peter said.
Chris snorted. “You were never a domestic god. We have a cleaning crew and someone who does the laundry. You just cook.”
“Well you can cook if you want,” Peter said.
Stiles laughed and tried to hide it behind taking a drink of his shake. Chris smiled and winked at him. Stiles almost choked. He barely kept from it, but still had to clear his throat. Chris smiled wider, looking down at what he was doing. He was just as bad as his fucking husband.
“Stiles just gives you all kinds of cushion, doesn’t he?” Peter asked, “At least you think he does.”
“I couldn’t ever cook as well as you do,” Chris said, looking at Peter and Peter’s shitty expression softened.
“I know you couldn’t.”
“So modest too,” Chris said.
“I don't have to be modest. That’s for weaker men,” Peter said, taking another drink of his wine.
“Do you want more wine?” Stiles asked.
“Yes,” Peter said.
Stiles got up and grabbed the cold bottle on the counter, pouring more into Peter’s nearly empty glass.
“Thank you,” Peter said.
Soon Peter pulled the steaks off, cussing himself that he should’ve waited. Chris said it would give them time to rest as he slid the potatoes in the oven.
“They don’t need to rest for 30 minutes,” Peter said.
“They’ll still be good,” Chris said, putting his arms around Peter’s waist. “We’ll drink another glass of wine and it’ll all be finished.”
“Fine,” Peter said, pulling away and taking another drink from his glass as he came around the bar to sit by Stiles. “So you’re sure that you never did any modelling before today?”
“Yeah. Why?” Stiles asked. His face was trying to get hot. He bit his tongue hard until the heat stopped and all he felt was throbbing.
“You did really well today. Maybe you should consider signing up with an agent? There are always little shops down the strip wanting to use locals for ads.”
“I don’t know, maybe. I just did it for the shop, because I like it and I get along with you. It seems like if I didn’t get something right on someone else’s set that it could get tense.”
Stiles saw a tiny flick in Peter’s expression and kicked himself. He shouldn’t have said set. He didn’t even think Peter and Chris had referred to it that way. He looked away and took another drink of his wine. Making himself not chug.
“Peter’s right though. If you want some extra cash, that could be an easy way to get some. Peter takes some of the pictures too,” Chris said.
“I do,” Peter said. “If I hear of anyone wanting someone, I can let you know?”
“Yeah, if you’re doing the sho-,” Stiles said, catching himself. “Taking the pictures.”
“Okay,” Peter said. Then he reach down and squeezed Stiles’s leg, right above his knee, but not high enough to be grabby.
Stiles drank more of his wine and Peter filled it up for him when he put it down. He shouldn’t really be drinking, but then again, he shouldn’t be smoking weed either and it didn’t stop him from doing it once or twice a week just to take the edge off. He took another drink.
“Do you want a tour, Stiles?” Chris asked.
“Sure,” he said, standing up too fast, but Peter and Chris had the decency to overlook it.
He followed Chris out of the kitchen. Peter stayed in the kitchen. Stiles glanced over his shoulder and saw him doing something at the sink. They went back out the way they’d come in, down the hallway, into the foyer, then through an open archway to the other side. It opened to a ceiling with the same massive height as the foyer, but like the foyer, the living room wasn’t that big.
One wall was lined with floor to ceiling windows with no seam to detract from the view of the trees that sloped down from the house. He hadn’t realized how close to the river they were, but there it was, a few hundred yards away, glittering in the glow from Chris and Peter’s house.
“Wow,” he said.
“It took us months to find a piece of property like this,” Chris said. “There wasn’t anything here. We had to run utilities, cut down too many trees, but we used them to construct the house, so I don’t feel too badly about that.”
Stiles had no idea why he should feel bad. It wasn’t like there was any lack of trees in this area of the state. They were everywhere. If it could build them a house, and a house this nice, he would’ve done the same thing.
“You’ll have to come out during the day sometime. It’s even prettier then.”
“Yeah I’m sure,” Stiles said.
Then he saw the marks around one of the window casings. The details were so stubble, but it was a tiny design, almost like a spiral notched into the wood.
“Did you have to order that?” Stiles asked, touching it. It was perfectly smooth under his fingers.
“No. Peter’s dad helped me do it,” he said.
“He worked in construction?”
“He was a contractor,” Chris said. “I worked under him for years. We opened A&H together about ten years before he died.”
“I’m sorry,” Stiles said.
Chris gave a weak smile, “He was 65 with a bad heart, it’s wasn’t that surprising, but it still felt like a shock.”
Stiles squeezed his shoulder before he could stop himself. “So Peter’s dad helped you and Peter learned to cook from Ellen.”
Chris nodded. “We were best friends all through school. I haven’t seen my dad since I was four. His dad took to me. His mom was a little distant, so my mom took to him. It worked out.”
“That’s so sweet,” Stiles said with a slight laugh. “Really.”
“I know. We’re lucky.”
Then there was a beep from the kitchen, so they started back that way. Stiles looked at the windows over his shoulder one more time. He really would like to see it in the daylight. Maybe Chris actually meant it about letting him come back.
When they walked into the kitchen, Peter was pulling the sheet tray of potatoes from the oven. He already had plates and silverware down.
“It looks great,” Stiles said.
“It does,” Chris said.
“Thank you,” Peter said. “I want to sit in the nook, so grab your plates and move over there. I have steak sauce and horseradish out it either of you want it.”
“Is this how you guys normally eat?” Stiles asked when Chris gave him a gentle push on his lower back to go first.
“We try to eat clean, but it’s normally chicken or fish,” Peter said. “Someone has to watch his red meat intake.”
“Yeah you,” Chris said.
“No, my doctor didn’t say that,” Peter said.
Stiles laughed slightly as he put a steak on his plate and spooned some of the potatoes with hit. Peter had even thrown together a salad while they were in the other room. He piled some on his plate and went to sit at the circular table off to one side, surrounded by windows. Peter had them open. Stiles could hear the river far below, the croak of frogs, and the hum of crickets.
When they sat down, Stiles paused for a second. When he’d go stay the night with friends in school, he never knew if their family prayed or not, but Peter and Chris just started to eat, so he did the same.
“The salad is really good,” Stiles said.
“Chris got the produce at the Farmer’s Market this morning,” Peter said.
“There’s a Farmer’s Market?” Stiles asked.
Chris nodded. “It’s in the park across from the cafe on Sundays. It goes from eight until noon.”
“That’s cool,” Stiles said.
“Their pears are the best. There’s an orchard outside of town that grows apples and pears. In about a month they’ll start bringing pumpkins and things like that.”
“I have no fucking clue what I’d do with a pumpkin, but that’s still cool,” Stiles said.
“A pumpkin pie?” Peter asked.
“Smart ass,” Stiles said.
Peter smiled. “It’s the one pie that I’ll just buy canned.”
“Which is why Mom makes them for holidays,” Chris said.
“Jesus,” Stiles said.
Chris and Peter both looked at him, then glanced at each other, like they didn’t know what they’d said wrong. Stiles laughed slightly.
“No, sorry, it’s just you guys are so fucking domestic. I’m not used to it. I knew a shit ton of gay couples in LA and almost all of them were these stupid fucking vapid guys that called themselves couples, but really they’d fuck anything else that caught their attention. Even the guys that were older than my dad were such fucking catty bitches. You guys are just something else and I mean that in the best way.”
Chris laughed, “It’s not like BH is the biggest hub for gay culture.”
“Oh so you’d be a slut if it was?” Peter asked.
“Yeah, because I’ve shown that urge so much in the last twenty years,” Chris said.
“I’m just fucking with you,” Peter said, smiling as he took a drink of his wine. “You know you have the perfect husband.”
“Yeah I do.”
It should’ve made Stiles feel like gagging. When people in LA had done that to each other, he had wanted to, but the difference was that he knew they fucking meant it. The guys in LA, no. If a cute waiter trying to make it as an actor caught one of their eyes the next day, they’d fuck them if given half the chance. Not that he’d been much better, the combination of drugs, porn, and being able to have sex with pretty much whoever he wanted had been toxic.
“It’s good to know that solid relationships actually exist,” Stiles said.
“Of course they do. You’ve just lived in one of the most jaded places in the world,” Peter said.
“Yeah. It’s nice to be back in a place where things can be normal.”
“I’m sure,” Chris said.
“You guys are good cooks,” Stiles said after he tried the steak and the potatoes.
“Thank you,” Peter said. “I taught him everything he knows.”
“Yeah, because it wasn’t my mom who taught you.”
“Shh,” Peter said.
Stiles laughed slightly. They were domestic, but they were fun. They reminded him of his parents kind of. Peter offered him more wine when he was halfway finished with his steak, but Stiles waved him off. He was mellowing out. They weren’t intimidating, he was just stupid. They were easy guys to talk to. When Chris started to talk about a project he was doing for one of the bigger realtor’s in town, he looked at Stiles more than he looked at Peter. Peter did the same thing when he talked about his day.
It was almost an hour and a half before Stiles’s phone beeped with a text from Lydia asking if they were still on for tomorrow to study. It was almost eleven.
“Fuck, I have to get home,” Stiles said.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize how late it was,” Peter said.
“You wouldn’t,” Chris said. “I have to get to bed too.”
Peter stood up from the table and grabbed their plates, taking them to the sink.
“Can I at least help clean up?” Stiles asked.
Peter shook his head. “I’m just going to put the plates in the dishwasher.”
Stiles looked around the kitchen, but Peter was right. Everything they’d been cooking with was out of sight. It looked nothing like his own kitchen when he cooked.
“Chris, get his money out of my wallet,” Peter said, as he rinsed the plates.
Chris took Peter’s wallet from the counter beside a catch-all bowl with their car keys and wallets inside. Stiles’s couldn’t remember the last house that he’d visited where things like that were left out. They probably just weren’t left out when he was visiting and he couldn’t blame people at all for it.
Chris took out two hundreds and handed them toward Stiles.
“Thanks,” Stiles said.
“Thanks for doing the shoot,” Peter said. “We enjoyed it,” he said as he wiped his hands on a dish towel.
“It was fun,” Chris said.
Stiles smiled. “Yeah it was. Thanks for dinner. I guess I’ll see you guys around.”
“I’m sure you will,” Chris said, smiling slightly before he held out his hand.
Stiles shook it then Peter’s. Friends. This was friendly. He could deal with that.
“Let me walk you out,” Chris said.
Stiles walked with Chris back through the kitchen and foyer. He was surprised that Chris didn’t stop at the door, instead he walked him out to his car and waited as Stiles dug in his pocket for his keys.
“Are you afraid a mountain lion is going to cart me off?” Stiles asked.
“Maybe,” Chris said, just a hint of a smile. He looked tired too.
“What time do you get up?”
“It’s past your bedtime,” Stiles said.
“I never get to sleep early on Sundays,” Chris said.
“Okay. I feel less bad then.”
“Don’t feel bad at all. I had a good time.”
“Same. You’re cool guys. A lot better than I actually expected when I moved back,” he said laughing slightly. “Not that I don’t like it here, it’s just, you know-.”
“I know,” Chris said. “It’s a good place, but not the most forward thinking.”
“Yeah, pretty much.”
“We’ll have to do this again,” Chris said.
“The photoshoot or the dinner?”
Chris smiled, barely showing his teeth. “Dinner. I wouldn’t inflict Peter’s perfectionism on someone again that fast.”
Stiles laughed. “I’ve been around worse.”
“You don’t have to lie. I won’t tell him,” Chris said.
Stiles laughed again. He was glad it was dark so Chris couldn’t see flood of blood he could feel coloring his face.
“I’ll let you get to bed,” he said, opening his car door.
“Okay. Have a good night.”
“You too,” Stiles said as he sat in the driver side seat.
He said a small prayer to whoever would listen that his car would just roll over. It caught like a champ, the motor burbling as he reversed to the left until he could drive forward down their driveway. When he looked in the rearview mirror, he could see Chris walking up the front steps.
The next morning, Stiles woke up at 6:30 AM, stared at his clock, then reset it for another thirty minutes. When it went off again, he thought about snoozing it again, but he pushed himself out of bed, and dug out his running clothes out of the laundry basket. He hadn’t washed them, because he was fucking lazy, but they only stunk a little as he pulled them over his head. It wasn’t like they wouldn’t smell exactly the same by the time he was done.
As he walked out of his front door, it was already warm but not suffocating. He should’ve gotten up before seven like he normally did so it was still slightly cool, but it was late September, at least. They only had a few weeks left of the sticky heat before fall would finally set in.
Stiles in his headphones as he went down the steps from his apartment and started what had become his normal route, to the right, going in front of the storefronts for nearly two miles until the sidewalk ran out and the town turned more commercial. Then he started to run back the way he’d come.
He passed a few older people walking their dogs or just getting their daily dose of fresh air. They nodded and smiled at him. Stiles remembered not to ignore them or avoid eye contact like he had in the city. Smile back. Even when his lungs ached and sweat was burning his eyes.
When he saw the hanging wooden sign for Wolf Creek, he slowed. He didn’t really want to go in and see Peter while he was covered in sweat, but he wanted a shake before Algebra and he wasn’t walking back down here to get one.
The door chimed as he pushed it open. It was still well before eight. There was a small line of people, but it moved fast with Boyd working the register. Then Peter came around the corner from the kitchen, wiping his hands on a rag and looking around, like he was trying to find something. When he glanced up, Stiles gave him a half-wave.
Peter smiled and went to the bar. Stiles walked around the line to him, leaning on the bartop like Peter was.
“You look good.”
“Yeah nothing hotter than a scrawny kid covered in sweat,” Stiles said.
Peter smiled. “What can I get you?”
“Green tea shake. Make my Algebra class bearable.”
“No problem,” Peter said.
Peter stood up and went behind the wall to the kitchen. Stiles sat at the bar and took out his phone. Then someone touched his shoulder. Stiles jumped slightly and looked up at Chris.
“Hey,” he said.
“You scared the shit out of me.”
“I’m sorry,” Chris said. “Running?”
“Yeah. I normally do a few miles in the morning.”
“No wonder you’re fit.”
Stiles snorted. “Yeah.”
He wasn’t heavy by any stretch of the imagination, but he wasn’t muscled either. But then again, he didn’t run and do yoga to get muscle. He did it because he had to.
“Hello, Love,” Peter said, coming back out from the kitchen with a handful of green stuff and a scoop of ice.
“Hey,” Chris said.
“What do you want?” Peter asked as he dumped the ice into a blender then a bunch of green things. Some of it looked like spinach, maybe mint, it smelled like mint.
“Something to drink and you have my debit card.”
“No I don’t,” Peter said, pouring green tea into the blender then soy milk.
“Yeah you do-,” Chris said, cut off by Peter starting the blending.
Peter stepped back from it and took out his wallet. It was a simple brown tri-fold. It had a tiny stamp in the leather at the bottom corner that said P.A.H. He hit the off button on the blender while he dug through the wallet then he took out a card.
“Sorry,” Peter said.
“Go get your pin number,” Chris said, taking his debit card back and putting it in his own wallet. His looked like a copper plate with an elastic band. Business cards were tucked on one side with his bank cards on the other.
“Why when I can just take your card?” Peter asked.
Chris rolled his eyes as he put his wallet back in his front pocket. “Do you have any sandwiches made?”
“Ham or sausage?” Peter asked as he poured Stiles’s drink into a plastic cup with a wide straw. It only took half the liquid to fill Stiles’s cup so Peter made another. He pushed one toward Chris and one to Stiles.
“Stiles, do you want one?” Peter asked.
Peter took one of the paper wrapped sandwiches from the small heated case. He gave it to Chris then leaned across the bar. Chris met him halfway with a short kiss.
“See you later,” Chris said to Peter before looking at Stiles. “Have a good day.”
“You too,” Stiles said.
Chris touched his shoulder again. Stiles glanced down his back without realizing he’d done it. Peter laughed in front of him.
“Looking at his ass right in front of me? You’re terrible.”
“Dehydration,” Stiles said, taking another drink of his shake, looking up at Peter before pausing. “It makes me rude.”
“Mhm,” Peter said.
Stiles reached for his wallet and Peter shook his head.
“You can’t keep giving me shit.”
“I can actually,” Peter said.
Stiles pulled out his wallet and pushed a five dollar bill into the tip jar.
“Boyd will appreciate that,” Peter said.
“Good,” Stiles said. “Thanks for the drink. See you later.”
“Good luck in class.”
“I need it,” Stiles said as he walked back toward the door.
The cup started to sweat in his hand immediately as he walked down the sidewalk to his apartment. At least he’d finished the Algebra assignment he was about to turn in. Lydia had looked it over. That didn’t really mean anything other than he’d get his next assignment today and have to start the cycle all over again. But at least it was something.
After his classes let out for the evening, he was home for fifteen minutes before Lydia knocked on his door. Stiles opened it to her standing on the landing, her pale face blotchy and covered in sweat.
“You need to get a backpack,” Stiles said, standing in his doorway.
“That doesn’t look professional,” she said, pushing him back until she could come into the apartment. She sat her bag on his couch and sighed. “It needs to be winter.”
“You should still get a backpack.”
“You should get some art to put on your walls.”
“You win,” Stiles said.
She went into the kitchen got herself a water bottle from his fridge before coming back and sitting on the couch, kicking off her shoes and putting her feet on the table. Stiles sat at the other end and watched TV.
“Where is your homework?” Lydia asked after a few minutes.
“I’m trying to ignore that it exists.”
“I have to teach in three hours,” she said.
Stiles grunted and leaned forward to dig through his backpack. He sank to the floor and opened his notebook and textbook on the coffee table. Lydia scooted closer and looked over his shoulder at the problems. He thought he mostly knew what he was doing, but he’d thought that the last few weeks and he’d been wrong.
“I did that photoshoot with Peter yesterday,” Stiles said.
“How was it?” she asked.
“Good,” he said. “Chris did it with me. Then they had me over for dinner.”
“They took you to their house?”
“Yeah it’s nice.”
“That answer is wrong.”
Stiles erased the numbers he’d written and started to work the problem again.
“I think they’re flirting with me, but I don’t fucking know,” Stiles said.
“Well Peter is.”
“You think everyone is flirting with everyone.”
“I don’t actually, but I do know that he’s not chatty. People don’t keep going to his cafe, because of his charming personality,” she said.
“He’s always been nice to me.”
“He thinks you’re cute.”
“I’m not cute.”
“You’re adorable,” she said, then she took his pencil from his hand, erasing his answer again and getting on the floor with him. “No, it’s like this,” she said as she started to work the problem. When she finished, she dusted the eraser shavings from the paper. “What did you guys do at their house?”
“We had some wine and ate dinner that Peter cooked.”
“That sounds like a date.”
“Hardly. I’d have you over for wine and dinner.”
“Yeah, but you don’t want to fuck me.”
Stiles shrugged. “People don’t date thirds. If they want to fuck a third person you go to the bar, drink some, then go back to their place.”
“Maybe that’s what you’re used to, but that’s obviously not what they did,” Lydia said.
“That’s why I’m saying they don’t want to have sex with me.”
“That’s narrow minded. Just because it’s been one way for you doesn’t mean it couldn't happen another way,” she said, “Maybe, just possibly, they could actually want to know someone before having sex with them.”
“That’s the benefit of fucking someone from the bar, you don’t know them. They’re not going to steal your husband when it’s all over.”
“I don’t think they’re afraid of you stealing anyone.”
Stiles started to open his mouth then closed it. Maybe they weren’t. They didn’t act like a couple with issues. They seemed slightly stagnant, but after the toxic as fuck relationships he’d been involved with and seen, maybe that’s what stability looked like.
He’d known one polyamorous relationship in LA. They were as toxic and fucked up as everyone else he knew, but they’d mostly only dated each other and when they did fuck outside of it, they’d all considered it cheating. Maybe they wanted something like that. The night before had felt like a date, a better date than most he’d been on.
“I think it was just a work thing,” he said.
“I think they want something from you,” Lydia said.
Lydia laughed slightly, like he was being dramatic, maybe he was. “I didn’t say it had to be something bad.”
“Well you’ll know if they invite you somewhere else,” she said. “Maybe they were just being nice after you worked for them all day.”
“Or maybe they want to make you the meat in a daddy sandwich.”
Stiles snorted, pushing her. She smiled before she started to pick her nails. Stiles stared at the TV for a few seconds. Maybe they did want something from him, but if they did it was just sex. He wouldn’t mind that. They were hot. It would probably be fun. For the first time in awhile it wouldn’t be to get more drugs or to make his drug dealing piece of shit boyfriend feel like their relationship was more legitimate than it was. It was never anything more to Stiles than an ongoing transaction, but for whatever reason, Harris had always tried to pretend like it was something more, like Stiles didn’t have a chemical dependency to the situation and it was all by choice and a matter of love.
Right until Stiles overdosed.
Stiles hadn’t heard from him since. From what Isaac told him, he’d been too afraid to run into Stiles’s dad at the hospital, so he’d ghosted.
“You know if you focus on this we can finish it in an hour,” Lydia said.
“Sorry,” he said, pulling himself out of his thoughts and looking back at his homework.
It took them less than an hour to finish the problems. Forty-five minutes. After, Lydia laid on the couch and Stiles sat in the chair. Lydia lived twenty minutes away on the outskirts of town. She had a roommate she didn’t like, who had a boyfriend that she liked less. Stiles didn’t care if she hung out with him. She didn’t talk incessantly like Isaac did sometimes, like he did when he was high on meth. He was sure he’d driven Isaac just as crazy as he’d driven him.
They watched TV until Lydia had to leave for class. When she was gone, Stiles turned up the TV to fill the quiet space and went into the kitchen to make himself a late lunch before he went to work. The recipe had looked simple enough, but he fucked up a few of the steps, burning the bread for the sandwich and making the edges of the cheese brown where they touched the pan, but the end product was edible and the air was only slightly hazy as the hood vent above the stove droned, blocking out the voices on the TV.
Stiles was leaning against the bar, eating and thinking about how the fuck he was going to scrub the burned places from his skillet again when his phone went off. He figured it was Lydia or his dad, but it was Peter.
How was your day?
Stiles held his phone in one hand, looking at the message while he finished the last few bites of his sandwich. Then he put it down and loaded the dishwasher, finally to the point of being able to run a load for the third time since he’d had it. When it started to hum, Stiles picked up his phone again, sending a text back to Peter.
Peter’s response took less than a minute. Stiles liked that. He hated to play the waiting game.
Fine. Do you work Friday at 9:30?
Chris and I were going to the movies, would you want to come?
Stiles smiled slightly. There was a high tight feeling in his chest that he hadn’t felt in a long time. It didn’t really feel good, but he was still smiling.
Idk. What’re you going to see?
You pick, comedy, drama, or horror?
Idk if we go see a horror am I allowed to climb in Chris’s lap if I get scared?
His chest felt tighter after that, but he was joking and Peter would know that. Even if he got completely shut down, he’d like to know where the whole flirting thing stood now instead of when they were in person.
I’m just offended that you wouldn’t choose mine.
Stiles laughed, the pressure in his chest loosening.
I love horror if that’s okay with you guys.
We will steal our nerves, Peter wrote. Then a second message popped up. We’ll probably go to dinner before.
Okay. I’m scheduled until 7:30. Meet at 8?
Let us know if you want to go somewhere specific.
Oh fancy. Like a real date.
Yes, exactly like that.
Stiles smiled again. He’d been smiling the entire time like a fucking idiot. It almost hurt and he had no fucking reason for it. They were still the same two guys he saw last night, even earlier that day, just two guys in their forties or really close to it. Guys that just wanted to fuck someone younger to change things up once or maybe a few times.
Even that voice couldn’t cancel out the feeling in his chest like helium.
Cool. I picked the movie, you guys pick dinner.
Done, Peter said. We’ll see you then.
Then Stiles pulled up a text to Lydia. He knew she was in class, but she wouldn’t respond until after anyway.
Well whatever the fuck they want. I guess I’ll find out Friday. Peter asked me to have dinner and watch a movie with them.
When he put his phone down, he still felt like there was electricity beneath his skin. He wanted to run two miles. He wanted to go on a nod and get the fuck away from the feeling, but it wasn’t a bad feeling. Feelings weren’t a bad thing. His therapist had tried to beat that into his head while he was in rehab. At least it seemed like it had sunk in.
Instead he left his phone on the counter and went into his bedroom to grab his yoga mat. He spread it out in the living room and started to go through his easy regime with the sound of the TV as background noise.
The next day, after class, Stiles walked with Lydia down to Peter’s cafe. She had an addiction to an avocado wrap they made. It was okay, but Stiles like a lot of Peter’s other stuff more. It was nearly three as they walked in, the lull between lunch and dinner. A few people were still scattered around, but it wasn’t packed like when he came in the mornings.
Lydia went in front of him as Stiles stood back to look over the menu. When she finished, Stiles went forward, still not sure what to get to eat, but he knew what he wanted to drink at least.
“Hello,” Peter said.
“Hey,” Stiles said, then glanced at Lydia who was lingering. “Peter, this is my friend, the one who helps me not fail Algebra, Lydia. Lydia, Peter.”
“It’s nice to put a name with a face,” Peter said, holding out his hand.
“It’s nice to meet you too,” Lydia said, shaking his hand.
Then Stiles caught her eyes and barely tilted his head. She took the hint and went to find a table.
“What can I get you?” Peter asked.
He really did talk to him a lot sluttier than he’d talked to Lydia, but he was gay. For all Stiles knew that’s how he talked to all cute guys.
“I don’t know on the food front,” he said, “But how much do you like me?”
Peter mirrored his position like he always did, elbows on the bar, almost touching Stiles’s arms.
“It depends. What do you want?”
“The recipe for the green tea smoothie. I want to be able to make it after my workouts.”
Peter smiled without showing his teeth. “I don’t know. Do you promise to not open a rival shop with all the recipes I give you and run me out of business?”
“I don’t know. It’s tempting.”
“I guess I’ll have to take my chances.”
Stiles smiled. “Thanks.”
“I’ll text it to you. Now what would you like to eat?”
“The croissant sandwich sounds good,” Stiles said.
“Salami, pepperoni-,” Peter said before shaking his head. “I’ll bring it out.”
“Let me pay.”
“No,” Peter said, walking away.
Stiles took cash from his wallet again and put it in the tip jar. Then he went to sit across from Lydia at the table they normally sat at by the window.
“You’re acting weird,” Stiles said.
“How?” Lydia asked. She had her compact out and was reapplying her pink lipstick. Her lips were always perfectly smooth without a crack or hint of split skin. He didn’t know how she did it.
“You’ve just been quiet.”
Lydia blotted her lips before looking around at the cafe. No one was sitting near them and the music was loud enough that it would drown out their voices if they talked quietly. Stiles leaned on the table. She pushed her long red hair behind her ear, giving another glance over her shoulder before leaning in.
“I have a thing for one of my students,” she said.
“Ooo, Ms. Martin,” Stiles said.
“It’s not funny.”
“Come on, go for it. Just be sneaky,” he said.
“Good luck. He’s the Department Head’s son.”
“Go big or go home.”
“He’s just so smart and driven.”
“Not to mention hot as fuck I bet.”
“Of course, what do I look like?” she asked.
From the corner of his eye, Stiles saw Peter coming toward their table. He leaned back and Peter put a plate in front of him. The green tea he saw beside him was slightly darker than normal.
“It’s a new flavor,” Peter said.
“What am I your guinea pig?”
“Yes, let me know how you like it,” Peter said as he put Lydia’s food down too.
“Sure, boss,” he said then Peter walked away as the line at the register grew.
When he was back behind the counter, Stiles looked back at Lydia. She was unrolling her wrap to put salt and pepper on it like usual.
“I don’t get it. Why can’t you just date them quietly?”
“Because he’s in my class,” she said. “I don’t want to step on any toes and end up with no shot at my graduate program or recommendation letters. I need those letters.”
“At least you’re not into the department chair?”
“Without that classic trope you wouldn’t have made half of your movies,” Lydia said.
Stiles laughed. “The most bullshit thing I ever did. You know how many of my professors I’d fuck? None.”
“Well look who you’re comparing them to? That’s hardly fair,” She said, glancing at Peter. “If he was your professor you’d fuck him.”
“The most unrealistic trope in porn is the hot plumber.”
“I fucked a plumber who worked on my sink,” he said. “But I never fucked one on set.”
“You fucked a plumber?”
“Yeah. He fixed the sink. I didn’t want to pay,” he said.
Lydia laughed, but her face didn’t show much judgement. “You are such a slut.”
“I was on ecstasy. He didn’t look repulsive.”
“But he could’ve been hideous.”
“He could’ve been 70 and balding, but he wasn’t.”
Lydia laughed again. Stiles bit into his own sandwich then tried the drink. He’d figured the red tint would be some kind of spice, but it tasted like berries. When he caught Peter’s eyes over the counter, he gave him a thumbs up. Peter winked, but he was swamped with customers.
When they finished eating, Stiles needed to get to the bookstore and Lydia needed to get to her class so they left before Stiles could talk to Peter. Instead, he wrote out a note on a napkin and put down a tip before they left.
It was great. I’ll be your guinea pig anytime. :)
“Shut up,” Stiles said, when he saw the smirk on Lydia’s face.
The bookstore had gotten a medium sized load of books earlier that day. The daytime crew hadn’t had time to get to them, so Stiles sorted through the two boxes and stocked the shelves with the different genres when he got to work. It was tedious, but he liked it, looking for the correct spots, making sure the covers weren’t damaged and checking the books off the order list as he inventoried them.
For the first time since he’d started working there a week ago, he was busy for a solid hour and a half before the boxes were empty and broken down in the back room on a large stack of more cardboard.
He had just opened the short story collection by Denis Johnson for class when the bell above the door rang. It was just Lydia, carrying her stupidly uncomfortable bag. She came behind the desk and sat in the extra chair.
“How was class?”
“Awful,” she said. “How has this been?”
“Fine. I did some stocking,” he said.
“What are you reading?”
“Short stories for class.”
She hummed then pulled a binder from her bag. She opened it and he saw papers with scribbled graphite handwriting. He went back to reading his book. She was being quieter than usual, but maybe that’s just what she did when she graded.
It was less than ten minutes before she put down her blue pen and another twenty seconds of slow counting in his head before she opened her mouth.
“Why did you start doing the scenes?” she asked.
Stiles shrugged, not looking up from his book. “I was just stupid.”
“No you weren’t,” she said. “You were never stupid. We were co-Valedictorians.”
Stiles looked up from the white pages and closed the book, using his finger as a bookmark. Then he shrugged again. “I needed more money. I was working as an assistant for some piece of shit pretentious prick. My roommate was doing some shoots at the time and he always had money. He had better hours. So I had him get me a meeting with his producer. Then it just snowballed from there.”
“How old were you?”
“It was four months after I moved out there, so I’d just turned 19.”
“Wow,” she said quietly.
“Don’t do that. Don’t act like it’s sad. I knew what I was doing.”
“I didn’t act like-,” she said then stopped. “Did you like doing it?”
“I don’t know. I hadn’t fucked around much, so it was scary at first, but exciting. It kind of fed or maybe even made a voyeur kink I didn’t know I had.
“As people got added in on my scenes, I don’t know. It was just work. Go to work, suck a dick, get paid a few hundred dollars. Go back a few days later and hook up with another person. It was too much work to really enjoy it, but I guess I was good at faking it, because I got popular.”
It hadn’t taken long at all, for him or Isaac. The twink appeal had been high with both of them. They’d had older actors wanting to hook up with them and producers wanting to work with them. He’d gone from getting paid a few hundred to a few thousand for each scene, and having his videos posted on sites that people had to pay subscriptions for. He was able to tell his old boss to go suck a dick, which he did tell him, word for word when he quit.
“What does your dad think you were doing?”
“He thinks I was a personal assistant to a lawyer, which I was for almost eight months.”
“He thinks that gave you enough money to have saved to live on?”
“I never said he believed me.”
Pressure spread over his chest. The thought of his dad seeing one of his videos made him want to vomit. He’d relaxed a little bit when his videos had been put on subscription sites, but he knew it only took a few days for pieces of those videos to trickle down to the free sites. He had just banked on the fact that his dad wasn’t gay, he wouldn’t be looking up gay porn.
He didn’t realize he was pinching his inner arm until it stung. He made himself stop and didn’t look at Lydia to see if she’d seen. There wasn’t anything he could do about it if she had.
“That’s what started the drugs,” he said, then shook his head, squeezing his eyes closed. “Dad didn’t start the drugs. That was me, that was completely on me. I just-,” he said then swallowed. “Fuck, it wasn’t easy, you know? To go from being a fucking 4.0 GPA student in high school, shit even in the college classes, I made the fucking Dean’s List both semesters before I moved. Then I was what? A college dropout, who fucked on camera, then I added not being able to get through the day without craving smack like a fucking junkie? I’d do anything to get away from that feeling, but I was just making it worse and I knew that. But I also knew my only way out was to come clean to Dad about everything, get into rehab, and come home. And the stupidest thing? I knew he’d let me back in. It’d break his fucking heart, but he wouldn’t even judge me that badly. I just didn’t want to disappoint him.”
Stiles closed his eyes and pressed his fingers into his burning tear ducts. He took a deep breath through his nose and felt it stutter before he made himself take another. Lydia squeezed his arm gently.
“You’re really hard on yourself,” she said quietly.
Stiles laughed and opened his eyes. “People say that, but then look what I’ve done?”
“Everyone makes mistakes.”
Stiles almost asked her what mistakes has she made that can even remotely compare to what he just told her. What the fuck had she done in her Masters degree earning, perfect world that could even put a shadow on his own fuck ups, but he kept his mouth closed. Hearing other people's’ mistakes never made him feel better about his own. His mistakes were still his. He’d still be the one going to sleep with them at night and no one could take that way by sharing thiers.
“Why did you come home?” Lydia asked after they sat in silence for a few dragged out seconds.
“You don’t know?” he asked, watching her expression, because she had to fucking know. The whole town had to.
Lydia shook her head.
“I OD'd on heroin,” he said, watching her intently to see if there was any hint that she’d heard this, but there was nothing but a sharp flash of horror. “My roommate took me to the hospital. I went into a coma for two days and when I woke up, Dad was there.”
He remembered his dad, but it was so fuzzy. He was relieved, then he’d remembered what he was doing last and he panicked, trying to reach for his arm. The last thing he remembered was pushing the needle beneath his skin. Then he was out again.
When he’d woke up, he had the worst headache of his life and his dad was asleep on the chair beside the hospital bed. There was an oxygen mask on his face. The sound of the air and the pressure of it pushing up his nose and down his throat made him feel like Darth Vader.
He didn’t know how long he’d been awake before his dad got up and walked, half-asleep, toward the bathroom. He was almost there before he saw Stiles’s eyes were open. His dad was across the room in two steps and had him in a hard hug. He didn’t know how safe it was with all the tubes hooked up to him. But he remembered how warm he was. He felt like a heating pad. He had started crying and he’d clung to his dad like a little boy. All he could think over and over was, it was over. All of it was over and he was right. He’d gone into rehab as soon as he was released from the hospital.
“I’m glad you’re home,” Lydia said. Her eyes were wet.
“Don’t cry. I was so fucking stupid.”
“People are allowed to be stupid sometimes without dying for it.”
“There’s a difference between being stupid, like running a red light, and OD’ing on heroin when you’re your dad’s only fucking life line. Just, it was so fucking selfish and I hate myself for it,” he said, choking slightly and turning away to cough. The dark windows to the street were blurry through the tears standing in his eyes. “Sorry. I didn’t mean-.”
“Don’t,” Lydia said, touching his shoulder. Then she hugged him.
Stiles hugged her back for a few seconds before pulling away.
“You don’t have to stay,” he said, taking off his glasses to wipe the moisture from his eyes.
“Ashleigh has her boyfriend over. The longer I can stay out the better,” she said.
“Alright,” Stiles said.
Stiles tried to read, but he couldn’t focus so he put it down and went to zone the store. When the bell rang, he saw a kid from his creative writing class. They were looking for the same book he was reading, so he got them a copy from the shelf and checked them out. He was thinking about going to zone again, looking for non-existent problems before Lydia looked up from her grading again.
“Are you going to tell Chris and Peter?” she asked.
“They know at least some about the drugs,” Stiles said. “I don’t know about the porn. I don’t really want to. They’re this perfect gay domestic dream… I don’t know. If they keep me around then I’ll consider it, but it’s in my past. That’s where I’d like it to stay.”
“I understand,” Lydia said, then she looked at her watch. “It’s eight.”
“Good,” Stiles said, gathering up his things as Lydia did the same.
They walked out of the front door together after Stiles set the alarm system. He locked the door and Lydia lingered on the sidewalk before hugging him again.
“Thank you for talking to me,” she said.
“Just don’t tell anyone.”
“Of course not,” she said, holding him at arm’s length for a second before letting him go. “Have a good night, okay?”
“You too. Be safe driving home.”
“I will,” she said as she started toward her white beetle across the dim parking lot.
Stiles waited at the bottom of the stairs to his apartment until she was inside of her car and the motor rolled over. He walked up the steps slowly as her headlights washed over the brick siding and she was pulling out onto the main street.
When Stiles’s timer went off in the morning, he plugged in a time twenty minutes from then, then turned it off all together. He didn’t have class until 10:30. He’d be awake by then. He rolled back over and went back to sleep within minutes.
The next time he woke up, the block of his window against his blackout curtains was dull yellow. He picked up his phone on the bedside table and stared at it. It was 9:45. He set his time for twenty more minutes. If he was late, that as fine. He hadn’t been late yet this semester. He’d miss all together, but he didn’t know anyone to get the notes off of and he’d probably need them.
He walked into class on time, but barely. He grabbed his normal seat beside the window and laid his arm in the sun spot that warmed the laminate desk. He could fall asleep again. Last night it hadn’t been easy to fall asleep, even with his insomnia medication. It put him out until about three hours, then he woke up every thirty minutes like clockwork.
The professor up front wrote on the board and Stiles tried to follow. He wasn’t understanding most of what she said, but he was at least able to copy what she wrote into his notebook for later.
What he told Lydia last night was seeping up through his sleep-fucked mind, like it had all last night. Which was fucking stupid, because awake and conscious, he knew, it didn’t matter.
What he’d done, didn’t matter. He did it before he knew them, before he knew anything about them, then assuming that they were even relevant to his life in the long run was fucking ridiculous. They were two hot guys that wanted to fuck him. That was it. Yeah maybe they wanted to take him on a date first, maybe get to know him a little bit, maybe they even liked him as a long-term hook up, but that’s it. It wasn’t any of their business what he’d done.
Then again, if they wanted to hook up with him there was always the chance that they already knew exactly what he’d done. He was popular in the right circles, at least he had been, the cute 19, 20, 21, 22 year old with the big brown eyes and the full fuckable mouth, that guy had been fucking flavor of the year for awhile.
He hadn’t been as popular when he stopped, when he had to stop. It probably had a lot less to do with the drug use and a lot more to do with the fact that he was too old to be doing what he had been and he wasn’t hot enough to pull off the look of stuck somewhere between daddy and boy. In some of his last scenes he’d actually fucked the new kids, the kids that looked how he used to.
If Peter and Chris wanted to fuck a past his expiration porn star that was fucking fine with him. They might as well. It wasn’t like a good portion of West Hollywood hadn’t already, on and off camera.
He’d managed to keep writing while his mind ran wild. He didn’t know if it would be legible, but that paired with the textbook and the slides on the school site should be more than enough to write the paper the professor was talking about at the head of the class. He at least took down the requirements, fifteen pages, MLA, all that jazz, cited sources. He could do that. At least his mind still knew how to write a paper.
After class, he sat in the vestibule of Seminary Hall, waiting for his next course to start and playing on his phone, scrolling through Facebook. Peter had posted a picture of a coffee cup sitting on the most rustic part of the bartop in the cafe. Chris and Stiles had watched while he tried to get the perfect picture of the cafe’s logo and the distressed wood. It had been pretty funny, but the result was nice. It had a lot of love reacts, so he hit a thumbs up.
He was considering pulling out his Humanities book to start reading on a chapter when his messenger popped up with Peter’s profile picture.
I have more pictures to show you at dinner. They’re coming out wonderfully.
Great. Can’t wait to see them.
You should come by the cafe before work. I’m testing some different sandwich combinations I’d like you to try.
I’ll see what I can do. I’m swamped with homework.
He wasn’t. Yeah the essay for Psychology wasn’t going to be a blast to write, but he really just felt like shit. He wanted to go home and sleep. The thought of crawling into bed was so strong it made his limbs feel heavy and his eyes drag.
Before he realized what happened, someone was touching his shoulder. Stiles jerked as he came awake, the windows of the vestibule across from him. It took him a second to realize that the person who touched him was standing a handful of feet away, meaning they must’ve touched him and backup, which was pretty considerate. It took him another second to recognize the guy from Chris’s construction crew. He had a military camo backpack and the yellow tinted combat boots Stiles had seen on a few other people around campus. The man wasn’t dressed for ROTC, but maybe they didn’t have to dress for it every day.
“You’re in Humanities II aren’t you?” the guy asked.
“It’s going to start in three minutes. I was on my way there,” the guy said.
“Oh shit,” Stiles said, grabbing his backpack. “Thanks.”
“No problem,” he said. “You rent from Chris’s mom, right?”
“Yeah you’re one of the guys that worked on the kitchen?”
The man nodded before holding out his hand as they walked. Stiles shook it, his palm rough against his own.
“Stiles,” he said. “I didn’t even recognize you from class. I feel like an idiot.”
“I sit a few rows behind you.”
“Yeah I don’t really pay attention,” Stiles said.
“Are you related to Peter?”
“I’m his nephew. Sister’s son,” he said.
Derek paused at the door and Stiles lingered for a split second, wondering if he wanted to say anything else before Derek shrugged.
“My friend I was sharing notes with dropped. Would you want to pair up?”
“Yeah that’s fine,” Stiles said.
Stiles followed Derek to the back of the class and sat in the empty desk beside him although the class was almost completely full. A girl was sitting in his normal spot beside the window. It was dark where he and Derek were sitting against the back wall.
Maybe it was the nap or meeting Derek, but he was able to focus more on what the professor up front was saying about the Aztecs. He was almost certain that his teacher’s sources for the material he taught wasn’t in the textbook he had bought at the beginning of the semester. At least not phrased how he phrased it. All of the definitions he used were just barely off what the book said, some of the timelines and dates differed slightly, which had stressed Stiles the fuck out during their first test last week until the professor had given questions about dates of events in groups like 56 BC - 250 BC. Beside him, he could hear Derek’s pen scribbling too.
When class ended, Stiles put his book in his bag before looking at Derek.
“Did you want to look at my notes?” he asked.
“No I think I got them,” Derek said. “But next week before the exam, maybe we can meet at the library?”
“Sure,” Stiles said, then he pulled out his phone. “What’s your number?”
Derek gave it to him and Stiles plugged it in before sending Derek at text with his name in the subject.
“If you’re going to miss or anything just let me know. I’ll send you notes.”
“Same, but I don’t miss.”
“Same,” Stiles said with a slight laugh. Then he looked down at Derek's backpack and his boots. “Military?”
“I was. I got out six months ago. Putting my GI bill to good use,” he said.
“Good for you.”
Derek shrugged. “I have to go to work. I’ll see you around.”
“Yeah, see you.”
Derek was one of the last people to leave. A group of younger people were near the window talking about a party or something that was happening that weekend. Two years ago, fuck eight months ago, he would’ve been eavesdropping just to find out where it was, but he didn’t feel the urge as he made his way out of the classroom and down the hall toward the front stairs.
As he walked toward his apartment, his stomach growled. The invite from Peter sounded good, but then the thought of Peter brought a lot of shit that he didn’t really want to think about at that minute. He had food anyway, he needed to cook it and stop going out. He had money in savings, a lot of it, since he’d mostly sold his ass to fuel his habits, but it wouldn’t last forever.
When he reached his apartment, the AC hit him in the face. He dropped his bag on the floor then sprawled over the couch, a leg on the arm of it and his own forearm across his eyes. The vents were loud, just loud enough to lull as background noise as he started to fade out.
Then his phone started to vibrate on his chest. His dad’s name was on the screen so he answered.
“Were you asleep?”
“Thinking about taking a nap,” he said.
“Sorry,” his dad said. “I’ll let you get back to it.”
“No it’s okay. What’d you need?”
“I was going to ask if you’d gotten you work schedule yet.”
“Not yet,” Stiles said. “Why?”
“I want you to go to a meeting with me tomorrow.”
“I have class then work. I at least know that,” Stiles said.
“Okay,” his dad said. “What about a Saturday? They have one every other week at noon on Saturdays.”
“I’ll talk to Ellen. I don’t know how much she’s going to expect me to work on the weekends.”
“I understand,” his dad said, but he sounded worried and that made Stiles feel like shit as he stared at the textured ceiling.
He didn’t want to go. He’d gone to a few after rehab, in the process of moving, and he fucking hated it. The people that sat around in the circle from him, most of them looked like every stereotype for a junkie he’d ever seen. Someone of them were obviously coming down off something during the fucking meeting. The things they admitted to, the things they’d done to their friends and their family, lying, stealing, it made him sick.
He’d never gotten to that point. He’d never been one of those people and he hated the thought of being surrounded by them again. Of being one of them.
My name is Stiles and I’m an addict.
He remembered the way a few of them had looked at him, smirking. Like the fact that he’d had a bath in the last three days meant he wasn’t struggling.
Stiles swallowed and looked away from the ceiling.
“I’m going to try to make some of them.”
“Okay,” his dad said. “I just know the first year is the hardest. You’ve got a good start. I want that momentum to stay.”
“I’m not trying to be pushy.”
“I know,” Stiles said again and he knew it. He was just worried. Stiles knew what it was like to worry like that, about his dad and the feeling fucking sucked. “I’ll ask Ellen off for the next Saturday meeting as long as it isn’t this weekend,” he said.
“Sounds good,” his dad said, his voice finally sounding lighter. “Do you have any plans this weekend?”
“I’m going out with Chris and Peter Friday night after work. Other than that, I don’t know.”
“Chris and Peter?”
“Yeah just don’t think about it too hard.”
“I won’t,” his dad said.
Stiles smiled, because that actually sounded like he meant it. “I’ll talk to you later.”
“Same, get some sleep, kid. You sound like you need it.”
When they hung up, Stiles put his phone on the table, setting his alarm for work before he rolled over on the couch, pulling the blanket off the back and covering himself. Like that morning, he passed right out. He felt fucking exhausted. He woke up a few times before he needed to get up for work, but he didn’t do anything, he didn’t cook like he should. He just slept until some of the heaviness in his body went away.
The next evening when Stiles left the bookstore after his shift, he had about an hour to get ready to meet Chris and Peter. The sucking hole in his chest from the day before hadn’t really eased. He still felt like shit, like he could crawl into bed and sleep for a few days.
During his classes and during his shift, he’d thought about texting Peter and calling the date off, but he hadn’t. It was too late and he was excited for it, at least somewhat. Maybe it would help. Sometimes forcing himself to do shit did.
That didn’t mean when he got upstairs that he found the willpower to take a shower or change clothes. Not that he needed to. He’d showered earlier and his clothes were fine.
Less than an hour later, his phone buzzed. It was Peter’s icon from Facebook.
Okay, Stiles replied before he went to the bathroom to at least look at himself.
He looked fine. He looked like himself and with the way he felt, that’s about all they were going to get. He made sure he had his wallet, keys, and phone before he left the apartment, locking the door behind him then trying the handle before he went down the stairs.
Chris and Peter were standing on the sidewalk in front of the bookstore parking lot. They were wearing dark wash jeans and button ups, but overall they didn’t look any more formal than he did.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hello,” Peter said, looking away from Chris and whatever conversation they were having to Stiles. “You look nice.”
“I look like I always do.”
“That’s hardly a problem,” Peter said.
Chris snorted slightly, looking at Peter before looking at Stiles. “Do you care if we just go right here?” he asked, nodding toward the bar and grill.
“No, not at all,” he said.
“Great,” Chris said.
“How was your day?” Peter asked as the three of them fell into step on the wide sidewalk.
“Okay. I got some homework done, work was slow, so I did some more work so I’m ahead,” he said. “You?”
“I’ve been looking forward to tonight so everything was just fine,” Peter said.
Stiles laughed, rolling his eyes. “Really?”
“Yeah he really is that cheesy,” Chris said, holding open the door to the restaurant for Stiles.
Stiles stepped past him and into a restaurant he hadn’t been inside since he moved. Even then he’d only come here once or twice, normally when the station was having their formal dinners. Now that he’d actual seen formal dining this restaurant and those station get-togethers weren’t anywhere close to actually being formal, but they were as close as this town was going to get.
Most people in the seating area Stiles could see were in jeans, some of them were in pants, but those people probably worked jobs that called for it. Even in his button up flannel and undershirt he didn’t feel underdressed.
When the door fell closed, Chris stepped around him, putting his hand on the small of Stiles’s back as he talked to the girl standing at the hostess potem.
“Reservation for Argent. The balcony.”
“Yes, sir,” she said, looking over a list then checked something off with her pen before taking up menus. “If you’ll follow me.”
She led them across the restaurant then through a set of doors to the patio and up a set of stairs to the balcony. The creek was flowing right beside the place. The sound mixed with people's’ voices and laughing and some guy playing a guitar.
Peter and Chris sat across from him at a white linen table when they reached the balcony and the girl laid down their menus before saying their server would be around for drink orders soon. Stiles looked at the menu, but Peter and Chris were looking at the smaller cocktail menu.
“Do you want something to drink, Stiles?” Peter asked.
“Sure,” he said.
“Do you like mixed drinks or are you more of a beer drinker?” Peter asked, looking at him across the table in the warm yellow glow of the string lights hung from the ceiling. He hoped it was doing for his completion what it was doing for Peter’s.
“I like about anything, but I’m going to stick with beer,” he said.
“Good call,” Chris said. “I think I’m sticking with beer too. Otherwise I’ll be asleep before the movie even starts.”
Then their waiter came. Stiles ordered a pale ale on tap that said it had hints of a whiskey in the summary. Chris ordered the same. Peter asked a lot of questions about their wine list before he chose one then an appetizer.
“Stiles, do you like calamari?” he asked.
“Then an order of the calamari and braised mussels, please,” Peter said.
The guy walked away tucking the black ordering pad into his apron. Stiles started to look over the menu and drum his fingers on the tabletop to the rhythm of the guy playing guitar at the other end of the balcony on a small stage.
After a few minutes, Chris laid down his menu.
“What are you getting, Stiles?”
“I don’t know,” he said. The prices were high. Not high, like he was used to, but high enough that he wanted to pay for his own meal.
“What are you getting?” Chris asked, looking at Peter beside him.
“Steak. I just can’t decide if I want the lobster with it or not,” Peter said.
“What are you getting?” Stiles asked, looking at Chris.
“You never try anything else,” Peter said.
“Why would I when I know what’s good?”
Peter shook his head, but smiled faintly. Then another server came with their drinks. Stiles took his and gulped a few mouthfuls. It did taste slightly like whiskey, but not nearly enough. He drank half the glass in under minute. Chris looked up at him with a small smile.
“Just kinda nervous,” Stiles said.
“You’re just fine,” Chris said.
“You say that until you’re carrying me out of here and I’m trying to dance with everyone I see,” Stiles said.
“That’s something I’d like to see,” Peter said.
“You really wouldn’t. I’m a sloppy drunk.”
“You haven’t seen Chris drunk. He’s like having a child,” Peter said.
“You love me drunk,” Chris said.
“I never said I didn’t,” Peter said, then he looked across the table at Stiles. “Do you like wine?”
“Try this,” Peter said, handing him his glass.
Stiles took it from him and took a small sip. It wasn’t like he could use a straw and Peter obviously wasn’t expecting him to. It shouldn’t have been enough to loosen some of the knot in his chest, maybe it was mostly the beer already working on him, but he felt somewhat better.
“It’s good,” he said.
“It’s too sweet, but it’s good.”
It wasn’t sweet at all, but Stiles didn’t say that as the waitress came for their orders and took Stiles’s order for another beer.
“How was Algebra today?” Peter asked. “You do have that Fridays, don’t you?”
“Yeah. It was alright. Lydia is going to help me out, so it’ll be okay.”
“Lydia Martin, the DA’s daughter,” Peter said to Chris.
“Pretty red-headed girl?”
“That’s her,” Stiles said.
“How long have you guys known each other?” Chris asked.
“Since first grade,” Stiles said. “We didn’t really get tight until middle school and by high school we were pretty much best friends. I had a guy named Scott too, but I haven’t talked to him much since school ended.”
“It’s easy to drift apart from people,” Chris said. “Even when you stay in the same town.”
“Let alone moving halfway across the country,” Peter said.
“Yeah,” Stiles said.
“What year did you graduate?” Chris asked.
Chris laughed, taking a drink of his own beer. “Jesus we’re old.”
“Speak for yourself,” Peter said.
“We had our twenty year reunion in 2013,” Chris said.
“We didn’t go.”
“But it still happened,” Chris said.
“But we didn’t go,” Peter said, looking across the table at Stiles, “And isn’t that really what matters?”
Stiles laughed and Peter smiled. That was enough to make him want to blush again and that was stupid. It was just because he was drinking. His threshold for getting hot was always low, but when he drank it was even less.
“You guys aren’t old,” Stiles said, not even bothering to look up.
They were still a solid ten years younger than the oldest man he’d hooked up with on camera. Off camera there was actually no telling hold old the oldest man was. He wasn’t know for being the pickiest guy in the world when he was high off his ass.
“Maybe not,” Chris said.
“I finished editing some of the pictures for the shop’s ads,” Peter said, taking out his phone. “Do you want to see them?”
“Yeah,” Stiles said.
Peter came around the table and sat beside Stiles, their shoulders almost touching as Peter held his phone out for him to see the mostly black and white images. He wanted to make fun of him, but the black and white got the feeling Peter was obviously going for. Chris looked fucking gorgeous in some of the close up shots that Peter had taken. He had seen a lot of edited images. There was no doubt that there was some in the pictures in front of him, but it had to be so little, so finely done that Stiles couldn’t tell what was God given and what was enhanced by CS7.
“Aren’t those beautiful?” Peter asked, scrolling through a handful of Chris.
“Yeah. They are. You did a great job,” Stiles said.
“It helps what I’m working with,” Peter said, glancing across the table and sharing a small smile with Chris. It was so fucking sweet it made Stiles’s chest hurt.
Then Peter flicked onto a picture of just Stiles, sitting at the table by the window where he always sat. He’d had some of Peter’s props in front of him, a notebook, a coffee cup with shop’s logo, and pencil. It looked like he was actually concentrating. He actually looked good.
Peter was one hell of an editor. One hell of a photographer. He flicked through a few more pictures and Stiles stared at his own face on Peter’s screen. He had seen himself a thousand times in different ads in shitty ass magazines next to ads for hookers and he’d never seen himself look like that, like an actual fucking human instead of a walking, breathing sex toy.
“You’re really good at what you do,” Stiles said.
“You made it very easy,” Peter said and it sounded like he meant it. If he wasn’t trying to get in Stiles’s pants, it might have gone further to his head.
Then Peter swiped and showed him the pictures of him at the bar with Chris. The first two were of Stiles looking at Chris’s tattoo on his arm before he even realized Peter was taking pictures. He laughed slightly and so did Peter.
“You aren’t good at controlling your expressions,” Peter said.
“I didn’t know you were taking pictures,” Stiles said.
“You look like you’d let him fuck you on the table,” Peter said.
“Maybe I would’ve.”
“Well wouldn’t that have been a photoshoot worth doing?” Peter asked.
Stiles laughed, then took another large drink of his beer. Peter showed him a few more of him and Chris sitting at the bar, talking, like there wasn’t someone taking their picture, like they weren’t doing a job. In one of them Chris had obviously said something funny, because Stiles was laughing, looking at the ground, and Chris was smiling, looking at him and the expression was so fucking sweet that Stiles looked away.
They were too nice. Yeah they wanted to fuck him. He didn’t blame them. A third possibility for two gay men in Beacon Hills probably didn’t happen that often. But they didn’t have to look so earnest about it.
“I’m going to update my Facebook and the website this weekend,” Peter said.
“That’s great. I’m glad you got some you could use,” Stiles said.
“He got hundreds he could use. You should’ve heard him in the office after you went home that night,” Chris said. “I dragged him to bed at three.”
“Which is why I’m so late getting these done.”
“Not even a week?” Stiles asked. “Yeah that’s so slow.”
“Fucking with you,” Stiles said.
“And I know that too, you little shit,” Peter said before he squeezed his thigh, right above his knee. His warm palm lingered for just a moment before he picked up his wine again and took a drink.
When the appetizers came, Stiles didn’t even have a chance to reach for them before Peter was using a fork to put some of the fried squid rings on a plate and Chris was putting some mussles on the same plate.
“Thanks,” Stiles said, smiling slightly. They doted. That was cute.
“Sometimes their calamari is too salty,” Peter said.
Stiles took a bite of one of his and shook his head. “Perfect.”
“Good,” Peter said as he and Chris served themselves.
“Do you guys cook this kind of food at home?” Stiles asked.
“Sometimes. I’ve tried the calamari, but it’s better and easier to just go somewhere and have it,” Peter said.
“It’s good when he makes it,” Chris said.
“It tastes like a tire,” Peter said.
Chris rolled his eyes and shook his head. Stiles laughed.
“Worst food disaster?” Stiles asked. “Chris, you first. Peter needs to wallow on it.”
“Good choice,” Chris said.
Chris told him about burning two pieces of ahi tuna steaks he’d bought for his and Peter’s anniversary one year. They’d ended up eating frozen ravioli and canned spaghetti sauce. Peter said his worst was accidentally putting salt in the pecan pie at Thanksgiving at the ratio of sugar. Chris shook his head and wiped his mouth with the paper napkin.
“How about when you set the stove on fire?” Chris asked.
“That wasn’t my fault!” Peter said.
Stiles laughed at them, ordering another beer when the waiter came back with their food. Chris was matching him glass for glass and Peter was on his second glass of wine. His hand kept touching Stiles’s arm or thigh as they talked before even touching their dishes. Beneath the table he felt Chris’s foot bump against his own and let it rest there.
As soon as Chris cut into his steak, he nodded at a question no one had asked before looking up at Stiles.
“Do you like rare?”
“Yeah,” he said.
“Try this,” he said, cutting off a piece of his ribeye and putting it on Stiles’s plate.
“Well then try the salmon,” Stiles said, cutting off a piece of his own.
He was already half in love. That sealed the deal. People who were willing to share food on dates got his books a lot faster than the people who freaked the fuck out over double-dipping or accidentally drinking out of the same water glass when chances were they were going to end up sucking face at some point anyway.
At the end, Stiles had tried everything on their plates and they had tried almost everything on his, except Chris didn’t like sweet potatoes and Peter hated ribeyes. When the waiter came to ask about desert, Chris and Stiles tried to wave him off, but Peter ordered the bread pudding and flan.
They didn’t even divided it up between plates when the dishes came. They were all a little drunk and they just dug in with the three spoons. Not that they should care to share with each other, but that they didn’t mind sharing with him made him slow down on his beer. They were just cool guys. The same cool guys he’d hung out with before.
“If we don’t go now we’ll miss the movie,” Chris said.
Peter shrugged as he took another bite of the flan, dragging his lips over the spoon. “I’m fine with that. Stiles?”
“It doesn’t look that great anyway,” Stiles said. “We could maybe go to my house though? I have Netflix and stuff.”
“That sounds great,” Chris said, taking the check when it came and sliding his card in before the waiter could walk away.
“You should really let me pay for my own,” Stiles said.
“We asked you on a date, so we pay,” Peter said.
“Not when your date is a lush.”
Chris laughed. “Three beers? Hardly a lush.”
“Well thanks, anyway,” Stiles said.
“Of course,” Peter said, before he leaned a little closer, his arm around the back of Stiles’s chair. “You have a spot, right,” he said, wiping his thumb beside Stiles’s mouth. “There.”
“Thanks,” Stiles said.
It was unfair how good he looked in low lighting. He knew that was a trick restaurants did, but it was so unfair. Restaurants all needed fluorescent bulbs that showed just how deep wrinkles were and brought out every discoloration in someone’s skin, not the perfect little lights that showed how warm Peter looked, how perfect.
Then the waiter was back, giving Chris the receipt. He signed and closed it back up before Stiles could see a total before he stood and stretched.
“Going to your place?” Chris asked.
“Yeah, let’s go,” Stiles said, stumbling slightly and feeling Chris’s warm rough hand on his arm before he laughed quietly at him.
The restaurant was quieter than when they’d come in. The few people that had stuck around were mostly on the patio below with just drinks, groups of college students mostly taking advantage of the half-price bar.
As they walked into the parking lot, most of the cars were gone, and the bookstore’s was completely empty. Stiles’s stairs rattled under their footsteps as they climbed them to the landing. Stiles pulled his eyes from his pocket and angled his body to see them in the blue glow of the security lights before sliding it into the knob.
“Give me two minutes,” he said.
“”Sure,” Chris said.
Stiles ducked inside, closing the door behind him. He picked up the textbooks from the coffee table and put them on the small bookshelf behind his chair, then picked up three glasses littered around, trying not to break them as they clattered together on his way to the kitchen. He put them in the dishwasher with an already clean load, went back into the kitchen and cleared the plates, doing the same thing before closing the dishwasher and starting it again.Then he went back into the living room, folding the blanket the napped under and throwing it over the back of the couch and picking his pillows up off the floor before finally going to the front door.
“Did you hide the dead body?” Peter asked.
“Yep,” Stiles said. “Do you guys want something to drink?”
“Please,” Chris said.
“Coke, water, or cranberry juice?”
“Water is fine,” Peter said.
Chris nodded, sitting on one end of Stiles’s couch. Stiles grabbed a few waters then slapped a bag of popcorn in the microwave.
“Pull up Netflix. Find a movie,” Stiles said. “Do you guys like salt on your popcorn?”
“Yep,” Chris said.
Stiles took it as an answer for both of them as he poured the steaming hot bag into a bowl and salted it heavily before going into the living room. Chris and Peter were sitting at either end of the couch. He was about to sit in the chair when Peter patted the cushion between them.
Stiles sat down with the bowl on his lap and Peter dug his hand in as Chris scrolled through the horror movies.
“Those look awful,” Stiles said.
“Aren’t all of them awful?” Peter asked.
“You agreed to it.”
“Because you’re adorable.”
Stiles laughed then almost choked on popcorn when he saw his favorite.
“I didn’t even know that was on here,” he said.
“Do you want to watch it?” Chris asked.
“Have you guys seen it?”
“No,” Chris said.
“Ethan Hawke is enough eye candy to ease it along I suppose,” Peter said.
“Whore,” Chris said as he clicked on Sinister.
Stiles settled back into the cushions, putting his feet on the coffee table. Chris scooted to make room for him, then put his arm along the back of the couch. Stiles could feel his warmth against his arm and leg. On the other side, Peter’s thigh was touching his, his arm just a few inches away.
Chris reached across Stiles to grab some popcorn and brushed his forearm. Stiles felt his skin pebble under the warmth as the beginning scene played, the main character moving his young family into a house where the previous owners had been murdered, all in the name of True Crime.
“If you ever did that you wouldn’t have to worry about a boogeyman. I would kill you myself,” Peter said.
“Goes both ways,” Chris said.
“I think it would be kind of cool,” Stiles said.
“Because you’re young enough to not have a heart attack if a ghost jumps you on the toilet,” Chris said.
Stiles laughed and Peter rolled his eyes.
“Do you believe in ghosts, Stiles?” Peter asked.
“I don’t know. I think there’s a lot of weird shit that happens that can’t always be explained.”
“Aliens?” Peter asked.
Stiles shrugged. “I used to research a lot of stuff when I was in school. I don’t discount anything.”
“I have a bestiary from France on my computer,” Chris said. “You should come see it.”
Chris nodded. “It was a great-something grandfather’s who ran a parrish.”
“We’ll never know if he was onto something or if he was batshit insane, but the illustrations are beautiful,” Peter said.
“Maternal side, so it’s a toss up,” Chris said.
Then the music on screen spiked and Chris jerked, making the couch move. Stiles laughed and tried not to. Chris patted the back of his head.
“Burly construction worker, scared of some jump-scares,” Stiles said.
“I’m not a construction worker,” he said. “I boss around construction workers.”
The music began to pick up again, getting more and more tense as Ethan Hawke walked through his house. He had the bags under his eyes of someone who had been on a week-long binge.
“Why doesn’t he turn on a light?” Peter asked.
“Why doesn’t he have a gun?” Chris asked.
“Like either of them would work against Bagool.”
When the next jump-scare happened, Chris jerked and cussed. Peter wasn’t any better. Stiles cackled.
“Do I need to move so you can cuddle each other?”
Chris tightened his arm around Stiles’s neck in a mock choke before letting go. He left his hand on Stiles’s shoulder though and Stiles moved a little closer to his side.
Through the movie, Stiles laughed at them more than he paid attention to what he’d seen on the screen at least five times. When it finished, Peter and Chris stared at the screen as the credits played.
“That was the worst fucking ending,” Peter said.
“It really was.”
“Did you really expect a happy one?” Stiles asked.
“I guess not,” Chris said, stretching his arm. Stiles’s shoulder immediately felt cold. Then he looked at his phone. “It’s almost one.”
“I guess you guys need to go?”
“We probably should,” Peter said.
“Would you want to come over Friday to see that book?” Chris asked.
“We have Laura’s baby shower Friday,” Peter said.
“What about Saturday night?” Stiles asked. “I normally have breakfast with Dad pretty early on Saturday so staying out late on Fridays is kind of a bust for me anyway.”
“Sure,” Chris said.
There was almost an awkward pause before Peter hugged him and kissed his cheek. Chris just hugged him, but it was a tight warm squeeze.
“See you soon,” Chris said.
Stiles gave a small smile, he made it small, as they left. No kiss, no trying for action. Just a cute, quaint date. He had no fucking clue what to make of it as he closed the door behind him, but it didn’t stop the smile or the few hard beats of his heart until he caught his breath against the closed door in his quiet apartment.
When Stiles got off work, he walked down the street to Peter’s cafe. It was only eight, but the street was quiet. The shops around him were closed. His reflection walked with him on the dark glass in the glow of the security lights.
He watched the stop light at the intersection a few yards beyond Peter’s store front as he walked. It would stay red for most of the way until a truck approached and it changed before the brake lights flared.
When he pulled the door of the cafe open, the bell chimed like normal. A few people were studying or shooting the shit.
Chris was sitting at the bar, talking to Peter. When Peter saw him, he looked up and smiled. Then Chris turned and Stiles froze for a second. The skin around his left eyes was purpled and swollen, the whites surrounding this light blue iris were red.
“Holy shit, man,” Stiles said.
“Pretty isn’t it?” Peter asked.
Chris smiled slightly then winced. “I have to stop doing that.”
“Yeah,” Chris said.
Stiles sat beside him and resisted the urge to touch the puffy tissue.
“An employee has a grudge,” Peter said.
“He does not,” Chris said, looking at Peter. Annoyed, like it wasn’t the first time he’d said it. “Someone backed into me with a 2x4 over their shoulder. I’d just taken off my safety glasses and they caught me with the corner.”
“Fucking ouch,” Stiles said. “Did you go to the doctor?”
“Yeah I wanted to make sure I didn’t have splinters in my eye, because I couldn’t open it, and to make sure my nose wasn’t broken. It was throbbing pretty good.”
“At least there’s that,” Stiles said. “Does your head hurt?”
“Like a bitch, but no concussion.”
“And he was given the fairytale pills, so I’m sure he’ll be just fine,” Peter said.
Stiles laughed. “I bet.”
“Can I get you something, Stiles?” Peter asked.
“A coffee. I mostly just came to talk.”
“How sweet,” Peter said, smiling.
“You were an added bonus, minus the black-eye,” Stiles said, smiling faintly at Chris.
Chris smiled then winced again. “Were you at work?”
“Yeah. Mostly homework. We were slow,” Stiles said.
Peter gave him a cup of coffee with a lot of different colored syrups. Stiles took a sip and hummed.
“Is it bitter?” Peter asked.
“Because I made it.”
Stiles laughed slightly then noticed the people moving toward the door. He checked the time on his phone. It was a few minutes from closing. He’d known he wouldn’t be able to talk much, but he was still disappointed.
“I’ll let you close up,” Stiles said. “Let me pay for the drink.”
Chris laughed when Stiles rolled his eyes. Stiles put his money into the tip jar again before he stood up.
“Can I walk you home?” Chris asked.
“You really don’t have to.”
“I know, but I’d like to.”
“Okay,” Stiles said. “Sure.”
“I’ll be back,” Chris said to Peter.
“Goodnight, Stiles,” Peter said.
“Night,” Stiles said as he and Chris left the shop.
Chris still smelled like a construction site, wood and dried sweat. He had always liked that smell.
Stiles chugged his coffee as they walked. He was caught up on his homework, but he’d like to actually have some time to himself for a while, maybe even smoke a little.
“What are you going to do tonight?” Chris asked.
“Probably play some really nerdy shit with some friends.”
“It’s all online,” Stiles said.
“Oh,” Chris said. “Do you like video games?”
“Yeah I used to play all the time, but I’ve been out of touch for awhile.”
“You have friends… on there?”
“Yeah, some really good ones actually. A couple of them are in the States, but most of them are in the UK or Europe.”
“Yeah it was good for me, like they knew me, but they didn’t know me. I didn’t just see me a drug addict and a-,” he paused and cleared his throat. “I wasn’t just a fuck up to them. I was a person before all that, because you know they didn’t have to deal with the fall out bullshit of it all.”
“I’m glad you had that,” Chris said.
“Not that many of my friends in real life could talk shit,” Stiles said, laughing slightly.
Chris put his hand on his back. His palm was hot and steadying in the still warm evening. The first hints of coolness were finally starting this late at night, in the few few days of October.
“They’re probably going to think I was dead,” Stiles said. “My online buddies I mean.”
“I’m glad you’re going to relieve them.”
They were right in front of the bookstore. Stiles expected Chris to tell him goodnight, but he walked with him around the sidewalk to the side, then followed Stiles up the stairs until they were on the landing in front of his door.
“How is your eye?” Stiles asked, putting his coffee on the railing to pull out his keys.
“It hurts,” Chris said.
In the harsh glow of the parking lot lights, Chris’s eye looked even worse. Stiles reached up and brushed his fingers against the swollen, red flesh.
“That guy knocked the shit out of you,” Stiles said.
“He couldn’t apologize enough for it,” Chris said with a small smile. “I had to threaten to fire him to make him shut up.”
Stiles laughed slightly. He could feel Chris’s stubble against his palm, how warm his face was, almost too warm. He wondered if he had a mild fever or maybe it was the pain pills. Sometimes they made Stiles warm too. Then Chris moved forward slightly, but with obvious intent. Stiles moved his hand down to cup his cheek as Chris leaned in closer to kiss him. He thought it’d be modest, but Chris opened his mouth and pressed closer to him.
Stiles kissed him back, feeling Chris’s calloused hand on his neck. When his back hit the door, Stiles brought his other hand to the side of Chris’s neck, threading into the bottom of his short hair as Chris’s stubble started to burn against his lips. It shouldn’t have lasted very long, probably, with Peter not there, but it dragged, and Stiles didn’t give a fuck. They’d already started kissing. There was no reason to cut that short.
Chris’s crotch was against the divot of his hip, pressed chest to chest against Stiles’s apartment door. He could feel the lump of Chris through his jeans. Then finally, Chris pulled away, his eyes locked on his mouth and Stiles felt his own dick pulse.
“I’m guessing you coming inside is against the rules?” Stiles asked with his hand against Chris’s chest.
Chris smiled slightly. The glow of the streetlight caught on his damp lips.
“Peter is already going to kill me for getting the first kiss.”
Stiles laughed, looking down as his own fingers playing with Chris’s t-shirt, he made himself stop and smooth the material.
“He hasn’t stopped talking about you since I sent you down there that day,” Chris said.
Chris smiled before kissing him again. It was softer, but their mouths were still open, it was just slower as it dragged until Chris pulled away.
“I’ll see you this weekend.”
“Yeah,” Stiles said, his hands still resting on Chris’s chest. “Night.”
“Get inside,” Chris said.
Stiles fumbled for his keys and slid it into the lock before opening his door. Chris gave him another soft kiss in the open doorway.
“Sleep well,” Chris said.
“You too,” Stiles said.
He closed his apartment door slowly and laughed slightly with his back against it, facing his couch. He knew he had a goofy fucking smile on his face. Isaac used to give him shit when he came in from first kisses with that look. He couldn't remember the last time he felt it. He couldn’t will it away and he didn’t want to.
The next afternoon after his classes let out, he and Lydia were sprawled around his small living room. He had finished his Algebra homework after only an hour and a half. He played his video game on his computer as she watched TV. The drone of the Kardashians mixed with the ominous music as he and one of his buddies went through a dungeon.
When someone knocked, Stiles looked at Lydia before he got up. There wasn’t a peephole, but it was probably just his dad or Ellen. It wasn’t either of them, it was Peter.
“Hey,” he said, smiling immediately when he saw Peter.
Peter moved forward and kissed him hard. Stiles put his hand on Peter’s chest to steady himself with Peter’s arm firm and tense against his back. When his mind caught up, Stiles melted, digging his fingers into Peter’s shoulders and kissing him deeper.
It was the kind of kiss that lead to a good hard fuck. He could smell Peter’s breath, his skin, feel how warm he was beneath his clothes. Then Peter pulled away, still holding him.
His eyes were even prettier that close.
“Give him one fucking hydrocodone and he can only think with his dick,” Peter said.
When Stiles realized he was talking about Chris, he laughed.
“Don’t be. I just had to come make us even,” Peter said, kissing him again, soft and sweet. “I have to get back to the cafe, but I’ll see you later.”
“Yeah for sure,” he said.
Peter kissed him again before pulling away.
“Have a good day.”
Stiles watched him walk down the stairs before he went back inside.
“Oh my God you are smiling like a virgin,” Lydia said.
Stiles laughed as he leaned back against the closed door and rubbed his eyelids. He didn’t know what the fuck was going on with his life, but he liked it anyway.
Sorry for the short chapter.
I am hoping the next chapter will be up Friday on my normal schedule. However, I've just found out that I'm going to have a pretty huge opportunity to possible MAYBE get something published. The catch is that now I have a fucking deadline (wtf, I have a deadline.... an actual fucking deadline). Anyway, I WANT to keep posting this on schedule, but I really don't want to fuck it up with these people I have a shot with, so I'm sorry if this comes out a little slower!
Hopefully it all pays off!
On Saturday, Stiles stood in Chris and Peter’s kitchen, watching Peter level off the measurement of flour with his finger and dump it into the ceramic bowl of a stand mixer.
“So it’s a…?”
“German pancake,” Peter said. “Or Dutch Baby.”
“No idea what that is.”
Peter smiled as he turned the mixer on low and started to tap a brown shelled egg against the thick white granite of the counter.
“You’ll love it,” Peter said. “It’s like a thick pancake.”
“Cool,” Stiles said.
“Now, you always crack eggs on a flat surface like this,” Peter said, tapping it. “It keeps the shell from going in.”
Stiles watched Peter crack a few eggs into the mixture, oil, and some cream before he turned up the speed on the mixer until it was a pale yellow color.
“Take the cast iron pan out of the oven for me, please,” Peter said. “Be sure to use the pot holders.”
Stiles pulled open the oven and took out the cast iron pan and put it on the stove. There were two loud clicks behind him before was beside him pouring the batter he’d made into the pan.
“Now put that back in the oven and we’re done,” Peter said.
Stiles nodded and put it back in, closing the door. Then Stiles heard the front door come open.
“In here,” Peter called.
Chris came around the doorway and smiled, wearing an A&H shirt, his regular jeans, and dirty boots.
“What’re you two doing?” Chris asked.
“Stiles said he couldn’t bake so I’m showing him a basic,” Peter said.
“And that’s?” Chris asked, looking at Stiles.
“Dutch…” he said looking at Peter. “German something.”
“Got it,” Chris said, smiling. “They’re good.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
“Do you want to go show Stiles your little book while it’s baking?” Peter asked, putting the mixing bowl into the sink and turning on the faucet.
“I can help you clean,” Stiles said.
“I don’t mind doing it myself,” Peter said. “And this puts a time limit on how long you can both be in there being sucked into an old man’s ramblings.”
Chris snorted. “Strategist,” he said before he looked at Stiles. “Are you ready?”
“Sure,” Stiles said, before he looked at Peter. “You’re sure you don’t care about cleaning up?”
“I honestly don’t care,” Peter said. “Go look at the book.”
Stiles went toward Chris and Chris put his hand on the back of Stiles’s neck squeezing before he led him down the hallway. There was a large photograph on the wall of the river bordered by trees. He looked at it as he passed until he followed Chris into a dark room with dull light coming in through heavy curtains. Chris clicked a lamp on on a big desk. Books lined the walls and there was a small couch under the window.
“This is like, a real office,” Stiles said, looking around.
Chris looked around and laughed slightly. “Yeah, I guess.”
“So many books,” Stiles said, looking at the walls.
“That’s what happens when you liked to read before ebooks,” Chris said. “I don’t know how many we’ve given up over the years. These are just the ones we actually liked.”
“Really?” Stiles asked. “You liked this many?”
Chris smiled, “Maybe not Peter, but I’m not as snooty as Peter about books.”
Stiles laughed slightly as he slid one of them out. He remembered the cover from when his mom was alive, when she’d done a book club. He slid his hand over the cover then put it back in the spot.
“If anything catches your eye feel free to borrow it,” Chris said.
“Awesome,” Stiles said, scanning the shelves before going to sit beside Chris in a second chair.
He scooted close enough to see the large desktop screen well. He could feel the low pulse of warmth from Chris’s skin against his as he typed in the password and his background popped up. It was a black and white picture of a bonfire in a sandstone pit.
“Did Peter take that?”
“Mhm. The pit is down by the river behind the house.”
“Did you make it?”
Chris nodded. “Me and Peter.”
“It was fun.”
Chris looked so serious in the glow of the screen, the lines around his eyes looked deeper and the bruising around his right eye socket looked more puffy in the high contrast. Then everything smoothed as he smiled.
“Found it,” he said.
Stiles looked back at the computer and he leaned forward to try and read the small slanted words until he realized they were in French anyway.
“This is basically his credentials,” Chris said. “He’s saying where he was training, how old he was, and how long he’d been practicing. It also says something along the lines of, If I’m found dead something demonic is responsible.”
“He had conviction about what he was doing. He was sure he was on Satan’s list.”
“That’s just a little terrifying,” Stiles said. “Have you translated?”
“I’m working on it. It’s almost like trying to translate Shakespearean. Even though you know English it’s slightly different. It’s tricky.”
“I bet. So you speak French?”
“Mom liked to speak it at home.”
“Yeah I’m glad she did. I grew up bilingual.”
“Lucky. Mom knew some Polish, but mostly just nursery rhymes.”
Chris gave him a soft smile and reached under the desk to squeeze his knee. Then he looked back at the screen and clicked through a few very old pages of a book that had obviously been scanned into the computer.
“This first part is him explaining that there is evil in the world and he’s going over what’s in the book,” Chris said.
“So he wrote this stuff then went back in to write an introduction?”
Chris nodded. “With the physical copy, you can see where he stitched in different sections. A lot of the pages are bigger than others, more yellowed, or his writing changes, like he was older or younger from other sections.”
“That’s so cool,” he said, leaning even closer, his elbows at the edge of the keyboard. Then he jerked when Chris clicked to another page. A drawing of a man with veins radiating beneath full black eyes stared back in rough sketch. He was young, but he had no teeth.
“He was ‘possessed’,” Chris said. “He talked to people who weren’t there, had no personal hygiene, and lived by the river in a small village in the 1650s. He was an alcoholic and had some kind of mental illness, but they didn’t know that then.”
“What happened to him?”
“They did the exorcism and they saw no difference, so my grandfather left, because he couldn’t do anything else.”
“He never followed up?”
“If he did, he didn’t include it.”
“I know. There are a lot in here like that.”
Chris laughed slightly. “It is.”
Then Chris flicked through some pages in a blur before the hairy face of a werewolf was on the screen.
“What the fuck?”
“He has ten werewolves in here. This one, he was called to a house where a boy kept growing hair and going to run in the woods. He thought the parents were taking a hallucinogenic or accidentally eating it. He really was as logical as he could be, with what he’d been taught by the church and what science knew, but there was so much they didn’t know.”
“Yeah,” Stiles said, staring at the drawing. The face did look young beneath the fur. Its large eyes were slitted.
“He went to the house on the full moon, the boy started to convulse, which he thought could have been a seizure until the boy grew sharp teeth and hair and ran into the woods howling. He considered that the parents could have poisoned him, but the likelihood of three people hallucinating the same thing at the same time weren’t high.”
“Yeah not at all,” Stiles said. “I’ve done shit like that with friends and we never saw the same things.”
“Right. It’s subjective.”
“That’s creepy as fuck,” Stiles said, with a slightly amazed laugh as he watched Chris continue to scroll.
Chris went through cases of vampires, demons, ghosts, and skinwalkers. Most of them could have probably been ruled out by some form of mental illness or addictions. The people might have been saved with modern medicine, but so many of them couldn’t just be explained away. It made the hair on Stiles’s arms rise as he listened to Chris talk.
“So this is why you don’t like scary movies.”
“Maybe. I just think there are some things you don’t toy with. And I know there’s a large superstitious streak, verging on paranoia, that runs through my family. I don’t like to encourage it.”
“We didn’t have to watch the movie the other night,” Stiles said, touching Chris’s arm. “Don’t do shit like that. If you don’t like something, just tell me.”
Chris shook his head with a faint smile. “I mean more that you won’t catch me saying ‘bloody mary’ in a mirror or using a ouija board. Watching a horror movie every once in awhile is fine.”
“You’re scared of the big bad wolf,” Stiles said with a little smile.
Chris laughed. “I’m more afraid of the things my own brain can make when I give it too much free rein.”
“What does that mean?” Stiles asked, because he had no fucking filter, but there was something slightly off about Chris’s face, about the way he’d said it. Then Chris’s cheeks barely reddened and he glanced at him only to look away.
“I-,” he said, before he tightened his lips.
“You don’t have to tell me-.”
“No I’d like to, I just haven’t told very many people,” Chris said, then he stared at the keyboard like he wasn’t seeing. “Three years ago, I fell off a ladder at work and hurt my back. I was put on pain management. It was less than a year after Peter’s dad died. He was like my own father. I worked with him every day. I was there when he had the heart attack. I was with him when he died on the job site.”
Stiles squeezed his arm. He was in the hospital room when his mom had died, but he couldn’t imagine seeing her die in the dirt of someone’s yard and having no idea it was coming. Chris covered his hand.
“I didn’t handle it well. Mostly I was drinking more than usual, but I was keeping up with work. I wasn’t a mean drunk. I was keeping up with Mom and Peter. Then I got the Oxy for my back and I took them like tic tacs,” he said. “My back hurt. It did. It hurt like a motherfucker every day and night, but the pills hardly touched that. They just made me high and they made me care less about the pain.
“Which was fine, but within six months I was buying pills. There wasn’t a full day that I wasn’t high. I hallucinated a lot, a lot of things, but I was so high that I didn’t care. I’ve always had that issue with staying in the present. Normally, it isn't a big deal. If I’m sober, it’s not an issue at all. If I’m altered by anything, my mental state gets… unreliable.”
“Alcohol’s fine, but I don’t drink alone. I’m not even saying that being detached like that is completely bad,” Chris said, looking at him. “I’m not explaining it right.”
“No I get it,” Stiles said.
“It makes me sound insane.”
“No it makes you sound like someone who has been on drugs.”
Chris looked at him for a moment, started to open his mouth before he stopped. Stiles could see the pages of the book reflected in his eyes.
“I ended up hitting a tree while I was high. I totalled my truck, but I was fine. I just hit my head when the airbag didn’t deploy. Your dad came to the scene and I thought mine and Peter’s businesses were done for. No one wants a contractor with a DUI. I would’ve deserved whatever he did, but he he didn’t book me. My mom and Peter were there and he told them to fix it. Get me into rehab, do whatever, but to get it fixed.
“Peter watched me flush my pills, even the ones I’d bought that he had no idea about. He didn’t know how bad it was. He thought I was just taking what was prescribed. I was good at hiding it and he didn’t want to see what was happening.”
“Did you quit cold?”
Chris nodded. “I had to take two weeks off work. I’m lucky I didn’t have withdrawal seizures.”
“Yeah, you are.”
Then Chris looked at the open door before leaning closer. I bought heroin two weeks before the accident. I didn’t do it, because I didn’t trust myself to not overdose, but I was working myself up to it.”
Stiles swallowed hard and shook his head. “It’s really easy to take too much.”
“That’s what you were on,” Chris said, like it just confirmed what he’d been thinking.
“And meth,” he said. “It’s heroin that’s so hard to shake. I still get cravings so intense it’s all I can think about sometimes.”
“It gets easier,” Chris said. “I had to give the pills they gave me Monday to Peter so he could stash them.”
“Good for you that you can keep them in the house.”
“They may as well not be with the way Peter hides shit. I could look for three days and still not find them.”
Chris started to click through the pages on screen again before Stiles heard Peter in the hallway, a few seconds before he was in the open doorway.
“Do you want to come make the berry reduction, Stiles?” Peter asked.
“Yeah,” Stiles said, getting up.
Chris got up and followed him out, back down the hall. The warm scent of vanilla hit him when they were nearly to the kitchen.
“Oh my God.”
“It smells good,” Chris said.
“It does,” Peter said, turning into the kitchen ahead of them.
When Stiles walked into the kitchen, he smiled slightly. All the surfaces had been wiped down from the disaster that had been his and Peter’s baking attempt. Now it was spotless, like it had been when he’d walked in in the first place.
“You work fast,” Stiles said.
“You two were being geeks for over an hour,” Peter said.
“Don’t be jealous,” Chris said, slipping his arm around Peter’s middle. “You can see my bestiary anytime.”
“Why would I do that to myself?” Peter asked.
“You don’t like reading it?” Stiles asked.
“My French is terrible,” Peter said.
“You know it too?”
“Some of it has rubbed off,” Peter said, “But I’m not excited by the ghost stories of a religious zealot.”
“Lame,” Stiles said.
“I would rather read about things that clearly did or didn’t happen,” Peter said, taking a small pot out from beneath the island. “Ambiguity isn’t fun for me.”
“I love it,” Stiles said.
“Then Chris can torture you with it,” Peter said.
Chris snorted. “I can’t remember the last time I actually made you listen to any of it.”
“I can,” Peter said.
“Whatever,” Chris said without any heat as he went to the fridge. “Stiles, do you want something to drink?”
“Yeah, whatever you’re having. Thanks,” Stiles said.
“Come here,” Peter said, looking at Stiles.
Stiles went around the counter to stand with Peter at a large wooden cutting board. Cardboard boxes of strawberries and blackberries were damp on the granite.
“Cut the tops off the strawberries then quarter them,” Peter said.
Stiles dumped them on the cutting board and picked up the large knife.
“Keep your fingertips tucked,” Peter said. “You can’t be aware enough about your fingers.”
“Okay,” Stiles said, folding in his fingers and trying to concentrate on cutting the berries while also being aware of Peter watching him.
“Thanks,” Stiles said, rolling his eyes slightly. It was cutting a piece of fruit, not brain surgery.
“Don’t get cocky,” Peter said. “That’s when you lose a fingertip.”
Stiles huffed, but kept cutting, trying to be careful, because if he cut himself he was going to feel like a dumbass.
When he finished, they put the berries in the pot and Peter added cornstarch and honey from a fancy looking pot with a wooden dowel. Stiles stirred it as Peter added water to make the pieces start to simmer before Stiles started to mush the fruit together. After a few minutes, Peter dipped in a spoon and ran his fingertip down the back before sucking it.
“I take all the credit,” Stiles said.
“You would,” Peter said, bumping him with his hip so Stiles moved and he could pull open the oven door. He took out the pan they’d put in before. Chris put a cooling rack on the counter and Peter did a smooth motion with a spatula, dishing the pancake out like it was nothing. If Stiles had tried that it would’ve been on the floor.
Then Peter turned off the oven and the burner under Stiles’s pot before stretching his arms over his head.
“Now we wait for it to cool,” Peter said.
Stiles went to sit at the breakfast nook table with Chris, taking a drink of the juice he’d poured him before. Peter sat beside him, the chair legs scraping against the wood. Peter asked Chris something about Ellen as Stiles turned the glass in his hands. When they stopped talking, Stiles glanced up then back down.
“Are you alright?” Chris asked.
Stiles looked up again and realized he was frowning. “Yeah, I just-,” he said, then made himself lay his hands on the table. “What is going on?”
“What do you mean?” Peter asked.
“What is this?” Stiles asked, making a motion at the three of them. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m having a really good time, but I’ve done threesome stuff before and it’s like a one-and-done thing.”
Chris and Peter looked at each other across the table like they were telepathic. After so long together, he was sure they at least got a little bit of what the other was thinking just from that.
“We like you. We’d like to keep dating you,” Chris said.
“But why?” Stiles asked, “you don’t have to do this if you just want to hook up I’m fine with that.”
“That’s not what we want,” Peter said. Then he scratched the back of his neck. Nervous Peter. That was a new one. “I hate having this conversation so early, but I understand why we should,” he said. “In an ideal situation-.”
“Very ideal,” Chris said.
“Yes, very ideal, we like to have a third partner, boyfriend, whatever. It can be as casual as you want or if it becomes serious, we can be just as traditional with you as we could be with each other.”
“So you’re full blown polyamorous?”
“We can be,” Peter said.
Stiles waited, processing for a moment, before he nodded. “Are there rules?”
“Not really,” Chris said. “I don’t like new sex acts to happen between just two of us if we haven’t done it together first.”
“Agreed,” Peter said.
“Yeah I got that from the kiss,” Stiles said.
Chris smiled slightly. “Sorry.”
“No you aren’t,” Peter said.
“No I’m not,” Chris agreed, “Still should’ve waited for you though,” he said, reaching across the table to squeeze Peter’s hand. “And, the uh, kicker,” Chris said, letting go of Peter and looking at Stiles. “At least for a few people has been, once we start having sex, if we do, we like to only be with each other.”
“Yeah I get that,” Stiles said.
Chris’s shoulders relaxed as he smiled faintly.
“While we’re on the topic,” Peter said. “You did intravenous drugs, didn’t you?”
Nothing in Peter’s expression or his voice was anything, but compassionate, so Stiles nodded and shrugged.
“How long ago did you use the last needle?” Peter asked.
“Five months ago yesterday,” Stiles said.
“Have you been tested?” Chris asked.
Stiles nodded. “Once a month until next month when the HIV window will close.”
Peter squeezed his wrist. “I’m not trying to make you uncomfortable.”
“I know. You should know,” Stiles said. “And know that I’m obviously only five months clean from a really heavy addiction.”
He watched Peter’s expression. He had to already know. He had to, but all he saw was a faint hurt, something like sympathy cross Peter’s face before he squeezed Stiles’s wrist again.
“I’ve been doing really well, but you know, it’s still new.”
“We asked you out knowing that,” Peter said.
“But if it’s too much too soon, we understand. We can just be friends,” Chris said.
“It’s not too much,” Stiles said. “I mean… I don’t know. You guys have been a really good distraction when I need one and just a good time otherwise. It’s nice.”
Chris squeezed the hand Peter’s hadn’t, then held it. “You can always let us know if that changes.”
“Thanks,” Stiles said, smiling weakly. “You guys are way too fucking nice.”
“We do have ulterior motives,” Peter said. “You have an adorable ass.”
Stiles laughed, “Dick.”
Peter leaned over and kissed the side of his mouth. Stiles turned into him, his face warming, knowing that Chris was watching. On a set that was fine, but this was a lot more personal, even if it was just a little kiss.
When he pulled away, he bit his lower lip, tasting Peter’s spit before he looked at Chris.
Chris huffed, the corner of his mouth turning up before he leaned in, kissing Stiles just as soft and slow. They moved their mouths similarly. THen he felt Peter’s hand on his back, rubbing soft smooth patterns until he pulled away from Chris.
“Alright. Dating is fine. I can deal.”
Chris and peter laughed slightly, glancing at each other. More silent communication. Chris squeezed his hand again. He hadn’t let it go. Peter had his hand on his thigh, rubbing. It should feel weird, but it didn’t. There were nerves, a slight fluttering in his chest, but they were just new relationship giddiness. It made keeping the goofy fucking smile off his face hard.
Also, you guys with your extremely sweet comments about the publishing thing. Thank you so much! <3 <3 <3 My heart expanded three sizes. Lol
The plastic chair beneath Stiles was pinching his ass cheek. Around him, sixteen different voices were echoing in the empty auditorium from the AA meeting grouped on the stage in a crooked circle. It was almost like his creative writing class, but even the guy who came to class often smelling of weed and Wild Turkey never smelled as bad as the man beside him. He was wearing a faded pair of flip flops. His long toenails were curving over the ends of his toes and packed with dirt until they were black. When he looked at Stiles, he smiled and he was missing most of his teeth. Stiles smiled back weakly.
“Okay, it’s time to start,” a guy in front of the refreshment table said.
Everyone around them stopped their individual conversations and the guy stood up. He started to introduce himself. Logan. He was an alcoholic and an addict. Then the person to his right stood up and did the same thing. Monica. Alcoholic. Tim. Addict. Mark. Alcoholic. They went around like a fucked up version of duck-duck-goose until they reached his dad’s chair beside him.
The chair legs screeched against the floor as he stood up.
“My name is John. I’m an alcoholic.”
Stiles looked up at him just in time to see his dad sitting back down, giving him a faint smile. After there was an echo of “Hi, John,” Stiles stood up.
“I’m Stiles. I’m an addict,” he said, sitting down as people were still saying hello.
He didn’t make eye-contact with any of them. None of them would remember his name by the end of this. He wouldn’t remember theirs either. His dad squeezed the back of his neck.
After the introductions, some people talked. They shared their struggles over the last two weeks or month. His dad nodded occasionally as they spoke, watching them. Active listening. Stiles let it slide over him. A woman cried while talking about not having money for groceries, because she used earlier that week. Stiles stopped listening.
At the end, they said a non-denominational prayer. Stiles stared at the thin planks of the stage until someone said amen and people started to stand up.
“Not so bad, huh?” his dad asked.
“Not bad,” Stiles lied.
It was like being dragged to church when he was younger before both his parents realized they didn’t like it either. He picked up his chair with his dad and took it to the stacks that other people had started in the wings of the stage. People stepped out of his dad’s way like mice. He was only wearing a t-shirt and a faded pair of jeans. He hadn’t once mentioned being the sheriff, but apparently people knew anyway. Then again, he had probably busted some of them.
“There’s someone I want you to meet before we go,” his dad said.
He followed his dad through the people trying to get off the stage and others’ staying to talk. His dad led him toward Logan, the gray-haired man from the beginning of the meeting. He smiled at his dad and held out his hand when they were close enough. His dad took the man’s hand and hugged him roughly.
“I’m glad you came.”
“It’s always a good boost,” his dad said. “Logan, this is my boy. Stiles, this is my sponsor.”
“It’s good to meet you,” Logan said, shaking Stiles’s hand. “Your dad talks about you all the time.”
“I’ve heard,” Stiles said.
“Glad to see you here,” he said.
“Yeah it was good.”
Logan had a good smile. It looked genuine. It almost made Stiles feel bad that he wouldn’t be coming back. Then he looked at his dad.
“John, how did you do this month?”
Logan reached into his pocket and pulled out a red coin. Five months.
Stiles swallowed hard.
His dad had been at least ten years sober. He had had a small bag of coins in the top drawer of his dresser. Stiles found them when he was sixteen and nosy. He kept them in a Crown Royal bag. Panic started to creep up his spine. Peoples’ voices were muddled around him.
“I’m going to go outside,” Stiles said.
He didn’t wait for his dad to say anything as he walked off the stage and toward the doors. What-the-fuck-ever good his dad just tried to do was shot in the face. Stiles wanted a cigarette for the first time in months. He wanted a drink and right on the heels of that was a head-to-toe wash of want for a giant hit of smack.
As he stepped outside, he squinted against the brightness as he made himself take a deep breath. The anxiety sweat on his forehead was chilled with a bite of coolness. Then he smelled the smoke on the wind. There was a guy leaning against the building, smoking a cigarette, and scrolling through his phone.
Stiles reached into his pocket and pulled out a few dollars.
“Can I get one of those?” he asked.
Then guy looked up then nodded. “Sure,” he said. “Keep your money.”
Stiles took the cigarette the guy gave him and inhaled while he held up his lighter. He recognized the guy from the meeting, but he didn’t remember if he was an alcoholic or an addict.
“First meeting?” the guy asked.
Stiles shook his head. “I went to some after rehab.”
“Been a while?”
“A few months. I didn’t like them then either.”
“I get it,” the guy said. “Do you know the sheriff?”
“I’m his son.”
“That’s what I thought.”
They stood together for a few minutes, smoking in silence until the guy looked at him with a crease between his brows.
“You look familiar,” he said.
“Yeah?” Stiles asked, his chest tightening further.
The guy nodded then hummed. “You did ads for that coffee shop.”
“Yeah I did.”
“That’s cool. I like that place.”
“Same,” Stiles said.
There were marks at the crook of the guy’s elbow. They weren’t new, but they weren’t old either. Then the door came open and his dad came out. He looked around before spotting Stiles. Stiles saw the barely there tension around his eyes as he came closer. So his dad had busted people. He only ever saw his dad look at people like that with rolling records.
“Sheriff,” the guy said, then he looked at Stiles. “It was nice to meet you.”
“Same,” Stiles said as the guy started to walk away.
Stiles put out the cigarette and dropped it into the nearest trash can.
“Do me a favor, stay away from him,” his dad said.
“Because I’m asking you to.”
“I just got a cigarette from him. We aren’t planning a slumber party.”
“Smartass,” his dad said, squeezing him against his side. “Thanks for coming.”
“Yeah,” Stiles said. “Do you want the diner?”
“Let’s just go to Peter’s. It’s closer.”
“Okay,” Stiles said.
“Unless you don’t want to,” his dad said.
“No it’s fine,” Stiles said.
He had been texting Peter and Chris throughout the week. He’d seen Peter twice at the cafe. He was still getting small butterflies over what they’d talked about though. They were casually dating. He was casually dating two hot men, who were cool with the fact that he had an NA meeting and had to get monthly AIDS tests. Of the things he’d considered when moving back to Beacon Hills that wouldn’t have made the list.
They crossed the street and Stiles watched his dad start to ask a question then stop, twice.
“Did you like it?” his dad asked.
“Everyone seemed nice.”
“You ran out.”
“I really don’t like the praying,” Stiles said. “It’s why I stopped going in California.”
“It’s spiritual, not religious.”
“I know, but I still don’t like. I don’t like having to put my shit off on some fictional person to try and justify it or get a hold of it. It’s my issue. I can handle it or I can’t. Praying isn’t going to help.”
“You don’t have to pray to God,” his dad said. “I talk to your mom.”
Stiles looked at him and his dad rolled his shoulders.
“She’s motivation to stop most of the time. You just have to find what helps you. Some people just talk to the better parts of themselves. You just have to try different things.”
“Will you come next time?”
“I’ll talk to Ellen,” he said.
He wouldn’t. If he wanted to fall off the wagon, seeing his dad handed another coin would be the fastest way to do it. His chest still throbbed. The metallic tingle was still at the root of his tongue beneath the flavor of nicotine.
When they reached the cafe, Stiles pulled open the door and heard the chime. He wasn’t expecting Peter, but there he was, behind the counter in his black apron.
“Hello, Stiles,” Peter said, smiling.
“Hey,” Stiles said.
He bypassed the line that some young girl was working. Boyd was at one of the prep tables cutting produce. Peter had flour on his chest. They were more packed than he would’ve expected, but then again he was never in at this time. He was normally two blocks down at the diner.
“John,” Peter said, holding out his hand over the wood block bar.
John shook it firmly as they took seats at the empty bar.
“What can I get you?” Peter asked.
“We don’t mind going through the line,” his dad said.
“Don’t try arguing. It isn’t even worth it,” Stiles said.
“He’s right,” Peter said.
His dad laughed slightly. “Black coffee and an onion bagel.”
“Yes, please,” his dad said.
“The salmon thing with avocado if you have any left,” Stiles said.
“What to drink?” Peter asked as he took a bagel from the cabinet and put it in the toaster oven.
Stiles looked around for a sign with monthly specials. He had never looked for one before, but it was a few days into October and he had a weakness for the weird shit places came up with to milk their customers’ wallets.
“You don’t have Halloween specials?” Stiles asked.
“This is a coffee shop. Not an elementary school,” Peter said.
“Come on,” Stiles said. “That’s the best part of the month.”
“There’s a Starbucks a convenient forty-five miles away if you’d like to sate your pumpkin cravings,” Peter said.
“And if I wanted something lame and commercial I’d go there.”
Peter actually smiled then and Stiles felt his own self-satisfaction warm. It was always nice to know he’d hit the right series of switches when he stuck his foot in his mouth.
“Fine. You can help me come up with some if you want. I’ve had a few requests anyway,” Peter said. “I’ll be back with your food in a minute.”
“No hurry,” John said as Peter walked to the back kitchen. Then he looked at Stiles. “So I guess the dating thing is going well.”
“It’s not not going well,” Stiles said.
“Just put a leash on the flirting. I’d like to keep the bagel down.”
“Whatever,” Stiles said.
“But it is him and Chris, right?”
“Yeah,” Stiles said.
“Just making sure.”
“I’m not being a homewrecker, Dad.”
“Just checking. This isn’t exactly run of the mill.”
“Maybe not for The Middle of Nowhere,” Stiles said.
“I don’t even want to know what was considered normal out there.”
Peter came back toward them with his dad’s coffee. He took the bagel from the oven and smeared cream cheese on it before giving it to his dad on a plate. Stiles watched as he grabbed a crissonant then smeared it with some green sauce from the fridge beneath the counter.
“Do you work today, Sheriff?” Peter asked.
“In about an hour,” he said.
“Most of them. Just for a few hours.”
“I guess weekends don’t mean much when you’re the sheriff.”
“No, not really,” his dad said. “Apparently not when you run a coffee shop either.”
Peter laughed slightly as he layered smoke salmon and sliced avocado on Stiles’s sandwich. “I normally have my niece to work on the weekends. She should be back from her trip in a few weeks.”
“Cora or Laura?”
“Cora. I think we’ve lost Laura to New York. At least for now.”
“Kids,” his dad said.
“They are the worst,” Peter said, but he winked at Stiles as he gave him his sandwich then he went to the blender and started to pour things in it.
Stiles bit into his sandwich and nodded. He just found the sandwich a few days ago when he let Peter pick what he wanted to make for him. Now it was a new addiction. His dad was looking at him with faint disgust.
“Is it good?”
“Mhm. Wanna try?”
“I hate salmon.”
“You’re so weird,” Stiles said.
“I’m your dad. What do you expect?”
The blender turned on as Peter pulverized ice in whatever the fuck he was making. Stiles watched him as he stared in the blender as the mixture became smoother. He looked so serious. In his black apron with flour all over it and some on his jeans, he looked a lot hotter than he should. He wondered if Peter picked black just so it would always look like he’d been busy.
When Peter stopped the blender, he poured the brown slurry into a glass and brought it back to the bar with a straw.
“Thanks,” Stiles said.
“Of course,” Peter said. “I have to go to the back for awhile. If I’m not done before you need to leave, have a good shift, Sheriff.”
“You too,” his dad said.
Then Peter went across the prep area to Boyd, who was rolling out dough. He spoke near his ear and Boyd looked back over his shoulder at Stiles and his dad before nodding. Stiles snorted quietly as he kept eating. One day Peter was going to get sick of giving him freebies. Stiles just wasn’t quite sure when it was going to happen. His luck it would be the one day he didn’t have his wallet.
“How are classes going?” his dad asked.
Stiles started to tell him about his classes like he normally did when they met up on Saturdays. Telling him how he was doing was like making a checklist for what he needed to get done that day. He needed to edit and add to a short essay he’d shit out the night before, reading a little more for Humanities, and look at his study guide for Algebra the professor had posted early. Even at the thought, his chest fluttered. The test wasn’t going to be easy, but he’d been doing better in the class than he’d thought he would. He would probably end up with a B, although he’d gotten high As on his homeworks and a high B on the one test they’d a few weeks before.
“It sounds like you’re doing good,” his dad said.
Stiles nodded, drinking his coffee. “I like it a lot more than I did the first time I went to school.”
“Going to college right after high school isn’t for everyone. It’s not even for most people.”
“Midterms are coming up aren’t they?”
“Yeah. Not this week, but next.”
They talked a little while longer before his dad stood up and took his wallet out of his back pocket. Stiles didn’t say anything as he went to the register. Boyd saw him and shook his head.
“Peter said it’s on the house,” Boyd said.
“I’d like to pay,” he said.
Boyd shrugged. “Sorry. He said don’t let them pay.”
Stiles laughed slightly as his dad took some money from his wallet and put it in the tip jar.
“Tell him I said thanks,” his dad said as he came back.
“Does he make you pay?”
“Nope,” Stiles said.
His dad shook his head. “Whatever. You do your weird thing. Try not to break hearts.”
“Oh yeah. This is a heartbreaking face.”
His dad laughed slightly and hugged him. Stiles patted his back before he pulled away, still sitting on his stool.
“Have a good day.”
“You too. Get your homework done,” his dad said as he walked to the door.
“Yes, sir,” he said.
He watched his dad through the cafe windows for a minute. He looked so normal in his civilian clothes.
“I’ve never seen him out of his uniform,” Peter said, leaning on the bar.
“Yeah,” Stiles said. “I guess he didn’t wear it because of the meeting and everything.”
“Yes, that might limit what people want to share,” Peter said. “I have quite a few things to get done today, but would you like to go out this evening with Chris and I?”
“Sure. What are you guys doing?”
Peter shrugged. “Bowling?”
“I like bowling.”
“I don’t know what that is,” Stiles said.
Peter smiled. “Then that’s where we’ll go. No cheating. Don’t look it up. You’ll have fun, I promise.”
“So a surprise?”
“Do I need my ID?”
“You should always have your ID, Stiles.”
“What a great not-answer.”
“I know,” Peter said.
“Dad said thanks for the food.”
“You’re too nice, as usual,” Stiles said, getting off his stool so Peter could do whatever it was he did when he came up to the cafe and wasn’t talking way too long to him. “I’ll see you tonight?”
“Around seven,” Peter said.
“Okay,” Stiles said, “Thanks for the food.”
“I’m sure you’ll find a way to pay me back.”
Stiles laughed slightly then went closer to the bar, leaning over it. He had a split moment to regret it before Peter pressed his lips against his in a short sweet kiss.
“See you later,” Stiles said after he pulled away.
“Yes you will,” Peter said, smiling slightly.
Stiles finally turned around and went toward the door. The ring of the door closed out behind him as he started toward his apartment. He could still feel the warmth of Peter’s lips on his for a few minutes until the coolness of fall erased it. It didn’t get rid of the faint smile. He thought of pulling out his phone and googling the pub Peter had talked about, but he didn’t let himself. It had been a long time since he’d had a good surprise. Maybe he could remember what all the hype was about.
That afternoon, Stiles finished the essay and read most of the Humanities chapter before he put it to the side and curled up on his bed for a nap. He’d gone for a run early that morning, then the AA meeting, and quiet homework, it was too much to not give in to sleep for awhile.
He set his alarm in case his nap turned into something a little longer and was glad he had when it woke him up two hours after he’d drifted off. He turned the alarm off and made sure he didn’t have any messages from Peter or Chris cancelling before he went to take a shower. He was almost finished getting dressed when his phone chirped. He grabbed it off his bed, thinking, knowing it was going to be one of them postponing or canceling, but it was just peter.
We’ll be there in fifteen minutes.
Okay. I’ll be downstairs.
Stiles switched his overshirt twice before finally picking another one all together. Not that it fucking mattered. They knew what he looked like. He’d been on dates with them. He’d hung out with them at their house. They weren’t going to be blown away by a change from one color of flannel to another.
His phone dinged again as he was pulling on his shoes.
He put it in his pocket, grabbed his wallet, and headed to the door. Like the last time, Chris and Peter were at the bottom on the stairs, waiting for him in the gravel parking lot. Expect this time the Tahoe was idling at the curb.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hello,” Peter said, hugging him as he got closer.
“You look handsome,” Chris said, hugging him when Peter stopped.
“So do you,” Stiles said. Not a lie. They looked good all the times he’d seen them, but the tight fitting shirt Chris was wearing looked especially nice against his chest. “So how far away is it?”
“It’s in town. Just a few more blocks than we care to walk,” Chris said.
“Cool,” Stiles said.
He walked to the SUV with them and Peter bumped him when Stiles went to get in the backseat.
“You sit passenger with Chris,” he said.
“Okay,” Stiles said, climbing into the passenger seat as Peter went around the car to sit behind Chris.
“Did you look up where we were going?” Peter asked as he got in his seat.
“Nope, I was good,” Stiles said.
“Good. I think you’ll like this place,” Chris said, getting behind the wheel.
“You better hope, ‘cause now I’m excited. No pressure, though,” Stiles said.
“You shit,” Chris said.
Stiles laughed slightly as he buckled his seatbelt and Chris pulled away from the curb. Stiles twisted in his seat to look back at Peter.
“Did you get your stuff done at the cafe?”
“Yes,” Peter said. “I hate inventory days.”
“Could’ve fooled me,” Chris said dryly.
Stiles barely saw Peter roll his eyes.
“I said I was sorry for being a bitch.”
“I know. I’m just teasing,” Chris said, reaching back his free hand at an awkward angle.
Peter squeezed his hand for a moment.
“I’m used to my niece taking care of most of it so I just have to double check a few times,” Peter said, looking at Stiles.
“The one in the Peace Corp?”
“Yes,” Peter said. “I’m glad she went and I’m glad it enriched her privileged little life, but I think I’m going to have to hire someone else if she wants to keep doing that once a year. She always thinks she knows how long she’ll be gone then a few weeks gets added, then some more.”
“That sounds like a pain in the ass. Is she your manager or something?”
“It’s complicated, but I basically trust her to do things that I don’t trust anyone else to do. Or that I hadn’t trusted anyone else to do. I’m starting to toy with the idea of promoting Boyd.”
“He seems good,” Stiles said.
“He is and he’s trustworthy,” Peter said.
Stiles smiled slightly. It wasn’t funny that Peter was irritated, but he’d never really seen his business owner side come out so strongly. It was different. It was different to not see him just being a snarky asshole and seeing things he actually worried about.
“Don’t worry. We’ll be at the pub soon, you can knock back a few shots and forget about it for the next twenty-four hours,” Chris said.
“That sounds wonderful,” Peter said.
They went through a few stoplights, away from the college and toward the bulk of town, but turned before they went into the commercial area. There were a lot of neon signs and small store fronts. Cars were parked along the road and music filtered in through Stiles’s rolled down window along with the sound of laughter and talking.
“I didn’t know this was here,” Stiles said.
“It just started popping up in the last few years,” Chris said. “We’ll have to come back during the day sometime. They have a few cool places.”
“Yeah for sure,” Stiles said.
Chris turned off the road into a small side parking lot and parked the Tahoe in a spot that was almost completely grass at the back of the cramped area. Stiles got out and could hear water running, like a creek, but a lot smaller than the one by campus. A few people were standing outside of the building Peter was walking toward, smoking cigarettes and talking, but they didn’t look sketchy, just like college kids, hanging out on the weekend. Stiles followed Peter with Chris beside him. Chris put his warm heavy hand on his back as they passed through the doors. The first thing Stiles saw was Pac Man. It was one of at least twenty machines around the room they’d entered. There was a second room he could barely see into, but more games were obviously in there judging by the laughing and sounds of ‘80s and ‘90s gaming music.
“This is fucking amazing,” Stiles said, looking around at the chipped painted walls, old memorabilia, and aged machines.
Then Peter did smile. “We thought you’d like it. What would you like to drink? I’ll get it. You and Chris can start playing games.”
“Bring us two shots apiece,” Chris said, “As long as that’s okay with you?” he asked, looking at Stiles.
“Yeah that’s fine,” Stiles said.
Peter kissed Chris before he went to the bar. Chris went to a bill changing machine and put in a five. The machine spat out tokens and Chris gave Stiles half.
“I have cash,” Stiles said.
“I know, but we invited you,” Chris said. “Now pick a game.”
Stiles looked around and spotted a Spiderman game. They put in their tokens and the game started in all its 2D glory. Chris was good at it, taking out bad guys with a clicking of buttons that didn’t sound completely spastic like Stiles’s own. Stiles fed the machine a second coin when he died and Chris was still going, kicking ass and taking names.
“You’re really good at this,” Stiles said.
“I was using arcades when you were…. Not alive yet,” Chris said with a slight laugh. “And we come here every few months.”
Stiles had just died for the second time when Peter came toward them, a pretty thin bartender carrying a tray of drinks behind him. She put the tray on a nearby tall table.
“Go have a drink with him if you don’t mind. He’s been wound tight since around two this afternoon,” Chris said.
“Sure,” Stiles said. “If you can deal with not having my badass assistance.”
“I’ll live,” Chris said, smiling.
Stiles went to the table and Peter was sitting at it with his phone out and a lit cigarette.
“I didn’t know you smoked,” Stiles said.
“Please tell me you aren’t one of those people who care,” Peter said with an edge to his voice without looking up.
“No,” Stiles said, snagging it from his fingers and taking a drag. “Just surprised.”
Peter took his cigarette back when Stiles offered it. “I used to smoke often, but now it’s mostly only when we go to bars.”
“I get it,” Stiles said, picking up two of the shots, putting one in front of Peter and taking the other. “Come on. Let’s go.”
Peter locked his phone and picked up the shot. They tossed back the vodka and it burned like rubbing alcohol down his throat. Stiles poured himself a glass of water from the pitcher and took a drink before shaking his head. Peter laughed.
“It’s been awhile since I’ve drank hard stuff,” he said with a little laugh.
“After this we’ll go to beer,” Peter said.
“Sounds like a plan,” Stiles said.
Then Chris came back to the table. He rubbed Peter’s shoulder a little bit before counting the shots on the table, picking up his own and tossing it back. He winced slightly and Stiles pushed him his water. Chris took it and drank deeply.
“No problem,” Stiles said.
Peter picked up his next shot and tossed it back. Chris did the same thing. Stiles threw his back too. He’d never been afraid of alcohol. He knew it was a trigger for a lot of addicts, but it hadn’t been for him. He normally hadn’t drank and used. He’d just used. He liked to keep the experience pure, but he still saw Chris watch him from the corner of his eye.
“Do you want a beer?” Chris asked.
“Yeah sure,” Stiles said.
“Three,” Peter said.
Chris went to the bar and Stiles was left with Peter, but at least he’d put the phone down. Stiles reached over with a slight buzz creeping over him and squeezed his shoulder where it met his long muscular neck.
“Wanna play a game?”
“They have that?” Stiles asked, his voice going up without it meaning to. “Sorry. I just fucking love that.”
Peter laughed. It sounded more like a real Peter laugh. “It’s toward the back.”
Stiles got off his seat and followed Peter to the back of the first room toward a sign for the bathrooms. There was a fortune teller game beside it with an out of order sign on it. Against the back wall, four skeet ball units were set up side-by-side.
Stiles put in his coin and gave half of his to Peter, who put in his own. The balls rumbled through the machine until clacking together in the slot. Stiles took his first and waited for Peter to do the same before aiming and rolling the ball up the lane. Peter was just a second behind him. He hit a twenty. Peter hit a forty.
“Are you hustling me?” Stiles asked.
“Nope. I’ll kick your ass at this every time,” Peter said, smiling and looking at the holes behind the cage as he rolled another ball. It sunk in another forty pocket.
“Oh you fucking suck,” Stiles said, laughing, grabbing another ball and rolling. He hit a ten.
Like Peter said, Stiles got his ass kicked in the first game and they quickly added more coins to do it again.
“Why would you do that to yourself?” Chris asked, behind him.
Stiles glanced at him and the three beers he’d put on a low partition wall.
“Glutton for punishment,” Stiles said.
Peter sank a 100 and Stiles cussed before focusing harder. It didn’t matter. Peter whooped his ass again before Stiles stepped to the side and let Chris have a go. Chris at least hung with Peter, but he didn’t beat him. But whatever, apparently winning put Peter in a better mood, because when he turned around from the game, he put his arms around Stiles then kissed him. He expected a peck, but it was a long slow kiss before he pulled away.
“Consolation prize,” Peter said.
Stiles snorted, feeling the lean muscles of Peter’s back through his shirt. “Thanks.”
“And I don’t get one?” Chris asked.
Before Peter could, Stiles turned to Chris and pulled him close. He kissed Chris like Peter had kissed him, sliding his hand up Chris’s chest through the warm thin material of his t-shirt before he pulled away.
“Losers have to stick together,” Stiles said.
Chris laughed before Stiles pulled away.
They played a dozen different games. Some of them Stiles had never heard of, but most of them he had. They killed a few more rounds of beer over the course of two hours, but none of them were shitfaced by the time they walked out of the bar and into the crisp fall air.
People were still lingering outside, smoking and laughing. Stiles shared another cigarette with Peter in the orange sickly light of the parking lot.
When they left, they stopped at the diner that was still open at nearly eleven. They ate cheap greasy cheeseburgers and fries, tossing back pop and water to kill the dredes of tiredness trying to creep up after they’d stopped drinking.
By the time they pulled up to Stiles’s apartment.
“Do you guys want to come up?” he asked.
Chris and Peter glanced at each other before Peter smiled.
“We’d love to.”
Stiles got out, trying not to smile, but it had been a long fucking time since he’d been laid. Then with kissing as much as they had at the bar and being a little buzzed, he wanted it. He climbed the stairs and fiddled with his keys before twisting it in the lock.
Once they got inside, Stiles turned on the TV, just for noise.
“Do you guys want anything to drink?” he asked.
“Water,” they both said.
Stiles made the glasses and came back.
Chris and Peter were sitting on his couch with a spot between them. This was territory he knew. He didn’t miss a beat as he sat where they obviously wanted him. Then Stiles leaned over and started to kiss Peter before things had time to get stagnant. Peter groaned slightly, dragging him closer and Stiles let his body go lax, fitting against him perfectly.
Chris only waited a few moments before he started to suck a line up the side of Stiles’s throat. He slid his hand between Peter and Stiles, beneath Stiles’s t-shirt, up his stomach, before brushing his nipple until it was hard enough to gently pinch. Stiles moaned into Peter’s mouth.
“What are you okay with doing?” Chris asked near his ear.
“I’m kind of a slut, so I’m up for anything,” he said.
Chris laughed and Peter started to unbutton Stiles’s jeans then reached inside, first over his underwear, before he slid his hand beneath the band. Stiles’s breath caught. It had been a long time. The longest he had ever gone since he’d started having sex.
“Can I touch you?” Stiles asked Chris.
Chris nodded. Stiles press his hand against Chris’s hard-on behind his zipper. Chris started to kiss his swollen lips as Peter got off the couch and sank to the ground. Stiles knew it was about to happen, but he still jerked hard as Peter took his dick into his mouth.
“Shit, shit,” he hissed, clenching his eyes closed.
“Peter, condom,” Chris said.
“Yes, darling,” Peter said, rolling his eyes at Stiles. “One month and I’m sucking your soul out through your cock.”
“I won’t stop you.”
Peter took a condom from his back pocket and tore it open, rolling the latex over Stiles before he started to suck him again.
“Sorry, sweetheart,” Chris said, kissing him again.
“You’d be stupid if you didn’t use one.”
It still felt good. It just made the sensation of Peter’s warm mouth less intense, which wasn’t a bad thing with Chris kissing him then taking off his t-shirt and gently pinching his nipples. He slowly increased the pressure when Stiles kept gripping him tighter.
“Stop or I’m going to come,” Stiles said.
“That’s okay,” Chris said, squeezing Stiles’s stinging nipple again.
Stiles made a cut off moan before he pulled away. He unbuttoned Chris’s jeans then reached inside. Pre-cum tacked to his palm as he sid it down Chris’s shaft. Chris kissed him harder, pushing into his hand.
Stiles still came in an embarrassingly short amount of time. Peter hummed around his dick as Stiles filled the condom in his mouth and Peter continued to stroke him for a few moments before finally pulling away.
Peter turned and pulled Chris’s dick completely out of his jeans. Then he took Chris in his mouth. He did a few bare pulls, his cheeks hollowing as he sucked, making Chris moan, right before he pulled off and took another condom out of his pocket.
“It’s only fair.”
Chris threaded his fingers into Peter’s hair and lined up his dick with his mouth. Peter didn’t open his mouth for a moment, teasing or wanting to be forced. When he did part his lips, Chris pushed in. Peter gagged slightly, but then pushed closer to Chris and swallowed. Chris tightened his fingers in his hair and tugged harder. Chris fucked into his mouth roughly a few times and Peter let him before he took Chris’s balls in his hand and squeezed, pulling downward enough to make Chris hiss between his teeth. Then Peter started to suck more slowly, pulling on Chris’s balls any time he lifted his hips until Chris was completely still.
Stiles watched it all in his post-orgasm haze for a few minutes. They were rough with each other. He hadn’t expected that, but he liked it. He watched Chris’s stomach clench and release where his shirt was pushed up. He had a furry stomach. In the dim light, he could still see the silver hairs mixed with the black leading up from his groin to his chest.
Then Stiles looked down at Peter. He was great at deep throating and he still managed to look pretty while doing it. With some training, directors would’ve lost their shit for him. Especially the way he looked up with his dark blue eyes slightly watering from Chris using his mouth.
Stiles saw Peter move his own hand beneath his hips and heard the slick sound of him jerking off with Stiles’s t-shirt beneath him. He wanted to help him out, but the angle between Peter, the couch, and Chris was bad. Instead, Stiles got on his knees beside Peter and took Chris’s dick in his hand, waiting for Peter to pull off before he sucked Chris down a few times.
He hated the taste of latex, but it was only for another mouth. The heat and heaviness of him in his mouth was already enough to make his balls tingle again. Unlike he did with Peter, Chris slid his fingers through Stiles’s hair softly, barely moving his hips as he mumbled things Stiles couldn’t quite hear. When he pulled off, he leaned into Peter’s side, his lips brushing his ear, and whispered what he wanted where Chris wouldn’t hear.
Peter smiled and kissed him deeply before he took Chris’s condom off and went back to sucking him hard, stroking him with his free hand until Chris jerked and started to come. Peter took all of it into his mouth, sucking up and down Chris’s oversensitized dick before he pulled Stiles closely Stiles kissed him, swapping some of Chris’s come in his mouth and moaning at the taste as they dragged it out for a few seconds.
After they both swallowed, Peter cupped his cheek and kissed him again, smiling slightly.
“How sweet. You are slutty,” Peter said.
“Just a little,” Stiles said.
Chris ran his fingers through Stiles’s hair again before he pulled him back on the couch to kiss him. Stiles knew he could taste himself and it made his stomach tingle. Stiles melted against him. Peter moved up beside them, laying against Stiles’s back. Chris pulled the blanket off the back of the couch and covered them with it. It should feel weird to be between two body heats, but it didn’t. It was comfortable and warm.
He didn’t realize he’d fallen asleep against Chris’s chest until he felt someone touching his neck and hair. He woke up with his eyes blurry. Chris’s didn’t look much better above him.
“As comfortable as this is, I think we’re going to have to call it a night unless you somehow got a king-sized bed to fit in your room,” Peter said, rubbing his thigh beneath the blanket.
“It’s a queen,” Stiles said. “Sorry.”
“That just means next time we should stay at our house,” Peter said, brushing his lips against Stiles’s cheek. “We have a california king. We don’t mind sharing.”
“Obviously,” Stiles said, laughing slightly. He rubbed against Chris’s chest again before forcing himself upright. “You guys should get home then. It’s late.”
“Do you want to come with us?” Chris asked.
“Nah, I have some homework to do anyway.”
“We have breakfast on Sundays around noon if you want to come,” Peter said, taking his jacket from the back of Stiles’s chair. “You’re more than welcome.”
Stiles smiled. They didn’t want to leave and they didn’t want him to feel like it was just a fuck. It was so sweet it made his chest hurt a little bit.
“Yeah. I’ll come by.”
“We’ll see you tomorrow then,” Peter said, leaning over to kiss him softly.
Stiles kissed him back until Peter pulled away, then Chris tilted up his chin and kissed him too before cupping his cheek.
“Sleep well,” Chris said.
“You guys too,” he said.
When the apartment door closed behind them, Stiles leaned back on the couch, covering up with the blanket they’d been sharing. He should do his homework, but the couch and blanket were still so warm from their heat. He brought the blanket up around his shoulders and told himself he would just sleep for a few more minutes. He didn’t wake up until light was spilling in his slatted curtains.
Sorry this took so long. My original story is officially out to a few buddies who are going to read it over and my deadline is next month. I'm hoping this means I'll get to start posting more on this story. I've missed it. <3 Thanks for the patience. <3
Sunday night, Stiles read the notes for the first five chapters of Humanities. That morning, he had met Derek at the library on campus and made a rough study guide for the midterm. It helped, but still, the sheer number of dates and names they needed to remember was making his head pound.
When his phone vibrated, Stiles shoved his book to the side and picked it up. Peter’s icon from Facebook was at the edge of his screen.
Peter: How was your day?
Not great. Midterms are this week.
Peter: I’m sure you’ll do great.
Here’s hoping. How was your day?
Stiles texted Peter through an episode of Chopped. They had texted some that morning, but Stiles hadn’t gone for his usual smoothie to the cafe. He would try to make it down there the next morning. As they announced the winner in the third round on screen, he frowned. He didn’t want to start studying again. He didn’t want to stop flirting with Peter. He wanted to go see Peter and Chris, but whatever. In a few days, he would be free again. He just needed to suck it up until then.
I don’t want to, but I need to get back to studying. Maybe we can meet up this weekend?
Peter: That sounds wonderful. Come by the cafe if you want a study break.
I’m sure I will. Tell Chris goodnight for me.
Peter: Will do. :) Don’t exhaust your poor brain.
Try not to.
Stiles glanced at his phone a few more times, but the light for another message never came. He finished reading his study guide, going back over the book as he did, before he gave up. It was two in the morning. He should start going over psychology.
He rubbed into his closed eyes and tried to find the motivation, but it wasn’t there. Finally, he turned off the TV and headed to the bedroom. He ended up watching another episode of something mundane and felt guilty every moment he was awake and not studying. It made him want a nod. Nothing made him sleep as well. It would erase all his anxiety about the upcoming tests. Nothing would matter.
He pinched the inside of his arm until he winced, then kept the pressure.
He was considering getting up and going for a run until he was too exhausted to think about heroin before sleep settled in and muted his mind.
On Tuesday after class, Stiles sat beside his coffee table on the floor and flipped through pages of his Algebra book. The professor had given them more practice questions for the midterm on Thursday. The first ten he had been able to do pretty easily. The eleventh was making him want to bang his head against the wall.
Then someone knocked on the front door.
Stiles glanced at the time on his phone. It was too early for Lydia. She shouldn’t be out of class for another two hours. His dad was at work until six. He ran his fingers through his hair as he went to the door, it was either Ellen, Chris, or Peter, and he hadn’t showered since Monday morning.
He pulled open the door and resigned himself to the fact that he looked like shit.
Of course it was Peter on the landing. When he saw him, the corner of his mouth turned up.
“Welfare check,” Peter said.
“Yeah?” Stiles asked, looking at the box in his hands.
“Mhm. And a supply drop for the poor college student,” Peter said, handing him the large cardboard box.
Stiles took it and looked inside at sandwiches, pastries, and a few mason jars of the green smoothie he liked.
“Thank you is usually what people say when someone does something nice for them.”
Stiles rolled his eyes with a slight laugh. “Thanks.”
“Come in,” Stiles said, going inside and putting the box on the bar. “Sorry for the mess.”
Peter waved him off as he sat on the couch and looked at Stiles’s psychology book open on the arm of the couch with the study guide on top of it. Stiles kept an eye on him as he put the food away. Peter flipped through the pages of the study guide.
“Do you want something to drink?” Stiles asked.
“No. I’m not staying. I didn’t want to distract you,” Peter said, putting the study guide down. “Just checking on you.”
“I don’t think I’ve eaten a real meal since we went out the other night.”
“I thought as much,” Peter said. “What would you like to do this weekend after you’re free of this hell?”
“I don’t know,” Stiles said, taking one of the smoothies back to the couch. “What do you guys want to do?”
“Well Beacon Hills offers an abundance of options or we could go the big city.”
“The city? You think we’re ready for an entire hour in the car together?”
Peter laughed slightly. “I don’t know. We can test our luck.”
“Or we could go to yours and Chris’s house and do a little more of what we did the other night.”
Peter hummed. “That sounds like the best option yet.”
“Well it was mine.”
Peter laughed before he got up and paused in front of Stiles. Then he leaned over him, his hands braced on the back of the couch.
“I don’t want to keep you from your very important studying for any longer,” Peter said.
“I like being distracted,” Stiles said, pulling Peter closer and tilting up his chin.
Peter kissed him, long and drawn out. Stiles melted into it. When he was stressed, he either wanted to fuck or get high. Or both. With Peter right there, for the first time in four days, Stiles wanted to get laid more than he wanted to shoot up.
Then Peter pulled away.
“I’ll see you soon.”
“Thanks for the food.”
“Anytime,” Peter said. “If you get bored, I’ll be at the cafe tomorrow afternoon.”
“I’ll try to come down, but I’m probably going to be neck deep in Algebra.”
“Then I’ll see you this weekend,” Peter said, kissing him softly. “Have a good evening.”
“You too. Kiss Chris for me.”
“I’ll do more than that.”
“Rude. Getting laid by your hot husband while I’m stuck here.”
Peter laughed again before he walked toward the door. “See you soon.”
“See ya,” Stiles said as Peter opened the door and stepped out into the cooling evening.
Stiles smiled slightly, drinking the smoothie Peter had brought him. When he picked up his Algebra book, the formula for solving the last problem popped into his head. By the time Lydia showed up, he had the problems done. When she checked them, he had only missed two. A small hopefully flicker started in his chest. Maybe he wouldn’t go down in flames over the class after all.
After his Algebra midterm on Friday, Stiles walked down main street. His head was pounding with every step he took. The exam hadn’t been as hard as he expected. He tapped on his phone calculator as he walked, trying to figure out the lowest grade he thought he had gotten.
A seventy-three was the worst grade he could expect.
He put his phone in his pocket and let out a pent up breath. The other exams had gone well. He’d already got the grades and they were low As, but As all the same.
When he reached Peter’s cafe, he winced as he pushed open the door and the bell rang, causing a spike of pain above his eye. The lobby was packed with students, laughing, and talking too loudly after a week of stressing out and cramming. Stiles didn’t blame him, but he almost walked right back out. Even the smell that normally made his mouth water made his stomach turn.
He waited in line as Boyd took care of a few people in front of him before Peter came from the kitchen. When he spotted Stiles, he smiled and went to the bar. Stiles went over and leaned on the wood across from him. Peter’s smile faltered as Stiles got closer.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah. I think I’m just wore out. I didn’t sleep enough all week.”
“I’m sure,” Peter said before he pressed his palm to Stiles’s forehead. His frown deepened as he moved his hand down to cup Stiles’s cheek for a moment. “You’re warm.”
“It was still pretty hot outside.”
“It was cold when I came in this morning. What can I get you?”
“I don’t know. I thought I was hungry, but nothing sounds good now. Do you just have a smoothie or something?”
“Of course,” Peter said, “Do you like orange? Well it doesn’t matter either way. You need vitamin C.”
“Sure,” Stiles said.
“Good boy,” Peter said as he went toward the kitchen.
Stiles huffed a laugh, then coughed slightly. If Peter was right and he was getting sick-. He wasn’t getting sick. He didn’t have time to be sick. It was just studying for a week straight, sleeping three to four hours every night. That would make anyone drag ass. When he got home, he would take a long nap and he’d feel better.
A few minutes later, Peter gave Stiles a yellow smoothie. It was sweeter than he was used to, but it felt good on his throat. He hadn’t realized it even hurt. Then Peter put a sandwich from the heat cabinet in a box, along with a few cookies.
“Go home and get some rest. Let me know how you’re feeling this evening,” Peter said.
“I’ll be fine. I just need to get some sleep.”
“I’m sure,” Peter said, then he leaned across the counter and kissed Stiles’s cheek. “We’ll see you tomorrow?”
“Yep,” Stiles said. “Thanks for this.”
“I’ll feed you any time you feel the least bit poorly.”
Stiles laughed slightly as he started toward the door. “See you later.”
“Get some rest,” Peter called as Stiles left the cafe.
Stiles lifted his hand and started back home. His face felt warm, but the wind was blowing dead leaves across the sidewalk. He pulled out his phone and looked at the temperature. He rolled his eyes and put it away. It was way too cold to feel as hot as he did.
He gulped the smoothie Peter had given him and sent a silent prayer to whoever was listening that the vitamin C would help.
It was still dark when Stiles woke up covered in sweat. A headache was pounding above his eyes, like before he had fallen asleep. He pushed the sheets off his tacky skin and touched his forehead. Even he could tell he was hot.
“Fuck,” he said under his breath.
Then he heard the vibration beside his bed. He looked at his phone rattling across his bedside table. He picked it up and winced at the light. His dad’s name was on the screen.
“Hello?” he asked, then cleared his throat and winced.
“I didn’t mean to wake you up, kid. I just hadn’t heard from you in awhile,” John said.
“It’s okay,” Stiles said. Talking hurt. He took a drink of the room temperature water on his table. “Sorry, just midterms and stuff.”
“I figured it was a busy week,” John said. “Are you okay? You sound sick.”
“Yeah, I guess I am, which is just great.”
“I don’t know. My head hurts, my throat, everything hurts.”
“Did you get your flu shot this year?”
“I never get my flu shot.”
“Stop. It’s not the flu.”
“Here’s hoping. Get some sleep. I’ll call in the morning to check on you. Call if you think you need to go to the doctor.”
“Okay,” Stiles said. “Thanks.”
“Love you, buddy.”
“Love you too.”
Stiles hung up and rolled over. It was too hot, but his joints and head ached too much to even consider going to the thermostat. Despite being too hot, he pulled the sheet back over himself and tried to go back to sleep.
When Stiles woke up next it was to a light tapping. His sleep clogged brain tried to kick the sound out, but then his mind clicked. Someone was knocking. He jerked then startled harder when he saw someone in his bedroom doorway.
“God, Dad,” he said.
His throat sounded and felt like it was made of ground beef.
“Sorry, I didn’t want you to have to get up to get the door,” his dad said, coming into his bedroom wearing his uniform. Plastic bags rattled in his hand as he crossed the room and pressed his hand to Stiles’s head. “You’re burning up, buddy.”
“Feels like it,” Stiles said.
“I got you some medicine and other things,” John said, taking out a box of flu medication. “I’ll put the soup in the fridge. It’s mostly broth, but that’s for the best.”
“Don’t talk about food.”
“That bad, huh?”
“Do you want to come home with me?” John asked, touching Stiles’s hair. “I need to finish my shift at the station, but then I’ll be home.”
“Do you work tomorrow?”
“Not until nine in the evening.”
Stiles shook his head then rolled over to cough. When he finished, Stiles rolled onto his back again.
“No, it’s okay. I’ll call if it gets too bad. I don’t want you to get sick.”
“You’re the only person in the world allowed to get me sick without me threatening murder.”
Stiles laughed weakly. “Thanks.”
Then his dad leaned forward and pressed his lips to his forehead. He paused for a moment before kissing Stiles’s brow.
“Your fever doesn’t feel too high. Keep an eye on it. There’s a thermometer in the bag. If it gets above 102, let me know. You’ll be going to the hospital.”
“Promise,” Stiles said.
“Alright. Take your medicine and drink one of these,” his dad said as he put a gatorade on the bedside table. “I’ll leave some crackers in here, but I’m going to put the rest in the kitchen.”
“Okay,” Stiles said. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome,” his dad said squeezing his leg as he got off the bed. He tore open the medicine box and handed it to Stiles.
Stiles mouth twisted down as he opened the cap and drank from the bottle. The taste of rancid licorice swamped his mouth before he swallowed the dark green liquid and shuddered. John laughed slightly before he headed toward the door.
Stiles rinsed his mouth with the gatorade and laid back again. He could hear his dad in the kitchen. A few minutes later, he came back to the doorway.
“Call if you need anything,” he said.
“I will,” Stiles said.
“I’ll try,” Stiles said before he rolled over and squeezed the other pillow to his chest.
He didn’t even hear his dad leave.
The puking started when Stiles tried to eat some of the crackers his dad had left on the bedside table. His already sore throat felt wrecked as he leaned over the toilet and vomited up his mistake. He thought the little bit of bread would help steady his stomach, not throw him over the edge. His already sore joints were screaming as his entire body contracted.
It was bad enough to puke twice.
But it didn’t stop. Every time he thought it was finished, and he was watching TV in his bedroom as he floated in a fever daze, another wave of nausea strong enough to make his mouth water hit him.
When someone knocked on the front door, he barely heard them over the pounding in his own head as he emptied the contents of his guts in the toilet bowl. It was probably his dad. If it was, he could use his key, because there was no way Stiles was getting up to get the door.
Then the waves of nausea slammed him again and he heaved again.
Not his dad, but he couldn’t say anything as he gagged again.
“Stiles, I’m going to come in,” Chris called from the other side of the front door.
Stiles tried to say no, but it only came out as a croak as his vision swam. He could barely hold his head up.
The front door opened then he heard quiet footsteps on the carpet before Chris knocked lightly on the wall beside the open bathroom door.
“I’m sorry. I don’t want to press, but I couldn’t leave without checking on you,” Chris said.
Stiles started to talk, but the words caught in his throat. He gagged and heaved again. Then he heard footsteps on the bathroom tile.
Stiles didn’t have the will to look up as he smelled his own bile and dry heaved again. The faucet ran then a warm hand was on the back of his clammy neck. When he finished vomiting, Chris gently angled him away from the toilet and flushed it. Then a damp rag was being pressed against his face.
“It’s alright, sweetheart,” Chris said, wiping his mouth. “You’re hot. Have you taken any thing for the fever?”
“Can’t-. Can’t keep it down.”
“Do we need to go to the hospital?”
Stiles shook his head. “Just-. Go. I’m okay.”
“Not happening,” Chris said. “Let’s get you back to bed.”
“You’re going to get sick.”
“I’ve got the immune system of a horse,” Chris said, putting his arm around Stiles’s back and helping him to his feet.
The fever was worse than when his dad was there the night before. He hadn’t checked it, but he could feel it. Every inch of his body felt heavy. His mind was sluggish and clogged. He wasn’t half as indignant about Chris being there as he usually would be. As Chris settled him in bed, all Stiles could do was be thankful.
“When did you pick this stuff up?” Chris asked, picking up the meds.
“Dad did last night.”
“That was nice,” Chris said, as he unscrewed the cap. “Take a big drink.”
“Tastes like shit.”
“I know. That’s why you’re going to do it quick then chase it with this water.”
Stiles frowned, but did as Chris said. When he gagged, Chris rubbed his back.
“No, breathe through your nose. If you can’t keep it down then we’re going to have to go to the hospital.”
“I don’t want to go to the fucking hospital.”
“No one does,” Chris said. “So breathe through your nose.”
Stiles did then whimpered. His stomach was so sore. Chris pulled him closer and Stiles leaned against his chest, holding Chris loosley.
“You’re going to catch it.”
“I’ve had my flu shot,” Chris said.
“It’s not the flu.”
“Whatever you say.”
Stiles groaned against his chest. This was all far too new for Chris to be seeing him in this rough of shape, but he didn’t have the energy to argue.
“Lay down,” Chris said, helping pull his legs onto the bed.
Nothing sounded better than laying down as Stiles’s head swam. Everything was too hot, but he wanted to touch Chris. It made no sense, but it didn’t change how he felt. Chris sat against the headboard and Stiles pressed his cheek to his thigh. He hugged Chris’s legs loosely and fell asleep again with Chris rubbing his neck.
When he woke up again, it was darker than it had been. His lamp and the TV where casting shadows on his walls. Chris wasn’t there. He couldn’t even remember if he had actually be there or if it was a fever dream as he took the toilet paper on the bedside table and blew his nose. That caused a coughing fit that made his eyes water with the pain in his throat.
Then Chris came back into his bedroom holding a bowl and a new glass of water. He handed it to Stiles, who drank and winced again. Even the water made his gut protest, but he breathed through his nose like Chris had told him earlier.
“I heated up some of the soup in your fridge. It’s mostly broth.”
“I think I’ll throw up if I eat anything,” Stiles said.
“Try a little bit. It might help,” Chris said.
Stiles sat up against the headboard and Chris handed him the bowl. Stiles lifted the spoon and watched his hand tremble. He drank the small amount of broth and waited for the protest, but it was minor. He took another small sip then another. Chris watched TV while Stiles slowly drank half of the broth Chris had brought.
“Shouldn’t you be with Peter?” Stiles asked.
“Boyd called in so he had to work the cafe today,” Chris said. “That’s why I came over. We got worried when you didn’t respond to him canceling our plans. He figured you were probably sick.”
“Yeah I guess I was coming down with it when I went by the cafe yesterday. I just hope he doesn’t get sick.”
“We’re big kids.”
Stiles laughed slightly then flinched at the pain in his throat. He took another small sip of the warm broth.
“I can’t see you guys anymore after what you saw today,” Stiles said.
Chris smiled slightly. “Yeah? You think you’re the first sick person I’ve seen?”
“Draped over their toilet? Maybe.”
“Not a chance,” Chris said, rubbing his leg. “I’m just glad I came by. Your fever seems better.”
“It feels like it.”
“But if it’s the flu, then it’ll come back. Just keep taking your medicine and turn the volume up on your phone. You may want to call your dad too. He called earlier.”
“Shit,” Stiles said, rubbing his face. “Did you talk to him?”
Chris nodded. “He was just checking on you. I told him you were sleeping.”
“Thanks. He worries.”
“I’m sure,” Chris said. “Peter doesn’t get off until ten. If you don’t mind I’ll hang around until then so I can pick him up.”
“Yeah, as long as you don’t mind me passing out again.”
“I can entertain myself,” Chris said, moving to sit against the headboard with Stiles.
Of course this was how Chris would first be in his bed. Stiles couldn’t even find it as pathetic as he should. This was par for the course for his life. Stiles took another sip from the medicine bottle and blew his nose again. If it bothered Chris he didn’t say.
Then Stiles laid flat again with his face near Chris’s leg. Chris ran his fingers through Stiles’s hair, which he badly needed to wash, but with the way he felt like his body was covered in ten pound weights, that wasn’t happening any time soon.
Stiles didn’t realize he had fallen asleep until he felt warmth on his forehead. He was sweating, but for the first time, something else felt warmer than he did. He opened his eyes to Chris kissing his forehead.
“You’re a lot cooler,” Chris said.
“Feels like it,” Stiles said, still half asleep.
“I need to go pick Peter up,” he said. “Call us if you need anything.”
Stiles nodded against his pillow. “Thanks for everything.”
“No problem,” Chris said, kissing his cheek before he started toward the door. “Keep taking your medicine.”
“Okay,” Stiles said.
“You too,” Stiles said without opening his eyes again.
He heard Chris’s footsteps on the hall then the soften open and close of his front door. He listed to the TV for awhile, his head hurting far too badly to actually look at the screen, but listening to the voices on screen was a nice lull to distract from his aching body and the fact that his nose wouldn’t stop draining into his throat.