“I’m going to buy books now,” Peter said, not caring a bit that his voice sounded way too petulant for someone his age.
Talia groaned at the other end of the line.
“Okay, one book,” she said, making Peter roll his eyes hard even as he shouldered his way into the small bookshop in town.
“You are not the boss of me.”
There was a second of silence before Peter realized his mistake.
“Actually,” Talia started, and now she was all riled up. He could practically feel it. “I am the boss of you. I’m your publisher, Peter, and if I have to go up there and tie you to a chair until you finish that fucking manuscript, I will do it, god help me.”
Peter was gracious enough not to argue, and wandered over to the fiction section, grinning when he saw one of his own books sitting on the bestseller shelf.
He picked it up. It was a newer edition, with some amazing artwork on the nice, crisp hardcover. He turned it over, looking at the picture on the back. It was the one Cora took last year when she came to visit; he and Otis in the woods, the dog looking acceptably intimidating in his own, shaggy way. Except for the one floppy ear, of course. Peter almost looked neat beside him.
“... are you even listening to me?” Talia asked, her exasperation clear.
“No,” Peter said. “They are selling Tidebreak , I like the new art.”
His sister huffed out a breath.
“Yeah, well, it didn’t top the New York Times bestseller list for a record number of weeks not to be in every pothole of a town. And thanks, Derek made that one.”
“Hey, a little more respect to the good people of Liberty Woods! And tell him I approve.”
“He doesn’t care if you approve or not, but I will pass it on,” Talia said, her smile audible. “Seriously, though, Peter. You only have two chapters left, and I need that manuscript. Laura is having trouble keeping the reporters back, and if you don’t give me something to tell them, she will start sending them your way.”
Peter frowned, picking up a biography. Some founding father or whatever. He didn’t particularly care. It was thick .
“She better not, or I will never finish this damn thing,” he said, heading for the register. “Bye, Talia, talk to you next Saturday.”
Peter felt just a tiny bit annoyed with himself as he drove back up to the cabin, like he did every Saturday. It was stupid. He never actually liked outdoor activities, he hated camping with a passion, and his weekend trips into town just reminded him that he was being an idiot.
Even after two years in the woods, a small, desperate part of him that got too used to margaritas and the New York skyline kept asking him: how can you live like this?
Because really? When he got into that heated argument over his work ethics with Talia, and threatened to move into the woods and live like a hermit, she had the nerve to tell him that he wouldn’t survive a week. To his face.
What was he supposed to do?
Maybe selling his penthouse and buying an actual cabin in the woods was a step too far, but Peter was never one to back down from a challenge.
And as irritating as it was to even consider admitting it, the lack of internet access or even mobile service did wonders for his productivity.
Sometimes, he fleetingly wondered if Talia did it on purpose, but the thought of being played so well left a foul taste in his mouth, so he shooed the idea away whenever it appeared.
He rolled to a stop and he could hear Otis barking the second he got out of the car. At least he had someone always happy to see him. As soon as he opened the front door, the dog was jumping on him, putting his heavy paws on Peter’s shoulders, licking at his face and almost pushing him off the porch and to his death.
“Down! Ugh, come on, boy, let me come in at least!”
Otis - after making sure that his master was well and truly home - reluctantly obeyed, running outside immediately to do his usual routine around the car, sniffing to see if any other canines had paid their respects to the wheels in town while Peter carried in his groceries.
It was still warm inside, but the fire was out, so he vowed to bring in some wood to restart it as soon as possible. Winter was approaching quickly, and he bitterly reminded himself that there was some serious chopping in his future.
Peter put everything away, glad that the tea he ordered last week arrived safely to his PO box. He could handle cold, he could handle isolation, but he couldn’t handle the no-name green tea they sold in the local grocery store. A line had to be drawn somewhere.
It took him a few minutes to sort out his stuff, and only noticed then, that Otis didn’t come back inside. Peter frowned towards the open door. If there was one thing they shared in common, it was their love for gourmet cuisine, and Otis knew he always brought him a pack of the good dog food on Saturdays.
He pulled his coat back up and went to investigate.
There was no sound in reply, and he couldn’t see him around the car either. As much of a big boy Otis was, Peter was also well aware that he was a scaredy-cat, so he picked up the axe from the chopping block next to the house and started towards the woods.
“I hope to fucking god you didn’t find a bear,” he murmured to himself ten minutes later in the slowly darkening forest as he finally picked up the sound of Otis barking at something.
Otis wasn’t equipped to handle a grizzly, and come to think of it, Peter wasn’t either - despite the axe.
He carefully jumped over the small stream that gave the name to the surrounding area. The Crab Creek had absolutely no crabs in it, but it marked the edge of his property, so now he had to worry not only about fighting an apex predator, but also about getting shot for trespassing.
He wasn’t fond of either option.
“Otis! Come here!”
Otis didn’t come here. Then again, Otis rarely did anything he was asked so that was no reason for worry in itself.
It only took a few more feet of trodding through the underbrush to finally find his dog, and the closer he got, the calmer Peter felt. Otis was still barking, but now he was close enough to recognize that it didn’t sound like alarm. It sounded like something between play! and squirrel!
Peter realized he was probably spending too much time with only a dog for company.
“Otis! What is it?”
The dog was wagging his tail, guarding the roots of a tree, and as he got closer, Peter saw that it wasn’t actually the tree that got him hyped up, it was the shaggy ball of red fur nestled at the base.
It was a small fox. At least it looked small, but Peter had no idea how big full grown foxes were. It looked small next to Otis.
The fox had its eyes closed, despite the barking, and Peter’s less than stealthy entrance, and as he looked closer he noticed that its fur was grimmy at places. He would have taken it for dead if not for seeing the mist of its breath in the cooling air.
“Come on boy, leave it be,” Peter told Otis, grabbing his collar and trying in vain to pull him away. The dog - of course - didn’t budge. He wasn’t barking anymore, but he kept wagging his tail, looking at Peter with shining eyes, like he was extremely proud of the excellent discovery he made.
“No,” Peter said emphatically.
The last thing they needed was a probably disease ridden, flea infested wild animal in the cabin.
Otis sat down next to the fox, and looked at Peter for a long moment before letting out a single, pathetic ‘boof’.
“No,” Peter told him again with more emphasis, rubbing a hand over his face. “Absolutely not .”
The woods were silent around them. He would have called them foreboding if Peter was the sort of person who read his own novels.
“I’m going to head back now, and you are going to come with me, or I swear to god, you will be left without dinner,” Peter told the dog before turning on his heels.
He would never do such a thing, but Otis didn’t have to know that.
Not that Otis cared, apparently, because a few steps later, when Peter checked over his shoulder he found the dog following him with the fox dangling from his mouth by the scruff.
“Oh, god, no! Ew! Put it down ,” Peter pleaded to no avail.
Sometimes he was glad he was living so far away from his family, because he was pretty sure Talia would never let him live down being bossed around by his own dog.
“Otis,” Peter said, with feeling. He wouldn’t beg. He would. Not.
For a second he thought it worked, because Otis - carefully, so, so carefully - put the fox down. Except a second later Peter had to watch with a healthy degree of horror as he started to lick at the half-dead fox, trying to clean it.
“No! No, no, no!”
The dog lifted his head, his tail humping against the ground slowly, his big brown eyes pleading.
Peter missed Manhattan.
“ Fine ,” he said, spitting out the word and pulling his jacket off angrily.
If the stupid dog wanted the fox, then he would get the fucking fox. But that didn’t mean Peter would allow him to contact some disease from it.
He quickly crouched down, bundling the animal up so he didn’t have to touch it.
“You owe me a jacket,” he growled at Otis. The dog replied with another ‘boof’ and darted forward, leading the way back with his tail wagging now that he had his way.
By the time they finally got back to the cabin it was already dark outside, and Peter felt like his nose was in the process of freezing off.
He probably should have felt bad about just dropping his bundle off in the corner of the living room, but yeah. He wasn’t feeling very emphatic at the moment.
Otis wolfed down the dinner he’d put out for him before their little adventure and Peter went out to get some wood, because apparently this was his life now.
He found that the dog had dragged his coat - fox and all - over to his bed in front of the fireplace when he returned, and was curled around it, blinking up at Peter sleepily.
“It’s not a toy,” Peter huffed, as he rekindled the fire. He could smell the smoke even before he had a chance to light a match, and it took him a second to realize that the smell was coming from Otis’ new friend.
That was weird, wasn’t it? He probably would have noticed the forest burning, and he had a hard time imagining a fox setting things on fire.
The thought wouldn’t leave him alone even while he warmed his dinner, eating it standing by the kitchen counter, watching Otis snuggle the fox. He couldn’t even see the animal, except for a fluffy tail hanging out from the dog bed.
Peter wasn’t actually a pet person. His reasoning behind getting Otis two years ago when he moved out here was to not go crazy on his lonesome, and to have something around that at least looked intimidating.
Never mind that Otis turned out to be a complete chicken.
They never had animals back home. Talia was allergic and Peter had been… let’s be honest, way too self-absorbed to take care of another living creature.
He definitely never thought about getting a pet fox.
Peter shook his head, washing his plate. He wasn’t getting a fox. Pet or otherwise. He merely indulged his stupid dog in bringing home half-dead things. Wasn’t that supposed to be a cat thing, anyway?
The fox wasn’t his. It was a wild animal.
Then again, for a second, Peter imagined the face Otis would make tomorrow if it died.
“I hate everything,” Peter told the sink.
He put away his plate with a sigh and walked over to Otis. As soon as he crouched down he was licked in the ear, and he tried not to think about what his dog had in his mouth last.
“Come on, boy, let me see,” he said, with a touch of resignation. He had no idea how much vets charged for treating wild animals… never mind the fact that there was no way he could get to one in the middle of the night. The roads were bad enough around Crab Creek during the day, he wouldn’t risk ending up in a ditch. Not for a stinking, mangled fox.
Otis allowed him to pull the jacket away. The fox still had its eyes closed, but - now that he was close enough - Peter could also hear that it was making sort of huffy sounds.
He couldn’t see any obvious injury, but let's be honest, Peter was far from an authority on the question. As carefully as he could he touched the animal, trying to see if it had bones sticking out anywhere where they weren’t supposed to be sticking out.
Thankfully he didn’t find anything, but his hands did come away covered in… soot. Huh.
“What the hell did your little buddy get into?” Peter asked Otis with resignation. The dog looked into his eyes and then darted forward, licking his face, making Peter jolt back hard enough that he landed on his ass.
“Ew, no. No kisses,” he said, wiping at his mouth with the back of his hand.
He didn’t feel any more optimistic about the fox’s condition; if it really did get caught in a fire somewhere, then it could have damaged its lungs, and there was nothing they could do about that. He would just have to trust Mother Nature to do her thing and decide for herself.
He patted Otis’ head as he got up, heading upstairs to his bedroom. He needed a shower and a good night’s rest. Especially if the fox didn’t improve by tomorrow and he was forced to make the long trip to town again.
Peter slept until eleven and woke to gentle sunlight filtering in through the curtains. He took it as a good sign. No matter how useless Otis generally was, he had no doubt that the dog would have woken him up if the fox was dead.
He stretched, getting into the huge, fluffy, neon pink slippers he got from Derek for his last birthday. He knew it was supposed to be a gag-gift, but they were incredibly warm, and he loved to see his nephew’s sour face whenever Peter wore them.
Otis was awake and waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs. The fox was nowhere to be seen. The dog bed was empty. Peter frowned, wondering if he dreamed the whole thing, but then he heard a noise; a sort of tick-tick-tick and he whipped his head around just in time to see something reddish slip under the couch.
“I see your friend is feeling better,” Peter said. Otis didn’t react, he watched Peter with eyes so intent they were almost burning. Mornings were the only time when he had laser focus; he wanted breakfast, then he wanted to be let out and until those needs were met he wouldn’t let Peter do anything else.
Sometimes it felt like the dog was the one who had him trained and not the other way around.
“Alright, alright,” Peter said with an eye roll. “You’re so demanding.”
Peter flipped the coffee maker on and opened a can of dog food.
After his breakfast, Otis stormed outside like he’d never seen the sky before. Peter watched him roll around in a bunch of fallen leaves he was too lazy to properly clean up, before the dog zipped out of his sight, making his usual survey around the small clearing the cabin stood on.
Peter left the door open, and poured himself a good, strong cup of coffee, his eyes on the living room.
He expected the fox to dart out of its hiding place under the sofa and towards freedom, but no such thing happened. For a second, he thought he saw a pointed snout poking out from the shadows, but then it disappeared just as quickly.
“Come on,” Peter said, carefully putting his mug down. “Don’t make me chase you.”
He wondered for a second about how dangerous foxes actually were. He didn’t think they were anything to write home about, right? And as far as he could recall, they should be more scared of people than people were of them.
He checked to make sure Otis wasn’t back yet, and then picked up yesterday’s newspaper he got from town, rolling it up.
“Alright, you little pest, time to go,” he said, making his way carefully into the living room. He didn’t want to hurt the animal, he just wanted it out of his house. If it was feeling good enough to scurry under the couch, it was well enough to get on with its life and stop making Peter’s life difficult.
He heard faint scratching, but saw no movement, even as he reached the couch. Peter sighed, and then whacked one of the pillows with the rolled up newspaper.
The fox didn’t run.
The fox started making… noise. It wasn’t like anything Peter ever heard, if he had to compare it to anything, it had to be the sound the old paper shredder in Talia’s office made when his sister forgot to pick the staples out of the pages.
Peter was so shocked that he almost didn’t notice Otis barrelling back into the room with enough speed that he skid all over the hardwood in the living room and his momentum was only stopped when he smacked into the couch.
“What,” Peter said, because did this… this soon-to-be roadkill actually call his dog?
Otis made a distressed, low ‘boof’ and sniffed around the couch, then he looked at Peter. Then he looked at the rolled up newspaper in his hand.
He never knew a dog’s face could covey such utter disappointment.
“Oh, come on. It has to go,” he explained with an exasperated eye roll, but Otis didn’t budge, he just lowered his head and whined when Peter moved, like he expected to be smacked. Out of everything, it was probably the most insulting thing to ever happen in his life , because - thank you very much - he’d never hit an animal ever . He wasn’t a monster.
Peter threw the newspaper on the couch, rubbing a hand over his face, even as Otis pushed his nose against his stomach, looking for scratches now that Peter’s ‘weapon’ was discarded.
He looked down at the dog watching him with hopeful, brown eyes, his tail wagging lazily.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” he muttered, scratching Otis behind the ears.
He was getting soft.
Peter gave up on chasing the fox out - for now - and closed the front door. The morning was way too chilly to leave it open.
As he often did when faced with a difficult problem, he decided to ignore it.
Peter finished his coffee, and dug out the book he bought yesterday. Usually he would read in his armchair before he started to work, but today he chose the couch. Because it was his couch, and he refused to let it become the territory of any uninvited, furry goblin.
The fox didn’t make a sound as Peter plopped down, so he just shrugged. It had to come out sooner or later. Or at least he hoped it would, and not make a mess in the middle of his living room.
He was just about to stretch out with his book when the discarded newspaper caught his eye.
‘No Leads on Arson Case’ the front page read. Huh.
He skimmed the article. A retired sheriff’s house burned down two towns over. The man survived and was still in the hospital in critical condition, the police also found a body in the ruins - presumably his son. Ouch. And, while the fire inspector ruled the case an accident, closer scrutiny revealed evidence to the contrary.
There was a picture, taken apparently six months before, at the sheriff’s retirement party, showing a good looking man standing with a lanky college aged kid at his side.
Peter felt a sort of detached curiosity as he remembered the soot on the fox’s fur and the smell of smoke. He looked at the picture more closely, especially at the boy. He looked cheeky and handsome with an upturned nose and a pair of smiling eyes. Suddenly he had no doubt that he was responsible for etching both the laugh-lines and the worry-lines into his father’s face. He wondered if he had been the kind of troublemaker who kept a pet fox…
He carefully put the paper away - he would need the crosswords when he got desperate - and opened his book. A nagging part of his brain that sounded way too much like Talia tried to remind him that he had other things to do, but let’s be honest; Peter was contrary by nature.
He spent the rest of the morning reading. Nonfiction was his go-to when he needed to procrastinate, or clear his head. The duller the better.
Peter had to admit that he had completely forgotten about the fox by the time lunch rolled around. As soon as he got up, Otis was already at the door, scratching at it to be let out again, and Peter opened it without thinking.
The fox zipping past him - close enough to brush against his leg - almost gave him a heart attack, but he quickly got his wits around him and slammed the door closed.
One less problem.
Or so he thought.
When he let Otis back in an hour later and found him on the doorstep with the fox in his mouth again , Peter wasn’t even surprised anymore.
“Alright, no. This is ridiculous,” he said.
Otis wagged his tail, obviously baffled about why he wasn’t allowed inside.
The fox on the other hand… Peter couldn’t shake off the feeling that it was somehow laughing at him. Oh, it made no sound, it just hung limply from the dog’s mouth, but it was eyeing Peter with something suspiciously close to amusement.
“No,” he said again. He wasn’t even sure why he was trying.
Otis whined around the fox in his maw and his ears dropped. He looked worried, and… oh fuck. Okay.
Peter stepped aside with a defeated sigh, letting the dog barge past him, fox and all.
“I’m gonna kill that little pest,” he shouted after them, but yeah. Apparently nobody cared about his opinion in this house.
The fox situation was annoying enough that he actually decided to work instead of worrying about it. After closing the door of his study with a satisfying thud, he felt like he could breathe easier. Which was weird. It was usually the other way around.
Peter booted up his computer. It was a pretty old number, but that was fine. He didn’t use anything other than a word processor. And, occasionally, solitaire.
He never planned to become a writer. Oh, he’d always been a bookworm and - according to Talia - a nerd, but he had been perfectly aware of how small a chance there was for someone to make big money from writing. Other than in a few fleeting seconds after finishing some really good reads, he’d never really considered it, even though his family ran a publishing company.
Sure, back then the Hale House mostly ran bodice rippers and penny dreadfuls against his sister’s best efforts to revolutionize their business model… It wasn’t the scene Peter was interested in, so he became a lawyer. A pretty good one too, if he said so himself.
And he’d enjoyed it. There was something about facing down his ‘enemies’ and eliminating them in front of an adoring crowd that always had his blood singing in his veins.
The awesome paygrade didn’t hurt either.
Then, on one, fateful Thanksgiving they had an argument with Talia… Why did all his problems always start with a fight with his sister? Peter almost thought the universe was trying to tell him something about the importance of family… Anyway. That one argument ended with a bet, where Peter might have foolishly said he could write something for the New York Times bestseller list in three months.
Well, maybe not ‘foolishly’ because of course he did it. And then another. And then another that turned into the first book of a trilogy.
A trilogy he should be finishing right about now.
Ugh, the cursor blinked at him, taunting. Two more chapters to go.
In the end, Peter didn’t resurface from his office until almost midnight, and he only had three more chapters to write. So that was… something. Something Talia would kill him for, but she didn’t need to know.
When he stumbled downstairs, he just stopped in the door of the living room, blinking at the scene in front of him. Otis was curled up in a tight ball on the small rug in front of the fireplace, the huge - and hugely expensive - dog bed was right next to him, except it was already occupied.
Peter wasn’t well versed in the usual habits of wildlife, but he felt his eyebrows rise as he looked at the fox. It was stretched out on its… on his back with half of him hanging off the bed and onto the floor, tongue lolling out.
It didn’t look like a comfortable position. Hell, it didn’t even look natural.
The next few days developed a new pattern in Peter’s life despite his best efforts to ignore the situation. A chipped bowl made its home on the floor next to Otis’ so that the damned fox wouldn’t steal the dog’s food. Peter didn’t startle anymore when he heard the ticking of small claws on the hardwood, and slowly became less likely to throw himself on the couch when he knew the fox was under it.
He told himself it was an experiment. A study in nature and wild animals.
Not like there was anything particularly wild about the fox. He was a bit… idiotic. He kept sleeping in strange places and strange positions; draped over Otis like a blanket, stuck between the railings of the stairs, contorted between the legs of the barstool Peter had in the kitchen.
He also seemed to be very wary of the fireplace, which wasn’t particularly unusual for a wild animal, but it reminded Peter of the sot sticking into his fur when he arrived, and he filed it away in the back of his brain.
But mostly, the fox ate. And slept.
The fox slept a lot , but with time he warmed up a bit to Peter’s presence, not hiding every single time he saw the man approaching. It was probably a natural process, the familiarity between them growing, but still, Peter couldn’t help feeling proud of it.
Peter was a writer. Had been for a while, and the profession brought its own set of skills. Observation for one. You never knew when a new story or a new idea would pass you on the streets. A man with a weird nose, who would make it into the next book, or a lady with a voice shrill enough to inspire a villain.
So it was unsurprising when - a week after finding the fox - he went into town and immediately noticed some strange faces.
Well, he saw the car first; a truck, shiny and big and black, standing out in small, dusty Liberty Woods like a sore thumb. He noted it, and went on with his day, getting through his to-do list; getting his groceries, using the computers in the library to look up the stuff he had jotted down during the week to research.
His last stop was the hardware store. It was actually a bit-of-everything store, and the only place in town that sold dog bowls. After a week of cohabitation Peter decided to get a set for the fox as well, if only so the chipped dish he was currently eating out of wouldn’t clash with the design anymore.
And that was where he found the owners of the truck.
There were two of them, blonds. A guy and a chick. They didn’t look too similar, but there was something about their body language that was too familiar and made Peter think they were siblings. The guy had a back holster with a black gun clearly enough on display that he had to have a permit. That wasn’t surprising, lot of people did in these parts, though Peter never really got used to it, being a city-boy and all.
“So,” the woman asked, voice… saccharine as she leaned on the counter, pinning poor Roger in place with her smile. Roger was about sixty with a bald spot and a beer belly. Peter had a feeling that he didn’t often get good looking ladies staring at him like that, and it showed. “You haven’t noticed any strange animal activity around here recently?”
Roger swallowed, shaking his head mutely. The woman sighed dejectedly, her eyes wandering over to the hunting guns hanging on the wall behind him.
“Are you sure? It looks like you’re a man who is familiar with these woods, aren’t you, handsome?”
Roger licked his lips, looking like a mouse in front of a snake. Peter couldn’t pinpoint what it was, but he didn’t like this woman. She made the hair stand up on his back.
“Uh. What? I mean, it depends… What are you looking for, miss?”
“Oh, you know,” she said, still smiling. It wasn’t reaching her eyes. “ Pests . Foxes. That kind of stuff… We’re with Wildlife Services and there were a few cases of rabies recently, so we’re going to thin them out a little,” she explained, running a finger down the edge of a box of bullets left on the countertop.
Peter stepped back behind the shelves unconsciously, a chill running down his spine. He didn’t think he’d been spotted, thankfully.
Carefully, he put the metal bowls he picked out back to their place and sneaked out of the shop. He only felt himself calm down after he was safely in his car.
Then he called Cora.
“Hey sugarcrumbs,” he said as soon as she picked up. It was a habit. Cora hated the nickname with a burning passion.
“Ugh. What do you want, Unca’? I’m at work.”
Exactly. Cora was the only member of their family who didn’t work for the publishing house. She worked at an animal sanctuary.
“This will sound like a stupid question, but do you happen to know how Wildlife Services handle fox infestations?”
Cora made a startled sound on the other end of the line.
“Is this for a book?”
Peter huffed, watching through the windshield as the couple left the hardware store with a bag. The guy put it in the back of the pickup, and for the second it was open Peter could see large boxes. The sort they use to store rifles.
“Sure,” he said absentmindedly. The guy looked around as he closed the door. His gaze landed on him for a second. Peter narrowed his eyes at him, even though he was pretty sure it couldn’t be seen from the distance.
“O-kay,” Cora said, sounding dubious. “They use the M44s.”
Peter frowned, his attention snapping back as the pickup left.
“M44? Is that a gun?”
“No, dumbass, it’s a cyanide device. Poison.”
“So they don’t actually hunt them?”
“Nope, this ain’t Victorian England, Unca.” Cora said, her eye roll apparent in her tone. “Listen, I have to run, you need anything else?”
“No, that was it, thanks, sugarcrumbs,” he said, disconnecting.
Wildlife Services his ass .
Peter couldn’t explain why he was so nervous on the drive back to the cabin. Those people in town might have been nothing, really, there was no reason to work himself up.
Still, when the house came into view he sighed in relief.
Otis greeted him as enthusiastically as always, and this time the fox wasn’t too far behind. Peter was probably just imagining that the fox looked just as relieved to see him as he was. He zapped past Peter in a flurry of red fur after being cooped up in the cabin all day, but he did stop for a split second to snap playfully at Peter’s shoelaces.
“And hello to you too, Red,” Peter said with a snort as he carried the groceries in.
Putting his ice cream away made him relax completely. He wasn’t in one of his stupid, mystery ridden horror books. Nobody was after him or the weird fox his dog picked up.
He was just being paranoid.
He thought - as stupid as it sounded - that the fox was aware that Peter started watching him more closely. Sometimes he would stop what he was doing, may that be chasing Otis’ tail or a particularly feisty dust bunny, and look at Peter. It wasn’t… He couldn’t explain it, but that didn’t seem like animal behaviour. Not any animal he knew at least; even Otis wasn’t that aware of his surroundings.
“What do you want, Red?” Peter asked him on one occasion, unable to shake off the feeling that those clever, brown eyes knew more than they let on.
The fox stood, frozen, his gaze almost calculating as he examined Peter. Then his ears flattened back against his head, fur standing on end, like he somehow spooked himself and disappeared under the couch.
Otis boofed at him, sounding worried and lay down next to the couch, pushing as much of his head under it as he could, tail wagging slowly.
That was weird right?
On Tuesday, he woke to Otis barking madly. That was new.
Peter stumbled out of bed. He’d been editing until two in the morning and that meant he’d had… five hours of sleep. He was too old for this shit.
He stepped into his slippers, throwing a bathrobe on over himself and went to investigate.
Someone was knocking on his door.
Otis was standing by the door, barking. And not just as he usually did when they happened to get visitors. He sounded like he was ready to throw down, which was also something Peter had never heard before. He looked around quickly, just in time to see a red, fluffy tail disappear in the little space between the fridge and the wall.
“Okay, okay, down boy,” he told Otis. “I’m coming, for fucks sake!”
He threw open the door, belatedly cursing himself for not checking who it was when he found the blond guy on his doorstep. What the hell.
Peter was suddenly extremely aware that he was unarmed and - if he remembered right - this guy was carrying a gun in easy reach.
“Good morning,” the guy said. He looked tired with light scruff covering his chin. His eyes were sharp, though. “Sorry for bothering you, sir. I would just like to ask some questions.”
Peter thought that he should probably be intimidated right now. Especially since he was certain there was something fishy about this man and his companion. But alas, he was still a professional lawyer under everything.
“Questions? Lovely! Let me start!” he said cheerily. “Who are you, and are you aware that this is private property?”
The man’s eyes narrowed, and Peter didn’t miss the way he paused to take him in again. Like he needed to reassess the situation. And he didn’t even raise an eyebrow at Peter’s fluffy, pink slippers - what a shame.
“My name is Christopher Argent, sir, and yes, I’m aware. I will only hold you up for a few moments. Can I come in?”
Peter gave him a cold look.
A muscle in Argent’s jaw twitched.
“Alright. I’m working with Wildlife Services. We’ve received a few calls that there might be animals around spreading rabies, so we will be culling the population in the area. Have you noticed any unusual activity?”
Peter regarded him, noting how he said he was working ‘with’ Wildlife Services, not for them. Smart. Would lead on a layperson who wasn’t trained in a courtroom to listen to the little lies that changed everything.
“No,” Peter said again. He wasn’t going to give this guy an inch more than necessary. Of course, the easiest way to go would have been to just shut the door in his face, but then he wouldn’t be able to figure out what they were after.
“Are you sure?” the man asked, carefully trying to look behind Peter and into the house. Peter acted like he didn’t notice it. He even opened the door a bit wider. The second he did, Otis was there, snarling at Argent. Peter actually had to grab his collar to hold him back, and Otis was by far the most easy-going animal he knew.
Argent’s hand twitched, and Peter had the suspicion that he was itching to reach for his gun. Then again, Otis could look intimidating to the untrained eye.
“What are you looking for exactly?” Peter asked calmly over the dog’s growls.
“Fox,” Argent said, his eyes snapping back to Peter, almost guilty. Oh. He imagined that was a little slip up. Interesting.
“Yeah, no. Nothing comes to mind, Mr. Argent,” Peter assured him, deadpan.
The man nodded his head with well concealed irritation.
“Alright, sir. Just in case, try to keep your dog out of the woods. Wouldn’t want to miss him for something else,” Argent said.
Peter bristled on the inside, but kept his calm.
“Uh-huh. Sure. Well, this land is mine between the road and the creek. According to state legislation you need my explicit, written permission to hunt on it. Which I am explicitly not giving you or anyone else.” Peter said, taking great joy in seeing that muscle in Argent’s jaw tick again. “In fact, you are not welcome here, and the next time I see you or your partner on my property I’m calling the sheriff.”
It was a lacklustre threat at best. The only place he could get service for his phone was the north side of the roof, and Peter didn’t like heights. He could only hope that it would be enough.
“Duly noted,” Argent said, stone faced and turned on his heels.
Peter watched until he got back in his pickup and was on his way back to wherever he came from. He made a mental note to pick up a shotgun on his next trip to town. At least to have something to wave around for intimidation.
He closed the door and locked it for good measure, leaning against it for a second to get his thoughts in order.
He didn’t understand what was happening, but he knew that something was.
Finally, after the sounds of the engine leaving down the road died down, Otis stopped growling at the door. He was still obviously upset though, walking round and round the cabin, sniffing everything, like he was checking that it was still in the perfect order.
Peter scratched behind his ears as he passed him and plopped down on the couch, picking up his book. It was too early to be awake - at least for him - but there was no way he would be able to go back to sleep.
He got comfortable, his head pillowed on the armrest and leafed through the book to find the dog-ear he made where he left it off.
Peter had a hard time concentrating on the words on the page, so he heard the familiar ‘tick-tick-tick’ that signalled that Red was out of his hiding place clear as day. He didn’t put his book down, knowing that the fox might get skittish if he startled it.
The sound stopped at the other end of the couch. He expected that Red would slide under it like he was wont to do when he was scared, but instead he watched over the top of his book as the fox jumped on the arm of the couch, carefully sniffing at Peter’s feet. He was close enough that his whiskers tickled his toes, but he fought down the urge to move.
Red clambered up to the back of the couch and curled up in a tight ball, hiding his snout in his bushy tail.
Peter knew he was faking. If there was one thing he knew about this particular fox, it was that he was incapable of sleeping in any comfortable looking position.
He turned the page, despite not reading a word on the current one and acted disinterested.
Just like he suspected, a moment later Red’s ears twitched, turning towards him, listening before he carefully unfurled. Peter pinned his gaze on his book, but from the corner of his eye he saw the fox scooting a bit closer on the back of the couch and then curling up again. Like Peter wouldn’t notice.
He could barely keep his mouth from twitching into a grin. Red was not subtle. At all.
It took almost half an hour for the fox to migrate close enough that he could have touched him if he reached out.
Peter found himself strangely excited. The cabin was silent except for Otis snoring softly in his bed and the logs cracking from time to time in the fireplace, and here he was, filled with anticipation because Red was so, so close. Closer than ever before.
The next time he looked at the fox, Red was watching him right back, his clever, honey-colored eyes curious.
Peter couldn’t even pretend to be reading his book.
The fox carefully stood, like he was the one worried about spooking Peter. He ran his pointy snout along the top of the couch and then carefully reach down with his black socked leg towards Peter’s thigh.
He snatched his foot back the second it made contact, eyes snapping back to Peter like he expected him to throw the book at him, but Peter merely raised an eyebrow at him.
Red reached down again, awkwardly balancing on the top of the couch with his furry butt in the air, and then he promptly lost his footing and fell into Peter’s lap.
The only reason why he didn’t jerk in surprise was that… he sort of expected Red to do something stupid.
Still, the fox made a distraught little sound and jumped off him, scurrying under the couch, making Peter sigh.
“You are an idiot,” he said, maybe a bit fond, and turned his attention back to his book. The entertainment was probably over for today.
Red proved him wrong ten minutes later when he hopped back up, right onto Peter’s stomach, making him huff out a startled breath. For a second, Red leaned over the top of his book, the whiskers on his nose twitching, looking down at Peter.
When he didn’t move, Red said something that sounded like ‘kek’ and flopped to his side, on Peter’s chest head hanging off at an awkward angle.
Peter shook his head with a grin.
Yeah, that was more like it.
When morning rolled around - well, his morning, which meant after ten - he found himself in a tricky position.
Otis was sitting by the couch, looking at him expectantly, obviously waiting to be fed and let out. Which Peter needed to do.
At the same time, he had a furry little intruder currently sleeping on his back in the valley of his legs, all four legs in the air, occasionally pedalling when his dream called for it.
Peter didn’t want to move, even though he was getting kind of numb from staying in one position for so long.
Otis leaned closer and licked his chops, and yeah. That was a pointed hint if he ever saw one.
Very carefully Peter inched his legs apart, letting Red slip down between them until he was lying on the couch and extracted himself, somehow managing to not wake the fox. He even succeeded in fighting down the urge to reach down and ruffle the incredibly soft looking pale fur on Red’s belly.
Peter stretched, feeling his back pop and fed Otis, waiting until he wolfed the food down and then let him out. The sky looked stormy with heavy, gray clouds hanging just over the tip of the trees. He brought some more wood in, and by the time he was back Red already fell off the couch, but was still sleeping, flattened out like a frog and his tail lazily swiping the floor.
Peter shook his head, smiling to himself and put out some dog food for the fox too, leaving the door slightly ajar before heading off to shower.
Argent’s visit in the morning felt like it happened a lifetime ago, but still, it kept scratching at the back of his mind.
By late afternoon it was pouring outside, the rain hammering the roof in a constant, depressed drumroll.
But, Peter didn’t feel up to cleaning up dog poop from the living room floor, so he reluctantly let Otis and Red outside. He expected them to just do their business and scurry back, but he was left standing in the door, watching as the fox immediately slipped on the wet grass and fell into a muddy puddle.
And then rolled in it.
Peter sighed, cursing himself and whoever opened the taps up there, and got out a few towels.
Otis was the first one inside. He stopped in the door and let Peter dry his muddy feet, licking at his ear all the while, showering him in wet doggy kisses.
Peter endured it in exchange of not having to somehow cram the whole dog bed into the wash tomorrow.
Otis was just about clean when Red tried to sneak in, body close to the ground, ears back, but Peter was ready for him. He brought that couch all the way from New York, it was bad enough that it was slowly getting covered in red fur. He will not let it get muddy too.
He grabbed Red by the scruff just before he could slip inside.
“Yeah, I don’t think so, mister,” he growled, lifting the fox.
Red made a few desperate sounds, but then went lax in Peter’s hold, and he held the little bandit up to the light.
Ugh. He didn’t think a gentle towel rubbing could help with this. The fox was pretty much completely covered in mud and leaves.
Peter sighed, looking down at himself. He was wearing his favorite pair of sweatpants and a henley, but well. Sacrifices had to be made.
“You,” he told Red who was looking at him with open betrayal, “Are getting a bath.”
Red was a worthy opponent. Not a fair one, but definitely formidable. By the time he had him safely in the bathtub and covered in suds Peter was just about as wet as he was, half from water, half from cold sweat.
Red might not have had a place to hide in the bathroom, but he sure as hell was fast and slippery.
“Stay,” Peter told him, as sternly as he could, trying to blow a wet curl of hair from his forehead. Red snapped at his fingers, but there was no intent behind it. Peter did get quite a few scratches during the ordeal, but they were mainly from the fox’s first panicked attempts to get out of the tub.
But it looked like he finally managed to tire Red out, because he was sitting still for once, letting Peter shower him down. He looked like some pathetic furry gremlin with his fur sticking to his skinny body.
“There we go,” Peter murmured, carefully working the dog shampoo out of his coat. Red had the gall to squint at him, his mouth open on a smile, like suddenly he was enjoying the whole thing.
“Stop looking so smug,” he said, but Red only let his tongue loll out of his mouth, panting happily. “This isn’t a spa you little fucker.”
Red licked at his hand and said ‘kek.’
Peter worked well into the afternoon and further. Well, ‘worked’ might have been a bit of an exaggeration. He was getting close to finishing his next book, and as always, he was hating every single page.
He knew the drill, realistically. He would finish, fiddle with it until his next trip to town, and send it off to Talia from the library when she started to be too annoying. Then she would send it back with edits, moaning that he used too many adverbs or something. And that would go on for a month or two until both of them were either satisfied or they gave up.
But finishing was still hard. He could not accept his manuscript to be anything less than perfect, and then he would feel like that every edit Talia made was a personal slight.
Peter hated the editing process with a burning passion.
It was getting late when he heard the door of his office creak open and he peered out from behind the screen to see Red slinking inside, sniffing at the carpet.
He didn’t allow Otis up the stairs, and he wouldn’t have allowed the fox either, but it looked like that was out of the window once he brought him up here to bathe.
Peter considered shooing him out and back downstairs, but he was sort of glad for the distraction.
Red walked around the room sniffing everything, running his whiskers over the books on the lower shelves, his steps completely silent on the rug. When he reached the desk, he sat down beside Peter’s chair, looking up at him, making a chirpy, inquiring noise.
Peter leaned back, rubbing at his nose. His eyes were getting tired. He probably needed glasses, but he refused to get any before his fortieth birthday, and that was still a few months away..
“What do you want?” he asked the fox, tired. He checked the time in the corner of the screen. A little past midnight.
Red cocked his head first to one side, then the other, and then he jumped up, landing neatly in Peter’s lap. His pointy feet dug into his thighs as the fox walked in a tight circle before sitting down, facing the computer. He rested his chin on the table, waiting.
Peter blinked down at him. What the hell.
When nothing happened, Red twisted his neck, looking back at him.
“ Kek! ”
Peter huffed out a laugh and pulled the keyboard a bit closer as he started typing under the fox’ watchful eyes.
Peter woke up groggily, and later than usual. They’ve been working until three in the morning, with Red clucking and chirping at him accusingly every time he stopped typing. He was exhausted, but - miraculously - his book was finished, or as finished as it could be.
He blinked his eyes open, squinting at the light filtering through the curtains. Red was lying across his hips, on his back with his top half on the bed and his butt practically in the air, the sight making Peter snort.
He was just considering how to get up when the fox started twitching, one of his legs kicking in the air. Peter would have put it down to some vivid dream about chasing rabbits, but then Red started whining, high and pitiful.
He wasn’t sure animals were capable of having nightmares, but he sat up quickly and prodded Red in the side.
“Hey, stop that,” Peter told him firmly, poking at him again when the whining didn’t stop.
Red jolted awake, somehow getting on his feet in one fluid motion, his fur standing on end, looking around the room like he was expecting to be somewhere completely different.
Peter stayed carefully still.
“It’s okay,” he said, and the fox’s eyes snapped to him. For a second he thought Red didn’t recognize him, but then the tension broke and the fox deflated, shaking with nerves.
Peter expected him to run away and hide, but instead Red skulked closer to him, snout downcast and curled up in his lap. Gingerly, he reached out, running his fingers through the fluffy fur, rubbing those soft, black ears gently between his fingers. He realized that it was the first time Red had allowed him to pet him - their little non-consensual bath adventure notwithstanding - and he couldn’t feeling a bit of warmth bubble up in his chest.
“Yeah, you’re alright,” he said soothingly.
Red chirped something and snuggled closer.
The rain didn’t let up for two whole days, which was a shame, because Peter was slowly and surely running out of towels to dry his animals with.
At least Red learned his lesson and didn’t intentionally get himself covered in mud, though Peter saw him accidently slipping quite a few times… Sometimes he had no idea how Red survived in the wild before Otis found him.
Now that his book was as done as it could be, he suddenly had a lot of free time on his hands, and that left his mind wandering.
Talia would want him to do a press tour after release. Signings. Interviews. The whole shebang.
He usually left Otis with Derek if he had to go away for an extended period of time, but he was pretty sure his surly nephew wouldn’t be ecstatic about an extra fox.
Peter watched as the dog chased Red around before they switched places and Otis was the one running, his one floppy ear slapping around in the wind.
He could always ask Cora. He could try at least. The animal sanctuary she worked with would have no problem placing a fox, but he wasn’t sure what the actual rules were about keeping a fox in the state, and he didn’t want to risk not getting Red back.
The thought made him pause. He couldn’t pinpoint when he became so attached to the furry goblin currently hanging off his dog’s tail and being towed around on the wet grass. But he did, because he couldn’t stand the possibility of giving him away, even if technically Red was never his to begin with.
A bolt of lightning raced across the sky, followed by a clap of thunder, making Otis flinch hard enough that Red fell on his face.
Peter rolled his eyes.
That night, the rain finally - blessedly - stopped. There was a sudden silence in the cabin with the drumming of the water on the roof gone, and for the first few hours Peter felt extremely isolated.
He finished his book in the morning and didn’t feel like rereading anything old - or god forbid, open the file of his own book - so it left him with nothing do. He turned on the radio and stretched out on the couch, tossing one of Otis’ tennis balls.
The dog was in his bed, too tired after spending most a few hours splashing around outside - but Red seemed to be a boundless source of energy when he wasn’t sleeping.
He leaped after the ball every time Peter threw it. Of course, because this was Red, he rarely caught it before it rolled to a full stop, despite trying valiantly.
The fox leaped up to his stomach - it was amazing how little he weighed - and dropped the ball on his chest, chirping at him.
Peter raised an eyebrow, but obeyed, tossing it again. Towards the kitchen, because he already knew Red would rather not go too close to the fireplace. The fox sprang off him, and after the ball, his feet skidding on the hardwood and crashing into the wall. Red shook his head like he was trying to clear it and then was off again, crawling under the small wine rack Peter had in the corner.
He made a happy sound with only his fluffy tail visible and ran back to Peter, ball in mouth.
He wasn’t sure how the fox didn’t have a concussion yet after smacking into every single piece of furniture he owned. Not like he minded playing fetch. It killed the time.
Red finally exhausted himself a bit after midnight, dropping the ball in Otis’ bed with finality. He ‘keked’ at Peter and took off towards the stairs.
He wasn’t sure how he felt about the fox taking his bed for granted, but well. Peter found that he slept better with the little goblin there
He got up, his back popping, and locked the door, turning off the lights and leaving only the embers in the fireplace casting the downstairs in a soft glow.
He was just closing the curtains when he saw it.
Lights in the forest. Two of them.
Peter stopped, his throat closing up with a mixture of apprehension and anger for a second. It was hard to tell how far away they were, but those were flashlights. Around his house.
The Argents. It had to be them. He couldn’t help but remember the guy in his doorway, telling him that he should keep his dog out of the woods while they were out to take care of ‘pests.’
Foxes . He meant foxes.
Peter never even saw a fox in these woods, not before Red at least.
His stomach clenched nervously though he couldn’t explain it.
But Chris, he could manage, he was pretty sure. The man was a bit shady, but he seemed reasonable. His sister though? Peter knew people. He spent enough time in courtrooms to know them better than he ever wanted, and there was something… cruel about the Argent woman.
Peter closed the curtain, and then went around and closed even the ones he usually didn’t.
He couldn’t explain the relief he felt when he found Red halfway buried under his pillow on the bed. He would probably be spitting fur all night, but he really couldn’t care less.
Peter was still uneasy the next morning. He forwent their usual routine and slipped outside to check the cabin’s surroundings while Red and Otis ate their breakfast.
It was cold and misty, white wisps of fog lingering between the trunks of the treeline and his slippers got soaked with dew in three seconds flat, but there was no way he was allowing either of his boys out until he was sure it was safe.
For good measure, he took his phone too, holding it in his hand, tapping on the screen from time to time just for show. In case someone was watching; nobody needed to know that they were basically cut off from civilization.
The woods were quiet around him. Not unnaturally, there was still the sounds of birds, even a forlorn frog serenading nothing farther away, but nothing that would have signaled the presence of humans.
Peter still walked around the whole clearing before letting Otis and Red out to do their stuff and play a little.
He stayed outside during the whole time, watching Otis. The dog didn’t seem to notice anything strange, bounding around with his usual enthusiasm, but it didn’t slip his notice that Red was a whole different matter.
He wasn’t sure if the fox could smell the strangers’ scent, or he just picked up on Peter’s nerves, but he stayed close to the porch. After he was finished with his business, he sat down by Peter’s feet, still as a statue, eyes searching the woods.
Peter didn’t see any other suspicious activity until Saturday rolled around. He knew that didn’t mean that there was none, though. He had half a mind to forgo his usual trip to Liberty Woods, but they were almost out of dog food with Red eating his fair share too, and he had to send the book to Talia.
He kept trying to tell himself that everything was okay, that it was just like every other Saturday before, but it didn’t work as well as he hoped.
He took extra care to secure the cabin, leaving out ample water and food for the boys, putting out the fire, checking the windows twice. He still wasted an hour, dragging his feet, throwing the tennis ball for Red and giving Otis an extra belly rub before he finally got into his car.
Unlike he expected, his morning flew by fast, as the second he was out of the woods and in civilization his brain switched to autopilot, going through the motions. Shopping, library, lunch, calling his sister… All the usual stuff.
It was just starting to get dark when he was finally finished. He quickened his steps on Main Street, wanting to duck into the bookstore before closing when he saw Jordan, the local deputy, putting up posters.
Peter barely glanced at the fliers, but then did a double take. That face was familiar, though it looked a lot different now that he saw it in better resolution and not the grainy pages of the newspaper.
He stopped to read it.
‘MISSING - STILES STILINSKI’
“Huh,” Peter said, something… something itching at the back of his mind.
“Oh, hey Mr. Hale,” Jordan said, smiling. Peter could faintly remember considering to pick him up for a little fun back when he moved to the cabin, but then he decided that the guy was a bit too much of a goody two-shoes for his tastes.
“Deputy,” he said with a nod, eyes lingering on the fliers. Peter frowned. “Wait, I thought he was dead?”
Jordan nodded, face going grim.
“Yeah, I guess you read the paper? We thought the body we found was his, but the DNA says it’s someone else. Probably one of the perpetrators.”
Peter tried to remember the article, they did say it probably wasn’t an accident, but arson? Here? Maybe he was too much of a city boy, but arson seemed so far-fetched in the middle of nowhere, where everyone knew each other by name.
Jordan seemed to be in a chatty mood, or maybe he just saw that Peter was interested.
“We think that John… I mean, Sheriff Stilinski shot one of the arsonists, and his son got away somehow, but we have no idea where he is or why he didn’t come forward.”
Peter couldn’t take his eyes off the picture. His brain was ticking away, coming up with and discarding ideas faster than he could formulate them, like when he was plotting a new novel, trying to slot the puzzle pieces in place.
“How are you involved again? I thought this was in…”
“Beacon Hills,” Jordan provided helpfully. “We don’t often get cases like this around these parts, so the guys over there are trying to pool resources from the whole county.”
Peter hummed. He was hit again by how unassumingly charming the Stilinski boy was.
“Maybe the Sheriff had enemies? I imagine law enforcement can get some of those even out here,” Peter mused, even though the theory felt instantly wrong .
Jordan grimaced, like he felt it too.
“It’s possible and we haven’t ruled out anything yet,” he said, glancing up at the flier he just nailed to the lamp post. “But still, it’s a shame. John is a great guy, I worked with him for a while, and Stiles… He’s a little idiot, but not the bad kind. He… he played lacrosse in high school. Loved the game but never got on the field. I swear that boy could trip on his own two feet,” Jordan said, trailing off.
He couldn’t tear his eyes away from the picture. It was a close up, in color, and Peter… Peter couldn’t get it out of his head that he had seen those eyes before. Honey brown, with a sort of cheeky shine to them…
His brain screeched to a halt. It was impossible, but every ounce of intuition he had, every single instinct that made him so successful in the courtroom was screaming at him that it was the right conclusion.
“Jordan” he asked slowly, mesmerized by those eyes. He knew those eyes. “Have you ever got reports about rabies in town recently?”
The deputy did a double take at the change in subject, but then looked thoughtful for a second before shrugging.
“Uh… no? I mean, Wildlife Services should tell us if there’s an outbreak so we can warn pet owners and the vet, but I haven’t heard about any in years.”
Peter was already running to his car by the time he had finished the sentence.
He didn’t know what he was expecting. He’d thought the Argents were maybe poachers of some sort... or something along those lines. That seemed like a reasonable assumption what with their fascination with foxes… He didn’t really consider them murderers.
Peter stepped on the gas as much as could while staying on the road, his guts urging him on, despite the unlikeliness of his theory. It made absolutely no sense, yet there he was, flying back to the cabin in something dangerously and uncharacteristically close to a panic.
Then he turned that last corner before he would get on the dirt road and saw the smoke above the trees.
Peter never felt so gripped by terror in his life. Everything in him wanted to rush forward, to get to… Jesus, Otis . He couldn’t…
But with the last morsels of his sanity he pulled over, fumbling with numb fingers for his phone. The signal was weak, but it was there, and he thanked every deity he ever heard of for the small mercy.
He called Jordan.
Peter wasn’t even paying attention to the conversation. He knew distantly that Jordan told him to wait, but he couldn’t. His dog was in there. And his Red.
The cabin was burning. The whole building was on fire, casting the clearing in a harsh orange glow that made him think of medieval paintings of hell.
For a second, Peter just sat in his car, frozen by shock, but then he heard something over the ticking of the cooling engine. Barking.
Just the thought of Otis trapped in there was enough to jerk him into motion. He couldn’t remember crossing the distance to the door, his head swimming in a haze. He forced his key into the lock and then grabbed the doorknob, jerking away immediately, his palm exploding in pain as his skin blistered.
“Fuck!” he said. Otis was still barking, scratching at the inside of the door and then he started to whine. He was so close . Peter could feel his heart beating in his throat, a giant lump that wouldn’t go away.
“I’m coming!” he shouted, his voice scratchy. Even on the outside, the smoke billowing around was suffocating.
He pulled his coat off, wrapping it around his arm and running to the nearest window. For a second, he hesitated. Were you not supposed to break windows during a fire? Wouldn’t the extra oxygen just make it worse? He couldn’t remember. He couldn’t remember whether he was supposed to avoid breaking the window, but then Otis was there, just inside, his eyes huge as he barked at Peter, and he couldn’t not .
“Get back! Get back, Otis!” He didn’t wait to see if the dog obeyed, he didn’t have time, he just closed his eyes and smashed his fist through the window, the glass shattering.
More smoke. Black and bitter and choking, but a second later Otis was there, throwing himself through, uncaring of the shards of glass still standing out of the frame.
Peter stumbled back, barely able to breathe. He couldn’t see where the dog went. He waited for a beat. Two. Nothing.
“Red!” he shouted, desperate.
Peter coughed, stumbling back to the door. He should have thought of it sooner. God, why was he such an idiot? His key was still in the lock and he grabbed the doorknob with his hand wrapped in his coat. He needed to try a few times before he could turn it, but then he did.
He was hit with inferno, the air in the cabin scorching. He could barely see inside. Everything was on fire.
“Red! Red, where are you?” he asked, trying to over scream the roar of the flames. Shit. He could be anywhere, if he was even…
No. Not thinking about that.
“Red!” he screamed at the top of his lungs, stepping inside, trying to keep out of the way of the fire slowly enveloping his home.
God, he needed to find him. He didn’t know how long it would be standing before the structure was eaten away.
“Stiles!” he called out, clinging to a last, stupid hope.
He barely heard it over the cracking of the beams overhead, but it was there. A small, pathetic little whine. Under the fucking couch. Of course .
The top of it was already burning, but Peter ran over, his eyes watering from the smoke. It was getting hard to breath.
He crouched down, reaching under the couch until his hand brushed against something soft. He dug his fingers in and pulled .
The fox growled and bit him, his eyes unseeing, out of his mind with fear as he tried to get back to his hiding place.
“Stop it!” Peter hissed. He unwrapped the coat from around his arm and bundled the fox up, who went still as soon as he couldn’t see the fire. Peter held him close to his chest just as he heard a deafening crash from upstairs. Oh, god . The roof was coming down, and that meant he didn’t have much time.
He ran back towards the door, towards safety, feeling his lungs seize up. He had to… he had to get out.
The night air was like being sloshed with ice water after the heat of the fire.
Peter fell to his knees on the damp grass, clutching Red to his chest. He turned around, watching as the side of the cabin caved in, collapsing in on himself, filling the air with a million embers, the flames reaching up to the sky.
Peter listed to his side, barely noticing when he hit the ground. God, it was so hard to breathe.
He didn’t know when the world went dark around him, but when he opened his eyes the fire was still roaring loud enough to fill his head.
“P-Peter,” said an unfamiliar voice, and when he looked up there was a guy above him, his face covered in soot and streaked with tears, naked except for Peter’s coat around his shoulders.
He wanted to say something smart. Or at least swear, but instead he rolled back to his side, hacking up a lung. Stiles - because of course it was Stiles Stilinski, dear fucking god in heaven - patting his back in an awkward mixture of hesitant and comforting.
“Shit,” he said finally when he could speak again, sitting up.
Stiles licked his lips, his eyes still shining with fear, and Peter wasn’t sure if it was all because of the fire, or because his little secret was out.
“‘Shit’ indeed,” someone else said, making them whip around. Stiles jerked, like he’d seen a ghost. Or something worse.
Behind them - lit by the glorious, molten gold of the cabin burning - was Kate Argent, pointing a gun at them.
“You are back a bit too early, Mr. Hale,” she said, exasperated. “If you could have only waited half an hour, I wouldn’t be forced to take care of you too.”
“Fuck you,” Peter said, his vision going red. He tried to struggle to his feet, but Stiles held him back. Which was probably a good thing, because the Argent woman cocked her gun.
“Yeah, I don’t think so,” she said with a smile that made the hair stand up on Peter’s back. Stiles shifted closer, his fingers holding onto Peter hard enough to bruise. “I will get rid of this little shit and finally clean this mess up, and then it will be your turn, unfortunately. But to be honest, I’m flexible on the order.”
“You burned down the Stilinski house,” Peter said, not because it wasn’t clear the second she appeared - hell, the second he realized that the cabin was on fire - but he needed time. Jordan was coming. They just had to survive until then.
“Aw, you're cute. Trying to bide your time, darling? Hate to disappoint, but I don't like that game.”
She raised her gun, pointing it at Stiles.
Peter threw himself over the boy, in time with the bang of the gunshot, but the pain he expected didn't come. Instead Kate started cursing with a painted shout. From the corner of his eye, Peter could see that Otis was hanging off her arm, snarling, making her drop the gun.
Unfortunately her shock didn't last long. Kate raised her hand and punched Otis in the head. Peter didn’t know how she did it, but the dog immediately dropped, shaking his head and staggering on his feet. Kate kicked him for good measure and ducked for the gun.
Peter did too. Leaving Stiles on the ground, curled up and shaking. Maybe he was in shock. It was a miracle he wasn’t.
He didn’t see where she dropped the weapon, but this was their only chance. His lungs were still burning, and he felt dizzy and short of breath. She was faster.
They were almost head to head when her hand finally found the gun in the grass, and she rose to her knees with a victorious smile, pressing the barrel into Peter’s forehead.
Stiles was whining behind them.
“Nice try,” she said with a smile. And then the shot rang out.
Peter expected that having his brains blown out would hurt more, but all he felt was the splatter of blood on his face, and heard the gun falling away.
“Holy shit,” Jordan said, wide-eyed and not looking too professional for a moment, still aiming the gun at Kate Argent’s lifeless body.
Peter sort of went hazy after that, with the adrenaline emptying out of his system and leaving him shaky. There were the sheriff’s department, and the firefighters, filling the clearing with flashing lights. He didn’t have the time or the capacity to really talk to anyone, but it looked like they were mostly concentrating on not letting the fire spread to the woods. The cabin looked to be unsalvageable.
Peter tried to keep track of things. He remembered seeing someone giving Stiles a blanket, but then the paramedics were there, shining a light in his eyes and putting an oxygen mask over his face, bundling him onto a stretcher. Peter didn’t think he was that worse for wear, but as soon as they moved him, his head started spinning, so yeah. Maybe they were right.
He could recall clutching at Jordan’s arm, asking him to look after Otis, to take him to the vet, and the deputy promised, nodding earnestly. That was enough for Peter, and he finally let his eyes close.
He woke up in the hospital, oxygen mask still firmly in place, with a curly-haired nurse leaning over him.
“Oh hey! You’re awake!” she said, smiling.
Ugh, his mouth tasted awful and his throat was parched. It hurt to swallow. He tried awkwardly to push his mask off, and thankfully the nurse helped, immediately offering him a glass with a straw in it.
“Take it slow. I will have some questions afterwards,” she said.
Peter drank. And then he answered - what he imagined to be - the usual questions. What was his name, what year it was, who was the president… which? Ugh.
“Alright, Mr. Hale,” she said after they were done, “I think you’re fine. You will still have to wait for the doctor to clear you officially, but it looks like everything is alright. We checked your lungs and there was no permanent damage, the oxygen is only there to make things easier for now.”
“Thanks,” he squinted at her name tag. Damn, he really would need glasses soon. Maybe he couldn’t even wait until his birthday. “Melissa.”
He hesitated for a second, wondering if she would help him, but he had nothing to lose, so he went with it.
“I… There was a boy in the fire. Stiles Stilinski. Do you know if he’s okay? Is he here?”
Her eyes immediately softened.
“Yes, yes he is. He was damned lucky too, got away even easier than you did. He’s with his dad. John is also here, still in Intensive Care, but he is doing much better now.”
Shit, Peter didn’t even think about that. Poor kid.
He got a visit from Jordan while he waited to be discharged, Otis was alright, staying at his house for the moment, especially since Peter had nowhere to take him. Chris Argent had been arrested, though it looked like he didn’t have anything to do with the arsons, but they were keeping him for questioning. Kate Argent was still safely dead.
Peter answered Jordan’s questions the best he could, making up a cloudy story about how he found Stiles wandering in the woods near the house with short-term memory loss and took him in. He tried to keep it as vague as he could, not wanting to contradict whatever Stiles had already said, and surprisingly Jordan didn’t take offence, despite the obvious holes in his testimony.
After that the doctor was there, checking him over one more time before signing his papers, and then Peter was free to go.
He wanted to call Talia, he really did, but instead his feet took him deeper into the hospital.
He found Stiles in the IC ward, asleep in the hall. He was stretched over a couple of awfully uncomfortable looking plastic chairs, one leg hanging off, neck craned painfully. It was so familiar that Peter could barely hold back a chuckle.
He wasn’t sure what to do. They’d never even really spoken to each other before. Did they even know each other?
Before he could decide to turn on his heels and leave, Stiles’ eyes fluttered open, looking at him upside down. His eyes were red rimmed, but otherwise he looked okay.
“Hey,” Stiles said, sitting up and somehow almost falling off at the same time.
“Hey,” Peter said. “How’s your dad?”
Stiles rubbed at his nose with the sleeve of his shirt. It looked a few sizes too big around the shoulders, and still short in the arms. Peter wondered who gave it to him.
“Well,” he said, sounding a bit hysteric, “I thought that he was dead, so he’s… he’s much better.”
He sounded so lost that Peter couldn’t just stand there anymore. He sat down, keeping a seat between them.
“I’m sorry,” he said, honestly. “But I think Jordan said he’s recovering, right?”
Stiles let out a long breath, like he wanted to center himself.
“Yeah. They said he’s out of the red now, but it will be a while. They’re keeping him under for a few more days. Maybe a week. Just to make sure everything is going well.”
Peter nodded his head. He was never too good with hospitals. Or sick people. But he could sympathize with the misery rolling off the boy beside him.
The silence between them stretched. It didn’t feel uncomfortable exactly, but still. Peter was used to… Red making all sorts of noises.
A nurse walked down the corridor, her red hair pulled back into a painfully tight ponytail, giving them a cutting glance. Peter followed her with his eyes and filed her away as the assistant of the villain in his next book.
By the time he turned back, Stiles had slipped into the seat between them, and was sitting right next to him.
Peter smiled and put an arm around his shoulder, letting the boy snuggle closer.
“Sorry about the cabin,” Stiles said after a moment.
Peter rubbed his arm. Yeah. He would miss it, but it wasn’t like he was left without any means to go on.
“Eh, at least I have an excuse to return to civilization,” he said. There was no way Talia would make fun of him for his house being burned down. Well, he could only hope.
Stiles raised his head, looking up at him through his dark, long lashes.
“You’re not… mad?”
Peter raised an eyebrow.
“For the cabin burning down? Or for the… Red thing?”
Stiles winced, tensing against him, but Peter just kept rubbing at his arm until he relaxed again.
“The cabin was not your fault. And I’m not sure I’ve wrapped my head around the other thing yet. Expect me to have a lot of questions…” he said, his brain jumping between all the things swimming around in his head. “ How can you stomach dog food?”
Stiles snorted. It didn’t sound anywhere close to the ‘kek’ Peter was used too, but somehow the sentiment was similar.
“It’s passable. We’re not like werewolves, our human conscious is a bit dulled when we are in fox form, so-”
“ Wait . Werewolves?!”
When Peter called Talia finally, she seemed more relieved about the fact that he’d sent over the manuscript before his house burned down than about him being alive, but Peter just took that as business as usual. Especially since a few moments later he already had a call from a local realtor his sister found him at a minute’s notice.
A little more than a day after Peter was released from the hospital, he had a brand new, furnished house in Beacon Hills. It was out of the way, close to the woods, but not isolated. He liked it, and when he picked up Otis from Jordan, the dog immediately found his favorite spot on the porch.
The axis of the world felt right again with his dog and a place he could call his own, but it didn’t feel… quite right.
Peter puttered around, trying to figure out where everything was in his new kitchen, and bemoaning the lack of his favorite green tea, trying to ignore how empty the house felt.
He shouldn’t have been surprised when he went out shopping for groceries and instead found himself in front of the Beacon Hills hospital again.
Stiles was exactly where he left him, sleeping in the hall. Peter remembered that his father wasn’t well enough to have prolonged visits, and the boy had nowhere to go.
“When did you last eat?” Peter asked, watching with a touch of amusement when Stiles literally flailed awake, somehow smacking himself in the face with his own hand.
Peter rolled his eyes.
“Alright, come on. I’m on my way to the store.”
Stiles stood, hesitant, his eyes cutting back towards the door where his father was, and Peter felt himself soften.
“I will bring you back after lunch,” he promised. And he would pick him up in the evening too. The kid needed a good night's rest in something other than a hospital chair.
Stiles licked his lips. Then his stomach growled loud enough to raise the dead.
He flushed a bright, endearing red.
They fell into a routine. Peter would drop Stiles off at the hospital in the morning, go home, take Otis on a long walk, pick up Stiles for lunch, and then edit his book. In the evening he would take Stiles out to dinner, then they head home again.
Stiles had his own room now, next to Peter’s. Not like he spent much time in it. After the first night when Peter found him wandering around, unable to sleep, they shared his bed, the awkwardness quickly wearing off. If one thing stayed the same, it was that Peter slept better with Red, and apparently Red with him.
It hadn’t been discussed yet, but his father had a room too, if he wanted it. There was a study downstairs Peter had no intention to use, and it wouldn’t take longer than an afternoon to convert it into a bedroom. The downstairs would be good for John, since he would have to take it easy for a long while.
He wasn’t sure how he felt about it, all these changes he couldn’t remember deciding to make. He hadn’t lived with people since he moved away from home when he was eighteen, and he didn’t think he wanted to. But at the same time… It looked like Red ruined him for solitude. It felt lonely with only Otis there, no matter how great his dog was.
On day seven, he didn’t find Stiles in his usual spot in the hallway. Peter had to double check that he was on the right floor. Then a door opened, Stiles peeking his head out, his face split by a bright grin.
“Peter! Come in!”
Sheriff John Stilinski didn’t look much like the picture Peter remembered from the paper. He was thinner now, and pale. He also had burns covering a portion of his face, sneaking down below the line of his hospital gown.
But his eyes seemed bright and smart, reminding him of Stiles despite the different color.
“Ah, so you are the famous, generous and incredible Peter,” he said with a little smile, holding out a hand with a badly concealed wince. Peter shook it.
“Your son is a liar,” he said, deadpan.
John sighed and rolled his eyes.
“Don’t I know it,” he said, immediately starting to retell some childhood mishap that had Peter snorting along.
Stiles looked at them like he would jump out of his skin with happiness.
“You will have to let me help with the bills,” John said a month later as Stiles rolled him up the new ramp to the door. The doctors said he would be able to walk again, but it would take time and effort and many, many hours of physiotherapy.
Peter huffed. They’d been over this. So many times.
“Don’t you huff at me, son,” John said, craning his neck to look at him. “I have a pension, you know.”
Peter held his hands up in surrender.
“Alright, alright,” he said. “Just get inside, I’m freezing.”
Stiles disappeared with him into the new room, talking excitedly about the how he managed to talk the college administration into letting him take online classes for the next semester.
Peter listened to him babbling on, starting on dinner. He planned pasta with sauce. Something easy. He tried not to trip over Otis; Stiles was spoiling him, and now the damned beast thought he had a right to beg for scraps in the kitchen.
He was almost finished when he realized Stiles was standing in the doorway, watching him.
“How is he doing?”
“Taking a nap,” Stiles said, sounding like he was smiling.
“Good. Put on some tea?” Peter asked, distracted. He didn’t like overcooked pasta, he wanted it al dente, as god intended.
Stiles was silent as he moved around him, flicking on the electric kettle. Then he leaned against the counter.
Peter gave another swirl to the sauce, holding up the spoon.
Stiles grinned, leaning in to lick at it.
“Good,” he said, but he didn’t step back, looking at Peter with his clever, bright eyes. Then he darted in, pressing their lips together for a long second before jumping away, leaving him speechless for a second.
“I’m… uh, shit , I’m sorry,” Stiles said, turning red and looking like he was ready to bolt.
And Peter? Peter couldn’t have that. He pulled him back, palming the back of his head, letting his fingers tangle in the soft hair there. He teased Stiles’ lips open, making him moan into the kiss, his body relaxing, pushing up against Peter.
When they finally separated, he grinned at Stiles, licking his lips.
“Needs a bit more salt.”