Melissa is long past expecting anything Scott does to make sense. He was never the most logical kid in the world, and once Stiles came into the picture, forget it. She’s accepted that. Or at least, she thought she had. Maybe she’s not quite as accepting as she’d hoped.
“I’m sorry,” she says, cutting Scott off mid-sentence. “Did you just say that some kid I’ve never met—and who, by the way, you’ve never mentioned before—is moving in with us?”
“No! I mean, he’s not moving in. Not really. He’s just visiting sometimes. For a few days. Sometimes.”
“He’s just visiting every once in a while, so you think he should have his own room?”
“It’s not like we’re using that room.”
“Right.” Because that’s definitely the issue here. “Does this kid—Isaac?”
“Does Isaac not have a home of his own?”
“His dad, you know.”
“I do not know.”
“He just. Isaac comes to school with bruises and stuff. And Stiles said—look, it doesn’t matter. Can he stay here or not?”
Stiles said. Yep, there it is. Although, all things considered, Melissa is glad they’re dealing with this Scott’s way rather than Stiles’s way. Because if it they’d gone with the Stiles method of conflict resolution, Isaac’s father would probably be dead by now. (She’s still amazed Scott’s father survived Stiles.)
“He can stay,” she sighs, resigned. “But you’re the one making that room fit for human habitation. I’ve got enough on my plate as it is.”
Enough on her plate that she really doesn’t need to be taking potentially abused children into her home. But what the hell. If it’s that or the Stiles method, she guesses she doesn’t have much choice.
Not for the first time, she wonders if she should’ve vetted Scott’s grade school friends more carefully. She can never decide whether Stiles is good for Scott or not. On the one hand, he’s loyal unto death. But on the other hand, just about every terrible idea the two of them have ever had originated with Stiles. See above re: this Isaac kid.
Melissa’s going to regret this so much.
* * *
A month later, Melissa does regret it. She regrets it bitterly. But she still doesn’t see what else she could have done.
“Okay, kiddo,” she says, tired already. “Let’s see it.”
“No, it’s—it’s nothing,” Isaac insists, avoiding her eyes. “It’s really nothing, I just. I bumped into a table.”
“Let me see the nothing, then.”
“I told you I’m fine.”
“And I told you I want to see it.”
“—fine, I said!”
They stand at opposite ends of the kitchen, both of them extremely unhappy—and no matter what he says, Isaac is favoring his right side. Bruised ribs, probably. And he looks like he’s expecting Melissa to throw something at his head. It’s the way he always looks when they argue.
Doesn’t stop him from arguing, though. As exhausting as this whole thing is, Melissa still thanks God that much is true.
“Okay,” she says, bracing herself and starting again. “I’m a mom, though. And a nurse. It would make me feel better if I could see for myself that you’re not hurt.”
Isaac wavers slightly. Bringing up the mom thing is a risky bet—sometimes it backfires badly.
Like this time. Isaac straightens abruptly, lifts his chin, and says, “You’re not my mom. What’ll you do to me if I don’t show you?”
Melissa is way too old for this, seriously. “Well, Isaac,” she says frankly, “I’ll probably cry on you.”
He blinks, startled out of aggression. He doesn’t know it yet, but Melissa’s won this round. (That’s never a sure thing. They’re about 60-40 Melissa, at this point.)
“Messy, gross crying,” she carries on. “I might even throw myself into your arms and get snot all over your shirt. Think this through. We could be talking a lot of snot. It’s allergy season.”
He does think it through, maybe wondering if she’s serious. She’s very serious. She does not believe in idle threats. He must recognize that, because eventually he bites his lip and pulls his shirt up a little.
It’s not as bad as Melissa was afraid it might be. On the other hand, it’s not as minor as she’d hoped. That is one massive bruise. She comes over and tests his ribs. He hisses in pain, but actually, she thinks the ribs are probably just bruised, not cracked. It would take an x-ray to know for sure, though, and it’ll be a cold day in hell before Isaac lets her take him to get an x-ray for anything short of life-threatening damage.
“Did Scott ever tell you why his dad’s not around?” Melissa asks, tugging Isaac’s shirt straight and stepping back.
“Um, no, just…just that you were divorced.”
“Yeah. I divorced him when Scott started showing up with marks like that.”
That stuns him. “He—he never told me that.”
“Honestly, I think he thought they were accidents. That his dad didn’t mean to do it. Thing was, I knew his dad better than he did, and I knew the road we were starting down.”
Scott’s dad always did kick down at people he figured were less important than him, and he was worse about it when he was drunk—which was often. Looking back on it, Melissa should’ve seen all that for what it was. At this point, she can spot cruel cowards at a hundred paces. Of course, maybe she owes that skill to her ex. Thanks for that, babe.
Isaac studies her face, checking to see if she’s lying. She’s not, so he can look all he wants.
“You don’t think I walked into a table,” Isaac says at last.
“I don’t,” Melissa agrees.
“You can’t prove anything.” He sounds really unsure.
“No,” she sighs. “I can’t.”
He wavers uncertainly for a second, then nods. “I promise not to play lacrosse for at least a week.”
Thank God for small favors. “You’re goddamn right you’re not playing lacrosse with bruised ribs. You can play again when I can poke you without you flinching all over the place.”
He actually smiles faintly at that. Go figure.
And to think Melissa used to complain that Scott was a lot of trouble.
* * *
“So,” Melissa says, “hypothetically.”
“You know I have a phobia of that word,” Sheriff Stilinski says warily, eyeballing her over the box of cereal he’s clutching. Poor man. It probably wasn’t fair to accost him in the grocery store for this conversation, but, well, she saw an opportunity and she took it.
“This won’t help,” Melissa admits.
John rolls his eyes, drops his cereal into his shopping cart, and makes a bring it on gesture. Melissa reflects guiltily on how nice it sometimes is that Stiles has pre-broken his father’s spirit.
“Hypothetically,” she repeats, “say I know a kid who turns up with extremely suspicious bruises all the time. He insists it’s not his father, even though everyone knows damn well it’s his father.”
“Hypothetically,” John says, “you should report it.”
“And I did! Months back.”
“Right. And CPS said it wasn’t bad enough to move him, I take it.”
“Mm. They decided foster care would be worse. They’re probably right. Can’t I just, I don’t know, smuggle him into my house and keep him there?”
“We’d call that ‘kidnapping,’ hypothetically,” John says, rubbing his forehead and looking…like he does when he’s talking to Stiles. Oh God, Melissa is being Stiles right now.
“He’d probably be resistant to that anyway,” she says thoughtfully.
“Just…keep giving him a place to run to,” John tells her. “That’s all you can really do, situation like that. And keep looking for something more to report, but if CPS already decided the father’s the lesser of two evils—well, they’re not likely to change their minds. I’m assuming this hypothetical kid is Stiles and Scott’s age?”
“Well, at least he can run when he’s eighteen.”
And then they linger there in the cereal aisle, mutually depressed about the horrifying number of things in the world that there’s no real way to protect children from. Their own parents first and foremost. It’s not that it’s news—nursing and law enforcement are two careers in which you’re guaranteed to see all the bad shit the world has to offer—but Melissa thinks it may be more depressing because it’s not a surprise.
“How’s Stiles doing?” she asks, partly because she’s thinking about children who can’t be protected, partly because John looks like he hasn’t slept in about five years, and that look is generally Stiles-induced.
He sighs and leans back against the cereal shelf, making a few boxes teeter ominously. “Well, he’s talking to me now.”
“And…that’s a good thing, right? Better than not talking to you.”
He smiles at her. “That’s what I thought, too. And then he started talking.”
Melissa nods slowly, thinking about what it would be like if Isaac actually started talking to her. She sees where John’s coming from. “But how bad can it be with Stiles? You keep a pretty close eye on him.”
“Stiles exceeds expectations,” he informs her. And isn’t that the truth.
* * *
The next time Isaac comes over with a black eye, Melissa asks if she can take a picture of it. The subsequent fight is no surprise at all, which is why she should’ve waited until Scott was out of the house to bring this up. Scott hates it when she and Isaac fight.
“Look, I won’t use the pictures for anything,” she says once the shouting has stopped and they’re approaching a reasonable conversation, mostly thanks to Scott’s unhappy hovering. She holds her hands out, trying to look non-threatening. “Unless I have your permission, no one else will see them. I just want to have them on hand in case you ever decide to use them. Is that okay?”
The pictures are useless anyway unless she has evidence that they’re the result of abuse. Isaac’s asshole of a father is careful—all the injuries could conceivably be the result of the clumsiest kid in the world playing lacrosse. God, Lahey must love lacrosse season.
There’s also the off-chance that Isaac might slip and admit to being abused, but it’s not likely. He’s been lying about it successfully for most of his life. He’s a professional.
“There’s no point,” Isaac says sullenly, slumping aggressively. “I know you think they’re from my dad—they’re not—but even if they were, I’m almost eighteen. I could move out in a few months.”
“Could you afford that?” Melissa asks. “I know you’re not comfortable staying here all the time—even though I’ve told you you’re welcome—but if you can’t afford to pay me rent, how could you afford to live on your own?”
He shuffles uneasily. “I’m going to college next year, anyway. The CPS guy said I was fine to stay at home until then.”
“A year can be a long time,” Melissa points out gently. “And the CPS guy didn’t have absolute proof of abuse, because you wouldn’t tell him anything.”
“I don’t…” He wraps his arms around himself. “I don’t want…anyone…to get in trouble.”
That’s more than Scott can handle. He steps forward and opens his mouth, and Melissa gives him a shut the hell up look. He scowls at her. Oh, Scott. He has a good heart, but she has no faith in his ability to navigate this particular minefield without blowing them all up.
And, hah, if only the bastard would get into trouble. Melissa’s had more than her fair share of run-ins with what the government facetiously refers to as Child Protective Services, and they would consider this minor physical abuse. Oh, psychological abuse, sure, but it wasn’t like the kid was going to die imminently, now was it? And anyway, he was practically an adult! He could suck it up for one more year.
Or so went the logic.
The killer is that Melissa can’t even argue with the logic. It’s not like she can get custody of Isaac—if she managed to get him taken from his father, he probably wouldn’t want anything to do with her. And sending a kid into foster care, or, God help him, more likely a group home…
Yeah, ideally you want to move kids into situations that are less awful than the ones they came from. And judging from what comes through the ER? Foster care is a terrifying roll of the dice, and group homes are much worse. At least Isaac’s dad isn’t raping him.
Sometimes she hates humans. As a species.
But, what the hell, she’ll do what she can. Build up a file for CPS on the off-chance that she’s ever allowed to use it. Help Isaac get into college and give him a place to crash in the meantime. She can do that. Though it feels like swimming upstream some days.
“Isaac,” she sighs, “unless he all but beats you to death someday, he won’t get into trouble.”
Scott looks scandalized. That’s nice, Melissa guesses. At least this kind of thing is still a surprise to him. She’s succeeded somewhere.
“How do I know you won’t show the pictures to anybody?” Isaac demands quietly.
“I promise not to,” Melissa says, well aware of how promises from adults have most likely gone for him up until now. “I keep my promises.”
Isaac looks dubiously to Scott for confirmation.
“It’s true, dude,” Scott says enthusiastically, happy to help. “She totally keeps her promises. Usually they’re, you know, the kind you wish she wouldn’t keep. Like ‘if you don’t clean your room I’m supergluing your iPod to the ceiling—’”
“That was one time,” Melissa says as Isaac snickers despite himself. “And your room was a health hazard!”
“But she keeps the good ones, too,” Scott goes on, ignoring them both. “Like ‘if you cook dinner for a week, I’ll buy you a new bike.’ Totally got a new bike!”
And then instantly stopped cooking dinner like it had become against his religion, of course.
“…You can take a picture,” Isaac allows at long last. “But don’t show it to anybody. Promise me.”
“I promise,” Melissa sighs, snapping a quick picture of his face before he changes his mind. “Now get lost, both of you. Try not to maim yourselves the instant you’re out of my sight.”
Isaac smiles warily at her, like she’s the crazy one, then grabs Scott’s arm and vanishes upstairs.
Melissa may be making progress with him. Or not. It’s hard to tell.
She’d tried, back in the early days of Isaac, to figure out how he and Scott had even become friends. They didn’t act like friends. They certainly didn’t act like Scott and Stiles, who sometimes, alarmingly, seem to share a brain. It was more like Isaac felt he had a duty to come over, and Scott felt he had a duty to take him in. That changed pretty quickly—soon enough they really were friends. But the beginning of the whole thing still makes no sense to her.
She was concerned enough to ask Scott about it, but, predictably, that got her nowhere.
“Isaac’s my job,” he said impatiently, like she was asking an unreasonable question. “Stiles can’t take care of everybody.”
“So you and Stiles are…dividing up the school into groups of people each of you take care of?”
Scott rolled his eyes. “Mom. No.”
“Well, sue me, but that’s how it sounded.”
“Just some people.”
“The ones…that…need the most help?”
“That sounds really well-meaning. And not like Stiles at all.” Unlike Scott, Stiles does not believe in the random good deed. Stiles believes in ferociously defending the tiny number of people he cares about, even if he has to kill the rest of the world to do it. It’s a quality Melissa’s always appreciated in him, seeing as Scott is included in the tiny number of people Stiles cares about.
“Don’t you like Isaac?” Scott asks sadly. He is way too good at deflecting questions.
“Of course I like Isaac. Isaac’s a great kid. That’s not the point.”
“He likes you.”
“I give up.”
She hadn’t really given up, but she didn’t know where to go from there, either. She almost talked herself into asking Stiles about it on three separate occasions. Almost. But not quite. It’s tough to ask the question when you suspect you won’t be able to stand the answer.
* * *
It’s a Monday. It’s a Monday and a full moon, and so the ER is, of course, a zoo. A loud, bloody, vomit-spattered zoo.
“Leave me aloooone,” moans a guy on a gurney in the hall. “Leave me aloooone.”
“He’s freaking out the lady with the sores,” says Dan, their newest and most squirrely security guard. He nods toward a woman with matted hair and, yes, bloody sores all over her back, who’s lying on her side and attempting to burrow her way into the wall while making high-pitched, distressed noises.
Melissa sighs and detours to shut the moaning guy up.
“Leave me alooooone,” he moans helpfully.
“Do you know why you’re here?” she asks.
“Cuz I’m druuuuunk.”
Well, at least they won’t have to argue about that. “You are very drunk. You are very, very drunk, and if you want us to leave you alone, you need to not get drunk and pass out places, okay?”
Miraculously, he seems to grudgingly accept that.
“Just let me die,” the woman with the sores whimpers to no one. “Stop. Stop. Just let me die.”
“Whose belongings are those?” Dan asks, pointing to a backpack on a gurney down the hall.
“The body’s,” Melissa explains.
“Oh.” Dan blinks. “Did we, uh…ID the body?”
“Not yet. We should hold onto that until someone does, though.”
The woman with the sores is now keening horribly. Seriously, why is she not in a room?
Crap, Melissa knows why she’s not in a room. Because there are no rooms. Full moon Mondays are a nightmare.
“I need my methadone!” shrieks an elderly woman trudging by with a walker. “Gimme my methadone!”
Melissa would like to go home to her boys, who may be pains in the ass sometimes, God knows, but it doesn’t even compare.
And hey, in ten more hours, she can. Hooray.
* * *
“I’m sorry I’m causing you so much trouble,” Isaac says guiltily the next day over breakfast. Well. Breakfast for him, dinner for Melissa.
She laughs. She tries not to, she really does, but she laughs. She struggles to stop quickly, though, because Isaac’s looking seriously alarmed and like he might bolt out of the room and possibly their lives.
“Sweetie,” she says breathlessly, “I am going to tell you about my day at work. And then you can tell me where you think you belong on my list of problems. Personally, I place you somewhere slightly more stressful than buying groceries. And a lot more rewarding, I’m not gonna lie. I’m not really one of nature’s cooks.”
Isaac smiles, but it’s hesitant. He’s always waiting for her to turn on him, even now.
So she tells him. She tells him about her whole night. Unlike Scott, he actually seems to be entertained by it. (Scott was burned out on ER stories by age ten. Melissa would be sad about that if she didn’t know the Stilinskis. She does know them, though, and the idea of having a kid that interested in her work is terrifying.)
“It must be nice, though,” Isaac says thoughtfully when she finally winds down. “I mean…crazy, but. It must be nice to know you’re helping. Even if it’s only a little.”
Melissa smiles at him and starts mentally compiling a list of reasonably priced nursing schools. Isaac’s on a constant quest to please everyone, which makes it hard to figure out when he’s sincerely interested in something and when he just sincerely wants you to think he’s interested, and, ergo, love him—but on the off-chance that he really wants to go into nursing, Melissa plans to make it as easy for him as possible. It’s not like the kid’s had much that’s easy in his life so far.
* * *
Isaac still has dinner with his father once or twice a week. Melissa can’t talk him out of it, though, God, she tries. He rarely comes back with bruises, but he always comes back near tears.
She’d really like to kill Isaac’s father. She thinks John might actually cover for her if she did. She knows Stiles would.
And she needs to stop coming up with plans that Stiles would approve of, because that way lies madness, tears, and disaster. It always did, but lately Stiles has been an even more extreme kind of…hm. Reckless? Embittered? Wild-eyed? Whatever’s going on with him, it’s freaking Melissa out. And John, too, obviously. Poor man.
Today, blessedly, is not a dinner with dad day. Everyone will be under Melissa’s eye for the evening. It’s one less thing to worry about.
Or at least, she isn’t worried until the doorbell rings and it turns out to be Stiles. This is very worrying, firstly because Stiles has always been a sign of impending disaster, and secondly because…since when does Stiles ring the doorbell?
“Hey,” he says, shifting nervously on the doorstep. “Scott and Isaac back yet?”
“No,” Melissa says, folding her arms. “They’re out having fun. I was informed I didn’t need to know the details and that I worry too much. I’m surprised you didn’t know about it.”
“Oh, they’re ice skating with Boyd and Erica,” he says easily, without the slightest hint of jealousy. Which is just as weird and wrong as doorbell ringing. Also, who are Boyd and Erica? “It’s just that Scott’s a lousy skater, so I figured they might bail and come home early.”
She’d been unaware that her son had ever been skating. Then again, she wasn’t aware that he was skating tonight, so what does she know?
“Guess I’ll catch them tomorrow,” Stiles is saying.
“Cook dinner with me,” she demands impulsively.
“You want to talk to Scott; I want someone to help with dinner. I assume you also need to eat at some point. It all works out. Come on.”
He follows her in. Reluctantly, but he does it. Stiles has a hard time disobeying female authority figures, for obvious reasons. It’s a fact Melissa’s always taken ruthless advantage of, and she is not sorry.
“So,” Melissa says halfway through rolling tortillas, after she’s lulled Stiles into a false sense of security. “Something is clearly up with you. Can I expect it to come back later to bite Scott?”
Stiles freezes like a small, hunted animal. “…No?”
“Really? Because you don’t sound sure. I don’t like it when you don’t sound sure about my son’s safety, Stiles.”
“I’m keeping him safe,” Stiles insists in an abruptly very scary tone of voice. That’s good. If he’s going to drag Scott into weird things, he should at least be scary enough to defend him after the fact.
“Okay. Who are Boyd and Erica?”
“Oh, uh…they’re…friends? They’re good people. Not, um, you don’t have to worry about them.”
“Scott isn’t the most social butterfly on the block. How did he become friends with them?”
“I introduced them, I guess.”
Melissa sets her rolling pin down, the better to stare at Stiles incredulously. If Scott isn’t the most social butterfly on the block, then Stiles is absolutely an aspiring hermit. Oh, he enjoys having acquaintances, but friends? Up until, say, now, it seemed like Scott was enough for him. “Really?”
“Really, Stiles? What in God’s name are you up to?”
“I’m just, you know.” He grins at her sheepishly. “Meddling.”
“As in, ‘those meddling kids’?”
“Exactly like that.”
The fact that she’s contemplating rewatching old Scooby Doo episodes to help her better understand Stiles is doing nothing for her happiness. “Look, just. Promise me you won’t do anything that might get you or Scott—or Isaac—arrested or maimed or killed.”
“I promise,” Stiles says, very serious.
She guesses she’ll have to settle for that. “I’m holding you to it. Okay. I’ll finish these, and you make your mom’s potatoes. Yours always turn out better than mine.”
“What? Why? I definitely gave you the recipe. I remember doing that.”
“Yeah, you did, but I still can’t get them quite right. I suspect some kind of witchcraft is involved with yours.”
“You never know,” Stiles allows, obediently washing the potatoes and smiling. “Mom’s potatoes are pretty magical.”
Isaac and Scott tumble in the door at that point, interrupting any further attempts Melissa might have made to interrogate Stiles. Just as well—interrogating Stiles is a lost cause and Melissa knows it.
“Stiles!” Scott calls out happily. “You mean you didn’t come skating with us so you could cook us dinner? That’s above and beyond, dude.”
“I didn’t mean to cook you dinner,” Stiles explains, rolling his eyes. “Dinner was an accident. This is an accidental dinner. I was bullied into this dinner.”
“What?” Melissa asks, unapologetic. “He was lurking around waiting for you, so I figured I might as well put him to work.”
Scott seems unimpressed with this argument, but Isaac is laughing silently in the doorway of the kitchen. At least Isaac is on her side.
“He’s making potatoes,” Melissa explains.
“Awesome,” Scott breathes. And easy as that, Scott’s on her side, too. Stiles scowls at her, but that’s just because he’s a poor loser.
“So…potatoes are awesome?” Isaac asks dubiously.
“No, they are,” Scott insists, dragging Isaac out the door. “We should get out of their way; they need to concentrate on potatoes. It’s important.”
“You’d better cut up more potatoes,” Melissa tells Stiles. “You’d be surprised how much Isaac eats, skinny as he is.”
Stiles looks away abruptly. “Sorry,” he says, avoiding her eyes in the Isaac-approved manner. The Isaac-approved manner which is…not like Stiles at all.
“Oh, you know, this whole…Isaac. Thing.”
Right. The thing where Stiles and Scott made a pact that Scott would take care of Isaac. Or something. In addition to Stiles forcing Scott to befriend Boyd and Erica, apparently. Whoever they are. “It’s not your fault, Stiles.”
“Well. But it—I didn’t—I just kind of pushed him off onto Scott, you know?”
Actually, she doesn’t know, and she’s beyond wanting to know. “Okay,” she says in a neutral tone. It’s her standard response when Stiles is alarming her.
“I didn’t think about…money, and stuff.” He fidgets guiltily.
She doesn’t know what brought this on at this late date, but she’s starting to get annoyed. “Stiles? You don’t make my decisions for me. Just to clear that up.”
“Yeah, I know, but—”
“There is no but. If I want to take in a teenager I can’t really afford, that’s my problem. It isn’t your problem, and I seriously don’t understand how you could possibly think it might be.”
He prods at the now-sizzling potatoes and mumbles something incomprehensible.
“Nothing. Nothing! You’re right, I just. You’re right.” He rubs a hand over his face. That’s not a good sign with him. That’s like Scott deflecting or Isaac going silent. Crap. There’s a really uncomfortable chat with John in Melissa’s future.
“Calm down, kiddo,” she says. “You don’t have to fix everybody’s lives for them.”
He smiles vaguely at her, obviously unconvinced, and they finish cooking in silence. That conversation could’ve gone better.
But, if nothing else, it did provide a helpful bit of perspective. No matter how bad things might get, at least Stiles isn’t her problem. No, her problems are in the dining room setting the table, because Isaac somehow manages to guilt Scott into doing chores on a regular basis. Both of them are laughing, possibly at the face Stiles is making at them.
Melissa’s boys are doing fine.