Snooping was a strong word. A very strong word. And Stiles would rather adamantly pretend he didn't know the definition of said word if he was caught. But, since Jody was still asleep, and he was up bright and early (a bizarre event when followed by actual sleep and not pulling an all-nighter), he thought he should take advantage of the opportunity to simply "observe" his new temporary dwelling. And if he happened upon juicy information while observing, so be it.
Stiles nodded to himself, sure his reasoning made sense, and ventured out into the main living area, peeking out the window at the quiet, gray morning and the equally quiet neighborhood. There were houses close by, but not so close that it would be odd for them not to hear, say, a violent animal attack or home invasion. He turned back, staring at the room.
Jody had given him a brief tour when he'd arrived, shown him all the basics including his bedroom. From its stale state, he assumed it had always been used for storage and not actually lived in. No, if he was to venture a guess, the second bedroom upstairs, the one she pointedly didn't point out, the one beside her own master bedroom, that was the one he was sure belonged to his cousin once. Jody hadn't so much as acknowledged it before circling them back to the kitchen and clapping her hands in anticipation of a lasagna that she assured only needed a few minutes to warm in the oven.
Stiles had expected awkwardness at the dinner table. And he wasn't wrong, but he'd been surprised when he found himself asking a random question about how her station was like the one in Beacon Hills and receiving an actual answer. She'd seemed happy for a safe subject to chat about, and they chuckled about pranking new deputies and complained about uniform prices.
Honestly, it hadn't been as painful as Stiles expected. Afterward, they'd watched one of the dozen reality tv shows focused on musical talent and turned in early. Stiles had shot his dad a text message, still feeling too bitter for a call, and chatted with Scott a few minutes, fully expecting to go into research mode right after. Only, apparently, those nights in motels had caught up with him. He'd slept through the night, easier than he had lately in his own bedroom.
He wouldn't admit that, if asked.
Which brought him back to the reason he was up early. Stiles sighed. If anything, the living room was kind of boring. There was an attempt at sparse decor and evidence of life near the couch, a throw blanket, a recipe magazine, but mostly, it looked like Aunt Jody was a bit like his dad-she probably spent more time at work than here. He wandered over to a low stand that looked more decorative than practical. He could see a few DVDs stored on the lower shelves, a pair of abandoned coffee table books stacked beside them, but on the top, there were two framed photos. One a family portrait, one a candid of a small boy trying to do a head stand on the front lawn.
Stiles reached out, planning to pick up the picture, bring it closer to his face, but it felt wrong, moving it. Instead he leaned in, staring at the family portrait. Jody's hair was longer, the boy even smaller and hanging from his dad's neck. Sean Mills looked like a happy man, satisfied with his life. They all looked so content. And why shouldn't they? Their lives were good, in that one moment. Stiles swallowed hard, unsure why his throat suddenly felt swollen. He didn't know these people. Not really. He'd met Jody yesterday. He'd never even…
He stood up a bit straighter, forcing himself to stop looking at his uncle and cousin and their frozen smiles. His eyes went to the pretty stone plate sitting beneath the stand's lone lamp. Stiles had a similar catch-all dish beside their front entrance, where his dad dropped his keys on a daily basis. This one was missing keys. Instead it held forgotten treasures, a half-dollar and a couple business cards, a peppermint and a pair of silver stud earrings, a man's gold watch. The face of the watch was dusty, and Stiles wiped his finger over it instinctively. He had a feeling Jody hadn't forgotten the old watch was there. He and Dad had left little alters for Mom for a while, until it became too painful to see them every day.
Stiles' fingers hesitated over the business cards, and he flipped the top one, a cleaning service ad, over and saw the second was for a salvage yard. He could guess how a sheriff might need to get in touch with salvage yard owners, considering the number of thieves in the habit of trying to scrap stolen vehicles. For a moment, he didn't even realize what had caught his eye about the card. It was simple: SINGER AUTO SALVAGE written across the top, a phone number beneath. Cheap clip art of a tow truck took up the negative space. It was yellowed, soft around the edges like it had been carried in a wallet too long. When he picked it up, he realized the dark red, almost brown, shade blotching one corner wasn't from the print.
"Is that blood?" he muttered, frowning.
Stiles jumped at the sound of Jody's voice. He instinctively curled his fingers around the card, palming it as he dropped his hand to his side. "What?"
Standing in the entry to the kitchen, she was still in sweats and a t-shirt, her hair sticking up on one side. She raised a brow at him. "Breakfast. Would you like some before I head to work?"
Her gaze dropped, and Stiles knew the moment she'd spotted the photograph. Some of the light left her eyes and a small, forced smile slid into place. She stepped into the room, closer.
"Owen would have liked having an older cousin," she said, quietly. "He had so much energy, always asking questions, bouncing off the walls and expecting his dad and me to keep up." She blinked, taking a quick step back and gesturing toward the kitchen. "Let me show you around the pantry, in case you need to cook while I'm gone. Do you cook? You must, because heaven knows Noah can't, and you don't look like you might be starving to death."
Stiles chewed his cheek, following her. "I'm sorry," he said, after a moment.
She shook her head as she walked over to the cabinets. "Nothing for you to be sorry for, Stiles."
"But there's something for my dad to be sorry for?" he tried.
Her body tensed a moment, before she went back to pulling out a few drawers. "Do you like pancakes?" she asked, pulling out an egg flipper.
Stiles opened and closed his mouth. "Uh… sure. I like pancakes."
Stiles ran a hand through his hair, feeling suddenly out of place, and remembered the card in his hand. Before Jody could turn around, he pocketed it and offered to give her a hand, pulling out eggs and buttermilk when directed, finding a mixing bowl. He caught a glimpse of the time on her microwave and winced. It was early, but he wondered if she was going to be late for work, trying to feed him.
She must have read his mind and shook her head. "I don't have a long drive," she assured. "We have time to eat. So, have you thought about what you're going to be doing this summer?"
Stiles raised a brow at the question. "Call of Duty?"
"Try again," she implored, sounding way too much like his father.
He felt slightly offended, but reigned it in. "What do you mean? Like catching up on my summer reading list?"
"Actually…" She hesitated, taking a moment to flip their first batch. "I might have some work for you to do."
Stiles perked up. "At the station?" Because that, that would actually be useful.
"Not so much," she said, chuckling quietly. "But I thought it might be best to keep you busy, since you're stuck here and all. So, I have some odd jobs lined up for you. Just some neighborhood work to make sure you're not bored out of your mind."
"Community service." Stiles rolled his eyes. "Well, I guess I'm getting off easy if I'm just mowing lawns and cutting hedges."
Jody gave him a pointed glance. "This isn't punishment."
"Really? Because that's what dad called it." Stiles snorted in amusement as he pulled a few plates out. He froze when he realized Jody was staring at him, her eyes wide. "What?"
"Your dad said that?" She shook her head, losing her grin. "Stiles, you're not here because you're in..." She trailed off. "Your dad thought it would be best for you to stay here a while, take a little break from home. I just don't want you stuck in a room all day, playing video games."
"You were going to say I'm not here because I'm in trouble, right?" Stiles cocked his head. "Only I am. Or, at least my dad thinks so. Did Dad tell you why he wanted me away from home? Because he can't handle me being there? Because he doesn't know what's going on with me? Did he even bother with an excuse before sticking you with a complete stranger? Honestly, I think you drew the short straw here."
"No." He cut her off, and instantly regretted it. He lost some of his steam when he realized she was struggling to find a helpful reply. This wasn't her fault. Or even his father's. This was his thanks to his now-habitual lies, and he knew it, but that wasn't helping him feel any less pissed off. He let out a deep breath and piled a stack of pancakes onto his plate. "I'm going to go shove these into mouth until words stop coming out, if that's okay."
He turned his back on her, sitting down at the table with his food. A moment later, she sat a bottle of maple syrup beside him and took the seat opposite.
"Ms. Rose, down the road to the left," Jody said, suddenly. "She's the house with the weird blue door and shutters. I told her my nephew might stop by sometime this week to give her a hand moving an old chair. If you don't mind."
There seemed to be a question hanging in the air. Stiles nodded, glad to have a change in subject. "I can handle it," he replied, quietly. "I'll do it today."
Jody's smile looked a bit crooked, but she seemed satisfied with the answer. "Eat up, kiddo."
And if the nickname hurt a little, Stiles figured he deserved as much.
Ms. Rose, as it turned out, did need an old chair moved. She also needed her furniture in both her bedroom and her living room re-arranged. And she didn't believe in using her air conditioning unit. By the end of day two, which involved helping her put together two cat trees for her bundles of furry joy, Stiles was almost willing to take actual court mandated community service in exchange for "helping out around the neighborhood," as the syrupy sweet elderly woman had said while thanking him. Something about that salutation told him that word of his arrival might have spread.
"Dude, I'm pretty sure Jody pimped me out to every old lady in a ten mile radius."
From the sound of Scott choking on something, Stiles thought perhaps that might have not been the best way to say hello.
"You know, Scotty, we've talked about this before. Don't take a bite of your food while you're answering the phone. It's not a logical move."
"I was chewing on gum." Scott back-peddled after the comment. "What did you say about old ladies?"
Stiles shook his head, despite the fact that his friend couldn't see him, and ran his arm over his brow, swiping off a layer of sweat. He regretted walking to Ms. Rose's house instead of taking his Jeep, but he hadn't considered that he'd be walking out of an oven and into another oven by late afternoon.
"I might actually be dying of heat stroke," he noted, into the phone. "Which might be preferable to white washing fences and rescuing cats from trees, because apparently I'm the type of guy who enjoys doing that stuff, according to my aunt, who has volunteered me as free labor to everyone who has crossed her path. And no, I'm not actually sure I'm exaggerating."
Stiles realized the sound interrupting his tirade was laughter.
"Thanks for the compassion, asshole."
Scott made a noise, like he was trying and failing to hold it down. "I'm sorry, man. Sounds rough. But, hey, at least there are no signs that she's something supernatural, so at least all your problems are human, right?"
Despite the humor in his voice, Stiles could tell Scott was being serious when he'd turned that last statement into a question. Stiles felt a bit guilty, not sharing his info on Sean's death, but he knew Scott might overreact if he found out Stiles was going into full detective mode without back-up. And thus Scott would get in even more trouble with Melissa if he suddenly hitchhiked to South Dakota. Stiles decided to hold back until he had better information.
Like, his uncle may have actually been attacked my a mountain lion. In his living room. Sure.
"You know, it's my job to be the paranoid one," he commented, hoping it sounded casual. "But, yeah, so far, so human. Jody's…she's nice. I like her. As vanilla as predicted. I mean, I'm pretty sure she was recording a Lifetime movie yesterday, but she's nice."
"That's good. Isn't it?"
"Yeah. I mean, yeah. But it would be easier to maintain my angst if I didn't like her, you know? I'm still pissed at Dad for sending me here, but Jody's cool. Aside from trying to make sure I work myself onto a straight and narrow path. Maybe someone should suggest she take me to a prison instead, a la Scared Straight."
"Yeah, because that's preferable to helping the elderly."
Stiles huffed. He almost reminded Scott that his dad had made both of them volunteer to help the elderly when they were pre-teens and that Scott had been the one to freak out over dentures and diapers. But he decided to be the bigger person. Just this once. "Fine. It's not so bad. It is actually hot as Hell, though. Allow me that one complaint."
Scott chuckled. "I feel for you." He grew quiet a moment before speaking again. "So this thing happened yesterday."
"Oh God…Is anyone dead?"
"No! Nothing that bad. Just, your dad sent me a text and asked if I'd have lunch with him tomorrow."
"It's a trap."
"Come on, Stiles."
"It's a trap. You're walking right into an interrogation, Scotty." Stiles came to a stop, noticing Jody's car was parked in front of the house. He eased up to the side of a tree, leaning against it, hopefully out of sight and earshot of his aunt. "You can't go."
"You told me to keep an eye on him. I have to, you know, see him to do that."
"Yes, but on your terms. Him inviting you to lunch less than a week after I'm gone? This is completely calculated." Stiles pinched the bridge of his nose. "You can't tell my dad the truth, okay?"
"For real, though. Don't tell him anything. Even the things you think it's safe to tell him."
"I'd have to actually know that stuff to tell him that stuff. Like, what happened to you that night everything went down. With the bruises. You never told me the whole story, Stiles."
"Scott." Stile bit his lip to stop himself from speaking. He'd told his friend enough. It was Gerard. That was all Scott needed to know. He didn't want Scott feeling guilty, and he certainly didn't want Scott thinking his best friend was some liability for hunters to use again them. "Not right now. It's been a long day. Just, make sure Dad doesn't eat junk food when you go to lunch with him tomorrow. Talk later, okay? Bye."
Scott had barely muttered a goodbye when Stiles ended the call. Stiles pocketed his phone and glanced up at Jody's house, groaning at the thought of going in and making small talk about his day when what he really wanted to do was cut straight to investigation mode. For that, though, he needed to drive around town, see what he could learn from the locals about the night Sean died, because the image painted by the information he'd collected so far had just raised more questions. Like, he'd attempted to find related incidents and discovered there were at least three suspicious deaths the very same night Sean died. The information on them was decidedly vague.
He realized there was movement right in front of him, Jody waving at him from the doorway. He waved back and walked up the drive. Detective work would have to wait.