Word count: ~73.5k
Pairing info: [click here]Canon season-3 Nathan/Jordan, canon Nathan/Audrey UST, Duke/Nathan endgame
Summary: Slay the monster, solve the riddle, save the princess. Fairy tales are straightforward except when they're not, and when a Trouble brings them to life in Haven, 'not' is the most likely outcome.
There were worse places to have car trouble, Erin reflected. Sure, she was out in the middle of the forest, but there was plenty of room to pull over without hitting a tree or rolling down an embankment. She steered onto the shoulder as the engine coughed and gradually died.
It was probably the battery again, she thought as she popped the hood. This was the third time in as many months; there must be something wrong with the terminals. A look at the engine didn’t offer any immediate answers; there was nothing damaged or out of place that she could see. She muttered a few words that would have made her mother complain that she was learning all the wrong things at college.
She looked up at the sun. It was getting late, but darkness was still a ways off. Erin grumbled lightly as she slammed the hood down. She pulled a red duffel bag out of the back seat and her phone off the dash. Making sure her car was well out of the way of the road, she shouldered the bag and started walking, dialing her phone as she went.
It was several rings before someone answered. “Hello?”
“Erin, hi! I was out back, almost didn’t hear the phone. Is everything all right? Are you on your way?”
“Yeah, I’m almost there, but I had some car trouble. I had to pull over.”
Margo tsked. “It’s always something with that car of yours. Where are you? I’ll come get you.”
“You don’t need to do that,” Erin told her. “It’s not far through the woods; I can probably walk it faster than you can get the truck started and get here by the road. I’ve got my bag, and we can come out for the car in the morning.”
Margo made a skeptical sound. “Are you sure? It’s getting late. I don’t like the idea of you wandering around the forest in the dark.”
“I’m, like, ten minutes away,” Erin said. “I’ve got plenty of time before it starts getting dark.”
“If you’re sure,” Margo said, still sounding doubtful. “But keep your phone on. I’m going back outside, but I’ll take the phone with me. Call me if you need any help.”
“I will,” Erin promised. “See you in a few.”
Finding her way in the forest was one of the first things Margo had taught Erin when she was a kid. She knew about how far her car was from Margo’s cabin, and in what direction, and even if it was a little darker once she got in among the trees she still knew where she was going, and besides, Erin liked being out in the woods. Not enough to live out here, like Margo did, but enough to appreciate it when she came to visit. It was nice to wander through the undergrowth and feel like she was the only person in the world.
“Are you lost, my dear?”
Erin nearly jumped out of her skin at the voice. She looked around, trying to stop her heart from hammering, but there was nobody else in sight. She stood up a little straighter and started walking faster. She knew better than to talk to strangers in an isolated area, especially she couldn’t see, and she was pretty sure she didn’t want to talk to anyone who called her ‘my dear.’
“Have I alarmed you?” the voice said. “I assure you, I meant no harm.” There was a rustle in the underbrush, and a wolf appeared between the trees. It was huge and dark-furred, and it flashed its teeth at Erin in a doggy smile. “I only find it curious that a young lady should be walking alone in the woods.”
Erin froze. Obviously there was no way that a wolf was talking to her, but that was where the sound was coming from. There must be someone else in the forest, someone she just couldn’t see who was out for a walk with a wolfy-looking dog. “Leave me alone,” she said, trying to sound annoyed but unconcerned as she went in a wide circle around the animal.
The dog turned to follow her, keeping pace with her but staying a couple feet away. No, it was definitely a wolf. “Oh, I can’t do that, not in good conscience.” And it was definitely talking, its mouth making shapes that she hadn’t thought a wolf’s could. “It’s not safe out here.”
Erin looked up at the sun, then down at the time display on her phone. She’d only been walking for a few minutes; this couldn’t be some exposure-induced hallucination. Had she walked into a poisonous plant or something? Was there a gas leak in the car that she was only now noticing had made her loopy? She put a hand out and touched a tree, pinching off a bit of bark and turning it over between her fingers. It felt real enough, and it smelled right. Everything seemed perfectly normal, except for the fact that a wolf was talking to her.
And kept on talking to her. It had a male voice, rich and liquid. “I’m only concerned for your safety. Have you lost your way, to be out here alone?”
“No,” Erin said. She probably shouldn’t be talking to it, whether it was real or not, but it was hard to ignore. “I know where I’m going. And someone is expecting me,” she added, hoping that knowing she wouldn’t be alone for long would chase it off.
On the contrary, the wolf perked up at this and trotted a little closer. “Is this a social call, then? To the lovely little old woman who lives in the clearing just ahead, no doubt.”
Erin stiffened. That was accurate, though no one who’d ever actually met her would describe Margo as a ‘lovely little old woman.’ The wolf seemed to notice her reaction. It circled around to her other side, trying to steer her in a new direction. “Follow me, my dear. I know a swifter way to get there.”
“I’m fine,” Erin said, making her voice as sharp as she could. “Just leave me alone.”
The wolf’s ears and tail drooped. “I have started out by frightening you and ended in offending you,” it said, sounding regretful. “Forgive me, for neither was my intent. I will leave you be, then, but allow me to run ahead of you and clear the path. I couldn’t bear the thought of a young lady such as yourself coming to harm.” It bowed its head before springing into the undergrowth and disappearing through the trees as silently as it had come.
Erin had to stand still for a long while before she felt collected enough to keep walking. That had easily been the strangest and most unnerving experience of her life. She took a deep breath and started off again, faster this time. She wanted to put this behind her as quickly as possible.
It was only a few more minutes before she reached the dirt road that led to Margo’s cabin. She started to let out a sigh of relief as she climbed the porch steps, which was cut short when she realized the front door was hanging open.
Nothing strange about that, she tried to tell herself. Margo had said that she was going to be working outside; she’d probably left the door open for Erin. It was a perfectly rational explanation, but Erin was no longer in a rational mood. She poked her head into the cabin cautiously. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, at least not that she could see from the door. “Hello?” she hazarded. “Margo?”
“Oh, there you are, dear,” came the response from deeper inside the cabin. “I’m in the bedroom. Come on back.” It was a high and creaky voice, an eerie parody of a frail old woman.
It sounded nothing like Margo.
Heart in her throat and barely breathing, Erin steadied herself against the porch railing and backed down the steps, slow and silent. When she reached the ground she turned and ran until she was among the trees again. She pulled her phone from her pocket and dialed with shaking hands.
“911, what is your emergency?” It was faint, this far out and with so much interference with the trees, but still audible.
“Help me,” Erin choked out in a strangled whisper. “There’s someone in the cabin. I think they might have hurt my grandmother.”
“Always nice to start the morning out with a body,” Audrey said as she surveyed the cabin. She accepted the coffee cup Nathan held out to her gratefully.
“Could be worse,” Nathan said. “At least it’s not a human one for once.” He lifted the caution tape to let her step into the cabin. “Erin Scarborough was coming out to visit Margo Andrews for the weekend. When she got here the front door was wide open and there were strange voices coming from the back of the house with no sign of Margo, so she called the police.” Nathan gestured down the hall, steering Audrey towards the open bedroom door. “Margo was out back; she came around to the front and found Erin a few minutes later and decided to take care of the situation herself. Police response time isn’t great this far out.”
What was left of the wolf was on the floor, bloodstained and tangled in a bedsheet. “Margo says it was in the bed when she came in,” Nathan continued. “It jumped at her, and she gave it both barrels.” He indicated the shotgun lying on the floor a few feet from the animal.
Audrey crouched to take a closer look at the wolf’s remains. There didn’t seem to be anything unusual about them aside from the damage the shotgun blast had done. “Sounds like a basic animal attack,” she said. She straightened and looked around at the rest of the room. Several drawers were open, and clothes were hanging from some of them like they’d been rifled through. There was another pile of clothes in front of the open closet, looking like they’d been dragged from their hangers and trampled. “That looks less like an animal attack.”
“The front door was forced open,” Nathan told her. “So was this one.” He drew her attention to the outside of the bedroom door. There were fresh scratches like claw marks in the wood around the knob, and a spot below it where it looked like the wood had dented and splintered. “Looks like someone tried the knob, then kicked the door in instead.”
Audrey turned the knob experimentally. It moved freely, and when she closed the door it opened again easily. “You wouldn’t have to force this door open.” She gave Nathan a speculative look, starting to guess at where his mind was going. “Assuming you had hands, of course.”
“Erin told me she met a wolf in the woods on her way out here,” Nathan said, dropping his already quiet voice even lower. “She swears it was talking to her. Margo said the same thing, that this one spoke before it attacked her.”
“Talking animals. Because that’s the one thing we didn’t have yet.” Audrey took a long drink of her coffee. So it was going to be one of those days. “Is it Margo and Erin specifically? Do they know if anyone in their family was Troubled?”
“Margo was Erin’s grandfather’s second wife,” Nathan told her. “They’re not related by blood. And they both say they heard the wolf, so it’s not likely to be either of them.”
“So much for the easy answer,” Audrey said, unsurprised.
“Wouldn’t have explained the door,” Nathan pointed out.
Audrey conceded that with a nod. “What are we thinking? Something that’s giving animals human voices, and possibly human-level intelligence?”
“Or someone that’s turning people into intelligent animals,” Nathan suggested. “We’ve already seen the opposite. Wouldn’t hurt to talk to Margo again, see if the wolf’s voice sounded like anyone she knows. And keep an eye on the missing persons reports for the next couple days.”
“And check Animal Control’s records for any strange reports,” Audrey added. “Whether this wolf started as an animal or a person, it’s probably not the only one that’s been affected by whatever’s going on.”
“Unless it was a person, and he was turning himself into an animal.” Nathan sounded thoughtful. “In which case the problem has already been solved.”
“No.” Audrey shook her head firmly. “That’s not what happened here.”
Nathan raised an eyebrow. “You sound pretty sure of that.”
“I am.” Audrey responded to his questioning look with a wry smile. “When has it ever been that simple for us?”
One of the worst things about having a legitimate job was keeping to normal business hours, which in the restaurant business frequently involved early mornings. Still, Duke had to admit that the Grey Gull was a nice place to be this early. The light was beautiful, the air smelled like the ocean, and the only sound was the wind through the trees. It was almost like being alone at sea again. Duke stood behind the bar and took a long moment to enjoy the peace of it all, and then the screaming started.
It was a high, frantic sound, coming from somewhere in the trees just south of the building. Duke’s heart stopped. Audrey? No, her car had already been gone when he’d gotten in. And it didn’t sound like a woman screaming. It sounded like it might be a kid, actually. Crap. Duke tucked the gun from under the bar into his waistband and headed out the door at a run.
The scream trailed off into a shriek as Duke neared the treeline, turning into sharp bursts of sound that he eventually recognized as words. “Get me out, get me out! Help! She’s coming!”
Movement in the trees caught Duke’s eye. There was something hanging from a branch, jerking like a fish on a line. “Some friends you are!” the voice was yelling now. “Running off and abandoning me!”
It was a squirrel. It was a squirrel, tangled in a clump of string that had probably been part of a bird’s nest and was now wedged into the tree’s bark, and it was unmistakably the one doing the yelling. “Are you freaking kidding me,” Duke growled.
His voice caught the squirrel’s attention. “Get me down!” it yelled again. “There’s not much time!”
Without thinking, Duke got a hand under the dangling squirrel to support it, and then he just stared at it for a while. There was really no point in pretending that this wasn’t happening; he’d been in Haven far too long for that. But still. Talking squirrel. Even in Haven, you were allowed to be baffled by a talking squirrel.
“What are you waiting for!” the squirrel squawked. “There’s a hawk; can’t you hear her?”
“Okay, okay! Just hang on a second, will you?” Duke studied the string that had wrapped itself around one of the squirrel’s forelegs. It was tight enough that he couldn’t just untwist it, not with one hand keeping the squirrel from flopping around and losing its mind even further. “Let me just see if I can...” He dug his nails in under the bark and focused on freeing the string from the tree. “Got it,” he said, catching the squirrel and cupping it to his chest. He could get it loose from the string later.
The squirrel, which had gone quieter now that Duke was holding it, suddenly screamed again. “What are you—” he started, and then he saw the hawk.
She was perched at about his eye level, close enough for him to reach out and grab her, her entire body tensed as if it was ready to pounce like a cat. Duke had never paid much attention to the specifics of the local wildlife, and he had lived his life in the assumption that he was never going to have to know how to fend off an angry bird of prey. We live and learn, don’t we? “Something I can do for you?” he asked, only a hint of irony in his voice.
“You can stop interfering in matters that are none of your concern,” the hawk said in a sharp and screeching voice, casually scratching her chest with a talon that could probably cost Duke an eye and half his nose in a single swipe.
Well, now she was just annoying him. Duke recognized an intimidation technique when he saw one. He was used to backing down when it was necessary, when there was a fight he was unlikely to win or one that just wasn’t worth it, and it would probably be smart to consider a fight with someone who brought her own knives to be one of those, but she was trying to stare him down on his property and he wasn’t about to stand for that. “I’m making it my concern,” he told her.
She jutted her head forward and tilted it to the side, studying him. “Why? Why would the life of one squirrel ever matter to you?”
It wasn’t a question Duke knew how to answer. The most accurate answer – it doesn’t, really, but now I’m kind of committed, and it seems weird to just leave a talking squirrel to get eaten – didn’t seem like it would satisfy anyone. Finally, he shrugged. “Because this one asked me for help.”
“So you would snatch a meal from my mouth simply because you were asked?” The hawk sounded insulted now, almost plaintive. “For the sake of asking, one squirrel becomes more valuable than my hunger?”
Duke spread one hand in a conciliatory gesture, pinning the squirrel to his chest with the other. It was squirming and scratching at him, trying to escape even though there was nowhere for it to go. “You should have asked me first.”
The hawk stared at him for a moment before letting out a scratchy hiccupping sound that Duke eventually realized was laughter. “Perhaps next time I will.” She stretched upwards and flapped her wings once or twice, preparing to take flight. “I can see that it will cost me less trouble to find a creature that hasn’t asked for your protection than to take this one from you. For today, at least, I’ll find my prey elsewhere.”
Duke watched her fly away, staring after her until she disappeared above the trees. He was suddenly very worried that this wasn’t the weirdest thing that was going to happen to him today.
The squirrel kicked him in the chest, reminding him of how true this was. “Getting rid of her won’t help if you suffocate me,” it said, rather more rudely than Duke thought was warranted.
“Right. Sorry.” Duke relaxed his grip, and the squirrel was calm enough now to sit in his hand and wait while he freed the rest of the string from the tree. “Guess I’d better get you inside, get the rest of this off you.”
“Inside?” the squirrel repeated, intrigued. “I’ve never been in an inside before. Well, an attic, once, but there were raccoons.”
“Don’t get used to it,” Duke said. That was the last thing he needed, a health code citation for talking vermin.
It was with the health code in mind that Duke spread a dishtowel out on the bar before setting the squirrel on it. “Just stay there and don’t touch the wood, all right?”
The squirrel seemed content to do so, sitting back on its haunches and looking around the room. “It’s big in here. All this space.”
Duke poked his head up from under the bar, where he knew there was a pair of scissors somewhere. “You live in a forest. How is this ‘big’?”
“Of course the forest is big,” the squirrel said, as if Duke was being deliberately obtuse. “It’s the whole world. It has to be big because it has everything in it. It’s not a place. A place is somewhere like the hollow log with the hole in the top, or the big pointy rock, or the two trees that got tangled together. This is a big place.”
“When you put it that way, I guess.” Duke was tempted to ask what it thought the town was, if the forest was the entire world, but he wasn’t sure how much of a cultural studies lesson he could deal with right now. Now that the situation was less immediately dire, the... well, he supposed he should call it the ‘reality’ of the situation, even if he was still not convinced that it was real, was starting to sink in. Even after everything he’d seen since he came back to Haven, there was something inherently unreal about talking animals. And it wasn’t like this would be the first conversation he’d ever had with something that wasn’t actually talking. He’d occasionally had conversations with things that weren’t even there, although this time the tiny nail marks in his hand were evidence enough for the squirrel’s existence.
There were scissors in the little nook under the cash register, along with what looked like the contents of someone’s junk drawer, including a pair of dice. Duke grabbed one of them along with the scissors, making a mental note to have a word with the staff about proper organization. “I need you to do something for me.”
The squirrel folded its forelegs in a worryingly human gesture of annoyance. “Something more important than getting this crap off my leg?”
“Just humor me, okay? You can count, right?”
“I can count to eight,” the squirrel said, sounding smug as it held out its forepaws and spread the toes. “That’s way more than most squirrels can. You’re lucky you found me, if you need counting.”
“I guess I am,” Duke said, trying to keep a straight face. He held up the die. “Watch this.” He closed his eyes, gave the die a little shake, and dropped it on the bar, listening until it stopped clattering. “How many dots are on top?”
“Tch. That’s easy. Three. Anyone can count to three.”
Duke opened his eyes. Three pips stared up at him from the die, and two very irritated eyes stared up at him from the squirrel, who quite clearly thought its time was being wasted. Okay, so it was really talking. He could work with that. Probably. “Thank you,” he said. He held up the scissors. “Now hold still.”
The squirrel sat up straighter, holding out its foreleg so Duke could reach the string. There were a handful of strands reaching from its leg to the mass that had been stuck to the tree; it had evidently stepped down right in the middle of the tangle. Duke cut them as close to the fur as possible and then went to work on the little snarls. “You have a name?” he asked, because now that he was sure he was having a conversation with a squirrel he felt like he should at least make the effort to be polite.
“Everything has a name.” By its tone, Duke guessed that the squirrel was starting to think he wasn’t very smart. “It’s—” a burst of high-pitched chittering. “Bust mostly everyone just calls me—” a shorter burst.
Duke winced at the sound. “Something I can pronounce, maybe?”
“It’s not a difficult name,” the squirrel retorted, and now it sounded sure that Duke wasn’t very smart. “Although,” it added, squinting at his mouth, “I guess you do have the wrong kind of teeth.”
“Yes, I’m sure that’s the problem.” Duke slid the smallest blade of his pocketknife under a knot that refused to be untied any other way. “Does it, I don’t know, translate or something?”
“I guess. The way you make words, it would be something like ‘He Leaves No Tracks In The Snowfall.’ ‘Snowfall’ for short. But it sounds a lot better the way I said it the first time. More poetic.”
Squirrel poetry. Another thing Duke wasn’t going to ask about, although he did note the ‘he’ in the name. “I can handle ‘Snowfall,’” he said. “I’m Duke.”
“‘Duke’?” Snowfall repeated. “That’s all? Humans have so many words, and so many sounds you can make, and you still have short names like that? No wonder you thought my name was hard.”
“That and the wrong teeth,” Duke said ironically. “Which doesn’t seem to be causing you any problems in talking to me.”
“No.” Snowfall scratched his head with his free paw, brow furrowed. “That’s new, I think. I don’t think I’ve ever spoken in human before. Is that weird?”
“You’re only wondering that now?”
“I had other things on my mind,” Snowfall retorted. “All I was thinking about was getting away from that hawk. I was in trouble, and suddenly I was calling for help and you could understand it. I don’t know how.”
“I might have an idea.” It would be tempting fate way too much to say that this was the weirdest Trouble Duke had run into so far. But it was definitely up there. “Did you see anyone else out in the forest? Anyone human, I mean.”
“Nobody. Well, not that I saw, anyway, and you aren’t very good at hiding yourselves.”
So much for making it easy. “Anything else weird happened to you over the last couple days?”
“No?” Snowfall hazarded. “I don’t think so.”
“You sure about that?” Duke worked the last bit of string off Snowfall’s leg. “There you go. Good as new.”
“I don’t know anything,” Snowfall insisted, dropping down on all fours and testing his leg. “I’d tell you if I did. I’d have to tell you if I did.”
“Seriously? Is there some kind of squirrel honor code for these things?”
“No...” Snowfall said slowly, sounding uncomfortable. “This is... a new thing. It came along with the human words, I think. I just know that you saved my life, and now I...” he wrinkled his nose, pronouncing the word with distaste, “owe you. Squirrels don’t have that. I don’t like it.”
“Nobody likes that feeling.”
“Well, I’m not supposed to have it!” Snowfall stomped one tiny foot. “Squirrels don’t ‘owe’ people things. I mean, I’m glad you saved me and you seem like a nice human, but I shouldn’t have to think about that! I just want to be a normal squirrel with normal squirrel thoughts. I’m good at normal squirrel thoughts.”
The sudden wash of sympathy Duke felt was as strange as anything else that had happened to him today. He got that. He and half the population of this town knew what ‘I just want to be normal again’ felt like. That the person – for a broad value of ‘person,’ granted – expressing it this time was part of the abnormality didn’t seem to matter. “You and me both.” He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “Look, I might be able to help. I know some people who’re pretty good a figuring out how to make things normal again. Or as close as we can ever get here. You’re going to have to come with me to get them, though, because no way are they ever going to believe me this time.”