Stiles never saw a sunrise from up here with her, and looking out at this one now, he regrets it, because she would have loved this. The sky is a blaze of pink and yellow, his mother's two favorite colors, and around him, he can hear the morning birdsongs she'd always enjoyed so much.
He drops down to a mostly-flat rock and draws his knees up, wrapping his arms around his legs as he stares down at the still-sleeping town.
It's been three weeks since the last time Stiles slept properly. He's not sure if it's because of the Nemeton, or just because of the usual anxiety that comes after traumatic experiences (though he's had enough of them now that you'd think his body would be getting used to it).
Or maybe it's just because he feels so fucking alone.
He pulls out his phone, stares down at it for a long time, pushing the button every few minutes when it goes dark again. There are no messages, no missed calls. He didn't expect there to be, but it still bothers him.
It's probably for the best. It's not like he has any clue what he'd say if there was a message.
Still, his fingers seem to have a mind of their own, because without his consent, they open a new text and begin typing. They even press "OK" before he can convince them not to. Stiles sighs, staring down at the sent message.
I wish you'd said goodbye. We miss you.
He tells himself he's not disappointed when there's no reply, because he didn't expect one.
He tells himself again that it's for the best.
~ ~ ~
There are things about Stiles that no one knows. Things no one has ever known, and things he planned for no one to ever know. Because it's Stiles' life, he should have figured nothing could ever be that simple. Beacon Hills has a way of fucking with status quo, and it's only gotten worse in the months since the Nemeton was activated.
Still, telling Lydia his secret (well, one of his secrets, though arguably the biggest one) definitely wasn't something Stiles planned.
But Lydia has this way of getting around all his carefully constructed and disguised defenses and digging far deeper into his psyche than he should be comfortable with. And the second half of his junior year was long enough, hard enough, and lonely enough that, by the time the first week of summer rolls around and shows no signs of things improving anytime soon, he doesn't even realize what he's telling her until the damage has somehow already been done.
In the aftermath, he buries his face in his hands and waits for Lydia's characteristically swift and biting judgment.
A moment passes. Then two. When he fails to feel any kind of verbal barb digging into his skin by the third moment, he peers cautiously between his fingers and finds her watching him with a steady gaze.
"Wait," he says, horror beginning to take root in his gut along with the shame. "You knew?"
Lydia shrugs. "It's not obvious, if you're worried," she promises, a knowing glint in her eye as she watches Stiles remember to breathe again. "But do you remember the day we met? It was the first day of third grade, and you told me my dress was pretty."
Stiles remembers that day, all right, just like he remembers that his next words had been, I want one just like it!
The dress had been green, with a fluttery skirt that made Stiles think of fairy princesses.
Lydia looks away, clearly recalling the exchange just as well as Stiles. "I laughed at you. I wasn't trying to be cruel, but Jackson…"
Jackson's mocking laughter had followed Stiles through his nightmares for a long time after that day. It was how Stiles first started to truly realize that he was wrong. He swallows now, crossing his arms over his chest because he wants to curl in on himself and close his eyes and keep pretending, but he can't, obviously. Not anymore.
"After, you convinced yourself you wanted to marry me, and I convinced myself to ignore you, and here we are nine years later." Lydia sneaks a look at him. "You being honest with me about it for the first time." With yourself, is what Stiles hears, because it's what her eyes say, and she's not wrong.
The terror roiling around inside him expands, makes his hands tremble until he clenches them into fists and buries them in his lap. The fear is bone deep, deeper than that, even, and it's that fear that makes Stiles square his jaw and ask (demand, beg), "So what do I do?"
And Lydia, bless her soul and her goddess-like qualities and the friendship he thinks they managed to strike up completely by accident, tells him.
(That's not true at all. The actual truth is that this is scarier to him than all those things combined, but since when has Stiles let a little thing like mind-numbing terror stop him?)
Anyway, scariness aside, it also feels right. It feels like it's been a long time coming, and he's starting to regret a little bit that it took him this long to get here. To want to try, at least.
So, scary. But good.
Good at least until that morning, when he actually arrives at the address Lydia texted him the night before. He steps inside to the small, brightly-lit shop, and finds himself faced with dozens of racks of clothing, and all of a sudden he finds that he can't breathe.
"Fuck," he whispers when the world starts tilting and spinning. "Fuck." He hadn't even seen Lydia when he first stepped inside, but he recognizes that hand that falls on his arm as one that belongs to her, and then her voice is in his ear, saying, Stiles, come on, stay with me here. He tries, he really, really does, but his knees turn to rubber without his permission and he slides down to the floor, right there in the entrance of what is probably one of Lydia's high-end boutiques, and she's going to be so embarrassed, she's going to kill him for this, but he can't, he can't…
Her hand comes up, presses against his mouth gently. "Hold your breath," she murmurs, soft and warm in his ear. "Remember?"
Stiles does it because he can't do anything else, and because he does remember, and because it's Lydia, and his brain is still hardwired to do pretty much anything she tells him to.
His racing heart slows, a little. Enough.
"You know," he tells her when he can form words again, though his voice comes out shaky and hoarse, "I went a lot of years without this happening. Then you came along."
"Sorry," she says, and it's because she sounds genuinely apologetic for reasons that are unfathomable to him that he grips her hand tightly and shakes his head.
"Not actually your fault. Also, thank you." When she tries to shrug it off, he tightens his grip. "Thank you," he reiterates, because he knows he can outstubborn Lydia Martin even at his worst.
She rolls her eyes, but there's a smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. "Sure, Stiles." She stands, tugging him up with her. He glances around, fully prepared to put on the best front he can manage despite whatever looks the store employees are wearing, only to find there's not a soul in sight. He gives Lydia a suspicious look, which she pretends not to notice as she flips her hair and squares her shoulders. "Now, I believe we were on a mission here, weren't we?"
He takes a deep breath, swallows hard, and turns back to again face the brightly colored displays of dresses and skirts and blouses and shoes and handbags and…Jesus god, so many things. "Yeah," he forces himself to say. "We were." He waves a hand. "Lead on, General Martin."
All told, they're in the store for nearly three hours, but Stiles is barely aware of the passage of time. Lydia is kind enough (and smart enough) not to make him try anything on in the store, claiming that her eye is good enough for sizing, and, well, Stiles has trusted her this far, what's a little more? Her fiercely protective glower keeps away any sales assistant who might want to help, which Stiles can only be grateful for.
But even with Lydia, who must be a Jedi master at all this, he still finds himself overwhelmed by all the choices. Colors and fits and cuts and styles, fabrics and accessories, simple or sexy (and he actually gulps even thinking that word right now). For someone who has lived in basically one style as far back as he can remember, Stiles has no idea how to deal with all these options. He's not good at decision-making, as a general rule, unless it's in one of those life-or-death situations he manages to find himself in far too often.
This, as he's already determined, is not life or death, no matter how scary it feels.
Still, it also brings a kind of bone-deep joy he didn't expect, even through the mutant butterflies wreaking havoc in his stomach, as he runs his fingers over various garments and feels the silky materials beneath his touch.
"I think we're done for now," Lydia eventually says, and before Stiles is aware of what the heck is going on, she's ushered him out of the store to go wait by his Jeep while she takes a giant load of stuff (way, way more stuff than Stiles remembers even looking at, let alone choosing) to the registers.
His mind is curiously blank on the drive home, with the shopping bags on the floor in front of the passenger seat, buried under a ratty blanket and one of his old hoodies. It's like, now that the hard part (or one of the hard parts) is over, his brain takes a quick little vacation to recuperate.
He fiddles with the radio, trailing behind Lydia's car back toward Beacon Hills, and he checks the text messages on his phone, and he eats a granola bar, but he doesn't actually think. About anything. At all.
Lydia waves out her window as she takes the turn that will lead back to her house and Stiles continues on the road back to his. There's a spark of anxiety inside him as he watches her car turn the corner and disappear, because while following her lead is easy, a way of sharing the burden this secret has been on him for most of his life, being on his own all of a sudden is…not.
But Phase 2 of her plan isn't going to happen for at least a week, because Lydia wanted to give him a chance to "acclimate" to the idea, so for now, Stiles is on his own. And any second now, the strange quiet in his head is going to give way to something much louder.
Stiles keeps driving, and turns the volume up on his radio, and resolutely continues not thinking about anything.
Thinking can happen later.
And then he sits down on his bed, and he thinks about what he just did, and every single part of his body starts to shake.
Of course Stiles is glad; he loves Scott like the brother he never had, and so much of their bro-time has been shaved away lately for things like werewolves and girlfriends and family drama. It's really good to have Scott around again, just the two of them hanging out like old times.
But it also means squashing everything inside him that wants to curl up in a little ball and hyperventilate, because Scott can be surprisingly perceptive at the worst possible times, and this is not something Stiles is ready to get into with him.
Like, ever, preferably.
So Stiles does what he's best at. He pastes on a smile and pretends everything is A-plus hunky-dory in Stilesland, until he's half convinced himself it's true. So that even though Scott sees him nearly every day…even though they spend hours and hours and hours playing video games and talking werewolf and Alpha and Nemeton shit and pretending to do summer homework…Scott never catches on that there's anything wrong.
Stiles is grateful.
"Who's 'we all'?" he asks.
"I don't know, the pack?" Scott suggests, almost tentatively. "You, me, Allison, Isaac, Lydia…I guess maybe the twins?" He looks a little less enthusiastic when he remembers them, and any warmth Stiles might have had toward the idea vanishes altogether. He doesn't know the twins that well, and quite frankly, he doesn't want to know the twins that well. He still sees them impaling Boyd on Derek's claws in his nightmares, and he's not too inclined just to forgive and forget.
"Yeah." Stiles tries to paste on a smile. It feels more like a grimace, but Scott doesn't seem to notice anything wrong with it. Or he's pretending very well. "Maybe we could do that. I…might have something going on though. Let me get back to you, huh, buddy?"
"Okay, cool," Scott says, and Stiles feels like such a tool, seeing that hopeful smile aimed his way when he already knows he's going to back out at the first possible second.
His gaze slides to his closet door, and he steels his resolve. If he's going to be a douche to his best friend anyway, maybe it's a good time to…kill two birds with one stone.
(He hates that expression. He's always hated that expression. But sometimes it fits.)
Stiles has managed to keep away from that corner of the closet very successfully ever since he shoved the shopping bags there, and he's tried not to think about them much either. Now, though, he pulls out his phone and types out a quick text to Lydia while Scott's in the bathroom.
This weekend. Yes, I'm sure.
He sends it, turns the phone off and tosses it away onto his desk before he can change his mind.
"Here's how this is going to work," she says, tossing her hair and getting that glint in her eyes that scares Stiles. "Today, I'm going to help you, by which I mean I'm going to do everything." The look in her eyes tells Stiles that right now, she basically sees him as something pitifully helpless. Like a baby bird. "Next time, I'm going to teach you how to do it for yourself." She eyes him like she expects him to argue.
Stiles gulps. His heart gives a hard lurch in his chest. "Okay," he says. "Sounds fair."
She eyes him. "You are not allowed to disappear into any other headspace except right here, got it?" Her expression softens a bit, probably because he can actually feel his face looking terrified. "The whole point of this is to experience it, Stiles. To let yourself feel it. Right?"
"I…" He looks away from her, and finds himself instead staring at his reflection in the vanity mirror. The reflection that has never once, in his whole life, looked like who he felt he really was. His heart gives another kick, because what Lydia's really offering here is to help change that. And she isn't asking much in return. "Yeah," he says, his voice catching in his throat and coming out raspy and trembling. "Yeah, that's the point."
"So no blanking out on me. Promise?"
"I promise." Stiles meets her eyes in the mirror as he says the words.
She smiles at him. "Great. Then do you have an outfit in mind?"
He hasn't even taken anything out of the bags, which he thinks he conveys pretty well when he waves at them all, sitting innocuously where he dumped them on the floor next to her bed.
Lydia sighs, shaking her head, but she looks fond. "Okay. I'll sort, you strip."
Once upon a time, Stiles imagined Lydia saying words very much like those to him. This wasn't the context he imagined her saying them in. But upon reflection, he thinks maybe this is better.
Stiles doesn't watch as she rifles through the pile of shopping bags. He turns his back to her and very slowly (because his hands are shaking and he's a little light-headed) begins removing pieces of clothing. His plaid button-down goes first, easily since he never actually buttons those shirts, followed by the t-shirt he's wearing underneath (his stud muffin shirt, an old favorite). His sneakers are kicked off next, and then his jeans (and he realizes that he feels strangely unembarrassed, even though he feels like he should be really uncomfortable right about now) and, finally, his socks. He leaves his batman boxers on because there are some lines he thinks neither he nor Lydia feel like crossing here.
By the time he turns back around, Lydia is sitting on the bed watching him, a small pile of clothes folded neatly beside her. The scrap of satin sitting on top of the pile has Stiles re-thinking those boundaries he thought they were going to keep.
"So…" he tries, not really able to meet her eyes. She seems to get it.
"I'm going to turn around. I think you can manage one little part by yourself, yes?" She raises an eyebrow as she tosses him the scrap of blue satin.
Up close, Stiles can see that the borders are all made of a delicate gray lace. Now blushing madly, he hastily kicks off his own ratty boxers and tugs the panties on, wondering how in god's name Lydia knew that sizing.
"They're called boyshorts," Lydia says offhandedly. Stiles can see her inspecting her nails. "Like boxer briefs for girls. Not really my thing, but as I understand, they're far more comfortable than, say, a thong." She glances over her shoulder to toss him a wicked smirk. Stiles meeps and instinctively reaches down to cover himself, then dives for the bed and the jeans he can see are next on the pile of clothes.
He expects them to be tight as he tugs them up his legs, but they're surprisingly comfortable. They fit, but they're not so snug that he can't move, the way a lot of girls he knows wear them. They're just baggy enough, with legs that flare out a bit at the bottom.
"Okay," he says, squatting down, getting a feel for them (and the underwear underneath them). "This isn't so bad."
Lydia turns back around and nods approvingly. "Not a bad start." She holds up the next two items – a light gray tank top and a buttondown shirt that is…really not unlike the ones he normally wears. It's plaid, for one thing. Maybe a little more pastel-colored than he'd normally wear, a lighter, filmier material, but still familiar enough to make him smile.
"Oooh, you approve!" Lydia notes, obviously delighted. "Thought you might."
Stiles expects the tank top to fit strangely, considering he has no breasts to speak of, but the cut of it and the shirt actually work well for his frame, and they don't look bad at all, when he allows himself a very quick peak in the mirror.
He puts on a simple braided leather belt and ankle boots that have a very small, nicely wide heel.
Then he stops and takes a slow breath.
"Feeling okay?" Lydia asks. She's digging through another bag now, a smaller one. From it, she pulls a small handbag with a long strap – a crossbody bag, she tells him when he asks how he should wear it when he goes out – and a pile of makeup that isn't quite as big and scary as he assumed it would be.
"Your complexion is good as it is," Lydia tells him. "A very small amount of blush and some lip gloss would be sufficient under most circumstances, until you're comfortable with trying more. You don't even need mascara, you already have eyelashes girls would kill for." She actually seems a little huffy at that. "Otherwise, for now, you don't need more than the basics unless you want to make a statement, and I don't think today is a statement day, right?"
"Uh. Right. Definitely right."
She works quickly, and he meets her eyes as she's swiping on the lip gloss and wonders why it doesn't fee a whole lot stranger to him.
"Now, jewelry…" Lydia makes a humming sound as she looks him up and down. "Well, what do you think?"
"I, um." Stiles has never really thought about it. "Maybe a little? Nothing too…" He waves a hand."
"Casual." Lydia nods approvingly. "Simple and casual. I can do that. In fact, it just so happens I have the perfect thing." It's not one of the bags she goes for now, but her own vanity. She paws through a small wooden box and comes back to him triumphantly holding something on a black cord. When she holds her hand out, Stiles sees that there are two pendants attached, and the cord loops around in a double necklace. One of the pendants is a four-leaf clover with a foresty-green crystal at the center. (He resolutely doesn't let himself notice what the green color reminds him of. He's done a pretty good job not thinking of…certain people lately, and he doesn't want to ruin it.) The other pendant is a pretty silver horseshoe.
"For luck," Lydia says, when he makes no immediate move to take it. "I thought…but if you don't like it, then –"
"No!" he says, too loud. She blinks at him. "No, I do, I love it." He's not lying. It's simple and pretty and, okay, he's not exactly a style guru here, but he thinks it's the sort of thing that would look nice with just about any outfit. He takes it from her slowly, trying not to let her notice the way his hand is trembling. (He fails, but she's nice enough not to say anything.)
She lets him stare at it for a long moment before taking it back from him with gentle fingers. "Here, let me help," she says, and circles around behind him so she can loop it around his neck.
The clover pendant rests against his Adam's apple when she's done, and the horseshoe falls just to his collarbone. Stiles can't resist reaching up to feel it there.
"Okay, and finally, the rat's nest you call your hair," Lydia says, sitting him back down at the vanity and ignoring his glare with the ease of someone who's ignored things a lot worse many times over. She ponders him for a few seconds, and then smiles. "I can work with this." She turns the mirror up so that he can't see whatever it is she's doing. Stiles sighs, tells himself that he's trusted her this far, and lets her do what she will.
There's a lot of tugging, and combing, and pulling, and slathering of some kind of product that feels cold and slimy at first, and then some more brushing and tugging, and then the snap of two hair clips clicking into place, and finally she faces him head on and gives a satisfied nod.
Stiles lowers the mirror and stares, all the breath knocked from his lungs. "Oh," he breathes. And then, after a long moment where he can do nothing but stare in wonder, he manages to tell her very seriously, "You are clearly magic."
She smiles. "Well, duh."
He doesn't know how she did it, especially without any cutting whatsoever, but he looks…good, actually.
And she trusts Stiles, crazy at that seems.
The thing is, Lydia has seen what Stiles is going through. He puts on a good show, but Lydia knows a bit about hiding what she's feeling from the world, and she's seen Stiles doing it every day since that ritual. Longer, really, much longer, but it's been so much worse since then. He's been suffering, and doing his best to make sure his friends and his dad don't realize it.
It's not fair, and Lydia hates seeing it.
Whatever darkness is inside him now, he needs something to balance it. And if this – if losing a little of the weight that's been riding on him since he was too young to realize – can help, than Lydia will make damn sure that's what happens.
Someone has to be the brains of their ragtag pack of misfits, and anyway, she thinks, it's probably the least she can do.
Then he sits in the car for a long time, staring out the window at the grubby concrete wall in front of him and wondering just what the fuck he thinks he's doing.
For one thing, he realizes, he's still thinking of himself as he, and if he's going to survive this day, he's not sure how well that's gonna fly. But it's a habit, ingrained from long years of trying to be normal, and he doesn't know how to switch it off. In fact, he's pretty sure he's more likely to fuck up if he tries.
So maybe that can wait. It's not like he plans on really making conversation, anyway. He's just going to…get out of the car, go shopping down Main Street. Lydia made him promise to pick out at least one outfit all on his own, and since he isn't as shop-savvy as she is, it'll require trying things on.
In the girls' fitting room.
He's going to have to make himself work to remember that one, probably.
So, shopping. And then maybe a late lunch at a café Lydia recommended. A walk around the park if he feels like it. But nothing too big, nothing too crazy. Minimal interaction, just enough to get by. It'll be a start, Stiles thinks, and a pretty decent one at that.
He just needs to get out of the car.
Any minute now.
"Come on, Stiles, you wimp," he mutters to himself. His hands, he notices for the first time, are still wrapped tight around the steering wheel, knuckles white and painfully stiff. Releasing the wheel takes more effort than he expects, almost like an invisible force is holding his fingers there, fighting him every step of the way. "This is so freaking stupid," he says, and without pausing to think about it, he snatches up his handbag, slams open the car door, and stumbles out.
The world doesn't collapse in on itself.
It's a nice day out. Hot, obviously, because it's summer in California, but not terrible. There's a light breeze as he walks towards Main Street, and it feels good. He almost wishes he'd been brave enough to try shaving so he could wear a skirt or shorts, but this is scary enough as it is, so maybe not.
A group of college kids pass him just as he's turning, and from the corner of his eye, Stiles sees one of the guys give him a blatant once-over.
Holy crap, he thinks, torn between terror and giddiness, and he sneaks a glance over just in time to see the guy give him a smile. Holy CRAP, he thinks again, all but tripping over his feet, and then his internal voice dissolves into squealing. Luckily, he manages to keep it contained, and he thinks he even offers a shaky smile back before continuing on his way.
I can pass, he realizes all at once, his hand spasming where it's clutched around the strap of his handbag. I can pass I can pass I can pass! Maybe it wouldn't hold up under close inspection (he does have some muscles, and his hands are huge, and that's just for starters), but on first glance, he can actually pass as female. This, somehow, is something Stiles never seriously stopped to consider might be possible.
Whipping out his cell phone, Stiles fires off a text to Lydia that's more keyboard mashing than actual words, but he thinks he gets enough across to make sense. Lydia's response is almost immediate: Like there was ever any doubt. Now quit bothering me and go enjoy it!
Stiles really, really loves Lydia Martin. Maybe not quite the way he tried to believe he did for a long time, but he loves her a lot anyway.
Main Street is packed with people at this time of day on a weekend, and Stiles is happy enough to lose himself among the crowd as he window shops and tries to decide where to stop.
His first stop ends up being the confectionary store (he comes here two or three times a year, and that's always his first stop), and the girl behind the counter smiles cheerfully as she rings him up. He doesn't say much, because he doesn't have a lot (any) practice trying to get his vocal register to sound more feminine, but she doesn't seem put off by it. Maybe she just assumes he's shy.
He gets a little braver for his second stop, going into a Hot Topic when he sees awesome (girly!) comic book t-shirts in the window.
He walks back out with two of them (simple black ones with the Batman logo on one and the Avengers logo on the other, because you have to respect the classics, and you can't play favorites between DC and Marvel), and a black faux-leather jacket that looks pretty awesome on him, if he says so himself.
"I am awesome," he breathes as he exits the store, because he's feeling high on life and so fucking good right now, and it's been ages since he's been able to breathe like this.
Which is why he's completely unprepared for the voice behind him that pipes up with, "Stiles?"
"Oh my god." He whips around, heart pounding, and it's probably the adrenaline crashing through him that causes the delay before he realizes who he's looking at. "Cora?"
"So, um," he finally starts when he just can't take it anymore. It's not much of a start, but hey, it's what he's got. He fiddles with the bendy-straw in his glass of water.
"Sorry," Cora says abruptly, grimacing a little. Before Stiles' heart can plummet down into his shoes, she shakes her head. "This is the first time in weeks I've been around, y'know, people. And I've never had much in the way of social skills even on a good day."
"Hale family trait," Stiles mutters before he can think better of it, and he's taken aback by her grin.
"Probably." Cora shrugs. "Anyway. How are you, Stiles?"
"I, uh…" His brain is busily trying to reboot itself, because that's…not the question he expected her to ask. "Are we…not going to talk about this?"
She raises an eyebrow at him, eyes glinting. "Talk about what?" she asks, and takes a deliberately casual sip of her soda.
Well, if that's really how she wants to play it, Stiles isn't dumb enough to look a gift horse in the mouth. "How about –" He stops, considering. "Well, how about where you've been? What you've been doing? Why you guys just left without a word to anyone except Scott?"
He won't say Derek's name. He won't. He hasn't even allowed himself to think it since Scott told him the Hales left. And if his inquiries come out sounding a little more bitter than he intended, well, whatever. He refuses to apologize for it.
He really doesn't like that knowing look in Cora's eyes, though.
"We've kind of been all over the place," she tells him. "Kind of like a road trip? Derek –" Stiles is totally not imagining the way she emphasizes the name, "– needed to get away from the memories, and I guess I wasn't ready to be back yet either. So. Road trip." She shrugs again. "It's done us both some good, anyway. This is the first place we've stayed more than a day or two since we left. We've been here a week."
"You're so close to Beacon Hills," Stiles points out.
"Yeah. Close enough to feel like home, far enough to be able to deal." Cora's lips quirk a little. "As for why we didn't say anything… None of you really liked me anyway, and I think Derek was afraid he wouldn't be able to leave if he tried. He still worries about the pack."
"For the record, I saved your life," Stiles tells her, because it's easier than thinking about anything to do with Derek. Easier than remembering long days during last summer spent in each other's company, building the weird thing they didn't have the guts to call a friendship. Easier than remembering the pain Stiles felt when it seemed like Derek just forgot all that, easy as snapping his fingers. "I don't save people I don't care about."
They're quiet again after that for a long moment, and the awkwardness seems to come back ten-fold. Stiles fidgets. God, here he is, sitting here dressed in clothes that aren't unlike something Cora herself might wear (probably way better than he can pull them off), in makeup and (admittedly tiny) heels and she still hasn't said a word about it, and on top of that he's trying to claim that they're almost something like friends, which is ridiculous. The fact that he isn't hyperventilating in a corner is an actual miracle, but if this keeps up, if she keeps not saying anything, he doesn't think this composure he's barely keeping up is going to last, and –
"Stiles," Cora says quietly, eyebrowing at him a lot like the way her brother used to. "Breathe." She slurps at the last dregs of her soda.
"I don't get you," Stiles says, the words tumbling out of him on a big rush of air.
"Not a lot of people do," she tells him. "It's okay."
He gapes at her for a minute, and then gives up, slumping in his seat. Clearly, he's out of his league here. "So, hey," he says, as conversationally as he can. "I was gonna head to the park for a walk before I go home. Wanna come?"
This might be the first time he's ever seen Cora really smile at him. It lights up her whole face, makes her tired eyes shine a little brighter. "Sure. Sounds cool. You can catch me up on everything we've been missing at home."
Stiles hesitates a little as they stand. "Um. What are you going to tell Derek?" He hopes she doesn't hear how hard it is to say the name, but judging by the look she shoots him, he's not fooling anyone.
Cora rolls her eyes. "He's my brother, not my keeper. If he asks – and he won't, because he's even better at avoidance than you are – I'll tell him the truth. I ran into a friend." It goes unsaid that Derek will know the friend is Stiles, that he'll probably smell it the moment she's within range of his stupid werewolf nose.
Stiles can't hear heartbeats, he isn't supernaturally empowered to hear truth from lie, but as a sheriff's kid, he has a pretty good grasp on the ability all the same. And looking at Cora in that moment, he doesn't see any hint of a lie.
"Okay then," he says, smiling because he feels oddly warm inside, and he doesn't think it's because of the temperature in the room.
The whole time they were together, she never once mentioned the way Stiles obviously was trying to pass as a girl, and eventually, he gave up waiting for it.
They talked about other things though. Mostly about her road trip with her brother, and the things they'd seen, and the odd jobs they'd both picked up to pay their way. They talked about Beacon Hills, and some of the strangeness Stiles has been expecting to see since the Nemeton was activated. He told her about how it was right after, the nightmares that were forced on him and Scott and Allison, and how bad things were for a while, but how they haven't seen any weirdness since. They even talked about school, Cora making fun of Stiles for having summer assignments while she still hadn't settled in one place long enough to pick a new school.
But never about Stiles, about secrets he'd obviously been hiding all along. Once he came to terms with the fact that she wouldn't bring it up, he could allow himself to appreciate it, the way she treated it like just a normal thing, the way she treated him like just a normal person. Like there wasn't anything wrong with him at all.
It was a good day, a great day, and the closer to Beacon Hills Stiles gets, the more he doesn't want to go back. He doesn't want to put on his own clothes and give back Lydia's magical hair clips. Doesn't want to wash the makeup off and trade the cute handbag for his battered backpack. He just doesn't want to go back to pretending, because now that he's gotten a taste of what it's like not to, he thinks it's going to be that much harder now.
Which is maybe why the first words out of his mouth when Lydia answers the door are, "How soon can we do this again?" It's possible he sounds a little desperate, but Lydia only gives him a smile that's only partially hidden behind an eyeroll.
"Soon," she promises, and she better believe he's going to hold her to that.
"Um." Stiles blinks. "Okay? I…guess?"
Scott tilts his head, and gives Stiles a small smile. "I won't ask, because you'd tell me if you wanted me to know. But I'm glad. I've been kinda worried about you. And by kind of, I mean a lot."
Stiles clamps down on the immediate denial that anything was ever wrong or that anything has changed since then. He's long since accepted those annoyingly perceptive moments Scott sometimes has. Sometimes he's even grateful for them. "Thanks, buddy," he says instead, because he owes it to Scott not to lie, even if he can't be a hundred percent honest about some things.
Scott seems to get it.
Scott, Stiles remembers all over again, is an awesome best friend, and he's damn lucky to have him.
His grin widens, and he considers. As much as he'd love to go every weekend, Stiles knows that isn't possible without people noticing and questioning. So this weekend is probably out. But… Maybe next weekend? he types back. Assuming no baddies suddenly infiltrate BH, should be able to then. Wanna grab pizza on Sat?
1:00 Pinocchios. Dont forget.
Like that's a thing that could happen.
The only thing that makes him nervous is the idea that the more often he goes there now, the better chance he has of running into Derek. Especially since he'll be hanging out with Derek's sister, and Derek is obviously going to know it. And it's just…after the way they left things the last time Stiles saw Derek…
It's stupid. It's so stupid that he feels this way, that he can't stop feeling this way. And it's stupid that he's thinking about letting it ruin this new, tentative thing he's found. Because Stiles doesn't want to drive even farther out than he already is just to find an escape, and damn it, Cora seems to want to be his friend. Cora accepts him. Stiles isn't willing to give that up just because he's afraid of what Derek might say.
Anyway, whatever. Even if he does run into Derek, and even if Derek isn't as cool as his sister about him, it's not like Derek is going to tell anyone. And hey, maybe then Stiles will finally have some closure.
It'll be fine.
It had been bad when he was a kid, when he knew he wasn't normal but he couldn't pinpoint why, couldn't put it into words. The internet had been the thing to change his life when he turned twelve and got his first computer from his dad. It had given him access to the tools to find out exactly what was wrong with him, and after that, it got… Well, okay, it wasn't any easier, really, but it became a conscious choice to hide, and somehow, having that knowledge and the power to make that choice made a difference in how he felt it. He could walk around pretending because he knew it was pretending.
Now he's taken that mask off, however briefly, and putting it back in place is harder than he thought it would be. It feels wrong on his face, in is body, in every move he makes, like a violation he doesn't know how to fix.
The return of the nightmares isn't really a surprise. He's stressed out, overanxious, hyperfocused. The Nemeton preys on these weaknesses, just like it did when it was first activated months ago, when Stiles spent too long feeling like he was losing his mind. When he couldn't sleep, could barely eat, saw monsters in shadows and shadows where there weren't any. And it hasn't gotten that bad again, not yet, but the nightmares come back and none of the meditation tricks he's taught himself are helping anymore.
Lydia takes one look at him on the day he finally allows himself to knock on her door and says, "You look like crap."
He feels like it, too, but he still manages to give her a withering glare as she tugs him inside. "I can always count on you, Lyds," he mutters.
"Damn right," she tells him, shoving him into the chair by her vanity. She purses her lips as she looks him over. "Want to talk about it?"
"No," he says honestly. Eventually he might have to, but for right now, he's happy pretending that everything is fine. Besides, everything will be fine, he gets to go out today and be himself and hang with Cora, and it's the only thing he's been looking forward to all week.
Lydia looks concerned, but she nods. "Fair enough. Next time though, I'm not letting you out of it so easily." She gives him a fierce look that assures him she means business.
"Thanks, Lydia," he says, and the fierceness dissipates to be replaced with fond exasperation.
"Yeah, yeah. Come here." She tugs him up again and marches him over to a small door in the corner of the room, near the bathroom. When she opens it, all the breath whooshes out of his lungs in a rush.
His clothes. All the new blouses and pants and skirts and shoes they'd gone together to purchase, and okay, even a few things he knows are new, because he didn't buy a single dress that day but there they are, neatly hung on wooden hangers, and holy crap. Holy crap. "You…this is…"
"I mean, it seems a little silly, the closet is barely a quarter full, but it's yours anyway." Lydia shrugs, smiling at his stunned surprise. "I have the big closet over there, obviously, I was just using the extra space store all my shoes, but it was time for a wardrobe cleanse anyway. And this way your stuff won't get wrinkled, because let's face it, you do not want to know the torture of trying to get wrinkles out of some of these materials."
He pounces, throwing his arms around her hard enough to make her squeak, and he doesn't let go until she pats his back and says, "Okay, little awkward now, Stiles." But when he pulls away, she's doing nothing to hide a pleased grin. "Well?" she says, gesturing toward the closet. "Pick an outfit. Let's get down to business."
Stiles is breathless, since he was all but flat-out running to make it here on time. Lydia took a lot more time today to show him the complexities of make-up and nail polish and hair styling, and between that and the unexpected traffic jam on the highway, he's a little surprised he made it at all. "Sorry," he gasps. "Just hit…a couple…snags."
Cora rolls her eyes, punching him in his arm. "You could've texted you were going to be late, you dork."
In hindsight, that makes a lot of sense. He certainly doesn't need to tell her he's been looking forward to this for days, that the idea of missing any of it was the worst thing he could imagine during the drive here. She's a Hale, she doesn't need the ego boost.
"So. Food?" he says instead. Her snort tells him she sees right through the (admittedly lame) attempt at a subject change, but she leads the way inside and picks out a booth for them anyway.
The pizza is awesome, even better than Ted's Pizza Place back at home (which has always been the Stilinski men's favorite), and the conversation between them flows easily. Stiles even makes Cora laugh so hard at one point she spews soda out of her nose, and then kicks him sharply in his leg when he can't muffle his laughter fast enough.
By the time they're just about finishing up, Stiles is thinking of things they can do with the rest of the day, but then Cora pipes up with, "I know it might be breaking your rule about not being here too much, but…" she pauses to take a last giant bite of her pizza. Stiles watches her as she chews noisily, trying not to grin because it's so different from the rest of the girls he hangs out with. "Mmm. Anyway. So, Derek's gonna be away Tuesday and Wednesday, and I want to go clubbing. And I've decided that you're coming with. You can stay over, we can have a girls' night, or whatever. That's a thing, right?" She looks dubious about the idea, but also eager, and Stiles is fighting down the ridiculous glow trying to take over his whole body.
"Girls' night, huh?" he asks.
She raises a pointed eyebrow at him.
Hell, it's summer. He's sure he can come up with an excuse about camping or something for his dad or Scott. "Yeah," he says, already fast warming up to the idea. "Sounds pretty great, actually."
"Cool." Cora smiles. Stiles isn't sure if he's imagining that her teeth look a little bit pointed as she eyes him. He decides not to dwell on it, and then she says, "Then I think this calls for some shopping."
"Er. Shopping?" He blinks.
Now he knows her smile is more wolflike than it should be. "We're going clubbing, Stilinski. That's gonna require some decent club clothes."
"Um." Stiles looks down. He's wearing an outfit a lot like the one he wore last time he was here, actually. He thinks he looks pretty cute. Totally good enough for clubbing. (Not that he's ever been clubbing enough to know.)
(The occasional nights he goes to The Jungle to hang out with Gypsy and her drag queen posse don't count, probably, since he's never allowed them to dress him up like a Ken doll in spite of Gypsy and Phoenix's regular offers, and he's never talked to them about his issues at all.)
(Which, in hindsight, was maybe kind of dumb of him.)
"I've got some ideas," Cora tells him. It doesn't sound as reassuring as he thinks she intends.
That's not stopping him from freaking out a little. Lydia – Lydia freaking Martin – was more gentle than this. In fact, Lydia had looked downright surprised when Stiles told her about his planned adventures.
God help him if Lydia Martin and Cora Hale ever team up to help him with this stuff, because Stiles isn't sure he'll survive it.
Then again, the giddy rush that hasn't subsided since Cora brought him into her favorite salon/spa tells him that it would at least be a hell of a way to go.
He crawls under his covers that night still grinning like a lunatic, and it takes him a long, long time to calm down enough to actually sleep.
Stiles is still trying to get used to the feel of the skirt brushing against the silky black stockings he's wearing, or the bra that Cora had somehow expertly stuffed with something to make it look like he had a pair of kick-ass breasts hiding beneath the lacey blouse.
They have fake IDs, but Stiles isn't too keen on trying them out. All he needs is to be caught out, arrested, his dad called… Christ, he's going to have nightmares about that, now. But Cora takes his hand and leads him right past the bar, snaking in and out between gaps in the mob until they reach a dimly lit corner and, miraculously, a free table to sit at until Stiles can get his bearings.
"Wow," he says, staring around, mouth gaping a little. Nothing at Jungle could have prepared him for this. He can't even hear himself over the music, but Cora's giving him a big smug smile, and she probably heard the awe in his voice just fine.
She leans over so she can shout in his ear, "You get ten minutes to take it all in, and then we're dancing."
It doesn't even matter that Stiles can't dance, because hell yes, he wants to do that. He laughs as he watches the crowd of people already on the floor, and not all of them can dance well either, but man they look like they're having fun anyway. There are couples, too, bumping and grinding and practically engaging in foreplay, and while there are a lot of straight couples, some of them are gay, too, and wow, there's even a threesomes he can spot.
"This is freaking insane," he says, and he loves it. This is exactly what he needed. An escape, a complete and total escape, somewhere no one would ever expect him to be.
When Cora finally does tug him up to dance, exactly ten minutes later as promised, Stiles ends up practically dragging her to the middle of the floor. She laughs at him, rolling her eyes, but then she's got her hands on his body, showing him how to move to the music without looking like a total moron.
Stiles thinks it's really a shame that he and Cora aren't each other's type, because this is the most fun he's had in years, and Cora laughing and carefree the way she is right now is one of the best things ever. Stiles doesn't quite know how he got lucky enough to call her a friend, but goddamn is he glad for it.
The music's heavy base thrums through him as they dance, and Stiles loses himself in it. He dances with random strangers almost as much as he dances with Cora, until he's sweating and all but shaking with exhaustion and the need to get off his feet for a few minutes. Cora takes pity on him, giving a smile to the girl she's been dancing on and off with since they arrived (petite, dark skin, long curls of platinum blond hair) and gripping his hand to lead him back to the marginally quieter corner they started off in.
Halfway there she stiffens, her hand suddenly squeezing Stiles' so hard he's surprised her claws aren't on display. She changes course abruptly and drags him around a different corner and down a short hall into the women's bathroom.
Stiles doesn't even have time to appreciate the fact that he's never been brave enough to enter a bathroom at all on these excursions, let alone a women's one, before she's saying, "Shit, shit, I'm so fucking sorry, he's not supposed to be here, he's supposed to be camping, damn it, shit, shit."
He tries to parse that. Unfortunately, it doesn't take him long. "Derek's here?" he whispers. In the mirror in his peripheral vision, he thinks he can actually see the way his eyes go shocked and round.
The other two girls in the bathroom, washing up at the sink, glance at each other and make a hasty getaway, clearly wanting out of whatever drama is playing out here.
"Stiles, I swear, I didn't set this up, but there's no way we can sneak out without him noticing." Cora looks genuinely distressed now, eyes flashing gold as she spins away to pace. "There's a back door, but it'll trigger the fire alarm, and he'll still –"
"Cora," Stiles says, stilling her by grasping her arm as she tries to stalk past him. "It's okay." He shrugs, trying to play it off even though every single organ inside him feels like it's seized up and he's suddenly trembling. "I mean, he lives here. One way or another, it was gonna happen eventually. My luck is not that good."
Cora still looks upset, even more than he is, and she tries to resist when Stiles pulls her into a hug, but eventually she sighs and gives in. "Sorry," she mutters into his shoulder. "This was supposed to be a fun night."
"It was," he assures her. "Still is. It'll probably be fine. Maybe." Hopefully.
She continues muttering about her 'stupid big brother' as they leave the bathroom and make their way towards the front door, and even when Stiles can't hear her anymore, it makes him grin, makes the terror a little more easier to deal with.
Except then Derek is suddenly there, looming in front of him, all six-foot-two-inches of muscles and stubble and eyebrows of him. He's wearing a black t-shirt that's easily a size too small, with the club's logo in the corner, because of course he's a bouncer here. Of course he is.
Well, that explains how Cora was able to get them in so easily, anyway.
Stiles swallows hard. "Hey there, big guy," he says, knowing Derek will hear him. Cora hovers at his side, looking back and forth between them, and Stiles notices that her glares toward Derek are particularly acidic.
Protective Cora is awesome, and Stiles is glad to have her in his corner right now, but… "Can you give me a couple minutes here?" he shouts. "I'll meet you at the car."
She stares at him for a good thirty seconds before finally nodding once, glaring hard at her brother one more time, and stalking away past the other bouncer and into the warm night air.
Derek doesn't seem inclined to speak for a long moment, and then he leans towards the other bouncer and says something in his ear. The other dude glances at Stiles, then back to Derek and nods. Derek doesn't even give Stiles the courtesy of a single word before he's grabbing him by his shoulder (And oh, wow, Stiles' heart was not expecting that, judging by the way it gives a couple hard thumps in his chest at the unexpected warmth of Derek's hand where his fingers brush Stiles' neck.) and steering him outside and around the building to where his Camaro is rather conspicuously parked in the employee lot.
Stiles didn't even know Derek still had the Camaro. He gives it an appreciative pat as he walks up to it and pretends not to notice Derek rolling his eyes.
"Stiles," Derek says. Stiles' memory has not done justice to his voice at all, even if it's only been nine months since Derek left town. It spills over him now like warm honey, and Stiles doesn't care how much of a cliché that is, it's true.
"Derek," he says back. Then, trying not to fidget, "Fancy meeting you here."
Derek is watching him with his arms crossed over his ridiculous chest and what looks like the beginnings of a smile curling one corner of his mouth. Shame, hot and sudden, burns through Stiles' gut when he remembers what he looks like right now.
Except then Derek says, quietly, "It's really good to see you."
Stiles blinks. Stares. "It. You. What?"
Derek continues like Stiles' whole worldview isn't unraveling before his eyes. "I knew Cora was meeting up with you, but I figured if you wanted to see me, you'd have passed a message along. I wasn't going to push. But, it's good to see you. Scott texted me about the Nemeton a few weeks after we left. I've been worried, but…"
Faintly, Stiles manages to say, "We've been okay. I don't blame you for wanting to stay away. Um…"
Derek takes a step closer. "Look, I don't want to stand here and make assumptions, so tell me if I'm out of line. But. Is this why…when I saw you in the hospital after…everything, I thought…and then you pushed me away before I even…I don't…is this why?"
Stiles runs a hand over his face, uncaring about the makeup he's undoubtedly smearing everywhere. When he laughs, it comes out choked and sounding more like a sob. He can't even look at Derek. "Does it matter?" The answer is yes, but he can't even explain it to himself, let alone Derek. At the time, he'd thought he'd be hiding who he was forever, hadn't let himself even imagine allowing it to come out. He'd thought there'd be more time, that maybe eventually he'd be comfortable in himself and his body and then maybe…
But then Derek had been gone, and it hadn't mattered anyway.
"It matters to me," Derek says, his voice low and quiet, contrasting harshly with the loud bass Stiles can still hear pumping through the walls of the club.
"Yes, okay?" Stiles finally yells, throwing his hands up. "Yes. I stopped any kiss that might have happened because eventually you'd find out I was a freak, and I couldn't take that. I pictured the look on your face, and I just couldn't deal." His eyes are burning, but Stiles stubbornly clings to whatever shreds of dignity he still has by refusing to cry.
"Who told you you were a freak?" Derek demands. Stiles blinks, still staring at the ground, because there was some definite growl going on there, which means Derek is pissed.
"No one?" he says, chancing a look up. Derek's staring at him with clenched fists and eyes that are flickering blue. "I mean, no one really knows, except Cora and Lydia. But if they did…"
"You're not," Derek says, the intensity of his staring ratcheting up a couple notches, like he's trying to drill the words into Stiles' brain through sheer force of will. "You're not a freak, and anyone who says differently is a fucking moron."
Stiles isn't sure what's happening here, but it seems like this is the second Hale who's gone all protective on him, and Stiles…did not expect that. At all.
"Shit," Derek says, all the fight leaving him at once, his shoulders slumping visibly. "Look, I don't… Laura and I, we were in New York for a long time. Saw a lot of things, met a lot of people. Even if our parents hadn't been big on acceptance and tolerance – and believe me, they were – I learned a lot while we were there. I'm the last person who's going to judge you, Stiles."
"Okay…" Stiles says slowly. "That's…great. Awesome, actually, and I mean that. But that doesn't mean you'd want…"
Derek shakes his head. "I don't know what I want, if I even want anything. I shouldn't have started making a move in Beacon Hills, as messed up as my head was. You were right to stop it, even if your reasons were all wrong." Stiles is trying to lecture his stupid heart for drooping, and then Derek says, "Right now, I'd really like if we could be friends."
They were friends in Beacon Hills, even if they'd never used that word. Between the summer Stiles secretly spent trying to help find Erica and Boyd, and everything that went down after, with the Alpha Pack and the Darrach, he knows they were friends, and moving towards more before…
Anyway. He wouldn't mind trying to get that back. Preferably without all the pain and anger and running for their lives this time.
Also, Derek deserves some sort of reward for all the words he just used to express actual feelings, holy shit. Stiles knows that's never been an easy thing for him, and this was kind of above and beyond. Maybe getting away from Beacon Hills really was the best thing for him.
"That sounds good," he says softly, tentatively. "Um…are we supposed to hug now, or something?"
Derek's lips quirk again, and then he's stepping forward and enfolding Stiles in the best hug ever, warm and hard and smelling of forest and the spicy aftershave Derek likes. All at once, Stiles stops trembling. Despite everything, his mind and his heart still equate Derek with a sense of safety he can't shake. "I've missed the pack," Derek says, pressing the words into Stiles' neck.
Stiles may have the self-esteem of a flea ninety-nine perfect of the time, but he's pretty sure the words Derek wanted to say there were I've missed you, and it makes his heart skip and roll over in his chest, something Derek can undoubtedly hear clear as day.
"The pack's missed you too," he settles as a response, even though he has no idea if it's true for the rest of the pack, and even though he's pretty sure Derek hears exactly what he really means.
But they each have their own room, and the living area and kitchen are nice and big, and there are huge windows along one wall that look out over the town and somehow don't feel nearly as intimidating as the ones in the loft had. There's also a noticeable lack of holes in the walls. So it's definitely a step up.
Cora flops onto the couch, immediately sprawling herself over the whole thing and leaving Stiles to curl up in the easy chair next to it. Both are soft and comfortable and Stiles feels himself sinking into the cushions in a way that's going to make it difficult to pull himself up again later.
"So," Cora says. "I guess I should admit that I spied on you guys."
"I figured," Stiles says, because he had.
"I stopped once you were hugging it out and I could be reasonably sure I wasn't going to have to beat him up."
Stiles has no doubt she totally would have beat Derek up to defend his honor. It makes him smile at her a little helplessly. "Thanks," he says.
She shrugs, not looking at all uncomfortable about her overprotective tendencies. "You still took a while after that. What else did you guys talk about?" At least, Stiles thinks resignedly, she's entirely shameless about her nosiness.
"He, um." He rubs at the back of his neck, fighting a blush. "He asked me what pronouns I prefer."
"Damn it!" Cora bursts. Stiles stares at her, startled, and she flushes. "I meant to ask you that, when you seemed more okay about all of it. He beat me to it."
"Oh." Stiles blinks at her, processing that. He never thought anyone would care to ask. Never really thought about it period. He'd come across the topic during his research binge years ago and ignored it because it didn't matter. "Well, if it makes you feel better, I didn't have much of an answer."
She tilts her head, considering him. "Okay," she finally says, and of course, that just makes Stiles want to elaborate.
"I mean, at home, I still have to be him, y'know? I can't…I don't know if I'll ever be ready…" He clears his throat. "So I still force myself to think that way, because if I let myself think otherwise, even if I feel like her, then I'll slip. I'm not…I'm a really bad liar, to be honest. The only reason this has worked is because I don't allow myself to go there in my head. Even when I'm here, like this –" he gestures at himself, the whole clubbing ensemble, the skirt and the shoes and the blouse and the everything, "– I try not to think about it too hard, because the second I'm home, this will go away and I'll have to pretend again." He swallows, because that's the most he's ever said about it out loud, and putting words to it just makes it suck that much harder.
"This was never supposed to happen, you know," he continues, quietly now, hugging himself and staring at the ground. "I thought maybe I could keep ignoring it and things would get better. But then Lydia found out, and you don't argue with Lydia Martin, right? But I'm still scared, like, ninety percent of the time. Even when I'm here and I'm so freaking happy I could explode from it, I'm still scared."
"Hiding forever wouldn't have made things better for you," Cora tells him. "Hiding part of yourself, any part, doesn't mean it doesn't exist, and it doesn't make it go away, and it never gets easier to have to hide."
Stiles never considered that maybe a born werewolf might know something about it. He glances up at her unhappily. "Never?"
"Never," she says firmly, although then her eyes soften and she adds, "Sorry to be the bearer of bad news."
"Not your fault," Stiles sighs. "And I mean, I've let it get this far." He sweeps a hand down to encompass everything from his face to his clothes to his shoes. "I'm going to have to deal with that eventually, even back home. One way or another."
"You are who you are," Cora tells him. She sounds a little bit fierce, but that's nothing new with Cora. "There's nothing wrong with that, or you. So whether you take baby steps into this or huge flying leaps, you better let us help, got it?"
Stiles nods, even manages to dredge up a small smile. "Got it."
When he comes into the living room, Derek's eyes gleam very gently blue in the gloom. When he notices Stiles is awake, he flips on a small lamp and sits down on the arm of the couch. "You all right?" he asks, softly enough that Stiles doubts he'll wake his sister, which is probably the point.
"Yeah," Stiles says, struggling out of his blanket cocoon so he can sit up. He's wearing his pajamas now, soft cotton pants with a flower print and a pale pink t-shirt. He notices Derek's gaze taking them in, but his expression doesn't so much as flicker. Well, given what he'd seen Stiles wearing earlier, this is probably significantly less shocking. "Just can't sleep. Too much going on up here." Stiles raps his knuckles against his temple.
Derek nods. "I guess that's understandable. Want to talk about it?"
They used to talk, at least as much as Derek ever really talked. Stiles remembers the days spent curled up on the awful couch in Derek's loft, ignoring his summer reading while they stared at maps and diagrams, any clues they could find about Erica and Boyd. They'd talked about a lot of stupid, inconsequential things, movies and books and music, stuff like that. Anything to take their minds off what was coming. Scott was wrapped up in his own life, trying to make things better with summer school and his mom, and Stiles had found a lot of solace in Derek's company.
Of course, now that they could maybe start building that up again, the way he'd wanted to before Derek left but hadn't known how, he can't think of a single word to say. He shrugs instead.
Derek watches him for a moment. "Is your not sleeping my fault?" he eventually asks, making Stiles jump.
"What? No! Why would –"
"I saw how much it bothered you, when I asked what I did and you didn't know how to answer." Derek frowns down at the couch. "I'm sorry, Stiles. I shouldn't have –"
"No, come on, it was really cool of you to ask," Stiles sighs. "It's just me being dumb. And scared." He draws his knees up to his chest and rests his chin on them. "How come I can face down all kinds of creatures of the night without batting an eye, and this is the thing that freaks me out?"
Derek leans closer, wrapping an arm around Stiles and drawing him in close. "Because you're human, despite all the company you keep." He tightens his hold, and in spite of himself, Stiles cuddles in closer.
"I hate feeling this way," Stiles says unhappily. "So many people are way worse than I am. I know – at least, I think – it would be okay for me. I mean, the people I care most about their opinions wouldn't, like, disown me or anything. I just." He swallows. "I think about the look on my dad's face. On Scott's, or his mom's, even Allison's. Disappointment, or disbelief. Disgust, before they remembered to hide it." He doesn't care much about Isaac or the twins. They're all pack, but they're not friends, not yet. "Scott's been my best friend since we were little kids, and my dad…I'm all he has. Melissa's like a second mom." He squeezes his eyes shut when he feels the burn of tears he doesn't want Derek to see. "I hate the idea of them looking at me and not being able to see past…me."
Derek hesitates. "Are they really seeing you now, when you've had to hide such a big part of yourself from them? How is it any better like this?"
Stiles hates that he's right. These are all the same things that have been going through his head for days now. Weeks. Hell, his whole freaking life, if he's gonna suck it up and admit it to himself.
He's not ready yet, but maybe he should start trying to be, instead of fighting it at almost every turn.
They're quiet for a while after that, Derek seeming to realize that Stiles needs time to process and think and decide for himself. Eventually, Stiles realizes that he's exhausted, maybe even tired enough to sleep.
First, though… "Hey Derek?" Stiles fidgets, before he finally turns just enough so he can look up at Derek. "Thanks for being so cool about…everything. Me."
"That's not something you need to thank me for," Derek replies. There's a faint spark of blue behind his eyes, the wolf showing through just a bit, the way it always does when Derek wants to punctuate and underline his words as distinctly as possible. "Not ever."
After that, Stiles has a hard time pulling himself from the safety of Derek's hold. Eventually, he falls asleep just like that, and doesn't even stir when Cora comes out, blinking sleepily, and pulls a blanket over both of them.
Scott notices, because of course he does, but he doesn't ask. Instead, he shoots Stiles worried little glances while they play video games that Stiles keeps losing because his mind is barely on the screen in front of him.
"Allison is having nightmares again," Scott says after Stiles has perished on-screen for the dozenth time and they've finally given up on the Xbox.
It's maybe the one thing that could have drawn Stiles away from everything else currently being overanalyzed in his brain, and Scott probably knows that, damn him. "When did that start?" Stiles asked, trying not to feel angry that neither of them had told him sooner. It's not like he told them, either.
"A week or two."
Which…almost definitely isn't a coincidence. Stiles was chalking his nightmares up to the stress from everything else going on in his life, but maybe it's something more nefarious.
It's Beacon Hills, so nefarious isn't exactly surprising.
"Not you, though?" Stiles checks, eyeballing Scott.
"No." Scott shuffles his foot a little. "But I haven't been sleeping much anyway. Insomnia. Or I thought it was. Alpha stress, or something."
Coming from a dude who can sleep like the dead through just about anything normally, Stiles isn't buying it. "Think the Nemeton is trying to warn us about something?"
Scott sighs. It's answer enough.
But after he leaves, even when Stiles tries to set his mind to the task of figuring out what could be coming, instead his thoughts circle right back to Derek and questions and things he's always been too scared to contemplate before.
He doesn't have the brain power to be worrying about all this shit. And damn it, if he's going to be afraid of something, it should be the something in the dark that actually wants to kill him, not the nameless, shapeless dark of his own making locked inside himself.
He pulls out his phone with shaking hands. It's not the first text he's sent to the number he pulls up, but it might be the most important, at least on a personal level. He can't help hoping he gets a response this time. Any response.
Finally decided, he types out slowly. He needs to retype it a couple times because he keeps missing letters. Feminine. He hits 'send' before he can chicken out, and jumps when he gets an almost instantaneous response.
He stares down at it. That's it? That's all he gets? He just made a literally life-changing decision that is undoubtedly going to lead to all kinds of angst and horribleness, and all he gets is okay?
But then the phone chimes again, and he huffs out a breath as he glares down at the screen before opening it.
I'm here if you need me. Even just to talk.
Oh. Well. That's…that's definitely better than okay. He types back, trying to ignore the way his heart is threatening to burst out of his chest and his breath is trembling in his lungs, Thanks, Derek.
Case in point: when he – she, damn it – thinks of himself – herself –, she needs to constantly remind herself that she's allowed to think using the feminine pronouns she told Derek (and by extension, Cora) to use.
It's not easy to break several years of training and habit, but you better goddamn believe that he – she, for the love of god! – tries her hardest.
Stiles doesn't do things by halves…never has and never will. Hence those years of training, of forcing herself to really believe she was male and 'normal' and everything everyone expected her to be. Now, she throws herself into the opposite with the same reckless abandon, at least in her own mind, and she starts coming to terms with the fact that she's going to have to tell the people closest to her sooner rather than later.
The dam has broken, and after this, there won't be any chance of rebuilding it. And to be honest, she doesn't want to, no matter what happens.
Lydia notices the change, but even if she hadn't, Stiles makes it as clear as she can when she tells Lydia outright, "So, I'm using feminine pronouns from now on." She's proud when the words don't get caught and strangled in her throat. "I mean, at least as much as I can." Meaning people who are in the know, or people who simply don't know her at all.
No way to misinterpret that, and Lydia only smiles her usual (slightly predatory) smile as she helps Stiles pin her hair back and says, "That's my girl."
At the Hales' apartment later that same day, Stiles curls up in Derek and Cora's living room and tells them the latest news from Beacon Hills, which is annoyingly sparse considering they all know something is coming, but no one knows what yet.
They don't talk about the epic change she's making to her life, but then, they don't need to.
For the day, at least, she's comfortable and content, even happy, and that's enough for her.
"Sure, I'm fine." Stiles shrugs a little. "I mean, horrifying nightmares aside. Why, do I not seem it?"
"No, you do," Scott says, frowning at him – her, that's still hard, especially when she's around Scott or her dad – like she's a puzzle. She guesses that's not too far off the mark. "That's kinda what I don't get? Last time, you were…things were…"
"Bad." She remembers. She tries not to, but she remembers. "I know. But look, I'm okay. Things sort of suck, and yeah, I mean, I'm a little more panicky than I'd like to be, but I'm okay, Scott. You don't need to worry about me, not like then."
Scott sighs. "I'm glad, I just." He picks at a piece of Stiles' bedsheet, suddenly looking far more like the earnest best friend she grew up with and less like the capable Alpha he's become. "I feel like we don't talk anymore, y'know? Like. I see you almost every day. But I don't know what's going on in your life. Why you're so okay. What's keeping you together this time, Stiles? Why is it so different? Me and Allison are both doing worse, she's barely holding it together and I haven't slept at all in weeks and…" He cringes. "Geez, it sounds like I want you to be suffering, and I don't, I swear, I just. I miss you, and you're right here, and I don't get it."
Scott's eyes are wide and actually glistening, and Jesus fucking Christ, Stiles is the worst. "Scott, buddy, come on, it's just…this has been a weird summer, and I've been getting away more, and, you know, the Nemeton loses potency away from Beacon Hills, so –"
"I know you've been seeing Derek and Cora," Scott mumbles, and the whole train of Stiles' thoughts grinds to a screeching halt.
Scott's lips twitch, just a fraction, and he glances up at Stiles with a raised eyebrow. "Come on, Stiles. You shower pretty well when you come home, but I'm an Alpha now. Not much gets by me these days. I wasn't trying to spy on you or anything, but." He shrugs, looking away again.
"You were waiting for me to talk to you about it," Stiles realizes. "Aww, damn it, Scott, you think that's why I've been all…" She waves a hand. "I mean, maybe partly, it is really good seeing them again, but that's not –" She stops herself, realizing that she's taking this perfect excuse for her odd, out-of-character peace of mind lately and destroying it.
Then she realizes she doesn't care. "Man, I talk a hell of a lot, but you're right, huh? I really haven't been saying much at all lately."
Scott's gaze meets hers again, and she'd have to be blind not to see the flicker of hope there in those big dark eyes.
"So," she says, taking a huge breath that stabs deep in her lungs and makes her a little bit dizzy. She releases it slowly, locking her knees so she won't start fidgeting or spinning around in the computer chair. "Scott. What do you know about trans people?"
Scott blinks, clearly confused by the abrupt and unexpected change of subject. "Uh. Well, not much? I mean, I remember Trish. TJ."
TJ, who was Trish first, who left BHHS in the middle of freshman year, after he cut his hair and changed his clothes and started T and got beat half to death behind the movie theater. Yeah, Stiles remembers TJ, too.
"But, um," Scott continues hesitantly. "Actual knowledge? Not. Not much." His eyes go really wide all of a sudden. "Wait, is Derek –"
"No," Stiles cuts in with a choked laugh that sputters and dies in her chest too quickly.
"Cora?" Scott tries, but it's clear he already knows, and Stiles fixes him with a look. "Not Cora. So…"
"So," Stiles sighs. She feels something give way in her chest, some weight she hadn't even realized was there. It allows her to draw in another deep breath, and this one doesn't hurt quite as much. "I needed an escape, I guess. Someplace I could just be…me. I didn't plan on running into the Hales, believe me." She chokes out another laugh that sounds more painful than it should. "But they were…they've been pretty great."
Scott's staring at a spot somewhere over Stiles' left shoulder, but not in a way like he's avoiding her gaze, more like he's very deep in thought. "Am I the first person you've told? Besides them, I mean?"
"Lydia knows," Stiles admits quietly, hoping Scott doesn't see it as a sort of betrayal. Lydia's one of her closest friends now, but she's no Scott, and Stiles hates the idea that Scott might see it as Stiles trying to replace him.
Scott, however, only nods. "That makes sense. I bet the idea of…letting loose. That was at least partly her, huh?"
Stiles snorts. "I've never been the brave one."
"Bullshit," Scott suddenly snaps, his eyes whipping back to Stiles', and are those claws digging into the mattress now? "That's such bullshit, oh my god. You're the bravest person I know, you stupid –" He cuts himself off with an inarticulate growl that has things rattling on the shelves behind him, and Stiles watches, wide-eyed and gripping the armrests on his chair with knuckles gone white, as he forces himself to calm down. "You're really dumb, Stiles," Scott tells him after a few long, tense moments. He carefully extracts his claws from Stiles bedding, wincing at the damage. "Crap."
"Don't worry about the stupid bedding," Stiles says. Her voice comes out hoarse. "I mean, you get what I'm telling you, right? I'm a girl, Scott, maybe not physically, but in all the ways that matter, I'm a girl and I've been lying to you about it for years, and –"
"Shut up," Scott demands, and launches himself across the room to tackle Stiles and hug every scrap of air out of him.
Stiles can't breathe, but she doesn't care, she holds on as tightly as she can to her best friend, her eyes squeezed shut against the onslaught of tears she can feel building in her throat.
"You still like video games, right?" Scott asks, the words muffled by Stiles' shoulder. "And comic books? And World of Warcraft?"
Stiles nods because she can't form words, has no breath to speak them even if she could.
"Then you're still the same stupid person I've known forever, and that's all I care about." Scott extracts himself from the hug slowly, and then, when he's standing again, he reaches out and whacks Stiles soundly upside the head. When Stiles sputters at him, he glares. "You know exactly what that was for. Dumbass."
Stiles gapes. Freaking werewolves.
But then they're hugging again, and it's hard to really care.
"Cora got an emergency call from Wyoming," he says. "She isn't sure when she'll be back, but it probably won't be before Wednesday."
"Nothing too serious?" Stiles checks. She's been practicing with her vocal register when she can, but concern ratchets it down to its usual decibel. Wyoming, he knows, is where Cora lived with the pack who took her in after the fire. Even though she's decided to stay with her brother now, it's pretty clear she still has close ties to the werewolves there.
"One of the kids is pretty sick. They think he'll pull through fine, but he's been miserable and begging for Cora." Derek eyes Stiles' backpack, looking unsure. "I know you were planning on her being here. If you don't want to stay…I didn't want to assume…"
Stiles snorts, tossing her bag down to the space between the couch and the lamp, where it will be out of the way. The bangly bracelets on her wrist jingle as she shakes her shoulder out, wondering what the hell Lydia packed in there. She's a little afraid to look. "Save it, big guy. You're stuck with me."
Derek doesn't look too upset by this. "Fine. Then you get to make dinner tonight," he tells her with a smirk.
Because Stiles has been forced to endure Derek's so-called 'cooking', and because she knows her way around a kitchen thanks to years of trying to take care of her dad, she accepts this with more grace than she otherwise might have. Really, there's only minimal grumbling.
"You better be taking me out for pancakes in the morning." She eyes him. "The ones with chocolate chips."
"Deal," he says, and bargain struck, they settle onto the couch to watch Saturday morning cartoons, since Cora's not around to yell at them for it.
"I can't believe I never pegged you for an artsy type," Stiles muses, enjoying this unexpected thing immensely. Derek actually blushes, the tips of his ears and the tops of his cheeks going red, and she laughs, completely delighted. "No, but, seriously! How come I didn't know this?"
Derek sighs. "I was in art school in New York," he admits, crossing his arms like that will save him from further embarrassment. "I was kind of…in high school, I played basketball and slacked off on my homework –"
"Yeah, total jock, I know the type," Stiles cuts in, enjoying Derek's glare.
He continues like she hadn't said a word. "After…after the fire, Laura...I didn't like much of anything from our old life, so she pushed me to find enjoyment in new things. Art was the one that stuck. Started with photography and it just sort of evolved from there."
"Oh…" Stiles says, suddenly feeling bad for her laughter, even though she wasn't laughing at Derek, not really. But she never hears much about his past, about Laura or his life before returning to Beacon Hills. To be trusted with it now feels like a gift. "Um. What's your favorite type of art?"
He stares at the piece in front of them, a canvas splashed with inky black and deep red and chilling blue, simply called Torment. "Painting," he finally says, and it's only as he's walking away that she notices the name on the little silver plaque beneath it: D. Hale.
Immediately after he leaves, she lunges for her laptop and brings up Google.
A quick search yields a veritable goldmine of information.
D. Hale, an up-and-coming artist in New York before he went off-grid a year and a half ago. Before that, his work was being featured in several small gallery shows (and even one big gallery show), and people were taking notice. It was hard to make a name for yourself as an artist in a big city like New York, but Derek had a pretty decent foothold before Beacon Hills reclaimed him.
It's a shame, because from what Stiles can see of his work, it's really something. Not that Stiles knows a damn thing about art, but there's something in Derek's that calls to her anyway, and isn't that what the point of art is? To evoke feelings?
If so, Derek had that covered for sure. Some of his earliest sold paintings were clearly inspired by flame and ash and darkness, and a few have Stiles blinking back real tears.
She hopes it was a form of therapy for younger Derek, and not just a way of torturing himself. She doesn't think she'll ever have the guts to ask him.
There's no record of what happened to D. Hale after he left New York, but the gallery today was a clear indication that he's returning to the art world. It's a good thing, something that makes Stiles smile, and another reason she decides that it's good he left Beacon Hills. Back home, she doubts that he so much as looked at a paintbrush, in between finding Laura's body and starting a new pack and running for his life every other day.
Who are you, Derek Hale? Stiles wonders, staring at a picture of a gorgeous piece that reminds her of a waterfall, with colors comprised solely of vibrant blues and greens.
It's becoming clear to her that what she knows of the man is really very little. And she desperately wants to know more.
She wants to know everything.
Derek showed her where to find the spare key if she needed to go out for any reason, so she grabs that and stuffs it into her handbag.
She's dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, but she decides that an evening spent hanging around the town warrants a more Lydia-or-Allison-esque outfit, so she swaps her comfortable clothes for a short-but-not-too-short black dress with red flowers, belted around the waist, black tights, and ankle boots. She still blushes bright red whenever she puts on the special bra Lydia bought her, the one that makes it genuinely look like she has breasts, but she still does it because no way will the dress work without it. Clipping her hair the right way still takes her a lot longer than it takes Lydia, but she manages it fairly well, especially now that it's starting to get even longer. Soon she's going to have to decide how she wants to cut it, but that's a worry for another time.
She likes her bangly bracelets, so she leaves those, and aside from some lip gloss, she doesn't bother with make-up.
In spite of all the prep, she doesn't even realize she's headed for the club until she's already standing in front of it and blinking at the line. But upon reflection, she realizes that, yes, this is exactly what she needs right now. Losing herself in a large crowd, in a place filled with loud noise and dancing.
The line is long, but not unreasonably so. She makes her way over, surprised when she catches the eye of the guy manning the door and he beckons her over.
"Hi?" she says when she reaches him, glad that she remembered to make her voice a little softer, a little breathier at the last moment.
"Hey, you're D's sister's friend, yeah?" the guy asks, looking her over. Stiles vaguely recognizes him from her first trip here with Cora, and she grins and nods.
He lets her in without another word, doesn't even check her ID (which is good because while she thinks it's more decent than her last one, she's not sure it'll withstand too much scrutiny).
The inside of the club is just like she remembers from weeks ago. She isn't sure if she's disappointed or relieved when she can't immediately spot Derek, but then the dance floor is beckoning her and it doesn't matter so much.
Stiles is still by no means the greatest dancer, but she remembers some of what Cora showed her, and it's easy to lose herself again in the loud bass and the shifting bodies. She's not on her own for long, and she dances with both guys and girls for as long as she can stand. One guy presses too close, lets his hands accidentally brush things they shouldn't, but before she can punch him in the face or knee him in the balls, his eyebrow lifts, and he's grinning at her in a way that somehow puts her at ease. She dances with him through two more songs, and his hands don't take liberties again. When he leaves her to go get a drink from the bar, they part with friendly waves, and he blows her a kiss. It's weird and fun and cool, and in a weird sort of ecstasy state she spins wildly in search of another partner.
She has no idea how long she's been at the club by the time Derek finds her. Some part of Stiles must have expected him to, because she feels no surprise when he's suddenly standing in front of her in all his smoldering glory.
"Aren't you supposed to be working?" she shouts, though not half as loud as she would need to if he were human.
His eyebrows are doing something complicated, like he wants to frown but he's too exasperated with her to even manage that. He leans forward to growl, "I'm on break" into her ear. She tries not to shiver at the way his breath warms her skin, but she doubts she succeeds.
"Good," Stiles decides. "Then dance with me!"
She doesn't give him a choice. She reaches out for his hands before he can draw away, placing them on her hips and stepping in close. The song is as loud as all the rest, but there's a melodious undercurrent, nearly hidden by the bass, and she sways to it, wrapping her arms around Derek's neck and grinning at him.
"You're a goddamn menace, Stiles Stilinski," Derek tells her, but he doesn't pull back. In fact, his grip seems to tighten, and while whatever he's doing definitely couldn't be called dancing, he's at least moving with her.
Her grin widens. "You love it, Hale."
Derek doesn't bother to contradict her.
She flops down onto Cora's bed because Cora had texted her permission for Stiles to steal it while she was away, and then she lays there staring at the ceiling for a long time.
Falling asleep happens all at once and entirely by accident, before Stiles can even bother getting changed or showering or brushing her teeth. She'll regret it in the morning, but in that moment, she's already being pulled into dreams of dark hair and green eyes and prickly stubble and a warm body holding her close and safe.
She stares down at her plate for a long moment, during which she can feel Derek tensed up and fidgeting behind her at the stove. "Dude," she finally says. "Dude."
"You made me wolf pancakes?" She spins around in her chair to stare at him. "You are awesome!"
So saying, she digs in with gusto, pouring liberal amounts of maple syrup over everything. A few minutes later, he takes a seat across from her and starts in on his own meal.
They don't talk about anything for a while. They especially don't talk about last night at the club.
Eventually, Stiles clears her plate and starts cleaning up the pans and dishes in the sink. Derek joins her without a word, grabbing a hand towel to start drying, and it feels weirdly not weird, standing side by side and doing something so ridiculously domestic.
"My dad taught us how to make pancakes that way," Derek says when they're finishing up. He's staring hard down at the cup in his hands while he dries it. "Well, he taught Laura. Laura taught me after."
Stiles inches closer, nudging her shoulder against his. "Thanks for sharing them with me," she says quietly.
He glances over, catches her eyes almost like an accident, and then seems to be trapped in them. She knows the feeling. "It's good to have someone to share them with."
She hadn't factored in how much it would change things that her own frame of mind had altered so much in the last few months. It grates, more than it ever has, when a teacher calls on her with "Mr. Stilinski?" Or when Coach tells Greenberg, "You're partnered with Stilinski, maybe he can drill some common-sense into that Cro-Magnon skull of yours." Or, Christ, dealing with the boys' locker room.
Scott is watching her with a worried crease between his brows while Stiles gets changed as hurriedly as she can. "You okay?" he asks, sounding hesitant.
Stiles isn't okay. She's freaking the fuck out and she has no idea why. Not trusting herself to say that out loud, she shakes her head rapidly and pulls her gym shirt over her head.
She isn't going to have a panic attack over this shit. She's not.
Her body, it seems, is not inclined to listen to her.
Scott, even though he's never seen her have a full-fledged panic attack, somehow recognizes the signs easily enough. He takes her arm, carefully leading her over to a somewhat secluded corner, where he sits her on a bench and presses his phone into her trembling hands. "Call someone," he tells her. "I'll keep Coach occupied."
He still looks worried as Coach starts yelling for them and he dashes away, but Stiles can't find it in herself to reassure him. Just remembering how to keep drawing breaths is hard enough.
"Where's Stilinski?" she hears Coach yell. "He better get his butt out here if he wants any chance at making first line this year!" Scott is already saying something, trying to distract Coach from her absence, but the words still ring oddly in her ears, making her dizzy.
She could call Lydia or Cora, probably, and they might make more sense in the circumstances, but then her fingers are already shakily pressing in Derek's number.
"Scott?" Derek answers, sounding tense and gruff and oh, God, is she crying? She reaches a hand up and feels a definite wetness on her cheeks.
"Not Scott," she tries to say past the block in her throat.
"Stiles." Derek sighs her name. Even through the fog in her brain, she thinks she can hear a new note enter his tone. "Are you okay?"
"Um." Think, Stiles. Breathe. "I'm…no. Not…not really. I mean, no monsters or anything. Just."
"Breathe, Stiles," Derek says, echoing her own thoughts.
"I…I can't," she forces out, trying to gulp in a harsh breath.
"You can. You're okay," Derek tells her, even though he doesn't know that, can't know that. "You're okay, you just need to breathe. Listen to me, okay?" He breathes in and out, loudly enough for her to hear over the connection. In and out, slowly. In and out. She fights to match her breathing to his. In and out.
The fog clears a little, and the ringing in her ears dulls, and then disappears entirely. The hand not holding onto the phone for dear life is clenched white-knuckled on the bench next to her. She breathes. "I'm okay," she says in a very small voice.
"You are," Derek agrees, and him saying it makes it feel more true than her telling herself the same thing. "You don't have to, but do you want to talk about it?"
Derek Hale, telling her to use more words instead of less. Clearly, Hell must have frozen over when she wasn't paying attention.
"Just. School. Kind of harder to deal with than I thought it would be." She swallows hard, squeezing her eyes shut. Outside, she can hear the team start their drills. She wonders if maybe it's time to quit lacrosse. "Why is it so hard?" she whispers.
"Stiles," Derek says, and it sounds like he wishes he could be there, comforting her, but more likely it's just her overactive imagination. Wishful thinking and all that.
"I'm sorry I bothered you," she says. "You're probably busy. Painting, or something."
"I'm never too busy for you," he tells her, too solemn. "Whether you need me or not."
Damn it, why does he have to be so…so… "I should…" She forces herself to speak. "I should go. Practice is –"
"I mean it, Stiles."
She pauses, inhaling deeply, exhaling slowly, her eyes closed again, but this time trying to make the moment last, not close herself off from it. "I know."
"It'll get easier," he says then. "You're the strongest person I know. You can handle this."
Stiles snorts. "On top of everything else?"
"Yes." Derek's tone is downright fierce, brooking no arguments.
She sighs. "I really do have to go. I think I'm quitting lacrosse. Maybe I'll join track instead? That's a pretty gender-neutral sport, right? And I totally have practice at running. Usually for my life, but whatever."
"You're starting to babble, so you must be okay," Derek says in the pause while she takes a breath. She can hear his smirk. It should infuriate her, but it really doesn't. "You go do what you have to. You know where to find me."
"I do," she says, nodding even though he can't see her. Before she hangs up, she grips the phone a little tighter and closes her eyes again. Pretending that he's next to her, grounding her. "Thanks, Derek."
"Anytime." He stays on the line for a moment longer, his breath in her ear almost as good as if he were beside her, and then the phone clicks off and she's alone again.
But she got what she needed. She feels stronger.
She can get through this.
Besides, it's not like she gets off the bench ninety percent of the time anyway. She might have had a shot once, after she proved herself on the field the night Jackson…
But there's been a lot of shit since then, and supernatural problems (not to mention feeling like you're losing your mind) sort of take precedence over lacrosse, so she was back on the bench most of last year.
The team won't really miss her. Scott, at least, seems understanding when he nods to her as she packs up her gear.
"Fine," Coach says, frowning at her sulkily. "Run away like a girl, I see how it is."
She grins at him brightly. "See you in class, Coach."
"Yup." She swigs milk from the bottle, continues rummaging around for some kind of snack.
"But you love lacrosse." He looks confused and upset, which makes the guilt stir in her stomach.
"Not really," she shrugs. She'd loved the idea of fitting in, of maybe feeling like 'one of the guys' if she made the team. But it had never really worked anyway, and it hadn't helped her in the long run. "I was thinking of trying out for track in January, but I dunno."
Her dad crosses his arms, staring at her. "This isn't because of something going on, is it? More werewolf stuff, or, I don't know, zombies this time? Vampires?"
She snorts, choking a little on her swallow of milk. "No, Dad, geez. I promised I'd tell you if anything was going down, remember?" And she fully intends to keep that promise, just as soon as they know what it is. For now, though, the Nemeton acting up has nothing to do with her decision.
"All right. Well, I'm not sure I agree with you on this one, but I guess…" He sighs. "It's your choice, son."
She swallows, forces a smile. "I promise I won't use the extra time to just sit around playing video games."
"Course not," her dad scoffs. "You have college applications to work on."
Stiles sighs and rolls her eyes because that's what he expects of her, but she's actually pretty psyched to start working on those applications. College will be a whole new world and a fresh start, and holy god does that sound damn good lately.
Stiles doesn't go to see Cora or Derek that weekend, because she's loaded down with schoolwork and also because with summer over, she doesn't have any good excuses for regular escapes.
Allison's dad is spending all of his free time searching the Preserve, and Scott and Allison both join him as often as possible, but none of them can find anything. And in the meantime, the Nemeton continues flooding them and Stiles with horrifying images of blood and death and darkness.
He doesn't say anything to her at first, but Stiles can see her dad growing more suspicious of the shadows in and under her eyes, which only get more and more noticeable as the days go by. She's not going to be able to fool him into thinking everything is fine for much longer.
Sure enough, on the following Tuesday it gets bad enough that she screams herself awake, and she knows the game is up seconds before her dad is throwing the door to her room open and taking her immediately into a hard hug.
"It's just a dream, Stiles. You're okay, it was just a dream."
She clings to him, shaking, teeth chattering too hard to speak. Wishes that she could comfort herself with the knowledge that the nightmare was already fading, because that's what nightmares are supposed to do after you wake up, but Nemeton dreams have a tendency to linger.
She and her dad both know this from past experience.
"It's that goddamn tree again, isn't it?" he demands, not letting her go yet.
She nods into his shoulder. "I'm sorry. I sh-should have told you," she says with effort.
"Do you know what's causing it?" He pulls back a little as he asks the question, so he can look into her eyes and gauge her honesty.
"Not yet." She doesn't shy away from his gaze, and eventually he nods.
"I'll give Chris a call in the morning, see if there's any way I can help. We'll fix this, Stiles. Whatever's going on, we'll stop it, just like last time." He sounds so confident, so sure, that it's impossible not to believe him.
Here in the dark, clinging to him like she's a little kid again, Stiles wishes she could tell him everything. Everything, just lay it all out and let whatever happens happen. Like this, she can believe it will be okay, that he'll just keep holding her and telling her that everything really is going to be all right.
But when she tries to speak, all the words clog up in her throat, and she chokes them back, muffling a sob into her father's shoulder.
"You're here," Stiles says dumbly. "You…why are you here? You hate this place!"
Cora rolls her eyes. "Dumbass," she mutters. "Come on, you're coming home with me for the day and I'm not taking no for an answer. I'm on orders from big brother."
Stiles flails at her. "You're kidnapping me? Are you serious? I have homework, and…stuff." The homework part is true. The stuff part is not. Scott doesn't want her anywhere near the Preserve unless they're all together as a group, and all her research has hit a dead end.
"You can do your trig homework or whatever at the apartment. Seriously. I'll drag you there if I have to." Cora eyes her.
"Okay, okay, fine." God knows it's going to be a relief to get away from Beacon Hills, even just for a few hours. Maybe she'll be able to breathe again. "Just…let me grab my stuff." She runs back inside before Cora can grumble about it, grabs the bag at the back of her closet that has her one good outfit not hidden away at Lydia's, and texts her dad to let him know she'll be home late (and not to worry, it's not werewolf stuff). Then she dashes back out to where Cora's already back in the car, waiting impatiently.
Ten minutes into the drive, Stiles' phone beeps with a reply from her dad. Heard rumors about a certain ostentatious car being seen around these parts. That got anything to do with your "not werewolf" plans?
She groans. Don't use words like 'ostentatious' in a text message, she types, and then: Maybe. Is that okay?
Give the Hales my regards.
"Sometimes my dad being the sheriff is really inconvenient," Stiles mutters, putting her phone away again.
"He'd know everything even if he wasn't the sheriff," Cora informs her. "It's a dad thing."
"That doesn't make me feel any better about it." Which is a lie, because nine times out of ten, Stiles loves that her dad is looking out for her. She likes that they look out for each other. "Besides, he doesn't really know everything."
Cora glances over as she takes the turn for the highway. "Would it help if he did?"
Stiles sighs. "It would at least take the pressure off. I wouldn't have to figure out how to tell him myself. That would be nice."
Cora nods, but she stays silent and keeps whatever opinions she may have to herself for once. Maybe because she realizes it's a touchy subject. Or maybe because she doesn't have any experience; her parents had presumably known her deepest secret, unless she's hiding something bigger than werewolfishness.
Either way, the rest of the ride is mostly quiet, and Stiles is relegated to watching the trees go by her window and trying not to think about her dad and all the things she still isn't telling him.
The first thing she does when they get to the apartment is get changed. Santa Cruz and the friends she has there have become her haven, and maybe it's stupid, but being there wearing her usual daily disguise hurts. Once she can look in the mirror and see herself, she feels like she can breathe.
"We really need to do something about your hair," Cora says, clucking her tongue as Stiles emerges from the bathroom.
"Best it's gonna get for now," Stiles sighs, fingering one of the simple clips keeping it pinned back. With her everyday gel removed, letting her hair lie flat goes a long way to making it look more the way she wants it to. The clips allow her to shape it in a way that makes it look more like a pixie cut than the bed-head, flyaway look she tends to keep on a daily basis.
Either way, doing anything more with it won't work until she's ready to stop lying to everyone, not just a few select friends.
"It looks good," Derek murmurs from behind her, almost giving her a heart attack. "Cora's just jealous because she never mastered the art of styling hair." He's smirking at his sister, ignoring her growling at him. "You should have heard the way Laura used to laugh about it."
Cora glares. "So I never bothered spending as much time primping in front of a mirror as you two did, big deal," she mutters. "As long as it's long enough I can pull it back and keep it out of the way, why should I care?"
"Always practical, that's Cora," Derek says, his small, teasing grin widening.
Stiles laughs, and just like that, she feels all the weight of the last few weeks lifting off of her. She realizes that she loves these idiot werewolves, who let her be who she is without judgment, and who can make her feel like she's welcome with just a few well-aimed words or a casual arm around her shoulder.
She has a home here, and she was an idiot for not realizing it sooner.
"You look tired," Derek says to her, speaking softly when Cora goes out to find them a late breakfast takeaway meal.
She shrugs, not wanting to admit how ragged she feels. She sleeps, she sleeps a lot, but it's not exactly a restful sleep.
"Come on." He takes her hand, leading her to the back of the apartment where his bedroom is. "We didn't have any particular plans for the day. You can take a nap."
But when she wakes up to the late afternoon sun slanting in through a gap in the bedroom curtains, Derek curled up behind her with an arm wrapped tight around her waist, and not a single nightmare anywhere in sight… Well, the only thing Stiles can manage to feel is contentment.
She doesn't move, but some minute change in her heart rate must inform Derek that she's awake, because he sighs, the breath ghosting across the back of her neck.
"Derek?" she says, barely even whispering because she doesn't want to break the fragile quiet. It's peaceful, and she wants to enjoy it for as long as she possibly can.
"Sleep well?" he asks, equally soft.
Stiles nods. She wonders what time it is for a brief moment before dismissing the question as irrelevant. She doesn't really want to know, because knowing will mean she'll have to start thinking about moving, and moving is the very last thing she wants to do. "You're not usually so cuddly," she notes instead, then internally cringes because now Derek might move, and that would be just as bad.
He doesn't, though. Instead his arm tightens, and he nuzzles closer. "Maybe I just hadn't found a person worth being cuddly with."
Her heart kicks. "Hearing you say the word cuddly is kind of hilarious," she says, because she's still Stiles Stilinski. "I mean, in case you were wondering."
"I wasn't." Derek sounds like he's holding back a smile. Stiles suddenly desperately wants to see it, so she flops around ungracefully, loosing his hold around her waist enough that she can turn over, bringing them face-to-face all at once.
Stiles swallows hard at the sparkle in Derek's eyes, the gentle curve of his mouth. Wow, she was not prepared for that. Clearly, she should have thought this over before turning around. "Um."
"Hi, Stiles," Derek says, the tiny smile widening into an amused grin.
"Seriously, though." Stiles isn't squeaking. Anyone who says otherwise is lying. "Not that I don't like Octopus Derek, but it's a little out of character. To say the least."
Stiles would swear Derek's cheeks turn red underneath all that stubble. "I like being close to you," he finally mumbles. He doesn't look away, but he looks very much like he wants to. Stiles kind of wants to squish him forever.
"I…" She swallows, her mouth feeling dry as dust all of a sudden. "I like being close to you, too," she admits. "But I thought you weren't…" Weren't willing. Weren't ready. She can't finish the sentence.
"The first time I saw you – here, I mean, not in Beacon Hills – I painted you." Derek's definitely blushing now, but his hand is also brushing gently up and down her arm, leaving trails of goosbumps in its wake, so it's hard to focus on how adorable that blush is. "And after that, I kind of…couldn't stop. A lot of it is abstract, so you'd probably never guess what – who – it's meant to represent, but it was all reminders." He closes his eyes now, tilting his forehead to rest against hers. "I paint the things I feel, Stiles, and for the first time in a long time, the things I'm painting are all happy."
In the wake of such a confession, Stiles would dare anyone to be left with room in their hearts to worry about much of anything. "Derek," she says, just his name, and her voice breaks on the second syllable.
When he opens his eyes and blinks at her, Stiles kisses him.
Oddly enough, though, it's Cora who brings it up first before Stiles can say a word. "You look like you're about to explode rainbows and glitter and happiness," she mutters. "It's disgusting."
Stiles beams at her, unrepentant.
Cora rolls her eyes. "Are you sure you know what you're getting into, here? Big brother does not have the best track record."
"I know," Stiles says. "But he's willing to take a chance. On me." She has to stress that because she's still boggled by it. "So I'm willing to take the chance on him. I don't have the first clue what the hell I'm even doing here. I mean, how am I supposed to be in a relationship when I—" She cuts herself off, shaking her head. "But he…he sees me, Cora. He doesn't just see the surface stuff, any of it. He sees who I am inside – shut up, I know how stupidly sappy I sound – and he still wants me, for some crazy reason."
"And vice versa?" Cora asks, her eyes glinting, fiercely protective of her brother even if she tries to hide it.
"For a long time now," Stiles admits. "Even before…" She's back in her everyday clothes, his clothes, mask firmly in place as they get closer and closer to Beacon Hills, but she knows Cora understands what she means when she shrugs.
Cora snorts. "Well, you two always did have that antagonistic love/hate thing going on," she says. "Boyd used to talk about it. He said he and Erica and Isaac used to have a betting pool on who would crack first." She sighs. "So I guess you have my blessing, or whatever. But," she holds up a finger before Stiles can start getting mushy all over her. "You hurt him, and I will rip your intestines out of your stomach and strangle you with them."
"I can always count on you Hales for those lovely mental images," Stiles says, wrinkling her nose. "Geez." She shakes her head, giving Cora a serious look. "I think he's been hurt enough for a few lifetimes. I don't intend to make it worse. Promise."
"Well." Cora sniffs. "As long as we understand each other."
Cora drops Stiles off in front of her house, waves, and speeds off like staying in Beacon Hills for even a moment longer will give her some sort of plague. Stiles watches the tail lights of the Camaro disappear bemusedly before turning to go into her house with a sigh.
She never makes it as far as the front step.
There's a low growl from behind her, and before she has a chance to spin around and face the threat, it's already clubbed her over the head with something heavy and solid, and she drops.
As darkness slides across her vision and her thoughts, the last thing she has time to consider is that if she dies, Derek is going to blame himself because he's a moron, and she really, deeply, desperately hopes that doesn't happen.
But the one thing she hasn't dreamed about, or even thought of at all since the night of the Darrach, is Peter freaking Hale.
His smarmy face appearing above her is enough to convince her that this is real. Disturbingly, horrifyingly, altogether too real.
"Good morning, sleeping beauty," Peter says, smirking as he tilts his head at her. "So glad you could join the party."
If this were a television show, Stiles bets this is where there would be a foreboding clang of music, and then a cut to commercials. It feels like that kind of situation. Unfortunately, it's not a TV show, so what actually happens is that Peter continues to leer, obviously waiting for a response.
"Why couldn't we just have killed you again and been done with it?" she finally mutters, tugging ineffectually at the bonds around her wrist.
"Now Stiles, surely you don't mean that," Peter says, dramatically placing a hand over his heart (as if he even has one) like she's wounded him. "I don't mean to harm you, you know. You could just close your eyes and take a nap and I'm sure this will all be over before you know it."
"Well," Peter sighs. "It was worth a try, anyway."
"What do you want from me?" Stiles demands.
Another slow smirk spreads across his face like pure evil. He's like the grinch, if the grinch had no heart to grow. "Oh, Stiles. I don't want anything from you."
She's bait, then. Fantastic.
"Derek?" she wonders aloud, but then shakes her head even before she sees him raise a judgmental eyebrow. "No. Derek still trusts you for some truly baffling reason. He would come if you called him here, never even think twice about it." He wouldn't like it, but he would come. Peter is still his family. Which can only mean…
"Scott," she realizes in horror. "You're after Scott. You want his Alpha powers."
"I always knew you were the smart one," Peter says approvingly, even reaching down to tweak her nose. Ugh.
"Can True Alpha powers even be transferred like that? Because, newsflash douchebag, that makes no fucking sense at all." The whole point of Scott's power was that he didn't kill for it. What the hell drugs has Peter been smoking not to realize that?
"Oh, don't you worry your pretty little head." Peter smiles, rolling a sleeve up to show her a strange brand he's managed to sear into the flesh of his forearm. It hurts Stiles' eyes to look at, and the second she looks away she can't remember the shape of it at all. Obviously it can't be anything good. "I have some tricks up my sleeve."
"Course you do," she sighs. Seriously, why didn't they just kill him again? It's not like they – or she, at least – hadn't seen this shit coming. She vaguely wonders if he's somehow been using magic to make it that they didn't think of him at all this past year. Even Derek hasn't asked about him. In hindsight, it's pretty fishy. "So it's been you the Nemeton was warning us about, this whole time."
Peter spreads his hands and shrugs. "Some of my preparations required means the Nemeton didn't approve of. You'd think it would be grateful for more sacrifices, but apparently, it's picky."
He watches her for a moment. "You know, Stiles, I've figured you out. Why you don't want to be a werewolf." Peter's eyes gleam as he runs a claw down Stiles' cheek.
Stiles tries to turn away, but Peter's other hand holds her fast. Revulsion curdles her stomach. Stop, she wants to say, but she knows enough by now to know that will just egg Peter on.
Before he can say more, Peter stops, turning his head slightly as though listening to something well out of Stiles' hearing range. "Ah, and here comes the cavalry," he says. He's smiling again. Stiles wants to claw the smile off his face, stomp on it, and burn it.
Peter steps around the Nemeton, now standing at Stiles' head. Moving very precisely, getting into position, he curls his body down, leaning over Stiles. One hand grasps her upper arm, almost painfully. The other goes to her neck, and suddenly there's a handful of claws right at her throat.
"Oh, Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, you fucking psycho" Stiles breathes, unable to help herself. Her body trembles, and the vines seem to cut deeper into her skin even as she tries to stop struggling.
"Perhaps," Peter says softly, and then his eyes gleam blue and the wolves of the McCall pack come bursting into the clearing.
Scott skids to a stop first with a roar. Isaac is right behind him, and the twins circle around to the other side. And then everyone stands there, staring and growling, completely useless as they realize the precarious position Peter has her in. A ways off, Stiles can just make out the rumble of an RTV, undoubtedly carrying Allison and Lydia, if she knows her pack at all. She wonders how they realized she was missing so fast. Or maybe she's been unconscious and tied here a whole day.
Stiles meets Scott's eyes, which are burning crimson. She hopes he reads the warning in hers.
"How nice of you to join us," Peter says, speaking to Scott. "Stiles and I were just having a nice little chat here."
"Yeah, looks like a real nice chat going on," Isaac growls. It's almost cute. She's never seen him get protective over her before. Maybe it's a thing, because he's so attuned to Scott?
"Stiles?" Scott asks. "You okay?"
"Peachy," she grits out between clenched teeth. There's too much saliva in her mouth and she wants to swallow, but she's terrified of those claws skewering her if she tries.
The roar of the engine cuts off, and Allison and Lydia are suddenly there as well. Allison has her bow out, a wicked-looking arrow pointed straight at Peter's head, but she moves it down pretty quick when he showcases the claws against Stiles' neck.
"As I was saying, we were just discussing why our dear Stiles turned down the bite I once offered him, when he so desperately wanted to take it." Peter is smiling again, Stiles can hear it. She closes her eyes. Don't, don't, please don't, she chants mentally. But it's too late, of course; Peter is on a roll, and he totally gets off on shit like this, ruining other people's lives. "It took me some time to figure it out, you realize, but I had to know to know. Who would turn down such a longed-for gift? It made no sense. But! It all became clear when I started following the members of your pack."
"Don't –" Stiles says in spite of herself. Peter's claw twitches, and she cuts herself off with a strangled gasp.
"As it turns out," Peter continues, a deeper touch of drama entering his voice, overlaid by the incessant smarminess, "Stiles doesn't want to be a real boy! And being a werewolf, well. Let's just say it's not very compatible with lifestyle choices like he's been thinking of making. I wonder, though…" The hand clenched around her upper arm gentles, and one finger trails down to her elbow. "I wonder if I'll persuade him to change his mind when I'm his Alpha."
"You'll never be my Alpha," Stiles whispers. She feels a tear slip from her eye, trailing down toward her temple. She can't look at her pack.
"In any case, I suppose now that storytime is over, we come to the point," Peter says, like she hasn't spoken at all. "Scott. I daresay you want you best friend to live, yes? Even in spite of his…flaws?"
"Her flaws," Scott replies. His voice is low, dangerous like Stiles never hears it. "And she doesn't have any."
Stiles has never loved Scott more, she swears, but if he gets himself killed, she's going to find a way to resurrect him so she can kill him again herself.
Peter growls, and there's a bright flash of pain at Stiles' jugular. She feels the tickle of blood seeping down the side of her neck. She can't help it; she whimpers.
"You have two choices, Scott," Peter snaps. "The easy way or the less easy way. The easy way is that you give me what I want. Submit to me as your ex-Alpha monster twins submitted to you, and you will be a beta, like they are. I'll inherit your power, no muss, no fuss."
Scott doesn't respond.
"The less easy way is that I kill your best friend in the whole world. His blood – oh, my apologies, her blood – coats the Nemeton, and it grants me enough power to kill you and claim your power anyway." Peter shrugs. "I'm really not too fussed either way, but I do like this shirt, and it would be a shame to ruin it."
Bless Scott's heart, when Stiles opens her eyes and looks at him, he looks like he's really trying to think of a way out of this mess. But as deadly as Allison with a bow is, as fast as his pack can be, as loud as Lydia can scream, none of them can do any of those things faster than Peter can rip out her throat.
Stiles is pretty much thinking there's no hope here, and she knows Scott won't let her die. He's going to give in to Peter's demands, he's going to submit.
And then without warning, there's an almighty roar, a crash, and Peter falls away from her with a shout.
The rest of the pack springs into action, shouting and running around like they've all lost their damn minds. Stiles cranes her neck, trying to see what's happening, but it's behind her and she's more likely going to be able to break her neck than twist it that far. The snarling and crashing and roars taunt her; she knows someone else must have appeared and attacked Peter, but she doesn't know who. "Shit, shit," she growls, tugging ineffectually again at the vines binding her wrists. And then, miraculously, someone is there, cutting them away.
"Idiot," Stiles hears muttered close by. "You're going to hurt yourself and then Derek'll cry."
"Cora," Stiles breathes when she sits up, rubbing at her incredibly sore wrists, and sees the face of her savior. Or one of them, because if Cora is here, that must mean… "Derek!" she yells, which is probably stupid since when she twists around she can see he's in a fight for his life.
Derek and Peter are both blurs of movement and sound and flashes of moonlight against teeth and claws already dripping with blood. Scott and Isaac are hovering off to the side, obviously distressed that they can't find a decent opening to help. The twins have disappeared, probably running for any weapon they can find that might give their Alpha an advantage. Allison, with Lydia standing next to her, has her crossbow aimed at the battling wolves, but obviously doesn't dare shoot in case she hits the wrong one.
Stiles, being Stiles, nearly dives headlong into the fight the moment she feels her ankles freed, but Cora grabs her around the waist and holds her there.
"He would never forgive himself if you got hurt," she says in Stiles' ear, low enough that the other wolves might not hear with everything else going on. "Especially if he was the one to hurt you. Have a little faith, Stilinski. He'll be okay."
He doesn't look like he'll be okay. He looks like he's getting his ass kicked, and if Peter is tiring, he shows no sign of it. He's been making sacrifices to the tree for months, probably, getting stronger with every one. He wouldn't risk humans, and Stiles would have heard about anyone missing, but animal sacrifices have their own power, and –
She sees the moment the tide turns, the very second Derek sees an opening and takes it, slashing out with claws outstretched, tearing out enough of a chunk of Peter's face that Peter howls.
And just like that, it's over. Peter falls to the ground, backing away fast, saying, "Please, please, I didn't mean, I'll stop, I won't –"
Lydia chooses that moment to unleash a piercing scream, and Allison takes the shot she's been waiting for. Her electrified arrow – and seriously, when did those come into play? – pins Peter to the ground, the strong currents jolting his limbs, rendering him incapable of moving of his own volition.
Derek crouches down beside him, his eyes agonized as he says something too low for Stiles to make out the words. Peter can't speak, but he does manage a defiant glare that gets his point across perfectly.
In the end, Derek nods. Cora looks away. Stiles doesn't, because she owes Derek that much. She owes him so much more than that.
It's fast and messy and ends with a gurgling sound Stiles thinks will follow her into her nightmares for a while. Her stomach rolls and she wonders if she's going to vomit. She focuses on other things, like the cold night air against her cheek, Cora's hand clamped on her arm, the rough bark of the Nemeton beneath her. Anything but the dying-dying-dying-dead werewolf on the ground fifteen feet away.
The pack – the whole damn forest – is eerily silent, and after a few agonizing moments where Stiles allows her stomach to settle, she finally decides she can't take it anymore. She wriggles, and scrambles off the Nemeton the second Cora's hold loosens. She trips over a root before she's even managed a full step, but strong arms catch and hold her before she face-plants into the dirt.
She clutches at Derek, arms wrapping around him more like an octopus than a human being. "Are you okay?" she demands, her voice muffled by her face being pressed into Derek's neck.
"I'm okay," he murmurs, holding onto her almost as tightly as she's holding onto him. "Are you?"
She nods. "My wrists might be a little bruised, but I'm okay. Jesus. Jesus."
"It's over now." Even as Derek speaks, there's a loosening somewhere in the back of Stiles' head, and around her heart. Peter's blood is seeping into the Nemeton's roots, and it's satisfied with this sacrifice. Stiles shudders.
"I'm sorry you had to –"
"Don't," Derek says. "He had his chance."
Cora steps up to them, leaning into Derek a little. "More than one," she mumbles. "God, I hate this town."
"I can't believe you came back here." Stiles lifts her head to glance between the two of them. "How did you even—No, scratch that." She looks over at Scott. "How did you even know anything was wrong?"
"Derek called me," Scott tells her. He's watching them closely, but he doesn't look disturbed or anything, which seems like a good thing. "He said you were supposed to text him when you got home and you never did, still hadn't by the time Cora got back. He was worried."
Stiles smiles at Derek. "You're awesome," she says, and she must starting to feel a little loopy from relief, because she swears there's a gleam of something unspeakably soft in Derek's eyes as he tightens his hold on her. (She's being squished, but it's a happy squishing, and she's totally okay with it.) "And you're awesome, too," she tells Scott with a decisive nod. "I have the awesomest pack."
Not that she's even attempted to look at the rest of her pack yet. Peter's words are still fresh in her mind; she imagines their echo is still loud in the clearing around her. She can't forget, and she doubts any of the others will do her the favor of conveniently forgetting either.
Scott fidgets for a moment, and then seems to steel himself before marching over to their little clinging cluster and inserting himself into it, hugging Stiles hard from the side. "I'm really glad you're okay," he says. "I'll get everyone out of here, let Derek take you home. We'll have a pack meeting later, okay?"
Yay, something to look forward to. She swallows, nods, and turns away from Derek just for a second so she can throw her arms around Scott. "Thanks, buddy," she whispers.
He smiles crookedly. "Anytime. Although let's not let the kidnapping thing become a habit, okay?"
"Deal," she says.
Cora sits on the stairs, fiddling with her phone and glancing over at them every few minutes, like she's checking to make sure they're still okay.
"When are you going back?" Stiles mumbles. The adrenaline has long since worn off, and exhaustion is taking hold. She'll be asleep soon, no matter how much her spine will hate her for it in a few hours.
"We'll stay as long as you want us to," Derek says, and Cora nods.
"You shouldn't have to." Stiles nuzzles against his leg. "This place is awful for you. Bad things will happen and you'll grow to resent me for ever dragging you back here and it will be horrible."
Cora snorts. "Dramatic much?"
Stiles pouts at her. When it doesn't seem all that effective, she sighs. "Okay, I can be big enough to admit that I'm really okay with you being here. Okay, like, I kind of want to tie you up in my basement and never let you go ever because having you so close is awesome." There's a rumbling sound coming from Derek that it takes her a second to realize is a laugh. "That being said, you're not allowed to stay for more than a couple days, no matter what I might say later when the neediness sets in. Got it?"
"Got it," Derek promises. Then he sighs. "Besides, we need to stay at least long enough to bury Peter."
"Burn Peter," Cora corrects. "You're not taking chances this time."
Stiles loses a few moments trying to imagine a funeral pyre in the Preserve. It's a weird image.
"Stiles…" Derek pauses, the movements of his hand in her hair pausing. "I'm sorry. About Peter. Not just the obvious, but…we heard him. What he said. He shouldn't have outed you like that."
"Yeah." Sties snorts. "Peter's a bit fan of doing shit he shouldn't do." She blinks. "Or he was. Anyway, yeah, it sucks, but it was bound to come out sooner or later. Guess at least it takes the pressure off, right? Means I'll have to tell my dad soon, though. Just in case one of them slips up." Another blink, and now she frowns as well. "If they even want to see me again. Who knows, really."
"Don't underestimate your pack," Derek says, fingers beginning to card again. If Stiles had the ability to purr, she would so be purring right now. "They'll come around."
"You're not s'posed to be an optimist," she mumbles. Fatigue is finally winning out…she can feel herself starting to drift. "S'not the natural order of the universe."
Derek hums a little bit but doesn't reply, and she finally loses herself to sleep.
No, that's not fair, she admits to herself with a sigh. If anyone is traumatized here, it's Derek, and he's handling it remarkably well. Maybe he knew it would happen; Peter's betrayal as inevitable as a changing tide. It sucks, but if he was prepared for it, maybe it's helping him deal.
Anyway, she's not allowed near the Preserve that day, and in the end it's fine because Scott calls her up to meet him at his house anyway.
Isaac is there too, of course, given that he lives there, but the rest of the pack is suspiciously absent. She'd thought Scott would call for an instant pack meeting after the events of the day before, but she's kind of grateful she still has some time to work things through in her own head.
When she hesitantly offers a greeting to Isaac, he responds with a small, tight smile and scurries away with the excuse that he has homework. Which, she guesses, answers that question.
Scott sees the exchange and draws her into a one-armed bro-hug. "He'll get over it," he says with calm assurance. "His dad was pretty uptight about stuff like this, which is really putting it mildly, and Isaac…he knows better, but some of it just needs to get past that filter first."
"And the others?" Stiles asks, even though she's ninety-five percent sure she doesn't want to know. At least she knows Scott will have talked to them already to gauge their reactions. He's awesome like that.
"Allison wanted to be here today, so she could tell you herself that she doesn't care at all and you're the same old Stiles in her book, but I thought maybe you could use some time to deal with stuff before you had everyone clamoring at you, y'know?" Scott shrugs, looking a little sheepish. "I told her she could probably talk to Lydia. I hope that's okay."
Stiles manages a smile she doesn't entirely feel. "Lydia texted me earlier to ask if it was okay if they talked about it They're best friends, I mean, what was I gonna say? No?"
"I think she'd have understood."
"Maybe. Probably. But she's kept my secret long enough, and it's not even a secret now, so." Stiles shrugs. "It's all good. Anyway, it's good to know Allison's cool with it." With everything she and Scott and Stiles have been through since their sacrifice – hell, even before that, but especially since then – it's a huge relief to know that this isn't the thing that will break them. Stiles genuinely likes Allison, and the three of them together have a bond virtually no one in the entire world can understand.
"And the twins?" Stiles asks, although she doesn't really need to. If Scott isn't offering up the information, it means he doesn't want to tell.
Sure enough, he grimaces. "Ethan seemed a little weirded out, but mostly I don't think he cares. But Aiden…he's really weirded out, and kind of thinking about leaving the pack? I dunno, his brother being gay doesn't bother him at all, but I guess he has a line. If he goes, Ethan'll go with him, but I think maybe he just needs time to get used to it."
Scott's optimism is nice, but Stiles thinks it might be giving Aiden way too much credit. It's not like his reaction is a surprise. Hell, Stiles doesn't even really like the twins, never warmed to them the way Lydia did. So why the fuck it makes something in her chest twinge painfully is anybody's guess. "Whatever," she says. "They were never gonna stick around, anyway." She believes that, she really does, but she hates the way it makes Scott's face fall.
"Yeah," he sighs. "I guess you're probably right." The corner of his mouth quirks up, a genuine effort at a smile. "Anyway, even if they do leave, who needs them? We have the best pack either way." He hesitates. "Derek and Cora…are they –"
"They're not staying long," Stiles says, and has to ignore another, much more painful chest twinge. Maybe she's having a minor heart attack? Surely these things can't be good.
"Oh." Scott frowns at her with his ridiculous puppy eyes that could melt even the hardest of hearts. "I'm sorry, Stiles."
"No, it's fine," she says, trying to wave it off. "Even if they wanted to stay, I'm not sure they should. Beacon Hills hasn't done much good for the Hales, you know? Anyway, it's not like they're so far away. And…" She hesitates, then musters up a tiny smile. "Can I tell you a secret?"
Scott gives her a 'duh' look, already waiting impatiently.
"I applied to UCSC," she confides. "I mean, I was already thinking I wanted to stay close, for my dad and the pack and everything. And this way I get the best of both worlds. I haven't told Derek yet, but Cora is already talking about me moving in to the apartment after the mandatory year of dorm room hell."
Scott takes all of this in with wide eyes. "Oh my god, dude, that's awesome!" he enthuses, which is not what Stiles expected.
"It is?" she checks.
"You staying close to the pack, and going to an awesome school in a town that will be way more open to you, and getting to be with Derek? I mean, how could that not be awesome?" Scott blinks at her. "It is awesome, right?"
"Well, yeah, duh!" She blinks right back. "I just, um. I wasn't sure you'd agree. With the whole thing with me and Derek and everything." She's blushing right to the roots of her hair, she can feel it.
Scott scoffs. "Come on, Stiles, you really think you've done a good job hiding your epic crush on Derek Hale from me since, like, practically the day we met him? Really? And he's not much better. It's not like this is a huge surprise to me."
"Or me!" Isaac shouts from his room, and Stiles gives up and puts her face in her hands, laughing a little bit hysterically.
"Seriously," Scott says. "You two are about as subtle as…well, as something really unsubtle." He grins. "Actually, before he leaves, I definitely mean to give him the 'hurt-my-best-friend-and-I'll-kill-you speech."
Stiles starts laughing so hard she cries.
It feels good.
Derek is obviously equally as agitated, being stuck in Beacon Hills for any length of time. He hides it better than Cora did, but Stiles is fast developing the ability to read all his tells, so she knows. But when she softly suggests that he go home and let her come to him the following weekend, he snarls, then pulls her into his arms and clings to her.
"I'm okay, Derek," she finally manages to convince him. "You guys got to me in time, everything is A-okay now. Even the nightmares have dropped off considerably." And the ones that are left are just plain old nightmares, nothing Nemeton-induced. "Please go home so I can stop worrying about you?"
Derek grumbles about it, but he finally concedes that he does have a job to get back to, and while he's slowly becoming desensitized to Beacon Hills again, he's happier at home. "I just wish home had you there," he tells her, breathing the words into her neck like a confession.
Soon enough, but she keeps the words to herself because UC Santa Cruz hasn't accepted her yet, and she doesn't want to get either of their hopes up.
He kisses her before he leaves, deep and devastating, and it's only their third kiss ever (because Derek is the king of taking relationships glacially slow these days, and Stiles can't blame him for it). For half an instant, lost as she is in the feel of his mouth against hers, Stiles almost begs him to stay. She remembers herself just in time.
Instead, she lets him go, and waves as the lights of the Camaro disappear around the turn at the end of her street, fingers pressed to her still-tingling lips, her heart beating hummingbird-fast.
The next month is surprisingly, blissfully quiet. Stiles goes to school, she does her homework, she hangs out with her friends. She tells her dad what was going on, and then tells him that it's over now. Because they have their honesty policy firmly in place now, she also tells him about her minor kidnapping, but reinforces several times that it was short and she wasn't hurt at all, and that Derek saved her.
It's possible she's considering the brownie points that might get her boyfriend when she finally comes clean about him, but whatever, she's a strategizer, no one can hold that against her.
The twins are wary around her for a while, but they don't leave, and they don't mock her (or out her, thank god), and she's forced to give them credit for toughing it out and dealing with their issues in a relatively mature manner.
For a while, things are so normal that it's like nothing has changed at all the last several months.
Except, of course, for all the things that have.
Stiles stands in front of the bathroom mirror, staring at her reflection for long enough without blinking that it starts to waver at the edges. She looks a lot like she usually does, or rather, like he usually does. Hair a total mess, a plaid shirt thrown over a random ironic tee, jeans and sneakers. No jewelry, no make-up, no hair clips.
Nothing out of the ordinary, nothing that stands out. This has been her disguise for so long she doesn't even remember where to start counting from.
It doesn't feel like a few months could make such a difference, but it has. He never felt quite right, like a skin she was trying on that never really fit, but the reflection staring back at her now feels like a stranger in ways it never did before. She's changed. He doesn't exist anymore, not really. Not now that she's stopped trying to force him to be real.
"No matter what," she tells herself, "I'm Stiles Stilinski. No one can take that away from me."
The reflection in the mirror agrees with her. He even manages a small smile for her. She closes her eyes, takes a deep breath, and nods.
For better or worse, this is the last time she'll wear this disguise. She's done pretending.
There's just one thing she needs to do first.
"Morning, son," her dad says, just like always, not looking up from his perusal of the newspaper. Stiles stays silent and simply stares at him until his dad pauses and glances up. "Something you need, Stiles?"
Stiles forces down a swallow. "Can we talk?"
The newspaper gets folded and tucked away immediately, concern etched all along her dad's face. "What's going on?"
"Nothing bad," Stiles hastens to assure him, because the supernatural is kind of big part of their lives, and you never know. "Just…stuff."
Her dad blinks. "Stuff," he repeats. "All right, I'm listening."
Stiles has spent a lot of time, especially more recently, thinking about how she would go about telling her dad her secret someday. But even now, right on the brink of spilling everything, she has no idea how to start until she actually opens her mouth. "Dad, you remember when I was a little kid, and you and Mom took me to therapy? Before they put me on the Adderall, when I was still all –" She waves her hands to encompass the general twitchy, restless, jitteriness that even medication had never helped her fully shake. "And the therapist, he kept asking me how I felt, why it was so hard for me to settle down."
Her dad nods slowly, frowning in confusion. "Sure I do. I'm surprised you remember it, to be honest. You were pretty young."
Stiles shrugs, looking down at the table because it's easier than looking in her dad's eyes right now. "Some things stay with you, I guess? Anyway, I told him that I felt itchy. Like my skin was all wrong. He didn't understand because I couldn't explain it right. He thought I felt it like a buzzing or something, too much energy and no place to put it. And maybe that was partly it, but the truth is…I…the truth is, I felt – feel – like I'd been stitched together wrong. Like my body was supposed to be different, and somehow God or the angels or someone had screwed up the order."
"Like that, right there! I created Stiles to be me, because the name you and Mom gave me, it wasn't right. It fit the body I had, the one I'd been wrongfully given, but it wasn't me. Stiles could be anyone, guy or…or girl, and it didn't matter, it didn't –"
"And I'm really sorry, okay? I know this is screwed up, I'm screwed up, and I know you probably don't get it, and god, you know I never want to disappoint you. And I told myself for ages that it didn't matter, that I could ignore it, but I can't, I can't, Dad, it's too hard, and I'm so sorry I'm not –"
Stiles' words are ruthlessly cut off by the way she's hauled up unceremoniously from her chair and into her father's arms.
"It's okay," her dad says. "Stiles, it's okay, you have nothing to apologize for. Nothing, you understand?" His arms tighten, and Stiles realizes her dad, her unflappable father, is actually trembling a little with the force of whatever emotion he's experiencing.
Or maybe that's actually Stiles. It's hard to tell. She doesn't even know when she started crying, but she can tell that the corner of her dad's jacket where her face is pressed is getting wetter by the moment. Her hands are clenched in the back, holding so tight it's a surprise the fabric doesn't tear. "You can't be okay with this," Stiles says, the words muffled in her dad's shoulder. "You can't. It's too easy."
Her dad sighs, pulling away just enough that he can clasp his hands on Stiles' shoulders and look her in the eye. "Kid, your mom…she started to suspect, toward the end. We talked about it some, but things were so…" His face does that thing that happens when he's in pain and trying not to show it. "Everything was so bad. It was easier not to think about it, if you weren't going to bring it up." He laughs. To Stiles, it sounds unbearably sad. "Christ, that sounds awful. If anyone here should be apologizing –"
"No, dad, come on," Stiles immediately cuts in, shaking her head. "I know how things were, I remember." The idea that her mom knew doesn't surprise her as much as maybe it should. Her mom knew everything. There's a hard lump in her chest when she thinks about her, and about what it might have been like to have this conversation with her here. "You really…you don't care?" She squeezes the words out past a lump the size of the moon in her throat, because she has to know for sure.
"You're my kid, Stiles," her dad tells her, his eyes never wavering. "And I love you no matter what. Thank you for trusting me enough to tell me."
The relief that fills her feels like floating. Stiles presses back into her dad's arms, holding on as tightly as she can. "I love you, Dad."
I love you, Mom.
She's going to be eighteen soon anyway, it's not like she couldn't have waited. But just knowing her dad is cool with it and wants to help…holy shit, Stiles doesn't have words for how awesome that feels.
"I take it the talk went well then," Derek says, and Stiles can hear the smile in his voice. "Not that I doubted it would, but that's great. I'm glad." In the background, Stiles can hear a car door slamming. She wonders if Derek is going somewhere, maybe out for drinks with his co-workers. He does that sometimes, which Stiles secretly thinks is really good for him. "Do you know what you're going to do about school yet?"
"Dad said he'd help me transfer if I wanted to, before I 'go public', as he put it, but…" Stiles takes a breath. "You know what? Fuck them. If they can't handle the awesome that is Stiles Stilinski, whatever. It's only four more months, anyway, and then I'm off to UCSC." She grins, fingers drifting over the acceptance letter she hasn't been able to put away since it came in the mail two weeks ago. "Besides, I have an awesome boyfriend who'll totally come to my rescue if I need him to."
Derek snorts. "Like you'd ever let him. You're not the damsel type, Stiles."
"I might," Stiles says, leaning back in her computer chair and contemplating. "I mean, it could be fun. You come swooping in, punch a few jerks in my honor, kiss me senseless and make all the girls and some of the guys super jealous of me. I could live with that."
"I bet you could," Derek says. He'd be rolling his eyes if he was here, Stiles knows, but over the phone he just sounds fond. "Also, let me in."
"Huh?" Stiles says, and then there's a knock on herwindow. "What the…Derek!" She tosses the phone away as she stomps over to the window and stands with her arms crossed, glaring (and trying really freaking hard not to smile, because if she smiles, Derek will always think it's okay to pull this shit).
(It is always okay, but that's not the point.)
Derek raises an eyebrow at her, then at the still-closed latch. Stiles rolls her eyes and opens it, then yanks Derek in and crushes him into the biggest hug she can manage, because okay, fine, she's disgustingly happy he's here and it's not like she could hide that fact anyway.
"You didn't tell me you were coming," Stiles says, the words muffled in Derek's jacket.
"I wanted to surprise you, no matter how things went." Derek nuzzles into the hair behind Stiles' ear.
Stiles clings a little bit tighter. "Okay, well, don't let it get to your head or anything, but…I'm glad. You're awesome." I think I love you, but she doesn't say that yet, even though she thinks Derek knows and might even feel the same. There have been more kisses lately, a lot more, which is awesome. They range from feather-light and gentle to hard and reckless, and she loves both and everything in between. But Derek is still a little gun-shy, and it's Stiles' first real relationship. She can wait to say the words.
At least a little while.
For right now, she's content to lean into him and revel in the feeling of lightness, of freedom, filling her up from top to bottom. Derek tilts her chin up and captures her mouth in her favorite kiss, the one where he frames her face with his hands and whispers her name into her mouth and makes her feel so fucking precious she could cry.
"I'm happy for you," he says quietly.
"I'm happy for me, too," she replies.
~ * ~