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The last place Stiles wanted to find himself was the Guidance Counselor's office in his senior year.
Here he sits though, via the Principal's office because when you stress shift during Lacrosse practice you get sent to the Principal's office, and when you stress shift into three different things, he sends you to the Guidance Counselor.
Stiles sits in the dry-heave-inducing green chair in front of the Counselor's desk and tries not to fidget. It's a lost cause as he bites at his nails, drums on the chair arms and shuffles his feet enough that he gives himself a mild static shock. The Guidance Counselor this year is new, someone he's never met before, but he knows it'll be the same old, same old. He'll get the kind, understanding eyes, the shaking head and a bunch of pamphlets that talk about finding the inner him that are aimed at kids much younger than he is because he should have grown out of all of this by now.
It's Scott's fault, really. Stiles is able to reign in the stress shifting when Scott's around. He'd missed school that day because of a dental appointment and Stiles has a mean moment wondering if Scott is finally going to get his uneven jaw fixed that he feels bad about immediately afterward. He'd talked to Scott at lunch time and had only managed to get variations of, dude, duuuuuuude and Stiiiiiiiiiiiles out of his best friend, made loopy and hilarious by the good drugs.
Stiles slumps further in the seat and wonders if maybe he's in luck and the Counselor has already gone home for the day.
The most infuriating part is that he'd been having a rare good week. No one had said anything to him all week about his little... problem. He'd gotten to all of his classes on time for once and Stiles had thought maybe he'd finally turned a corner, that all those youtube videos with solemn-faced celebrities claiming it got better were right and it truly did get magically better when you crossed that barrier of seventeen into eighteen.
Then along came Jackson.
Goddamned Jackson, who still feels compelled to needle Stiles like when they were seven and rubbing paste in each other's hair as a solemn declaration of war. Stiles doesn't know how he'd managed to avoid Jackson all week, but the Lacrosse field was the place where that lucky streak ended and amongst Jackson's taunts of, go on Stilinski, show us a baby duck. Be a baby duck. We aaaaall know that's what your soulform is anyway. A tiny, fluffy, ineffectual baby duck, Stiles had shifted, into a marmot and then a vole and then a rabbit.
It was only Coach Finstock reaching for him afterwards that shoved Stiles back into his human skin, left to scrape together the fragments of his dignity about as futilely as his Lacrosse uniform. Finstock had looked sympathetic, but he also hadn't had a choice about sending Stiles to Principal Thomas because that was what you did with a kid that stress shifted at school.
The door to the Counselor's office squeaks open and shut again but Stiles doesn't bother to turn around. Instead he waits for the new guy to cross into his sight-line and it turns out to be a woman with long, straight black hair and dark eyes. She rounds her desk and sits, folding her hands together neatly, her regard of him mild when she's settled.
Stiles lets the silence go for about six seconds before he blurts, "I'm not broken."
"Stiles," he corrects automatically, more habit than anything else, but she smiles and nods, acquiescent.
"I'm Ms Morrell," she introduces.
"Hi," Stiles says, not knowing what else to offer.
"Do you know why you were sent here?"
"I stress shifted," Stiles says.
"That's why you would have been sent to Principal Thomas."
"I stress shifted into different things."
"It's a problem."
"Isn't it?" Stiles says, raising an eyebrow. He swears if he gets a and how does that make you feel out of this woman he's leaving.
"Principal Thomas believes it's disruptive to the other students and wants me to sign off on transferring you."
"What?" Stiles barks, sitting up abruptly from his slouch, all hope that this was just a routine buck up camper chat disappearing. Transfer in his senior year? Stiles couldn't imagine anything more disruptive to him. He has no idea where he could go. The closest high school is in Appalokia, a solid hour's drive away.
"Would that be an issue?"
"Yes that would be an issue," Stiles sneers, angry. "You can't do this."
"I can," Morrell assures him levelly. It's not a threat, just a statement of fact and Stiles feels wholly helpless, his fate in her hands.
He can't imagine having to go to another school. He's not exactly having the best time at BHHS, but he figures it's a case of better the devil you know. He's grown up with these kids and they tease him and roll their eyes, sure, but they also tolerate him. More importantly, he has Scott here, his brother from another mother. If he had to leave, deal with a whole new set of people with no supportive best friend to have his back?
He can't imagine it.
"But it doesn't necessarily mean I will," Morrell says, sitting back.
"What do I have to do?" Stiles asks, because he knows there's a catch somewhere, that Morrell is not just going to be nice to him and give him a chance without him performing some kind of trick like a trained seal to appease everyone.
Morrell flips through some papers on her desk and comes up with a card. She flicks it a couple of times with her thumb before handing it over and watches Stiles as he reads it, rubs a finger over the neat, no-nonsense black type on white card stock.
D. Hale. Settlement Mentor
"A life coach?" Stiles scoffs, unimpressed. He's not about to go cry on some guy's couch about how his dad didn't get him the baseball glove he wanted when he was six no matter what the stakes.
"I'm surprised you haven't sought out a Settlement Mentor before now, considering," Morrell says, unruffled by Stiles' derision.
"I'd say that's because it's a made up job. This guy probably goes along to ridiculous occupation title conventions with Problem Wranglers and Brand Evangelists."
"Hale is very good at what he does."
Stiles snorts. "How is some doctor with a too-big sweater and a bad comb-over going to help me be normal?"
"You don't think you're normal?" Morrell asks coolly and dammit, Stiles walked right into that one. He must have set her little Counselor's heart all aflutter by letting something like that slip.
"I think if Jackson could leave me alone for two seconds then I wouldn't need a Settlement Mentor. You should have him in here, ask him why he's so obsessed with me. It's really unhealthy."
"You've stress shifted before without Mr. Whittemore present, haven't you?"
"Yes," Stiles allows grudgingly after a lengthy pause. "Not this week though. I was having a good week."
"Well, I'll see what I can do to dissuade Mr Whittemore from bothering you."
"Oh god, don't. Just forget I said anything," Stiles groans, because the last thing he needs is the Guidance Counselor going up to Jackson and asking him to leave poor, broken Stiles alone.
He'll never live it down.
"I can only help you as much as you'll allow me to."
"Why do you want to help me?"
"It's my job," Morrell says and there's a shrug in her voice which is an impressive vocal trick.
"The last guy just kept giving me the same speech about being a more effective person. Sometimes he didn't even look up from his Kale salad to say it," Stiles says.
"I'm sorry you were let down in the past. I'll try not to let that happen this time."
"Seriously, why not just help Thomas wash your hands of me?" Stiles asks, interested. Morrell might simply be a crusader type, believing everyone is a special snow flake and can be saved, but he doesn't quite believe that.
"I find you to be a fascinating case," Morrell says.
"I know you won't believe it, but you're extremely unique."
"Oh, I believe it," Stiles scoffs.
"Not in a bad way," Morrell says. "Yes, you haven't settled yet and that is very unusual," Morrell continues, ignoring Stiles' eyeroll. "Most people will go through an assortment of shifts before they settle into their soulform, but they generally stick to the same genus. Those that end up a kind of dog go through different dogs, those that settle as birds are different birds, that kind of thing. They might stray out of the borders of species, but not very far. There seems to be no limit to the type of form you can take. I have a report of you shifting into a horse during an Economics exam last year, Stiles. A horse."
"Finstock was livid," Stiles muses.
"You strike me as the kind of person that would read everything they could about something that affects them, so I know you're probably already aware of how rare a horse shift is, not to mention that it is completely undocumented as being any of the temporary shifts someone can achieve. The horse is always a final soulform."
Morrell has him pegged right, he does already know this. He's researched it and the horse is only superseded on the rarity and awesome scale by someone whose soulform is something from the wilder branches of the Canidae family, a wolf, a jackal or a fox. If Stiles' final soulform turns out to be a horse he can rub it in people's faces, Jackson's face.
There's just one problem.
"I turned into a guinea pig right after that," Stiles says, trying to put a pin in Morrell's enthusiasm before he lets it infect him. He's well aware that while he isn't able to settle he's still marginally interesting and that's probably the only good thing about it. As soon as he does settle, most likely into something mundane and unremarkable, that little blip of the unusual in his life will disappear and he'll roll on into the obscurity he was always meant for.
"Take this home to your dad and discuss it with him. The mentoring services aren't cheap, but you have to sign up to this or we have to discuss a transfer. Those are your options," Morrell says, handing over a pamphlet like Stiles had been expecting all session. It's not the usual material he usually gets from Concerned Adults though, instead it's a tri-folded, brightly colored explanation of Settlement Mentoring and what it can do. The only similarity to the reading material he normally receives is the intended audience. There's a photo of a young girl giving a neat little woman a high five and a smiling boy surrounded by friends.
Stiles sighs heavily, resigned to the fact that his life is going to become full of caring pseudo-fatherly pats and hand puppets.
He shudders. He freakin' hates hand puppets.
"Maybe it'll be a good thing," Scott hedges, ever the optimist. His face has gone all weird and tight though, and Stiles is wondering what he's done to upset his friend in the last twenty minutes of ranting.
"You think I'm defective like everyone else, that I need this?"
"It's not that," Scott says, shoulders drawing up to his ears.
"But it's something? What? You finally decided I'm too much of a loser, even for you?" Stiles asks, suddenly heartsick at the thought.
"No, dude, god, never," Scott asserts, eyes going wide with horror at the very idea. "Bros for life, always."
"Yeah, okay," Stiles says and watches Scott fidget for another few moments before he makes flaily, well, lay it on me hands at him.
"It's just... I really do think it could be a good thing. I mean dude, I don't care if you never settle, but obviously you do."
"I don't care," Stiles denies and it's so blatantly untrue that Scott rolls his eyes at him.
"Yes you do, or you'd be treating this like every other lame thing a Counselor has made you do, ever. Remember when you had to keep a shift journal?"
"That was super lame," Stiles agrees.
"Well, you did that without this much complaining."
Stiles did keep the journal like he was asked, just probably not the way Mr Browning, the school counselor at the time, was expecting. He was supposed to keep a record of his shifting, the times, how he felt when it happened and what he shifted into. He had to do it when he was eleven and only regarded as a late bloomer instead of whatever it was people thought of him now. Mr Browning hadn't exactly been impressed by Stiles' stick-figure renderings of his shifted forms pooping on every page. Stiles had only just read that Everyone Poops book and even though he called it an homage, Browning didn't see it that way and gave him detention and stopped giving him motivational speeches.
"I kinda wish I'd been taken to see someone like this," Scott adds, surprising Stiles.
"You? Why would-?" Stiles starts to ask, scrunching his face up but when Scott just looks at his hands, Stiles feels like a major asshole for even starting to question Scott wanting to see a Settlement Mentor.
Scott had settled when he was nine, bang on perfect developmentally speaking, but it was his final soulform that had been the problem. They'd always hoped Scott would go avian like his mom, the sparrow. He and Stiles had spent the summer they'd both turned eight pouring over bird books, Scott excitedly pointing out all different kinds, wondering what he'd settle as. The fact that his unsettled forms had been more furred than feathered should have warned them of what was to come, but they'd probably both been in denial.
Scott spent a solid twelve hours letting out horrible wounded noises and biting at himself when he had his soulshift and it was into a Labrador, just like his father. His mother had cuddled him close, had promised him that it meant nothing, that he was still just like her but Scott had been devastated and Stiles had felt absolutely powerless to help him.
"Your dad is a yellow, just like his belly but you're chocolate, just like... chocolate!" Stiles had tried to reassure him at the time, sitting folded into Scott with his skinny arms clutched tightly around his friend when Scott had finally shifted back into his human skin while Melissa was making them both spaghetti and meatballs.
"I don't...want...to be... him," Scott had gotten out with a trembling, watery voice between heartbroken sobs and Stiles had shook his head and squeezed him tighter.
"Never ever cause you got me. Already completely different."
Looking at him now, at the way Scott still hurts over that time even though his father has come back into his life and is trying to mend the bridges he left burned behind him makes Stiles reevaluate his predicament. There isn't a soulform he wouldn't like, apart from maybe a lizard like Jackson. He's fortunate in that way, completely open to possibility.
Maybe he does just need a little help.
"I'll go, and I won't even make fun of the guy's half-moon glasses which I'm sure he wears," Stiles huffs.
"Your dad wears those," Scott says.
"Yeah, but he also wears a gun so there's a good reason I don't make fun of him."
"Hey kid, I didn't see you there," his dad says when he finally looks up to see Stiles hovering.
"I have to give you this," Stiles says with a grimace and hands over the letter Morrell had given him to go along with the pamphlet explaining how this was his only option if he didn't want to lose his place at school. Stiles watches his dad slump when he recognizes the Beacon Hills High logo on the envelope.
"What did you-?" his dad stops himself before he can ask the question, but Stiles hears what he doesn't say anyway. What did you do this time? Stiles pulls out the chair opposite his dad and sits, picking at his nails and then twisting his watch around his wrist fitfully, waiting. The Sheriff looks up at him after the handful of moments it takes him to read through the letter and Stiles hands over the pamphlet next dutifully without prompting. The Sheriff takes a belt of fortifying whiskey before he opens the pamphlet and even though he doesn't sigh, Stiles knows he wants to.
He'd been tempted to shred the letter and the pamphlet but he knows this is something he can't hide from.
"It sounds like this could help you," his dad says eventually, chin tucked into his chest as he reads over the pamphlet for what looks like the second time with a frown between his brows.
"Maybe," Stiles says, but he doesn't really believe it. There's something wrong with him deep down inside where no one can reach and the sooner the people around him realize that the better. Stiles is starting to think that this mentor guy will be good for that. If a professional declares him unsalvageable, then maybe the people in his life he keeps hurting will finally be able to as well.
"It's, um, expensive," his dad says haltingly and Stiles winces again. His mom had had a pretty good life insurance policy, but the money had been wiped out by her medical expenses and it hadn't been enough to cover them completely. Stiles knows his dad does as much overtime as he can because they still aren't in the clear. He's seen the envelopes with the threatening red stamps on them even though his dad does his best to hide them.
His dad pulls an apologetic face, like he's even got anything to be sorry for when he looks up at Stiles and notices his expression. "You don't need to worry. We'll be alright."
"What if..." Stiles hesitates and while his father watches him patiently, Stiles mulls over what question he really wants to ask.
What if this guy really finds something wrong with me?
Maybe getting a definitive answer won't be better than what they have now.
"Can't hurt to try this, huh?" his dad prompts and he's actually starting to look marginally hopeful, that maybe this is the answer they've been searching for. That maybe Stiles can be fixed, can be normal.
"If he pulls out hand puppets, I am out of there," Stiles warns and his dad chuffs a laugh, a rare sound in their house these days.
"I won't hold that against you," his dad agrees.
"Sorry, I really have the wrong place," Stiles says, frowning down at the pamphlet and wondering if there's another Hitchen Street in Beacon Hills.
The guy notices what he's holding and his face clears. "You're Mr Stilinski?"
"Stiles," he corrects automatically, and then, "You're Doctor Hale?" he asks, dubious. His luck just can't be this good. The Settlement Mentor is not a cardigan wearing sixty-year old. Instead he's an almost obnoxiously hot twenty-something in jeans and a stripey sweater with thumb-holes that makes him look like a darkside Doctor Seuss character.
"Not a Doctor. The D stands for Derek," he corrects and gestures for Stiles to come in.
Stiles follows Derek inside the loft and can see exposed brick and high, arched windows. There's a spiral staircase off to the side, presumably leading up to a bedroom and a large, brown leather sectional couch dominating most of the living room. The galley kitchen takes up one corner and there's a door in the shadow of the staircase that must be the bathroom or another bedroom. Derek lets Stiles gawp for a few moments while he crosses to the kitchen.
"Coffee? Tea? I might have a soda in the back of the fridge somewhere-"
"I'm good," Stiles interrupts, waving Derek off and he nods and holds a glass under the faucet in the kitchen, getting a water for himself. He comes back towards Stiles and ends up herding him mostly by proximity to the couch. Stiles perches on one corner of the sectional, unsure how comfortable he should make himself as Derek sets his glass on a big, flat wooden chest that looks to be doing double-duty as a coffee table, before dragging a smaller armchair over so he can sit facing Stiles.
"So," Derek says, leaning forward and giving Stiles a level, serious look. "I'm going to tell you something now and I don't expect you to believe it straight away, but my goal will be to get you there."
Stiles sits back, his hopefulness that maybe this will be something real evaporating. Derek is about to give him some tritely conciliatory phrase, he just knows it. He's going to say the words, it'll get better or we'll get through this together or even worse, this will work if you let it. All phrases once uttered, will never let Stiles take Derek seriously again.
"There's nothing wrong with you."
Stiles blinks, truly surprised for one of the few times in his life. "Uh, what?"
"There's nothing wrong with you," Derek repeats.
"Are you about to tell me this is all in my head, because that's-"
"Stiles, listen to me. There's nothing wrong with you."
"You think you can put that on a certificate so I can show my principal the next time he threatens to expel my ass?"
"Like I said, you won't believe me right now, but you will get there. If you don't, I haven't done my job."
"You offer a refund with that guarantee?" Stiles asks, incredulous.
"Sure, if that's what you need."
"Uh, what?" Stiles finds himself saying for the second time in as many minutes.
"Miss Morrell didn't tell you what I do, did she?"
"She gave me a pamphlet," Stiles says, waving it.
"That's... those services aren't for the cases that are recommended to me."
"Are you saying I'm special?" Stiles scoffs.
"The majority of people I help see me because they're having trouble reconciling who they think they should be with the soulform they've taken," Derek explains and Stiles thinks of Scott automatically, thinks that maybe a guy like this really could have helped him.
"If you only help people that have already settled, then what the fuck am I doing here?" Stiles asks, frustrated.
"I didn't say that. Yes, it's the majority of my clients, but I also work with people who will never... settle."
"You're saying I won't, just like that? That's a bit defeatist, isn't it?"
"We're expected to settle because that's what the majority do, but I think the issue here is that most mistake majority for normal. Whatever is right for you, is right."
"Did you read that off a bumper sticker or something?"
"Not exactly," Derek huffs. "To be honest with you, it's something my mother said to me when I never shifted into anything other than a wolf."
"How can you help anyone with settlement issues when you were basically settled from birth?" Stiles asks snidely.
"You might not believe it, but the path I took was seen as being just as abnormal as yours."
"You were popular in high school, weren't you? I bet you were on all the sports teams and invited to all the parties. There's no way you could ever understand what my life is like," Stiles snits.
"Yes, I was. I was super popular, right up until my whole family died in a house fire when I was fifteen," Derek snaps, then blinks like he's surprised at himself for letting that slip.
"Sorry, I didn't-" Stiles starts to say meekly, feeling awful.
"No, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that. Stiles, I want to help you be okay with what is happening to you and Miss Morrell will fight your Principal on trying to remove you from school if you work with me. If you don't, or I don't feel like you're giving me one hundred percent, then you'll just be another kid that slips through the cracks and I'd hate to see that happen to you."
"He's... not as old as I thought he'd be," Stiles says, because he's unsure how to describe Derek without sounding like he has some kind of pathetic crush. He really wants to help me and I think I've found someone who actually means what they say and he has an amazing hip to shoulder ratio all sound way too trite and the last one a little smitten.
"Oh, you like him," Scott says, sounding delighted. Stiles obviously needs a new, better friend who won't be able to read him so easily.
Who's he kidding? There's no one better than Scott.
"He helps people who are having trouble with their soulform," Stiles says and it's a blatant subject change and a pretty below the belt one at that.
It works though. Scott's eyes go round and interested and he says, "Really?"
"Yeah. Apparently a lot of people have trouble reconciling themselves with their final soulforms," Stiles explains, because hearing about other people not settling when they were supposed to actually made Stiles feel better, like he wasn't some one-off freak of nature and maybe it would do the same for Scott, knowing that there were others out there who didn't feel like they fit the soulform they'd settled into.
Stiles would never tell Scott that deep-down he thought his friend suited a canine soulform much better, that Stiles had never seen Scott as avian in any way. Scott's unwavering loyalty and boundless enthusiasm were common traits of the canine shifters and if his deadbeat dad hadn't ruined it for him, Scott might even have been able to be happy in his fur.
Scott looks thoughtful at this, rubbing at his chin and then tugging free pieces of grass from the ground to toss into the air. The wind catches them and they unerringly all hit Stiles in the face. He splutters and brushes them away, laughing with a, "Dude, c'mon."
They're quiet for a while, each lost in their own thoughts. Stiles has his phone out after the quiet stretches a little too long and is futzing with it, when Scott says something mostly into his chest.
"What bud?" Stiles asks, not quite catching it.
"I said it does, y'know, help? That's why you told me right? That there are others?"
"Yeah, I... yeah."
"Derek told me there were people that never settled. That they always..." Stiles makes a gesture with his hands even he doesn't really know the meaning of. A kind of mix between spirit-fingers and a flappy bird but Scott seems to get it, nodding solemnly.
"I mean, that's actually pretty cool, right? They can shift into anything, their whole lives?" Scott says. Stiles checks his expression quickly, worried Scott is just humoring him but he clearly isn't. Instead his face is contemplative, like maybe the positive of Stiles' situation has never even occurred to him.
"I guess," Stiles says, not able to get all the way there yet, to believe it means anything other than that he's broken somehow.
"Close your eyes, Stiles," Derek says, his voice coming from the kitchen.
"I've tried meditating a million times. It doesn't work."
"I didn't tell you to meditate."
"What am I doing then?"
"You're sitting still and not thinking about anything," Derek says.
"That's what meditating is."
"You say potato-"
"You also say potato, because no one says pot-tar-to," Stiles interrupts and flops backwards, setting the stone aside and tossing the marble up and down like a baseball. It's small and heavy and it's only a matter of time before he misses because Stiles is not the most coordinated person in the world and the marble hits him in the middle of the forehead on the fourth throw. "Ow, fuck!"
"You okay?" Derek asks, coming over and looking down at Stiles and if Stiles didn't know any better, he would think Derek was fighting a smile.
"When are you going to start imparting all this wisdom I'm paying for?"
"Your dad is paying for," Derek corrects.
"Potato, po-tar-to," Stiles smarts back.
"Get back into position, do what I say." There's a beat and then Derek says, "Wax on, wax off."
"Oh you are not doing a Karate Kid on me, are you? Giving me useless exercises that will suddenly make sense when I have to fight some dude in black pajamas and a mullet?"
"You have a strange brain."
"Should you be saying that as my shift mentor?"
"Stiles, I'm just trying to get you to be still for a change, make you see that it's possible. You expend so much energy just being you that it's no wonder you don't have any energy for anything else, like controlling your shift."
"I don't see how-"
"You're not going to be bad at this."
"How do you know that? I'm bad at a lot of things," Stiles huffs. Derek offers him a hand and Stiles hesitates for a moment before he takes it, letting Derek tug him back into a sitting position. Derek then hunkers down in front of him, pointedly hands Stiles back the stone and the marble.
"Stiles, I'm not a teacher, this isn't a class and this certainly isn't a pass-fail situation. If you don't try, the only person you're hurting is you."
"You really do talk in nothing but motivational posters, don't you?"
Derek does smile then, shaking his head. He puts his hands up, makes claws and says, "Hang in there, Stiles."
"Wolf's got jokes," Stiles says, snorting.
"Okay, you want something harder?"
"Yes, please," Stiles says, because he doesn't think he can handle more sitting still and doing nothing. Anything is preferable to doing nothing.
Except what Derek says next.
"Okay, shift into something."
Stiles blinks. "What?"
"Shift into something. Anything. Your choice."
"I can't just-"
"Yes, you can," Derek says, not even letting Stiles finish the denial.
"I really can't."
"You spend so long trying not to shift, that it's no wonder you stress shift. You should practice, just at more appropriate times."
"More appropriate times, huh?" Stiles says, laughing shakily and Derek just sits, waiting, patient. "Any requests?"
"I heard you've shifted into a horse," Derek says, raising his eyebrows.
"Yeah, I'm pretty sure that was a one-off, and it was more of a pony."
"Anything you want," Derek says and settles back, hands resting on his knees, looking like he can wait all night if he needs to.
Stiles just stares at him for a second, wondering if Derek is going to break first, tell him he's just joking. He doesn't though, just looks mild and unassuming, wearing glasses and a sweater and looking everything and nothing like Stiles had first imagined.
Stiles finally gives up waiting for Derek to tell him to forget it and tries, reaching down into that deep place in everyone where the shift resides, where his deeper, baser self is. By this age, that place should be one constant shape, easy to pull to the surface, easy to squash down again. He should be reaching into a place of constancy and consistency, but instead Stiles feels like he's plunging his hands into a whirlpool, he's as unbalanced as if he were standing on sand being dragged out with the tide.
He falls, rather than shift into shape and when he does he hears something, a jumble of words in a woman's voice that he can't parse the meaning of and he's shoved sideways, skittering over the surface of the shape he was aiming for before plummeting into something else.
He's a rabbit for about a second, small and blotchy with too-big feet and ears before he's back to human, panting and trying to drag the piles of his clothes across himself. Derek's there with a towel, one of those giant bath sheet kinds that's overly fluffy and pleasantly warm like it's just out of the dryer. He bundles Stiles up, who's shaking and sweaty and feeling like failure personified.
Which is why it doesn't make sense that Derek is rubbing his arms, his back and saying, "Good Stiles, that's great."
"How i-i-i-i-is that g-g-g-great?" Stiles says through chattering teeth. He's freezing and too-hot at once, the shift always throwing his temperature control for a loop.
"I asked you to shift and you did. That was perfect."
"That was crap," Stiles counters. "I tried to shift into a cat."
"Small steps," Derek says.
Stiles snorts indelicately. "If the steps are this small then I might find my soulform when I'm, oh, seventy maybe?"
"Everything takes time. Everything takes practice. You're not going to be good at something immediately."
"Says the guy who found his soulform when he was a zygote," Stiles grumbles.
"Miss Morrell says you're on the Lacrosse team. You weren't good at that right away, were you? It took practice."
"Yeesh, hate to tell you this but that is a terrible example if you're trying to be inspirational. I sit on the bench, get yelled at by Coach and if I'm lucky enough, I go the entire game without Jackson Whittemore aiming at my head even though I'm sitting on the sidelines."
Derek actually looks a little adorably stumped for a second before he says, "Okay, online gaming."
"You know about online gaming?"
"How old do you think I am?" Derek asks, incredulous.
"So, imagine you're a member of an online group that fights mythical creatures-"
"I am a member of an online group that fights mythical creatures," Stiles says and when Derek gives him an impatient look, Stiles just stares back at him guilelessly.
"Oh, right. Okay, so you had to start at level one, right? Work your way up?"
"Ye-es," Stiles says slowly.
"So, this is your level one. You're currently a shifter noob."
"Ugh, that is so demoralizing," Stiles groans, flopping back again.
Stiles agrees to try and shift on his own time too and not constantly squash the urge. He and Scott go out to the Preserve one night four weeks into seeing Derek and Scott gambols about like the giant puppy he is, nipping at Stiles' heels in his soulform and then darting away again into the underbrush. Stiles gives chase, hating how winded he gets immediately and wishing he could keep up.
It's just a passing thought, if I were a dog too flashes through his brain and suddenly Stiles just is, like he actually made it happen, like he controlled what he shifted into. Stiles is so surprised that he trips over a log and goes head over tail down an embankment, landing in a bog, startled, human again and completely naked.
He laughs, and he's still laughing when Scott finally finds him, looking perplexed and holding Stiles' pants.
"Don't drink out of the bottle," his dad scolds, cuffing Stiles on the back of the head and putting the milk back in the fridge.
"Uh, um?" Stiles says, flailing a hand at Derek who's turned around and is smiling mildly at them.
"Oh, Derek called and asked if it would be okay to come and observe your home life for an evening. I invited him for dinner."
"You invited him to make dinner?" Stiles corrects, gesturing at where Derek has resumed chopping.
"Your dad had a lot of paperwork to do and I had the ingredients for lasagne in the house already so I offered."
"I don't think dad should be eating that much cheese and pasta," Stiles says immediately and his dad cuffs him upside the head again with a derisive sound.
"Stiles, don't be rude."
"It's eggplant lasagna," Derek says. "No pasta and I use low fat ricotta cheese."
"Oh," Stiles and his dad both say in very different tones of voice.
"I kinda figured it would be the more traditional kind."
"Dad, don't be rude," Stiles hisses.
"I'm not saying it's bad," his dad says, although his face betrays his words.
"You kinda figured you'd be having a cheat night with a guest," Stiles accuses with narrowed eyes.
"Trust me, you'll swear it's bad for you when you taste it," Derek says, sounding amused and Stiles shuffles his dad back out of the kitchen and into the dining room where he has papers spread out across the table again but no tumbler of whiskey this time.
"So, he's a little different than what I was expecting," his dad says when he sits down.
"Yeah, me toof," Stiles says, possibly a little too enthusiastically and his dad raises a suspicious eyebrow. "I mean, you know, no puppets."
"Yes, he doesn't strike me as the puppet type," his dad agrees, still looking canny so Stiles tries valiantly to change the subject.
"Eggplant lasagna, huh? Derek's not even hiding the vegetables. They're like, in your face," Stiles enthuses, waggling his fingers in front of his dad's eyes until the man knocks his hand away with a bereaved snort. "Think you can handle it?"
"Despite what you may think, I actually didn't just subsist on burgers and beer before you were around. I treated myself once in a while-"
"Once in a while?" Stiles scoffs.
"It's all about moderation."
"What does it say about moderation when you finish an entire dozen Krispy Kreme donuts by yourself, huh?"
"Who ratted me out? Was it Parrish? Evans? No, I bet it was Doyle," his father grumbles, not even bothering to deny it.
"I can't control what you eat when you're in the wild, just let me have some semblance of control when we're home, okay?"
"Dinner will be in the oven for about twenty. Stiles, why don't you show me your room?" Derek says, appearing from the kitchen entryway.
"Um, sure?" Stiles says, racking his brain briefly if he's got anything embarrassing lying out in the open. Apart from an overflowing hamper and the fact that he has a box of tissues on his side-table and there's really only one reason a teenage boy has those in easy reach when they don't have sinus problems, Stiles thinks he's probably good.
"Keep the door open," his dad says and Stiles spins around and glares at him when he and Derek are at the bottom of the stairs.
"Seriously, dad! Derek's my mentor, not my date."
"Uhuh," his dad says, unmoved, looking over his glasses at him.
"You bring a lot of guys home?" Derek asks as they head up, and it would sound completely innocuous, except Derek is looking at his feet when he asks and... huh.
"Depends on what your definition of a lot is," Stiles tries instead of a real answer and Derek's head jerks up quickly before he ducks it away again.
"The answer is a big no on that one," Stiles says as he pushes his bedroom door open. He's got a pile of clean underwear on the corner of his bed he forgot about and he ducks inside to scoop it up and jam it into the nearest open drawer. "I mean, living with the Sheriff is a little bit of a mood killer, even if there were anyone who was actually interested enough."
"I'm sure you do fine," Derek says vaguely, looking around the room in interest.
Stiles tries to see what Derek is seeing, his room from an outsider's perspective. It's not very exciting, it's pretty damn typical actually. He has a desk with his laptop sitting on it and a couple of small bookshelves crammed with paperback novels and school books, recent and from the last couple of years. His bed is only roughly made, mostly because he sleeps with a comforter and a flat sheet so he only needs to tug the comforter up over the mattress in the morning and call it good. His closet is standing open, crammed tight with a startling array of over-sized checkered shirts and by-now undersized button-ups and his clothes hamper is pushed into one corner, a couple of shirt sleeves dangling out like his shirts are making a bid for freedom.
He can't blame them, it's probably pretty ripe in there by now.
Derek goes over to his small television, toeing aside one of the game controllers that's halfway across the floor where Stiles dropped it the night before when he was heading to bed. "You got anything good?"
Stiles gestures at one of the bookshelves, half a shelf taken up with games instead of books and Derek leans over to peruse his collection. Stiles tries not to stare at his butt when he does, but he's only human and it's fantastic.
"I wanted to come over because I wanted you to be in a safe place when I broached something," Derek says when he's upright and facing Stiles again.
"Okay," Stiles almost squeaks. Derek is super, mega, out-of-this-world hot and if this conversation is going the way he thinks it's going, then he can't be blamed for vocal calisthenics.
"There's something I think we both know by now," Derek says, stepping forward and Stiles swallows, hard.
"Uhuh," he says, matching Derek's step forward.
"Something that neither of us can deny, we have to face it, together."
"It's been a long time since I've felt something like this."
"It's all new to me," Stiles says, huffing a nervous laugh and watching as Derek raises a hand and puts it on Stiles' shoulder, like it's happening in slow motion. Stiles swallows thickly again, leans forward a little more and-
"Stiles, I think you might be blocked."
"What with the what now?" Stiles says, blinking and freezing in place.
"There's something stopping you from settling. I don't know what it is, but you need better help than I can give you to find out what that something is. I've asked Miss Morrell and she's given me the names of a couple of people that would be willing to take you on for free-"
"Wait, you're getting rid of me? You wanted me in a safe place so you could... break up with me?"
"Stiles, I'm trying to do what's best for you."
"You're what's best for me," Stiles counters. "I'm doing well. I haven't stress shifted since I started seeing you. It's all working."
"Stiles, I've given you some good coping mechanisms, but I've also been selfish because you're a really interesting case. While yes, there are people out there that don't settle and I can certainly help them, I don't think that's what's going on with you and it's been unfair of me to keep you on. It's possible you'll always have the unique ability to shift into other forms, but you do have a soulform, I'm sure of it. There's just something preventing you from reaching it, in here," Derek says, tapping his knuckles gently against Stiles' forehead.
"I thought you were going to..." Stiles thankfully is able to stop himself before he finishes the sentence and Derek frowns at him.
"Going to what?"
"I'm just an interesting case, huh? That's all?"
"Stiles, of course not. I think you could call us friends now. If you want to call me to chat, any time-"
"I think you should go now," Stiles says woodenly.
"What? Stiles, I didn't-"
"You can leave the details of whoever you're passing me off to with my dad." Stiles turns and slides into his desk chair, boots up his laptop.
"Stiles," Derek tries again.
"We're done, right?" Stiles says, bringing up youtube. He needs to watch videos of cats falling off things. He really needs to do that and not look at Derek anymore who is giving up on him, just like everyone else.
"This is what's best for you," Derek says and Stiles winces, because that's the kind of condescendingly trite phrase he hadn't thought he'd ever hear out of Derek.
Stiles isn't smarting off like usual, and that must unsettle both Harris and Jackson because Harris excuses himself after ten minutes with a stern, "Move and I'll tack on another week of afternoon detention and before you whine about it, I don't care what kind of sporting practice you just have to be at," and the moment he's gone Jackson leans forward.
"What's with you?"
Stiles doesn't even bother looking up from picking at the skin around his nails to answer Jackson's question. He's not sure what Jackson wants him to say, but he's pretty sure he knows why Jackson thinks something's off. They'd been having a quiz and Diana Winters had leaned across to ask Stiles what he'd gotten for number six and Stiles had merely opened his mouth, hadn't even answered yet when Harris said, "Detention Stiles, no talking during the test."
Stiles had only said, "Fine," and slumped back in his chair disconsolately and everyone had kind of stared at him after that, because Stiles didn't usually let Harris get away with punishing him unfairly without some kind of objection.
"Stilinski, I know you can hear me," Jackson says and a pencil edges into Stiles' sight line to tap at his knuckles.
"Can we just not today?" Stiles sighs, feeling very tired.
"What? Are you too much of a sad panda? Have you been replaced by a robot?"
"Why can't you just leave me alone? You've been on me since we were kids," Stiles complains, finally looking up.
"Maybe because you think you're better than everyone else."
"Look who's talking," Stiles scoffs.
"You just have to be the most special one, don't you? They should have booted you to Silver Lakes High with the rest of the rejects but no, you're coddled and there's special circumstances and we're all told to be careful and tolerant and-"
"What are you talking about?" Stiles cuts in, frowning.
"It's not enough that everyone thought you were the first one to settle when we were kids. Now we're having special assemblies on how we all have to walk on eggshells around you."
"Special assemblies? What the hell are you talking about?" Stiles demands, then the first part of what Jackson said registers and he shakes his head. "Wait, what do you mean about the first one to settle?"
"You were a fox when you were like, eight and it seemed to stick. Like that's a big deal," Jackson sneers. "Turns out it wasn't true anyway because after your mom-"
"I've never been a fox," Stiles interrupts to deny, feeling everything narrow down to just him and Jackson and the table. The library disappears and a swelling blackness starts to edge Stiles' vision. His heart is racing, his breathing is picking up, he is starting to feel dizzy and Stiles thinks, oh no, no, no, not now.
If he stress shifts in the library with Jackson as the only witness, he'll be kicked out of school for sure.
"You can't tell me you don't remember. Your mom called you her little kit whenever she dropped you off at school. It was nauseating."
"I've never... no," Stiles says faintly but then a memory side-swipes him, almost as clear as if he were living it. A memory that had been walled off so solidly that he hadn't thought about it in years, hadn't let himself think about it.
Curled up on a narrow bed with rails, the smell of antiseptic and bleach thick in his nostrils and the fading beep of a heart monitor the only sound apart from his mother struggling for breath. She's struggling for every precious bit of air but she still finds the strength to run her fingers through his fur, saying soft and warm, "My little kit. My precious fox-boy. I'm sorry, so sorry, I don't want to go. I wouldn't leave you. I wouldn't ever leave you if I had a choice."
Stiles pushes back from the library table, the chair falling over with his jerking movement. "What the hell?" Jackson barks but Stiles is beyond hearing him, beyond hearing anything but the roaring of his blood in his ears. He shifts without thought and without direction, just lets his body take the form it wants.
The form it's always wanted.
A large, furry head appears in the circle of light in front of him and he vaguely remembers that he'd run all the way to the Preserve without stopping, that when he got there he found a hollow log that was big enough for him to scramble into, letting him be completely surrounded by wood and earth and living smells. The wolf, Derek, his brain supplies through the still settling noise, whuffles at him gently and paws at the ground at the edge of the log. Derek's too big to fit inside and wants him to come out from the sounds of complaint he's making.
Stiles humps forward carefully, belly and ears low, no sudden movements. It's Derek, but he's still a wolf and Stiles is... not. He's not sure what he is, although there's a voice in the back of his mind that says, yes, yes you do, you know exactly what you are. He shies away from it, just knows he's smaller than Derek now, more so than when they're human.
Only the tip of his nose is out when Derek leans down and licks him. Stiles would make a sound of disgust, but it doesn't seem to be in his current form's repertoire and all he makes is another small chirpy bark that sounds more approving of the gesture than he meant it to. He only gets a little further out into the air when Derek grabs him gently by the scruff and tugs him all the way out, obviously impatient.
Derek is... wearing a backpack and that's probably the weirdest part of his day so far.
Stiles makes a chortling noise and ducks forward to nip at the backpack. Derek pushes him over into the grass with his large head and then pins him with a wide, front paw. Stiles flails a little, legs and tail thrashing but Derek merely paffs him with his other paw and waits until Stiles is still.
Then Derek shifts.
He's still got one hand splayed over Stiles' ribcage when he shrugs off the backpack and tugs out a pair of pants. He only lets go long enough to roll away and pull them on, then he's back but he smiles when he sees Stiles hasn't moved, still lying on his side, tongue lolling and eyes tracking his every move.
"What am I going to do with you?" Derek sighs, running a firm, sure hand down Stiles' flank and he squirms. It's ticklish, even through the fur. "C'mon, I can't really talk to you like this. It's not going to be a constructive dialogue," Derek prompts, tugging the point of one of Stiles' ears.
Like it's that easy to shift back.
When Stiles thinks about it, though, it is. He's stretching out human hands and digging his human feet into the earth on his next blink, then hurriedly pulling on the sweatpants Derek hands over and tugging the hoodie he's offered next over his head, grateful and also more than a little embarrassed.
"Hi there," Derek says, gentle and Stiles offers him a tight quirk of his mouth.
"I think I really messed this up," Derek says and Stiles squints at him in the darkness, pulling his hands into the hoodie sleeves and wiping one over his cold nose.
"Well, you did unceremoniously dump me," Stiles says and then grimaces when Derek gives him a shrewd look.
"You keep saying stuff like that, broke up with you and dumped you. That's not the way you talk about ending a professional relationship," Derek says gently and Stiles sighs and buries his head in his hands.
"Is that why you wanted to palm me off, because I have a pathetically awful crush on you?" Stiles asks. He can't believe this is his life, that he has stuff going on that's important and yet he's managed to reduce himself to some kind of Young Adult drama castoff.
Derek blinks at him and then kind of shuffles in place, rubs over the back of his head and says, "Uh, no. The opposite actually."
"The opposite? What does that mean?"
"It means," Derek says, huffing and looking almost pained. "That I couldn't keep a professional distance from you and that was a problem. I was worried that me being so invested ultimately wouldn't do you any favors and..." Derek flips his hands in a kind of fitful way. "How did you put it? I have a pathetically awful crush on you, made all the worse because you're still in high school."
"I'm eighteen," Stiles says immediately, hope spiking through him. He can't quite believe that he's in the middle of a forest, wearing someone else's clothes, he's just stress shifted in front of Jackson freaking Whittemore and yet this still has the potential to turn into the best day of his life.
"And yet," Derek says, narrowing his eyes.
"Okay, so I'm in high school, but for like, only six more months."
"I was going to gently move your care to someone else, we were going to be friends first and then, when you had an actual diploma in your hand and I didn't have to ever say the words I'm Derek Hale and this is my boyfriend who is still in high school, I was going to ask you out on, like, a proper date."
"Oh my god," Stiles squeaks.
"Don't say it."
"Oh my god," Stiles repeats, a little higher-pitched, lacing his fingers over his mouth, eyes going large and round above them.
"You had a plan. There was an actual, bona fide plan here."
"Don't be so... pleased," Derek implores, but he's also biting down on a smile.
"Can I kiss you right now? I really want to."
"Diploma. Hand," Derek says pointedly.
"You're not seriously going to hold yourself to that, are you?"
"I am. I'm an adult, I can do sacrifice. I can resist the urge to have ice-cream for dinner even though there's no one to stop me and I can do this."
"Well, apparently, according to you, I'm not an adult and I can't," Stiles says and reaches for Derek who arrests his hands mid-flight.
"Stiles, we have to get you back to town. Your dad is worried. Everyone's worried."
"I think..." Stiles says, sobering a little, leaving his hands hanging limply in Derek's grip. "I think maybe Jackson Whittemore just... helped me."
"I'm sure he didn't mean to if that makes you feel any better," Derek says.
"It's still rocked my world, though. Jackson helped me. I think the phrase ye gads is actually appropriate right now."
"You found the reason you were blocked," Derek prompts, more a statement than a question.
"I couldn't even remember, or I didn't want to. God, my mom. She always loved when I was a fox. It was her favorite. In the hospital I'd be on her bed as a fox and she'd sleep with her hands in my fur. It seemed to be the only way she could sleep... in the end."
"That makes a lot of sense, that you were blocked because of that. Either it was too painful or you felt like the fox was hers and you couldn't shift into it without her there."
"You trying to shrink me? I don't think you're allowed to do that anymore," Stiles says with a side-long look at Derek and smiles when he blushes.
"Sorry, I think I'm always going to find you fascinating."
"That's not a terrible thing," Stiles allows and then, "So, what now?"
"You aren't magically fixed. You know that, right?"
"I meant with us, but yeah, I kinda figured. I suppose I can talk to someone else. Just, no puppets and no shift diaries."
"I swear, the people I recommended won't make you draw your feelings or make you talk to inanimate objects with googly eyes," Derek says solemnly, actually holding a hand against his heart.
"So what about us?" Stiles presses.
"I think we try being friends for a while, see how it goes."
"For six months?"
Derek snorts but then he's nodding. "Sure, six months."
"Diploma, hand, right?"
"You know, you have a standing invitation from my dad to come and cook us dinner. That's allowed, isn't it?"
"You guys ate my food?" Derek asks, looking surprised.
"I think my dad ate enough of that lasagna to have it blow past healthy and be back firmly in bad for him territory."
"I think dinner would be okay, especially considering we're going to have possibly the most hardcore chaperon in town."
"Don't ever call him hardcore to his face. He'll be impossible," Stiles groans.
"Wow, you are a super literal guy," Stiles says, breathless and laughing as Derek swings him around.
He hears what he assumes is Scott whooping and cat-calling from his place halfway back in the auditorium and another person, presumably Jackson, yell, "Get a room, gross!"
"We plan to!" Stiles yells back, uncaring of the spectacle he's making.
He'll care later that night when his dad shakes his head and then makes Derek sleep on the couch. It's fine though, they have plenty of time, hopefully the rest of their lives and many rooms and it helps when at about two in the morning, Stiles gets tugged out of his bed by the foot and unceremoniously dumped onto the floor by a wolf with a wide-open mouth in a silent chuckle and a lolling tongue.
"Dude, gross," Stiles complains, plucking off his sodden sock, but he follows Derek downstairs, shedding clothes as he goes and he's a fox by the time they hit the porch, leaping the stairs, running across the front lawn in the moonlight and knocking over Mrs Campbell's trash cans with a loud clatter.
His dad can deal with her yelling tomorrow.