When he sees the number flash up on his phone, Stiles grabs a cigarette preemptively. His dad doesn’t call. Not unless it’s his birthday or a holiday. Something’s up. Experience has taught him better than to hope for something good.
“Hey, Dad.” He winces, unable to come up with something better. He sounds awkward. Wrong. Stops himself from talking by taking a drag.
His dad doesn’t seem to notice. “Hey, Stiles. How’s it been?” Courtesy. It’s overrated.
“Fine. It’s been fine. What’s up?”
“Uh….” It isn’t like his dad to hesitate, to mince words. Something’s wrong. “I’m fine, alright? Just…I’m in the hospital right now.”
Stiles is suddenly very glad for the cigarette. Sucks on it like it’s keeping him alive. It might be.
“It’s okay, I’m alright, I just had a little— Well, okay, I had a heart attack. But I’m alright. I’m fine. I just…they told me to tell you, so I’m telling you. Just a heads up. I’m fine.”
“How fine? Do you need me to….” He can’t finish that sentence. Doesn’t want to. Doesn’t know how.
“I’m alright. Just had a little surgery. I get to leave here tomorrow.”
“But you’ll be in bed for a few days, then. You’ll need someone to help you out. I…Should I come down there?”
“I should be fine. Melissa said she’d drop by with dinner until I’m up on my feet again.”
Stiles takes a long drag, thinking, forcing himself to make the decision. “I’ll come down. I should be able to take a week or two off. I’ll book a flight.”
“No, you don’t have to—“
“Yeah. Yeah, I do. I’ll see you soon, okay?”
“Thanks. You’re a good son.”
No, I’m not, he thinks, but he hangs up before his mouth can form the words.
He sits in silence in his living room, smokes through half his pack steadily before he realizes that he actually has to ask for the time off, has to book the flight for the morning online, gonna cost a shit ton, has to pack, has to ask Randy next door to take care of Remus. So much shit to do, and he doesn’t want to handle any of it. Doesn’t think he can.
In the end, he finishes the pack, his last until he gets back, and gives up on sleep sometime in the early hours of the morning. It’s all useless anyway. He’ll be in hell in twelve hours, no use fighting it.
It takes an hour to get to town from the airport, and some small part of him is thrilled that he has to use GPS, that he’s forgotten the route. Not that it had been familiar in the first place.
The GPS directions take him through the woods, and that makes the hairs prick up on the back of his neck, but it’s okay, the rental car isn’t something they’d know, and his scent must have changed by now. There may be ghosts in those woods, but none of them will be able to haunt him. None of them will even know he’s here. He can be the ghost, then, the specter that winds through the town it used to know, trapped by memories.
His knuckles stand out white against his skin, shift when he moves his hands, ripple in a way that always makes him think of teeth and fur and red eyes.
But then he’s out of the woods and driving through the place he used to think of as home, still catches himself thinking of as home, past old haunts, the school, still standing though a part of him had been sure they’d burned it down they’d passed through so fast. The shadows here, standing out sharply against the mid-morning light, they call. Sirens from a time he’d worked long to push out.
The hospital looks the same, eerily so, and he tries to pretend he doesn’t have a thousand memories of being in that waiting room, of sleeping on those chairs, shaking in fear. He draws up to the nurses’ station, a familiar face behind it. A girl he went to school with but he can’t, for the life of him, remember her name.
“May I help you?”
“Yeah, I’m looking for Sheriff Stilinski?”
“Are you family?”
“Yeah. His son. Can I see him? Is he alright?”
She nods. “He’s recovering very well, don’t worry. Room 104. I can show you there?”
“No, it’s fine. I know my way around.” He’d told a joke once to some of the guys down at the shooting range, about how you know it’s bad when you know your way around the hospital. They’d laughed, thought he was being clever and not reminiscing. He’d let them think that. It had been easier.
He’s halfway there when a familiar voice stops him.
“Stiles? Is that you?” He turns, grinning. She’s aged a little, but still beautiful for a woman her age who’s been through what she has.
“Guilty as charged, Mrs. McCall.” The hug she wraps him in smells like it used to, like childhood. He laughs in spite of himself, then picks her up and spins her around because he knows it’ll freak her out.
“Jesus, Stiles,” she says when he puts her down. “You’re bigger than I remember.” Her hand is warm against his cheek. “You look…settled. Like you fit in your own skin. It’s a good look.” She smiles, breaks into a small, embarrassed laugh.
“Well, you look lovely as ever. If I were a few years older, I’d sweep you off your feet in a manly fashion.” She chuckles at him, tapping his cheek.
“You can certainly try.” The look she gives him is the one that made him love her, back when he was a gangly kid, and the one that made him miss his mother the most: unadulterated affection. It’s staggering.
“I should go see my dad. Is he being stubborn to all the nurses? I know how he gets.”
“Nothing we can’t deal with, but the doctor’s ready to let him go. I’m sure they’ll let you take him today.”
“How long are you staying for?”
He sighs. “As long as I need to, but probably not more than two weeks. My boss is understanding, but not that understanding. You know how it is.”
“Yeah. Well. You should come over for dinner sometime while you’re here. Scott and Allison and the brood come over Sundays.” He manages a weak smile and nod, but can’t make words. Doesn’t know how. “Here, let me show you to his room.”
It shouldn’t feel like a punch to the chest to see his dad in a hospital bed, but it does. It really does. It knocks the wind out of him.
“Stiles! You got here sooner than I thought you would.”
“Yeah. Uh. Time zones. All that. How’re you holding up?”
“Great,” he says, like he knows that Stiles will pretend he doesn’t know he’s lying. They barely know each other anymore, so how he knows that much is almost strange, but they’re good at lying to each other. Or at least good at pretending to believe each other.
In the end, it turns out that the doctor doesn’t want his dad to leave until after lunch, after he’s had some rest, the last bit said with a pointed look in Stiles’ direction. So he leaves. Takes his dad’s house keys, figures he’ll buy some groceries, make sure the house is nice for him to come home to. It’s not because he needs a moment there to himself, to take it in again with no one watching. Not entirely.
It’s weird, being at the grocery store. The set up is almost exactly the same, like he never left, like he’s just hopping over to get some snacks or Easy Mac for dinner. Like he’s a kid again.
In the aisle with bread and pasta, he sees her. Or at least he thinks he does. He isn’t sure. The hair’s the right color even if it’s short, above her shoulders, not long, like he remembers, and her build the same, just about. But it might be a stranger, and if he assumes, it’ll be weird if it is a stranger. So he shouldn’t approach. Not that he really wants to. But he’ll keep glancing over, pretending to look at farfalle, trying to figure out if it’s her or not until—
She turns his way, putting a loaf of bread in her cart, then looks up. Sees him. Stops. Grins with dimples. He never really thought he would, not this much, but he’d missed her.
“Stiles Stilinski. You gonna stand over there, or are you going to come give me a hug?” He smiles a little, taking her in. Notices the swell of her stomach. God, that’s surreal. But he makes his feet move, into her open arms. She squeezes him tight, like she thinks she might lose him. Then backs away, looks at him. Shakes her head. She’s still beautiful.
“It’s been a while.”
She laughs at the ridiculousness of it. “Yeah. Yeah, it really has. I…I just can’t get over it. Seeing you in the flesh. It’s crazy.”
He hopes, hopes hopes hopes, she somehow doesn’t remember that he didn’t come to the wedding. Didn’t come see when the kids were born. That he cut her, cut them, off entirely, like a crushed limb.
“Well. Know that you’re not going to be able to escape coming over while you’re in town. It’s happening, whether you like it or not.” She gives him a stern look that breaks into a sweet smile. “Jeez, what brings you to this neck of the woods anyway?”
“My dad. He, uh, had some health problems.”
She smacked herself in the forehead. “Crap, yeah, I heard about that. I’m sorry. Melissa said he’s doing alright, though?”
“Yeah, no, he’s doing better than expected. He’s just not supposed to do too much, so I’ll be helping him around the house for a little while, that kind of thing. Just a week or two, at the most.”
“Well.” She smiles brightly and nods, then starts digging around in her purse. “Here. Take my number. Call when you’re available. We’ll set something up. Okay?”
“Yeah.” He nods once, feeling like he’s on the edge of a cliff. There’s a question hiding behind his lips that’s ready to come out, but he won’t let it. Can’t. Not yet. He isn’t ready.
But Allison isn’t stupid. “Lydia and Jackson came back, after college. Danny didn’t, but he keeps in touch, visits a couple times a year. The rest, well, they’re living at the house. We still get together every other week.”
“Don’t tell them. I mean, Scott’s okay, but the rest…I’ll seek them out. I’m just not quite there yet.”
She nods, like she might actually understand, even though that’s not possible.
“Did Jackson and Lydia…?”
“They…they have a little boy, but the marriage didn’t stick. You know how they are. But they’re civil now.”
“Well. That’s. Good.” He shuffles a little, awkward. “So are you…you know?”
She smiles, shrugs. “Yeah. Pissed my dad off, but he understands. And it’s easier this way. Scott doesn’t have to worry about me, my dad doesn’t have to worry about me. It works.” He sighs, feeling like he’s got no control, like it’s all slipping away through his fingers. But then, it usually is.
“I used to think it was a dream sometimes. That I’d made it up in my head, like this giant trap of bad luck and bad decisions and everything gone wrong.” She touches his shoulder, gentle. Rubs her thumb over his collarbone. Like he needs consolation. Probably does.
“I know how hard it was, believe me. But—“ she shrugs “—things have changed a little. For the better. It wasn’t always like that. After you left…well, it wasn’t good. Not for a while. And it’s not your fault, I’m not saying that, but it was…interesting. For a little while. Some of dealt with it better than others.” And all of a sudden, like a flood, like a forest fire, he just wants to ask. To ask everything that he isn’t ever going to ask. To ask about Derek, how he handled it, even though the thought, the probability, of him barely even noticing his absence is just too raw, even still. So he can’t, not if he wants to stay on his feet, keep breathing. Can’t do it. Can’t ask. “But we’re all a big family now. It’s nice. It really is. We’re meeting tomorrow night. You should come.”
“No, I…I can’t. Not really there yet, you know? But I’ll see everyone in time. Just. Not right now. I have to get my dad settled. That sort of thing. I can’t yet.”
She looks at him for a moment, evaluating, then says, “How about this: Scott and I will make dinner and bring it over to your place? You can meet everyone, get to see Scott, and it saves you the trouble of having to cook.”
“It wouldn’t be right, I mean, that’s a lot of effort—“
“Then make a salad or something. Okay? We’ll come over around 6:30? Can’t go too late, with the girls and all, but how does that sound?”
He shrugs, defeated. “Yeah, sure, I guess.” She brightens, grins, leans in to kiss him on the cheek.
“Good. Then we’ll see you tonight. Great!” He laughs, face tired, and turns back to the pasta as she rolls her cart away.
It’s a little bit too much to handle, but it could have been worse: she could have been Derek. He could have had his own heart attack in the grains aisle.
He doesn’t mean to, he doesn’t, but he ends up falling on his old bed, burying himself in his pillows because he misses this room. This life. Just a little. So he breathes in against his pillow, swallowing in the smell. Earth and dust and laundry and a hint of something else, maybe leather. He doesn’t remember the smell, not exactly, probably because it’s been so long. Maybe because of what it means. Because the only leather he can think of being around is a jacket, one he may have stolen back when he thought they were playing a game between the two of them. When he’d sneak off with the jacket so that sometime in the middle of the night, Derek would climb in his window to take it back, would sometimes lay down next to him for a while, a pack thing, he’d realized later, but he’d thought it was something else. He’d mistaken a lot of things back then.
But yeah, his bed still smells like Derek, still makes him ache for it, fresh. How easily it all comes back, like it never went away. But he’s not going to think like that, that’s not a good idea, not if he wants to survive.
He isn’t really sure what he’s doing, but he guides his dad by the arm, gingerly, to the couch. He doesn’t know how gentle to be, how much independence to give him. Just sits him down on the couch, finds the remote, and goes to get him something to drink. Vegetable juice, he thinks. Something healthy. When he comes back into the living room, Stiles sits down beside his dad, feeling a little out of place and right at home.
“I ran into Allison at the store,” he says. “She and Scott want to come over with dinner and the kids. If you’re not feeling up to it, I can call—“
“I always have time for my honorary grandkids.” Stiles doesn’t know if he should be ashamed, if he should feel replaced, or if he should be happy. There’s no manual for this, but God, does he need one. “I’m glad you’re here, you know. It’s time you came home.”
“Yeah. Maybe so.”
He's lying, but at least this time it sounds convincing.
They don’t knock, probably because he and Scott never knocked at each others’ houses, but it’s a quick jolt when he hears the door open and an all-too-familiar voice yell.
“Stiles?! Where are you? Don’t think you can hide from me!” Stiles is about to head out of the kitchen, wiping his hands on a towel, just in time to get wrapped in a hug. God, it’s Scott. They’re laughing and they’re crying in each others’ arms, shaking with it, and yeah, Stiles had missed this. Had missed him. Best friends, always were, always would be, and nothing was going to get in the way of that. Never thought it would just come rushing back like this.
It’s a few minutes before they let each other go, and then they just grin at each other. Stiles feels at least a decade younger, like everything’s back in place.
“I’m half-tempted to kill you, you know. For staying away so long. You’re going to have to work really hard to make it up to me,” Scott says, but his grin hasn’t fallen off yet, not until he remembers something. “Jeez, sorry, you have to meet everyone! Come on.” He tugs Stiles into the living room, where his dad is nearly being attacked by three beaming girls. Scott picks up the youngest, around two, if Stiles remembers the card right.
“So. This is Noelle. Noelle, this is your uncle Stiles. Say hi.” The little girl waves timidly, just curls her little fingers at him. She’s got dark brown curls and someone’s dimples it kind of kills him how cute she is. Scott holds her on his hip, turning to the other two. “So that’s Jo and Nat. Nat’s six, and Jo turns five next month. Hey, Jo? Nat? Come meet Stiles.”
They climb off the couch, falling a little.
“What’s a Stiles?” the bigger one asks.
“This is a Stiles. He’s your uncle. Mostly. Just like Aunt Lydia’s your aunt but not really.”
“Are you pack, too?” she asks, and Stiles freezes. His dad. What’s he going to think that means? What’s he supposed to think?
“Yeah, Stiles is pack too. He’s just been gone for a little while,” Scott says, and Stiles is pretty sure he chokes on his own spit. Since when is he pack? What? Besides that, his dad—
His dad looks like absolutely nothing is up.
“I like him, but he’s not very scary. Why aren’t you scary?” She just looks so damn earnest.
Stiles laughs. “I’m not a wolf, that’s why.”
“Me neither. Mommy says when I’m older maybe, but I think it’s a yes-maybe, which is really cool because I wanna be a wolf real bad.” Stiles grins at her. Youth and optimism and naiveté, all wrapped up behind dimples and a smile. And a little bit of a motor mouth.
“No reason to rush into it.” He ruffles her hair, looking up at Scott. “How’d she get my talking genes?”
Scott makes a face. “I have no idea. We’ve been wondering the same thing since she opened her mouth for the first time. Jo’s a little shy, though, aren’t you, Jo? It’s okay. Stiles is nice. He doesn’t bite, I promise.” Jo comes out from behind Allison’s legs a little, so Stiles waves. Allison, meanwhile, looks a little harried, with three casserole dishes in her arms and no way to move without tripping over the girl holding onto her.
“Here, let me take these into the kitchen. I’ll set the table.”
“Thanks,” she says, offering a smile, then bends down to pick up Jo with a little grunt. “You’re getting so big….” He hears her say as he goes into the kitchen. They sound so much like a family it’s almost terrifying.
Fifteen minutes later, they’re all sort of around the table. The fact that his dad has a high chair makes him wonder how often they come over, but he tries not to think about it; tt only makes him feel guilty.
They look like a family, though. Happy. Jeez, they’re happy. It’s ridiculous. Ironic, too. Stiles ran away so he’d at least have a chance at happiness, and here they are, blissful though they never left and he’s the one who’s miserable. Of course it works like that. Of course.
“So, jeez, tell us what you’ve been doing,” Scott says, rustling him from his thoughts. “We haven’t heard from you, like, at all. You could have joined a circus for all I’d know.”
“Well.” He shrugs. “Not a whole lot to tell. Went to college. Changed my major three times before ending up with a degree in Criminal Justice. I’m a detective now, actually. Sort of recent. Just got promoted a year ago, but—“ he offers another shrug “—not really much to tell.”
“Do you have a girlfriend?” Allison asks, cutting up Noelle’s chicken tenders.
“No. Uh, not really…with the ladies, you know?”
Scott grins, nodding. “I had a feeling. Got a boyfriend?” His dad might be a little out of it on pain meds, but Stiles still sees him tighten his grip on his fork.
“No. Not for a while. Last time…didn’t go so well.” He looks at the kids, making it clear that it’s not something he can talk about in front of little ears. His dad is still a little tense. Stiles knew that he shouldn’t have told him, and technically, he didn’t, not really, because technically, Grace had been the one to call, because she’s a meddling meddler who meddles. In the end, he hadn’t had a choice. Had barely convinced his dad not to fly up, actually. Mostly by lying. It had been mostly his fault, anyway, for being attracted to overly-possessive nutjobs.
“I’m sorry.” Yeah. Stiles is sorry, too. Sorry that he’d had to change his number, move to the other side of the city, and still had panic attacks a whole year later, so there’s that.
“Who knows. Maybe you’ll get lucky and find someone here in town,” his dad says, and Stiles grimaces. That would work out so well. What a great idea.
“Yeah, maybe,” he says instead, biting the inside of his cheek. “So. What’s been going on here?”
It’s a diversion, but he still listens to some of it. Tunes out what doesn’t matter to him, but some stuff filters through. Finstock is still coaching. Danny’s apparently a pretty popular blogger. Erica tends bar and is still making fools of most of the men in town, though she and Isaac are still kind of a thing. When they get that far, Stiles reroutes the conversation, afraid of who they’ll talk about, what they’ll talk about. Fuck, for all he knows, Derek could be married. Or whatever the werewolf equivalent is. Probably. And that’s exactly why he’s not going to ask about anything that could be considered even vaguely relevant to Derek. Self-preservation.
Later that night, the girls are all on the couch with Stiles’ dad, a kids movie playing softly in the background even though all four are asleep. Stiles is trying to clean up. Allison’s taking out the trash for him because she’s an angel. But Scott’s trying to corner him.
“You okay?” he asks, eyes set on the other room.
“Of course. Why wouldn’t I be?” Stiles sets a plate down gently so it doesn’t make any noise. He can avoid this conversation, he can avoid—
“You’re a little…drawn. I dunno. You used to bounce around. I just—“ he shrugs “—I’m not used to you being quiet.”
Stiles looks at him, torn between telling him the truth and lying. “I’ve had some experiences, I guess. Some ugly stuff. On the job. Some, off. Life, you could say.”
Stiles shrugs, turning back to the dishes. “I’m not a good judge of character. Or I was, but I didn’t listen to my instincts. Made some stupid mistakes, paid for them. But I’m on something of an upswing now, so it could be worse.”
“This is your upswing? Not— That sounds rude, I just meant, you know, I want you to be happy. You don’t seem happy.”
“Yeah, well, I can’t directly affect the length of prison sentences in the state of Minnesota, so there’s that.” He doesn’t even realize until Scott’s expression that he’d said it. It had just fallen out. And now Scott’s alternating between concerned and shocked, and that is just too much to deal with. “My ex had some issues. He didn’t resolve them well. But it’s fine now. I’m fine now.” He knows he sounds like an abuse victim, even though he doesn’t think he counts, not really. He’s ashamed of that. That he barely even had a reason for the total freak out he’d had. For all the Xanax he’d popped. For the nightmares.
“Alright. Whatever you say.”
Scott needs to leave. Stiles’ control is slipping. Something’s gonna come out soon, something ugly, and he’d prefer it if no one sees.
After Stiles helps his dad to his room, he sits on the edge of the bed, weary, but he has to find out something before he can sleep.
“How long have you known? About Scott and Allison and the pack?” he asks, hoping it only sounds so heavy to his own ears.
“A few months after you left town, there was some trouble. A new werewolf from a few counties over ended up by us. Went a little crazy. We thought it was a mountain lion, of course, until it attacked me. Or tried to. Derek and Scott were there, put the thing down. I made them tell me everything. Whole bunch of things made a whole lot more sense after that.”
“I…I’m sorry. I always meant to tell you, but I never knew how.”
His dad sighs a little, clearly wanting to sleep. “I wouldn’t have believed you if you’d told me. Would’ve thought you were spinning bullshit to distract me or something. Seeing is believing, I guess. Now are you gonna let me rest or what?”
“Yeah, no, of course. Sleep well. I’ll see you in the morning.”
He ends up on the couch, soaking in self-loathing. His dad finds out about the most important thing of his high school years from someone else. He was supposed to have been there. That was supposed to be their bonding moment. What else had he missed out on? What other memories was he supposed to be in, but isn’t?
He’s not a part of this world anymore. He doesn’t have a place here anymore, and it had been his choice in the first place. He’d cut himself out of these people’s lives, so what right does he have to feel lost and wrong here? No one made him leave, not really. Theoretically, after everything that had happened, he could have stayed, could have just avoided Derek until it was all fine again. But he’d been a coward, he’d been to eager to find something better, and he’d chosen to leave. So this is all his fault, and he can’t mope about it. That wouldn’t make sense. If only he could remember a time he’d ever made sense.
Later that night, weary and world-tired, he lays on his bed, smells Derek and youth and home, and pretends it’s not enough to lure him to sleep.