Her hand is comfortingly cool, and she touches him frequently. Small touches, brushing the pads of her fingers over the back of his hand while reaching for something or the backs of her fingers against his cheek to remind him how precious he is to her. He leans into it when she cups the side of his neck, letting her thumb rest against the curve of his jaw.
But mostly the cold sends the memories back to sleep. They wake in the night, a blur of choked emotions: guilt, fear, panic, until her palm is against his forehead, soothing it away.
There are faces sometimes, distant and out-of-focus. He thinks they used to be important to him, but she is important to him now.
His life is like a dream. She doesn’t require anything of him. He asked her once what he should do, and her smile was radiant as sunlight on snow as she said, "Be happy, my love."
He is happy. His joy is subdued but always present, a softening of his heart each time he sees her. Sometimes if he wanders too far from her in his walks through her gardens, he can feel something else rising within him, his stomach twisting until he nearly retches, and time moves faster and everything feels closer. Her handmaiden noticed when he got that far away, and firmly herded him back to her side, and he was afraid of her until her skin touched his. Then there was only relief as the world slowed and receded.
Her handmaiden watches him closely after that, and even when he remembers it – even when he wonders what was beneath the retching – she steers him back to her and he forgets again.
"Do you remember when we met, my love?" she asks him once. They are sitting on grass that's still dewy, in the open confines of her gardens.
"No," he says. "Should I?"
She touches her fingertips to the corner of his eye, and he closes them both to bask in the feeling. In having her close, and having her attention on him.
"You were lonely," she says. "That's what I saw in you. You needed someone to need you."
"I'm not lonely anymore," he says, and he can feel the pleasure of her smile.
There's a woman in his dreams who presses kisses to his bruises and smooths her fingers across his hair, cut close to his scalp to match hers, and a man who holds him close as though he, too, might disappear any moment. There is a boy who is laughing and comfortable, like a favorite shirt and home. A girl with softly-red hair and grassy eyes and shining lips. Another boy glowers and bites like an animal and protects him. Another girl whose eyes are always alight and alive and something about her makes his heart ache. They all do.
He always means to ask her who they are, but every time he sees her, they fade away.
The handmaiden puts him in a red jacket one night. Usually he wears white, and something about the color of this jacket satisfies a shadowed corner of him, even though it’s plain. As the handmaiden leads him to dinner, he runs his fingers over the fabric and smells grass and sweat and violence. When he looks up, for a moment the hallway is shadowed by a grid, like he's looking through a fence.
He doesn't tell her about this at dinner. The feeling fades when her attention turns to him, as though it knows it has to hide from her gaze, but she often speaks idly, to the air as much as to him.
Her attention turns to the handmaiden. They never hide their conversations from him.
"They're getting closer, my lady," says the handmaiden. "They’ll come for him."
"Let them," she says, without any concern in her voice. He knows she doesn't need to be concerned about anything. He's seen her do magic with less effort than breathing: opening doors with a wave of her hand, lighting candles with mere moments of attention. "There's nothing left tying him to that world. They can come as quickly as they want – we'll still have all the time in the world on this side."
"Not all," says the handmaiden, with delicacy.
Her finger taps an impatient beat against the table. "They can't take him from me. He's not unwilling, not any more. Isn't that right, love?" She looks at him, and he feels dizzy. "You're not lonely anymore."
The sleeve of his jacket is in the corner of his eye, and for a moment he is anchored in himself. He says, "I don't think I'm much of anything anymore."
She goes absolutely still, then says, "The jacket. Take it off."
He begins the motion, but the handmaiden tears the jacket off his arms. His breath comes more easily, relieving a pressure he didn't realize he felt, but she continues to stare at him. It takes him a moment to place the look in her eyes: she's angry.
"You didn't mean it," she tells him, and stands and walks to his side. Her hand cups his chin and forces him to look up. She leans over: her lips touch his, her hair brushes against his cheek and his neck and his collarbone, and her fingers linger on his jaw. His universe contracts to those points. This moment is everything; he’s deluding himself if he thinks there is anything else.
He opens his mouth for her, his lips going numb where they touch hers, and when she breaks away he breathes in the last wisps of her breath.
"Tell me you love me," she says.
"I love you," he says, without hesitation. It's the truest thing he has ever said. He loves her like a vessel loves water, and he overflows with the thought of her. There is no room for anything else.
"Tell me you've never loved anyone the way you love me," she says.
"Never," he says.
She doesn't smile, but there's something proud and possessive in her gaze now. "Tell me who you belong to."
"You," he says, and she closes the distance between them again.
He dreams feverishly that night. Blood and force and pain and loss and family, all at once. It's too much.
He wakes up to her hand on his back, her lips against his ear, whispering meaningless calming words. His breath slows as the dream fades, and he turns his head to look over his shoulder at her. She holds herself up on her elbows to press her forehead down against his.
"You were afraid," she says.
"Yeah," he says. The syllable fits oddly in his mouth, out of place.
"That's why I brought you here," she says. "You were afraid and tired and restless, all at once." The hand that had been on his back slips across his chest. "I want you to be at peace."
His skin is overheating, and the only points of cool relief are where she’s touching him. "I am," he says.
Her hand's still against the side of his chest, a gentle contact on his ribs where she rubs small circles against his skin.
The familiar drowsiness rolls over him like a wave breaking at shore, and he puts his hand over hers to feel the soothing chill. He is halfway to being asleep when he says, "What's my name?"
Her breath hitches in a laugh. "What do you want it to be?"
He casts the words out as he falls asleep. "I don't remember."
She and her handmaiden are the only other ones in the castle. He can see forest from the windows, but she doesn't like it when he looks outside. She knows it stirs something in him, something forgotten and hidden just below the surface.
"Maybe later," she says, hooking her chin over his shoulder. Her arms wrap around his waist, and he's comforted by the way she envelops him, like he could disappear into her. "We can go into the forest when you're more settled."
He feels himself frown. "Settled?"
She draws her hand across his brow, as though literally wiping the frown away. "Don't worry about it," she says, so he doesn't.
He's left to his own devices sometimes, when she has other things to attend to. He doesn't mind; he's grateful for the time he has with her, and doesn't expect anything more. He wanders the castle when she's gone, looking for signs of her: an impression in a pillow, a pen left on a piece of paper, a chair pushed back from a table. There’s a scent that lingers where she's been, clean and sharp like the winter's first snowfall.
Time passes strangely here, a collection of hazy moments strung together like beads on a cord. She was gone when he woke this morning, so he walks through the castle until he finds a bathroom he hasn't seen before. He takes a bath, but the water never quite gets warm. Instead he sits in it, submerged to the neck, and finds himself thinking, when you finally let it in, that's when it stops hurting. It's a familiar thought, but he can't place it.
He thinks he used to be faster, thinks his thoughts used to race so fast that even he couldn't keep up with them sometimes. His thoughts now are unreachable and off-balance, and his only certainty is in her.
Still, that’s better than no certainty at all.
After his bath, he keeps wandering. Some time later, he hears voices – not only hers, but another voice, one that makes his breath catch even though he doesn't recognize it.
He follows the voices to the front hall, but keeps himself mostly out of sight in one of the halls leading to the atrium. She stands facing the door, and the handmaiden is holding the intruder before her, holding his arms behind his back. The intruder is – something about him is -
He's struggling against the handmaiden's grip, and shouting. "You can't just steal people!"
"And yet we’ve been stealing people for thousands of years," she says, bored. "Changelings, human lovers, tithes, what does it matter? He gets to live out the rest of his life in happiness and ease, and I get him."
"Give him back," says the intruder, and his voice is halfway to a growl. His eyes glow golden, and it's just on the edge of familiar. It should be familiar.
His breath catches, and his ears roar. His thoughts slow, only cohering into a mess of indefinable confusion.
"He isn't yours," she says. "Even if he ever was, he's mine now."
"My lady," says the handmaiden, "the others will be coming too."
"And now we have a hostage," she says, waving a hand. "Take him away."
The handmaiden begins to move, and he steps slightly out of the hallway to track them. He's not ready for the intruder to go away, not when there's so much that he still doesn't understand, and the intruder sees him, eyes widening.
"Stiles," the intruder shouts. "Stiles!"
And that, that's even more familiar, he knows that name and that voice and they tug at him, pulling him to the surface -
"Take him away," she says, and the handmaiden drags the intruder out, even as his struggles increase.
She’s at his side before he knows it, watching him. "My love," she says, and it's halfway a question.
His head is swimming, and his stomach is tight with – disappointment? Grief? He doesn't understand. "He said..."
"Nothing of importance," she tells him, laying her hand across the back of his neck and drawing him nearer. Their noses and foreheads touch, and her other hand covers his heart. "They want to take you from me. I won't let them. I'll keep you safe."
"Safe," he repeats, leaning against her.
Her hand curls against his chest. "You're mine, always and forever, do you understand that? There's nothing they can do to take you from me."
His heartbeat is slowing, but the thoughts aren't coming any easier. "They?"
"It doesn't matter," she says. "Don't think about it."
He tries, he really does, but the knowledge settles in him that someone is coming for him, and something in him submerges again, satisfied.
He’s drowning in her, and he can't quite make himself breathe her in.
His dream that night is not fragmentary in the least. He's in a forest, standing by a cliff, with a thin iron rod in one hand and his phone in the other. There's something he can't quite see, something he's been chasing, right in the corner of his eye, but he brings up his phone and dials.
It rings, and rings, and rings, until a voice says "I can't come to the phone right now, leave a message," and he curses.
"Oh my god, Scott, stop necking with Allison for ten seconds and answer your goddamn phone! I think I found it – I'm at the rocks by the cliff, the ones where you and Allison used to meet. Tell Lydia to get her grimoire and her cute little magical ass over here - I think it's here - "
He spins towards the voice, and she's there. The phone slips from his grasp and hits the rocks with a clatter, but he doesn't take his eyes off her to get it. Not something this dangerous.
He brandishes the rod in front of him. "Stay back," he says, his voice wavering.
"Cold iron," she says, and she sounds amused. "I'm impressed. You're well-informed."
"I spend a lot of the time at the library," he says. "Regular bookworm."
Her gaze goes up and down his body, assessing him. She frowns. "You're afraid," she says.
"Uh, yeah," he says, tightening his grip on the iron wand. "You've taken how many people now? Four? We want 'em back."
"Impossible," she says. "They already lived out their lives in my lands."
His stomach drops. "You killed them."
"Their lives were long and happy in my world, if not in yours," she says. "I made sure of that. They lived without pain."
"Yeah, 'cause that's not creepy or anything," he says.
There's something about the way she's looking at him that has him unsettled. She's sizing him up, but not like an opponent, like – like a soccer mom debating buying Fruit Loops.
"I can feel how sad you are," she says.
"Uh," he says, blinking. "What?"
"You're so tired," she says, and takes a step forward. He starts taking an equivalent step back, but he's already at the cliff's edge, so he just raises the iron wand.
"Don't come any closer," he says, and thinks, oh please god check your messages, Scott.
"Apparently not as well-informed as you think you are," she says, glancing at the wand with distaste. "The iron is a weapon, not protection." Her gaze snaps up to meet his again, and she says, "Drop it."
It falls from his hand without any input from his brain.
"You can't take me," he says. "There are – there are rules, and you can't take me if I say no and you can’t keep me if anyone here can claim me."
"There is so much at war within you," she says, ignoring him. "You want so much to protect, but there's so little you can do, and it's tearing you apart."
It's the magic, he tells himself. She's casting some sort of fairy spell on him or something and that's why everything she says sounds true. That's why some part of him is humming like a plucked string with every word.
"No," he says, but he has to force it and once it's out it sounds small and unconvinced.
"It would be so easy to let go of them," she says. He’s dimly aware of the soft sound of more footfalls as she draws closer. "I can keep you safe. You can be happy again."
He wants to say, I bet you say that to all the pretty girls. He wants to say, I bet you said that to your other four hapless victims. He wants to say, please.
He can't say anything at all.
"They won't miss you," she says. "They don't need you. I do."
She's so close now that he can see the details of her irises, colliding shades of blue like cracking glaciers.
"You won't ever be alone. Never be left behind."
All of the breath pulls out of him.
"All you have to do," she says, running her fingers across the inside of one of his wrists before encircling it entirely, "is say yes."
There are reasons to say no. At least, he thinks there are. He can't remember them. There's a disconnect between when she took his wrist and everything that happened before, and the before is already getting foggy.
He's not even aware of shaping the word.
She isn't with him when he wakes. Her side of the bed is undisturbed, and there is no light coming through the window. He must not have slept for long, but he doesn't feel like sleeping any more.
He wants to ask her about his dream. It's different from the others he's had – it's the first one she's been in, for one thing, and he was afraid of her. He remembers the feeling, even if he doesn't understand it. But there is something else about it, something unresolved that he can't quite figure out, and he wants her to explain it to him. He wants her to make it go away.
He gets out of bed to find her. He stares at the shoes sitting by the door for a long moment, uncertain. He doesn't need shoes in the castle, but what if she's not in the castle? She might not be. She might be outside, and if he wants to find her, he might have to go outside and if he does he'll need shoes. That makes sense.
He's not sure why the shoes are so important to him, but, well, she might be outside. He puts them on.
He starts walking through the castle, but he doesn't keep track of where he's going, because he never has before. It hasn't been important. She can find him whenever she wants, and she can guide him. So he's not sure how he gets to the door, but something about it makes him pause.
He's been here before. The handmaiden found him here once, and when he asked her what the chains on the wall were for, she said that her lady had enemies. He hadn't believed her – the idea of anyone not loving her was too impossible.
She's not in there. He knows she's not in there, the same way he knows when she is in a room, or when she's coming to find him, but he can't make himself move on. It's the same impulse that made him get out of bed, made him put on shoes, is making him open the door.
The intruder is locked in the chains, sitting with his legs in front of him and his back against the wall, but he looks up as soon as the door opens. Relief spills over his face as he says, "Stiles!"
There's pressure in his head, an empty space where there should be a gut-deep reaction. An irresistible force meeting an immovable object. "You said that before," he says. His head is starting to hurt.
The intruder's face falls, slowly. "What?"
He stays in the door frame, clinging to it. It's the only thing keeping him on his feet. His thoughts are churning and frothing and unrecognizable.
"Who are you?" he says, and it barely comes out as a whisper.
"Stiles, it's – it's me, it's Scott," says the intruder, and the confusion crosses his face like sunlight over water. "Don't - don't you recognize me?"
"Scott," he says, and the name feels like a key. There’s a history just out of his reach, begging to be recognized, but he can't – it won't – he tries to say, "I know you," but it somehow becomes a question.
"Yeah," says the intruder, and he leans forward, only to be stopped. When his chains rustle with his movement, it sounds like desperation. "Stiles, you know me," and now he's watching him, like he's waiting for something. Or hoping for something.
He should say something. There's something he should say, but he doesn't know what it is. Instead he says, "Am I Stiles?"
The intruder lets out a breath like he's been punched in the stomach. His voice is very quiet. "Yeah. You're my best friend."
There are flashes, impressions without context: the soft give of sleeping bags and the line of the desk's edge against his stomach as he leans over it to speak, eight-bit video game music and the weight of padding on his shoulders, luridly orange cheese powder covering his fingers and howling. Lots of howling. He notices that the intruder's jaw is oddly asymmetrical, and the detail feels almost possessive.
"Scott," he says, just to say it again. It feels like the opposite of an anchor, drawing him to the surface instead of pulling him down into the deep.
Scott's hands curl into fists, and his voice is cautious as he says, "Stiles, I could really use your help right now."
"Help?" he says.
Scott jostles the chains. "These have wolfsbane in them, somehow." After a moment he adds, "That means they're hurting me."
That doesn't make any sense. She's kind, she's always kind. She wouldn't want to hurt anyone, not even an intruder like Scott.
"The key's right there," says Scott, pointing with one manacled hand.
He comes far enough into the room to get the key from where Scott indicates, but hesitates. She wouldn't lock Scott up without a reason.
"Stiles," says Scott, pleading, and the same voice that told him to put on shoes and come into this room tells him that she wouldn't want to hurt Scott so it's probably okay.
He unlocks the manacles. The whole time he feels like it's a bad decision, but that, too, is familiar. Something tells him he makes a lot of bad decisions.
Scott stands up as soon as the manacles drop to the floor, and his face is an open book. Scott looks at him with suspicion, the conflict between wanting to trust him and not being able to written on his face.
"Maybe - " he says, and the pressure in his head is back. He licks his lips and tries again. "Maybe we should go find her."
Scott doesn't ask which "her," but frowns, like it's important. "Did she tell you her name?"
Even with his headache, he knows that's a dumb question. "She didn't tell me my name," he says.
"Oh," says Scott. "Right." He adds, belatedly, "I told you it's Stiles, right?"
Something about the name doesn't fit quite right, like he's outgrown it, but it's something. Stiles. Okay.
"Come on," says Scott, grabbing Stiles's arm. After her cool touch, the warmth feels strange, but Stiles lets himself be pulled along. Irresistible force and immovable object are going at it again, and for now it's easiest to let Scott direct him.
Stiles wants to ask where they're going, or say that maybe Scott should go back into the manacles, or say that he doesn't understand why he's doing half of what he's doing. He's being pulled in a thousand different directions, and the only reason this one's winning is because it's the only one that's a physical direction. Everything is still in a winter fog, and so cold he half-expects to see frost on his hands.
Instead, when he opens his mouth, what comes out is, "Maybe we should go find her."
Scott turns to look at Stiles, and his expression is more guarded this time. Stiles can still tell that he's thinking and trying to hide it. It doesn't seem to come easy to him.
"Yeah," says Scott, slowly. "Yeah, let's go find her. Maybe she's outside."
Stiles doesn't think she's outside, but – maybe she is. She could be. That's why he put his shoes on, after all.
He's confused again, but when Scott tugs on his arm, he follows, telling himself that they might run into her at any moment. It takes an effort to ignore the storm in his head enough to put one foot in front of the other.
"How do we get outside?" Scott asks, and Stiles stumbles. Scott holds him up, wrapping an arm around Stiles's back and pulling Stiles's arm over his shoulders to steady him. "Hey, man, I got you – you okay?"
Something is wrong. Something may have been wrong for a long time now. Stiles can't tell anymore, and trying to sort it out is too much. Answering the other question is easier. "I don't know how to get outside," he says. "She doesn't let me go outside."
Scott's hand tightens against Stiles's ribs. "She doesn't – how long have you been here?"
"I don't know," says Stiles. "Does it matter?"
Scott takes a long, deep breath, and when he lets it out, it rumbles with a low growl. "Outside," he says, and they start walking again. Scott doesn't let go of Stiles. If anything, he holds him closer, as if he's afraid of what might happen if he lets go. The walking helps, too – the momentum makes it easy to keep going forward, and the movement clears his head a little. Not a lot, but enough for him to come to one conclusion.
"This isn't who I used to be, is it," he says, as they round a corner.
Scott's hands reflexively tighten on Stiles. After a moment, he says, "We're gonna fix it. I promise."
"Did she do this to me?" Stiles asks.
Another pause. "Yeah."
Stiles says, "That's okay, then."
Scott doesn't say anything, but he picks up the pace.
They reach a door that leads outside, and as soon as Scott opens the door it overcomes him, becoming his one truth. Stiles's hand plants itself against the door jamb, and he says, "She doesn't want me to go outside."
Scott stares at him. "Does she know where we are?"
"No," says Stiles, "but - "
"Then how do you know?" Scott pulls Stiles forward, but Stiles locks his arm against the jamb.
"She doesn't want me to go outside," he repeats.
"Since when do you do what anyone wants you to do?" says Scott, and Stiles watches his patience degrade, inch by inch.
"She loves me," says Stiles. "She's everything." It washes over him again, the vagueness, the need to find her, to feel her skin on his. He almost forgets that Scott's there as he looks backwards and mumbles, "She's - "
"You're gonna thank me for this later," says Scott, and then Stiles is over Scott's shoulder and Scott's running out of the castle towards the forest.
Stiles fights and tries to yell but Scott's shoulder blade keeps getting his solar plexus and he can't gather the breath, and then they're in the forest. They're getting further from the castle, Stiles can feel it in the the wind scraping his face and the way the trees are sliding more into focus than he's been able to see in – in he doesn't know how long. The fear is returning, too, twisting like coiled snakes -
"Scott," he gasps, "down, now - "
Scott drops him just in time, and Stiles pushes himself onto hands and knees and vomits spectacularly.
Scott holds his shoulders as he gags, but eventually nothing else comes up. He keeps his head bowed just in case.
"Stiles?" says Scott. He sounds concerned. Stiles should say something reassuring.
"That," says Stiles, "was entirely the fault of your bony-ass shoulders."
Scott is close enough that Stiles can feel him hold his breath for a second. "Stiles?" he says again, and it sounds like an entirely different question.
Stiles risks turning his head enough to look at Scott, who is staring at him like he's not entirely sure who to expect. Which makes a certain amount of sense, given – everything.
"Yeah," says Stiles, and if his voice is hoarse, it's because of the puking. "It's me."
Scott pulls Stiles into an awkward sideways hug, made more awkward by the fact that they're kneeling in a fairy forest next to Stiles's regurgitated dinner. Stiles lets him do it anyway, hugging him back and planting his forehead against Scott's shoulder. Scott is warm, and Stiles is only now beginning to realize how freezing he is.
"You scared the shit out of me," Scott says into Stiles's shirt. "You're seriously creepy when you're not talking."
Stiles opens his mouth to say I'm gonna remember that the next time you tell me to shut up, but nothing comes out. He thinks he's shaking, but he lets his fingers curl into Scott's lacrosse jacket. Of course he's wearing his lacrosse jacket. How did Stiles not notice he was wearing it earlier?
Finally he manages a noncommittal, half-croaked "Yeah," and then, "I think I'm gonna puke."
Scott lets go immediately, and Stiles doubles over again. Scott puts a reassuring hand on his back as Stiles chokes and coughs, but there's nothing left but bile.
"Spell," says Stiles, and spits the acid taste out of his mouth. "I think she – didn't want me to get too far."
He digs his fingers into the dirt beneath him. He shouldn't have mentioned her – now he feels it again, the urge to go back to her, to sit by her side and let her stroke away his worries, to bask in her nearness. It tugs at his bones like the tide.
"The spell's not broken by now?" asks Scott.
"No," says Stiles, "no, definitely not broken, no."
"Okay," says Scott, looking around. "So we'll just go faster."
Stiles's stomach clenches at the thought of going, period, let alone going faster. "How about a five minute time-out until I'm less likely to heave my insides all over your shoes?"
Scott's mouth tugs uncertainly on one side as he looks around. "If there's a chance that she'll come after us, we should get as far away from her as we can as fast as we can - I mean, we don't really stand a chance against her without - "
"Could you maybe stop mentioning - her?" Stiles chokes out, tense. "It's seriously not helping."
Scott looks back at Stiles for a long moment, and then he settles himself down on the forest floor. "Sorry," he says. "It's - time-out, yeah."
Stiles pushes himself back so his butt rests on his heels, but slowly - fast movements seem like a terrible idea right now. He takes a long breath to try to steady himself.
"Allison and I weren't making out," says Scott.
"We - your message. Allison and I weren't making out, and I wasn't ignoring my phone. We thought we had a lead, and you know how reception is in the Reserve."
Stiles has no idea what Scott is talking about. He decides to let it go, partially because of the pounding in his head. "Yeah," he says, as noncommittal as he can make it.
Scott frowns with concern. "Stiles - "
Oh god, feelings are about to happen. Stiles would rather risk motion than feelings. He manages to get to his feet and stay there, even though the ground feels like it's tilting down towards the castle, drawing him in. "Where are we going again?"
"Back to the real world," says Scott, standing up as well. "Lydia thinks if the two of you are on different sides of the portal and it closes, it'll break her influence over you."
Stiles braces himself on his knees and looks up at Scott, frowning. "Lydia?"
"Yeah, she's been doing the research since she's doing all the magic stuff - " says Scott, then catches the blank look on Stiles's face. "You don't remember Lydia?"
Stiles stands there, his mouth gaping open. It's on the tip of his tongue, just out of reach. Eventually he says, "Should I?"
Scott stares at him for a long moment, and he looks, for the first time, purely afraid. "She's – you've had a crush on her since the third grade," says Scott, his voice on the edge of panic. "You never shut up about, about how she does math and her green eyes and her red hair - "
"Strawberry blonde," says Stiles's mouth, and the memory hits him like a brick. Lydia. How did he forget Lydia? Who the hell else is he forgetting? "Oh god," he says, and then he's heaving again.
"Okay," says Scott. "Okay, don't freak out."
"The list of people I can remember is two names long right now and you want me not to freak out?" says Stiles.
Whatever the opposite of a poker face is, Scott has it. He is definitely scared now. "You...what about your dad?"
It makes sense that Stiles has a dad – he's pretty sure most people do, biologically speaking – but the details evade him until all of a sudden they don't. He remembers the glint of the Sheriff's badge and the way he takes his coffee and the mess of papers on the dining room table and the long, torturous moments between heartbeats while they waited for his mom's heart to stop.
Stiles holds his jaw closed as tight as he can. He will not have a panic attack, he will not vomit, he won't, he won't -
"Tell me about everyone," he says, his teeth still gritted. There are a lot of things that would make this experience less hellish, but "less vomiting" is definitely near the top of the list.
"Everyone?" says Scott, and looks around uncertainly. "Now?"
Eventually – eventually she'll notice he's gone, and then she'll come to find him. Stiles suppresses a shudder.
But some things are more important, and yeah, getting at least the memories of his life back is a higher priority than getting out of here at the moment. "Everyone," says Stiles, sitting back onto his heels. It's marginally more comfortable than being on his hands and knees.
"Well, there's Allison," says Scott, and looks off into some pleasant mid-distance.
Stiles thinks for a second about why Scott looks so suddenly hormonal, and then it clicks into place. "Your girlfriend. Sometimes."
Scott looks a little betrayed by that comment, but only in the same way he looks betrayed when Stiles accidentally frags him in Call of Duty.
"Yeah, fine, sometimes," he says, and then, "Derek."
Stiles tries to find an association with Scott for Derek, the same way he did with Allison, but it doesn't quite work, so he just tries to think of anything that Derek makes him think of. For some reason, it's being pushed against walls, but that does it.
"Sour wolf," he says.
"What?" says Scott.
"Derek, Alpha, got it, good, who's next?" says Stiles. Scott keeps watching the woods, and it's making him neurotic.
"Uh," says Scott, "Jackson?"
Stiles does the association thing again, but for some reason the words that immediately come to mind are douchebag lizard and that can't possibly be right. A second later he remembers, and, yes, his life is exactly crazy enough that "douchebag lizard" is a valid mnemonic.
"Lacrosse captain," he says instead.
"Erica - " says Scott, and then his eyes flash. "They're here."
"At least Derek, Erica, and Isaac," says Scott, and, oh god, is he seriously sniffing the air? "I think Boyd's with them too."
Stiles recognizes only one of those names, but he can remember the rest of them once they're out of these goddamn fairy woods. "He doesn't smell as much?"
"I don't smell them, they're too far away," says Scott, giving Stiles a look like he's an idiot. "I can feel them, but Boyd's – quieter."
"Right," says Stiles. It occurs to him that now he'll have to get back up, and stand up, and walk – walk away from her. "Who's them?"
"I'm not sure," says Scott, eyes searching for a horizon. Seeing as they're in a forest, it's somewhat unlikely that he'll find one. "We split up."
Stiles closes his eyes. "Let me guess – it seemed like a good idea at the time?"
Scott does his version of a pout, which doesn't involve his lips at all but involves a lot of eyebrows. "Lydia was doing the research - she found a spell that would make time run the same in both worlds, but someone had to cross over. Someone with ties to both sides that the spell could use, and since I had the strongest tie to you..."
"And here I thought you were just being my knight in shining armor," says Stiles. Lydia's increasing magical ability is both somewhat concerning and incredibly hot, but Stiles can deal with that later. "Way to ruin my fantasies, jerk."
"Come on," says Scott, and helps Stiles up. If it were anyone but Scott, Stiles would be embarrassed about how heavily he's leaning on him, but if he can't lean on Scott, who can he lean on?
The answer that comes to him immediately is her, and he puts all his effort into ignoring it.
Scott pulls him forward a step, and Stiles stumbles to take it. His feet are heavy and clumsy, and he can barely lift them without tripping himself.
"Is it the spell?" says Scott, after a few more clumsy lurches forward.
"Yeah," says Stiles, and Scott pulls him into the half-fireman's-carry that got them through the castle. Stiles tries to joke, "Your hand's gonna smell like my armpit, dude."
"The whole way out here your ass was right in my face," says Scott, and at least this way of walking – even if Stiles is being half-dragged – is making them progress. "This is better."
It's strange – Stiles would have guessed that getting further from her would be like pulling on a rubber band, and in some ways it is. His body ripples with tremors, and the only reason they don't have to stop more and more frequently is that there's definitely nothing left for Stiles to throw up. He goes from sweating to shivering and back within seconds and his head pounds like a club hit's bass, but the sharp stabs of longing recede. It's easier to think of her without a disorienting moment of shouldn't I be back there?, like his mind is being returned to him piece by piece.
It's starting to sink in, how much she made him not himself. He's trying really, really hard not to think about that, and luckily, he's a master of compartmentalization.
He's in one of the cold bouts when they finally reach the others, his teeth literally chattering and his vision blurring. He's only aware of reaching them at all when Allison says "Stiles!" with enough concern that he's genuinely touched, or would be if his stomach wasn't trying to crawl out his esophagus. Scott helps Stiles sit down with more of a gentle touch than Stiles thought him capable of.
"He looks like hell," someone says, and it's a voice that he doesn't recognize. They never did make it through that list.
"Trust me, this is an improvement," says Scott.
"How is this an improvement?"
The indignation in Lydia's voice warms the cockles of Stiles's heart. If his heart even has cockles. That doesn't seem anatomically correct, although maybe it's a type of artery or something. He's not sure. He feels feverish again.
Stiles thinks, if time passes differently on each side of the portal, then exactly how overdue for my meds am I?
"Trust me," says Scott, "you don't want to know how he was before."
True. Stiles doesn't want to know how he was before.
"Hey guys," he manages, lifting his head enough to take stock of the rescue party. Derek, Allison, and Lydia are the only ones he recognizes. Allison's bow is out and there's a quiver of arrows slung across her back, while Lydia has a book tucked under her arm and an iron wand in her free hand. There are also two other boys, one stocky and one scrawny, and another girl. Stiles doesn't see any weapons on them, unless attitude and leather jackets count - all three of them have those, and in spades. They must be who Scott mentioned earlier, Stiles realizes, but Stiles can barely string together coherent sentences at the moment. Remembering names he, as far as he's concerned, only heard once is not gonna happen. "Is someone - where's Jackson?"
"I cast a spell," says Lydia. "You can make time flow the same in both worlds by anchoring them together using bonds from people on both sides. We used the bonds we have with Jackson, Mrs. McCall, and Creepy Uncle Hale."
Derek pinches the bridge of his nose. "Would you stop calling him that?"
"Sorry," says Lydia, dangerous and cutting and falsely sweet. "Jackson, Mrs. McCall, and Peter, Peter, People-Eater." She flips her hair over her shoulder and gives Derek a smile that's just on the predatory side of shit-eating. "Better?"
"Much as I appreciate the banter," says Stiles, "can we leave now?"
Derek looks away from Lydia and steps closer to Stiles. This time he's, yep, definitely sniffing. Not even being subtle about it, wow.
"You smell hurt," he says, and he's using his ultra-deep, being-the-Alpha-is-serious-business voice. That's not a good sign. "Really hurt."
"The fairy cast a spell on him, to try to keep him from leaving," says Scott, looking from Derek to Lydia. "But if we get him through, it'll break, right? He'll be okay?"
Lydia and Allison trade a look, and there's nothing good in that look.
"The lore said fairies can be possessive," says Lydia, her voice slow and rising the way it does when she really doesn't want to say something.
"He smells like he's dying," says Derek, and his voice is absolutely flat.
"Oh," says Stiles, "great."
"What if we kill her?" says the girl Stiles can't remember, but, oh, apparently she's a werewolf because now she has fangs. This is officially a fangs situation. "Can we take him back if she's dead?"
"No!" says someone, and when everyone stares at him, Stiles realizes he was the one that said it. Spell definitely not broken then. "Sorry. Ignore me."
The scrawny one is staring at him. Allison's eyes are wide and surprised. The effect is disturbingly similar to her surprised-that-girl-in-French-class-thinks-she-can-get-away-with-leopard-print look.
"That's kind of why we have to get him out," says Scott. "Preferably, like. Now."
"Yesterday would be nice, too," says Stiles. "And then we can forget that any of this ever - "
Reality jumps, and he pitches forward to lean against the ground. He could've sworn the earth shifted underneath him, or maybe someone let out a fleet of hornets, because his ears are buzzing. Or maybe it's the wind, because he's pretty sure he's falling, or weightless, or both.
Scott is kneeling in front of him, pushing him up. "What is it?" he says.
Stiles focuses on him, or tries to. His head is empty and echoing. "She knows," he says. "She's coming."
Scott sets his jaw, and looks back at the rest of the group. "We're out of time," he says.
"Did you get a name?" says Lydia, suddenly at Scott's side. "Stiles," and her voice is laced with urgency, "do you know her name?"
Her name is ice and home and need. "What the hell," Stiles chokes out, "is your obsession with names?"
"They have power," says Allison, and Stiles manages to get his eyes to focus on her. She has her bow out. The three whose names Stiles still can't remember have their game faces on, because apparently they're all werewolves.
"There goes Plan C," says Derek.
"Scott," says Stiles. His voice is barely a whisper, but Scott's attention snaps back to him. "Don't let her," he starts, and his voice falters as the memory of her overwhelms him. "Don't let me go back," says Stiles on his second try. "No matter what I say – no matter what I think I want - "
"I won't," says Scott, and stands up, pulling Stiles with him. He pushes Stiles towards the rest of the group, but coordination is well out of Stiles's reach by now; the girl he can't remember and the stocky boy catch him. "Don't let go of him," Scott says, and he's got his game face on now, too. "And don't let him escape."
There's more talking – Stiles thinks the stocky one says "Escape?" with no small amount of incredulity – but he loses track of the conversation. He will never, ever make fun of Scott about the full moon again, not if it feels like this. She's his moonlight, and he can feel her approaching like dusk; when she breaks the horizon he'll be lost.
And then she's there.
He feels the moment she arrives, the breathtaking second at the apex of a fall. He manages to turn to face her and take a step towards her before arms, one on each side, hook through his and pull him back. He's not concerned – she's here, she'll protect him, and he can't take his eyes off of her.
"Leave him alone," someone says, but it sounds like a child playing at being king. The words have no danger behind them.
"I will take what is mine," she says.
"He's not yours," says another voice, animal and possessive, well behind him. "He's part of my Pack. You can't claim him."
She laughs. "He's not one of your animals. You have no more claim over him than I do. Less, even – he chose to be mine."
A girl's voice, indignant, says "After you put a spell on him!"
"And how is that different from the claim your wolfling would have made with a bite? And for that matter - " She tilts her head in warning. "What's to keep me from enchanting you all?"
"Try it," says another girl, poisonously sweet. "Just try putting a spell on all eight of us at once. Go ahead, we'll wait."
For a moment her eyes flash with anger, but when she blinks, it disappears. "It doesn't matter," she says. "He chooses me." Her attention turns to him, finally, and he leans forward, only to be pulled back. "Don't you? Say it."
"I choose you," he says, without hesitation.
Someone mutters by his ear, "Okay, that's creepy."
She holds out a hand to him, and he takes a step. The arms threaded through his hold him more tightly, and he struggles. There's a howl nearby, and a boy shouting, "Don't hurt him!" His fist connects with a nose, his elbow with a ribcage, and the grips loosen – he falls, pushing himself forward, only to be stopped by a scrawny but strong arm locked around his chest.
"Sorry, Stiles," says a quiet voice in his ear, and he feels a light weight near his hip. The voice says, louder, "I've got him, Scott."
Another voice, the one that sounded like a child's, says, "We're not letting him go." There is no lack of conviction in it this time.
She purses her lips, a slow motion that eventually widens into a smile. "My love," she says, "would you die for me?"
"Yes," he says, and his breath catches in his throat. He chokes and gasps, his legs giving out from underneath him. His head lolls against the wolf holding him, who looks frantically somewhere over him.
"Scott - "
"Stop it! If you kill him, you don't get him either!"
"Humans are fairly interchangeable. And after all, you heard his choice."
His vision dims around the edges, and there is a strange pressure covering his skin as though he's submerged in water. Someone lowers him to the ground, and above him a girl's voice says, "Just give him to her! She's killing him!" Someone else says, "You heard him before - "
There are hands beneath his arms, pulling him up and helping him forward. A sharp voice says, "Isaac, don't - "
He hears the voice reverberating through the person holding him. "At least he'll be alive!"
He is shoved forward, and he catches himself on his knees and palms. Behind him, there is a shouted "No!" interrupted by a warning growl.
He staggers to his feet and approaches her – triumph radiates from her smile, and he wants to drop to his knees in front of her.
"Stiles!" comes a girl's voice when he is nearly to her, and it rings with equal parts confidence and desperate hope. "I love you!"
He stops, assaulted by sudden confusion.
"Uh, what?" someone says in a low voice. "This is not what we talked about."
"Plan D," someone mutters. "I hate this plan."
"You helped me when you didn't want to," the girl continues. "Even when you thought you were helping me get myself killed, you still helped me. And you told me I'd win the Nobel even though there isn't a Nobel in math, and you put my birthday present in a ridiculously huge box just because nobody had ever given me a present that big and you said you thought I deserved one, and I love you for all of that."
Before him, her mouth twists into a sneer. "Really? Is this your plan?"
He thinks, Fields Medal, and he's not sure why.
"Uhhh," says the next voice. "Stiles, uh, you're my best friend. I tried to kill you, like, ten times, and you still sat outside my room to make sure I was okay on the full moon. You're like a brother to me. Actually you're better than a brother, 'cause a brother wouldn't do any of that for me. But you never gave up on me, and I'm not giving up on you." He hears a deep breath. "I love you, too, man."
He can't move – he can't take his eyes off of her, he can't take a step, can't do anything but stand there and try to track his own thoughts. You still got me, something whispers in the back of his mind.
There's silence for a moment, and he focuses on her face - she looks more amused than anything else.
"You didn't ask for any of this and you still put yourself in the middle of it for Scott - running around to pass messages for us and keeping everyone safe, even though you didn't need to," comes a girl's voice. "You never looked back or gave up – you stayed strong. So - I love you for that, too."
You made yourself strong, he thinks.
Someone hisses, "Derek! Talk!"
There's another sound, halfway between a growl and an aggrieved sigh. "You never really had a reason not to kill me, but you...didn't. You saved my life. More than once. Even if you complained the whole time."
He thinks, you saved my dad.
There is a small, uncertain laugh. "You're definitely Batman."
You climbed that wall again, just because it was there.
"You didn't even want me there, but you soccer-mom-armed me when the kanima started waking up at the rave."
You showed up to the game to help us.
"Gerard beat the crap out of you, and you just took it to protect us."
You tried to warn me.
He's breathing too hard, the air is scraping the back of his throat and everything is spinning and he can still only see her eyes, her unimpressed gaze, as he clenches his hands into his legs to have something solid, anything, but there's unexpected resistance -
"You can't take him from me," she says, as his fingers close around something long and thin. "He's mine. No matter what you do, he will always choose me – isn't that right?"
He can't speak, but he doesn't have to – she holds out a hand to stroke his cheek and he steps into it.
The nail in his hand sinks into her side with no resistance, and her eyes widen in shock. Then she falls, her fingertips trailing down his neck.
Someone says, "What the hell - "
Water collects on her body, like condensation or snowmelt, so fast that within moments there are rivulets of it soaking the ground beneath her. Her skin fades into translucency, getting paler and thinner until the bone is visible through it, and then there's only bone left, bone and sodden dirt and the rusted nail.
Stiles staggers back, and someone catches him – Allison, judging by the dark hair falling over his shoulder. The spell breaks like his ears popping. Derek rushes past him, claws out, but Scott kneels down next to him, his eyes searching.
"She's dead," Derek says, and he sounds satisfied.
Stiles can feel the panic bubbling in his gut, and the only alternative is cracking a joke. "Did you guys seriously A Wrinkle In Time me?" he says.
Scott's relief comes through like a break in the clouds, and he pulls Stiles into a hug that awkwardly half-includes Allison, who, to be fair, seems to be doing some hugging of her own.
Lydia says, "See? I told you he'd get it."
"Where did the nail come from?" says Erica. Scott backs off the hug, and when Stiles looks up, he sees that she's standing with Derek by the body.
"I put it in his pocket," says Isaac, shrugging. "I thought the cold iron might help, especially since nothing else seemed to be working."
"My plan worked," says Lydia, her eyebrows raised.
"You realize you just volunteered yourself to be our plan person," says Allison. She shifts behind Stiles, and helps him stand up. Stiles catches Scott's goofy smile out of the corner of his eye, and he would bet money it's due to Allison's use of "our."
"Well," says Stiles, his voice uneven, "all this post-success banter is delightful, but could we possibly get the fuck out of here now please?"
It's just before dawn in the real world when they emerge, of the same evening that Stiles was taken. It's disorienting as hell, especially when Stiles thinks of all the times he went to bed in her ca – in the castle, but time passes differently in the fairy lands, apparently.
Stiles can't quite remember the details of that night, although it's more that it's been at least days for him, if not weeks, than any remnants of the spell. At least it's summer break – he'd be seriously screwed if he had homework to do.
Scott takes him back to Stiles's house, because even though they'd used their tried-and-true "pretend to be sleeping over at the other's house" technique, Stiles's dad is working the early-early-morning shift and won't be around to call them out on that particular lie. Going to Scott's house would also be an option, but Melissa might know about the werewolf thing and be more or less okay with it, but there's a lot to explain and Stiles really, really doesn't feel like explaining any of it.
The thing is, even since all the crazy werewolf shit started happening, most of the worry in Stiles's life has been him worrying about Scott, and not vice versa. He wonders if he's now getting a taste of his own medicine, because Scott keeps grabbing things before Stiles can reach for them and not letting Stiles drive his own car and generally hovering at Stiles's side like an overenthusiastic, concerned puppy.
It's a little frustrating...but it's also a lot adorable.
Stiles takes a real, long, water-falling-on-his-head, hot shower first thing. He lets the water fall over him, and it's the first time he feels warm in - in he literally doesn't know how long. Breathing is the priority: long, slow breaths that don't leave room for any thoughts. He lets the hot water into his mouth and gargles, trying to get rid of the taste of way too much puking in way too short a time, and it ends up warming him from the inside, too. But when he turns off the water, even the clammy humidity of the bathroom feels chilled.
He brushes his teeth for good measure, and then puts on the clothes Scott had refused to let him pick. It's a pair of Beacon Hills sweatpants and his lacrosse jersey.
Point taken, thinks Stiles, but puts them on anyway. It helps a little bit, to have the constant reminder of who he is. They fit exactly the same as they did before, though, and that's the part that feels wrong. He's come out on the other side of – of the whole thing, and it's only been one night.
Scott is sitting on Stiles's bed when he comes back from the bathroom, and he has a DVD in his hands – Raiders of the Lost Ark. Unfortunately, he also has on his I'm-concerned-about-your-wellbeing face.
"Feel cleaner," says Stiles. "There was a lot of puking last night."
Scott holds up his phone. "The pizza should be here soon."
"Well, if I knew I was gonna get pizza out of it, I would've been kidnapped by a crazy fairy way sooner," says Stiles, and even he can tell how false it sounds.
Scott has an epic brow-furrow, and he demonstrates it. "Are you okay?" he says.
Stiles sits down next to him on his bed, so he doesn't have to look at him. "I'll let you know as soon as I figure that out."
Scott leans to the side and bumps his shoulder against Stiles's, then passes over the DVD.
"I know we're exhausted from being up all night, but Deaton said we shouldn't get jet-lag, or fairy-lag, or whatever," says Scott, "which means trying to stay up all day. I figured, hey, why not watch a movie?"
"Pizza and a movie with Nazis," says Stiles. "Sounds good to me."
"Good," says Scott, "and, uh, a couple other people might come, too."
"When you say a couple..."
"Allison said she and Lydia and Jackson would get the pizza, and Derek and the pack overheard and I couldn't not invite them – except Peter, Peter's definitely not invited."
"Oh, well, as long as Peter's not invited," says Stiles. "Uh, are we gonna do it in here? Because my computer screen's not that big, and neither is my room."
"We could do it downstairs," says Scott.
"Where my dad could come home from work at any moment and find all of us, including the three notorious runaways, the guy we temporarily framed for mass murder, and the other guy we kidnapped that one time?"
"Jackson dropped the restraining order," says Scott, as if that helps.
Stiles looks around his room. "We'll fit in here, somehow. And if Dad comes home, the pack's going out the window. I don't care if it looks like a defenestration of shame."
Scott gives an I-have-no-idea-what-you're-talking-about-but-it-sounds-funny laugh. "A what?"
"It's like a walk of shame, but out the window," says Stiles.
They do end up all fitting in Stiles's room, although it's close. Stiles and Scott get the bed, laying on their stomachs facing Stiles's computer, by virtue of being there first. Allison ends up on the floor leaning against it, her arm resting on the bed itself, her elbow within an inch of Scott's arm. Jackson sits next to her, with Lydia in his lap. They spend the entire movie absentmindedly cuddling, and there is nearly more vomit in Stiles's day than there already was.
Erica, Isaac, and Boyd end up in a giant pile of werewolf on the floor between the bed and the computer, and Derek steals Stiles's desk chair and plants it at the head of the bed behind Scott and Stiles, where he can see everyone. Stiles would find it creepy if it weren't somehow comforting.
There's pizza, and some sarcasm – apparently Isaac has never seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is just a travesty, and Jackson has no appreciation for it whatsoever – and as soon as it's done Scott replaces it with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Stiles doesn't even bother to thank him for skipping Temple of Doom – it seems like that would hit a little too close to home at the moment.
It's almost easy to slip back into what feels like his old life, surrounded by teenagers (well, and Derek) and watching movies and eating pizza. The movie plays in the background as they chat, and then as they watch, and then as they drowse, and Stiles lies half-awake in the glow of the screen and the dimmed light coming through his window and thinks, this, this is home.
But when he finally falls asleep, he dreams of her.