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A Patch of Sunlight in the Woods

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Stiles was a cat.

He hadn’t always been one.

In fact, only a few hours ago he’d been a flustered teenage boy without his Jeep, rushing past an old lady and carelessly knocking her over as he tried to get to school before the first bell.

He remembered swearing and stopping to check on her -- he was a teenage boy and a bit of an asshole, but even he knew you didn’t leave the elderly sitting their butts on the sidewalk. He remembered the nasty look she’d shot him as he apologized and tried to help her up (swearing a little more because if he wasn’t late before, he sure as hell was now). But what happened next was a bit of a blur.

He’d fallen to the ground on all fours, the world around him seeming to sway and grow. The cane the old lady had been carrying swung towards him and he’d taken off as fast as his little legs could carry him.

Now he was up a tree, his claws sinking as deeply as they could go into the bark. And there was a beast, a massive, slobbery beast pawing at the trunk. It lunged upwards with enough force to shake the entire tree and Stiles scrambled up another branch. His panicked shouts came out as a strangled miew. The thing’s barks boomed upward like the sound waves alone could knock Stiles off his perch.

Below him, a girl pulled at the beast’s collar. “Derek, control your dog!”

It took Stiles a moment to recognize her as a Hale, though he didn’t know her well enough to remember her name. She had that Hale scowl that declared she was frustrated with the world -- they each seemed to wear it like armor. She was, however, winning plenty of points from Stiles by the simple act of saving his feline life at the moment.

“He’s going to shake the poor kitten out of the tree.”

Derek rolled his eyes but tugged the dog’s leash until the tree beneath Stiles stopped trembling.

His hackles lowered for a moment, only for the tree to shake again. Stiles hissed at the girl -- who was no longer his favorite -- as she began to climb, setting Stiles off balance with every branch she gripped. The ground swayed below him, ever so far down.

“What are you doing?” Derek shouted. The dog barked. Stiles hissed again. Life as a kitten was apparently constant chaos. “Cora! Get down from there.”

But Cora hoisted herself from branch to branch like she’d been climbing trees her entire life. Maybe she had. More than once his dad had mentioned bumping into the Hales in the woods, claiming they were on a nature hike.

“It could have rabies,” Derek called out.

Before Stiles could be insulted, a strong hand wrapped around his ribcage, lifting him in the air. He made a last reach for the branch and the safety it afforded before giving up and digging his claws into the soft shoulder Cora offered. Her sharp inhale was a hollow victory.

“He smells healthy.” And the next thing Stiles knew, Cora Hale was burrowing her nose into the fur of his neck.

It felt… nice. Too intimate, but the press of her body beneath his was safe and calming after the instability of the branch he’d occupied for the last couple hours. He’d almost let himself relax against her when suddenly he was falling -- they were falling -- through the air as Cora leaped from the top most branch of the tree to the sidewalk. Stiles clung tighter as he braced himself for the impact that never came. She landed softly, impossibly softly, cradling Stiles like precious cargo.

“Cora!”

“No one’s around.” Stiles jostled a bit at Cora’s shrug. “He has no collar, Derek. I’m keeping him.”

“Not until he’s seen a vet,” Derek said, barely holding his mutt back from eating Stiles while Cora continued to hold him out of reach. Cora was definitely his favorite Hale.

“Come on, you hate Deaton!”

“He’s capable enough in his job to deal with a stray kitten.” Derek eyed him as though any decision Deaton might make towards ending Stiles’ life would get his full support. Stiles met his glare and hissed. He was starting to like the sound.

Cora stroked down his flank and the deep pressure along his still nerve-wracked body had Stiles wriggling in contentment. “Tomorrow,” she said, pressing a kiss to Stiles’ head. “He’s been through enough today.”

“That thing is not going back to the loft with us.”

On that, Stiles agreed with Derek. He had to get home, to his dad or to Scott. He needed help to figure out how he’d been suddenly kitten-ed, and how to change back. He needed to get that part for his Jeep because he never wanted to walk to school again if this was the shit that happened to you on the way.

He squirmed, trying to dislodge himself from Cora’s hold. She clamped tighter.

“Whatever,” Cora said, adding in the same carefree tone, “By the way, your mutt just shit on a hedge witch’s lawn. Might want to pick that up.”

“Oh, fuck!”

Cora laughed and nuzzled Stiles’ neck.

~

Cora took Stiles back to the loft she apparently shared with her brother, which officially classified today as the oddest day ever.

He’d tried to escape twice already as Cora carried him through town, but her grip was like iron the minute he started to squirm. He’d felt a pang of guilt at the scratches he’d left from her wrist to her elbow in his last attempt. Though, as he looked at her arm now, there wasn’t a trace left. He stared at the unmarked skin and couldn’t help but feel a bit insulted. It had seemed at least a moderately fierce attack at the time.

He wasn’t even capable of the most basic skills of a cat -- specifically, scratching the fuck out of someone’s arm. That was unfair.

Cora hummed, seemingly unconcerned about Stiles’ epic plans of escape, sat on the couch, placed him on her lap and grabbed a book from the coffee table.

He eyed the window. By the sun glinting off the rooftops, he’d guess the loft was at least five floors up. Jumping from a window only to plummet to his death was not an option. The main door, an ugly slab of metal that grinded piercingly as it slid open and closed, was shut firm and looked heavy enough that Stiles, even if he were human, would struggle with it.

He huffed, circled Cora’s lap a couple times and tucked his nose under his paws in a pout.

At the sound of the door opening a few minutes later, Stiles was up and across the room before Cora could get her hands on him. He might have made it -- he was only a foot from the door -- when his vision filled with black fur and the drooling jowls of Derek’s beast. It stood between him and freedom. And maybe, given another second, he would have tried darting through the dog’s legs and slipping out the loft door before Derek had a chance to close it, but the option was taken from him as the scruff of his neck was pinched and he was in the air yet again.

“You can’t eat this thing, Sebastian.” Derek waved Stiles just out of reach of the beast’s jaws. “Who knows where it’s been.”

Then he was tossed -- actually tossed! -- at Cora, who caught him safely. “Asshole.”

“I saved him. The little shit was taking off. I don’t think he likes you.”

“He loves me.” Cora kissed him again and took him back to couch. As her fingers stroked his back, Stiles felt his jittery heart begin to calm. “So, did Old Lady Rathburn hex your balls off?”

“She just scowled at me and suggested I get ‘that ugly cat we found’ neutered.” Derek bent at the knee to get himself eye level with Stiles, regarding him for a minute like Stiles was a puzzle. Stiles took a swipe with his paw, claws extended, fully intent on showing Derek what he thought of getting neutered. Derek dodged him easily and smirked. “He must have been digging up her petunias.”

“I told you he was perfect.” Cora lifted him up so they were nose to nose. If Stiles knew how to say ‘I am human, let me out,’ he’d be screaming it right now. Instead he ended up placing a paw on Cora’s cheek and letting it rest there. “We are not taking him to Deaton.”

“Don’t get attached. I’m serious,” Derek said, filling a dog bowl with water. After a moment’s hesitation, he grabbed second bowl, filled it with water and placed in the corner closest to Stiles. “And don’t be surprised if Sebastian eats the thing.”

The water was tempting, but Cora’s lap was soft and warm. She smelled nice. His eyes drifted shut without his consent every time she ran her fingertips between his ears. Maybe if he took a little nap, a solution would come to him.

~

It was dark by the time he opened his eyes again. He cursed his kitten metabolism for making him lose time while he needed to find a way out of this stupid loft and more importantly find how to stop being a cat. His father would have left him a grumpy voice mail assuming Stiles had been hanging with Scott and had forgotten to come home for dinner.

Dad often fell asleep before Stiles’ got home, so he might not be truly worried until morning… or until the school called to tell him Stiles had missed today. Which, Stiles just realized, had probably already happened. He was dead.

Dead, and stuck in this stupid loft until morning.

He hopped off the couch where Cora had left him and went to explore. The loft had one main room with a full wall of windows and some sparse furniture: the couch where he and Cora had spent the afternoon, and a bed -- occupied with a sleeping Derek -- which was tucked in the corner opposite. There was a desk by the window, but no phone or anything useful for Stiles’ escape. The main door was shut and locked.

About the only thing useful he found was the water bowl Derek had poured for him, though he got water up his nose before he was able to figure out the complexities of drinking with his tongue.

From a lack of anything better to do, and a healthy fear of Sebastian, who lay asleep on the floor by Derek’s bed, Stiles climbed the spiral staircase.

It wasn’t hard to find Cora. The second floor consisted of only a bedroom with a bathroom off to the side. Like the main floor it was quiet and dark, everything far too big. He stared at Cora’s face, soft with sleep, and wondered if she would help him if she knew.

He hadn’t felt this utterly alone since the nights he spent in the hospital, holding his sleeping mother’s hand while his father worked late, yet again. He meowed, a pathetic and lonely sound that made Stiles cringe to have made it.

Cora’s eyes snapped open, the light from the window somehow making them golden, and a sudden smile flashed across her face. “Hey, you,” she whispered, voice rough with sleep, and she reached over to snatch him from the floor.

The ache in his chest immediately lightened. As much as he hated to admit it, Cora’s attention made this whole mess at least a little better. She made him feel safe. And that wasn’t something he’d ever imagined.

Everything he knew about Cora Hale said she wasn’t the sort of girl that made you think words like safe and soft and sweetness. He’d seen her around wearing simple, functional clothes -- the kind that meant she was always ready to break someone’s nose, should the need arise. And anytime Stiles had ever bumped into her (several times figuratively, only one literally) she’d had a scowl that looked like it never completely disappeared from her face, as though the fire that had taken most of her family had left her prepared for the world to fuck over her life once again.

But when she looked at him now, there was a tenderness inside her which Stiles would never have guessed. Wasn’t there a saying that cats bring out the best in people? Or was that dogs? or Christmas?

Either way, the sleepy smile she gave him as Stiles knocked his head beneath her chin was everything he needed tonight. He was far from home, far from his dad. Panic simmered just below the surface.

She laid her arm across his belly and tugged him close to her chest; he accepted the comfort, even if it was meant for a rescued kitten and not a lonely and afraid teenaged boy.

It wasn’t like he could tell her the truth anyway.

~

Stiles woke to a cold, empty bed and the sounds of crashing downstairs. Also, he was still a cat. These things were all equally upsetting.

He descended the spiral staircase -- which was not at all designed with timid kittens in mind. He stopped on a step half-way down, turning to the noises of the room just in time to see Cora get slammed into a wall. Her head snapped back, cracking against the brick before her body slumped like a ragdoll.

Stiles froze, his heart racing in his chest.

Derek stood on the other side of the loft, shirtless and shadowed in the early morning light. “Your footing was wrong,” Derek snapped, wiping sweat from his brow. His tone was lightly mocking. “You have no balance when you stand like that.”

He turned from his sister’s prone body to pick a piece of broken lamp from the floor. Stiles was trembling, back arched and ready to pounce. He was caught between wanting to rush to Cora, check if she was still breathing and the need to claw Derek’s eyes out. He glanced at Cora and all he saw was a blur of movement.

Cora was up, already across the room by the time Stiles’ eyes were able to focus on her. She leaped on Derek, feet first, catching him mid-crouch. Her legs wrapped around his neck, and she twisted her body completely around so that Derek was helpless to stop her momentum from toppling him.

In the next instant Derek was pinned beneath her and her long nails -- unnaturally long nails -- circled his throat.

“Off,” Derek rasped, his face red even in the caramel-hue of the morning.

“Tell me.”

“No,” he growled through fangs -- fangs that were far more impressive than Stiles’ own, he was sure. Fangs. Then Stiles was shaken out of his surprise by a sound he could scarcely believe.

Cora was roaring, the sound of it making the windows tremble and Stiles’ hackles rise. “Tell me.”

Derek grunted, struggling to breathe beneath Cora’s claws. Blood seeped from several puncture wounds along his neck. “You win,” he said, at last.

“Thank you,” Cora said sweetly, suddenly human and smiling, again the pretty young woman who’d made Stiles feel safe yesterday.

Stiles blinked, not sure what he’d just witnessed. And yet certain he’d seen something not at all normal -- outside of the obvious oddity of a brother and sister casually beating the shit out of each other before breakfast. The Hales weren’t just a strange, angsty family, he realized. They weren’t even human. Even though looking at them now, there was not a trace of the supernatural evident.

“Get up,” Cora said, offering Derek a hand and lifting him to his feet. “You’re bleeding.”

“Fuck you.” There was no heat to Derek’s words beyond a mild annoyance as he looked at his bare chest and the gory streaks of red staining it. “I hate when you do that stupid move.”

“Because you lose.”

“No, because it gets blood on the carpet.” Derek grabbed what must be his discarded shirt from the couch and started to swipe at the blood on his neck, smearing it messily.

“Yeah, well, I have to go to work in an hour and you fractured a disc.” Cora lifted her arms above her head, wincing through the stretch. “My back’ll be tender until lunch.”

“Your feet were wrong. Again. It was a lesson.”

Cora rolled her eyes. “I’m going to get ready, asshole. You have to clean this place up.”

As she headed towards the stairs, Stiles instinctively cowered, trying to shrink to invisible on the steps.

“Hey you!” Cora beamed at the sight of him. She looked nothing like the monster he’d just seen. She picked him up gently, as though she could hear the panicked stutter of his heart.

She held him for a bit, murmuring into his fur about him making her late, but she didn’t put him down until the trembling had stopped and he’d finally relaxed again. She placed him on the bed in a small patch of sun as she stripped for a shower.

His mind was spinning but emotional exhaustion and the heat of the morning sun pouring through the window dragged him back to sleep.

~

“You,” Derek said, scooping up Stiles, “are coming with me.”

The worst thing about being a cat was apparently Stiles’ inability to stop people just taking him places.

The sun was bright and high in the sky as they left the loft. Derek placed Stiles on the front seat of a sleek black car. His hand never left Stiles’ neck, a constant pressure the entire drive as though he knew Stiles would scratch and bite the moment he had an opening. The little reveal this morning had Stiles wondering what, if anything, he could even do too harm Derek anyway. There was not a single mark left on his neck from Cora’s claws.

A shiver ran down Stiles’ back.

Stiles recognized where they were the minute Derek stopped the car, and he was seriously regretting not trying his luck with the drop from the windows at the loft. As they walked through the parking lot, Stiles spotted the bike rack and cursed that it was empty. If only Scott was working, if only Stiles was able to catch his eye, he knew Scott would recognize him. It was crazy, but Stiles knew with absolute certainty it was true.

He’d visited Scott at work enough times that the vet’s office was familiar but the smell of the other animals kept in the back -- dogs and birds and other cats -- nearly sent Stiles into a frenzy. It was wrong, a mix of bleach and medicine, with a lingering stench of sickness.

Stiles could feel the tension radiating off Derek with every word he exchanged with Deaton, and for a moment he let Derek stroking his head relax him. Enemy of your enemy is your friend, after all. Until he was placed on a cold steel table, and knew he’d been betrayed.

Deaton bent low, placing a hand on the table as he leaned forward; his eyes widened ever so slightly as they met Stiles’.

“You want to get this cat neutered?” Deaton asked. If Stiles thought Scott’s boss was capable of showing any emotion, he might take the softness in his voice for amusement. “Are you sure about that?”

“Cora found him,” Derek said. “I’m afraid she wants to keep him.”

“And where did you say she found him?” Deaton’s gentle hands inspected Stiles’ fur, pressing in on a few tender spots but never causing pain.

“He was up that young oak tree in Old Lady Rothburns’ front yard.”

“Ah.”

A quiet growl came from Derek's throat and Stiles wondered for a moment if Deaton knew Derek hated his guts, and also that Derek was capable of disemboweling him with his claws. Maybe Stiles could slip away once the bloodshed started.

“I’m sure he’s not hers.”

“No. No, I imagine he’s not,” Deaton said, clearly amused. Done examining Stiles, he turned to Derek. “Well, I wouldn’t recommend getting this particular cat neutered.”

“But--”

“I think--” Deaton paused as he rooted around inside a large cupboard. Stiles eyed the door, but it was mostly blocked my Derek’s tree-trunk legs. “Yes, I think this might be more what you need for him.” He held up a small vial with a blue liquid inside. It looked more like something out of Harry Potter than an FDA approved drug.

“I don’t und--”

“You’ll just have to trust me, Derek.”

Derek growled; Deaton didn’t seem surprised by the noise.

He went on blithely with what he was doing as though Derek had agreed. Stiles could hear a can opening, and the scent of tuna overwhelmed the room. Deaton set a few fork-fulls onto a dish and placed it in front of Stiles. It was impossible to resist, despite the blue tinge to the flaky fish. The human part of Stiles feared what the vet might be giving him, but Derek hadn’t let him get to the bowl of ham Cora had left by his water and he was starving, so the cat part of him won the battle of wills. He licked the plate clean.

Deaton looked him right in the eye as they were leaving. “I think you’ll feel more like yourself in a few hours, little one.”

~

Derek took no chances on the drive home. His hand clamped tight on Stiles’ neck again, pinning him to the leather seats. Strangely, Stiles wasn’t even tempted by the open window only a few feet from him. His head swam and the bitter aftertaste of the tuna Deaton had given him lingered on his tongue, making him nauseous.

~

“Why do you smell like the vet’s?” Cora’s fangs were out, eyes flashing, before they’d even taken a step into the loft. Stiles felt a surge of affection that it was in his defense. As soon as Derek released him, Stiles leaped straight into her arms.

“I just got him checked out.” Derek shrugged. “No snipsnip.” His fingers lifted in the air to make a scissoring gesture.

Stiles gave Derek a pathetic sounding hiss. He still felt off, dizzy enough that even paying attention to their argument didn’t seem worth it even though they were likely deciding his fate. Soon the shouting garbled into something incoherent and Stiles wriggled out of Cora’s embrace.

There was a square of sunlight beside the desk, and he curled up into it. It bothered him that he was starting to forget important things like his dad -- who was probably filling out a missing person’s report since it had been over twenty-four hours now. There was nothing he could do to escape, not with the funky way that shit from Deaton made him feel, not with the way the heat of the sun was dragging him under.

He woke briefly, jostled awake by hands wrapping around his belly and lifting him into the air, but Cora held him securely against her chest as she carried him up the spiral staircase and he fell back to sleep the moment she placed him on her bed.

He felt Cora’s arms wrap around him again and he nuzzled below her chin to catch more of her scent. There were worst ways to be kidnapped, he supposed.

~

The room was much smaller when he woke. The bed, the pillows, the walls had all shrunk, was his first thought; the smells were muted and unfamiliar.

Stiles blinked, rubbing his eyes then staring down at his hands. His human hands.

A flash of brightness in the dark sent panic rushing through him; the world both slowed down and sped up as his mind absorbed what was happening and the serious danger he was currently in.

Cora Hale had just woken to a strange, unwelcome man in her bed. Also, he was naked. He scrambled back from Cora, whose teeth and face were inhuman. Her golden eyes narrowed at him.

Stiles was caught between covering his bits and raising his hands in surrender. He opted for both hands on his crotch because Cora was maybe a little bit hot like this, and he was in her bed and it was possible Stiles was at risk of a fear boner. “Um, hi?” he said, offering his best smile, the one that never worked on his dad.

Cora growled, a deep warning sound that made Stiles flinch.

“Okay, first, this is not my fault.” Stiles inched backwards, trying to pull the sheet with him so he’d have some dignity while he begged for his life. “You basically kidnapped me.”

For every move Stiles made to create some distance, Cora crept closer like this was some weird animalistic dance. Neither made any sudden moves. They just circled each other until the slack of the sheets ran out and Stiles couldn’t tug them loose.

“Okay, I’m going to die.”

“Are you a hunter?”

“Hunter?” Stiles looked at her, incredulous. “A hunter of what?”

“Are you a witch?”

“I’m just… a victim! I don’t know! I tried to tell you. But you don’t speak cat apparently. Maybe if I’d been turned into a dog?”

Cora roared loud enough to make Stiles drop the sheet to cover his ears. Next thing he knew, she was on top of him. A sharp pain sliced through his head as it connected with the floor.

“Please don’t kill me.” Stiles gasped as Cora’s thighs squeezed his ribcage until he could barely catch a breath. “My dad…”

“Who sent you here?”

Stiles could hear the pounding of metal as Derek ran up the stairs. “Cora! What-- Who the hell is that?”

“I don’t know! I woke up and he was in my bed.”

As Cora turned to her brother, Stiles seized the opportunity. He shifted his weight, twisting enough to unbalance Cora. He grabbed the corner of the sheet he’d dropped and tossed it over Cora’s head. It bought him enough time to jump on the bed, but he got his feet tangled in the duvet. While kicking it off, he managed to catch Derek in the jaw as he pounced.

The tiny room was in utter chaos, which was the only reason, Stiles figured, that he even made to the stairs.

He didn’t dare look back. He leaped over the last few steps, sailing over Sebastian, who was barking at the bottom. He could hear shouting above, but the only thing that mattered was that the voices weren’t getting any closer and that he was finally, finally out the door and into the street.

He wasn’t kidding himself; he knew they must have let him go. If two creatures with superhuman strength and speed wanted to catch up to his clumsy, naked ass stumbling out the building their loft was in, they would. Simple as that.

So he ran through the streets, and knew he was getting away by their choice.

It didn’t matter though, because he knew this area well enough and it was only a couple miles from his house. He took off with single-minded focus.

~

He reached his front door, the safety his home provided only blocked by a few inches of wood, and he collapsed against it. Naked, and in the beginning stages of a panic attack and possibly hypothermia, he realized he had no key.

Pain shot through this hand as he began pounding on the door as though he had the strength to break it down. “Dad! Dad!”

His voice was hoarse. He hoped he was loud enough to be heard.

The lights flicked on inside and Stiles inhaled deeply, pressing himself against the grain of the wood. “Dad,” he said, barely a whisper.

The door swung open, and he had to draw back quickly to avoid tumbling onto his father.

His dad stared at him, wide-eyed and smelling of liquor, looking him up and down in disbelief before finally finding his voice. “Oh my God, Stiles.”

Stiles collapsed into his father’s outstretched arms. “Dad.”

~

His father wouldn’t let him shower until he was properly checked over by a professional. So he sat on his couch wrapped in a blanket, telling his dad what he could. He just wanted the investigation dropped because no one would believe the story anyway, and mentioning the Hales at all seemed unnecessary. Even if they’d wanted to kill him half an hour ago, Stiles was pretty confident that had just been instinct after finding a stranger in their house. Lair. Whatever.

He told his dad he didn’t remember much, just that he’d woken up in the warehouse district, that he’d been wandering, disoriented, all night until he finally found his way home. He didn’t remember seeing anyone. He didn’t know where his clothes or his phone went. He didn’t think anyone touched him. Then he started repeating that he didn’t remember to every question asked because he knew his dad was smart and if he tried to lie further, he’d end up giving his father a lead.

It got him a thin-lipped glare and a trip to the ER. A fairly mortifying exam, a few test results, and a long talk with the doctor helped his dad believe that a) he had no trace of drugs currently in his system and b) he hadn’t been abused. Other than the small bruise he’d earned slamming his knee on the stair rail during his escape and the scratches on the bottoms of his feet, he was completely unmarked.

It was enough to shake the concern off his dad’s face. He let out a long exhale, bowing his head for a moment, and Stiles could see the stiffness leave his shoulders, the strain of being the sheriff and following necessary procedure finally being let go. The hug his dad gave him now was long and tight enough to steal his breath away.

When they separated, they looked at each other with the same relieved, watery eyes. Neither of them said a word.

“Can I give my formal statement tomorrow? Maybe I’ll remember something more?”

“Sure, kid,” his dad said with a weak smile, his hand clasped on Stiles’ shoulder.

It was nearly dawn by the time his head hit the pillow. Exhausted, he let his eyes close, let himself think for moment it had all been a strange dream. That maybe he had been drugged, despite the test results, and maybe he’d dreamed the entire thing: people turned into cats, monsters hidden beneath human faces.

Blaming his overactive imagination seemed safest.

But as his eyes drifted closed, the memory Cora’s breath on his cheek as he fell asleep felt very real.

~

The trip to the station was stressful. His dad couldn’t hide his disappointment as Stiles gave his official statement and provided even less details than he’d managed the night before.

He probably knew he was being lied to, but accepted it because he understood he couldn’t make the truth magically appear in Stiles’ mouth.

~

His Jeep was still out of commission, so his dad drove him to school every day. They didn’t talk about it but he knew his dad wasn’t willing just yet to let Stiles walk the same path that got him lost for two days. Stiles was really okay with that. Eventually though, an early morning crisis across town demanded the presence of the sheriff and forced his dad to change their routine. Before his father even suggested it, Stiles agreed to call him the minute he got to school.

He was walking, half running -- because Stiles had never learned to leave on time -- when he caught sight of a tree that sent a shiver down his spine. He flailed to a stop, looking between it and the old woman sitting on her porch not ten feet from him.

The slow wicked smile that spread across her face as she recognized him sent him racing in the opposite direction. He took three blocks north then cut across a church parking lot to get himself headed back the right way. He was only five minutes late texting his dad.

He vowed to leave early and permanently alter his path to school from that point on.

~

Some of the rumours at school were actually pretty awesome, so he stole a few colorful details to include in his responses when he got asked what had happened to him. He’d told Scott the truth one afternoon while they sat in the bleachers, staring out at the empty lacrosse field. But he had no proof, and didn’t want to name names, so when Scott declared the cat story the best one yet, Stiles let it go.

He’d changed his story so many times over the course of the first week back that he almost started to believe his own lies.

But he couldn’t hide from his dreams: the flashing inhuman eyes of the Hales, horror movie fangs, bright red blood as claws pierced skin. In his dreams, the memories were crystal clear and infused with so many emotions that Stiles woke drowning in them. Not all were negative either -- the way Cora’s growl sent a shiver down his spine in all the best and completely inappropriate ways, the way her hands held him tight, her fingers slowing his frantic heart.

One night, with the memory of Cora’s nuzzles still tingling the skin at his nape, he got out of bed and turned on his laptop. If Cora rescuing him and taking him home was real -- and he was positive it was -- then everything else he’d witness had to have been real too.

Stiles was probably not as surprised as he should have been when one word kept coming up over and over in answer to his questions: lycanthropy.

~

After letting his mind accept the truth of it for two solid days -- fucking werewolves -- Stiles realized there was one person he knew that might have more information than google could provide.

The next Saturday morning, nearly a month after he’d been taken there against his will, Stiles made the trip to Scott’s work.

“Stiles!” Scott said, and the way Scott’s face lit up every time he saw Stiles -- like he was something precious that was almost lost -- was just about the best thing in the world. “Hey, I didn’t know you were stopping by today.”

Having no Jeep made lying difficult sometimes because ‘just in the neighborhood’ wouldn't work when the vet’s was a forty-five minute walk from his house. So Stiles just shrugged and asked about the current patient.

“Oh, this little guy is a demon.” Scott nodded to the protective gloves he was wearing to hold a cat on the examination table. The tabby’s back was arched, his hackles up and, as Scott attempted to adjust him to a better position, he hissed, clawing at Scott’s gloves.

“Um, I don’t think he likes that.”

“Yeah. Trust me, I wasn’t wearing gloves at first.” Scott’s eyes drifted over to the counter where iodine and gauze was laid out. “He’s a stray. We’re just checking him over before sending him to the shelter.”

A door opened off the side of the examination room and suddenly Deaton was standing beside him. “Stiles, lovely to see you. We’ll just be a moment, if you need to talk to Scott.”

“No, I, uh--” Stiles stepped back, overwhelmed at being addressed by a man who last saw him as a cat. “It’s... nothing important. Can I just watch?”

Deaton gave him a look like he wasn’t at all surprised at Stiles' sudden interest.

“That’s fine, just stay clear.” Deaton placed his hands on the cat, probing across his body in a way that felt uncomfortably familiar. “How are you feeling these days, Stiles?”

Stiles choked back a hysterical laugh. “I’m staying away from blue tuna.”

“Dude, why would you even…” Scott’s face scrunched up so quickly, it punched the laugh from Stiles anyway.

Deaton’s lips pressed tight in an almost smile. “I’m sure Stiles learned his lesson.”

Stiles kept quiet, watching as they struggled with the tabby. The moment Scott’s hold lessened, the stray swatted at Deaton’s hand, leaving a wicked scratch along his wrist.

“Sorry!” Scott said. “He’s stronger than he looks.”

“It’s fine,” Deaton said, completely unfazed. Stiles narrowed his eyes, but the scratch didn’t heal immediately; Stiles figured he was probably human.

“What’s going to happen to this cat?”

“We’ll take him to the shelter right after this,” Deaton said, cleaning and bandaging his wrist before proceeding with the examination. “But he hasn’t much hope of adoption. I’ll have to note on his card that he can’t be around children and he’s prone to violence.”

“Most cats like this get put down,” Scott added.

“Some cats are just aren’t good with people.”

And some people were not a good match for cats like this, Stiles knew. But some people were. He knew for a fact, that some people were already equipped to handle a cat like this. The words were out of his mouth before he could clamp down on them. “I’ll take him.”

“What?”

“I’ll take him. I mean, I was thinking of adopting,” Stiles said. “That’s why I was here. To talk to you about. So. Yeah. If he’s going to be put down anyway, I’ll take him.”

“Stiles, we have nice kittens in the back. Only a few weeks old.”

“No, this one. I just--” Hoping he sounded more sure of himself than he was, he said, “Trust me.”

“Scott, why don’t you go get that carrier we used to get him in here?” Deaton said, taking Scott’s place holding the cat down.

He waited until Scott disappeared out the door before turning to Stiles. “Are you sure you know what you are getting into?”

“He’s not for me.”

“I assumed as much.”

“I just want to-- I need to do this.”

Deaton nodded, his face lightening as Scott re-entered and placed the carrier on the table. “This will help you carry him without too much damage,” he explained, expertly lifting the cat into the carrier and shutting the door. “Just return it to us tomorrow. That includes the cat too, if it doesn’t work out like you hope.”

Stiles bent to look inside the caged door. The glowing eyes of the angry cat inside that looked so much like Cora’s -- he was positive this was going to work.

As he left, ridiculously heavy carrier in hand, he turned back to Deaton. “Is there anything special I should know about this cat? Anything unique?”

Amusement flickered on Deaton’s face. “I assure you, he is just a cat.”

“I had to ask.”

~

As he walked, Stiles pictured exactly how this might go. There were several scenarios that came to mind. At least half a dozen of them resulted in injury or death. His death, specifically.

Absolutely none of those scenario had Stiles walking up to the loft only to find the door already wide open and the loft empty -- not ‘out for a jug of milk’ empty, but ‘we packed up and left in a hurry’ empty.

Most of the furniture was left behind, but the beds were stripped bare, the drawers and bookshelves were cleared out. The kitchen was barren. A month’s worth of dust covered every surface.

Stiles stumbled into the loft, a sickening black feeling in the pit of his stomach that this deserted place was his fault. He set the carrier down and sat on the floor beside it until his legs cramped and the cat began to bite furiously at the cage. He wasn’t really sure what possessed him, but keeping this cat caged was making his skin itch. So he closed the loft door, opened the carrier and stood back.

The tabby flew out like rocket, a blur of brown and black stripes, and then he was gone, hiding himself under Derek’s bed. Stiles left him there -- he knew better than to try to coax him out -- and headed up the stairs.

Cora’s room was empty too, as expected. A few toiletries were left in the shower, a towel still on the floor, now spotted with mildew. Stiles flopped back on the bare mattress and stared out the windows he’d once eyed for escape. “What the fuck now?” he said to the empty loft.

The shadows told him time passed, that the afternoon was falling into evening. He had no desire to go back yet, abandon this place that he’d half convinced himself didn’t exist. Now that he was sure of it, sure of everything, he wasn’t ready to let it go.

He sent his dad a text that he’d be a late getting home, that he’d call if he needed a ride. They were both careful about that these days. No one walked into an unexpectedly empty house anymore.

The demon cat -- who was apparently just a cat -- emerged eventually. He slinked into Cora’s room, head low and eyes darting about the room. Stiles held still until the tabby finally curled himself in one corner of the room and gave a pathetic attempt at looking relaxed.

Avoiding any sudden movements, Stiles pulled out one of the sample pack of treats Scott had shoved in his pocket. He smiled as the crinkle set the cat’s ears twitching. Stiles felt the same way about Doritos. He placed the treats in a line, E. T. style, from the foot of the bed to right beside where Stiles was lying.

It took less time than he’d expected for the cat to make his way up the bed. And Stiles wondered how much of the cat’s aggression had come from being forced into a vet’s office and held down on a cold, steel table against his will. As the stray got to the small pile by Stiles’ hip, he sat and ate. Stiles carefully placed his hand on the cat’s back, barely touching, and when he didn’t run or claw off Stiles’ arm, Stiles petted him. The cat ignored him and focused on his food, but Stiles didn’t care. It felt like a major victory.

This day had been good for him, he thought as he stroked the tabby’s back and watched him finally arch into Stiles’ hand, asking for more pressure. He needed this time alone, time to think and remind himself that the insanity of a month ago had really happened. That he wasn’t crazy. Or drugged or abused. That somehow, he’d actually been a cat.

The loud scrape of the door opening below echoed through the loft; Stiles jumped up and off the bed; the cat disappeared under it. Stiles looked around for what to do with himself and muttered, “Room enough for two under there, buddy?”

He had a good guess who it was. Out of the two people it could be, Stiles hoped to hell it was Cora -- but even then all the injury and/or death scenarios he’d come up with earlier flew through his brain. He wondered if his survival rate would be any better under the bed with the demon cat.

As the person climbed the stairs and came into view, Stiles breathed a sigh of relief that is wasn’t Derek. “Hey, Cora,” he said, brushing the dust from his ass and trying to look like he hadn’t been lying on her bed.

“Hey.” Cora stared at him, her eyes intense and curious. She approached slowly, like it was Stiles who was the predator here. “Deaton called.”

“Oh.” Stiles blinked, not expecting those words and suddenly embarrassed that he’d ever had this stupid idea in the first place. “He shouldn’t -- I mean, since you weren’t here --” Stiles inhaled, eyes on the ceiling like it had the words he was looking for. “I was just leaving.” He looked back to the bed, wondering how the hell he was going to get the cat back into the cage. He only had three treats left for bribing.

“We took off,” Cora was saying, as though Stiles hadn’t spoken. She sat on the bed, her eyes focused on the windows. “After you ran out. Derek figured it wasn’t safe. We left that night.”

It was getting harder to see, the sky outside a deep indigo that would soon fade to black. The shadows played on Cora’s face, darkening around her eyes, sinking in her cheeks. He’d never seen anyone look so lonely. “I wouldn’t have…” Stiles let the sentence trail off because he wasn’t even sure what they thought he would do. The word hunter floated around his brain.

Cora’s lips pressed tight, not looking at him at all.

Flustered by the silence, he blurted out, “I brought you a cat,” and pointed under the bed as if that would explain everything.

“I don’t need a cat.” The smile she gave him felt broken and familiar. He was well practiced at those.

It took everything in him to not snap back with, ‘Yes, you do.’ Instead, he sat beside her on the bed and let quiet fall between them.

“We figured it out, you know,” Cora said, like she expected Stiles to have followed her thoughts. “You were up a hedge witch’s tree -- we should have clued in.”

“I’ve been… avoiding her.”

Cora flashed him a grin, broad and sincere. It vanished as fast as it appeared. “We would have helped earlier, if we’d known. We wouldn’t have… kidnapped you.”

Stiles shrugged. His dad still looked at him like he might disappear again any moment, but the whole thing wasn’t as traumatic as it could have been.

The room was cast in shadow, the only light coming from the rising quarter moon and the glow of a few street lamps below. A few inches from Cora’s feet, two small eyes glowed as the cat moved into a patch of moonlight.

Cora watched him as he crept closer and closer, until he finally reached her leg and head-butted her shin. Taking her life into her own hands, she lifted that cat, as she had once done to Stiles, and she placed him on the bed between them. There was no bloodshed, not even a hiss. Cora allowed him to smell her fingers first, then the cat remained rigid, almost frozen while she started to pet down his back.

“It’s dangerous,” she said, her eyes not leaving the cat, “you knowing our secret.”

“I figured. Big bad wolfs and all.” When Cora looked up at him, suspicious, he added, “I researched a bit.”

Cora nodded. “Deaton told Derek not to kill you.”

“And what about you?”

She stretched out on the bed, letting the cat, who had apparently accepted Cora as awesome, now brush his head up under her chin. “It was touch and go for a bit there,” she said. “You had slept in my bed. And I know for a fact you didn’t turn away when I was changing.”

“Should I make out a will?” He felt the heat of the blush creeping up his neck and knew he was blotchy red from his collar to his ears. “I mean, I’m sixteen. I don’t have much.”

Cora rolled her eyes, and Stiles had forgotten how much he liked that look on her. He laid himself out beside her, and joined in petting the cat. “Are you going to kill me if I tell you I started to really like you? That I wake up some mornings thinking I can still smell you on my skin?” He stopped himself before he could wax poetically about her mouth.

“Stiles.”

“It’s weird knowing this stuff exists, knowing you, and pretending I don’t. It’s…” Lonely, he didn’t say.

She looked at him like she understood anyway. “Did you really bring me this cat?”

“Um, yes?” He rolled over to pull out the crumpled papers from his back pocket. “Officially, even. Deaton checked and he’d been neutered already. He got a clean bill of health today.”

Cora’s lips curled into a smile. “I don’t need a cat.”

“You’re like… all alone, all the time. With Derek. That can’t be healthy for anyone’s psyche.”

“I’m terrible with people.”

“No, you’re not,” Stiles muttered, his eyes on the spot of his jeans where the knee was beginning to fray.

“First time I met you I kidnapped you and forced you into bed with me,” Cora said, her volume dropping so Stiles had to strain to hear. “Just saying.”

“Oh my God, you are terrible with people.” Stiles lowered his voice to match Cora’s, not wanting to break the moment even with his own joke.

“Sorry.”

“Can we try again?” The lightness in his chest from her apology made it feel right to inch closer, stare into her eyes and say, “Hi, I’m Stiles.”

“Stiles?” Cora smirked. “Funny, I was just thinking of naming my new cat that.”

Stiles choked on his own spit. “You wouldn’t!”

“I would,” she said, her eyes flashing golden, but her lips turned down the next second. “I once had a cat named Stiles and he was…” She looked away from him, focusing on rubbing the cat between his ears. His eyes fell shut with each stroke.

A swallow caught in Stiles throat as he watched and remembered. “He was what?” he asked quietly.

“I didn’t have him for long.” Cora shook her head like she thought she was being silly. “But I liked him a lot.”

“Yeah? What happened to him?”

“I scared him and he ran away.”

“He came back.” He looked up then, because he had to know, and yeah, Cora smiling at him was just about the most perfect thing in the world.

“Yes, I guess he did.”

Reaching out, Stiles joined Cora in petting the cat, letting his fingers brush against hers.

They lay in that abandoned loft for a long time, petting the demon cat and not really talking. Just them, not being lonely together. It suited Stiles just fine.