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Now as Ever (All That Is and Has Been)

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~1~

The ground is cold beneath Stiles' cheek, the smell of crushed leaves and damp earth rousing him from his strange sleep. His muscles are stiff and aching as he uncurls his fingers and experimentally stretches them out in the dirt of the cold forest floor. He doesn't know exactly where he is, or even how long he's been here, but if the protesting creak of his joints is any indication, he'd guess it's been a while.

Stiles pulls himself into a sitting position, waiting for the dizziness to subside before brushing the dirt and leaves from his face. He's in the forest, but he already surmised as much. Thick trees surround him, and he really has no idea exactly where he is, or what happened to his friends. It seems to be Derek's property, which is marginally comforting, all things considered.

He squeezes his eyes shut, tilts his head back against the tree trunk, and wills his thoughts to sort themselves out. There's a whole tangle of things going on in his mind and Stiles just needs to find the right thread to trace back. He remembers going out into the woods with his friends—his pack. He vaguely remembers something about a fae, and wielding an iron rod as if that would save them.

He's worried about his dad, unsure how long he's been gone or if the sheriff has half of Beacon Hills out searching for him. He wonders what happened after he blacked out, what would have caused Derek and Scott and Isaac to leave him there alone, or if, in all the chaos of the fight with the fae, they just hadn't even noticed Stiles lying there in the dirt. Mostly, though, Stiles is terrified that they're all dead, that they killed each other in their battle for power and now Stiles is all that's left.

No matter which possibility he focuses on, Stiles still can't seem to make any sense of it. A quick scan of the mostly dark area around him reveals no signs of any sort of struggle. The bloody, violent war that had broken out between the Beacon Hills werewolves and the powerful and dark magic of the fae, the battle that had left Stiles feeling so helplessly human and completely useless, has left no mark to show it had even taken place.

His stomach churns as he tries to pull up the rest of the broken, spotty memories and gain a better grasp of exactly what the hell happened.

Stiles reaches into his pocket in search of his cellphone, but all he finds is thirteen dollars, a small, crumpled envelope that’s been post stamped days ago, and a leaking ballpoint pen. He takes a deep breath, counts backward from ten to quell the impending anxiety—now is definitely not the time—and slowly pulls himself to his feet. Aside from stiff joints and the ache of disuse in his muscles, he seems to be uninjured. No cuts or scratches, no gruesome bite marks, no bullet holes or arrows embedded in any part of him.

Stiles is more creeped out than usual as he makes his way to the edge of the forest. In all the times he's wandered these woods over the years, they've never felt so lonely, so dead silent that not even the wind through the crisp remains of last fall’s leaves overhead can be heard. It's eerie in a way that Stiles isn't used to, even with all he's seen and done over the last year and a half.

"What the hell is going on?" he says just to hear his own voice, to confirm he hasn't lost his hearing in addition to everything else.

By the pale pink tinge in the eastern sky, Stiles guesses it to be early in the morning. It's strange to see so many people out and about in town at this time, before the sun has even made its appearance, but it's also relieving. There are people everywhere: two boys delivering newspapers, an elderly man sitting on his front porch, groups of neighbors congregating under streetlights at corners and in front yards. The neighborhood itself doesn't look all that familiar in the dark, so he really isn't sure what part of the woods he came out of, or where exactly home is. It's strange to feel lost in such a small town he's lived in all his life, but he chalks it up to the disorienting morning he's had so far. Maybe he sustained a head injury.

Stiles runs a hand through his messy hair, rubs at the back of his head as he assesses his surroundings. He doesn't feel any bumps or sore spots, nothing to indicate he hit his head. A dark-haired woman walking her dog lifts her hand in a casual wave as she passes, and Stiles has to do a double-take. She looks familiar, but in no way his brain is ready to deal with right now.

He needs coffee, and warmth. He needs to find a phone and call his dad. Stiles walks until the bustling neighborhood gives way to a more well-lit, commercial-looking area of the city that he actually does recognize.

There's a pharmacy on the corner, though the sign looks a little outdated compared to what his mind is trying to supply. Stiles shrugs it off and keeps walking. Most of the stores are dark inside, having not opened for the day yet. There's a coffee shop around the corner from where he is, and Stiles knows that opens ridiculously early. Sounds like a good place to go warm up and collect himself before he heads home. It isn't far enough away for him to bother calling his dad, though he still thinks maybe he should, in case he really has been gone long enough to cause worry.

The Grind is a locally owned coffee shop he and Scott frequent during the summer months. It's a nice place to hang out and listen to live music. They have a small stage in the back where they do open mic night for local artists to share their songs or poetry. Stiles and Scott often meet there just to have something to laugh about, but occasionally, people with actual talent show up, and Stiles is envious of their guts to stand up in front of a crowd—albeit a small one—and put themselves on display.

As he turns the corner down the street from The Grind, Stiles is hit with a strange sense of nostalgia. He can't place why he's suddenly thinking of his past. Maybe just because all the buildings down this strip seem to be stuck in a strange sort of time warp that hasn't allowed them the time or give-a-fuck to renovate recently.

Stiles is drawn back to his task as the smell of coffee wafts out of the coffee shop a few doors down. He picks up his pace with a renewed sense of urgency.

The lettering on the window that Stiles knows so well isn't there. Instead of the chunky, curved words "The Grind Coffeehouse," there’s a sign hanging from chains that reads "Bean Me Up."

Stiles stares at it in confusion. He knows The Grind isn't the most popular spot in Beacon Hills, and he often hears his dad grumbling about the economy, but could it have been doing so poorly as to actually go out of business and be replaced in the span of a week since Stiles had been there last? He shakes his head, then steps inside anyway.

Stiles is greeted by the smells of strongly brewed coffee and warm pastries. His stomach grumbles in approval. A clock on the wall shows that it's only 5:30, but there's a handful of patrons in the coffeehouse, all in various states of wakefulness, some seeming to have just rolled out of bed and staggered in, a few more awake and alert. Nothing inside looks the same. There's no low stage in the back, no artistic photos or paintings hanging on the walls. Where normally there’s a counter full of old percolator displays and antique grinders, there's now a glass pastry case and vases of fresh flowers. Everything is different. Small tables and mismatched chairs replace the puffy couches and haphazard cushions he knows so well. Stiles considers asking the barista what happened to The Grind, but as he steps up to the counter and takes a seat, the impatient look on her face wipes that thought from his mind. Her forced smile when she approaches actually gives Stiles the chills. If it weren't for the underlying sense of hostility Stiles is getting from her, she might actually be really hot. Long, brown curls pulled back in a ponytail, hazel eyes framed by thick lashes that almost put Stiles' own to shame. She isn't the same kind of pretty as Lydia, Stiles realizes. Barista Girl isn't wearing much makeup, her good looks more natural and effortless than most of the young girls at Beacon Hills High.

"What can I get for you?" she asks, her eyes trained back on the TV in the corner of the room where most everyone else's attention seems also to be focused.

"Good morning," Stiles' gaze flicks down to the name tag she's wearing, "Katherine." He's trying for friendly so as not to merit any sneezer muffins. She isn't amused.

The girl drags her attention to Stiles, a slightly more genuine smile this time. Progress, he thinks.

Stiles pulls a five out of his pocket and tosses it down in front of him. "Can I just get a cup of coffee and a blueberry muffin, please?" The caffeine will help to calm Stiles down, having not taken his Adderall, and hopefully prevent the impending anxiety attack he feels prickling under his skin.

The girl gets a mug out from under the counter and fills it to the brim with rich-smelling coffee without a single word spoken. She goes to the pastry case and pulls a muffin out.

"That it?" she asks, setting it down beside Stiles' coffee.

"Um, yeah. That's..." she walks back to the other end of the counter. "Perfect," he adds.

Stiles devours his muffin in just a few bites before he decides to go see what's so interesting on the television. It appears to be live coverage of a space shuttle landing, which Stiles finds strange considering the recent budget cuts to NASA.

"What's going on?" he asks Barista Girl.

"What, do you live under a rock?" she asks, another saccharine-sweet smile just for Stiles. "Houston lost contact with the crew."

He turns his attention back to the TV as the screen flips over to the news anchor.

"Again, the shuttle was scheduled to land approximately fifteen minutes ago," the anchor says, "but we're getting reports from NASA that the control room has lost contact with the crew of Columbia."

"Oh," says Stiles dumbly. "Right. I remember everyone in the neighborhood standing outside and watching as they flew over." He was only about seven years old when the tragedy happened. Stiles remembers watching it with his mother, a trail of light as the shuttle passed over the early morning skies of Northern California. After the reports started rolling in that what they actually had been watching was the shuttle Columbia burning up as it entered the earth's atmosphere, Stiles just remembers his mom crying, saying how horrible it was for those families who were waiting. How horrible it was for the whole country.

Katherine shoots him a strange look of confusion. "That was before we knew it had broken up into pieces," Stiles adds.

"We're getting word about an explosion over Dallas," the news anchor says. "NASA is desperately searching for signs of space shuttle Columbia, but from the videos coming in, it would appear a catastrophic incident has occurred."

The girl gapes, looking from Stiles to the TV and back again. "This is live coverage. How did you know that was going to happen?" she asks.

Stiles isn't sure how to answer that. Using his usual sarcastic tone to tell her it happened ten years ago and he doesn't have the memory of an eighty-year-old pot-smoker doesn't exactly strike him as something that would be very well received. 

Thankfully, his response isn't needed, because everyone's attention is back on the television and the video clips that show multiple twisting contrails cutting across blue skies. The reactions in the coffeehouse don't seem to be those of a group of people watching a ten-year anniversary recap of the disaster. It all seems new to them, fresh and tragic and shocking.

Stiles leaves the coffeehouse, dizzy with confusion over what’s happening. It's lighter outside now, the rising sun bruising the sky with pink and purple. It should be comforting—everything makes more sense in the light of day—but Stiles doesn't feel at all consoled. He needs to get home, find his dad, call Scott, check on Derek. He needs to see if everyone made it out alive, if they killed the fae, if Beacon Hills is safe. Stiles needs...

Stiles needs to calm down. He feels the slow and steady rise of panic pushing at the edges of his thoughts, and he has to breathe deep and slow to fend it off.

Somberly, he walks through downtown Beacon Hills, studying each detail of every building he passes and comparing the information to that which he remembers of them. It's odd, Stiles thinks, that he's never really noticed the faded blue paint covering the bricks on the flower shop. He's never realized all the storefronts have flower boxes along the bottoms of the windows. None of these things strike him as out-of-place, though. They're all there in Stiles' memories, just nothing he's bothered to try and notice before now. All of them are familiar, part of something he's known all his life, but they feel different.

He hasn't even fully decided on where he's going when he realizes he's almost home. Stiles wants nothing more than to run down the street and fling the front door open, to find something more solid and his to cling to, but part of his consciousness is holding him back, telling him that it's wrong. It's all wrong.

Stiles passes a few neighbors as he makes his way down the street, no one he knows or cares to talk to. He's on autopilot now, functioning solely on the desire to get home, barely holding himself back with an underlying sense of apprehension.

One of the sheriff’s department Suburbans is in the driveway, which means his dad has an early shift this morning. Stiles doesn't know how long he stands there across the street staring at his house, but the February chill in the air is nothing compared to the one he feels inside. The front door opens, and Stiles' dad steps outside. Stiles is pulled from his trance by the sight of his father. He rushes forward, but just as he's about to step off the curb, a woman walks out the door behind him. Short, dark hair and a small frame hidden in a puffy green jacket. Stiles knows that jacket. He can practically smell the faint floral scent of it.

"Come on, sweetheart. We don't want to be late." She steps aside and a little boy comes stumbling out onto the stoop as she closes and locks the door. Even from this distance, Stiles can still see the sadness written all over her face from the events of the morning.

Stiles can't breathe. His heart is pounding in his chest, vision blurry with tears. He chokes on the air he tries to inhale, falls to his knees on the cold ground.

"Mom," he whispers, confusion and shock hindering his ability to call out to her—to yell for her to wait, don't go, not yet... not again.

The family piles into the Suburban and drives away without even noticing Stiles there.

There's a hot, stabbing pain in Stiles' chest and he thinks it must be the feeling of his heart breaking all over again. He doesn't know how he can feel so much pain and, at the same time, feel completely hollowed out. 

When he's finally able to move again, Stiles staggers across the street. He scoops up the newspaper from the driveway and drops down on the front stoop of his house. He already knows what he's going to see when he unfolds it, but Stiles needs the confirmation. He needs to know he hasn't completely lost his mind.

The top corner of the newspaper reads February 1, 2003.