“You could try a philosophy class,” Scott suggested.
“Ugh,” Stiles replied feelingly. He was lying on his bed, tossing an old stress ball against the wall, focusing on maintaining a steady thumppausethumppausethump beat as Scott flipped through their university’s course catalog.
You were supposed to squeeze stress balls, technically, but Stiles had always found it more relaxing to throw his at things. When he’d told his therapist that, her mouth had thinned in an expression he was too accustomed to being on the receiving end of, particularly from authority figures. She’d set her notepad down, pressed lightly at the bridge of her nose, and told him she wasn’t sure their appointments were giving him what he needed. He’d agreed, although it’d taken his dad a little more convincing and had sent them down a long path of world-weary sighs and disappointed looks.
He was used to that, too.
He thumped the ball harder than he’d meant to, and it ricocheted off at a sharp angle, narrowly missing Scott, who managed to startle so wildly he dropped the catalog and rolled over it with the wheels of Stiles’s squeaky old desk chair.
“Nice reflexes; good to see you’re keeping those lacrosse skills fresh,” Stiles said supportively, and grinned when Scott shot him his best glare.
“What’s wrong with philosophy?” he asked, wiggling the chair back and forth and huffing in annoyance as he tried to drag the catalog free without actually getting up.
There was a reason the two of them were friends, Stiles mused. He cast a longing, too-lazy-to-move look after the stress ball, which had come to a halt by the disturbingly large dust bunnies congregating around his bookshelf. His dad obviously hadn’t been vacuuming while he was away at school. Not that either of them had ever spent much time dragging out the vacuum while Stiles was still living at home. Come to think of it, he wasn’t entirely sure they even owned a working one anymore.
The ball grinned sunnily at him, its yellow surface and painted-on smile cracking from age and making its optimism feel even emptier than it had when his therapist had first handed it to him.
“What isn’t wrong with philosophy?” Stiles responded, his voice sounding bleaker than he’d meant it to, but Scott was smoothing out the catalog's crumpled cover and didn’t seem to notice the shift in tone.
“It’s debating, right? Big theories and stuff. You’d be good at that.”
“Maybe, but have you ever sat in a philosophy lecture? The dudes who try to talk about shit in those classes are more obsessed with hearing their own voices than actually engaging in any kind of intelligent discussion. And if there’s more than one of those guys in the class, it turns into this horrible exercise in circle-jerk futility, where no one’s even bothering to listen to each other before creaming themselves over the brilliance of their own ideas.”
Scott lowered the booklet and eyed Stiles thoughtfully. “You got kicked out of one freshman year, didn’t you? I’d completely forgotten about that.”
“I dropped intro to philosophy,” he corrected. “After I was asked to.”
Scott flipped a few more pages. “Okay, psychology then. You’d like that. Getting to dig around in people’s weird brains.”
Stiles stared pointedly at Scott, who failed to feel the intensity of his gaze until he tossed a pillow at him.
“Jesus, Stiles,” he said, ducking again, less violently this time.
“We have had this conversation,” Stiles said, soaking the words with as much wounded indignation as he could muster. “It was that 8 AM class I stopped going to after the professor spent an entire lecture describing the sexual thoughts he’d had in the bathtub. As a child. About his grandmother. He was greasy and weird and had a major boner for Freud, and that is not a thing you can deal with that early in the morning. If ever.”
“Oh yeah.” Scott shivered, looking vaguely ill. “I’d intentionally blocked that out of my memory. Let’s stop talking about it immediately.”
“Not the one who brought it up,” Stiles grumbled. “Why are we doing this, anyway? Why do I need one of these shitty side classes?”
“Because you still need gen ed credits, and you keep putting it off,” Scott repeated with remarkable patience, considering this had been their friendship dynamic over the last two decades: Stiles kicking and complaining his way through what he considered arbitrary requirements, and Scott steering him back on course. More or less. Other than the times they’d veered wildly in more interesting directions, tugged by Stiles’s creativity and imagination.
Those were, shockingly, also the times that had typically led to being grounded, but the temporary exhilaration had been worth it. Most of the time.
Stiles let out a long, gusty breath. “Fine. Hit me again. What’s next?”
Scott was quiet for a while, pages rustling as he presumably looked for something a little more eye-catching that wouldn’t trigger an immediate rejection. Stiles spent the time projecting his mental energy onto the smiling stress ball, willing it to roll across the room and bounce into his hand. Nothing happened, but he gritted his teeth and tried harder, some distant corner of his brain half-convinced magic was real, if you knew the proper way to look for it.
On the morning of his eleventh birthday, Stiles had carefully packed his action figures, toothbrush, underwear, favorite shirts, and second-best pair of jeans into his Batman suitcase and wheeled it to the driveway to wait for his Hogwarts letter to arrive.
He’d waited for three hours, shivering on the curb, as the soft rose-hued sunrise burned away into crisp blue skies. A sky you could drown in, he’d thought, lying back to stare into it, until the world began to tilt. He’d had to close his eyes before it swallowed him whole.
When he’d opened them again, his dad was standing over him, his face drawn and tired, fresh lines of exhaustion creased into his cheeks.
Going somewhere, kiddo? he’d asked, trying for a smile that didn’t quite land.
Yeah, Stiles had said, cupping a hand over his eyes to block out the sun so he could search the empty, too-big expanse of the sky again. I think my owl’s late getting here. But I was gonna say goodbye before I left. And I’ll be back for Christmas, I promise.
His dad had shot a glance of his own heavenward, then sat down on the curb, too. Mind if I wait with you?
He’d shaken his head, secretly glad for the company. Learning magic would be new and exciting, but it was an awfully long way from home, and the past few hours of solitary vigilance had been chipping away at his bravery.
After another hour with his dad sitting patiently by his side, he’d sat up and pressed his face into his dad’s shoulder. It’s not coming, is it, he’d mumbled, his throat thick with guilt—because he’d felt relieved, too, at not being taken away from home.
His dad had wrapped an arm around him, momentarily shielding him from his own thoughts, keeping him safe. I’m afraid not, kiddo. You up for talking about it?
He’d stayed silent at first; he’d kept his plan close to his chest for months, his belief a delicately cultivated spell that he feared would evaporate once the words were released into the open air. I need to go, dad. They have healing magic there. I could— He’d choked on a wet sniffle, his face still buried in his dad’s uniform shirt.
Oh, Stiles, his dad had said, moving so he could wrap both arms around him, the scent of his aftershave sharp and familiar, grounding him on a world that’d rapidly turned dizzying, its comforting boundaries shaking and crumbling around him.
He’d caught a handful of his dad’s shirt in one clenched fist and sobbed, for the first time since his parents had sat him down and gently explained that all the visits his mom had been making to the doctor weren’t as routine and harmless as they’d initially tried to claim.
She’s dying, he’d said, and he could feel the words curving through the silence, looping tightly around his throat, then sinking back into his bones with heavy certainty. She’s dying, dad, and I can’t do anything to stop it.
You can’t, his dad had confirmed, his voice ragged. Neither can I. Do you blame me for that?
No! Stiles had said, genuinely startled by the question, his tears pushed back as he shifted into protective mode, ready to defend his dad against anyone who’d try to say otherwise.
Then you can’t blame yourself either. His dad had let the words hang in the air, then wiped them clear by rising to his feet, tugging Stiles with him. How about you take your bag back upstairs and unpack while I get breakfast ready, okay?
He’d clung for a moment, hugging his dad in silent thanks, then popped the suitcase handle up, sending one last look upward before letting his dreams dissolve. Pancakes? he’d asked hopefully.
Chocolate chip, his dad had confirmed, clapping him on the shoulder and keeping his hand there as they’d walked back up the driveway.
Stiles let his hand fall, giving up on his attempts to summon the ball of sunshine through sheer force of will. He shoved down the weird, illogical swell of disappointment and dug his fingers into his mattress to ground himself in the present reality.
It'd been nine years since his mom had died, and they’d let the date pass without comment this year. His dad had been working; he’d been getting a head start on studying for his finals. They were busy, and the grief wasn't fresh anymore, so they’d forgotten her.
The realization had struck while he was registering for his final year of classes, when he'd paused over an underwater basket weaving course he was both baffled to find on the schedule and convinced his mom would've tried in a heartbeat. I should call her, he'd thought, as he always did for a split second before he remembered that wasn't possible.
That was probably why he hadn’t been thinking clearly during the registration process, why he’d stopped looking for new options and had simply signed up for a full set of classes in his major. Why he’d gotten that goddamn passive aggressive email from his advisor, who’d written with politely threatening hints about his graduation status.
The world pitched off-balance, trying to shake him loose, and he squeezed his eyes shut and clung harder to his bed.
C’mon, give me something, he whispered to the universe. Is a tiny bit of magic so much to ask?
“That's it!” Scott said, shattering the silence Stiles had been wrapping around himself.
The afternoon light pouring into the room seemed brighter suddenly, and Stiles sat up and scrubbed at his eyes in annoyance. “That's what?”
“History!” Scott said triumphantly. “I know you love researching things.”
He grimaced, making sure Scott saw his face before he let the disgruntled expression fall away.
“Oh come on,” Scott said in exasperation. His patience was finally wearing thin, but Stiles couldn’t conjure up a shred of remorse. “What can you possibly have against history?”
“History’s not the problem. The way it’s taught is. Especially at our school, where the professors are as old and dusty as the subject matter.”
“That’s not true,” Scott protested.
“It is! How can you be arguing with me about this, when you had Dr. Weber last year? More like Dr. Cobwebs, amiright?”
“He did fall asleep while reading from his lecture notes once,” Scott admitted. “But c’mon Stiles, you’re judging entire subjects based on one bad experience. That’s not very scientific.”
“I’m a computer programmer, not a chemist,” he said. “Leave the experiments to Kira and the mathematical proofs to Lydia.”
“Your degree has science in the title,” Scott objected absently. “And I thought you had to take a bunch of math at the start of your program. I remember you complaining a lot about...differential calculus?”
“Multivariable calculus and those goddamn horrible differential equations.” He’d spent a lot of time complaining about them to Lydia, too, who’d rolled her eyes and helped him through the worst patches. “But that was then, when it was all theoretical injections of knowledge. Now I’m fully immersed in things that I’m interested in studying, Scotty. All I want is to be left alone with my laptop and a site I can figure out how to hack into.” He cast a wary glance at the open doorway, where his dad always managed to be lurking in full Sheriff’s uniform whenever Stiles started talking about the less legal perks of his field of study. He was nowhere in sight, but he added a cautionary, “For the good of mankind. So I can hire myself out as a consultant to banks and government agencies and other big businesses.”
Scott didn’t seem to be listening to him, a smile spreading slowly over his face as he continued reading through the course options. Stiles lifted his hand again and curved his fingers into a half circle, closing one eye until Scott’s sunshiney face was at the same angle as the abandoned stress ball. There was something creepy about handing a kid a bright yellow happy face and telling him to squeeze the shit out of it whenever he started feeling sad, he thought for what was probably the millionth time. Ms. Morrell hadn’t appreciated that commentary, either, but she’d mostly rested on platitudes and inspirational quotes, so he’d stopped listening to her early on. There were a lot of reasons that therapist-client relationship hadn’t worked out.
He mimed patting the top of Scott’s floppy-haired head with his still loosely cupped fingers. It was Scott who’d gotten him through that first year, when Stiles was struggling through the gauntlet of middle school social dynamics without his mom around to muss up his hair at the end of the day and help him come up with clever insults he was only allowed to say at home. Scott was, for all intents and purposes, his brother, and he couldn’t imagine making it through the full university experience without Scott there to back him up. Even if he did insist on forcing Stiles into truly awful classes that he hadn’t been able to talk his way out of yet.
Scott wheeled over to Stiles’s bed, using his feet to clumsily push himself across the floor, and held out the catalog, tapping at the page he'd marked with a finger. “History,” he said again. “Trust me on this one, dude.”
“I don’t understand why they still kill trees to make physical copies when the entire schedule’s available online,” Stiles said, mostly to be disagreeable.
“Not everyone’s glued to their computer screen,” Scott replied. “And anyway, I think it’s another advertising tool. Have you ever looked at the profiles they stick in for professors in the different departments?”
“No. That'd be more likely to drive prospective students away, if you ask me,” Stiles said as he took the catalog to see what Scott was so certain would tip him over into a decision he was absolutely determined not to make. “Oh,” he said, his voice coming out low and breathy, “fuck me.”
“I don’t think that’s on the syllabus, but we can check to see if there’s a spot open in any of his classes,” Scott said, grinning in that way that meant he knew he’d won. It was a rarely earned expression, so Stiles could forgive him for indulging in it.
“This isn’t an actual professor, though,” he insisted, unable to resist brushing his thumb over the sharp line of the man’s bearded jaw. He was laughing at something off-camera, the shot taken in three-quarters view, his coat collar casually rumpled and opened to reveal a sliver of a simple grey t-shirt. The whole thing was deliberately calculated to lend him a more accessible feel, and god help him, Stiles was falling for it. “They obviously used stock photography or hired some models, like they do when they’re updating their website and trying to make the campus look more diverse.”
“No, his name’s under the photo. And if you stop staring at his face for a second, there’s a whole box listing his publications and books and awards and a bunch of important research he’s done in his field. Look,” he said, stabbing a finger at the text Stiles had, indeed, completely skipped over.
“Dr. Derek Hale,” he read out loud. “He’s tenured. He’s been teaching there for a fucking decade, what the fuck. How is this the first time I’m seeing him?”
“Maybe you would’ve noticed him earlier if you’d listened to your advisor,” Scott said, and ducked when Stiles absently swiped at him. “Joking aside, though, he’s got an interesting course load. Mostly graduate level, so you can’t get into those, but this Origins of Western Civilization one says it’s open to undergrads.”
“There’s no way there’s space available,” Stiles said mournfully. “The history nerds would’ve been lining up for days to get a piece of that.”
“It’s worth a shot,” Scott said with his trademark optimism. “And if not, you can always sit in on the first day of class and try to get in off the waiting list. That’s how I made it into Deaton’s bio seminar.”
“Which was only open to upperclassmen,” Stiles recited dutifully. “And you totally bonded, and now that you are an upperclassman, he’s your advisor and mentor and his recommendation’s gonna get you into an awesome veterinary school after graduation.”
Life didn’t work out like that for most people, though; Scott had always been an exception who sailed past obstacles by cheerfully overlooking them and assuming doors would eventually open if he kept knocking. Whereas they typically slammed shut in Stiles’s face. After which, the proprietors called the cops on him, the cops being Stiles’s dad, who’d show up and haul him away while making insincere apologies on his behalf.
This entire scenario might’ve happened several times during Stiles’s Small Business Ownership phase, which had involved him selling his old comic books door to door and frightening a succession of old ladies. Those same old ladies had bought Scott’s burnt cookies and pinched his cheeks, which Stiles had never quite forgiven him for. Some people were just so damn approachable.
He couldn’t bring himself to step away from this particular door, though. Not when there was a face like that waiting on the other side. “He probably has a beer gut that they’re hiding with the way they cropped the photo,” he said, and Scott’s grin widened until it nearly hurt to look at him.
“You won’t regret this,” he promised.
“I hope not,” Stiles said, still staring at the black and white portrait, wondering if Dr. Hale’s eyes were blue or green.