We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
– T. S. Eliot, "Little Gidding"
Lydia has never been good at sugarcoating, so here it is:
They couldn’t save Stiles.
(They have a plan. It’s just that it fails spectacularly.)
She isn’t sure how long they’ve been there. The basement of Eichen House is clouded with dust, and Stiles (the thing inside of Stiles) has his fingers wrapped around her wrists. He wants something from her. But his hands are still Stiles’ hands and-
(Abruptly she can remember the press of his fingers between her own. The gentle tug of them against her wrist. The steady warmth of them on her shoulder, on her arm, in the small of her back. The awkward brush of them against her cheek when a stray hair was caught in her lashes. Her skin had felt warm from it, from the small hesitant pressure of them, and it was-
It was, strangely, the safest she had felt since it all started.)
His fingers now are cold and angry, bruising the inside of her wrists, and his voice is low and foreign: there is no warmth left in him, no empathy.
”Banshee,” he whisper-sings. His breath is harsh against her ear. “Can you feel it?”
She can’t say anything. Her tongue is too thick, her throat too frightened. This is Stiles, and it isn’t Stiles, and it terrifies her.
(She knows what it is to be taken apart, to feel the greasy slide of something other in her mind. The emptiness, the hollow ache of it in her stomach. It hurts more, now, the thought of it in Stiles, that kind of emptiness spreading through his long, warm limbs.)
“Bansheeeee,” he hisses. She can hear his smile. “Can you feel it? Can you feel it inside of you, waiting? The death? It’s okay. You can tell us. Little banshee, you can do it. Feel it. Feel it for us.”
His fingers grip tighter around her wrists. Her nerves are screaming. Her eyes are closed so tightly she can see a kind of dark static. She can’t look at him. She can’t look at his face- at the face he’s wearing.
He’s standing too close. It feels intimate, or violent, and her stomach is cold at the thought of either.
“Feel it for me,” he says, and her body reacts to his command, unwilling.
The cold in his fingers goes numb. The dark behind her eyes goes darker. Somewhere, deep inside her, she can feel a lightness swelling. Something bright and sharp. It prickles against her scalp. Her skin erupts in gooseflesh. She knows he can see the change- can feel the otherwordly shift of her perception.
She can hear the rapid pulse of her own heart, and then his too. It doesn’t match hers. It’s one slow clap of thunder, and then silence- a silence that lasts too long before it rumbles again. A pressure starts sharply in her temples and spreads through the back of her head. For a moment she feels nauseous and disoriented. Unbalanced. There’s a sudden anguished sensation of having forgotten something important. And then the pressure in her head goes suddenly cold and dark and silent. It turns to emptiness, full and complete, and it makes her eyes burn.
His fingers begin to warm, begin to feel like they did before the Void took him, before he was filled to the brim with dark matter. When instead he was filled with sun.
And when she opens her eyes, it’s Stiles’ face, it’s Stiles’ eyes and his mouth, and he looks sad, confused, angry. Pained.
“Stiles?” she breathes. Her voice is like rust, and it hangs in the quiet air.
He looks at her, really looks at her, and he says, “Lydia?”
Her heart skips. It’s him him. It’s Stiles.
But then his face goes dark and closed, goes cold and foreign, and the thing perched inside Stiles smiles with his chapped mouth, dims the light in his bright eyes.
“Tricked you,” he says (it says) and she can feel a scream starting to bubble at the base of her throat, thick and slow like boiling milk. She opens her mouth to let it out, but just as it rips from her, Stiles’ mouth closes over hers. His tongue pushes into her mouth and he drinks down her scream, draws the pain and the power from her in great gasping pulls. The scream dies in him, and even with the power of it now resting in his throat, his mouth doesn’t leave hers.
Instead he pushes forwards, his mouth presses harder, and Lydia knows what kind of kiss this is.
The kind you can win.
She steps further into Stiles’ body, lets her hips press against his, and takes control of the kiss, slides her mouth perfectly against his, pushes her bottom lip between Stiles’s and nips at the cupid’s bow of his mouth. She feels the pressure of his fingers lessening: she slows the kiss into something warm and easy, and the hands leave hers completely. They resurface on her waist and she grins into Stiles’s mouth because even then, even with a dark spirit clogging his head, his hands stay clutched at her waist–practically gentlemanly.
Lydia listens. No, she Listens. Stiles’ heart is a steady rolling of thunder– no longer a humming silence between gaping beats –and victory rushes sweetly and viciously through her body. She bites down on Stiles’ bottom lip, hard enough that she can taste blood before he pulls away. And then she punches him, hard, in the face. Her fist glances off his cheek, but still he is thrown backwards, impossibly, across several feet. He looks up at her, blood swelling from his lip, and he grins, but it’s more like a showing of teeth. Like a predator’s warning.
“Tricked you,” she says, sing-song and mocking. She spits blood at him, unafraid.
“That’s how this ends, you know,” she says. “You lose.”
She wakes up with the taste of blood in her mouth. Her wrists ache.
Lydia licks her lips. They feel warm and swollen. She grabs her phone from the nightstand, and sends a group text.
We need to hurry, it says.
Later, Lydia remembers how it felt (warm, wrong, dangerous) to have pressed herself against Stiles’ body, without him in it. Allison catches her when she trips. She looks up, surprised, but she shouldn’t be. Everyone is there. Everyone is tense.
She did her part. It was time for them to do theirs.
In the midst of their pursuit, they outfox him, and there is this moment. Somehow, Stiles manages to struggle to the surface of his own body, regain the slow motion of his own limbs.
(The moment: He is standing above Lydia, his fist is twisted in her shirt, and Derek is out cold. Allison’s taser is recharging with a small crescendoing hum.
“Stiles!” Allison yells, and the thing inside Stiles smiles, but the smile falters. It goes into a grimace, and the light changes, the dark beneath his eyes goes dull. His fingers unclench from her shirt, and he pushes her away, hard.
He takes a small breath, tries to say something. It sounds a lot like Please. And then it sounds like Run.)
It’s this, more than anything, that gives them that slippery, shining hope. That maybe, maybe, maybe–
Maybe they can save him.
(But maybe that was the real trick.)
There is still the phantom taste of Stiles’ blood on Lydia’s tongue. They’re out of time.
They’re all there, at the end. But it’s Scott that’s closest, when Stiles’s knees buckle and his eyes roll back in his head. When he drops to the ground like he’s filled with stones instead of blood.
The Sheriff is silent, brought down hard to his knees, the victim of gravity and grief.
Scott drops too, a shout in his throat that turns into a long and mourning howl. The sound of it is wretched, and it rattles her through and through. She can feel the vibration of it in her teeth.
Somewhere, there is a smoking gun.
(There is a lot of blood.)
Scott’s hands are on Stiles’ face, on his neck, his shoulders, and then his face again. Their heads are pressed together for a moment, so close that Lydia thinks Scott is trying to breathe Stiles’ death into his own body. He shakes Stiles’ shoulders hard, shouts something unintelligible, something that runs over into a desperate howl that shakes her bones.
Lydia feels something huge and overwhelming sweep through her body, because it’s Stiles. It’s Stiles.
Suddenly she’s on her knees too, and what a scene they must make– a circle of friends brought down, one by one, to their knees; from above they must take the shape of a spiral with Stiles’ body at the center. (He had been occupying the center of many things, until–)
Strands of hair are sticking to the edge of her mouth (lipstick), and her hands are shaking (shock). Her throat burns.
Stiles. His hair mussed and pressed against his face, twin circles of dark bruised underneath his closed eyes, his mouth open. Silent. Lydia’s fists clench. Scott is silent now too, hunched over his friend, arms around his shoulders like he’ll suddenly wake up. Like it will have worked.
Lydia feels power growing in her throat, feels it climbing up to her mouth, coating her tongue. Her hands clench tighter and she shudders. She takes a deep breath.
She’s in class when it first happens. AP Calculus. She’s solving for complex numbers by using polar equations, feeling the neat satisfaction of writing the Greek cyrillic as her lines flow across the page. (They haven’t gotten to De Moivre’s formula for exponentiation yet, but it’s so simple and familiar already that she uses it anyway. It feels good to have something solid and unchanging to rely on, something that has set rules and hard numbers, after– well. Everything.)
Lydia’s nails are red and bright at the corner of her vision, and the color of it shocks her for a moment, brings her back to dark bedrooms, red thread, bad dreams. Blood. Cold floods her nerves at the thought, and her stomach drops. The pencil lead bends under sudden pressure, but then she laughs softly, trying to dispel the moment, and eases her hold. She takes a deep breath, closes her eyes.
She finds her pencil moving, her eyes still closed, her breathing steady. She’s connecting coordinates in her head, letting the soft curve of the spiral close in and in on itself, tighten further and further, until there’s no space left for it to go.
When she opens her eyes, she’s drawn a perfect Archimedean Spiral, but there are words following the graphite line in a neat, cramped handwriting that isn’t hers.
It’s the same word, over and over.
That’s when the dreams start.
These dreams are different. They’re not her typical recurring night terrors.
(Those, she remembers: Peter, covered in earth, worms in his mouth, tracking dirt into her house and lecturing her about the moon.
Peter, covered in blood, sharp teeth in his mouth, tracking darkness into her house and filling her head with the sound of flies.
Of lies. )
But these are ghosts: when she wakes she’s unsure of what she dreamt, or if she dreamt at all. She only feels tired, unsettled.
She uses more and more concealer under her eyes. Her face looks bright and awake, her hair braided in a simple side plait, her mouth pink as a spring flower.
She looks much the same as she always does, colored like the first flush of summer.
She is tired.
(She is afraid.)
She’s in a dark field, and she knows it well. She can feel the heavy press of pearls at her throat. They feel too constricting, and the muscles of her throat shift as she swallows against their weight. She can’t see her dress, but she remembers.
She has had this dream before.
(She has had this nightmare.)
In the dark, she can hear the sounds. It’s Peter, she knows. She can feel his hungry gaze at her back and she tries to move, but she’s paralyzed like she always is.
She tries to concentrate. She listens hard for his movement, but she doesn’t hear the telltale claw of Peter’s run toward her across the grass– instead it’s a low hum. She listens, focuses all her energy into the sound, and it begins to shake and bend into something else: a voice. It sounds familiar. It’s a timbre she’s heard before, one she has listened to at length, because a thread of recognition is tugging at her ribs.
The voice is warm but sad. It sounds almost like Stiles– like he’s saying something important. She tries to make out the slur of his words: stillhereimstill hereimstillhere imstill here
I’m still here
-and then she’s awake, screaming. She doesn’t know why.
It’s a weeknight, and her head aches, the pain round and too full, like she’s been crying. She downs a few Tylenol and goes back to sleep.
Saturday falls beautiful and bright around her shoulders. Lydia has a floral dress on, one that falls softly to her knees and flutters there despite the absence of a breeze. She texts Allison.
Leaving now. Be there soon.
They have plans. They’re getting coffee. Going shopping. They’re going to be talk about everything, nothing; talk around the gap in their collective lives like it’s something they can fall through.
(His absence is like a physical presence sometimes, as if the purposeful neglect of him makes him corporeal again. He’s crowding in between their words, in their sighs, in glances to the side. He is haunting each of them, simply by not being there at all.)
In the car, Lydia turns up the radio. It crackles for a second, goes into gurgling static before resurfacing again. A song fills the car, something melodic and familiar. She hums along with it, and drives.
(Unbidden, a memory:
Lydia driving, with Allison at her side, both of them dressed in dark clothes. It’s a bright afternoon, which seems impolite, and the sun feels too warm through the windows. The radio speaks quietly to them about the weather, and traffic, but then leaves them with something too modern and jarring for their small universe. Allison’s fingers reach across the space and turns the volume so low it’s only an occasional buzz of sound.
“Sorry,” she says, voice somehow quiet and loud in the same moment. “I just…”
“It’s a terrible song,” Lydia agrees. From the corner of her eye, she can see Allison’s mouth rise in what might have been a smile. It’s gone too quickly for her to really say.
Allison looks out the window for a long moment. There’s mostly silence between them, save for the rush of road, the hum of a voice from the radio, and the near-silent creak of the brakes at a red light. Still staring out, Allison says, “I just can’t believe it, you know?”
The light turns green. They’re almost there. “Yeah,” Lydia says. “I know.”)
Lydia hums, and drives, and doesn’t really pay attention: she’s taken this route so many times she could practically do it in her sleep. She lets her foot fall heavy on the pedal, and flashes of sun break through trees in her peripheral. Her hum crescendos with the song, something equal parts beautiful and powerful, and then–
Lydia is standing over Stiles’ plot in the cemetery, her keys dangling from numb fingers. The earth still looks fresh. There’s no headstone.
(It hasn’t come in yet.)
The keys fall from her fingers. There’s a single sprig of wolfsbane pushing up from the soil. It looks lovely and new and it fills Lydia with an anger so enormous her lungs ache with it, her throat tries closing around it. She rips the flower from the ground, so furiously that earth still clings to its roots. She throws it as far and as hard from them as she can.
The anger, so quick to fill her, leaves her suddenly empty. She stares at the soft rip in the earth. There’s dirt under her nails. The headstones around her are flat shining rectangles, as if they’d grown from stone and glass beneath the ground. She doesn’t read it, but the headstone next to where Stiles’s should be has a long last name. (The same as his.)
She feels crowded by death, suddenly– not haunted by the boy she knew but by the world that left him.
“I’m sorry,” she says to no one.
She bends to pick up her car keys. Her shoes (new, dusty pink) are covered in soil. It smells overwhelmingly of wet earth and grass. She brushes some of the dirt from her palms, and sighs. The tune from the radio floats through her head, and she hums it as she walks back to the car.
There is a strange sensation of the earth beneath her feet humming along with her. She ignores it.
She meets Allison for coffee (late), and they don’t go shopping. They sit with their hands wrapped around their paper cups and watch the sun climb across the sky.
That night, she dreams of Stiles’ hands. Long fingers covered in earth, reaching from the dark.
She dreams of his hands, but she doesn’t know what it means.
In class she finds herself drawing the Nemeton again, like muscle memory. She throws the paper away.
She draws a perfect spiral.
She dreams about Stiles, and she remembers. They’re in his room, and he’s pulling on a red thread. It’s tied to her finger, and when she plucks it, it hums. It’s a tone she recognizes. He smiles.
She wakes, and her finger prickles with sleep-needles.
Scott is– it’s better not to say.
(He’s not doing well.)
It’s been weeks, and they’re all adjusting. They’re all, at least, trying to adjust.
She doesn’t tell him about the dreams. He would think that it meant something.
She tells Deaton instead.
“It could mean a lot of things,” Deaton says to her in the back of the clinic. He’s filling out a form on a clipboard, the picture of nonchalance.
Lydia doesn’t buy it.
“Oh, sure,” Lydia says. “Yeah, could be anything.” Her voice is low, but there’s a thick undertone of You’re A Complete Idiot that makes Deaton look up from his clipboard with a tight smile.
“Or,” she continues, “It could mean something about an ancient sacrificial tree, something you’re refusing to tell me about, all because of some arbitrary idea of neutrality– which, I might add, we both know is completely irrelevant at this point. If you wanted to stay out of it, you wouldn’t have tried helping us in the first place. Leave the balancing act to Morrell.”
Deaton sighs, puts down the clipboard. His fingers steeple. “Tell me again,” he says.
(Though she doesn’t tell him about the wordless tune playing over and over in the back of her head. She doesn’t tell him about anxious ache of her hands, or her restless fingers. She’s not entirely sure why.)
“It’s definitely peculiar,” he says.
“Peculiar,” Lydia echoes, voice flat.
“Yes. It’s almost as if– but that wouldn’t be possible.”
“Lydia, this is going to sound a little strange, but I want you to hear me out.”
Deaton tells her. He tells her something that makes her fingers clench, her stomach swoop in fear or helplessness. She laughs, but even to her own ears it sounds empty. Maybe even a little angry.
“You’re right, it’s not possible,” she says. “Because he’s dead. There’s nothing to save. But thanks for Mythical Story Hour. Really helpful.”
He doesn’t say anything to stop her from leaving.
When she gets home, she pulls out her history textbook. There’s an essay due in two weeks time, and she needs something to distract her. She hums to herself as she writes.
When she looks up from her paper and at the clock, it’s later than it should be. The pen in her hand is red. There’s ink on her fingers.
Her essay isn’t an essay: it’s another drawing of the Nemeton, but it’s not the same as the others before it.
There’s something new that’s nestled in the roots.
“Okay,” Lydia says into her phone. Deaton is on the other end of the line, patient. “I believe you. Now what?”
“We’ll have to make some preparations. And I think– I think you should tell them. I think you should tell Scott, most of all. He’ll want to be there.”
“No,” she says immediately. It’s instinctive; a reflex, a drawing back of the fist. She couldn’t hurt him, not in that way, because if they’re wrong, if it doesn’t work–
“No,” she says again, quietly. There’s a heavy silence from the other end.
“I understand,” he says. “But if I think something is going to go wrong, or you’re in danger, I’ll have to tell him. He might be the only one who can pull you back again.”
She agrees. She writes down what Deaton tells her, and thinks about what she has to do next.
(The thing is: it all comes back to the damn tree.
And the thing about Hell is: it exists.)
They’re in the root cellar, and Deaton is so calm it’s almost irritating.
“Are you sure you want to do this? It’s dangerous, Lydia. And I’m not sure what you’ll be facing.”
“I’ve faced worse,” she replies flippantly.
What she doesn’t say is: Yes, she’s sure. Because Scott needs him. The Sheriff needs him. They all need him, they all need to fill the empty space he left behind.
What she doesn’t say is: He would, for me. (The truth of it burns too brightly in her chest to be comfortable.)
“Remember,” Deaton says. “This doesn’t come without a price. You’ll have to pay it, and you will have to pay it exactly as you’re asked to.”
What Deaton doesn’t say is who she will be paying it to.
Deaton gives Lydia something strange and dark to drink. It burns all the way down. She holds a circlet of supple branches and green leaves between her hands. It’s woven of four woods.
Rowan for life. Willow for death. Elm for the dark, and Yew to return.
Lydia pulls it onto her head, feeling ridiculous. It’s a lot heavier as a crown than when it was a wreath in her hands. Deaton nods to her, face neutral, and when she smiles at him, it feels grim. She squares her shoulders.
Then she walks through the roots of the Nemeton, straight into Hell.
She doesn’t return.
She’s not sure what she was expecting, but it wasn’t this. She’s in a grove of ancient trees, and evening is blooming on the horizon. Pink and orange light suffuses the space between the ground and the canopy, but it’s fading fast into violets and plums. It stings her eyes. The colors here are too vibrant, reflecting brightly at the edge of her vision.
Behind her, she can feel the Nemeton towering at its full height, vibrating with such life and power that it itches under her skin. The sheer presence of it claws into her, bordering on pain, or ecstasy. Summer is lush and robust under her tongue, Spring is ardent green and pulsing through her blood, Winter tangles its cold fingers through her hair, and Autumn sings low and orange in her lungs. She is all of them, all at once.
She is life. She is everything. She thinks, wildly, that she has found it: she has found the place where she belongs. She is bound by nothing, she is the center of everything, and she is so full: she is bursting at the seams with the raw matter of life. It feels like the sun on her skin; leaves in the wind; worms in the earth; green stalks pushing through rich soil; roots drinking with a thirst wider than any river, deeper than any dark; ripe fruit hanging low and heavy on overwrought limbs; a melody, soft, humming in the back of her head.
Lydia’s forehead burns where the branches of her own trees brush against her skin. Dark flecks float from the sky like dust. Lydia looks up and the Nemeton still looming over her, a shadow inversed, a negative space of white, of light– but no, it isn’t coming from above her. She shakes her head, and dark floods her vision before clearing.
It’s coming from the crown.
The rowan threaded through the other woods has gone black. Has turned to ash.
(Deaton told her it would be the first to burn, but she didn’t expect it to happen so soon. But she can’t tell, exactly, how long it has been anymore. She is too full.)
Something tugs against the skin of her right hand. When she looks down, there is a red thread tied to her index finger. The thread stretches deeper into the trees, past where she can see. Ash rains down from her crown in a steady wave. The melody in her head grows from a whisper to a quiet hum.
The thread tugs again. She tugs back.
Lydia is in Stiles’ bedroom. Soft light filters in from the window, and dust hangs thick in the dull glow of it through the curtains. Sunrise. She’s sitting in Stiles’ bed. The sheets are tangled in her legs.
Stiles is there. Stiles is there.
He’s sleeping soundly next to her. A dark feeling rises from her chest, and she chokes on her breath because God, it wasn’t real. It wasn’t real, any of it. Lydia’s heart beats rapidly in her chest; she can feel it burning molten and joyous behind her ribs. Her lungs feel thick with cotton-edged elation, and it fills her up, fills her limbs with warmth, with restless energy.
It’s early– it isn’t full morning, just barely past dawn, and he should be awake. She should wake him up. He’d forgive her for that. They could– they could do anything. He could press his hands against hers.
(Against the rest of her, too.)
She hums at the thought, but the sound of it resonates– it becomes a dip in tone. The beginning of a melody.
Stiles stirs fitfully. His hair is pressed against half of his face, and his eyes scrunch tighter together. His fingers pull against the sheets.
Lydia’s hand moves to his face without thinking. He is real: he is flesh and bone, and his hair is soft between her fingers.
“Shh,” she says. “It’s okay, Stiles.”
She smoothes his hair down, lets her hand repeat the motion. She begins to hum something– a lullaby –but beneath her hand Stiles wakes suddenly and violently. He sits up, groggy, his large hands pulling themselves down his face.
“It’s okay,” Stiles says, and his voice. It felt like she would never hear it again. It rumbles in her ears, almost drowns out the song playing idly from– somewhere. His hand finds her knee, squeezes it gently, comfortably, like it’s routine. Like they're routine.
“It was just a bad dream,” he says.
“I thought you were dead,” Lydia says. Or rather, she tries to say it. What comes out instead is: “Go back to sleep.”
A tiny shock runs through her nerves. She tries to say something else, tries to say his name, but her throat has stopped working. She tries to clear it, but fear has begun to swim in her stomach. She breathes out slowly, focuses on her tongue and her teeth, and purses her lips together to say, “Something's wrong.”– but her voice won’t let itself be commanded.
“Stiles,” she hears herself saying. “It’s okay. Go back to sleep.”
Her heart jolts. This shouldn’t be happening. He shouldn’t be going back to sleep. She wants to tell him, but she clenches her teeth together in case her tongue is no longer hers. He’s about to lay down again, but she hums through her tightly closed lips, and he pauses, confused.
“Wait,” he says, slowly. It’s as if he is piecing something together, something beyond her, beyond the room.
“Lydia,” he says solemnly. “What are you doing here?”
The door to his bedroom opens with a slight creak, and suddenly Stiles is no longer in the bed. He’s standing in front of the bedroom door, facing away from her.
He’s in a white shirt. It has a dark collar. His hand is outstretched, hovering just above the door knob.
His shoulders are broad and even. His skin is no longer flushed, but ghostly– and the image of him flickers suddenly, as if he’s only signal and she’s tuned to the wrong wavelength. Lydia is afraid of what she will say if she tries to say anything, so instead she decides to take action.
Her legs won’t move. She can’t leave the bed.
Lydia looks up. Stiles seems to be at war with himself: his back is tense, and his fingers are shaking, inching closer to the door knob. She is struck by how much she doesn’t want him to go through the door. Fear and anger rush through her, and her legs swing off the bed. She’s standing with her hand outstretched, like she can grab him and pull him back.
Ash falls to her shoulders, and the scent of willow fills the room.
Stiles’ fingers move closer.
“Stiles, don’t,” Lydia says. Her voice is distorted, as if the sound is trapped under water. But Stiles’ head turns incrementally over his shoulder, toward her, like he can hear her still. The door swings opens of its own volition. Beyond it is utter darkness. The melody that has been haunting her head grows louder.
The thread is still around her finger, and it goes tighter. Stiles steps through the door and disappears.
Lydia tries to yell, but she’s tugged forward by the red thread.
She’s pulled through to the other side of the door, and is swallowed by the dark.
They’re in the basement of Eichen House. She isn’t sure how long they’ve been there. Stiles (the thing inside of Stiles) has his fingers wrapped around her wrists–
No. This isn't right. She’s been here. She’s gone through this already.
Lydia hears a laugh, and it echoes. It’s Stiles’ laugh, but it’s flat. Empty.
And then he’s just there, without any warning. He’s standing across the room from her, and even though the light is dim, his shadow is too long and too dark. It falls impossibly behind him, and to the side of him, and the shape of it is strange and hunched, like an animal’s curled body. It’s darker than any shadow she’s ever seen, but then she realizes: it isn’t a shadow. It’s just void.
Stiles (the thing using Stiles’ body) chuckles. His shoulders are set differently from her Stiles, the real Stiles. They’re too confident. It makes her angry, and the anger drives out the fear.
“You again,” he says. He sounds a little bored, like her company is impolite. Lydia thinks about what Deaton said, about paying a price. She’s pretty sure she knows who the price is going to, now.
“Me again,” she chirps. “You know, you should maybe think about moving– the whole abandoned asylum motif is a little overdone. You could find somewhere with a little more light. A place with windows. Walls without gaping holes. That kind of thing.”
Stiles’ mouth pulls into a smirk.
“Of all of them, I must admit– I didn’t think it would be you. The wolf, maybe– Scott,” he says with relish. “But it makes sense, I guess. The wailing woman, no longer sidelined. Finally off the bench, and into the game. How does it feel, Lydia?”
“How does what feel?”
“Knowing you can’t go back,” he says through sharp teeth. The shadow trailing behind him broils and shakes on the floor, changing shape. It spreads out like wings, sweeping towards her with alarming speed. Lydia can feel the crown on her head growing tighter, warmer. She doesn’t have much time.
“Name it,” Lydia says quickly, calmly.
The shadow pauses, but still shifts and swims in place. Stiles walks toward her like predators do; like he could rip her apart easily, casually, smiling. His fingers push against his mouth in thought.
“Name it,” Lydia says again. “Your price.”
The dim light of the room is fading. It will be full dark soon enough, and she’s not sure what happens after that. (Nothing good.)
“I want him, and I’m taking him,” she says with severity. “Tell me what you want in return.”
Stiles’ head tilts. His eyes are sharp. He watches her in a calculating, animal way that makes her skin crawl.
After a long minute, his eyes go darker, his mouth pulls into a smile, and fear starts to curl in her stomach.
“You can take him. He can go back to his friends, back to his house, and his yard, and his sad, pathetic dad. He can have it all. The teenage dream. But my price is this,” he says. “You.”
Lydia’s head thunders with the word. You. You, you, you. She could take Stiles back. But she would have to stay.
But then, oh. Oh, Lydia thinks wildly, hysterically. The idea breaks on her like dawn’s light, and she almost laughs at the simplicity of it.
He can feel it, the joy buzzing along her nerves. He opens his mouth but before he can speak, she says, loud and clear, “I accept.”
She closes the distance between them, and grabs Stiles’ face between her hands. She presses her mouth against his and the room goes black. Void.
(A remembered conversation:
Deaton is saying something, but she’s been tuning him out.
“What? I didn’t hear anything you just said,” she comments. She’s too busy speed-reading his copy of the Kitsune pages from the Argents’ bestiary.
“I said to remember, Lydia, that when you’re there, you’ll be lulled into thinking you’re meant to be there. But you’re not. You’ll have to find a way to anchor yourself here, to the living world, so when that feeling is too overwhelming, you can ground yourself again. And it’s vital that you know what distinguishes the living from the dead.”
“I do know what distinguishes the living from the dead,” she says. “Life.”
Lydia starts to read the next page.
“It’s love, Lydia,” he says reasonably. “It’s any intense emotion, really. The dead can only feel echoes of what happened to them in life. The only substantial feeling they have is the desire to be alive again, so anything real is going to blow their circuits, metaphorically speaking.”
“Great,” she says idly, conjugating archaic Latin in her head.)
Lydia can feel the rapid disintegration of elm– the ash is falling down her neck. The kiss turns hungry and brutal and Lydia can barely draw in enough breath. She is drowning in the feeling of Stiles’ mouth, the press of his lips, the drag of his tongue across hers. That’s when she does it– she pulls every feeling she has ever had for Stiles from her memory, brings them to life in her body. She feels each of them intensely, in turn: Indifference. Annoyance. Confusion. Irritation. Acceptance. Respect. Guilt. Compassion. Understanding. Fury. Jealousy. Fear. Admiration. Gratitude. Desire. Grief.
Light blooms in Lydia, and it pours into Stiles’ body: the shadow drains from him, the void begins to fill. His skin floods with color, real color; warmth bleeds into the hands down her back, and into his busy mouth. She smiles, then, as ash drifts down, creating a perfect circle around them. The dark is flushed from him and remains outside the circle, pressing in but unable to cross. Lydia pulls away from Stiles, who looks equal parts confused and awed.
“Your price,” comes a voice. It echoes from all around them, disembodied. Distorted.
Lydia looks down at the circle holding back the shadows. Holding back the dark and the Void that had its claws in Stiles for so long. That dragged him away from them.
Rowan for life. Willow for death. Elm for the dark.
Yew to return.
Lydia pulls the last of her crown from her head. It’s almost black, smeared with the ash of the branches burned before it.
“The price,” Lydia says, smiling sweetly. “Yew.”
She throws the circle of yew into the dark. The shadow boils and screams, rushing toward them, but then a roaring, unearthly howl surrounds them, so loud that her bones shake– but the sound is familiar.
Lydia grabs Stiles’ hand, and she looks at their fingers woven between one anothers– finally, finally –and she sees an ethereal red thread wrapped around their hands, shining.
Lydia smiles. She looks up at Stiles, and says, “Let’s go.”
She steps forward into the dark, pulling him behind her.
(She steps into the dark, but the dark does not swallow her.)
A world away, she finds herself beneath the Nemeton. Lydia’s lungs hurt, and her head is pounding, and for a moment she forgets. She can taste ash in her mouth.
But then she feels Stiles beside her. He is real, and she is flooded with joy and pain and overwhelming exhaustion. Her throat burns. Her eyes go warm and glassy.
“You okay?” she asks.
“Yeah,” he says. He looks down at her, too many things flashing behind his eyes for her to read. He’s quiet for a second and then says, thoughtfully, “You know, if death was a Netflix recommendation, I would choose the ‘Not Interested’ option.”
Lydia laughs, almost to the point of tears, and Stiles joins her. It’s a release, an expulsion of the fear and the anger and the uncertainty, and she feels new; remade. They did it. She did it. Her stomach hurts with the sheer intensity of her laughter, and Stiles’ full-body laugh is so warm and so familiar that it shakes the ache from her ribs and allows her to settle.
“I’m serious, Lydia," he says a little breathlessly. "Like, zero out of five stars. Would not recommend.”
“Idiot,” she says, fondly. Their hands are still clasped together. (There is no red thread.)
They climb up from the roots, onto solid ground with the open sky above, and Stiles’s knees almost buckle when he sees them.
Deaton had called Scott. Scott had, presumably, called everyone. They’re all there, again, a mirror image or a universal symmetry. A death, a rebirth. A spiral, a tree.
Someone is crying.
Lydia gets pulled into the most disgustingly affectionate group hug of her entire life. But it’s okay.
Her mascara is waterproof.