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This Is Not (A Love Song)

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Trees whip past as Stiles speeds down the narrow two-lane road toward Beacon Hills. The low-hanging branches of pines and oaks shadow the road and shiver as his rental car zips by. It’s late afternoon. The air streaming through his open window has a soft, heavy feeling that hints at a rising storm. Stiles has missed days like these, ones where he can feel the building storm before he sees it; the rising, white bulk of rain clouds hiding the peaks of mountains before opening up and drowning the world beneath. He’d forgotten that feeling, grown used to storms forming over the ocean, the salty, untamed sting of the Atlantic carrying wind and rain.

It’s unexpected, the strength of the nostalgia and homesickness that washes over him as he draws closer. He’d been back for short visits during the holidays, but those had done little to settle the ache in his chest when he remembered the weird urban tangle he grew up in. The FBI has kept him away from Beacon Hills. And now, the FBI is bringing him back.

He’d graduated from George Washington University and been snapped up by the Bureau almost immediately. Even with the debacle of his internship, he’d managed to impress the right people. The right supernatural people, it turned out.

Located near Quantico, the Special Investigative Unit filled a blocky, 70’s-era government building that smelled like stale cigarette smoke and the ozone tang of magic. The agents assigned there were a wide and diverse spectrum of people. They’d all somehow gotten themselves tangled up in the world that lived beneath the surface of everyday life. In Stiles’s case, the FBI had tagged him as soon as they’d figured out who, exactly, had carried him from that warehouse during his internship. The Hale family may have been long gone, but their name still held power. Combined with Stiles’s spark, it had been a no-brainer for the Bureau. He’d made his share of X-Files jokes—his supervisor had ripped his I WANT TO BELIEVE poster from his cubicle wall as soon as she’d seen it—but after the honeymoon-glow of his early days in the SIU had faded, he’d found that the place fit him like so many other places didn’t. He’d learned how to harness his magic, had strengthened it—and his body—through rigorous training, and after six long years, he’d come into himself in a way he never thought he could.

When they’d told him about the new field office they were opening, located a half-hour from downtown Beacon Hills, he’d immediately put in for a transfer and immediately been accepted. Stiles knew it had to do with his personal connections to the area, but since it meant he could go home, he didn’t really care.

The city limits flash past him, the Welcome to Beacon Hills! sign a blur of green and white that he barely registers. As the road dips down, falling out of the mountains, his hands tighten on the steering wheel. There’s a knot in his stomach. He wants to blame it on the roadside diner where he’d had lunch, but as comforting as the excuse might be, he knows it’s nerves.

Nerves and, maybe, regret. Sharp, stinging regret that he can’t seem to shake, even as he tamps the emotion down, hard. It’s tangled up with the people he’s left behind, with one person that he can’t shake, but he pushes that aside, lets the excitement of finally being home overwhelm the rest. He’s stayed in touch with most of the pack, but it’s been years since he’s actually seen some of them, and his gut twists when he thinks about their pending reunion.

Stiles’s dad is standing on the porch when he pulls up, and even though Stiles isn’t sure he’s ready to be back here yet, he falls out of the car to rush up the creaking wooden steps, sweeping his dad into a rib-bruising hug that lifts the older man, laughing, into the air.

“Jesus, kid,” Dad says, voice choked by laughter and the tight band of Stiles’s arms around his chest. “I missed you, too.”

Grinning, Stiles sets his dad down. The Sheriff stumbles a little, catching his balance by grabbing onto Stiles’s shoulder. He gives it a tight squeeze, his smile softening, then lets his hand drop.

“Let’s go get you unpacked,” he says, heading toward the car. “I made up your room for you.”

Stiles follows after his dad, helping him grab suitcases from the trunk and backseat of the rental car. The rest of Stiles’s stuff is coming on a truck the next day; his lease to the new apartment doesn’t start until the morning. They carry his luggage up the stairs, and his dad drops the smaller suitcase on Stiles’s bed before setting his hands on his hips and giving Stiles a slow appraisal.

“You remind me so much of your mother sometimes,” he says, his mouth quirked up in a small, sad smile.

Stiles’s throat tightens and he coughs it away. “Let me get unpacked, and I’ll run out for burgers from Ruby's.”

His dad’s smile brightens. “Don’t tease, now.”

“Melissa sent me your last cholesterol panel. You’ve earned it.”

“I’d say something about patient confidentiality laws,” his dad starts, “but I’m sure you got yourself on my approved list somehow.”

Stiles points to his dad, then taps the tip of his nose. “Got it in one.”

Rolling his eyes, the Sheriff heads toward the door. “I’m proud of you, kid, and I’m real glad you’re home.”

“Me, too.” Stiles shoos his dad from the room. “Now, give me some space. I’ve been in a car for hours, I need to stretch out my legs, and—trust me—you don’t want to be here for that.”

“No kidding.” His dad rolls his eyes before heading down the hallway. “I’ll grab you a beer,” he shouts, his footfalls heavy on the stairs.

“Thanks!” Stiles yells back before closing the door and taking in his room.

The snowboarder wall decal is gone, replaced by a photo collage of Stiles in college, then at the Academy, with a couple newspaper clippings about some of his cases scattered around them. While most of what the SIU does is secret, they aren’t perfect, and cover stories are fairly common. Stiles walks closer, skimming an article about a coven of warlocks they’d broken up and disguised as a sex trafficking ring—not far from the truth, to be honest, but the group had been gathering virgins for sacrifice rather than for sale.

Otherwise, though, the place is almost unchanged. His desk is covered with old notes, and when he pulls open the top drawer, there’s a ball of red yarn, dusty from disuse, sitting in easy reach. He pulls it out, tosses it into the air a time or two, then sets it back inside, sliding the drawer quietly shut.

It only takes him a few minutes to unpack his overnight stuff. Most of the clothes he’d brought with him are T-shirts and jeans. He does have one suit with him in case he gets called into the new Beacon Hills branch office early, though he leaves it, slightly rumpled, in the bottom of his suitcase. The Bureau had given him two weeks to get settled before getting back to work, and with the timing of his lease and how much stuff he’d collected in D.C., it’s going to be a close call to get everything moved in and unpacked before his first day.

After shrugging into a worn hoodie, Stiles hurries out to his car after getting his dad’s dinner order. Ruby's is a local institution, a greasy spoon in the best tradition, and Stiles’s mouth waters as he draws closer. He calls Scott on his way, but gets his voicemail. Stiles leaves a short message that he’s back, then ambles his way through town.

Time has been kind to Beacon Hills. The old mall’s been torn down and replaced by an apartment complex and there’s a new park near the post office. The bakery’s closed, but it’s been replaced by a bookstore that looks intriguing. Stiles makes a note of it, then winds through the busy streets until he finds parking about a block from the restaurant.

Beacon Hills is colder than Alexandria, and the storm that was threatening on his way in looks like it’ll rip open the sky at any moment. He pulls his hoodie close around his neck as he hurries inside. There’s a short line at the one, ancient register, and Stiles kills time by going through his phone, thumbing open his work email as he shuffles forward. There’s a new message from Bartlett, his old department lead, that he wants to read once he gets a second.

The waitress behind the counter grins at him as he steps forward, her wrinkled face splitting into surprised joy as she takes him in.

“Stiles Stilinski, as I live and breathe! When did you get back into town? It’s been years!”

He returns her smile, blushing at her effusive greeting. “I just drove in. It’s good to see you, Martha.”

“I am always having to chase your father out of here,” she says as she comes around the counter to wrap him in a warm hug. “Don’t worry, we always give him the side salad and a whole wheat bun.”

“I’m sure he appreciates that,” Stiles says with a laugh. “You mind if I get a to-go order in?”

She scoffs, then shuffles back around the counter. “Of course not, dear. Whatever you want.”

He rattles off the order—two burgers with fries this time, his dad deserves it—and pays.

“You make yourself comfortable while you wait, dear,” Martha says before passing his ticket through a wide opening into the kitchen. “It won’t be more than a moment. Would you like something to drink?”

“Water,” Stiles says as he gets comfortable in one of the empty booths near the front door, “thank you.”

She sets a sweating glass before him on the table a moment later, but Stiles barely notices it as he reads Bartlett’s update. The Unit had closed a case right before he left—a lamia that had been hunting children on the Delmarva Peninsula—and there’s an update on the condition of the last kid it had snatched. He tries not to think about the children he hadn’t been able to help, letting himself give into relief instead of regret, as he reads that the little girl is expected to make a full recovery.

Martha comes by with a heavy paper bag ten minutes later, the bottom already stained with grease, and gives him another fond smile. “You tell your father I said hello,” she says as he takes the bag. “And I sure hope you’ll be sticking around, young man.”

“Planning on it.” Stiles stands. “Give it a few weeks, and you’ll be sick of me.”

She laughs and slaps at his arm. “You Stilinski men,” she sighs, “such charmers.”

He’s smiling as he drives home, the scent of fried potatoes and grease filling the rental car. The sky opens up a few minutes later, the world suddenly washed in thick, torrential rain. Sighing, Stiles fumbles for the wipers, unfamiliar with the controls. He manages to get them turned up to their highest setting, then leans forward, squinting, as they do absolutely nothing to clear the water from his view. He crawls the rest of the way home, cursing quietly under his breath as he hopes the weather will break. He has to be extra careful as he pulls onto his dad’s street, the roadway clogged with cars parked along the sidewalk.

Someone’s having a party, Stiles thinks as he inches his way through the crowded street.

Rain is still falling heavily when he parks in the driveway. He has to tuck the paper bag with dinner into his hoodie before running from the car to the relative safety of his dad’s front porch. He’s soaked through by the time he wrestles the door open. Pushing his way inside, annoyed and wet, he freezes as he takes in the crowd gathered in the front hallway.

Scott is front and center, grinning and laughing as he takes in Stiles and his bulging sweatshirt. Slightly behind him, her hand clasped tightly in Scott’s, Malia smiles and leans forward to rest her chin on Scott’s shoulder, eyes bright with humor. Lydia walks in from the living room, giving Stiles a slow once over before she raises one of her eyebrows. Isaac trails in after her and wraps one of his arms around her waist before pressing a kiss to the top of her head. Liam, Corey and Mason come tumbling out of the kitchen a few seconds later, laughing as they bump shoulders. The three younger members all yell when they see him, arms thrown up in the air, and then Stiles is completely smothered by his pack.

The group presses in close to him, arms wrapped around him in tight hugs, crushing the hidden bag of food. Shocked and ecstatic, he doesn’t even care as the bag explodes, soaking his shirt in grease, burgers, and ketchup.

“Does anyone smell that?” Liam asks, nose wrinkling, and Stiles laughs so hard, he can’t see.

After changing out of his ruined clothes, Stiles spends the rest of the night with his pack, the house filled with laughter and stories and reminiscence. Scott and Malia are getting ready to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary—the wood anniversary, Scott whispers to him as they’re crowded together in the kitchen, grabbing beers from the fridge; he’s commissioned a custom piece of a coyote and a wolf entwined, and Stiles is suitably impressed when Scott shows him the rough piece—and Scott’s just about done with his internship at Beacon Hills Memorial Hospital. They’ve been in touch while Stiles has been on the east coast, but it feels good to be caught under the heavy weight of Scott’s arm, pulled in close to his side as he tells the pack about the weird shit he’s had to pull out of people’s butts since starting his rotation in the ER. Beacon Hill is home to more than just supernatural freaks, it seems.

Lydia is only in town for a short visit, getting ready to head to Chicago to receive the Fields Medal. She preens as Stiles freaks out.

“You can’t say anything about it publicly,” she says with a lazy, self-satisfied grin. “They haven’t announced the winners yet, and I’d get in trouble for telling you before the ceremony.”

Stiles does his best to keep up with her as she explains the theorem that’s snagged her the prize, but once Lydia starts talking about string theory and condensed matter physics, Isaac nodding sagely behind her—as if he understands half of what she’s saying—Stiles zones out and ends up drinking his beer just a bit too fast. By the time Lydia’s, done, he’s buzzed and confused and so proud, he might burst.

Though he’s nearly overwhelmed by his friends, head darting back and forth as stories pour over him like rain on parched land, something nags at him throughout the night. A quiet sense that the picturesque reunion isn’t quite right, that some unseen but integral piece is missing. It leaves him slightly off-center, though he tries to ignore it. He’s happy right now. There’s no reason to pick at the scabs of his past, not tonight.

After they’ve demolished most of the pizza Scott had brought, they’re all lounging in the living room, some mindless comedy playing on the TV. With the laugh track in the background, Stiles’s mind wanders, and the missing piece finally slots into place. As Stiles looks around the room, the absence seems glaring, neon bright and unmistakable. He doesn’t understand why it took him so long to put his finger on it, but now he can’t avoid it. It’s like a rotten tooth, something he can’t help but poke at, even though it aches. And because he doesn’t know how not to hurt himself like this, he presses against it. Hard.

He leans into Scott, dragging his attention away from the screen. “So, where’s everyone else?” he asks, hoping his tone comes across as casual instead of bitter.

“Theo’s running down a pack of rogue hunters somewhere near the Canadian border. Kira is learning more about kitsune at Fushimi Inari. You gotta check out her Instagram, it’s insane. And Peter’s being creepy somewhere around town. Malia keeps up with him more than I do.”

Stiles waits for more, but Scott’s turned his attention back to the TV, smiling at something stupid that’s happening on screen.

“And Derek?” Stiles prompts, feeling obvious and awkward, the name like acid on his tongue.

Scott, turning back, frowns at him. “He’s on-duty tonight.”

“Did he, uh,”—Stiles gestures around the room—“know this was happening?”

“Probably not,” Scott says. “We didn’t really know this was going to happen until you called me. We all expected you to get in late tonight.” He flushes, then shoots Stiles an embarrassed grin. “There may or may not have been a surprise party planned for you for tomorrow. We just shifted it up a night, I guess.”

Stiles can’t help but smile back, even though his chest tightens. “Thanks, Scotty,” he says, nudging his best friend’s shoulder with his own, choosing to focus on the sense of belonging he feels surrounded by his found family. “I appreciate it.”

“Don’t worry about the rest of the pack,” Scott says before wrapping his arm around Stiles and pulling him in tight. “Now, c’mon, we’re missing the best part.”

Stiles lets the conversation go, fades back into the general sense of comfort that suffuses the house. But once everyone leaves, Scott and Malia the last to go, Stiles finds himself rubbing at the center of his chest, wondering if the pain is heartburn from the pizza or something else, wondering how Scott had dodged his question about Derek so smoothly.

He stumbles his way to bed, a little drunk, a little happy, and a little sad. With the lights off, the rain pounding gently against the window, he drifts, almost convinced that he’s back in high school, when things might have been more chaotic but also simpler. He falls asleep, wondering if some things never change and Harris still hates his guts.

The Chesapeake is quiet. Stiles stares out over the preternaturally still water, his feet planted in the thin, salt-stained grass that edges the causeway. His suit jacket is tight around his shoulders, and he shifts, trying to ease it into place. Clouds hover in the distance, dark and uncertain on the horizon. He takes a careful step forward, looks down at where the water laps against the ground, and sees small, white bones breaking through the surface.

He leans down, presses his fingers to the cold, wet things, and lets his head fall forward, chin resting on his chest as everything aches.

When he opens his eyes, the Bay is gone, replaced by a wide, vaguely familiar forest. Dead leaves crack and snap beneath his feet as he walks forward, those tiny bones still clenched in his hand. The trees thin, opening into an overgrown field that surrounds a broken and fallen home. There’s someone on the porch, someone as familiar to him as the woods around him, but Stiles turns, heart pounding, and runs.

The further he goes, the darker it gets until he can barely make out the trees in front of him. He slows, catching his breath and reaching in front of him blindly. Bark is rough against his palms, cutting in deep until he can feel blood oozing from his hands and coating his arms. He tries to staunch the flow, shrugging out of his jacket to wrap it around the wound, but blood soaks through until it’s dripping on the ground behind him, leaving a trail of bright red that’s the only light in the now pitch black.

Stiles reaches out with his other senses, blind and lost. His magic shifts beneath his skin as it struggles to answer his command. Though it fights, snapping and sparking between his capillaries, it can’t break free. It finally quiets, frustrated and subdued. Stiles shivers and spins in a circle, trying to find his way back.

There’s something lurking in this dark, quiet space. An unknown creature, a presence that he can feel more than see. Never one for good decisions, he reaches toward it, hands and mind grasping, but as it brushes against his sticky, blood-coated fingers, pain lances through him. Deep, cold, aching, it makes his muscles tense and spasm. He falls to the ground, teeth clenched so hard, he can’t scream. He tastes blood and decay on his tongue, and bile rises in his throat as the small bones held in his hand crack against the forest floor.

The thing shushes him. The sound is soothing, but its dusty, metallic breath coasts over the delicate shell of his ear and makes his nausea worse.

“What are you?” He’s surprised by his own voice, the power held in it. And the fear.

<<You’ll know soon enough, but not yet,>> it says, its voice soft like a thin shroud dragged across cold, carved marble. <<Not yet.>>

Stiles bolts awake, muscles tight and panic racing through his veins. The room is cast in a soft glow, and he stares down at his chest, watching as his tattoos slowly fade from a warm, golden glow to black against his skin. He fumbles for his phone, then hunts for a familiar name before hitting the call button. It rings a few times before Chris Argent’s gruff voice answers.

“Stiles, why are you calling me at three in the morning?”

“We’ve got a problem,” he says, voice shaking.

“I figured,” Chris grumbles, but he sounds slightly more awake. “You want to fill me in? Where are you?”

Stiles runs a hand over his face, fighting back the still lingering panic. Glancing around the room, he tries to see if there’s any sign of whatever had set off his wards, but there’s nothing. Just his old desk, his nearly empty suitcase, and darkness. He shivers.

“I don’t know,” he finally forces out. He looks down at the hand not holding his phone and sucks in a breath when he sees it’s coated in dried blood. Shaking, he reaches for the light next to his bed. 

The sheets tangled around his body are stained red.

“It’s bad,” he says, throat clogged with fear. “I’m at my dad’s.”

Chris sighs. “I’ll be right over.”