It was a surprise to Stiles Stilinski when he learned he was easy to overlook, although it should not have been. He had always loomed large in his mother's world, and held a high place in the divided attention of every teacher he'd had. It was more than possible that people were exasperated by him, watching him primarily with a sense of wariness and, in his dad's case, a deep weariness born of years of Stiles failing to be the normal child the sheriff deserved, but it had never occurred to Stiles that the attention he received was fleeting and vanished from the mind as quickly as it appeared.
The revelation happened when he heard his name mentioned in the library at school, and he looked up to discover that the universal reaction at the table had been to question, "Who?" Apparently he'd been assigned as a tutor to one of his teammates on the lacrosse team, a popular boy who enjoyed the benefits of good looks and natural athleticism as his natural due and who had never noticed that someone like Stiles existed alongside him. The others at the table, who had attended the same classes as Stiles long before they became the sort of aspirational elite that poets and magazines lauded for their youthful beauty, had no idea who he was, could not remember his name. One assayed that he might be the kid with glasses - except that Stiles knew that they meant Dion, who struggled with language arts like a deadly foe and could answer any math question only if he wasn't required to show his work in a way that the teacher could make sense of. There were a few other attempts at guessing and Stiles knew them all, knew they meant Boyd and Joon-ki and Scott and Matt and he knew them, he knew all of them.
Lydia frowned, a delicate wrinkling of her forehead before she waved a hand. "Who cares? Just copy someone's homework; Mr. Okoyo won't even care as long as you win."
The sound of the laughter and whooping as the conversation shifted to excited anticipation of triumph faded into the background as things shifted into place for Stiles, the solution to a puzzle he hadn't been aware existed. Lydia had never noticed him because she wasn't aware he existed; it was impossible to ignore something you didn't see. The teasing he'd endured when he was younger had petered off and died out, not because of any maturing done by him or by his tormentors, but simply because he had stopped existing for them, fallen so far below their notice that he was literally not in their world.
He made a soft sound, a rounded "oh" without pain or inflection. It made sense. He understood.
When faced with new information, Stiles believed in finding out everything he could about it, and the knowledge of his own unimportance was no different. He started by observing, counting the number of people he spoke to each day and whether they met his eyes. With the baseline established, he then began changing variables: self-initiated versus Stiles-initiated, context-based or spontaneous, functional versus social, obligatory politeness versus meaningful interaction.
No one noticed the change in him as he parsed out the categories and wrote out the statistics that proved John Donne wrong. His bones were lighter, hollowing out from the inside until he felt brittle and breakable but weightless enough to fly. He thought he might try as he walked home, his Jeep in the shop until the mechanic got to it (obligatory, context-based interaction; eye contact n/a over the phone, but a side conversation analogous to a lack thereof; Stiles-initiated, ended by the other party with an abrupt dismissal; conversation seven seconds shorter than the previous day's call).
He spread his arms as he walked along the dirt track that was the quickest way home, between the forest and an old road that was too inconvenient to be used by anyone except the family that lived out in the woods. His backpack was weighing him down; he'd have to choose another textbook to start leaving at home or in his locker, the weight too much for his bones to bear. He was trying to decide between math and chemistry when he noticed the wolf walking beside him, his footsteps soft and in rhythm with the scuffle of the old sneakers Stiles hadn't bothered replacing.
The wolf's eyes met his and he raised his head, a question evident in the tilt of his muzzle and the arching of his brows. "I'm just walking home," Stiles said, and the wolf nodded companiably as he continued to walk beside him.
The walk was a long one and the day was warm. Stiles had no reason to hurry home, no deadline to meet, and so when he came to the wide stump of an ancient tree, he sat with his back to it and pulled out his notebook. The wolf sat with him, watching politely.
"I think the conversation was initiated by you," Stiles said, and the wolf nodded. "It counts as purely social, since you don't seem to have a specific purpose."
The wolf shook his head from side to side, not committing to a yes or no, and Stiles laughed. "Fair enough. I suppose finding out why I was here counts as a reason for initiating, but was there a purpose for staying?"
After a long pause for consideration the wolf shrugged, and Stiles noted accordingly that the conversation had started for a purpose but ended as purely social. "I don't even have anything for you to eat. Then again, you're the host; it's up to you to provide refreshments."
The wolf shrugged, flicking his tail dismissively before settling down next to Stiles. The silence was comfortable enough that neither Stiles nor the wolf felt any urge to break it, instead listening to the sound of each other's breath and the gentle rustling of insects moving and plants growing. At length, Stiles sighed and stood, patting the stump of the tree. "Sorry, old buddy. Guess everything gets torn down eventually."
The wolf snorted, tossing his head in the direction of the sapling growing out of the middle of the stump. Stiles waved a hand to acknowledge his point, yeah yeah, and took a breath deep enough that he felt his feet leave the ground before he let it out and picked up his bookbag again. The sky was the sepia tone of impending sunset when he walked out of the shelter of the woods, over the concrete blocks someone had put in the creek and through the fence of his own back yard. He looked back to wave a goodbye and the wolf lifted his chin to return it before they both turned to disappear into their homes.
The wolf did not come every day, and Stiles did not stop every day, but the Jeep would not be ready for more than a month - a part was backordered, had to be manufactured, can't be done any faster without costing more than replacing the whole car - and so the walks continued. Stiles would sit by the stump, using it as a table to finish his homework and compile the statistics of the day's interactions as he listened to the sapling growing. It looked weak and fragile, the green so pale that it stood out against the darker colors of the forest around them, but the wolf insisted that it was important.
"Life is a cycle," the wolf would say, his voice a soft whisper delivered straight to the back of the brain without Stiles knowing if it had passed through his ears.
"Sometimes life stops," Stiles said one day, his hand hovering over the sapling, ready to pull it up and end its struggle.
The wolf shrugged, lashing his tail so that the fur drifted against Stiles and the sapling. "It didn't for me. Not when I wanted it to."
"Maybe it did," Stiles said, pulling his hand back from the sapling and wiping it against his pants. "Maybe you weren't always a wolf."
He huffed a wolfy laugh, his tongue lolling out. "That's another thing you're wrong about."
"Shut up, you're the one allergic to questions." Stiles started stuffing his notebook and pens into his bag, ready to go home and forget the impulse that had almost taken him over. He smoothed a hand over the stump, silently apologizing for the horror he'd been about to commit. "You'll grow strong," he murmured. "No one will ever cut you down again."
The wolf shivered and Stiles lifted his face to feel a breeze that lifted his hair, making him notice for the first time that it was long enough to fall over his face. The ends tickled his neck and he thought absently that he'd have to cut it when he got home, if he could find the clippers. He didn't notice the wolf didn't talk again or that he left without much of a goodbye, but the wolf was never much of a talker anyway.
His dad was home when Stiles got there, sorting through the mail while standing at the counter. Stiles was still thinking of the sapling and vaguely wondering what would encourage a tree to grow when his dad said, "You all right, kid?"
Stiles looked at him with eyebrows raised and his dad shrugged uncomfortably. "You don't look so good. Everything all right at school? I haven't gotten any calls lately."
"It's fine," Stiles said. Context-driven, purposeful, no social motive.
"I know I've been putting in a lot of hours lately, but I'm still here for you if you wanna talk." His dad looked uncomfortable and Stiles couldn't stop himself from fidgeting, shifting from foot to foot and picking at his wrist before smoothing his hand over the bloodless tears that had opened in the paper-thin skin. "You don't look like you've been getting enough sleep."
Stiles raised one shoulder and let it drop. He'd been sleeping a lot, but his dreams were full of sawdust and fire and glowing eyes that watched him from the darkness while whispers swirled around him and tried to resolve into words. Just the thought of trying to explain it was exhausting. "I think I'll go to bed early tonight."
"You do that," his dad said, then grimaced as the radio on his belt squawked. He turned the volume down quickly, his eyes cutting to Stiles as the code for murder was cut off in the middle of the last digit. They both pretended Stiles hadn't heard.
"I gotta go deal with that," the sheriff said. Stiles nodded, allowing his dad to pull him into a brief hug and clap a hand over his back. "I'll get you some chicken soup, okay? Stay home from school tomorrow if you're not feeling well; I'll write the excuse when I get home."
He looked back before closing the door but didn't say anything further, and Stiles rummaged through the fridge for something that would be easy to eat. He didn't notice until he was undressing for the night that his father's hug had left crumpled dents in his skin, wrinkled and flattened but nothing like bruised. Stiles poked at his shoulder, scratching and smoothing out the lines before it lost the novelty and he pulled on a sleep shirt to cover it and remove it from his mind.
That night he dreamed of fire again, of a dark-haired woman smoothing a hand over his hair and telling him that there was nothing to forgive; different was still beautiful. She seemed familiar, but not for herself; it was frustrating to think of what she reminded him of, what allusion or symbolism or resemblance she embodied that loomed so large in his dreaming mind that his conscious one couldn't stop trying to work it out.
"Stiles!" He almost fell over as he was jostled forward, only for Scott to catch him as he bounced into step alongside him. "I almost didn't see you there!"
"Still where I've always been, Scotty." Hitching his bag up on his shoulders, Stiles looked over at his friend and waited. Statistically speaking, the conversation was likely to be about the new girl, although lacrosse was also an option. His actual girlfriend was a distant third possibility.
The grin on Scott's face did not at all match the information coming out of it. "Dude, she broke up with me!"
"And we're happy about this?" Stiles looked at him askance, not even sure how to start categorizing this conversation, let alone make sense of it.
"It's whatever," Scott said, dismissing the relationship that had taken up a good chunk of their sophomore year. "But, like, I was telling Jackson and Allison was there hanging out with Lydia, and she said it was too bad."
Stiles was still confused, which was apparently obvious enough for Scott to continue. "No, but she said it like she didn't actually mean it, and she was smiling. And, like, I think she was checking me out!"
"She probably was." He'd have said it anyway, but the fact that Stiles believed it helped. "You know she asked me about you before."
"I mean, I wasn't going to break up with Cindy for another girl, and, y'know, I was trying to work things out with her." Stiles nodded along as Scott talked, feeling a bit of sympathy for Cindy, who had to have gotten sick of being tolerated where she'd been adored before Scott had taken one look at Allison Argent and been swept into a sea of passionate, forbidden longing. If he'd thought Cindy would listen, he'd have told her that Rosalind was probably the luckiest part to play in that drama, but Cindy barely knew he existed, and wouldn't have welcomed a conversation regardless.
Scott kept talking, brief guilty interjections about the defunct relationship giving way to giddy relief that he was now free to pursue his heart's desire, who might just desire him in return. Stiles responded at appropriate intervals, allowing Scott to keep talking without being so inconsiderate an audience as to interrupt with any topics of his own. He didn't really have anything to say, anyway; Scott's reaction to being told about the wolf was to offer to call animal control, and when Stiles had started talking about his statistics, Scott had looked sad and told him he'd get Lydia's attention when they both made first line.
The conversation ended when class started and Stiles sank into his chair. It had been more than a week since he'd bothered raising a hand in class, longer since he'd been called on or even gotten eye contact from his teachers. A couple had even marked him absent when he'd been there, but since he'd had the notes and the homework, his dad had sighed and said he'd call the school about it. He hadn't been marked absent since, even on the day he'd stayed home.
The walk home seemed longer than ever, and Stiles couldn't concentrate on his homework when he reached the stump, the letters blurring and running together until he nodded off over the copies he'd made of the required pages so he wouldn't have to try to carry the books he could barely lift now. Only one binder remained in his bag, along with his conversations journal and a few pens, but it was still enough to drag him down to the earth when he might have floated away. His dad kept giving him concerned looks and talking about going to the doctor, but then he would get called out to deal with another murder or more of the paperwork accumulating around them and the subject would be dropped.
He woke up to see the sapling was drooping, the few leaves it had managed to produce turning brown around the edges. Stiles felt the urge to cry, as if his tears would make a difference where they never had before.
"Stiles." The wolf slipped out of the shadows, nudging his side. "You need to get home, it's coming."
"Who's coming?" He wiped the back of his hand over his eyes, telling himself it was because he'd been asleep.
Stiff-legged, the wolf scented the air and then shook his head, pushing Stiles along. "There's no time, it's almost here. Now, Stiles, you have to go now."
He stumbled and tried to run, the wolf's nose shockingly cold on his skin as he urged him forward. The bag slipped from his grip and Stiles tripped over a root, flying forward until he hit a tree and fell to the ground in a cloud of dust. It blurred his vision and he lifted his hand, only to find that the dust was coming from his skin as it wore away in the breeze that was growing stronger and stronger.
"Did you really think you were going to stop me?" Stiles frowned and tried to focus, because someone was talking and he needed to know how to categorize it, if they were talking to him. He couldn't tell anything about who was speaking, because it was a tall woman with pale skin and brown hair, then a shorter man with dark skin, then a tall figure again, only this time instead of a person's face it was a hideous collection of scars around dark eyes and a wide, screaming mouth. Stiles tried to scramble to his feet only to find he didn't have them anymore; his shoes were empty and there was nothing but a void below his knees.
The wolf was in front of him, snarling, saliva dripping from his fangs as he stood protectively in front of Stiles. The figure just laughed, scarred skin resolving into smooth loveliness and blonde hair, screeching turning to a husky purr. "Oh, sweetie. Do you really think you'll get to keep him?"
She leaned forward, chuckling as the wolf flinched to avoid her touch. "He's nothing. Just look - even he knows it."
"Poor thing," she crooned, and Stiles hadn't seen her move but she was smoothing a hand over his hair in a parody of motherly concern. "Aren't you tired of fighting? Writing down over and over again that no one wants to talk to you, like something is going to change - it's so useless, baby, don't you see?"
It was. He'd noticed the pattern the first day; everything since had just repeated the same results. Even his dad and Scott - they loved him, but they didn't have time for him. It'd be easier for them without having to try to accommodate him in their lives, find a way to make him fit even though he had no real place there. The closest he'd had to a real friend or conversation had been with a wolf - and there hadn't been wolves in California for decades.
The sound of howling and snarling started to fade away, and he lifted a hand to touch the dark hair that was falling over his face, using the last strength he had as the void continued to consume him to see his mother's face smiling down at him, a halo of fireflies lighting her soft features. "It's okay, kochanie - didn't you always really know that you're nothing? Just give in, let it be over."
He let out a tremulous breath as the wind blew through him, picking up the fragments that remained and scattering them. He was literally weightless, moving with the wind as it swirled and eddied, passing over the wolf as he howled and howled, grief beyond measure tearing through the air and making Stiles pause when he recognized his name in the terrible sound.
It still echoed in the air as the wolf was struck down, and the wind and dust that had once been Stiles paused, going still as the wolf whimpered and crawled towards the tree stump. Didn't he see that Stiles was gone? Why hadn't he given up? Stiles had.
The thing wearing his mother's face smiled, and it sparked something, cut through the layers of indifference and resignation that had built up until Stiles couldn't even remember what it was to feel, could only remember the faintest echo of emotion. The breeze started again and he remembered running his fingers through the wolf's fur, remembered sitting with him for hours of peace.
"Mine," she whispered, reaching for the sapling, and now she looked like Stiles, just as he had when an evil thought inside his own head had almost made him rip the sapling out by the roots; he wondered if his face had been as twisted and malevolent, even as he reached forward to stop his own hand.
Stiles didn't know what he felt, if he felt anything, but his grip on the thing's hand was implacable. It looked up at him with his own face and snarled, lashing out with its other hand but not finding anything to fight.
That was amusement he felt, and the fact that he wasn't inside a body just made it stronger, purer, made the emotions he felt the entirety of his being. He barely recognized it. "Hard to fight nothing, isn't it?"
He looked down at the sapling that had shriveled and wilted and realized that it was connected to him, the child of the tree that had been cut down, just like his mother had been cut down before her time, just like this thing - spirit, demon, imp, trickster, void, evil - had tried to convince him to make himself nothing. It put his mother's face back on, her eyes full of tears. "Why are you hurting me? Stiles, you're killing me!"
The fury that washed through him so far beyond anything he'd ever felt, an anger made all the stronger for being mixed with pain and shock and grief, and all he could think was burn. The wind that had sustained him turned dry and thin as he drew himself up and up and up, expanding with the force of his rage until the thing he held cracked and shattered and crumbled into a slimy black ash. He gathered each tiny piece, not allowing a single speck to escape on the wind, pulling it all into his hands as he sank to the ground with bones that once again had marrow and skin that blistered around the heat he was holding prisoner.
Ignoring the pain - he remembered pain now, remembered what it was to bleed instead of tear - he pushed his hands together, pressing the ash into a tiny ember, compressing it further and further, until he could spit on it and it hissed and spat and cooled into a tiny black rock that absorbed the light and refused to reflect any back. Stiles breathed heavily and sank to his knees, trying to remember how to breathe.
"Wolf." He heard himself whispering before he'd even sorted out his own thoughts, his voice creaking and hoarse. "Wolf, I need you!"
"Stiles." It was almost a whimper and he still couldn't see enough to look for his wolf, couldn't lift himself enough to walk. He crawled blindly, fist still clenched tightly shut, reaching out with every sense unfurling desperately. "You're okay."
Sinking his hands into the wolf's fur, Stiles took a choked breath and then another. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, don't leave me, please, please--"
"I don't want to," the wolf said weakly, nosing along his arm. "You're not nothing, okay? You never were."
The hand holding the black pebble was warm again, vibrating in warning as it rested against the wolf's skin. "Something's wrong. Wolf, Wolf, what's wrong?"
"Derek." It came out as a bark as the wolf's breathing grew more labored. "Not--"
Stiles still couldn't see, his eyes open but blurred with tears, but as soon as he wished he knew what to do, he did. With a deep breath, he pushed the stone into his left eye, blinking until the sense of intrusion had dissipated and his vision cleared enough to see; one blink showed his wolf and the next showed a man, and he clutched both hands in the wolf's ruff and willed him to be healed and whole.
The glow from his hands was bright enough to illuminate the clearing despite night having fallen, and it threw into sharp relief the way the wolf's form shivered and stretched and changed, until instead of a wolf there was a man. A naked man. A handsome man. A handsome naked man. Who was naked.
"You're naked, too," his wolf said, his voice rich with familiar amusement. "At least I have an excuse."
Stiles felt his eyes go so wide that the black stone fell into his hand, now gently convex from changing to fit over his eye. "I didn't have a body."
"All right, so you have an excuse, too." The man sat up, his muscles moving like poetry in human form. "Don't ever do that again."
Stiles swallowed hard at the look in Derek's eyes, devotion and relief and the echo of fear all reflected from the same hazel eyes that had watched over him and kept him company while the world was dissolving around him. "I won't. I promise."
"Good." He fell silent, sitting naked in the woods while Stiles knelt next to him, also naked in the woods. The fact that this was weird slowly crept into his consciousness and Stiles willed himself not to blush. Derek made a startled noise a moment later and Stiles raised an eyebrow. "You're kind of... You were blushing and then it stopped?"
"Oh." Stiles scratched the back of his head. "I guess I have to get used to having a body again, figure out..." Figure out how freakish he was, and what he could do. What he should do.
Derek reached out, hesitating just before his fingers made contact. Stiles closed the distance between them, pressing his cheek against Derek's palm.
Later, they would joke around and retrieve the clothes Stiles had left behind. They would find a fully grown tree growing over the remains of the stump, and Stiles would laugh until he cried after he asked the tree for clothes for Derek and the branches shook until a ballgown and a leather jacket had fallen to the ground in front of him (and, many years later, it would still make him chuckle when he read Aschenputtel to their grandkids and Derek rolled his eyes fondly). Later, Derek would explain being a werewolf, and the curse on his family because they were good people that hunters believed should be foul beasts. Later still, Stiles would burn the notebook with his conversation statistics, would hold Derek's hand as he asked his dad to come home for dinner, would deal with demonstrations and temper and disbelief and his dad's tears at realizing how close he came to losing Stiles. Later there would be danger and fights and magic and discovering the cost of using it, but there would also be true friends, family, and the tranquility that he and Derek would find in each other, especially when visiting the tree that only grew stronger as Stiles grew into his power.
All that would come, in time, but first there was an eternity in a moment of a hand against a cheek and the calm of love being accepted and shared.