Sandy likes to think of herself as a pretty good judge of character. She tends to see things others might miss; ticks in body language, the way people carry themselves, how they might react to unforeseeable events. Instead of psychology she ends up studying journalism because she’s still holding onto that silly, naïve thought about being able to make a difference via freedom of speech; of writing about things that matter, of getting into the core of matters, to spread knowledge and be part of something bigger, something that will actually matter to people; information.
Sandy meets Stiles Stilinski on her first day of tuition; Stiles is her tutor for the first semester. There are many sophomores welcoming the freshmen to Berkeley after the actual welcome gathering, but somehow she ends up being lucky enough to get Stiles, who caught her eye an hour earlier with his spiky, messy hair and tight tank top concealed under half-buttoned plaid monstrosity – that, granted, looks well-worn and soft – and with his eyes that are alert to everything that goes on around him. Sandy is instantly intrigued.
Few months later, well into her first year in journalism, she still doesn’t know much about Stiles. He makes sure she gets around the campus, knows where everything is, how to access the library and other amenities, and when they have that covered, Stiles sits them down in a corner of the cafeteria and, with cups of coffee, they discuss what Stiles’ first year was like; was it anything like he expected, what was the workload like, what kind of assignment did they tackle and so on. Sandy tries to steer the conversation about Stiles’ background, his family and friends aside from the campus, but after two unsuccessful tries she gives up. Stiles doesn’t tense up per se, but he’s giving out the back off –vibes with such vigor that even people with vision disability would be able to spot, so Sandy backs off and asks about the rules of visitors on campus.
She doesn’t get around trying to ask about Stiles’ life in any other way before she realizes it’s all out there, like Stiles is an open book to be read if one knows how. This realization hits her one Sunday when she stumbles upon Stiles rushing from his Jeep to his dorm building, bunch of ancient-looking books under his arm.
Sandy hits him with a force and it’s actually stupid because she should really look where she’s going. She says this to Stiles in a way of apology and he brushes it off, says, “That’s okay, I wasn’t really looking either.”
That’s when Sandy lifts her gaze while they’re both crouching and picking up Stiles’ books and she sees there’s a fresh bruise on Stiles’ cheek; the skin is puffy and stretched too thin and the edges of it are already darkening. She wants to ask what happened, whether Stiles is okay, is there something she could do – but she refrains from acknowledging the bruise at all. She’s seen how Stiles gets if she pushes him, and she’d rather have Stiles open up at some point than clam up completely, because whatever it is, that’s in Stiles’ past, it has to be big. Stiles doesn’t strike as someone who’d be easily beaten up and it’s not just the intelligence he has, or the way his t-shirts cling to his biceps or the way he’s able to diffuse uncomfortable situations with the force of talking; it’s how he seems to be one of those people who’d never ever hurt anyone unless he’d have to.
“Thanks,” Stiles says as he stands up straight again, books held seemingly loose in his arm but Sandy can see the way his knuckles are whitening against the leather.
Sandy smiles at him, “No problem, it was my fault, after all.”
“Nah, let’s call it collateral damage,” Stiles gives her a strained grin back. “I’ll see you around; we should definitely look into that column for the paper.”
Sandy nods. “Lunch tomorrow?”
“I think I could manage that,” Stiles says, his gaze flicking to the topmost book that’s title is written in some language Sandy doesn’t recognize.
“Cool,” she says and gives Stiles one last smile, walking in more sedate pace to the library building. Stiles nods and takes off to the dorms – Sandy steals glances at him until he’s inside the building and then walks the distance to Stiles’ Jeep. It’s muddy, that’s nothing special, but the four long gashes in the pale blue paint on the door are. They look like they’re made with equal force, as if at the same time; as if they’re nail marks from a huge hand.
The next time Sandy ends up next to Stiles’ car, few weeks later, it’s been repainted.
Stumbling onto Stiles and not saying anything about the bruise seems to be the right thing to do because from there on it seems to Sandy that Stiles is including her in his activities a bit more, opening up bit by bit – and Sandy can see it’s a struggle of sorts for Stiles, that he isn’t used to let people in easily. But the thing is, Sandy can see that Stiles didn’t used to be like this. There’s something in the way he’s always alert, eyes never resting and even if he’s into a book, reading avidly, he’s always attuned to his surroundings.
“Oh come on, Brad. You can’t go on writing about how Idi Amin was a loved leader,” Jake says and Stiles snorts without lifting his gaze from the history book.
Sandy watches the way Stiles’ index finger slides on the cover. “But Brad isn’t wrong – we’ve all seen The Last King of Scotland, he was a loved leader, until he wasn’t,” she says and flips her gaze to Jake.
Jake is Stiles’ dorm mate and they’re as tight as Sandy has seen Stiles be with anyone at the campus. They joke around and hang out and come up with enormous, ridiculous plots to take over the world and they also write amazing things together and separately.
“Leader doesn’t have to be loved to be a good leader,” Stiles says off-handedly, arm flying in the air once. “Not that Idi Amin was a good leader, what with declaring himself as Field Marshall and becoming the poster boy for abusing human rights, massacring his own natives, and the whole repressing politics and practicing nepotism thing – which, I realize, are not all that different from what’s happening in modern North Korea, so I suppose their loved leader isn’t all that good, either.”
“True,” Brad agrees.
Stiles closes the book, sets in the table and says, “One might not be made out to be a leader but doesn’t mean they can’t grow into it. Some just turn out to be better at it than others.”
“You have leadership qualities,” Sandy says, and it’s true, Stiles has plenty if not all the qualities a leader would be happy to have, and it’s not just her star struck self talking, it’s just Stiles.
Stiles whips his head to look at her, his dark eyes glinting and mouth open a bit, as if he’s surprised. Sandy lifts an eyebrow in question, because challenging people is almost as fun as beating them to the point.
“Like no one’s ever told you you’re reasonable, you almost over-think your moves but you’re not calculative; you’re open to all ideas but they don’t blur your sense of self or your confidence in your abilities. You’re intuitive and observant but those traits don’t derail you from what you set out to do. You’re a good listener and when you hand out advice, it’s worth paying attention to,” Sandy says by the way, and leaves out the whole air of mystery –thing, the part where no one really knows anything about Stiles, that they see only what Stiles lets them see. Sandy doesn’t think he’s necessarily doing it voluntarily, but by demand.
Brad and Jake say nothing, and Stiles is frozen on the spot, his eyes narrowed – and there, there is exactly the response Sandy was waiting for. Stiles looks like he thinks Sandy is onto him, whatever there is to be onto, anyway.
“Actually,” Stiles says, his eyes firmly on Sandy, “they have.”
It looks like Stiles is thinking how to continue, but before he can get there, his cell phone starts ringing quietly, and he snaps his attention to digging it out of his pocket. He barely glances at the screen before answering with, “I’m in the middle of discussing about leaders like Idi Amin and Kim Il and while this may not be as important as—“
Stiles is quiet for a long while, listening to whomever is on the other end, the fingers of his other hand tapping illogical patterns on his thigh. Jake and Brad are arguing about the merits of being a North Korean, while Stiles’ tapping grows more forceful before it stops abruptly. His face looks stricken.
“No, no, no, you don’t—Derek, you really, really don’t—“ Stiles says and Sandy can see he’s keeping himself under control even as his face talks volumes; it’s clear to everyone who’s willing to look closely, the way Stiles wants to scream or cry or anything between, and how he’s repressing all of it. “Fine,” Stiles says, voice suddenly hard. “But you get Isaac, you hear me? You’re not doing this alone, there’s no way – or you know what, I can skip the rest of the day; it’s only political history and creative writing and you know I’m going to ace those anyways, so I’m just going to drive there and—“
Pleading, Sandy realizes, Stiles is pleading to the person he’s talking to. He’s pleading to Derek.
“How can you—“ Stiles says quickly and stands up, doesn’t give any attention to any of them and stalks to the other side of the room. Sandy makes a point of not staring but, from the corner of her vision, she can see Stiles’ arms flailing before his shoulders slump visibly.
Sandy picks up the history book Stiles was reading earlier and she’s half a chapter in, reading about Napoleon, when Stiles nears them, ending the call with, “Be careful, okay?”
Derek says something on the other end and Stiles replies, “I know. Jesus, do I ever. You’ll call me when you’re back? Okay, good, great. Yeah, I will. Catch you later.”
Stiles sits back down, lets out a breath, staring at the glowing screen of his cell phone a bit longer before pocketing the device.
“Trouble back home?” Jake asks with a falsely disinterested note.
Stiles lifts his head up, “Not really, just some unfinished business.”
Jake nods, doesn’t look at Stiles when he asks, “Derek okay?”
“Yeah, yeah, he’s— He’s just fine,” Stiles replies, and continues with, “Were you guys talking about North Korea just now? Because I read this interesting article few months ago about their military status and how—“
Sandy makes a mental note to ask Jake what he knows about Stiles and Derek, and by the way Jake keeps flicking his gaze on Stiles over and over again, it looks like he knows more than he lets on. Perhaps Sandy isn’t alone in her quest to solve Stiles.
Three days later, after Stiles disappeared for a whole day, his Jeep missing from its usual parking slot, Sandy catches him on the way to a lecture.
“Stiles,” she says, and Stiles turns around from where he was having a heated conversation with a girl Sandy has never seen before. The girl has reddish hair and she looks intimidating, well-mannered and someone who could be straight from the cover of Vogue. The girl looks pissed off to be interrupted from whatever it is that they were discussing, shooting daggers at Sandy.
“Oh, hi,” Stiles says, and whoa, are those fingerprint-shaped bruises on his throat? Sandy flicks her gaze quickly back to Stiles’ face, but not before Stiles notices she saw the marks.
“I was looking for you yesterday, there’s this convention thing coming up in December and the professor said something about tutors taking part of it as well as freshmen, so I—“
“Right, yeah, that sounds interesting, let me get back to that; I’ll ask around and get back to you, okay?” Stiles interrupts her, shooting an apologetic look as he does so.
“Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friend, Stiles?” The girl asks, measuring Sandy with her eyes from toes to the top of Sandy’s head.
Stiles' hand flies to his neck and he rubs is once, twice. “Right, Lydia, this is Sandy. Sandy, Lydia.”
“Hi,” Sandy says because it’s only polite. The hostility isn’t something she’s imagining, but she’s been raised to stand above such behavior.
Lydia gives her a chilling smile, says, “Hello.”
Stiles eyes them both before saying, “Lydia is at Caltech and she’s here for the weekend and it’s completely possible that I’m going on a road trip with her, so I’ll be back on Monday, the latest. I’ll check in with professor Jacobs about that convention, yeah?”
“Sounds good,” Sandy says. “I hope you guys have fun.”
“Fun – yes, definitely. We’re all about fun, aren’t we, Lydia?” Stiles says and he’s definitely jittery. Awkward, even.
“Yes, Stiles. Fun is what we do best,” Lydia says, not taking her eyes off Sandy even long enough to blink.
Sandy decides it’s her time to retreat. “It was good meeting you, Lydia. Stiles,” she says and resolutely doesn’t look at Stiles’ neck before she turns away. Well, that was interesting.
“What do you know about Stiles’ life outside the campus?” Sandy asks as she sits next to Jake in the cafeteria the next day. It’s Friday and plenty people have left to spend their weekend elsewhere, so it’s fairly quiet all around the building.
Jake finishes the mouthful of coffee, sets the mug on the table and takes a comfortable looking position, feet on the table, arms crossed on his chest and he looks up at Sandy, interest in his eyes. “Why are you asking?”
Sandy sits down and bites her lip for a moment. “You know why, I’ve seen you. You don’t fool anyone, except maybe Stiles because he isn’t looking at the way you look at him.”
Jake raises an eyebrow. “And how do I look at him, then?”
“Like he’s a mystery you’d love to solve,” Sandy says matter of fact and, after a beat, Jake nods slowly.
Jake thinks for a while and then says, “I know there’s the ever mysterious Derek, who, to me, seems like he has Stiles as his beck and call. Then there’s Lydia – I’ve seen her twice and man, she’s hot.”
“Do you think they’re, you know—“
“Banging each other?” Jake helps with a twist of lips.
Sandy huffs a laugh. ”To put bluntly, yeah.”
“No. It’s more like a sibling thing, even though I don’t think they are related,” Jake says, and reaches for his coffee. “Then there’s Scott – they Skype a lot, Stiles and Scott, and they talk about Derek sometimes, and it’s as if Derek’s this… It’s as if he has some sort of superior position in their awkward circle back in wherever Stiles is from.”
“Right,” Sandy says. “So it all comes back to Derek.”
“Yeah – they have odd conversations in the middle of the night, and more often than not, Stiles just disappears for hours, in some cases for days after those calls.”
“And then he comes back all bruised and battered, and won’t talk about anything that isn’t school related,” Sandy finishes.
“It’s Derek, then. It must be him, right?”
Jake looks at her, hand still curled around the cup of coffee. “I overheard something the other day and I think Stiles is in love with him or something – I mean, he isn’t like that with anyone else. It’s like. It’s as if Stiles is devoted to him or something. He always goes when Derek asks, he always drops everything else, even if it’s important to whatever it is that Derek needs from him.”
Sandy can definitely see that; her mind flashes back to Stiles on the phone with Derek less than a week ago, the way he took distance, privacy, to talk with Derek. And yeah, it seems clear then, like it’s been there all along. The way Stiles doesn’t even see other people throwing themselves on him, doing their best to get his attention at the odd parties Stiles has taken a part of, in the coffee shop when Sandy’s right next to him, amused with the way Stiles just doesn’t see how people are interested in him, the way Stiles is just taken, spoken for, even without declaring it. It’s as if someone has imprinted him; someone being Derek.
“So,” Sandy says. “Is Derek the one beating the crap out of him as well?”
Jake exhales slowly, shakes his head. “I’m not sure. Stiles is protective of him, that’s quite clear – but that’s how Stockholm Syndrome works, right?”
That’s exactly how Stockholm Syndrome works.
“But where do you draw the line between exploitative, sensationalism and advocacy– and more importantly, where does minimizing the harm fit?” Stiles asks them, eyes bright and so alive, and Sandy bites her lip because she wants to beam at Stiles, at Stiles’ enthusiasm, his passion; not because he’s ridiculous, but because he could never be.
“Surely there’s a difference between gormandizing and making a straight-forward point that’s meant to affect the way people think,” Brad says.
Stiles looks at him pointedly. “You’d think that, wouldn’t you? But given the way the press handled bird flu for example, or swine flu – was the actual idea to scare people into taking the vaccines, or to gain more volume for the papers?”
“There’s no black and white,” Sandy says. “It’s a wide open space filled with grey matter.”
“Yes,” Jake says. “And at some point you all have to figure out what kind of role you want to play in the game.”
“For example, you know something big is going on; whether it’s something that is global or local, that’s irrelative right now – but, imagine you know something huge, something potentially dangerous knowledge in the wrong hands, because you know how people get in groups; they panic, there’s no room for rational thinking; if something’s a threat, it needs to be eliminated without alternate courses – you know what I’m talking about,” Stiles says and leans closer, his eyes intense. Sandy nods.
“So, you have this information, and boy, it would make a great case, it might just be the article that could make your whole career – the huge coverage of something that’s been going on right under everyone’s noses, this huge secret that’s just screaming to be let out in the daylight. This is the point where you define your role.”
Stiles sits back, straightens his back and finishes, “Do you choose to keep quiet in the name of minimizing the harm, or do you write the story of your lifetime and let the proverbial cat out of the proverbial bag with uncontrollable results, accountability be damned?”
And suddenly Sandy doesn’t think they’re just talking hypotheticals here, and neither does Jake by the look on his face. Brad is surprisingly quiet altogether, his eyes circling the three of them.
“The way I see it,” Sandy says and fixes her gaze on Stiles. “This is the Wikileaks dilemma. Would you rather close your eyes and live in the world as we know it; authorities deciding what we know and what we don’t, or do we rather know everything and make the decisions ourselves based on the truth their sources are able to provide us?”
The grin on Stiles’ face grows and it turns to something soft, almost proud-like. “Touché.”
“— come on dude, that’s not even remotely as cool as Wolverine!”
Stiles is in the middle of a Skype call when Sandy opens the door to his and Jake’s dorm room. His head whips around and Sandy gives him an apologetic smile, mouthing sorry, but Stiles beckons her inside, hand waving too quickly to make any sort of sense unless you’re familiar with the way Stiles uses his hands; erratically in wide circles.
“Isaac – let me introduce you to Sandy,” Stiles says as Sandy steps close enough to see her own tiny face reflected on Stiles’ screen. Sandy waves at the screen and the guy on the other side nods at her with a smile.
“It’s a pleasure, Sandy,” Isaac says and bows his curly-haired head.
“Likewise,” Sandy says and smiles widely because Isaac looks adorable.
Stiles fits his head back under the camera and says, “Isaac and I were just discussing about Marvel and DC and I was outrageously winning the argument with Wolverine.”
Sandy looks down at the top of Stiles’ head and then back at Isaac. “Well, I don’t know. I always thought Batman was a kickass. He clearly has no superpowers, he’s just this regular dude with a broken childhood but he grows up to guard his city from all evil, puts himself on the line with the cost of losing the people around him because he harbors this huge secret that might be potentially dangerous for people to know around him because lots of enemies wouldn’t mind see him suffer.”
Stiles stares at Isaac, who stares back at Stiles and Sandy knows they’re communicating; Isaac’s face is almost as expressive as Stiles’, not as open but close. Sandy stares at them staring at each other for a beat longer, then says, “I was actually supposed to meet Jake here; he said he’d help me out with interview tactics – have you seen him?”
“Uh, I think he went to grab a cup of coffee from Starbucks, so he should be back soon enough,” Stiles says, turning his face away from Isaac.
“Can I wait here, or should I—“
“No, stay, please. I was about to ditch Isaac anyways, I have few essays to write,” Stiles replies and turns back to Isaac. “I see you next weekend, right?”
“Sure, it’s not like I’m going at the construction site or anything – other than to pick up Derek because he’ll be most likely exhausted enough to wrap his car around a pole or something like that.”
From the corner of her eye Sandy can see Stiles pick up invisible lint from his jeans. “How is he, really? He wouldn’t tell me anything if there’s something—well, you know.”
There’s such open longing and sadness on Stiles’ face that Sandy feels like she’s intruding by just being in the same room with Stiles, breathing the same air with him. She looks away, starts digging out her memo and pen.
“You don’t have to worry,” Isaac says and his voice is calmer, caring. “You know how he is, mad at the world but a bit better when you’re around.”
Stiles’ breath hitches.
“He misses you,” Isaac continues and gives out a small laugh. “Of course he’ll never say it out loud but. He still makes too much coffee in the mornings and fries eggs the way you like even when no one else eats them like that – and I’m not sure if he’s even sleeping in his bed when you’re not—“
Stiles stays silent after Isaac trails off.
“It’s okay though; he knew,” Isaac says. “We all knew, that’s one of the reasons some of us stayed behind.”
“That’s not why I left, that’s not—“
Isaac interrupts, “I know. He knows, we all know. It’s cool, Stiles.”
“Okay, okay,” Stiles says, and then, “I have to go now, I’ll let you know when I’m on the way – and Isaac, tell Erica to wear something that covers more than shows. I’ll give you ten bucks if you get her to use actual clothes.”
Isaac laughs at that, low and warm, says, “You’re on. But don’t expect those clothes to be on for long.”
“Deal,” Stiles says and Sandy can hear a smile in his voice.
Stiles punches few keys and then stands up, stretches leisurely and sits down next to Sandy on his bed.
“Interview techniques, huh?” He asks and bumps his shoulder against Sandy’s.
Sandy bites down on a smile. “You know how it was like; Roberts is totally riding our asses to have the right technique to deal with people.”
“Yeah, I know. But it gets easier,” Stiles says. “You know what – for this one time, ask me anything, and I’ll give you the most truthful answer I can.”
Sandy looks at him and she knows her brows are furrowed.
“Come on, Sandy. I know you want to. I know you’ve been wanting to know plenty things for months now – not that my life is that interesting – so here’s your chance. Fire away.”
Sandy turns to face Stiles, crosses her legs on his bed and thinks for a moment. Stiles does the same, mirrors her and their knees are almost touching.
“What’s your favorite color?”
“Red or black, “Stiles replies. “It depends on the day.”
Sandy nods. “As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?”
Sandy nods again. “Can you keep a secret?”
“I sure hope so,” Stiles replies and Sandy can see this isn’t what he was expecting, not at all.
“Are you in love?”
“Yes,” Stiles says without any hesitation.
“Beauty or the Beast?”
“Both. In a package deal.”
Sandy doesn’t smile but she wants to. “Last one; who was your favorite superhero when you were a kid?”
“Batman,” Stiles says. “That’s it?”
“Yeah, I’m done,” she says loftily. “Thank you.”
Stiles stares at her, his head tilted a bit as if he’s trying to figure out what’s her game. Sandy knows he wants to ask her, that he must be burning with the want to know why, but she’s saved by Jake getting back with a handful of drinks.
“Oh, you’re here already – great,” Jake says and hands her a coffee.
“Yeah,” she says. “All ready to study.”
“So,” Jake says as he kicks the door closed, hands Stiles another coffee and sits down on his own bed. “I know we went through some techniques the other day but there are many more to adapt to your style of verbal—“
She turns around in the hallway and sees Stiles approaching her. “Hey,” she says and is able to keep on the smile when Stiles comes closer and she can see his split lip. It’s Monday and Stiles went away for the weekend, and Sandy should be used to seeing Stiles like this but the truth is she’s not and she doesn’t think she’ll ever be.
“Hey – so I talked to Jacobs the other day and he said that the convention is up north of the state, at some resort or something and there will be people from other schools and there will be a Pulitzer winner sharing their life story or something, so it should be educational as well.”
“Yeah, he didn’t remember the main event either when he presented us the opportunity,” she says. “That’s Jacobs for you.”
Stiles gives her a small smile that would most likely be wider if it wasn’t for the fact that his lip might burst open. “I’m in,” he says.
“Cool,” Sandy says. “Bring Jake too, you’re both tutors and Brad will be there too – maybe we can get our own cabin or room or something. You guys are used to our shenanigans; way less explaining to do when it comes to life choices.”
“I still think sleeping without blanketing your feet isn’t only weird, it’s also hazardous for your health,” Stiles replies, leaning against the wall.
“We all know who’s the weird one,” Sandy says pointedly and Stiles laughs, because yeah, Stiles is the weird one, but he’s also one of the best people Sandy knows and she knows Stiles has enough experience with reading between the lines to get it the way she means it.
The semester is few weeks into November when Sandy is making her way to her dorm from the library – once again; she doesn’t know any place better than the campus library – when she sees a familiar, unruly head on the school yard.
She advances carefully and asks as carefully, “Isaac?”
Isaac spins around fast and locks his gaze on Sandy’s face.
“I’m Sandy, Stiles’ friend?” She says when Isaac doesn’t say anything and then there’s a spark of recognition in Isaac’s eyes.
“Right, of course, yeah – uh, do you know where I can find Stiles?” Isaac asks and he’s biting his lip and now that Sandy looks at him, she sees him holding himself awkwardly as if he’s—
“Are you hurt?” She asks him, lifting a hand to touch Isaac’s arm, to support him. When her touch seems to be welcome, she holds on tighter, uses more force.
Isaac closes his eyes and sways on his feet. “Something like that. I just really need to find Stiles,” he says.
Sandy swallows. “He’s out of reach for the day – he’s attending the political event in Frisco, interviewing the participants and all that, it’s part of his term paper. He’ll be back later, closer to midnight.”
Isaac sways on his feet some more and Sandy makes a quick decision. “Look, how about we go to my dorm and let’s see if I can help you in any way, okay?” And Isaac lets her steer him to the stairs and coax him into the room where she gets him on her bed.
“You don’t have to tell me what’s going on, but how about you let me know where you’re hurt?” Sandy says and gets a stool next to her bed.
There are droplets of sweat running on Isaac’s temples, making his hair curl even more and she wants to run her hand through his hair – which is completely ridiculous because she doesn’t even know Isaac other than earned Stiles’ trust at some point along their lives and that’s more than enough for Sandy to know Isaac is worth helping out.
“Can I look?” She asks, one hand on the hem of Isaac’s t-shirt, about to lift it and see the possible damage.
Isaac seems to battle internally until he gives a firm nod, fine tremors running through his body. Sandy lifts the shirt gingerly and whoa – the shirt is black so there was no way for her to spot any stains but when she lifts it, she’s met with lots of blood and deep gashes running from Isaac’s upper stomach all the way to his ribs and behind his back.
“Oh,” she says. “I don’t think I know how to deal with something like this – you should really get to the ER.”
“No,” Isaac says forcefully and opens his eyes.
Sandy looks at the mess that’s in front of her and she shakes her head. “I don’t know how to help you, this isn’t going to get better with antiseptics and gauze, you know.”
Isaac’s breathing is harsh and he squeezes his eyes shut again. “My phone is in the pocket of my jeans – call Derek,” he wheezes out.
“I really think I should call the paramedics,” Sandy argues, because really, there’s a guy in her bed, bleeding out to death, barely conscious. She digs out the phone nonetheless, hands slippery with blood. Wiping her palms against her sheets, she finds Derek’s number and presses to connect. “What am I supposed to tell him?”
“That I’m here, that Stiles isn’t here and that he needs to take extra measures when he comes, have the herbal kit with him,” Isaac grinds out.
The call takes forever and Sandy’s counting the seconds, pressing her other hand against Isaac’s stomach, wounds sticky and oozing blood.
“Where are you?” Is the first response Sandy gets when the call connects.
She starts with, “I’m Sandy, Stiles’ school mate and Isaac’s here, in my room; bleeding all over my sheets and he said to call you instead of 911 so I really hope you’re able to help him better than legitimate professionals.”
Derek’s tone of voice doesn’t change at any point, but Sandy is able to detect the worry through the growling and there’s a slam of brakes and tires screeching and Derek ends the call with, “Twenty minutes, keep the phone nearby.”
Sandy drops the phone on the bed and says, “Well, he seems charming.”
Isaac grunts, his lips turning up at the corners. “He’s Derek,” he says, as if that explains it all.
Lifting Isaac’s shirt higher, she inspects the wounds; four deep gashes, just like on the side of Stiles’ Jeep ages ago. “And he’s the one who Stiles is in love with? I have to re-evaluate Stiles’ life choices,” she says. “Right after Derek miraculously saves you and hopefully changes my sheets while he’s at it.”
Isaac lifts his hand and grabs her wrist, stills her flitting hands on his chest. Sandy glances up and sees Isaac looking at her with intensity she doesn’t really know how to deal with. “Thank you,” Isaac says and squeezes her wrist as if to make sure she gets the point.
Sandy swallows, says, “Don’t thank me yet. From where I’m sitting, you’re still slowly dying and I’m delaying my initial panic by thinking that if people through the history have been able to deal with things like this on the war front, surely I’m cut out to deal with Stiles’ friend whom I don’t even know, but who, nonetheless, needs help.”
“Man,” Isaac says as his body keeps shaking. “Erica will have a field day with this one, I can already tell.”
“Yeah, I can already feel the laughter bubbling inside, myself,” Sandy gripes, and Isaac laughs weakly – and Sandy thinks she’d really like that laugh under other circumstances, mainly something that doesn’t include blood, violence or someone dying in her vicinity.
Then the tremors start for real and Isaac is shaking like a leaf, his gaze glued to ceiling, eyes glassy and Sandy gets on her knees closer to the bed; the side of it is digs into her ribs uncomfortably but that feels good, it’s grounding her while she once again drags her slippery hand against the sheets to clean it as well as she’s able, and then she gives into the impulse to run it through Isaac’s hair.
“He should be here any minute now,” she says quietly and Isaac says nothing, he just stares at the ceiling. “And if he isn’t in the next ten minutes, I’m going to call the ambulance, okay?”
Isaac doesn’t answer to that either and they stay like that for a moment longer, and then the door is kicked in and what must be Derek comes through. He’s holding a small packet in his hand and his eyes are wild, face looking imposing and angry, but Sandy isn’t budging from her place next to Isaac.
Derek takes a look at her, says, “Go away, I need to tend him.”
And whoa – what? “Look, this is my room—“
“And I’m telling you to go away unless you want to carry his corpse downstairs and explain this to people,” Derek growls.
Sandy stares at him; the way his hands are fisted and his eyes are burning bright, as if they’d glow in the dark, and there’s something in him that makes Sandy believe him. “Fine,” she says and stands up, swiping her hand against Isaac’s forehead one last time before approaching Derek. “But you better change my sheets before you take off. In fact, clean up all the blood while you’re at it.”
Derek shoots daggers at her until she leaves the room and closes the door behind her. She barely makes it to the stairs before her legs give out and she sags against the wall.
Sandy isn’t sure how long she stays there, frozen and unblinking – long enough for a few students to ask if everything’s okay, and she nods at them, says she’s fine, careful to keep her hands under her legs because the sight of blood is never a good indicator for things being fine.
After a while she stands up and shakes her head and goes to the door of her dorm. It’s quiet inside. She opens the door.
She doesn’t know what to expect but the made bed with clean sheets and a thank you note on the pillow surely wasn’t on the list.
“I heard you helped out Isaac yesterday,” Stiles says when he sits down next to her the next day.
Sandy flips the page of her book about conspiracies and says, “Yeah, it was the weirdest thing; helping out someone who I don’t even know, who was bleeding to death in my bed and then meeting your boyfriend, who, by the way, could benefit from how-to-interact-with-other-people-101 class.”
Stiles fidgets for a while and then puts his hand on her books, says, “Look.”
Sandy stops reading and turns her gaze to Stiles who looks as pale as she’s ever seen him before, all quiet and intense.
“I’m sorry you got caught up in the middle of it,” he says and Sandy can see he whole-heartedly means it; this is the most earnest she’s ever seen Stiles. “But I’m not sorry you helped Isaac – I’m not sorry he trusted you to help him.”
There’s a long moment of silence where Sandy studies Stiles’ face; the shape of it, the way his nose slopes and how his hair curls in the ends, ears peeking out under the mess of it.
“Are you ever going to tell me?” She asks rhetorically because she knows the answer already.
Stiles’ lashes paint half-moons on his cheeks under the bad lighting before he flicks his glinting, sad eyes up, and purses his lips after licking them.
Sandy laughs at Brad’s enthusiasm, as if this is the school trip he’s been waiting for, like the six year old child he is.
“Let me see that same excitement when you’re listening to a nameless Pulitzer winner spill out their life story and all you want is a chilly longneck to alleviate your manly pain,” Jake says and throws an arm around Brad’s shoulder.
“I’m all about education,” Brad replies and Stiles snorts.
“That’s why you barely passed your midterms?”
Brad turns around on his bench, says, “We can’t all be winners like you, Stilinski. Sandy’s getting straight As so it all comes down to Jake – you’ve failed me, dude,” and Brad punches Jake’s arm playfully.
“I haven’t failed you,” Jake says. “Sandy just has brains, unlike someone else who almost failed their tests.”
“I just happen to have the best tutor,” Sandy says and blinks her eyes theatrically at Stiles, who puckers his lips in return and smooches her on the cheek.
It feels good to get out of the campus, if even for a little bit, while waiting for holiday break. Things haven’t been exactly strained with Stiles – things could never be strained with Stiles – but Sandy is still trying to find her footing with him. It’s not so much the fact that Stiles will never tell her voluntarily, it’s mainly herself, because she can’t decide whether she wants to know or not.
Sandy believes that Stiles knows that whatever it is isn’t easy to stomach, that he wouldn’t ever want to take away the choice from anyone, but she also believes that Stiles would tell her if she demanded. So it’s a bit awkward because Stiles knows she knows Stiles knows she might want to know. And because she knows Stiles knows, she knows Stiles will tell her if she tells him to.
The convention is being held in a small resort in the middle of nothing. Professor Jacobs tells them this has been the tradition for years; for students and working journalists to gather together to hold lectures, to share assignments and assess their resources.
Stiles gets them in the same room in the smaller building and he declares the bed closest to the door is his. Sandy takes the one in the adjoining bedroom with Brad, leaving Jake with Stiles. They pin their nametags to the shirts and take a tour around the property. They’re spending the entire weekend there, after all – it’s a journalistic curiosity to know where you’re staying.
Stiles keeps playing with his phone, fingers flowing on the screen, and while his face betrays nothing, Sandy can tell it’s something. After a bit, his phone beeps insistently and he gives them an apologizing look and says, “I have to take this, sorry.”
Sandy watches as he retreats behind the corner of the building before paying attention to the guide telling them about the history of the woods and area.
“How about we just skip this and go back to the room and check out the minibar?” Brad whispers in her ear. It’s a tempting idea, but Sandy shakes her head – there’s plenty time to break the laws later.
The introduction seems to go on forever, the guide looking almost as bored as Sandy feels and Brad changing his weight from one foot to another doesn’t help. At least Jake seems interested enough, but he’s more into history and culture than she or Brad.
Stiles comes back when the guide is wrapping up her incredibly boring speech, and he claps along others when the guide wishes them a pleasant stay, and that there are cocktails waiting for them in the lounge.
“You need to leave?” Sandy asks Stiles without looking at him and Stiles stills for a moment.
“No,” he says. “At least not yet. And I’m hoping not at all, because it’s not like it’s easy to get back to Frisco from here.” He’s quiet for a moment. “I’m not even sure where we are, exactly, to be honest.”
“You consider that as a good thing or a bad thing?”
Stiles bumps into her companionably, says, “You know, I think I’m not adverse to think of it as a good thing. Just this once.”
“But of course,” Sandy says, and it feels like things are a bit easier between them.
Some odd hours later Sandy isn’t so sure about things being easier, at all, when she finds herself hiding in their room with a crowbar Stiles pushed into her arms and told her to hide.
Everything was going on well; the dinner was nice, the lecture was nice – it wasn’t the lecture from the Pulitzer winner who none of them are aware is even in the resort with them, but it was nice nonetheless, up until the point when all the lights went down and Stiles got more than tense next to her; more than tense meaning barely holding himself together.
Next up came the screaming and windows breaking and Jake taking her hand and dragging her under the benches while Stiles ran off and Brad helped up an older woman few rows in front of them.
Sandy isn’t sure what happened then, most likely more dramatic screaming and flying glass and roaring from outside, from inside the building and then suddenly Stiles was back. If Sandy would have been able to have a rational thought at that moment, she would have realized Stiles wasn’t hysterical like everyone else; in fact, Stiles was cool and composed and carrying a crowbar he gave her and told her to hide. So she ran.
And there she is, in their room, in another building from where the showdown is happening and Brad is shaking next to her while Jake is guarding the window.
That’s when it hits her. Stiles.
Stiles is out there and he’s alone.
Sandy uses the crowbar more than she ever thought she’d have in her. She always thought crowbars were for break-ins, robbing banks and other things involving property-damaging, but she finds out crowbar is good for cracking skulls, incapacitating things that are currently trying to chew off her face or gnaw on her arms or generally trying to make her journey as difficult as possible.
She swings the metal from one side to another, breaking bone and skin and she has no idea what is even going on but it looks like a badly executed scene from a zombie movie which name Sandy isn’t able to come up with.
Making her way through the building she finds herself back at the clearing, the main building in front of her. There’s still some roaring going on and the wind is getting colder because it’s getting late and very dark and she shivers before taking the step to go inside.
She has better sense than to yell Stiles’ name, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t contemplate it, because she does. She really, really wants to yell Stiles’ name, holler at him, but she doesn’t. Instead she keeps on the move and from the corner of her eye she sees something dark moving faster than her vision is able to track – and then there’s roaring and the sound of something ripping throats; full on fx with the gurgling sounds and all and Sandy just swallows as she keeps moving on forward.
Her phone vibrates in her pocket – and oh yeah, she has one with her. Digging the phone up, she sees it’s Brad who’s calling her. She declines and finds Stiles’ number and at least the phone rings. There’s no answer though and Sandy doesn’t have the time to stand still, so she hangs up and stuffs the phone back to her pocket, eyes alert.
And then she sees it in the dark. It’s like a yeti, but black, or a big foot; something hairy and huge, and it’s coming straight at her down the hallway and she doesn’t think her crowbar is going to do it this time –
But then she sees Stiles standing ten feet away from her with something in his hand, and he yells, “Get down!”
Sandy ducks out of the way and there’s a sudden light in the room, the sound of a small explosion and then the smell of burning flesh and a horrible, horrible noise of pain and something dying, and that’s when she lifts her head, just in time to see—
The black yeti is in flames, stomach and feet on fire, and there are two other human-like creatures on him; pulling the yeti to the ground, clawing at its throat, splatters of blood flying on the walls and yeah, the yeti is dead; Sandy is quite sure.
She blinks against the bright fire, tries to adjust her vision some more. The two human-like creatures back off; they let the fire do the rest. The other closes in on Stiles with its red eyes, and Sandy’s holding onto her weapon tighter again, ready to jump in, but then she sees the human-like shape is shifting; the eyes are dimming down to regular eyes, the face turning to a regular face, and holy fuck – it’s Derek.
Derek who’s standing in front of Stiles and his hand is on Stiles’ cheek and he’s crowding Stiles against the wall, and Stiles is moving with him, like this is a thing they do, and then he actually turns his face into Derek’s touch, closing his eyes and nodding at whatever Derek is saying.
Sandy is so caught up on them that she doesn’t even realize the other creature has gotten rid of its yellow eyes and morphed into Isaac who’s currently crouching next to her, looking at her with big eyes. She turns her head slowly because nothing makes sense; she knows what she saw, she knows what she’s seeing and it just doesn’t add up.
“—you okay?” Isaac is asking. “Are you hurt?”
It takes Sandy few times before she can get her voice working. “No, I’m. I’m not hurt,” she says because that much is true, she isn’t hurt but she isn’t anywhere close to being fine.
She hears someone running in the room and then the person says, “I took care of the last one, everything’s clear.” Sandy looks up and sees a fierce looking blonde standing next to her.
“Good,” Isaac says. “We should go outside, the body has almost burned down. It’s our time to exit - don’t worry about those two,” Isaac nods in the direction of Stiles and Derek, who are still leaning against each other next to the wall, with the exception of Derek’s bloody hand petting Stiles’ hair and Stiles’ head on Derek’s shoulder. Sandy takes Isaac’s hand when he offers it and gets to her shaky feet.
They make it outside where the ground is filled with glass and torn off limbs and Isaac makes sure Sandy’s sitting on the boulder next to the fountain while he and the blond start picking up body parts, piling them in the middle of the clearing.
“Erica,” Isaac says at some point. “Can you get the bags from the car?”
The blonde – Erica – nods and takes off with her high heels.
Isaac looks at her and Sandy feels her hands shaking, it’s the adrenaline, leaving her bare and empty and giving her space to think, as well.
She knows what she saw. She knows Stiles, knows what Stiles has let her see, and whatever went down, it fits the pattern. It’s not something Sandy can understand, but she admits that it fits.
Erica gets back and they bag everything, working together efficiently as if it’s their day job. Could easily be, from what Sandy’s seen. She wants to laugh but that would be morbid, wouldn’t it? Instead she bites the inside of her cheek.
“Where is everyone?” She asks when Isaac and Erica come back from the body part run, because it’s eerily quiet.
“Oh,” Isaac says. “I think they were sort of mind-whammied and most likely still are, until the sunrise.” Of course they are.
“So this is what you guys do?”
Isaac shuffles his feet and it’s kind of adorable to see him when he isn’t dying. “I wouldn’t say that, but to some extent, yeah.”
Sandy sighs. “You’re not going to explain me anything, are you?”
Isaac looks apologetic. “I— It’s not my place to tell, sorry.” Of course it isn’t.
She sits there for a moment longer and then Stiles comes out, Derek trailing after him. Stiles’ lip is puffy and bloody and there’s a huge bruise forming on his temple and he looks beaten up – again, but this time Sandy knows why.
Derek looks at her and she holds the eye contact, not backing down because that’s not who she is, and then Derek nods at her, bows his head as if to show his gratitude – for what? That Sandy now knows their secret? That she came back for Stiles?
“Come on,” Stiles says and wraps a hand around Sandy’s wrist. “Let’s take a walk.”
In the end, Stiles skirts around the subject, tells her what she asks about the night and before – but he doesn’t outright tell her the whole story. That’s something she still has to ask if she wants to know.
Stiles says he’s sorry – again – that she got dragged into their business, and Sandy says it’s not his fault, even if they both know it’s a lie by omission.
When they’re nearing back the clearing, the three figures are sitting next to each other, as if waiting for Stiles to finish and join them. Stiles looks at them and there’s this soft smile on his battered face; like those people are the best thing in this world for him, that they’re Stiles’ people to protect.
That they’re Stiles’ world as he knows it.
Sandy looks at him looking at them, and the understanding hits her then. She could be part of it all. “It’s the Wikileaks dilemma, isn’t it?”
Stiles smiles wider and turns to her. “Touché. But this time, it’s your dilemma. How is it going to be? You get to decide.”
Sandy takes a deep breath.