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Stiles dreams of a wolf.

A brown wolf—though its coat is marbled with gray and black and caramel— with a thick ruff, a sharp muzzle, and clever eyes that follow him when he moves.

In his dreams he’s not afraid when it walks beside him.

He drops his hand and lets his fingertips brush against its coarse fur.

He’s not afraid in his dreams, and he’s not alone.

 

***

 

“I don’t know,” Stiles says. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

Malia is sitting cross-legged on his bed, with a math textbook open in front of her. “Me neither.”

“Not math.”

Malia rolls her eyes at him. “I know, Stiles! Math always makes sense to you.”

“It has rules,” Stiles points out. “It has a series of logical steps. It has patterns.”

He and Malia aren’t dating anymore, but she still comes to him for help with homework, and advice about boys. Stiles isn’t sure that his perspective helps much. It’s weird, right, to be giving his ex-girlfriend dating advice? Not the weirdest thing in his life by a long shot, of course. But still weird.

“I just…” He sighs, and drags his fingers through his hair. “He made an alliance with Deucalion. Deucalion. Who tried to kill us how many times?”

“Three,” Malia hazards. “Four?” She catches his look. “More than four?”

Malia still hasn’t got the hang of rhetorical questions.

“Like Boyd and Erica don’t even matter.”

Malia’s expression softens. “Stiles. Sometimes you have to make a deal with the devil. That’s the saying, right?”

“Yeah,” Stiles says. “And I get that. That’s me. I’m that guy. Scott isn’t.”

Malia chews on her lower lip for a moment, then slams her textbook shut. “Isn’t it a good thing that he’s getting smarter?”

It is. Of course it is. Stiles knows that, logically. It’s just… after Donovan and Theo and all the shit with the Dread Doctors, it feels like he can’t trust Scott any more. There were too many times this summer when Scott didn’t have his back. When Scott didn’t even notice that anything was wrong. And objectively, Stiles understands that. There was a lot going on. And objectively he knows that friendships change over time, that they evolve, maybe even devolve, but Scott’s always been the sort of guy who makes friends easily. Stiles isn’t. Stiles is pretty sure Scott is it for him in the best friend stakes. Stiles doesn’t know who he is if he’s not Scott McCall’s best friend.

They’ve been friends since kindergarten, when Scott was too naïve to notice that Stiles was weird and twitchy and terrible at social cues. Stiles feels like a tick who attached himself to Scott McCall’s life when Scott was too little and stupid to get rid of him, and Stiles isn’t going to get another opportunity to hijack a friend like that, is he?

The summer has changed Scott. It’s like Malia says: Scott’s learned how to make deals with the devil. And maybe Stiles is freaking out because he knows that if Scott’s finally taking off his rose tinted glasses and seeing the world for the fucked-up horrible place it really is—hey, has this glass always been half empty?—then maybe he’s going to look at Stiles and see how fucked-up and horrible he is too. And that terrifies him more than anything that’s ever burst out of his nightmares and straight into his life.

“Stiles?” Malia asks again. “It’s better isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” he says at last, with a quick grin he knows Malia doesn’t believe for a second. “Yeah, of course it is.”

 

***

 

Stiles’s dad is the best.

“Felt good, didn’t it?” he says. “Saving all those people?”

Like John knows that’s what makes Stiles feel whole, or at least a little less broken for a while. Sometimes Stiles doesn’t know how to save himself, but that’s okay. He knows how to save other people.

He learned that on the run.

 

***

 

When Stiles was a little kid, he used to sneak out of the house and head down the street to visit the old lady who lived there. She had a box of slides in a box in her living room: tiny little pictures in white or brown plastic frames that she put in a projector. She didn’t have a screen. She used to pin a white sheet to her curtain rail, and then Stiles would sit and eat cookies while she pushed the thing on the projector that made the slides show up on the wall, big.

Sometimes Stiles played with the focus to make the pictures go big and fuzzy, and then he’d twist the thing the other way and make them go sharp and tiny. The projector used to get really hot, and the old lady would mutter at Stiles in Latvian whenever he touched the bulb and burned his fingers, and then she’d take him to the sink and run cold water over his fingers, and give him more cookies and call him mīļums to make him feel better.

When he was five, Stiles couldn’t really understand why he was drawn to the slides, and to the connections the old lady had to people who lived so very, very far away. But he sat quietly—a minor miracle—and listened to the cadence of the old lady’s reed-thin voice as she talked about them. He didn’t understand much of what she said, because she mostly spoke Latvian to him, but he liked the sound.

It wasn’t until he was much older and the old lady had passed away that it struck Stiles how lonely she must have been, to let this weird little kid into her house every day.

His mom would always come and find him, and apologize to the old lady because he was bothering her, and the old lady would tsk-tsk and say “No bother, he no bother!” in her broken, accented English.

Stiles always went back.

Sometimes, two of the slides got stuck, and made ghost images on top of one another. Dark eyed-people smiled out of the sheet in the wall, superimposed over bridges, or buildings, or other dark-eyed people.

Sometimes Stiles thinks that’s what his life is now.

At school, at lunch, he looks around the table in the cafeteria. He sees Lydia and Malia and Scott. He sees Liam and Hayden, and Corey and Mason. And then he blinks, and he sees Allison, and Isaac, and Erica and Boyd, and Kira. Even Jackson, that douchebag.

It’s like an itch at the back of his skull.

How the hell have they gone backwards?

These people here… they’re not pack.

They’re friends who orbit around one another loosely, but Stiles knows a single blow could scatter them in different directions.

Where’s the focus?

Where’s the heart?

 

***

 

John notices his distraction.

“You okay?” he asks that night at dinner.

“Yeah.” Stiles drags the vegetable steamer out of the microwave, and takes it apart. Carrots, and beans, and cauliflower and asparagus. It’s totally healthy, and will remain that way right up until his dad drowns it in white cheese sauce. Because his dad is hopeless. “Just, ugh.”

“You’re really working on those SAT words, huh?” his dad asks.

“You bet,” Stiles says, and wonders how old he has to be before he can safely flip his dad the bird in response. Really, he has a very small window of opportunity. Because his dad is just his dad right now, but soon he’ll be his dad and his boss. That’s gonna be hella weird.

He stabs the steaks in the fry pan with a fork, and hooks them out onto plates. Then he adds the vegetables, and he and his dad sit at the kitchen table to eat.

“Seriously though,” John says.

“Yeah, seriously,” Stiles says, toying with a bean. “I’m okay, just a bit off, I guess. With everything that happened.”

“Do you need to talk to someone?” John asks.

Stiles raises his eyebrows, and uses his fork to gesture between them.

“I meant a professional,” his dad says, his tone even.

Stiles considers it for a moment, then wonders what the point would be. It’s not like he could be entirely truthful with a therapist or anything. “No, Dad. I’m okay, really. Just, it’s hard getting back to normal, you know?”

“I’m not sure that word means anything in this town,” John agrees.

“Yeah.” Smiles grins wryly.

“Do you need to adjust your meds?” John asks.

“I don’t think so.” Stiles shrugs. “I don’t think it’s that.”

John’s gaze is searching. “If you’re sure.”

Stiles nods.

“Whatever it is though, kid, promise me you won’t bottle it up, okay?” John’s mouth quirks in a smile that’s half-regretful. “You and me, we’ve had our fair share of trauma. And not just lately. Talk to me, okay?”

“Dad, I’m okay.”

“Okay,” John echoes. “And all I’m asking is that you talk to me.”

Stiles remembers the Nogitsune. He remembers how he’d wake up screaming, only to find his dad’s arms around him, his dad’s voice pushing the horror away, assuring him he was safe, he was okay, he was awake now. Neither of them want a repeat performance of that, Stiles knows.

“I feel restless, I guess,” Stiles tells him. “That’s all. Restless.”

“Okay,” John says. “I’m here for you, you know that right?”

“Yeah.” Stiles feels warmth uncurl in his belly. “Yeah, Dad. I know.”

His dad changes the subject then, and Stiles is relieved. John tells him about a few cases he’s working on. Now that Stiles is going to the academy to train to be a deputy, John’s happy to share stuff like this with him. Stiles likes it too. John treats him like a sounding board, like someone he knows he can trust to give him a fresh perspective.

“So, all the evidence points to the brother,” John says later as they’re doing the dishes. “And hell, we even have a confession, but I just don’t like it.”

“Means, motive and opportunity,” Stiles says. “You’ve got means and opportunity. Even with his confession, you’re pissed he hasn’t given you a motive. Why would he be cashing his sister’s welfare check? The guy owns a car yard, right? And you subpoenaed the financial records?”

John gives him the side-eye. “It’s not my first day on the job, kiddo. And yes, he’s worth at least half a million in the clear.”

“So maybe he’s just an asshole?”

“Yeah.” John shakes his head. “Doesn’t feel like enough though.”

“No,” Stiles agrees.  

“I’m not saying it’s not an open and shut case,” John says. “Because it is. I’m just saying I don’t get it.”

Stiles huffs out a laugh. Yeah. That’s pretty much how he’s been feeling lately.

It’s not until much later, when he’s lying in bed on the soft verge of sleep that Stiles thinks maybe he didn’t use the right word when his dad asked if he was okay.

It’s not that he feels restless, exactly.

He feels unanchored.

  

***

 

Now that he’s going to be a deputy, Stiles is on a fitness kick. Well, not so much a fitness kick as trying to get back to the same level of fitness as he was before he copped a massive piece of glass to his chest courtesy of the Desert Wolf. Sometimes his dad comes with him and they jog—very slowly—around one of the easier tracks in the Preserve. John’s trying to get his own fitness back too, and it’s slow work.

It was a hell of a summer.

Sometimes though, Stiles goes alone and runs. He sometimes comes across other joggers. Most of them wear proper lycra running gear and iPods. Stiles refuses to wear an iPod when he runs. This is Beacon Hills. He’d like to know if something’s chasing him, thanks. And lycra? Just no.

He always carries a backpack when he runs. It probably passes for resistance training or something. That’s a thing right? Where people put bricks in the backpacks like they’re training for Everest or the Navy Seals or something? Stiles’s backpack contains his water bottle, because hydration is important. It also contains a jar of mountain ash, a knife, a taser and an expandable baton, because keeping his guts inside his body is also important.

Stiles isn’t one of those people who can clear his mind when he runs. Hell, Stiles can never clear his mind. It’s cluttered and busy, just how he likes it. Still, for someone who prides himself on seeing patterns, it takes him a little while to realize that whenever he’s running on his own, he always ends up at the site of the Hale house.

Drawn like a magnet.

The house is gone now. The fire destroyed most of it, of course, and the bones of it have been cleared by the county. Stiles can still see them though. Can still see Derek Hale lurking in the ruins like some sort of brooding Byronic hero.

Unfair.

Derek wasn’t brooding. He was mourning, and he was afraid, and he was lonely, and Stiles had been so caught up in his holy-fuck-werewolves-are-real! epiphany that it had taken him a long time to realize that.

And even longer to realize that Peter Hale was exactly the same. Sure, in Peter it had manifested in a much more horrific way, but…

Well, Stiles doesn’t condone it, but he does understand it.

What he doesn’t understand is why Deucalion got a free pass from Scott, and Peter didn’t.

It rankles.

Stiles drops down onto his haunches and regards the clearing for a while. The woods are slowly encroaching on the place where the Hale house once stood. The grass is already growing over the earth where the foundations once stood. Stiles wonders if the basement and tunnels are still intact underneath, or if they’ve been filled in.

He closes his eyes for a moment, and breathes in the scent of the woods: pine, and loam, and petrichor. It’s sweet and heady. Soothing.

He opens his eyes again, just as a crow cuts through the patch of blue sky above the clearing.

This, he thinks. This should be the heart.

 

***

 

Stiles dreams of the Hale house that night. In his dream it’s not an empty space. It’s not a charred ruin. In his dream it’s whole, and full of light. Stiles can hear laughter as he walks from room to room, and it makes him smile.

Claws click on the floorboards beside him.

Stiles doesn’t look down, but he tugs his right hand from the pocket of his jeans and lets it hang. A damp, cold nose presses into his palm.

The dream is vivid.

The house smells of pumpkin spice and cinnamon.

Stiles can see the grain in the wood panels on the walls.

He can read the titles of the books on the shelves.

Little feet thump down the stairs, and Stiles hears laughter again.

He looks down at the wolf and finds it looking back at him. Its eyes are pale, a touch more yellow than brown. Stiles curls his fingers around a twitching ear, and tugs gently.

The wolf huffs at him.

Stiles knows it’s a dream.

He knows that if he tried to count his fingers he wouldn’t be able to do it.

But that’s okay.

It’s nice here.

The wolf’s tail swings back and forth lazily, as though it agrees.