All along, there was one memory the spell left intact: the image of Mom in the sunlight, bent over her working hands, the silver flash of something she wielded with ease and quick confidence; the forest and his own hands, tearing a handful of grass into tiny pieces which scatter on someone’s shoes; the sound of laughter and voices and running feet somewhere off behind him. There was nothing in it that gave away the game, screamed magic or werewolves or evil sorcerers corrupting your memories of childhood. Just sunlight and Mom’s face and human sounds that could belong to anyone. Maybe, Stiles thought later, that was why he was allowed to keep it.
He knew he was young; that it was an early memory. Of course, he never knew the context: that the silver was a knife, carving a protection sigil under the door of Hale House, the same one that’s there now; that in the memory, he was sitting in Talia Hale’s lap, babbling nonsense words just to hear the sound of his own voice as the two women smiled at each other over his head; that the voices and laughter were the Hale kids, playing in the yard, Laura chasing Derek across the carpet of fallen leaves. He caught a glimpse of them, but only a glimpse.
He spent so much time in that memory over the years that it got soft at the edges, creased like an often-folded piece of paper. He knows its every intricacy, its every curve, and even now, when he picks it up to examine it, there’s nothing more to be gained. No more secrets to unearth, no more hidden facets or dark corners just waiting for the light of his attention.
He doesn’t know if that’s comforting or a disappointment.
Later, when Aunt Pearl has packed her bags and departed Beacon Hills like a summer storm, Stiles spends a lot of time by himself; more than he has in years, since the pack, since Derek.
He’s not good at being alone. He’s an introvert by nature but for many reasons prefers not to have too much time to reflect on himself; it used to make it too easy to get into spirals of self-flagellation and despair and deeply-internalized panic. He’s happiest when he’s being useful, when he’s making his friends feel safe, making them happy, which - he’s been in enough therapy to know that in his case, that’s not really healthy. That it’s a coping mechanism developed to counteract the bone-deep conviction that if he’s not doing something, then bad things happen. It’s irrational, and he knows it, but he can’t just turn it off.
But he needs it now in a way he hasn’t in a long time. He has a whole lifetime’s memories in his head that weren’t there before - many lifetimes, if you count the ones that aren’t memories, but visions of might-have-beens - and to say it’s overwhelming would be, at best, a dramatic understatement.
At the beginning he’s sometimes so affected that he doesn’t even get out of bed. It isn’t unlike drowning, but without the urgency and the clawing for the surface, the burning desperation for air. When he’s alone in his head, or in the other-place, reaching out for all those might-have-beens, time loses meaning. He can spend hours in the darkness behind his eyelids, sifting through maybes like marbles tumbling through his fingers, their twisting insides catching the light that isn’t there in glints and flashes.
He goes too far only once, and comes back to himself because Derek is shaking him, saying his name over and over in a voice hushed with growing panic. He opens his eyes to see Derek’s face, white and frightened, eyes wide, feels Derek’s hands on his arms, holding too tight.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” whispers Derek, sagging with relief when Stiles finally focuses on his face, and he draws Stiles close, crushing him to his chest, breathing hard and fast.
“What...” says Stiles, only then realizing that his voice is rough, his tongue thick and heavy against the roof of his mouth, his body slow and clumsy and sore, like the worst study hangover of his life.
“Thirsty,” he manages, and Derek reaches over to the side table, hands him a cup of water, watches him closely while he drinks it, takes it away before he’s done.
“Slow,” Derek says, still in that tight, terrified voice, and raises a phone to his ear - Stiles didn’t even see it on the bed. “He’s okay,” he says, “he’s back, he’s okay,” but his eyes linger on Stiles’ face like he doesn’t believe the words coming out of his mouth, and his free hand doesn’t leave Stiles’ body for a minute.
Stiles learns he’s been under, alone in the other-place, for most of a day, unaware of time passing with Dad out of town and nobody around to interrupt him. He finds himself wondering what would have happened if Derek hadn’t come by, but decides not to dwell on it.
Later, curled around Stiles like he’s afraid he might float away without a tether, Derek presses his face into Stiles’ throat and whispers “Don’t do that again. Please.”
“Okay,” Stiles tells him, because it wasn’t frightening from his side but for a moment, coming up out of the dark, he could feel Derek’s terror, his fear of Stiles slipping away, his blind panic at the idea of losing him, and he doesn’t know what to do with that, because he understands it far too well.
He knows it’s a Sunday morning because they came in the car without Dad, and that’s how Sundays start: Mom wakes him up, gets him dressed, and straps him into his carseat, usually still half-asleep.
It’s Sunday because they’re turning off the main road into the woods, the interior of the car thick with rushing tree-shadows; Mom’s voice singing, low, as she taps her fingers on the wheel, stopping only when they turn again, up the gravel path into the deep forest, out into the clearing where the big house stands.
There are so many people here that it makes him shy; he’s not used to families where everybody is reaching hands and smiling and laughter. His family is small, is Mommy and Daddy and only sometimes Baba Dasha or Aunt Pearl or Sly, the grey cat who sometimes eats the food Mom leaves for him on the back porch. The family in the big house are loud and numerous and happy, the grown-ups reaching out for him as Mom lifts him out of the car, handing him around like a new toy, tickling him and holding him high in the air. Mr. Luke puts him up on his shoulders and he feels like he’s way up above the whole world, and then he claps his hands and laughs, too, because nobody is ever afraid of Mr. Luke.
At the big table he sits in Grandma Rose’s lap, because if he sits in a chair by himself he gets distracted, eels down and runs around and knocks things over. He eats breakfast with his hands like the grown-ups do, listens to Mom and Ms. Talia talk with their heads close together, watches the other kids at the far end of the table watching him and Mom with curiosity.
They come here many times, enough that he knows the secret places in the house, the hiding places, the places where the other kids sprawl on the floor with a book or the room with the bed heaped high with stuffed animals, or where Mom scoops him up into her arms and says “you stay with me, Baby.” He doesn’t know all their names - names are a thing that won’t resolve for a while yet - but he knows the big house is full of them, of joined hands and good food smells and safety and belonging and Ms. Talia’s slow, bright voice and Mr. Luke’s big gentle hands, holding him aloft. In the big house the feels like his feet hardly ever touch the ground.
He’s always known his mind doesn’t work like other people’s. It’s always been too fast or too slow or too closely focused to notice what was going on around him. Since the spell faded he’s found that his memory is different, too, from what he always thought it was. That these days he can pluck up some memory at will, turn it round and round and see it from all sides.
He knows most people can’t do that, but he doesn’t know whether it’s a function of his recovering lost moments or a function of the way his magic works, now, the way it’s supposed to work. It’s not only the old/new memories that are crisper, clearer, easier to find and hold - it’s also the ones he had all along. Sometimes he finds himself immersed in a memory he’d thought blurred into obscurity by the passage of time - sometimes mercifully - and realizes it hasn’t faded at all, that he can inhabit it, deliberately, in a way that can sometimes be downright unsettling.
For his own part, Stiles still hasn’t decided whether it’s a blessing or a curse. It doesn’t happen all the time, with every memory, but more than once he catches himself thinking that if most people don’t remember this way, then most people are lucky. That Derek was right when he said some things are better forgotten.
It’s more a memory of a feeling than anything else, repeated often enough that he remembers it as a theme, a melody, rather than a moment in time. He is young - sometimes three and sometimes six and sometimes eight - and he is lying in bed, and something wakes him.
It’s the deep dark silent part of the night, when the house is muffled in sleep and secrets, and anything that moves seems like it might be a nightmare come to life, but Stiles has never been afraid of the dark, never needed a night light, because in his room he knows every inch, every toy, every corner, and knows that the monsters live out in the world, not under his bed.
He knows it before he hears it: footsteps in the hall, soft as shadow, his bedroom door opening a little, just enough that Mom can slip inside, though he never sees her come; just opens his eyes, at last, to see her standing next to his bed. Sometimes she sits down at the edge and sometimes she just stands there, by the door, watching. Sometimes he opens his eyes and sometimes he doesn’t; sometimes he goes back to sleep before he’s really aware of her presence. But sometimes she comes over, strokes his hair, leans down and presses a lingering kiss to his forehead, murmurs unintelligible words against his skin. She smells always of earth, and of flowers, and once, of blood, though he doesn’t know it at the time.
She never speaks aloud, never tries to wake him, but she is always sad, and he never knows if it is him that makes her sad, or something else.
After that day at the library, she never comes again.
Aunt Pearl told him, before they did the spell that restored their memories, that this was the hard way. That the original spell was already broken; that the memories stolen from them all would come back, over time, naturally. That their minds would heal themselves, one day, and it would all seem sane, and settled, and right.
But the easy way - what she called the easy way - could take years.
He balked at that; the nightmares of his childhood being doled out to him, piecemeal, over time; never seeing it coming, never being able to prepare, to contextualize. Never knowing how many more terrible truths were coming. She was hesitant, after her initial attempts at rushing things brought on migraines, nausea; she’d felt guilty over that, he knew, for working it in secret. But once he’d learned there was a faster way, a way to get it over and fucking done with, he insisted.
The hard way hurt. But the pain had been preferable to the alternative.
The thing is, though, that even after, it wasn’t over. The memories were there, and he knew them as his own, and he no longer found himself instinctively shying away from certain lines of thought, certain places, certain songs - not that he’d known he was doing that in the first place. But they still weren’t familiar, exactly. It was more like being reunited with a friend from early childhood; someone who you’d known like a blood-brother, with whom you’d been in perfect sync, but not seen since you were both five years old. They were known, in some deep part of your soul, but not familiar, because you’d both changed; there were missing pieces, missing context, missing links.
So sometimes he’ll be reminded of something and need to sit down for a minute, but it’s the smooth, soft-edged reintegration of early memory; warm and slipping through his fingers like a river stone. But it’s not painful. Not physically, anyway. Though for a month and a half he reaches up to find his face wet with tears so often that it stops even surprising him when he can’t remember having started, or why.
The pack knows, anyway. Dad knows. Derek knows, and all he ever does is sit down next to him, leaning close, like he’s offering himself as shelter, and that’s familiar, too; more with every passing day.
Mom picks them up from school and says she has an errand to run. “It won’t take long, but it’s an emergency.” She asks if they can behave, stay quietly in the car while she goes inside, and Stiles and Scott, belted into the back seat together, nod vigorously.
“We’ll be good,” says Stiles, and Mom looks at him with cool skepticism before tousling his hair and tweaking Scott’s nose and shutting the car door behind her.
They’re good for approximately forty seconds - Stiles is counting - and then Scott asks:
And Stiles is already unbuckling his seatbelt, opening the door, slipping out of the car with Scott on his heels.
They creep around the side of the little brick house, surrounded by rosebushes that hum with bees in the lazy late-summer afternoon. Stiles isn’t sure what they’re looking for, just exploring, really. Scott trips twice. Stiles scratches his arm on the rose thorns. They turn the corner around the house into a little yard filled with flowers, a small flagstone patio with French doors open to the warm day, a living room on the other side. Stiles can see soft furniture, pale curtains, and people.
Mom sits on the couch with a little girl in her lap.
Beside him, Scott gasps, and Stiles goes still as a statue.
There are other adults in the room, probably the little girl’s mom and dad. They look ordinary, but the girl - she looks like a doll, little and pale and fair-haired, with her hair in plastic barrettes that look like daisies. Stiles knows, because he saw them during snack time today, because the girl is Gerda Matinsalo from school, but she looks different.
He remembers it as a flash, a snapshot: Gerda - like the fairy tale - is tiny and frail with white-blond hair, eyes the blue of river-water. But in the memory she’s different, her hands and the bare feet sticking out from under the skirt of her polka-dotted green dress webbed with paper-thin translucent skin tinged green and blue that catches the shine of the sunlight pouring into the room. Her ears are delicately pointed, and Stiles remembers thinking she must be magic, because elves have pointed ears, he remembers from the pictures in The Hobbit, so maybe she’s an elf that swims.
He’s in awe, still and transfixed at the wonder of it, because even at five he’s more fascinated than scared, and she’s a wonder, a sign that the world is bigger than it seems from the picture books at school that already bore him, as big as it seems when he closes his eyes and reaches. It’s a wonder even though Scott is breathing too-fast beside him, mouth open in astonishment, even though inside the house, Gerda’s parents look worried. Stiles isn’t worried, because Mom is holding Gerda, has her hand spread across the little girl’s ribs and her eyes closed, mouth a straight, easy line, and Gerda, who was breathing too-fast, too-hard, like she does sometimes at school is calming, head lolling back on Mom’s shoulder. If they were closer, Stiles thinks he would hear Mom’s low voice singing, words he doesn’t understand but always soothe him, always calm Scott’s asthma faster than his inhaler when he gets really carried away.
They go back to the car because Scott is breathing too hard, maybe the surprise, and needs to sit and close his eyes for a while, and because they have learned in their adventures that sneaking is best done both quietly and quickly, if they don’t want to get caught. After a while Scott is fine, and Stiles sits with his face pressed against the car window, wondering. Gerda is quiet and shy and sometimes breathes too hard and too fast like Scott does, and has to go to the nurse’s office. She hasn’t been in school long, only a couple of weeks, but she seems nice and once shared the last green crayon with Stiles when he broke his own into pieces by accident. She’s from far away, he remembers the teacher telling them, from across the ocean, in Europe; that the teacher put a sticker on the big map on the wall of the classroom.
Later, he remembers that Gerda Matinsalo was only in school with them for a year; that her family was from Norway; that her mother was an architect and they moved all over so she could build bridges. He remembers that Gerda’s breathing problems slowly went away, but that he forgot about them. That Scott never mentioned what they’d seen, though Stiles did.
As though they knew it was a secret, and even young Stiles knows the importance of secrets, and how they can fill you with light as well as hurt you.
Magic feels different now than it did a few months ago; he can look out towards what must be the horizon and only see an undefined beyond, not sharp edges and the vastness of space. Not infrequently, at first, he wonders how many of those like them have gone too far, pushed too hard. How many of them have let it rule them, given in to temptation and become the worst nightmare of every comic book writer. It’s not absolute power, but he can see its potential for corruption and how easy it would be to let yourself believe that with all this knowledge of possibility, you could do anything, fix anything, change anything, make anything right.
But what Aunt Pearl said is still true: everything is part of nature, even magic, and even magic can’t break the rules, only bend them. If the Universe isn’t a living, thinking thing then it certainly has patterns; he thinks of the golden ratio and the nautilus shell and thinks about how a thing doesn’t need to be sentient to be adamant. And the ability to perceive a thing does not necessarily bestow the ability to change it. Sometimes it does, but sometimes it means you’re the only ant who knows that the boot is a boot.
Aunt Pearl does love her metaphors.
He’s ten years old, and the house is quiet. Mom is having a good day and Stiles is torn between wanting to be at her side every moment and wanting to leave her in peace. Dad is at work, and Stiles finds himself creeping through the house, from shadow to patch of sunlight to the dim lee of the hall table where the sun shines through the tall vase there, filled with purple flowers. He crouches there, alone and silent, body thrumming with tension; something anticipatory, uncertain; waiting. He sees Mom do this sometimes, close her eyes and go still, go so calm and rooted that the feeling of stillness seems to seep out of her like a vapour, sweet-smelling and heavy and dark. He doesn’t have the knack, doesn’t know how she does it, because he can never slow down enough to reach it, whatever it is.
Sitting there, though, he can hear her - realizes suddenly he’s been able to hear her for a while.
It isn’t like her usual singing, a lilting melody often without words that seems sunk into every surface of the house. It’s low, and heavy, and as he sits there, listening, it feels fraught, somehow: a question, drawn like a bow, and as Stiles gets to his feet and tiptoes up the hall to Mom and Dad’s room, his sock feet silent on the old wood floor, it feels like sadness and anger rolled up together.
He almost doesn’t have the courage to peer around the corner into the bedroom; he feels drawn and yet strongly as though he shouldn’t be here, even though Mom’s singing has always made him feel safe and warm and welcome. This time, it’s frightening, and he has to make himself push, go down on hands and knees to see, though it’s easy when he does: the room is filled with bright sunlight.
Mom is sitting cross-legged on the floor, back straight and hands on her knees. He can’t see her face; she’s facing away from the door, and the light turns her short hair into a glowing halo, the wig she doesn’t like to wear at home discarded on the bedspread behind her. But he can see the book with the red cover, see the shallow bowl on the floor in front of her is filled with deep black liquid; that she’s holding one hand over it and her face is tilted down, staring into it like she sees something there. He doesn’t understand the words, and there are words now, foreign syllables and consonants that sound like nonsense right up until the moment when it stops, silence sudden and shocking like a clap of thunder.
Mom makes a sound like a sob, and it jolts him, almost makes him fall, and his hands, sweaty, skid on the wood floor. But Mom doesn’t hear, doesn’t turn. Instead, she draws in a deep, shaky breath and murmurs “Oh, no,” so soft he thinks maybe he imagined it. He bites his tongue, hard, to keep his voice inside, and manages until she sighs out the breath and drops her arm, hand turning so he can see the blood dripping down her fingers, and he can’t help crying out.
She turns then, sees him, and her face is surprised, but before it’s washed away he also sees fear, sees pain, sees grief, and it makes no sense but it’s gone before he can process it. Before he’s managed to stumble to his feet she’s already turned away, wrapped her hand, whisked away the bowl and its contents somewhere he can’t see, and is on her feet, reaching for him.
By the time she reaches him, touches his face, his shoulders, talking and talking and talking and distracting him, there’s no proof of what he saw, nothing to keep it in his mind.
It’s the only other time he ever sees the book, on the floor by her knee one moment and vanished the next.
Even before he did it out of desperation, Stiles always believed that family was important, because family was what connected you to a past you never got to live. When he started to remember everything, he found that more connected him to the past than only his parents; that not only was there more to his family than he ever dreamed but that he was connected to his pack, and to Derek, in ways he hadn’t even imagined, let alone seen.
At first, he finds that comforting; that so much more ties them all together than merely blood or circumstance. He likes to imagine that there’s something predestined about it all, even though he knows better than anyone that destiny is, at best, a tricky concept. But then, for most people, belief is what you have when knowing isn’t an option.
He remembers asking Aunt Pearl what they were for; what it meant, that Mom and Talia Hale had been so close; that his Baba Dasha and Rosanna Hale, the last matriarch, had been friends as girls. He wonders how far back it goes. He wonders what it means, when he can see might-have-beens where Mom never married Dad or one or the other of them never came to Beacon Hills, and Stiles never existed. (He thinks he should find it more shocking, more upsetting, to encounter even the hypothetical of the idea. Instead, he wonders what it means that he doesn’t.) Where other things drive the Hales out of town before Kate can get around to it. Where Kate Argent is caught, earlier, and never comes here at all. But two things are constant.
First, in maybes where Mom and Talia Hale are close, are friends, the Hales always survive, at least in part.
And second: In worlds where Kate Argent dies young, is excommunicated from her family, is never born, or in one particularly delightful universe, dies in prison, Mom almost always lives.
(Remembering what Aunt Pearl said about Mom’s illness - that it runs in their family, that she probably would have died anyway - Stiles decides to say nothing. He understands what it’s like to need to believe something.)
And there’s a third thing that is almost always true: in worlds where Stiles exists - however many Hales survive the fire, whether Laura lives or dies (and she lives, more often than not), whether or not Peter lets his grief destroy him and drive him mad - the pack makes out better than in the worlds where he doesn’t. In worlds without Stiles, the pack fails.
He can’t help but notice that even in worlds where Palaver fails in half his mission, where maybe Mom dies but no one forgets and their two families remain woven tightly together, Stiles and Derek are still in constant orbit around one another. That Derek is never alone, like he is, sometimes, even in happier worlds where his family still surrounds him. That Derek, who as a kid is a shy one, never becomes the lonely, angry teenager he was when Kate came to him, because Stiles is there.
He remembers the shock of seeing Derek again for the first time, that day in the woods after Scott was first bitten, the setting-bone shiver of recognition that made no sense but felt so right it was frightening, and knows it to be true. He can see it, the strong shining thread of it running through everything else, and feels the longtime deprivation like a physical pain.
Without Stiles, Derek...
...it takes him a week of avoiding Derek, guilty and terrified he’ll blurt out the whole horrible story the moment he sees him, to decide that it’s true: most people are better off not knowing these things. There have been too many people in Derek’s life who weren’t there when he needed them, and Stiles doesn’t think he could live with any version of himself ending up on that list.
After that, he spends a lot less time reaching.
This one might be real and it might be a dream made up of mismatched pieces, but he has it over and over again: he’s four, kneeling in the hot damp earth of the garden, and Mom is singing.
She has songs for so many things: some are fairy tales. Some are stories about real people. Some are the songs on the radio that she plays while she dances them across the kitchen. Some of them are teaching songs that she sings while she touches one plant, then another, and another.
“This one?” she asks, and Stiles pushes up on his knees to see, before declaring:
“Peppermint! Like candy,” and gets her indulgent smile, because he’s hungry and wants lunch.
She makes him name three more, ones they planted as tiny seeds and watered until they pushed up through the earth with their pale green fingers. It took so long Stiles thought they’d never come. Sometimes Mom reaches out and touches the lavender just to make the purple bloom, and Stiles laughs because the garden loves Mom so much, shows off for her, blooming and growing and swaying, and it has a music all its own.
There’s music coming from the kitchen, too, louder after a moment as the kitchen door swings open and Dad comes out, barefoot in the grass, crossing the back garden to crouch down next to Mom and wrap his arms around her, kiss the back of her shoulder, make her laugh. Dad winks at Stiles, then swoops him up into the air, tickling him until he giggles and kicks and demands to be set down again.
Dad draws Mom up and out of the garden instead, sways with her across the grass to the sound of the radio. Stiles watches his parents smile and laugh and dance, digs his fingers into the earth and feels the joy of living things in summer.
When this one is a dream, he always wakes up crying.
Because the first thing he does in a crisis is research, he learns a little bit about everything. Takes what he knows about their magic and applies it to genealogy, to mythology, to European history and eventually, fingers tracing the shape of mistletoe leaves on the cover of the red leather bound book Aunt Pearl gifted him with before she left, to botany and ecology.
When he first started learning in any kind of formalized way, studying with Deaton in the cluttered room behind his office in the vet clinic, Stiles found himself inclined in specific directions. It wasn’t just his tendency to charge ahead when maybe the task at hand called for more finesse (though he’s getting better at that, these days, at letting patience have its way), but also his methods. Deaton told him, almost first of all, that magic was about intent; about meaning and belief. That workers used all kinds of totems, some of them solemnized and some of them silly. That the predominance of certain herbs in working was less about their natural resonance to some kinds of energy (though that’s a factor too) and more about their resonance with the preconceptions of the worker.
The early stages of Stiles’ magical education were about the tools of the trade, the basic components of the work, knives and water and potions that were as much conviction as substance. But Deaton never told him which of the multitude of ingredients was always best; only what many people preferred, what was commonly held, what seemed popular. When Stiles reached unerringly for mistletoe the first time he concocted a totem-spell from scratch, Deaton said nothing, but the look on his face said plenty.
At the time Stiles wrote it off as Deaton being mysterious for the sake of mystery, and it wasn’t until later that he realized the connection; until after he remembered everything, after the spell was broken and the book Aunt Pearl left him with its blank creamy pages put him in mind of the book he’d found in Aunt Pearl’s room one evening just before everything changed, of the book his mother had kept hidden away among fantasy novels on the top shelf of the bookcase in his parents’ room. The book which had the Vaytsiushkevich family crest on the cover, with the leaves and berries of Viscum Album front and centre.
For decades, he learns, modern scientists thought of mistletoe as a parasite, as a pest. But more recently they’ve declared it to be a keystone species: something that has a disproportionate amount of influence on its environment in proportion to its abundance. He thinks about what he knows about folklore being the expression of human wonder coupled with a curious mind; about how even people without the advantage of magic or superpowers sometimes reach the right conclusions without knowing why. He remembers Aunt Pearl talking about his subconscious “doing the math” when he told her he’d been angry, deep-dark-hot-secret anger, since Mom got sick, even before he knew he had a real-world reason for it; remembers her telling him that sometimes instinct is there to tell you what your rational mind can’t parse.
He thinks about how in all the places where it grows, mistletoe has always been sacred to those who did magic, or believed in it, and wonders what his ancestors thought they were doing when they chose it to represent their name.
He tells Aunt Pearl his discovery on one of their occasional trans-Atlantic phonecalls, hesitant at first but eventually transitioning into his mile-a-minute infodump while she listens, somehow projecting quiet amusement from the other end of a crackly phone connection. She’s quiet a while longer when he’s finished, and then she says: “Well?”
“Well,” Stiles says impatiently, “don’t you think that means something? I mean you said... you said that what we are - what we do--”
“What I do, Zim,” she points out. “You are still learning.”
“Yeah, sure, whatever,” he says, waving a dismissive hand even though she can’t see it, “but you said it’s about balance.”
“I did,” she agrees. “And it is.” She makes a thoughtful, hmm sort of noise.
“I mean, it’s not like the ancient Druids or whatever knew about ecosystems or anything,” Stiles presses on, determined to make his point, “but you told me that instinct...”
“Sometimes instinct does the math for us,” says Aunt Pearl, quietly, half to herself. “True enough.”
“You said - Derek said, too. That what we do is rare.”
She hmms again. He imagines her rubbing a hand over her mouth. “The power to do it... it’s not so rare. There are little powers scattered all over; hedge-witches and mediums and the like. But the way we have it, the way those like us have it... yes. Rare enough. It’s... not just about power. It’s about perspective.”
Eventually she heaves a sigh, and he hears the clink of a cup in a saucer, hears the line crackle again. “I don’t know, Zim. It’s been a lot of years since I gave it much thought. But it’s an idea.”
“You haven’t given it much thought? Seriously?” Stiles glares at the phone. “FYI, not even a little convincing.”
“Zigmantas, are you accusing your dear old auntie of lying?” she says, all mock-astonishment.
“You keep saying the best part of being old is that you know everything that matters.”
“No, no. The best part of being old is knowing what matters. That’s the curse of the young, smart boy,” she says, and he can imagine her big mean smile. “Every generation needs a new revolution.”
He groans. He used to think Deaton was a pain in the ass, only ever answering questions with other questions. Aunt Pearl’s teaching method is more a combination of throw-the-baby-in-the-water and teaching a dog how to fetch: throw the stick as far into the ocean as you can and see if it will swim for it. Some dogs won’t ever fetch, are too stupid or too proud or too fond of napping, dry, on the beach to go splashing into the sea, but Stiles knows he’s not one of those. “You enjoy this shit way too much,” he mutters, and all he gets along the crackly connection is her loud, delighted laugh.
He spends a lot of time trying to find the places in his memory where things began to slip. Places where there are clear connections he spent years forgetting. He becomes obsessed with the integrity of his memories, as though if he looks away for a moment he might lose them again.
There are some things that are obvious: that human music went missing from their house for six years after Mom died. That he’d been to Hale House not once, but many times before Scott was bitten. But other things are harder to quantify. Things like the places where the spell began to do its work, where the edges of memories began to fray.
But some things are real, are realized and genuine, mostly moments from when he was older; from nearer the end. Stiles remembers the last time he saw Aunt Pearl, standing straight as a statue, shoulders a hard line under her sensible black wool coat, her and Dad bracketing Stiles like sentries. It was the first time he ever remembers seeing her angry, and the last time for six years he would see her at all. Even now he wonders if that was because of the spell, or because she just couldn’t stand to spend another moment in a place where she’d lost something so important.
He doesn’t remember when he stopped wondering when she’d come back.
One of the worst parts of regaining lost memories is realizing there’s more that he doesn’t remember because he never knew it. There is one memory - only one, which seems strange to him, even now - of Talia Hale coming to the house, in the midst of Mom’s first round of chemo, bearing a tupperware container and trailing Laura, Derek and Graham like shadows. Stiles was nine, which would have made Laura fifteen and Derek a (sullen) thirteen. Graham was all of five, shy and always standing close to Talia, holding her hand and answering Mom only softly. He was the only Hale kid who looked like Luke, big blue eyes and wavy blond hair like a painting of a cherub. Natalie would have been two, but she was at home with Grandma Rose.
It’s weird to Stiles how all of these people he spent years having entirely forgotten are suddenly real, fully-realized people to him again.
It was early on, when Stiles was still scared, all the time, still waking up in the night to creep down the hall and check to see if Mom was still breathing - long before he’d transitioned into the horrible, comforting numbness of acclimation. Having strangers in the house was at once an invasion and a relief, because he didn’t have to fill the quiet between Mom and Dad while there were guests. Though Ms. Talia never felt like a guest, really.
Laura was straight-backed like her mother, playing grown-up, sitting on the edge of her chair with her hands in her lap and nodding politely when spoken to, glaring at Derek when he squirmed in his seat, bored. Stiles watched them from the kitchen door, fingers wrapped around the doorframe, uncertain whether to go in or stay where he was.
When Mom said “Derek, honey, do you want a drink? There’s soda in the fridge,” Stiles backed away from the door so quickly that he walked into a kitchen chair, sending it screeching across the tiles. In the living room all conversation stopped for a moment, and then resumed with soft laughter. Stiles could hear Derek’s footsteps as he approached, and for one wild moment considered diving under the table to hide. Instead, when handsome, glowering Derek Hale stepped into the kitchen, it was to find Stiles standing awkwardly in the middle of the kitchen, hands fisted in the hem of his t-shirt.
Derek looked surprised to see him, but shook his head and shrugged. “Your mom said there was--”
“Soda! Yeah,” Stiles said, seizing on the excuse to do something, going to the cupboard to take down a glass.
Derek continued to look surprised, even baffled, as Stiles took out the soda and unscrewed the cap and carefully, carefully poured it into the glass. When he handed it to Derek, holding it in both hands to make sure it didn’t spill, Derek was still staring, and when their fingers touched around the glass, he started, almost spilling, inhaling sharply. Stiles felt himself flush with an embarrassment that was utterly foreign, inexplicable. “Um,” he said, “do you want ice?”
Derek shook his head, looking away. “No - no, it’s fine. Thank you.” The words were stiff and polite, but his face was confused, and he took a sip with his eyes fixed firmly over Stiles’ shoulder.
It figured, thought Stiles, watching Derek drink for a minute before turning to put the soda away; something about him always seemed to put people off.
All the same, he watched as Derek turned, walked back into the living room, and sat down beside Laura, who promptly stole his glass and drank half of it while Derek glared at the side of her head. Talia leaned over and nudged her sharply, shaking her head and looking exasperated, and glanced over to where Stiles was standing, almost as if she’d known exactly where he was before even looking. She smiled at him, nodded, and then looked at Derek, who was slouching and glaring at the carpet again, but for some reason that made Talia smile.
Stiles remembers thinking he would never, ever understand grown-ups.
Now, he remembers it was the last time Talia Hale ever came to their house.
He knows it hadn’t been the first time, that visit; he knows it seemed strange to him, back then, that Ms. Talia hadn’t come around. But Mom stopped mentioning her, and then Stiles just... forgot.
The thing is, Stiles was a kid at the time, and it hadn’t occurred to him that it was strange. Now, he thinks: Mom and Talia weren’t just secret supernatural double life friends; their friendship was common knowledge. They were both prominent members of the community, the town vet and the children’s librarian respectively, and there was nothing strange about their friendship. They’d gone to PTA meetings together. They’d run bake sales and chaperoned the summer daycamp three years running. There was no reason for them to keep their association a secret and the thing is... they didn’t. But around the time Mom started getting sick, Talia just... disappears from Stiles’ memories. As though she’d drifted gradually away, faded into the background.
But Aunt Pearl said they’d been friends for years. Maybe decades. And letting someone drift away like that... that doesn’t sound like Mom. And from what he knows of Talia Hale, it doesn’t sound like her, either.
Of course, he realizes eventually, with a sense of astonishment that takes his legs out from under him, that isn’t what happened. What happened is that Norman Palaver’s spell started to take effect; and as Mom got sicker, the spell got stronger. It wasn’t that Mom and Talia stopped being friends. It was that they’d begun to forget that they ever had been.
Like it wasn’t enough to take her life. Kate had to take her friends, too.
Stiles wonders if one day he’ll stop being surprised by the strength of his anger. By the way it can sneak up on him, make him so angry he wants to run, wants to scream, wants to hit something, wants to...
...in the end he thinks: no, probably not.
And then he thinks: good.
Stiles and Dad still don’t talk about Mom a lot, but that’s changing, slowly. Sometimes one of them will start a thought with “remember when Mom--” and instead of immediately going rigid and silent, will actually finish the thought. It’s the first thing that’s happened since the lifting of the spell that feels like relief, uncomplicated and unqualified. Like he’s suddenly able to breathe again after years of holding his breath, though he never knew he was doing it.
Stiles feels they’re turning a corner the first time Dad does it while Derek is in the room; or more accurately, while Derek is asleep on Stiles’ shoulder where they fell asleep watching a movie before Dad came home and found them like that. Dad doesn’t even flinch when he does, just stops in the doorway, watching until Stiles looks up, rubbing sleep out of his eyes.
“Don’t get up,” Dad whispers, holding up a hand. “It was just - familiar, that’s all.”
Dad doesn’t answer right away, but when he does, he’s nodding. “Yeah.”
He doesn’t realize until later that Derek didn’t even wake up when Dad came in. He wonders what that means, but doesn’t dare hope it means what it seems to mean.
By late August its newness has faded mostly into the background, and he can no longer easily reach out and pick up a memory and leaf through it like a book; he has to go into the other-place to do it with any kind of detail, to see it as anything other than flashes or instinct or a sense of certainty about how things might go.
It’s a relief, and it’s not.
He can no longer tell so easily which memories were missing and which ones were always there, which is how it should be, Aunt Pearl tells him. He tells her about his one safe-held remembrance: Mom in the sunlight, Hale House feeling like a home, a safe place, even though he didn’t know what it was. His sense of rightness in helping Derek rebuild it, the peace the idea of it brought them both. Aunt Pearl tells him that makes sense, because memory isn’t only facts or well-fitting pieces but shaped and coloured by emotion, strengthened by feeling.
“Maybe, Zim,” she says, gently, “that memory was a place where you felt happy.”
Maybe, he thinks, it was the last time he felt like everything was going to be all right and truly believed it.
He tells Derek about it, once, late at night while they’re sitting on the front porch of Derek’s house, slumped together on the bench under the front window, the insects humming.
And Derek says: “I had one of those too, I think.”
Derek, even now, so rarely volunteers information unprompted unless driven to it - though he’s getting better - that Stiles blinks at him for a long moment before he asks: “Yeah?”
Derek squints off into the darkness beyond the circle of light cast by the porch light, like he’s trying to make out some shape that even his heightened senses can’t help him resolve. “I told you about it, remember? That time you got lost in the woods. I remember...” He shuts his eyes. “...your mom, noticing you were gone, and everybody running out into the woods to look for you. I remember Mom saying they’d find you, that you couldn’t have gone far, but they couldn’t. They searched for almost an hour. Almost called in the cops.” He turns to look at Stiles, face a study in puzzled surprise. “But I found you. I just knew where you were.”
And he did, Stiles remembers. Not because his own memory of that is particularly clear, but because Dad told him. Dad clearly didn’t know all the details, but he remembered it was the first time either he or Mom had lost Stiles, something that happened to most parents at least once. It wasn’t the last time - there was a year when Stiles wandered off in shopping malls so frequently that Dad put him on a leash. But it was the first time, and therefore memorable, according to Dad.
Part of Derek’s story sounded strange: Mom saying they wouldn’t find him. He’d been a toddler at most, and with a house full of werewolves he should have been easy to find; he’d certainly been around them often enough that they would have known his scent. But then he remembered the older wards around Hale House, the ones he’d discovered when he started setting his own protections after the reconstruction finished. There were about a dozen, ranged around the property seemingly at random, some close to the house and some way, way out; clusters of trees with runes carved deep into the trunks, spelled with secret and hidden and safe. They were all tapped out and empty of power, but their purpose was clear. Places where someone defenseless - like, say, the human members of Hale Pack - could slip between the trees and become instantly invisible to any magical creature, safe from rival packs or other creatures of the night... or hunters, hypothetically. A shame they’d done little good the day of the fire.
Derek nods, almost to himself. “I always remembered that,” he says. “Not names, not why they were scared or later, that it was you, but I remembered finding you and bringing you back.”
Stiles, at a loss for words in the rush of all the possibilities coursing through his head, just reaches out and tangles his fingers with Derek’s. Derek lets him, crooks a tiny smile and settles back to watch the fireflies come out.
He shouldn’t remember this, he knows; he’s maybe two years old, maybe younger, and he’s lost.
He isn’t frightened right away, though it’s dark and once he’s beyond the light cast from the house it’s dark and hard to see. He isn’t frightened until he falls, scrapes his hands along the ground, and he doesn’t start crying until he blunders into a low branch that knocks him flat.
He doesn’t know where he is, and he can’t see where he came from, and he stands there wanting his mom and thinking at any moment she’ll appear, lift him up into her arms and kiss him and make it better. But she doesn’t, and it’s the first time he’s been alone in the dark, and the forest around him is a riot of sounds and smells and things that jumble up together in his head and set it spinning and--
--then he’s not alone.
There are two of them, bigger kids, a girl and a boy, and the girl looks confused. The boy does too, but his eyes light on Stiles and stay, fixed like a bright light Stiles can feel on his skin.
They are both quiet, and soft on their feet, and the girl keeps saying “we’re not supposed to” and “no,” but the boy just stands there, staring, for a long, long moment before he reaches out his hand for Stiles to take, cautious but smiling, faintly.
And Stiles is lost, and he’s scared, and he wants his mom, and everything is dark and wrong but the boy - the boy feels safe. He feels known.
Stiles takes his hand.
It never occurs to him to be afraid after that, though the girl is upset, keeps casting troubled glances at the boy, at Stiles, her eyes flickering between them. Stiles knows, somehow, that he’s safe now, even when the girl says “I’ll go,” and breaks into a run, disappearing so quickly among the trees it’s like she’s faded away before his eyes.
The boy looks down at him, and Stiles stares back before lifting his arms into the air. The boy looks shocked, looks around like he expects to see someone else standing nearby, but eventually he crouches down, picks Stiles up, hoists him up onto his back, and they go, together, into the dark under the trees.
Stiles thinks they’re going on an adventure, the two of them. He thinks that his mom is waiting. That the boy is scared, but not scared enough to turn back. Maybe he doesn’t even know the way.
But at least if they’re lost, they’ll be lost together.