He had a way of hearing things people never meant for him to hear.
It wasn't because he had any super, wolfy hearing. He was still only human, no matter the company he kept nowadays. Nor was it that he eavesdropped…well it wasn't that he eavesdropped much.
It was more like he had a way of reading between the lines, or hearing between the lines as the case may be. Somewhere in his frantic mind there was a translator that interpreted every averted gaze or lengthy pause; every nervous twist of fingers or bitten lip. He could read those signs the way Lydia could read archaic Latin.
This wasn't any new development. It had been one of those weird idiosyncrasies he'd had since he was a little kid. Maybe it was a product of the ADHD. Maybe not.
Either way he really didn't care for it; whatever it was. He didn't like that he still remembered the way his mother's eyes had filled with tears when she told him that she'd only be in the hospital a little while longer before she was able to come home. Even then every tear spelled out the truth to him. She was never coming home, and she didn't. Maybe it was more than the tears. Maybe it was pallor of her once rosy skin, the hollows in her cheeks, and circles beneath her eyes. Maybe it was the way his dad just couldn't meet his eye as he guided him back down the stark hospital corridors.
His scuffed up all-stars, still two sizes too big because he was growing like a weed, dragged against the laminate tile in a vain attempt to prolong the inevitable. His father had squeezed his shoulder a little too tightly. "C'mon, kiddo. We'll visit again tomorrow."
Tomorrow had never come but then he'd known it wouldn't, hadn't he?
Later at the funeral adults had patted his head or kissed his cheeks. They told him things like "this will pass" or "it will get better", but it didn't. Not really. The pain dulled and the emotions that ran so close to the surface sank deeper where they were less accessible but also harder to let go of.
Years passed and he found that when he was busy, insanely busy, it was easier to ignore those things he hadn't been able to ignore before. Well that and when he was on Adderall. The pills helped. They made the world seem a bit less frantic, but it was better when he was busy with school or lacrosse or just talking—running his mouth, really. That's when it was almost too easy to distract himself.
And now there were werewolves and hunters to worry about in addition to all of the normal teenage stuff.
Usually they were a better distraction than school. Sure there was the constant threat of bodily harm always hanging over his head but at the end of the day pain could be just effective a diversion.
Still, even that didn't work all of the time. Sometimes, no matter what he tried, he could still hear all the things people weren't saying.
When his father was fired—he could say it was a temporary leave of absence but Stiles knew the truth—and he said "Maybe I just don't want to feel any worse than I already do by having to yell at my son" he didn't have to hear the heavy sigh his father held back, he didn't have to see the exhaustion written all over his face to hear the in-between. He heard all the reasons his father didn't put into words; heard the pain in the words that never came. Maybe I just can't bring myself to care anymore. Maybe I'm just too tired. Maybe I just can't stand to be around you right now.
The in-betweens could be cruel, brutal even, and Stiles was smart. He knew they might be lying but damn they were so convincing sometimes. They crept in like a wolf into the sheep's pen, and if he was the slightest bit distracted it was able to savage him all the same. The anxiety set in, then the panic, and the gripping feeling of a hand squeezing his heart, making it hard to breathe.
It was like being paralyzed from the neck down in eight feet of water. The only thing able to move was your mind, and it didn't matter that it was going a million miles a minute. It wouldn't help.
Every breath was a battle. Every rush of oxygen just another struggle to stay afloat, to last another second, and not knowing whether that second would bring rescue or death or just one more second as you fought for another chance to breathe.
"You're thinking too hard about all this."
Stiles flicked his gaze to the man leaning against the desk beside him but for once didn't answer. He'd been trying hard to focus on the screen and not on the creak of the desk beneath Derek's weight, or the tap of his fingers against wood, or the annoyed huff the werewolf puffed out when he was ignored.
The laptop closed with a click and Stiles leaned back, his arms flailing out in protest. "What the hell, dude?"
He had been busy with research; research for this particular werewolf and his pack of misfits, in fact. "Look, I know you think I'm some kind of frickin' miracle worker, but I can't research without my computer."
Stiles could see all of the things he normally saw when he looked at Derek. Frustration. Irritation. Impatience. But there was something else there now. He didn't look quite so irritated; his eyes weren't pinched in the corners nearly as much. It was unsettling. Stiles didn't like that he couldn't quite put his finger on what it was.
"You don't need to keep at it like this," Derek finally snapped out, refusing to relinquish the laptop despite Stiles best efforts to wrestle it from beneath his hand. "It won't kill you to back off."
So that's what this is about. Stiles pushed back from the desk, his chair spinning haphazardly and almost landing him in a heap on the floor. "Look, if you don't want me all up in your wolfy business you just need to say so!" he shouted. "There are other things I could be doing—" There's not but he doesn't need to know that—"besides helping you and your—your—puppies!"
Derek had him pinned to the wall before he could process the fact that he, Stiles Stilinski, was yelling at Derek I-could-rip-your-throat-out-with-my -teeth Hale.
But there was no throat-ripping, no screaming, no dying. It was pretty anti-climactic as far as blow-ups went. Derek's eyes flashed red for only a brief second as he leaned in, his hand splayed over Stiles' racing heart. "Calm down," he said, his voice a rumble but not quite a growl.
Stiles, by nature, wasn't calm. He could be level-headed and rational, but not calm. Everything about him was fast paced and excitable; a fast mouth powered by a faster mind.
"I'm calm," Stiles lied even though he knew Derek would hear it in the stutter of his heartbeat. Stupid werewolf senses.
"I don't need you to back off from the pack," Derek told him. "I need you to take a break. You're going to kill yourself if you don't give yourself a chance to breathe."
Breathing. Sometimes that was easier said than done. When you can't think because you can't see past the fear and panic you don't have time to think about your breathing, all you know is that you're not getting enough oxygen and you think maybe this is it. Maybe it's all about to—"Stiles."
"Then go," he blurted out and suddenly he was exhausted and angry and heartbroken all at once. Or maybe he just finally admitted he had been all those things before. He was too emotional to interpret the way Derek's eyes widened ever so slightly, the way his throat convulsed as he swallowed roughly. "Go. I can't take a break with you breathing down my neck."
"Just go," he said when what he meant was, just stay.
"Get out," he forced himself to say when Derek didn't move, even though the in-between said, please don't leave.
But Stiles was the one who read the in-betweens. Not Derek. Not anybody but him. Derek wouldn't notice the curl of Stiles' fingers in his shirt, the hesitation of the teen's fist against his chest where two warm bodies met. No, only Stiles noticed those things, and right now he really wished he didn't.
He wanted to not have to bite his lip to keep from telling Derek he didn't mean it. He leaned back against the wall to keep himself from following the other man out the window, allowing himself only a glance as the alpha ducked out his window, pausing just long enough to look over his shoulder before he disappeared into the darkness.
"Breathe, Stiles." He paused like he wanted to say something else, something bigger. But instead he clenched his jaw and shifted his gaze up to Stiles' face.
"Just remember to breathe."