Your name is Lydia Martin, and you are losing.
It’s a slow collapse, inexorable, the defeat of a century by millions of tiny, measured seconds. You live in a decent apartment and work a job you’re content with. You’re putting yourself through university and it’s a degree you love, something you’re brightly, viciously good at. You wake up in the morning and fall asleep at night, and you’re happy, and you’re good, and you’re losing.
You get coffee from a place three blocks away from work in the mornings, covert, pulling your jacket close around your uniform top. You could lose your job if you were caught, but the thought of drinking nothing but the swill your barista thinks is acceptable makes every bitter drop worth the risk. You wrap your hands around the paper cup and hold it to your lips, shoulders hunched against the cold wind, a fugitive before breakfast. You dispose of the evidence a block away and arrive at work with a secret twist to your smile.
You serve subpar coffee to people with laptops and too-large glasses and ignore the advances of the boy behind the counter. His name is Stiles. You’re pretty sure his name is Stiles. He tells you you’re brilliant, tells you you’re stunning, and keeps talking to the empty air as you walk away. He acts like he knows you better than you know yourself; it’s infuriating, but you’re amused by his naïve presumptions. You don’t look back, and you don’t give it a second thought. He’ll try again tomorrow. He always does.
You hang Christmas decorations in the windows and set snowflake doilies on the tables. You wonder if this is ironic holiday cheer or the final defense of .txterity, fighting a long-lost battle. You smile at the customers and recite mathematical formulas in your head. When the shop’s quiet, you bake out the back and think about the homework problems you’ve been working through.
It’s the first day of December, and after lunch one of the regulars comes into the shop. His name is Peter. You can never predict when he’ll be in and you never try to, but you always notice when he is. He sits at the table in the back corner of the room and reads; a different book every day. None of the other staff will take his order. They avoid the table, don’t make eye contact, and he never once looks up from his book. You won’t approach him immediately either, but you grin as you pass him. You serve everyone else first, come up with urgent new errands to take care of, and wait to see if he breaks. It’s an old game. Today you give it twenty minutes, and he waits patiently, turning page after page and never looking up.
The first time you spoke to him, it was Stephen King. You asked if you could get him anything and he tilted his head back, slow, like standing on a cliff-edge and waiting for it to give way. He closed the book and held it up, asked if you’d read it. Morbid, you said, and the twist wasn’t nearly as clever as you’d been lead to believe. He listened thoughtfully, and you wondered if he agreed. He smiled, let the book fall open again, and said he’d let you know. Before you walked off, he caught your wrist and asked if you could bring him a coffee. He ordered something complex and customized, and because he asks for something different every time, you pretend you can’t remember exactly what it was.
Today he’s reading Chuck Palahniuk and you’re rolling your eyes before he even holds it up.
“You don’t think it’s a cutting commentary on personal identity and social disconnection?” he says.
“I think its pretentious wank with an extremely poorly thought out anti-establishment agenda.”
He laughs and orders a double-shot espresso. You take it down along with his table number. At the counter, Stiles is closest. You hold the order out for him, leaning across the bench, and he leans in too.
It should be nothing. It’s a common gesture, one you’ve made hundreds of times before. Stiles feels so close, though. Your fingers brush and you can smell coffee on him, with just a hint of aftershave. There’s an itch at the back of your neck, like someone’s watching, and you pull back. He stays though, fingers outstretched around the lined paper, body tilted towards you. For the strangest moment, you feel like maybe he does know you. Like maybe you could know him too. For the strangest moment, you wish you hadn’t moved.
You turn your head to shake the thought away, and see Peter staring at you. His book is closed and lying flat on the table, and he doesn’t react when you catch his eye. He seems entranced, and you find yourself pinned in place under his gaze. The distance is nothing; you could count the pores in his skin.
Cold metal nudges your arm and you jump, and turn to find Stiles pushing a tray across the counter.
“I think this is yours,” he says cheerfully.
He’s glancing curiously at Peter’s table but says nothing, and when you look back, Peter’s nose is buried in his book. You accept the tray silently and take the coffee over. Peter doesn’t look up as you approach, and you set the cup down without a word. You turn to go, but he reaches out to stop you.
“Who was that?” he asks.
His fingers are cool around your wrist, and all you can think about is how beautiful he looked on the first day you met him. You lean away, enough to create tension, to feel the pull. You don’t try to break his grip.
The word comes out so soft it should have been lost in the air between you, but Peter smiles. He tips his head towards the counter. Stiles is there, ringing up a customer’s tab and engaged in cheerful conversation as he does it, gestures wild and unselfconscious.
“Just- just a guy,” you say, frowning. “Stiles.”
Peter hums to himself and lets you go. His fingers are like sandpaper as they fall away.
Later, after the sun has gone down and everyone’s left, after you’ve cleaned and closed up, there’s a figure leaning outside the shop. He’s got his back pressed to the glass and that’s all you can see, shoulders illuminated by the Christmas lights draped inside the window.
It’s fine, you tell yourself, but it doesn’t feel fine. You don’t work in a busy part of town. The coffee shop is in an alley away from the main streets, and most of the surrounding shops close much earlier. No one should be here. You’re all alone in the shop.
Something about this is far too familiar. You recognise the tight panic in your chest. Taking deep breaths, you go into the kitchen and throw your apron into the bucket under sink. You pull on your jacket and dig around for the shop key in your bag. Pausing just before the door, you slide your phone from your pocket and hold it tightly by your side, thumb on the key pad.
Peter is leaning against the glass outside. He’s watching you openly, hands in his pockets and hair falling in his eyes. Your breath comes out in sharp bursts, white mist visible in the faint glow of the Christmas lights.
“Oh,” you say.
It should be reassuring to see him, but your chest still feels tight. His expression makes you uneasy.
“What- what are you doing?” you ask.
You adjust your hold of the key, trying to fit it into the lock without looking away from him. Peter doesn’t move.
“Waiting,” he says.
The wind is cold on the back of your neck, and you long for a free hand to pull your collar up against it. Peter is watching expectantly, but you don’t say anything. Your fingers cut into the edges of your cell phone.
“I was waiting for you,” he clarifies.
“Oh,” you say again. The key is jammed in the lock now, refusing to turn. “Any particular reason?”
The words are lofty, and you don’t let your voice shake. But you think about that, about all the possible reasons he could have to wait for you, alone in the dark. The key is still stuck, and your fingers feel numb around it. You think about the four long blocks to the subway.
“Not really,” Peter says, “But I wanted to talk.”
He pushes himself off the wall. He hasn’t moved towards you yet, but his eyes are dark, and it makes your pulse spike.
“Am I scaring you?” he says.
You jerk at the key and finally it locks. You pull it out and make a fist around the key ring, jagged metal poking through the gaps in your fingers like brass knuckles. You take a step backwards.
It’s not Peter’s voice. You spin around, fear and hope battling in your chest.
At the edge of the alley, leaning against a flickering street light and checking his phone, is Stiles. He waves brightly at you and, with a quick look back at the street the alley opens onto, heads down to meet you. He smiles, so open and friendly. You're relieved, grateful he’s here, and you put your back to the wall so you can see both of them. You don't loosen your grip on the keys, and you don't put away your phone.
As Stiles gets closer, Peter leans forward, looking past you. His eyes sweep over Stiles and you can feel it, you can feel him taking in all the tiny details embedded in Stiles, his clothes, his hair, the length of his gait, the way he holds himself, his face highlighted by the lurid glow of his phone.
"Stiles," Peter says.
Stiles stops. He’s only a few steps away from you now, and his brow furrows as he gives Peter a sideways look.
“Hi?” he says, drawn out and suspicious.
The air between them feels brittle. You’re buzzing with adrenaline and you want to be anywhere but here. Somehow you’re trapped between them, and you have to get out. Your mind is blurred with the urgency of it. You say something like you’re sorry, it’s late, you have to get going. You say you have somewhere to be. You say something like your boyfriend is waiting for you, and they must know it’s a lie, but you say something that will get you out of there, you say something, and you go.
You don’t run, though you want to. You keep your footsteps even, keep your head held high. You wrap your arms around yourself and you’d say it’s against the cold; it’s true that your fingers are freezing. Your hand is still clutched around your phone, and your hand is still clutched around your keys, and they’re clinking against your rings, and they dig into the tender skin of your palms.
You look back over your shoulder, just once, at the end of the street. You can’t help it. You’re caught in some kind of terrible pull. Both men are still standing outside the coffee shop, but Peter is no longer by the window. The lighting is bad and you can barely make anything out, but they’re standing close together, too close. You wonder for a moment if you should have left, but Stiles didn’t try to come with you. Stiles hadn’t been afraid. He’s fine, you think, you tell yourself; you know you can’t go back.
And then your name is Stiles Stilinski, and you’re asking a stranger who he is, and how he knows your name. He introduces himself as Peter Hale. You do remember him, once you think about it; he comes in to the coffee shop some days, reads at the table in the back corner and only ever talks to Lydia. You don’t trust him, exactly, but there’s something about him that makes you want to. You ask him what he’s doing here, and only just remember to pull back when he steps forward.
“I like the coffee here,” he says.
“No one likes the coffee here,” you say.
He says, “I do.”
He lifts a hand, examining the play of light from inside the window across his palm and you shift backward again, putting yourself at a defensive angle.
He says, “I like you, Stiles.”
The comeback you’d been going make sticks in your throat and your lips part, silent but for the sharp intake of breath. Your mouth is dry, and you swallow uselessly as he steps towards you. You’re not sure what he intends, but you don’t want to find out. You tell yourself you don’t want to find out.
“You’ve never spoken to me before,” you say. Your heart is pounding. The air feels warm and thick. “You’ve never so much as looked at me.”
He smiles, teeth gleaming in the night.
He reaches towards you and you let him. His fingers wrap around your wrist and you let him do that too. Slowly, coaxingly, he raises your hand to his face, presses your curled fingers to his cheek. Your whole body is rigid and tilted away from him, but you give in to temptation and slide your thumb experimentally across his cheekbone. He nuzzles your hand, eyes flickering shut for a single brief second.
“Come to dinner with me,” he says. “Christmas Eve.”
You open your mouth to tell him no. To tell him to fuck off. To ask who he is, and what the hell is going on.
You say, “That’s three weeks away.”
His fingers uncurl from your wrist and he steps backwards, leaving you reaching at nothing.
“Christmas Eve,” he repeats, and then he’s gone.
You lower your arm and stand dead still, staring at the place he used to be. Your heart is racing.
Your name is Lydia Martin, and you are losing.
You fight it in small, defiant ways. You brush your hair and paint your fingernails and hang tinsel from the curtain rods in your bedroom. You walk the streets in the morning and ignore the way it makes your muscles ache. You walk the streets in the evening and ignore the rain and the way it streaks the world grey and white. You walk the streets at night and ignore your racing heart.
You walk to work in the mornings. You get coffee at a place three blocks away and dispose of the evidence before you get there and pull your jacket tight against the wind. Faceless people hover in the edges of your vision. Sometimes you turn your head to catch them, and on the days that are grounded in reality, you get startled strangers meeting your eyes, people looking away or hurrying past with heads bent low, rare and precious kind smiles. On other days, you turn your head to find the people aren’t really there. Sometimes they smile at you anyway.
Peter comes in every day now. He sits at his table in the back corner and reads Asimov, Lehane, Sheldon. You bring him his orders without a word, and you don’t criticize the gender politics of Asimov, and you don’t call Sheldon popular trash.
You don’t speak to Peter anymore; Stiles doesn’t acknowledge him at all. He writes down take-away orders behind the counter and doesn’t look up when Peter comes in. He counts out change for the customers and doesn’t look up when Peter leaves. You sense there’s something more to that, something you don’t quite understand, and you want to ask what happened. You want to ask what happened that night, about the way they stood so close together, about what happened after you left. You sweep the floor under tables between customers and don’t look over at Stiles unless you have to. You don’t ask if he’s okay.
Sometimes, when you give in to impulse and make a liar of yourself, you find Stiles staring back at you. It’s like tea spiked with wine, unexpected and sweet, and you’re mesmerized by his gaze. He smiles at you like it’s the most natural thing in the world, and sometimes you want to believe it is - sometimes you almost do. You smile back because you can’t help it, but it fades when you look away.
You collect plates and cups and cutlery and he opens the door to the kitchen for you. He stands too close and you avoid his eyes. You’re waiting for something, for some kind of resolution, and you’re choking on the suspense.
At night, it’s just the two of you, and you close the shop in silence. Clean up takes half an hour, and by the end it’s as though the bleach you use on the floors is clinging to your skin. You’re raw and burning from the inside out, and the soft sounds of moving boxes make you f.txth.
It’s the twelfth day of December, and the kitchen door creaks as you push it open. You lean in to tell Stiles that you’re done, that you’re leaving. Stiles is standing near the door, putting something away on the top shelf that you can never reach. His arms are stretched out above him, head tilted back, shirt riding up at the waist. It reveals a tiny strip of skin, just a glimpse of his hips and the small of his back. You are Lydia Martin and you never stutter, but in that instant you are speechless.
“Hey,” he says, dropping his arms when he notices you standing there. “You done?”
You nod, and try to remember what you’d been going to say.
He says, “Great. I can lock up.”
You nod again, and he looks like he’s about to say something else. Then his eyebrows do a funny sort of dance and he holds up a hand.
“Oh! Before you go…”
You back up to let him through the doorway and follow him out. The door clicks shut and you lean back against it, watching him rifle through the drawer under the cash register.
“Christmas bonus,” he says, emerging holding a sealed envelope. “I was told to pass this on.”
He holds it out and you take it, still resting against the door. You pause, and then shrug and slide a fingernail under the seal to tear it open. The check is decent amount, enough to make a difference to your extra expenses this month. Those expenses are what you’re thinking about as you fold it away again: the cost of presents and food, and whether or not you can afford a trip home over New Years. That’s what you’re thinking about as you look up.
But Stiles is barely a foot from you. Looking up means your faces are aligned, far too close. Everything else falls away. The rest of the room is still and silent. You can hear the sound of him breathing, recognize the faint scent of his aftershave.
“Hey,” he says, softly, and your heart skips. He points to something above your head. “Mistletoe.”
You don’t look up to confirm it. You hung it yourself.
He smiles, gentle and sweet, and leans towards you. It’s a slight movement, just enough to signal intent, and then he stops and raises an eyebrow, waiting to see what you’ll do.
Your first ins.txtt is to throw your arms around him. Your first ins.txtt is to press your lips to his and find out if that smile tastes as good as it looks. You want to. He’s right there and it would be easy, it would be so easy. You could fit your body against the slant of his chest, lick your way into his waiting mouth, and you want to, and you could. You want to, but- but something feels wrong. Out of place. It’s not the resolution you were looking for. And before you can think too hard, before you can give in, you’re shaking your head and pushing past him, pushing him away. You grab your bag and your jacket and you head for the front door, and you don’t let yourself look back, and you don’t let yourself think at all.
Outside, the air is sharp and freezing; it bites at your skin and seeps through your clothes. You should pull your jacket on but you don’t, you stand there and take gulping breaths that sting like ice.
“Is everything okay?”
You whirl around. At the edge of the shadows, hands clasped behind his back, stands Peter. He watches you with wide, concerned eyes, a sympathetic tilt to his head.
“We’re closed,” you say. Your voice comes out high and strangled.
Peter dips his head in acknowledgment. He doesn’t take his eyes off you.
“You looked upset,” he says. “Are you okay?”
“Fine,” you say, edging away from him. “What are you doing here?”
“You’ve been behaving coldly towards me,” he says. “Ever .txte… well.” He smiles apologetically. “I understand, and I’m sorry. I just wanted to tell you that I didn’t intend to scare you.”
His face is so open and .txtere; no one could doubt his word. You stare at him, at his beautiful, imploring eyes. It’s like dragging steel barbs through your chest.
“And you thought a repeat performance would help?”
Peter’s eyebrows shoot up. He looks at you like you’ve just disappointed him. A tendril of something awful and cold wraps around your gut.
There’s a long pause, and then Peter takes a step towards you. It’s slow, and his body moves with the easy grace of a predator. You stumble backwards. Your fingers are trembling and numb, and your bag slips from your grasp. It lands with a soft thud, contents spilling out across the pavement. Peter’s gaze flicks down to it and then back up to your face. His lips curve in a dark smile.
“I don’t want to hurt you, Lydia,” he says.
He’s between you and the coffee shop now. Your cell phone is lying at his feet. You curse that you didn’t make for the door when you had the chance. You curse yourself for letting the whole thing go the first time Peter did this, for con.txting yourself you were overreacting. You never told anyone about that first time, you think. You were afraid to, like people might call you crazy. Suddenly you’re not sure why.
You look behind you, back down the alleyway, and then to your belongings, strewn across the ground. Peter’s smile widens, like he’s reading every thought that races through your mind. He crouches down, runs his fingers over a scarf, tubes of mascara and lipstick, a beaded, cream purse. Finally, his hand pauses on something. He picks it off the ground, holds it up for you to see. It’s the key to your apartment. The awful, cold sensation in your gut clenches tighter and he twirls the keychain around on his finger, watching it spin. Then he throws it to you.
It’s pure ins.txtt that you catch it; all thought is wiped from your mind. Peter nods, approving. Still crouched, he leans forward, reaching out across the pavement. You take another step away, even though you’re already some distance apart. He glances up, raising a sarcastic eyebrow at you, and then his fingers close around your bag. He pulls it closer and sets it upright on the pavement. Carefully, he begins gathering your things and putting them back inside. When he’s done, he pushes the bag towards you and stands up, takes three large steps away. You stare at him, unmoving, and the moment stretches out. He rolls his eyes and takes another step back. You hesitate, and then.txth forward. He doesn’t even twitch. You bridge the rest of the distance in a rush, snatching the bag and clutching it to your chest. You look up and Peter’s watching you, face partially hidden in the shadows.
“Come to dinner with me,” he says. “Christmas Eve.”
The laugh that bursts forth is involuntary and hysterical. It’s all the response he gets. Without another word, you turn your back and run.
And now your name is Stiles Stilinski and the sound of footfalls on the pavement is melting into a soft rap on the front coffee shop door. You hear the sound from the kitchen, where you’re staring at the back wall and wiping the same patch of bench over and over again. Your breath catches in your throat, but you don’t want to let yourself dare to hope. The door behind you is slightly ajar and you hook your fingers around the edge of it, pushing it forward to peer through. You can hear someone else pushing the front door open as you do.
You don’t want to let yourself dare hope, but you do anyway.
“Lydia?” you say.
Peter shuts the door with a click.
You hesitate, watching as he makes his way across the floor. There’s something.txtredibly purposeful about that walk, and you find yourself tracking it, cataloguing every flex of muscle under clothing.
“Um,” you say.
You’re still holding the kitchen door in front of you, nails digging into the wood as Peter walks the length of the counter, running a hand along its top. He stops when he reaches the dividing gate, and reaches down to wrap a hand around it. He meets your eyes as he pushes it open.
“Did you, uh, want something?” you say, pulling back until you’re completely behind the door. You push it forward a little more, narrowing the gap between you, but Peter throws an arm up to brace it. You ins.txttively step back from the violent movement, and the door flies open under his weight. You stare at him, tensed and ready, waiting to see what he’ll do.
“I’m sorry I left so suddenly, before,” he says.
“Uh,” you say. “That’s… okay?”
The room around you feels far too small, and you can feel your heart beating behind your ribs. You’re facing the only exit. Peter steps into the doorway and then pauses, craning his neck to examine the frame.
“Mistletoe,” he says.
It’s a gorgeous look on him, and you’ve never been so afraid. You stagger forward. Maybe you’re thinking about pushing past him; maybe that’s what you’ll tell yourself later. You don’t resist when his arms close around you. Both your arms are trapped against his chest, and he wraps a hand around your waist, dragging your hips in against him. The other feels like claws tearing through your shoulder.
“Is this what you wanted?” he murmurs.
Lydia’s face flashes through your mind, looking beautiful and amazed. Like she wants you. Like she’s just about to kiss you.
He presses his forehead to your temple, breath warm against your cheek.
“Tell me this is what you want, Stiles.”
You shut your eyes. You can’t think like this, with Peter all around you and his breath on your skin, his soft, possessive growl in your ears. You don’t want to think. You turn your face towards his, until your lips brush the corner of his mouth.
“Say it,” he hisses.
“Yes,” you say. “I want this.”
He kisses you, and it’s like drowning.
Your name is Lydia Martin, and you are losing.
You walk to work in the mornings and arrive with shaking hands. You call taxis to meet you at night and look over your shoulder as you’re getting in and out.
You call the police and tell them what happened. They speak to you in soothing professional tones and ask questions about Peter’s appearance and habits. You tell them his height and his build, you describe his hair and his complexion and his eyes. You tell them you met him at work, that he comes in at different times but always sits at the same table. You don’t tell them that he reads Stephen King and laughs at your disparaging comments. You don’t tell them you remember every drink he ever ordered. The police nod, pat your arm sympathetically, and tell you they’ll look into it. They tell you they’ll call back. They never call back.
A bouquet of purple flowers is delivered to your apartment, no note attached. You throw them in the trash and install deadbolts on your doors and windows. At night, you dream about charred corpses and bodies trapped under ice.
You walk to work in the morning and don’t stop for coffee and don’t let yourself look back. You serve customers and wipe tables and spend as much time as you can in the kitchen. Peter doesn’t come to the coffee shop anymore; your eyes still stray to the empty table in the corner. His invitation rings in your ears. Newspaper ads and printouts from job-seeking websites are stacked on your bedside table, but you can’t afford to just leave. Until you have a job to go to, you can’t afford to lose this one. You know your performance has been dropping.
It’s Christmas Eve, and Peter’s invitation is all you can think about. You almost call in sick, but you don’t. Your performance at work has been dropping.
You get a taxi to work in the morning and still arrive with shaking hands. You spend all day in the kitchen and bake more than you probably need. Maybe that’s another black mark against your name but right now it’s an acceptable compromise.
Stiles brings you coffee around midday. He sets it down on the bench by the kitchen door and doesn’t ask if you’re okay. You know your face is washed out, that your eyes are dark and listless. Stiles smiles and tells you you’re beautiful. You stare at him as he disappears out the door again, and feel sick, but a little better. Things between you have been strange this week. Sometimes he’s warm and sweet, teases you over flour smudges on your face, and you think about that night under the mistletoe - maybe you should have just kissed him. And then sometimes it’s like a wall between you; like being trapped under a frozen lake, or like staring down at someone else. You leave the coffee he brings you on the bench, untouched.
You sift flour and melt butter and stir in milk and eggs. You try to think about math problems, and then you try to think about nothing at all. You keep your eyes fixed on the cake batter and listen for the sound of footsteps around the shop. You don’t hear the door open or shut again, but ten minutes later there’s a prickling sensation in your neck, like you’re being watched. You look up.
Peter is perched on the bench by the door. He’s drinking the coffee Stiles left for you.
You open your mouth to scream. He raises a finger to his lips, and the sound dies like it’s a hand around your throat. You’re frozen in place and Peter’s eyes are fixed on yours, like he’s daring you to look away. You meet it squarely, refusing to blink. You can’t help the tiny glance towards the door, though. You think about breaking towards it, and then you follow that line of thought to all of its possible conclusions. You stay where you are. Peter smiles. He tips his hand forward, pointing at the half-made cake in front of you. Hesitantly, you reach for the mixing bowl, fingers brushing the rim of it: a silent question. Peter nods.
In a way, it’s like the old horror films. You see in black and white, the silence a vacuum, Peter’s presence filling the room. He watches you from the bench as you give the batter a tentative stir. Neither of you says a word. He’s not wearing his usual jacket, just a white button-up shirt, sleeves rolled to the elbows. With the coffee brought up to his lips, the scene could be almost domestic. His eyes follow your every move.
But like the films, Peter’s appearance is almost a relief. You’ve been waiting, sure and unsure at once, and now at least he’s here. Nothing could be worse than the anticipation.
Then again, he’s still five feet away and you’re still waiting, aren’t you?
You get out cake tins and set them on the bench. The metal must clang together, scrape against itself, but you don’t hear it. You pour the batter into the tins and spoon out what’s left, leveling the top once you’re done. Peter sets down his empty cup.
The oven is warm on the back of your arms, and you feel an odd sense of serenity as you turn to open it, trays in hand. You’re still horribly, intensely aware of Peter, but you feel disconnected, like you’re inhabiting someone else’s body. Or maybe you’ve got that backwards and someone else is inhabiting you. You slide the trays onto the metal grates and listen for the sound of someone moving across the room, tense for the feel of hands on your wrists, your waist, your neck. You close the oven door and turn back around. The room is empty.
You want to sob. You want to laugh. You can’t even properly breathe. You sink back against the bench opposite the door and try to force your lungs to accept new air. Your head is pounding and your vision’s not black and white anymore; colors are too bright, everything too sharp and well-defined. As you stand there, something new starts burning in your chest. You’re still afraid, but that’s cold and much lower, and for just a moment, this overrides it. A moment’s all it takes.
Suddenly you’re moving, and the momentum carries you across the floor, hands on the door, flinging it open, feet hitting the floor one after the other and then you’re outside with the freezing wind hitting your face and your bare arms and you hardly feel it at all.
“What the hell is your problem?” you scream at Peter’s retreating back.
He stops, looking back at you over his shoulder.
“Lydia, I’m not the one with the problem,” he says.
You’re each standing at one edge of the shop window, framed by the Christmas lights that hang there. They glow softly under the grey sky.
“Have you ever heard of dumb cake?” Peter asks. “It’s an old practice.”
The name is familiar, though it takes you a moment to recall it.
“It’s a cake you make in complete silence,” you say, slowly. “It’s a fortune telling thing. You’re supposed to dream about the man you’ll marry, if you eat it.”
Peter smiles. “In some traditions, you leave the cake by the fire. In the night, his doppelganger climbs through your window and writes his initials on it.”
You stare at him, uneasy.
“Come to dinner with me,” he says. “Tonight.”
“You can’t be serious.”
He shrugs philosophically, goes to turn away again.
“Why like this?” you ask, before you can stop yourself.
You don’t mean to. What does it matter why? But he must know. Surely he must. If he hadn’t waited for you after dark, if he hadn’t made every word an implicit threat…
Peter raises an eyebrow, lips curled in a sardonic smile.
“You might have said yes?” he laughs. “Where’s the fun in that?”
It’s like something cold trickling down your spine. Peter suddenly seems far too close.
“You should come,” he says. “Stiles is.”
Peter tips his head towards the window. Inside, Stiles is serving a customer, forearm resting on the counter and shoulders hunched as he writes down the order. He keeps shooting nervous glances in your direction.
“Leave him out of it,” you hiss. There’s steel in your voice.
Peter looks surprised, and just a little delighted.
“Have dinner with me,” he says. “Maybe I will.”
You look back at Stiles through the glass, his lips moving as he counts out money in the till. Laying the last note down, he sends another look your way, and this time he pauses when your eyes meet. The slightest hint of a smile tugs at the corner of his lips, still worried, but encouraging. You smile back, and then turn to Peter, face hardening.
“Eight o’clock,” he says. His voice is low and triumphant.
He slides a hand into his pocket and pulls out a business card, holding it between two fingers for you to take.
“The address,” he says. “Don’t be late.”
You snatch the card from him, contempt written plain across your features.
And then you turn on your heel and storm back through the door, into the coffee shop. You can feel Peter’s eyes on you as you go, but you won’t give him the satisfaction of turning around.
Stiles looks up as you approach the counter. He opens his mouth like he’s about to say something, but you cut across him.
“Have dinner with me,” you say. “Tonight. Eight o’clock.”
Stiles stares at you. You’re shaking all over, you realize, and your nails are digging into your palms. You fold your hands under your arms, like somehow this will make it less obvious.
“Tonight,” you repeat, voice rasping.
Stiles steps forward, wrapping a hand around your shoulder.
“Of course,” he says. “Lydia, are you okay?”
You nod, swallowing hard, and push past him to find a pen and paper. You scrawl down your phone number and go to add your address. Then you pause, pen pressed to the page. You think about the purple flowers rotting in your trash.
“We’ll meet at your place,” you say.
You tear off your phone number and shove both it and the notepad towards Stiles without waiting for an answer. Stiles hesitates. You wave the pen at him insistently and he takes it, watching your face.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” he asks as he writes.
“Eight o’clock,” you say, and grab the page the moment he sets the pen down. “I’ll be there. Promise you’ll be there.”
Stiles nods slowly.
Outside the shop window, Peter folds his arms. The movement catches your attention, and despite yourself you look over at him, smiling as you slide Stiles' address into your pocket. Peter's face is impassive, but his mouth twitches when he sees you looking. There's something to the curl of his lip that you don't like.
The rest of the day passes in a blur, and you don’t see him again. You’re grateful, but the itch at the back of your neck is a constant presence. You turn and expect him to be there, but he never quite is. Stiles is the other constant presence, hovering in the background and shooting you looks that alternate between affectionate and worried. You can’t blame him. Even after Peter disappeared, you never really stopped shaking. The afternoon drags on, and by the time you’ve dropped your third tray of coffee, you’re not lying when you tell management your headache could power a small country. Stiles backs you up, saying you’ve looked washed out all day, and then winks and mouths “see you tonight,” when no one’s looking as you make your escape.
Like the shop itself, the street outside’s getting quieter as night closes in, and you wait for your cab inside the shop. You sit at Peter’s customary table, not so much laughing at the irony as staring it down defiantly. You more than half expect Peter to be waiting for you but when the cab pulls up, the street is deserted. As the cab door closes, an overwhelming feeling of relief washes over you.
It lasts until you get back to your apartment, lock the door behind you, and turn to face the clock in the hallway. It’s steadily ticking towards eight o’clock. Maybe it was a mistake leaving Stiles at all.
You drop your keys on the kitchen bench and pace back and forth across your living room floor. There’s nothing more you can do, but you still hate this. Maybe you’re making too much of it. Peter’s dark, thoughtful look before he faded back into the street stays with you though. You can’t shake the itch at the back of your neck. It’s almost like it’s spreading, making the skin across your shoulders too tight, making your spine tingle and burn.
You spend over an hour writing and rewriting cover letters, circling ads in newspapers, researching new positions. You wish it made you feel like you were really doing something. Like you weren’t really this helpless. At ten past seven, you throw down your pen and switch off your laptop. You move from your bedroom to the couch in the lounge room. You move from the couch to a chair at the dining table. You go back to your bed and lie on top of the covers. The clock ticks over to twenty past. You stare at the walls, the ceiling, the furniture. The simple white color scheme was elegant when you chose it; now it feels like a prison. You stare at the clock.
At half past, you pick up your phone and grab your keys off the kitchen bench. The taxi arrives five minutes later.
And then you are Stiles Stilinski, standing on the front step of your block of units, still wearing your work clothes under the layers of jackets and scarves, unlocking your front door.
You’ve still got fifteen minutes until eight o’clock, but you’re not surprised when you hear the car pull up behind you. You make a show of sighing and relocking the door, but you’re smiling. The back door to the taxi swings open when you reach it, but no one gets out. You lean against the frame, bending down. On the opposite side of the car sits Peter, stretched out and languid. He’s not looking at you. His elbow is resting on the car door and he’s staring at his own hand as he taps idly at the window. Before you can speak, though, he stops tapping and presses his finger to his lips. He lifts his other hand out of his lap, and that’s when you notice he’s holding something. It looks like a plate with a cloth napkin draped over it. He holds it out for you, and after a moment’s hesitation, you take it from him, pulling the napkin aside. Underneath is a slice of cake. On top of, two letters are inscribed.
Peter’s watching you expectantly. You stare down at the plate, but before you can ask, Peter sighs and takes it from you again, setting it on the middle seat. He wiggles the finger that’s against his lips pointedly, then leans forward and knots both hands in your scarf. He tugs gently, but your hand is still braced on the metal door frame. He smiles, coaxing, and.txtreases the pressure a little. He tips his head up, inviting, and you give in to it, let yourself be pulled in for a kiss. It’s really just a brush of lips; he nips at your lip and then pulls back, and you follow, chasing the sensation. He kisses you harder this time, tongue dipping between your lips, but not quite enough. You hold onto the car seat, and then rest a knee on it as he pulls back further. You keep following until he’s pressed right up against the car door; you barely notice his grip on your scarf.
When you finally break apart, he reaches past you to pull the door closed. You laugh and swing your legs out of the way, rearranging yourself until you’re sitting instead of kneeling. The door shuts with a thud, and Peter leans back in his seat. He lifts the plate from the middle seat and offers it to you again. Somehow, the cake is unscathed. You laugh, because honestly, the whole thing is ridiculous, and take a bite.
“Did you make this?” you say, trying to imagine him baking.
“I had help,” he says.
You take another bite. It’s not particularly sweet, but the taste fills your mouth, sticky and rich.
“Why LM?” you ask, gesturing to the initials inscribed in it.
“Lydia Martin,” he says. There’s something about his tone that you can’t quite place. It’s almost like a threat, or maybe a challenge.
He waves a hand that the driver must have been watching for, and the car takes off. You want to ask him where you’re going, but you’re distracted when he leans forward to take your empty plate and place it on the floor. The movement gives you a glimpse of the window behind him, the place he was tapping before you got into the car. For a moment, you’d swear you could see scratch marks.
You know you’re too late even before you get there. Outside Stiles’ apartment, you yell at the driver to wait for you and dash up the stairs. The buzzer gets no response, though you tap at it repeatedly, heart hammering in your chest. You try pounding on the door, but it’s useless; you’re not really expecting an answer. You resist the urge to drop your head against the door and sink down onto the paved steps. You can’t stay here. You look back to the taxi, where you can see the driver resting his arms on the steering wheel and watching you curiously. It doesn’t matter. You’re wasting time.
The card in your pocket feels rough to the touch, and far too heavy. You grasp it tightly, and though the edges feel like they’re cutting into your skin, it’s just an illusion. You tell yourself it’s just an illusion.
“Here,” you say as you get back in the car. You pass the card to the driver.
He nods, still looking curious. You ignore him, and shut down all of his attempts at conversation with short one-word answers. You should be trying to keep him on side. Given what you’re going to ask next, you should. All you can think about is Stiles.
That’s not true, of course. The person on your mind right now is not Stiles. You’ll feel better if you think about it this way, though. And that’s another lie, but if you pretend anything could make you feel better, maybe you’ll be able to breathe again. If only a little.
You lose track of time. The buildings are sparser along these streets. Some are dilapidated and abandoned, other merely plain - sterile concrete blocks. Eventually the car comes to a stop.
You pay the driver twice as much as the trip was worth, and then hold up the same amount again.
“Wait here,” you say. “If I’m not back in ten minutes, call the police.”
He looks uncertain, maybe scared, but you haven’t got the patience for it.
“I’ll be back in ten minutes.”
You shove the money back into your purse and get out. You’re sure he’s going to drive away the second you close the door. But what else can you do? You look down at the card to confirm the address, and then up at the house in front of you. The car doesn’t move. It’s the smallest of mercies, but it helps. You close your eyes and inhale deeply.
Peter’s house isn’t just old. It looks like a massive fire swept through it. No one lives here. You’re sure no one could live here. The windows are shattered and the wooden deck out the front looks unstable. You approach the door slowly, but nothing breaks at your touch. You raise a hand to knock, but then hold back. You try the door handle, and it turns easily. You can’t think about this. You take another deep breath and push the door open.
You jump when the door clicks shut behind you, even though you were expecting it. Peter gives you an apologetic smile as he turns the key in the lock, and you look around the clean, bright apartment. There’s a clock in the entrance hallway, and beyond that you can see a kitchen bench and maybe the lounge room adjacent to it. You go to take off your jacket, but for some reason your arms won’t cooperate. You’re lightheaded, and your vision blurs. You reach out for something to hold on to, and then Peter is there, holding you up.
“Are you okay?” he asks.
You nod. The dizziness isn’t completely gone, but you can see again, and stand. He helps you with your jacket, and then ducks back down the hall, perhaps to find somewhere to hang it. You head in the opposite direction, following the hall deeper into the apartment.
A bouquet of flowers in a porcelain vase rests on the kitchen bench. Your eyes are drawn to it, a splash of purple vibrant against the white walls and furniture. You go over to it, steadying yourself on the bench. Your fingers are clumsy as they brush the petals. You’re dizzy again, and you’re sure you threw these out, and you don’t even know where that thought came from. Why would you have thrown them out? You’ve never been here before. Peter comes up behind you, grip firm on your elbow. He steadies you as you sway, and guides you over to the lounge.
“Is this your place?” you ask, frowning at the way your words slur.
There’s a stack of mail on the coffee table, and Peter pushes it towards you, turning it so you can read the addressee. The words swim before your eyes, but you can make out that much. Lydia Martin, they say. You look up abruptly. Peter’s gone.
“What’s going on?” you say, turning wildly.
The room spins, and then Peter’s face appears beside you again, a picture of concern. He’s kneeling in front of the lounge, you think, and he wraps one hand around the back of your neck. With the other, he smoothes back your hair.
“How are you doing?” he murmurs.
You try to pull away, but it’s a half-hearted effort and Peter is unmoved. He peers into your eyes, and seems to like what he sees there.
“Good,” he says. “That’s good.”
He lets you go and you sag against the back of the couch, trying to focus. A length of rope is coiled on the coffee table. You can’t make sense of that. Peter’s hand closes around it.
“What are you doing?” you say.
Peter smiles. “Waiting.”
“What for?” Your voice is barely a whisper.
You think about standing, but Peter already has his hands on your hips. He drags you forward so that your legs are parted, thighs pressing against him on either side. Your limbs feel heavy and awkward. Peter tugs at your sweater, and it comes off over your head far too easily, taking your shirt with it. He runs his fingers down your bare chest and you shiver at the touch. His hands wrap around each of your wrists and he pushes them together behind your back. He twists you around until he has a better reach. Your legs are still trapped in place and the position is painful, but you can’t struggle. Peter begins wrapping the rope around your wrists.
“We’re waiting for Lydia,” he says.
Even through the haze of pain and disorientation, that sends a chill through you.
Peter presses a kiss to the back of your shoulder.
“Yes,” he says. “Don’t worry, she’ll be here soon.”
Inside the house, the air smells like dirt and ash. The floorboards creak underfoot, and the walls look like they should have crumbled long ago. You leave the door open behind you, dim light from the street the only thing you have to see by. The front door opens onto a staircase and you run a hand along the banister, coughing when this stirs up a cloud of dust. So much for stealth.
“Stiles?” you call out, squinting around the entrance and up the stairs.
There’s no reply. Tentatively, you try the first step.
“Stiles?” you call again, and then softer, “Peter?”
The first step doesn’t give way beneath you, even with your full weight on it. You hold onto the handrail, listening for any kind of response, for movement in any of the other rooms. You don’t hear anything. Cautiously, you try the next step.
The stairs open onto a wide foyer, with a number of doorways opening in different directions. A few lead to bedrooms, one to a small study, another to a linen closet. All of them are filled with scorched furniture and broken glass, and none of them look as though they’ve been lived in for years. Eventually, you come to a large, open room. It’s completely empty, and grey light streams in through the wide windows that line one side. The door is ajar when you peer in – you push it aside, stepping into the moonlight.
The room isn’t empty. Something moves in the shadows of the opposite wall. You freeze, muscles tensed and ready, straining to see what’s there.
Peter steps into the light.
“Lydia,” he says. “We’ve been waiting for you.”
Rope cuts into your skin. Your head is spinning. Peter’s hands are on your arms, your chest, your neck; it’s your only connection to the rest of the world. He kisses your forehead. His arms wrap around the small of your back and he threads his fingers between yours, as though you’re holding hands. He kisses your temple. You try to twist away, and he drags his lips down your cheek, teeth catching at the skin.
“Stop,” you say. “I don’t… Lydia… You don’t know what you’re doing.”
Peter kisses your lips. It’s vicious and possessive, like he wants to steal the last breath from your lungs, and his mouth tastes like blood. You close your eyes, and it feels like dying.
You gasp and stagger backwards, eyes flying open as the images fade.
“What’s going on?” you say. “Where’s Stiles?”
You can still feel Peter’s touch, taste his lips against yours, and the cool air in this ancient, broken house does nothing to erase it. On the other side of the room, Peter lifts a hand to examine his fingernails. There’s a click, like the sound of claws being unsheathed.
“Don’t play dumb, Lydia,” he says.
You have to get home. You have no idea what you’re going to find, but you have to get there.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” you say. “I don’t-”
You cut yourself off. The end of that sentence is remember, and what does that mean?
Peter hasn’t moved, but he seems much closer than he did before.
He says, “I think you do.”
You take a step back without taking your eyes off him, seeking the doorway. Peter scuffs his foot on the floorboards. He’s not wearing shoes.
“You’re scared,” Peter says. “You don’t have to be scared.”
You grope behind yourself for the door.
“What do you want?” you say.
Peter laughs. He’s still standing in the light from the window, hasn’t made any move towards you. You don’t understand that. It’s like he knows something you don’t.
“It’s not about what I want,” he says. “It’s about what I need. And what you need.”
“I don’t need anything from you,” you say.
Your hand meets the charred door, and you grab the door handle, ready to pull it closed behind you.
“The cab driver is gone,” Peter says, watching you without concern. “He didn’t call anyone. No one’s coming.”
Your grip on the door handle tightens. You’re not going to ask how he knows that. You’re not.
He says, “You know where Stiles is.”
You don’t let go of the door. Your grip doesn’t ease at all. You also haven’t run yet.
“Come here,” Peter says.
His nails glint in the moonlight.
You should run. You should turn around, slam the door and run. You could get out, leave in the middle of the night, go somewhere no one’s ever heard of you before. You’d be safe. You’d never see Peter again. You’d never understand, you’d never remember, and you’d always be afraid.
“Stiles tells you you’re beautiful,” Peter says. “Doesn’t he? He tells you you’re brilliant. He thinks he’s the only one that sees it.”
The door handle is warm to touch now. Your fingers are beginning to ache.
“You are beautiful and brilliant,” Peter says. “That’s not it, though, is it? Stiles thinks he knows you, but there’s so much that he never saw.”
“What do you see?”
Peter’s teeth gleam; it’s not even close to a smile.
“Natural talent,” he says.
It’s familiar in the way dreams are familiar. Like it happened to someone else, or in another life.
“You have so much strength,” he says. “You don’t have to be afraid of anyone. Not even me.”
The door handle slips from your grasp. The floor is rough and gritty under your feet. You’re not wearing shoes. That doesn’t make sense, you think. The thought feels a long way away, but it suddenly seems important. You should be wearing shoes.
“Lydia,” Peter says, “stop fighting me.”
Your bare feet are pale, skin stark against the wood. Your sense of urgency is fading.
“Where are my shoes?” you say. “Where’s Stiles?”
You can’t remember why it matters.
“I know what you need,” Peter says. “I know you. You want to stop feeling scared. You want to be powerful. Let me help.”
The word is skeptical, defiant, but there’s a plea underneath it. You’re already halfway across the room.
“Come here,” Peter says again.
His eyes flash a bright, unnatural yellow. You’re only a few steps away from him, and you can’t stop. You don’t want to. You drag him towards you by the collar of his shirt. His claws dig into your shoulders and all you can think is that you want them to go deeper. Your lips connect, neither of you holding anything back. It’s terrifying, out of control, and it’s like coming home.
Heat radiates from Peter and you press closer, winding an arm around his neck. The smell of ash is growing fainter. Peter slides his hands down to your waist, and his claws catch on the fabric of your jacket, tearing strips in it. Your shoulders sting; you think they might be bleeding. It’s still not enough. You clutch at Peter’s hair, pulling his head down to deepen the kiss.
There’s a reason you shouldn’t be doing this. Nothing’s ever felt better than the way his body fits against yours, but you’re sure there’s a reason you shouldn’t be doing this. You try to pull back, but Peter bites down on your bottom lip and scratches thin lines across your hips. It’s all you can do to bury your face in his neck and moan. Peter flattens his palms against your skin, and you twist your head to lick along his neck. Your eyes are closed, but light filters through your eyelids, brighter than it should be.
You open your eyes, and you’re no longer standing in a room in Peter’s burnt out house. This room is smaller, and the walls and furniture are white. There’s a lounge right behind Peter, and further on, a kitchen bench. A vase of purple flowers is resting on it.
“This isn’t real,” you say.
Peter kisses the corner of your mouth, and takes both of your hands. He sits back on the lounge, drawing you down onto your knees in front of him. He places one of your hands against his cheek and pulls the other around his back.
“Not yet,” he says.
His eyes are closed as he leans forward. His thighs part on either side of you, both arms behind his back, and he threads his fingers through yours. You hook your thumb around his jaw and kiss him, vicious and possessive.
The body beneath you jerks, as though to pull away, and you open your eyes. Stiles stares back at you, helpless and afraid.
Your name is Stiles Stilinski, and- oh, but that’s not right, is it? Your name is Lydia Martin. As Stiles, you struggle uselessly against the ropes that bind your wrists. As Stiles, you pull away from relentless kisses, from teeth that catch at your bottom lip. But you are Lydia. You are Lydia and you are losing.
If you were Stiles, you might look at Lydia with your eyes blown wide – and oh yes, those are beautifully unfocused. You might wonder at the unfamiliar twist to her lips, or you might be too far gone to notice. You’d murmur against her lips,.txtoherent and desperate, begging her to stop. Maybe her eyes are flashing yellow - maybe in the artificial light of the room it looks red. Maybe you’re con.txting yourself it’s all in your head. Lydia nuzzles your cheek, and yes, if you were Stiles you should be trying to con.txte yourself you’re seeing things. It would be best if you’ve never seen anything like it before – if you don’t remember anything like it. But maybe you do remember. Maybe you know more than you’ve been saying.
“You should hope I don’t ask,” Lydia whispers.
And maybe you won’t. You’ll have to find out what he knows eventually, of course, but maybe you won’t ask just now. You’d much rather suck red marks into his shoulders, bite down on his nipple, leave scratch marks across his chest. You’re far more interested in the way he whimpers and struggles uselessly in your grasp. You’re more interested in the tears prickling in the corner of his eyes.
“For what it’s worth,” you say, wiping one away with your thumb, “I think you’re beautiful when you cry.”
Your name is Lydia Martin, and then again, sometimes it’s not. As someone else, you might want to tear Stiles apart. You might want to strip away everything he is, turn his fear into strength and then strip that away too. As someone else, you might want to destroy him.
As someone else, you tear red lines down Stiles’ cheek, rings on your fingers and blood on your sharp, painted nails. You understand the helplessness of bound hands, the terror of surrendering to Lydia’s kisses with slack, drugged lips. You want it. Your name is Peter Hale, and you are winning.
As someone else you want to tear Stiles apart. You are someone else - sometimes. But as someone else, you want to tear Lydia apart too. You can’t; not yet, not ever. And if you cede to Lydia in that, you have to in this too. Lydia sees something else in Stiles, something she wants to keep. You, or someone you once hated, might call it natural talent. And maybe you want to keep it too.
Your name is Lydia Martin, and you’ve already won.