Stiles is alone in the woods, facing the cracked, rotten stump of a tree. It’s cold, much too cold for the thin flannel pants he’s wearing, the pale skin of his upper arms and chest bared to the freezing air as if he wasn’t standing in the middle of the woods, shivering in little more than his pajama pants in the middle of the night.
He doesn’t remember how he got there, but he’s not alone. There’s something in the woods with him, someone, as he can hear the rasp of breath just behind him, the underbrush crackling under a heavy step that’s slowly creeping closer, hidden in the darkness just out of sight.
He is being hunted.
He tries to turn around, but can’t – his eyes are stuck on the scene in front of him, as if he’s watching a movie at a drive-in, but he can’t punch the buckle on his seat.
There’s an ear-splitting crack as the surface of the stump in front of him breaks in two, and his breath catches in his throat.
Two eyes stare at him from the darkness within the stump, wide and bright with dirty white, bloodless sclera.
He wakes with a choked gasp, his heart beating a rapid rhythm in his chest as his eyes skirt the corners of the room, probing the shadows for the dark figure. The sheets are damp around him, soaked through with sweat that has cooled rapidly against his skin and left him shivering,
Fingers of a familiar panic wind tightly around his chest, almost crushing against his lungs as he struggles for breath. It’s a sensation he is intimately familiar with.
He reaches for the water he keeps on his night stand, its contents splashing across the sheets as he brings it closer to his chest with a trembling hand. The chill of the glass is a relief against his burning skin, and it helps him focus on his task as he grabs a handful of half-melted ice, gripping them tightly within his fist.
He focuses on the bite of cold in his fist, letting it ground him until the sense of overriding panic loosens its grasp on his chest, and he takes in a deep breath, feeling his heart rate settle into a more normal rate.
When he can breathe again, Stiles levers himself upright, letting his feet drop off the side of the bed until they brush the worn fibres of the carpet, staring at the pale outline of his foot against the floor.
It has been nearly six years since he last had a panic attack.
The house is quiet, missing the comforting rumble of his father’s snores through the wall, which means he’s probably working another double shift. Stiles doesn’t expect him back until early morning - the whole Sheriff’s department had been through a lot in the last few months, and they’d all had to pitch in extra shifts to help with the reduced size of the force – and now that Stiles’ father knew, knew everything that Stiles had been trying to protect him from for the last year and a half, he’d been extra stubborn.
He wouldn’t admit it, but Stiles knew exactly how the Sheriff was spending the extra hours: pouring over old case files, trying to figure out just how much he’d missed over the years. He couldn’t blame him for it, either, when he’d be doing the exact same thing in his position.
Stiles knows from experience that there was no way he was going to get any more sleep tonight. He feels jittery even as he opens up his laptop and loads his current set of bookmarked research – dreams and their meanings, which had led him to a large number of websites about ‘spirit walks’ and ‘finding your spirit animal after smoking ludicrous amounts of peyote’,
After another half hour or so of failed research – he doesn’t even know how he ended up on the website about somnophilia – Stiles gives up pretending that he can just ignore it, and changes into his running clothes. He doesn’t bother leaving a note for his dad – he’ll be home long before he finishes his shift – just grabs his wallet and keys and heads out the door.
He uses the GPS on his phone to plot a course to the opposite side of town, through the post-industrial warehouse district where Derek had kept a crumbling apartment with a giant hole in the wall, and begins to run.
Stiles loses himself within the silence that blankets everything, absorbing the sounds of the outside world. He likes to run here, to pant and sweat out his anxiety in a maze of empty streets far from anything and anyone he knows, until he’s a breathless, gasping mess from exhaustion instead of pointless, aimless fear.
It also had the added benefit of increasing his fitness, which was a never a bad thing, especially in light of the trouble that had managed to find its way towards Beacon Hills lately. The town’s name was beginning to seem a bit too prophetic for Stiles’ liking, drawing out elements of the supernatural that Stiles had really hoped he could relegate to myth.
He doesn’t stop until he jogs past Derek’s old apartment building. It’s the last stop on his usual route, and he nearly trips over himself when he sees light through the window. He turns around just in time to see a shadow peel away from the front of the building, and although he’s looks a little different - tanned, the scruff around his chin a little longer which just makes his face softer, somehow – the figure that pulls him to a stop is still easily recognizable.
Derek arches a single brow, amusement dancing in the creases at the corners of his eyes. “Me.”
Stiles – must still be dreaming. Derek fucking Hale had left town for South America two months ago, leaving behind an empty apartment and the registration for the Camaro in Isaac’s name. There were no Hales left in Beacon Hills –hell, they’d even torn down the burned-out shell of the house a week ago.
And yet here he is, in the flesh, wearing the same stupid smirk and leather jacket he’d brought with him to Beacon Hills a little over a year ago.
Derek doesn’t seem concerned by the time it’s taking Stiles to come up with a response, his posture relaxed as he slides his hands into the pockets of his jacket - which must have some sentimental value for the amount of time he spends in it. He glances Stiles up and down, his gaze considering as he draws his own conclusions.
Stiles doesn’t want to know what those are, he knows he’s a mess; he can feel the sweat dribbling from his hairline onto his face, and the front of his shirt is sticking uncomfortably to his chest.
“It’s a little late for a run.”
Stiles ignores the non-sequitur, running a hand through his hair, making a face as he remembers too late why he was trying to avoid doing just that. “Does Scott know you’re back?”
“Not yet.” He gives Stiles a look, the ‘I want it to stay that way’ clear if unspoken. Stiles raises his hands in defeat and Derek continues. “I’m keeping an eye on him and Isaac. If they need me, I’ll be here.”
Stiles gets it, even if he doesn’t agree entirely with Derek’s reasoning. After the alpha pack had been brought down a few months ago, they’d all needed time to heal. If Stiles’ healing involved midnight runs, Derek’s involved aggressive self-loathing and isolation. After what had happened to Erica and then Boyd, and so very nearly Cora, Stiles had half-expected him to turn his back on Beacon Hills altogether.
He sure as hell hadn’t expected to run into him here, of all places. Despite the circumstances, however, Derek looks… good. A little rough around the edges, maybe, but better than when he’d left, where it’d looked as if a strong wind could shake him apart. Spending time with Cora had really done him some good.
Stiles glances at the steadily lightening sky, gauging the time he has left before sunrise. If he doesn’t start heading back soon, he’d have to skip showering before getting back into bed, and he hates the feeling of sweat on his skin, clammy and damp against his sheets.
“As much as I’d like to stick around and chat, I really should be getting back.”
Derek nods, stepping back until he’s out of his path. “I’ll accompany you home. These roads can be dangerous at night.”
The offer surprises him, and Stiles finds himself momentarily at a loss for words. He nods, instead, finding no reason to reject the offer, and watches as Derek shrugs out of his jacket and folds it carefully, stashing it behind a convenient bush as he bounces on the pads of his feet, twisting his neck until it cracks with neat click.
At Derek’s signal, Stiles turns back to his set route and pushes himself forward into a jog. The steady beat of Derek’s feet match his pace easily, and they follow the road around the side of the apartment building and into the surrounding neighborhood.
The buildings here are squat and ugly, the overgrown lawns that line the street strewn with discarded bottles and other miscellaneous trash. It’s a horrible place, really; an ambitious development project abandoned in the sixties, to become a haven for junkies and the dregs of society ever since, but it’s quiet at this hour, due to the recent deployment of late night patrols by the Sherriff’s department.
Stiles focuses on his breathing, the cadence of his footfalls as concrete turns to tarmac and he moves past dark warehouses and decrepit buildings. He glances at Derek as they move further into the suburbs, but he shows no sign of slowing as they leave the outskirts of the city, and they make good time through the empty streets of Beacon Hills.
It must be getting on five when they finally reach his neighborhood, the sky lightened to the point that he can clearly see the black and white markings of his dad’s cruiser in the driveway. He stifles a groan. Shit. That will be an awkward conversation, later, then.
He turns back to face Derek, a quip prepped and ready on his lips about not needing an escort to make it across the front porch, but Derek’s already gone, a black silhouette against the pink dawn. He throws out a quiet ‘good night’ anyway, and smiles as Derek raises his hand in acknowledgment before he disappears into the shadows.
After stumbling through the motions of a shower, he’s just about ready to collapse into bed when his phone lights up with a notification. He picks it up, expecting to see a text from his father or Scott, but he’s surprised when he sees it’s a number he doesn’t recognize. He unlocks his phone with one hand as he towels his hair with the other, fully expecting it to be a cold caller and nearly drops the phone in shock when he reads the message.
‘Come by later when you’ve gotten some sleep. -Derek.’
He manages to scrounge a couple hours of fitful sleep before he finally gives up on the idea of getting anything like a substantial rest. It’s been weeks, possibly even months, since he’s been able to sleep through the night, anyway.
He spends maybe five minutes getting ready before he hits the road, splashing water on his face and throwing on a long shirt and jeans against the weather, before he heads out to run the few errands on his to-do list today. It’s late morning by the time he’s finally finished, and he makes a stop at the local bakery for some breakfast and coffee before he heads to Derek’s apartment. He has to take a guess at Derek’s coffee order - he’s never seen any cream or sugar at Derek’s place, so he can only assume he takes it black, like his jacket, and his car (and, most likely, his soul) but he picks up a couple extra packets of sugar, just in case.
After the elevator pulls to a stop and Stiles reaches the landing outside Derek’s apartment, however, Stiles finds himself hesitating. It’s ridiculous, really, as Derek could have easily recognized the sound of his jeep as he pulled into the parking lot, and can probably tell that Stiles is out here, loitering on the stoop. He pulls together his wits, and after another few minutes pause, steps up to the door.
Derek doesn’t mention it, at least, when he opens the door to Stiles’ knock a few minutes later, and Stiles is grateful for that. He waves the bag of baked goods in front of him as a peace offering. “I brought a late breakfast.”
Derek raises an amused brow as he glances between Stiles and the bag, before he nods, stepping back from the doorway so Stiles can make his way into the apartment, although he doesn’t get much further than the threshold.
The space before him is almost unrecognizable.
The layout of the apartment has changed significantly from two months ago, the wall containing the gaping hole torn out to create an open plan kitchen-dining area that Stiles had never expected to see within the space. Two large leather sofas and a book-lined coffee table have been moved in front of the window to make a living area that actually looks quite comfortable, now that there is actually furniture in the room again. The look is rounded off by a soft looking rug that covers the worst of the water damage, the rusted metal workbench that had been serving as a desk replaced by a wooden alternative lined with shelves on either side.
It’s surprisingly domestic for Derek. Stiles wonders if Cora had any hand in the apartment’s renovation, or if this was something Derek had wanted to do from the beginning.
Derek takes the coffee containers and the bag of baked goods from Stiles’ limp arms, setting out the spread of slightly squashed bagels and pastries on the coffee table before he gestures for Stiles to join him. It takes him a moment to respond, still marveling at the changes to the apartment, and he nearly misses the moment that Derek picks up a sweet tart and takes two packets of sugar to sweeten his coffee.
“This is… nice.”
Derek lets out a snort as he bites into the pastry. It should be unflattering, but he manages to pull it off without losing any of his dignity. Now, if Stiles tried that, he’d end up with a face full of crumbs. “It’s better.”
Now, if that wasn’t the understatement of the century. Stiles hides a smirk behind a bite of his own muffin, and muffling a groan as he savors the taste of pumpkin spice. God, he loved this time of year.
“So. Why’d you want me to come by, anyway?”
“I figured it was only a matter of time until you came back, anyway, so I thought I’d at least extend you an invitation.” He eyes him curiously as he leans forward to take another pastry from the bag. “I have to say, I didn’t expect the pastries.”
“I figured I’d need to bribe you to get any answers.”
“That was smart. Do you have many questions?”
Derek lets out a long, beleaguered sigh, although the effect is somewhat ruined by the brightly colored strawberry tart he’s holding in his other hand. “I’ll do what I can.”
Stiles leads the conversation for nearly an hour with his questions, covering everything from where Derek had gone after he’d left Beacon Hills to the well-being of Cora.
“Are you sure she wouldn’t want me to have her number? As I think she’d want me to have her number. You know, since I saved her life and all.”
“She still has your number, Stiles. If she wants to you to have hers, you’ll know.”
Stiles slumps back onto the sofa with an exaggerated sigh, watching out of the corner of his eye with no small amount of glee as Derek scowls at the cascade of crumbs that tumble down his chest and onto the sofa. So domestic.
“You are so very cruel.”
They fall into a comfortable sort of silence after that, both content to eat in silence and mull over their own thoughts. He’s surprised when Derek’s the one to break it a little while later, clearing his throat, eyes cast down and away when Stiles glances at him questioningly.
“I wanted to thank you, for not telling Scott.”
Stiles raises a surprised brow, lips quirking into a smile as Derek continues to studiously avoid his gaze. “Really? How did you know I didn’t tell him?”
The look Derek gives him is distinctly unimpressed.
“Because he’d be here now, instead of you.”
Stiles coughs out a laugh at that, sending a spray of crumbs down himself and across the surrounding furniture, and Derek smiles. It’s a small thing, just a tweak of the lips, but it’s there and real, and it’s possibly the only time Stiles has seen it.
“Why were you out there last night?”
It’s not a subtle change of topic, but Stiles is still somewhat shell-shocked by the sight of an actual smile on Derek’s features, and he finds himself uncharacteristically accommodating.
“I’ve taken up running. I’ve been having nightmares recently, and running it out helps. Last night just happened to be particularly bad.”
“You’re having nightmares?”
Stiles inclines his head in a nod. “Yeah. Ever since – yeah. I’m getting really sick of that seeing that god damn tree.”
Derek’s reaction to his statement is definitely not what he expected – he startles, the line of his body stiffening as he straightens, his hands dropping into his lap.
“The Nemeton?” His expression tightens, losing the softness that had developed over the last hour or so of conversation as he waits for Stiles response. Unsure of what exactly has changed in the last few seconds, Stiles give a shaky nod. “How long have you been dreaming about the Nemeton?”
“A month or so? It started out pretty innocuous at first: just sitting by the tree. It’s gotten worse recently.”
Derek regards him quietly, a furrow forming between his brow and Stiles can’t help the apprehension that builds in his chest. He – was really hoping that there was nothing more to this than bad dreams.
“You think there are more to these dreams?”
Derek is slow to respond, and the tension winds tighter in Stiles’ chest. “I don’t know. I wouldn’t rule it out, though. Have you talked to Deaton?”
“I haven’t even mentioned this to Scott. He’s been busy, and the dreams didn’t start getting really bad until about a week ago.”
Derek is silent for a moment too long, and Stiles finds himself reaching out to Derek’s sleeve. “Derek. If you know something more about this, you have to tell me. Please.”
“There may be… I can check some of my family’s books.”
“Thanks. I’d appreciate it.”
Derek doesn’t respond, just wanders over to the shelves lining the large window in the center of the room and starts sorting through books – and Stiles takes that as an invitation to take his phone and start his own investigation.
He didn’t have any plans for today other than continuing his research anyway, and he might as well do it here. Derek’s wifi is faster, at least. They fall easily back into their old, familiar patterns, and the rest of the day passes in a blur of books and research.
At some point, Stiles must fall asleep, as when he wakes up, the apartment is significantly darker than it had been earlier, and equally as empty.
He’s disoriented, barely aware of the time of day or his location, and it takes him a little while to realise just what is throwing him off – he’s slid down into crack in the middle of the sofa, and he’s covered by the world’s most outrageously soft blanket, and he wants nothing more than to just sleep the rest of the day away.
That is not a good impulse, especially when his dad is probably waiting for him – his dad. Crap.
There’s a note on the coffee table, right beside his phone. He groans as he leans over to pick them up, using the light of the display to illuminate the note. ‘Be back by seven. ‘
He glances at the screen: six-thirty pm. His dad would have given up waiting for him three hours ago and probably headed to the local diner. He has a few messages, but nothing from Scott or Isaac. He pretty much expected as much, but that does little to mitigate his annoyance at that fact, regardless.
Scott’s life had gotten a lot more complicated after he’d been turned. Stiles would just have to accept his drop in his list of priorities.
He makes himself another cup of tea, and returns to his spot on the sofa, laptop perched on his lap as he watches over three dozen tabs reload in his browser. So far, the results of his research had been a whole lot of nothing: searching ‘dream demons’ on google had just given him a million results of what were basically different varieties of sex demons and although he had gained a unique insight into the online BDSM community, there was nothing of actual use there.
The online copy of the bestiary had yielded similar, if less graphic results, and after another half hour or so of fruitless research, he’s given up and ordered Chinese food, getting double his normal order and then some.
A rattling of keys against china signal Derek’s arrival just as Stiles is distributing the dishes, having poked around in the cupboards until he’d found paper plates and cutlery. Derek pauses as he catches sight of Stiles in the kitchen, his brows climbing as he eyes the truly ridiculous amount of food on the counters.
“I have actual plates, you know.”
Stiles rolls his eyes, working on filling a plate for himself. “Just shut up and eat.”
A little while later finds the both of them packed onto the larger sofa, open cartons of Chinese food littering the coffee table.
“So, my research was a bust. Did you find anything useful in your books?”
Derek frowns and shakes his head, a furrow worrying its way back between his brows as he lowers his plate of food to eye Stiles. “None of my family’s old books have any more details on the Nemeton. I’ve checked before, but I was hoping I’d missed something.”
His expression is tight with frustration, his movements with his chopsticks becoming more aggressive until he drops them back down onto his plate with a sigh. Stiles offers him a small smile, touched by his concern, if not a little weirded out by it.
“Don’t worry about it. It was a long shot, anyway.” He puts down his plate and glances at the time on his phone, grimacing when he realizes it’s approaching nine. It was time for him to go. He glances back over at Derek, who nods and starts clearing the table.
“Thanks for letting me spend the day here.”
Derek lets out a snort from where he’s merging to containers into one, sending him a look over a pile of cold noodles. “Don’t mention it. Are you going to be okay tonight?”
“I should be. The dreams don’t come every night,” or else he would have lost his sanity a long time ago. He offers Derek a small grin as he gets to his feet and rolls his body into a stretch, before packing away his laptop and grabbing a carton of takeout. “I should have a few days reprieve.”
Derek’s eyes follow him from the back of the sofa as he makes his way towards the door, stumbling slightly as he gets used to using his legs again. When Stiles glances back at him from the doorway, the furrow is back between his brows, and his lips are twisted into a characteristic frown. “I’ll keep looking in the books. Come back again tomorrow, and we’ll go over what we’ve found.”
“Sure.” Raising a hand in farewell, Stiles makes his way back to his jeep and starts the drive back to civilization.
The dream comes again later that night.