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here in the forest dark and deep

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Stiles dreamt. He ran through a dense thicket of trees, branches slapping his face as he pushed through the vegetation. He could hear his mother calling for him, somewhere off in the distance and he had to get to her before it was too late, before – Something stabbed Stiles just below the ribs and he yelped, his eyes flying open.

Allison leaned across the center console of the Jeep, looking bemused and faintly worried. “You okay?”

Stiles rubbed resentfully at his ribs where she’d poked him awake. He’d had the dream for years, but that didn’t mean it was any less traumatizing every time he had it. “Just dreaming,” he muttered, and lifted his eyes past the dashboard. Allison had pulled into a gas station. Stiles lifted his eyebrows. “Is this it? We’re moving into a gas station? What luxury.”

“Come on,” Allison laughed. “We’re still like two hours away, but the tank’s almost empty. Do you want anything?”

Stiles shrugged and popped the door open, jumping out onto the pavement. It felt good to stretch after the seven-hour journey from southern California. He could feel the difference in the air already; it felt cooler, more humid. The trees lining the road looked hardy, unwelcoming. He shuddered at the memory of the dream and went wandering into the gas station while Allison filled up the Jeep.

“Where’s Dad?” Stiles asked his sister as they waited in line to pay. Allison had a Snapple and bag of pretzels, while Stiles had gone the imminent heart attack route of Monster and Twizzlers. He’d eyed the curly fries sitting under the heat lamp, but gas station food wasn’t always a safe bet.

“He said he’d keep going,” Allison replied, tucking a stray curl behind her ear. “I guess the movers get cranky if you’re not there to meet them.”

They paid for the food and gas and headed back out to the car. Stiles looked up at the grey sky and asked, “You excited for this?”

Allison smiled and nudged him in the side. “Only because you’re here.”

“Where else would I be?” Stiles asked indignantly. “You think I’d just let you and Dad move to the frozen north and leave me in LA all by myself?”

Allison laughed and tossed him the keys. “Your turn,” she said, opening the passenger’s side door.

“Yeah, yeah,” Stiles mumbled, clambering in and starting the car.

Two hours later found them passing a sign that said Welcome to Beacon Hills and they both shifted a little, tension filling the car.

“I’m nervous,” Allison said suddenly, biting at her lip.

Stiles gave her what he hoped was a reassuring grin. “Makes sense. New place, new school—”

“Ugh, stop,” she protested, clapping her hands over her ears. “You’re not helping!”

Stiles snorted, keeping his eyes on the road. He slowed as they began passing through the town, staring at the stores and businesses as they passed. It was – the word quaint wasn’t really in Stiles’ vocabulary, but it was close. Picturesque, maybe. They passed the high school on the far edge of town and stared as they went by.

“It looks – nice,” Allison said haltingly.

“No bars on the windows,” Stiles agreed, and she smacked him on the arm before fishing out the directions to the new house.

The route took them on a winding road that quickly turned to dirt and Stiles gritted his teeth as the Jeep bounced over potholes. They were surrounded by the forest and even in the early afternoon light it was dark under the trees, the branches forming a canopy over the road.

“I’m going to have nightmares about this,” Stiles muttered. He could just imagine it; unseen things crawling across the road, blurry glimpses of unknown beasts moving through the trees in the far distance, his mother’s voice calling for him. He shuddered at the thought.

“Chin up,” Allison said. “At least if we throw parties, there’ll be no neighbors to make noise complaints.”

“With what friends?” Stiles clicked his tongue as he caught sight of a house through the trees. “Jesus, look at the size of it. D’you think Dad knew he was buying a mansion?”

The house was massive, two stories with gables in the roof, and a porch that wrapped around to the back. Their father’s SUV was parked out front next to a moving van. Stiles pulled up next to the van, Allison hopping out before he’d even set the brake. Their father came out onto the porch, smiling.

“Well?” he asked. “What do you think?”

“I think we’d need about twenty more siblings to fill this place,” Stiles replied, pulling the hood of his sweatshirt up against the damp chill. No one would ever guess that it was near the tail end of August, Labor Day just around the corner, not with this cold permeating the air.

His father rolled his eyes at Stiles’ words. “It was either this or a house two counties over, and it was a steal for the price.”

“Uh huh,” Stiles muttered. He didn’t bother mentioning that once Allison went off to college, it just be him and his dad in this huge house.

Allison jabbed him in the side and beamed, “It looks great, Dad. Can we go look around?”

Their father nodded, gesturing toward the door. “Don’t get in the movers’ way!” he called after them.

Inside, the house smelled like fresh paint and sawdust. The living room was massive, open to the second floor, with huge windows along the back wall that would – theoretically – let in a ton of sunlight if the sun ever came out. Allison grinned and headed for the stairs. Stiles followed slowly, not entirely enthusiastically. For as long as he could remember, they’d lived in a somewhat cramped three-bedroom apartment. He didn’t know if he’d be able to handle all this space; it was like taking someone used to living in the mountains and dumping them into the middle of the plains.

“Stiles!” Allison called from upstairs. He heaved a sigh and followed.

There were five bedrooms on the second floor, each with their own bathroom (which was cool, Stiles had to admit, though years of sharing a bathroom with Allison and their father had cut his preparation time in the morning to about five minutes). He watched Allison waltz in and out of the room until she stopped to lean against the hallway wall, smiling at him.

“C’mon, grumpy,” she cooed. “Aren’t you going to pick your room?”

Stiles grimaced. “We could each have two rooms. It doesn’t really matter to me.”

Allison rolled her eyes and sighed, stepping forward to grasp his shoulders. “Stiles,” she said seriously. “Dad tried really hard, okay? Can’t you at least pretend to be excited?”

Stiles forced himself to smile and she smiled back, patting him on the cheek. “There you go.”

-

Three days after they moved in, Stiles took his first excursion into the woods, leaving Allison and their father to unpack the kitchen. All it had done so far was rain, but the sun had finally come out and Stiles was ready to escape from the big house. He didn’t like it; he was used the sound of traffic and the upstairs neighbors cooking and the downstairs neighbors’ baby crying. The new house was too quiet; he’d yet to sleep past five, when the birds starting singing outside, loud enough to jolt him out a heavy sleep.

Out here in the forest was quiet as well, but it was less a lack of noise than the noises were subdued. Water dripped from the trees around him, and birds sang in the distance, but his footfalls were muffled in the thick loam, the sound of his breathing dull in his ears.

His dad said that this area was a nature preserve; their house sat on a little island of private land in the middle of county-owned property. There were supposed to be walking trails and a pond somewhere, closer to town, but the house was far removed from it all.

Being out in the woods wasn't much better than being in the house, but it was better than the three days he'd just spent unpacking boxes. Stiles found a clearing about fifteen minutes from the house and settled down on a large rock at the edge. He sat for a few quiet minutes, listening to the quiet sounds of the woods around him, then dug around in his pocket for his lighter and his last blunt.

As Stiles laid back against the rock, exhaling smoke, his phone buzzed. He wrangled it out of his pocket to see a new message from Allison: dad & I headed into town to get some stuff. you want to come?

nah, Stiles texted back. thanks tho

He shoved his phone back into his pocket and stared up at the clear blue sky. It felt like summer today, the forest humid and steaming. Stiles wiggled free of his sweatshirt before sweat could start gathering in the small of his back and balled it up under his head like a pillow, trying to relax.

He wasn't happy about the move. It wasn't like he had had a ton of friends in LA to grieve their loss, but he liked routine as much as anyone, and this was not routine. He knew that his dad hand been hand picked to replace the last sheriff, who’d done something stupid to get himself fired, but the knowledge that his dad was an excellent officer of the law didn't make him feel any better. Worse, maybe, because no one wanted to be friends with the sheriff's kid.

Allison had it easier because she was beautiful and had no problem talking with strangers. He wouldn't be surprised if she came back from the trip into town with three new best friends. Stiles, on the other hand, was awkward and gangly, shaped like he still didn't fit into himself. He was a pro at making awkward social situations worse, asking all the questions that no one should be asking, not dropping topics when everyone else had clearly moved on.

He’d have thought, after a couple of years struggling with his sexuality and finally deciding that he liked boobs and dicks (sometimes on the same person; he watched a lot of porn), that things would get easier – like having a bigger pool of possibilities would make his dating life that much simpler. Not true, as things turned out; being bisexual just gave him two demographics to make a fool of himself in front of instead of one.

He wasn't looking forward to starting school on Monday, was the long and short of it.

Stiles sighed, irritated. The pot wasn't calming him like usual; he felt itchy, like his skin was on too tight. All the tiny sounds of the forest began to feel huge, each burst of birdsong ringing in his head like a bell, each drop of water hitting the leaves loud as a cannonball. He shot upright when he heard a branch snap a few hundred yards out in the woods, beyond the space of the clearing.

"Allie?" Stiles called, his skin crawling. Even with the sun out in full force today the woods were dark, the light cool and green, shadows deep. There could be people out here, theoretically, but he was pretty certain he was at least two miles from the nearest trail. Hunters, maybe? He didn’t think you could hunt in game preserves, even if it were hunting season, which he was pretty sure it wasn’t.

Another branch snapped, closer, and Stiles got to his feet, heart starting to race in his chest. "Hello?" he called, his voice coming out embarrassingly high. There was no answer.

Stiles stood still for what seemed like hours, though was probably no more than five minutes, his pulse racing. No more sounds came from the forest, but he couldn't relax; the pot had made him paranoid now, so he gave up and headed back to the house. He was jumpy and restless for the rest of the afternoon, every small noise startling him and he spent a lot of time thinking about how much he hated his life.

It was getting dark by the time the rest of his family came home and he helped them carrying bags of groceries and miscellaneous house wares from the car. Allison had a big pizza, which everyone dug into enthusiastically. After dinner, their father retreated into the living room to go over some paperwork he’d picked up from the sheriff’s station and Stiles followed Allison up to her room, where he helped her put together a particle-board cabinet for her bathroom.

“So what’d you do today?” Allison asked, laying the pieces out on the tile.

“Got high and freaked myself out in the woods,” Stiles said discontentedly, and frowned when she laughed. “I’m not kidding! It’s too quiet out there. I thought I heard someone walking around.”

“You’re just not used to not hearing the highway all the time,” Allison retorted, rolling her eyes. “Anyway, cheer up. I met this girl at the pizza place—” It was Stiles’ turn to roll his eyes, because hadn’t he guessed that Allison would come back with friends? She smacked him on the arm and continued, “I met this girl Lydia and she invited us to a party at her house next weekend. Do you want to go?”

Not really, Stiles thought, sighing internally. He’d much rather stay at home and play WoW with his online friends – at least he knew those guys. But Allison was looking pleadingly at him and he sighed again, out loud this time. Maybe he’d be able to score some weed from someone there. “All right.”

-

Monday rolled around dim and foggy. It took Stiles a while to make himself get out of bed. He felt jittery again, unsettled, and jerking off in the shower didn’t do anything to help. He had to resist the urge to take more than the recommended amount of Adderall, because that would just make things worse, he knew from past experience – too much would push him right into a panic attack.

Downstairs, Allison got up early and made a truly massive amount of breakfast food. “I went for a run, too,” she confessed anxiously, leaning from foot to foot as Stiles piled his plate with eggs and toast.

He licked butter off his thumb and said, “Take me next time. I feel like I’m about to burst out of my skin.”

“No way,” Allison retorted, carrying her own plate over to the table nestled into the kitchen corner. There was a big dining room just beyond the kitchen, but they didn’t had a table in there, preferring the coziness of the kitchen. “Last time I tried to wake you up for a run, you moved like a zombie the whole way.”

“I was just trying to help you out,” Stiles replied gallantly. “You know, they have runs you can sign up for where you get chased by zombies.”

“I think those zombies move a bit faster than a handicapped turtle,” Allison giggled into her coffee. Stiles stuck his tongue out at her.

They both looked up as their father appeared in the doorway, all kitted out in his new sheriff’s uniform, badge gleaming on his chest. “Well?” he asked, spreading his arms. “What do you think?”

“You look good, Dad,” Allison said admiringly, and Stiles nodded his agreement. The sheriff smiled.

After breakfast, as they prepared to leave the house, Stiles patted his pockets and said, “Have you seen my wallet?”

His father made an exasperated noise. “Did you have to lose it now?”

“I swear I put it in my pocket!” Stiles protested, looking around the hallway. “Did—”

“Here it is,” Allison interrupted, handing it over. “It was in your shoe.”

Stiles blinked, looking at his wallet in confusion. He hadn’t even been in the front hall that morning – how had his wallet ended up in his shoes, which were sitting by the front door?

“Can we get a move on?” the sheriff asked, interrupting Stiles’ thoughts, and the family slid into motion, heading out the front door and splitting into two cars. The sheriff followed them to the high school before continuing on for his first day on the job, and Allison turned the Jeep into the school parking lot. She found a spot and parked, but neither of them moved immediately.

“What are you thinking about?” she asked Stiles.

Mom, he thought. He could still remember the touch of her hand on his, leading him into his first day of kindergarten, the way she’d smiled softly before leaving him in the classroom, the way he’d sobbed all through reading time.

“21 Jump Street,” Stiles said out loud. “Let’s not get our fake identities mixed up, okay? I don’t think I could stand being a girl for the rest of the year.”

Allison laughed and popped open her door. “And I don’t think I could stand taking chemistry all over again.”

The principal was a slightly bewildered-looking English man who handed them their course lists and a map of the school and they shook their heads when he asked if they had any questions. When they left his office there was another boy sitting in the waiting room, olive-skinned and dark-haired, next to a woman with curly hair who had to be his mother. The boy looked up as they passed and Stiles was somehow reassured to see he looked as nervous as Stiles felt. They smiled at each other and then the boy’s dark eyes fell on Allison and a glazed sort of dumbstruck look came over his face. Stiles rolled his eyes; he’d seen that look on guys before. He saw Allison smile her please don’t try to flirt with me; I’m just trying to have a normal day smile and the boy’s mother elbowed him in the ribs.

One of the receptionists took command of Allison and Stiles, first dropping Allison off at her AP Environmental Studies class, then shepherding Stiles to his Critical Writing course. He stood in front of the class, staring at all the apathetic faces staring back, and said, "I'm Stiles Stilinski," when the teacher asked him to introduce himself. She nodded and gestured at him to take an empty seat in the middle of the class.

As he slid into the seat and the teacher turned to the chalkboard, a boy who looked like a J. Crew model - perfect, expensive-looking sweater and everything - leaned toward him and sneered, "What kind of a name is Stiles?"

"It's a nickname," Stiles replied quietly, his jaw tightening. "Most people can't pronounce my name."

The boy scoffed, looking unimpressed, and said, "Where are you from?"

"LA," Stiles returned, keeping his eyes fixed on the chalkboard.

"Mr. Whittemore," their teacher said, not turning away from the board, "let's not get off track on the first day."

The handsome boy scoffed again and leaned away from Stiles, looking bored. At the front of the classroom, the door clicked open again and everyone looked up to see that the receptionist had returned, this time with the boy Stiles had seen in the principal's office.

"Another new student?" their teacher remarked. "Tell us who you are."

"Um, Scott McCall," the boy said, smiling sheepishly. "I just moved here to live with my mom."

The teacher nodded and Scott took the empty seat on Stiles' left. They exchanged cautious smiles and when class ended and people began filtering into the hall, Scott leaned across the aisle and asked, "Are you new too?"

"Yeah," Stiles said. "My sister and I. We just moved here."

"Awesome," Scott smiled. "You wanna eat lunch together?"

Stiles nodded, a grin breaking out over his face.

-

By the end of the day, Stiles and Scott were fast friends. They had the same exact class schedule, and finding new classrooms was a lot easier when there was someone to burst into fits of giggles with when they found themselves in a janitor's closet after Stiles threw open the door declaring, "This has got to be the math room!"

At lunch, they found a table to themselves. Stiles spotted Allison sitting across the room, surrounded by - as he'd predicted - by a large group of teens so perfect they looked like an Abercrombie & Fitch photo shoot. Directly to Allison's right was a red haired girl so pretty she made Stiles' heart ache. He stared as she laughed at something Allison said, gesturing with a perfectly manicured hand. Someone smacked Stiles on the back of the head and he jumped with a curse, twisting to see the J. Crew model from earlier smirking at him.

"Keep staring," the asshole said, jerking his head toward Allison's table. "They're out of your league."

"Fuck off," Stiles retorted. "That's my sister."

"Yeah, right," the boy said scornfully. "Prove it. Go talk to her."

Stiles rolled his eyes at Scott, who grinned into his cheeseburger, and rose from his seat. If this douchebag thought that Stiles was bluffing, he had another thing coming. He crossed the cafeteria, feeling the boy's eyes on his back, and approached the table.

Allison beamed when she saw him. "Stiles, hey! Do you want to sit? We can make room-"

"That's all right," Stiles replied, grinning. He jerked his head across the cafeteria, where the douchey boy stood next to Scott. "That prissy asshole over there doesn't believe we're related."

"Oh, Jackson?" Allison said, at the same time the red haired girl said flatly, "He's my boyfriend."

"Oh," Stiles said, his cheeks coloring.

"Stiles, this is Lydia," Allison said hurriedly. "She's the one throwing the party this weekend."

"Oh," Stiles said again. "Hi. Uh, I didn't mean - about your boyfriend - "

Lydia flipped her red curls over her shoulder and said primly, "He is an asshole sometimes."

"Hah," Stiles said, his stomach twisting, and looked back at Allison, who smiled up at him. "Well, I'm gonna go eat. See you later!"

He crossed the cafeteria again, meeting the boy – Jackson? – halfway. The boy didn't even look at him, though he slammed his shoulder against Stiles' hard enough to knock him off balance for a moment. When Stiles sat back down at the table, Scott said, "That guy's a tool."

"Agreed," Stiles confirmed, digging into his chicken tenders.

Scott hesitated before saying, "Your sister's really pretty."

"Uh huh," Stiles sighed, already knowing where this was heading. Every single one of his guy friends had had a crush on Allison, and it never turned out well; she was beautiful and kind and absolutely uninterested in dating. That didn't seem to stop most people; for some, it just made them more determined.

"Is - " Scott hesitated again, side eyeing Stiles before asking, "Is she off limits?"

"You can try," Stiles told him judiciously, "but you won't have any luck."

"Hm," Scott said thoughtfully, then grinned at Stiles. "Hey, so do you play WoW?"

-

Stiles' last class of the day was Economics, taught by a man named Finstock who, if Stiles' knowledge of psychological disorders was anything to go by, was possibly bipolar. He ranted and roared through a sixty-minute lecture on micro and macroeconomics, complete with sidetracked stories of his youth as a Jesuit missionary, the one day he'd spent on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, and the time he'd taken a trip to Vegas and gotten a strip dance from a Goldie Hawn lookalike.

At the end of class, Finstock caught Scott and Stiles by the arms and said, in his loud voice, "Newbies. Are you going to try out for the lacrosse team? We need fresh blood."

Not if you're coaching, Stiles wanted to say. He looked over at Scott, who looked faintly terrified. "Maybe?" Stiles hazarded.

"You ever play?" Finstock asked insistently.

"I tried out," Stiles said. His high school had been a big place, though, and he was nothing special. Maybe he'd have a better chance of getting on the team at a smaller school.

"I was on my old school's team," Scott mumbled, his cheeks coloring.

"Excellent," Finstock hissed. "Tryouts are on Friday. I'll see you both there." He finally let them go and they tumbled out of the classroom, laughing.

"That man is mad," Stiles cackled.

"I thought he was gonna eat us," Scott lamented as they pushed through the front doors and headed toward the parking lot.

"You want a ride?" Stiles asked, nodding toward the Jeep, where Allison was just getting in. Scott's eyes went a little unfocused as he caught sight of her, but then he glanced at Stiles and shook his head.

"Mom dropped me off but I've got my bike," he said, sounding a little wistful. "Thanks, though."

"Next time," Stiles grinned, and headed to the Jeep with a wave.

"So?" Allison asked as he climbed in. "As bad as you thought?"

"Nah," Stiles smiled. "Not at all."

-

Stiles and Allison were in the living room trying to set up the entertainment center when their father came in, slamming the door behind him. The siblings went still, exchanging worried looks as they listened to the sheriff bang around in the front hall, muttering furiously to himself. Allison rose to her feet slowly and Stiles followed her into the kitchen, where their father was picking up the phone.

"Dad?" Stiles asked hesitantly. "Is everything okay?"

The sheriff waved an irritated hand at them, shooing them out of the kitchen as he plucked their realtor's business card off the fridge. Allison and Stiles retreated into the hall but hovered around the doorway, listening.

"John Stilinski," their father said, his voice low and clipped. Stiles knew that tone; it meant his father was so mad he'd almost gone full circle, and entered some kind of irate zen state. "I want to talk to you about this house you conned me into buying. The deputies told me some things today that I am not happy about." There was a long pause and then he snapped, "You have to disclose that information; I know the law!" Another pause, then their father laughed, sounding utterly unamused. "Yeah, all right, sure. You better hope I don't find out that home inspector was in your pocket, because if this house falls apart with my children inside, there will be hell to pay." He hung up the phone, breathing furiously. Stiles and Allison peered around the doorway, watching him run a hand through his hair.

"All right," their father sighed. "Get in here."

The siblings sidled into the kitchen and Allison asked timidly, "Is there something wrong with the house, Dad?"

Their dad sighed again. "Come with me." He led them upstairs, down the hall to the door to the attic stairs. They trooped up the steps behind him and stopped abruptly when he flicked on the light.

The old beams of the house were black and scorched, the wood charred. Fresh, pale wood supported the old beams, holding up the roof.

"There was a fire?" Stiles asked anxiously.

"I knew about the fire," their father said, rubbing a hand across his face. "Most of this place was rebuilt afterwards. The home inspector assured me there was no structural damage, but - but there's something else."

"People died here," Allison said suddenly, her eyes going wide with realization. Stiles looked quickly at his father, who nodded, a pained expression on his face.

"They didn't just die here," he said quietly. "They were murdered and the house was set on fire. The murderer was never caught."

"Jesus Christ," Stiles said, his mouth falling open.

"I never would have bought the place if I had known," their dad said, his mouth twisting unhappily. "State law says you have to tell potential buyers if there's been a murder in the house in the last five years, but this - this was five and half years ago."

"Of course," Stiles said, looking around again at the charred wood. He failed to suppress a shudder.

"If you guys don't feel comfortable here, we'll leave," their father said firmly. "I'll work something out with the agents—”

"No, Dad," Allison said, with a quick look over at Stiles for confirmation. "It's fine. This is our house now. They're not here any more."

-

That night, Stiles had the dream again. He ran through the woods as something ran parallel with him just a few yards away, black and lost in deep shadow, but he got a glimpse of red eyes, glowing bright in the gloom of the forest. The air was thick and heavy, hard to breathe and dense with the smell of smoke. Flames burned in the distance, consuming the forest, throwing the world into sharp relief, the thing running at his side made worse by the contrasting light. Someone called his name, but it wasn't his mother; it was a boy's voice, tight with pain and fear.

Stiles awoke with a gasp, his lungs constricting as he fought for air. He was sweating profusely, his t-shirt drenched and clinging to his skin. He struggled out of his sheets in a panic, freeing his legs and stumbling toward the bathroom just in time to puke into the toilet.

Stiles slid to the floor, starting to shake as his body hit the cold tile, sweat rapidly cooling on his skin. He pressed his cheek to the cool porcelain of the toilet, forcing himself to breathe slowly. It had been a couple months since his last panic attack; he’d almost forgotten how unpleasant they were.

"You're okay," Stiles muttered to himself, breathing in for a count of four. He held it for a long time and then let it go slowly, drawing it out for a count of eight. "You're okay."

He fell asleep there, curled around the base of the toilet. When he woke up, there was a blanket draped across him and he pushed it away blearily. Allison must have heard him get up, though why she didn't tell him to get back into bed was beyond him. His body ached from sleeping on the hard tile and his mouth tasted like something had died in it. Stiles rubbed his hands over his face as, out in his bedroom, his alarm went off. He staggered to his feet with a groan. Time to start the day.

-

The second day of school went much like the first. Stiles was pretty sure he'd made a mortal enemy of Jackson Whittemore, who kept glaring at him during English, and another enemy of Mr. Harris, the chemistry teacher, who overheard Stiles asking Scott if he understood any of what he was saying about chemical bonds, and seemed to take it as a fatal insult to his teaching abilities.

At lunch he and Scott befriended a senior named Isaac Lahey, who grinned crookedly when he told them that he was on the lacrosse team and yeah, Finstock was just as crazy on the field as he was in the classroom - crazier, maybe.

After school, Stiles headed home by himself; Allison had plans with Lydia so he took the Jeep. He asked Scott if he wanted to come over and practice some lacrosse before the tryouts on Friday, but Scott smiled apologetically and said that his mom had gotten him a part-time job at the local animal hospital.

Stiles didn't mind until he pulled up in front of the house and realized that he'd be there by himself until Allison or his dad got home. There hadn't really been much more discussion after the big reveal last night. They'd all retreated down to the living room and he and Allison had told their father about their first day at school while they set up the entertainment center together. When he finally did go upstairs to bed, Stiles fell asleep almost immediately, worn out by the long day, and he'd slept solidly until being woken by the dream.

It wasn't like he was scared, but the fact that people had died in the house was…kind of unsettling. He didn't know where they'd died but he willfully ignored the fact that they had probably been in bed because there was no fucking way he'd be able to sleep in his room if he knew someone had died there.

Stiles dithered on the porch for a moment before unlocking the door. He didn't know what he expected to see - burnt corpses, blood-spattered walls, maybe - but the house was completely normal, no bloody handprints or wailing ghouls, just the white painted walls and quiet hum of the refrigerator in the kitchen. Stiles sighed, smiling sheepishly, and dumped his backpack on the couch before heading upstairs.

He dug through his closet, where he'd shoved most of the stuff he didn't feel like packing yet, and found the duffle bag with all his lacrosse equipment inside. He changed into shorts and a loose t-shirt, then slung the bag over his shoulder and headed into the woods.

It wasn't like he was trying to avoid the house, but he did need to practice, and if that meant he could stay out of the quiet house for a few more hours, that was fine with him. And he wasn't going to get high today; there was no reason to be afraid of the forest.

Stiles headed to the clearing he'd found and dropped his bag by the rock he'd lounged on. It was hard to get any real practice in by himself, but he did all the drills he could remember. The clearing wasn't optimal for running around in; the grass came up to his shins and several times he faceplanted after tripping over a branch or stone hidden in the greenery. Stiles didn't give up, though; he was sweaty and grass-stained by the time the sun began dipping below the horizon. He was jogging across the clearing toward his bag, ball cradled in the net of his stick when he tripped one last time. The ball shot off into the shadows as Stiles flailed around trying to keep his balance and he cursed; that'd been his last ball. He spent several futile minutes searching for the ball, but with the deepening gloom and dense undergrowth, he knew it was a lost cause. He gave up, knowing he needed to head back to the house before the light disappeared - the last thing he needed was to get lost in the woods at night.

Stiles heaved a sigh, unhooked his shirt from the grip of some spiny bush, and was just turning back to the clearing when he caught sight of someone standing in the woods a few yards away. Stiles let out a yelp and fell sideways into the spiky bush which eliciting another yelp, this time of pain. By the time he managed to extricate himself, whoever had been standing in the woods was gone, probably to go laugh themselves silly at his antics. Stiles winced, pulling a thorn out of his elbow. That had been fucking scary, though - the forest was getting so dark that all he'd been able to see was a dark figure.

"Asshole," Stiles muttered, picking up his bag and stalking off into the trees. Because that was an asshole move, seriously. Why hadn't the dude said anything? A hello would have been nice. Fucker.

"What happened to you?" Allison asked, looking aghast as he came through the front door. Stiles waved an irritable hand, trying to express not now, please without saying anything, and dropped his bag on the floor before heading into the bathroom.

He was surprised to see the number of scratches on his face and arms; he couldn't even remember his face getting cut up, though he'd been flailing so hard to get out that he supposed it was possible. Allison's reflection appeared in the mirror, leaning against the doorframe.

"Are you okay?" she asked, watching him dig around in the mess under the sink until he rose, triumphant, with a bottle of peroxide in his hand and a bag of cotton balls in the other.

"I'm fine," Stiles replied, beginning to clean the tiny cuts on his face. "I…" He hesitated, not sure if he should tell Allison about the person he'd seen. Maybe it hadn't been someone after all, maybe just an oddly shaped stump he’d mistaken for a human in the dim light of the trees. "The forest is a lot more dense than I thought it was."

"Oh," Allison said sympathetically, and pushed his hands away so she could take over. Stiles winced as she cleaned a particularly deep scratch on his chin, big enough that it had bled.

After Stiles' wounds had been patched up, he followed Allison into the kitchen, where she'd been making dinner. Stiles slid onto a bar stool and folded his arms over the counter, watching her cut up a tomato.

"How was hanging out with Lydia?"

"Oh." Allison smiled. "She's nice. Blunt, but that’s kind of refreshing."

"Her boyfriend's a tool," Stiles muttered.

"Are you jealous?" Allison teased. Stiles' cheeks went bright red as he thought of Lydia's auburn curls. She sat a few seats in front of him in his math class and he'd spent most of the hour staring at the back of her head, daydreaming about her big eyes and full lips.

"No," he lied, but they both knew the truth by how long it took him to respond.

Allison laughed again, sounding sympathetic. "You'll find someone," she said. "It seems like there's a lot of nice girls - and guys - at school."

Stiles sighed. "At least you've been kissed. I've never even had that!"

"I've - a little more than that," Allison said, her cheeks going pink.

"What?!" Stiles yelped. "Who? When?"

"That party Katie threw a few weeks ago," Allison said, her face red. "There was this guy who's going to be a freshman at UCLA and we - well."

"I can't believe this," Stiles said indignantly. "You became a woman and didn't tell me? You know that if I had any sort of sex life I'd tell you every sordid detail."

Allison laughed and flicked tomato seeds at him. "It wasn't anything special. Anyway, what about that guy you were sitting with at lunch?"

"Which one?" Stiles asked. He thought about Isaac and his lidded eyes and impressive facial structure. "Hmm. Isaac seems nice, though I don't know what his interests are – y’know, as far as sexual preference goes. Scott, though, is developing a pretty severe crush on you." This was true; Stiles hadn't missed the glances Scott kept throwing in Allison's direction all lunch period, or his tiny, wistful sighs.

To his surprise, Allison flushed again and Stiles raised his eyebrows. "You noticed?" It was highly unusual for Allison to show any interest in his friends.

Allison gave a tiny nod and said hesitantly, "He's cute, but…" She looked at Stiles, then down at the cutting board. "You met him first. I don't want to - if he's off limits—"

She blinked in surprise when Stiles tilted his head back and laughed out loud. "Now I think you guys have to meet," he told her, grinning. "He said the same exact thing."

"Oh," Allison said, her cheeks coloring again. “Well. T-that’s considerate.”

“Relax,” Stiles laughed, tilting his head at the sound of the front door opening and their father kicking off his boots. “I’m not worried about it.”

-

Jackson laughed himself silly when Stiles walked into class the next day. "What happened to you, Stilinski?" he crowed. "Did you get attacked by a kitten?"

Stiles cast him a dark look - which he immediately regretted, because it made his skin pull at the cuts - and didn't deign to reply. Besides, he wasn't sure that falling into a bush was much more manly than being attacked by a cat, and he didn't want to give Jackson more reasons to laugh at him. It was depressing when, in Economics, Finstock asked the exact same thing, then laughed like a hyena with a sore throat.

After school, Stiles grabbed his lacrosse stuff and headed into the woods again, but it wasn’t until he was all the way to the clearing that he remembered that he’d lost his last ball in the undergrowth somewhere. Stiles spent a few fruitless minutes kicking around the loam and muttering furiously under his breath before giving up. He settled down on the big rock, because he’d walked the fifteen minutes to get there and he might as well relax for a minute before heading back to the house.

The house.

Stiles hadn’t dreamed the night before – or at least, he hadn’t dreamed the dream. He felt kind of weird about the whole situation with the house. Was it strange that he felt more worried about the fact that people had died there than the fact that the killer hadn’t been caught? Because if he knew horror movies (and he did), the murder would probably return to the scene of the crime and he’d end up dead, a chilling mirror of what happened five years ago. But he wasn’t worried about that.

And it wasn’t like he wasn’t curious. Stiles had an insatiable curiosity. He’d gotten grounded for three months in the spring because his dad had found out he’d been hacking into the California Highway Patrol’s database – not because he was some sicko who liked looking at pictures of dead people, but he just wanted to know more. Stiles was cursed with a burning desire to know everything. He went on Wikipedia binges that lasted hours. In elementary school, he’d gotten an award for checking more books out of the library than anyone else.

But this – even though some part of him did want to know about what had happened at the house, another part of him thought it better left untouched. He didn’t need to go about his life knowing that someone had been stabbed in the kitchen or strangled in his bathroom. He didn’t. When he’d found out about the fire a couple nights back, he’d gone online and gotten as far as the headline of an article about the murders – Five dead in arson – before hurriedly exiting the page. Out of sight, out of mind, or whatever. Leave that stone unturned.

Stiles was still lost in thought when something came flying out of the woods and smacked into the side of his knee. Stiles howled in pain, his hands flying out to grasp at his knee, just in time to see his lacrosse ball go bouncing away into the grass. Someone laughed behind him, a guilty noise, and Stiles twisted his head around to see a boy around his age stepping out from between the trees.

“Sorry,” the boy said apologetically. “Threw it a little too hard.”

Stiles gaped at him because this boy – he was beautiful. Stiles was from Los Angeles, a town full of beautiful, perfect people, but this guy – he was amazing, all pale-eyed and dark-haired and sharp cheekboned. They were probably around the same height, but where Stiles was lean and lanky, this boy was well-built and broad-shouldered. He was looking at Stiles with pale hazel eyes and a faint quirk of a smile on his lips, but Stiles thought the slump of his broad shoulders looked unhappy, almost defeated. Stiles knew something about unhappiness; there’d been enough of it after his mom died. He’d become an expert at reading his dad and Allison, knew their bad days and the worst days, when they were trying to hide it. He’d seen it enough on himself, looking in the mirror after the dream, after a panic attack.

“Did I hurt you?” the boy asked, and Stiles blinked, realizing he’d been staring wordlessly.

His knee was kind of burning, but he smiled and said, “Oh, no – it just startled me.”

“Oh, good,” the boy said, smiling crookedly and the whiteness of his teeth was kind of blinding. He held out a hand to Stiles. “Derek.”

Stiles shook it and tried to ignore the way his arm went all tingly at Derek’s touch. “Stiles.”

“Are you new?” Derek asked him. “I haven’t seen you around before.”

“We just moved here,” Stiles replied, waving a vague hand in the direction of the house. “My dad’s the new sheriff.”

Derek’s smile flickered for a moment and then he said, “About time.”

Stiles wasn’t sure what that meant, but he asked, “Do you live around here? Do you go to the high school?” He might have seen Derek in the hallways, but probably not – he thought he would have remembered someone as striking as Derek, but there had been a lot of new faces, so maybe not.

“I live over there.” Derek made a imprecise gesture in the direction of Stiles’ house and Stiles blinked. He hadn’t thought there were any more houses on the road, but it didn’t dead-end at their house, so there must be. Derek inclined his head toward the rock in a questioning manner. Stiles gestured hurriedly – sit, please – and Derek settled down next to him. “I used to go to Beacon Hills High,” he said, “but I transferred to Saint Germaine – it’s a private school.” He nodded at the lacrosse stick laying by Stiles’ feet. “You play?”

“I’m trying out on Friday,” Stiles replied. “Do you?”

“Used to,” Derek said again. Then his crooked smile came back. “Is Finstock still coaching?”

“Yeah,” Stiles sighed. “I think he’s crazy.”

“Without a doubt,” Derek agreed solemnly. They fell into a slightly awkward silence while Derek stared down at Stiles’ lacrosse stick, a considering look on his face. Stiles looked around the clearing, trying not to stare at the perfect slope of Derek’s nose like he really wanted to. After a long few moments of silence, Derek asked, “Do you have anyone to practice with?”

“I—” Stiles hesitated. He only knew Scott. And Isaac, he supposed, but he really only had tomorrow left to practice in. “No, I guess not.”

“I could practice with you, if you want,” Derek offered slowly, almost shyly. “I don’t – I don’t have anyone to practice with either.”

Stiles found that hard to believe, because Derek was handsome as fuck; who wouldn’t want to hang out with him? Maybe people up here found that level of good-looking intimidating, but Stiles was used to being surrounded by models and demigods. Well, not surrounded – it wasn’t like there were a million celebrities at his high school (though there’d been that one kid who told everyone he was Adam Levine’s cousin), or like they were attracted to him or anything, but he saw them on the streets or whatever. Stiles was secure in his insecurities.

“Okay,” he said easily. “Do you have a stick?”

Derek hesitated, a shadow passing over his face before he admitted, “I broke it.”

“That’s okay,” Stiles said. “I think I’ve got an old one up at the house. You want to meet back here tomorrow and I’ll bring it?”

“Sure,” Derek said, smiling again.

“All right,” Stiles said cheerfully, getting to his feet and picking up his bag. “I’ll see you tomorrow, then!”

“Tomorrow,” Derek agreed.

Stiles tossed him a wave and left him sitting on the rock, staring out over the clearing. It wasn’t until he was almost back to the house that it occurred to him to wonder what Derek was doing so far out into the woods. He shrugged; maybe the clearing wasn’t as far from the walking trails as he’d thought it was.

-

The following afternoon, Stiles scrounged up his old lacrosse stick and headed out to the clearing, where he found Derek waiting on the rock, leaning back on his arms. Stiles swallowed and tried not to stare at the long, flat plane of his stomach, and managing to rustle up a grin instead.

“Hey,” he said, tossing the spare stick to Derek, who caught it deftly.

They spent a few hours tossing the ball back and forth, running circles around each other. They built a make-shift goal out of a branch laid across two y-shaped branches and took turns defending the goal from each other. Stiles was sweaty and out of breath by the end of it – he was already regretting being so lazy over the summer – but it was fun. Derek looked solemn, but he smiled readily, and he laughed at Stiles’ jokes, which not a lot of people did. They talked as they slung the ball back and forth, offering little tidbits of information between panting for air.

Derek had three siblings, one older sister and a set of younger twins, one boy and one girl, and he and Stiles spent some time commiserating about the miseries of female siblings. Derek didn’t seem to have any knowledge of pop culture; he shrugged every time Stiles brought up a recent movie or television show. He was kind of like an old man, and Stiles found it kind of adorable.

They took a break an hour in and sat on the cool grass with their backs against the rock while Stiles dug out the bottles of water and chips he’d thoughtfully packed into his bag.

“So does your school have a lacrosse team?” he asked Derek, trying not to stare at how his throat moved when he swallowed from a bottle of water.

“Yeah,” Derek said, brushing the back of his hand against his lips. “I’m not sure I’m going to try out, though.”

“Why not?” Stiles asked curiously. “You’re way better than I am.”

Derek gave him a half-smile, pleased. “No I’m not,” he said, though Stiles knew he was just being nice. “And anyway, that’d make us opponents, right?”

“I guess,” Stiles agreed, and turned his head to look out at the forest, trying desperately not to think about Derek slamming into him on the field, knocking him to the ground with his weight.

“I don’t know,” Derek said. “We’ll see.”

By the time the light had dimmed enough that it made spotting the ball in the gloom impossible, Stiles was soaked in sweat and there was a tightness in his limbs that suggested unless he did a lot of stretching that night he was going to wake up extremely sore. He gathered the ball and sticks reluctantly and said to Derek, “Well, I’ve got the tryouts tomorrow, but maybe we could meet up again sometime this weekend? I’ll definitely need more practice if I actually manage to make it on the team.”

“You will,” Derek said, and Stiles could see the white gleam of his smile even in the darkness. “Sunday, maybe? Around noon?”

“Sounds good,” Stiles replied, and fished around in his pocket for his phone. “What’s your number? I can text you.”

Derek laughed sheepishly and said, “I don’t have one. I – my mom took it away.”

“Really?” Stiles asked with a faint laugh. “What’d you do to warrant that?”

“I—” Stiles could see the shoulders of Derek’s dark form shrug. “I fucked up.” He sounded deeply unhappy all of a sudden and Stiles bit at the inside of his cheek. He’d been there; he could still remember his dad standing in the doorway of his bedroom after he’d found out Stiles had been hacking into the police database, his voice quiet and cold when he said, “You did what?”

“That’s okay,” Stiles assured him. “We can just meet out here. Sunday at noon?”

“Yeah,” Derek said slowly. Then, more firmly. “Yeah.”

“All right,” Stiles said. “See you then.”

-

Later, back at the house, Stiles stripped out of his sweat-damp clothes and stepped into the shower, crooning quietly as the hot water hit his aching muscles. He’d done some stretches once he got home, but he was pretty sure the damage was done, and just hoped he’d be limber enough to run around at the tryouts the following day.

He scrubbed the salt from his hair and off his shoulders and then paused, listening, before his hands slipped lower. That was the nice thing about having his own private bathroom, though; he didn’t have to worry about Allison barging in to put on her make-up, or his dad pounding on the door right when he was about to come.

Stiles slid a hand around himself, breathing quietly through his mouth as he tightened his grip, pulling himself to full attention. He bit his lip – even with his own bathroom, he didn’t trust the thickness of the walls – and let his thoughts flick from fantasy to fantasy, eyes settling closed. He thought about Lydia Martin on her back with his mouth between her legs, tongue pressed inside her. He thought about Isaac Lahey on his knees with his lips around Stiles’ cock, strong jaw working tightly, long fingers gripping at his hips. He thought about Derek and just the memory of his face slick with sweat was enough to make Stiles’ dick twitch in his hand, precome beading from the slit. Stiles rubbed his thumb over the head, breathing fast, and leaned against the wall of the shower so he could slip a hand behind him.

He’d never done it before, too nervous to try. He had this horrible feeling that the moment he touched himself, someone was going to burst into the bathroom, yank open the curtain and yell “Hah!” But Stiles’ curiosity was getting the better of him, and knowing that he was alone, really alone, made him bolder. He pressed a finger against his hole, pushing inside slowly, carefully. And it – it felt strange. Not good or bad until he crooked his finger and that – fuck, his toes curled. Stiles panted into the wall, choking back the high noise trying to escape from him as he began to fuck himself, pushing back on one hand and thrusting up into the other. He squeezed his eyes shut, imagining it was Derek behind him, Derek’s blunt finger pressing into him. Derek would set his teeth into the knob of Stiles’ spine and moan against his skin and –

Stiles sobbed when he came, hip smacking into the wall with the force of his orgasm. He had to lean there for a while, body trembling in the afterglow. He’d never come so forcefully. He just – he just wished he could experience something like that with another person present.

Stiles stood at the mirror wondering if he needed to shave when he heard the door creak open behind him. “Can’t you knock?” he asked irritably, turning. He expected to see Allison there – his dad always knocked; he said he knew what guys got up to behind closed doors and had no desire to see his son doing any of it – but there was no one there. Stiles took a step forward, craning to look into his bedroom, but his bedroom door was still closed. His window was open, though, and Stiles shrugged, figuring a breeze had blown it open.

He decided he didn’t need to shave (it was a little embarrassing that he was seventeen and he didn’t need to shave every day or, really, every week) and headed downstairs to scrounge up some dinner.

-

Stiles made the team. He wasn’t quite sure how it had happened because he was still extremely stiff after the practice with Derek (and bruised on his hip from where he’d smashed into the shower wall), but after Finstock had shouted all the potential players through a vigorous trial, he gathered them up and bellowed out a list of the new players’ names. He called Stiles “Bolinski,” but when no one else reacted, Stiles figured that had to be him and let out a whoop of excitement. Scott made the team too and they danced around like idiots while Isaac clapped them on the back until Finstock yelled at them to save that crap for the nightclub. Stiles spotted Allison, who was sitting on the bleachers with Lydia, laughing, and waved. She waved, then waved again when Scott waved tentatively, pink splotches of color rising on her cheeks. Stiles grinned.

The only damper on the whole thing was that Jackson was on the team and more than that – he was team captain. He was not pleased that either of them had made it on to the team; it was clear by the set of his jaw when Finstock read off their names, but Stiles couldn’t have cared less because for once in his life he’d been good enough to make it onto a team. He was going to be part of something.

He couldn’t wait to tell Derek.

Before Stiles could, though, there was Saturday to get through, which meant the party at Lydia’s. Their father was working an overnight shift, which meant it was easy to sneak out of the house, though Stiles pointed out that it had been a lot easier to sneak out of the apartment when they were living in LA because, one: it had been as easy as slipping out the front door and down the hall, two: they’d never needed to take the car before, and three: what if he sees us driving around, Allie?

Allison smiled. “We just tell him we’re going to the video store.”

Stiles frowned. “Isn’t that place closed?”

Allison’s smile widened. “We didn’t know until we went there.”

Stiles grinned reluctantly. “You’re way too clever. What about when we’re heading home at whatever time in the morning though?”

“I’m DDing,” Allison said judiciously. “You pretend to be asleep. We were just hanging out at someone’s house. Scott’s, maybe?”

“Yeah, okay,” Stiles sighed in defeat. “Clearly you’ve planned this.”

Allison smiled again. “So…” she asked slowly, “do you think you’re have any luck tonight?”

“What, in the romance department?” Stiles sighed again. “I doubt it.”

“Aw, come on,” Allison laughed, punching him lightly on the arm. “What about that guy from the woods?”

“Derek?” Stiles tapped his fingers against his leg. He’d told Allison about Derek, of course, though he’d left out his shower fantasies. “I don’t know. It sounded like he’s gotten himself into some trouble, so he might be grounded.”

“Not if he came out to meet you in the woods,” Allison pointed out, turning down Lydia’s street. “Unless he snuck out.” She smiled thoughtfully. “And he’d really have to want to see you do that.”

“Cut it out,” Stiles said, his cheeks flushing. “I’ve seen him twice and only once on purpose. Besides, he goes to a different school; I doubt he’d come to a Beacon Hills party.”

Allison shrugged. “All right.”

It was Stiles’ turn to bestow a wicked grin on her. “What about you?”

“What about me?” she replied lightly, but he could see color rising on her face.

“What about Scott?”

“Oh, him.” Allison feigned nonchalance. “I – Well, I saw him in the hallway at school and told him he should come. I don’t know if he will, though.”

Course he will, Stiles thought to himself, grinning faintly as they pulled up in front of Lydia’s massive house. And he was so totally right; Scott was standing around in the front hall of Lydia’s place – she probably called it a foyer – fiddling nervously with the hem of his shirt when they came through the door and Stiles couldn’t help but grin again at the way Scott’s face lit up at the sight of them. Or, more accurately, at the sight of Allison. Stiles couldn’t be jealous, not when he wanted his sister to be happy.

“Hey,” Scott said breathlessly, sparing Stiles a quick grin. Stiles grinned back and ducked away, leaving the two to their own devices.

Stiles wandered the house for a while, wandering between groups of chattering teenagers. He accepted a shot from someone in the kitchen, which was huge and tiled in marble, and another from a line set up in the living room. He went out into the backyard, where things were much the same. People danced around the edge of a huge pool. Stiles looked at all the faces, wondering if maybe Derek was here. He didn’t see Derek but he did see Isaac, standing with a junior named Danny. Stiles knew Danny; he was in a couple of his classes and he seemed nice, but Stiles regarded him with caution because he also seemed to be Jackson’s best friend.

Isaac caught his eye and smiled, gesturing at him to come over. Stiles grinned back and lifted a hand, but downed another shot off a nearby table before heading over.

“Hey,” Isaac said. “You know Danny, right? He’s on the team too – goalie.”

“Yeah,” Stiles said, eyeing Danny hesitantly. “Hey.”

Danny inclined his head, looking faintly bored. “Congrats on making the team.”

“Thanks,” Stiles said, shoving his hands into his pockets. He felt jittery suddenly, completely on edge. He wished the shots would hit him faster. “Do – do either of you smoke?”

Danny looked at him, suddenly interested. “I do. You got any?”

Stiles shook his head ruefully and Isaac beamed. “Luckily for you both, I came prepared.” He shoved a hand into his pocket and pulled out a joint, holding it aloft like a trophy. Stiles and Danny grinned in unison.

Twenty minutes later found the three of them sitting on the edge of the pool, kicking their feet in the cool water and passing the joint around. Stiles felt looser now, his head light, vision blurring around the edges. This was better; he felt comfortable this way.

“So what’s LA like?” Isaac asked and Stiles looked up at the starry night sky thoughtfully, exhaling a cloud of smoke.

“Big,” he said finally. “Noisy. Busy. Overwhelming sometimes.”

“I bet it’s more interesting than Beacon Hills,” Danny remarked, and Stiles shrugged.

“Maybe,” he said. “We moved into a murder house, so I don’t know.”

“The Hale house?” Danny tilted his head to one side. “I thought that place burned down.”

“They rebuilt it, I guess,” Stiles said with another shrug. “Don’t tell me – everybody says it’s haunted.”

Danny frowned. “I don’t think so. I mean, they probably do, but no one really talks about it at all. People don’t like to think about it, I think – because they never caught who did it.” He paused for a moment, thinking. “Is it creepy living there?”

Stiles shook his head even though it was, kind of. “It’s just a house.”

“Hm,” Danny said, his eyes following Isaac, who got to his feet and said, “I’m getting another drink. You guys want anything?”

“Sure,” Stiles said, but Danny shook his head. Stiles stared at the water around his feet, blinking slowly. Next to him, Danny took a long drag from the joint and carefully stubbed it out on the cement. He elbowed Stiles in the side and Stiles looked up, surprised, to see Danny leaning over, lips pressed tight together to keep the smoke from escaping. Stiles stared at him, lips parting, heart suddenly thrumming in his chest, because he knew what Danny wanted. The young man raised his eyebrows at Stiles, the corner of his mouth quirking up in question. Stiles nodded quickly and leaned in to meet him, careful not to smash their faces together.

Their lips touched, and while Stiles was frantically wondering if it counted as a first kiss, Danny’s lips parted and he breathed the smoke into Stiles’ mouth, tongue chasing after to swipe across Stiles’ bottom lip before he pulled away. Stiles shut his mouth because that was what you were supposed to do, holding the smoke in for a long count before exhaling slowly.

“Good?” Danny asked casually, and Stiles nodded dumbly, his cheeks heating up. “Cool,” Danny said, and leaned in again, pressing their mouths together more firmly. This was a real kiss, if the first one hadn’t really counted. Danny’s mouth was soft and gently demanding, his teeth catching on Stiles’ lip and whoa, it was really hard for Stiles not to listen to his hormones and just throw himself at Danny. First kiss, he reminded himself. Be cool. But as much as Stiles was enjoying himself, a voice at the back of his mind couldn’t help but mourn the fact that he hadn’t lost his kiss virginity to Derek. Derek looked like he was probably an intense kisser. He looked like an intense everything.

Stiles wasn’t really disappointed when Danny eventually pulled away, but he didn’t really know what to do with himself so he stammered, “I-I’m going to see how Isaac’s doing with that drink,” and clambered to his feet. Danny didn’t seem perturbed; he gave a two fingered wave and turned to look around at the party.

Stiles got halfway into the house before he found his path blocked by Jackson, whose face was red and livid. Great, Stiles thought dully. He’s an angry drunk.

“Move, please,” Stiles said, trying to sidestep around Jackson, but the young man moved with him, stepping into his personal space. “Dude—”

“Stay the fuck away from Danny,” Jackson hissed, jabbing a finger into his chest. “You think you’re something special, big kid from the city, but you’re not. You’re boring as shit and if you think things are going to get better just because you got on the lacrosse team, you’ve got another thing coming.”

“Dude, fuck off,” Stiles said furiously. “I don’t know what I ever did to you, but you need to back off, seriously.”

He tried to step around Jackson again but again Jackson moved with him, brow furrowed like an angry bulldog.

Stiles sighed exasperatedly. He could see Allison and Scott standing behind Jackson, looking confused and a little worried. He looked at Jackson again, at his heavy eyebrows and the tight set of his jaw and he laughed suddenly, the inflexion behind Jackson’s words hitting him. “Dude,” he choked. “Are you threatened by me?”

Jackson’s face twisted and he moved before Stiles realized he was moving, his fist colliding solidly with the side of Stiles’ face. He went staggering backward as the party went silent around them but when he looked up, Scott stood between him and Jackson.

“What the hell is wrong with you?!” Scott snapped.

Jackson scowled, something like a snarl pushing between his lips, and he looked ready to swing at Scott, too, but then Lydia came pushing through the crowd, her prim features tight with anger.

“You,” she said furiously to Jackson, “are ruining this party.”

Jackson scowled at her too, but half-heartedly, and she rolled her eyes, putting her hand on his arm and tugging him into the house. Scott turned to look at Stiles, his brown eyes soft with concern.

“You okay, dude?”

“Yeah,” Stiles sighed, pressing a hand to his cheek, where the skin was hot and ached ferociously. “That dude’s lame.”

“We should probably go,” Allison said quietly, stepping forward. “Sorry,” she added to Scott, who shook his head.

“You’re my knight in shining armor,” Stiles said, patting Scott on the shoulder. “I think bro code says we’re bffs now.”

“Okay,” Scott agreed genially, grinning. Allison rolled her eyes and led Stiles out to the Jeep.

“You sure you’re okay?” she asked Stiles, watching him climb into the passenger’s seat.

“It hurts a little,” Stiles admitted, pressing his face to the cool glass. “Don’t know what I’m going to tell Dad, though.” As Allison pulled into the street, he added, “Lost my kissing virginity, though.”

“Oh yeah?” Allison smiled over at him. “With who?”

“Danny.”

“Everybody likes Danny,” Allison said. She looked over at Stiles with an astoundingly sharp look to her eyes. “Do you like Danny?”

Stiles hmmed, tapped his fingers against the armrest. “I don’t think so,” he decided finally. “Not like that.”

“Well then,” Allison said with a little shrug, “at least you’ve got some experience for the next time.”

“Oh yeah,” Stiles retorted. “It only took me seventeen years to get to this point. Only another seventeen until the next one.”

Allison gave him a look that was half exasperated, half fond, and Stiles shut his mouth for the rest of the drive home.

-

The first time Stiles ever had the dream, he was five and drowsing on the couch with his head on his grandmother’s lap, cranky and tear-stained from a tantrum over the fact that he didn’t want to watch Pocahontas and Allison did (and something like the very logical reasoning that it was Allison’s turn to choose the movie wasn’t going to stop him from having a fit). Their father was out on duty; he had to work double shifts as much as humanly possible to cover their mother’s hospital bills.

Their grandmother had taken them to see their mother that afternoon and Allison had cried the whole time but Stiles didn’t get it, not really. He didn’t understand why his mother touched the top of his head and wearily asked him to look after Allison and their father, but he did always want to please his mom so he promised he would.

He was asleep with his hands curled in his grandmother’s sweater when the dream hit. It was the same dream, even then, but he was smaller, ducking under branches while his mother called his name and he didn’t know why, but it scared him terribly. It scared him so bad he woke up screaming and his grandmother cradled him to her chest while he cried, trying to comfort him. The phone rang while she did her best and Allison skipped over to pick it up, then came trotting over to the couch.

“It’s Daddy,” she said, holding the phone to their grandmother, and she gently set Stiles aside.

“Make your brother happy,” she said, which was Allison’s job – it had always been her job – and she went into the bedroom to talk to their father.

That was the night their mother died.

Stiles had the dream again that night after the party, and it was worse than before. The thing running beside him was no longer there, and he couldn’t figure out if that was better or worse because just because he couldn’t see it didn’t mean it wasn’t there somewhere, waiting for him, and that threat of the unknown was worse than anything. The fire still burned somewhere off in the woods and he ran in that direction, unable to turn. He could hear the flames roaring, wood popping and shifting, something breaking. Over it all was a boy crying for him, wailing his name.

Stiles’ face was already wet with tears when he woke, choked on a sob when he tried to breathe, and that would have been embarrassing if he could give thought to any fact other than I can’t breathe. It was the worst thing that had ever happened to him and it was the worse thing a couple of nights ago, and months before that, and it would never stop being terrible, never stop terrifying him. It was awful when the room spun around him, when the darkness clawed at his vision.

Even though his head was spinning and his lungs weren’t getting enough air, Stiles managed to get himself out of bed and he stumbled over to the window, sticking his head outside. The cool night air was like a punch to the face – the second punch of the evening – and he found himself able to breathe again. Stiles slumped over the sill, chest heaving, and let the cool air caress his face.

Slowly, as his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he realized there was someone standing in the driveway, staring up at the house. Stiles’ heart leapt in his chest and then he realized – it was Derek.

“Hey!” Stiles called down, but Derek didn’t seem to notice or hear him because he didn’t move, his gaze fixed on the front door. He looked miserable, his mouth a thin line, brow furrowed. “Derek?”

Stiles pulled out of the window and padded out of his room and downstairs. He opened the front door and stepped onto to the porch and – there was no one in the driveway. He couldn’t see Derek anywhere. Stiles stood on the porch for a long time, listening to the crickets, eyes focusing and unfocusing on dark pieces of shadow, looking for Derek. He probably needed to go back inside, before—

“Stiles?”

Stiles blinked blearily. He was still standing on the porch and his dad stood in front of him, arms crossed on his chest, a strange look on his face. Stiles sniffed, rubbing his hands over his face, the bruise on his cheek flaring with pain at his touch. It was light out, the sky a pale grey. The woods looked dark, desaturated.

“Stiles?” his father asked again. “Are you all right? What were you doing out here?”

Stiles shook his head slowly, feeling like cotton wool had been shoved down his ears. “I…I don’t know.” He rubbed at his face again.

“What happened to your face?” his dad pressed, stepping in closer. He took hold of Stiles’ chin, tilting his head so he could look at the bruise under his eyes.

“I don’t know,” Stiles said again, mind clear enough to know that this was a good opportunity to pawn the injury off to the unexplained.

“I think you were sleepwalking,” his father said, sounding a little perplexed and still worried. “You just stood there like a statue when I drove up.”

“Dreaming,” Stiles mumbled, yawning. He had a faint memory of coming down to the porch earlier that night to see Derek, but why would Derek have come over so late?

“Well, you should get back to bed,” his dad said, squeezing his shoulder. “It’s still early.”

Stiles nodded and turned to go inside, but his father didn't let go of his shoulder. Stiles gave him a questioning look and his dad cleared his throat.

"I know this hasn't been an easy year," he said, fingers tightening on Stiles' shoulder. "But I wanted to thank you for doing your best. Allison says you're both making friends and - I'm glad. And you made the lacrosse team. I'm proud of you, Stiles. I really am."

Stiles smiled faintly. "Thanks, Dad." He hesitated before saying, "I'm sorry. About last spring. I don't know if I ever apologized, but I'm sorry." And he was, truly; the whole hacking thing had almost cost his father his job, and they hadn't spoken for a month after it happened.

His father sighed, letting go of his shoulder to ruffle his hair. "It's in the past," he said gently. "Go get some rest."

Stiles headed upstairs, thinking that he didn't deserve a father as good as his. He drank and smoked pot and got into fights at parties he wasn't supposed to go to. His dad shouldn't be proud.

When Stiles went into his room, he found his bed a mess; all the sheets had been ripped off and thrown to the floor, the pillows thrown after. Stiles sighed; he must have done that in his frantic fight to get out of bed. He gathered up the sheets and was about to flop into bed when he noticed something sitting on the mattress cover. Stiles leaned over to see what it was and sharply sucked his breath in through his teeth. It was a lump of charred wood about the size of a matchbox car.

Stiles thought of the dream and the house's history and forced himself to keep breathing evenly. It was a bad joke, he decided, gingerly picking up the cinder and chucking it out the window. He listened to it clank to a landing in the gutter, then forced it out of his mind and climbed wearily into bed.

When he woke up later, the sun was high outside and his room was stifling. Though it was September, it seemed the summer had decided to come back into play - according to the weather app on his phone, it was nearly ninety degrees out. Also according to his phone, he had an hour before he was supposed to be meeting Derek, so he pulled himself out of bed, sloth-like, and meandered into the bathroom to wash the sweat and faint scent of pot smoke off himself.

Allison was in the living room when he came downstairs, eating a bowl of yogurt and fruit.

"You're not funny," Stiles told her, thumping down next to her with a bowl of cereal.

Allison glanced at him. "What are you talking about?"

"The ash?" Stiles said. "On my bed? Where did you even get it - out of the attic?"

Allison frowned. "What are you talking about?" she asked again.

"I came upstairs and there was a piece of burnt wood on my bed," Stiles said, his stomach twisting. "That was you, right?"

Allison shook her head. "Why would I put burnt wood on your bed?" She tilted her head, considering. "Dad said you were sleepwalking. Maybe you should stop mixing pot and alcohol."

"That's not it," Stiles said irritably. Though, maybe it was. Mixing the two wasn't supposed to be good for you, not that he'd been thinking about that the night before.

He was still thinking about it when he walked out to the clearing to meet Derek. The young man was already there, stretched out in the sun in the middle of the clearing. He must have heard Stiles approach because the corners of his mouth curved up slightly, though he didn't open his eyes.

"How can you stand this heat?" Stiles asked, nudging Derek in the ribs with his foot.

"The hotter the better," Derek replied. He opened his eyes and frowned. "What happened to your face?"

"Got in the way of some asshole's fist," Stiles replied, dropping down onto the grass next to Derek. It smelled sweet and green. "Jackson Whittemore. Do you know him?"

Derek frowned up at the clear blue sky. "I've heard his name," he said. "His father's a lawyer."

"Well, he's a dick," Stiles sighed. "And he also happens to be captain of the lacrosse team."

Derek gave him an appraising look. "Did you make it?"

"Yeah." A grin broke over his face. "Thanks to your help, I wasn't nearly as rusty as some of those dudes. You decide if you're going to try out yet? It'd be a pity if I couldn't trounce you on the field."

"You think so?" Derek asked mildly, though the wicked gleam in his eye betrayed his competitive streak. "Did you bring the sticks?"

Stiles laughed and clambered to his feet, Derek close behind. They played for nearly an hour, the woods ringing with their laughter, before Stiles collapsed into the grass, heart beating like a drum.

"Dude," he said. "I'm so sweaty I'm not sure I'll be able to get this shirt off later; I think it's fused to me like a second skin."

"Gross," Derek commented placidly. He sat on the rock, staring up at the sky, though he dropped his eyes to look at Stiles. “We could go to the pond.”

“That sounds amazing,” Stiles sighed, and Derek grinned lopsidedly.

The pond was only a ten minute walk away. It was big, and Stiles could see a dock on the far side where the walking paths probably ended, a few people splashing around over there, but their side was empty and quiet. Derek nodded toward a tree on the edge of the water whose branches stretched out over the still surface, a rope swing tied to one of the lower branches.

“My uncle hung that there when he was a teenager,” Derek said. “My sister and I come out here a lot, but I haven’t had anyone to go with since she went off to college.”

“I’ll come any time you want to go,” Stiles offered before he could stop himself. He could feel his cheeks going red, but Derek looked faintly pleased – or Stiles wanted to think so, anyway.

“C’mon,” Derek said, heading toward the tree, pulling his shirt off as he went. Stiles swallowed as the upper half of his bare body came into view, muscles bunching as he tossed his shirt aside and climbed up into the tree. Six feet up he turned around and called, “Stiles!”

“No shame,” Stiles muttered, hurriedly divesting himself of his shirt (and it was a miracle he didn’t get it tangled around himself in his hurry to get it off; he had that sort of clumsy track record). It wasn’t fair that Derek was so muscular – what kind of teenager had abs like that, honestly? He clambered up the branches after Derek, pausing where Derek had his arms folded over a branch about twelve feet up.

“You think it’s cold?” Stiles asked, fixedly avoiding staring at Derek’s stomach, at the faint trail of dark hair that started below his bellybutton and disappeared into his gym shorts. It was best not to head in that direction at all, not when he’d been walking around in a pair of very wet, clingy shorts.

“It’s probably not too bad,” Derek said thoughtfully. “It’s had all summer to warm up.” He looked down at Stiles. “You ready to go in?”

Stiles grinned. “Let’s do this.”

Derek smiled, unhooking his arms from around the tree. He held his hand out to Stiles, who took it, ignoring the way his arm tingled at the touch of Derek’s cool skin and the way his stomach clenched, warmth pooling in his body. They walked out over the water, the branch beneath their feet solid and unbending, using the branches above them to keep them steady.

“One,” Derek said. “Two—” With a shout of laughter Stiles jumped, pulling Derek with him, and they hit the water with a noise like a cannonball. The water was blessedly cool but not cold and Stiles resurfaced with a gasp, his skin buzzing all over with relief. Derek came up next to him, grinning. “Asshole.”

Stiles blew him a kiss and Derek lunged, shoving him under the water with a laugh.

They stayed at the pond until the sky began to turn red, jumping from the branches and swinging from the rope swing. Derek could do flips from the tree that made Stiles clench his teeth, both from the way it almost looked like he’d hit a branch on the way down, and from the way graceful way his body folded and uncurled.

“Were you on the swim team?” Stiles asked him after they’d gotten out of the water and sat on the shore, waiting for their clothes to dry in the light of the setting sun.

“Nah,” Derek said, shaking his head so he sprayed Stiles with water. Stiles squawked and shoved at him. Derek pushed him back without any effort, continuing, “I’ve just always liked water.”

“That’s cool,” Stiles said. “My mom used to take us to the community pool, but after – my dad was too busy to take us all that often.”

Derek turned his pale eyes on Stiles, his face soft. “Did something happen to her?”

Stiles nodded, his tongue sticking in his throat. It was still hard to say, even twelve years later. “She died. Breast cancer.”

Derek looked away. “That sucks.”

“Yeah.”

Stiles felt Derek pause before he asked, “And your dad never remarried?”

Stiles shook his head. “No,” he said quietly. “My grandma always jokes he’s married to his job.”

“That’s good, though,” Derek said, getting to his feet. Their clothes were mostly dry now, cool and little damp. “We need a better sheriff after the last one.”

“Why?” Stiles asked. “What did he do?”

Derek paused, his face darkening. “He beat me up,” Derek said finally, the words spilling out of him. He turned on his heel without another word, heading for the trees with long, fast strides.

“What?” Stiles exclaimed, trotting after him. “Derek, wait—”

Derek was gone. Stiles looked around the trees, squinting into the lengthening shadows, but there was no sight of the boy. “Derek?” Stiles called. He couldn’t even hear him, and wondered if he was standing behind a tree somewhere. “Dude, you can’t just tell me something like that and then walk off!” He waited, but there was no answer. “Fine! I’m coming back tomorrow, though; meet me in the clearing after school!”

Stiles listened to his voice echo through the woods, not moving again until it had faded completely. He struck off toward the house, wondering why Derek had bailed. Maybe he was embarrassed? Maybe he wasn’t supposed to tell anyone? Maybe that was why his mom had taken away his phone – but that didn’t make sense, unless Derek had been the one to start the fight. Stiles heaved a frustrated sigh, and another a few seconds later when he realized he’d forgotten to tell Derek how he’d seen him the night before.

Stiles asked his father about the old sheriff when he came in the following morning while Stiles and Allison were getting ready for school.

“You want to know what?” the sheriff asked, squinting tiredly at him.

“Why the last sheriff got fired,” Stiles said earnestly.

“Oh,” the sheriff sighed. “Apparently it was departmental policy to allow bribe-taking – letting people get out of speeding tickets, misdemeanors. When the district attorney found out, he fired most of the deputies and the sheriff as well.”

“Oh,” Stiles echoed, slightly perplexed. “Not – he didn’t assault anyone then?”

His father frowned at him. “Who told you that?”

“Just – something I heard at school,” Stiles lied. Which – maybe what his father said made sense. After all, Derek hadn’t said that that was why he’d been fired, just that they needed a better sheriff. Maybe he really wasn’t supposed to say anything and that was why he’d freaked out and disappeared.

The sheriff shrugged, watching his son with a faintly worried look on his face. “I don’t know much about the man, but I heard he had some issues in the past. Bad temper.”

“Huh,” Stiles said, and he would have kept prying, but the whole hacking thing still hung over their heads, and he let the subject drop. That was a pretty adult thing for him to do, he thought, and he left for school with Allison a few minutes later feeling pretty pleased with himself.

School that day was more of the same, the days quickly falling into a routine. He ignored Jackson's dark glare (though the bruise on his cheek throbbed at the memory of Jackson striking him), and when he saw Danny, all the boy did was smile at him – he didn’t seem at all concerned that they’d made out on Saturday night, which was kind of a relief.

He ate lunch with Scott and Isaac and watched Allison sit and laugh with her friends. He almost asked Scott and Isaac if they wanted to come hang out after school before remembering that he'd told Derek he'd be waiting in the clearing. Not that that guaranteed Derek would be there, of course, but Stiles hoped he would.

When Stiles did arrive in the clearing after school, he tried not to be too disappointed when Derek wasn't there to meet him. He shrugged and settled down on the rock, pulling out his chemistry homework. When he glanced up maybe ten minutes later, Derek stood a few yards away, watching him expressionlessly.

"Jesus, dude," Stiles hissed, clapping a hand over his thundering heart. "You're like a fucking ninja!"

"Sorry," Derek said quietly.

"You want to sit?" Stiles asked, gesturing at the rock he perched on. Derek shook his head and an uneasy silence fell over the clearing. Stiles scratched at his hair with the tip of his pen. "Okay," he said finally. "Look, what you told me yesterday, if you're worried about me telling other people, I'm not going to do that, I promise."

Derek frowned faintly. "I don’t think you will."

"Then why'd you disappear on me?"

Derek hesitated, his lips going thin. "I'm - I wasn't supposed to say anything."

"Did he threaten you?" Stiles asked, horrified.

Derek shook his head. "No, not him - the district attorney's office. They're building a case against him and didn't want him finding out and disappearing."

"Oh," Stiles said quietly. "Um. Why'd it happen? Can I ask? You don't have to say."

Derek shifted uncomfortably, shoving his hands into his pockets. "I don't want to talk about it."

"Okay," Stiles said slowly. "Can you tell me, though - did he start it? Was it unprovoked?"

Derek bit his lip, looking even more uncomfortable. "Everyone says it's not my fault, but I'm not sure they're right."

Stiles stared at Derek, watched the way his hand clutched at his bicep, the way he stared at the ground, and his stomach dropped. The way he acted, the way he spoke - Derek sounded like an abuse victim and Stiles desperately hoped that wasn't true. He'd gone on ride-alongs with his dad, watched him from the front seat as he talked to beaten women and men, frightened kids. He swallowed.

"Is there anything I can do to help?"

Derek shook his head, briefly lifting his eyes to Stiles' before looking away again. Stiles bit his lip and looked around the clearing. He spotted his lacrosse stuff, which he'd forgotten to pick up after leaving the pond the day before.

"Hey," Stiles said, and Derek lifted his head again. He nodded toward the lacrosse sticks. "You wanna play?"

Derek remained silent for another long moment before nodding. "Yeah," he said. "All right."

They didn't play that long; the sun was still above the trees when Derek set down his stick and said, "I'm going to head home." Stiles didn't try to argue with him; he was surprised Derek had stuck around as long as he had, even if he'd seemed to brighten up as they played.

Stiles walked home slowly, head consumed in thought. He wondered if he should tell his dad about Derek. Only Allison knew he'd met Derek out here - not like he was hiding it, there just hadn't been a reason to bring him up. Telling his dad seemed like a good idea, but if Derek was already working with the district attorney, maybe he didn't have to. And he'd told Derek he wouldn't tell anyone, and he wanted Derek to trust him.

Stiles' foot caught on a branch and he tripped, landing face-first in the loam. He sputtered, spitting dirt, and as he sat up his eyes caught a glimpse of something silver under the patch of leaves he'd just disturbed.

Stiles frowned and pushed some of the debris away. It was a length of silver metal and he curled his fingers around it, tugging the object out of the dirt. The tube felt hollow, light, like - Stiles' eyes went wide as the object was revealed - like a lacrosse stick. It was bent in half, the metal rusted, the lacquer bubbled and peeling. The plastic of the pocket was cracked, the rope netting torn and rotted. Stiles twisted the stick in his hands and his eyes landed on a name written in marker by the plug. It was faded and scratched but still legible. Derek.

This was Derek's stick, the one he said he'd broken. But Stiles had been under the impression that it had happened a couple weeks ago, maybe a few months back. This stick, though, had been here a long time. Years, by the way it was rusted. Stiles set it back down, feeling suddenly nervous. Maybe it was nothing. Maybe Derek had a bad habit of ruining his lacrosse sticks. Or maybe there was something he wasn't telling Stiles.

Stiles got to his feet, casting an anxious glance toward the clearing before kicking leaves back over the stick. He wasn't sure why he felt so nervous all of a sudden, but he very urgently needed to be out of the woods.

It wasn't until he was lying in bed that he realized that, for the second day in a row, he'd forgotten to tell Derek how he'd seen - or dreamt - of him standing outside the house Saturday night.

Stiles didn't make it to the clearing the following day, or the day after that. Lacrosse practice started and he was at the school until six every day, running laps, doing drills, being yelled by Finstock. As captain of the team, Jackson was insufferable; he had the backs of most of the seniors and juniors and they, as a group, mostly ignored Stiles and Scott, which made scrimmages hard. Finstock yelled at them a lot. Danny was the only junior who didn't ignore them, but Stiles felt weird around him, even though Danny had acted like the kiss at Lydia's party never happened.

On Wednesday night, Stiles had the dream again and, like the two dreams before, it changed. He wasn't running anymore; he stood in the shadow of the trees before the burning shell of a massive house that looked vaguely familiar. The smoke stung his eyes, and he heat from the flames hurt his face, but he didn't – couldn’t - move because there was a woman standing a few yards in front of him and something about her was wrong.

All he could see of her was long legs and golden light glinting off her wavy hair. She stood with her hands on her hips, a casual lilt to her stance that suggested she was absolutely unconcerned by the house burning in front of her.

Stiles couldn't put his finger on it, but whatever was wrong with this woman was the reason why he woke up crying from this dream so often. He could feel the air vibrating with something; a darkness that clenched at his shoulders and pulled at his gut.

"Stiles!"

The boy's voice came from not the fire but the woods beyond the house, ringing through the trees. He sounded hurt, bewildered, and Stiles saw, with a sudden jab of horror, the woman turn her head in the direction of the voice. She took a step forward and Stiles was suddenly, violently certain that she couldn't be allowed to find the boy before he did.

"No!" he shouted. The woman turned to look at him - and he woke up. He was soaked through with sweat again, his clothes and sheets damp under him. He stumbled to the bathroom and splashed water over his face, fighting back the urge to vomit.

When he finally reemerged, picking his weak way across his dark bedroom, he heard footsteps in the hall outside. Suddenly Stiles needed to talk to someone, even if it was just to hear his dad say good night or to hear Allison tell him to go back to sleep.

Stiles jerked the door open to find an empty hallway. He froze, swallowing panic, because there was no one there and he could still hear the fucking footsteps. He heard them pause, then the boards creaked as they headed back his direction and he did panic then, slamming his door shut and leaning against it with all his strength. He couldn't hear much over the hammering of his heart but he heard the footsteps faintly. They passed his door and continued down the hall. They disappeared down the stairs and only then did Stiles let himself relax, though "relax" was a relative term. What he did do was stuff a knuckle into his mouth, biting down hard so whatever it was wouldn't be able to hear him mutter "What the fuck, what the fuck!” over and over.

He slid to the floor and sat with his back against the door for over an hour, every sense on high alert. He fell asleep there, slumped over, and woke up in the morning feeling stiff and exhausted.

"Do you believe in ghosts?" Stiles asked Scott at lunch that day.

"Ghosts?" Scott repeated, his mouth full of pasta. He swallowed and narrowed his eyes at the table. "I don't know. I've never seen one. Why?"

"I think our house might be haunted," Stiles admitted, and told him about the footsteps.

"You sure it wasn't Allison? Or your dad?" Scott asked.

Stiles shook his head. "It wasn't Allison. I asked her this morning and she said she never got up last night. And Dad had an overnight shift."

"Maybe he came home to check on you guys," Scott shrugged.

"I would have heard his car leave," Stiles pointed out. "And dude, I looked. There was no one in the hall and I could still hear them."

Scott shrugged. "I dunno, dude. Maybe you were dreaming."

"I," Stiles began, and stopped. Maybe. He had ended up outside the previous weekend. "I dunno." He heaved a sigh. "You wanna come over after practice? I finally got the Xbox working."

"What, to your potentially haunted house?" Scott grinned lopsidedly. "Sure."

Stiles had the Jeep because Allison had gone to Lydia's house, so they bundled Scott's bike into the back and bounced down the rough road to the house.

"Whoa," Scott said, leaning forward as the house came into view through the trees. "This place is huge."

"I know," Stiles said. "I don't know what Dad was thinking."

Speaking of his father, his cruiser was parked in front of the house, but he was getting ready to leave as they came through the front door. "Boys," he said, raising his eyebrows.

"Hey, Dad," Stiles grinned. "This is Scott."

His dad nodded. "Scott. Nice to meet you."

"You too, sir," Scott said, his eyes going wide.

Stiles snorted and his father smiled faintly. "I'll be back around midnight," he said. "Don't get into any trouble - and you have school tomorrow, don't forget."

Stiles rolled his eyes at the dad lecture and said, "Sure thing, Dad. You go protect the town from all the violent criminals out there."

"Don't be smart," the sheriff replied as he headed for the door, but there was a smile on his face as he said it.

Scott and Stiles spent an enjoyable evening playing video games and shouting good-naturedly at each other - Scott did an impression of Finstock that left Stiles crying with laughter. Stiles made a huge plate of nachos and they talked about things. Stiles told Scott how he'd nearly cost his father his job, and Scott told him he'd moved to Beacon Hills because of his own father, a banker in Columbus who'd gotten remarried to a woman who didn't want Scott around.

"I really don't mind, though," Scott said with a shrug. "My dad's kind of a tool. He only fought for full custody in the divorce because he wanted to make my mom unhappy, not because he really wanted me around."

"Dude, that sucks," Stiles hissed sympathetically.

Scott grinned. "Whatever. I've got my mom and this town is way better than Columbus."

It was fun hanging out with Scott, though. Stiles hadn’t had a ton of friends back in Los Angeles, and three months of being grounded had kind of forced him to lose touch with the few that stuck around knowing he would be moving soon, so it was nice to know there was at least one person in Beacon Hills he could hang out and be stupid with. Two, if you counted Derek, and Stiles wasn’t sure he could yet.

Allison came home around nine and Stiles grinned at the hearts in Scott's eyes. "You wanna hang out with us?" Stiles asked his sister.

"And watch you guys yell at strangers?" she laughed. "I'll pass, thanks." And she disappeared, with Scott staring after her wistfully.

"Dude," Stiles said, digging his elbow into Scott's ribs. "Have you talked to her?"

"Only at Lydia's party," Scott replied mournfully. "I don't really see her at school."

"You should ask her out," Stiles said. "She's not going to say no to you. Homecoming's next week. You should ask her to the dance."

Scott flushed, glancing up at the ceiling. "You really think she'd say yes?"

"I'm like ninety-nine percent sure," Stiles replied. "But dude, you have to promise me that if you guys start dating, you won't tell me anything gross, ok? I don’t need to know about my sister's sex life."

"Deal," Scott said with a grin, though the tips of his ears went bright red.

Allison was in the kitchen when Scott was getting up to leave and Stiles nudged him in her direction, saying, "I'll see you tomorrow, dude. Ally, I think Scott wanted to talk to you."

Stiles left them eyeing each other in the kitchen and went upstairs. He could have eavesdropped, but even if Stiles was an asshole sometimes, he loved his sister enough to give her the privacy she and Scott deserved. Besides, he knew he’d be hearing the result from either or both of them soon enough. He laid down on his bed, listening, and sure enough, he heard the front door open, Allison and Scott’s low voices, then the front door shut again. Not even ten seconds later his phone lit up with a text from Scott: she said YES!!!!

Stiles grinned into the darkness and texted back. Told you. Dont forget your promise. No gross stuff.

Promise, Scott texted back. See you tomorrow!

Stiles rolled over and fell asleep long before his father came home at midnight.

-

He could see Derek standing in the woods, his pale face a circle floating amidst the darkness of the trees.

“Come on,” Stiles said to him. “You can come in.” Derek stared back at him like he’d seen a ghost and didn’t move an inch.

“Stiles?” There was a hand on his shoulder, shaking him. “Stiles, son, what are you doing?”

Stiles turned to look at his father. “Derek won’t come inside.”

The sheriff frowned. “What are you talking about? Stiles, you’re dreaming again. You’ve got to wake up.”

It felt like his body had been held underwater, and was only now rising to the surface. He blinked sleepily. “Dad?”

His father smiled uneasily. “That’s right. You understand me?”

Stiles scrubbed a hand across his face. “Yeah. Why wouldn’t I?”

“You weren’t making sense a second ago,” his father replied, putting a hand on his shoulder and gently guiding him inside. Stiles looked around blearily, not understanding how he’d ended up downstairs. At least he was wearing boxers – sometimes he stripped in his sleep. That would have been embarrassing.

“Who’s Derek?” his father asked as they trudged up the stairs, and Stiles jumped.

“What?”

“I asked you what you were doing outside and you sad, ‘Derek won’t come in,’” his dad said. “Is that someone you know?”

“Oh, yeah,” Stiles said wearily. “I met him out – out by the pond. He goes to St. Germaine, but he used to go to Beacon Hills. We’ve been practicing lacrosse in the woods.”

“I’m glad you’re making friends,” the sheriff said, stopping in Stiles’ doorway. Stiles looked at his bed, disheartened; his sheets were a mess again, strewn across the floor. He sighed. “Stiles,” his father continued, “you’re all right, right? This sleepwalking, it’s not – you’re not on anything, are you? I won’t be mad; I just don’t want you hurting yourself.”

“No, Dad,” Stiles replied. And maybe the first time last weekend he’d still been high when he went to bed, but he hadn’t taken anything tonight. “I’m not, I promise. I just haven’t been sleeping well. Everything’s new, I guess.”

“Okay,” his dad said slowly. “But you let me know if you want to see a doctor or something. I don’t want things getting worse. People have fallen down stairs or been hit by cars while sleepwalking, and I don’t want that happening.”

Stiles tried to give his dad a reassuring smile, but it just came out tired. “I’ll be fine, Dad. We haven’t even been here a month. I’m just still getting used to things.”

“All right.” His dad reached out and ruffled his hair. “Get some rest.”

Stiles couldn’t even be bothered to make his bed again. He made something like a nest out of the blankets and crawled inside, asleep before his head even hit the pillow.

-

Scott was jubilant at school the next day, almost bouncing on his toes in his excitement. Stiles was happy for him, but he was finding it hard to scrounge up any enthusiasm; he felt completely drained. He wished that his ADHD didn’t make drinking coffee an impossibility; rather than giving him energy, it made him tired. He almost fell asleep in chemistry anyway, earning himself a dark glare and more cutting words from Mr. Harris, while Jackson sniggered somewhere behind him.

There was no lacrosse practice that evening, and it felt like a relief to get home while the sun was still up, and he headed into the woods. Stiles hadn’t seen Derek since Monday, and hoped that the boy hadn’t spent every afternoon that week waiting in the clearing for him. Stiles felt guilty; he’d forgotten to tell Derek that practice was starting.

Derek wasn’t there when Stiles reached the clearing, but Stiles laid himself out on the warm grass, waiting, and Derek showed up maybe ten minutes later. Stiles grinned.

“Yo,” he said, as Derek settled down in the grass next to him. “Long time no see.”

Derek smiled and Stiles watched him carefully. He wasn’t tense like he’d been on Monday, and Stiles took that as a good sign. There was still a sad cast to his face, though, like he’d been in one too many fights he couldn’t win. His expression rattled a memory in Stiles’ head and he said, “Oh!”

Derek lifted an inquisitive eyebrow and Stiles said, “Dude, I keep dreaming about you!”

Derek opened his mouth, paused for a beat, then asked, “Do you?”

“I—” Stiles caught the innuendo and flushed. “N-not like that, shut up!” Derek laughed and Stiles punched him on the arm. “No – I keep sleepwalking and ending up on our front porch. I keep dreaming that I see you standing in the woods, staring at our house.”

Derek gave him a bewildered look. “Why would I do that?”

Stiles threw up his hands. “I don’t know! It’s just a dream.”

“Do you have other dreams?” Derek asked curiously.

Stiles hesitated, looking down at the grass. He plucked at a stem absently. He’d never told anyone about his reoccurring dream, not even Allison. He didn’t know why; it wasn’t like anything really happened in them. “Not really,” he said finally, deciding to keep the dream to himself for a little while longer. “Why, what about you?”

“I don’t dream,” Derek replied with a shrug. “I just see this…sort of darkness.” He closed his mouth and Stiles stared at him, watching Derek watch the woods. After a long moment, Derek added quietly, “Sometimes I think that maybe this is a dream.”

Stiles almost laughed, but the look on Derek’s face made his jaw clench. “I’m real, dude,” he said. “This isn’t The Truman Show. At least, I’m pretty sure it’s not.” He gave Derek a friendly smile. “Maybe you’re in my show and you don’t exist when I’m not around.”

Derek didn’t laugh, and Stiles didn’t think about how strange that was until much later.

-

Before Stiles knew it, another week in Beacon Hills had passed. It was Friday and the lacrosse team was getting ready for their first game. He tried not to reveal his nervousness as he pulled his pads on in the locker room, but the incessant jiggling of his knee gave him away. Scott sat down on the bench next to him, pulling a jersey over his head as he said, “Dude, calm down.”

“Sure, easy,” Stiles muttered, tugging his laces tight. His dad had gotten the evening off of work specifically to see the game, and Allison and Lydia, and – Stiles’ head came up as he remembered. They were playing Saint Germaine – Derek’s school. He’d completely forgot to ask Derek if he’d joined the team, but even if he hadn’t, maybe he was in the stands somewhere. Fuck, now he was twice as anxious. “Aren’t you nervous?” Stiles asked Scott. “Allison’s going to be watching, you know.”

“Thanks,” Scott grinned, elbowing him. “But whatever, dude! It’s just a game.”

“Don’t let Coach hear you say that,” Stiles replied. “Or Jackson.”

Scott rolled his eyes as Finstock came thundering into the locker room and made the players gather around him. He launched into an epic speech that sounded vaguely familiar; Isaac leaned over and whispered to the two of them, “It’s from Independence Day.” Stiles did his best to contain an exaggerated eye roll and was about seventy percent successful.

Speech over, Finstock began calling out the players that would be on the field that evening, and Stiles tried not to let the disappointment show when his name wasn’t called. Jackson smirked as he passed, giving Stiles a consoling pat on the arm that was more like a punch.

“Keep practicing, Stilinski.”

“Fucker,” Stiles muttered under his breath and Scott, who hadn’t been chosen for the field either, shook his head sympathetically.

Out on the bench, in the crisp evening air, Stiles watched the crowd as the principal got up on a podium and began a long speech about school values and sportsmanship. He squinted across the field at the opposing team all dressed in gold and black, wondering if Derek was among them. Stiles hadn’t seen Derek since the weekend. They’d hung out on Friday and Sunday, but Scott had come over on Monday, and he’d had practice every night since then. Stiles was only half listening to the principal, his eyes narrowed as he squinted at the faces across the pitch, while the man finished, “And tonight we dedicate this homecoming game, as we do every year, to player fifteen, D—”

“Stiles, there,” Scott hissed, jabbing Stiles in the ribs with his elbow. Stiles jumped, his attention distracted, and followed Scott’s finger to where it pointed at his dad and Allison sitting in the stands. The sheriff smiled when he saw his son looking, and Allison waved.

People were clapping around them and Stiles looked back at the podium to see the principal setting down the microphone. He’d missed the end of the speech but, he thought, as players from both teams streamed onto the field to take up their positions, it hadn’t seemed all that important.

Stiles spent most of the game watching the Saint Germaine players, seeking Derek’s face. He ignored Finstock, who did a lot of yelling and stomping up and down the sidelines, and barely participated in Scott’s animated commentary. Stiles avoided looking at the stands where his father and Allison were sitting, too embarrassed that he hadn’t been chosen for the field. His dad had gotten the night off for nothing.

By the end of the game, Stiles hadn’t spotted Derek and Beacon Hills was down, ten points to Saint Germaine’s seventeen. When the buzzer signaled the end of the game, the opposing team had scored twice more and the crowd was subdued; not a great start to the season. Stiles joined the line to shake the other team’s hands, and his spirits sank further when Derek wasn’t among them; he’d been hoping for the familiar sight of his half smile – anything to boost this bummer of an evening.

After getting changed and gathering his gear, Stiles found his father and Allison waiting outside. They were both smiling, but Stiles couldn’t find the enthusiasm to smile back. He felt tired all of a sudden, his shoulders heavy.

“That was a good game,” the sheriff said, clapping Stiles on the shoulder.

Stiles shrugged his hand off and replied, “Sorry you had to sit through that.”

His father frowned and Allison said, “What are you talking about? I know you guys lost, but it was still fun to watch.”

Stiles shrugged again. “Don’t get upset because you didn’t get to play,” his dad said. “It’s only the first game.”

“That’s not – ” Stiles heaved a sigh. “Never mind. Can we go home?”

Back at the house, he laid on his bed and listened to Allison bang around in her room as she got ready for the homecoming dance. Scott kept texting him, his messages growing increasingly frantic as the time to the dance drew closer. Stiles couldn’t deal with him and shoved his phone under his pillow so he wouldn’t have to see the screen lighting up.

Someone knocked on his doorframe and he flipped over to see Allison standing there, dressed in a silvery grey dress, her hair twisted up to one side in an elegant knot.

“You look really nice,” he told her despondently.

She smiled faintly, but looked worried when she asked, “Are you okay? Scott says you aren’t answering his texts.”

“I’m just…tired,” Stiles replied.

“Are you going to the dance?”

“I don’t think so.” It wasn’t like he had anyone to go with, and Allie and Scott would be preoccupied with each other. He had no desire to be a third wheel that night.

“Okay,” Allison said hesitantly, clearly unsure what to say to him. “Well. If you change your mind, you know where I’ll be.”

Stiles nodded and she disappeared. Ten minutes later, it was his dad’s turn to appear in the doorway, looking faintly concerned. “You sick?” he asked.

“No,” Stiles sighed. “I’m just tired, Dad. It’s been a long week.”

The sheriff didn’t say anything for a long time. He stood in the doorway, watching Stiles, and then he said, “You’ll get to play eventually. You’re still a junior; there’s plenty of time.”

“I don’t care about the game,” Stiles told him, repeating, “I’m just tired.”

“Okay,” the sheriff said, after another long pause. He tapped his fingers against the doorframe. “I’m headed to bed.”

“Good night,” Stiles mumbled into his pillow.

“G’night, son,” his dad said softly, pulling the door shut behind him.

Stiles squeezed his eyes shut. He didn’t dream.

-

His dad had Saturday off and Stiles went downstairs to find that he’d made a huge spread for breakfast. Oddly, Stiles was up before Allison, who stumbled downstairs around eleven in sweatpants and a ratty old t-shirt, make-up still smeared around her eyes. Stiles and their father both eyed her with interest and she flushed, piling a plate high with pancakes and scrambled eggs.

“Late night?” the sheriff asked, his voice carefully neutral.

“Mm,” Allison said evasively, avoiding Stiles’ eyes as she dug into her breakfast.

Stiles grinned. He was feeling a thousand times better than he had the previous night, his bad mood long gone. “How was the dance?”

“Good,” Allison mumbled, eating a huge forkful of egg.

Stiles cast a gleeful look at his father, who leaned against the countertop and said, “Do I need to have a word with your date?”

“No, Dad!” Allison exclaimed, her cheeks going a brilliant red. The sheriff chuckled and disappeared into the bathroom.

When he’d gone, Stiles leaned across the table and hissed, “You’ve got a hickey on your neck.” Allison turned an interesting shade of purple and clapped a hand to her throat. There was no bruise there, but Stiles wasn’t fulfilling his duties as an annoying younger brother if he didn’t tease her properly.

After they’d finished cleaning up after breakfast, the three Stilinskis piled into the SUV and headed into town to do some grocery shopping. They hadn’t gone as a family in a long time. When their mother was alive, they’d made a game out of it, one parent to one child, splitting the list and racing off to see which team could get all their items first. After their mother had died, their father had still taken them; he’d worked so much that it was often the only time he’d found to be with them. Nearly every trip he’d offered the two of them an ultimatum; they could each get one treat, a book or a candy bar, and the siblings had quickly figured out how to get the best of both worlds – Stiles would choose the book while Allison chose the candy, and then they’d split the bar and read the book, heads pressed together.

Now that they were older, things were a little different. Stiles pushed the cart along absently, following his father and Allison as they sparred over quinoa versus pasta and responsibly harvested grains. They were almost to the end of the cookies and cracker aisle when Allison said, “I forgot the bananas! Stiles, don’t let Dad get anything,” and spun on her heel.

“I’ll say those are mine if you promise to eat two at a time instead of four,” Stiles told his dad, who was looking mournfully at the Oreos. Stiles knew Allison was just trying to keep their dad healthy, but they’d get nowhere without compromise.

“Better not,” he sighed, shaking his head. “Your sister would have my head – and yours too, for conspiring with me.”

“True enough,” Stiles agreed, shoving at the cart to make the turn at the end of the aisle. He could hear someone around the corner, a woman’s voice, snapping, “You’ll fuck it up again, Chris. I told you to leave this to me.”

A man snapped back, “And I told you, I – get back here!”

Stiles came around the corner to see a blonde, middle-aged man blocking the end of the next aisle. He was paying no attention to the store around him, but glaring after a woman stalking away from him, her light brown curls bouncing off her shoulders. Stiles frowned at her back. There was something familiar about her – someone he’d seen before?

“Excuse us,” the sheriff said beside him, his voice mild, and the man’s eyes snapped to Stiles’ father.

“Sheriff,” he said stiffly, his blue eyes narrowing.

“Mr. Argent,” the sheriff said politely, inclining his head. “If we could get past…?”

The man nodded, an angry jerk of his head, and pushed his cart out of their way. Stiles sidled past him, watching him out of the corner of his eye, and he waited until they were halfway down the aisle before asking his dad, “Do you know him?” A stupid question, maybe, since this was a small town and his dad probably knew everyone, even after only a month of living here, but the expression on the man’s face had made him curious.

“Chris Argent. He’s the old sheriff,” his father replied evenly. “Not my biggest fan.”

Stiles twisted to look over his shoulder, but the man was gone. He turned back around, his mouth dry. So that was the guy who’d beat up Derek? He certainly looked like he was capable of it. But what about the woman? Stiles bit his lip. He knew he’d seen that hair before, the brief glimpse of her profile – but where?

-

Stiles didn’t see Derek that weekend; he went out to the clearing several times, but Derek didn’t show up. It was hot again, so he went to the pond and hung out on the shore for a while, cooling his feet in the water. Stiles thought that Derek might show up there, or maybe even one of his elusive siblings, but he was the only one at the pond that afternoon.

He didn’t dream at all that weekend, which was, frankly, a relief, though it put him in mind of Derek’s strange words, about how he dreamed of a void. Stiles spent some time on his computer on Sunday night reading about dream recall, which led him to sleepwalking and other sleep disorders, which led him to a Wikipedia surfing binge that lasted until midnight.

Though he didn’t dream, Stiles noticed…other things. Saturday was quiet; his dad was hanging around the house, painting and fixing stuff here and there, but the bathroom door opened on Stiles again when there was no one around and his window wasn’t open that time. On Sunday he had the house to himself; his dad was on patrol and Allison had joined the school newspaper and they were working over the weekend to get Monday’s issue out (it was a deluxe edition on homecoming or something; Stiles hadn’t really been paying attention). He kept hearing things. Nothing as blatant as the footsteps he’d heard, but soft, far-off noises; little clicks and taps and soft jingling sounds, like someone shaking their keys.

He was in the kitchen making himself a sandwich for dinner when he distinctly heard the sound of the floor creaking behind him and he froze, goosebumps breaking out over his pale skin. He could feel a presence in the air behind him, thick and cloying, and it took all his courage to turn, only to see…nothing. There was no one behind him.

“Fuck off,” Stiles muttered, grabbing his sandwich and retreating up to his room. It took a long time for him to stop shuddering reflexively.

-

On Tuesday, Mr. Harris assigned a partnered project in chemistry. Scott and Stiles grinned at each other – a moment too soon, because Harris shook his head and said, “I don’t think so. McCall, you’re with Whittemore. Stilinski – with Mahealani.”

The smile faded from Stiles’ lips and he swallowed nervously. Okay. That was okay. He hadn’t really talked to Danny since Lydia’s party except for a few exchanges during lacrosse practice, but Danny seemed fine with the fact that Stiles had disappeared during the party. Maybe Jackson had said something, Stiles thought, picking up his things and switching seats with said asshole, who glared at him as they passed. Or maybe Stiles needed to stop being a prude and stop equating sex with an emotional relationship.

Whatever it was, Danny gave him a faint smile as he sat down, and their conversation for the rest of the class kept to the safe topic of chemistry. They kept working after school, breaking for lacrosse practice and then retreating to the library when Harris kicked them out of the chemistry lab. When they got kicked out of the library at seven, Stiles looked at his phone and groaned.

“Everything all right?” Danny asked mildly.

“Yeah,” Stiles sighed. “But Allison’s going to be working on the paper until eight, so I’m stuck here for another hour.”

“I can give you a ride,” Danny offered, shouldering his backpack. “We could keep working at your place.”

“You’re only interested in me because of my murder house,” Stiles said, before he thought about what he was saying. He bit down on the inside of his cheek, thinking maybe he shouldn’t joke about it – either the house or Danny being interested in him – but Danny just grinned.

“Maybe so,” he said, heading for the front doors of the school. “I’ll admit I am curious.”

Stiles laughed nervously and followed Danny out to the parking lot. They drove the winding forest road to the house and Danny, like Scott, leaned forward to catch a glimpse of it through the trees.

“It’s a lot bigger than I thought it would be,” he said.

“Yeah,” Stiles agreed, anxiously tapping his foot against the car floor. “I think my dad forgot that there’s only three of us, and next year it’ll only be me and him when Allie goes to college.”

Once they were inside, he gave Danny a tour, because Danny seemed to expect it. Stiles didn’t show him the scorched timbers in the attic, though; it didn’t seem right. As they settled down in Stiles’ room, Danny taking the desk while Stiles sat on his bed, Stiles asked hesitantly, “Do you know much? About what happened here?”

Danny looked around and shook his head. “Not really,” he said, opening his notebook. “I was in sixth grade when it happened. Lots of people were talking about it, but I was too young – I didn’t really pay much attention to it. The youngest kids – they went to my elementary school, but they were a year below me. I didn’t know them.”

“Oh,” Stiles said, simultaneously relieved and disappointed; he wasn’t sure what he’d expected to hear. They subsided into silence, which was fine with Stiles; any moment they weren’t talking was another moment he wasn’t making a fool of himself. He tapped his pencil against his notebook as he went over the experiments they’d done in class, working on some equations. Stiles’ thoughts drifted in dangerous directions, hyper-aware of Danny’s presence. He remembered how Danny’s mouth felt against his, which made him wonder what Derek’s mouth would feel like. Stiles blinked and realized he’d been staring at the same problem for fifteen minutes.

“I don’t understand this,” Stiles sighed, giving up. Danny looked up and got to his feet, sitting down on the bed next to Stiles so he could look at the equation. Stiles tried not to fidget and pull his textbook toward himself in the same moment; he was sporting a semi and really didn’t need Danny noticing. Danny’s proximity wasn’t helping; even if Stiles wasn’t all that interested in him, the heat from his body felt solid and reassuring, and he smelled like cologne, and it did weird things to Stiles, twisted his insides.

“Oh, here’s the problem,” Danny said, tapping the paper. “You switched your variables here.”

“Oh,” Stiles said, swallowing thickly. “Right. Thanks.”

Danny nodded but didn’t move. Heart starting to hammer in his chest, Stiles turned to look at him and found Danny staring at his mouth.

“Can I?” Danny asked, leaning forward, already in his space, his lips centimeters from Stiles’. Stiles breathed out harshly. Calm down, he told himself. You might as well have some fun. He nodded and leaned forward before Danny could respond, pressing their mouths together.

Somehow Stiles ended up on his back, angled across his bed with Danny kneeling on top of him. He wasn’t all that comfortable – the corner of his textbook was digging into his spine – but Danny had a knee pressed between Stiles’ thighs as they kissed and his dick was definitely interested in the pressure.

“Fuck,” Stiles said quietly, when Danny moved his mouth down his neck, teeth scraping against his skin. He dug his fingers into Danny’s shoulders, hissing when the boy pushed up his shirt, fingers pulling at the button on his pants. “Danny,” he said, his breath hitching at the contact. His dick wanted it, definitely, but Stiles didn’t think – he didn’t think he could do this casual sex thing. “Danny, I don’t – “

“I’ll suck your dick if you want,” Danny offered nonchalantly and Stiles’ hips twitched.

But Stiles shook his head. “I don’t – fuck!”

“What?” Danny lifted his head, looking alarmed. But Stiles wasn’t looking at him; he was staring past Danny’s shoulders to the door, where he’d just seen someone walk by. Stiles pushed Danny away, scrambling to his feet, ready to apologize to his dad or Allison, but when he burst into the hallway there was no one there.

“Stiles?” Danny called from behind him, but Stiles ignored him, trotting through the house, looking in every room. He went downstairs and looked outside but there was only his dad’s SUV and Danny’s car, no sign of his father or sister. Stiles went back upstairs slowly, panic settling into his chest. He knew he’d seen someone, a dark, solid form that, now that he thought about it more, had looked like a woman, tall and dark-haired, her back a serious, straight line.

Danny was sitting on his bed when he came back into his room, looking bewildered. “Is everything okay?”

“Yeah,” Stiles said distractedly, running a hand through his hair. “Yeah, I just – I think you should get home. We can finish tomorrow at school.”

Danny nodded, his mouth going thin, and gathered his things. Stiles managed to hold in the panic attack until he heard Danny’s car door open and close, and then he slid to the floor next to his bed, shoulders heaving. He didn’t know how long he sat there, struggling for breath, tears welling in his eyes, but when someone touched him on the shoulder, he nearly screamed, flinging his arms wide and shouting, “Leave me the fuck alone!”

“I – “ Stiles blinked and realized Allison was kneeling next to him, her eyes wet. “I – sorry, I thought you – ”

“No,” Stiles said hurriedly, his eyes burning with tears. “I didn’t mean – I thought you were – ” A ghost, his mind finished for him, but he didn’t say it out loud. Allison had noticed nothing unusual about the house, and he didn’t want her thinking he was crazy. Stiles took a deep breath. “I’m sorry, Allie. I just – ”

“Is everything okay?” she asked tentatively. “You were – was that a panic attack?”

Stiles bit his lip and nodded. Her face softened further.

“What’s the matter?” Allison asked quietly. “Did something happen? You haven’t had one in a while.”

As far as she knew, it had been months since his last attack, but Stiles didn’t correct her. “I’m fine,” he said, touching her hand. “I just scared myself.”

“And me,” she said ruefully.

“Sorry.”

Allison watched him carefully. “Are you sure you’re okay? You know you can tell me, if something happened – ”

“I’m fine,” Stiles insisted. “I promise.”

Allison smiled hesitantly but didn’t look like she quite believed him.

-

That night, Stiles locked the door to his bedroom and dreamt of the woods and the woman and the house on fire. The woman spoke to him in a soft, husky voice, low but loud enough to be heard over the sound of the flames and the pained cries of the boy in the woods.

“You can’t save him,” she said gently, soothingly, and the sound of her voice was enough to start him shuddering. She sounded like a parent telling their child that their favorite pet had been hit by a car and was going to heaven. He couldn’t see her face, head backlit from the flames of the burning house. “He’s already dead, hon.”

When Stiles woke he was panting on the floor of his bedroom, the sheets piled around him. A woman leaned over him, her hand pressed to his forehead. Stiles stared up at her, wide-eyed, because this was the woman he’d seen walk by earlier, long, dark hair pulled over one shoulder. There was something familiar about her pale eyes and strong cheekbones that he couldn’t place because he was too busy panicking over the fact that there was a strange woman in his room whom he was almost one hundred percent certain was a ghost – unless she’d broken in, and –

“Shhh,” the woman said gently, pressing her cool palm to the apple of his cheek. Stiles found himself relaxing despite himself, body going loose and pliant under her touch. It gave him the clarity to notice that she didn’t feel threatening; if anything, she felt concerned, worried about him. There was a motherly light in her eyes he hadn’t seen since his own mom passed away and he found her soothing.

“I’m okay,” Stiles mumbled, tongue thick and heavy in his mouth.

“Shhh,” the woman said again and Stiles’ eyes drifted closed.

When he woke up the following morning he was back in his own bed with the sheets tucked in around him.

-

The house was quiet for a few days after that. Stiles didn’t feel anything, didn’t hear anything, didn’t dream. Allison and his father, who had started looking worried when he was around, seemed to relax, and Stiles relaxed as well. He finished the chemistry project with Danny, who didn’t seem to want to talk to him any more (which was fine, honestly – things were a lot easier that way and he didn’t have to think about what might have happened if Danny had kept pushing instead of listening to him), and endured the ensuing dark looks from Jackson. He didn’t see much of Derek because Finstock upped practices to four days a week, leaving his only free afternoons on Mondays.

He spent a lot of time with Scott and Isaac instead; he found an old bicycle in the shed in the backyard and rode back and forth to Scott’s and Isaac’s houses. They spent most of their time at Scott’s house because his mom worked a lot and it was central to all three of them, easy to get to. Stiles didn’t really like going to Isaac’s house – his father ran the cemetery and seemed like he was always on the verge of a furious outburst.

Stiles got used to riding through the dark woods after the sun set, the dirt road only lit by his headlamp and a Maglite he’d stolen from his dad’s cruiser. It was still kind of creepy, but he’d spent so much time out in the forest with Derek that the woods didn’t weird him out so much, even at night.

He was coming home from Scott’s late one night, bombing down one of the hills close to the house when the light in front of him flashed over a figure standing by the side of the road.

“Fuck!” Stiles bellowed in surprise, hitting the brakes so hard he was surprised he didn’t flip. He skidded to a halt and twisted around, shining the flashlight’s light toward the trees where he’d seen the person – but there was no one. Stiles took a deep breath and called, “Derek? Was that you?” He moved the beam from tree to tree but saw no one and heard no response.

“Okay,” Stiles said to himself, scrubbing a hand through his hair. “Just a weird tree or something. Okay.”

And he headed off toward the house again but slower this time, sweeping the flashlight’s beam from side to side as he pedaled, scanning the trees.

He was almost to the house when he realized the woods were glowing red and his head came up sharply, panic flooding through him when he spotted the flames, the smell of smoke harsh in his nose. The house was on fire. Their house, with the cruiser and the Jeep parked out front, was on fire.

Stiles threw himself off the bike and ran up the driveway. He could feel the heat as he drew close, hot enough to blister the pain on the cars, but he pushed himself forward, screaming, “Dad! Allison!”

He’d never realized how loud fire was. It roared as it consumed the house, feeding on the cool night air, popping and cracking, drowning the sound of his voice. Stiles cried as he ran up the front steps, breath hitching in pain when he wrapped a hand around the doorknob and the metal burned his skin.

“Allie!” Stiles wailed, stumbling backward, his skin tight and burning from the intense heat. “Dad!”

“Stiles?”

There were hands on his face, clasping his cheeks. Stiles blinked rapidly and saw his dad standing in front of him, Allison behind him, her hands over her mouth. He looked around, bewildered, and found himself standing in the front hall of the house – the house that was quiet and cool and in no way on fire. Stiles looked down at his hand, the one he’d burned on the front doorknob. It should have been red and blistering and painful, but the skin on his palm was smooth and pale. He looked at Allison’s terrified face and his dad’s alarmed expression.

“I,” he tried, tears starting to slip down his cheeks. “Dad, I – “

“It’s all right,” his father said swiftly, gathering him into a tight hug. “Stiles, you’re all right.”

“But the house,” Stiles mumbled, clutching at his dad’s shoulders. “It was on fire.”

“Shhh.”

Stiles lifted his eyes, past Allison, to the base of the stairs. The woman he’d seen in his room was standing there, a soft, worried expression on her face. Stiles coughed on a sob and pressed his face to his father’s shoulder, focusing on breathing in the solid, steady smell of whiskey and aftershave. Allison said something and his father responded, his voice low and vibrating against Stiles, but Stiles wasn’t listening, just concentrating on keeping the world steady.

“Stiles,” his father said quietly, when Stiles finally felt strong enough to push himself away. “I’m worried about you, son.”

Stiles took a deep breath, rubbing his hands over his eyes. “Can we talk in the morning, please?” he asked weakly. “I just – I want to sleep.”

“Just tell me, please,” the sheriff insisted, catching Stiles by the shoulders as he tried to head for the stairs. “Is there something you’re not telling me? Are you in trouble? You know you can tell me anything, right?”

“I – no, Dad,” Stiles said wearily. He glanced toward Allison, who watched them uneasily, her mouth puckered with worry. “I don’t know what’s happening,” and that was the honest truth. He had no idea why he kept dreaming these things and it worried him, too. He squirmed out of his father’s grasp and headed for the stairs, which had thankfully been vacated by the dark-haired woman.

Allison slipped into his room ten minutes later, when he was already in bed. The sound of the door opening made him jump, heart skittering nervously, but he calmed when he heard her whisper, “Stiles?” The mattress dipped as she sat down next to him.

“What do you want?” Stiles mumbled into his pillow. He felt heavy, like he’d run a marathon, like someone was sitting on his chest and pressing him into the mattress. The thought reminded him of Danny kneeling on top of him and he shuddered faintly.

“Dad’s really worried about you,” Allison whispered.

“I know.”

“I am, too.”

“I know.” Stiles sighed, flipping so he could look at her. His heart hurt at the sight of tears in her eyes.

“Will you please tell me what’s going on with you?” she asked. “I won’t tell Dad, I promise, but you’re scaring us. Dad thinks you’re on drugs.”

“I’m not,” Stiles said. “I swear, Allie. I just – I keep having these dreams and I don’t know why. I know,” he swallowed nervously and forced himself to say, “I know you haven’t noticed anything, but there’s something going on with this house, Allie. I hear things, I see things, I feel things.”

Allison bit her lip. “I haven’t seen – ”

“I know,” Stiles sighed, frustrated. “I can’t explain it, but I’m not making this up.”

“I’m sure you aren’t,” she said hurriedly. “I just – there has to be an explanation, right? Why would you be seeing these things and not me or dad?”

“I don’t know,” Stiles replied, sighing again. “Can we talk about this later? Please? And don’t tell Dad; I want to tell him.”

“Okay,” Allison agreed, worry creeping back into her voice. “But keep me updated, all right?”

“I’ll try,” Stiles said, which was as much as he was willing to give.

-

He didn’t dream that night, a small blessing mixed into a cloud of misfortune.

-

Stiles avoided talking with his dad by waking up early and riding his bike to school. He hadn’t been lying when he told Allison he wanted to be the one to tell their father about what had been happening, but he felt, reasonably, that seven-thirty in the morning was a little too early in the day to be having a serious conversation about ghosts.

He skipped lacrosse practice that afternoon. He’d face Finstock’s wrath in class the next day, but with every part of him feeling disjointed and ill-at-ease, all Stiles wanted was an afternoon in the woods.

“Do you ever feel like you’re going crazy?” he asked Derek, the moment Derek stepped out from amongst the trees.

Derek frowned at him and settled down into the grass, leaning back against the rock at the edge of the clearing. It was a chilly, overcast day, the woods thick with mist. Stiles was layered in a sweatshirt, a long-sleeve shirt, and a t-shirt, but all Derek wore was a thin cotton shirt and gym shorts. Wasn’t he cold?

“You mean actually crazy?” Derek asked slowly, “or like ‘real life is overwhelming’ crazy?”

“Both,” Stiles sighed, settling his head back against the rock and shutting his eyes. He thought about the expression on Allison’s face when he’d told her about the house and decided not to tell Derek about it for fear of the same reaction. “There’s just a lot going on.”

“My mom would say that’s just part of being a teenager,” Derek said moodily, and Stiles cracked his eyes open to glance over at him.

“Do you get along with your parents?”

“Yeah,” Derek sighed. “Usually. It’s just lately I – there’s been a lot for them to stress out about. I’m not their favorite person right now.”

Stiles wrinkled his face in sympathy. “Sorry, dude.”

Derek looked over at him. “What about you? Do you get along with your dad?”

Stiles shrugged. “It’s been better lately. I kinda – I messed up this spring. I was hacking into the police records and he almost got fired, but he’s good friends with the commander or whatever and got recommended for this job instead. We didn’t talk for a while. Felt like shit about it.”

Derek raised his eyebrows. “Why would you do that?”

“I don’t know,” Stiles said. “Because I could? Because I’m nosy as fuck? It was really stupid.”

Derek snorted and they fell into silence. Stiles closed his eyes and reflected on how different he felt hanging around Derek than he had hanging around Danny. He wasn’t stiff around Derek; he felt natural, even if the way Derek looked at him sometimes mad his stomach flutter. If Derek were to lean over and kiss him right now, he’d make no protests. Of course, Stiles mused, his spirits sinking a little, he didn’t even know if Derek would be interested in him – if he liked guys or girls or landed somewhere in-between.

Stiles licked his lips and cracked his eyes open again, stealing a glance at Derek. The expression on his face made Stiles open his eyes all the way, pushing himself up onto one elbow. Derek was staring at his hands and Stiles could see the muscles in his jaw clenching and unclenching.

“Dude,” Stiles said softly, “are you okay?”

Derek glanced over at him and then away, his mouth going thin. “You know how I told you I fucked up?” he asked quietly, and Stiles nodded. Derek gritted his teeth and bit out, “I slept with a teacher.”

Stiles stared at him, his mouth falling open. “You – “

“I fucked a teacher,” Derek said furiously. “She – “ He cut himself off with a bitter laugh and said, “She said she loved me.”

Stiles watched him, his stomach twisting. Holy shit. Holy shit. He didn’t know what to say – what could you say to something like that? “Do – does anyone know?” he finally managed.

“My parents,” Derek replied quietly. “And the sheriff. He’s her brother.”

Not my dad, Stiles thought. He means the old sheriff. And that – shit. “That’s why he beat you up,” Stiles whispered.

Derek nodded curtly, looking down at his hands. “He wasn’t pleased.”

“Does the DA know?”

Derek shook his head, misery creeping over his face. “I don’t want anyone to know,” he choked out. “I – I was so stupid.”

“Yeah,” Stiles said carefully, “but that’s illegal, dude. She can’t…take advantage of you like that.”

“I don’t care,” Derek replied stubbornly. “It’s over. I just want to forget about it.”

Stiles was silent for a long time, watching Derek grip at the knees of his jeans. “So this is why you changed schools?” he asked quietly, and Derek nodded again. “Does she still teach at Beacon Hills?”

“I – maybe. I don’t know. She was a sub.”

Stiles bit his lip. “Is there anything I can do?”

Derek looked over at him, a faint, unamused smile on his face. “Keep coming out here,” he said. “Hanging out with you, it’s – it’s good.”

Stiles grinned. “Well, I wasn’t planning on going anywhere, dude.” He offered his fist to Derek, who brushed their knuckles together with a faint snort, sending sparks flying down Stiles’ wrist.

-

Late that night Stiles lay in bed and stared up at the ceiling, thinking about Derek’s confession. It made his stomach turn just thinking about it. Suddenly the careful way Derek held himself, shoulders hunched like he was ready for the world to attack – it made sense. He had been abused, and not just by the old sheriff. The defensive way he spoke wasn’t of someone who was proud of what had happened; it hurt him, revolted him, and that pain sickened Stiles. She said she loved me. Stiles blanched at the ceiling. There’d been nothing in those words but disgust and regret.

Stiles bit down on his lip, worrying at the skin with his teeth. He wanted to tell his dad. He knew Derek didn’t want anyone to know, but this lady was a predator. What if she was still seducing kids? Someone needed to stop her.

Stiles flipped onto his side and found his ghost woman sitting at his desk, her face turned to look out the window. The moonlight illuminated her face, lighting up her pale eyes, and the way she tilted her head reminded him of someone, but who? She looked over at him as if sensing his gaze, and it was shocking how not shocking she was any more. All he felt from her was calm, comfort.

“How do you help someone who doesn’t want to be helped?” Stiles asked her. She tilted her head to the side, considering. She held her hands out flat in front of her, palms facing the ceiling, then brought them together as if in prayer. Stiles squinted, trying to understand. “A book? Reading?”

She nodded and then faded from sight very gently, leaving Stiles staring at the empty chair, confused. How was a book supposed to help Derek?

-

A few days later found Stiles skipping practice again so that he could go to the offices of the local newspaper, the Beacon Hills Tribune, and browse their archives for a paper he was writing for his history class. The secretary, a kind woman with a round face, was happy to direct him to the dusty upstairs room lined with large bound books of old newspaper issues, and Stiles spent hours sitting in the fading sunlight, browsing the volumes of the early twentieth century for articles on a major flood that had hit Beacon Hills in 1913.

It was peaceful and quiet, a Thursday afternoon when news was slow. The secretary had explained to him that, in recent years, the paper had taken cost-cutting measures and only produced a new issue once a week, on Thursdays, so most of the staff had gone home after the Wednesday rush to get the edition out the door. So the place was calm, but also a little boring, and as it turned out, no one even died in the Great Flood of 1913, not even any livestock, so Stiles couldn’t be blamed for his attention drifting.

His eyes kept wandering to the far end of the room, where the most recent issues of the newspaper were kept, bound in navy leather, with gilded type down their spines with issue number and dates of release. Stiles knew there had to be articles about the house and the fire, and his insatiable curiosity was licking at his mind again, fingers twitching against the old paper in his hands. He tried to fight it, reasoning that there was nothing in there that would make anything about living there better, but he could feel himself giving in, rising to his feet to wander over to the new books, trailing a finger along their stiff spines.

Five and a half years, his dad had said, and Stiles breathed out carefully as he touched the volume labeled January – April 2007. Five and a half years. That would put the fire in March or April. He bit his lip as he pulled the heavy book off the shelf and brought it over to the table in the center of the room, flipping through the pages until he found it. The March 22, 2007 issue, and he sucked his breath in through his teeth when he realized that that was his dad’s birthday. Weird coincidence.

Even weirder that the fire wasn’t front page news, but tucked a few pages in. You’d think a fire in which five people died would make the front page of a small-town newspaper, but apparently not. The story was only a few sentences long, squeezed in beside a much longer article about a local man’s chicken farm. Five dead in arson, Stiles read, his heart pounding in his chest.

Firefighting crews from four towns rushed to the scene of a deadly house fire Monday night, battling the blaze into the early hours of Tuesday morning. Subsequent investigation of the Hale house on Pond Road found the bodies of five as-of-yet unidentified victims inside the house, as well as a sixth critically injured victim in the woods beyond. Investigators are calling the blaze suspicious, and say they have found evidence of an accelerant used to start the fire. The medical examiner has yet to confirm the cause of death.

Any tips can be called into the Beacon Hills Sheriff’s Department’s hotline at 555-2784.

That was it. Five people died and all they got was five sentences in the middle of a small-town newspaper. One sentence apiece. His eyes moved back to the top of the article and stuck there on the name of the reporter who’d written the piece. Kate Argent. Argent, Argent – Stiles’ eyes went wide. Chris Argent, his dad had said at the grocery store, the old sheriff, which made Kate his wife or – sister.

The sheriff, Derek had said. He’s her brother.

“Can I help you, hon?”

Stiles froze, his head still bowed over the book in front of him. That husky voice – he’d heard it in his dream, telling him the boy in the woods was dead. He looked up slowly, skin crawling, and there she was standing in the doorway, the woman from his dream, her dirty blonde hair curling over her shoulders, dressed in tight jeans and a chic leather jacket. He could see her face now, sparkling brown eyes and an impish quirk to her lips. She was pretty – beautiful, maybe – but her face was split by a heavy white scar that started under her chin, broke past her pink lips, and ended in a point on her right cheekbone.

But she wasn’t just the woman from his dream; she was the woman he’d seen stalking away from Chris Argent in the grocery store which made her, in all likely scenarios, Kate Argent. This was the woman who’d taken advantage of Derek, who’d made him so miserable, who’d made him hunch his shoulders like he expected to be hit at any moment. Fury and hatred twisted his stomach, burning like fire in his gut.

Stiles realized he’d been staring – glaring, more like – when the woman quirked her eyebrows at him, smiling benevolently. “Uh, no,” he said quickly, hurriedly shutting the book and pulling one of the ones from 1913 on top of it. “I’m just doing some research for a class project.”

“Anything I can help you find?” she asked, and he tried desperately to ignore the way his skin rose into goosebumps when she stepped into the room. “I wrote a lot of these articles – “ which definitely meant she was Kate “ – and I’ve got a history degree.”

“No,” Stiles said, more blunt than he meant to be, and when she blinked, looking a little startled, he hurried to add, “Thanks, but I’m almost done.”

“Okay,” she said, a little wary now, but she stepped backward. “The office closes in ten minutes – just so you know.”

“Thanks,” Stiles said again, scrounging up a half smile. Kate nodded and disappeared and Stiles shuddered, his skin still crawling. Stiles waited a long moment, listening hard before pulling out the book from 2007 again. He began flipping forward through it, looking for any updates on the case, obituaries, but there was absolutely nothing, not even an update on the unnamed sixth victim they’d found still alive. “Fuck,” he muttered, as he heard the town hall clock begin to ring seven, and he scrambled to put the volumes back on the shelves before the secretary showed up to turn him out.

Outside the orange sunlight had faded, giving way to a chilly evening rain. “Fuck,” Stiles muttered again, swinging a leg over his bike and setting off doggedly into the falling gloom. As he rode home, getting steadily more wet as he went, he thought about what he’d learned. The paper had said the fire was suspicious, but it didn’t say anything about murder, so why had he been thinking they’d been murdered? He guessed arson was murder, if people died because of it, but then why –

Stiles almost fell off his bicycle when he remembered. It had been his dad who’d said it, while they were standing up in the attic looking at the scorched roof. They were murdered and the house was set on fire. The murderer was never caught.

Stiles was thoroughly drenched by the time he got home and he was disappointed to see his dad’s cruiser wasn’t in the yard. He’d been looking forward to interrogating him about what he knew because now that Stiles had started down this road, he wasn’t stopping.

Instead, the Jeep was parked out front, and Scott’s bike was leaning against the front porch, and Stiles’ heart sank further, because he knew what that meant. Scott was chivalrous and all, but he was a teenager. Stiles had a dick; he knew how it was. He sighed as he leaned his bike up next to Scott’s. At least the house was big and seemed to well-insulated; if they were up in Allison’s room, he probably wouldn’t be able to hear anything.

Stiles took his time unlocking the door, jangling his keys so if they were making out in the living room there’d be plenty of time to get themselves in order. The first floor was quiet, though, and he forced himself not to listen harder, because the last thing he needed to hear was the emotionally scarring sound of his best friend getting it on with his sister.

He went into the kitchen instead to make himself dinner. He was scrounging through the fridge, looking for something to eat, when he felt pressure growing in the kitchen behind him. Stiles swallowed and shut the door slowly. Whoever was behind him, it didn’t feel like the woman he kept seeing. Not evil, exactly, but angry. Not at him, either, but just…mad at the world.

“Okay,” Stiles said softly, turning very, very slowly. “I don’t – ”

He stopped. There was a man standing behind him, arms folded over his chest. He looked a little like the woman Stiles had been seeing, a familial resemblance there – siblings? He didn’t look angry; he looked clean and well-kempt, his goatee trimmed.

“Can I help you?” Stiles asked carefully. “Do you need – ” The man disappeared, just like that, and Stiles scowled at the empty air where he’d been. This was becoming entirely too normal.

Scott and Allison came stumbling downstairs an hour later, when Stiles was sitting in the living room, playing Saint’s Row. They were both giggling, but stopped abruptly when they spotted Stiles, who gave them his longest, most judgiest look, then turned back to the television without a word. They tiptoed into the front hall, where Stiles could hear them whispering and Allison giggling again, then a long silence that was probably them sucking face, then the front door opened and shut. Allison slunk into the living room a few seconds later, looking guilty.

“I don’t care,” Stiles said, before she could say anything. “And I don’t want to hear about your sexcapades.”

“We haven’t had sex,” Allison said resentfully, then added with a wicked smile, “yet.”

“Gross,” Stiles groaned, as she settled down onto the couch next to him.

“Are you doing okay?” she asked carefully.

“I’m not going to break,” he said, his turn to be resentful. Sure, he was seeing ghosts and a woman he’d dreamed about had just showed up in real life, but hey, he wasn’t going crazy. Yet. And anyway, there was another distraction coming because he’d just heard their father pull in and he had things to ask him.

“Dad!” Stiles yelled, when he heard their father come in. After a long moment, which was probably him taking off his shoes and belt, his father appeared in the living room. “Dad,” Stiles said without preamble, “how did you know the people who lived here before were murdered, and they didn’t just die in the fire?”

“Nice to see you too, son,” the sheriff replied mildly. “Allison.”

“Hey, Dad,” Allison smiled, and elbowed Stiles in the ribs.

Stiles rolled his eyes. “Yeah, hi, can you answer my question?”

“I took a look at the medical examiner’s reports,” his dad said, raising his eyebrows. “They were all shot first.”

“What about the sixth person?” Stiles insisted. “The one who made it out?”

“I…didn’t realize there was one,” his father admitted. “I didn’t dig too deep, Stiles. I was too mad that the real estate agent didn’t say anything.”

“Can you,” Stiles began, but his father held up a finger.

“Oh, no. You stop right there and tell me that you’re not going to do anything stupid like, say, hack into the sheriff department records.”

Stiles winced. “I’m not going to do that. I learned my lesson.”

“Promise me.”

“I promise,” Stiles sighed.

“And promise me you’re not going to ask me to bring any files home.”

Stiles wriggled around on the couch. He hadn’t been planning on it, but now that his father had brought it up… “Dad – ”

“Stiles.”

Stiles sighed again. “I promise.”

His father leveled him with a long stare, then headed into the kitchen.

“Why are you curious about the house all of a sudden?” Allison asked.

“Aren’t you?”

She pursed her lips and shook her head. “Not really. Is it – is it because of the ghost stuff?”

“I guess,” Stiles said, scratching his chin. “But it’s mostly because – well, it’s strange. I was at the newspaper’s office today and the only information on the fire was this tiny article. It’s like they don’t want anyone to know what happened.”

“Is the investigation still open?” Allison asked. “Maybe you should ask Dad.”

Stiles glanced toward the kitchen, where he could hear their father banging around, humming to himself. “I think I’ll wait a few days.”

-

In his dream that night, Stiles was running again. He’d left Kate Argent and the burning house behind and now he was running through the dark woods, searching for the boy crying for him. No matter how hard he ran, though, the boy’s voice remained the same distance away, never close enough to locate.

“Where are you?” Stiles bellowed into the trees, fighting back frustration and panic. “Tell me where you are!”

“I’m right here, Stiles!”

Stiles blinked at Derek, who was standing in front of him, a worried frown on his face. Stiles looked around wildly. He was in the middle of the woods and it wasn’t night time any more – the light around him was mixed green and gold, the sun high overhead.

“What,” Stiles said weakly, his heart starting to hammer in his chest. “Oh my god, I – ”

“Stiles,” Derek said tensely. “What are you doing out here?”

“What am I – what are you doing out here?” Stiles asked accusingly, trying to distract himself from the panic rising inside him. Fuck, it was Friday and he had no idea what time it was or how far he was from the house or how he’d ended up in the middle of the fucking forest. His feet were bare and covered in dirt, his legs and arms covered in long red welts – from being slapped by branches during his mad run through the forest, no doubt.

“I’m a character on your Truman Show, remember?” Derek reminded him morosely. “Stiles, come on – ”

But Stiles wasn’t listening. He’d sunk to his knees, breath catching in his throat, no air in his lungs. There was something wrong with him, wrong with his head. He shouldn’t be doing things like this, walking in his sleep, seeing people who weren’t there.

“Stiles!” Derek crouched down next to him, looking frightened. “Stiles, you have to breathe, please!” He put a hand on Stiles’ shoulder, cool and reassuringly solid, his touch sending Stiles’ whole body tingling.

“Fuck,” Stiles gasped, falling onto his ass, clutching at Derek’s knee. “Fuck, fuck – “

“Calm down,” Derek commanded, fingers curling around his shoulder. “Stiles – “

“Are you real?” Stiles cut through him, and Derek blinked. Stiles wanted to cry. This stuff that was happening was scaring him, and he was afraid Derek was part of it. “I keep – I see people in the house that aren’t there, and you’re always here, out in the woods, and I’ve never seen you in town, and I – ”

“Stop freaking yourself out,” Derek said gently, reaching out with his other hand to cup the side of Stiles’ face. Stiles stilled at his touch, suddenly hyperaware of how close Derek was, how Stiles’ fingers were curled around his knee. Derek’s face was serene, the misery in his eyes tucked away for another time. He smiled faintly. “I’m real,” he said, sweeping his thumb along Stiles’ cheekbone. “Do you want me to prove it?”

“Yes,” Stiles said hoarsely, through a mouth that was suddenly as dry as the Sahara.

Derek’s smile broadened as he leaned in, just close enough for his lips to brush against Stiles’. He pulled away a moment later, just enough that Stiles had room and time to protest, but Stiles was not protesting. Stiles was so not protesting, though he was gripping at Derek’s knee so hard he was probably cutting off circulation to his lower leg. Derek didn’t seem to mind, though, because he leaned in again and determinedly pressed his lips to Stiles’.

Stiles was so glad he was already sitting because he probably would have gone weak at the knees – and as it was, he was tingling all over, the tips of his fingers going numb at the touch of Derek’s mouth to his. It was so different than kissing Danny – Derek was all firm pressure but soft touch, and he tasted – Stiles made a soft noise against his lips – he tasted like mint and fucking fresh air and sunshine and it was incredible.

Derek pulled back eventually, though not far, his nose brushing against Stiles’. “I’ve been wanting to do that for a while,” he admitted.

“Then why fucking didn’t you?” Stiles demanded, prying his hand off Derek’s knee and wrapping it in his shirt instead. He pulled Derek back in for another kiss, rougher than the first. He let his mouth fall open, letting Derek lick into him, choking back a quiet noise when Derek’s teeth caught his lip. He was thinking that maybe he could pull Derek down to the forest floor with him when he heard someone calling his name.

Derek jerked away from him, his face flushing bright red, and Stiles swallowed. He’d forgotten, almost, how he’d ended up out here (or, rather, he’d forgotten that he had ended up out in the middle of the woods, but not necessarily the how). It was late enough in the morning that people had probably noticed he was missing and his stomach twisted at the thought of his dad discovering his bed empty.

“I – I need to get home,” Stiles told Derek reluctantly.

Derek nodded, then asked hesitantly, “See you out here later?”

“If I don’t get committed,” Stiles replied unhappily, letting go of Derek’s shirt. He got to his feet and had to grab onto a tree, suddenly lightheaded.

“Stiles?” Derek asked hurriedly, reaching for his arm, but Stiles waved him away.

“I’ve got it,” he said weakly, though his vision was spinning. “You go on.”

Derek watched him for a long moment, eyes clouding with worry before nodding and spinning on his heel, disappearing among the trees. Stiles took a deep breath and closed his eyes, willing the world to stop spinning before heading toward the voice he could hear calling his name.

It was his dad. Stiles spotted him crashing through the undergrowth, yelling for him. There were sudden tears welling in Stiles’ eyes at the sight of him, all the warmth and comfort he’d gained from Derek’s presence dissipating at the sight of his father’s frantic face, at the reminder that he’d sleep-walked into the middle of the forest.

“Dad!” Stiles called, his voice coming out in a rough croak. His father’s head whipped around and he came smashing through the trees and engulfed Stiles in a hug so tight he was lifted off his feet. Stiles hiccupped and patted uselessly at his father’s back, mumbling, “Dad, Dad, I – “

“Jesus,” his dad kept hissing. “Jesus, Stiles, I woke up and the front door was wide open and your bed was a mess, and I – Jesus.”

“I’m sorry,” Stiles whispered, tears spilling down his cheeks. “I just woke up and I was out here, and I don’t know how. I’m sorry, Dad!”

His father let out a deep, shuddering breath and pushed him back so he could look at Stiles, his mouth going tight as he took in the scratches all over Stiles' arms and legs. “Well,” he said shakily, “I guess I can cancel the alert I put out.”

They walked back to the house in silence. It wasn’t that far – only a couple minutes’ walk through the woods, but it was in the opposite of the direction that Stiles usually went, which explained why he hadn’t recognized where he was. His dad kept a firm hand on his shoulder, which Stiles thought was probably more for his own reassurance than Stiles’.

Allison was sitting on the porch, her dark eyes filled with tears, and she leapt to her feet when they came around the corner of the house, flinging her arms around Stiles. He clutched at her back, his eyes filling with tears again.

“This is going to stop,” the sheriff said. “We’re going to find you a doctor and get this taken care of.”

“Okay,” Stiles agreed quietly, because it was scaring him too.

-

The sheriff made Stiles stay home from school that day, even though Stiles insisted that he was fine, but the effort to find a doctor was delayed by a massive traffic accident a couple towns over. The sheriff left with a worried look at Stiles, who waved him on his way, and he didn’t come back until past midnight.

The house was quiet that day, for the most part. He didn’t see the woman or the man he’d seen in the kitchen. He did hear laughter while he was laying on the couch in the late afternoon, fighting with himself over whether or not he should sneak out of the house to go see Derek. Allison was in the kitchen – he had a strong suspicion that his father had asked her to watch him – and he decided, dejectedly, that it wasn’t worth the risk. His father was already wary; he didn’t need to add sneaking out of the house to the list of reasons his father had to distrust him. The laughter he heard, though, sounded like kids in the backyard, bright and happy. He fell asleep there on the couch listening to it, weirdly lulled into a blessedly dreamless slumber.

Stiles woke up later that night – on his own, not because of a dream – and rose to use the bathroom and head upstairs. He was just climbing into bed when he froze, hearing the sound of footsteps out in the hall. His dad wasn’t home yet – Stiles had checked for his cruiser before heading upstairs – which meant it could be Allison…or it could be one of his semi-friendly household ghosts. Stiles took a deep breath and climbed back out of bed, treading silently across his room. He shut his eyes briefly before yanking open the door to see –

“Scott?!”

Scott yelped and leapt away from him, crashing into the wall. Stiles stared at him, perplexed.

“What are you doing here?”

“Allison invited me over!” Scott hissed. “I – you were asleep.”

“Oh,” Stiles said, relaxing. “Oh.”

Scott gave him a lopsided grin. “Did you think I was a ghost?”

“Yeah,” Stiles sighed. “I did.”

Scott’s grin faded away. “Um,” he said hesitantly. “Allison told me about what happened. How you ended up out in the woods. If there’s anything I can – ”

Stiles shook his head hurriedly. “It’s out of your control, dude. It’s out of my control. I just – ” He scrubbed a hand over his face. “It’s late, ok? You probably shouldn’t ride your bike or my dad might intentionally run you over if he passes you on the way. Why don’t you spend the night?”

“You sure?” Scott asked doubtfully.

“Yeah,” Stiles said. “I wouldn’t mind the company, and anyway, it’ll be worth it to see Allie’s face in the morning.”

“All right,” Scott agreed, his eyes going unfocused at the mention of Allison. Stiles grinned and pulled a bunch of blankets out of the linen closet so Scott could make a sort of nest on his bedroom floor. Stiles was kind of awake now after having slept most of the afternoon and evening, and he and Scott talked for a while. Stiles told Scott about his trip to the newspaper office and the tiny article about the fire. He didn’t tell Scott about Kate Argent, or what he knew she’d done, but he did tell Scott about Derek for the first time, how they’d been practicing in the woods. He didn’t tell Scott about the kiss because it was too new, but he did talk about the ghosts a bit.

Scott was a good listener. He was so quiet Stiles thought he might have fallen asleep, but when Stiles peered surreptitiously over the edge of the bed, Scott was staring up at the ceiling, hands twisted in the blankets.

“Who do you think did it?” Scott asked. “Burned the house, I mean?”

Stiles sighed softly. “I have no idea,” he said. “I don’t even know who the people who died were. I can’t find anything on them, and Dad made me promise not to get into the police stuff.”

“Tax records,” Scott said. “You could go to the town hall, see who owned the house before.”

“You, my friend, are a genius,” Stiles said proudly, and added it to his list of things to do on Monday.

They were silent for a long time, and Stiles was in the middle of a huge yawn when Scott asked slowly, “So this guy you’ve been meeting out in the woods…you like him?”

Stiles’ jaw snapped shut with a click of teeth. “Yeah,” he said, glad the room was dark so Scott couldn’t see his face flushing as he remembered the heat of Derek’s mouth. “I – can take you meet him tomorrow, if you want? He’s usually around.”

“Okay,” Scott said with a grin. “Cool.”

-

As it turned out, Allison’s face when Stiles and Scott walked into the kitchen the next morning was totally worth it, as was the way she shrieked and nearly fell off the bar stool trying to pull her oversized t-shirt down to her feet. Scott looked mortified but Stiles howled with laughter while the sheriff looked on from the table, faintly bemused as he sipped on his coffee.

Later, after they’d eaten, Stiles led Scott into the woods. Derek wasn’t in the clearing when they reached it but Stiles didn’t let that bother him; sometimes Derek was there first and sometimes Stiles was, but Derek always showed up. He and Scott picked up the lacrosse sticks Stiles had left behind and lazily slung the ball back and forth.

Half an hour later, Scott said, “You think he’s coming?” and Stiles was forced to sigh and shake his head. He was a little worried, but Derek had a life. He was real, and if the kiss hadn’t proven it, this did; he wasn’t just a figment of Stiles’ imagination or he would have shown up by now. He was fallible; he was human.

They abandoned the clearing and headed for the pond instead, where they walked around the edge until they hit the dock on the other side, then followed the walking trail until it reached the main road. It was fun, even if there was a feeling at the pit of Stiles’ stomach that something was wrong. Maybe Derek had come to the clearing and seen Scott and left again. Maybe he wanted privacy after the kiss the previous day. Stiles did too, if he was being truthful; he wanted nothing more than to lay in the grass with Derek and make out lazily, but he had other friends, other obligations. He didn’t see why the two couldn’t mix (not making out with Derek in front of Scott, though; that’d just be weird and awkward).

They walked back to the house and played video games until the late afternoon and then Scott took Allison out to dinner. She was still mad at Stiles, but managed to blush when he winked at her as Scott led her out the door.

Stiles found himself alone again. His dad was pulling a double and wouldn’t be back until later, and neither would Allison. Stiles dithered around downstairs for a while before giving in to what he really wanted to do, which was to jerk off while he had time to himself.

“Yo, ghosts,” Stiles announced cordially as he pulled his laptop onto his bed. “This is about to get explicit.” He snorted as he pulled up his favorite porn site; this was his life, warning ghosts he was about to masturbate. What a joke.

It seemed to work, anyway; there were no ghosts in sight when he pushed his pants off and went to town, slicking his hand with lotion and digging his heels in against the bed as he jerked himself off with long, steady strokes. Stiles thought about Derek and his soft mouth, his entire body shuddering in anticipation of the things they might do together. He imagined Derek pressing him down into the bed, prying his legs apart with his big hands. Stiles sighed softly as he slipped a hand between his thighs, brushing past his balls to press a finger against his entrance.

He went slow, rolling his hips in a gentle motion, fisting his cock in time with his deep breaths, relaxing as he pushed a finger inside him. Stiles thought Derek would go slow, shy. He was devastatingly handsome, but Stiles had a feeling that Derek didn’t have a lot of friends or too much social experience. Why else would he hang out in the woods every day? He seemed like the type of person who’d be popular because of his looks, but would sit silently at the popular kids’ lunch table and only laugh when everyone else did. Had he ever dated anyone? Well, Kate Argent – no, that was a dangerous, boner-killing route to go down and he shook his head.

Stiles whined as he hitched his hips upward, thinking about Derek’s face, about his small, secretive smile that seemed to exist only for Stiles. He imagined his hands clutching at Derek’s broad shoulders while Derek breathed against his throat, thrusting into Stiles with heavy, forceful strokes. Stiles’ back arched as he came, moaning open-mouthed, come splattering against his stomach, pleasure sparking through his spine, rolling on for so long it almost hurt. When it finally faded, Stiles found himself panting, his body shining with sweat. He was going to the clearing tomorrow and he’d sit there all day if he had to, because he needed to share this pleasure with Derek.

-

It was nearly noon when Stiles rolled himself out of bed but he dressed quickly and ducked out of the house without stopping for breakfast, determined to see Derek. To his relief, Derek was already at the clearing, lounging in the sun.

“Hey,” Stiles said, his face breaking into a wide grin.

Derek got to his feet, mirroring Stiles’ expression. “You made it,” he said.

“Yeah,” Stiles said. “Sorry, I – fell asleep on Friday, and I came out here yesterday with Scott and I didn’t see you, but – ”

“Don’t worry about it,” Derek said, still grinning. “You’re okay, though?”

“Yeah,” Stiles said again. “I – well, maybe. Dad’s going to make me see a doctor, which is probably a good idea. I’m glad you found me the other day. I could’ve run off a cliff or something.”

“There are no cliffs around here,” Derek said, mouth twitching as he stepped closer.

“Well, you get my drift,” Stiles said, gesturing expansively, trying to keep his breathing even as Derek moved in. Derek nodded, his pale eyes bemused, and slid his hands around Stiles’ waist. “Ohhh, hey.”

“Hey,” Derek said softly. “Is this okay?”

“More than okay,” Stiles whispered, tentatively lifting his hands to cross the back of Derek’s neck. His skin was cool to the touch, and Stiles could feel himself relaxing against him. “I’m mad we weren’t doing this weeks ago, though.”

“Sorry,” Derek murmured, nose brushing against Stiles’ cheek. “Just have to make up for lost time.”

“Mm,” Stiles breathed, eyes fluttering shut as Derek tilted his head to kiss him, hands coming up to cradle Stiles’ head, thumbs pressing against his cheeks. “Jesus,” Stiles murmured against his lips as they broke for air. “You’re so fucking hot.”

“Have you looked in a mirror?” Derek retorted, sinking slowly to the grass and pulling Stiles down on top of him. He let Derek arrange them so Derek’s back was against the rock and Stiles straddled his thighs, his fingers burning holes at Stiles’ waist.

It seemed to Stiles that, as they kissed, the whole world was slowing down around them. He could hear his heart beating in his chest, leisurely and steady, his breathing slowing to a crawl like gathering air wasn’t really necessary. He sighed as Derek kissed at his throat, tongue slipping across his skin. Stiles curled his fingers in Derek’s soft hair, sliding one hand down Derek’s firm chest to feel his heart pulsing in his chest, so much faster than Stiles’. He hissed when Derek shifted slightly and Stiles felt the hard heat in Derek’s jeans brush against where Stiles was stiff and aching.

Derek stilled, his mouth against Stiles’ collarbone. “Can I,” he said, his voice vibrating against Stiles’ ribs.

“Yeah,” Stiles sighed, slipping his arm around Derek’s back to dig at his shoulder blades. “Whatever you want to do.”

“Can I touch you?” Derek persisted and Stiles nodded, open-mouthed and sucking in air.

“Yeah,” he murmured, breath hitching as he felt Derek’s hands unbuttoning his pants, pushing them down around his hips. Stiles felt Derek’s fingers brush against his cock and he whined, his dick pulsing at the touch. “Derek, I – ” Derek’s fingers wrapped around him and suddenly it was ten times harder to breath, black spots dancing in his vision, and that it wasn’t good. He could feel the blood rushing from his face, limbs suddenly like lead, and he pushed at Derek’s shoulders. “Stop, I can’t – ”

Derek relaxed his grip as Stiles fell sideways, panting. “Stiles? Are you all right?”

Stiles groaned as he rolled off Derek, pushing his shoulders into the cool grass. “Fuck, I got dizzy all of a sudden. Thought I was going to pass out.”

“Are you going to be okay?” Derek asked, looking worried. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have – ”

“Dude, that was in no way your fault,” Stiles said firmly. “I wanted everything about that. I just – I didn’t eat breakfast, probably should have.” He couldn’t remember if he’d eaten dinner last night either, or lunch before that. Whoops.

“You’re skinny,” Derek said, pushing a finger against Stiles’ hipbone where his shirt had ridden up.

“Things have been stressful,” Stiles sighed. “Sorry I ruined the mood.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Derek said, dragging his fingers across Stiles’ skin. “You should probably go eat something, though.”

“Yeah,” Stiles sighed in agreement. He didn’t want to, though. He wanted to stay out in the woods and make out with Derek all day. He chewed at his lip contemplatively. “So…is this a thing now? That we’re going to do?”

Derek gave him a bemused look. “Are you asking if we’re dating now?”

Stiles kicked the rock anxiously. “No? Yes? I mean, if you want to.”

“Yeah,” Derek said, curling his fingers around Stiles’. “I want to.”

“Cool,” Stiles said. He smiled up at the clear sky, but something gnawed at his stomach, keeping him from being truly happy. “Um. I don’t want to kill the mood even further, but…I was wondering.”

“What?” Derek asked steadily.

“Uh. How – how is the case going? Against the old sheriff?” Stiles winced. He hadn’t meant to ask about that part of it, though it was as good a place to start as any.

The change in Derek was instantly noticeable. His shoulders stiffened, his eyes dropping away from Stiles. He didn’t let get of Stiles’ hand but his fingers went limp, ready to pull away at any moment.

“I’m sorry,” Stiles said immediately. “It’s not – ”

“No,” Derek said quietly. “You can ask. You can ask me anything. I just…try not to think about it a lot.”

Stiles bit his lip before asking, “What happened? How did it start?”

Derek took a deep breath, closing his eyes. “The teacher, she – Kate subbed for my history teacher while she was on maternity leave. I’ve never been all that popular, never had a girlfriend, but she – she paid attention to me. She was always talking to me, smiling, touching me.” Derek, his eyes still closed, shuddered. “It felt so good to have someone interested in me, I didn’t think about what I was doing.”

Stiles didn’t say anything; he squeezed Derek’s hand in silent support. Derek opened his eyes, dark and shining with misery.

“I hate her,” Derek whispered. He pulled his hand from Stiles’ to cover his face, his voice muffled when he said, “The sheriff found out. I don’t know how. She told him, probably. But he was mad. He pulled me over one night and yanked me out of the car and – “

“Stop,” Stiles said softly. “You don’t – you don’t need to.”

He heard Derek take a deep, long breath that sounded like him getting himself under control. Derek took his hands away from his face after a moment. “You should get home,” he told Stiles quietly. “Go eat.”

The dismissal was swift, sudden, but Stiles could understand Derek wanting to be alone. He sat up slowly, licking his lips nervously. “D-do you want to come over later? I think my dad and my sister are going to be home, but we could watch a movie or something.”

Derek was quiet for a long time. Stiles counted ten seconds before Derek nodded slightly and said, “All right.”

“Cool,” Stiles said anxiously, getting to his feet and fighting the urge to pass out. Standing up so fast had not been a great idea. “I-I’ll see you, then. Around eight, maybe?”

“Eight,” Derek echoed with another nod. “All right.”

Stiles had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep himself walking, consumed in thought, a faint white haze obstructing his vision. He stopped when he nearly ran into a tree, shaking his head and breathing in slowly until he felt a little more steady.

Derek’s story hurt him. It infuriated him. He wanted to track Kate Argent down and kick her in the cunt. He felt guilty for asking Derek what had happened, for dragging that shit to the surface. He felt sick, so many emotions swirling around in his head.

When Stiles came out of the woods, he found Allison lounging on the front porch reading a book.

“Hey,” she greeted, putting down her novel. “Are you all right? You look pale.”

“Derek’s coming over later,” Stiles told her dazedly. Terror struck him suddenly. “Oh my god, Derek’s coming over. I-I’ve gotta go clean!”

Allison followed him into the house, laughing. “Soooo,” she asked, watching him survey the living room. “Did you finally get a kiss out of him?”

“More than that,” Stiles grinned faintly. “Well, almost more than that.” He frowned up at the ceiling, remembering how he’d almost fainted, and that reminded him that he really needed to eat something.

Stiles cleaned the house until it shone, but even then it was only four o’clock, and he felt like he was going to crawl out of his skin, so he rode his bike over to Scott’s and forced himself to forget about the time and all of Derek’s problems. It was nearly seven-thirty by the time he went home. Scott rode with him – he said he wanted to meet Derek and Stiles tried not to groan, because he hadn’t intended this to be like a whole meet the family get-together. Even worse, his dad was home when they arrived and he pulled Stiles into the kitchen to say, “Allison says you’ve got a friend coming over.”

“Yeahhhh,” Stiles said, pulling his arm out of his dad’s grip. “And?”

“Well?” his dad demanded. “Who is it? Is this someone you’re – you’re interested in?”

“Jeeze, Dad,” Stiles muttered, his cheeks going red. “Yes, ok?”

His dad straightened and clapped him on the shoulder. “Do I have to do the sheriff talk?”

Stiles narrowed his eyes at his father. “Did you give Scott the sheriff talk?”

“No, now that you mention it,” the sheriff said, brightening. “I could lecture them both at once. Save some time?”

“Oh my god,” Stiles groaned. “I’m gonna go sit on the porch.”

It was quiet outside, kind of peaceful. Stiles sat on the edge of the porch, swinging his feet back and forth while he played a game on his phone. He could hear his dad and Scott and Allison in the living room, and he hoped that his dad liked Derek as much as he apparently liked Scott.

Eight approached. Stiles tried to pretend that his palms weren’t sweating. He didn’t know why this felt so different than hanging out in the clearing. Maybe because other people would be around, or because the clearing was neutral territory. Come to think of it, he didn’t even know where Derek lived. He didn’t even know his last name. Shit, why had he never asked? His dad was definitely going to want to know more about him.

Eight came and went. Stiles tried not to watch the time on his phone. He tried not to worry. He’d said around eight, after all. Maybe Derek was one of those people who was always late to everything. He should have said seven if he wanted him here by eight.

At nine, the front door opened and Allison said hesitantly, “Stiles?”

“Go away.”

“Maybe he – ”

“Allison, fuck off!”

Allison slammed the door behind her. Stiles sat hunched over his phone, teeth digging furiously into his bottom lip. He felt like he was about to puke. He kept coming up with excuses in his head – Derek got lost, Derek got grounded – but nothing made him feel better. He felt like shit. Maybe he’d screwed himself over by being too curious; maybe Derek didn’t want someone digging at his deep, dark secrets. Maybe he’d fucked this up before it could even begin.

He went inside at ten, miserable and cold. His family sat in the living room, silent as he passed, and he was grateful that no one tried to say anything like You deserve better, Stiles, because he might have screamed. He nearly did scream, because the woman ghost was standing by the window in his bedroom, but he picked up a book instead, throwing it at her dark silhouette. He missed, the book sailing out his open window, and the ghost gave him a reproachful look before disappearing.

“Just leave me alone,” Stiles muttered, collapsing onto his bed. He fell asleep there, still dressed.

-

When Stiles woke up, his room was dark and hazy, the air heavy. He sat up in bed and immediately started coughing, his lungs and mouth burning with the taste of smoke. He could hear something beneath him, a deep roaring that shook his bones. The floor was hot when he put his feet down.

“Oh fuck,” he whispered, voice going high with panic. “Oh fuck, fuck, fuck!”

Stiles touched the doorknob hesitantly, but it was cool to the touch and he yanked it open to find a hallway thick with smoke and shimmering with heat. “Allie!” he screamed, leaping down the hall to her room, bursting through the door. “Allie!”

Allison sat up slowly, rubbing at her eyes. Stiles saw, but didn’t register Scott in bed next to her, looking bewildered. “Stiles?” Allison said. “What are you – ”

“Come on,” Stiles said frantically, pulling at her arm. “We have to get Dad. The house – ”

“Stiles,” Allison said, resisting his pull. “Stop, you’re freaking me out!”

“Allie!” Stiles exclaimed, voice rising. “We have to go! The house is on fire!”

“No it’s not!” Allison protested, panic in her own voice now. “Scott, help me!”

Scott scrambled out of the bed, trying to get in-between Stiles and Allison, but Stiles looked right through him, like he wasn’t there at all. “Stiles,” Scott tried, putting a hand on his shoulder, but Stiles shrugged off his grip, still trying to pull Allison out of the room.

“Please,” he begged his sister, tears burning in his eyes. “We have to get out of here, Allie.”

“Dad!” Allison screamed. “Dad!”

There was a thump from out in the hallway and the sheriff came racing into the room, gun drawn. Scott leapt backwards, looking panicked, and the sheriff glared at him briefly before his eyes settled on Allison and Stiles.

“Dad!” Allison panted. “Stiles, he – ”

But Stiles cut through her, turning towards his father and exclaiming, “Dad, the house, we have to go!”

“He thinks it’s on fire,” Allison said, her eyes shining with tears.

“Stiles,” their father said, taking a slow step forward. “There’s no fire, son.”

Stiles could barely see his father through the haze of smoke. “It’s here!” he cried. “Dad – ”

“Scott, grab his arm,” the sheriff commanded, taking hold of Stiles’ other arm. “Help me bring him into the bathroom.

“No, what are you doing?” Stiles wailed, struggling against their grip. “Dad – “

“Hush, son,” his father said gently, turning on the shower. He nodded at Scott and they lifted Stiles under the water. He sputtered and coughed and fought against their hold on him, but he weakened as the moments passed.

After a minute or two under the water, Stiles shook his head and blew water off his lips, frowning vaguely. “Dad?”

“Jesus,” his father hissed, yanking him forward in a tight embrace. Stiles clung to him weakly, staring around the bathroom in confusion. Scott backed away, looking troubled. Stiles watched him, his brow furrowing.

“What did I – what did I do now?” he whispered, fear surging in him. He looked at Allison standing in the doorway. “Allie, did I hurt you?”

“No, of course not,” Allison said hurriedly.

"You didn't hurt anyone,” his father said soothingly. “We're all okay. You're okay; you were just dreaming again."

"Dad," Stiles said again, his body starting to shake as shock and the chill of his soaked body set in. He blinked against sudden tears, the terror of not knowing what he’d just done sinking in.

"Come on," his father said gently, pulling back so he could grip Stiles' arm firmly. "Can you walk with me?"

The sheriff led Stiles back to his room, Scott and Allison following in silence. "Back to bed," he said to Allison, pausing in the doorway of Stiles' bedroom. "And you," he added, narrowing his eyes at Scott, "will sleep downstairs on the couch." The tone of his voice said we'll be having a talk in the morning, and Scott didn't argue, casting a worried look at Stiles before disappearing down the stairs.

"Dad," Allison said anxiously, "is he going to be okay?"

"I'm right here," Stiles complained wearily. “I can hear you.”

The sheriff's hand tightened on Stiles' shoulder, a gentle warning as he told Allison, "He'll be fine. Go get some rest." And he pushed Stiles into his room, shutting the door behind him. His father sat down on the edge of the bed, watching Stiles strip out if his sopping wet clothes. He made a low, worried noise when Stiles stripped off his t-shirt. "Christ, Stiles; I can see your ribs. Have you been eating?"

Stiles glanced at himself in the mirror hung on his bathroom door and found his father was right; he'd lost a lot of weight around his hips and chest, his bones casting sharp shadows on his skin. "I keep forgetting," Stiles shrugged wearily, pulling on a fresh t-shirt.

"I'm worried about you," his father said softly, shifting aside so Stiles could slip into bed.

"You're not the only one," Stiles replied, his throat burning. "What's wrong with me?"

"I don't know," his father said, carefully ruffling Stiles' hair.

Stiles sniffed, rolling onto his side so his father couldn’t see how frightened he was. He felt lost, adrift, like he’d lost control of every aspect of his life. “W-what did I just do?”

“You thought the house was on fire again,” his dad said gently, rubbing a soothing hand down his back. “It was just a dream.”

“I feel like I’m going crazy,” Stiles whispered, and clamped a hand over his mouth to stifle a sob.

“You’re not crazy,” his father replied firmly. “We’ll sort this out, I promise.”

“I hope so,” Stiles mumbled, his eyes drooping as he slowly drifted off to sleep.

His father never moved. Stiles woke several times in the night to find him still sitting next to him, a hand resting on his back. The weight of it was comforting, as was his father's presence, and apart from the waking nightmare, Stiles slept more soundly than he had since moving into the house.

-

Breakfast was subdued the following morning. The sheriff had woken Stiles, then left him to shower and dress, and it seemed he'd had a sharp exchange with Scott and Allison because they both looked unhappy. Stiles wasn't feeling very hungry, but he remembered the concern on his father's face when he’d seen Stiles’ ribs and ate a huge bowl of cereal to make him happy. It left Stiles feeling too full and a little sick to his stomach, but the encouraging smile his dad gave him was worth it.

He’d stood in front of the mirror for a long time after getting out of the shower, looking at all the places on his body where the skin had gone thin, stretched over bone. He wasn’t skeletal, and he was still weirdly muscular from lacrosse practice, but he couldn’t believe he hadn’t noticed how thin he’d gone. Stiles hadn’t meant for it to happen, but what with the stressful dreams and waking nightmares and everything else in his life, he hadn’t had much of an appetite.

After they’d eaten, the teenagers grabbed their school things and headed out the door under the watchful eye of the sheriff. Stiles paused at the door, thinking he should say something to his dad, but not sure what. His father smiled faintly, a sad smile like the one he’d worn the whole time Stiles’ and Allison’s mother was in the hospital, and that hurt. Stiles didn’t want to hurt his dad at all.

“Don’t worry,” the sheriff said quietly. “I’ll do some digging at work today and as soon as I get home, we’ll talk about doctors, all right? You just enjoy your day at school.”

Stiles snorted and said, “Unlikely but – thanks, Dad.”

His father nodded, and Stiles went out to where Allison and Scott were loading Scott’s bike into the back of the Jeep. As they drove through the woods in uncomfortable silence, Stiles took a deep breath and said, "Allie, I'm sorry for snapping at you last night. And for scaring you. Scott, you too. I’m sorry."

"It's okay," Allison said softly, while Scott shook his head in the back seat. "You can’t help the dreaming, and I know you were upset about Derek.” Stiles grimaced and she gave him a sympathetic look. "What are you going to do?"

"Want me to beat him up?" Scott asked.

"No," Stiles sighed. "I'm going to hear what he has to say first."

School dragged by that day. Stiles endured a ten-minute lecture from Finstock for missing practice three times the week before, which he bore silently while Jackson sniggered somewhere at the back of the classroom. If Stiles hadn’t cared about upsetting his father further, he probably would have started a brawl with Jackson, but he bit his lip instead, keeping his head bowed as Finstock ranted about exercise and commitment. The shrill ring of the bell at the end of class sounded like angels singing.

As soon as Allison parked in front of the house, Stiles flung himself out of the car, threw his backpack onto the porch, and grabbed his bike, too impatient to walk the fifteen minutes to the clearing.

"Stiles?" Allison called hesitantly, and he paused at the edge of the yard, twisting around to look at her. "I think Dad wanted you here when he got home."

Stiles sighed and glanced at his phone. Three fifteen. "I'll be home by four thirty," he promised. "Dad's not home until five."

"Okay," Allison nodded, though she looked uncertain. Stiles gave her one last look before kicking into gear, speeding off into the forest.

Derek waited for him in the clearing, sitting on the rock with his arms wrapped around his knees, looking morose. "I'm sorry," he said, before Stiles could even get off his bike or open his mouth to speak. "I tried, but I kept getting turned around in the dark. I kept ending up here."

"Why didn't you call me?" Stiles asked, leaning his bike against a tree.

"My mom took my phone," Derek reminded him ruefully. "And I don't have your number anyway."

"So give me your house number," Stiles sighed, patting his pockets and locating a sharpie. "I'll give you my cell number."

"I'm sorry," Derek said again, looking worried.

“No, I am,” Stiles said. “I asked you all that stuff yesterday and I thought maybe I pushed the line and you changed your mind about wanting – about being us.”

“No,” Derek said quietly. “No, I – It felt good talking about it. I know I can trust you. I know you’ll listen.”

Stiles smiled tentatively, gesturing at Derek to give him his arm so he could write his cell number on Derek's palm. "We've all been lost in the woods. You should ask your mom for your phone back, though," he added seriously. "What if there was an emergency?"

"Out in the woods?" Derek asked doubtfully, plucking the marker from Stiles' finger so he could write down his number. Stiles didn't bother pointing out he had his phone on him and could just enter Derek's number into it; he was enjoying the touch of Derek's fingers curled around his wrist.

"Especially out in the woods," Stiles told him. "What if you fell out of a tree and broke your arm or something?"

"I don't climb trees," Derek replied, handing Stiles the marker back. He didn't let Stiles' hand go, though, slipping their fingers together. "Well, apart from the tree at the pond."

"And that's safe?" Stiles grinned.

"As long as you don't hit a branch on the way down," Derek shrugged. His fingers tightened around Stiles'. "Are you all right? You look exhausted."

"I - I didn't sleep well," Stiles murmured, unwilling to admit that he might be going kind of crazy.

Derek frowned. "Bad dreams again?"

"You could say that," Stiles sighed.

"Can I…make it better?" Derek asked, smiling a shy, suggestive smile.

An answering grin tugged at Stiles' lips. "Depends on what you have in mind," he replied diplomatically.

“Let me show you, then,” Derek said, leaning in for a slow, burning kiss. Stiles sighed, relaxing into him, dropping Derek’s hand to fist his hands in his shirt. Derek made a deep, satisfied noise at the back of his throat and pulled back, biting at Stiles’ lip before dropping to his knees.

“Oh my god,” Stiles croaked, all the breath strangled out of him.

Derek looked up at him and it was like all his masturbatory fantasies come to life, from the way his hazel eyes went dark and blown with lust, to the way the corners of his mouth quirked up as he asked, “Can I?”

“Please,” Stiles said weakly, trailing his fingers along the strong line of Derek’s jaw.

Derek licked his lips as he turned his attention to getting Stiles’ belt unbuckled and his pants pulled down his thighs. They both moaned a little when Stiles’ dick came into sight, half hard but rapidly swelling to attention – Stiles from the cool air hitting his burning skin, and Derek moaning at the sight of him, apparently, which – Stiles’ dick jumped at the thought.

“I’ve never done this before,” Derek said, sounding a little awed as he gently curled his fingers around the base of Stiles’ dick. “You’ll have to tell me what you like.”

“Well, this hasn’t exactly happened to me before – mmn!” Stiles groaned as Derek leaned forward and took him right in. “Oh, fuck, I am not going to last long, dude.”

Derek pulled off him with an obscenely slick noise and grinned faintly, and maybe he’d never done it before, but he certainly knew how to use his mouth, fuck. Stiles’ hands fluttered uselessly at his sides before landing in Derek’s hair, and it was all he could do to keep himself from yanking Derek’s head forward, to keep himself from fucking into Derek’s mouth. His hips kept making these aborted little thrusts and every time, god, the noise Derek made.

Stiles’ vision was starting to go white and it took him a long moment to realize that it wasn’t because of the good things Derek was doing to him. He was losing sensation in the tips of his fingers and toes, his body starting to feel heavy.

“Fuck,” Stiles muttered, tapping Derek on the skull. “Der.” It came on so quickly. He could hear the slur of his words but could do nothing to stop them. He shut his eyes to keep the world from spinning but he could still feel it twirling around him and Derek’s mouth was still fucking on him, and he was – “Derek.” It was a trial getting the words out whole. Fuck.

Derek pulled back just as Stiles’ knees buckled and he crumpled to the ground, his vision going white, quickly fading to a pinprick of light in a sea of black before everything went completely dark.

-

Stiles dreamt. He ran through a dark forest dense with brambles, branches whipping red lines across his face as he sped through the trees. He called out, searching for the boy, calling for him while Kate Argent laughed in his ear, singing, “He’s dead, he’s dead!”

Stiles burst into a clearing and there was his boy. It was Derek, on his back, clothes torn and burnt, skin peeling and raw. His face pointed to the sky, pale eyes open and unblinking. His chest did not rise and Stiles bent over, heaving, bile burning his throat.

“Told you,” Kate Argent said from behind him, but when Stiles turned there was no one there.

Someone touched his forehead and Stiles jolted awake. More dreams: his mother sat on the edge of the bed next to him, her long dark hair braided in a fat plait, hanging loose over one shoulder. She looked better than the last time he’d seen her, her face full and healthy, glowing with love.

“My baby boy,” she said softly, long fingers cool against his burning skin. Stiles stared at her, blinking back tears. She smiled sadly at him, sorrow flooding her amber eyes. “You’re trying so hard.”

Stiles looked past his mother, so used to the weird shit going on in his life that he was hardly startled by her presence. He was laying in an unfamiliar bed in a small, clean white room. There was an IV hooked into his hand and machines hummed softly next to him, heart monitor beeping faster as he realized he was in a hospital.

He hated hospitals. He'd successfully avoided stepping foot in one since the day his mother died, but the horror was coming back to him now, miserable days seeped in the smell of death cloaked under disinfectant, long hours curled in a chair next to his mother’s bed, staring at a beautiful face gone thin and hurt. The EKG beeped faster, his heart rate rising, panic surging inside him. He couldn't breathe, he couldn't -

Two cool hands took hold of the side of his face. "Look at me, sweetheart," his mother said gently, and Stiles gaped at her, tears spilling down his cheeks. "Breathe. I know you can do it."

Stiles gasped, his throat feeling raw, but air filled his lungs and he took another deep, steadying breath. "I'm scared, Mom," he told her when he could speak again. His hands shook uncontrollably. "Everything - I don't know what's happening to me."

"Shhh," she said softly. "You'll be okay. You're helping someone who's been lost for a long time."

"Who - Derek?" Stiles asked hoarsely, breath hitching as he remembered the dream, Derek's blank eyes turned to the sky. He remembered being with Derek, Derek’s mouth on his cock, his vision going foggy. "Oh my god, I - "

"Shhh, shhh," his mom soothed. "Don't panic. I love you, baby boy."

"No," Stiles protested weakly, trying to grasp her wrists. "No, Mom, I miss you. I - "

"Stiles?" came a strangled voice from the doorway. Stiles looked up to see his father standing there, face white like he'd seen a ghost. Stiles immediately turned to look at his mother but she was gone, the spot where she'd been sitting smooth and cool. "Who are you talking to?"

“No one,” Stiles mumbled, chest filling with misery.

His father stepped into the room. Stiles looked at him wearily and realized he was still in his sheriff’s uniform, badge shining on his chest, gun belted to his hip.

It hadn't really sunk in before, too distracted by his mother's presence and the fear of being in the hospital, but it occurred to him that he was in the hospital and fuck, how had he ended up there? If his dad was in uniform it meant he'd still been, or was on shift, and fuck. Who had gotten him here? The last thing he could remember was being out in the woods with Derek. Had Derek called 911? He didn't have his phone, but Stiles had had his.

The sheriff settled into the chair next to Stiles' bed with a sigh. Stiles watched him rub a hand over his face, guilt surging through him. He didn't want to worry his dad. He didn't want to stress him out. And yet, he kept ending up in these situations where he did exactly that.

"I'm sorry, Dad," Stiles said quietly.

His father looked at him then, his eyes weary. "You have nothing to apologize for," he said. "How are you feeling?"

Stiles took a moment to analyze himself. He kind of felt like a punching bag, body heavy, limbs weighted with lead. "Tired," he decided. "Confused. How'd I get here?"

"Got a 911 call," his father said slowly. "No one on the line, but we were able to triangulate your location. You should be glad Allison knew you were supposed to come back, and you showed Scott that field you hang out in, or we'd probably still be looking for you."

No one on the line? Stiles' heart sank. What happened to Derek? Had he been so freaked out by Stiles fainting that he'd left him there in the clearing? Stiles must have come back from unconsciousness at same point, lucid enough to dial 911 but not enough to talk. His stomach twisted. How could Derek have just abandoned him like that? "What time is it?"

"Nearly ten," his father replied. "The call came in around five, and we got you here around six."

"Do…do the doctors know what's wrong with me?" Stiles asked, his throat sticking.

The sheriff sighed. "They think you're suffering from exhaustion," he said gently. "You're dehydrated, you're underweight. It's all tied together." He put his hand on Stiles' wrist, careful to avoid the IV in the back of his hand. "They say it's usually caused by stress. I know I've asked you this, and I hope you've been telling the truth, but please, Stiles - is there something going on? The stress, the sleepwalking - this wasn't happening before we moved up here, so what's changed? Is it school? Being on the lacrosse team? Is there someone at school bothering you?" His face hardened. "What about this boy you know? Is he hurting you? He didn't show up the other night, and I know that must have hurt - "

"Dad," Stiles said vehemently. "Derek didn't do anything to me."

"Okay," his dad said, subsiding a little. "But what is it? Will you please talk to me?"

Stiles sighed. Every reason his dad had listed off was a plausible excuse. He could pick any one of them and claim it as the truth, but he was sick of lying and keeping things to himself. Aware that what he was about to say was going to make him sound crazy, Stiles said, "The house is haunted."

For a moment his father just blinked at him, confusion clouding his expression. Then he said, "Stiles, this isn't a joke - "

"No," Stiles said forcefully. "It's not a joke, Dad. I am so not joking. Ever since we moved in, I've been hearing things, feeling things, and I thought I was going crazy."

His father stared at him for another long moment, then asked carefully, "Have you seen anything? It's an old house, son, there - "

"Yes," Stiles interrupted firmly. "There's a woman. I've seen her in my room, and in the hall and on the stairs. I saw a man in the kitchen, and I heard kids playing, and - " He cut himself off at the look on his father's face. He wasn't upset, exactly - he looked more tired than anything, sad.

"You know," his dad said. "You were born with a caul. Did you know that?"

Stiles shook his head mutely. He didn't even know what a caul was.

"It's a membrane covering the face," his father told him, gesturing. "They - your grandmother always said that being born with a caul was lucky - w czepku urodzony is what they say in Polish. Your mom said that babies born with a caul were supposed to be…special.”

“Special?” Stiles repeated, his voice shaking. “What do you mean?”

“Like they have abilities others don’t,” his dad said softly. “Things most people don’t believe in.”

“Like seeing ghosts?” Stiles asked.

“Maybe.”

Stiles rubbed the hand his father wasn’t gripping over his face, aching in his bones. He was so fucking tired; he couldn’t process this new information.

“Stiles,” his father said, voice dropping, so quiet he was almost whispering. “When I came in, you – your mom?”

Stiles nodded slowly, his heart aching.

“She – was she really there?”

“I don’t know,” Stiles mumbled, tears welling in his eyes. He missed her cool touch, her soothing words. He missed her every day.

“Hey, hey, it’s okay,” his father said hurriedly. “But if you see her again, tell her – you know. We miss her.”

Stiles nodded again, wiping a hand over his eyes.

“Okay,” his dad said steadily, squeezing his wrist, then letting go. “You’re going to be okay, son. The doctors want to keep you here for a few days, get some fluid in you, get your weight up. That okay with you?”

“Yeah,” Stiles mumbled, eyes still fuzzy with tears.

“Okay,” the sheriff said again. “I’m going to let you rest in a minute, but I have to put on my cop hat for a second. What were you doing out in the woods?”

“I was with Derek,” Stiles muttered, fingers curling in the blanket over his legs.

“Doing…?”

Stiles winced, his cheeks growing warm. “You don’t want to know.”

His father frowned at him. “I need to know, Stiles.”

“I – “ Stiles sighed. “We were getting physical, okay?”

“You were right; I didn’t want to know,” his dad said mildly. “You can skim over that. What happened next?”

“I – I started getting dizzy,” Stiles said. “I don’t know what happened after that.”

The sheriff looked extremely alarmed. “You passed out? And Derek was still there?”

On his knees, Stiles thought faintly. “Yeah.”

“There was no one in the clearing when we found you, Stiles,” his dad said, looking furious. “Where did he go?”

“I don’t know,” Stiles said, trying to ignore the miserable twist of his stomach. “Maybe he went to get help, I don’t know.”

“I’m going to need to talk to him,” the sheriff said, pulling a notebook from the pocket of his jacket. “What’s his last name?”

“I – “ Stiles shifted uneasily. “I don’t know.”

The sheriff gave his son a dark look. “You don’t know? Where does he live?”

“Uh,” Stiles said, avoiding his eyes.

“Stiles,” his father said angrily, “you’ve been hanging out in the woods with someone whose last name you don’t know and you don’t know where he lives? Have you listened to anything I’ve taught you?”

“I have!” Stiles protested. “I just – I got excited about having a friend.” He felt guilty at the way his dad’s face softened. “And I did ask him where he lived and he pointed toward our house. I assumed he lived in one of the houses further down the road.”

“There are no houses further down the road,” the sheriff snapped. “Where did you say he goes to school?”

“Saint Germaine,” Stiles said miserably. “Are you going to arrest him?”

“What? No!” the sheriff exclaimed, looking more irritated than ever. “I just want to talk to him. Now, you get some rest. I’m going to try to get in contact with the school. If I’m not back tonight, I’ll stop in before my shift starts tomorrow morning, all right?”

“Okay,” Stiles mumbled. His father got to his feet, leaning over the bed to press a kiss to his hair.

“You’re safe,” he said softly. “I’m not angry at you. I’m glad that you’re okay.”

“I know,” Stiles muttered. “Good night, Dad.”

“Night, son.”

Stiles watched the door close behind his father and then slumped against his pillows. He meant to stay awake, meant to sit and process everything that had happened that evening, but the room was quiet and calm, the hum of the machines soothing, and he fell asleep before he realized it.

His sleep that night was deep and even, undisturbed by dreams of the woods - or any dreams at all.

-

When his father returned the following morning, Stiles was already awake, staring blearily up at the ceiling. He’d been up for a few hours, rested but restless. Scott’s mom had come in to visit, bringing him a tray full of breakfast food. Stiles liked Melissa McCall; she was funny and sharp as a tack, her smile so much like Scott’s. She’d sat with him while he ate and told him stories about all the crazy patients she’d had to deal with in the last few days.

Stiles sat up when his dad pushed open the door, smiling when he saw Allison trailing behind the sheriff.

“Brought your sister,” his father said. “She was worried about you.”

“If I scared you – I’m sorry,” Stiles said to Allison, who shook her head.

“Don’t be,” she whispered, looking like she was on the verge of tears.

“Now you’ve seen he’s whole and well,” the sheriff said patiently. “I’ll bring you back after school, but would you mind waiting in the hall for a minute?”

“Sheriff hat,” Stiles said sagely, and Allison nodded and disappeared outside.

The sheriff gave his son a considering look. “How are you feeling?”

“A lot better,” Stiles told him truthfully.

“Good,” the sheriff said slowly. “Now, I’ve got something to tell you, Stiles. I called Saint Germaine and they – there’s no record of anyone named Derek at their school.”

Stiles stared at his father, all the air rushing from his lungs. “Then what – “

“Stiles,” his father said firmly. “I’m going to need you to give me a detailed description of what this kid looks like. I’ve got to get an APB out – we need to talk to him.”

“But,” Stiles said unsteadily. “But Dad, what does that mean? Is he – ” He swallowed. “Is he in trouble?”

“He may be,” the sheriff told him gently. “Stiles, if he’s not a student, I – he could be any age. He could be pretending. And if he touched you and he’s an adult, that’s – ”

“No,” Stiles whimpered, hunching over, the sound of his heartbeat suddenly deafening. “No.” Derek wouldn’t have lied to him; why would he have lied to him? It didn’t make any sense. He tried to take a deep breath to steady himself, to explain to his dad that he had to be wrong, Derek had to go to Saint Germaine, but he couldn’t seem to draw in any air. There were hands on his face, tilting his chin up as the room spun around him, lights flickering. He could hear his dad saying, “Breathe, Stiles, breathe, easy now,” and he wanted to laugh because a lot easier said than done, right?

There were other voices in his room, people he didn’t recognize. Someone pushed a pill into his hand and coaxed him into swallowing it. Things started to slow down after that, the world rightening around him. His dad stood next to him, a heavy hand on his shoulder, worry creasing his tanned face.

“Sorry,” Stiles whispered, his stomach churning.

“Don’t you apologize,” his father said steadily, hand tightening on his shoulder. “We’ll fix this, Stiles. I promise.”

Stiles blinked and leaned away from him. He put his head over the side of the bed and threw up his breakfast.

-

Stiles stayed in the hospital for three long, boring days while the doctors pumped fluids into his body, trying to get his weight back up. Allison and Scott came to visit him after school and his dad stopped by whenever he could, but other than that Stiles was left to himself for long, mind-numbingly boring periods of time. He slept a lot and ate a lot, but there was still a lot of sitting around doing nothing.

After his panic attack following his father's questioning, the sheriff hadn't pressed him again, except gently, for a description of Derek, which Stiles gave him with his stomach heavy. He couldn't believe that Derek had lied to him. Why would he lie - unless he had something to hide? Was he really just a predator? Every time he thought about Derek's mouth on him, it made his stomach twist, heart rate rising until a nurse came in and gave him a Xanax. He didn't dream, though, and he had no more panic attacks, which was a small wonder.

Ms. McCall came in some times to visit with him, but his usual nurse was a cheerful petite woman named Sarah. She came in sometime on the third afternoon and said, "Bored?"

"So bored," Stiles replied. He'd already done all the homework Scott had brought him, even chemistry.

"Feeling up for a walk?" she asked brightly. Stiles tilted his head, considering. He hadn't done much moving around since being admitted, but seeing something other than the blank green walls of the hospital room would be nice.

"Sure," he said, and Sarah beamed.

She helped him down the hallway, pushing his IV drip as he walked along, one hand on the wall to keep his balance. His legs were wobbly after days of laying around and he didn't like feeling so weak; it reminded him of his mom. He hated that his dad had to see him like this because it probably hurt him even more.

"Anything you'd like to see?" Sarah asked. "I can't take you to the morgue, but anywhere else shouldn’t be a problem."

Stiles shuddered and shook his head. "Is Ms. McCall working?"

"I think she's covering in long term care today," Sarah replied. "You want to go visit?"

Stiles nodded and she led him down the hallway. They rode the elevator up to the fifth floor and walked to the long term wing. It was quiet up there, far removed from the hustle and bustle of the emergency room and surgery theaters.

"Melissa?" Sarah asked a nurse at the floor station, and the woman gestured down the hall toward a door Melissa was just disappearing through. Sarah nodded and led Stiles down to the room.

"Is this okay?" Stiles asked, hesitating outside the door.

"Most of the people in this wing aren't going to notice you're even here, hon," Sarah replied, pulling on the door handle. "It's all right."

"Okay," Stiles said, slipping inside.

The room was plain, devoid of any personal effects. He saw Melissa first, leaning over the bed of a patient. Then his eyes fell on the patient's face and Stiles' mouth fell open. He was older than Stiles by a few years, chin blue with stubble, white scars licking up one side of his neck, but it was Derek. Derek and his stupidly handsome face, the thin, unhappy set of his lips, the furrow of his brow, his dark lashes brushing his cheeks. Stiles leaned back against the wall, breath catching in his throat. It was Derek but it wasn't Derek, not the Derek he knew. What was going on?

"Hey, Melissa," Sarah said cheerfully, unaware of Stiles' horror. "We popped in to visit."

Melissa turned and the smile beginning to quirk her lips disappeared when she spotted Stiles' rapidly graying face. "Get him out of here!" she exclaimed. Sarah twisted, her mouth forming a round "oh" of surprise when she saw Stiles' face. She pulled him out of the room and managed to get him a few feet down the hall before he collapsed against the wall, panting for air. He could hear Sarah talking, trying to soothe him, but all he could think about was Derek laying in that bed, pale and scarred, Derek in his dream, burned and ruined, Derek in the clearing, young and unharmed and unhappy.

When the attack passed and he finally made it back to his room, Stiles curled up in bed, too exhausted to think. He didn't understand what was happening. He didn't have - no, he had Derek's number. Stiles turned his wrist to look at the phone number Derek had written on his palm, mostly faded but still legible. He swallowed, picking up his phone. He had to know. He needed to know if Derek - his Derek, the Derek from the clearing - was real. Stiles dialed the number and held the phone to his ear, biting his lip. It rang once and then -

"The number you have dialed is no longer in service. Please check - "

Stiles hung up, his hands shaking as he set his phone on the bedside table. Fuck. Fuck, what did this mean?

There came a knock on the door and Ms. McCall stuck her head into the room.

"Hey, hon," she said. "You okay?"

"Yeah," Stiles replied quietly, gesturing at her to come in. Melissa smiled and stepped inside, shutting the door behind her. Stiles shut his eyes, breathing in deep, gathering the nerve to ask, "Who was that?"

"Who was who?" Melissa asked, tilting her head. "Oh, in the room? His name's Derek, hon. He - oh, but you - "

"Just tell me, please," Stiles said, gritting his teeth.

Ms. McCall sighed softly. "His family were the ones who died in your house, Stiles. He's the only one that made it out."

Stiles stared at her, his mouth falling open. He thought of the article - Derek had lived in his house? He'd been the sixth victim? Holy fuck.

He must have said that out loud because Ms. McCall smiled uncomfortably and said, "There's nothing you could have done, hon. It happened five years ago."

Stiles swallowed. "Is he - is he okay?"

"Mm." Melissa shook her head. "He hasn't woken up since he was brought in. His body healed, but he’s been in a coma for five years. It's like there's nothing left inside him."

No, Stiles thought, because he's haunting the woods outside our house. Things were starting to fall into place, making sense; why he only saw Derek in the clearing, why Derek had never showed up at the house, why he dreamed of Derek standing outside, why the school had no record of anyone named Derek. Stiles scrubbed his hands over his face. God, was he fucking stupid or what? Could he get any more dense?

"You okay?" Melissa asked, looking worried.

"Yeah," Stiles said hoarsely. "Yeah, I just - I'm tired. I think I'm going to take a nap."

"All right," she smiled. "Rest up. I think you're being released tomorrow morning."

"Oh," Stiles said blankly. "Good."

She patted his leg and left. Stiles leaned back against his pillows, his head spinning. What the hell did this mean? Derek wasn't dead, but his spirit or soul or something was trapped in the woods? Or was he even trapped - they'd gone to the pond, after all. So Derek was a Hale; it made sense now that Stiles dreamed of him staring up at the house. Maybe he needed to get back inside? Did Derek even know that he was lost?

-

Stiles woke with a jolt. He couldn't even remember falling asleep but it was later now; the clock on the wall said it was close to nine-thirty. An empty coffee cup on his bedside table told him his dad had probably stopped in but he seemed to have gone. Stiles checked his phone; no messages.

Stiles slipped out of bed, unhooking the drip from his hand. He stuck his head out the door; the floor was empty and quiet at this time of night. Stiles slipped out and down the hall, taking the elevator to the fifth floor. The nurse's station was deserted as he passed, a small miracle, and he paused outside of Derek's room, steeling himself before pushing open the door.

The room sat quiet, lit only by the light of the moon coming in through the windows. There were no machines humming away - apparently Derek could breathe on his own and needed no monitoring. Stiles breathed slowly as he approached the bed, skin breaking out into goosebumps. This was creepy. This was so fucking creepy. There he was, sneaking into the hospital room of the guy whose - soul? Ghost? - had sucked his dick. Oh, fuck, this was weird.

Stiles reached the side of the bed and stood over Derek, licking his lips nervously. Derek looked like himself but not, like a stranger he'd seen in a dream, familiar and alien all at once - he was older, his face longer, cheekbones more pronounced. He was a lot skinnier than his ghost, which made sense; it wasn't like you got a lot of physical exercise when you were trapped in a coma. Understandable.

Stiles swallowed and reached out a hand, brushing his fingers against Derek's. He didn't know what he expected to happen - for Derek's eyes to open, for his fingers to curl around Stiles', for him to sit up and say Stiles? None of that happened; Derek's eyes remained closed, his breathing even. Stiles stared at him and wondered who shaved his face. The Derek Stiles knew kept his face clean shaven, but the three-day-old stubble was a good look.

Stiles shook his head, getting angry at himself. He was being stupid, standing over Derek and thinking about how good he looked when there were more important things to worry about - Derek's doppelganger out in the woods, for example.

Behind him, the door clicked open and the lights flickered on. Stiles turned and froze, as did the young woman in the doorway. She was probably in her mid twenties, dark-haired and beautiful, dressed in a light coat and dark jeans. She looked furious, and Stiles' heart sank. Derek had had some beautiful girlfriend when the fire occurred and she'd stuck with him all these years. Of course.

"Who are you?" the woman snapped, stepping forward. Stiles tried to back away but his legs bumped into Derek's bed, trapped. "What are you doing in here?"

"I - " Stiles paused. He didn't really have an excuse; anything he could say to her would sound extremely unbelievable.

"My brother is not an exhibit," she said furiously. "He's not here to be stared at. Get out."

"I - I'm sorry," Stiles stammered, even as relief rushed through him. This had to be Laura, Derek's older sister. Derek had told Stiles about her, complained about the way she hogged the car and called him "Der-bear" and ate all the good cereal before he could get any. Stiles wondered if he could tell her about the Derek he'd befriended in the wood, but scratched that idea as she grabbed him by the arm.

"Get out," Laura repeated, the words hissing from her mouth like acid. "I see you in here again and I'm calling security. Out!"

"Okay, okay!" Stiles said, letting himself be shoved toward the door. He could feel Laura's glare on him, dark and furious.

He got caught by the night nurse on his floor and endured a five-minute lecture before being allowed to return to his room. Once back in bed, Stiles sat and ran his hands through his hair. He didn't know what to do, what he needed to do to help Derek - if Derek even needed to be helped. If he could be helped.

His sleep was restless that night, though his mind remained blank and dreamless.

Stiles was released at noon the following day. His dad was on shift but came by the hospital to give him a ride home. Stiles thought about going to see Derek again before he left but there was no time and anyway, what could he do except loom over him and feel depressed? He also had a feeling that if Laura saw him in there again, she wouldn’t call security, just kick his ass herself.

So Stiles sat on a bench outside the hospital in the weak October sunlight and got into the cruiser when his dad pulled up. He was cold, even in his sweatshirt; he'd gained maybe five pounds in the hospital but the skin still clung tight to his bones.

He and his dad didn't talk much on the way home but as they pulled up in front of the house, his dad put a hand on Stiles' knee and said, "I want you to promise me you'll stay out of the woods today, all right?"

Stiles nodded. He hadn't bothered to tell his dad that the guy they were looking for lay comatose in the hospital, and had been for almost six years. And he wasn't planning on going into the woods anyway - not today, at any rate. He needed more information before confronting the Derek that lurked in the woods.

"All right," his dad said. "You get inside and have some lunch. I'll be back at six."

"You want something?" Stiles asked carefully. "I thought I'd make soup."

His father shifted in his seat, then smiled like Stiles offered him a rare treat. "Half an hour won't hurt. What kind of soup?"

Stiles made chicken soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. He was careful to eat everything, aware that his dad was watching him, trying to hide his concern. After they ate, his father patted him on the shoulder and Stiles watched him drive off into the trees. He gave his dad a ten minute head start before snagging the keys to the SUV - he wasn't quite feeling up to riding his bike around yet.

Stiles drove into town, watching carefully for any sign of his dad, but he made it to the town hall without incident and spilled out of the car, almost falling in his hurry. He knew, from careful investigation, that the basement of the town hall held not only the town records, but a caged-off area held archives from the police station - everything older than five years, which meant there'd be information on the fire.

"Hi," Stiles said, plastering a fake smile on his face as he addressed the old woman behind the counter. "I'm doing a project for school and need to look at some old tax records. Could I get into the basement?"

The old clerk was only too happy to let him downstairs. She showed him the room where the records were kept and Stiles smiled and waited for her to disappear back upstairs before trotting off down the hallway. He found the room he needed around the next turn, labeled with a sign on the door that said Police Personnel Only. Unauthorized Entry Punishable By Law.

"I'm police by relation," Stiles muttered, slipping his hand into his pocket and pulling out a set of keys. He'd grabbed them out of his dad's jacket while he was in the bathroom after lunch. Stiles felt bad about using his dad to get at his keys, but Derek's soul was hanging in the balance, and it wasn't like he'd broken his promise to his dad. He hadn't asked for the records, and he wasn't hacking into the system. He was just…cheating a little.

Stiles slipped into the room, flicking on the overhead light as he did. The room was cool and smelled of old paper and dust, lined with rows and rows of shelves. All the evidence was kept at the station, but all old reports were kept here, locked inside a metal cage.

Stiles used the second, smaller key to get into the cage, carefully shutting the door behind him. The newest files were on the far wall, paper folders brighter, not yet yellowed by age and damp. It didn't take Stiles long to find the papers on the Hale fire; there were several thick folders bound with rubber bands that crumbled when he touched them. He pulled the folders off the shelf and settled onto the floor, careful to make sure he was out of sight of the door just in case someone else came in.

Stiles set the folders in front of him; there were three, all fat with information. One was full of crime scene photos and Stiles set that aside, not needing to see the charred faces of the people who'd once lived in his house. The other two, though, were packed full of crime scene information, witness interview transcripts, medical examiner reports, and a plethora of other information. He sat on the hard cement floor for hours, learning all he could.

He met Derek's family, a small photo attached to a page on each Hale. His father was unfamiliar - though Derek had his nose and high cheekbones - but his mom, Talia, was the woman Stiles had seen in the house, who soothed him after his panic attack. Derek's uncle, Peter, was the man with the goatee Stiles had seen in the kitchen. Derek talked about him sometimes - he was the one who'd hung the rope swing at the pond. Derek's two younger siblings, the twins Cora and Michael, were probably the kids Stiles heard laughing in the backyard.

It hurt to see them all laid out before him. They reminded him of his mom, her loss hanging heavy in his heart. He wondered if maybe it would be better if Derek never woke up, because their loss would be more painful than any bodily injury. But then he thought, no, because there was Laura, too, and to have lost her family and have her only remaining sibling trapped inside his own body - that was the worst. And Stiles, selfishly, wanted Derek awake, wanted to know him as a real person.

Because Derek was going to wake up; Stiles was determined to find the solution. He had it in his head that if he figured out who had killed Derek's family that it might be enough to settle his soul, send it back to his body. As Stiles poured through the evidence, though, it became clear that the sheriff's department had struggled to finger any suspects. The first interview they had was with the sheriff Chris Argent himself, already under investigation for assaulting Derek, but he had a solid alibi. The next interview made his stomach twist, for it was with Kate Argent. Derek had said he, his parents, and Chris and Kate Argent were the only ones who knew about his involvement with Kate and she didn't seem to be a suspect. She… Stiles' eyes widened as he read through the interview with a Deputy Thompson.

Deputy Dale Thompson: What's your relationship with the Hale family?
Katherine Argent: I work as a substitute at the high school. I've taught classes with the two older children, Derek and Laura.
DT: And are you aware of the allegations against your brother?
KA: That he allegedly assaulted Derek Hale? Yes.
DT: Teachers at the school say you seemed close with Derek. Can you tell me about your relationship with him?
KA: He's a sweet kid. Doesn't have a lot of friends. He'd hang around on my lunch break, talk. I think he had a little crush on me.

Stiles gritted his teeth, stomach churning. He could just imagine Kate sitting there, laughing pityingly at Derek's "little crush." She said she loved me, Derek’s voice whispered in his head and he bit his lip until he tasted blood.

DT: Has his behavior ever concerned you?
KA: What do you mean?
DT: Has he ever had any outbursts in class? Does he have a temper? Has he ever fought with other students?
KA: Why? Do you think he had something to do with this?
DT: I can't answer that. Please answer the question.
KA: He can be emotional. He gets frustrated easily. Lately it seemed as though there was something bothering him, but he wouldn't talk to me about it.
DT: When was the last time you spoke with him?
KA: Maybe two months ago? He transferred to Saint Germaine and I haven’t seen him since.

It was you! Stiles wanted to shout. You fucking did it to him. He angrily flipped through more interviews - kids at the school, family friends - and his stomach sank as he realized that a lot of the questions - a vast majority, actually - were about Derek. Derek. Derek was their one and only suspect.

That couldn't be true though, right? Derek was good and kind and - Stiles bit his lip. The Derek he'd met in the forest was good and kind, but how well did he really know him? Sometimes people just broke, and if the thing with Kate - if it had really happened - had pushed him too far? He could see why the police suspected him; Derek was the only family member who hadn't been shot, the only one to make it out of the house. All the interviews painted him as quiet but troubled. It didn’t look promising.

The last interview in the folder was with Laura Hale.

DT: How's your brother doing?
LH: Okay. The doctors say the smoke damage to his lungs was minimal. He should be able to breathe on his own soon.
DT: I'm glad to hear it.
LH: Thank you.
DT: Did you talk to your brother in the days before the fire?
LH: A couple of days before. Friday, I think.
DT: And how did he seem?
LH: I - distracted, I guess.
DT: Was something wrong?
LH: I'm not sure. I think something was going on, but he wouldn't talk to me about it.
DT: You have no idea at all? Something family related, maybe?
LH: I don't know. Everyone was kind of quiet. My mom - wait, why are you asking about Derek?
DT: That's irrelevant. Please answer the question.
LH: No. Oh my god. You think he did it.
DT: I can't -
LH: This is fucking unbelievable!
DT: Miss Hale, sit do -
LH: My family's dead and you expect me to believe my baby brother did this? Fuck you! Fuck –

Interview ended 13:16 March 26, 2007.

-

Stiles was unable to get into the woods that weekend. Allison and Scott hung around the house, watching him like a hawk. Stiles didn't mind; it gave him a chance to sit and think things over. His mind stuck on the information he'd learned from the police records, churning through it over and over. He sat on the couch in the living room, staring absently out at the backyard while he thought about Derek. Derek being behind everything made sense on the surface but when Stiles really thought about it, it didn't add up. Derek loved his family; he complained about his siblings and parents, but everyone did that. His parents were supporting him after Kate and he seemed grateful for their support. Stiles couldn't think of any reason why he'd snap and shoot them all.

He jumped when Allison sat down on the couch next to him. "Sorry," she said apologetically. "You okay? You're off in another world today."

"I'm fine," Stiles replied automatically. He'd thought about telling Allison about the two Dereks but was hesitant to do so. She was already worried about his sanity and he wanted Derek's side of things first. Stiles tried to smile when she still looked uncertain. "Really, Allie," he said. "I'm feeling a thousand times better."

He was, really; he'd gotten a few solid nights of sleep and he'd remembered to eat (always under the watchful eye of his sister or dad). His head felt more clear than it had in a while.

"Okay," Allison agreed, but stayed on the couch with him until Scott wandered in and then the three of them watched a movie together.

He saw the woman in his room that night, standing by the window after he came out of the shower. "Talia," he said out loud, reminding himself of her name. Derek's mother. He could see the familial resemblance now, her dark hair and pale eyes and thin lips. She turned when he said her name, inclining her head with a soft smile.

"Do you know you're dead?" Stiles asked her. He'd done some reading on his phone while in the hospital, researching ghosts and incorporeal states. It seemed like a common problem with ghosts was that they weren't aware they were dead and thus couldn't move on to the afterlife. What did that mean for Derek? He wasn't dead - could his soul move back to his body?

Talia inclined her head again, her smile fading. Stiles breathed in deep. "Do you know who killed you?"

She shook her head, looking sorrowful. Stiles sighed; he should have expected that. "Derek's alive," he told her carefully. "Did you know that?"

Talia shook her head again, a sad smile on her face.

"He's stuck," Stiles said. "In the woods. His body's in the hospital, but his spirit's out in the forest. What do I need to do to save him?"

Talia spread her hands helplessly. I don’t know. Stiles sighed again. "Worth a shot," he said. "Thanks anyway."

-

Stiles returned to school on Monday, attracting himself a large number of curious looks. It was a small town; news traveled fast that one of the students had gone missing, only to be found unconscious in the middle of the preserve. Everyone wanted to know what he'd been doing out in the woods. Stiles certainly wasn't going to admit he'd been getting his dick sucked by a ghost, and at lunch time Scott told him that most people seemed to have decided it was drugs, because why else would a healthy young man pass out in the middle of the woods? Stiles sighed, not sure which answer was worse.

Drugs, it turned out, because the administration heard the rumors and he was pulled out of his math class in the middle of the afternoon to go have a talk – an intervention, really – with the school's guidance counselor, Ms. Morrell. Stiles sat and listened to her talk about wise choices and health and told her that his dad was the sheriff, thanks, and he'd already ordered a blood test done at the hospital, which Stiles had passed with flying colors. Ms. Morrell looked faintly disappointed and Stiles had to wonder just how boring it was to be a small town high school's guidance counselor.

Stiles took his time walking back to class. He walked past a display case of trophies he'd passed a thousand times before skidding to a halt and stepping back to stare up into the case. There was a small framed picture up on the top shelf he'd never noticed before - a photo of Derek in lacrosse gear, beaming at the camera and looking utterly carefree. Tucked into the corner of the frame was a clipping from the newspaper written by - yep - Kate Argent, headlined Homecoming game dedicated to injured student. Stiles' eyes slid to Derek's chest, to the number fifteen emblazoned there. Holy shit. He remembered the principal at homecoming, his words, "And tonight we dedicate this homecoming game, as we do every year, to player fifteen, D—” He would have said Derek’s name. Scott had interrupted his speech, distracting Stiles with some kind of question, but if he had paid just a little more attention, he could have figured this out a month ago.

Stiles groaned. He really was thick sometimes.

-

Allison stayed late at school that evening to work on the newspaper, giving Stiles his first opportunity to head into the woods to talk to Derek. He walked slowly though, worried about what to say and how Derek might react. Did he know he was in limbo? What if he got angry? Ghosts grew more powerful when they got angry, he knew from his research. Or what if Derek didn't believe him? Stiles knew how crazy the whole thing sounded; he'd repeated it to himself enough times in his head to be very aware of that.

He wasn't sure whether to be relieved or turn tail and run when he found Derek sitting on the rock in the clearing, misery clouding his face.

"Stiles," Derek croaked when he spotted him, clambering to his feet. "I'm so fucking sorry. I don't know what happened. I called 911, but I think there's something wrong with your phone because the lady couldn't hear me, and I stayed here, I swear, but your dad came and it was like he couldn't see me, and I - "

"Whoa," Stiles said, holding up his hands placatingly. "It's okay, dude. They found me. It's not your fault."

Derek bit his lip, looking wretched. "Are you okay, though?" he asked. "You went white as a ghost and kind of just keeled over."

"I'm fine," Stiles said soothingly. "Just hadn't been eating enough. C'mon, sit with me." He settled down on the rock, patting the stone invitingly. Derek sat after a moment's hesitation, nearly vibrating with worry. Stiles wondered why he didn't notice the cool air rolling off him before, or the way he wore the same shirt and shorts every day, regardless of weather. "Can I ask you a question?"

"Of course," Derek immediately replied.

"Okay," Stiles said slowly. "Okay. Um. What'd you have for dinner last night?"

Derek frowned at him. "What? Why?"

"Just tell me," Stiles insisted.

"I - " Derek frowned up at the trees. Stiles watched his face as he thought, seconds ticking by. Derek's frown twisted into a look of confusion. "I don't remember."

Stiles exhaled. "All right. What'd you learn at school today?"

Derek bit his lip, teeth worrying at his skin. Stiles could see worry creeping into his eyes. "I - I can't remember," he said eventually. "I went to school today. I did, I know I did. I just - " he turned to look at Stiles, panic in his expression. "I don't remember being there."

"Derek," Stiles said carefully. "Why is it that, when I tried calling your house, I got a message saying the number had been disconnected?"

"I - That's not true," Derek said forcefully, his voice high with panic. The edges of him were starting to vibrate violently. "That's not true!"

Stiles swallowed and pulled his phone from his pocket. He dialed Derek's number, carefully entering the digits so Derek could see they'd been put in correctly, and hit call. They listened to the recorded voice and Derek reared back in horror.

"No!" he said vehemently, his whole body jittering like static on a television. "No!"

"Derek," Stiles said, but Derek was just gone, vanishing into the air without another sound. Stiles stared at the place where he'd sat, his heart pounding in his chest. "Derek?" he called, but there was no response.

Stiles sat in the clearing until the sun passed below the trees, worrying building inside him. Derek didn't come back and Stiles worried that he'd done something horrible. That couldn't have been enough to send him back to his body - right?

His father was home by the time Stiles returned to the house. He gave Stiles a dark look. "You weren't where I think you were, right?"

Stiles licked his lips uneasily. "Maybe?"

"Stiles," his dad said angrily, "I told you to stay out of the woods - "

"On Friday," Stiles argued desperately. "I promised to stay out of the woods on Friday."

"Don't be smart; you know what I meant," his father said flatly. "You're grounded. Get your ass upstairs."

Stiles glowered and stomped up to his bedroom. He did his homework angrily, barely able to concentrate on the math work he'd missed in class that afternoon, mind whirling, full of concern for Derek. The moment he heard Allison, then his dad go to bed, Stiles was out his bedroom window, skidding down the porch roof and landing on the front lawn with a heavy thump. He grabbed his bike and sped off down the driveway, skimming through the dark trees. The forest seemed extra dark that night, more threatening than it had seemed in a long time, but Stiles ignored the hovering gloom, pedaling furiously into town.

He locked his bike up in front of the hospital and slipped inside. He made it up to the fifth floor without being waylaid. A nurse came down the hall just as he reached Derek's door and he scrambled inside - safe! - only to smack right into Laura Hale.

"You!" she said furiously. "I told you - "

"Is he awake?" Stiles interrupted breathlessly. He could feel his hands starting to shake; the physical exertion of biking to the hospital was already catching up to him.

"What?" Laura frowned, caught off guard. "No! Who the hell are you?"

"Stiles," he said, trying to look around her to see Derek. Laura moved to block him. "I'm the sheriff's son - the new sheriff, not Chris Argent!" Stiles added hurriedly, seeing her expression darken.

Her face didn't lighten, though some clarity came into her eyes. "You moved into our house."

"Yeah," Stiles said quietly.

"And you're interested in my brother why?" she demanded. "You think you're some kind of junior detective who can see what the police couldn't?"

"You really like jumping to conclusions, don't you?" Stiles snapped. Weirdly, this seemed to relax Laura a little. She nearly smiled - Stiles recognized that look of hidden amusement from Derek. Stiles shoved his hands into his pockets to keep them from juddering all over the place. Laura was still watching him, though, waiting for an answer. Stiles scuffed a sneaker against the tile floor and decided to take the plunge. He didn't know Laura, and he had no idea how she'd react, but her knowing couldn't hurt, right? He took a deep breath and said, "You're Laura, right? Derek told me you kept People magazines under your mattress because you didn't want anyone to know you read them."

"I did!" Laura said, her face lighting up. "I'd totally forgotten! How did you - " Her tone changed abruptly, eyes narrowing. "Who the fuck told you that?"

"Derek," Stiles repeated, and launched into a carefully worded explanation of everything he'd seen in the last two months, starting with his first encounter with Derek in the field. He didn't tell Laura everything - he said nothing about Derek's relationship with Kate Argent, or his own relationship with him, but he did tell Laura about the ghosts he'd seen in the house, and about the evidence he'd found in the police archives. To his surprise, Laura watched him talk silently, arms folded over her chest, making no effort to interrupt.

When he finished, however, ending with his experience in the field with Derek just a few hours earlier and how he'd come running to the hospital to see if Derek had awoken, Laura stared at him for a long moment before saying, "I'm calling security."

Stiles threw up his arms in frustration. "I'm not lying!"

"Sure," Laura agreed, "but you've clearly escaped from some kind of ward and you should probably get back."

Stiles heaved a sigh. "What do I have to do to prove it to you?" he asked.

Laura spread her arms, a sardonic expression on her face. "Conjure him up," she said. "Show me my brother."

"I can't do that," Stiles said irritably. "First of all, I'm not a magician, and second - I think he's trapped in the woods. That's where they found him, right?"

Laura's face softened, but her mouth remained firm. "I think you need to leave," she said.

"Fine," Stiles sighed, stepping toward the door. He paused with his hand on the handle. "The police think he did it," he told Laura. "What's going to happen when he wakes up? I can solve this; I know I can."

"It doesn't matter," Laura said quietly. "He's never waking up." Stiles stopped and she turned her head to look at him, tears shining in her eyes. "Don't fucking talk to me about ghosts," she said fiercely. "Don't talk to me about hope. Derek's all I have left and there is nothing inside him. Nothing."

"I'll prove you wrong," Stiles said, his voice wavering, and he pushed out of the room, leaving Laura staring after him.

He biked home slower than he'd came, his heart aching. The loss on Laura's face, the intense grief and sadness there - it was painfully familiar. He rode through the dark woods, darkness pressing down on his shoulders, and tried not to give in to the despair curling around his heart. Stiles made it home, slipping noiselessly through the front door and up the stairs before collapsing into the cradle of his bed. He shoved his face into his pillow and cried, overwhelmed and scared for Derek, scared for Laura.

-

That night, Stiles dreamt of the forest. He stood alone in the empty woods, no Kate, no Derek, no sound of his mother's voice calling him. The shadows fell around him, swallowing him whole.

-

Stiles didn't remember school the next day. He remembered arriving and he remembered walking from class to class on automatic, all of his thoughts consumed by Derek. He didn't go to lacrosse practice; he'd been kicked off the team for missing too many practices and he wasn't supposed to be doing a lot of physical stuff anyway. He didn't really care he was off the team - it wasn't like he'd gotten to play in any games anyway - and now he had time after school to go see Derek.

"Okay," Stiles said, as Allison pulled up to the house after school. "I know Dad probably asked you to keep an eye on me, and I know I'm supposed to be grounded, but I have to go to the clearing."

Allison watched him for a long moment, chewing on her bottom lip. "Something important is going on," she said, not a question, but Stiles nodded anyway.

"Yeah," he said. "I promise I'll explain what's going on, but I need to get out there before Dad comes home."

Allison looked at the dashboard clock. "You've got an hour," she said finally. "Dad will be home at five. If you're not back by then, I'm not covering for you, but if he asks if you left while I was gone, I won't say anything."

"Allie," Stiles sighed, relief flooding through him. "Thank you."

She smiled grimly. "You have to tell me what's going on," she said.

"I will," Stiles agreed, scrambling out of the car. "I promise."

He jogged through the trees. When he reached the clearing it was empty but it didn’t…feel empty. Maybe he was imagining it, but he thought he could sense something in the air, a faint vibration that set his teeth on edge and his skin pimpling into goosebumps.

“Derek?” Stiles whispered. The forest lay still and quiet around him, no birds singing, no insects buzzing. He thought he heard a sigh and twisted around but the air was empty. Or – was it? He pushed a hand through the air and his fingers brushed through a patch of air that sent his body jerking backward like he’d received an electrical shock. The air seemed to condense at his touch, darkening, forming a humanoid shape before him. The sight of it sent Stiles’ whole body shuddering but he knew it had to be Derek and he reached for it again. His fingers couldn’t quite close around its vague arm but he felt it, cold air under his hands, and he felt the moment he made contact, electricity skipping up his arm, jangling through his bones.

He’d felt it before, he realized, holding on grimly as the shape beneath his hand flickered and continued to solidify. Every time he’d touched Derek in the past he’d felt that same feeling sparking up his fingertips. He’d thought it was nerves, the excitement of touching Derek, but now he realized it was Derek himself. Derek did something to him, pulled something from him. Maybe – Stiles’ eyes widened as features formed on the figure’s face, strong cheekbones and pale eyes. He could feel the energy rushing from him, a hundred times stronger than he’d ever felt it, and he had to pull his hand away while Derek was still see-through, close to fainting. Derek pulled the life from him to make himself solid. No wonder he’d fucking fainted. He sat down on the rock, limbs shaking.

“Stiles,” Derek said, and his voice sounded as though it came from far away, heard over an old radio, echoing and faint. His face was pale, frantic. “What’s going on? What’s happening to me?”

Stiles took a deep, steadying breath. “Derek,” he said gently, “look, this is going to sound crazy, but you’re not – you’re not really here.”

Derek stared at him, his mouth falling open. Stiles took another deep breath and said, “There was a fire at your house. You made it out…but your family didn’t.”

“What?” Derek asked hoarsely. “What – Stiles. Is this a joke?”

Stiles bit his lip at the look on Derek’s face, at the transparent tear that spilled over his dark lashes and went slipping down his cheek. “It’s not,” Stiles said quietly. “I live there – in your house. It’s been five years, Derek. Your body’s in the hospital.”

“That can’t be true,” Derek whispered, more tears spilling down his cheeks. “It can’t be. My family – who did it? How did it happen?”

Stiles hesitated before telling Derek everything he’d been able to find out about the case. Derek stared at him as he spoke, fresh tears sliding down his face every time he blinked. The slow horror of belief dawned over his features; Stiles was in the middle of explaining his research in the police archive when Derek sank to the grass and buried his face in his knees, his shoulders shaking. Stiles stopped talking and slipped off the rock, landing in the grass next to Derek. He couldn’t keep his hand on him for long – the minute he touched his hand to Derek’s shoulder blades he could feel the energy seeping from him, aching like a toothache – but he stayed as long as he could.

“I saw Laura last night,” Stiles told him, pressing his forehead against Derek’s shoulder. “She didn’t believe me when I told her about you.”

“She wouldn’t,” Derek said without lifting his head, letting out a miserable, muffled laugh. “My mom always said she had no imagination.”

“Do you remember anything?” Stiles asked carefully. “About that night?”

Derek exhaled slowly, turning his gaze to the sky. “I…I remember eating dinner. Laura wasn’t there – she was at school. Cora was mad at Michael because he kept kicking her under the table. Mom sent them both to bed early.” Derek’s eyes welled with fresh tears, shining in the afternoon sunlight. “I remember working on homework and going to bed, and then – being here. Seeing you.”

Stiles squeezed Derek’s arm before he finally had to let go, his hands shaking. Derek looked even more distressed but Stiles shook his head. “I’m okay,” he said. “And I’m sorry, Derek, for everything that happened.”

“I just – I don’t understand,” Derek murmured, wiping at his cheeks. “Why anyone would do that do us.”

“I don’t know,” Stiles replied softly, “but I’m going to find out. I promise.”

He watched Derek cross his arms over his knees, the tears on his cheeks drying slowly in the late afternoon sunlight. Stiles’ heart ached for him.

“I guess this makes sense,” Derek said after a while. “I kept – remember how I said I don’t dream? I – I think that I only exist here when you’re here. The only thing that I can remember – for days – is just you and that darkness.”

“I’ll come back as often as I can,” Stiles assured him, heart clenching. “Dad grounded me but I – shit!” He glanced at the time on his phone as he spoke; it was already four forty-five. His dad would be home in fifteen minutes. “I have to go, but I’ll be back, I promise, okay?”

Derek nodded miserably as Stiles scrambled to his feet. He hesitated, then pressed a quick kiss to Derek’s cheek before taking off through the woods. Stiles tore across the front lawn thirty seconds before his dad’s cruiser came up through the woods; he was inside by the time his dad drew within sight of the house. Allison was watching television in the living room; she gave him a reproachful look as he peeled past.

“You’re late,” she said pointedly.

“I know!” Stiles panted, tearing up the stairs. “I’m sorry!”

He made it to his room before his father came inside the house, was in the shower by the time his dad knocked on the door.

“Stiles?”

“Hey!” Stiles called back, grateful the sound of the water would muffle his voice, cover how out of breath he was.

“You okay?”

“Peachy!”

There came a long pause. “All right,” his father said eventually, and Stiles heard him shut the bedroom door behind him.

When Stiles came downstairs, hair still damp, he found his father and Allison standing in the kitchen, looking disconsolate.

“Why the long faces?” he asked.

“Something’s wrong with the fridge,” his father replied. “All the food’s spoiled.”

Stiles looked around automatically. “Peter,” he muttered, and his father frowned.

“What’s that?”

“Peter, I said,” Stiles said, a little too loudly. “He’s the dude that haunts the kitchen.”

His father and Allison exchanged unreadable looks. Stiles wanted to stick his tongue out at them.

“Do you want me to go to town and grab something? You just got home; I don’t mind going.”

“If you would,” his dad sighed. Nothing to say about the ghosts? Stiles frowned. His father turned, riffling through the drawer by the stove, where they kept a growing pile of take-out menus. He offered them to Stiles. “Here. If you’re going to go pick it up, you can choose what we eat.”

They settled on Indian. The sheriff called in the order and Stiles hopped onto his bike and rode into town. He wouldn’t deny that he was trying to take his mind off things – Derek, specifically – for a little while. It was wearing on him and he wasn’t eager to end up in the hospital again.

His hopes were dashed when he walked into the restaurant and found Kate Argent leaning against the counter. She turned when he came in, a slow smile spreading across her face. Stiles pretended not to recognize her and sat down at a table to wait for his food. He could feel Kate’s eyes on him – maybe he was ignoring her a little too plainly, but he really, really did not want to talk to her, now or ever.

“You were at the newspaper office,” Kate said eventually. Stiles couldn’t pretend she was talking to someone else; they were the only two customers in the restaurant. He looked up at her, a dark look on his face, and she smiled. “How’d your project turn out?”

“Fine,” Stiles said shortly. His tone booked no invitation but Kate ignored it completely; she sauntered over and sat down on the other side of the table. He caught the way she looked him up and down, her look predatory. It took everything in him not to cross his arms over his chest.

“You know,” Kate said, “if you ever need help in the future, I’m available for tutoring.”

Stiles wanted to puke; all the insinuation was there, no sugarcoating. She might as well have said I’ll fuck your brains out, little boy, for how blatant she was being. He thought of Derek, miserable. She said she loved me. Rage curled in his stomach, burning and harsh.

“No thanks,” Stiles said bluntly, anger making him bold. “I’d rather get a blowjob from a shark than fuck your ancient cunt.”

Kate sat back in her chair, blinking like she’d been slapped. A smile spread across her face, slow and not at all friendly. “Careful, hon,” she said. “You’re on fire tonight.”

“You think?” Stiles retorted, scrambling to his feed as the man behind the counter called out his name. “Did you say that to Derek too?”

Kate’s face went blank and Stiles dived for the counter, slapping a twenty down on the polished wood before making a break for the door. He chanced a glance over his shoulder as he pushed outside; Kate stared after him, her face white and furious.

Stiles was halfway home, shaking with adrenaline, surrounded in a gentle cloud of cardamom and curry, when Kate’s words hit him. You’re on fire tonight. On fire. Fire.

“Shit!” Stiles exclaimed, nearly running himself off the road. Why hadn’t he suspected it before? Kate and Derek – what if Kate had been the one to set the fire? He pedaled furiously, trying to remember what the records had said about her. Had she given an alibi for that night? Had she even been considered a suspect? “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” Stiles muttered as he sped along the side of the road in the darkening gloom. He’d had to go to the town hall after school. Maybe he could skip Econ. Finstock would blow a gasket, but he could suck it.

The road was quiet at this time of night. Not a lot of people lived on this side of town, toward the preserve. He could hear, peripherally, a car coming up behind him, driving fast, but it was probably some kids from the high school, some goons in a pick-up truck driving fast on a – what was today? Tuesday? Stiles couldn’t keep track of his days any more. Still, they were going fast.

Stiles twisted to look over his shoulder and saw a massive black SUV bearing down on him, riding right on the shoulder. He didn’t even have time to swear before it smashed into him with a crunch of metal. He went flying into the field beyond the road, pinwheeling through the air. It seemed to happen in slow motion; he had time to note the land, the sky, the land, and the sky again before he smacked into the ground, flat on his back, and the world went black.

-

For the second time in a month, Stiles opened his eyes to find himself in a hospital. It sunk in faster this time; the white ceiling and bland walls, the beep of machines around him. His mom wasn’t there that time, which was mildly disappointing. There was no one in the room with him; the door was closed, curtains drawn. He lifted tired eyes to the clock on the wall. Four twenty-six. In the morning? The golden light creeping around the edges of the curtains seemed to suggest otherwise.

Time to assess. Stiles shut his eyes again. His head hurt; it felt like there was a steel band wrapped around his temples, and it was making a valiant effort to squeeze his brains out through his ears. His chest felt much the same; way too tight. He had to take shallow breaths in order to avoid stabbing pain. His right arm felt stiff and foreign; he opened his eyes to peek at it and found it wrapped in a cast. On top of all this was a multitude of aches and pains all over.

Not panicking was the important thing, he thought, taking slow breaths. If he had a panic attack at that moment, he felt like his head might actually split apart. Just stay calm and try to think. What had happened? How had he ended up in the hospital again? He remembered cycling into town. He remembered talked to Kate Argent at the take-out place, and he remembered – nothing. Stiles’ brow furrowed. He remembered talking to Kate. He remembered saying something about a fire – or had Kate been the one talk about fire? Fuck.

Stiles took a deep breath – as deep as he could with his lungs aching like they were – as memories came ricocheting back to him. Kate hitting on him. Kate saying you’re on fire. A big car barreling down the road toward him. It had been Kate who set the fire, he was almost sure of it; he just needed the evidence to bring to his dad. He needed to get to the town hall and – Stiles’ eyes shot open to look at the clock. He needed to get to the town hall and it was already four-thirty and they closed at six. He needed to get out of here.

Stiles couldn’t wait around for his dad to show up, or a doctor to come tell him what was wrong with him. He struggled out of bed, his entire body protesting the move, yanking drip lines out of his arms. His clothes sat folded on a chair next to the bed and he struggled to get them on. Getting his sweatshirt over his cast was a challenge, but he managed, eventually, though not before he noted the reddish-brown blood stains smeared across it. His phone sat on his bedside table, but the screen was shattered and it didn’t turn on when he tried it, so Stiles left it, toeing on his sneakers and heading for the door.

The floor was quiet; the nurses were off getting the meals ready for dinner, and no one else was about. Stiles slipped off down the hall and took a flight of stairs down to the first floor, where he slithered out a side entrance and disappeared into the golden sunlight.

It was nearing five by the time he reached the town hall; he couldn’t move fast with his lungs hurting the way they were, and when he got to the building his head was pounding so hard he had to lean against the brick and retch at the pain. It did not help his head any.

The old woman behind the desk looked extremely concerned when he appeared. “Are you all right, hon?”

“Fine,” Stiles smiled, though she was in fact splitting in two, her form wavering all over the place. He blinked determinedly. “I’m in a play.”

“Oh!” she said, like that explained everything. “How can I help you, then?”

“Just need to do a little research,” he replied, clutching at the wooden counter so he wouldn’t keel over sideways. “Tax records. You know.”

“Follow me,” the old woman said briskly, and led him down into the basement. Before she left him, though, she turned and said, “Just so you know, we close in an hour.”

“I know,” Stiles said wearily. “Thank you.”

She smiled and said, “That is just the most convincing makeup,” before disappearing upstairs. Stiles stopped smiling and slipped off down the hall. He was almost to the door of the records room when he realized he didn’t have the keys this time. He glowered balefully at the Police Personnel Only sign on the door. He didn’t have time for this.

“Fuck it,” Stiles muttered, and turned back down the hall. A brick held the door to the tax room open and he picked it up. The sound it made smashing through the small window of the records room was highly satisfying, though Stiles stood still for a few long moments afterward, making sure he hadn’t been heard. When he was satisfied he was safe, Stiles slipped inside. The door to the cage was a little trickier, but it soon succumbed to repeated blows from the brick. Stiles panted as he walked down the row of shelves. His head really hadn’t liked all of that exertion, and it took a lot of concentration to find the folders on the Hale fire again.

Stiles flipped through the pages, breathing heavily, squinting until he found an information sheet on Kate Argent. Alibi, he read, Kate Argent had dinner at Micucci’s Eatery with her brother, Sheriff Christopher Argent, the night of the fire.

Stiles frowned. Had it been verified, though? What had Chris said? He flipped through the folder until he found the old sheriff’s statement. I had dinner with Victoria Hayes at Micucci’s from eight to ten. Underneath that was a statement from the investigating detective corroborating Chris’s alibi – a hostess and a waiter at the restaurant confirmed he’d been there . So why had Kate’s alibi gone unverified? Why had no one noticed the lie? Had the detective heard Micucci’s and assumed Kate had been part of the dinner date? Stiles groaned. He sincerely hoped that Detective Dale Thompson had been one of the crooked cops who’d been fired for taking bribes, because he was fucking incompetent. Even if Kate had never been a suspect, someone should had noticed!

Stiles slammed the folder shut. This was good, but not good enough. He needed proof. He needed – he needed to talk to Chris Argent, he realized. Of all people, he’d know what his sister had been up to. He’d talk – he had to. Stiles had trouble believing anyone would want to help someone who’d killed five people and landed a sixth in a coma. Unless Chris had had something to do with it, but Stiles pushed that possibility aside. He just needed to figure out where Chris lived and – Stiles’ head came up, a bright smile passing over his lips. The tax room!

Shoving the folders down the front of his sweatshirt, Stiles abandoned the records room and headed for the tax room. He thought of his dad as he stepped over the broken glass from the window. He was probably going to be grounded for life once his dad found out about this, but that was a risk Stiles was willing to take if it got Derek back.

Chris Argent’s address was easy enough to find. Out of curiosity, Stiles looked for Kate’s and found it was the same as Chris’s, which gave him pause. He’d have to be careful; if Kate was home, he didn’t know if he’d be able to talk to Chris. Kate had to know he knew something after the conversation they’d had last night – he’d mentioned Derek to her, so she had to have her suspicions.

Stiles left the town hall, waving to the receptionist as he jogged out the front door. His head still hurt, but his vision was clearing, and he’d started breathing easier. It made the walk across town a lot more bearable.

He approached the Argent house carefully. Aided by the darkening sky, Stiles was able to slip right up to the back of the house and peer cautiously through the kitchen window. He saw Chris moving around inside. This was only the second time Stiles had ever seen him; the first time had been in the grocery store, and Stiles hadn’t really taken too good of a look at him. He was tall, slim, a grim expression on his face even when he was relaxed – or at least, Stiles assumed he was relaxed right now, pouring pasta through a strainer. He didn’t really look like the type of dude who’d take bribes but then, looks could be deceiving, Stiles supposed.

He watched through the windows for nearly fifteen minutes before coming to the conclusion that Kate wasn’t home. It was dangerous to assume – she could easily be upstairs, but he couldn’t stand around all night, so he moved around to the front of the house and rang the doorbell.

When Chris opened the door, Stiles said, “Hi,” and Chris said nothing for a long moment, his pale eyes looking Stiles up and down, taking in his bruised face and the blood on his clothes. Stiles recognized that look; it was the cop look. It was the look his father got every time he suspected Stiles of doing something he shouldn’t have.

“Can I help you?” Chris asked eventually, tone cool.

“I need to talk to you,” Stiles replied promptly. “I’m – “

“The sheriff’s son,” Chris finished, his tone not changing. “He’s looking for you.”

“What?” Stiles asked, dismayed. “He’s looking for me?”

Chris nodded slowly. “Heard it on the scanner. You snuck out of the hospital, did you?”

“This is important,” Stiles said. “I really need to talk to you.”

“About?”

Stiles took a deep breath. “The Hale fire.”

Chris didn’t say anything for another long moment. He looked past Stiles, down the street, pale eyes observing every car and house on the block. They finally snapped back to Stiles and he said, “Come in.”

Stiles ducked inside past him, body vibrating with relief and nervous energy. Chris shut the door and gestured toward the dining room, where the table was set for one.

“You want to eat?” Chris asked and Stiles shook his head. Chris shrugged and sat down at the table. “Ask me your questions, then.”

Stiles took another deep breath and pulled the folders out of his sweatshirt. Chris raised an eyebrow at his unorthodox transportation methods, but said nothing as Stiles laid them on the table. “I’m sure you’ve seen all of this,” Stiles said, and Chris nodded slightly, spearing a forkful of rotini and lifting it to his mouth. “Okay,” Stiles continued nervously, “um. And you – your alibi for that night was confirmed.”

“Yes,” Chris said. He almost sounded amused, but there was a hint of impatience in there that told Stiles he better get to the point.

“Okay,” Stiles said again. “So. Did you know that Kate – your sister – she gave you as her alibi?”

Chris set down his fork very carefully; it didn’t make a noise against the wood. “Excuse me?”

“Kate, she – she told the detective that she was with you the night of the fire,” Stiles said, watching Chris apprehensively.

“What are you insinuating?”

That was such a cop move, to ask a question you already knew the answer to, but Stiles bit. “I think she – she might have had something to do with it.”

Chris went silent for a long time, staring at Stiles with absolutely no trace of emotion on his face. “You’ve got some spine,” he said eventually, when Stiles’ palms were sweating. “Coming into my house and telling me that my sister set that fire.”

“I’m just – “ Stiles swallowed dryly. “I’m just trying to figure out what happened. Do you know where she was?”

“That was five years ago,” Chris said, abandoning his dinner to fold his arms over his chest.

“That’s not an answer,” Stiles shot back. Chris smiled, but he didn’t look amused. Stiles tried again. “Come on. Five people are dead and there’s another in a coma. Don’t you think they deserve justice? If Kate did have something to do with it – “

“Out,” Chris said, and Stiles’ head came up sharply. “Get out.”

“Please – “

Chris shook his head, getting to his feet. “You’re a kid – why should I sit here and listen to your bullshit?”

“Because I know what she did to Derek!” Stiles snapped. “And I know what you did to him!”

Chris went very still. Stiles continued, lowering his voice, “If you can sit there and tell me that she didn’t have a single reason to go after him, go ahead. And if you can tell me where she was, I’ll leave. But if not – “

“I don’t know,” Chris said flatly. “I never asked. I – I didn’t want to know.”

Stiles felt disgusted. “You’re a cop!”

“People can be stupid about family,” Chris snapped, but he sat back down at the table, his mouth thin.

“Yeah,” Stiles agreed quietly, thinking about his dad and how Stiles had nearly cost him his job.

Chris rubbed a hand over his face. “Oh god,” he said quietly. “I never wanted to think – that she had that in her.”

“You have to tell my dad,” Stiles said. Lives depend on it, he thought to himself. A life. Derek’s life.

“Yes, I’ll – “ Chris’s head came up suddenly, his eyes going wide with shock. “We need to go.”

“Huh?” Stiles blinked at the abrupt statement. “Why?”

“Because half an hour before you got here, Kate said she was heading out to do a story on the house, and I didn’t think – “

“Oh my god,” Stiles groaned, scrambling to his feet. “We gotta – oh my god, Allison.”

Chris went racing out of the room and Stiles hobbled after him as fast as he could. Chris didn’t say a word when Stiles climbed into the passenger seat of his truck, just backed out of the driveway and roared off down the road. Stiles stared desperately out the front window, trying not to panic.

“Call your father, get him to the house,” Chris snapped, breaking him out of his thoughts. Stiles nodded frantically, patting his pockets before he remembered.

“My phone – it’s at the hospital. It’s broken – “

Chris made an irritated noise and digs into his pocket to grab his own phone. Stiles listened to him call the dispatcher.

“Meg, it’s Chris. I know, I know, but I’ve got the sheriff’s son and I need backup at the old Hale house immediately. There’s been a break-in, possible hostage situation – the suspect is my sister, Katherine Argent.”

Stiles bit his knuckles as they turned onto the dirt road into the forest, listening to Chris argue with the dispatcher. Just before the road curved and the house came into sight, Stiles breathed in raggedly because there was a black SUV pulled to the side of the road and that –

“That’s Kate’s car,” Chris said sharply. “What is it?”

“That’s the car that hit me last night,” Stiles said, his breath coming in short bursts. Chris smacked him in the shoulder.

“Don’t pass out on me,” he said. “Breathe.”

Stiles nodded, panting hollowly as the house came into sight. It wasn’t on fire, which was a relief. It looked…normal. There were lights on in the kitchen and the living room; even the porch light was on. Stiles groaned when he saw Scott’s bike leaning up against the porch steps and said, at Chris’ questioning look, “Allison’s boyfriend is here.”

Chris’s mouth went even grimmer, but he pulled right up to the porch. “No point in tiptoeing around,” he said, climbing out of the car. A chill ran up the back of Stiles’ neck when he saw Chris pull out a gun, but he followed, heart pounding like a hammer in his chest. The front door was unlocked; Chris strode right in, bypassing the kitchen and heading straight for the living room. There, he stopped so abruptly that Stiles ran into his back, but when he peered around Chris, he saw why.

Kate Argent stood in the middle of the living room, a thin smile quirking her lips. Allison knelt on the floor in front of her, her cheeks stained with tears. Kate had a gun to her head. Scott knelt next to Allison, his hand clasped around hers.

“Chris!” Kate said. “What an unexpected surprise. And Stiles, sweetheart,” she added, smiling amiably. “I heard you left the hospital, and I had to come see if you were all right.”

“After you didn’t kill me last night, you mean?” Stiles snapped. “Fuck you.”

Chris gave him a sharp look and said to Kate, “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Just tying up some loose ends,” Kate shrugged. “Funny how time moves in circles, hm? Seems like only yesterday I was standing in this same spot with the Hales.”

“Kate,” Chris said firmly. “Let them go. They’re just kids.”

“She doesn’t care,” Stiles said bitterly. “Derek was just a kid and she lit him on fire.”

“Sucked his cock, too, sweetheart,” Kate said with a laugh. “You teenagers are so trusting. Like your sister and her boyfriend, here – only too happy to help when I knocked on the door and said I’d gotten turned around in the preserve.” She laughed again. “Your parents raised you right.”

“Why are you doing this?” Chris asked, his tone softening. He sounded almost resigned. “Why did you kill the Hales?”

“Finally got there, huh?” Kate said approvingly. “Or was it Stiles? He’s got a sharp head on his shoulders. Maybe he knows.”

“I - “ Stiles swallowed, his throat clicking. Allison looked up at him, pleading, but he didn’t know what to do, just kept talking. Dad had to be on his way. “Because of what you did. But he wasn’t going to tell anyone – “

“Wrong,” Kate sang. “You know, his mother saw me in the grocery store and told me I was going to hell. That’s when I knew. And then I saw him at the courthouse talking to the district attorney and, well – ”

“You’re fucking stupid!” Stiles snapped. “They were making a case against Chris!”

Next to him, Chris started in surprise and Kate frowned.

“They were going to press assault charges,” Stiles said. “They were building the case.”

“How do you know that?” Chris asked.

Kate blinked, and her smile came back like a light switch had been flicked on. “Doesn’t matter,” she said. “I saved an Argent from jail one way or another. No one ever pressed charges.”

“Doesn’t matter?” Chris snapped, his face flushing with anger. “You killed five innocent people so you wouldn’t go to jail because you couldn’t keep your hands off a fucking teenager?”

“I never meant to kill anyone!” Kate snapped back, some of her glittery façade cracking. “I was just – I was just going to shake them up a little, but then that stupid Peter Hale thought he’d fight back and – well. Couldn’t go back from there!”

Stiles felt sick. Chris looked nauseous. He opened his mouth to say something when Kate’s eyes moved past them and they all heard it – sirens, headed their direction.

“Chris,” Kate hissed. She shoved her gun forward, knocking against Allison’s skull. Allison cried out in pain, but Chris was already moving, even as Kate snarled his name, bringing his gun up and letting off a shot that struck her square in the shoulder. She stumbled backward and Chris and Stiles both dived forward – Chris to Kate and Stiles to Allison and Scott. Stiles threw his arms around Allison, who burst into tears, clutching at his shoulders. Scott hovered close, his face unusually pale, looking scared and bewildered.

By the time what looked like half the sheriff’s department came barreling through the front door, Chris had Kate on her stomach, hands folded behind her back. She was spitting with rage, the wound in her shoulder pumping blood onto the hardwood floor. Stiles, Allison, and Scott stood in a tight group across the room and when the sheriff came in, he ignored Kate entirely, crossing the room in a few long strides, throwing his arms around his children. Stiles clutched at the back of his jacket, breathing in the reassuring smell of him, aftershave and whiskey and cotton. He tried not to think about how he’d almost died, how Allison and Scott had almost died, how he’d brought this upon them by digging up the past.

The next few hours were a blur. Stiles’ dad, shaky and pale under his tan, made Stiles go back to the hospital. He had, he found out, not only a broken arm, but a concussion and several broken ribs, which explained why it hurt to breathe. The doctors were not at all pleased about his earlier escape, and neither was his father, which was why there was a deputy posted outside his hospital room. Another deputy came in some time later to get his statement and Stiles had a hard time finding a way to explain how he’d known about any of this to start with, because my boyfriend, who is a ghost or, at the very least, incorporeal, told me was not an acceptable excuse.

Which made him think about Derek. They’d caught Kate. His father came in some time after midnight to tell him that she’d admitted to most everything – and that Chris had told them all he knew. So had it worked? Had Derek been returned to his body? If there hadn’t been a deputy posted outside his room, he would have snuck out to see. As it was, there was no way for him to tell.

When Stiles woke up in the morning, Allison was sitting next to his bed. She was none the worse for wear – physically, at least – and when she saw he was awake, she said primly, “You owe me an explanation.”

“Now?” Stiles groaned, rubbing a hand across his eyes.

“Now,” Allison said firmly.

Stiles sighed, but he had promised her. He told her everything from the beginning; from the first time he’d seen Derek, to finding out about the Hales, to the ghosts in the house, to Derek in the hospital – all of it. Allison listened attentively, frowning slightly. When Stiles finished, she said, “Your boyfriend is a ghost.”

Stiles sighed. “Is that all you got out of that?”

“No,” Allison said, the corners of her mouth twitching. “I just find it kind of hilarious that the first person to touch your dick was a ghost.”

Stiles groaned and Allison grinned. “I’m kidding! Kind of. Dad’s really proud of you, though.”

Stiles perked up. “He is?”

Allison nodded. “You solved a five-year-old cold case! Of course, he’s really pissed, too. Someone already told him about the break-in at the town hall.”

“Grounded for life, you think?” Stiles asked, his heart sinking.

“For the century, at least,” Allison agreed with a nod. Stiles sighed.

-

Stiles didn’t see his father all morning. Allison said he was busy at the station. Stiles thought about Laura Hale and wondered if anyone had told her yet. Allison, sensing his distress, tried to go upstairs to see Derek, but came back with the discouraging news that the door to his room had been locked.

“Maybe it’s a good thing,” she said reassuringly. “Maybe it means he’s woken up.”

“Or maybe they’re just giving him a sponge bath,” Scott put in helpfully. He seemed to have bounced back quickly from the previous night’s trauma. He and Allison had been hanging out in Stiles’ hospital room for the past few hours, as the house was still being processed as a crime scene.

“Oh my god, why are you still here?” Stiles groaned, trying not to flush at the idea of Derek getting a sponge bath; fuck his hormones. “Go to school or something.”

“Mom said I could take the rest of the week off,” Scott said smugly. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“Me too,” Allison piped.

They were being cheeky, but the smile faded from Stiles’ face. “I’m sorry,” he said. “For last night.”

“It’s not your fault,” Allison shrugged.

“Well – it is, kind of,” Stiles said unhappily. “I mean, if I hadn’t started digging around – “

“Hey,” Allison said, leaning over and putting a hand on his arm. “You did a good thing, okay? Now Kate’s going to pay for what she did to us – and the Hale family, and it’s all because of you. It was scary, sure, but you should be proud. We’re proud of you. Dad’s proud of you. Mom – well. I’m sure she would have been too.”

“You think so?” Stiles asked, his throat tightening.

“I know so,” Allison smiled.

Stiles was released a few hours later and the deputy who’d been standing outside his room drove the three of them back to the Stilinski house, where their father sat on the front steps looking exhausted, a cup of coffee in his hands. He waved at his deputy and stood to greet them as they clambered out of the squad car. Stiles slowed, letting Allison and Scott go before him. His father hugged Allison and patted Scott on the back, stepping aside so they could head inside the house.

His dad hadn’t said much when he came in to the hospital the evening before, stayed long enough to kiss Stiles on the forehead and tell him that Kate had confessed. There’d been too much going on for him to stay any longer. Now he looked at Stiles, his face weary, and Stiles swallowed nervously.

“Dad,” he said. “I’m – “

“Come here,” his father said tiredly, holding open his arms. Stiles took a hesitant step forward before jolting forward, crashing into his dad’s embrace. It was gentle – his dad was taking care not to crush his broken ribs – but firm. “I’m proud of you, son,” his dad murmured. “You saw what everyone missed.”

Stiles blinked fiercely, fingers curling in the back of his dad’s jacket. “I almost got Allison shot,” he mumbled, his throat burning.

“That’s not your fault,” his dad said firmly. “No one’s blaming you for that. You put five souls to rest. That’s all that matters.”

Souls. Stiles tilted his head, looking up at the house. Was there anyone left inside? Had he freed them?

“You thinking about your ghosts?” Stiles' father asked, letting his arms drop to his sides as he stepped back. He glanced up at the house, blue eyes calculating.

“They’re not my ghosts,” Stiles sighed. “But yeah, I am.”

“Well?” His dad gestured at the front door. “You going to go in?”

Stiles swallowed again. “Yeah.” He straightened, drawing in as deep a breath as his broken ribs allowed. “Okay.” And he headed for the door, swinging it open and stepping inside.

Inside, the house felt…how it always felt. Stiles’ shoulders slumped. He didn’t know what he’d been expecting; an empty feeling, maybe. Some sort of loneliness. Relief, even. But the house felt like a house. He turned to face his father, who’d moved to stand in the doorway.

“Nothing,” he said morosely.

“No ghosts?”

“No,” Stiles said. “Nothing. I don’t feel ghosts or a lack of ghosts.”

“Oh,” his father said. “Well, maybe it takes some time?”

“Maybe,” Stiles muttered, and headed up to his room. He shut the door behind him, closing his eye tight. “Talia?” he asked out loud. “Are you still here?” He opened one eye, but his room remained empty, early afternoon sunlight streaming through the blinds. He couldn’t think of a time he’d ever called for the ghosts. Maybe they were gone. His fingers itched; he needed to get out into the forest and see if Derek was still there. His soul mattered the most; it had a body it needed to get back to.

Stiles tramped back downstairs. His dad was in the kitchen, eating a sandwich.

“Anything?”

Stiles shook his head and his father narrowed his eyes, watching him grab his shoes.

“I have to go back out on patrol, but you better be here when I come home. Despite the fact that you solved a five-year-old homicide case, you did break into police property.”

“I know,” Stiles sighed, “and I’ll be home, I promise. I just have to check one thing.”

“Hm,” his father said discontentedly, but made no move to stop him. Stiles slid on his shoes and left the house, trotting off into the forest. His body was still stiff, and he couldn’t move too fast, but he could still go faster than the hobbling pace he’d had to set yesterday.

When he came into the clearing, Derek sat on the rock with his arms around his knees, and Stiles felt his heart sink. “Oh,” he said.

“Hey,” Derek said miserably. He looked up at Stiles, alarm creasing his face. “What happened to you?! Why are you all bruised?”

Stiles sighed and settled down on the rock next to him. “I’ve got some things to tell you,” he said softly, leaning into Derek’s side. It made the whole left side of his body tingle and break into goosebumps, but it was worth it for the way Derek leaned back against him, seeking comfort. Stiles swallowed and told him about Kate; their confrontation at the restaurant, and how he’d made the connections in the records room. He told Derek what his father had told him of Kate’s confession, of what happened that night in the Hale house. She’d gone over to threaten the Hales late at night, scared she was going to be prosecuted for abusing Derek. She said there’d been a struggle – that Peter had tried to take her gun, that it had gone off accidentally, that things had gone downhill from there.

Derek was silent the entire time Stiles spoke, and when Stiles tilted his head to look at him, he could see tears trailing down his cheeks. The sight made his heart ache and he put his arm around Derek’s shoulder, even though it went numb a minute later.

They would probably never know what really happened that night of the fire. Stiles’ father had sighed and said it made no sense to go over with a loaded gun if Kate’s intent was only to threaten them. Maybe she thought she’d need to protect herself. Who knows? Kate still smiled, smug, like she’d won somehow. Her arrest didn’t feel like a victory, not with Derek still stuck in the clearing.

“What about everyone in the house?” Derek finally asked, like he could hear Stiles’ thoughts. “Are they still there?”

“I don’t know,” Stiles shrugged. “I called for your mom and she didn’t appear, but that might not mean anything. I’ve gone for days without seeing her.”

“Oh.” Derek’s shoulders slumped dejectedly.

Stiles looked around the clearing, tapping his fingers against his leg. “Hey,” he said thoughtfully. “How far can you go?”

Derek frowned. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, how far can you get from the clearing?”

The frown remained on Derek’s face as he looked up, eyes searching the trees. “Not very far,” he said. “I can go to the pond, but if I try to go the opposite direction, I only get about twenty feet outside the clearing before I end up back in the middle.”

“That makes sense,” Stiles says. “That night you were supposed to come over, you said you kept ending up here.”

“Yeah,” Derek sighed. Stiles took his arm from around Derek’s shoulder and caught his hand instead. “Do you think I’ll ever get back?”

“We’ll figure it out,” Stiles promised, leaning his head on Derek’s shoulder.

“What if - what if I don’t remember you when I wake up?”

Fear stirred at Stiles’ heart; he’d worried the same thing. But he smiled bravely and said, “You like me, right?”

“Instantly,” Derek said, without hesitation.

“Well, then hopefully you will again.”

“I’m twenty-two,” Derek said slowly. “That’s so weird.” He shifted uncertainly. “Do you think that’s weird?”

“It’d only be weird if you were, like, as old as my dad,” Stiles replied. “Five years isn’t a big difference.” He stared at their clasped hands, an idea forming in the back of his mind. Arresting Kate hadn’t been enough. Derek obviously needed something more to get back to his body – some sort of push. Maybe he was lost. Maybe he didn’t know how to find his body. Maybe he needed to be reunited with his family.

Stiles thought about how his touch made Derek more real. Maybe there was something he could do. Stiles leapt to his feet, tugging at Derek. “Stand up, come on,” he said.

Derek stood slowly, looking wary. “What is it?”

“I’ve got an idea,” Stiles replied, pulling him toward the trees. “I just need to test it out.”

Derek looked worried. “What are you – “

“Don’t worry,” Stiles said, as they stepped into the forest. “I think this is going to work.”

He saw the way Derek’s face wrinkled with uncertainty, but as they walked through the trees, getting further and further from the clearing, his face changed, awe sliding over his features.

“This – “ Derek sounded excited. “This is further than I’ve ever gone!”

“Yes!” Stiles had to resist the urge to do a stupid dance; if he let go of Derek’s hand now, he’d go shooting back to the clearing. Problem was, he was already starting to feel shaky; he’d been touching Derek since he’d come into the clearing, and it was starting to wear on him. “Okay. This is good news, because it means I can take you places. Do you think we need to get you to the house? Or the hospital?”

Derek frowned, his fingers tightening around Stiles’. “I’m not sure,” he confessed. “I don’t feel like the house is where I need to be, but everything’s so vague. I don’t know.”

“Okay,” Stiles said, thinking hard. “We’ve got to plan this out, because I don’t know if I’ll be able to do this without passing out. If I go home and have something to eat, get some strength back, I’ll come back to get you. We can try the house and if that doesn’t work, we’ll head to the hospital. I’ll have to see if Allison will drive, because I don’t know if I’ll be able to make it to the hospital and it would probably suck to pass out while I’m driving.”

“Stiles,” Derek said, looking worried. “I don’t want to hurt – “

“It doesn’t hurt,” Stiles said, smiling tiredly. “It just feels like falling asleep, and if we can get you back to your body, it’s worth it.”

Derek bit his lip. “You’re sure?”

“Course I am.” Stiles leaned forward, pressing a soft kiss to Derek’s cheek. “I’ll be back in like an hour, okay?”

“Okay,” Derek agreed, though he still sounded certain, his fingers flexing against Stiles’ hand.

“Don’t worry,” Stiles told him. “It’s gonna work.”

-

An hour later found Stiles leaving the house with Allison and Scott. His father had left before he got back from the clearing, back on shift until later that evening. Stiles had explained everything to Allison and Scott. He found it heartening, the way they both immediately went along with his plan. He wasn’t sure they believed him – he was still the only person who’d ever seen Derek, or the ghosts in the house, for that matter – but Allison had smiled and said, “We’ll do what we can to help.”

“You ready?” Stiles asked Derek upon reaching the clearing.

Derek, who’d been sitting in the grass, got to his feet and nodded. “You too?”

Stiles grinned. “I ate a huge turkey sandwich. Protein boost should do it.” They walked to the edge of the clearing, where Stiles offered Derek his hand. Derek hesitated.

“Stiles,” he said quietly. “If this doesn’t work, maybe – maybe you shouldn’t come back here.”

Stiles’ face fell. “What do you – “

“I just – maybe it would be easier on both of us,” Derek sighed. “Maybe this is it for me and I’m trapped here forever. I don’t want you obsessing over trying to free me. If this doesn’t work, maybe you should tell Laura that I – tell her to pull the plug. Maybe if I die, that’s when I’ll be free.”

“Dude, no!” Stiles exclaimed, horrified. “I’m not going to do that!”

Derek shrugged, looking pained. “What are our other options? You’re going to leave eventually, Stiles. You’ll go off to college and grow up and I’m going to be stuck in this field forever, seventeen years old for eternity.”

“That is not going to happen,” Stiles said firmly. “This is going to work, okay? Now take my hand!”

Derek hesitated again but reached out this time, his fingers curling cool around Stiles’, that jittery feeling running up his arm.

“Ready?” Stiles asked, and Derek nodded.

“Ready.”

They took off through the trees, Stiles moving as fast as he could with his injuries. It was twenty long minutes before the house came into sight and he was panting like a racehorse. Derek made a quiet noise at the sight of the house, his feet slowing.

“Derek,” Stiles warned. His hand was completely numb from holding onto Derek, the tingling sensation growing violent. They didn’t have time to slow down; he could feel the trembling his knees already.

“It’s not the same,” Derek breathed, sounding hurt. “I don’t – that’s not the place I need to be.”

“You sure?” Stiles asked as they rounded the corner. Allison and Scott sat in the SUV, waiting for them. He saw Allison’s head turn, her mouth dropping open when she spotted the two of them, and he grinned in faint relief; it wasn’t just him now.

“No,” Derek said, shuddering. “That’s not my home.”

“Okay, then,” Stiles said, pulling him toward the car. Derek slowed again, seeing Allison climb out of the car, but Stiles tugged him forward.

“Um,” Allison said, her face white. “Hi. Derek?”

“See?” Stiles said triumphantly. “Not crazy. Not totally, anyway.”

“Hi,” Derek said to Allison, sounding almost shy.

In the SUV, Scott leaned across the center console, a huge grin on his face. “Hey, dude!” he said cheerfully. “Nice to finally meet you!”

Derek nodded, taking an uncertain step sideways, which brought him in contact with Stiles’ side. It seemed to bring him comfort, but Stiles shuddered; he couldn’t keep up the connection like that. He’d faint in no time.

“C’mon, Der,” Stiles said instead, leading him to the car. “Let’s get on the road.”

Climbing inside without breaking their hold was a challenge, especially with Stiles’ broken arm, but he managed to clamber inside, Derek sliding in after him. Allison climbed back into the driver’s seat and drove off down the driveway, bumping over potholes. Scott twisted around so he could grin at them.

“This is pretty awesome,” he said. “I’ve never seen a ghost before. You look just like a real dude.”

“Scott,” Stiles said weakly, leaning his head against the glass window. “He is a real dude.”

“Sorry,” Scott said, still grinning. “This whole world’s new to me.”

“Me too,” Derek said, his hand tightening around Stiles’. He was nervous. Stiles could feel how his body pulsed with uncertainty and that was – that was strange. He shouldn’t be feeling what Derek felt.

“Allie,” Stiles said, closing his eyes, “I’m going to need you to go a bit faster.”

He heard Allison shift in her seat. “Are you going to make it?”

“If you go faster, I will.”

“Stiles?” Derek moved next to him, his knee brushing against Stiles’ leg. Stiles pulled away; the hand-touching was about all he could handle right now. “Don’t pass out, okay?”

“Trying not to,” Stiles agreed. The cool touch of the window helped; it anchored him to something real. Not like Derek, who was feeling further and closer at the same time. If he passed out, would Derek disappear? What if he stayed? Would he eventually suck all the life out of him? Maybe that was the boost he needed to be real again. “Faster, Allie.”

“If I get pulled over – “ Allison made a worried noise. “That would be worse, wouldn’t it?”

“Just go,” Stiles groaned. “Have you ever seen a cop out here besides Dad?”

“Well – no,” Allison said. Stiles could feel the noise of the SUV kicking into gear as she sped up.

The next few minutes of the drive passed in silence. Stiles mentally calculated their path, following the curves and turns of the road. They should be at the high school by now, and from there it was another fifteen minutes at normal speed to the hospital. He hoped he could make it.

“Oh – shit!” Allison exclaimed. Stiles felt her slam on the brakes, but it was too late, apparently; sirens came on somewhere behind them.

He groaned. “Typical.”

“What do I do?” Allison wailed.

Stiles forced his eyes open. He saw Derek first, hunched in his seat, looking pale and frightened. Stiles tried to find an encouraging smile and twisted around to squint at the cruiser flying down the road behind him. “Oh. That’s Dad. I don’t know if that’s good or bad.”

“Call him,” Scott urged Allison. “Tell him Stiles got sick again.”

“That’s the truth,” Stiles mumbled, sitting back in his seat. Derek looked over at him. He looked pained. Stiles squeezed his hand.

“Oh gosh, oh gosh,” Allison stammered, fumbling out her phone and flicking through her contacts. She hit their father’s number, turning it on speakerphone so they could all hear him roar, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“Dad,” Allison said quickly. “I’m sorry, but Stiles fainted again and we – “

“Pull over.”

“No – “

“Allison, pull the goddamn car over or – “

“There’s no time!” Stiles yelled, startling his father into silence. “We have to get to the hospital!”

“Okay,” his father said after a long pause. “All right.”

The sound of the sirens changed; everyone turned to see the sheriff’s cruiser fly past them, pulling back on the road in front of them like an honor guard. Stiles relaxed minutely; this meant they could go even faster, which he really, really needed.

“How are you doing?” Derek murmured.

“Shitty,” Stiles said. His head was starting to swim; he was going to pass out if they didn’t get to the hospital soon.

It took another five minutes for them to reach the hospital. To Stiles’ surprise, Mrs. McCall was waiting outside with a wheelchair. Scott grinned guiltily. “I may have texted her on the way.”

“She knows?” Stiles asked, sliding out of the car, Derek following close behind. He almost collapsed when his feet hit the ground but Scott was suddenly there on his other side, catching him under the arm.

“All she knows is you need a wheelchair,” Scott muttered, guiding Stiles and Derek over to Melissa. Somewhere over to his left, a car door slammed and Stiles heard his father say, “Who the hell is that?”

“Allison,” Stiles said. “Can you distract him?”

Allison nodded firmly and trotted over to meet their father, whose face was going bright red. “Is that – “

“Thanks, Mom!” Scott said loudly, shoving Stiles into the chair. Mrs. McCall looked bewildered; she looked from Stiles to Derek to Scott to the sheriff and back to Derek again, a frown creasing her brow.

“Who,” she began.

“Sorry!” Scott interrupted, moving around to the back of the wheelchair. “Thanks for your help!” He took off into the hospital at a run, shoving Stiles in front of him. Stiles would have laughed if he hadn’t been ready to pass out.

“We can do this,” he heard Derek murmur next to him. “We can do this.”

“Yeah we can,” Scott said firmly. “Just hold on, dude. We’re almost there.”

There was a lot of shouting going on behind them, but none of them dared turn and investigate. They made it the elevators without being stopped. The quiet, minute-long ride to the fifth floor was strangely surreal. Stiles felt like he was floating, and he couldn’t tell if it that was adrenaline or because he was about to lose consciousness. The white fuzz in the corner of his eyes was definitely because he was about to lose consciousness.

They burst out of the elevator as soon as the doors open. Scott took curves like madman on a motorcycle, using his entire body to twist them around without losing speed. “Point me, point me,” he panted, and Stiles managed to squint enough to see the room number –

“I can feel me!” Derek cried. It felt like he was trying to move faster, trying to pull away and get back to his body, but Stiles didn’t dare let him go until it was in sight, not after all this work.

There were nurses chasing after them, yelling, but they were almost there. The door wasn’t locked this time, thank god, and they exploded into Derek’s room. Laura was sitting by the side of the bed and she twisted around to gape, her cheeks stained like she’d been crying. Derek made a low noise at the sight of her – or maybe it was the sight of his body laying in the hospital bed – that hurt Stiles to hear.

“Derek?” Laura gasped.

“No time!” Scott said, pushing Stiles right up to the edge of the bed. Derek leaned over his body – and stopped.

“What do I do?” Derek asked Stiles, who struggled to focus on him.

“I – touch him, I guess,” Stiles mumbled. “Hurry.” The room was going dark around the edges. He could hear Laura talking, furious and bewildered, but all the attention he could muster was on Derek.

“I – “ Derek cut himself off, nodded. “Okay.” And still holding Stiles’ hand in his, he leaned even further forward, placing his free hand on his body’s chest. It was like in science fiction movies when a spaceship got sucked into a black hole and everything went stretched and thin and moved very fast and very slow at the same time. Stiles blinked and Derek was gone; there was just Derek’s body on the bed, older and skinnier and unconscious.

“What the fuck?” Laura yelled, shaking his shoulder.

Stiles blinked wearily. “I told you,” he said. “Told you he was a ghost.”

Two nurses burst into the room behind them. “What do you think you’re doing?” one of them snapped. “This is a hospital, not a racetrack!”

“Sorry,” Scott mumbled.

“Where’d the other one go?” the nurse asked. “Hm?”

Everyone looked at Stiles. “Guess he took a detour,” he said, and passed out.

-

Waking up in the hospital was quickly becoming a trend, and Stiles didn’t like it. He stared up at the bland speckled ceiling for a while before becoming aware that he wasn’t the only one breathing in the room. A woman sat next to his bed – not Allison, not even his mom – Laura. She was reading a magazine, chewing anxiously on a nail, though she looked up when Stiles shifted and gave him a cautious smile.

“You gonna shout at me some more?” he asked.

Laura’s smile turned guilty. “Only if you want me to,” she said.

Stiles watched her for a long moment. “How’s Derek?”

“The same.”

“Oh.” Stiles tried not to think about what that meant.

“Um,” Laura said. “Your friend and your sister tried to explain to me what just happened, but I can’t say that I really get it.”

“Derek said you had no imagination,” Stiles told her and she laughed stiffly.

“I’ve always considered myself a realist,” Laura sighed, “but based on statements like that and the fact that I’m pretty sure I just saw a younger version of my brother get sucked into his body, I’m coming to the uncomfortable conclusion that it may be time to change my world view.”

“You may find that necessary,” Stiles agreed.

They fell into an uncomfortable silence. Laura fidgeted with her magazine for a few seconds before asking, “Can you explain? I mean, I know you tried before, but I’ll admit that I wasn’t really listening. With everything that’s happened, though, and you getting Kate Argent arrested, I – I think I owe you that.”

Stiles watched her face. He could see the misery etched on his skin, lines of loss around her eyes and mouth. She looked so much like Derek, dark-haired and pale eyed and thin-lipped. He couldn’t stand to see the melancholy on her any more than he could stand to see it on Derek. “Okay,” he said, and tried again.

Laura listened attentively this time, her hands clasped over her knee. There was more to tell her this time – everything that had happened with Kate since the last time he’d talked to her in the hospital, and all that had transpired in the woods with Derek. When he finally finished, she breathed out slowly.

“You know how unbelievable all that sounds, right?”

“I know,” Stiles said quietly. “I spent the last two months thinking I was going crazy. I know.”

Laura rubbed a hand over her brow. “I went back to the house a couple of times,” she began slowly, “after the fire. I went out to that clearing. That’s where they found Derek, you know. He’d crawled all the way out there.” Her eyes went glassy and Stiles swallowed, looking away. “I never felt a thing and I wanted to, so bad. I wanted a sign from one of them, any of them, that they were okay, and knowing that they were trapped in the house, that Derek was stuck out there all by himself, it just – ” She sniffed loudly, her voice wavering. “I feel awful.”

“It’s not your fault,” Stiles told her gently. “I just happen to have this, uh, gift, I guess. Dad said I was born with a caul and it’s like – it’s like in Harry Potter and the people who’ve seen death can see thestrals. I was born with this veil or whatever and now I can see dead people.”

Laura gave him a blank look before smiling faintly. “You’re such a nerd,” she said, sounding almost fond. “No wonder Derek likes you.”

Stiles grinned.

Laura wiped at her eyes. “You think he’s going to come back?”

“I really hope so,” Stiles said quietly, his grin fading. “I don’t know what our other options are, otherwise. There’s not exactly a guidebook to all of this.”

“Handbook for the Recently Deceased,” Laura sniffed. “Except he’s not dead.”

“He’ll come back,” Stiles said. “He has to.”

-

A week passed. Stiles was released from the hospital again and grounded again. His father understood that the boy he’d seen at the hospital was Derek, but he couldn’t seem to wrap his head around the news that there had been two Dereks and Stiles gave up on trying to explain it. For all that his dad had accepted the idea of ghosts in the house, the fact that he couldn’t understand that the fire had knocked the soul out of Derek’s body was discouraging, but maybe understandable – it was a lot less straightforward than “he’s dead and his soul’s trapped.” Living people weren’t supposed to have ghosts.

Despite the fact that he was grounded and was technically supposed to go straight home after school every day, Stiles went to the hospital instead. Laura was there every day now and they’d sit for long hours by Derek’s bed, waiting, hoping. Laura told him stories about growing up in the house – he’d heard a lot of them from Derek already, though he definitely had not heard the one about Derek’s junior prom and his pale blue suit. He filed that one away to tease Derek about someday, because there was going to be a someday, there was.

As the week mark passed, it got harder to keep his hopes up. Surely something would have happened by now, if it was going to happen at all. He still spent hours at the hospital, ducked his head at the furious expression his dad made every time he came home, but it was wearing on him. Allison had to keep reminding him to eat, because he’d come home and collapse onto the couch and sleep if she didn’t.

The only heartening news was that all the ghosts in the house seemed to have gone. He hadn’t seen Talia since before the incident with Kate, hadn’t heard any laughter from the backyard, hadn’t felt Peter’s presence in the kitchen. At least that had worked, and it was the only thing that gave him hope that maybe Derek might come back – unless Derek’s soul had gone with the rest of his family, and his body laying in the hospital was truly an empty husk now. He tried not to think about that possibility.

A week and a half after they brought Derek to the hospital, Stiles was sitting in chemistry when his phone buzzed in his pocket. He frowned and slipped a hand into his pocket, eyeing Mr. Harris watchfully as he thumbed open the lock screen under the table. He’d had to pay for a new phone because his dad was still pissed at him, but he was so, so very glad he had when he saw a message from Laura that said simply HE’S AWAKE.

The world around Stiles seemed to grind to a halt, all of his attention focused on the two words on the screen.

He’s awake.

He’s awake.

Derek was awake.

“Stiles!”

Stiles’ head jerked up. He found himself halfway out of his chair, phone clutched in his hand. Everyone was staring at him. Next to him, Scott’s eyes were huge. Jackson Whittemore was laughing quietly somewhere behind him. Mr. Harris had his arms crossed over his chest.

“Is there a problem, Mr. Stilinski?”

“I – ” Stiles glanced down at his phone and sank back into his seat. “No.”

“Dude,” Scott hissed, as Harris turned back to the chalkboard. “Are you okay?”

“Derek’s awake,” Stiles murmured.

Scott’s eyes went wide again. “He is? Are you going to go see him?”

Stiles bit his lip. “I can’t miss any more classes. This fucking sucks.”

“He’ll still be there later,” Scott said soothingly. “You’ve got all the time in the world.”

Despite the fact that that was true, it didn’t help the day pass any more quickly. Quite the opposite; Stiles was sure that time had deliberately slowed down, just to fuck with him. The instant the final bell rang, Stiles was out of his seat and rushing for the parking lot. He’d been taking his bike to school so Allison wouldn’t get in trouble for taking him to the hospital, but he couldn’t wait today. He intercepted her at the Jeep and said, “I need to take it.”

Allison made a face. “Come on, Stiles, I’m not taking your bike.”

“Then drive me to the hospital,” he demanded, and when she frowned he said, “Derek’s awake.”

“Oh!” Allison exclaimed. “Get in, then!”

The ride to the hospital passed unbearably slow, but he knew it would have been even worse if he’d been on his bike. Allison seemed to no rush to get pulled over again, which was understandable – she’d been grounded too, for her part in the hospital escapade – but it didn’t stop Stiles from impatiently tapping his foot on the floor.

“Stop that,” Allison said mildly.

“I can’t,” Stiles retorted, aggravated. “Allie, what if he doesn’t remember me?”

“You won’t know until you go in there,” Allison replied, infuriatingly calm. “Stop freaking out.”

“Easy for you to say,” Stiles muttered, glaring out the window.

When Allison pulled up in front of the hospital, Stiles froze. He was terrified suddenly, scared of what he’d find in Derek’s room.

“Go on,” Allison said gently. “You want me to come with you?”

Stiles swallowed, his mouth gone bone dry. “No,” he murmured, hands fumbling with the door handle. “No, thanks. I’ll just – “ And he tumbled out of the car. The air felt too real.

“Call me when you want a ride home!” Allison called after him and he nodded without turning, walking robotically through the front doors of the hospital. When he got into the elevator he had to lean against the wall and close his eyes for a long moment, breathing in deeply. The walk down the hall to the long-term care wing seemed to take hours and, at the same time, only seconds. His stomach turned when he spotted Laura just leaving Derek’s room, wiping at her eyes. She beamed when she saw him, throwing her arms around him. It hurt; his lungs were still healing, but the pain helped clear some of the fog from his head.

“I have to go,” Laura mumbled in his ear. “I have to go tell your dad he’s awake. I – you’ll be okay?”

Stiles nodded stiffly, his throat burning. He didn’t trust his voice.

“Okay,” Laura said with a little laugh, pressing her lips to his forehead. “We’re all okay!”

She left him standing there outside Derek’s door, arms hanging limp at his sides. He had to stand there for a few minutes long before he could put his hand on the door and push it open.

Derek sat in his bed, hands folded in his laps, eyes turned to the window. He looked ancient and frail, the lines of his body weak. He turned his head to look at Stiles, frozen in the doorway, heart hammering in his chest. He didn’t dare breathe because the expression on Derek’s face wasn’t changing; he wasn’t smiling, didn’t seem to know him at all until suddenly something shifted and he breathed, “Stiles.”

A deep sob wracked Stiles’ chest as Derek held out a hand to him, inviting. It took him less than a second to cross the room, to throw his arms around Derek’s neck, for Derek’s bony arms to close around his waist.

“Thank god,” Stiles groaned into his shoulder. “I thought – I was scared you’d never come back.”

“Thank you,” Derek mumbled into his neck. His voice was hoarse from years of disuse, words halting, but deeper than Stiles was used to; his voice had changed while he was unconscious. “You got me here. You brought me back.”

Stiles cried then, all the stress and craziness of the past few months rushing out of him like a dam bursting. He thought Derek cried too, because when they eventually pulled apart, his eyes were red and watery.

“I remember everything,” Derek told him, his hand finding Stiles’, thumb stroking over his skin, “from the past few months. I remember you.”

“Do you – remember the fire?” Stiles asked haltingly.

Derek shook his head, misery softening the lines around his eyes. “Not really. I’d gone to bed, but I woke up. Laura says – she thinks Kate didn’t shoot me because she had a soft spot for me.” He shrugged, mouth tightening. “The doctors think I fell out of bed – or fell into a wall.” Derek gestured at the line of white scarring licking up the side of his body. “I don’t remember. Just bits and pieces. Being in the woods, on the ground. Then nothing, and then you.”

Stiles held out a hand hesitantly, reaching for Derek. “Can I?”

Derek nodded and Stiles put his hand on Derek’s neck, brushing the tips of his fingers against the white skin. He moved his hand up, cupping the side of Derek’s face, sliding his thumb along Derek’s cheekbone. Derek’s eyes fluttered shut as he leaned into Stiles’ touch.

“So what now?” Stiles asked quietly.

“I don’t – there’s a lot of things I have to do,” Derek replied, keeping his eyes closed. He slid a hand over Stiles’ knee, hand heavy and warm. “I can’t walk. I have to do all kinds of physical therapy. I’m probably going to have to testify against Kate. Laura said she’s going to have to find a new place to live so there’s room for me.”

“Away from Beacon Hills?” Stiles asked, suddenly terrified.

Derek opened his eyes, meeting Stiles’ firmly. “No,” he said. “I told her no.”

“Oh,” Stiles said, relief flooding through him.

They fell into silence then, but it wasn’t uncomfortable. Derek shifted over silently, another invitation, and Stiles took it, climbing onto the bed with him, tucked against his side. It wasn’t exactly comfortable; Derek didn’t have a ton of muscle or fat on his bones, but it didn’t matter because it was Derek.

“I’m glad we can do this without me passing out now,” Stiles mumbled. Derek laughed, the vibrations buzzing in Stiles’ lungs.

“We never did finish what we started,” Derek teased.

Stiles grinned sleepily, eyes fluttering shut in the afternoon sunlight. “We will,” he said. “We’ve got all the time in the world.”

-

That night, Stiles dreamt of the forest. He stood in the middle of a clearing, the night sky above him bright with stars. The night air was clear and cool, soothing on his skin. He was alone, but for the first time, it didn’t bother him. No one called his name; no fire scorched his skin. He laid down in the cool grass and folded his arms underneath his head, staring up at the sky, listening to the quiet sounds of night birds and crickets. His eyes fell shut after a while and he drifted into true slumber, deep and unhurried. He never dreamt of the forest again.

-

SIX MONTHS LATER

 

“Don’t you dare,” Stiles said, shaking a warning finger at Derek. It was the beginning of May, unseasonably warm, and Derek was ten feet away with his arm raised, poised to throw a very large water balloon at Stiles. Derek grinned his bunny-toothed grin and cranked his arm forward. Stiles tried to duck but the water balloon smacked him square in the chest, sending water cascading into his underwear and sneakers. “F-foul!” he spluttered resentfully. “Ref!”

Laura didn’t even look up from where she was laying on the back porch, stretched out in the sun with a magazine. “Point Derek,” she said.

Stiles stuck his tongue out at her. “You’re biased. He’s your brother.”

“You’re acting like a baby,” Laura retorted, sounding bored.

“You’re a horrible referee,” Stiles huffed, turning. He narrowed his eyes. Derek had disappeared. He wasn’t sure where Scott was – no, he was certain that his teammate and Allison had slipped off to go make out somewhere. That left him defenseless against a dude who was surprisingly spry considering he’d been in a coma up until six months ago. “Bastard,” Stiles muttered, backing away into the trees, eyes narrowed as he searched for Derek. He really shouldn’t have been surprised when he backed right into a solid wall of warm muscle and two arms looped around his waist, lifting him off his feet. Stiles squawked indignantly, squirming as Derek shoved his face against the back of his neck. “Bastard,” he said again, but with less venom.

“You want to go to the pond?” Derek asked, right up against his ear. Stiles squirmed again, a flush rising on his cheeks. He kicked at Derek’s shins.

“Dude, I can see my dad through the kitchen window.”

“He’s not going to shoot me,” Derek said confidently, though he still let go of Stiles, setting him gently back on the ground. Stiles turned with a grin.

“You’re still lucky I convinced him to cancel that APB he had out on you. You could have been arrested.”

Derek looked up toward the house, a smile playing around his lips. “Yeah, I guess I am.”

Stiles slid his hand into Derek’s. “Pond?”

“Pond,” Derek agreed. He leaned around a tree and shouted, “Laur, we’re going to the pond!”

She waved without looking up from her magazine. “Don’t use that rope swing! Uncle Peter was not a Boy Scout and did not know his knots.”

Derek rolled his eyes and tugged on Stiles’ hand. They set off through the trees at a leisurely pace. Derek still moved stiffly after years of laying in a bed, but he’d gained at least fifty pounds since leaving the hospital, most of which was muscle. Stiles liked to call him old man, if only because it usually got Derek to pick him up and swing him around in an effort to prove he wasn’t old.

He was different than the boy Stiles had known last fall, a miserable soul with a lacquer of cheer coated on top. His unhappiness was more pronounced now – and Stiles understood that. How could it not be? Derek had come back to life after being trapped in a coma and an empty clearing in the woods for five years to find that most of his family was dead and his childhood home had been burned to the ground. But unlike before, it came and went. He had days were he went quiet and wouldn’t talk to anyone – not Stiles, not Laura. But now that he’d started seeing a therapist and he’d done enough physical therapy to regain control all but the finest of motor control, Derek’s bad days were growing few and far between. What was left were days like today, when he held Stiles’ hand without worry, when the slump of his shoulders was from relaxation, not stress. He was going to work on his GED in the fall, as Stiles entered his final year of high school, and he’d said some tentative things about going to college and Stiles had grinned and pressed their mouths together.

Stiles was happy. He hadn’t had a panic attack in months and he hadn’t seen or heard any ghosts since Kate had been arrested. Derek had given the district attorney all the information he could and now she sat in jail awaiting trail which, with all the motions and petitions her defense attorneys kept filing, could take years to get a court date.

He had an amazing boyfriend he could touch without passing out and he was a month away from summer vacation, which meant that soon he and Derek would be able to spend all their time together, not just the weekends. He liked Derek. He liked Derek a lot, and he knew Derek liked him too – or at least, he hadn’t run for the hills once he’d gotten out of the coma. Stiles’ dad liked Derek, and so did Allison and Scott, and that was important. Stiles even liked Laura, who was bossy and loud and probably way too similar to him for them to ever be best friends, but she was kind and obviously loved Derek a lot. He was happy.

Just before they reached the pond, Derek stopped, nudging Stiles back into a tree so he could kiss him. He tasted sweet, like the popsicles they’d been eating earlier. He and Laura came over to the house a lot on the weekends. Laura made a lot of noise about how their apartment in town didn’t have any sort of outdoor area for her to sunbathe in, but they’d started showing up back in January when it wasn’t exactly sunbathing weather. Stiles thought maybe they missed the house; it was where they’d grown up, after all. He’d asked Derek once, soon after he’d come out of the coma, if it hurt, going inside, and Derek had shaken his head after a moment of consideration. “Too many good memories,” he’d said. “And you’re there, too,” which had made Stiles flush all the way to his shoulders.

Derek leaned against him now with his whole body, warm, but not too hot in the shade of the trees. Stiles relaxed against him, hands coming up to cradle the back of his head, fisting in his hair. Derek liked it when Stiles got handsy, if the way his breath always hitched in his throat was anything to judge by. He pushed his hands under Stiles’ damp t-shirt, fingers slotting against the grooves of his ribs. Stiles hummed and titled his head, biting at the line of his jaw, tongue burning against his stubble as Derek’s hands slipped lower, tugging at the waistband of his board shorts. He sighed as Derek slipped to his knees, knowing what was coming next; he didn’t know if it had been scared into him or something when Stiles fainted, or if Derek just loved it, but he gave Stiles amazing head at least three times a week, which Stiles was only too happy to receive. (Sometimes in really inopportune places; he’d lost count of the number of times his dad or Allison or Laura had walked in on them.)

Derek went about it slowly, unhurriedly, stroking Stiles to hardness while he sucked a bruise into the skin over Stiles’ hipbone. “You’re still skinny,” Derek murmured into his skin.

“Said the dude who woke up looking like a skeleton,” Stiles replied scornfully. His face softened as he ran a hand through Derek’s soft hair, hips jerking as Derek ducked his head to lave a thick line over his balls. “I – I’m thinking about joining the track team in the fall.”

Derek hummed, his breath hot on Stiles’ skin. “You’d be good at it,” he said, and Stiles brightened.

“You think?”

“I know.” Derek leaned forward, sliding his tongue up the length of Stiles’ cock. Stiles shuddered as his mouth skimmed over the tip, achingly slow, before Derek took him into his mouth, so deep Derek’s nose brushed against Stiles’ happy trail. Stiles groaned softly, one of his hands slipping from Derek’s hair to touch his throat, feel the bulge of his cock there. Derek groaned at his touch, the vibrations traveling from his mouth and up Stiles’ spine.

“Fuck, Der,” Stiles said quietly, as Derek slowly pulled off him, a strand of spit trailing from the end of Stiles’ dick to the corner of Derek’s quirked lips. “You’re always finishing what we started.”

“Finishing?” Derek repeated, licking his lips like he couldn’t wait to consume Stiles’ cock again. “Who says there’s an end? We’ve got all the time in the world, don’t we?”

“Yeah,” Stiles breathed, his eyes fluttering shut as Derek put his mouth back on him. He sighed like it was a promise, pressing his hands to Derek’s cheeks. “All the time in the world.”