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The Curse of Stiles Stilinski

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- Monday, March 5th, 2018 -

Stiles stands in his kitchen dressed in a pair of pale-blue boxer-briefs and one of his dad's old black T-shirts. He watches the tiny flame of a birthday candle flicker in the breeze from the open window above the sink. He feels nothing, the tiny cupcake he'd made himself for the occasion failing to inspire any sort of emotion in him, positive or otherwise. He'd take anything at this point, anything to reinvigorate him, but experience has taught him that he'll feel this way for the rest of the day, just like he has every single year since his dad was killed in the line of duty.

At 23 years old, Stiles Stilinski has no friends. He has no relatives. He is completely alone, as he should be.

"Happy birthday to me," he sings halfheartedly, blowing out the candle.

Things hadn't always been this way. He was an incredibly happy child with friends he would have died for and parents he loved more than anyone. But then his mother was lost to her illness, which was the beginning of the decline. He could have bounced back, he thinks, if it weren't for what his dad had simply called his 'nightmares'.

They were both so naïve then, but how could they have known that each and every nightmare Stiles had was an augury of what was to come? It would have been beyond the realm of possibility in any stretch of the imagination. These things didn't happen in real life, just in fiction, so how could either of them have prepared for the hell that would be unleashed upon Stiles sixteen years ago to the day?

Premonitions. That's what Stiles calls the nightmares now. It's the only thing he can call them, really, because that's clearly what they are.

He still remembers the first one he had. He could never forget.

He'd been tucked into bed by his dad as usual, but he had trouble sleeping. They'd been to visit his mother in the hospital that afternoon, and Stiles couldn't rid his mind of how different she looked, how thin and frail and so unlike the vibrant woman he used to know. When he eventually fell asleep, Stiles dreamed he was her, lying in her hospital bed, trying to smile and pretend she wasn't hurting for the sake of her son and husband. He watched himself play along through her eyes and knew that he didn't want to add to her pain by letting her see how much he was hurting too. His dad was the same.

They were wearing little red party hats and eating slices of store-bought birthday cake. Stiles thought it looked dry, but as he was his mother in the dream, he wasn't allowed to eat any. Once the cake was gone, he grew tired very quickly and needed to rest. He was still awake but his eyes were closed, which is when things took a turn for the worst.

He suddenly couldn't breathe, his body—his mother's body—seizing in the hospital bed as the beeping of the ECG machine connected to him became wild. He heard the other him screaming and then panicked voices as medical staff burst into the room to try to stabilise him, but they couldn't do anything to help. He still couldn't breathe and knew he was going to die. The last thing he heard before everything went black was the ECG machine flatlining.

Stiles woke up in tears and wouldn't tell his dad what was wrong when the man rushed in to comfort him.

Neither of them went back to sleep that night, but when the sun rose the next morning, things carried on as normal. Every single week, Stiles and his dad went to the hospital to sit in his mother's room. He tried to forget about the dream, and eventually he did. It wasn't until a month later, when they visited his mother again so she could see him on his birthday, that he remembered it.

He was uneasy the entire time because everything felt so familiar. He had the ridiculous red party hat perched atop his head, the thin string cutting into his jaw. His parents said the same things to each other as they had in his dream, and the cake was just as dry as it had looked. There was a sense of foreboding hanging in the air that only Stiles seemed aware of, but again he didn't tell anyone about his nightmare because it was too farfetched to be true.

It was just a coincidence, he told himself. Everything would be fine.

It wasn't.

Things devolved swiftly, exactly as they had in Stiles' dream. Only this time he was watching through his own eyes as his mother died.

Stiles didn't know what to think when it was all over. After her funeral, he finally told his dad about the dream he'd had the month before, but the sheriff was too drunk to really comprehend what he was being told and just ordered his son to go to bed. Stiles didn't bring it up again, not even when he had another nightmare a few months later.

This one was different. It didn't revolve around his family or anyone he knew. It started in the spotless white bathroom of a huge house in the middle of the woods. Stiles didn't recognise where it was because there were no identifying characteristics visible through the window, just a seemingly endless expanse of trees. He looked at himself in the mirror and saw that he was in the body of a woman around the same age as his dad, with tanned skin, brown eyes, long dark hair and a face bare of makeup. She was beautiful, as was her husband, who appeared in the open doorway to tell her that dinner was ready. The man was tall and muscular, with short black hair, kind eyes and a neatly trimmed beard framing his strong jaw.

Stiles followed the man downstairs and joined the rest of the family in the dining room. Or most of the family—their only son and eldest daughter were both absent, but Stiles wasn't going to go out and search for them then. He would chide them for missing dinner when they got home.

For a while, things progressed without incident. Stiles shared fond jabs with his younger brother, a man named Peter, and observed with a smile as his husband gently teased their youngest daughter about a crush she had on one of the boys in her grade. When dinner was over, they moved into the living room and played board games.

That's when things turned sour.

When Stiles looks back on the nightmare now, he can't remember how the events all played out. All he remembers is that one moment everyone was happy, laughing, and then the next, they were all screaming and there was fire everywhere. He remembers trying to get out of the house but being unable to do so because some sort of silvery powder was preventing it. He remembers Peter urging them all down to the basement because there was another way out down there, but that too was a dead end and all they'd done was trap themselves further.

Stiles remembers the indescribable pain of burning alive, how his skin blistered and melted away, only to regenerate over and over again. But the regeneration wasn't fast enough to keep him alive.

Stiles woke up screaming and scratching at his bare arms. He was so traumatised by the nightmare that he shook for the rest of the day and found himself unable to speak for longer still. His dad took him to a child psychologist, who Stiles eventually managed to open up to. The dream was ruled as a very strange outlet for his grief over his mother's death and never spoken of again. Stiles was just beginning to get over it when a house burned down in the preserve and most of the Hale family died.

His dad looked at him strangely after that, as if there was something wrong with him. Stiles could tell that his dad was trying to act like everything was fine, but it was obvious that he was scared. Stiles understood. He was scared, too.

Fortunately, he didn't dream again for years, not until he was eighteen. This third dream was the worst one yet. It was about his dad being killed in a robbery gone wrong at a grocery store.

Stiles begged the sheriff not to go to work every day after that, terrified that this dream would come true like the first two. And like the first two, exactly one month after Stiles had it, it did. By this point Stiles had given up on asking his dad not to do his job—that hadn't got him anywhere. Instead, on the day he died, Stiles warned his dad to look out for a man in his early twenties wearing a dark-green hoodie and a red baseball cap. He hoped it would be enough, that the dream he'd had about the Hale fire would make his dad take his warning seriously. But it wasn't. That afternoon, Stiles was called out of class and told he was now an orphan.

After that, the dreams just kept coming more and more frequently, with seemingly no rhyme or reason:

A suicidal man who threw himself off of the tallest building in Beacon Hills.

A construction worker who badly injured himself at work and bled out before the ambulance could get there.

A little girl whose dad drowned her in the bathtub.

Stiles didn't think he could handle any more pain. Sure, some deaths were less painful than others, but they were all awful, all still left him reeling for days, sometimes even months afterward. The last one Stiles experienced was up there with his dad and the Hale fire. He was a young woman who worked at the grocery store, running through a dark alley from a shadowed figure. But then her heel broke and she was caught, violently raped on the dirty ground and then strangled to death with the strap of her own purse. When Stiles woke up, he was still able to feel the man deep inside of him, in a place he didn't have on his own body.

It was the strangest, most awful feeling.

The only positive thing that could be said about the alarming frequency of the dreams was that it allowed Stiles to finally discern a pattern. He came into contact with—physically touched—each person he dreamed about exactly a month before the event itself.

He visited his mother in hospital a month before she died.

The youngest Hale, Cora, was in his grade, so he must have touched her a month before the Hale fire.

The raped woman was working one of the registers at the grocery store when Stiles did some shopping, also exactly a month before she was murdered.

He touched them all at some point the day he dreamed of their deaths. He now had rhyme and reason—and a way to stop himself from having any more dreams.

All of that lead him to where he is now, standing alone in the kitchen of his parents' old house, which is now in his name. He's so incredibly lonely, but that's the way it has to be. He doesn't want to dream again, doesn't want to live out other people's deaths as if he is the one dying.

The small circle of friends he'd had—Scott McCall, Erica Reyes, Isaac Lahey and Vernon Boyd—he cut off contact with, hadn't responded to any of their text messages or phone calls for weeks. None of them were still in Beacon Hills by that point because they'd all left for colleges in other places across the country, which worked out in Stiles' favour. They couldn't come to his house in person and demand an explanation for his radio silence, couldn't shower him in well-meaning concern that Stiles would have to throw back in their faces.

Eventually, one by one, they stopped attempting to get in touch with him.

Scott took the most time to accept the end of their friendship, lasting months more than the other three. Stiles thinks that Scott had some inkling of what was going on with him because they'd known each other the longest. Stiles had confided in him just once about how he feared for his dad. In the same conversation, he'd also told him about the dreams he'd had about his mother and the Hales, and Scott had got this look on his face, half like he wanted to believe Stiles, and half like he wanted to take him to the nearest insane asylum and have him committed.

Stiles never mentioned it again, but after his dad died, Scott suddenly looked at him a whole lot less sceptically. The last contact Stiles had with Scott was a message left in his voicemail. The other boy told him he understood, wished him well, and that was it.

Stiles can't remember the last time he'd had significant human contact. He never leaves the house if he can avoid it. It's just safer that way. He works from home and whatever he can have delivered, he does, and whenever that isn't an option, he makes sure to cover as much of his skin as possible before venturing outside. He wears coats if the weather allows him to get away with it—just a long-sleeved T-shirt if it doesn't—jeans or chinos or some other full-length trouser, and he always completes the outfits with a pair of smart leather gloves. The only bits of him that are exposed are his face and neck, which are unlikely to be touched by anyone but him.

It's worked thus far. For three years he has been dream-free, and that's the way he likes it. Well, 'likes' may be pushing it, but this curse is his lot in life and he accepted it a long time ago. He can't change it.

With a sigh, Stiles plucks the birthday candle out of the cupcake, tosses it carelessly onto the countertop and peels the cupcake case back on one side. He takes a bite and closes his eyes as the taste of the peanut butter frosting bursts across his tongue.

Food is one of the very few bright spots in his life, even if he doesn't have that much of an appetite anymore, so he savours everything, delighting in how the salty tang of the frosting complements the sweet chocolate of the cupcake itself. This has always been one of his favourite flavour combinations, peanut butter and chocolate.

Stiles takes another bite and gets frosting on the tip of his nose, but he doesn't wipe it off until he has chewed and swallowed the last of it. Then he stares disappointedly at the few dark-brown crumbs that are stuck to the inside of the case. Now that it's gone, he is thrust back into the despondency in which he lives 24/7.

He screws up the case and throws it and the birthday candle into the dustbin before leaving the kitchen.

He needs a distraction.

* * *

Three short minutes later, Stiles is frustrated. He is now in the living room, the curtains closed as always, the TV switched on to the home screen of his PS4 Pro, but he can't do anything because the controller has stopped working. He shakes it, tries to plug it in to charge in case the battery had somehow gone flat overnight, but nothing he tries affords him success.

Stiles sighs, drops it on the cushion next to him and glares at it, unable to think of anything else to try.

He looks up at where the TV is mounted onto the cream-painted wall above the stone fireplace opposite, and the sight of the single user profile on screen seems to mock him, reminding him that he is alone. There is no user picture attached because Stiles has never set one, so the picture is a blank grey silhouette; a nothing, a nobody…just like him. Everything seems to remind him these days, makes his depression worse. The only thing he can do to get rid of it is to distract himself, like he'd tried to do by playing the latest game he'd bought, Monster Hunter: World.

He can't go to a doctor for antidepressants because that would mean extended human interaction and therefore heightened risk of his skin coming into contact with someone else's. He'd also probably have to explain why he feels the way he does, which would work out one of two ways. Either he'd be thrown in a loony bin for the rest of his life for having fantastical and dangerous hallucinations, much like Scott had thought about doing to him before his dad was killed. Or he'd have to come up with a convincing lie, which he doesn't think he could pull off. And even then, if by some miracle he managed to achieve the second outcome, he'd also be told that the way he lives his life isn't conductive to overcoming his depression, which is something he already knows.

Stiles takes a deep breath before standing up and switching off his PS4 and the TV. He could order a new controller online and attempt something else in the meantime, try to get sucked into a book or maybe a few movies, but neither of those methods are as effective. Neither require as much of his concentration as a good video game, and he can tell that today, his birthday, is a day he is going to need no room at all to think about the state of his life.

There's only one thing for it then, as loath as Stiles is to even think it. He'll have to go outside, go into town and buy a new PS4 controller in person.

Great.

* * *

When he has changed into his usual outdoor attire, Stiles grabs his wallet and keys from the small table next to the front door. As he reaches for the door handle with a gloved hand, he catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror that hangs next to the coat hooks on the left wall. His skin is milky-white, paler than it has ever been because he hardly sees the sun anymore. He looks like a ghost, which he supposes is apt for how he feels on the inside.

"You got this," he whispers to his reflection, before turning the handle and stepping outside.

His reliable old Jeep is right where he'd left it in the driveway the last time he had to leave his house a few weeks ago. The blue paint is slowly wearing away, but he has never found the time nor the will to get it repainted.

As he walks toward the vehicle, Stiles observes that one of his neighbours is doing something to one of the many flowerbeds in her front yard, the top of her sunhat just visible above the white fence that separates their properties. She must hear his footsteps because her curious face appears just as he reaches his Jeep. She brushes a lock of greying ginger hair off of her freckled forehead and squints her green eyes at him disbelievingly, something that Stiles has long got used to.

Because he so rarely leaves his house, he sees that expression every time they cross paths, like the woman is double-checking that he is real. She has lived next to Stiles for around two years now, but he has never bothered to learn her name. As he climbs into his Jeep, he doesn't wave at her and she doesn't wave at him, just continues to stare unnervingly. Stiles shakes his head and ignores her, focusing on sticking his key in the ignition and getting this outing over and done with as quickly as he can.

He drives into town and finds a place to park near Main Street, where the local GameStop is. Walking briskly, Stiles weaves in between all the other people on the sidewalk, holding is arms tight to his sides to make himself as small as possible, his movements practised.

Once he reaches the GameStop, he enters and scans the displays until he finds what he is there for: a brand-new PS4 controller. He grabs one and gets in line to pay, his armpits prickling as he begins to sweat and his breathing becomes laboured. He feels claustrophobic all of a sudden, like the walls are closing in on him and the people standing around him are too close. Once Stiles reaches the front of the line, the blond man behind the counter looks at him worriedly when he hands over the money, but Stiles just grabs the bag which has his receipt and purchase in it and hightails it out of there before the man can ask him if everything is okay.

It isn't, not when he feels like he can't breathe until he gets back outside and can fill his lungs with fresh air.

He keeps walking, not giving as much attention to the people around him as he had previously. This is an egregious mistake because, halfway back to his Jeep, he bumps into someone. He stumbles hard and isn't able to right himself before he falls over, scraping his elbow on the sidewalk. Given how sturdy they'd felt, when the person he'd bumped into helps him back to his feet, Stiles expects them to be a lot bigger than they turn out to be.

The woman is a few inches shorter than him, nearly as slender and somewhere in her mid-thirties. The mid-morning breeze blows her long, dark-brown hair around her pretty face, and her white tank top shows off a surprising amount of muscle definition in her arms.

"Are you alright?" she asks him, her voice friendly.

Stiles nods, even though his elbow stings beneath where the woman still holds it, her touch warm. "Y-yeah, I'm fine," he replies, offering a rictus smile. "Sorry."

Before she can speak again, Stiles hurries on, just wanting to get back home and lock himself inside, where he is safe. When he reaches his Jeep, he tosses his bag onto the passenger seat and peels out of his parking space, right in front of a car coming up the street. He barely even notices when they slam on their brakes and angrily honk their horn at him.

* * *

Stiles stands in the middle of what used to be a large living room. He can tell that it was probably homey once upon a time, but those days are long gone, along with any sense of familiarity. Now the room feels cold, ugly and oppressive, with ash covering the floorboards and the blackened remains of a few pieces of furniture pushed against the scorched walls. Stiles scans his eyes raptly over all of it in search of clues. His arms are crossed beneath his chest and his hip is cocked to the right, his long hair pulled into a ponytail at the back of his head.

Moments later, he hears a noise behind him and turns around to find a man in his early thirties entering the room. Several inches taller, he has short black hair, a neatly trimmed beard with hints of grey in it and large muscles beneath his long-sleeved maroon henley. Chest hair peeks out of the V-neck. He asks Stiles how much longer he will be.

"Just a couple more minutes, Derek," Stiles responds, turning away again.

"I don't know what you expect to find," the man called Derek murmurs, moving to stand next to him. "We already went over this place years ago."

"I know."

"Laura, seriously…why are we really here?"

"I already told you," Stiles says in Laura's voice. "I'm not going to repeat myself again."

Derek's jaw tightens. "I know you haven't told me everything."

"And I don't have to, little brother."

"You do if you're going to drag me back across the country like this."

Stiles glares and feels something happen to his eyes. "Don't pin this on me. I didn't make you come here again. You followed me, remember?"

Suddenly looking cowed, Derek averts his gaze. "Whatever…"

Stiles feels guilty for getting mad and bumps shoulders with Derek, offering him a faint smile. "I know this place holds bad memories, but I need to figure out what happened here. And with the new lead I got—"

Derek's head snaps up. "What new lead?!" he demands.

Realising his slip-up, Stiles sighs defeatedly and acquiesces. "Okay, I'll tell you."

But he doesn't get the chance.

In the next second, there comes a sound from right outside, some otherworldly barking that makes the hairs on the back of Stiles' neck stand on end. He whirls around to face the direction it came from and places himself protectively between whatever it is and Derek. The barking continues, louder now, and then it's in the house and he hears claws on hardwood flooring. He can't fathom what happens next. All he knows is that Derek screams his name and he is bowled over by something huge and on fire. It lands heavily atop him, forcing the air from his lungs, and then—

* * *

- Tuesday, March 6th, 2018 -

Stiles wakes up shaking all over and stares with wide, wet eyes at the ceiling of his childhood bedroom. He is overcome by the phantom sensation of burning alive, something he had hoped to never experience again as long as he lived. He comes back to himself gradually, the shaking of his body getting less severe. He throws back his green sheets which sweat makes stick to his bare torso, swings his legs over the side of the mattress and sits on the edge with his hands pressed tightly over his eyes, making colourful stars dance behind his eyelids.

At least the death was quicker this time.

When he has stopped shaking altogether, Stiles lowers his hands and stares down at the floor, wondering how it was he dreamed again. He has been so careful.

The woman he was…there was only one person he touched the day before: the woman he'd bumped into on the street outside GameStop. Laura. He replays the dream in his head, from whatever she was hoping to find in the burned-out house, to the appearance of her brother, to whatever the creature was that killed her; presumably Derek, too.

What the hell was it? Stiles has never come across anything like it before. It looked almost doglike, but it wasn't like any dog Stiles has seen before. It belonged in a high-budget horror film, not in real life. And in spite of being terrified before she died, Laura's fear wasn't from seeing something she hadn't believed could be real. No, she hadn't felt too surprised, which to Stiles means that she—and likely Derek as well—are aware of whatever world the flaming creature came from.

The question comes back to him: Why the fuck did he dream all of that?

It bugs him. He'd been wearing a long-sleeved T-shirt and gloves like always, and as best he can remember, Laura only touched him on the elbow he'd grazed on the ground when he fell over, not his neck or face. Stiles looks at the scrape with his brow furrowed and then gets up from his bed. He walks across the hall to the bathroom, switches on the light and storms over to the laundry hamper that is in the corner of the room, near the shower stall.

The clothes he had worn for his outing the previous day are still there, underneath the large towel he'd used after taking a shower to wash off his panic. He had arrived home and stripped quickly, not bothering to check the sleeve of the T-shirt to see if there was any damage done when he scraped it against the concrete.

He checks now.

Dropping the towel to the floor, Stiles snaps up the T-shirt and inspects the left sleeve. Sure enough, right at the elbow, there is now a hole.

"Fuck!" Stiles screams, throwing the garment as hard as he can at the wall.

He falls back on the closed toilet lid and stares at the ball of fabric on the floor, his rage deserting him as quickly as it had come. He attempts to lock this new dream away with all the others in a box in the back of his mind—he doesn't want to relive it again—but as much as he tries to make himself stop thinking about it, he can't. It keeps returning, intrusively reminding him of all the unanswered questions he now has.

Who are Derek and Laura?

What was Laura looking for in the house?

What was that creature and why did it target them?

Why does Derek's anguished scream of his sister's name stick out to him so much?

He can't stop thinking about him. There was something about Derek that intrigues Stiles now, and not just his unparalleled beauty. No, it's something else, some strange force pulling Stiles to him.

In the past, Stiles has tried to find out information on the people he dreams of. It never worked out well. Every single time he either couldn't find what he needed or he was too late to stop their deaths, no matter how much sleep he lost trying to do just that. Or, on a couple of occasions, Stiles almost died in that person's place. He knows that he shouldn't bother trying to stop Derek and Laura from being killed by whatever that creature is. Each death feels fated, and trying to stop them is like trying to overcome The Powers That Be. It's an impossible feat.

But then again, why would he have this gift—this curse, as he has thought of it for years—were he not meant to use it to do good?

"God help me…" Stiles whispers, his mind made up.

He can't just sit back and let Derek and Laura die—especially Derek. The thought is anathema to him. And so, just as the sun is beginning to rise through the bathroom window, Stiles gets to his feet with new determination and begins to get ready for what will no doubt be a very, very long month.

He has work to do.

Chapter Text

- Tuesday, March 6th, 2018 -

Derek Hale walks out of his boss's office feeling angry and slighted. He has just received a major dressing down because the bid his team put in wasn't enough to entice a client, and said client decided to go with another advertising company. Of course, as the leader of the team that was supposed to put together the bid, Derek was held responsible and told that he needed to put in more work. He storms past the conference room with its glass walls and doesn't so much as glance inside, avoiding looking at the faces of any of his team members.

He'd probably shout at them if he did, because the failure was their fault. Not his.

His boss had had the nerve to place the blame solely on him, when he was the one who stayed late every night to make sure everything was perfect.

He was the one who made sure his team was on track and didn't slack off like they have been liable to do in the past.

Hell, he was the one who came up with the idea for the client's advertising campaign in the first place.

If the boss wants to blame him for the idea, then fine, Derek would understand that. But everything else? "No fucking way!" Derek had wanted to yell. But he hadn't. He just stood there and took it, gritting his teeth because as much as he hates his job sometimes, he doesn't want to lose it.

"Hey, you okay?" comes a voice from behind him.

Derek takes a deep breath to calm himself and turns around to see Kayla standing a couple of feet away from him, her red, perfectly drawn-on eyebrows furrowed with concern beneath her blunt fringe. Derek has always liked Kayla well enough. She's nice and doesn't annoy him by trying too hard to get him to spend time with her socially like some of their fellow employees do.

Today she wears a white dress that fits tight to her slender torso but becomes looser from the waist down, the fabric flowing around her knees. The dress is complemented by stylish black high heels, a thin black belt with a silver buckle and an emerald-green headband in her long dyed-red hair, which is cut into a bob down to her shoulders. Her green eyes are lined perfectly with black liner and her lips are painted a bloody red. Despite her sweet disposition, to Derek this shade of lipstick makes it seem like she has just finished feasting on the flesh of her enemies.

"Yeah, I'm fine," he responds, adjusting his blue tie.

"You sure? You looked angry a moment ago."

"Just came from the boss's office."

"Ah."

Nothing else needs to be said. It's common knowledge that their boss is a tool.

"Well, anyway…I'll see you later, I guess," Kayla says. She walks quickly away and vanishes around the corner.

Derek frowns to himself, thinking her behaviour was weird. After a few seconds he shakes his head and journeys the rest of the way to his office, avoiding talking to anyone else. He closes the door and shuts the blinds to give himself privacy and then falls down heavily in his revolving desk chair. His computer is still switched on with his emails open but he ignores it, even when another email pops into his inbox to join the other thirty that he hasn't bothered to read yet.

"I can't wait for this day to be over," he mumbles.

* * *

Lunch doesn't come anywhere near fast enough for Derek's liking. When he sees the clock on his computer tick over to 1:00 p.m. a couple hours after his delightful meeting with his boss, he is out of his chair straight away. He throws on his dark-grey suit jacket and storms out of his office and toward the elevators without looking back, not even when he again passes Kayla in the halls and she begins to ask him a question. It's rude, but his mood hasn't improved at all since his dressing down—it's worse, in fact—and he would only say something even ruder to her if he stopped.

That's his excuse, anyway.

On the street now, Derek feels like he can finally breathe. The air in New York City always feels slightly tinged with something unpleasant, nothing like it was back in his hometown, but it's better than being shut up with his coworkers any longer.

Derek does up the button of his jacket and starts walking without a particular destination in mind. He has an hour until he is supposed to be back at work and he intends to make the most of it. Maybe he'll search out some restaurant he hasn't visited before, either because he never made time or because his older and very annoying sister, Laura, always wanted to go somewhere else. Or maybe he'll just end up blowing off the rest of the day, future chastisements from his boss be damned.

Following a quick subway ride, Derek ends up in Manhattan. He very rarely visits this part of the city, even though it's where Laura lives in her ostentatious apartment. She always comes to visit him at his loft in Brooklyn, a large but austere place that has never quite felt like home. Not that he has ever really tried to make it feel that way.

There are multiple reasons why it isn't home to him, but the most salient is the lack of other people living there. Even years after the deaths of most of his family, Derek isn't used to living by himself. It's lonely, but he would never tell anybody. He knows that Laura would have no problem letting Derek move in with her—her mate, Nathan, is another matter, but she'd find a way to convince him. In fact, she has made such an offer several times over the past couple of years, but Derek never says yes, partly because he doesn't want to intrude and partly because wallowing in his loneliness has become oddly comforting for him now. He thinks he'd miss it were it to go away.

How sad is that? Derek thinks wryly, still walking without purpose.

Eventually Derek's feet betray him and he finds himself standing outside of Laura's apartment building. He doesn't know why he is here. Both Laura and Nathan will be at work and if Derek was going to go anywhere, he'd go back to his own place. And yet he can't make himself walk away again.

"Damnit," he whispers, entering the building.

Derek marches right for the golden elevators and only stops long enough to tell the man at the front desk who he is. He presses the button for the twelfth floor and waits as the doors close and the cab moves upward toward his destination. There are a couple of interruptions along the way, stops made to other floors to pick up other people. A firm glare is enough to get all of them to keep their distance from him, forcing them all to squeeze themselves together on the other side of the elevator to avoid coming too close to him. Good. Just how he likes it.

Finally, when he steps out into the twelfth floor hallway, he ventures down it until he finds the door marked 12D and rummages around in his jacket pocket for his keys, on which is a spare key to Laura's apartment. Once he has located it, he enters, locks the door again behind himself and moves immediately to the shiny silver fridge in the kitchen, looking for a suitable remedy for his ennui. As usual, Nathan has several special wolfsbane-laced beers in a compartment on the inside of the fridge door. Derek takes one without compunction.

It seems he won't be returning to work today after all.

* * *

Laura giggles as Nathan wraps his arms around her and starts kissing her neck in the elevator. They are just getting home from going out for a dinner date after work, and Laura is impatient to get into their apartment so she can jump her wonderful and sexy mate. She is incredibly grateful for him. He really is perfect, understanding when her research takes up most of her free time and a good distraction when she needs something to take her mind off of it.

This evening was one such occasion.

She hasn't been able to find any new information or leads on what happened to her family in weeks and was beginning to get frustrated—an understatement. She was furious, both with herself and with the work of the ignorant police force and fire department back in Beacon Hills, which, due to their ignorance, hadn't pursued all lines of inquiry they should have.

It was murder, Laura is sure of it. Not just a freak accident, and for years she has resolved to prove that, not only to herself but to her little brother, too. This morning, the day after she flew back from visiting her family's mausoleum in Beacon Hills, she'd been talking about how she wanted to go over everything she'd gathered so far for what must have been the thousandth time, searching for something she might have somehow missed before. Nathan talked her down from that particular ledge and convinced her to take just one night for herself.

"If you haven't found anything new in so long, one night off won't hurt," he'd said.

While Laura was at first reluctant, as the elevator doors open and she and Nathan rush toward the door to their apartment, both of them feeling like lovesick teenagers again, she is glad she listened to him.

"Shh!" she hisses, still giggling. "Don't want the neighbours to hear us, do you?"

Nathan smirks, crowding her against their door before she can get her keys out of her pocket. "I dunno. Don't you wanna give them a show?"

Laura gets lost for a few seconds when Nathan slips a hand beneath her shirt, but then she remembers where she is and pushes him away. "Save it for the bedroom, Mister," she teases, exhibitionism not really her thing. She takes out her keys, struggles to stick the right one in the lock when Nathan again tries to cop a feel, and finally shoves open the door. She all but falls inside, dragging her mate in with her.

When the door is shut, she takes Nathan's hand and pulls him down the hallway. They have to pass through the living room to reach the master bedroom, and it's Nathan who notices they aren't alone.

"What's your brother doing here?" he asks, frowning as he steps away from her to pick up one of the many empty beer bottles that are scattered across the glass coffee table.

Her arousal and gleeful mood evaporating just like that, Laura sighs deeply and checks Derek over. The thirty-one-year-old is slumped over sideways on her sofa. Laura guesses he was sitting upright when he was drinking all of her mate's alcohol but tipped over when he passed out. His suit jacket is thrown into the corner of the room, his tie is on the floor next to the coffee table and the top few buttons of his white dress shirt are undone. There doesn't appear to be anything physically wrong with him apart from being obviously inebriated. Laura counts the beer bottles and totals them at six, then she spots the neck of a seventh peeking out from beneath the sofa. She has had one of those beers before and knows they have enough wolfsbane in them to pack quite a punch.

"He's gonna be so hung over in the morning," Laura comments, kneeling in front of him. She pushes the hair back from his forehead.

"And it'll be his own damn fault," Nathan says with little sympathy. "He's paying me back."

Laura doesn't look away from her brother, but she hears her mate gathering up the bottles and dumping them in the recycling bin. She is at a loss for what to do. Finding Derek in her apartment is highly unusual. As far as she can remember, ever since she and Nathan moved in here just over two years ago, Derek has only visited it a handful of times, and that was only because for whatever reason Laura was unable to make it to his place instead.

The fact that Derek would come over when he knew she wouldn't be here is alarming.

"I'll get the guest room ready," Nathan mumbles from behind her. His voice is no longer coloured with irritation.

"Thank you," she says earnestly, still running her fingers through Derek's hair. When Nathan is gone, she sighs again and sits on her heels. "Oh Der…what am I going to do with you?"

It's a question that has plagued her for around fifteen years now, ever since they fled Beacon Hills. Losing their family was tough on both of them—of course it was—but it hit Derek harder than it hit her. Maybe it was because he was younger. Maybe it was because Laura became the alpha and such a big responsibility meant she couldn't let her grief affect her as deeply. Whatever the reason, for a long time after the fire she watched helplessly as Derek gave in to his depression and tried to distance himself from her. From everything.

It shouldn't have been that way. She has found that grief affects those left behind in two ways—either it brings them closer together, or it splits them apart, sometimes forever. And she wasn't about to let the second result befall them. She couldn't lose Derek, too. So she'd made him stick around, kept going to see him even when he refused to come to her, because what is an alpha without their betas? Two isn't really enough, especially not when one is as distant as Derek still is with her, staying only close enough to prevent himself from losing control of his wolf. But Laura has been able to manage so far, and she'll keep managing until she can get them some closure.

That's the main reason finding out what really happened that night is so important to her. It's also about finding justice for her family, that much is true. But the main reason Laura started her own investigation was to get herself and especially Derek some closure, so that she can hopefully finally snap him out of his zombie-like state. Her heart can't take much more of seeing him this way.

Sitting this close to him Laura can smell the stench of alcohol wafting off of him. And Derek never drinks.

The reason for her baby brother's sobriety is gut-wrenching. It's because of guilt.

That night, neither of them were home. Laura herself was at the movies with her boyfriend at the time, and Derek was out with some friends from the basketball team. Where he got the right breed of wolfsbane is still a mystery to Laura, but he had, and while their family was burning, Derek was getting wasted for the first time. The only time, until today apparently.

Laura knows Derek blamed himself in some way, thought he should have been at home. Whether he wanted to have died with the rest of their family or he thinks he could have done something to save them has never been clear to her, and she has never had the courage to ask. She doubts Derek would answer honestly anyway.

"Guest room's ready," Nathan says, poking his head back in the room.

"Thanks, babe," Laura responds, shooting him a small smile.

"Want some help with him?"

"Nah, I've got him."

Nathan nods and then vanishes, likely to start getting ready for bed himself.

Untangling her fingers from his hair, Laura stands up and slides her hands beneath Derek's knees and shoulders. With her alpha strength, lifting him into a bridal carry is no problem at all, even with his height and bulky muscles. She walks into the guest room and finds the bed all made up ready, just like Nathan said it was. After laying Derek down on the mattress, Laura pulls off his shoes and socks and then unbuckles his belt. Coming from a family of born werewolves, personal boundaries are looser than most humans would likely be comfortable with, but to Laura it seems complete normal to her as she strips her little brother down to his underwear and the tank top he wore beneath his wrinkled dress shirt.

She's just an alpha taking care of one of her betas—one who is hurting.

Once she has made sure the sheets are snug around her brother's slumbering form, Laura kisses his temple and walks to the door, her finger on the light switch.

"Sweet dreams, Derek," she whispers, before bathing the room in darkness and leaving him in peace.

* * *

Research is something that comes naturally to Stiles. It always has. Even when he was younger it was something he loved doing, his brain soaking up any piece of knowledge he could get his hands on. This often lead to much chagrin from his parents when he learned about topics they thought he was far too young to be exposed to, but he hadn't cared. He just wanted to learn as much as he could.

Cultivating such a skill comes in handy now.

Stiles sits in front of his computer and sips from what must be his tenth mug of coffee today. He is jittery as a result but he doesn't stop drinking what he deems his lifeblood. He has too much still to do, too much to find out. His fingers are blurs across his keyboard, so in tune with it that he doesn't even need to look away from the computer screen to see which keys he is hitting. He hasn't needed to do that since a couple of months after his parents got their first computer and let him use it every now and then—with supervision, of course.

Google is his best friend now. It tells him everything he needs to know, leads him in all the right directions with just three words:

fire dog supernatural

Not his most refined search, but it gets the job done. The results seem to revolve around the same creatures: hellhounds. Stiles doesn't know much about their mythology, has only seen them featured in a couple of works of fiction. Supernatural was one of them, and the invisible beasts in that TV show were vastly different from what he'd seen in his dream. But that was fiction and this is real life, so it stands to reason that a real hellhound would be different.

As Stiles clicks through the results and reads every paragraph and examines every artist's rendering, he becomes more and more sure that a hellhound is what killed Derek and Laura—is what will kill Derek and Laura, he corrects himself. The most common themes with all the various iterations of hellhound are fire and of course that they come in the form of a large canine. Usually with black fur, red eyes and incredible strength and speed, but not always. Whether they actually come from Hell or not varies depending on the folklore, and while it's common, they don't always utilise fire, but Stiles doesn't know what else it could be.

So, hellhounds exist.

With that taken care of and all the pages he read bookmarked and then printed out for future reference, Stiles begins work on the other pieces of the puzzle.

Derek and Laura.

And the house.

There is some itch in the back of Stiles' mind that tells him there is something he already knows, but he can't recall it right away. It's not until he begins searching for fires that occurred in the past two decades in or around Beacon Hills that it comes back to him. The Hale fire, a tragedy that wiped out nearly the whole Hale family. The same fire that he had dreamed about all those years ago, when he'd first experienced what it was like to burn to death.

Stiles remembers now.

Laura, who he'd bumped into on the street yesterday, was the older sister of Cora Hale, the girl in his grade at school. He pictures the two of them side by side and can see the resemblance, which must mean that the man in his dream, Derek, is a Hale as well. Laura had called him her brother.

Stiles brings up a new tab in his web browser and searches for the family. He finds an extract of an old newspaper article from the Beacon Hills Chronicle, written two months after the fire. The first sentence that stands out to him reads:

The only survivors of the fire were siblings Laura Hale, 18, and Derek Hale, 16.

Further down the page there are two grainy photographs. The first is a family portrait of the Hales, and the second is the same portrait but cropped so that it focuses on just Derek and Laura, who sit on a sofa in a living room. Their parents stand proudly behind them and the top of Cora's head is just visible between them. Despite how painful and raw it still is, Stiles digs back into the dream he had of the family and recalls that the woman he'd inhabited—Talia Hale, the article reminds him—was concerned that her two eldest children weren't present for dinner the night she died.

Returning to the article itself, Stiles reads that Derek and Laura both left Beacon Hills as soon as they could. Stiles speculates that they couldn't stay when the town was now filled with such bad memories for them. It was difficult enough for him after his mother died, and then even harder following the murder of his dad, living in the same house he shared with both of them. He can't even imagine how tough it must have been for Derek and Laura to have even more family members than just two parents ripped away from them in the blink of an eye.

Well, that settles that, Stiles thinks, sitting back in his chair. The house inside of which he saw Laura and Derek was their old home. And he knows exactly where it is. In fact, he is pretty sure that everybody in town knows where it is. The fire was plastered across every local news outlet for weeks afterward, and it even got some national news coverage.

Stiles can't believe he didn't remember it immediately after his dream the previous night. But he was so shaken by the pain of burning alive again and then he was filled with the frustration of his skin coming into contact with someone else's that he probably didn't have space in his brain for anything else.

Now Stiles just has to figure out what he should do with this information.

From what she had said to Derek in the dream Stiles had, Laura is either still looking into what caused the fire that killed their family all those years ago, or she'll start looking into it very soon. Perhaps that's why she was in town yesterday. If Stiles wants to have a shot at saving the two remaining Hales from the hellhound, he is sure of what he has to do. He has to get to the bottom of what happened back then, too. And he has to do it fast. Already one day is nearly gone, and he has just thirty more until Derek and Laura will be killed.

His first port of call will be to go out to the old Hale house and investigate for himself. Perhaps his fresh eyes will see something that Laura's won't be able to, but to do that he has to go outside of his house again. Then he needs to find out where Derek and Laura wound up after leaving Beacon Hills, and possibly get in contact with them.

That should a fun conversation.

Stiles wonders not for the first time why Derek and Laura matter so much to him, why he is trying so hard to save them, and again he can think of no conclusive answer. It's just the way he feels about the siblings.

With a sigh, Stiles switches off his computer. He'll be more careful when going outside this time, even though the chances of yesterday's incident repeating itself are slim. He was in public then, immersed in the crowds in the heart of town. This time he'll be somewhere that should be deserted, so touching skin with someone else shouldn't be an issue.

But he'll do it tomorrow. It's late, the sun descending in the sky, painting it a gorgeous gradient of reds, oranges and purples. Despite all the caffeine running through his veins, as Stiles pushes his chair away from his desk and stands up, he is overcome by a wave of exhaustion that has the corners of his vision going blurry. When it has cleared again, he shakes himself and makes his way upstairs, supposing that no amount of coffee is enough to combat how little sleep he'd got the previous night. It's nothing unusual for him; he feels tired most of the time nowadays.

Sleep is uneasy that night, his dream of Laura and Derek dying playing on a loop.

Chapter Text

- Wednesday, March 7th, 2018 -

Derek isn't happy when he wakes up with a splitting headache. He knew he'd regret drinking all of Nathan's beers and lo and behold, as he sits up in his sister's guest bed and holds a hand to his temple, he does. He breathes out through his mouth and grimaces because it tastes like something has died on his tongue, which itself feels dry and sandpapery. He hasn't woken up feeling this physically awful in years. It does absolutely nothing to help his mood.

When his head has stopped pounding quite so hard, Derek feels brave enough to throw back the sheets and swing his legs out of bed, his bare feet touching the cool hardwood floor. He is momentarily confused as to how he got into his current state of undress, but then he hears Laura's voice from elsewhere in the apartment and puts two and two together. Great. On top of everything else, he now feels guilty for making her take care of her pathetic, useless little brother. Just what he needed.

He sits there for another few minutes, until Laura knocks gently on the door.

"Come in," Derek croaks, looking at his hands in his lap. If he doesn't meet her eyes, he won't see the disappointment he is sure is there.

"How're you feeling?" Laura asks him gently, sitting next to him.

"Like death warmed over."

Laura chuckles. "I bet, what with how much you drank."

"I'll pay Nathan back."

"So he said last night." She moves a bit closer and a glass appears in his vision. "Drink this."

Derek takes the glass gratefully and fights back a soft moan as the cool water slides down his throat. He downs the whole thing in one go and thinks he could still use more to rehydrate himself, but he doesn't want to impose any more than he already has. So he doesn't ask and just gives the empty glass back to Laura when he is done with it. He expects her to leave again, maybe tell him to get dressed and go back to his own place so that she and Nathan can exist in peace again. But she doesn't, and he should really have more faith in his sister.

"You can't go on like this, Derek," Laura says softly. She puts the glass on the floor and then rests her head on his broad shoulder.

"I know," Derek mumbles.

"And, honestly, I don't know how much longer I can watch you not take care of yourself either."

Derek winces and braces himself. Here it comes.

"I have an idea." Laura takes one of Derek's hands in hers and strokes her thumb back and forth over the back of it. "I think you should take a vacation."

So she does want to get rid of me, Derek thinks. I can't blame her.

"Now I know you, and you're thinking some awful thing about yourself right now, aren't you? Or maybe about why I suggested you leave the city for a while?"

Derek doesn't say anything, which is an answer in itself.

"Right, well…I want you to stop. I'm not trying to get rid of you because I'm sick of you and I don't want the trouble of taking care of you anymore. It's not trouble at all. You're my brother and I love you. I'd do anything for you. If I was sick of you I would've woken you up last night and kicked you out then and there, maybe even disowned you as my beta. That will never happen. You hear me?"

Derek nods, although his current mental state means he has a hard time truly believing her.

"The reason I suggested you take a vacation is because I really think some space would help you," Laura explains. "You've barely been living since we moved here and I get why—it was tough on me, too—but you can't spend the rest of your life the same way. I won't let you. Something needs to change, and I think you going away for a while should be that change."

Derek shrugs, forcing her to pick her head up off of his shoulder. "If you say so."

"It's not a command, but you haven't taken a vacation in…God, I don't even remember how long. Do you?"

He racks his sluggish brain for a few seconds before shaking his head.

"Exactly. You've been working nonstop for so long that I'm sure not even your boss could say no."

Derek recalls the meeting they'd had yesterday. "You'd be surprised."

"Even so, it's worth trying," Laura persists, squeezing his hand tightly, just shy of the point of pain. "Promise me you'll at least give it some thought."

Derek does.

"Okay," Laura says, dropping it. At least for now. "Nathan and I have both got to get to work in a minute. Take as much time as you need here, okay?" Laura stares at the side of her brother's face, maybe hoping for him to finally look at her. He doesn't, and she sighs, chastely kisses his temple and gets up from the bed. When she reaches the doorway, Derek sees her look back over her shoulder out of the corner of his eye. "I love you," she repeats ardently, her hand on the doorframe. "I only want what's best for you. Never forget that."

Not long after she leaves the bedroom, Derek hears Laura exit the apartment with Nathan in tow, meaning he is alone. Like always.

When he can get himself to move again, Derek is glad to note that his headache seems to be wearing off. The wolfsbane from the beer must no longer be in his system, allowing his werewolf healing to kick in and take care of all his physical aches and pains. If only it could do the same for his mental ones, but miracles don't happen. Derek knows there is no such thing as a miracle, so there are no hopes to crush when he remains as listless and discontented with his life and himself as he has been since he was sixteen, when his happiness died with his family.

On his feet now, Derek stretches his arms over his head and twists his torso from side to side, working out all the kinks he got while he was sleeping. That done, his eyes alight on his phone on the bedside table, presumably put there by Laura last night. He picks it up and presses the home button to see if it has any power left. It does, the screen lighting up. He has a multitude of text messages and missed calls from his boss:

You're late.

Where are you?

If you're not back in the next fifteen minutes, you're fired.

Derek unlocks his phone and scrolls through all of them, but he can't find it in himself to care when he rereads the most recent one, received yesterday at 4:02 p.m.

I've been lenient with you, but enough is enough. You're done here.

So much for that job. Oh well. At least he'll be able to take that 'vacation' now, without his boss having any say in it. It seems a little unreasonable to be fired just because he missed half a day of work when, in the past, he has been nothing but prompt, punctual and professional, but as always, his ex-boss is a bastard. Derek could probably fight it, maybe come up with some excuse for why he skipped out yesterday, but he can't be bothered.

Frankly, Derek is glad to be shot of the job. It could be fun at times, and just yesterday he probably would have been sad to lose it—it's why he didn't protest when his boss berated him, after all—but with the mood Derek is in today, he couldn't give two shits. It's not like he actually needs to work anyway. He has enough money to last him several years, thanks to his inheritance and his share of his family's life insurance policies. He feels awful for thinking about such things so casually but brushes the feeling aside. It's not like his family are alive to be offended by his callousness.

Now, where would he go? That's the million dollar question.

When he was younger, there were many places Derek wanted to visit within the country—San Francisco, Chicago, Washington D.C.—and even more in the rest of the world, like England, Australia, India and Japan. But where should Derek go? With the aforementioned money, he could feasibly visit all of these places now, if he wanted to.

But he doesn't. He doesn't have the energy for that much travel, to be stuck on planes for hours on end, surrounded by other people with their noise and smells and the recirculated air. That sounds like a werewolf's idea of Hell. Literally suffocating.

But the more Derek thinks about it, the more he believes he should leave the city.

The only things that have been keeping him here are his alpha and his job. With one of those gone, it's just Laura, and she herself told him to go.

Derek doesn't even remember the last time he was somewhere else that wasn't for business. Probably all the way back in Beacon Hills, California, he supposes after some rumination, and that was a long time ago. Fifteen years.

"Has it really been that long?" Derek wonders aloud, amazed. Yes, he is sure it has.

He has never gone with Laura to visit their family, no matter how many times she begged him to. He hadn't really seen the point and still doesn't. They're dead, and there was once a time when he believed in some sort of afterlife, when he found it comforting. But that time is long passed and he doesn't see himself ever reclaiming that belief.

Could he go now? A lot must have changed in fifteen years. Or maybe it hasn't, Derek reconsiders. Beacon Hills is a sizeable town, but it's still just a town. There might be minor changes here and there, but most things must still be the same.

Despite himself, Derek is curious. Maybe it will be good for him. He has been denying it since Laura first floated the idea past him about a year after they got to New York. She wanted to go back for the anniversary of the fire and did, while Derek buried himself beneath his duvet and tried not to think about it. He thought he would drown if he had.

With the last of his battery life, Derek uses his phone to book a ticket on the next flight.

* * *

Stiles was up bright and early the morning after completing is research. Dressed in a pair of maroon chinos and a black long-sleeved sweater, he had eyed his coffee maker when he entered his kitchen and thought better of it. His coffee addiction has been getting out of hand lately and he figured his heart would thank him for refraining from giving it palpitations two days running. With nothing to do after he had eaten a breakfast of bacon, eggs and hash browns, Stiles looked up the location of the Hale house to double-check that he wasn't misremembering and then waited long enough for his neighbours to all go to work before setting out.

Now, Stiles inches his car up the long driveway to the house and feels nervous.

What is he about to see? Now that he is aware of its existence again, Stiles can just about picture it in his head from photographs he'd seen in the newspaper his dad used to read, but surely how the house looks now will be vastly different from how it looked in those photographs. It was intact then, and from his dream he knows there have been no efforts to restore it since the fire that ravaged its beauty fifteen years in the past.

Stiles drives up the last stretch of driveway, switches off the engine of his Jeep and gapes at the building in front of him. It's…horrible. There is no other word for it.

Even from within the safety of his vehicle, Stiles can almost feel the pain and tragedy that occurred on these grounds. Maybe whatever psychic powers he has run deeper than he knows, or maybe it's just the knowledge of what happened here causing the chill shooting down his spine. Whatever the reason, Stiles shudders and has to talk himself into staying and putting his hand on the door handle.

"Come on, you idiot…you've got this," he murmurs. "Think of Derek and Laura."

That does it. His confidence back, Stiles opens the driver's door and steps out into the morning air. Wind whips around his face and makes his eyes sting, surprisingly strong gusts considering the tall trees surrounding the clearing. Stiles slams the door and steps cautiously away from his Jeep to get a closer look at the old Hale house, the chill still running down his spine.

The house looks like something out of a horror film, all but falling apart, the perfect insalubrious building inside which some monster could hide. Now that Stiles knows hellhounds are real—and no doubt a whole host of other supernatural creatures as well—he can almost believe that the house is home to something sinister. It's probably just his overwhelming sense of dread and foreboding tapping into the overactive imagination he used to have as a child, but one can never be too careful.

There is fire damage everywhere: peeling paint, blackened, exposed boards, and shattered glass in the windows. Stiles can't even tell what colour the house used to be. One half of the roof is caved in and the front door hangs off of one hinge at an awkward angle. Stiles steps bravely away from his Jeep and approaches the front steps which lead up to a wrap-around porch. When he is on the deck he sees an old swing seat to his right, hanging off of one rusty chain. Now that he is close enough to touch the house, Stiles swears he can smell the pain and death, not just feel it. It's like it's overtaking him, trying to suck him inside so that it can claim him as well.

He lets it try.

He pushes open the door, the hinge squeaking and the wood creaking ominously. Stiles steps through the threshold and doesn't stop until he is in the foyer. What must have once been a grand staircase is directly in front of him. The banisters are still ornate-looking even when blackened and covered in dust and ash. Some of the steps are intact, but others look as if they will give in under the slightest weight. He decides to explore the ground floor first.

Stiles enters the first room to his left, which he deduces was once the Hales' living room—the same room in which Laura and Derek will die.

A huge bay window in the left wall allows enough light inside for him to see reasonably well, but the corners remain shadowed, hiding imagined monsters. Stiles holds himself stiffly as he picks through the place, glass shards crunching beneath the soles of his shoes as he inspects the detritus for any clues that someone else may have missed. It's highly unlikely, but he tells himself that you never know.

What was once a polished hardwood floor is rough and ugly, the boards creaking as Stiles steps over them. Because of the fire, the gaps between these boards are now wider than they would have been before, the perfect size for something or someone to spy through from beneath. Stiles is creeped out by this thought and castigates himself for thinking such stupid things. "No one else is here," he assures himself. "It's just you. Stop being an idiot."

In the left corner, near the window, there is an old sofa, the upholstery and most of the cushioning burned away to leave just the wooden frame. Nearby is a grandfather clock tipped over onto its side. Only some of the numbers on the clock face are legible, and the hour and minute hands are nowhere in sight. Stiles guesses they fell through the floorboards.

Elsewhere, the fireplace is made of smooth red bricks and is one of the very few things in what Stiles has seen of the house so far to escape most of the fire damage. He walks over to it and swipes the pad of his index finger through the ash and dust that has collected on the mantlepiece. The pale skin of his finger is dyed dark-grey by it, and some residue remains even when he wipes it vigorously on the bottom of his sweater.

On the right side of the mantlepiece are a couple of picture frames, one standing up and one lying facedown. The former has no photograph inside, either because it burned up or it survived and was rescued after the fire was put out. Curious, Stiles picks up the other frame and gasps softly when he sees that this one still has a photograph inside of it.

The glass is dirty and cracked, but the bottom half of the picture survived, which Stiles guesses was the important part. It looks like it was taken on a family holiday and the ruined half was just cloudless sky. A moment captured forever, a bearded man Stiles vaguely recognises as the Hale patriarch runs along a beach. Now that Stiles has seen both of them, it's striking how much Derek takes after his father. He is dressed in just a pair of swimming shorts, appropriate for the beach, his muscular, hairy chest is on display as he dashes after three children of differing sizes. He has his arms raised over his head and an angry expression on his face that is obviously just part of an act.

The largest of the man's prey is female and sports a purple bikini. Her long dark-brown hair blows around her face so that only her large grin is visible. Laura.

The smallest is also female and wears a yellow one-piece bathing suit. She is closest to her father because her short legs can't keep up with older siblings. Cora.

And finally, the one in the middle is male and obviously Derek. Due to his age, his body is much slimmer than it had been in Stiles' dream, his tanned chest hairless and his muscles just starting to develop. His expression isn't as carefree as his sisters', but when Stiles looks closely he can see from the gleam in Derek's eyes that he is having the time of his life.

Stiles smiles looking at him and strokes his finger across his wiry figure. They were so happy once upon a time, before the fire ruined everything.

In the background Stiles can see another man standing with his arm around a woman, her stomach rounded beneath her sheer blue T-shirt. Both are out of focus, but something about the man seems familiar to Stiles. He racks his brain, replaying the dinner he'd witnessed in his first dream involving the Hales until he remembers his name: Peter. The woman beside him must be his significant other. Neither of them join in on the fun, likely because of the woman's pregnancy, but Stiles thinks that they look content enough just watching. Talia Hale must have been behind the camera.

Stiles knows he should put the photograph back—it isn't his to have—but something stops him. He can't let it go, can't leave a memento of a happier time in such a desolate place, so he keeps it in his hand as he explores the rest of the ground floor.

The kitchen presents nothing of note. Neither do the laundry and dining rooms, which lead Stiles right back to the staircase.

"Okay, you've got this," he murmurs. "Just take it one at a time."

With caution, Stiles places his foot on the first step and eases his weight onto it. It creaks but doesn't splinter, so he moves up to the second. It takes him almost ten minutes to navigate the stairs, finding out which spots will hold his weight and skipping some altogether. He has a scare when his foot goes right through one of them, almost causing him to drop the photo frame. He reaches out blindly to grab the right banister with his free hand and prevent himself from falling, clinging to it for dear life until he feels confident enough to keep going.

Stiles breathes a sigh of relief when he reaches the landing. He tries not to think about how he'll have to use the stairs again later on.

He tackles the left hallway first.

The fire damage is less severe up here. Stiles sees more remnants of the house that once was than he had downstairs, peeling pale-green wallpaper and the remains of a long rug running the length of the floor. He opens the first door he comes across and discovers a bathroom, a quick perusal of which reveals not one thing he wouldn't expect to find in there.

The next door leads into what looks like a bedroom belonging to a young girl. Stiles guesses it was Cora's. There is a desk to the left and a large bed to the right, larger than any seven-year-old girl would need. Most things are pink and purple, but there are flashes of other colours here and there—browns, oranges and blues, no doubt as Cora grew older and slowly began to rebel against the 'little girl' stereotype. This theory is supported by a soccer ball and a basketball in one corner. She was a tomboy, disparate from the image her parents had of her when they decorated her bedroom.

Leaving, Stiles walks across the hall to the door opposite. This is also obviously a girl's room, but one who was older. Laura.

Her room is still very girly. Her bedsheets are pink and her wallpaper has flowers on it. It's still a childhood bedroom, but the eldest Hale sibling apparently didn't feel the need to do what Cora had done and start changing things to fit a different style. There are less possessions abandoned here, likely because their owner was still alive to claim them after the fire.

The thought saddens Stiles, so he leaves this room as well and ventures down the hallway on the opposite side of the landing.

There are more bedrooms here, one on either side of the hallway and a third at the very end. Stiles makes quick work of looking through the first, which, from its contents, he deduces belonged to Peter and his partner. The bedroom at the end is similar in style, belonging to both a man and a woman. Talia Hale and her husband. By the process of elimination, the final bedroom belongs to Derek, and it's this one that interests Stiles most for reasons he isn't sure of. Probably the same reasons Derek had stood out more to him in his dream, even though it was Laura's body he was inhabiting.

Out of all of the bedrooms, Derek's is the most complete, the least ravaged by time. It's almost like a time capsule, with very little fire damage. Even so, most of the items Derek possessed at that point in his life are still here, covered in a layer of dust.

As Stiles enters fully, he spies the desk to his left, next to a closet. On top of the desk are a bunch of school textbooks, writing materials and a couple of basketball figurines. The sport was apparently something he had in common with his little sister.

The wall opposite the door takes Stiles' breath away when he first lays eyes on it. It's basically all taken up by bookcases still mostly filled with books. There are spaces here and there which make it look like Derek had been incredibly selective with which ones he had taken with him when he left town with Laura. Stiles himself has a love of books—with the life he leads, how could he not?—so he finds himself drawn to this impressive wall.

The titles are all alphabetised by author and then, if there is more than one book by that author, by title. Stiles quickly scans the titles and among others finds the Harry Potter series, Lord of the Rings, and the first three Game of Thrones books, the only ones released back then. Derek evidently had an affinity for fantasy. Stiles is tempted to take one or two for himself—no one else is going to read them—but something about disturbing Derek's bedroom feels wrong to him in a way that taking the photograph from the mantlepiece downstairs hadn't.

He leaves them be.

Instead, Stiles opens the closet and looks through the clothes that Derek left behind, likely garments that were getting too small or he simply didn't want anymore. In the top half is a rail from which various T-shirts and sweaters hang, and the bottom half is taken up by some drawers that are built-in. Stiles starts at the bottom and is quick to search through these, especially when he reaches the top drawer. It is split into two sections. One is for socks, which is fine, but the other, for underwear, makes Stiles slam it shut again because he would hate for a stranger to look through his underwear drawer.

Onto the T-shirts and sweaters now, Stiles fingers the material of a warm-looking red sweater and admires its softness. Further along the rail is a basketball jersey in the Beacon Hills High colours. It has HALE printed across the shoulder blades, meaning that basketball wasn't just a hobby that Derek took up with his little sister. He played for the school team, which could be where Cora got her interest from, wanting to emulate her cool big brother and not the other way around. When Stiles looks again at the photograph of Derek and his family on the beach, he can just imagine the younger Derek's speed as he tears across the basketball court. He can't say why, but he would be willing to bet money on Derek being a very good player who had to give up the sport when he moved away.

Closing the closet door, Stiles next tackles Derek's bedside table. Various trinkets and junk fill the bottom two, while the top drawer just contains a fake ID and a bottle of lube that is dry and unusable now. Stiles blushes as he looks away.

"Nothing…" he says disappointedly. Coming here hadn't helped him at all, at least not the way he had wanted it to last night.

Dispirited, Stiles walks with the picture frame back to the landing. He is considering how best to descend the stairs when his phone rings; an unusual occurrence, because he never gets phone calls.

Pulling the device out of the pocket of his chinos, Stiles looks at the caller ID:

Scott McCall

Stiles stares stunned for so long that the ringing stops before he can even considering picking up. He hasn't spoken to Scott in years, hasn't even tried. He needed space and the other boy had given it to him without complaint or judgment, because he'd known that none of the tools he had at the time could help Stiles. Nothing could help him but total isolation.

When the screen goes black, Stiles is actually disappointed. It isn't until now that he realises just how much he has missed his erstwhile best friend. He calls him back.

"Stiles? Is that you?"

Stiles almost cries when he hears Scott's voice. It sounds exactly the same, reminds him of times he was actually happy. Plus, he has just missed simple human interaction, and a couple of disingenuous words from a store employee don't count.

"Y-yeah, it's me," he says, blinking away tears.

"How've you been?"

Swallowing around the lump that has appeared in his throat, Stiles sits down on the top stair and leans against the banister. "I'm okay, I guess. You?"

"I'm great. God, how long has it been? Four, five years?"

"Somewhere around there, yeah. Since you left for college. You finished that yet?"

"I'm actually only halfway through. I'm in my last year of undergraduate study, and then I've got four more years of graduate study to go until I can get my vet licence."

Stiles nods to himself, smiling. At least someone is out there achieving their dreams. "Don't take this as me not being glad you called—I really, really am—but I have to ask: why are you calling?"

"I'm in town. Since you asked, I guess you didn't keep up with her either, but my mom's getting remarried this weekend and I'm here for the wedding."

Stiles' old friend is right; he hasn't seen Melissa McCall since shortly after Scott left for college. "Oh. Tell her congrats from me then."

"Will do. Anyway, the reason I'm calling is that, since I'm in town again, I thought maybe we could meet up before I have to go back. If you want to."

Stiles is tempted. He is so sorely tempted. The words are out of his mouth before he can stop them: "Sure. I'd like that."

"Awesome! I promise I won't, y'know…touch you."

"Thanks."

"When are you free?"

"Umm, pretty much whenever. It's not like I can have much of a life."

Scott hesitates for a few seconds before he responds, like he had wanted to say something but thought better of it. "Well, I'm having lunch with my mom at 12, so how 'bout I come round your house at, say, 1:30? You're still in the same place, right?"

"Yup, same house. That's fine," Stiles answers, anticipation making his heart beat faster.

"Great. I'll see you then."

"Okay."

Neither man hangs up immediately. Stiles can hear Scott breathing on the other end of the line, and Scott can probably hear him.

"I missed you," the other man whispers eventually.

Stiles' eyes sting again. "Me, too."

"Until later, bro."

"Bye, buddy."

When the call disconnects, Stiles wipes the wetness from his cheeks and sniffles. He allows himself another few minutes to sit at the top of the staircase before he begins picking his way down it. When he stands outside again, he looks back up at the Hale house one last time before getting inside of his Jeep and driving away. He has a guest to get ready for.

Chapter Text

- Wednesday, March 7th, 2018 -

It's nearing 1 p.m. when Stiles gets back to his house, meaning he has half an hour to kill before Scott arrives.

Letting himself inside, he wanders through all the rooms on the ground floor to make sure that nothing looks disorganised or rundown; he doesn't want Scott to think that his life is too pathetic, although there are some things he can't hide. The only problem that Stiles sees after a quick perusal is a thin layer of dust over each item he never touches—which is most of them—but cleaning that only eats up half of his time.

With the last fifteen minutes, he searches through the fridge and the kitchen cupboards for something he and Scott can snack on. He finds nothing suitable but a single can of Dr Pepper. The drink used to be Scott's favourite and Stiles hopes that that hasn't changed, otherwise it will just be coffee or water for both of them. As for food, he recalls his old friend being particularly fond of the chocolate chip cookie recipe his mother passed down to him before she died. They used to make a game out of it when they were kids, taking turns to see if either of them could successfully pilfer a few from the tray when his mother's back was turned. They were always caught, but instead of scolding them, Stiles' mother gave them the cookies with a wink and sent them on their way.

It sounds like the perfect solution, so Stiles swiftly puts together the dough and slides them into his pre-heated oven, leaving him with five minutes to spare.

Rather than stand around and work himself up, Stiles sets a timer for the cookies and then occupies himself by organising all the pages of research into hellhounds he'd printed out the previous evening. He still has his old dry-erase whiteboard from when he was in school. He'd put it in his dad's study years ago, just to get it out of the way, but he braves going back inside to retrieve it now, avoiding looking for too long at anything else in there. He also finds a red marker that has somehow not dried out yet.

Once he has wheeled the board into the living room, Stiles makes a start at sticking up his research with clear tape on one side and then writing the things he knows about the Hales on the other. It's not a long list, but it's all he has for now. To complete it, he uses his phone to take a slightly blurry copy of the photograph he'd stolen from the old Hale house, prints that out as well and sticks it up next to the heading he'd written: THE HALES.

As soon as Stiles steps back from the board, the doorbell rings, startling him. Once he has regained his cool, he steps into the foyer and smooths his hands down the thighs of his chinos before he opens the front door.

The first thing he sees is Scott's nervous, crooked smile, and that's enough for Stiles to forget about the agreement they'd made over the phone not to touch each other. Unable to restrain himself, Stiles grabs Scott's green T-shirt and pulls him close so that he can hug him as tight as he can.

"Whoa!" Scott squawks, having not expected it. He catches up fast, though, his arms coming around Stiles' body to hug him back just as fiercely. "You really did miss me, huh?"

Stiles nods into Scott's shoulder.

It takes a long time until he feels ready to let go. It's been too long since he was last held like this and he wants to savour it, because as soon as it ends he knows he is going to start freaking out about their skin touching and the possibility of foreseeing Scott's death. It has to end sometime, though, so with much reluctance Stiles releases his best friend and steps back to get a proper look at him.

A few things have changed since the last time they saw each other, but nothing too drastic. Scott's hair is shorter and less goofy-looking, cut short at the sides of his head and left longer on top. Today it's coiffed neatly back from his forehead with some sort of matte wax. His face seems slimmer. At first Stiles isn't sure whether this is due to the new hairstyle or because Scott has lost the baby weight he still had at the end of high school, but then he looks down and notes that his old friend's body is definitely more muscular, even beneath his simple outfit of a T-shirt and a pair of jeans. He settles on the second option being true.

When he realises that they've just been standing looking at each other for over a minute, Stiles steps back and beckons Scott inside.

"Wow, the place looks pretty different," Scott comments as they enter the living room, his eyes wide with wonder.

Looking around the place himself, Stiles supposes that this is true. Scott hasn't been in here since just after his dad's funeral, which is when Stiles started to pack away most of the items that reminded him of the sheriff. They were just too painful to look at. To this day it all remains in the study or the attic, but with some thought Stiles supposes that there is no use waiting any longer to go through it again. Who knows what the future will hold? With the danger Stiles is about to get himself into, he might not even be alive much longer, and it's with this thought that he excuses himself for the kitchen, just in time for the oven timer to go off.

"What smells so good?" Scott asks. He is still in the living room, giving Stiles space.

"Cookies!" Stiles yells back.

"Ooh!"

The childlike excitement he hears in Scott's voice goes a long way to cheering him up.

A minute later, Stiles has plated up a few steaming cookies and brings them, the can of Dr Pepper he'd found and a glass of water through to the living room. He stops in the doorway when he sees Scott staring at his whiteboard.

"What's this?" the other man enquires without looking away from it.

"Research," Stiles answers, putting everything down on the coffee table and sitting at one end of the sofa.

"Into the Hale family and…hellhounds? Seriously?"

"Uh, yeah."

"Why?"

Stiles twists his hands in his lap. "I had another nightmare a couple of days ago."

This is enough to get Scott to turn away from the whiteboard. He looks panicked. "You did?"

Stiles nods slowly.

Scott glances one last time at the board, his gaze lingering on the family photograph, before he joins Stiles on the sofa. "What was the nightmare about?"

"You remember how I told you I dreamed about the Hale fire before it happened?"

"Of course I do."

"Well, I accidentally bumped into Laura Hale when I went out to get a new PS4 controller and then, that night, I dreamed about her and her brother, Derek, being attacked and killed by some flaming dog in the ruins of their old house."

Scott puts a hand on Stiles' shoulder. "Dude, I'm sorry."

"What for?" Stiles asks bemusedly. It's not him who is going to die.

"I know how much the first dream fucked you up, seeing and feeling what it was like to…to burn to death in full technicolour. And you went through that again, right?"

"Oh." Stiles bites into his bottom lip. "Yeah, but it wasn't as bad this time. It was shorter."

Scott looks into his friend's eyes for a few seconds, appraising, trying to figure out whether he is telling the truth. He must figure out that yes, Stiles is being truthful, because he murmurs his acceptance and drops his hand. "Still…hellhounds?"

"Well, that was pretty much the only thing that consistently came up when I searched for a supernatural fire dog," Stiles explains.

Scott picks up one of the cookies and nibbles on it. "This is crazy."

"Any more crazy than me seeing people's deaths before they happen?" Stiles counters.

"Touché."

"How's the cookie?"

Scott smiles, but it doesn't quite reach his eyes. "Just as good as I remember them being. Thanks."

Stiles is glad. "Good to know I haven't lost my touch."

The conversation halts there. The quiet lasts several minutes as they both work their way through the rest of the cookies and drink their beverages. When the meagre refreshments are all gone, Scott is the one to break the silence as he puts his empty Dr Pepper can back on the coffee table: "So, from the amount of research you have, am I right in guessing that you're thinking about trying to save Laura and Derek?"

With a sigh, Stiles stands and moves over to the whiteboard. "You are."

"And how are you gonna do that? That sounds super dangerous!"

Stiles doesn't know how to explain himself, so he attempts to change the subject. "So, what've you been up to since you've been at college? Any girl in your life?"

"Don't try to change the subject, Stiles…"

"But—"

"Don't!" Scott interjects, his voice raised as loud as Stiles has ever heard it, at least directed at him. "I just got you back in my life, so don't tell me you're planning on doing something that could easily make you leave it again already."

His head bowed, Stiles crosses his arms and digs his nails painfully into his biceps. "I have to," he says softly.

"Why?"

"I don't know! I just do."

Scott's rage leaves him as quickly as it had appeared, probably because Stiles makes such a pitiful sight. "Just promise me you'll be careful."

That one is easy. "I promise." Stiles just isn't sure it will be enough.

"Alright, well…to answer your question, yes, I'm seeing someone."

Feeling grateful, Stiles lets his arms fall to his sides and rejoins Scott on the sofa. "Who is she?"

"Not she."

That brings Stiles up short. "Oh?"

"It's a guy. He went to our school, actually."

"Wow, Scotty, I didn't know you swung that way," Stiles says, amazed. He punches him on the shoulder. "That's great. Who is he?"

"It's…Isaac."

Surprised yet again, Stiles knows instantly who his friend means. "Isaac? As in Isaac Lahey?"

"That's the one."

Stiles quickly filters through as many of his memories as he can of Scott and Isaac hanging out together during high school, searching for clues or tension he hadn't previously seen. He finds nothing. "When did that happen?"

"Well, he used to live with me and my mom after his dad was arrested, right?"

"Right." Stiles remembers how angry he'd been when his suspicions about the state of Isaac's home life were confirmed during junior year. He actually cheered when he found out that Mr. Lahey had been sent to jail.

"Well, he and I moved into the same dorm room," Scott apprises, his cheeks colouring and a small smile curling his lips. It's adorable. "Nothing happened for a while, but then one night we both got trashed at a frat party and the next morning we woke up in the same bed. Naked. And there was no denying what went on because we were kinda stuck together with…stuff."

Stiles bursts out laughing. "Oh— my— God!" he gasps.

Scott huffs and rolls his eyes, but the smile doesn't vanish from his lips. "Yeah, yeah, laugh it up."

Once he has calmed down, Stiles gestures for his friend to keep going, amazed by how easy it is to fall right back into their friendship now that the awkward part is out of the way.

"Well, naturally we both kinda freaked out," Scott continues, his voice fond. "It took a while, and a few FaceTimes with Erica, but eventually we figured it out. We've been together for just under four years now."

"That's amazing, dude," Stiles says earnestly. "I'm really happy for both of you."

"Thanks."

"And Isaac's doing well?"

Scott's face lights up with glee and the deep affection he obviously has for Isaac. "Oh yeah, he's doing super well! I think not living in Beacon Hills anymore really helped, getting away from those bad memories, y'know? I'm really proud of him. He barely even jumps at loud noises anymore, and he's able to go into small spaces without having a panic attack! How awesome is that?"

"I'm glad. Tell him…tell him I'm happy for him, too."

"Actually…" Scott says with a funny tone, trailing off.

"Actually what?"

"Maybe you could tell him yourself."

Stiles' eyes widen. "What do you mean?"

"You know I'm in town for my mom's wedding. You really think she wouldn't invite her son's long-term boyfriend? And that's without her basically adopting Isaac before we even got together."

Stiles purses his lips. "Good point. So he's here? In town? Right now?"

"He is," Scott confirms.

"That's…wow, I don't know what to make of that."

"Just say you'll think about it. I'm not asking you to come to the wedding or anything—I know that would be way too many people for you, even as small as it'll be—but maybe I can bring him by tomorrow."

Stiles swallows around the lump in his throat. He has missed Isaac, too. "Okay."

"Okay I can bring him by, or okay you'll think about it?"

"Okay you can bring him by."

Scott's grin is worth it, and Stiles can't fight the way his lips stretch into a mirror of it when Scott tackles him with another hug. They end up tilting sideways on the sofa in a tangle of limbs, but neither of them mind, not even after they rearrange themselves a bit and Scott ends up basically lying on top of Stiles. It's not the first time something like this has happened. In fact, them falling asleep in each other's beds and waking up cuddled together used to be a fairly frequent occurrence throughout their adolescence. It was awkward when morning wood began to factor into things, but they managed, and Stiles always saw it as a perfectly platonic expression of their love for each other that they were comfortable enough to sleep like that. Just bros being bros.

Stiles really missed those nights after he figured out the cause of his nightmares and began to distance himself.

"So…you know what I've been up to," Scott says, his head on Stiles' shoulder. "What about you?"

Stiles is evasive. "What about me?"

"What've you been up to these past few years?"

"Not a whole lot."

"C'mon, there's gotta be something!"

Stiles shakes his head. "There's not. Every day is basically the same. I never leave the house unless it's unavoidable, I work from home, and I never interact with anyone in real life. That's about it."

"That's kinda sad, dude."

"I know. But what else can I do?"

Scott lifts his head so that their eyes meet. "You touched me. We're touching right now," he points out, his eyebrows raised.

"That's a special circumstance."

Scott winks. "Yeah, you missed my awesome self too much to hold yourself back."

"I did," Stiles answers with far too much honesty.

The crooked-jawed man's attempts at humour evaporate, replaced with a seriousness that Stiles hasn't often seen from him. "Well…from what I heard in your voice on the phone, you can't go on like this much longer," Scott says quietly. "I'm worried."

"I'm depressed. I'm not suicidal."

"I didn't say you were, but maybe there's a small subconscious part of you that is."

Stiles scoffs. "How'd you figure that?"

"Well, you seem particularly eager to jump headfirst into danger trying to save the Hales. Maybe part of you is hoping it ends with you dying, just so it'll be over."

Scott's words hit so close to the truth that Stiles actually flinches. He hadn't thought about it before, but his friend is right. He wants to save Derek and Laura, and he'd been planning on doing everything in his power to make sure he succeeded, his own life be damned. He looks away from Scott, which is answer enough.

"I knew it," Scott whispers, his voice already like he is mourning Stiles.

"I'm not gone yet," Stiles says futilely.

"Yet. Yet," Scott repeats emphatically. He gets up from the sofa and glares down at Stiles like he means business. "You'd better do everything in your power to stay alive or I swear to every higher being there is, if you let yourself die, I'll find a way to bring you back to life just so I can kill you all over again. D'you understand?"

Stiles gives him a sad smile. "I understand."

"Good." Just then, Scott's phone chimes from his pocket. He takes it out and looks at who is texting him. "I've got to go."

"Already?" Stiles asks, sitting up.

"Yeah…I promised Isaac I'd meet up with him at 2:30 and I'm late. It's 2:40 now."

"Oh…"

After putting his phone away, Scott pulls Stiles up and hugs him again. "Keep me updated, you hear me?"

"I will," Stiles promises, holding on tight.

Just a couple of minutes later, after they make plans for Scott to bring Isaac over at 1 p.m. the next day, Stiles stands on his porch and watches as his best friend drives away in his blue car. When the vehicle is out of sight, he goes back inside the house, shuts the door and sags against it. "Alone again," he mutters.

* * *

- Thursday, March 8th, 2018 -

The next morning, Derek arrives back in Beacon Hills filled with trepidation.

The drives his rental car through the town, thankful that the windows are tinted so no one in the other cars or walking on the sidewalks will be able to recognise him. They shouldn't be able to anyway—it's been a long time since he was last here, and he has changed a lot since he was sixteen—but it still provides Derek with some comfort, makes him a little less nervous as he cruises down the roads and tries to put off what he knows he has to do.

Sooner than he'd like, he leaves the heart of town and turns onto the road that will lead him to his old house.

"Nearly there," Derek tells himself, hoping he made the right decision in coming back.

When he inches up the long driveway to the house, Derek's grip on the steering wheel is so tight that he hears it start to break. He releases it quickly, leaving behind a few finger-shaped grooves that he will likely end up having to pay the dealership for. Wonderful.

Putting his foot back on the gas pedal, Derek drives the rest of the way to his old home and doesn't react when he eases into the clearing and sees the destroyed building. He pulls up the parking brake and switches off the engine of the car, all the while feeling numb. Odd. He thought he would feel something—rage, grief, sorrow—but there is nothing in his chest. Just a hollowness that seems all-encompassing. Nothing changes when he exits the rental car and walks up the front steps to the open front door, nor when he enters the building and sees the interior of his childhood home for the first time in fifteen years.

It's like he is detached from everything. The place is familiar, but at the same time it's not. It's all different, burned and dusty and devoid of all warmth and life. It doesn't smell of family but of death and decay. Derek walks into what used to be the living room and stares through the shattered window to his left, waiting for his emotions to come out. He is left waiting a long time, as it isn't until he looks down at the floor and sees fresh prints in the dust and ash that he feels anything, and even then it isn't a particularly strong emotion.

Curiosity.

Someone has been here very recently.

Derek breathes deeply through his nose, really paying attention to the scents he picks up this time. There, beneath the death and decay, is something else.

The scent of a man, quite a young one.

At first, Derek supposes that the visitor was just someone who morbidly wanted to see the site of a tragedy, maybe on a dare from his friends. But after inhaling the scent some more, Derek is able to pick out more notes in it and he changes his theory. The scent smells of deep sadness, determination and pain. It's an interesting combination, one that leads Derek to conclude that the younger man was here for a specific purpose—and not an official one, or to fulfil an ill-conceived dare.

His curiosity growing, Derek tracks the scent up to the first floor. It's everywhere, but it gets more pungent when he walks down the hallway to what used to be his bedroom. Pushing open the door, Derek steps inside and looks around the room, searching for something that seems out of place. But it's difficult to tell if anything is wrong after fifteen years. He thinks most things are still how he'd left them back then, and he is surprised that someone hadn't come in here and stolen everything with any sort of value to sell for cash. Maybe they were all too scared to try.

The fact that the strange man's scent is so strong in Derek's bedroom means one thing: he'd spent the most time in here.

Why?

As Derek continues to stand there and breathe the scent in, another emotion returns to him.

Anger. Rage, even. How dare he? How dare the stranger come here, to his bedroom, and look at all of his things?

Derek turns tail and exits the bedroom and then the whole house, still tracking the scent. It ends near where he'd parked the rental car. Of course. The stranger didn't come here on foot, just like Derek hasn't today. Unfortunately, this means that Derek won't be able to track him to wherever he is now and confront him. It'll have to wait.

Getting a handle on his emotions, Derek looks at his house one last time before he leaves for now.

He has another stop to make before finding some temporary lodgings for himself.

And it's going to be even tougher.

Chapter Text

- Thursday, March 8th, 2018 -

"You can do this," Derek whispers to himself. "You've left it long enough."

He has been standing by himself in front of the gate for the only cemetery in Beacon Hills for nearly half an hour now. Every five minutes or so, he'll think he has enough courage to enter, but every time he is about to cross the threshold he chickens out and steps back again. Other people have come and gone, each of them visiting the graves of loved ones. They look at him with pity on their way in and then with suspicion when he is still in the same spot on their way back to their cars.

"Just fucking do it, you idiot," he berates himself, curling his hands into fists at his sides. He winces when his claws dig into flesh and blood seeps out between his fingers, but the pain gets the job done, galvanising him into finally doing what he came here to do in the first place.

When the first step he takes onto the cemetery grounds doesn't result in his entire world crashing down, he takes another, and then another, until he is walking with some semblance of confidence to the location of his family's mausoleum, pulling his leather jacket tighter around his body to fight off the chill in the evening air. The grass is green and well-kept, all cut to a uniform length by some scrupulous groundskeeper, and here and there Derek can see pops of other colours as flowers begin to bloom again with the end of the long winter months.

Derek had only visited his family's mausoleum a handful of times as a child, when his parents dragged him along to pay his respects to his grandparents. As he walks past row after row of headstones, some with bouquets of flowers but most without, and the white marble building comes into view, Derek sees that it has hardly changed in the years since he last saw it. The only part of it that appears to have succumbed to the ravages of time is the metal embossed lettering above the entrance. It's still legible, but Derek doesn't bother reading it.

He knows what it says.

He pauses again with his hand on the handle of one of the double doors, this time just to take a deep breath. Once his lungs are filled with new air, he opens the door and steps inside, the soles of his shoes loud against the hard floor.

Most of the place is in shadow, but Derek can still see dead leaves in the corners from the autumn long gone. He pushes both doors open wide to allow in the mid-afternoon sun, meaning he doesn't have to rely on his enhanced werewolf eyesight. It goes a long way to making the place seem less eerie, erases the feeling that the souls of his dead relatives are looming over him judgmentally, threatening harm. It's a ridiculous thought. Derek doesn't really believe in ghosts, and even if he did, he doesn't think that anyone in his family would wish him ill.

There are several generations of Hales interred here. Derek passes by many plaques with names he doesn't really know and empty brass Royal Duchess flower vases on the walls, until he is approximately halfway inside and reaches the spaces that are not yet in use. He wonders if they ever will be, because he doesn't foresee himself having any children to pass on the Hale name, and Laura could go either way. Even if his sister does have children further down the line, it seems doubtful to Derek that they will return here when they eventually die a century from now.

Standing still, Derek turns and faces the divide between filled and unfilled spaces, between plaques and blank marble. In front of him is a group of names with which he is intimately familiar, all in a single column of five.

Talia Hale and Nicolas Hale, his parents.

Cora Hale, his baby sister.

Peter Hale and Daphne Hale, his uncle and his aunt by marriage.

Unlike all the others, the vases next to these names are filled with small bouquets of flowers, likely placed there by Laura three days ago. They have already begun to wilt, pretty white petals curling and turning an ugly black as Death claims yet more things in this horrible place.

Derek doesn't know how long he stands there and just stares at the names of his dead family. It's like he is in a trance, his eyes flicking between each plaque on repeat, until he is suddenly overcome by a paroxysm of rage so powerful he can't stop himself from punching the wall. The impact travels up the bones of his arm and into his shoulder, and this combined with the pain in his bloody knuckles is enough to quell the rage just as quickly as it had come on. He takes several deep breaths and feels sorrow and guilt when he steps back from the wall and sees what he has done.

The marble around his parents' plaques is noticeably cracked, and it's even caved inward where the punch landed. His eyes stinging, Derek chokes out a feeble apology and then hightails it out of there, his injured hand clamped over his mouth. When he gets back outside, he barely notices that there are now many more people in the cemetery. He just rushes past them all and ignores how frightened and worried they all look when they spot him coming. He doesn't stop until he is back behind the wheel of his rental car.

"What the fuck is the matter with you?" he berates himself, struggling to get his emotions back under control.

When he is no longer in danger of losing it, Derek leans his head against the headrest and stares at the blue sky through the front windshield, watching the clouds drift leisurely by. What is he going to tell Laura? He's going to have to tell her something, because she'll be back here again in another year at the latest, and she's going to see what he did. Derek can just imagine the disapproval in her voice and shudders, the wolf in him whimpering.

"Get a grip," he tells it, starting the engine and backing out of his parking space.

* * *

Derek ventures into town again with the intent of getting supplies and then revisiting some of his old haunts to reconnect with his happier teenage self—the high school, the mall, his favourite ice cream shop on Main Street, if it's still there. It's not much of a plan, Derek knows, but he concludes that immersing himself in the many good memories he has in Beacon Hills is better than continuing to focus exclusively on the bad.

That's what landed him in such a negative headspace in the first place.

His first port of call is to the grocery store. He is cautious as he wanders the aisles, just waiting for someone to recognise him and point him out to their friends. Maybe they'll even have the audacity to come up and talk to him. But, mercifully, nothing like that happens, and Derek exits the building with a grocery bag in each hand and a tiny weight lifted from his shoulders.

He gets back in his car, dumps the bags in the back seat and drives through town until he reaches Main Street. There is a single space on the left side, so Derek quickly eases into it before anyone else can take it and steps out into the sunshine again. His memory is a bit hazy, not helped by the fact that there are several shops around that he is sure weren't there when he was sixteen, but eventually he manages to navigate his way through the crowds of other pedestrians until he stands outside of the ice cream shop.

Derek is glad to note that this at least hasn't changed. The sign out front is more worn, the colours faded and the paint peeling, but looking through the window he sees that everything important remains the same. The same tiny booths line the left wall parallel to the counter, above which are several signs to inform patrons of the things the shop serves, particularly the things that aren't ice cream. The person behind the counter is not the same, but Derek supposes he shouldn't have expected any differently. It's been a decade and a half since he was last here, and the kind old man who used to run this place has probably retired by now.

"Are you going in?" says a voice from behind him.

Derek turns around with a frown, ready to step out of the way without a word, but then he sees who it is who spoke.

"Derek? Is that you?" the other man asks, his eyes wide with wonder and disbelief.

Jordan Parrish. God, Derek hasn't thought about him for nearly as long as he has been in New York.

"Hey, Jordan," Derek says awkwardly, unsure what a situation like this calls for. Fortunately he doesn't have to figure it out himself, because Jordan takes care of it for him.

"It's so good to see you!" the other man exclaims, wrapping him up in an effusive hug that, were Derek not a werewolf, would probably break his ribs.

Derek returns the embrace with slightly less enthusiasm, and when it ends he gives his old friend a once-over.

Parrish is still instantly recognisable, but just like Derek he has changed a lot over the years. His face has more lines, although his eyes are just as bright, and his body has filled out quite a bit. Derek has a bit more muscle on him, but not much. Most striking of all is that gone are the band T-shirts, ratty jeans and chains that Parrish always used to wear back in high school. In their place is what looks like a neat uniform, which consists of black trousers and a short-sleeved beige button-up. Derek wonders what the uniform is for at first, but then he spots the gun holster on Parrish's hip and recalls seeing people in the Sheriff's Department dressed very similarly in the aftermath of the fire.

"So you're in law enforcement now," Derek observes.

"Yup! Went into the academy right after graduation," Parrish says proudly, puffing out his chest a little.

"Good for you."

"What about you? What've you been up to since you left?"

"Uhh…it's kind of a long story." And Derek isn't sure he even wants to tell it.

"Well, you're getting some ice cream, right?"

Derek glances at the entrance. "Yeah, I guess."

"Come on, then. We'll talk, grab a booth and catch up!"

Derek is apprehensive as Jordan links their arms with too much familiarity for how estranged they are and leads him into the shop. This is probably not the best idea, especially given how emotionally spent he is already, but he doesn't pull away, a tiny voice in his head saying that this might be just what the doctor ordered.

And even if it's not, there is only one way to find out.

* * *

"It sucks that you got fired, dude," Jordan says sympathetically, after Derek has just told him about it.

They sit on either side of a blood-red booth with ice cream cones in hand. Derek opted for his old favourite of mint chocolate chip with a plain cone, which he hasn't had in years, whereas Jordan went with strawberry and a chocolate-dipped cone. It's relatively cool and empty inside the shop, only one of the other booths occupied and one customer currently being served, so they don't have to eat quickly and Derek feels reasonably comfortable.

Aside from his family, he thinks situations like these are what he missed most about living in Beacon Hills. In New York, an establishment such as this would never be this empty, especially just before 2 p.m. It's the main reason Derek hasn't had ice cream in so long, and why he barely went out in the city in general, because he just couldn't stand being around the crowds. It was too overwhelming for his werewolf senses, which he can only suppress for so long. Being in the heart of Beacon Hills can get a bit much too, Derek recalls, but it's nowhere near as bad. Another plus to being back, he supposes.

"It's alright," Derek says, taking a small bite of his ice cream.

Jordan grimaces. "Ugh, you still do that."

"Do what?"

"Bite your ice cream like a weirdo. And here I was hoping you'd've grown out of it."

Derek snorts and takes another bite. "Nope."

"Just seeing you do that hurts my teeth."

"A simple solution would be not to watch me eat then," Derek teases. He is surprised to hear himself sound like that again.

"Whatever. Still, I dunno what I'd do if I got fired so suddenly like that."

"You actually like your job though, right?"

Jordan nods. "Right. You didn't like advertising?"

Derek shrugs. "It was alright sometimes, but some of the clients could be assholes, several of my coworkers were lazy and my boss was always an asshole. I'll find something better."

"Back in New York?"

Derek hesitates. "Probably," he settles on after a few seconds.

Jordan appraises him closely, seemingly not noticing how his ice cream is beginning to drip down his fingers. "Either way, it's great to see you again. If you do go back, we should stay in touch this time."

The corners of Derek's lips curl upward. "I'd like that," he agrees.

For another half an hour, he and Jordan catch each other up on the other things that have happened since their lives drifted apart, even after they have both finished their ice cream. With his keen eyes, Derek spots the wedding ring on the other man's finger, enquires about it, genuinely interested, and is instantly regretful when Jordan talks at length about how amazing his wife is. A woman a few years younger than him who is apparently some sort of math genius, in just a couple of minutes Derek already feels like he knows Lydia Martin-Parrish without ever having met her.

"Sorry, am I talking too much?" Jordan says after a while, looking sheepish.

"Nah, it's fine," Derek reassures him, pleased that his old friend is clearly so in love.

Jordan glances down at Derek's hands, which are clasped together on the tabletop. "What about you? Are you seeing anyone special?"

The bearded man shakes his head. "No," he says simply.

"Well there are plenty of fish in the sea, as everyone always says. You'll find someone."

Derek isn't sure he actually wants someone like that, nor that he would be any good in a relationship if he were to find someone who interested him. While talking to Jordan has turned out to be a good thing for him, almost making him forget about everything else, Derek still has a whole host of problems that would likely prevent him from being a good romantic partner. He has only been with one person long enough for him to consider it a proper relationship, and that was all the way back in high school with another student named Paige. She was another person he lost contact with very quickly after the fire.

Since then, Derek has been on a few dates Laura all but forced on him, none of which went anywhere. The other people were all nice enough, but Derek's heart just wasn't in it. Eventually Laura gave up, and since then Derek has just stuck to the occasional sexual encounter that all lasted a single night. They were mostly with women, but sometimes another man would hit on him and Derek found him attractive enough not to turn him down.

"Maybe in the future," he says noncommittally.

"Not like you'd have any trouble," Jordan chuckles.

"What?"

"Hey, I may be happily married and straight, but I'm secure enough in my sexuality to say that you're a really hot guy," Jordan points out, his eyebrow raised as if he is daring Derek to contradict him.

Said man shifts uncomfortably in his seat. "Uh…thanks?"

"You are gonna make some lucky woman very happy one day, I just know it. Or some lucky man, if that's more your thing."

Derek just nods along.

"Anyway, this has been great, but I really have to run," Jordan says, standing up. "I've gotta get back on the job."

Derek gets to his feet as well and follows the deputy outside, where he gets ready to part ways. Before that happens though, Jordan gets out his phone, unlocks it and holds it out to Derek with an empty contact listing on screen.

"Here, give me your number and we'll hang out again sometime. Maybe before you go back to New York, if you decide that you were just visiting."

Derek takes the device and does so, thinking that Laura would probably be proud of him for making a friend. Or patching things up with an old one, he supposes. Such a thought makes him feel like a little kid, and even that is probably an unfair comparison because plenty of kids are more well-adjusted when it comes to being social than he is, even at thirty-one years of age.

God, that's pathetic, he thinks self-deprecatingly.

"Awesome," Jordan says when he takes his phone back. He taps away on the screen and then Derek's phone buzzes in the pocket of his jeans. "There, now you have my number too." Jordan grins. "No excuse now!"

Derek shakes his head with grudging amusement. "Right."

"Until then, Derek."

Before departing, Jordan pulls the werewolf into another hug that is thankfully less constricting. Derek doesn't feel as awkward returning it either, and when the other man releases him and walks away with a final wave, he feels uplifted in a way. It's nice to know that someone out there who isn't related to him actually gives a damn about him, even someone he hasn't seen in sixteen years.

That's just like Jordan Parrish, Derek recalls as he journeys back to his rental car. Even back in high school, the deputy was gregarious and kind to everyone. He couldn't have asked for a better friend, and now that it looks like he might be getting him back in some capacity, Derek feels a little guilty for allowing their friendship to devolve to nothing.

At least he can make it right now.

As he is walking, Derek passes by many people who are just blank faces to him, their scents mixing into something bland.

Until he passes by two men holding hands, one taller and pale with curly brown hair, the other shorter with tanned skin. Derek whips around when they pass him, but not because of any of that. It's because of the scent he got from them. It's the same scent he came across that morning in his family's house. It's faint enough that he knows it doesn't come from one of the other men themselves, but from someone they have recently come into close contact with.

Derek considers chasing after them, but what would he say? Their own scents smell human, so they wouldn't understand if he told them that he needed to know where they just were because of another scent they carry. Huffing, Derek turns to look the way they'd just come and takes a few moments to pick out their scent trail.

He follows it.

* * *

Because Derek can't really track a scent while he is driving, he has to leave his rental car where it is and walk on foot. It takes him nearly half an hour to find the point where the scents of the two men become purely their own. Derek doesn't remember the street he is on, probably because he never had cause to venture down it when he lived in town. The house he tracked the scent to is two storeys and has an ugly sky-blue Jeep parked in the driveway, likely belonging to whoever is inside.

As he stands on the street, Derek takes advantage of the fact that the curtains are drawn to look in through the living room window.

What he sees stirs back up the rage he'd felt that morning.

He can't really see much at first, but after glancing around to check that no one is watching him and then moving closer to the window, Derek stares at a whiteboard with his last name written on it in big red letters. And right next to that, he can just about make out one of the photographs that used to sit on the mantlepiece in his burned-down home.

Yes, Derek thinks to himself, this was definitely who he smelled back there.

Allowing his rage to consume him, he marches to the front door and rings the doorbell. He hears a rapid heartbeat and footsteps, and then a man approximately the same age as the couple Derek saw on the street opens the door a crack.

Derek is momentarily sidetracked by his looks. The other man is about the same height as him and his eyes are the most striking honey colour, made warmer by the mid-afternoon sun. His hair is brown and short, and the pale skin of his face is dotted with small moles. Even with the door only partially open and all of his skin basically covered up, Derek can tell that the other man is much thinner than him, without much muscle at all. In fact, Derek would go so far as to say that he is too thin, like he doesn't take proper care of himself at all.

"Can I help you?" the man asks nervously, keeping the door closed most of the way.

"Yes, you can," Derek growls, only just managing to stop his eyes from flashing gold. He uses his great strength to shove his way inside and slam the door closed behind himself, causing the strange man to shake with terror and back away from him. Not allowing such a pitiful sight to mollify him, Derek advances on him into the living room. "Maybe you can explain to me why you were in my house recently, and why you have that photograph on your whiteboard."

"W-what?" the man squeaks, confused. But only momentarily. After a few seconds, Derek sees recognition in his eyes.

"Yeah, you know who I am, don't you?"

"Derek Hale…" the other man whispers. He still sounds scared, but there is relief and awe in his voice now too.

Derek stalks closer, until he has the other man trapped against a wall. "Tell me!" he snarls, getting right up in his face.

"I wanted to know more about you and your family," the other man answers.

"Why?!"

The thinner man swallows tightly and his eyes become sad. "Because you're going to die."

Chapter Text

- Thursday, March 8th, 2018 -

The words echo around inside Derek's head. It takes him a few moments to process them.

"Because you're going to die."

The slimmer man keeps looking at him sadly, like he is waiting for a reaction. Maybe for Derek to freak out or cry or maybe even punch him. Derek honestly doesn't know what he should do with this. Some stranger, the same stranger who trespassed on his family's old property and stole a photograph from a trip to the beach they'd taken when they were kids, is telling him that he is going to die. Is it a warning? A threat? Derek doesn't see how it could be. He doesn't think there is anything this fragile-looking human could do to him that would cause serious or long-lasting damage, unless maybe he has a gun loaded with wolfsbane bullets concealed somewhere on his person. But then Derek would be able to smell it, and he can't smell anything unusual.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Derek asks him, confusion causing him to forget about his anger and take a step back.

"It's exactly what it sounds like," the other man says softly, relaxing now that he isn't being pressed against the wall by another wall of solid muscle.

"What?"

"You're going to die. I saw it."

Derek squints at him, thinking that that doesn't elucidate things at all. If anything, it exacerbates them. "Saw it?"

"Look…" The other man sighs. "Why don't we both calm down and sit down or something, okay? This is gonna take some explaining."

Derek is wary as the stranger walks around him and takes a seat on the sofa that is positioned in the middle of the room. The coffee table in front of it has three plates and mugs on it, the former with dark-brown crumbs on them and the latter with a few drops of brown liquid remaining at the bottoms. It doesn't take much for Derek to figure out that one set belonged to the stranger and the other two belonged to the two men he encountered on the street, whose scent trails led him here. Putting as much space between them as he can, Derek sits down as well, the whiteboard with his last name written on it right in front of him.

"So, first thing's first, my name's Stiles Stilinski," the thinner man informs Derek.

"Okay," the werewolf says impatiently, just wanting him to get to the point.

"I'm…I don't even know what to call it. Psychic, maybe? Whatever it is, ever since I was little, I've been able to see how people will die by skin-to-skin contact."

Derek's first instinct is to scoff. Psychic? Really? But then he thinks that he is a werewolf. His entire family consisted of werewolves, so it's not out of the question that this man could really be telling the truth. There's just one issue he has: "But we've never met before today," he says almost smugly, like he is one-upping the other man by catching him in a lie. "How do you explain why you have all this shit then?"

"Because, a few days ago, I bumped into your sister on the street."

Having not expected that answer, Derek narrows his eyes. "And what, she's going to die, too?"

"Yes."

Derek can't stop a laugh from bubbling up. "Bullshit."

"It's true!" Stiles exclaims, and the passion that is in his whiskey gaze brings Derek's laughter to an end. "I saw you both being burned alive."

"W-what?"

Such a claim is far too similar to what has happened in the past that all amusement is sucked from Derek. Memories of his family, of that horrible night, assault him.

"Listen, I know this is hard to swallow, but I'm not lying. I really did see you die, and if the pattern from the other people I've seen holds, you've got less than a month," Stiles carries on explaining. He stands up and gestures to the whiteboard. "That's why I've been gathering all this, trying to find out more information so I can hopefully stop it before it's too late. That's why I was in your old house. I was actually gonna try to look up where you and Laura are living now and get in contact with you today. But then you showed up on my doorstep, so I guess I don't have to anymore."

Derek tries to keep an open mind and looks at the whiteboard as well, deciding it's best if he plays along. At least for the time being. Stiles seems relatively harmless, and something about him is actually endearing now that Derek is no longer filled with white-hot fury. He pays attention to the stuff on the left side of the whiteboard that he was too far away to read before and frowns when he sees that it's all about hellhounds. "And how do you explain all of that?"

"That's what I think kills you."

"Really?"

"Well, I only got a glimpse of something doglike and on fire before it jumped on me."

Derek is bemused again. "On you? I thought you said this thing will kill me and Laura, not you."

"That's how the visions or premonitions or whatever work."

"I don't follow."

With a long-suffering sigh that gets under Derek's skin, Stiles begins pacing back and forth in front of the whiteboard.

"When my skin touches someone else's, that night I'll sometimes have a dream—a nightmare. I'll see that person's death, but it's not like I'm a bystander. I am that person."

"So which one of us were you?"

"Laura. She's the one I bumped into."

"So the one whose skin you touch is who you inhabit?"

"Most of the time." Stiles appraises Derek with something almost like pity. "But not always."

The werewolf ignores the look. "That's some strange gift you've got there."

When Stiles speaks next, his voice is filled with scorn and he wraps his thin arms around his equally thin torso, like he is protecting himself from something. He stares at the floor. "Believe me, it's not a gift. It's the furthest thing from a fucking gift."

"I don't understand," Derek says.

"No, you don't. This is hell. I've seen so many people die. My mom, my dad, a whole bunch of strangers, your family all those years ago. And I don't just see it through their eyes. I hear all of it. I feel all of it."

This catches Derek's attention. "My family?"

"Yeah… That's the one anomaly in how this curse works. Cora was in my class that year. I must have bumped into her one day, maybe on the playground or something, but when I had the dream I was in your mom's body, not Cora's. I don't know why. Usually there's just one death, so maybe when there are multiple it's random? I guess it doesn't matter."

Against his better judgment, Derek finds himself starting to believe. "So you know what it's like to…"

"To burn to death?" Stiles says helpfully. When he raises his eyes again, they're wet and haunted and his skin is even paler. "Oh yeah, I know. Twice now, with you and Laura. Lucky me, right?"

"That's…"

"Definitely not a gift. You wanna know what other deaths I've experienced?"

Derek shakes his head. "Not really."

Stiles tells him anyway, and Derek gets the impression that he doesn't speak about this much and is enjoying getting it all off of his chest.

"I know what it's like to burn to death, obviously. I also know what it's like to fall off a very tall building, the sidewalk rushing up beneath you. I know what it's like to be shot and bleed out on the ground. That was my dad's death. He was the sheriff and got shot in a robbery gone wrong. I know what it's like to wither away in a hospital bed and then suddenly stop breathing. That one was my mom. Frontotemporal dementia. I know what it's like to be a little girl and be drowned by your own dad, someone who is supposed to love you unconditionally. I know what it's like to be chased down a dark alley, be caught, and then raped and strangled. I don't even have a vagina, and I know what that feels like, how that man held her down and tore her apart, made her bleed—"

"Stiles, stop!" Derek yells, leaping to his feet and wrapping his hands around the younger man's barely-there biceps.

Startled, Stiles breathes heavily and stares wide-eyed at Derek. "Sorry…"

"It's fine. Just…stop talking. I get it. Not a gift."

Up this close and with no anger to distract him, Derek is able to concentrate on the younger man's pure scent. He had only smelled a diluted or tainted version until now, but now that it's straight from the source, Derek can pick out the notes and the emotions they represent. It's…a lot. There are other notes in it too, but the overwhelming majority of it is just filled with sadness, a deep depression. With everything that Stiles has just told him, Derek can understand why he feels that way.

After a few more seconds, Stiles pulls out of Derek's hold and leaves the room for a minute, walking into what the beta presumes is his kitchen. Derek hears him sniffle a couple of times and blow his nose, and then he reenters the living room, his eyes dry again but still slightly red around the edges. He laughs wryly when he sees the way Derek is regarding him with concern. "I'm kind of a mess, in case you didn't notice already."

"I did," Derek says honestly.

Stiles smiles but it doesn't reach his eyes. "Great."

"What were you planning on doing when you found us? Before I found you first."

"Just to tell you everything I knew and hope you believed me, I guess. And if you didn't I was pretty much gonna stalk you."

Derek raises an eyebrow at him. "Stalk us?"

"Well yeah. If you didn't believe me, I'd still know there was danger coming for you, and I'd just have to figure out a way to stop it by myself. I'd have to be close by to do that."

"Right."

Stiles sits back down. "So do you believe me, or are you gonna make me stalk you?"

Derek rolls his eyes. "I believe you."

"Wow." Stiles blinks a few times. "I actually wasn't expecting that."

"Just shut up and take it before I change my mind."

Stiles gets a funny look on his face and his cheeks redden slightly, but he doesn't point out how Derek's words could sound if taken out of context. "So how do we do this?" he asks instead, pointing to the many pages of research into hellhounds he has stuck up on his whiteboard. "How the hell do we find out which of this supernatural shit is actually real and what's bullshit? 'Cause we'll need to do that to know how to stop it when the time comes."

"We need to tell Laura," Derek says. "She's in danger too and she's my alpha. She should be a part of this."

"Your alpha?"

Derek realises his slip and internally curses. Well, Stiles is apparently psychic and is already convinced that hellhounds are real, so letting him in on the big wolfy secret can't be too bad, right? "I'm a werewolf."

Stiles gapes and sits forward. "Whoa, really?"

To prove it, Derek shifts briefly into his beta form. His eyes glow gold, coarse hair grows down the sides of his face, blending into his beard, his eyebrows recede and his brow becomes heavier, shadowing his eyes. For good measure, he bares his fangs and then pushes his inner wolf back so that his face returns to normal. He expects to see fear in Stiles' expression, but there is none at all. If anything, Stiles just looks fascinated.

"Wow, you weren't kidding. That's kind of amazing, dude."

"Don't call me 'dude'."

"You're pretty grumpy, aren't you?"

Derek glares. "You would be too if basically your whole family died. Or was murdered, like Laura has always suspected."

Stiles sobers quickly. "True. That reminds me: In the dream I had of you two, Laura came back here because she found a new lead or something, and you followed her. That's specifically why I went to your house yesterday, not just to learn more about the two of you but because Laura was there to see if whatever she'd learned shed new light on anything. You were sceptical, and that's when the hellhound attacked."

Absorbing this information, Derek pulls out his phone. "She didn't tell me she was still looking into the fire."

"Maybe she wanted to leave you out of it until she found something concrete. Like, to not get your hopes up or something."

"Maybe…"

"Are you gonna call her?"

"Yes. Her work is gonna kill her when she has to take even more leave to come right back here again."

"Well, better her job is pissed at her than her actually dying in about a month."

While Derek calls his sister, Stiles leaves for the kitchen again to give him some semblance of privacy. He remembers to take the dirty plates and mugs with him this time and puts them into the dishwasher, which is almost full and will need to be put on overnight. That done, Stiles gets some clean stuff out of the cupboards and wonders what he should serve. With Scott and Isaac it was easy. In spite of the years apart, they had known each other for more years before that and their tastes hadn't changed much since then, so Stiles already knew what they liked best. That Isaac likes some peanut butter glaze on top of his brownies and Scott likes them with salted caramel. That Isaac takes his coffee black and Scott always has several sugars and some cream in his.

But Derek is a stranger.

Stiles hears the murmuring of the werewolf—which, wow—from the other room as he thinks. In the end, he concludes that it will be best if he gets all the options out and Derek can just decide for himself.

While he waits for the phone call to end, Stiles brews more coffee and opens the Tupperware container in which he is keeping the brownies he'd made last night, specially for Isaac's visit. Half have some peanut butter glaze on top and with the others he'd swirled salted caramel into the batter. Stiles places one of each on Derek's plate and pours them both some coffee before sticking the plate and the two mugs on a tray, where they are joined by a small bowl of sugar and the half-full jug of cream that has probably been sitting out too long but should still be fine.

When the quiet murmurs stop, Stiles picks up the tray and carries it through to the living room. "What did she say?" he asks Derek, who stands in front of the whiteboard.

"She's booking the next flight here. She and her mate will arrive tomorrow afternoon."

"Her mate?"

"Yes."

"What does that mean? Is that like…her boyfriend?"

Derek shakes his head, still reading the many pages Stiles has on the whiteboard. "It's more serious than that."

"Husband, then. Or wife."

"I guess it's close to a regular human marriage, except there is no divorce. Just like with actual wolves, werewolves mate for life."

Stiles hums, engrossed. "Do you have a mate?"

Derek is silent for a few seconds, and then he shakes his head. "No, I don't."

Stiles can tell from the sudden tension in the werewolf's shoulders that he is uncomfortable discussing his love life, or lack thereof, so he changes the subject. "So, Laura's been investigating the fire?"

"Apparently so."

"Is that why she was here a few days ago?"

Derek shakes his head again but then seems to reconsider. "I guess it might have been partly why. She comes back every year to visit our family's graves. She might also be checking some things too, killing two birds with one stone."

"Dude, come eat," Stiles says, tiring of talking to the back of Derek's head.

Said man glances back over his shoulder and squints at the brownies. "Homemade?"

"Yup. Made 'em last night for a friend of mine."

This seems to convince Derek to at least give them a try. Stiles gets it, because store-bought brownies can sometimes be dry and horrible. He sits quietly and watches out of the corner of his eye, waiting for a reaction as Derek sits down on the opposite end of the sofa, selects the salted caramel brownie and nibbles warily on the corner of it. As he was hoping, Derek's face lights up and he takes a real bite. From the little time they have spent together, Stiles has already got the impression that the werewolf wouldn't appreciate him commenting on such an uncharacteristic expression appearing on his face, so he remains quiet and sips from his fourth cup of coffee.

"So where are you staying?" he asks. "And how long are you in town for?"

After swallowing the last bite of the first brownie, Derek replies: "The answer to both of those questions is, 'I haven't decided yet'. I'll probably find a hotel or something."

"Oh, you don't need to do that."

Derek looks at Stiles doubtfully. "Why not?"

"That would be a total waste of money. You can just stay here," Stiles suggests before he can think better of it.

"I don't think that's such a good idea."

Part of Stiles agrees with Derek. The thought of having someone else under his roof, even if only for a couple of weeks or so, a month at most, is daunting. He is so used to constant solitude that he isn't sure he would know how to act with another person in his space all the time. But, as well as being daunting, the idea is enticing. His loneliness is still there, ever present, and having someone else around could also be a good thing, even if that someone is the ornery Derek Hale.

"Think about it. We're gonna have to work together for the foreseeable future anyway."

Derek puts down his second half-eaten brownie and sets the plate back on the tray on the coffee table. "You really wouldn't mind me staying here?"

"Sure, it's no skin off my teeth. I've got plenty of room. You can take the spare bedroom, and when your sister and her mate get here, they can stay in my parents' old bedroom."

Derek is still apprehensive, but he acquiesces because it's better than staying in a hotel room, where hundreds of other people have left their scents and bodily fluids all over the bedsheets.

Stiles grins. "Great! You go get your stuff, and I'll get the rooms ready!"

Before Derek can say anything else, Stiles disappears upstairs, his excitement obvious from the speed with which he moves.

What did I sign myself up for? Derek thinks, already regretting his decision.

* * *

Jordan Parrish is a happy man as he leaves the sheriff's station. His job was reasonably easy today, with little crime being committed and the criminals that were around being a joke to apprehend. He reconnected with an old friend who he missed quite a lot since they lost touch when they were sixteen and he moved away. And tonight he has a dinner date with his beautiful wife, who is finally back from a trip after two long weeks.

The deputy makes a quick stop at the grocery store to pick up some flowers—something pink, Lydia's favourite colour—and then he makes his way home.

When he arrives he finds the downstairs lights on and Lydia's red car in the driveway, which she drove back from where she parked it at the airport before she left. Parrish's heart beats quicker with anticipation as he parks his vehicle next to hers and gets out, making sure not to damage the bouquet he'd picked. The front door is unlocked, so he goes right inside their house and closes it behind himself, the smell of food and his wife's favourite scented candles immediately filling his nostrils. It's a strange combination but not an unpleasant one, the artificial cinnamon of the candles actually complementing whatever spicy dish Lydia has ordered in for them, presumably something Indian.

He follows the scents to the dining room, where he finds his wife waiting for him dressed in a form-fitting black dress that beautifully accents her pale skin and red hair. Said hair falls in gentle waves to just above her breasts and her makeup is immaculate as always, her black eyeliner and mascara making her green eyes seem even brighter and her lips painted blood-red, her signature shade.

"Hey, Jordan," Lydia says, walking around the table to greet him properly with a kiss.

Jordan reciprocates it and then brings the flowers out from where he'd hidden them behind his back.

Lydia smiles appreciatively, like she always does no matter how many bouquets he buys for her. "They're gorgeous! Thank you."

"You're welcome. I thought we were going out to eat tonight."

"We were, but I figured a night in would be good for us, especially since it's been so long since we've seen each other." The gleam in her eyes makes it clear to Jordan that by a 'night in' she means more than just dinner. "Plus, I was tired from my flight and didn't feel like going out again, so…"

"Did everything go okay?"

"Yeah, it was fine. Just long."

Lydia kisses his cheek and then goes off in search of an empty vase.

While his wife does that, Jordan makes a brief journey upstairs to divest himself of his uniform. Since Lydia dressed up for him even though she is tired, he makes an effort too, selecting one of his nicer shirts from their shared walk-in closet, a deep red button-up, and a pair of black jeans that don't look like jeans until you get up close. Both were anniversary presents from Lydia a couple of years ago and probably cost more than he would care to know, but he would treasure them even if they were the cheapest items of clothing on the planet.

Back downstairs now, Jordan reenters the dining room and sees that Lydia has added the vase of new flowers as the centrepiece on the table. Into two glasses she pours some red wine from a bottle that he is sure wasn't in the house that morning. She must have brought it back with her from her trip.

For the next half hour, Jordan and Lydia converse over a dinner of curry, tandoori chicken and fine wine. When the food has settled in their stomachs and the candles scattered artfully around the dining room have all been blown out, the couple run upstairs, take off each other's clothes and fall into bed together, both tipsy and feeling like newlyweds all over again. As he makes love to her, Jordan is amazed that things can still feel this way between them, even after several years. Life is never boring with Lydia by his side.

When they finish and his wife falls asleep with her head on his chest, Jordan lies awake for a few minutes longer and stares up at the ceiling.

A strange feeling suddenly comes over him, his skin tingling like someone is watching him. The sheets are pulled up to their waists, covering most of their nudity, and there is no one else in the room or in the whole house, but still he somehow feels completely exposed, like something is deeply wrong. He can't for the life of him figure out what it is, though, and then the feeling vanishes just as quickly as it had come on. Maybe he drank more wine than he thought he did, and without soft, pale skin, tight heat and passionate kisses to distract him he is finally feeling the effects of it manifesting.

Yes, that must be it.

Shaking the residual discomfort off, Jordan wraps his right arm tighter around Lydia's back, tucks his other hand behind his head and closes his eyes.