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Across a Certain Threshold

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On the day the new kid steals Derek's next book from the Eichen House library, Derek wakes with no memory of falling asleep.

But that's the funny thing about losing your memory. The simple concept of time becomes confusing. At some point, it's all just the same endless nightmare. It's here and now, with no before or after. No outside world, no homesickness—at least not anymore. Especially since Derek can't remember whether it's been three months, three years, or three decades since he's been locked up in here.

That's Eichen for you. It wears you down: a slow grind until you accept your place.

Eichen means echo, someone told him once. One of the other patients, back in Derek's first days here, before the others knew enough to be afraid of him. And an echo is all he is now. The same echo, day after day after day. Sometimes, Derek comes to and he's just lying on the thin mattress of his bed, staring up at the panelled ceiling of his room, like someone's flipped off a switch in his mind. Or he sleeps through the afternoon, because there's nothing else to do. Or he paces restlessly, prowling back and forth in front of the door to the hall as if he can summon someone to let him out, just through sheer focus. Or he does half a million pushups in the corner, hoping to force all that pent-up energy somewhere. Or he wakes from half-remembered dreams of dark, faceless creatures.

Now, though, there are faint noises outside in the hall, thin and muffled. Derek barely pauses his pacing. Don't get your hopes up, he tells himself firmly, even as longing surges in his chest. He thinks it's time, and it feels like time, but he can never be sure. There are no clocks in his room. And maybe the worst thing about this place is the insulation, really: even to his keen werewolf ears, he can only make out the barest sounds outside his closed door.

Still, he picks up the tattered copy of The Iliad from the bedside table, running his fingers along the worn edges as he winds his way back and forth around his bed.

Eventually, there's a scrape of a key in the lock, and the knob turns. Nurse Roberts leans inside the room, his coppery red hair a shock against the white walls. The faint scent of cigarette smoke, probably lingering from his last break, wafts through the air. "Hale," the man barks gruffly. He meets Derek's scowl with a frown, then steps back to open the door fully. "It's your hour. I'll get you when it's done."

Derek's swept past Roberts almost before he's gotten out the last word. There's only an hour, there's only ever one hour, and he's so sick of his room he could die.

The rest of Eichen isn't much to look at either, but it's something different from the walls in his room. And that's something, at least. For just one hour a day—eleven to noon, on the dot—Derek's free to wander the building as he chooses. The tight schedule is grueling for a werewolfespecially one accustomed to prowling a territory as massive as the Hale Preserve.

Partway to the common lounge, he makes a conscious effort to slow his steps, to calm his heart rate. Pauses to run his hand through his hair. All the desperate, frantic energy that builds up while he waits to be let out of his room each day—that's exactly what he can't show. Not if he wants the powers-that-be to change his schedule, to trust him with more free time.

Not if he wants them to think he's normal. If they ever will. A wave of weariness washes over him. He quashes it fast, mostly because there are better times to have a mental breakdown. Better times, when he's not free for one glorious hour of the day.

Well, maybe "glorious" is too strong a word.

The common lounge seems to stretch almost as far as Derek's old house on the preserve, with low-slung ceilings and the kind of actual antique decorations the Hales had thrown out long ago. Patchy but comfortable sofas are arranged in clusters, with the occasional throw pillow bearing stupid motivational phrases like Dream big and Happiness is a choice. There's a couple televisions on the wall, and a piano in the corner. Everything's done up in old, dark wood, probably a traditional choice from the '70s. In Derek's opinion, it makes it all look like the somber interior of a funeral home.

At this hour, most of the other patients are hanging out in here, playing cards on the sofas or squabbling with each other. A blonde girl sobs in the corner while a nurse looks on in exasperation. On a coffee table, a middle-aged man curls up in a ball for a nap.

So, pretty much par for the course.

Derek keeps to the edges of the room, pacing along the walls a little. Even after amount of time here, he doesn't really know anyone, at least not personally. Even in this house of misfits and loners, Derek is always on the fringes.

Some of the other patients know him, though. They give him a side-eye as he passes, and he occasionally catches whispers like "Look, the runner's at it again," or "Clockwork, isn't it, Fran?"

He can feel the growl building deep in his stomach, like it's just a matter of time before he drops his fangs and claws—but that's the other reason he paces through Eichen so fast. If he focuses on moving, there's no time to engage with anyone. There's nothing and no one for his rage to latch onto, and by the time he's heard the whispers he's already halfway across the room.

It feels good to stretch his legs, to pace—no running allowed, he's been firmly told. So he paces around the room, and past one of the med stations, and around the cafeteria.

A part of him, somewhere deep down, is always keeping an eye out for the woods. Like he might round the corner to find trees in the distance instead of more dingy walls. Like some kind of lunatic. He's on the hunt for a single note of birdsong, for a faint breeze, for something green. But the only green thing here is the tiny succulent he sees on Dr. Alsina's desk once a week, and he's pretty sure it's plastic.

As he rounds the corner near the media room, he has just enough time to catch a flash of dark hair before slamming headlong into someone. It all happens fast, but in the end he's still standing, only stumbling back as if blown by sudden gust of wind, and a girl's sprawled in front of him on the floor. It's so fast he can't keep the snarl off his face, though he manages at the last second to keep his fangs back, fighting against the irrational fury building in his chest. The girl's dark eyes widen in fear as she scrabbles back, terrified.

"Hey, be caref—" A guy steps out of the room, but this would-be-rescuer stops short at the sight of Derek, or at whatever expression's on Derek's face right now. "Oh."

Derek snarls at them. And then, realizing his hands are balled into fists, he consciously unclenches them. The Iliad is a little crushed, but the old book's seen worse.

The man, an older guy with knobbly elbows and gnarled hands, slowly bends over to help the girl up. "Okay, bud," he says to Derek, as one might talk to a wounded animal—and the patronizing tone just draws more of Derek's fury. "C'mon, Clem," he murmurs, and then, to Derek: "We're just movin' along."

Willing himself still, Derek lets the two skirt around him so he can compose himself enough to keep moving. Where did that come from? he wonders miserably as the rage seeps away.

Pretending to be normal is hardHere in Eichen, at least. The slightest touch from anyone but pack sets him off these days. His wolf howls for them, for his family. For his dead.

"Ten-minute warning, Hale," Nurse Chen tells him boredly as he rounds the lounge again. She's keeping an eye on a pale-skinned lady who's muttering to herself in front of the window. "And don't think Dr. Alsina won't bring up all these outbursts at your one-on-one this week."

"I wasn't doing anything wrong!" he protests, and it comes out in a growl.

"I'm just saying. Keep it together, kid," she replies, not bothering to look his way.

He snarls, thinks better of it, and sets out for the library. He doesn't have time to get in an argument with her, not with the last minutes of freedom slowly draining away.

The library here is one of Derek's only sources of consolation. Which is a sentence he definitely would have scoffed at just a few (weeks, months, years?) ago. But when you're stuck in the same room for days and days on end, always one second away from losing your shit, the only bit of world you can see is in the pages of a book. It's enough, at least, for Derek to keep from going actually out of his mind.

There's not really much of a selection, though. Compared to the other, more spacious rooms of the House, the library is more of a closet—if maybe a largish, walk-in one. It's longer than it is wide, with the two longer walls completely lined with books. The third has filing cabinets to document check-ins and check-outs, according to a sporadically enforced 24-hour-loan rule.

There's also a table and four chairs in the middle of the room, rarely used—but someone's here now. A new guy, one Derek can't remember seeing before. He only catches a glimpse of dark hair and a smattering of moles against pale skin before disregarding him entirely.

The books in here generally belong to one of three categories. There are classics, the sorts of things you definitely read in high school or college, and those probably take up about three-quarters of the shelf space. The second category is romance novels, the squat, brick-like ones you get for a dollar at a used book sale. Then there's the set of encyclopedias from 2005.

Not much of a selection, but Derek makes do.

He slots The Iliad into place on the shelf and notes the return in the files. The books are sorted alphabetically, and Derek's spent part of the last few hours deciding which one on his list to reread. He peers through the section once, twice, three times.

There's a blank space where the book should be.

Derek lets out a low snarl. Practically no one ever checks out books here, and of course the one he's set on is gone. It's stupid to be this pissed, but all of a sudden the rage is just there. And he wonders who has it—one of the patients in the common lounge, probably, curled up around it on the couch.

Derek's not sure why the thought sets his blood to boiling. He rises, torn between choosing another book and hunting down whoever took the stupid thing. And then as he stands, he suddenly sees it, right on the table. He recognizes one of the grotesque illustrations on the page: a dead man lying in darkness, hidden beneath the floorboards of a house.

The mole-speckled guy is staring up at him, either because of the low, frustrated growl still working its way out of his throat, or because Derek started staring first. "Uh...hi?" he says at last, his expression wary.

"I need that book," Derek replies through gritted teeth.

"Oh. Okay, but the thing is—I had it first, dude. It's a library, right? First come, first served?"

A snarl breaks loose before Derek can help it, and he leans forward like he might actually lunge.

The guy shrinks back a little in his chair. He looks fearful for a second, and then just plain weary. "Actually, you know what? Here you go. Just, uh, don't eat me, okay?" He gingerly closes the book and holds it out to Derek, who swipes it from him. It's a comforting weight in Derek's hands, and he automatically thumbs the pages as he sweeps from the room.

"Okay. Wow. You're welcome, asshole," he hears the guy mutter to himself. But Derek's on a time limit, and the seconds are trickling away.

.

As it turns out, Library Guy may literally be Satan.

Later, after Derek has dutifully popped his pills and Nurse Roberts has once again sealed him into his room (after which he spat the pills into the toilet), Derek settles onto his bed to flip open the book—only to find dogeared pages, underlined passages, and scrawled notes in the margins.

He snarls, and this time, in the privacy of his own room, he finally lets it out. The wolf springs out in a powerful rush, like it's been simmering just underneath his skin all this time, like he's been dragging it to heel on a leash that he's finally lost grip of. He growls and gnashes his fangs and rushes around the room, as if there's a threat.

But there's nothing. Just the white walls, the empty bathroom, his own unmade bed. It's been a long while since Derek's destroyed his entire room in a vicious rage (only twice, alright?), and he's not quite angry enough to do it again. Plus, he doesn't ever want to go through the hell of supplemental anger management therapy again.

When his wolf finally burns its anger out and settles down—some unknowable time later—he sinks tiredly back onto his bed.

One thing about surviving in Eichen is that everything's about habit. It's about knowing what's going to happen and when. It's about giving yourself something to look forward to. And he's been looking forward to this stupid book all day.

God, that's depressing, Derek thinks as he cracks open the book again. Classic lit is the only thing I have going for me right now.

Every couple of weeks, he cycles through most of the classics in the library, or at least all of his favorites. The Complete Tales of Edgar Allan Poe is a good one, just because there's so much variety—murder mysteries, intensely gloomy poems, haunted houses.

Usually, it drags him in without effort. But today, he can only picture the wary, mole-studded face of the guy in the library. In the illustration, the raven perches on a nightstand. Drawn over it in pencil is a convincing doodle of a top hat and cane. "Jesus Christ," he groans, tossing the book onto his nightstand. "I'm gonna murder him."

.

The following day, when Roberts comes to open the door to freedom (like Derek's an actual freaking wolf in a cage), he breaks a habit as old as time itself. He doesn't pace the halls.

Sure, he had only the barest bit of time to catch the guy's scent before—rich, and somehow earthy. And sure, it's been ages since he's done any tracking of any kind, usually deep in the forest of his home territory. But it all comes back to him as he hones in on the smell in the lounge, following it directly back to the library.

The kid seems utterly unsurprised to see him, his expression jumping from Oh, shit! to resigned in the space of a heartbeat.

It pisses Derek off. (But what doesn't these days?)

"What the hell is this?" Derek asks, dropping The Complete Tales on the table so he can thumb through its contents.

"Looks like the book you stole from me yesterday," the kid deadpans.

Derek narrowly manages to keep his fangs from coming out, because the last thing he needs is to be reported to Dr. Alsina for aggressive behavior (again). "No, this," he snarls, shoving the book across the table.

The guy leans over to look, and when he catches Derek's meaning, he starts to look mildly apologetic. "Ah, yeah. My bad." Derek grunts, unimpressed, and the guy continues: "It's just, my AP Lit teacher always makes us mark up a text when we're reading, so...yeah. She says it's how you become a more active reader, and for the exam at the end of the year we're gonna have to catch things really fast on the fly—themes and allusions and all that shit. So it's kind of a habit now. But I mean, it's only pencil. I just used one of the ones from the filing drawers over there."

"That's a fucking top hat."

"I got bored."

Derek throws up his hands. "The pencils don't have erasers."

The kid's frowning, but it doesn't seem to be at Derek, exactly. "Yeah, about that. Seems weird, 'cause they're not worried about giving mental patients the sharp end of something, but they take away the soft part." He stabs his pencil forward at Derek, then shrugs.

Derek stares at him, anger giving way to irritation as the kid begins twirling the pencil between his fingers, staring at it thoughtfully. "You have to stop," he orders. "They're not your books."

"Okay, dude," the kid says, sounding just as annoyed as Derek feels. "Whatever. It's not a big deal."

Feeling the wolf retreat at the slight victory, Derek turns away to the filing cabinet, intent on returning the book.

"Uh, so...can I have that back? If you're done, I mean," the kid asks, jabbing his pencil toward the book. "I'm trying to keep up with school. We were starting 'Fall of the House of Usher' in class, and I don't wanna be lost when I go back. Plus Crime and Punishment is shaping up to be a real downer."

Derek turns slowly back to him. The guy pauses and slips the pencil under the table, like Derek might forget his sins as long as it's out of sight. He offers a sheepish grin. There's no reason Derek shouldn't give him the book. After a moment, Derek slides it across the table to him.

The guy accepts it gratefully. "By the way, what did you need it for?"

"It was next on my reading list."

"For...university?"

"Just because."

The kid raises an eyebrow, unimpressed. "Mkay."

Derek goes back to the filing cabinet, grabbing the clipboard and pencil. It is weird that they don't have erasers, he thinks abruptly, partway through signing out his next choice—and then he quashes the thought.

"So what's your favorite? Short story, I mean. In the book."

Derek grunts, rolling his eyes. Whoever this guy is, he's too new to realize that Derek isn't the kind of person you socialize with if you can help it.

There's a long silence, which the guy eventually fills with another question—though it's more hesitant this time. "Or...did you not finish it?"

It's like he can't take the hint. "I always finish them," he growls in spite of himself. "I have a lot of time for it. I'm on 23/1."

"What's that?"

Derek glances over at him, sizing him up. "Are you new?" He's gotta be kind of young—high school, so at least two or three years younger than Derek. But the look Derek's getting in return is equally contemplative.

"Yeah. Only been here two days." His mouth twists unhappily at this, like he's eaten something sour.

A sudden flush of pity surges over Derek, who thinks of how much hope he'd had to kill in his first few days of being here—always waiting and expecting to be released at any moment. "Hm. Well, 23/1's when they lock you up because they can't be bothered to keep an eye on you full time. You're in your room twenty-three hours and out for one, and for that hour you have to stick to the common areas."

The kid's eyes are bulging. "Dude. That sounds terrible." Then his eyebrows bunch together, his expression growing suspicious. "Wait, and also maybe...illegal?"

Derek shrugs, though he's grateful that the first reaction isn't What did you do to deserve it?

"So you come here every day for a book," the guy realizes. "To pass the rest of the time."

Derek gives him a one-shouldered shrug. All the reminders of the passing time have left him feeling antsy, so he grabs Hamlet, raises his eyebrows, and wordlessly heads to the door.

The abrupt departure takes the other patient by surprise, and it seems to take a second for his words to catch up. "Nice to meet you too!" he blurts, exasperated. "I'm Stiles, by the way!"

The hell is a Stiles? Derek thinks. But he's on a tight deadline, and he's not planning to let some weird fucking kid mess it up.

Even if it's probably the longest Derek's talked to anyone here without practically ripping their head off. Even if—growling included—it's the calmest Derek has felt in ages. 

Chapter Text

A pounding on the door rouses Stiles from a sleep thick as death. When he drags himself upright, bleach-scented sheets slipping down his chest, the red door is back again. Right there, beside the door to the hallway.

Stiles's skin turns to ice, his heart jumping to life in his chest. He stumbles out of bed, falling half onto the floor in a tangle of blankets and pillows.

Someone pounds on the hall door again. "Stiles?" A reedy voice drifts into the room. He thinks it's probably the Asian nurse lady, the one with the long hair always pulled into a braid. "Breakfast in half an hour."

"Okay!" Stiles calls back. From experience, he knows that if he doesn't respond quickly enough, they'll barge into the room to make sure he's okay. Or at least to verify he's not trying to strangle himself with his bedsheets or something. "I'll be there."

He squeezes his eyes shut, nearly paralyzed with frustration and helplessness at the idea of another day in here. A part of him had expected to wake up at home, in his own bed. And really, a part of him needs it to be his dad knocking on the other side of the door.

But it's not. And he's alone here. Again. Another twenty-four hours added to his sentence.

Suck it up, Stilinski, he thinks grimly, and as he opens his eyes, he very carefully turns his head so he doesn't have to look at the red door as he gets ready to start the day. Dressing quickly in the uniform scrubs, he stumbles into the bathroom to piss, run quick fingers through his hair, and brush his teeth with the stiff-bristled toothbrush they'd handed him during intake.

Then, taking a deep breath, he ignores the intruding red door and uses the actual hall door to step outside.

The morning wake-up calls happen at the ungodly hour of seven, early enough for his internal clock to feel super out of whack, but all the long-term patients seem pretty used to it. They're all flowing toward the cafeteria, a sea of blue cloth and yawning faces, with surprisingly little fuss. Stiles lets himself be swept up by the current.

"Still here, hon?" One of the cafeteria ladies asks him impassively, shoveling lemon-yellow eggs onto his tray. He recognizes her from his first day, when she'd asked if he was new and he'd reassured her he wouldn't be around long.

"Still here," Stiles confirms grimly. He half-expects her to throw out some platitude about a matter of time or you're in good hands, but she just turns to fill the next tray.

The cafeteria's one of the few places in Eichen House with windows. One whole wall is made up of them, looking look out onto the trimmed grounds and parking lot, with trees farther off. Stiles lingers with his laden tray, gazing wistfully at the blotchy colors of the distant sunrise. But the seats nearest the view are taken up by people he assumes to be regulars. Long-term patients staking out their usual haunts. And Stiles isn't here to make friends, or to claim a "usual" place. He just wants to keep his head down and make it through. It's only a matter of time before he goes home, like he's supposed to.

He finds an empty table near the wall, putting his back to it. The room's not huge, just enough space to give the hundred or so patients room to eat. It fills up at mealtimes, though, so he's joined a few minutes later by a blonde lady with tired eyes. A nurse trails behind her, then slips into a seat to read the morning news. The blonde lady picks at her food, glaring at the nurse.

Over their shoulders, a squabble breaks out a few tables away. Stiles can't really tell what's going on or why, but sharp voices rise higher and higher.

On the periphery, always, are blank-faced orderlies who silently cast their watchful gazes across the room. Presently, two of them break off to figure out what's happening, shouting "No contact! Hands off!" But the fight takes place anyway, whatever it is: a couple patients take to fists on the floor while others straighten gleefully in their chairs for a better look. It's only a few moments before it's over. The orderlies bodily drag the patients away, one of them looking oddly subdued. Sedated, Stiles guesses.

He's not sure what his expression looks like—disgust? fear?—but when he turns back, the blonde lady's staring stares at him.

"You're new here," she observes grumpily.

"Yeah," Stiles sighs, already tired of being told this. "I am."

She huffs. "You'll get used to it."

"No, I don't think I will," Stiles mutters under his breath.

.

"Good boy," Nurse Roberts tells Stiles as he downs his morning pills. Stiles pulls a face, half at the disgusting feel of the medicine slipping thickly down his throat, and half at the condescending tone. "You're not gonna make any trouble for me today, are you?"

"Wasn't planning on it," Stiles replies dubiously. He sets the little paper pill cup onto the nurse's tray.

"Great," the man replies, scrubbing at his red beard. "Get lost."

Stiles goes. He usually (Not "usually," he reminds himself. Just for the past couple days.) hangs out in the general lounge area during the break between breakfast and group therapy. It's a delicate balance: he wants to stay in an area where there are a lot of people around, but he also really, really doesn't want to talk to anyone.

That's a pretty new development. Stiles always wants to talk to everyone. But here, everyone wants to shove their horror stories at him, or give insider tips to the newbie, or tell him some excruciating variation of either "It's not so bad once you get used to it" or "You're going to die alone in here, son."

So he hides behind his books. The library's been a godsend, because if he's actively reading (or at least pretending to read), people tend to take the hint and leave him alone. Plus, it's mostly classics, so he can find plenty of dark shit to suit his current gloom-and-doom mood.

Someone, one of the nurses, checks in with him just about every hour. He's not sure what to make of it, except that he guesses they're trying to make sure he doesn't lose it in the first couple days. But that feeling of being constantly thought of, constantly watched, doesn't sit well with him. It makes him keep looking over his shoulder.

Not that he hasn't been doing that for ages anyway.

.

Group therapy is a disaster. Most of it is spent going over the community rules again (no food in the rooms, no phone use unless permitted, no physical contact with other patients, ever). And the rest is spent putting out little fires. A girl shouts about hearing voices all the time, a man sobs into his shirt sleeve incomprehensibly.

When the time comes for goal-setting, Stiles barely bothers. "My goal is to get out of here," he states firmly.

Nurse Meyers heaves a sigh, pinching the bridge of her long, birdlike nose. "It's a daily goal, Mr. Stilinski," she reminds him again. "Something tangible you can finish by the end of the day, without assistance."

"I bet I could finish it if I could just call home," he retorts. He mentally dares her to drag him into the same fights they've had over this during the first two days. But the thing is, she really doesn't seem to care. Plus, the other patients are shifting restlessly, ready to move on, and there are other powder kegs in this circle of chairs that need her full attention.

Scribbling something down in her notes, she turns to the patient on Stiles's left. "And your actionable goal?" she asks blandly.

.

As a new patient, Stiles sees Doctor Alsina literally every day. Which is apparently pretty rare around here.

"You're pretty lucky, you know?" Nurse Wilson tells Stiles as he shepherds him past the med station and toward the doctor's office. He's a tall man, with a dusting of dark freckles across his brown skin and closely shaven hair. And he's buff too, the kind of guy they probably hire on face value, someone who can obviously tackle a rogue patient to the ground if the need arises. "Most patients only get appointment time once a week, but it's different for the new guys. She takes more of an interest."

"Fucking A," Stiles replies flatly.

The nurse shrugs, his expression the same cool stare as always. The Eichen House staff must undergo some serious training on how not to show (or have) emotions of any kind, because they always have the same stupidly blank gaze regardless of the shit Stiles throws at them. He would kill to have one of them snap back, just for a change of pace. "Wouldn't let her catch you using language like that, man," he remarks mildly, cracking the dark oak door open for Stiles to enter. "Doctor, your ten o' clock," he calls.

Doctor Alsina swivels at her desk as Stiles comes in. She's on the older end of her forties, with a mop of grey-brown hair that's mostly grey at this point. Fine wrinkles add subtle texture to the skin of her cheeks and around her eyes.

"Mr. Stilinski, good to see you," she says, and there's a quick upward flick of her lips that passes for the only smile he's probably going to get. From what he's seen of her during intake with his dad, and during the first few days, he gets the impression that she's always like this: a charade of kindness, but always with a knowing look in her piercing blue eyes. She pulls a file from the wire rack on her desk, thumbing through it as he lowers himself into the stiff-backed chair across from her. "How's day three so far?" she adds.

"Am I allowed to call my dad yet?" he asks, in lieu of offering a response they both already know.

"Unfortunately, we don't allow external contact by phone in the long-term ward. And that's a rule that's going to be true now and forever," she reminds him lightly as she flips through the file. The documents are close enough to him that he could probably catch a glimpse if he leaned slightly forward, but he can't tell if it's a trick. If she wants to catch him looking. "Visiting hours are from four to five in the afternoon for those who are approved."

"Which I'm not."

"We'd just like to make sure we have a full picture of your physical and mental situation before we allow any external influences into the mix." It's like a recording's taken over her voice. She doesn't even look up at him.

There's a depressing little plastic succulent at the corner of the table, a tiny, mocking oasis of serenity in the otherwise stark room. "I'm not even supposed to be here," he says, hating how desperate he sounds.

"I think you're right where you're meant to be, Mr. Stilinski. Maybe you'll see it too, in time. How's the medication treating you?"

"It's disgusting."

A long-suffering sigh. "How is it treating your symptoms?"

"Great. Fine. I don't know."

"Are you still seeing things?" she probes.

Stiles's thoughts jump to the red door this morning. "Nothing since I came here," he says.

Dr. Alsina peers at him dubiously, lacing her fingers together on her desk. "Mr. Stilinski, I really can't help you if you aren't forthcoming with me." She leans forward. "How are you doing, really? Is there anything out of the ordinary, like the hallucinations? Anything at all?"

"I'm fine. Definitely fine enough not to be here. I mean, just look at me."

"You look like you haven't slept."

Stiles laughs, and it's an ugly thing. "I'm in a weird-ass hospital, miles from home, without any way to call my dad. No, I haven't slept in fucking days."

She leans back with a put-upon sigh, like he's the one that's bringing her trouble. "Mr. Stilinski—"

"Look, I'm not supposed to be here. I've basically been kidnapped—no seriously, it's fucking true, you're holding me against my will without letting me call home. I was supposed to voluntarily be in the short-term ward for 48 hours for one new medication. Now, I'm taking three different pills, three times a day, and I'm not even totally sure what they are; I'm just doing it so that asshole Roberts doesn't threaten to shove them down my throat again. I want to go back to my house, and my school, and my life, and when you sit there all smug behind your desk and ask if I'm okay—well, no, I'm not fucking okay."

He's practically shouting, but this only occurs to him when he's already done. Dr. Alsina looks at him with a combination of interest and disgust, the way you'd look at a bug you'd stepped on, one that's still twitching on the sidewalk. "Mr. Stilinski, we don't abide by that kind of language, or raised voices, here. If you want to convince me that you're well—"

"What?" he snorts. "I can't be pissed and also mentally healthy?"

"—then you'll show me," she continues, as if he hadn't interrupted, "that you can behave yourself. That you can follow rules. That you're willing to let yourself be helped. Then, and only then will we discuss your release."

Everything deflates out of Stiles all at once, leaving him feeling small. He needs her to be on his side, he remembers. And that means he can't piss her off like this. "Okay. Okay, look, I'm sorry. I'm just—this is really hard, and this isn't what I expected. Or what my dad and I were told during my intake. I don't...I don't really know what I'm doing here."

"You're here because we flagged you as a potential risk to yourself, during the intake," she reminds him patiently. "We just need to extend the observation period a little to make sure you're right as rain."

"I know," Stiles agrees wearily. "Alright."

"And it starts," Dr. Alsina adds, looking triumphant, "with you giving me honest answers to my questions."

"Alright."

She pulls the file closer. "Have you been seeing things still?"

"Yes. Just...more of the same."

The doctor's pen wavers for just an instant over the page before jotting something down. "Perfect," she says primly. "Now we're getting somewhere."

.

The hall is empty when he steps out of Dr. Alsina's office twenty minutes later. It's a relief, because he needs a minute alone to compose himself, which mostly means running his hands through his hair and making wild what-the-actual-fuck gestures with his flailing arms.

It's also terrible, because it means he's alone.

Regardless, he takes the path he knows will lead him toward the lounge. The halls are bare here, only doors with occasional labels or room numbers. It's all so empty, the whole damn place, and it makes Stiles's skin crawl.

When he gets to the part where he has to round the corner, it turns out to be a dead end: the space ends a few feet away with a door marked Storage. Stiles stops short. "What the hell?" he mutters lowly, turning around.

He doesn't have the best sense of direction, but he's pretty sure that he'd come this way with Nurse Wilson less than an hour ago. He'd expected to find a long hall, and the light of the nurses station a bit further off. But okay, then—he must have gotten turned around.

He retraces his steps, making his way past Dr. Alsina's office again. In the distance, the hallway veers right...except when Stiles finally rounds the corner, he finds that it ends in an identical door marked Storage, just like the other one. For a moment, he looks at it uncomprehendingly, like he's waiting for it to disappear in smoke.

Alright. That's… Stiles turns around to face the hallway, where just a few seconds before he'd had to round a corner to get to where he currently stands. But now, somehow, there's no bend in the hallway. There's just a single straight line. And it ends in a door at the other side, not ten yards away. He can just make out the lettering on the door. Storage, it reads. Which is impossible, because it would mean that this hallway is somehow closed off from the rest of the world—just two storage closets and blank walls.

Stiles stares. He stares for what feels like an hour. I am not hallucinating. I just need to go home. And then, stupidly: My brain is high and I'm not even getting the feel-good part.

He can feel his own breathing growing faster and faster in his ears as he tries to drag enough of the stale air into his lungs. A sense of unease washes over him, creeping toward fright, and he twists the doorknob of the storage room in front of him—only to find it locked. "Okay, Stiles. Okay. Calm down. What do we do?"

Out of the corner of his eye, he realizes there's actually another door a few feet away, one he hadn't seen before. He reaches for the knob with all the desperation of a drowning man, and it opens to the fluorescent glow of the nurses station. No one's manning the desk now, but it doesn't even matter—Stiles feels boneless with relief. He pushes the door shut behind him, doubling over to put his hands on his knees. His own reflection in the polished tile looks pale and anxious.

"That's fucking new," he tells himself dazedly.

Something slams into him from the side, sending him sprawling onto the floor. He yelps in fear—but it turns out to be the guy from yesterday, the one with the permanent scowl. "Oh. Hey. Angry Dude," he remembers, pulling himself up.

"Is there a reason you people are always standing in the middle of the hall?" Angry Dude growls. His dark brows sit low and sullen over his eyes.

"Sheer relief," Stiles deadpans weakly. But the guy isn't in on the joke, and he snarls as if Stiles is making fun of him. When he steps away, hurrying off down the hall, Stiles panics and stumbles after him. "Wait—wait!"

The guy turns, looking furiously back at him. "What?"

Stiles isn't sure how the guy manages to cram so much annoyance into a single syllable. And sure, normally Stiles might have backed down at the obvious dislike in the guy's voice. But his fear of whatever's going down in his head right now is much greater than whatever Angry Dude brings to the table. "Look...I'm actually kind of lost. I'm looking for the lounge. Do you know the way?"

Angry Dude gives him a long look. "It's not that big a place," he snaps.

"I know," Stiles retorts, irritable. "It's just...I'm new, remember?"

Relenting, the guy jerks his chin back the way he'd come. "It's that way. Head straight down the hall, then make a left at the cafeteria. You'll hear it before you see it. Everyone's always shouting in there."

Stiles works up a bit of courage. "Actually," he tries, "if you don't mind, could you maybe walk me there?" Angry Dude's face grows stormy, and Stiles quickly blurts, "Look, I know you're short on time and all, believe me, but I'm just…I'm kinda freaking myself out." Stiles hesitates, then adds, "And I'm afraid of being alone right now."

The guy quirks his head thoughtfully at this, sizing Stiles up. But at last, the honesty seems to pay off. "Okay," the guy grinds out, and without another word, he heads down the hallway.

They walk in silence. Stiles feels alert, on edge, ready for the next hallucination—but nothing comes. The world unfolds exactly as Angry Dude said it would: a long hall, a left turn, the sound of voices. When they reach the chaotic chatter of the lounge, Angry Dude turns to him questioningly.

"My hero," Stiles says, not quite looking at him. He means for the words to be sarcastic, but he can't quite hide his relief. He swallows, a little dazedly. "Hey...what's your name, anyway?"

Angry Dude frowns. "Derek."

"Derek. Cool. I'm Stiles."

"I know."

"Right. Yeah. From yesterday." He soaks it all in: the clamor of voices, the warm hum of the air conditioning overhead. It feels safer, somehow. More alive. Only..."I gotta get that book back to the library," he realizes suddenly. He'd wedged his book under a sofa right before his appointment, just so he didn't have to bring it all the way back to his room, but now he wonders if anyone will actually notice if he doesn't bring it back by noon. It's just a paper filing system, right? And he's a little too spooked to wander the halls alone right now.

Derek grunts. "Guess I'm going that way."

Stiles turns to him in surprise. "Oh. Cool. Is it okay if I come?"

Derek raises his eyebrows in a way that Stiles takes to mean Of course, I'd totally love it if you come with me. So he fishes Poe from under the sofa and follows him out of the lounge.

.

In the three days since he's been in Eichen, Stiles has had enough time to decide that he actually likes the library. It's cozy and warm, though the fluorescent gleam does make it look a little grim. But one of the real selling points is that it's quiet, since there's rarely anyone else around.

Not to mention the library's best feature: the walls are completely lined by bookshelves and filing cabinets, with just enough space for a door out into the hall as well. There's no room on the walls for a rogue red door.

The red door, which used to be his only problem. The only thing he saw that wasn't real.

He bites his lip as he thinks about the weird trap of hallways earlier, the illusion extending way beyond anything that's ever happened to him before. It's getting worse, he worries.

"Are you returning the book, or what?" Derek asks him pointedly. He's been peering at the shelves in search of something, but he's paused long enough to glare over his shoulder at Stiles.

"Oh. Yeah, I am." Stiles rifles through the pages, heading over to the filing cabinet. "It's just, I didn't actually finish it."

Derek grunts. "I think you can just sign it out for another day. Not like they have a hold system or anything. And they only check the list every now and then, anyway."

Stiles chews on this for a second, before reaching for a pencil to sign the book out again. "Which one's your favorite?" he presses again.

"What?"

"Your favorite story. In the book."

Derek glares at him again, like he's expecting a trick, but at last he says, "Amontillado."

"Oh, nice," Stiles says, oddly relieved for the bland small talk. "Classic. How come?"

The guy shrugs, turning away from Stiles again. "Simple and short," he says at last. "A man hurts someone, and he pays for it."

Stiles hums, sinking down into a chair at the table. "But you never find out what the guy actually did to deserve being walled up in a cellar."

"Does it matter?" Derek asks. He pulls a book from the bottom shelf, then stands to rifle through its contents.

Stiles waits a minute, then adds, "Mine's 'The Tell-Tale Heart.'"

"Yeah, I saw you reading it yesterday."

"Which book are you borrowing now?"

Derek frowns at him, before showing the title. The Count of Monte Cristo.

"I'm sensing a theme."

The guy shrugs. "It's next on my list."

A sharp rap. They turn to find Nurse Chen standing at the threshold. "Time," she tells Derek with disinterest.

Derek snarls, and there's something violent about it, like he's showing too many teeth. Stiles leans back a little. Regardless, Derek obediently signs his name in the ledger (Stiles has never seen anyone write with violence, but the guy somehow makes it work) and follows her out of the room.

"See you—" Stiles catches himself before he can finish, swallowing the word tomorrow.

Derek glares back. "Yeah, see you," he grumbles.

.

Stiles mostly goes with the crowd during the evening hours. There's recreational therapy, which today is just Singin' in the Rain shown in the media room. Then there's visitation hour, where the lucky chosen get to see their loved ones while everyone else hangs out in the lounge. Dinner's at five. In the evenings, Stiles jumps into the communal showers, where the thin curtains of every stall are just opaque enough to give the illusion of privacy, but translucent enough that the orderly on duty can make out their shapes. (To be sure they aren't—what? Drowning in self-pity?)

At evening group therapy, they check in on everyone's daily goals. Stiles, unsurprisingly, has not achieved his.

Night meds come at nine. There are four this time; he forgot there are four in the evenings. Stiles swallows them down. There's technically free time until lights out at ten, but he begins to feel that last pill dull his senses a little, dragging him to the verge of sleep.

The walls leading back to his room are adorned with forgettable artwork, always shots of nature just out of focus: an impressionistic wave crashing, a close-up of a flower, a grey cloudscape. Dry-erase boards on doors bear the names of the patient housed within. Next to his room is a hazy woodland clearing, and then a board bearing his name on the door—but it seems to be taking forever to reach it.

As he walks, the artwork grows even more vague. Somber. There's one of a murky red fog. A dark wood. A man half-swallowed by a moonlit lake. Stiles stops abruptly, squinting at the last one. He doesn't remember this at all. It's as if he's come down an entirely new hallway. And suddenly, he's wide awake.

He frowns, peering the way he'd come. After a beat, he turns to retrace his steps, hoping to make it back to the lounge to figure out where he'd gone wrong. Maybe he can find an orderly to walk him to his room, or at least to give him directions back.

But this way feels wrong. He's not even entirely sure what it is. The air grows stale as he hesitantly makes his way onward. Something makes the skin on the back of his neck prickle. The lights overhead don't feel like they reach all the way down to the floor, like they're fighting through a thick cloud of dust.

It's just a short walk, Stiles tells himself in disbelief. It's just a minute back.

But he keeps walking, and the hallway never ends. It stretches on for far too long, though he can't even make anything out farther off, where it grows too dim for him to see. Like someone's turned the lights off down there. Maybe they do the whole lights out thing earlier in the lounge, Stiles thinks dubiously.

He stops again. Looks one way, and then another. Darkness ahead, and darkness behind. He feels like he's going to vibrate out of his skin.

This can't be happening. Not again.

A feeling of being watched settles over him, as if someone's nearby, close enough to peer over his shoulder, but he turns wildly back and forth—and there's no way anyone could hide here. It's darker farther off in both directions, sure, but the dim lights overhead would show anyone standing close enough to see him. Probably.

Unless someone's hiding in the distant darkness.

Stiles can't move, paralyzed by indecision. He squints down one hall, eyes straining to see anything in the gloom, but he can't make anything out. And then someone moves—the vague shape of legs and limbs, a deeper darkness within the black.

He blurts a panicked curse. "Hell—...Hello?" He stammers, his voice trembling. No answer. The person stills, as though the word was a command. The sudden lack of movement allows them to blend in fully with the darkness once more, sinking away. Stiles isn't sure if it's an optical illusion, if his eyes are too weak to pick out an unmoving figure, or if the person has somehow gone. He stares and stares and stares, but he's lost the shape of them entirely. Something about this terrifies him, and he darts away toward the other end of the hall.

It's dim, but not so dim that he can't make out where he's going. There are doors on either side of him flashing past, warped black paintings on the walls between them. Something flies in front of his face, small as a bird, and he shrieks, stumbles, falls.

And then he sees it, a few steps ahead—the red door. He flinches, panting wildly.

It's right in the space where all the other doors are, equidistant from its neighbors. Just sitting, motionless. But somehow, it frightens him even more than the person-thing creeping behind him in the darkness.

Stiles lets out a low whimper, stumbling into the door behind. Reaching blindly for the knob, he thinks he hears the slow sound of footfalls farther off, like someone is trailing behind him even now, and he thinks his heart might hammer out of his chest. His hand finds the knob and twists it home, careening through, and he slams the door closed, bearing all of his weight against it.

He spends a long time panting to catch his breath, listening for any sounds on the other side of the door, but it's totally quiet. Even so, it takes him a long time to release the pressure of his hands, stepping back from the door.

When he turns, though, he finds a normal patient room. A messy bed, with the sheets half pulled off. A cup of water on the bedside table. Personal copies of recent intake forms.

This is his room. Somehow, he's made his way back to his own room. He stares uncomprehendingly for a long moment, and there's a burgeoning awareness of the impossibility of it all—running through the dark just to somehow wind up safe in his own room. It's so impossible that he must be losing it, must have stood right outside his own door slowly tripping out on whatever stupid pills they have him taking.

But it felt real.

Cursing himself for an idiot, he rips the blankets from his bed and sinks down onto the floor next to the door, so he can lean his full weight against it. Just in case anyone tries to come in. Like a child afraid of the boogeyman. What the hell is happening to me? he asks himself, his mind deep in a hazy fog.

Some time later, as he's contemplating the prospect of a sleepless night of vigilance here on the floor, there's a knock on the door.

"Stiles?" It's Nurse Wilson's voice. "Lights out."

"Okay!" Stiles calls back automatically, his eyes wide. There's a click of the door locking overhead.

A part of him wants to beg to get out of here, to see what's on the other side of the door—to see if it's just the boring, windowless hallway with its stupid generic art. But a part of him is afraid he'll only find a long path winding to either side, with a dark void on each end. And something strange further off, a darkness within darkness bearing down upon him.

Chapter Text

A knock drums at the hall door. "Visitor for Derek Hale," says a muffled voice—and those are four words Derek thought he would never hear, maybe ever in life.

He's been dying to get out of this room for what feels like an age, anxiety and anger rippling through him in turns. Now, his pacing stills as a dozen thoughts jump into his mind, the most prominent being Laura's finally here. She's come through, after all this time—and even though he's technically not allowed to have visitors, she's somehow managed to get past all the legal red tapeOr maybe it's Peter, even. Hope wedges in his throat as he realizes that today, Derek will be one of the lucky ones making his way down to the visiting room.

But when the lock clicks and the door swings open, there's something off about Nurse Roberts' expression, a subtle glee that twists his bearded grin. It takes Derek a beat of staring to realize the nurse isn't alone in the hall. Fidgeting next to him is the library guy from yesterday, Stiles. He wears a flustered, apologetic grimace.

"He's been waiting here for half an hour," the nurse tells Derek, stepping back with a dramatic little wave at Stiles.

"I said I was just gonna wait till he came out, thanks," Stiles mutters under his breath, side-eyeing the nurse.

A jolt of anger crackles beneath Derek's skin, so powerful that he thinks his wolf might spring out of him to gnash at the man's throat. But when he tears his gaze away from Roberts' expectant look to study Stiles, who's biting his bottom lip like some pitiful orphan waif, all that rage slips away. Suddenly, Derek just feels sad.

They're not coming, he chastises himself firmly. Not now, not ever.

"Why are you here?" he demands of Stiles, leaning into the door frame. The wrathful energy slowly dissipates, and Derek sags like a week-old balloon.

Stiles straightens a little. "Uh," he begins eloquently, and then he pauses to give Roberts a pointed look.

For some reason, Roberts appears surprised, like he'd been expecting something different. Probably for Derek to bite Stiles's head off, if Derek's being honest with himself. But under the weight of both patients' heavy gazes, the nurse only sneers. "Have fun, lovebirds," he bites out, holding his clipboard to his chest. "Clock's ticking, Hale!" he adds over his shoulder.

Stiles watches him go, cheeks a little pink. "Jesus Christ, what a dick."

Derek can't help the surprised huff of laughter that escapes him. Maybe it's been too long since he bothered talking to any of the other patients, but it's weirdly nice to hear someone echo his own opinion of Roberts. "Tell me about it." Derek agrees. Then he pauses, feeling the pressure of each passing second. "So. I am on the clock."

"Oh. Yeah. Look, 'bout that…" Stiles looks back toward the lounge, and then at Derek. "Word on the street is you kinda, like, wander all over the place during your free hour. And I was just wondering if I can come with you today. If that's okay."

Derek studies him suspiciously, wondering if this is some stupid trick. But Stiles looks about as weary as Derek feels, with dark smudges under his eyes and an almost feverish flush to his cheeks.

"Why can't you just go by yourself?" Derek grumbles, just as the guy begins to fidget.

"Told you yesterday," Stiles mutters. "I hate being alone here. It's safer when there's someone with me. And...I want to get to know the place a little better. So I don't get lost." He clears his throat, sheepishly reaching into the pocket of his scrubs to pull out an intake form, which he flips to its blank side, as well as an eraser-less pencil probably stolen from the library. "I was thinking I could maybe map it out a little, so I have it all straight in my head."

It's not totally unheard of for one patient to mess with another—either out of boredom, or out of some misplaced, subconscious urge. Derek's known patients who were convinced they were being constantly studied by cameras, or that creatures wandered into their rooms at night. Lonely, desperate people who wanted to pull anyone and everyone into their delusions, or who wanted help in any way they could find it.

It's easy to fall prey to such a trap when everyone's kept in such close quarters. There's no quick way to filter or fact-check a story online, no familial support system to offer advice. Here, it's easy to jump in to help a drowning man, only to be pulled down by his weight.

He wonders if Stiles is like that: engulfed in his own delusions. Reaching for the nearest lifeline. But the guy doesn't seem like some of the other weirdos (Derek included) who make the long-term ward their home. There's a desperation to him, sure, but there's also something determined in the way he holds himself. Like he's going to make this work, regardless of Derek's answer.

The werewolf stares, considering the request. It's weird, yeah, but it's not like Stiles is asking his hand in marriage. Or like he's even asking Derek to go out of his way. And time's wasting with them standing here talking about it.

"Okay," he says at last, grabbing Monte Cristo and starting off down the hall. "Keep up." He pretends not to notice the relief that flickers across Stiles's face.

Derek's room is near enough to the common lounge that the chatter of voices trickles into the hall, so he always starts there first. He sets off on his normal route around the House—toward the lounge, turning down the hall past the cafeteria and media room, and then around past the therapy rooms and medical station. He heads down the hall to the doctor's office, takes a right turn near the showers, wanders up and down the long halls full of patient rooms, and then circles back to the lounge.

It's a winding loop, but the walk is long enough to keep his wolf from feeling like tearing something (or someone) apart. It's a prowl through what it considers his territory, as depressing as that sounds, and the routine makes him feel a little less lost in this grim, sterile place.

He feels even calmer than usual today, which seems a little weird considering there's a stranger at his side. Especially since his wolf usually rages at anyone within snapping distance, or anyone stupid enough to slow him down. But Stiles does keep up, even though Derek moves at a pace that's just shy of power walking. The other patient doesn't complain: he stays quiet for the entire first lap, drawing wavering lines across the paper and wearing a wide-eyed expression like a prey animal waiting for something to snap at him. His gaze is alert and wary, always sweeping up ahead and then behind. It's weird, Derek thinks. Almost as if he half-expects an attack.

Usually, Derek can get in about a dozen laps in the hour, at least when he's not accosted by random AP Lit students in the hall. But when Derek loops around for a second lap, Stiles speaks up.

"Wait...that's it? That's the whole thing?"

Derek gives him a sidelong glance as they stride back into the lounge. "That's it. All the areas we have access to." He pauses. "Actually, I'm not supposed to leave the group areas during my hour, but I've been here so long they don't really watch me so much anymore."

Stiles is chewing his lip, stepping around a couple arguing in the middle of the floor to keep pace with Derek. "There's no, I don't know...weird, dark hallways?"

Derek frowns again, confused. "Not that I'm aware of. And trust me, I'd know."

Stiles falls quiet, twirling the pencil between his fingers as they make the loop again.

Everything's the same as always, with only minor circumstantial differences: Benji, a heavily scarred patient, gets supplemental meds at the nurses station. Clem, that dark-haired girl Derek had run into before, slips a little on her way out of the shower. Two aging men whose names the werewolf doesn't know carry stacks of board games out of the media room. There are tiny differences so minuscule that this might as well have been yesterday, or the day before, or the month before.

Stiles is different, though. The hospital hums and murmurs around them like it always has, an endless and unchanging chatter, but having someone at his side is newNice, even. Derek's not great with people, with talking to them, but he feels the weird urge to prolong this whole thing. "Is it helping?" he asks gruffly.

Stiles jumps a little, dragging his attention away from his map. He opens his mouth and then closes it. "I'm not really sure. I mean, I think I have it down, but…" He tilts the paper so Derek can see. It's not a particularly neat sketch, worsened by the fact that he'd done it while walking, but it seems to be more or less a bird's-eye view of the hospital layout.

"Didn't you get a tour during your intake?" Derek asks, eyeing the untidy scrawl labeling each part of the map.

"Yeah, but...since then, things have been a little weird."

"What do you mean?"

It's Stiles's turn to give him the side eye. He folds the paper again, putting it in the pocket of his scrubs. "What's your 'thing?'" he asks finally, in lieu of answering. "What are you in for?"

Derek waits for the anger to build, as it usually does when someone has the gall to ask this question. It never comes. "That's rude," he replies at last, covering his surprise. "The first rule of psych club is you never talk about what you're in for."

Stiles's eyebrows climb toward his hairline. "You've seen that movie? With the whole classic lit vibes you have going on, I wouldn't have guessed."

"It was a book first."

"Oh, true. Word."

Their pace has gotten a little slower than the one Derek normally keeps during his free hour, but his wolf doesn't seem to mind. It's not howling for a run for the first time in ages. They pass the group therapy rooms, and Stiles continues to chew his lip—which Derek guesses means he's thinking about something.

"So, I'm here because I see stuff that isn't real," Stiles says eventually, and Derek quirks an eyebrow in curiosity. Stiles continues quickly, sticking his palms under his armpits like he's cold. "I was supposed to only be here on a 48-hour hold, because they put me on this new medication that potentially had some nasty side effects. But then all of a sudden...after my intake, I didn't get any visiting time with my dad. And then they moved me here, to the intensive care ward. For long-term stays. The doctor says...she says it's just to make sure I'm okay, but I don't know. I'm not really sure how long I'm gonna be here or anything."

Derek can't help himself. "What do you see?" he asks.

Stiles is quiet for a long time. As they pass her office, Dr. Alsina steps out and closes the door behind her, nodding at them both. Only when they can no longer hear the sound of her heels clicking against the tile does Stiles speak again.

"A door, mostly," he murmurs, in a voice so low Derek thinks he can only hear because of his enhanced hearing. "But lately...also hallways."

Derek raises his eyebrows.

"Where they aren't supposed to be," Stiles adds, quirking a wry grin at Derek's perplexed expression. "Like yesterday, there was this hallway going a way it's not supposed to go, and it wasn't there earlier. Just stretching on forever, with..." he swallows. "But really, it's this red door. It follows me, and...it all started there. That's why I'm here in the first place."

"A red door?" Derek asks, struggling to understand. They're just walking now, strolling even, like there's no hurry at all. For some reason, Derek feels there really isn't. He basks in that idea, in the heady calmness of it.

"Yeah. I guess it sounds really dumb, but…"

"No," Derek protests quickly. "I just don't really get what you mean. You just...see a red door sometimes? Does it do anything?"

"No." Stiles shifts in place, suddenly sheepish. "It's...it just sits there. It doesn't do anything, but I've never gone through. And I don't know what's on the other side; I've only seen it open once. But I'm…it really scares me."

"When did it open?" Derek asks. It's rude to ask questions like this, maybe. But he's curious. And Stiles doesn't seem to mind answering, though his voice has gone tremulous and soft.

"When my mom died," Stiles replies quietly. "But it still follows me, even in here."

"Ah."

"Yeah."

They walk on in thoughtful silence for a bit. Though he's never been one for social niceties, Derek feels somehow like he owes Stiles. For the shared secret. Maybe he shouldn't, though—it's not his fault that some kid let himself get vulnerable real fast. Derek barely remembers how it normally goes, with normal people in the outside world, but he's never let himself open up to someone so quickly. With the obvious exception of packmates, he's never held up his flaws to someone else in spite of his own fear.

But weirdly, he finds that he kind of wants to tell Stiles something. Stiles is the first person he's had an actual conversation with in ages. Somehow, he wants them to stand on even ground. "Everyone knows what I'm in for," he states, shrugging one shoulder.

Stiles's mouth twists in a sheepish grimace. "Yeah, kind of. I mean, I remember a little of it when it came out in the news. And my dad used to talk about it. The whole suspected murder thing, right?"

Derek looks at him, eyebrows rising in mock-concern. "Oh, so you do know you're associating with someone who's only here so the lawyers can make a case for the insanity plea."

"Last I heard, it wasn't exactly an open-and-shut case," Stiles counters, though he's frowning thoughtfully. And then: "Did you do it?"

Right for the gut, Derek thinks, weirdly impressed in spite of himself. "If I knew that, I wouldn't be here."

"Huh. Then it's true, you really don't remember."

Derek sighs. "No, I really don't. Guess that's my 'thing.'"

"It's just...blacked out?"

"Yeah. I remember some of it. The fire. Kate Argent." Even as he manages to quash his fury, taking a long, low breath, he's keenly aware of how amazing it is that he's even managed to say her name out loud without snarling. "After that, it's all blank."

Stiles gives a low whistle. "You're really not making your lawyers' job easy."

Derek snorts before he can catch it, having expected some pitying response. "One of them's my uncle, so you'd think I'd cooperate a little more."

"You're such an asshole," Stiles agrees, grinning. "Well, at least your uncle's on your legal team. Can't he get you into a better place than this hellhole? You guys are supposed to be loaded, aren't you?" He pauses, thoughtful. "Don't you own the whole Preserve? Just tell him to put you wherever Britney Spears went when she had her meltdown. Probably they do all the nice kinds of therapy shit there. Aqua-massages with Evian water, or art therapy with pure gold paint or something."

Derek huffs out a laugh, and then he shakes his head. "I would, if I'd seen him even once since the day they put me in here."

Stiles stops short, staring. Derek turns to look at him. "You're not getting visitors either," Stiles realizes slowly.

"No. I haven't seen my uncle or sister in...however long since I've been here."

Stiles nods slowly, falling back into step with him. "Feels like shit, doesn't it?" he says gruffly.

Later, when Derek tries to pinpoint a moment when they became friends, this is a strong contender. And maybe it's stupid, but the realization that they're both alone here, stripped away from their contacts on the outside world—it adds a comforting sense of companionship to the rest of the walk.

They end up back in the library, as Derek always does at the end of his hour. The metal chair scrapes dully against the thin carpet as Stiles sinks into a seat at the table, looking somehow more exhausted after the short jaunt around the House. "What's it gonna be today?"

It takes Derek a second to realize he's talking about books. "Great Expectations," he says, returning his loan to the shelf.

"Ew, gross," Stiles retorts as Derek skims the spines of the books. "Don't do that one. Read something else. Something cool." He thinks for a second. "Read Frankenstein. Do they have that?"

Derek pauses. "Sure. But it's way down the list."

"So worth it, though. I had to read the sparknotes of Great Expectations when we did it in class. Would you rather read, like, ten thousand pages of Pip becoming all gentlemanly, or about some weird inhuman creature stalking a dude across his whole life? Easily the second one, right?" Then he hesitates for a beat, swallowing. "Actually...Frankenstein's sounding super creepy at the moment. Don't they have any feel-good books? Just read like, Peter Pan or something."

Derek huffs at the bossy tone, but he looks in the section regardless. "Frankenstein's not bad."

Stiles hums. "How do you keep track of your reading list, anyway?"

"Two years in solitary to get it down. Plus I have twenty-three hours to plan exactly what I want to check out in one hour," Derek replies offhandedly. "It's not hard."

"Huh. Fair."

Derek scrawls the details of the loan into the ledger and leaves it in the filing cabinet. When he turns back, Stiles has sagged forward onto his elbows as if the tabletop is the only thing holding him upright. "You look like death," Derek tells him bluntly.

"No shit. I didn't sleep at all last night."

"Bad dreams?"

"Bad doors."

His face grows tight, like it's something he'd really rather not think about. Derek hesitates, not sure what to say, and that's when Nurse Chen sticks her head into the room. "Time," she tells Derek.

Derek sighs and shuffles toward the door. When he turns back, though, the sight of Stiles staring despondently at the empty tabletop gives him pause. Without thinking, he asks, "Same time tomorrow?"

Stiles looks up, surprised. Then the corners of eyes crinkle in a soft, hopeful expression. "Yeah, sounds good."

Following Chen back to his room, Derek realizes it's the first time in a long time he's felt this way: relieved and calm, not frantic as a caged wolf. And it's the first time in a long time that his rage—at everything, at the situation, the orderlies, Kate Argent and everyone working with her—subsided enough for him to even think about anything else.

.

After that, it's strange how quickly it becomes routine. Each day, Stiles walks with one of the nurses to free Derek from his room at eleven, wearing a wry smile on his face. And together, the two of them stroll around the House for most of his free hour.

His wolf is surprisingly quiet about it all. It gets worked up when he's trapped in his room, the same way it always has. He burns with the need to prowl this tiny corner of the world it considers his territory. Derek knows this building's not his, knows he's actually trapped here—but his wolf urges him to pace, to see all he can. It never used to be this angry, this feralHe never used to have so much rage bottled up inside him. Not until he came to Eichen.

And then Stiles arrives, once a day, every day, and his wolf goes calm. Derek wonders at the change.

They talk about small things, mostly. It's like the sudden depth of their first real conversation has turned them belatedly bashful. They discuss the terrible and questionable smells of the media room. Stiles gossips about a lady who, in therapy just this morning, beat another patient bloody over a stolen hairpin.

As always, they end in the library, where Stiles recommends books that Derek pretends he needs convincing to read.

But sometimes, Stiles simply hands him whatever book he's returning. Later, Derek will open the pages to find notes scrawled inside the first pages in careful pencil, whatever Stiles can't say out loud that day: The red door is in my room again today. Or else I slept under my bed last night, so I couldn't see the walls so well.

"Do you think it's paranoia if they're really out to get you?" Stiles asks out of the blue him one day.

They're just passing the nurses station, ambling past an arguing orderly and patient. It's been silent for a while, and Derek takes a second to catch up. "Wait, who's out to get you?"

"It was kind of a joke, but...honestly? Doctor Alsina. Not in a crazy way, just...I know if I start telling her all my shit, she'll want me to stay for longer than I already am. For observation. And to play with my medication some more. And I just want to leave, I want to...I want my dad. God, I want my dad." He frowns. "I don't know if she'd take me off the pills, or give me something to make it worse. But I want to go back to when I had just a little bit of weirdness, not all this insane stuff, which...I guess it does sound crazy, when I say it out loud," he finishes worriedly.

"No, I guess it doesn't. You said it yourself: you aren't supposed to be here, and you don't want to take the extra pills. It's not crazy to want what you asked for." Derek pauses. "You know, you could…"

When he trails off, Stiles shoots him a curious look. "What?"

Derek waits until they're a little further down the hall, lowering his voice. "You could stop taking your pills."

Stiles's eyes boggle. "You think I should?"

Derek backtracks a little, shrugging. "I don't know. I don't know what they do. But...that way, you could figure out if they're helping or hurting. Maybe if you stop taking them, things'll go back to how they were."

"How do I even do that?"

"Keep it under your tongue when you swallow the water. You can spit it out later."

Stiles frowns. "Do you do that?"

Derek shrugs. "Sometimes. Doesn't seem to make a difference either way, so I don't always. But everyone's on different meds."

"Huh," Stiles says, and Derek can practically see the wheels turning in his head.

After that, Derek starts leaving messages back: I can't always remember what I did before I fell asleep in the evening. Or, after a great deal of deliberation, a very solid truth: I'm always angry, and I don't always know why.

They don't discuss any of this in person. At least not in depth. It's not that the topics are off-limits; Derek doesn't actually think he'd mind Stiles asking about his past. But neither of them wants to dwell on why they're here, how they're trapped in Eichen. It has a way of putting a damper on the mood.

"You've been doing very well these last few days, Derek," Dr. Alsina tells him one Thursday morning. She seems vaguely surprised herself, like she hadn't actually expected him to improve. Resting her chin on her hand, she regards him with those somber blue eyes. "I hear you've made a friend."

Derek hates this part of the week. He only sees her for an hour on Thursdays, and the break in the monotony should be enough to get him excited about leaving his room. But the contemplative glances, the long sighs, the condescending tone—none of it's worth it. She makes him feel like he's an object she's toying with, something broken she's dutifully trying to put right.

He swallows his growl, though, because with her most of all, he has to pretend that rage isn't one second away from spilling out of his mouth like bile. With her most of all, he has to pretend to be normal. Which means he very carefully does not grip the arms of the chair hard enough to crack them open.

"It's...a good sign," she murmurs at last, closing the manila folder of his file. "A mark of improvement. No incidents in the past two weeks." Derek remains silent, as he always does unless she's asked a direct question that needs a response. She never seems to mind. "I'd like to try something," she adds suddenly, looking back up at him. "I'm going to open up your schedule a little, starting tomorrow, from breakfast to lunch. Think of it as time off for good behavior."

He hates the way she's phrased it, like he's already in prison for what he's done. He fights back the sour rage, wondering if she said it that way on purpose. And then her words actually hit him. "Wait. I can leave the room?" he asks hopefully, anger subsiding. "Breakfast to lunch?"

Dr. Alsina's jotting a note down on his chart. "Seven to one," she confirms. She pauses, looking back up at him. "As a trial. Show me that you've earned the time, and we'll see about making it permanent."

.

The following morning, there's a rap on his door, bright and early. It rouses him out of a heavy sleep. "Breakfast in half an hour, Hale," Roberts calls, voice muffled by the door. There's the scrape of a key in the lock.

Derek sits in disbelief a little too long, without responding. The rap comes again. "Hale!"

"Alright, I heard!" Derek barks, but it's more out of surprise than anger. He quickly throws on a fresh set of scrubs and opens the door, unable to hide his own amazement. Beneath his skin, his wolf is jubilant.

Like a ghost, he drifts slowly down the hall to the common lounge. It's filling up with other patients, patients who rub tiredly at their eyes and cluster in small packs with their friends. A few of the regulars, people whose faces he recognizes from months on end, stare at him as he wanders into the room.

"You're early," one of them says suspiciously, craning his neck to see if the orderlies are going to do anything. "Are you supposed to be this early?"

Derek fights back a growl, darting away before he can do something he'll regret. He can't remember ever being here this early, with nothing to do and so many people. Not since his first few days, when he'd gotten in so many fights they'd eventually confined him to his room—"for your own safety, and the safety of the other patients," Alsina had said.

Out of habit, he does a loop around the place. It's a compulsion he can't quite fight off. It calms his wolf a little, and the pattern of behavior is so familiar around here that no one else tries to talk to him.

At some point, the other patients begin to flood into the cafeteria for breakfast. Derek, determined to keep calm, goes for another loop so he won't have to spend so much time waiting in line.

He manages to get his own tray of food, weirdly excited to pick his own meal rather than having one delivered to him. Even if it is just fruit salad and burnt bacon.

Stiles is eating alone in the corner of the room, morosely piling his eggs into a tower on his tray. He looks up when Derek sits down across from him. The werewolf finds himself unable to fight a smile off of his face as Stiles's eyes bulge.

"Dude." Stiles grins, shoving Derek's shoulder. He glances around quickly, then hisses, "What the hell? Did you bust out?"

"Time for good behavior," Derek replies. He feigns nonchalance but can't keep his mouth from quirking upwards.

"No way! No way," Stiles crows happily. "I can't believe it. Are you here all day?"

"Just the morning. I go back in at one. It's just a trial period."

"But still! Every day, from now on?" At Derek's nod, Stiles practically bounces in his seat. "Dude, this is awesome. You wouldn't believe how boring it is when it's just me. How's it feel, being out?"

Derek's chest grows tight at the brightness of Stiles's smile, excited by his excitement. "Weird," he says honestly. "After all this time, having more time in the day. It's weird."

"Good weird," Stiles agrees, nodding.

An older guy waddles up to the table like he's going to sit down. Derek's wolf, suddenly near the surface and territorial, breaks out in a growl. The guy freezes.

Stiles blinks, then kicks Derek in the shin. "Um—" he begins, turning to the other patient, but the man's already backing away, one hand out in a peacemaking gesture as he goes off to find another table.

Derek never feels embarrassed by his anger. He's never had a reason; the anger just dissipates eventually and Derek moves on. But now, feeling the weight of the Stiles's gaze, Derek feels a hot flush creep onto his face as the rage fades away.

"A trial period, huh? Man, we're gonna have to make sure you keep it together," Stiles says matter-of-factly. He chews thoughtfully on the tines of his fork. "We'll make it stick."

Derek stares in surprise, and suddenly the warmth he feels has nothing to do with embarrassment.

.

The thing is, for being a mental hospital patient, Stiles is surprisingly good company. Not at all unbearable, like everyone else here. If Derek hadn't heard, straight from Stiles's own mouth, that red doors and dark hallways sometimes appear on the edges of his vision, he'd never have known there was anything unusual about him at all.

They spend all of the first morning together, most of it out in the lounge. It's weird having enough time to relax, just hanging out on one of the sofas instead of pacing around the building. Stiles swipes a deck of cards from somewhere and teaches Derek to play gin rummy, which Stiles says every self-respecting hospital patient should know. Some of the time they spend in front of the wide cafeteria windows, watching cars occasionally come and go in the parking lot outside.

Stiles seems to understand, just from their short time together, that Derek's at his best when there's no one else around. He instinctively acts as a barrier between Derek and anyone who comes close, either physically stepping in front of Derek or fielding questions from the nurses.

The only downside is that Stiles's daily doctor appointment is at ten. Meaning there's a whole hour Derek has to spend on his own.

"You'll be fine, just read in the library," Stiles reassures him. "It's quiet in there, and mostly people are just coming to check out a book, if they come in at all. That's what I do most of the time when you're not around. You don't even have to talk to anyone if you don't want."

It's good advice. After the nurse comes to deliver Stiles to Dr. Alsina's, Derek heads to the library. He pulls The Complete Tales of Edgar Allan Poe out again, but he can't really settle into it.

The room smells faintly of Stiles. It's easy to tell that the human spends a lot of time in here, way more than Derek himself. Probably hiding out from whatever thoughts and visions plague him. Actually, now that Derek's focused on it it, he can just make out the scent of fear as well—sour and almost imperceptible, but still enough to make him pause.

Usually, Derek has to leave Stiles alone in here when he goes back to his room at noon...but Stiles hates being alone, doesn't he? He sticks to Derek's side like glue whenever he can. The human obviously doesn't mind the library much, if he hangs out here often, but that doesn't mean he always enjoys being here on his own.

There's a wall clock just above the filing cabinet. As Derek tries to force himself to read, his gaze is drawn up to it, over and over again.

At five to eleven, he rises and puts the book away. He heads down the hall, past the med station, and in spite of himself, he finds himself keeping an eye out for anything unusual. Dark shadows. Odd doors. Long halls. There is magic in the world, after all, and as a werewolf he knows this better than most.

But there's nothing there. Stupid, he reminds himself. You know where you are. If he's seeing things in Eichen House, they're just in his head.

When Stiles steps out of Dr. Alsina's office, there's a pinched, worried expression on his face—until he sees Derek.

"You're here," he says in wonder.

Derek shrugs, an attempt at nonchalance. "Thought I'd walk you back. Since, you know."

Stiles's face goes pink. "I know it's stupid."

"It isn't," Derek replies. "You see what you see. It's real to you, so it is real."

The resulting smile on Stiles's face makes it all worth it. And Derek thinks he'd walk Stiles anywhere, a thousand times over, just to see it again.

Chapter Text

Quincy is over by the cafeteria window having a full-on conversation with a pigeon shitting on the ledge. Again.

Stiles shoves half a bread roll into his mouth, watching her crumple in devastation as the bird flies off without responding. "Du'," he says around the dry mouthful, stamping it down with his tongue. He swallows hard and tries again. "Dude, do you ever feel like we're living in a broken record? I feel like I'm experiencing Groundhog Day in here."

"I feel like that every day," Derek replies patiently, only half-listening. He's finished eating already, somehow having inhaled the contents of his entire tray in less than five minutes flat. Stiles wonders if it's just that he has an insanely quick metabolism, or if they aren't putting enough food on the tray for someone with as many muscles as Derek has. Or if he just wants to get a head start on the day's reading, as always. It's Lord of the Flies, which seems kinda fitting, here of all places.

Stiles can't quite figure out the best word to describe Eichen. It's not quite deja vu, because everything's always slightly different and new. For example, grizzled old Vern is eating his napkin today instead of his shoelaces, arguing with an orderly all the while ("I've been accustomed to digesting this sort of thing, but thanks for your concern..."). Marty—well actually, he's doing the same as always. Trying to navigate the room with his eyes closed, which apparently helps him see better. This time, though, there's a dull-eyed nurse trying to help him find an empty table, at least.

It's predictable, to a certain extent. Like living a dream, and somehow knowing that it isn't true. That reality is waiting for you somewhere, just on the other side of a curtain, if only you can reach out and pull it aside. But until then, it's just...

"Mind-numbing," Stiles decides abruptly.

"Hmm?"

"The best word to describe this place." He wrinkles his nose at the weird-ass carrot-and-bean mashup going on in one of the slots on his tray. "Is it always like this?"

Derek shrugs, finally taking his eyes off the page to peer around them. "You tell me. Usually, I was only out of my room an hour a day, remember? And I hate people," he adds, so matter-of-factly that Stiles can't help but fight back a smile. "So I wasn't really in the mood to recognize patterns."

Stiles huffs in frustration. After a beat, he pushes his tray toward Derek. "You want in on this, dude? Carrots are the worst."

Derek hesitates for only a second before diving in. Stiles watches with satisfaction, thinking the guy should obviously be eating more anyway, before settling back onto the topic at hand. "It's just, there's nothing new. You can't just randomly decide to grab 3 a.m. tacos, or head out to a movie release. God, there's not even internet." His hands flail wildly in the air. "How do I get someone to smuggle me a smartphone in a cake or something?"

Derek smirks, swallowing the last of the mix. "Isn't it supposed to be a hacksaw in a cake? Or a knife?"

"Look, I know you have a boner for the classics, but get with the 21st century," Stiles counters. He glances back at Quincy, who's allowed a friend to coax her back to her table. "What day is it, anyway?"

"It's...Thursday? No, that's not right. I'd have a meeting with Dr. Alsina."

"No, I mean, how many days have I been here? Ten days? No, eleven. Yeah. Damn it."

"Jesus, does it really matter?" A voice gripes from behind them. Stiles turns to find himself facing an older woman who he only knows from morning therapy. She's emptying ketchup packets onto her tray, creating a little red sea in one of the troughs. "It's all the same after a while."

"Shut up, Madison, nobody fucking asked you," Stiles sulks, patting Derek's arm to stop him from leaning over to growl, which Stiles now knows he absolutely will do if given enough time. "Ease up there, big guy. You finished?"

The infuriated expression doesn't completely leave his face, but Derek snaps the book shut and pushes his tray away.

"Great," Stiles says. "I know what would make you feel better. Wanna hide behind the desk at the nurses station, so we can scare the shit out of that dickhead Roberts when he passes?"

.

Every day is the same in Eichen, but Derek makes Stiles feel like there's actually something to look forward to each day.

Which is weird, because Stiles never wanted to make friends here. Making friends, getting to know people, doing the whole small talk thing—that would mean resigning himself to staying here in Eichen.

But maybe, he thinks, having one friend is okay.

Stiles has at the very least resigned himself to being here for a little past the original 48-hour agreement. It's slowly crept up on him that he's becoming a fixture here, that weird kid who babbles. The nurses have stopped checking in on him so often, like his newness has slowly rubbed away in the antiseptic air.

If that's true, he'll do what it takes to keep himself from scratching at the walls in loneliness and anxiety while he's here. Derek keeps him a little more human. A little more sane.

Not that they're doing anything particularly mind-blowing in the hellhole that is Eichen House.

One day, Derek raids some construction paper from the media room craft box. He spends the afternoon teaching Stiles how to make a real paper airplane, one that actually flies the length of an entire hallway. And for the whole time they're out there, laughing and mostly ignoring the dirty looks from the orderlies, Stiles doesn't see a single sign of darkness at either end of the corridor.

One day, they again pull up chairs to people-watch in the cafeteria window. The Eichen House parking lot doesn't get a ton of visitors, but they pass the time making up elaborate backstories of each person that pulls into or out of a spot, long after the person's disappeared from view.

One day, Stiles turns his allotted non-skid socks inside out, trying to figure-skate around the floor of one of the empty group therapy rooms. Derek watches from a nearby chair, rolling his eyes in amusement over a copy of 1984.

One day, when they sign out the electric shavers during free time, they sit in front of the low mirror in the showers (always under supervision) while Stiles single-handedly reenacts the events of Texas Chainsaw Massacre with his, until the on-duty orderly threatens to throw them both in their rooms.

Eventually, Stiles doesn't remember what day it is anymore. It's all a blur of lazy mornings that turn into frightening evenings and sleepless nights.

Because that's the thing: Derek isn't here all day. Whenever a nurse comes to deliver Derek to his room, Stiles finds himself alone again. In the dark.

He tries not to talk about that part with Derek. Which is hard. Mostly because in the mornings, Stiles and Derek can do hours of walking together, which is maybe a surprising thing to say about two people cooped up in a mental institution of very much finite size. Wandering back and forth seems to calm Derek for some reason, and the constant movement keeps Stiles from fidgeting, so it's kind of an ideal pastime. They pass the time talking—or really, Stiles talks at Derek. He's never been great at knowing when to shut up, and the faint anxiety that's always playing on his nerves nowadays only makes things worse. He rambles, talking about what he'd been learning in school, or dumb stuff he's done with Scott, or what his dad's probably up to right at this moment.

Derek never objects. He's a good listener. And though Derek tells him bits and pieces of his life, Stiles can't help feeling there's more to Derek than he knows. Stiles never probes too deeply, unsure how sensitive his new friend feels about the whole Kate Argent thing, and the fire and the trial, and all the awful things he's had to live through. Derek doesn't offer more than Stiles asks, though he sometimes looks at Stiles with a calculating glint in his eye when he thinks Stiles isn't paying attention.

It's only fair that Derek keeps his secrets, though. Stiles is busy burying his deepest worries, shoving them far away so he doesn't have to think about them. Why shouldn't Derek be allowed to do the same?

Even so, Derek seems to know, to understand that Stiles has a lot more going on that he'll say aloud.

"What's up?" Derek asks him carefully one morning, taking in whatever terrible expression has flooded Stiles's face. Derek's just returned from the bathroom, stepping back into the empty media room where Stiles waits cross-legged on the thin carpet. They'd finished lunch early, meaning they have the whole room to themselves for a bit while everyone else fights for food.

"Nothing," Stiles says quickly. Derek follows Stiles's line of sight to the doorway and back.

"You sure?"

"Just...thought I saw something," Stiles admits quietly. He's still staring out there, just past Derek, where the hallway light had begun to dim, slowly and stealthily, as if not to surprise him with the sudden change. On Derek's return, though, the light had flooded the hall again. Like it had never even faded.

Derek follows his gaze to the hall, nodding slowly as understanding sinks in. "Should have stuck around."

"You can go to the bathroom, dude," Stiles says hotly, face flushing red. "I can...be by myself for five minutes." He swallows the sudden anxiety and irritation that's washed over him, covering it up with nonchalance. "That's what happens in the evenings, anyway. I'm by myself."

Up until this point, Derek's been unsuccessfully attempting to teach Stiles to crochet. You wouldn't know it to look at him, but the guy is a master, calmly crocheting what amounts to an entire scarf in the time it takes Stiles to loop the yarn around his fingers correctly. Now, though, he looks at Stiles appraisingly.

"Okay. Help me put this away," he orders, packing his remaining yarn and hook neatly into the box.

"What?"

"You need a distraction, but also...maybe there's something that will help."

Stiles huffs, then wordlessly drops his own supplies in as well, returning the box to the shelf. "What are we going to do?"

Derek pauses, quirking his head. "Well," he begins slowly, "when I'm stuck in my room, and bored out of my mind, sometimes exercising helps me feel better. It might help you feel stronger. Not just physically stronger, but…" he shrugs.

"Mentally stronger, too," Stiles guesses. He feels like he could take that as an insult—like Derek thinks that he's lost it, that he's seeing creepy shit, that he needs help. But the thing is, he does need help. And he is seeing creepy shit. So he takes the words at face value. "Okay. Yeah. So what do we do?"

Another shrug. Derek looks oddly pleased. "Uh. Let's start by stretching, and then maybe we can do some basic stuff."

It takes all of thirty seconds for Stiles learns he has a hard time focusing when Derek's demonstrating stretches right in front of him. There's something objectively graceful about the practiced way he rolls from one stretch to the next. And then, when he shows off his strength training, Stiles can't quite keep his eyes off Derek's shoulder muscles, which bunch under his blue scrub shirt as he manages to do like a million push-ups in one sitting.

Of course, it takes only five minutes more for Stiles to learn that he can barely do push-ups to save his life. And also he's been doing them all wrong, basically forever.

"You're really bad at this," Derek tells him solemnly, after all the critiques he gives Stiles about good form have passed through one ear and out the other.

"Get used to it," Stiles snipes. "This is how it's gonna be for the near future—me swearing, complaining, and sucking at everything."

But it's not bad. It's nice, even. Derek patiently gets him through lunges, burpees, planks, and more. He has the practiced air of a guy who moonlights as some kind of real-life gym instructor. Or as a guy who used to spend 23 hours per day alone in his room, with little distraction aside from physical fitness—take your pick.

Eventually, they give it a rest when some weirdo middle-aged man tries to join in, mimicking their moves. Derek doesn't take kindly to the intrusion at all.

"What?" Derek barks, and his mouth is suddenly all teeth. "This a joke to you?"

"Dude, hey, breathe. Breathe," Stiles murmurs, quickly putting himself between Derek and the other man. When Derek can't seem to tear his gaze away from the patient, Stiles lightly presses his hands on Derek's arm to get him to back up. The muscles ripple a little under Stiles's touch, the tension practically visible. "We're going for—hey. Hey. We're going for good behavior, remember? 'Trial period' and all?"

Once Stiles has caught his attention, Derek's snarl gradually slides away, and he resigns himself to simply glaring at the guy until he shuffles away fearfully.

"That's better, yeah? How 'bout next time, we...we get you to do some yoga? You know, all that helpful meditation shit?" Stiles is only joking, but it would probably be great for Derek to learn, if Stiles actually knew anything about that kind of stuff. Maybe there's something about it in the library they can use. Derek's got a really short fuse, as it turns out, and it makes him prone to go off on pretty much anyone who isn't Stiles—which makes Stiles feel warm inside in a way he doesn't really want to dissect. But it also means he lives in fear of what might happen if Derek actually snaps one day, getting locked back into a 23/1 schedule.

"No, I'm alright," Derek replies, stepping away from Stiles. He does a quick, jerky pacing movement, like a trapped animal. Then he clears his throat in embarrassment. "Sorry."

"Hey, don't apologize, man. Nothing wrong about getting kinda angry. As long as you don't act on it, you know? And besides, I feel like you're getting better at reining it in."

Derek looks a little doubtful. "You think?"

"Yeah. Faster, anyway. It still happens, but you aren't mad about stuff for so long afterwards." Stiles replies. He feels a tiny bit sore, mostly in his arms. But it's a good feeling. As much as he'd complained about the workout—and god, had he complained—it had also been kind of...fun. Distracting. Not to mention that he doesn't really mind watching Derek demonstrate the activities right in front of him.

It helped. Even though Derek doesn't know the stuff Stiles isn't telling him, his worries and fears...he'd somehow still known how to give Stiles a tiny piece of what he needs.

"Hale!" Roberts shouts from across the room, nearly startling a pair of girls out of their chairs. "It's noon! Get your ass in gear."

Derek's jaw clenches, a sure sign he's fighting away a heavy dose of fuck you, but Stiles taps him on the arm before he can take things too far.

"Thanks," he offers warmly, once Derek's turned his way. "For the exercising stuff. I feel like it'll help. It already ismaybe."

"Oh." Derek deflates suddenly, staring at him. "Oh. Yeah. Sure."

"Anyway. See ya tomorrow," Stiles adds wistfully.

"Yeah," Derek repeats. He bumps their shoulders together as he heads to the door, where Roberts waits. "See you."

.

The darkness is always there.

It sits just out of reach, even early in the mornings. Even when Stiles is in a crowd. Even when Derek's right beside him.

Stiles knows it's there. He half-believes he can feel it out there, lingering just on the edge of his vision, no matter where he is. It watches, waiting for him to be alone. To be vulnerable.

As evening creeps in, it gets worse. These days, Stiles is much more careful to cling to other people. He stays in the media room, or the lounge, or sometimes the library or cafeteria. At lights out, the nurses begin combing the halls for stray patients, and he can walk with one of them to his room. Which is where he waits out the sleepless night alone...but that's another story.

He feels like a leech, jumping from person to person—walking with someone from the lounge to the cafeteria or vice versa, and waiting for the next person to come along so he's not traversing the hallways alone.

Stiles likes to think he's playing it safe. But the darkness eventually outsmarts him.

It comes for him one evening, during the free time after dinner, in a place where Stiles has always felt safe. He wakes slumped onto the library table, surrounded by its rows of books and filing cabinets. He never really means to nap there, but sometimes the lack of sleep sneaks up on him as the day wears on. And staring at the yellowed pages of a library book makes his mind grow hazy and fatigued, like he's wading through cotton just to follow the words.

When he jolts awake, the first thing he notices is warmth at his side. Groggily, he turns to the chair at his right. Blinks.

There's a black fox sleeping there, curled up into a tight ball. It's got a coat of thick fur, ears tucked back. It's the size of a small dog, barely able to keep its girth balanced without falling off the chair.

"What the hell?" Stiles asks, jumping out of his seat as his mind tries to take in the fact that a fox somehow made it into Eichen...how? By sneaking through a window?

He spins around, intending to shout for a nurse, only to find that the library door is gone.

Or rather, it's still there—but it's different. When he'd walked into it just a while ago, the library door had opened out onto a hallway, one that ran left toward the lounge and right toward Alsina's office. Looking toward the hall from the library, Stiles should be able to see fluorescent lights over a standard white wall a few feet away.

Now, there's only a vast dark space. Light from within the library itself spills onto the ground, illuminating a few feet of the white tile that spreads over all the Eichen floors. It's enough to tell Stiles that the space beyond the door juts much farther out than the hall he'd originally come from, at least ten feet—and more, probably, in the darkness that the light doesn't reach.

But it can't be, because this isn't where the door is supposed to lead.

Stiles stands frozen in disbelief. At the last minute, he remembers the fox—but it's completely gone. The room's empty, except for him.

"No way," he protests, but he barely has time to process this before the overhead lamp suddenly flickers once, twice, and then dies. Pitch blackness envelops him, more complete than anything Stiles has ever known. Oh god. Okay. What's happening? Am I making this up? A wretched sound escapes him, and he flails about for the light switch. Keep it together, Stiles. He can see nothing, but everything he lays his hands on feels real enough: the worn books on their shelves, the hard wood of the table. His fingers find the light switch, but nothing happens when he flicks it up and down. And then there's a brush of something, maybe fur, against his leg.

He jolts as if struck by lightning, and at the same time, something catches his gaze out of the corner of his eye. Further down the hall, there's a light. It's a white square so far away he could probably cover it with his thumbnail if he fully extended his arm—far away. And everything else is total blackness. Maybe he hadn't noticed it in his initial panic. Or maybe the light is new.

"No. I can work with this," Stiles reassures himself, his voice thin and insubstantial in the dark, like it's been stripped of some essential quality. "I can get there."

At an arduously slow pace, one hesitant foot in front of the other, he manages to get out of the library and into the space beyond. He feels worse out here, more exposed. It's a hall, he realizes as he goes: doorways lie open on walls to either side, gaping mouths extending into pools of more profound darkness. He's not sure what to make of the fox at his back, if it's there at all—he keeps his ears alert to any sound of movement, but there's only the sound of his own breaths, quick and frantic.

This far off, the dim illumination of the distant door is just bright enough for Stiles to make out where he's going. He can see the vague glint of the thin, grout-filled gaps in the tile farther off, and the foul blackness of the doors to either side. And maybe that's why Stiles sees it out of the corner of his eye: a deep black something further in the recesses of one of the rooms he passes. His head snaps around for a better look. There's no mistaking it: a tall, humanoid shape, someone with broad shoulders and a tilted head. Someone just standing there, completely still, staring at him from within the dark room.

There's a whimpering sound. Stiles realizes it's coming from himself. He takes the next few steps at a dead sprint, a nervous film of sweat gathering in his palms. The lighted door still beckons from impossibly far away—and shouldn't he have halved the distance by now?

It's hard to know if the person is following, and quick glances over his shoulder reveal nothing but blackness thick as tar. Just as before, Stiles can only hear his own shaky breathing, his own pounding heart. But he feels, maybe just in his head, that the person is staying close. That they slink just behind him, unseen.

And the lighted door looks further away than ever.

As he hurries forward the hallway grows warmer in fractions. It's subtle, something Stiles probably wouldn't have noticed without the near total darkness. But he's focusing all of his senses outward now, and there's a strange sort of humidity, and a muted but sickly sweet smell in the air.

And the floor's gotten...softer, he realizes. Through the thin fabric of the hospital socks, he feels his feet sink a little into the warm and suddenly rubbery tiles. The further he goes, the more effort he has to make to move. Each step requires him to pull his feet from the soft and increasingly sticky tile. It dips under his feet, sucking him in a little, and eventually he finds he can't move quite so easily, or so freely. An image springs to mind of a venus flytrap, a sticky surface holding prey closely as the jaws drift distant glow of the lighted room winks tauntingly, miles away.

He's been trying to keep his cool up to now, trying to pretend this is all in his head—that he's high on prescription pills somewhere in the real world—but it doesn't feel like that's true. It feels like he's here, sinking into quicksand. Like he's a meal slowly being consumed.

Stiles swears violently as he rips his leg from the viscous floor; it comes free with a wet noise that sounds horrifying to his ears. He pauses, terror raging in his thudding heart, but the longer he stands still, the more he sinks, inch by inch, into the deep. It's like tar now, almost—moist and tacky against his skin where he's pulled his legs free just moments back. Frightened, he stumbles onward—until he falls, catching himself with his left hand.

The floor sucks him in. He tugs and tugs, trying to get free, but his limbs are stuck fast. Whimpering again, he reels backward, feeling himself settle further into the warm darkness, which rises up to his hips now.

He's hyperventilating, pulling frantically, his free arm flailing—until it smacks into a wall. A hard wall. No, he realizes, feeling the tiny crack in it. A door.

Stiles fumbles for the knob, stretching a little above his head to find it, but it's there. He twists hard, shoving forward, and light spills suddenly over him. The library. Somehow, he's back there—but that part doesn't matter. He grabs the door frame with his free hand, using it to pull himself free. Panting with exertion, he manages to get his other hand out, and then his legs, and then he's crawling onto the grimy carpet, nearly sobbing with relief.

He turns as soon as he's caught his breath, intending to kick the door closed—but it's not there anymore.

It's just a hall. It's the hallway across from the library, exactly as it's supposed to be: white tiles, white walls, fluorescent lights.

Stiles screams and screams.

At some point, he realizes he's crying uncontrollably, unable to understand what's happened—what's happening to himEventually, there's a nurse in front of him, but he can't stop crying long enough to make out what she says. Then there are two nurses, then three. Their voices aren't loud enough for Stiles to make out over his pounding heart and frantic breaths. His skin is clean, smooth to the touch, but he knows it should be tacky with dark matter. He knows he should be marked by what's happened.

There's a sharp pain in his upper arm, real and firm, and then it's gone. And that's the last thing Stiles knows for a long time.

Chapter Text

The monsters are back again.

Strange, faceless beings stare down at Derek, their features somehow foreign. He strains to make out distinguishing features, anything that might identify them, but his world has grown dim. Night creeps across his vision.

When the overhead lights flicker to life, signaling the start of a new day, Derek's just awake enough to register that the darkness has turned a deep red through his closed eyelids. He drags himself to consciousness.

He's alone in his room, in his bed, where he always wakes. And as always, he remains rigid as the images swirl around his head. Some days, waking up feels almost like coming out of sleep paralysis, or so he imagines: he lies frozen in bed, unable to move and barely able to think—only the culprit is rage, not fear. It curls his fingers into fists, steels his spine. Today, he struggles just to calm his breathing. The only thing that really lingers from his dreams is a deep-rooted anger, one so thick he practically chokes with it.

At last, he drags himself into a sitting position, rubbing sleep from the corners of his eyes. He's had this dream before, dozens of times. Maybe hundreds. It doesn't come every night, but it comes often enough that he knows this one won't be the last.

Derek stretches wearily, passing a hand through his hair, and something moves in the corner of his eye. He turns to the bathroom, where the door lies open. The overhead lights in the main bedroom always flicker on a little before seven, when the nurses start making the rounds to unlock doors, but the bathroom light stays just how he left it. In this case, off. He's not sure what caught his attention, maybe a trick of the light—but when he turns away, he sees it again. Something writhing, a tiny motion in the darkness.

Unsettled, he stands and walks over to flick the light on. Nothing. You're letting Stiles's stories get to you, he chastises himself. But even so, Derek enters the bathroom gingerly to brush his teeth, as if he might disturb whatever was there first. And once he's changed, he shuts the door firmly behind him.

When Nurse Roberts comes to let him out, Derek is so distracted that he doesn't even rise to the man's baiting taunts. He does a quick lap around the hospital as usual, just to calm himself down, but more than anything he just wants to see Stiles. The human has a way of making him feel less tense, of helping him forget his worries. Besides, he thinks as his stomach growls hungrily, I could always eat.

As he enters the cafeteria, the other patients seem to writhe around him as well, faceless in their own way. He snarls viciously at them in line, barely managing to rein himself in as the woman dishing food stares at him reproachfully. This is why you're always hungry, he tells himself irritably. You're making enemies with the cafeteria workers.

Stiles will make it easier. He always does. Derek heads to their table in the back, scarfing down his food as he waits. When he finishes, he cracks the spine of The Stranger and lets his gaze drift across the page, but he's not really feeling it today. His attention wanders, over and over, to the cafeteria doors.

Stiles is late.

It's only when the room begins to empty out that Derek realizes that Stiles may not, in fact, be coming at all. Which is a problem—and not only because Derek was counting on Stiles to act as a buffer between Derek and everything that sets his blood boiling. Even now, a lady from group therapy (Madison? He thinks) is weeping into her tray at the next table over, and Derek barely keeps from grumbling under his breath.

He dumps his tray and heads past the lounge and down the hall to Stiles's room. When he gets there, he knocks—but there's no answer. He tries the knob, but it's locked. Anywhere else, Derek might have been able to tell if Stiles was on the other side of it or not, but when he presses his ear against the surface, he can't make out anything at all. No movement, no breathing, and certainly not a heartbeat. But in the insulated rooms of Eichen, none of that means anything.

If he isn't in his room, he might be in medical for some reason, Derek imagines doubtfully. And then another thought sprouts, taking hold before he can help it: what if Stiles is just gone? It isn't completely far-fetched to think that he might have been moved to another ward in Eichen, which happens sometimes with other patients. Or—and this seems much more out there—he might have even been released. He might be outside, and Derek might never see him again.

Even as he knows he should be pleased, should be grateful if and when Stiles ever gets out of this hellhole—as Stiles has told Derek a million times he wants to—Derek can't fight the boiling fury that rolls over him. Anger is his default state now, the first and most significant way he feels any sort of emotion, and it sweeps through him as naturally as breathing.

When it's passed, though, there's only a weary despair. The thought of facing Eichen without Stiles is almost too much to consider. Before, Derek had been used to the steady rhythm and pace of Eichen—but now that he knows what it's like to have Stiles by his side, after all this time, he can't imagine of living out the rest of his days here alone.

I guess I'll have to find out one way or another, Derek thinks, steeling himself for the answer.

To his dismay, the nurse on duty at the medical station is Roberts. Of course. Derek pauses at one end of the hall, trying to figure out if he can actually do this or not—but this is Stiles, and Derek needs to know where he is. And he can definitely do this, without snarling or snapping. Definitely.

He approaches with no small amount of reluctance, his legs stiff and wooden. When he gets close enough for Roberts to sit up and take note, the man's face grows weirdly smug. It's as if he can sense Derek's hesitation. As if he knows that Derek needed to pump himself up before confronting him. Derek's suddenly grateful for the nearly chest-height desk between them, because this way Roberts can't see the way the werewolf's hands clench into fists.

"I'm looking for Stiles," Derek grinds out.

Roberts raises one eyebrow. He smells like he's just rolled in cigarettes, which probably means he's snuck a quick break. "Good to know, Hale," he replies, and goes back to the document he'd been peering at.

Derek swallows, hard. Good behavior, he commands himself, and his internal voice is sounding a lot like Stiles now. "Can you tell me where he is?"

"I cannot," Roberts declares amusedly.

"Why not?"

"That's confidential patient information," Roberts replies. He leans back in his chair, looking back up at Derek. "We can't release personal information to non-family members."

A part of Derek's brain realizes how logical this is. There's legislation about it, probably, out there in the real world where stuff like this matters, where people are concerned with rights and privacy and all that proper bullshit. But the angry part of Derek's brain, the part that's mostly in charge, is enraged. That part of him just wants to slash the smug smirk off Roberts's stupid face.

In the furious snarl that follows, he remembers to make sure his claws don't come out, but he nearly forgets his fangs. At the last second, he covers his mouth when they drop, and he's suddenly sure his eyes have flashed.

Even so, Roberts just raises his eyebrows once more, almost offensively calm and collected. "Damn, but you're something," he says mildly. "Really a lost cause. Can't even have a single conversation without acting like an animal." Then, with great purpose, he climbs to his feet and leans forward onto the desk, steadying himself on his elbows. "One of these days," he adds in a low, conspiratorial whisper, "Alsina will finally hear me out and put you down like the dog you are."

For once, Derek is too surprised to snap. He does jolt in place, though, and Roberts must take the movement as an aborted lunge, because the nurse smiles in satisfaction.

"Sure, attack me in the middle of the hall, why don't you?" he laughs, collecting a couple of files and stacking them neatly on the desk. "It'll just make my case, you fucking monster." He slides past effortlessly, unhurried, and Derek is still too stunned to feel angry or afraid or anything else.

He knows, Derek thinks to himself. But he's not sure, not really: Roberts probably thinks he's got anger issues, that he's a lost cause—and Derek's got the anger management therapies splattered all across his medical record to show it. And werewolf or not, Derek feels like a monster most days.

Derek snarls at no one, letting his wolf take over for just a second as he paces jerkily back and forth. His wolf feels like he does, helpless and uncertain, and it's the actual worst. If Stiles is gone, what's he supposed to do? How's he supposed to know?

His eyes sink onto the desk where Roberts had been working, and he realizes that he could maybe just steal Stiles's file or something if no one else comes this way. Except that Alsina's got the patient files in her office, not here, he remembers. Still, a glint of silver catches his attention, something partly buried under a stack of manila folders. Derek glances up and down the hall to see that no one's looking, and then he reaches down to uncover it. A small, rectangular cigarette lighter. Roberts must have left it here after his break. Mulishly, Derek thrusts it into his pocket, in a petty act of revenge.

Footsteps patter down the hall, and Derek looks up to find Nurse Chen coming his way. If she's seen him pocket the lighter, she doesn't show it; her gaze is as bland and uncaring as ever. "Mr. Hale," she greets him as she approaches. "Are you waiting for something? I believe Nurse Roberts should be on duty," she adds disapprovingly, glancing at the empty chair.

Derek decides to try again, if only because Roberts is absolutely the kind of person to pull his leg about the whole patient confidentiality thing. He takes a beat to carefully school his breathing and then says, "Yeah, actually. I was just wondering if you could tell me where Stiles is? I haven't seen him all day."

"Where…? Ah, you mean Mr. Stilinski. Yes, he's been confined to his room for the day."

"What? Why?"

"Unfortunately, I can't tell you that, Mr. Hale. It's confidential patient information."

He'd been expecting the answer, so the anger doesn't swarm him quite so hard. "Is he okay?" he manages at last.

Chen drops into the chair beside the one Roberts had vacated. "I can't talk about his condition. But he's being monitored, and Dr. Alsina will decide whether or not he's well enough to be let out tomorrow morning."

A rush of relief, so strong that Derek almost sways on his feet. Stiles isn't gone forever, then—it's just for today. "And I can't see him?"

"No, Mr. Hale," she tells him, and he can't decide if her lifted eyebrows signal pity or amusement. "You'll have to entertain yourself today."

Derek swears under his breath and slinks off. Chen probably doesn't expect thanks, knowing him. He has the sudden idea that he could break into Alsina's office to find out what's really happened, dig into Stiles's patient record—but that would be practically suicidal. He'd definitely be stripped of his newfound half-day freedom, and it's probably not worth it if Stiles is just going to come back tomorrow. Probably.

He's just sick or something, he reassures himself. But he's not sure he believes it.

In an attempt to rein himself in, Derek stalks the halls of Eichen like he used to back when he was on 23/1. Like some giant beast—The Beast of Eichen House, he thinks with wry amusement, like he's the anti-hero of some gothic novel—he strides forward with so much murder in his eyes that patients and nurses alike skitter out of his path as he approaches. When he walks this quickly, everything and everyone passes by too fast for his anger to latch onto it.

He probably walks miles doing this, pacing for an interminable amount of time, maybe even all morning. At some point, Nurse Meyers comes to remind him of morning group therapy and he merely snarls at her. She seems unsurprised at this, only giving him a long, cool stare. Something about her gaze, or maybe the loose-limbed way she holds her spindly limbs, unsettles him. He turns away down the hall. Fortunately, after this, the staff seems to decide to leave him alone as long as he's not hurting anyone.

Each time Derek passes Stiles's room, he pauses to press his ear against the door. There's never any change.

When the anger eventually dissipates into a low simmer, Derek slows his steps and heads to the library. Stiles's scent is easier to catch the closer he gets to it, a mark of how often the guy comes here—only now that Derek's calm enough to process it, the smell is somehow different today. As he steps over the threshold, he becomes aware of an overpowering tang of fear, acidic and sharp in the air. It's strong, stronger than anything Derek's felt from Stiles before. It's as if Stiles was afraid for his life.

Something happened here, Derek realizes, the pieces slowly slotting into place. Recently. And that's why Stiles is locked up.

He studies the carpeted floor so desperately that it takes him a second to realize he's not alone in the library. A woman sits at the head of the table, hands over her face and dull amber hair falling messily before her. She's breathing hard, as if she were recovering from an all-out sprint.

Derek's furious first, ferociously so, at the thought of someone in here muddying Stiles's scent when Derek's just trying to figure out what's going on, but then the woman quickly lifts her head. It's the woman from breakfast, Madison, though her face is so twisted in fear that he has trouble recognizing her.

"Oh, it's just you," she says, looking relieved. She heaves a deep breath, brushing a strand of hair out of her face with a trembling hand. "It's over?"

There's something strange about her, something Derek can't quite place, and he deflates all at once. "What?"

"Did you see it too?" she asks him uncertainly. "Did you see…?"

"See what?"

At this Madison gesticulates wildly, hands whirling all over. "Any of it."

"See what?"

She swallows hard at his tone. Her expression suddenly reminds him of Stiles on his bad days, hollow and sour and sad. "You don't see anything, do you," she says flatly. "It's just the kid. I guess you wouldn't. Not with…are you..." For a long moment she hesitates, and then she steels herself up for something. "I thought you had claws, once. I saw them when you got mad. In the beginning. You hid them behind your back, but I was sitting where I could see..."

The shock of it floods him all at once, only the emotion instantly turns, as always, into a fierce rage. "What the fuck?" Derek bites out, knowing his eyes must flash a furious blue this time.

Madison jolts up in fear, knocking over her chair as she stumbles backward into the wall. "I was right," she hiccups weakly, eyes wide. "You're something else, something—"

Derek has to bite back a thundering roar. "What do you know?"

She squeaks and darts toward the door. Derek is so afraid he'll throttle her if he moves that he lets her dodge around him before he can get out another word. He steps out of the room to snarl after her, and her pounding footsteps are loud in his ears as she sprints away. Fuck, he thinks once the rage has passed. Does everyone here know?

Madison, at the very least, seems to have only seen his claws. Roberts seems to think he, Derek, is some kind of monster—figurative or literal. I'm doing a terrible job of hiding this, Derek thinks miserably.

He walks back into the library, swallowing hard. Stiles would know what to do, if he were here. Stiles wouldn't have bitten Madison's head off, he'd have made sure to get answers out of her. Not that even Stiles knows what a monster Derek is, not really.

There are a few books stacked haphazardly at one corner of the table, and Derek goes to put them back in place, more out of a need to be doing something with his hands than any real desire to clean. He pauses at the title of the first: Robinson Crusoe. Stiles had just been reading this. "Just as a distraction," he'd explained, before joking, "Pirates, cannibalism, and period racism—what more could you want in a story?"

Derek picks it up absently, flipping through the pages to find the last dog-eared mark toward the end of the book. And there, scrawled in the margins, is an old note of Stiles's, one that makes Derek swallow hard.

I'm always afraid now, it reads.

Chapter Text

Stiles can't manage to drag himself back to consciousness. Every time he tries, warm black fingers keep dragging him down. They pull him into the dust, into the dirt, burying him in a dark grave somewhere out in the deep.

Eventually, he's woken by someone viciously shaking his arms.

"Stilinski. Stilinski. Jesus. It's seven a.m." Then, with exasperation: "Will you wake the fuck up?"

Blearily, Stiles opens his eyes and registers the ruddy face of Nurse Roberts. "Wha'?"

"Get up and get dressed. Breakfast is in half an hour. Don't go back to sleep," Roberts says grumpily, moving to step out of the door. He turns at the last moment, frowning. "And don't make me come back here."

Moving through a dull fog, Stiles pulls on some fresh scrubs. It takes him ages; his limbs work shakily against him. He pauses frequently to refocus on the task. The red door is there, again, but he can't remember why that matters. He can't remember if there's anything else he's supposed to do in the mornings, so he drifts out into the hallway. It's late, and the last of the morning herd is heading to the cafeteria.

Derek's already sitting at their usual table, frowning down at his tray. Uncertain, Stiles stumbles over. The other patient's face, once he catches sight of Stiles, turns patently relieved—and then worried.

"Stiles," Derek exclaims fervently, glancing at the clock above the door. "You—you weren't here. Breakfast is almost done; I thought you weren't coming again." When Stiles doesn't react, anxiety flits over his face. "Are you okay?"

Stiles takes a long time to answer. "I...don't know," he replies honestly. His voice sounds a little hoarse to his ears.

"What happened?"

"Yesterday, I saw…" Stiles pauses. "A hall." He doesn't really know how else to put it. For some reason, his words aren't really coming to him. He laughs joylessly. "It tried to...eat me? I kept screaming, but it wouldn't stop. No one heard. And you know...No. I didn't just see it. I was in it. I felt it. I couldn't see it on my hands or legs when I was done. But I know it was there. I know it."

Derek doesn't reply to his babble right away, though he opens his mouth and closes it several times as if he can't work out what to say. "Stiles, are you okay?" he repeats helplessly.

"You asked me that. Earlier. Just now." It comes out in bursts; he can't tie his thoughts together fast enough for his mouth to keep up.

"Did...did they do something to you?"

"Think they drugged me. Yesterday. I was sleeping." He sinks into a chair beside Derek. "No, they drugged me before that. Because I started crying and yelling, in the library. It never happened there before. The hall, I mean. I saw a fox, too. And a person. I think. That's new. Maybe."

Derek stares at him, then he slowly pushes his tray toward Stiles. There's some eggs and a little bacon left. "Okay. Eat that," he orders. "You should get some food in your stomach. Maybe it'll help you get past the drugs or whatever, help you feel...a little more like you. I'll go get another tray."

"I don't want to eat," Stiles grumbles petulantly, but Derek's already gone. He manages to down a few bites of bacon before Derek returns with another tray.

"Whatever happened to you wasn't yesterday, it was the day before," Derek begins, setting it down. "They kept you in your room all day yesterday. And when I was at the library..." He pauses and shakes his head, dumping two pieces of toast and some more eggs onto Stiles's tray. "Was there anyone else there when it happened to you, the halls and stuff? You said you're better with people around, right?"

Stiles frowns, feeling suddenly ashamed. "No one else. Usually it's okay. Yesterday, it wasn't, though."

Derek nods. "Okay," he says. "Don't go to the library alone. And…" he hesitates for a long moment, staring down at the food on his tray. "Actually...I know you're not gonna like this. And I don't really want to say it. But maybe you should talk to Alsina."

"About the hall?" Stiles asks, scandalized. He only realizes how loud he is once Derek shushes him.

"Yes. About the hall. Stiles, I know you don't want to be in Eichen longer than you need to. But yesterday…" he pauses, frowning. "It seemed—seems—like something scared you into a panic," he starts again, dragging the sentence out slowly. "And yeah, Alsina and all the nurses are shitty, but they are—well, maybe this is the kind of thing they're supposed to help with. This is why you're here, right? I don't know what else to—there's nothing else I can think of that might help."

"You mean it's all in my head," Stiles says flatly.

Derek pauses, and his face is blank in a way that makes Stiles think he's probably weighing his words. "I guess. Isn't that...what you told me? Isn't that what you think?"

"Yeah," Stiles agrees instantly. But then he thinks of the floor sinking under his feet, the fur brushing past him, the total darkness—and he isn't so sure. "Yeah, it's all in my head. For sure."

Derek gives him a long look. He forces Stiles to eat all of his breakfast, patiently enduring Stiles's complaints. Then, he dumps both their trays and leads Stiles to the lounge.

"Let's stay in here today," he declares, pushing Stiles onto a couch. "Instead of the library. I think maybe you shouldn't…"

"No, I shouldn't," Stiles agrees, stomach roiling at the thought of going back there. A yawn cracks his face wide open. "I slept for so long. I don't know why I'm tired."

"Lie down," Derek replies, shifting uncertainly in place. "You should take it easy. I'm just going to read."

Stiles obediently settles onto the sofa, his head on the armrest and his knees pulled up to allow Derek enough place to sit. Once Derek's in place, Stiles murmurs, "Could you maybe read out loud today? From wherever you are in the book. Doesn't matter how far in."

Derek shrugs, flipping to where he'd left off. "At that time, I often thought that if I had had to live in the trunk of a dead tree, with nothing to do but look up at the sky flowing overhead, little by little I would have gotten used to it…"

As he reads, Stiles sneakily (or so he hopes) presses his feet forward, just enough so that his toes touch the side of Derek's thigh. Just in case a sudden ambush of darkness should sneak over him, he'll know—because the feel of Derek will be gone. Stiles will know, if the darkness takes him. Won't he?

He sleeps for some time. When he wakes, his feet are in Derek's lap. Derek doesn't seem to mind; at the first signs of stirring, Derek turns from where he'd been reading silently to himself. "Feel any better?" he asks.

Stiles shakes his head but isn't sure he can say. Partly because he can't string together the words, and partly because he's not sure what to say. He sits up, reaching solemnly for Derek's book. Bemused, Derek hands it over, and Stiles flips to a random page. There are pencils on the coffee table, beside someone's pack of crosswords, and Stiles borrows one.

I'm afraid if I tell someone, I'm going to be here forever, he scrawls slowly. And I'll never get out of here to see my dad again.

He hands the book back to Derek, who studies the message for a long time. Stiles has the sudden thought that all this must seem silly to Derek, even ridiculous—some kid who's afraid of the dark, screaming so hard about warped hallways that they have to drug him to sleep.

But Derek only swallows hard, like reading it is just as painful for him as it was for Stiles to write it. "I don't know what will happen," he says helplessly. "I don't know what you should do."

"I think you're probably right. I have to tell them," Stiles replies haltingly, when the words finally come. "Because it's only getting worse. So I have to."

Derek nods grimly, gripping the book hard.

Group therapy passes in a numb roar. Stiles can't quite keep up with it, like it's flowing too quickly for him to comprehend. He holds his tongue throughout the meeting, which is pretty unusual for him. Derek glances at him every so often, but Stiles has no way to reassure him. No way to reassure himself.

"Your goal for today, Mr. Stilinski?" Nurse Meyers asks pointedly, looking like she'd absolutely rather not know.

"Not to die," Stiles replies. It sounds like a joke. A couple of the other patients crack smiles, assuming he's just being a dick as usual. But right now, it doesn't feel funny at all.

.

Derek insists on walking him over to Alsina's office, along with the nurse who comes to collect him. Stiles lets himself be led, his body on autopilot. It feels like a death march.

"Mr. Stilinski," Dr. Alsina greets him as he enters the room. Turning from her place at the window, she folds her arms across her chest. Stiles consciously focuses on her face instead of the red door on the far wall. "How are you this morning?"

Stiles frowns. "I'm sure you heard what happened."

Dr. Alsina nods slowly, uncrossing her arms to wander over to her desk. "The nurses had to give you a sedative," she replies, sitting down. She hasn't taken her eyes off his face the entire time. "But I'd like to hear what happened from you, if that's alright."

He hesitates for a long moment, long enough that she lifts an arm pointedly toward the chair. Stiles collapses into it. "I...don't know."

"You don't remember?"

"No, I remember. But it sounds crazy, even to me. Even now." Especially now. Sitting in front of Dr. Alsina, who leans toward him with piercing blue eyes, it seems like yesterday can't have happened. There's a whole shelf of books behind her, diplomas on the wall. Marks of objectivity. They seem to shout that there's no reason, no logic, to what his brain says went down. The morning sun is streaming through her window, banishing any darkness that might have crept in.

"It won't sound crazy to me, Mr. Stilinski. Do you truly believe you're the first person to come in with a story that sounds odd? Even unbelievable? That's why we're hereWe're going to help you understand what's happening to you, to help you move past it."

"Yeah. Yeah, I...okay."

"So, please. Tell me."

Stiles sighs, and then, haltingly, he does. He explains being in the library, the fox on the chair, the hallway stretching out where it shouldn't, someone watching from the doorway, sinking into the floor. His voice grows thick in places, like the words don't want to come easily, like he's slogging through the muck again to drag it all out here, to this moment.

When at last he finishes, she's quiet for a long time. "Mr. Stilinski," she murmurs apologetically, her mouth twisting. And he knows exactly where she's going before she can say it.

"I'm staying longer, aren't I?" he asks dully.

"I...believe it would be in your best interest to stay under observation. In case of another episode."

Episode. God, he hates that word. "But I don't—"

"I also think we'll want to shuffle around your medications a little. Play with them, to see if it's just that one of them is affecting you badly." She scribbles something onto a pad on her desk.

"It felt real," Stiles protests suddenly, his voice so quiet he can barely hear himself.

Dr. Alsina looks up at him sympathetically. She laces her fingers together. "You know what? Why don't we give you some breathing strategies you can use when you find yourself in a situation like this?"

Stiles snorts, then looks at her. "You're serious?"

"Having strategies in place to help calm yourself when you're in the middle of panicking—"

"It wasn't a panic attack, I was terrified. And changing my breathing isn't going to change that. I don't need—"

"Mr. Stilinski, you're here for my help. I'm telling you, it's small steps from here. One thing at a time."

Stiles moans, leaning forward to put his head in his hands. "Right. Tell me about the goddamn breathing exercises," he mumbles.

.

Stiles can barely look at Derek when he leaves, can hardly stand to see the concern in his friend's face. "I'm fine, I'm fine, I'm fine," he repeats numbly, over and over again, as he drifts out of the hallway and into the lounge.

He's too afraid to be alone, but he wants to be. He can't wander away from the crowd, but he hates the thought of anyone looking at him. So he wedges himself between the piano and the radiator, sitting on the floor with his back to the wall and his knees to his chest, making himself as small as possible. He doesn't want to have a panic attack here—it would literally be the worst thing ever—but when he settles himself down, he finds that he's not even close. Fear isn't the biggest part of what he's feeling. Not anymore.

It's sadness. Grief. For a blow he'd known was coming, only he hadn't been able to admit it to himself.

In the back of his mind, he's known for a long time that he's not getting out of Eichen anytime soon. There's something very wrong with him. Something big. Too big for a weekend stay, for him to hop back home with his dad like everything's cool.

It's stupid to even think about it now, but he'd made plans to make veggie lasagna, one of his dad's favorites, as soon as he got out of here. Monday, it was supposed to be. In time for him to go back to school. He'd even made his dad do a grocery run, just so he could get all the ingredients beforehand. Stiles wonders what his dad did with it all. Realizes, suddenly, that he's been wondering out loud the whole time.

"Did he just, like, watch all the spinach wilt? And the tomatoes get all moldy? He can't cook for shit. He wouldn't have known what else to do with them. He's definitely not eating right. He never does when he's stressed. If he's not taking his heart meds on the regs, I'm gonna kill him when I get out of here, I swear to god…"

After what feels like ages, he trails off. There's a vague ache in his throat.

Derek seems to have gotten Stiles's idea of finding a place to hide. He's dragged the piano bench in front of the gap between the piano and radiator, closing Stiles off from everyone else's view a little more. And he's pacing jerkily back and forth in front of it, his gaze outward, tense. Something in it reminds Stiles of those early days, when Derek had been angry all the time, even occasionally at Stiles. Or of the expression he gets sometimes when he snaps. Something fierce, predatory.

Not predatory. Territorial, Stiles thinks, watching Derek snarl at Quincy when she gets too close, probably coming to poke her nose where it doesn't belong.

The expression clears away when Derek catches Stiles looking at him, though. "You're back. You okay?"

Stiles shrugs, feeling as emotionally worn out as if he'd spent the last twenty minutes sobbing himself sick instead of muttering to himself in a corner.

"You wanna stay there a bit?"

"Yeah," he replies, too exhausted to even feel ashamed about it. He leans forward, resting his chin on the piano bench. "It's stupid, but it makes me feel better. Thanks."

Derek's giving him a weird expression, like he's fighting off a smile.

"What?"

"My brothers and sister used to...sometimes, we'd make burrows with pillows and blankets, just under tables and chairs in the house. We'd pretend to be animals, curling up in our dens. I guess this reminded me of that."

"I don't feel like an animal in a den. I feel like a kid hiding in a corner."

Derek shrugs. "Sometimes you have to lick your wounds. Nothing wrong with that."

Stiles considers this. It doesn't sound awful, when Derek puts it that way. "As a kid or an animal?"

"Both," Derek smiles.

"Did you ever hide with them?"

"All the time."

"You. Were afraid," Stiles clarifies.

Derek quirks his head to the side. It's weirdly adorable. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"I don't know. You're this, like...big dude, with eyebrows the size of cannons, who could probably tear a limb off a guy if he came between you and breakfast. Seems like there's not much to be afraid of."

"I'm afraid of things, Stiles," Derek tells him patiently.

"Like what?" Stiles asks, leaning forward a little. "Tell me something."

Derek frowns. He doesn't look angry, or upset, which probably would have made Stiles hurry to take back the question. Instead, he looks considering. But by the time he finally opens his mouth to reply, it's a beat too late.

"Hale!" a voice shouts. They turn to find Roberts wading through the sea of blue scrubs in the room. "Time to get back in your cage."

"What? We didn't even eat lunch yet!" Stiles protests.

Roberts' head jerks toward Stiles, having just noticed him huddled behind the bench. "Stilinski! Didn't see you there. Anyway, it's noon. Lunch is donezo, kid."

Stiles looks at Derek, who nods. "Really? We were just sitting here the whole time?"

"You seemed like you needed some space."

For someone who eats as much as Derek does, it says a lot that he stayed with Stiles instead of heading to lunch. Stiles smiles hesitantly, in spite of himself. "Oh. Thanks."

He just catches Roberts rolling his eyes, and then the man's mouth twists slyly behind his thick beard. "Hear you're staying with us for the foreseeable future, Stilinski! Looks like you needed a little more than 48 hours to fix your head after all, huh?"

Stiles's stomach drops, something cold settling over him. But in the time it takes him to recover enough to even think of a response, Derek's already moved. He snaps out an arm with surprising speed and ferocity, fisting it in the nurse's collar. Stiles jolts to his feet, stumbling over the bench to get to Derek.

"Derek, no!" he cries, tugging Derek back by the fabric of his shirt. It shouldn't do anything at all—in the same way it wouldn't do anything against a boulder—but Derek allows himself to be pulled back anyway.

There's a stupefied expression on Derek's face, though, and Stiles follows his gaze to Roberts' side. His shirt's been tugged up enough to see the skin there, and it's marred by a series of inflamed scratches: four parallel, bloody lines, thin but not well healed. They're even, somehow, as if someone had swiped at his side with a giant pitchfork.

Roberts pulls the shirt down quickly, but whatever damage is done, is done. Derek's snarling again, and Stiles shakes his arm a little. "Dude, stay calm," he says quietly through gritted teeth. "Nothing's worth you getting locked up again."

This, more than anything, makes Derek go quiet. He's not completely done with his ire—not if his glare at Roberts is anything to go by—but he's at least allowing Stiles to tug him away.

Derek is staring at Roberts with an unreadable expression as the nurse, flustered, backs away. Stiles opens his mouth to ask what's going on, but Derek catches his eye and gives him a firm shake of the head.

So instead, Stiles tries, "I'll walk with you guys to the room again, if that's okay."

Roberts doesn't say anything, just grimaces and walks off like some giant douche. He slows at the doorway to the lounge, hands in his pockets, waiting for them to follow. Frowning, Derek leads the way through the crowd.

"Everything okay?" Stiles asks, keeping his voice low.

"I don't know," Derek replies quietly. "But now's not a good time to talk about it. I have, um—look, don't draw attention to it or anything, but take this." Warmth brushes against Stiles's knuckles, and then Derek clasps his hand. Stiles fights to keep a straight face when he realizes that there's something cradled between their palms, small and smooth, and he barely has the presence of mind to grasp it tightly as Derek squeezes his hand and withdraws his touch. "I grabbed it earlier—and then I thought you could actually use it, in case anything happens again when I'm not around."

Roberts has slowed to let them catch up, and he's too close for them to say anything else, so Stiles silently stays beside Derek as they make their way down the corridor. His hand clenches around whatever's inside it, smooth corners pressing into his palm.

"See you tomorrow," he murmurs helplessly to Derek, once they reach his room.

"See you tomorrow," Derek agrees. He quirks a small, reassuring smile at Stiles, right before Roberts pulls the door closed between them—with much more force than necessary. The man scowls as he retreats the way they came, and Stiles follows him back to the lounge, slipping the object into his pocket.

It's not until later, when he can curl up behind a couch, that he pulls it out to see what Derek's gotten him.

It's a lighter. Stiles cradles it in the palm of his hand, feeling the potential of it, a warmth just waiting to blossom.

.

When Stiles wakes in a strange place this time, it takes him a minute to realize it's not just another nightmare about the last time he woke in a strange place.

It's the darkness that makes him understand that he's not in his room anymore. He is in his bed, though—or at least on something soft. But as far as he can tell, as his eyes adjust, there are no walls, and no ceiling. It all extends outward past the furthest reaches of his eyesight, infinity in black.

He's hyperventilating almost before he's fully awake, shoving the sheets off and pushing himself upright to get more air into his lungs.

Should he leave the bed? Should he stay where he is? Both options sound equally terrifying. The darkness presses against him, touching his actual skin like a warm, living thing, like something trying to get inside him. He has the crazy thought that he's breathing it in, even now, feels it seeping into his lungs and invading the cells of his body.

Trying to look out into the distance, to see what's there, only makes things worse. In a darkness this complete, his eyes play tricks on him. It's like there are fireworks, little patches of deep black and purple movement—but he knows it's only his brain trying to make sense of the darkness, trying to weave patterns out of the rapidly firing nerves in his moving eyes. He knows that his brain simply can't understand the experience of having his eyes wide open without getting any input—so it's making up images for him. He knows this, but it doesn't make it any less terrifying.

Shit. Wait. Fumbling in his pocket, he grips the lighter Derek gave him. It takes him a couple of tries to get the flame to light, but he finally manages—and it's almost worse this way. There's nothing there. It's just the stark outline of his bed, with its crisp white sheets and the glint of the metal frame, against a vast, dark nothingness that the thin light can't alleviate.

Slowly, so as not to disturb the flame, he moves the lighter higher, and then from one side to another. Nothing. Just a wide stretch of open floor.

And then, to his left, he can just make out the form of something. Someone. It's a person standing, loose-limbed but straight, a little farther off in the distance. Just like the person from the first night. Stone still. Facing him.

Stiles has the sudden thought that it would be idiotically stupid to call out—isn't that exactly what someone in a horror movie would do? But he's not sure what the alternative is. Hesitantly, he swings his legs over the side of the bed and touches the floor. It's reassuringly solid underfoot, and cool to the touch. Not like last time. He stands up, without taking his eyes off the distant figure—only to see it move, with great slowness and deliberation, to take a single step forward.

He's not sure why the movement sets him off again, but Stiles bolts. The flame flickers and sputters out, but he's too afraid to slow down. For a few seconds, or maybe minutes, he allows himself to run in a blind panic, before the thought occurs to him that he might eventually run into something. Or someone.

That stops him short, and he manages to rein himself in again. Heart pounding, he clicks the lighter. Again, nothing at all in the nearby darkness. He swings the light around, wondering if this all goes on forever, and where his bed is—but suddenly there's someone there again, just a few yards away. His heart jumps to his throat.

They're closer this time, close enough to see dark skin and a darker head, and little else. They're moving toward him again, steadily and carefully, and Stiles muffles a shriek and holds himself still. Whoever it is (whatever it is?), it's coming incredibly slowly. "Hello?" he calls, hating how much his voice shakes. "Who's there? Also, please please please don't eat me."

The person doesn't pause. They take just a few more paces forward, and eventually Stiles understands the darkness around their head: a wild mess of black hair. It's a girl.

Recognition sparks in him once she's close enough to see her face, a memory from all those morning and evening therapy sessions. Stiles fumbles for her name. "Clem?" he guesses at last, relieved. "Are you...Are you lost, too? What's going on?"

He's never stopped to pay attention to how bone-thin she is. Her tightly curled hair is a mess of tangles, and her dark eyes don't move from his face as she continues her steady, slow walk forward.

The flame dies, and Stiles snaps it back on again. Clem's closer now, something flickering on her shoulder. A moth. And another, crawling over her arm and down her wrist. She makes no effort to swat it away, just creeps steadily toward Stiles.

He steps back, swallowing hard, but bumps into something solid behind him. He spins, and the light goes out. He clicks it on again to find the red door, so close he could touch it—he did just touch it.

A shrill, aborted sound escapes him, and he darts away, finding that Clem is even closer than he'd realized. "What the hell?" he cries, running off into the darkness. The light's out again, but he holds out his arms to keep himself from running headlong into something, allowing himself to sink into a panic. He runs for a minute, two, and then slows to click the lighter.

Nothing. Only darkness.

It's warmer, though. The air feels damp here, thick. Almost like it did the last time. He has to find a way out, but there's nothing around.

Stiles tries desperately to calm his breathing, to keep from whimpering aloud. He doesn't know if he wants Clem following him, and he definitely doesn't need her tracking him by sound. The flame creates a small, glowing pool around him, illuminating the grey floor underfoot—but it also makes him feel exposed. In this infinite darkness, a light is a beacon. Both for Clem, and for anything else lurking in the shadows.

I have to get out of here, Stiles thinks wildly. How do I get out?

There's a puff of air—wind, or a breath—from behind him, and his heart pounds. Before he can follow that train of thought too far, he stumbles on something solid. He glances down, and the light flickers across a solid square marked on the ground. A rim. A handle.

A trapdoor.

"Shit, please—" Stiles begs, fumbling for the edge. Once he's gripped it, he shoves the lighter into his pocket to pull the door with both hands.

There's the tiniest bit of light coming up from below, and that's enough for him. He slips awkwardly into it, letting himself fall down as the door closes overhead, and lands with an oof on something soft.

A bed. His bed. He's back in his room. A glance overhead shows no sign of the outline of the trapdoor he'd come from.

"Of fucking course," Stiles pants, lying back with exhaustion. He wants to cry, or die, or both—but something strikes his subconscious as offIt takes a moment, fighting off another panic attack, to realize what it is.

There's a photo taped to the door. A set of scrubs hangs over the edge of the bed. A book on the nightstand: The Stranger. He stares at the cover, understanding starting to settle in. This isn't my room. It's Derek's, Stiles realizes slowly. No, wait...that doesn't make sense. It's after lights out. If I'm in his room, where is he?

A rustling at the door makes him jump. Someone's rattling the knob. He freaks out and instinctively dives beneath the bed like a scared little kid, which would probably embarrass him at any other time in his life—except that's literally what he feels like right now.

The door opens, and several sets of legs step into the room just as something flutters into Stiles's line of sight. A moth, landing on the leg of the bed frame.

Grunting sounds from overhead. Stiles jerks his gaze from the moth to find that there's something else just outside the doorway, metal on wheels—a stretcher? And one pair of legs isn't standing: it's being dragged. The heels, wrapped in the non-skid hospital socks, slide across the tile floor.

"This would be a hell of a lot easier if he was always like this," a voice says. Roberts, Stiles realizes. "Minus the claws and fangs and whatnot."

"You're just still pissed he took a swipe at you the other day," another voice says—maybe that nurse lady whose name Stiles never remembers. "You gotta lay off the beer and get ready to duck and dodge."

Roberts grunts, and they manage to dump the limp body onto the bed. "Doesn't matter. Not like we're getting anywhere."

"That's not what I hear," the nurse replies, but the rest of her response is muffled as the door swings shut behind them. With a click, it's locked as well.

Stiles waits a solid minute. Then he crawls out from under the bed. He'd been afraid of what he might see, but there's Derek, sprawled across the mattress. For all intents and purposes, he looks like he might just be asleep—but his skin has a strange pallor, and there's such a heavy stillness to him that Stiles leans forward to check for breathing.

Please don't be dead, Stiles thinks desperately, reaching down to shake his shoulder. I'm not sure I could take it.

Chapter Text

Some distant, muddled sound drags Derek from slumber. As if through a thick fog, he drifts slowly back to consciousness. The mattress bounces under him, and something grips his shoulders.

"Get lost, Jace," he murmurs, turning his head aside. Jason's always been like this, an overeager puppy begging his big brother to do dumb shit with him at ungodly hours of the morning.

The sounds become more urgent, but it slowly becomes clear that the voice doesn't belong to Jason. Peter? Dad?

Blearily, Derek manages to slit his eyes open, and he finds himself where he always is: his bare, white prison cell. It's been a long time since he's forgotten his situation. Since he's forgotten his family's dead, his pack gone. Since he's forgotten that he's alone now.

But not entirely. It's Stiles standing there instead of Jace, half on top of Derek, his face wan and frightened. The expression wakes Derek quickly, though he still struggles against the fog in his mind. "Stiles, what…" The overhead lights are dimmed, which means it's after lights out, which means that it's impossible for Stiles to be here right now. A disconcerting tide of worry washes through Derek. He grips Stiles's shoulders. "How are you here? Is it—it's still night, isn't it?"

"Yeah, it's the middle of the night," Stiles replies in a hoarse whisper. "I don't know how I got here. Or how you did—someone just dragged you in here, Derek. It was Roberts, I think, but I'm not sure. And I saw...it was Clem, maybe, in the dark…" He's gotten panicky, his voice choked by quick, little breaths. "Derek, it's real. That's how I'm here. I came through the dark, and I ended up here."

"Stiles—okay, calm down." He squeezes Stiles's arms tight, pulling him so he's sitting all the way on the bed. "Deep breaths. And then start from the beginning."

Stiles takes a few deep breaths, looking carefully down at the mattress like he's flustered, or maybe ashamed. He composes himself as Derek waits patiently. "Okay. I woke up in my bed, but in the dark. Not like, this dark," he adds, gesturing to the ceiling above, where the lights are an ultra-dim amber. "I mean, total darkness."

"In your room."

"No. Well—no. I mean, it was this huge, dark place. But I had the lighter, and dude, thanks so much for that, you don't even know."

"Yeah, I just thought it might help you feel better, but— "

"It did, seriously. I used it to look around, and I found Clem."

Derek draws a blank. "Who?"

"Clem. That skinny girl, curly black hair, always alone, barely ever talks. We've seen her in morning therapy, like, every day."

A half-formed image drifts to mind: a girl with dark eyes and a sullen hunch to her shoulders. Derek can't say he's ever known her name, but something niggles at the back of his mind, so distant he can't reach it. "Oh, yeah. Wait, she was there, too? In the dark?"

"That's what I'm saying. I...well, remember when I saw someone in the dark the last time? When it got dark in the library and they had to drug me or whatever? Well, I was thinking maybe that was her back then, too. Or—I dunno, maybe not. It looked taller. Weirder. Anyway, Clem didn't say anything, just kept coming at me. And then I bumped into the red door, which freaked me out. It happened so fast. All of a sudden, I was running. I just knew I had to find a door. Another door, I mean." He pauses, looking at Derek, who suddenly realizes he's frowning. "What?" Stiles asks suspiciously.

Derek's not sure what to say, except that all of this sounds like a dream. A dark place, a red door, some random patient from Eichen. But Derek can't actually say that to Stiles, especially when his expression is this wary. "Nothing," he says at last. "It sounds like—a lot to handle. How did you know how to get out?"

Stiles shrugs slowly. "I didn't. But the other times when I've been there, there's always been a door. A way out. I just have to find it." He looks up at the ceiling. "This time, it was a trapdoor in the floor, and I opened it, and I fell onto your bed."

Derek follows his gaze. There's no trapdoor up there, just the same drop ceiling, the dull amber lights, the speckled tiles whose every fleck Derek has counted in boredom a thousand times before.

Stiles is frowning when Derek looks down again. "You don't believe me."

"It's...a lot to take in," Derek replies evasively.

"Look, if it didn't happen, how could I be here right now?"

It's a valid point. As far as Derek knows, no one's allowed into or out of other people's rooms at night. Stiles would have had to get a key from somewhere—which isn't impossible, but it seems like a stupid thing to lie about. Derek can't get a read on Stiles's heartbeat, as panicked as he is, but he doesn't think Stiles would make this up.

Then again, they are in Eichen.

Derek stands, ostensibly so he can pace slowly back and forth, so he can think. But as Stiles looks on anxiously, Derek takes a moment to discreetly smell the room itself. The place smells like Stiles, obviously, though his scent isn't particularly strong near the door to the hall. Not that it would be anyway—Stiles wouldn't have needed to touch this side of the door to get in, only the knob on the outside. There's no way to tell for sure if he used the door at all, Derek decides in frustration.

"And another thing!" Stiles interjects in outrage, as if he's suddenly remembered. "When I landed on your bed, you weren't even here!"

Derek blinks. "What?"

"Like I said. Two nurses dragged you in. You weren't moving. They said something about wishing you didn't have fangs and claws, and then they left."

It's another confusing puzzle piece, along with the claw mark they'd seen across Roberts's stomach the other day. That had been enough to get Derek thinking. He'd only seen the scratches for an instant, but he knows they must have been made by something big. Bigger than a dog, for sure. Maybe even bigger than a wolf—but Derek isn't sure how much his memory is playing tricks on him at this point.

Derek had sat on his bed for a long time afterward, reassuring himself that he definitely would have remembered mauling the nurse, if only because it's been his life goal for the past two years.

Except for those pesky memory problems. And the weird dreams.

What once started out as a blank space where the fire's aftermath should have been has only spread during Derek's time here. He loses time in the evenings, sleeps terribly, and tells himself it's just a byproduct of being locked up in here. The days bleed into each other. And if he can't quite remember falling asleep last night, well, it's just because he was bored to death like always. Right?

But what if what Stiles says is true? It's a big if, especially connected to all the other crazy stuff coming out of his mouth. Stiles isn't lying, as far as Derek knows—it's always harder to tell when someone's heart is beating hard in a panic, but Derek is pretty sure that at the very least, Stiles himself still believes everything he's saying. And there's a lot of magic in the world that Derek's never seen, or that he wouldn't understand if he tried. It's possible something about this place is a little magic.

And if it's true, then someone here, someone in a position of power, knows he's a werewolf. That same someone has been dragging him out of his room, taking advantage of his memory loss. 

In the light of day, this probably would seem too far-fetched to believe for a second. He's locked in a public, non-magical institution because everyone believes he's a potential serial killer. No one here knows he's a werewolf. He's just here until the lawyers can sort everything out, or until he goes to trial.

But staring at Stiles's ashen face, in the amber dimness of his bedroom, with no memory of falling asleep...right now, anything feels possible. And hadn't Roberts seemed to know there was something more to Derek? Hadn't he seemed to suggest that Derek was a literal monster?

The thought should frighten him. Instead, the fear is consumed by a building rage, deep in his chest. It's always there, these days: that same anger, a fire that sometimes dwindles to embers without ever really dying away. Sometimes, Derek feels like everything else he feels about being here—resentment, fear, anxiety, sadness, frustration—all those emotions just fuel the anger inside him, consumed and transformed by its flames.

"Derek?" Stiles says tentatively, scanning his face with those amber eyes, and Derek fights away the rage. Stiles isn't the cause of Derek's fury, and he doesn't deserve to see it.

"I...I don't know what this means," Derek growls finally. As the rage seeps away, he's left untethered, unmoored. "But if what you're saying is true, someone's been dragging me out of here. All those times I can't remember what's going on, or falling asleep...maybe they pull me out of here in the night, when everyone's asleep, to…" To what? He doesn't know. That's where the trail ends. That's where it starts sounding crazy, even to Derek himself. "I don't know."

Stiles is quiet for a long moment. "I didn't connect it 'till just now, but what those nurses said, about claws and fangs...what does that mean?"

Derek's eyes slip closed. He could tell Stiles. Maybe he should. But he's not sure that's what Stiles needs right now, finding out his only friend in Eichen House is a monster straight out of legend. And besides, it's always been this big thing: his mom had made them all swear up and down never to tell a soul, no one outside of Hale House. You'll never be able to trust someone like you trust pack, she'd told them. If you ever think there's someone you should tell about us, I need to know about it first.

But Derek's mom isn't here anymore. And Derek's not sure what he's supposed to do.

"I can't tell you that," he decides at last. When he finally brings himself to open his eyes again, Stiles is watching him once more with the same wary look. By the time Derek thinks it might have been the wrong thing to say, Stiles's expression clears.

"Okay. Yeah, sure. I get it." He bites his lip. "Either way, though...I'm thinking the people here can't be trusted. Right? Just in case they're really doing...something to you. Or is that crazy?"

"I don't know if it is. But until we can be sure, we have to pretend nothing's wrong."

"Even if they're—?"

"If something's going on, we're clearly not supposed to know about it. And so far, whatever they're doing...well, it doesn't seem like they're actively trying to hurt us. But if we show them we've guessed they're up to somethingthe rules change. They have all the power here, so..."

Stiles is nodding slowly. "You're right. Things could get bad. It's safer to play along, as much as we can. And maybe playing dumb will make it easier to figure this shit out while they're not looking."

"Exactly."

"But it's gonna be a problem, like, right now."

"Why?"

Stiles gestures around at Derek's room. "They're gonna wonder how I got here. And what am I supposed to tell them, if we're keeping this quiet? 'Sorry for apparating to safety?'"

"Oh." Derek rubs his forehead. "Shit."

"Yeah, shit."

A thought occurs to Derek, then—a really stupid one. Maybe Stiles's crazy story is rubbing off on him or something, but at least he feels like Stiles won't judge him for voicing it aloud. For buying into the insanity. "Earlier, you said there's always a door, right? To get you back somewhere safe. Where you need to be."

Stiles frowns, catching his train of thought. "Yeah, but I already found it. And it led me here."

"If it's—" he catches himself before finishing with the word true. "If it's possible, maybe there's another door."

Stiles grimaces. "There is."

"Then you should just—"

"But it's the red one." Stiles's gaze creeps a little to the side, toward the wall. And then he's back to looking carefully at Derek, like he's trying not to see something out of the corner of his eye.

Derek nods slowly. "Okay. No other doors?"

Stiles dutifully looks around the room, and up at the ceiling. After a beat of hesitation, he slides off the bed to look under it as well. The bathroom door's ajar, and he pushes it open, flicking the light on and off to check within. Frowning, he shuts the door and leans against it. "Nothing."

"Maybe it only leads you somewhere when you're in the dark."

"I guess," Stiles replies, hunching his shoulders in frustration. "So what do we do?" He's toying with something in his pocket, and eventually he pulls out the silver lighter. He flicks it on. "Burn the whole place down?"

"That wouldn't really solve the problem, since we're stuck inside."

"It would solve the problem," Stiles replies darkly, extinguishing the flame. "Can you just kick down the door or something? You have like five million muscles in your legs."

"The doors are steel. I've punched them before. Barely dents it." At Stiles's raised eyebrows, he adds, "This place is sturdier than you'd think. And resistant to people who just want to trash their rooms in a fit of anger."

Stiles cracks a grin. "Speaking from experience?"

"Speaking for a friend," Derek retorts, mouth quirking upwards.

Eventually, Stiles sighs again, pacing back and forth in agitation. "There has to be something. I feel like it's a really bad idea for them to catch me in here. If I hide under your bed…"

"They'll wonder how you got out of your room when they go to wake you."

"Damn it. Yeah, duh." He grimaces, leaning one shoulder against the bathroom door again. He grasps the knob absently. "Ugh, if there was—" He suddenly stills.

"Stiles?"

Without responding, Stiles carefully pulls the door open, turning to stare inside. When he doesn't respond, Derek jumps out of bed, joining him at the threshold.

Instead of the bathroom, there's another bedroom. Almost identical. It's got rumpled sheets that are dragged half across the floor, like the inhabitant left in a hurry.

"This is me," Stiles gapes. "It's my room."

"Wh—...How? My bathroom is supposed to be there," Derek stutters.

"Dude, I told you!" Stiles punches him in the shoulder triumphantly. "I told you," he adds, his voice growing quiet.

"Oh my god." Derek pushes past him, into Stiles's room, half-expecting it to vanish like a mirage. But it's real—the metal of the bed frame is smooth under his fingers. The floor is hard underfoot. He turns to Stiles, who still stands frozen in the doorway. "How is this possible?" And then, stupidly: "What'd you do with my bathroom?"

A desperate, choked laugh. "I don't know. And also...what the fuck."

"Is this real?"

"Unless you suddenly started hallucinating too, I guess so? I mean, you're seeing this, too?"

"Yeah. Jesus. How did you...?"

"So that's a magical thing that happened. Like Narnia but a million times less useful."

"Will it go back to normal after you close it?"

"I don't know." Stiles swallows, then looks dubiously at the door. "But we definitely need to find out if we're gonna pretend everything's normal. If we're gonna try, though, you should be here and I should be there."

Derek nods, and they switch places. For a long moment, they stare at each other, at the door, at the impossible connection between their rooms.

"What the fuck is my life," Stiles mutters under his breath, breaking the intense silence.

"Seriously," Derek says at last, frowning. "Uh, in case it works, then I guess…"

"Good night and good luck?" Stiles finishes, smiling wryly. Then the mirth slides from his face, replaced by something a little more fearful. And it suddenly hits Derek that if this is true, then all of it is true. Everything that's happened to Stiles, the darkness chasing him down the hospital halls, everything he's afraid of—it's absolutely real.

Stiles's fear of being alone in the hallways isn't delusion, it's self-preservation. It's survival. His tales of red doors, of strange creatures, strange animals skulking in the darkness...all of it exists somewhere in the world, somewhere just outside Derek's field of vision. All of it exists, and Derek can only see it now because Stiles has cracked the door open for him, just the smallest bit, to show him the truth.

"Stiles, I'm...I wasn't sure about it before, but—"

"Don't worry about it. I'm just glad it happened while you were around. So you can tell it's not just in my head."

"I didn't think that."

Stiles eyes him shrewdly. "Yeah, you did."

Derek grimaces. "Sorry."

"No sweat. Besides, still thought it was all in my head, until just now. And you know what? Maybe it's still not real, and we're both out of our fucking minds." For some reason, this makes him break out into a cheerful grin, and it's so nonsensical that Derek can't help but return it.

"Are you gonna be okay in there?" Derek asks at last.

"Probably," Stiles returns, his expression growing grim as he looks back at his bed. He rubs his eyes blearily. "I'm probably not going to be able to fall asleep, but...I don't know that the darkness'll come twice in the same night. So far it's been a little more spaced out, I guess."

"Okay." Derek searches for words of reassurance, but anything he might say—Come get me if you need help, or Call me if you want to talk—it's all null and void here in Eichen.

Stiles seems to get it. He straightens in false bravado. "I'll be fine. I'll see you in the morning. And...then we'll talk."

"Okay. Night."

"Night." Stiles gingerly tugs the door closed between them, and it shuts with a metallic snick.

After a beat, Derek twists the knob, but when he opens it, there's just his darkened bathroom, the way it always is. He closes the door.

And then someone's pushing it gently open. "What—" Derek begins, but he realizes it's Stiles again. He peeks through the door, and somehow Stiles's bedroom has materialized behind it.

"Dude," Stiles says cheerily. "You're still here! It was fucking real!"

"Well, I wasn't a second ago. Or you weren't. Or—" he stops, flustered, and tries again. "I opened the door, and it was back to normal."

"It's not on my end. Try again, lemme see." Stiles closes the door once more, and Derek obediently tries the handle to find his own bathroom. He closes the door and waits. A minute later, Stiles pops through the door again. "Did you try to come through? Nothing happened."

"I tried, but it didn't work," Derek repeats thoughtfully.

"So is it...can open the doors? And only me?"

"Maybe."

"What do we even do with that info?" Stiles asks through a wide yawn.

Derek watches him, amused in spite of the situation. "I guess...we sleep on it."

.

Derek's more exhausted than usual at wake-up call the following morning. Still, he manages to drag himself out of bed, showering and changing his clothes before breakfast.

Everything that happened yesterday should feel like a dream. It has that unreal quality, like he'd been half-sleeping as it all happened. But he knows it's real now, that something more is going on here. With him and with Stiles.

He gives Nurse Chen the side eye as he grabs his tray and food in the cafeteria, wondering who's in on it, and what they're doing. Last night, Stiles had mentioned two nurses, one of them Roberts (of course it fucking would be). But among the cheerless cafeteria workers, the bored-looking orderlies...does anyone else know what's going on? Is it just a couple of psychopathic nurses? Is it more? Are they hunters? And what are they doing?

Stiles is already at their customary table, looking as haggard as Derek probably does himself. He's staring down at his food as if he might find the secrets to all their questions in the browning of his toast. But when he catches sight of Derek approaching, he perks up a bit.

"Anything weird?" Derek prompts by way of greeting. He keeps his tone low as he sets his tray down.

"Nothing," Stiles returns. He grimaces, grabbing his fork to pick at the starchy pile of scrambled eggs. "It was fine. I just stayed up, though, in case…"

Derek nods slowly. "Yeah."

There's not much more to say. Not here, anyway, with orderlies wading around the tables like clockwork. Derek scarfs down his breakfast, and then he refuses to get up from the table until Stiles has forced down some eggs and orange juice. They pace back and forth down the hallways, quieter than usual today, and then suffer through morning group therapy in a distracted haze.

When therapy lets out, they head back to the lounge by unspoken agreement. Stiles pauses at the threshold, peering at the clusters of sofas and tables. He bites his lip.

Derek looks at him. "What's up?"

"You're tired, right?" Stiles asks, turning to face him. "And I've barely gotten more than three hours of sleep in like, days."

"Yeah," Derek confirms, tilting his head to one side.

"Do you want to sleep together?"

Derek raises his eyebrows just before he realizes what the human obviously means, and Stiles hastens to add, "Out here. Only—I mean, just on a sofa or something. Because...you know, if we're not sleeping at night, we can just nap during the day. Or whatever. I don't want to be in the bedrooms, but I figured it would be better not to do it alone. If you want to." His cheeks have turned lightly pink. Seeing this makes something warm and amused pool in the pit of Derek's chest.

"Sounds good to me."

"Okay," Stiles replies, shuffling in place to hide his relief. "Cool."

Derek drags him over to a long sofa away from the piano. With a little awkward shuffling, they manage to stretch across it so that Derek's lying with his head on one armrest, and Stiles's head is near the other. It's not nearly as uncomfortable as Derek thought it might be: Stiles makes a line of warmth against him, the human's hip pressed into the back of the couch. And while they're clearly ignoring Eichen's "no touching" policy, Derek figures no one will reprimand them if they're asleep.

It feels like pack, Derek realizes suddenly. It reminds him of the tight embraces he sometimes fell into when sleeping with his brothers or sisters. Or of cozy winters spent with half the family burrowed into the same mattress, back when they were all young.

"Clem wasn't there," Stiles murmurs suddenly. His eyes are already half-closed.

"Hmm?"

"Clem. She wasn't at therapy today. I wanted to ask her..."

Derek frowns. "You said you saw her last night?"

"Yeah."

"Was she at therapy yesterday evening?"

"I...I can't remember. No, I don't think so."

Derek pauses, and something suddenly jolts his memory into place. "Me neither. But...I think…" He shakes his head, trying to picture it. "I think I ran into her once. When I was walking around all the time. It was just before I met you."

The cushion shifts beneath him as Stiles tries to get comfortable. "What do you mean?"

"She was crying. And she looked afraid, but that might be because I also kinda shouted at her. But she'd slammed into me hard, like...like she was running."

Stiles has picked up his head to frown at Derek. "Oh. Like she was running from something?" he clarifies dully as he lies back down.

Derek nods his head. "I don't know if it means anything."

Stiles is quiet for a long time, so long Derek thinks he must be trying to make some kind of connection. But when Derek finally looks at him, Stiles has sunk into a deep slumber, his heartbeat steady. His mouth is half-open, the fingers of one hand twitching as he dreams.

Derek watches him for a bit, unable to relax enough to doze. It's just that his mind is reeling still, trying to make sense of everything: the darkness, Clem, his lost time. Nothing seems to fit. Nothing seems connected.

But the thing is—Derek's not the only one trying to make connections. He has Stiles now, working things out alongside him. Whatever's going on here, he decides at last, we'll figure this out together. Something uncoils in his chest. I'm going to tell him the truth about werewolves. Somehow.

He has half a mind to track down that other girl, Madison, the one with the constant pout who'd been sobbing in the library. The one who'd seemed to know what he was. It's time to learn what else she knows, to find out who else has his secrets—only she's nowhere to be seen, and he doesn't want to leave Stiles here alone. (Not counting the fact that he'd probably only scare the shit out of her again if he tried to question her on his own.)

Instead, he spends the remainder of the time until Stiles's doctor appointment snapping at anyone who gets too close to them. It's mostly a territorial thing, almost (dare he say it) a pack thing—but there's something more brewing deep beneath it all. Something wrathful and full of ire. It makes it hard to tell the difference between threats and incidental closeness. Patients too new (or too apathetic) to give him a wide berth find themselves facing the brunt of his anger. It's exactly that rage that has Derek on his feet, growling at old Vern passing by before he can help himself.

"Hoo, boy!" the man croaks, raising a set of gnarled hands in the air. "Just comin' by!"

"Derek?" Stiles murmurs sleepily, and then there's a weight tugging at his arm. "Dude, calm down."

It's hard to see or hear past the roar of his anger—or maybe it's the literal growl in his own throat. Either way, Derek can't beat it down enough to move back, but he manages to hold himself still until Vern can shuffle anxiously past. He and Stiles watch the man go, his back hunched in a pitiful curl.

"He's like, ninety," Stiles says reproachfully, yawning. "What was he gonna do to us?"

"Sorry," Derek mumbles at last, when he can finally trust himself to speak without shouting.

"It's okay," Stiles responds, shrugging as he releases Derek's arm.

"I'm angry. All the time," he bursts out, swallowing down the feeling of helplessness gathering in his throat. "And I never know why."

"Dude it's fine. You're just...hey, anger issues aren't the worst thing you could get stuck with, right?"

"You don't get it, Stiles. I never used to be like this."

Stiles is silent. "Until Eichen?" he asks in a low voice.

"Until Eichen," Derek confirms.

"We have to figure out what's up with this place," Stiles replies quietly, looking toward the hall. Derek follows his gaze to find Nurse Wilson beckoning Stiles over for his appointment. "I'm gonna bullshit my way through the rest of my appointments here," he adds after a beat.

Derek snorts. "Probably for the best, instead of telling them…" he shakes his head. "Go on. I'll come get you when it's time."

"'Kay, thanks," Stiles agrees, heading toward the nurse. "See you in a bit. And don't kill anyone while I'm gone."

.

Derek doesn't mean to fall asleep, but exhaustion drags him down hard.

Still, something in his mind must have known roughly when to wake him, because he comes to just a minute or so after Stiles is supposed to be done. He blinks sleepily at the clock on the wall, straightens suddenly, and then he swears, jumping off the sofa and sprinting down the hallway.

He's straining to pick up any sound as he nears the office, just in case something's going on with Stiles, in case the darkness is coming, but the only thing he can make out is a woman's high-pitched voice: "...follows you everywhere. You know that now. And it never stops. I don't know why. I reckon we've done something to deserve it, but I've never figured that part out. It's..."

At last, he rounds the corner and is relieved to see Stiles standing near the door to Alsina's office. The human wears an expression of stunned disbelief, and he's not alone: Madison's there as well, her usual pout once more replaced by something much more somber, more frightened. It reminds him of his conversation with her in the library, of the pinched anxiety in her face—and his own fear of being trapped here alone, without knowing what had become of Stiles.

Derek comes in worried, snarling ferociously, and Madison jumps about three feet at the sight of him. After a frightened whimper in his direction, she scurries off toward the nurses station.

"Derek. Derek!" Stiles shouts, hurrying to get between him and the retreating woman. "She was just...it's—it's fine. Nothing's wrong."

Derek shakes his head, watching her go. "It looked like something was wrong."

Stiles peers around and leans in, so close that his breath tickles Derek's ear. "She asked me if I could see the dark yet," he whispers in wonder. "She said it's always here, in Eichen. And she said that sometimes if you're here for too long, it starts to follow you around. And it never stops."

"That's what she meant? She sees it too?" Derek whispers back, mind boggling.

Stiles shrugs helplessly. "I think she's been watching out for it. Like me. Yeah, I guess I'll try and catch her later today, when…" he eyes Derek, which Derek takes to mean when you're locked in your room again.

"Sorry," he says again, and Stiles punches his shoulder.

"Stop saying that." He pauses thoughtfully. "Why do you think it's happening to me? And Madison maybe? And...and not you?"

Derek frowns, suddenly aware of how exposed they are here in the hall, how easily anyone might see them whispering together. "I don't know," he says at last, "but I don't think we should talk about it here."

Stiles looks around and nods once.

When Nurse Graham finally comes for Derek at noon, they've looped around the entire hospital at least six or seven times. Stiles is unnaturally quiet, chewing on his bottom lip in thought. Derek has half a mind to ask Stiles what he's thinking about, but he knows it probably isn't anything they want to discuss out here in the open. Not if they're really considering everyone here as a potential enemy. Still, it's weird to walk in silence now, Derek thinks as they trod through the halls. Even though I did it for months before Stiles showed up.

"Time to head back, Hale," Nurse Graham calls out as they pass the nurses station. He's got a clipboard in his hands and only barely looks up at them. "I'll walk you."

"Me too," Stiles pipes up, as if this were a point of contention.

They walk in silence to Derek's room, pausing at the door. The keys jangle in Graham's hand.

"Same time, same place?" Derek asks.

Stiles blinks, probably because they've never really needed to specify that they're going to meet each other at breakfast in the morning. Derek nods carefully at Stiles, hoping he'll get the idea. Tonight. After lights out.

An awareness passes over Stiles's face as he catches Derek's meaning. "I'll try," he says lightly, like he's just joking around. "See you, I guess."

.

Something pokes Derek in the cheek. "Alright, sleeping beauty. You gotta stop passing out on me."

Derek hears the voice come from what must be a million miles away. But when at last he reaches the source of the sound, it's only Stiles, whose face hovers just above Derek's head. He's smiling, but there's a pinched sort of worry in his gaze.

"What?" Derek asks sluggishly, making a great effort to push himself onto his elbows. "What happened?"

Stiles lowers himself onto the edge of the bed. "I dunno. I just tried to come through the door around the same time of night as they brought you in the first time, so whoever it is hopefully wouldn't be here. But I don't have a watch, so I was kinda just guesstimating. You must have fallen asleep," he adds, doubt creeping into his tone. "Do you remember anything? Falling asleep, or…?"

Derek closes his eyes, but there's nothing there. He'd been pacing back and forth along the wall, he'd done some bodyweight exercises to burn off his restless energy...but that was all. The rest of the evening is a blank. He doesn't even remember climbing into bed. "I don't know if I meant to fall asleep."

Stiles nods slowly, chewing his bottom lip. "Then...probably nothing happened."

Possibly, Derek thinks, feeling the low thrum of anger start to rise. To distract himself, he pushes upright, moving to sit beside Stiles near the head of the bed. "I guess I wouldn't even know if they did something."

"Yeah," Stiles replies, pulling his legs into a criss-cross position. "Do you feel any different?"

"Different how?"

Stiles fidgets uncertainly, playing with the edges of the sheets. "I don't know. I was just thinking, if they are doing something to you, or your memory or whatever, maybe a part of you still knows when they do it, or when you just fall asleep without knowing."

Derek shakes his head. "Nothing like that. Just...it feels like lost time. And..." He thinks about the dreams of darkness, those featureless faces staring at him.

Stiles sighs. "Yeah."

"Anything new with you?"

"Nothing to report." His mouth twists unhappily. "Couldn't find Madison later. And then after lights out, I just stayed awake the whole time. It was okay, and nothing happened, just...I hate being scared all the time. It's like it never goes away now."

Derek doesn't really have anything to say to this. He doesn't really get that part, the fear. For him, it's anger. It's hatred and rage, burning and burning inside him.

Stiles snorts in laughter, but there's no real amusement in it. "I feel like a dumb kid, sitting here and worrying about something the adults haven't filled me in on yet. I hate that I'm always being kept in the dark." He frowns, probably at the unintentional phrasing.

"Actually, that's…" Derek trails off. His nerves jangle a little, and he stands and begins pacing to calm himself down. "That's why I thought you should come back tonight, if you could. I have something to tell you, and...alright, it won't clear up much. But you've told me a lot about what's going on with you. And I haven't really paid back that trust."

Stiles slowly shakes his head. "Dude. It doesn't work like that. You don't owe me anything. I don't, like...earn the rights to your sob story just because I told you mine."

"I know," Derek replies, still pacing. "But I want to tell you anyway."

"Oh. Okay." Stiles pulls himself forward on the bed a little, leaning in toward Derek. "Cool. What is it?"

Derek pauses, hesitating, and turns to face Stiles. "Look," he begins, straightening his shoulders. "When I tell you this, it's gonna sound—"

"Crazy?" Stiles interjects, smiling. Something about his expression makes Derek feel a little lighter. "Derek, trust me, I've been there before. You've seen me do crazy. It'll be fine."

"Alright." Derek nods, clenching and unclenching his fists, as if he might be able to brace himself for whatever's coming. "I'm a werewolf."

Stiles doesn't say anything right away. Expressions flicker and dance over his face like a kaleidoscope: eyebrows raised in surprise, a disbelieving frown, a curious tilt of the head, mouth opening like he might say something. At last, it smooths out into something like acceptance. "Okay," he says simply.

"Okay?"

"Okay. Sure. You're a werewolf."

"What...nothing else to say?" Derek asks, still waiting for the other shoe to drop. He's not getting it, he thinks. He doesn't understand that it's real. And I don't even know how to explain it. "You always have something to say. About everything."

"Dude, I told you some pretty wild stuff before. Like warped hallways and shit. And you didn't give me any grief for it. So if you're gonna talk to me about holy shit you have fur and claws—"

Partway through this burgeoning speech, Derek decided to just go for broke and try a partial shift, just to make sure it gets through, the reality of the situation. Stiles has stumbled backwards onto the bed a little, his eyes wide with fear—but it recedes quickly when Derek doesn't start toward him. Instead, he slowly lifts his clawed hands up in a gesture of peace. Muttering quietly to himself, Stiles calms down, or his heart rate does, anyway. Slowly, he leans in a little. "Holy shit. Okay. Wow. That's real. You're a werewolf. Okay." He swallows. "But you're still...you."

"Yeah, it's still me." Once it becomes clear that Stiles isn't going to start screaming, Derek smirks around his fangs. "I guess I could have warned you."

"You think?" Stiles snarks, incredulous. He looks a lot less uneasy, probably since it's clear Derek's just gonna talk to him instead of biting his head off.

"It's...a family thing. My whole family was this way. My pack."

Stiles takes a long time to digest this, his gaze darting over Derek's altered visage. "This is real. I'm not dreaming."

Derek isn't sure if it's a question or not. "No, you're not dreaming."

"Can I, uh…?" Gingerly, he holds a hand toward Derek's face. After a beat, Derek realizes Stiles means to touch him. It's a little weird, probably, and not something Derek expected—but regardless, he finds himself leaning over to make it easier for Stiles to reach him.

Stiles hesitantly runs cool fingers across Derek's eyebrows, across the line of thick hair that's crept down onto his face. His touch is light, apprehensive, like he expects Derek to pull away at any moment. His hand lingers near Derek's mouth, his fangs, before he jerks away.

But Stiles doesn't seem afraid, though—just embarrassed. "Wow, so that's real. Definitely not a wig. Not that you could have done something like that. I mean, I was literally watching you while it happened. One second, you were human, and then poof, huge werewolf—but you knew that already. I'm gonna stop talking now."

His wry, self-deprecating wince pulls a snort of laughter out of Derek. It's partially nerves, too, since he'd been wildly uncertain about how this whole thing would go. Or maybe it's simply relief, heady and rich as a shot of whiskey. Stiles smiles at him, and Derek makes the shift back to full human.

"So fast," Stiles observes under his breath. "Okay, so. I have questions."

Derek fights back a grin, wondering how he'd ever been worried about how Stiles might take it. "Of course you do."

"They're very important. Do you howl at the full moon? Die at the touch of silver? Live forever? Slaughter a bunch of randos in the London Underground?"

Derek's got his mouth open to answer, but the last one stumps him. "What?"

"Come on, Derek. It's like you don't even know your culture. An American Werewolf in London? My dad made me watch that movie like five times. And we're not even werewolves. Far as I'm aware."

Derek laughs again. "Yes to the full moon. No to the silver. No to living forever, but we do heal really fast, I guess. And we're really strong."

Stiles is shaking his head in disbelief, an odd grin on his face. "Dude, werewolves! I mean, after what's been going on in here, I'd believe anything, I guess. But still, it's...real. Hey, is that why you're here? Because of the whole anger thing? Like, I don't know, you just wanna get wolfy all the time?"

Derek shakes his head, mood souring a little. "No, that's not it. Remember? I told you, it's only been happening since around when I came to Eichen."

Stiles nods. "Oh, yeah. Then...huh."

"So you really don't know why I'm here? I thought you were kidding, back when we talked about it."

"I mean, I know the basics, I guess. The headlines. But that's it. And given your whole…" Stiles gestures vaguely at Derek's face, "furry thing, I'm guessing there's way more to the story than that."

"You'd guess right. And the truth might make more sense, now that you know what I am." Derek settles back onto the bed, across from Stiles, who makes enough room for them to face each other, cross-legged. The position reminds him, suddenly and painfully, of home, of his brothers and sisters. Of the way they used to swap childish secrets in the darkness of their rooms. The story he's going to tell may be a secret, but it's a lot grimmer than anything he'd ever shared in his childhood bedroom.

"I'm here because of Kate Argent," he begins. "I'm sure you've heard of her. She was in the headlines, too. And you probably know I was...dating her. I guess. At the time. But what they didn't report, and what I didn't know back then, is that she was from a family of werewolf hunters, people who basically think werewolves should be put down like dangerous animals. And that's what she did. She set out to murder my family all at once. She set our house on fire, with everyone in it, and a ring of mountain ash to prevent anyone from getting out." Derek swallows. "That's when I murdered her. I guess."

Stiles has gone completely still. Focused. "You guess?" he prompts.

"Yeah, I...I came home as she was burning the house, and she shot me with a wolfsbane bullet. Regular bullets won't take us out, but depending on the wolfsbane you put into it, it's enough to slow us down or put us out of commission temporarily. Or kill us, with the right blend. But I guess I healed faster than she thought I would, faster than she could drag me into the fire. Truth is, a little after she shot me, when I was down on the ground, it all goes blank. I don't really know what happened, but I remember wanting to kill her, so badly. I could barely move, but I wanted to stop her.

"Two days later, I came to covered in old blood, and clear across the border near Reno. I called my sister Laura, and we pieced together that I must have murdered Kate. Her body had been torn to shreds, completely dismembered. And Laura didn't know what to tell the police, so...we agreed that I'd lay low. She was dealing with the aftermath of the fire, all alone—with the cops and everything. Uncle Peter was around, supposedly, but she told me over the phone that he was too far gone to be much help, almost feral."

Derek swallows, coming to the crux of the thing. "What we didn't realize was that two other people were murdered too. Right in their homes. In the same area I was in. Which looked pretty bad when the police eventually caught up to me."

He can't quite read Stiles's expression, but there's no fear in his eyes, none at all. Just some sort of wariness, a deep focus, like he's reserving judgement until the last word is spoken.

"When they arrested me...well. Apparently 'I don't remember' isn't a great alibi. Three deaths in a row, potentially in connection to the house fire, and they just knew it was me. From the beginning, they were so sure of it. Under any other circumstances, maybe I would have gotten a little sympathy. It's a classic revenge story, right? Distraught guy getting revenge for his dead family. But the way Kate was ripped to shreds, and those extra deaths, plus the fact that there weren't any obvious connections between Kate and the others...the cops weren't sympathetic. Not at all. Once Peter snapped out of it, he apparently found out they were hunters too—the other two people killed—so they were probably allies of Kate's. But it wasn't anything we could tell the cops.

"But even so, even with the memory issues...we think someone must have framed me. One of the hunters, maybe. There's a connection between Kate and the other hunters, sure, but didn't know that before it all went down, not until Peter figured it out later. And maybe I could have tracked them by smell, if I figured out that the smells on Kate were associated with them. Or if those hunters were there during the fire, and I just don't remember. But without having a starting point, tracking like that's impossible, even for me. I wouldn't have even known where to look for them. And even if I had, I'd have had to move too fast on foot—there's no way I was in the right mind to hop a plane to Reno. And in two days? It's too fast, even at werewolf speed...but it doesn't matter. There's not much we can say to get me off the hook.

His voice has grown tired. Monotonous. "By the time we really started to understand how deep in shit I was, I was already behind bars. So most of our conversations about this were happening over the phone. And by the time realized it was better to break out, even if it meant going on the run...I was put here. In Eichen. I was in too deep. My lawyers were going to try pleading insanity, and that's why I'm here. That's why I've been here, for the last two years...no contact, nothing. No idea what's going on with the case."

He stops talking abruptly, his words fading away. Stiles waits patiently, as if to be sure there's nothing else coming. "That's...a steaming pile of shit," Stiles declares. Then he clears his throat, adding apologetically, "I don't really remember much of the case, just the headlines...but I think it's all caught up in red tape still. Or it was when I got tossed in. Lots of back and forth between the lawyers and the state. Derek...I'm so sorry that happened to you." Coming from anyone else, the words probably would have rung hollow. But there's genuine worry in Stiles's gaze.

"Sometimes," Derek begins, and then he rests his head on his hand, staring doubtfully at Stiles. "Sometimes, I think I could have done it. I would have killed them. I mean, if I'd figured out some way to get out there to Nevada, and if I knew they so much as tossed in a single drop of gasoline onto the house, I could rip them apart even now." He snorts, but there's no humor in it. "I think about it a lot, actually. I'm...so goddamn angry, all the time, and when I think about them I wish it was me. I hope it was me. That I did it. That's why I deserve to be here, maybe. Because I want to have done it."

Stiles looks impossibly sad, his jaw clenching like he's fighting back words. It occurs to Derek that he must not even know what to say, that he's dumping a hell of a lot on someone he met just a couple weeks ago. But before he can find the words to excuse Stiles, or take back what he's just said, Stiles blurts, "I don't think that makes you crazy. I don't think you deserve any of this. If it were me, if someone ever did something like that to my dad, I'd...I'd want the same thing."

There's no hint of a lie in his voice. Derek doesn't trust himself to speak anymore, so he nods instead.

"Is there any way you could…" Stiles trails off. "I don't know. You can't get in touch with your sister, or any...I don't know, werewolf connections? Werewolf magic? To get out of here?"

Derek clears his throat. "Not exactly. I've got Laura on my side, and Uncle Peter—and that's worth a lot. Once he pulled his head out of his ass after the fire, and I guess I don't blame him for not being around for Laura the first few days, he was more on top of things. He used to be a lawyer. I don't know anything, though—I haven't seen or heard from them since the lawyers dumped me here in Eichen. It wasn't supposed to be very long, just something for legal stuff and paperwork. But we were going to trial soon, supposedly. Now, I don't know anymore. If there's going to be a trial, no one's briefing me on anything. I don't know if they're still out there working, or if they even…"

It's a very real fear Derek's been trying to quash for a long time, the idea that Laura and Peter have given up on him. That they gave up on him as soon as he was thrown into Eichen. It's always been hard to swallow, especially in the early days: pack doesn't abandon pack. Especially since the three of them have only each other now. But as the days have worn on, in the quiet of the night, it's become easier to wonder.

Stiles dismisses the idea right away, though. "I'm sure they're trying to get to you as much as you're trying to get to them," Stiles reassures him. "I mean, my dad wouldn't let me go without a fight. And he's the sheriff. If he can't get in here, it's because...well, I guess it's because someone at Eichen is more powerful than even him." This thought seems to unsettle him, but he doesn't let it weigh him down. "Okay, so...no outside help. And you're sure you can't bust out the doors with your super strength? The windows in the cafeteria?"

Derek shakes his head. "No, like I said: the doors are surprisingly good here. They're reinforced with...something. Better than steel, especially the front doors. The cafeteria windows too, probably shatterproof glass. And whatever meds they use, the sedatives they pull out when you're causing a scene, or when you won't back away from the doors, it's strong. Most drugs like that wouldn't work on a werewolf—we have fast metabolisms—but I guess with really powerful ones, it's not unheard of."

"But it's also…" Stiles begins, but his brow is furrowed in thought. Derek gives him a second to let his words catch up. "Maybe it's not unheard of, but...it's also not impossible that they've got something just for you. That they know you're a werewolf, and they've got a sedative that works on you. Because now we know that at least some of the nurses here know you're a werewolf. Right?"

The thought has occurred to Derek before now, but not since Stiles was able to catch them in the act. "I guess so," he replies, exhaling slowly. "And Roberts's chest was scratched, and now...that had to have been me, right? But I don't remember it happening, I don't remember doing it."

"What are they doing to you? What do they want you for?" Stiles murmurs, staring. "Well, I guess those are the million dollar questions."

Derek rubs at his jaw, meeting Stiles's gaze. "What are they doing to us?" he corrects. "Because whatever's going on with you...I'm not sure, but it seems similar, doesn't it? What you can do...you're a little more than human, too. Something magic. I mean, you can basically transport from place to place here."

"Yeah—I…" Stiles looks almost as stunned as he had last night, upon making the door back to his own room. "I guess I wasn't thinking of it that way. But if it's me, in control of where the doors go...yeah I guess that's maybe kinda magic. Like, I'm magic." There's a little wonder in his tone, a goofy grin on his face, and it makes Derek perk back up at least a bit after the heaviness of their prior conversation. "So is it just that I have a superpower, and it's really lame—being haunted by creepy doors?"

Derek snorts. "I guess, maybe? I wonder what kind of magic it is. It's nothing I've ever heard of before. Uncle Peter used to know a lot about the supernatural world, and mom did, too. I bet one of them could have told us. But...well, you've got all of these doors, and long, dark hallways, and—"

"Hey," Stiles interrupts, waving a finger indignantly. "The darkness definitely isn't me. I don't want it. That started while I was here, not before. Like your anger."

"Well, just the doors, then. Like your red door. And you're the only one of us who can make them work." A thought occurs to Derek, whose spine straightens as if shocked. "If you can get here," he says, "why not just open a door to outside? We can walk right out of here, without using the front doors!"

Stiles shakes his head. "I thought of that before, after the thing with the bathroom doors last night. But it seems to only work for specific places. Like, at night I can't use the door to the hall to go to a new room—because it's locked, and I guess since I can't open a locked door anyway, I also can't change it so it opens anywhere else either. But I can use the bathroom door to connect to other places in Eichen where the door's unlocked, like the library. But most places are locked, especially the places I'd want to snoop around in, like the front desk or the med rooms or Alsina's office. And I can't go anywhere outside Eichen. When I try, it just opens up into the bathroom, like normal.

"What did you try?"

"I tried to go home. To my room. My dad's room. And even to the classrooms at school. At least I know what those places look like, in case I have to be familiar with wherever I'm going for it to work." He sighs, running a hand through his hair. "In case any of this is me at all, and not just some weird and definitely unwanted side effect of being in Eichen House."

Derek tries to brush off his disappointment. It's stupid to have let himself hope, and he'd known that going in. He hadn't thought he was bringing in any high expectations, especially for something that would have basically been a minor miracle. But he finds himself oddly defeated anyway. And if the morose expression on Stiles's face is anything to go by, Derek's not alone.

After a moment, Derek shakes his head to clear his thoughts. "What now?"

"Now…" Stiles's shoulders sag. He looks tired. "Now, I don't know."

Derek stares at him. "Sleep with me," he says with a sudden smile, not really understanding that he's going to say the words until they're out of his mouth.

Stiles blinks dopily back, even though Derek's just throwing his own words back at him. "Huh?"

"You don't want to sleep alone. And now that we know you can get in and out of here without a problem, you can just...stay the night. If you want."

Stiles stares at him hopefully. "Really?"

Derek nods, feeling more and more comfortable with the decision. Actually, it's stupid that we didn't just do it before, last night, he realizes. "It would probably help me sleep too. We'd just have to make sure you leave before the morning wake-up call, but…" he shrugs. "I don't see why not."

"Yeah. Yeah, I think we can do that," Stiles manages. Derek settles back onto the bed, and, more hesitantly, Stiles climbs in after him. It's a little stranger this time around, and weirdly intimate. Derek scoots aside as much as he can, trying to make enough space for Stiles on the tiny twin. He feels a little stiff, a little awkward—but there's something comforting about feeling Stiles's warmth next to him, the nearness of him. Derek could just reach out to touch him if he wanted, could run his fingers over that speckled jawline and long neck, if he knew the touch would be welcomed.

They stay silent for a few seconds, each of them holding themselves rigid on their backs, pretending to be comfortable. Like moving might break a spell that's fallen over them. But after a minute, Stiles squirms a little, nestling into place like a puppy settling in for a nap. It's fucking adorable. Derek fights back a smile.

Stiles catches the movement. "What?" he whispers suspiciously.

Derek grins. "Nothing."

Stiles gives him a weird look, but he doesn't immediately respond. Derek listens to the steady beating of his heart and waits for the question. "I'm wondering," Stiles begins, still whispering, "if you're a werewolf, and can make bizarro magic doors...do you think we're the only ones here? Or are there other patients who are more...supernatural?"

The idea gives Derek pause. "It's possible," he says slowly. He considers the others here in their shared jail, but he hardly knows any of them at all. Before Stiles, they'd just been a nameless mass of blue scrubs, not worth noticing. New patients came all the time. But after a while in the morning group therapies, Derek's gotten a little better at matching names to faces. There's irritable old Vern, skinny and shivering Marty. There's the red-headed Quincy and the unrelenting babble leaking from her mouth. There's Clem's perpetually worried gaze. And there's Madison, pouting and sullen. "It's possible," he says again. "Madison knows what I am. Or at least knew about the claws," he amends. Then he hesitates. "But if they are supernatural...I seriously can't imagine what they'd do."

Stiles rolls onto his side to face Derek, shrugging the shoulder that's not pressed into the bed. "Well, I couldn't have imagined me being magic. So anything's possible. Right?"

"Yeah, I guess it really is."

"Or...Derek, what if the nurses are magic? The whole building? Everything?"

It's a troubling thought. Derek shakes his head slowly.

"So what do we do?"

Derek frowns, turning to face Stiles as well. "Okay, first thing: we can't confront the nurses or orderlies, or Alsina. Like we decided before. We don't know anything yet. And if they're not in on whatever's happening, all of this makes us sound crazy. Or, if they are in on it...they hold all the power."

"Right."

"So without talking to any of them...we need to make a plan, to figure out what's going on here. And—now that I'm thinking of it, we should only talk about this here. At night, in your room or mine. So we aren't overheard."

Stiles nods, scooting a little closer. "Okay. What kind of plan?"

Derek frowns. "Maybe we start with Clem. Or Madison, if Clem's not around tomorrow either."

"I was thinking about Clem earlier, too," Stiles replies quietly. "I wonder if she snuck out of her room late at night, and that's how I found her. Or if she got lost in the dark, and couldn't get back. She seemed…" he swallows, shaking his head. "She didn't seem okay. I was afraid of her, but the dark makes me afraid of everything. Maybe she was afraid of me, too.

"They didn't really say why she wasn't at therapy," Derek murmurs. "But I guess they wouldn't. Maybe she's sick."

Stiles hums noncommittally. "Yeah. Maybe."

"We'll find out tomorrow," Derek declares. "One way or another. From her or Madison."

"Okay."

They lie in a comfortable silence, neither of them really near sleep, each lost in his own thoughts. After a minute or two, though, Derek can practically see Stiles succumbing to weariness, his eyelids drooping to half-mast. Derek tries to stay awake, wanting to worry over the day tomorrow, but his limbs feel heavy. Just as his thoughts begin to grow vague and dreamlike, Stiles speaks up.

"Is it weird to ask if I can hold your hand?" His voice is thick with the promise of sleep.

Derek wakes up enough to snort. "I think you just did."

"It's just that, if I'm holding onto you, I might not wake up alone. If the darkness comes back. Or at least I'd know, if I was being pulled away from you or something."

Derek wordlessly finds Stiles's hand and intertwines their fingers.

"Thanks, Derek." Stiles mutters sleepily. "You're the best."

"Go the fuck to sleep, Stiles," Derek says as slumber sinks back over them both. Stiles's hand is a warm and calming weight in the darkness.

.

They don't have to work particularly hard to find out what's going on with Clem.

"An announcement, before we begin," Nurse Meyers drones, rifling through the papers on her clipboard.

Over the bustle of pre-therapy movement, it's hard for even Derek to hear the words. Everyone chatters and squabbles over seats in the circle of folding chairs—except that, fearful of Derek's aggression, they give Derek and Stiles a wide berth once they've selected seats. Derek briefly wonders what it must be like to be stuck in a different morning therapy group, one where the nurse has better rein over her patients.

"A quick announcement," Meyers repeats, in exactly the same dull tone, in spite of the loud room. "Regarding Clem Bowers— "

One of the other patients a few chairs over—Derek thinks her name is Irma but can't be sure—jabbers on and on about the plants in her bedroom. Derek glowers at her, and once she's caught his eye, she fearfully shuts up. Most of the remaining chatterers grow silent as well.

Taking advantage of the silence, Stiles leans forward in his chair. "Sorry, what was that?" he asks Meyers politely.

"A few of you have been asking about Clem Bowers," Meyers says, hiking her narrow shoulders up a little. Her bored tone makes Derek wonder who, if anyone, actually asked about Clem. He doesn't know much about her, but he can't remember seeing her with friends. Still, Meyers ploughs on: "Unfortunately, Miss Bowers required more specific care than we could provide here at Eichen. She has been transferred to another institution."

Derek feels his eyebrows creep up his forehead. He sits up straighter, glancing quickly at Stiles, whose expression is as disbelieving as Derek feels.

Meyers, seemingly ignorant of their confusion, looks down at her clipboard. "Shall we begin with progress updates?"

"But—"

"One voice at a time, Mr. Stilinski. And right now, it's mine. Mr. Amado, would you share your morning update?"

Stiles raises his hand, which Meyers can probably see out of the corner of her eye. Still, she determinedly avoids looking up at him until he also clears his throat pointedly. Eventually, she heaves a low sigh, but by the time she looks up, she's plastered on what could probably pass for a helpful smile. "Yes, Mr. Stilinski?"

"When was she transferred?"

"Wednesday."

"Where did she go?"

"I'm afraid that's confidential. We can't release medical information, but rest assured that she's in good hands."

Stiles nods slowly, and Meyers turns away, intent on starting the meeting.

Derek can guess what Stiles is thinking as he stares down at the floor. That response doesn't jive with Stiles's timeline, as far as Derek remembers: he'd seen Clem two days back, when he'd last been trapped in the hall. Which means something's off.

Maybe Stiles is misremembering, or didn't see what he thought he had. Or maybe Clem had been in the darkness, just as lost as Stiles had been. Or maybe one of the nurses caught her out of her room at night, having escaped the darkness, and that's when they decided to move her to a facility that could keep her under lock and key.

Or maybe Meyers is shoveling bullshit. Maybe Clem's still stuck in the darkness somewhere, in some deep place where no one can find her.

Stiles looks paler than usual throughout the meeting. He drags Derek from the room almost as soon as it's done, into the common lounge. Meyers' group let out last today, meaning all the decent sofas are taken. Normally, Derek might have fought someone off of a good one, but Stiles doesn't give him much time. He pulls Derek to the corner of the room, where they end up sitting against the wall near the crappy TV, the one with a little crack on one side of the screen.

Derek has the feeling Stiles is about to talk about magic, or darkness, or something weird. He gives Stiles a warning look before he can open his mouth, then a pointed glance at all the people around them. Stiles sighs, thinks for a second, and simply declares, "So. Clem was transferred."

"Sounds like."

"Madison wasn't there today."

"I didn't see her either."

Stiles pauses, considering his words again. Then, he carefully lowers his voice and continues. "Have you ever heard of anyone getting out of Eichen, in all the time you've been here? Not transferred—getting back out. Into the real world."

Derek frowns, racking his mind. He's sure someone must have gotten out at some point. And it's not like he'd been around much before Stiles came; one hour a day isn't a ton of time to really register who's coming or going. He's overheard talk of transfers every now and then, snatches of conversation from the other patients, but never a release. His somber expression is enough for Stiles. "Neither have I," Stiles replies quietly.

What this means, Derek's not sure. But it doesn't seem good.

Maybe he's wrong, though. Maybe they both are. Maybe there's nothing weird about Eichen House at all—it's an institution that does exactly what it proclaims, helping supposedly crazy people like Stiles and Derek back to perfect mental health.

But the facts just aren't adding up, not anymore. And without Clem or Madison around to question, Derek isn't sure where to begin.

Stiles is looking carefully away. He hugs his knees tightly, leaning his back against the wall in feigned nonchalance.

Almost without thinking, Derek nudges him gently with an elbow. He doesn't back off right away either, just lets the lines of their bodies settle close enough that he can feel the warmth of Stiles against his shoulder, his knee, his leg. Slowly, Stiles relaxes into it. "We'll figure this out," Derek promises, with much more bravado than he feels. "And if we can't...well, maybe it's time to figure out how to get the fuck out of here."

Chapter Text

"If you had any superpower, anything in the world, what would it be?" Stiles begins after a long pause. He can feel everyone's eyes on him, the weight of their gazes. Knowing he needs to phrase it better if he's going to get what he's looking for, he adds, "Actually, you know what, scratch that. Say...say you already have a superpower, something you can do really well, something no one else can. What is it?"

It's evening. There are no windows in the therapy rooms, only the same white walls as everywhere else, but Stiles always imagines that this scene feels a little greyer at night, like the edges of the room have faded a bit. The others in the circle probably feel it too, because the evening sessions tend to be quieter, the patients more resigned. At present, they sit in various states of bored slumping, though they pull from their torpor to stare at Stiles for a long moment. Their expressions range from carefully blank to utterly disbelieving. Eventually, Vanda Dupont snorts, trying at the last moment to cover the sound with her fist.

Nurse Meyers, recovering from her surprise, finally jumps in. "Mr. Stilinski, we aren't doing a personality quiz—"

"You said this round should be a question about our point of view, right? Or about where we are right now. So...think of it kinda like, 'What's your special strength?'"

"I really don't think—"

"I can hold my breath for ages," Vanda interrupts, lips curving upward. She pulls a swath of braids over her shoulder to toy with them. "But I don't know if that counts."

The others in the group straighten slowly. A few of them exchange nervous smiles.

"I have a green thumb," Irma Wheeler adds helpfully after a moment, just before Nurse Meyers can interject. She claps her weathered old hands together and then gives them all two thumbs up. "Really green."

Marty Cash is practically vibrating in his seat. "Um. I can see great in the dark."

"Please," Nurse Meyers says, waving her hands helplessly in the air. But in light of her droning lectures, this is probably the most interesting question ever posed in the group, mostly because it isn't about therapy or illness or "actionable goals." And once it's clear that enough of them dare to ignore Meyers herself, the other patients latch onto the topic like a life raft.

"Is that why you walk around with your eyes closed, dweeb?" Vanda asks Marty, her tone playful.

"It's easier," Marty confirms, his chubby face going a little pink. He's the baby of the group—fourteen if he's a day—so no one's going to make fun of him, especially not during therapy.

"Nah, it's creepier," says Barrett, leaning back in his chair. Stiles privately considers him to be kind of a dudebro, but even he only cracks a crooked grin. Vanda and the others laugh, but they don't take things farther. They don't shame Marty for his tic, his personality.

Everyone's got glass houses here in Eichen, Stiles thinks. And no one can afford to throw stones in public.

And suddenly, this creates an atmosphere where everyone feels like they can share their little secret superpower. Isaiah Roberts sheepishly proclaims that he's here because he believes he sees things in his dreams, and that these things sometimes come true. Jordan Lavigne thinks she heals faster than anyone she knows. Quincy Keelan hesitates for a beat, brushing fingers through her fiery hair, before simply stating that she's always been great with animals. Stiles catalogues them all in his mind, each weird behavior and belief. And he wonders if any of them are true. If any of these people are here not because of personal delusions but because they're fundamentally different from other human beings. If they're like Derek, maybe.

If they're like him.

Most people in the circle share a superpower of their own, offering themselves up for good-natured teasing. Some stay silent—and for her part, Nurse Meyers has sat back with her arms folded across her chest, the dark look on her face saying that she's just waiting for them to be done.

It all comes to a head with old Vern, who at last gleefully proclaims, "You know...I can eat just about anything."

And that sends them all off into fits of unrelenting laughter. Stiles joins in, unable to help himself at the self-satisfied smirk on the man's face.

"What about you, Stiles?" Quincy probes once they've settled down. "What would yours be?"

For a moment, Stiles is stumped, casting about wildly for some invented secret. But then he realizes that he doesn't need to invent anything—not if he wants to learn what they know. Slowly, he says, "I guess mine is that I can get out of dark places when I have to."

The atmosphere shifts. It's a slow thing, like a little wave seeping up a pebbled shore, but it's palpable. A handful of their expressions grow solemn, withdrawn; others glance quickly at Nurse Meyers's wrathful face. Vern and Isaiah lean back in their chairs, and Vanda plays with the ends of her hair.

"Seems like a good superpower to have." Quincy replies in a quiet voice.

In the end, it doesn't help him much. He can't tell if the sudden change is because of the somber way he'd answered his own question, or because they actually know something about the darkness here. And most of the patients just look confused, eyes darting about as if trying to catch something they've missed.

He can't ask more in front of Meyers, anyway. What he's done here is probably a bit reckless, if he'll admit it to himself. Especially because he's maybe drawn a giant question mark on himself if she happens to be in on all of this. But it's not like he and Derek are getting anywhere fast without doing something big.

Meyers glares, but it's her usual expression, so he can't really tell how mad she is. "If you're all done?" She asks dryly, raising an eyebrow as though they're a classroom of misbehaving students. "Let's do a more...formal check-in."

The rest of evening therapy goes basically the same as it always does. Once Meyers turns her droning voice back on, Stiles falls back into his yes ma'am, no ma'am ways, shuffling in his seat until the clock on the wall finally strikes the hour.

Evenings are the worst.

Back in the outside world, in his real life, Stiles had been just fine on his own. Whenever he wasn't hanging out with Scott or his dad, he did his homework or played video games or a million other dumb things, all by himself. He's never needed anyone to hold his hand before.

But being here in Eichen, he's gotten used to having Derek around. The werewolf (!) makes him feel a little less isolated when he's surrounded by people he's not sure he can trust. When weird shit happens to him day in and day out. When he doesn't want to deal with his problems by himself.

In the evenings, he's basically back to flying solo. Which is fine, so long as he hangs out in the lounge with everyone else. But even though he's on speaking terms with the other patients in his evening therapy group, he wouldn't exactly call them friendsHe wouldn't trust them with his deep, dark secrets—mostly because they're secrets, but also because there's no way of knowing they aren't just going to turn around and tell one of the nurses, maybe even in an effort to "help" him sort out his deluded mind. Or that they aren't just gonna turn some kind of supernatural power on him, if they are supernatural.

There are so many variables here that it makes him want to rip his hair out.

Guess I'm not getting any straight answers today, he thinks to himself as therapy disperses. Or maybe ever, he adds glumly.

He toys with the hem of his shirt as he follows the crowd toward the lounge, wondering if anyone will let him change the channel to something other than the news—and that's when something catches his attention.

It's Clem Bowers. She stands at the far end of the hallway, a blot of dark skin and hair against the pale walls.

He stops short, staring, and it's enough time for the rest of the group to head off down the hall. By the time Stiles has even thought of calling after them, they've pretty much hit the corner. He looks back at Clem, who wordlessly jerks her head to one side and walks out of sight, into another doorway.

Stiles swears. And then he hurries after her.

When he makes it to the doorway, he finds a dark and empty office. A few dusty filing cabinets line the far wall, maybe long-term storage. "Clem?" he calls, his voice barely above a whisper. "Hello?"

Gingerly, he moves forward, just enough to lean in and look into the room, but there's nothing else inside. But when he peers at the wall directly next to him, the red door is right there.

He jerks away. The wall the door sits on separates the office and the hallway Stiles is still half-standing in—and he leans back to see that the wall in the hallway is completely bare. It's only within one room that the red door exists. And if Stiles has ever needed confirmation that it's no ordinary door, that opening it will lead him somewhere other than the next room over, he's definitely got it.

He looks around for Clem again, for anyone. And then—feeling like an idiot and with his stomach doing flips—he steps all the way into the room.

So much of his time has been spent trying to pretend this door doesn't exist, ignoring it as a "hallucination," that he feels almost uncomfortable looking at it directly. Like he's acknowledging a silent taboo. He's struck by how normal it looks, just like any painted door you'd find on the front of a house. It's well-kept. Polished. Except for the fact that it's been haunting him, that it dogs his footsteps to appear beside him in the dark, that his mother once walked into it and never came back.

Otherwise, it might have been completely ordinary.

Slowly, he reaches out to touch the handle. It's smooth and cool beneath his fingers, and he grips it firmly, wondering what would happen if he opened it to glance inside, if it would look the same as it had the first time. Wondering if he should open it.

A cedar-colored moth flutters into view, and Stiles watches it wheel through the air just overhead. There's the barest sensation of wind on his neck. No, not wind. A breath. He freezes in place, unable to bring himself to turn around.

"Stilinski!" A booming voice breaks him out of the trance. He jumps, then spins quickly to look at the room behind him.

Nothing. No one. Fuck.

"Stilinski, medicine. It's nine o'clock! Christ, where are you?" Roberts sounds actually pissed.

"Coming!" Stiles shouts back quickly, trying to calm his racing heart. He hurries back into the hall, starting in the direction of the nurses' station. In front of him, a door further down the hall shuts. As he nears it, he realizes it's one of the storage rooms the nurses often use. He hesitates, then knocks. "Nurse Roberts?"

No answer. Stiles twists the knob and finds the door unlocked. Rows upon rows of medicine line half a dozen tall shelving units in the middle of the room: multicolored boxes and bottles, all neatly stacked and labeled. "Hello?" He steps inside, peering around for Roberts, who must be behind one of the shelves.

Again, no answer. Am I even allowed to be in here? Stiles wonders. But he'd heard Roberts's voice. And the door had been unlocked...

When he turns around again, the door behind him has turned completely black. But no—there's no shimmer to it, no dull gleam in the light. Stiles suddenly realizes that what looks like black paint is actually total darkness. Even the fluorescent lights in the med room struggle to illuminate more than a pace or two of the tiles in front of the doorway, just like last time.

Stiles drifts slowly backwards, his breath coming fast. No. No, I'm not doing this again. He wonders suddenly whether Roberts had snuck out of the room using a back exit he hadn't seen—and then he realizes that he hadn't actually seen Roberts at all. Yes, he'd heard the nurse's voice, seen a door closing, and entered the room. But there's no one inside with him now. Has he been lured here? Tricked here? Is it possible that the darkness consciously drew him in?

The thought is almost as frightening as the pitch blackness before his eyes.

A quiet noise comes from his left, the nearly indistinct rustle of movement. Stiles turns at once, heart thumping, and he stops himself from calling out just in time. Roberts? he wonders, ducking his head to peer between the cardboard boxes on the shelves. There doesn't seem to be anyone there at first glance—just more shelving units, more bottles and trays and and medications. But Stiles's eyes slowly adjust to the picture before him, and he realizes there is something. He's clued in by a very slight shift of movement, the minuscule, organic sway that happens even when the body is at its most still.

But the reason Stiles hadn't been able to make out the figure, at least at first, is because their body isn't the expected ruddy shade of Roberts' skin. Instead, visible in the gap between shelves, is a thin torso and a pair of spindly, angled arms of a deep jet black, as dark as the darkness beyond the door.

Stiles is suddenly certain that this is one of the things he's seen before, one of the things that watch him from the darkness. It stands motionless facing Stiles, as best he can tell. Just a few feet away, separated only by metal shelves and cardboard boxes. Heart hammering in his chest now, Stiles finds himself unable to move, too terrified to straighten and see whatever horrible face is no doubt staring back at him over the upper shelves.

And then the light over his head goes out. Stiles nearly screams at the thought of being trapped here in darkness with the dark thing before him—and he can almost imagine it moving toward him now, the slow, purposeful steps he's seen them take. Then, the rational part of his brain kicks in. Okay, Stiles. You have to find the door to get out. That's how this works, isn't it? You find the door, and you can open it to get out of here, back to reality. The faster you start moving, the faster you get it over with.

Somehow, this snaps him out of his stupor. He wishes, desperately, that he'd kept the lighter with him, but he'd been too afraid someone might search him and confiscate it during the day. If he's clever, he can usually avoid being alone until lights out, so he shouldn't have needed the damn thing, but here he is. No time for crying about it now.

Tentatively, hands stretched a little ways in front of him, he hurries forward. The fingers of his right hand come into contact with something solid—the door jamb, he realizes—and he uses it to pull himself on.

Deeper into darkness he goes. In this larger space, he can't feel anything to either side of him, and so for the first few steps, he stumbles blindly, his arms straight ahead. And then, suddenly, his foot sinks into the floor. He shrieks a little (look, he's not proud of it, but this is fucking terrifying, okay?), his mind flashing back to that time when the floor was basically trying to swallow him whole.

But this isn't like that. He pulls his foot up on sheer reflex, and it rises easily. Then, after a second, he lowers it again, feeling for something, anything. And there is something solid there, half a foot under where the floor should be. He puts his weight on it, then he swings his other leg forward, feeling around for anything else—and the floor descends again by half a foot. Steps. It's a stairway, leading him down into the darkness.

Fuck, I don't want to go down, he thinks, but he needs to put space between him and whatever's at his back. And so he manages the stairs as quickly as he can. It's hard, without walls or a railing of any kind, to keep his balance and to know how far he has to go. He feels oddly exposed like this, with nothing to cling to and no way of knowing how far down the staircase descends.

The stairs and the darkness seem interminable. The only sound is the slight catch of his own breaths. And then the end comes just as suddenly as it began: Stiles steps forward, expecting to sink a little lower into the darkness, only for his foot to make contact with solid ground sooner than he'd anticipated. The surprise of it makes him wobble in place, enough that his fingers graze something at his side. Smooth, vertical—a wall.

He breathes in relief. Okay, Stiles. This is good, you can work with this. Now, just find the door. He begins hurrying forward as he runs his fingers along the wall.

Several minutes pass. Stiles feels himself beginning to sweat, beginning to feel the same humid weight to the air that he'd felt the first times he'd been here. There's a sweet, cloying smell, very faint but still noticeable as he drags his hand along the wall.

And then he feels it—a short ridge. A lip of wood. A door jamb. "Thank god," he says, and he feels for the handle. His hand settles onto it, and before he can register the familiar feel of the knob, he's twisted it to pull the door half-open.

Light streams from within, but it's an eerie, filtered sort of light—like a distant fire through layer upon layer of sheer fabric. There's something chilling about the way it blankets itself over him, illuminating the room in a silvery, wavering glow. Absolute terror runs up his spine with icy legs, because this is not the door he needs. The color of the door jamb itself has become clear in the ethereal light. It's the red door.

He's not sure what makes him turn around, exactly: there's no sound, no sign of any kind of movement, but something instinctual makes him look back. Clem is there, an arm's length away, her expression sharp. "Holy shit," he shrieks, jumping half a foot.

She only stares at him, still wearing the scrubs and looking the same as ever, except for some subtle difference that makes him shiver. "What are you doing here?" Stiles demands in a rush. "How did you get in?" As Stiles speaks, he catches the small, dark movements of the moths in the air around her head. One lands on the bridge of her nose, crawls toward her eye, over her eyebrow, and she doesn't so much as flinch. Clem only stares at him, wordlessly, unblinking. Behind her, nearly lost in the darkness, are the vague forms of a half-dozen other people. Stiles can't make out much in the dingy grey light, but they all seem to be staring into the door behind him.

Unsettled, Stiles lurches backward and into the side of the door, slamming it shut and binding him in pitch blackness once more. And then he's sprinting off into the dark. He has the foresight to trail his fingers along the wall as he runs, careful not to get totally lost in this darkness. Finding the right door is his only chance to get out of here.

Is Clem still behind him? Is the dark thing still there? He strains to listen as he hurries away, to hear anything, but the only noise is the sound of his own rhythmic footfalls. The smell is cloying now, thick in the warm air and so overpowering that it feels hard to breathe.

And then all at once he does find something, his fingers skidding across the smooth, slightly raised surface so quickly that he sprints past it and has to double back, fingers groping blindly along the wall. After a moment of fumbling to understand the shape of it, he maps out a square of cool metal in the wall, each side maybe two feet long and the whole thing hip-height above the floor. It's not a door, exactly, but Stiles is open to just about anything right now, anything that will get him out of this hellhole—and there it is, a handle.

He tugs it open, but this time, there's no light from within. Stiles hesitates before feeling around inside. It's a hole carved out of the wall, perfectly square. But as his fingers scrabble a little further, wincing as he imagines all sorts of things lingering inside of it, he realizes it's a tunnel.

I'm not going in there, Stiles thinks to himself. But then he pictures Clem in here with him, staring at him in the darkness—or worse, that dark figure. He remembers what it had felt like to sink into the tar-thick ground, the fear of drowning in this black lair, somewhere no one would ever find him. I hate fucking everything, he thinks, and then he crawls inside.

It's just enough space for him to scrabble forward, but not enough for him to fully extend his arms. His elbows and knees scrape on the floor and walls, and after a bit of troubleshooting he begins to drag himself forward pretty much on his forearms alone. He's never been particularly claustrophobic before—if only because it had never really come up in his day to day life. But I fucking am NOW, he thinks furiously, his breathing loud and ragged in his ears. And then: Is it...getting smaller?

The top of the tunnel seems to press in on his shoulders now, and he has to keep his head down to keep it from hitting the ceiling. He gets caught for a moment, his knee tucked into one corner, and he has to pause to wriggle free. He starts to swear under his breath, over and over again, imagining the words help him move more easily.

At last, his head brushes against something solid. He realizes it must be another door, the way out, and a shot of dizzying relief washes over him. He has to jostle around a bit to get a hand up to touch it, feeling for a handle.

There isn't one. There's nothing—just a solid wall.

"No, no, no, no…" He keeps fumbling around, trying to feel for something, anything: a knob, a handle, a catch. But the wall is completely smooth, seamless.

The thought of crawling backward, the way he'd come, is enough to drag helpless sobs from his lungs. He lets himself panic and hyperventilate, at least for a few moments, and then he reluctantly bullies himself into moving again. It has to be done, he tells himself, awkwardly pushing himself backward in the claustrophobic darkness. You just have to—

His foot hits something solid. What the hell…? For a moment, he's terrified that it's that monsterthat it's come in here after him, trapping him in a narrow cage. But it's not a person: through the fabric of the hospital sock he finds that it's completely flat, completely smooth. Identical to the wall at his head.

"Fucking no—" Stiles helplessly lurches toward the wall at his feet, trying to squeeze himself toward it so he can feel it with his hands, so he might actually find some way out. But there's no room; his shoulders are too broad and his legs too long to bend himself that way. It seems like almost every inch of him is pressed against a wall, like the walls themselves are squeezing.

Stiles yanks his arm back up and pushes himself forward, desperate to find a door. There has to be a door—but everything is solid. Everything is smooth and firm and unyielding.

He's trapped inside a tiny coffin, deep under the earth, buried in darkness.

And he howls. He bangs his fists against the walls, against every inch of the space, like he might chisel his way out through sheer desperation. Nothing budges. Nothing gives. He loses minutes, maybe hours, feeling the walls and whimpering helplessly in fear. A flash of memory springs to mind: a corpse buried beneath the floorboards of a house, the heart beating on, the sound of it muffled and distant. Not even Derek could hear Stiles down here where he lies.

I have to get out of here, he thinks at last. I can't die here.

He pushes against the little square of wall near his head again, pounding his fist against it, and then slumps bonelessly against the floor.

There's a little snick, loud in the silence, and then a square of light appears. And with it, Derek's wide-eyed expression. "Stiles?"

Stiles makes some kind of keening noise, something he'd probably be completely embarrassed about if he weren't so fucking grateful to see Derek's face. Derek grabs the floor in front of him and pulls, and Stiles slides out of the dark tunnel and into Derek's room in the hospital.

"What—how—how did you do that?" Stiles stammers shakily, forcing his weak limbs to help him sit upright. He's on some kind of metallic stretcher that protrudes from the gaping, dark square in Derek's wall. And then he scrabbles frantically off of it, landing hard on the floor.

Because it's not a stretcher. Or rather it is, but it's a metal mortuary stretcher, pulled from the silver morgue locker that's materialized on Derek's wall.

"That's not your normal...thing," Derek says grimly, looking between Stiles and the stretcher. "Did...did you make that happen?"

The dark pit seems to stare at Stiles, wrathful and betrayed, so he stumbles to his feet and shoves the stretcher inside, and then he slams the locker door shut behind it. Breathing hard, he takes a few steps away until the backs of his legs hit the edge of Derek's bed. After a moment, the morgue locker fades away into the wall, disappearing as if it had never been there.

"Oh my God, Derek," Stiles moans, sinking down onto the bed. "I just almost died. It's gonna kill me, it really is. Fuck, is that why it's a morgue drawer this time? Is it like a threat?" Even to his own ears, his voice sounds high-pitched and panicked.

"You're not gonna die," Derek growls. Frowning, he steps closer. "Jesus, Stiles." He gently grabs Stiles's arm and turns it a little. Stiles follows the werewolf's gaze to find that his own forearm and elbow are all scraped up. His other arm is bruised in the same place. Now that he's finally safe, everything starts to ache all at once—shins, knees, shoulders, arms.

"Something's different," Stiles whimpers lowly as the realization settles over him. "Something's changed." He isn't exactly sure how he knows, only that he knows it to be true.

Derek, sinking to his knees in front of Stiles, glances warily back at the blank wall and then back at him. "What do you mean? Where did you go?"

Stiles opens his mouth to speak, then pauses. "Are you sniffing me?"

The werewolf had leaned forward to subtly scent the air between them, but he settles back with a sheepish look on his face. "It's just—I don't smell anything different about you. You smell like the hospital, like always. But you obviously weren't…" He trails off, again peering over his shoulder at the wall he'd pulled Stiles from.

"Yeah," Stiles says dully. "I dunno where I was." Then, haltingly, he takes Derek through everything that had happened in the darkness this time: the red door with Clem, the med room with the dark creature, and the coffin or morgue door or whatever.

By the end, Stiles is back up and pacing the floor. "It fucking tricked me!" he exclaims, incredulous. "Not that things weren't serious before, but now it's stalking me. Like, actively stalking me. I mean, it's always done this thing where, if I end up alone, it comes after me. But this time, it's like it lured me in. I wasn't alone, so it just...made sure I walked off on my own. I walked right into it."

Derek stares at him. "Maybe it's that you're learning about it. Outsmarting it. I mean, we're working from the idea that this darkness is following you, and that it's smart. It's trying to get you alone. But if that's true, it's not working. Because you're smart enough not to get caught on your own if you can help it, and you've been making doors to get out of there, like…" He looks again at the wall.

"Yeah," Stiles swallows. He rubs thoughtlessly at his aching elbow. "I mean...I guess I made that, since it was technically a door out? I was in a pretty bad headspace. Which is the fucking understatement of the year."

"Plus," Derek adds, his voice drawn out as he considers the idea, "You're still trying to learn moreMadison talked with you, and you're trying to figure out what happened to Clem, why she's there. Maybe it somehow knows. And...maybe it doesn't like what you're doing."

"Like the more I try to fight back, the more invasive it's becoming," Stiles murmurs. "You're right. And I...I keep getting freaked out when Clem's around. She scares me out of my mind, and I take off running, but maybe she has answers. Or maybe she's…" he pauses. "Oh my god."

"What?"

"I think earlier, in the hallway, when it was just her and me, she was trying to tell me something. I mean, if we're going with the theory that she's just as trapped in the darkness as I am, and it's not just...I don't know. Using her. To get at me. I mean, I guess that happened right before I got led into the room with Roberts, but...what if they were two separate things? Clem tried to show me something, and then the dark lured me in?" He shakes his head. "But then, I don't know. I saw her in the dark the first time, and afterward, and...it seems like it would make sense for her to be connected to it, even if it's just that she's trapped there. If she would talk…"

"I don't know. It's possible." Derek looks troubled. "We can't know for sure, though. I don't exactly think it's a good idea to hang out asking Clem questions in the dark. With those things in there. Stuff coming after you."

"What else am I supposed to do?" Stiles asks, his arms flailing helplessly. "If things keep going like they are, it's going to actually get me. I'm going to die in there, in the dark, and no one will even know or find my body or—"

"Stiles. Stiles." Derek shakes him, gripping his sore arms, and Stiles winces. "Sorry. Uh, actually, I can…" he trails off. Stiles is about to ask what he meant to say when little black tendrils begin creeping up Derek's fingertips, accentuating the veins in his arms.

"What the actual fuck?" Stiles breathes, and then the pain in his arms begins to leech away. "Are you doing that? How are you doing that?"

"Werewolves can absorb pain. I can kind of siphon it off, or a little of it at least. And since we have a healing ability, it doesn't really hurt or anything." His face is oddly sheepish, mouth quirked to one side as if he has to sneak this into the conversation, as if this whole thing is hardly worth mentioning. Stiles suddenly finds the whole thing, all of him, far more endearing than he should. And it's much easier to latch onto that feeling than to keep dwelling on whatever the fuck just happened.

"Wow. Why didn't I get a cool superpower?" Stiles gripes, only half-joking. Derek snorts. "Oh, actually," Stiles adds, "I kinda snuck in that question earlier, at evening group. I asked if any of them had a superpower, what would they be."

"Yeah?" Derek perks up at this. "Anything useful?"

"Not really. I mean, I think most of them just went to 'what am I really good at?' Even probably wouldn't come right out and share, 'Hey, I can make doors appear in the walls.' And I didn't, actually. Even when they asked." He sighs. "It doesn't matter. It could be suicide to get someone else involved. They could rat us out. They could be in on it. Who the hell knows, with this place."

He trails off. The ache is almost entirely gone. He shivers with the sudden relief of it, of being in this room with Derek and being somehow alive. Derek catches the subtle movement and looks up at him questioningly.

"Nothing. Just tired," Stiles says, and that's true, too. He's exhausted, like he could fall asleep now and not get up for ages. He looks longingly at Derek's bed. "Too bad it's too early to sleep."

"What do you mean?" Derek asks, withdrawing his hands to sit beside Stiles on the bed. His expression darkens. "Oh. Because someone could come in to get me."

"Maybe not," Stiles says hopefully, but Derek's shaking his head grimly. Stiles takes his hand. "I could stay in here, under the bed, to see—"

"No," Derek retorts, gaze snapping to Stiles. After a beat, he sighs. "Too dangerous. It was already dangerous enough, you being here the first time. If they catch you in here...there's no telling what they'd do."

Finding no response, Stiles scrubs his eyes and yawns widely. Derek takes pity on him. "It's still pretty early, I guess. A while till lights out. You could stay a little longer. Maybe."

Stiles flops down, curling up at the foot of the bed. "No, you're right. I'll go in a minute." The events of the day play back in his head, so much condensed into such a short—hour? Or maybe just minutes? A thought occurs to him, and he slowly picks his head up to scan the walls of the room. They're completely bare. He rolls onto his side to face Derek. "When I...when I saw the red door earlier, I opened it," he tells Derek, who raises his eyebrows in puzzlement.

"Isn't that—I thought you were afraid to open it?"

"I am. It's just that I got confused in the dark. I thought it was a door out, but it...wasn't. I've only seen it open once before."

When Stiles is silent for too long, Derek shifts on the bed to face him. "When your mom died," he prompts, studying Stiles's face.

"When my mom died," Stiles repeats. He pulls a corner of the blanket over his shoulder as he weighs his need to explain this story with the heavy fatigue settling over him. In the end, the story wins out. "I remember...well, I know she died in the hospital. I know she did. Dad was there with her all the time while she was sick, and I was staying at my friend Scott's house. She died at night, with my dad sleeping next to her. But I remember waking up once, sometime in that time, and she was right there. Just so real. I know I must have been dreaming, but in my memory, it isn't like that. It was like I sat up in bed, and she was standing right there in the bedroom door, just looking at me. I was so surprised she was there at all, and that she looked so...sad.

"I got up to hug her, because—well, while she was sick she never really left her bed, so I couldn't remember the last time I saw her standing at all, and I wanted her to be okay. Or at least to look happier. But I just remember she crouched down and held onto my neck so tight, and she kept looking around her—up and down the hall, like she was afraid. Or maybe like she was expecting someone. And there was this noise in the air, wings, and it was a sparrow, the kind she always used to feed in the yard. It landed right on her shoulder, like a pet.

"Back then, Scott and I lived right down the street from each other. There was this little garden halfway between our houses...well, not a garden, exactly. It was just an empty lot, fenced off with a paneled wood fence. But since it was empty for years, some people in the neighborhood just used it like a vegetable garden—kind of haphazard, just handmade gardening boxes and stacks of concrete pavers to sit on. It used to be mom's favorite place, before she was sick.

"She took my hand and led me out there, and…" he pauses, playing with the seamed edge of the blanket. "It was so dark. No moon, just pitch black—I was still scared of the dark then. Like I'm not now," he adds with a self-deprecating laugh. "But it was one of the darkest nights I remember, like when we went camping out in the national park one summer. Even so, I could see there was this door on the wooden fence, the red door. She was leading me to it, almost dragging me as we got close, because...I don't know why, but I had this feeling like I didn't want to go, that it wasn't something we should open. I was pulling away, trying to tug her back, but she wouldn't stop. The sparrow flew onto the fence, and there were others, too—a whole line of them, just waiting.

"Finally she pulled me close enough to touch it, and she...she never said a word the whole time. Not once. But she knelt next to me and sort of put her hand on the door, and looked at me, and I knew she wanted me to open it for her. And...I don't know, she's my mom, and I thought she knew what was best, even if I...so I opened it. And she smiled at me, and walked inside, and I closed it behind her. And then I went back to bed. I woke up in the morning and thought it was a dream. Dad didn't actually tell me she died until almost two weeks after that, that she died in her sleep in the night. But I never told him that she came to see me first."

This whole time, Derek's been silent, just waiting for him to finish, but once Stiles trails off for long enough to signal a break, he murmurs, "And that's why you're so afraid of it. Because you remember your mom went into it."

"And she never came back," Stiles confirmed. "That's when I started seeing the red door everywhere, like it's not finished with me yet. I don't know. Like there's more it needs. And I don't know what that is."

"So that's the first door you opened," Derek says. "And now you can do more, with more control over where they go, but with that one…"

"I have no control over it at all," Stiles agrees. He rubs one eye with the heel of his hand. "The other doors, when I make them from here to my room—or actually, even sometimes when I'm in the darkness, and I'm making a door back to safety—that feels like me. Like it is me, like it's something I'm doing. But the red door feels like something...other. I can see it, obviously, but it's not completely part of what I am, or whatever I can do." As he slowly speaks the words, he realizes them to be true, as if by speaking them he's made them into reality.

"Your mother, back then," Derek begins thoughtfully. "And now Clem."

"Sparrows and moths," Stiles murmurs tiredly. "There were other dreams, after that. People and little creatures. They never really felt as real, though—just people coming to me, and I could never make out their faces. Only that they were afraid, sometimes sick with it. And the red door never really went away for long after that."

"What's your theory?"

"Honestly, I've never known what to make of it. Sometimes, I think it really is all in my head. Just bad nightmares, and hallucinations of the red door that my mom walked through once in a dream. My dad made me go to therapy, 'cause I wouldn't shut up about it, and my therapist thought it was just a sign that I couldn't let Mom go. And sometimes, I think that's true, that's all it can possibly be. Which is why I didn't really fight it when he and Dad wanted me to try some new meds to make it stop—"

Above them, the lights flicker on and off twice. Stiles's heart jumps, but the lights only dim to a very faint glow. Time for lights out. And time for Stiles to go, lest someone come in for Derek and find Stiles here as well.

"But other times," he continues in a low voice, nearly a whisper, "I don't think it's made up at all. I think that if I walk through the red door, it'll be to some terrible place. And now that I know I can jump between doors, it just makes everything feel more real. More...possible."

Derek stares at him for a very long time. Then he sinks down onto the bed next to him, propped up on one elbow, and hesitantly drapes one arm across Stiles's shoulder. The weight feels wonderfully warm through the thin fabric of the blanket. "We have to get you out of here," he tells Stiles grimly. "If things are getting worse for you, and the red door…"

"And the darkness," Stiles adds. "The red door's one thing, but it's never actively tried to swallow me whole as far as I know."

"And the darkness," Derek murmurs. His expression is worried, but it's interlaid with something softer, more tender.

It's almost painful for Stiles to see. Something flutters in his chest. He sits up, letting the blanket slip off of him. "I'd better go, before…"

"Yeah."

Derek stands, which is silly—it's three steps to the bathroom door, and Stiles is capable of walking himself there. But he's suddenly glad of the werewolf's presence, overpowered by gratefulness that he isn't here alone, that Derek believes him, that Derek does stupid things like walk him to his own door. Before he can really think it over, he's flung his arms around Derek, pressing in close. The hug is maybe even as tight as the one his mother had given him before she left, squeezing so hard that Derek might feel it in his bones.

"I'm going to figure out what's happening to you," he tells the werewolf determinedly, chin digging into his broad shoulder. "Because if they do anything crazy to you, I don't think I could be okay without you here."

Derek's just managed to overcome his surprise enough to wrap his arms around Stiles's waist, and maybe it's just normal werewolf strength, but Stiles thinks he can feel the hug constrict his lungs. "You won't have to," he promises.

Stiles steps back after a moment, suddenly a little sheepish. "Thanks," he says, quirking an awkward half-smile in Derek's direction. He puts his hand on the door, and just like last time, he pictures where he wants to go: his bedroom here in Eichen, with its rumpled blanket, the little crack in the corner of the ceiling. The doorknob feels different somehow, and that's how he knows it's done. He twists, and his room reveals itself.

They say their goodnights, and when Stiles pulls the door shut behind him, he can feel the space that separates the two of them once more. It rushes in like a flood, an ocean's worth of distance welling up between them.

Stiles stares at the door for a long time. Then, he crawls into bed. He doesn't sleep.

Chapter Text

Gradually, the dreams of dark, faceless creatures give way to something heavy and warm, something strangely comforting in its solidity.

Derek wakes to find Stiles half on top of him, his head tucked into the curve of Derek's neck. The weight of him means that Derek has to make an effort to completely fill his lungs, a movement echoed by Stiles's deep, slow breaths. The sound of the human's breathing is broken only by a faintly wheezing snore.

Before Derek's conscious mind can really think it through, he's folded his arm around Stiles's waist, gently laying it across his back. Derek's chest feels tight in a way he doesn't completely understand, until he's woken up enough to catch up.

Having Stiles here, having pack here—it feels domestic. Comfortable. And that's something he hasn't allowed himself in a very long time.

In another life, he could maybe have this. He could maybe have Stiles, draped over him like this, warm and sleepy in the mornings. Every morning. But he doesn't remember Stiles coming in last night, which probably means that he crawled into bed with Derek when the werewolf was sleeping, after Stiles was sure the nurses probably wouldn't come. And it means—if Derek's going to stop denying it—that there's still a possibility that the nurses have done something to him again. That they've tampered with his memory. And he and Stiles are still in the dark about it all, still in danger.

And besides, in this life, this morning, there are still morning check-ins. And Derek is fairly sure he can hear the sound of them, dull and distant, just down the hall.

"Stiles. Stiles, wake up!" In Derek's haste, he shakes Stiles a little more roughly than necessary, and Stiles jolts awake at once as though scalded.

"Wh—what's happening?" Stiles peers around the room, his heart rate spiking, and Derek grips his arms gently.

"Nothing like that. Sorry, it's just morning check. You have to be in your room now."

Stiles stares at him blankly, and Derek thinks it's probably just his sleep-addled mind working to process—only Stiles's cheeks are turning a little pink. His hair is mussed, and there's sleep in the corners of his eyes. Suddenly, Derek realizes how close they are, Stiles still mostly sprawled on top of Derek and Derek holding him close. "Yeah. Oh yeah. Shit." Stiles swings his legs off the bed and goes to the bathroom door, frowning down at the doorknob.

There's a low, almost indecipherable rumble. Voices nearby, maybe—it's always hard to tell, as if Derek is hearing sounds from somewhere deep underwater. Before Derek can urge him to go, Stiles has pulled the bathroom door open, creating an impossible passage to his own room on the other side of the building. He turns, brown eyes finding Derek's. "What do you think happens if Roberts unlocks that door," he begins, pointing at the hall door, "and I'm in the process of turning it into a door leading to my room, right at the same time that Roberts tries to come in here from the hall?"

Derek snorts. "He's close, I think. Do you really want to find out?"

"Do you think he'd get sucked into an endless black void this time? Maybe we'd never see him again?"

"Stiles," Derek sighs, exasperated.

"Dude, the possibilities. But fine, fine, see you at breakfast!" Stiles chirps, turning to pull the bathroom door shut behind him.

Derek stares at it for a moment. He's seen Stiles do his doorway trick a handful of times now, but it still manages to catch him off-guard, the sheer impossibility of it. It's as if Stiles is a stage magician stepping behind a curtain: Derek's always waiting for the other shoe to drop.

But what really happens is that Roberts pounds on the hall door, and there's the snick of the key in the lock. "Hale!" Roberts barks, his voice muffled even to Derek's ears.

"I'm awake!" Derek shouts irritably, hoping not to see Roberts' grubby face at all this morning if he can help it.

Roberts doesn't hear the message in his voice, because he almost immediately sticks his head through the door. "Up and at 'em, sunshine," he says.

"I said I'm fucking awake."

"Language," Roberts chides mock-seriously. "Unless you want a citation for being disorderly. Hell knows you and your other half couldn't survive a day apart. Freakishly codependent," he adds, rolling his eyes.

Fortunately, before Derek can even jump to his feet to start growling, Roberts has kicked the door open before starting off down the hall, just to be annoying. Fighting back his fangs, Derek strides over to slam it shut.

He changes quickly, trying and failing to modulate his breathing, and decides to go for a couple laps around the ward so he doesn't sink his teeth into the first thing that pisses him off. And because as grating as Roberts is, he isn't wrong: Derek really, really doesn't want to end up thrown back into his room for the day.

The first lap is fine. Derek hurries along the halls so quickly he barely has time to think about it. But on the second, he comes up on a duo of patients staring into the showers.

"Yeah, you get used to it," a woman explains, chuckling humorlessly as her partner stares into toward the translucent stalls. "There's not really any privacy around here. They're broken up for guys and girls but...well, you know. There's always someone on duty to watch."

As Derek passes, he feels the woman's eyes follow him. "Hey, man," she adds, her voice so low that Derek certainly wouldn't have been able to hear it if he weren't a werewolf. "That's Derek Hale."

A shuffle of feet, probably the companion turning in place. "The Derek Hale? From the papers?" he asks, voice laced with intrigue.

"You wouldn't know it, to be honest. Not normally. He's a real piece of work. Though I guess that's probably why he did the deed in the first place."

"Goddamn. You know, there was a special on the news. For the anniversary. They said he killed those people in cold blood. Like they were animals, like—"

Something white-hot rips out of Derek in a thunderous snarl; he whirls around to howl down the corridor. Both of them, a blonde woman and a stocky guy, stumble backwards down the other end of the hall as if battered by a gust of wind. Derek has just about the presence of mind to turn and hurry away, in case they're going for a nurse or something, but only barely.

"Time for breakfast," one of the orderlies drones as Derek passes one of the group therapy rooms. "Out of the halls."

"I know," Derek growls, but it's mostly under his breath. Calm down, he orders himself desperately. He should probably go back to his room or something, but all he can think is that he has to get to Stiles.

The line, when he reaches the cafeteria, seems longer than ever. Patients grumble and groan to each other about the length, and the general sounds of conversation seem almost deafening. Desperately, Derek holds his breath as he makes his way through, focusing on his lungs instead of the chattering roar. He manages to get something on his tray—there's really no telling how the cafeteria workers interpreted his grunts—and turns around to sit down.

He spots Stiles almost at once. The human is just getting to their customary table, balancing a tray heaped with food he almost definitely won't eat himself, since Stiles rarely has much of an appetite in the morning. In fact, it's almost definitely intentional, as it means he can give the rest to Derek. As the human sinks into a chair, he catches Derek's eye from across the room. His eyes light up as he points to the tray.

"Dude, french toast! Today, we eat like kings," he exclaims cheerily, probably knowing now that Derek can actually make out his voice in all this chatter.

There are still dark smudges below Stiles's eyes, now a little milder than they used to be. But the thing that catches Derek's attention is the way one of Stiles's cheeks dimples a little as he grins. Or maybe it's the goofy way he pumps a fist in the air, the picture of triumph.

Or maybe it's the way Derek's anger drains away completely at the sight of him. The way something inside him warms, uncoiling the knot of tension that never used to go away.

Derek notices himself noticing all of these things, and then he files them all away. Fuck me, he thinks as he heads over.

.

It takes a long time for Stiles to wind down this morning, all jittering nerves. He pretends to be—or, now that Derek knows him, probably is—deeply invested in his rant on the nutritional benefits of allowing hospital patients to cook for themselves. They work their way into the lounge, Stiles careful to put himself between Derek and anyone who might accidentally jostle him. They need a secluded corner away from prying eyes and ears, and so Derek scares a couple of teenagers away from one of the sofas off to the side so he and Stiles can settle into the seats. And then Derek listens patiently, amused in spite of his own nerves, and waits for a good moment to interject.

"Hey, so we're really just throwing caution to the wind?" he asks, once Stiles has paused to take a breath. The uncertainty bubbling in his throat drives Derek to pacing once more, working his way back and forth over the worn grey carpet. "I mean...before, we weren't even talking about this outside of, well, my room."

"Yeah," Stiles sighs, flicking some unidentifiable gunk off the arm of the sofa. "I guess. I mean, Madison is MIA, and if we're gonna get answers from anyone else, we're gonna have to talk to them here in the lounge. Short of me paying them a nightly visit. Which I don't even know if I could do, and it seems like a bad idea."

"It does," Derek agrees, uncertain. The room is loud, as it always is—the distraction of shouting and laughing patients, or even just people who wander a little too close to their current area.

Stiles clears his throat, looking up at him. "You don't have to be here for this part. If you don't want. I mean, I'm totally capable of doing this myself. Especially if you're, uh…" He shrugs helplessly. Derek stares, until he understands that Stiles is giving him an out. In case I can't handle playing nice, he thinks derisively.

It's tempting. He doesn't want to be here for the nauseating babble from Quincy or Matt or whoever the hell Stiles is planning to ask. He gets more than enough of that in group therapy.

But even more repulsive is the idea of leaving Stiles alone. "No. No, I'm staying," Derek grumbles at last.

"Okay, first off, calm down with that enthusiasm." Stiles says sarcastically. "But also, uh...yeah, just calm down. Seriously, you're gonna make people nervous pacing like that, so just, um, sit down with me on the sofa, and you don't have to talk or anything unless you feel like it." They've come from the library, Stiles having grabbed a few books as potential props. "In case any of the nurses ask, we're just having a book club meeting. Totally normal. A super fun, life-or-death book club meeting. So I'm gonna get, uh…" he twists on the cushion, looking over the back of the sofa and into the room at large. "Hey, Vanda!"

Derek distantly recognizes the name from therapy. He follows Stiles's gaze to find a familiar dark-skinned woman sitting perched on a coffee table not too far off, idly paging through a magazine. She peers toward them, raising an eyebrow.

"Can you c'mere a sec?" Stiles grabs Derek's arm and tugs, and Derek obediently settles beside him on the sofa.

Vanda frowns, but curiosity lightens her gaze, something Derek recognizes as an eagerness to escape the mind-numbing tedium of another Eichen House morning. After a beat, she swings her braids over her shoulder, standing to wade through the sea of patients. "Yeah?" She asks when she's close enough, resting the backs of her hands on her hips.

Derek's seen her around before, seen her in group every morning—but his wolf still recognizes her intrusion into their privacy, disliking the fact that she's so neatly cornered them. It's only Stiles's presence by his side, and the fact that Derek's closer to Vanda and better able to defend him if needed, that allows Derek to rein his wolf in.

"Uhh," Stiles flails. "I was—We were just...wondering…" he looks helplessly at Derek, who struggles to both manage his wolf and remember why they're there.

"If you've seen anything weird," he manages to grunt.

Both of Vanda's eyebrows climb slowly up her forehead.

"Weirder. Than normal," Stiles clarifies. "Specifically, if you've maybe...gotten lost? You know, in any...like...dark corners?"

The gentle poke doesn't pay off. There's no suggestion of fear or worry in Vanda's expression, not like Derek might have expected were she actually dealing with the same darkness Stiles is. "Not recently," Vanda says warily. She looks skeptical, as if she's expecting a trick. "Been here long enough that I know the place. Why, what's going on?"

"Nothing, just...the lights might have gone out in the last few days. In some parts of the ward," Stiles explains carefully.

"Hm. Not for me personally," Vanda replies thoughtfully. "But Clem mentioned something, before she got transferred. It was a while ago, not a few days, though."

Stiles has gone rigid. "Like what?"

"Some real weird stuff." She shakes her head, then turns away to kick an oval ottoman closer to them, dropping down onto it. "I guess the power must have been going out in her room. Just at night. You know how they kinda keep the overhead lights dim after hours. But she said it was always dark there. She felt trapped in there sometimes. I think Alsina was supposed to be helping her with it, but I don't know the details." She grimaces. "But I guess she...needed more help. Anyway, that's the only thing I can think of."

"Nothing else?"

Vanda looks up, and something in Stiles's serious expressions must convince her he wants to hear everything. "You have to understand," she begins slowly, "Clem was really scared of the dark. It was extreme. That might have even been why she was in here, even if she never really told me about it. Hated lights out. Hated being alone—she'd sprint anywhere if she had to go there herself. But she said this thing to me once...she said, if she didn't come back, it was because she couldn't find her way back. I guess she…" Vanda pauses. "I don't know what kind of shit she got trapped in, but I guess that's why they transferred her?" It comes out uncertain, like she isn't sure whether it's a question or not. After a beat, Vanda clears her throat, briskly wiping imaginary dust off the knees of her scrubs. "Anyway. Is that all you wanted?"

Derek turns to Stiles, whose expression is unreadable. "Yeah, that's...that's about it."

Vanda nods once, then stands and wanders off. Once she's grabbed her magazine to disappear back into the crowd in the lounge, Stiles and Derek share a look. "Trapped in the dark?" Stiles parrots in a low whisper. "It's true then. Maybe she was really...like me."

"Yeah," Derek agrees stupidly. Vanda's words have driven a cold spike through his chest, one Stiles doesn't seem to feel. For once, the human seems tense with anticipation, not fear.

"Okay, let's try someone else. If we can. It's...it's just weird to do this," Stiles grumbles. "It's not like I can just come out and say 'is this hospital fucking with you too, or is it just me?'"

Their next few attempts with the others they know from group therapy are markedly less successful. Irma shrugs helplessly, dragging fingers through her frizzy grey hair. Benji seems to know more than he lets on, and Derek can tell from his jumping heartbeat that he's lying through his teeth—but the wolf's rumbling growl makes Benji no more eager to share his secrets, and he scurries off as quickly as he can. Vern seems to think the whole thing is a joke. Marty blankly explains that he's not afraid of the dark because he can see in it, obviously. And Jordan tells them, unhelpfully, that she'd walked in on Clem cowering under a table because she was "real tore up about bein' in such a dark place. God bless her heart," she adds in afterthought.

Stiles branches out to other questions with most of them, even the weird stuff—"Can you do anything special, anything that seems a little magic, for real? Or have you ever done anything you can't explain?" But these only earn him dubious stares.

"I know we joked about it in group," Isaiah allows, his smile looking a little too twisted to be real, "but it's not the kind of thing you really admit to. I can't truly do...well, anything unusual."

"But you said you could. You said—"

"I know what I said," Isaiah interrupts, glancing over his shoulder. There's no one there, but Derek recognizes the urge, understands it deep in his core: that perpetual Eichen House dread, the sense that someone is just behind you, watching your every move. Presently, it's the orderlies at the fringes of the room, their dull stares wheeling from side to side. "But it's not real. That's the whole point of us being here. My dreams aren't real, and...I'm coming to terms with that. We all should."

Stiles argues with him over it, argues with all of them. "How do you know?" he demands. Or he tries: "This place is wrong. Don't you feel it, too?" But Derek can see the fight draining out of him, ebbing slowly with each frightened or pitying glance the others send his way. How many of them are really being chased by the darkness? Derek wonders. How many of them have powers of their own? Is it just the two of us, in the end? Or is it even the two of us at all—or are we just trapped in our own delusions?

Quincy comes last, sitting across from them with no small amount of amusement. Her eyebrows scrunch over her forehead like two angry red caterpillars. But once Stiles poses the question, she grows stiff as a corpse, her face tightening up around wild eyes. "I don't...want to talk about that," she stammers, and her voice is thin.

Stiles leans forward in his seat. "What? Then you've seen something?"

"I don't want to—you shouldn't talk about it. The more you talk about it, the more—" Like Isaiah, she glances over her shoulder, but Derek gets the sense that it's not a nurse or an orderly that worries her. "The more it comes for you," she finishes in a hoarse whisper.

"That's—it's real. You've seen it," Stiles tries desperately.

"Stop looking for it," she says, leaping to her feat. "If you know what's good for you, you'll leave it alone."

"It won't leave me alone!"

"A lot of the time, it goes both ways." She hesitates. "I really can't talk about this. I'm already—you shouldn't either." And with that, she walks away.

They stare after her, and a long moment passes in which Stiles slowly seeps down into the cushions, his head coming to rest on the arm of the sofa. His left knee jitters up and down,  heel tapping an anxious beat into the carpet, until Derek settles a hand onto his thigh and he stills. At last, Stiles throws a hand over his face.

"That's the last time we try to invite anyone to our secret book club," he declares quietly.

.

For once, Stiles is ravenous at lunchtime. He inhales the fried chicken and starchy mashed potatoes, glaring mulishly at the baby carrots left his tray.

Derek, still hungry, swipes one and bites into it. "What are you thinking?"

Stiles frowns, blinking as if he'd forgotten Derek was even there. After a beat, he sags in his chair. He keeps his voice low: "I mean, I went in expecting nothing, and nothing's what we got, so—"

"It wasn't nothing," Derek argues quietly, remembering the sheer fright behind Quincy's eyes. He thinks of her warning, and then Vanda's phrase trapped in the dark rambles through his mind over and over, a record on repeat. "They're scared. Quincy seems to think you shouldn't be…" he pauses, looking around the room. Orderlies wind their way through the tables as monitors, and Nurse Roberts stands with his arms folded in the doorway just a few yards away. It's one thing to talk in a corner of the lounge and another to talk here, where all eyes are upon them. Maybe it should be a conversation for tonight, but Derek's wolf can barely stand to keep quiet. "You shouldn't be digging into this. It's like we said—maybe the more you know about it, the more it comes after you."

Grimacing, Stiles pushes the remainder of his food to Derek, then turns to face the last stragglers in the lunch line. "I'm not going to stop looking."

"You have to stop looking. What if it gets worse, or if something happens—"

"It already is worse," Stiles snarls, then he stops and lowers his voice again. "Whether I look into it or not. I'm always looking over my shoulder, I'm not sleeping—although I did actually sleep last night, but only for a little while when I came to your room. But in general, I'm not sleeping more than, like, a couple hours. You're obviously used to getting your full beauty rest, but for me this is a Big. Deal." Before Derek can decipher that last remark, Stiles presses on: "And it shouldn't be. I shouldn't have to worry about being alone, or glance over my shoulder all the time. Derek, I have to figure this out."

"Quincy said to stop looking for it. She said to leave it alone."

"It's not leaving me alone! I thought you were on board with this. I thought you were gonna help me."

"I'm trying, but I also don't want this to be the reason something happens to you!"

"Something is happening to me!"

Derek's wolf is howling clawing to be released, and Derek bites his tongue so hard he's amazed it doesn't bleed. Eventually he trusts himself enough to hiss, "And what if you're 'transferred' one day? What happens if I can't find you, and you're not just drugged up in your room, you're gone?"

"It'll be better than being stuck here," Stiles snaps, and Derek snarls fiercely at him, loud enough to catch the attention of the next table. Loud enough that Stiles startles and flinches backward in his seat.

Derek grimaces, pulling himself away with great care as Stiles stares at him. He's never done that before—not to Stiles, anyway. Not since the very beginning. "Sorry," he says with an embarrassed grimace.

Stiles gives him a tight smile. "Let's...I don't want to be here right now." He swallows. "C'mon, let's go to the library."

.

Derek can't remember the last time his wolf felt so feral, so close to the surface. It demands constant attention, and he struggles to swallow back the rage that bubbles toward his throat like so much black bile.

They make their way toward the library, ducking the keen gaze of Nurse Graham, who watches their movements from further down the hall where he stands sentry. When they reach it, Derek immediately begins pacing in circles around the narrow room, winding around and around the long table as he tries to relieve some of his pent-up energy. Looking on in concern, Stiles presses his back to a bookshelf to keep out of the way. When after a few moments it becomes clear that Derek just needs to burn off his anger, he grabs a book and strides over to sit atop the table.

It takes Derek ages to calm down, and he has to do it very deliberately. He concentrates on everything else in the world but his wolf: the feel of the thin carpet under his socks, the musty smell of the yellowing books, the hum of the lights overhead. There's a conversation he can't quite make out down the hall toward the med station. Stiles's heartbeat is smooth and regular.

At last he follows Stiles's lead, grabbing a book at random off the shelves as he sits in a chair beside the human. It's hard to concentrate, and the book turns out to be a trashy romance. He's so close to Stiles that he can make out the earthy smell of him, tinged by the faint tang of fatigue. A glance over reveals that Stiles isn't actually reading the book, just staring idly down at its cover. He's lost in thought, facing one of the bookshelves with his feet resting on the chair.

Even with what Derek has just done to Stiles, his expression is neutral. Unafraid. It's like Derek didn't just lunge for him twenty minutes ago. Stiles is the only person in the world who's this calm around him, regardless of what he's done—and that just makes his wolf howl even louder inside of him. Hell knows what I did to deserve this, Derek thinks desperately. As he watches, Stiles absently chews his lower lip, and Derek catches himself watching, and then tears his gaze away and tries to concentrate on anything else.

Farther off is a murmur of the air conditioning unit flickering to life. Footsteps come down the hall toward them, with the distinctive squeak of the rubbery sock soles. Probably a patient on the way to the med room, he imagines—until they stop at the door.

He's surprised, only for a moment, to see Isaiah slip into the room, back hunched as if to make his wiry frame even smaller. And then the wolf begins to cry with anger. As Derek reins it in, Isaiah very quietly pulls the library door closed. It's this, more than anything, that snaps Stiles from idle stupor. Within a heartbeat, his scent goes bitter with fear.

"I'm gonna be real with you," Isaiah intones, voice low. "There's something wrong in this place."

"Fucking thank you," Stiles hisses exasperatedly, throwing his hands into the air. His fear has cleared up, just like that. Throw a bone to his curiosity, and Stiles is all in. He's going to drive Derek mad one day. "What the hell is going on?"

"I have no idea," Isaiah says slowly, scratching one side of his greying beard. "Been a few years, and I still don't know. All I know is, there's something here that swallows you up, nice and slow and when you're only half expecting it. And it never really spits you back out."

Stiles's eyes, when Derek looks, are almost feverish. "And Clem? Madison? Are they really transferred, or are they swallowed up? What is it?"

"I don't know. I don't know any of that," Isaiah says, shaking his head. "I just try not to look at it too hard."

"What," Stiles scoffs, "like Quincy was right? Like it's actually...I don't know, 'swallowing up' people who look at it too hard?"

"Quincy, too, huh?" Isaiah shakes his head again. "Not what I'm saying. Nobody knows that. Nobody who's still here, anyways. I'm saying that going out to look for it doesn't help. Don't know anything about Clem, but Madison sure wasn't trying to find it, and I guess it sure as hell got her anyway. 'Bout a dozen other people before them, too."

"That's really why they're gone? Then, the dark—"

"You're shaking a lot of things up here," Isaiah observes. "No one's ever come at it like this, right out of the gate. Least, not to my mind."

Derek's been listening to most of this with great difficulty, trying to latch onto its every word as though he's traversing miles to find it. The wolf is scrabbling for purchase under his skin, howling its fury and need to defend, protect, maim—and it's everything Derek can do to follow the thread of the conversation. It makes him jump onto those last words, lashing out so that its anger suddenly becomes his. "Are you pointing that out or threatening him?" he snarls.

Isaiah jumps and glances at him, and something about Derek's expression makes him slowly raise his hands, palms outward. "I'm just...stating a fact. Nobody ever talks about any of this. When we first get here, it's because we think it's not supposed to exist, and we're pretending it'll go away if we pop the right pills. And then later it's because we're afraid. It's because this place keeps us together but alone. We're isolated. Everyone's dealing with their own problems, and no one wants to admit their problems seem real."

When it becomes obvious that Derek isn't going to leap onto him, he lowers his hands and sidles toward the table, looking at them in all earnestness. "I've been piecing things together on my own for a while. We all do it, I think—but we can only see part of the puzzle. It's hard to know why Eichen grabs onto some of us harder than others, or why some people never really see it for what it is."

"Not everyone was lying to us," Stiles extrapolates. "When we were asking questions earlier, some of them really just don't know. They've never seen the dark."

Isaiah nods, then hesitates. "I've never seen it either, but I know it's there." He raises his chin. "I said once...I said that I see things in my dreams, and sometimes—sometimes—those things happen. That's how I knew Clem hadn't been transferred. I don't know where she is, but…"

"You're sure?"

"Course not," Isaiah admits, shrugging. "Could be out of my damn mind, like they say. And besides, I'm only getting hints. But yeah, I think I'm right."

"Holy shit."

"And that's why you have to stop what you're doing. That's why you have to leave it alone."

At this, wolf or not, twin bursts of triumph and fear course through Derek's blood. "And what, the dark will eat him if he doesn't?" he demands, and there's something foul and toothy in his tone.

A somber frown carves its way across Isaiah's face, and he steps toward Stiles. Derek sees it happen as if in slow motion, sees the man's weathered hand descend toward Stiles's shoulder, just another touch in a long day's worth of meaningless gestures. Except that the anticipation of this simple touch, of someone else touching Stiles, finally snaps the tenuous hold Derek has had on his wolf, finally releases it from his grasp—its roar grows loud in his ears just as Isaiah murmurs, "It will swallow Derek if you don't."

That's when Stiles and Isaiah see it too: a surge of energy has rushed through Derek, a strength that always rumbles just under his skin. He can feel his fangs, his claws, and it's as if he's gone back where he belongs, back home after ages away. Isaiah's face morphs in slow motion from concern to confusion to terror.

But the energy doesn't stop, the transformation doesn't stop. Derek can hardly think, and a blackness seems to crowd his vision, to take over his movements, until it's around him, inside him.

Until it's everything he is.

Chapter Text

In between his mother's diagnosis and her death, there had been a wearisome stretch of months in which the Sheriff tried to pretend that everything would be fine.

Stiles's mother had lately become a frightened, empty shell of her former self. Stiles himself was too young to understand what was happening, but he knew that she was different. She couldn't leave the hospital at all anymore, not even for special occasions. She couldn't always remember things, even easy ones. And she wasn't getting better like everyone said she would.

For a long time, his father carefully pretended none of this was happening. On her good days, he brought Stiles to the hospital to spend time with his mother after school, and the three of them would play cards and watch Jeopardy reruns until she fell asleep. Stiles didn't know what happened on the bad days, only that his father would quietly drop him off at the McCalls instead.

The charade continued right into his birthday. His mom was "under the weather," according to his dad, and so the two of them would celebrate most of the day alone this year.

They'd driven out to a nearby nature preserve, which was just far enough for the journey to feel exciting—but which upon arrival turned out to be too small to keep their interest. Even so, Stiles had dutifully wandered through glass-walled exhibits where glittering insects sat atop steel pins, miming excitement to please his tired father.

His acting left a little to be desired once they stepped into the adjoining room. It displayed an array of regional birds, carefully stuffed and poised on branches overhead. There were replicas of cup nests and life-size wingspan comparisons along one wall, but Stiles's eyes were drawn to the little song sparrows perched on twigs above the far door, with their deep amber wings and pale bellies dusted over with tiny, dark feathers.

They had always been his mother's favorite. Both he and his father went still for a moment, just outside of the doorway, to peer up at them. Though neither commented, the reminder of the empty space at their side added a sudden extra weight to the day. It seemed like a sign to leave, and by unspoken agreement they made their way into the last room.

Stiles flinched hard at the sight of the bear. The stuffed beast dominated one corner, standing on its hind legs with its forelimbs raised to strike. It seemed to Stiles that the bear was almost twice his father's height, though that might have been a side effect of the snarling jawline and the dark claws that curled from its forepaws.

His father settled a hand on his shoulder, squeezing it reassuringly. "It's alright," he soothed. "It's not real."

"It...looked real for a second. And they are real, somewhere," Stiles argued. "Out in the Preserve or something."

"Nah, grizzlies haven't been in California for years—and there definitely aren't any in the Preserve. Besides, most of the time, bears are just as scared of us as we are of them."

Staring up at the bear, whose tawny bulk seemed to scrape the building's high ceiling, Stiles found this hard to believe. "Of us?" He frowned. "Then why do they attack people sometimes?"

Lately, his father had grown increasingly short with Stiles when he asked too many questions. But now, his dad carefully weighed his answer, in the same way he used to before Stiles's mom had grown sick. "The problem is they don't understand us, I guess," he answered at last, rubbing circles into Stiles's back. "They don't know what we want. We can't communicate with them, so we can't tell them we don't mean them any harm." He turned back to face Stiles. "Sometimes, when you don't understand something, it's easy to be afraid of it. And when you're afraid of something, it's easy to lash out without stopping to understand."

His voice had grown somber, almost instructive, in the same way it sometimes did when he was lecturing Stiles on why he should never use the stove without an adult, or go home with someone he didn't know. Or why his mother wasn't getting better.

Stiles wanted him to stop, so he did what he always did: he cracked a joke. "So you're saying if I meet a bear, I should try to 'speak bear' into a megaphone?"

It was a lame joke, but it did the trick. His dad grinned and gave him a gentle shove. "Stiles, if you ever meet a bear, run. And run faster than the other guy."

.

Derek—or the thing that Derek has just become—doesn't seem afraid at all. He doesn't seem interested in communicating or worried about Stiles encroaching on his territory.

He seems murderous.

In a matter of seconds, Derek's shifted from an eyebrow-heavy and snarling human to an eyebrow-heavy and snarling monster-wolf, way different from what he'd shown Stiles that night when he'd first explained about werewolves. Whatever this is, it's miles past normal werewolf shit as Stiles understands it.

The massive Derek-thing is tall, much in the same way the grizzly had been all those years ago, ears brushing against the library ceiling. Its immense haunches have knocked the table aside, and its dark claws snag against the thin carpet. There's a mess of jet-black fur and dripping fangs, and as Stiles's mind struggles to process what he's seeing, he realizes that the creature's furious blue eyes are tracking him as well.

"D-Derek?" he stammers, and a muttered curse at his side reminds him that Isaiah is still in the room—or was. By the time Stiles has turned to look, Isaiah has bolted through the door.

Stiles should follow. He should definitely follow. Run faster than the other guy, his dad had told him once. But in the split-second he has to make a decision, the Derek-thing snarls—and it's enough like Derek's usual grouchy sounds that it reminds Stiles that Derek is in there, somewhere. (Deep down. Probably. Hopefully.) And that having a nurse or someone stumble onto him in this ultra-wolf form is pretty much game over. Stiles doesn't know anything about how this is going to work, but he has to get his Derek back.

So before Derek can make a move, Stiles slams the door shut. Which, a second later, seems really dumb.

In the years that have followed his trip to the nature center, Stiles has done his fair share of research on grizzlies, just out of morbid curiosity. And while he's still a little too stunned to work out what to do next, he does remember that out in the wild, if you're this close to a grizzly, you're pretty much dead.

But it's not a grizzly bear. It's a wolf.

It's Derek.

The Derek-thing looms closer, teeth still bared. It knocks the table further aside as it starts forward, overturning the nearest chair. Stiles, shoulder blades digging into the door, feels his hands shake a little. "You have to change back," he hisses urgently. "Derek, you have to, or they'll know."

Derek's growling a little, and it's not at all like before, when Derek just looked like he could kill you but spoke like a human. This creature standing in front of Stiles isn't like that at all.

The problem is, they don't understand us, his dad had said. They don't know what we want.

"Dude, I hope to God you're in there somewhere, because I really need you to change back right about now. Also, this is the dumbest thing I've ever done. Also, you're not a giant fucking wolf, you're Derek," he reminds the creature, voice wavering. He's pressing desperately backward into the door, but Derek is close now, so close. "You don't want to hurt me, or anybody. You have to change back."

The Derek-thing has stopped baring its teeth, which seems like something, at least—though its piercing eyes are going to give Stiles a freaking panic attack. It seems less angry, although there's something somehow grumpy in the hunch of its shoulders. The thought makes Stiles laugh a little hysterically, and the Derek-thing blinks at him once, twice, and then starts to change.

The fur shrinks back in such a way that Stiles can't really follow what he's seeing; it's just receding and brightening into skin, and then it's gone. After a moment, it's just Derek, normal-sized and standing right there in front of him, looking a little dazed.

For a long moment, he doesn't say anything. And then at last: "Stiles?"

"Oh my god, you stupid asshole, you're going to give me a fucking aneurysm one day," he blurts all at once, arms flailing. He almost thinks he might sob in relief, like some fragile heroine in a classic novel, only that seems super lame. He squeezes his eyes shut, then opens them to glare. "What did you do to yourselfYou didn't tell me you could become the giant monster version of a werewolf!"

"What are you talking about?"

"You! You were literally just—right there—like eight feet tall and standing on your hind legs like from fucking Beauty and the Beast and that was definitely not the definition of werewolf we mutually agreed on—"

"Stiles, what happened?"

"You don't even remember. Unbelievable. You were just, like, an ultra-werewolf—"

"That's...I don't understand." He steps forward. "You're shaking."

Stiles realizes this is true. "We have to talk about your teeth-brushing habits. Fangs are one thing, but I'm really not cool with that ultra-wolf breath."

Derek steps forward again, very slowly, like Stiles is the one who just turned into something right out of a horror movie. When Stiles doesn't move away, Derek pulls him into a firm hug. It doesn't magically make everything better, but Stiles thinks that his heartbeat must slow down at least a little. "Okay," he says weakly. "Here's what we gotta do."

One and a half minutes later, when Isaiah comes hurrying back with an orderly, the furniture is back in place, and both Stiles and Derek are sitting at the table and pretending to read. And Stiles, at least, is pretending that his heart isn't going to thump right out of his chest.

"There were—he was—" Isaiah stammers, carefully keeping out of the room. "You're okay…"

The orderly frowns, impatient. "Have you seen anything...unusual?"

"Unusual?" Stiles asks the man, shrugging. He holds up the book. "Nothing's up. We've just been here reading the whole time."

Isaiah's hands are still clenched in fear, and he won't take his eyes off of Derek. "Hm," the orderly says mildly, and claps a hand on Isaiah's shoulder. "Easy mistake. But why don't you come with me, just to chat?" Isaiah stammers something out, some excuse, but he'd obviously rather be somewhere else with an orderly than here with Derek, so he follows obediently. And while it's pretty shitty of them to repay Isaiah's intel by letting him get tossed into another session with Alsina or something, Stiles doesn't really have the mental bandwidth to care about it now.

Stiles waits until they've walked away, until the footsteps have completely receded down the hall. Derek's still alert at his side, still listening for them to fade, until a moment later when he relaxes as well.

"What just happened?" he demands, turning to Stiles.

"Hell if I know! You tell me," Stiles hisses back, glancing at the door. Mostly because he's still pissed, he turns and punches Derek in the shoulder, which does absolutely nothing to either budge Derek by even one inch or settle Stiles's nerves. "You grew way taller, up to the ceiling, all black and hairy, fangs and claws, the whole freaking shebang. You really don't remember?"

"No, I don't. It was like...it was…" Derek frowns down at the book, swallowing hard. Now that it's all done, he looks tired more than anything else. "It was like it usually happens in my room. Just waking up all of a sudden, without remembering anything. Except I'm here, during the day. With you. And I just...lost time."

"Wait." Stiles lowers his voice further, knowing Derek's ears will pick it up. "Is this what's happening to you when you don't remember? You're turning into that...ultra-wolf?"

"I don't know, but...maybe? With the lost memories. Right?"

"It's something," Stiles murmurs hopefully. "More than we had this morning. So—this isn't just a werewolf thing? You're sure?"

"Definitely not a werewolf thing. What you described, it's almost like...it's kind of like what an alpha werewolf can do. But I'm not an alpha. I'd know it if I were, if anything happened to Laura. I don't know how this could have happened, unless…"

"Oh my god, what if they're doing this to you?" Stiles whispers. "They're making you like this, more aggressive or something. And you turn into a huge wolf, and forget what happened when you were one. Maybe it goes hand in hand with the whole...anger thing you usually have going on."

Stiles thinks this must be as relieving to Derek as it is troubling. He's looking a little stricken, and Stiles wonders if he maybe should have cushioned all of it a little better, but he's not sure how he would have. "I don't know," the werewolf mutters at last, his voice just as low. He in turn looks at the door. "But...we shouldn't talk about this here."

"No, you're probably right," Stiles agrees, idly glancing back down at the book. "Later, then."

"Later." Hesitantly, Derek finds Stiles's hand and squeezes it once before dropping it. "But Stiles, I'm sorry about…"

He looks at Stiles with an expression so somber that Stiles can hardly bear it. Stiles thinks he can guess at what's going on in that head of his, if the guilty twist to his mouth is anything to go by. "Don't mention it. Just repaying the favor, dude," Stiles tells him casually, closing the book and setting it down on the table. "You've brought me out of a panic more times than I can count."

Derek snorts. "It's a little different. I could...I could have really hurt you."

"I may be a skinny twig, but I'm absolutely offended if you think I wouldn't snap you in half if I had to," Stiles replies flippantly, mustering up much more bravado than he actually feels.

At this, Derek barks a laugh, his expression as surprised as if Stiles had just punched the laughter out of him. He almost doubles over. Stiles watches him in wonder. Something gentle and warm pools in the pit of his stomach, a feeling he suddenly identifies—and then, just as quickly, tries to stomp out. Nope, nope, nope, he tells himself. There will be no crushing here. Also, what the hell, Stiles? He just wanted to eat you.

It's already too late, though. It's as though recognizing the feeling that's been creeping up for so long, or maybe just labeling it, has turned that feeling into something more solid. More real. Derek wipes a hand down his face, like he needs a minute to settle back down into grumpiness after the uncharacteristic show of emotion. The warm feeling in Stiles's core grows a little bigger.

Well, that's just wonderful, Stiles thinks, and it's only half sarcastic.

.

For all Stiles's blustering, he still ends up under the bed at lights out.

It's pretty uncomfortable. Like everywhere else in Eichen, the floor in his room is done in tile. It's hard on his shoulders and back, though he always drags his blanket down there to lie on top of it. Even so, it's not exactly the most conducive environment for resting, but that doesn't really matter. Stiles isn't going to sleep—he doesn't anymore, not in his own room—and lying there helps, somehow.

It's all a waiting game. He half-dozes as the minutes tick by, estimating how much time has passed and wondering when he'll be able to go crash with Derek. As best as they've been able to guess based on Stiles's one and only experience of seeing Derek dragged back into the room: if the nurses are going to mess with Derek, it's going to happen after the nurses' last midnight rounds. And if the werewolf is taken from his room then, he won't be back for about three more hours. Of course, Derek doesn't think he's actually taken every night, since there are some times he can actually recall falling asleep. But the schedule's been too irregular for either of them to pick up a pattern.

All this means is that Stiles has only been getting between four and six hours of sleep recently, plus a little extra for day-napping or accidentally falling asleep before he heads over to Derek's.

As he's doing now. He jolts awake blearily, banging his head into the bedsprings above. His right shoulder and hip ache where they press into the tiles. It's stupid to be here, like some scared little kid—except that it makes him feel miles better to hide this way. As if the dark can't find him if he isn't where he's meant to be. As if the red door won't appear if he can't see the full wall. As if the mattress and steel bedframe could possibly be enough to fend off anything that stalks him.

Something catches Stiles's eye, a slight movement in the dim room. The overhead lights have turned a dull amber, but it's enough to cast a meager reflection onto the tile floor.

And something in that reflection has stirred.

In the dark shadow cast by the open bathroom door, there's something moving—a pair of hospital-socked feet slowly step into view around the edge of the door, one after the other. Stiles stiffens, wondering if he might avoid whatever—whoever—this might be, simply by staying still. He holds his breath, waiting for any sign of movement. There's no sign that the person plans to step any closer to his hiding place, but after a long moment, their shins begin to bend bit by bit, deliberately, as though they're slowly crouching to peer under the bed.

He doesn't know what he'll see—a somber face, a gaping mouth, a deep darkness—and those mental predictions are so terrifying that he startles, awkwardly scrambling out from under the bed and away from the being, unable to stand upright but desperate to put space between them both. His back hits the opposite wall, which is a fucking relief because he doesn't really need a long, dark hallway right now, thanks. For a moment he thinks there's nothing there.

And then the person straightens. He recognizes her right away.

"Clem." It's not like Stiles has been actively searching for her or anything, but he's still relieved to find that it's just herAnd he's also relieved, now that he glances around and still feels the hard wall against his back, that it's just his room and not a dark, open void. "Why are you here?" he croaks.

Clem doesn't respond, but at this point, he's not sure he was actually expecting her to. She does stare at him, though, her gaze meaningful. Talking to the other patients has made Stiles wonder about her even more, wonder if there's something more to her presence. If she's not connected to the darkness, then maybe she is trying to show him something—and the darkness is something else. A separate disease.

We can't communicate with them, he remembers. Sometimes, when you don't understand something, it's easy to be afraid of it.

"What did you want to tell me?"

At this, Clem's mouth moves just a little—not to speak, but the tiniest twitch. It's the most expression he's seen from her, but it's gone before he can make out what it is. A moth flutters on her hand, perched atop her pinky like a living ring. She steps forward again, slowly and with great deliberation, and Stiles tries not to flinch.

It's only as she approaches that Stiles realizes that she's not looking at him anymore, but something just to the side of his shoulder. He knows what it is before he turns, and there's no surprise left in him to find the red door just inches away.

Swallowing hard, he moves toward the bed, watching warily as Clem comes closer. She stops at his side, though, glancing at him before turning back to the door. Something in her gaze reminds Stiles of his mother, a certain helplessness in her expression.

"You want to go in, too," he whispers.

At this, Clem offers him a slow nod without tearing her gaze away.

Stiles exhales slowly, then steps toward the door. Okay, Stiles, are we really doing this now? His palms are sweating. He feels odd about having his back to Clem, though he couldn't say why, so he shuffles a little to one side so he can place a hand on the knob while facing her. He twists and pulls the door open, hard—now that he's not panicked out of his mind, he finds it heavier than he remembered—and watches as the strange, otherworldly glow spills from inside of it, covering his bedroom in a silvery sheen.

Clem looks into the door, transfixed, and so Stiles turns to face it too. It's the same as it's always been: blurred and out of focus, a pale light swimming through a bed of rippling fog. Clem glances back at him just once, the skin around her dark eyes crinkling into crows' feet, and then steps carefully toward the door.

Stiles doesn't protest—doesn't even know what he would say—and so she sinks into the pale light. It swallows her up like water, runs across her skin, sweeps over her clothes. As it washes over, as she moves into it, he can still faintly see her just beyond the rippling surface, her nut-brown skin and blue scrubs fading away as she moves deeper into whatever lies past the threshold. The pale ripples spread, and Stiles loses sight of her in the shimmer.

She's gone. As though she'd never been here at all.

He stares for a moment, half-expecting something else, some strange trick. But nothing comes. After a moment, he closes the door, letting the latch fall into place with a quiet snick. Then he stares some more.

Derek. He has to talk to Derek.

The nurses haven't made last rounds yet, and a sudden urgency thrums in Stiles's blood. He backs slowly away from the red door and concentrates on making the bathroom door lead to Derek's room before opening it just a crack. It's enough to make out a shape in bed in the darkness, still and heavy. He opens the door all the way and steps through the room.

For a moment, he looks down at Derek's sleeping figure, at the curve of his sternum under the blue of the scrubs, his short hair spilling across the pillow like ink. Though the werewolf doesn't get the same dark smudges under his eyes that Stiles does, he's got to be exhausted. Neither of them are sleeping, and Derek's probably got a handful of psychopaths doing god only knows what to him most nights on top of it all. He's probably tired enough that he doesn't want to hear about more of Stiles's issues at ass o'clock in the morning.

Still, Stiles manages to crawl into the bed beside him because he's selfish like that. Some quiet noise, or maybe Stiles' weight of the mattress, manages to wake Derek. He jolts groggily in bed. "Stiles?"

"Yeah, just me. Sorry."

"'S'not time yet, is it?" Derek hums and pulls Stiles in. "You okay? No dark stuff?"

Stiles settles on the side of the bed, letting Derek run a sleep-warm hand over his forearm. "Nothing's up, 'm okay."

He's forgotten that werewolves can hear lies, at least until after Derek furrows his brow. In the dim light, it looks grumpier than usual. "Wanna talk about it?"

Stiles pauses. For a moment, he lets himself feel the absurdity of what he's about to say. "What if Clem's dead?"

Derek doesn't react right away. It's hard to make out his expression. "What?"

"I just helped her through the door, the red door, I mean. And my mom went in there before, and she seemed like she was waiting for me to open it. And Clem was waiting for me to open it too, and she's been waiting for me to open it this whole time, and I just didn't realize…"

The werewolf blinks, shaking himself awake. "And that means she's dead...how?"

"My mom was dead. I just didn't know that at the time when she went into the door. Clem...well, we weren't sure, but it doesn't seem like she was actually transferred, and we don't know if that ever happens. People getting transferred, I mean."

"So...okay. So Clem—"

"Oh shit, and there's—there are other people. I mean, there were. I've seen other people in the dark, when I've been running around lost in there. At least a handful once, behind Clem. And what if they're like her, separate from the darkness? What if they're all just people that died here in Eichen, and they're trying to get through that door?"

Stiles is lying on his back now, gesturing wildly as he speaks. What he's saying could be true, and it feels right. It's as if he's had a vital puzzle piece grasped in the palm of his hand for so long that he'd forgotten it was there at all, struggling to make other pieces fit instead.

Derek props himself up on an elbow. "What...okay, if that's true, then what does it mean that you can see that door?" he asks quietly. "What does it mean that you're opening it for them?"

"I...don't know." His mouth twists.

Derek says nothing for a long time. "Does that make you the grim reaper?"

Stiles can hear the amusement in his tone, so he kicks his shin. "I mean, look. Anything's possible, I guess. But...I don't know. I'm not going to them before they die, or even when they die, to take their souls or anything. It's only been after they were already gone. I can just...see the door they have to cross through. Anyway, all I have is like a couple pieces of evidence, so this is all just a stupid theory and I'll probably have another stupid one by morning. Feel free to ignore it."

Derek snorts. "At least it's something. An idea. I don't know, Stiles."

"Yeah," Stiles says quietly, and then in a firmer tone: "Yeah, it's something. And...and this stuff has only gotten worse once I've been here in Eichen, like they're doing something to me. Or maybe it's just this place itself, something about it..." Despite his words, Stiles suddenly feels powerful, invincible. As if, by learning more about this stuff, he can do anything. Everything. He curls his legs in a little closer, dragging himself up to sit on the bed. "Derek," he adds, after a minute. "What if I just trailed behind them?"

The werewolf tilts his head. "Not following."

"Tonight. The nurses. I can go through the doors. I can see what they're doing to you."

Derek slowly sits up as well. "Definitely no. We don't know what they're doing, Stiles, and they have all the power—they could do something to you and I wouldn't even know until morning. I don't think it's a good idea."

But the idea's taken hold of Stiles, creeping over his skin. Derek's right for sure, they could absolutely do something to him if he's caught, and should be more terrifying than it feels right now. But it's their best chance at finding out what's going on with Derek. They're out of options. And Stiles is suddenly desperate to know everything he can about this stupid place, to know what makes it tick. "Well, I think it's a fucking great idea. Just think about it. I could get out of my room so easy now, and at least we'd know where you go—"

"Stiles, no. No way. Figuring that out isn't worth you—"

"What could they even do to me?"

"I don't know! They could fucking 'transfer' you. If what you were just saying could be true, then maybe people have died here, and we don't know how. But I can guess it has something to do with the way this place is run, and people getting sucked into the darkness or whatever the hell it is, and that is not happening to you."

"What else can we do?"

"We'll figure something out. Together. Not you, by yourself, in the middle of the night."

Stiles hesitates for a long moment, thinking it all over carefully. He doesn't see what other options they have available to them, only this—and though the desperation in Derek's tone makes something twinge in his chest, he still thinks it's the right thing to do. He mulls his words over carefully. "I hate this," he says, heaving a long-suffering sigh. "I hate not knowing."

"Yeah, I know." Derek rubs a hand over Stiles's back, slow and soothing. "We'll figure it out. But…" he pauses, tilting his head again as if to listen to something Stiles can't hear. "You should go. It's early, and the last rounds are starting, I think."

"Yeah," Stiles slides off the bed. He crosses over to the door, then turns to find Derek sitting on the edge of his bed, leaning after him. "I'll see you later. This morning. Whatever." This much, in fact, is true.

"See you," Derek says, and though it's dark Stiles can hear the wariness in his voice. "Stiles?" he adds, but Stiles is already pulling the door closed.

.

The timing's the easy part.

He waits long enough that the midnight rounds must be done, and then he sneaks out. He tries making his bathroom door lead to the cafeteria—locked—and gets lucky with the door to the media room, whose knob twists open easily to allow him to step into the hall.

It's crazy how easy it is. For a moment, he's high on breaking such a basic rule, on the heady rush of being somewhere out in the open in the middle of the night. He steps across the hall and into the lounge, which is close enough to Derek's hall that he assumes the nurses must either come or go from it.

The hard part is waiting.

It's not that he's afraid of getting caught, though he definitely is: he'd probably end up confined to his room all the time like Derek used to be. Or worse.

It's that it's dark. He crouches behind a sofa, wishing the feeble gleam from the emergency lighting was a little stronger. There are lights near the wall, where one hallway spills into the lounge and makes a hard right into another long corridor, but the rest of the room is dark. There are deep shadows everywhere, a blackness so close he can practically feel it, and for a while this doesn't seem like such a great idea after all. All of the dark pools seem to shift minutely at the edges of his vision, tricks of the light that make his heart stutter.

But his luck holds, and it doesn't take long. After some time, he can make out the slight sounds of footsteps across the tiled floors and the low murmur of conversation—nurses, headed in the direction of Derek's room. A few more minutes of waiting, and they double back the way they came. Only this time, there's the sound of something rolling across the floor. A stretcher.

Stiles curls around the side of the sofa, trailing slowly behind them. It's so dark and he's so quiet that he's sure they can't see or hear him, but that only lasts for as long as he's in the lounge.

As the nurses continue toward the cafeteria, Stiles finally gets close enough to make them out: the deep red of Roberts' hair, Nurse Wilson's ropelike arms. For a moment, in the deep shadows, the pair of them seem unnaturally tall. Between them, Derek lies bonelessly on the stretcher.

There's a problem: they're taking the long hallway stretching from here toward the group therapy rooms in the distance. There's nowhere to hide, and there's no way the nurses won't see Stiles if he follows along. Stiles thinks quickly. This is 50/50 going to get me killed, he decides, and as soon as the nurses have rounded the corner, he slinks back to the media room door.

There's only one place in the hall where the wall recesses back, and only one place where he can hide, and it's the nurses' station. Provided he can get there. And provided the nurses aren't going there. Stiles puts his hand on the doorknob, concentrating on the little storage closet behind it—which thankfully turns out to be unlocked—and steps inside. He nearly topples a mop and bucket but manages to right himself in time, shutting the door behind him and letting the geography of the world outside reset.

It's quiet, and he strains for any sound, any indication that they're coming past. Maybe he's too late, or maybe they've turned off somewhere—but at last, he hears them struggling by.

Roberts says something indistinguishable through the door.

"I dunno, man. Eventually," Wilson says, and then something Stiles can't make out. "...can't do it forever."

Stiles risks cracking the door a little and gets a glimpse of them disappearing beyond the recessed wall and further down the hall. He steps out of the room, circling around the nurses' desk to peer around the corner.

"Not me," Roberts grumbles, in response to something Stiles missed. One wheel of the stretcher catches on a raised strip separating the med station area from the rest of the hall, and Roberts mutters a few curse words Stiles does catch. "Goddamn—" and then he says a word Stiles has never heard before. Is he talking about Derek? "I liked him better when he was just a fuckin' werewolf."

There's nowhere else for Stiles to hide in order to follow them when they turn, but he can't imagine where they're going: before them is the maintenance closet straight ahead and the therapy rooms on the right. Except that they don't turn. They open the closet door and bring the stretcher straight through—and there's enough room for Stiles to see that it's clearly not a maintenance closet.

Across the way is an elevator. Wilson leans forward to press the call button.

"Fuck me sideways," Stiles whispers as the door slowly swings shut. There's no getting past that, and that's even if the maintenance closet door isn't locked behind them (though Stiles finds that it is once he waits several minutes and musters the courage to tiptoe over and check).

Lost for what else to do, he carefully picks his way back to the storage closet by the nurses' station, opening the door directly back into his own room. "Oof-what?" he wonders, remembering the odd word they'd used for Derek.

He curls up on top of his blankets, and though he'd meant to spend the hours puzzling it all out as he waited for Derek to be returned to his room, fatigue pulls him almost immediately into sleep.

Chapter Text

For the first time in a while, Derek wakes alone.

He has a hazy memory of falling asleep last night, of drifting off sometime after Stiles slipped back through the door between their rooms. Uncertain. Wondering.

As Derek comes to waking now, there's a distinctive lack of warmth at his side. It takes him a moment to remember why that should scare him, and the realization jolts him awake. All of a sudden, he knows his worries from last night must have come to pass: Stiles, stupid asshole that he is, snuck out of his room last night and never made it back. The nurses have caught him. Or he's lying drugged in his own room. Or he's been hauled in front of Alsina. Or worse.

Maybe he's wrong. He has to be wrong. Stiles is fine, he assures himself. He just passed out in his room, that's all. You're overreacting.

But the jitters up and down his spine don't really peter out until he reaches the cafeteria to find Stiles already in place at their table. He meets Derek's eyes with a smile that nearly splits his face in half, a smug one that Derek imagines wiping off his idiot face. Because Derek knows, he just knows.

"What the hell?" he demands with a snarl, and then his temper seeps away. "You—did you…?"

"Maybe you should take a minute to get your facts straight. Before you accuse me of something you're not sure of," Stiles tells him primly. "And maybe you should get breakfast. We're definitely not talking about it right now. Not here."

"I could kill you with my bare hands, you know," Derek reminds him sullenly.

"Yeah, but then you'd be bored and alone." Stiles picks apart the lumpy sausage, making a face at the contents within. Finally, he looks up at Derek. "Right?"

"I probably wouldn't have as many stress headaches," Derek sighs, turning away.

"I thought you couldn't feel pain."

"That was before I met you," he shouts over his shoulder.

They eat quickly and in silence, dumping their trays and heading out of the cafeteria to make the most of what little time they have before group therapy. Nurse Chen catches them for their morning pills, which Stiles spits into the toilet as soon as they walk into Derek's room.

"Dunno if it even matters at this point," he admits, flushing them down.

"So?" Derek urges, balling his hands into fists. They've left the door open in keeping with the hospital rules, but Derek leans against the side in order to hear if anyone comes down the hall. "You did it?" His tone makes it less of a question.

"I did." Stiles confirms, then holds his hands up against the murderous rage that probably sweeps over Derek's face, too quick for him to hold it back. "Look, I know what we said. But hear me out—obviously, I didn't get caught. Everything was fine."

"It might not have been," Derek counters angrily. "What if someone caught you in the middle of the hall? What—" Stiles shushes him. "Stiles, no one's coming, I'd hear if they were—"

"Yeah, but this is fucking serious, dude. They brought you down the hall toward the therapy rooms," Stiles hisses, coming closer. "That maintenance room by Dr. Alsina's office? It's got an elevator inside of it when you open the door. An elevator. What the actual fuck?"

"What? Are you sure?"

"Dude, they had you on a stretcher, and they just rolled it right up in there, and across the floor and into an elevator. Obviously, at that point I stopped following—"

"Where were you? How did you even see it?"

"Eh, you know, skulking around corners—"

"Stiles, for God's sake—"

"I had to!" Stiles says, flailing his arms wildly. "I mean, at this point, we've got nothing! How the hell else are we getting information about any of this stuff? And they were talking about you, about what you are or what they were doing to you, something real—and they said this weird word I can barely pronounce, so we'll have to look it up in the library or something. God, it was—I don't know. And anyway, I'm not sorry about it," Stiles adds defiantly, folding his arms across his chest to stare at the werewolf. "I'd do it again."

Derek glares at him, understanding for the first time how people get the sudden urge to rip out their own hair. He can't understand why Stiles doesn't get it. He can't understand why he's insisted on putting himself at risk. And not for his own benefit, but for Derek's. The human's cheeks are flushed—but maybe not with anger, not exactly. Oh, Derek thinks suddenly, because there's something in Stiles's tense posture that he recognizes, and it's almost enough to make him dizzy.

And then, before he can give himself the chance to think it all the way through, he's leaning in. It's slow enough for him to register the look of surprise spreading across Stiles's face, but not quite enough for Derek to convince himself against kissing him—because there suddenly seems to be no good reason not to. Stiles's lips are soft and impossibly warm, and after a beat in which Derek wonders whether he's done exactly the wrong thing, he feels Stiles's hands scrabble for purchase in the fabric of Derek's shirt as he presses in closer. Derek wraps his arms around Stiles's waist, tugging him in, as if he can pull Stiles's warmth into him just by trying.

At last, Stiles pulls away, looking a little dazed. "Wow," he manages at last, before Derek can work out if he's meant to apologize. "I'm, uh, I'm glad you…um."

"Me too," Derek offers quietly, smiling, his arms still loose around Stiles. It's funny: he's spent all this time in the hospital, and it's only now that he's feeling drugged, a weird fluttering in his chest. Inspired by some strange boldness, he adds, "I've...actually been meaning to. For a while."

"Oh. Cool." Stiles's words are obviously an attempt at nonchalance, but something in his dopey expression makes Derek's face feel warm.

"God knows why," Derek adds abruptly, "since you're apparently hell-bent on getting yourself killed."

"I'm not—"

"Hey! No touching!"

They spring apart. Derek curses himself for not paying attention, and both of them turn to find Nurse Chen pointing toward them as she strides away down the hall. "Hands off!" she calls from further off.

After a surprised beat, Stiles snorts, and all of a sudden Derek can't help but laugh too, like the sound is contagious, like Stiles is contagious. "Wow, caught," Stiles manages. "Like common criminals. Um, okay. Well—let's go to the library, like I said before." His expression grows determined once more, as if he thinks Derek might disagree—though his cheeks still show the faintest tinge of pink.

Derek probably should disagree. He's not sure how to keep Stiles from doing something risky, what he can say to make this dumb human change his mind. But maybe, as long as Stiles will let Derek to stay by his side, they can actually figure some of this out. Together.

And so he takes Stiles by the hand and leads him away.

.

"How the fuck do you spell it again?" Derek asks in irritation. It's the third dictionary he's gone through, and he's no closer to figuring out where to look. The word may as well be Welsh.

Stiles grumbles from where his sits perched on the table. Spread across his lap is a volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and a few volumes of World Book Encyclopedia lie beside him. "I didn't even know they made these in print anymore."

"They don't," Derek tells him, glancing at the spines. "Those are from over a decade ago."

Stiles swears under his breath. "What I wouldn't give for thirty seconds with Google…"

"How do you spell it?" Derek asks again, diplomatically refusing to ask him again how he thinks the word is spelled.

"It starts with O-L-F. I think. Or U-L-F…"

Derek grunts. "How do you say it?"

Stiles is peering down at the Number to Prague volume. "I can't remember exactly. Olf-ah-nuh. Or elf-uh-nuh."

Derek hums—and then, abruptly, the butchered sounds ring a bell to him. He stares blankly for a moment before he places it. "Ulfhednar?"

Stiles's head snaps up. "Yeah. I think that was it. Do you know what it is?"

Derek closes his eyes. For a moment, he's back at home, lying on the green lawn of the Hale preserve with his sisters under a cloudy fall sky. Uncle Peter had been the one to tell him about the ulfhednar, his grin ferocious and bright, while Derek's mother and father chattered under the shade of the porch. It had been exactly Peter's kind of fairy tale, bloody and brutal and fierce.

Stiles's amber eyes are pinned to Derek's face. "You okay?"

"It's a children's story." He lowers his voice. "Or at least, it is for werewolves. It's...a legend. Ulfhednar were supposed to be warriors who were inhabited by the spirits of wolves. They were capable of strength and agility that regular warriors didn't have. Ever heard of berserkers?"

"Sure," Stiles says slowly. "They were from Viking-y times, right? They'd go into, like, blood frenzies and kill all of their enemies at once in a battle. And they could turn into animals? Something like that."

"Yeah, that's the idea—they could turn into bears when they needed, or when they got really angry. Well, berserkir have bear spirits, and ulfhednar have wolf spirits."

"Okay. So...they're still basically like werewolves?"

Derek shakes his head. "No, you don't get it. They're legends, even for werewolves. The wolf skins, the mindless rages...they aren't real. No one does that."

"The people holding us hostage in this hospital very much seem to believe this legend is real," Stiles whispers, mindful of the open door. "Besides, werewolves used to be legends to me, and look where we are now."

Derek's mind is melting. He can't process this. "It doesn't seem...possible," he protests at last. "And we can't know if—"

"Dude, you turned into a wolf the size of fucking Clifford the other day. If that's not a standard werewolf feature, it's maybe a sign you're a little more than a werewolf now." Stiles's mouth twists sympathetically, probably at the lost expression on Derek's face. "But this is—it's fine. And I mean, it's good to know, isn't it? It explains why you're so mad all of a sudden. The rages. You said it's been since you've been here, right?" He keeps his voice low, eyes occasionally darting toward the door, but even as stunned as Derek is, he's got the presence of mind to make sure no one's close enough to overhear.

"Yeah," Derek sighs. "No, it…" his mind races. "I guess it was a little before. Maybe it, maybe I did go into a...a frenzy after Kate. Maybe that's what started the whole thing. And it would explain..." He pauses, shaking his head. "Actually, it would explain a lot. If I did kill those hunters like I'm supposed to have done, I would have had to move fast, faster than a werewolf could have gone. And had a sense of smell that's unreal, even for werewolves. But in the legends, those are powers an ulfhednar would have. Which means all of it could be possible, I could have actually…"

"Holy shit," Stiles says quietly. "You could have actually done it after all. With Kate Argent and those hunters, I mean." Derek searches his face for any sign of repulsion or wariness, but Stiles only looks intrigued. He leans back a little when he catches Derek's expression, shrugging. "I mean...sorry for speaking ill of the dead, I guess, but it sounds kind of like they were assholes who had it coming."

Derek takes a beat to weigh these facts in his mind, but he finds that this new truth—because he somehow knows it to be true—is unsurprising. It's as if the idea has been waiting in the back of his head all this time, waiting for him to drag it out into the light. To label it correctly.

His words to Stiles from ages ago echo in his mind: I wish it was me. I hope it was me that I did it. That's why I deserve to be here. He still doesn't regret the deaths of those people, hunters who'd let his family burn in a fire. He only regrets he hadn't killed them all before the fire had even begun.

"And look, that's a lot of extra power you're packing now," Stiles adds slowly. "Like...if we can figure out how to get you to turn into the ulfhednar at will, maybe you could just 'berserk' your way out of here."

"Yeah, but they're uncontrollable rages. That's the point, isn't it? Sometimes, the ulfhednar would kill men on their own side, just from the frenzy."

"Well, you didn't kill me."

Derek pauses. "No, I didn't. But even so...I don't know how to make it happen, how to make the shift. And it's still a huge risk. That day, with you and Isaiah...I could have hurt him. I could hurt anyone, and I wouldn't even know it until after."

Stiles taps his foot restlessly against the chair. "So we're back at square one, kind of. I mean, even if we know more about what we both are, we're no closer to actually using that power."

"I guess not."

"If the door to the stupid maintenance closet wasn't locked, I could try to get into that elevator," Stiles mutters, forlorn. "We could get the keys, maybe, and—"

"Definitely don't do that. Jesus, Stiles. We don't even know where it goes."

"It's a moot point, anyway," Stiles grumbles. "We'll keep thinking, though. We'll find something else."

He begins to stack and shelve the encyclopedias, and Derek catches his arm. "You're always…" he hesitates, working out the best way to word it. "You're always thinking about the next problem. And I really like that about you—that you're curious."

"I'm nosy," Stiles corrects.

"But you can't take any more risks like that without talking to me first. We're a team. Right? So just...promise me you'll wait until we both agree before doing anything crazy. I don't want to find out one morning that something happened to you when I wasn't around."

Stiles stares. His arm is warm under Derek's touch, and his face again goes that familiar shade of pink. He nods slowly. "Okay. Promise."

.

It's only now that they've kissed that Derek realizes what a horrible job he's been doing of keeping his hands off of Stiles.

He'd like to say it's just the developing pack bond. After all, werewolf packs are notoriously touchy-feely, constantly needing to scent-mark each other. Lingering touches aren't weird among packmates, but Derek's touches linger. It's an arm draped over Stiles's shoulder as they stand in the lunch line, a little manual correction to his posture when they do bodyweight exercises, running an absent hand through Stiles's hair.

Now, though, all Derek wants to do is touch Stiles. When they're alone in the media room or the library, he can pull Stiles against him. When Stiles crawls exhaustedly into his bed in the early mornings, Derek can press their lips together and tuck Stiles's head into his shoulder. There's a tenderness there that Derek hasn't felt in a long time.

In the back of his mind, a doubtful voice tells him that it's just an attachment brought on by forced closeness: after all, they only have each other in this hellhole. But all Derek knows is that he likes kissing Stiles, likes kissing his spatterings of moles, his eyelids, his dark lashes. He likes the way Stiles's rich scent has begun to linger in his room, the way it fills the library, the way it clings to Derek's clothes. He likes the way Stiles shivers when Derek turns them in bed so he's lying on top of him, pressing into him from above. He likes that he has blanket permission to hold Stiles's hand, to sneak fingers under his shirt.

Well, at least blanket permission from Stiles, anyway.

"Hands off!" one of the nurses warns them again. They're sitting on a sofa in the lounge, and Derek, whose arm had somehow wound itself around Stiles' waist, springs back with a snarl.

Stiles frowns at the nurse's retreating back. "They're gonna switch up our schedules if we keep this up," he says glumly.

But it's not like it doesn't go both ways. Stiles often snakes his hand into the crook of Derek's elbow in the line at breakfast, or leans the side of his body into Derek's as they chatter in the media room, or drapes himself across Derek's back when he's "too tired" to move from the sofa. He's also taken to reading excerpts of the terrible romantic books in the library to Derek at random times in the day, like the world's dumbest, funniest serenade.

It's not at all like it was with Kate, where Derek worried over every touch or wondered what was acceptable, where he felt he had to play it cool, sneaking a hand onto her back or a quick peck on the cheek when she wasn't in a sour mood. Stiles isn't shy about touching Derek, doesn't play games or pretend he's too cool to be into it. Into Derek.

None of this changes their situation, of course—only that Derek feels less alone about it.

Days pass, and Derek forgets what things were like before Stiles slotted himself so easily into his life. In the early mornings, Stiles curls into his side when they discuss what they could try next, what they might ask the other patients. Dead ends that they circle and circle and circle. Still, Derek runs a hand up and down the ridges of Stiles's spine as he speaks, pressing kisses into his neck until Stiles stops talking and makes little breathless noises he can't hold back. Or else, Stiles abandons their research in the library to worry Derek's lip between his teeth, crowding so close to Derek that the werewolf is almost too distracted to keep an ear out for hospital staff.

Derek never would have believed in any of this a while ago. He never would have believed it possible to feel anything at all but a bone-deep rage. And now, his wolf rumbles in delight whenever Stiles is near, like it's pacing within him and brushing shocks of warm fur beneath Derek's skin. It settles into calmness under the human's touch.

Now, when Derek considers all he has, and all that he can lose, he's both amazed and terrified.

They're careful to make sure the nurses catch only the most minor offenses, though. Careful not to do anything that could actually have consequences. But when the schedule change finally comes, it's not in the way that either of them fears. In fact, it's not really a schedule change at all.

It's much, much worse.

.

"You'll be transferred to the back ward this evening," Dr. Alsina informs him smoothly at the end of their Thursday session.

Derek, who's literally always on edge during his meetings with Alsina, takes an extra beat to process her words. "Wait, what?"

"It's for the best. I'm afraid we've done all we can for you here in this ward, and—"

"The 'back ward?' I don't—What are you saying?"

"Yes, well. There's the first ward, which is for short-term care; this ward, for long-term or intensive care; and the third ward. That's where you'll be going."

"What? Why can't I stay here?"

"The third ward is for our...cases with more extreme irregularities."

"What the fuck does that mean?"

Alsina levels him with a cool glare. "Derek, I don't think you want to be using that kind of tone with me. Please understand—"

"No, no, no," Derek interrupts, jumping to his feet. Alsina doesn't even shrink back. And anyway, all he does is begin to pace back and forth in agitation. "My place is here. I've been here forever. I've—"

"Yes, you have. And we've seen hardly any improvement. I believe you'll find our third will suit you better."

"Is this because of—because of me and Stiles? Are you separating us?"

Alsina gives him a knowing look. "It has nothing to do with that, though I think you'd have made everyone's jobs a little easier if the two of you could keep your hands off each other for more than a few minutes," she says primly. Then she sighs. "Derek. This really is for the best. For you."

"I'm not going," he snarls, slipping his hands behind his back in case his claws sneak out.

"I think you'll find you really are," she tells him, bending her head over some paperwork. "I'd clear your things from your room. One of the nurses can find you a box."

He stands there, breathing heavily and wishing that he could snarl and snap her into submission, wishing that she'd show even an ounce of fear. But she doesn't look up at him again. It's a clear dismissal.

He doesn't have to go far to find Stiles, who has the next time slot and is waiting, as always, in the library. "What the fuck," Stiles hisses once Derek has shared the news. "That can't be right."

"That's what she told me," Derek says, pressing the heels of his hands to his eyes.

"Why do I have the feeling that the 'third ward' is on the other side of that elevator?" Stiles asks quietly. He watches Derek prowl restlessly around the room. "Don't freak out. Don't do anything stupid." Derek doesn't pause, so Stiles steps in front of his path. He settles his hands gently onto either side of Derek's neck, thumbs cradling his jaw. "Derek, listen. One way or another, we're going to figure this out. Just don't do anything stupid. Not 'till I'm back, anyway; we can do something stupid together. Stay here. Okay?"

"Okay." And Derek does. He wears a strip into the carpet around the table from his frantic pacing, one second away from wolfing out the whole time. A couple of women come to borrow books and promptly turn back at the sight of his snarl. Otherwise, the library is surprisingly quiet. Derek wonders whether people somehow know and avoid the room whenever he's around.

The only intruder who actually crosses into the room is Quincy. She stares at him, the twist of her frown making the swath of freckles on one check stand out. Wary but resolute, she sweeps close to him. He's about to snarl at her when she quietly murmurs, "Isaiah said you guys might need these later. Just try to keep them quiet as you walk." He barely keeps himself from roaring as she drops something into his shirt pocket—something surprisingly heavy for the small size—and leaves the room almost as quickly as she'd come, a bit of red hair spilling out of her ponytail.

Derek stares after her, rage retreating. Then he pulls his pocket open a bit. A ring of silver keys gleams from within. There are a few miscellaneous smaller ones, but what catches his eye is the one that's long and thin, with circular notches along the blade. It's identical to one of the keys on the keyring Alsina totes around.

When Stiles comes back, he grabs Derek's arm without a word and leads them through the lounge, and then down the hall to Derek's room. He closes the door, and Derek's about to object—the last thing they need is a nurse riding their asses for breaking more rules—when Stiles speaks. "They told me the same thing," he says, his voice hushed. "We're both going to the third ward."

A rush of relief rolls over Derek, the assurance that they won't be separated—and then he realizes that this potentially just throws Stiles into danger as well. "What does that mean?"

Stiles shrugs helplessly. "She seemed so smug about it." He balls one hand into a fist, the fingers of his other hand settling slowly over it. "I just have a really bad feeling about all of this. I...I want to get into her office. I want to read the transfer papers for myself. I want to know where we're going." He looks up at Derek.

A couple days ago, Derek had been against anything risky, anything that might have pissed off the team of people holding his and Stiles's lives in their hands. Now, he pulls the key ring out of his pocket and hands it to Stiles. "Seems like the only thing we can do."

"Is this…?"

"To Alsina's office."

"How did you—?"

"I didn't. Apparently, Isaiah knew. He had Quincy bring them."

"Knew what? Oh. Oh. His dreams, they're really real." Stiles nods, and it's just one more thing in the realm of other weird things they're just accepting as fact now. "We're not the only ones, then," he adds quietly. "I guess this means he knows something...but he doesn't want to be that involved."

"Involved in what?"

Stiles looks at him. "In whatever stupid mess we get ourselves into. We're gonna get into Alsina's office, and see if we can find anything that helps us make a break for it. Aren't we? If they're sending us somewhere worse than this?"

His expression is so grim that Derek wants to kiss it off his face. And he can do that now, so he does.

And then, both of them gripping each other like lifelines, they hash Stiles's idea into something they can run with.

.

Distractions are Derek's forte. Especially distractions in which he can potentially get Nurse Roberts into hot water.

Stiles has left him with the stolen lighter, having pressed it into the palm of his hand at the same time that he pressed his lips to Derek's. "Be careful," he'd warned. "And don't get caught."

It's a little after five now—dinner time—and Alsina is gone for the day. Roberts is scheduled to man the medical station at this hour, but (asshole that he is) he's instead hassling people in the cafeteria like always.

The halls are empty, but Derek still makes sure no one sees or follows him toward the unmanned med station. Once there, he grabs the trash can and starts throwing file after file from the desk drawers into it. Then, he stacks as many papers as he can carry, sweeps into the group therapy room a little down the hall and does the same. And then the therapy rooms next door.

Then, one after one, he lights each stack on fire.

By the time smoke alarms ring shrilly in the air, Derek is in the lounge as though nothing has happened, the lighter set back onto the desk at the med station in case anyone decides to search him. A few of the nurses and orderlies sprint past to check out the source of the alarm, and Derek sits in wait, heart thrumming. There are clamoring shouts all up and down the hall, which stretches from the cafeteria and media room to the therapy rooms—leaving the other halls completely empty.

After a few minutes, though, the fires are mostly out. The acrid scent of burnt plastic mingles with the sharp smell of chemicals from the extinguishers. Despite the speedy conclusion, the nurses seem to have their hands full consoling some of the more frightened patients.

Trailing behind a handful of fleeing women, Derek wanders away from the noise and toward his room. As he walks through the main entrance hall, he glances left toward the long corridor that runs all the way to Alsina's office. Nurse Wilson is walking in his direction, but he stops still when he notices Derek looking. The man gives a thin smile and cocks his head to one side, arms hanging loose at his sides. There's something oddly insistent in his stare. Derek keeps moving, feeling those dark eyes on his back.

He waits in his room instead. He trusts Stiles, he has to, but pacing back and forth alone here is excruciating. And then, just like that, there's the distant sound of feet sprinting down the hall. Stiles appears in the doorway, breathing raggedly, his eyes wild.

Derek tugs him immediately into his chest. "What happened? Did someone see you?"

"No. No." Stiles shakes a little in his arms. "It's just that on the way back, the hall got dark again—I wasn't sure I could make a door out in time to…" he swallows. "It doesn't matter. Derek, they—" Pulling away, Stiles pokes his head out into the hallway to peer back and forth. He closes the door behind him, and when he turns back to face Derek, his face is deathly pale. "They know everything about us. About magic. Supernatural stuff. They're documenting it all."

"What?"

"It was all listed there, like fucking medical conditions. I mean, we talked about the possibility of all this, of them knowing more than they let on, but it's something totally different to see it's—it's all real." Stiles's breathing is coming faster now, and Derek settles his hands on the human's shoulders. It's enough of a reminder that Stiles takes a conscious deep breath in, and then one out. "In your file," he continues shakily, "there was all this info about...I don't know, werewolfism. Like, that you were a beta, and stuff about the significance of your eye color and tests on your ability to control your transformation. And there was stuff about you being an ulfhednar—and I think that's why they're so interested, maybe it's really as unusual as you said, because Alsina has tons and tons of notes on that—"

"What? What do they have on you?"

"Theories. But she knows I can move between doors, and she seems really fucking interested, there was like three pages on the hypothetical rules and limitations of what I can do. Like she's been documenting it all, somehow. Testing it. How could she fucking know? I definitely never told her any of that in a weekly session."

"Something about the darkness," Derek says slowly, "something about how it follows you. Or how it pushes you."

Stiles nods slowly. "She...that must be how she watches. Maybe, when you feel like there's someone watching you in the dark, it's her. It's them. It's not in my head; that's how they must do it, how they know." He swallows, shakes his head. "But look, the important thing is that she lied about the wards. I found, in the files—okay, so the people in the short-term ward are just humans, or they're under suspicion of having powers. If they're proven to be regular humans, they just get transferred to a real mental hospital. If they do have powers, they come here. Ward two. For long-term identification and study."

"And the back ward?"

"Ward three is for people they can use. 'Procurement and trade' is what it said in the files."

"Procurement and...wait, trade as in buying and selling something?"

Stiles nods. "Or someone. Derek, I think this place is literally going to sell us off to the highest bidder if they think we're useful enough. I think that's the fucking design. They figure out what we are, and how to profit off of that."

"Who the hell are they selling to?"

Stiles shrugs helplessly. "No clue, there wasn't any info on that. People who know about the supernatural, I guess. People like…"

"Like—hunters?" Derek asks.

Suddenly, the door slams open. Flanked by a quartet of orderlies, Nurse Roberts stares at them both, his expression dark. "Didn't appreciate that stunt you pulled, Hale," he says calmly. "But you'll get what's coming to you. Both of you."

With that, he gestures to the orderlies, who move forward as Roberts cracks a biting grin. "The doctor will see you now."

Chapter Text

As the orderlies crowd them into the hall, Derek's eyes grow wild and angry, the same way they do when he's losing his grip. The same way they do when he's channeling his wolf a little too much. He snarls when one of the orderlies grabs his arm, and Stiles knows that he could easily break the man in half if he wanted.

But there's nowhere for them to go, Stiles thinks. The part of Eichen House that they know—the sturdy entrance doors, the winding halls, the thick windows—it's all a steel cage. There's nowhere in or out of Eichen. Except, maybe, if we can get through whatever's beyond the doors of that elevator. After all, in theory they're going to be sold, not killed. Procurednot stabbed in the back.

Which means they might have a chance.

So Stiles grabs at Derek's hand, squeezing it hard. Derek meets his gaze, and Stiles subtly shakes his head.

They're herded past the lounge, where the other patients mingle and chatter like nothing's wrong. Oblivious to whatever's happening. Stiles glances into the sea of blue shirts, wondering if Quincy or Isaiah have seen them, if Isaiah with his strange dreams already knows where this path will lead them. One of the orderlies pushes him roughly forward.

The walk down the hallway feels particularly ominous this time, though Stiles has walked it a hundred times before. The door at the far end, the maintenance room, seems to stare back at him. They're pushed right through it, though, and into the wide steel elevator. The orderlies have boxed them in, so Stiles presses into Derek's side as Roberts pushes the bottom button. B, it says, and then the elevator lurches downward. A basement, Stiles thinks worriedly. Fucking great.

When the doors open, it's like something out of Stiles's nightmares. (Or, more accurately, his daymares and run-ins with whatever hunts him in Eichen's halls.) The space before them is incredibly dark, a long hallway stretching out into the gloomy, impenetrable distance, with the occasional gaping doorway on either side. The only light comes from the light above their heads in the elevator, and as they're herded forward again they quickly leave it behind. Stiles twists back to see the elevator's glow behind them, and then the doors slip closed to leave them in darkness.

"You're seeing this too, right?" he asks Derek, his voice small in his own ears. He almost wants to ask Are you still here? Am I?

It's Derek's turn to squeeze his hand. "I see it too," he whispers.

They continue onward for a minute or so, turning down a few connecting halls and corridors. Mostly, Stiles lets Derek—who can hear Roberts' footsteps much better than his own human hearing can—pull him gently forward. As they walk, Stiles grows increasingly certain that Roberts and the others must have simply memorized the layout, as it's too dark to keep the path straight in his mind. Or else they're the reason for this darkness, Stiles thinks, an icy shiver creeping up his spine. Didn't we once wonder if they were supernatural too?

At last, Roberts comes to the end of one hallway and pushes open a door. The room inside is so bright, its walls such an extreme white, that Stiles is momentarily blinded and covers his eyes with his free hand. When they finally adjust, he finds himself at one corner of a wide open room. The walls are a stark white, and the fluorescent lights overhead cover every inch of ceiling.

Before he can do much but glimpse it all, the orderlies shove Derek, ripping his hand from Stiles's. They quickly thrust him into a doorway at their side as the werewolf snarls in surprise—Stiles sees one clawed hand rip a gash in an orderly's shoulder—and Roberts drags Stiles backward before he can so much as grab at the empty air. The door slides shut with a loud clang.

"What the hell?" Stiles demands, breaking free and pounding frantically on the door. It's maybe the only thing in the room that's not white: an industrial grey, thick and sturdy on its bolted frame. There's no knob or handle, and he can only hear a dull roar from the other side. A vibration in the metal suggests that Derek is struggling against the steel as well.

"You're with me," Roberts orders, grabbing Stiles' shoulder.

Stiles roughly shrugs it off. "Like hell I am! Let Derek out. What are we doing here?"

"Wouldn't you rather see him for yourself?" This last comes from elsewhere in the room, and Stiles looks up to see Dr. Alsina standing farther along the wall. Her eyes glitter in amusement, her face reflected in a wide sheet of glass set into the wall at her side. "He's just there for safety purposes, at least for the moment."

"What's going on?" Stiles demands. The temptation of checking Derek's well-being for himself is too much to resist. Warily, he slips closer to her. She doesn't move, just looks at him curiously as he finally peers through the window.

The room inside is an astringent white as well. Derek stands over to his left, backing away from the door, until he catches sight of Stiles. "Stiles!" he shouts, hurrying over, his voice muffled by the glass. He slows when he sees Alsina, though, his face contorting into a mask of outrage. "What are you doing here? What's going on?"

Dr. Alsina smiles. If pressed to describe it, Stiles might say it's almost kind. "You've put together most of it yourselves, haven't you?"

"We know you're not really sending us to another ward," Derek challenges.

"And you know a great deal more," she allows, raising a thick brow. "Although I hope you'll allow me to...clarify a few things."

Stiles steps toward the observation window, closer to Derek. They're just inches apart, but that distance might as well be miles. "About fucking time."

Alsina's brow furrows at this, but then she straightens. "You two were right: Derek, you're an ulfhednar. Likely born out of your rage for what was done to your family, I'd imagine. Not quite a legend, but scarce enough that you might as well be. Berserkir are rare in and of themselves, but you...well, you're intensely valuable for various reasons, depending on the buyer. A collectible, perhaps, or a prized addition to a destructive team. You rage and destroy—and then you forget what's been done with your raging. You're invincible to bullets, as any werewolf, but as an ulfhednar you're nearly invulnerable even to wolfsbane. We've done a few tests to see your limitations, all for the sake of a more accurate product description, of course. Unfortunately, we've had to alter some of your memories as well. It makes it harder for you to put together what's going on, when you're losing memories...that sort of thing."

"How—" Derek frowns. "You did that with the pills?"

Alsina waves her hand dismissively. "Neither of you takes your meds with any consistency. We've done it all here, down in this ward. Or else we've pumped formulas through the vent in your room when you were alone at night. It wouldn't do to have you rampaging down the halls every time we needed to get you down here."

Stiles swears under his breath. Alsina shoots him a dark look, and then she perks back up. "I do have some good news. You see, for nearly the entire time you've been here, Derek, we couldn't find a way to easily snap you out of your ulfhednar form. It took hours for the rage to die down, no matter what we did—and there were quite a few staff injuries to prove it," she adds with a quick little laugh. "And then your friend Stiles here comes along, and from week one, you were calmer." She practically beams. "We'll sell you as a pair."

"What? I'm not going to be his fucking handler while people make him do god knows what," Stiles snarls. Once her words sink in, though, he's nearly dazed by the wash of relief rolling over him. He and Derek won't be separated, and that's something at least. "Are you out of your mind?"

"You're no simple handler," Alsina tells him, amused. Roberts has crowded in behind her, arms folded over his chest. Stiles shifts away as much as he can, pressing into the glass at Derek's side. "You're much more. With our detection systems, we learned you were something special as soon as you came in for that 48-hour hold. But I could never have imagined what you were. I've seen you teleport from place to place, from door to door—"

"How?" Stiles asks, glaring. "With Derek, you took him at night. With me…?"

Alsina shrugs. "Some magics are subtle. Highly specific. Uncategorizable. You seem to be something like that." She smiles, catlike. "I would know. I'm the same."

"What the fuck does that mean?"

He's getting a petty sense of pride over how often Alsina's narrow mouth twists when he swears at her. At the same time, it feels as though she's simply disappointed, or as though he's just sitting across from her in her office like usual. Still, she continues primly as if she hadn't heard. "It means I've had an eye on you. My friends and I." She cocks her head. "You might say I've been testing you. At any rate, it's a good bonus—you're an excellent partner to Derek, and you have skills of your own. Think of the implications: one tool to sneak in and out, and one tool to batter the house down."

Derek is snarling now, pacing back and forth in front of the glass. Stiles presses a hand to the pane, wishing he could touch him. "What about Clem?" Stiles asks. "And Madison?"

Alsina frowns. "What about them?"

"Where did they go? I mean, you said they 'transferred,' but Clem kept following me around—"

"Following you around?" Alsina cocks her head. "When?"

Stiles opens his mouth, and then he abruptly snaps it shut. This is something Alsina doesn't know about him, then—and suddenly, he thinks it's a part of himself he doesn't want to give her. Alsina doesn't know about Clem appearing in the darkness. And maybe, he realizes, she doesn't know about the red door at all.

It hadn't figured in any of her notes. At the time, he'd been too frantic to notice this, panicked over each passing second, afraid a nurse might come for him, afraid the darkness might come for him. It's a wonder he'd found the focus he needed to sort through her papers at all. She'd neatly detailed everything about him, his entire life listed out in tidy script and checked boxes. But the red door hadn't been on her radar, and maybe it's in Stiles's best interest to keep it that way. "I just thought I saw her sometimes around the hospital. After she was 'transferred.'"

Alsina settles back. "Impossible."

"Why? Where did they go?" Stiles knows this. He knows the answer. But he has to hear her say it.

"Clem—had an unfortunate accident. Madison, on the other hand, was successfully 'transferred.' She was brought here. To the back ward." A quick jerk of her head indicates a series of metal doors in the far wall. Bedrooms? Holding cells? Dread builds in Stiles's stomach. "We recently paired her with a team in New York that required her skills."

"Sold, you mean," Derek snarls.

Alsina smiles. Stiles is growing to hate that smile. "And bound."

"Bound?" Stiles asks, his heart sinking. He's not sure how they're going to get out of this, but whatever 'binding' is probably won't make things easier. "Like fucking slaves? What does that mean?"

"I wouldn't worry about it now. You'll grow accustomed." She pauses. "Or you'll die. I don't particularly care either way."

"Why are you telling us all this?"

Alsina shrugs delicately. "The charade is over. You were getting nosy. I won't deny that it's a bit premature to move you to the back ward—but you simply know too much. Upstairs, rumors are fine. I'd say they're even helpful. But you've learned more than we intended. It's much better security to keep you down here for a while. And we can...play."

"So we're only here so we don't arouse the suspicion of other patients," Stiles realizes.

"Why are we here, here?" Derek growls, leaning closer to the glass. "I mean, you're obviously not keeping us in these two rooms, so why not just toss us in one of those cells or something?"

Alsina smiles. "Before we bring you further in, I'd like to see you both working together with the full knowledge that you can. Now that you know everything...what can you truly do as a team? Think of it as an experiment. And it will be helpful to have extra footage to reassure buyers that it's possible to calm an ulfhednar. For the sale."

She gestures vaguely upward, and Stiles follows the movement to see a camera in the corner of the room Derek's trapped in. And at least one more on the far wall. It's an unusual sight: there are no cameras in the rest of Eichen, though Stiles now knows it's only because Alsina has other ways of watching.

Something creeps slowly forward in the space behind Derek, a twisting dark form that lengthens toward the ceiling. The movements are jerky, wrong. "Derek—" Stiles starts, eyes wide as he watches the being's careful movement. Derek spins around to see it, snarling as it straightens, an impossibly tall and thin creature, pure darkness in the vague shape of a human body.

It takes only a moment for Stiles to put it together, to recognize the icy chill he gets from its smooth, featureless face, the strange sensation of staring. He looks at Alsina, who doesn't pull her gaze from the room. "That's what I saw in the dark sometimes," he whispers hoarsely. "Things like that…"

"They're my specialty," she explains, and then the being darts forward and crushes Derek into the wall. "Or maybe it's best to call them 'allies.'" Out of the corner of his eye, Stiles sees the corner of Roberts' mouth quirk upward.

Stiles screams wordlessly as three more of the beings creep forth from the space to his left, stepping lightly across the ground. One of them has an odd mark on its shoulder—a set of parallel lines that glimmers in the light like hardened stone. A scratch mark from a clawed hand. Identical to the one Derek had given the orderly.

It's impossible. But even so, Stiles's head snaps to the left, to the door they'd pushed Derek through earlier, but the four orderlies aren't there anymore. Because they're inside the room. They're monsters. "What—what the fuck—" Stiles hisses, eyes wide.

He turns just in time to see that the dark figure before Derek has grown fingers sharp as blades.

"Derek, move!"

Derek roars and snarls, having shifted into his werewolf form, but it's not enough—even Stiles can see that. As broad his shoulders and as strong his muscles, he's no match for the quickness of the dark things in that room, all four of them moving purposefully to crowd him and slice at his skin. The creatures should be less terrifying now that they're in the light, Stiles knows. But something about their jerky movements makes him keenly aware of how warped their bodies are, how their bones connect in places that are just slightly unnatural, how their limbs bend at angles too sharp to be fully human.

Stiles isn't sure how Derek will manage, but the werewolf fights anyway, digging his claws into first one and then another, blocking their attacks when he can, roaring in anger and pain when he can't. And then something surges out of Derek, the same strange energy he'd had that day in the library. Jet-black fur ripples over him, his claws lengthen, his limbs grow massive. His teeth snag one of the beings, tearing off its arm; he swipes at their unseeing heads.

Stiles watches them slink and circle and fight, feeling as though he's not quite breathing, until one of the dark creatures gets on top of Derek and catches him in the stomach with its claws. Derek howls, and the sound rattles the glass of the window. He rears back, slamming the creature into the wall.

"Stop, please stop!" Stiles urges. He doesn't mind begging Alsina, not for this. "Is this what you do to him? Every night?"

"It lets us see what he can do. And it's not as if buyers won't make him fight even harder," Alsina tells him distractedly. At last, she turns to smile at him. "Why don't you take a closer look?"

This seems to be a cue for Roberts, who's much closer than Stiles first realized, to twist one of Stiles's arms behind his back. Stiles yelps, doubling over to get away from the pain. "What the fuck are you doing?" There's no answer, just a second arm digging into his shoulder as Roberts steers him toward the side door. "Wait, wait, wait—"

The door slides open, and Stiles is pushed hard onto the gritty floor. Before he can even twist around, the door slams shut behind him. Stiles kicks back at it on instinct, and a dull clang echoes through the room.

Heart hammering in his chest, he looks up. One of the beings lies huddled in the far corner, scraping pointed claws across its wounded side. Two of them take turns lunging at Derek, swiping at him as they back him toward the rear wall.

One of them is crouching just beside Stiles, its blank face just at eye level.

Stiles swears ferociously and throws himself backward, but not before the thing slices its claws into the air where his head had just been. He rolls away, jerking clumsily to his feet as he runs in the opposite direction. There's nothing in the whole room he can use as a weapon, and he wouldn't know what to do with a weapon if he had one. The creature stalks forward with purpose but without great speed, the same way he's seen them stalk him in the dark. As if it knows he doesn't present a challenge. As if it's in no great hurry to kill him.

Another loud roar, and Derek's slamming another of the creatures into a wall, after which it puddles motionless onto the ground. By the time Stiles turns back, the first one is again—somehow—right beside him. "For fuck's sake—" he manages, barely dodging another swipe. It's faster this time, slicing into the air in two broad strokes. It hems him in, not giving him room to think or breathe. "Derek—!"

His back connects with something solid. The wall. The dark being lurches forward, and then—

A rush of black—fur, not darkness—sweeps across his vision. It's almost too fast for Stiles to process. A gleam of teeth, a thrashing of claws, and the thing crumples to the ground with all of the others, twitching weakly.

Stiles pants in the now quiet air, hearing the rush of his own blood in his ears. It takes a minute for it to go away, Stiles pressing his back into the wall as if he might still be attacked.

And maybe he might be. Derek's still in his ultra-wolf form, his ulfhednar form, pacing back and forth across the room. Much in the same agitated way he might as a human. The fur ripples across his shoulder blades as he moves, his great claws scraping briefly against the floor. He stops and starts fitfully, gnashing his teeth in the air like he's waiting for his next victim.

His eyes are on Stiles.

"Okay, Der," Stiles manages shakily. "I need you to calm down."

A snarl is his only response.

"Breathing exercises. Okay? Breathe in and out. If I can talk myself down from a panic, so can you. We're gonna just...calm down, and then we're gonna talk this out, and then we're gonna be fine." He keeps his voice low and soothing, and despite his better judgement he steps away from the wall. Of course, getting closer to Derek forces him to step nearer to the monstrous maybe-dead thing on the floor, but Stiles grits his teeth and manages it. "You have to change back now, Derek," he says cautiously.

Derek has stopped snarling, at least. But he creeps forward, moving a little closer to Stiles. Who does the probably dumb thing, and puts his hand on Derek's nose. It's icy cold, and Derek flinches back in surprise, shaking his great, furred head, and then suddenly the fur shrinks away. He grows smaller, smaller, and all at once he's back to being regular Derek again.

"Stiles?" he asks, looking dazed. Something jolts him out of it quickly, because he glances around at once to look at the room, the floor, the creatures lying across the floor. One at the far side of the room is struggling to right itself. Derek jerks forward to grip Stiles's forearms. "Stiles, are you okay?"

"I could ask the same of you," Stiles returns weakly. He wants nothing more than to sag bonelessly to the floor, for Derek to pull him back up the elevator and to his room, to collapse into the bed with Derek's comforting warmth at his side.

"That's not an answer," Derek replies, his face screwed up with worry.

Instead of replying, Stiles drags him forward by the collar of his shirt and kisses him hard. His free hand, with no conscious direction, slides up Derek's chest, around his neck, into his hair—hair that was fur thirty seconds ago.

When they break the kiss, Derek looks no less worried, but Stiles feels a hell of a lot better. He glances at the observation window for the first time, at Alsina with her smug eyebrows and Roberts with his perpetual frown. The former orderlies, now creatures from the bowels of fucking hell, are jerking back to life.

And Stiles has had enough. He doesn't know if this will work, but there's no better time to try something than when you're about to be thrown in a cell in an undisclosed hospital basement and then sold off to nameless lunatics. On the other side of the glass, Alsina is saying something—maybe to them, maybe to her staff (including the demon-orderlies?)—but Stiles steps back toward the wall, shuts his eyes, and lays a hand on top of the concrete surface.

He's never consciously made a door before. The only time he's been able to use this strange power, it's been to take one doorway and turn it into another. But he thinks he can make a door—and that he's done it at least a dozen times before out of pure fright, in an effort to get out of the dark and back to safety. All those times in the darkness, he didn't just happen to stumble across a waiting door. He made the doors on his own. He made them to escape Alsina's darkness. They're his.

Derek stands behind him in confused silence, until he probes, "Stiles?"

"Get ready to move, if this works."

Somehow, somehow, he can feel the wall shifting under his fingers, like the material itself is changing. And then, when he opens his eyes, he finds that it has. He grabs the handle of the resulting door and quickly pulls it open—but the only thing inside is darkness. His heart sinks.

At his back, far across the test room, the metal door slides open. Stiles turns to see Roberts running toward them. There's something twisted in his face, something cold in his expression. His hand is stretching into a dark claw. Maybe it's best to call them allies, Alsina had said.

Stiles glances back to find Derek staring into the void. "I don't know where it goes," he blurts worriedly, "or if we can get out, but—"

Derek takes his hand. "Let's find out," he says, and he pulls Stiles into the dark.

Chapter Text

Derek has known for a long time that Stiles isn't crazy.

He's seen Stiles connect their rooms in a matter of seconds, warping the geography of the world itself just by touching a doorknob. He's pulled Stiles out of a morgue drawer that appeared and disappeared from nowhere, right in the fucking wall.

But this darkness is something different. When Stiles described it before, it felt almost theoretical, something Derek couldn't really imagine. He's never been in total darkness before. His eyesight is better than a human's, and even on a completely moonless night he can make his way across the fields and forests of his home. In Eichen, his world has still been illuminated during "lights out." Even the blackness after the elevator hadn't been complete: tiny lines of light had filtered from the cracks around the elevator and the door to the white room, helping guide Derek forward.

But it's one thing to know that Stiles was getting lost in the total darkness of Eichen, and something completely different to see it for himself.

Once they slam the door shut behind them, Stiles quickly spirits the door away—Derek can tell because the light filtering from underneath disappears as well—and then the darkness is so complete that even his enhanced werewolf vision does nothing to filter through the void. The air is thick and stifling, and they have to move slowly, hands outstretched, in case there's anything ahead of them. It seems to be a long corridor from the walls they feel on either side. The path they take is twisting and labyrinthine, and the endless curling pathways send a subtle thrill of terror running down Derek's spine. If this is anything like what Stiles had to deal with, again and again, it's incredible that he managed it at all.

Stiles swallows, and it sounds loud in the darkness. "I didn't mean to take us here," he says in a whisper. "I meant to go to the library, but…"

"It's fine—it's not like we'd have been safe in the library anyway."

As one, they come to a stop in the darkness. Derek isn't sure if it's just his imagination, but he has the strangest sense that there's someone close by. There are no heartbeats in the immediate vicinity, though, no footsteps in the hall. "Do you feel like...someone's watching?"

"Yeah. Could be Alsina, I guess. But it always feels like that in here. I think it's just being in the dark like this. It messes with your senses. But I realized…"

"What?"

"Those darkness-y things. The ones that went after you back there. Apparently they're orderlies, and maybe the nurses, too—did you see Roberts's claw on the way out?"

Derek frowns at the memory. "I saw it."

"I've seen them in here before. And fucking Dr. Jekyll seemed to know about them, and it seems like she directs them. Maybe to control the darkness."

"Which means we need to keep moving."

"Yeah." They double their pace as Stiles continues. "She said she'd been testing me. Like the darkness was just some fucking exam…" his voice wavers, and Derek gropes forward blindly to find him, at last reaching his arm and squeezing it gently. "Ugh. Look, if we ever get out of here, just...fucking promise me we'll find a place where the lights are on 24/7. You can cover the electricity bill. Everyone knows you Hales are loaded."

Derek snorts. "It's a deal."

At this, Stiles sighs, straightening a little under Derek's touch. "Okay. I can't make a door leading out of the regular Eichen ward, and it's not like we're exactly safe up there, anyway, but...better the devil you know, right? Maybe we can start a riot upstairs with the other patients, or take a nurse hostage. God, I don't know. We can't go down without a fight. I just have this feeling that if they have their way, we're never getting out of this."

From far off in the distance, Derek hears something. "We're not alone," he says in a whisper.

"What is it?" Stiles asks, shuffling closer.

The footsteps—as it becomes clear that's what they are—are slow. Light. Like someone in no great hurry.

"Let's keep going, come on," Derek hisses, because he's suddenly worried that the footsteps aren't someone but something.

"It's just gonna keep coming."

"What else do we do?"

"I'm gonna make a door. Give me a sec…" Derek waits, swallowing his anxiety as he feels small movements through their connected hands. He realizes, suddenly, that he doesn't hear the distant footsteps anymore. And then he feels rather than sees the creature dart forward in the endless dark.

Derek slams into it as it rushes in, but there's a cry of pain from Stiles. A confused scuffle ensues, and Derek manages to sweep a clawed hand into the person (thing?) between them.

Light floods the area from somewhere in the wall, and Derek realizes Stiles has managed to make the door. The human pulls it fully open and they both jump through; Derek slams it closed behind them, so hard that the wooden frame rattles. "What was that?" Stiles groans weakly. He's leaning against the wall, but he fumbles for the door, slipping a hand onto its weathered surface. Beneath his fingers, the wood fades slowly away. He exhales and straightens, clutching at his side.

"I think it was one of the same things," Derek answers, taking stock of himself. He's taken a swipe of his own across his forearm, but it's already healing. A small patch of red blooms across the fabric of Stiles's shirt. Derek bats Stiles' hand away from it and pulls up the hem to find a shallow gash in the human's side. Derek presses his hand onto the skin to draw out some of the pain, looking around as he does so.

It's another hallway, clearly done in the same depressing vein as the one they'd left behind, but at the very least it's lighted. A naked bulb gleams overhead, and more of them are spaced every few yards leading farther off. Even so, Derek can't quite make out the end of the hall. The whole spectacle reminds him of a funhouse mirror, where each ensuing reflection becomes progressively smaller and dimmer, fading into the dark horizon.

Eventually Stiles, who has been watching with no small amount of curiosity as Derek's skin knits itself up, gently squeezes Derek's hand and tugs his shirt back down. "Okay," he murmurs. "Stop feeling me up and let's try again. Now that I'm not freaking the fuck out—or, well, at least not actively panicking anymore—I'm gonna try for the library one more time." He turns to put his hand on the wall, and this time the door pulls up faster, stained wood spreading like a dark inkblot across the grey surface. "Cool. Ready?"

Stiles turns to look at Derek, amber eyes glinting in the dim light. Derek nods in answer before realizing that Stiles's gaze has caught on something just over Derek's shoulder.

He jerks around. Farther off, another dark figure has stepped into view. But even as Derek watches, it somehow sheds its darkness, patches of color appearing in a smooth wave until the being becomes Dr. Alsina herself.

"Have you finished running?" she asks, raising her chin as she steps closer. Her heels click quietly on the floor. "It really is useless. The three wards are my domain. And so are these halls. It all changes and moves, and perhaps you can jump around it, but it's mine."

"What are you?" Stiles spits.

"Like I told you: uncategorizable. I just have a talent with darkness. A partnership. And if I occasionally use it to frighten people like you into showing their talents?" she shrugs.

"And if they occasionally die in the process?" Stiles snipes.

"It isn't so bad," she laughs. "And every now and then, that's just what I need. My darkness gets hungry, you know." As she moves closer, Derek tenses, ready for Stiles to open the door or change the threshold or whatever it is that he does, but she stops just far enough away. Just at the place where his wolf might have burst free, whether Derek wills it to or not. "I'd appreciate it if you'd stop this tantrum and come with me."

Before either of them can react, she rushes forward, the movement much more lithe than Derek could have expected—and then promptly falls into the floor. No, into...a trapdoor? Derek realizes, staring at the perfect square in the ground, a pitfall into darkness. One that hadn't been there a moment ago.

He looks back at Stiles, who has his fingers pressed to the floor. "Whoa, that actually worked," he says, sounding impressed with himself. Then he quickly turns to open the door he'd made in the wall, and Derek could almost cry at the sight of the actual library.

"Fuck...you did it," Derek exclaims. He runs his hands through his hair, sweeping his eyes over row upon familiar row of books. The smell of worn paper, slight mildew. A faded carpet. Behind him, Stiles slams the door shut on the creepy endless hallway. Derek turns to find him concentrating, and then he pulls the door open again. And this time, it's the regular hall, the well-lit Eichen House hall with the terrible abstract paintings and bland walls.

"Thank god. Let's go."

But as they leave the library and turn down the hall toward the lounge, they find the lounge's double doors closed—which is odd, as Derek can't remember a time that's ever been the case. Still, he pushes one of them open...and then stops short.

Beyond the door is another dark hallway in place of the wide, airy lounge. Stiles pushes the other door out as well, and they both stare down into the pool of blackness. Stiles swears, low in his throat.

"This is fun," Dr. Alsina calls from somewhere within. Derek jumps in spite of himself and then takes to growling. "I can't actually remember the last time someone fought back so hard. Usually they just wait for my darkness to swallow them alive."

"Swallows them…" Stiles murmurs. "Like when I was sinking into the floor."

"Before I knew what you were. Now, you're quite valuable. A unique talent. So I'd really prefer not to have to eat you."

Derek roars, tugging Stiles away. "We're not coming with you. Neither of us. End of story. If you try to take us, we'll fight you every step of the way. We'll—I'll kill anyone you sell us to. I'll make sure this never sticks. This is not happening."

Alsina is quiet, and Derek strains to make out anything in the gaping void.

"You know," she muses softly, "I really believe that you would. And that would be very bad for business. But the truth is, I have plenty of other products here in the ward, so if you'd prefer that I kill you and call it a day, we can do that instead." Another pause. "And after all, to be fair I don't really need both of you."

She comes out of nowhere, just feet away, her fingers grown into long, thin claws. She rushes them, a wild smile on her face and grey-brown hair spilling from her bun, and Derek leaps in front of Stiles to match her blow for blow. She's fast, though, faster than he could have expected, and she gets in a deep swipe on his thigh before he can deal any real damage. When she pauses for the briefest moment to catch her breath, Derek notices Stiles behind her, quietly pulling open a door into darkness. Derek roars again and slams into her, taking her by surprise and sending her toppling over the threshold, just as Stiles slams the door shut and vanishes it away with a flailing hand.

Stiles turns to him with an odd grin, the one that puts the faintest impression of a dimple in one cheek, and there's something about it that Derek loves—or maybe it's just the thrill of this, the feeling of finally having something to fight against, side by side. "Let's figure out how to get the hell out of here," Stiles declares.

They turn their backs on the dark hall and sprint pace for pace past the library and around the corner, heading down the corridor that should take them toward the main entrance of Eichen.

"No one's around," Derek worries. "This is really weird."

"And getting weirder," Stiles replies, slowing as they round the corner—and Derek sees it too. The hall is longer than it should be, and considerably darker. One of the lights flickers and dies in the distance. "More mind games," Stiles spits, his voice taking on a sullen tone. "This'll be fun."

.

There's no way out but forward. Or at least, that's what Derek hopes.

They follow the same path until it once more grows nearly too dark to see. Stiles turns and makes another door, only it quickly becomes more of the same. Door after door, they meet the same dim hallways. Path after path, they peer over their shoulders for any sign of the doctor or her otherworldly friends.

As he creates new doors, Stiles's expression grows increasingly frustrated, as if he's trying to solve a complex math problem without all of the variables. His mouth twists into a scowl each time he opens another door to peer inside.

"This is not going well," he mutters anxiously when they again cross a threshold into a dim hall. "I feel like I can't control where we're going anymore. If I ever could."

Derek has nothing to say to that. How long have they been at this? Half an hour? Maybe more? He fights to keep a straight face, especially because Stiles is looking more and more drained the longer this goes on. "Maybe we can backtrack the way we came?" Derek suggests at last, though he's not sure what help it'll be. "We could get back to the hall by the library somehow…"

But backtracking proves even more difficult. As they struggle to remember their steps, it becomes clear that the labyrinth of hallways won't make things easier. In fact, Derek at one point turns to find himself facing a wall where he could have sworn an entire hallway had stood just seconds before.

"Yeah, it does that sometimes," Stiles mutters under his breath.

Derek stares at it for a moment, at the sheer impossibility of its presence in the world. His mind is struggling to catch up still, struggling to make sense of any of this. The anger that has for so long been his closest companion has slowly slipped away from him, left behind somewhere in the darkness. In its place is a growing fear, one he's been steadily fighting off as they make their way through the twisting corridors. Now, staring at the impossible cement wall, that cold fear finally washes over him: the thought of being trapped down here forever, spending their days in this endless maze, growing tired and weak and hungry until they can't go on any more. Or, more likely, until they're half-dead and Alsina can simply get some of her monstrous goons to come scoop them up.

"Hey," Stiles murmurs, and though his voice is steady, his gaze looks haunted in the half-light. Derek wonders if they've both been worrying the same thing. He takes Derek's hand in his, and the warmth of it is a sudden comfort. "I don't know what's gonna happen, but I don't want to give up yet. I don't know what else to do, but...let's just walk a little more, yeah?"

Derek squeezes his hand. It makes sense, but even if it hadn't, Derek would find it hard to deny Stiles anything right now. "Okay."

They head down the corridor, dim lights flickering overhead. There are half a million things Derek wants to say to Stiles—I'm sorry and Your hand's so warm and I wish you were safe upstairs after all. He prays for the thousandth time that they'll make it out somehow, that he'll feel the sun on his skin just one more time. That he'll see the woods of the Preserve again, his old house nestled between the trees. And even more than that, he prays fervently to the universe that he'll see it again with Stiles one day.

"We'll be together, though," Stiles murmurs, his voice so low even Derek can barely hear it.

"What?"

"Whatever happens, if they—sell us, bind us—if they keep us together…"

"We're not going with them."

"It doesn't seem like there's much choice now," Stiles replies, and there's such bitterness in his voice that Derek stops short, gently yanking him back.

"Stiles, when I said that to Alsina, I meant it," he says. There's a bit more bravado in his voice than he really feels, but the words are no less true. "We're not going with them."

"Yeah, but—"

"If they sell us to a buyer, I'll take care of them. And the next, and the next. Until they stop. Or until we find a way out. I swear."

Stiles stares at him for a long time, long enough that Derek starts to think that a blanket statement about killing might not be the best thing to mention now. And then Stiles slides his hand around Derek's neck and pulls him in close. This kiss is different from the others, fiercer and more demanding. There's a slip of Stiles's teeth against his lips, and then Stiles settles back. "I'm with you. We'll do what it takes."

They walk on.

There are subtle changes in the walls and ground as they walk into the deeper darkness. The walls grow more irregular, more weathered, and there's a certain slant to the floor that grows steeper the further they walk.

"We're going down," Stiles observes. "That hasn't happened before."

Derek grunts. "Could be good or bad."

"Should I make a door?" Stiles says doubtfully. "It'd probably just go to some other hall."

Derek shakes his head. "Let's see how this one plays out first."

The metal walls become dark with rust, and then they grow farther and farther apart, less of a hall and more of a gaping passage. They've long left the fluorescent lights behind, but there are still a few naked bulbs every now and again—enough to keep the complete darkness away, but not enough that they can truly see where they're going, sometimes even with Derek's enhanced sight. Stiles stumbles so often that Derek takes his hand and crooks his forearm under the human's to better catch him.

At last, the werewolf's foot sinks into something wet and warm. "Ugh, it's…"

"Water?" Stiles asks. He releases Derek's hand. The sound of shifting cloth, more than his dark silhouette, suggests that he's crouching down to touch it. There's the sound of dripping farther off, and the rattle of pipes overhead. "It reminds me of a cave, maybe. Or—a boiler room, more like, but flooded. Hard to tell. Just another sub-basement in the great underbelly of Eichen."

Derek snorts. "Onward?"

"And hopefully upward," Stiles agrees. But then he hisses, and there's a sound of lapping water. "These stupid sock things are useless...but it's only ankle-deep."

They wade through for a bit, holding hands to keep close, and Derek can feel Stiles shiver a little under his grip. Before Derek can comment on it, Stiles asks, "So where are we going to live?"

"Live?" Derek parrots.

"In our magical house where the lights never go out. When we get out of here. Where's it going to be?"

In spite of himself, Derek smiles. "So we're moving in together now, are we?"

"It seems like a logical next step. You know, as one does: the first kiss, then holding hands in a mental institution, first date in the underworld, then you move in together."

Derek laughs. "I guess I'll give you that. It would be a hell of a lot better than here."

"Well, that's pretty offensive," Stiles huffs. "Anything's better than here. And you didn't answer."

"Answer what?"

Stiles's laugh is half frustration and half amusement. It's grown so dark that Derek can't make out his face at all. "Where will it be? You have the power to build this house anywhere in the world, so where is it?"

"Uhh…" Derek ponders this for a second. The water has very gradually risen to his knees, sometime when he wasn't paying attention. "I don't know. Just...somewhere quiet. Maybe in the middle of nowhere? Just trees and green everywhere. And it's just the one house, no neighbors or anything like that. No...long hallways or weird doors. And no living anywhere near where this hellhole is. Just a forest. Somewhere far away."

Stiles is silent for a long time. His voice is thick when he replies. "Good answer."

The water has climbed to Derek's thighs now, though the floor still seems perfectly flat underfoot—and has it grown warmer? "Stiles, I think maybe we should turn back."

"I don't want to," Stiles whispers shakily.

"Why not?"

"I don't know. If we go back, it's more of the same, more halls and halls and—if we go forward, maybe there's something else. Something different. There has to be. And maybe if we can just get past it, we'll get out." Desperation makes his voice catch on the last few words.

"I guess, but..."

From somewhere nearby, there's a quiet sound of lapping water—not a splash, exactly, but something gentle and irregular. Stiles jumps, pressing closer to Derek. "What was that?"

A long silence settles heavy in the air. Every muscle in Derek's body is tensed, poised to spring toward the source of the noise. After some time has passed, Derek slowly reaches out one arm, still gripping Stiles's hand in the other. Stiles stays silent as Derek moves aside a little, groping in the air to find the wall, to decide whether they need to work their way back or continue onward, but there's nothing there. Sometime in the darkness, the long passage has shifted into a great, open room. A cavern. Another sound, maybe from the way they'd come, but as he turns to face it, Derek can't be sure. It's soft and nearly silent. Another splash, closer, and Stiles startles again.

The rest of the water is still. There are no waves except the ones Stiles and Derek themselves have made. Someone is near, though. Near enough to toy with them. After a moment, Stiles tugs Derek's hand. "Hurry, let's keep moving."

The only option is forward—though in their panic, Derek can't say he's sure which direction that is anymore. He swears lowly. They're walking away from the way they've come, he thinks, and away from where the sound came from. But there's no telling how much further this watery cavern stretches. All he can do is follow Stiles, ears pricked for the faintest sound of movement other than their own.

"The air...it's getting warmer now," Stiles says, and his voice sounds strangled. "Can you feel it? And that smell—"

There's another splash from behind them, a little louder. As if there's no need for secrecy now that they know they're being pursued. Then another, and another. Some of the splashes are oddly thin, as if they're from some distance away, and some are alarmingly close by. But more important—

"Is that a light?" Stiles asks incredulously. Derek sees it, too, a tiny pinprick he thought he might be imagining. They hurry toward it as best they can through the warm water. It takes some time to close the distance, and by the end of it Stiles is panting with effort in the quiet air. Derek chances a few glances over his shoulder, but either no one is following them or the light isn't bright enough to reveal their presence.

The water grows gradually more shallow as they get closer, the air more stifling and humid. As they approach, they find that the light comes from a single exposed bulb that runs from a wire overhead—a wire that reaches out of sight into the darkness above. It illuminates a wide steel platform surrounded by water on three sides. On the fourth side is a wall that runs as far as the eye can see in either direction.

"Perfect place to put a door," Stiles mumbles tiredly, wading toward the handful of metal steps leading out of the water.

As Derek struggles onward, he realizes the floor is growing softer underfoot, sucking his feet down like sand at a beach. Or maybe not—it's suddenly more sticky. Like syrup. Like tar.

There's a second when Derek realizes the sinking of his body has nothing to do with the sinking feeling in his chest, when he automatically shoves Stiles forward and into the stairs, and then something tugs hard on Derek's right leg. He crashes into the water, his chin slamming against the last step as he kicks back, flailing wildly. The floor has grown soft, and with his every movement it seems to tug him further downward. As Derek scrabbles for purchase, hands grasp him from above, pulling his head and torso up and out of the water. He gasps in the tepid air.

Stiles is shouting something unintelligible over the splashes and struggle, but his strength isn't enough to free Derek from the clutches of whatever darkness grips him. Derek kicks again and again. There's a sudden, sharp warmth in his leg, as hot as if someone's branded him with an iron, and at last the thing loosens its grip, and Stiles pulls him bodily out of the tar-like blackness.

With great effort the human manages to heave Derek up the steps and onto his back on the platform, the metal cool against Derek's heated skin. Then Stiles comes round to cry out and strike at Derek's leg. Panting, Derek looks down to find that the warm, inky blackness is still there—not water, but something else. And it's spreading.

"Derek," Stiles is saying, "No, no, no…"

"What is it? What's…" He's having trouble seeing, or maybe understanding what he's seeing. And the more the strange darkness spreads, the weaker he feels. He can't sense his leg anymore, just an unsettling void where it used to be, and still the blackness creeps slowly up and over his skin. There's a strange warmth to it, a strange pull.

"Derek? Derek!"

It's grown darker, and Derek abruptly realizes that he must have at some point closed his eyes. He opens them now, finding Stiles overhead, his face dim against the black ceiling above. His expression is one of desperation mixed with pure terror.

Alsina once told them that her darkness ate things, that it swallowed them down, and Derek suddenly understands this, understands the feeling of being pulled in. An insect dissolving in a flytrap. It's killing me, Derek realizes with a strange sort of certainty. His body is slowly shutting down, piece by piece, as the darkness makes its way across him. He can't lift his head to see it anymore, but he can feel it creeping forward, greedy and warm. This darkness. Alsina's darkness. If it's her, if she's killing me…she might still come for Stiles.

Derek fumbles around for Stiles's hand and squeezes it weakly. "Make a door," he manages. "Get the hell out."

"You're coming too," Stiles sobs, pulling uselessly at Derek's shoulder, fingers scrabbling against his skin. And at any other moment, Derek would have leapt up to do anything Stiles asked, especially to get that frightened tone out of his voice. Even now, his wolf is straining sluggishly, uselessly, to meet the human where he is.

But the warmth is spreading, a tug from somewhere inside. It seems to pull something from within him, something essential, and he wants to urge Stiles to go—but he can't quite form the words anymore. And then Stiles is shouting again, crying his name. And the dark thing swallows.

Chapter Text

Darkness has crept over Derek so quickly that Stiles knows he must be locked in a nightmare, trapped somewhere in his own mind.

It stretches out of the water like a living thing, growing smooth and beetle-black over Derek's legs and chest, if draping him in a second skin. Stiles can't make out much in the burn of the amber bulb overhead, but the normal patches of Derek's skin are damp and pale against the somber grey metal, the fabric of his scrubs and shirt gone almost black where the water has soaked through. Little dark tendrils have rippled across his skin in spite of Stiles's tugging, slowing to a stop only when Derek's eyes finally close.

Hand shaking, Stiles fumbles for a pulse, half-afraid to touch the black vines that have settled around Derek's neck, but there's nothing there. Maybe just the faintest heartbeat, if Stiles isn't willfully imagining it. But none of this feels real, none of this seems possible—not until he catches sight of something out of the corner of his eye.

On the wall beneath the burning gold light is the red door. And Stiles suddenly knows it's for Derek.

Stiles realizes he's still whimpering. He chokes it back down, shaking Derek roughly as if that might wake him, as if Derek just needs to come out of a doze.

"He's already gone." The voice is low, quiet, and Stiles spins to find Alsina standing perfectly still in the water, just a few feet beyond the edge of the platform. Her clothes, too, have turned a glimmering black—only Stiles realizes it's not her clothes. It's her. Now that there's enough light to see her by, he can make out an odd elongation of one of her arms, the way the fingers drip down into black points. Black claws. Once again, there's something curious in her piercing eyes as she regards him coolly, like she's savoring this moment.

"Why?" Stiles snarls, his fear burning into desperate rage. "You said—you said you were going to take us both."

"I was," she allows, shifting in place, and the shadowy depths of the room beyond her seem to writhe and then still. "Before all of this happened. I can't procure anyone who's so...adamant about killing my buyers, and with such an innate ability to do so. It's bad for the reputation, you understand. Although…" Alsina trails off, peering down at her blackened, clawed hand. "I hadn't intended this. It's why I didn't want you down here, you understand; sometimes, it gets away from me."

"What do you...you couldn't control your own powers." Stiles realizes bitterly. He swears. "How could you think you'd control ours?"

Alsina levels Stiles with a cold glare that sends a chill down his spine. Then she moves forward, climbing the steps. The only sounds in the gaping room are the metallic clang of her footsteps and the quiet drip of water from the tips of her claws. "You, on the other hand, are still useful," she promises him as she begins to slick the water off of her blackened arm. Under her touch, the twisted, sharp hand lightens gradually, the dark tendrils rippling into the creamy beige of human skin. "As long as you want to be. You're not a danger, are you?" she croons.

Stiles finds he doesn't know the answer to that. His hands are still fisted in the fabric of Derek's shirt, and he leans a little into the werewolf's chest, unable to quite support himself. Now that he's looked away from Derek, he finds that he can't look back. He doesn't want to see Derek lying motionless beside him, isn't sure he can bear it. "What do you mean?" he demands.

"You'll see sense. You'll come with me." Alsina makes no move to approach him, just stands to one side of the platform. Patient. Knowing.

A familiar shot of fury races through him in the face of that confidence, at the idea that she believes for a second that he'll follow her after what she's just done to Derek. As if she's only cut away some small, unwanted addition to a valued purchase.

He stares at her and then away, looking toward the door. Swallows hard. An idea comes to him, but it settles heavy in his stomach. "Do you...do you see that?" he asks her, careful to keep the fear from his voice.

She blinks and then grows amused, as though Stiles is a child playing a game and she knows she's fast enough to catch the trick. Obligingly, she turns to look the rusted metal wall, and then her eyes slide back to him. "There's nothing there."

"Are you sure?" Stiles asks, staring at the red door. "Because when I look, there's something. One of my doors."

The doctor hums in mild interest, turning fully around. The fact that she's willing to put her back to him seems to be less a sign of trust and more a sign that she believes she can take anything he can throw at her. "What game are we playing, Stiles?"

"I don't think you actually understand what I can do," Stiles murmurs, a strange daring swelling in his chest, and then he climbs to his feet. "The kind of doors I can open."

"Is that so?" She is still facing at the wall as he crosses slowly near her, but he has the impression that she could slice him down in a heartbeat if he lunged. After all he's seen, he knows she's just indulging him, toying with him—because after all, doors are no threat. Stiles is no threat. And beyond that, she's curious. If he does have a trick, she'll want to see it. She'll want to sell it.

Without answering, he reaches the door and lays a hand on the knob. He hesitates for just a moment before pulling it open gently.

It's just as he remembers. Fine, blurred light spills through the near-darkness, casting an eerie silver glow across the stone floor. Whatever's inside seems to ripple and churn like water, like pale bedsheets in a breeze. A candle through layers of sheer silk. A rain of white petals fluttering through the air. Stiles can never make it out, and maybe that's why it seems like the view is always changing.

For some reason, it feels less frightening now. It's as though, in understanding what he can do, he's somehow changed the thing itself. The light is not so terrible; it's calming. It's constant. In some strange way, the sight of it almost seems to lend him strength.

Alsina could never see this door before, not upstairs in the hospital—and Stiles thinks he finally understands why. But if he's going to pull this off, if he's going to maybe save Derek, he needs her to see it. He grips the doorknob and considers Alsina, wondering how he can somehow lure her in.

But from somewhere behind, an odd pressure has begun to creep forward, the same suffocating warmth he's felt a thousand times here in the deepest halls of Eichen. He has a hard time mustering the courage to turn, but when he does, he finds that the light overhead has disappeared, a void of darkness pressing in on him from all sides. It draws Stiles instantly back into the panic he feels when the darkness surrounds and suffocates him, when he senses it closing in, ready to devour. And for a moment, raw fear short-circuits his mind.

Somewhere farther off, he knows, Derek lies motionless—dying, or dead—atop the hard floor. Is he really just a few feet away? Or is that place in another realm entirely?

And then Alsina comes to stand behind him. He has a hard time recognizing her, only because her darkness has once again crept over her, pressing into her skin just as it seeps into the air around them. Her clothes have blackened in patches, her eyes grown dark, and her pale face is the only thing that's clear—but she stares with fervent curiosity at the silvery light. Where it meets her blackened features, it casts a disquieting glow.

Stiles is in her way. He could stay where he is, or simply move her aside—because in truth, this threshold isn't one she's meant to cross right now, and he knows thatsomehow. But as his fear dissipates once more, he finds a sullen sort of wrath overtaking him, settling into his very core, and so he does neither of those things.

Instead, he tugs her arm, flinching just a little when he finds it's turned back to the elongated, monstrous claw. The same claw she'd used on Derek. Even so, he pulls her closer, and she doesn't so much as protest when he directs her toward the silvery stream.

"It's for you," he says, his voice hoarse, and he pushes her in.

As with Clem before her, the light seems to swallow her like water, bit by bit. Alsina's darkness never bleeds back into skin, but the strange glow takes her regardless. For a moment, Stiles thinks he can still see her just beyond the surface, a vague patch of darkness turned grey and then white—and then she's gone. Stiles stares for a long moment, swallows, then shuts the door behind him. His breaths ring loud in the silence.

When he turns back, he finds that the unnatural darkness of the cavern has receded completely. In fact, he's in another place entirely—or maybe, rid of Alsina's warped magic, the room can finally appear as it truly is. It's no longer a gaping tunnel: he stands in a wide basement, mostly empty but for a few shelves and storage crates lining the walls farther off. It's still dark, with just a few lights overhead, but it's normal darkness. The natural darkness of the world, the ordinary darkness of shadows. Child's play compared to the darkness Stiles has known.

He's not alone, though. Around the room, still and silent, are a dozen or so people who stare past Stiles at the red door. It's enough to make his heart skip a beat until he recognizes their clothes: they all wear the same blue hospital scrubs that he's wearing now. The same clothes that Clem wore.

Patients. Some of the so-called "transfers."

Hesitantly, he turns and opens the door again. By some unspoken signal, they slowly creep forward, filtering through the portal one by one. He thinks he recognizes some of them: a lady who used to knit by the piano in the mornings, a man with two gold false teeth. They come with their animals, as Stiles now realizes they always must. A starling perched on one shoulder, a snake around the wrist. One has a black fox trotting at her heels.

They don't look at him as they approach, staring instead at the ethereal light from the door. Stiles wonders what would happen if he tried to touch them—if his fingers would settle on their skin or simply pass through them like air.

It's only as Stiles glances around that he realizes that Derek's there as well, lying exactly as he was, a little further off near a storage chest. His eyes are closed and his skin deathly pale. Stiles sprints over and shakes him again, but this time his skin is cold to the touch. His heartbeat is gone. Stiles checks for any sign of the darkness that once spiraled over his skin, but he finds it hard to see over the angry blur of his tears.

The red door still lingers on the wall, insistent, and Derek shocks the hell out of Stiles by slitting his eyes open a fraction. With great effort, the werewolf cranes his neck back to look toward it.

"That's not for you," Stiles tells him, fighting back tears. "You can't go. It—it's a trade. She goes, and you stay." He tries to turn Derek's face away, toward him, but Derek's head weakly flops back toward the door. Something in his eyes reminds Stiles of the fanciful, transfixed look his mother once gave it, of the urgent curiosity on Alsina's face.

"I love you," Stiles chokes, and his words are swallowed up in the open space of the dim basement. "Please don't go."

But his words do nothing. Stiles glances around helplessly, thinking he might simply shut the red door to see what happens, thinking that there must be something he can do. Derek is maybe here, maybe—gone. And Stiles is completely alone now, the waiting dead and their animals vanished into the mist.

At this thought, though, Stiles pauses, an idea occurring to him for the first time. Those animals aren't dead, and they aren't familiars. A part of him knows—has always known—what they are. And now he knows what it could mean. He turns back to Derek, whose eyes are fluttering at half-mast. "You can't," Stiles murmurs again. "I won't let you."

Stiles isn't sure if what he hopes is possible, if Derek is too far gone—but that doesn't seem to matter now. He has to try. Stiles is the balance between life and death. And what's the point of that if he can't bend the rules for this one thing?

He closes his eyes and presses a hand to the cold patch of skin over Derek's heart.

Chapter Text

When Derek wakes, he feels that something is fundamentally different before he even opens his eyes.

Something missing. Where he used to be conscious of his own boiling point, of the fierce anger that coats his insides at all times, there's only quiet.

He's anchored now. More himself. It's something he hadn't even thought to miss before it was gone, a kind of calmness he hasn't felt in ages, not since his house burned down. Of course, it might have something to do with the strange, floaty feeling in his head.

It's a bit like he's off-balance, like he's drunk, like he doesn't even have to look at the world to know that it's spinning beneath him. It's hard to remember why he feels like this, or where he is. He always has a hard time remembering when he wakes up in the morning, but this time is different. Memories drift slowly to the surface, but they're impossible, dark things. A nightmare half-remembered. I dreamed that I died, he'll tell Stiles when he wakes.

When he finally pries his eyes open, though, he finds himself in a familiar place. Not his room, as he'd half-expected, but the library. He recognizes the bookshelf out of the corner of his eye. He stares up at the paneled drop ceiling, following the lines of the frames where they cross back and forth. The lights are a stark fluorescent white, and for some reason he finds himself profoundly thankful for their brightness.

At last he manages to lift his head, weakly pushing himself off of the ground. He turns to find Stiles seated nearby, tiredly watching Derek's movements. The human's skin has a grimy pallor to it, his scrubs dark and damp. He leans against a bookshelf, shoulders sagging in exhaustion as he toys with the edges of the hard-bound book in his lap. An encyclopedia. A few more of them are stacked at his side. His eyes are red and puffy from crying.

That's when Derek sits all the way up. It was real.

"What happened?" he blurts, his voice hoarse as though he's slept for ages. "Did I...I thought I…"

"You did," Stiles confirms. His tone is thick with some emotion Derek can't name. "You died down there."

Derek gapes a little. His hand has absently settled on one leg, the fabric of his own scrubs damp under his touch, and the sensation brings back the sudden memory of something crawling over his skin, dragging him down into darkness. You died, Stiles said. You died, you died, you died. And Derek knows the words are true.

"How...But how am I here?" Derek manages eventually. "How did we get here? Is this—?"

"It's the library. I made a door here. It's the real one this time, as far as I can tell. No one's around or anything, because it's still night. But I...I think it's real. I think all of this is real. I didn't exactly want to leave you here to go exploring, though."

Derek frowns at Stiles, who won't quite meet his eyes. "Stiles, How am here?"

"I don't know," Stiles says, his voice cracking a little. Then he shakes his head, probably knowing that Derek can hear his heart jump a bit at the half-truth. "I just...back when I told you about Clem and what happened to her, how she went through the door, you joked about it. 'Maybe you're the grim reaper.' But...I guess that's really what I am. A kind of—reaper. Only I don't, like, pick people, or know when they're going to die, or escort them somewhere. It's different. But I think you were right. I know you were right. I think I've known for a while now."

"Okay," Derek feels off-balance still, like his mind is still struggling to get to full speed. Weakly, he crawls closer to Stiles and drops onto the carpet at his side. "What does that mean?"

"I can make doors, but not just to move from one place to another. It's more than that. And I think it all started with the red door. My mom followed me, and Clem followed me, because they knew I could show them the way. These...these people come to me, and—no, these animals, they bring people to me. They guide people to me. And I show them the door to…" he trails off, eyes growing distant.

"To what?"

After a moment, Stiles slowly shakes his head. "To wherever it is they go. I'm not really sure, I don't...I can never see it. But I can always tell where the crossing is. The threshold. So I can get them there."

Derek leans against the bookshelf, his body curling instinctively toward Stiles's. More memories flutter into his thoughts: a sharp pain, a dark and crawling warmth. "Alsina killed me, somehow," he says quietly, feeling like he needs to say the words out loud. "Her darkness. That was her hand that grabbed me when we were down there."

Stiles is silent for a long time, studying him. "Yeah. She killed you," he says at last. "I watched you die," he adds, his voice thick.

Derek's not sure what to do with that. He swallows. "What did you do?"

"You were looking toward the red door. Do you remember?"

Derek struggles to recall this, but he thinks he would have remembered seeing the red door. He can't imagine what it must be like, the strange light Stiles has described. He slowly shakes his head.

"Okay. Well. Instead of bringing you to the door, I pushed Alsina in instead. Like a—like a trade. I thought, or I hoped...well, if nothing else, I just knew I wouldn't be able to kill her or escape her if I didn't do it. But I thought it might be enough."

"Was it?"

Stiles shakes his head. "You still were trying to go in. You were looking at it like it was time to go. So I...changed you. I didn't really know if I could at first, but I somehow knew how to do it."

"Changed me?"

"Into an animal guide." Stiles looks blankly down at his hands, at the book he's holding. Derek recognizes it as one of the encyclopedias from before. "They're called psychopomps. Or sometimes just harbingers of death." He looks up. "The sparrows were for my mom. Moths for Clem. You're already part wolf, so that's why I think I could. I brought you back, but I don't know if you're really back. I mean, no one can ever see the psychopomps but me."

Derek stares at him. "I'm...am I still dead?"

Stiles shrugs helplessly. "I don't even know, Derek."

Derek doesn't feel any different from before. Minus that newfound sense of calm, the sense that he can be himself again without exploding into anger. Gingerly, he reaches out to run his fingers over Stiles's forearm. It's cool to the touch, and the solid feel of it settles a fear Derek hadn't even realized he had. He pulls Stiles's arm closer, running fingers over his hand.

Stiles watches all of this with an expression of pure misery twisting his face. "I'm sorry," he whispers. "I didn't know—what you wanted. I mean normally, you'd be like 'hey, here's my living will' or whatever. But we didn't exactly discuss this, and I didn't know what you wanted, and I just didn't want you to go," he adds, his voice wavering.

"I didn't want to leave," Derek tells him, squeezing his hand. "I don't remember it, but—I know I wouldn't have. I don't. It's better to be here, with you, any way that I can." Stiles opens his mouth to interrupt, but Derek leans in to kiss him before he can get anything out. "I feel calm now. Like I used to be," he says. "I think...I don't know if it's some drug wearing off, or if whatever you did brought me back into balance, but I feel better. If this is what it takes, and if the alternative was dying, I'll fucking take it. I'll absolutely take it."

Stiles leans into him as though he can sink into Derek's skin. "Okay."

"I love you," Derek tells him roughly. "You don't have to say it back, I just wanted—"

"I love you, too," Stiles says, his eyes wide. A teary grin spreads over his face. "And just so you know, I told you first, you just don't remember because you were too busy dying on me like a fucking dick."

Derek laughs. He sweeps his free hand down the side of Stiles's mole-speckled cheek, his thumb falling onto Stiles's bottom lip. He can feel the subtle movements of Stiles's body beneath his fingers, the slight jump of his jaw muscle, the faint beating of his heart, a shiver that might be either cold or anticipation. He wants to make Stiles understand how glad he is to still be here, alive or even half-alive, to be able to touch him right now. But anything he might have said is lost to the press of Stiles's mouth against his own.

This kiss is hungrier and more consuming than anything Derek has known, and he groans against it low in his throat. Stiles's breath is warm against his skin.

They pull apart, and when Derek has managed to stop staring at the way Stiles's mouth quirks, or the feel of his hand clenched in the fabric of Derek's shirt, he takes a deep breath. "Let's see if we can get out of here, then."

He pulls Stiles to his feet. The encyclopedia falls to the floor, and neither of them bothers to shelve the others. Derek stares down at them as he passes, though, thinking of the way that all this had begun, thinking that he may never see this place again once he leaves it.

And then he follows Stiles out into the hall, where he creates another door. It spills over the white wall, a deep chestnut wood rising under the amber light, and Stiles moves forward to meet it. It looks no different from the other doors Stiles has made, its dark grain and four rectangular panels, its worn silver knob. But with Alsina gone, maybe her hold on them both is over. Maybe Stiles can get them out.

Stiles turns the doorknob and then stills, looking back to hold his hand out to Derek. "Let's give it a shot?" he says.

Derek has no idea what will happen when he steps through the door, what's on the other side of it. But Stiles is looking at him, his mouth still quirked gently upward, his eyes rich and dark. So Derek takes his hand.

The door opens to darkness, but it's darkness of a kind that Derek hasn't seen in years.

They find themselves standing shoulder to shoulder outside in the open. The sky above is moonless, but as Derek's eyes adjust, he can make out pinpricks of stars. Their distant glow is barely enough to illuminate the world, but it's more than Derek needs now, more than enough to see the weathered trunks of the pine trees that box them in, needles rustling in whatever soft breeze stirs them overhead. Farther off, streetlights filter through the trees. There's a distant rush of cars on a nearby road.

It's unreal. Impossible. But there it all is, the world laid out before him, just like it used to be.

Behind them, the door is still open, and when Derek turns back, he recognizes the beige bricks of the Eichen House walls to either side of it. Stiles must have brought them directly from the library to one of the external side doors.

Stiles follows his gaze. "Okay. Time for Prison Break."

.

For all the wonder and magic of his newfound abilities, Stiles still proves unable to create a door to somewhere he's never been before—like all of the patients' private rooms. Instead, they snag the set of keys, still safe on the bed in Derek's room where Stiles had tossed them what feels like years ago now.

Door by door, they wake each patient.

"We're getting the fuck out," Stiles tells them.

"Come if you want," Derek adds.

Most of them jump on the chance, rattling off questions that Stiles and Derek can't answer. Like Where will we go? How did you get out? Where are the nurses?

This last is particularly troubling, and though Stiles and Derek keep a keen eye on the dark shadows of the hallways, no one comes to stop them. The darkness still feels normal. Non-sentient. They see neither hide nor hair of any member of the staff, despite the amount of noise that quickly builds as more and more patients spill out of their rooms.

"Alsina's gone, and so is her darkness," Stiles murmurs to Derek as the patients swarm around them. "Maybe, whoever they were, they can't exist without it."

"Or maybe they got stuck inside of it when it faded," Derek muses. "Maybe they can't get back here."

The chaos grows, the voices growing louder. Someone manages to figure out how to override the dimmed lights, and an unruly cheer goes up once the fluorescents are back to full blast. The bitter tang of fear starts to dissipate from the air, a thrill of excitement replacing it.

Eventually, they reach Isaiah's room. To their surprise, he's waiting right by the door, and his eyes squeeze shut in pure relief at the sight of them.

"Did you know?" Stiles asked him, incredulous.

"I hoped," the man returns, his salt-and-pepper beard twitching around a wry smile.

Some of the patients sob openly upon their release. Some of them speed off to find their friends. Some of them seem to think it's a trick, and they settle stubbornly back into their beds. Derek leaves their doors open in case they change their minds.

At last, when they're sure all the rooms are open, Stiles and Derek lead the patients to the door Stiles has made, the one by the library. It's an impossible door, leading from Eichen's ward on the second floor directly to the ground floor outside, and to an area way on the other side of the building. This fact goes largely unnoticed by the long-term patients, who are too distracted by the nighttime world, the starry sky. They dissolve into chaos, crying and scattering. Vern and some of the old-timers direct them toward the sounds of the road.

From the hallway, Derek and Stiles watch them go. They can't leave the strange door open for anyone to stumble across it, so they wait until everyone who's leaving has left. The halls are clear, and anyone still inside will have to sit tight for the rescue that's sure to come once news of this escape leaks out.

At last, Derek takes Stiles's hand again. "That's it for me," he says. "No more good deeds tonight."

Stiles smiles, the half-dimpled one. "We got them this far," he allows.

He and Derek step outside again. For a moment, the light from the door behind them casts their twin shadows across the leaf-strewn ground, dark figures that stretch off into the night. And then the door swings gently shut behind them, the light disappears entirely, and Stiles lets door fade into nothing.

Derek takes a moment to breathe it all in, to listen to the night. Babbling patients farther off, sure, but also frogs croaking in thickets nearby. The ground is soft with rain, and it sinks a little underfoot. In the air is the loamy smell of earth and dying leaves.

"Where should we go now?" Derek asks Stiles.

Stiles's face is hard to make out in the dark, but Derek thinks he's still smiling. "Anywhere we want."