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Hunger For Your Touch

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Art by geeky-sova

 

 

Dust particles glint in the light, floating like will o’ the wisps in the stark, sunny rays of a summer afternoon. The room smells lived-in, old - like an imprint of some faded lifetime long forgotten. He steps backwards into the shadows, and waits.

The faint thud of a sledgehammer dies off. A hinge creaks. Footsteps echo into the hallway, and he presses his lips closed tightly.

“Stiles?” a voice calls hesitantly, drawing nearer. Doors open and close along the way, and the steps halt right outside the room. “Stiles...?”

The heat is a little stifling, but worth it. The fabric in front of his lips dampens, undulating with each exhale. He keeps impossibly still, not even daring to swallow the anticipatory lump in his throat, as the door opens. He’s in the room now.

“Stiles, c’mon, you’re the one who insisted we take the long weekend to get this done.” He sounds frustrated and resigned, but somehow, underneath, impossibly fond. “You can’t just disappear off in the middle of--”

Hoooo-oo....

A snort. “For fuck sake.”

Stiles raises his arms, sheet pushing up enough to rise away from his face a little, and he steps out from behind the antique mirror.

Hooooo!” he repeats, voice wavering on a laugh. He can see Derek fold his arms through the eye-holes, jaw working in stubborn determination not to give in and smile. “I vant to suck your diiiiick!”

It’s enough for Derek to break, and he turns away slightly, shoulders shaking.

“That’s not even-- You’re wearing board shorts.

“Hoooooo!” Stiles says again, and Derek reaches out, yanking the sheet away to give him a withering look.

Stiles beams at him, hands still aloft, and raises his brows. “Gotcha.”

“Yeah, I was terrified,” Derek retorts, quirking his mouth. His hair is grey with drywall dust, the front of his muscle shirt stained with sweat, and he’s got a flake of plaster in his beard. Stiles wants to eat him. “Why are you in here, anyway?”

“Searching for hidden rooms,” he shrugs.

“I told you; there aren’t any.”

“Yeah, but you also said this place was ‘pretty nice,’” Stiles replies, throwing up a hand. They’re standing in the penthouse of a 19th century apartment building that’s been in Derek’s family since his great-grandfather designed it, and Stiles has reached his limit with Derek “I grew up loaded therefore have no point of reference for extravagance” Hale’s unreliable descriptions. The entire place is dark wood, marble floors, high ceilings and crystal chandeliers. He half expected a butler to meet them off the elevator, or at least to find out that some Old Hollywood icon died there or something. “This place should be freaking listed.

“I think it is,” Derek responds pensively, craning his neck to take in the tall, arched windows and wooden beams on the ceiling. It’s not perfect - there are cracks in some of the walls and a few floorboards need replacing, but it’s livable and it’s gorgeous. “I had to fill out a bunch of paperwork when I mentioned knocking through the bedroom wall.”

Stiles tips his head back and groans. “Dude, small town sheriff’s kid here - you need to let me get used to all this--” he waves a hand around, “Richie Rich crap.”

Derek studies him for a long moment, fully turning to face him. “It’s... is it too much?” he asks softly, in that way that makes Stiles wonder how he had ever thought Derek was a gruff, monosyllabic weirdo. “The money and the... the moving in and--”

Stiles steps into his space, smirking, and rests his hands on the small of his boyfriend’s back. “Totally,” he deadpans, “the thought of waking up next to you every morning in a gorgeous apartment that we don’t even need to pay rent for is horrifying.” He dunts his forehead against Derek’s playfully, and is rewarded with a huff.

Derek closes his eyes, turning so his temple doesn’t break contact. “What should we use this one for?” he asks, blinking lazily to check out the room in proper daylight.

“Is there even a question?” Stiles asks, pulling back. Derek’s innocent frown isn’t fooling anyone. “I saw your filthy artist boner the second the lawyer brought us in here. It’s your new workshop, dumbass.”

A half-hearted glare is Derek’s response, and then there’s a shy, “You sure?”

Stiles rolls his eyes, because he’s not letting Derek act like pursuing his passion is some burden. “Shut the fuck up and pick out where you’re gonna put all your crap.”

Derek lets himself grin then, sweet and excited, stepping back to gesture at the East wall. “I was thinking of putting in some soundproofing, and then metalwork on this end.” He steps further away, ambling toward the opposite end of the room. “Woodwork here, because it’s got space for the bench and the tools above it.” He comes to a stop in the middle of the room, dead center. “And here, I was thinking, clay?” He chews on his lip. “I’d probably have to forget about a kiln, but it’s not for sure yet. I haven’t even worked with it since undergrad, so...” He looks back to where Stiles has crossed the floor, slipping his arms around him from behind and resting his chin on his shoulder. “Sure you don’t mind?

Stiles shakes his head. “If just talking about it gets you like this, why the fuck would I deny you having your own space to work in?” He bumps his nose against Derek’s cheekbone. “It’s your apartment.”

“Our apartment,” Derek corrects, raising his brows, and Stiles hides a smile in the smooth skin of his shoulder.

“Okay, ours.”

Derek smooths a palm over the arm wrapped around him, letting out a sigh that sounds like contentment, so happy that Stiles’ stomach flips at the sound of it. “Love you,” Derek says.

Stiles’ smile widens. “Ditto.”

---

They don’t have much of their own actual furniture for almost a month. Stiles likes the romance of it: drinking coffee on the windowsill, watching the world wake up. Derek usually shuffles in after a few minutes, yawning, to bury a lazy kiss in his hair and filch a sip from his mug while his own brews, and every morning after the first, it’s been the same ritual. Their first tradition.

Part of him still feels like it’s a vacation - like they’ll go back to their lives in a week, and see each other when it suits them.

He’s out in the big wide world, he supposes, and it’s as terrifying as it is exciting. There are different things to worry about, new routines, and being self-reliant gives him an odd thrill. It’s like they finally get the chance to just be them.

Everything is theirs now: their bed, their street, their microwave with the faulty plug. It’s not as simple as it seemed - the place is a work-in-progress and he's anxious about finding work - but he never truly thought it would be. Derek melds with the new life like it’s nothing he isn’t accustomed to. They spend most days that first month just fixing stuff up and not really bothering to get dressed unless they want to go take in the city. They plan how they’re going to make it a home; they spend a week naughtily fucking in a different room each night before collapsing in their nest of sheets, laptop playing something mutedly on the floor beside them.

They get all the necessities installed and Kate shows up around the third weekend with a bottle of wine and a plant that Stiles instantly announces is Derek’s responsibility. She tells them that she’s their welcome party to the city and good-naturedly demands a tour of the penthouse, making all the right noises and recommending a great art dealer for decorating the wide expanses of empty brickwork that make up two-thirds of the walls.

They live on take-out for a while, and Derek puts up token fights that they need to start using the new stove now it’s installed. He claims so much greasy food isn’t healthy, and it's not real ethnic cuisine like he's experienced before, but still eats so much pad thai or pizza that he spends the evening letting out pained grunts about being too full. Stiles is living with a walking contradiction.

They share shampoo and Derek shuffles his socks off in his sleep so they’re still spilling out of the sheets on laundry day. They bicker over whose turn it is to take out the garbage and what kind of couch to buy, but their new bed is right by the window and the moonlight makes Derek look like oil-on-canvas, and Stiles wouldn’t trade it for a billion dollars.

---

Arguments while they’re cohabiting take on an entirely different subject matter than before. Last week, Derek had called right after Stiles’ job interview and paused to make sure it went okay before castigating him over forgetting to mention their plumber cancelled. Derek was pissed that he didn’t need to wait around the apartment all afternoon to let him in, and could have been off running errands like he needed to. In Stiles’ defense, Derek is perfectly capable of checking the answering machine all on his own.

Then there was the debate on Saturday about the best place to store their cereal boxes. Stiles thought he should get the final say, since Derek would probably eat paste before he would a bowl of Cheerios, but apparently, Derek disagreed. Strongly.

Before, it was things like, “Which movie should we go see, no not that one” or “You’re exploiting free candy out of the girl in the convenience store because she thinks you’re hot”. They’ve become so... domestic.

He can’t even pretend to hate it. But he does right now, watching Derek’s look of bewilderment melt into hurt.

“It makes the most sense,” he argues quietly, and Stiles pretends to be extremely interested in the issue of the Financial Times that’s about a month and a half old. He shrugs.

“I just don’t really see the point.”

Derek takes a careful breath. “The point is,” he says slowly, “We live together now. We’ve been together for nearly four years. I hardly think a joint bank account is going to rock the boat.”

He’s right. Stiles knows it’s illogical, but there’s always going to be that tiny niggle at the back of his mind that asks what if something happens? The mess is easier to clean up when the threads of their lives aren’t so tangled. Clean break.

But he doesn’t want a break. He knows this; knows he wants Derek, and that there isn’t going to be anyone else. Derek knows it, too - he’s been confident about them since before Stiles even was.

“Wouldn’t you prefer to not worry I’ll drop a buck fifty of your money on video games? Or what if I want to plan a trip away to surprise you? You’ll know as soon as I book the flights.”

Derek scrunches his face. “But it’d be our money - and you use Paypal for all of that stuff anyway. You'd still have your own account.”

“I just don’t think it’s a good idea.”

That hangs in the air for a moment, and the lady in front moves up a seat when a middle-aged couple exit the manager’s office.

“I see,” Derek says, like he knows exactly what Stiles isn’t admitting.

Stiles lets out a breath and folds up the paper. He has no idea what most of the articles were about anyway.

“Derek...”

Derek shakes his head with a raise of his brows. His mouth is tight and angry, and Stiles can practically hear his teeth grinding over the generic chart radio coming through the shitty speakers.

“It’s fine.”

It’s not though. Funny, how Derek’s usually the cautious one. Usually, it's all we need another tank of gas, and, are you totally sure you printed the booking confirmation, but it’s like nothing concerning Stiles makes him wary. It’s we can do long distance, or, how about a road trip to celebrate your graduation, or - the latest, let’s move to the city in six weeks where the job market’s better for you. It’s like he gave up on being careful that first day he unlocked the door and invited Stiles inside his workshop.

Stiles would love to fix this by giving in, but his dad always said the foundation of a working relationship is compromise, and simply doing what Derek wants because he feels bad isn’t the way it works. He thinks for a moment, continuing the facade that it really is fine, until the silence is awkward and his knee is bouncing so much that the mints in the bowl on the end table are rattling.

He can’t just get molded to fit right, like one of Derek’s sculptures. Sometimes Derek acts like he can.

“Hey, I was thinking we could get a cat?” he blurts. He wasn’t, until ten seconds ago. Cats are more independent than dogs, right? Less upset by change? Less of a commitment than a joint bank account.

The bank manager appears in the doorway, looking around the room until she focuses on them. “Mr. Hale? Mr. Stilinski?”

Derek just turns to him, face a mix of confusion and hurt, still, and scowls. “A cat.

“Yeah,” Stiles says encouragingly, standing up with him, but Derek just lets out a put-upon sigh and stalks ahead into the office.

He'll come around.

---

Stiles commutes every day with a messenger bag full of ideas and almost asked if there was a mistake when he saw the nice little cubicle set aside for him, his given name on a little plaque screwed to the outside.

He never thought he’d be excited about having a cubicle. The first thing he did was cover his first name with industrial tape and scrawl Stiles over it in Sharpie. His computer is slow in the mornings and the coffee machine sounds like someone dying of emphysema, so mostly he brings a thermos that he re-fills at the Starbucks at the corner.

His co-workers are nice enough. Danielle, his superior, makes it clear she just wants him to get his work done by deadline and not offend anybody. The less mess she has to clean up, the better. She seems to like most of Stiles’ ideas, though, and he’s getting a better read on her emotions from the expression on her face. She even smiled at his joke, once.

They’re a young group, with good energy and the kind of office environment that promotes casual dress and relaxed creativity, so it’s almost three entire days before he realizes one of the guys - a tall one with curly hair and cut-glass cheekbones - seems to actively poke holes in his ideas or suggestions in the morning briefings.

Whatever, Stiles isn’t particularly used to being well-liked. It’s statistically likely that someone in the office would think he’s an asshole. He gets to go home and vent about it at the end of the day to a gorgeous man who usually hums sympathetically into his neck and leaves stubble-burn under his collar.

He has to reluctantly leave Derek dozing in bed most mornings, and he eats his breakfast waiting for the train, but at least he isn’t an unpaid intern like Lahey.

--

It’s still dark when he wakes, sheets warm beside him. He sits up wearily, blinking sleep from his eyes and yawns.

“Derek?”

He knows instinctively that he won’t get a reply. He smiles softly, swinging his legs over the side of the bed.

Stiles isn’t sure he ever expected it to end up being this seamless, the way their lives shaped around each other’s to make a whole.

Meeting Derek came at a time when neither of them were really equipped to deal with it. Stiles needed a fixation. Needed something, and a mysterious stranger upsetting the sleepy small-town monotony he felt trapped in was enough.

He still remembers the guarded look on Derek’s face the day Stiles had limped into his workshop, touching everything, picking up just-unpacked pieces and turning them over in his hands. The simple, raw perfection of them made his brows knit in concentration.

Those aren’t for sale,” he’d said, placing another beautiful sculpture on the shelf next to Stiles, eyeing it like it was incomplete, like it wasn’t quite right, the way Stiles felt every day. The place was a mess, but he'd still managed to make a temporary workstation in the middle of a sea of packing foam and cardboard.

Good, because your customer service sucks,” he’d replied, holding up his hands. “You must be Derek Hale.

You must be leaving.

Stiles remembers tilting his chin up in defiance. “Not until you let me buy one of these.

No,”Derek had said simply, and Stiles had let out a breath.

Fine, just... can I watch you work?

Derek had eyed him like he was crazy, but if it was the desperation in his voice or something else, Stiles still doesn’t know.

He didn’t get to buy anything that day, but he still came back every chance he could, that long, lonely summer, to try and change Derek’s mind. Banging on the door didn’t work, but the third time, when he launched into six verses of I’m 'Enery The Eigth I Am, it proved enough for Derek to give in and turn his music off and yank the door open. He started leaving it unlocked after, which was as good an invitation as any.

The thing was, Stiles had never met someone as stubborn as he was before. It had taken weeks after that, Stiles lost and unbuoyed and welcoming the distraction. It was a random afternoon in late July, Derek’s workshop looking more his own, when Stiles had finally asked, “If you’re not selling them, why are you doing this?

Derek had been silent so long he didn’t think he’d actually get an answer, but one song ended and another started before he finally said “It helps me remember them.”

Derek talked more after that day, and most when he was working, Stiles found. Something about the fixation of using his hands to create something new and whole out of almost nothing opened him up, made his smiles less guarded, let his insides spill out. He talked about his family - about loving them and losing them, about his travels, about where he’d learned to do each technique. He talked because Stiles didn’t, realized he couldn’t, and this was one place he didn’t have to. Derek knew it without asking, somehow, and the quiet haven Stiles found each time he stopped by to watch something beautiful take shape was exactly what he’d been looking for, though he didn’t know until he found it.

The fact that Derek’s work was fueled by grief and love and bittersweet memories explained a lot - not least why Stiles felt so drawn to that little workshop in the first place.

Like he was sculpting pieces of what I’d lost.

He scrubs a hand through his hair as he walks down the dark hallway. He cracks the too-familiar stiffness out of his right leg and winces, feet padding softly on the plush carpet Stiles himself had insisted on. The door to the workspace is ajar, and he can feel a sleepy smile tugging at his mouth. It’s only when he gets closer, he realizes the sounds inside aren’t from the paint-splattered dock Derek usually has murmuring softly - or blaring, depending on his mood and medium - in the background as he works.

“Do you realize how you sound right now?” Derek snaps, pacing the space between the door and the new sculpting table agitatedly. He’s gripping his phone tightly to his ear, and Stiles can tell from the set of his shoulders alone who’s on the line.

“You’re being completely inappropriate. Do you even know what time--”

The sentence cuts off as Stiles nudges the door open, and Aslan scoots out, mewling in distress. Derek spins with a start at his entrance, eyebrows rising before a look of shame comes over his features. He pulls away to mouth a genuine sorry before shaking his head in response to something.

“No, you listen. It’s 3am, and I’m not in the mood to-- Jesus Christ, you don’t even-- No--”

Stiles grabs the phone and ends the call, powering it off before he tosses it into the chair they placed in the corner specifically so he could hang out and watch Derek work.

“Take a breath,” he says, and Derek grits his teeth in petty defiance. Stiles stares unwaveringly at him until his shoulders sag, and Derek pinches the bridge of his nose on a sigh.

“He’s getting worse,” he complains, half grunting. Stiles just nods, coaxing him to turn around. He presses his nose into the center of the tattoo on Derek’s back, chest aching sympathetically for the frustrated tension he can feel there.

“I can’t just cut him out, but it’s like I give him an inch and he comes back for fucking everything.

Stiles nods, ushering Derek to a stop in front of the crusted stool propped in front of the table. Derek stares on unseeingly.

“I know I shouldn't still care about him. I’m sorry, I can’t bring myself to-- He makes me feel guilty, like I don’t deserve to have any of this, have you and I--”

“Shh,” Stiles says into his temple, punctuating with a kiss. “He always makes you like this. Worked up and mad and...” He stops to see Derek blink at the mound of clay and selection of most-used tools Stiles placed in front of him in the throes of his rant, and look up.

“Bitch about him all you like - I’ll listen - just... make something while you do it.” He chews on his lip, and shoots a nervous smile. “That way you can’t get pissed at yourself tomorrow for wasting precious time on that psycho.”

Derek stares at him for a beat, like he's seeing something he knew was there, but is happy to just have confirmed. His face softens, eyes tracing over Stiles' features, and he laces their fingers together.

“You’ll stay?” he asks lowly, and Stiles answers him by hitting play, pulling the chair closer and slumping into it.

Derek’s lips tick up, and he faces the clay, letting his muscles loosen before reaching out. An old song starts to play through the speakers, and fills the room with dreamy notes, echoing off the ceiling and curling around them.

Stiles will forever be fascinated by watching something take shape under Derek’s ministrations, the soft, delicate way his broad hands move, and the focused intensity in his eyes.

He’s too harsh at first - pent-up anger from the phone call forcing his hands, until Stiles scoots forward, laying a reassuring hand on his bare shoulder and traces it down his arm. He does it again, because touching Derek makes him reverent; makes his fingers itch for more.

Derek lets go a little more with the feeling of Stiles' lips ghosting at his neck. His hands gently guide the clay into smooth curves, not really anything yet, and he flinches at the feel of cool breath at his nape, directing a begrudging smile determinedly forward. Stiles lets his hands graze the hair on his chest, and Derek’s shoulders jerk in a huff, a small frisson shooting down his spine.

Still, he works, and Stiles grins into his skin, pride swelling in his throat at his success in dissolving the pressure in his boyfriend’s life, at least for a while.

It’s not like he can just stop there, though, he thinks, latching his lips on to a patch of skin over a sculpted trapezius. Stiles’ fingers are at his abs now, barely-there strokes over the flesh like he’s playing out the music on his body, and Derek’s skin is lit up with goosebumps. Stiles' pectorals graze his back and each touch is like a shock, syncing their breaths and shutting out everything but this room, this moment.

The feel, taste and scent of Derek is all he’s aware of, all he wants to know.

Derek’s head tips back, a soft grunt heard even over the lilting music, and Stiles is already caressing his mouth over his unshaven jaw when he finally turns, dropping his hands from his work to press their lips together.

The first time Derek kissed Stiles, he had a mouth full of Oreo cookies, was sitting on an upturned milk crate and had self-consciously mumbled that he’d been accepted back into college. He’d been comfort-eating since he opened the acceptance letter, not quite ready for what it meant, and Derek had stared at him, frozen, and then pressed a kiss to his mouth like it was a compulsion.

When Stiles asked him why, Derek had simply said, “I guess I just needed the kick in the ass.

Stiles breathes him in, heart pounding, and barely acknowledges the clay-covered hands pulling him into Derek's lap, weaving into his hair and messing him up as he guides them to circle his neck. His tongue traces softly over his mouth before begging entrance. Their lips don't part.

“Thank you,” Derek sighs, tilting his head for more. Stiles can feel him, hard, through his sleep pants, and grinds on him, nods into his neck. He puts a hand on the table behind for leverage, and draws a groan out of Derek’s throat with a snap of his hips.

Derek is shuddering now, their mouths hovering close and breath mingling. Stiles can only obliquely take in the beauty of his lashes dusting his cheekbone, the sheen on his brow and the rise and fall of his chest as he lets himself get worked up.

Their sex life is everything from lazy mornings in bed to a rushed, heated fuck when they should be doing other things - but this, the scorching, animalistic need to just touch each other is the best. It’s these moments that take Stiles’ breath away, make him spill his coffee at work when he flashes back to them, dries his throat at the prospect of another.

It can’t be ideal, supporting both their weights on the stool, but Derek is past noticing now, letting out these pained little grunts and latching his lips on to anywhere within reach. He can’t touch him much, Stiles realizes, with the residue still on his hands, and it’s a small thrill to have him captive, each pronounced tilt of his hips keeping Derek in place, drawing stress out of him at his own pace, and watching the yearn for release crease on his brow.

They stay like for a time; touching, grinding, swallowing each other’s gasps, and it doesn’t take long after Stiles works his cock out of his pants and curls his hand around it for Derek’s forehead to meet his shoulder, and he comes with a shocked little moan, messing them both up even more.

Derek’s breath is hot on his neck, and Stiles cards his hands through his hair, his own dick throbbing each time the heave of Derek’s inhale grazes his stomach against him.

He seems to remember, then, and before Stiles knows it he’s being hoisted up, legs clamped around Derek’s middle, and being laid carefully down in a pile of sheets still left on the floor from Derek’s last session in the workshop. The scent of paint and varnish clings to them, but he doesn’t care, not when Derek has his clay-smeared hands pressed determinedly on either side of Stiles hips, nosing at the bulge in his sleep-pants in signal. Stiles smirks at the expectant grin shot his way. He cants his hips up enough to pull at the waistband of his pants past his dick, and Derek mouths at the coarse hairs as they’re revealed.

It’s a heady rush, feeding his cock past Derek’s lips, controlling the pace. Derek’s eyes fall closed like he’s reveling in it, and his mouth waters enough to take him further; a perfect, tight heat making Stiles’ lips slip open in silent thanks to whatever it is that lets him have this. The encouragement of Derek’s thumb lightly touching his flank keeps him grounded, and Stiles gets back to the moment quickly, easing shallow little thrusts into Derek’s mouth. His breath punches out of him at the sensation of the head hitting the back of his boyfriend’s throat, and he gets bolder, then, pressing his mouth shut and fucking up into the gorgeous embrace of Derek’s lips, steadying his jaw with a careful touch. He feels the sheets bunch under Derek’s hands, his own toes curling as if in response.

Derek pulls off slightly to suckle on the tip, and Stiles has to close his eyes at the sight of him: shoulders hunched, dark hair mussed and fluffy, focused on his dick with the concentration of one of his works of art.

Derek hums like he's reached enlightenment, and that's it.

His orgasm makes his legs shake, spilling into that perfect heat in waves; the dim lights of the lanterns blurring in his periphery. Derek shuffles up beside him, kissing his shoulder, his biceps, his neck, and they drift off in the afterglow, too spent to move.

---

“Dad, you do realize I’m twenty-four years old, have an actual job and am living in sin with another tax-paying adult,” he sighs, smiling. “I don’t need you to call and check that I’m still paying my insurance.” It's just the latest in a long line of concerns his dad seems to come up with each week. Stiles feels like assuring him he can call - sans excuse - to just say hi, if he wants, but his dad seems to like the illusion.

“You’re still my kid, Stiles,” his dad replies, and he can almost picture the disgruntled look on his face. “I’m allowed to worry.”

“So am I,” Stiles responds, swiveling his chair to jimmy open the stash drawer on his desk that holds his emergency candy. Okay, so maybe his dad doesn’t need to know that he’s an adult who keeps contraband M&Ms in his place of work. That might foil his argument. “Are you taking it easy? We talked about you handing over the reins a little this year.”

“That was when we still thought Parrish was interested in taking over,” his dad mumbles, and Stiles pauses with a handful in front of his mouth.

“He’s not? What? Why?”

“That’s actually why I’m calling. He got a job offer in the big city. He moves up in a couple of weeks.”

Stiles drops his hand. “Jordan’s moving here?”

“I guess we couldn’t expect him to hang around somewhere the biggest crime in the last month was some stolen lawn furniture and a few unpaid traffic tickets.”

“That’s still important work,” Stiles responds seriously, lump in his throat, and there’s a long pause on the line.

“I know it is, son,” he says gently. “But you know what I mean.”

“Yeah.”

“Besides, I’ve got a great team here now. I can still pull back a little, just not as much as we planned. I’m more concerned about Parrish - I don’t think he knows anyone in the city, so maybe you and Derek could show him around when he gets there.” His dad sounds so hopeful that Stiles’ mood softens. “It’d make me feel better to know you’re all taking care of each other.”

The first time Derek and Stiles went on a real date, it had been to the one fancy restaurant in town. Stiles had worn a bow tie, like an idiot, while Derek showed up in a cashmere sweater, hair styled, hands surprisingly clean, and in jeans that looked like they were made for him. They’d barely talked, aware of the eyes on them. A cruiser seemed to drive by every ten minutes (way too often for any real patrols), the only available table was in the middle of the floor, and their server appeared and filled up their water glasses after every sip. Stiles is positive that the ‘couple’ two tables over were live-tweeting the entire thing, but it’s no less than they really expected. Derek had arrived in town to a flurry of rumors and gossip, and everyone had their own ideas about Stiles, after everything that happened. One of the most jarring things about moving to the city was the anonymity of it; nobody really cared who they were, or if they were still making it work.

Stiles would say he didn’t miss it, that all he really needed was Derek anyway, but sometimes home felt like lightyears away. Derek still rarely even held hands with him in public, a habit they naturally picked up as a result of the microscope their relationship was under, lest it invite unwanted attention.

“'Course we will. Be nice to have a familiar face around too, I guess.”

“You and Derek still getting along?” his dad prods, slipping into cop-mode, just as a knock sounds on the outside of his cubicle. Stiles spins to see Derek raise a hand in greeting, looking like he just rolled out of bed, and feels his unease melting away at the sight of him.

“Yeah Dad,” he says contentedly. “He still hogs the covers and works terrible, tortured-artist hours, but I’ll keep him.” Derek scowls in response, and Stiles snorts as he stands to grab his hoodie, the brisk fall air awaiting them outside. “I’ll talk to you later, okay? Take care.”

“Love you, son. Tell Derek I said 'hi'.”

“Will do, Dad. You, uh, you too,” he says, ending the call with a tightness in his chest.

“Ready to go?” Derek croaks, shuffling where he stands. Stiles watches as he glances around, returning a few greetings with a nod, and he thinks he would mind that he gets ogled so much by the people in his office every time he stops by, if Derek didn’t look so adorably put-out by it.

Besides, they’re the design department - they appreciate good aesthetic. Apart from Lahey, who doesn’t appreciate anything. As if on cue, the guy in question saunters past the cubicle like he’s on a runway, rolling his eyes at the goofy smile on Stiles’ face. Well, whatever - fuck Lahey.

Derek is just the pinnacle of things in Stiles’ world that he knows he’s fortunate to have; a steady job in advertising, a dad who worries enough to call once a week, and the kind of lifestyle that allows him to pay off his student loans and afford food. It’s the sort of thing people work their whole careers to achieve.

He knows this, and he's not taking it for granted.

Stiles doesn't actually realize how quiet he’s being until he feels Derek’s hand slip into his, gently tugging him out of the elevator. He blinks up, falling into step beside him, and offers a smile.

“Something on your mind?” Derek asks, in that encouraging way that says he knows there is, but he wants to give Stiles the opening. He offers a shrug as they reach the crosswalk, their favorite shortcut through the park looming ahead.

“Just...” he gestures vaguely at his head. “Thinking.”

“About?”

“You,” Stiles says wryly, and Derek raises his brows to call bullshit when Stiles continues, “Us, everything we have. It’s--”

“More than you even hoped for?” Derek finishes knowingly, turning to look as they pick their way across the leaf-strewn paths. The chill in the air and the remaining moisture makes the scar on his leg pulse and ache, and the only times he limps now is when it rains, but the sun is setting, casting a golden glow through the trees and turning the sky from blue-grey to a soft, pale persimmon.

He blinks, then stares ahead thoughtfully. “It’s been a ride, don’t get me wrong. Some of it’s been harder than I thought. Lahey still acts like I’m personally responsible for the fact that he didn’t get promoted and they hired me instead - but my boss seems happy.” He shrugs. “I got you, my dad, a gorgeous home... a freaking cat... Guess I’m just waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

Derek stops, turning fully to face him. He searches his face for a long moment, frowning, and then he says, “You deserve to be happy, Stiles.”

Stiles snorts in deflection. “Wow, that’s rich, coming from you, Mr., I Moved Back to the Smallest, Remotest Town in the State So I Could Brood in Private and Shun My Inheritance.”

“I had stuff to work through,” Derek says calmly, not rising to the bait. “You helped me with that.”

“I was a mess,” Stiles argues.

“Yeah, you were,” he nods, “and you helped me see how far I’d already come. Gave me something to focus on that wasn’t my own crap.” He steps closer, curling his fingers in the front of Stiles’ coat. “I realized that if I thought you deserved some peace, I was a hypocrite not to want that for myself, too.”

Derek lets a slow smile creep across his face. "You were my kick in the ass," he says, like he has a hundred times before, but Stiles never truly got what it meant until now.

"Your kick in the ass."

He quirks his lips, eyes darting between Derek’s vibrant, endless green ones. The sunset makes the hazel in Derek’s gaze shimmer right along with it, and Stiles marvels at the tiny flecks of bronze catching the light for the umpteenth time. “Still shocks me that you can be so... fine, sometimes,” he mutters.

Derek grins, shrugging a shoulder. “I have a lot to be grateful for.”

“Oh yeah? I better be number one on that list,” he says playfully, striding ahead on a half-turn. “And my butt better be number two.”

Derek gives a mock-wince. “Actually, that’s four,” he says, and adds, “Right behind double IPAs and HBO,” before Stiles can protest.

“Oh, well, I guess I can understand, then."

"It varies depending on my mood."

"You're such an asshole," Stiles responds with a headshake, and turns to continue down the path when he feels Derek’s heat behind him, hovering close enough to whisper, "You knew what you were getting yourself into," and plant a smacking kiss on his cheek.

Stiles bites down on his lip, forcing himself not to draw attention to the fact that Derek, Mr. Privacy himself, got as close to a PDA as they’ve ever managed - sober, that is. He’s not sure where this blatant, peaceful contentedness comes from, but he decides to take a leaf out of his boyfriend’s book, and let himself enjoy it.

The air of contentment continues as they stop at a small coffee cart that’s usually nestled between a pair of benches on the southern end of the park, then wind their way out of the green and through the streets. Stiles is still relaying the details of Jordan’s move when Derek slows to a stop, seemingly in front of nothing. The building is nondescript; red brick and plain with a small stoop leading to a heavy-looking door. It's in the middle of an old warehouse district currently undergoing some kind of urban regeneration, and the kind of place you walk through with your keys pushed through the spaces in your fingers. Trust the art crowd to be so damn predictable.

“Here?” Stiles asks, as Derek nods, climbs up and pushes open the door with a knock.

“Yeah,” he grins, “Kind of perfect, right? I don’t even know how she found it.”

The street entrance opens to a small, professional foyer and a wooden staircase that leads into a wide, stark room with natural light filtering through glass panels in the ceiling. The skylights illuminate the eggshell shade of the walls, and as an exhibition space for his work, Derek couldn’t have designed it better himself.

“If I told you, I’d have to kill you,” a voice answers with an echo, and Stiles feels the pleased smile wither on his lips.

He wouldn’t call himself the jealous type. Okay, he would, but it’s not like Kate Argent doesn’t give him ample reason. The first time Derek introduced them, back before they even moved, he’d referred to her as a friend of the Hales. Stiles had been curious, yet hesitant, to meet her properly - any relative of Allison’s had to have been something special, and Derek spoke of her with high regard; she’d been a great source of support for him. The way she’d tracked her eyes over Derek’s frame that day was enough indication that there was more to it than that, and when Derek had later dismissively mentioned that they’d tried dating for a while, just before the fire that claimed most of Derek’s family and he was too broken and devastated to be anyone’s anything, it just confirmed Stiles’ unease. Derek didn’t seem to notice the fact that she stared at him like she was about to swallow him whole. He’d spent a long time that night assuaging Stiles’ concerns in the privacy of his bedroom.

It worked, for a while, but it’s not like he looked forward to seeing her every time.

“Sorry we’re a little late,” Derek tells her, leading Stiles in. The room is chilly, or at least that’s the reason Stiles gives himself when he moves closer to Derek’s side.

Kate steps toward them holding a briefcase. She’s in a red, woolen jacket and boots, and the grin on her face is the same one that initially made the hairs on the back of Stiles’ neck stand up.

“It’s okay - I’m sure you two had some important, disgusting couple stuff to do,” she teases, and Derek dips his chin, smiling into the coffee he’s still holding because he’s the world’s slowest drinker.

“Derek says you’re hoping to have the opening on November 10th,” Stiles cuts in. He sounds skeptical, but the more he stands in the room, the more he realizes how much there actually is to do. Some of Derek’s pieces are more installation than sculpture, and he can picture how pedantic his boyfriend will be when it's time for fine-tuning the exhibition already. Derek will probably need at least a week to choose the correct fucking music.

“That’s right,” Kate confirms, moving to a fold-up table to lay her papers out. There are rough floor plans and estimates for labor costs, and it all seems - annoyingly - above board. She might make Stiles feel like he needs to take an extra hot shower, but she’s going to be a damn good agent for Derek.

“Kind of really glad I don’t have to think about this stuff,” Derek confesses shyly, looking over the documents with awe.

“That’s why you got me, sweetie.” she assures, laying a hand on his forearm. To Stiles’ satisfaction, Derek only turns to him.

“Ready to do this?” he asks tentatively, like he thinks Stiles will run screaming at the prospect of a little extra stress. “It’s gonna be a lot.”

“It’s not like you don’t disappear for entire days into your work and grumble constantly about your phone bill as it is,” he jibes, and Derek bites his lip, sighing hard through his nose. Stiles takes pity and presses against him. “Babe, it’s your first real-live exhibition. I’d walk up and down the street wearing nothing but a sandwich board telling people to check it out, if you wanted.”

“Maybe stick to the promo campaign for now,” Derek replies, butting his nose playfully against Stiles’.

"If you two are done being adorable," Kate interrupts with a smirk, "we can have a seat and I'll walk you through the itinerary for the next five weeks."

It takes a couple of hours and a debate over the choice of Derek's central piece (which, oddly, Stiles sides with Kate on, but Derek wins) and they say their goodbyes with the artist excitedly glancing around the room once more.

It's dark when they step out, and Kate's already on her phone making more solid arrangements by the time they make it on to the street. A light drizzle is starting, but it's the kind that threatens to turn heavy without notice.

"Am I the only one who's starving?" Stiles asks, weaving his way past a garbage can that looks like a bunch of raccoons have been at it. The street lights are reflecting off the pavement, and his heart sinks when he realizes the subway is further than he thought it would be.

"You're always starving."

"I'm a growing boy!"

"You should weigh 300lbs," Derek snorts. "I don't even know where you put it."

"Sex, mostly. You should know. You're usually there."

"Oh, 'usually'?" Derek drawls, raising a brow. "Is there something I--"

Whatever he's about to say cuts off as he frowns over Stiles' shoulder.

"What?" Stiles asks.

"Give me your fucking wallets," someone barks, and Stiles spins, blood running cold.

"What the fuck?!"

There's a figure, dressed all in black standing in the shadows. All Stiles can see is the fair, stubbled slope of his jaw under a hood and the fact that he's holding something, but it's enough to have him backing up. Derek's hand on his arm isn't enough to keep the adrenaline from coursing through his veins.

"Okay, just-- relax," Derek is saying, hands aloft now, and Stiles thinks obliquely that this is it - this is how the other shoe drops. They get a taste of happiness and some thug comes along to fuck them over.

He's frozen, breath seizing in his throat and the guy’s coming closer, moving in on them.

"I'm gonna reach into my pocket and get my wallet," Derek warns, “just, please don't hurt--"

"Shut the fuck up!" the thug shouts, and he's just a kid, they realize; a kid more freaked than they are. A kid with a gun.

"Whoa buddy," Stiles croaks, spurred on by the glint of metal, wet from the intensifying rain, held loosely in the kid's hand. "We'll give you what you want, just… Put down the gun, okay?"

It's the opposite of everything his dad taught him to do, but all Stiles can think is gun and Derek and the fact that they're in close proximity and he can't breathe, has to try to talk because if he doesn't, if this fucks up and he stood silently and helplessly and did nothing, again, there's no way he can deal with it. No way he can lose Derek and survive.

Of course, it backfires. Drawn by the sound and movement, the kid takes sudden aim.

Stiles has looked down the barrel of a gun once in his life before. His dad walked in on him, nine-years-old and curious, and had grounded him so hard that Stiles didn’t even get to protest with the fact that it wasn’t loaded.

For the second time in his life, he looks into that tiny tunnel of stark blackness - but this time, his mind goes completely, uselessly blank.

It happens so fast that Stiles barely has time to process. One second the kid is screaming, demanding that they empty their pockets, now, all the while waving the gun in Stiles’ face. It’s a challenge, a threat.

Stiles goes rigid, looking right into the barrel and Derek is stepping forward as he takes the safety off.

“Come on!” the kid roars, eyes darting between them both, and Derek stills at the click. He's frozen, just staring, and it's too intimidating, too much somehow, because the kid’s moving the gun to point at Derek and Stiles is lunging and Derek, he's right in the line of fire when the world burns white and the bang is loud enough to shake the earth and Stiles is falling, shoved out to the side and his head hurts. It's worse than anything he's ever felt and it's almost a relief when the light fades and there’s nothing for a second but black.

But Derek.

Derek.

There's a ringing in his ears when he struggles upright, and he'll remember this later as one of those incredible adrenaline-fuelled stories, probably, but his head doesn't hurt anymore. He just has to get up, because maybe Derek's right - maybe Stiles deserves to be happy, and he's not letting this fucker just threaten everything good in his life away walk away.

The kid is running, and Stiles is angry - so furious that he thinks he can just get away with this - but he's fast, and Stiles' steps peter out. He's pissed, sure, but he isn't just going to go off into the night and leave Derek alone, when he could be hurt or worse and--

"Derek, are you okay? Did you get a good look at him? I think I could describe him if we-- Derek?"

Derek is kneeling on the ground. The rainwater soaks his pants right up to the hip and flattens his hair as it falls in sheets. The rivulets running off his cheekbones don't quite mask the wan, pallid hue of his face, either, and Stiles steps forward in concern for the deep heaves of air he's sucking in; the vacancy of his stare or the shake of his hands, and how he holds them out in front of himself like he's afraid to touch.

Afraid to touch the body lying on the ground.

The body that confuses Stiles at first, because they were alone, right? It feels like hours ago, but he's sure he'd remember.

"C'mon, don't-- you can't do this," Derek is saying quietly, pleading, and Stiles stumbles forward at the pain in his voice, the utter devastation he hears there, and the shock movement of Derek lurching forward over the body on the ground.

"HELP!"

He’s fumbling for his phone and wiping the screen off.

"Derek? What's-- who is that?"

"Keep breathing Stiles, just-- we've got plans, right? You're... my kick in the…" He gulps dryly and shouts, "HELP US! PLEASE!"

Derek's voice is fading into a rasp, and Stiles is reaching for him, confusedly begging him to calm down, when he sees it.

His head swims a little more, processing the sight, listening to Derek plead and beg and bargain and swear. He’s speaking into the phone now, not making sense, And then he screams for help again, and Stiles thinks he might shout, too, because the body is twisted but familiar, and the hands are pale and bloodless, but the face he looks into when Derek finally sits up again is undeniably his own.

Stiles stumbles backward, feeling sick, the sound of sirens in the distance, and everything is bright again just like before, but it stays that way.

He turns toward it, blinking, and it’s coming from the night sky, somehow. A glorious beam of light. Tiny orbs shimmer and swirl, like those dust particles dancing in the afternoon sun, all those months ago. It’s warm there, Stiles knows; it’s warm and safe and happy and peaceful, and he’s drawn to it like he’s never needed anything before, except--

Derek shouts for help again, and there are footsteps rushing their way. Stiles looks back at him, at the lost, terrified expression on his face, at the blood on his hands The hoarse, desperate shake of his voice makes Stiles turn fully.

He goes back to Derek, and the light fades.

__

He’s not sure how he got here.

The waiting room doesn’t smell of anything, which is the most discomforting thing. Stiles thought that the stench of hospitals was burned into his memory, but right now there’s just... nothing. Everything is too loud, and bright, and confusing, but there’s no burn of disinfectant in his nose. He can’t see Derek. Doesn’t remember getting off the street, and maybe there was an ambulance, but that might just be his mind filling in the blanks with logic.

And everyone’s just ignoring him.

He tries flagging down a nurse, but she walks right by, and he doesn’t want to process what that means.

He stands outside the room where his body-- where he saw Derek go, after the police left, but the door is shut. When he tries to open it, his hand passes through the handle.

Stiles needs to sit down.

“So, what’s your damage?” a voice says, and Stiles jerks up to see a girl, not much younger than him, staring at him expectantly.

His mouth gapes. “Wh-- are you talking to me?” He looks around, just to make sure she’s not speaking to someone behind him. All that is there is a wall with some pamphlets about grief counselling.

“New, huh?” she says, slumping into the free seat. “I can tell.”

“What’re you-- who are you?”

“I’m just waiting for my girlfriend, Emily,” she says, jerking a thumb over her shoulder. She’s in ripped leggings and a plaid shirt, but something about her look suggests she’s stepped right out of the 1980s. “They brought her in for an aneurysm. It’ll be any minute now.

She twists in her seat to face the wall behind them, and to Stiles’ astonishment, she leans forward until her head melds with the wall and seems to pass into it, skin paling to match the sickly color.

“Head injury,” she winces thoughtfully as she pulls back. “That’s a tough one. Technically your heart’s still going, but your brain...” she makes a slicing motion across her throat. “Lights out. Well, you know that, look at you.”

“I don’t know anything!” Stiles half-shouts. “I just know I was gonna convince my boyfriend to grab a pizza and then this-- this kid jumps us and he’s got a gun and I’m being shoved and--” he lets out a breath. “Am I dead?”

The sound of a flatline across the hall draws their attention, and the girl pulls a face. “He’s not gonna make it,” she says, as the doctors start chest compressions. The room becomes brighter, then, and that same beam of light Stiles saw on the street breaks through the roof. He watches in awe as the orbs flicker toward the guy on the table, and a wispy, transparent shape rises from the body, twisting and pirouetting upwards and into the ceiling.

The light fades, and the doctors call time of death.

“Told ya,” the girl says.

Stiles is reeling. “I saw that-- that light thing. Before, just after I...” He can’t say it.

She raises her brows. “Ooh, that’s good, you’re lucky it wasn’t the other guys.” Stiles frowns, and she says. “Look, let me give you a tip. Doors, walls, they’re all pretty easy - just pass right through.” She gives him an assessing look. “Especially for you,” she says, and Stiles looks down at himself.

To his amazement, he can see right through his thighs and to the chair beneath, and the arm resting beside the girl’s is almost transparent, compared to hers.

“Guess it’s because you’re still hanging on, or something. Unfinished business?” She grins thoughtfully. “That’s always interesting.”

Stiles holds his hands out, turning them over. He seems to flicker in and out of solidity, as he watches, and the sensation of it makes his stomach roil.

“My… Derek, my boyfriend, I--” he says dazedly. “I couldn’t leave...”

“That’s sweet,” the girl coos, “but kinda stupid, really. You might be stuck here a while.”

He looks up at her fearfully, but he jerks, looking around. She’s gone.

___

In Stiles' sophomore year of college, he and Derek broke up. Distance was a factor, and the feeling that they were in different stages of adulthood made it all the worse. Stiles was supposed to be having this fantastic new life, new friends, and new experiences, but he felt like it was all... unfulfilling. Derek was still in Beacon Hills, buried in endless projects, and they at least texted once a day, but it wasn’t enough. How long could a proper functioning adult want to stay with him anyway? The self-doubt crept in before the bone-deep ache to be in two places at once. Maybe missing someone so much was breaking him in two, and if he could really throw himself into being in college - like, really in college this time, he’d feel a little more normal. He still remembers how he had stayed a good five feet away, feeling sick, like standing too close or looking into Derek’s eyes would change his mind.

Stiles learned a new type of pain that year; the grief for someone that was still around, still within reach, hovering at the back of his mind like a ghost he could still touch. And it was all his fault.

It had taken a month of wallowing in his dorm with three late assignments before a friend from his Tuesday lab, Kira, had forced him back into the world. He learned that just because he was supposed to be having the time of his life, he didn’t have to, and there were different definitions of fun. Her group of friends were quieter, a little more introverted, and talked about things other than getting wasted all the time. By the time she was done with him, he felt stronger, had had time to think, and went back that Spring Break fully armed with all the reasons he and Derek belonged together.

Of course, it didn’t go quite as planned. They ended up fucking on the couch in Derek’s living room before actually getting any words out - that’s the way they communicated best: naked, sweating, unbroken eye contact and biting kisses. Stiles woke up with a crick in his neck and pins and needles in his hand, but Derek was breathing into his neck and things finally felt right again.

He’d owed him more, though - owed Derek an explanation and an apology and they small-talked their way through waffles before he actually got the guts to come clean. It hadn’t taken much convincing - Stiles’ dad said Derek spent those months skulking around like he was either about to pick a fight with the next person who looked at him wrong or run off to live in the woods. Derek emphatically denied both.

Kira’s sunny demeanor made old wounds reopen, sometimes, but he could never tell her - or get around to thanking her, either.

This pain was worse.

He’s not sure how long it’s been; days and nights seemingly blur together into some strange, limbo-like existence.

Others pass him sometimes, dressed in clothes both modern and old, and some even try to say things, ask him questions, but they're not who Stiles wants to talk to.

Kate comes by, distraught, and she holds Derek for a long time, professing her guilt at bringing them to such a dangerous part of the city. She offers help if he needs it, offers to talk to the police, to bring him clothes from home. Derek doesn’t say much of anything.

He doesn’t say anything at all when he sits in the hospital room each day. Stiles was moved to the ICU not long after the incident, and the words on his chart don’t make much sense besides comatose and massive intracranial hemorrhaging. The nurses gave up on reminding Derek about visiting hours, since the only response they got was cold silence. His shoulders hunch, beard patchy and eyes vacant, and Stiles wants to talk to him so badly, to touch him, that sometimes he feels like screaming and shouting and breaking something - but nobody can hear him, and his hands just float past ineffectually.

He stares down at himself, pale and still on the bed. It’s an odd sensation, seeing your own face up close, so familiar yet different. Stiles fixates on the tiniest details of his appearance - the moles on his cheek, the slope of his nose. There are tubes and monitors sticking out of god-knows-where. His head is shaved ridiculously on one side, like he’s trying out a hip new look, except it’s all patched up.

He thinks it can’t have been too long, since the shadow of stubble on his jaw is barely coming in, but he’s not sure. It’s not like he’s an expert on coma patients. Does that stuff slow down?

He even tries stepping back into his body; see if it’s easy as all that, but all he feels is cold and uncomfortable - like a shoe that doesn’t fit and is on the wrong foot. So mostly, he just stares. He stares at himself because he can’t bear to look at Derek anymore.

His dad can’t either, it seems, and he too, looks like shit.

He arrives at the hospital early in the morning, clothes rumpled from his journey, and holds Derek until they’re both choking back sobs.

“I’m so sorry,” Derek tells him, and it’s the first time Stiles has heard him speak a complete sentence since it all happened. The sound of his voice, paper-thin and guilty, snaps through Stiles like a gunshot.

“Shh, it’s okay,” his dad says, but Stiles knows from the look on his face that it really isn’t.

“I promised I’d take care of him, I--” The sentence dies in Derek’s throat. “I’m so sorry.”

They part long enough for his dad to motion for Derek to sit down, and take a seat beside him. The nurses are with Stiles’-- Stiles self, and he doesn’t know what will happen if he leaves the hospital, but he hates watching them move him around and stick things in his skin, so he’s left standing outside the room with them helplessly, wishing his dad would stand up and wrap his arms around him like he used to.

“Tell me what happened,” his dad says gently, and Derek’s knuckles go white, bunched in his lap before he slowly begins to tell the story.

It’s a whole new kind of torture, hearing it from Derek’s mouth. He’d knocked the gun enough to miss hitting Derek, it seemed, so that was something, but he’d been shoved hard in the struggle, head connecting with concrete and leaving him... here.

His dad is quiet for a long time, eyes unseeing. “I told him never to--” he lets out a ragged sigh. “I can’t believe this.”

“It’s my fault,” Derek croaks. “I just wanted the gun off him and I-- I hesitated. If I’d just handed over everyth--”

“No,” his dad says, stern now, and shakes his head vehemently. Stiles thinks he might love his father a little more in that moment for saying it. “You can’t blame yourself for something you had no control over. This kid was running around with a gun and almost shot you both.” He steels his jaw, “Stiles would never have let that happen, not in a million years.”

Derek looks down, pain etched on his face, and opens his mouth to say something. He halts, and instead shakes his head.

His dad’s questions about Stiles condition seem never-ending, but Derek powers through them, sometimes verbatim from the team in charge of Stiles’ care. It’s a lot of waiting for test results and we’ll just have to keep hoping, and it’s the first time Stiles hears close to that fiery frustration in Derek’s voice that he knew was still there.

“I want to talk to his doctor,” his father says resolutely, and yeah, Stiles hopes the sheriff glower can somehow magically make all this right - but it’s not second grade anymore, and he’s not being bullied on the playground. “Can you take me to him?”

Derek nods, and Stiles almost forgot that his dad is still listed as his next of kin, and wonders if he’ll somehow be able to find out more.

He moves to follow, because, well, what else is he going to do, when a flash of dark red pulls his attention to the end of the hallway. It’s stark against the bland walls of the hospital, and he can’t quite explain this... sensation he’s feeling.

He frowns, hesitating. It looked like a familiar set of shoulders, red hoodie draped over them, turning the corner. The side profile sends a jolt through him.

Stiles is running before he can even second guess it, following the vision that’s just out of reach. Each corner he turns seems to be a second too late, until he realizes he's outside, out in the ambulance bay of the hospital, and slows down to look back.

Well, too late now, he thinks, and starts running again, dodging people and hopping over obstacles, being led through the streets by something he wants to believe is real, has to see.

He follows the trail on to the subway, eyes darting around, but he can’t see the hoodie anywhere, and the crowd is thick with the midday rush. He’s still turning in a slow circle, when he feels it.

Eyes on him, cold and fierce.

He freezes, spinning to stare into the face of a tall, burly black guy marching toward him. He’s in a transit worker’s uniform that’s faded and slightly out of date. To Stiles’ shock, the guy hauls him to his toes by the front of his shirt, and scowls.

“Get your own damn train!” he spits in Stiles’ face, and Jesus, he does not have time for this.

“I didn’t-- I’m trying to find--”

“This one’s taken!” He shoves Stiles so hard he skids through the door and right into the next car, before scrambling to his feet. The passengers sit on normally, completely unaware as the guy steps through the metal in pursuit.

“What the hell, man? I’m sorry! I... if you let me go I won’t come back...”

The guy throws a fist out, smashing a window with such force that several passengers scream, but he just stares at Stiles, unflinching. Stiles doesn't know if the fear of getting hurt is irrational, given his current state, but he's not about to take a chance.

“This is your stop,” the transit guy says menacingly as the train slows, and Stiles runs so fast out the opening doors that he’s not entirely sure he’s still hitting the ground.

He stops by the street exit to get a handle on himself, muttering a, what the fuck, but the glimpse of red once again pulls him onward. He's up the steps when he realizes he’s only a couple stops away from home.

He’s outside his apartment when he finally admits he lost the trail. He thinks Derek has been back, maybe once, but the compulsion to be in a space that's all their own, that's familiar, drives him inside. He slips in silently behind the man on the first floor whose wife doesn’t let him smoke in the apartment.

It’s almost embarrassing, taking the stairs, because riding the elevator until it magically stops on the right floor doesn’t really feel like a great alternative. Buttons are not his friend.

He stares at their door for a long moment. The girl in the hospital had said they aren’t a problem for him anymore, but voluntarily passing through something seems almost like admitting defeat. He really will be... intangible.

The sound of movement coming from inside makes him forget that pretty quickly, and he closes his eyes and takes a step before he can really talk himself out of it. There’s a tingle through his being, like he’s stepped through the skin of a bubble or something, but it’s the door that’s solid, not him.

Their living room is almost exactly how he left it, that last morning when he ran out the door for work. Stiles’ sneakers are by the couch; his coffee cup on the floor, and a folder of sketches for one of the new accounts from work is on the end table. Aslan sprawls lazily on the comfy chair Derek insisted on getting out of storage - even though it's painfully out of place in the apartment - and his eyes watch knowingly as Stiles goes by, tracking his movement as if he's just come home from a day at the office.

Huh.

The source of the intrusion rattles down the hall, and Stiles moves toward it, curious.

It only takes a glimpse from the side for his curiosity to melt into anger.

It's the kid. The one who attacked them.

"Are you fucking kidding me?" Stiles yells furiously, but the guy moves on, opening doors and checking out each room likes he's searching for something specific. "I'm laying half dead in the hospital because you tried to rob us and you show up in our home to finish the job?"

His rage makes him lash out, like it's a primal thing, fists ripping through the air around the intruder in a frustratingly futile effort to exert some kind of retribution. He's never felt this incensed before, everything that's been done to him - to them, boiling through his being and making him burn with it.

A picture on the wall - a selfie of the two of them taken on one of Derek's ridiculous nature hikes a million years ago when Stiles was so hungover he threw up over the edge of a cliff - shakes on the nail beside the intruder's head. It rattles enough to dislodge from the hang, and clatters to the floor with a thud.

The guy startles, and Stiles stares at it, then his hands, shocked.

Did he do that? Like the ghost on the subway?

He tries again with another picture, but it's the same old result, and the intruder moves on, further into the apartment.

He curses in frustration, and he almost thinks the guy hears him, because he turns. Stiles stares wide-eyed for a moment, elated, but it's only when he hears the rattle of the key in the door that his stomach drops.

Derek is home.

"No, no, no!" Stiles rants, panicked, moving out to where he can see him. His dad probably forced him to come back long enough to shower and change his clothes, maybe even sleep, but there's a gunman in their apartment and the last time they met, they were both on the end of the barrel. The shot he took in panic might not have made it once, but it’s not like Derek will be on his guard here.

"Get out!" he pleads with Derek, checking over his shoulder to see if the guy is following. "He's here, Derek, he's-- you need to leave!"

Derek moves through the apartment in a daze, stripping off his clothes and running a weary hand over his features. He looks like he's aged years; dark circles under his eyes, mouth downturned. The intruder slips behind the door as Derek comes into the bedroom, flicking on the shower in the en-suite and moving to unbuckle his belt.

He watches Derek, eyes tracking over his body, and Stiles gets in his face.

"Don't even fucking look at him!" he roars. "Get the hell out of our home!"

The guy just looks on silently as Derek moves around the bathroom, and Stiles yells in frustration before noticing that Aslan is perched on the dresser, watching the whole thing with interest.

Stiles focuses on the cat, staring into his eyes. "I know you can see me," he tells it, scowling. "C'mon and protect the only one of us who gives good belly rubs."

The cat stiffens up, hackles rising in the ginger scruff of his neck. It hisses and growls, before leaping off the dresser and landing right on the guy's face, claws slicing down through the flesh. The intruder curses, hand flying up to throw off the cat and stem the blood, and he stumbles away down the hall and out the door of the apartment.

Derek raises his head out from under the spray, frowning, but when he doesn't hear anything else, he leans a hand on the tiled wall, letting the water beat down on him.

It's a small victory, and Stiles lingers a moment, just looking at him, before tearing himself away to follow the asshole who seems to have it out for them.

---

They end up in a run-down part of the city that Stiles thinks might not be far from the exhibition space. The guy's apartment is a dump; graffitied walls and the kind of carpeting that makes him thankful for the fact he can't seem to smell anything.

There's a stained mattress in the floor, some cash on the table in multiple denominations. The guy pulls a gun out of the back of his jeans, and Derek's wallet out of his pocket, laying it out beside it.

"You're scum," Stiles growls, standing behind him as he checks the cut on his cheek in the mirror. He's barely in his twenties, by the look of him. His hair is dirty blonde, his jaw sculpted, and he almost looks like some rich-kid runaway that somehow ended up on the wrong side of the tracks. The kind his dad would try his damnedest to steer right, if he could.

Stiles hates him. He didn't think it was possible to loathe another person this much, but it bubbles deep down inside of him, almost as white-hot as his feelings for Derek.

"I promise you," he tells him, "if you come near him again, I will kill you. I don't know how, yet, but I will. And I'll succeed."

The guy pulls out his phone, scrolling through to an un-named contact, and hits call.

"Hey, it's me.... No, he came back while I was there."

Stiles frowns, following him as he paces the apartment. Try as he might, he can’t seem to listen to the sounds coming through the handset - it’s a jumble of static and hums that hurt his ears.

"Who are you talking to?” he demands, spewing the words out like venom. “What the fuck do you want from us?!"

"I’ll try again, just... I’m gonna need more time.” He frowns at something said on the phone. “Look, you’re the one who said it was a no-brainer.”

Stiles feels like the world grinds to a halt. It was planned. He’s going back to their home.

“It’s not like they just leave all that shit laying around. I’ll get it done. Chill.” He hangs up the phone, and starts rolling a joint. Stiles watches mutely, mind reeling, feeling like what little of the world he had left is crashing down around his ears.

__

He walks aimlessly for what must be an age; his concept of time is fucked up now, and maybe a day passed, or more, or maybe it was just a couple hours. He has a feeling it was the former, though - there was a lot of darkness for a while, but maybe that’s just what being away from his body, or away from Derek, does to him.

He’s never felt this helpless before, not even those horrible months after his mom died and his dad constantly smelled like bourbon. Ten-year-olds don’t exactly make good grief counsellors, but at least they have the ability to talk and touch things and actually be heard.

Watching the kid for more information had proven fruitless. He’d seen some envelopes with past-due stamps stuffed mostly out of sight, and other than a name - Garrett Royce - they weren’t very helpful. Stiles couldn’t really bear to share space with him much longer, anyway - especially when all he was doing with his time was getting slowly blitzed and watching Family Guy.

Derek was in danger, and the hardest thing about it was the fact that Stiles couldn’t help him, couldn’t even warn him, and was on the cusp of death when it had barely even deterred the attacker.

Was it a murder plot, staged to look like a mugging? There’s clearly something they want. And he hasn’t overlooked the fact the guy wasn’t just after their wallets, in the end. He still doesn’t even know why. He runs through the list of reasons anyone could possibly have it out for him. Some of Stiles’ work is highly confidential, but it’s not like anyone would kill him over it. The only person who seems to have it out for Stiles is Lahey, but as intense as he is, would he kill him over a measly promotion?

His head hurts. Not least of all because he’s trying not to entertain the notion that the bullet was always intended for Derek.

The city moves on around him, unsympathetic. There are periods of nothingness where he gets stuck with his own thoughts. He guesses they’re all he really has right now; he never really knew how much he marked the passage of time with sleep and meals and early morning coffee.

God, he misses coffee.

The scent of it pulls him back to the present - the first thing he remembers actually smelling since this all happened, and he blanches when his gaze catches on a flash of dark red, standing in line at a doughnut stand up ahead. His feet propel him forward on instinct, brow scrunching, and it feels like a blink of time before he reaches the small group of people. When he gets there, though, the one he’s looking for is nowhere to be seen.

Stiles looks around, disoriented, frustrated, before he sees him again, clustered in by a copse of pedestrians at a crosswalk. He surges on towards it, but when he gets to the other side of the street, the figure is gone. Crying out in frustration, Stiles kicks ineffectually at a discarded soda can, and turns in a small circle.

There.

The chase takes up again, much like at the hospital. Every corner he reaches a second too late, entire blocks traversed in a single-minded mission.

He still can’t seem to catch up.

Stiles stops outside a bar in the better part of town when the trail goes cold, wishing more than anything that he could go in and drink something that would burn worse than the feeling in his stomach. It’s peculiar, not being tired in the literal sense, but instead he feels a soul-weary exhaustion burrowing through his being; like he’s grayscale, not fully formed. As if he’s dimmer, somehow. The confusion isn’t helping.

He looks down at himself, half expecting to see it - the dimness - but it’s just the same, semi-transparency as before.

“I’d leave her for you.”

Stiles glances to the side where some Business Suit with a receding hairline is leaning over a girl, tie askew, and a pleading look on his face.

“Oh yeah?” the girl hums, sounding bored. She taps at a cigarette but doesn’t take a drag as she leans against the painted front of the building, red-bottomed heels crossed over one another.

She’s actually distractingly beautiful, in an ethereal, mythical way. Glossy, auburn hair tumbles thick and luscious about her shoulders. Her eyes are wide and entrancing, and she has these full lips that look like they could be smiling at any point; like she’s aware of a billion secrets. Stiles can see why the guy seems so bewitched.

The girl, however, couldn’t look less into it.

“I started putting money away,” Business Suit offers, fumbling at his hands. Her eyes snap to the guy, at once interested.

“For what?”

“I thought we could—St. Tropez maybe?” he says, and the girl pulls a face. “Hawaii,” the guy offers. “South of France?”

The girl looks innocently pensive. “Hmm, and what about your kids?”

“They’re with the nanny all the time anyway. I’ll just say it’s a business meeting.”

“Ah,” she says, reaching out to trace a finger down his lapel, avoiding his eyes. “I’m not sure, Honey - I’ve got this big project due for school at the end of the month. I don’t even know if I’ll get peace and quiet to concentrate on it. ”

“Take my apartment,” the guy puts in eagerly. “The one on Woodbury. It’s completely vacant.”

“I couldn’t,” she says, turning away, but Stiles is at the angle to see a pleased little grin nestling in the corner of her lips.

“I insist.”

“Oh man...Dude,” Stiles snorts, “Have some fuckin’ self-respect. She’s taking you for a ride.”

The girl stiffens slightly, brows pulling into a frown.

“What?” she says, turning to the guy, but he just looks back at her beatifically.

“I said I insist,” he says earnestly. His cheeks are flushed with alcohol and the beginnings of a flop-sweat is glistening at his temples.

“No, the part about--” She studies him. “Never mind.”

“I can have a car sent to pick you up in the morning,” Business Suit continues, “And one to take you to your classes every day, since it’s a little out of your way.”

“Holy shit, you almost deserve to have her bankrupt you,” Stiles mutters, rolling his eyes. The girl straightens up.

“Okay, who is that?” she demands stepping away from the wall, looking around, and Stiles stills.

“Who is what?” the guy asks, glancing over his shoulder.

“The guy providing smartass commentary,” she tells him and turns away, eyes darting about. “Think you’re cute, hmm?”

“You can hear me?” Stiles exclaims, stepping closer. He thinks if he could feel his heartbeat, it'd be pounding. “Oh my god, you can-- you have to help me! There’s this guy, Derek Hale. He lives on--”

“Of course I can hear you! Where are you?” the girl snaps, and the guy steps back, confused

“Right here, babe...”

Stiles throws his hands up. “Oh my god, listen--

“Not you, the guy,” she says dismissively. “Can’t you hear that?”

“I don’t hear anything, sweetheart,” he says, rubbing a hand down her arm. Her performance forgotten, the girl flinches away. “Let’s get you another drink.”

“What?” she says distractedly, seeming to remember that he’s there. She shakes her head. “No, I--” She looks around; eyes the man again, and frowns. Then, her gaze widens as if she’s realizing something. “Oh no,” she says gravely. “Not again.”

"I can't believe it! Lady, you have to help me! My name is Stiles, and--"

"No, no, no!" she mutters, shaking her head. “I can’t do this. It wasn’t real...” She picks up her purse and backs away from the bar, and the increasingly confused guy stepping after her. “I need to... I’ll call you,” the girl says, picking up her pace until she’s practically jogging down the street.

Stiles breaks into a run after her, determined not to let her out of his sight. “Please, I know you can hear me! My name is Stiles! Come on, say it. Stiles!”

“It’s not real,” she mutters to herself, flagging down a cab. “It’s just an auditory hallucination brought on by stress from the research proposal, and --”

“Stiles! Stiles, Stiles, Stiles! Say it!”

“Where to, Miss?” the cab driver asks as she clambers into the seat.

“Vale and West…”

“Stiles! Stiles!”

“Vale and West-- Stiles!” she exclaims, chest heaving, and Stiles crows in delight.

“West Stiles?” the cabbie parrots, frowning into the mirror.

She slumps back into the seat, drained, and says. “Sorry, West Eagleton,” she sighs. “Just... take me home.”

---

Stiles follows her up the steps to her apartment. She’d spent the entire cab journey dutifully ignoring him, but the moment the door closes, she spins.

“Alright, what the hell do you want?” she seethes, looking around. It’s modestly decorated, but anything she skipped on in decor seems to have been spent on expensive clothes, shoes and cosmetics. The place looks like the frickin’ storage room at Barney’s.

Conversely, the other end of the room is filled with various pieces of electronic equipment. Spare parts, metal hinges and joints; Wires, and something that looks like a grab-caw from an arcade machine, and not one, but three laptops.

She turns slowly in the room, squinting suspiciously.

“Definitely can’t see me, huh?” Stiles says gleefully from right beside her, and she jerks violently, before closing her eyes and taking a deep breath.

“You just potentially ruined weeks of groundwork. There better be a good reason.”

“Groundwork? What, on conning that dude out of his money? Getting him to leave his wife for you?”

“It wouldn’t have gone that far,” she says defensively, scowling. “Besides, he’s a prick. I’d be doing her a favor.”

“Oh, charitable adultery. That’s new.”

“You’re the one who’s dead,” she counters, folding her arms. “Something tells me you’re in no position to criticize someone else’s life choices.”

Stiles opens his mouth to argue, and then snaps it shut. “‘M not really dead,” he mutters childishly.

“Oh yeah?” she says, raising a brow. “Hate to break it to you, but ghost-equals-dead. There, you’re no longer lost in the land of limbo. Go into the light and be free, or whatever.”

“Oh no,” Stiles says, shaking his head. “You’re not getting rid of me that easily.”

She slumps on to her bed, letting out a sigh. “‘Course not.”

“Look, I just need you to do this one thing for me, and then I’ll leave you alone. You get to go back to your life of moral ambiguity and ... casual terrorism, or whatever.”

“It’s a robotics proposal, genius,” she snaps. Stiles studies the equipment again, and raises his brows. That’s... pretty awesome, actually.

“Oh,” he says. “What, like J.A.R.V.I.S?”

She rolls her eyes. “J.A.R.V.I.S is an Artificial Intelligence. That’s only half of it. What I’m working on is software and actuator design... mechatronics, like, it would essentially be the limbs and dexterous parts of--” She cuts herself off. “No, you know what? Just tell me what it is you want and then you can leave.”

Stiles takes a breath and comes to a stop in front of her. “I need you to save my boyfriend. He’s in danger, from the guy who - who attacked me.”

The girl sits silently for a moment, face blank, before laying back on the bed with a thump.

What did you do today, Lydia? Oh, you know, got harassed by a ghost intent on saving his gay lover, what about you?”

“Technically bisexual, actually,” Stiles corrects, and she raises her head to scowl at nothing. “Your name is Lydia?”

She sits up on her elbows, kicking off her shoes. “Yes, thanks for asking. I don’t have to ask yours since you screamed it at me.”

Stiles feels a little sheepish, but in his defense, she’s the first person with an actual heartbeat to hear his voice in days. Which, speaking of that - she doesn’t seem all that shocked, all in all.

“Why do I feel like I’m not the first...person like me, you’ve talked to?”

She’s silent for a long moment, laying back on the bed, and Stiles almost takes the question back. He’s fully aware that he needs her a lot more than she needs him right now.

“My grandmother was a... you know.”

“A lesbian?”

“A medium,” she enunciates “She always said I was like her. Said my imaginary friends in grade school weren’t imaginary.” She chews her lip. “After she died, my dad told me it was time to stop playing around. That people would talk about me; make fun of me, or worse.” She lets out a bitter little huff, and her eyes go glassy with recollection. “He was right. My prom date was an okay guy, but he didn’t like to learn that he was being followed around by his dead twin. That’s the last time I listened to any of the voices. Eventually I stopped hearing them.”

Stiles lets that settle over him. He’d like to think he’s open-minded, but a week ago he’d probably have called himself a skeptic. Life after death is a comforting concept, and he has reason to invest in it more than most - but he always felt like he’d have a sign.

“I’m sorry,” he says redundantly. “Look, I know it’s a lot, but... A phone call, that’s all I ask.”

“A phone call,” she repeats, dubious. “I’m what, supposed to call up this guy I don’t know and tell him his dead boyfriend wants to talk to him?”

“I’m not dead,” he reaffirms. “I’m in a coma.”

Lydia blanches. “What?”

“I’m in a coma. I got shoved to the ground when we were being mugged and now I’m in the hospital.” He doesn’t think mentioning the gun or the possible premeditation would be constructive right now.

“So I have to tell him his technically alive boyfriend, in the barest sense of the word, has a message for him even though he’s a vegetable.”

Stiles scowls, regardless of whether she can see it. “It’s not gonna be forever,” he bargains. “My body just... needs to heal, or something.” At least he hopes so. He’s been avoiding thinking about it, truth be told. “But it might be too late by then.”

“I’m not-- there’s a reason I don’t do this. Do you know how hard it is to get a research grant as it is, when you’re still in school, and a woman, without accusations of mental issues?”

Stiles stares at his feet. He can see her carpet right through his toes, and there’s a lump in his throat the size of a tennis ball. “But he could get hurt,” he says.

Lydia sighs so hard a tendril of hair flies away from her face, and roll to the side to sit on the edge of her bed. “What’s his number?”

He launches into declarations of gratitude, but she holds up a finger. “One phone call. That’s it,” she sternly tells the lamp by his shoulder.

Stiles feels oddly giddy as the phone rings, like they’re calling his crush at a slumber party, except they’re trying to convey a deathly warning, and he’s literally slept with the guy thousands of times.

“H’lo?” He sounds groggy from sleep, and Stiles can imagine him right now; mussed and squinting. He’s probably kneading that spot on his neck he always seems to get a crick in.

“Derek Hale?” Lydia asks, fingers playing with the edge of her blanket.

“Yes,” he says cautiously. “Who is this?”

Her brows rise, like she’s surprised that Derek is an actual person. Like she’s relieved this is somewhat real. “I, uh, my name is Lydia. I have a message for you. From Stiles.”

The sound of covers moving comes down the phone, and Stiles chews on his lip.

“Stiles?” It comes out broken, and slightly hopeful. Stiles’ chest aches.

“This is going to sound insane, I know, but... I have certain... abilities.” She takes a steadying breath. “Stiles came to me today, and he told me--”

“Today?" There's a long, unnerving pause, and then: "Who the fuck are you?” Derek demands, anger clouding his tone. “I don’t know what scheme you think you’re pulling, but Stiles is laying in the ICU, he can’t talk to anybody.”

“I know,” she replies, resigned. “He told me that when I talked to him. There are things I can do... Stiles told me to tell you--”

“Don’t call here again,” Derek snaps, and the line goes dead.

Lydia drops the phone on her lap, and holds up her hands. “I tried.”

“You have to go there,” Stiles says instantly, stepping closer.

“No way!”

“He doesn’t believe you right now, but he will. Please.

She shakes her head. “No, okay? No. I said I’d make the call, and I did. I don’t know you, and I don’t know him. You just showed up and started babbling at me--”

“I can talk all night,” Stiles threatens. “It’s my special skill.”

“Knock yourself out,” Lydia challenges, pulling an iPod out from under her pillow and waving it in the air. “I’m going to sleep.” She pulls the covers over herself, still clothed, and shuts off the lamp. Stiles glares, curses, and falls back into one of the seats.

Then, inspiration strikes.

I'm 'Enery the Eighth, I am,

'Enery the Eighth I am, I am!

I got married to the widow next door,

She's been married seven times before

And every one was an 'Enery, ENERY!

She wouldn't have a Willie nor a Sam

I'm her eighth old man named 'Enery

'Enery the Eighth, I am!

He can see her draw the cover back to scowl into the room, before pulling it back over her head.

“Second verse, same as the first! I’m ‘Enery the Eighth I am...”

Lydia amps up the volume on Beyoncé. Stiles sings louder. He gets to an astonishing ten verses before Lydia throws the covers away, kicks her legs out, and hisses, “Okay!

“She’s been marr-- what?”

“I said okay! Just please, shut up!”

“You’ll go?” he asks excitedly, jumping up.

“Yes! Just.... let me get some sleep.”

“Oh my god! Yes! Okay,” he nods, and then mimes zipping his mouth shut. “Thank you!”

“I hate you,” she grumbles, and Stiles beams.

___

She presses the buzzer and shifts on her feet, eyes darting around suspiciously at the early-morning crowd as she waits for a reply.

The area had kind of come with the apartment, but they’d really settled in here. At the end of the block was the cafe that Derek grumbled charged way too much for their muffins, but still bought a box of the cinnamon brioche ones every Sunday with his noon coffee run. There was the firehouse that had been converted into a bar sometime in the 90s and still had the pole in the lounge (Stiles had claimed that just invited trouble, but mostly people used it as an excuse to show off terrible dance moves). Two vegan restaurants situated opposite each other were embroiled in a passive-aggressive grudge match that mostly consisted of writing snarky comments on their chalkboards. An organic beauty salon that always somehow smelled like lemon squares was sandwiched between a head shop and a regular old-timey greengrocers.

“Trust you to live in Hipsterville,” she comments under her breath. “If I come out of here wearing an ironic t-shirt and fake glasses I’m suing your boyfriend.”

“Don’t be such a snob,” Stiles replies, leaning against the wall, smirking at the fact that he’s wearing one out of two. “You sound like a hipster already.”

“Screw you--

“Yes?” a voice comes, tinny through the speaker.

“Derek?” she asks, straightening up. “It’s Lydia... I called last night? About Stiles.”

There’s a click, and the little light goes off. Lydia throws her hands up and sighs, turning away.

“No, no! You have to try again!” Stiles exclaims, scurrying after her.

“I didn’t even want to come down here!” she throws back over her shoulder. “If he doesn’t want my help, I can’t force--”

“I’m ‘Enerey the Eighth I am!” Stiles starts again, desperate.

“Oh my god, okay!” She takes a step back on the sidewalk, and cranes her neck up. “Derek! Derek Hale!”

There’s nothing, but the window to the workshop is open, probably letting out fumes.

“I know you’re up there! Stiles wants to talk to you!”

She holds her palms out helplessly, and Stiles, after wringing his own hands for a moment, says. “Tell him you know about the time we drove to the beach for a date and had to call my dad because my jeep got stuck in the sand.”

“I know about the time his jeep got stuck in the sand! You were trying to have a romantic date and had to call his dad!”

Nothing. It has to work, though - Derek values his privacy too much for someone to scream details of his life out on the street.

Stiles wracks his brain, pacing, and then stops. “We got a free upgrade to first class when we flew to LA because we lied and said we were newlyweds.”

Lydia relays it, and still, no response.

“He told me how you listen to Rammstein when you’re doing metalwork because it makes you feel burly!”

No reply, except for a girl with purple hair shaved into an undercut two floors below who leans out and says. “Have some damn self-respect!” and Lydia tells her to mind her own business.

“He says you told him you guys couldn’t get a cat, but he did anyway and you acted all mad but then he came home to find you rolling around with Aslan on the living room floor.”

“I know about the time you hid your underwear because Stiles kept borrowing them and you got pissed that you had to go to an important meeting commando,” she shouts, and mouth curling, mutters, "Seriously?"

Stiles lets himself smile at the memory of Derek's outrage.

"You once gave one of his college classmates a minor sprain when you shook his hand because you thought he was into Stiles!"

“I know about the picture in the hallway from the time you dragged him out hiking after his graduation ball, and he threw up over the edge of a cliff. You felt so bad you piggybacked him back to the car.” She takes a breath. “I have a hundred of these, Derek, all you need to do is come down--”

The street door opens, and Stiles’ stomach flips as Derek fills the frame. He looks weary, and devastated; everything from the past week etched on his beautiful face. The eyes are the worst - broken and cautious, rimmed with red.

He’s holding the photo, slightly crumpled in one hand, out of the shattered frame.

Lydia’s mouth slackens, and she licks her lips. “Derek?” she asks, and he simply nods.

___

His palms are flat on the table like he doesn’t trust his hands. Stiles sits in the chair closest to him, grinding his jaw at the guarded, sullen look on Derek’s face. Lydia stirs her tea with clumsy fingers, aiming for an air of calm, but it’s not fooling anyone.

“You say you can hear him,” he says lowly, watching her. Stiles hasn’t seen Derek look this menacing since they first met; shoulders stiff, chin dipped. His eyes, pale and intense, take on a icy-sharp quality over the striking beauty Stiles is used to seeing in them. He knows his boyfriend is suspicious and upset, but it hits him how differently Derek looks at him compared to everyone else.

It makes a sad smile curl across his mouth.

“That’s right,” she hums, still not making eye contact.

“How?” he says brusquely. It’s the old Derek MO - go on the offensive because inside he’s crumbling.

“I told you. There are... things I can do.” She closes her mouth so tightly that the rouge disappears, and then shakes her head. “You know I’m not lying.”

Derek’s eyes narrow infinitesimally. “He told you all those things?” he asks, and clears his throat when his voice cracks. “About - about us, our life together?”

“How else would I know?” Lydia retorts, eyes snapping to his at last. It’s Derek who looks away this time, rolling his own lips. His breath seems to be coming short, now, and his gaze goes glassy with emotion. The cafe is quiet; morning’s rush not quite given way to lunch crowd, and any that are around seem to be taking their stuff to go or trying to keep to themselves. It’s still not ideal, and Stiles is unsurprised that Derek wouldn’t invite a stranger into his home, so it’ll have to do.

“The... the people you can hear. They’re-- are they--” Derek swallows.

“Dead?” Lydia asks, raising a brow. Her face goes pained for a fragment of a second, and then she nods. “Usually.”

“What does that mean?” he asks, voice harsh again.

“Stiles says he isn’t. He told me he’s still in a coma.”

The breath punches out of Derek so violently that he slumps. Then, pushing back the chair with a screech, he’s up, storming towards the cafe’s entrance. Stiles panics.

“Stop him!” he shouts at Lydia, who just holds her hands up helplessly, shrugging.

Lydia!”

The salt and pepper shakers skid across the table and into the wall. She startles. “Derek! Wait!”

He shakes his head, not even bothering to turn. The three other patrons in the place send curious glances their way, but if Derek even notices, he makes no indication of it.

“He’s here!” she says urgently, for lack of any better ideas.

Derek stops, then, seeming to gather something up inside himself, and turns to fix a glare on her. He marches back, points a finger right in her face.

“I don’t know what you’re trying to pull,” he says, with an eerie calmness, “Or how the fuck you got all this information about us, but it’s not going to work.” He shakes his head, the muscles in his jaw working, and looks at her with disgust. “Pick someone else to prey on. I have to get to the hospital.”

Lydia’s face goes icy-cool in defiance, Stiles rambling beside her. “He says you’re wearing the sweater he had to replace because he used your old one to plug up the faucet when it broke off in his hand.”

Derek turns away, and Stiles feels like his chest is bursting.

“Tell him I love him,” Stiles says desperately, convinced he’s not going to get another chance. It’s like he’s fading away into nothing, and watching his anchor to existence walk out the door. His body seems the same, but that can’t be right, not when he feels like this.

“He says he loves you!” Lydia tries, her own voice betraying her with a croak. Her cheeks flush, and Stiles glances the barest hint of moisture in her eyes.

Derek snorts over his shoulder. “Nice try,” he says coldly. “Stiles would never say that.”

It aches. The burn is deep, because for someone who ran his mouth like his breaths were limited, that’s the one thing he never got to say. He never even managed to tell the love of his life how he felt, because of this stupid superstitious fear that meant nothing, in the end - Stiles is the one who got hurt and went away, not Derek.

“Tell him ‘ditto’,” Stiles says weakly, feeling sick, watching Derek move further off through tunneled vision. His face crumples in grief; for himself, and for what it looks like he’s losing.

“What the hell does ‘ditto’ mean?” Lydia demands instead, tightly shaking her head in bewilderment. She’s still gesturing madly in the vague direction of Stiles’ voice, when Derek stops, right in front of the door. Slowly, he turns, and when he does, his cheeks are wet. His throat bobs before he can form words, and even then, they come out more of a rasp than a solid sound.

“What did you say?”

Lydia’s nose wrinkles. “He told me to tell you ‘ditto’, but I don’t--” She takes in the look on his face, and realizes. “Oh.”

Derek looks around the room very slowly, eyes dancing right over Stiles and away, and scrubs a hand roughly over his face. It seems to take an eternity for him to get back to the table, and even when he’s close enough, he stays standing. His hands are shaking so hard the photo he still holds is a blur, and this isn’t fair. None of it is.

“He’s here,” Lydia reiterates softly. She snorts at Stiles’ prompting, and adds, “he says someone’s gotta be your kick in the ass, and he’s the only one up to the job.”

Derek sits down with a thump at that, features drawn, and when he blinks, a fresh wave of tears rolls silently down his cheeks.

“Stiles?” he asks tentatively.

“Hey, Dumbass,” Stiles chokes out, resting his hand over Derek’s on his thigh. He can imagine the warmth seeping through the denim, but feels nothing.

“You two are ridiculous,” Lydia says after a pause, shaking her head. She’s not fooling anyone with the sheen in her eyes or the tiny sniffle she hides with a hair-flick.

“Oh, the girl who talks to ghosts thinks we’re ridiculous.”

“Excuse you, the fact I can hear you seemed like it was working out pretty well about twenty seconds ago.”

“I’m twenty seconds away from flipping you off right now, just so you know,” Stiles informs, and she raises a hand as if blocking him out. She stands.

“Do you want me to leave? Because I will. I have a nail appointment at two that I am not giving up, so help me.”

Stiles sighs so hard his teeth rattle, but she’s his only hope. Derek is here, sitting in front of them, waiting, and if this doesn’t go right, he could leave without hearing what Stiles has to say. “I’m sorry,” he grunts. “Now will you please sit down?”

She purses her lips and sits back down delicately, crossing her legs. “Fine - but only because I’m vaguely curious about what the hell is going on.” Derek watches Lydia in confoundment, and she seems to remember after a beat that he’s only hearing one side of the conversation.

“Your boyfriend is super annoying,” she tells him, and Stiles huffs. “I didn’t even want to come down here, but he sat in my room singing I’m ‘Enery the Eighth I Am, keeping me awake.”

Derek’s mouth trembles with the attempt at a smile, and he looks down, fingers playing with the edge of the picture. “That’s usually his last resort if he wants to make me to do something,” he says, sounding like it’s cutting him open. “You really can hear him?”

Lydia nods. “Unfortunately.”

“Hey!”

“Hey yourself.” She sips at her tea, gripping the cup with both hands, and raises her brows. “That him?”

It takes Derek a second to realize she’s referring to the photograph, and he clears his throat, turning it to face her on the table.

“Yeah.”

“Hmm, you’re cute,” she tells Stiles, sounding surprised. “Kind of guy I’d have ignored in high school, but nerdy is in these days.”

“Wow, so flattered,” Stiles drawls, and Derek lets out a surprised little huff.

“He wasn’t feeling well that day,” he murmurs, eyes fixed on Stiles’ sickly smile in recollection. “It doesn’t do him justice.”

“Damn right it doesn’t,” Stiles concurs, giving him a proud smile. “Now if we could get off the subject of my bangability, I kind of have dark tidings to extend.”

Lydia’s mouth curves amusedly, and she sets down the cup. “He’s getting impatient.”

“Can you blame me? Non-believer over here needs to invest in a better fucking alarm system and stop showering until he does so.”

“He’s babbling about you being in the shower?” Lydia says uncertainly, and Derek rears back, face scrunched.

“That’s not what I--” Stiles groans. “Oh my god please just repeat what I say. Write it down if you have to.”

“I’m sorry, I wasn’t aware I’d be required to take notes,” she snarks loftily.

Lydia.

She throws her hands up. “Fine! Start making sense, then.” She slouches in her seat, arms folded like a moody teen. He suspects that part of this is her attempt at dissolving her own discomfort, and hiding it behind veil of boredom.

Stiles closes his eyes and braces himself. “Derek, someone’s out to get you.”

Lydia takes a moment to look scandalized, and holds out her palms. “Really? Don’t soften the blow or anything!”

“Lydia, this is serious!” Stiles urges, “He could be in the apartment right now, for all we know!”

“Fine, but barely five minutes ago he thought I was conning him,” she says nodding towards Derek. “Might want to ease into it.”

Derek stares at her in bewilderment, and then raises a brow.

“What’s going on?” He sounds wary, and yeah, he should be, but despite Lydia’s concerns, they just don’t have the time to fuck around about this.

She lets out a breath and purses her lips, and Stiles is just about to prod her into answering him again when she gives an exasperated sigh.

“Stiles thinks you’re in danger.”

Okay, it sounds kind of over-dramatic when she puts it like that…

“In... what?” Derek scowls. He looks around a little, like Stiles will magically appear before him to explain - if only - and when the sentence sinks in, he blinks back at her. “What does that mean?”

“The guy who attacked us - his name is Garrett Royce. He got into our apartment the day my dad arrived in the city,” he licks his lips. “You came home and took a shower and he was hiding behind the bedroom door. Aslan spooked him.”

Lydia starts relaying it, mouth twisting at the mention of the home invasion, and a shudder runs across her shoulders.

“He, um, also wants to know where his dad is,” she adds, at the end. Her brow is crinkled with foreboding, and she watches Derek for an answer, running her thumbnail over the pad of her index finger.

Derek stares into nothing, dazed and perturbed. When Lydia calls his name, he looks up, and shakes his head. “He went back to Beacon Hills,” he says distractedly. “With Deputy Parrish’s move, he couldn’t leave the department without a CO.”

Stiles blanches. It’s been two weeks already? Time’s been fucked for him since the attack, but he hadn’t been aware so long had passed. It makes a cold dread settle in his gut, and he gets up to pace. What else has he been losing touch with?

Derek swallows, redirecting the point. “This guy knows where we live?”

“If he swiped your wallet, he probably has your driver’s license,” Lydia muses delicately. “Maybe he got desperate?”

“No,” Stiles disagrees, stopping. “He’s working for someone. I heard him on the phone, promising to get the job done - I just don’t know for who. But I know where he lives.”

Lydia’s face is pale by the time she passes on the sentence, and Derek looks more disturbed than ever.

“What did the police say?” she asks as she finishes writing out the address, leaving Stiles wondering why he’d never thought to ask the same thing. He’s still trying to wrap his head around the fact that it’s been weeks and he’s still stuck like this, his attacker roaming free.

“That they were looking into it,” Derek grits out, frustrated. “They don’t have any leads; no security camera footage, not even anything from the subway.” He fists the hand on his lap and brings it up to knock against his forehead, sighing through a grimace. “John... Stiles’ father... has been trying to use his influence, but Beacon County’s nothing but some far-off backwater to the city cops. It’s not technically a - a homicide yet, so...”

“So it’s up to us,” Stiles says, face set determinedly. Lydia immediately stands, shaking her head.

“Oh no - ‘us’ better mean you, and you,” she says, pointing first at thin air and then at a pained-looking Derek, “I’ve done all you asked me to, and I’m not getting caught up in some... some murder plot that you guys have on you for god knows what reason. For all I know, it could be a hit from the Russian mob! What kind of last name is Stilinski, anyway?”

“Polish,” Derek and Stiles say in perplexed unison.

Lydia throws her hands up. “See? I don’t even know you!”

“You know more about us than most,” Stiles says quietly, just as she’s turning. She’d spent most of the afternoon spouting facts of their relationship not even Stiles’ dad knew. it makes her hesitate, and she straightens before shaking her head. “I’m sorry, I can’t.” She calls out a goodbye to Derek as she makes for the exit, not chancing to turn again.

Stiles lets out a disappointed breath, and turns to Derek. He reaches out to card his fingers through the soft thickness of his hair, imagining he can feel it on his skin. “Looks like it’s just you and me, then,” he tells him.

Derek, of course, doesn’t reply.

---

I hear your ha-uh-eart beat to the beat of the drums...Oh, what a shame that you came here with some-wuh-one! So while you're here in my aaarms, let's make the most of the night like we're gonna die...” he gulps, “young...”

Stiles feels his brows crease, and he shakes off the shiver down his spine to lever himself into sitting upright on the chair. He glances at the closed door of his hospital room and tunes back into the conversation.

“You also need to make a decision about the body-cast piece. I know you decided it was the central part of the exhibition, but I thought, with... everything that’s happened...” Kate clicks her pen and lays it down. “Derek?”

He’s been staring into space for most of the meeting. Stiles is actually kind of shocked she hadn’t noticed anything before now. It’s been over a day - he thinks - since the encounter with Lydia, and Derek hasn’t done much else, save for answering his phone to update Stiles’ dad on four separate occasions. Stiles had suffered through the painful admittance of still the same more times than he’d liked.

He’d brought some things to Stiles’ hospital room; silly little vinyl figures they’ve had since forever, the photo of the two of them on the hike in a brand new frame, the half-seared winning lacrosse ball he’d had put in a glass case. There are cards from people back home and a bouquet from the people in his office - the ones he’s knows for a grand total of five weeks - that even Lahey signed.

Stiles has gathered that Derek had been going home a little more, taking care of himself - but after meeting Lydia, he’d cabbed to the hospital and stayed. Kate had only agreed to do this here because Derek wasn’t giving up his evening sitting vigil by Stiles’ bedside.

“Derek.”

He jolts at the feeling of her hand on his arm, and looks up. He shouldn’t even be attempting to focus on this right now, not really, but he’d insisted that Stiles would be awake in time for the opening, and would ream him out if he’d dropped the ball.

It kind of made Stiles want to kiss him all over because the accuracy of that statement.

“Sorry,” he mumbles, shifting in his seat. “I’m not-- what were we talking about?”

Her face creases with worry. “Maybe we should do this another time.” She glances back to the closed door of Stiles’ hospital room, and squeezes Derek’s arm. “Your heart’s clearly somewhere else.”

Derek lets out a long sigh. “I-- yeah. I guess I’m just distracted.” He tips his head back to rest against the seat. “I had... a visitor yesterday.”

“Yeah?” Kate says curiously, tilting her head. “What kind of visitor?”

“She was... This is going to sound insane - believe me, I know, but--” He lets a harsh breath out through his nose. “She said she had a message for me. From Stiles.”

He goes through the story, his voice a tremulous mix of hope and dejection. Stiles knows from listening that he’s halfway between wanting Kate to tell him it’s all crazy - that Lydia’s a total weirdo nobody should be listening to - or agreeing that he’s right to think there’s something more to it. When he reaches the part about Garrett Royce, Kate’s staring at the ground, hands clasped tightly together.

“Insane, right?” he finishes. “I mean... Stiles is still - still here, and who the hell would want to hurt him? He’s a graphic designer. ” He looks up, hoping for some kind of reassurance, but frowns. “Kate?”

“What a piece of work,” she says fiercely. “Who is this girl? Did she, what, look through the paper and find the most tragic-sounding story to try con the family into paying her?”

Derek frowns. “She didn’t ask me for anything - she didn’t even want to talk to me, she said.”

“Mmhmm. I’m sure that would have lasted until you were so far under her spell that you’d give her anything.”

Derek looks down at that, and his throat bobs on a swallow. Kate seems to notice the impact of her words, and reaches out tenderly, a look of sympathy clouding her usually-smiling face.

“Look, Derek, I know how much you’d give to believe this is somewhat real; that he's still hanging on, taking care of you. I would too. Stiles was... is, a one of a kind. You guys were story-book. But people like this Lydia person prey on that.” She dips her chin to catch his gaze. “You’ve got a good heart, and you’re trusting - but you’re hurting right now, too. Don’t let this girl get inside your head.”

No, Stiles wants to yell. They’d worked so hard to make him believe but he can already see the doubt creeping into Derek’s mind. Any other time, he’d be almost grateful for someone to have Derek’s back this way - but not now.

“Then, how did she know all about us?” Derek points out, and Stiles finds himself nodding encouragingly along. “About our lives? The photos, what music I listen to when I’m working, things Stiles says to me?”

“Stalking?” Kate hedges, and seems to know it’s instantly flimsy. She shakes her head, shrugging. “Maybe she knows Stiles. I’m sure there’re people in his life you don’t know... and he never stops talking - especially about you.”

“Yeah?” Derek says, sounding both sad and flattered, because he is a giant dork.

“That’s because I’m a jealous fuck trying to establish my territory,” Stiles retorts, rolling his eyes. “Our relationship is or business - I don’t talk about Derek that much in front of anyone but those who are clearly interested in jumping his bones.”

Which... could that be it? Was Kate behind this? Derek mentioned before how she can get a little intense about stuff, and that she hadn’t wanted to end their relationship, but surely she wouldn’t--

Stiles assesses her again. It’s not like you can tell by looking at someone that they’re crazy. She doesn’t have an eye-twitch or cartoon birds flapping around her head, but something about her has always... freaked him out. For more reasons than the fact she was obviously still into Derek.

He wonders if it’s all messing with him so much that he’s suspecting everyone in their lives.

Strangers in the freaking grocery store are into Derek - Stiles is totally used to that. Kate has always seemed... off, though. But ‘off’ enough to hire someone to take Stiles out? And why was the gun pointed at Derek, too? Wouldn’t that defeat the purpose of making sure he’s single?

He needs to think about this, but there isn’t time when Kate is standing up to leave.

“Look, Derek, I just want you to be okay,” she says earnestly, and tosses her hair back. “If you want, I’ll check it out. The address should be a huge place to start right?”

“I don’t like the idea of you going to find this guy,” Derek says worriedly. “Who knows what he could do... I just... I need to know if there’s any truth to this.”

She seems to think about it for a beat, and then says, “Who knows, I’ve been working in the area where it all happened, so I know it a little better. Maybe people who won’t talk to the police could talk to me? ”

Derek looks touched. “You’d do that for me?” he asks, eyebrows jerking. Stiles, honestly, is a little taken aback too. Maybe he was wrong.

“I wanted to go to the police,” Derek says, “but I guess I needed to run it by someone first.” He looks down. “I almost told John three times already, but I just... couldn’t. He’s going through enough.”

She gives him a tight-lipped nod, before accepting the grateful hug Derek offers with a kiss to her cheek. “I’ll call you tomorrow, okay?” she says, checking her phone. “Get some rest.”

Derek seems to relax a little, before stepping back to reach for the handle of Stiles’ door and waving goodbye. At least there’s that.

Stiles, though, is already following Kate down the corridor and into the elevator. It seems so... good of her to offer to do that, and he can’t help but wonder if there’s more to it than simply wanting to paint herself in a good light for Derek. If she was somehow involved, he’s sure putting Derek off the scent completely wouldn’t involve taking on the burden of the investigation - unless it’s to stop Derek going himself.

Stiles goes to rest his head wearily on the wall of the elevator before realizing he’s passing right through it into the darkness of the shaft. He jerks back, scrubbing a hand over his face. He knows that if Derek knew what his thoughts were right now, he’d have something judgmental to say, along the lines of sometimes people just do nice things, Stiles.

He hopes internal-Derek is right. Kate is sketchy and kind of a creep, but murder?

Her phone buzzes several times, but she’s holding it in a guarded, secretive way so as that he can’t quite see the screen. When she steps outside and reaches the crossing, it doesn’t really surprise him when she doesn’t make for the subway to go home.

You do know something, he thinks, watching her hurry along the street, glancing behind suspiciously as she takes roundabout turns and twists through the intersections.

She walks for almost an hour, and it’s pitch black out by the time she turns into the park - the one Stiles hasn’t been back to since that day.

The leaves are mush on the ground from the recent rain, but the lanterns are on, and the sound of Kate’s heels on the concrete makes it easy enough to follow the trail. She makes it deep into one of the jogging trails before she stops to pull her phone out once more, typing a quick message. The park is deserted; the chill in the air driving most of the public home before dark, and all that’s left are some stragglers taking shortcuts and a few teens trying to drink or smoke on the sly.

He has a second of concern for her safety when a figure steps out of the darkness. It soon melts into anger though, when he recognizes who it is.

Garrett.

“Who the hell have you been running your mouth to, kid?” Kate says, and the ice in her voice shocks Stiles for a moment. He’s never heard her like this; voice rough, threatening.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, lady,” Garrett shrugs. His hands are stuffed in the pockets of his hoodie - the same one that probably has Stiles’ blood on it somewhere. He steps back, feeling sick, everything he hoped never to have confirmed coming true right in front of him.

“Some little bitch showed up at Derek Hale’s - you know, the guy you were supposed to take care of two weeks ago, telling him that the attack was planned.” She crowds up against him, heels bringing her to his height, and pokes him in the chest. “If you’d done your job, like we agreed, you’d be crawling back to the hole you came from, twenty grand richer - but no, not only did you fuck it up, you’ve been telling people about it!”

Garrett holds up his hands. “I haven’t told anyone!” he insists, voice going defensive. “I’ve been trying to find a chance to go back to the apartment, like you told me.”

Kate steps back, rolling her eyes. “Which you wouldn’t have to do if you were halfway competent,” she says, holding her hands up. “We were lucky - the cops were treating this like a random mugging. Sure, it meant we couldn’t very well go and kill the real target without things looking suspicious, but at least you had an in.”

Stiles’ legs hit the edge of a park bench, and he slumps into it, his ears ringing. Derek was the mark? It was him all along? But why would Kate want to kill Derek - why would anyone want to kill him?

“Except now,” Kate says, turning to pace in the small clearing, “Derek has your name, your address too, and it won’t take long to find you, no matter where you go, once they have that. I swear to god, if this leads back to me, prison will be the least of your fucking worries. Take care of it”

She turns on her heel and leaves him there, kicking angrily at the debris on the path.

"You did this to me," Stiles seethes, circling around in front of her. He glares into her face, walking backwards in her path. “I had a life - I finally started living again and you fucked it all up!”

He wants to lash out at her, though he knows it won’t make a difference. Her smug, nonchalant expression makes his anger boil deep inside of him. He wants her to suffer, more than he is. He’s never wished anyone dead, before - never could, really - but this is the closest he’s ever come.

“Why us, huh? Why Derek?” he demands. “You’re supposed to be our friend! He trusts you!”

Kate simply walks towards the street, unaffected. Stiles’ chest is heaving, weighed down with the crush of his emotions, and he’s surprised to feel his cheeks dampen when he screws his eyes shut, buries his hands in his hair.

“We don’t deserve this,” he whispers, hoarse and rough, as Kate hails a cab and slides into the seat, like everything is fine.

---

Derek is locking up when he finally makes it back to the apartment. At a glance, Stiles knows he spent the night by his hospital bed; his movements are stiff and despite the clamminess of his skin from a recent shower, he looks unkempt.

“You have to take better care of yourself, dude,” Stiles scolds half-heartedly, watching him turn for the elevator. He seems even worse today, somehow. It’s barely afternoon and he’s already dead on his feet, clutching a stack of papers to his chest.

He’s never wished he could speak to Derek more than right now. The distance between them seems greater than ever, and he aches to reach out and touch him, force him back into the apartment and just fucking sleep or something.

“It was Kate,” he says quietly, as Derek watches the numbers descend to the ground floor. “She sent that guy to kill you, and when it didn’t work, she played the sympathetic friend so you wouldn’t suspect it.” He gulps dryly and grinds his teeth. “She wants something, and I’m gonna find out what it is, because she doesn’t get to take what we’ve got away and pretend like nothing happened.” The elevator pings, and Derek lets out a resigned breath. Stiles grits his teeth, frustrated. “God damn it. Why can’t you just hear me? This once?”

Derek walks on, oblivious.

He doesn’t get off the subway at the hospital. Stiles stands guard behind him, confused, and watches as he waits it out for the next stop, climbs the stairs, and looks around the street, as if trying to find a place he’s never been before.

“Where are you going?” Stiles asks thoughtfully, moving to follow as Derek takes a left. The area isn’t one Stiles knows all that well either, but it’s not exactly a great part of the city. They walk for about half a block before Derek stops, seemingly bracing himself, and starts climbing the old, crumbling stoop of a government building.

A police station.

“No way!” Stiles almost whoops from the bottom of the steps, instantly enthused. “Yes! Thank you!” He races after him, hardly daring to believe he ever doubted that Derek would just let any of this lie and that he’d be satisfied with handing things off to Kate and waiting for everything to get fixed on its own.

Derek fixes things. He recreates things until they’re new again, and Stiles shouldn’t have assumed he’d be any less diligent about this.

He has to wait around a half hour for the detective in charge of Stiles’ case to free up, and when she does, he walks in with a determined set to his jaw.

“Mr. Hale,” she says politely. She’s young - probably no older than Derek, really, with glossy, dark skin and intelligent eyes. “I assume you’re here for a status report on the mugging. How is Mr. Stilinski?”

Derek doesn’t answer the question, instead re-shuffles the papers in his grasp, before laying them out on the table. Stiles leans past him, curious, and his eyes widen to see the smiling face of Garrett Royce, posed and primped like it’s been taken from a yearbook, staring back at him. The word MISSING is printed in bold, red letters, with details of last seen - well over a year ago - along with his height, weight, and hometown in the body of text below. There’s a plea for information from the Royce family, and mentions of a substantial reward in the event that anyone has some.

"Holy shit," Stiles breathes, and looks at Derek in awe. "You found him?"

“This is who attacked us,” Derek announces, nodding towards the picture. The detective frowns, reaching out, and turns it.

“You’re sure?” she asks, perplexed. “The night of the incident, all you could remember was...” She glances over the report in front of her, “...’a hooded sweatshirt and an unshaven face’. Now you’re giving me a name?”

Derek seems to think about his reply, and then nods. “Someone came to me with information.”

“Oh yeah? A witness?” she tilts her head interestedly. “Mr Hale, forgive me, but I need to know how you came about this... information. My officers did an entire canvas of the area that night, and checked every camera within a square block. There wasn’t anything - not even a passer-by.”

Derek breathes steadily, the muscles of his forearm jumping as he clenches his fingers. “Someone who... has ways of finding out things, came to me and told me.”

The detective looks scandalized. “Are you trying to tell me you had someone tortured for this?”

Derek eyes widen, and Stiles snorts at the absurdity of it. Okay, maybe Lydia would argue Stiles‘ existence was torture, but not really in the way this lady was implying.

“What? Of course not,” Derek snaps. “She was a medium.”

The policewoman rears back. “You went to a psychic?

“She came to me,” Derek says, shaking his head, and holds up his hands. “Look, it doesn’t matter how I found out, what matters is she gave me this name, and--”

“What was her name?” the detective asks, typing on the laptop open on her desk.

“Why do you want to know that?”

“Name please, Mr. Hale.”

They stare each other down for almost a minute; Stiles is honestly impressed at the detective's stubbornness. Even he can't out-glare Derek Hale, and he’s tried. Finally, when it seems like she's not going to buckle and Derek remembers that he's the one in need of something, here, he slumps.

"Lydia. Lydia Martin."

There's an interval of typing and thoughtful sounds then, and the detective raises her brows at the screen.

“Well,” she says, spinning the laptop to face Derek. On it is a younger Lydia’s mug shot, hair a little shorter and less pristine, and a rap sheet.

“She’s been arrested four times - not too shabby for a twenty-five-year-old - but nothing could be made stick. Various suspicions of extortion, credit card fraud, shoplifting... she shows up on a case file from just after she graduated high school. A violation of Section 1030, Fraud and Related Activity in Connection with Computers.” She frowns, looking closer at the words on the screen. “Her friend Danny served time for it, but Martin got off since it was a first adult offense.” The detective lets out a sarcastic snort. “Girl must have one hell of a lawyer.”

Derek reads over it himself, silent. Stiles sees the rest of the light go out of his eyes, as he makes his way down the screen, and lets his own head fall into his hands.

“Damn it, Lydia,” he grumbles, scrubbing at his face.

“She’s a fraud?” Derek asks in a small voice, re-reading the words. He shakes his head, “No, she-- there were things she knew. About me, about Stiles. She knew there’d been someone in my apartment - and I hadn’t told anybody I even suspected there was.”

“Did you see the person?” the detective asks, raising a brow. Derek thinks about that, and shakes his head in resignation. “Then how do you know it wasn’t her? Digging through your stuff? And everything is online these days, don’t even tell me Stiles doesn’t keep a blog.”

Derek stares at his hands.

“Look, Mr. Hale, these people are professionals. They watch the news - I had to give a generic making enquiries statement to the press soon after your boyfriend got hurt. Your family used to be a big deal in this city; she probably knows you have money.”

“But she... I can’t believe...” he lets out a breath. “Then how do you explain this?” He taps the photo of Royce, a little desperate now, and raises his brows. The detective shrugs, before narrowing her eyes and typing in the name to the database. It doesn’t take long - and Garrett Royce is clean, save for some marijuana possession and a joyride.

“Probably an old boyfriend she wanted revenge on,” the detective muses. “They're from the same area.”

Derek closes his eyes, sitting back, and Stiles watches worriedly as the pained furrow reappears on his brow. He hates this.

"Do you wish to press charges against Ms. Martin?"

To Stiles' relief, Derek shakes his head.

“Mr. Hale... Derek. The case isn’t closed yet, alright? Whoever mugged you is still out there, and I’ll find him.” Stiles feels like rolling his eyes, honestly. He knows better than anyone how high up on the PD’s priorities muggings are, no matter how rich the victim. Especially weeks after the fact.

“Yeah, well,” Derek says, levering himself up. “Better try a little fucking harder.”

His mouth starts trembling, and Stiles finds himself reaching out on instinct, needing to bring comfort, just fucking touch. He frowns as his hand fails to make contact, chewing frustratedly on his bottom lip. Derek gathers the papers up, scrunching them into a ball, and his chest heaves, a small hiccup rocking his broad shoulders.

“Stiles’ doctor met with me today, to talk about his decreased brain activity.” Derek swallows dryly, and Stiles’ whole being goes cold, waiting for what he hopes isn’t coming next. “They want to talk about turning off his life support.”

It feels like ringing in his ears; the weight of the revelation turning his vision tunneled and dark. The detective’s face shuts down, like she hadn’t been expecting that, and she opens her mouth to reply. Before she can, though, Derek cuts her off.

“If he’s out there, he should pray for a miracle - because if we don’t get one, it’s not mugging.” He clenches his jaw. “It’s manslaughter.”

____

The phone sits innocuously in Derek’s hand. He stares down at it like it’s a ticking bomb, nothing moving save for the occasional flare of a nostril, and the quiet rise and fall of his chest. The various machines hum and hiss and beep. Out in the hall, footsteps pass. Voices call out to each other, the PA pages this doctor or that, and the city outside carries on. Stiles watches him from the windowsill; one leg pulled up to his chest, expression tight.

He can smell the room now, he’s realized. Antiseptic and linen and flowers. He wonders if it has something to do with the news Derek received this morning, or the fact that he can’t see through his skin as well as he used to. He thinks he could be imagining that one. Is he settling into this shape now?

Now that he’s--

Stiles thunks his head back against the wall. This time, it doesn’t go through.

He feels... numb. Like it’s all a terrible dream he’s about to wake up from any second, tell Derek about, and they’ll both do the eyebrow thing to express how weird it was and go get a bagel.

He’s never going to have a bagel again.

Stiles has been thinking a lot of things like that, today. He’s craved everything from peanut butter to tenderloin and cronuts, and he knows he isn’t hungry, but the ache in the pit of his stomach is so much worse.

He can’t remember what Derek’s lips taste like.

That’s the worst, because it’s a memory that should never fade; shouldn’t have to fade, and now it’s like a million other things he wants and needs - like French fries and sushi and Jamaican spiced rum and the feeling of Derek’s stubble on his neck.

“Wish you could tell me how to do this.”

Derek’s voice startles him from his pity party, and Stiles straightens up, expecting to see him with the phone pressed to his ear. He’s in the same position, but his eyes are fixed on Stiles... no, what used to be Stiles, lying motionless on the hospital bed.

“It’s just-- you look like you’re sleeping and I--” Derek’s face crumples. “I don’t know how to do this. Any of it.”

He sniffles harshly, looking to the ceiling, and his eyes gleam wetly in the lamplight. Stiles clambers off the windowsill, crouching to sit next to him on the threadbare couch that Derek’s been calling a bed; that he's slept in more lately than the one they caused a scene over in Pottery Barn.

“I’m here,” Stiles chokes, feeling his own tears fall. “I’m not-- I couldn’t leave you.” Derek looks through him to the bed, unseeing.

“They tried preparing me from the start, but I... how the fuck am I supposed to be prepared for this? You were meant to be it for me, and you are, but how do I spend the rest of my life just remembering you?” His eyes are drawn to his hands again, almost ashamed. “It’s all my-- if I’d just given the kid what he wanted, you’d be okay. You’d be awake and probably embellishing the story to sound like one of your stupid action movies, but I...” Derek lets his head hang for a second, but then he turns, reaching into the pocket of his jacket that’s slung over the edge of the little couch. When he pulls his hand out, shaking, Stiles feels like his heart stops.

It’s a ring box.

“I was gonna wait and... you’re not ready, I get that, but.” He stares at the little leather box, and wipes at his eyes. “It was my grandfather’s. My family have this vault and, and I was gonna tell you about it all, but I wanted to go alone first. I found this.” The muscles in his jaw jump. “The moment I saw it I knew I wanted to give it to you. I’ve been carrying it around, and when he told us to empty our pockets I just-- it’s my fault, Stiles.”

“No,” Stiles says forcefully, so many pieces slipping into place. “It’s not-- Kate sent him. You can’t blame yourself for this.” He stares at the ring box with an ache. Derek’s right - he wouldn’t have been ready, but now...

Stiles watches his shoulders jerk with a forceful sob, and he lets his forehead fall to the phone in his hands, plastic creaking in his grip. “How the hell do I call your father and tell him they say you’re not gonna wake up?”

His eyes clench shut, and a tear falls soundlessly to the floor by his feet. Stiles can’t breathe; it feels like his chest is in a vice grip, a softball down his throat, and his eyes burn though he knows none of the pain is real - none of it except watching Derek like this. So lost, alone.

“I need you, Stiles,” he rasps, shaking his head, “If you can hear me at all... please don’t...don’t make me say goodbye, not to you.”

Stiles watches him breathe himself through it; the reality hitting him full force, now that it’s just them. His shoulders hunch as he folds in on himself, face covered, and lets his emotions loose - his quiet, pained sobs loud as gunshots in the tiny room. Stiles reaches out, knowing he can’t feel it, and buries a hand in his hair. Derek seems like he almost shivers at the contact as he rests their foreheads together and promises, “I won’t.”

They sit for a long time in silence, once he’s wrung himself out, and Derek doesn’t make the call.

It must be a while later when his eyelids grow heavy, and he gradually slumps to lie on the little couch, legs tucked awkwardly on the edge. He clenches his hands in front of him, the little box tucked in his grip like it could never be pried free. Stiles is pulled to him like a magnet, and he curls up in the remaining space - not really needing it, as his feet pass through the arm. He watches the grooves melt out of his lover’s features; the transformation that sleep has on his face familiar and bittersweet.

Stiles’ heart hurts, and if he could really feel his muscles, they’d be taut, but he watches Derek fall into dreamless slumber, needing to feel close, wishing the pulse of his monitor was enough for him to drift off, too.

__

“Where the fuck?” Stiles curses, making it to the end of the train.

It’s the fourth one he’s tried, and this late at night they’re almost empty save for a few party-goers and people trying to get home from a late shift. He’s almost at the operator's cab when he sees the headlights of another train reflecting off the walls of the tunnel, and he takes a couple steps back in preparation. The train roars as it passes, and Stiles braces himself before taking running jump, through the exterior walls and fluidly into the other car.

He lands soundlessly, and lets out an excited whoop into the mostly-deserted train, turning in a small circle.

“That was awesome!” he exclaims, before letting his arms fall. “And... nobody was around to see.”

“I saw,” a voice says menacingly from behind him, and Stiles spins, ducking a right-hook. It’s him. “And I thought I told you to stay the fuck off my train.”

He’s stumbling back to avoid every one of the guy’s advancing steps; papers and random items strewn about the car flying with the swing of his huge arms, before Stiles remembers that he’s here for a reason. He has to stand his ground.

“I know!” he says, holding his hands up. “Message received, okay? The train is yours!”

“Then what are you doing here?” the guy snarls, eyes dark and threatening.

“I need your help!”

That seems to give him pause, and he halts in his advances, cocking his head. “You want my help?” he asks suspiciously. The train pulls into a station, and the doors open and close without anyone entering. It’s like people know, on some primal, instinctual level, to avoid their car.

“I need you to-- that day you chased me. You smashed a window with your hand.” The train pulls off again, and Stiles shifts on his feet, still wary of keeping balance. The guy, however, glides along as if he’s part of the car; like his feet are fused to the vinyl floor. “Can you teach me how to do that?”

Some of the danger bleeds out of the guy’s eyes, and he raises a curious brow. It makes such a difference on his face that Stiles almost laughs in manic relief.

“You wanna smash some windows?” he deadpans.

“Not really-- I just need to learn how to move things.” He holds up his hands, wiggling his fingers. “They just seem to pass through when I try to touch something and I -- It’s important.”

The train is slowing again. The guy seems to study him for a moment, looking him over, and then, very slowly, a wolfish smirk curls over his lips.

“This is our stop.”

.

“What the fuck are you doing?”

Stiles stares at the bottle cap, throwing all of his weight behind it to the point where he feels almost drained. His finger passes through it again. He slumps forward on to it, laying in a pathetic heap on the dirty ground. The cap doesn’t move.

They’re in a rundown station which looks like it hasn’t been visited by a clean-up crew in quite some time. The walls are veined with cracks and it smells like rotten garbage, but it’s quiet, and there aren’t any innocent people around to accidentally get hurt.

“You told me to try and move it!” he protests feebly, cheek mashed into the tiles.

“You’re trying to move it with your finger,” the guy - Boyd, according to the little badge on his uniform - says, folding his arms and looking down at Stiles like he’s a puppy who made a mess on the rug. “You don’t have a finger.”

“Well that’s gonna make jerking off less fun,” he mutters to himself, snorting, and the guy lays his shoe on Stiles’ face. “Aaagh! Okay! Stop!”

Boyd pulls his foot back, and crouches. “It’s all in your mind,” he explains, like he’s speaking to a small child. “All that’s left here is your consciousness - everything you see is a projection. You’re not really here; not really wearing those clothes, and you’re not really on the same plane of existence as that bottle cap.”

Stiles straightens up to a kneel. “So I’m just, what? A ball of energy?”

The guy turtle-faces, and shrugs. “If you wanna put it like that, sure. Energy is all you’ve got. You just need to direct it where you want it to go.”

“But I want it to move the bottle cap,” Stiles complains, gesturing at the tiny piece of metal. “Isn’t that enough?” He tries again, but his finger slides through. He curses.

“Not at first,” Boyd replies, hooking his middle finger on to his thumb and sending the cap clattering on to the tracks with an almighty flick. He looks at Stiles smugly, and jerks his eyebrows. “You need to put something behind it.”

“Like what?”

“Anger is a good start,” the guy says after a moment, and his voice has gone grave as he straightens up. Stiles stands, studying him, and tilts his head.

“Anger?”

Boyd lets his eyes travel down Stiles and back up. “What were you, twenty-five? Aren’t you just a little mad that you’re dead already?”

Stiles opens his mouth, already forming the familiar retort of I’m not really dead, but he stops himself. It won’t be true for much longer. He feels like he’s vibrating.

“Aren’t you mad you’re stuck here, watching everyone live, while all you can do is hover around, trying to count the days and wishing you could have a fucking beer or something?”

Stiles feels it forming, the ball of deep-seated rage growing and pulsing in his gut. It feels warm, though not comforting, and it extends icy branches through his extremities.

“Didn’t you have plans? Have somebody special?” Stiles meets his eyes at that, his face a stoic mask of ire. Boyd seems to realize that that one’s the key, because something illuminates in his eyes. “Aren’t you pissed you didn’t get to tell them one last time how you felt about them?”

Stiles feels his hands shake. He thinks about Derek, about his dad, and about Kate. He thinks about the job he was starting to love, the apartment they hadn’t finished making their own, about the attack and the fact that his doctors don’t see him ever waking up. He thinks about how Kate isn’t done with Derek yet, still wants to hurt him, and he lets out a growl. The energy bursts out of him with force, and a half-crushed soda can flies all the way across the tracks to the other platform.

“Holy shit,” Boyd says lowly, sounding proud, but Stiles doesn’t want to break focus. He lashes out again, sending an old newspaper fluttering into the air. Again, and a coffee cup splatters its remnants over the wall. Again, and a garbage can tips over, spilling on to the platform.

Stiles blinks, looking around at the mess. “I did it!”

Boyd allows a half-smile and a raise of his brows, and jerks his chin. “Way to go.”

“I couldn’t really control the strength, but...”

“Give it time,” Boyd reassures. “You’ve got nothin’ else.”

Stiles feels the smile wilt off his face as he watches the guy amble around, sending debris flying this way and that.

“How long have you been here?” he asks, because he’s suddenly curious. Boyd stops, and gives him a weighted look.

“Since they pushed me.”

“You were pushed?” Stiles blurts, and the guy’s face seems to shut down again for the first time since they got off the train.

“What you don’t believe me?” he asks, stalking forward, and Stiles steps back, despite himself. “She thought I jumped, too. That’s why she never rides the subway anymore. But I didn’t - I wouldn’t, not ever.”

“Who are you--” Stiles says with a squint, struggling to keep up. “What?”

“We were gonna have a baby, you know. Been talking about it. Erica said she wanted us to be more stable, but I know she couldn't wait either. Then they--” he presses his mouth shut, eyes flicking up to focus on Stiles again. They’re cold, incensed.

“Who are you?” he demands. “Why are you making me talk about this?” He seems at once confused, and Stiles shakes his head, mind racing for something placating but coming up short. “Leave me alone, okay? Just... stay away from me!”

A train roars past the station, and Stiles reaches out abortively as Boyd grabs on to a ledge, letting himself get yanked off the platform before disappearing inside.

Stiles stares after him for a long moment, with a cold dread in his throat, hoping he’s not witnessing his own future.

---

It takes a while. He can move bigger things more easily, he thinks - which is ironic, but it’s not like anything else in his existence right now makes complete sense.

Boyd was right about the emotions-thing. He thinks about his shitty situation and a cast-iron table he kicks at outside a cafe shudders out onto the sidewalk. Encouraged, he tries moving a napkin and it bursts into a cloud of confetti. He doesn’t have to reach out to have influence over things, but he does it out of habit.

It helps him feel a little more normal, in truth.

He decides to stop by his office, check out what’s been going on while he’s gone. His desk is covered in cards and little tokens, and he’s touched to say the least. He runs his fingers over a tiny Jake the Dog figure, smiling.

Otherwise, it seems like life’s gone on as normal. Isaac stalks about like he owns the place, and the faux-humble expression on his face as he carries out duties to fulfill Stiles’ contracts is fucking gross. Isaac is getting so many coffee runs and shitty clean-up editing tasks when Stiles gets back. So many.

A cluster of paperclips on his desk end up lodged in the wall of his cubicle, poker-straight, and Stiles huffs out in frustration, his patience wearing thin. Is it so much to ask to have a little control over things? Peter Parker always made learning it seem pretty enjoyable, but then, Stiles doesn’t get the luxury of a movie-montage and he might be legally dead soon, so.

A fountain pen breaks in half and starts leaking ink.

“Christ,” a voice says from behind him, and Stiles would whirl around if he could actually get his swivel-chair to do that. It’s Danielle, and she surveys the state of Stiles’ cubicle before rolling her eyes and raising her voice.

“Can whoever is using Stilinski’s desk as a rec-room take it somewhere else?!” She shakes her head, and sighs, walking off. “Pouty ‘n’ Pretty doesn’t need to see this shit if he comes by to pick up his stuff.”

Stiles snorts at the memory of the first time he’d introduced Derek to his co-workers. Danielle had given him a top-to-toe and declared that Stiles must have some Buddhist-monk focus to get any work done when he lives with ‘all that’. Derek had scowled, and she’d made the nickname stick any time he came up in conversation since, just on principle of what it did to Derek’s face.

The swell of fondness makes him grin, and the Jake figure shudders across the desk, twisting like it’s doing a little waltz.

Stiles jolts, hopeful, and tries again. Jake almost topples over, but when Stiles reaches out, he can actually feel the vinyl beneath his fingertips, and the statuette is solid in his hand. He lifts it, and its hovers above the plywood, effortless.

‘Yes!” Stiles barks, letting an elated laugh bubble from his mouth. He concentrates on the feeling, and gets to work picking up random objects, rearranging the cards, and moving his stapler from one end to the other.

His chest feels like it’s glowing, and he sits back, looking at the objects in awe. Interesting, he thinks. Maybe anger isn’t the only emotion that makes you strong. Maybe happiness, or love, will be enough, too.

Stiles kicks off the floor, and twirls, and to anyone looking on, there’s nothing in his cubicle but a vacant, spinning chair.

___

It’s hard not to laugh. He lifts the pen slowly, letting it turn in the air for a few seconds, smirking. Lydia types on, adjusting her glasses on her nose, oblivious.

He picks up the wine glass next, chewing the side of his mouth as he sways it towards her, holding in the gleeful chuckle threatening to burst past his lips. Lydia frowns, distractedly reaching out to press the glass down to rest on the table. It’s only when Stiles snorts that she turns, eyes darting around the brasserie in suspicion.

“Who’s there?” she hisses, wary of the other patrons.

“Who do you think?” he asks, picking up her napkin and letting it drape over his finger so it’s hovering in the air like a tiny ghost. Lydia’s eyes widen, and she snatches it off his hand.

“Stop that!” she whispers, annoyed. She makes a scene of folding the napkin into perfect triangles, before crushing it tightly in her fist, “I thought I told you to leave me alone.”

“I couldn’t resist showing off some of my newly-acquired skills,” he preens, picking up the fork resting in her salad and bringing it up to her lips. Lydia closes her hand over it as a waiter passes by, giving her a polite smile and a nod. She returns it before levelling a glare in Stiles’ general direction, and shoveling the leaves into her mouth.

“I’m thoroughly impressed,” she mutters, glancing around. “Now go away.”

“I can’t,” Stiles admits, slumping. “I need to talk to you.”

She shakes her head. “Tough. I made it clear I don’t want any part of your little murder plot drama.”

“But I know who’s behind it now! I just don’t know why!”

Lydia looks intrigued for about half a second before shaking her head, and laying her hands over her keyboard. “Nope.”

“Lydia...”

“As far as I’m concerned, you’re no longer here.”

“I know more songs,” he threatens, and she grinds her jaw.

“Don’t even fucking think about it.”

“I’m...sorry?” It’s a voice from above that has them both whirling around to see the waiter from before, expression confused, holding a tray with another glass of wine on it. Lydia looks up, agape, as the waiter says, “The gentleman at the bar asked that I bring this to you. I could take it back...”

Lydia frowns, shaking off her surprise, and then leans to look past him. “Which gentleman?”

“Third seat from the right, dark suit.”

There’s a guy in his mid-forties, half-turned to them, holding a glass of red with a playful smile over his lips. He’s handsome, in a mature, together way, with striking blue eyes and perfectly coiffed dark hair. His collar is open and starched, with a hint of chest hair dusting towards his clavicle. He looks like he smells of expensive cologne and crisp money - ideal prey for Lydia, then.

She lets a flirtatious smile tease at her lips and raises her glass. “Tell him he’s welcome to join me if he likes.”

“Are you serious right now?” Stiles demands, gesturing wildly at her as the waiter steps away. “Lydia I’m running out of time and--”

“I have it on good authority that this seat isn’t taken,” Potential Sugar Daddy says, breaking in. Lydia shoots him a dazzling smile and takes off her glasses before setting them on her - now closed - laptop.

“Could use some stimulating company,” she says loadedly and laughs, and Stiles mouths it after, rolling his eyes.

“Oh, I can’t promise I’ll be that - I’m fresh off a flight and trying not to pass out, to tell you the truth.”

“Really?” Lydia purrs, resting her chin on her knuckles. “And what brings you to our fine city?”

The man ponders for a moment, and tilts his head. “Business, I suppose you could say. I placed good faith in an investment, but it appears that sometimes if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.”

Lydia looks impressed, and if Stiles wasn’t stressed as hell right now, he’d admit that the guy does give off an air of power and respect - not unlike Derek does when he’s around people he doesn’t know well. Just as Stiles is thinking he’ll probably turn out to be one of those douches who loves the sound of their own voice, the guy says, “But enough about me - I couldn’t help but notice you were thoroughly engrossed in something for the longest time.”

Stiles has been thoroughly proven wrong.

“It’s a proposal for a research grant in the field of robotics,” she says, and then pulls a face like she doesn’t know why she shared that. Stiles gets the feeling she doesn’t talk about herself all that much with her...companions. Men like those she chooses probably like imagining they’re the more intelligent one in the relationship.

They get stuck in the back-and-forth of it all for a long time. Stiles isn’t sure why he’s still hanging around; maybe it’s something to do with knowing that Lydia has a lot more in her history than simply flirting a few investment-banker-types out of free drinks and trips to the South of France. She’s just the right mix of mysterious and innocent, and honestly, Stiles is slightly impressed by her practiced confidence and the mine of conversational topics from politics to pop culture. The Sugar Daddy - James, he introduces himself as - certainly seems charmed.

It’s late by the time she starts making moves to leave, and James doesn’t seem in any hurry to pressure her into staying or inviting her back to his hotel - much to Stiles’ relief, since he’d definitely have to peace-out if things were going in that direction - but he does offer to walk her home. Stiles moves to follow, irrationally concerned by the hint of a slur in her speech, and the flush high on her cheekbones from the two further glasses of wine she’d sipped while lost in conversation.

They stroll close together down the street, making polite noises about the cool October air and the dreamy mist surrounding the streetlamps. Lydia doesn’t live far; Stiles has gathered that the brasserie is one of her favorite haunts, since the classic hipster coffee shop other students would frequent couldn’t really meet her tastes. Stiles trails behind them, feeling slightly like a voyeur, but then, he’d once joked that he’d like to be invisible for a day, just to nose into other people’s business.

“How long are you planning to stay in the city?” she asks, but the end of the sentence trails off. She blinks, slightly dazed, and looks around. A bashful smile graces her lips, and she brings a hand to her nose, letting out as close to a girlish giggle as Stiles has heard since he met her. “Wow, this is embarrassing... it seems I’ve taken a wrong turn.”

“Fuck, Lydia, are you wasted?” Stiles half-scolds, smirking when he can't help it. Lydia starts to hush him, but covers it with another laugh as she turns.

“James?”

“I’m here.” He’s hanging back in the shadows at the mouth of an alley, which is saying a lot since the street is poorly-lit as it is. Stiles frowns, feeling an itch of something. It’s too like that night; the chill in the air, the lack of light, the wet pavement. “I... sorry, I thought I heard something.”

Lydia blinks, pursing her lips, and steps toward his voice. “Haven’t you ever seen a horror movie?” she says cynically. “You never investigate suspicious sounds in the--”

The sentence cuts off with a strangled squeak, and Stiles feels himself go cold.

“Lydia?”

A muffled noise floats back at him, and he’s running before he can think about it. Lydia is struggling with someone in the darkness, being dragged further into the alley by a strong, vice-like grip. The person - a guy, from the set of his shoulders - has a hood pulled over his face, and the hand covering Lydia’s mouth is gloved. Stiles almost stills, a sickly deja-vu freezing him in place. No no not again no.

Her eyes, wide with fear and confusion, stare out into the dark, and Stiles is screaming at her again as she attempts to inflict a debilitating maneuver; her movements slow and almost feeble through the fog of alcohol.

A glint of metal catches the light of a passing bus, but that’s not all; Stiles would know the face of Garrett Royce anywhere.

“Lydia! It’s him! It’s Royce! He’s-- he’s got a knife!” he shouts, and a dumpster to the left moves almost from the force of his scream. It’s then that Stiles remembers - he’s not useless anymore, and he’s reaching for the first heavy thing within reach and bringing it down, hard, on the side of Garrett’s face.

It’s enough to send Royce stumbling back, stunned, and the knife rattles against the hard ground as it slips from his grip. Lydia, getting her breath back, reaches into her bag and unleashes an unholy spray of mace right in his eyes. Royce’s pained scream rings out as he shoves past her, knocking her into the wall in a heap in his quest to get out of the alley.

Stiles isn’t letting him go this time.

He vaults after the guy for almost two blocks, watching him stumble around from his injuries. An unholy anger surges out of him, and Stiles doesn’t even flinch as a trash can shoots out into Garrett's path, startling him backwards and off the sidewalk.

“You think you can come after us?!” he roars, feeling his rage become a living thing, billowing out of him like a sonic boom.

Royce blinks stupidly, looking this way and that, feet carrying him out on to the street.

“Attack my friend? She isn’t even part of this! You’re filth!”

A car horn blares as the driver swerves to avoid the stumbling form, and the guy tries to right himself. In his confusion he only staggers further into the street.

The next car doesn’t swerve in time.

Stiles feels like the moment slows down for the split second it takes Royce’s body to connect with the hood. He looks light; weightless as a foam cup as he rolls over the metal, windshield spider-webbing under the impact of his shoulder. The sickening crack when he finally hits the ground causes Stiles to wince. The dread in his gut is an unexpected twist of reaction.

Time rights itself, and the driver falls out the door in a mess of limbs; face pale with shock and jaw gaping. Stiles stares, transfixed, for a different reason, when he sees the first blur of movement coming from Royce’s body.

The guy sits slowly, face a mess of confusion that makes him look younger, almost innocent. His eyes flit around the scene like he’s waking from a bad dream - and then he sees Stiles.

“You?” he mumbles, pushing himself to stand up. “But you-- I...”

“Yeah, you did,” Stiles responds, not managing to make it sound like a gloat. All he can think of is that Missing Person’s poster, of the substantial reward and the fact that this kid had people waiting for him to come home, and now he never will.

“What’s going on?” Garrett asks.

An ominous clicking sound cuts Stiles off before he can reply.

To the left, a shadow in the pool of a streetlamp twitches. It’s a chilling, stuttered motion like claymation gone nauseatingly wrong. That shadow joins with another, and soon they’re a cluster; tortured groans and inhuman clicks building in cadence until they sound more like a collection of growls and roars. Stiles steps back fearfully, watching as they seem to reach full strength. A thick, foreboding blackness undulates on the asphalt like a swarm of hornets, and zoom towards Garrett, boxing him in.

The shadow-figures rise around him, separating into spindle-limbed entities and latching on to his form like restraints. Royce starts to scream, and Stiles can’t look anymore. He turns, and he runs.

“Lydia?” Stiles shouts, crouching in front of her. He holds his hands out, but he’s too freaked out to control his energy, and they hover around her shoulders ineffectually. “Lydia talk to me! Are you-- Lydia!

“‘tiles?” she slurs, blinking out into the darkness. There’s a bruise forming on her cheekbone already, and her coat is torn where the sleeve meets the shoulder. The force of his guilt feels like he’s about to get physically swept off by it. “What... what the fuck?

Despite himself, a laugh startles out of Stiles at the affronted tone of her voice. So Lydia that he knows she’s okay; she’s going to be okay.

“Let’s get you home,” he says gently, swallowing. “Can you walk? I’d help but--”

“You don’t have corporeal form?” Lydia jokes, but there’s a shake in her voice, betraying how jarred by the whole thing she really is. Stiles lets her have her bravado, and snorts.

“Something like that,” he drawls for her benefit. “C’mon, up.”

She struggles to her feet, bracing her hands on the wall, and walks slightly unsteadily for a second before straightening herself. They make it out on the street, Stiles hovering behind her like he could actually catch her if she fell, and they each breathe a sigh of relief as the lights afford them the illusion of safety.

The bruise is purpling, and Stiles takes in the shudders of her hands, a rush of concern for her choking him with force. “Lydia, you should go to the police, tell them--”

“No,” she says vehemently, picking up her steps. “No cops, I can’t-- No.”

“Okay,” he says, nodding, to keep her calm. “But that was... you know who that was, right?”

Her expression goes haunted, and she swallows, picking up her pace as she pulls her coat tighter around her middle. “I just need to get home, Stiles, just, help me get home.”

“I.. yeah, okay,” he relents, mind’s eye playing Royce’s death on a loop. He’ll-- he’ll tell her later. “I’ll walk you alright? You’re gonna be okay.”

His words make her still, and she turns around, scanning the street for a second, Stiles opens his mouth to question, but she cuts him off.

“Stiles?” she asks, voice thoughtful, wary, “What happened to James?”

He jolts, realizing how quickly he forgot about the guy in the confusion; the shock of the attack. His mind races, and he doesn’t remember actually seeing the guy since the moment Lydia got grabbed, a single-minded focus to help her knocking everything else out.

“I don’t know,” he admits, feeling uneasy. His stomach roils with a sickly dread, and his relief at Lydia’s safety melts away.

___

“You are literally going to get me arrested, or worse.”

“It’ll be fine, alright? Just stay calm and stick to the script.”

Her jaw gapes. “We didn’t write a--

“--May I help you, miss?”

Lydia jolts at the voice directed towards her. There’s a rookie-looking kid in uniform on the front desk looking up at her expectantly. He’s dark-skinned and cherubic, and has that wide-eyed innocence that Stiles’ dad always joked was eroded away after a couple of shifts with the drunk tank. His shirt still has the creases on it from the factory packaging; hair trendily shaved to give him a little quiff at the front. It’s clear the bruise on Lydia’s cheekbone hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“Uh... hi,” Lydia says, blinking, and Stiles gives her a tiny prod in the back to keep going. She grits her teeth and chirps, “I was hoping to speak to Officer Parrish?”

The kid’s eyes light up with the enthusiasm of having a solution to a problem, and he picks up the receiver on his desk. “Sure! One second. You can have a seat if you like, and I’ll see if he’s still at the station. Name?”

“Lydia,” she says trepidatiously. “Lydia Martin.” Her expression suggests she’s not on board with giving her actual name, but she tacks on a thanks when she remembers.

Stiles takes a seat beside her, leaning his elbows on his knees and rubs his hands together. “Alright so, this guy was my dad’s favorite deputy. We were all pretty bummed when he took the job in the city instead of staying in Beacon Hills to run for sheriff after my dad retires.”

Lydia nods to the air, wary of the kid on the phone at the desk. He seems to be casting curious glances at her as he mutters into the mouth piece, and she presses her lips together in frustration. Abruptly, she reaches into her purse and produces her phone, unlocking the screen and tapping at it a few times before bringing it to her ear.

“Who are you calling?” Stiles asks, irked that she’s not listening to him.

“You, dumbass,” she says into the phone. “If I’m gonna sit here talking to myself, I might as well look less crazy doing it.”

Stiles snorts, but honestly, he’s kind of impressed. Why hadn’t they thought of that earlier?

“Nice job,” he says, cocking his head.

“Just keep talking,” Lydia grumbles.

“Fine,” he smirks, fidgeting where he sits. “He’s always been pretty open-minded, and I get the feeling there’s a little hero-worship on his part with regard to my dad... because, well, my dad’s awesome and--”

“Miss Martin?” the kid at the desk calls, and they both turn to see that Jordan has joined him, looking puzzled, yet sophisticated in his dark blue city police uniform. Stiles feels himself smile fondly at the sight; a surge of affection welling up at the familiar face.

Lydia, on the other hand, is frozen. She locks her phone in a daze and rises.

“Hi,” Parrish says, rounding the desk to approach. He stiffly holds out a hand, and Stiles rolls his eyes at the memory of the old ladies back in their hometown swooning over his military manners.

“Officer Parrish?” Lydia asks, seeming to remember herself. The guy nods, and her brows climb. “I... sorry, I wasn’t expecting someone so...” Lydia’s eyes narrow, at once accusatory. “…young.”

It’s directed at Stiles, for not preparing her for Jordan’s sea-green eyes and fluffy blonde hair and chiseled jaw; for the permanent half-smirk resting on his lips or way he still wears his uniform like it’s a Halloween costume designed to get him the most laid ever. Hey - it hardly seemed relevant.

And yeah, Jordan was the first guy Stiles ever had a crush on; first openly bi dude he’d talked to and helped him through his own sexuality crisis, so he kind of understands why Lydia’s offering him a delicate hand and letting her eyes roam over his frame. Still, not relevant.

“I’m sorry, I-- Do we know each other?” Jordan asks, brow scrunching. His eyes flit over her face, taking in the angry mark on her cheek, but he doesn’t mention it.

“No,” Lydia admits, “But we might have a mutual... friend.” She glances around the foyer, and sends him a hopeful look. “Is there somewhere we could talk?”

Stiles can see the curiosity in his eyes when he invites her through to his desk, throwing a thanks, Mason to the kid at the front as he holds the door open for her.

There’s an awkward few minutes of silence as Lydia cradles a coffee in her hands, staring thoughtfully at the liquid in the cup. Jordan studies her, clearly not wanting to push things, but his feigned nonchalance doesn’t fool Stiles’ trained eye for a second.

“So, you said we might have a mutual friend?”

Lydia twists her mouth. “More of an acquaintance. An annoyance, really.” She jerks as Stiles pokes her in the shoulder, covering it with a flick of her hair and a throat-clear. “I’m told you used to work for the Beacon Hills sheriff’s department.”

“That’s right,” Jordan responds inquisitively, “I moved here a few weeks ago. Is your friend from Beacon Hills?”

This is excruciating. “Lydia, come on,” Stiles sighs, and she takes a sip of her coffee.

“I was attacked last night.”

Jordan blinks, zeroing in on her bruised face, and then he’s easing into Concerned Cop Mode. Still, there’s something wary about his expression, like he’s not exactly sure of Lydia’s stability, or where the threads of the conversation are connected.

“I don’t follow...” he says gently, and tilts his head. “Do you need to make a statement? I’m just a beat cop here, but--”

“Our mutual friend is Stiles Stilinski,” Lydia says, biting the bullet and letting it blurt out in one breath. Jordan rears back like someone poured ice water over him, and his mouth opens in question. Lydia forges on.

“I was attacked last night because, up until about three weeks ago, I’d never heard of the guy in my life. Suddenly, he was in my apartment, telling me the name of the guy who attacked him and his boyfriend, resulting in Stiles ending up in a coma.” She stares at the desktop, hands shaking, and swallows. “I can-- I can hear spirits. I can’t see him, but he talks to me, and his...soul, or whatever you want to call it, has been displaced. He told me to come see you, because nobody else believes me - not even Derek, anymore - and he says you have an open mind. ”

Jordan just stares at her, disbelieving and slightly shell-shocked, and his hand subtly snakes towards the phone on his desk.

“Okay,” he croaks, trying for encouraging and failing miserably. “That’s-- let me just--”

“Tell him to open a Word document,” Stiles says, seeing it all going south immediately.

Lydia grits her teeth, and closes her eyes. “He wants you to open up Microsoft Word.”

“He-- what? Are you... Can you hear, uh, Stiles, right now?” The look in his eye suggests he thinks Lydia’s going to reach across the desk and claw his face off. She just nods.

Jordan stares at her, the cogs in his brain obviously figuring out how best to get the crazy woman the help she needs, but something in Lydia’s eyes, when she looks up, and they're glassy and rimmed with red, has him reaching slowly for the mouse, clicking a few times, and a blank page opens up on the screen.

Stiles moves around behind him, getting a familiar whiff of the cologne the guy wears every day, and spreads his hands over the keyboard.

Jordan bolts to a standing position as the keys start moving under Stiles’ fingers.

hey man, he types, eyes crinkling, how ‘bout those Mets?

It’s a phrase they constantly fell back on, back when Stiles was some fidgety high-school kid hanging out at the cute Deputy’s desk trying to awkwardly work the fact he might also want to kiss boys into the conversation. It worked when Stiles ran to tell him about the first time he kissed a guy at a party; his first date with Sam; when he couldn’t sleep for weeks because of the ache in his chest; when he realized he was way too into Derek. Every time someone encroached on their privacy, it was so how ‘bout those Mets?

“That’s--” Jordan says, voice shaking, The department isn’t empty, and a few other officers and admins milling round glance over, keeping an eye on things. “How are you doing that?”

Lydia holds her hands out, palm up. “I’m not,” she says tiredly.

Jordan sits down, very slowly, and clasps his hands in front of him. After a beat, he seems to think better of it, and shuffles a few stray papers on his desk.

“I’m not sure I-- You’re saying Stiles...” he swallows. “I’m sorry, it’s a lot to--”

Lydia slides her coffee across the desk towards him, resigned and sad. He takes several greedy gulps, eyes watering at the singe on his tongue, before slumping in his chair.

Stiles types: it’s true, dude! Someone’s out to get Derek!! and Jordan jerks all over again.

“This can’t be real... I mean, you read stuff, but it’s always by nutjobs who are probably on a bunch of drugs when they talk directly to Elvis or whatever.”

Lydia’s expression goes pained, and she slides her chair back. “Look, if you think I’m insane, fine - I won’t waste your time.” She picks up her jacket and purse, brow creased, and steps back.

“Wait,” Jordan urges, standing too. “I’m sorry, I...look, you have to know how this sounds.

She smiles bitterly. “Too well.”

Jordan’s face goes sympathetic, but Lydia just lets out a breath, grimaces, and shrugs.

“If it were up to me, I wouldn’t have any part of this. But I’m in it now. This guy dragged me into an alley and pulled a knife on me last night, all for what I know.”

The officer reaches out abortively, but his fingers just hover in the air when Lydia subconsciously straightens. She’s detached, and looks more together than Stiles knows she is. He puts a hand on her shoulder; she doesn’t look like she feels it.

“It was the same person who shoved Stiles so hard he’s in a coma, and now---” she takes a breath, “The guy died last night. If you want to make some calls you’ll find that a kid about nineteen got hit by a car, and they probably found traces of pepper spray around his eyes.”

Parrish lays his palms back on the desk, like he’s holding on to it for dear life.

“And you’re saying that’s the guy who--”

“He wasn’t working alone,” Lydia goes on. “Royce is gone but someone sent him after me. She’s dangerous, and I’d like nothing more than to run away and pretend like none of this is happening - but this is my city, too, and I’m not letting some assholes scare me out of living my life.”

She shakes her head, and shoulders her giant purse, eyes training away from the cop.

“Believe me or don’t, but all I know is I’m terrified, and so is Stiles, and the next body your colleagues find could be mine, or Derek Hale’s. It’s just a matter of time. I, for one, am gonna do what I can to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

She turns on her heel, shoulders back, and makes to walk away - but the swell of pride Stiles feels towards her is eclipsed by relief when Officer Parrish steps around the desk, puts a hand on her shoulder, and gently turns her around

“Hold on,” he says, eyes dazed for a moment, pensive, before they meet hers. “What if...what if I believe you?”

___

His father is motionless.

Stiles’ hands ache with the need to reach out, comfort, convince, but it’s his dad. Sheriff, hard-ass, former marine. He’s as intricate and caring as he is salt-of-the-earth, and parlor tricks with a keyboard and word processing software don’t seem appropriate.

Not even if it’s to keep him alive.

“It’s not the way this works,” he says at last, "You're not supposed to be around to see your kid die."

He’s sitting in Derek’s threadbare chair, elbows resting on his knees, his face obscured by hands joined as if in prayer. All Stiles can see of him is the heavy set of his brow and the pain in his gaze, and he feels like he’s shaking by how much he hates this.

Derek’s mouth is a thin line on his face, staring at the carpet.

“They told me to take time. I’ve been meaning to look into long-term care facilities, but I...” he trails off. “I can’t--”

“Derek, it’s been two ‘second opinions’ now. Stiles wouldn’t want...” his dad’s voice shakes, and he clears his throat, scrubbing a palm over his features, and then buries his face in his hands. “Claudia needed twenty-four-hour care, by the end. Stiles was just a kid, but he said--” John looks up. “It’s not an existence, Derek.”

Derek’s face shuts down, and he straightens.

There’s a long beat of silence, and the two men don’t look at each other, but the room is thick, a bitter atmosphere of tension blanketing them; so heavy and dark that Stiles thinks he’d throw up, if he could.

“You...” Derek starts, voice paper-thin. “You want to switch it off?”

Stiles shakes his head, stumbling back. He might be screaming, but he’s the only one who can hear.

No. Not yet. I’m not ready!

It’s like the room is closing in on him, squeezing him in a vice, and a bunch of papers on the coffee table flutter to the floor. Derek and his dad don’t even seem to notice.

“Stiles watched his mom become a shell. He watched me fail miserably at dealing with it, and he’d never want that for you, or for him.” Dad looks Derek in the eye. “You know it’s true.”

“Not anymore!” Stiles yells, distraught - because it’s true, he had thought that.

There was a horrible, painfully honest conversation a few years back, where his dad had brought the subject up. They’d come back from the cemetery, the stench of lilies still on their fingers, and every memory of those final eighteen months raw and real as if they were yesterday.

It’s like... it’s like it wasn’t really her, you know?” He’d said, staring out into the edge of the glow their porchlight gave off. Beyond the backyard was darkness; distant traffic and rustling leaves a far-off white noise. “I just... if it was me, I wouldn’t want-- There’s no way I’d wanna linger, you know? Not when I can’t even speak. Can’t feed myself.”

Stiles found himself voicing his own wishes, his future abstract and theoretical like it is when you’re fifteen. His dad hadn’t looked at him, just nodded, slipped his big, strong arm around his bony shoulders and rested his chin on his head.

She still loved you. Some part of her did. Her eyes lit up when you walked in the room. Right ‘til the end.”

He’d told Derek about it, too, at some point. One of those heart-to-heart, life-or-death 3am talks that floated off by morning, but Derek didn’t seem to remember. Maybe he just didn’t want to.

“I’m still here, Dad, still around!”

“Is that what you came here to do?” Derek cuts in. His face is pale, and his eyes look betrayed. “I thought you.. I’m ready to fight for this, and you’re just willing to give up?! On Stiles?”

“That’s not Stiles anymore!” Dad shouts, voice wrecked. Derek slumps back to the arm of the couch, and he shakes his head, eyes narrow.

“You don’t... there’s still time. Maybe he’s... trapped, or--”

“Is this about that psychic again?” Dad demands contemptuously. Stiles wasn’t aware he even knew about Lydia, but clearly Derek had come clean.

No, I--”

“Son, you told me yourself, she was full of it.” His tone is gentle now, like he understands Derek’s need to grasp at straws, but he needs to be the adult here.

“I just can’t....” Derek’s shoulders shudder in a sob. “It’s like I can still feel him. He’s here, John. He wouldn’t... wouldn’t just leave me, not Stiles.”

Dad’s face crumples, and he holds back his own sob as much as he can. He looks at Derek with the weight of experience, with the eyes of someone who’s prayed for a miracle and had it denied, and he shakes his head.

“They don’t want to,” he says, rough and cracked. “But sometimes they have to.”

___

Derek starts drinking after Stiles’ dad leaves. It begins in the workroom, which looks like he’s barely entered it weeks. Derek goes in hesitantly, like it physically hurts, and pulls long swigs from the bottle, coughing at the first burn.

Everything is covered up or unfinished, like a haunted graveyard of almosts, and the sight of him in the middle of the floor, barefoot and stubbled in a lived-in, well-worn sweater, makes something in Stiles feel like it’s cracking. He physically moves the bottle out of Derek’s reach a couple times, when he rests it on the bench to shove this item or that around, but short of smashing it against the wall and well and truly traumatizing the love of his life, there isn’t really much Stiles can do. Besides, Derek kind of deserves a little wallowing.

“You can’t give up,” Stiles says. He doesn’t know if the end of the sentence should be on me or on yourself. Both would do, if he had a choice.

Derek comes to a stop in front of the current focal point of the room. It looms like an oversized storm cloud, teasing and constant. It was supposed to be the central piece of Derek’s exhibition: a body cast of Stiles’ torso, meticulously showing every ridge, scar and imperfection. Ultimately - and ironically, Stiles reflects with a bitter scowl - Derek’s vision had been to cover the entire cast with metal. He’d spent weeks forging and polishing the chest plate, and creating sleeves of braided bronze and copper and aluminum - like some steampunk-slash-Germanic cyborg. It looked impenetrable, unbreakable, and perfected with so much love that it seemed to glow off the metal itself.

Armor to protect Stiles from anything.

He remembers the day with a wistful smile. Derek almost popped a blood vessel between scolding Stiles for his fidgeting, begging him to oh my god just take it seriously, and insisting they start from scratch at the mere chance of a mistake.

Well maybe I’m feeling ill-at-ease that I’m the only one shirtless, here,” he’d argued, pawing the plaster onto Derek’s chin and down his front. “Maybe this is a set-up to take advantage of me.”

It turned out the only way Stiles would keep still was with Derek wedged between his knees, practically restrained, and seated on the worktop in that old, cramped shop back in Beacon Hills. He let Derek have his moment of triumph. What was the use telling him that it was exactly what Stiles planned?

Derek rips the sheet down, bracing himself.

It’s even more breathtaking than the last time Stiles saw it, when it was still in pieces. The details are more prominent, lines cleaner, and to him it looks complete. Derek, however, keeps his eyes fixed firmly on the floor, sheet bunched in hand, willing himself to look.

He doesn’t.

“It’s-- wow. It’s beautiful,” Stiles comments, stepping closer, and glances at Derek. A forlorn smile comes over his face and he shakes his head. “I can’t believe you were afraid to show me this.”

The sheet slips out his grasp, and Derek glances, just once, but it’s enough. He closes his eyes, heaves in a steady, ragged breath, and looks at the floor again.

Stiles can’t. He can’t watch him like this, and if Derek could hear him, he isn’t sure what he’d say anyway. So he reaches out, and he pours every ounce of love and longing and apology into his touch. Apology for getting hurt, for not getting better - for leaving Derek when he needs him most.

Stiles weaves his hands around Derek’s shoulders, presses his lips to his shoulder, and wills Derek to feel it, wills him to soak it up, because if Stiles is sorry for anything, it’s for everything he can’t - and everything he didn’t get to - say.

Derek’s shoulders sag, and there’s a small, barely-there tremor shivering over his being. Like he can feel it. It’s enough - it has to be.

Maybe it’s not, though, because Derek steps away, picks up the bottle, and stalks out of the room.

That’s how Stiles ends up sitting on the coffee table, jaw grinding, as Derek stares blankly at a space on the wall next to their stupid mounted TV; the one that Stiles claimed they needed for movie marathons. The whole apartment is full of things Stiles wanted, Stiles chose, Stiles insisted on. Derek’s been letting him into his life solidly for so long, and Stiles was so dumb and scared and burned that he made himself blind to it.

“Didn’ even want you,” he tells Aslan, who licks his chops at him curiously. “Stiles said we-- I’m stuck w’you now. Don’ even like cats.”

Alsan purrs.

“Dude,” Stiles scolds fondly. “Stop taking it out on him.”

“You don’ even do ‘nything,” Derek scowls, and Aslan pads across the couch, climbing on to Derek’s lap and nuzzling at his face. The purring intensifies, and Derek stiffens.

“No.”

He just looks affronted, but the cat won’t be deterred.

“That wasn’t an invitation to...” His hand clenches and unclenches for a moment before he relaxes, lets his fingers twine in the fluff of the pet’s flank, and he lets out a harsh, heavy breath. Stiles bites his own fist at the sight.

The moment is broken by a buzz at the door. Apparently, Aslan does not appreciate being moved.

“Uh, hello?”

The tiny screen blurs into focus to show Kate looking just above the camera. Her lips twist into a tight smirk and her voice is almost forcibly chipper when she says, ”Derek! Hey! Can I come up?”

“No you fucking can’t,” Stiles spits, and the screen jumps in static before settling again.

“Sure, join the party,” Derek drawls bitterly, hitting the buzzer and leaning against the wall. Stiles takes the moment to move to the window, and sure enough, the now-familiar car is parked where Jordan said it would be, right across the street. He thinks he can just about make out Lydia’s shoulder from the vantage point.

“You two better be watching,” he mumbles, chewing on his lip, and turns back to see Derek throwing himself on the sofa.

It was barely a surprise to find that Kate didn’t seem to have a traceable address; the only listing on her business site was for a PO box on the other side of the city, and several of the artists she claimed to represent had never heard of her.

They’d been so fucking trusting.

Still, if she had a stake in this at all, she’d show up to see Derek sooner or later - especially now Royce was gone. They were all counting on it. The plan - if you could even call it that - was to follow her back to her Evil Bitch Lair and hopefully gather some more evidence before presenting it to the detective in charge of their case.

Hey, it’s better than sitting around waiting for someone to get murdered. Stiles just wishes Derek had more of his wits about him right now.

“It’s open,” Derek responds to her knock, and the serious expression on Kate’s face transforms into a kind smile when she catches sight of him, leaning back on the couch, whiskey bottle held loosely in his hand.

“Hey you.”

A grunt.

“Sorry for coming around so late, it’s just-- Stiles had some flyer designs he never got around to showing me, so I thought I’d come check them out,” she says, lingering in the entryway. He stares at the liquid as she greets, blinking dopily until she rounds the couch to face him.

“No I didn’t,” Stiles says, scowling. “I literally never spoke with you outside our group meetings.”

Derek gestures off in the vague direction of their office, not bothering to look up, and Stiles gapes. Seriously, Derek? They’re going to have a serious talk about misplaced trust some day. This guy doesn’t believe the barista gives him soy unless he watches his latte being made, but evil, over-tactile blondes who own more leather boots than is probably humanly possible get a free pass.

He can’t stand to see her just walk around like she owns the fucking place, so he follows her into the storage room they generously refer to as the ‘office’ - it’s where their printer-scanner, some gadgets, and a single desktop computer are - and alarm bells start ringing when she closes the door.

Yeah, doors don’t mean much to Stiles anymore.

It doesn’t go unnoticed that she makes a beeline right past Stiles’ laptop and straight for the desk, rustling the papers on top and checking every unlocked drawer.

“What the fuck do you want so badly?” Stiles muses thoughtfully. “You sent Royce here for whatever it is... you’d kill for it.” He shakes his head, resigned. “Just fucking take it and leave him alone. Please.”

Kate doesn’t reply, but a photo of Derek’s parents tumbles off the desk. She freezes.

Emboldened, Stiles reaches out and spins the stylus from his drawing tablet in a slow circle, watching her face intently for reaction. She pushes the chair back from the desk, standing, and looks around.

There’s a moment of contemplation, and Stiles pushes down on the small feeling of triumph that getting her attention gave him, before she shakes it off and paces the room. She checks behind posters and peeks beneath furniture, but comes up fruitless. With a heavy sigh, she turns to the computer.

Kate lets out a curse when she sees that it’s password protected.

“What do you think we are, idiots?” Stiles taunts, folding his arms. “I’m a snoop, and Derek’s paranoid as fuck about identity theft. Like we’d leave it open for anyone.”

He reaches past her and turns off the monitor. Kate pulls a face, and turns it on again. Stiles pulls the plug, and she stands up with a jolt.

“Derek?” she asks, sounding wary.

“Try again, bitch.” There’s a Daryl Dixon bobblehead sitting by the mouse. Stiles takes the head, and slowly turns it left, then right, then left.

Kate steps away from the desk, face pale, and says, “Stiles?”

Daryl nods vigorously. She swipes it so hard it shoots across the room, head breaking off upon impact with the wall. It falls to the floor harmlessly, and she stares at it, shoulders heaving, eyes wide.

“That was a collectible!” Stiles protests, crouching by it.

“I’m going insane,” Kate mumbles, making for the door. She takes a breath before she opens it, closing her eyes, and steps out.

Derek is still in the same spot. After watching him for an extended moment, she seems to decide something, and pastes a sheepish smile on as she approaches. “I’ve got a confession to make,” Kate says, like it’s some huge secret. “The flyer thing was a ruse - I really wanted to come see how you’re holding up.” Eyes flitting to the glass and back, she tilts her head. “You haven’t been returning my calls.”

Derek shrugs.

“Derek, you need to take care of yourself,” she admonishes, and Stiles would almost believe she gave a shit, if he didn’t know better. He paces behind the couch, skin itching at the discomfort of having her so close to Derek. Of having her in their home at all.

“Think I deserve a drink, don’t you?” Derek responds wryly, and his eyes are glassy when he smirks up at her. He downs the rest of the glass and reaches for the bottle again.

“How much have you had?” she asks, eyeing the bottle, which is only about a third full.

Derek turtle-faces. “Hadn’t opened it when I started,” he slurs, and his eyes narrow in sluggish thought. “Stiles hates whiskey.”

“I won’t tell him if you won’t,” she smiles, but it’s cracked now, and Derek’s face shuts down.

“Doctor says he’s not gonna--” he gulps, and clears his throat. “They’re all telling me t’say g’bye.”

Kate studies him as she processes the words. “Say good-- Oh.” She almost looks sorry about it. “Oh, Derek.” She reaches out to pull him into a hug, rubbing soothing circles on his back as she looks over Derek’s shoulder, a detached, calculating expression on her face.

Stiles is shaking.

“I’m so sorry.”

“Yeah, right,” Stiles snorts bitterly, rolling his eyes. “Please, Kate, do your victory dance where we can all see.”

“Whatever you need, okay?” she says, pulling back to hammer home her sincerity. Her eyes look earnest, and she’s the perfect portrait of the concerned friend - Stiles doesn’t know if he wants to throw up, or throw her out the window.

The thought makes him pause. He could kill her. He could end her life and get Derek out of danger, right this second, if he wanted to.

Well, he could. If not for the fact that Derek would probably be framed for it and spend the rest of his days in prison. They’d never find out what happened - and there’s the fact that Stiles is still vehemently trying not to think about the sound Garrett’s body made when it connected with the car or the look on his face when he realized he was dead. He knows he isn’t responsible. He knows Garrett got what he deserved, but still.

So Stiles isn’t a cold-blooded killer - and he’s not sure what it says about him that the thought doesn’t bring comfort. However, if there’s one person on the planet he’d off, she has her filthy claws on Derek’s shoulders right now. Her hand moves up, tentatively, to cup his cheek. Derek leans into it unconsciously, eyes falling shut.

“No-- don’t fucking touch him!”Stiles roars, but it falls on deaf ears.

Kate presses a kiss to his cheek, and Derek startles, eyes opening in surprise, and there’s an eternal, horrible moment when his vulnerability bleeds through. He looks at Kate like he’s drowning, and Stiles’ vision tunnels, his hearing goes muffled, and it’s like he can’t breathe, that horribly familiar vice grip crushing his chest.

A shrill ring breaks the moment.

Derek pulls back like he’s been burned, standing up from the couch with a sway and a grunt, and digs into his pocket.

“H’lo?”

It’s impossible to hear the voice on the line - that same static he got when Royce was calling Kate that day masks it- and he’s reduced to watching Derek’s face as he scrubs at it, trying to make sense of the caller.

“Yeah that’s me, I-- what?” he frowns, and licks his lips. “Yeah, I’ll-- First thing in the morning. Thanks.” Derek hangs up, and stares at the phone in silence until Kate’s hand falls on his arm, pulling him out of his reverie.

“What’s wrong?” she asks gently. “Derek, you’re white as a sheet.”

“That was, uh, Detective Matthews,” he says, and Stiles steps forward, fearing the worst. “That kid the psychic told me about, he-- she thinks they’ve connected him to our case.”

Kate’s expression goes through several stages before Derek looks at her, and settles, finally, on shock. “Wow, that’s... wow.”

“I can’t believe it,” he mumbles, sitting down, just as Kate stands.

“I should go,” she says, lifting her purse. “You have a lot to process and an early start and--”

Derek looks up sharply, nose scrunching, and he blinks. “O-- okay,” he says. “Yeah, that’s probably.. yeah.”

“Take care, Derek,” Kate says seriously, turning at the door. “And call me if you need me.”

With that, she’s gone. Derek clasps his hands in front of his face, rests his elbows on his knees, and processes. Stiles is itching to go after her, but he’s torn until he watches him reach for the bottle, twist on the cap, and leave it on the end table.

Derek sits for a moment, then he rises, arms the door, and switches off the lamp. Stiles waits until he hears the shower running, Derek’s bedtime routine, and turns to leave.

“I’m gonna end this,” he promises. “I’ll end it and I’ll come back. I swear.”

_

He can’t see her when he makes it out on to the street. The pavements are filled with people in various costumes, celebrating the last Saturday night before Halloween. Figures bustle in and out of bars and congregate on the streets, faces painted or masked. Skeletons hang from storefronts, witches hover over signage. The chilly air is aglow with the orange light of jack o’ lanterns - real and fake - strung from lampposts and filling up windows; perched on stoops or guarding doorways.

The car is still parked across from the building, and he doesn’t even think before darting towards it and throwing himself in the back seat.

Lydia and Jordan are stock-still, staring out the windshield, and she jumps when Stiles demands, “What the hell are you waiting for?!”

“Oh my god,” Lydia gasps in response, clutching her chest, and it’s Jordan’s turn to startle. “Stiles, what--”

“Kate just left! Why aren’t you following her?”

“Kate left?” Lydia asks, glancing at Jordan, and his mouth gapes. “Which way did she go?”

“That’s what you’re supposed to tell me!” he yells, leaning between the seats. “What the fuck!”

Lydia sticks a finger in her ear, wringing it out, and grunts.

“We were--” Jordan starts, but she fixes him with a look, and he turns forward again, guilty. Stiles looks to him, and then Lydia, and decides that he doesn’t have time for this shit.

“I can’t believe this!”

“She can’t have gone very far,” Lydia offers lamely. Stiles buries his head in his hands and groans. “Okay, I’m sorry, but we can try another way--”

“Oh, with all the downtime we have?” Stiles says icily, throwing his hands up. “I don’t know if you noticed, but I--”

He’s stopped, because in the midst of his rant, his eyes catch on the rear view mirror, and Stiles whirls around to peer out the back window, convinced he’s seeing things. Convinced that some part of him - the sentimental part that is full of hope and childish optimism, is making it up.

“Stiles?” Lydia asks, and he knows Jordan’s looking to her confusedly. Still, he can’t tear his eyes away; doesn’t want to take the chance again. He can’t make out the face, but it has to be him - there’s no way any of it has been coincidental.

“Stiles...” Lydia prompts again, wariness lacing her tone.

“Can you see...” he licks his lips, gulps, and tries, so hard, not to blink. “Is there someone in a red sweatshirt, hood pulled up, standing behind the car?”

He hears the rustle of fabric as Lydia turns, and it seems like a long, tense second before she hums, shrugs, and says, “I can see a lot of guys who think they can pull off wearing tights,” she says, snorting, “But no hoodie people.”

The figure hasn’t moved, and Stiles nods. “Didn’t think so.”

“Why are you asking me about people in hoodies?” she says, but as she’s talking, the figure turns, casting a glance back once, and starts to walk away.

“Get out of the car,” Stiles orders, fumbling for the handle for a split-second before realizing he’s just doing it out of habit. Red Hoodie is still in sight, and he vibrates with energy and the need to pursue, but Lydia and Jordan aren’t fucking moving. Baffled, he sticks his head through the glass and booms, “Come on!” so loudly that Lydia actually climbs over Jordan’s lap in her hurry to exit the vehicle.

“What’s going on?!” she asks, Jordan tumbling out after her.

“Are you asking me, or--”

“Stiles!”

He watches the figure move away, and says, “Okay, look, there’s a lot you don’t know about me, and it’s too much to explain right now, but--” A crowd passes in front of his view and he stumbles forward, catching sight of the hoodie again. “Trust me, I have a lead, and if we don’t start moving right now, we’ll lose it, okay?”

Lydia frowns, “I don’t--”

“Look, we have to head toward Roosevelt right now! Move!”

Lydia’s moving without another word, taking a split second to grab Jordan by the wrist and drag him along, ignoring his shocked protests and concerns about his car. Her rushed explanation barely holds, and Stiles yells out directions as they weave through the revelers and across pedestrian crossings, barely taking time to check if they’re keeping up.

“If I’d known there was going to be this much running, I wouldn’t have worn heels!

“We had a perfectly good car just sitting unlocked in Oldtown, I think it’s worth mentioning--”

“Oh my god, living people,” Stiles groans. “Suck it up!”

“Are you actually saying that to me right now?” Lydia pants, and Jordan’s eyes widen.

“Sorry, I--”

“Not you, Officer Manners. I’m talking to the obnoxious, half-dead pain in my ass!

“Uh, okay...” Jordan’s eyes dart around. They settle on a middle-aged man standing beside them at the crosswalk, casting curious looks Lydia’s way. Officer Parrish squints, shoulders rolling back, and steps in front of her. “Public place, though,” he reminds her.

“It’s Halloween,” she retorts, nose in the air. “The one time of year I get to talk about this crap and claim it’s festive spirit.”

Jordan’s face softens, nosy pedestrian forgotten, and Lydia raises a shoulder in a devil-may-care, coquettish way. Stiles stops his agitated shuffle, letting out a breath through his nose.

“Seriously?” he barks, “No flirting until the case is solved!

“He wasn’t flirting--”

“What? That wasn’t… I was just...”

”Left!” Stiles orders when the lights change - finally - quickening his steps after the receding flash of red.

The streets get brighter as they go, and soon they’re opening up to the downtown tourist district - the parts that get printed on postcards and shown on TV. It’s a little easier to see, and Stiles has a perfect view of Red Hoodie as they cross to a batch of exclusive hotels - the likes of which Stiles has never stayed in.

“What are we doing here?” Jordan asks. “Is this a tour of the sites, or?”

The figure has stopped outside a window tastefully decorated with harvest themes, mood lighting making its way out on to the street. “There,” Stiles says, pointing, before realizing it’s futile and shaking his head. “Four Seasons.”

Lydia turns, frowning, and tugs on Jordan’s wrist again. Has she let go since they left the car?

Looking back to the hotel, he blinks. He’s not even sure he’s surprised to realize the figure is nowhere in sight. “Dammit,” he grunts, nearing the spot where he’s sure he was standing. “Of course.”

“What’s wrong?” Lydia asks, and she looks around, like it’ll become obvious at a glance.

“Nothing, I just-- I think I lost my lead.”

“Dead trail?” Lydia asks.

“Wouldn’t be so sure about that,” Jordan puts in thoughtfully, staring in the window. The interior is a cozy lounge, piano tinkling in the corner. Witchcraft is being crooned reasonably well by the singer, but what their eyes are drawn to is the head of blonde hair seated in one of the booths, posture curled guardedly over the table.

“Kate?” Lydia asks, brow rising. She and Jordan have only seen pictures, but that self-important sneer could be recognized from freaking space.

“The one and only,” Stiles mutters, clenching his jaw. “What is this, a merry round of drinks to celebrate being a terrible human being?”

“Doesn’t look merry.”

“That’s because the cops have finally connected Royce to the mugging,” Stiles says, remembering that he neglected to tell them in all the chaos. “Derek got the call while Kate was trying to bad-touch him, just now.”

Lydia lets her surprise sink in before relaying it to Jordan. The officer looks thoughtful for a moment, staring at the booth.

“So, let’s say you’re a lowlife who hires someone to kill a guy,” he hypothesizes.

“As you do,” Stiles says snidely as he talks.

“Police connect the guy to the victim, one whose name has been brought to the PD already, and you know it’s only a matter of time before it comes out who was pulling the strings. What do you do?”

“Go out for drinks, apparently,” Lydia snarks, gesturing in the window.

“She’s got to be a little panicked,” Jordan says, “and what’s the first thing you do when you panic?”

“Run for help,” Stiles replies, squinting. The more they watch, the more it’s apparent that Kate isn’t spending the evening alone. Each quick glance at the screen on her phone is telltale enough - as are the two water glasses on the table in front of her.

“She’s meeting someone here,” Lydia deduces, and tilts her head. “Someone who would have to know about the contract kill - or who she’s at least going to tell about it.”

“Or,” Stiles says, watching the scene unfold as Kate stands. She’s joined at the table by her companion. A shiver runs down his spine. “Someone who was already involved.”

“James?” Lydia says, paling, and it’s awful to have confirmed, but ultimately for the greater good. Kate stands and greets him, laying a kiss to his cheek and a hand on his face, a mirror of how she’d comforted Derek earlier, and Stiles is thankful that he can’t throw up - because he could not afford the Four Season’s cleaning bill.

“That’s the guy you were with the night Royce came at you?” Jordan clarifies, and she confirms with a shaky nod. “Guess that answers the question of whether he was involved.” His jaw hardens, and he steps back, like his legs are itching to do something but his rationality won’t let him. “I knew there was something off about him. He never faced the security camera the whole time you were in the restaurant. Walked right into the blind spot on the street. Paid in cash. Left no trace.”

Lydia turns to him, curious, and Stiles feels a swell of comfort that someone, at least, was looking out for Lydia in all of this. Fuck knows Stiles hasn’t been doing a good job of it.

“What?” Jordan says to her expression. “I might not be officially on the Hale case, but I’m on yours until we can connect them. Someone attacked you, and you were left alone to fight them off. That’s enough to warrant looking a little deeper.”

“Don’t you have official police stuff to be working on?” she prods, studying him.

Jordan stares ahead, looking slightly sheepish. “Uh, that reminds me... I kind of need you to sign a statement... that I might have written for you, based loosely on what you told me, without... ghostly things.”

Stiles feels like hugging him. Trust Parrish to get around Lydia’s I don’t deal with law enforcement rule. It’s all evidence in the end. Instead of looking annoyed, she looks slightly relieved, and simply nods to where she’s picking at her nail polish.

“So, what do we do?” she asks both of them after a moment, and Stiles really does not have an answer to that.

Jordan, however, pulls his phone out of his pocket, and taps the camera app. “What we came here to do. Gather evidence.”

___

“We’re not doing a thing until we’re both in agreement, Derek. I’m not having you hate me over this.”

“Then save your breath,” Derek says coldly, and Stiles’ gaze darts worriedly between the two of them. “Because I’m never going to be fine with this.”

On the bed, Stiles’ body lays still. In the daylight, it’s clear that the hair on the shaved side of his head has grown in a little, and he thinks one of the nurses must have tidied up the patchy stubble on his cheeks back to smoothness. His arms, where they lay over the blankets, look thin and breakable; muscles losing mass from disuse.

“I’m not asking you to be fine. I’m asking you think about what Stiles wants.” Dad raises his brows to emphasize the point. “Really think about it.”

“He thinks about nothing else,” Stiles croaks guiltily, watching the emotions play over Derek’s face.

“Mr. Hale?”

They both turn at the voice cutting into their standoff, and Stiles is expecting a nurse or something at the door. It’s Detective Matthews, leather jacket zipped, holster strapped to the belt on her skin-tight jeans.

“I was at the station most of the morning, but you never showed up.” She moves slowly into the room, respectful of their boundaries, but there’s a look of determination on her face with sole focus on Derek.

Dad looks between her and Derek with a frown, and stands. Derek, well, he just avoids looking at anyone.

“Is there something we can help you with, Detective?” Stiles’ dad asks professionally. Firm lines of worry are still etched around his mouth, and he looks like he’s bracing himself for more bad news.

The cop doesn’t answer, but her mouth twists as she pulls her phone out, seeming to scroll for a second, before turning it to face him. “This was found on the body of the victim of a vehicle collision four days ago. An officer from another division recognized the name from the news.”

On the screen is a picture of Derek’s drivers license, along with the beat-up remains of a black leather wallet, sealed in an evidence bag. Derek’s wallet.

Dad squints at it before handing the phone back. “The mugger?” he deduces, and the detective nods. “So you’re saying the man who attacked Derek and my son is dead?”

“He was killed upon impact with a car on Sherwood, just after midnight on Thursday.”

The words hang in the air, and it’s not relief or joy that Stiles senses in the room. Just... acceptance.

“Well,” Dad says, looking to Derek, who seems to stare into nothing. “Not that I’d welcome the death of some kid, but... at least...closure is good.” The frown on his brow deepens, and he closes his eyes briefly, heaving deep, steady breaths.

The detective, watching him, looks suddenly nervous, and Stiles’ dad, of course, picks up on it immediately. He studies her until she seems to come to a decision, and something in his expression coaxes her to continue.

“Thing is, we also identified the body,” she informs, letting the statement hang in the air like a warning. “It was Garrett Royce. Nineteen years old, missing for two years.”

Derek’s jaw clenches at the confirmation he was expecting, but other than that, he’s still.

“Royce?” Dad says, looking to him. “Why is that... “It appears to dawn on him then, and his brows rise. “The psychic... she....”

The detective nods. “Seems like this girl may actually have some information for us. Royce had been maced just before his accident, so it looked like he was making a habit of jumping people. We checked out some of the security cameras, trying to find evidence of an incident that same night that would explain the damage to his eyes, and something even more interesting came up.” She tilts her head, licking her lips. “Lydia Martin was seen emerging from the camera’s blind spot in the same direction Royce came from, looking... worse for wear.”

Derek does look up at that, and a concerned frown clenches his features.

“Is she alright?” Dad asks, straightening up.

The detective holds out a hand, “ We’ve been trying to contact her, as it seems she did make a statement about it, but getting hold of her - or the officer who took the statement - has proven... difficult.”

“What does that mean?” the sheriff asks, looking less patient by the moment.

“It means we were busy,” a voice from the door cuts in. The detective’s jaw hardens.

“Parrish?” Dad says, just as Derek turns.

“Lydia,” he mutters, becoming aware they’ve arrived.

She looks tired - they both do - but Lydia’s weariness is emphasized by the bruise fading on her cheek, hastily covered with make-up. Jordan is holding a large brown envelope, and his face is set in steely resolve.

“What the hell, guys?” Stiles asks, stepping off his perch by the window, but other than a slight flinch, Lydia makes no indication of hearing it.

“Ms. Martin,” Matthews says, eyes darting between the newcomers. “I planned to ask you to come in and talk to us later today, but when you don’t wanna be tracked down, you don’t make it easy.”

“Why don’t you finish telling Mr. Hale and Mr. Stilinski what you found out?” Jordan counters, posture protective. Lydia looks wrung-out, and when Stiles slipped off they were hunched together in some shitty diner, going over the gathered evidence... but it looks like they haven’t slept. The detective looks at Parrish suspiciously, before she turns back to Derek and Stiles’ dad.

“Royce also had a second cellphone on his person. We, well... we assumed it was stolen, until we pulled up the recent call history.” She seems to hesitate over her next words, and studies Derek. “Mr. Hale, how well do you know Kate Argent?”

“Not well enough,” Lydia mutters, and Jordan bumps their shoulders together.

“Wh--.she’s been a friend of my family for years,” he says, then gestures to the sheriff. “John knows her brother.” His voice sounds raspy and unused, and his bewildered expression just makes him look even more drained.

Jordan steps closer and eyes Derek intently. “To your knowledge, is she seeing anyone?”

“Kate?” Derek says, confused, “No, she... what does that have to do with--”

“I’ll thank you to leave the enquiries to me, officer,” Matthews reprimands, but Jordan couldn’t look less like he gives a shit.

“Would Kate have any reason to want to hurt you?” he presses, and Lydia’s biting her lip, watching for a reaction.

“Officer Parrish--” the detective snaps.

“Parrish, what the hell are you getting at?” Stiles’s dad interrupts, taking a stance between Jordan and Derek. He gestures to Lydia. “And what does she know about the man who attacked my son? Someone needs to start speaking here, and soon.”

Jordan stiffens like a chastised teenager, while Lydia draws a calming breath.

“The night I was attacked,” she starts, addressing Stiles’ Dad, “I met a man. James.” She looks away, remembering. “He was older than me, charming, and we struck up a conversation over a glass of wine - or three.” She shakes her head, frowning in recollection.

Matthews and Dad look lost; Derek, blank.

“Before I knew it he was ordering me another and another, and then he was offering to walk me home, and... it’s fuzzy, but somehow we ended up going the wrong way. It was dark. I lost track of where he was, and then suddenly I’m in an alley and Royce is there--” She takes a shuddering breath and gulps. Her eyes are glazed in memory, and unconsciously she fumbles at her sleeve - until Jordan slips his hand into hers, and squeezes.

“He had a knife, and... Look, whether you believe in what I can do - what I can hear - or not, it’s irrelevant right now. Let’s say I fought him off. I had mace in my purse and I guess I managed to get him with it, it’s all--” She points to her cheek. “He pushed me, and it wasn’t until Royce was gone that I realized that the man who walked me there was gone, too.”

“He just up and left?” Matthews asks, frowning. “How do you know he didn’t just get spooked in all the confusion? One-night-stand got too serious for Mr. Douchebag, so he leaves.”

“Wouldn’t be the first case like it,” the sheriff admits thoughtfully. Stiles knows they’re playing devil’s advocate, but part of him wants to scream - he would, if it wouldn’t be so unpleasant for Lydia.

“That’s what I told myself,” Lydia replies, chin defiant. “Until, last night, Jordan and I saw him again.... with Kate.”

The room seems to grow more silent, and then, “So you believe Kate Argent sent him to make sure you were at the right spot for Royce to attack you?” Matthews asks curiously. The wheels in her head appear to be turning, and she looks to Parrish. “Do you have anything to back up these claims? What reason does Argent have to go after Mr. Hale? How do we even know it was the same man from that night?”

Jordan seems to remember the envelope tucked under his arm, and Stiles watches in rapt anticipation as the pieces of their evidence are slowly revealed. “Security camera footage from the restaurant. No full-frontal shots, but it’s pretty safe to say that this guy,” --he hands over one of the grainy screencaps, and reaches into the envelope again-- “And this guy, are one in the same.”

She takes them, comparing.

“Dark hair, white, mid -forties, expensive suit,” Matthews says, as Dad shuffles closer to get a look at the picture. Derek frowns, and lifts his head, as the detective sighs. “Exactly like about three million other men in this city, and exactly like--”

“James,” Lydia cuts in, and for the first time, Stiles is aware of someone else darkening the doorway. Sure enough, without so much as a hair out of place or a wrinkle in his shirt, it’s him.

Actually him, right here, before they’ve even started looking. It’s--

“Peter.”

Peter? Stiles frowns, and when the word sinks in, spoken from Derek’s lips, it feels like time just fucking stops.

Derek’s uncle. Last living family member after the mysterious fire that destroyed their home when Derek was just a teenager. Same asshole that’s been a dark shadow, looming in the periphery of Derek’s life ever since, harassing him out of his inheritance until Derek finally put distance between them, moving back to his hometown at last to start fresh.

Stiles never met Peter - never wanted to, since the knowledge of how he’d emotionally manipulated Derek’s grief and guilted him for using the money he was left to build a life for himself, was enough for Stiles to hate him already.

He’d call, sometimes, on the pretense of checking in. Derek would indulge long enough, since his uncle lived on the East coast and thankfully far enough to never show up in person - until the questions would start, or the alcohol-fuelled jibes, and Derek would hang up in fury, every time. Now, examining everything he knows about Peter from experiences and accounts and just that feeling he got when he laid eyes on James, Stiles sees everything slot into place.

He’s getting worse...”

My family have this vault...”

I placed good faith in an investment, but it appears that sometimes if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.”

“Dear nephew,” James, no, fucking Peter Hale, responds, arching a brow sympathetically. “I can’t believe you didn’t call.”

His eyes dart around the room, settling on Lydia for a beat, and back at his nephew. Derek is standing now, eyes hyper-focused on his uncle, and he only takes two steps before drawing his fist back and smashing an almighty punch, so hard Stiles hears a crack, down on Peter’s face.

Chaos descends. Derek doesn’t wait for his uncle to recover before grabbing him by the collar and hurling him up to hit him again. Dad and Jordan dart forward, calling Derek’s name in an attempt to diffuse the violence. Detective Matthews takes Lydia by the arm and pulls her further back, but Derek is relentless.

Stiles has never seen such cold fury in his face before. Peter swings back and kicks, and all four men are a mass of struggling limbs that somehow move further into the room as the bystanders try to get a handle on the situation, but Derek fights like a man possessed, like someone who’s got a face to put on the reason for all the misery in his life.

Like a guy who’s lost everything he’s ever loved.

Something happens in the struggle, and despite Jordan’s efforts, Peter gets the upper hand and shoves him back, so hard that he stumbles right into the ventilator by the side of Stiles’ bed.

Lydia yells out. Matthews, wide-eyed, reaches forward, and Jordan turns in horror as the machine crashes to the ground, sending off a flurry of flashing lights and screaming alarms.

Derek freezes in the middle of the room.

“Stiles?” he calls out, panicked, Peter forgotten. Stiles’ Dad is yelling too, but it’s all sounding... muffled. Like Stiles is under water; like his ears are plugged with cotton.

He watches as medical staff rush the room, and security come to do... something.

Stiles is...everything is white and he can’t make out what anyone’s saying and he knows he should be worried, that something bad is happening but--

He can’t see anybody.

It’s like the room is empty; stark and bright and blinding, and it’s like fireflies are floating, but they’re stars? If he looks right at them they disappear. And he’s... he was so heavy, before. Heavy with worry and stress and life, but now he’s-- what’s--

Stiles.”

His head darts around. He can’t see, but he knows-- that voice, it’s.

Dude, here,” the voice says, and Stiles smiles.

“Missed you, bro,” he slurs back, and then he can see him; young and sweet-looking, hoodie and jeans and coiffed hair and just like he was. Exactly as he was when--

“‘M sorry,” he says. He feels like he’s sleep-talking. He feels like he aches, but it’s right from his soul. “Sorry I couldn’t...”

Shut up, no. It was never your fault, man.”

“I... I couldn’t. I should’ve--”

It was my time,” he says simply, like it’s all black and white; right and wrong. Stiles marvels at his demeanor, even now. “Sometimes it’s just your time. Sometimes you have a hundred years, sometimes you get hit by a drunk driver in a car with your best friend when you’re seventeen.” He tilts his head. “It wasn’t your time then, man. Is it now?”

Stiles feels himself frown. “I-- how do you...”

You just... know.”

“’M scared, Scott.”

He squints back at him, and raises his brow. God, Stiles missed him. “Of living, or of dying?”

Stiles thinks about it. He thinks about leaving Derek - really leaving him this time. He thinks about his dad and the life he was building. He thinks about missing out on everything Lydia’s going to be. He thinks about a world without Peter’s influence and he thinks of the million things he’s been promising himself he’s going to tell the people he loves.

“Dying,” he says, and it’s almost a choke. “I don’t wanna die.”

Good,” Scott says approvingly. He smiles, and he’s seventeen, but he isn’t. Stiles sees the man Scott would have been in that smile, and he’s... he’s awed. “‘Cause you’ve been too scared to live since I left you.”

The words are so true they sting, but nobody but Scott McCall could ever say them, and have Stiles listen.

“What do I-- I tried, before. I couldn’t get back to myself, and--”

You weren’t ready. You needed to help Derek, and you couldn’t have done that while your body was next to useless, in a hospital, thinking you’d just been mugged.”

Stiles blinks. “You helped me,” he says, realizing how many times it actually happened. “You brought me to Lydia and showed me Kate, and--” His face softens. “You helped me save Derek.”

I came through when I could. Once you’ve crossed, they don’t like you jumping back and forth between the planes. But...you’re my best friend,” Scott shrugs. “I’m always gonna help you get with a dude you like.”

The laugh Stiles lets out is a shocked, soul-deep thing. He feels like he can see it ripple through the air, and it makes him feel whole. It tingles out of him, and when he looks back, Scott is smiling.

He sobers.

“I haven’t talked to her since... I--”

She’s happy,” he reassures. “She’s amazing, but I knew she would be. You should call her.”

“Yeah, I think, if I...”

Take your chance, man. See the world, say sappy things to Derek. Get married, have kids, or don’t - I don’t care. Do something.” He catches Stiles’ eye and raises his brows. “Live your fucking life. They don’t just hand out all these extra tries.”

Stiles’ mouth trembles. “But I…”

I know,” Scott says, and he does. “I’ll miss you too.”

___

Stiles breathes.

___

“....monitoring him, but it’s a good sign that he’s breathing on his own...”

“...can’t be rushed - when his body is ready...”

“...nothing short of miraculous, really...”

“...haven’t witnessed anything like this in twenty years of medicine…”

It smells like a hospital. Stiles would know that stench anywhere, and his face screws up in recognition the moment it registers.

There’s a rustle of fabric, the dull pulse of a monitor, a blinding beam of daylight.

Someone’s holding his hand. Theirs is rough and familiar. He squeezes it.

“Stiles?” The voice is trepidatious, breathy with shock. “Stiles, kiddo, holy crap. Nurse!”

His dad is turned away, face flushed, yelling when he manages to pry his eyes open. They still feel heavy. He’s just so tired.

Stiles sleeps.

___

The next time Stiles wakes, the room is dark. It’s easier to open his eyes this time, and he feels less weighed down by tubes and wires. The ceiling has a stain on it in the shape of a giraffe.

There’s a mass of dark hair by his hand, and Stiles’ fingers twitch two, three times, before he buries them in the softness, heat from Derek’s scalp seeping into him.

Derek grunts, and Stiles feels his eyes crinkle at the corners. It seems like too much work to smile. He’s not sure what’s happening, what happened to him, but Derek’s here.

Derek’s here, so it should all be okay.

“De’gh,” Stiles says.

Derek wakes like someone is electrocuting him; sudden and spasmodic, and looks immediately to Stiles. He stands so forcefully that the chair he was sleeping on slides across the floor, and his eyes dart over Stiles face in complete awe.

“Stiles?” he asks, reaching out. His touch is gentle and insistent, and he cradle’s Stiles’ face like he’s breakable. “You-- can you hear me?”

“Whss g’n on?”Stiles slurs, wincing away. He feels like his head should hurt. It’s fuzzy and his mouth’s so dry his tongue clicks, but there’s a pleasant numbness that feels artificial. Then a door is opening behind Derek, and Stiles’ dad is there, face contorted in surprise.

“Is he--”

“He’s conscious!” Derek barks. “Can you--”

“I’ll get someone,” Dad says, and he’s gone. Where has he gone?

“Do you know where you are?” Derek is saying. His eyes are so pretty. They take in Stiles’ face with a squint of worry, and Stiles doesn’t like it. He reaches up to soothe it, but there’s a stupid plastic thing on his finger. Is he a robot now? No, that’s not it - the scent of antiseptic is cloying his nose.

“H’spt’l,” he coughs. Derek nods like Stiles just did a backflip, and reaches for something out of Stiles’ view. There’s a straw being pressed to his bottom lip, and Stiles drinks the most magical fucking liquid to ever be invented in the history of the universe. It makes his mouth feel like it’s dancing, and he takes long, greedy gulps before Derek takes it away.

“Slowly,” he coaxes, wiping a drop from his chin.

Okay, so it’s water.

Stiles might be pouting from the loss of it, but Derek just leans forward and kisses his forehead, pressing his nose into Stiles’ hair and inhaling deeply. Fuck the water.

“You scared the hell out of me,” Derek says, and his voice is thick.

“S’rry,” Stiles says, because he feels like he should be.

“Do you remember anything?”

Stiles thinks. It hurts to do so. Last thing he recalls is going to view Derek’s exhibition space. Kate was there; that makes his pulse jump and a wave of inexplicable anger bubble through his chest, but anything after that is slipping away in a hazy fog. He remembers a dark street, and rain, but not much else.

“I hit... hit m’head,” he frowns, and his hand automatically reaches up to touch. His hair is a little shorter on one side, and he can feel the tender ridge of a scar under his fingertips. Derek takes his hand, threading their fingers together, and nods.

“Yeah, you hit your head, and you were gone for a while, but you came back.” He kisses Stiles’ knuckles, and warm teardrop runs down into the cracks between their fingers. “I love you,” he says, and Stiles really smiles this time.

“D’tto,” he replies.

__

There’s a beautiful, redheaded girl on Jordan’s arm. She’s looking at Stiles like she’s terrified or something, and it makes him itch.

He’s gaining some muscle mass back. He can sit up for almost an hour on his own these days, and he doesn’t feel like he’s getting tired quite so easily. It’s been almost two weeks, and in that time he’s learned that he slept through Halloween and Thanksgiving, and that Kate Argent and Peter Hale - Derek’s estranged fucking uncle - got arrested for sending some guy to murder them so they could gain sole access to the Hale family’s vault. Oh, and that they’re together. Biblically.

So, not much happened, clearly.

Derek and Dad keep telling him he should focus on his recovery, and that they’ll explain everything start-to-finish when he’s better, but Stiles doubts they realize how mind-numbingly bored he gets at the hospital every day.

He’s been moved to a different unit, now that he’s not on the verge of death, so that’s something; but it’s mostly old people on his ward and he’s not really well enough to go wandering around yet.

Stiles thought he’d never have to see a physical therapist again, after the car crash his senior year, but apparently the world loves to fuck with him.

At least he’s getting plenty of visitors.

“JP!” Stiles exclaims, beaming widely from his bed. The girl follows slowly, keeping a wide arc until Stiles glances at her and immediately away, dismissive in the face of a missed friend. “What’s up, man?”

The girl tilts her head, and offers a pleasant, awkward smile.

“Hi,” Stiles says, drawing attention to the fact that she hasn’t been introduced yet. The girl casts a look at Parrish, and raises her brows.

“Oh, uh,” he says, sharing a look with her. “Stiles, this is Lydia.”

It’s a little weird that he’s bringing a new girlfriend to visit someone in hospital, but hey, maybe he’s super into her or something. Their body language suggests as much. Unless...

“Have we met?” he asks, and they both go silent, two sets of gorgeous eyes staring back at him. Oh man, if they have babies, they’re going to be devastating.

“Why do you say that?” Jordan asks, narrowing his stare, the girl is unfamiliar, but there’s definitely something he’s missing, here.

“No reason,” he shrugs. “So, Lydia, how’d you two meet?”

She presses her lips together, like she’s forcing back a smile, and blows out a breath. “It’s a long story,” she offers, and when Stiles squints suspiciously, adds, “let’s say we met through work.”

“Oh my god, did he arrest you?” Stiles exclaims, and Parrish looks scandalized. This is the most interesting conversation Stiles has had in days.

No,” they say in unison.

“She helped me with a case,” Jordan explains, smiling conspiratorially at her, and she laces her pinky with his. It’s sort of stupidly adorable, if Stiles is honest.

“Are you a cop too?”

Lydia looks down, smirking, and shakes her head. “No, I’m still studying. Mechanical engineering.”

“What, you gonna build robots or something?” Stiles grins. That’d be cool. Both heads snap to him, like he’s just started speaking in tongues. That seems to be happening to him a lot lately.

“Why do you say that?” Jordan prods, taking a step forward. Stiles gives a shrug, and glances at the girl, who looks like she’s seen a ghost.

“No reason, I just thought it’d be cool to meet a Girl Tony Stark,” he shrugs. “Why, are you a Girl Tony Stark?”

“I don’t plan on building weapons, but I’m pretty obsessed with A.I. and robotics,” Lydia says, and there’s a pure, honest smile idling at the corner of her mouth.

“Dude, like J.A.R.V.I.S?” he asks. There’s something in the look she gives him, that makes him pause, but she smiles encouragingly, and rolls her eyes.

Stiles snorts self-deprecatingly.

And they say together, in perfect sync: “That’s only like half of it.”

What?

“I knew you were gonna say that,” Stiles says immediately, thoughtful. The couple are staring at each other; Jordan has a curious look on his face. Lydia, on the other hand, looks shell shocked. Stiles shakes his head. “Deja-vu is weird, huh?”

“Yeah,” she agrees softly. “Weird.”

___

Stiles can’t stop thinking about it. He doesn’t have much else to do. There are things he can’t quite explain, either, like the fact that he gets the feeling that Derek and his dad are avoiding talking about something huge, or how he knows what the exterior of the hospital looks like, or that the detective in charge of their case was named Matthews. The name Garrett Royce.

That he has a perfect, clear picture in his head of Peter Hale, despite never seeing so much as a photo.

He puts some of it down to overhearing conversations while he was unconscious; they say people in comas can hear their surroundings sometimes. Some of it is just logic - he knows Derek never went through with the exhibition, too overcome with worry to concentrate on it. He feels pretty guilty about that one.

But still, there’s so much he can’t quite rationalize, and he doesn’t want to bring it up for fear that they’ll put it down to his head trauma and he’ll have to spend even more time in the goddamn hospital.

And then there are the dreams.

___

A soft knock on the door draws him out of his concentration, and he looks up to see Lydia hovering uncertainly in the frame, gripping on to her giant purse like a safety blanket.

 “Hey, thanks for coming,” he says as he shuffles up straighter, offering her a smile. His fingers drum on his lap as she approaches, and he remembers belatedly to mute the TV.

“You piqued my curiosity, what can I say?” she responds with ease, lifting a shoulder. She pulls up a seat beside him, and narrows her eyes, a smirk pulling at her lips. “You’re not going to make some speech to tell me to stay away from Jordan, are you?”

“No,” he smirks to the hands now clasped on his lap. He toys with his fingers nervously, before looking at her full in the face. “I wanted to ask you a few things.”

 She stiffens, looking over his expression, and shrugs. “Sure.” Her tone is forcefully blasé.

Stiles clears his throat. “Okay," he nods, and then stops. "Okay. This might sound weird, and I’m not sure I’m not just completely batshit, but...”

“But..?”

 “Had we met before?” His face scrunches. “Before the other day, I mean.”

Her expression  goes through a range of indecision as he watches. “No. That day was the first time we actually spoke.”

“But you visited while I was under, right?” Derek had told him as much. She nods, and he mirrors it. There’s an awkward pause as he takes a couple breaths, and bolsters his courage,

“And have...”

Fuck it.

“And have you ever been... attacked?” His heart is pounding, this was probably the worst idea. She’s going to go back to Jordan and tell him how she never wants to see his weird friend again, and Stiles honestly doesn’t know about who he’s worried he’ll miss more.

He’s only met her once, for fuck sake.

Lydia is very still. Stiles gives her time to answer, but watches carefully as she nods. He takes several deep breaths, not quite sure if he's relieved or not.

“And was...” Here goes. “Was I... there?

She doesn’t answer, staring off at a blank spot on the wall.

“I know… weirdest question ever, but... I had this dream. I keep having these weird, realistic dreams but this-- You were in it, and despite the fact that up until a week ago, I was sure I’d never laid eyes on you, it was so vivid that--” He gulps. “I don’t know if it’s some fucked up product of my own trauma and new memories, but I feel like I know you, and that I was watching, fucking helpless, when someone tried to hurt you.” He frowns, clenching his hands into fists. “It’s like I couldn’t stop it and I felt so angry...”

Lydia’s eyes are glassy, and Stiles immediately regrets this.

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have even-- I have no idea what I was thinking, making you come here. You should just forget--”

“You were there.”

“What?” The shock is almost violent.

She looks at him, completely, nakedly honest, “You were there.”

Stiles... doesn’t know what to do with that. “I... how?”

Lydia gives him a pained look, like she desperately wishes he would understand, but shakes her head. “We shouldn’t be talking about this.”

Stiles’ brow creases. “What? Why not? You just told me I was there when you--”

“Look, Stiles. I can’t,” she says, standing. “But if you remember that, then you’re remembering, and...If you have more questions later, I’ll answer them. But only then.” She shakes her head, nearing the door. “I’m not about to take a gamble with your sanity. Who knows? Maybe you’re not supposed to remember. I just-- I can’t. Not when Derek’s just got you back.”

Stiles frowns as she goes, not sure what that means, or what her connection is to Derek, but there’s a plethora of half-formed images that plague him in his sleep - and if that one was real, then who’s to say the others aren’t, too?

They’re there, behind his eyes, every time he shuts them. Now is no exception, as he massages at his scalp, letting out a long, weary breath.

Derek, alone and tormented, standing beneath one of his sculptures.

Lifting a wine glass slowly into the air, laughing.

Running out of a subway train and straight into another one. Through it.

Following Kate Argent through a dimly-lit path in the park.

Detective Matthews.

A broken picture frame.

Scott.

Scott.

“Hey,” Derek says, sounding like it’s not the first time he’s tried to get Stiles’ attention. “Still on the planet?” Stiles didn’t even hear him come in. He’s wearing the sweater Stiles had had to replace after using his original one to plug a broken faucet. “Did I just see Lydia leaving?”

Nice try. Stiles would never say that.

“I love you,” he blurts, chest heaving.

It aches, aches that he’s never said it before. How fucking ridiculous is it that one phrase seemed like such a hurdle - a death sentence, because two of the people he’d said it to regularly had left him to live in a world without them? That should be reason to say it.

Derek deserves more. He deserves to hear it every single day, multiple times a day, until he’s sick of hearing it.

Derek’s grin falls away from his face, and he looks Stiles in the eyes, focus darting to take in his whole expression. His lips part.

“I love you,” Stiles says again, almost defiant. ”And I’m an idiot for not saying it sooner, and I’ve loved you for so long--” he chokes, and he’s sobbing, but Derek’s sitting on the edge of the bed now, taking his face in his hands. “-- and what kind of a stupid fucking word is ditto, anyway? I mean--”

Derek kisses him, breaking off the ramble. He’s the only person in the world who can shut Stiles up - who can make his brain short-out and his eyes flutter closed, and he does it in the best way possible. Stiles lets his hands flail for a moment before settling, grounding them on Derek’s shoulders and sliding them around to the musculature of his back. He revels in touching, feeling like he knows what it’s like to be starved; to hunger for it. To need Derek so close and crumble from the inside at the distance.

The kiss is less gentle than they have been of late; less like Stiles could break or pass out or fall apart, and more like I love you too and you came back to meI’m glad you said it and I’d wait another four years to hear it again.

When Derek pulls away, after darting back for one last chaste brush of their lips, he smiles that blinding, sunrise-in-winter grin and says, “Ditto.”

____

Six Months Later

“....And so, I’m not one for public speaking, as you can probably tell--” he smiles shyly, and several amused titters come from the crowd formed around the exhibited pieces, “--but it took a long road for me to get here. A lot of hardships, and even more joys.” He squeezes Stiles’ hand, and they look to each other, grinning. “But I wouldn’t be here without them. Sometimes you just need a kick in the ass," he says with meaning, and dips his chin.

"What you’re seeing is my life in tangible pieces, and each one is just as important to me as the other.” He raises his glass, looking around the room. “So thanks for coming, and please don’t be too scathing in the reviews - I have friends on the police force.”

After a couple laughs and a polite clap at the end of his speech, Stiles leans forward to lay a kiss on Derek’s cheek, heart swelling with pride and love. Every word was truth, and Stiles feels it as much as Derek does; after everything, they made it.

They’ve talked about that lost month, painfully and at length. It took a lot of courage to start asking about it at all, and the first time he brought it up, Derek had frozen so still he’d looked like a cheesy freeze-frame at the end of a sitcom.

Stiles isn’t quite sure how much Derek lets himself believe, but he doesn’t need to. Lydia’s filled in the gaps, and he knows he’s not crazy. As long as Stiles remembers, and learned from it - and boy, has he learned from it - that’s enough. He’s not wasting another second.

Kira is the first to step up. She offers Derek a hug, headset around her neck, and kisses him on the cheek.

“The Chronicle wants a little Q&A when you’re free,” she informs him. He nods, and she offers Stiles an excited little grin before darting off to micro-manage some other aspect of the event. She poured her soul into making tonight a reality, and Stiles couldn’t be more confident in his decision to reach out to her, once he found out she was working as an agent. They need more friends like her in their lives, and she shares Derek’s weirdly eccentric sense of humor. Stiles doesn’t really get it, but it makes Derek happy so who is he to judge?

“So, uh,” Isaac says, sounding bored with everything in that way Stiles hates. Okay, so there are a lot worse people than Isaac out there. Stiles is allowed his nemeses. “Headset girl. She single?” He watches her mill around the room with ruddy-cheeked awe, and Stiles scowls.

“Not if you’re asking, Lahey.”

He looks scandalized, and Derek hides a grin into Stiles’ shoulder.

“C’mon, Stiles, I’ll do whatever you want! Just, put in a good word for me?”

Stiles mulls it over; Lahey at his mercy, forbidden from making any of his stupid smart-ass comments and a never-ending supply of coffee.

“I’ll think about it. Maybe. If you make it worth my while,” he allows, jutting his chin out.

“Such a dick,” Isaac mutters, stalking off.

“I heard that!” Stiles calls, just as Lydia and Jordan amble up, Stiles’ dad in tow. They congratulate Derek, who hasn’t stopped blushing since the doors opened, but Stiles finds it too funny to do anything about.

“Speech was good too, son,” Dad tells Derek, who smiles into his wine. He’s been quietly bursting with fatherly pride over the whole exhibition, and he pats him on the shoulder. “Need to work on some jokes, though. Get in the practice before you make an honest man out of my son.” He nods once, smugly. Derek chokes, and dad throws Stiles a grin before ambling on, zeroed in one of the Beacon-Hills-inspired pieces.

All Stiles can do is bite his lip, and give Lydia his attention when she leans in and quietly whispers, “She’s here.”

Stiles can see her, working her way through the crowd. They weren’t sure she’d accept an invitation to a random art exhibit, but Stiles has learned to trust fate to lead people to where they’re supposed to be. He nods, and he and Lydia share a conspiratory look as she draws a breath and steps forward.

 His mind isn’t fully on it, though, and Derek’s isn’t either - not really. Not after his dad’s comment, and the one elephant in the room they haven’t yet talked about.

“FYI, I’ll say yes,” he says softly, because he loves Derek for his patience but he’s learned the value of living like you don’t get second chances. He gives Stiles a confused look and he hopes the last six months of recovery and rehab and stress haven’t changed things - because Stiles is more sure he’s ready than anything in his life.

“I don’t--”

“If you asked,” he says meaningfully, “if you had, say, a family heirloom you've been keeping safe and you’re ready to ask me something  - I’ll say yes.” It seems to dawn on Derek then, and the look of puzzlement on his face melts into shock. Stiles smiles back at him, and steps forward.

She’s walking by.

“Erica Reyes?” he says innocently, offering her a kind smile as he shakes her hand. “Hey, good to meet you.”

The woman in question smiles thoughtfully, eyes darting around the others with him.

“You too, uh, Mr. Stilinski, right?” She throws a glance towards Derek, who is yet to recover. “I like the exhibition,” she compliments, and tilts her head. “Though, I have to say, I was a little confused when I got a personal invitation. You know I don’t write for the Arts section, right?”

“We know,” Stiles cuts in eagerly. “Just a fan of your work.” He grabs Lydia by the hand, pasting on a grin to fight back the nerves still making his limbs shake. “Have you met Lydia Martin?” he asks, and Lydia does an impression of someone who isn’t about to talk about the existence of ghosts. “I think you two would have a lot to talk about.”

Over their heads, Stiles catches Derek’s eye. He smiles, wide and happy and elated and terrified, and Derek calmly beams back at him, nods, and mouths, okay.

Okay.