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Stiles has gotten many, many stern lectures from his dad on Safety and Being Careful in Outdoors Settings. But he’s also gotten just as many stern lectures on the Importance of Academics and Hard Work, so really his dad really only has himself to blame when Stiles’ totally innocent pursuit of native plant clippings and an A in Biology gets him lost in the woods.

He’s been wandering around like a pigeon with a magnet strapped to its head for the better part of an hour when he comes across the clearing. It’s a refreshing change from the rest of the forest: there’s light, a well, even a rosebush. Granted, the rosebush is unkempt and the well cover is tilting at an alarming angle, and actually the whole scene looks more Brothers Grimm than Better Homes & Gardens. But whatever, Stiles doesn’t really feel like he’s in a position to be picky at this point.

He bends closer, poking curiously at the rosebush. He’s pretty sure purple roses are definitely not a standard horticulture thing. It’s possible Stiles hasn’t just totally wasted his afternoon. If he ever manages to get out of the woods, he’s totally getting extra credit for this.

He’s broken off one rose bloom and is reaching down for another when he’s stopped by the sound of a throat clearing behind him. Pointedly.

Stiles pivots around slowly and maybe screams a little. He jumps to his feet and silently curses his observational skills. They aren’t normally the best, but he’s really not sure how he managed to miss the glowering guy who’s standing maybe two yards away from him. Stiles stands up and waves the hand that’s not holding the rose. “Uh...hey?”

The guy looks even angrier, which is actually kind of impressive, considering. “Stay away from that,” he growls. “This wood and those roses are mine. You have no rights here.”

“I thought this was public property,” Stiles says, because he has a brain tumor, apparently. “Or did I miss your coronation as King of Everything?”

There’s a long pause. Anger and incredulity fight it out on the guy’s face, like he’s struggling to believe anyone could actually be as stupid as Stiles just was. Stiles is right there with him.

Pushing up daisies, Stiles thinks hysterically. Of course. He was supposed to avoid the woods around the Hale house because of the serial killer gardener living there. It all makes sense now!

Stiles holds his hands up and starts to back slowly away from the well. “I'm going to just walk away now,” he says placatingly, waving vaguely in the general direction of his car. He hopes. “I’m really sorry about your bush. But seriously, you should consider putting up a ‘keep off the roses’ sign or something. Or maybe an alarm. I don’t know, I’m just spitballing here.”

“An alarm.” Now he just sounds pissed, which is definitely a step up from ‘homicidal’ in Stiles’ book. “Do you know where you are?”

“Actually, no,” Stiles says, “and if you could give me any pointers on getting out of here, I’d be super grateful.” He squeaks a little as the man steps forward, crowding him against one of the well cover’s posts. “Or you could just let me live? My dad’s a cop,” he adds hastily. Not that this guy seems overly fond of law and order, but it’s worth a shot.

“You’re on Hale property,” and oh, of course. Of course he is. Stiles managed to get lost near Beacon Hills’ very own burned-out Hell House, “and I’m Derek Hale.”

Stiles spends the next thirty seconds having a very small, rational panic attack. “Like hell you are,” he says, finally. “Derek Hale died. All the Hales did.”

And wow, that was apparently not the right thing to say. The guy moves even closer to Stiles, his face twisting. “What did you just say?”

“The Hales?” Stiles says warily.

“The Hales.” There’s something like desperation in his voice now. “They didn’t. There were no survivors?”

Stiles hesitates, then shakes his head slowly. “I’m sorry,” he says awkwardly, and pauses. “I gotta ask, though-if you are Derek Hale, where the hell have you been? The French Foreign Legion?”

“Underhill. Or Elfame,” Derek corrects. “I’ve been with the fae.” He sounds calmer now, like what he’s saying is reasonable and obvious instead of totally fucking insane.

This is officially the weirdest conversation Stiles has ever had. “Oh,” he says, half-hysterically, “fairies, of course. You’ve been living with fairies! Except, wait, there’s a hole in your story: fairies aren’t real.”

Derek stares at Stiles for a second.

“Fine. I’ll have to prove it to you, then,” he says, and shrugs his leather jacket off and tosses it aside. It’s followed shortly by his t-shirt, and Stiles swallows hard. Derek is built. He can’t decide if he should be turned on or terrified.

It turns out that the answer to that question is ‘both, but mostly turned on’, which Stiles discovers when Derek turns around to reveal a huge tattoo sprawled across his back, spiraling right between his broad shoulders and drawing Stiles’ eyes down to his waist. He’s maybe a little distracted, and it takes him awhile to realize that Derek is talking and it might be a good idea to-

“Are you even listening?” Derek turns around and okay, he’s not any less gorgeous from the front, this just isn’t going to work.

“I get distracted by nudity,” Stiles snaps back, and he’s probably bright red by now. How is this his life?

Derek rolls his eyes and reaches down for his t-shirt. “I was saying-” and really, that tone is just uncalled for, Stiles thinks, “-that my tattoo should prove it. They must have it listed as an identifying mark in the report. You said you were a cop’s son-look it up.”

“It’s a great design, don’t get me wrong, very-muscly,” Stiles says, and that was seriously not the word he meant to use, “and I want to help out, I really do, but seriously, do you have any idea how many guys in Beacon Hills alone probably have tribal back tattoos these days? I’d need a little more convincing than that, dude.”

Derek, who is way too committed to this whole ‘I’m saying crazy shit but you’re the unreasonable one’ thing, sighs impatiently and then hesitates for a long moment. “There’s one detail the papers wouldn’t have given,” he grits out. “My sister-Laura. She was pregnant. It wasn’t showing, yet.”

“Oh,” Stiles says softly, “I’m sorry,” because even if Derek turns out to be totally insane the pain that’s showing in his eyes right now is undeniably real.

“Jane for a girl, Andrew for a boy,” Derek says, staring bleakly over Stiles’ shoulder. “They didn’t know yet, for sure, but Laura was sure she was going to be a girl.” He takes in a ragged breath. “She would have been turning three just about now.”

Three? “You mean thirty, right?” Stiles says without thinking, and regrets the words as soon as he sees the effect they have on Derek. “Oh fuck, you didn’t. I’m a jackass.”

He moves forward instinctively when Derek steps back from him and then stops, torn. The wild look on Derek’s face reminds Stiles of the trapped fox he found in the woods when he was eight. It had snapped at him when he tried to free it, and Derek looks like he might, too, given a reason. Stiles stays still this time. The mood breaks a little a moment later, when Derek collects himself enough to meet Stiles’ eyes. “She lied about that too, then,” he says calmly. “About everything.”

Stiles opens his mouth to ask who ‘she’ is, then closes it with some effort. He has questions-he has so many questions-but now is seriously not the time.

They stare across the clearing at each other for a little while. Finally, Derek shakes his head as if to clear it and shrugs with an obviously forced indifference. “Look it up,” he says. “Then come back, if you can. I’ll answer whatever you want me to then.”

That night, Stiles borrows the Hale file from the cabinet his dad keeps his cold cases in when he gets home and spreads all sixty pages of it across his bed. If there’s any proof Derek’s-if he is Derek-story wasn’t bullshit, it’ll be here.

He shuffles through the facts of the fire and the profiles of the other Hales, stopping short when he reaches Laura Hale’s autopsy report. And there it is, in blunt medical language: adult female, 26 years old, two months pregnant. There are pictures, too, but Stiles flips past those as quickly as he can, moving on to the files on other family members.

Fuck. And there’s Derek Hale, uncomfortably familiar, looking up at him from that photo: Derek Hale, born November 1962 and declared dead in October 1989. He looks pretty much the same as he did when Stiles saw him a few hours ago-maybe three years younger. And a lot happier, but that’s probably to be expected.

Stiles gapes at the photo for a couple of minutes before he remembers what he was looking for originally: the tattoo. He has to flip through a few more pages before he finds a picture of it, and when he does it’s not really a surprise that it matches the tattoo on his Derek’s back.

So okay. Instead of meeting a crazy guy in a clearing, Stiles maybe met a...fairy-kidnapped guy in a clearing. It’s probably not the weirdest thing that’ll ever happen to him.

He goes back the next night, armed with the photos and a lot of questions. Once he finds the clearing, though, he realizes that he has no idea how to actually get in touch with Derek. Does he have to call his name three times like Rumpelstiltskin? Will Stiles eventually have to spin gold thread in a dungeon because of this?

“You did the research,” Derek says from behind him. Stiles screeches a little and spins around.

“You-you need to work on that,” he says accusingly. “The sneaking thing.”

Derek doesn’t look nearly as sorry as he should. “But you believe me now?” he says, ignoring Stiles’ very recent near heart attack.

“Yes,” Stiles says, almost against his will. “Maybe. I believe that you’re Derek Hale, or someone who knows a hell of a lot about him, somehow. And, just to get this out of the way, the jury’s still out on the fairy thing, okay?”

"It's your call." Derek makes it sound like an insult. Stiles sighs.

“So why aren’t you dead?” he asks, and winces at the look on Derek’s face. “That wasn’t the best way to ask that. I mean-how’d this happen? The”

“The fairy deal,” Derek repeats, looking almost amused now. “You mean, how did I end up living with the Winter Court instead of burning to death?”

“Well, yeah, if you want to put it that way,” Stiles mumbles, embarrassed.

Derek looks away. “I don’t know,” he says. “I was in my room, reading, and when I looked up there was a woman there telling me I was in danger and that I had to come with her. And then-”

“And then you were in fairyland,” Stiles finishes slowly. “And-did they set the fire?”

“I don’t know,” Derek says, staring down at his hands. “She told me they hadn’t. But she also told me that she saved my family, and that was a total fucking lie. And I didn’t. I didn’t ask, because I didn’t want to know.”

Stiles can’t find it in himself to blame Derek for that, somehow. He recognizes the look on Derek’s face: it’s the one his father wore at the hospital the night they finally lost Stiles’ mother. Derek is watching his life burn down all over again.

Stiles isn’t sure if he should go back after that. He feels weird about going back at all, really. Derek might not want him around at all; Stiles did basically single-handedly wreck the guy’s life. Or let him know that it was wrecked, anyway, which doesn’t make Stiles feel any less awful.

In the end, the guilt is actually what brings him to the clearing the third time. It’s mostly the guilt, anyway-Stiles carefully avoids thinking about what else it could be.

He has to shout Derek’s name a few times before Derek shows up from Oz or Narnia or wherever the hell fairyland is. Which, huh, that’s a really good question. “How do you get here?” he asks.

Derek looks irritated, but that may just be his normal expression. “This is still technically my land,” he says. “I can hear what’s going on here, to a certain point, and they can’t stop me from coming here. It’s not far.”

“So you’re stuck here,” Stiles says, and he checks himself. “Wait, no, sorry, you don’t have to talk about this. Jesus, that’s not why I came.” He rummages in his bag for the books he brought and holds them out.

Derek accepts them, but inspects them suspiciously once they’re in his hands-like Stiles might have thrown some dynamite or something in there just for kicks. “What are these?” he asks, turning Popular Culture: 1980-1999 over in his hands.

“You missed out on thirty years, man,” Stiles says. “I thought some catching up might be in order.” He shifts uncomfortably when Derek looks at him, silent, for a long moment. “Or, you know, not.”

“No,” Derek says finally. “I-thank you, I really appreciate it.” The words sound rusty and unfamiliar in his mouth, which makes some sense to Stiles. Fairies must have a pretty packed schedule, what with the murdering and kidnapping and all-manners probably aren’t a priority for them.

“No problem,” Stiles says. “I thought maybe you could look those over and then see what you wanted to know more about? If you want to, I mean. I know I might not be your most favorite person ever right now.”

Derek shakes his head. “It’s not your fault,” he says quietly. “At least I know the truth now.”

That’s a mixed blessing at best, in Stiles’ opinion, but he doesn’t say that. He nods at the books in Derek’s hands instead. “So there’s pop culture, foreign policy, and your general history stuff there. I thought about bringing my iPod and going through some music, too, but it’s probably better if we start slow.” He holds up his hands when Derek’s brow furrows. “Later! I’ll tell you later. Um. So read the books, and maybe I could come back tomorrow? How long is that in fairy time?”

“A little over a week,” Derek answers. “That should be good, yeah.”

Stiles doesn’t realize he’s beaming until he looks in his car’s rear-view mirror on the way home. Jesus, he’s pathetic.

Derek has pretty good taste for a dude who’s been out of time for thirty years, going by the requests he makes after he’s gone through the books. Stiles brings some DVDs and busts out his laptop on his fifth or sixth visit, and they go through The Terminator, Goodfellas, and Fargo. After that it’s Pulp Fiction, Blue Velvet, and Titanic (“It’s a classic,” Stiles says defensively after they’ve finished the last one. “Dick.” Derek just cackles).

They don’t spend all their time watching movies-there are a few unseasonably warm, lazy weekend days when they just stretch out on the grass and talk. It’s nice: Derek’s got a quiet, dry sense of humor that comes out at unexpected times, and he laughs at Stiles’ jokes, sometimes. He has a great laugh. Stiles tries not to think about how much he likes it, how much time he spends trying to draw it out of Derek.

“Your friends must be missing you,” Derek says quietly one day. “And your dad.”

Stiles shifts uncomfortably. He gets why Derek would wonder: they’re saying goodbye late Saturday night the third week in a row, and Stiles has spent more time with Derek (barring dad- and homework-time) than he has home.

“I don’t-” he starts, and then gives up. “My dad works a lot, so I’m not really seeing him any less now. Which sucks, but there you go. And friends-I know it’s hard to believe, but I’m kind of a loser. I don’t really have many of those outside of you.”

Derek nods like that’s totally normal, no problem. “I didn’t either in high school,” he says.

Stiles looks at him incredulously. “You? Seriously? But you’re-” he waves his hands vaguely at Derek. Gorgeous, his mind supplies.

“I’m what?” Derek asks, amused. “Do you ever finish your sentences?”

“No,” Stiles says, seizing on the subject change with abject gratitude. “It’s my trademark. Just one part of my ineffable charm, actually.”

Derek grins at him crookedly. “That’s one way to put it, yeah,” he teases. Stiles grins back, and for a second everything is easy.

About a week later, it all goes straight to hell.

Derek is lying down by the well, eyes closed and skin washed gold in the late afternoon sunlight. He’s been quieter for the last three days, more reserved than Stiles has ever seen him, and it’s doing a pretty great job of driving Stiles insane. Stiles is sitting cross-legged nearby, picking idly at the grass and trying unsuccessfully to stop staring at Derek.

“So do fairies sled or ice skate or whatever?” he asks, more to fill the silence than out of any kind of curiosity. “Or did you, when you were a kid? If it snows, we could find a hill around here this winter, I’d like-”

Derek sits up abruptly. “I’ll be going away after Halloween,” he says, cutting Stiles off mid-sentence. The words sound reluctant, almost like they’re being ripped out of him.

“Okay, rude,” Stiles scowls, leaning over to prod Derek’s thigh. “And what do you mean, away? Like, fairy vacation? Fairy summer camp?”

Derek shakes his head, avoiding Stiles’ eyes. “I won’t be back. I’m being sent away as payment.”

“Payment for what?” Stiles asks, already knowing he won’t like the answer.

“It’s a tithe. They have to give a sacrifice to hell every seven years, and they usually make it a human, someone the court won’t miss too much,” and he won’t look up, won’t make eye contact with Stiles.

“So, gone-dead, you meant you’ll be dead,” Stiles says hollowly. “In a week. How long have you known this?”

“A few days. I didn’t want to-” and Derek’s hands, clenched and trembling, give the lie to the calm in his voice.

“If what you say next is anything close to ‘worry you’, I’m going to punch you,” Stiles says, scrambling to his feet. “Jesus, Derek. Were you planning on telling me, or were you going to just disappear?”

Derek does look up then, meets Stiles’ gaze squarely. “I don’t know,” he says, and then, quietly, like it’s costing him something to say, “I wanted to keep you safe.”

What the hell is Stiles even supposed to say to that? “Oh,” he manages, “But why are you telling me now, then?”

“I didn’t expect this,” Derek says finally, voice a little rough. “Or you. Letting go is-harder than I thought it would be.” He gets to his feet.

“Good, it’s supposed to be!” Stiles says indignantly, finally on solid ground again. He steps forward and pokes an emphatic finger at Derek’s chest. Or he means to, anyway. Derek reaches up and grabs Stiles’ wrist before he gets there. Stiles is suddenly extremely aware of two things: one, he and Derek are standing very, very close to each other, and two, he’s pretty sure now that the look Derek’s giving him is more than just affectionate.

Derek’s other hand moves up to Stiles’ face, thumb stroking over the arch of a cheekbone, and Stiles amends ‘probably’ to ‘definitely’. Stiles shivers a little as Derek pulls him in close, still holding Stiles’ arm captive, and then he isn’t thinking anything at all because they’re kissing. It’s hard and desperate and doesn’t last nearly long enough. Derek’s mouth is red and bruised and his eyes dark by the time they finally break apart, and Stiles knows that he can’t look much better himself.

They step away from each other, breath coming harsh and fast. Stiles reaches for Derek’s shoulder and tries to look calm. Like he knows what he’s doing, which is so far from the truth it’s hilarious. “Is there anything we can do to stop it?” he asks. “A loophole? Someone we could bribe?”

Derek shakes his head. “Not as far as I know,” he answers. “But they wouldn’t tell me much about that, obviously.”

“There has to be something, though,” Stiles says, forcing calm into his voice. “So I’m going to look into this. And I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Derek nods and tugs Stiles in again to press a kiss to the corner of his mouth before he moves back again. “I’ve been wanting to do that,” he says, a little self-consciously. “And-Stiles. Thank you.”

“Yeah, no problem,” Stiles says, trying for casual and failing miserably. “See you tomorrow.”

As soon as he’s sure he’s out of sight and earshot, he collapses against a tree and stays there until he’s stopped shaking.

It turns out that researching supernatural evil is actually way harder than they make it look on TV. When Stiles’ Google searches for ‘killing fairies’, ‘fairies dead’, and ‘come on how do you kill fairies for christs sake’ turn up nothing but bad poems and some really horrifying porn, he gives in and heads to the library.

Luckily, the library’s way less of a bust. Stiles pulls all the folklore studies books he can find and settles down in a carrel. Most of what he reads he already knew-surprise, fairies are assholes!-and there’s still disappointingly little about their actual weaknesses.

He’s close to giving the whole thing up and just going home when something occurs to him. He pages to the index of The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries without much hope.

But there it is: tithing, human and fairy, page 136. He flips over to the page and skims over it, eyes widening a little as he goes.

“Balance,” he says out loud. “Well, shit, of course.” If the book’s right, saving Derek should be a twofer-what Hell wants is a soul, and if the intended sacrifice isn’t present, it just moves onto the next best option. Which should, theoretically, be the Queen.

Stiles grabs the book and bolts towards the children’s room, where the actual fairy tales live. He just needs to check one last thing.

And that’s how he finds himself arguing over a copy of A Child’s Treasury of Scottish Folk Ballads with an eight-year-old. It’s an impressive personal low, really.

“Look,” he says, squatting down so he’s eye level to her. “I really need that, okay? Just for a second? I promise I’ll give it back.”

He tries a winning smile for good measure. It works about as well on her as it does on girls his own age-she backs away and hugs the book closer to her chest, glaring at him. “It’s for kids,” she says slowly, looking at him like she’s a little concerned that he doesn’t know that, “and I found it first.”

Stiles knows from long years of babysitting experience with the McAllister kids next door that ‘I found it first’ means ‘It’s mine now, and you’ll have to pry it out of my cold dead hands if you want to change that’. Normally he would respect that-he’s always enjoyed pettiness, honestly-but he needs that book, goddammit.

So he widens his eyes and stares over her shoulder, because these are desperate times and he isn’t above conning a third grader. “What’s that?” he asks, and darts in to grab the book from her hands when she turns around. She gapes at him for a second, then dashes off in the direction of the circulation desk where Lisa the Terrifying Children’s Librarian sits. Shit.

Candy from a baby my ass, Stiles thinks bitterly, flipping frantically through the pages, and oh boy, he’s officially the worst person in the world. He finds the pages he’s looking for and manages to snap a few pictures with his phone just as Lisa the (Very Angry) Terrifying Children’s Librarian rounds the corner, small girl in tow.

“Genim Stilinski,” she says venomously, “is what Madison’s telling me true?”

Stiles grabs his stack of books from the table he had stashed them on and prepares himself for death. “Well,” he hedges. “Maybe?”

He backs away as Lisa stalks towards him, nostrils flared ominously. And then he turns tail and runs, because he’s in a hurry and also because there’s a limit to his bravery, seriously.

Out in the parking lot, he squints at his phone’s screen as he leans, wheezing, against the side of his car. The stories aren’t exactly the same-for one thing, Stiles isn’t a girl. Or pregnant. Or Derek’s true love, probably, unless his maybe-requited weird thing for Derek counts, which it probably doesn’t, and oh god they’re both going to die and Stiles’ dad is going to be so sad.

Stiles closes his eyes, willing himself calm. He has to go find Derek and make a plan. Plan, Derek, massive panic attack later. Priorities firmly in check, he takes a deep breath and gets into his car, then bangs his head softly against the steering wheel once he’s seated.

He is so, so fucked.

The real problem with this whole situation is that Derek, through no fault of his own, is absolutely fucking impossible to get a hold of. Phone, email, messenger pigeon, semaphore flags, whatever-apparently fairies just aren’t into communication. And no matter how much Stiles likes seeing Derek normally, right now just being able to shoot him an email would be super handy.

But until Verizon opens a Fairyland branch, Stiles is shit out of luck. So he gets to drive to the forest, stand in the clearing, and yell for Derek. He still doesn’t feel any less like an idiot after weeks of it: at least this is the last time he’ll have to. Hopefully.

Once Derek finally appears, it’s a little weird. Stiles spends the first minute or so staring at his mouth and trying to remember what it was he came to say, exactly. It’s only when Derek smirks at him that he comes back to himself, flushing a little at the knowing look in Derek’s eyes.

“I figured it out,” he says hastily, “How to kill her, I mean. But I’ll need some stuff from you too,” and watches Derek’s expression change entirely, eyes gone serious and urgent in an entirely different way.

“How?” he asks, and listens intently as Stiles outlines his plan.

“I don’t know if it’ll work,” Stiles admits when he’s done. “But it’s the best I could do with what I had. And hey, it’s not like we’ll know if it doesn’t.”

Derek rolls his eyes. “Hilarious,” he says, and Stiles knows him just well enough now to recognize fondness in his voice. “You said you needed something from me. What?”

“Information,” Stiles says. “Where you’ll be, how I can recognize you, anything else you know about this.”

“I can only tell you what I know from the other hunts I’ve seen,” Derek warns. “They may change it this time.”

“Anything’s better than nothing.”

Derek takes a deep breath. “There are three troops in the hunt-the sacrifice is always in the third, at the back. If it’s a human, and it usually is, they ride a white horse. It’s an honor, I think, but I don’t know why. The queen’s always in the third troop too, on a black horse at the front.”

“Got it.” Stiles pauses, considering. “Could you do something else? Some kind of signal, so I know it’s you for sure?”

“I’ll be wearing armor, probably. I could take off one of the gauntlets,” Derek offers.

“Yeah, good, that’ll work,” Stiles says, and hesitates, worrying at his lip. “I guess this is it?” he asks, and immediately kicks himself mentally for sounding like a complete lameass.

Derek doesn’t seem to mind, though. He steps forward, curls a hand around Stiles’ neck, and just-stares at him.

Stiles falters a little under the weight of that gaze. He never thought anyone would actually look at him like that-like he was this wonderful, unexpected thing, Christmas in July. Like he was dear. He summons his courage, moves in closer, pressing his lips to Derek’s and letting himself hope for a second.

When Stiles leaves, he says “talk to you soon,” and tries to believe it’s true.

Halloween is-weird. Stiles somehow makes it through his school, homework, and his usual catch-up chat with his dad by avoiding thinking or talking about anything remotely related to Derek. He goes up to his room after dinner and puts together a fairy survival kit. After that he moves on to paging restlessly through his notes. By 11 he’s run out of things to do and gives up trying to put off leaving any longer.

He’s almost made it out the door when his dad strolls out of the kitchen. “Going somewhere, Stiles?” he asks, using the same fake-casual tone he used when Stiles was eight and in trouble for breaking the garbage disposal and blaming it on the dog.

Stiles hasn’t really gotten better at lying since then. “I. Yes?” he tries, then realizes he’s probably going to need a little more than that to pull one over on his dad. “Some people are having a Halloween party. That I’m going to. For fun.” He remembers too late that he isn’t actually wearing a costume and gestures vaguely at himself. “I’m going as myself. For ironic purposes.”

“Oh, fun, of course,” his dad says amiably. “I remember those days-the carefree All Hallows hijinks, the sowing of the wild oats, the-” He eyes Stiles’ bag. “-arcane magical rituals in the woods,” he finishes dryly.

Stiles sneaks a look down at the books sticking really, really obviously out of his bag. Whoops. “Didn’t miss that, huh.”

“I’m the sheriff of a small town. Kids sneaking around the strictly forbidden areas around here are pretty officially my jurisdiction. Especially when it’s my kid.” He pauses, and Stiles feels a pang of guilt at how old his dad looks, suddenly. “Look, Stiles-are you in trouble?”

Only if you count ‘battling supernatural evil and maybe dating a fairy knight’ as trouble, Stiles thinks. “No, Dad, I’m not. It’s just-it’s something I really have to do. This is the last time I’m going out there, I promise.” His dad looks unconvinced. Stiles forges on. “Or do you mean, like, Gothic heroine trouble? Have I been dishonored by a heartless cad with the face of an angel and the soul of a demon? The answer to that is also no, by the way.”

Well, it’s technically true. He’s pretty sure that whatever Derek is, he’s not a cad. Or heartless. Probably.

“You do know you’re an awful liar, right?” His dad looks distinctly unamused. “Don’t count on a ride to the hospital if you fall out of another tree.”

Stiles winces. “You know I wouldn’t lie to you unless I thought it was important, right?” he asks. It’s as honest as he can be right now.

“Yeah, I know. And I know you’ve had to do a lot of growing up, since-” His dad takes a deep breath. “Since your mother died, and it wouldn’t be fair to ignore that. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

“Fair enough,” Stiles says, and pauses. “Wait, does that mean you’re letting me go?”

His dad holds his hands up in a gesture of surrender. “Against all my better judgement, yes, and don’t think you won’t be doing a lot of talking later. But if you’re not home by morning, there’s going to be an APB out there with your name on it. Or a warrant.”

He has to shout the last part: Stiles is already out of the house.

The drive to the forest is-tense. Stiles doesn’t realize just how tense until he looks down at his hands while he’s stopped at a red light and figures out that it’s not the vibration of the engine that’s making them shake on the wheel. When he finally pulls up to the edge of the treeline, he’s pretty sure all of him is shaking.

He leaves behind the bulk of the stuff in his bag; it was all mostly afterthoughts, anyway. The books that almost got him stuck at home and the bunches of herbs won’t do him much good, really. If the books are right, all Stiles needs is dirt, water, and an underdeveloped sense of self-preservation. If they’re wrong, well-Stiles is probably fucked no matter what.

It’s not quite midnight when he gets to the well and the goddamn bush that started this whole thing. Stiles hefts himself onto the well’s crumbling ledge and waits, scuffing his hands nervously against the rough stone. It’s colder than usual this year, and the clearing smells like real autumn for once-the dusty smell of dead leaves and the smoke of bonfires from nearby Halloween parties. He breathes it in and breathes out fear.

After a few minutes-or hours, he isn’t sure-everything just goes still. There’s no sign of life from the forest; even the ever-present birds that never seem to shut up are conspicuously quiet.

The silence is broken out by the nearby wail of a hunting horn. It sounds like a warning to him: all hope abandon, he thinks suddenly. The horn cries out once, twice more, and now Stiles can make out hoof-beats, now. He stands up, wiping his sweaty palms on his jeans, and ducks quickly behind the well as the hoof-beats draw closer.

Then the clearing fills with light, and there’s no more time to panic. The first troop passes on brown horses-soldiers, Stiles guesses, looking at their painted, fierce faces and glinting swords. He holds his breath until they’re gone.

The next troop is dressed in brocade and riding grey horses. They’re unpainted, but no less terrifying for that. Stiles looks at their beautiful, remote faces and despairs a little: there’s no warmth in them, no potential for pity or love or even anger. Why did he think he could defeat that?

They pass through too, eventually, and finally the last horses make their way into the clearing. Stiles can’t look away, now. They’re even more alien and even more gorgeous, and the loveliest one, the one in front, has to be the queen. Stiles has never seen anyone anything like this: her face is deceptively delicate, beautiful with an edge of cruelty that makes him shudder.

And then, finally, he sees Derek on his white horse, solemn-eyed and armored in shining steel. Stiles stills for a second, searching, and sighs in relief when he sees Derek’s bare right hand. Then he gathers what’s left of his courage and races up.

Stiles gets a brief look at Derek’s face, and derives a kind of relief from the terror he sees there. At least Stiles isn’t alone there. Then he’s pulling Derek off his horse with painful effort, landing on the hard ground (luckily on top of Derek; Stiles really should have planned for the armor somehow). There’s a harsh gasp from the riders around them, and Stiles hears a shouted warning in an unfamiliar language from somewhere in the group. And then they go ominously, abruptly, still.

For a long second Stiles thinks that nothing’s going to happen. The riders are motionless and silent around them, and he’s so focused on watching them that he almost misses what’s happening to Derek underneath him.

He looks down when something shifts under his hands and has to hold himself back from screaming: it’s not Derek that he’s holding down anymore. It’s a snake thrashing wildly in his grasp. And then suddenly it’s a wolf, fangs bared and muzzle dripping with blood, and after that Stiles stops trying to look and just holds on, holds on through the unbearable heat and sharp teeth of the endless series of horrors flickering underneath him. He can’t take this for much longer, he knows that. Any minute the queen will snap her fingers and this not-Derek will break free and devour Stiles, strip him down to bare bone.

It stops just as he’s about to give in-just as it’s about to be too much. The lion roaring in his arms distorts and blurs, its paws sharpening into hands and its face resolving itself abruptly into Derek: eyes closed, face drawn with exhaustion, but unmistakably him, his face.

Stiles stares down at him for a second, lost in disbelief and joy and crazy relief. Then he realizes that a) Derek is naked, b) the neck of Stiles’ costume is seriously torn and basically his entire chest is bare, d) they are in the middle of a freezing forest in the middle of the night, and c) there are armed, possibly homicidal fairies about three yards away from them.

He tears his gaze away from Derek and looks up wildly at the fairies, who are still mounted and silent above him. He has no idea what to expect: a fight, at least, or a mad dash out of the forest with Derek in tow. Or a quick, ignominious death, whatever. But the riders just stare back down at him, remote and beautiful. It doesn’t feel particularly like victory, to Stiles, but it does feel like living, and he’ll take it.

He gropes blindly for the bag he tossed aside when the fight began. He has to pull off some creative acrobatics to get the bag over to him without having to stop touching Derek. When he finally does, though, he pulls out the blanket he packed at the beginning of the night and throws it over Derek’s unconscious body. It doesn’t clothe Derek so much, but it’s technically following the rules-or Stiles hopes so, anyway. Derek doesn’t fade away or turn back into a wolf or anything afterwards, though, so Stiles figures it’s probably kosher.

The lead rider on the black horse-the Fairy Queen, Stiles guesses, she has to be-pauses at the edge of the clearing and looks back at them. What little light is left seems to have concentrated itself around her, lighting up her blond hair and making her look almost angelic. She is beautiful-Stiles has to give her that, at least. “You’ve won my finest knight,” she says, addressing herself to Stiles. “And had I known but yesterday he’d be no more my own today, I’d have torn out his heart of flesh-and put in one of stone.”

-and she would have, it’s in her voice-a creeping, alien fury, like the climbing ivy that chokes the trees in Stiles’ backyard. He shudders a little at the idea of Derek stripped of all humanity: heart-breakingly gorgeous and utterly loveless. Forever young and forever lost.

Beside him, Derek gets up with what looks like a great deal of effort. The Queen glances over at him and smiles. “Love, do you think you can protect him?” There's a casual contempt in her voice, now. "But then you do overestimate yourself, don't you, Derek? You always have."

Stiles wants to rip her apart, find the heart she must have hidden somewhere and pull it out. The knowledge that someone-something-else will soon is all that stops him. Derek growls, echoing the sentiment, and starts forward. Stiles puts a restraining hand on his shoulder. “Maybe not,” he says guilelessly. “But I think whatever’s behind you might have some business with you first.”

Her horse bucks restlessly, and the Queen blanches suddenly. She looks over her shoulder with a dawning horror, screams, and then just-vanishes.

Stiles looks around at the rest of the host. “Anyone else?” They fade out, one by one, and he lets his grin get a little smug. Okay, a lot smug. He’s officially a badass.

Sounds begin to filter in from the outside world, the distant rush of traffic made somehow alien by its comfortable familiarity. Derek tugs him into a desperate embrace, clutching at him like he thinks Stiles is going to fade away next. They stand like that for a few minutes, Derek wrapped in his ridiculous blanket toga and Stiles in his ripped-up hoodie and dirty jeans. Eventually Stiles works up enough courage to pull away and look Derek in the eye.

“Am I going to see you again after this?” He curses himself for the tremble in his voice.

Derek stares at him. “You’re kidding, right?” he asks, using the tone he usually saves for just after Stiles has tripped over a tree root or poked a rattlesnake or something (which was an accident, okay, no matter what Derek seemed to think).

“You know, it’s impressive how extremely unhelpful you’re being right now,” Stiles snaps. “For all I know, you were just freaking out and the stuff earlier was just-temporary insanity. Which I could understand, by the way. I just-I like you, okay? Obviously.”

“Stiles.” Derek’s mouth curves: it’s not quite a smile, but it’s close. “You won me.”

Which is nice and all, Stiles thinks, but still not helpful. “Like at a carnival? Two darts and you get a stuffed dog, three darts and you win a dude?”

Derek sighs the sigh of a man driven past endurance. “Stiles,” he says, slowly. He cups Stiles’ jaw with one hand, forcing him to look up. “You were the only one who could have played.”

“Oh. That’s-” Stiles flounders a little, trying to find the right words. Or any words, he’s not picky. He feels like he’s back on the forest floor again, finding Derek again and again in all the monsters the fairies had tried to hide him in. It’s the same bottomless fear, the same fierce joy. “good,” he finishes, weakly, and hopes that some of what he’s feeling is showing in his face.

Some of it must be, and it’s apparently enough for Derek: he gathers Stiles in again and kisses him, hot and insistent. It ends too quickly-Derek pulls away, ignoring Stiles’ noises of protest. “You need to go home,” he says quietly, practically leaking noble restraint. It’s infuriating.

No way is Derek getting off that easy. “No,” Stiles says. “We’re going to go home, eat all the Halloween candy, and sleep for about ten years. And then I’m going to explain the hot, naked, officially dead guy in my bed to my dad, which is a conversation that I’m sure all of us will enjoy.” He slings an arm over Derek’s shoulders, pulling him towards the car.

The forest is hushed and dark as they walk through it. If any whispers follow them as they pass through the trees, neither of them notices.