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Stiles runs full-tilt, blindly pushing branches out of his way and trying not to stumble over the uneven forest floor. The last thing he needs after the last few shitty months is to brain himself in the woods while escaping what he can only describe as a massive black fox. Made of smoke.

He really hates his life right now, but shit , if he doesn’t run faster this won’t be his life for long.

Stiles can feel the thing catching up on him, shivers at the touch of what’s more dark aura than actual breath across the back of his neck. He’s beginning to think that it could have gotten him anytime it wanted to and is just toying with him – though running still feels much more viable than stopping to chat with what he suspects is literal evil – when he glimpses flashes of red and blue light through the thinning trees at the edge of the preserve.

He has just enough time to blindly hope it’s literally any officer other than his father, mentally kick himself for wishing them into danger they don’t even know exists, and shout an incoherent warning before he breaks through the tree line. Where he finds himself staring into his dad’s face, because of course he is. And a quick scan of the area reveals no werewolves, because of course they aren’t here when he needs them. His life . He starts to grab for his dad before he’s even had the opportunity to catch his breath, pulling him by the arm as hard as he can. The sheriff, to his credit, starts running before he starts questioning. But it doesn’t help.

Nothing ever helps.

Stiles can’t think, literally can’t breathe, as he watches the smoky black creature engulf his dad. He tries to dive headfirst into the danger, to pull him out or force the monster off or do anything but stand there and watch people get hurt, can’t do that again, not again , but he’s powerless and the creature seems to shake with laughter at Stiles’ attempts at heroism, and he can’t think, can’t breathe, just can’t.

And then he jumps up, heart in his throat and breath frozen in his lungs, and thinks it was just a dream, thank god it was a dream. Stiles often thinks he might be the only person who can appreciate nightmares because at least half the shit he sees in them hasn’t happened in the real world. A sinister voice in the back of his head adds a not yet to the end of that, and he shoves it down and away by sheer force of will. He flops back down onto his mattress, shaking with leftover terror and unshed tears and the crushing weight of guilt that never seems to let him go. Eventually, he stumbles out of bed and peels off his pajamas – which are plastered to his body with their usual film of fear-induced cold sweat – before changing and trudging across the hall to the bathroom, where he splashes water on his face and avoids the hollow look in his own eyes.


 

The sheriff pulls out a notepad and adds another tally next to nightmares . Stiles may never talk about the problems he’s been having lately, but John didn’t get his job by being an idiot. He sees things people don’t want him to see. Hell, sometimes he sees things he’d rather not see at all. But this is his kid, and it tears at his heart more than anything to see him in pain and not be able to help. There isn’t anything in the Parenting section of the bookstore on what do when your son has been possessed by a demon and has to work through the guilt while somehow being the voice of reason in a pack of mostly teenaged werewolves. At this point, the sheriff would write one himself if he had the first clue what he was supposed to do here.

Stiles doesn’t scream himself awake from his nightmares anymore, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t still having them. Not when he stumbles into the kitchen for coffee in the early morning light, and certainly not when he stares at his dad for just a moment too long. Not with that stare full of exhaustion and relief all wrapped up into one look that makes the sheriff want to just get up and pull the kid into his arms and protect him from the world. But he knows he can’t do that, can’t keep his kid out of danger or help him sleep well or even make him smile most days – his real smile, not the warped clone of it he drags up now as he makes them both coffee and wishes his dad a good day at work on his way out the door.

The sheriff sighs and leans back against the kitchen counter as he hears the front door close. He considers for a moment before adding a row in his notepad labeled loss of appetite and puts a tally next to that as well. That had been one of his suspicions – in fact, the hollowing of Stiles’ cheeks and the gauntness of his face are what had prompted the notebook in the first place – but the kid had always at least feigned an interest in breakfast. He hadn’t even brought up his usual complaint at the greasy food. Whatever this is, it seems to be getting worse, not better.


 

Stiles is pretty sure he didn’t do anything to deserve the jumbled mess of tragedy and death that is his life. At least, on a good day he can acknowledge that not everything that went down the past few months is his fault. He figures Peter would have set something in motion even without Stiles stumbling into the woods; more likely than not, Stiles and his friends would have ended up in the piles of bodies the supernatural left in its wake as collateral damage. At the beginning of this whole paranormal drama, Stiles tried to blame everything on some past life version of himself who earned this Stiles-incarnate the worst luck. He didn’t even believe in any of that, just needed someone to be a scapegoat, preferably someone he couldn’t actually get killed out of misplaced rage. But the nogitsune... Well, it’s hard not to take blame for crimes committed with his own hands.

And yeah, okay, he was possessed; he didn’t have control of his actions; he didn’t ask for any of this; he would never have done those things if he could have stopped it. Save the speeches, because he’s heard them all before. And they all make perfect sense. Except for the part where they don’t. At least, not when he saw himself do it. Not when he and Lydia tracked down every piece of evidence linking him to the nogitsune’s crimes, and he watched every security tape he could get his hands on. Obviously that was a terrible choice for someone who, months later, would still feel his chest constrict at the very thought of not being in control of his body. Lydia had known as much, had sworn she could get rid of everything with his dad just keeping his back turned and “forgetting” to lock some doors in the station, but Stiles couldn’t let her do it alone. He had to see. He had to know. If that reincarnation thing is real, Stiles is pretty sure he was the cat that curiosity killed.

So now that the threat itself is gone, he just sort of goes through the motions, hopes that acting normal will make it real, that acting like he’s okay will make it hurt less. But as it turns out, pretending not to have nightmares doesn’t do anything for the bags under his eyes. Pretending not to remember the blood and gore wrought by his own hands doesn’t make dad’s undercooked breakfast sausages any more appetizing. Pretending can only work for so long – he knows this – but he’s just so tired. And what other option is there?

On the plus side, or the less-negative side, no one is really trying to fix him or make him talk about his feelings or whatever anymore. His dad had suggested therapy, but he’d either have to lie to a normal human therapist or talk to Morrell – and he didn’t trust her as far as he could throw her. And the demon took its supernatural strength with it, so that’s that. The pack still tosses him concerned looks now and then, Boyd and Erica in particular, but they still have their own shit to work through. He knows that better than anyone. Kira and Malia mostly keep to themselves, have been doing so since the events of the nogitsune. Peter continues to lurk creepily, but at least he’s been mostly non-threatening. As for Scott, well, he spends more time trying to be Allison’s legs than he does even thinking about Stiles. Derek just looks sort of constipated at him, and Isaac looks like the kicked-puppy version of Derek most days. Stiles recognizes that that’s their way of saying “I’m worried but don’t have the emotional capacity to start a conversation with you,” and he appreciates it for what it is. Jackson and Lydia just keep being Jackson and Lydia, and he appreciates that too. He doesn’t need anyone to hold his hand through this.

He’s fine. Or he’s as fine as he can be, all things considered.

He really doesn’t want anyone’s pity, especially not after what he’s done, so he edges away from their comforting touches and kind words when they’re offered, deflecting both with half-hearted jokes and grins that even he knows don’t fit quite right on his face anymore. He wonders sometimes if the nogitsune actually changed him somehow, took away one of those face muscles you need to smile. He could have listed them all, once upon a time. Now his brain is too full of myths and lore, of blood and gore. But he’s made it this far, so he’ll be fine. He has to be.


 

The sheriff isn’t good at heart-to-hearts, but if there’s ever been a time to learn… Actually, that would have been right after Claudia, but better late than never. He knows Stiles, so he gets all the alcohol out of sight, makes it clear he hasn’t been drinking, even cleans up a bit before he takes up residence at the kitchen table and waits for his son to get home. Ambush probably isn’t the best way to start, but he doesn’t think he could get the kid into this conversation any other way.

Stiles comes in, mumbles a quick, “Hey dad,” before turning towards the stairs. He doesn’t even seem to notice that the place is less of a mess than usual, which is not a good sign.

“Hey, I think it’s about time we had a talk about how you’re doing. I know this whole thing’s been hard for you but–”

Stiles runs a nervous hand through his hair. “Dad, I get that you’re trying to help, but I’m fine. You don’t need to go full ‘Troubled Teen Intervention’ on me.”

John’s face crumples a little at that. He was really hoping to get more than a brush-off out of this. Maybe he should have read those teen intervention books instead of flipping through a couple and deciding they were a load of crap; he’s pretty sure his bases are covered with the neutral territory and staying calm anyway. He imagines the next chapters to be something about expressing concern and making motivational speeches. So he takes a deep breath and gives it a shot, motioning for Stiles to sit with him, which he does with reluctance.

“I’m worried about you.” He raises a hand to preempt Stiles’ protest before continuing. “I know you’ve heard that too many times from too many people, but it bears repeating.” He catches Stiles’ gaze and holds it before saying, “I’m worried about you because I care about you, and I can see you hurting, and I need you to let me help you. I don’t know what the hell I can do to help, but I do know I can’t let you go through it alone. Not when I can see what it’s doing to you.”

Stiles bites at his lip for a moment, inspects the wood grain of the table for a moment. Finally, he looks up and says, “It’s not doing anything to me. Not anymore.”

“Jesus, Stiles, not the monster. The– The stress and the anxiety, the paranoia and the not eating, the nightmares and, more than any of that, the pretending to be okay. It’s okay not to be okay. You’re a kid, you don’t have to protect me from your problems.”

“Paranoia?”

“Really? That’s what you got out of that?” Stiles keeps looking at him, his eyes glossy but his face determined. “Look, I kept a list. And when we go anywhere – grocery store, gas station, wherever – you look around like you’re afraid someone’s going to jump out and attack you. After what you’ve been through, I get it, I just–”

“Accuse.”

“What?”

“I think they’re going to accuse me, not attack me. The people in town I mean.” Stiles’ voice speeds up as he goes on. “Some of them have to have seen me, and they’re bound to recognize me or put the pieces together or figure out what I did eventually, and when they do I don’t know what I’ll do and I don’t have a plan for that yet and then they’ll know you helped me get rid of evidence and you’ll lose your job again and everything will fall apart because I wasn’t strong enough .” His breaths come heavily and he refuses to lift his eyes from the table.

The sheriff gets up and puts a hand on Stiles’ back, trying to soothe him. “Hey, hey, listen to me: We will figure this out. And we’ll do it together. For now, we need to focus on the problems at hand, on what we can fix. We’ll worry about the town later.” With a smile he adds, “Witnesses are notoriously unreliable anyway.”

Stiles stiffens his spine but still doesn’t raise his head. “That’s the thing, dad, there isn’t anything here you can fix.” He waves a hand that seems to encompass everything: the town’s problems, the supernatural in general, and especially Stiles himself.

“Not true. I can make you eat, help you work through the nightmares like I used to, remind you that most people in town aren’t thinking about much more than what they’re having for dinner when they’re at the supermarket. That doesn’t fix the main problem; I get that. But you can’t fix everything. Sometimes things just happen, and you can’t make them any better.” He inhales shakily and tries to lighten his tone. “I even looked through some touchy-feely books for you, and one of them said, ‘If you’re going through hell, keep going.’ I think maybe that applies here more than anything else. We’ll get through this, son. You’re not going through hell alone, not on my watch.”

Stiles forces a tight smile and leans back into his dad’s touch. “I guess you’re right. Thanks, dad.” He gets up and hugs his father, but all the while his dad’s words echo in his head.

You can’t fix everything. Sometimes things just happen, and you can’t make them any better. True enough, but not for this. This didn’t ‘just happen,’ so maybe he can fix it. Maybe he can make things better.


 

The idea of making things better clings to Stiles, gives him this strange feeling that’s either inspiration or desperation. Whichever it is, he holds on to it with both hands, refuses to let go of it because it’s the only thing he’s been motivated to do in weeks if not months. This isn’t just pretending; this is a purpose. If Stiles can undo even a fraction of what he did, if he can stop it from happening again… He can’t say he’ll suddenly be better. He knows better than that. But he will have done some good, and that’s about all he can hope for right now. Maybe it’ll ease his aching conscience just a bit, and maybe it won’t. But he has to try, because he has to do something.

So he dives headfirst into research. And then realizes he has no idea what he’s actually looking for. Turns out finding some mystical way of making things better is a bit too non-specific of a Google search. He blames his sleep-deprived mind and tries to organize his thinking. Eventually, Stiles settles on writing down all the terrible things that have happened in town recently. He puts each on a sticky note along the bottom of his bedroom wall. Then he gets more and identifies the cause of each problem: werewolf, hunter, nogitsune . Those he lines up just above their effects, linking them with string to show commonalities. Werewolf and hunter have some overlap and did their fair share of damage. Stiles tries not to let his stomach flip at seeing the damage dealt by the nogitsune laid out so plainly before him. He is not successful.

When he returns to his bedroom, still feeling a bit queasy and unbalanced, Stiles returns to work. He tries to identify any causes higher than those he listed, like pack dynamics for the wolves and crazy family for the hunters. And then he gets to the nogitsune, and it clicks. Deaton said it himself, didn’t he? Beacon Hills might as well have its very own Hellmouth. The source of power that draws creatures from far and wide, that leads to nothing but chaos, that Stiles might just be able to make better : The Nemeton.

This leads Stiles into a research spiral in which he learns more about the ancient sources of power in general than he ever thought he would. He just sort of skims over the Wikipedia entry about Celtic sacred spaces because nemeta (turns out that’s the plural of nemeton, fun fact) are all over the place. Also, sacred spaces. Sacred is about the last word he would use for it.

From there he ends up at Druid practices, then to the rituals nemeta were used for, until eventually he finds something about cursed nemeta; the websites claim they absorb and then radiate negative energy. But the more specific the information gets, the harder it is to fact check. Nobody cites their sources anymore, and Stiles has a moment of odd sympathy for his English teachers. At a certain point, he hits a wall; he knows what the problem with the Nemeton is, and a couple people in forums even make vague mention of a cleansing ritual for cursed nemeta. That’s what he needs. It has to be. They swear it will purify the Nemeton, or cleanse its aura, or make it a force for good. Stiles is fine with any of those options, but he can’t find the specifics of the ritual anywhere.

Eventually, he ends up on the forum again, leaving comments asking if anyone knows what he has to do or where he can find out. But they aren’t really active forums; the most recent post aside from his on this thread was over a year ago. He just crosses his fingers and tries to sleep, hoping that someone had notifications set up for their secret Druid account.

The next morning, he wakes to his usual cold sweat and racing heart, but thankfully he has no memory of whatever dream (or memory) his brain came up with this time. He goes to the computer and sees that one person has responded to his questions. Turns out not all Druids are like Deaton, then; these guys might actually want to be useful. He reads the comment and immediately strikes that thought. It says simply, “Sorry, don’t know the ritual. Let me know if you find it!” Honestly, Stiles isn’t sure why he expected better. He might as well be trying to get homework help off of Yahoo Answers.

He continues his search elsewhere for a while, but comes up with nothing. After a while, he gets dressed and heads out for the weekly pack meeting. Usually a couple people won’t show up and just text excuses instead, but Stiles always comes by because he wants to know what’s going on in the town. He needs to know. Considering threats are minimal at the moment while pack drama is still high, no one bothers to Alpha-voice everyone else into showing up.

Today, Stiles is barely through the door of Derek’s loft before Scott comes barrelling forward and pushes him back out into the hall. “Dude!” Scott calls quietly as he closes the door behind the two of them, “I know you come to all the meetings and everything but can you maybe skip this one?” At Stiles’ quizzical look, Scott looks up and then half-smiles. “Allison’s coming.”

And there it is. At the mere mention of Allison, Stiles’ gut twists like the knife he once plunged into Scott’s stomach. Very helpful memory, thank you, Brain. With effort, he forces his breathing to remain steady. And he tries not to think too hard about the fact that his best friend doesn’t want him around his girlfriend. “That’s great, man. I’m glad she’s feeling up to it. I guess I’ll just... go?”

Scott puts a hand on his shoulder and says, “It’s not your fault, I just think it might be hard for her to see you so soon, you know?”

Stiles does know. In fact, a part of him is pissed that Scott seems to think it wouldn’t be hard for Stiles to see her right now, too. But he shoves that anger down and away. He doesn’t deserve to be angry. He isn’t the one who’s hurt. Speaking of which, “The elevator’s broken.”

“What?” Scott looks at it, as though he didn’t even know there was an elevator in this building. Ever since his asthma got the werewolf treatment, Scott seems to have forgotten that other, Stiles-type, people don’t typically enjoy running up the stairs. And some people literally can’t run up a flight of stairs. Or walk. And while Stiles takes a moment to let guilt consume him, Scott just shrugs. “I’ll help her up.”

Stiles is fairly certain Allison will hate that, but he doesn’t have the energy to argue about it now. He nods and waves goodbye to Scott as he heads toward the staircase, reminding himself that he’s fine. Everything is fine.

Once outside the loft, Stiles finds himself flanked by Isaac, Erica, and Boyd, who are all laden with pizzas. Erica tosses hers on top of Boyd’s stack and throws an arm around Stiles, turning him back towards the loft. “Where are you going? Boyd made us go get the food early for once. No way we’re late already.”

“No, you’re on time, I just have to go home.” Erica raises an eyebrow at that, and seriously? Is the eyebrow thing part of their wolf training? Stiles swallows and focuses on her eyebrow to avoid the rest of her face. “Allison will be here soon.”

It’s Isaac who responds, “Yeah, exactly. And she needs us. All of us.”

“I really don’t think I’m the person she wants to see right now.”

“That’s bullshit!” Erica growls. “She knows how much you hate what happened and she knows it wasn’t your fault and to anyone who says it was–” She extends her claws.

Stiles steps back at the same time that Boyd puts a hand on her shoulder, still juggling pizza boxes in the other. She glares at him for a minute, but Boyd shoots a meaningful look at Stiles and then back to her. She sighs angrily. “Fine. But I’m texting him updates!” She turns to Stiles then, opening the top box Isaac is holding and shoving pizza at Stiles. “And you’re eating a slice of this!”

Stiles smiles at her and reaches for it. “Thank you.” Erica dodges his hand and gets it into his mouth. Stiles just rolls his eyes and chews. Isaac pats his arm as he goes by, and Boyd nods once. Stiles heads home alone and deliberately doesn’t think about Allison or stairs or unexpected kindnesses.

He sheepishly returns his dad’s smile and glance at the half-eaten slice of pizza still in his hand as he crosses the living room to go upstairs. The sheriff doesn’t need to know that it took him most of the drive home to get through that much.

Upstairs, he checks on the forums again and is surprised to see yet another response. These online Druids are much chattier than he expected. The response is a spell written in Latin, and he sets to work translating immediately. With a couple Adderall and no sleep, he manages to have a working translation of the spell by morning. It seems mostly like a recipe: gather the ingredients, follow some steps on the night of the new moon, and boom no more cursed nemeton. There’s also some comment about needing a special light to get the spell started in the darkness, and he isn’t quite sure what that means. He also has no idea where to find half the ingredients. Does that mean literal dragon scales? Are dragons a thing? Helpful Internet Druid replies by morning: “We just have the books. No one here knows how to use them anymore ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ .” So much for being helpful.

Stiles can only think of one person who might be able to tell him if the spell will even work, let alone help him figure out how to do it. The problem is that his trust for Deaton is only slightly higher than his trust for strangers on the internet who use shrug emoticons and Latin in the same message thread. He figures he has nothing to lose by talking to the guy, so he splashes some water on his face to wake himself up and heads down to the vet’s office, spell in hand.

“Stiles.” Deaton greets him without looking up and with no question as to why he’s there. Stiles kind of hates this guy.

“Hey, so, completely hypothetical question, but what do you know about cleansing rituals?” Smooth.

Deaton raises his eyes to meet Stiles’ now, and, without a word, he holds out a hand for the paper Stiles brought in with him. Stiles just gives it to him without complaint; even if Deaton decides to destroy it or something, Stiles took a picture of it with his phone before he left home. And emailed it to himself. Has he mentioned he doesn’t trust Deaton? Because he doesn’t. He just needs his Druid knowledge right now, not his creepy, cryptic advice.

But Deaton doesn’t do anything suspicious, just reads over the Latin and Stiles’ translation, nodding as he goes. “This is a spell for cleansing the darkness from the Nemeton,” he states.

“I am aware of that.”

“Why do you want to do this?” Deaton asks.

“Because someone has to stop it. And I need to do something.”

Deaton regards Stiles for a moment before asking, “Where did you get this?”

“I have my sources.” He doesn’t think ‘online Druid forum’ is exactly the answer Deaton is looking for. He’s not even sure Deaton uses the internet; the guy is such an annoying enigma. “So will it work?”

“The spell looks legitimate, and given the right materials with the ritual performed properly, I suppose it would work, yes.”

“Awesome, so where do I get the ‘special light’ it says I need? And you wouldn’t happen to have any dragon scales around here would you?” He scans Deaton’s shelves curiously.

“I think you will find the light when you need it. As to the rest, no, but I can tell you where to get them.” With that, he writes an address on the back of the spell and wishes Stiles luck. “Not everything that is broken can be mended,” he adds.

“This can.” Stiles drives to the address Deaton gave him, which turns out to be a dilapidated building in the warehouse district. He knocks on the door hesitantly but receives no answer, so he pushes on the door and finds it unlocked. Inside, the smell of dust hangs heavy in the stale air, but the place itself is surprisingly organized. He finds a catalog of the room’s contents on a large table in the center with a list of both items and their locations by aisle of shelving. It’s like a supernatural grocery store. With no employees. He quickly goes through and grabs what he needs; it doesn’t seem like a place he wants to hang out. He has to trust the catalog of what’s what – apparently dragon scales are just plants with scaly stems – and notices a box marked PAYMENT just inside the doorway on his way out. In what he sincerely hopes is red Sharpie, someone has scrawled “Honor System” beneath the label. Stiles reaches into his wallet and puts all the cash he has into the box. It’s not much, but the honor of putting it all in there has to count for something, right? He double-checks his pockets, finds a mint in there, and puts that down before leaving too.

At home, he stashes the ingredients in his closet and checks his phone to see when the next new moon is. Two days . In two days, he can finally accomplish something. In two days, things might start to get better.

They certainly can’t get any worse.